- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Keller, his hands in his pockets, watched a dark-skinned black man with his shirt off drive for the basket. His shaved head gleamed, and the muscles of his upper back, the traps and lats, bulged as if steroidally enhanced. Another man, wearing a T-shirt but otherwise of the same shade and physique, leapt to block the shot, and the two bodies met in midair. It was a little like ballet, Keller thought, and a little like combat, and the ball kissed off the backboard and dropped through the hoop.
There was no net, just a bare hoop. The playground was at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Third Street, in Greenwich Village, and Keller was one of a handful of spectators standing outside the high chain-link fence, watching idly as ten men, half wearing T-shirts, half bare-chested, played a fiercely competitive game of half-court basketball.
If this were a game at the Garden, the last play would have sent someone to the free-throw line. But there was no ref here to call fouls, and order was maintained in a simpler fashion: Anyone who fouled too frequently was thrown out of the game. It was, Keller felt, an interesting libertarian solution, and he thought it might be worth a try outside the basketball court, but had a feeling it would be tough to make it work.
Keller watcheda few more plays, feeling his spirits sink as he did, yet finding it oddly difficult to tear himself away. He'd had a tooth drilled and filled a few blocks away, by a dentist who had himself played varsity basketball years ago at the University of Kentucky, and had been walking around waiting for the Novocain to wear off so he could grab some lunch, and the basketball game had caught his eye, and here he was. Watching, and being brought down in the process, because basketball always depressed him.
His mouth wasn't numb anymore. He crossed the street, walked two blocks east, turned right on Sullivan Street, left on Bleecker. He considered and rejected restaurants as he walked, knowing he wanted something spicy. If basketball depressed him, highly seasoned food put him right again. He thought it odd, didn't understand it, but knew it worked.
The restaurant he found was Indian, and Keller made sure the waiter got the message. "You tone things down for Westerners," he told the man. "I only look like an American of European ancestry. Inside, I am a man from Sri Lanka."
"You want spicy," the waiter said. "I want very spicy," Keller said. "And then some." The little man beamed. "You wish to sweat." "I wish to suffer." "Leave it to me," the little man said.
The meal was almost too hot to eat. It was nominally a lamb curry, but its ingredients might have been anything. Lamb, beef, dog, duck. Tofu, shoe leather, balsawood. Papier-mache? Plaster of paris? The searing heat of the cayenne obscured everything else. Keller, forcing himself to finish every bite, loved and hated every minute of it. By the time he was done he was drenched in perspiration and felt as if he'd just gone ten rounds with a worthy opponent. He felt, too, a sense of accomplishment and an abiding sense of peace with the world.
Something made him call home to check his answering machine. Two hours later he was on the front porch of the big old house on Taunton Place, sipping a glass of iced tea. Three days after that he was in Indiana.
At the Avis desk at Indy International, Keller turned in the Chevy he'd driven from New York. At the Hertz counter, he picked up the keys to the Ford he'd reserved. He carried his bag to the car, left it in short-term parking, and went back into the airport, remembering to take his bag with him. There was a fellow waiting at baggage claim, wearing the green and gold John Deere cap they'd said he'd be wearing.
"Oh, there you are," the fellow said when Keller approached him. "The bags are just starting to come down." Keller brandished his carry-on, said he hadn't checked anything. "Then I guess you didn't bring a nail clipper," the man said, "or a Swiss Army knife. Never mind a bazooka."
Keller had a Swiss Army knife in his carry-on and a nail clipper in his pocket, attached to his key ring. Since he hadn't flown anywhere, he'd had no problem. As for the other, well, he had never minded a bazooka in his life, and saw no reason to start now.
"Now let's get you squared away," the man said. He was around forty, and lean, except for an incongruous potbelly, as if he'd swallowed a small watermelon. "Quick orientation, drive you around, show you where he lives. We'll take my car, and when we're done, you can drop me off and keep it."
The airport was at the southwest corner of Indianapolis, and the man (who'd flipped the John Deere cap into the backseat of his Hyundai squareback, alongside Keller's carry-on) drove to Carmel, an upscale suburb north of the I-465 beltway. He made a few efforts at conversation, which Keller let wither on the vine, whereupon he gave up and switched on the radio. He kept it tuned to an all-talk station, and right now two opinionated fellows were arguing about the outsourcing of jobs.
Keller thought about turning it off. You're a hit man, brought in at great expense from out of town, and some gofer picks you up and plays the radio, and you turn it off, what's he gonna do? Be impressed and a little intimidated, he thought, but decided it wasn't worth the trouble.
The driver killed the radio himself when they left the interstate and drove through the treelined streets of Carmel. Keller paid close attention now, noting street names and landmarks and taking a good look at the house that was pointed out to him. It was a Dutch Colonial with a mansard roof, he noted, and that tugged at his memory until he remembered a real estate agent in Roseburg, Oregon, who'd shown him through a similar house years ago. Keller had wanted to buy it, to move there. For a few days, anyway, until he came to his senses.
