Call Fitz Chapter 10

I woke up stiff and sore on my waiting room couch Friday before the sun came up. I folded up my blanket and put it, along with my lumpy pillow, in the waiting room closet, sighing as I wondered how many more uncomfortable nights there would be on that cracked leather beast.

Until I could work things out with Gracie, there might be more than I care to think about.

If I could work things out with Gracie.

My dying marriage needed to go on the back burner for now, however. I needed to focus on nailing Jacob Poole. Pinning Gina’s death on him was my last hope to free Michael Atwater. There had to be something in Poole’s life that could connect him to Gina’s murder.

My cell phone beeped with a text message as I filled up the coffee pot in my office bathroom.

It was Ambrosi. He’d had subpoenaed Poole’s phone at my request a couple days ago. Yesterday, Poole (and his attorney) willingly showed up, turned over the phone and the tech people Ambrosi hired were looking into it.

Not the actions of a killer.

Then why should I waste time looking into the actions of a man who was cooperating fully with the investigation?

Reno Elliot didn’t kill Gina. His demands on her were pretty fucked up and he was one shitty cop, but the bruises on Alicia Linnerman’s arm proved he wasn’t around to kill her.

But who was Jorge Rivera and what was his relationship with Elliot? Who shot him—or whom did he shoot? And where was the body? Was Rivera tied to Monroe somehow? Who hired Rivera to push me off the case and why?

I sipped my coffee as I flipped through the Atwater file, going through the same basic facts one more time. Nothing jumped out at me. Nothing.

There were steps outside my office door and today’s newspaper slid through the mail slot. I shuffled over to pick it up.

Two lead stories screamed for attention above the fold. On the left was a story about Gina’s funeral, slated for this afternoon: “Murder victim to be laid to rest.” On the right were Dave Lance’s headshot and the story “Prosecutor seeks Common Pleas bench.”

Maybe I ought to look into Gina Cantolini—maybe her past could lead me to a reason for her death. I scanned the story, which was basically a recap of the murder. Oddly enough, no next of kin was quoted or named.

Why wasn’t her family mentioned? Maybe my answers lie there.

Her parents didn’t live here according to stuff she’d told me when I’d arrested her in the waning days of my police career.

She was just eighteen and already a drunk, with the sad face of someone much older and much more defeated than someone three times her age. I picked her up trying to shoplift a bottle of whiskey.

“You got family to come get you?” I asked, trying to meet her sodden eyes in the cruiser’s rearview mirror. “They’ll book you and then release you since it’s a misdemeanor.”

“No.” She wouldn’t return my gaze. Instead, she watched the traffic go by, leaning her forehead on the window.

“Nobody?”

She didn’t answer and I didn’t push. I learned later she was homeless and sometimes stayed at the women’s shelter at a nearby church. Now, seven years later she was dead and I couldn’t find out why.

Growing up, I couldn’t recall anyone named Cantolini in the New Tivoli neighborhood, but that didn’t mean anything. Like any kid, my world existed only in the three-block area I was allowed to ride my bike. There could have been multiple Cantolini families living cheek by jowl in the duplexes that marked the edge of New Tivoli two blocks over, I would have never known. No one from my high school class had that moniker, but again, I didn’t know if that was a married or a maiden name. For all I know, Gina could have been born a Smith, a Jones, or a Johnson.

I had a week before the grand jury convened. I needed to get busy or Michael Atwater would be facing a murder trial. I needed to consult my ultimate source on New Tivoli. I picked up my cell phone and punched in a number. In a few rings, she picked up.

“Ma? Hey, it’s me, Niccolo. No, no. I’m fine. No, there’s no crisis. Yes, Gracie is fine. I’m calling early because I wanted to catch you before you went to Mass. No, I haven’t moved back home yet. Can I come over later this morning? I need to ask you something about a case.”

*****

The white house I grew up in sat on a small corner lot, circled by Ma’s Floribunda roses. Since Dad’s death a few years ago, she’d thrown herself into gardening, replacing the tulips, the marigolds and the petunias with the same roses she carried on her wedding day. Using Dad’s life insurance money, she’d had the clapboard exterior covered in aluminum siding, since he wouldn’t be around to paint it every five years, but left the interior of the house stuck in the mid-seventies.

I knocked, bracing for how she’d look when she came to the door. Ma was always thin, but these days had shrunken to a bird-like ninety-five pounds, her dowager’s hump stealing more and more of what little height she had left. She pinned her gray hair in the same tight bun she’d worn the day Officer Aidan Fitzhugh pulled her over for a broken taillight in 1949. I knew I wouldn’t have Maria Gallione Fitzhugh in my life much longer; her appearance at the front door of that white house reminded me every time I saw her.

Today was no different. She still had her black dress on from this morning’s mass, but she’d taken off her orthopedic shoes and replaced them with pink fuzzy slippers.

“Niccolo! Niccolo!” Sounding like she’d just gotten off the boat from the Old Country, instead of being a lifelong Fawcettville resident, she reached up to hug me then waved me inside. “Come inside! Come inside!”

I shut the oak door behind us and followed her through the dark living room and into the kitchen. A pot of pasta fagioli simmered on the old olive green stove.

“I see Sophia Armando brought you some soup,” I said, taking a seat at the familiar dinner table.

“And it tasted like merda.” Ma spit into the stainless steel sink with disgust. “I threw it out the next day. This is fresh. Sophia Armando is the worst cook in the neighborhood. Why did you tell her she could bring that immondizia to my house? Coffee?”

I shrugged. There was never any sense in arguing with Ma, no matter what the subject. “Sure.”

