She said the line entirely without affect, and I felt a chill.
I said, "Did either of them ever have an affair?"
"I've wondered," she said. "That's disgusting, isn't it? Wondering about your own parents that way. But I guess everybody does. Wonder, I mean. I don't know that everybody has an affair, although I gather most men do at one time or another."
That might have been provocative, flirtatious, if she'd lifted an eyebrow as she said it, or given me a look, or just put something extra into the words. But there was none of that. This wasn't about me, nor was it about the two of us.
"I'm not supposed to know this," she began, and then stopped talking and lowered her eyes to her clasped hands. I waited, and she took a breath and started in again. "My mother had an affair," she said. She spoke softly, and I had to strain to make out the words. "After Sean died. She was seeing someone. I knew it but I didn't know it, do you know what I mean?"
"I didn't know who it was," she said, "and I forgot about it. They were both fine, their marriage was fine, and if I ever thought about it I told myself I was mistaken. And then he died."
"The man who…"
"Yes. I was sitting quietly with a book and they must not have known I was in the room. This man had died, and he lived in Florida, and that's where the funeral was going to be. And my father asked my mother if she would have gone to the funeral if it was in New York. And she said she didn't know, she hadn't seen him in years, and would it bother my father if she went? Because she wouldn't go if he didn't want her to. And he said he didn't know how he would feel, and they both agreed it was all too hypothetical, and they dropped the subject and went into the other room, and they never did realize that I was there."
"And that was the man your mother had the affair with."
"Yes, I'm sure of it. From the whole tone of the conversation. But even if there was somebody else, a jealous husband or a vengeful lover, they'd know him, wouldn't they?"
"My parents. If he was the third man, if he was waiting here for them, they would recognize him. I mean, even if he wore a mask- "
"No, he wouldn't have been wearing a mask."
"Then wouldn't they know who he was?"
"He didn't intend to leave them alive."
"I know that," she said, "but what about his partner? If my parents walk in and my father says, 'Hey, Fred, what are you doing here?' "
"Ivanko would have to wonder," I agreed. "And that's the problem with the notion of the third man being an enemy, or anyone with a personal motive."
"They'd know him."
"Unless the third man was hired for the occasion," I said, and rejected the idea as soon as I'd spoken it. "No, this was no hired hand. It was expert, it was well-planned, but it wasn't professional."
"What's the difference?"
"A pro wouldn't have done anything that elaborate," I explained. "He might have tried to make it look like a burglary, but he wouldn't have brought a helper along, and certainly not an amateur. He'd have broken in, killed your parents the minute they walked into the house, and got out of there. He wouldn't bother setting up a couple of dead men in Brooklyn to take the rap for him, because all he had to do was go home. He'd be sitting in front of his big-screen TV in St. Louis or Sarasota while the police got nowhere investigating the killing."
"So it was someone who knew them," she said, "but someone they didn't know."
"Maybe it was someone you know."
"Is there anyone you could think of?"
"Anyone I know who would want to kill my parents?"
"A boyfriend whose attentions they discouraged," I suggested. "Anybody who might see them as standing in the way of a closer relationship with you."
"I'm not going with anyone," she said. "I haven't really been seeing anybody since Peter and I broke up."
"Peter Meredith. We broke up last fall. I was living with him on East Tenth Street and we were talking about moving to Brooklyn, but we broke up instead."
"He knew some people, artists, who were going to chip in and buy a house in Williamsburg together. The building was a mess, and the idea was that everybody would work on the renovations together. There'd be three couples, and we'd each have a floor to ourselves and share the basement."
"On the order of an urban commune?"
"More like a do-it-yourself condo. I was intrigued at first. The neighborhood put me off a little, but not too much, because you knew it was getting gentrified in a serious way, with a steady stream of new people moving in. And prices were going up, too, so if we waited and tried to do the same thing a year later, well, we wouldn't be able to afford it, not in that neighborhood, anyway. They drew up papers and I brought them for my father to look over, and he said the numbers worked. He had a few minor changes to suggest, just so everything would be spelled out right from a legal standpoint, but he said basically it was all right. If it was what I really wanted to do."
"And it wasn't?"
She shook her head. "It's one thing to live with somebody in a rented apartment, his apartment, and another thing to buy a house together. That was much more of a commitment than I was ready to make. I liked living with him, and we'd have stayed together if it hadn't been for the whole business with the house. The way it worked out, I moved back here and Peter went in with his friends and bought the house."
