Call Fitz—Chapter 22

Don’t let it be Gracie. Don’t let it be Gracie.
The roads back to Fawcettville were dark and mercifully empty as I pushed the accelerator to the floor on my way back to town. Gracie and I had been together too long and our path to reconciliation probably still had some bumps to come. It just couldn’t come to an end now, simply because of this case.
I would kill Jacob Poole with my bare hands if he did anything, anything to my wife.
Police cruisers surrounded the house as I slammed the Excursion into park and jumped from the car. The EMTs were loading a gurney into the back of the ambulance as I ran toward it. The patient was wrapped in white blankets and surrounded by police—I couldn’t see who it was.
“Hey! Wait!”
A police officer—some kid I didn’t recognize, much less look old enough to be issued a service revolver—stopped me from coming closer.
“I’m sorry, sir, but—”
“Is that my wife? Tell me that’s not my wife!” I grabbed the young cop by the shoulders.
“Calm down, calm down. Your wife is Grace Darcy?”
“Is she OK? Is that her?” I pointed at the ambulance. One of the surrounding cops latched the back doors closed and pounded on the door, a signal for the driver to turn on the lights and sirens and scream down the street toward medical care. The cop turned me away the house and toward one of the cruisers.
God, don’t let her be dead. Don’t let her be dead.
He opened a rear door and indicated I should sit down. I’d spent twenty years on one side of these situations, calming family members in crisis. Now, I was the one sitting in the back of the cruiser, waiting for news that would either make everything OK or ruin my whole life.
It couldn’t end this way. I finally had the woman of my dreams and my life was beginning to come around to the way it should be. I couldn’t lose Gracie, not now, not this way. If I did, Jacob Poole would suffer excruciatingly for anything he did to her.
The cop spoke into the microphone on his shoulder and turned back to me.
“She’s in the house, talking with a detective. I don’t know if she suffered any injuries, but if she did, they’re minor. I let them know you’re—”
“She’s injured? My wife is injured?” I pushed my way out of the cruiser, past the cop and into the house.
Eyes red from crying, she sat at the kitchen table, clutching her hands together nervously, talking to Det. Paul Schaffer. Schaffer had been a sergeant when I left the force. He was a good man, thorough, and less of a burnout than Barnes. Like Barnes, he was tall and skinny, like there was some sort of caloric restriction that came with the job. Like Brewster, he’d kept himself as far as possible from the drama of Maris Monroe.
A pink-handled .22 Lady Smith and Wesson sat in the middle of the table; in one corner, small amounts of Poole’s blood spattered around the lower kitchen cabinets and onto the floor. There was a bit of blood spatter on Gracie’s jeans.
Thank God, she was just fine. Gracie was OK.
“Oh God, Nicco!” She rushed into my arms.
“It’s OK, baby. It’s OK,” I whispered into her hair as I clasped her tightly. “I’m here. It’s over.” I took her face in my hands to check for injuries. Seeing, none, I kissed her forehead and tried to smooth her hair.
“He came through the kitchen window and set off the alarm,” Gracie, normally brassy and tough, shook as she spoke. “I was in the living room watching TV still. I jumped up when I heard him—”
“Where was the gun?”
“In between the seat cushion and the arm of the couch. I usually keep it in the drawer by my side of the bed, but after you left, I had a bad feeling, so I got up and stuffed it down where I could get it. He came at me, I screamed, I pulled out the gun…” She struggled to keep tears from rolling down her cheeks. “And I shot him.”
“You did the right thing. You’re OK—that’s the most important thing.” I pulled her closer.
“Hello, Fitz.” Schaffer reached out to shake my hand. “We tried to get her to go to the hospital, just to get checked out, but she refused. She wouldn’t go until you got here. She’s a damned good shot, by the way. Got him in the thigh. May have hit something big, from all the blood. She had him cornered here in the kitchen by the time we got here.”
“After I shot him once, he tried to get up and attack me. I put one in the wall to show him I was serious.”
“I’m sure he quieted down after that,” Schaffer grinned.
“How long have you had that gun?” I pointed at the pistol.
“I bought that damned thing the day after you moved out. I didn’t want to believe what you told me, that somebody might try to come after you.” Gracie looked over her shoulder at the blood on the floor and shuddered. “I don’t ever want to see it again.”
“There’s three bullets missing,” Schaffer said. “One was recovered from the wall. I’m sure the other two are in our suspect.”
“Damn girl,” I said. “Remind me to never piss you off.”
“You already know better than to piss me off, Niccolo.” She smiled at me as wrapped her arms around me and laced her fingers together at my side. “Just get me out of here tonight.”

