Barry Hoffman's HUNGRY EYES

Chapter Thirteen

Royce Timmerman was a bookie. And a charmer. It was why Deidre sought him out mid-morning Saturday. She had called Loretta Barrows at ten, and though reluctant, Renee's mother had agreed to an interview at three in the afternoon.

Royce Timmerman had more nicknames than a porcupine had quills. To Deidre and a few select others, he was Timms. To most he did business with he was Tiny Tim, though he was anything but tiny. There wasn't a donut safe when he was around, and exercise nowadays revolved around the remote of a television. Fifty-two, he'd once been stocky, but he'd long since gone to flab. The more weight he gained, the more hair fled his scalp; an oval of thinning hair now surrounded a glowing dome.

Timms had been a successful television ad salesman, with a penchant for gambling. Unfortunately, he had a perpetual cold when it came to sniffing out winners. He'd considered joining one of those twelve-step groups after his marriage hit the skids and his bank account consisted of a few bills in his pocket. He'd been talked out of it, though, by his bookie. Lester Beaumount knew Timms hated his job, and while he was no psychologist felt it was at the root of his addiction.

"Want to stop gambling real quick?" Lester asked him, so his version of the story went. Timms had shrugged. Another good samaritan with a foolproof remedy.

"You work for me. I teach you the ropes, get you connected to the right people."

Lester was sick; had been for four years. Never went to a doctor. Decided if it was his time to go, so be it, but he wasn't going to be cut open, prodded and probed only to be told he was dying anyway.

He took bets on how long he'd last, and had so far cleaned up to everyone's surprise. He wanted to pass his wisdom down before he keeled over, and felt Timms a prime candidate.

With nothing to lose, Timms accepted Lester's offer, and lost his appetite for gambling within a month. He saw himself in too many of the losers who frequented the bar they worked from. It easily beat getting up in front of a group of strangers and spilling his guts.

Lester died a year later, and the powers that be allowed Timms to succeed his mentor.

Deidre had researched a story on compulsive gamblers five years earlier and had been steered to Timms. By this time he'd become proficient at his craft. Anything but impartial, Deidre had come onto him with an attitude, but Timms had easily won her over.

"I'm no saint, girlie, but there's some people that got the bug. Haven't bet a dime in seven years, now, but I been there and I'm not out to screw the poor bastards. I don't look to rip the heart out of those who can't get the monkey off their back. Guy's down on his luck, I'll help him out. Guy needs a place to crash, he's only got to ask. Guy's over his head I can say no, and pass the word no one's to touch his action. But I'm not a social worker. I'm a businessman. Just like I was, man's got the fever, no way of stopping him."

"You're a saint, Mr. Timmerman," Deidre had replied, but without as much sarcasm as she wished.

"Let me give you a tip, girlie. Make no bones about it, I drop dead tonight, someone else'd be here tomorrow morning. Maybe someone who hasn't been there before. Maybe someone who'll squeeze the last dollar out of some poor schlep, and point him to a loanshark. Sad to say, but if you're any kind of reporter you'll find there's a lot worse than me. With me here, at least there's someone looking out for them. I use girlie, but I don't abuse. Few are so civic minded."

And sad to say, that's what Deidre learned from the scores of anonymous interviews set up by Timmerman. And not one of them had a bad word for the man that took their money. He was a godfather to a dozen kids, and lavished them all with expensive gifts. Any man who tried to pawn one of his gifts became an outcast. They knew it, and respected his rules.

He consoled the football widows, and mediated domestic squabbles. In hushed whispers, they hold how Timms had donated portions of each weeks' earnings to shelters for abused women. More than once he'd paid the rent for a family about to be evicted because the old man had piddled the rent money on a bum horse. Yet, he made it clear to them that he was no soft touch. He wouldn't subsidize a family forever. And more than once, he'd advised a distraught wife to move out and on with her life, as he'd no longer pay the bills.

Later, when Timms learned Deidre had a thing for kids who'd been through the wringer, she'd received whispered phone calls which invariably led to a child with a horror story that begged to be heard. With some snooping of her own, she learned the leads came from Timms.

She hadn't seen him since she'd lost her family. At the funeral, he whispered he'd be there if she ever needed him. Now, she'd come to collect.

Deidre entered the Jockey Club, and spotted Timms where he always sat, his back to the wall in the far left corner. He liked to survey the clientele; could tell a hell-of-a-lot about a man by how he walked or sat, what or how much he drank.