She put a tiny cup of espresso in front of me and I loaded it up with sugar. I waited to speak until she shuffled over with her own cup and sat down across from me. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

“So when are you and Gracie getting back together?” she demanded. Her claw-like hand trembled slightly as she lifted her cup to her lips, her eyebrows arched.

“I don’t know, Ma.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” She stopped sipping, gesturing widely with her hands.

“I didn’t come here to talk about Gracie.”

“What do you mean you didn’t come here to talk about your wife? What kind of husband are you? I get twenty grandchildren from your brothers and sisters, but the one son I tell everyone is my favorite, the one who follows in his father’s footsteps, God rest his soul, I get niente, nothing.”

“Ma.”

“That’s what happens when you decide you gotta wait until your old enough to be a grandfather yourself before you get married—”

“Ma, I’m not old enough to be a grandfather.”

“Sure you are! Sophia Armando’s daughter, remember her? The one you dated in high school? She got married right out of nursing school and had four children before Sophia was fifty-five, the same age you are now. Thank god, you didn’t marry Barbara though. She probably couldn’t cook any better than her mother. Not that I would have tried to teacher her—that’s a mother’s job to teach their daughters how to cook. I wouldn’t have shared my marinara recipe with her anyway. She would ruin it.”

Ma! Stop it!”

“What do you want, then?” Ma looked at me like I was being rude. Her white espresso cup clinked delicately on its saucer as she sat it down.

“I came here to ask you if there were ever any Cantolini’s that lived in the neighborhood.”

“Cantolini? Hmmm…” She tapped her index finger on the table. “There was one family, down near Puccini’s, but they moved away by the time you were in eighth grade. They had a son, I think, and a daughter. You wouldn’t have known them because the kids, they went to St. Rita’s. I wanted you kids should have a good Catholic education, too, but with us living on a cop’s salary, that wasn’t possible. So we send you to the city schools. That wasn’t too bad. I mean, you got a football scholarship out of it, didn’t you?”

“Focus, Ma, focus. Where did they move to?”

Ma shrugged. “How should I know?”

“I’m trying to find information on the family of that girl who was murdered. Think, Ma. These folks could have been the victim’s grandparents. If you can just give me a name, it’s something to start with.”

“Let me see… The parent’s first names, they started with A, I think.” Ma rested her chin on her hand, thankfully silent for the moment. “Anselmo? No, that’s not it. Adalberto? No. Wait! Alberto! That’s it! Alberto! The father was Alberto and the mother was Adele. They came here after the war. The son’s name was Brian and the daughter’s name was Tina. There!” She threw her hands up in the air triumphantly. I reached across the table and clasped her grey head in my hands, kissing her forehead.

“Thanks Ma,” I said sinking back into my chair. “What can I do to repay you?”

“Your brothers all married idiots. You were the only one to marry a woman with brains, the only daughter-in-law I can hold a halfway decent conversation with. Go home and make things right with your wife. That’s all I ask.”

*****

Gina’s funeral was held at one of the less classy funeral homes at the edge of Tubman Gardens. Susan Atwater was sitting with her two grandsons in the front row, dabbing at her eyes. Prosecutor Dennis Lance was sitting at the other end of the same row. After today’s newspaper story, I didn’t know if this was to assure the attendees of the hard work his office would do to convict her killer or if it had morphed into a campaign stop.

A small group of Fawcettville’s rougher residents walked through, paying their respects to Gina’s two boys and nodding at Susan Atwater. A few sat in the back rows, intending to stay for the service.

When I was a cop, I spent a lot of time with these folks. These were the people who rode on Fawcettville’s ragged edge, both legally and socially, men and women who worked with their hands and didn’t use gloves, who woke up on Saturday morning hung over and without their weekly wages, if they had any to start with. Their clothes were stained and their steel-toed boots mud-caked, their faces lined with the cost and the dirt of their lives. Uneducated, unwashed and uncouth, even for a dago mick like me, they would throw punches or shank someone at the first perceived slight. Many, like the Atwaters, were the hardscrabble Appalachians who came to Fawcettville to work in the potteries and the mills; they brought with them their mountain fierceness, hard drinking and clan loyalty.

For whatever reason, they adopted Gina.

I got in line to pay my respects to the deceased. Gina’s face was plastered with pasty makeup, and a silk scarf tied around her neck to hide the strangulation marks. I wondered how much work the undertaker had to do to repair the bullet wound in her chest.

Susan Atwater left her grieving grandsons to stand beside me.

“Such a sad, sad story,” I said softly. “Does she have any family here?”

Susan shook her head. “Just the boys.”

I took her elbow and steered her away from the casket and the line of mourners.

“I’m still working to free your son,” I whispered. “I found out the cop didn’t do it.”

“You’re sure?” Susan’s long bony fingers picked at her sleeve.

“I’m sure. He was beating up his girlfriend at the same time Gina was killed, so he couldn’t have done it. I need to ask you a couple questions.”

Susan sighed.

“Who claimed the body? Who paid for this funeral?”

“I identified the body and found the funeral home. The bar where Gina worked took up a collection to pay for this. They came up with about half, but then supposedly some anonymous donor paid the rest.”

“What do you mean ‘supposedly’?”

Susan shrugged. “One of the folks from the bar told me she thought it was the prosecutor. Said he heard it from the funeral home.”

“Why would a prosecutor do that? Did you ask him?”

“I’m not asking that bastard anything,” she hissed. “He wants to kill my boy! He wants the death penalty! I can’t believe he had the nerve to even show up here.”

Canned organ music began to play; my conversation with Susan ended as mourners began to take their seats. A preacher I didn’t recognize—not that I knew who the priest was at St. Rita’s, either—got up to lead the service. My thoughts raced, barely listening as the service droned on.