*****

Early Thursday afternoon, I sat beside Alicia Linnerman at the police station, watching via computer, as Poole, his calf wrapped in bandages and one arm resting on his crutches, sat stone faced in front of Barnes. Numbers in the screen’s lower corner ticked off rapidly as the conversation, or lack of it, was recorded.
“How’s your wife, Fitz?” Alicia stared at the computer.
“She’s really shook up, but she’s going to be OK.”
Alicia pointed to the computer screen. “Why do you think Poole targeted you?”
“We’d figured out the photo on his cell phone—the one that was supposedly taken at his daughter’s birthday party the day Gina was killed—was falsely or incorrectly dated. I don’t know whether Ambrosi turned that information over to you or if he was obligated to, so don’t bitch at me. If he has to, I’m sure he will,” I said. “I’m assuming Poole had no idea about Rachel’s confession—he just knew his alibi for killing Gina was now officially shot in the ass and he wanted to do whatever it took to get me off the case.”
“That makes sense.”
“What about Dennis Lance?”
Alicia sighed. “He’s off the hook with Gina’s murder, of course—he had no idea Gina was coming to the house. Professionally, he’s pretty damaged. He’s calling off the run for judge and he’s taking a leave of absence from the prosecutor’s office. I’ve been appointed interim prosecutor until he decides what he’s going to do next.”
“Congratulations. Do you think you’ll run for his job?”
Alicia grimaced. “I don’t want to think about running for his office right now. His term wasn’t up for another year, so I’ve got a while to make my decision. I really liked Dennis. I respected him. I’m just amazed at how Rachel was able to pull the whole thing off.”
“And speaking of Rachel, what’s going on with her?”
“She had a hearing this morning. The judge ordered her held without bond, so she’ll be sitting in jail for a while. We’re confident the charges we brought against her will stand. We’re also contacting Summit County about possible manslaughter charges in her father’s suicide.”
So the enigma that was Rachel would finally be exposed. She was an unanswerable question, a delicious unattainable goddess to anyone who saw her, even her husband who got drawn in to her mystery. But she held secrets that would have destroyed both her marriage and their future. Those secrets were all reopened with the discovery of her sister Gina. As much as Rachel may have claimed she wanted to help, it was pretty clear her motives were not entirely altruistic. Gina needed to be out of town and out of Dennis Lance’s line of sight to assure his wife could keep her secrets and his career could advance.
I still had a couple questions, though.
“So tell me, what was the connection between Jorge Rivera and Reno Elliot?”
“We think the connection began with Jacob and Reno, probably through the heroin trafficking—we’ve got investigators on that right now. We think Reno intimidated Gina to keep her quiet, but couldn’t report directly back to Jacob without tipping off the chief, so went through Jorge.”
“Did you figure out where Poole killed Gina?”
“We have an idea. Poole left the Lance house with Gina in Rivera’s pick up truck. We didn’t have Rivera in our radar for obvious reasons, but after Rachel spilled her guts, police began a search for his truck last night and found it abandoned in a ditch outside of town. There’s blood in the truck bed we believe is Gina’s, along with a tarp Poole wrapped her in. Somehow Poole managed to get the body back behind stage in the dark. There were a lot of service vehicles parked behind the stage Sunday and it was dark. It’s possible no one saw him bring her in. She was very tiny. Wrapped in a tarp no one would have known what was going on.”
“But why put her back at the festival?”
Alicia shrugged. “We’re not sure. The only thing we can think is that he knew she’d argued with Mike Atwater and he was trying to pin her death on him.”
I shook my head. Poor, poor Gina: in her efforts to stand up for her wrongly accused father, she’d been completely destroyed by the people who should have helped her, her sister and her mother. She wasn’t a world-class manipulator like them, and the men in her life played her more than she played them, even ignorant Mike Atwater. Maybe if she’d taken Rachel up on her offer for rehab, she would have had at least one chance in life. What held her back? The possibility of losing her children? Maybe she thought, too, she was protecting them by putting locks on the outside of their bedroom doors, so they wouldn’t see Jacob Poole and his cohorts cutting up the heroin in her living room.
I was silent for a moment before asking my next question.
“Then who shot Rivera?”
Alicia pointed at Jacob on the computer monitor. “This guy. He hasn’t given Barnes anything—he’s going to lawyer up any second now. But we can string enough of a case together to charge him with Jorge’s murder, along with Gina’s. He’ll also face intimidation charges, along with trafficking, not to mention breaking and entering charges for what happened at your place.”
“Any ideas on who set my place on fire?”
“Not yet.”
We watched the computer monitor in silence for a few moments. The conversation between officer and suspect soon stalled, as Alicia predicted.
“I want to talk to my lawyer,” Poole said, his voice distorted electronically. Barnes stood up and left the interrogation room. Momentarily, he was leaning against the doorframe where Alicia and I sat, case file in hand.
“You saw him lawyer up, counselor?”
“Yes, sir, I did.” Alicia turned the monitor off. “Go ahead and charge him, and read him his rights. We’ve got other things to do.”
“Before we go, I have to tell you, Fitz, you did a good job,” he said. “See you in court this afternoon, counselor?”
I looked at Alicia, who nodded.
“We’re dropping charges against Michael Atwater.”

*****

“Who the fuck turned this into a goddamned Chamber of Commerce event?”
“Niccolo, shut the hell up!” My sister Chrissy smacked the back of my head as she passed by me, one arm clutching a basket with a huge casserole dish of ravioli inside. “It’s Sunday and priest from St. Rita’s is in the corner, talking to Ma! Jesus Christ!”
She walked toward the back of my new building, where two rows of folding tables covered with rented linens stood next to as many chairs as could be begged, borrowed or stolen from friends, family or places of worship. A third row of tables was groaning with food ranging from Ma’s spaghetti and marinara, to salads, cakes, cannolis, and slow cookers filled with whatever ilk fed the masses at church socials and PTA suppers, cooked by my brothers’ wives. Two punchbowls sat at the end of one of the tables.
The youngest of my nieces and nephews ran rampant through the office, behaving as only the Fitzhugh clan does: at decibels that strained the eardrums and at speeds up to one hundred miles an hour. The older ones were still away at college and couldn’t be here, the lucky bastards; the preteens were sulking someplace, I assumed, passing time with their video games and simmering hormones.
The other adult male Fitzhughs—both those born into the clan and those who married into it—hung around two huge coolers of beers, talking baseball as my sisters and sisters-in-law fiddled around the food tables.
“Jesus, kids—Uncle Nicco needs some silence!” I called out. “Is it too early to teach you guys how to drink and smoke so you’ll have something quiet to do in a corner?”
Gracie stopped adjusting my tie and pressed a finger against my mouth. “Sssshhh, Niccolo,” she whispered. “Your mother bought your membership in the Chamber this year. They thought a ribbon cutting would be a great way to say you were back in business.”
It was three weeks later and I was, indeed, back in business. I’d found a former downtown bank building down the street from Ambrosi’s office that was small enough for me to afford and in good enough shape to only require a couple coats of paint to make it respectable. “Fitzhugh Investigations” arched in gold lettering across the front window and fortunately for me, the original vault still stood—and locked—in the back. At night, I could store my customer files, my laptop and anything else of value where no errant bottle of flaming liquid could destroy all my work.
There were three rooms: my glassed-in office, a wide lobby I would use as a waiting room and, along the back in front of the vault, what had been the teller counter, today lined with cards from well-wishers. On a weekend foray up north into Amish country, Gracie found an executive desk, a nice leather chair for my office and overstuffed couch and chairs for the waiting room.
Well-wishers, many of them cops I worked with and courthouse staff, walked in and out, filling their plates with food.
“We need to go say thank you to everyone who came by to see you,” Gracie said, dusting off the shoulders of my suit jacket. “And mind your mouth.”
In the next thirty minutes, I did as my lovely bride said, shaking every one’s hand and thanking them for coming. For the first time in a long time, life was good. Gracie and I continued to be happy and once again, we’d taken our place in the Fitzhugh Sunday pasta dinner rotation.
Thanks to Mike Atwater’s case, the work was pouring in: On Monday, when I officially opened, I had a full calendar for the entire week. Not just cases where I was rousting spouses from beds they weren’t supposed to be in, but a fairly decent number of attorneys wanting me to investigate insurance claims or do defense work.
Yes, life was good.
“Niccolo!” Ma, leaning on the priest’s arm, waved me toward the front door. “It’s time to take your picture!”
Dutifully, the family filed outside for the ribbon-cutting photo. When it appeared in the Times the following week, the photographer caught me placing a kiss on the side of Gracie’s head as pieces of cut ribbon fluttered to the ground.
After the picture, I noticed Alicia Linnerman standing off to the side, sipping punch from a paper cup.
“Hello there,” I said, hugging her. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” she answered. “I have a little news for you too. We’re charging Jacob Poole with ordering the firebombing on your place. We arrested two members of Road Anarchy last night; they said they did it on Poole’s orders.”
“Awesome.”
“And Fitz?”
“Yeah?”
“I’m giving up on bad boys.”
“I don’t know which one of those makes me happier.” I smiled. She hugged me and, tossing the paper cup in the trash, left the office. I watched her walk down the sideway toward the courthouse.
Gracie stepped next to me and slid her hand into mine.
“Who’s that?”
“Somebody who’s done a lot of growing, just like me.”

