The Thick Man- Chapter Four

“What the hell were you thinking, Nora?!”
As a kid I loved cartoons. My favorites, besides the superhero stuff, were the Loony Toons episodes with Yosemite Sam. Whenever Bugs Bunny would make him so mad that he turned the color of a tomato and had steam coming out of his ears I would bust a gut. I’m not sure why, but I always found that to be the most hilarious thing. Seeing it in person, however, is not so funny.
Chief Richard Charleston scares the hell out of me. It’s not just because he’s built like a linebacker, or because he has a big manly beard streaked with grey that makes him look like a backwoods booty bandit that might make you squeal like a pig if he caught you on his property- Grizzly Adams stuffed in a cop uniform. No, the scariest thing about him is his temper; and just like good ‘ole Yosemite, whenever he got pissed off he’d turn beet red, his veins would pop out of his neck, and he’d look like he was about to break you in half with his bare hands. That was exactly how he looked at that moment as he glared down at the two of us in his office.
I cowered as low in my seat as I could, wishing vehemently that I were a turtle. Nora, on the other hand, went right back at him. “I was thinking that this was the only way that I’d be allowed to do real police work! I was thinking that maybe I could prove to you once and for all that I’m a capable cop and deserve to be treated that way!”
Chief Charleston could see that she wouldn’t be battered down, so like any good strategist he switched tactics. “Are you saying that the men and women that put on a uniform and work the streets every single day aren’t doing real police work?”
Nora didn’t bite. She stood up and looked him square in the eyes. “I’m saying that I’m well aware of how you’ve held me back the last few years. My record has been damn near impeccable. I should have been a detective by now! I deserve better than being stuck as a beat cop because you want to try and drum me out. I’m not a little girl anymore and you aren’t going to scare me away from what I want to do! That shit didn’t work when I joined the academy and it sure as hell won’t work now!”
The Chief leaned against his desk and crossed his arms. “And you think playing vigilante with your friend here is the right way to go about proving that?”
Nora snorted. “Nick and I did in twenty four hours what vice couldn’t do for four months.”
His eyes drifted over to me and I tried to shrink a little more in my seat. “Yes, Nicolas Taft, the file clerk. Son, do you have any idea how much trouble you could be in right now going along with her cockamamie scheme?” He leveled a meaty finger in my direction, like Zeus about to hurl a bolt of lightning. I flinched. “Your grandfather, God rest his soul, may have been a dear friend of mine, but don’t you think for a second that it means you get a free pass to do whatever the hell you want. In fact, you’re lucky that I don’t-“
Nora slapped him on the arm, cutting him off mid-glare. “Hey, cut it out! He was my partner, not my prom date! It was Nick that picked up on the pattern that no one else thought to look for. He’s part of the reason you get to do a nice big press conference and announce that this ‘Ghost’ that has been making this department look stupid for four months is behind bars. You should be thanking him, not growling at him.”
To my surprise, he nodded. “That was smart, but he’s still not a cop and he had no business what-so-ever being in the field, much less holding a damn gun that he has no license to carry!”
Nora held up her hands in surrender. “You’re right, okay? We could’ve played this smarter.” She smirked and put an arm around his shoulder. “Still, we just handed you a big juicy public relations story that you can spin any way that you want. Given the negative public perception of the police force the past year or so, that’s a big win. You and I both know that you need a big win right now.”
He grunted and I could detect just a hint of a smile growing beneath his bushy beard. “So what do you want, exactly?”
“I just want the chance I should have had years ago. Let me be test out for detective. Let me really do what I’ve always wanted to do and get by on my own merits.”
He grimaced as he gripped her hand in his and gave it a squeeze. “You’re just like your mother, and that’s what I’m afraid of.”
She nodded and kissed him on the cheek. “I know, daddy, but you can’t protect me forever. This is what I want.”
“Fine, but I think you’ll find that the grass isn’t exactly greener.” He sighed. “You’re right, though. It’s your life and I can’t keep you from living it how you want, no matter how much I don’t like it.”
His expression hardened as he turned his gaze to me. “And you?”
Working the case with Nora stirred something inside me, and during the time that I had to sit and reflect while waiting to get chewed out, I’d decided that I wanted to put my education to good use. I couldn’t be a cop and I refused to be a lawyer, but I could be a private investigator. I said as much to Nora’s dad and he chuckled. “A P.I., eh? I just may be able to help with that.”
