The Thick Man- Chapter Fourteen

“So what do you think?” I saw the hint of a rueful smile and before she could say anything I added, “About the rest of what he said.”
She grunted. “I want to say what I said in there- bullshit.”
“But,” I hedged.
She sighed. “But, it makes sense and I can’t just dismiss it out of hand.”
I nodded. “As hard as it is to hear, it would explain how Mikey-C’s killer got in and out of the department without being noticed. Not to mention how they knew exactly where we’d be and how to set things up to keep you guys from interfering.”
“Yeah.” She was quiet for a second and I let her work it out in her head. “I’ve been raised with that department my whole life, Nick. I refuse to believe that there’s some huge conspiracy of corruption, but I can believe that there are some bad apples spoiling the bunch that need to be removed.”
“Okay, good. Now the hard question: do we trust Matt and Ron with this? They were the only two who officially knew where we’d both be the night my grandma’s house got ventilated, and neither of them have a bounty out on them.”
She didn’t hesitate. “Yes. I’ve known Matt since I was sixteen. He was a rookie in my dad’s unit then.” She grinned. “Hell, he scared my prom date half to death. Poor guy was afraid to touch me all night.”
Matt is one of my new favorite people.
“As for Ron, I’ve known him since I was a rookie officer. They’re both good cops, Nick. I trust them.”
I gave her hand a squeeze. “Then that’s good enough for me. I wonder why this shadow organization is only going after the two of us? Why not Matt and Ron? Hell, Matt’s the one in charge.”
She shook her head. “I have no idea. Maybe it’s because we were the ones poking around at Potosi? Maybe they don’t know about Matt and Ron.”
“Well, if other cops are involved it shouldn’t be hard to find out who else is on the investigation team. Maybe it has something to do with who our family is? Maybe they want us as leverage. Mickey-C’s killer could have just as easily killed me too, but didn’t.”
She frowned at that. “Could be. Remember what that Gravedigga the other night said right before they started shooting?”
“Yeah,” I dropped my voice to a deep baritone, “‘I don’t give a shit what they said, cap that mutha.’”
Nora snorted, but I could tell it was forced. She was just as scared as I was. I reached out and gripped her right hand where it rested on the stick shift. “I guess being stuck out in the boonies wasn’t such a bad idea after all, huh?”
She grimaced. “They stranded us before the bounty. Besides, we still have a job to do. I’m not going to just stick my head in the sand.”
“Me neither, but maybe we should keep this all in mind when we see Matt and Ron at dinner tonight.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “What do you mean ‘at dinner tonight’? You know something that I don’t?”
I rolled a shoulder and felt a few things pop. I really missed my bed. “Call it a hunch. It’s been a few days. I’m sure they’ll want to check in on us. If they do, we tell them what we’ve found out and come up with a game plan. If not, we’ll call them tomorrow when we go back to town. Either way, we should be heading back to the cabin. It’s getting late.”
“Yeah, let’s- uh-oh.”
My stomach dropped. “Uh-oh? What uh-oh. I’m not a big fan of uh-oh, especially lately.”
She glanced at the rearview mirror. “We’ve got ourselves a tail.”
“One of Carnelli’s?”
She gave her head a brief shake. “I doubt it. Too sloppy. These guys are strictly amateur hour.”
That made me relax, just a little. “Well, amateur or not, we can’t go anywhere with them following us.”
She grunted. “Yeah, and we’re not losing anyone in this pile of shit.” The corner of her mouth quirked up into a lopsided grin and she suddenly turned the truck. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Burger King? We gonna buy them a Whopper?”
“Public place, which means they can’t do anything directly to us without drawing attention. We lure them inside, you cause a distraction, and then I maybe find out who they are.”
“Okay, so how exactly do we lure them inside? Bread crumbs?”
“We go in and wait. When they get antsy enough they’ll come in after us. Like I said, these guys are definitely not pros.”
She parked the truck and we nonchalantly walked into the restaurant as though we hadn’t noticed our secret admirers. We got some lunch and sat at a table where we had a good view of the parking lot. Once we were seated I got my first good look at our followers and that was all I needed to confirm Nora’s assertion that they were not pros. For one thing, they were driving an old Nissan that had been beat up so much that it wasn’t one solid color anymore but instead a mishmash of used parts that included a maroon door, a dirty white hood, and a primer gray roof- not exactly the most inconspicuous vehicle to be tailing people in. The passengers themselves didn’t look much better. The driver was a big bald guy in his mid-forties wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt that had seen better days. He had a wicked scar running down the right side of his face, but it was a faded pink and was definitely from this guy’s wilder days. Given his age and the extra eighty pounds or so he was carrying, I assumed that those wilder days were pretty solidly in his past. His buddy, to my surprise, was someone that I recognized.
