Call Fitz Chapter 9

I’m trying something new: posting a chapter of my first PI novel CALL FITZ here on my blog for you to enjoy. Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com.

Chapter 9

 

“So you’re saying that Reno Elliot couldn’t possibly be Gina Cantolini’s killer because at the time of her death, he was beating you up?”

Alicia Linnerman was no shrinking violet—and from the size of Sadie, no crazy cat lady either. She looked me straight in the eye and nodded.

“He tried to at any rate. He grabbed me by the arm as you can see and slapped me a couple times, but Sadie put an end to that real quick—she had him cornered in bathroom by the time the police responded. Didn’t you, girl?” Alicia pulled her sleeve back down and patted the panting mastiff on the head. “I’m too nearsighted to be a good shot, so as a woman living alone, Sadie is the next best thing. She proved that Sunday night. Elliot was taken in and charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, but they let him go, ROR.”

“Released on his own recognizance.” I nodded. “I’m surprised that didn’t show up in the paper.”

Alicia shrugged. “I can’t comment on how the police do or do not handle press inquiries on one of their own. There’s an awful lot of ugly going on at the FPD right now. I’m sure you could get a copy of the report, though.”

I sighed. “If they filed one. I don’t believe, and Jim Ambrosi doesn’t believe, that his client Michael Atwater is guilty. I hoped I was onto something with Reno Elliot, but I guess not.”

“I hate to disappoint you, Mr. Fitzhugh. I’d like to hang the bastard as much as you would, but I think a murder charge won’t stick.” Alicia picked up her glass of wine and walked toward to kitchen. “Can I get you something to drink? A glass of wine? A beer? It might take the sting off a bit.”

“Call me Fitz,” I said, following her into a small kitchen that was just as trendy as the living room. “Sure. A beer sounds great.”

Alicia opened the fridge and leaned over to pull a beer from the bottom shelf. I liked the look of her round behind, still in the conservative navy work skirt he’d had on when she walked out of the courthouse.

            She stood quickly, catching my stare and blushed as she handed me the beer. She pulled a pilsner glass from a cabinet and sat it on the kitchen table, across from her wine glass.

“Have a seat, Fitz. Tell me about yourself.”

I twisted the cap off the beer bottle.

“What do you want to know?” I turned to toss the bottle cap into the trashcan behind me. “Or should I ask, what have you heard?”

Alicia smiled and took a sip from her wine.

“A couple friends over in domestic court that mentioned you one or two times. I know you do a lot of work for the divorce lawyers in town.”

I nodded. “That’s true. I retired from the police force about seven years ago and got my PI license. It pays the rent.”

She looked down at her wine glass and spun it in between her fingers. She looked up over her glasses. Her eyes were cornflower blue, ringed with thick black lashes and sucked me in with their intensity.

“You married?”

“I’m separated.”

“Ahhh.”

“What’s that mean?”

She smiled and shrugged. “Just asking.”

“So let me ask you a question. How’d you end up in Fawcettville? And with Reno Elliot?”

Her smile turned a little sad. “I came to Fawcettville basically so I could be a big fish in a small pond, maybe make my name on a big case or two. As for my personal life, I was just out of Cleveland Marshall College of Law and tired of working in Akron when I met Reno on a case.”

“As a defendant or as a witness for the state?” I took a sip of my beer. I liked this girl. I liked her a lot. Why did she get involved with a scumbag like Elliot?

“Aren’t you snarky? I was in the prosecutor’s office then, too. So he was a witness, when I met him, of course,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of his background then and over the last year as I learned more about him, defended him to everyone I knew, like anybody involved with a jerk does.”

“Was this the first time he hit you?”

“He was never the calmest guy I ever dated. But in the last six months or so, I saw a lot more anger, I don’t know why. We had more arguments and they escalated pretty quickly. I never understood that dynamic with the DV cases I’d handled before. Let’s just say I’ve become a little more sympathetic.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Mind if I ask why you and your wife separated?” She looked at me again with those fierce cornflower blue eyes.

“It was a bit of a compromising situation. Let’s just say that.”

“I’ve heard that about you, too.” Her eyes didn’t move from my face. She may have just split up with a boyfriend, but this girl wasn’t letting any grass grow under her feet. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.

“I was always faithful to my wife, OK?”

“I thought you said you were caught in a compromising position.”

“It wasn’t what it looked like, but unfortunately I can’t convince her of that.”

“I understand.” She didn’t look like she believed me.

We were silent for a moment as each of us sipped on our drinks, both of us trying to figure out what hung in the air was between us, whether it was going to stay professional or veer dangerously, for me anyway, into the personal. It was probably best to change the subject.

“I hear your boss is thinking about running for office.”

“Yes. He wants to be the next Common Pleas judge.”

“Think he’ll be a good one?”

She took a sip of her wine before she answered.

“I think he’ll be pretty good. Dennis is a good guy.”

“That sounds pretty non-committal. I always liked working with him when I was with the PD. You know something I don’t know?”

She shrugged and smiled.

“We’re kind of getting roped into campaigning for him—unofficially of course. He hasn’t got anyone running against him yet but he’s bought us all tickets to some big thing this weekend.”

“The symphony benefit?”

“Yes. He’s aware of current ethics laws, so anyone who didn’t want to go didn’t have to. Everyone in the office has rented tuxedos and we’ll be wearing campaign tee shirts with them: ‘Lance for Judge’ or something like that.”

“My wife plays cello for the symphony. Her name’s Grace Darcy, Dr. Grace Darcy. She teaches music theory at the college—and cello, of course.”

“Oh? So will you be there?” The blue eyes drilled through me again.

“Yes I will. Grace is performing.” It was time to go. I stood, drained my bottle and sat the empty on the counter. “I want to thank you for your time, and the beer. I’m sorry for what happened to you, but it clears Officer Elliot of murder.”

The predatory vibe emanating from her side of the table seemed to diminish. She tossed back what was left of her wine and escorted me to the front door. Sadie jumped off the couch as we passed and, once at the door, stood beside me, pawing my leg. I reached down and scratched her ear.

“She doesn’t do that with just anybody,” Alicia said. “You must be a nice guy, down deep inside.”

“It’s the same story—all I attract is dogs and dangerous women.” I smiled.

Alicia laughed. “And all I fall for is bad boys.”

I leaned in close, close enough to smell the wine on her breath and sense the heat of her skin. I wanted to kiss her, the first time I’d felt that way in a long time. She tipped her chin up; I cupped it with my hand, leaning in for the kiss.

I stopped. I couldn’t do it—not if I wanted to get Gracie back.

“And despite what Sadie believes,” I whispered. “I’d be just another bad boy.”

She stepped back and smiled as she opened the door. “That’s too bad, Fitz. I get the feeling you might just be worth the trouble.”

*****

Back at my office, I sat the cardboard tray holding my fast food on the desk and flopped into my chair. I opened the lower desk drawer and sighed, pulling out my wedding picture from the bottom drawer, where it lived next to its neighbor, the bottle of bourbon.

I held the wooden frame in both hands. We’d gotten married at city hall by the judge. Gracie was wearing an off-white suit and a small veil and carried a bright red bouquet of roses. I wore my best navy blue suit. My mother took the picture of the two of us standing in front of the smiling judge.

Saturday night was the symphony benefit. It generally followed a standard theme: beginning with a cocktail hour, then moving to dinner at themed tables lushly decorated by a group of symphony spouses. Following dinner, there was an auction of items donated by area businesses, then the symphony performed.

If you were in business or in politics, it was a great place for recognition and meeting with your constituents, as Dennis Lance obviously had planned. Anyone who thought they were anything usually attended, along with long-time symphony supporters and music school faculty from the college.

I took my paper dinner napkin and wiped a smear from the glass covering the photo. Gracie and I were a fixture there. Now that we were separated, why did I even decide to go? Would Gracie even acknowledge me there? Could I stand to see her next to Van Hoven all evening?

By the time I’d met Gracie and decided to settle down, the horn dogging I’d done was a thing of the past. Or had Maris Monroe just scared the shit out of me?

Back then I had an apartment in one of the old converted Victorians in New Tivoli, six blocks from my newly widowed mother.

I’d met Maris once or twice for drinks after my shift. I knew I was playing with fire, but I didn’t care. It was all about the hunt, the conquest, not about getting back at my boss for anything although down deep, that was probably why I was really going after his wife.

I didn’t like Nathaniel Monroe when he was assistant chief and I disliked him even more when he made chief. He got conceited and big headed when he pinned on the chief’s badge. He treated the officers below him like dirt and the rank and file’s opinion went downhill even faster when he dumped his long suffering first wife and took up with Maris.

Like I said, I wasn’t the first notch on Maris Monroe’s bedpost; I was just the first to get caught. She and I found carnal delights for six nights in a row on most of the solid surfaces at my place before everything blew up.

We were on the kitchen floor. She was on top of me when the chief pounded on the door. My hands were exploring the luscious contents of the pink lacey bra bursting out of her shirt as she straddled me; her matching panties were on the floor beside us.

“Open the door, Fitzhugh!” he screamed. “I know you’re in there and I know my wife is with you!”

“Oh my God! Oh my God! He must have followed me here!” Maris jumped up and began buttoning her shirt.

“The door, Fitzhugh! Open the fucking door!” The pounding got louder; it sounded like he was using the butt of his gun. “Maris, I hear you in there! Maris!”

“What do I do? What do I do?” She quickly zipped her skirt and slipped into her shoes.

“Here—” My kitchen window faced the back alley; I opened it and helped her outside onto the fire escape, tossing her purse to her as she ran down the iron stairs.

The hinges on the door gave, splintering the doorframe as Chief Monroe burst in, his weapon drawn. Behind him, my neighbor, the elderly Mrs. Falletti, standing in the hallway in her white muumuu and pink sponge rollers, screamed.

“Where’s my wife? I know she’s in here!” Monroe shoved the barrel of his gun in my face.

