A new chapter begins

The beginnings of my yarn studio at 105 N. Center St., Springfield, Ohio

The beginnings of my yarn studio at 105 N. Center St., Springfield, Ohio

If you’ve been around me for more than a couple years, you know there is one thing I love more than writing—and that is working with fiber.

I’ve even managed to combine my two loves in the title of this blog, A Weaver of Tales, A Spinner of Yarns, at debragaskill.wordpress.com

Almost as long and my husband and I have had llamas and alpacas (since 1999), we’ve been a regular on the fiber show circuit with our farm, Checkered Flag Fibers, selling the home-grown, hand-dyed yarn from our llamas and alpacas. We’ve taken part in fiber shows in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky and I love sharing stories about my llamas or ideas for working with the yarn they provide.

And I absolutely love dyeing. It’s almost magical the way some colors come out! I have more fun using those hand dyed yarns in my weaving, knitting and the Japanese braiding art of kumihimo.

Unfortunately, I’ve been limited to dyeing only in my back yard. And with Ohio’s weather, that could be limited to two or three times a year, which limits my production, but also my income. I’ve had several offers to provide yarn to other stores, something I have only been able to do on a limited basis.

That’s about to change. Thanks to Springfield’s Turner Foundation, the former Springfield Metallic Casket Company offices, located at 105 N. Center St., have been transformed into Hatch Studios, a place for artists—including fiber artists like myself—to have a place for their creativity to grow.

The studios, which come in different sizes and shapes, have become home, so far, to a number of painters, a potter, a mixed media artist —and ME!

Beginning next week, I will have a space where I can dye any time of year. This will allow me to expand my yarn business from four fiber shows a year (which I’ll still attend) to whatever my schedule can accommodate.

It’s also enabled me to open an online yarn store at http://www.checkeredflagfibers.com.

I will open my doors to the public at the Nov. 4 event from 6-10 p.m at Springfield’s monthly First Friday events. Please join me as I start this new journey.

Don’t worry! I’m still at work on my writing: I have one novel currently underway, which I hope to have completed by the first of 2017.

My yarns, along with my novels, will be available for purchase at that time.

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Call Fitz—Chapter 22

Don’t let it be Gracie. Don’t let it be Gracie.
The roads back to Fawcettville were dark and mercifully empty as I pushed the accelerator to the floor on my way back to town. Gracie and I had been together too long and our path to reconciliation probably still had some bumps to come. It just couldn’t come to an end now, simply because of this case.
I would kill Jacob Poole with my bare hands if he did anything, anything to my wife.
Police cruisers surrounded the house as I slammed the Excursion into park and jumped from the car. The EMTs were loading a gurney into the back of the ambulance as I ran toward it. The patient was wrapped in white blankets and surrounded by police—I couldn’t see who it was.
“Hey! Wait!”
A police officer—some kid I didn’t recognize, much less look old enough to be issued a service revolver—stopped me from coming closer.
“I’m sorry, sir, but—”
“Is that my wife? Tell me that’s not my wife!” I grabbed the young cop by the shoulders.
“Calm down, calm down. Your wife is Grace Darcy?”
“Is she OK? Is that her?” I pointed at the ambulance. One of the surrounding cops latched the back doors closed and pounded on the door, a signal for the driver to turn on the lights and sirens and scream down the street toward medical care. The cop turned me away the house and toward one of the cruisers.
God, don’t let her be dead. Don’t let her be dead.
He opened a rear door and indicated I should sit down. I’d spent twenty years on one side of these situations, calming family members in crisis. Now, I was the one sitting in the back of the cruiser, waiting for news that would either make everything OK or ruin my whole life.
It couldn’t end this way. I finally had the woman of my dreams and my life was beginning to come around to the way it should be. I couldn’t lose Gracie, not now, not this way. If I did, Jacob Poole would suffer excruciatingly for anything he did to her.
The cop spoke into the microphone on his shoulder and turned back to me.
“She’s in the house, talking with a detective. I don’t know if she suffered any injuries, but if she did, they’re minor. I let them know you’re—”
“She’s injured? My wife is injured?” I pushed my way out of the cruiser, past the cop and into the house.
Eyes red from crying, she sat at the kitchen table, clutching her hands together nervously, talking to Det. Paul Schaffer. Schaffer had been a sergeant when I left the force. He was a good man, thorough, and less of a burnout than Barnes. Like Barnes, he was tall and skinny, like there was some sort of caloric restriction that came with the job. Like Brewster, he’d kept himself as far as possible from the drama of Maris Monroe.
A pink-handled .22 Lady Smith and Wesson sat in the middle of the table; in one corner, small amounts of Poole’s blood spattered around the lower kitchen cabinets and onto the floor. There was a bit of blood spatter on Gracie’s jeans.
Thank God, she was just fine. Gracie was OK.
“Oh God, Nicco!” She rushed into my arms.
“It’s OK, baby. It’s OK,” I whispered into her hair as I clasped her tightly. “I’m here. It’s over.” I took her face in my hands to check for injuries. Seeing, none, I kissed her forehead and tried to smooth her hair.
“He came through the kitchen window and set off the alarm,” Gracie, normally brassy and tough, shook as she spoke. “I was in the living room watching TV still. I jumped up when I heard him—”
“Where was the gun?”
“In between the seat cushion and the arm of the couch. I usually keep it in the drawer by my side of the bed, but after you left, I had a bad feeling, so I got up and stuffed it down where I could get it. He came at me, I screamed, I pulled out the gun…” She struggled to keep tears from rolling down her cheeks. “And I shot him.”
“You did the right thing. You’re OK—that’s the most important thing.” I pulled her closer.
“Hello, Fitz.” Schaffer reached out to shake my hand. “We tried to get her to go to the hospital, just to get checked out, but she refused. She wouldn’t go until you got here. She’s a damned good shot, by the way. Got him in the thigh. May have hit something big, from all the blood. She had him cornered here in the kitchen by the time we got here.”
“After I shot him once, he tried to get up and attack me. I put one in the wall to show him I was serious.”
“I’m sure he quieted down after that,” Schaffer grinned.
“How long have you had that gun?” I pointed at the pistol.
“I bought that damned thing the day after you moved out. I didn’t want to believe what you told me, that somebody might try to come after you.” Gracie looked over her shoulder at the blood on the floor and shuddered. “I don’t ever want to see it again.”
“There’s three bullets missing,” Schaffer said. “One was recovered from the wall. I’m sure the other two are in our suspect.”
“Damn girl,” I said. “Remind me to never piss you off.”
“You already know better than to piss me off, Niccolo.” She smiled at me as wrapped her arms around me and laced her fingers together at my side. “Just get me out of here tonight.”

*****

Early Thursday afternoon, I sat beside Alicia Linnerman at the police station, watching via computer, as Poole, his calf wrapped in bandages and one arm resting on his crutches, sat stone faced in front of Barnes. Numbers in the screen’s lower corner ticked off rapidly as the conversation, or lack of it, was recorded.
“How’s your wife, Fitz?” Alicia stared at the computer.
“She’s really shook up, but she’s going to be OK.”
Alicia pointed to the computer screen. “Why do you think Poole targeted you?”
“We’d figured out the photo on his cell phone—the one that was supposedly taken at his daughter’s birthday party the day Gina was killed—was falsely or incorrectly dated. I don’t know whether Ambrosi turned that information over to you or if he was obligated to, so don’t bitch at me. If he has to, I’m sure he will,” I said. “I’m assuming Poole had no idea about Rachel’s confession—he just knew his alibi for killing Gina was now officially shot in the ass and he wanted to do whatever it took to get me off the case.”
“That makes sense.”
“What about Dennis Lance?”
Alicia sighed. “He’s off the hook with Gina’s murder, of course—he had no idea Gina was coming to the house. Professionally, he’s pretty damaged. He’s calling off the run for judge and he’s taking a leave of absence from the prosecutor’s office. I’ve been appointed interim prosecutor until he decides what he’s going to do next.”
“Congratulations. Do you think you’ll run for his job?”
Alicia grimaced. “I don’t want to think about running for his office right now. His term wasn’t up for another year, so I’ve got a while to make my decision. I really liked Dennis. I respected him. I’m just amazed at how Rachel was able to pull the whole thing off.”
“And speaking of Rachel, what’s going on with her?”
“She had a hearing this morning. The judge ordered her held without bond, so she’ll be sitting in jail for a while. We’re confident the charges we brought against her will stand. We’re also contacting Summit County about possible manslaughter charges in her father’s suicide.”
So the enigma that was Rachel would finally be exposed. She was an unanswerable question, a delicious unattainable goddess to anyone who saw her, even her husband who got drawn in to her mystery. But she held secrets that would have destroyed both her marriage and their future. Those secrets were all reopened with the discovery of her sister Gina. As much as Rachel may have claimed she wanted to help, it was pretty clear her motives were not entirely altruistic. Gina needed to be out of town and out of Dennis Lance’s line of sight to assure his wife could keep her secrets and his career could advance.
I still had a couple questions, though.
“So tell me, what was the connection between Jorge Rivera and Reno Elliot?”
“We think the connection began with Jacob and Reno, probably through the heroin trafficking—we’ve got investigators on that right now. We think Reno intimidated Gina to keep her quiet, but couldn’t report directly back to Jacob without tipping off the chief, so went through Jorge.”
“Did you figure out where Poole killed Gina?”
“We have an idea. Poole left the Lance house with Gina in Rivera’s pick up truck. We didn’t have Rivera in our radar for obvious reasons, but after Rachel spilled her guts, police began a search for his truck last night and found it abandoned in a ditch outside of town. There’s blood in the truck bed we believe is Gina’s, along with a tarp Poole wrapped her in. Somehow Poole managed to get the body back behind stage in the dark. There were a lot of service vehicles parked behind the stage Sunday and it was dark. It’s possible no one saw him bring her in. She was very tiny. Wrapped in a tarp no one would have known what was going on.”
“But why put her back at the festival?”
Alicia shrugged. “We’re not sure. The only thing we can think is that he knew she’d argued with Mike Atwater and he was trying to pin her death on him.”
I shook my head. Poor, poor Gina: in her efforts to stand up for her wrongly accused father, she’d been completely destroyed by the people who should have helped her, her sister and her mother. She wasn’t a world-class manipulator like them, and the men in her life played her more than she played them, even ignorant Mike Atwater. Maybe if she’d taken Rachel up on her offer for rehab, she would have had at least one chance in life. What held her back? The possibility of losing her children? Maybe she thought, too, she was protecting them by putting locks on the outside of their bedroom doors, so they wouldn’t see Jacob Poole and his cohorts cutting up the heroin in her living room.
I was silent for a moment before asking my next question.
“Then who shot Rivera?”
Alicia pointed at Jacob on the computer monitor. “This guy. He hasn’t given Barnes anything—he’s going to lawyer up any second now. But we can string enough of a case together to charge him with Jorge’s murder, along with Gina’s. He’ll also face intimidation charges, along with trafficking, not to mention breaking and entering charges for what happened at your place.”
“Any ideas on who set my place on fire?”
“Not yet.”
We watched the computer monitor in silence for a few moments. The conversation between officer and suspect soon stalled, as Alicia predicted.
“I want to talk to my lawyer,” Poole said, his voice distorted electronically. Barnes stood up and left the interrogation room. Momentarily, he was leaning against the doorframe where Alicia and I sat, case file in hand.
“You saw him lawyer up, counselor?”
“Yes, sir, I did.” Alicia turned the monitor off. “Go ahead and charge him, and read him his rights. We’ve got other things to do.”
“Before we go, I have to tell you, Fitz, you did a good job,” he said. “See you in court this afternoon, counselor?”
I looked at Alicia, who nodded.
“We’re dropping charges against Michael Atwater.”