Could the rumor be right? Why would Dennis Lance pay for the funeral? Why would the prosecutor help pay for a murder victims funeral, if it wasn’t to curry votes? How ethical could that be, especially in light of his formal declaration as a judge candidate? Probably not very ethical at all, considering he’d already declared he wanted to see Michael Atwater face the death penalty. Shouldn’t an action like that make Lance consider recusing himself from the case? My opinion of the man was changing and not for the good. She had to be wrong— had to be. If not, I had to ask what was going on in this town? Between Chief Monroe and the prosecutor, had everybody’s ethics gone down the shitter?

I stood as six mourners, in black tee-shirts and jeans, walked Gina’s now closed casket down the aisle and out to the hearse. Slowly, the crowd shuffled out, a few of them stopping to hug Gina’s boys or shake Susan’s hand. A few stopped to talk to Lance; he made sure to look properly concerned and sincere, as any good candidate would. As the last of the mourners filed out, he approached Susan, his hand extended, looking like he was mining for more votes. Without a word, she turned on the worn heel of her shoe and, grabbing the boys by the hand, walked out.

Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com or come back next week for the next chapter. Holy Fitz, the next book in the Fitz series is also available on my web site.

 

Call Fitz Chapter 9

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.

Chapter 9

 

“So you’re saying that Reno Elliot couldn’t possibly be Gina Cantolini’s killer because at the time of her death, he was beating you up?”

Alicia Linnerman was no shrinking violet—and from the size of Sadie, no crazy cat lady either. She looked me straight in the eye and nodded.

“He tried to at any rate. He grabbed me by the arm as you can see and slapped me a couple times, but Sadie put an end to that real quick—she had him cornered in bathroom by the time the police responded. Didn’t you, girl?” Alicia pulled her sleeve back down and patted the panting mastiff on the head. “I’m too nearsighted to be a good shot, so as a woman living alone, Sadie is the next best thing. She proved that Sunday night. Elliot was taken in and charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, but they let him go, ROR.”

“Released on his own recognizance.” I nodded. “I’m surprised that didn’t show up in the paper.”

Alicia shrugged. “I can’t comment on how the police do or do not handle press inquiries on one of their own. There’s an awful lot of ugly going on at the FPD right now. I’m sure you could get a copy of the report, though.”

I sighed. “If they filed one. I don’t believe, and Jim Ambrosi doesn’t believe, that his client Michael Atwater is guilty. I hoped I was onto something with Reno Elliot, but I guess not.”

“I hate to disappoint you, Mr. Fitzhugh. I’d like to hang the bastard as much as you would, but I think a murder charge won’t stick.” Alicia picked up her glass of wine and walked toward to kitchen. “Can I get you something to drink? A glass of wine? A beer? It might take the sting off a bit.”

“Call me Fitz,” I said, following her into a small kitchen that was just as trendy as the living room. “Sure. A beer sounds great.”

Alicia opened the fridge and leaned over to pull a beer from the bottom shelf. I liked the look of her round behind, still in the conservative navy work skirt he’d had on when she walked out of the courthouse.

            She stood quickly, catching my stare and blushed as she handed me the beer. She pulled a pilsner glass from a cabinet and sat it on the kitchen table, across from her wine glass.

“Have a seat, Fitz. Tell me about yourself.”

I twisted the cap off the beer bottle.

“What do you want to know?” I turned to toss the bottle cap into the trashcan behind me. “Or should I ask, what have you heard?”

Alicia smiled and took a sip from her wine.

“A couple friends over in domestic court that mentioned you one or two times. I know you do a lot of work for the divorce lawyers in town.”

I nodded. “That’s true. I retired from the police force about seven years ago and got my PI license. It pays the rent.”

She looked down at her wine glass and spun it in between her fingers. She looked up over her glasses. Her eyes were cornflower blue, ringed with thick black lashes and sucked me in with their intensity.

“You married?”

“I’m separated.”

“Ahhh.”

“What’s that mean?”

She smiled and shrugged. “Just asking.”

“So let me ask you a question. How’d you end up in Fawcettville? And with Reno Elliot?”

Her smile turned a little sad. “I came to Fawcettville basically so I could be a big fish in a small pond, maybe make my name on a big case or two. As for my personal life, I was just out of Cleveland Marshall College of Law and tired of working in Akron when I met Reno on a case.”

“As a defendant or as a witness for the state?” I took a sip of my beer. I liked this girl. I liked her a lot. Why did she get involved with a scumbag like Elliot?

“Aren’t you snarky? I was in the prosecutor’s office then, too. So he was a witness, when I met him, of course,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of his background then and over the last year as I learned more about him, defended him to everyone I knew, like anybody involved with a jerk does.”

“Was this the first time he hit you?”

“He was never the calmest guy I ever dated. But in the last six months or so, I saw a lot more anger, I don’t know why. We had more arguments and they escalated pretty quickly. I never understood that dynamic with the DV cases I’d handled before. Let’s just say I’ve become a little more sympathetic.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Mind if I ask why you and your wife separated?” She looked at me again with those fierce cornflower blue eyes.

“It was a bit of a compromising situation. Let’s just say that.”

“I’ve heard that about you, too.” Her eyes didn’t move from my face. She may have just split up with a boyfriend, but this girl wasn’t letting any grass grow under her feet. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.

“I was always faithful to my wife, OK?”

“I thought you said you were caught in a compromising position.”

“It wasn’t what it looked like, but unfortunately I can’t convince her of that.”

“I understand.” She didn’t look like she believed me.

We were silent for a moment as each of us sipped on our drinks, both of us trying to figure out what hung in the air was between us, whether it was going to stay professional or veer dangerously, for me anyway, into the personal. It was probably best to change the subject.

