Call Fitz —Chapter 18

The warm sounds of Gracie’s cello filled the hallway as I approached her office in the college music department. I stopped outside the door and laid a hand on the cool wood door, as if to soak her music into my soul and hold it there forever. I couldn’t lose her. I just couldn’t. I hoped my plans for the evening, starting with the two-dozen roses I held on my arm and ending with a promise that cleaned out my savings account of all but a couple bucks and change, would bring her back to me forever. The music stopped, and I heard the sound of pages turning—the perfect time to enter.
Gracie was seated near the window, with her cello between her knees, bathed in the spring sunlight, rifling through the sheet music on the stand in front of her. She wore another white gauzy top and camisole, paired today with coral pants and sandals. Sunlight bounced off her hair, held away from her face with a white headband. She looked up and gasped at the flowers.
“Niccolo! You didn’t have to do that!” She stood and took them from me, kissing me lightly on one burned cheek. She buried her nose in a bloom and inhaled. “Oh, they smell wonderful.”
“Of course I did! How was your day?”
Gracie didn’t answer, handing me the flowers back and searching for an empty vase in her coat closet. She stood on tiptoe as she brought one from the back of the shelf, sitting it on her desk.
“Pretty good,” she said finally. She smiled, I thought a little sadly, as she turned to take the flowers from me and began to arrange them in the vase.
“What happened?”
She shrugged. “I talked to the folks at Berklee College of Music today.”
“Oh?”
“I’m not in the running for that job anymore.”
“They decided that before even interviewing you?” I hoped I sounded disappointed for her sake. I wanted to jump up and down and cheer.
“Yeah.” She cast her eyes down. What did she mean? Did she feel stuck here now? Stuck with me because I wouldn’t sign the divorce papers? Was she convinced now that I was ruining her life?
“Well, they don’t know what they missed,” I said. I wanted to hold her and kiss her forehead, but remembering earlier rebuffs, I stood awkwardly in front of her. “How about we go out to dinner?”
“Sure.”
I got the impression I would have gotten the same response if I’d said, “How about we go jump off a bridge?” Or, “Lets go home and burn down the house.” At least by the time we got to Ye Olde Gaol, she was starting to smile, though slightly.
After visiting Atwater at the jail earlier today, I’d managed to duck across the street to the Gaol and ask the maître d, Mr. Tony, a fixture at the Gaol for generations, for a slight favor. Of an uncertain age, somewhere between Ma and my oldest brother, Mr. Tony could work wonders for those who came to enjoy an intimate dinner or a grand feast, even on short notice.
Thanks to Mr. Tony, I was able to reserve one of the small corner tables downstairs, where the stony cell walls had been converted to warm intimate little dining areas, with soft lights on the walls and candles on the tables. I didn’t want to get one of the small private dining rooms upstairs, mainly because they had windows: the third time could be the charm, if someone still wanted to kill me. I wanted someplace that had memories, good memories, for both of us.
“Oh, Niccolo!” Gracie swept up a second bouquet of roses from her chair.
We gave Mr. Tony our drink orders and I reached over to take Gracie’s hand as we settled into our chairs. She didn’t pull away this time.
“You asked me to prove to you that I’ve changed,” I began. “I don’t know any other way than to show you. I wanted someplace where it could be just you and me, someplace with good memories for both of us. So I chose the place where I asked you to marry me, six years ago. You know this is the same table we sat at that night.”
Gracie looked around and smiled. “Oh, Niccolo,” she said again.
Mr. Tony came back with our drinks—a vodka martini for Gracie, a beer for me. He took our dinner orders and left. I took a sip of my beer and began again.
“I know I have a reputation and most of it is well deserved, but you have to know that from the day I met you, I never wanted anyone else. I never looked at another woman. I want you back, Gracie. I want what we had to continue. I want—”
She reached across the table and placed her long graceful fingers on my mouth.
“Hush, Niccolo.” Gracie folded her hands around her martini glass. “I have something to tell you. I had a visitor today.”
“You did?” Oh God.
“Yes. Judy Demyan came by. She saw the article about you in the Times.”
“The person who started all this mess came to see you? What did she want?” I turned my pilsner glass in circles on the white tablecloth as I tried to contain my sarcasm.