*****

“Who the fuck turned this into a goddamned Chamber of Commerce event?”
“Niccolo, shut the hell up!” My sister Chrissy smacked the back of my head as she passed by me, one arm clutching a basket with a huge casserole dish of ravioli inside. “It’s Sunday and priest from St. Rita’s is in the corner, talking to Ma! Jesus Christ!”
She walked toward the back of my new building, where two rows of folding tables covered with rented linens stood next to as many chairs as could be begged, borrowed or stolen from friends, family or places of worship. A third row of tables was groaning with food ranging from Ma’s spaghetti and marinara, to salads, cakes, cannolis, and slow cookers filled with whatever ilk fed the masses at church socials and PTA suppers, cooked by my brothers’ wives. Two punchbowls sat at the end of one of the tables.
The youngest of my nieces and nephews ran rampant through the office, behaving as only the Fitzhugh clan does: at decibels that strained the eardrums and at speeds up to one hundred miles an hour. The older ones were still away at college and couldn’t be here, the lucky bastards; the preteens were sulking someplace, I assumed, passing time with their video games and simmering hormones.
The other adult male Fitzhughs—both those born into the clan and those who married into it—hung around two huge coolers of beers, talking baseball as my sisters and sisters-in-law fiddled around the food tables.
“Jesus, kids—Uncle Nicco needs some silence!” I called out. “Is it too early to teach you guys how to drink and smoke so you’ll have something quiet to do in a corner?”
Gracie stopped adjusting my tie and pressed a finger against my mouth. “Sssshhh, Niccolo,” she whispered. “Your mother bought your membership in the Chamber this year. They thought a ribbon cutting would be a great way to say you were back in business.”
It was three weeks later and I was, indeed, back in business. I’d found a former downtown bank building down the street from Ambrosi’s office that was small enough for me to afford and in good enough shape to only require a couple coats of paint to make it respectable. “Fitzhugh Investigations” arched in gold lettering across the front window and fortunately for me, the original vault still stood—and locked—in the back. At night, I could store my customer files, my laptop and anything else of value where no errant bottle of flaming liquid could destroy all my work.
There were three rooms: my glassed-in office, a wide lobby I would use as a waiting room and, along the back in front of the vault, what had been the teller counter, today lined with cards from well-wishers. On a weekend foray up north into Amish country, Gracie found an executive desk, a nice leather chair for my office and overstuffed couch and chairs for the waiting room.
Well-wishers, many of them cops I worked with and courthouse staff, walked in and out, filling their plates with food.
“We need to go say thank you to everyone who came by to see you,” Gracie said, dusting off the shoulders of my suit jacket. “And mind your mouth.”
In the next thirty minutes, I did as my lovely bride said, shaking every one’s hand and thanking them for coming. For the first time in a long time, life was good. Gracie and I continued to be happy and once again, we’d taken our place in the Fitzhugh Sunday pasta dinner rotation.
Thanks to Mike Atwater’s case, the work was pouring in: On Monday, when I officially opened, I had a full calendar for the entire week. Not just cases where I was rousting spouses from beds they weren’t supposed to be in, but a fairly decent number of attorneys wanting me to investigate insurance claims or do defense work.
Yes, life was good.
“Niccolo!” Ma, leaning on the priest’s arm, waved me toward the front door. “It’s time to take your picture!”
Dutifully, the family filed outside for the ribbon-cutting photo. When it appeared in the Times the following week, the photographer caught me placing a kiss on the side of Gracie’s head as pieces of cut ribbon fluttered to the ground.
After the picture, I noticed Alicia Linnerman standing off to the side, sipping punch from a paper cup.
“Hello there,” I said, hugging her. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” she answered. “I have a little news for you too. We’re charging Jacob Poole with ordering the firebombing on your place. We arrested two members of Road Anarchy last night; they said they did it on Poole’s orders.”
“Awesome.”
“And Fitz?”
“Yeah?”
“I’m giving up on bad boys.”
“I don’t know which one of those makes me happier.” I smiled. She hugged me and, tossing the paper cup in the trash, left the office. I watched her walk down the sideway toward the courthouse.
Gracie stepped next to me and slid her hand into mine.
“Who’s that?”
“Somebody who’s done a lot of growing, just like me.”

Thanks for sticking around and reading the whole novel with me. If you enjoyed it, Holy Fitz, the next book in the Fitz series and the third book in the series, Love Fitz is available  on my website, http://www.debragaskillnovels.com. All works copyrighted.  Interested in reading another Fitz novel here? Let me know!

 

Call Fitz Chapter 21

I paid for Brewster’s coffee and pastry and headed out to the car. I had a few hours before I needed to pick up Gracie—time enough to do a little snooping.

I called Alicia Linnerman from the Volvo.

“Hello, Fitz,” she purred. “How’s every little thing? Feeling better?” She apparently had gotten over the bruises Elliot gave her and was ready to move on.

“Great. Gracie and I are back together. Hey, is your boss around?”

“Sure.” She sounded crestfallen. “I can connect you.”

“Wait! I don’t want to speak to Lance. I need his home address,” I said.

“What for?”

“Let’s say I’m seeking a moment of clarity.”

“His address is a matter of public record, Fitz. You could find it.”

“I’m in the car. Help a guy out.”

Linnerman sighed and gave me the address.

I wanted to sound like Sam Spade in ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ the way he talked to his secretary, Effie Perrine. I wanted to say “You’re a good girl, Effie,” but Alicia would have been more than offended. She probably would have sent Sadie the mastiff after my ass. Instead, I just said, “Thanks. If I need more, I’ll call you back.”

“Whatever.” She hung up.

Like everything else in this damn case, I was headed the wrong direction. I made a U-turn in the middle of the street and headed out into the country.

*****

The house was an old red brick farmhouse, with hunter green shutters and colorful pots of petunias hanging along white porch rails traveling along the front and east side of the house. It was an older home, brought back to life with a lot of restoration work: the bricks looked recently sandblasted and the roof was had to be new, or at least recent because it matched the green shutters. A brick walkway, accented with marigolds popping out of fresh dark mulch, curved a couple times on its way to the gravel driveway, which was edged with box hedges.

The bank barn behind the house showed pieces of younger, yellow wood newly nailed in place and a fresh reddish paint was creeping up the exterior walls. White vinyl fencing extended from the backside of the barn down to the road, providing a paddock for Lance’s prize horses, which grazed on uniformly level and uniformly green grass.

Renovation was still continuing, apparently. A contractor’s truck and a construction Dumpster sat in the wide graveled area between the house and the barn, next to a gooseneck horse trailer and gleaming white pick-up truck. Rachel Lance’s white Lexus was just visible behind the Dumpster.

