Peggy travels to visit her estranged sister and finds her to be friendlier than she remembered - but is something else at play? By Mary J. Breen.
Keith sighed and looked up from his bowl of no-name, no-sugar, no-fat cereal.
She turned it over. "Well, well. It's from Ty. What kind of stupid name is that anyway?"
Keith shrugged. "I think it's Tyrone. He's English."
"I know that, but... Lord. Cora and her men. So, listen. I'll read it to you."
Keith reached for the coffee pot, and Peggy reached for his hand.
"Nope. One cup a day. You know what Dr. Mitchell said." She emptied the pot into her mug, and then squeezed onto the narrow bench across from him. She began reading in a fake English accent: "Dear Peggy: After considerable thought I've decided to write to you about poor dear Cora. I'm quite concerned as it appears she might not be altogether well, although she assures me her ailments are not important at all." Peggy snorted. "That's a good one." She took a danish from the pile.
Keith pulled his Blue Jays ball cap down over his eyes and sat back. "The letter, Peg. Go on."
"Right. What I have observed is quite worrisome. Cora has had some falls, however it is not apparent what caused them. It was as if her legs just gave way. Thank God she was near the chesterfield the first time it happened so she fell onto it and wasn't injured at all, and the next time she fell towards her car so I gather it broke her fall - I wasn't there at the time - and she only suffered a bruised elbow. My fear is that she's going to have a much worse tumble. I'm particularly worried about the long staircase leading upstairs." Peggy looked up. "Well, that house does have huge high ceilings. I told her - it's so much fun saying things like this - I told her this here trailer of ours would fit into their front hall."
Keith sighed and went back to picking at his cereal. Peggy took a bite of her danish and went on. "My other concern is regarding her occasional confusion. Last week she asked me where we plan to stay in Florida - even though we've already arranged to stay at the same lovely condo we've been going to for the last three years. And she's still plagued by her beastly headaches though of course the poor dear never complains." Peggy snorted again. "Yeah, right."
"Peg - go on!"
"As I said, I have decided that it is imperative that I contact you, her dear and only sister. Just the other day, Cora was lamenting the fact that she hasn't seen you in such a long time, and I think it would do her a world of good if you could come for a wee visit. She'd adore seeing you, and you could help me decide the best course of action regarding her health." Peggy stopped and looked up. "What if there really is something wrong with her - with her brain? What if she dies before she puts us in her will... he's right. This is something to worry about. Her half of Mother and Dad's money is more rightfully mine than some gigolo's." She looked up at him. "Do you know what Ty's talking about, Keith? Have you seen any problems - any problems with her balance or her memory or..."
"No, I don't think so." Keith was busy making a dam out of his cereal and watching the milk leak through the soggy bits at the bottom. "I'm not eating this stuff, Peg. It's made of cardboard. And don't forget that Cora was good enough to give me a job when I needed -"
"You would say that. She pays your salary so you think you should say nice things about her."
Keith sighed again. "Peggy, why don't you go to Toronto and see for yourself? Cora always asks about you, says she'd love to see you. She told me she missed talking things over with you."
Peggy laughed. "Well that proves right there that she's losing her mind. She's never listened to me about anything. I wonder what her real reason is."
"Maybe just so two could have fun together, be sisters again."
Peggy gave him one of her how-can-you-be-so-dim looks. "Well, I guess I could go and check things out, but I will not have fun. And don't forget, she's not really my sister; she's my cousin. She came to live with us after her parents died when she was nine, and my parents insisted I call her my sister."
"I know, Peg. You've only told me a couple thousand times."
"Hmmm, I wonder if Ty knows she's not my real sister. He might be counting on that. Anyway, if he's planning to kill her or marry her, I need to stop him. Actually, I don't care what she does as long as that money comes to us in the end." She took a sip of coffee. "And if she ever does have a nasty fall, we can tell the police that he's been trying to make out that there's something wrong with her balance, when all the while -"
Keith's head snapped up. "Peggy, you mustn't say things like that, even as a joke. We're not the kind of people -"
"Alright, alright. It's just that I want my rightful share." She took another bite. "You know, I still can't believe you invested our money with that highway robber, Lornie Blake. You're too trusting, that's your problem."
