Call Fitz Chapter 16

Chapter 16

 

By Sunday afternoon, I was out of the hospital. Gracie drove me back to the office before heading home and we stood together on the sidewalk, just in time to watch seven years of my life get chucked out the window of my office and into a Dumpster.

Thankfully, the damage was limited to my office and the upstairs hallway—nothing in Grundy’s jewelry store or the two offices on either side of mine. The excellent work of firefighters, though, wouldn’t convince Grundy to let me to be his tenant ever again.

Me, I didn’t look much better than what remained of my office. I had burn cream on my cheeks to stop the pain and my bandaged legs stuck out from beneath the cut off shorts Gracie brought me to wear home from the hospital. She brought a pair of flip-flops to cover my bandaged feet.

Barnes was at the scene, working with the fire investigators. He leaned out the window and waved.

“Fitz, I found something you’re probably looking for,” he called. His big, flat feet clattered down the stairs to the street. At the doorway, he tossed my cell phone to me.

“Hey, asshole, my fucking hands are burned. I can’t—ouch!” I managed to grab my iPhone with my bandaged paws before it hit the ground. I handed it to Gracie. Barnes smirked as I shook the pain away.

“I don’t know how it happened, but that sumbitch survived without burning. Damnedest thing,” he said. “Found it under a file cabinet.”

“Does it work?” Gracie pushed the power button.

“Oh yes. I already checked it —and all the calls you’ve made in the last few days,” Barnes grinned. “Don’t worry, you’re in the clear. We don’t think you had anything to do with this—or Rivera’s killing.”

He stepped out of the way as four firefighters, each holding the corner of a blue tarp, came down the office stairs. They spread the tarp on the sidewalk and waved me over to I could see if there was anything worth saving.

Gracie and I slipped inside the ring of crime scene tape and crouched next to the pile. I found the cuff links I’d worn Saturday night and what was left of the black cummerbund, along with my coffee mug. The plastic exterior of the coffee maker was melted, exposing the metal innards and the pot was broken. My leather ankle holster still held my Kahr 9, but there wasn’t much left of either. I couldn’t recognize anything else, even what was left of our wedding portrait, which had sat on my desk.

“Niccolo, look what I found…” Gracie pulled at something beneath a stack of burned magazines. It was my KSU football hoodie—or what was left of it. Black soot coated what was left of one sleeve; flames had crept up the back and side, eating away the lettering across the back—and with its destruction, my youth.

I rocked back on my heels and hung my head, but didn’t say anything.

“That hoodie was way past its prime,” she said gently. “Let it go.”

The fire crew brought down a filing cabinet; it was covered in ash, but intact. I stood and traced my initials in the black ash. Nearly everything in the office was gone. My Expedition had been parked at the sidewalk during the fire. The paint across the hood bubbled but that was the only damage. Thank God for that—I’d left my camera and video surveillance equipment in there.

“Looks like some of your files survived,” Barnes said.

“Yeah,” I said, opening and closing a drawer, just to see if it worked.

“Nothing in there has the name Atwater on it,” Barnes said.

“No, those files were all spread out on my desk.”

“They’re gone then.” Barnes grimaced. “All the evidence of who did has burned up too.”

The wounds on my legs began to hurt. I slipped under the crime scene tape and hobbled slowly back to Gracie’s Volvo. I sat down in the passenger seat, motioning for Barnes to follow me.

“About what you were saying about the chief being behind this…” I began. “You weren’t serious, were you?”

Barnes shrugged. “We have to look at everything. But I’m not going to be the asshole that claims the chief of police had a private dick’s office firebombed, just because I can. We’ve got to have something that could lead us in that direction. That would require bringing in state investigators, since we aren’t big enough to have an internal affairs department. Shit, that would end anybody’s career—his if it’s true and mine if it’s not. I’m too damned close to getting my pension, Fitz.”

“I haven’t talked to Nathan Monroe since I retired from the FPD seven years ago. Every time Maris Monroe approaches me, I tell her to pound sand.” We haven’t spoken since he shoved a gun in my face and threatened to kill me, at any rate.

“Yeah, and she’s pounded just about everybody on the force.” Barnes leaned one of his bony arms on the Volvo’s roof. “I suppose you’re right there. If he firebombed every one of those guys, this town would be leveled.”

“Honestly, I don’t think he’s involved, Barnes. I don’t know who it could be, though.” He didn’t need to know I thought it was someone connected with the Atwater murder. But who?

“If we find something about the credible to lead us down that path, we’re obligated to follow it. You know that,” Barnes said.

“I know. I just don’t think you will.”

Gracie joined us. The three of us watched as another load of debris—the burned up couch and what was left of my desk—sailed through the window and into the Dumpster. Everything I worked for, even the best memories of my short-lived college career, were gone.

“Do you need anything more from Niccolo, Detective? I’ve got to get him home.”

“No, I guess not. Just don’t leave town.”

I gestured toward my legs and feet with my bandaged hands. “Do I look like I could get very far?”

*****

I had Gracie take my equipment from the Expedition and put it in the Volvo. We found a clean tarp and had the firefighters lift the file cabinet into the Volvo as well.

I decided to leave the Expedition sitting in front of the burned out office for now—no sense in parking my truck in front of her house and putting her in danger. I’ll call Ambrosi on Monday and see if I can work out of his office for a few weeks. I can leave the Expedition parked at his office after it’s repaired.

She slammed the Volvo’s hatch closed and slid into the driver’s seat. I reached over to put my hand on her leg. She patted my arm and then moved my hand back to my lap.

“I meant what I said Niccolo,” she said gently. “I want you back home because you haven’t got anyplace else to go—that doesn’t mean we’re back on track.”

I let my head fall back against the back of my seat. “I can’t convince you, can I?”

The Volvo slid into the downtown traffic. Gracie didn’t speak for a few blocks, until we were out of the downtown and closer to the polished neighborhood around the college where her house stood.

“When we started dating, a lot of people told me that I was getting in over my head. I knew you had a reputation with the ladies and frankly, weren’t one to keep your pecker in your pants,” she said. “I was warned by everyone—the cops you’d worked with, even your mother—not to marry you.”

“I know.”

“But I married you any way. I’ve spent the last six years knowing what you’ve done and knowing those angry women you work with want to sleep with you to pay their husbands back. I spend six years wondering if you crossed that line.”

“I never did, Gracie, I never did.”

We pulled up the driveway. She stopped the car. “When I saw Judy Demyan on your lap, all those warnings, all those little niggling voices in the back of my head—they came back.”

“We had six good years, Gracie. You were the only one all through those six years and you still are the only one. Don’t let this—us—go down the crapper.”

I couldn’t say anything else. Silently, we entered the house and Gracie led me to the guest room.

“There you go,” she said. “I’m going to go ask the neighbor if he can help get that filing cabinet out of the back of the car.”

I waited until I heard the front door slam before I looked around.

She’d moved what was left of my clothing into the closet and set the laptop up on the desk there. I’d be sleeping on an antique four-poster bed we’d found during a weekend antiquing safari. I knew the mattress wasn’t the best, but it had to be better than the last thirty days on the office couch.

The matching dresser had an antique doily on top, anchored by a pastel-colored porcelain figurine of a woman playing a cello and a framed, autographed picture of Yo-Yo Ma. The top three drawers were empty. I opened the bottom drawer and found our wedding picture—the one Ma took of Gracie and I standing in front of a beaming judge—laying face down on a stack of blankets.

Clutching the photo, I sank down on the bed and sighed. My copy of the picture was destroyed in the fire. Would my marriage go up in smoke, like that photo or would it live, like this one? I sat the picture on the nightstand by my bed.

I had to come up with a way to convince her to stay.

*****

Soon after, the pain pills kicked in, sending me into a deep slumber. I awoke several hours later to the smell of marinara sauce as only Ma could fix it. Rubbing my eyes as well as my bandages would allow, I followed the aroma downstairs and into the kitchen.

“There he is!” Ma threw her birdlike hands into the air and shuffled toward me in her orthopedic shoes.

“No hugs—don’t touch the face,” I said, leaning over to kiss her.

“So Gracie called me last night to tell me what happened. I wanted to come visit you in the hospital this morning, but they let you go before I could get there,” Ma said, returning to the stove and taking a wooden spoon from Gracie. “Niccolo, you aren’t a cop any more. This business of yours, it’s too dangerous and you’re too old to be running around with a gun. Why don’t you go back to school, get a business degree? I’m sure you could get a nice safe job where you sit behind a desk and don’t get shot at.”

Gracie covered her mouth with her hand to suppress a smile. The thought of me doing anything other than being a PI was as likely as me learning to speak Chinese.

“Ma, would Dad have ever done anything else other than be a cop?”

“Gracie, stir the penne for me, please. Niccolo, you don’t know the times I asked him to quit the force. Every time your father went to work, I never knew if he would come home to me. Like that time Aidan nearly got his brains beat out, responding to a bar fight at Gino’s Bar and Grill. It took him and three other officers to stop that fight.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Of course not! You weren’t born yet! There I was, three children under five and pregnant with my fourth—that was you, Niccolo—and I’d just lost my father, who you were named for, and my Aidan, he’s in the emergency room, his head looking like the sauce in that pot. Terrible. It was terrible, Gracie. My Aidan, God rest his soul, had headaches for days, I tell you, days.

I shook my head. There were a few rough days my dad’s career, but like most small town cops, he may have pulled his weapon a couple times, but he never fired it. I wish I could have said the same thing. The meth and the heroin that infested the streets had changed the face of police work and police response in Fawcettville. I’d pulled my service revolver more than once—and the one time in twenty years I fired, I didn’t miss. Most nights, it didn’t bother me; some nights I sat up in bed covered in cold sweat, once again believing I was cornered with no way out.

“Anyway, I’m glad to see you are back home, Niccolo, back where you belong,” she finished. I looked over at my wife, who made a locking motion at her lips. “Now Gracie, set the table and we’ll have dinner. The salad is in the fridge.”

