“I almost didn’t come,” she said, stepping into my mother’s apartment. “I was too ashamed.”
She didn’t say why. She didn’t have to. The face of this woman, who was maybe in her mid-70s, was entirely purple and yellow. The “whites” of her eyes were blood red. Above her left eyebrow, she had a knot the size and color of a small eggplant. Only the tip of her nose and the point of her chin were flesh-colored.
I did my best not to stare. It wasn’t working.
I couldn’t tell if her face was covered in tribal tattoos, if she was one of those blue people from the Kentucky backwoods you hear about, or if someone had kicked the shit out of this old lady.
Cynthia was here because my mother, Carol Guber, had died two weeks before. An appraiser, she came to put a value to Mom’s things—part of the slow-grinding bureaucracy of death that follows the passing of a loved one. A friend of the family’s had recommended her.
She had tried to cancel, Cynthia swore as she took off a worn trenchcoat and stepped into the foyer, but my number had been disconnected. Cynthia (I’m withholding her last name, for reasons that will become obvious later) showed me where she had written down my number in pencil on a pad of schoolroom paper, browned with age. The number was off by a digit.
She groaned a bit as she pushed herself up the stairs of the apartment, a duplex in a converted hospital not far from Gramercy Park in Manhattan. Cynthia explained that she had been walking her dog late on the Upper East Side and tripped on a stairway, the fool that she was. Then she began to putter around the apartment.
On Feb. 18, I took my mother into the hospital for what the doctors had promised us was a routine procedure—home in three to five days. It took nine to get her back to the apartment. And she was not well. I woke her up on Feb. 28. There was an open bottle of Oxycontin next to her bed. She kept asking for her mother, Edna, who was also her best friend. Edna had died in December of 2013.
On March 1, Mom and I went back to the hospital. On March 4, she had a catastrophic series of strokes, choking off the blood to half her brain.
Three brothers, two of her sisters-in-law, two rabbis, a Buddhist guru, two personal shoppers, several life-long friends, and one ex-husband all made pilgrimages to her room at the intensive care unit. Seven nieces and nephews came. Some friend of my uncle Zev’s showed up and played guitar.
We urged her to let go. We prayed for her easy passage and read aloud passages from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk she had become a kind of devotee of:
These eyes are not me. I am not caught in these eyes.These ears are not me. I am not caught in these ears.This body is not me. I am not caught in this body.This mind is not me. I am not caught in this mind.
We told each other stories about her time running a restaurant, a high-end caviar store, the local branch of a cult, a therapy practice, and a downtown shop called “The Pink Pussycat.”
And then, around 4 p.m. on March 9, the stories stopped. Mom took a last gasp.
They picked up her body five hours later.
I avoided Mom’s place for weeks afterward. I had already spent a month by her bed, by her grave, lost in a fog of grief. I had no interest in returning to the mist.
But the State requires an accounting of the deceased. And an accounting requires an appraisal of the items therein.
My aunt and cousin came in a few minutes after Cynthia. They had arrived from New Mexico to help me empty out Mom’s apartment.
“Heidi, this is, um, uh….” I stammered.
Cynthia introduced herself. She took out a palm-sized digital camera, I’m guessing a decade old.
“We’ve already taken pictures of all the art,” my aunt said. “We can [shoot photos of] the rest.”
“Oh, you don’t have to bother,” Cynthia said. “I have to use my own pictures. It’s part of the process.”
She took some notes on that browning pad of hers as she sat in the living room. Meantime, my aunt, cousin and I caught up as we walked through the apartment. Mostly, we talked about Mom. The shock we still felt from her passing. The embarrassment Mom would feel if she knew we were going through all her stuff.
At one point, I noticed Cynthia, still taking notes, staring at an amphora my mom had collected in Israel. After a half-hour or so, she headed upstairs to my mother’s bedroom. That’s where she kept the jewelry.
Mom liked her chunky necklaces, beaded ropes, Bakelite cuffs, and heavy clip-ons. And she threw it in cartons and stuffed it in drawers and draped it around clothing pins. Cynthia called down to the living to say how much she enjoyed it—especially the vintage costume jewelry. Mom had stopped collecting the stuff years ago but kept wearing all these art deco frog pins and faux-gold bee brooches and necklaces with faces of the sun.
Tucked in a few thin boxes were fancier pieces, mostly from her mother. Like my mom, Edna was a woman of style. But my grandmother’s tastes were decidedly uptown: Cartier watches in silver and gold, a Rolex, a silver ring with emerald and lapis, a diamond engagement ring or two. I had only noticed Mom wearing one or two of these things. For her, I’m guessing, they were more valuable as lifelines to Edna than as adornments for her wrist.
Cynthia spent an hour and a half going through it all, while my family and I kibitzed. I kept asking Cynthia how much longer she’d be. Finally, she came down, a little exasperated.
