I said I had a few questions about what had happened upstairs.
She said, "You're a cop?" and her face relaxed for a moment, then tightened. "You're not a cop," she said, with such certainty she had me convinced.
"I used to be," I said.
She nodded. "That I can believe. You look like you used to be, but not like you are now. I used to be a teenager. I used to be skinny. What do you want from me, Mr. Used to Be? I wasn't here, I don't know anything, and I already told the whole megillah twenty times."
"Not twenty times," I said.
"So maybe it was nineteen. What can you ask me that nobody asked me already?"
Nothing, as it turned out. I asked and she replied, and I can't say that either of us was enriched by the experience. After a few minutes of this she said, "My turn. Where did you come from?"
"Where did I come from?"
"You don't live in the building, so you came from someplace. I don't mean where were you born, I mean today. Where did you come from?"
"Fifty-seventh Street," I said.
"East? West? Where on Fifty-seventh Street?"
"Fifty-seventh and Ninth."
"What did you take, a cab? The bus?"
"You walked all the way from Fifty-seventh Street and Ninth Avenue to ask me these questions?"
"It's not that far."
"It's not next door. And you didn't call first. What if I didn't come in today? What if I got a headache and went home early?"
"Then I'd have missed this wonderful conversation."
She grinned, but she was not to be sidetracked. "You didn't come all this way," she said, "just to waste your time talking to me."
"Maybe I'm not the only one here who used to be a cop."
"I raised four boys. They wouldn't dare lie to me, but sometimes they would leave something out." She glanced toward the ceiling. "You talk to her yet?"
"And the longer you spend talking to me, the longer it is before you have to go talk to her."
"Your sons didn't get away with much, did they?"
"They turned out okay. I'd tell you all about them, but you already wasted enough time on me. Go see if she'll talk to you."
"She's living here now?"
"It's her home. Where else is she going to live?"
"After what happened- "
"Listen to me," she said. "One day my husband gives me a look. 'I got heartburn,' he said, 'and I bet anything you forgot to buy Gelusil.' And I stalked out of the room, very proud of myself, and I came back with a brand-new box of Gelusil in my hand, the economy size, and he was dead. It wasn't heartburn for a change, it was a massive coronary, and his last words to me were he bet I forgot to buy Gelusil."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said.
"What sorry? You never knew him, you don't even know me. There's a point to this, Mr. Used to Be, and that's that I still live to this day in that apartment. I still have the chair he was in when he dropped dead. What am I going to do, move? Get rid of a perfectly good chair? What do you expect her to do, move out? Sell the house? And look around for a building that nobody ever died in?"
And was she home now?
"You think I keep tabs on her? You want to find out, go ring her bell. You weren't so shy about ringing mine."
Kristin Hollander didn't look as though she'd stepped out of a Kean painting, but then I hadn't expected her to. I'd seen her face in the papers and on television. She was tall, her figure athletic, her dark hair becomingly short. Her blue eyes weren't enormous, but they were large enough, and frank in their appraisal.
I hadn't been able to see them when she took her first look at me, through the peephole in the front door. I'd stood there while she looked me over, then showed her a business card, a driver's license, and a courtesy card from the Detectives' Endowment Association, the last a gift from Joe Durkin. It didn't mean anything, but civilians tend to find it impressive, or at least reassuring. It reassured Kristin enough to open the door.
She led me down a hallway past a darkened room. "The living room," she said, not glancing in that direction. "I don't go there. I'm not ready yet."
There were lights on in the tiled kitchen, where a radio played softly, tuned to an easy-listening station. Two red-painted ladderback chairs with caned seats were drawn up on either side of a pine table. One of them had a Snoopy mug in front of it, half full of coffee, along with a book that had been turned facedown to keep her place. She pointed to the other chair and I took it.
"I hope you don't need milk in your coffee," she said. "I'm afraid there isn't any." I said black was fine, and she brought it to me in another Snoopy mug, this one with a beagle stretched out on top of his doghouse. On her mug he was standing beside his food dish, his ears perked up.
She topped up her own coffee, sat down, marked her place in the book, and closed it and set it aside. "It's a novel," she said, "set in the fourteenth century. I have no idea how historically accurate it is. And what difference does it make? It's not as though I'm likely to remember what I read. Is your coffee all right?"
"I didn't ask you if you wanted sugar."
"I never use it."
"Or artificial sweetener?"
