“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.”
“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.
“You can’t just roll over and die because the cops found a weapon!”