Call Fitz —Chapter 2

I’m trying something new, posting a chapter a week of my first Niccolo Fitzhugh novel, CALL FITZ. If you like what you’re reading here, you don’t have to wait to see how it ends: CALL FITZ is available through my website or  here on amazon.com

Michael Atwater looked scared, scared as any dumbass should have been. I saw it in his eyes as Ambrosi and I walked into the conference room where he sat waiting on us.

His leg was shackled to the ring in the floor and his hands were cuffed as a deputy stared at him from his chair in the opposite corner. The sheriff’s office would have claimed that was “customary procedure,” but the truth was Fawcettville didn’t get a whole lot of homicides over the course of a year and they wanted to look good.

Atwater’s orange prison garb nearly matched his ginger hair and the two-days’ growth of beard on his face. His looks were fading from back in the day when I’d arrested him more than a time or two, starting back when he was a juvie. If his parents had a bigger influence than the scum buckets he’d chosen to run around with, Michael Atwater might have been a family man by now, working in somebody’s machine shop, paying his bills. Guess that’s what happens when you work harder at being a criminal than getting a job.

“Fitz.” The deputy nodded at me as he walked out the door.

“Gardosi,” I replied.

“So how’s business?” he smirked. “Maris Monroe still paying you well?”

Amazing how small towns—and small town cops—never forget or forgive a sin. Maris Monroe was seven years ago, a full year before I married Grace.

“No, Gardosi,” I said, setting my briefcase on the conference table and staring him dead in the eye. “I’ve moved on. To your wife.”

Gardosi slammed the door as Atwater smirked, relieved not to be the object of attention for a moment.

Jim Ambrosi sighed heavily as he sat down across from his client.

“Michael, this is Mr. Fitzhugh,” Ambrosi began.

Atwater tried to stand to shake my hand, but his manacles wouldn’t let him. I waved him back down into his seat.

“We’ve met,” I said. “Trust me. So tell me, Mikey, why you shouldn’t be convicted of killing Gina Cantolini.”

Ambrosi shoved the original police report my way and I took a few minutes to read it.

According to the report, the victim’s body was found when organizers began to tear down the bandstand a little after midnight. She had been strangled and beaten, but not near the bandstand. There were no fingerprints, so investigators surmised her attacker wore gloves. She was also shot once in the chest with a .38. Her cheap Wal-Mart top was torn, either as she was trying to escape or as she was initially grabbed.

Time of death was estimated to be about ten p.m. Investigators were still looking to find out where exactly Gina Cantolini was murdered. They were also still looking for a gun.

Her purse was found dumped in the alley behind the Mexican restaurant, the cash gone.

One of the festival organizing committee remembered seeing her earlier in the evening with a redheaded guy who fit Atwater’s description. They had been arguing.

When the suspect was found at home in his second floor apartment six blocks away, he passed out on the couch with scratch marks on both arms and a bloody lip. Two hundred dollars was wadded up in the pocket of his jeans and a still-glowing joint was burning into the edge of the coffee table. The only lawful thing Atwater did was now biting him in the ass: his legally registered .38 was missing.

I shoved the report back at Ambrosi.

“Doesn’t look good,” I said.

“But I didn’t do it!” Atwater cried.

“You were seen arguing with the victim.” I began to tick off on my fingers all the reasons why any jury would convict him.

“She told me my boys weren’t mine! I got served with a warrant for my DNA!” Atwater cried. “I was pissed off!”

“A lot of men would kill if they learned their children weren’t theirs,” I said, ticking off another finger. “You’re also behind on child support payments. I could understand that. Why make payments on kids that aren’t yours?”

“I tried to give her money Saturday. She wouldn’t take it.”

“Two hundred dollars?” I asked. “How do we know that money wasn’t in her wallet to begin with? What man would allow the woman he loves to work as a hooker?”

“No, no, no. That’s not true.” Atwater shook his head in denial. “The money was mine and I wanted to give it to her.”

“You are aware child support payments need to be made through the courts,” I said. “That protects you as well as her. How far behind are you?”