Chunks of salsiccia fresca, the fresh sweet Italian sausage that Ma bought at the lone butcher shop at the edge of town, rested along with the marinara on the bed of penne pasta in a bowl at the center of the table. Gracie opened a bottle of wine and brought it to the table. Rather than pass the steaming bowl, we served ourselves. Seated between Gracie and me, Ma handed around a bowl of shredded Parmesan, followed by the salad.

It could have been any Sunday afternoon in New Tivoli during my childhood.

Back then, Dad sat at the head of the table as we enjoyed our lunch following Mass. We were rowdy and loud except for the few moments Ma shushed us so Dad could say the blessing. If he wasn’t working, he got to sit in front of the new color TV set and watch the Steelers or the Pirates play, one or more of us kids lounging against and around him. Most Sundays, though, he shed his Sunday suit and, in his uniform pants and white tee shirt, ate his pasta, and drank copious amounts of black coffee instead of wine. After he ate, with his uniform shirt sharply ironed and his service revolver around his waist, he headed off for his twelve-hour shift.

After he retired, he could watch every game he wanted following Ma’s enormous pasta meal. By then, his lap was filled with grandchildren; my brothers, none of them cops, could sit and watch with him. I was the one, this time, dashing in from my own Sunday shift and hanging my uniform shirt on the doorknob to enjoy Ma’s pasta.

Now, Dad was gone, and each of my sisters and brothers had their own families with their own Sunday dinners. They took turns taking Ma home from Mass with them for their tables full of steaming pasta—we all did, Gracie and me included.

Today’s meal was like one of those sweet Sundays all over again. Gracie thought that too—I could see it in her face. She loved those Sundays as much as I did. She often helped Ma clean up the kitchen (Ma insisted on washing the dishes, no matter at whose house we ate) and we could all hear Gracie’s deep throaty laugh all the way out into the living room. My sisters loved her, too. More than once someone leaned over my shoulder to hand me another beer and whispered, “You got lucky with this one, Nick. You need to hang on to her.”

When I began sleeping in my office, with no place to fix a meal, I begged off my slot in the rotation. Now here I was, back in the batting order and knew if I didn’t hit it out of the park this time, I would once again be the irresponsible brother.

I lifted my glass of dago red with a bandaged hand. Gracie and Ma followed suit.

“A toast,” I said. “To my favorite girls. I’m so very lucky to have you both. I hope you feel the same way. Salud!

Salud! Now shut up, Niccolo,” Ma said. “Eat your pasta before it gets cold.”

“Yeah, Niccolo,” Gracie echoed, her eyes misting. “Shut up.”

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.

 

Call Fitz Chapter 15

Chapter 15

 

Barnes was at the hospital by the time my ambulance arrived at the ER.

“What did I tell you, Fitz?” he asked as they unloaded me from the back of the truck. “Somebody’s after your ass and they’re serious about it.”

I shrugged from behind my oxygen mask, clutching my laptop to my chest. There was too much on it to turn it over to the cops—or the prosecutor’s office—provided it survived the fire.

Barnes followed my gurney into the ER, flashing his badge at the medical staff there.

Between gulps of oxygen and the attention of the medical staff to my burned face, arms and feet, I told Barnes what happened. Since I was asleep when the first Molotov hit, I had no description of any suspects. He nodded continuously as he took notes.

“That pretty much squares with what the fire department found: two incendiary devices, most likely glass bottles filled with gasoline and rags. One came through the front door; the other came through the window,” he said, shoving his notebook into his back pocket. “The question is why? What are you working on, Fitz? I can’t imagine any wayward husbands being this pissed at being caught. Is it on that laptop? You’re hanging on to it pretty damned tightly.”

“Yeah. Most of my office files are on there, including the Atwater case. I grabbed it before I went through the window.”

Barnes smirked. “Atwater’s an open and shut case. I’m sure what you’ve dug up out squares with what we found at his arrest. What’s the phrase—‘billable hours’? If you don’t find anything else, you’ll get a pile of cash from that.”

I shrugged. “If I found something else, which I haven’t, we’d turn it over to you.” That much was true. But why was someone trying to hard to keep me from doing that? Clearly there was something someone wanted to hide.

“Well, Ambrosi’s got to make it look like he’s at least trying to get the kid off, I suppose. I’ve never known a more half-assed lawyer in my whole life.” Barnes shook his head. “Between you and me and these lovely ladies—” Barnes nodded at the nurses around me. “I think you know who’s behind this.”

I started to answer, but began to cough again. Go ahead and think the chief still wants my ass. This is more than a cuckolded husband going for the most obvious target.  

The curtain surrounding my bed whipped open. It was Gracie, still in her black sequined gown and clutching her white shawl and purse, her eyes wide with concern.

“Niccolo! What happened? Are you OK?” She ran to my bedside, clasping my one free hand.

I coughed as I nodded. “I’m going to be OK.”

“Listen, it looks like I’ve got everything I need here,” Barnes said. “I’ll leave you two alone. Fitz, I’ll call you if I need anything else. That includes that laptop.” The nurses also stepped out.

As soon as we were alone, Gracie dropped her shawl and clutch on the bed and clasped my burned cheeks to kiss my forehead.

I gasped in pain.

“Oh baby, I’m sorry!” She dropped her hands, but her soft lips kept contact with my skin.

“How did you know I was here?” I tried to speak through the mask, but started coughing again. She sat up and began to run her long fingers through my smoky hair.

“When the alarm went off, the security company called the guy who owns the jewelry store downstairs—Mr. Grundy. He called the house to tell you about the fire,” she said. Her tone became soft, contrite. “I didn’t tell him you’d been sleeping there.”

I sank back into the pillows and sighed. “I don’t know where I’m going to go, Gracie. I don’t know if I have anything left. All my files, all my papers—they’re probably gone. Anything I have left is on this laptop.”

Gracie laid her forehead on my shoulder, tears wetting the shoulder of my hospital gown. I caressed her soft dark hair, drinking in her perfume. Thank you, oh God, thank you, I thought, closing my eyes.

“I was so upset when I heard the building was on fire,” she whispered into my shoulder. “I went right over there. I got there just after they put you in the ambulance, so I came right over here.”

“It’s OK. So you were already back at home? What about you and Van Hoven? Did your performance go OK?”

She raised her head and looked me in the eye, smiling. “Van Hoven is a dog—and yes, I have to say my performance tonight was stellar. I think we raised a lot of money tonight.”

“Glad it went well —and you saw through him.”

She sat up and kissed me again, soft and lingering.

“This doesn’t mean you’re home free, Niccolo. We still have a long way to go. But come home, Niccolo. I want you to come home.”

A nurse, her stethoscope hanging from her neck, came back to my bedside.

“Oh, he won’t be coming home tonight. We’re going to keep him overnight, to make sure he gets all the stuff out of his lungs. We also need to run some more tests and those can’t be done until tomorrow, maybe Monday.”

I handed the laptop to Gracie. Another paroxysm of coughing overtook me. “Take this with you. I couldn’t keep it here anyway. Don’t let anyone see it, don’t let anyone take it,” I managed to gasp.

“I will.”

“And ma’am?” The nurse handed her a plastic bag of my clothing. “Please take this home as well. Hospital policy prohibits firearms in patient rooms.”

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.

Call Fitz Chapter 14

Chapter 14

 

I followed the silver dress back into lobby and, on a hunch, called out to her.

“Mariella! Mariella Cantolini!”

She didn’t respond.

I called out again and tapped her on her shoulder.

She stopped and turned around this time, her dark eyes swallowing me whole. Could this be the manipulative little shit whose lies led to her father’s suicide? Who got talked into false memories of sexual abuse and testified to them in court? This creature seemed to be too smart and too savvy to be manipulated by anyone.

“Excuse me? Do I know you?” Her voice was warm caramel and sex stirred together, but there was no sign she’d recognized the name.

“Mariella—I thought that was you! It’s me, Nick Fitzhugh. I went to school with your aunt and your dad. I haven’t seen you since you were this high.” Amazing how easily I lied to get what I wanted. Maybe Gracie was right. It would take a lot more to convince her I’d changed.

“I’m sorry. I think you have me confused with someone else.”

“I could have sworn Tina Cantolini was your aunt and Brian Cantolini was your dad. They lived just a couple block from my folks in New Tivoli.”

“No, I’m so sorry. My name is Rachel Lance. My husband is the prosecutor Dennis Lance.”

Of course—lucky bastard.

“That’s where I’ve seen you then,” I backpedaled. “I work very closely with the courts. I must have seen you at his office. My apologies.”

The warm caramel voice cooled considerably. “Yes. Excuse me, please.”

I watched as she sauntered over to her husband and his staff. Lance stood as Rachel approached and pulled back a chair for her to sit. She descended gracefully into the chair; Lance sat down beside her and draped his arm around her shoulder. She snuggled under his arm and looked back at me with a smirk. I am used to being approached by men like you, she seemed to say, and you can’t afford me.

So I was wrong.

Rachel Lance may have looked like a lot of the folks from my old neighborhood, but from her reaction she clearly wasn’t a Cantolini. This case was getting to me.

I found an empty seat at the back of the room and accepted the salad, along with a cup of weak coffee, from a server. I watched Gracie as she sat at the head table, talking with Van Hoven. There was an empty chair next to Gracie. I’d sat there in years past; no doubt the organizers saw my name on the list of attendees and assumed I’d be there again. Next year I will be. After the meal of rubber chicken, asparagus and some sort of potato, Gracie was back up at the podium, introducing one of the local auctioneers, who led the charge to get the most money from those well-lubricated pockets. The crowd grew louder as the after-dinner liquor began to flow and Gracie worked the crowd, encouraging attendees to wave their bidder numbers and call out their ever increasing offers.

When she wasn’t working the crowd, she was beaming at any attention Van Hoven paid her. I watched Van Hoven whisper something in her ear; Gracie threw back her head and laughed, shooting him an intimate, knowing look. I’d been the recipient of that look too, once upon a time.