"You weren't able to keep the apartment yourself?"
"It was his place to begin with. Anyway, I didn't like living there. It was all the way east in Alphabet City, and it's safe there now, not like it used to be, but it's so out of the way that it takes forever to get anywhere. I wanted to get my own place eventually, but why not live at home in the meantime and save up for something nice?"
"Did your parents get on well with Peter?"
"They liked him all right. Mom thought he was a little head-in-the-clouds for me, and I suppose he was, but she liked him. They both liked him."
"And how did he feel about the breakup?"
"Relieved, I think, by the time I finally moved out."
"It took you a while?"
She nodded. "I didn't want to rush into the house in Williamsburg, but I didn't want to rush out of the relationship, either. For a while I thought we could work something out."
"That's the thing, how do you compromise? Like when one person wants to have a child and the other one doesn't. You can't have half a kid."
"We went for couple counseling, and it was an interesting process, but we kept butting up against the same brick wall. He wanted to go in on the house more than he wanted to be with me, and I wasn't ready for that. I said buying a house was something married people did, and he said then let's get married, and I said you don't want to get married, you just want to buy a house, and anyway I don't want to get married, and if I got married I still wouldn't want to buy the house. And by the time we got through pointing this out to each other, well, we didn't really want to be together anymore. When I moved out it was a relief to both of us."
"Still, it had to be emotionally wrenching."
"I suppose so."
"Did he call you? Try to get you to come back to him?"
"No, nothing like that. I honestly think he was more relieved than I was to be out of it. And he was busy, first getting the money together and then moving in and doing all the work. If he missed me at all, that would take his mind off it."
"And if it didn't, well, the other people in the house were all his friends. I'm sure they'd have been happy to fix him up with somebody who'd fit in."
"The way you didn't fit in?"
"You sound like the shrink, the counselor. And I guess I didn't fit in, because they all wanted something and I didn't want it. Anyway, what would I want with a house in Williamsburg? I have a house in Manhattan, all to myself."
Her voice broke on the final phrase, and she turned from me, rising and going to the sink for a glass of water. From the back I saw her shoulders rise and fall, but her sobbing was a silent affair. She drank a whole glass of water, and when she came back her brow was untroubled and her eyes were dry.
She hadn't heard from Peter, or of him, but he'd called after her parents were killed, called to express his sympathy and, like everyone else, asked if there was anything he could do.
"But what could he do? What could anybody do? People always say that, and there's never anything anybody can do."
"Your parents had met him," I said.
"Yes, of course, on quite a few occasions."
"He'd been to this house."
"Many times. Oh, no. I know what you're thinking, and it's impossible."
"You're sure of that?"
"You would be, too," she said, "if you knew him, or even knew anything about him. Peter is just about the gentlest person going. He's a vegetarian, he won't even wear leather shoes."
"Hitler was a vegetarian," I pointed out. Elaine, a vegetarian herself with a closet full of leather shoes, would not have been proud of me.
Kristin didn't seem to notice. "Peter would open windows to let flies out. We had cockroaches on Tenth Street, and he kept trying to find a nonlethal way to get rid of them. He wouldn't let me use glue traps because of the way they suffered, stuck there wiggling their little feelers. It bothered him. Does that sound like the man in your scenario?"
"Not really, no."
"And didn't the third man change clothes with the first person he killed? Didn't he wear his shirt and jeans and get blood on them?"
"I can't swear to it," I said, "but it certainly looks that way."
"The man he killed," she said. "The one who committed suicide. What did he look like?"
"I never saw him. From his picture in the paper- "
"Not his face, I saw the picture myself. I didn't want to look at it, but how could I avoid it? I saw both their pictures. What kind of build did he have, that's what I'm asking."
"Ordinary, medium height, medium build."
"Peter is five-nine," she said, "and weighs two hundred and sixty pounds. Do you think he could have buttoned that shirt, or even gotten it around his shoulders? Or squeezed into those jeans?"
"I haven't seen him in almost a year, so I suppose he could have lost some weight, but…"
"But not that much."
"I don't see how. His weight was something he was working on, but he'd been working on it all his life. Anyway, his shrink thought it was more important to get him to accept himself as he was than to sweat off a few pounds." She smiled gently. "And that was one time I agreed with him. Peter was a very sweet man, a very sexy man. He carried the weight well. But not well enough for him to fit into that man's clothes."
So Peter Meredith wasn't our mystery man, and there weren't any other candidates that I could see. Kristin wanted to know what was next.