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The Golden Peacock

The Golden Peacock
by Joan Richter
Art by Laurie Harden

It was a half-hour drive from Manhattan along the West Side Highway to the nursing home where Jane had begun an internship two months ago. Last week the director of social services had asked to see her. “I have a special assignment for you,” she said and led her down a corridor to the dementia unit. Jane had not been there before.

Ruth Geller punched in the password and they entered, with the door locking behind them. The area was pleasantly furnished in soothing colors of pale green and yellow. Tables and chairs were grouped in clusters near a nurses’ station, where a dozen or so women were involved in simple activities. A man in a wheelchair sat alongside a bird cage, talking to a canary.

“On nice days some residents like to go outside,” Mrs. Geller said to Jane, motioning to an enclosed courtyard. “Others feel more secure staying indoors. The woman I mentioned to you, Mrs. Tilly, is one of them. She has a favorite place, that big chair by the window next to the potted ficus tree.”

At first glance, the chair seemed empty, but then Jane saw a tiny woman curled up tightly against its arm.

“It’s been her special place ever since she came here. She’s been here four months. During all that time, she has never said a word.”

“She’s never spoken?”

“It’s sad. We’ve not had a case like this before.”

“Has she any relatives?”

“No. And we haven’t been successful with her warming up to anyone either. It’s not that she’s hostile. She’s just not interested. I thought you might give it a try, but don’t expect too much of her, or yourself.”

As they drew close to the chair, Jane was struck by how truly tiny the woman was. Her hands and her pink-slippered feet were the size of a child’s.

“Hello, Mrs. Tilly. I’ve brought you a visitor,” Ruth Geller said.

At the sound of the voice, the little woman lifted her head and looked up slowly.

There’s nothing the matter with her hearing, Jane thought, and lowered herself next to the chair, so their faces would be more level.

“What a nice place you have here,” she said gently.

It took awhile for Mrs. Tilly’s eyes to focus, her gaze wandering uncertainly. Jane spoke again, helping to lead the way.

The woman’s face was a pale oval, framed by wisps of silver hair. Her pale blue eyes were filled with sorrow.

“Were you having a nice rest?” Jane asked.

Her blue eyes flickered as they settled on Jane’s face, and then a tiny sound squeaked from the pale thin lips. Her eyes widened and her fine brows arched in surprise.

“Loraine,” she whispered and then in a stronger voice, “Loraine!” She let go of the chair and reached out. She would have slid onto the floor had Jane not moved quickly to catch her. Her hold on Jane was tight, but at the same time she struggled to lean back so she could keep Jane’s face in view.

“Loraine,” she said with a sigh. “I’ve been so worried. You’ve been gone so long. I kept hoping you would come back. You always do.” Her eyes were filled with joy.

Jane was aware of the amazed look on Mrs. Geller’s face, but her attention was on Mrs. Tilly, who patted the empty space beside her. “Come, sit here by me and let me hold your hand.”

A hand as soft as silk slipped into Jane’s. “I kept hoping you would come back. You always do.” She rested her head on Jane’s shoulder and was soon fast asleep.

What will happen when she wakes, Jane wondered. Will she realize I’m not Loraine?

In a short while, when Mrs. Tilly woke, it was with the same ease as she had fallen asleep. She tipped her head back and looked straight up at Jane. “It’s time for you to go, Loraine. You mustn’t be late for school. Go on, now. I’ll be here when you come back.”

Jane hesitated, but Mrs. Tilly shooed her off. “Go on, now,” she repeated. “I’ll be here when you come back.”

Toward the end of the morning Jane went to Mrs. Geller’s office on the second floor.

“Well, that was quite a surprise,” the woman said with a smile. “I thought it best to just slip away. What happened after I left?”

Jane described the scene. “The words sounded almost memorized, as though she’d said them many times before.” She waited a moment and then leaned forward. “Who is Loraine?”

Mrs. Geller must have been expecting the question, but there was an awkward pause before she answered. “Mrs. Tilly’s granddaughter,” she said at last.

“I thought Mrs. Tilly had no relatives.”

“That’s right. Her granddaughter passed away shortly after Mrs. Tilly came here.”

“Did you meet her?”