From my vantage point at the end of the drive, I lowered my binoculars and pondered my scenario.

Had Rachel contacted her husband on her way home from her mother’s? Did he have any clue of what happened today?

As I tried to put everything together, a muscular construction worker walked out, carrying a bank of kitchen cabinets, which he tossed into the Dumpster like it was nothing. He had on a flannel shirt with the sleeves ripped off and his dirty jeans had holes in the knees. His beard was dirty blonde and scraggly, down to the middle of his beefy chest. He wore a blue construction helmet that covered the upper half of his face.

Was that a bandage around one arm? I wonder what happened? That had to be hard to work wounded, I mused. My burns weren’t yet healed, but I was feeling better. Making love to Gracie had been exquisite, of course, but it still involved some gymnastics to keep pain at bay. I can’t imagine redoing some spoiled housewife’s kitchen while injured.

I raised the binoculars to my eyes as the same construction worker returned to the Dumpster with another bank of cabinets. He stopped and folded his beefy arms, staring at the Volvo. Catching a glimpse of the tattoos across his knuckles, I dropped the binoculars and threw the car into reverse.

Had I just been recognized? It didn’t matter. I would be back soon—and when I did, I would get answers.

*****

Gracie was waiting outside the music department building, her arm draped around her cello case like a lover when I pulled into the parking lot. The cello went into the back seat before she slid into the passenger seat next to me. I handed her the box of Hungarian pastry.

“Sweets for my sweet,” I said.

“Ooh! Thanks! So how was your day?” She kissed me before I could answer. Her lips were warm and soft; I resisted the temptation to slide my hands up her skirt or into her blouse. That could wait until we got home.

“I’m getting close on the Atwater case, I think,” I finally said, putting the car into gear and pulling into traffic. “I might need to go out tonight.”

“Maybe I don’t want to know, then.” She smiled a little wryly and put her hand on my leg.

“Do we still have the security system at the house?” It was one thing I’d insisted on when I moved into Gracie’s house six years ago. Cops live with a particular paranoia; we’ve put away enough people and dealt with enough scumbags to know one day they’ll get out and they just might come looking to hurt us—or someone we love. And just because I wasn’t on the force any more didn’t mean shit: I worried even more now. I never slept without my Glock in reach and, until my Kahr burned in the fire, never went anyplace without more than one weapon just for that reason.

Gracie shot me a sidelong glance, but didn’t answer.

“Don’t tell me you cancelled it,” I said slowly.

“Of course, I didn’t cancel it,” Gracie said. “I’m damned near as paranoid as you are.”

Gracie…It’s not paranoia. It’s self preservation.” I turned the corner and pulled into the body shop parking lot. My Excursion was ready to go, its new black paint job glistening in the sun. I slipped from the driver’s seat as she walked around the Volvo.

“You don’t think I can take care of myself? That I need some man around to keep poor, little me safe and sound?” I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or funny as she snatched the Volvo keys from my hand.

“That’s not what I’m saying, not at all. These situations aren’t anything like your fencing meets. If somebody breaks into the house—”

“I’ll be fine, Niccolo. Don’t worry.”

“I hope so. I’ve got one place more I need to stop. It might be a little bit.”

“Don’t be too long.” She slipped into the Volvo and started the engine. I leaned in through the driver’s window and kissed her goodbye. A look of uncertainty crossed her face, replaced quickly by a brash smile.

“I won’t be. I’ve got all this to come home to.”

*****

After a dinner, we curled up on the couch to watch some PBS show Gracie loved. Comfortable in jeans and tee shirt, she seemed a little more at ease, snuggled against my shoulder. As the sun began to set and the TV show slogged on, I got antsy—too antsy, apparently.

“You’re not fooling anybody, Niccolo. Stop checking your damned cell phone.”

“I’m sorry.”
She sat up, folded her arms and stared at the TV. We sat in silence until my phone finally buzzed.

“You ready?” I asked my caller. “Where should I meet you? OK, give me fifteen minutes. I’ll be there. Bye.”

“So, where are you headed?” She tried to sound casual, but distrust brimmed in her dark eyes. I looked over to see a single tear slide down my wife’s cheek as she tried to stare at the television. I touched her arm.

“Gracie. Honey. Remember? You said you were going to trust me.”

She nodded. “I will Niccolo. I will.”

*****

Alicia Linnerman was waiting at the door of her apartment when I pulled up.

“Barnes is already here,” she said, closing the door behind me. I heard Sadie barking from the back bedroom. “A couple patrol officers are here, too—they’re all back in the kitchen.”

“Where’s Dennis?”

“Working late, putting his argument together for Friday’s grand jury,” Alicia said over her shoulder as I followed. “Don’t worry, one of the other prosecutors working with him is supposed to call if he leaves. Usually, a couple days before a big case, he stays at the office until at least ten at night, running through the evidence. I’ve seen him do it enough times in the past year, so we should be fine.”

Barnes was sitting at the kitchen table, making circles of condensation on Alicia’s table with his ice tea glass. The uniformed officers leaned against the kitchen counter. The wire I was going to wear, along with the battery pack and a roll of surgical tape sat across from him on the table. I took off my jacket and began to unbutton my shirt.

“You know, I wouldn’t have believed all this a week ago until you called me this afternoon, Fitz,” he said.

“Until he called me, I wouldn’t have either, “ Alicia said. “There are just too many connections to Gina Cantolini to not look into them. I hate to think that my boss is involved in any of this.”

Silence hung over the apartment kitchen as the patrol officers went to work, taping the wire to my chest.

If my theory was right, Michael Atwater might walk free but Rachel Lance—and possibly the prosecutor himself—could be facing murder charges. Things were fucked up enough in F-Town and I was about to make them worse.

And what if I was wrong? Gracie would be sorry she bowed out of the Berklee job hunt because we couldn’t live in Fawcettville any longer.

As soon as they were done, I put my shirt back on.

Alicia signaled toward her front door. “Lets do this.”

She grabbed my arm as everybody filed out to the sidewalk.

“Fitz, wait a minute,” she said. “I need to tell you something.” She tipped her face up toward mine.

“What?”

“Dr. Darcy is a very lucky woman.”

I smiled at her. “And I’m a very lucky man.”

“Yeah, you are.” Alicia was silent for a moment. “We could have been something, Fitz. We really could have.” She patted me on the arm.

“There might have been a time when I thought the same thing, but not now. I got a second chance Alicia. I can’t let that go.”

“I know. You be careful out there. I don’t want to be the reason you don’t come home to her.”

*****

Barnes and the two uniforms parked in the surveillance van at the end of the driveway, along the side of the road. A sheriff’s cruiser would be in the area if this whole thing went south. I parked behind them and leaned in the window to talk to Barnes, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

“You think I did a shitty job investigating this, don’t you Fitz?”

“No, I don’t. All the evidence pointed to Mike Atwater.”

“We’ll be listening. When you get what we need, we’ll move in.”

“And if I don’t?”

Barnes shrugged. “We’re fucked and Mike Atwater gets indicted Friday.”

The kitchen light at Lance’s farmhouse shone onto the gravel beside the house as I pulled up. Rachel Lance peeked out the side window.

Her mouth fell open when I stepped from the Excursion, and she flipped the curtains closed.

I pounded on the kitchen door. “Open the door, Rachel,” I called out. “My name is Niccolo Fitzhugh, Fitzhugh Investigations. I know you’re Gina Cantolini’s sister. I know you have information on her murder.”

The door lock clicked and she slowly opened the door a crack.

“Go away.”

“I want to know why your secret is so important you’d let an innocent man go to prison for a murder he didn’t commit.”

“I said go away. I have nothing to say to you.”

I leaned in to glare at half of the beautiful face that peeked out the door. Even wearing tee shirt and sweats, Rachel Lance still looked expensive; but without makeup, the resemblance to her dead sister was striking.

Both girls, in fact, had a striking resemblance to Sharon Hansen, the woman who started this whole downward spiral. She was directly responsible for Brian’s suicide and, by pushing her youngest daughter into a life of drugs and alcohol, indirectly responsible for Gina’s death. Too bad she would never be charged with anything—at least not in this world.

“You can live with the fact a man could be put to death for something you’re responsible for?”

“I said, I have nothing to say to you.”

I lowered my shoulder and pushed my way in the door. Rachel gasped as she staggered backwards against a contractor’s ladder in the middle of the room.

The kitchen was torn up, down to the exterior brick walls in a couple places. New walls were framed up and we stood on a wooden subfloor. There were no appliances, except for a microwave oven and a coffee pot on a folding table. A container of Chinese take-out, disposable wooden chop sticks and a dirty paper plate sat next to the microwave.

“Sit down.” I pointed to the pair of folding chairs next to the table. “I’m not paying games with you. I’m serious. You’re going to tell me every fucking thing that happened that night and you’re going to do it now.”

Rachel ran her hands through her shoulder-length hair, and took a moment to get her thoughts together. She didn’t seem like the slinky siren I’d seen Saturday at the benefit. She was anything but the unattainable goddess tonight. Tonight, she looked like someone whose painful choices kept her up too many nights in a row.

“You don’t understand—”

“I don’t, Rachel? Or is it Rochelle? Mariella? Murder makes a bigger mess than most people realize. Is that the reason you tore the kitchen up, to get rid of the bloodstains? How about I have the cops come test the contents of that Dumpster out back?”

