Prologue from The Gondolier’s Wife

by Maggie Marshall

Venice, California, 2005

It had not stopped raining for two days, and the sky had taken on the color of watery gray paint on a cinder block wall. The same block walls that lined the canals. The patter of the rain this early morning was broken not by the sound of traffic, which was usual, but by the whir of the pump as it sucked the muddy water from the canal. The man standing on the edge of the bridge was tired of this sound, tired of the endless false leads and well-meaning but fruitless bits of information that had been filtered through his office. As far as he was concerned, the odds that they would find anything but duck shit and possum carcasses in this murky soup of a canal were spectacularly slim. It was just then that the pump made a sickly sucking sound and then ground to a halt, leaving only the sound of the ducks to jar the air.

The little water remaining splashed against the side of the canal as the pump operator jumped in to try and clear the line. The silence from the pump snapped the man on the bridge out of his reverie, and he craned his neck to see what the pump operator was doing. The pump man turned to look up and motioned him to the canal’s edge.

It had been a long time since Detective Jake Bartok had seen just bones. Usually victims came in varieties of more color and texture–bruised or bloodied, skin mottled or abraded in some way. Only once before had he investigated a case where the victim looked like a chart in his chiropractor’s office. But that had been a search for someone who’d been missing for three years, plenty of time for the earth to reclaim its own. This was not that kind of case. This was a search for a girl who’d been missing only a few short days.

As the pump operator moved the rig out of the way, a perfectly formed skeleton became visible, embedded in the thick clay silt of the canal bottom.

So who the hell was this?

The sun was just rising as Jake got to the canal the next morning. The forensics team had been there the afternoon before, after the grim discovery, but he had wanted the quiet of the empty canal, still taped off, the mud still gaping where they’d dug up the bones. They knew it was female, most likely there a while since little remained to identify the body. A wedding ring still on the left-fourth-finger bone, an antique-looking brooch, and a few long hairpins that appeared to be made of tortoise or some sort of shell found in the silt as well. It was the position of the body, or, more accurately, the skeleton that had kept Jake distracted all of last night and early this morning.

He knew it was just an illusion, the way the bones had settled sideways into the flat canvas of the now-drained canal bed, but she appeared to have been crouching, or perhaps kneeling, and he was surprised to find it struck in him a deep sadness, as though she begged forgiveness even now.

Venice, Italy, 1904

When Leocadia Benigni opened her mouth to sing, butterflies fluttered out. That’s what her mother always said. Little yellow papery things when she was younger, but as she grew, the tiny delicate wings turned to the rich warm rainbow hues of a Monarch–the full golden power of the mezzo soprano, yet still delicate and fluttering when the notes called for it.

Leocadia was not enamored of her mother’s description. She cursed the image it conjured in her brain at the times when she opened her mouth, and her throat tickled as though the fluttering things were forcing their way out. But today the butterflies were elsewhere, and though she hoped for golden tones, she couldn’t help but worry there would be only moths searching frantically for the light, flinging themselves into walls and ceilings and then dying a miserable, battered death.

The dour-looking American with the mutton-chop sideburns and expensive-looking suit sat in the third row of the otherwise empty theater, his head cocked towards the whispered caveats of the Maestro. Both looked at Leocadia with the dead-eyed stare of those possessing the life-altering power of a yes or no.

Focusing toward the upper balcony and breathing in as deeply as her corseted body would allow, Leocadia opened her mouth, and a slow trickle of tiny yellow-winged butterflies streamed forward, surging upward and dispersing, making room for the next wave. These slightly larger, with more deeply burnished wings. Finally the giant Monarchs, hundreds of them, wings flapping thunderously until there was no air left in the cavernous space, and the audience, had there been one, would have been left covered in the velvety soft dust of the beautiful, jewel-toned wings.

When Leocadia finished, the American with the mutton-chop sideburns and the expensive suit let out a sigh, and with it a solitary tear streamed down his cheek. He looked over at the Maestro who nodded quietly, smiling. The American rose.

“Miss Benigni. I would like to engage your services if you would be so willing.”

Leocadia opened her mouth once more but no butterflies came, no sound at all.

