Last year when I turned fifty-five, I decided it was time to hang up my thieving shoes. That lasted until I saw someone on TV pontificating about The Criminal Menopause. At first I thought he was talking about the kind of menopause that’s criminal in intensity, or about a new legal defense like the raging hormones of PMS. It turned out our expert was talking about the time when older criminals lose interest in using their criminal talents. I know I’m overly sensitive, but why did he equate a perfectly natural stage in a woman’s life with being irrelevant and over the hill? Well, I thought, we’ll see about that. Maybe I had it in me to commit one more perfect crime after all. Maybe I should have a truly criminal menopause. Maybe I should be a Menopausal Criminal.
I had to admit that I didn’t need the money so I told myself I’d donate the haul to a worthy cause once I’d proven I could still do it. I was going to become a menopausal Robin Hood. Human beings truly can justify anything. Most of the rich people I know have already enriched my life with jewelry, watches, and lots and lots of cash. Of course there is more where that came from, but I wasn’t bold or foolish enough to return to those abundant shores. I also knew that I no longer have the agility to perform B&Es, and I no longer get the same pleasure from walking out of the mall with a cashmere sweater and a brand new coat under my old one. Actually, I gave up that trick when I was newly menopausal and my greatest wish was to abandon all my clothes, which, of course, is a deterrent to successful shoplifting. But I knew I had one very powerful weapon in my arsenal: invisibility. I am a middle-aged woman, just one of millions with grey hair, down coat, running shoes, little purse across my chest, and cloth shopping bags helping to save the world from plastic.
I decided that my best access to a rich stranger’s home was as a cleaning woman. I began checking the want ads and the local bulletins boards, but all I found were people who wanted work, not people who wanted me.
Then my nephew, Max, called to beg me to help out at a bingo night to raise money for his swim team. He assured me it would only take an hour. Well, the Lucky Casino Bingo Hall ordeal took not one but two and a half hours, but my time was not wasted. Bingo, I discovered, is a very lucrative business, and as I was leaving, I noticed a hand-printed card on the cloakroom notice board: “Housecleaner wanted once/week. Cowan Ave. Parkdale.”
The name at the bottom was a scrawl followed by “Manager, Lucky Casino.” The kid who was filling the pop machine said the manager’s name was Chester Newbert, and he had just left to collect the money at another of his three bingo halls, something he did every night. Of course I didn’t ask, but it did make me wonder what happened to all that money. It was entirely possible it went right into the bank, but on the other hand, it might first need to be counted, and to do that Chester Newbert might have to take it home.
I called Chester the next morning from a payphone, and we made a time to meet. I told him my name was Laura-Ann Kelly—my best friend in Grade Three. For my disguise, I already had a fuzzy white wig that was large enough to cover my hair, and a brown knitted hat large enough to cover both. At the Sally Ann I found a pair of big-framed glasses with clear lenses and an old blue nylon nurse’s uniform. All of this plus my old down coat, two shopping bags for my supplies and a change of clothes, and an orthotic in my left running shoe so I’d tip to the right as I walked. I also took some cotton rolls to stick under my top lip. Try it sometime: it changes your look entirely.
Chester’s house had peeling paint, a sagging porch piled with snow, and a torn bag of garbage beside the steps. Just as I was about to change my mind, the door was yanked open, and a man with thinning jelled hair peered out in both directions before he hurried me in. Waves of sweet cologne wafted back as I followed him down the hall to his small windowless office.
On his desk were a phone, a calculator, several curled print-outs, a bottle of Scotch, and, right in the centre, money: three very big piles of bills tied with elastic bands, and a not-yet-sorted huge pile of one- and two-dollar coins. So, he did bring the bingo money home. I tried not to stare but I think he wanted me to be impressed. And I was!
Five minutes later I had the job. I didn’t get to use my well-practised combination of trust-me-with-all-your-earthly-possessions competence and I-know-my-place shyness, as he barely looked at me. Just as well as I didn’t want anything about me etched into his memory. We agreed on $75/day which prompted his oh-so-clever comment that he should get a wife as, after all, they work for free. I was ready with a fake phone number and a fake address—not really fake; I’ve just never lived there—but he didn’t ask. Nor did he ask for references. “You’ll do fine,” he said. “You remind me of my old grandma.”
Then he explained that he needed a clean house where he could bring his “clients,” especially his “ladies,” so he needed to know that on Friday nights his pad—honestly, he said “pad”—would, like him, be “ready.” When he started telling me that about the “hot number” he’d picked up last week at a bar in Scarborough, I got to my feet. Any sympathy I might have had for this schmuck was gone.
He showed me the vacuum, mops, etc., and gave me a key. It does the heart good to know how trusting people are. Alas, there were no silver candlesticks here. The only promise lay in Chester’s bingo money.
