Keller didn’t say anything. Maybe the ear hair functioned like antennae, maybe the guy was getting signals on it from his home planet.

“Thing is,” the guy said, “it’s good you’re here now, but it might be a while before you can go ahead and do your thing.”


“There’s a guy has to make sure he’s someplace else when it goes down, if you get my drift. And there’s a couple other whatchacall variables involved. So what they want you to do is stay pretty close to the room so we can call you and keep you in the loop. Like go ahead or don’t go ahead, you follow me?”

“As day follows night,” Keller said.

“Yeah? Good way to put it. What am I forgetting? Oh, right. Open the glove compartment. See the paper bag? Take it out.”

It was heavy, and he didn’t need to open it to know what it contained.

“Two of ’em, Leroy. Okay if I call you Leroy?”

“Feel free.”

“Get the feel of ’em, pick the one you like. No rush, take your time.”

They were handguns, of course, one a pistol, the other a revolver. Keller didn’t much want to handle them, but neither did he want to look squeamish. The pistol fit his hand better, but pistols could jam, which gave the revolver a definite edge.

But did he want either of them?

“I’m not sure I want to use a gun,” he said.

“You really like the idea of jamming the nozzle down his throat, huh? Still, you want to keep your options open. They’re both loaded. I got an extra clip for the Glock auto somewhere. The revolver, I can send over a box of shells later on.”

“Maybe I’ll take them both.”

“Walk up on him with a gun in each hand? I don’t think so. I had to guess, I’d say you look like a Glock guy to me.”

That was reason enough for Keller to choose the revolver. He checked the cylinder, noted the four bullets and the one empty chamber, snapped it shut. And for a moment he had a strong and entirely unexpected urge to point the thing at the man with the hairy ears and pull the trigger. Just blow him away and catch the next plane back to New York.

Instead he handed him the Glock, pocketed the revolver. “Never mind the extra shells,” he said.

“You don’t miss, huh?” Big grin. “I guess a pro is a pro, right? Oh, before I forget, lemme have the number of your cell phone.”

Yeah, right. Keller told him he didn’t have one, and the man patted his own pockets until he found one and handed it over. “So we can call you. Keep it with you when you go over to the Denny’s for a patty melt. I love them things, but you want to tell them to let you have it on rye bread. Makes all the difference.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

“No problem. Now, the car. You shouldn’t have any trouble with it. You got a full tank of gas and she’s got eighteen hundred miles before she’s due for an oil change.”

“That’s comforting.”

There was more about the car — how to adjust the seats, the tendency of one of the trouble lights to go on for no good reason — but Keller hadn’t paid much attention. The fellow took the keys out of the ignition and handed them to Keller, and Keller asked him how he was planning to get home.

“I go home,” he said, “and I got my wife to deal with. I’d rather go someplace else, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I meant—”

“Hell, I know what you meant. See that beat-up Monte Carlo over there? That’s my ride, just waiting for me. Now you could go to the front desk if you wanted, but there’s no need. Room 204’s on the second level, and you can just take those outside stairs right over there.”

Suitcase in hand, gun in pocket, Keller mounted the stairs and found his room. He stuck the key in the lock and turned for a look at the Monte Carlo, which hadn’t moved. He opened the door and went inside.

It was a pretty nice room, with a good-size television set and a king-size bed. The framed prints on the wall were easy enough to ignore. The air conditioner was set a little on the chilly side, but he left it alone. He sat on a chair for five minutes, and when he drew the drapery aside and looked out the window, the Monte Carlo was gone.

Half an hour later he was across the street in a booth at Denny’s, with his suitcase on the seat opposite him. He had a patty melt on rye with a side of well-done french fries, and he had to admit it was pretty good. The coffee was not going to put Starbucks out of business, but it was decent enough for him to take the waitress up on her offer of a second cup.

Now how hard was that? Guy suggests a meal and you follow his suggestion and it’s not bad at all. So what’s so bad about going along with the program?

But no, the patty melt was where the program ended. They make it easy, he told himself, and you have to make it hard. They supply a decent room at a clean, well-situated motel, and you won’t even use the john because you don’t want to leave your DNA in it. The only thing he was willing to leave in the room was the cell phone they’d provided — turned off, wiped free of prints, and tucked away under the very center of the king-size mattress. He’d thought about leaving the gun there as well, but in the end he’d decided to hang on to it for the time being, and it was in his suitcase.

He’d returned to the car they gave him, but only in order to wipe any surfaces he might have touched. He triggered the remote on the key fob to lock the car, and had the urge to fling the keys into a handy Dumpster. Could they use the car keys to track him? He wasn’t sure, and his sense of contemporary technology was that anybody could do anything, and if they couldn’t today they’d be able to tomorrow. Still, he didn’t see any reason to toss the car keys just yet, or the room key, either.

