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A Life of Crime

by Nikki Everts

Eloise Eleanor Cuthbert sat behind the defendant’s table in the Provincial Courtroom at the Old City Courthouse on Queen Street in Toronto. She was looking down at her hands. They kneaded the wad of Kleenex she’d recently used to dab at her eyes. Her lawyer was sitting beside her. He was perspiring profusely despite the air conditioning. His pudgy hand scribbled forlornly on the legal pad in front of him. Out of sight behind her, Eloise could hear her daughter’s quiet sniffling and the cloth-on-cloth sound of her son’s leg as he kicked it back and forth, a nervous habit he’d had since childhood.

“What on earth were you thinking, Mother?!” Deanna had demanded when Eloise called her from the police station just after her arrest.

Eloise didn’t dare tell Deanna what she had been thinking. “I don’t know what came over me, dear.” That left Deanna speechless for a change.

“A gun, Ma?!” Richard had said, after paying her bail, disbelief on his round, ruddy face. He was much more difficult to manage than Deanna. Richard always had been stubborn and single-minded, just like his father. He was bound and determined to hire Edward Greenspan, Queen’s Counsel, for her lawyer.

Thank God her daughter-in-law Milly’s penny-pinching ways overruled Richard’s familial pride. He finally conceded that they simply could not afford the best criminal lawyer in Toronto.

In fact, Eloise was far from disappointed with her court-appointed counsel. George McTeague was a pleasant young man and fully adequate to the task at hand. If only he wouldn’t take it so much to heart. Glancing over at him, Eloise was concerned. He definitely looked pasty. She wouldn’t forgive herself if anxiety over her case made him ill.

Eloise had known her decision would take a toll on her family, but she saw no way around it. Sitting in the court room, accused of armed robbery, Eloise had a lot to be worried about. What if they didn’t convict her? Eloise had done her homework and knew that, in Ontario, armed robbery carried a minimum sentence of four years; more if she got lucky. Mind you, four years should give her just enough time.

* * *

Eloise was proud of her accomplishment. It hadn’t been easy, and she’d made a few mistakes along the way. Shoplifting was her first stab at a life of crime, but no one took her seriously. The store manager at The Bay on Queen Street let her off with a warning, sympathy in his eyes.

Eloise could tell that he assumed she’d stolen the leather handbag, watch and expensive perfume because she was old, slightly addled and poor. She blamed her appearance for that; she looked like any other little old lady in the store: badly “permed” bluish white hair, wrinkly skin, slightly stooped and too skinny for her clothing. Pity kept the manager of the store from calling the police.

Her next attempt was not successful either. Instead of going to the Knitters’ Guild meeting one Wednesday evening, she threw a brick through Holt Renfrew’s glass display window on Bloor St. She had hoped to get inside, steal something and get caught red-handed. Unfortunately, the brick was heavier than she expected, and she twisted her back causing it to spasm. By the time the pain subsided enough for her to consider climbing through the broken window, the police car had driven up, siren shrilling, and she’d lost her nerve.

That time the nice young constable and his partner thought her flustered appearance was due to disorientation rather than frustration; they assumed she’d lost her balance and fallen against the glass accidentally. Even her protestations that she actually had intended to steal something were interpreted as clear evidence that she was overwrought. They insisted on taking her to the hospital. Once again, she’d been thwarted by her appearance. Aren’t mothers supposed to teach their children not to judge a book by its cover? Apparently not, she thought indignantly.

Eloise found this second attempt a bit harder to hide from the family, what with the lateness of her return home and her rather disheveled appearance. Thankfully, Richard wasn’t very observant. Not so Milly, who looked askance at Eloise when she walked through the door.

Eloise was racking her brain to think of a suitable lie when Milly came to her rescue: “Looks like the Knitters’ Guild meeting got you tangled up in knots, Mother El!” She guffawed, and Richard rolled his eyes before returning to The National Post. Milly continued, “Will you be all right to mind the children tomorrow?”

Much as Eloise loved her grandchildren, at thirteen and six and three, they were a handful. Not that she had much choice in the matter; her husband Percy had left her enough to bury him and that was it. She could not really afford to live on her own; she exchanged childcare, cooking and cleaning for room and board. It worked tolerably well, up to a point. And she’d reached that point about a year and a half ago.

Well, she had thought, a gun will make them take me seriously next time. Really, it was surprisingly easy to locate and buy a handgun these days. All it took was a few minutes on Richard’s laptop. She told him she needed to “Google” a knitting pattern. Richard raised an eyebrow and asked if she needed any help.

No, she’d told him rather tartly, she’d learned all about “Googling” at the Seniors’ Centre last year. She’d had to restrain herself from tittering when she said, “Googling.” It certainly sounded to her like some type of disreputable sexual behaviour.

Richard shrugged and returned to watching the Maple Leafs getting clobbered on Hockey Night in Canada.

Eloise had been surprised at how many stores selling handguns appeared on the screen. She settled on one that was near a subway stop downtown. It was easy to get to and busy enough that she wouldn’t be inundated with difficult questions. In fact, the clerk in the store did not even bat an eye when she came in. “I read so many stories in the papers about seniors’ getting robbed and beaten up, Ted,” she said, squinting at his name tag.

“It’s Tom, ma’am,” he said. A gaunt-looking young man with slicked-back hair, he nodded at her mumbled apology and, within minutes, laid out a selection of “pieces” as he called them, suitable for her hand size and strength. She’d chosen the Armscor M206 Revolver. It was the cheapest model, and it looked as she had imagined such a thing would.

