Keller in Des MoinesLawrence Block
Keller in Des Moines
Copyright © 2008, Lawrence Block
All Rights Reserved
Publication History: Hit and Run, HarperCollins, 2008.
Ebook by QA Productions
A Lawrence Block Production
Keller in Des Moines
* * *
Keller drew his pair of tongs from his breast pocket and carefully lifted a stamp from its glassine envelope. It was one of Norway’s endless Posthorn series, worth less than a dollar, but curiously elusive, and missing from his collection. He examined it closely, held it to the light to make sure the paper hadn’t thinned where a hinge had once secured it to an album page, and returned it to the envelope, setting is aside for purchase.
The dealer, a tall and gaunt gentleman whose face was frozen on one side by what he had explained was Bell’s Palsy, gave a one-side-of-the-face chuckle. “One thing I like to see,” he said, “is a man who carries his own tongs with him. Minute I see that, I know I’ve got a serious collector in my shop.”
Keller, who sometimes had his tongs with him and sometimes didn’t, felt it was more a question of memory than seriousness. When he traveled, he always brought along his copy of the Scott Classic Catalog, a large 1100-page volume that listed and illustrated the stamps of the world from the very first issue (Great Britain’s Penny Black, 1840) through the initial century of philately and, in the case of the British Empire, including the last of the George VI issues in 1952. These were the stamps Keller collected, and he used the catalog not only for its information but as a checklist, deliberately circling each stamp’s number in red when he added it to his collection.
The catalog always traveled with him, because there was no way he could shop for stamps without having it at hand. The tongs were useful, but not indispensable; he could always borrow a pair from whoever had stamps to sell him. So it was easy to forget to pack tongs, and you couldn’t just tuck a pair in your pocket at the last minute, or slip them in your carry-on. Not if you were going to get on an airplane, because some clown at Security would confiscate them. Imagine a terrorist with a pair of stamp tongs. Why, he could grab the flight attendant and threaten to pluck her eyebrows…
It was surprising he’d brought the tongs this time, because he’d almost decided against packing the catalog. He’d worked for this particular client once before, on a job that took him to Albuquerque, and he’d never even had time to unpack. In an uncharacteristic excess of caution, he’d booked three different motel rooms, checked into each of them in turn, then wound up rushing the job on an impulse and flying back to New York the same day without sleeping in any of them. If this job went as quickly and smoothly he wouldn’t have time to buy stamps, and who even knew if there were any dealers in Des Moines?
Years ago, when Keller’s boyhood stamp collection rarely set him back more than a dollar or two a week, there would have been plenty of dealers in Des Moines, as there were just about everywhere. The hobby was as strong as ever these days, but the street-level retail stamp shop was on the endangered species list, and conservation was unlikely to save it. The business nowadays was all online or mail order, and the few dealers who still operated stores did so more to attract potential sellers than buyers. People with no knowledge of or interest in stamps would pass their shop every day, and when Uncle Fred died and there was a collection to sell, they’d know where to bring it.
This dealer, James McCue by name, had his store occupying the ground floor front of his home off Douglas Avenue in Urbandale, a suburb whose name struck Keller as oxymoronic. An urban dale? It seemed neither urban nor a dale to Keller, but he figured it was probably a nice enough place to live. McCue’s house was around seventy years old, a frame structure with a bay window and an upstairs porch. The dealer sat at a computer, where Keller figured he probably did the greater portion of his business, and a radio played elevator music at low volume. It was a peaceful room, its manageable clutter somehow comforting, and Keller picked through the rest of the Norway issues and found a couple more he could use.
“How about Sweden?” McCue suggested. “I got some real nice Sweden.”
“I’m strong on Sweden,” Keller said. “At this point the only ones I need are the ones I can’t afford.”
“I know what that’s like. How about numbers one to five?”
“Surprisingly enough, I don’t have them. But then I don’t have the three skilling orange, either.” That stamp, catalogued as number 1a, was an error of color, orange instead of blue-green, and was presumably unique; a specimen had changed hands a few years ago for three million dollars. Or maybe it was euros, Keller couldn’t remember.
“Haven’t got that fellow,” McCue said, “but I’ve got one through five, and the price is right.” And, when Keller raised his eyebrows, he added, “The official reprints. Mint, decent centering, and lightly hinged. Book says they’re worth $375 apiece. Want to have a look?”
He didn’t wait for an answer but sorted through a file box and came up with a stock card holding the five stamps behind a protective sheet of clear plastic.
“Take your time, look ’em over carefully. Nice, aren’t they?”
“You could fill those blank spaces with these and never need to apologize for them.”
And if he ever did acquire the originals, which seemed unlikely, the set of reprints would still deserve a place in his collection. He asked the price.
“Well, I wanted seven-fifty for the set, but I guess I’ll take six hundred. Save me the trouble of shipping ’em.”