“The passenger was at the bar. Remember the dumpy looking business suit guy complaining about losing his shirt on a bet?”
“Yeah, I noticed. Guess he heard about the bounty on us and thought that he could make his money back.”
I nodded. “So what’s the plan?”
She munched on a fry as she thought about it. “They already look fidgety, so I doubt it’ll take them too long to come in after us. When that happens you make a distraction and I’ll do the rest.”
I arched an eyebrow at her. “What, you just going to go Wonder Woman on them in the middle of a crowded restaurant?”
She held a hand to her chest in mock-shock. “Nicolas Taft, are you suggesting that I would do something rash?”
I blinked. “Seriously, what’s your plan?”
She sighed melodramatically. “I sneak up behind them, put my gun in their back, and then escort them to the bathroom where we can have a private chat. Happy?”
“Overjoyed. So how am I supposed to cause a distraction?”
She smiled prettily at me. “Nicky, I have complete faith in your abilities as a drama queen. I’m sure that you’ll think of something.” He eyes flicked to the window then back to me. “But you better think quickly because they’re already heading inside.”
I’m not proud of what happened next.
My grandma is known for her public spectacles. I’ve lost count of how many times as a child I’d been publically humiliated because Gram went postal on some poor employee for some slight or screw up. I always swore to myself that I’d never do anything like that, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I took a deep breath, channeled my inner Gram and released the kraken.
I stalked over to the front counter and slammed a meaty fist onto it, causing the poor sixteen year old behind the register to jump. ”Those bathrooms are a travesty!”
“Uh, what?”
“I want a manager! Now!”
She flinched and looked like she was about to rabbit but apparently my big mouth had already been noticed. A young black male in his mid-twenties wearing a white button down shirt with black tie and black slacks appeared from the back as though summoned by magic. He flashed me a pearly smile and spoke in docile tones, “What seems to be the problem, sir?”
“The problem? The problem?! I’ll tell you my problem! My problem is that those bathrooms are no friend to the fat man!”
His smile withered. “I’m sorry…what?”
I turned away from the counter in mock-exasperation, as though the man were a complete moron. This time I addressed the whole dining area, leveling an accusatory finger in the direction of the bathrooms. “Those toilets are tiny! Those stalls claustrophobic! This establishment is being discriminatory against fat people! It is a disgrace! We’re in the middle of an obesity epidemic!” I dramatically shifted my finger back to the manager. “It’s an epidemic that these peddlers of horribly fatty, yet delicious, foods exacerbate! Wake up people, it’s all a part of their devious plan!”
The manager was in a full on panic now and trying to get my attention without making a bigger scene. “Sir, please, calm down. I’d be happy to talk this over with-“
I could see that our two secret admirers were watching me from the door and Nora was slowly making her way over to them, so I ignored the manager and stepped up my game to keep everyone’s attention on me. “Think about it, people! You eat your tasty triple whopper combo meal and then nature calls. You go to use the restroom to handle your business and what do you find? A bathroom stall two sizes too small! A toilet that barely fits your posterior! It’s all by design, sheeple! Wake up! What happens afterwards, eh? You feel horrible. You get depressed. THEN YOU WANT TO ORDER MORE COMFORT FOOD!”
Nora had made it to the two would-be kidnappers and I could just make out the gun planted in Business Suit’s back. The manager was around the counter now and trying to calm me down. He even threatened to call the cops. I needed to keep all eyes on me for just another minute. It was time for the grand finish. I brushed aside the manager’s hand from my shoulder and declared, “This travesty will not stand! I DEMAND TO SEE YOUR KING!”
Nora had them in the bathroom now and was safely behind closed doors. Scattered laughter erupted around the dining hall now and the manager had reached his breaking point. “Sir! You need to leave our store.” He pointed towards the front door and added in a little foot stomp. “Now!”
I leveled a finger at him once more. “SHAME!”
Then I walked out the door to a round of applause.
Nora met me outside a few minutes later. When she saw me leaning against the truck she rolled her eyes. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to be intimidating when you’re struggling not to laugh? ‘I demand to see your king?’ Really?”
She started to chuckle as she pried open the driver’s side door with a rusted squeak. I shrugged and got in on my side. “Hey, you ordered a drama queen special and I delivered. That’s so going to end up on YouTube. I’m going to be the next Star Wars kid, just wait and see.”
“Eh, you’ll make a killing on ad revenue. You’ll be thanking me later.”
I rolled my eyes. “So what did Mutt and Jeff have to say?”
She grinned wickedly. “Oh, you know, stuff like ‘I think you broke my nose’ and ‘please don’t hit me again.’ The usual.”
I snorted. “Besides that.”
