Death, Taxes and a Chocolate Cannoli by Diane Kelly is the 9th cozy mystery in the IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway series (available October 6, 2015).
He's no Tony Soprano. Still, local crime boss Giustino “Tino” Fabrizio is one shady character that Tara would love to see behind bars. He operates a security business—or so he claims on his tax forms—but his clients don't feel so secure when it's time to pay up. Problem is, no one can get close enough to nail this wiseguy for extortion. No one, that is, except Tara...
Going undercover, Tara lands a waitress job at Benedetta's Bistro—which is owned and operated by Tino's wife. Being surrounded by cream-filled cannolis could be hazardous to Tara's waistline...even though the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, right? Only thing Tara can't afford to do now is blow her cover. Because serving Tino his just desserts will surely come with a price...
At two o’clock in the afternoon on a Monday in early May, I stood on the sidewalk in front of the federal building in downtown Dallas. To a casual observer, I’d look no different from any other female professional in her late twenties. Heck, we were a dime a dozen. But the subtle bulge under the blazer of my navy blue pantsuit set me apart. I didn’t just handle business, I meant business. And my business was making sure that tax cheats paid for their crimes, both in cash and convictions.
A shiny black sedan with dark tinted windows eased up to the curb in front of me. The passenger window slid down only an inch or two, not enough for me to see the person inside, but enough for me to hear his deep, gravelly voice. “Special Agent Holloway?”
I tried to swallow to clear the tightness in my throat but was unsuccessful. As much as I hated to admit it, bringing tax evaders to justice could sometimes be a little frightening. Instead of speaking, I merely nodded.
The door unlocked with a click. “Get in.”
I shifted my briefcase to my left hand and grabbed the door handle, my heart pumping like an oil jack in my chest. Why was I anxious? Because my boss at the Internal Revenue Service had assigned me my biggest case yet, against mob boss Giustino “Tino” Fabrizio. Fabrizio’s acts of violence and extortion were legendary—and the stuff movies starring Robert DeNiro were made of.
Since joining the IRS a little over a year ago, I’d faced down a con artist running a Bernie Madoff–style Ponzi scheme, a killer operating a cross-border crime enterprise, a televangelist who’d fleeced his flock, the president of a secessionist group that was stockpiling weapons, terrorists, a sleazy strip club owner operating a prostitution ring, a country-western superstar who’d thumbed his nose at the IRS, and a violent drug cartel. Guess you could say I’d been busy. You could also say there were as many ways to cheat the government as there were tax evaders. Each had their own unique scheme or scam. But none had gotten past me …so far.
My earlier successes, as well as my exceptional gun skills, had landed me this mob case. Part of me was proud that my boss had assigned me as the lead agent on the investigation. Another part of me was so scared I feared my sphincters would never release again.
I slid into the car, placed my briefcase on my lap, and snapped the seat belt into place. As FBI Agent Burt Hohenwald pulled away from the curb, I ventured my first glance at him. The veteran agent was a tall, lean fiftyish man with curly pewter-colored hair, a nose like a ski jump, and a gray tweed blazer that made him look professorial. I half expected him to launch into a lecture about the Treaty of Versailles or Plato’s theories on the nature of virtue.
Hohenwald cast a glance my way, too, looking me up and down, unabashedly sizing me up. I took no offense. It was par for the course. After all, the two of us would be working this case together, counting on each other, holding each other’s lives in our hands. Unfortunately, in my case, appearances could be deceiving, even to a veteran of law enforcement. My chestnut-brown hair hung in loose curls around my shoulders, my gray-blue eyes were accentuated with liquid liner, and my lips bore a shiny coat of plum-toned lipstick. Along with the basic navy suit, I’d worn my favorite cherry-red steel-toed Doc Martens. Like me, the shoes meant business. The bright color might be a little flashy, but the soles provided good traction should I need to chase a suspect and the reinforced toe protected my little piggies should my foot find itself implanted in a suspect’s nards or ass. You’d be surprised how often that happened.
A frown played about Hohenwald’s mouth as he returned his focus to the street. “Lu says you’re a girl who knows how to get things done.”