“If it was five,” Keller said, “I wouldn’t have to think about it.”
“Go ahead and think it through,” McCue said. “I wouldn’t really care to go lower than six. I can take a credit card, if that makes it easier.”
It made it easier, all right, but Keller wasn’t sure he wanted to take that route. He had an American Express card in his own name, but he hadn’t used his own name at all this trip, and figured he’d just as soon keep it that way. And he had a Visa card he’d used to rent the Nissan Sentra from Hertz, and to register at the Days Inn, and the name on it was Holden Blankenship, which matched the Connecticut driver’s license in his wallet, on which Blankenship’s middle initial was J., which Keller figured would help to distinguish him from all the other Holden Blankenships in the world.
According to Dot, who had a source for credit cards and drivers’ licenses, the license would pass a security check, and the cards would be good for at least a couple of weeks. But sooner or later all the charges would bounce when nobody paid them, and that didn’t bother Keller as far as Hertz and Days Inn and American Airlines were concerned, but the last thing he wanted to do was screw a stamp dealer out of money that was rightfully his. He had a feeling that wouldn’t happen, that the credit card company would be the one to eat the loss, but even so he didn’t like the idea. His hobby was the one area of his life where he got to be completely clean and aboveboard. If he bought the stamps and avoided paying for them, he was essentially stealing them, and it hardly mattered if he was stealing them from James McCue or Visa. He was perfectly comfortable with the notion of having official reprints on the first page of his Swedish issues, but not stolen reprints, or even stolen originals. If he couldn’t come by them honestly, he’d just as soon get along without them.
Dot would have a snappy comeback for that one, he supposed, or at the very least roll her eyes. But he figured most collectors would get the point.
But did he have enough cash?
He didn’t want to check in front of an audience, and asked to use the bathroom, which wasn’t a bad idea anyway, after all the coffee he’d had with breakfast. He counted the bill
s in his wallet and found they came to just under eight hundred dollars, which would leave him with less than two after he bought the stamps.
And he really wanted them.
That was the trouble with stamp collecting. You never ran out of things to want. If he’d collected something else—rocks, say, or old Victrolas, or art—he’d run out of room sooner or later. His one-bedroom apartment was spacious enough by New York’s severe standards, but it wouldn’t take many paintings to fill the available wall space. With stamps, though, he had a set of ten large albums, occupying no more than five running feet of bookshelf space, and he could collect for the rest of his life and spend millions of dollars and never fill them.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t as though he couldn’t afford six hundred dollars for the Swedish reprints, not with the fee he was collecting for the job that had brought him to Des Moines. And McCue’s price was certainly fair. He’d be getting them for a third of catalog, and would have cheerfully paid close to full catalog value for them.
And did it matter if he wound up short of cash? He’d be out of Des Moines in a day or two, three at the most, and aside from buying the occasional newspaper and the odd cup of coffee, what did he need cash for, anyway? Fifty bucks to cover a cab home from the airport? That was about it.
He shifted six hundred dollars from his wallet to his breast pocket and went back to have another look at the stamps. No question, these babies were going home with him. “Suppose I pay cash?” he said. “That get me any kind of a discount?”
“Don’t see much cash anymore,” McCue said, and grinned. One side of his mouth went up while the rest stayed frozen. “Tell you what, we can skip the sales tax, long as you promise not to tell the governor.”
“My lips are sealed.”
“And I’ll throw in those Norway stamps you picked out, though I don’t guess that’ll save you much. They can’t come to more than ten dollars, can they?”
“More like six or seven.”
“Well, that’ll buy you a hamburger, if you don’t want fries with it. Call it an even six hundred and we’re good.”
Keller gave him the money. McCue was counting it while Keller made sure he had all of the stamps he’d bought, tucking them away in an inside jacket pocket, adding the pair of tongs, closing the stamp catalog, when abruptly McCue said, “Oh, holy hell! Hold everything.”
Were the bills counterfeit? He froze, wondering what was the matter, but McCue was on his feet, walking over to the radio, turning up the volume. The music had stopped and an agitated announcer was interrupting with a news bulletin.
“Holy hell,” McCue said again. “We’re in for it now.”
Dot must have been sitting right next to the phone. She picked it up halfway through the first ring and said, “That wasn’t you, was it?”
“Of course not.”
“I didn’t think so. The picture they showed on CNN didn’t look much like the one they sent us.”
It made him nervous, talking like this on a cell phone. The technology kept improving, to the point where you had to take it for granted that there was a record somewhere of every call you made, and that the authorities could access the information in a heartbeat. If you used a cell phone, they could pinpoint the location of it when you made the call. They kept building better mousetraps, and the mice had to be correspondingly more resourceful. Lately, whenever he had a job, he would buy two prepaid cell phones for cash from a store on West Twenty-third Street, making up a name and address for their records. He’d give one to Dot and keep the other for himself, and the only calls either would make was to the other. He’d called a few days ago, to report his arrival in Des Moines, and he’d called again earlier that morning to say that they’d told him to wait at least one more day, although he could have hit the guy and been on his way home by now.
