A Vince Torelli Mystery, Book 5: Southern Justness by John Schembra
A former soldier who becomes a San Francisco police homicide investigator after the war, Vince Torelli is dedicated, intelligent and highly principled–all skills that serve him well given the difficult, almost impossible murder investigations he’s assigned to handle that force him to the razor edge with equally resolute, extremely ruthless masterminds.
When his uncle, a Superior Court Judge in Georgia, is killed in a hit-and-run accident, San Francisco PD Homicide Inspector Vince Torelli travels to Augusta for the funeral.
While there, it is discovered the judge’s death was no accident, and Vince gets caught up in a deadly vendetta against his family. Unofficially working with Detective Sergeant Louisa “Louie” Princeton, Richmond County Sheriff’s Department, several suspects are eventually identified. Louie and Vince are determined to bring them to justice, but someone is frustrating their attempts with deadly results.
Genre: Murder Mystery (Serial Killer/Police Procedural) Word Count: 65, 356
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Justness: The act of being just; righteousness: to uphold the justice of a cause.
Judge Anthony Torelli was on his usual jog, and was halfway through the park. It was 7:40 in the morning, a cool and sunny day, the kind of Georgia day he liked. Three hours later he would be dead.
Anthony turned right out of the park and headed toward his house. There were pedestrians on the sidewalk, and, as usual when approaching them, he would go into the street and jog along the bike lane. In front of the Dunkin Doughnuts shop, the sidewalk was blocked by three men in suits, standing together talking. Anthony moved to the street to pass them, and before he got back to the sidewalk, a speeding sedan swerved into the bike lane, striking him from behind. Anthony flew up onto the roof of the car, and rolled off the trunk onto the street. The car kept going, and turned right at the next corner. Witnesses could describe the car, but none of them got a look at the driver. The three men who had been blocking the sidewalk split up and hurried away in different directions.
Vince walked into his Concord home after a long night at a messy homicide scene in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. He had a splitting headache that felt like something was trying to pound its way through his skull, was exhausted, and looking forward to hitting the sack.
He’d taken off his gun and badge when the chirping of his cellphone filled him with dread. Glancing at the screen, he saw it was the night watch lieutenant. Vince groaned, and reluctantly answered the call.
“We got a possible double homicide that’s just been reported,” the lieutenant said. “We need help, Vince. The other two inspectors are stuck at a gang shooting in Hunter’s Point–there’s three dead, and seven wounded–and it looks like they’ll be there all night. It’s a mess.”
Vince looked at his watch and saw it was after two a.m., and sighed audibly. Jesus, why tonight?
“Really? Isn’t there someone else you can call? I’ve been on the job since eight yesterday morning.”
“It’s a slam-dunk, Vince. The suspect is holed up in the victim’s house. Claims there’s two dead inside and he’s armed with a gun. The hostage negotiator is there, talking to him, and we’ve got the house sealed off. All you gotta do is show up and supervise until we can get him out. Whadda you say?”
“I say, shit.” Vince sighed, and after a moment of silence, said “All right, I’ll be on my way back.”
Vince went to the bedroom and gently woke his wife, Maggie. “Hey, Babe. I’ve gotta go back. There’s been another murder and they need me.”
“Didn’t you just get home?”
“Yeah. It’s been a really crappy night. I’ll be home in the morning.” Vince leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.
“Be careful, Hon,” Maggie muttered, half asleep.
She puts up with so much. God bless her.
Vince called the lieutenant while driving to the city, placing his cell on speaker so the LT could fill him in on the case.
“OK. Whatcha got for me?”
“Lemme see,” the lieutenant said. Vince heard papers shuffling in the background.
“At 12:30 a.m., Jackson Miller kicked in the front door of his ex-wife’s house, and beat her to death in her bedroom. Her mother–they lived together– probably awoke to the daughter’s screams and called 9-1-1. It’s not clear what happened next, but according to Miller, she came into the room screaming at him, and whacked him with a baseball bat. He said he took it from her and hit her a couple of times, in, he said, ‘self-defense’.”
“Is he in custody?”
“Not yet. Miller claims to have a firearm, but denied shooting the daughter.”
“So the negotiator’s made contact with him.” It wasn’t a question. “Is it confirmed there’s a hostage in the house?”
“Now he’s saying the mother is still alive. Miller’s refusing to come out, and won’t let us come in to help the mother. The negotiator says he sounds drunk.”
“OK. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Call me if there are any further developments.” Sure doesn’t sound like a slam dunk.
