He broke off the thought when the tinkling of a beaded curtain heralded the arrival of a young woman, dark-skinned and slender, dressed in a white blouse and plaid skirt that might have been the uniform of a parochial school. She was almost certainly the daughter of the proprietors, and she was very pretty, and in other circumstances Keller might have allowed himself some light flirting. At the very least he might have commented on how good the food smelled.

But not now. All he did was ask about a room, and all she did was tell him the price was $39, which struck him as perfectly reasonable. If she looked at him at all, at his face or at Homer’s, he never saw her do it. He was just a burdensome duty to be dealt with as quickly as possible, before she got back to polishing the essay portion of her application to Harvard.

He filled out the card she gave him, making up a name and address, leaving the space for his car’s make and license number blank. They always had a space for it on the card, but they didn’t seem to care if you filled it in or not, and this girl, who wouldn’t have noticed if he’d registered as Mahatma Gandhi, was no exception.

He paid cash, because his credit card was in Remsen’s name and he’d already signed in as somebody else. He could have used Remsen, the name would be safe for days if not weeks, and by tomorrow he’d be back in New York and none of this would matter. But he had the money, so what difference did it make?

She asked him if he would want to make phone calls, because then he would need to leave a deposit, or allow her to take an imprint of his credit card. He shook his head, picked up his room key, and filled his nostrils for one last time with the sweet smell of curry.


After all he’d gone through to get his hands on it, he managed to walk halfway to his car the next morning before he realized he’d left his baseball cap in his room. Fortunately he’d also forgotten to leave the room key on the dresser, so he was able to let himself in and retrieve the cap. With Homer on his forehead, rather like a Valkyrie on the prow of a Viking warship, he felt ready to face the world.

He drove a few miles, stopped to top off the gas tank for what would be the final time, drove some more. The phrase safe at home echoed in his mind like a mantra. All he needed to do was get into his own apartment and lock the door behind him and he’d be locking out his life as a fugitive and everything that went with it. And, because he was retired now, with no one last job looming in front of him, he’d be locking all of that out forever. He’d have his stamps, he’d have his enormous state-of-the-art TV, he’d have his TiVo, and he’d have all the other aspects of the life he’d arranged for himself within easy walking distance — his regular deli, his favorite restaurants, the newsstand where he bought the Times every morning, the laundry where he dropped it off dirty in the morning and picked it up clean at night. He didn’t suppose it was a terribly exciting life, centering as it did upon such sedentary and solitary pursuits as television and stamp collecting, but excitement had lost its charm for him over the years, if it had ever had any to begin with, and he found it thrilling enough to bid a few dollars on a stamp on eBay and see if some bastard pounced on it before time ran out. It was low-stakes excitement, no question, but that was plenty.

That errant thought was trying to break through again, struggling to rise to the surface. It was like something barely glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. You knew you’d catch sight of it if you turned your head, and that was all it took to keep your gaze fixed straight ahead.

His breakfast, picked up without incident at a drive-up window, consisted of two Egg McMuffins and a big cup of coffee. Just before exiting the interstate he’d seen a sign for a rest area five miles ahead, so he drove there and parked under a tree. He’d timed it just right, he was pleased to note; the coffee was cool enough to drink and the Egg McMuffins were still warm.

When he was done eating he went to the restroom, and on his way back he finally remembered to buy a paper. USA Today was seventy-five cents, and he fed in three quarters before he noticed that the coin box right next to it held that morning’s New York Times. He pressed the coin return, got his three quarters back, added a fourth quarter and bought the Times. On the way back to the car he was already planning his approach to the paper. First the local and national news, then the sports, and finally the crossword puzzle. What day was it, anyway? Thursday? The puzzles increased daily in difficulty, from Monday, not much of a challenge to a bright ten-year-old, to Saturday, which often left Keller feeling slightly retarded. Thursday was usually just about right. He could generally fill in a Thursday puzzle, all right, but it took some thought.

He settled in behind the wheel, made himself comfortable, and started in on the paper. He never did get to the crossword puzzle.


The paper Keller bought every morning came in four sections, but the edition the Times distributed outside of the immediate New York metropolitan area fit into just two. There was an assassination story on the front page, dealing primarily with its evolving political implications, and another story further on about the hunt for the killer, which seemed to have trailed off in several directions, none of which had thus far panned out. There was nothing about Miller Remsen, which came as no surprise to Keller; even if they’d found the body, which seemed unlikely at this stage, the only way it would interest anybody outside of Indiana would be if he’d scrawled Catch me before I kill more governors in lipstick on the mirror.

He almost missed the real story.