Mrs. Geller shook her head. “I’m sorry, that’s all I’m at liberty to say. I’m sure you’re aware of our privacy code regarding patients.” She stood up then and came around the desk, and put her arm around Jane. “You were very good with Mrs. Tilly. If you feel up to it, I’d like you to visit her from time to time.”

The next day when Jane approached Mrs. Tilly it was with some apprehension. The memory of those sad eyes, followed by the look of sheer joy, was haunting. Then, word for word, what happened yesterday repeated itself.

 

Jane had told her roommate Mari about Mrs. Tilly last night, as they were preparing dinner in the brownstone they shared.

“Passed away?” Mari exclaimed. “Is that what that woman told you? That’s what they say when old people die. Loraine had to be our age—younger, maybe.”

“I think Mrs. Geller was intentionally evasive.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know, but when she brought up the privacy issue, it made me wonder if Loraine might have died in some embarrassing or shameful way, like a drug overdose.” Jane shook her head. “I’m just guessing.”

“Isn’t there someone else you can ask?”

“I haven’t been there long enough to know, and besides, I’m just an intern. But if I’m going to be Loraine, I’d sure like to know a little about her.”

The rest of the evening they talked about The Golden Peacock, a prestigious charitable fashion show in which Mari was one of the participating designers. For months she had been at her work table, strewn with sketches. She talked about the paranoia of the fashion world, the real and exaggerated fears designers had that their ideas would be stolen.

“Some designers spy on each other. I’m sure Luca is one of them. When he learned I’d been chosen to participate in The Golden Peacock this year, he asked me out for a drink. I’ve never trusted him, so I was wary and quickly realized he was trying to get me drunk. He wasn’t interested in me. He was hoping he could trick me into talking about my ideas.

“Even big fashion houses hire agents to spy on young independent designers. They trail them to libraries to see what books they withdraw. They rummage through our trash.”

Mari had a metal file with a combination lock in her studio. She never threw anything out until a season was over, and burned all her discarded designs in the fireplace. The tension was especially high right now, but it would soon be over. The Golden Peacock was less than two weeks away. Jane would be modeling Mari’s new designs.

 

At the end of the week, the nursing home held a care conference to review the status of patients on each unit. The entire care team attended. Jane had been looking forward to it. The other patients presented no unusual problems and were dealt with quickly, but when it came to Mrs. Tilly, the discussion was more involved.

“We’ve seen cases like Mrs. Tilly’s before,” the head nurse said. “Often individuals with dementia have some kind of communication problem. Mrs. Tilly has what we call a ‘repetitious language pattern.’ ”

Jane listened carefully, waiting until the time was right to ask her question. “Is it possible that if I knew something about Mrs. Tilly’s background, or about Loraine, I might be able to break into that repetition?”

It was the mental-health director who answered her. “Try not to think of Mrs. Tilly’s problem as a tape that’s gotten stuck, which can be jogged forward or reversed. She has an illness that results in a steady deterioration of the brain. There is no reversal.”

Jane frowned. “It’s all right then, to just let her think I’m Loraine?”

The mental-health director smiled. “You couldn’t change that even if you wanted to. For now, Mrs. Tilly thinks you’re her granddaughter.” The woman looked around the table and then returned to Jane. All eyes followed.

“We were all surprised by Mrs. Tilly’s reaction to you, and very moved. We know it hasn’t been an easy experience. You may need some consoling of your own, so come to me if you want to talk about it.” She smiled reassuringly. “You’ve gotten quite an introduction to our unit.”

When Jane left the meeting, she had a better understanding of Mrs. Tilly’s clinical situation, but her attempt to get any information about Loraine had failed. Now that she had tried, there was little likelihood that she’d be able to do anything further.

Later that day, on her way to the parking lot, she ran into one of the clergymen who made regular visits to some of the patients. They greeted one another warmly.

“Hello Jane! I understand you’re the young lady who’s gotten Mrs. Tilly talking.”

“I guess you could call it that,” she answered, with a smile. “I didn’t do anything, though. I just remind her of someone.”

“A happy reminder, I hear.”

“Yes, that’s true. She thinks I’m her granddaughter. You didn’t know her, by any chance? Her name was Loraine.”

