The Gilded Cage
By Velvet Elizabeth Durano
My pet canary had probably sensed a calamity of sorts for it was lying dead in its cage a few days ago. When no earthquake or tidal wave occurred to obliterate the island of Manhattan, I bounded for my advertising job on Fifth Avenue only to find out that Bill Conlon had been shot dead during the night and his second wife was, according to the papers, a very wealthy woman. Lilly Conlon, as befitting a grieving widow should be in Chanel suits and Luis Vitton bags, had cried the tears and had the city of New York, or at least those weary citizens who actually read the inside pages of the New York Post, feeling so sorry for her.
All that, however, had been before her husband's will was read one snowy February morning. Unbeknownst to the grieving widow, a week before Bill's untimely demise due to a bullet to the head, he had revised his will, bequeathing only one million dollars to her and her nine-year old daughter from a previous marriage. The rest of his estate, valued at ten million dollars, excluding interest earned and whatever else the executor had rambled about, went to his first wife, Jessica Gatos-Conlon. In the event of his first wife's demise, in this case due to breast cancer three months earlier, the bulk of the estate went to her daughter, Katrina Conlon, who had originally refused to attend the reading of the will were it not for the attorney picking her up himself.
That unfortunate person is me.
Bill must have sensed Lady Death breathing down his neck for some time now. His death, which had been ruled as a homicide, was still under investigation. He had been shot while walking the dog one night, just two blocks from his house. As common as it is in New York, no one saw anything. Primary suspects had been some kid Lilly had seen running past her window, and a homeless man who happened to have in his possession one of Bill's American Express Gold Cards, which he tried to use at K-Mart the next day. When the kid turned out to be at some crack house in Harlem while the hit went down, he was charged with possession and spent a night or two in jail. The homeless man was identified by some store owner as the vagrant sleeping beneath his stoop who led them to the Dumpster where he had found Bill's wallet. He, too, was released, although the homeless man was not charged with a crime. After that, the police found themselves back to square one.
That is, until after the reading of Bill Conlon's will. I had felt the change in Lilly's tune begin with an audible gasp followed by her frantic screaming as the details of Bill's will were spelled out. While the day before I barely had $250 in my checking account, I was informed that I now had more than $10 million to my name. After her performance at the attorney's office, Lilly had gone to the precinct claiming that I had killed Bill. She said I was the guilty one, even if my alibi for that night checked out. Where had the grieving widow gone?
The detectives arrived at three that afternoon, before the ink had barely even dried on the hundreds of documents I had to sign. It did seem like hundreds. My hand was aching.
Outside, it was snowing heavily again as I opened the door to let both men inside my small West side apartment. I could smell cigar smoke clinging to one of them as they walked past me into the hallway.
Detective Max Greevey was a stout man, made even bigger with the layers of clothing he wore. His partner, Detective Mike Logan, was younger with intense gray eyes and a lady killer smile. Sick reference, considering the recent murder, but the young detective did cut an imposing figure after he removed his thick coat and stomped the snow from his shoes.
"Miss Conlon," Max said, "we need to ask you a few questions." I gestured for them to sit down and they made their way towards the couch, avoiding piles of second-hand books on the floor.
"Would you like some coffee?" I asked. I had started the coffeemaker just as they knocked on the door and I could see Max shifting his head from side to side, his face making that unsure look that only made him adorable. He probably would have said no, but then the aroma of freshly brewed Colombian wafting from the kitchen broke down his resolve. "Why, thank you, Miss Conlon. I'd love a cup."
Through the crack in the door, I could see them walking around the living room, doing what detectives normally do, I guess. They were peering into the shelves, looking at frames and pictures lying about. I poured the coffee in individual mugs as Mike Logan ran his fingers through a few sheets of paper lying on the study table. His eyes landed on the cage by the window, staring at it as if expecting some bird to magically materialize behind the bars. I had to admit, I missed the little ball of feathers.
By the time I emerged, with steaming coffee and condiments, they were ready with their questions. When I had first met them three days before, they were asking me the routine questions of where I was, and when the last time I had spoken to Bill when they were called back into the precinct. Lilly had somehow suddenly remembered that she had seen a young man running towards the subway after she heard something that sounded like a car backfiring.