“I hear your boss is thinking about running for office.”

“Yes. He wants to be the next Common Pleas judge.”

“Think he’ll be a good one?”

She took a sip of her wine before she answered.

“I think he’ll be pretty good. Dennis is a good guy.”

“That sounds pretty non-committal. I always liked working with him when I was with the PD. You know something I don’t know?”

She shrugged and smiled.

“We’re kind of getting roped into campaigning for him—unofficially of course. He hasn’t got anyone running against him yet but he’s bought us all tickets to some big thing this weekend.”

“The symphony benefit?”

“Yes. He’s aware of current ethics laws, so anyone who didn’t want to go didn’t have to. Everyone in the office has rented tuxedos and we’ll be wearing campaign tee shirts with them: ‘Lance for Judge’ or something like that.”

“My wife plays cello for the symphony. Her name’s Grace Darcy, Dr. Grace Darcy. She teaches music theory at the college—and cello, of course.”

“Oh? So will you be there?” The blue eyes drilled through me again.

“Yes I will. Grace is performing.” It was time to go. I stood, drained my bottle and sat the empty on the counter. “I want to thank you for your time, and the beer. I’m sorry for what happened to you, but it clears Officer Elliot of murder.”

The predatory vibe emanating from her side of the table seemed to diminish. She tossed back what was left of her wine and escorted me to the front door. Sadie jumped off the couch as we passed and, once at the door, stood beside me, pawing my leg. I reached down and scratched her ear.

“She doesn’t do that with just anybody,” Alicia said. “You must be a nice guy, down deep inside.”

“It’s the same story—all I attract is dogs and dangerous women.” I smiled.

Alicia laughed. “And all I fall for is bad boys.”

I leaned in close, close enough to smell the wine on her breath and sense the heat of her skin. I wanted to kiss her, the first time I’d felt that way in a long time. She tipped her chin up; I cupped it with my hand, leaning in for the kiss.

I stopped. I couldn’t do it—not if I wanted to get Gracie back.

“And despite what Sadie believes,” I whispered. “I’d be just another bad boy.”

She stepped back and smiled as she opened the door. “That’s too bad, Fitz. I get the feeling you might just be worth the trouble.”

*****

Back at my office, I sat the cardboard tray holding my fast food on the desk and flopped into my chair. I opened the lower desk drawer and sighed, pulling out my wedding picture from the bottom drawer, where it lived next to its neighbor, the bottle of bourbon.

I held the wooden frame in both hands. We’d gotten married at city hall by the judge. Gracie was wearing an off-white suit and a small veil and carried a bright red bouquet of roses. I wore my best navy blue suit. My mother took the picture of the two of us standing in front of the smiling judge.

Saturday night was the symphony benefit. It generally followed a standard theme: beginning with a cocktail hour, then moving to dinner at themed tables lushly decorated by a group of symphony spouses. Following dinner, there was an auction of items donated by area businesses, then the symphony performed.

If you were in business or in politics, it was a great place for recognition and meeting with your constituents, as Dennis Lance obviously had planned. Anyone who thought they were anything usually attended, along with long-time symphony supporters and music school faculty from the college.

I took my paper dinner napkin and wiped a smear from the glass covering the photo. Gracie and I were a fixture there. Now that we were separated, why did I even decide to go? Would Gracie even acknowledge me there? Could I stand to see her next to Van Hoven all evening?

By the time I’d met Gracie and decided to settle down, the horn dogging I’d done was a thing of the past. Or had Maris Monroe just scared the shit out of me?

Back then I had an apartment in one of the old converted Victorians in New Tivoli, six blocks from my newly widowed mother.

I’d met Maris once or twice for drinks after my shift. I knew I was playing with fire, but I didn’t care. It was all about the hunt, the conquest, not about getting back at my boss for anything although down deep, that was probably why I was really going after his wife.

I didn’t like Nathaniel Monroe when he was assistant chief and I disliked him even more when he made chief. He got conceited and big headed when he pinned on the chief’s badge. He treated the officers below him like dirt and the rank and file’s opinion went downhill even faster when he dumped his long suffering first wife and took up with Maris.

Like I said, I wasn’t the first notch on Maris Monroe’s bedpost; I was just the first to get caught. She and I found carnal delights for six nights in a row on most of the solid surfaces at my place before everything blew up.

We were on the kitchen floor. She was on top of me when the chief pounded on the door. My hands were exploring the luscious contents of the pink lacey bra bursting out of her shirt as she straddled me; her matching panties were on the floor beside us.

“Open the door, Fitzhugh!” he screamed. “I know you’re in there and I know my wife is with you!”

“Oh my God! Oh my God! He must have followed me here!” Maris jumped up and began buttoning her shirt.

“The door, Fitzhugh! Open the fucking door!” The pounding got louder; it sounded like he was using the butt of his gun. “Maris, I hear you in there! Maris!”

“What do I do? What do I do?” She quickly zipped her skirt and slipped into her shoes.

“Here—” My kitchen window faced the back alley; I opened it and helped her outside onto the fire escape, tossing her purse to her as she ran down the iron stairs.

The hinges on the door gave, splintering the doorframe as Chief Monroe burst in, his weapon drawn. Behind him, my neighbor, the elderly Mrs. Falletti, standing in the hallway in her white muumuu and pink sponge rollers, screamed.

“Where’s my wife? I know she’s in here!” Monroe shoved the barrel of his gun in my face.

I held up my hands. With a quick kick, I tried to send Maris’s underpants beneath the fridge, but Monroe was faster. Keeping the gun trained on me, he bent down and grabbed the pink panties with his free hand.