"Well," she said expectantly. "Now what happens?"
"I guess I offer an explanation for coming here and ringing your doorbell."
She nodded, waiting.
"First of all, I should tell you I'm not a police officer. I was for some years, but that was a while ago. I've worked since then as a private detective, but I have no official standing in that capacity, either. I had a license, but I surrendered it a couple of years ago."
"I was at Lincoln Center the night your parents were killed. At the patrons' dinner and at the concert afterward. I didn't know your parents and I didn't meet them that night, but my wife and I were there."
"I've heard from quite a few people who were there that night."
"Maybe that got my attention," I said. "Maybe I've just got too much time on my hands these days. I don't know." I'd leave out her waif-eyed cousin, at least for the time being. "For one reason or another, I found myself conducting an unofficial investigation of my own."
"An investigation of…"
"Your parents' death."
She frowned. "But it was only a couple of days before they found the bodies in Brooklyn, and once that happened there was nothing to investigate."
"That's when I started," I said.
"I'm confused. The case was closed, wasn't it?"
She leaned forward. "You found something, didn't you? What did you find?"
"I went to Brooklyn," I said. "I'd seen the crime scene photos, but I went and saw the crime scene itself, walked through it with one of the investigating officers. I think it was staged."
"What do you mean?"
"The police had to kick the door in because the door was bolted from inside. They found the two men in the bedroom, one shot three times, twice in the torso and once in the head."
"The same way my father was shot."
"And with the same gun. They found the other man in the corner of the same room, dead of an apparently self-inflicted wound. Again, the same gun."
"He shot his partner and then committed suicide."
"That's how it was supposed to look."
"But you don't think that's what happened?"
"No, I don't," I said. "I think someone else killed both of them."
She looked at me, then down at her coffee cup. She said, "Caf and Decaf."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The coffee cups," she said. "One he's wide awake, the other he's zonked out on his doghouse. My father called them Caf and Decaf."
"Not that either cup ever had decaf in it. Both my parents thought of decaffeinated coffee as a crime against nature."
"They wouldn't get an argument from me."
"I've always thought there was something wrong with it. The solution. It was too quick, too easy. But then I'd have to think that, wouldn't I? That there was more to it than showed on the surface, because these were my parents, and I saw them in the morning and the next time I saw them they were dead." She leaned forward. "My reasons are personal, they come from inside me, from my need to believe things happen for a reason. Have you heard of a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People?"
"I've heard of it. I haven't read it."
"Well, you're welcome to a copy. Three different people sent me copies of it, can you believe it? I tried one of them but I didn't get very far. Maybe I should try the other two. But for now I think I'm better off in the fourteenth century. What makes you think the death scene was staged?"
Because it felt wrong, I thought, and maybe she wasn't the only one with a need to believe. But I picked something specific.
"The door was bolted," I said.
"From within, you said."
"With a two-dollar bolt from the hardware store."
"And that means someone outside did it?"
"The bolt was shiny," I said.
"I don't follow you."
"I never saw the bolt," I said, "but the cop I talked to did, and he described it down to the gleam of its brass finish. That meant it was new, because the painters who slap a coat on apartments like that one don't paint around the trim. They never heard of masking tape, they paint over everything- electric cords and outlets, switchplates, hardware, everything. If that bolt had been there when Jason Bierman moved into that apartment, it would have been painted the same washed-out white as the walls and windowsills and ceiling."
"But it wasn't."
"Which means what, exactly?"
"Which means Bierman would have had to buy it himself, and I can't see him doing it. The guy lived in a dump and made zero improvements to the place. He slept on a mattress on the floor. He didn't have anything that anybody might want to steal. Once he'd bought the bolt, he'd have needed tools to attach it. I just can't see him taking the trouble."
She thought about it. "You didn't actually see the bolt," she said. "Maybe the cop just said 'shiny brass bolt' because you think of them that way, even if this particular one was painted. I mean- "
"It hadn't been installed when the place got its last paint job," I said. "I saw where it had been, with the screw holes, and there was no interruption in the paint like you'd get if there'd been something there that was painted over. There had been a bolt there, that's why they had to kick the door in, and it had been installed during Bierman's tenancy."
"And you say he had no reason to install it."
"So someone else installed it."
"I think so, yes."
"Bought it and installed it so that it would look like murder and suicide. But actually you're saying it was two murders."