“That’s what she wanted to talk to me about, this whole mess.” She looked up at the rough limestone walls. I could see tears cresting in her eyes. “She asked me why you were at your office the night of the fire. I told her that after I’d caught her with you, we’d separated and were probably going to divorce. She got very upset. She told me exactly what happened that day, that she was drunk and angry because her husband had been unfaithful to her and you never encouraged her—the same story you’d always told me. Judy admitted she was out of control and apologized for the whole mess. She feels that she’s responsible for your injuries in the fire and she’s awfully sorry.”
“She should be fucking sorry,” I said sharply.
“She’s going into rehab.”
“Good.”
“I owe you an apology, too. I just happened to walk in exactly the wrong moment and jumped to the conclusion that you’d returned to your old ways, Nicco. That was wrong. If I’d believed you that day, you wouldn’t have been in the office the night it was firebombed. You’d have been home with me. You wouldn’t have been hurt.”
I swallowed hard and slipped my hand into my pocket, wrapping my fingers around the small velvet box there. Gracie kept talking, saying things I never thought I’d hear again.
“I’m not from here, but you are. You grew up here in Fawcettville and I just came here to work. I never experienced the feeling of family that I did with you. The other night, when you came home from the hospital and your mother made dinner for us, it was just like all those Sundays we had in the past, surrounded by that big, crazy, Italian family of yours. I realized then how much I’d miss if I let you go.” She looked up at the ceiling again and wiped her tears away.
I pulled the velvet box from my pocket. Holding the box in my lap, I opened my mouth to speak, but she held up her hand.
“Not yet, Niccolo. I have a couple more things to tell you. I told you that I’m not in the running for the Berklee College of Music job.”
“I know, and I don’t want you to feel you’re stuck here, Grace, just because they decided you weren’t good enough for them,” I said. “You’re a great musician and an even better teacher—fuck ‘em if they don’t know what they passed by. I know the college isn’t Julliard and I know this is a really small town. Six years ago, I asked you to marry me right here at this same table. I brought you here tonight to make a damned good argument for you to take me back and right now, all I can say is this: I want us to continue and I want you to have this as a promise from me that things will be different from here on out.”
“Nicco, honey, you’re not listening. I’m the one who called Berklee. I told them I was no longer interested in interviewing for the job. I also called the attorney and withdrew the divorce papers. I want to make things work, too, Niccolo. I want us to work.”
She wanted to stay. She wanted to stay with me. Wordlessly, I opened the ring box up and sat it on the table between us. She gasped at the band of diamonds.
“I want to start again, too, Gracie,” I begged. “I don’t ever want to lose you. Please, Gracie. Let’s start again.”
She took the ring from the box, slipped it onto her finger and nodded.
*****
The dozen roses hit the living room floor as the front door slammed behind us. I pushed Gracie up against the closest wall; our lips were locked together, her arms around my neck as my hands were frantically trying to open her blouse. She wrapped one long leg around me; my hands left the blouse to grasp her firm, sweet ass.
“Oh God, baby,” I whispered into her neck.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she whispered hoarsely. She shifted her leg back to the floor and ran her hands inside my shirt just as my cell phone rang in the back pocket of my jeans.
“Goddammit,” I whispered.
“Don’t you dare answer that, Niccolo.” Her voice was dark and husky.
“Don’t worry,” I answered, sliding my hands to her breasts and kissing her neck. The phone kept ringing. Gracie pulled the phone out of my pocket, bringing my hips closer to hers. She swept her long hair from her face and held the phone up in front of me.
“Who is this?”
My eyes struggled to focus. My eyes may be telling me I was getting old, but there were other parts that weren’t—at least for right now.
“Shit. It’s Ambrosi, Mike Atwater’s attorney.”
“You can call him back later.” Her lips met mine as she slid the phone onto a nearby side table. Her hands moved to the front of my jeans and began to work at the zipper. “Right now, we’ve got better things to do.”
*****
About one in the morning, I staggered downstairs for a glass of water. The entry way was bathed in the spring moonlight, making it easy for me to grab the phone from the side table as I passed through to the kitchen. Sitting at the kitchen table, I punched in the voicemail code and listened to Ambrosi’s message as I sipped from my glass.
“Fitz, it’s me. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I found a desk for you to work from. The other good news is that the time stamp on Jacob Poole’s cell phone photo is incorrect. The bad news is Mike Atwater’s .38 was finally recovered in the alley behind the Mexican restaurant. Ballistic tests matched it to the weapon that killed Gina and it’s got Gina’s fingerprints on it. I’m thinking we don’t have any choice but to work a plea deal after the grand jury. Call me back.”

