Keller on the SpotLawrence Block
Keller on the Spot
Copyright © 1998, Lawrence Block
All Rights Reserved
Publication History: Hit Man, William Morrow, 1998
Ebook by QA Productions
A Lawrence Block Production
Keller on the Spot
* * *
Keller, drink in hand, agreed with the woman in the pink dress that it was a lovely evening. He threaded his way through a crowd of young marrieds on what he supposed you would call the patio. A waitress passed carrying a tray of drinks in stemmed glasses and he traded in his own for a fresh one. He sipped as he walked along, wondering what he was drinking. Some sort of vodka sour, he decided, and decided as well that he didn’t need to narrow it down any further than that. He figured he’d have this one and one more, but he could have ten more if he wanted, because he wasn’t working tonight. He could relax and cut back and have a good time.
Well, almost. He couldn’t relax completely, couldn’t cut back altogether. Because, while this might not be work, neither was it entirely recreational. The garden party this evening was a heaven-sent opportunity for reconnaissance, and he would use it to get a close look at his quarry. He had been handed a picture in the old man’s study back in White Plains, and he had brought that picture with him to Dallas, but even the best photo wasn’t the same as a glimpse of the fellow in the flesh, and in his native habitat.
And a lush habitat it was. Keller hadn’t been inside the house yet, but it was clearly immense, a sprawling multi-level affair of innumerable large rooms. The grounds sprawled as well, covering an acre or two, with enough plants and shrubbery to stock an arboretum. Keller didn’t know anything about flowers, but five minutes in a garden like this one had him thinking he ought to know more about the subject. Maybe they had evening classes at Hunter or NYU, maybe they’d take you on field trips to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Maybe his life would be richer if he knew the names of the flowers, and whether they were annuals or perennials, and whatever else there was to know about them. Their soil requirements, say, and what bug killer to spray on their leaves, or what fertilizer to spread at their roots.
He walked along a brick path, smiling at this stranger, nodding at that one, and wound up standing alongside the swimming pool. Some twelve or fifteen people sat at poolside tables, talking and drinking, the volume of their conversation rising as they drank. In the enormous pool, a young boy swam back and forth, back and forth.
Keller felt a curious kinship with the kid. He was standing instead of swimming, but he felt as distant as the kid from everybody else around. There were two parties going on, he decided. There was the hearty social whirl of everybody else, and there was the solitude he felt in the midst of it all, identical to the solitude of the swimming boy.
Huge pool. The boy was swimming its width, but that dimension was still greater than the length of your typical backyard pool. Keller didn’t know that this was an Olympic pool, he wasn’t quite sure how big that would have to be, but he figured you could just call it enormous and let it go at that.
Ages ago he’d heard about some college-boy stunt, filling a swimming pool with Jell-O, and he’d wondered how many little boxes of the gelatin dessert it would have required, and how the college boys could have afforded it. It would cost a fortune, he decided, and to fill this pool with Jell-O—but if you could afford the pool in the first place, he supposed the Jell-O would be the least of your worries.
There were cut flowers on all of the tables, and the blooms looked like ones Keller had seen in the garden. It stood to reason. If you grew all these flowers, you wouldn’t have to order from the florist. You could cut your own.
What good would it do, he wondered, to know the names of all the shrubs and flowers? Wouldn’t it just leave you wanting to dig in the soil and grow your own? And he didn’t want to get into all that, for God’s sake. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment on First Avenue in the Forties. It was all he needed or wanted, but it was no place for a garden. He hadn’t even tried growing an avocado pit there, and he didn’t intend to. He was the only living thing in the apartment, and that was the way he wanted it. The day that changed was the day he’d call the exterminator.
So maybe he’d just forget about evening classes at Hunter, and field trips to Brooklyn. If he wanted to get close to nature he could walk in Central Park, and if he didn’t know the names of the flowers he would just hold off on introducing himself to them. And if—
Where was the kid?