Atwater shrugged.

Ambrosi scrawled a number on a piece of paper and shoved it my direction.

“About seven hundred dollars?” I asked Atwater, after reading the note.

Again Atwater shrugged.

“And those scratches on your arm, that bloody lip… Did Gina give those to you when she tried to fight you off?”

“Naw, I fell.”

I arched an eyebrow.

“No, seriously, I did! I was drunk and high down at the festival and I tripped over a curb.”

“You were seen arguing with the victim, who just told you the children you believed were yours might belong to another man. You’ve got cuts and scratches all over you and I’m supposed to believe you tripped on a curb? To add to it, the gun she was shot with is the same caliber as one registered to you and is now conveniently missing. If I were a juror, it looks to me like Gina was fighting back. You’re behind on your child support payments and you have a long criminal history, for everything from drugs, to burglary to assault and domestic violence and that’s just what I can remember. When did I first arrest you, Mikey? When you were eleven? I’ll bet the jury wouldn’t be out more than twenty minutes.”

“Mr. Fitzhugh—Fitz—”Atwater stammered as he reached for my arm. “I didn’t kill Gina. I wouldn’t have done that. We all know Gina wasn’t perfect, but I loved her. I loved her like I ain’t never loved nobody else. And I loved them two boys, too! They was my whole life! Look at Jacob Poole and look at that cop! They’re the ones what killed her!”

“What cop are you talking about?” I asked. Monroe had a lot of good guys on the force, but there were always a couple assholes, no matter where you worked.

“Whaddaya mean, what cop?” Atwater’s shackles chimed as he threw up his hands.

“There’s thirty six full-time patrol cops in Fawcettville, four detectives, the chief, the assistant chief, Lieutenant Baker, two sergeants and nine dispatchers. That’s fifty-four folks,” I said. “I think you understand I need you to be a little more specific.”

Atwater leaned toward me. “The big guy. The black guy.”

“Brewster? Mac Brewster?” I was incredulous. The guy had been a patrol officer for years. He was known in the community for his work with the kids in the Tubman Gardens neighborhoods, active in his church, an all-around good guy. He coached a Special Olympics softball team, for Christ sake.

Atwater nodded at me somberly, but didn’t say a word.

“What did Brewster do to Gina?”

“She told me there was a cop who would come over to her house and ask for, um, stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“You know. Sex stuff. If she wouldn’t do it, he would threaten to arrest her.”

I looked at Ambrosi, who nodded. For once, I could see why Ambrosi wanted me on the case. This sloppy has-been really did believe his client was innocent.

“What about Jacob Poole?” I asked. “What’s his connection to Gina?”
“He is the father of the victim’s other child, the daughter,” Ambrosi said slowly. “There is a history of domestic violence there as well. She currently has a restraining order against him, but it gets broken on a regular basis.”

“He breaks it or she does?”

“They both do,” Ambrosi said.

I understood. This whole domestic violence thing usually put the cops in a bad position when the call from a hysterical female came in. I’d seen enough situations to know that the blame could sometimes be spread around equally. I’m not saying women deserved to get beat—not at all. People need to know how to work things out by talking, sure. I’m just saying that it was rarely the clear-cut situation when Johnny thought Maria deserved a black eye because his spaghetti wasn’t al dente again. It was just easier when I was on the force to just arrest them both and let the lawyers fight it out.

“OK. Let me do some investigation and I’ll let you know,” I made a few notes and shoved them into my briefcase.

I stood up and Atwater grabbed my hand.

“You gotta find out the truth, Mr. Fitzhugh. I didn’t kill Gina. I didn’t kill her.”

Something in the stupid kid’s eyes made me want believe him, despite all the damning evidence. I only hoped Ambrosi’s check didn’t bounce when this stupid hope gave way to disappointment. It wasn’t my job to believe in somebody. It was my job to find out the truth.

*****

Back at the office, I fired up my laptop and searched the clerk of courts web site for arrest records on two of the parties involved in Gina’s death.

