- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Lawrence Block, in Keller by a Nose," asks what obsession holds more hazards than betting on the ponies. The answer will surprise you...Max Allan Collins's "That Kind of Nag" proves that it's bad to play the wrong horse, but worse to pick the wrong woman..."The Great, the Good and the Not-So-Good" by H.R.F. Keating warns against old English ladies at the racecourse...Joyce Carol Oates shows how a young woman teams to trust a prize stallion more than her violent lover in "Meadowlands"...and Scott Wolven's ...
Lawrence Block, in Keller by a Nose," asks what obsession holds more hazards than betting on the ponies. The answer will surprise you...Max Allan Collins's "That Kind of Nag" proves that it's bad to play the wrong horse, but worse to pick the wrong woman..."The Great, the Good and the Not-So-Good" by H.R.F. Keating warns against old English ladies at the racecourse...Joyce Carol Oates shows how a young woman teams to trust a prize stallion more than her violent lover in "Meadowlands"...and Scott Wolven's "Pinwheel" offers a Japanese lesson in flying horses and honor among thieves."—BOOK JACKET.
So who do you like in the third?" Keller had to hear the question a second time before he realized it was meant for him. He turned, and a little guy in a Mets warm-up jacket was standing there, a querulous expression on his lumpy face.
Who did he like in the third? He hadn't been paying any attention, and was stuck for a response. This didn't seem to bother the guy, who answered the question himself.
"The Two horse is odds-on, so you can't make any money betting on him. And the Five horse might have an outside chance, but he never finished well on turf. The Three, he's okay at five furlongs, but at this distance? So I got to say I agree with you."
Keller hadn't said a word. What was there to agree with?
"You're like me," the fellow went on. "Not like one of these degenerates, has to bet every race, can't go five minutes without some action. Me, sometimes I'll come here, spend the whole day, not put two dollars down the whole time. I just like to breathe some fresh air and watch those babies run."
Keller, who hadn't intended to say anything, couldn't help himself. He said, "Fresh air?"
"Sincethey gave the smokers a room of their own," the little man said, "it's not so bad in here. Excuse me, I see somebody I oughta say hello to."
He walked off, and the next time Keller noticed him the guy was at the ticket window, placing a bet. Fresh air, Keller thought. Watch those babies run. It sounded good, until you took note of the fact that those babies were out at Belmont, running around a track in the open air, while Keller and the little man and sixty or eighty other people were jammed into a midtown storefront, watching the whole thing on television.
Keller, holding a copy of the Racing Form, looked warily around the OTB parlor. It was on Lexington at Forty-fifth Street, just up from Grand Central, and not much more than a five-minute walk from his First Avenue apartment, but this was his first visit. In fact, as far as he could tell, it was the first time he had ever noticed the place. He must have walked past it hundreds if not thousands of times over the years, but he'd somehow never registered it, which showed the extent of his interest in off-track betting.
Or on-track betting, or any betting at all. Keller had been to the track three times in his entire life. The first time he'd placed a couple of small bets-two dollars here, five dollars there. His horses had run out of the money, and he'd felt stupid. The other times he hadn't even put a bet down.
He'd been to gambling casinos on several occasions, generally work related, and he'd never felt comfortable there. It was clear that a lot of people found the atmosphere exciting, but as far as Keller was concerned it was just sensory overload. All that noise, all those flashing lights, all those people chasing all that money. Keller, feeding a slot machine or playing a hand of blackjack to fit in, just wanted to go to his room and lie down.
Well, he thought, people were different. A lot of them clearly got something out of gambling. What some of them got, to be sure, was the attention of Keller or somebody like him. They'd lost money they couldn't pay, or stolen money to gamble with, or had found some other way to make somebody seriously unhappy with them. Enter Keller, and, sooner rather than later, exit the gambler.
For most gamblers, though, it was a hobby, a harmless pastime. And, just because Keller couldn't figure out what they got out of it, that didn't mean there was nothing there. Keller, looking around the OTB parlor at all those woulda-coulda-shoulda faces, knew there was nothing feigned about their enthusiasm. They were really into it, whatever it was.
And, he thought, who was he to say their enthusiasm was misplaced? One man's meat, after all, was another man's poisson. These fellows, all wrapped up in Racing Form gibberish, would be hard put to make sense out of his Scott catalog. If they caught a glimpse of Keller, hunched over one of his stamp albums, a magnifying glass in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other, they'd most likely figure he was out of his mind. Why play with little bits of perforated paper when you could bet money on horses?
And so they were. Keller looked at the wall-mounted television screen and watched those babies run.
It started with stamps.
He collected worldwide, from the first postage stamp, Great Britain's Penny Black and Two-Penny Blue of 1840, up to shortly after the end of World War II. (Just when he stopped depended upon the country. He collected most countries through 1949, but his British Empire issues stopped at 1952, with the death of George VI. The most recent stamp in his collection was over fifty years old.)