“Stop it!” she screamed. “It wasn’t supposed to happen at all! But I didn’t do it! You have to believe me!”

“You’re also lucky the statute of limitations has run out on perjury on your little performance ten years ago.”

“You don’t know what it’s like to live with what I’ve done. I tried to make it up to Gina. I did! I gave her money, I tried to get her a job, I even tried to get her into rehab, but she wouldn’t go.”

“I imagine your meetings couldn’t have been pleasant.”

“It wasn’t bad at first, but then she started just showing up here at the house. She always wanted money or groceries or something. Jorge, my farm labor, he saw her and asked me how I knew her. That scared me. I couldn’t let her keep coming here—somebody might talk.”

“Helping your sister is OK as long as she doesn’t publically acknowledge that you’re related. I understand.” I couldn’t control my sarcasm.

“That’s not it at all. It was her boyfriend, that, that Jacob Poole guy—he was dangerous. I didn’t want him coming to the house, either.”

“So tell me what really happened.”

“I never knew when she was going to show up. It got bad—she would be drunk or high, but always agitated somehow. She wouldn’t sit still. She’d wander all over the house when she came and I had to follow her. I wanted to count the silverware after she left, you know?”

“No. I don’t.”

Rachel’s story was building momentum. She ignored my snide comments and kept going.

“Two weeks before she was killed, she came over here, scared to death. She told me Poole was bringing heroin into town, that he was cutting in up for sale at her house and she was scared she’d lose her kids. She’s put locks on the outside of their bedroom doors so they wouldn’t just happen to come downstairs after she put them to bed. I told her that she needed to go to the police with that garbage. What if the house caught on fire? ‘Oh, the police won’t help me—they’re as crooked as everyone else in this town,’ she said. ‘I got one cop comes to the house, wanting sex and shit. When I don’t give it to him, he beats me.’”

“Officer Reno Elliot?”

“She never said who it was. I just know between Jacob, her addiction and the cop she felt trapped, with no way out. She had another boyfriend—”

“My client, Michael Atwater.”

“Yes. She would talk about him, sometimes. He kept trying to get her away from Jacob Poole, but I think she knew he wouldn’t be much better. She kept him hanging on, though. She had him convinced her two boys were his, then Jacob Poole’s family demanded a paternity test and things got out of control.”

I thought about the picture of all the red-haired Atwater men Susan had shown me. Innocent as he may be, Michael Atwater was still one dumb shit.

“So what happened the day she was killed?”

“It was late afternoon—Dennis was working at the festival, Jorge was in the barn and I was here by myself when Gina came over here. She was angry and high, waving this pistol around. She’d argued with Michael over the DNA thing. Jacob told her he thought he had informants in the motorcycle club, and she accused me of telling Dennis about the heroin operation.”

Rachel stopped for a moment and clasped her hands over her mouth. She was shaking.

“Let me finish the story for you. She’d heard your husband was going to run for judge and, since she thought you’d exposed the heroin operation, threatened to tell the world what particularly disgusting kind of perjury her dear, darling older sister once committed in a court of law.”

Rachel’s denials filled the room, but I ignored her. I was too angry, angry that Rachel’s efforts to help Gina came not from sisterly concern or an effort to reconcile what she had done, but to keep the lies and the secrecy going.

“I’ll bet the gun Gina brought with her was a .38, the same gun registered to my client. You two argued, then got into a fight, didn’t you? You choked her, but she was stronger that you thought. People get strong when someone is trying to kill them, don’t they Rachel? They’re even stronger when they’re high on something. Gina pointed the gun at you, didn’t she?”

The denials stopped.

“I’m on to something, aren’t I? She turned the gun on you, and you managed to get it pointed back at her, didn’t you?”

“No!”

“Don’t bullshit me. You struggled, you turned the gun toward her and it went off. You killed your sister, Mariella Cantolini—you killed her because she was going to expose you and you couldn’t take that, could you?”

“OK, we struggled, but I never put my hands on her neck. That was Jacob. Jorge saw her pull up and called him to say she was here. They both burst in here and Jorge held me back while Jacob grabbed Gina by the neck and beat her head against the cabinets until she drops the gun. Oh, God, it was awful!” Rachel began to sob.

“What happened next?”

“She was unconscious when he dragged her out of here—he took the gun with him, too. There was blood everywhere! I didn’t know until the next day he’d shot her.”

“You didn’t think to call the police? You didn’t think he was going to kill her?”

“I-I couldn’t! I was so scared!”

“So scared you decided to suddenly remodel the kitchen?”

“No!” Rachel sobbed, but I wasn’t finished.

“So who hired Rivera to chase me off the case?”

“I did,” she said, through her tears. “Rivera was as frightened as I was about Gina’s murder. I told him we both could face charges if the truth came out. Dennis told me you were investigating the case and I told Rivera he had to do anything he could to scare you off. Dennis said Ambrosi was a burnout and you were a loser as a cop. I figured it wouldn’t be hard.” For a moment, arrogance flitted across her face.

“You figured wrong.” I could barely contain my anger. “Thanks to you, two people are dead, my office was destroyed and I got to spend the night in the hospital. All because your sister threatened to expose you and ruin everything you’ve worked so hard to hide. OK boys, I think we’ve got everything we need.”

“You’re wearing a wire? This has been recorded? Oh my God! My life is ruined!” She burst into tears as Barnes and the two uniforms came through the door.

I watched as Barnes handcuffed and Mirandized a hollow-eyed Rachel.

She would face tampering charges, obstruction of justice and possibly even accessory to murder charges, all to cover a lie told in a parent’s nasty divorce long ago.

Barnes put his hand on her head as she slid into the back of the sheriff’s cruiser.

“One more question, Rachel.” I leaned into cruiser. “Dennis doesn’t know you were born a Cantolini, does he?”

She shook her head. “No. I never told him.”

“Why not?”

“By the time I met Dennis, I’d reconciled with my mother and my stepfather adopted me, even though I was an adult. I didn’t see the need to tell him the truth at first. I wanted to hide from what I’d done.””

“And you’d done more than your share, didn’t you?”

“I was young and stupid and all I saw was black and white, OK? My dad had a girlfriend and I was devastated. I got back at him the only way I knew how.”

“What changed your attitude?”

“I fell in love with a married man.”

“Dennis Lance was married when you met him?” I could almost hear the smirk break across Barnes’ face.

She turned her head away. “Yes. The marriage was in shambles and they both knew it. They’d been separated for years, but that doesn’t mean his first wife wasn’t pissed off when she found out.”

“But she didn’t run out and accuse him of sexually abusing the kids, did she? She didn’t cost him his career or his life, did she?”

She was silent for a moment. “No.”

“That’s how civilized people do it, Rachel.”

Two cruisers screamed up the drive as we walked out to the gravel driveway, spitting gravel as they came to a stop.

Chief Monroe stepped from one of the cruisers. Everybody froze. I took a deep breath. The bastard wouldn’t shoot me now, would he? I slipped my right hand into my jacket and touched my Glock.

“You need to get home, Fitz,” Chief said. “There’s been a shooting at your house.”

“What?” I asked.

Monroe laughed, the same kind of idiot, superior laugh that made everyone dislike him.

“From what the officers on scene are telling me, your wife shot an intruder, one Jacob Poole. We’re still investigating, but as I understand it, there were several shots fired. That’s all I know right now.”

“Is she OK?”

Monroe laughed again, apparently enjoying keeping me in the dark, the prick.

I didn’t wait for his answer. I jumped into the Excursion and sped down the Lance’s driveway.

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. The third book in the series, Love Fitz is available July 15.

