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.”
“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.