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 17

The sun was midway through the morning sky when I began to pry my eyes open. I pulled the blankets up over my shoulder and savored, for the moment, the feel of the cool cotton sheets and the clean smell of the pillow beneath my head. God, this is so much better than my office couch. I rolled over and gasped, startled at the curving, feminine silhouette beneath the blanket beside me. Too much wine at dinner hadn’t affected me so much that I forgot Gracie coming to bed with me, had it? Sweet Mary, Mother of God, I wouldn’t do that.

I reached over with a bandaged paw to touch, to see if it were really Gracie.

Shit. The wad of pillows and blankets collapsed beneath my hand and disappointment seeped into my now-awake brain. I sighed and swung my legs over the side of the bed.

Enough dreaming. It was Monday and I had things to do.

Wandering into the kitchen, I rubbed my hands through my hair, planning my day. I had to get back on track with the case. I needed to talk to Mike or Susan Atwater to see if Gina ever told them about her father’s suicide and the twisted vengeance that led to her destructive lifestyle. It may not have anything to do with finding who really killed her, but you never know. I also needed to drop by Ambrosi’s office to see if I could work there for a few weeks until I found a more permanent place to settle and get the Expedition into the shop to repair that bubbled paint.

On the kitchen table, there was a note and a set of car keys from Gracie beneath an empty coffee cup: “Niccolo—here’s the keys to the Volvo. One of the other Profs took me to work this morning so you could have the car, in case you needed it. There’s coffee in the pot. Pick me up at 4:30—G.”

I couldn’t be too much in the doghouse if she wanted me to pick up her up after work, could I? Mentally, I added, “buy flowers” to my to do list for the day.

I punched the ‘on’ button at the side of the coffee maker and unrolled the morning edition of the Fawcettville Times. It wasn’t a bad little paper— a lot of reporters, good and bad, got their start there before moving on, moving up or moving out of the business entirely.

While I was a cop, I had a couple hot weekends with the crime reporter, a Harley-riding woman named Bobbie, who had a way with words like no one I’d ever met—until Gracie. Before Bobbie rode off to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and out of my life, she called me dog—more specifically, a horny Rottweiler who’d hump anything from a Shih Zhu to a hole in a tree. I was also a pig whose lack of commitment spread deep down into my DNA. I couldn’t manage anything more creative than to call her a fucking crazy, workaholic badge bunny. The day she roared off on her motorcycle was a good day indeed.

This wasn’t one of those good days: scrawled across the top of the Times was a sickening headline:

Weekend violence centers on local PI

            A local private investigator and former Fawcettville police officer is at the center of a murder and a firebombing, both of which occurred Saturday night.

            Jorge Rivera, age and address unavailable, was shot and killed at Puccini’s coffee shop, a long-time landmark in the New Tivoli neighborhood, during a meeting with private investigator Niccolo Fitzhugh, of Fitzhugh Investigations.

Further information about Rivera was not available at press time, although sources connected with the investigation suggested he might have been an undercover operative of some sort.

            According to reports, Fitzhugh reported seeing a dark-colored, boxy sedan traveling slowly down in front of the coffee shop. The passenger side window came down, a weapon was displayed and shots were fired into the coffee shop window, killing Rivera.

            Later that same night Fitzhugh was apparently working late at his office when two suspects tossed what fire investigators believe to be Molotov cocktails through Fitzhugh’s front office door and through the office window from the fire escape.

            Damages to Puccini’s coffee shop were estimated at approximately $10,000. Damages to Fitzhugh’s office could total $50,000, according to building owner Orville Grundy.

            Fitzhugh was not injured in the shooting, however he did suffer first- and second-degree burns and smoke inhalation as a result of the fire. Fitzhugh was hospitalized in good condition and expected to be released Monday.

            “We have no idea what kind of dangerous activity Mr. Fitzhugh is involved in, but clearly he’s being targeted for something,” said Chief Nathaniel Monroe.  

            Fitzhugh served twenty years with the Fawcettville police before retiring suddenly seven years ago to start his own private investigations firm, Monroe said.

His personnel file, provided by Monroe at the request of the Times, showed several citations for bravery and service. Performance reviews over the years were largely positive, however, Monroe said, “Fitzhugh’s decisions in his personal life could sometimes interfere with his professional life.”

            This is the second murder in Fawcettville this month and the first arson committed in three years. Slightly more than a week ago…

 

I didn’t need to read any more. I knew as public employees, a cop’s personnel record was open to anyone who asked—within reason, at least, in the state of Ohio. Information such as my address would be redacted for my own protection. At least it was supposed to be. Would Monroe let that information slip?

The only incorrect information was my release date from the hospital, but if things at the Times operated the same way they did while Bobbie was still there, the story was likely written before I was sent home. It’s also possible the reporter tried to contact me and failed. I don’t even remember seeing anyone resembling a reporter—any cop could spot one at any crime scene—at the fire or at Puccini’s.

But why identify Rivera as an “undercover operative?” Was he an undercover cop or a confidential informant? Would Monroe throw one of his own, particularly one who just gave his life, under the bus? Or did that come from someone else? Was it something that was supposed to be off the record and inadvertently included? As unlikely as it seemed, even small town departments had undercover officers and confidential informants; in a town where everyone was related, or at the very least, screwing each other, it was even more imperative to guard those identities.

What was said about me was largely correct, whether I liked it or not. My personal life did seriously interfere with my professional life—screwing Monroe’s wife nearly got me killed. But Monroe wouldn’t want those details in print, that’s for sure.

Rivera’s sole purpose was to shake me off the case—and he failed miserably. He was known to meet with police officer Reno Elliot who intimidated Gina and publically identified as working undercover. Could the connection then be made that Monroe was somehow behind framing Atwater? Much as I hated him, I didn’t want to believe Monroe had anything to do with this—and like Barnes, didn’t want to be the one to lob accusations at him without any basis. But things were fitting together—and in a way I didn’t like. Monroe was stupid enough to use intimidation to keep men away from his idiot wife—but he never struck me as one who would frame someone for murder.

Then, too, maybe he was so worried about who Maris was doing that he didn’t know what these two cops were up to.

