The Thick Man- Chapter Eleven

Before we left the house I told them that I needed a minute to grab a few things from upstairs. After the events of the day I decided that it was time that I started making use of my conceal and carry license. I was long past tired of feeling vulnerable and helpless.
I went back to Grandma’s gun cabinet and returned the shotgun and one of the handguns that Nora had borrowed to their proper places. I emptied the clips of the other two and replaced them with fresh ones, and then scooped up two more spares. I made sure that the safety was on both guns and then stuck one of them in a holster and clipped it to the belt of my jeans. It dug into the side of my stomach a little bit, and I’d probably have to take it off when I sat down, but I could live with it. I took my dad’s flask from my left inner jacket pocket and switched it to the right. The second Glock took its place. It wasn’t a shoulder holster, but it’d serve the same purpose for me. As an afterthought I grabbed one more little toy that I’d always wanted to try and stashed in my pocket.
I picked up the two spare clips and turned to head back downstairs. I stopped short when I noticed Nora standing in the doorway. She smirked at me. “I’ve been telling you for years that you should be carrying.”
“I know. One of these days I’ll learn that you’re always right.”
She grinned. “See? There’s hope for you yet. You sure that you’ve got everything you need Rambo?”
“I think I broke my pellet gun, so it’ll have to do.”
We stopped off at Nora’s apartment just long enough for her to pack a bag and then we headed for destinations unknown. I dozed off during the car ride and was woken up unceremoniously by another smack in the head. Ron had turned off of the paved road onto one that felt like it’d been built with speed bumps and bad dreams. “What the hell, man?”
“Sorry amigo. It’s a bit bumpy.”
“Ya think? Is this even a road?”
He and Matt chuckled from the front seat but didn’t answer. All I could make out in the pre-dawn light was trees. Lots and lots of trees. Another rough bump sent Nora into me and she woke with a start. “What the hell?”
“That’s what I said.”
She looked out the window. “Jesus, Matt. Where in the backwoods hell are you taking us?”
He looked back at us and his white teeth flashed under the bushy beard. It was unsettling, especially when he responded, “Somewhere no one will be able to find you.”
I looked over to Nora. “Nor, I love you, but if I hear banjoes I’m bailing.”
Matt barked out a laugh. “Relax. A friend of mine owns a house out here. It used to be his grandparents, but they passed last winter. It’s got running water and working plumbing, all the comforts of home…except for electricity.”
“Oh come on!”
We both said it at the same time.
Nora grimaced and punched me in the arm.
Matt ignored us and continued, “It might be a little dusty though. No one’s been here in months. Ron and I will drop you off and let you get settled. Make up a list and we’ll be back tonight with groceries and whatever else you might need.”
Nora leaned forward. “Wait, you’re not just ditching us here, are you?”
“Relax, it’s just for today. You both need some rest. You’re no good to me dead on your feet. We’ll pick you back up in the morning. We’ve got people watching both of your places. Me and Ron’s too. We want to see if anyone comes snooping around.”
“What about my dad?”
Matt shrugged. “We lucked out there. He’s at some kind of fundraiser that the Governor is throwing in Kansas City, and we kept both of your names out of the press, so that’s bought us a day or two. Hopefully we’ll have things tied up before he gets back. To that end, while you two rest up Ron and I are going to see if we can run down our missing three ex-cons.”
I stifled a yawn. “What about Potosi?”
I could see him purse his lips in the rearview mirror before responding, “We’ll be looking into things there, but until we have something solid to go on we don’t want to jump the gun. It might spook whoever is in on this whole thing and cause them to go to ground before we can nab them. Right now the ex-cons are our best leads in figuring out just what in hell is going on.”
I nodded and leaned back in the seat. The constant jostling made it impossible to go back to sleep, so instead I stared out of the window and enjoyed the scenery, which was actually quite pretty now that the sun was rising. The leaves were turning, so I was treated with a nice tableau of greens, yellows, oranges, and browns. At one point I caught sight of a deer, but the sound of the approaching car spooked it and it disappeared back among the trees and swirling leaves.
Nora nudged me. “Don’t you think that you should give Gram a call? Let her know what happened?”
I looked at her as though she’d suddenly grown a second head. “God no! Are you nuts? She’d be on the next plane back, and the last thing that we need right now is a pissed off and fired up Abigail Taft calling for heads. You think that your dad is overprotective and has a bad temper? She makes him look like a Zen master, and you know that the first thing she’ll do is hunt him down and give him an ear full. Then we’d have them both in full rampage mode.”
She let that mental image percolate for a moment and then blanched. “Yeah, good point.”
