Authors: Lawrence Block
By Lawrence Block
Copyright © 2016 by Lawrence Block
Table of Contents
When the salesman asked him his hat size, Keller was stuck for an answer. Some years ago he’d come to New Orleans wearing a Homer Simpson baseball cap, which he’d managed to swap for a Saints cap. Remembering it now, it struck him as curious that a football team would embroider its logo on baseball caps, but he didn’t think it was something he needed to dwell on.
His hat size? Aside from those two baseball caps, neither of which he’d actually picked out and purchased, he couldn’t remember ever having had an actual hat. And baseball caps didn’t come in sizes, did they? Weren’t they all one-size-fits-all, with a little band with holes in it that you loosened or tightened accordingly?
“I’m not sure,” he said.
The salesman, a plump fellow with a mustache trimmed to near-invisibility, cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. “I would say seven and three-eighths,” he said, “and shall we see how close I am?”
He lifted a chocolate-brown fedora from its shelf and presented it to Keller, who placed it on his head. The salesman took hold of the brim, tilted it this way and that way, and stepped back, beaming. “Seven and three-eighths,” he announced. “You could get away with seven and a quarter or seven and a half, but why make do when it’s as easy to have a hat that fits you perfectly? Have a look.”
Keller checked his reflection in the mirror, and there he was, same old Keller, except that he was wearing a hat.
“The classic fedora,” the salesman said. “A true classic with a noble pedigree. The name comes from the title of a play that Victorien Sardou wrote for Sarah Bernhardt in 1882. The divine Sarah played the Princess Fedora and wore a hat quite like yours. And while I don’t doubt she looked spectacular in it, I’d say you’d give her a run for her money. Not everyone can wear a fedora, you know.”
“It takes a certain
je ne sais quoi
,” the man said. “A soupçon of
joie de vivre
. One must be at ease in a fedora, as you are so clearly at ease in yours.”
Oh, brother, Keller thought. He said, “I was thinking gray.”
“The brown does suit you, but let’s have a look, shall we? Light gray or dark gray? But why not try them both?”
The shop, a haberdashery on Canal Street called Peller and Smythe, had both shades in Keller’s size, and he tried them on in turn. “We also have black,” the salesman said, “but if I may venture an opinion—”
“Not black,” Keller said.
“Exactly. We’re not really the black hat type, are we? And a good thing, I have to say.”
“I think the dark gray,” Keller said.
“And I’d say that’s an excellent choice.”
“What do you think?”
“The man who went out for a loaf of bread,” she said, “and came back with a hat.”
“Was I supposed to buy bread?”
“No, it was just something to say. But you’re full of surprises. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wearing a hat.”
“No, probably not. When we’re doing demolition on a job site, Donny and I have a couple of white painter’s caps we’ll put on. Or if we’re painting something, for that matter. But nothing like this. It’s a fedora.”
“Well, I know that.” She adjusted the brim. “You look like somebody I might see in a black-and-white movie on TCM.”
“A private eye?”
“Or a gangster, but you couldn’t look like a gangster.”
“No,” she said. “You’d have to be the good guy.”
N THE MORNING
he had breakfast with Jenny and walked her to school. “I’ll be away for a while,” he told her.
“To buy stamps,” she said.
Most of his trips were to buy stamps, either for his own collection or, increasingly, for resale. This time he hadn’t even packed a pair of tongs, let alone the Scott catalogue he used as a checklist.
“Well, to look at some stamps,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m actually going to buy any.”
He decided on the way home that it bothered him to lie to his daughter, but he couldn’t see a way around it. This would be the first solo trip in a long time that wasn’t philatelic in nature, the first return in a couple of years to a profession he had to keep secret. Julia knew, of course. Julia had known all along, and had even played a role once.
But Jenny knew that he bought and sold stamps, and that he sometimes helped Uncle Donny fix up houses so that they could sell them. That was all she knew, and it would have been inappropriate, not to say upsetting and even dangerous, for her to know more.
Still, it bothered him.
E’D PACKED THE
night before, and by the time he got home Julia had already transferred his bag to the back seat of her Audi. He’d been bareheaded when he walked Jenny to school, but the fedora was on his head when he got into the passenger seat and buckled up.
“Ah,” Julia said. “You bought it for your trip.”
“I don’t know why I bought it. I was planning on leaving it home.”
“You’ve evidently changed your mind.”
“I could still leave it in the car,” he said.
But he didn’t. She dropped him at the Amtrak station on Loyola, and he took off his hat to kiss her goodbye, and then put it back on again.
Inside, with his ticket already purchased in advance and two hours before his train was scheduled to depart, he bought a
and a cup of coffee and skimmed one while he sipped at the other. The coffee was all right—trust New Orleans to have acceptable coffee even in a train station—but the paper didn’t hold his interest, and eventually he drifted back to the newsstand and browsed the rack of paperbacks.
Fully half the titles on display seemed to be by the same two writers, each of whom collaborated with a whole stable of co-writers. Keller wondered what would happen if the two main guys should merge, through some sort of stock swap. They’d be a good bet to lock up every train and airport outlet in America, but could they get away with it? Would they run up against the Sherman Anti-Trust Act?
One book, by neither of the two, caught his eye, because for a half-second he thought it had his picture on the cover. Of course it wasn’t his picture, the guy on the cover didn’t look anything like Keller, but he was wearing Keller’s hat, a dark gray fedora that looked exactly like the one on Keller’s head.
