I followed the silver dress back into lobby and, on a hunch, called out to her.
“Mariella! Mariella Cantolini!”
She didn’t respond.
I called out again and tapped her on her shoulder.
She stopped and turned around this time, her dark eyes swallowing me whole. Could this be the manipulative little shit whose lies led to her father’s suicide? Who got talked into false memories of sexual abuse and testified to them in court? This creature seemed to be too smart and too savvy to be manipulated by anyone.
“Excuse me? Do I know you?” Her voice was warm caramel and sex stirred together, but there was no sign she’d recognized the name.
“Mariella—I thought that was you! It’s me, Nick Fitzhugh. I went to school with your aunt and your dad. I haven’t seen you since you were this high.” Amazing how easily I lied to get what I wanted. Maybe Gracie was right. It would take a lot more to convince her I’d changed.
“I’m sorry. I think you have me confused with someone else.”
“I could have sworn Tina Cantolini was your aunt and Brian Cantolini was your dad. They lived just a couple block from my folks in New Tivoli.”
“No, I’m so sorry. My name is Rachel Lance. My husband is the prosecutor Dennis Lance.”
Of course—lucky bastard.
“That’s where I’ve seen you then,” I backpedaled. “I work very closely with the courts. I must have seen you at his office. My apologies.”
The warm caramel voice cooled considerably. “Yes. Excuse me, please.”
I watched as she sauntered over to her husband and his staff. Lance stood as Rachel approached and pulled back a chair for her to sit. She descended gracefully into the chair; Lance sat down beside her and draped his arm around her shoulder. She snuggled under his arm and looked back at me with a smirk. I am used to being approached by men like you, she seemed to say, and you can’t afford me.
So I was wrong.
Rachel Lance may have looked like a lot of the folks from my old neighborhood, but from her reaction she clearly wasn’t a Cantolini. This case was getting to me.
I found an empty seat at the back of the room and accepted the salad, along with a cup of weak coffee, from a server. I watched Gracie as she sat at the head table, talking with Van Hoven. There was an empty chair next to Gracie. I’d sat there in years past; no doubt the organizers saw my name on the list of attendees and assumed I’d be there again. Next year I will be. After the meal of rubber chicken, asparagus and some sort of potato, Gracie was back up at the podium, introducing one of the local auctioneers, who led the charge to get the most money from those well-lubricated pockets. The crowd grew louder as the after-dinner liquor began to flow and Gracie worked the crowd, encouraging attendees to wave their bidder numbers and call out their ever increasing offers.
When she wasn’t working the crowd, she was beaming at any attention Van Hoven paid her. I watched Van Hoven whisper something in her ear; Gracie threw back her head and laughed, shooting him an intimate, knowing look. I’d been the recipient of that look too, once upon a time.
That’s it. I can’t watch any more of this. I slipped out before the auction ended and walked back to my Expedition. The sun was setting in the west and the smell of a spring evening filled the air.
What could I do to convince her to come back to me, to make her stay here in Fawcettville rather than packing up and leaving for Boston? God knows Berklee College of Music will hire her in a heartbeat.
Footsteps echoed through the parking lot as I pulled my keys from my pocket. The hairs on the back of my head stood on edge: I knelt as if to tie my shoe, slipping my fingers around the grip of the Kahr P9 in my ankle holster. I’d been cold cocked once this week and it wasn’t going to happen again.
From my vantage point, I saw scrawny legs running between the rows of cars, heard teenage laughter and profanity, followed by the rasp of skateboard wheels along the pavement. Relieved, I exhaled and stood up.
A hairy arm hooked around my throat and squeezed, cutting off my oxygen. Colors popped in my vision as I struggled to free myself.
“I told you to leave this case alone,” a familiar raspy voice hissed in my ear. I felt a cold blade under my left ear.
“That you, Rivera, or the ghost of pussies past?”
Clutching his arm, I spun around and body-slammed him into the Expedition’s rear door, jamming my elbow into his soft gut. He groaned and let go of me, sinking to the ground. I kicked the knife under the Expedition and pulled Rivera back up by his collar.
“Fuck you, Fitzhugh,” he spat.
Rivera’s nose met my fist and blood spurted down his shirt. I let him slide down to the ground again and kicked him in the ribs. Rivera curled up on his side, holding his face.