Thanks for sticking around and reading the whole novel with me. If you enjoyed it, Holy Fitz, the next book in the Fitz series and the third book in the series, Love Fitz is available  on my website, http://www.debragaskillnovels.com. All works copyrighted.  Interested in reading another Fitz novel here? Let me know!

 

Call Fitz Chapter 21

I paid for Brewster’s coffee and pastry and headed out to the car. I had a few hours before I needed to pick up Gracie—time enough to do a little snooping.

I called Alicia Linnerman from the Volvo.

“Hello, Fitz,” she purred. “How’s every little thing? Feeling better?” She apparently had gotten over the bruises Elliot gave her and was ready to move on.

“Great. Gracie and I are back together. Hey, is your boss around?”

“Sure.” She sounded crestfallen. “I can connect you.”

“Wait! I don’t want to speak to Lance. I need his home address,” I said.

“What for?”

“Let’s say I’m seeking a moment of clarity.”

“His address is a matter of public record, Fitz. You could find it.”

“I’m in the car. Help a guy out.”

Linnerman sighed and gave me the address.

I wanted to sound like Sam Spade in ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ the way he talked to his secretary, Effie Perrine. I wanted to say “You’re a good girl, Effie,” but Alicia would have been more than offended. She probably would have sent Sadie the mastiff after my ass. Instead, I just said, “Thanks. If I need more, I’ll call you back.”

“Whatever.” She hung up.

Like everything else in this damn case, I was headed the wrong direction. I made a U-turn in the middle of the street and headed out into the country.

*****

The house was an old red brick farmhouse, with hunter green shutters and colorful pots of petunias hanging along white porch rails traveling along the front and east side of the house. It was an older home, brought back to life with a lot of restoration work: the bricks looked recently sandblasted and the roof was had to be new, or at least recent because it matched the green shutters. A brick walkway, accented with marigolds popping out of fresh dark mulch, curved a couple times on its way to the gravel driveway, which was edged with box hedges.

The bank barn behind the house showed pieces of younger, yellow wood newly nailed in place and a fresh reddish paint was creeping up the exterior walls. White vinyl fencing extended from the backside of the barn down to the road, providing a paddock for Lance’s prize horses, which grazed on uniformly level and uniformly green grass.

Renovation was still continuing, apparently. A contractor’s truck and a construction Dumpster sat in the wide graveled area between the house and the barn, next to a gooseneck horse trailer and gleaming white pick-up truck. Rachel Lance’s white Lexus was just visible behind the Dumpster.

From my vantage point at the end of the drive, I lowered my binoculars and pondered my scenario.

Had Rachel contacted her husband on her way home from her mother’s? Did he have any clue of what happened today?

As I tried to put everything together, a muscular construction worker walked out, carrying a bank of kitchen cabinets, which he tossed into the Dumpster like it was nothing. He had on a flannel shirt with the sleeves ripped off and his dirty jeans had holes in the knees. His beard was dirty blonde and scraggly, down to the middle of his beefy chest. He wore a blue construction helmet that covered the upper half of his face.

Was that a bandage around one arm? I wonder what happened? That had to be hard to work wounded, I mused. My burns weren’t yet healed, but I was feeling better. Making love to Gracie had been exquisite, of course, but it still involved some gymnastics to keep pain at bay. I can’t imagine redoing some spoiled housewife’s kitchen while injured.

I raised the binoculars to my eyes as the same construction worker returned to the Dumpster with another bank of cabinets. He stopped and folded his beefy arms, staring at the Volvo. Catching a glimpse of the tattoos across his knuckles, I dropped the binoculars and threw the car into reverse.

Had I just been recognized? It didn’t matter. I would be back soon—and when I did, I would get answers.

*****

Gracie was waiting outside the music department building, her arm draped around her cello case like a lover when I pulled into the parking lot. The cello went into the back seat before she slid into the passenger seat next to me. I handed her the box of Hungarian pastry.

“Sweets for my sweet,” I said.

“Ooh! Thanks! So how was your day?” She kissed me before I could answer. Her lips were warm and soft; I resisted the temptation to slide my hands up her skirt or into her blouse. That could wait until we got home.

“I’m getting close on the Atwater case, I think,” I finally said, putting the car into gear and pulling into traffic. “I might need to go out tonight.”

“Maybe I don’t want to know, then.” She smiled a little wryly and put her hand on my leg.

“Do we still have the security system at the house?” It was one thing I’d insisted on when I moved into Gracie’s house six years ago. Cops live with a particular paranoia; we’ve put away enough people and dealt with enough scumbags to know one day they’ll get out and they just might come looking to hurt us—or someone we love. And just because I wasn’t on the force any more didn’t mean shit: I worried even more now. I never slept without my Glock in reach and, until my Kahr burned in the fire, never went anyplace without more than one weapon just for that reason.