“I am.” Approaching thirty, I was hardly a girl anymore, but I knew my boss Lu “the Lobo” Lobozinski meant no insult when she’d used the term. Besides, at five feet two inches, just over a hundred pounds, and wearing what was essentially a training bra, I appeared more girl than woman. I’d accepted it. Besides, what I lacked in stature, I made up in attitude, which was one hundred percent badass. Okay, ninety-nine percent badass and one percent chickenshit. Seriously, a person would have to be an idiot not to fear a violent mobster, right?
Hohenwald hooked a left on Field Street. “I trust you’ve read the file I sent over?”
“Thoroughly.” I hadn’t just read it, I’d highlighted it, cross-referenced it, and made copious notes in the margins, including several HOLY CRAP!s a half-dozen OMG!s and one very big YIKES!!! If Hohenwald wasn’t impressed by my physical attributes, maybe he’d be impressed by my reading comprehension and annotation abilities. Not everyone can pull off both a pink and a purple highlighter.
“So you know Tino Fabrizio’s history prior to coming to Dallas.”
“Up, down, and backward.”
According to the file, Guistino Fabrizio had been born and raised in the ritzy Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago. The youngest cousin of the reigning Chicago mob boss, Tino had worked for his cousin for years as an enforcer. He was suspected in a multitude of beatings and execution-style shooting deaths, the victims including both members of the extended mafia family and unrelated persons. Unfortunately, though he’d been brought in for questioning several times, law enforcement had been unable to pin anything on him. The guy knew how to cover his tracks.
Eventually, Tino realized his job taking people down had no upward potential. As ambitious as Tino was, and as cold as the Windy City’s winters were, he decided to head south to Dallas. Though there’d been isolated instances of mob activity in the area, the mafia had enjoyed no real toehold in the Big D since the death in 1970 of local leader Joseph Francis Civello, with whom Jack Ruby, who shot JFK’s assassin, was rumored to have ties. These days, organized crime in north Texas existed primarily in the form of drug cartels or gangs that operated in limited circles and with no pretense of legitimacy. Here, Tino could rule the city, put his parka in mothballs, and work on his tan.
“What you don’t know,” Hohenwald said as he took a second left onto Main, “is what Fabrizio’s been up to since he moved to Dallas. The file I sent over to the IRS was heavy enough with just the FBI’s background reports. Besides, I figured it would be best to let you get the scoop straight from Detective Booth at Dallas PD.”
“Dallas PD?” I repeated. “Local police are involved in the investigation, too?”
“Sure are,” Hohenwald replied. “In fact, Detective Booth was the one who put two and two together and realized Fabrizio was connected to a lot of bad stuff.”
“Why didn’t the police department keep the case?”
“With Fabrizio’s history in Chicago, the detective realized his crimes had national implications. She also knew that bringing down his network would take more resources than her department could provide.”
“So Booth turned the case over to the FBI?”
“Essentially,” he said, “though she’s kept a finger in the pie. She wants this guy as bad as we do.”
With Dallas PD handing primary responsibility for the matter over to the FBI, and the FBI subsequently punting some of the work to the IRS, it might seem like the buck was being passed. But such was not the case. Rather, law enforcement was hedging its bets. In important yet difficult cases such as this, it was not unusual for several law enforcement agencies to work together and attack a wanted suspect on more than one front. While local police and the FBI could investigate the violent crimes, the IRS could take a different tack and try to nail the suspect for tax evasion or money laundering. Not only did a multipronged approach increase the odds that the suspect would be caught doing something illegal, but it also gave the government additional charges to fall back on should the primary indictment be thrown out. Suspects could be slick, and their defense attorneys could be even slicker. We needed as much ammunition as possible in our arsenal to ensure the bad guys didn’t get away with their dirty deeds.
Hohenwald turned south on Lamar and drove several blocks, passing under Interstate 30, before pulling into the parking lot of the Dallas Police Department headquarters. We parked, went inside, and checked in with the uniformed officer working the front desk. He directed us to wait in a seating area crowded with people, none of whom looked happy to be here. Hohenwald snatched a copy of the Dallas Observer, the city’s alternative newspaper, from a coffee table. Frankly, I was afraid to take my eyes off the group, which likely included a high percentage of felons.