“You’re welcome,” I said, shaking the pain from my knuckles. “I thought somebody plugged you in the alley.”
Rivera tried to get to his feet. I kicked him again and he sank back to the pavement.
“I said, didn’t somebody shoot you in the alley?” I leaned over him, speaking slowly and loudly, enunciating my words.
“No,” Rivera groaned. “I got him. He was checking to make sure I did what I was paid to do.”
“And you didn’t, did you?” I stepped back and let Rivera stand up.
Rivera roared in rage and came at me again. With a short sideways kick, I knocked him off balance and he fell again, face first, into the pavement.
“Whoever you’re working for needs to send in the first team. You’ve had two chances to push me off this case and failed. Now get the fuck out of here and tell your handlers to send a real man to do the job next time.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have let him go. Maybe I should have beat the shit out of him right there, but hell, the tux was rented and I just wanted to get home. I adjusted my bowtie in the window as Rivera stood.
“You don’t know whom you’re messing with,” Rivera stood, wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve.
“I know I’m messing with somebody who wants to see an innocent man go to prison for a murder he didn’t commit,” I said as I turned to face him. “I know you have connections to Reno Elliot, who threatened my victim. What else do I need to know?”
“It’s more than that,” Rivera said.
“What do you mean?”
Rivera looked around. His shoulders sank. I sensed he wanted to talk. I pulled a handkerchief from my jacket and handed it to him.
“Clean yourself up and meet me at Puccini’s.”
“I’m not sure exactly where that is.”
“Don’t bullshit me. I know you’ve met Reno Elliot there.”
Rivera stared at his feet. “OK.”
“Twenty minutes, tops.”
I was sitting in one of the red booths in the center of Puccini’s window when my waitress sat a cannoli and a cup of espresso in front of me. I was halfway through both when Rivera, both eyes turning blue and purple from my blow to his nose, slid into the booth seat across from me. He’d taken the time to change his shirt—and maybe tell his handlers.
I signaled to the waitress, ordering the same thing for him.
She brought his order and I waited for him to take a bite of his cannoli before I spoke.
“So what’s the deal behind all this? Who wants to see Michael Atwater convicted and why?”
“There’s more here than you think. Do we have to sit here in full view of the whole world?”
“What are you afraid of?”
“Your victim knew something, something people in power didn’t want anyone else to know,” Rivera began, looking nervously out the window. “That’s why she was killed.”
“OK. Like what?” Gina had a lot of pain in her life, but as for knowing something that mattered enough for someone in power to kill her? I had my doubts.
“I don’t know. I just know that they figured it would be easy to pin the murder on the one boyfriend. They knew about the DNA testing because that had been court ordered. They knew about the other boyfriend, too—”
Before Rivera could answer, I caught a glimpse of a vehicle slowing in the street outside. The window on the passenger side came down, and the streetlight caught the glint of a silver handgun.
“Look out!” I yelled.
Bullets shattered the glass as the waitress screamed and I dove beneath the table, glass shards flying. Pulling my Kahr from my ankle holster, I peeked over the edge of the broken window to catch a few numbers on the license plate. Tires squealed as the vehicle, a boxy, non-descript sedan, pulled off down the street.
“Everybody OK?” I crawled out from beneath the table, gun in hand. The waitress, a college kid, came up from behind the counter, her hands shaking and black mascara coursing down her cheeks in her tears. The antique espresso machine behind her was pocked with bullet holes and the mirror behind it was shattered.
Rivera was silent. The waitress screamed again and I saw why: half of Rivera’s face was gone, and his brains were splattered against the back of the red booth.
So he meant what he said. Somebody seriously wanted me off this case.
Detective Joe Barnes arrived as quickly as the police. After the crime scene technician swabbed my hands for gunshot residue, he pulled me off to the side to talk to me while the coroner and her staff looked over what was left of Rivera. Another detective was interviewing the waitress.
“So what happened, Fitz?”
“You can’t tell?”
“Don’t be a smart ass. I just want to know how you ended up in the middle of a murder.”
“The victim and I met in the Memorial Hall parking lot—I was leaving the symphony benefit. He had some information he wanted to tell me. I said we should meet here at Puccini’s and discuss it over coffee. We were each having a cannoli and espresso when this car drove by really slowly. I saw a gun come out the passenger side window and the next thing I know, I’m under the table, covered in broken glass.”