And why would they—Elliot, Rivera and Monroe, if he was involved—pick on a low level criminal like Mike Atwater, especially over the death of a sad case like Gina Cantolini? What could she know that would make a police chief nervous—and nervous enough to kill?

The next question: How much of this could I share with Barnes without either compromising Atwater’s chances of sailing through the grand jury without an indictment—or getting myself killed?

Mac Brewster said he was going to file his retirement papers before talking to me about what was going on at the FPD. I needed to run him down as well—maybe he was ready to talk this week.

But I had to speak to Barnes first.

“You told me you didn’t know who Jorge Rivera was,” I said as soon as he picked up his office phone.

“I couldn’t, Fitz! I swear to God! I can’t believe that would come out of Monroe’s mouth and that an idiot reporter would print something like that! The longer I’ve had to deal with the Times the more I’m convinced they hire idiots and morons. Fucking idiots and morons.”

“Monroe ought to know that anytime you talk to a reporter it’s on the record,” I said. “The only other thing I can think is that he told him off the record and the reporter slipped up.”

Barnes groaned. “That’s going to shoot everything in the ass.”

“Everything? What was Rivera involved in?”

“Rivera was providing information on the motorcycle gang Jacob Poole was part of. They were reportedly bringing large quantities of pure heroin into the city and selling it.”

This was no surprise. Anarchy Road was started by a group of disenchanted Vietnam veterans back when I was a kid. While the club originally provided a place to drink beer and listen to bad local rock bands, as times got harder in F-town, so did the club members. The club occasionally had poker runs to raise money for local kids stricken with one horrible disease or another, but as time passed, it became more known for the crimes that allegedly occurred there but could never be proved.

“Jacob Poole? Gina Cantolini’s other lover?”

“Yeah. But he didn’t kill her, Fitz. We’ve checked and he’s clean—at least where she’s concerned.”

*****

Ambrosi welcomed me into his office just before lunch.

“Jesus, Fitz, you look like shit.” He ran his fingers through his fading comb over and settled back behind the big mahogany desk. “I saw this morning’s paper.”

“Yeah, I’ve had better weekends.” I dropped into a Morris chair across from him.

Quickly, I filled him in on the shooting and the fire, including what I learned about Rivera.

“So you think the chief of police could be behind this?” Ambrosi’s fat cheeks puffed out as he exhaled, a fearful look on his face.

“I don’t want to make those sort of allegations unless I’ve got something more to go on,” I said. “But some things just point his way. I also need to talk to your client to ask him about some information I learned about Gina’s family.”

Ambrosi scratched the information on a pad of paper. “I’ve got some time tomorrow afternoon, after two. Meet me at the jail then.”

“Another thing—I need some space to work, since I no longer have an office. Got any space for me?”

Ambrosi wouldn’t look me in the eye. “I don’t know, Fitz.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” My voice escalated. “I’ve been hit in the head, shot at, attacked in a parking lot, and my fucking office burned down, all because of your client. You don’t think that deserves a desk in a corner here?”

Ambrosi raised his hands, but the fear didn’t leave his face. “Calm down, Fitz—you have to understand that I can’t put my staff’s lives at risk—or my own life, for that matter. We all have families.”

“And I don’t? Fuck you, Ambrosi. Fuck you and your spineless kind of lawyering. I thought you hired me because you believed your client was innocent. Now, when things start to go balls to the wall, you step back like you’re going to let me hang? You afraid of what I’ll find out? Huh? Huh?”

He colored to the roots of his stringy, thin hair.

“Fuck you, Ambrosi.” I turned to go, spinning so quickly pain from the burns on my feet shot straight to my brain.

“Fitz, wait!”

I stopped.

“Let me see if I can find an empty desk for you, OK?”

“You do that.”

I left the office—and Gracie’s Volvo in Ambrosi’s parking lot—walking the four blocks to the jail. Maybe Atwater could take a few minutes away from staring at the ceiling from his jailhouse bunk to talk to me.

He could. After warning him that any conversation he had here would be recorded, the deputy shackled Mike to the floor in front of the scratched Plexiglas window and handed him the phone. He didn’t look any worse for wear—the daily jailhouse routine was probably a familiar one for him.

“I’m looking for information on Gina and her family,” I said. “What do you know about her parents?”

Atwater shrugged. “I know her mom lives in North Canton but they don’t like each other. I know her dad is dead, and I know he killed himself. Gina had a sister, but I don’t know who she is.”

“Ever hear the name Mariella?”

“No. Gina’s sister’s name was something else.”

“Like what?”

“Rochelle, maybe? Roxy?”

“You never met her, then.”

Atwater shook his head. “She said her family hated her.”

“Do you know why they hated her?”

“She’d talk about it only when she was really drunk. She said the police thought her dad did something bad to her sister and he committed suicide. Gina said it wasn’t true, though. She tried to tell everybody it wasn’t true, but no one would listen. She always felt really bad about the whole thing, but nobody would admit what they did.”

“What do you mean, ‘admit’?”