Gracie shot me a sidelong glance, but didn’t answer.

“Don’t tell me you cancelled it,” I said slowly.

“Of course, I didn’t cancel it,” Gracie said. “I’m damned near as paranoid as you are.”

Gracie…It’s not paranoia. It’s self preservation.” I turned the corner and pulled into the body shop parking lot. My Excursion was ready to go, its new black paint job glistening in the sun. I slipped from the driver’s seat as she walked around the Volvo.

“You don’t think I can take care of myself? That I need some man around to keep poor, little me safe and sound?” I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or funny as she snatched the Volvo keys from my hand.

“That’s not what I’m saying, not at all. These situations aren’t anything like your fencing meets. If somebody breaks into the house—”

“I’ll be fine, Niccolo. Don’t worry.”

“I hope so. I’ve got one place more I need to stop. It might be a little bit.”

“Don’t be too long.” She slipped into the Volvo and started the engine. I leaned in through the driver’s window and kissed her goodbye. A look of uncertainty crossed her face, replaced quickly by a brash smile.

“I won’t be. I’ve got all this to come home to.”

*****

After a dinner, we curled up on the couch to watch some PBS show Gracie loved. Comfortable in jeans and tee shirt, she seemed a little more at ease, snuggled against my shoulder. As the sun began to set and the TV show slogged on, I got antsy—too antsy, apparently.

“You’re not fooling anybody, Niccolo. Stop checking your damned cell phone.”

“I’m sorry.”
She sat up, folded her arms and stared at the TV. We sat in silence until my phone finally buzzed.

“You ready?” I asked my caller. “Where should I meet you? OK, give me fifteen minutes. I’ll be there. Bye.”

“So, where are you headed?” She tried to sound casual, but distrust brimmed in her dark eyes. I looked over to see a single tear slide down my wife’s cheek as she tried to stare at the television. I touched her arm.

“Gracie. Honey. Remember? You said you were going to trust me.”

She nodded. “I will Niccolo. I will.”

*****

Alicia Linnerman was waiting at the door of her apartment when I pulled up.

“Barnes is already here,” she said, closing the door behind me. I heard Sadie barking from the back bedroom. “A couple patrol officers are here, too—they’re all back in the kitchen.”

“Where’s Dennis?”

“Working late, putting his argument together for Friday’s grand jury,” Alicia said over her shoulder as I followed. “Don’t worry, one of the other prosecutors working with him is supposed to call if he leaves. Usually, a couple days before a big case, he stays at the office until at least ten at night, running through the evidence. I’ve seen him do it enough times in the past year, so we should be fine.”

Barnes was sitting at the kitchen table, making circles of condensation on Alicia’s table with his ice tea glass. The uniformed officers leaned against the kitchen counter. The wire I was going to wear, along with the battery pack and a roll of surgical tape sat across from him on the table. I took off my jacket and began to unbutton my shirt.

“You know, I wouldn’t have believed all this a week ago until you called me this afternoon, Fitz,” he said.

“Until he called me, I wouldn’t have either, “ Alicia said. “There are just too many connections to Gina Cantolini to not look into them. I hate to think that my boss is involved in any of this.”

Silence hung over the apartment kitchen as the patrol officers went to work, taping the wire to my chest.

If my theory was right, Michael Atwater might walk free but Rachel Lance—and possibly the prosecutor himself—could be facing murder charges. Things were fucked up enough in F-Town and I was about to make them worse.

And what if I was wrong? Gracie would be sorry she bowed out of the Berklee job hunt because we couldn’t live in Fawcettville any longer.

As soon as they were done, I put my shirt back on.

Alicia signaled toward her front door. “Lets do this.”

She grabbed my arm as everybody filed out to the sidewalk.

“Fitz, wait a minute,” she said. “I need to tell you something.” She tipped her face up toward mine.

“What?”

“Dr. Darcy is a very lucky woman.”

I smiled at her. “And I’m a very lucky man.”

“Yeah, you are.” Alicia was silent for a moment. “We could have been something, Fitz. We really could have.” She patted me on the arm.

“There might have been a time when I thought the same thing, but not now. I got a second chance Alicia. I can’t let that go.”

“I know. You be careful out there. I don’t want to be the reason you don’t come home to her.”

*****

Barnes and the two uniforms parked in the surveillance van at the end of the driveway, along the side of the road. A sheriff’s cruiser would be in the area if this whole thing went south. I parked behind them and leaned in the window to talk to Barnes, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

“You think I did a shitty job investigating this, don’t you Fitz?”

“No, I don’t. All the evidence pointed to Mike Atwater.”

“We’ll be listening. When you get what we need, we’ll move in.”

“And if I don’t?”

Barnes shrugged. “We’re fucked and Mike Atwater gets indicted Friday.”

The kitchen light at Lance’s farmhouse shone onto the gravel beside the house as I pulled up. Rachel Lance peeked out the side window.

Her mouth fell open when I stepped from the Excursion, and she flipped the curtains closed.

I pounded on the kitchen door. “Open the door, Rachel,” I called out. “My name is Niccolo Fitzhugh, Fitzhugh Investigations. I know you’re Gina Cantolini’s sister. I know you have information on her murder.”

The door lock clicked and she slowly opened the door a crack.

“Go away.”

“I want to know why your secret is so important you’d let an innocent man go to prison for a murder he didn’t commit.”

“I said go away. I have nothing to say to you.”

I leaned in to glare at half of the beautiful face that peeked out the door. Even wearing tee shirt and sweats, Rachel Lance still looked expensive; but without makeup, the resemblance to her dead sister was striking.

Both girls, in fact, had a striking resemblance to Sharon Hansen, the woman who started this whole downward spiral. She was directly responsible for Brian’s suicide and, by pushing her youngest daughter into a life of drugs and alcohol, indirectly responsible for Gina’s death. Too bad she would never be charged with anything—at least not in this world.

“You can live with the fact a man could be put to death for something you’re responsible for?”

“I said, I have nothing to say to you.”

I lowered my shoulder and pushed my way in the door. Rachel gasped as she staggered backwards against a contractor’s ladder in the middle of the room.