That’s it. I can’t watch any more of this. I slipped out before the auction ended and walked back to my Expedition. The sun was setting in the west and the smell of a spring evening filled the air.

What could I do to convince her to come back to me, to make her stay here in Fawcettville rather than packing up and leaving for Boston? God knows Berklee College of Music will hire her in a heartbeat.

Footsteps echoed through the parking lot as I pulled my keys from my pocket. The hairs on the back of my head stood on edge: I knelt as if to tie my shoe, slipping my fingers around the grip of the Kahr P9 in my ankle holster. I’d been cold cocked once this week and it wasn’t going to happen again.

From my vantage point, I saw scrawny legs running between the rows of cars, heard teenage laughter and profanity, followed by the rasp of skateboard wheels along the pavement. Relieved, I exhaled and stood up.

A hairy arm hooked around my throat and squeezed, cutting off my oxygen. Colors popped in my vision as I struggled to free myself.

“I told you to leave this case alone,” a familiar raspy voice hissed in my ear. I felt a cold blade under my left ear.

“That you, Rivera, or the ghost of pussies past?”

Clutching his arm, I spun around and body-slammed him into the Expedition’s rear door, jamming my elbow into his soft gut. He groaned and let go of me, sinking to the ground. I kicked the knife under the Expedition and pulled Rivera back up by his collar.

“Fuck you, Fitzhugh,” he spat.

Rivera’s nose met my fist and blood spurted down his shirt. I let him slide down to the ground again and kicked him in the ribs. Rivera curled up on his side, holding his face.

“You’re welcome,” I said, shaking the pain from my knuckles. “I thought somebody plugged you in the alley.”

Rivera tried to get to his feet. I kicked him again and he sank back to the pavement.

“I said, didn’t somebody shoot you in the alley?” I leaned over him, speaking slowly and loudly, enunciating my words.

“No,” Rivera groaned. “I got him. He was checking to make sure I did what I was paid to do.”
“And you didn’t, did you?” I stepped back and let Rivera stand up.

Rivera roared in rage and came at me again. With a short sideways kick, I knocked him off balance and he fell again, face first, into the pavement.

“Whoever you’re working for needs to send in the first team. You’ve had two chances to push me off this case and failed. Now get the fuck out of here and tell your handlers to send a real man to do the job next time.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have let him go. Maybe I should have beat the shit out of him right there, but hell, the tux was rented and I just wanted to get home. I adjusted my bowtie in the window as Rivera stood.

“You don’t know whom you’re messing with,” Rivera stood, wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve.

“I know I’m messing with somebody who wants to see an innocent man go to prison for a murder he didn’t commit,” I said as I turned to face him. “I know you have connections to Reno Elliot, who threatened my victim. What else do I need to know?”

“It’s more than that,” Rivera said.

“What do you mean?”

Rivera looked around. His shoulders sank. I sensed he wanted to talk. I pulled a handkerchief from my jacket and handed it to him.

“Clean yourself up and meet me at Puccini’s.”

“I’m not sure exactly where that is.”
“Don’t bullshit me. I know you’ve met Reno Elliot there.”

Rivera stared at his feet. “OK.”

“Twenty minutes, tops.”

*****

I was sitting in one of the red booths in the center of Puccini’s window when my waitress sat a cannoli and a cup of espresso in front of me. I was halfway through both when Rivera, both eyes turning blue and purple from my blow to his nose, slid into the booth seat across from me. He’d taken the time to change his shirt—and maybe tell his handlers.

I signaled to the waitress, ordering the same thing for him.

She brought his order and I waited for him to take a bite of his cannoli before I spoke.

“So what’s the deal behind all this? Who wants to see Michael Atwater convicted and why?”

“There’s more here than you think. Do we have to sit here in full view of the whole world?”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Your victim knew something, something people in power didn’t want anyone else to know,” Rivera began, looking nervously out the window. “That’s why she was killed.”

“OK. Like what?” Gina had a lot of pain in her life, but as for knowing something that mattered enough for someone in power to kill her? I had my doubts.

“I don’t know. I just know that they figured it would be easy to pin the murder on the one boyfriend. They knew about the DNA testing because that had been court ordered. They knew about the other boyfriend, too—”

“Jacob Poole?”

Before Rivera could answer, I caught a glimpse of a vehicle slowing in the street outside. The window on the passenger side came down, and the streetlight caught the glint of a silver handgun.

“Look out!” I yelled.

Bullets shattered the glass as the waitress screamed and I dove beneath the table, glass shards flying. Pulling my Kahr from my ankle holster, I peeked over the edge of the broken window to catch a few numbers on the license plate.   Tires squealed as the vehicle, a boxy, non-descript sedan, pulled off down the street.

“Everybody OK?” I crawled out from beneath the table, gun in hand. The waitress, a college kid, came up from behind the counter, her hands shaking and black mascara coursing down her cheeks in her tears. The antique espresso machine behind her was pocked with bullet holes and the mirror behind it was shattered.

Rivera was silent. The waitress screamed again and I saw why: half of Rivera’s face was gone, and his brains were splattered against the back of the red booth.

So he meant what he said. Somebody seriously wanted me off this case.

Detective Joe Barnes arrived as quickly as the police. After the crime scene technician swabbed my hands for gunshot residue, he pulled me off to the side to talk to me while the coroner and her staff looked over what was left of Rivera. Another detective was interviewing the waitress.

“So what happened, Fitz?”

“You can’t tell?”

“Don’t be a smart ass. I just want to know how you ended up in the middle of a murder.”

“The victim and I met in the Memorial Hall parking lot—I was leaving the symphony benefit. He had some information he wanted to tell me. I said we should meet here at Puccini’s and discuss it over coffee. We were each having a cannoli and espresso when this car drove by really slowly. I saw a gun come out the passenger side window and the next thing I know, I’m under the table, covered in broken glass.”

“What did Rivera want to talk to you about?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Don’t bullshit me Fitz. I remember you calling and asking me if I knew anybody by that name.”

“That was after I found he was tailing me. I finally caught him in the alley by Lupe’s, but I never did learn anything about him.”

“You sure those bullets weren’t meant for you?”

“Why would they be?”

“I know somebody who’s still got a real grudge over something that happened a while back.”

“Not the chief. You’re kidding me, right?”

Barnes just arched an eyebrow.

“I can’t believe that, Joe. C’mon.”

Barnes shrugged. “He’s known to carry a grudge.”

“Trust me, Maris Monroe can take her delights elsewhere. I’m not interested.”

“I don’t know if he exactly believes that.” If it had been fifty years ago and life was black and white, Barnes would have been in a trench coat, pushing his pork pie hat up off his forehead with his thumb as he talked. Tonight, he was in khaki pants and a blue FPD polo shirt, his badge and his service revolver anchored on his belt, but the effect was the same.

We watched silently as Rivera, now encased in a blue body bag, rolled by on a gurney.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had two murder cases in a week in this town,” Barnes continued. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket if you ask me. If you find anything out, give me a call. You know where to find me.”

He followed the gurney out the door. There wasn’t much more for me to do either; I left soon after.

Back at my office, I flopped into my desk chair and pulled the bourbon, along with a cup, out of the bottom drawer. I poured two fingers worth and sighed.

If what Rivera said was correct, if Gina Cantolini had information that disturbed the powers that be, what could it be? And was it worth killing her over?

And what if Barnes was right? What if that bullet was meant for me and not Rivera? I have no doubt the chief saw Maris hanging all over me near the restrooms—and if it wasn’t him, one of his minions told him about it. That broad had nearly been the death of me once and maybe tonight, she was again.

I gulped down the bourbon, stepped into the office bathroom and out of my tux. The jacket was smeared with cannoli filling and dirt off Puccini’s floor. It smelled like espresso. The pants weren’t much better. I picked a couple of pieces of glass out of one of the jacket’s shoulders. I’d be paying a cleaning fee on this sucker when I dropped it off Monday. I stepped into some sweatpants and an old FPD tee shirt and brushed my teeth. Back in the waiting room, I pulled my pillows and blanket from behind the couch; just like every other night, I lay my Glock next to my cell phone on the coffee table and switched out the lights.

*****

The window in my office door shattered and I shot up from the couch, grabbing my Glock. Flames flashed along the floor and onto the cheap rug beneath my feet as the smell of gasoline filled the air. Smoke seared my lungs as I tried to beat the flames down with the blanket, trying to make my way to the door. The fire alarm in the hallway began to howl and flash, adding to the confusion.

Behind me, in my office, I heard noise on the fire escape outside my office window. The glass there shattered and I saw the flash of another Molotov cocktail striking my office floor, the flame spreading up the thin curtains and across the ceiling.

The Atwater case file— Tina Jones’ and Sharon Hansen’s phone numbers, my laptop with the web sites about Brian Cantolini’s sex abuse trial, the police reports Ambrosi gave me about the murder—all lay across my desk. No! I can’t lose those!

I had to get in there before it caught fire. Throwing the blanket over my head and stuffing my Glock in my waistband, I charged into the office. As the dry wood of my chair ignited, flames licking dangerously close to the desk, I grabbed what I could—the outer housing on my laptop was beginning to blacken with smoke, but maybe the hard drive would survive.

I turned back toward the waiting room; a wall of flame greeted me, blocking my exit out that door. Smoke was filling the office—and my lungs. Sparks were landing on the blanket, igniting circles of flames. Drawing a rasping breath, I dropped the blanket and swiveled back toward my office. The curtains hung in burning strips around the window. I clutched the laptop closer to me and pushed my way out the window and on to the fire escape.

The first fire truck pulled up to the curb as I collapsed on the sidewalk, the laptop clattering beside me. A firefighter jumped from the truck and ran to me.

“Somebody threw two Molotov’s into my office,” I gasped.

“Is there anyone else in the building?” he asked, before covering my mouth with an oxygen mask.

I shook my head and drew more oxygen into my seared lungs. As I watched the fire crews battle the blaze, I couldn’t help but think that Lt. Barnes was right.

The bullets that hit Rivera —and now, the Molotov cocktails—were meant for me.

