He’d pointed out, not for the first time, that one didn’t play with stamps, one worked with them, and added that, call it work or play, he never put his feet up while he was so engaged. And he said, “One last job.”

“You say it as if there should be organ music playing. Dum-de-dum-dum.”

“Well, isn’t that how it works? Everything goes fine until that one last job.”

“The trouble with that big TV,” she said, “is that you watch too much garbage just because it looks so pretty. Nothing’s going to go wrong.”

And nothing did, remarkably enough, and he came home relieved and relaxed, only to find out that Call-Me-Al, who’d sent along a substantial cash payment on account some months previously, now had something for him to do.

“But I’m retired,” he’d said, and she didn’t argue the point. She’d long since credited his share of Al’s advance payment to his account, but she could deduct it, and find some way to send it back along with her own cut. Except she didn’t know how she could go about doing that, because she didn’t have a clue where to send the money. All she could do was wait until Al got in touch, demanding to know what was taking so long, at which time she could explain that her guy was dead or in jail, because they never believed anybody retired from this business, and he could tell her where to send the money.

Couldn’t she find somebody else? That way there’d be no refund required.

“Well, I thought of that,” she said. “But it’s been ages since I worked with anybody but you. Once you decided you wanted to work as much as you could so you could fatten up your retirement fund, I started giving you everything that came in. One time I left a client hanging so you could do his job after you came back from the one you were working.”

“I remember.”

“Not too professional, but we got away with it. I let everything else go, because I’d already decided that the day you retire is the day I hang it up myself.”

He hadn’t known that.

“And he specifically asked for you, if that matters. Al. ‘Please use the chap who did such nice work in Albuquerque.’ Isn’t it nice to be appreciated?”

“He said chap?”

“Chap or fellow, I forget which. This was in a note, along with the photo and the contact information. He didn’t call this time. In fact it’s been so long since I heard from him by phone I forget what his voice sounds like. I’ve probably got the note somewhere, if it matters.”

He shook his head. “I guess the simplest thing,” he said, “is to go ahead and do it.”

“I don’t want to push you into it, but I have to say I think you’re right.”

The simplest thing. Couldn’t be simpler, could it?


He’d bought a whole day’s worth of food at the Burger King, but he’d been thirsty to begin with and the salty food made him thirstier. And the shakes, almost too thick for the straw, didn’t help much. On the way into Joliet — a town he knew only as the home of a state penitentiary, which struck him as an even worse way to be famous than Dubuque’s — he spotted a strip mall and pulled in. There was a bank of vending machines out in front of the coin laundry, with no end of sweet and salty things that he didn’t want, but the Coke machine also offered sixteen-ounce bottles of water. He fed it ten dollars and got four bottles of what the label assured him was pure natural spring water. It was the same price as the soft drinks, and all they had to do was bottle it. They didn’t have the expense of adding sugar or artificial sweetener or flavorings or caramel color or really anything at all. On the other hand, it was pure and natural, which was more than you could say for the other offerings, so you really couldn’t complain about the price.

When Keller was a boy, the only time he ever saw water in a bottle was on his mother’s ironing board; the bottle had a cap with holes punched in it, and she’d sprinkle some water on whatever she was ironing, for reasons Keller had never quite understood. Keller, like everyone he knew, drank water from the tap, and it didn’t cost anybody anything.

Then there came a time when stores began to stock bottled water, but the only people who bought it were the kind of people who ate sushi. Now, of course, everybody ate sushi, and everybody drank bottled water. Outlaw bikers, guys with equal space on their bodies for scars and tattoos, badass bruisers who opened beer bottles with their few remaining teeth, all had their little bottles of Evian to wash down their California rolls.

Keller sat in his car and drank one of the bottles in a few long swallows. On the far side of the coin laundry, next to the Chinese restaurant, was a wall-mounted pay phone. Keller couldn’t swear to it, but it seemed to him that you didn’t see as many pay phones as you used to, and he supposed it was just a matter of time before they disappeared. Everybody had a cell phone nowadays. Pretty soon you’d have to have a cell phone, either that or learn how to send Indian smoke signals.

The hell with it. He got out of the car, walked over to the phone, dialed Dot’s number. The vending machine had given him all his change in quarters, and he actually had the $3.75 the robotic voice demanded for the first three minutes. He loaded the coins into the slot, heard that coo-wheeeet sound it made when it couldn’t put a call through, followed by a recording telling him the number he had dialed was not a working number. The phone gave him back his quarters.

He tried it again, on the slim chance that he’d misdialed, and the same voice told him the same thing, and once again he got his quarters back.

