“What did you say?”

“That my father was a grown man who had the right to decide what bed he was going to die in. Oh, he didn’t want to hear that from me, and he laid such a good guilt trip on me that he could teach a course on the subject, if they were to add it to the med school curriculum. Assuming it’s not already there.”

“You held your ground?”

“I did,” she said, “and it may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and do you know what was the hardest part?”

“Questioning your own judgment?”

“Yes! Standing firm and arguing, and all the while a little voice in my own head is yammering away. Where do I come off thinking I know more than the doctors, and am I just doing this because I want him to die, and am I being brave with the doctor because I haven’t got the courage to stand up to my own father? There was a whole committee holding a meeting in my head, all of them pounding the table and hollering.”

“He’s resting now?”

“Asleep, last I looked. Are you going in there? If he’s awake, he may not know you. The doctor told me to expect some gaps in his memory.”

“I won’t take it personally.”

“And there’ll be more strokes, he told me that, too. They’d have him on blood thinners if it wasn’t for the cancer. Of course, if he was in the damn hospital they could monitor the blood thinners, balancing the level every hour so he wouldn’t bleed out or stroke out, and — Nicholas, did I do the right thing?”

“You honored the man’s wishes,” he said. “What’s more important than that?”

He went into the sitting room, and the sickroom smell was worse than usual, or maybe it was his imagination. At first he couldn’t detect the old man’s breathing, and thought the end had come, but then the breathing resumed. He stood there, wondering how to feel, what to think.

The old man’s eyes opened, fixed on Keller. “Oh, it’s you,” he said, his voice thickened but otherwise clear as a bell. Then his eyes closed and he was gone again.

When Keller got to work the next morning, he took Donny aside and handed him a ten-dollar bill. “You gave me too much yesterday,” he said. “Sixty dollars, and we only worked five hours.”

Donny pushed the bill back at him. “Gave you a raise,” he said. “Twelve dollars an hour. I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others.” Meaning Luis and a fourth man, Dwayne. “You’re worth it, buddy. Don’t want you looking for the grass to be greener somewhere else.” He winked. “Nice to know you’re an honest man, though.”

He waited until after dinner to tell Julia, and accepted her congratulations. “But I’m not surprised,” she said. “Patsy’s mother didn’t have any stupid children. He’s right about that, you’re worth it, and he’s smart not to chance losing you.”

“Next thing I know,” he said, “you’ll be telling me I’ve got a future in this business.”

“It may not look like it. I don’t suppose the pay amounts to much, compared to what you used to get.”

“I used to spend most of my time waiting for the phone to ring. When I worked I got paid okay, but you can’t compare it. It was a different life.”

“I can imagine. Or maybe I can’t. Do you miss it?”

“God, no. Why would I?”

“I don’t know. I just thought this might be boring, after the life you were used to.”

He thought about it. “What was interesting,” he said, “and not all the time, but sometimes, was the aspect of having a problem and solving it. You rip out a dropped ceiling and you’ll find all the problems any man can ask for, and you can solve them without anybody getting hurt.”

She was silent for a long moment, and then she said, “I think we’d better see about getting you a new car. What’s so funny?”

“Dot used to complain that I’d go off on tangents. Master of the Non Sequitur, she called me.”

“So you want to know how I got there?”

“It’s not important. It just struck me funny, that’s all.”

“How I got there,” she said, “is I was thinking it sounds as if you might want to hang around for a while. And the one thing that could screw things up is that car of yours. The license tags may be a dead end, but if you got pulled over and they asked to see the registration—”

“I’d have the papers that were in the glove box when I switched plates at the airport. I thought of doctoring them, substituting my name and address for what’s on there.”

“Would that work?”

“It might get past a quick glance, but not a long hard look. And it’s an Iowa registration for a car with Tennessee tags being driven by a damn fool with a Louisiana license. So no, I’d have to say it wouldn’t work. That’s why I haven’t bothered to try.”

“You could stay under the speed limit,” she said, “and obey every traffic regulation, and never even risk another parking ticket. And then some drunk rear-ends you, and the next thing you know you’ve got cops asking questions.”

“Or some cop could come back from a vacation at Graceland and wonder why my Tennessee plate doesn’t look much like the ones he saw up there. I know, there are all kinds of things that could go wrong. I’m putting money aside, and when I’ve got enough saved—”

“I’ll give you the money.”

“I don’t want you to do that.”

“You can pay me back. It won’t take long, you’re making an extra two dollars an hour.”

“Let me think about it.”

“I’m all for that,” she said. “Think all you want, Nicholas. Saturday morning we’ll go car shopping.”