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.

Call Fitz Chapter 13

Chapter 13

 

I hung up the phone and leaned back in my chair. The morning was productive, but I sure didn’t like what I found. And, sad as it was, it had nothing to do with who killed Gina—just the very painful story about family dynamics.

I hooked my fingers together behind my head, thinking back to my childhood. My parents were not so different than other New Tivoli families: they were loud in their every day conversations, whether it was in love or in anger. The arguments between my brothers and sisters were loud, too, but we never would have done what Sharon allegedly did to Brian Cantolini—or what Brian might have done to Mariella.

We Fitzhughs were fiercely loyal, from what the outside world could see, and would beat anybody bloody who challenged any one of us. But if you fucked up you got yours behind the oaken door of that white clapboard house in New Tivoli. My older brothers more than once came to my aid when I was a young and scrawny Nick the Mick, then beat my ass if they found out I’d instigated it. They saw less action in high school when I, too, developed Aiden Fitzhugh’s broad shoulders and muscular, but bowed legs and no one dared approach me with any name that even hinted at an Irish or Italian slur.

I never knew what childhood sexual abuse was until I became a security policeman—SP in Air Force parlance—in Texas. I saw more of it as part of the FPD. It always generated a bottomless rage in me that dissipated as the perp’s face got pounded into ground beef somewhere between my boxing gloves and the seventy-pound red Everlast bag in the corner of the YMCA gym.

But why concoct something so destructive and so violent and stuff it into a child’s head? What kind of a mother would do that? Even if that child was an adult and more than a little gullible, as Tina intimated about Mariella, it was wrong.

Maybe Tina supported her brother because she, too, couldn’t believe what was being said in court. Maybe Brian really did commit these acts. Maybe Mariella was stupid and could be led by the nose at times, but we never know what really happens behind closed doors or in the dark of night. The world only finds out when it somehow spills out into the street and we cops get to be the ones to clean it up.

Violation is violation and nobody willingly makes that shit up, right? What do I know? I still hadn’t found out who—beside Michael Atwater—could have killed Gina Cantolini and that was what I was being paid to do.

Maybe my first impression of Atwater was right. Maybe he did do it. Michael Atwater had spent his life making anything except good choices. The argument could be made that his drug use and the violence between Gina and him had escalated to the point where he just finally snapped. In his last bad decision, angry that Gina wanted a DNA test on her boys, as she was simultaneously demanding child support for them, he put his hands around her neck one last time and choked the life out of her.

If that was so, why send someone like Jorge Rivera to scare me off this case? That’s the other part I didn’t get. Someone wanted Atwater railroaded for killing Gina. But who? And why?

Where was she killed? I hadn’t found a killer and I hadn’t found a crime scene. Police believed they had the killer, but nothing was ever said about where he did it. If they had, that information should have been provided to Ambrosi. Maybe they didn’t know either.

I sat back up. I had to put all this on the back burner for now. I had a little less than an hour to get ready for the benefit.

*****

Holding my first free drink of the evening, a watered down Jack and Coke, I wandering along the outer edges of Memorial Hall lobby, down by a table filled with items for a silent auction. The old antique benches that normally held the sedate bottoms of symphony attendees had been cleared away and replaced with large round tables. They were covered with white tablecloths, set with hotel grade china and crowned with music themed centerpieces.

The evening’s schedule had always been the same: provide as much free liquor through the cocktail hour and dinner to get folks to bid on items that ranged from Cleveland Browns tickets and gift baskets to golf trips, vacation condo rentals and symphony tickets. Just before the crowd moved into the main performance hall for the symphony’s performance, the big donors would be recognized, and after the symphony played, the dancing would begin and the free drinks would end.

Tonight’s performance featured some of the world’s best-known cello concertos, with Gracie as the featured performer.

I watched as the guests wandered in: professors from the college, local politicians, and Fawcettville business leaders. They all stopped at the bar for their complimentary adult beverage and searched the round tables for their assigned seats before mingling with other attendees.

Before long, Dennis Lance and his staff entered, all of them wearing their ‘Lance for Judge’ tee shirts underneath their tuxedo jackets. Alicia Linnerman, filling out her tuxedo quite well, waved from across the room, and made a beeline toward me.

“Fitz! How are you?” She hugged me briefly.

I lifted my plastic cup. “Getting there.”

“How’s the Atwater case going?” She took a sip of her wine. Her cornflower blue eyes bored right through me, her round breasts pushing the limits of Dennis Lance’s campaign shirt.

“Counselor, I can’t tell you that. That’s between my client and me. Heard anything from Officer Elliott?”

She shook her head. “No. There’s a no-contact order in place. I have heard that he was terminated from the FPD, though.”

“Before his case comes to court?”

Alicia smiled. “He’s taking a guilty plea. Apparently your visit to the jail made him think it’s best to own up to the assault charges than come back here to folks whispering about being involved in a murder.”

I nodded. “Hopefully, he’ll never be involved in law enforcement again.”

“Yes. The chatter is whether or not he ever assaulted any other females.”

“From what I heard he repeatedly asked my victim for sex and threatened her with arrest if she didn’t come through.”

“I thought we weren’t talking about your case.”

“Call it a small slip of the tongue. I can trust that you will see that information gets where it needs to go?” I looked over her head to see who else had wandered in. Alicia’s boss was working the crowd as only a candidate could, pressing the flesh and handing out business cards. I wondered briefly if I should ask him about who paid for Gina Cantolini’s funeral but thought the better of it.

“Of course.”

From the corner of my eye, I caught Chief Monroe enter the lobby, along with his wayward spouse. She was dressed in a clingy black number that barely covered her ass and exposed more than a little cleavage. Maris saw I was looking her way and waved. The chief saw me, too, and jerked her close to keep her attention, nearly making her stumble.

Great. Just what I need—to be in the middle of whatever marital drama the Monroe’s have going.

Alicia watched the exchange between them and snickered. “I’ve been doing a little research into you Fitz. I understand the Chief doesn’t think a whole lot of you.”

“It was seven years ago. People need to let that shit go.”

Alicia leaned up against the wall next to me and sipped her drink. “Yeah, they do. But that’s not how small towns work. You ought to know that.”

“After that mess with Maris Monroe, I married my wife Gracie and we were very happy for a long time.”

“Where is the esteemed Dr. Grace Darcy?”

“I haven’t seen her yet.”

“She doesn’t know you’re coming, does she?”

I was silent. Alicia didn’t look me in the eye, but patted my arm sympathetically, not like the aggressive female I’d met just a few days before at her apartment.

“I thought so,” she said. “Just by the way you said it the other day in my apartment.”

“Yeah. Gracie wants me to sign the divorce papers like right now, but I just can’t. I think she’s dating someone—or wants to. She wants to get on with her life. I can’t blame her.”

“Neither can I,” Alicia said, scanning the attendees as they walked through the door. “But sometimes it’s just hard to let go. Sometimes you just have to.”

I leaned my head back against the old plaster wall and sighed.

“I can’t. Not just yet.”

“Well, come on then, Fitz. Neither one of us have dates, so let’s at least pal around for the evening. No expectations, just for the laughs, just for the night.” Alicia tugged on my sleeve. “Let’s go say hello to all the muckety-mucks.”

Turns out, Alicia was pretty good at glad-handing, just like her boss. We moved from table to table as the guests came in, smiling and making small talk. She only responded to campaign questions if directly asked, sending most folks over to the table where Lance was holding court, no doubt enjoying the fruits of yesterday’s news story announcing his candidacy.

Slowly, the members of the symphony began to arrive and mingle with the guests. The crowd nearly doubled as the musicians entered, seemingly through the walls and softly, like fairies, lighting on the arms of last year’s big donors, beginning to weave their magic.

Then I saw her, entering the lobby from the performance hall. She wore a long black sequined dress, her long arms wrapped in an off white shawl that floated like ephemera behind her. She held a small black satin clutch close to her flat, toned stomach. Her hair was pinned up in a bun, as it always was for a performance and she walked like a queen entering her kingdom.

In many ways, she was. That was one thing Gracie always liked about this event—she could talk to anybody about the symphony and her love of music. More often than not, she could coax a donor up to the next rung on the donation ladder, getting funding for symphony trips into the public schools or scholarships for young musicians. She would, by the end of the evening, be circled by a throng of well wishers and admirers, her throaty laugh bringing more to the fold and more money to the symphony’s coffers.

I scanned the arched entrance behind her. Nobody followed her. She was alone. Maybe my fears about that pussy Van Hoven were unfounded.

“Excuse me,” I whispered in Alicia’s ear. “I’ll be right back.”

I caught up to my wife along the silent auction table.

“Hey, baby,” I whispered, taking her arm.

Gracie jerked away.

“Goddammit Niccolo,” she hissed. “What are you doing here?”

“Supporting the symphony, of course,” I smiled. “And checking on my favorite cellist.”

“I don’t need checking on.”

“Has anyone told you that you look wonderful tonight?”

“Has anyone told you you’re a jerk?” She turned her attention back to the clipboards describing each silent auction item, writing down her bids and her office phone number.

“Baby, what you saw wasn’t what it looked like. Judith Demyan was drunk. I’d just sent her proof that her husband was slipping it to that student on the side. She showed up at my office intoxicated and we weren’t doing what it looked like. I wouldn’t do that to you—I love you, Gracie. I was trying to push her off my lap when you came in.”

“The fact that you let her get onto your lap is what pisses me off, Niccolo. If you weren’t screwing her, she was giving you one hell of a lap dance and you were sure as hell enjoying it.” Gracie moved down the display of auction items, stopping at a Cavaliers gift basket, with an autographed LeBron James jersey, a couple tickets and a coffee mug.

I followed like the begging dog I was.

“Please, Gracie. That’s not true. You gotta believe me.”

She didn’t answer. Another couple stepped up beside her to look at the gift basket. She grabbed my arm and pushed me toward other auction items further down the table.

“Gracie, talk to me.”

“I just want you to sign those divorce papers and get this whole mess over with.”