After a few more minutes on Bumpy Avenue we emerged in a clearing where Nora and I would be staying. I was expecting an abandoned dump, so I was surprised that things actually looked nice. The cabin wasn’t very big. It was a one story affair that looked as though it had been hand-made from actual logs. From the outside it looked like it might have two bedrooms and it was very pretty even if the yard around it had started to overtake the property. There was a corral behind the house where the previous occupants had obviously had some type of animals, and a large red barn off to the side along with a gun metal gray pick-up truck that looked as though it had been well used before my grandparents were even born.
Matt pointed at the side of the cabin. “There’s a pile of cut wood over there for the fireplace and stove. It’s a bit rustic but I’ve been assured that it’s actually quite cozy on the inside. We’ll bring a couple of coolers filled with ice later today when we bring the groceries.”
Nora grunted. She didn’t look happy at all. “Wonderful. Matt, I’ll get you back for this. I promise you.”
He chuckled. “You’re welcome. Now let’s get your stuff inside so you can get some rest. Make up that list and we’ll be back in a few hours with your supplies.”
We got out of the car and went around to the trunk to grab our bags. When the trunk popped open Nora placed a hand on my chest. “Wait a sec. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
She reached into the trunk and pulled out a cane that looked…exactly like the one in my hand. “I know that your birthday isn’t for another couple of weeks, but I figured that I’d go ahead and give you your present now. I figure it might come in handy.”
I smiled and leaned my cane against the car bumper so that I could take hers. “Thanks Nora. Mines a bit beat up so it’s nice to have a spare.”
She shook her head. “It’s not the same cane. Look closer.”
Now that she mentioned it I could feel the outline of a button on the steel head. I pressed down and the shaft of the cane popped off to reveal a two foot blade. “Oh sweet! It’s a sword cane! I’ve always wanted one of these! It even looks like my normal one.”
She nodded enthusiastically, obviously pleased with my reaction. “Well, you keep getting yourself into trouble. I figured you could use the extra help.”
I pulled her into a hug. “Thanks Nora! This is great!”
“Hey, you two wanna wait until you get inside? Sheesh. Get a room.” Ron grinned as he reached past us to pull my bag out of the trunk. He glanced down at the blade in my hand and laughed. “Now all you need is a black mask and you could be Zorro.”
I snorted. “I’d probably kill the poor horse.”
Nora slapped me on the chest and grabbed her bag from the trunk. “C’mon, let’s go see what fresh hell Matt’s found for us.”
I retrieved the cane shaft, sheathed the blade, and then grabbed my cane from the bumper as I followed them to the cabin. I grumbled when I saw that there were a few steps up to the porch and hobbled up them while cursing under my breath. It would be easier to list the parts of me that weren’t hurting at that point and having to go up another set of steps, while really only a minor annoyance, was just rubbing salt into the wound. I brightened when I got inside the cabin, however.
It was actually much larger on the inside than it looked. It was a completely open floor plan, with the “living room”, “dining room”, and “kitchen” all being in different sections of the same large space. To the right of the front door was a large, comfortable looking maroon couch that was flanked by two matching stuffed chairs, all facing a massive fireplace on the right-hand wall. There was a large wooden table in the upper right hand corner of the room with an oil lamp in the center. To the left of that was the kitchen, where a massive wood-burning stove rested in the middle of the space. The walls on that side of the room were lined with counters and shelves. There was a sink with a window over it off to one side, and an old school refrigerator that used actual ice instead of electricity in a far corner.
I whistled. “Wow, I didn’t think I’d ever see one of those in real life.”
I pointed at the refrigerator and Nora groaned. “I’m in hell and it looks like the set of the Waltons.”
“Oh come on Nora, it’s not that bad. There’s people who actually pay a lot of money to live like this on vacation.”
She shot me a withering glare. “And those people are idiots. Give me electricity and cable any day.”
I chuckled as she flopped on the couch to sulk. Ron handed me a pad of paper and a pen. “Make up a list of stuff you’ll want. I’d ask her to do it but it doesn’t look like she’s in the mood.”
I took the pad and sat down at the table. I made out a list of things that I thought would work best given our situation and asked Nora if there was anything she wanted to add. She rolled her eyes and muttered “a generator” and then went back to sulking. I handed the pad back to Ron with a grin.
Matt patted me on the back. “Try and get some sleep. Ron will be back in a few hours with supplies.” He added to Nora, “Try and relax, kid. You’ll be back in civilization before you know it.”
And then they left.
And it was just me and Nora.
She seemed content to pout on the couch so I opted to explore the rest of the house. It didn’t take long. There was a single bathroom complete with claw foot tub. The toilet seat was actually made of wood, and I assumed that it was due to the cold in winter. That thought made me shudder. We were still in the early half of October, but it could still get a bit chilly at night. I made a mental note to bring in some firewood before it got dark.
