If I were back at home, I would have spent this Saturday on the couch, watching a baseball game, drinking a beer with Gracie at my side. I wouldn’t have worried about this shit until Monday. Living at the office made it hard to stop working.
Maybe a little distraction would help me out. I wandered over to the television atop the filing cabinets across from my desk and turned it on. I leaned back in my office chair and put my feet on the desk. I pulled the remote from the middle desk drawer, flipping through the infomercials and old movies, settling mindlessly on some blonde trying to sell cookware.
Within a few minutes, the phone rang. I leaned over to pick up it up, leaving my feet on the desk.
“Fitzhugh Investigations,” I said.
“Mr. Fitzhugh? This is Sharon Hansen.” Her voice was mouse-like and timid.
I sat up straight.
“Hello! Thanks for calling me back, especially on a Saturday. I’m sorry to bother you at such a bad time, but I’m investigating the death of your daughter Gina and just had a couple questions.”
She sighed, painfully. I hated talking to victim’s family members. This one could be especially hard. The woman had lived through the sexual abuse of her daughter by her husband for god sake. Now that daughter, who obviously struggled with keeping the horror of her abuse at bay through drugs and alcohol, had been murdered.
“What do you need to know?”
“I’m looking for information on Gina, her background and any contact you might have had with her recently.”
Another painful sigh.
“Gina and I have been estranged for a number of years. Her drug and alcohol problems were so severe that I had to separate myself from her. I’m sure you understand.” The words caught in the back of Sharon’s throat. How much agony did this woman have to endure?
I’d seen enough addiction and concerned family members to know that, sadly, happened sometimes. The violence, the theft, and the drama: after a while you just had to shut the door for your own self-preservation. But her daughter was dead. The drama —with her at least—was over and she deserved a decent goodbye.
“I saw the stories in the Beacon-Journal. You and your family have been through a lot. I hate to see something like that happen. But I have to ask why you didn’t come to her funeral?”
“I’ve been in ill health for some time, Mr. Fitzhugh, and confined to a wheelchair. I can’t drive anymore as a result and I couldn’t find anyone to bring me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It was a nice service.”
Sharon was silent.
“So are you aware you have three grandchildren?”
“No I’m not.” Her mousy, pained voice turned flat.
That’s an odd reaction. Most people I know would be thrilled to know they’re grandparents. Not me, of course, but then I’m not most people.
“Two boys and a girl. Cute kids.”
“I heard that the bar Gina worked at raised money for her burial and got about half the amount. Some unknown benefactor paid for the rest, supposedly. Do you have any idea who would do that?”
“No I don’t. As I told you, Mr. Fitzhugh, I’ve been out of touch with my daughter for a number of years as a result of her addictions. It’s been a long hard road. I’m sorry I can’t help you.”
“You don’t want to know what’s going to happen to your grandchildren? Or what is going on with the investigation?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Fitzhugh. It’s not that I don’t want to help, it’s just a matter that I can’t.” She hung up.
What about Tina? Maybe Tina Cantolini-Jones had a little more insight into this mess. I turned the laptop back on and began my search again for phone numbers. The Indians were playing the Tigers by this time and losing by a run. Maybe by the end of my phone calls, they’d be ahead.
I didn’t find any “Tina Cantolini-Jones” and no “Tina Cantolini” listed by herself, so I made the assumption Tina and her husband Sam were still married.
I started with every Sam Jones listed in San Francisco; when that didn’t work, I tried every “S. and T. Jones” listed, then every “S. Jones.” After hours of hearing “Sorry, wrong number” my blood pressure was up and the Indians were down another run. OK, one last try and I fucking quit. I pushed in the number for the last S. Jones and listened to the phone ring.
In the background, the announcer droned on: It’s bottom of the ninth and there’s two outs. Indians are up to bat. They trail by two runs and the bases are loaded—
A young boy, his voice cracking with puberty, answered the phone. “Hello?”
There’s the wind up—
“Hi, I’m looking for Tina Cantolini-Jones?”
And the pitch—
“Hang on.” The phone made a thunk as he dropped it. I heard a yell: “Mo-o-o-o-om! Pho-o-o-o-one!” I held my breath as footsteps came closer to the phone. Please let them belong to the woman I’m looking for.
In the background, the announcer kept talking. He swings—
“Hello, this is Tina Cantolini-Jones.”
He connects with a powerful crack of the bat and that ball is flying! It’s on fire!
“Hi, my name’s Niccolo Fitzhugh. I’m a private detective. I’m looking into the death of Gina Cantolini.”
She sighed. “She’s dead? I didn’t know that. That breaks my heart.”
And the ball sails up, up, up—it’s heading toward the scoreboard—
“Yes ma’am. She was murdered last week. They found her body under the stage at the Italian Festival in Fawcettville. I was wondering if you can tell me anything about her, specifically, her mother Sharon.”
“Oh, I can fill you in on Sharon.”
And it’s a goner! It’s a home run! The Indians win!
“What can you tell me about her? Anything specific you think would help my case? I’m looking into—”
“That bitch? It’s about time somebody exposed what she did to my brother.” Tina turned from a well-bred California mom back to her hardscrabble eastern Ohio roots.
“Sharon fabricated everything she had that girl say on the stand. Nothing that girl said was true! Nothing! That little bitch ruined a good man and I tell you from the bottom of my heart, my brother never did that! Never!”
“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You mean Gina? It was Gina who testified against her father, right?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I pulled the TV remote from my middle desk drawer, shut off the post-game celebration and put Tina on speaker. I needed to hear every nuance in her words. Her rage and the anger burned through phone lines and she was near tears. This had been simmering for a long, long time.
