"That would do it."
"Well, it coulda been L-E-A-H, but there's some pronounce that Lay-a."
I still couldn't find the waiter, and decided the coffee wasn't good enough to have more even if I could. "The evidence is pretty strong," I said. "No matter how bright your friend is, I'd say the cops got it right this time. Bierman and Ivanov killed her aunt and uncle."
"Ivanko, I mean. I said it wrong again, but I meant Ivanko."
"You heard me say it wrong again, but this time you decided not to correct me."
"You never know," he said. "Detecting don't work out, I might want to go in the diplomatic service."
"So you're practicing. Probably not a bad idea. A little diplomacy never hurts. If she's as smart as you say, she knows they did it, Bierman and his friend."
"Though maybe it's a stretch calling him Bierman's friend, since Bierman wound up punching his ticket. She thinks somebody else was involved."
"Fingered the burglary for Bierman and his friend, set it up to come out the way it did, with both the Hollanders dead. And then took out the two of them and set it up to look like thieves falling out, like murder and suicide."
"She didn't take it that far." He polished off his orange juice, wiped his mouth. He turned his head, and the waiter hurried over with the check, as if he'd been hovering offstage waiting for just that cue. T J left it where the waiter set it down and said, "Lia didn't get into the how. Just the who and the why."
"And what would they be?"
"Be best if she told you herself."
"It's a police case," I said, "and it's closed. I don't see how it's anything for us to mess with."
"But what can it hurt to talk to the girl? Is that what you were going to say?"
"Figured it went without saying."
"It'll be a waste of time. How much do you like this girl?"
"It ain't a romance, if that's what you mean."
"There's no case to take, but if there were, could she afford to hire us? Has she got any money?"
"Don't guess she's swimming in it. Girl's maxed out on student loans."
"This sounds better and better," I said. "A girl with no money wants to hire us to beat a dead horse. She goes to Columbia, that means she's on the Upper West Side. Or does she live with her parents?"
"Be a tough commute. Her mom's in Arizona and her daddy's in Florida."
"And she didn't go home for the summer."
"Stayed for summer session. She's just taking this one course, 'The French Revolution and Napoleon.' "
"And that's where you know her from."
"It's pretty interesting stuff. Those dudes had something, but it got away from 'em. Lia's taking the one course and waiting tables at this fake Irish pub. You know it ain't a real Irish pub 'cause they got food." He took a breath. "She's off today. She's living in student housing, got three roommates. I thought we'd meet her in a coffee shop up on Broadway and a Hundred Twenty-second."
He nodded. "One o'clock's what I told her. We leave now, we be right on time."
"And if I said no?"
"Then I show up alone," he said, "and say how you was tied up lookin' for Judge Crater and the Lindbergh baby."
"But you figured I'd come."
"Thought you might."
"I was going to watch TV," I said. "There's golf and there's a Mets game."
"Tough call, which to watch."
"Either one's better than wasting time in a coffee shop on Upper Broadway." The check was still on the table, and I sighed and reached for it. "I'll get this," I said.
"Figured you would," he said. "Seein' we on a case, you can expense it."
TJ's a street kid I ran into on Forty-second Street some years back, before they went and turned the Deuce into Disney World North. He appointed himself my assistant, and I liked his company enough to put up with him. Then I found out how useful he could be. He's a natural mimic, moving effortlessly from hip-hop jive to the Queen's English, turned out one day in baggy shorts and a Raiders cap and the next in a Brooks Brothers suit.
For a while we didn't know where he lived, and I suspect his beeper number was as close as he came to a permanent address. Then one Christmas I gave him the hotel room I'd occupied ever since I moved out of the house in Syosset. I was married to Elaine by then, and living at the Parc Vendome, but I'd held on to my old room across the street at the Northwestern as a combination office and bolt-hole, and because it was rent-controlled, and nobody in New York gives up a rent-controlled space except at gunpoint. I figured it could go on being my office, but he could live there and run it for me. The other half of his Christmas present was a computer, and he ran that for me, too, pulling information off the Internet as if out of the ether. By now Elaine had a computer of her own, and she and T J e-mailed each other across the street, like two kids with a pair of tin cans and a piece of string. She told me she could teach me how to use the thing in about fifteen minutes. One of these days, I said.
I find things for T J to do, legwork and desk work, and try to keep him out of harm's way. That's usually not hard- my work's not terribly dangerous- but he took a bullet once, and it didn't seem to dull his enthusiasm. He helps Elaine at her shop, where his manner, superior yet deferential, would make you think he trained at Sotheby's. And lately he's been spending a lot of time at Columbia, where he dresses in khakis and polo shirts and just walks into any class that looks as though it might be interesting. You can't do that, not without registering and paying an auditor's fee, but it's a rare professor who's got a clue as to who does or doesn't belong in his classroom, and the few who do catch on are tickled at the thought that someone wants to hear what they have to say even if he's not getting academic credit for it.