“Gina said her mom made up all that stuff about her dad and her sister, but they wouldn’t talk about it. They made her look like she was the crazy one. They cut her out of the family for sticking up for her dad.”

That verified everything Tina Cantolini-Jones had told me. I had one more question.

“Did she ever say where her sister lived?”

“No. I don’t think she knew.”

“OK, thanks.” I nodded.

Back at Gracie’s, I logged on to the laptop, which mercifully came to life with an electronic chime, and found Tina Cantolini-Jones’ phone number. It was about noon in San Francisco and Tina picked up the phone. We exchanged a few pleasantries before getting down to business.

“Mrs. Jones, did your niece Mariella ever go by a different name?”

“After she hit her teens, she wanted to be called by her middle name, so we did. She didn’t like the name Mariella, especially since it was an old family name.”

“What was her middle name?”

“Rochelle.”

Rochelle. Dennis Lance’s lush, lavish wife Rachel shimmered across my mind and once again, I saw the resemblance between a rich attorney’s wife and the body of a dead hooker lying in a casket. Could Rochelle have changed her name? Could she now be Rachel? If anybody had a secret that needed keeping, it would be Mariella Rochelle Cantolini or Rachel Lance, whatever the hell her name was now.

I get it that shit gets said when people get divorced. I get it that kids get dragged into that same shit and they get damaged forever. I don’t get it that people take it to the extreme, hanging onto a lie until an innocent man decides to suck on the end of a pistol to make it stop and a young girl is cut out of her family for trying to make it right.

What if Gina somehow found Rachel and threatened to expose her? The woman who had two men fighting over the parentage of her three children had learned long ago how to manipulate people. It wasn’t that far a stretch that she would play the same game with her sister.

If what I was thinking correct, it was particularly important that secret remain so if Rachel’s husband wanted to be the next common pleas judge.

And what was the rumor Susan Atwater heard at Gina’s funeral, that the prosecutor had paid the bill? That made sense now—too damned much sense.

But Rachel didn’t react when I called her by her name Saturday night. Was that practice on her part or was I jumping to conclusions?

“Do you happen to have any pictures of Rochelle?”

There was silence on the other end of the line. “Let me look. I’m not sure. Does this have anything to do with Gina’s murder?”

“I don’t know. I just know that there’s an awful lot of people who think I don’t need to be investigating Gina’s murder and I’m trying to find out what she knew that pisses so many people off.”

We exchanged e-mails and said our good-byes. It was time for me to go buy flowers and pick up Gracie at work.

I’d need her car again tomorrow: I needed to visit Sharon Hansen. Until I had a picture of Rochelle/Rachel, Mommy Dearest was the next best source I had. I needed to lean on her and lean on her hard.

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 16

Chapter 16

 

By Sunday afternoon, I was out of the hospital. Gracie drove me back to the office before heading home and we stood together on the sidewalk, just in time to watch seven years of my life get chucked out the window of my office and into a Dumpster.

Thankfully, the damage was limited to my office and the upstairs hallway—nothing in Grundy’s jewelry store or the two offices on either side of mine. The excellent work of firefighters, though, wouldn’t convince Grundy to let me to be his tenant ever again.

Me, I didn’t look much better than what remained of my office. I had burn cream on my cheeks to stop the pain and my bandaged legs stuck out from beneath the cut off shorts Gracie brought me to wear home from the hospital. She brought a pair of flip-flops to cover my bandaged feet.

Barnes was at the scene, working with the fire investigators. He leaned out the window and waved.

“Fitz, I found something you’re probably looking for,” he called. His big, flat feet clattered down the stairs to the street. At the doorway, he tossed my cell phone to me.

“Hey, asshole, my fucking hands are burned. I can’t—ouch!” I managed to grab my iPhone with my bandaged paws before it hit the ground. I handed it to Gracie. Barnes smirked as I shook the pain away.

“I don’t know how it happened, but that sumbitch survived without burning. Damnedest thing,” he said. “Found it under a file cabinet.”

“Does it work?” Gracie pushed the power button.

“Oh yes. I already checked it —and all the calls you’ve made in the last few days,” Barnes grinned. “Don’t worry, you’re in the clear. We don’t think you had anything to do with this—or Rivera’s killing.”

He stepped out of the way as four firefighters, each holding the corner of a blue tarp, came down the office stairs. They spread the tarp on the sidewalk and waved me over to I could see if there was anything worth saving.

Gracie and I slipped inside the ring of crime scene tape and crouched next to the pile. I found the cuff links I’d worn Saturday night and what was left of the black cummerbund, along with my coffee mug. The plastic exterior of the coffee maker was melted, exposing the metal innards and the pot was broken. My leather ankle holster still held my Kahr 9, but there wasn’t much left of either. I couldn’t recognize anything else, even what was left of our wedding portrait, which had sat on my desk.

“Niccolo, look what I found…” Gracie pulled at something beneath a stack of burned magazines. It was my KSU football hoodie—or what was left of it. Black soot coated what was left of one sleeve; flames had crept up the back and side, eating away the lettering across the back—and with its destruction, my youth.