“What we expected. Business Suit overheard the bodyguards at the bar talking about the bounty so he called up a buddy and thought that they’d collect.”
I frowned. “How much is the bounty?”
She tried to keep her expression neutral but I could see the muscles in her jaw clench before she answered. “Five hundred thousand. Each.”
I felt my eyes bulge. “Holy shit! Seriously?”
She nodded. “You sure that Matt and Ron will show tonight? Things are getting pretty hairy. Maybe we should just call them.”
My stomach, which wanted to heave the Burger King I’d just had, agreed with her wholeheartedly. “I’m sure they’ll be there, and we have no idea if the line is secure.”
She steered us towards the highway and grunted. “I hope you’re right.”
Show up they did. It was about an hour past sundown when we heard their car pull up outside. They entered the cabin as though they were ready for someone to start shooting, which given Nora’s temper, was a wise precaution. They were both surprised to find us sitting at the dinner table, with a place setting for both of them, waiting.
I waved. “Hi boys! Have a seat. Dinner’s ready and we have some things to discuss.”
Nora looked like she was trying to melt them with her eyes, but she refrained from pouncing. We’d had a long talk while preparing dinner and I’d convinced her that doing them bodily harm when they first walked through the door, while therapeutic and well deserved, probably wouldn’t be the most productive greeting. She’d grudgingly agreed.
The two men exchanged glances and then headed for the table. Matt looked weary as he sat down. “You were expecting us?”
I shrugged. “It’s been a few days since you ditched us here. Figured you’d come by to make sure that we were still alive.”
Matt smiled sheepishly and Ron looked guilty as hell. “Yeah, sorry about that.” He looked over at Nora. “Really, we only did what we thought was best. You’re no good to anyone dead.”
Nora’s glare could melt titanium. “Would you have done that to Ron? Would you have lied and left him stranded in the middle of nowhere?”
“Nora, look-“
She cut him off with the swipe of a hand. “No, spare me the bullshit.” She leveled a finger at him as if she were pointing a gun. “You pull this kind of shit again, regardless of how long we’ve known each other, and I’m requesting a transfer after I have you written up for discrimination.”
The muscles in his jaw bunched. “You know damn well that it had nothing to do with you being a woman.”
She matched his stare and her tone frosted over. “I don’t give a shit what your reasoning was. I’m a cop, same as you. Same as Ron. I expect to be treated like one, regardless of who my father might be.”
He looked like he was going to protest, but then he sighed in resignation. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
I placed the plate full of hotdogs between them and exclaimed brightly, “Good! We’re all friends again. Can we eat now? I’m wasting away over here.”
Ron laughed, happy for the break in tension. Matt and Nora’s expressions both took the form of something resembling a smile, so I counted it as a win. Once everyone had a dog in hand I asked, “Anything new with the case?”
Ron grimaced. “Another body. Yesterday.”
“One of our elusive ex-cons?”
Matt shook his head. “Actually, no. The M.O. was exactly the same, and the victim had a nasty record, but he wasn’t on our list of recently released inmates.”
Ron took up the conversation as Matt paused to take a bite. “He also didn’t have a history in the drug trade. He was a registered sex offender charged with child molestation and rape.”
I frowned. “So our killer has expanded his hit list from Potosi inmates to just plain bad guys?”
Nora took a handful of chips from the bowel in the center of the table. “Maybe our killer had as much trouble as we did finding the other Potosi cons so he made due with the nearest local bad man.”
Matt grunted. “Making him a serial killer, not a hit man.”
I washed down a bite of hotdog with some Coke before responding, “That tracks with the information Nora and I found today.”
Matt paused mid-bite. “What?”
Nora smirked from behind her food. “The next time you geniuses decide to strand people somewhere, make sure there isn’t a vehicle on the premises.”
“That old truck? Hell, that thing is older than my grandfather! How the hell did you get it to run?”
“I’m just that talented.”
He smiled. “Apparently. Shame on me for underestimating you. So what kind of trouble did you two manage to get into today?”
We told them and Ron almost choked on a bite. “Madre de dios, are you two insane?!”
Nora’s eyes flashed with anger. “Well, if two assholes I know hadn’t have-“
Matt cut her off by bellowing “Enough!”
When he had everyone’s attention he turned back to Nora. “You wanted to contribute and we forced your hand. I get it. It was reckless and more than a little stupid, but I get it. Just tell us what Carnelli said.”
I relayed the content of our little chat with Carnelli and Matt looked increasingly unhappy as I went. When I finished, Ron responded the same way that Nora initially had. “Bullshit. He’s fucking with you. He’s a damn mobster, why the hell should we believe a word he says?”