He hadn't changed much in the last two years. A little less on the top, a few more wrinkles lined his face, and a few more pounds had been added to his frame.

They engaged in some small talk, and soon it was if she'd only seen him yesterday. He made her smile. He made her laugh. Even with all on her mind, there was no escaping his charm.

"So, girlie," he finally said, a twinkle in his eye. "You didn't come down her to reminisce, sad to say. And, I can't imagine what the Mayor would want with me. Possibly, a hot tip he has and a wager he'd like discreetly placed?" He laughed as Deidre was about to protest.

"Where's your sense of humor, girlie. I was just funning you. So, don't keep an old man in suspense. What can I do for you?"

Long ago, Deidre had learned the best way for her to motivate her informants was to be straight with them. They respected her confidence, and what she said never passed their lips. Some might have thought her naive, at first, but she choose her sources carefully, disdaining those with loose lips. So, now, she told Timms about her theory about a girl who'd committed suicide who was actually the Vigilante. She told him her problem, and what she needed.

"Renee ran away, but I'm betting she didn't run far. No need to. She was dead. No one was looking for her. It's no more than speculation, but I have a hunch someone who ran a shelter back then knew who she was, and took her in. Gave her a new identity and made sure she wasn't recognized."

"And you want me to find out who took her in?"

"It's been thirteen years, Timms. All I've got are some pictures of her when she was ten." She took them out and handed them to him.

"But, if anyone can track her down, you can. A name, Timms, that's all I need. Her name. The name she took when she abandoned Renee."

He was silent for a moment. She couldn't tell if he looked thoughtful or skeptical.

"I know it's a longshot," she went on thinking he needed convincing. "I'm assuming she stayed in the area. And after thirteen years, there can't be too many people who could be of help. But I can't stand by and do nothing . . ."

He held up a fleshy hand to silence her. "Don't have to sell me, girlie." He smiled. "Good to see you doing real work again. Talking for that pansy Mayor . . ." He waved a hand in dismissal. "Your stories were your calling, and it pained me to see you give it up. But there's fire in your eyes; the same fire the first time you visited me. If they were daggers, I wouldn't have stood a chance, if I'd had a cocked shotgun pointed at your gut.

"I'll take that as a compliment Timms, I think," she said, laughing.

"It was meant as one. Anyway, if this child didn't leave the city when she up and killed herself, I'll find out." He smiled. "You can make book on that."

She planted a kiss on his forehead when he promised to get back to her in two, three days at the most.

# # # #

Half-an-hour later, Deidre was staring into the surly, suspicious face of Loretta Barrows. Deidre really couldn't blame her for the outward hostility. The media as a whole had come down hard on her thirteen years before. And while Deidre had focused on Renee, and the media circus that surrounded the child, she'd be the first to admit she hadn't had a kind word to say about the girl's mother.

The years hadn't been kind to Loretta Barrows. Seriously overweight when Deidre had seen her after Renee's kidnapping, she was heavier now, if possible. She hid her body in a dress that could have masqueraded as a tent, but her face told the story. A triple chin had replaced the previous double version. Her skin had the pasty look of someone seriously ill. She wore her hair tied back, which only accentuated her large face and fleshy jowls. Her eyes were the color of Renees', but where Renee hid her emotions behind her baby blues, Loretta Barrow's eyes were an open book; a mixture of anger, pain, betrayal and hostility towards the reporter who stood before her.

As if this weren't enough, her body emanated an odor of decay. As she ushered Deidre inside, she winced as she hobbled, cane in hand, to an overstuffed easy chair. As she sat down, dust billowed forth, though if she noticed it, she hid it well. Once in the chair, she didn't plan on getting up to extend hospitality.

"Don't be expecting me to offer you no coffee or tea. With what you and yours done to my family, it's a wonder I let you in." She lit a cigarette, her fingers brown from nicotine, and wheezed as she drew on the unfiltered smoke.

Deidre let the woman vent her anger; a fury which having been bottled up for thirteen years now flowed like a river through a broken dam. Deidre recalled the media had lambasted the woman after Renee's disappearance, then attacked her even more viciously after her rescue, when the Department of Human Services had put the child in a foster home. Loretta Barrows deserved the tongue-lashing she received daily, for at the least she neglected her child. At the worst she was an abusive woman who treated her only daughter like a slave.

Loretta Taglio had borne two children. Her son's father had married her when she became pregnant at sixteen, but had left after Loretta kept putting on weight after giving birth and becoming little more than a couch potato.

