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 sun was setting when I found Mac Brewster at one of the empty Tubman Gardens lots he’d turned into a softball field. He was pitching the ball toward a chunky almond-eyed white boy with thick glasses. The ball connected with the aluminum bat with a low, metallic tunk and bounced along the third base line as the boy ran awkwardly toward first base.
Mac saw me and waved. I stood on the sidelines, behind the parents with their camp chairs and coolers, cheering with them as each child had a chance to hit the ball. From the distance, Mac looked older and more tired. It shouldn’t have surprised me; he was on the force when I came on and was still there, pulling the same twelve-hour shifts as everyone else. He never tried for any promotion that I knew of, content to be the best-known, longest serving cop on the beat.
“OK, ya’ll, take a break. Get some water.” Mac pointed toward the team mother, who smiled broadly as she held up bottled water for the players.
We shook hands and hugged.
“How’s it going, Fitz?” he asked.
I shrugged. “It’s going. I’ve been hired to investigate the Atwater case for the defense. Was wondering if you could help me out.”
“The kid that killed the hooker? Sad situation.” Fitz stuffed his hands in his windbreaker.
“My client says there’s been a black cop who was harassing the victim for sex. Big guy, bald. Says the guy could be the real perp in this mess.”
Brewster stepped away. “Don’t do this to me Fitz. We go too far back.”
“Oh hell, no. I was wondering if you knew anything about anybody new on the force, anybody who’s a little shady? I’ve been gone too long to know everybody these days.”
Brewster sighed and shook his head. “It’s a mess, Fitz, a sad mess. That department is a shadow of what it used to be.”
“Do you know anything about a new recruit who is the boyfriend or husband of the new assistant prosecutor? From what I’ve heard he fits that description.”
“His name is Reno, Reno Elliot. He’s rotating through third shift this month.”
“Seem OK to you?”
Brewster shrugged again. “I don’t know him well enough to say one way or the other. The new recruits come and go so fast these days my head spins.”
That was a lie. Mac went out of his way to welcome every new recruit on the force. His wife brought food to cops who had to work holidays, serving them the big homemade meals they were missing.
I shoved my hands deep into the pockets of my hooded sweatshirt.
“Something about this case stinks, Mac. That’s part of the reason I came to you. Maris Monroe shows up at my office after I meet with my client and his attorney, then I get cold-cocked outside my office door. Today, somebody’s parked in the square watching my office with binoculars.”
Mac was silent for a moment. “Leave it alone, Fitz. Leave it alone.”
“Why? What’s going on that I should know about?”
“I’m putting my retirement papers in next week. After that, we’ll talk.” Mac turned toward his athletes and began clapping his hands. “OK, kids. Let’s catch some fly balls!”
He walked away and I shook my head.
Back in my Excursion, I sat and watched Mac work with the kids some more. He had taken the bat himself and was tossing up the softball and hitting balls—a little harder than necessary I thought—into the outfield for catching practice. He was angry about something. What had happened to the department I’d spent my professional career at?
Nate Monroe was a sergeant when I started at the PD. Dave Stanforth was chief back then. After a few years, he moved up to lieutenant and then assistant chief. When Stanforth dropped dead from a heart attack at fifty-three, Monroe took over as interim and then was appointed by the city manager as the permanent chief.
Somewhere in there, he went crazy with ego. He dumped Darla, his wife of thirty years, and took up with Maris. The divorce was ugly, but everybody has some ugliness somewhere, and cops more than most folks. I don’t know if Nate’s kids speak to him even today. Needless to say, marrying Maris was a disaster.
But what did that all have to do with Gina Cantolini’s murder? That’s what I was more concerned about. Was there a dirty cop, as Atwater had implied and as Mac completely avoided? That was just like Mac, though—he wouldn’t have said shit about another cop if his mouth were full of it. It made sense that he would talk after he knew his pension was secure. Could I wait that long?
And who was this Reno Elliott? If he was on third shift this month, I knew where I could catch up with him tonight. There was a singular coffee shop called Puccini’s that operated all night on the edge of New Tivoli and the downtown. It was a haven for third shift cops.