Well, he thought, evidently she got out, which was all to the good. But would she take the time to disconnect the phone? Would she even want to disconnect the phone? Wouldn’t it be better as well as simpler to leave the phone alone, so that anyone trying to get to her would waste time looking for her at home?

Too many questions, and no way to answer them.

He stopped for gas a couple of hours after he crossed into Indiana. The station was small, just a couple of pumps in front of a Circle K convenience store, and they were all self-service. You dipped your credit card, filled your own tank, wiped your own windshield, and drove off without ever seeing or being seen by another human being.

But not if you had to pay cash. Then you had to go inside first and pay the girl behind the counter, and she would program the pump to dispense whatever you’d paid for.

He’d driven in and out of a similar situation fifty miles back, unwilling to risk giving an attendant a look at his face. Now the tank was getting low, and even if he managed to find a full-service pump, that didn’t mean whoever pumped the gas for him wouldn’t take a good look at him while he was at it. He’d been lucky with the young fellow in Morrison, but it wasn’t as if he’d latched onto some magic formula.

But he wouldn’t buy forty dollars’ worth this time. He’d had time to think about it, and what he’d decided was that people who paid out that much money for gas all at once did so with a credit card. The ones who paid cash didn’t part with more than ten or twenty dollars at a time. Pay forty and they might remember you, and Keller didn’t want to be memorable. CASH CUSTOMERS PAY INSIDE FIRST THEN PUMP, the hand-lettered sign said, and the message, even without punctuation, was clear enough. Keller, who’d shucked out of his blazer earlier, put it on now. He figured it made him look just a little more respectable and just a little less deserving of a long look; more to the point, it covered the revolver riding in the small of his back. And he wanted the gun there, because he might have to use it.

He got a twenty from his wallet and had it in his hand when he entered the store. Stores like this got robbed all the time, and he knew some of them had security cameras installed, and wondered if this one did. In the middle of rural Indiana?

Oh, the hell with it. He had enough to worry about.

He entered the store, and the girl was all by herself, reading Soap Opera Digest and listening to a country station. Keller slapped the bill down, said, “Hi there twenty dollars’ worth pump number two,” all in one uninflected gush of words, and was on his way out the door before she could lift up her eyes from her magazine. She called out to him to have a nice day, which he took for a good sign.

Of course she could be doing a double take now, he thought as he pumped the gas. She could be thinking that he looked familiar, and deciding just why he looked familiar, and he could see her jaw dropping and the sense of civic purpose coming into her eyes as she grabbed for the phone and dialed 911.

Keller, how you do go on.

Sixty dollars so far for gas, fifteen for burgers and fries and shakes, ten for bottled water. His bankroll was half of what it had been that morning, just eighty dollars and change. He had burgers left, which were marginally edible cold, and he had french fries, which weren’t. And one full shake, which had melted but still wasn’t what you’d call liquid. He could, he supposed, live on that all the way back to New York. If he was hungry enough he would eat it, and if he wasn’t that hungry it meant he didn’t need it.

But the Sentra’s requirements were less flexible. He had to keep gas in the tank, and even if OPEC flooded the market with oil, he was going to run out of money before he ran out of highway.

There had to be an answer, but he was damned if he could see it. He’d reached a point where his problems didn’t have solutions. Even if the skies opened up and showered him with ball caps and clippers and hair dye, even if he was suddenly blessed with the ability to transform his facial features into those of a different person entirely, he’d be broke, stranded somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania with the philatelic equivalent of a handful of magic beans.

Could he sell the stamps? They had been a genuine bargain, if not precisely a steal, at $600. Could he offer somebody else an even greater bargain and get half his money back for them? What, knock on doors? Go through small-town phone books, looking for stamp dealers? He shook his head, dazzled by the sheer impracticality of the idea. He stood a better chance of pasting the stamps on his forehead and mailing himself to New York.

Other courses of action suggested themselves, and fell equally short. A train? The railroads had pretty much given up on the job of transporting people, although they still ran passenger trains from Chicago to New York and up and down the eastern corridor. But he wasn’t sure where he might go to catch a train, and even if he worked that out, it would cost him more money than he had. He’d taken the Metroliner to Washington a while ago, and it was certainly a nice way to travel, and you went from midtown to midtown and didn’t have airport security to contend with, but it wasn’t cheap, not by a long shot. And now they’d changed its name to the Acela Express, which nobody could pronounce and hardly anybody could afford. If he didn’t have gas money, he certainly didn’t have train money.

The bus? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been on an intercity bus. He’d traveled by Greyhound one summer during high school, and recalled a jarringly uncomfortable ride in a crowded vehicle full of people smoking cigarettes and drinking bottled whiskey out of paper bags. The bus would have to be inexpensive, because otherwise nobody would willingly ride it.

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