Aunt Penny’s Brooch

By Hy Conrad

It was a frigid day in February as Carol Bixby warmed herself in front of the fireplace in Aunt Penny’s old-fashioned living room. Sitting beside her were her cousins, Aunt Penny’s two other nieces. All of them stared silently at the Victorian brooch lying on a footstool, its central diamond gleaming in the fire’s red glow.

Aunt Penny had died two weeks ago. On the afternoon after the funeral, her three nieces cleaned out the old woman’s house. It was Stephanie who found the brooch in a dusty jewelry box in the attic. Her sister Gwen thought it must be a piece of cheap costume jewelry, but the other two cousins noticed the diamond’s deep gleam. Together, they took it to a jeweler who confirmed their suspicions. It was real, all right. Aunt Penny’s gaudy piece of jewelry was worth a lot.

The next day, their discovery made the local paper, complete with a color photo of the brooch. But all the publicity made Carol Bixby nervous. “We should get it insured,” the police detective told her cousins. They both agreed, and that’s what they were doing here on the coldest day of the year, waiting for the insurance appraiser to arrive and place a value on it.

Jonah walked in from the kitchen, munching a PB&J sandwich, just in time to see Stephanie picking up the brooch and cupping it in her hands. “You know, I’m the one who found this,” she said. “It’s rightfully mine.”

“Don’t start that,” Gwen said. “Aunt Penny left her estate to all of us. We’ll sell it and divide the proceeds.”

Gwen grabbed the brooch from her sister. Then Stephanie tried to grab it back. It looked to Jonah like a fight might break out right then and there. But that’s when the doorbell rang.

A half-frozen man in an overcoat stood on the porch. “John Bitterman,” he announced, showing them his card. “Apex Fine Insurables. May I come in?”

The three women ushered him inside and took his coat. Carol offered him a chair, and Stephanie ran off to the kitchen to pour him a cup of coffee.

“I suppose you want to see the brooch,” Gwen said and handed it to the stocky middle-aged man.

John Bitterman adjusted the floor lamp, took a jeweler’s loupe from his pocket, and began to inspect the central diamond. He turned it over, then put it back on the table. “I hate to be the one to tell you, but this brooch is a fake.”

Stephanie had just come in from the kitchen and almost spilled the coffee. “A fake?” she gasped. “That can’t be.”

“I’m afraid so,” said John. “The design is late Victorian. Genuine pieces are worth over fifty thousand. But a lot of paste copies were made.”

“A jeweler told us it was real,” Gwen protested.

The three cousins stared at each other, crestfallen and embarrassed. “At least we won’t be fighting over it,” Carol said with a forced little laugh.

John Bitterman stayed and drank his coffee, explaining the ins and outs of costume jewelry, but no one was paying attention. Young Jonah picked up the cold, worthless brooch from the table and examined it. It did look kind of fake, he had to admit. “Mom?”

Carol recognized the tone in his voice. “What’s the matter?” she said, crossing to his side.

“I think I know what happened,” Jonah whispered.



“Someone made a switch,” Jonah told his mother. “Mr. Bitterman said there were a lot of copies of that brooch. It wouldn’t have been hard to find one and substitute it for the real thing.

Carol Bixby thought of her two cousins. I can’t believe either Gwen or Stephanie would do that. Maybe the jeweler we went to made a mistake. Maybe it was always a fake.”

“No, it was definitely switched,” Jonah insisted. “The brooch was in the house all day. And yet, when I touched it just now, it was cold, like it had been outside.”

“Outside?” Carol glanced over to the only new arrival, the appraiser. “You mean he brought in a fake and switched them?”

“Why not?” Jonah said. “The brooch was in the paper, so he knew what it looked like.”

John Bitterman was at the door, putting on his coat, when Carol Bixby took him by the arm. “I’m sorry, Mr. Bitterman, but I’m going to have to search your pockets.”