“Who do these belong to, Fitzhugh? Your sister?”

“So I fucked your wife. I’m not the only one. Go ahead—shoot me. Nobody would blame you,” I said. “You can spin the story however you like. You’ll make certain you come out looking like the hero, I’m sure.”

In the hallway, Mrs. Falletti gasped.

Monroe grabbed me by my shirt and jammed the gun barrel beneath my jaw. I lowered my hands, but didn’t try to resist. Twenty years on the force just went down the shitter. So why be afraid to die? My mother would grieve, as would my brothers and sisters, but the manner of my death wouldn’t surprise anyone. Hell, they probably would think I had it coming.

“Let go of him!” Mrs. Falletti cried. “Don’t shoot him!”

“Here’s how it’s going to go, Fitz,” he hissed into my ear. “You’ve been stalking my wife. You conned her into meeting you for drinks —yes, I know she met you every night this week—and then you abducted her. I followed her phone’s GPS signal here to your apartment, we struggled, and I shot you in self defense as my wife escaped.”

He pulled back the trigger and I closed my eyes. I was going to die over a goddamned piece of ass.

Footsteps pounded up the stairs. Three cops, with their weapons drawn, burst into my apartment. One of them was Lt. Baker.

“Drop the gun, Monroe! Drop it right now!” he commanded, his service revolver trained on the chief.

Monroe lowered his weapon and released me.

“We know what happened here, Nate. Maris called me,” Baker continued, sharply. “If you shoot Fitz, you’re done as a cop. You will spend the rest of your life in prison and you’ll ruin the reputation of this entire police force. You want to ruin your career over some cheap broad like Maris? It’s easier to get divorced.”

Monroe stepped back and holstered his weapon, glaring at Baker. He turned to me.

“You got lucky, Fitzhugh. I had every right to blow your brains all over this wall. I want you in my office at ten thirty tomorrow morning. There will be disciplinary action.”

Monroe and the two other cops left the apartment. Baker waited until the door downstairs closed to speak.

“You’re a good cop, Fitz, even though you’ve pulled a lot of stupid personal shit over the years. I want your retirement papers on my desk half an hour before you’re supposed to meet with Monroe. You’re not going to that meeting with him. This is for your own good and you know it.”

Within six weeks, thanks to some pals at the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, I had my PI license and six months later, I met Gracie.

Had I learned my lesson with Maris Monroe or had I been lucky enough to meet the love of my life? I never could decide which one it was.

I traced Gracie’s face on the photo with my finger. Even though I might not be able to nail Reno Elliot with Gina Cantolini’s murder, and by extension, further tarnish Monroe, I had to get Gracie back.

 

 

Call Fitz Chapter 8

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.