Venice, California, 2005

It had been the sister’s call that had started the wheels turning on the DePaolo case. She had pleaded with Jake to look into her younger sister’s disappearance before Missing Persons would take it. Shelley had been gone from their apartment less than forty-eight hours, but Terry DePaolo had assured Jake that her kid sister would never have gone anywhere without letting Terry know.

“She’s a special needs kid, Jake. I’ve been taking care of her for a couple of years now, since my mom died. She’s pretty independent but I know she wouldn’t go anywhere without telling me–at least not of her own free will.”

Jake had worked with Terry, a forensic specialist, on cases in the past, and he felt an obligation to her to pursue Shelley’s whereabouts as much as he could until they could open an official investigation. Since Shelley had just turned 18 and was no longer a minor, that meant 48 hours. But he knew the Department would back him once the time frame opened. So he’d canvassed the various neighborhoods where she lived, went to school, and worked part-time as a grocery bagger. They were all parts of Venice and Mar Vista within five miles of the station, and it was an easy task, even in the rain. Easy because no one he talked to professed to have seen Shelley DePaolo for the past three days and that was that. It was only after he’d nearly run over a homeless woman in the Ralph’s grocery store parking lot that he got his first semblance of a lead. As Jake spun madly to his right to avoid a loaded grocery cart coming straight towards him, a tiny woman with gray-blonde dreadlocks and a strangely tanned Yoda-like face nearly collided with his car, trying to keep him from running into her precious cargo. A gust of wind caught the bright pink Barbie umbrella she was wielding, giving the impression she was about to take flight, until she pulled herself back towards the driver’s side of Jake’s car. He knew her; she was a familiar part of the landscape of Venice, shopping cart groaning more with new acquisitions every time he saw her, often with treasures whose source was shrouded in mystery, such as the Niagara Falls neon clock she’d once tried to give him. Despite her obvious shortcomings, she was like a sponge when it came to the activities on her turf, and Jake knew better than to overlook the wisdom of the fly on the wall.

“Fuckin’ sonofabitch, you almost hit me!”

“Aw c’mon, Kaulani, don’t go jumping in front of cars if you don’t want to get hit. Looking for this girl…” He held out a photo of Shelley taken at her last birthday celebration, blowing out candles on a large pizza. “Any thoughts?”

“Retarded girl. Works in the market.”

“Right. You seen her?”

“Yeah. Last week. She gives me bananas sometimes.”

“This week, what about this week?”

“Nah.” She sniffed towards the store. “Weasels. They don’t care.”

“She’s missing. We need to find her. You see her, you’ll tell someone in the store, right?”

“Sure, sure.” She played coquettishly with the pink Barbie umbrella. “You know I love you, Jakey.”

“You have my utmost regard as well, Kaulani.” Jake was about to drive away when she slammed the umbrella down on his windshield.

“I do have somethin’ for ya. Just for you, Jake. No one else.” She beckoned him closer and shot the acrid breath of unbrushed teeth across his face. He hoped she wasn’t going to flash him like she had his partner Reyes. Reyes was still recovering. Instead she whispered conspiratorially in his ear. “You know the bridge–the one with all the cars, at the end of the canals?

“The North Venice Boulevard one–the old boat landing?”

She nodded. “There’s somethin.’ Could be a girl. Don’t really know. But it’s somethin’…” Chapped lips grinning, eyes closed and nodding. “Deep in…buried-like…somethin’…”

Jake knew better than to trust the delusional ramblings of someone who often didn’t know her own name, someone who thought she was living on the beach in Hawaii and had been hauled in more than once for “pearl diving” in the canals. But she had also once reported an arm stuck in the sludge in Linnie Canal and had been absolutely right. The murdered informant’s appendage was recovered and used to convict a minor league gang hit man, though the rest of the body never was found.

Jake arrived at the sad dumping ground that was the north end of the Grand Canal. Traffic on Venice Boulevard rumbled over the once-elegant bridge, soot spewing and hip-hop blasting as the cars rolled westward towards the beach. He walked down what had been a skiff ramp but was now littered with the soggy detritus of lives lived every night under the radar: large slabs of cardboard, an empty box of Cheez-Its, the odd tableau of a headless and partially melted chocolate Easter bunny still in its cheery pastel pink and yellow box nestled against a ragged gray blanket. Numerous soiled items of clothing. Piles of shit, hopefully not human. The homeless had a right to be here as much as anyone, Jake supposed. And if he were homeless, wouldn’t he choose somewhere by the beach in a part of the country where it didn’t rain all summer long and the scenery, aside from the shit piles, wasn’t half bad?