Vince spent the next four hours at the scene while the negotiator tried to get Miller to come out. Vince took over for him when it became clear the negotiator wasn’t making any progress.
At various times Miller would sob, yell, or threaten but finally agreed to surrender if they would give him a cheeseburger, fries, and a pint of Jack Daniels.
Vince agreed to Miller’s demands, not telling him the Jack Daniels wasn’t on the list. He told Miller it would be waiting for him at the police station.
At 5:20 a.m., Miller came out, with his hands in the air, yelling for them to shoot him, saying he didn’t want to live. He was handcuffed without trouble, and transported to the PD by patrol car. He ate his food, drank a large Coke, without Jack Daniels, and fell asleep, slumped on the table.
Vince remained at the house for another forty-five minutes, until the forensics team arrived, then entered to view the murder scene. A paramedic had gone in after the house had been cleared of any other suspects, and found the mother dead. After the bodies were processed and removed, Vince left and went to interview Miller.
Vince arrived at the interview room at 6:45 a.m., and woke Miller. After advising him of his Miranda rights, Miller waived his right to an attorney, and told Vince what he had done. An hour later, Miller said he was tired and wanted to sleep. Vince told him he’d be back later to talk more with him, and turned him over to the booking officers.
It was after 8 a.m. when Vince got home. Too tired to do anything else, he set the alarm for one p.m., undressed, and climbed into bed with Maggie. He was asleep in less than a minute.
The alarm buzzer jarred him awake. Vince turned over, and groped along the nightstand until he found it, never opening his eyes. Unable to find the off switch, he yanked it loose from the plug. “God, I hate this alarm,” he muttered, throwing it across the room.
Maggie had come into the room to make sure Vince was awake. She was all too familiar with his disdain for alarm clocks, and made sure she was out of the flight path if he threw it.
“So, by the flying clock, I gather you’re awake.” She walked over to the bed and pulled the covers off him, slapped him on the butt, and said, “Rise and shine, Inspector. Your breakfast is waiting.”
Yawning, Vince asked, “Breakfast? Isn’t it lunch-time?”
“I figured you’d want breakfast. Get in the shower, and don’t forget to brush your teeth. Your breath reeks.”
“I love you, too,” Vince replied, climbing out of bed.
While eating, he told Maggie about the case.
“It was a messy scene. This guy was huge, too. I’d hate to try to arrest him if he was uncooperative. I’m glad all his anger died out before he came out of the house. By the time I talked to him, he’d sobered up. All he wanted was food and whiskey.”
Vince drank the last of his coffee and stood up. “Well, back to the grind, Babe. Got a lot to do, people to see, and I have to interview the suspect again. Then, I get to spend a few hours writing two homicide reports.”
“Will you be home for dinner?”
“Don’t think so. Keep it warm for me, OK.”
“Sure.” Maggie grinned at him, and said, “I’ll do the same with your dinner.”
Vince was sitting at his desk, organizing his notes from the morning’s interrogation of Jackson Miller. As Vince listened to the recording of the questioning, making more notes now and then, his desk phone rang, interrupting him. He turned off the recording and took off the ear buds.
“Inspector Torelli,” he answered.
“Hi, Honey,” Maggie said. “Got a minute?”
The slight catch in her voice told Vince something was wrong.
“Hey, Babe. What’s up?”
“It’s about your uncle Anthony. There’s something I’ve got to tell you.” The tone of her voice alarmed him.
“Got a call from your cousin Steven in Georgia a few minutes ago.”
“Is everything all right?”
“No, it’s not.” Her voice cracked. “Steve called to tell us that Uncle Anthony had been struck and killed by a hit and run driver a few hours ago.”
Vince felt like he had been punched in the gut.
“Aw, no. God damn it,” he exclaimed.
“He was jogging in the bike lane when a car swerved into the lane and struck him.”
“You said it was a hit and run?”
“Yeah. Steve didn’t have any more info. He’s been at the hospital since the morning. Your uncle died during surgery.”
Vince sighed, fighting the tightness in his throat. “I’ll see you tonight. Call me if you need anything.”
“I will. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Vince went to Lieutenant Simons’ office and told him about his uncle’s death. “I might need some time off soon, when I find out about the services and funeral. Maggie and I are planning to go to Georgia to attend them, and be with the family.”
“No problem, Vince,” Simons said. “We can make it compassionate family leave. How long will you need?”
“I’d say a week.”
