Two columns over, he saw this:


Satisfaction Guaranteed

Keller stared at the ad. He blinked several times, but it was still there when he looked at it again. It was impossible, but unless he’d dozed off and was dreaming, the ad was really there, and it couldn’t be, because it was impossible.

There had been times in his life when he’d been dreaming, realized it was a dream, and willed himself out of it — but remained in the dream, even though he thought he’d returned to waking consciousness. Was this like that? He got up, walked around, and sat down again, wondering whether he was really walking around or had just incorporated the walking into his dream. He picked up the paper, and he read some of the other ads, to see if they were the usual thing or the sort of gibberish dreams were apt to produce.

As far as he could tell, they were okay. And the ad from Just Plain Klassics was still there, and still impossible.

Because the only person who could possibly have placed that ad was dead, shot twice in the head and burned up in a fire in White Plains.


It took him a few blocks out of his way, but Keller drove along Magazine Street to get a look at the stamp shop. He spotted it, but only because he knew where to look for it. The signage was minimal, and that explained why he’d never noticed it before.

He thought of stopping in, to see if they had any other issues of Linn’s around. That way he could find out if the ad had run before, but why bother? What difference did it make?

Ten minutes later he was parked across the street from an Internet café, where a kid who looked more like a college wrestler than your prototypical geek pointed him to a computer. He hadn’t sat in front of one since he was bidding for stamps on eBay, back before the flight to Iowa. His laptop had been gone by the time he returned to his New York apartment, and he’d never even considered replacing it. What for?

Julia, who’d sold her own computer before moving back from Wichita, had talked about getting another, but with about the same sense of urgency as she talked about cleaning out the attic. It might happen, possibly even in their lifetime, but you couldn’t call it a high-priority item.

Even if she’d had a computer, he wouldn’t have used it for this. A public machine in a public setting, far from his own neighborhood, was what the situation called for.

He settled in, booted up Explorer, and typed in And clicked on Go.

The headline could have been a coincidence. A dealer specializing in the classic issues from philately’s first century, 1840 to 1940, might chance upon Just Plain Classics as a name for his business venture, and might decide to distort the spelling as an homage, say, to Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

If so, he’d managed to hit on a name that resonated with Keller. Not so much because those were the stamps Keller collected, since he was hardly unique in this respect, but because the initials were his. JPK = John Paul Keller — or, as Dot was apt to point out, Just Plain Keller.

The owner of Just Plain Klassics hadn’t troubled to include his name, but he wasn’t unique in that respect. He hadn’t included a postal address, either, or a phone or fax number, but limited himself to the URL of his website. A lot of philatelic business was conducted on the Web these days, and plenty of classified ads limited their contact information to an email address, but this was unusual in a display ad.

But what nailed it was the URL itself.

Years ago, back when the old man was still running things, he and Dot had been troubled by the fact that their boss was turning down job after job for no apparent reason. Accordingly they went proactive before either of them had become familiar with the term, and Dot placed an ad in a Soldier of Fortune imitator called Mercenary Times. Odd jobs wanted, removals a specialty — something along those lines, with the firm’s name given as Toxic Waste, and a post office box in Hastings or Yonkers, someplace like that.

JPK. Toxic Waste.

Coincidence? It had about as much chance of being coincidental as his trip to Des Moines. But if it wasn’t a coincidence, then it was a visitation from the dead, because no one but Dot could possibly have placed that ad.

The website, when the computer found its way there through the ether, was anticlimactic. Just the initials at the top, JPK in plain boldface capitals. Nothing about stamps, nothing about toxic waste. Nothing, in fact, but a very brief notice announcing that the site was under construction, along with a mathematical formula that made no sense to him:

19? = 28 x 24 + 37 — 34 ÷ 6


He got on Google, tried various permutations. JPK, just plain klassics, JPK Stamps. Nothing. If you were going to replace the first c in classics with a k, why not do the same with the last one? He tried JPK klassiks, and JPK classics, and got nowhere. Google returned no end of hits for toxic waste, none of which he found himself eager to pursue, and when he tried to type in the formula, or equation, or whatever it was, he couldn’t figure out how to reproduce some of the symbols. He did the best he could, and Google was quick to tell him that his search did not match any documents. He gave up and went back to the original URL,, and got the same page all over again, advising him once more that the site was under construction, and providing him with the same formula. This time he copied it off the site, then returned to Google and pasted it in, and didn’t get any hits.

Do the math, Keller.