Call Fitz-Chapter 20

Mac Brewster texted me as I drove back from North Canton: “Meet me at Horvath’s coffee shop. Friday was my last day—I can talk now.”
It wasn’t a convenient time. No doubt Rachel Lance—or whatever the hell her name was—was racing back to her prosecutor husband, probably to tell him I broke into the house and assaulted her mother.
I’d have to deal with her later. Things were starting to fall together and I didn’t like what I was seeing.
I had no idea if Rachel/Rochelle was a first or second wife. Public folks like Dennis Lance always managed to keep their private lives hidden behind a curtain that only opened when they wanted it to be, trotting family members out at election time as little vote-getting minions. If Rachel was a second or even third wife, he’d managed something I seldom saw: A civilized divorce. There was no angry female around town who ranted and raved about what a bastard Dennis Lance was—and god knows, of all people, I would have heard it.
As I drove east on Highway 30, I began to think.
Whatever scenario I came up with, I couldn’t figure out who moved the body? How did they, if it was more than one person, dump a body in the middle of town, particularly during a festival?
Where did Jorge Rivera come into play in all this? Did Rachel hire him to scare me off? Or did Dennis? He would be the one who had inside knowledge on who was investigating the case. Could he have made an inadvertent slip during dinner conversation that started Rachel in search of an enforcer? And how was Rivera somehow tied to the police force?
If Dennis had no idea of his wife’s own questionable past, its exposure would certainly derail his campaign. Here he was, married to a woman who perjured herself ten years ago, who accused her father of sexual abuse so graphic it stunned the jurors and led directly to Brian Cantolini’s suicide. What if Dennis learned about it? What if it was Dennis Lance who killed Gina to get rid of a very uncomfortable liability?
He knew enough about the lowlifes in this town and could easily tie someone else to the murder. A police chief who was looking for every reason to keep his job might know just who to accuse, too. Someone who didn’t matter, someone who was a loser, whose life was as much of a waste as Gina Cantolini and who’s family didn’t have the money to pay for a high-powered defense lawyer… Someone like Mike Atwater.
But again, who put the body under the festival stage? Everyone would recognize Dennis Lance walking through the center of town, and knowing Lance, he couldn’t leave a burning building without shaking a potential voter’s hand first.
Hmmm. Some of it could be possible, but some of just didn’t make sense.
If Rachel killed Gina, or if Dennis Lance did it, it didn’t fit that either one of them moved the body. There had to be a third person, but whom?
I slowed the Volvo down as I came to the edge of Fawcettville. Maybe Mac Brewster could put some of these questions to rest.
*****
Brewster was sitting at the back of the coffee shop when I arrived, eating a zserbó, a confection of three layers of sweet dough, filled with raspberry jam, ground pecans, and coated in dark chocolate.
I ordered a cup of coffee along with a box of half a dozen apricot kiflis to take home to Gracie and joined Brewster.
“So how does it feel to be set free from the work-a-day world?” I asked.
Brewster smiled as he attacked his zserbó with his fork. “You ever have one of these things? Great God Almighty, they are good. I haven’t felt this relaxed in years, Fitz—years.”
“Well, I’ll tell you right now that you’ll get bored soon and you’ll be looking for something to fill your days. I did at any rate. That’s how I ended up in this business.”
“Already got a job—head of security at the college. Regular hours and decent pay and everything. I just couldn’t stay at the FPD anymore, Fitz. Just couldn’t do it.”
“Tell me everything you know about Jorge Rivera. You probably heard about my little incident.”
“Yeah, you sure manage to attract the shit, don’t you?” Brewster took a sip of his coffee. “From what I hear, the chief told that reporter off the record that Rivera was a CI, and it somehow got into the story. Monroe was pissed, called the editor and everything.”
“I heard Rivera was working with the police to provide information about Jacob Poole and that motorcycle gang he’s part of. They’re supposedly bringing heroin into town.”
Brewster shook his head. “He wasn’t working with the police. That whole thing isn’t in local hands at all. He was working with the feds.”
“The feds?”
Brewster took another bite of his pastry and nodded. “We all knew about the operation, but those CI’s were all tapped by the feds, not anyone who could be recognized here in town. He couldn’t have been very good. The last two or three buys Rivera set up fell through, from what I heard. Why?”
“Rivera was hired to shake me off the case—he told me so. After Ambrosi hires me to investigate Gina Cantolini’s death, Rivera starts following me around. The first time I visited Atwater at the jail, Rivera caught me coming out of my office and knocked me out cold. I catch him looking up at my office window with binoculars. I go to meet Jacob Poole at Lupe’s restaurant and he’s waiting for me outside. We get into it in the alley, he gets away from me and I hear a gunshot, but can’t find a body.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No, Mac! I checked at the hospital and everything. The next time Rivera takes a run at me, it’s in the parking lot at Memorial Hall, Saturday night. I get the best of him—again—and he tells me the powers that be want me off this case, but won’t give me a name. We meet at Puccini’s, he’s about to tell me who’s behind all this and the poor sumbitch gets shot in the head.”
“Then your office gets firebombed that same night? You sure manage to wade right into it, Fitz.” Brewster shook his head.
“Here’s what I want to know. Barnes seems to think that the bullet Rivera took and the firebombing was meant for me—and that it came from someone connected with the police department. Someone high up.”
“I think Detective Barnes is wrong.” Brewster was serious.
I shrugged. “I think so, too, Mac. For all the mistakes I made in the past, the last thing I’m going to do is go sniffing around Maris again. I’m happily married now, Mac. I’m not going to jeopardize that. And Monroe, well—”
“We all know the story of how Lt. Baker saved your bacon that night. Monroe knows not to go after you any more. He’s been on thin ice too long. He has no decision-making power any more, outside of signing expense reports and filling in duty rosters. The daily stuff, that’s all been shifted to the city manager. All Monroe does is to sit in his office and figure out who is wife is sleeping with now. I’ve heard the city manager has a drawer full of resumes of guys who want to be the new chief. That’s why things are so crazy. The prosecutor has been the one who’s been working with the feds on this heroin investigation.”
My ears perked up at that one. “Dennis Lance has been working with the feds?”
“Yeah. I mean, he’s not involved in daily operations, but he’s aware, you know? Why?”
“I owe you Mac. This time I really owe you.”

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. The third book in the series, Love Fitz is available July 15.