I rocked back on my heels and hung my head, but didn’t say anything.

“That hoodie was way past its prime,” she said gently. “Let it go.”

The fire crew brought down a filing cabinet; it was covered in ash, but intact. I stood and traced my initials in the black ash. Nearly everything in the office was gone. My Expedition had been parked at the sidewalk during the fire. The paint across the hood bubbled but that was the only damage. Thank God for that—I’d left my camera and video surveillance equipment in there.

“Looks like some of your files survived,” Barnes said.

“Yeah,” I said, opening and closing a drawer, just to see if it worked.

“Nothing in there has the name Atwater on it,” Barnes said.

“No, those files were all spread out on my desk.”

“They’re gone then.” Barnes grimaced. “All the evidence of who did has burned up too.”

The wounds on my legs began to hurt. I slipped under the crime scene tape and hobbled slowly back to Gracie’s Volvo. I sat down in the passenger seat, motioning for Barnes to follow me.

“About what you were saying about the chief being behind this…” I began. “You weren’t serious, were you?”

Barnes shrugged. “We have to look at everything. But I’m not going to be the asshole that claims the chief of police had a private dick’s office firebombed, just because I can. We’ve got to have something that could lead us in that direction. That would require bringing in state investigators, since we aren’t big enough to have an internal affairs department. Shit, that would end anybody’s career—his if it’s true and mine if it’s not. I’m too damned close to getting my pension, Fitz.”

“I haven’t talked to Nathan Monroe since I retired from the FPD seven years ago. Every time Maris Monroe approaches me, I tell her to pound sand.” We haven’t spoken since he shoved a gun in my face and threatened to kill me, at any rate.

“Yeah, and she’s pounded just about everybody on the force.” Barnes leaned one of his bony arms on the Volvo’s roof. “I suppose you’re right there. If he firebombed every one of those guys, this town would be leveled.”

“Honestly, I don’t think he’s involved, Barnes. I don’t know who it could be, though.” He didn’t need to know I thought it was someone connected with the Atwater murder. But who?

“If we find something about the credible to lead us down that path, we’re obligated to follow it. You know that,” Barnes said.

“I know. I just don’t think you will.”

Gracie joined us. The three of us watched as another load of debris—the burned up couch and what was left of my desk—sailed through the window and into the Dumpster. Everything I worked for, even the best memories of my short-lived college career, were gone.

“Do you need anything more from Niccolo, Detective? I’ve got to get him home.”

“No, I guess not. Just don’t leave town.”

I gestured toward my legs and feet with my bandaged hands. “Do I look like I could get very far?”

*****

I had Gracie take my equipment from the Expedition and put it in the Volvo. We found a clean tarp and had the firefighters lift the file cabinet into the Volvo as well.

I decided to leave the Expedition sitting in front of the burned out office for now—no sense in parking my truck in front of her house and putting her in danger. I’ll call Ambrosi on Monday and see if I can work out of his office for a few weeks. I can leave the Expedition parked at his office after it’s repaired.

She slammed the Volvo’s hatch closed and slid into the driver’s seat. I reached over to put my hand on her leg. She patted my arm and then moved my hand back to my lap.

“I meant what I said Niccolo,” she said gently. “I want you back home because you haven’t got anyplace else to go—that doesn’t mean we’re back on track.”

I let my head fall back against the back of my seat. “I can’t convince you, can I?”

The Volvo slid into the downtown traffic. Gracie didn’t speak for a few blocks, until we were out of the downtown and closer to the polished neighborhood around the college where her house stood.

“When we started dating, a lot of people told me that I was getting in over my head. I knew you had a reputation with the ladies and frankly, weren’t one to keep your pecker in your pants,” she said. “I was warned by everyone—the cops you’d worked with, even your mother—not to marry you.”

“I know.”

“But I married you any way. I’ve spent the last six years knowing what you’ve done and knowing those angry women you work with want to sleep with you to pay their husbands back. I spend six years wondering if you crossed that line.”

“I never did, Gracie, I never did.”

We pulled up the driveway. She stopped the car. “When I saw Judy Demyan on your lap, all those warnings, all those little niggling voices in the back of my head—they came back.”

“We had six good years, Gracie. You were the only one all through those six years and you still are the only one. Don’t let this—us—go down the crapper.”

I couldn’t say anything else. Silently, we entered the house and Gracie led me to the guest room.

“There you go,” she said. “I’m going to go ask the neighbor if he can help get that filing cabinet out of the back of the car.”

I waited until I heard the front door slam before I looked around.

She’d moved what was left of my clothing into the closet and set the laptop up on the desk there. I’d be sleeping on an antique four-poster bed we’d found during a weekend antiquing safari. I knew the mattress wasn’t the best, but it had to be better than the last thirty days on the office couch.

The matching dresser had an antique doily on top, anchored by a pastel-colored porcelain figurine of a woman playing a cello and a framed, autographed picture of Yo-Yo Ma. The top three drawers were empty. I opened the bottom drawer and found our wedding picture—the one Ma took of Gracie and I standing in front of a beaming judge—laying face down on a stack of blankets.