Cynthia explained that she had “separated out the good stuff” as best she could. She said I’d have her full report in 10 days. Then she put on her hat and trenchcoat and left.
The next day was a Thursday. My cousin Liz and I spent the day cleaning out the place, while my aunt tried to figure out where all this stuff would go. I found the pictures of my grandfather with Sammy Davis Jr. I opened my mom’s diaries—the one in which 15-year-old Carol wrote about being “felt up”—and shut it as soon as I could. There were yearbooks. Report cards. Presents never delivered. Dresses two sizes too small. Twelve cookbooks on how to make the perfect stew.
We hauled out a dozen contractor bags filled with junk. We filled 25 boxes with stew books and self-help pamphlets. And just as I was about to pass out on the couch, my cousin Liz said, “Guys… I think there are some things missing.”
Edna’s watches were gone, she said. Some of the rings, too.
Honestly, I didn’t believe her. Liz, a sweet-tempered design school grad, didn’t exactly fit the stereotype of a private investigator.
Besides, who would’ve taken the jewelry? The purple-faced lady? As my aunt said, Cynthia was so worn and frail, it seemed kind of pathetic that she was working at all—let alone operating as some cunning thief, tiptoeing in the haze of family grief.
If they’re still missing tomorrow, I said, we’ll do something about it. Then I passed out.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Liz had solid evidence that the jewelry was gone. After my mother died, Liz and her sister had stowed away the “good stuff” in a couple of very particular boxes. She knew what spot each ring and each watch were supposed to occupy. Several of those slots were now empty. On Friday, my mother’s oldest friend came over to her apartment while I went to work. Liz and Heidi told Margo about the missing jewelry. Unlike me, she wasn’t skeptical in the slightest.
“Happens all the time,” said Margo. An art dealer, she had experience distributing the possessions of the dead. Margo was sure she knew who took Edna’s good stuff. “You can’t turn your back on an appraiser for a second.”
There was only one thing to do, Margo said.
---------- Forwarded message ---------- From: Noah Shachtman <email@example.com> Date: Fri, Apr 8, 2016 at 2:53 PM Subject: Missing jewelry -- need response ASAP To: XXXXXX@gmail.com Cynthia: As we discussed over the phone, a number of pieces of jewelry have gone missing from my mother's collection. You are the only person outside of my family to have spent any time with that collection in recent days. If you inadvertently took any of these items, which are listed below, I need you to return them immediately—within the next few hours. Otherwise, I'll be forced to file a police report, and let the authorities know that you were the only stranger with access to my mother's now-missing jewelry. I'll also have to let your colleague XXXXXX know about this unfortunate situation. Hopefully, it won't come to that. Hopefully, this can be resolved quickly. Please contact me as soon as you have reviewed this list and your belongings. I expect an answer no later than 6pm. Sincerely,nms
Cynthia called five minutes later. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Cynthia said. “I must’ve accidentally put it in the wrong pile.”
“But I can only find three watches,” she added.
“Keep looking,” I replied.
Cynthia said she had a doctor’s appointment, but could drop the jewelry off with my mother’s doorman. “No,” I answered, “We’ll come to you.”
She gave me her address on the Upper East Side and hung up. I called my cousin Liz, who was already on the east side, and asked her to head uptown.
A few minutes later, Liz’s father Zev—Mom’s older brother—called from New Mexico rather alarmed at the arrangement. You can’t send my girl up to a robber’s house alone, he said. What if Cynthia has a gun? What if this is a set-up? What if the jewels are just bait?
It seemed unlikely to me. But no more unlikely than a purple-faced lady stealing from my mother. I told him I’d meet Liz up there. We’d do this together.
I let my somewhat-startled boss know I was heading out to catch a jewel thief, and race-walked over to the L train.
Meanwhile, Heidi and Liz had become just as unnerved as Zev. As they hustled out of Mom’s apartment, they left Post-It notes inside the place and with the doorman: If we’re not back in 90 minutes, call for help.
They jumped in a cab without bringing their wallets. Too easy to take if this was all a set-up, they figured.
I walked out of the 68th Street subway stop around 4:45, and started heading uptown. My mind was filled with conflicting, and equally crazy, thoughts. One minute, I’m convincing myself that poor Cynthia was just confused when she robbed my mother. The next, I’m psyching myself up to whoop an old lady.
Did I need some kind of weapon? Where would I get it? The Upper East Side of my youth, circa 1989, had a couple of “candy shops” that I seem to remember selling brass knuckles and throwing stars along with dime bags. But that was three mayors ago. And how much help would I really need to fight an AARP member with a broken face?
I got to Cynthia’s apartment building early, and paced around for a couple of minutes. By the time the doorman showed up I had calmed down. I told him I was looking for Cynthia. “Did you ring her?” he asked, pointing to the intercom. “She doesn’t always hear the buzzer.” And that was before the accident.
Liz and Heidi texted to say they were stuck in rush-hour traffic in the mid-50s. Cynthia walked into the lobby.