In the intervening five years, before she became pregnant with Renee, she'd had numerous one night stands and short-term lovers; oddly enough, teens, for the most part, interested solely in sexual experimentation. None were in any way romantically attracted to the woman. Any one of three to five men or boys could have been the father of her only daughter.

When Renee was five fortune smiled on the family when Anthony Barrows inexplicably fell for, and married the ever-expanding woman. Word of mouth in the neighborhood, reporters had unearthed, was Loretta told Anthony she was preggers and old-fashioned that he was, married her against his better judgment. He went so far as to adopt Renee, and bestow her with his surname. Loretta had conveniently had a miscarriage, but Anthony stood by his woman, nevertheless.

He'd been killed when the police had raided their home on a bad tip, having had the misfortune to be cleaning a gun he kept for protection. With the money the city eventually paid to the grieving widow, she'd paid off the mortgage on the South Philadelphia rowhouse.

She'd never worked a day in her life, and was soon on welfare, not too proud to live off a city that had so thoughtlessly taken her man and breadwinner.

Renee, eight, became the family's live-in maid. The few clothes her mother bought dwarfed the child; all the better for her to grow into. She was a frequent visitor to thrift shops, with neither her son or daughter owning anything but underwear that had not been worn by some stranger before.

All this and more had been dutifully unearthed by the media in the course and aftermath of Renee's kidnapping. DHS, the Department of Human Services, fully aware from neighbors complaints, of the neglect had removed Renee from her mother's care upon her release from the hospital after the aborted kidnapping.

There were even intimations, which Deidre totally discounted, that Loretta had sold Renee to Edward Costanzo as a sex slave, and knew where she was the entire time she tearfully appealed for her return. She had initially not fought the DHS placement of Renee in a foster home, but reconsidered when money started rolling in; the funds put into a trust account she was denied access. And, there were, of course, lucrative book and movie offers that would benefit the grieving mother only if she regained custody.

Yes, the media had raked Loretta Barrows over the coals pretty savagely. Her fifteen minutes of infamy had brought her only bitterness.

She looked at Deidre now, holding up a clipping Deidre recognized as one she'd written for the News on the kidnapping.

"I hope you're a better reporter now than you were when you wrote this crap," she said scornfully. "This ain't my daughter you wrote about. She had you conned, didn't she? making herself out to be some helpless little thing in need of loving. Helpless, my ass," and she balled up the article she held and threw it to the floor in anger.

Deidre knew better than to argue with this woman. To gain her trust, she'd have to confide in her; tell her some journalistic secret that the women would be able to use as gossip with her friends.

"Let me be honest with you Mrs. Barrows." She paused. She decided against asking the women if she could call her Loretta. "To protect Renee, gain sympathy for her, I smoothed out the rough edges, if you know what I mean."

"Lied! Just like all them other bloodsuckers." She took out more clippings from a dog-eared folder. Deidre guessed Loretta Barrows spent many a night bitterly rereading the media's spin on her neglect.

"A LITTLE GIRL'S LOST CHILDHOOD," Loretta spat out, reading the headline of one article. "Fucking pansies. Never worked a day in their lives. When I was growing up I did my mother's bidding; did the chores like I was told, and didn't complain. Because Renee had to do some cooking and cleaning I'm an unfit mother."

There was much more, of course, Deidre knew. Loretta sent her to buy cigarettes as late as one in the morning. The girl had a moth-eaten coat, too thin for the cold of winter, too heavy for spring and early-fall. Renee was sent to buy groceries; told to put the bill on the families account. Even the most sympathetic store owner eventually had to send the girl away, as bills went unpaid month after month.

Nevertheless, seeing Renee shivering in the cold of winter, even those who knew better never sent her away without some morsel for herself. The food, as demanded, was duly delivered to her mother to be shared by the entire family.

Loretta went on. "Here's a good one: SHOCKED NATION RUSHES TO OFFER HELP," with a picture of Renee's hospital room crammed with toys and clothes. The story had captured the attention of the country. The New York Post sent two reporters, one to cover the Costanzo angle, another to get an exclusive interview with Renee. When Renee refused, dealing solely with Deidre, the reporter had scoured the neighborhood, printing fact and innuendo not checking for accuracy.