The kitchen was torn up, down to the exterior brick walls in a couple places. New walls were framed up and we stood on a wooden subfloor. There were no appliances, except for a microwave oven and a coffee pot on a folding table. A container of Chinese take-out, disposable wooden chop sticks and a dirty paper plate sat next to the microwave.

“Sit down.” I pointed to the pair of folding chairs next to the table. “I’m not paying games with you. I’m serious. You’re going to tell me every fucking thing that happened that night and you’re going to do it now.”

Rachel ran her hands through her shoulder-length hair, and took a moment to get her thoughts together. She didn’t seem like the slinky siren I’d seen Saturday at the benefit. She was anything but the unattainable goddess tonight. Tonight, she looked like someone whose painful choices kept her up too many nights in a row.

“You don’t understand—”

“I don’t, Rachel? Or is it Rochelle? Mariella? Murder makes a bigger mess than most people realize. Is that the reason you tore the kitchen up, to get rid of the bloodstains? How about I have the cops come test the contents of that Dumpster out back?”

“Stop it!” she screamed. “It wasn’t supposed to happen at all! But I didn’t do it! You have to believe me!”

“You’re also lucky the statute of limitations has run out on perjury on your little performance ten years ago.”

“You don’t know what it’s like to live with what I’ve done. I tried to make it up to Gina. I did! I gave her money, I tried to get her a job, I even tried to get her into rehab, but she wouldn’t go.”

“I imagine your meetings couldn’t have been pleasant.”

“It wasn’t bad at first, but then she started just showing up here at the house. She always wanted money or groceries or something. Jorge, my farm labor, he saw her and asked me how I knew her. That scared me. I couldn’t let her keep coming here—somebody might talk.”

“Helping your sister is OK as long as she doesn’t publically acknowledge that you’re related. I understand.” I couldn’t control my sarcasm.

“That’s not it at all. It was her boyfriend, that, that Jacob Poole guy—he was dangerous. I didn’t want him coming to the house, either.”

“So tell me what really happened.”

“I never knew when she was going to show up. It got bad—she would be drunk or high, but always agitated somehow. She wouldn’t sit still. She’d wander all over the house when she came and I had to follow her. I wanted to count the silverware after she left, you know?”

“No. I don’t.”

Rachel’s story was building momentum. She ignored my snide comments and kept going.

“Two weeks before she was killed, she came over here, scared to death. She told me Poole was bringing heroin into town, that he was cutting in up for sale at her house and she was scared she’d lose her kids. She’s put locks on the outside of their bedroom doors so they wouldn’t just happen to come downstairs after she put them to bed. I told her that she needed to go to the police with that garbage. What if the house caught on fire? ‘Oh, the police won’t help me—they’re as crooked as everyone else in this town,’ she said. ‘I got one cop comes to the house, wanting sex and shit. When I don’t give it to him, he beats me.’”

“Officer Reno Elliot?”

“She never said who it was. I just know between Jacob, her addiction and the cop she felt trapped, with no way out. She had another boyfriend—”

“My client, Michael Atwater.”

“Yes. She would talk about him, sometimes. He kept trying to get her away from Jacob Poole, but I think she knew he wouldn’t be much better. She kept him hanging on, though. She had him convinced her two boys were his, then Jacob Poole’s family demanded a paternity test and things got out of control.”

I thought about the picture of all the red-haired Atwater men Susan had shown me. Innocent as he may be, Michael Atwater was still one dumb shit.

“So what happened the day she was killed?”

“It was late afternoon—Dennis was working at the festival, Jorge was in the barn and I was here by myself when Gina came over here. She was angry and high, waving this pistol around. She’d argued with Michael over the DNA thing. Jacob told her he thought he had informants in the motorcycle club, and she accused me of telling Dennis about the heroin operation.”

Rachel stopped for a moment and clasped her hands over her mouth. She was shaking.

“Let me finish the story for you. She’d heard your husband was going to run for judge and, since she thought you’d exposed the heroin operation, threatened to tell the world what particularly disgusting kind of perjury her dear, darling older sister once committed in a court of law.”

Rachel’s denials filled the room, but I ignored her. I was too angry, angry that Rachel’s efforts to help Gina came not from sisterly concern or an effort to reconcile what she had done, but to keep the lies and the secrecy going.

“I’ll bet the gun Gina brought with her was a .38, the same gun registered to my client. You two argued, then got into a fight, didn’t you? You choked her, but she was stronger that you thought. People get strong when someone is trying to kill them, don’t they Rachel? They’re even stronger when they’re high on something. Gina pointed the gun at you, didn’t she?”

The denials stopped.

“I’m on to something, aren’t I? She turned the gun on you, and you managed to get it pointed back at her, didn’t you?”

“No!”

“Don’t bullshit me. You struggled, you turned the gun toward her and it went off. You killed your sister, Mariella Cantolini—you killed her because she was going to expose you and you couldn’t take that, could you?”

“OK, we struggled, but I never put my hands on her neck. That was Jacob. Jorge saw her pull up and called him to say she was here. They both burst in here and Jorge held me back while Jacob grabbed Gina by the neck and beat her head against the cabinets until she drops the gun. Oh, God, it was awful!” Rachel began to sob.

“What happened next?”

“She was unconscious when he dragged her out of here—he took the gun with him, too. There was blood everywhere! I didn’t know until the next day he’d shot her.”

“You didn’t think to call the police? You didn’t think he was going to kill her?”

“I-I couldn’t! I was so scared!”

“So scared you decided to suddenly remodel the kitchen?”

“No!” Rachel sobbed, but I wasn’t finished.

“So who hired Rivera to chase me off the case?”

“I did,” she said, through her tears. “Rivera was as frightened as I was about Gina’s murder. I told him we both could face charges if the truth came out. Dennis told me you were investigating the case and I told Rivera he had to do anything he could to scare you off. Dennis said Ambrosi was a burnout and you were a loser as a cop. I figured it wouldn’t be hard.” For a moment, arrogance flitted across her face.

“You figured wrong.” I could barely contain my anger. “Thanks to you, two people are dead, my office was destroyed and I got to spend the night in the hospital. All because your sister threatened to expose you and ruin everything you’ve worked so hard to hide. OK boys, I think we’ve got everything we need.”