Call Fitz—Chapter 19

“You can’t just roll over and die because the cops found a weapon!”
The next morning, I kissed a sleeping Gracie goodbye and went to meet Ambrosi.
He had an office for me, as promised, along with keys to the front door. It was one of his back rooms currently empty because of a paralegal out on maternity leave. If the condition of the office was any indication, the paralegal probably took time off for the health of her unborn baby. Like the rest of Ambrosi’s offices, it was painted maize yellow, edged brown with the smoke of his cheap cigars where the walls met the ceiling. There were no windows. Low-watt bulbs gave the room a cave-like aura; I expected to see bats fly from the ceiling when I first flipped the light switch. The office also stunk from those cigars, the body odor of the losers he perpetually represented and Ambrosi himself. Clearly, I needed to find some new digs for Fitzhugh Investigations, but not until I finished this case.
Our conversation was held in Ambrosi’s large but dingy office. Thank God, it was warm enough for the window to be opened, sending his cigar smoke out the window.
“With his record, my chances of getting him off are even slimmer,” Ambrosi whined.
“You can’t argue to have prior bad acts excluded? I’m no attorney, but I’ve watched more than one perp walk because his lawyer argued the fact that he did something once before didn’t mean it could be admitted in the current case.”
“The fact that he has a long history of domestic violence with the victim will trump that,” Ambrosi said.
“What about the time stamp on Poole photo? Could that provide some reasonable doubt?”
“Basically, the picture was taken with a camera with an incorrect time and date stamp on it, then Poole took a photo of that picture with his cell phone,” Ambrosi explained. “I’ll argue it, but that won’t come up until the case comes to court. You know as well as I do, the grand jury is just there to determine whether a crime has been committed, not some mini-rehearsal of the court case. And Gina Cantolini’s body is proof a crime was committed.”
“You’re not giving up on Mike, are you?” I was getting sucked into the cult of Mike Atwater’s innocence, even as the evidence kept piling up.
Ambrosi sighed. “One of the first things I say to my clients is ‘don’t tell me if you’re innocent or guilty. Tell me who the witnesses are and I’ll tell you if you’re innocent or guilty.’ I went against my own advice here and it’s come back to haunt me.”
Ambrosi began ticking off the evidence against his client.
“There’s no evidence Jacob Poole had anything to do with the victim’s death, despite the photo. We have Mike and Gina arguing at the festival and Officer Reno Elliot breaking up the argument. My client is behind on his child support and the victim told him she wants him to submit to a DNA test because there’s a good possibility the boys he thinks are his son belong to someone else. There is the gun, which is registered to my client, and which matches the bullets found in the victim’s chest. Maybe I could bargain it down from murder one.”
“Hold on! Jorge Rivera was about to tell me that the victim had information that made a lot of people nervous. He told me the same folks who wanted me off the case because they knew the shit would hit the fan if I found out,” I countered. “Rivera was working undercover with the police to investigate the heroin Poole’s motorcycle gang allegedly brings into Fawcettville. I’ve been cold cocked, shot at and had my office blown up investigating this case. That’s too much effort being put into getting some low-level criminal convicted in the death of a drunken hooker. There’s something more here, Jim, and we can’t give up yet.”
Ambrosi shrugged. “I have my doubts, Fitz.”
“So why would somebody try to kill me, particularly twice in one night? You got any answers for that?”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t. You’ve pissed a lot of people off through the years, Fitz.”
“Now hold on! Everybody wants to blame Chief Monroe, but that shit was seven years ago. I wish the people in this town would forget things like that. I made a mistake and I had to retire from the force because of it,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong—Nathaniel Monroe is a dick and shouldn’t be chief. If he’d dump that idiot slut he’s married to, a lot of his problems would end. For all of that, I don’t think Monroe is trying to kill me.”
Ambrosi lit one of his stinking cigars and drew the smoke deep into his lungs, but didn’t speak. Was he just too spineless to say anything? Or did he know something I didn’t?
“I’m going to Akron today. I’ve got a hunch I need to follow.”
“Be careful out there, Fitz. Just be careful.”
*****
I parked Gracie’s Volvo down the block and walked back to examine Sharon Hansen’s house.
The North Canton neighborhood around the house was genteel and quietly polished. No one’s yard showed signs of a single weed; cars were uniformly expensive and clean. The streets still retained their bricks, installed during the Great Depression. Down the block, a historical marker in the grass between the sidewalk and the street marked the home of a local writer who made his name concocting novels of the Old West and the Civil War.
These houses weren’t anything like you’d find in Fawcettville, in New Tivoli or Tubman Gardens. Here, social status spread like chlamydia down the well-appointed hallways and through tasteful living rooms.
Sharon’s house, which sat on the corner of Northwest Princeton and East Yale streets, was painted white with tasteful green shutters at each window. A low, brick wall began at the sidewalk, shoring up its small, sloping front yard where daffodils bloomed along the edge. A white Lexus was parked in the driveway.
The front door faced East Yale Street and had two columns on either side. From around the corner, I could see to a sleeping porch on the second floor had brightly colored outdoor furniture. If Sharon were as ill as she claimed to be in our phone conversation, she could sit there for morning coffee and look over her immaculately groomed back yard.
I walked up the concrete steps to the front door and knocked. Inside, I heard purposeful steps on wooden floors. The lock turned and a woman opened the red front door.
No wonder Brian Cantolini felt blessed when she turned her attentions to him: Sharon Hansen was stunning. Fit and petite, her blonde hair was tastefully styled; she wore a peach colored twinset and tapered tan pants. Her face was remarkably unwrinkled, but steely, and her makeup perfect. A matching purse was on her arm, like she was ready to leave.
“May I help you?” I could see equal parts of both her and Brian in their daughter Gina’s face—and another face, one from Saturday night’s symphony benefit.
“Sharon Hansen? You look remarkably well for someone who was in a wheelchair just last week.”
“Excuse me?”
“I’m Niccolo Fitzhugh of Fitzhugh Investigations. I talked to you last week about your daughter Gina’s death. You said you weren’t able to attend her funeral because you were ill and in a wheelchair. It looks like you’ve made a complete recovery.”
Sharon tried to slam the door, but I caught it with my shoulder, muscling my way into her foyer. I grabbed her by the arm.
“Get your hands off me! You leave here right now or I’ll call the police!” she said.
“I don’t think so. I know the truth behind why your husband committed suicide. I think it’s tied to your daughter’s death and you’re going to tell me why.”
Sharon shook her arm free. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Don’t lie to me,” I said, grabbing her arm again. I pulled her close to my face, just to watch her squirm. “I know you accused your late husband of sexually abusing your daughter Mariella ten years ago. You talked your daughter into believing he’d done it—or you both made up this story to get something out of a man who worked hard to provide for you and your spoiled little brat. But then it got out of control, didn’t it? The school board got hold of it, then the police got hold of it and you two were just in too deep to admit you’d lied, right?”
Footsteps, light ones, like a woman’s, sounded on the linoleum in the kitchen, just off the dining room to my right.
“Ma? Who was that?” A voice called out. “We need to get going!”
I jerked Sharon’s arm.
“You tell Mariella or Rochelle or Rachel or whatever name she goes by these days there’s someone here to see her,” I hissed.
Sharon stared back at me, her eyes hard.
I glanced past her to see Rachel Lance peek from around the kitchen doorframe. Her pink lipstick was perfect and her clothing casual in a way that screamed how much work it took to just throw something on. Her makeup was more natural, less striking, but her face was still beautiful. Her big, brown, Italian eyes were ringed with heavy black lashes; they got even bigger as she recognized me.
“Rochelle!” Sharon called. “Run!”
The kitchen door slammed. I dropped Sharon’s arm and ran to the kitchen, then out the backdoor as Rachel pulled down the drive in her white Lexus. The tires squealed on the brick road as she sped off down the street.
I didn’t follow her—there was no need. I would catch up to her later. I walked back into the foyer, where Sharon Hansen stood, shaking, and her perfectly manicured hands over her mouth. I grabbed the sleeve of her sweater and she gasped.
“Tell me the truth about what you did to Gina,” I demanded. “I know you pushed her away when she tried to stand up for her father and tell everyone you were lying. You’re the reason she was a drunk. You’re the reason why she sold her body to pay for her drugs and why she couldn’t tell you which loser she slept with fathered her children.”
“Stop it! You don’t understand!” Sharon turned her face away from me in tears. I jerked the sleeve of her sweater again and she cried out in fear.
“I don’t have to understand, Mrs. Henson. I’m the one who used to pick Gina up when she was a drunken, homeless teenager on the streets. I’m the one who arrested her for prostitution and now I’m the one who’s been hired to find out how she really died.”
I brought my face close to hers. She raised her hand up, as if to protect herself from a blow.
“Please, please! You’re scaring me,” she cried.
“Just tell me one thing,” I said. “You couldn’t be enough of a mother to attend your own daughter’s funeral. Are you also cold enough to make someone else pay the bill?”
“No! I sent a check as soon as Rachel told me.”
I let go of Sharon’s arm and she sank against the foyer wall.
“Does your son-in-law know his wife’s real name?”
Sharon shook her head. “After Brian killed himself and I got remarried, Rochelle didn’t want to be known by her birth name. She was embarrassed at all the attention she got when the trial was over and people learned what her last name was. So, she had it legally changed to Rachel Hansen. She met Dennis in grad school, when he was teaching a business law class. They’ve only been married a couple years.”
“Did she ever tell him the truth?”
“I don’t know,” Sharon whispered. “I never asked.”
“Tell me how Gina died. Tell me everything you know,” I demanded.
“I don’t know how she died. I only know Rachel got back in contact with her sister recently. I just know she wouldn’t kill her sister. She’s got too much to lose.”
“Did it ever cross your mind she might have killed her because she’s got too much to hide?”
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.