“Give me just one more chance. We can make this work, honey. I know we can.”

She stopped and sighed. “Don’t you get it? I don’t want to make it work. I want out. This might be my last quarter at the music department. My contract is up and I’ve been asked to interview at Berklee College of Music in Boston in June.”

“You’re leaving?” My heart hung in my chest.

“I might be. The college wants me to stay, but I’d be more than stupid to turn down Berklee if they offered it to me. That’s the professional opportunity of a lifetime!”

“But you have a reason to stay here!”

“Do I?”

“Gracie, for God’s sake, yes you do. Give me a chance. Give me one chance to make it up to you. If I can’t make you see that all that stuff is behind me and all I want is you, then I’ll sign the papers. You’ll be free to go to Boston or wherever you want. I won’t stand in your way then.”

She stopped looking over the silent auction items and turned to face me.

“Deal.” She held out her hand. I shook it, and lifted it to my lips for a kiss. She jerked away. “Stop that. Not here!”

“So how is this going to work?”

“You tell me, Niccolo. Don’t think you can just blow smoke up my skirt and think you can waltz back into my life, all charm and good times. It’s going to take more than that. It’s going to take some serious change on your part.”

“I’ll do whatever you want me to.”

“That’s not the point Niccolo. The point is you have to convince me to stay. You have to convince me that won’t ever happen again.”

Gracie looked across the room and my gaze followed hers. Alicia Linnerman and Peter Van Hoven were approaching from opposite corners of the lobby. Alicia grinned at me and lifted her glass of wine in greeting; Dennis Lance was right behind her. Van Hoven was honing in on Gracie like a tuxedo-clad hunting dog going in for the kill. I wanted to lay my arm protectively around Gracie’s waist, but knew she’d have no qualms about slugging me if I did.

Alicia approached first.

“Fitz, I thought I’d bring our esteemed judicial candidate over to say hello,” she said, gesturing at her boss with her wine glass.

“Good to see you, Mr. Fitzhugh, as always,” Lance reached out to shake my hand. “This time under better circumstances. That funeral the other day was something, wasn’t it? Sad, sad situation.”

“Yes, yes, it was. Mr. Lance, this is my wife, Dr. Grace Darcy. She’s principal cellist here with the symphony. Grace, this is Dennis Lance, our prosecuting attorney and this is Alicia Linnerman, one of the staff assistant prosecutors.”

Grace shot me a look: I’m your wife in name only. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lance.”

Lance bowed formally. “Likewise. Alicia tells me, Fitz, you’re working for Michael Atwater’s defense team.”

“Yes.” If you want to call a burned out lawyer and a former cop a team, go ahead. “I don’t want to see someone go down for a murder he didn’t commit.”

“You’ve certainly got an uphill battle there,” Lance smiled. “Next Friday, the grand jury meets. I have to say our case is pretty rock solid. I think we’ll get an indictment.”

I smiled with a confidence I didn’t feel. “We’ll see.”

Van Hoven entered our conversation circle; Gracie politely introduced him as the new conductor. We chatted about his background, his aspirations for the symphony; Dennis Lance discovered their mutual love of golf.

“Do you play golf, Dr. Darcy?” Van Hoven asked politely.

“No, I don’t.” Their eyes met and sparkled with mutual attraction.

“My wife is the women’s fencing coach for the college,” I said, stepping closer to her. I touched the small of her back with my hand; the toe of her black ballerina flat struck my ankle. I cringed and dropped my hand. Touché.

“Yes, I am,” answered Gracie, not missing a beat. “I really fell in love with the artistry and the athleticism of it. That, and running bores me.”

A short grey-haired woman in a cocktail dress came over and touched Van Hoven on the sleeve. I couldn’t remember her name, but for years, she’d been president of the Women’s Symphony Association, the group that organized the benefit.

“It’s time to begin the auction,” she said politely.

“Ah, so it is.” Van Hoven offered Gracie his arm and the two of them walked toward the podium.

“She’s beautiful,” Alicia said as soon as they were out of earshot.

“Yes she is,” Lance agreed. “You’re a lucky man, Fitz.”

I took a gulp of my Jack and Coke. It was lukewarm and tasted like piss. “Tell me about it.”

Alicia’s blue eyes caught mine. She understood my pain—I could see that. I could also see that Reno Elliot wouldn’t be the last bad boy she’d fall for. If I’d met her a few years earlier, before the disaster with Maris and the happiness I’d let slide away with Gracie, she might have been added to my list of broken hearts. The old Niccolo Fitzhugh wouldn’t have thought twice. The old Niccolo would have done her and dumped her. Not now.

Alicia and Lance wandered off to find their seats. My glass was sweaty, like the palms of my hands. I sat it down on the table and headed towards the men’s room.

What could I do to convince Gracie our marriage could work? Flowers, candy—the usual wouldn’t work. She’d said as much. But what else could I do? Dinner at the restaurant where I’d asked her to marry me? Maybe that would be a good place to show her we were making a symbolic start. Maybe—

Maris Monroe grabbed me by the arm as she came out of the ladies’ room.

“Hey sexy,” she cooed.

“Get the hell away from me.” I peeled her fingers, one by one, from my tuxedo sleeve.

“You just don’t know a good thing when you see it,” she smiled.

“If you’re such a damned good thing, why did your husband try to shoot me? If you’re such a good thing, why aren’t you sitting next to—?”

The ladies’ bathroom door opened and I stopped to stare at the woman who was coming out the door. She was taller than Alicia, and just as juicy. She was shorter than Gracie, yet—I cringed as I realized it—without Gracie’s elegant toughness. Real rocks, real diamonds, not like the cheap crystal knockoffs Maris wore, hung from this woman’s ears and a string of single diamonds rested on a chain in the soft hollow of her throat, shimmering like the silver cocktail dress she wore. Her blue-black hair curled around her shoulders and her black brows arched perfectly over her dark brown eyes, edged in thick, black eyelashes. Her makeup was impeccable and her olive-colored skin had the toned, slightly rosy look of someone whose only reason for living consisted of drinking in the adulation of others. She looked like the kind of woman who wouldn’t even let you in the door until her clothing was impeccable and her makeup was perfect and didn’t care how long she made you wait.

Nations went to war over this kind of woman, and crimes were gladly committed in her name; the man who won her knew he had a trophy. In bigger cities or older societies, a woman like this would be the queen consort or the president’s wife; she wouldn’t give the time of day to a small town cop. “OUT OF YOUR LEAGUE” flashed over her head in three kinds of neon.

There was something in her face that I’d seen before, though. Maybe it was the curve of her nose, the arch of her sardonic smile, as she passed Maris and me on her way back into the benefit.

“So, you want to meet later for drinks?” Maris walked her fingers up my arm.

I pushed Maris’s hand away and stared as the woman slipped through the arched lobby opening.

“Shut up. Get your sorry ass back to where you belong.”

This dark haired beauty walking away from me never knew anything but white-glove care and adoration from the moment she woke in the morning until she closed her eyes at night.

Or had she?

Take away the make up, the fancy clothes and the hair, and she wasn’t much different than a lot of folks in Fawcettville. Her Mediterranean looks made me think she was somehow tied to the New Tivoli neighborhood; one bad choice in her life could have changed her life’s trajectory immensely, sending her to a job at the grocery store like Susan Atwater rather than a life spent on a pedestal. And she didn’t have to be the one who made the choice—it could have been made for her in the closing potteries and steel mills over the painful economic tides this town suffered over the years.

Put a scarf around the neck, add the damage of an abusive boyfriend plus the hard mileage of addiction then top it off with some cheap dollar-store clothing—I knew suddenly where I’d seen that face.

It was in Gina Cantolini’s casket.]

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.

Call Fitz Chapter 12

Chapter 12

 

If I were back at home, I would have spent this Saturday on the couch, watching a baseball game, drinking a beer with Gracie at my side. I wouldn’t have worried about this shit until Monday. Living at the office made it hard to stop working.

Maybe a little distraction would help me out. I wandered over to the television atop the filing cabinets across from my desk and turned it on. I leaned back in my office chair and put my feet on the desk. I pulled the remote from the middle desk drawer, flipping through the infomercials and old movies, settling mindlessly on some blonde trying to sell cookware.

Within a few minutes, the phone rang. I leaned over to pick up it up, leaving my feet on the desk.

“Fitzhugh Investigations,” I said.

“Mr. Fitzhugh? This is Sharon Hansen.” Her voice was mouse-like and timid.

I sat up straight.

“Hello! Thanks for calling me back, especially on a Saturday. I’m sorry to bother you at such a bad time, but I’m investigating the death of your daughter Gina and just had a couple questions.”

She sighed, painfully. I hated talking to victim’s family members. This one could be especially hard. The woman had lived through the sexual abuse of her daughter by her husband for god sake. Now that daughter, who obviously struggled with keeping the horror of her abuse at bay through drugs and alcohol, had been murdered.

“What do you need to know?”

“I’m looking for information on Gina, her background and any contact you might have had with her recently.”

Another painful sigh.

“Gina and I have been estranged for a number of years. Her drug and alcohol problems were so severe that I had to separate myself from her. I’m sure you understand.” The words caught in the back of Sharon’s throat. How much agony did this woman have to endure?

I’d seen enough addiction and concerned family members to know that, sadly, happened sometimes. The violence, the theft, and the drama: after a while you just had to shut the door for your own self-preservation. But her daughter was dead. The drama —with her at least—was over and she deserved a decent goodbye.

“I saw the stories in the Beacon-Journal. You and your family have been through a lot. I hate to see something like that happen. But I have to ask why you didn’t come to her funeral?”

“I’ve been in ill health for some time, Mr. Fitzhugh, and confined to a wheelchair. I can’t drive anymore as a result and I couldn’t find anyone to bring me.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. It was a nice service.”

Sharon was silent.

“So are you aware you have three grandchildren?”

“No I’m not.” Her mousy, pained voice turned flat.

That’s an odd reaction. Most people I know would be thrilled to know they’re grandparents. Not me, of course, but then I’m not most people.

