He never gains an ounce, either.
Lia started to say she was fine with the tea, then changed her mind and ordered the spinach pie, the appetizer, though, not the full dinner. The waitress left and she picked up her teacup and looked at it and put it down again.
"It's ridiculous," I prompted.
"Oh. Well, it really is. I don't think I should even say it out loud."
"Because it's not fair even to think such things, and saying them is worse."
"On the other hand," I said, "we came all the way uptown, and there's food coming, so we'll be here awhile. And we might as well talk about something."
"I wanted to call you- "
"But you didn't," T J said, "and even if you did, we probably would have come anyway."
This surprised her. "Why?"
"To make sure it was what you really wanted," I said, "and that nobody was holding a gun to your head."
"You think- "
"I don't think anything. I'd have come uptown to get some idea what to think. That's generally worth an hour and a couple of subway tokens. But it's beside the point, because you weren't able to call us and here we are, and we might as well cut to the chase. You think your cousin set up your aunt and uncle."
"But I don't think that. I told you- "
"I know. You don't think it, but you did, even if you'd like to pretend you didn't. It's just a thought, Lia. Best thing you can do with it is bring it out into the open."
"Otherwise it'll go bad," T J said.
She took a breath and nodded and picked up her teacup, and this time she drank from it before setting it back in its saucer. "She inherits everything," she said.
She nodded. "That was the first thing I thought of. Not 'Poor Kristin, she's an orphan, she's alone in the world.' The first thing I thought was she's a rich girl now."
"I don't know. But even if all there is is the house, it's worth a fortune. A brownstone in the Seventies? There was one somebody was talking about the other day, West Eighty-fourth Street I think it was, and they were asking two-point-six. I don't know, maybe that's not a fortune anymore, maybe it's pocket change if you're one of the dot-com people, but it still seems like a lot of money to me."
"Could be mortgaged," I said.
"Uncle Byrne said it was free and clear. He was proud of that, how they'd paid the house off years ago, and now it was worth so much money. He said how much better an investment it turned out to be than any of his stocks, so that means there must be stocks, too, don't you think?"
"But not very good ones."
"Still, they'd have to be worth something, wouldn't they?"
"And I'm sure there was insurance. And there were the things they owned, Aunt Susan's jewelry, the silverware, the paintings. They took the jewelry and silver, but it was recovered, wasn't it?"
"I believe so."
"And what wasn't would be covered by insurance. Oh, God, what's the matter with me, sitting here adding up their assets in my head like, I don't know, a vulture or something. I mean, they're dead. What difference does the money make? It's not as if they got to keep it. They were murdered, they're dead."
There was a silence, and it lasted awhile because the waitress turned up with the food. T J picked up a french fry and made a face at it, indicating it wasn't as well-done as he'd hoped, but he didn't send anything back, or leave anything on his plate, so I guess it wasn't too bad. My cheeseburger tasted fine, and the coffee was better than the Morning Star's.
Lia took one bite of her square of spinach pie and put her fork down. "I envied her," she said abruptly. "Kristin. That's what it was. I envied her when they were alive, having two wonderful parents who loved her and loved each other. My parents- no, forget it, I don't want to go there."
"Uncle Byrne and Aunt Susan kept inviting me over for dinner. I begged off about half the time because I didn't want to take advantage. And I couldn't help feeling like a poor relation, which I was right to feel, really, because that's what I was. I'm on scholarship, otherwise I couldn't afford Columbia in a million years, and even with a scholarship it's not easy."
Her hands were busy as she talked, gesturing, touching her hair, brushing away imaginary crumbs. When her nails caught the light I saw she was wearing colorless nail polish on them. I decided she was painstaking enough to protect her nails but disinclined to embellish them. She wasn't wearing lipstick, and I wondered if she'd used colorless lip gloss. Was there a pattern here, and what could I make of it?
"You envied Kristin," I prompted.
"When they were alive. And when I heard what happened, after the initial shock wore off, or maybe it hadn't worn off, not really- " She paused for breath, looked away, then met my eyes. "I thought, well, now she's rich. And I envied her all over again."
"And you figure that makes you a horrible person."
"I don't think it makes me a candidate for sainthood. Do you?"
"I haven't met a lot of saints," I said, "but then I've lived a sheltered life. I don't think less of you for envying your cousin, before or after the murder, and I certainly don't think less of you for owning up to it. But what I think of you isn't very important, either. How do you feel?"
"How do I feel?"
She frowned, thinking about it. "I feel okay," she said, surprised.