I returned the following week, and the work only took me about two hours. The only rooms he used were his disgusting bedroom, his disgusting bathroom, and his disgusting kitchen that was really just a storage place for dirty dishes, pizza boxes, and liquor bottles. His office, however, was locked with a deadbolt, and the hinges were on the inside of the door. The door was also locked the next three weeks. I was beginning to realize what an idiot I was, agreeing to dust, vacuum, and scrub—things I hate doing—to prove that menopausal women shouldn’t be so easily written off. Who was I kidding?
I was also finding out far more about Chester than I wanted. Just so you know: cleaning women know everything. After all, we change beds, empty bedroom wastebaskets, and clean under beds. Under his I found seven dirty glasses, a pair of tiny panties, and a pair of boxers boasting raging bulls. It was clear that Chester’s idea of entertaining involved a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. Then I found an empty prescription bottle for Flunitrazepam made out to John Jones for insomnia. That night on the Internet, I discovered Flunitrazepam is Rohypnol. Roofies—the date rape drug! Great. Not only was he a pig; he was a rapist. That did it. I didn’t need to work for this creep, and there was no money to be found anyway. I decided I’d give Chester one last week before I disappeared from his life forever.
I was mopping the hall right outside Chester’s office when his phone rang. The answering machine clicked on, and through the door I could hear someone called Mike shouting: “Chester, do you have any idea who you’re messin’ with? You know I don’t like having merchandise lying around. Call me, you moron!”
It still irked me that one little bolt—well, one very substantial bolt—was keeping me from all that money before someone like this lovely Mike got it instead. I decided that before I left, I would make a thorough search for a spare key. I was digging through the freezer compartment when right behind me I heard the sharp snap of breaking glass. I spun around to see that the window in the back door now had a hole in it, and a gloved hand was reaching in to pop the lock. Before I could think of what to do, two big guys were standing right there in the doorway, not five feet away. They both wore dirty ski jackets, jeans, sunglasses, and toques, and one of them was carrying a big gym bag.
The bigger one took a couple fast steps towards me, and I pulled back, banging my head on the corner of the fridge and knocking my glasses to the floor.
“Chester,” he whispered, “where is he and who the hell are you?” His voice was rasping and he reeked of cigarettes.
“Me? I—I’m the cleaning lady,” I whispered back, holding up my rubber gloved hands. “I don’t know where Chester is.”
He pushed me down onto a kitchen chair. Then he grabbed a tea towel from the oven door, wrapped it across my eyes, and tied it behind my head. I could feel my wig starting to lift, but I was more concerned with making sure the cotton rolls above my front teeth stayed in place.
“So, Mike,” the other guy said. His voice was slurred and thick. “Want me to, like, take care of her?”
“No, Stanley, you moron, I don’t! She’s old! Just tie her to the chair. Rope’s here in the bag.”
“Listen to me, lady,” Mike said. His voice was now slow and careful. “This has nothing to do with you. You behave yourself here with my friend Stanley and you won’t get hurt. I don’t go around hurting old ladies, but there’s always a first. Got it?”
I nodded and nodded.
Soon I heard banging followed by wood splintering, and then a series of crashes, glass breaking, and drawers being torn out. Soon Mike was back. “OK, got it. Chester’s been holding out on us again! Go! Go start the car.” I felt a burst of cold air before the door slammed and I heard a few more pieces of glass fall to the floor.
“OK, Grandma,” he whispered. I cringed. He gave the rope around my wrists a strong pull. “There,” he said. “You can get your hands free now. Now listen good. Five minutes and we’ll be long gone. If you call the cops before then, I’ll know, and I’ll be back to get you. Got that?”
I nodded “yes” and then “no.” I wished I could explain that he could completely trust me on that score.
There was another rush of cold air. A door slammed and a car roared away down the alley.
After a few minutes I got my hands free and my blindfold off. My legs were numb as I stumbled down the hall to get my sweater and coat. I felt old and useless and stupid. And so, so tired.
I put on my rubber gloves again, and dashed around wiping surfaces and making sure it looked as if I’d left before the men had arrived. Good thing I did as I found my glasses down between the fridge and the stove.
On my way out I passed Chester’s office, finally open. His desk and the floor were a mess of papers, ledgers, and bingo hall ads. Just then his phone rang. When I heard the voice, I started to shake.
“Hi, Chester, you moron!” That same rasping whisper. “I paid you a little visit this afternoon. Found myself a nice down payment, but if I don’t hear from you tonight, I’ll be back. And I won’t be so gentle next time.”
It clicked off, and then immediately rang again. “Chester? This is Lou. Who have you got for me tonight? Hey, catch ya’ later.”
Everything had been swept off his desk except for a nice new laptop. I couldn’t imagine what Chester needed a laptop for so I stepped into the office to take a look. When I touched the keyboard, it lit up and there, under the clever file name, “Girls,” was a list of names—Mandy, Lola, Candy, Sarita—all with Toronto numbers. Great; Chester was also a pimp.
I unplugged the laptop—which was now my laptop—and took it to the hall. I figured Chester owed me something. As I said, we can justify anything. It fitted easily into my giant shopping bag under my other coat. I’d already bundled the tea towel and the rope into a plastic bag, and buried them deep in my shopping bag. I was done. I locked the front door behind me, and forced myself to walk down the street in my dopey way even though I wanted to fall into someone’s arms and tell them what had happened. But we thieves, we don’t get to whine.