"It must have been quite a shock to find out that you're ten million dollars richer, Miss Conlon," said Max as he stirred his coffee. "Your father must have really cared for you."
"He wasn't really my biological father, Detective," I said. "He married my mother when I was only three years old, and he adopted me a year later. I don't think he was able to have children of his own."
"When was the last time you saw him, Miss Conlon?" Max asked.
"Last November," I replied, bringing the cup of coffee to my lips. I usually had coffee with my cream and I had seen Mike's mortified look at how my once-dark mug of coffee had turned creamy white after my ministrations. "At Cedar's Sinai, when my mother was dying of breast cancer. Bill came by and told me that he'd take care of everything."
"Was he talking about funeral arrangements, or your inheritance?" I could see Mike's eyes boring deep into mine. He hadn't touched his coffee at all. He was holding a small notepad in one hand, and a pen with the other.
His question irritated me but I figured that's how detectives normally worked. "The funeral arrangements, Detective," I replied testily. "He took care of my mother and I even after they divorced, till the day she died. I guess you could probably say he really cared about her."
"And you?" Asked Mike. "Did he care that much about you, too? He knew your mother was already dead when he amended his will a week before he was killed, transferring the bulk of his estate to you. I wonder what made him do that?"
I shrugged my shoulders, my neck suddenly tightening. I could feel my cheeks turning red at his implication, but I said nothing in reply to it. "Bill did what he thought…" I paused. I didn't exactly know how to say it. "Bill did what he thought was best for everyone."
"It must have upset you when he divorced your mother to marry Lilly," Mike continued. He was on a roll and he wasn't about to stop now. "How old were you then, Miss Conlon? Thirteen?"
"I was fourteen when they divorced, Detective Logan." I replied, controlling my temper. "And yes, it did upset my mother and I, but that's no reason for me to kill him fifteen years later."
"You must have known what he had in his will, Miss Conlon," said Max. "Ten million dollars is a lot of money to give to someone without any notice."
I leveled my gaze at him. "Try buying a lottery ticket, Detective. You'd be surprised at your chances. Besides, it will take more than ten million dollars to accuse me of murdering Bill Conlon. I'd gladly give it back to his estate, if it means that I won't be labeled as a conniving daughter after his money."
I could see the detectives looking at the magazines on the coffee table. A magazine called New York Living was open to a page advertising prime real estate on 30 East 85th Street, with each square foot valued at $600. To one trained at surmising the worse, I could almost imagine what they must have been thinking.
"Already shopping for some million dollar apartment, Miss Conlon?" Mike's tone was veering on sarcasm. I wondered if I should call an attorney. Before that morning, I hadn't even known a single one. By the time I left the offices of Goldsmeier and Finch, I had about three under my employ.
Mike's beeper sounded first and I was grateful for the interruption. They used my phone to call the 27th Precinct and from what I gathered, the weapon used in killing Bill was found in a Dumpster five blocks away from where he had been shot. Although there were no prints on the gun itself, the magazine had proven to be their jackpot. Fingerprints courtesy of Lilly Conlon.
Two days later, Lilly Conlon was arraigned before Judge Rogers. She pleaded not guilty and had hired one of the best defense attorneys a million dollars could buy. I figured she would need it. For whatever reason she had killed Bill Conlon, a million dollars just wasn't worth it. If only Bill hadn't amended his will, she would have been a very rich woman. Convicted maybe, but rich. That same day, I arranged for a trust fund for her daughter, Clarice, till she would turn 21. Bill would have wanted it that way.
The day she was arraigned, Lilly finally made it on the front page. Apparently, Bill had told a colleague that he had discovered Lilly asking their attorney questions regarding the full value of the estate behind his back and had actually began divorce proceedings against Lilly. I didn't know if I should feel sorry for Bill, but it was too late for that. I felt sorry for Lilly.
Detective Logan was waiting under the stoop when I arrived from the attorney's office. He looked pale as he bounded up the stairs towards me and I could see that he was shivering. Snow had been falling most of the afternoon, and it looked like a blizzard outside. I wondered why he wanted to speak to me since the case was now in the hands of Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone.
Already I had been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury. I'd heard from one of the attorneys at Goldsmeier and Finch that Ben Stone was a self-righteous son of a bitch who didn't care who he sent to prison. If they committed the crime, they did the time, said the attorney named Lance Harbrow. I wondered what was so important that the detective stood out in the cold waiting for me.
