Barry Hoffman's HUNGRY EYES

Chapter Fifteen

Deidre replayed the conversation with Renee in her mind. She sensed the woman had revealed more than she'd intended, but the significance was just outside her grasp. And now gnawing at her was the possible relevance of her foster parents. Was it a real clue or was she just being sent on a fool's errand? Should she allow Renee to set her agenda? She sensed Renee was truly upset by the digging into her past. But why? Regardless, she would be even angrier the next day after she read her revisionist history of her mother.

Finally, instinct told her speaking with Renee's foster parents was worth the time. She'd met them on only two occasions, yet had instinctively took to them, and knew they'd been devastated by Renee's apparent suicide. But she had never really talked to them about Renee. To understand the woman, she had to know all she could about the child. She had to learn what had driven her to disappear. So, yes, she'd speak to Anna and Paul Sheffield. Somehow she would parlay it to further bait Renee to give more.

Before Renee had called, Deidre had just completed compiling notes on her interview with Angela Mendino, Edward Costanzo's sister. A number of things had troubled her, and now she went back over them trying to gain some insight that had so far evaded her.

Angela Mendino had looked on Deidre's visit with trepidation and suspicion. She had told Deidre as much when she entered her South Philadelphia rowhouse, just three blocks away from her brothers' and the Barrows'.

Even with crime, escalating taxes, and decreased city services, as well as changing family mores and white flight to the suburbs, many South Philadelphia Italians defied convention and grew up, lived, worked, married and died within blocks of where they'd been born.

Angela Mendino was nine years younger than her thirty-six year old brother when Renee Barrows was kidnapped. The incident had put the entire family under intense media scrutiny. Edward's sister had every reason to be bitter. A mother of six, pregnant with twins at the time, she had seen her children teased unmercifully as the glare of the media left no stone unturned in its search to learn why her brother had become a pervert.

Beneath the surface, there was the innuendo Angela, too, must harbor some secret fetish or clandestine second life. Her husband wanted the family to pack it in and flee, but Angela and her parents had been firm. She had nothing to hide, and the family would ride out the storm. She had repeated this to the media until she was sick of her own voice. She had cooperated fully with the media, even when her statements were distorted and taken out of context, in the attempt to confirm their preconceived suspicions about her brother.

With her brother's guilty plea, life eventually returned to normal. Four of her kids were now married, all living in the neighborhood. One was at college, and the twins, now thirteen, and her fourteen-year old remained at home.

Angela told Deidre right off she didn't appreciate the past being dredged up, and had only agreed to met with Deidre to politely tell her she wouldn't be a part of dragging her brother through the mud as a cheap publicity stunt.

Deidre had persisted, and finally won the woman over. She had shown the woman articles she had written then, and others after; setting forth her credentials, and distancing herself from those who had twisted the facts to bolster their already formed opinions.

Recalling her statements to the media at the time of the kidnapping, Deidre had been struck by the differing demeanor of brother and sister. Despite microphone after microphone being stuck in her face, Angela Mendino had never been cowered by the media. With no family skeletons in her closet, she calmly, but firmly answered all questions, adding just enough sarcasm to convince them she was one tough cookie and wouldn't crumble under pressure.

Angela today, was an older version of the woman who had stood proud to defend her brother. There were touches of gray in her raven black hair, but, unlike Loretta Barrows she had not let herself go to hell. And, whereas Loretta Barrows' eyes burned with bitterness, Angela's brown eyes while suspicious displayed no spite.

Now, hopefully having dispelled any misgivings that her piece would only further cheapen her brother's memory, she made her pitch.

"Mrs. Mendino, I think it's time -- long past time, actually, for a reevaluation of the Barrows' kidnapping. I'd be the first the agree that thirteen years ago there was a media circus akin to a witchhunt. Your brother confessed to the crime and then went silent. The media went out of its way to furnish proof of his guilt, and delve into his background to find a motive. They harassed you, and while they listened to your words, didn't hear what you said. I'd like to clear the air, put things into perspective. I'm writing a series with or without your cooperation, but I'd like your impressions to find out what your brother was really like."