A moment later, a fortyish woman in khaki slacks and a pink button-down stopped in the doorway. She had pointy, pixielike features and honey-blond hair pulled back in a short ponytail. She scanned the seating area, her eyes stopping on Agent Hohenwald.
“Is that Detective Booth?” I asked, gesturing toward the woman.
He looked up from the paper. “Yup. That’s her.”
He set the paper aside and stood. I followed him over to the woman, who simply lifted her chin in acknowledgment, turned, and led us down the hall and around the corner to a small elevator. Another person was already in the car, so we remained silent. One could never be too careful with confidential information. We rode the car up to the third floor, exited, and trailed the woman to an office at the end of the corridor. The nameplate on the door read DETECTIVE V. BOOTH. I found myself wondering what the V stood for. Valerie? Vivian? Violet? She stood at the door as we stepped inside, closing it behind us.
Stacks of files stood like a paper skyline at the edge of the detective’s desk, flanked by an automatic stapler and an ivy that looked desperate for a drink of water. While the detective rounded her cluttered desk, Agent Hohenwald dropped into one of the two seats facing it and I perched on the other, setting my briefcase down beside me.
Hohenwald made a quick, unceremonious introduction. “Detective Booth, Special Agent Holloway. Agent Holloway, Detective Booth.”
Booth and I shook hands over the desktop and offered each other polite smiles.
“What’s the V stand for?” I asked.
“Veronica,” she replied.
That minor mystery had been easily solved. But getting the goods on Tino Fabrizio was sure to be far more challenging.
As we began our powwow, Booth summarized the situation for me. “Giustino Fabrizio is suspected in the deaths or disappearances of at least ten men in the Dallas area over the last five years. Most of the men had worked for him in one capacity or another, some officially, others unofficially.”
Yikes! And to think I sometimes complained about my job. At least my boss wasn’t out to kill me. “So Tino made sure those who knew his secrets didn’t live to tell them?”
“Exactly,” Booth replied. “Anyone who had dirt on the guy ended up buried in dirt themselves.”
The mere thought had me brushing imaginary muck from my arms.
She pulled a thick file from a drawer. “Agent Hohenwald asked me to share my file on Fabrizio with you.” She held it out to me. “Take a look, then we can address any questions you might have.”
My tax case files contained innocuous things like spreadsheets and bank statements. But police files could be far more gruesome. I took the hefty file from her and inhaled a deep breath to steel myself.
Odds and Ends
I opened the folder on my lap. The first two items in Booth’s file were recent police reports addressing the disappearance of two men on the same night. One of the men who’d gone missing was a professional locksmith. According to his wife’s statement, he’d received a late-night call, purportedly from someone who’d locked himself out of his house and needed emergency service. The locksmith failed to return home to his wife and two children.
Booth gestured to the report. “We considered whether he might have simply abandoned his family, but that possibility was quickly ruled out. By all accounts he’d been a dedicated husband and father.”
And, as the report noted, he’d taken nothing with him, not even his prized baseball card collection or his beloved Labrador retriever.
The other man, who was unmarried but living with a girlfriend, was a personal trainer who also provided freelance bodyguard services on a contractor basis. He, too, had received a late-night call, told his girlfriend it was work-related, and left in a hurry, never to come back home. He had also left all of his possessions behind, and had made no contact with anyone, not a family member, neighbor, or friend.
No trace of either man had been found, and according to the reports, both had left their cell phones at home. Odd.
As I looked up in thought, my eyes spotted water stains on the ceiling tiles in the detective’s office. The building must have suffered a leak at some point, maybe during the last heavy rain. But the leaky roof wasn’t the issue of the moment. The current issue was, Why would the victims have left their cell phones behind? Most people carried their phones with them at all times. Also, per an inquiry to their carriers, no calls had come in to the men’s personal cell phones late that night. More than likely, the men had second, secret phones their loved ones didn’t know about.
Pulling my eyes from the damaged ceiling, I returned my attention to the documentation. My specialized role would be to pursue the financial angles, follow the money trails, so naturally information about suspicious income and expenses caught my eye. The statement made by the locksmith’s wife indicated that he had taken his family on a trip to Hawaii shortly before he disappeared. She’d reported that her husband’s business had been doing especially well in the months preceding his disappearance. The trainer had bought a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle not long before he’d vanished. His girlfriend hadn’t asked where the money to buy the Harley had come from. Maybe she didn’t want to know. “Looks like these two men came into some unexpected funds.”
