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.
“Thank you, Mr. Fitzhugh.” The woman behind the glassed window pushed a single ticket through the slot. “And thank you for your support of the Fawcettville symphony.”
I was in the grand entrance of Fawcettville’s Memorial Hall. I smiled and nodded as I slipped the benefit ticket into my wallet. My tuxedo, rented this year, hung over my arm. Gracie and I may not be going together, but by God, we were going to both be there. I had to see if van Hoven was really her date for the evening, even if it cost me an arm and a leg. If he were, I would have to accept that it was over between us, and I’d sign those goddamned papers.
In the meantime, I had another appointment. Det. Joe Barnes was one of the few folks left on the force I could still call friend. He knew the truth about Maris Monroe. He was also assigned to Gina’s murder. We were supposed to meet at Horvath’s, the Hungarian coffee shop.
I was already on my second cup and working my way through an apricot kifli when Barnes slid into the booth seat across from me and signaled the waitress for a cup of coffee.
“Fitz, how’s it going? What the hell happened to your face?” Barnes was an old school detective, the other side of retirement age and held politically incorrect views that made even a mick like me cringe.
I shrugged. “Nothing that won’t heal in a week. You probably heard I’m investigating Atwater’s case for the defense.”
Barnes barked out a short laugh. “And how’s that working for you?”
“He looks guilty as hell to me, too, but I need the money.”
“I heard that too.”
Why the hell is my personal life the biggest topic in the police department, seven years after I’m gone? I shook my head. I didn’t want to feed the department’s rumor mill, but Barnes didn’t need to know that.
“Anyway,” I continued. “I’ll go through the motions, look at every angle, just like you probably did and most likely come up with the same conclusions. By the way, Maris Monroe showed up at my office the other day and said she knew I’d been there with Ambrosi, talking to Atwater.”
“So who is she banging there who would tell her I was there? And why would anybody care?”
Barnes shrugged. “I don’t know. I know that the Chief is constantly trying to keep her corralled. There’s no respect for Monroe any more—it’s like some game, keeping track of everybody his wife has done. The only thing patrol doesn’t do is keep a running list of names on the wall where everybody can see. She’s a train wreck and that marriage is a disaster. Talk is, the city manager is thinking about firing him, moving the Assistant Chief into the position.”
“Probably a good move. So, what else is going on at the PD? Who all is still around that I worked with?” I didn’t look him in the eye as I spun my spoon on the table.
“There’s always a few new faces, right out of the academy, but they don’t last long. They get training and move on to a bigger department or the sheriff’s office—or they become Maris’s target and get fired.”
“I hope some of the old guard is still around, folks like Mac Brewster?”
“Oh sure. Brewster’s still around.”
“Still the eternal do-gooder?”
“Yeah. You know Mac—he’s trimmed back some of the stuff he’s been doing, though. I guess he’s still coaching the Special Olympics softball team. He’s not the only black face on the force these days.”
Jesus, Barnes. I cringed inwardly, but tried to sound nonchalant. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, when a new assistant prosecutor came in, she recommended Monroe hire this guy. Former KSU football player, real big guy.”
My ears perked up. This could be the cop that Susan and Michael Atwater claimed was demanding sex from Gina.
“Know anything about him?”
Barnes shook his head. “No. Don’t know if he is a husband or a boyfriend or what the deal was, but he’s a real go-getter. Monroe likes him a lot.”
“What’s his name?”
“What do you care? You’re retired.” Barnes arched an eyebrow.
“You’re right. I don’t care. Just trying to keep up, I guess.” Honestly, I was relieved I had someone else to look at other than Mac Brewster. I’d find somebody who knew the name of this new cop. I finished my kifli and my coffee as Barnes rattled on for another twenty minutes about the same shit that he complained about seven years ago: the department secretary who left food in the employee fridge until well past its expiration, the dispatcher who was clear as a bell on the radio but mumbled on the phone, the damage EMTs did to crime scenes.
He stopped yammering when I lay my napkin on the table.
“So, I figured you were going to try and pull information out of me about Atwater.” Barnes looked at me over his coffee cup.
I shrugged and leaned back, shoving my hands in my hoodie pockets.