“No, but one of my parishioners lives in the same apartment house where Mrs. Tilly and her granddaughter used to live. Mary O’Neil tells me Loraine was a lovely girl.”

Jane could hardly believe what she had just heard. With effort, she kept her excitement under control. “Is Mary O’Neil someone who might visit Mrs. Tilly?”

“Now that’s a nice idea. You might ask her. I’ll give you her phone number. Tell her I told you to call. She won’t mind. She’s a bit lonely now. Her husband passed away not long ago.” Jane waited until the next morning to call Mrs. O’Neil, and then on the following day went to visit her. She was younger than Mrs. Tilly, and not as frail, but not by much. She used a cane to get around her small apartment.

“Loraine was a conscientious girl,” Mrs. O’Neil said slowly. “I don’t know where she got it from. Not her mother, for sure. She left one day, just like that. I never knew her father. Loraine was only sixteen. Right away the poor girl quit school and got a job so she could take care of her grandmother.” Tears sprang to her eyes.

“Loraine did her best. She fixed it nice for her grandma, a big comfy chair by the window. Loraine hated to tie her grandma in that chair. But she had no choice. The poor thing had gotten into wandering. ‘Suppose something happens to me,’ she said to me one day. ‘I could get hit by a truck. And there Grandma’d be, all tied up, not able to do anything for herself.’”

Mrs. O’Neil shook her head again. “That little girl tried to think of everything. Of course, she wasn’t so little. She was a tall girl, and a beauty, like you. Her hair was darker than yours, to start. She used to lighten it. And those eyes, my husband called them sparklers. Sometimes they were blue. Other days they were green.” She stopped and stared at Jane. “No wonder that poor woman thinks you’re Loraine. You could be Loraine’s twin.” She took a tissue from her sweater pocket and wiped her eyes.

“And so we had this arrangement. Even if Loraine was just going to the corner store, she’d let me know. Things changed and sometimes she had to be gone awhile, sometimes overnight. I took care of her grandmother then. I wouldn’t take any money at first. The poor girl was just scraping by then, but it was a lot different later on. I never asked Loraine what she was doing. All I knew was that she was taking care of her grandmother, better than most.”

Mrs. O’Neil blotted her eyes again. “I knew something was wrong when it went on to the second day and I hadn’t heard from Loraine. She’d always call if she was going to be delayed. It was my husband, God rest his soul, who said we had to call the police.” Her voice had begun to shake. “I just can’t talk about it anymore.”

She struggled to her feet and Jane rose too. She desperately wanted to ask her how Loraine had died, but couldn’t bring herself to take advantage of the old woman.

“I’d tell you to say hello to Mrs. Tilly for me,” Mrs. O’Neil said in a stronger voice, “but it would go right by her. I’ve thought about trying to visit her, but it wouldn’t do either of us any good.”

“I understand. You did what you could when Mrs. Tilly needed you most.”

“That’s nice of you to say. It’s what Loraine used to say.” Tears welled in her eyes. “Loraine would be glad her grandma has you.”

They were at the front door, and Mrs. O’Neil suddenly stopped and reached for Jane’s arm. She pointed with her cane toward her bedroom. “There’s something I want to show you. Loraine had some fancy clothes she used to keep here. That was the only thing that upset her grandma, those evening clothes Loraine started to wear. There was a red one in particular that got poor Mrs. Tilly real upset. After that, when Loraine had to dress up, she used to come here.”

Mrs. O’Neil opened a closet door and pointed to a garment bag and a makeup case on the shelf above it. “Loraine said if anything happened, she wanted me to have these things. It was kind of her, but what would an old lady like me want with evening gowns and cosmetics? I’ve never even had the heart to look at them.” She squeezed Jane’s hand. “I’m so glad you came to see me. I want you to have them.”

 

Thoughtfully, Jane walked back to where she had parked the car. After she had locked the garment bag and makeup case in the trunk, she slid behind the steering wheel and then started driving back to the city. The question continued to pound. How had Loraine died? There must be some way she could find out.

What sort of job would have required her to wear evening clothes? She could have been an entertainer, or perhaps a call girl. It didn’t matter what her job had been. The question was how had she died? According to Ruth Geller, that had been about four months ago.