Call Fitz —Chapter 18

The warm sounds of Gracie’s cello filled the hallway as I approached her office in the college music department. I stopped outside the door and laid a hand on the cool wood door, as if to soak her music into my soul and hold it there forever. I couldn’t lose her. I just couldn’t. I hoped my plans for the evening, starting with the two-dozen roses I held on my arm and ending with a promise that cleaned out my savings account of all but a couple bucks and change, would bring her back to me forever. The music stopped, and I heard the sound of pages turning—the perfect time to enter.
Gracie was seated near the window, with her cello between her knees, bathed in the spring sunlight, rifling through the sheet music on the stand in front of her. She wore another white gauzy top and camisole, paired today with coral pants and sandals. Sunlight bounced off her hair, held away from her face with a white headband. She looked up and gasped at the flowers.
“Niccolo! You didn’t have to do that!” She stood and took them from me, kissing me lightly on one burned cheek. She buried her nose in a bloom and inhaled. “Oh, they smell wonderful.”
“Of course I did! How was your day?”
Gracie didn’t answer, handing me the flowers back and searching for an empty vase in her coat closet. She stood on tiptoe as she brought one from the back of the shelf, sitting it on her desk.
“Pretty good,” she said finally. She smiled, I thought a little sadly, as she turned to take the flowers from me and began to arrange them in the vase.
“What happened?”
She shrugged. “I talked to the folks at Berklee College of Music today.”
“Oh?”
“I’m not in the running for that job anymore.”
“They decided that before even interviewing you?” I hoped I sounded disappointed for her sake. I wanted to jump up and down and cheer.
“Yeah.” She cast her eyes down. What did she mean? Did she feel stuck here now? Stuck with me because I wouldn’t sign the divorce papers? Was she convinced now that I was ruining her life?
“Well, they don’t know what they missed,” I said. I wanted to hold her and kiss her forehead, but remembering earlier rebuffs, I stood awkwardly in front of her. “How about we go out to dinner?”
“Sure.”
I got the impression I would have gotten the same response if I’d said, “How about we go jump off a bridge?” Or, “Lets go home and burn down the house.” At least by the time we got to Ye Olde Gaol, she was starting to smile, though slightly.
After visiting Atwater at the jail earlier today, I’d managed to duck across the street to the Gaol and ask the maître d, Mr. Tony, a fixture at the Gaol for generations, for a slight favor. Of an uncertain age, somewhere between Ma and my oldest brother, Mr. Tony could work wonders for those who came to enjoy an intimate dinner or a grand feast, even on short notice.
Thanks to Mr. Tony, I was able to reserve one of the small corner tables downstairs, where the stony cell walls had been converted to warm intimate little dining areas, with soft lights on the walls and candles on the tables. I didn’t want to get one of the small private dining rooms upstairs, mainly because they had windows: the third time could be the charm, if someone still wanted to kill me. I wanted someplace that had memories, good memories, for both of us.
“Oh, Niccolo!” Gracie swept up a second bouquet of roses from her chair.
We gave Mr. Tony our drink orders and I reached over to take Gracie’s hand as we settled into our chairs. She didn’t pull away this time.
“You asked me to prove to you that I’ve changed,” I began. “I don’t know any other way than to show you. I wanted someplace where it could be just you and me, someplace with good memories for both of us. So I chose the place where I asked you to marry me, six years ago. You know this is the same table we sat at that night.”
Gracie looked around and smiled. “Oh, Niccolo,” she said again.
Mr. Tony came back with our drinks—a vodka martini for Gracie, a beer for me. He took our dinner orders and left. I took a sip of my beer and began again.
“I know I have a reputation and most of it is well deserved, but you have to know that from the day I met you, I never wanted anyone else. I never looked at another woman. I want you back, Gracie. I want what we had to continue. I want—”
She reached across the table and placed her long graceful fingers on my mouth.
“Hush, Niccolo.” Gracie folded her hands around her martini glass. “I have something to tell you. I had a visitor today.”
“You did?” Oh God.
“Yes. Judy Demyan came by. She saw the article about you in the Times.”
“The person who started all this mess came to see you? What did she want?” I turned my pilsner glass in circles on the white tablecloth as I tried to contain my sarcasm.
“That’s what she wanted to talk to me about, this whole mess.” She looked up at the rough limestone walls. I could see tears cresting in her eyes. “She asked me why you were at your office the night of the fire. I told her that after I’d caught her with you, we’d separated and were probably going to divorce. She got very upset. She told me exactly what happened that day, that she was drunk and angry because her husband had been unfaithful to her and you never encouraged her—the same story you’d always told me. Judy admitted she was out of control and apologized for the whole mess. She feels that she’s responsible for your injuries in the fire and she’s awfully sorry.”
“She should be fucking sorry,” I said sharply.
“She’s going into rehab.”
“Good.”
“I owe you an apology, too. I just happened to walk in exactly the wrong moment and jumped to the conclusion that you’d returned to your old ways, Nicco. That was wrong. If I’d believed you that day, you wouldn’t have been in the office the night it was firebombed. You’d have been home with me. You wouldn’t have been hurt.”
I swallowed hard and slipped my hand into my pocket, wrapping my fingers around the small velvet box there. Gracie kept talking, saying things I never thought I’d hear again.
“I’m not from here, but you are. You grew up here in Fawcettville and I just came here to work. I never experienced the feeling of family that I did with you. The other night, when you came home from the hospital and your mother made dinner for us, it was just like all those Sundays we had in the past, surrounded by that big, crazy, Italian family of yours. I realized then how much I’d miss if I let you go.” She looked up at the ceiling again and wiped her tears away.
I pulled the velvet box from my pocket. Holding the box in my lap, I opened my mouth to speak, but she held up her hand.
“Not yet, Niccolo. I have a couple more things to tell you. I told you that I’m not in the running for the Berklee College of Music job.”
“I know, and I don’t want you to feel you’re stuck here, Grace, just because they decided you weren’t good enough for them,” I said. “You’re a great musician and an even better teacher—fuck ‘em if they don’t know what they passed by. I know the college isn’t Julliard and I know this is a really small town. Six years ago, I asked you to marry me right here at this same table. I brought you here tonight to make a damned good argument for you to take me back and right now, all I can say is this: I want us to continue and I want you to have this as a promise from me that things will be different from here on out.”
“Nicco, honey, you’re not listening. I’m the one who called Berklee. I told them I was no longer interested in interviewing for the job. I also called the attorney and withdrew the divorce papers. I want to make things work, too, Niccolo. I want us to work.”
She wanted to stay. She wanted to stay with me. Wordlessly, I opened the ring box up and sat it on the table between us. She gasped at the band of diamonds.
“I want to start again, too, Gracie,” I begged. “I don’t ever want to lose you. Please, Gracie. Let’s start again.”
She took the ring from the box, slipped it onto her finger and nodded.
*****
The dozen roses hit the living room floor as the front door slammed behind us. I pushed Gracie up against the closest wall; our lips were locked together, her arms around my neck as my hands were frantically trying to open her blouse. She wrapped one long leg around me; my hands left the blouse to grasp her firm, sweet ass.
“Oh God, baby,” I whispered into her neck.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she whispered hoarsely. She shifted her leg back to the floor and ran her hands inside my shirt just as my cell phone rang in the back pocket of my jeans.
“Goddammit,” I whispered.
“Don’t you dare answer that, Niccolo.” Her voice was dark and husky.
“Don’t worry,” I answered, sliding my hands to her breasts and kissing her neck. The phone kept ringing. Gracie pulled the phone out of my pocket, bringing my hips closer to hers. She swept her long hair from her face and held the phone up in front of me.
“Who is this?”
My eyes struggled to focus. My eyes may be telling me I was getting old, but there were other parts that weren’t—at least for right now.
“Shit. It’s Ambrosi, Mike Atwater’s attorney.”
“You can call him back later.” Her lips met mine as she slid the phone onto a nearby side table. Her hands moved to the front of my jeans and began to work at the zipper. “Right now, we’ve got better things to do.”
*****
About one in the morning, I staggered downstairs for a glass of water. The entry way was bathed in the spring moonlight, making it easy for me to grab the phone from the side table as I passed through to the kitchen. Sitting at the kitchen table, I punched in the voicemail code and listened to Ambrosi’s message as I sipped from my glass.
“Fitz, it’s me. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I found a desk for you to work from. The other good news is that the time stamp on Jacob Poole’s cell phone photo is incorrect. The bad news is Mike Atwater’s .38 was finally recovered in the alley behind the Mexican restaurant. Ballistic tests matched it to the weapon that killed Gina and it’s got Gina’s fingerprints on it. I’m thinking we don’t have any choice but to work a plea deal after the grand jury. Call me back.”

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.

Call Fitz—Chapter 17

The sun was midway through the morning sky when I began to pry my eyes open. I pulled the blankets up over my shoulder and savored, for the moment, the feel of the cool cotton sheets and the clean smell of the pillow beneath my head. God, this is so much better than my office couch. I rolled over and gasped, startled at the curving, feminine silhouette beneath the blanket beside me. Too much wine at dinner hadn’t affected me so much that I forgot Gracie coming to bed with me, had it? Sweet Mary, Mother of God, I wouldn’t do that.

I reached over with a bandaged paw to touch, to see if it were really Gracie.

Shit. The wad of pillows and blankets collapsed beneath my hand and disappointment seeped into my now-awake brain. I sighed and swung my legs over the side of the bed.

Enough dreaming. It was Monday and I had things to do.

Wandering into the kitchen, I rubbed my hands through my hair, planning my day. I had to get back on track with the case. I needed to talk to Mike or Susan Atwater to see if Gina ever told them about her father’s suicide and the twisted vengeance that led to her destructive lifestyle. It may not have anything to do with finding who really killed her, but you never know. I also needed to drop by Ambrosi’s office to see if I could work there for a few weeks until I found a more permanent place to settle and get the Expedition into the shop to repair that bubbled paint.

On the kitchen table, there was a note and a set of car keys from Gracie beneath an empty coffee cup: “Niccolo—here’s the keys to the Volvo. One of the other Profs took me to work this morning so you could have the car, in case you needed it. There’s coffee in the pot. Pick me up at 4:30—G.”

I couldn’t be too much in the doghouse if she wanted me to pick up her up after work, could I? Mentally, I added, “buy flowers” to my to do list for the day.

I punched the ‘on’ button at the side of the coffee maker and unrolled the morning edition of the Fawcettville Times. It wasn’t a bad little paper— a lot of reporters, good and bad, got their start there before moving on, moving up or moving out of the business entirely.

While I was a cop, I had a couple hot weekends with the crime reporter, a Harley-riding woman named Bobbie, who had a way with words like no one I’d ever met—until Gracie. Before Bobbie rode off to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and out of my life, she called me dog—more specifically, a horny Rottweiler who’d hump anything from a Shih Zhu to a hole in a tree. I was also a pig whose lack of commitment spread deep down into my DNA. I couldn’t manage anything more creative than to call her a fucking crazy, workaholic badge bunny. The day she roared off on her motorcycle was a good day indeed.

This wasn’t one of those good days: scrawled across the top of the Times was a sickening headline:

Weekend violence centers on local PI

            A local private investigator and former Fawcettville police officer is at the center of a murder and a firebombing, both of which occurred Saturday night.

            Jorge Rivera, age and address unavailable, was shot and killed at Puccini’s coffee shop, a long-time landmark in the New Tivoli neighborhood, during a meeting with private investigator Niccolo Fitzhugh, of Fitzhugh Investigations.

Further information about Rivera was not available at press time, although sources connected with the investigation suggested he might have been an undercover operative of some sort.

            According to reports, Fitzhugh reported seeing a dark-colored, boxy sedan traveling slowly down in front of the coffee shop. The passenger side window came down, a weapon was displayed and shots were fired into the coffee shop window, killing Rivera.

            Later that same night Fitzhugh was apparently working late at his office when two suspects tossed what fire investigators believe to be Molotov cocktails through Fitzhugh’s front office door and through the office window from the fire escape.

            Damages to Puccini’s coffee shop were estimated at approximately $10,000. Damages to Fitzhugh’s office could total $50,000, according to building owner Orville Grundy.

            Fitzhugh was not injured in the shooting, however he did suffer first- and second-degree burns and smoke inhalation as a result of the fire. Fitzhugh was hospitalized in good condition and expected to be released Monday.

            “We have no idea what kind of dangerous activity Mr. Fitzhugh is involved in, but clearly he’s being targeted for something,” said Chief Nathaniel Monroe.  

            Fitzhugh served twenty years with the Fawcettville police before retiring suddenly seven years ago to start his own private investigations firm, Monroe said.

His personnel file, provided by Monroe at the request of the Times, showed several citations for bravery and service. Performance reviews over the years were largely positive, however, Monroe said, “Fitzhugh’s decisions in his personal life could sometimes interfere with his professional life.”

            This is the second murder in Fawcettville this month and the first arson committed in three years. Slightly more than a week ago…

 

I didn’t need to read any more. I knew as public employees, a cop’s personnel record was open to anyone who asked—within reason, at least, in the state of Ohio. Information such as my address would be redacted for my own protection. At least it was supposed to be. Would Monroe let that information slip?

