Late one morning in 1995 Thomas Webster, a semi-retired journalist, received an unexpected visitor.
Sixteen years earlier, Frank Montini, an American university professor of history, had been accused of murdering another professor at a university in Montreal. The charges were inexplicably dropped, but belief in his guilt lingered and ruined his life and that of his family. Assumptions about his guilt followed him when his family returned to the United States.
After he died, his daughter, Gina, convinced he was innocent, wants his reputation restored. She returns to Montreal and arrives at Webster's door. She reminds him that even after the charges were dropped, he had written that the police still believed in his guilt. She wants his help: asking him to redeem what he had written which caused her family so much misery. Later that day he agrees to help even though he knows the task is probably beyond his ability and experience. But how often does one get a chance to redeem a damaging mistake made when one was much younger?
Early on they discover that the charges against Frank Montini were dropped because of pressure from both the American and Canadian Secret Services. As the lies and deceptions begin to be exposed, more deaths occur before the real murderer is identified.
But as the truth emerges from the shadows, Webster discovers that attempting to redeem one's past has a price, and he will never be able to return to the kind of life he had before Gina rang his doorbell.
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By David Waters
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 David Waters
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI answered the doorbell on the third ring. The young woman and I locked eyes through the plain glass of the front door. After a moment's hesitation I opened the door half-way. Her jeans were faded. A backpack was slung over a green sweater.
"Mr. Webster?" She said.
There was a long pause. I did not invite her in.
"My name is Gina Montini." She said it as if her name should mean something to me. It didn't. I thought I saw the assertiveness in her eyes weaken.
"Are you Mr. Webster the reporter?" She asked.
"Was." The single word sounded curt and so I added: "I'm semi-retired."
I saw her eyes glaze over. It was a phenomenon I was getting used to. People who want to use one professionally, quickly lose interest when one has retired. Of course, what she saw could hardly have impressed her as I stood in the doorway in a faded dressing gown, somewhat slack-jawed, stiff, almost lifeless like a photograph of someone from another era caught in a tawdry moment of time. But then I saw determination return to the set of her lips.
"May I come in?"
I wanted to say no, but I still had a reporter's curiosity and after a moment I moved aside. She eased past me and made her way into the living room.
Facing someone in my present condition was the last thing I wanted. I had not yet showered or shaved. Early retirement was not wearing well. I had yet to start any of the projects I had been planning to do. Two weeks of walking the neighborhood around my house in Montreal had revealed enough of the local environment to last me a lifetime.
"You wrote about my father's arrest sixteen years ago. He was a professor at Winston University," she said as she plunked herself down on the couch. She removed some faded newspaper clippings from her backpack and held them towards me. I glanced at them just long enough to jog my memory. I handed them back. Montini, I remembered now, had been charged with the murder of a fellow professor. But for some reason which I could not remember the case against him had been dropped.
"He was innocent," she put a special emphasis on the verb. "Your reporting assumed that he was guilty even after he was released."
I raised a dubious, condescending eyebrow. I had always thought of myself as an old-fashioned objective newsman: an exception in a trade where objectivity no longer paid the necessary dividends. Commitment, anger, a cause were what seemed to drive the new breed. But I had always prided myself on being a born spectator. I expected to leave the planet that way. I was not an admirer of how civilization was evolving, but giving it a course correction was not within the orbit of my arrogance.
She held out the clippings again. I ignored the gesture. If I had written that guilt lingered after her father had been released, I would have been quoting someone else, not passing a personal judgment. Besides, if I had wanted to scrutinize what I had written about her father I had copies in my filing cabinets upstairs in the den.
"When they let him go, you wrote that he was still under police suspicion."
I did not want to offend her feelings, but what I wrote had been accurate. "He was," I said simply. "The police were satisfied that he was guilty," I added. That much I remembered. But something bothered me now. It was a fleeting memory of the suddenness with which the investigation had been dropped and the case closed. I had been on holidays. Had the paper followed up on that? I couldn't remember.
"Where's your father now?" I asked.
"He's dead. In a grave. In a small town in Oregon." Her lips pursed slightly in anger.
I tried to look appropriately sympathetic.
"He should have lived longer," she said, "but his liver failed. He had become an alcoholic."
"I'm sorry." I muttered. And in a way I was. It was the kind of horrid death I could understand. It was a character defect of my profession. In recent years I had attended my share of premature funerals.
She stared at me. "Did you know that he was hounded out of Winston University?"
"No." But then I had never followed up on the story. I had been moved on to something else.
"Well he was." There was a touch of sarcasm in her voice as she added, "as you noted in your article, suspicion lingered. We had to return to the States. But his past at Winston University somehow seemed to surface at every place he worked. He acquired a defeated look and drank more. People assumed it was a guilty conscience." Her gaze shifted to her knees.