"It seems to make you happy to keep bringing that up," Keith said.
"OK, OK... but you be careful with Cora. I know she gave you a job managing those condos, but Cora's gifts always come with strings."
"Well, even if you aren't grateful, I am. What did you think I should have done after GM laid us all off? Started begging in front of the liquor store with my guitar? Besides, I've got an idea for what may be a very clever retirement plan. Just a few more details to work out." He smiled to himself.
"Not without my say-so you're not."
"I'll tell you all about it after I iron out a few more wrinkles." He reached for the rest of the mail. "So, is that it? The letter? Anything else?"
She turned the page over. "Oh, yeah, there's a little more." She popped the last of the danish into her mouth, and used her fingertip to pick up the remaining crumbs. "It would be brilliant if you could come down before we leave for the winter. We'd both love to see you. Warm regards to you and Keith. Sincerely, Ty."
A hunger headache was starting across Keith's brow, and the smell of stale coffee had become both tantalizing and sickening. "Peg, go down and see her - not to prevent a murder, for God's sake - but because she might need you. What if she does have a brain tumour or something? You don't want her to think her money is all you're interested in."
"When the hell did you start caring what Cora thinks?" Peggy carefully refolded Ty's letter. "I'm going to keep this just in case. The police might be interested to know what he's been saying." Keith started to protest again. "OK, OK. I'll go and see her for a visit - a short visit. I want to see what he's up to."
She began stacking the plates and mugs, but she left Keith's cereal bowl where it was. "And, yes, if she is actually sick, I will help look after her. I always take the high road, even if others don't."
Keith raised an eyebrow and turned back to the rest of the mail.
Later that morning, Peggy called her sister, and they agreed to a visit on the weekend in September when Keith would be in Montreal at a trade show.
Cora offered to pick Peggy up at Union Station, but when she arrived, Cora was nowhere to be seen. Peggy finally found her standing near a pillar smiling in a dreamy way as she studied her reflection in a shop window. She was wearing a white sundress and a huge black picture hat. When she spotted Peggy, she rushed forward, her arms spread wide. Peggy couldn't remember Cora ever hugging her before.
As they drove to the house, Peggy was determined to show sympathy for Cora's ill health since it might lead to a conversation about wills and how important they are now that they were in their fifties. Cora, however, only wanted to talk about Ty and all the terrible quarrels they've been having, the last one after she refused to buy him the red 1957 Mercedes roadster he had his eye on. "And now he's trying to claim I promised it to him. Why just last month I bought him another handmade silk suit. I'm getting quite fed up, Peg. I never thought it would all come down to money," she said. Peggy managed to say nothing.
Cora showed Peggy up to her bedroom, and told her to come down for a drink on the patio before dinner. Peggy changed out of her lime green wash-and-wear pant suit, and into a tee-shirt, track pants, and flip-flops. It wasn't until she got downstairs that she remembered that in Cora's world, dinner meant dressing up, not down.
It was too late to go back, as Ty was already coming to greet her. His Hawaiian shirt was rumpled and tight across his stomach, and his eyes were bloodshot. He gave her a long hug. "Peggy, my dear, thank you so much for coming." He linked arms with her. "I want us to have a little chat before Her Highness comes down. What can I get you?" Soon they were comfortably ensconced in padded armchairs in the warm September sun, Peggy with a beer, and Ty a Scotch. A platter of mushroom and cheese canapés had been set out on the table between them.
Ty immediately began recounting his concern for Cora's possible health problems, telling Peggy how terribly worried he's been, and how he's started keeping track of her little falls and memory gaps in a notebook so he could give an accurate account to her doctor. "Her problem," he said, "comes and goes, but I've read that the early stages of dementia can be like that. One minute you're fine, next you can't remember how to make toast. I'm ever so worried."