And he was calling now because someone had just killed the governor of Ohio. Which would have been noteworthy under any circumstances, given that John Tatum Longford, the best OSU running back since Archie Griffin, who’d gone to law school after he blew out his knee in his one pro season with the Bengals, was personable and charismatic and the first black governor ever to grace the statehouse in Columbus. But Governor Longford had not been in Columbus when a well-placed bullet blew out more than his knee, had not in fact been anywhere in Ohio. The man was a hot presidential prospect, and Iowa was one of those important early states, and the night before Longford had been in Ames, addressing a group of students and faculty at Iowa State University. From there the Governor and his party had driven down to Des Moines, where he’d spent the night at Terrace Hill as the guest of the governor of Iowa. At 10:30 the next morning he’d appeared onstage at a high school auditorium, and around noon he’d shown up to address a Rotary luncheon. Then the gunshot, and the race to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
“My guy’s white,” he told Dot. “And short and fat, like the photograph.”
“It was a headshot, wasn’t it? I mean the photograph, not what happened just now. So you couldn’t really tell that he was short. Or fat, as far as that goes.”
“He was jowly.”
“And you could certainly tell he was white.”
“No argument there. The man was white as the ace of clouds.”
“Never mind. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I saw my guy just yesterday morning, I was almost close enough to spit on him.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“What I’m getting at is that I could have done the job and been home by now. I almost did it anyway, Dot. With the gun or with my hands. I was supposed to wait but I thought, hell, why wait? They’d have been pissed but I’d have been out of here, and instead I’m in the middle of a manhunt for a killer they haven’t identified yet. Unless there’s been something on the news in the last few minutes?”
“I’ve got the set on,” she said, “and there hasn’t. Maybe you should just come home.”
“I was thinking of that. But when you think what airport security is going to be like around here—”
“No, don’t even try. You’ve got a rental, right? You could drive to, I don’t know, Chicago? And catch a flight there.”
“Or just drive all the way. Whatever you’re more comfortable with.”
“You don’t think they’ll have road blocks set up?”
“I didn’t think of that.”
“Of course I didn’t do anything, but the ID’s fake, and just attracting any attention—”
“Is not the greatest idea in the world.”
He took a moment, thought about it. “You know,” he said, “the son of a bitch who did this, they’ll probably catch him in a matter of hours. My guess is he’ll be killed resisting arrest.”
“Which will save somebody the trouble of sending a latter-day Jack Ruby to take him out.”
“You asked if this was my doing.”
“I really knew it wasn’t.”
“Of course not,” he said, “because you know I’d never touch anything like this. High-profile stuff, it doesn’t matter how much they pay, because you don’t live long enough to spend it. If the cops don’t kill you your employers will, because it’s not safe to leave you around. You know what I’m going to do?”
“Sit tight,” he said.
“And wait for it to blow over.”
“Or burn itself out, or something. It shouldn’t take too long. A few days and either they catch the guy or they know he got away from them, and people stop giving a rat’s ass about what’s happening in Des Moines.”
“And then you can come home.”
“I could even do the job, as far as that goes. Or not. Right now it wouldn’t bother me to give the money back.”
“For perhaps the first time in my life,” Dot said, “I feel that way myself. Still, all things being equal—”
p; “Whatever that means.”
“I’ve often wondered myself. It does get a sentence started, though. All things being equal, I’d just as soon keep the money. And it’s the last job.”
“That’s what we said,” he said, “about the job before this one.”
“But then this one came along.”
“It was a special situation.”
“You know, if it really bothered you, you should have said something.”
“It didn’t really bother me until a few minutes ago,” he said, “when the radio switched from ‘The Girl With Emphysema’ to ‘This Just In.’ ”
“ ‘The Girl From Ipanema,’ Keller.”
“That’s what I said.”
“You said ‘The Girl With Emphysema.’ ”
“Are you sure?”
“Because why would I say that?”
“Never mind, for God’s sake.”
“It just doesn’t sound like something I would say.”
“Call it a slip of the ear, Keller, if that makes you happy. We’re both a little rattled, and who can blame us? Go back to your room and wait this out.”
“And if anything comes up—”
“I’ll let you know,” he said.
He closed the phone. He was sitting behind the wheel of the rented Nissan, parked at the first strip mall he’d come to since leaving McCue’s place. His new stamps were in an envelope in one pocket, his tongs in another, and his Scott catalog was on the seat beside him. He was still holding the cell phone, and he had no sooner put it in a pocket than he changed his mind and took it out again. He opened it and was looking for the Redial button when it rang. The Caller ID screen was blank, but there was only one person it could be.
He answered it and said, “I was just about to call you.”
“Because you had the same thought I did.”