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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.