I held up my hands. With a quick kick, I tried to send Maris’s underpants beneath the fridge, but Monroe was faster. Keeping the gun trained on me, he bent down and grabbed the pink panties with his free hand.

“Who do these belong to, Fitzhugh? Your sister?”

“So I fucked your wife. I’m not the only one. Go ahead—shoot me. Nobody would blame you,” I said. “You can spin the story however you like. You’ll make certain you come out looking like the hero, I’m sure.”

In the hallway, Mrs. Falletti gasped.

Monroe grabbed me by my shirt and jammed the gun barrel beneath my jaw. I lowered my hands, but didn’t try to resist. Twenty years on the force just went down the shitter. So why be afraid to die? My mother would grieve, as would my brothers and sisters, but the manner of my death wouldn’t surprise anyone. Hell, they probably would think I had it coming.

“Let go of him!” Mrs. Falletti cried. “Don’t shoot him!”

“Here’s how it’s going to go, Fitz,” he hissed into my ear. “You’ve been stalking my wife. You conned her into meeting you for drinks —yes, I know she met you every night this week—and then you abducted her. I followed her phone’s GPS signal here to your apartment, we struggled, and I shot you in self defense as my wife escaped.”

He pulled back the trigger and I closed my eyes. I was going to die over a goddamned piece of ass.

Footsteps pounded up the stairs. Three cops, with their weapons drawn, burst into my apartment. One of them was Lt. Baker.

“Drop the gun, Monroe! Drop it right now!” he commanded, his service revolver trained on the chief.

Monroe lowered his weapon and released me.

“We know what happened here, Nate. Maris called me,” Baker continued, sharply. “If you shoot Fitz, you’re done as a cop. You will spend the rest of your life in prison and you’ll ruin the reputation of this entire police force. You want to ruin your career over some cheap broad like Maris? It’s easier to get divorced.”

Monroe stepped back and holstered his weapon, glaring at Baker. He turned to me.

“You got lucky, Fitzhugh. I had every right to blow your brains all over this wall. I want you in my office at ten thirty tomorrow morning. There will be disciplinary action.”

Monroe and the two other cops left the apartment. Baker waited until the door downstairs closed to speak.

“You’re a good cop, Fitz, even though you’ve pulled a lot of stupid personal shit over the years. I want your retirement papers on my desk half an hour before you’re supposed to meet with Monroe. You’re not going to that meeting with him. This is for your own good and you know it.”

Within six weeks, thanks to some pals at the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, I had my PI license and six months later, I met Gracie.

Had I learned my lesson with Maris Monroe or had I been lucky enough to meet the love of my life? I never could decide which one it was.

I traced Gracie’s face on the photo with my finger. Even though I might not be able to nail Reno Elliot with Gina Cantolini’s murder, and by extension, further tarnish Monroe, I had to get Gracie back.

 

 

Call Fitz Chapter 8

I’m trying something new: posting a chapter of my first PI novel CALL FITZ here on my blog for you to enjoy. Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com.

Chapter 8

The Fawcettville cop was picked up in Akron after a half-dressed woman, bleeding from facial wounds, ran screaming from a cheap motel, into the street where a passing cruiser picked her up, according to the story.
The officer made an attempt to flee in his vehicle; a short chase ended when he hit a parked car six blocks away. He had scratches on his face and arms, and was carrying his badge.
The cop was identified as Reno Elliot. The paper didn’t have a mug shot but ran his FPD shot from the department web site instead.
The victim was a known drug addict and a prostitute with an extensive record; Elliot met her at the corner and allegedly beat her after sex. She suffered facial fractures and two broken ribs, the story said.
I looked over at Ambrosi.
“This doesn’t look good for Elliot, but it looks good for our case,” I said.
“You think Elliot killed Gina?” he asked.
“I think there’s too many things which could tie him to the murder at least circumstantially.” I filled him in on what I’d found out. “He’s got a checkered career at best and now he’s been arrested for beating the shit out of some working girl,” I finished.
“We’ll be stirring up a hornet’s nest if we accuse a cop of murder. You know that, don’t you?” Ambrosi didn’t look like he had the backbone.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked. There’s nothing I want more than to hang Monroe over a dirty cop. If you’re too afraid to do it, you don’t need to be in this business.
Or is this why you’re paying me?
“You don’t think Jacob Poole has anything to do with this?”
“I’m not sure. He showed me a picture on his phone. He said he was at a birthday party for his daughter, supposedly at his sister’s house. If I were you, I’d subpoena that sucker as fast as I could and see if somebody could find where that photo was taken and if the time stamp is accurate. If it turns out that he’s telling the truth, then he’s off the hook.”
“So what happened to your face?”
I filled him in on Rivera, including the shooting in the alley, his alleged post-mortem appearance at Puccini’s coffee shop, along with his previous acquaintance with Elliot.
“What does he have to do with this case?”
“Maybe a lot. I think that the word went out from the jail straight to Chief Monroe that I was investigating this case. Monroe’s out to get me—he has for a long time.”
“Over what?”
“It’s a long story—one that doesn’t make either of us look very good. Anyway, I think Monroe heard I’m on the case and he panicked. He’s terrified our investigation will uncover he’s hired a bad cop. With everything going on with his wife, that could end his career.”
“Ah yes. Mrs. Monroe. I’ve heard quite a bit about her. Not a good situation for a man like the Chief.”
I grimaced.
“I’m betting he thinks Rivera’s intimidation will shake me off the case.”
Ambrosi exhaled the smoke from his acrid cigar toward the ceiling and nodded.
“The grand jury meets next week. If we want to present evidence to clear my client, you need to talk to Elliot.”
*****
Elliot was being held at the East Crosier Street Jail, about an hour from Fawcettville. Males and females were held in the five interconnected diamond-shaped pods surrounded by razor wire and a neighborhood that had seen better days. Because he was a cop, Elliot was being held in isolation for his own protection.
He sat across from me, separated by bulletproof glass.
He looked like he’d had the shit beat out of him. His angular brown face had long fingernail scratches down each cheek. There were abrasions on his muscular arms and on the side of his shaved head. His knuckles were bloody.
I wondered how much of the damage came from the hooker and how much of it came from the crash and his apprehension.
If he hadn’t been so roughed up, I guess I could have seen while someone—Alicia Linnerman, for example—might even think he was handsome.
We picked up the receivers to talk.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked.
“They didn’t tell you my name before they brought me back here?”
“Yeah. I don’t know any Nick Fitzhugh.”
“I’m a PI. I’m looking into what happened to Gina Cantolini and your name keeps coming up.”
“How’s that?” His lip curled sarcastically.
“You broke up a fight between the victim and her boyfriend Sunday night at the Italian Festival.”
“So?”
“You were also heard demanding a blow job from the victim before she died.”
Elliot smirked but didn’t answer.
“Another thing, Officer Elliot, I’m a retired cop. One thing I and my other brothers and sisters don’t take too kindly to is assholes like you who tarnish the badge.”
Reno leaned into the glass, his fist tightly clutching the phone receiver that linked us.
“Listen, I don’t know why you are here and frankly I don’t care—”
“I’m here because I’ve put some things together about you—and they could make you a pretty likely murder suspect. I know what kind of cop you are. I know you’ve bounced from department to department because you’re either too stupid to do what you’re told or you’re one of those dicks who things a gun and a badge is a license to break all the rules.” I leaned in closer, too. I knew the conversation was being recorded and I wanted the jailers to catch every word. “I think this girl who got away from you wasn’t your first. I think you like hitting women, particularly powerless ones who won’t or can’t fight back. I think you found a sad drunk whore in Gina Cantolini and you made her your target.”
I waited for him to say something, but he didn’t, so I kept going.
“You think you have a built-in alibi for the night she died when you were seen breaking up a fight between her and Atwater, but you were overhead giving your opinion on her worthiness to walk this earth. Atwater may be an asshole and a loser, too, but he’s got as much right to oxygen as Gina did.”
Elliot leaned back slightly, but his expression didn’t change.
“I think you wanted something from the victim and you went looking for her that night. Only this time, what you wanted from her was something she got tired of giving you and she fought back. When she fought back, it pissed you off, like it does anytime someone stands up to you, so you killed her. To cover your tracks, you dumped her body back at the festival, where enough people saw her arguing with Michael Atwater to hang him for the crime.”
Elliot leaned back toward the glass.
“You think you can make that stick? Talk to my lawyer.”
“And could that lawyer be Alicia Linnerman? You got her conned, too, Reno? You hit on her?”
“You keep Alicia out of this.”
“The only thing I haven’t got figured out about this whole thing is where you did it. And I’m not going to stop until I do.”
Elliot slammed the received down and called for a guard to escort him back to his cell.
*****
Back in Fawcettville, I stopped at the prosecutor’s office, which was on the second floor of the county courthouse. The courthouse was across the street from the Civil War monument in the center of town, a block from my office, a big Romanesque limestone building, each of the three public entrances flanked with a pair of carved Neptunes staring blankly at those who came through the door.
The prosecutor’s office entrance faced the white marble staircase. I stepped through the door. The spring sunshine shone through a pair of arched stained glass windows, shining blue, green and purple hues down on a row of clerical workers, kept from the public by a rail and gate moved there from the last courtroom remodel.
Dennis Lance, the prosecutor, had an office to the left of the entrance, behind a big carved mahogany door. I knew from experience the four assistant prosecutors had individual cubicles in the office to the right of the entrance.
A large wooden frame showing a pyramid of each staff member’s photo hung on the door above their names, which were engraved on brass plaques. Lance’s “Look at me, I’m your next judge” face was at the top of the heap. Alicia Linnerman’s photo started at the next row.
Her face wasn’t what I thought she’d be: she was neither the tall, gorgeous, TV lawyer in expensive suits, nor the lonely, overweight woman desperate for a man, but a plain-faced competent-looking brunette with glasses and a welcoming smile.
I pointed at the photo.
“I want to see her.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Linnerman is in meetings for the remainder of the afternoon,” the secretary said.
“It’s four-thirty. Thirty minutes isn’t long. I’ll wait till she comes out,” I said, seating myself.
“The meetings aren’t here,” she said firmly. “They’re off site.”
I stood up and pulled a business card from my sweatshirt pocket. “Got it. Please tell her I stopped by.”
“Will do, Mr. Fitzhugh,” she said accepting my card.
Back outside the courthouse, I leaned against one of the majestic maples on the courthouse lawn, watching the employee entrance. At five o’clock, right on schedule, Alicia Linnerman, wearing a pair of outsized sunglasses, and a very lawyerly navy suit, came out the secured door and walked to her car.
“Off-site” my ass.
I got a good look at her as followed at a safe distance. She was medium height, a little plump, but in a good way. She may have had bad taste in men, but she didn’t look at all like the lonely cat lady I’d first imagined.
Parking wasn’t easy in downtown Fawcettville—most everyone coming to the courthouse, including the employees, had to find a spot in the adjacent lot. Only the judges and other elected officials were lucky enough to have designated curbside parking. Lucky for me, Alicia Linnerman was parked just one row over from my Excursion. Even luckier, her bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle made it easy to follow her through what passed for rush hour traffic.
I followed Alicia to where she lived, the only swank apartment complex in the hills overlooking Fawcettville, a complex was where the muckety-mucks and wannabes lived before they decided to move on to bigger things or put down money on a house.
I parked on the street and watched which apartment she went into before sprinting up the sidewalk and knocking on her door.
She threw the door open, smiling like she was expecting someone else, holding a glass of white wine in her hand. A big grey mastiff ran out from the back of the apartment growling. I reached inside my hoodie, making sure I could touch the Glock in my shoulder holster.
“Down, Sadie, down!” Alicia ordered, her smile gone. “Can I help you?” The mastiff sat obediently. I pulled my hand from inside my jacket and handed her a business card.
“Miss Linnerman? I’m Nick Fitzhugh. I’m a private investigator. I need to ask you a few questions about Reno Elliot. May I come in?”
“Sure. Is this is about the incident in Akron, or… something else?”
I followed her into the living room, furnished in sleek hipster grey and lime furniture.
“Something else, sort of.”
“Mr. Elliot and I are no longer romantically involved, no matter what he might have told you.”
“I’m investigating the murder of Gina Cantolini. Her body was found Sunday night under the stage at the Italian Festival. I’m working for the defendant’s attorney, Jim Ambrosi.”
“I know the case. I’m not handling it, but if I were, I’d have to tell you to talk to Mr. Lance about it. I can’t give you anything, especially not here.”
“I just need to ask a few questions. Were you working at the festival when Officer Elliot broke up the fight between the victim and the defendant? I talked to festival organizers earlier and they said a female was working the police department booth Sunday when the fight occurred.” No they hadn’t, but she didn’t need to know that.
“Yes I was. I was handing out neighborhood watch information. Officer Elliot did break up a fight—I saw that.”
“What time was that fight?”
Alicia shrugged and took a sip of her wine. “The middle of the afternoon— two, three o’clock maybe? The man, who I later learned was Mr. Atwater, was pretty drunk.”
“After Officer Elliot broke up the fight, my client says he fell and injured himself. Did you see him fall?”
“No.”
“And after that happened, how long did you work at the police booth?”
“Couple hours, then I went home.”
“Did Officer Elliot go with you? Was Officer Elliot with you all Sunday night?”
“You’re not looking at him as a suspect in the Cantolini murder are you?” Her directness took me by surprise.
“I have some information that point to him as a potential suspect, yes.”
“He was here, with me.” She looked a little uncomfortable.
If you’re going to be a lawyer, you’d better develop a better poker face than that.
“You understand, then, when I ask if anyone else was here to verify that?”
“There were others here, yes.”
“Who?”
Alicia sat her wine glass down on a glass-topped table. She pulled up the sleeve of her blouse, exposing her upper arm, which was marred with blue finger-shaped bruises.
“As you know from the incident in Akron, Reno has some issues—with women and with anger. Sunday night he accused me of sleeping with my boss, Dennis Lance, then tried to beat the shit out of me. My neighbors and half the Fawcettville police force were here.”

