I’m trying something new: posting a chapter of my first PI novel CALL FITZ here on my blog for you to enjoy. Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com.
The hallway was bathed in the sun’s last orange gasps when I came to and pushed myself up off the dirty floor. I touched the goose egg on the back of my head as I stood. Shit, that hurts. It wasn’t bleeding, unlike the inside of my mouth. I ran my tongue along my teeth—at least they were all there.
I patted myself down, searching—thank God, the Glock was still inside my hoodie. I pulled it out of my shoulder holster and checked the clip. No bullets were missing; everything looked good. I shoved it back inside my jacket.
Why would someone want me off the Cantolini case? A hooker is dead and her loser boyfriend is in jail. This certainly doesn’t involve anybody who mattered in Fawcettville.
So who was sending a message? And why?
The mob? Nah. After too much vino, everybody in New Tivoli bragged they had out-of-town family who were mobbed up, but nobody believed it. Organized crime was for towns like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Youngstown, not small towns like Fawcettville. This was where the working class stiffs came to get their tiny piece of the fading American dream. Besides, Gina Cantolini’s family didn’t even live here anymore. If they had and if they were mobbed up, two things would have happened: she would have been married off quickly or her baby’s daddy’s body would have been found in the trunk of his own car and she would have been set up as a cute young widow somewhere out of state.
I continued to think as I walked down the stairs to the square, where my black Excursion was parked. I slid into the driver’s seat and caught a glimpse of a bruised and scratched left cheek in the rearview. Great. That must have happened when I got slammed against the doorframe.
I hadn’t had many dealings with Poole during my days on the force, maybe an occasional bar fight or public intoxication. Other cops, though, told me he could be a real bastard and I knew through them he could be violent.
Could the man who cold-cocked me have been Poole? Why would it be him? The other man in his woman’s life is on ice and most likely would be convicted. If Poole were smart, he’d sit back and keep his mouth shut. There was no need to smack an investigator in the skull.
And Mac Brewster? C’mon. I wasn’t even going to waste my time on that Boy Scout. No way Mac could be dirty. His intention of getting Gina Cantolini in a room alone would probably be to get her to turn her life over to Jesus. Whatever Gina was telling Michael Atwater about Mac was more than likely a lie.
I needed to think a little bit more about which way to go on this case.
But first, I needed to see Grace. I slipped my key into the car ignition and pulled into traffic.
The symphony was rehearsing down at Memorial Hall, where this weekend’s benefit would be held. Grace was sitting in the center of the stage alone, playing the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. The other symphony musicians milled around the jumble of the chairs and music stands on the stage or sat listening in the first few rows of seats.
A single spotlight reflected blue highlights off her dark curly hair and regal cheekbones. Her eyes were closed in concentration as her body swayed with each draw of her bow. She wore a white camisole beneath a gauzy white shirt that didn’t restrict her movements; tight jeans accentuated her long legs.
In her presence, I always felt troll-like. Maybe I was: no neck, big shoulders, thick bowed legs and standing at the higher end of short, I had my father’s round pugilist’s face, my mother’s dark Italian hair and her father’s big chest. My nose reflected my football and personal career: it was slightly off center from more than one break. For some reason, women liked me. I wasn’t a slob like Ambrosi though, I kept my gut in check during my daily workouts, and got my back waxed regularly at Gracie’s insistence. If she asked, I’d dye my graying hair for her.
I still wore a stained Kent State Football hoodie, despite being kicked off the team some thirty-plus years ago, clinging to it, Gracie said, like a toddler’s security blanket.
I sat down toward the back in one of the aisle seats and watched, transfixed, as she coached the mellow tones from her cello. The other musicians were drawn in, too, with each note. Before long the idle conversation stopped as the music swelled and rolled through the hall. With a final flourish of Grace’s bow, a last, rich note hung in the air for a moment and faded.
Automatically, I stood and walked from the back of the hall, clapping. Others on stage also applauded, joining the musicians in the seats. I was halfway down the aisle, ready to call out her name as the applause died down.
But the ovation didn’t come to a complete stop. One tall thin man, wearing black pants and a gray shirt, walked from the back of the stage, clapping slowly. His brown hair was just starting to gray and his hands looked soft. He had a sweater across his shoulders and his expensive shoes shone. Grace turned around as he approached and smiled at him.
My stomach dropped. Maybe Maris Monroe was right. Who is this asshole?
He leaned over the music stand and ran his finger across the top of the sheet music. It didn’t take much for me to imagine him running that same finger down her naked spine in the bed we once shared.
“Good job, Dr. Darcy,” he said.
She tipped her chin up toward him and beamed.
OK, this shit’s got to stop. I stepped into the light. A few other musicians recognized me.
They stepped back out of my way, their eyes widening. Apparently our marital discord was no secret.