Elaine, on learning how he was spending his free time, had offered to pay his way through school. The idea horrified him. Twenty-five, thirty thousand a year so he could sit in the same classrooms and listen to the same lectures? And all so he could parrot it all back to them and wind up with a diploma? Where was the sense in that?
On the way to the subway, I said, "Ivanko or Ivanov, it's really the same name. One's Russian and the other's Ukrainian, but they're both just fancy ways of saying Johnson."
"Why I like this job," he said, "is I be learning something every day."
"Uh-huh. It's Kristin, right?"
"That she figures set the whole thing up. The daughter, her cousin. Kristin. That's who she's looking at, isn't it?"
"Well," he said, "it ain't Jane Austen."
Years ago, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, there were two artists, husband and wife, whose popular success was exceptional, if brief. Their name, if I remember correctly, was Kean. He painted waiflike children with enormous eyes, and she painted waiflike pubescent girls, similarly big-eyed. It seemed to me that her paintings had an erotic element lacking in his, but my judgment may be subjective, and a pedophile might have seen it the other way around.
The Keans had a few spectacular years, with young couples all over the country buying reproductions of their paintings and hanging them in the living rooms and finished basements of their suburban starter homes. Then something happened- Woodstock, maybe, or Altamont, or the Vietnam War- and all the folks who'd been buying the Keans' work and marveling at the way the eyes followed you all around the room suddenly decided the stuff was pure crap, trite and saccharine and mawkishly sentimental.
Down came the Keans, banished to attic crawl spaces, eventually donated to church rummage drives or trotted out for garage sales. The artists disappeared from view. Elaine's guess was that they'd changed their names and started painting sad clowns.
Over the past few years, she'd snapped up every thrift-shop Kean she saw, and we now owned forty or fifty of them, all tucked away in her locker at Manhattan Mini Storage. They'd cost her from five to ten dollars apiece, and she was sure she'd get ten or twenty times that when the time was right.
"Two years into the next Republican administration," she said, "and I'll sell out overnight."
Maybe, maybe not. The point is that Lia Parkman could have modeled for Kean- the wife, the one who painted teenagers. She had the long Modigliani neck, the slim hips, the attenuated fingers, the straight ash-blond hair, the translucent skin, and, inevitably, the enormous eyes. And she had that waif quality, the aching vulnerability that had sold the paintings in the first place and then turned them so cloying in a few years' time.
She was waiting for us in a corner booth at the Salonika, a Greek coffee shop not unlike the one we'd just left. She had a cup of tea in front of her, the tea bag pressed dry in the saucer, a wedge of lemon floating in the cup. There was a book on the table next to her teacup, library-bound, with its title and author and Dewey decimal number stamped on the spine. The Reign of Terror, by Bell. A pair of eyeglasses with perfectly round lenses rested on top of the book.
T J introduced us and slid into the booth opposite her. I sat down next to him. She said, "I tried to call you."
He took his cell phone from his pocket, looked at it, put it back. "Didn't ring," he said.
"I said that wrong," she said. "I didn't actually try to call, because I didn't have your number with me. But I wanted to call."
"Whatever you wanted to say," he pointed out, "you can just tell me, 'cause here I am."
"Well, that's it," she said. "What I wanted was to save you the trip. I made a mistake, T J."
"And now you wish you never said what you did."
She nodded. "I think it was the shock," she said. "And maybe this"- she tapped the book- "had something to do with it. Robespierre, Danton, the Committee of Public Safety. Everybody going crazy and acting out."
"Marat takes a bath," T J said, "and she goes and stabs him."
"Charlotte Corday. Anyway, I was horrified by what happened to Aunt Susan and Uncle Byrne, and I guess I couldn't accept the obvious explanation, that burglars chose their house at random and killed them because they picked the wrong time to come home." Her eyes found mine. "It just seems so arbitrary, Mr. Scudder. You don't want to believe things happen like that, just out of the blue, for no reason at all. But I guess they do, don't they?"
"You were overwrought," I said.
"And shocked, and deeply saddened. So it's not surprising your mind produced an alternate scenario, one in which things happened for a reason."
She was nodding, grateful to me for helping her out.
"Tell me about it," I said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your scenario. Let's hear it."
"But it's ridiculous," she said. She might have said more, but the waitress was hovering. By now I was hungry enough to order a cheeseburger and a cup of coffee. T J said he'd have the same but make it a bacon cheeseburger with a side of fries, and make them all well-done, the burger and the fries both, and instead of the coffee a glass of milk'd be good, or did they happen to have buttermilk? They did, and he said that's what he'd have.