Call Fitz Chapter 7

I’m trying something new: posting a chapter of my first PI novel CALL FITZ here on my blog for you to enjoy. Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com.

Chapter 7

 

By nine in the morning, I was back at Puccini’s coffee shop, this time meeting over espresso with the Italian Festival organizers, a group of older civic-minded Tivoli Gardens’ residents. Most of them were retired steel workers or their spouses or widows.

The Italian Festival started in the fifties, before I was born, by a group of World War II veterans in conjunction with the local Sons of Italy Lodge as a bocce ball tournament at the city park. Over the years, the bocce ball tournament died off and the event became a downtown celebration of Italian food and wine with local bands thrown in.

Sophia Armando, this year’s festival committee president, discovered Gina Cantolini’s body. At least seventy five, she dyed her coiffed hair jet back, wore heavy black eyeliner with fake Bambi eyelashes and bright red lipstick, trying to retain the beauty she once had as a young woman. She and her husband Eddie had a boat up on Lake Erie and her clothing seldom lacked some sort of nautical print.

She was sharp as a tack and no one you wanted to mess with. I learned that when I brought her daughter Barbara home late from a high school dance. That hadn’t changed. Sophia ran the Italian Festival committee like she ran her home: toe her line or find something else to do.

She tapped her fake red nails against the white espresso cup in front of her.

“Niccolo, how is your mother?” she asked as I slid into the only empty chair at the table of six. “I haven’t seen her in a couple weeks.”

“She’s fine, Mrs. Armando, she’s fine.”

“I made a big pot of pasta fagioli—too much for Eddie and me. I’ll take some to her later this afternoon.”

“That would be kind of you.”

“So I thought they caught the boy that killed Gina Cantolini.” An older man, one I didn’t recognize, spoke up.

“They arrested someone, a guy named Michael Atwater,” I said. “He’s been charged, but his attorney believes he’s innocent and hired me to look into what happened that night. That’s why I asked you all to meet me.”

Sophia shook her head and shivered. “I’ve never seen anything like that, Niccolo, never in my life. That poor girl!”

“Did any of you see her before she was killed?”

“She was arguing with a man, a red headed guy. He was pretty drunk. I was selling raffle tickets at the festival information booth and saw them both.”

“There was a policeman working at one of the booths,” someone else interjected. “He was handing out information. He stepped in and broke it up.”

“That black kid? Officer Elliot? He’s such a nice young man…” Sophia thoughtfully tapped her chin with a sharp red nail.

“He broke up a fight between the victim and a red-headed man?” I pulled a notebook from inside my hooded sweatshirt. “An actual physical fight or an argument?”

“It was an argument, but a loud one, very, very profane. Completely inappropriate for a family festival,” Sophia said, shaking her head. “I got the feeling that one of them was going to hit the other if it wasn’t stopped. And people around them were scared.”

“So Officer Elliot stepped in? Was he in uniform? Was he on duty?”

“Officer Elliot was off duty, but he had his uniform on, since he was working the police department booth, right next to the festival information booth. He stepped in between them and got them to go their separate directions.”

“Did they?”

“Yes. The redheaded man walked about three blocks and I didn’t see him after that. He was really drunk.”

“You didn’t see him fall down at any point?”

Sophia shrugged. “No.”

That wasn’t good. Atwater claimed his injuries weren’t from physical contact with the victim, but from a fall. Maybe I’d have to convince Ambrosi our boy was guilty after all.

“Anything else stand out about the whole situation?”

“Not really.” Sophia knit her black-penciled brows and took a sip of her espresso. “No wait— Officer Reno said something really odd after he came back to the booth.”

“What was that?”

“He called them both a ‘waste of humanity who don’t deserve to walk this earth.’ I thought that was a little harsh.”

Truth be told, Gina Cantolini was a waste of humanity, but she didn’t deserve to die like that—and Michael Atwater was an asshole but he didn’t deserve to go to jail for a murder he didn’t commit. The more I looked, the more I believed Atwater didn’t do it, just like Ambrosi.

My money was on Reno Elliot. He was looking more and more like the bad cop who could be capable of killing a hooker, which in turn, could bring Nathaniel Monroe down.

Besides winning back Gracie, it was all I could ever want. And hell, if I got both my wishes, I’d be on top of the world.

I just needed to find out everything I could about Elliot.

I put my notebook inside my coat and finished off my nearly cold espresso.

“OK, thanks.”

“Tell your mother I’ll be over later this afternoon with the soup.”

“Will do.”

I got Barnes on the cell phone while I drove. I had some time before I was supposed to meet with Ambrosi and fill him in on what I’d learned so far.

“Tell me about Reno Elliot.”

“Shit, Fitz. I told you everything I knew the other day. He’s the boyfriend of one of the assistant prosecutors, the blonde one named Alicia. For the life of me, I can’t ever remember her last name. Linnerman? Lonnergan? Hell, I don’t know. Anyway, Elliot played football for KSU, like you, only he didn’t get thrown off the team. He’s only been on the force for about a year or so.”

I ignored the jab. “How many departments has he worked for?”

“What do I look like, HR? Call ‘em yourself and ask.”

As a private citizen, I’d have to go through the chief with a public records request to get into Elliot’s personnel file and I knew Chief Monroe would stonewall me for as long as he possibly could. I’d have to make some calls, do some digging.

“Is he off this week?”

“How should I know?”
“One more question—you know anybody named Jorge Rivera?”

“Nope. Why?”

“Just curious.”

“I know you better Fitz.”

“Yes, you do. Thanks, Barnes. Talk to you later.”

Before I got to Ambrosi’s, I stopped back at the office, to call guys I knew on other departments from around northeast Ohio. They told me everything I needed to know: Elliot was young and arrogant and had all the makings of one hell of a bad cop. He’d been through four departments in the ten years he’d been in law enforcement. He couldn’t—or wouldn’t—follow orders, had more than one complaint of excessive force filed and was investigated several times for discharging his weapon, once into the tires of a car belonging to the teen-age son of a county commissioner. There was some talk—none of it proven—that he’d filched cash from the evidence room on more than one occasion. He managed to resign and move on before anything could be pinned on him.