Booth leaned back in her chair. “Cash payouts from Fabrizio probably accounted for the sudden uptick in income.”
The third item in the file was a police report regarding a mugging that had taken place in the parking lot of a barbecue restaurant late on the same night the men had disappeared. Two masked men had pulled guns on the owner of the restaurant as he went to his car with a zippered bank bag containing the day’s cash intake tucked under his arm. The muggers forced him to hand over the cash, his cell phone, and his keys. By the time he walked to a gas station down the road and called 911, the muggers were long gone.
The victim had uploaded a tracking app to his cell phone, and it was located in a storm drain a half mile away, along with his keys. Neither bore any fingerprints. The report noted that, months before, the victim had hired Fabrizio’s company, Cyber-Shield Security Systems, to install security cameras and provide monitoring services at his restaurant. A still photo, presumably a screen shot of security camera footage, showed a dark image of two men in ski masks with guns pointed at the victim as he stood next to a car. The terrified expression on the man’s face said he was in imminent risk of soiling himself. But who could blame him? The mere photo of the armed thugs had my gut in a clench.
I looked up at Detective Booth. “Given that the mugging victim was a client of Fabrizio’s security company and that the mugging happened on the same night the two men disappeared, you’re thinking there’s a connection?”
“You got it.” She plucked a shriveled leaf from the potted ivy on her desk, ground it to mulch between her fingers, and dropped it into the dirt at the base of the plant. “My guess is the two men who disappeared were the ones who mugged the restaurant owner. Fabrizio probably offed them afterward and disposed of their bodies somewhere. He’s not the kind of guy who leaves loose ends.”
“Did the locksmith or trainer have criminal records?” I asked.
“The trainer had a couple of assaults on his rap sheet. He gave a previous girlfriend a black eye and he’d beat the snot out of someone who’d accidentally backed into his motorcycle in a parking lot. The locksmith had a theft charge. He’d made a duplicate key when installing new locks at a private home. He went back later and attempted to rob the house. The homeowners came home and caught him in the act. He covered his face and ran off, but they’d already recognized him.”
It didn’t surprise me that the missing men weren’t exactly choirboys. Dirty work was done by dirty men.
Booth went on to tell me that it had taken years for Dallas PD to connect the dots and realize Fabrizio had likely played a role in several unsolved crimes. “Too many crime victims have been clients of Fabrizio’s security company for it to be mere coincidence.”
Most were too afraid to point fingers at Tino Fabrizio, to implicate him in extortion, but the detective surmised the victims suspected that the man who was supposed to protect them and their businesses was, in fact, the one who’d preyed upon them instead.
“Fabrizio’s approach is typical,” Booth said. “He focuses his extortion efforts on people running mom-and-pop-type businesses. They’re easier to intimidate and they control their business’s finances.”
I supposed it would be more difficult to extort money from a large business client, where the staff member working with Cyber-Shield’s salesman probably had no access to the company’s coffers and would be more likely to report the extortion attempt to upper management.
“I’ve spoken with Fabrizio in person,” Booth said. “Strangely enough, the guy didn’t give off a single bad vibe. He seemed about as threatening as Barney the dinosaur.”
I was familiar with the show, which was filmed locally at the studios in Las Colinas. Fitting, I supposed, since the oil Texas was famous for originated from the bodies of dinosaurs that had roamed the state millions of years ago before keeling over to take a permanent dirt nap. Many claimed a meteor did the big beasts in, but I speculated that perhaps they’d snacked on a few too many lantana, a native wildflower that was pretty but poisonous.
Booth continued. “Of course when I spoke with Tino I didn’t let on that I suspected he might be involved in the crimes. I just asked for any evidence his security company might have. He provided me with copies of the camera footage.”
I flipped to the next page to find a photograph of a very muscular, but very dead, man lying on a weight bench in a residential garage. A barbell loaded with what looked to be hundreds of pounds of weights rested across his neck. His right arm crooked back under the bar at such an angle it must have snapped under the pressure. My stomach squirmed inside me as I looked up at the detective. “What happened to this guy?”