I had the feeling a kneecap was about to break through the thin fabric of the faded jeans. "For five years we drifted. My mother and I followed along. But then one day he just walked away. We were in Portland, Maine. He sent us a postcard a week later from somewhere out west. But he never came back. I never saw him again. Except at the funeral."
I was surprised by the affection which had crept into her voice. She had obviously loved him despite his desertion.
"We didn't try to follow him. My mother hoped he would work things out on his own, and then come back. Or ask us to join him. At first there was an occasional exchange of letters. Then nothing. She prayed a lot. When he died he was a janitor in a small town in Oregon." I frowned. My self-inflicted state of despondency seemed suddenly indulgent in the noon day sun which filtered in through a wide crack in the window curtains. We stared at each other.
She took a deep breath. "I want, I need your help to right a wrong: to bring the truth to light. He was not the murderer. I'm sure of that. And I would like the record set straight."
I thought that over. What she wanted was more than a rewrite of an old article, saying that, contrary to earlier reports, her father had not been under suspicion when he had been released. Besides the rewrite would not be accurate. I still had this memory of the police being angry when the case was dropped. They believed he was guilty. Could he have been innocent? What she needed was a re-opening of the case. One which would follow a cold trail to a guilty party. None of this was within my range.
"Look, I'm no detective," I told her, hoping to end matters there.
"I'm a semi-retired newsman," I added lamely. "And investigative journalism was never my specialty."
She nodded as if she was acknowledging a small flaw in her plan. "I stopped by the newspaper and read through most of what you've written." That rankled me. It shouldn't have. What she had read was part of the public record. But the public record of a journalist is rarely scrutinized. Like policemen, we get very touchy whenever someone from outside wants to look at our past record.
We stared at each other. She had to be pretty desperate if she had come to me for help. I had the feeling the same thought had passed through her mind. I found myself in a quandary. I wanted to say no, but I was never very good at knowing how to do so gracefully. There was something both forlorn and tough about her as she sat there waiting for me to decide. Besides she was pretty. She had the same olive skin as her father, and the same black hair, except that it hung down in ringlets where it rested on her shoulders.
"Could you come back later?" I said with a touch of asperity. "It'll give me time to get cleaned up and do some thinking." She nodded gratefully. We settled on five o'clock. I watched her walk down the street.
This is ridiculous I thought. Why am I even tempted to become involved? I'm just an observer wanting to watch life pass by as I settle into old age. Was it because I sensed in her a persistence which would not give up easily? And what if she was right? What if instead of just being an observer I had contributed even in a small way to the suffering of her father and his family? Did I owe her even a modicum of assistance? And what if she found someone else to help her unravel a truth that I and others had ignored way back then? If there was a story to be set straight surely I was the one who should do it. Even if it was beyond my competence, I could at least open some doors for her. Besides what else did I have to occupy my time? I wandered upstairs, checked my files and reread what I had written back in 1979. It was not a pleasant task. I had to admit that her criticism of my reporting had some validity. I had given unnamed police sources far more play than our system of justice called for. Shortly after two, I showered and shaved and made myself a late brunch.
After a second cup of coffee, I called the office and spoke to Mel Vogel, the managing editor. I explained the story I was thinking about working on. Without the paper's support my involvement would be useless. I expected him to say no, even though I had an early retirement pay-off deal which required that I write a minimal number of stories in the coming year. But he said to go ahead. He would pay any expenses if I submitted them in advance. I grimaced as I realized that step by step I was beginning to incriminate myself in her quest. I finished my coffee and thought about what to do next. I tried to reach the police captain who had been in charge of the case. We had become as friendly as policemen and reporters got back in those days when I had worked the police beat. Which is not that close, but at least we were on a first name basis. The officer who answered his phone at police headquarters told me Phil Ryan had now retired. That surprised me. I had retired a short time back at fifty-five. Ryan had been at least five years younger than me. Despite his name, Phil Ryan was not Irish. His great grandfather had been, but his matrimonial line was pure French-Canadian. His language at home was French. But like so many of his generation he had spent many years in the English school system, and I suspect his English, grammatically as well as colloquially was as good if not better than his French. I checked my old Rolodex and found a home number. I hoped he had not moved since the last time I had phoned him at home. I reached him on the second ring. His voice had the slow drawl of the underemployed. It brightened somewhat as I explained the reason for my call.
"Yeah, I remember the case. The evidence was circumstantial but solid."
"No. But solid. Very solid. We were really pissed off when the charges were dropped."
"His daughter believes he was innocent."
"So? Nothing unusual there. Daughters are like that. Hitler's daughter probably believed he was innocent too."
"Hitler didn't have a daughter."
He chuckled. "Neither do I." There was a pause. "Since Josie left, I don't even have a wife. But so what. None of that changes the facts in the Montini case."
"I didn't know you were married."
"Oh, I was. And to the job too. And you?"
"No. I never married."
"Jesus," he laughed. "I don't believe this conversation."