The first couple times, the union stood behind him on most disciplinary actions, but that didn’t surprise me any. That he was able to keep getting jobs did.

Somewhere along the line, he hooked up with Alicia Linnerman, an up and coming young lawyer now working for Dennis Lance, the county prosecutor. She’d been there just under a year and somehow managed to get her boyfriend on the FPD.

Why is it sharp, educated women like Alicia Linnerman always fall for wrong guys like Reno Elliot?

Maybe Gracie could give me the answer.

Then again, maybe Alicia wasn’t as sharp as I thought. Maybe she was one of those desperate females who were thrilled any man paid any attention to her. In my mind, I’d first envisioned Alicia as a tall, thin TV lawyer in an expensive suit and heels, giving the jury an aggressive, bulletproof opening statement.

Maybe she wasn’t.

Suddenly the tall TV lawyer morphed into the short, slightly overweight woman, who lived alone with three cats and binge-watched Netflix most weekends while stuffing her fat face with Cheetos. In this new assumed portrait, Linnerman’s courtroom techniques would have been OK, but not flamboyant. Maybe she accepted Reno Elliot’s offer of a date because she believed down deep in her heart that no one else would ever find her interesting.

Maybe she wasn’t “up and coming.” Maybe she would be one of those young lawyers who’d stay an assistant prosecutor for her entire career, a female version of Ambrosi. Small towns were full of them.

The clock in the waiting room chimed. I changed into the blue sport jacket that was hanging over a chair by my desk. I needed to get over to Ambrosi’s office and fill him in.

*****

Ambrosi’s office was a dull and as gray as he was, only he had enough business to pay for a secretary to answer the phone. Despite the three sad sacks sitting in the waiting room, she led me back to Ambrosi’s office as soon as I walked in the door.

Ambrosi’s office stunk from the cheap cigar he clenched in his yellow teeth. He stood up to shake my hand.

“What happened to your face?” he asked.

“Some goon was trying to make a point. I’ll tell you later.”

“So what have you found out?”

Quickly, I filled him in on my interview with Susan Atwater, Mac Brewster and the kid at Puccini’s. I finished with Sophia’s story about the argument.

“I think that Reno Elliot has some real possibilities. He could be the real suspect, given that he’s been heard asking the victim for sex and calling her a waste of humanity. But he said something to the kid at Puccini’s about going on vacation this week. I don’t think talk to him.”

“Maybe you can.” Ambrosi pushed today’s issue of the Fawcettville Times my way. Reno Elliot’s picture was splashed across the top of the page: FPD officer held on sex assault charges in Akron.

Call Fitz Chapter 6

I’m trying something new: posting a chapter of my first PI novel CALL FITZ here on my blog for you to enjoy. Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com.

Chapter 6

No gunshot victims showed up at Fawcettville General Hospital.

I checked.

The sour, middle-aged woman in happy face scrubs at the emergency room desk looked at me over her glasses.

“Why do you need to know?” she asked.

“I was chasing a man down an alley. He turned the corner and I heard a gun shot. When I turned the corner, he was gone—or what was left of him.”

“And you don’t think the staff here wouldn’t call the police if a gunshot victim showed up here?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“If we had a gunshot victim here, this place would be crawling with cops. Do you see any cops here now?”

“No.”

She rolled her eyes like I was the dumbest asshole she’d seen all day. Maybe I was, but it wasn’t worth my time to explain myself or my case to her. I walked out the door.

I didn’t expect Rivera—or what was left of him—to show up, but I had to ask. If he made it to Akron, or Steubenville alive, I’d be surprised. If he were dead, whoever shot him would most likely dump the body on a slagheap at some abandoned steel mill, where it wouldn’t be found until the skeleton was picked bare.

I returned to my office to think over everything I’d found out.

Mac Brewster wouldn’t talk to me until he’d submitted his retirement papers—but what he wanted to tell me probably led more into the floundering marriage that was infecting Chief Monroe’s professional career. Brewster was too much of a Boy Scout to kill a fly, much less some drunk whore.

Jacob Poole was allegedly at his sister’s house, in a room full of goons, sharing birthday cake with the daughter he’d had with Gina,. The time stamp on the photo proved he didn’t kill Gina, even if he wasn’t in Akron.

Atwater admitted he argued with the victim over her requesting a DNA test, but said his wounds came from a drunken fall, a story that was thin at best.

I needed to talk to Reno Elliot.

*****

It was two in the morning when I opened the door at Puccini’s coffee shop. The long-haired college student, his pony tail corralled in a hair net, looked up from whatever book he was reading and stood up from his seat near the cash register.

The place still looked like a hang out for teenaged girls in poodle skirts, who babbled about Bobby Darin. The red and white striped awning over the front window matched each booth’s upholstery lining up on the other side of the glass. The stools at the counter were patent leather red. Next to the cash register was a display case where rows of Joe Pucca’s famous Italian pastries sat, waiting to be purchased: pizzelles, biscotti, Italian doughnuts called bombalones and ciarduna sicilianos, tiny sweet cookie shells filled with mascarpone or ricotta cheese. Inside the case, a piece of paper clung to the glass by yellow, cracked adhesive tape: “WE DO WEDDING CAKES” was written in fading ink. A huge brass espresso machine, the same one I’d operated as a teenager, sat on the other side of the counter, surrounded by tiny white espresso cups and saucers, bottles of flavored syrup at attention along the mirror behind it.

The only nod to this century was the electronic cash register and the industrial strength coffee machine.

I ordered a decaf and a cannoli.

“So, I’m looking for a cop named Elliot. He works nights. Does he come here at all?” I asked when the kid brought my order.

“Big black guy? Bald? Maybe mid-thirties?”

“That would be him. He come in tonight?”

“Not tonight. I overheard him talking last week about going to see family someplace.”

I nodded and took a sip of decaf. And maybe he’s on the run from a murder.

“He’s popular though.”

“How’s that?”

“You’re the second person tonight who’s been in looking for him.”

“That so? Who else was looking for him?”

“Some Latino guy in a jacket and black baseball cap.”

“What? What time did he come in?” Rivera was here? He couldn’t have been—he’d been shot. I’d heard it myself. Unless… Rivera had done the shooting and he’d been the one to drag the body off. If that’s the case, who is this latest victim?

“The Latino guy—he come here often?”

The kid shrugged. “Maybe a couple times a week. He and the cop would sit over there and have a cup of coffee.” He pointed at a booth in the corner, one that gave customers a good view of the sidewalk without being seen.

“What did they talk about?”

“I never paid attention. They didn’t argue though. Neither of them ever got loud at any rate. I figured he was an undercover cop or something. They’d talk for maybe half an hour, and then they’d leave, but never at the same time. They were good tippers.”

“Did they come in about the same time every week?”

The kid thought a little bit before he answered. “Yeah, kinda. They’d come in anywhere between two and three thirty, usually. Cops on nights get lunch breaks, right? I figured they were on lunch break.”

“Thanks.” I took a bite of my cannoli and the kid walked back to his seat beside the cash register. When I finished, I paid my bill and got back in the Excursion.

As I drove through Fawcettville’s dark streets, some of this shit was starting to fit together. The same thug who was tailing me knew the crooked cop and met with him on a regular basis. That same cop, Reno Elliot, had to be intimidating Gina Cantolini.

Maybe he even killed her. That would explain why nobody wanted me looking into the case, why it would just be easier to let Atwater hang for her murder.

Maybe what Mac Brewster had to tell me was more than just the long sad tale of Chief Nathaniel Monroe ruining his professional career. Maybe I should sit down with him again and listen to what he had to say.

But that still didn’t explain what made Gina a target.

Maybe it was nothing more than covering up the actions of a bad cop to save Chief Monroe’s ass. If his position with the city was as precarious as Brewster told me, and he knew he had a bad apple, along with a sleazy wife, it could spell the end of his time at the helm of the FPD.

I smiled as I drove. What I wouldn’t give to be the one to push Chief Monroe out the door.

I stopped the Excursion at the intersection and realized where I was. Three houses down on the left was the Tudor I’d shared with Grace.

As I pulled up to the curb, a soft light shone from the front bedroom. I knew it was the light on the nightstand beside the brass bed. Gracie was a notorious night owl. She probably couldn’t sleep again and was probably reading or grading papers from her music theory class.

I sat behind the wheel, chewing my thumbnail.

I met Gracie when money went missing from the college music department and the college hired me to do the quiet digging before calling in the cops.

Asked by the college president to interview each member of the department, I stood outside her office door, letting the warm sounds of her cello fill the hallway before I knocked.

The tall beauty answered the door and took my breath away. Long, slim fingers of one hand held her cello’s neck and the bow as she reached out to shake my hand with the other. A loose skirt showed off thin hips and her black curly hair hung around a white boat necked blouse.

Her dark eyes met mine, shooting something I’d never felt deep into my gut and I couldn’t speak.

“Well, you’re either the oldest student I ever had request lessons or you’re the private dick that everybody is bitching about,” she said.

“I’m—I’m the—the,” I stammered. This didn’t happen to a wop like me. I was the one who could coax the panties off any woman in record time. I didn’t stand in anyone’s doorway at a loss for words, but now, here I was, dumb as a boy at his first middle school dance.

“You’re the dick. I get it. Come in. Let’s get this over with.”

The interview went well, not that the beautiful Dr. Darcy was ever a suspect. Eventually, the department secretary, a little old lady who verged on terminal virginity and whose eyes got large as saucers every time I entered the department offices, admitted to forging department checks when her trips to the Wheeling, West Virginia casinos didn’t go as planned. She paid everything back and quietly retired at the end of the academic year. No charges were ever filed.

Meanwhile Dr. Grace Darcy and I met every day for lunch on the college commons. We had dinner at her Tudor style house in the hills after symphony rehearsals and nights… Dear God, the nights. I closed my eyes, as if that could keep away the pain of what I’d lost.