I dropped the smaller bag in a garbage bin outside the corner store, and clumped along Queen Street until I got to a Starbucks. When I returned from the washroom, I had straight grey hair, a dark wool jacket, dark pants, no hat, a normal gait, and a mouth that actually closed. I had even switched my white shopping bag for a turquoise one.
I dropped Chester’s house key down a grate, and hailed a cab to my apartment. First thing I did was check that all the windows were locked and there were no bad guys in toques in the bedroom closet or under the bed. Then I headed for the shower, sobbing. Before bed, I dropped the wig, glasses, and hat down the incinerator chute. In the morning, I ran off a list of Chester’s “girls,” and set off for the nearby shopping centre. On the way, I left my coat and nurse’s uniform at a Goodwill drop-off box. I knew the pulsing crowds of kids at the shopping centre wouldn’t notice an old woman in a crocheted hat using a payphone. I called each “girl” in turn and told them not to have anything more to do with Chester because he was using Roofies. Two thanked me; two said they didn’t know what I was talking about; one told me to go to hell, and one really wanted to chat. I tore up the list and threw it into a brimming garbage can.
Over the weekend, I reformatted the laptop’s hard drive and made sure it was wiped clean of prints. Ever the good cleaning woman, I. Monday morning, I left it in a drop-off box at the Elizabeth Fry Society. It was high time I helped “women who are, have been, or are at risk of being in conflict with the law.” Of course no one could thank me for my munificence. The curse of being a mild-mannered, criminal benefactor.
With all the evidence now gone, I was overcome with fatigue, partly because I could only sleep for a couple hours at a time without a nightmare in which Mike’s scratchy voice was whispering in my ear.
It wasn’t over yet.
The call from Chester’s Bingo Hall came that afternoon. I’d forgotten all about the $2 raffle ticket I’d bought that fateful night, but it turned out I’d won their Annual Lucky Casino Grand Prize of $3000! Trouble was I needed to pick it up in person so I could be photographed with their Manager, a Mr. Chester Newbert. You can imagine I didn’t want to be photographed with the dreaded Chester no matter how well I could dress myself up to look nothing like Laura-Ann Kelly. I offered to send my photogenic nephew, but they insisted it had to be me, and I had until the end of the month. I told them I’d do my best.
A few days later, I went for my weekly coffee date with an old friend. I was still shaky being away from my apartment, still looking over my shoulder. Wanda was reading a newspaper when I arrived. “Look, Nell!” she said. “Here’s the case Tommy was telling me about.” She is so proud that her son, the detective, trusts her enough to tell her tidbits about his work. She read me the headline, “BODY FOUND IN COWAN AVENUE DRUG HOUSE.”
“Cowan?” I asked, trying very hard to sound calm. “Did you say Cowan Avenue? And…someone’s dead?”
“Yeah, dead. Murdered. Some low-life. And yeah, Cowan Avenue out in Parkdale. Tommy says he was a drug trafficker. Same old story: pimps and drugs. He also had something to do with bingo halls too. Hah!”
I didn’t answer. I was busy putting it together that with poor Chester gone, there was absolutely no one who could connect me to Laura-Ann Kelly, Cowardly Cleaning Woman.
Wanda was still talking. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone this part, but what’s the harm in telling you? The police are looking for an old woman who’s involved somehow. They were watching the place, and they’ve seen her there several times. Tommy says she’s medium height, medium build, white hair, and glasses. She always wears a beige puffy coat, carries a very large shopping bag, and walks with a limp. They think she must be a professional criminal because the house was wiped clean of prints.”
“Really?” I said weakly.
“Yeah, really. And the day this guy was killed, an older woman called the prostitutes working for this guy telling them not to have anything more to do with him. So she must have known he was dead! The best part is that she didn’t know that one of the prostitutes was an undercover policewoman. Imagine! It’s like on TV. Are you all right, Nell? You’re a little flushed.”
“Just a hot flash.” I tried to laugh. “Stories like this make me nervous.”
“You’re so naïve,” Wanda said. “It’s a dangerous world. But listen, I haven’t finished my story. I told Tommy that I think I’ve seen this woman! Twice. Not far from here. I was waiting for the streetcar, and she walked right past me.”
“Oh, surely not,” I said.
“Yes! So I’m keeping an eye out for her. She’s about your height, down coat like Tommy said, and there’s something odd about her mouth. The last time I saw her she was limping along, wearing a pair of huge glasses. I wonder if it really was her. Or, I suppose she might just be a homeless person, one of those poor ex-psychiatric patients.”
I had to stop myself from grinning. It was over. If Wanda had walked right by me, then I really was safe. Safe and sound.
“Wanda,” I said, “I think detecting has gone to your head. It could have been anyone. There are millions of us ‘old’ women, and we all look the same.”