"What my brother was really like?" She paused and suddenly smiled. "My son's principal calls me Mrs. Mendino when he asks me to come in for a conference about his behavior. He's got my husband's hot temper. All three of my sons do, so I've been to a lot of conferences with the principal. One's married with two kids of his own, and another's at college, so this too shall pass. Anyways, if you're gonna talk to me I'm Angela or Angie, but please not Mrs. Mendino. Okay Miss . . ."

"Deidre. Or Dee."

"Fair enough."

She rose to get Deidre and herself some coffee, and Deidre scrutinized her.

Angela Mendino physically resembled her brother. Short and pudgy, though pictures that Deidre had noted scattered throughout a cluttered living room showed she was once thin and definitely a girl in demand when younger. Deidre thought eight children could have nothing but an adverse effect on one's figure. The woman who sat across from her in the kitchen looked comfortable with herself. She spoke with her hands and eyes. Angela Mendino would have a tough time lying; her eyes refused to mask her emotions.

"Let me be frank, Miss . . . Deidre. I made some calls before I agreed to talk with you. I'm told you're fair. I'm told if I open up you won't stab me in the back. So, while I'm not thrilled about your series, maybe some good will come of it."

"I hope so, too, Angela."

"I haven't thought about my brother in a long time," Angela went on. When Edward was born, the doctors said my mother would never have another child. Obviously, everyone was more than a little surprised nine years later when my mother found she had another bun in the oven."

"Did you and your brother get along? Were you close?"

"We didn't not get along. We hardly knew one another. Actually, truth be told, he virtually ignored me until I had my first child when I was sixteen. I think he resented me at first. The baby, a `blessing from heaven,' my mother called me more than I'd like to admit. I was constantly doted on and spoiled. Edward was virtually ignored. That he didn't pick on me, or treat me like dirt is a tribute to him."

"Did he resent the attention you received?"

"Yes, in his own way. I only have vague recollections when I was young, but he spent a lot of time by himself, often alone in his room. He wasn't athletic, nor particularly bright.

"I remember other kids calling him a nerd or a geek. He didn't go to the senior prom; seldom went on dates, and I can't recall his going out with the same girl twice. It was like once I was born his social development ended. He had no social skills as far as his peers were concerned.

"When he was arrested, I blamed myself. If it weren't for me, he might have led a more normal childhood."

Once Angela got started, all Deidre had to do was ask a question or two, and a flood of memories were unleashed, possibly for the first time.

"You said you became closer after your first child was born?"

"It wasn't planned, and my parents were more than a little pissed. Al lived next door, and my parents and the Mendinos' were tight. It almost brought them to blows, but somehow they worked it out. Al and I would marry; there were no two ways about it, but not right away. We both finished high school and married at eighteen.

"Anyway when Christina was born Edward seemed to come out of his shell. It was like he wanted to be the brother to her he refused to be to me. And he never abused her or any of my other children."

"He saw a lot of them?" Deidre asked.

"Almost everyday, at times. I'm not proud of it, but once he volunteered to watch the kids, we more than took him up on his offer. We were young, you gotta understand, and wanted to live life to the fullest. I was getting pregnant all the time, but between births we led a pretty active social life.

"Edward was always babysitting and constantly had the kids over to his place. You've heard of his rec room and backyard? A child's paradise."

Deidre nodded, and Angela went on.

"He was a carpenter, you know, so he built swings, a sliding board, this amazing jungle gym, and a maze you could get lost in for hours. Pretty soon it just wasn't my kids he had over, but neighbors' as well. To be honest, I don't think he ever learned to relate to his peers, so he was drawn to children he could impress. They worshipped him."