I was truly the frog who’d been kissed by the princess, although our marriage didn’t lead to any magic transformation on my part. Simultaneously elegant and rough-edged, the Julliard-educated doctor of philosophy and the son of a steel town beat cop were the odd couple at faculty events, the subject of gossip at the symphony, but we didn’t care. We were happy.

And, after six years, I ruined it.

If I went to the door and knocked, will she let me in? Will she curse me for coming by at this ungodly hour? Or, if she was alone, will she open the door and welcome me in? Into her arms—or her bed?

Probably not, judging from the conversation we had the other day.

Maybe that Van Hoven asshole was there. Maybe he was in her bed, where I should be.

Maybe she was right. Maybe I should sign the papers and we should move on.

I put the Excursion back in gear and drove back to the office.

Call Fitz Chapter 5

I’m trying something new: posting a chapter of my first PI novel CALL FITZ here on my blog for you to enjoy. Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com.

Chapter 5

The sun was setting when I found Mac Brewster at one of the empty Tubman Gardens lots he’d turned into a softball field. He was pitching the ball toward a chunky almond-eyed white boy with thick glasses. The ball connected with the aluminum bat with a low, metallic tunk and bounced along the third base line as the boy ran awkwardly toward first base.

Mac saw me and waved. I stood on the sidelines, behind the parents with their camp chairs and coolers, cheering with them as each child had a chance to hit the ball. From the distance, Mac looked older and more tired. It shouldn’t have surprised me; he was on the force when I came on and was still there, pulling the same twelve-hour shifts as everyone else. He never tried for any promotion that I knew of, content to be the best-known, longest serving cop on the beat.

“OK, ya’ll, take a break. Get some water.” Mac pointed toward the team mother, who smiled broadly as she held up bottled water for the players.

We shook hands and hugged.

“How’s it going, Fitz?” he asked.

I shrugged. “It’s going. I’ve been hired to investigate the Atwater case for the defense. Was wondering if you could help me out.”

“The kid that killed the hooker? Sad situation.” Fitz stuffed his hands in his windbreaker.

“My client says there’s been a black cop who was harassing the victim for sex. Big guy, bald. Says the guy could be the real perp in this mess.”

Brewster stepped away. “Don’t do this to me Fitz. We go too far back.”

“Oh hell, no. I was wondering if you knew anything about anybody new on the force, anybody who’s a little shady? I’ve been gone too long to know everybody these days.”

Brewster sighed and shook his head. “It’s a mess, Fitz, a sad mess. That department is a shadow of what it used to be.”

“Do you know anything about a new recruit who is the boyfriend or husband of the new assistant prosecutor? From what I’ve heard he fits that description.”

“His name is Reno, Reno Elliot. He’s rotating through third shift this month.”

“Seem OK to you?”

Brewster shrugged again. “I don’t know him well enough to say one way or the other. The new recruits come and go so fast these days my head spins.”

That was a lie. Mac went out of his way to welcome every new recruit on the force. His wife brought food to cops who had to work holidays, serving them the big homemade meals they were missing.

I shoved my hands deep into the pockets of my hooded sweatshirt.

“Something about this case stinks, Mac. That’s part of the reason I came to you. Maris Monroe shows up at my office after I meet with my client and his attorney, then I get cold-cocked outside my office door. Today, somebody’s parked in the square watching my office with binoculars.”

Mac was silent for a moment. “Leave it alone, Fitz. Leave it alone.”

“Why? What’s going on that I should know about?”

“I’m putting my retirement papers in next week. After that, we’ll talk.” Mac turned toward his athletes and began clapping his hands. “OK, kids. Let’s catch some fly balls!”

He walked away and I shook my head.

Back in my Excursion, I sat and watched Mac work with the kids some more. He had taken the bat himself and was tossing up the softball and hitting balls—a little harder than necessary I thought—into the outfield for catching practice. He was angry about something. What had happened to the department I’d spent my professional career at?

Nate Monroe was a sergeant when I started at the PD. Dave Stanforth was chief back then. After a few years, he moved up to lieutenant and then assistant chief. When Stanforth dropped dead from a heart attack at fifty-three, Monroe took over as interim and then was appointed by the city manager as the permanent chief.

Somewhere in there, he went crazy with ego. He dumped Darla, his wife of thirty years, and took up with Maris. The divorce was ugly, but everybody has some ugliness somewhere, and cops more than most folks. I don’t know if Nate’s kids speak to him even today. Needless to say, marrying Maris was a disaster.

But what did that all have to do with Gina Cantolini’s murder? That’s what I was more concerned about. Was there a dirty cop, as Atwater had implied and as Mac completely avoided? That was just like Mac, though—he wouldn’t have said shit about another cop if his mouth were full of it. It made sense that he would talk after he knew his pension was secure. Could I wait that long?

And who was this Reno Elliott? If he was on third shift this month, I knew where I could catch up with him tonight. There was a singular coffee shop called Puccini’s that operated all night on the edge of New Tivoli and the downtown. It was a haven for third shift cops.

Located down the street from my ma’s house, I’d worked there as a teenager after school, serving Joe Pucca’s famous cannoli, coffee cake, and espresso from behind the red and white Formica counter. I could sit at that same unchanged counter, talking to one of the college students who staffed the place overnight until Reno Elliott came in.

I pulled the Excursion away from the curb and slid into traffic. I had a second appointment—this one with Jacob Poole.

*****

            I met Poole at Lupe’s, the Mexican restaurant around the corner from the jail. He didn’t look up as I slid into the booth seat across from him. He was hunched over his beer, a strand of stringy dirty-blonde hair hanging in his face. He wore his biker leather jacket bearing the Anarchy Road Motorcycle Club logo, scuffed boots, leather gloves without fingers and a perpetually angry expression.

No wonder Susan Atwater didn’t want Michael’s alleged sons to be carrying this man’s DNA: if Poole was their father, neither of those boys had any future. There was slight hope, if there were Atwater blood in those veins.

Lupe, her black hair cascading around her shoulders, brought me a Dos XX without asking.

“Good to see you, Fitz,” she purred, pulling a notepad and stubby pencil from the apron hung around her ample hips. “What will it be this evening, gentlemen?”

Poole finally raised his scummy head. “I don’t need nothing to eat. And this beer’s on him.”

“Very good, sir,” Lupe raised her eyebrows at me. “What about you, Fitz?”

“Just a couple enchiladas, Lupe, and beans.”

“¿En caso de que mi padre tiene su bate de béisbol listo? Este chico se parece a un verdadero imbécil.” Lupe asked as she wrote down my order. I understood what she was asking: my short air force career in Texas left me with a decent understanding of Spanish. “Should my father have his baseball bat ready? This guy looks like a real jerk.”

“I don’t think so, but thanks for asking,” I answered.

Lupe walked away, smiling at me over her shoulder.

“What did she say? I hate fucking wetbacks who don’t talk good English when they come to this goddamn country.”

“She just wondered if I wanted to see the dessert tray.”

“Hers?”

“I’m here to ask about where you were the night Gina died.”

“I was in Akron, at my sister’s. We were celebrating my daughter’s birthday. I told the fucking cops this shit.”

“You got proof?”

Poole reached inside his jacket and pulled out his phone. With a few clicks, he showed me a picture of himself in a pink tiara, smiling at a little girl in a similar pink tiara. There was a birthday cake with five candles, surrounded by ashtrays with burning cigarettes and beer cans in front of the pair. At the corner of the shot, someone’s tattooed knuckles, spelling the word KILL, held a beer mug. In the background, long beards and big guts in tattered tee shirts filled the shot. No other faces were visible. The photo was time-stamped in the corner, just after nine-thirty Saturday night, half an hour before Gina’s time of death.

Good times. Holy shit. I nodded and Poole put his phone back inside his jacket. If he truly was in Akron and the time stamp was accurate, he was at least forty-five minutes away when she died. I made a note to have Ambrosi subpoena Poole’s phone and have the data analyzed—hopefully, the photo would have a location map embedded as well as a time stamp. Even if he deleted it, any good forensic lab Ambrosi hired would be able to recover it.

“I assume you know how she paid the bills.”

“Yeah.”

“What did she do?” Poole had to know she was a hooker, didn’t he?

“The system doesn’t make it easy for anybody on the dole.”

“That’s the idea. The system is designed for you to go out and get a job.”

“Or work around it.”

“So you know she had sex with other men for money.”

Poole shrugged. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“She whored for you, didn’t she? You’re her pimp.”

He leaned back in the booth and smirked.

“There are a lot of things I asked Gina to do. That wasn’t one of them.”

“Like what?”

“Mr. Fitzhugh, or whoever the fuck you are, the man who killed my daughter’s mother is in jail.”

“And he says he didn’t do it. I’m obligated to provide information for his defense that proves that.”

“So you’re looking to run my ass into the ground to get that weasel dick Atwater off? I got proof. I didn’t kill her.”

“You want to give me the address of that birthday party? Names of some of your fine associates?”

Poole rattled off the names and phone numbers of everyone at the birthday as I scrawled them into my notebook, all of them known members of Road Anarchy. He signaled for another beer as Lupe brought my plate. I laid my pencil down and picked up a fork.

“Did you know she had door locks installed on the outside of the kids’ bedrooms?”

Poole arched an eyebrow.

“You’re comfortable with your daughter being locked in her bedroom in case of a fire?”

“I didn’t say I was.”

“I’m hearing stories of a cop who harassed Gina for sex. Know anything about that?”

Poole took a drink of his new beer and shook his head.

“I know a cop was leaning on her pretty hard. She didn’t say what it was about.”

“Could it have been in regards to anything you’re doing?”

Poole put the beer bottle down slowly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said. Are you involved in something that could have gotten Gina killed? You tell me you didn’t kill her yourself, but I know your record, Poole. You’re no angel.”