Chapter 8

The Fawcettville cop was picked up in Akron after a half-dressed woman, bleeding from facial wounds, ran screaming from a cheap motel, into the street where a passing cruiser picked her up, according to the story.
The officer made an attempt to flee in his vehicle; a short chase ended when he hit a parked car six blocks away. He had scratches on his face and arms, and was carrying his badge.
The cop was identified as Reno Elliot. The paper didn’t have a mug shot but ran his FPD shot from the department web site instead.
The victim was a known drug addict and a prostitute with an extensive record; Elliot met her at the corner and allegedly beat her after sex. She suffered facial fractures and two broken ribs, the story said.
I looked over at Ambrosi.
“This doesn’t look good for Elliot, but it looks good for our case,” I said.
“You think Elliot killed Gina?” he asked.
“I think there’s too many things which could tie him to the murder at least circumstantially.” I filled him in on what I’d found out. “He’s got a checkered career at best and now he’s been arrested for beating the shit out of some working girl,” I finished.
“We’ll be stirring up a hornet’s nest if we accuse a cop of murder. You know that, don’t you?” Ambrosi didn’t look like he had the backbone.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked. There’s nothing I want more than to hang Monroe over a dirty cop. If you’re too afraid to do it, you don’t need to be in this business.
Or is this why you’re paying me?
“You don’t think Jacob Poole has anything to do with this?”
“I’m not sure. He showed me a picture on his phone. He said he was at a birthday party for his daughter, supposedly at his sister’s house. If I were you, I’d subpoena that sucker as fast as I could and see if somebody could find where that photo was taken and if the time stamp is accurate. If it turns out that he’s telling the truth, then he’s off the hook.”
“So what happened to your face?”
I filled him in on Rivera, including the shooting in the alley, his alleged post-mortem appearance at Puccini’s coffee shop, along with his previous acquaintance with Elliot.
“What does he have to do with this case?”
“Maybe a lot. I think that the word went out from the jail straight to Chief Monroe that I was investigating this case. Monroe’s out to get me—he has for a long time.”
“Over what?”
“It’s a long story—one that doesn’t make either of us look very good. Anyway, I think Monroe heard I’m on the case and he panicked. He’s terrified our investigation will uncover he’s hired a bad cop. With everything going on with his wife, that could end his career.”
“Ah yes. Mrs. Monroe. I’ve heard quite a bit about her. Not a good situation for a man like the Chief.”
I grimaced.
“I’m betting he thinks Rivera’s intimidation will shake me off the case.”
Ambrosi exhaled the smoke from his acrid cigar toward the ceiling and nodded.
“The grand jury meets next week. If we want to present evidence to clear my client, you need to talk to Elliot.”
*****
Elliot was being held at the East Crosier Street Jail, about an hour from Fawcettville. Males and females were held in the five interconnected diamond-shaped pods surrounded by razor wire and a neighborhood that had seen better days. Because he was a cop, Elliot was being held in isolation for his own protection.
He sat across from me, separated by bulletproof glass.
He looked like he’d had the shit beat out of him. His angular brown face had long fingernail scratches down each cheek. There were abrasions on his muscular arms and on the side of his shaved head. His knuckles were bloody.
I wondered how much of the damage came from the hooker and how much of it came from the crash and his apprehension.
If he hadn’t been so roughed up, I guess I could have seen while someone—Alicia Linnerman, for example—might even think he was handsome.
We picked up the receivers to talk.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked.
“They didn’t tell you my name before they brought me back here?”
“Yeah. I don’t know any Nick Fitzhugh.”
“I’m a PI. I’m looking into what happened to Gina Cantolini and your name keeps coming up.”
“How’s that?” His lip curled sarcastically.
“You broke up a fight between the victim and her boyfriend Sunday night at the Italian Festival.”
“So?”
“You were also heard demanding a blow job from the victim before she died.”
Elliot smirked but didn’t answer.
“Another thing, Officer Elliot, I’m a retired cop. One thing I and my other brothers and sisters don’t take too kindly to is assholes like you who tarnish the badge.”
Reno leaned into the glass, his fist tightly clutching the phone receiver that linked us.
“Listen, I don’t know why you are here and frankly I don’t care—”
“I’m here because I’ve put some things together about you—and they could make you a pretty likely murder suspect. I know what kind of cop you are. I know you’ve bounced from department to department because you’re either too stupid to do what you’re told or you’re one of those dicks who things a gun and a badge is a license to break all the rules.” I leaned in closer, too. I knew the conversation was being recorded and I wanted the jailers to catch every word. “I think this girl who got away from you wasn’t your first. I think you like hitting women, particularly powerless ones who won’t or can’t fight back. I think you found a sad drunk whore in Gina Cantolini and you made her your target.”
I waited for him to say something, but he didn’t, so I kept going.
“You think you have a built-in alibi for the night she died when you were seen breaking up a fight between her and Atwater, but you were overhead giving your opinion on her worthiness to walk this earth. Atwater may be an asshole and a loser, too, but he’s got as much right to oxygen as Gina did.”
Elliot leaned back slightly, but his expression didn’t change.
“I think you wanted something from the victim and you went looking for her that night. Only this time, what you wanted from her was something she got tired of giving you and she fought back. When she fought back, it pissed you off, like it does anytime someone stands up to you, so you killed her. To cover your tracks, you dumped her body back at the festival, where enough people saw her arguing with Michael Atwater to hang him for the crime.”
Elliot leaned back toward the glass.
“You think you can make that stick? Talk to my lawyer.”
“And could that lawyer be Alicia Linnerman? You got her conned, too, Reno? You hit on her?”
“You keep Alicia out of this.”
“The only thing I haven’t got figured out about this whole thing is where you did it. And I’m not going to stop until I do.”
Elliot slammed the received down and called for a guard to escort him back to his cell.
*****
Back in Fawcettville, I stopped at the prosecutor’s office, which was on the second floor of the county courthouse. The courthouse was across the street from the Civil War monument in the center of town, a block from my office, a big Romanesque limestone building, each of the three public entrances flanked with a pair of carved Neptunes staring blankly at those who came through the door.
The prosecutor’s office entrance faced the white marble staircase. I stepped through the door. The spring sunshine shone through a pair of arched stained glass windows, shining blue, green and purple hues down on a row of clerical workers, kept from the public by a rail and gate moved there from the last courtroom remodel.
Dennis Lance, the prosecutor, had an office to the left of the entrance, behind a big carved mahogany door. I knew from experience the four assistant prosecutors had individual cubicles in the office to the right of the entrance.
A large wooden frame showing a pyramid of each staff member’s photo hung on the door above their names, which were engraved on brass plaques. Lance’s “Look at me, I’m your next judge” face was at the top of the heap. Alicia Linnerman’s photo started at the next row.
Her face wasn’t what I thought she’d be: she was neither the tall, gorgeous, TV lawyer in expensive suits, nor the lonely, overweight woman desperate for a man, but a plain-faced competent-looking brunette with glasses and a welcoming smile.
I pointed at the photo.
“I want to see her.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Linnerman is in meetings for the remainder of the afternoon,” the secretary said.
“It’s four-thirty. Thirty minutes isn’t long. I’ll wait till she comes out,” I said, seating myself.
“The meetings aren’t here,” she said firmly. “They’re off site.”
I stood up and pulled a business card from my sweatshirt pocket. “Got it. Please tell her I stopped by.”
“Will do, Mr. Fitzhugh,” she said accepting my card.
Back outside the courthouse, I leaned against one of the majestic maples on the courthouse lawn, watching the employee entrance. At five o’clock, right on schedule, Alicia Linnerman, wearing a pair of outsized sunglasses, and a very lawyerly navy suit, came out the secured door and walked to her car.
“Off-site” my ass.
I got a good look at her as followed at a safe distance. She was medium height, a little plump, but in a good way. She may have had bad taste in men, but she didn’t look at all like the lonely cat lady I’d first imagined.
Parking wasn’t easy in downtown Fawcettville—most everyone coming to the courthouse, including the employees, had to find a spot in the adjacent lot. Only the judges and other elected officials were lucky enough to have designated curbside parking. Lucky for me, Alicia Linnerman was parked just one row over from my Excursion. Even luckier, her bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle made it easy to follow her through what passed for rush hour traffic.
I followed Alicia to where she lived, the only swank apartment complex in the hills overlooking Fawcettville, a complex was where the muckety-mucks and wannabes lived before they decided to move on to bigger things or put down money on a house.
I parked on the street and watched which apartment she went into before sprinting up the sidewalk and knocking on her door.
She threw the door open, smiling like she was expecting someone else, holding a glass of white wine in her hand. A big grey mastiff ran out from the back of the apartment growling. I reached inside my hoodie, making sure I could touch the Glock in my shoulder holster.
“Down, Sadie, down!” Alicia ordered, her smile gone. “Can I help you?” The mastiff sat obediently. I pulled my hand from inside my jacket and handed her a business card.
“Miss Linnerman? I’m Nick Fitzhugh. I’m a private investigator. I need to ask you a few questions about Reno Elliot. May I come in?”
“Sure. Is this is about the incident in Akron, or… something else?”
I followed her into the living room, furnished in sleek hipster grey and lime furniture.
“Something else, sort of.”
“Mr. Elliot and I are no longer romantically involved, no matter what he might have told you.”
“I’m investigating the murder of Gina Cantolini. Her body was found Sunday night under the stage at the Italian Festival. I’m working for the defendant’s attorney, Jim Ambrosi.”
“I know the case. I’m not handling it, but if I were, I’d have to tell you to talk to Mr. Lance about it. I can’t give you anything, especially not here.”
“I just need to ask a few questions. Were you working at the festival when Officer Elliot broke up the fight between the victim and the defendant? I talked to festival organizers earlier and they said a female was working the police department booth Sunday when the fight occurred.” No they hadn’t, but she didn’t need to know that.
“Yes I was. I was handing out neighborhood watch information. Officer Elliot did break up a fight—I saw that.”
“What time was that fight?”
Alicia shrugged and took a sip of her wine. “The middle of the afternoon— two, three o’clock maybe? The man, who I later learned was Mr. Atwater, was pretty drunk.”
“After Officer Elliot broke up the fight, my client says he fell and injured himself. Did you see him fall?”
“No.”
“And after that happened, how long did you work at the police booth?”
“Couple hours, then I went home.”
“Did Officer Elliot go with you? Was Officer Elliot with you all Sunday night?”
“You’re not looking at him as a suspect in the Cantolini murder are you?” Her directness took me by surprise.
“I have some information that point to him as a potential suspect, yes.”
“He was here, with me.” She looked a little uncomfortable.
If you’re going to be a lawyer, you’d better develop a better poker face than that.
“You understand, then, when I ask if anyone else was here to verify that?”
“There were others here, yes.”
“Who?”
Alicia sat her wine glass down on a glass-topped table. She pulled up the sleeve of her blouse, exposing her upper arm, which was marred with blue finger-shaped bruises.
“As you know from the incident in Akron, Reno has some issues—with women and with anger. Sunday night he accused me of sleeping with my boss, Dennis Lance, then tried to beat the shit out of me. My neighbors and half the Fawcettville police force were here.”