"I see," Peggy said. It occurred to her again that although his notebook might provide useful evidence of Cora's new frailties if they were genuine, but if she were to happen to 'fall,' it might look a little suspicious that Ty was compiling such detailed proof.
"Not only that. Between you and me, Peggy dear - and you know how vulnerable she is - I'm afraid there might be - that is, well, I don't know but, I've started to wonder if there might be another man." His voice had taken on a peevish tone. "I really don't know, but I've begun to suspect it's that bloke who -" He stopped and quickly glanced over at Peggy, but she was busy brushing pastry crumbs off her tee-shirt.
"What? Pardon?" She looked up. "What were you..."
He quickly started talking about the lovely fall weather, and offered her another canapé.
He was pouring Peggy another glass of beer when the patio door opened, and Cora arrived in a dark blue silk caftan with a crimson scarf around her head. In the sunlight, her hair looked truly golden. She stopped and looked from Peggy to Tyrone and back. "What have you two been plotting? Come on; do tell. I can't bear to miss a thing." She waved a hand towards Ty, and he got up and began fixing her a martini. As she walked across the tiles, she stumbled just a little. Peggy glanced at Ty who gave her a pointed look as he hurried towards Cora to see if she was alright.
The cook had left them an elaborate assortment of salads for their dinner, but Cora only picked at a small plate of green salad. She seemed distracted, paying little attention to Peggy and even less to Ty. She also seemed excited in a way Peggy hadn't seen since Cora had found herself yet another boyfriend back in high school. Peggy was relieved when they both said they needed an early night.
The next morning at breakfast, Cora announced that Ty and she were fini, and he was already gone, off to England to visit his aging mother. "Took a midnight flight. Gone, gone, gone. And good riddance too." She laughed. "It's all for the best," Cora went on. "It was too upsetting; quarrelling all the time. And all those nasty money problems. Such a grasping person. And, lately I've even started wondering if I could trust him." She patted Peggy's hand. "You know, Peggy, you're very, very lucky to have a good man like Keith."
Peggy was not yet ready to discuss Keith's flaws with her sister, so she just said she was sorry to hear about their troubles. She felt she had to say something, and soon she was truly sorry because Cora assumed Peggy would take over where Tyrone had left off, fetching and carrying anything she wanted, even things within easy reach.
After lunch, Cora suggested a trip to a nearby mall. Peggy trailed along while Cora rattled on about clothes and parties and her rich and stylish friends, all the while not showing any trouble walking nor keeping track of what she was saying. No mention was made of her health problems so Peggy saw no opportunity to bring up the subject of wills.
Cora was describing their travel plans for Europe in the spring and of course their winter in Florida, when she suddenly stopped. "I know! You two must come down and stay with me this winter. I'll give Keith a few weeks off. He'd love it. It's only a short drive to Dunedin where the Blue Jays do their spring training." She laughed. "Keith and his baseball." Peggy nodded vaguely, not committing to anything, and more than a little dismayed to realize that if even Cora knew about Keith's baseball obsession, then it must be worse than she thought. "And of course there's always golf," Cora was saying. There's a wonderful course nearby, and I'll need Keith for a partner now that Ty's gone. I assume you still don't play, right?" Peggy shook her head.
Before bed, Peggy called Keith in Montreal. He was having a drink in the hotel bar.
"How the hell do you work for this woman?" Peggy said. "I'd forgotten what it's like. 'Get me this.' 'Get me that.' I feel sorry for any man who has to live with her, although a real man wouldn't put up with it. I'm sure she makes out that she's utterly inept so men feel like real men around her, but she's the one in control all the way." Keith said nothing. "She's like one of those movie stars on Murder She Wrote - the kind that's always found dead just before the first commercial."
"Peggy, don't." Keith said. "What if someone hears you?"
Peggy laughed. "No one can hear me - I'm up here by myself. But it is a wonder Ty or some other suitor hasn't done her in, which reminds me, Ty's gone. She threw him out."
"Oh?" Keith didn't sound very interested.