Poole’s eyes hardened. “Michael Atwater is in jail for killing Gina. I think that says everything.” He took another sip from the beer bottle and stood up. “If you need anything else, I think you need to talk to my attorney.” With a smirk, Poole strolled toward the door. Tossing a twenty on the table, I jumped up and followed him. As we both came out into the late day sunshine, I called his name.

“Poole!” I said. “I’m watching you.”

He whirled around, stepping close to me with clenched fists. I could smell the beer on his breath.

“You trail me and you’ll regret it.”

“If you haven’t done anything, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

Poole flipped me the bird and walked away. He got on a big black Harley Davidson Fat Boy parked about halfway down the block, fired up the bike and roared down the street.

Then I saw him from the corner of my eye—the man who’d been watching me from the town square.

He was leaning against the wall of Lupe’s place, wearing sunglasses and a black ball cap low on his forehead. The collar of his black leather jacket was pulled up to further obscure his meaty, pockmarked face.

He tried to turn and walk away unnoticed but I grabbed him by his jacket collar, shoving him against the dirty bricks.

“Who the fuck are you? Why are you following me?” I punctuated each question with a shove, sending his thick skull against the bricks. “Answer me, mother fucker! Answer me!”

He shoved me away and ran toward the alley. I followed, my legs pumping like pistons. Within a few steps, I was close—close enough to grab him in one horse-collar move. As I grabbed his shoulders, his feet flew out from under him and he landed hard on his back between my feet on the dirty gravel, blinking. I stood above him and pulled out my Glock.

Who are you? Answer me or I’ll blow your head off!”

He started to reach inside his jacket. I pulled back the slide and a bullet clicked into the chamber. He froze.

“Tell me who the fuck you are and why the hell you were watching my office! Now.”

“My name is Jorge Rivera. Who I work for isn’t important.” His was the same rasping voice I’d heard when I’d been cold-cocked outside my office.

“Bullshit. Why are you watching me?”

“You need to leave this case alone.”

“What if I won’t?” I stepped back and Rivera scrambled to his feet, grabbing his cap. I kept my handgun leveled at his face.

“Gina Cantolini didn’t die for the reasons you thought. Don’t mess with something that’s bigger than you, Fitzhugh.”

“Bigger than me? How?”

“It just is. Be smart—leave it alone. Just leave it alone.”

“I need more than just your warning. I got too many people telling me something more is going on and a man in jail for a murder I’m convinced he didn’t commit.”

Rivera shifted nervously from one foot to another. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’ll kill me.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

Rivera didn’t answer. He turned quickly and ran down the alley.

“Hey!” I shoved my Glock back in my shoulder holster and followed. Rivera was faster this time; I couldn’t keep up. He turned down another alleyway and I lost sight of him.

I made it to the corner when a single shot, muffled by what had to be some kind of silencer, rang out. Someone moaned and I heard the thump of a body hitting the ground. I threw myself against the side of a building and pulled out my gun.

Carefully, I leaned around the corner, weapon ready, expecting to see Rivera dead on the ground. Nothing—nothing but trash cans. And silence. I stepped tentatively into the alley, taking cover wherever I could, searching for Rivera.

By the time I made it back into the light of the street, I was flabbergasted.

Where was the body? Who shot him? And why?

Call Fitz Chapter 4

I’m trying something new: posting a chapter of my first PI novel CALL FITZ here on my blog for you to enjoy. Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com.

Chapter 4

“Thank you, Mr. Fitzhugh.” The woman behind the glassed window pushed a single ticket through the slot. “And thank you for your support of the Fawcettville symphony.”

I was in the grand entrance of Fawcettville’s Memorial Hall. I smiled and nodded as I slipped the benefit ticket into my wallet. My tuxedo, rented this year, hung over my arm. Gracie and I may not be going together, but by God, we were going to both be there. I had to see if van Hoven was really her date for the evening, even if it cost me an arm and a leg. If he were, I would have to accept that it was over between us, and I’d sign those goddamned papers.

In the meantime, I had another appointment. Det. Joe Barnes was one of the few folks left on the force I could still call friend. He knew the truth about Maris Monroe. He was also assigned to Gina’s murder. We were supposed to meet at Horvath’s, the Hungarian coffee shop.

I was already on my second cup and working my way through an apricot kifli when Barnes slid into the booth seat across from me and signaled the waitress for a cup of coffee.

“Fitz, how’s it going? What the hell happened to your face?” Barnes was an old school detective, the other side of retirement age and held politically incorrect views that made even a mick like me cringe.

I shrugged. “Nothing that won’t heal in a week. You probably heard I’m investigating Atwater’s case for the defense.”

Barnes barked out a short laugh. “And how’s that working for you?”

“He looks guilty as hell to me, too, but I need the money.”

“I heard that too.”

Why the hell is my personal life the biggest topic in the police department, seven years after I’m gone? I shook my head. I didn’t want to feed the department’s rumor mill, but Barnes didn’t need to know that.

“Anyway,” I continued. “I’ll go through the motions, look at every angle, just like you probably did and most likely come up with the same conclusions. By the way, Maris Monroe showed up at my office the other day and said she knew I’d been there with Ambrosi, talking to Atwater.”

“So?”

“So who is she banging there who would tell her I was there? And why would anybody care?”

Barnes shrugged. “I don’t know. I know that the Chief is constantly trying to keep her corralled. There’s no respect for Monroe any more—it’s like some game, keeping track of everybody his wife has done. The only thing patrol doesn’t do is keep a running list of names on the wall where everybody can see. She’s a train wreck and that marriage is a disaster. Talk is, the city manager is thinking about firing him, moving the Assistant Chief into the position.”

“Probably a good move. So, what else is going on at the PD? Who all is still around that I worked with?” I didn’t look him in the eye as I spun my spoon on the table.

“There’s always a few new faces, right out of the academy, but they don’t last long. They get training and move on to a bigger department or the sheriff’s office—or they become Maris’s target and get fired.”

“I hope some of the old guard is still around, folks like Mac Brewster?”

“Oh sure. Brewster’s still around.”

“Still the eternal do-gooder?”

“Yeah. You know Mac—he’s trimmed back some of the stuff he’s been doing, though. I guess he’s still coaching the Special Olympics softball team. He’s not the only black face on the force these days.”

Jesus, Barnes. I cringed inwardly, but tried to sound nonchalant. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, when a new assistant prosecutor came in, she recommended Monroe hire this guy. Former KSU football player, real big guy.”

My ears perked up. This could be the cop that Susan and Michael Atwater claimed was demanding sex from Gina.

“Know anything about him?”

Barnes shook his head. “No. Don’t know if he is a husband or a boyfriend or what the deal was, but he’s a real go-getter. Monroe likes him a lot.”

“What’s his name?”

“What do you care? You’re retired.” Barnes arched an eyebrow.

“You’re right. I don’t care. Just trying to keep up, I guess.” Honestly, I was relieved I had someone else to look at other than Mac Brewster. I’d find somebody who knew the name of this new cop. I finished my kifli and my coffee as Barnes rattled on for another twenty minutes about the same shit that he complained about seven years ago: the department secretary who left food in the employee fridge until well past its expiration, the dispatcher who was clear as a bell on the radio but mumbled on the phone, the damage EMTs did to crime scenes.

He stopped yammering when I lay my napkin on the table.

“So, I figured you were going to try and pull information out of me about Atwater.” Barnes looked at me over his coffee cup.

I shrugged and leaned back, shoving my hands in my hoodie pockets.

“Isn’t that what the discovery process is all about?” I asked. “Don’t we play ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ when the trial date gets closer?”

Barnes smiled. “That’s what I always liked about you Fitz. No bullshit, no games.”

“Thanks. You guys still trying to find the actual crime scene, right? I read that in the report.”

“Yup, and the gun. I think you ought to know though; it still doesn’t look good for your boy Atwater. There’s too much evidence against him.”

“I know.”

“There’s something else. Have you talked to the prosecutor lately?”

Dennis Lance was a Fawcettville native with bigger aspirations than county prosecutor. Tall, blonde and athletic looking, word was that Lance wanted bigger things out of life: a judgeship, maybe state senator. He contributed money to all the right causes and was seen at all the right events, glad-handing everyone in sight.

Lance came to the prosecutor’s office right out of law school and stayed, until ten years ago when he decided to run for his boss’s job and won. He was a good enough prosecutor, a real bulldog in court, but I never quite trusted his made-for-TV looks and courtroom antics, even though his record of convictions was strong.

I didn’t know a whole lot about Lance’s personal life, but knew he had a big fancy house with some acreage and a couple horses out in the county.

“No. Most of my dealings are in family court these days.”

“It’s been a long, long time since this town’s had a homicide,” Barnes said. “Lance could be looking at the death penalty on this one, just to make it look like he’s tough on crime. The common pleas judge is up for reelection next year and from what I hear, Lance is thinking of challenging him for the seat. This could be the one case Lance hangs his hat on.”

“I’ll take that under advisement, Detective,” I said. “Does Ambrosi know that?”

Barnes shrugged. “I’m assuming so. That’s between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. It would have to come up in court.”

“I’ll ask, just for my own information if nothing else.”

We laid money on the table to cover our respective orders and walked out the door. Out on the sidewalk, Barnes shook my hand.

“Good luck, Fitz.”

“You too, Barnes.”

Walking back to my car, I pondered everything Barnes told me. A police department in shambles, thanks to a one-woman wrecking ball, and a prosecutor intent on making a name for himself could spell a lot of trouble for my client, if he was truly innocent. Could either of them be behind the visitor who decided to christen me outside my office?

That didn’t make a lot of sense. Lance didn’t need to rely on strong-arm tactics—I’m sure that his arguments for Ohio v. Atwater were solid and if he wanted a case to build a political career on, this could be it.

But, if there was anybody who hated me, it was the Chief. As desperate as his situation seemed, maybe the knock on my head really was less about the Atwater case and more about Maris’s visit—he just wanted it to look like it was. If Monroe was firing young recruits who came into his wife’s field of vision, it made sense that he would be going after whoever she was slithering in to see—in this case, me.