Gina’s legal source of income was her monthly welfare check and had been for years. Her vice was liquor and pills. When there was more month left at the end of her money, she turned to hooking. More than once I’d seen her working some of the downtown bars.

No doubt she’d started life like all of us, all smiles and hope for the future. Then somewhere along the line, something happened. She discovered booze and barbiturates, enough to numb whatever was eating her from inside, nobody ever knew what. Of course, nobody from the New Tivoli neighborhood ever cared to ask either, particularly after her family left. As long as Gina didn’t bring her addictions and her illegitimate babies to their neighborhood, but left it on the outer edges of the Flats, the house-proud Italians of New Tivoli didn’t want to know about Gina Cantolini.

Gina’s arrest record bounced between prostitution, public indecency, public intoxication, and domestic violence, peppered with a couple misdemeanor-shoplifting charges. In several of the public intox and the domestic violence incidents, Jacob Poole and Michael Atwater were also arrested.

Between the three of them, I could see a dysfunctional love triangle of drinking, fighting and making up. What was her hold over those two men? Her kids? Her bed?

The office door clicked open and I looked up from my computer.

Dammit.

“Hey, baby,” Maris Monroe slid one round hip over the corner of my desk and leaned over to move one of my greying black curls from my forehead. She smiled and made sure I got a good look at what filled her low-cut top.

I leaned back in my chair.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I heard you were at the jail today.” She hoisted the rest of her behind onto my desk and swung her long, tanned legs toward me, moving smoothly and quickly enough for me to get a quick shot of red panties beneath her too-short black skirt. Her curly brown hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was the Chief’s second wife, arm candy fifteen years his junior he thought he needed to share his golden years with, not the woman who raised his children and helped him move up the career ladder. Now he was saddled with a barracuda he couldn’t control and couldn’t afford to dump, much to his chagrin.

“So? Who told you?”

She reached over again, and tousled my greying hair. “A little bird.”

“You don’t need to be here, Maris.” I patted my mop back into place.

“Oh, come on, Fitz. You know you’re the only one I want.” She pushed the laptop back so she could scoot directly in front of me, giving me another shot of those red panties.

“Go home, Maris.”

“I heard you were staying here now, all by yourself.” Maris leaned close. Close enough for me to smell her perfume. Her words were soft and sultry. I shut my eyes and clenched my fists. In another life, I’d already have my hands up that skirt and we’d be halfway to paradise.

Not now. Not ever again.

“You need to be home with your husband. Grace and I are still trying to work things out.”

Maris sat back and crossed her legs, smirking.

“Really? I hear she might have another opinion of that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I hear she’s stepping out. I hear Dr. Grace has a date this weekend.”

“With who?” I asked. I clenched my jaw.

Sit back, old man. She could be baiting you. It could be a lie.

Maris shrugged. “Somebody with the college, maybe. Somebody with the symphony—I don’t know. I just heard she had an escort to this weekend’s benefit.”

The annual symphony benefit was one of Fawcettville’s social highlights, when the community’s leading lights came down from their hillside homes, the last event before the snow began to fall from the sky and Fawcettville locked itself down for the winter. The chief would be there, along with the mayor and city council, and the town’s big donors. I’d forgotten it was this weekend. Grace got me into a tuxedo five years running for the event. She’d always looked striking in whatever gown she’d chosen.

I closed my eyes and remembered those nights after the benefit was over and the gown was in a wad on the floor.

“Grace wouldn’t do that to me.”

“Oh she wouldn’t, huh? You’re sure about that.” Maris slipped off the desk, tucked her black leather designer bag beneath her arm and walked toward the door. “When you figure out that she’s moved on, I’ll be waiting,” she called back over her shoulder.

And she was gone.

I pulled the laptop back from the edge of the desk and sighed. Grace wouldn’t be going to the benefit without me, would she? She couldn’t be dating already, right?

I tried to focus on Jacob Poole’s court record, but couldn’t do it. After a couple hours, I hit the power button on the laptop and shut the lid.

