Richland laughed grandly and clapped his hands. This was a gesture Malloy had seen him perform on TV. Usually when he did it he would say, 'Can I hear an Amen?'
'Don't die easily! My, that's good! He turned to the woman, who was still seated by the window. 'A man after my own heart, Nikki!' Then to explain himself, as if that were necessary, he said, 'Eleven months ago I had three doctors sit me down and tell me there was no way I was going to live another six months, Mr Malloy. You know what I did?'
Richland was not about to have his story interrupted, whether Malloy knew or not. 'I fired them! I took the medicine they were prescribing and poured it down the drain! Then I dropped to my knees and talked to the only One who has any say in the matter!'
Malloy smiled pleasantly, trying to decide how high to jack his fee.
'Nikki, come over here and meet another man who has cheated death!'
The woman stood and walked toward them. She had dressed for business in a dark blue pants suit and white blouse with a string of lustrous grey pearls, but she crossed one foot before the other - as if trained to walk for the pleasure of men. She reminded Malloy of a poisoned liqueur in a crystal decanter. He wondered if their affair had begun shortly before Richland's cancer or if like the angel of death she had shown up after the medical death sentence.
'Dr Nicole North,' Richland offered, 'Mr Thomas Killion Malloy.'
'Pleased,' she said without sincerity. Her voice had just a whisper of Texas in it, but Malloy, who possessed a discerning ear for language and accents, was quite certain it reached back three or four generations.
Richland waved his hand toward the couch and chair in the middle of the room. 'Have a seat!' he said. 'May I get you something? A croissant, coffee, juice? We've already had our breakfast, but I can call for something, if you'd like.'
Malloy had had a late night, and coffee sounded good, but he did not care to put off the meeting while they waited for refreshments. 'I'm fine,' he answered.
'Then let's get down to business, what do you say?'
'You need a painting brought into the States without attending to the usual formalities.'
Richland didn't care for the way he had put this, and for the first time since Malloy had walked into the room the preacher lost his smile. 'It's a bit more complicated than that.'
'Why don't you tell me about it?'
J. W. Richland glanced at Nicole North as if he wanted reassurance before he spoke. That wasn't especially interesting. He was dealing with an experienced intelligence officer, and he knew it. He could reasonably assume Malloy could read a lie almost as easily as he could tell one. What Malloy wanted to know, and what he could not find out by observing the preacher's body language, was whether or not he was serving the same stew to everyone.
'I acquired the painting a number of years ago, when there was not as much concern about. . .'
He looked at Nicole North for help. 'Cultural heritage.'
Richland nodded and repeated the phrase thoughtfully. 'A good thing in theory,' he said, 'but in practice if we went around returning everything we've dug up in the past one hundred years . . . well, you might as well close every museum in the Western world!'
'You think someone might have a legitimate claim to your painting?'
'Legitimacy isn't the issue, Mr Malloy. Any claim, any interference at all, and I won't see my property again.'
Malloy nodded as if he accepted this.
Dr North picked up Malloy's apparent skepticism. 'The painting was discovered at an archaeological site several years ago by my uncle - Jonas Starr.' She waited for a response at the mention of this name, but Malloy didn't react. He had never heard of the man. 'It's a twelfth century painting of Christ.'
'When I saw it,' Richland explained, 'I told Jonas that was exactly the way I had always pictured Christ. Do you know what he did? He handed it to me and said it was mine, just like