The Thick Man- Chapter Six

Nora came back for me about fifteen minutes later. “How’re you doing, Nick?”
I winced as I gathered up my cane and prepared to stand up. “Hurts, but I should be fine by tomorrow…I hope. How’d the interview go?”
She offered me her hand. “Later. Let’s get you out of here.”
I took it and as I was about to haul myself to my feet I noticed that Dr. Roberts was still hovering by the door, watching us like a chipmunk might watch a hawk. “Yeah, good idea.”
Thank God for my handicap parking tag. My truck was parked relatively close to the door and with Nora’s assistance the hobble there wasn’t as bad as it could have been. By the time I plopped behind the wheel my knee was only throbbing insistently as opposed to feeling like I was being stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick. It’s the little things in life.
Nora got in on the passenger side and looked like she wanted to scream.
“I take it your interview didn’t go well?”
She grunted as she lay back in the seat. “He ‘didn’t know nuthin,’ and refused to ‘talk to a pig’, even if she was ‘a fine piece o’ass.’ At that point I felt it was best to leave before I killed him, even though I’d probably be performing a public service. I doubt if he really knew much anyway.”
I nodded. “Probably a good idea. Don’t you miss the good old days when a cop could just beat stuff out of people?”
She grunted again. “We were born in the wrong era.”
“While you were gone I had a nice chat with Father Michael, the chaplain.”
She closed her eyes as she smirked. “Oh? Did he anoint you with oil and pray for the miraculous healing of your knee?”
“No, but he did tell me that Giovanni and Ricci were good Italian Catholics and that Giovanni mentioned during confession that he’d made a deal to get paroled.”
Nora’s eyes shot open again and she snapped her head around to face me. “What?”
“Yep. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go into details, but he told me that a lot of inmates had been getting paroled the last few months. Far more than usual. The implication is that something is rotten in the correctional facility of Potosi.” I paused as something else occurred to me, “And maybe others as well. You think you could get some stats on parolees? Not just from Potosi, but other prisons in the area?”
She nodded. “I think so, why? I mean, I get why we should look into here, but why do you think we should be looking in other places?”
“Well, if what Father Michael said is accurate, Giovanni, and for the sake of argument let’s assume Ricci and Jones too, made some sort of ‘deal’ for their parole. If we assume that there are others from here that made the same deal, I would bet that it’s not so many that it would draw unwanted attention if something off is going on. Maybe the same deal is being offered to other inmates in other facilities to avoid any red flags.” I shrugged. “Or maybe not. The more spread out it is, the more people you need to come in on it and it just raises the chances of being found out. Either way it’s something we should look into. We’ll be looking for who was on the parole board for our three victims, parole officers too, and see who is common for all three. Also, we want other parolees that might have overlapping data too. If there are other inmates that’ve been offered the same deal, we can talk to them and find out what’s going on.”
“You keep referring to some deal these guys made. A deal for what?”
I shook my head. “I have no idea, and I don’t think that the Father did either. He just implied that whatever it is, it isn’t on the level.”
She scoffed. “It’s a decent theory, assuming that any of this is true. It could be the Father just has a few screws loose or is blowing something those guys said out of proportion.”
“All true, but I was watching him pretty closely while he talked. Regardless of the veracity of what those guys may have said to him, the Father definitely believed what he was saying is true. It obviously bothered him.”
“Okay, so if we can find other inmates that may have made this same shady deal, what makes you think that any of the parolees want to tell a bunch of cops about it and risk going back to jail?”
I shrugged again. “Not wanting to be the next guy found dead should be a powerful motivator.”
“Unless our three victims were all guys who told someone about the deal, in which case they’ll have even more incentive to keep their mouths shut.”
I grinned mischievously. “Well, if that’s the case we’ll just have to get creative in how we ask them.”
She chuckled. “Works for me. I’ll call the Lieutenant and see what he thinks. Not like we have a whole lot of other leads at the moment…though there is one more place that I think we should check out.”
“It’s a bar where a lot of Carnelli’s people like to hang out. My F.B.I. contact tipped me off about it. Figured we might drop in and see who we can see.” She frowned down at my knee. “But that can wait a day or two. You need to rest up, gimpy.”
I grimaced. “Right. Well, give me a call if anything turns something up.”
“I will.” She hesitated for a moment before leaning over and giving me a light kiss on the cheek. “I appreciate your help on this, Nick. I really do.” She squeezed my shoulder before opening the passenger door and getting out. “I’ll give you a call later and see how you’re doing.”
