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