“Isn’t that what the discovery process is all about?” I asked. “Don’t we play ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ when the trial date gets closer?”
Barnes smiled. “That’s what I always liked about you Fitz. No bullshit, no games.”
“Thanks. You guys still trying to find the actual crime scene, right? I read that in the report.”
“Yup, and the gun. I think you ought to know though; it still doesn’t look good for your boy Atwater. There’s too much evidence against him.”
“There’s something else. Have you talked to the prosecutor lately?”
Dennis Lance was a Fawcettville native with bigger aspirations than county prosecutor. Tall, blonde and athletic looking, word was that Lance wanted bigger things out of life: a judgeship, maybe state senator. He contributed money to all the right causes and was seen at all the right events, glad-handing everyone in sight.
Lance came to the prosecutor’s office right out of law school and stayed, until ten years ago when he decided to run for his boss’s job and won. He was a good enough prosecutor, a real bulldog in court, but I never quite trusted his made-for-TV looks and courtroom antics, even though his record of convictions was strong.
I didn’t know a whole lot about Lance’s personal life, but knew he had a big fancy house with some acreage and a couple horses out in the county.
“No. Most of my dealings are in family court these days.”
“It’s been a long, long time since this town’s had a homicide,” Barnes said. “Lance could be looking at the death penalty on this one, just to make it look like he’s tough on crime. The common pleas judge is up for reelection next year and from what I hear, Lance is thinking of challenging him for the seat. This could be the one case Lance hangs his hat on.”
“I’ll take that under advisement, Detective,” I said. “Does Ambrosi know that?”
Barnes shrugged. “I’m assuming so. That’s between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. It would have to come up in court.”
“I’ll ask, just for my own information if nothing else.”
We laid money on the table to cover our respective orders and walked out the door. Out on the sidewalk, Barnes shook my hand.
“Good luck, Fitz.”
“You too, Barnes.”
Walking back to my car, I pondered everything Barnes told me. A police department in shambles, thanks to a one-woman wrecking ball, and a prosecutor intent on making a name for himself could spell a lot of trouble for my client, if he was truly innocent. Could either of them be behind the visitor who decided to christen me outside my office?
That didn’t make a lot of sense. Lance didn’t need to rely on strong-arm tactics—I’m sure that his arguments for Ohio v. Atwater were solid and if he wanted a case to build a political career on, this could be it.
But, if there was anybody who hated me, it was the Chief. As desperate as his situation seemed, maybe the knock on my head really was less about the Atwater case and more about Maris’s visit—he just wanted it to look like it was. If Monroe was firing young recruits who came into his wife’s field of vision, it made sense that he would be going after whoever she was slithering in to see—in this case, me.
I would deal with Maris later. The next thing on the agenda, was to find out the name of the new cop on the force and if he was the one who was trying to intimidate Gina Cantolini.
But first, I had to generate some income: a surveillance case, chasing down yet another wayward spouse.
My client suspected her CPA husband of meeting his secretary for quickies on their lunch hour. I’d followed the secretary for two weeks as she went about her life, which didn’t show me anything, except that she was extremely health conscious. She was in the Sunrise Yoga class at the YMCA, ran every evening through the park with a yellow Labrador she named Spike and ordered sliced turkey with sprouts, cucumbers and mayo on whole wheat bread at lunch. The contents of her trashcan showed me someone who followed the stock market through The Wall Street Journal and drank cheap bottled water and expensive pinot noir; Spike apparently liked chewing her shoes when bored.
If she was doing her boss, it was happening at the office because it sure wasn’t happening at home. I needed to find something one way or another if I wanted to bill the wife’s lawyer.
Today, I was going after the CPA. After I left Barnes behind, I dug a pair of binoculars and my camera, with its big zoom lens, out of the back of my Excursion and drove down to the office building, which was out near the mall in a cluster of nondescript office buildings.
The CPA in question drove a bright red Mercedes two-seater, which made it easy to pick out from among the minivans and SUV’s in the parking lot.
I pulled the Excursion into the parking lot and slithered down in the seat, binoculars in my hand. Before long, my target—a tall brown-haired man with sunglasses—came striding toward the Mercedes. With his thumb hooked into the collar of the suit jacket slung arrogantly across his shoulder, he had the self-confident smile of a man who thought he was getting away with something. He lifted his sunglasses and looked around before sliding into the red car.