There were, thankfully, two bedrooms. The “master” was only marginally larger than the spare, and had a queen sized bed and a small wood burning heater for warmth. The spare bedroom was virtually identical with the exception of the bed being a twin. I volunteered to take the smaller bed but Nora rolled her eyes and called me a moron. “Spare me the chivalrous self-sacrificing, Taft. It’s sweet but we both know that you need the extra room more than I do. I’ll be fine on the twin.”
We both retired to our respective bedrooms to get some sleep. Anxiety aside, I still managed to pass out as soon as my head hit the pillow. I didn’t even bother with turning down the blanket. When I woke up the sun was already setting. I got out of bed and found Nora going through boxes of food and supplies.
“These were on the table when I woke up not too long ago. I guess they didn’t want to wake us.”
I nodded and jerked my head towards the door. “I’m going to go out and get us some wood before it gets too dark. It’s bound to get cold tonight.”
“I’ll help.”
After a few trips we had enough wood to get us through the night for the fireplace and our bedrooms. Matt and Ron had been thoughtful enough to include oil for the lamps and plenty of matches. There was also a pair of flashlights in the box with batteries so we wouldn’t have to worry about carrying around the lamps in the middle of the night. Nora frowned when she saw the total amount of supplies. “We’re only supposed to be here tonight. Why the hell did they leave us this much stuff.”
I sat down at the table and sighed. “They aren’t coming back, Nora. They did this to get us out of the way.”
Her head snapped up. “What? Why?”
I shrugged. “If I had to guess: your dad the chief of police and my grandmother the judge. If anything happened to us, especially after last night now that they know we’re targets for whatever reason, how much hell do you think they’d have to pay? They know you’d never willingly go into protective custody. You made that abundantly clear last night. Instead they tricked us into coming out here in the middle of nowhere where we’d be stuck. Check your phone. No signal.”
She quickly pulled her phone from her pocket and growled. “That son of a bitch!”
She picked up a box of Cheez-Its and hurled it across the room before plopping into the chair next to me and burying her head in her hands. “I’ve worked so hard, Nick. I’ve tried to prove to them that I’m a good cop, that I can handle myself.”
“You are Nora and you can.”
She shook her head and tears glinted in the light of the lantern flame. “No, to them I’ll always be the chief’s daughter. They’ll always handle me with kid gloves and pull shit like this when things get serious. My whole career is a joke.”
I stood up and put my arms around her shoulders. “Then let’s show them how wrong they are.”
She glanced up at me. “How in the hell do we do that? You said it yourself, we’re stuck out here.”
“You notice that truck outside?”
She snorted. “That old piece of junk? Hell Taft, it has to be from the 40’s at least! I doubt it runs.”
I shrugged. “You’re good with cars, right? Didn’t you work in your uncle’s shop in college? If it doesn’t work maybe you can fix it. I’ll bet there’s probably stuff in the barn we could use. We won’t know unless we look. We’ll do it first thing in the morning.”
She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Okay, so assuming I can get the truck to run, and that’s one hell of an assumption, what next? If Matt or Ron sees us they really will force us into protective custody.”
I sat back down in my chair and nodded. “Yup, which is why we should approach things from the other direction.”
She perked up. “The mob ties.”
“Yup. While they’re running down the ex-cons we can look into how the Carnelli Family ties into everything. Didn’t you say there was some bar that you wanted to check out? We could start there.”
With a warm smile she reached out and squeezed my hand. “Thanks Nick.”
I squeezed back. “That’s what I’m here for. Now, I don’t know about you but I’m starving. What kind of goodies did they bring us?”
We spent the next hour preparing dinner. While the boys might have left us in exile, they sure didn’t want us to go hungry. The antique fridge had been well stocked with ice and various meats and dairy products. There was a cooler, similarly iced down, filled with beer and a second with various brands of soda. The pantry was stocked with bread, hamburger buns, spices, condiments, and so on. All in all it looked like they’d planned for us to stay at the cabin for a while.
I took out some hamburger meat and worked on getting it seasoned while Nora got the oven fire stoked. I pride myself in my cooking. I absolutely hate cooking for just myself. That much effort for just me always seems like a waste of time and energy, but when I have other people to cook for I love it. I didn’t have my normal assortment of spices and things to play with, but even with the bare necessities I managed to make a few burgers that turned out remarkably decent. After we ate and got everything cleaned up we retired to the living room portion of our cabin and flopped onto the couch. After the sun went down so did the temperature in the cabin, so Nora once again volunteered to be on fire duty and within a few minutes she had a flame going in the fireplace that instantly took the chill out of the room.