"Good. How'd you get from envy to suspicion?"
"From envy to- oh, right. Suspicion's an overstatement, really. I wouldn't call it suspicion."
"We'll find something else to call it. How'd you get there?"
"The burglar alarm," she said.
"They had a burglar alarm?"
"And it didn't go off."
"Maybe they forgot to set it."
"That's what it said in the papers, that they owned a burglar alarm but neglected to set it that night. But they always set it. They had a break-in the first year they owned the house, someone came in through a window and took some cash and a portable TV, and after that they got the alarm system. It was connected to the front door and to all the windows on the first floor, and the store downstairs from them had its own alarm system, and that was set, too."
"Maybe they just set it most of the time."
She was shaking her head. "Both of them, Aunt Susan and Uncle Byrne, they would set it before they went down to the corner to mail a letter. It was automatic. On their way out they would key in the number to set it, and the minute they walked in the door they keyed it in again to turn it off. They'd been doing it for twenty years. They wouldn't suddenly quit and get robbed the same night."
"If the keypad was by the front door- "
"It wasn't. It was inside the coat closet."
"That's better," I said, "but it's still the first place a burglar would look."
"Why would he look anywhere?" T J wondered, and answered his own question. "The metal tape on the windows. Tip 'em off in a heartbeat."
"Tape on a window doesn't mean there's an alarm system, or that it's set," I said. "But if I was breaking into a house it would be enough to make me take a quick look around. I might do that even if I didn't see tape on the windows. Especially if I spent a little time checking the place out first, in which case I might have known about the alarm system before I got anywhere near the front door."
Lia said, "But they'd need more than that, wouldn't they? There's a four-digit number you have to enter in order to deactivate the alarm."
"There are other ways," I said, "if you happen to know them. You can rewire the system and bypass the alarm. But that would show up later on. What was the number, do you happen to know?"
"Ten-seventeen," she said. "One-oh-one-seven. It was their wedding anniversary, they got married on the seventeenth of October. I forget the year."
"Well, you wouldn't need to know the year to deactivate the alarm."
"No," she said, and her eyes widened. "You don't think…"
"That you were the set-up person? Why, were you?"
"Of course not!"
"Good, we can cross you off the list. And you can relax, because you were never on it. How'd you happen to know the number?"
"Aunt Susan told me."
"So you would feel like a real member of the family?"
Her eyes welled up, making her look that much more waiflike. "We went shopping," she said, "and she had her arms full of packages when we came home. She had me get the key from her purse and unlock the door, and then she told me to key in the number so we wouldn't have sirens going off."
"You knew where the keypad was."
"Of course. I'd seen them use it to activate the system, and to deactivate it."
"And she told you the number?"
"I couldn't just press buttons at random, could I? She told me the number, and later on she explained the significance, that it was their anniversary."
"And that helped you remember it."
"Actually, it was the other way around. I'd never known the date of their anniversary, but the number stuck in my mind, and that's how come I know when their anniversary was."
"She didn't mind letting you know the number."
"Well, I don't think she thought I was likely to rob the place."
"No, of course not. But they had that alarm system for how long, twenty years? Something like that? And the odds are they picked that number early on, and never changed it. As a matter of fact, it's probably not the only thing they used it for. I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be the PIN number for their bank accounts and credit cards. People aren't supposed to do it that way, it's a bad idea from a security standpoint, but life's a lot easier when you've only got one number to remember."
"I use… well, the same number for everything."
"And it's probably either your birthday or the last four digits of your Social Security number."
It was one or the other, from her reaction, but at least she didn't tell me which one. "It's my AOL password, too. I guess I'd better change it."
"As far as your aunt and uncle's alarm system was concerned," I said, "anybody could have let that slip. A burglar is as good as his research, and the smart ones learn to use people who don't even know they're being used. Repairmen, delivery boys. Maybe they had someone doing work in their house, building bookshelves or rewiring the top floor, and he needed to be able to get in and out in their absence. They knew they could trust him."
"And he never told anybody," T J said, picking it up smoothly. "Only he mentioned to his wife that these people were so sentimental they used their wedding anniversary to get in and out of their house. And she told her son, so he'd know that it wouldn't be a good idea to forget his parents' wedding anniversary, and then the kid got into drugs and wound up on Rikers Island, and somebody brought up the subject of burglar alarms, and he knew these people who used their wedding anniversary as a password. If the right person heard it, all he'd need to do was find out when those people got married, and how hard would it be to get that information?"