Located down the street from my ma’s house, I’d worked there as a teenager after school, serving Joe Pucca’s famous cannoli, coffee cake, and espresso from behind the red and white Formica counter. I could sit at that same unchanged counter, talking to one of the college students who staffed the place overnight until Reno Elliott came in.
I pulled the Excursion away from the curb and slid into traffic. I had a second appointment—this one with Jacob Poole.
I met Poole at Lupe’s, the Mexican restaurant around the corner from the jail. He didn’t look up as I slid into the booth seat across from him. He was hunched over his beer, a strand of stringy dirty-blonde hair hanging in his face. He wore his biker leather jacket bearing the Anarchy Road Motorcycle Club logo, scuffed boots, leather gloves without fingers and a perpetually angry expression.
No wonder Susan Atwater didn’t want Michael’s alleged sons to be carrying this man’s DNA: if Poole was their father, neither of those boys had any future. There was slight hope, if there were Atwater blood in those veins.
Lupe, her black hair cascading around her shoulders, brought me a Dos XX without asking.
“Good to see you, Fitz,” she purred, pulling a notepad and stubby pencil from the apron hung around her ample hips. “What will it be this evening, gentlemen?”
Poole finally raised his scummy head. “I don’t need nothing to eat. And this beer’s on him.”
“Very good, sir,” Lupe raised her eyebrows at me. “What about you, Fitz?”
“Just a couple enchiladas, Lupe, and beans.”
“¿En caso de que mi padre tiene su bate de béisbol listo? Este chico se parece a un verdadero imbécil.” Lupe asked as she wrote down my order. I understood what she was asking: my short air force career in Texas left me with a decent understanding of Spanish. “Should my father have his baseball bat ready? This guy looks like a real jerk.”
“I don’t think so, but thanks for asking,” I answered.
Lupe walked away, smiling at me over her shoulder.
“What did she say? I hate fucking wetbacks who don’t talk good English when they come to this goddamn country.”
“She just wondered if I wanted to see the dessert tray.”
“I’m here to ask about where you were the night Gina died.”
“I was in Akron, at my sister’s. We were celebrating my daughter’s birthday. I told the fucking cops this shit.”
“You got proof?”
Poole reached inside his jacket and pulled out his phone. With a few clicks, he showed me a picture of himself in a pink tiara, smiling at a little girl in a similar pink tiara. There was a birthday cake with five candles, surrounded by ashtrays with burning cigarettes and beer cans in front of the pair. At the corner of the shot, someone’s tattooed knuckles, spelling the word KILL, held a beer mug. In the background, long beards and big guts in tattered tee shirts filled the shot. No other faces were visible. The photo was time-stamped in the corner, just after nine-thirty Saturday night, half an hour before Gina’s time of death.
Good times. Holy shit. I nodded and Poole put his phone back inside his jacket. If he truly was in Akron and the time stamp was accurate, he was at least forty-five minutes away when she died. I made a note to have Ambrosi subpoena Poole’s phone and have the data analyzed—hopefully, the photo would have a location map embedded as well as a time stamp. Even if he deleted it, any good forensic lab Ambrosi hired would be able to recover it.
“I assume you know how she paid the bills.”
“What did she do?” Poole had to know she was a hooker, didn’t he?
“The system doesn’t make it easy for anybody on the dole.”
“That’s the idea. The system is designed for you to go out and get a job.”
“Or work around it.”
“So you know she had sex with other men for money.”
Poole shrugged. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“She whored for you, didn’t she? You’re her pimp.”
He leaned back in the booth and smirked.
“There are a lot of things I asked Gina to do. That wasn’t one of them.”
“Mr. Fitzhugh, or whoever the fuck you are, the man who killed my daughter’s mother is in jail.”
“And he says he didn’t do it. I’m obligated to provide information for his defense that proves that.”
“So you’re looking to run my ass into the ground to get that weasel dick Atwater off? I got proof. I didn’t kill her.”
“You want to give me the address of that birthday party? Names of some of your fine associates?”