“OK. I’ll get the paperwork started.”
As Vince turned to leave the office, the lieutenant said, “Damn. I’m so sorry, Vince.”
Three days later, on Monday evening, Vince’s cousin Steven called. After the usual few minutes of small talk, asking how everyone was, Steve got down to business.
His voice breaking, Steve said, “I set Dad’s funeral for Saturday, five days from today, at 11 a.m.” Vince heard him take a deep breath, then continue. “There’s gonna be a lot of people there–cops, lawyers, friends, family. He was very well thought of around here. It will be held at Saint Mary on the Hill Church. After the service, he’ll be buried at Cedar Grove Cemetery.”
“Isn’t that where our grandparents are?”
“Yes, and his grandparents, great-grandparents, and about a hundred other Torellis.”
“I believe it. I knew Augusta was where the family settled after immigrating here in the late 1800s. OK. Thanks, Steve. We’ll fly in on Wednesday. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“I don’t think so. My brother and I have everything pretty much in control.”
“Did you learn anything new from the police?”
“Not really. The car was found in the parking lot of a warehouse outside the city. It had been torched.”
“Was the owner identified?”
“Yeah, they traced the vehicle identification number to a guy here. He’d reported the car stolen the day before the accident. Said it was taken from the parking lot at his work–a car dealership on the other side of town.”
“Text me the investigator’s phone number. I’d like to give him a call before I come out there.”
“Alright. Her name is Louisa Princeton.”
“Thanks, cousin. Call me if you need anything. I’m so sorry for your loss, Steve, and please pass our condolences on to your brother.”
“I will, Vince. Joey will appreciate it. We have room at the main house, and you’re welcome to stay there.” Vince politely refused, figuring there would be several other family members staying there, and it would be a bit crowded.
“OK, Vince. See you on Thursday. Love you, Cuz.”
“Love you, too. Bye.” Vince hung up, and sat down on the desk chair, elbows on the desk and head in his hands. He quietly wept for a bit, feeling the loss of his uncle.
After a few minutes, he went to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face, dried off, and went downstairs to be with Maggie and the boys.
Vince went in to work on Wednesday and spent the day catching up on one of his pending cases. By the early afternoon, he had briefed another inspector on the needed follow-up on the murder of a man in a homeless encampment. Vince had narrowed the persons-of-interest to two men and one woman who lived there. He was certain one of them had committed the murder, and they needed to be interviewed. Bobby helped get their other cases, in which a suspect had been arrested, parceled out to other inspectors. All the cases lacked was routine follow-up, or witness interviews, and then taken to the D.A. for filing. Bobby would be the lead inspector for any new cases.
Once Vince was satisfied the workload had been properly delegated, he notified Lieutenant Simons he was leaving, saying he would be back in a week.
Vince spent that evening, after dinner, reminisced with Maggie, Scott, and Tony, telling them stories of his childhood, and the things he did with his Uncle Anthony.
“I’ve told you before, Tony, you were named after Uncle Anthony. Only thing was–he hated being called Tony. Insisted we all call him Uncle Anthony, not Uncle Tony.
“Some of my best childhood memories were when we lived in Georgia, and dad and Uncle Anthony would take us kids fishing at Lake Sinclair for the weekend. We would stay in a two-room cabin with one bedroom, a main room, and no indoor bathroom. Of course, the bedroom was for the adults. We kids would put our sleeping bags on the floor in the main room. It would get crowded, since there were six of us. There was a small sofa and one armchair in there that were up for grabs each night. We would have a lively game of rock paper scissors, and the winner would get the couch. Second place got the armchair.” Vince chuckled at the memory. “Steven, being the oldest of the cousins, always seemed to win, and I can’t remember any time he slept on the floor. Over the years, we pulled some pretty big large-mouth bass outta the lake.”
An hour later, Maggie and the boys were yawning, and losing interest in Vince’s stories. They called it a night, and went to bed.
After breakfast the next morning, Vince called Sergeant Louisa Princeton of the Richmond County Sheriffs Accident Investigation Unit. After introducing himself, he asked for the information on his uncle’s hit-and-run accident. She provided him with the basic facts, and said the case was an active investigation.
Vince said, “I’m flying in Wednesday. Any chance we can get together and you can tell me more. You know, a little professional courtesy?”
“We’re not allowed to share open cases with anyone. It’s against department policy, but since you’re family, and a cop, I don’t think it would be a problem. When you get here, give me a call. We’ll figure something out, OK?”