"I was thinking of making the check payable to his employer."
"That's exactly what I was about to suggest. Not because we don't trust him, but because the canceled check will be proof of payment."
"That's a good point," he said. "I can even say as much to Andy if he takes offense. But to be perfectly frank about it, as far as I'm concerned it's because I don't trust him."
I got out the checkbook and wrote out a check for five thousand dollars payable to Michael Scudder. I looked up his address, addressed an envelope, and folded a sheet of notepaper to wrap the check so that it wouldn't be visible through the envelope. I don't know why, I can't imagine that a lot of postal employees hold envelopes to the light, looking for personal checks they can steal.
And it seemed to me I ought to write something on the sheet of paper. I sat there trying to think of something to say. Everything that came to mind struck me as redundant or foolish or both. I decided to face the fact that I didn't have anything to say to my boy, to either of my boys, and I wrapped the check in the piece of paper and tucked it in the envelope, sealed it and stamped it and held it out and looked at it.
T J was sitting on the couch, turning the pages of an art magazine. He hadn't said a word in a while.
"I'm sending five thousand dollars to my son in California," I said.
He didn't look up from the magazine. "He probably be glad to get it," he said.
"It's not for him. It's for his brother in Tucson. Andy, his name is. He embezzled money from the company he works for and if he doesn't pay it back he'll go to jail."
He didn't say anything
I picked up the envelope, held it in my hand. It didn't weigh much. One stamp would carry it all the way across the country. I said, "I could get the money from the bank, squirt lighter fluid on it and set it on fire. It'd make about as much sense."
"Blood," he said.
"So they tell me. Sometimes I wonder." I got to my feet. "I'm going to drop this in the mail," I said. "You want to wait here?"
He shook his head, closed the magazine, stood up.
I mailed it in the box on the corner, thinking what an act of faith I'd just performed, expecting the post office to transport it three thousand miles and actually deliver it to its intended recipient. Yet it seemed far more likely that the letter would get there than that the check inside would do any good.
We got two Cokes and two slices of Sicilian pizza at the corner of Fifty-eighth and ate our lunch standing up. My Coke tasted cloyingly sweet, and I asked the counterman if he had a wedge of lemon. He gave me one of those little plastic packets of lemon juice, and I decided that would only make things worse. I looked into the glass and said, "Thicker than water."
"So they say."
"You have any family, T J?"
"Not since my gran died."
I knew she'd raised him. He'd said as much once, and that her death was the last time he'd cried.
We finished our slices and looked at each other, and I motioned to the counterman for two more. We worked on them, and T J finished his Coke. I told him he was welcome to the rest of mine, but he didn't want it. We'd both been silent for a while, and not just because we were busy eating.
And then he said, "I could have a daddy. No way to know."
I didn't say anything.
"My mama came home an' had me," he said, "an' then she sickened and died. I don't remember her at all. I wasn't a year old when she passed. Gran told me about her, showed me pictures of her, said how she loved me, which maybe she did an' maybe she didn't. Far as my daddy, my gran said all she knew about him was he was dead. He was killed, she said, but as to whether or not that's true, I couldn't tell you. Gran coulda made that up, or maybe it was what my mama told her, but Mama made it up."
On the sidewalk, a man walked by having a spirited telephone conversation. He didn't have a cell phone, however. The mouthpiece he was half-shouting into was that of the receiver of a pay phone, a foot-long strand of cable still attached to it. I'd seen him before, wearing the same mismatched pants and suit jacket, the pants several inches too short for him, the jacket's sleeves too long. He walked around like that all the time, carrying his private phone, telling whoever was at the other end of it all about the KGB and the CIA and the hidden truth about the Oklahoma City bombing.
Nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to him.
"I'd say he was a black man," T J said. "Bein' as I'm what you could call medium dark. Other hand, my gran was a good measure darker, and my mama, best I recall from the pictures, she was dark like my gran. So my daddy coulda been more on the light-skinned side. But it ain't like mixin' paint. You never too sure what's gonna come out. Could be he was as dark as my gran. Could be he was white. No way to know."
"Could be my mama herself didn't know," he said. "Gran didn't say she was wild, but she was real young, an' I'd guess she was wild. Could be she was a workin' girl, could be I was a trick baby. No way to tell."
Later we were sitting in the park going over what he'd learned in Williamsburg- which, all in all, wasn't much. None of the people he'd seen were physically right for the part of the third man. Kieran Eklund was still possible, but only because he hadn't been ruled out yet.