Normally my size and medical issues are impediments for finding gainful employment, but once word got out about my involvement with catching the notorious ‘Ghost’ as a “freelance consultant,” thanks in no small part to Chief Charleston, it wasn’t hard to find a firm that would take me on for the year-long apprenticeship that you have to have in order to get your own license. It was good publicity, and the agency that I went with, McLintock Securities, certainly made the most of it. They played me up to the media and it garnered them quite a few clients as a result.
My time there was a huge boon for me. Mr. McLintock took a personal interest in me and spared me a lot of the typical snoop jobs that most private investigators get stuck doing a majority of the time. He said that he saw something special in me and wanted to cultivate my talents. He was the first person, aside from Nora and my grandparents, that had ever showed that kind of faith in me. It turns out that faith was well placed because I was actually pretty damn good at the job. It wasn’t long after I’d gotten my license before I started really living up to the hype as McLintock’s personal Sherlock Holmes, capable of solving any mystery quickly and efficiently. My time there gave me a sense of purpose and confidence that I’d never had before.
Unfortunately, my success and media attention wasn’t enough to keep the business afloat when the economy went into the toilet and got flushed. My five minutes of fame were up and I quickly found myself back in grandma’s basement with only my books and movies to keep me company as I worked whatever jobs I could catch through word of mouth referral in a really crappy economy. In lucky months I’d catch a corporate gig or two that paid a decent sum that I could make stretch.
I hadn’t had a lucky month in quite some time.
Nora and I still met up once a week at the Baker Street Grill to catch up, trade stories and ask each other’s opinions on cases. I know my little story about the Ghost might have painted Nora in a bad light, but desperation will make you take stupid chances sometimes and the truth is she’s actually a very capable, smart cop. I may be good with looking at all the angles, but Nora has street smarts and a good sense about people. She proved it and then some once she was given the chance. Anyone who grouched about her promotion, claiming it was because her daddy was playing favorites, was proven dead wrong when she quickly became their top cop.
In fact, over the last couple of years she’s saved my bacon just as many times as I’ve helped her. We make a good team, and that’s why when Nora was transferred to homicide and found herself on the team assigned the “Godfather” case she gave me a call. It was her first high-profile case and she wanted my help as a consultant. Given that I was unemployed and flat broke, I couldn’t exactly refuse.
Three bodies had turned up inside a week. Two were former low-level drug pushers with mob ties and the third was a known gang-banger. All three were armed. All three were stabbed in the chest and had their tongues cut out without any sign of struggle. The media got wind of it and did their typical sensationalist spin, calling it “The Godfather Killings”. The brass didn’t like that one bit, and homicide was facing a metric ton of pressure to tie it up quickly.
“I need your help, Taft. Officially. I already got my C.O. to sign off on you participating.”
I frowned. That whole Ghost thing hadn’t earned me many friends at the department. They didn’t like that I’d showed them up in their arena, and in the final few weeks of my working there the joking went from tolerable to almost outright hostile. I couldn’t get that job with McLintock fast enough, and I was reluctant to put myself into that kind of environment again. Sure, it’d been a few years, but I was depressed enough as it was.
She must have seen the apprehension on my face because she hurriedly added, “You’ll be an official consultant, and that means being paid.”
I shrugged. “That’s nice Nor, but you know that your dad isn’t going to go for it.”
“He approved it this morning.” She slid a laminated badge across the table to me. It read “St. Louis Police Department Consultant” and had my name and my old personnel picture on it. Then she slid a piece of paper that had my proposed consultant fee written on it. I wouldn’t be rich or anything, but it was more than I’d made in a long while.
I blinked. “Wow. What’s the rush?”
She grimaced. “I told you, we’re getting killed in the media and this needs to go away. Look, I know the guys in vice treated you like shit because of the Ghost thing, and Phil and his cronies only made it worse, but I told all the guys on the task force how good you are. They’re good people and they’ve seen your record. Hell, my father even vouched for you. We really need all the help that we can get. We have to get this done yesterday.”