Jane took the exit onto the West Side Highway, and headed downtown. She suddenly had an idea.

She was lucky to find a parking space on a side street and walked the two blocks to the Forty-second Street library. Once inside, she went directly to the reference room and the familiar bank of computers. Within minutes the newspaper story was up on the screen. She read it, first in a gulp of disbelief, and then slowly, her fingers tightening around the edge of the table. She stared at the photograph that looked back at her, a class picture, taken when Loraine must have been about sixteen. It could have been a photograph from a page in Jane’s high-school yearbook.

Loraine’s body had been found in an abandoned car, on a side road not far from LaGuardia airport. She had been shot three times.

Jane took a deep breath and settled back to think about what she should do next. It was just past noon. With all the thoughts about Loraine swirling in her head, she had almost forgotten about The Golden Peacock, Mari’s big deal. The makeup consultant was coming at seven. She called Mari and left a message: “I’ll be home late, but in time for Suzette.”

Before she left the library she asked about the closest police station and then slowly walked the few blocks, taking time to gather her thoughts.

The clerk at the reception desk directed her upstairs to the investigative unit. “Detective Steve Novak. His name is on the door. I’ll tell him you’re on your way.”

The door was open. A dark-haired man behind the desk looked up as she approached. The expression on his face froze, but he composed himself so quickly Jane wondered if she had imagined it.

He rose. “I’m the guy with the name on the door,” he said with a smile.

“Jane Cornish,” she said. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”

“Please sit down.” He pointed to the only other chair in the room. It looked as if it had been hastily cleared. A stack of files was on the floor.

“The desk clerk told me you were looking for information on Loraine Tilly. Are you a relative of hers?”

“No. I know her grandmother. I work at the Hudson Heights Nursing Home where she’s a resident. She’s old and she’s confused. She thinks I’m her granddaughter Loraine.”

The detective eyed her with interest. “Did the nursing home send you here?”

“No. I asked them about Loraine but because of patient privacy issues, the only thing they would tell me was that she had passed away. I wasn’t satisfied with that. I’ve just come from the library, where I looked through the computer newspaper files.”

Steve Novak gave her a thoughtful look.

“According to the newspaper story, Loraine was murdered.”

He nodded. “It’s our fault the nursing home wouldn’t tell you anything. We told them not to discuss the case.”

“By why? It was already in the newspaper.”

“A lot of stories appear in the paper that people don’t see, or they forget they have. This case has been a tough one for us. We’re still working on it, but we don’t have any real leads. It’s had us buffaloed, but we’re not interested in advertising that. You read the newspaper story, so now you know about as much as we do.”

“Do you know why she was killed?”

“We have some theories, but that’s about it. If Mrs. Tilly could talk, we might have some idea. But that poor old lady is beyond that.” He leaned back. “How do you know she thinks you’re Loraine? Has she spoken to you?”

Jane described Mrs. Tilly’s reaction to her. “She isn’t really talking. It’s as though she’s reciting things she used to say. It’s exactly the same every time I see her. I’ve tried talking to her about other things, but it’s as though she doesn’t hear me.”

The detective shifted in his chair. “I guess you know you look a lot like the dead girl.”

“Well, I do now. I can’t tell you how weird it was to see the photograph of her come up on the computer screen.”

“I can almost imagine,” he said. “I have to tell you it was pretty odd, seeing you walk in that door.”

“Did you know Loraine before she was killed?”

“No, but I’ve spent a lot of time with her since.”

Jane nodded. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

They talked awhile longer and soon it was time for her to leave.

“I’d like you to stay in touch,” the detective said. “Here are two phone numbers. The second one is my home phone. Don’t be afraid to call, anytime.”

He walked down the hall with her, pausing before an office where an attractive black woman was on the phone. She glanced up and then, with a look of surprise, stared at Jane.

Novak waved and turned to Jane. “That’s Cleo Brown. We’ve been working on this case together. Her reaction to you was the same as mine.”

Jane smiled. “I saw that.”

At the elevator he pushed the down button and turned to her. “Remember, call me, anytime. You may think of something that might have some bearing on the case. I’ll call you tomorrow, after Cleo and I have had time to put our heads together.”