“What did Rivera want to talk to you about?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Don’t bullshit me Fitz. I remember you calling and asking me if I knew anybody by that name.”
“That was after I found he was tailing me. I finally caught him in the alley by Lupe’s, but I never did learn anything about him.”
“You sure those bullets weren’t meant for you?”
“Why would they be?”
“I know somebody who’s still got a real grudge over something that happened a while back.”
“Not the chief. You’re kidding me, right?”
Barnes just arched an eyebrow.
“I can’t believe that, Joe. C’mon.”
Barnes shrugged. “He’s known to carry a grudge.”
“Trust me, Maris Monroe can take her delights elsewhere. I’m not interested.”
“I don’t know if he exactly believes that.” If it had been fifty years ago and life was black and white, Barnes would have been in a trench coat, pushing his pork pie hat up off his forehead with his thumb as he talked. Tonight, he was in khaki pants and a blue FPD polo shirt, his badge and his service revolver anchored on his belt, but the effect was the same.
We watched silently as Rivera, now encased in a blue body bag, rolled by on a gurney.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had two murder cases in a week in this town,” Barnes continued. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket if you ask me. If you find anything out, give me a call. You know where to find me.”
He followed the gurney out the door. There wasn’t much more for me to do either; I left soon after.
Back at my office, I flopped into my desk chair and pulled the bourbon, along with a cup, out of the bottom drawer. I poured two fingers worth and sighed.
If what Rivera said was correct, if Gina Cantolini had information that disturbed the powers that be, what could it be? And was it worth killing her over?
And what if Barnes was right? What if that bullet was meant for me and not Rivera? I have no doubt the chief saw Maris hanging all over me near the restrooms—and if it wasn’t him, one of his minions told him about it. That broad had nearly been the death of me once and maybe tonight, she was again.
I gulped down the bourbon, stepped into the office bathroom and out of my tux. The jacket was smeared with cannoli filling and dirt off Puccini’s floor. It smelled like espresso. The pants weren’t much better. I picked a couple of pieces of glass out of one of the jacket’s shoulders. I’d be paying a cleaning fee on this sucker when I dropped it off Monday. I stepped into some sweatpants and an old FPD tee shirt and brushed my teeth. Back in the waiting room, I pulled my pillows and blanket from behind the couch; just like every other night, I lay my Glock next to my cell phone on the coffee table and switched out the lights.
The window in my office door shattered and I shot up from the couch, grabbing my Glock. Flames flashed along the floor and onto the cheap rug beneath my feet as the smell of gasoline filled the air. Smoke seared my lungs as I tried to beat the flames down with the blanket, trying to make my way to the door. The fire alarm in the hallway began to howl and flash, adding to the confusion.
Behind me, in my office, I heard noise on the fire escape outside my office window. The glass there shattered and I saw the flash of another Molotov cocktail striking my office floor, the flame spreading up the thin curtains and across the ceiling.
The Atwater case file— Tina Jones’ and Sharon Hansen’s phone numbers, my laptop with the web sites about Brian Cantolini’s sex abuse trial, the police reports Ambrosi gave me about the murder—all lay across my desk. No! I can’t lose those!
I had to get in there before it caught fire. Throwing the blanket over my head and stuffing my Glock in my waistband, I charged into the office. As the dry wood of my chair ignited, flames licking dangerously close to the desk, I grabbed what I could—the outer housing on my laptop was beginning to blacken with smoke, but maybe the hard drive would survive.
I turned back toward the waiting room; a wall of flame greeted me, blocking my exit out that door. Smoke was filling the office—and my lungs. Sparks were landing on the blanket, igniting circles of flames. Drawing a rasping breath, I dropped the blanket and swiveled back toward my office. The curtains hung in burning strips around the window. I clutched the laptop closer to me and pushed my way out the window and on to the fire escape.
The first fire truck pulled up to the curb as I collapsed on the sidewalk, the laptop clattering beside me. A firefighter jumped from the truck and ran to me.
“Somebody threw two Molotov’s into my office,” I gasped.
“Is there anyone else in the building?” he asked, before covering my mouth with an oxygen mask.
I shook my head and drew more oxygen into my seared lungs. As I watched the fire crews battle the blaze, I couldn’t help but think that Lt. Barnes was right.
The bullets that hit Rivera —and now, the Molotov cocktails—were meant for me.
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.