It was on the third page of the second section. “Arson, Murder Found in White Plains Fire,” the headline announced, and it was White Plains that caught his eye. If it had been less specific and said Westchester instead he might have skipped right past it, but he’d been to White Plains countless times, first to see the old man and then to see Dot. He’d catch the train at Grand Central and a cab from the station, and he’d sit drinking iced tea on the wraparound front porch of the big old house on Taunton Place, or in the cozy kitchen. So he read about the fire in White Plains, and knew shortly that he wouldn’t be going there again, because there was no more house, no more porch, no more kitchen. No more Dot.

Evidently there had been a story in yesterday’s paper, which of course he hadn’t seen. But earlier — Monday, he thought, though it could have been Sunday, it wasn’t all that clear — earlier, he read, a fire had broken out in the early morning hours, raging out of control before firefighters could arrive on the scene, and consuming virtually all of the century-old house right down to its foundation.

The fire had begun in the kitchen, which was where they’d found the charred body of the householder and sole resident, identified by neighbors as Dorothea Harbison. Investigators had suspected arson immediately, attributing the all-consuming fury of the blaze to the liberal use of an accelerant throughout the residence. Initially it seemed at least possible that Ms. Harbison had set the fire herself; neighbors described her as quiet and reclusive and thought she’d shown signs of depression in recent months.

Keller wanted to argue with them, whoever they were. Reclusive? She didn’t suffer fools or share her personal business with the world, but that didn’t make her some goddam cat lady, wearing the same old flannel nightgown until it fell apart. Signs of depression? What signs of depression? She didn’t go around giggling, but he’d never known her to be genuinely depressed, and she was about as suicidal as Mary Fucking Poppins.

But there was no longer a question of suicide, the story continued, because a medical examination revealed that the woman had been shot twice in the head with a small-caliber handgun. The wounds were not consistent with suicide — no kidding, thought Keller — nor was the handgun found at the scene, which led investigators to conclude that the woman had been shot to death and the fire set to conceal the crime.

“But it didn’t work, did it?” Keller said out loud. “Fucking idiots.”

He forced himself to read the rest of it. The motive for the murder was obscure, according to the Times, although police were not ready to rule out robbery. An unnamed police source was able to identify Dorothea Harbison as the former companion and caretaker of the late Giuseppe Ragone, aka Joe the Dragon, during the long years of his retirement from the world of organized crime.

As far as Keller knew, no one outside of the tabloid press had ever called the old man Joe the Dragon. There were people who referred to him, though never to his face, as Joey Rags, or the Ragman, because of the coincidence of his surname combined with his one-time involvement with a Garment District trucking local. Keller himself never thought of him or referred to him as anything other than the old man.

And the old man had never retired. He’d let go of a lot of his interests toward the end, but he was still brokering jobs and sending Keller out to take care of them right up to the very end.

“As Joe the Dragon’s live-in companion and presumed confidante,” the unnamed source went on, “Harbison would have been privy to a lot of O.C. information. Maybe someone was afraid she’d tell what she knew. Ragone’s been gone a long time, but what is it they say? Sooner or later the chickens come home to roost.”

It was as pointless as anything he might have done, but he couldn’t help himself. He dropped coins in a pay phone and dialed Dot’s number.


Not a working number. Well, that was the truth, wasn’t it? Burn a house to the ground and you had to expect an interruption in telephone service.

He got his quarters back and used them to call his own phone number, half expecting the same coo-wheeeet and the same recording. Instead he got a ring. His machine was set to pick up after two rings if he had messages and after four if he didn’t, so that he could retrieve them from a distance while avoiding the toll if there were none to retrieve. He was surprised when it rang a third time, he’d expected messages after this long an absence, and he was even more surprised when the phone went on to ring a fourth and a fifth and a sixth time, and might have gone on ringing forever if he hadn’t ended the connection.

Why would it do that? He didn’t have call-waiting, so it couldn’t be that the machine was already handling a call. If that happened he’d just get a busy signal.

He wondered why he was even bothering to dig his quarters out of the coin return chute. Who would he ever have occasion to call?

It was over, he saw now. That’s what he’d been on the verge of realizing, that was the nasty little thought he’d kept at bay. And the pipe dream that had sustained him all the way back from Iowa, the mad fantasy that everything would be peaches and cream the minute he got back to his own apartment, was now so clearly impossible he wondered how he’d ever been dim enough to entertain it, let alone take it as gospel.

He’d somehow managed to regard New York as a haven, safe and sacrosanct. For years he’d made it a rule never to accept assignments in the city, and while he’d had to break the rule on a couple of occasions, most of the time he’d adhered to it. The rest of the country, and he’d covered a great deal of it at one time or another, was where he went to do his work. New York, his home, was where he came when the work was done.

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