She sat down on the couch next to me and sighed. “Dinner was great Nick, but now what? We can’t exactly turn on the T.V. and I’d rather save the batteries on the phones.”
I nodded and dug into the backpack I’d brought along. “I guess we’ll just have to entertain ourselves the old fashioned way, and luckily I came prepared.”
She looked horrified as I pulled out an honest to God hardback book. “They still make those things?”
I snorted as I lit the oil lamp on the in-table next to me. “They’re rare, I know, but yes, people still own actual books.”
I’m no book snob. While I have a small library’s worth of books at home, I have just as big a collection in digital on both my phone and tablet. That said, nothing beats the feeling of a genuine physical book in my hands. Plus, no batteries needed.
I opened the book to the first page. “I’m not the only one with a birthday coming up so I bought this for you because it’s one of my favorites, I thought you’d like it, and hopefully it’d be the book that’d get you to be more open to reading. If not, the movies based on it are pretty great too, so that was my backup plan. It’s a classic about a retired detective and his wife that get caught up in a murder mystery while they’re on Christmas vacation. It’s funny, really well written, and the main characters are a Nick and Nora too. Nick and Nora Charles.”
She arched an eyebrow at me. “Nora Charles, eh?”
“Thought you’d like that. She reminds me a little of you, too. She’s a strong female character. Doesn’t have your ‘kick ass and take names first, ask questions later’ flare, but she’s spunky.”
“Ha! Spunky? Is that how I am?”
I smiled. “Well, it’s one word I’d use to describe you.”
“Oh? What are some of the others?”
I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t going to let me off the hook. “Well, smart, loyal, fierce-“
“Fierce! I like that one!”
“Brave, courageous, beautiful, sexy…”
“You really think I’m sexy? I know you’ve joked but…”
I shrugged. “I have eyes, so yes.”
Normally this kind of conversation, and particularly that kind of question, would have had my stomach all tied up in knots and me a nervous wreck. I guess the events of the past 24 hours had used up all my allotted anxiety for the time being. Instead I found myself being completely calm and honest about how I saw her, and she could take that for what it was.
It was my turn to arch an eyebrow in her direction. “Is your ego fed enough or shall I keep going?”
She laughed. “Oh, I could listen to this for days, but I suppose that’s enough for now. So what’s you plan, we just sit here and read?”
She didn’t look thrilled at the prospect.
“Relax. I thought that I’d read it to you. Back in the day before there were radios and T.V. that’s how people used to entertain themselves. They’d take turns reading to each other. I figure it goes well with the rustic theme that we’ve got going here.”
He anxious look grew into a smile. “Sure, that sounds nice.”
So I started to read about Nick and Nora Charles’s zany murderous adventure with New York socialites. After a few minutes I was surprised when she snuggled up against my arm. When I paused in reading and glanced down she muttered about it being cold, so I smiled and continued. The warmth that blossomed in my chest had nothing to do with the blazing fire in front of us.
At some point Nora and I had both drifted off on the couch and when I woke up I found her head against my chest and my arm draped around her. The fire had long since died down to embers and the room was cold enough to send a chill through me. I regretted having to wake her, and selfishly debated with myself about it, but in the end I gently shook her shoulder. “Hey, Nor? Nora, wake up.”
She glanced sleepily up at me. “What time is it?”
“I have no idea, but the sun’s not up yet. I didn’t want to wake you but it’s getting so cold in here I was afraid that you might get sick.”
She nodded, her eyes still half closed, and looked like she might nod back off any second. I hauled myself out of the seat and eased her back down where I’d been. “I’ll be back in a second.”
I went to her room and got a fire started in the little heater there. The heater worked more like a barbeque than a fireplace, using coals to retain the heat, and I hoped that it’d be enough to last until morning. If not, there was a heavy quilt on the bed. I pulled back the bed covers and then headed back into the living room. It would have been a more romantic and manlier gesture to have picked her up and carried her to bed, but manly and romantic gestures are for guys who actually have upper-body strength. I gently woke her again, and after a little prodding I got her up and guided her to her bed.
After tucking her in she wrapped the blankets around her head and muttered, “G’night, Nicky. Love you.”
Then she was asleep again.
I stood there, staring down at her, and all I could do was blink. Then I realized how incredibly creepy that would look if she woke back up so I forced myself to start walking towards my bedroom. She’d been practically asleep and didn’t realize what she’d said. Surely she didn’t mean it. Even if she did, she meant it like she would if I were her brother, right? I was sure that was it.
I returned to my own bed, not bothering with the heater, and tried not to think about it too much.