The Thick Man- Chapter Five

The drive to Potosi was only about an hour and a half long. Nora had suggested riding together but I had argued that if she got a call and had to leave in a hurry it’d make things difficult, so it’d be best to take two separate vehicles. She couldn’t argue the logic and agreed. In reality, I just didn’t want to sit for an hour and a half with her in my truck and nothing to talk about but her date and my lack of anything resembling a positive in my own life. So, instead, I spent the time listening to “Carry on My Wayward Son” on repeat and trying to psych myself up.
God Bless Kansas.
The Potosi Correctional Center isn’t actually in Potosi, but in Washington County. Funny, I know. It’s basically a big, depressing, prison complex with nothing around it but a huge water tower, power lines, and fields for a few miles. It’s not exactly warm and inviting, that’s for sure, but it was a perfect complement to the funky mood that I was in.
I made a point to go over everything I had on me and leave anything metal in the truck, with the exception of my keys. I’d brought an old wooden cane that had been my grandfather’s instead of my usual one. My usual cane was called a “city stick” and consisted of eight layers of reinforced fiberglass capped with a one pound steel cap. It was a functional cane, long enough for my height, and could be used as a self-defense weapon in case I ever needed to brain someone with it like an extra from Braveheart. That said, it wasn’t something that I thought they’d let me walk into a maximum security prison with.
Nora was waiting for me at the entrance and frowned when she saw the cane. “I feel like I’m going to get a splinter just looking at it.”
I waved the cane menacing at her. “You young wipper-snappers and your devil music! No one respects the classics anymore!”
She laughed as we walked inside together. There’s a special kind of musk that comes with the inside of a prison. Stale sweat mixed with fear and anger makes an interesting bouquet, and the bleach that they use to sterilize everything certainly didn’t help. Nora didn’t seem to be phased by it at all, but I guess she’s had plenty of experience. I balked. “What a lovely new smell you’ve discovered. It’s like the men’s locker room at a YMCA just stopped caring about personal hygiene all together.”
Nora shot me a withering glance and I shrugged. “Sorry, my first time in the joint.”
She rolled her eyes and kept walking.
The department had cleared us ahead of time so we had an escort waiting for us by the metal detectors. He introduced himself as Dr. Carl Roberts, head counselor, and had a very nervous quality about him. I found this very strange given he worked at a maximum security prison and his patients consisted primarily of murderers and rapists. He was middle aged with a major receding hairline, glasses that made him look a bit like an owl, and a healthy belly. He was also sweating…a lot. Perhaps cops just made him nervous, or maybe it was Nora. She can be pretty intimidating, especially to guys who aren’t comfortable around the fairer sex in the first place. Either way, it was a data point worth mentioning when Nora and I compared notes later.
I showed the guards at the metal detectors my little laminated card stating that I had a metal plate in my leg from a childhood accident, and we passed through with a minimum of fuss and were given visitors badges. Dr. Roberts told us that our first stop would be to see Max Danes, the head guard. “If anyone would know about the three men you’re asking about, and who they might have associated with, it’ll be Max.”
Nora nodded. “Given that you’re the head counselor here I had hoped to speak to you as well. You knew the three men in question, didn’t you? Marco Giovanni, David Ricci, and Andre Jones?”
The nervous man smiled sheepishly at her. “We have a lot of inmates here ma’am, and my counselors handle most of the sessions. It’s possible I may have run into them at some point, but I doubt I’d know anything of substance that would be useful to you. I’m more of a supervisor than anything these days, I’m afraid. Of course, I’d be happy to look at the files and tell you anything that might come to mind.”
“Thank you.”
As we walked down the dank corridors I mumbled to Nora, “Anyone else having Shawshank Redemption flashbacks?”
She snorted. “If the ‘sisters’ try to make a go at you I’ll protect you.”
“My hero.”
The corridors where a faded white and the building itself had an old, used feel to it. It was all very industrial and cold, but I guess for a maximum security institution the intention isn’t to be warm and cuddly. We passed through an area of the hall that had a wet floor sign in front of it and I took extra care as I walked on the wet linoleum.