There wasn’t much shopping involved. The next time he saw Donny, he mentioned he was going to be looking for a car. You get yourself a truck, Donny said, and you’ll never be happy with a plain old car again. Donny knew somebody with a Chevy half-ton pickup, not much on looks but mechanically sound. It would have to be all cash, Donny said, but he could probably find somebody to take the Sentra off Nick’s hands. Keller said he already had somebody lined up.

The truck’s owner was an older woman who looked like a librarian, and it turned out that’s just what she was, at what she described as the big branch library in Jefferson Parish. Keller couldn’t guess how she’d wound up owning the truck, and her air suggested she was somewhat baffled herself. But the papers looked okay, and when he asked the price she sighed and said she’d been hoping to get five thousand dollars, which made it pretty clear she didn’t expect to. Keller offered four, figuring to meet her somewhere in the middle, and felt almost guilty when she sighed again and nodded her agreement.

Julia had driven him to the woman’s house in the Taurus, and he followed her back and parked out in front on the street. He told her how he’d wanted to raise his own bid when the woman said yes to four thousand, and she told him not to be silly. “It’s not her truck,” she said.

“Not anymore. It’s ours.”

“It was never hers. Some man owned it, her son or her boyfriend or I don’t know who, and one way or another she wound up with it, and believe me, the truck’s not the saddest part of the story. What?”

“I was just thinking,” he said. “You realize you’re not more than a handful of notes away from a country song?”

The Sentra wound up in the Mississippi. If he’d felt guilty lowballing the librarian, he felt worse deep-sixing a car that had given him trouble-free performance for months. He’d eaten in it, he’d slept in it, he’d driven it all over the country, and now he was showing his gratitude by dumping it in the river.

But nothing else he could come up with struck him as one hundred percent safe. If he left it to be stolen, he’d sever his own connection with it. But it would provoke official attention sooner or later, and when it did it would still be the vehicle Governor Longford’s assassin had rented in Des Moines, and whoever ran the engine serial number would learn that much readily enough. And anyone with a strong interest in finding him would have a reason to start looking in New Orleans.

It was a good bet to stay in the river forever, he told Julia, and if it ever did get hauled out, nobody was going to bother looking for the serial number.

Back in the city, he took her for a ride in his truck.


Her father seemed at first to be recovering from his stroke. Then he must have had another one, because when Julia went in there one morning he had taken a sharp turn for the worse. His speech was impossible to make out, and he didn’t seem able to move his legs. Earlier, he’d had to use a bed pan; now Keller found himself called to help when Julia changed her father’s diapers.

The doctor came and hooked up an IV. “Otherwise he’ll starve,” he told Julia, “and even so we can’t monitor him the way we should. He can’t change his mind now, you know, so it’s up to you to let us hospitalize him.”

Later she said, “I don’t know what to do. Whatever I decide is going to be wrong. I just wish—”

“You wish what?”

“Never mind,” she said. “I don’t want to say it.”

It was pretty clear how she’d have finished the sentence. She wished the man would die and get it over with.

Keller went in and watched the old man sleep and wondered how anyone could wish otherwise. Left to his own devices, Roussard would likely turn his face to the wall, refuse food and drink, and be gone in a day or two. But through a miracle of medical science he’d been hooked up to an IV, and Julia had been instructed how to replenish the liquids that dripped into his body, and so he’d go on, until another of his failing systems found a way to shut down.

Keller stood by his bedside and thought of another old man, Giuseppe Ragone or Joey Rags or, God help us, Joe the Dragon. Keller had never thought of him as anything but the old man, and had never actually called him anything to his face. Or had he called him Sir early on? It was possible. He couldn’t remember.

That old man was in decent shape physically until right up to the end, but it was always something, wasn’t it, and in his case it was the mind that didn’t hold up. He started making mistakes and losing track of details, and one time he sent Keller to St. Louis to take care of business, and the business was in a particular hotel room, the number of which the old man wrote down for Keller. Except he didn’t write down the room number, he wrote down 3-1-4, which was nothing like the room number, and all Keller could figure out later was that it was the area code for St. Louis. Keller, sent to the wrong room, did what he was supposed to do, but not to the person he was supposed to do it to. There was a woman in the room, too, so two people died for no reason at all, and what kind of a way was that to run a business?

There were other incidents, enough of them to cut through Dot’s denial, and the capper was when the old man recruited some kid from the high school newspaper to help him write his memoirs. Dot managed to nip that in the bud, and told Keller to take a trip. He was collecting stamps by then, preparing for his retirement, and she urged him to go to a stamp show and register under his own name and use his own credit card for everything.

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