If she said anything to me at first, I can’t remember what it was. She appeared to be anything but agitated, though. She went over to her mailbox, pulled out a few envelopes, and then invited me into the elevator like I was a distant relative come to visit his aunt in the city.
“You’re not going to call the cops, are you?” she asked, as she pressed the button to close the elevator doors.
I said it depended on what happened next. Then she asked if I was a lawyer. No, I replied, a reporter. For The Daily Beast. “Oh, I read the Post,” she said, as she opened the door to her place.
There was no gun. No goon squad there to jump me. But the apartment was almost comically crowded. Gee-gaws and curios covered every flat surface. The walls were covered with a dizzying green brocade.
A beagle with a plastic cone on its head yipped. “That’s the one who got me into trouble,” Cynthia said, as she hung up her coat. Then she sat down on her rather elaborate couch—I think it was Victorian—reached into her purse, and handed me a small, white envelope. Inside were four watches and three rings—all of my mother’s missing jewelry.
I shoved the envelope into the chest pocket of my jacket. Cynthia asked again if I was planning to call the police. I said no, which was true. (To settle Mom’s estate, I needed Cynthia’s appraisal report—something I was unlikely to get if I sent the cops after her.) She apologized for the “confusion.” Then I walked out. The whole encounter in her apartment was over in a minute-and-a-half, tops.
In the lobby, I zipped up my jacket and tabbed the military-style collar. I walked down Lexington Avenue with my hands in the jacket pockets and my arms pressed close to my chest. It felt surreal, having $20,000 or more worth of jewelry on me; I hadn’t carried that much in liquid assets since I handed out cash to Brooklyn preachers and activists during the Dinkins-for-Mayor campaign in 1993.
I met Heidi and Liz on 59th Street, and paid for their cab. “Just another day,” I said to them, as we went down the steps. “Nothing exciting to discuss besides the weather. Just keep walking.”
We got on the 6 train and managed to keep our mouths shut for a few stops. But by the time we transferred for the express at Grand Central, we couldn’t keep from giggling.
Did that just happen? Did we just catch a real-life jewel thief? And how loud would Mom be laughing right now?
The headline writer in me—the frustrated pulp-fiction detective, too—couldn’t help myself.
“The Case of the Purple-Faced Lady,” I said, as the train sped downtown.
Cynthia still had one last trick to play, however. Or should I say, I had one final con to run on myself. As we got off the subway at Union Square and walked to Mom’s apartment, I found myself defending the lady who had taken my mother’s jewels.
“She might be telling the truth,” I said. “The doorman told me she really was confused.” And that was probably before whatever head trauma that came with her purple face. “If she was lying, why would she have let me into her apartment? Why would she have even given me the right address? Why hadn’t she pawned the stuff off?”
And if appraisers really do make a habit of pick-pocketing grieving families, mentions of such crimes don’t seem to show up in a search of police blotters and news reports. Nor have there been any lawsuits or criminal complaints against Cynthia in the past.
Maybe I’m in no mood for ugly truths, like a lady pocketing valuables from families half-blind with grief. Or a funeral home that takes you for even more money, just to put your mom in the ground. Or a gray bureaucrat who demands you prove she’s really dead for the 17th time before he’ll agree to stop a stupid newspaper delivery.
It’s easy to understand why I’d want The Case of the Purple-Faced Lady to have something of a happy—or at least a less-awful—twist. Why I’d have a little too much empathy for an older woman in obvious distress. After all, I just buried someone resembling that description.
So in the interest of giving Cynthia a fair shake in this story, I asked her last week if she wanted to provide some kind of plausible explanation for the missing jewelry. She called me back at 3 p.m. on the afternoon before Mother’s Day.
“What happened?” I asked her, expecting a sorry story about how mixed-up she was that day at my mother’s place.
“I didn’t think anybody wanted [the jewels] or cared about them. I saw them. I thought they were nice. I thought they were being tossed out. So I took a couple. Several,” she told me, matter-of-factly.
I’ve been a journalist covering crime and war for most of the 21st century. I’ve never heard someone confess to a felony so casually.
I asked her if she had looted from other families. “No, never,” she answered. “Listen, I’m so upset about it. I haven’t been able to sleep since it happened… But I really didn’t mean to. I thought it was just unwanted stuff.”
She asked me: “Please don’t use my name. Would you please spare me that. I didn’t mean to. It was nothing premeditated. I promise you that on my kids’ heads,” she added. “I’ve been in the business for 27 years. You can’t ruin my livelihood.”
I suggested that she should’ve thought about that before stealing from my Mom.
“It was an accident. It was an accident. I didn’t do this on purpose… I thought, I thought maybe—I was going to polish it or something,” Cynthia said.
She claimed I had promised not to tell anyone, which wasn’t true. (I had promised not to go to the cops.) She asked when my paper was being printed. I told her this would be on the Internet, on Mother’s Day.