It was about five o’clock when Jane reached home. As soon as she had opened the front door, Mari came rushing down the stairs. “I’m so glad to see you. I was afraid you’d be late.”

Jane held up her hand. “Peace. You won’t believe what I found out today.”

Mari eyed the garment bag draped over Jane’s arm, and the makeup case in her hand. “What’s all this?”

“It belonged to Loraine.”

“Loraine? How did you get it?”

“It’s a long story.”

Mari frowned. “Well, how about just a little piece of it?”

Jane took a deep breath. “Loraine was murdered.”

“Holy Mother of God!”

Throughout Jane’s recitation, Mari remained silent.

“You’ve sure been busy, chica. First the minister, then Mrs. O’Neil, after that the library, and then the police.” Mari shook her head. “Now what?”

“When the nursing home finds out what I’ve been up to, I’m out. There goes my social-work degree.”

Mari’s eyes flashed with impatience. “Forget the nursing home! This is murder. You have that girl’s clothes. That’s called evidence. Did you show them to the police?”

Jane shook her head. “I had left them in the trunk of my car. Everything was happening so fast, I just didn’t think of it.”

“Well, you’d better call them. Right now!”

Jane nodded, reached for the phone, and dialed. She got to the detective right away and filled him in.

“Cleo and I will be there within a half-hour.”

Both she and Mari answered the door. Jane introduced them and then led the way to the guest room where she had put Loraine’s things.

It was Cleo Brown who did the unveiling. A billow of red lace and satin sprang through the opening of the garment bag, revealing a dramatic evening gown. She carefully spread it out on the bed, and then alongside it, a black taffeta cape, lined in the same vibrant red.

Mari let out a shriek and grabbed Jane’s arm. “Those are Luca’s! That’s the ensemble that won The Golden Peacock last year.”

Novak turned, a dark eyebrow arched. “What do you know about The Golden Peacock?”

“I’m a designer. It’s a big deal in the fashion scene. I’ve been invited to enter this year.”

“Could these just be copies?” Cleo asked.

Mari moved closer. “You can tell by the way they’re finished.”

“Have a look,” Cleo said and moved aside, allowing Mari to examine the inside of each garment. It wasn’t long before she looked up. “They’re the originals.”

“How much would these clothes cost?” Cleo Brown asked.

Mari shrugged. “A lot! Luca wouldn’t have sold them cheap.”

“Would he have given them away?”

Mari frowned. “I can’t imagine. Unless it was to someone he was involved with. I don’t know Luca all that well, except to know that he has a penchant for good-looking women, and he particularly likes blondes. I have to admit, he’s not one of my favorite people.”

Steve Novak made some notes while the woman detective searched the rest of the garment bag. There was a pair of sling-back shoes and a small black satin evening bag.

“Now for the makeup case,” Steve said, and waited while Cleo returned the clothes to the garment bag and then spread a plastic sheet on the bed. There was the expected collection of lipstick, eye shadow, mascara, foundation, eyeliner, powder, and brushes in the top tray. Cleo lifted it out and then turned the case upside down.

Steve leaned forward as a tumble of candies, wrapped in gold, green, and red foil, spilled out onto the sheet. “What’s this? Sticks of gum and chocolate kisses, wrapped for the holidays?”

“There’s more than that here, Steve,” Cleo said.

He scooped up a handful and began sorting through what was in his palm, tossing pieces of candy and gum, one by one, off to the side.

When he held out his hand, Jane expected it to be empty, but instead two large diamond rings and an earring glittered in his palm. Cleo had already sorted through what had been on the bed, and added to the collection.

“Six rings and five unmatched earrings,” he said, looking at Cleo. “It looks like we might have a motive. She was skimming. And they got her for it.”

In the living room Steve told them what the police knew. “We’ve been tracking a ring of jewel thieves for some time now. They hire attractive young women, train them, give them some clothes, and get them to pass themselves off as socialites at high-ticket events. We’re not sure if it’s the girls who actually do the stealing, or if they act as lookouts, making mental inventories of worthwhile jewelry. Thefts have occurred at the events themselves, but there have been house robberies months afterwards. We can’t take the credit for making the connection,” he said. “It was an insurance investigator who figured it out. A number of his clients had reported pieces of jewelry missing. It turned out that they all had been at the same event.”