The boy, the swimmer. Keller’s companion in solitude. Where the hell did he go?
The pool was empty, its surface still. Keller saw a ripple toward the far end, saw a brace of bubbles break the surface.
He didn’t react without thinking. That was how he’d always heard that sort of thing described, but that wasn’t what happened, because the thoughts were there, loud and clear. He’s down there. He’s in trouble. He’s drowning. And, echoing in his head in a voice that might have been Dot’s, sour with exasperation: Keller, for Christ’s sake, do something!
He set his glass on a table, shucked his coat, kicked off his shoes, dropped his pants and stepped out of them. Ages ago he’d earned a Red Cross lifesaving certificate, and the first thing they taught you was to strip before you hit the water. The six or seven seconds you spent peeling off your clothes would be repaid many times over in quickness and mobility.
But the strip show did not go unnoticed. Everybody at poolside had a comment, one more hilarious than the next. He barely heard them. In no time at all he was down to his underwear, and then he was out of range of their cleverness, hitting the water’s surface in a flat racing dive, churning the water till he reached the spot where he’d seen the bubbles, then diving, eyes wide, barely noticing the burn of the chlorine.
Searching for the boy. Groping, searching, then finding him, reaching to grab hold of him. And pushing off against the bottom, lungs bursting, racing to reach the surface.
People were saying things to Keller, thanking him, congratulating him, but it wasn’t really registering. A man clapped him on the back, a woman handed him a glass of brandy. He heard the word “hero” and realized people were saying it all over the place, and applying it to him.
Hell of a note.
Keller sipped the brandy. It gave him heartburn, which assured him of its quality; good cognac always gave him heartburn. He turned to look at the boy. He was just a little fellow, twelve or thirteen years old, his hair lightened and his skin lightly bronzed by the summer sun. He was sitting up now, Keller saw, and looking none the worse for his near-death experience.
“Timothy,” a woman said, “this is the man who saved your life. Do you have something to say to him?”
“Thanks,” Timothy said, predictably.
“Is that all you have to say, young man?”
“It’s enough,” Keller said, and smiled. To the boy he said, “There’s something I’ve always wondered. Did your whole life actually flash before your eyes?”
Timothy shook his head. “I got this cramp,” he said, “and it was like my whole body turned into one big knot, and there wasn’t anything I could do to untie it. And I didn’t even think about drowning. I was just fighting the cramp, ’cause it hurt, and just about the next thing I knew I was up here coughing and puking up water.” He made a face. “I must have swallowed half the pool. All I have to do is think about it and I can taste vomit and chlorine.”
“Timothy,” the woman said, and rolled her eyes.
“Something to be said for plain speech,” an older man said. He had a mane of white hair and a pair of prominent white eyebrows, and his eyes were a vivid blue. He was holding a glass of brandy in one hand and a bottle in the oth
er, and he reached with the bottle to fill Keller’s glass to the brim. “ ‘Claret for boys, port for men,’ ” he said, “ ‘but he who would be a hero must drink brandy.’ That’s Samuel Johnson, although I may have gotten a word wrong.”
The young woman patted his hand. “If you did, Daddy, I’m sure you just improved Mr. Johnson’s wording.”
“Dr. Johnson,” he said, “and one could hardly do that. Improve the man’s wording, that is. ‘Being in a ship is like being in jail, with the added hazard of being drowned.’ He said that as well, and I defy anyone to comment more trenchantly on the experience, or to say it better.” He beamed at Keller. “I owe you more than a glass of brandy and a well-turned Johnsonian phrase. This little rascal whose life you’ve saved is my grandson, and the apple—nay, sir, the very nectarine—of my eye. And we’d have all stood around drinking and laughing while he drowned. You observed, and you acted, and God bless you for it.”
What did you say to that, Keller wondered. It was nothing? Well, shucks? There had to be an apt phrase, and maybe Samuel Johnson could have found it, but he couldn’t. So he said nothing, and just tried not to look po-faced.