He worked it out with pencil and paper. It looked algebraic, and the algebra he’d studied in high school was long gone, but maybe he could get somewhere with simple arithmetic. 28 times 24 was 672, plus 37 was 709, minus 34 was 675 (though why you would add 37 only to subtract 34 a moment later was beyond him). Divide all that by 6 and it came to 112.5. So 19 little triangles was equal to 112.5, which meant one of them was what? The answer wouldn’t come out even, and by the time he’d worked it out to nine decimal places — 5.921052631 — he decided that couldn’t be right.

Easy as pi, he thought. Maybe it was just Internet flotsam, stray debris floating in cyberspace and preying on the unwary.

You’d think a place that called itself a café, Internet or otherwise, would have coffee available. Keller asked, and the wrestler shook his head and pointed at a machine prepared to dispense Coca-Cola and a variety of energy drinks.

Keller found a Starbucks on the next block and splurged on a latte. He took it to a table along with his work sheets, looked at the original equation. Drop the symbols, he thought, and what did you get?

19 triangles equals 282437346.

He dug out his wallet, found his Social Security card, examined it, and added hyphens accordingly.


Where did the 19 triangles come in? And what good was a Social Security number, anyway?


Forget the triangles, and use all eleven digits, and move the hyphens around a little…



Northern Arizona. 928 was the area code for northern Arizona.

He didn’t know anybody in northern Arizona. He didn’t know anybody anywhere in Arizona, not that he could think of. The last time he could remember being anywhere in the state was a while ago, and he’d gone to Tucson on business. The person he was seeking had lived in a gated community surrounding a members-only golf course. Tucson was in southern Arizona, and its area code was 520.

As far as he could see, there were three possibilities.

First, it was all coincidence. That was impossible, because even the long arm of coincidence had a limited reach. It was too complicated a coincidence, of the sort it would take for a monkey at a typewriter to produce Hamlet. Even if he started out okay, sooner or later you’d get a line that read, “To be or not to be, that is the gezorgenplatz.”

Second, the message was from Dot. True, she was dead, but she’d found a way to communicate from beyond the grave. She’d ruled out materializing in front of him, or whispering in his ear, because she’d figured it would spook him, so instead she’d come up with this brilliant idea of running a cryptic ad in Linn’s. But that was impossible, too, because how could someone in the spirit world get an ad in a newspaper?

Third, the message was from the irrepressible Call-Me-Al. He’d know about Keller’s hobby, because it was probably his bully boys who’d carted the collection away. He’d know Keller’s initials, even if he didn’t know that they stood for Just Plain Keller, and he could have hit on Just Plain Klassics by coincidence. But, even if that struck him as a reasonable way to continue the hunt for Keller, would he go so far as to disguise the phone number, counting on Keller to puzzle it out? I mean, why bother? He didn’t have to worry that someone else would get wind of him. All he had to do was put the bait out there and wait for Keller to take the hook.

Anyway, it was flat-out impossible that he would have included the toxic-waste business. Dot and Keller were the only two people on the planet to whom that would make any sense. The case was an old one, and everybody connected with it was long dead, and the murder weapon, if you were hung up on coincidence, was at the bottom of the same river that received the Nissan Sentra, albeit hundreds of miles to the north. And Dot wouldn’t have given up the phrase toxic waste, not even under torture, because it would never occur to her. “Now, woman, give us something to draw him in, or we’ll pull out your toenails.” “Toxic waste, toxic waste!” Yeah, right. Not a chance.

So there were three possibilities, and they were all impossible.

One more possibility. Dot, before she was killed, decided to make a run for it. First, though, she wanted to set things up so she could get a message to Keller when the time came. And how could she do that? Why, through an ad in Linn’s, and a phone number left on a website, something he could access without leaving a trail.

You could set up a website and it would stay up unattended for a long time. You could place a Linn’s ad, pay a whole year or more in advance, and just let it run until it ran out. And maybe the website was under construction, maybe she’d planned to make things a little clearer for Keller. Maybe she’d done this early on, setting up the site, ordering the ad, and then the bastards broke in and killed her, and the ad and the website were out there to no purpose. And, until Julia brought home the paper, to no effect.

Was all of this possible? He didn’t know, and couldn’t think about it anymore. Because no matter how much thought he gave it, when all was said and done there was really only one thing to do.

He found a place where he could buy a prepaid cell phone, and made sure it was set to block caller ID. The police might be capable of determining where the phone was when the call was placed, but it wasn’t the police who had run the ad or set up the website, and if Al had such technological forces at his command, well, that was just a chance Keller would have to take.

Even so, he got on I-10 and drove halfway to Baton Rouge before pulling into a gas station and making the call.

He was expecting no answer at all, or maybe coo-wheeeet!, but on the third ring someone picked up. And then a voice he’d never expected to hear again said, “I just hope this isn’t another damn telemarketer in Bangalore. Well? Whoever you are, say something.” Copyright 2016 - 2024