The area where the Grand Canal ran under the bridge, and then abruptly stopped just short of the north side of Venice Boulevard, was the end of the line for the canal system. Pumps re-circulated the water back through pipelines that carried the water south to feed the other end of the canal system.

Abbot Kinney, mastermind of Venice of America, had engineered this system a hundred years earlier and to his credit it was still working, albeit a little less cleanly and without most of the waterways that had originally comprised the system. Jake sometimes marveled at the fact that any of the canals still existed, given the great pains the city had taken to get rid of them years ago, how the remaining ones had fallen into such disrepair in the sixties and seventies and then finally been revived in the eighties to the point of becoming a multi-million dollar real estate phenomenon in the new millennium.

Except for this lovely spot.

Jake moved over to the area of the canal under the bridge and stared into the water, trying to see if there was anything to be gleaned from the murk. Yellow-green fungal-looking algae floated in great globs over the surface of the water, making it impossible to see anything below.

He was surprised at the condition of the canal since it had been recently dredged and cleaned up in anticipation of the Centennial celebration coming in July. Abbot Kinney’s dream of an American Venice would be one hundred years old on July 4, and the city of Los Angeles had apparently managed to scrape together just enough money to make it look like they actually cared about their funky cousin. He had seen other canals being spiffed up in anticipation of the party–supposedly miniature regattas and all sorts of floating revelry were planned throughout Venice. But the dredging often stirred up more garbage than good and left some of the canals looking even worse than when they had started. This certainly seemed to be the case here. Or perhaps being the end of the line made the whole area the dumping ground for all the muck and mire that travelled through the system.

Jake grabbed a battered broom handle lying on the boat ramp and tried to push some of the green goo out of the way, but that only broke it into smaller pieces and gave the illusion of a great green and yellow tufted carpet spread out over the whole of the canal. Without wading into the canal or draining it, Atlantis itself could be under there and no one would know.

Kaulani’s tip would have to go unexplored for now. He had active cases to get back to.

Had his cell phone not rung just at that moment he might never have done what he was about to do. Things might have been different. The voice on the other end was strained to the point of tears, and it took a moment to recognize Terry DePaolo as the caller.

“Jake. I just found Shelley’s purse. In my mailbox.”

Jake ordered the canal drained as soon as the equipment could get there.

Mr. Kinney
Venice, California, 1904

A coin toss, nothing more.

Abbot Kinney had headed west as a middle-aged man. Doctors told him a western climate would be a help for the asthma that had taken up residence in his lungs since his twenties. Asthma perhaps, but twenty years in the tobacco trade hadn’t helped either, and he was wheezing hard by the time the train deposited him and his entourage in Pasadena, California–the farthest west he could get to on a train without falling into the ocean.

Trusting too greatly in the power of money and therefore failing to secure rooms in advance, Kinney was told by the only hotel within miles that they were without rooms or accommodations of any kind. Kinney slept that night on a pool table in the lounge, and the following morning, he woke to find himself cured of all respiratory ailments past and present. This West coast air was, for him, the balm of Gilead, and he proceeded to put his entrepreneurial mind to work negotiating a long term stay, picking up a wife and a fancifully-built dream home in the hills of Sierra Madre along the way.

Soon, however, Kinney turned his eye to other projects and forged a partnership with a like-minded real estate developer named Francis Ryan. The coastline properties of the Santa Monica Bay were the hot properties of the era, and Kinney and Ryan were soon well invested, with ownership of nearly 60 percent of the coastline. When an overabundance of rich food and an unfortunate gene pool killed Ryan with a heart attack at the age of 45, Kinney went into partnership with the widow’s new husband and regretted it from the outset. The new partner was not only what Kinney considered to be an idiot of the highest order, but he took on three additional partners whose one and only goal in life appeared to be to fleece as many members of the general public as God would allow. After an ugly lawsuit and, finally, a dissolution of the partnership-made-in-hell, Kinney suggested they toss a coin to divvy up the land along the Santa Monica coast. Kinney won, but instead of taking what his former partners assumed he would, that being the Santa Monica land north of the swamps of Playa del Rey, Kinney instead chose the southernmost half of their joint holdings, a vast acreage of salt marshes and sand dunes that had no foreseeable future as buildable land.