When you collected the whole world, your albums held spaces for many more stamps than you would ever be able to acquire. Keller knew he would never completely fill any of his albums, and he found this not frustrating but comforting. No matter how long he lived or how much money he got, he would always have more stamps to look for. You tried to fill in the spaces, of course-that was the point-but it was the trying that brought you pleasure, not the accomplishment.
Consequently, he never absolutely had to have any particular stamp. He shopped carefully, and he chose the stamps he liked, and he didn't spend more than he could afford. He'd saved money over the years, he'd even reached a point where he'd been thinking about retiring, but when he got back into stamp collecting, his hobby gradually ate up his retirement fund-which, all things considered, was fine with him. Why would he want to retire? If he retired, he'd have to stop buying stamps.
As it was, he was in a perfect position. He was never desperate for money, but he could always find a use for it. If Dot came up with a whole string of jobs for him, he wound up putting a big chunk of the proceeds into his stamp collection. If business slowed down, no problem-he'd make small purchases from the dealers who shipped him stamps on approval, send some small checks to others who mailed him their monthly lists, but hold off on anything substantial until business picked up.
It worked fine. Until the Bulger & Calthorpe auction catalog came along and complicated everything.
Bulger & Calthorpe were stamp auctioneers based in Omaha. They advertised regularly in Linn's and the other stamp publications, and traveled extensively to examine collectors' holdings. Three or four times a year they would rent a hotel suite in downtown Omaha and hold an auction, and for a few years now Keller had been receiving their well-illustrated catalogs. Their catalog featured an extensive collection of France and French colonies, and Keller leafed through it on the off-chance that he might find himself in Omaha around that time. He was thinking of something else when he hit the first page of color photographs, and whatever it was he forgot it forever.
Martinique #2. And, right next to it, Martinique #17.
On the screen, the Two horse led wire to wire, winning by four and a half lengths. "Look at that," the little man said, once again at Keller's elbow. "What did I tell you? Pays three-fucking-forty for a two-dollar ticket. Where's the sense in that?"
"Did you bet him?"
"I didn't bet on him," the man said, "and I didn't bet against him. What I had, I had the Eight horse to place, which is nothing but a case of getting greedy, because look what he did, will you? He came in third, right behind the Five horse, so if I bet him to show, or if I semi-wheeled the Trifecta, playing a Two-Five-Eight and a Two-Eight-Five ..."
Woulda-coulda-shoulda, thought Keller.
He'd spent half an hour with the Bulger & Calthorpe catalog, reading the descriptions of the two Martinique lots, seeing what else was on offer, and returning more than once for a further look at Martinique #2 and Martinique #17. He interrupted himself to check the balance in his bank account, frowned, pulled out the album that ran from Leeward Islands to Netherlands, opened it to Martinique, and looked first at the couple hundred stamps he had and then at the two empty spaces, spaces designed to hold-what else?-Martinique #2 and Martinique #17.
He closed the album but didn't put it away, not yet, and he picked up the phone and called Dot.
"I was wondering," he said, "if anything came in."
"Like what, Keller?"
"Like work," he said.
"Was your phone off the hook?"
"No," he said. "Did you try to call me?"
"If I had," she said, "I'd have reached you, since your phone wasn't off the hook. And if a job came in I'd have called, the way I always do. But instead you called me."
"Which leads me to wonder why."
"I could use the work," he said. "That's all."
"You worked when? A month ago?"
"Closer to two."
"You took a little trip, went like clockwork, smooth as silk. Client paid me and I paid you, and if that's not silken clockwork I don't know what is. Say, is there a new woman in the picture, Keller? Are you spending serious money on earrings again?"
"Nothing like that."
"Then why would you ... Keller, it's stamps, isn't it?"
"I could use a few dollars," he said. "That's all."
"So you decided to be proactive and call me. Well, I'd be proactive myself, but who am I gonna call? We can't go looking for our kind of work, Keller. It has to come to us."
"I know that."
"We ran an ad once, remember? And remember how it worked out?" He remembered, and made a face. "So we'll wait," she said, "until something comes along. You want to help it a little on a metaphysical level, try thinking proactive thoughts."
There was a horse in the fourth race named Going Postal. That didn't have anything to do with stamps, Keller knew, but was a reference to the propensity of disgruntled postal employees to exercise their Second Amendment rights by bringing a gun to work, often with dramatic results. Still, the name was guaranteed to catch the eye of a philatelist.
"What about the Six horse?" Keller asked the little man, who consulted in turn the Racing Form and the tote board on the television.
"Finished in the money three times in his last five starts," he reported, "but now he's moving up in class. Likes to come from behind, and there's early speed here, because the Two horse and the Five horse both like to get out in front." There was more that Keller couldn't follow, and then the man said, "Morning line had him at twelve-to-one, and he's up to eighteen-to-one now, so the good news is he'll pay a nice price, but the bad news is nobody thinks he's got much of a chance."
Keller got in line. When it was his turn, he bet two dollars on Going Postal to win.
