"I don't know," I said. "I don't see how much more I can do. I think what I probably should do is apologize for taking up this much of your time and then quit trying to make something out of nothing."

"That's not what it sounded like, something out of nothing."

"No," I said, "it sounds good, what I put together, but what is it besides smoke and mirrors? I certainly haven't got anything I could take to the cops. I still have a few friends on the force, and they'd take the trouble to hear me out, but I can't think of anybody who'd be inclined to reopen the case on the strength of what I've got."

"So you'll just give up?"

"Probably not," I admitted. "I've got a stubborn streak, and time on my hands. The best thing would be if somebody hired me to round up lost relatives for a family reunion. That would give me a good reason to stop poking around in a case that's not going anywhere."

"Is that what you want?" she said. "Because I'll hire you."

She was taken aback when I said she couldn't. Early on she'd sort of assumed that was what I was building toward, and it hadn't taken her long to decide to go along with it. And now that she'd come right out and made the offer, I was turning her down.

"I don't understand," she said. "It's what you do, isn't it? And you've already been doing it, without a client, and not getting paid for it. Now I'm prepared to be your client, and you don't want to take the case."

"You'd be wasting your money, Kristin."

"So? You've been wasting your time. If you can waste your time, why can't I waste my money?"

"I surrendered my private investigator's license," I said.

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"Why would you do that? Did you decide to retire?"

She might as well know; maybe it would help dissuade her. "They were threatening to take it away from me," I said. "I was helping a friend, and I had to cut some corners. That got a few official noses out of joint, especially since the friend I helped is a career criminal."

"Really? A career criminal?"

"Oh, very much so," I said. "A certifiable bad guy."

"But he's your friend."

"Yes."

A light came into her eyes. She said, "There's no conflict of interest here, is there? I mean, your friend's not the third man, is he?"

"He stands about six-four and outweighs your friend Peter," I said, "so I don't think Bierman's shirt would fit him."

"That's reassuring. But I still want to know who killed my parents. If I can't hire you, who should I hire?"

FIFTEEN

I started to tell her she'd have trouble finding anybody to take her case," I told Elaine, "but I stopped myself when I realized it wasn't true. Ray likes to say that there's no case so bad you can't find some lawyer who'll take it, and God knows that's true of private detectives. If you'll write out a check, someone will be happy to accept it."

"And did she write out a check?"

"I told her cash would be better. She gave me a thousand dollars, and I said I'd let her know when that ran out, but that it probably wouldn't unless I got results or incurred heavy expenses. When it's over I'll tell her if I think I have more money coming, and she can pay it or not, depending on how she feels about it. And I gave her an assignment. I told her to go through the articles the police returned to her and see if anything's missing."

"Not because you think some cop took a bracelet home to his wife."

"They generally don't, not in a major murder case. No, I thought the killer might have kept a souvenir. Sometimes they do. What else? I told her not to expect written reports or expense accounts, and suggested that she'd be better off not expecting anything. I wasn't working for her, I said, just doing her a favor, just as she'd be doing me a favor by giving me a gift of a thousand dollars."

"Same as in the old days."

"Pretty much. It was okay for a while there, having a license, being respectable, keeping books and making out bills. But I think I like it better this way."

"Well, it suits you. But that's a pretty small advance, isn't it?"

"I don't know, it strikes me as a pretty handsome gift. Hundred-dollar bills, ten of them."

"Not very much money, though. A thousand dollars."

"There was a time when you could buy a decent car with it, and there'll probably come a time when that's the price of a decent cup of coffee. But right now you're right, it's not very much."

"The work you've already done," she said. "How much would that be worth?"

"Not a red cent," I said. "I didn't have a client."

"If you had."

"I don't know. I put in some hours here and there."

"More than a thousand dollars' worth."

"Maybe."

"It's not as though we need the money," she said.

"No."

"Though we can always find a use for it."

"We always do."

"Matt? You're not going to fall in love with this one, are you?"

"I'm already in love." She didn't say anything, not out loud, anyway, and I said, "No, I'm not going to fall in love with her. She's decent and bright and pretty, and she's forty years younger than I am, and she couldn't be less interested. And, to tell you the truth, neither could I."

"That's interesting," she said. "But let me ask you another question, and you can take all the time you need answering it." She tilted her head, licked her lip, lowered her voice. "Is there anything you could be interested in? Anything you can think of?"

I thought of something.

Later she rolled over and propped herself up on an elbow.

"Thirty-nine," she said.

"On a scale of one to what?"

"Silly man. That wasn't a rating, it was a correction. You're thirty-nine years older than she is, not forty."

"Well, I have tell you," I said. "I feel younger already."