“Yes, my wife is an excellent musician,” I said loudly.
Grace stood and waved Mr. Suave away. “Give me a minute,” she said softly.
Quickly, he and the other musicians disappeared from the hall. Grace lay her cello down on its side and walked to the edge of the stage, holding the bow. She sat down, letting her feet in their gold ballet flats hang over the ledge. I walked nearer, opening my arms. She jabbed the bow into the center of my chest like a rapier. No surprise there—Grace was also the college’s women’s fencing coach.
I stopped in my tracks. She laid the bow beside her on the stage, but I didn’t dare come closer.
“You’re still doing time for me, aren’t you, Nicco?” She was the only one who called me by my first name. I’d never been just Fitz to Grace.
“Who’s he?” I jerked my thumb toward Rico Suave, who stood just off stage, his arms crossed. His icy blue eyes were trained on me. Like some baton-waving Nancy boy could scare me. Meet me in the alley motherfucker, I wanted to say, I’ll kick your ass.
“He’s Peter van Hoven, the new conductor,” she said. “This weekend’s benefit is also a welcome for him.”
“Looks like you’ve already made him feel quite at home.”
“What do you expect me to do? Sit around like a nun until you figure out how to sign the divorce papers?” She raised one hand to write in the air.
“Gracie, please.” I stepped closer and quickly got the bow in the chest again.
“No. I was warned when I started dating you and I didn’t listen. ‘He’s as faithful as a tomcat,’ she said. ‘Don’t let him break your heart.’”
“Who said that?”
I sighed. “She’s been pissed off since I told her I wasn’t going to be a priest and wanted to play football.” My three brothers and two sisters all had large Irish-Italian Catholic families. The fact that I didn’t get married until well into my forties kept her hope alive that someone from the family would don the clerical collar. As always, I disappointed her.
“Nicco, don’t jerk me around. Just sign the papers and we can both move on with our lives. It’s not like we’ve got any big assets to split.”
I moved into Gracie’s Tudor home six weeks before our wedding with a single suitcase and the service revolver I got at retirement. When I left, I left with the same things. We had no children’s lives to destroy, no dog to argue custody over. Grace was a dedicated to her career as I was to mine, although, if this divorce went through I’d sure as hell miss the cat, Mozart.
“You going out with him?”
“Maybe. That’s none of your business. What happened to your face? Did some pissed off husband find you in one of those dive bars you frequent?”
“No, I fell.” She didn’t need to know the details. Not now.
“So, are you still seeing her?”
“Gracie, I told you. She was a client. She’d been drinking—she was out of control. I didn’t mean for it to happen.”
“And I didn’t mean to walk into your office at two in the afternoon and find you in flagrante delicto at your desk.”
My arms sank to my sides. “We weren’t—never mind. I know what it looked like.” I turned away. “You’re right. I can’t ask you to live like a nun, just like you said. I’ll talk to you later, Gracie. We’ll get this worked out.”
“Yeah.” I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. “Soon.”
I visited Mike Atwater’s house right after my workout the next day. The Atwaters lived outside of Fawcettville in a bungalow that had seen better days. A plaster gnome in a fading red hat and flaking paint sat by the front porch steps, holding a large mushroom with “Welcome” carved into it. On the other side of the step was a deer, equally fading and flaking, with big cartoon eyes and smile. Back in the day, when I’d brought a juvenile Mikey home from whatever late-night scrape I’d found him in, the bungalow was better kept than the others in the working class cluster of homes up and down the road.
Today, the yard hadn’t been mowed in a long, long time and weeds grew through holes in rusting metal barrels along the driveway. The paint was chipped and there was cardboard in one of the upstairs windows.
A tall, rawboned woman opened the door. Her graying hair was trying to escape from the haphazard bun on top her head; her jeans were faded and the sleeves on her Steeler’s sweatshirt were pushed up her scrawny arms.
She had the look of a woman who was used to bill collectors coming to her door—or the police coming to see her about her kid.
“If you’re a reporter, I’m done talking to reporters,” she said flatly.
“Susan Atwater?” I handed her a business card. “I’m Nick Fitzhugh, Fitzhugh Investigations. Mike’s attorney sent me. I was wondering if you had some time to talk to me?”
“Jim Ambrosi?” Susan leaned out the door and looked from left to right. I nodded. She waved me inside. We walked wordlessly through the scruffy living room toward the kitchen; Susan pointed to a wooden chair that didn’t match the table. She took a seat across from me and pulled a green melamine ashtray toward her. Smoke from a lone cigarette wafted in lazy spirals toward the ceiling. Susan looked at it sadly before picking it up and inhaling.
“I suppose you want to know what kind of an awful mother I was to have a kid who ends up in jail for murder,” she said, raising her chin and exhaling.
“No ma’am,” I said, pulling a notebook from my hoodie pocket. “I want to know about Gina and Michael’s relationship.”