“Two boys and a girl. Cute kids.”

“Mmm.”

“I heard that the bar Gina worked at raised money for her burial and got about half the amount. Some unknown benefactor paid for the rest, supposedly. Do you have any idea who would do that?”

“No I don’t. As I told you, Mr. Fitzhugh, I’ve been out of touch with my daughter for a number of years as a result of her addictions. It’s been a long hard road. I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

“You don’t want to know what’s going to happen to your grandchildren? Or what is going on with the investigation?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Fitzhugh. It’s not that I don’t want to help, it’s just a matter that I can’t.” She hung up.

That’s weird.

What about Tina? Maybe Tina Cantolini-Jones had a little more insight into this mess. I turned the laptop back on and began my search again for phone numbers. The Indians were playing the Tigers by this time and losing by a run. Maybe by the end of my phone calls, they’d be ahead.

I didn’t find any “Tina Cantolini-Jones” and no “Tina Cantolini” listed by herself, so I made the assumption Tina and her husband Sam were still married.

I started with every Sam Jones listed in San Francisco; when that didn’t work, I tried every “S. and T. Jones” listed, then every “S. Jones.” After hours of hearing “Sorry, wrong number” my blood pressure was up and the Indians were down another run. OK, one last try and I fucking quit. I pushed in the number for the last S. Jones and listened to the phone ring.

In the background, the announcer droned on: It’s bottom of the ninth and there’s two outs. Indians are up to bat. They trail by two runs and the bases are loaded—

A young boy, his voice cracking with puberty, answered the phone. “Hello?”

There’s the wind up—

“Hi, I’m looking for Tina Cantolini-Jones?”

And the pitch—

“Hang on.” The phone made a thunk as he dropped it. I heard a yell: “Mo-o-o-o-om! Pho-o-o-o-one!” I held my breath as footsteps came closer to the phone. Please let them belong to the woman I’m looking for.

In the background, the announcer kept talking. He swings—

“Hello, this is Tina Cantolini-Jones.”

He connects with a powerful crack of the bat and that ball is flying! It’s on fire!

            “Hi, my name’s Niccolo Fitzhugh. I’m a private detective. I’m looking into the death of Gina Cantolini.”

She sighed. “She’s dead? I didn’t know that. That breaks my heart.”

And the ball sails up, up, up—it’s heading toward the scoreboard—

“Yes ma’am. She was murdered last week. They found her body under the stage at the Italian Festival in Fawcettville. I was wondering if you can tell me anything about her, specifically, her mother Sharon.”

“Oh, I can fill you in on Sharon.”

And it’s a goner! It’s a home run! The Indians win!

“What can you tell me about her? Anything specific you think would help my case? I’m looking into—”

“That bitch? It’s about time somebody exposed what she did to my brother.” Tina turned from a well-bred California mom back to her hardscrabble eastern Ohio roots.

           “Excuse me?”

“Sharon fabricated everything she had that girl say on the stand. Nothing that girl said was true! Nothing! That little bitch ruined a good man and I tell you from the bottom of my heart, my brother never did that! Never!”

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You mean Gina? It was Gina who testified against her father, right?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I pulled the TV remote from my middle desk drawer, shut off the post-game celebration and put Tina on speaker. I needed to hear every nuance in her words. Her rage and the anger burned through phone lines and she was near tears. This had been simmering for a long, long time.

“No Gina didn’t testify against her father—she was the only one in that family who wasn’t bent on destroying Brian! It was Mariella, the older one.”

I thought back to Alberto’s death notice.

“Mariella was a younger sister? She was listed second in your father’s obituary, behind Gina.”

“Mariella is five years older than Gina. She was twenty when Sharon and my brother split up.”

“She was twenty when she accused her father of sexually abusing her? What the hell started that?”

“Sharon manipulated her into doing it. She called her at night at her college dorm—Mariella was going to Akron State, and wasn’t happy there. Sharon started unloading on Mariella about how miserable she was being married to her father and somehow planted the idea she’d caught her father abusing her when she was a little girl.”

“What?”

“Sharon was a master manipulator. I never understood what Brian saw in her, but he was a bookworm, never dated much. He probably thought that some babe like Sharon was going to be his dream girl. She wasn’t.” Tina spit out the word like it was poison.

“What was Sharon like?”

“She was horrible to live with. She put on one face for the public, where everyone thought she was sweet and lovely and did no wrong, but she was different behind closed doors. Brian told me after the girls were born he couldn’t do anything to make her happy. He’d do anything that woman wanted. If she wanted a new car, he’d get her one, even on a teacher’s salary. She wants a new house? They go looking for one. Sharon always dressed to the nines—she never went out without looking like a million bucks. Once, on a whim, she wanted their bedroom painted, so my brother takes a whole Saturday and paints those walls the color she wanted and everything. And when she got home with the girls from a shopping trip, she told him it didn’t turn out the way she wanted and to paint it back the original color. And he did it!”

“Wow.”

“So she keeps working on Mariella, feeding her this garbage that Brian abused her, all the while riding him like a rented mule. He was too fat; they didn’t live in a nice enough neighborhood, why hadn’t they gone to Europe like all her fancy friends? He used to call me on his way home from work and tell me all this crap. He was miserable and then he finally met somebody, somebody who treated him like a human being. When he realized that Brian decided to file for divorce. He couldn’t stand Sharon any more.”

“What happened then?”

“Brian didn’t understand why Mariella suddenly wouldn’t talk to him, so he took a day off from work and drives up to see her at college. I always thought Mariella was a lot like her dad, really gullible and in some ways not real bright, but she had her mother’s vicious streak, too. She confronted him with all this made up crap. He was flabbergasted, and then he was devastated. He tried to convince Mariella she’d been fed a load of garbage, but she believed her mother. When he confronted Sharon about the whole situation that night, it all blew up.”

Tina stopped and gathered her thoughts.

“She filed for divorce, threw Brian out of the house, then she and Mariella filed a complaint. That got Brian suspended from school, then charged with child abuse and the papers got hold of it…” her words trailed off. “Mariella’s testimony made sure Brian was going to be convicted. When he heard it and saw the jury’s reaction, he went home and blew his brains out.”

“I am so sorry.”

“Gina saw through a lot of it, even though she was only fifteen. She kept trying to tell the officials that Mariella was lying but they wrote her off, didn’t take her seriously at all. After Brian killed himself, Sharon turned on that kid and absolutely ruined her life. Sharon told Gina she was wrong, a loser like her dad. Made the kid question every memory she ever had from her childhood. Gina would call me and tell me what was going on. She hung on to how she knew her Daddy wasn’t that kind of guy and her mother crucified her for it.”

“When did Gina come back to Fawcettville?”

“As soon as she turned eighteen, she left. I don’t know why she went back to where Mom and Dad lived, but she did. Maybe she was trying to find some old family connections back in the New Tivoli neighborhood or something, I don’t know. She already had a drug and alcohol problem, poor kid. It was her only way to escape her mother.”

“So why did you leave Ohio?”

“The trial and Brian’s suicide just ruined everything. Mom couldn’t go anywhere without people whispering and pointing. Dad was heartbroken. He died within a couple months of Brian’s suicide. It was the same for my family. Sam had an opportunity to transfer to San Francisco, so we packed up all our stuff and Mom and moved out here. We’ve been here ever since—the only time we came back was to bury Mom next to Dad in Pittsburgh. Nobody knows the Cantolini name out here.”

“Do you have any contact at all with Sharon or Mariella?”

“Are you kidding? I wrote that bitch and her idiot daughter off long ago.”

“I have to tell you, I talked to Sharon a couple hours ago.”

“I’m sorry for you.”

“No, actually, she sounded very timid, very unassuming.”

“Yeah, well, that’s part of the game she plays.”

“She said she was in a wheelchair now and couldn’t make it to Gina’s funeral because she can’t drive. Said she couldn’t find anyone to bring her.”

“She could tell me the sun comes up in the east and I wouldn’t believe her. I not only wouldn’t believe her, I’d call her doctor to check the diagnosis and then find out where she bought the wheelchair and ask to see the receipt. That bitch is lying through her teeth.”

I sighed. So Gina wasn’t a victim of her father—both she and Daddy were the victim of a real Mommy Dearest. I remembered Gina’s sad eyes in the back seat of my cruiser and understood. My victim tried to stand up for what is right and got beaten down for it. What kind of person did that to her own daughter?

“A couple years ago I got a wedding invitation from Mariella. She was marrying some guy back there, but I don’t remember the name. I threw the whole thing out.”

“If I have any more questions, can I call you back?”

“Sure. I want somebody to give that bitch everything that she’s got coming.”

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.

Call Fitz Chapter 11

CallFitzcover

It was Saturday morning and I was sitting at the Mexican restaurant, enjoying Lupe’s huevos rancheros and searching the Internet on my laptop.

Lupe came by and draped her arm around my shoulders. She leaned over me to pour another cup of her strong coffee.

“Qué estás haciendo?” she asked, sliding into the booth beside me. “What are you doing?”

“Working a case,” I said, squinting at the screen. I needed reading glasses, but was too vain to go get them. It would mean I’d have to admit I was middle aged. Ma’s comments that I was old enough to be someone’s grandfather didn’t help. Fuck this getting old shit. “I’m looking into my murder victim’s past.”

I hadn’t found much, except Alberto and Adele’s death records in Pennsylvania, where Alberto found work with US Steel. Both died in Pittsburgh about the time Gina would have been in kindergarten. The trick was finding out where the hell their children went —and whether Gina was Brian’s daughter or Tina’s.

Most of what I needed—death and birth certificates, divorce or marriage records—I could order online, but Michael Atwater only had a week before the grand jury convened and I couldn’t wait for the mailman to solve my case.

Driving the ninety minutes to Pittsburgh to see Alberto and Adele’s old neighborhood might or might not have gotten me the information I needed. People in their age group were probably already dead or retired to Florida. There might not be anyone around who knew them.

