I hung up the phone and leaned back in my chair. The morning was productive, but I sure didn’t like what I found. And, sad as it was, it had nothing to do with who killed Gina—just the very painful story about family dynamics.
I hooked my fingers together behind my head, thinking back to my childhood. My parents were not so different than other New Tivoli families: they were loud in their every day conversations, whether it was in love or in anger. The arguments between my brothers and sisters were loud, too, but we never would have done what Sharon allegedly did to Brian Cantolini—or what Brian might have done to Mariella.
We Fitzhughs were fiercely loyal, from what the outside world could see, and would beat anybody bloody who challenged any one of us. But if you fucked up you got yours behind the oaken door of that white clapboard house in New Tivoli. My older brothers more than once came to my aid when I was a young and scrawny Nick the Mick, then beat my ass if they found out I’d instigated it. They saw less action in high school when I, too, developed Aiden Fitzhugh’s broad shoulders and muscular, but bowed legs and no one dared approach me with any name that even hinted at an Irish or Italian slur.
I never knew what childhood sexual abuse was until I became a security policeman—SP in Air Force parlance—in Texas. I saw more of it as part of the FPD. It always generated a bottomless rage in me that dissipated as the perp’s face got pounded into ground beef somewhere between my boxing gloves and the seventy-pound red Everlast bag in the corner of the YMCA gym.
But why concoct something so destructive and so violent and stuff it into a child’s head? What kind of a mother would do that? Even if that child was an adult and more than a little gullible, as Tina intimated about Mariella, it was wrong.
Maybe Tina supported her brother because she, too, couldn’t believe what was being said in court. Maybe Brian really did commit these acts. Maybe Mariella was stupid and could be led by the nose at times, but we never know what really happens behind closed doors or in the dark of night. The world only finds out when it somehow spills out into the street and we cops get to be the ones to clean it up.
Violation is violation and nobody willingly makes that shit up, right? What do I know? I still hadn’t found out who—beside Michael Atwater—could have killed Gina Cantolini and that was what I was being paid to do.
Maybe my first impression of Atwater was right. Maybe he did do it. Michael Atwater had spent his life making anything except good choices. The argument could be made that his drug use and the violence between Gina and him had escalated to the point where he just finally snapped. In his last bad decision, angry that Gina wanted a DNA test on her boys, as she was simultaneously demanding child support for them, he put his hands around her neck one last time and choked the life out of her.
If that was so, why send someone like Jorge Rivera to scare me off this case? That’s the other part I didn’t get. Someone wanted Atwater railroaded for killing Gina. But who? And why?
Where was she killed? I hadn’t found a killer and I hadn’t found a crime scene. Police believed they had the killer, but nothing was ever said about where he did it. If they had, that information should have been provided to Ambrosi. Maybe they didn’t know either.
I sat back up. I had to put all this on the back burner for now. I had a little less than an hour to get ready for the benefit.
Holding my first free drink of the evening, a watered down Jack and Coke, I wandering along the outer edges of Memorial Hall lobby, down by a table filled with items for a silent auction. The old antique benches that normally held the sedate bottoms of symphony attendees had been cleared away and replaced with large round tables. They were covered with white tablecloths, set with hotel grade china and crowned with music themed centerpieces.
The evening’s schedule had always been the same: provide as much free liquor through the cocktail hour and dinner to get folks to bid on items that ranged from Cleveland Browns tickets and gift baskets to golf trips, vacation condo rentals and symphony tickets. Just before the crowd moved into the main performance hall for the symphony’s performance, the big donors would be recognized, and after the symphony played, the dancing would begin and the free drinks would end.
Tonight’s performance featured some of the world’s best-known cello concertos, with Gracie as the featured performer.
I watched as the guests wandered in: professors from the college, local politicians, and Fawcettville business leaders. They all stopped at the bar for their complimentary adult beverage and searched the round tables for their assigned seats before mingling with other attendees.
Before long, Dennis Lance and his staff entered, all of them wearing their ‘Lance for Judge’ tee shirts underneath their tuxedo jackets. Alicia Linnerman, filling out her tuxedo quite well, waved from across the room, and made a beeline toward me.
“Fitz! How are you?” She hugged me briefly.
I lifted my plastic cup. “Getting there.”
“How’s the Atwater case going?” She took a sip of her wine. Her cornflower blue eyes bored right through me, her round breasts pushing the limits of Dennis Lance’s campaign shirt.