Clutching the photo, I sank down on the bed and sighed. My copy of the picture was destroyed in the fire. Would my marriage go up in smoke, like that photo or would it live, like this one? I sat the picture on the nightstand by my bed.

I had to come up with a way to convince her to stay.

*****

Soon after, the pain pills kicked in, sending me into a deep slumber. I awoke several hours later to the smell of marinara sauce as only Ma could fix it. Rubbing my eyes as well as my bandages would allow, I followed the aroma downstairs and into the kitchen.

“There he is!” Ma threw her birdlike hands into the air and shuffled toward me in her orthopedic shoes.

“No hugs—don’t touch the face,” I said, leaning over to kiss her.

“So Gracie called me last night to tell me what happened. I wanted to come visit you in the hospital this morning, but they let you go before I could get there,” Ma said, returning to the stove and taking a wooden spoon from Gracie. “Niccolo, you aren’t a cop any more. This business of yours, it’s too dangerous and you’re too old to be running around with a gun. Why don’t you go back to school, get a business degree? I’m sure you could get a nice safe job where you sit behind a desk and don’t get shot at.”

Gracie covered her mouth with her hand to suppress a smile. The thought of me doing anything other than being a PI was as likely as me learning to speak Chinese.

“Ma, would Dad have ever done anything else other than be a cop?”

“Gracie, stir the penne for me, please. Niccolo, you don’t know the times I asked him to quit the force. Every time your father went to work, I never knew if he would come home to me. Like that time Aidan nearly got his brains beat out, responding to a bar fight at Gino’s Bar and Grill. It took him and three other officers to stop that fight.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Of course not! You weren’t born yet! There I was, three children under five and pregnant with my fourth—that was you, Niccolo—and I’d just lost my father, who you were named for, and my Aidan, he’s in the emergency room, his head looking like the sauce in that pot. Terrible. It was terrible, Gracie. My Aidan, God rest his soul, had headaches for days, I tell you, days.

I shook my head. There were a few rough days my dad’s career, but like most small town cops, he may have pulled his weapon a couple times, but he never fired it. I wish I could have said the same thing. The meth and the heroin that infested the streets had changed the face of police work and police response in Fawcettville. I’d pulled my service revolver more than once—and the one time in twenty years I fired, I didn’t miss. Most nights, it didn’t bother me; some nights I sat up in bed covered in cold sweat, once again believing I was cornered with no way out.

“Anyway, I’m glad to see you are back home, Niccolo, back where you belong,” she finished. I looked over at my wife, who made a locking motion at her lips. “Now Gracie, set the table and we’ll have dinner. The salad is in the fridge.”

Chunks of salsiccia fresca, the fresh sweet Italian sausage that Ma bought at the lone butcher shop at the edge of town, rested along with the marinara on the bed of penne pasta in a bowl at the center of the table. Gracie opened a bottle of wine and brought it to the table. Rather than pass the steaming bowl, we served ourselves. Seated between Gracie and me, Ma handed around a bowl of shredded Parmesan, followed by the salad.

It could have been any Sunday afternoon in New Tivoli during my childhood.

Back then, Dad sat at the head of the table as we enjoyed our lunch following Mass. We were rowdy and loud except for the few moments Ma shushed us so Dad could say the blessing. If he wasn’t working, he got to sit in front of the new color TV set and watch the Steelers or the Pirates play, one or more of us kids lounging against and around him. Most Sundays, though, he shed his Sunday suit and, in his uniform pants and white tee shirt, ate his pasta, and drank copious amounts of black coffee instead of wine. After he ate, with his uniform shirt sharply ironed and his service revolver around his waist, he headed off for his twelve-hour shift.

After he retired, he could watch every game he wanted following Ma’s enormous pasta meal. By then, his lap was filled with grandchildren; my brothers, none of them cops, could sit and watch with him. I was the one, this time, dashing in from my own Sunday shift and hanging my uniform shirt on the doorknob to enjoy Ma’s pasta.

Now, Dad was gone, and each of my sisters and brothers had their own families with their own Sunday dinners. They took turns taking Ma home from Mass with them for their tables full of steaming pasta—we all did, Gracie and me included.

Today’s meal was like one of those sweet Sundays all over again. Gracie thought that too—I could see it in her face. She loved those Sundays as much as I did. She often helped Ma clean up the kitchen (Ma insisted on washing the dishes, no matter at whose house we ate) and we could all hear Gracie’s deep throaty laugh all the way out into the living room. My sisters loved her, too. More than once someone leaned over my shoulder to hand me another beer and whispered, “You got lucky with this one, Nick. You need to hang on to her.”

When I began sleeping in my office, with no place to fix a meal, I begged off my slot in the rotation. Now here I was, back in the batting order and knew if I didn’t hit it out of the park this time, I would once again be the irresponsible brother.

I lifted my glass of dago red with a bandaged hand. Gracie and Ma followed suit.