Now it was my turn to get angry. I was tired, in pain, and more than a little fed up with willful ignorance. I threw my hot dog back onto my plate and glared at Ron. “Because what the hell does he have to gain by screwing us around? These people, whoever they are, are his competition! Could Carnelli still be behind the killings, and had the latest vic killed just to throw us off? Sure! That doesn’t change the fact that it’s still in his best interest to have us going after his rivals so that he doesn’t have to. I’m pretty sure that the information he gave us on this rival operation is solid. They’re obviously well connected, and given how easily they could slip into the department, kill a guy with you three in the next fucking room, and then slip out again without anyone batting an eye screams ‘cop’ to me and anyone else with half a brain cell. That’s not to mention the half a million bounty on our heads! If Carnelli wanted us dead why the hell would be let us go?”
Matt sat back, shocked. “A half a milli-“
I ignored him and continued my diatribe at Ron. “Besides, it’s not like we have anything better to go on, right? Tell me, Colombo, what new, crucial piece of information were you and our fearless leader here able to dredge up in your own investigation these last few days? You manage to find the missing ex-cons? More information about Potosi or who may be involved? Anything remotely fucking useful?”
Before he or Matt could say anything I stood up and knocked my chair backwards in the process. “I’m sorry if the insinuation that cops are probably involved gets your panties in a wad, but get over it! You’re not the one who’s gotten clobbered, shot at, and then stranded in the boondocks; so pretty please, with sugar on top, pull your head out of your ass and do your damn jobs so I can go home and not have to worry about getting killed by every lowlife in the fucking metro area!”
With that brilliant tirade concluded, I kicked the fallen chair out of the way, ignoring the shooting pain that resulted, stalked back to my room, and slammed the door behind me. I wasn’t surprised when Nora knocked on the door five minutes later and let herself in. She found me sitting on my bed, fiddling with the sword cane that she’d gotten me. I was popping the sword out of its holster and then sliding it back into place. In. Out. It was just something to do with my hands while I tried to cool off.
Nora glanced down at the blade and smirked. “You’re not going to try and use that on Ron, are you?”
“No, I’d probably just hurt myself trying.” I sighed and locked the blade back in the cane. “I’m sorry, Nor. I give you crap all day about not jumping them and then I go and throw a colossal hissy-fit of my own. I don’t even know where that came from. It just sort of…happened.” I sighed. “I guess I’m just tired.”
She nodded and then sat on the bed next to me. “I think we all are, Nicky. Given everything that we’ve been through in the past few days, it’s no wonder. You more than any of us.” She nudged me with her elbow. “Hey, you’ve been helping me keep my shit together this entire time while you’ve been getting hammered, physically and emotionally. Give yourself a break.”
She wrapped her arms around me in a hug, and when she let go I asked, “Ron pissed?”
“No, the poor guy is crying. You really did a number on him. It’s pathetic.”
I chuckled as she stood up and offered me a hand. “Come on, let’s go finish dinner. You and Ron can kiss and make up.”
I took her hand, hauled myself up and made a face at her back as I followed her out of the bedroom. “Blech. We haven’t been out in the sticks that long.”
It looked like Matt was working on his second hotdog when we got back to the table. I smiled sheepishly at Ron. “I’m sorry for going off like that man. I guess the past few days are just catching up to me.”
He waved my comment away with his half-eaten dog. “Don’t worry about it, man. I could never stay angry at someone that fills me with junk food this good. Besides, you have a point.”
Matt nodded as he finished swallowing a bite. “There’s obviously something big going on. It makes sense to follow up on it while we keep looking for our missing cons.” He grimaced. “Especially if other cops might be involved. Why don’t you two go have another chat with the employees at Potosi in the morning? We’ll meet back here tomorrow night and compare notes.”
Ron smirked at Nora. “That beater going to make it back into town, Nor?”
She nodded. “For such an old truck she was actually in fairly good condition. She’d just been neglected since the last owner died. I’ve got her going good now, though.”
“Good deal. It’s better for you two to drive it around rather than going back for one of your own vehicles, just in case someone is still watching your places.”
“So the officers staking out our places haven’t seen anything?”
Matt reached for another handful of chips from the bowl at the center of the table. “No, and I can’t justify the manpower any longer, but I still think that you two should stay out here for the duration.”
He winced a bit as he said it and looked pleasantly surprised when Nora’s only reaction was a nod of her head as she resumed eating. I was surprised too but didn’t comment. After dinner the boys said their goodbyes and Nora plopped down on the couch. “Hurry it up Taft! The story was getting good last night when you cut it off to go to bed. I want to hear about what Nick finds when he goes to check out that guy’s business.”
“Why Madame Charleston, are you actually enjoying a book?!” I gasped and covered my mouth in mock-shock.
She grinned lopsidedly. “Just shuddup and get to work, reading monkey.”