“I don’t even know your name,” the white-haired man went on. “That’s not remarkable in and of itself. I don’t know half the people here, and I’m content to remain in my ignorance. But I ought to know your name, wouldn’t you agree?”
Keller might have picked a name out of the air, but the one that leaped to mind was Boswell, and he couldn’t say that to a man who quoted Samuel Johnson. So he supplied the name he’d traveled under, the one he’d signed when he checked into the hotel, the one on the driver’s license and credit cards in his wallet.
“It’s Michael Soderholm,” he said, “and I can’t even tell you the name of the fellow who brought me here. We met over drinks in the hotel bar and he said he was going to a party and it would be perfectly all right if I came along. I felt a little funny about it, but—”
“Please,” the man said. “You can’t possibly propose to apologize for your presence here. It’s kept my grandson from a watery if chlorinated grave. And I’ve just told you I don’t know half my guests, but that doesn’t make them any the less welcome.” He took a deep drink of his brandy and topped up both glasses. “Michael Soderholm,” he said. “Swedish?”
“A mixture of everything,” Keller said, improvising. “My great-grandfather Soderholm came over from Sweden, but my other ancestors came from all over Europe, plus I’m something like a sixteenth American Indian.”
“Oh? Which tribe?”
“Cherokee,” Keller said, thinking of the jazz tune.
“I’m an eighth Comanche,” the man said. “So I’m afraid we’re not tribal bloodbrothers. The rest’s British Isles, a mix of Scots and Irish and English. Old Texas stock. But you’re not Texan yourself.”
“Well, it can’t be helped, as the saying goes. Unless you decide to move here, and who’s to say that you won’t? It’s a fine place for a man to live.”
“Daddy thinks everybody should love Texas the way he does,” the woman said.
“Everybody should,” her father said. “The only thing wrong with Texans is we’re a longwinded lot. Look at the time it’s taking me to introduce myself! Mr. Soderholm, Mr. Michael Soderholm, my name’s Garrity, Wallace Penrose Garrity, and I’m your grateful host this evening.”
No kidding, thought Keller.
The party, lifesaving and all, took place on Saturday night. The next day Keller sat in his hotel room and watched the Cowboys beat the Vikings with a field goal in the last three minutes of double overtime. The game had seesawed back and forth, with interceptions and runbacks, and the announcers kept telling each other what a great game it was.
Keller supposed they were right. It had all the ingredients, and it wasn’t the players’ fault that he himself was entirely unmoved by their performance. He could watch sports, and often did, but he almost never got caught up in it. He had occasionally wondered if his work might have something to do with it. On one level, when your job involved dealing regularly with life and death, how could you care if some overpaid steroid abuser had a touchdown run called back? And, on another level, you saw unorthodox solutions to a team’s problems on the field. When Emmitt Smith kept crashing through the Minnesota line, Keller found himself wondering why they didn’t deputize someone to shoot the son of a bitch in the back of the neck, right below his star-covered helmet.
Still, it was better than watching golf, say, which had to be better than playing golf. And he couldn’t get out and work, because there was nothing for him to do. Last night’s reconnaissance mission had been both better and worse than he could have hoped, and what was he supposed to do now, park his rented Ford across the street from the Garrity mansion and clock the comings and goings?
No need for that. He could bide his time, just so he got there in time for Sunday dinner.
“Some more potatoes, Mr. Soderholm?”
“They’re delicious,” Keller said. “But I’m full. Really.”
“And we can’t keep calling you ‘Mr. Soderholm,’” Garrity said. “I’ve only held off this long for not knowing whether you prefer Mike or Michael.”
“Mike’s fine,” Keller said.
“Then Mike it is. And I’m Wally, Mike, or W. P., though there are those who call me The Walrus.”
Timmy laughed, and clapped both hands over his mouth.
