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.
“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.”
“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. 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.