"Yeah, gone! Even so, I'm going to start making a note of every time she falls or acts peculiar or can't remember something. It might help if she really is losing her marbles, and someday we need to apply to get, you know - what do you call it - power over her estate."
"Peggy," he said, "you do think of everything."
For their last night together, Cora insisted on taking Peggy to her golf club for a special dinner. Peggy hadn't brought along - nor did she own - anything fancy enough, so Cora suggested she borrow something of hers. Peggy pointed out that she was not as slim as Cora, but Cora rushed to assure her she had the perfect dress. She pulled a long, dark green, loosely flowing dress from her cupboard. The cuffs and hem were embroidered with gold leaves, and two gold panels fell down the back. "It might be a tiny bit long, but it'll suit you perfectly."
Peggy loved it on sight. She tried it on, and Cora declared it perfect. "Keep it; I never wear it. Green is so much better on you with your red hair. And look, here are some gold high-heeled sandals to go with it. Take them." Peggy felt her heart soften a little towards her sister.
They had a quick drink on the patio around 6:30, and then headed upstairs to dress. Despite feeling oddly fuzzy-headed, it only took Peggy two minutes to slip into her dress, comb her hair, and put on some lipstick. She headed down the hall to Cora's bedroom, preparing to make a grand entrance in the new dress, but just at the doorway, her heel slipped out of her sandal and she had to grab the doorjamb to steady herself. Cora didn't notice as she was busy studying her image in a bright vanity mirror. Pink rollers hung from her hair, and she was busy rubbing thick white cream into her face. Piled on both sides of her were brushes and jars and bottles including one of those perfume atomizers Peggy hadn't seen since they were girls. She looked like an old movie star in her quilted satin dressing gown, but Peggy knew better than to say that. As Peggy watched, her heart softened even further. For the first time it occurred to her what aging must mean for the always-beautiful Cora, this woman who, after all these years and all these men, was still all alone. She thought of Keith's steadfastness with sudden gratitude, and a resolve to think of his obsession with baseball as just a harmless hobby.
Cora said she wouldn't be ready for at least twenty minutes. "I have to look my best; there's a gorgeous young man at the club who's been helping me with my game." She winked. "I haven't even decided what to wear: my black and turquoise raw silk or my - anyway, never mind. I'll figure it out. Why not wait out on the patio? It's a beautiful evening." Peggy agreed, glad of the chance to clear her head.
Cora walked out to the hall with her, telling her how marvellous she looked in the green dress. Peggy was moving carefully now, very aware of her untrustworthy shoes and her wooziness. Then, just at the top of the stairs, she felt a tug backwards. She turned to see if Cora had stepped on the hem of her skirt, and in doing so, stumbled again as her heel slid out of her sandal. She groped for the banister but the staircase was too wide, and her hand only grasped air. Then with just a small, gentle, almost unnoticeable push, Peggy fell, backwards headfirst down the stairs.
Cora waited a full minute before rushing down to Peggy's motionless body. Her neck was bent at an unnatural angle, and very little blood was seeping from a nasty gash on her forehead. Cora thought she knew what that meant. Peggy didn't appear to be breathing, but Cora wasn't up to checking for a pulse. She waited a few more minutes and when she was certain Peggy's body was completely still - and she had her story straight and her hysteria at the right pitch - she called 911 and unlocked the front door.
The police and paramedics found her beside her sister's body, rocking in unbearable grief. She was still wearing her dressing gown but she'd cleaned off the face cream and removed her rollers. The EMTs rushed to Peggy's body while the younger of the police officers gently led Cora into the living room. When she looked back, she saw an EMT give the policeman a quick shake of his head. The other one turned away and began speaking on his cellphone.
Cora set about giving the officer a consistent tale, hoping it didn't sound rehearsed. He scribbled away in his little notebook as she explained that all she knew was that she was up in her bedroom getting dressed while her sister was heading down to wait on the patio. Then she heard a cry and the most dreadful fall. "Perhaps she tripped, or maybe her foot got caught in the scarf of that dress. She's wearing one of my dresses, you know, and maybe it was a tiny bit too long. Oh God. Maybe it's all my fault."