“You’re wearing a wire? This has been recorded? Oh my God! My life is ruined!” She burst into tears as Barnes and the two uniforms came through the door.

I watched as Barnes handcuffed and Mirandized a hollow-eyed Rachel.

She would face tampering charges, obstruction of justice and possibly even accessory to murder charges, all to cover a lie told in a parent’s nasty divorce long ago.

Barnes put his hand on her head as she slid into the back of the sheriff’s cruiser.

“One more question, Rachel.” I leaned into cruiser. “Dennis doesn’t know you were born a Cantolini, does he?”

She shook her head. “No. I never told him.”

“Why not?”

“By the time I met Dennis, I’d reconciled with my mother and my stepfather adopted me, even though I was an adult. I didn’t see the need to tell him the truth at first. I wanted to hide from what I’d done.””

“And you’d done more than your share, didn’t you?”

“I was young and stupid and all I saw was black and white, OK? My dad had a girlfriend and I was devastated. I got back at him the only way I knew how.”

“What changed your attitude?”

“I fell in love with a married man.”

“Dennis Lance was married when you met him?” I could almost hear the smirk break across Barnes’ face.

She turned her head away. “Yes. The marriage was in shambles and they both knew it. They’d been separated for years, but that doesn’t mean his first wife wasn’t pissed off when she found out.”

“But she didn’t run out and accuse him of sexually abusing the kids, did she? She didn’t cost him his career or his life, did she?”

She was silent for a moment. “No.”

“That’s how civilized people do it, Rachel.”

Two cruisers screamed up the drive as we walked out to the gravel driveway, spitting gravel as they came to a stop.

Chief Monroe stepped from one of the cruisers. Everybody froze. I took a deep breath. The bastard wouldn’t shoot me now, would he? I slipped my right hand into my jacket and touched my Glock.

“You need to get home, Fitz,” Chief said. “There’s been a shooting at your house.”

“What?” I asked.

Monroe laughed, the same kind of idiot, superior laugh that made everyone dislike him.

“From what the officers on scene are telling me, your wife shot an intruder, one Jacob Poole. We’re still investigating, but as I understand it, there were several shots fired. That’s all I know right now.”

“Is she OK?”

Monroe laughed again, apparently enjoying keeping me in the dark, the prick.

I didn’t wait for his answer. I jumped into the Excursion and sped down the Lance’s driveway.

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. The third book in the series, Love Fitz is available July 15.

Call Fitz-Chapter 20

Mac Brewster texted me as I drove back from North Canton: “Meet me at Horvath’s coffee shop. Friday was my last day—I can talk now.”
It wasn’t a convenient time. No doubt Rachel Lance—or whatever the hell her name was—was racing back to her prosecutor husband, probably to tell him I broke into the house and assaulted her mother.
I’d have to deal with her later. Things were starting to fall together and I didn’t like what I was seeing.
I had no idea if Rachel/Rochelle was a first or second wife. Public folks like Dennis Lance always managed to keep their private lives hidden behind a curtain that only opened when they wanted it to be, trotting family members out at election time as little vote-getting minions. If Rachel was a second or even third wife, he’d managed something I seldom saw: A civilized divorce. There was no angry female around town who ranted and raved about what a bastard Dennis Lance was—and god knows, of all people, I would have heard it.
As I drove east on Highway 30, I began to think.
Whatever scenario I came up with, I couldn’t figure out who moved the body? How did they, if it was more than one person, dump a body in the middle of town, particularly during a festival?
Where did Jorge Rivera come into play in all this? Did Rachel hire him to scare me off? Or did Dennis? He would be the one who had inside knowledge on who was investigating the case. Could he have made an inadvertent slip during dinner conversation that started Rachel in search of an enforcer? And how was Rivera somehow tied to the police force?
If Dennis had no idea of his wife’s own questionable past, its exposure would certainly derail his campaign. Here he was, married to a woman who perjured herself ten years ago, who accused her father of sexual abuse so graphic it stunned the jurors and led directly to Brian Cantolini’s suicide. What if Dennis learned about it? What if it was Dennis Lance who killed Gina to get rid of a very uncomfortable liability?
He knew enough about the lowlifes in this town and could easily tie someone else to the murder. A police chief who was looking for every reason to keep his job might know just who to accuse, too. Someone who didn’t matter, someone who was a loser, whose life was as much of a waste as Gina Cantolini and who’s family didn’t have the money to pay for a high-powered defense lawyer… Someone like Mike Atwater.
But again, who put the body under the festival stage? Everyone would recognize Dennis Lance walking through the center of town, and knowing Lance, he couldn’t leave a burning building without shaking a potential voter’s hand first.
Hmmm. Some of it could be possible, but some of just didn’t make sense.
If Rachel killed Gina, or if Dennis Lance did it, it didn’t fit that either one of them moved the body. There had to be a third person, but whom?
I slowed the Volvo down as I came to the edge of Fawcettville. Maybe Mac Brewster could put some of these questions to rest.
*****
Brewster was sitting at the back of the coffee shop when I arrived, eating a zserbó, a confection of three layers of sweet dough, filled with raspberry jam, ground pecans, and coated in dark chocolate.
I ordered a cup of coffee along with a box of half a dozen apricot kiflis to take home to Gracie and joined Brewster.
“So how does it feel to be set free from the work-a-day world?” I asked.
Brewster smiled as he attacked his zserbó with his fork. “You ever have one of these things? Great God Almighty, they are good. I haven’t felt this relaxed in years, Fitz—years.”
“Well, I’ll tell you right now that you’ll get bored soon and you’ll be looking for something to fill your days. I did at any rate. That’s how I ended up in this business.”
“Already got a job—head of security at the college. Regular hours and decent pay and everything. I just couldn’t stay at the FPD anymore, Fitz. Just couldn’t do it.”
“Tell me everything you know about Jorge Rivera. You probably heard about my little incident.”
“Yeah, you sure manage to attract the shit, don’t you?” Brewster took a sip of his coffee. “From what I hear, the chief told that reporter off the record that Rivera was a CI, and it somehow got into the story. Monroe was pissed, called the editor and everything.”
“I heard Rivera was working with the police to provide information about Jacob Poole and that motorcycle gang he’s part of. They’re supposedly bringing heroin into town.”
Brewster shook his head. “He wasn’t working with the police. That whole thing isn’t in local hands at all. He was working with the feds.”
“The feds?”
Brewster took another bite of his pastry and nodded. “We all knew about the operation, but those CI’s were all tapped by the feds, not anyone who could be recognized here in town. He couldn’t have been very good. The last two or three buys Rivera set up fell through, from what I heard. Why?”
“Rivera was hired to shake me off the case—he told me so. After Ambrosi hires me to investigate Gina Cantolini’s death, Rivera starts following me around. The first time I visited Atwater at the jail, Rivera caught me coming out of my office and knocked me out cold. I catch him looking up at my office window with binoculars. I go to meet Jacob Poole at Lupe’s restaurant and he’s waiting for me outside. We get into it in the alley, he gets away from me and I hear a gunshot, but can’t find a body.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No, Mac! I checked at the hospital and everything. The next time Rivera takes a run at me, it’s in the parking lot at Memorial Hall, Saturday night. I get the best of him—again—and he tells me the powers that be want me off this case, but won’t give me a name. We meet at Puccini’s, he’s about to tell me who’s behind all this and the poor sumbitch gets shot in the head.”
“Then your office gets firebombed that same night? You sure manage to wade right into it, Fitz.” Brewster shook his head.
“Here’s what I want to know. Barnes seems to think that the bullet Rivera took and the firebombing was meant for me—and that it came from someone connected with the police department. Someone high up.”
“I think Detective Barnes is wrong.” Brewster was serious.
I shrugged. “I think so, too, Mac. For all the mistakes I made in the past, the last thing I’m going to do is go sniffing around Maris again. I’m happily married now, Mac. I’m not going to jeopardize that. And Monroe, well—”
“We all know the story of how Lt. Baker saved your bacon that night. Monroe knows not to go after you any more. He’s been on thin ice too long. He has no decision-making power any more, outside of signing expense reports and filling in duty rosters. The daily stuff, that’s all been shifted to the city manager. All Monroe does is to sit in his office and figure out who is wife is sleeping with now. I’ve heard the city manager has a drawer full of resumes of guys who want to be the new chief. That’s why things are so crazy. The prosecutor has been the one who’s been working with the feds on this heroin investigation.”
My ears perked up at that one. “Dennis Lance has been working with the feds?”
“Yeah. I mean, he’s not involved in daily operations, but he’s aware, you know? Why?”
“I owe you Mac. This time I really owe you.”