Venice, California, 2005

Jake turned the golden band over and over in his stubby hands, then placed it back in the evidence bag and stared at his reflection in the window in front of his desk. He was nothing much to look at on a good day, but another sleepless night and too much scotch had left his features even more gritty and ragged-looking this early morning. He took the ring again from the bag. An inscription, too tiny for mere middle-aged eyes to translate, had been scrutinized under a microscope in the lab, the band determined to be Florentine gold, and the delicate script etched inside the smooth metal reading, “Leocadia e Antonio il 10 giugno 1903.”

What the hell kind of name was Leocadia? Due to the age of the bones found in the canal the determination of their identity had been back-burnered by his office, despite considerable interest from the local press. The Times had even given it a front page berth with a small blurb headlined “Century-Old Skeleton Discovered in Venice Canal.” The reporter had been frustrated by Jake’s reluctance to give any information but someone had leaked the names on the ring, giving way to broad speculation bordering on complete fantasy on the part of both the Times and Argonaut reporters who’d been hounding him all morning. The Argonaut was the tiny free Santa Monica paper that covered events in the beach cities of Santa Monica, Venice, Playa and Marina del Rey. A quaint throwback to the area’s former days as a folksy beach community, it was usually starved for local news and events and big on historical perspectives on what was now a teeming high-priced metropolis by the Pacific.

In Jake’s mind this was beyond a cold case. He knew he needed to return to his active cases until a decision was made by higher-ups to further pursue the story of the skeleton in the canal. And yet he couldn’t get the woman’s name out of his mind nor the picture of her sad remains in their murky grave. And he couldn’t help wonder why it was only now she had been discovered. And hadn’t she been missed those many years ago?

The phone on his desk rang, yanking him back from the gray gloom of the canal.

“Homicide, Bartok.” His usual bored and distant-sounding greeting.

“Detective Bartok, I wanted to speak with someone regarding the skeleton in the canal. I understand you’re the officer in charge of the case.”

He repeated by rote what he’d been saying all morning. “We’re not giving any statements to the press at this time. The remains are still being examined.” Jake was about to hang up.

“I’m not with the press, Detective.”

Amateur sleuths, would-be crime novelists, history buffs–he’d dealt with them all before.

“Look, ma’am, unless–“

The woman on the other end broke in quickly. “If the wedding ring belonged to the woman you found, her name was Leocadia Benigni. And she was supposed to have died in a fire on the Venice pier in 1908.”

Maybe it was just a few jitters from too much coffee, but the gold band Jake had been holding in his hand flipped from his grasp and skittered across the floor, landing under a chair. He stared at it for a moment, briefly contemplating its location amidst the dust bunnies and detritus of rarely cleaned space and how difficult it was going to be, given his bad knee, to retrieve it. He wondered if he shouldn’t leave it there, just thank the caller on the other end and hang up. Instead he found himself saying, “When can you come down to the station?”

Maggie Marshall moved to Asheville four years ago from Los Angeles. Her first career was as a professional actress, twenty-some-odd years of which she spent performing on regional stages throughout the U.S., as well as Broadway, Los Angeles, and Dublin, Ireland. She then moved into screenwriting, eventually landing in television, and writing for numerous cable and syndicated one-hour drama series. She was the recipient of the Carl Sautter Memorial Screenwriting Award and a Scriptapalooza Award, both for One-Hour Drama. She is currently at work on her first novel and lives in West Asheville with her husband, Stephen, and Yuri the Wonderdog.

About The Gondolier’s Wife—This is my first attempt at prose fiction, having put in a number of years in the big screen and TV writing world. A completely different animal, no question. I wanted to tell the story of Venice of America and then try to imagine a narrative that could hold up to the inherently vivid imagery and drama of such a place. There are many historical figures interspersed with fictional characters, and the same is true of the provenance of the stories that unfold around them. What’s most important to me is to show how the history of a place is always with us and how it seeps into the lives of those who inhabit the same space in different times.

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