Years ago, Susan Atwater hadn’t looked so ragged. Unfortunately, she and her husband Bill always managed to catch a ride in the last car of the latest economic roller coaster, the last of the working poor who would see benefit from any rising financial tide. From Ambrosi, I learned Bill lost his job in the 2008 crash. Susan had worked as a cashier at the grocery store for years but they had no savings and no retirement accounts, having spent them bailing out their son on more than one occasion.
Bill’s new job in the Pennsylvania shale fields started recently and he only made it home on the weekends. Susan was still working at the grocery store to keep herself busy while Bill was gone—and make payments on those past due bills.
“That girl.” Susan shook her head. “I never liked Gina Cantolini, but you can’t ever tell your kids those things. I was the same way. My mama didn’t like the boy I came home with—Michael’s daddy—and it made me stick to him that much more. We ran off to Jellico Tennessee and got married when I was fifteen. Michael came along six months later. Michael’s the same way. He falls for that girl and falls bad. I thought I’d be smart when he brought her home, and keep my mouth shut. I saw that girl was nothing but trouble and I never said anything. Maybe I should have.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Mr. Fitzhugh, my boy’s no angel. His daddy and me, we did everything we could to keep him on the straight and narrow, but Michael, he went down his own road and none of those roads were the right way. Gina was one bad road all by herself.”
I nodded. I wasn’t going to tell Susan I knew all about her boy—or his girlfriend. “Why was Gina a bad road?”
Susan took another drag from her cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray.
“She’d tell him those two babies were his, then she’d tell him they were Jacob Poole’s, then she’d cry and apologize and they’d fight—sometimes she and Michael, sometimes Jacob and Michael— and somebody would get arrested.”
“Whose do you think they are?”
Susan stood and walked to the living room. She came back with two framed photos.
“See this? This was taken about fifteen years ago at a family reunion.” She held out a family photo of men of various generations, clustered around an old white-haired man in a recliner, hunched over the oxygen tank in his lap. I picked out Michael, then a surly teen, from among the other older guys, all of them with various shades of the same flaming red hair.
“Now look at this one.” Susan showed me the other photo. Two children sat on Santa’s lap; the photo was snapped as one of the boys howled while the other stared terrified into the camera.
“You see it?” Susan sat the photos down on the kitchen table and picked up her cigarette again, arching her eyebrow. “They both have brown hair, don’t they? Ain’t no Atwater boy been born without red hair in four generations.”
“You don’t believe they’re your grandchildren, do you?”
She shook her head. “Not by blood, no. But here—” she pounded her chest with her thin, bony hand. “They are.”
“Where are the boys?”
“I’ve got them. They’re at school right now. I went to get them the night Gina was killed. Family Services thought it would be best, since they were here a lot of the time anyway.”
“Who’s got the girl?”
“Jacob Poole’s family doesn’t keep the boys at all?”
“Not since she told them they were Michael’s boys. But they were behind the deal to get the DNA testing done.”
“Where do they live?”
“Akron, Canton, I don’t know exactly. The boys don’t know who they are anymore.”
“Did you see anything odd when you picked up the boys?”
Susan sighed and was silent for a moment. “I knew what Gina did when money got tight. I wasn’t happy about it, so I kept the boys as often as I could, just to make sure they didn’t see a lot. But when I went over there to pick those boys up after their mama died, I saw something that really upset me.”
“What was that?”
“She’d put locks on the outside of their bedroom doors, so they couldn’t get out. Those boys were locked in their bedrooms. She’d put those bolt locks on the outside of their doors, up high where they couldn’t reach them. What kind of mother does that? What if that house caught fire?”
“What do you think that meant?” I kept looking at my notebook as I wrote.
“That she was turning tricks inside the house, or selling drugs or something at night and she didn’t want those boys to see it. Those locks weren’t there last week.”
“Do you know anything about a cop who was bothering Gina? Michael claimed she was being harassed by a police officer.”
Susan clenched her fists on the tabletop and leaned toward me, her eyes filled with intensity.
“Somebody needs to look into that. One day I was there and this big, black cop just walked into Gina’s house, swinging his big ole flashlight and yelling if he didn’t get a goddamned blow job right now, he’d be busting somebody for prostitution.”
“What happened?” I stopped making notes.
“We were back in the kitchen, but I could see him from where I was sitting. She went running to the front room. I heard her say ‘Not now. The boys’ grandma is here. Come back later.’ And he left. When Gina came back into the kitchen, she was shaking. She said he came by at least once a week asking for sex. Said he’d threaten to beat her up if she didn’t give him what he wanted.”
“What did he look like?”
“Big wide shoulders. Tall.”
“What about his hair?”
“Bald as a cue ball.”
Mac Brewster’s head didn’t have a hair on it.