The Thick Man- Chapter Fifteen

“Yes, this is Detective Charleston with the Saint Louis Police Department. I have an urgent matter to discuss with Doctor Roberts. I need to see him right away.”
“Of course, Detective. One moment please.”
A second later the clipped tones of Roberts’ secretary came back over the speaker. “I’m sorry Detective, but Doctor Roberts isn’t available at the moment. According to his schedule he won’t be back in for the rest of the day. I’ll be sure to notify him of the urgency of your request and have him get back to you as soon as possible.”
Before Nora could respond the connection ended. She quirked an eyebrow at her phone and mumbled, “Wow, what a bitch.”
She glanced over at me. “Think it worked?”
I nodded in the direction of the staff entrance of Potosi Correctional. “I think we’re about to find out.”
Five minutes later Doctor Carl Roberts burst from the staff entrance door looking like a man being chased by a grizzly. His face was red and covered in sweat. In fact, sweat stains were already starting to show around the neck and underarms of the white button up shirt that he was wearing. He stumbled down the three steps from the door and almost fell as he jerkily pulled his keys from the pocket of his black slacks. He was looking down at his keys, trying desperately to find the one for his car, so he didn’t notice me leaning against his driver’s side door. The ring of keys slipped from his sweaty fingers and Roberts cursed vehemently as he bent down to pick them up. It was then that I decided to give him my best Bugs Bunny.
“Ahhh, what’s up Doc?”
He jumped like a scared rabbit and would have fallen backwards on his rear end if Nora hadn’t been standing behind him. Instead he backed into her, screamed like a frightened school girl and jumped again, this time in my direction. Not wanting to get stuck in the middle of a game of human pinball I reached out and grabbed him by the shoulders, steadying him.
“Easy, Doc.”
“Oh God, Detective Charleston! Mr. Taft! You startled me!”
Nora bent down to pick up his keys. “Yes, I can see that Doctor. Do you mind telling me where you’re going in such a hurry? Especially after I just phoned your office and left a message saying how urgent it was that I speak to you?”
He glanced around nervously. “I, uh, have a very important appointment just now. I’m afraid I just don’t have time today to, ah, answer any questions.”
I spoke up from behind him. “More important than assisting the police in a murder investigation?”
“I, uh…”
He glanced back at me just as Nora chimed in, “More important than avoiding being arrested for obstruction of justice?”
He whirled back to face her, his voice going up an octave, “Arrested?” He was starting to sound desperate. “Detective, please! I can’t be seen talking with you!”
Nora and I exchanged glances. I could tell she was thinking the same thing that I was. She confirmed it a second later. “Doctor, get in the back seat of your car so we aren’t out in the open.”
He hurried to comply and I went around the front of the car to get in on the passenger side. It took me a few seconds longer than I would have liked because I had to wait for the damn electric seat to move back at roughly the speed of smell before I was able to get in. Once I was in and the doors were all shut Nora and I both turned back to face the doctor, who was nervously looking out the back windshield.
Nora’s voice was quiet, but firm. “Okay, now talk. We know what you’re involved in, and there’s nothing that I can do to help if you don’t cooperate and tell me what you know.”
His head snapped back to her, desperation tainted his voice. “But I don’t know anything! I swear to you!”
I rolled my eyes. “Come off it, Doc! You wouldn’t be this freaked out if you weren’t up to your neck in this!”
To my surprise his head jerked frantically in a nod. “Yes, I admit that I was paid a large sum of money to help get those inmates released, but that’s all! I don’t know who’s involved! I don’t know anything about why they were released or what they were doing! I was never told! You have to believe me! Oh God, please, you have to believe me!”
Nora frowned. “Calm down, Doctor.”
He lurched towards us, his eyes bulged. “No! You don’t understand! They’ll kill me if they see me talking to you! I never wanted any of this! Oh, God…You have to get out, go away! I told you what I know, now please!”
He started looking around frantically again, like a child frightened that the boogie man was about to jump from the closet and eat him. Nora pressed. “Who? Who will kill you for talking to me? Dammit, Roberts, I can’t help you if you don’t give me something to work with.”
He looked back at Nora and realization spread across his face. Or perhaps it was resignation. He suddenly slumped back in the seat, like a balloon being slowly deflated. “You can’t help me, Detective, and if they saw you two approach me then it’s already too late.”
He shook his head and massaged his temples with his fingers. “I told you, I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Danes approached me one day. Said he had a list of inmates that he needed to get released. He told me that the people that he was working for would pay me an exorbitant amount of money to sign off on their evaluations. That’s all I’d have to do.” He sighed. “I have two children, Detective. My youngest, Maggie, is only twelve. We just found out that she has leukemia. The treatments aren’t cheap, even with my insurance. That money…” he chuckled to himself, but there was no humor there. “The money, we needed it. So I said okay. I did what they asked and now my Maggie will be able to have what she needs. It’s what a father does, right?”
Neither of us answered and he continued. “But then those horrible murders started and you two came to see us.” Tears began to roll down his cheeks. He wiped at them with a white handkerchief that he pulled from a pocket. “That night, while my wife and I were asleep in our bed, we were visited by a large man in black. His face was covered and I didn’t recognize the voice, but I knew that he was telling the truth when he put a knife to my wife’s throat and described in graphic detail all the horrible things that he would do to her and my children if I were to speak to you or anyone else from the police again.”