The only incorrect information was my release date from the hospital, but if things at the Times operated the same way they did while Bobbie was still there, the story was likely written before I was sent home. It’s also possible the reporter tried to contact me and failed. I don’t even remember seeing anyone resembling a reporter—any cop could spot one at any crime scene—at the fire or at Puccini’s.

But why identify Rivera as an “undercover operative?” Was he an undercover cop or a confidential informant? Would Monroe throw one of his own, particularly one who just gave his life, under the bus? Or did that come from someone else? Was it something that was supposed to be off the record and inadvertently included? As unlikely as it seemed, even small town departments had undercover officers and confidential informants; in a town where everyone was related, or at the very least, screwing each other, it was even more imperative to guard those identities.

What was said about me was largely correct, whether I liked it or not. My personal life did seriously interfere with my professional life—screwing Monroe’s wife nearly got me killed. But Monroe wouldn’t want those details in print, that’s for sure.

Rivera’s sole purpose was to shake me off the case—and he failed miserably. He was known to meet with police officer Reno Elliot who intimidated Gina and publically identified as working undercover. Could the connection then be made that Monroe was somehow behind framing Atwater? Much as I hated him, I didn’t want to believe Monroe had anything to do with this—and like Barnes, didn’t want to be the one to lob accusations at him without any basis. But things were fitting together—and in a way I didn’t like. Monroe was stupid enough to use intimidation to keep men away from his idiot wife—but he never struck me as one who would frame someone for murder.

Then, too, maybe he was so worried about who Maris was doing that he didn’t know what these two cops were up to.

And why would they—Elliot, Rivera and Monroe, if he was involved—pick on a low level criminal like Mike Atwater, especially over the death of a sad case like Gina Cantolini? What could she know that would make a police chief nervous—and nervous enough to kill?

The next question: How much of this could I share with Barnes without either compromising Atwater’s chances of sailing through the grand jury without an indictment—or getting myself killed?

Mac Brewster said he was going to file his retirement papers before talking to me about what was going on at the FPD. I needed to run him down as well—maybe he was ready to talk this week.

But I had to speak to Barnes first.

“You told me you didn’t know who Jorge Rivera was,” I said as soon as he picked up his office phone.

“I couldn’t, Fitz! I swear to God! I can’t believe that would come out of Monroe’s mouth and that an idiot reporter would print something like that! The longer I’ve had to deal with the Times the more I’m convinced they hire idiots and morons. Fucking idiots and morons.”

“Monroe ought to know that anytime you talk to a reporter it’s on the record,” I said. “The only other thing I can think is that he told him off the record and the reporter slipped up.”

Barnes groaned. “That’s going to shoot everything in the ass.”

“Everything? What was Rivera involved in?”

“Rivera was providing information on the motorcycle gang Jacob Poole was part of. They were reportedly bringing large quantities of pure heroin into the city and selling it.”

This was no surprise. Anarchy Road was started by a group of disenchanted Vietnam veterans back when I was a kid. While the club originally provided a place to drink beer and listen to bad local rock bands, as times got harder in F-town, so did the club members. The club occasionally had poker runs to raise money for local kids stricken with one horrible disease or another, but as time passed, it became more known for the crimes that allegedly occurred there but could never be proved.

“Jacob Poole? Gina Cantolini’s other lover?”

“Yeah. But he didn’t kill her, Fitz. We’ve checked and he’s clean—at least where she’s concerned.”

*****

Ambrosi welcomed me into his office just before lunch.

“Jesus, Fitz, you look like shit.” He ran his fingers through his fading comb over and settled back behind the big mahogany desk. “I saw this morning’s paper.”

“Yeah, I’ve had better weekends.” I dropped into a Morris chair across from him.

Quickly, I filled him in on the shooting and the fire, including what I learned about Rivera.

“So you think the chief of police could be behind this?” Ambrosi’s fat cheeks puffed out as he exhaled, a fearful look on his face.

“I don’t want to make those sort of allegations unless I’ve got something more to go on,” I said. “But some things just point his way. I also need to talk to your client to ask him about some information I learned about Gina’s family.”

Ambrosi scratched the information on a pad of paper. “I’ve got some time tomorrow afternoon, after two. Meet me at the jail then.”

“Another thing—I need some space to work, since I no longer have an office. Got any space for me?”

Ambrosi wouldn’t look me in the eye. “I don’t know, Fitz.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” My voice escalated. “I’ve been hit in the head, shot at, attacked in a parking lot, and my fucking office burned down, all because of your client. You don’t think that deserves a desk in a corner here?”

Ambrosi raised his hands, but the fear didn’t leave his face. “Calm down, Fitz—you have to understand that I can’t put my staff’s lives at risk—or my own life, for that matter. We all have families.”

“And I don’t? Fuck you, Ambrosi. Fuck you and your spineless kind of lawyering. I thought you hired me because you believed your client was innocent. Now, when things start to go balls to the wall, you step back like you’re going to let me hang? You afraid of what I’ll find out? Huh? Huh?”

He colored to the roots of his stringy, thin hair.

“Fuck you, Ambrosi.” I turned to go, spinning so quickly pain from the burns on my feet shot straight to my brain.

“Fitz, wait!”

I stopped.

“Let me see if I can find an empty desk for you, OK?”

“You do that.”

I left the office—and Gracie’s Volvo in Ambrosi’s parking lot—walking the four blocks to the jail. Maybe Atwater could take a few minutes away from staring at the ceiling from his jailhouse bunk to talk to me.

He could. After warning him that any conversation he had here would be recorded, the deputy shackled Mike to the floor in front of the scratched Plexiglas window and handed him the phone. He didn’t look any worse for wear—the daily jailhouse routine was probably a familiar one for him.

“I’m looking for information on Gina and her family,” I said. “What do you know about her parents?”

Atwater shrugged. “I know her mom lives in North Canton but they don’t like each other. I know her dad is dead, and I know he killed himself. Gina had a sister, but I don’t know who she is.”

“Ever hear the name Mariella?”

“No. Gina’s sister’s name was something else.”

“Like what?”

“Rochelle, maybe? Roxy?”

“You never met her, then.”

Atwater shook his head. “She said her family hated her.”

“Do you know why they hated her?”

“She’d talk about it only when she was really drunk. She said the police thought her dad did something bad to her sister and he committed suicide. Gina said it wasn’t true, though. She tried to tell everybody it wasn’t true, but no one would listen. She always felt really bad about the whole thing, but nobody would admit what they did.”

“What do you mean, ‘admit’?”

“Gina said her mom made up all that stuff about her dad and her sister, but they wouldn’t talk about it. They made her look like she was the crazy one. They cut her out of the family for sticking up for her dad.”

That verified everything Tina Cantolini-Jones had told me. I had one more question.

“Did she ever say where her sister lived?”

“No. I don’t think she knew.”

“OK, thanks.” I nodded.

Back at Gracie’s, I logged on to the laptop, which mercifully came to life with an electronic chime, and found Tina Cantolini-Jones’ phone number. It was about noon in San Francisco and Tina picked up the phone. We exchanged a few pleasantries before getting down to business.

“Mrs. Jones, did your niece Mariella ever go by a different name?”

“After she hit her teens, she wanted to be called by her middle name, so we did. She didn’t like the name Mariella, especially since it was an old family name.”

“What was her middle name?”

“Rochelle.”

Rochelle. Dennis Lance’s lush, lavish wife Rachel shimmered across my mind and once again, I saw the resemblance between a rich attorney’s wife and the body of a dead hooker lying in a casket. Could Rochelle have changed her name? Could she now be Rachel? If anybody had a secret that needed keeping, it would be Mariella Rochelle Cantolini or Rachel Lance, whatever the hell her name was now.

I get it that shit gets said when people get divorced. I get it that kids get dragged into that same shit and they get damaged forever. I don’t get it that people take it to the extreme, hanging onto a lie until an innocent man decides to suck on the end of a pistol to make it stop and a young girl is cut out of her family for trying to make it right.

What if Gina somehow found Rachel and threatened to expose her? The woman who had two men fighting over the parentage of her three children had learned long ago how to manipulate people. It wasn’t that far a stretch that she would play the same game with her sister.

If what I was thinking correct, it was particularly important that secret remain so if Rachel’s husband wanted to be the next common pleas judge.

And what was the rumor Susan Atwater heard at Gina’s funeral, that the prosecutor had paid the bill? That made sense now—too damned much sense.

But Rachel didn’t react when I called her by her name Saturday night. Was that practice on her part or was I jumping to conclusions?

“Do you happen to have any pictures of Rochelle?”

There was silence on the other end of the line. “Let me look. I’m not sure. Does this have anything to do with Gina’s murder?”

“I don’t know. I just know that there’s an awful lot of people who think I don’t need to be investigating Gina’s murder and I’m trying to find out what she knew that pisses so many people off.”

We exchanged e-mails and said our good-byes. It was time for me to go buy flowers and pick up Gracie at work.

I’d need her car again tomorrow: I needed to visit Sharon Hansen. Until I had a picture of Rochelle/Rachel, Mommy Dearest was the next best source I had. I needed to lean on her and lean on her hard.

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.