Go ask her. Head over to the college and find out. If she were dating somebody, she’d tell you, I thought to myself.

Yes, and if she is, that means it’s really over, my heart answered.

I had to know. Maris Monroe would lie to me, just to get me back in the sack and twist my life up more than it already was. I didn’t need that kind of poison in my life. Rather than believe Maris, I’ll go straight to the source. Good thing about the Internet, it was open all night. I could finish my research on Atwater, Poole and Cantolini later. I needed to talk to Grace now.

I slid on my hoodie and walked out the door. I turned to lock the door when a thick hand grabbed my collar, shoving my face against the doorframe. I felt the cold barrel of a gun between my shoulder blades. Any sudden move I made toward my Glock .45 caliber, tucked into the shoulder holster inside my hoodie, would not have ended well. I let my hands hug the wall.

“I’d leave it alone, if I were you.” The voice was deep and raspy, one I couldn’t recognize.

“I never touched her—I don’t care what she told you,” I answered.

“Huh?” The hand at the base of my skull released for a minute and I tried to turn. The goon pushed back, slamming my face into the door again, making me see stars.

“Maris Monroe. She was here earlier. I told her to go home to her husband,” I said, tasting blood inside my mouth. “I never touched her.”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about your women. It’s that case you took.” The gun barrel pushed harder in between my shoulders.

“What about it?”

“Drop it. Drop it now.”

“Why? What’s it to you?”

“I’m just here to deliver a message.”

The gun butt came down hard on the back of my head and as I fell to the floor, the lights went out.