When they were done, the man asked him if there was anything else he wanted to see, and Keller said there wasn't. "Then I'll drive you to my house," the man said, "and you can drop me off."
Keller shook his head. "Drop me at the airport," he said. "Oh, Jesus," the man said. "Is something wrong? Did I say the wrong thing?" Keller looked at him.
"'Cause if you're backing out, I'm gonna get blamed for it. They'll have a goddamn fit. Is it the location? Because, you know, it doesn't have to be at his house. It could be anywhere."
Oh. Keller explained that he didn't want to use the Hyundai, that he'd pick up a car at the airport. He preferred it that way, he said.
Driving back to the airport, the man obviously wanted to ask why Keller wanted his own car, and just as obviously was afraid to say a word. Nor did he play the radio. The silence was a heavy one, but that was okay with Keller.
When they got there, the fellow said he supposed Keller wanted to rent a car. Keller shook his head and directed him to the lot where he'd already stowed the Ford. "Keep going," he said. "Maybe that one ... no, that's the one I want. Stop here." "What are you gonna do?"
"Borrow a car," Keller said. He'd added the key to his key ring, and now he stood alongside the car and made a show of flipping through keys, finally selecting the one they'd given him. He tried it in the door and, unsurprisingly, it worked. He tried it in the ignition, and it worked there, too. He switched off the ignition and went back to the Hyundai for his carry-on, where the driver, wide-eyed, asked him if he was really going to steal that car.
"I'm just borrowing it," he said. "But if the owner reports it-" "I'll be done with it by then." He smiled. "Relax. I do this all the time."
The fellow started to say something, then changed his mind. "Well," he said instead. "Look, do you want a piece?"
Was the man offering him a woman? Or, God forbid, offering to supply sexual favors personally? Keller frowned and then realized the piece in question was a gun. Keller, relieved, shook his head and said he had everything he needed in his carry-on. Amazing the damage you could inflict with a Swiss Army knife and a nail clipper.
"Well," the man said again. "Well, here's something." He reached into his breast pocket and came out with a pair of tickets. "To the Pacers game," he said. "They're playing the Knicks, so I guess you'll be rooting for your homies, huh? Tonight, eight sharp. They're not courtside, but they're damn good seats. You want, I could dig up somebody to go with you, keep you company."
Keller said he'd take care of that himself, and the man didn't seem surprised to hear it.
"He's a witness," Dot had said, "but apparently nobody's thought of sticking him in the Federal Witness Protection Program, but maybe that's because the situation's not federal. Do you have to be involved in a federal case in order to be protected by the federal government?"
Keller wasn't sure, and Dot said it didn't really matter. What mattered was that the witness wasn't in the program, and wasn't hidden at all, and that made it a job for Keller, because the client really didn't want the witness to stand up and testify.
"Or sit down and testify," she said, "which is what they usually do, at least on the television programs I watch. The lawyers stand up, and even walk around some, but the witnesses just sit there."
"What did he witness, do you happen to know?" "You know," she said, "they were pretty vague on that point. The guy I talked to wasn't a principal. He was more like a booking agent. I've worked with him before, when his clients were O.C. guys." "Huh?"
"Organized crime. So he's connected, but this isn't O.C., and my sense is it's not violent."
"But it's going to get that way." "Well, you're not going all the way to Indiana to talk sense into him, are you? What he witnessed, I think it was like corporate shenanigans. What's the matter?"
"Shenanigans," he said. "It's a perfectly good word. What's the matter with shenanigans?" "I just didn't think anybody said it anymore," he said. "That's all."
"Well, maybe they should. God knows they've got occasion to."
"If it's corporate fiddle-faddle," he began, and stopped when she held up a hand.
"Fiddle-faddle? This from a man who has a problem with shenanigans?"
"If it's that sort of thing," he said, "then it actually could be federal, couldn't it?" "I suppose so."
"But he's not in the witness program because they don't think he's in danger."
She nodded. "Stands to reason." "So they probably haven't assigned people to guard him," he said, "and he's probably not taking precautions." "Probably not."
"Should be easy." "It should," she agreed. "So why are you disappointed?" "Disappointed?"
"That's the vibe I'm getting. Are you picking up on something? Like it's really going to be a lot more complicated than it sounds?"
He shook his head. "I think it's going to be easy," he said, "and I hope it is, and I'm not picking up any vibe. And I certainly didn't mean to sound disappointed, because I don't feel disappointed. I can use the money, and besides that, I can use the work. I don't want to go stale."
"So there's no problem." "No. As far as your vibe is concerned, well, I spent the morning at the dentist."