She pushed the file over to me and I reluctantly started flipping through it as she sipped at her beer. There wasn’t a whole lot more there than I’d already read about online. St. Louis is no Chicago or New York, but we do have our share of mob-related crime. Most large cities along the Mississippi do. Still, something that overt doesn’t come up all that often. In fact, it was a little too overt, too melodramatic. Despite myself, I was intrigued.
I picked up the badge and clipped it to my shirt. Nora chucked me on the arm, “Batman and Robin, together again!”
I held up a finger. “One condition: I get to be Batman this time.”
Nora smiled and leaned back in her chair. “We’ll see.”
I returned the smile and took a sip of tea before diving in. “Okay, so two of the three had mob ties. That’s been heavily focused on in the media. Were they members of the same mob family? Other than that and how they were killed, what other connections are there between the three?”
Nora picked at her cheese fries. “Well, Giovanni and Ricci both had connections to the Carnelli family, but I have no idea how Jones fits since his affiliation was with the Gravediggas. The last time I checked the gangs and the mob weren’t exactly cozy with each other. All three vics were armed but there was no sign of struggle at all, which suggests that they all knew their killer and were taken by surprise.”
I nodded. That was obvious. “I’m assuming the running theory is that they were all killed as an example, hence the tongues being cut out in a rather graphic and melodramatic fashion. Were they informants who got found out?”
She shook her head. “Not for our department. The F.B.I. and the D.E.A. have both confirmed that they aren’t theirs either.”
I grunted. “I guess they could have been talking to other families, or even gangs considering Andre Jones’ history.”
I flipped another page and brightened. “Wait, did you know that they were all ex-cons?”
Nora smirked and muttered sarcastically, “No, ya don’t say!”
I waved away her comment. “No, I mean that they all served time at the same prison, and all three were released around the same time as well.”
That got her attention, and she took the file back from me. “No, I hadn’t noticed that.”
“All three were released earlier this year from the Potosi Correctional Center.”
She nodded but then shrugged. “It’s the closest max security prison. It’s not that big a coincidence that they’d all have served there.”
“Yeah, but all three were released within a month of each other, and Potosi isn’t exactly known for its high turn around rate. I had to do a paper about it in college. It houses all of the high-threat inmates and the ones on death row. Not the kind of place that just turns them out regularly.”
She frowned. “True.”
“So how does Jones fit? One of these things is not like the other.”
Nora took another sip of beer before adding, “Unless maybe he was using gang connections to help the Carnelli family, or whatever it was those other two were into?”
“And his fellow gang members found out about it and weren’t happy?” I munched on a fry and considered it. “Maybe, but this doesn’t exactly scream ‘gang violence’ to me.”
She nodded in agreement. “Yeah, they can definitely be violent, but it’s usually just really messy. This is like something out of a damn movie.”
I was getting a headache. “We’re missing a link or two here. Maybe if we checked out the prison and talked to some of the people that knew all three of them it could help us find a common link that we can follow.”
“It’s worth a shot. We’ll head over tomorrow, if you’re free.”
I snorted. “Well, I’ll have to check my schedule. I had a full day of depressed moping planned, but I suppose I can squeeze you in.”
“Great!” She closed the folder and put it back in the backpack that she’d carried in with her. We didn’t say much for a few minutes as we resumed our meal, now that business was out of the way. Finally, she said what I’d been waiting for. “I’m sorry things haven’t been going well for you lately. I’m also sorry that I haven’t been able to hang out in a while.”
I dipped half of my steak sandwich into the au jus and was letting it drip a bit before attempting to bring it to my mouth. I’d like to walk away from the table for once without looking like I needed a bib. “It’s fine, Nor. I understand. Homicide is a much different deal and you’re a lot busier now.”
She smiled but there wasn’t much humor behind it. She looked tired. Really tired. “Yeah, but you’re going through a lot right now. I should have made more time. It shouldn’t have taken me being desperate for help in this case to reach out to you.”
“Always nice to be needed.” I took a tentative bite of the sandwich and felt victorious when nothing dripped onto my shirt. “I’ve gotten a few small cases in the last few months that have kept me busy and the bills paid…mostly. If I wasn’t so pathetic and still living with my grandmother I’d be in trouble, but as it is I’m getting by.”
She perked up. “Speaking of which, what happened with that one case you were working on last month? That rich woman and her missing jewels?”