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. The third book in the series, Love Fitz is available July 15.

Call Fitz—Chapter 19

“You can’t just roll over and die because the cops found a weapon!”
The next morning, I kissed a sleeping Gracie goodbye and went to meet Ambrosi.
He had an office for me, as promised, along with keys to the front door. It was one of his back rooms currently empty because of a paralegal out on maternity leave. If the condition of the office was any indication, the paralegal probably took time off for the health of her unborn baby. Like the rest of Ambrosi’s offices, it was painted maize yellow, edged brown with the smoke of his cheap cigars where the walls met the ceiling. There were no windows. Low-watt bulbs gave the room a cave-like aura; I expected to see bats fly from the ceiling when I first flipped the light switch. The office also stunk from those cigars, the body odor of the losers he perpetually represented and Ambrosi himself. Clearly, I needed to find some new digs for Fitzhugh Investigations, but not until I finished this case.
Our conversation was held in Ambrosi’s large but dingy office. Thank God, it was warm enough for the window to be opened, sending his cigar smoke out the window.
“With his record, my chances of getting him off are even slimmer,” Ambrosi whined.
“You can’t argue to have prior bad acts excluded? I’m no attorney, but I’ve watched more than one perp walk because his lawyer argued the fact that he did something once before didn’t mean it could be admitted in the current case.”
“The fact that he has a long history of domestic violence with the victim will trump that,” Ambrosi said.
“What about the time stamp on Poole photo? Could that provide some reasonable doubt?”
“Basically, the picture was taken with a camera with an incorrect time and date stamp on it, then Poole took a photo of that picture with his cell phone,” Ambrosi explained. “I’ll argue it, but that won’t come up until the case comes to court. You know as well as I do, the grand jury is just there to determine whether a crime has been committed, not some mini-rehearsal of the court case. And Gina Cantolini’s body is proof a crime was committed.”
“You’re not giving up on Mike, are you?” I was getting sucked into the cult of Mike Atwater’s innocence, even as the evidence kept piling up.
Ambrosi sighed. “One of the first things I say to my clients is ‘don’t tell me if you’re innocent or guilty. Tell me who the witnesses are and I’ll tell you if you’re innocent or guilty.’ I went against my own advice here and it’s come back to haunt me.”
Ambrosi began ticking off the evidence against his client.
“There’s no evidence Jacob Poole had anything to do with the victim’s death, despite the photo. We have Mike and Gina arguing at the festival and Officer Reno Elliot breaking up the argument. My client is behind on his child support and the victim told him she wants him to submit to a DNA test because there’s a good possibility the boys he thinks are his son belong to someone else. There is the gun, which is registered to my client, and which matches the bullets found in the victim’s chest. Maybe I could bargain it down from murder one.”
“Hold on! Jorge Rivera was about to tell me that the victim had information that made a lot of people nervous. He told me the same folks who wanted me off the case because they knew the shit would hit the fan if I found out,” I countered. “Rivera was working undercover with the police to investigate the heroin Poole’s motorcycle gang allegedly brings into Fawcettville. I’ve been cold cocked, shot at and had my office blown up investigating this case. That’s too much effort being put into getting some low-level criminal convicted in the death of a drunken hooker. There’s something more here, Jim, and we can’t give up yet.”
Ambrosi shrugged. “I have my doubts, Fitz.”
“So why would somebody try to kill me, particularly twice in one night? You got any answers for that?”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t. You’ve pissed a lot of people off through the years, Fitz.”
“Now hold on! Everybody wants to blame Chief Monroe, but that shit was seven years ago. I wish the people in this town would forget things like that. I made a mistake and I had to retire from the force because of it,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong—Nathaniel Monroe is a dick and shouldn’t be chief. If he’d dump that idiot slut he’s married to, a lot of his problems would end. For all of that, I don’t think Monroe is trying to kill me.”
Ambrosi lit one of his stinking cigars and drew the smoke deep into his lungs, but didn’t speak. Was he just too spineless to say anything? Or did he know something I didn’t?
“I’m going to Akron today. I’ve got a hunch I need to follow.”
“Be careful out there, Fitz. Just be careful.”
*****
I parked Gracie’s Volvo down the block and walked back to examine Sharon Hansen’s house.
The North Canton neighborhood around the house was genteel and quietly polished. No one’s yard showed signs of a single weed; cars were uniformly expensive and clean. The streets still retained their bricks, installed during the Great Depression. Down the block, a historical marker in the grass between the sidewalk and the street marked the home of a local writer who made his name concocting novels of the Old West and the Civil War.
These houses weren’t anything like you’d find in Fawcettville, in New Tivoli or Tubman Gardens. Here, social status spread like chlamydia down the well-appointed hallways and through tasteful living rooms.
Sharon’s house, which sat on the corner of Northwest Princeton and East Yale streets, was painted white with tasteful green shutters at each window. A low, brick wall began at the sidewalk, shoring up its small, sloping front yard where daffodils bloomed along the edge. A white Lexus was parked in the driveway.
