Occasionally a memory might turn him wistful, wishing he still had that essentially worthless collection that had filled so much of his time and turned his head into such a wonderland of trivia. But it never occurred to him to try to recapture those days. They were part of his youth, and they were gone.
Then, when the old man started slipping mentally, and when it was becoming clear that he was beginning to lose it big-time, Keller found himself contemplating retirement. He had some money saved up, and while it had amounted to less than 10 percent of what he’d eventually have in Dot’s online account, he’d managed to sell himself on the notion that it was enough.
But what would he do with his time? Play golf? Take up needlepoint? Start hanging out at the senior center? Dot pointed out that he would need a hobby, and a bunch of childhood memories popped into his head, and the first thing he did was buy a worldwide collection, 1840-to-1940, just to get himself started, and before he knew it he had a shelf full of albums and a subscription to Linn’s and dealers all over the country sending him price lists and approvals. And he’d also spent a surprisingly substantial portion of his retirement fund, so it was just as well when the old man was out of the picture entirely and he could go on working directly with Dot.
When he thought objectively about his stamps, he couldn’t avoid concluding that the whole enterprise was nuts. He was spending the greater portion of his discretionary income on little pieces of paper that were worth nothing except what he and other like-minded screwballs were willing to pay for them. And he was devoting the greater portion of his free time to acquiring those pieces of paper, and, having done so, to mounting them neatly and systematically in albums created for that purpose. He put a lot of effort into getting them to look just right on the page, this in spite of the fact that he never intended for any eyes but his to see them. He didn’t want to display his stamps at a show, or invite another collector over to have a look at them. He wanted them right there on the shelves in his apartment, where he and only he could look at them.
All of which, he had to admit, was at the very least irrational.
On the other hand, when he was working with his stamps, he was always entirely absorbed in what he was doing. He was expending considerable concentration on what was essentially an unimportant task, and that seemed to be something his spirit required. When he was in a bad mood, his stamps got him out of it. When he was anxious or irritable, his stamps took him to another realm where the anxiety or irritation ceased to matter. When the world seemed mad and out of control, his stamps provided a more orderly sphere where serenity ruled and logic prevailed.
If he wasn’t in the mood, the stamps could wait; if he was called out of town, he knew they’d be there when he got back. They weren’t pets that had to be fed and walked on a regular schedule, or plants that needed to be watered. They demanded his entire and absolute attention, but only when he had it to give.
He wondered sometimes if he was spending too much money on his collection, and perhaps he was, but his bills were always paid and he wasn’t carrying any debt, and he’d somehow managed to accumulate two and a half million dollars in investments, so why shouldn’t he spend what he wanted to on stamps?
Besides, decent philatelic material always increased in value over time. You couldn’t buy it one day and sell it the next and expect to come out ahead, but after you’d owned it awhile it would have appreciated enough to cover the dealer’s markup. And what other pastime worked that way? If you owned a boat, if you raced cars, if you went on safari, how much of what you spent could you expect to get back? What, for that matter, was your net return on bottles of Cristal and lines of cocaine?
And so he’d returned to New York for his stamps. There was nothing else to come back for, and ample reason to stay away. If he was a person of interest to the police, in addition to entering his apartment and sealing his bank accounts, they might very well have posted somebody to watch the place on the slim chance that he’d be fool enough to return.
If the cops weren’t waiting for him, what about Call-Me-Al? The people who’d pulled the strings in Des Moines weren’t willing to sit back and let nature take its course. They’d proved that in White Plains, because it wasn’t the old man’s chickens that had come home to roost, it was the turkeys on Al’s team who’d shot Dot dead and burned the place down around her.
They might have already known his name, and where he lived. If not, they’d have asked Dot, and he could only hope she’d answered right away, and that two quick bullets in the brain were all the punishment she’d been forced to endure. Because she’d have talked sooner or later, anyone would, and in this case sooner was better than later.
But maybe nobody had the place staked out, not the cops and not Al’s boys, either. Maybe all he had to do was figure out a way in and out without being spotted by the doorman.
It would probably take more than one trip, though. His collection was housed in ten good-sized albums, and the best plan he could come up with, sitting in the movie house in East Stroudsburg with his eyes on the screen, was to load up the oversize wheeled duffel that he’d bought on QVC a few years ago. He had never used it, it held far more stuff than he ever wanted to drag on any trip, business or pleasure, but the pitchman on the shopping channel had caught him at just the right moment, and before he knew what was happening he’d picked up the phone and bought the damn thing.
You could get four albums in it for sure, and possibly five, and the handle and wheels would enable him to get it to the car. Dump the albums in the trunk, go back for another load — two trips might do it, or three at the most.