I was good at what I did now for a reason—I understood why men chased women… or at least why I’d done it. When I was young, it was all about the chase and the conquest, tapping into the primal hunter that still lurked in the male, despite all the socialization we’d been forced into absorbing. As I got older, I realized that it was less the hunt than the connection, finding that one person who’d give life meaning.
I just never knew when to stop looking, until I found Gracie.
I reached over to the passenger seat and pulled the camera over to my lap. I slowly drew the viewfinder up to my eye, focusing on my target.
The CPA sat in the Mercedes, looking left to right, and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. Suddenly, a tall, blonde woman in a white medical coat came hurriedly into range—it was the orthodontist from the suite next to the CPA’s. I knew who she was: as a favor, I’d once taken one of my sister’s kids to the office for an appointment.
I began to click off shots as she leaned into the driver’s side window and planted a big wet one on the number guy’s lips, then quickly slid into the passenger side. The CPA fired up the Mercedes and, tires squealing, pulled out of parking lot.
I sat up in my seat, tossing the camera aside and threw the car into drive. I followed the Mercedes at a respectable distance, but close enough to keep an eye on them. The destination wasn’t a surprise—one of the motels out by the interstate. They parked in front of the motel room door and slipped out quickly. She already had the room key—maybe she was footing the bill for this assignation since the CPA’s wife told me she never found those usual telltale signs of an affair in his finances.
The shutter clicked repeatedly as they slipped into the room. An hour later, they came back out: I got shots of her running her hands through his hair as they kissed again. Following them back to the office, I watched as he dropped the orthodontist about a block away before pulling back into the parking lot.
He smirked and smoothed his hair in the rearview mirror. I could tell this was no grand affair to him, no great love he’d stumbled into after years of unhappy marriage. The lady who straightened pre-teens’ teeth for a living was a game to him, a conquest, simply a more interesting way to spend a lunch hour than reading profit and loss statements. When this relationship blew up in his smirking face, he’d move on, dick in hand, to the next woman.
I pulled the blue photo disc out of my camera and put it in an envelope, addressed it to the CPA’s wife and headed back to the office.
I called her with my proof and listened to her sob, then dropped the envelope, along with my bill, down the mail slot in the hall.
It seemed a little cold, but I was more than a little leery of having wronged wives in the office these days.
After all, Judith Demyan was the pissed off, half-drunk wife in search of vindication who brought my marriage to its knees less than a month ago.
That day, I had four or five photos spread across my desk, capturing Professor Dave Demyan with his girlfriend, a junior English major at Fawcett University, when Judith burst through the door. She wanted to share a drink with me, to celebrate catching her two-timing husband and her now-impending divorce. She’d already been celebrating when she poured me a couple shots of whiskey from the flask in her purse.
“You know, Fitz, I’ve always thought you were one sexy bastard.” Judith leaned over the desk.
“Now Judith, Judy—I—I really, I mean, I…” I stuttered like a teenager. I could smell sweet whiskey on her breath.
“Oh, silly boy. After what you did for me, I think I owe you a little something special.” Judith pushed the photos of her husband and his girlfriend onto the floor. Before I could stop her, she was straddling me in my chair, grinding against my groin as she unbuttoned her blouse.
It didn’t look like my hands were meaning to push Judith off my lap when Gracie walked in the door, but that’s the truth.
“You dirty son of a bitch!”
I started sleeping on the waiting room couch that very night.
Showing up at the symphony benefit this weekend might seriously piss Gracie off, but it would give me the proof I needed as to whether our marriage had any future or not.
Pensive, I leaned back to look out the window onto the city square.
I sat up sharply—parked just beyond the Civil War soldier was a non-descript four-door sedan with a man wearing all black, leaning on the roof of the car. Long sleeves and a black baseball cap blocked his face as he held binoculars directly aimed at my office.
I threw the window open to get a better look, but the man saw me and jumped into the sedan, speeding off down the street. All I could catch was the first three letters of his Ohio license plate, GRD.
Who the hell was he and what the hell was going on?