“No Gina didn’t testify against her father—she was the only one in that family who wasn’t bent on destroying Brian! It was Mariella, the older one.”
I thought back to Alberto’s death notice.
“Mariella was a younger sister? She was listed second in your father’s obituary, behind Gina.”
“Mariella is five years older than Gina. She was twenty when Sharon and my brother split up.”
“She was twenty when she accused her father of sexually abusing her? What the hell started that?”
“Sharon manipulated her into doing it. She called her at night at her college dorm—Mariella was going to Akron State, and wasn’t happy there. Sharon started unloading on Mariella about how miserable she was being married to her father and somehow planted the idea she’d caught her father abusing her when she was a little girl.”
“Sharon was a master manipulator. I never understood what Brian saw in her, but he was a bookworm, never dated much. He probably thought that some babe like Sharon was going to be his dream girl. She wasn’t.” Tina spit out the word like it was poison.
“What was Sharon like?”
“She was horrible to live with. She put on one face for the public, where everyone thought she was sweet and lovely and did no wrong, but she was different behind closed doors. Brian told me after the girls were born he couldn’t do anything to make her happy. He’d do anything that woman wanted. If she wanted a new car, he’d get her one, even on a teacher’s salary. She wants a new house? They go looking for one. Sharon always dressed to the nines—she never went out without looking like a million bucks. Once, on a whim, she wanted their bedroom painted, so my brother takes a whole Saturday and paints those walls the color she wanted and everything. And when she got home with the girls from a shopping trip, she told him it didn’t turn out the way she wanted and to paint it back the original color. And he did it!”
“So she keeps working on Mariella, feeding her this garbage that Brian abused her, all the while riding him like a rented mule. He was too fat; they didn’t live in a nice enough neighborhood, why hadn’t they gone to Europe like all her fancy friends? He used to call me on his way home from work and tell me all this crap. He was miserable and then he finally met somebody, somebody who treated him like a human being. When he realized that Brian decided to file for divorce. He couldn’t stand Sharon any more.”
“What happened then?”
“Brian didn’t understand why Mariella suddenly wouldn’t talk to him, so he took a day off from work and drives up to see her at college. I always thought Mariella was a lot like her dad, really gullible and in some ways not real bright, but she had her mother’s vicious streak, too. She confronted him with all this made up crap. He was flabbergasted, and then he was devastated. He tried to convince Mariella she’d been fed a load of garbage, but she believed her mother. When he confronted Sharon about the whole situation that night, it all blew up.”
Tina stopped and gathered her thoughts.
“She filed for divorce, threw Brian out of the house, then she and Mariella filed a complaint. That got Brian suspended from school, then charged with child abuse and the papers got hold of it…” her words trailed off. “Mariella’s testimony made sure Brian was going to be convicted. When he heard it and saw the jury’s reaction, he went home and blew his brains out.”
“I am so sorry.”
“Gina saw through a lot of it, even though she was only fifteen. She kept trying to tell the officials that Mariella was lying but they wrote her off, didn’t take her seriously at all. After Brian killed himself, Sharon turned on that kid and absolutely ruined her life. Sharon told Gina she was wrong, a loser like her dad. Made the kid question every memory she ever had from her childhood. Gina would call me and tell me what was going on. She hung on to how she knew her Daddy wasn’t that kind of guy and her mother crucified her for it.”
“When did Gina come back to Fawcettville?”
“As soon as she turned eighteen, she left. I don’t know why she went back to where Mom and Dad lived, but she did. Maybe she was trying to find some old family connections back in the New Tivoli neighborhood or something, I don’t know. She already had a drug and alcohol problem, poor kid. It was her only way to escape her mother.”
“So why did you leave Ohio?”
“The trial and Brian’s suicide just ruined everything. Mom couldn’t go anywhere without people whispering and pointing. Dad was heartbroken. He died within a couple months of Brian’s suicide. It was the same for my family. Sam had an opportunity to transfer to San Francisco, so we packed up all our stuff and Mom and moved out here. We’ve been here ever since—the only time we came back was to bury Mom next to Dad in Pittsburgh. Nobody knows the Cantolini name out here.”
“Do you have any contact at all with Sharon or Mariella?”
“Are you kidding? I wrote that bitch and her idiot daughter off long ago.”
“I have to tell you, I talked to Sharon a couple hours ago.”
“I’m sorry for you.”
“No, actually, she sounded very timid, very unassuming.”
“Yeah, well, that’s part of the game she plays.”
“She said she was in a wheelchair now and couldn’t make it to Gina’s funeral because she can’t drive. Said she couldn’t find anyone to bring her.”
“She could tell me the sun comes up in the east and I wouldn’t believe her. I not only wouldn’t believe her, I’d call her doctor to check the diagnosis and then find out where she bought the wheelchair and ask to see the receipt. That bitch is lying through her teeth.”
I sighed. So Gina wasn’t a victim of her father—both she and Daddy were the victim of a real Mommy Dearest. I remembered Gina’s sad eyes in the back seat of my cruiser and understood. My victim tried to stand up for what is right and got beaten down for it. What kind of person did that to her own daughter?
“A couple years ago I got a wedding invitation from Mariella. She was marrying some guy back there, but I don’t remember the name. I threw the whole thing out.”
“If I have any more questions, can I call you back?”
“Sure. I want somebody to give that bitch everything that she’s got coming.”
Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com or come back next week for the next chapter. Holy Fitz, the next book in the Fitz series is also available on my web site.