Poole rattled off the names and phone numbers of everyone at the birthday as I scrawled them into my notebook, all of them known members of Road Anarchy. He signaled for another beer as Lupe brought my plate. I laid my pencil down and picked up a fork.
“Did you know she had door locks installed on the outside of the kids’ bedrooms?”
Poole arched an eyebrow.
“You’re comfortable with your daughter being locked in her bedroom in case of a fire?”
“I didn’t say I was.”
“I’m hearing stories of a cop who harassed Gina for sex. Know anything about that?”
Poole took a drink of his new beer and shook his head.
“I know a cop was leaning on her pretty hard. She didn’t say what it was about.”
“Could it have been in regards to anything you’re doing?”
Poole put the beer bottle down slowly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what I said. Are you involved in something that could have gotten Gina killed? You tell me you didn’t kill her yourself, but I know your record, Poole. You’re no angel.”
Poole’s eyes hardened. “Michael Atwater is in jail for killing Gina. I think that says everything.” He took another sip from the beer bottle and stood up. “If you need anything else, I think you need to talk to my attorney.” With a smirk, Poole strolled toward the door. Tossing a twenty on the table, I jumped up and followed him. As we both came out into the late day sunshine, I called his name.
“Poole!” I said. “I’m watching you.”
He whirled around, stepping close to me with clenched fists. I could smell the beer on his breath.
“You trail me and you’ll regret it.”
“If you haven’t done anything, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Poole flipped me the bird and walked away. He got on a big black Harley Davidson Fat Boy parked about halfway down the block, fired up the bike and roared down the street.
Then I saw him from the corner of my eye—the man who’d been watching me from the town square.
He was leaning against the wall of Lupe’s place, wearing sunglasses and a black ball cap low on his forehead. The collar of his black leather jacket was pulled up to further obscure his meaty, pockmarked face.
He tried to turn and walk away unnoticed but I grabbed him by his jacket collar, shoving him against the dirty bricks.
“Who the fuck are you? Why are you following me?” I punctuated each question with a shove, sending his thick skull against the bricks. “Answer me, mother fucker! Answer me!”
He shoved me away and ran toward the alley. I followed, my legs pumping like pistons. Within a few steps, I was close—close enough to grab him in one horse-collar move. As I grabbed his shoulders, his feet flew out from under him and he landed hard on his back between my feet on the dirty gravel, blinking. I stood above him and pulled out my Glock.
“Who are you? Answer me or I’ll blow your head off!”
He started to reach inside his jacket. I pulled back the slide and a bullet clicked into the chamber. He froze.
“Tell me who the fuck you are and why the hell you were watching my office! Now.”
“My name is Jorge Rivera. Who I work for isn’t important.” His was the same rasping voice I’d heard when I’d been cold-cocked outside my office.
“Bullshit. Why are you watching me?”
“You need to leave this case alone.”
“What if I won’t?” I stepped back and Rivera scrambled to his feet, grabbing his cap. I kept my handgun leveled at his face.
“Gina Cantolini didn’t die for the reasons you thought. Don’t mess with something that’s bigger than you, Fitzhugh.”
“Bigger than me? How?”
“It just is. Be smart—leave it alone. Just leave it alone.”
“I need more than just your warning. I got too many people telling me something more is going on and a man in jail for a murder I’m convinced he didn’t commit.”
Rivera shifted nervously from one foot to another. “I can’t.”
“Because they’ll kill me.”
Rivera didn’t answer. He turned quickly and ran down the alley.
“Hey!” I shoved my Glock back in my shoulder holster and followed. Rivera was faster this time; I couldn’t keep up. He turned down another alleyway and I lost sight of him.
I made it to the corner when a single shot, muffled by what had to be some kind of silencer, rang out. Someone moaned and I heard the thump of a body hitting the ground. I threw myself against the side of a building and pulled out my gun.
Carefully, I leaned around the corner, weapon ready, expecting to see Rivera dead on the ground. Nothing—nothing but trash cans. And silence. I stepped tentatively into the alley, taking cover wherever I could, searching for Rivera.
By the time I made it back into the light of the street, I was flabbergasted.
Where was the body? Who shot him? And why?