SIXTEEN

He is five feet eleven inches tall, and his weight has remained between 165 and 170 pounds for the last fifteen of his thirty-seven years. That makes him the same height and weight as the late Jason Paul Bierman, but that is less of a coincidence than it might at first appear. It might have been coincidental if circumstances had thrown him and Bierman together first, if their roles in the human drama had preceded his awareness of their superficial resemblance. But no, it was the other way around. He had picked Bierman out of the great sea of humanity, noting his height and weight, his build. Why, he'd thought, they could wear each other's clothes.

(Bierman, appearing in court, charged with trying to sneak under a subway turnstile. Charges dismissed, Bierman leaving the courtroom, looking vague, uncertain. He catches him as he hits the street, takes him by the arm. Bierman cringes, no doubt assuming he's being arrested again. "Mr. Bierman? Jason? Relax, my friend. I think perhaps I can help you." Bierman trying the couch, choosing the chair. Closing his eyes, sharing his hopes and fears. Learning the gospel. "Jason, what do you get?" "You get what you get, Doc.")

And so he'd selected Bierman. Good luck for him. Bad luck for Bierman.

Or was it bad luck? Bierman had been one of life's losers, a man who asked little of life and got less. You never got more than you asked for, he liked to tell people, and there was nothing wrong with asking for all you wanted. You may go to the ocean with a teaspoon or a bucket, he liked to say; the ocean does not care.

Bierman took a teaspoon, and held it out to the ocean- upside-down.

So his life had never amounted to anything, and in death, in addition to serving as a part of a Grand Design (which, to be fair, would have meant precious little to Bierman, even if he'd been aware of it, which he manifestly was not), in addition to that, why, Bierman had achieved in death what he had never achieved in life.

The sad bastard was famous.

He is at his computer now, scanning a newsgroup he has taken to visiting lately, alt.crime.serialkillers. There's been a spirited exchange of posts recently between someone who has an unwholesome amount of information to share about the Green River killer and someone else, similarly well informed, who claims to be the Green River killer. The likelihood that there's any truth in the claim strikes him as somewhere on the low side of infinitesimal, but that doesn't make the posts any less interesting to scan.

And yes, there are some new additions to the string of posts about Bierman. Technically, of course, Bierman is a far cry from a serial killer. Three corpses, all of them slain in a single night and in connection with a single crime, do not a serial killer make. You'd have to knock off unrelated individuals over a span of time, though just how many it takes is a matter of some dispute, and indeed is perennially disputed on alt.crime.serialkillers.

If Bierman's anything, he's a mass murderer, like the disgruntled postal employees who bring an automatic weapon to work and lose it big time. Three, though, is on the thin side. You might need a little more in the way of mass in order to make it as a genuine mass murderer.

(As a matter of fact, Bierman is no killer at all, and probably lived out his brief span without so much as giving anyone a bloody nose, but none of these people know that. They all assume Bierman killed the three victims credited to him, and some of them, mirabile dictu, are willing to add other victims to his string.)

He reads the post, nodding, smiling, shaking his head. The minds of the various members of the newsgroup, revealed in their posts, never fail to fascinate him. Some write with evident admiration of the notorious murderers of our time, comparing the tallies and techniques of Bundy, of Kemper, of Henry Lee Lucas. Others take a strong moral stand, draping it over a fierce desire to punish; they're death penalty enthusiasts, and rejoice whenever it's applied to one of the subjects of newsgroup gossip. And, of course, there are those in both camps who are deliberately striking a pose, playing a part, feigning contempt or admiration for reasons one can only guess.

He never posts. He's tempted sometimes, when he's inspired with just the words to tweak these clowns. But what, really, is the point? He doesn't post, he lurks. To post is human, to lurk divine.

Bierman, he thinks, I've made you immortal. Living, you were a walking dead man. Dead, you live!

His wristwatch, set to beep not on the hour but a precise ten minutes before it, tells him it's 12:50. He reads the last of the Bierman posts, clicks Mark All Read, and signs off. His screensaver comes on, showing a city skyline at night, forever changing as lights go on and off, on and off.

He sits back, stretches. His shirt is unbuttoned at the throat, his tie loose. He reaches under his collar and produces a mottled pink disc an inch and a quarter in diameter, perhaps an eighth of an inch thick, holed in the center. It's stone, rhodochrosite, and cool to the touch, and it hangs around his neck on a thin gold chain. He rubs the smooth stone between his thumb and forefinger, savoring the feel of it.

He tucks it inside his shirt, buttons the top button of his shirt, tightens his tie. He checks the knot in the mirror and it's fine, perfect.

And he can feel the pink stone disc, smooth and cool against his chest…

Time to go to work.

SEVENTEEN

"So we got us a client," T J said. "Damn! We on the clock, Doc."