Call Fitz Chapter 1

I’m going to try something new—I’m going to post chapters each Saturday night of my first Fitz novel, CALL FITZ. If you’d like to read more, the complete book is for sale on Amazon.com as both an Ebook and a paperback book. This is the first book in a series that will include three books—so far. The second book is called HOLY FITZ and is also available on Amazon. The third book, LOVE FITZ, will come out in late May. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Gina Cantolini was a whore, but she didn’t deserve to die like that. I mean, the girl had a lot of friends.
It was Fawcettville’s annual Italian Fest, where they closed down four city blocks and the scent of marinara, cannoli and cheap Chianti hung like a fog around the stone Civil War soldier standing at attention in the center of the square. Every wop or wannabe in town was there.
Which was amazing because nobody ever saw Gina’s bloody body underneath the bandstand set up in the middle of the street. Her one sandal-clad foot must have stuck out from beneath the canvas skirt at the back of the stage for hours.
It doesn’t say much for me that I, the only PI in town, didn’t see it either, even as I leaned out the office window to look out over the crowd, a bottle of Jack and a glass sitting on the sill.
My office is up above Grundy’s Fine Watches and Jewelers on the town square. It’s not much to look at, all dark wood, used furniture and bad paint straight out of a film noir. Since my wife dumped me, I’ve been sleeping on the waiting room couch at night, eating at a variety of downtown diners and showering at the YMCA after my morning workout.
That night, blue, flashing lights woke me up about 1 a.m. I looked out the window to see a couple cruisers and the coroner’s van behind what was left of the bandstand. I wasn’t on that payroll anymore, so I didn’t give a shit. I’d made it through the requisite twenty years it took to get a cop’s pension. I went back to sleep.
Police picked up the suspect, Michael Atwater, within a few hours after finding the body, according to the TV news the next morning. I knew Atwater from my days on the force. A kid from a decent, hardworking family who was known for making really stupid choices, Atwater wasn’t the type to kill anybody, but you never know. Maybe he tried to steal Gina’s purse and she fought back. Maybe he wanted something that wasn’t on Gina’s usual menu, or maybe he just refused to pay and things got out of hand. Either way, a twenty-five-year-old hooker was dead and a small time thug was behind bars for her murder.
Seemed pretty cut and dried.
And, again, not my problem.
So, two days later, I was surprised when his attorney, James Ambrosi, Esquire, was waiting in the hall at my office door when I got back from the Y. He was leaning against the wall, reading email on his smart phone.
“So, Jimbo,” I said, pulling the office key from my hoodie pocket and sliding it into the lock. “What brings you here?”
Ambrosi was closer to the end of his mediocre legal career than the beginning. He was a slob, like his clients, and his breath smelled like convenience store cigars. His suits were cheap and what was left of his comb-over was gray. He was on the lower rungs on the town’s legal ladder, the kind of lawyer who could get a halfway decent plea agreement negotiated for you, but probably couldn’t be counted on to provide a stellar defense.
In all my years on the force, I spent a lot of time in courtrooms, explaining how or why the asshole at the defense table ended up there. I don’t think Ambrosi cross-examined me more than a handful of times and every time his client ended up doing hard time.
Me, I didn’t do a lot of defense work in my newest profession.
Most of my clients were suburban wives with enough money to pay me to verify what they knew in their hearts: hubby had a little something on the side. If it wasn’t the wives themselves that called me, it was their lawyers.
Most of the wives wanted to pay me back the same way their husbands had betrayed them.
It’s why I’m sleeping on the waiting room couch.
Ambrosi didn’t speak as we walked through the door. I tossed my gym bag into the corner, next to an end table filled with old Field and Stream magazines.
“Coffee?” I asked. As he followed me into the office, I shoved a cup his direction, so as to keep his cigar breath at arm’s length.
“Sure.” Ambrosi accepted my offering and sank into one of the ratty chairs in front of my desk.
I poured myself a cup and seated myself.
“So, what brings you here?” I repeated.
“Mike Atwater, the kid they picked up for Gina Cantolini’s murder.”
“You representing him?” Poor kid. You’d think his parents would find a real lawyer.
“Uh huh.” Ambrosi took a sip of his coffee. “You know me, Fitz, I don’t give a shit one way or the other if my client is guilty or innocent. I just want him to get a decent defense.”
I nodded. “Of course. I understand.” With the least amount of effort on your part, I’m sure.
“And we both know that most of the clients that troop through my office probably did it. This time, though, I think this guy’s innocent. I need somebody to look into what’s going on. Naturally, your esteemed firm of Fitzhugh Investigations came to mind immediately.”
“You know most of my stuff is matrimonial, right?”
“You could do this, Fitz. I know you could, you being a retired cop and all.”
I flipped the daily pages on my desktop calendar. Cases were a little thin right now—the blank pages confirmed that. I could use the money, especially if I needed to pay for my own divorce lawyer.
“Why do you think this kid is innocent?” I asked.
Ambrosi sank into the shoulders of his cheap suit and sighed.
“He wouldn’t kill Gina. He’s the father of two of her three children.”
“He is? I did not know that. But, sad to say, it happens all the time.” I shrugged.
“But my client was crazy about Gina and crazy about those two kids.”
I shrugged again. “Doesn’t mean they couldn’t have argued and it got violent. Were they living together?”
“No. She’s no a Sunday school teacher—we both know that. She had another boyfriend. Maybe a third, both of them violent.”
“Give me their names.” I pulled pencil out of my desk drawer and found a piece of scrap paper on the desk.
“Poole. Jacob Poole—that’s the one my client told me about. She had a restraining order against him and he’s the father of one of her kids.”
“So who’s the other one?”
“My client claims it’s a cop.”
I arched an eyebrow. Chief Nathaniel Monroe hated my guts—and I hated his.
The reason I’m sleeping on the waiting room couch was the same reason my career at the police force ended. Women and an inability to say no to them at one time were the reason I got discharged from the air force (the wing commander’s wife) and, in college, why I lost my scholarship (the football coach’s wife).
I left the Fawcettville police force after getting caught with the luscious and lonely Mrs. Maris Monroe.
The chief was going to fire me, but I filed my retirement papers twenty minutes before he called me into his office. He’d been gunning for me ever since. It wasn’t my fault he couldn’t keep his wife happy in the sack. I wasn’t the first—I was just the first to get caught.
What if Monroe had a crooked cop on his staff that killed a hooker? I’d love to embarrass that bastard one more time.
“I’ll take the case.”