By now Cora was shedding a few heartfelt tears. She had long ago learned how to cry on cue, but this time it was easy to cry after the tension of the past half hour. The policeman asked if her sister had been drinking, and she told him that she and Peggy had had a couple drinks before they came up to get dressed.
The policeman said he'd noticed a shoe up near the top step and another part way down. "Looks to me like just another sad accident. The public doesn't seem to realize how often people fall and kill themselves in their own homes. You'd be surprised. And, ma'am, I see she has, that is, there's a wedding ring. Is there anyone we should -"
Cora suddenly sat up straight. "Oh my God!" she said. "Keith. We have to let her husband know. They live in Port Hope - she was just here visiting me - but, oh, he's not there either - he's in Montreal - at a trade show - I sent him there. He works for me, you see." The officer offered to get someone to notify him, but Cora insisted that it was only right for her to make the call. She could reach him on his cell. The policeman agreed, suggesting she call while he got in touch with his sergeant. She blew her nose as she walked slowly to the office just off the living room, and closed the French doors behind her.
She dialled as quickly as she could, tapping a fingernail on the desk as she waited for Keith to pick up. "It's over," she whispered. "Keith? Did you hear me? Are you there?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm here. I've been sitting here in my room, and then just now when it rang, I could hardly pick it up. So, what happened?"
"She fell, just like I knew she would."
"Did she - was she wearing -"
"Yes, and I'd given her quite a strong drink beforehand."
"Oh." He paused. "Are you sure, I mean, are you sure she's -"
"Yes. The ambulance guys, they saw that right away. They didn't even start doing CPR."
"Oh." She heard him take a deep breath. "And, and, do they believe you? Do they believe that she - that it was an accident?"
"Yes! As far as I can see they do. The young policeman is off phoning his sergeant, but he assures me that's just routine. He's convinced. And the coroner, he'll be called too. It's all standard, I gather. He also said they're very busy tonight - some gang shooting downtown - so I expect they won't worry much about us." It was her turn to take a deep breath. "But I do wish they'd get rid of her - that is - the body."
Keith started making little panting sounds.
"Don't get cold feet now, Keith. You, the grieving husband, need to get down here. Get on a flight, now, tonight."
"Yeah, yeah, OK," Keith said, and she went on.
"But just think, Keith, after the funeral and everything's sorted out - no one will think it odd as you already work for me, and then, soon, we can -"
"What about Ty, Cora? Does he know about us?"
"Absolutely not. He hasn't a clue. And never mind about Ty. We had a really big fight Friday night. I told him I was stopping his 'allowance,' and he'd have to start paying rent, and he was so offended that he said he was moving out then and there. He probably wanted me to beg him not to, but I told him I never wanted to see him again. 'Leech.' I called him a 'leech'." She giggled. "That did it."
"What if he comes back, comes crawling back? And are you sure he doesn't know about us?"
"All Ty knows is that you're my poor hapless sister's hapless husband - sorry, sweetie. I didn't want him to think anything so I told him I gave you a job because you had no other prospects. Trust me; he doesn't know a thing." She giggled.
"OK, OK, but what if he hears about Peggy dying and -"
"He'll never hear about it in England, Keith. It's hardly newsworthy: 'Dowdy overweight housewife falls down stairs and breaks neck.' And if he did come back, I won't have anything to do with him. And, just in case, I'll call and get the locks changed tomorrow. We're all set."
"OK," Keith said. "OK." Cora heard him take another shaky breath.
"Keith, it's so perfect. We'll get married and then we can do whatever, go wherever - " She giggled again, and then quickly tried to cover it with what she hoped sounded like a sob when she saw the policeman returning.
'I've got to go, but Keith," she whispered, "such lovely plans I've been making."
"Me too, darling," Keith said. "Me too. It's all I've been thinking about." He smiled as he took a long sip of beer. "Yes, Cora, now it's just the two of us." And what he was thinking was, One down, one to go.