Steve turned to Jane. “When Loraine’s body was found, we wondered if she might be one of their girls. If any of this jewelry matches up with what’s been reported stolen, we’ll know for sure.”

He stood up then and Cleo joined him, collecting the garment bag and the makeup case. “We’ve got some thinking to do. We’ll want to talk to you tomorrow. But in the meantime, it’s important that neither of you talk to anyone about this. And I mean no one! As for the nursing home, I don’t want them to know what you’ve found out about Loraine, not yet. When the time is right, we’ll take care of that.”

 

Early the next morning Jane’s phone rang. She recognized the voice before he identified himself. “I hope I’m not your alarm clock,” Steve said, “but I didn’t want to miss you. Cleo and I have something we’d like to talk to you about. Could you meet us at Rossini’s, say about one o’clock? You know the place, an Italian restaurant on Columbus, between Eighty-third and Eighty-fourth?”

Jane looked at her watch. It was only six-thirty, but last night’s makeup session had been rescheduled for eight this morning, which meant she wouldn’t be able to get to the nursing home until ten. “One-thirty would be better.”

“See you then,” he said.

Suzette arrived on time. She was a makeup consultant both Jane and Mari knew and trusted. “It’s just breathtaking,” she said when she saw the collection. “The colors you’ve chosen are fantastic. It was sheer genius to theme them to Jane’s palette. The makeup will be a snap, because it will hold with each outfit.”

 

Later that day, when Jane left the nursing home, she made good time on the West Side Highway and arrived at the restaurant just as Steve was rounding the corner.

“It’s just me,” he said. “Cleo got hung up on something else.”

The head waiter led them to a table off to the side. They each asked for a glass of pinot grigio. Jane ordered a seafood salad, and the detective lasagna.

“You aren’t a New Yorker, are you?” she said after a while.

“Not the city. I come from a small town outside of Albany. My mother and father have a little farm. I worry about it getting to be too much for them. I’ll be going up to check on them sometime next month. What about your family?”

“My father is in the oil business. I don’t see him very often. The brownstone belonged to my mother. She died when I was four. We lived there for a short time when I was a little girl.”

“It’s quite a place,” he said with a grin.

Jane laughed. She liked his directness. “I tried it alone for a while. It wasn’t much fun. All those rooms make for a lot of echoes. That changed, though, after Mari moved in. There are different kinds of noises now.”

“She’s spirited, all right. Did you two meet in the fashion business?”

Jane shook her head. “We met in Mexico. When I was in high school, I went on an archaeology dig, a kind of camp for kids whose families don’t know what to do with them over the holidays. We dug up pieces of broken pottery and studied Spanish. Actually, I had a great time, even learned a lot. Mari’s father had a small plot of land nearby. She and her little brother, Enrico, used to come by donkey cart, with fruits and vegetables and eggs.”

“And you became friends?”

She smiled at the surprise in his voice. “The rich gringa from the north and a peasant’s daughter? Not too likely, but you never know with kids. It probably wouldn’t have lasted, except we had what you might call a bonding experience.”

He raised an interested eyebrow.

“In that part of Mexico they hardly get any rain, but there was a surprise storm one day, creating one of those flash floods you read about. Mari loves to tell the story, and she does it a lot better than I do. It’s been a long time, but it still gives me nightmares. The point is, we almost drowned.”

“That’s memorable for sure!”

“But back to your question—if we met in the fashion business. It was Mari who got me into modeling. I enjoyed it for a while, but knew I didn’t want to do it forever, so I just do it part time. That’s how come I’ll be modeling Mari’s designs at The Golden Peacock.”

“And that brings us back to where we started,” he said with a smile.

“No, we started with Loraine.”

“You’re right.” He leaned forward, looking at her intently.

Modeling had taught her to be impervious to stares and appraisals, but what she saw in the detective’s face fell into a totally different category.

“I’m going to be straight with you,” he said. “We want you to do something for us. . . .”

 # # #

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"The Golden Peacock" by Joan Richter, Copyright © 2014 with permission of the author.

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