Call Fitz Chapter 7

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.

Chapter 7

 

By nine in the morning, I was back at Puccini’s coffee shop, this time meeting over espresso with the Italian Festival organizers, a group of older civic-minded Tivoli Gardens’ residents. Most of them were retired steel workers or their spouses or widows.

The Italian Festival started in the fifties, before I was born, by a group of World War II veterans in conjunction with the local Sons of Italy Lodge as a bocce ball tournament at the city park. Over the years, the bocce ball tournament died off and the event became a downtown celebration of Italian food and wine with local bands thrown in.

Sophia Armando, this year’s festival committee president, discovered Gina Cantolini’s body. At least seventy five, she dyed her coiffed hair jet back, wore heavy black eyeliner with fake Bambi eyelashes and bright red lipstick, trying to retain the beauty she once had as a young woman. She and her husband Eddie had a boat up on Lake Erie and her clothing seldom lacked some sort of nautical print.

She was sharp as a tack and no one you wanted to mess with. I learned that when I brought her daughter Barbara home late from a high school dance. That hadn’t changed. Sophia ran the Italian Festival committee like she ran her home: toe her line or find something else to do.

She tapped her fake red nails against the white espresso cup in front of her.

“Niccolo, how is your mother?” she asked as I slid into the only empty chair at the table of six. “I haven’t seen her in a couple weeks.”

“She’s fine, Mrs. Armando, she’s fine.”

“I made a big pot of pasta fagioli—too much for Eddie and me. I’ll take some to her later this afternoon.”

“That would be kind of you.”

“So I thought they caught the boy that killed Gina Cantolini.” An older man, one I didn’t recognize, spoke up.

“They arrested someone, a guy named Michael Atwater,” I said. “He’s been charged, but his attorney believes he’s innocent and hired me to look into what happened that night. That’s why I asked you all to meet me.”

Sophia shook her head and shivered. “I’ve never seen anything like that, Niccolo, never in my life. That poor girl!”

“Did any of you see her before she was killed?”

“She was arguing with a man, a red headed guy. He was pretty drunk. I was selling raffle tickets at the festival information booth and saw them both.”

“There was a policeman working at one of the booths,” someone else interjected. “He was handing out information. He stepped in and broke it up.”

“That black kid? Officer Elliot? He’s such a nice young man…” Sophia thoughtfully tapped her chin with a sharp red nail.

“He broke up a fight between the victim and a red-headed man?” I pulled a notebook from inside my hooded sweatshirt. “An actual physical fight or an argument?”

“It was an argument, but a loud one, very, very profane. Completely inappropriate for a family festival,” Sophia said, shaking her head. “I got the feeling that one of them was going to hit the other if it wasn’t stopped. And people around them were scared.”

“So Officer Elliot stepped in? Was he in uniform? Was he on duty?”

“Officer Elliot was off duty, but he had his uniform on, since he was working the police department booth, right next to the festival information booth. He stepped in between them and got them to go their separate directions.”