Keller didn't know much about Martinique beyond the fact that it was a French possession in the West Indies, and he knew the postal authorities had stopped issuing special stamps for the place a while ago. It was now officially a department of France, and used regular French stamps. The French did that to avoid being called colonialists. By designating Martinique a part of France, the same as Normandy or Provence, they obscured the fact that the island was full of black people who worked in the fields, fields that were owned by white people who lived in Paris.
Keller had never been to Martinique-or to France, as far as that went-and had no special interest in the place. It was a funny thing about stamps; you didn't need to be interested in a country to be interested in the country's stamps. And he couldn't say what was so special about the stamps of Martinique, except that one way or another he had accumulated quite a few of them, and that made him seek out more, and now, remarkably, he had all but two.
The two he lacked were among the colony's first issues, created by surcharging stamps originally printed for general use in France's overseas empire. The first, #2 in the Scott catalog, was a twenty-centime stamp surcharged "MARTINIQUE" and "5c" in black. The second, #17, was similar: "MARTINIQUE / 15c" on a four-centime stamp.
According to the catalog, #17 was worth $7,500 mint, $7,000 used. #2 was listed at $11,000, mint or used. The listings were in italics, which was the catalog's way of indicating that the value was difficult to determine precisely.
Keller bought most of his stamps at around half the Scott valuation. Stamps with defects went much cheaper, and stamps that were particularly fresh and well centered could command a premium. With a true rarity, however, at a well-publicized auction, it was very hard to guess what price might be realized. Bulger & Calthorpe described #2-it was lot #2144 in their sales catalog-as "mint with part OG, F-VF, the nicest specimen we've seen of this genuine rarity." The description of #17-lot #2153-was almost as glowing. Both stamps were accompanied by Philatelic Foundation certificates attesting that they were indeed what they purported to be. The auctioneers estimated that #2 would bring $15,000, and pegged the other at $10,000.
But those were just estimates. They might wind up selling for quite a bit less, or a good deal more.
Keller wanted them.
Going Postal got off to a slow start, but Keller knew that was to be expected. The horse liked to come from behind. And in fact he did rally, and was running third at one point, fading in the stretch and finishing seventh in a field of nine. As the little man had predicted, the Two and Five horses had both gone out in front, and had both been overtaken, though not by Going Postal. The winner, a dappled horse named Doggen Katz, paid $19.20.
"Son of a bitch," the little man said. "I almost had him. The only thing I did wrong was decide to bet on a different horse."
What he needed, Keller decided, was fifty thousand dollars. That way he could go as high as twenty-five for #2 and fifteen for #17 and, after buyer's commission, still have a few dollars left for expenses and other stamps.
Was he out of his mind? How could a little piece of perforated paper less than an inch square be worth $25,000? How could two of them be worth a man's life?
He thought about it and decided it was just a question of degree. Unless you planned to use it to mail a letter, any expenditure for a stamp was basically irrational. If you could swallow a gnat, why gag at a camel? A hobby, he suspected, was irrational by definition. As long as you kept it in proportion, you were all right.
And he was managing that. He could, if he wanted, mortgage his apartment. Bankers would stand in line to lend him fifty grand, since the apartment was worth ten times that figure. They wouldn't ask him what he wanted the money for, either, and he'd be free to spend every dime of it on the two Martinique stamps.
He didn't consider it, not for a moment. It would be nuts, and he knew it. But what he did with a windfall was something else, and it didn't matter, anyway, because there wasn't going to be any windfall. You didn't need a weatherman, he thought, to note that the wind was not blowing. There was no wind, and there would be no windfall, and someone else could mount the Martinique overprints in his album. It was a shame, but-
The phone rang.
Dot said, "Keller, I just made a pitcher of iced tea. Why don't you come up here and help me drink it?"
In the fifth race, there was a horse named Happy Trigger and another named Hit the Boss. If Going Postal had resonated with his hobby, these seemed to suggest his profession. He mentioned them to the little fellow. "I sort of like these two," he said. "But I don't know which one I like better."
"Wheel them," the man said, and explained that Keller should buy two Exacta tickets, Four-Seven and Seven-Four. That way Keller would only collect if the two horses finished first and second. But, since the tote board indicated long odds on each of them, the potential payoff was a big one.
"What would I have to bet?" Keller asked him. "Four dollars? Because I've only been betting two dollars a race."
"You want to keep it to two dollars," his friend said, "just bet it one way. Thing is, how are you going to feel if you bet the Four-Seven and they finish Seven-Four?"
"It's right up your alley," Dot told him. "Comes through another broker, so there's a good solid firewall between us and the client. And the broker's reliable, and if the client was a corporate bond he'd be rated triple-A."
"What's the catch?"
"Keller," she said, "what makes you think there's a catch?"
"I don't know," he said. "But there is, isn't there?"
Excerpted from Murder at the Racetrack by Otto Penzler Copyright © 2006 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.
|Keller by a Nose||1|
|The Return of the thin White Dude ... Screaming||25|
|Yellow Mama's Long Weekend||111|
|That Kind of Nag||134|
|The Great the Good and the Not-So-Good||210|
|The Cover Story Is Always a Lie||227|
|The Long Shot||282|