"Say no more. That's enough to depress anybody." "It wasn't, really. But then I was watching some guys play basketball. The Indian food helped, but the mood lingered."
"You're just one big non sequitur, aren't you, Keller?" She held up a hand. "No, don't explain. You'll go to Indianapolis, you lucky man, and your actions will get to speak for themselves."
Keller's motel was a Rodeway Inn at the junction of Interstates 465 and 69, close enough to Carmel but not too close. He signed in with a name that matched his credit card and made up a license plate number for the registration card. In his room, he ran the channels on the TV, then switched off the set. He took a shower, got dressed, turned the TV on, turned it off again.
Then he went to the car and found his way to the Conseco Fieldhouse, where the Indiana Pacers were playing host to the New York Knicks.
The stadium was in the center of the city, but the signage made it easy to get there. A man in a porkpie hat asked him in an undertone if he had any extra tickets, and Keller realized that he did. He took a good look at his tickets for the first time and saw that he had a pair of $96 seats in section 117, wherever that was. He could sell one, but wouldn't that be awkward if the man he sold it to sat beside him? He'd probably be a talker, and Keller didn't want that.
But a moment's observation clarified the situation. The man in the porkpie hat-who had, Keller noted, a face straight out of an OTB parlor, a coulda-woulda-shoulda gambler's face-was doing a little business, buying tickets from people who had too many, selling them to people who had too few. So he wouldn't be sitting next to Keller. Someone else would, but it would be someone he hadn't met, so it would be easy to keep an intimacy barrier in place.
Keller went up to the man in the hat, showed him one of the tickets. The man said, "Fifty bucks," and Keller pointed out that it was a $96 ticket. The man gave him a look, and Keller took the ticket back.
"Jesus," the man said. "What do you want for it, anyway?" "Eighty-five," Keller said, picking the number out of the air. "That's crazy."
"The Pacers and the Knicks? Section 117? I bet I can find somebody who wants it eighty-five dollars' worth." They settled on $75, and Keller pocketed the money and used his other ticket to enter the arena. Then it struck him that he could have unloaded both tickets and had $150 to show for it, and gone straight home, spared the ordeal of a basketball game. But he was already through the turnstile when the thought came to him, and by that point he no longer had a ticket to sell.
He found his seat and sat down to watch the game.
Keller, an only child, was raised by his mother, who he had come to realize in later years was probably mentally ill. He never suspected this at the time, although he was aware that she was different from other people.
She kept a picture of Keller's father in a frame in the living room. The photograph showed a young man in a military uniform, and Keller grew up knowing that his father had been a soldier, a casualty of the war. As a teenager, he'd been employed cleaning out a stockroom, and one of the boxes of obsolete merchandise he'd hauled out had contained picture frames, half of them containing the familiar photograph of his putative father.
It occurred to him that he ought to mention this to his mother. On further thought, he decided not to say anything. He went home and looked at the photo and wondered who his father was. A soldier, he decided, though not this one. Someone passing through, who'd fathered a son and never knew it. And died in battle? Well, a lot of soldiers did. His father might very well have been one of them.
Growing up in a fatherless home with a mother who didn't seem to have any friends or acquaintances was something Keller had been on the point of addressing in therapy, until a problem with his therapist put an end to that experiment. He'd had trouble deciding just how he felt about his mother, but had ultimately come to the conclusion that she was a good woman who'd done a good job of raising him, given her limitations. She was a serviceable cook if not an imaginative one, and he had a hot breakfast every morning and a hot dinner every night. She kept their house clean and taught Keller to be clean about his person. She was detached, and talked more to herself than to him-and, in the afternoons, talked to the characters in her TV soap operas.
She bought him presents at Christmas and on his birthday, usually clothing to replace garments he'd outgrown, but occasionally something more interesting. One year she bought him an Erector set, and he'd proved quite hopeless at following the diagrams in an effort to produce a flatbed railcar or, indeed, anything else. Another year's present was a beginner's stamp collecting kit-a stamp album, a packet of stamps, a pair of tongs to pick them up with, and a supply of hinges for mounting them in the album. The Erector set wound up in the closet, gathering dust, but the stamp album turned out to be the foundation of a lifelong hobby. He'd abandoned it after high school, of course, and the original album was long gone, but Keller had taken up the hobby again as an adult and cheerfully poured much of his spare time and extra cash into it.
Would he have become a stamp collector if not for his mother's gift? Possibly, he thought, but probably not. It was one more reason to thank her.
The Erector set was a good thought that failed, the stamp album an inspiration. The biggest surprise, though, of all the gifts she gave him was neither of these. That would have to be the basketball backboard.
Excerpted from Murder at the Foul Line by Otto Penzler Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 11, 2011
No text was provided for this review.
Posted June 24, 2010
No text was provided for this review.