I laughed too. It felt like old times. I tried to imagine what he looked like now. He had begun to lose his hair and put on weight the last time I saw him.
"What makes you think the daughter's way off base?" I asked.
"Ok, so I was wrong about Hitler's daughter, but I'm right about daughters in general. In the cases I've seen, and I've seen plenty as a policeman, most daughters persist in loving their fathers no matter what they've done."
"I guess they couldn't afford therapy."
"Studies show that most daughters who go into therapy come out pretty critical of their parents, particularly their fathers."
"Yeah, well, maybe. I guess fathers aren't popular these days. So, hey, have you been to see the Expos yet?" He asked suddenly.
"No. Not this year. I mean, given last year's strike and the kind of trades they've made, who really cares?" But I did admit I had listened to a few games on the radio. And they had started off well.
"Just remember you've heard it here first. Despite everything they're still going to win the pennant this year."
"Despite having traded away, Grissom, Walker, Hill and Wetteland? You've got to be kidding."
"You've got to have faith. So why don't we take in a game? Or are you too busy at that paper these days?"
"You too? In a way I'm fully retired, but because of the severance package I got I have to agree for a year to do some work for them if they need me."
"In my case, I also had to agree not to work for a competitor for a couple of years. So why not? Let's take in a game."
"Good. I'll get the tickets. I've got contacts. The Florida Marlins are in town this weekend. Why don't I get tickets for Friday night?"
"Can you get three?"
"Sure. No problem. Who do you want to bring?"
"Frank Montini's daughter."
There was a long pause. "You serious?"
"What's she like?"
"Young. Pretty. Determined. Smart, I think. By the way refresh my memory. Why was the case against Montini dropped?"
There was another long pause. He grunted. "I guess I don't owe the system anymore." Still, he hesitated as if he was breaking an old code. He sighed. "It was political interference, and from pretty high up I suspect."
"Who knows?" Another pause but much shorter this time. "The rumors were that Ottawa was jerked around by Washington. But no one in the media asked the right questions. So now you owe me one."
"I've just given you a lead. A place to start."
There was an awkward pause as we both thought of what to say. I heard a sad intake of breath. "And I think I know what I want."
I could hear him letting out a long breath. "I want to know why I don't believe in the system anymore. Why the system puts fifty year old inspectors out to pasture because efficiency experts who know squat about crime and justice play with human lives on their goddam computers. Think about that for awhile, will you? See if you can come up with something." He gave a sad chuckle. "And while you're at it tell me why my wife walked out on me because my work was fifty percent of my life. I'll call you Friday about the tickets."
He hung up before I could say anything meaningless. For that I felt grateful. I stared out the window at the tree in the yard. I watched two birds land and leave the empty plastic feeder which I had thoughtfully hung on a clothesline out of the reach of the local cats. Another job half done, I thought. What good did the bird feeder serve if I kept forgetting to put food into it?
Yesterday, I thought I had my life all sized up. A journeyman reporter who had done nothing in thirty years to warrant distinction. I had filing cabinets full of work to prove it. Yet today two people had asked me to do things for them that were way out of my league. Ironic I thought. Pitiful even. Were we all desperate people ground down by desperate times? It's been a lousy century, I thought, as I watched the birds circle the empty feeder. Many ups. Massive technological leaps. But the downside had shattered all our complacencies.
When Gina Montini returned later that day we wandered down to the nearby chicken Bar-B-Q restaurant for supper. She placed the backpack on the bench beside her. The waitress plunked down two glasses of water. We placed our orders. Along with the food, I ordered my usual half-liter of red wine. Gina Montini ordered milk. The waitress brought the milk and the wine. While we were waiting for the food I told her what I had done.
Her eyebrows rose. "So you will help me." She seemed surprised.
I sipped my wine and nodded. "For what it's worth."
"For what it's worth? Are you planning to charge me?" She fidgeted with her water glass. I tried to look appropriately offended.
"No. Of course not. I'm not a private detective. I'm not for hire. Eventually I may write something and I'll bill the newspaper."
"I have some money left from my father's insurance," she said defiantly.
"Enough to have hired a qualified detective?"
She stared at me. "Maybe. Probably. I don't know. But a detective was not what I wanted. I felt that most of the people we would have to talk to would talk more readily to a journalist."
"Why? I mean what gave you that silly idea?"
She shrugged. "I did my degree in communications. Most people subconsciously want the media on their side. And most people don't want to trust the police, or even private detectives." There was an elitist assurance in her voice. Having a degree in communications will do that.
I said nothing.
"Did you do your degree in journalism?" She asked.
"No. Such things didn't exist in my day."
I did my major in philosophy."
"But did you ever want to become one?"
I hesitated. Then I smiled. "I started out wanting answers. Modern philosophy has none."
"And so you turned to journalism."
Excerpted from Cross-Border Murder by David Waters Copyright © 2012 by David Waters. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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