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?”
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.
“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.