When we got to the security office I did a double take and had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. Max Danes looked like a biker straight out of Easy Rider. He was 6’3 with a bulky frame, a handlebar moustache, and was rocking a raven-haired mullet. All he was missing was some chains, a Led Zeppelin tee, and a leather jacket. Dr. Roberts made introductions and Danes gave Nora a quick but firm handshake, though I noticed his eyes lingering at various key destinations as he eyed her up. When he got to me he smirked and did his best to crush my hand in typical jackass fashion. I refused to give him the satisfaction of a response and forced myself to keep a straight face. I really hate that alpha male crap.
He gestured to a couple of chairs that looked like they’d been picked up at a junkyard. Nora plopped down into hers immediately while I eyed mine up dubiously. All I needed was for a freaking chair to break on me in front of this guy. He’d probably go straight to dry humping me as a show of dominance.
The chair frame was metal but had rust accents all over it. The cushion, and I use the term in its loosest possible sense, was little more than a flimsy piece of yellow foam that looked like it’d been a Rottweiler’s chew toy in its previous occupation. At least the stupid thing didn’t have arms. The only thing worse than a chair breaking on me is having it get stuck to my butt when I try to stand up again.
I cautiously eased myself down, wincing a bit as it creaked, and kept my cane ready in my right hand just in case I needed to hop up in a hurry. It held, but I didn’t relax. Dr. Roberts leaned against the wall next to us and Danes sat on his desk and leered at Nora like a true professional. The mental image of me beating Danes with my cane until candy came out made me smile but the sounds of his hillbilly accent brought me back to reality.
“So, what’cn I do for ya sweetheart?”
I winced on instinct, anticipating the claws coming out, but Nora stayed cool and professional. She smiled tartly, “You can start by dropping the sweetheart crap and acting professionally.”
He chuckled and held up his hands in surrender. “My apologies miss. I didn’t mean any harm. Robby here says that you wanted some info on a few cons they made me release a while back?”
Nora handed him the files and he flipped through each while nodding and grunting. “Ah, yeah, I ‘member these idgits. Got paroled a few months ago. Saw on the news the other night that they got iced. It couldn’ta happened to a nicer bunch, lemmie tell ya.”
Nora nodded. “Do you remember anything about them? Did they hang out in the same circles here? Is there any other prisoners you can recall that they were close with that might know how they might be connected?”
Danes a rolled a shoulder. “The two Italian guys were pretty tight, I guess. Most of ‘em in here are. I always figured it was a birds of a feather kind of thing, you know, for protection. Even guys who run in opposite crews or ‘families’ or whatever on the outside tend to bunch up in here. I never saw the black guy around them that I can recall. The guys around here tend to stay in pretty tight clicks and don’t stray, if you know what I mean.”
Nora and I exchanged sour looks and she responded, “Okay, well who was in the ‘click’ that Andre Jones hung around in?”
Danes stared for second before responding, “Look, I wasn’t these guys’ best buddy, lady. I don’t keep track of their lunch room pals, who they hang with, or who they’re screwin’. Neither do my guards. We’re just here to make sure that the animals don’t eat each other, though as far as I’m concerned we should let ‘em.”
Nora leaned forward and, even though her glare wasn’t leveled at me, I still found myself flinching. “Think. Hard. I’d hate for your job to be in jeopardy for failing to cooperate with a detective during a murder investigation.”
Suddenly Danes didn’t seem to be enjoying the view anymore and his voice, which had been disinterested before, had now gone cold. “Jackson. Devonte Jackson. I seen him an Andre together quite a bit.”
“I’d like to speak to him.”
“Whatever you’d like, detective.”
“Seems a bit odd, so many inmates from a max security prison like this all being released on parole in such a short time period.”