"I need to ask you a few questions," he said to me, out of breath. When he noticed my alarmed expression, his face softened. "I apologize for the way I was with you the last time I spoke to you," he said. "This is different. Off the record."
I didn't speak. I unlocked the front door and let him in, allowing him to help me out of my thick coat. My apartment was the same as he had last seen it, with books piled high on the floor and magazines here and there. The New York Life magazine was gone was from the coffee table.
"What did you need to say to me that's so important, Detective?"
I turned to look at him standing in the hallway and recognized the face of a tortured man. My breath caught in my throat. His eyes spoke volumes, revealing pain that I had once known, but had taught myself to forget.
"I did some research after I last spoke with you," he began. He lowered his voice, as if he were telling me a secret. In many ways, he was. "Your mother called Child Protective Services when you were only ten, and the second time when you were fourteen. Both times she relented and refused to file charges, saying that she had been wrong."
I began to move towards the living room, suddenly numb, but he held out his arm, stopping me. I could feel the invisible claws of deep-seated memories catching hold of my defenses, wrenching them apart. Why did he have to scratch an old wound?
"Bill Conlon didn't divorce your mother. She left him after she found out what he was doing to you." He stared into my eyes, his expression fierce. "He was sexually molesting you."
I winced, and he released me. It had been almost fifteen years since I talked about it. "Stuff like that's just not fit to print, Detective Logan."
"Mike," he breathed. "It's Mike."
"I've left the past behind me, Mike," I said to him, my eyes pleading for him to stop but maybe it was time for me to hear it from someone else. "Please don't let it come back and haunt me."
"That's why he was constantly making it up to you and your mother, even after he married Lilly." He continued, "That's why he had a trust fund set up for you, which you never drew from at all. And now, as a final act, he gave you his entire estate. All this time making it up to you, for what he had done to you."
A wall of silence separated us for a moment, our eyes locked with each other. I had managed going through the last fifteen years refusing to acknowledge the past for it had done me no good to talk about it. Yet the reminders of failed relationship taunted me, and the fear of beginning each new one had always managed to leave me lonelier than before.
"I've managed okay, Mike," I whispered, but my voice was hollow. Who was I fooling?
I looked at his face and saw undisguised hatred. Not to me, but towards the man whose photographs graced none of the walls surrounding us. But then I saw something else in his eyes and it tore through my heart like a red-hot knife. I recognized it just as if my fourteen-year old self were looking back at me.
I don't know what came over me as I brought my arms around him, feeling his arms enfold me like a warm blanket. He leaned against the hallway and held me quietly. I could feel his heart beating, like a wild horse struggling against the coral. His shirt was crisp against my skin and I could smell the scent of his aftershave.
"You've been there," I found myself whispering and I could feel his head nodding in assent.
"He was a priest…" He began weakly. I brought a finger to his lips as his voice threatened to break. His eyes were filling with tears as he pursed his lips against my finger. I had never known such tenderness with such a small gesture, and I could feel my body tremble. I wiped the tears from his eyes and I wondered when was the last time he had cried in front of a woman.
He didn't say anything more, his lips soft against my finger. I would have wanted him to continue talking but I knew that he would do so at his own time. Maybe we were two people lost in our pasts, forever haunted by the ones who stole our innocence. But as we remained silent, lost in our thoughts, I knew that this would not last forever. For now, I contented myself with holding him and hearing his heart beating, wondering why he was crying before a stranger.
For the first time in a long time, I felt safe. But as my eyes settled on the empty cage where once, my canary kept me entertained with its silly notes, I could feel that cold empty feeling crawl upon my skin. I shivered.
Maybe his tears weren't for himself after all. As my thoughts went on another set of papers I had signed earlier today, purchasing 1,380 square feet of what the realtor said was the 'ultimate American address' for $845,000, I wondered if Logan was better off in the end.
Maybe he was the one who had actually gotten away from the specter of his past after all. At least he didn't have reminders of the crime committed years ago haunting him with every turn. What I had perceived in his eyes earlier as hatred was actually pity. Pity for one who couldn't get away.
I could feel my own tears welling in my eyes as a sob escaped my lips. Bill Conlon had finally put a price on the innocence he had taken away from me - a price that I could not refuse.