“Counselor, I can’t tell you that. That’s between my client and me. Heard anything from Officer Elliott?”
She shook her head. “No. There’s a no-contact order in place. I have heard that he was terminated from the FPD, though.”
“Before his case comes to court?”
Alicia smiled. “He’s taking a guilty plea. Apparently your visit to the jail made him think it’s best to own up to the assault charges than come back here to folks whispering about being involved in a murder.”
I nodded. “Hopefully, he’ll never be involved in law enforcement again.”
“Yes. The chatter is whether or not he ever assaulted any other females.”
“From what I heard he repeatedly asked my victim for sex and threatened her with arrest if she didn’t come through.”
“I thought we weren’t talking about your case.”
“Call it a small slip of the tongue. I can trust that you will see that information gets where it needs to go?” I looked over her head to see who else had wandered in. Alicia’s boss was working the crowd as only a candidate could, pressing the flesh and handing out business cards. I wondered briefly if I should ask him about who paid for Gina Cantolini’s funeral but thought the better of it.
From the corner of my eye, I caught Chief Monroe enter the lobby, along with his wayward spouse. She was dressed in a clingy black number that barely covered her ass and exposed more than a little cleavage. Maris saw I was looking her way and waved. The chief saw me, too, and jerked her close to keep her attention, nearly making her stumble.
Great. Just what I need—to be in the middle of whatever marital drama the Monroe’s have going.
Alicia watched the exchange between them and snickered. “I’ve been doing a little research into you Fitz. I understand the Chief doesn’t think a whole lot of you.”
“It was seven years ago. People need to let that shit go.”
Alicia leaned up against the wall next to me and sipped her drink. “Yeah, they do. But that’s not how small towns work. You ought to know that.”
“After that mess with Maris Monroe, I married my wife Gracie and we were very happy for a long time.”
“Where is the esteemed Dr. Grace Darcy?”
“I haven’t seen her yet.”
“She doesn’t know you’re coming, does she?”
I was silent. Alicia didn’t look me in the eye, but patted my arm sympathetically, not like the aggressive female I’d met just a few days before at her apartment.
“I thought so,” she said. “Just by the way you said it the other day in my apartment.”
“Yeah. Gracie wants me to sign the divorce papers like right now, but I just can’t. I think she’s dating someone—or wants to. She wants to get on with her life. I can’t blame her.”
“Neither can I,” Alicia said, scanning the attendees as they walked through the door. “But sometimes it’s just hard to let go. Sometimes you just have to.”
I leaned my head back against the old plaster wall and sighed.
“I can’t. Not just yet.”
“Well, come on then, Fitz. Neither one of us have dates, so let’s at least pal around for the evening. No expectations, just for the laughs, just for the night.” Alicia tugged on my sleeve. “Let’s go say hello to all the muckety-mucks.”
Turns out, Alicia was pretty good at glad-handing, just like her boss. We moved from table to table as the guests came in, smiling and making small talk. She only responded to campaign questions if directly asked, sending most folks over to the table where Lance was holding court, no doubt enjoying the fruits of yesterday’s news story announcing his candidacy.
Slowly, the members of the symphony began to arrive and mingle with the guests. The crowd nearly doubled as the musicians entered, seemingly through the walls and softly, like fairies, lighting on the arms of last year’s big donors, beginning to weave their magic.
Then I saw her, entering the lobby from the performance hall. She wore a long black sequined dress, her long arms wrapped in an off white shawl that floated like ephemera behind her. She held a small black satin clutch close to her flat, toned stomach. Her hair was pinned up in a bun, as it always was for a performance and she walked like a queen entering her kingdom.
In many ways, she was. That was one thing Gracie always liked about this event—she could talk to anybody about the symphony and her love of music. More often than not, she could coax a donor up to the next rung on the donation ladder, getting funding for symphony trips into the public schools or scholarships for young musicians. She would, by the end of the evening, be circled by a throng of well wishers and admirers, her throaty laugh bringing more to the fold and more money to the symphony’s coffers.
I scanned the arched entrance behind her. Nobody followed her. She was alone. Maybe my fears about that pussy Van Hoven were unfounded.
“Excuse me,” I whispered in Alicia’s ear. “I’ll be right back.”
I caught up to my wife along the silent auction table.
“Hey, baby,” I whispered, taking her arm.
Gracie jerked away.
“Goddammit Niccolo,” she hissed. “What are you doing here?”
“Supporting the symphony, of course,” I smiled. “And checking on my favorite cellist.”
“I don’t need checking on.”