"He never made any . . ., uh, sexual advances towards your children?"

"Never, and I'm not saying that to protect him. After his arrest, and the disclosures he'd had sex with some of the boys, I was terrified. My God, he had been alone with my children so often. What if it were true? My sons all had sessions with our priest. I'm not saying those other boys lied, but he did nothing to my sons."

"Did you visit Edward in prison?"

"Often . . . after the first year. At first, I tried to distance myself from him, what with reporters lurking about. But, like I said, I felt partially responsible. I began visiting regular-like after that first year. Even brought the kids with me. He got a real kick out of seeing them." A cloud passed over her face, and it was clear she was making an important decision.

Deidre knew not to press. She took a sip of her coffee and waited. Angela bent closer as she began to speak.

"I wasn't going to say anything about this, but you said you wanted the truth. I don't deny my brother kidnapped the Barrows' child, but I never believed he did all they said. He wouldn't put any child in a cage, strip her of her clothes, and come leering at her like she said.

"I know what you're thinking," she said, shaking her head, as if she could read Deidre's skepticism. "I'm his sister, and the truth is hard to swallow. But I got to know him pretty well when he opened up to my children. And we talked an awful lot when he was in jail. He couldn't con me even if he tried."

She took a sip of coffee. "You know this isn't easy for me."

"Whatever you have to say, just say it. I can tell it's been eating at you," Deidre said.

Angela smiled weakly.

"Okay. Like I told you, he wasn't real bright. I said he was normal, you know average, but truthfully he was a little slow upstairs. Once and only once ,when I came up to visit him alone, we were talking, and all of a sudden he looked around to make sure no one could overhear him. His eyes came to life. `Ang,' he says to me, `I never did all they said. Promised I'd never tell, never tell, never tell no one, but you're my sister. I took that girl, that I did, and I ain't proud of it, but I didn't treat her like she said. Didn't. Couldn't look at her like they said.'

"Then his eyes lost their luster, and he looked like a little boy who said something he shouldn't have. `Sorry, Ang, have to go now,' and he got up and left. He never did that. He always stayed until they came to get him, even if we had nothing to say to one another. He'd look at me, and I knew he forgave me for denying him his childhood. But, that one time, when he told me something that he thought he shouldn't he just up and left."

There were tears in her eyes, and she slapped at the air as if to apologize.

"Did he ever talk to you about it again?"

"No. I tried to get him to talk. Part of me wanted to believe that little girl lied. But there was all that evidence. For a while, I asked him about it each time I visited, but he looked blank, like he didn't know what I was talking about. After awhile I stopped asking.

"It wasn't until after you called that I remembered it again. It had become like something you weren't sure really happened. But it did. He was my brother, and I loved him. I wanted it to be true . . ."

They talked a bit more, but the disclosure had taken a lot out of her, and soon Deidre had nothing left to ask, and Angela nothing to recount. Leaving, she could tell Angela almost wanted her to stay, wanted to reminisce about her brother.

It wouldn't be hard for Deidre to paint a sympathetic portrait of Edward Costanzo. He'd never really been understood by the police, prosecutors or media that was intent on portraying him as some sort of animal with few redeeming qualities.

Deidre herself had trouble accepting his recanting his confession to his sister. There was too much evidence. And she had spoken to Renee at length about the kidnapping. No, after five years in prison, maybe Edward Costanzo wanted to believe he couldn't have done what he was accused.

Deidre put her notes away. Looking at her watch, Deidre saw it was nearly three in the morning. Briggs had left a message for her earlier that he wanted to see her at eight to fill her in on the Task Force's progress. She'd worked more these past two-and-a-half days than the previous six months, and hoped it wouldn't catch up with her until she located Renee. Over the years, she'd learned to function on three to four hours of sleep during a breaking story, taking a catnap here, forty-winks there. But it seemed a lifetime ago.

She went to bed dreading the alarm clock that would beckon too soon.

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