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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.