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.
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?”
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.”
“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.
“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!