My chances were a little better with the Internet and any court records I could dig up. Hopefully they would be in the surrounding counties. Most every county around here was considerate enough to archive every damned piece of paper connected to recent court cases, from original appearances, to media requests to have cameras in the courtroom, verdicts and sentencing hearings. All I needed was to find what I needed, then click the ‘download’ button and I was good to go. The catch could be if the court records went back further than twenty years. If they were, they’d be archived someplace, maybe off site, away from the courthouse, which could cause additional delays. I’d have to drive to the courthouse to pick up the documents, more time wasted.

“If you need anything else, cariño, you just call,” Lupe said, sliding out of my booth, and running her hand familiarly along my shoulders.

I waved absently as she left. I was running out of time and needed to find something to jumpstart this case, not the sweet, warm smell of a woman.

Using my index fingers, I typed “Tina Cantolini + Ohio” into the computer, hoping for enough of a news record to start my search. I hit pay dirt: the results located a Tina Cantolini outside of Cleveland in Shaker Heights. I flipped through a few newspaper entries: She married a businessman named Jones, hyphenated her last name and was active in all the right social climbing crap. She organized the bake sales at her children’s private school, was active in the Junior League and even had an exhibit of her photography at a local gallery. All Shaker Heights references of her stopped, then picked up a couple years later with another photography exhibit in San Francisco.

That’s a hell of a long way to move. Why leave Ohio? Was this the right Tina Cantolini-Jones? A little further down I got my confirmation with Alberto’s obituary: “… He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Adele, and a daughter, Tina Cantolini-Jones (Sam) of San Francisco, six grandchildren, Louis, Lena, James and Jennifer Cantolini-Jones, and Gina and Mariella Cantolini. A son, Brian, preceded him in death. Services will be held…”

So Gina was Brian’s daughter, huh? Looks like we’re making progress, I thought as I took a sip of my cooling coffee. I punched in “Brian Cantolini + Ohio” and gasped.

Four pages of archived newspaper stories filled my screen: “Local teacher charged with sex crimes,” “Jury hears graphic testimony in teacher sex-crime case,” and finally, “Teacher charged with sex abuse commits suicide.”

The news stories in the Akron Beacon-Journal were ten years old. I would have been at the end of my police career and too wrapped up in my own life to pay attention to anything that happened out of town; Gina would have been fifteen. When I picked her up seven years ago for shoplifting, she was eighteen and already had a drinking problem, and probably a drug problem as well. Maybe her problems started when Daddy Brian thought he’d visit her bedroom late at night. Maybe that bastard was the one who started her down her destructive road. Maybe getting to know Gina a little better, even post-mortem, might lead me to her killer.

I skimmed one of the stories: Brian had been a beloved English teacher at one of Akron’s most elite private schools, introducing his students to Whitman, Keats, and Shakespeare. Then his wife, Sharon, filed for divorce—along with filing a Department of Family Services complaint that Brian had sexually abused their daughter. The school administration was notified, which triggered a long and loud school board meeting, filled with acrimonious comments by supporters on both sides. Brian’s suspension, along with his vehement denials, was front-page news and so was the trial.
A few more clicks and I found video from an Akron TV station. The reporter stood outside the Summit County courthouse, interviewing a black-haired man in a trench coat. The crawl at the bottom of the screen said it was Brian Cantolini.

He had the same kind of John Wayne Gacy face I’d seen thousands of times before: a little plump and starting to sag with age. His beady eyes didn’t match the warm and welcoming smile. I could see where his supporters thought he was just a great English teacher, who opened their child’s minds to the mystery of poetry, and encouraged their love of literature and writing.

As a cop, I knew better.

Brian Cantolini was the same kind of guy who showed up at kid’s parties as a clown, luring young boys and girls over to his house where he’d offer them toys and candy and games and, when they were comfortable enough, made his move to destroy their innocence, their psyches and fuck up their entire lives.

No wonder Gina was a drunk at 18 and dead by 25.

“This whole thing is a vendetta engineered by my ex-wife,” Cantolini told the reporter. “I never did what she accused me of. I never laid a hand on my daughter!”

The reporter leaned in to ask another question, but Brian’s lawyer held up his hand.

“We will not try this case in the court of public opinion,” the lawyer said. “Our case will show that these charges are completely fabricated, engineered to ruin a good man and keep a great teacher from doing what he does best.”

I clicked the video off. Whatever. That’s what all those perverts said. At least I knew where Gina went off the tracks.

I clicked through a few other stories: apparently, Gina’s recorded testimony was shown in closed court; the graphic nature of Brian’s deeds caused one juror to vomit and another to leave crying, according to the story.

Two days later, before Brian even had a chance to present his defense, he blew his brains out.

At least he saved the State of Ohio a lot of money on appeals and prisoner meals.

I clicked back to Tina Cantolini-Jones. Her move to San Francisco looked like it happened about the same time as Brian’s suicide, no doubt out of shame and embarrassment. Can’t blame her—living with the knowledge that your own brother was a pervert and abused your niece must be a bitch.

I pulled a ten-dollar bill out of my wallet, tucked it under my coffee cup and stood, folding my laptop under my arm. Lupe, taking someone’s order at the back of the restaurant, waved as I left.
I wonder where Sharon Cantolini was these days? Maybe she could help me find out some more information.

Like why she didn’t show up at Gina’s funeral?

Or pay for it?

Those questions weren’t appropriate for Lupe’s place on a Saturday morning. Besides, it would take a little longer to chase her down and I needed to get ready for the symphony benefit.

After I left Lupe’s, I got a haircut and a shave at the barber’s down the street from my office. My tuxedo was hanging in the waiting room closet for me—and I should have been thinking about Gracie—but I had a few hours to kill before I slipped into the monkey suit and begged my wife for forgiveness.

I wanted to find Sharon Cantolini first. I plugged in the laptop again and started searching for phone numbers. No luck, at least in Ohio. I went back to the Summit County Clerk of Courts web site and began looking there. Nothing—at least she kept her nose clean after Brian’s suicide.

Maybe she tied the knot again? I searched the Probate Court records for a marriage license. Boom! There it was: Sharon Cantolini got remarried a year after Brian’s suicide to some schmuck named Joe Hansen, a loan officer at a local bank. At the time of her remarriage, she was living at an address in North Canton. Out of curiosity, I jumped back to the Auditor’s web site and checked the property tax records, just to see how—or if—the widow Cantolini spent her soon-to-be ex-husband’s life insurance money.

The house was in a neighborhood of older well-kept homes, built in the 1920s, along a group of streets named after Ivy League colleges. The house, at the corner of Northwest Princeton and East Yale streets, was nothing extravagant, nothing suspicious, well kept in a genteel, upper class sort of way, judging from the photo. She bought the house eight months after Brian’s death. After she tied the knot Joe Hansen, his name was added to the deed and hers was changed to reflect their nuptials.
A few more clicks and I had a home number. Thank God for those of us who still have landlines. I punched the number into my office phone and waited for Sharon Hansen to pick up the phone.
A perky “Hi, you’ve reached the Hansen’s” was the only voice I heard on the other end of the line. Oh, well. I left my name and number and the reason for my call. Hopefully, she’d call me back.
Maybe there were reasons why she didn’t come to Gina’s funeral. Maybe Brian’s abuse just caused too much damage and Sharon lost touch as her daughter fell into her destructive lifestyle. Maybe Sharon didn’t know Gina was dead—or that she had three grandchildren. Maybe Sharon was in ill health and couldn’t come. Maybe she was too ashamed of the life her daughter had adopted—or maybe just too judgmental. Families put up walls over the damnedest things.

Then again, maybe it was Sharon who anonymously paid for Gina’s funeral.

Who knows?

At any rate, what mother wouldn’t want to help in the search for her daughter’s killer?

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.

Call Fitz Chapter 10

I woke up stiff and sore on my waiting room couch Friday before the sun came up. I folded up my blanket and put it, along with my lumpy pillow, in the waiting room closet, sighing as I wondered how many more uncomfortable nights there would be on that cracked leather beast.

Until I could work things out with Gracie, there might be more than I care to think about.

If I could work things out with Gracie.

My dying marriage needed to go on the back burner for now, however. I needed to focus on nailing Jacob Poole. Pinning Gina’s death on him was my last hope to free Michael Atwater. There had to be something in Poole’s life that could connect him to Gina’s murder.

My cell phone beeped with a text message as I filled up the coffee pot in my office bathroom.

It was Ambrosi. He’d had subpoenaed Poole’s phone at my request a couple days ago. Yesterday, Poole (and his attorney) willingly showed up, turned over the phone and the tech people Ambrosi hired were looking into it.

Not the actions of a killer.

Then why should I waste time looking into the actions of a man who was cooperating fully with the investigation?

Reno Elliot didn’t kill Gina. His demands on her were pretty fucked up and he was one shitty cop, but the bruises on Alicia Linnerman’s arm proved he wasn’t around to kill her.

But who was Jorge Rivera and what was his relationship with Elliot? Who shot him—or whom did he shoot? And where was the body? Was Rivera tied to Monroe somehow? Who hired Rivera to push me off the case and why?

I sipped my coffee as I flipped through the Atwater file, going through the same basic facts one more time. Nothing jumped out at me. Nothing.

There were steps outside my office door and today’s newspaper slid through the mail slot. I shuffled over to pick it up.

Two lead stories screamed for attention above the fold. On the left was a story about Gina’s funeral, slated for this afternoon: “Murder victim to be laid to rest.” On the right were Dave Lance’s headshot and the story “Prosecutor seeks Common Pleas bench.”

Maybe I ought to look into Gina Cantolini—maybe her past could lead me to a reason for her death. I scanned the story, which was basically a recap of the murder. Oddly enough, no next of kin was quoted or named.

Why wasn’t her family mentioned? Maybe my answers lie there.

Her parents didn’t live here according to stuff she’d told me when I’d arrested her in the waning days of my police career.

She was just eighteen and already a drunk, with the sad face of someone much older and much more defeated than someone three times her age. I picked her up trying to shoplift a bottle of whiskey.