I would deal with Maris later.   The next thing on the agenda, was to find out the name of the new cop on the force and if he was the one who was trying to intimidate Gina Cantolini.

But first, I had to generate some income: a surveillance case, chasing down yet another wayward spouse.

My client suspected her CPA husband of meeting his secretary for quickies on their lunch hour. I’d followed the secretary for two weeks as she went about her life, which didn’t show me anything, except that she was extremely health conscious. She was in the Sunrise Yoga class at the YMCA, ran every evening through the park with a yellow Labrador she named Spike and ordered sliced turkey with sprouts, cucumbers and mayo on whole wheat bread at lunch. The contents of her trashcan showed me someone who followed the stock market through The Wall Street Journal and drank cheap bottled water and expensive pinot noir; Spike apparently liked chewing her shoes when bored.

If she was doing her boss, it was happening at the office because it sure wasn’t happening at home. I needed to find something one way or another if I wanted to bill the wife’s lawyer.

Today, I was going after the CPA. After I left Barnes behind, I dug a pair of binoculars and my camera, with its big zoom lens, out of the back of my Excursion and drove down to the office building, which was out near the mall in a cluster of nondescript office buildings.

The CPA in question drove a bright red Mercedes two-seater, which made it easy to pick out from among the minivans and SUV’s in the parking lot.

I pulled the Excursion into the parking lot and slithered down in the seat, binoculars in my hand. Before long, my target—a tall brown-haired man with sunglasses—came striding toward the Mercedes. With his thumb hooked into the collar of the suit jacket slung arrogantly across his shoulder, he had the self-confident smile of a man who thought he was getting away with something. He lifted his sunglasses and looked around before sliding into the red car.

I was good at what I did now for a reason—I understood why men chased women… or at least why I’d done it. When I was young, it was all about the chase and the conquest, tapping into the primal hunter that still lurked in the male, despite all the socialization we’d been forced into absorbing. As I got older, I realized that it was less the hunt than the connection, finding that one person who’d give life meaning.

I just never knew when to stop looking, until I found Gracie.

I reached over to the passenger seat and pulled the camera over to my lap. I slowly drew the viewfinder up to my eye, focusing on my target.

The CPA sat in the Mercedes, looking left to right, and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. Suddenly, a tall, blonde woman in a white medical coat came hurriedly into range—it was the orthodontist from the suite next to the CPA’s. I knew who she was: as a favor, I’d once taken one of my sister’s kids to the office for an appointment.

I began to click off shots as she leaned into the driver’s side window and planted a big wet one on the number guy’s lips, then quickly slid into the passenger side. The CPA fired up the Mercedes and, tires squealing, pulled out of parking lot.

I sat up in my seat, tossing the camera aside and threw the car into drive. I followed the Mercedes at a respectable distance, but close enough to keep an eye on them. The destination wasn’t a surprise—one of the motels out by the interstate. They parked in front of the motel room door and slipped out quickly. She already had the room key—maybe she was footing the bill for this assignation since the CPA’s wife told me she never found those usual telltale signs of an affair in his finances.

The shutter clicked repeatedly as they slipped into the room. An hour later, they came back out: I got shots of her running her hands through his hair as they kissed again. Following them back to the office, I watched as he dropped the orthodontist about a block away before pulling back into the parking lot.

He smirked and smoothed his hair in the rearview mirror. I could tell this was no grand affair to him, no great love he’d stumbled into after years of unhappy marriage. The lady who straightened pre-teens’ teeth for a living was a game to him, a conquest, simply a more interesting way to spend a lunch hour than reading profit and loss statements. When this relationship blew up in his smirking face, he’d move on, dick in hand, to the next woman.

I pulled the blue photo disc out of my camera and put it in an envelope, addressed it to the CPA’s wife and headed back to the office.

I called her with my proof and listened to her sob, then dropped the envelope, along with my bill, down the mail slot in the hall.

It seemed a little cold, but I was more than a little leery of having wronged wives in the office these days.

After all, Judith Demyan was the pissed off, half-drunk wife in search of vindication who brought my marriage to its knees less than a month ago.

That day, I had four or five photos spread across my desk, capturing Professor Dave Demyan with his girlfriend, a junior English major at Fawcett University, when Judith burst through the door. She wanted to share a drink with me, to celebrate catching her two-timing husband and her now-impending divorce. She’d already been celebrating when she poured me a couple shots of whiskey from the flask in her purse.

“You know, Fitz, I’ve always thought you were one sexy bastard.” Judith leaned over the desk.

“Now Judith, Judy—I—I really, I mean, I…” I stuttered like a teenager. I could smell sweet whiskey on her breath.

“Oh, silly boy. After what you did for me, I think I owe you a little something special.” Judith pushed the photos of her husband and his girlfriend onto the floor. Before I could stop her, she was straddling me in my chair, grinding against my groin as she unbuttoned her blouse.

It didn’t look like my hands were meaning to push Judith off my lap when Gracie walked in the door, but that’s the truth.

“You dirty son of a bitch!”

I started sleeping on the waiting room couch that very night.

Showing up at the symphony benefit this weekend might seriously piss Gracie off, but it would give me the proof I needed as to whether our marriage had any future or not.

Pensive, I leaned back to look out the window onto the city square.

I sat up sharply—parked just beyond the Civil War soldier was a non-descript four-door sedan with a man wearing all black, leaning on the roof of the car. Long sleeves and a black baseball cap blocked his face as he held binoculars directly aimed at my office.

I threw the window open to get a better look, but the man saw me and jumped into the sedan, speeding off down the street. All I could catch was the first three letters of his Ohio license plate, GRD.

Who the hell was he and what the hell was going on?

Call Fitz Chapter 3

I’m trying something new: posting a chapter of my first PI novel CALL FITZ here on my blog for you to enjoy. Can’t wait to see how it ends? The entire book is available for purchase on my website, www.debragaskillnovels.com.

Chapter 3

The hallway was bathed in the sun’s last orange gasps when I came to and pushed myself up off the dirty floor. I touched the goose egg on the back of my head as I stood. Shit, that hurts. It wasn’t bleeding, unlike the inside of my mouth. I ran my tongue along my teeth—at least they were all there.

I patted myself down, searching—thank God, the Glock was still inside my hoodie. I pulled it out of my shoulder holster and checked the clip. No bullets were missing; everything looked good. I shoved it back inside my jacket.

Why would someone want me off the Cantolini case? A hooker is dead and her loser boyfriend is in jail. This certainly doesn’t involve anybody who mattered in Fawcettville.

So who was sending a message? And why?

The mob? Nah. After too much vino, everybody in New Tivoli bragged they had out-of-town family who were mobbed up, but nobody believed it. Organized crime was for towns like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Youngstown, not small towns like Fawcettville. This was where the working class stiffs came to get their tiny piece of the fading American dream. Besides, Gina Cantolini’s family didn’t even live here anymore. If they had and if they were mobbed up, two things would have happened: she would have been married off quickly or her baby’s daddy’s body would have been found in the trunk of his own car and she would have been set up as a cute young widow somewhere out of state.

I continued to think as I walked down the stairs to the square, where my black Excursion was parked. I slid into the driver’s seat and caught a glimpse of a bruised and scratched left cheek in the rearview. Great. That must have happened when I got slammed against the doorframe.

I hadn’t had many dealings with Poole during my days on the force, maybe an occasional bar fight or public intoxication. Other cops, though, told me he could be a real bastard and I knew through them he could be violent.

Could the man who cold-cocked me have been Poole? Why would it be him? The other man in his woman’s life is on ice and most likely would be convicted. If Poole were smart, he’d sit back and keep his mouth shut. There was no need to smack an investigator in the skull.
And Mac Brewster? C’mon. I wasn’t even going to waste my time on that Boy Scout. No way Mac could be dirty. His intention of getting Gina Cantolini in a room alone would probably be to get her to turn her life over to Jesus. Whatever Gina was telling Michael Atwater about Mac was more than likely a lie.

I needed to think a little bit more about which way to go on this case.

But first, I needed to see Grace. I slipped my key into the car ignition and pulled into traffic.

*****

The symphony was rehearsing down at Memorial Hall, where this weekend’s benefit would be held. Grace was sitting in the center of the stage alone, playing the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. The other symphony musicians milled around the jumble of the chairs and music stands on the stage or sat listening in the first few rows of seats.
A single spotlight reflected blue highlights off her dark curly hair and regal cheekbones. Her eyes were closed in concentration as her body swayed with each draw of her bow. She wore a white camisole beneath a gauzy white shirt that didn’t restrict her movements; tight jeans accentuated her long legs.

In her presence, I always felt troll-like. Maybe I was: no neck, big shoulders, thick bowed legs and standing at the higher end of short, I had my father’s round pugilist’s face, my mother’s dark Italian hair and her father’s big chest. My nose reflected my football and personal career: it was slightly off center from more than one break. For some reason, women liked me. I wasn’t a slob like Ambrosi though, I kept my gut in check during my daily workouts, and got my back waxed regularly at Gracie’s insistence. If she asked, I’d dye my graying hair for her.

I still wore a stained Kent State Football hoodie, despite being kicked off the team some thirty-plus years ago, clinging to it, Gracie said, like a toddler’s security blanket.
I sat down toward the back in one of the aisle seats and watched, transfixed, as she coached the mellow tones from her cello. The other musicians were drawn in, too, with each note. Before long the idle conversation stopped as the music swelled and rolled through the hall. With a final flourish of Grace’s bow, a last, rich note hung in the air for a moment and faded.

Automatically, I stood and walked from the back of the hall, clapping. Others on stage also applauded, joining the musicians in the seats. I was halfway down the aisle, ready to call out her name as the applause died down.

But the ovation didn’t come to a complete stop. One tall thin man, wearing black pants and a gray shirt, walked from the back of the stage, clapping slowly. His brown hair was just starting to gray and his hands looked soft. He had a sweater across his shoulders and his expensive shoes shone. Grace turned around as he approached and smiled at him.