“A toast,” I said. “To my favorite girls. I’m so very lucky to have you both. I hope you feel the same way. Salud!

Salud! Now shut up, Niccolo,” Ma said. “Eat your pasta before it gets cold.”

“Yeah, Niccolo,” Gracie echoed, her eyes misting. “Shut up.”

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 15

Chapter 15

 

Barnes was at the hospital by the time my ambulance arrived at the ER.

“What did I tell you, Fitz?” he asked as they unloaded me from the back of the truck. “Somebody’s after your ass and they’re serious about it.”

I shrugged from behind my oxygen mask, clutching my laptop to my chest. There was too much on it to turn it over to the cops—or the prosecutor’s office—provided it survived the fire.

Barnes followed my gurney into the ER, flashing his badge at the medical staff there.

Between gulps of oxygen and the attention of the medical staff to my burned face, arms and feet, I told Barnes what happened. Since I was asleep when the first Molotov hit, I had no description of any suspects. He nodded continuously as he took notes.

“That pretty much squares with what the fire department found: two incendiary devices, most likely glass bottles filled with gasoline and rags. One came through the front door; the other came through the window,” he said, shoving his notebook into his back pocket. “The question is why? What are you working on, Fitz? I can’t imagine any wayward husbands being this pissed at being caught. Is it on that laptop? You’re hanging on to it pretty damned tightly.”

“Yeah. Most of my office files are on there, including the Atwater case. I grabbed it before I went through the window.”

Barnes smirked. “Atwater’s an open and shut case. I’m sure what you’ve dug up out squares with what we found at his arrest. What’s the phrase—‘billable hours’? If you don’t find anything else, you’ll get a pile of cash from that.”

I shrugged. “If I found something else, which I haven’t, we’d turn it over to you.” That much was true. But why was someone trying to hard to keep me from doing that? Clearly there was something someone wanted to hide.

“Well, Ambrosi’s got to make it look like he’s at least trying to get the kid off, I suppose. I’ve never known a more half-assed lawyer in my whole life.” Barnes shook his head. “Between you and me and these lovely ladies—” Barnes nodded at the nurses around me. “I think you know who’s behind this.”

I started to answer, but began to cough again. Go ahead and think the chief still wants my ass. This is more than a cuckolded husband going for the most obvious target.  

The curtain surrounding my bed whipped open. It was Gracie, still in her black sequined gown and clutching her white shawl and purse, her eyes wide with concern.

“Niccolo! What happened? Are you OK?” She ran to my bedside, clasping my one free hand.

I coughed as I nodded. “I’m going to be OK.”

“Listen, it looks like I’ve got everything I need here,” Barnes said. “I’ll leave you two alone. Fitz, I’ll call you if I need anything else. That includes that laptop.” The nurses also stepped out.

As soon as we were alone, Gracie dropped her shawl and clutch on the bed and clasped my burned cheeks to kiss my forehead.

I gasped in pain.

“Oh baby, I’m sorry!” She dropped her hands, but her soft lips kept contact with my skin.

“How did you know I was here?” I tried to speak through the mask, but started coughing again. She sat up and began to run her long fingers through my smoky hair.

“When the alarm went off, the security company called the guy who owns the jewelry store downstairs—Mr. Grundy. He called the house to tell you about the fire,” she said. Her tone became soft, contrite. “I didn’t tell him you’d been sleeping there.”

I sank back into the pillows and sighed. “I don’t know where I’m going to go, Gracie. I don’t know if I have anything left. All my files, all my papers—they’re probably gone. Anything I have left is on this laptop.”

Gracie laid her forehead on my shoulder, tears wetting the shoulder of my hospital gown. I caressed her soft dark hair, drinking in her perfume. Thank you, oh God, thank you, I thought, closing my eyes.

“I was so upset when I heard the building was on fire,” she whispered into my shoulder. “I went right over there. I got there just after they put you in the ambulance, so I came right over here.”

“It’s OK. So you were already back at home? What about you and Van Hoven? Did your performance go OK?”

She raised her head and looked me in the eye, smiling. “Van Hoven is a dog—and yes, I have to say my performance tonight was stellar. I think we raised a lot of money tonight.”

“Glad it went well —and you saw through him.”

She sat up and kissed me again, soft and lingering.

“This doesn’t mean you’re home free, Niccolo. We still have a long way to go. But come home, Niccolo. I want you to come home.”

A nurse, her stethoscope hanging from her neck, came back to my bedside.

“Oh, he won’t be coming home tonight. We’re going to keep him overnight, to make sure he gets all the stuff out of his lungs. We also need to run some more tests and those can’t be done until tomorrow, maybe Monday.”

I handed the laptop to Gracie. Another paroxysm of coughing overtook me. “Take this with you. I couldn’t keep it here anyway. Don’t let anyone see it, don’t let anyone take it,” I managed to gasp.

“I will.”

“And ma’am?” The nurse handed her a plastic bag of my clothing. “Please take this home as well. Hospital policy prohibits firearms in patient rooms.”

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.