“The butler did it.”
She snorted. “With the candlestick in the parlor?”
“No, I’m serious. It was the butler. He’d been working there for almost two decades. He knew all the codes to the safe, the security system, everything. They never suspected him for a second, but when you work someplace for that long people don’t realize just how much you can pick up. He was just a part of the house to them. Apparently he’d been bilking them for years by taking money here and there from the safe. They never would have caught on if he hadn’t gotten greedy and taken the jewels. Then he did a sloppy job of trying to make it look like a robbery. But they’re high society and didn’t want to advertise that they’d been robbed so they hired me instead of calling the police. I think old man McLintock gave them my number.”
I smiled and raised my glass. “To the stupidity of the idle rich paying my bills!”
“Here, here!”
We clinked glasses and laughed, then Nora glanced down at her buzzing phone, which had been resting on the table next to her plate. “Oh damn, I didn’t realize that was tonight!”
I arched an eyebrow at her. “Got plans?”
If I didn’t know better I’d have said she actually blushed. “Uh, yeah. Sort of a date. I forgot it was tonight. The little reminder thingy just popped up.”
I suddenly wasn’t very hungry. “Oh? Anyone I know?”
Her mannerisms were even more nervous now. She was fidgeting as she tried to get her stuff together. “Oh, no. We just met, actually.”
I waited for a few seconds for her to elaborate, and when she didn’t I prompted, “That’s nice. How’d you meet?”
She glanced up and gave me the stink eye. “You analyzing me, Taft? I met a guy, we’re going out for drinks in an hour. What’s with the interrogation?”
The recrimination in her tone stung and I flinched back a bit. “I’m sorry. I was just curious.”
Apparently the hurt I’d been trying not to let show through did, because her mannerisms instantly changed as her face dropped. She sighed. “God, I’m sorry Nick. It’s just…well…I’m a little embarrassed.”
“You’ve seen me in swimming trunks, what’ve you got to be embarrassed about?” For emphasis, I gestured at my chest. “Moobs.”
That made her laugh and her features softened even more. “Well, I met this guy online.”
She waited expectantly, no doubt for me to laugh at her. I’d joined online dating sites myself…several of them actually. For me, nothing good ever came from them, but I certainly wasn’t in a position to throw stones. She was obviously waiting for some type of response from me, so I gave her one. “Nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re careful, which I’m sure you are.”
She looked relieved and smiled a bit more warmly this time. “Well, his name is John and he’s an editor. He’s a few years older than me, but we’ve been talking back and forth through e-mail for a few days and he seems nice enough. We thought we’d meet somewhere for coffee and see what’s what.” She shrugged and smirked at me mischievously. “And if he ends up being a creep, I’m armed.”
I forced a smile. “Sounds good. I hope things go well and that you don’t have to shoot him.” I picked up my cane from where it was resting next to me. “Thanks for dinner. I don’t want you to be late so…tomorrow? Nine A.M.?”
Her face dropped again, just for an instant, but she nodded and stood up along with me. “Yeah, nine is good.”
We said our goodbyes and I gave her an awkward hug before getting the hell out of there. I felt foolish for acting so funny. It isn’t as though she hasn’t had dates before, but there was just something about that whole situation that made me feel wrong, and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I’d hoped it was just a freak thing and that in the morning I’d be fine again. I also knew that I was kidding myself and that it wouldn’t be.
I love Nora. I’ve known that for years. I also know that I had a better chance of landing a cover shoot with Playgirl than I have as being anything more than her friend. The Friend Zone is a Hell from which few have escaped, and I know from past experience that if I let on that I have feelings for her our relationship would go down like the Titanic, minus that annoying song. No matter how much I may care for her, she’s still my closest friend, and I wouldn’t risk that for the world.
I grimaced as I pitched my cane into the passenger seat, flopped into the cab of my truck, and started it up. I hit the driving wheel a few times for good measure, accomplishing nothing more than hurting my hand and making myself feel even more foolish.
“Ow! Dammit.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, forcing myself to calm down. I needed to get a grip. It’s like I’m stuck in the middle of some crappy teen drama, and I’m way too old for that shit. I resolved that in the morning I wasn’t going to let anything get to me. I was going to be professional and act just like I always did around her…and I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask about the date.