The front door faced East Yale Street and had two columns on either side. From around the corner, I could see to a sleeping porch on the second floor had brightly colored outdoor furniture. If Sharon were as ill as she claimed to be in our phone conversation, she could sit there for morning coffee and look over her immaculately groomed back yard.
I walked up the concrete steps to the front door and knocked. Inside, I heard purposeful steps on wooden floors. The lock turned and a woman opened the red front door.
No wonder Brian Cantolini felt blessed when she turned her attentions to him: Sharon Hansen was stunning. Fit and petite, her blonde hair was tastefully styled; she wore a peach colored twinset and tapered tan pants. Her face was remarkably unwrinkled, but steely, and her makeup perfect. A matching purse was on her arm, like she was ready to leave.
“May I help you?” I could see equal parts of both her and Brian in their daughter Gina’s face—and another face, one from Saturday night’s symphony benefit.
“Sharon Hansen? You look remarkably well for someone who was in a wheelchair just last week.”
“Excuse me?”
“I’m Niccolo Fitzhugh of Fitzhugh Investigations. I talked to you last week about your daughter Gina’s death. You said you weren’t able to attend her funeral because you were ill and in a wheelchair. It looks like you’ve made a complete recovery.”
Sharon tried to slam the door, but I caught it with my shoulder, muscling my way into her foyer. I grabbed her by the arm.
“Get your hands off me! You leave here right now or I’ll call the police!” she said.
“I don’t think so. I know the truth behind why your husband committed suicide. I think it’s tied to your daughter’s death and you’re going to tell me why.”
Sharon shook her arm free. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Don’t lie to me,” I said, grabbing her arm again. I pulled her close to my face, just to watch her squirm. “I know you accused your late husband of sexually abusing your daughter Mariella ten years ago. You talked your daughter into believing he’d done it—or you both made up this story to get something out of a man who worked hard to provide for you and your spoiled little brat. But then it got out of control, didn’t it? The school board got hold of it, then the police got hold of it and you two were just in too deep to admit you’d lied, right?”
Footsteps, light ones, like a woman’s, sounded on the linoleum in the kitchen, just off the dining room to my right.
“Ma? Who was that?” A voice called out. “We need to get going!”
I jerked Sharon’s arm.
“You tell Mariella or Rochelle or Rachel or whatever name she goes by these days there’s someone here to see her,” I hissed.
Sharon stared back at me, her eyes hard.
I glanced past her to see Rachel Lance peek from around the kitchen doorframe. Her pink lipstick was perfect and her clothing casual in a way that screamed how much work it took to just throw something on. Her makeup was more natural, less striking, but her face was still beautiful. Her big, brown, Italian eyes were ringed with heavy black lashes; they got even bigger as she recognized me.
“Rochelle!” Sharon called. “Run!”
The kitchen door slammed. I dropped Sharon’s arm and ran to the kitchen, then out the backdoor as Rachel pulled down the drive in her white Lexus. The tires squealed on the brick road as she sped off down the street.
I didn’t follow her—there was no need. I would catch up to her later. I walked back into the foyer, where Sharon Hansen stood, shaking, and her perfectly manicured hands over her mouth. I grabbed the sleeve of her sweater and she gasped.
“Tell me the truth about what you did to Gina,” I demanded. “I know you pushed her away when she tried to stand up for her father and tell everyone you were lying. You’re the reason she was a drunk. You’re the reason why she sold her body to pay for her drugs and why she couldn’t tell you which loser she slept with fathered her children.”
“Stop it! You don’t understand!” Sharon turned her face away from me in tears. I jerked the sleeve of her sweater again and she cried out in fear.
“I don’t have to understand, Mrs. Henson. I’m the one who used to pick Gina up when she was a drunken, homeless teenager on the streets. I’m the one who arrested her for prostitution and now I’m the one who’s been hired to find out how she really died.”
I brought my face close to hers. She raised her hand up, as if to protect herself from a blow.
“Please, please! You’re scaring me,” she cried.
“Just tell me one thing,” I said. “You couldn’t be enough of a mother to attend your own daughter’s funeral. Are you also cold enough to make someone else pay the bill?”
“No! I sent a check as soon as Rachel told me.”
I let go of Sharon’s arm and she sank against the foyer wall.
“Does your son-in-law know his wife’s real name?”
Sharon shook her head. “After Brian killed himself and I got remarried, Rochelle didn’t want to be known by her birth name. She was embarrassed at all the attention she got when the trial was over and people learned what her last name was. So, she had it legally changed to Rachel Hansen. She met Dennis in grad school, when he was teaching a business law class. They’ve only been married a couple years.”
“Did she ever tell him the truth?”
“I don’t know,” Sharon whispered. “I never asked.”
“Tell me how Gina died. Tell me everything you know,” I demanded.
“I don’t know how she died. I only know Rachel got back in contact with her sister recently. I just know she wouldn’t kill her sister. She’s got too much to lose.”
“Did it ever cross your mind she might have killed her because she’s got too much to hide?”
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.