“Though never to his face,” said the woman who’d offered Keller more potatoes. She was Ellen Garrity, Timmy’s aunt and Garrity’s daughter-in-law, and Keller was now instructed to call her Ellie. Her husband, a big-shouldered fellow who seemed to be smiling bravely through the heartbreak of male-pattern baldness, was Garrity’s son Hank.
Keller remembered Timothy’s mother from the night before, but hadn’t got her name at the time, or her relationship to Garrity. She was Rhonda Sue Butler, as it turned out, and everybody called her Rhonda Sue, except for her husband, who called her Ronnie. His name was Doak Butler, and he looked like a college jock who’d been too light for pro ball, although he now seemed to be closing the gap.
Hank and Ellie, Doak and Rhonda Sue. And, at the far end of the table, Vanessa, who was married to Wally but who was clearly not the mother of Hank or Rhonda Sue, or anyone else. Keller supposed you could describe her as Wally’s trophy wife, a sign of his success. She was young, no older than Wally’s kids, and she looked to be well-bred and elegant, and she even had the good grace to hide the boredom Keller was sure she felt.
And that was the lot of them. Wally and Vanessa, Hank and Ellen, Doak and Rhonda Sue. And Timothy, who he was assured had been swimming that very afternoon, the aquatic equivalent of getting right back on the horse. He’d had no cramps this time, but he’d had an attentive eye kept on him throughout.
Seven of them, then. And Keller . . . also known as Mike.
“So you’re here on business,” Wally said. “And stuck here over the weekend, which is the worst part of a business trip, as far as I’m concerned. More trouble than it’s worth to fly back to Chicago?”
The two of them were in Wally’s den, a fine room paneled in knotty pecan and trimmed out in red leather, with Western doodads on the walls—here a branding iron, there a longhorn skull. Keller had accepted a brandy and declined a cigar, and the aroma of Wally’s Havana was giving him second thoughts. Keller didn’t smoke, but from the smell of it the cigar wasn’t smoking. It was more along the lines of a religious experience.
“Seemed that way,” Keller said. He’d supplied Chicago as Michael Soderholm’s home base, though Soderholm’s license placed him in Southern California. “By the time I fly there and back . . .”
“You’ve spent your weekend on airplanes. Well, it’s our good fortune you decided to stay. Now what I’d like to do is find a way to make it your good fortune as well.”
“You’ve already done that,” Keller told him. “I crashed a great party last night and actually
got to feel like a hero for a few minutes. And tonight I get a fine dinner with nice people and get to top it off with a glass of outstanding brandy.”
The heartburn told him how outstanding it was.
“What I had in mind,” Wally said smoothly, “was to get you to work for me.”
Who did he want him to kill? Keller almost blurted out the question until he remembered that Garrity didn’t know what he did for a living.
“You won’t say who you work for,” Garrity went on.
“Because the job’s hush-hush for now. Well, I can respect that, and from the hints you’ve dropped I gather you’re here scouting out something in the way of mergers and acquisitions.”
“And I’m sure it’s well paid, and you must like the work or I don’t think you’d stay with it. So what do I have to do to get you to switch horses and come work for me? I’ll tell you one thing—Chicago’s a real nice place, but nobody who ever moved from there to Big D went around with a sour face about it. I don’t know you well yet, but I can tell you’re our kind of people and Dallas’ll be your kind of town. And I don’t know what they’re paying you, but I suspect I can top it, and offer you a stake in a growing company with all sorts of attractive possibilities.”
Keller listened, nodded judiciously, sipped a little brandy. It was amazing, he thought, the way things came along when you weren’t looking for them. It was straight out of Horatio Alger, for God’s sake—Ragged Dick stops the runaway horse and saves the daughter of the captain of industry, and the next thing you know he’s president of IBM with rising expectations.
“Maybe I’ll have that cigar after all,” he said.
“Now come on, Keller,” Dot said. “You know the rules. I can’t tell you that.”
“It’s sort of important,” he said.