She shut the door and I watched her walk away with a grimace. Nora is not a sentimental or touchy-feely kind of person. Normally that kind of affection from her would have me on cloud nine, but right then it made me think that I must be dipping into really pathetic territory if she felt that she needed to go that extra mile to cheer me up.
Then again, maybe it was just the pain making me extra sensitive and cranky.
An hour and a half drive is not fun with a screwed up knee, I’ll tell you that much for nothing. By the time I pulled into my grandma’s driveway my knee was throbbing so bad that I was ready to go up to her bedroom, get one of the guns from her massive gun cabinet, and then put myself out of my own misery. What really scared me was at that moment the thought didn’t sound like such a bad idea. Depression is the crappy gift that keeps on giving.
Grandma was leaving the house as I was gimping up and her face dropped when she saw me hobbling. “Good Lord, Nick. Again? What happened?”
Grandma is a seventy year old, no-nonsense district court judge. Think Judge Judy, only not as cheery. She has long dark hair now liberally streaked with gray, which she always wears up in a tight bun, and the lines that mark her face are from frowning, not laughing. When she was a prosecutor she had the best win/loss record in the state and was the one person that you really didn’t want to see on the other side if you were the defense. When she became a judge her reputation only grew to mythical proportions, and she scares everyone shitless. People used to literally express sympathy to me and my brothers because we had to live with her, which we always found funny. She may be a hardass in the real world, but to us she was just grandma. She was tough, no doubt, but fair, and she never left us feeling like she didn’t love us. With her family she was as loving and caring a person as anyone could ask for. It was only when you broke the law that you had to fear Abigail Catherine Taft.
…Or when you accidentally break a window playing baseball in the backyard. My butt still hurts whenever I think about it.
Our house is a two story, powder blue with white trim, bungalow that looks like something out of Leave it to Beaver. It’s a nice house in a nice neighborhood and isn’t at all as posh or decadent as it probably could have been given the kind of money that grandma makes, but it was the house that she bought with grandpa and as far as she’s concerned it’s the house that she’ll die in like he did. As if the old woman will ever die. I’m pretty sure that even Death is afraid of her.
I’ve always loved the house. It’s the house that my dad grew up in. Hell, it’s pretty much the house that I grew up in too. The only thing that I absolutely loathe about the house is all the damn stairs. Stairs are a mortal enemy to the fat man, along with ice and anything branded “diet;” but when you’re a fat man with bad knees stairs are the devil. There are five stairs from the pathway up to the front porch. Then, once you’re inside the house, there are two sets of stairs that lead to the second floor. The first set is just to the left of the front door. The second is to the right of the door to the back yard. There’s another set of stairs just up the hall from the front door that leads down into our finished basement, which has since become my man cave. Grandma had a door installed to give me some added privacy, so from the hallway it looks like it might be a closet. It’s an odd design, but nice for everyone living upstairs because it basically gives them instant access to either half of the house.
Grandma helped me hobble up the steps to the house and got me situated on the couch while she went down to my room to grab my painkillers. She returned a few minutes later with my little portable pill holder filled with a few pills, a glass of water, and an ice pack for my knee. “Bless you, woman.”
She kissed me on the forehead and sat down next to me on the couch. “Now, do you want to tell me what happened?”
I downed one of the pills in a gulp and helped it along with a swallow of water. “Slipped on a wet floor, but I don’t think I did anything too bad this time.”
She sighed as I pulled over the ottoman from my oversized chair that sits to the right of the couch, propped my leg up, and laid the ice pack down on top of my knee. “You’ve got to be more careful, Nicky. This is the third time in the last few months.”
She glanced down at my cane resting against the end table next to me and arched an eyebrow. “You have your grandfather’s old cane. What happened to yours?”
“Oh, nothing. Nora and I went to the Potosi Correctional Facility today to follow a lead. I didn’t think they’d let me in with mine.”
“Ah.” She nodded. “Any progress on the case?”
I shrugged. “I think we might be on to something, but it’s still too early to be sure. Nora’s going to check it out.”
“I always liked Nora. Strong, independent, smart, tough, beautiful…reminds me of myself at that age.”
We chuckled together but when we sobered she asked, “What kind of lead?”
Now it was my turn to arch an eyebrow in her direction. “You know I can’t discuss details of the case.”