“Did they?”

“Yes. The redheaded man walked about three blocks and I didn’t see him after that. He was really drunk.”

“You didn’t see him fall down at any point?”

Sophia shrugged. “No.”

That wasn’t good. Atwater claimed his injuries weren’t from physical contact with the victim, but from a fall. Maybe I’d have to convince Ambrosi our boy was guilty after all.

“Anything else stand out about the whole situation?”

“Not really.” Sophia knit her black-penciled brows and took a sip of her espresso. “No wait— Officer Reno said something really odd after he came back to the booth.”

“What was that?”

“He called them both a ‘waste of humanity who don’t deserve to walk this earth.’ I thought that was a little harsh.”

Truth be told, Gina Cantolini was a waste of humanity, but she didn’t deserve to die like that—and Michael Atwater was an asshole but he didn’t deserve to go to jail for a murder he didn’t commit. The more I looked, the more I believed Atwater didn’t do it, just like Ambrosi.

My money was on Reno Elliot. He was looking more and more like the bad cop who could be capable of killing a hooker, which in turn, could bring Nathaniel Monroe down.

Besides winning back Gracie, it was all I could ever want. And hell, if I got both my wishes, I’d be on top of the world.

I just needed to find out everything I could about Elliot.

I put my notebook inside my coat and finished off my nearly cold espresso.

“OK, thanks.”

“Tell your mother I’ll be over later this afternoon with the soup.”

“Will do.”

I got Barnes on the cell phone while I drove. I had some time before I was supposed to meet with Ambrosi and fill him in on what I’d learned so far.

“Tell me about Reno Elliot.”

“Shit, Fitz. I told you everything I knew the other day. He’s the boyfriend of one of the assistant prosecutors, the blonde one named Alicia. For the life of me, I can’t ever remember her last name. Linnerman? Lonnergan? Hell, I don’t know. Anyway, Elliot played football for KSU, like you, only he didn’t get thrown off the team. He’s only been on the force for about a year or so.”

I ignored the jab. “How many departments has he worked for?”

“What do I look like, HR? Call ‘em yourself and ask.”

As a private citizen, I’d have to go through the chief with a public records request to get into Elliot’s personnel file and I knew Chief Monroe would stonewall me for as long as he possibly could. I’d have to make some calls, do some digging.

“Is he off this week?”

“How should I know?”
“One more question—you know anybody named Jorge Rivera?”

“Nope. Why?”

“Just curious.”

“I know you better Fitz.”

“Yes, you do. Thanks, Barnes. Talk to you later.”

Before I got to Ambrosi’s, I stopped back at the office, to call guys I knew on other departments from around northeast Ohio. They told me everything I needed to know: Elliot was young and arrogant and had all the makings of one hell of a bad cop. He’d been through four departments in the ten years he’d been in law enforcement. He couldn’t—or wouldn’t—follow orders, had more than one complaint of excessive force filed and was investigated several times for discharging his weapon, once into the tires of a car belonging to the teen-age son of a county commissioner. There was some talk—none of it proven—that he’d filched cash from the evidence room on more than one occasion. He managed to resign and move on before anything could be pinned on him.

The first couple times, the union stood behind him on most disciplinary actions, but that didn’t surprise me any. That he was able to keep getting jobs did.

Somewhere along the line, he hooked up with Alicia Linnerman, an up and coming young lawyer now working for Dennis Lance, the county prosecutor. She’d been there just under a year and somehow managed to get her boyfriend on the FPD.

Why is it sharp, educated women like Alicia Linnerman always fall for wrong guys like Reno Elliot?

Maybe Gracie could give me the answer.

Then again, maybe Alicia wasn’t as sharp as I thought. Maybe she was one of those desperate females who were thrilled any man paid any attention to her. In my mind, I’d first envisioned Alicia as a tall, thin TV lawyer in an expensive suit and heels, giving the jury an aggressive, bulletproof opening statement.

Maybe she wasn’t.

Suddenly the tall TV lawyer morphed into the short, slightly overweight woman, who lived alone with three cats and binge-watched Netflix most weekends while stuffing her fat face with Cheetos. In this new assumed portrait, Linnerman’s courtroom techniques would have been OK, but not flamboyant. Maybe she accepted Reno Elliot’s offer of a date because she believed down deep in her heart that no one else would ever find her interesting.

Maybe she wasn’t “up and coming.” Maybe she would be one of those young lawyers who’d stay an assistant prosecutor for her entire career, a female version of Ambrosi. Small towns were full of them.

The clock in the waiting room chimed. I changed into the blue sport jacket that was hanging over a chair by my desk. I needed to get over to Ambrosi’s office and fill him in.

*****

Ambrosi’s office was a dull and as gray as he was, only he had enough business to pay for a secretary to answer the phone. Despite the three sad sacks sitting in the waiting room, she led me back to Ambrosi’s office as soon as I walked in the door.

Ambrosi’s office stunk from the cheap cigar he clenched in his yellow teeth. He stood up to shake my hand.

“What happened to your face?” he asked.

“Some goon was trying to make a point. I’ll tell you later.”

“So what have you found out?”

Quickly, I filled him in on my interview with Susan Atwater, Mac Brewster and the kid at Puccini’s. I finished with Sophia’s story about the argument.

“I think that Reno Elliot has some real possibilities. He could be the real suspect, given that he’s been heard asking the victim for sex and calling her a waste of humanity. But he said something to the kid at Puccini’s about going on vacation this week. I don’t think talk to him.”

“Maybe you can.” Ambrosi pushed today’s issue of the Fawcettville Times my way. Reno Elliot’s picture was splashed across the top of the page: FPD officer held on sex assault charges in Akron.