But you could just about rule him out on the grounds that people who work day and night restoring a neglected house, digging out old mortar, scrubbing bare brick with muriatic acid, scraping walls and sanding floors, are just plain not the type to create elaborate charades leading to multiple homicide. Putting that kind of effort into a house in the shadow of Bushwick Terminal and equidistant from two low-income housing projects might cast doubts on their judgment, but it still made them all extremely unlikely killers.
"And he's not just nuts," I said. "He's calculating. I wish there was money in this."
His eyebrows went up. "Last I heard, we had a client."
"I don't mean money for us. Money for him. Nobody puts something like this together for revenge, or out of bloodlust. The whole thing's too cold. There's got to be a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow."
"That's what Lia thought. You startin' to think she was right?"
"Didn't think so. Only money's the house, right? An' it goes to Kristin, and she our client, so we know she ain't guilty."
I'd had guilty clients in the past, but I didn't have one now. But how did we know the house was the only asset? And how did we know everything went to Kristin?
As before, she checked me out through the peephole before she opened the door. This time, though, I didn't have to show any ID. I introduced T J as my assistant, and he switched to the speech pattern that served him well on the Columbia campus. He was already dressed for the part.
She led us into the kitchen, and we all three took seats at the pine table. At first she was confused at the idea of a monetary motive for her parents' death. That had been the original line of thought, that the incident had been a burglary gone wrong, a burglary that turned spontaneously into something much worse.
But hadn't I explained that the burglary was only there to mask a purposeful murder?
"What I'm wondering," I said, "was if it could have been murder for gain. Who stood to gain financially from the death of your parents?"
"Well, I did," she said without hesitation. "I get pretty much everything."
"If it's all the same to you," I said, "I'm leaving you off the list of suspects."
She managed a smile.
"I assume you inherit the house," I said, "and I know it's a valuable piece of property." I didn't mention that her cousin Lia had already given us a rough appraisal. "Is that essentially the whole of the estate?"
"No, there's more. There's the contents of the house, the furniture, the paintings on the walls. And things like Mom's jewelry. Oh, you asked me to do something and I forgot. You wanted me to look through the goods the police returned and see if there's anything missing, and I just haven't gotten to it yet."
"There's no rush on that."
"I was going to do it, and then it slipped my mind. But there are so many other things in a house this size. I don't have any idea what it's all worth, though I think one or two of the paintings might be fairly valuable. I suppose I'll have to have everything appraised for estate tax purposes. Oh, I'm terrible. There's coffee, and some ginger ale in the fridge, and I think some beer." We said we'd pass, and she said, "Well, I could use some more coffee," and filled a cup for herself.
"Then there's my father's stock holdings," she said. "Well, they owned everything jointly, but he was the one who decided what to buy and sell. And there was also his retirement account. Together it comes to something like one and a half million dollars."
I wrote down: stock- 1.5 mil.
"Plus insurance," she said. "There was a million-dollar policy with my mother as the beneficiary, with me listed as contingency beneficiary, or whatever they call it. And there was another policy through the firm, slightly less, I believe the death benefit is eight hundred thousand. That was supposed to be three-fourths payable to my mother and one-fourth to me, but now it all comes to me. And there was a small policy, a hundred thousand dollars, payable to me. The big policy, the million-dollar policy, has a double indemnity clause in it, so that makes it worth, well, two million."
I wrote down: insurance- 3 mil.
She shook her head. "Credit card balances. They don't amount to much, he paid everything off right away."
"They paid it off years ago. The house is free and clear."
I wrote down: real estate- 3.5 mil.
"And there'll be something from the law firm," she said. "A share of the current cash assets, something. I don't know how it works." She looked at my notes, and I turned the pad so she didn't have to read upside-down. She said, "What is that, eight million dollars? I don't know what the rest adds up to, the artwork and jewelry, or what's coming from the law firm. Or what other assets they might have had that haven't come to light yet. There's a key to a safe-deposit box, but I haven't even gone yet to see what's in it. You have to open it in the presence of someone official. I don't know what's in it." She closed her eyes, and didn't say anything for a while. Then she opened them and said, "So I guess I'm rich."
"Bill Gates and Warren Buffett wouldn't think so. But a lot of other people would."
"I never thought of my parents as rich," she said reflectively. "I knew my father was well established, I knew he made a good living, I knew we were comfortable. But we weren't rich. The house, well, it was just the place we lived. It never used to be worth so much."
"And the stocks were savings, so that they could be comfortable when he retired. They were going to travel, they wanted to go everywhere." She set her jaw, stopped any tears that might have been about to flow. "And the insurance was in case anything happened to him, so that she would be able to maintain the same standard of living. So they really weren't rich. But for me to have all that money at my age- I guess I'm wealthy. Rich. I don't even know what to call it, but that's what I am."