Well, almost. The one on the cover had a bullet hole in the crown, with wisps of smoke suggesting it had been recently bestowed. If the near miss bothered the hat’s wearer, you couldn’t tell it by the expression of grim determination that he wore as easily as he wore the hat.
Call Him Jake
was the book’s title, and the publisher wanted you to know that it was the first volume in the Jake Dagger series. But it was the blurb that made Keller carry the book to the register and pay cash for it.
“He’s a private eye. His life is booze, babes, and bullets.”
The train was the City of New Orleans, and once in a while you still heard Arlo Guthrie’s song about it. It left on time, a little before two, and was due in Chicago at nine the next morning. Keller had booked a roomette, and once he was settled in he took out his book and read a few pages.
Years ago, when he’d lived on the East Side of Manhattan a few blocks from the UN, a job had taken him clear across the country to Wyoming. He’d flown there and back, of course, and the state’s population was lower for his having gone there, but what he remembered best was the book he bought before his flight.
Well, not the book. All he recalled of it was its blurb, and he remembered that much word for word:
“He rode a thousand miles to kill a man he’d never met.”
Hell of a line, he’d thought at the time. And he still thought so, but the one on
Call Him Jake
wasn’t bad, either.
When you took a roomette, you were in the care of a porter, and Keller’s introduced himself shortly after the train left the station. He said, “Mr. Edwards? My name is Ainslie, and I’ll be with you all the way to Chicago,” and went on to tell him about the diner and the café car, and that he’d make up the bed for him when he was ready to retire.
“So I don’t forget you in the morning,” Keller said, and palmed him a twenty. He’d taken enough trains in recent years to get in the habit of giving out his tips early on, so they could do him some good.
ELLER SPENT SOME
of his time with the book, but more of it looking out the window and letting his mind wander. He’d never minded flying, but what you had to go through at airports was a pain in the neck, and meant showing ID and turning up in no end of official records.
That didn’t matter much if he was looking to make some widow an offer for her husband’s stamp collection, but even then it was a nuisance. This trip, though, was a return to an earlier life, and he was literally riding a thousand miles (albeit more comfortably than if he were on horseback) to kill a man he’d never met—a man, in fact, whose name he didn’t even know yet.
And learning that man’s name, and other things about the fellow, would be the first order of business. He’d have to play private detective, and at this point the only thing he had going for him in that department was his hat.
And so, although there was nothing particularly gripping about
Call Him Jake,
he found himself dipping back into the book from time to time. Not for the promise of booze or babes or bullets, none of which held any real appeal for him. But on the chance that he might pick up some tradecraft.
Jenny to the zoo in Audubon Park. “We can’t see Spots,” she said.
“No, we can’t.”
“Because Spots is dead,” she said.
Spots had been the zoo’s astonishingly rare white alligator, one of a clutch of seventeen blue-eyed hatchlings discovered in 1987. Spots had survived for twenty-eight years, which sounded like a long time for an alligator irrespective of its color, but Keller couldn’t be sure of that. What he did know for certain was that Spots had died in September, and his passing had evidently impressed itself upon Jenny, because she’d taken note of it on every zoo visit since then.
“We had a wonderful time,” he told Julia on their return. “Saw some old friends and met some new ones, including an Indonesian babirusa. It’s like a wild pig-dog, with these tusks that curve up and back, and if it doesn’t keep them filed down they’ll grow into its skull and kill it.”
“And not a moment too soon, I would think.”
“Jenny thought it was terrific. She kept saying
over and over, which is how I happen to remember its name.”
“And Spots is still dead.”
“I’m afraid so. I don’t know that she’s upset, but she’s never failed to remark on it.”
“Part of figuring out what death is, I guess.”
“I guess. She wants to know if there’s a stamp with a babirusa on it. I’ll have to do some research.”
“There must be,” she said. “There’s a stamp for everything, isn’t there? Oh, before I forget. Dot called.”
“Don’t tell me she’s in town.”
“No, she called from Sedona. She was sorry to miss you, but even sorrier to miss a chance to talk to Jenny. There was something else she said.”
“She’s been doing Pilates. And she was trying to find something to collect, but everything’s too easy now that there’s eBay. You don’t get the thrill of the chase. But that’s not what I’m supposed to tell you.”
“Though it’s true enough,” he said, “but—”
“I remember. She said she’d been trying to reach your friend Pablo, and wondered if you knew how to get ahold of him. By the time I remembered who Pablo was, the conversation was over.”
“Well,” he said.
He went upstairs and found the Pablo phone in the back of his sock drawer. A while ago, he and Dot had each bought a burner phone, an unregistered prepaid device which they’d sworn to use only to call each other. Along the way she’d taken to calling him Pablo during conversations on that dedicated line, for no reason he could think of, and while that didn’t last, the instrument itself would forever be the Pablo phone.
And, of course, it was every bit as dead as Spots the Alligator. He hooked it up to a charger, and after dinner he called the only number in its memory.
Halfway through the third ring, Dot picked up. “Ah,” she said. “Pablo!”
S THE THING
,” she said. “I know you’re not doing work anymore, and I actually think that’s great. You’ve got a wife and a kid, you’ve got the stamp business, and did Julia tell me you and your buddy are back in the business of flipping houses?”
“In a small way,” he said. “The economy put us out of business, and then it turned around and let us back in.”
“But between the stamps and the houses, and all that dough in the Caymans, you’re in decent shape.”
“That’s what I thought, and I’m glad to hear it. I only called you because there’s nobody else I can call, but so what? I’ll tell him to find somebody else. I’m okay for dough myself, and just because I always want more doesn’t mean I
more, you know?”