Though they could certainly burn a hole in a man’s pocket. The last purchase he’d made (aside from the pizza, the one remaining piece of which would serve as his breakfast as soon as he finished inventorying the trunk) was five Swedish stamps for $600, abruptly reducing his cash on hand to $187 plus the change in his pocket. Since then, the pizza had claimed $15 and the airport parking lot $7, and he had to buy enough gas to get him halfway across the country. Figure fifteen hundred miles, probably more with the inevitable to-ing and fro-ing, call it twenty miles to the gallon at $2.50 a gallon, and what did that come to?

He ran the numbers in his head and kept coming up with different answers, and finally he took out a pen and a scrap of paper and worked it out. The number he wound up with was $187.50, which seemed high to him, and especially so in view of the fact that it was twenty-two dollars more than he had to his name.

And he would need money for food. He’d worked out a way to buy food without giving anyone a good look at him, but he’d still have to part with cash. And sooner or later — and it had better be sooner — he was going to have to buy a baseball cap, and some product to change his hair color, and some implement he could use to give himself a haircut. (There was a pair of pruning shears in the tool chest, and if he’d been a rosebush they might have worked just fine, but he didn’t think they’d do a good job on a human being.) The places that sold the things he needed almost always took credit cards, but if he used one he’d be in worse shape than he was now.

If he had hung on to the $600, he’d be okay. He’d still have problems, and they might well prove insoluble, but running out of money wouldn’t be one of them.

Instead, he had five little pieces of paper. Once they could have been used to mail a letter, if he’d happened to be in Sweden and if there happened to be somebody he wanted to write to. Now they weren’t even good for that.

He felt like Jack, the young genius who’d traded the family cow for the magic beans. As he remembered the story, everything turned out all right for Jack in the end.

But that, he reminded himself, was a fairy story.


Two hours later he crossed the Mississippi at Clinton. A few miles into Illinois, with the gas gauge zeroing in on the big E, he pulled up to one of the full-service pumps at a gas station. They seemed to be in the middle of the local equivalent of rush hour, which struck Keller as all to the good.

The attendant looked to be just out of high school, and trying to come to terms with the prospect of spending the rest of his life on the outskirts of Morrison, Illinois. He had earbuds and looked like an intern with a stethoscope, but Keller could see the iPod in the bib pocket of his overalls, and whatever he was listening to was evidently more interesting than Keller.

He’d lowered the sun visor and positioned it to block the upper half of the side window, which gave the kid less of a view of his face. He asked for forty dollars’ worth of regular; he’d have just as soon filled the tank to the brim, but didn’t want to have to wait for change. The kid got things going, then came back to ask him if he wanted the oil checked. Keller told him not to bother.

“I had one just like that,” the kid said. “That li’l bucket? With the yellow puppy dogs on it? For the beach, you know?”

“My kid’s crazy about it,” Keller said.

“Wonder what ever became of it,” the kid said. He went away, and the next thing Keller knew he was wiping the windshield and making a surprisingly thorough job of it. Keller wanted to tell him to skip that, too, but then the boy would have to wonder what Keller was doing in the full-service section if he didn’t want any service. He let him continue, and studied the road map, shielding his face with it.

He wiped the rear window, too, and when he’d finished he came over to the driver’s side and Keller handed him a pair of twenties. He thought of offering him a third twenty for his cap, which said OshKosh B’Gosh in flowing script that matched the logo on his overalls.

Yeah, right. Or maybe he could trade him the beach bucket for it. A good way to avoid attracting attention.

He’d have welcomed the chance to pick up a few things in the station’s convenience store. Or use the men’s room. But he had the tank filled, or mostly filled, and that was going to have to be good enough for now.

He kept going eastbound on Route 30, holding the car to fifty-five miles an hour on the stretches of open road, and slowing to the posted speed limit whenever he came to a town. Right after he crossed I-39 he spotted a Burger King with a drive-up window, and he ordered enough burgers and fries and shakes for a whole family. He didn’t get a look at the server, and didn’t think anyone could have gotten a look at him, and in no time at all he was back on the road.

The next town he came to was called Shabbona, but before he got to it he saw signs for Shabbona State Park, and there he was able to eat at a picnic table and use a restroom, all without encountering another human being.

There was a pay phone, and he was tempted.

According to the radio news, his license plate switch had been successful; the prevailing opinion was that Holden Blankenship had somehow managed to board a plane at Des Moines International Airport. Predictably, there had been sightings. A woman who’d flown from Des Moines to Kansas City was certain she’d spotted Blankenship in the flight lounge adjoining hers, waiting for a Continental departure to Los Angeles. She’d been this close to saying something to somebody, she’d told reporters, but they were boarding her flight and she was anxious to get home.