They both snapped their heads in my direction, but I kept my eyes locked on Danes. He looked like he was disgusted by even acknowledging my presence, much less responding to my comment, but after the not-so-subtle threat Nora had just leveraged on him he didn’t have a lot of choice. He sneered. “Well, what can I say, big guy? The parole board says ta cut ‘em loose, I cut ‘em loose. Less scumbags that I have ta concern m’self with.” He stood up from his desk and made for the door. “I’ll have Jackson brought into a room so you can chat. Robby, show ‘em the way, will ya? I got things ta do.”
“Of course.”
Once Danes was gone the good doctor scratched at the back of his head. “Uh…sorry about that. Max is…well, Max.”
I scoffed as I hauled myself out of the junkyard special. “Yeah, he’s a real charmer.”
Nora snatched her files from Danes’ desk. “I deal with pigs like him all the time. The best hope we have is that they don’t actually breed.”
Dr. Roberts chuckled with us as he directed us to the door. “This way, please.”
The wet floor sign wasn’t there on our trip back through so I mistakenly wasn’t as cautious and I paid for it. My right foot slipped, just a bit, on the still-damp floor and I felt a sharp pain in my knee as it went out from under me. I inhaled sharply and quickly got the cane under me before I could topple over. I felt Nora’s strong hands under my left arm, steadying me a split second later.
“Nick! You okay? Your knee go out?”
I nodded and bit back a curse. “I didn’t hear a pop, so I think I got my weight off of it before it got too bad. I need to sit down though.”
Dr. Robert’s motioned towards a pair of wood doors just up the corridor from us. “Our chapel is right over here. Do you need any help?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m a pro at being a gimp, I’ve just got to be careful on this wet patch.”
I hobbled as carefully as one can on a wet surface, and Nora helped by lending me extra support. The chapel was much cooler than the previous sections of the building, and mercifully had a different, much more pleasant smell to it; as though someone had lit incense not long before we came in. The room was the size of a small auditorium, like something that you might find in an elementary school, and dimly lit. There were eight rows of wooden pews on either side of the room, with a walkway down the middle that lead to a small wooden podium with a backdrop of a large wooden cross with Jesus nailed to it and stained glass on either side. There were also benches that lined the back walls on either side of the doors, thank God, which is where Nora led me. Having to try and side step in and out of a row of pews would have killed me with my knee, and it didn’t look like there was a ton of clearance between rows. It would have been a tight squeeze.
I half-flopped down onto the bench, silently praying that I wouldn’t hear the depressingly familiar sound of snapping wood underneath me. The bench held and Nora squatted down in front of me, concern twisting her beautiful features as she put a hand on my uninjured knee. “You sure you’re okay here? I can help you to your truck.”
I shook my head again and forced a smile. “I’ll be fine, Nor. I just need to get off of it for a bit. Go ahead and do your interview and we’ll compare notes when you get back.”
She didn’t look convinced but she didn’t argue. “Okay, Nicky. I won’t be gone long.”
She hadn’t called me that in years.
I laid my head back against the wall and silently wished I’d thought to bring along some extra painkillers when I left the house that morning. As my physical health has slowly degenerated painkillers have, unfortunately, become a regular part of my day. My doctor prescribed Vicodin three times a day, and it did enough to take the edge off of the pain where I could reasonably function and sleep. I know a lot of people frown on relying on addictive painkillers in that way, but I figure why suffer when I don’t have to? As long as I don’t abuse it, it’s just like any other medication that helps to improve quality of life, such as it is.
“Can I help you, son?”
I started at the voice and felt a jolt of pain from my knee when I jerked. The speaker was an older man, maybe in his late forties or very early fifties, with black hair streaked with grey at the temples and a thin but fit build. He was decked out in all-black and had the white collar around his neck, identifying him as a priest. He smiled when he saw my reaction and held out a hand. “I’m sorry if I startled you. I’m Father Michael, the chaplain here. I was surprised to find someone here. My service ended over an hour ago.”
I shook his offered hand. “Hello Father. I’m Nick Taft. I’ve got a bum knee and it decided that it wanted to act up as we were walking past, so I stopped in here to get off of it for a bit. I hope that’s okay.”