I suddenly felt sick. Nora turned back around and started the engine. “Okay Doctor, we’re going back to the station. You’re going to say all of that again, on record, and then I’m going to get you and your family into protective custody.”
The doctor’s voice came back small and weak, completely devoid of hope. It was the most heartbreaking sound that I’d ever heard. “You can’t protect us, Detective. Not from these people. They can get to us wherever you hide us. They’ll find us. They told me so and I absolutely believed them.”
The car started to move and I could see the muscles in Nora’s jaw bunch as she growled through clenched teeth, “The hell they will! I don’t care who they are, I’m going to make sure that nothing happens to you or your family.”
“I believe that you’ll try, Detective, and I thank you for that.”
There was a glint reflected in the rear view mirror. “Nora!”
The sound of the gunshot was deafening in the enclosed space. Warm gore splattered across the windshield and my face just before we slammed into another parked car. My head careened off of the dashboard in front of me and for a few moments my entire world went black. When my vision cleared I saw Nora slumped against the steering wheel, the entire right side of her face and body was covered in blood and my heart lurched.
“Oh God! Nora!”
I moved to check on her and instantly the world around me began to spin- another damn concussion. I fought through the haze and rushed to clear away the blood on her head, checking her for injuries, deathly afraid that the blood was hers. “Nora! Nora, please!”
I couldn’t find a bullet hole and relief flooded through me when she groaned a second later and began to sit up. She had a nasty gash on her forehead where she’d struck the steering wheel, but otherwise she seemed okay. “Oh thank God, Nora. Are you okay?”
She rubbed at her head and grunted, but then she went pale as she glanced back behind us. “Nick, don’t look.”
Too late.
Roberts’ body was slumped forward and stuck between the front seat and the floorboard from the impact of the crash, but the grey matter and fleshy chunks still slowly streaking down the blood-splattered window beside him told me exactly what had happened. The snub-nosed revolver on the floorboard next to him confirmed it. I felt myself retch and got the door open just in time to lose my lunch all over the blacktop of the parking lot. I hauled myself out of the car, stumbled, and then almost fell over as everything started to spin. I caught myself on another parked car and leaned over the hood.
I felt Nora’s hands on my shoulders a few seconds later. “Nick?”
I waved her away. “I just had to get out of there.”
“I know, but your head. You look horrible.”
I absently reached up and could feel the warm goose egg starting to plump up there. I managed a smirk. “You don’t look so great yourself, princess.”
She nodded but didn’t smile as she pulled out her phone. I found it grimly amusing that she looked more concerned about me than she did the poor man with his brains blown out in the car two feet away. “I’m calling an ambulance. You already have a concussion and throwing up could be a really bad sign.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m throwing up because I just saw the inside of a guy’s head.”
“Probably, but we need to be sure.”
“Yeah, well don’t forget to tell them about the dead body in the floorboard.”
“I’ll call Matt too, just stay there and try not to move.”
“I’m fine, Nor.”
She shot me a hard stare and I held up my hands in surrender. “Okay, I’m staying.”
People were starting to rush from the building to check on the noise, and several men in guard uniforms were running in our direction. I saw Chief Danes come out with them, but when he saw Nora and me his face fell and he quickly went back inside. I mumbled to myself, “Well, that’s probably not good.”
I didn’t see him again in the five minutes it took the ambulance to get there. After that there was a swarm of local paramedics and cops all over so even if Danes did come back around I never would have seen him. Matt and Ron showed up about a half hour behind the rest. Nora relayed the story while all three of them forced me to go with one of the paramedics and get checked out. They came over to where I was sitting a few minutes later as the medic was shining another damn penlight in my eyes.
Matt asked, “How is he?”
The medic ignored my comment and put the light back in a pouch. I winced and bit back a curse as he gently probed at the bump on my head. “It’s definitely a concussion. Given that he’d just had one recently I really think that we should take him in and get some scans done.”
I started to refuse but Nora interjected with a firm poke to my chest with two fingers. It hurt. “You’re going. Period. If you try to pull any shit I’ll knock your ass out and load you into the ambulance myself.”
Matt grunted next to her, “And you’re going, too.”
Now it was her turn to protest, but she got the same response. “You’re going to get checked out, Detective. That’s an order.” His expression softened and he added in a whisper, “Your father gets back tomorrow and you know that there’s no way that he won’t hear about this. Go and get yourself checked out. Show him that you’re being responsible and keeping safe. It might keep him from going completely off the deep end. Ron and I will take care of things here and meet you both at the hospital when we’re done.”
“Roberts’s family.” Her face fell as she swallowed past a lump forming in her throat. “I promised him that I’d protect them.”
Ron looked up from his phone. “I’m already on it, chika. Don’t worry about it.”
Matt leveled a finger at the back of the ambulance. “Go.”
Nora nodded. It took three paramedics, Matt, and Ron to hoist me into the ambulance, which was only mildly humiliating. Nora climbed up after and sat down on the gurney next to me, the paramedic following in her wake. There were a couple of thumps on the back door and the ambulance started up. Nora’s hand reached out to grip mine and she gave it a squeeze. I squeezed back. We held hands all the way to the hospital, but we didn’t say a word.