She grinned predatorily. “Good boy. I trained you well.” She frowned down at my knee. “Are you sure you’ll be okay? I’m supposed to head out to Washington today, but I can cancel. I worry about you being here alone with your knee acting up.”
I shook my head. “I’ll be fine, Gram. It’s just sore. It didn’t go out completely and once the painkillers kick in I’ll be able to walk more or less normally. I’ll be careful getting around and Nora will be checking up on me. I’ll be sure to keep my phone on me just in case.”
She didn’t look convinced but I knew how important the trip to Washington was for her. She’d been thinking about running for congress, and the trip was a step in that direction. “Fine, but let me at least go grab your cane for you.”
She stood and snatched grandpa’s cane from where it was leaning. “This old thing is libel to give you splinters.”
She was trying to hide it, but I could tell that the sight of Grandpa’s cane had stung her a bit and I felt like an ass. It’d been five years since grandpa had passed, but I knew that the pain of his loss was still fresh for her. My grandma may come off as a tough old bird with a heart of ice who couldn’t possibly give a single care about what people thought of her, but she had loved my Grandfather deeply for over fifty years. Hell, they’d been together since she was just sixteen. He’d always been her counterbalance, the peace to her passion, the calm to her righteous fury. With him gone it threw her whole life out of whack, and for that first year after his death she was a total basket case, which scared me and my brothers to death. We were genuinely afraid that we’d lose her too. She pulled out of her tailspin though and the last couple of years she’d seemed to get her feet back under her. The fire was back in her eyes now, but there are still moments when I walk in on her and see tears staining her cheeks. When that happens I know that she’d been thinking of Grandpa. It embarrasses her, so I never bring attention to it.
She came back a few minutes later with my cane in hand and leaned it against the couch next to me. “Here you go, dear.” She eyed me for a second, worry marring her features. “Are you sure you’ll be okay? I don’t like leaving you this way.”
I made a shooing motion with my right hand. “Go, before you miss your flight. I’ll be fine. It really isn’t that bad, just sore.”
She nodded and gave me a kiss on the forehead. “Okay sweetheart, I’ll be back a week from Sunday. I’ll be staying at your brother’s. You’ve got Richard’s number, right?”
I nodded. “Yep. Love you. Have fun.”
She rolled her eyes and scoffed. “A whole week with politicians trying to either kiss my ass or stab me in the back? Yep, all kinds of fun.”
“Who do you think you’re kidding? You’ll love it and you know it.”
She flashed me a hint of the predatory grin that she’d been known for when she was a prosecutor. “Take care, kiddo.”
I couldn’t help but laugh as the door shut behind her. The thought of hobbling down the stairs to my room with my knee throbbing like it was made me sick so I opted to just stay there and close my eyes for a few minutes. Four hours later my phone vibrating in my pocket woke me up.
My neck protested when I tried to move. “Ow, sunnova! Hello?”
Nora’s voice greeted me on the other end. “Taft? You okay?”
“Fell asleep on the couch and my neck isn’t happy. What’s up?”
“We’ve got another body. Same deal.”
I sat up a little straighter, pain temporarily forgotten. “Was I right?”
In my mind’s eye I could see her nodding. “Our vic is Jesus Martinez, a member of the West Side Locos. He was released from Potosi four months ago.”
“A different gang than Jones.”
“Very much so. The Locos and Diggas don’t exactly get along.”
I scratched my head, feeling the fogginess of sleep finally clearing. “Okay, so we have ex-cons, all from rival criminal organizations. All former inmates of Potosi… What were they in for?”
“Hold on, I’ve got the files in the car.” After a few moments I heard a car door shut followed by Nora shuffling papers in the background. “I don’t have Martinez with me, but let’s see about the others.”
While she looked over the paperwork I fished my little pill holder from my pocket and dry-swallowed another pain pill. Now that I was fully awake my knee was throbbing with a vengeance. The ice pack grandma had left me with had long since gone to squishy gel, so I tossed it on the coffee table in front of me.
“Well, these guys were all repeat offenders for various fun charges- rape, attempted murder, assault. Huh…looks like the one thing they all have in common is drugs. Trafficking, specifically.”
I smirked. “Wanna bet that our fresh bad guy was in for the same thing?”
“No bet. So you think that the padre was right? Maybe some folks at Potosi are using ex-cons to do something naughty?”