*****

The next day, I walked the three blocks from my office to meet Ambrosi and my newest client at the county jail.
Fawcettville was one of those eastern Ohio towns that had weathered more than one economic rise and fall and it showed. The first economic wave brought the Irish, along with Eastern European and Italian immigrants, like my ancestors, to work in the potteries, making the dishes that filled kitchens all over the world, making Fawcettville famous—and prosperous. When the potteries shuttered their doors, the wops and the Pollacks, the krauts and the micks all found work in the blast furnaces and the foundries of the steel mills that sprang up in the triangle between Akron, Pittsburgh and Steubenville.
When I was a kid, most people worked in the steel mills. My dad, Sgt. Aidan Fitzhugh was a beat cop, like his dad and his dad before that. We were the only Irish family in the Italian neighborhood everyone called New Tivoli and my Ma, Maria Gallione Fitzhugh made Sunday dinners of pasta, drowning in marinara and meatballs, washed down with gallons of dago red wine.
It was Ma who insisted I carry her father Niccolo’s name. In a tough Italian neighborhood in a tougher Ohio steel town, a kid named Niccolo Fitzhugh got made fun of a lot—“Nick the Mick” was the most common taunt my small, scrawny self endured. Then puberty discovered me and I discovered high school football and the weight room. “Nick the Mick” just became Fitz.
Neighborhoods back then were marked by their ethnicities. The krauts, the Poles and the hunkies lived in the Flats, down by the creek that ran through town. The hillbillies, the blacks and the Mexicans lived further out, toward the edge of town in a ratty neighborhood that edged next to the mills and the industrial area, called Tubman Gardens.
Further away from the creek, up the steep eastern Ohio hills that rose above Fawcettville was where the mills’ executives and middle management lived. The doctors, the lawyers, folks with degrees and letters after their names, lived up those hills in big sprawling houses. It was a symbol that you made it when you could leave the old bricked streets, with their old wooden houses and tiny yards and move to the suburbs on the hills.
Then that light, too, went out when I was in high school. The mills closed and Fawcettville got real ugly real fast. Most everyone began referring to it as “F-Town,” for obvious reasons. It was fucked economically.
It was the dirty windows of empty storefronts, filled with cobwebs, abandoned display cabinets and peeling paint, that I was running from all those years ago when, after losing my Kent State football scholarship, I got on a bus for Lackland Air Force Base and a hitch in the air force. When I came back in the eighties, things were looking up yet again. This time I had my training as a security policeman in my back pocket and, thanks to my dad, a job on the Fawcettville police department waiting on me.
I looked up at what used to be the hometown department store as I strolled toward the jail. Thanks to the latest economic incarnation, the search for natural gas deep in the shale beneath the ground, money was flowing back into Fawcettville. What I knew as Kleinman’s Department Store was now broken down into a series of artist’s studios, where every wannabe Da Vinci and Grandma Moses could set up their easel and paint for a small rental fee. Their art now filled the windows of the first floor gallery, some of it exceptional, most of it crap. I turned the corner and passed the Mexican joint where Lupe, the owner’s daughter, automatically opened a cold Dos XX for me when I walked in the door. Next to the Mexican diner sat a drug store, a tattoo parlor and a cell phone store. There was a coffee shop known for its Hungarian pastries and, across the street, sat the old jail, built shortly before the Civil War soldier in the center of town.
I stopped in front of the old Victorian structure, which was now a four-star restaurant called Ye Olde Gaol. I jammed my hands in my pants pocket and sighed.
Six years ago, I’d asked Dr. Grace Darcy, Ph.D., to marry me there. She was tough talking, tall, with dark cascading hair and brown eyes that shot with fire when I pissed her off, which was often. As the principal cellist in the Fawcettville symphony and a professor of music at the college, she was infinitely a better catch than I was.
I’d married up, no doubt. How could I have fucked it up so badly?
I shook my head and stepped across the bricked street toward the seventies’ era jail, all razor wire and concrete. Michael Atwater and his illustrious legal representative were waiting for me there.