“Has anyone told you that you look wonderful tonight?”
“Has anyone told you you’re a jerk?” She turned her attention back to the clipboards describing each silent auction item, writing down her bids and her office phone number.
“Baby, what you saw wasn’t what it looked like. Judith Demyan was drunk. I’d just sent her proof that her husband was slipping it to that student on the side. She showed up at my office intoxicated and we weren’t doing what it looked like. I wouldn’t do that to you—I love you, Gracie. I was trying to push her off my lap when you came in.”
“The fact that you let her get onto your lap is what pisses me off, Niccolo. If you weren’t screwing her, she was giving you one hell of a lap dance and you were sure as hell enjoying it.” Gracie moved down the display of auction items, stopping at a Cavaliers gift basket, with an autographed LeBron James jersey, a couple tickets and a coffee mug.
I followed like the begging dog I was.
“Please, Gracie. That’s not true. You gotta believe me.”
She didn’t answer. Another couple stepped up beside her to look at the gift basket. She grabbed my arm and pushed me toward other auction items further down the table.
“Gracie, talk to me.”
“I just want you to sign those divorce papers and get this whole mess over with.”
“Give me just one more chance. We can make this work, honey. I know we can.”
She stopped and sighed. “Don’t you get it? I don’t want to make it work. I want out. This might be my last quarter at the music department. My contract is up and I’ve been asked to interview at Berklee College of Music in Boston in June.”
“You’re leaving?” My heart hung in my chest.
“I might be. The college wants me to stay, but I’d be more than stupid to turn down Berklee if they offered it to me. That’s the professional opportunity of a lifetime!”
“But you have a reason to stay here!”
“Gracie, for God’s sake, yes you do. Give me a chance. Give me one chance to make it up to you. If I can’t make you see that all that stuff is behind me and all I want is you, then I’ll sign the papers. You’ll be free to go to Boston or wherever you want. I won’t stand in your way then.”
She stopped looking over the silent auction items and turned to face me.
“Deal.” She held out her hand. I shook it, and lifted it to my lips for a kiss. She jerked away. “Stop that. Not here!”
“So how is this going to work?”
“You tell me, Niccolo. Don’t think you can just blow smoke up my skirt and think you can waltz back into my life, all charm and good times. It’s going to take more than that. It’s going to take some serious change on your part.”
“I’ll do whatever you want me to.”
“That’s not the point Niccolo. The point is you have to convince me to stay. You have to convince me that won’t ever happen again.”
Gracie looked across the room and my gaze followed hers. Alicia Linnerman and Peter Van Hoven were approaching from opposite corners of the lobby. Alicia grinned at me and lifted her glass of wine in greeting; Dennis Lance was right behind her. Van Hoven was honing in on Gracie like a tuxedo-clad hunting dog going in for the kill. I wanted to lay my arm protectively around Gracie’s waist, but knew she’d have no qualms about slugging me if I did.
Alicia approached first.
“Fitz, I thought I’d bring our esteemed judicial candidate over to say hello,” she said, gesturing at her boss with her wine glass.
“Good to see you, Mr. Fitzhugh, as always,” Lance reached out to shake my hand. “This time under better circumstances. That funeral the other day was something, wasn’t it? Sad, sad situation.”
“Yes, yes, it was. Mr. Lance, this is my wife, Dr. Grace Darcy. She’s principal cellist here with the symphony. Grace, this is Dennis Lance, our prosecuting attorney and this is Alicia Linnerman, one of the staff assistant prosecutors.”
Grace shot me a look: I’m your wife in name only. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lance.”
Lance bowed formally. “Likewise. Alicia tells me, Fitz, you’re working for Michael Atwater’s defense team.”
“Yes.” If you want to call a burned out lawyer and a former cop a team, go ahead. “I don’t want to see someone go down for a murder he didn’t commit.”
“You’ve certainly got an uphill battle there,” Lance smiled. “Next Friday, the grand jury meets. I have to say our case is pretty rock solid. I think we’ll get an indictment.”
I smiled with a confidence I didn’t feel. “We’ll see.”
Van Hoven entered our conversation circle; Gracie politely introduced him as the new conductor. We chatted about his background, his aspirations for the symphony; Dennis Lance discovered their mutual love of golf.
“Do you play golf, Dr. Darcy?” Van Hoven asked politely.
“No, I don’t.” Their eyes met and sparkled with mutual attraction.