I frowned, not that she could see. “Oh, I’m sure that the Father was right and something’s going on there that should be checked out, but I don’t think that they’re responsible for the murders.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, think about it. Let’s say there are some corrupt guards or something running some kind of criminal deal using ex-cons. Why in the world would they start offing their guys like this? One or two as an example to the others mob-style makes sense, I guess, but this is the fourth guy we’ve found. No way they’d want this kind of attention. It’s not like it’s been exactly difficult for us to piece together what their connection is even without the Father giving us the wink-n-nudge. They might as well have a neon sign.”
“So maybe this is a mob thing after all? Someone found out about this rival organization so they’re offing all their competition dramatically as a message.”
I scratched at my head and sat up a bit straighter on the couch. Twinges in my back echoed my knee’s complaints. My body hates me. “Yeah, that could very well be. We need more information. You have that list of released inmates?”
“Yeah, Ron told me he put a copy on my desk. There were four other inmates released from Potosi in the last six months. He said he didn’t see anything suspicious about any of the other prisons in the area though.”
“Eh, it was a long shot but I figured it was worth a look.”
“Right. Any other connections?”
“Not that we could find. They all have different parole officers and of course the parole board is made up of the same people.”
“So the parolees left on the list are our best lead.”
“Yep. Ron and the Lieutenant are staking out one of the Potosi ex-cons tonight while they have people running down locations for the rest of the list. We’ll grab him and any of the others we can find first thing tomorrow. How’s the knee?”
I grunted. “Sore, but I should be doing better in the morning. Mind being Hoke and driving Miss Daisy tomorrow? It’s difficult to shift my truck with my knee jacked up.”
“Heh. Sure, I’ll be there at nine.”
“All right, I’ll see you then.”
I pocketed the phone and popped another Vicodin for the road. Once I got moving the pain was tolerable. Thinking about it is often worse than the actual event. At the stairs I used the bannister to help take as much weight off of that side of me as I thought I could get by with. The last thing that I needed was for me to take a trip down via the express route. It was a little awkward hobbling down the stairs while holding the cane in the other hand, but I managed.
When I moved back in Grandma had the entire basement redone to make it like an apartment for me. She claimed that it was something that she’d always wanted to do, but I’m positive that she did it to help soften the blow to my ego. Thank God that blessed woman added a bathroom, because having to hobble up and down those steps every time that I had to pee would have been a nightmare. I have a used couch and an oversized chair with ottoman set up like a small living room when you first step off of the stairs, and then in the far right-hand corner of the room is my queen sized bed with my computer desk set up next to it. Continuing to the right is a walk-in closet attached to my full bathroom complete with a walk in shower. Grandma also had a wall unit and door installed years ago to make the space under the stairs look more like another oddly shaped closet to help complete the finished basement look as opposed to leaving it open so that I and anyone who came down here could see all the Christmas decorations, ten speed bikes with flat tires, boxes of old clothes, and God knows what else that we had stashed there. Now it resembles Harry Potter’s bedroom when he was ten and lived with his dickwad aunt and uncle.
Escapism has always been a big thing for me. Growing up never being the popular kid and always getting picked on meant doing anything I could to escape my reality. As a result my “man cave” looks like a nerd’s paradise. I have a mounted fifty-six inch LED T.V. complete with Blu-ray player and surround sound set up in in the middle of the wall facing the chair and couch. Everywhere else the walls are lined with bookshelves, and they’re mostly full. The two shelves flanking the TV are filled with DVDs and Blurays of all my favorite TV shows and movies. The rest are filled with books of various kinds, but predominantly sci-fi and fantasy. Like a library, I have the shelves grouped by subject and the books themselves in alphabetical order. As is probably obvious by now, I’m pretty serious about my entertainment, and it wasn’t an embellishment when I told Nora that I spent more time down there reading or watching films than I do with actual people. I read everything from non-fiction to high fantasy and I can devour a six hundred page novel in less than a day if I really get into it.
I considered heading straight for the bed, but I knew that after that nap I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep until the pain killers kicked in again. Instead, I headed for my chair and plopped into it. There was a short stack of books on an end table next to it: a biography on President William Howard Taft, supposedly a distant cousin; Meditations on First Philosophy by Decartes; and the latest Dresden Files novel by Jim Butcher. Yes, I can be a bit eclectic in my reading selections. The first two were far more serious than I felt like trudging through, so I picked up the Dresden novel and lost myself in the world of my favorite wise-assed wizard detective for a couple of hours until I felt like I could fall asleep again. I was out like a light by the time that my head hit the pillow.
God bless Vicodin.