There was some cash in the house, too, unless someone had found it by now. Not a fortune, just an emergency fund of somewhere between one and two thousand dollars. If this didn’t constitute an emergency he didn’t know what did, and he could definitely use the cash, but it wouldn’t have been enough to draw him back to the city, not if it had been ten or twenty times as much as it was.
The stamp collection was something else. He’d lost his first collection all those years ago. He didn’t want to lose this one.
If anyone was watching the place, Keller couldn’t spot him. He spent a full half-hour looking and never saw anybody suspicious. Nor could he find any route into his building that didn’t lead past the doorman. The closest thing to a possibility would involve finding a six-foot ladder somewhere and using it to reach the fire escape in the rear, from which he might be able to break into one of his fellow tenants’ apartments. He’d have to be awfully lucky to pick an empty apartment, and even if he did, how was he going to get back down the fire escape with a king-size suitcase loaded with stamp albums?
The hell with it. The first thing he did was take off the Homer Simpson cap, which was all wrong for what he had in mind. He might need Homer soon enough, so he didn’t just toss the cap but folded it as best he could and put it in his pocket. Then he crossed the street, shoulders back, arms swinging slightly at his sides, and walked right up to the doorman and into the lobby.
“Evening, Neil,” he said as he entered.
“Evening, Mr. Keller,” the doorman said, and Keller saw his blue eyes widen.
He gave the fellow a quick smile. “Neil,” he said, “I bet I’ve had a few visitors, haven’t I?”
“Nothing to worry about,” Keller assured him. “Nothing that won’t get itself straightened out in a day or two, but right now it adds up to a lot of aggravation for me and a batch of other people.” He dipped a hand into his breast pocket, where he’d put aside Miller Remsen’s two fifties. “I have to see to a few things,” he said, palming the folded bills into Neil’s hand, “and nobody needs to know I was here, if you follow me.”
There was nothing like the air of self-assurance, especially when it was coupled with a hundred dollars. “Sure, and I never saw you, sir,” said Neil, with that slight Irish lilt to his speech that was rarely present outside of moments like this one.
He rode up in the elevator, wondering if there’d be one of those seals on his door, proclaiming it a crime scene. But there was nothing like that, not even a paper band assuring him that the apartment had been sanitized for his protection. Nor had anyone changed the locks; he used his key and the door opened. Things were not as he’d left them, he saw that right away, but he didn’t waste time on any of the unimportant stuff. He went straight to the bookcase where he kept his stamps.
Gone, all of them.
It wasn’t as though it took him entirely by surprise. He’d known there was a good possibility he’d come home to find his stamps missing, carried away by one or another of his visitors. The cops might very well have confiscated the stamps, but he thought it was more likely that Al, or whoever Al dispatched, had spotted the albums and knew enough about the market in collectibles to recognize their value. Whoever took them would be lucky to realize ten cents on the dollar, but even so he might regard it as worth risking a hernia to haul the ten big books out of there and find a stamp dealer who wasn’t too scrupulous to pass up a bargain.
If the latter was what happened, they were gone forever. If the cops had them, they were still gone, for all the good it would do him. They might spend the next twenty years in an evidence locker somewhere, while heat and humidity and vermin and air pollution did their work, and the chances that they’d ever find their way back into Keller’s possession, even if by some miracle somebody in Des Moines broke down and confessed to everything, including having framed Keller — even if all of that happened, in spite of the fact that he knew it never would or could, he’d still never see the stamps again.
They were gone. Well, all right. So was Dot. That had been entirely unexpected, he’d expected to have her as a friend for the rest of his life. So it had stunned and saddened him, and he was still sad about it, and would very likely feel that way for a long time. But he hadn’t responded to her death by curling up in a ball. He’d gone on, because that was what you did, what you had to do. You had to go on.
The stamps didn’t constitute a death, but they were certainly a loss, and having allowed for the possibility didn’t do anything to lessen its impact. But they were gone, period, end of report. He wasn’t going to be able to get them back, any more than he was going to be able to revive Dot. Dead was dead, when all was said and done, and gone was gone.
His computer was gone, too. The cops would have taken that without having to think twice, and even now some technicians were sure to be poring over his hard drive, trying to coax out of it information it did not in fact possess. It was a laptop, a MacBook, quick and responsive and user-friendly, but as far as he could make out there was nothing incriminating on it, and all it would take to replace it was money.
His telephone answering machine was in pieces on the floor, which explained why it hadn’t answered his phone. He wondered what it had done to upset anyone. Maybe someone had started to steal it, decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, and bounced it off the wall in anger. Well, so what? He wouldn’t have to replace it, because he didn’t have a phone for it to answer, or anyone who’d want to leave him a message.