He’d walked across the street to Denny’s, finished his patty melt and fries and two cups of coffee, and now he used a pay phone next to the men’s room to call a taxi. “Going to the airport,” he said, and they wanted to know his name. He felt like telling them he’d be the only person in front of Denny’s waiting for a cab, but instead he just told them his name was Eddie. “Be ten minutes, Eddie,” said the woman on the other end of the line, and the cab showed up in eight.

The girl at the Hertz counter was happy to rent Holden Blankenship a Nissan Sentra. He called ahead on one of the courtesy phones across from baggage claim and booked himself into a Days Inn, and the room was ready for him by the time he drove there. He unpacked, took a shower, turned the TV on, surfed through a slew of cable channels, turned it off again, and stretched out on the bed. But he sat up almost immediately, convinced he’d left the wrong phone in Room 204 at the Laurel Inn.

He found his phone — if in fact that’s what it was. It looked all right, but the truth was he’d never really looked at it much since he bought it, and hadn’t looked much at the one Mr. Ear Hair had given him, either, and—

He opened it up and hit Redial, and it rang twice before Dot got to it. He relaxed when he heard her voice. They talked for a few minutes, and he brought her up to date.

“I’m in a holding pattern,” he said, “and I think I just made things more complicated than they needed to be. They have to let me know when it’s okay to do the work, and I just made it impossible for them to contact me.”

“If a phone rings and it’s underneath a mattress, does it make a sound?”

“Not when it’s turned off. I’ll have to check the desk for messages.”

“Or maybe they can send you signals through the fillings on your teeth.”

“If I were any more paranoid, I’d probably worry about that. I’d have to make myself a protective cap out of tinfoil.”

“You can laugh all you want,” she said, “but they work like a charm.”

The days passed slowly. Periodically he checked the Laurel Inn for messages, and on the third day the clerk read a number for him to call. He called, and a voice he didn’t recognize asked his name. “Leroy Montrose,” Keller said. “I’m supposed to call this number.”

“Hang on,” the voice said, and a moment later the man with the ear hair came on the line. “You’re a hard man to get hold of, Leroy,” he said. “You don’t answer your phone and you don’t check your voice mail.”

“You gave me a dead phone,” Keller told him. “And no charger. I figured you’d know to call the room.”

“Jesus, I coulda sworn—”

“Suppose I just call this number a couple of times a day,” Keller said. “That’ll work, won’t it?”

The man wanted to bring him another phone, or a charger, or both, but Keller managed to talk him out of it. He’d call that number every morning and afternoon, and before he turned in for the night. And, he added, with a little steel in his voice, he hoped it wouldn’t be too much longer, because Des Moines was an okay place, but he had things to do back home.

“Probably tomorrow,” the fellow said. “Gimme a call first thing in the morning.”

But the first thing he’d done the following morning, after a quick breakfast down the street, was find his way back to Gregory Dowling’s ranch house in West Des Moines. He’d driven past it once before, just to make sure he remembered where it was, and this time his quarry was out in front again, not watering the lawn but on his knees alongside a flower bed, doing something with a trowel.

Keller had taken the trouble to leave his Days Inn room so that he wouldn’t need to return to it. He’d packed his bag, wiped down the few spots he might have touched, and did everything but drop his key at the desk. If he got the go-ahead from his contact, he could take out the target and go straight to the airport. If not, the room would be waiting for him.

Without having planned it, he braked to a stop right in front of Dowling’s house, leaned across the front seat, rolled down the window. He couldn’t quite bring himself to honk, it struck him as impolite, but he didn’t have to; the man had heard the car approach and trotted right over to see if he could be of help. Keller told him he was new in the neighborhood and had managed to get lost trying to find the Rite Aid, and while the fellow was providing elaborate directions, Keller’s hand dropped into the pocket where he’d stowed the revolver.

Be nothing to it. Dowling, blissfully unaware, was gripping the window opening with one hand while gesturing expansively with the other. Whip out the gun, point it at him, give him two in the chest. The motor was running, so all he’d need to do was put the car in gear and he’d be around the corner before the body hit the ground.

Or forget the gun and just grab the poor bastard by the hair and the shirtfront. Yank him in through the open window, break his neck, then give him a shove and let him go.

Al might not be happy. But the job would be done, and what could they do, make him come back and do it over?

“Well,” Gregory Dowling said, straightening up and stepping back. “If there’s nothing else—”

“You’ve been a big help,” Keller told him. Copyright 2016 - 2024