Eloise had scrimped for six months to afford it. With a grin on her face, she put her bundle of cash on the counter and picked up her prize. The sensation of the small, snub-nosed gun balanced in her palm was thrilling; she felt powerful and dangerous. Not a normal state of mind for a seventy-one year old widow but enjoyable, nonetheless.

She had enough money left over to take lessons at the shooting range Tom — or was it Ted? — had recommended. Eloise relished the commotion her appearance generated, and, after a few lessons, she gained enough confidence to proceed.

Her delight at this newfound competence put a real bounce in her step; even Deanna noticed: “Mother, have you met someone? You look different somehow.”

Eloise pretended to be shocked, “My goodness, Deanna! Of course not!” But secretly she had been pleased.

Success depended on the selection of the right target, and a bank was the best fit for her “must have” list: lots of witnesses, broad daylight, and little chance of escape. Eloise finally settled on a small branch of the Scotia bank in North York.

The final challenge in all of this had been putting on weight. She’d already decided to wear a balaclava to hide her age, but felt her thinness might, once again, make people feel sorry for her instead of threatened. She’d been hounding Richard to lose weight for years and hated his smug expression when she started to put on the pounds. At night, alone in her room, she would try on different outfits with the balaclava to see what looked most menacing. She finally settled on basic black without the pearls.

* * *

The judge’s gavel pounded, and Eloise was startled from her reveries. Her heart thudded as she watched the jury file in, ready to hand over their verdict. She searched their faces, trying to discern their decision. They just had to believe in her guilt. She crossed her fingers under the table, hoping that the Armscor M206 would pay off now, when it counted; but these things were unpredictable at best.

Eloise did feel some twinges of remorse about the fright she’d given the bank clerk, a thirty-something dishwater blonde named Nancy with a thin mouth that made her seem unyielding. Nancy had been the sturdiest-looking female teller in the bank. Eloise wanted to make sure her victim would be young enough that she wouldn’t drop dead from a heart attack but not so young that she’d freeze and be too frightened to press the alarm bell. Eloise decided against the single male clerk, fearful that he’d try to be a hero and she might end up shooting him.

Eloise quelled her guilt by convincing herself that the bank was sure to reward the brave clerk with a raise or a promotion. After all, Nancy had eventually pressed the alarm button, saving the bank several hundreds of dollars. Of course, there was that awkward moment when Nancy had frozen, eyes fixed on the gun.

“Get moving with the money, sweetheart!” Eloise hissed in her best James Cagney impression.

That seemed to do the trick, for Nancy said, “Oh, yes, sorry, of course,” before she opened the cash drawer to shovel the bills and coins towards Eloise.

Eloise had to put down the gun in order to stuff it all into the lovely big shopping bag Deanna had brought back as a souvenir gift from Disney World. This emboldened Nancy and she then trod on the alarm.

It’s about time, Eloise thought to herself, hoping the police would get there soon. She dawdled just to make sure, waving the gun around at the other customers and making them all sit down on the floor with their hands on their heads. “That’s better!” Eloise shouted, her words muffled a little by the balaclava. “Nobody moves until I leave,” she added, shooting the gun at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling for emphasis and to play for time. The tinkling of shattered glass was gratifying: Eloise hated fluorescent lights; they gave her headaches. Inspired, she looked around for another offensive object to shoot.

Eloise heard the sirens before she could settle on a new target and decided she had better at least try to get away. Grabbing the bag, she made for the door and pushed it open, knocking down the arresting officer. Eloise had to restrain herself from apologizing and trying to help the policewoman up, behaviour she deemed unbefitting a bank robber. It was all rather exhilarating, she had to admit.

* * *

The jury was finally seated and the judge addressed them, “Do you have a verdict?”

Of course they have a verdict, Eloise thought, impatience getting the better of her.

“Would the defendant please rise,” intoned the judge. Eloise and her lawyer dutifully stood up. Eloise was limp with nervous exhaustion now that the end was in sight. George McTeague braced her elbow with his moist and meaty hand. Eloise felt ridiculously grateful for this small act of kindness.

Eloise eyed the members of the jury, trying to guess what their decision would be. If her children’s response had been anything to go by, Eloise had successfully affected the look of a hardened criminal. The fact that they were so obviously hurt and shocked by their mother’s conduct had made several members of the jury flush with indignation.

Eloise had to steel herself against the inevitable pangs of remorse with memories of the many nights she’d waited up for the children during their wild, teenaged years, anxiety robbing her of sleep. They would get over it, Eloise rationalized; after all, she had. They were adults with their own lives now. Perhaps they would understand and forgive her one day.

Addressing the foreman of the jury, the judge demanded, “What is your verdict?”

Eloise held her breath, she could not stop shaking and leaned into George’s bulk for support.

The foreman said, “We find the defendant guilty on all counts.”

Eloise expelled her breath and collapsed into her chair. Behind her Richard started to his feet and Deanna gasped. Eloise buried her face in her hands to hide her pleased smile. George McTeague patted her sympathetically on the shoulder.

Exultant, Eloise could not have been happier. At last, all her efforts had paid off, and her dream had finally come true. Now she would be able to devote herself fully to her one true passion, the thing that gave purpose and meaning to her life. She would not have to worry about room and board or babysitting or cooking and cleaning for at least four years. The way Eloise figured it, that should give her plenty of time to finish writing “A Life of Crime” — her first murder mystery.

Copyright © 2020 by Nikki Everts

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