My stomach dropped. Maybe Maris Monroe was right. Who is this asshole?

He leaned over the music stand and ran his finger across the top of the sheet music. It didn’t take much for me to imagine him running that same finger down her naked spine in the bed we once shared.

“Good job, Dr. Darcy,” he said.

She tipped her chin up toward him and beamed.

OK, this shit’s got to stop. I stepped into the light. A few other musicians recognized me.

They stepped back out of my way, their eyes widening. Apparently our marital discord was no secret.

“Yes, my wife is an excellent musician,” I said loudly.

Grace stood and waved Mr. Suave away. “Give me a minute,” she said softly.

Quickly, he and the other musicians disappeared from the hall. Grace lay her cello down on its side and walked to the edge of the stage, holding the bow. She sat down, letting her feet in their gold ballet flats hang over the ledge. I walked nearer, opening my arms. She jabbed the bow into the center of my chest like a rapier. No surprise there—Grace was also the college’s women’s fencing coach.

I stopped in my tracks. She laid the bow beside her on the stage, but I didn’t dare come closer.

“You’re still doing time for me, aren’t you, Nicco?” She was the only one who called me by my first name. I’d never been just Fitz to Grace.

“Who’s he?” I jerked my thumb toward Rico Suave, who stood just off stage, his arms crossed. His icy blue eyes were trained on me. Like some baton-waving Nancy boy could scare me. Meet me in the alley motherfucker, I wanted to say, I’ll kick your ass.

“He’s Peter van Hoven, the new conductor,” she said. “This weekend’s benefit is also a welcome for him.”

“Looks like you’ve already made him feel quite at home.”

“What do you expect me to do? Sit around like a nun until you figure out how to sign the divorce papers?” She raised one hand to write in the air.

“Gracie, please.” I stepped closer and quickly got the bow in the chest again.

“No. I was warned when I started dating you and I didn’t listen. ‘He’s as faithful as a tomcat,’ she said. ‘Don’t let him break your heart.’”

“Who said that?”

“Your mother.”

I sighed. “She’s been pissed off since I told her I wasn’t going to be a priest and wanted to play football.” My three brothers and two sisters all had large Irish-Italian Catholic families. The fact that I didn’t get married until well into my forties kept her hope alive that someone from the family would don the clerical collar. As always, I disappointed her.

“Nicco, don’t jerk me around. Just sign the papers and we can both move on with our lives. It’s not like we’ve got any big assets to split.”

I moved into Gracie’s Tudor home six weeks before our wedding with a single suitcase and the service revolver I got at retirement. When I left, I left with the same things. We had no children’s lives to destroy, no dog to argue custody over. Grace was a dedicated to her career as I was to mine, although, if this divorce went through I’d sure as hell miss the cat, Mozart.

“You going out with him?”

“Maybe. That’s none of your business. What happened to your face? Did some pissed off husband find you in one of those dive bars you frequent?”

“No, I fell.” She didn’t need to know the details. Not now.

“So, are you still seeing her?”

“Gracie, I told you. She was a client. She’d been drinking—she was out of control. I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

“And I didn’t mean to walk into your office at two in the afternoon and find you in flagrante delicto at your desk.”

My arms sank to my sides. “We weren’t—never mind. I know what it looked like.” I turned away. “You’re right. I can’t ask you to live like a nun, just like you said. I’ll talk to you later, Gracie. We’ll get this worked out.”

“Soon?”

“Yeah.” I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. “Soon.”

*****

I visited Mike Atwater’s house right after my workout the next day. The Atwaters lived outside of Fawcettville in a bungalow that had seen better days. A plaster gnome in a fading red hat and flaking paint sat by the front porch steps, holding a large mushroom with “Welcome” carved into it. On the other side of the step was a deer, equally fading and flaking, with big cartoon eyes and smile. Back in the day, when I’d brought a juvenile Mikey home from whatever late-night scrape I’d found him in, the bungalow was better kept than the others in the working class cluster of homes up and down the road.
Today, the yard hadn’t been mowed in a long, long time and weeds grew through holes in rusting metal barrels along the driveway. The paint was chipped and there was cardboard in one of the upstairs windows.

A tall, rawboned woman opened the door. Her graying hair was trying to escape from the haphazard bun on top her head; her jeans were faded and the sleeves on her Steeler’s sweatshirt were pushed up her scrawny arms.

She had the look of a woman who was used to bill collectors coming to her door—or the police coming to see her about her kid.

“If you’re a reporter, I’m done talking to reporters,” she said flatly.

“Susan Atwater?” I handed her a business card. “I’m Nick Fitzhugh, Fitzhugh Investigations. Mike’s attorney sent me. I was wondering if you had some time to talk to me?”

“Jim Ambrosi?” Susan leaned out the door and looked from left to right. I nodded. She waved me inside. We walked wordlessly through the scruffy living room toward the kitchen; Susan pointed to a wooden chair that didn’t match the table. She took a seat across from me and pulled a green melamine ashtray toward her. Smoke from a lone cigarette wafted in lazy spirals toward the ceiling. Susan looked at it sadly before picking it up and inhaling.

“I suppose you want to know what kind of an awful mother I was to have a kid who ends up in jail for murder,” she said, raising her chin and exhaling.

“No ma’am,” I said, pulling a notebook from my hoodie pocket. “I want to know about Gina and Michael’s relationship.”

Years ago, Susan Atwater hadn’t looked so ragged. Unfortunately, she and her husband Bill always managed to catch a ride in the last car of the latest economic roller coaster, the last of the working poor who would see benefit from any rising financial tide. From Ambrosi, I learned Bill lost his job in the 2008 crash. Susan had worked as a cashier at the grocery store for years but they had no savings and no retirement accounts, having spent them bailing out their son on more than one occasion.

Bill’s new job in the Pennsylvania shale fields started recently and he only made it home on the weekends. Susan was still working at the grocery store to keep herself busy while Bill was gone—and make payments on those past due bills.

“That girl.” Susan shook her head. “I never liked Gina Cantolini, but you can’t ever tell your kids those things. I was the same way. My mama didn’t like the boy I came home with—Michael’s daddy—and it made me stick to him that much more. We ran off to Jellico Tennessee and got married when I was fifteen. Michael came along six months later. Michael’s the same way. He falls for that girl and falls bad. I thought I’d be smart when he brought her home, and keep my mouth shut. I saw that girl was nothing but trouble and I never said anything. Maybe I should have.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Mr. Fitzhugh, my boy’s no angel. His daddy and me, we did everything we could to keep him on the straight and narrow, but Michael, he went down his own road and none of those roads were the right way. Gina was one bad road all by herself.”

I nodded. I wasn’t going to tell Susan I knew all about her boy—or his girlfriend. “Why was Gina a bad road?”

Susan took another drag from her cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray.

“She’d tell him those two babies were his, then she’d tell him they were Jacob Poole’s, then she’d cry and apologize and they’d fight—sometimes she and Michael, sometimes Jacob and Michael— and somebody would get arrested.”

“Whose do you think they are?”

Susan stood and walked to the living room. She came back with two framed photos.
“See this? This was taken about fifteen years ago at a family reunion.” She held out a family photo of men of various generations, clustered around an old white-haired man in a recliner, hunched over the oxygen tank in his lap. I picked out Michael, then a surly teen, from among the other older guys, all of them with various shades of the same flaming red hair.

“OK.”

“Now look at this one.” Susan showed me the other photo. Two children sat on Santa’s lap; the photo was snapped as one of the boys howled while the other stared terrified into the camera.

“You see it?” Susan sat the photos down on the kitchen table and picked up her cigarette again, arching her eyebrow. “They both have brown hair, don’t they? Ain’t no Atwater boy been born without red hair in four generations.”

“You don’t believe they’re your grandchildren, do you?”

She shook her head. “Not by blood, no. But here—” she pounded her chest with her thin, bony hand. “They are.”

“Where are the boys?”

“I’ve got them. They’re at school right now. I went to get them the night Gina was killed. Family Services thought it would be best, since they were here a lot of the time anyway.”

“Who’s got the girl?”

“Jacob does.”

“Jacob Poole’s family doesn’t keep the boys at all?”

“Not since she told them they were Michael’s boys. But they were behind the deal to get the DNA testing done.”

“Where do they live?”

“Akron, Canton, I don’t know exactly. The boys don’t know who they are anymore.”

“Did you see anything odd when you picked up the boys?”

Susan sighed and was silent for a moment. “I knew what Gina did when money got tight. I wasn’t happy about it, so I kept the boys as often as I could, just to make sure they didn’t see a lot. But when I went over there to pick those boys up after their mama died, I saw something that really upset me.”

“What was that?”

“She’d put locks on the outside of their bedroom doors, so they couldn’t get out. Those boys were locked in their bedrooms. She’d put those bolt locks on the outside of their doors, up high where they couldn’t reach them. What kind of mother does that? What if that house caught fire?”

“What do you think that meant?” I kept looking at my notebook as I wrote.

“That she was turning tricks inside the house, or selling drugs or something at night and she didn’t want those boys to see it. Those locks weren’t there last week.”

“Do you know anything about a cop who was bothering Gina? Michael claimed she was being harassed by a police officer.”

Susan clenched her fists on the tabletop and leaned toward me, her eyes filled with intensity.

“Somebody needs to look into that. One day I was there and this big, black cop just walked into Gina’s house, swinging his big ole flashlight and yelling if he didn’t get a goddamned blow job right now, he’d be busting somebody for prostitution.”

“What happened?” I stopped making notes.

“We were back in the kitchen, but I could see him from where I was sitting. She went running to the front room. I heard her say ‘Not now. The boys’ grandma is here. Come back later.’ And he left. When Gina came back into the kitchen, she was shaking. She said he came by at least once a week asking for sex. Said he’d threaten to beat her up if she didn’t give him what he wanted.”

“What did he look like?”

“Big wide shoulders. Tall.”

“What about his hair?”

“Bald as a cue ball.”

Mac Brewster’s head didn’t have a hair on it.