“You got family to come get you?” I asked, trying to meet her sodden eyes in the cruiser’s rearview mirror. “They’ll book you and then release you since it’s a misdemeanor.”

“No.” She wouldn’t return my gaze. Instead, she watched the traffic go by, leaning her forehead on the window.

“Nobody?”

She didn’t answer and I didn’t push. I learned later she was homeless and sometimes stayed at the women’s shelter at a nearby church. Now, seven years later she was dead and I couldn’t find out why.

Growing up, I couldn’t recall anyone named Cantolini in the New Tivoli neighborhood, but that didn’t mean anything. Like any kid, my world existed only in the three-block area I was allowed to ride my bike. There could have been multiple Cantolini families living cheek by jowl in the duplexes that marked the edge of New Tivoli two blocks over, I would have never known. No one from my high school class had that moniker, but again, I didn’t know if that was a married or a maiden name. For all I know, Gina could have been born a Smith, a Jones, or a Johnson.

I had a week before the grand jury convened. I needed to get busy or Michael Atwater would be facing a murder trial. I needed to consult my ultimate source on New Tivoli. I picked up my cell phone and punched in a number. In a few rings, she picked up.

“Ma? Hey, it’s me, Niccolo. No, no. I’m fine. No, there’s no crisis. Yes, Gracie is fine. I’m calling early because I wanted to catch you before you went to Mass. No, I haven’t moved back home yet. Can I come over later this morning? I need to ask you something about a case.”

*****

The white house I grew up in sat on a small corner lot, circled by Ma’s Floribunda roses. Since Dad’s death a few years ago, she’d thrown herself into gardening, replacing the tulips, the marigolds and the petunias with the same roses she carried on her wedding day. Using Dad’s life insurance money, she’d had the clapboard exterior covered in aluminum siding, since he wouldn’t be around to paint it every five years, but left the interior of the house stuck in the mid-seventies.

I knocked, bracing for how she’d look when she came to the door. Ma was always thin, but these days had shrunken to a bird-like ninety-five pounds, her dowager’s hump stealing more and more of what little height she had left. She pinned her gray hair in the same tight bun she’d worn the day Officer Aidan Fitzhugh pulled her over for a broken taillight in 1949. I knew I wouldn’t have Maria Gallione Fitzhugh in my life much longer; her appearance at the front door of that white house reminded me every time I saw her.

Today was no different. She still had her black dress on from this morning’s mass, but she’d taken off her orthopedic shoes and replaced them with pink fuzzy slippers.

“Niccolo! Niccolo!” Sounding like she’d just gotten off the boat from the Old Country, instead of being a lifelong Fawcettville resident, she reached up to hug me then waved me inside. “Come inside! Come inside!”

I shut the oak door behind us and followed her through the dark living room and into the kitchen. A pot of pasta fagioli simmered on the old olive green stove.

“I see Sophia Armando brought you some soup,” I said, taking a seat at the familiar dinner table.

“And it tasted like merda.” Ma spit into the stainless steel sink with disgust. “I threw it out the next day. This is fresh. Sophia Armando is the worst cook in the neighborhood. Why did you tell her she could bring that immondizia to my house? Coffee?”

I shrugged. There was never any sense in arguing with Ma, no matter what the subject. “Sure.”

She put a tiny cup of espresso in front of me and I loaded it up with sugar. I waited to speak until she shuffled over with her own cup and sat down across from me. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

“So when are you and Gracie getting back together?” she demanded. Her claw-like hand trembled slightly as she lifted her cup to her lips, her eyebrows arched.

“I don’t know, Ma.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” She stopped sipping, gesturing widely with her hands.

“I didn’t come here to talk about Gracie.”

“What do you mean you didn’t come here to talk about your wife? What kind of husband are you? I get twenty grandchildren from your brothers and sisters, but the one son I tell everyone is my favorite, the one who follows in his father’s footsteps, God rest his soul, I get niente, nothing.”

“Ma.”

“That’s what happens when you decide you gotta wait until your old enough to be a grandfather yourself before you get married—”

“Ma, I’m not old enough to be a grandfather.”

“Sure you are! Sophia Armando’s daughter, remember her? The one you dated in high school? She got married right out of nursing school and had four children before Sophia was fifty-five, the same age you are now. Thank god, you didn’t marry Barbara though. She probably couldn’t cook any better than her mother. Not that I would have tried to teacher her—that’s a mother’s job to teach their daughters how to cook. I wouldn’t have shared my marinara recipe with her anyway. She would ruin it.”

Ma! Stop it!”

“What do you want, then?” Ma looked at me like I was being rude. Her white espresso cup clinked delicately on its saucer as she sat it down.

“I came here to ask you if there were ever any Cantolini’s that lived in the neighborhood.”

“Cantolini? Hmmm…” She tapped her index finger on the table. “There was one family, down near Puccini’s, but they moved away by the time you were in eighth grade. They had a son, I think, and a daughter. You wouldn’t have known them because the kids, they went to St. Rita’s. I wanted you kids should have a good Catholic education, too, but with us living on a cop’s salary, that wasn’t possible. So we send you to the city schools. That wasn’t too bad. I mean, you got a football scholarship out of it, didn’t you?”

“Focus, Ma, focus. Where did they move to?”

Ma shrugged. “How should I know?”

“I’m trying to find information on the family of that girl who was murdered. Think, Ma. These folks could have been the victim’s grandparents. If you can just give me a name, it’s something to start with.”

“Let me see… The parent’s first names, they started with A, I think.” Ma rested her chin on her hand, thankfully silent for the moment. “Anselmo? No, that’s not it. Adalberto? No. Wait! Alberto! That’s it! Alberto! The father was Alberto and the mother was Adele. They came here after the war. The son’s name was Brian and the daughter’s name was Tina. There!” She threw her hands up in the air triumphantly. I reached across the table and clasped her grey head in my hands, kissing her forehead.

“Thanks Ma,” I said sinking back into my chair. “What can I do to repay you?”

“Your brothers all married idiots. You were the only one to marry a woman with brains, the only daughter-in-law I can hold a halfway decent conversation with. Go home and make things right with your wife. That’s all I ask.”

*****

Gina’s funeral was held at one of the less classy funeral homes at the edge of Tubman Gardens. Susan Atwater was sitting with her two grandsons in the front row, dabbing at her eyes. Prosecutor Dennis Lance was sitting at the other end of the same row. After today’s newspaper story, I didn’t know if this was to assure the attendees of the hard work his office would do to convict her killer or if it had morphed into a campaign stop.

A small group of Fawcettville’s rougher residents walked through, paying their respects to Gina’s two boys and nodding at Susan Atwater. A few sat in the back rows, intending to stay for the service.

When I was a cop, I spent a lot of time with these folks. These were the people who rode on Fawcettville’s ragged edge, both legally and socially, men and women who worked with their hands and didn’t use gloves, who woke up on Saturday morning hung over and without their weekly wages, if they had any to start with. Their clothes were stained and their steel-toed boots mud-caked, their faces lined with the cost and the dirt of their lives. Uneducated, unwashed and uncouth, even for a dago mick like me, they would throw punches or shank someone at the first perceived slight. Many, like the Atwaters, were the hardscrabble Appalachians who came to Fawcettville to work in the potteries and the mills; they brought with them their mountain fierceness, hard drinking and clan loyalty.

For whatever reason, they adopted Gina.

I got in line to pay my respects to the deceased. Gina’s face was plastered with pasty makeup, and a silk scarf tied around her neck to hide the strangulation marks. I wondered how much work the undertaker had to do to repair the bullet wound in her chest.

Susan Atwater left her grieving grandsons to stand beside me.

“Such a sad, sad story,” I said softly. “Does she have any family here?”

Susan shook her head. “Just the boys.”

I took her elbow and steered her away from the casket and the line of mourners.

“I’m still working to free your son,” I whispered. “I found out the cop didn’t do it.”

“You’re sure?” Susan’s long bony fingers picked at her sleeve.

“I’m sure. He was beating up his girlfriend at the same time Gina was killed, so he couldn’t have done it. I need to ask you a couple questions.”

Susan sighed.

“Who claimed the body? Who paid for this funeral?”

“I identified the body and found the funeral home. The bar where Gina worked took up a collection to pay for this. They came up with about half, but then supposedly some anonymous donor paid the rest.”

“What do you mean ‘supposedly’?”

Susan shrugged. “One of the folks from the bar told me she thought it was the prosecutor. Said he heard it from the funeral home.”

“Why would a prosecutor do that? Did you ask him?”

“I’m not asking that bastard anything,” she hissed. “He wants to kill my boy! He wants the death penalty! I can’t believe he had the nerve to even show up here.”

Canned organ music began to play; my conversation with Susan ended as mourners began to take their seats. A preacher I didn’t recognize—not that I knew who the priest was at St. Rita’s, either—got up to lead the service. My thoughts raced, barely listening as the service droned on.

Could the rumor be right? Why would Dennis Lance pay for the funeral? Why would the prosecutor help pay for a murder victims funeral, if it wasn’t to curry votes? How ethical could that be, especially in light of his formal declaration as a judge candidate? Probably not very ethical at all, considering he’d already declared he wanted to see Michael Atwater face the death penalty. Shouldn’t an action like that make Lance consider recusing himself from the case? My opinion of the man was changing and not for the good. She had to be wrong— had to be. If not, I had to ask what was going on in this town? Between Chief Monroe and the prosecutor, had everybody’s ethics gone down the shitter?

I stood as six mourners, in black tee-shirts and jeans, walked Gina’s now closed casket down the aisle and out to the hearse. Slowly, the crowd shuffled out, a few of them stopping to hug Gina’s boys or shake Susan’s hand. A few stopped to talk to Lance; he made sure to look properly concerned and sincere, as any good candidate would. As the last of the mourners filed out, he approached Susan, his hand extended, looking like he was mining for more votes. Without a word, she turned on the worn heel of her shoe and, grabbing the boys by the hand, walked out.

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.