“Crushed windpipe. By the looks of it he was working out in his home gym without a spotter and got a little overzealous. But I think Fabrizio killed him. This guy had been on Cyber-Shield’s payroll for a while, driving one of the security patrol vehicles. He probably knew too much and became a liability.”
I turned to the next page in the file and—gukh!—suffered an immediate gag reflex. A full-color photograph depicted a man folded over a wrought-iron fence, a pointy post—and approximately six inches of lower intestine—protruding through his lower back. A river of blood had flowed from the fatal wound and down his legs, forming a crimson pond at the base of the fence. The dead man wore blue jeans, a green sweater, and a red Santa hat.
I looked up at Detective Booth. “I’m guessing this wasn’t an accident, either?”
“He was stringing Christmas lights on his roof when he ‘fell.’” She made air quotes with her fingers.
“But he’s linked to Fabrizio?”
“That’s a good question. Many of the men Tino Fabrizio hires to do his dirty work have other jobs, like the trainer and locksmith. None of them told anyone they were moonlighting for Fabrizio, but I’m sure he makes it clear they better keep their mouths shut. Santa there,” she said, gesturing at the photo, “was an electrician. We think he might have arranged an electrical fire one of Fabrizio’s security clients suffered.”
I was almost afraid to flip to the next page. But it couldn’t get any worse, could it?
My gag reflex went into overdrive. Gukh-gukh-gukh!
The next page featured a close-up photo of a man’s face with two dozen steel nails protruding from it, the ones in his eye sockets buried up to their heads in his retinas and spongy brain. It looked as if the man had been attacked by an evil acupuncturist. Blood ran from the wounds, nearly coating his face in red rivulets.
Detective Booth didn’t wait for my inevitable question. “The man in that photo was a building contractor. He was allegedly trying to repair a malfunctioning nail gun he’d ‘forgotten’ to unplug.” She made air quotes again. “Again, there were no witnesses. We think he might have been in on a theft of a Cyber-Shield client where a bulldozer was used to knock down a wall. The client’s safe was scooped up and carried off.”
I could go on and detail the rest of the file, but I’d likely lose my lunch. I’d eaten spicy Mexican food that had burned going down, so I definitely didn’t want it coming back up. Moving on, then.
“With so many victims having a link to Tino,” the detective said, “it’s clear the man played a role in the crimes. Problem is, Tino knows how to distance himself. If law enforcement is ever going to bring this man to justice, someone’s going to have to catch him in the act.”
But what act might it be? My spinning mind tossed out one gruesome scenario after another until I willed it to stop with a firm shake of my head.
Hohenwald chimed in now. “The FBI has done its best to gather evidence that would directly link Fabrizio to an offense, but stakeout after stakeout had gotten us nowhere. We’ve followed Tino, of course. We’ve also tracked his salesmen, installers, and security patrols all the way from Dallas to Timbuktu, hoping they might help us figure out which client Tino might be planning to target next. But we’re never in the right place at the right time. We can’t seem to pin anything on him. That’s why I decided it was time to involve the IRS in the investigation.”
And that’s where I came in. If Tino Fabrizio couldn’t be nailed for extortion or murder, we might at least be able to charge him with tax evasion or money laundering. The strategy had worked on Al Capone and many a mobster since. Might as well go with tried-and-true methods, right?
“If anyone can get this guy,” I told the two of them, “it’s the Internal Revenue Service.” Cocky of me to say so, perhaps, but I knew personally just how good we agents at the IRS were. With any luck, we’d be able to put together a tax case against the man before he could strike again.
The detective chuckled, nonplussed. “All righty, then,” she said, holding out her hand for a good-bye shake. “Go get ’im, tiger.”
Copyright © 2015 Diane Kelly.
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Diane Kelly is a former state assistant attorney general and tax advisor who spent much of her career fighting, or inadvertently working for, white-collar criminals. She is also a proud graduate of the Mansfield, Texas Citizens Police Academy. The first book in Diane's IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway series, Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure, received a Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Award. Book #2, Death, Taxes, and a Skinny No-Whip Latte, won a Reviewers Choice award. Diane has combined her fascination with law enforcement and her love of animals in her K-9 cop Paw Enforcement series.