According to the reporter Christmas at the Barrow's household was just another day; no gifts, no tree, no holiday spirit. Birthdays, likewise, went unnoticed. Teachers were interviewed, and then castigated for allowing the neglect to continue. At Thanksgiving, a basket of food was routinely delivered to the Barrows'. It was well-known the family was in need, but that's as far it went. Renee often had bruises on her arms and legs and teachers had their suspicions, but DHS had never been contacted. The Posts' writer stretched the theory into three articles, and the flood of clothes, toys and money began.

"White trash, that's what they called me. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Bullshit. Them bruises, Renee got from fights she got into all the time. Dished out better than she got, too," she said proudly. "But to listen to your people, I beat her regular to keep her in line."

Here Deidre knew Loretta Barrows spoke the truth. Renee had told her of the fights she'd had in school. It was part of her kick-them-in-the-balls philosophy Deidre had kept out of her stories. And Renee had adamantly told Deidre her mother never beat her. Didn't have to. Renee knew her place at home. She did her chores, hell, kept the household running, then escaped to the streets.

Renee's friends, which the other reporters never ferreted out, consisted of hookers, street people, even numbers runners. Renee had told Deidre stories galore how they "educated" her to life on the streets.

Some neighbors had pointed reporters in the direction to those Renee hung with, but when interviewed they'd shrug their shoulders in ignorance. No one gave them shit, except when they wanted something. Seeing how Renee was raking it in without their help, they held their tongues so as not to sully the portrayal of the poor pathetic child.

Lastly, Loretta held up two articles, her face reddening as she scanned the headlines: BATTLE FOR RENEE, and MOTHER ASKS FOR HER DAUGHTER BACK.

"You and your kind drove my child away from me. Poisoned the minds of them do-good social workers and faggot judges till they took her away from me for good. They let me see my child one day a week, and then only with some stranger to keep an eye on me, like I'd snatch her away."

For the first time she had to choke back emotion, tears forming around her eyes. "Without her mama's love, she had nothing, and killed herself."

In point of fact, Loretta hadn't put up a fuss until talk of movie deals and books began to materialize. Big money was involved, but the focus was, of course, on Renee, and without custody Loretta was a fifth wheel. After Renee's suicide, interest waned completely. TV movies had to have an upbeat ending, and here there was none. The two reporters from the Post put out a quickie book, published five weeks after Renee's death. Loretta didn't get a penny. With Renee's death the cash cow was gone, and Loretta was resentful. Deidre now saw an opening.

"You have no reason to trust me, I'm fully aware. But at the same time you have nothing to lose. I want to tell your side of the story. Tell the world how you've suffered, and what you've lost. To be perfectly frank, if you help me generate enough interest, the television people might come knocking at your door. Hard Copy, Inside Edition, even Donahue pay now. MOTHER BLAMES WITCHHUNT FOR LOSS OF CHILD: SUFFERS IN SILENCE FOR THIRTEEN YEARS. That's the headline I'll suggest. As I said, you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain."

Deidre could see the woman's mind at work. Dirty laundry exposed again, the downside. But easy money, maybe even fame could make the mud-slinging much easier to swallow. Though wary, Loretta Barrows was won over, and she and Deidre talked for another hour.

Deidre would tell Loretta Barrow's story. She would make her appear to be the aggrieved party. She'd play fast and loose with the neglect, make Loretta Barrows into a sympathetic figure, and in the process draw the wrath of her prey. An angry, out of control Renee, with her youth distorted might well blurt out something in the heat of the passion which would lead Deidre to her. She had nothing to lose.

On her way out, Deidre was planning phase two. Her story wouldn't appear until Monday. Tomorrow, she'd interview the sister of Edward Costanzo, and generate sympathy for the kidnapper. That would drive Renee up the wall, Deidre thought. She was repulsed, but Renee had initiated this cat and mouse game, and there were literally lives at stake.

Time, too, was of the essence. Here the ends justified the means. Yet, it didn't make her feel much better. Loretta Barrows deserved no sympathy. She was self-indulgent, egotistical and took no responsibility for her actions. A sham, so transparent, she had been easily exposed within days of the kidnapping. Throughout the ordeal, she'd kept to form. And now she was bitter, not because she had lost her daughter, but because of a failed opportunity.

Deidre had seen the gleam in her eye when the possibility of turning a dollar had so unexpectedly plopped into her lap. While she loathed generating sympathy for this woman, she was comforted by the thought Loretta Barrows was so crass and devoid of humanity, the public would see right through her if she indeed received offers to appear on talk shows. No, Loretta Barrows, Deidre said to herself, you won't cash in on your daughter. They'll dig up your sorry past and crucify you. You reap what you sow.

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