“My wife is the women’s fencing coach for the college,” I said, stepping closer to her. I touched the small of her back with my hand; the toe of her black ballerina flat struck my ankle. I cringed and dropped my hand. Touché.
“Yes, I am,” answered Gracie, not missing a beat. “I really fell in love with the artistry and the athleticism of it. That, and running bores me.”
A short grey-haired woman in a cocktail dress came over and touched Van Hoven on the sleeve. I couldn’t remember her name, but for years, she’d been president of the Women’s Symphony Association, the group that organized the benefit.
“It’s time to begin the auction,” she said politely.
“Ah, so it is.” Van Hoven offered Gracie his arm and the two of them walked toward the podium.
“She’s beautiful,” Alicia said as soon as they were out of earshot.
“Yes she is,” Lance agreed. “You’re a lucky man, Fitz.”
I took a gulp of my Jack and Coke. It was lukewarm and tasted like piss. “Tell me about it.”
Alicia’s blue eyes caught mine. She understood my pain—I could see that. I could also see that Reno Elliot wouldn’t be the last bad boy she’d fall for. If I’d met her a few years earlier, before the disaster with Maris and the happiness I’d let slide away with Gracie, she might have been added to my list of broken hearts. The old Niccolo Fitzhugh wouldn’t have thought twice. The old Niccolo would have done her and dumped her. Not now.
Alicia and Lance wandered off to find their seats. My glass was sweaty, like the palms of my hands. I sat it down on the table and headed towards the men’s room.
What could I do to convince Gracie our marriage could work? Flowers, candy—the usual wouldn’t work. She’d said as much. But what else could I do? Dinner at the restaurant where I’d asked her to marry me? Maybe that would be a good place to show her we were making a symbolic start. Maybe—
Maris Monroe grabbed me by the arm as she came out of the ladies’ room.
“Hey sexy,” she cooed.
“Get the hell away from me.” I peeled her fingers, one by one, from my tuxedo sleeve.
“You just don’t know a good thing when you see it,” she smiled.
“If you’re such a damned good thing, why did your husband try to shoot me? If you’re such a good thing, why aren’t you sitting next to—?”
The ladies’ bathroom door opened and I stopped to stare at the woman who was coming out the door. She was taller than Alicia, and just as juicy. She was shorter than Gracie, yet—I cringed as I realized it—without Gracie’s elegant toughness. Real rocks, real diamonds, not like the cheap crystal knockoffs Maris wore, hung from this woman’s ears and a string of single diamonds rested on a chain in the soft hollow of her throat, shimmering like the silver cocktail dress she wore. Her blue-black hair curled around her shoulders and her black brows arched perfectly over her dark brown eyes, edged in thick, black eyelashes. Her makeup was impeccable and her olive-colored skin had the toned, slightly rosy look of someone whose only reason for living consisted of drinking in the adulation of others. She looked like the kind of woman who wouldn’t even let you in the door until her clothing was impeccable and her makeup was perfect and didn’t care how long she made you wait.
Nations went to war over this kind of woman, and crimes were gladly committed in her name; the man who won her knew he had a trophy. In bigger cities or older societies, a woman like this would be the queen consort or the president’s wife; she wouldn’t give the time of day to a small town cop. “OUT OF YOUR LEAGUE” flashed over her head in three kinds of neon.
There was something in her face that I’d seen before, though. Maybe it was the curve of her nose, the arch of her sardonic smile, as she passed Maris and me on her way back into the benefit.
“So, you want to meet later for drinks?” Maris walked her fingers up my arm.
I pushed Maris’s hand away and stared as the woman slipped through the arched lobby opening.
“Shut up. Get your sorry ass back to where you belong.”
This dark haired beauty walking away from me never knew anything but white-glove care and adoration from the moment she woke in the morning until she closed her eyes at night.
Or had she?
Take away the make up, the fancy clothes and the hair, and she wasn’t much different than a lot of folks in Fawcettville. Her Mediterranean looks made me think she was somehow tied to the New Tivoli neighborhood; one bad choice in her life could have changed her life’s trajectory immensely, sending her to a job at the grocery store like Susan Atwater rather than a life spent on a pedestal. And she didn’t have to be the one who made the choice—it could have been made for her in the closing potteries and steel mills over the painful economic tides this town suffered over the years.
Put a scarf around the neck, add the damage of an abusive boyfriend plus the hard mileage of addiction then top it off with some cheap dollar-store clothing—I knew suddenly where I’d seen that face.
It was in Gina Cantolini’s casket.]
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.