He nodded emphatically as he frowned down at my outstretched leg. “Of course! That’s perfectly all right. Is there anything that I can do for you?”
“Thank you, but no. The only thing that’ll help me is a bit of time…unless you happen to have some painkillers or a saw where I can amputate.”
He chuckled. “No to both, I’m afraid. Do you mind if I join you for a moment? It’s not often that I have visitors that aren’t convicted felons.”
I laughed at that. “Please.”
He sat on the bench next to me and let out a sigh of contented relief. “Ah, thank you. It’s good to have an excuse to sit down for a minute. I’ve been going through and doing a bit of cleaning after the service. The janitorial staff tends to just gloss over the place when they come through. So, were you visiting someone here?”
“Uh, sort of. I’m a consultant working with the Saint Louis Police Department on a case, and we came here to ask a few people some questions.”
Father Michael nodded. “Ah, the ‘Godfather Killings’. Such a horrible thing.”
When he saw the surprised look on my face he smirked. “Two of those young men had been members of my ‘flock’. One tends to notice when they show up on the news in such a grisly fashion.”
I nodded. “I know it’s wrong to assume, but was it Giovanni and Ricci?”
He laughed. “Yes, they were ‘good Catholic Italians,’ which I always found to be very ironic considering what they did for a living. I had hoped that maybe their time with me might have made a difference, but unfortunately it seems that it didn’t.”
His face fell as he said that last and I felt sorry for him. I couldn’t imagine a more lonely profession than having to be the spiritual leader to a bunch of hardened criminals. “How long have you been here Father, if you don’t mind my asking?”
His face brightened, just a bit. “Of course not. Let me think…” He leaned back in the pew and scratched at his head. “Oh, I guess it’s been close to twenty four years now, since this place first opened. I have another little church in town as well. I guess the higher ups haven’t felt the need to move me in all these years.” He smiled. “I’m not sure if I should take that as a compliment or an insult.”
I chuckled along with him. “That’s a long time. I can’t even imagine. How do you do it? I mean, you’re around criminals in a maximum security prison, hearing their confessions. Having to listen to all the horrible things that they’ve done would drive me nuts.”
“It can be…difficult, but it’s the sick that need a doctor, not the well. Besides, I do take solace in the fact that they’re in here as opposed to out there where they can do more harm to others.”
“Except for when they’re paroled.” His smile faltered and I knew that I struck a nerve. I leaned in a bit closer to him. It was a long shot, and we’d only just met, but it was obvious that he was troubled by the killings so I figured that maybe I’d get lucky. “I know due to confidentiality you may not answer this question, but I do have to ask. Is there anything you could tell me that might help us? Anything that Giovanni or Ricci might have mentioned?”
Father Michael suddenly looked very nervous, and even though we were the only two people in the room he still glanced around to assure himself of the fact. Satisfied, he leaned in next to me. “I cannot betray their confidence, however I can say this- there is something very wrong here, in this prison. Johnny Giovanni and Michael Ricci aren’t the only inmates that have been released on parole in the last few months. Quite a few have been filtered out of here, much more than normal. Johnny mentioned that he’d ‘made a deal’ but didn’t go into specifics. If I were you, I’d look closely at those in authority here.” He put a hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more that I can tell you. I sincerely hope that you’re successful in your investigation, and that your knee gets better soon. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have a mass at my other church that I must go and prepare for. Is there anything that I can get you before I go?”
“No Father, thank you. My partner should be here to get me soon. You’ve been very helpful.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more. May God be with you.”
We exchanged handshakes and then he left. I leaned my head back against the wall and thought about what I’d just heard. If we’re looking for potential villains here in the prison we wouldn’t have to go too far. Max Danes fit the stereotype to a tee. He practically wore a sign that said “bad guy,” but being a douche bag doesn’t automatically make you a villain, and even as head of security he wouldn’t have the clout to get prisoners paroled on his own. There’s also Dr. Twitchy. He was acting so shaky a mouse fart might have given him a heart attack. Maybe he’s in on it? I wasn’t sure, but it looked like Nora and I had quite a bit to talk about.