Other helpful citizens reported catching glimpses of the elusive assassin in locales ranging from small towns in Iowa to large cities on both coasts. A man in Klamath Falls, Oregon, swore he’d seen Blankenship “or his twin brother” standing in front of that city’s Greyhound bus terminal, dressed like a cowboy and twirling a lariat, with a six-shooter on each hip. Keller had never dressed like a cowboy or twirled a lariat, nor could he recall a visit to Klamath Falls. But he had been in Roseburg, Oregon, and remembered it well. It seemed to him that Roseburg wasn’t all that far from Klamath Falls, and he had a map of Oregon in his door pocket, and was reaching for it to check the precise location of Klamath Falls when he reminded himself that he really didn’t care where the town was. He wasn’t going there, after all, wasn’t even heading in that direction, so the hell with it.

Suppose he used the phone. He couldn’t call Dot’s cell phone, which he presumed had received much the same treatment he’d given his. But he could call her land line.

To what purpose? She wouldn’t be there. Al might or might not know Keller’s real name, and where he lived, but he knew Dot’s phone number. He’d called it a couple of times. And he knew her address, having sent FedEx parcels to it, some of them containing cash.

And Dot would know that he knew, and act accordingly. Ditch. The. Phone. Repeat. Ditch. The. Damn. Phone. She wouldn’t have sent that message if she hadn’t had a good read on the situation, and in that case she’d know what she had to do, which was Get Out of Dodge.

So if he called her, no one would answer. Unless the cops were there, or Al’s people. If the cops were on the scene, and he called, they might be able to trace it. Al’s minions probably couldn’t, but he didn’t want to talk to them any more than he wanted to talk to the cops, so what was the point of calling?

And he didn’t have enough change for a call, anyway. What was he supposed to do, bill it to his home phone? Reverse the charges?

By sticking with Route 30, he managed to bypass Chicago to the south. He liked the highway well enough. The traffic never got all that heavy, and the big trucks mostly kept to the interstate. Towns came along just about often enough to break the monotony of endless highway driving. And there were plenty of places along the way that would have made interesting stops, if he had been able to stop anywhere. But he knew better than to risk it, and drove on past antique shops and nonchain restaurants and all manner of roadside attractions. Someday, he thought, he’d have to drive this road again, when he wasn’t in a hurry, when he didn’t have a compelling need to avoid human contact, when he was able to lead again the life he’d led back in the old days, when John Tatum Longford still had a pulse.

But would it ever be like that again?

For hours he’d avoided that thought, holding it at bay, keeping it shunted aside on the shoulder of the highway of thought. But it was there now and he couldn’t blink it away, couldn’t keep from taking a cold-eyed look at it.

One last job. Why couldn’t he have told Dot to turn it down?

He’d come back from what was supposed to be his final business trip. Before he left, he’d sat down in Dot’s kitchen while her fingers did their little dance on the keyboard of her computer. She paused, studied the screen, then looked up to advise him that his net worth, as of the stock market’s close the previous day, was just slightly in excess of two and a half million dollars. “You figured you needed a million to retire,” she reminded him, “and I didn’t say anything, but when I ran the numbers it seemed to me that you ought to have double that to retire in comfort. Well, you’ve got that and more.”

Two years ago, the Indianapolis job had supplied him with some inside information, and she’d opened a trading account to take advantage of it. One thing had led to another, and she’d been investing their money ever since. It turned out to be something she was good at.

“That’s amazing,” he told her.

“Well, I’ve been lucky, but I do seem to have a definite knack. And most of what you’ve earned since then, most of what we’ve both earned, has gone right into the market, and all of that money has just kept on making more money. No wonder the Chinese have taken up capitalism, Keller. They’re no dummies.”

“Two and a half million dollars,” he said.

“You could fill up every last space in your stamp collection.”

“There are individual stamps,” he told her, “that you couldn’t buy for two and a half million. Just to keep the whole thing in perspective.”

“Why would we want to do that?”

“But it’s still a lot of money,” he allowed. “If I spend a hundred thousand dollars a year, it should last twenty-five years. I’m not sure I’ll last that long myself.”

“A healthy clean-living boy like you? Of course you will, but don’t worry about running out of money in twenty-five years, or even in fifty.”

And she’d outlined what she planned to do, as soon as he gave her the go-ahead. He hadn’t followed too closely, but the gist of it was that she’d invest the greater portion of his capital in municipal bond funds, yielding 5 percent tax-free, and the rest in stock funds to hedge against inflation. She could set it up so that they’d send him a check every month for $10,000 and never deplete his capital.

“There are people who would kill for a deal like this,” she told him, “but then you’ve already done that, haven’t you, Keller? Do this one last job and you can put your feet up and play with your stamps.” Copyright 2016 - 2024