I woke in the morning to the sound of metal clanging on metal followed instantly by a string of cursing. I stumbled out of bed and spent a few minutes trying to stretch out the kinks in my back. My back, knees, and head were all competing to see which could complain the loudest, so I popped a Vicodin and washed it down with a swallow of Coke, hoping that the caffeine would help to speed up the pain killing properties. The banging and cursing continued during this entire process, and by the time I got outside and circled around to the back side of the cabin the cursing had reached a crescendo.
Nora had the hood to the old rusted Ford truck open and was in the process of kicking the bumper vehemently. I forced myself to keep a straight face as I cleared my throat. “I take it that things aren’t going well?”
With a scowl and one final kick for emphasis she grunted, “This old heap is a major pain in the ass! It doesn’t look like it’s been touched in years. Everything is rusted and shot to shit.”
My face fell. “So we’re stuck here?”
She shook her head. “No, I think I can get it running well enough to get us to town, it’s just going to take forever to get it there. I gotta force off all of the stuff that’s rusted, clean them as best I can, oil and grease everything…it’s a mess. I found some spare parts in the barn like you thought, which luckily included some spark plugs and a backup car battery.”
“What about gas?”
Her grin when she looked up at me caused me to take an involuntary step back. “Well Nicky, that’s where you come in. Your job is going to be siphoning what you can from the various pieces of farm equipment around here that runs on gasoline. I saw a few things in the barn, mostly lawn care stuff, that should do the trick. Hopefully we can find enough to get us out of here before any backwoods booty bandits find us and make us squeal like pigs.” She arched an eyebrow at me. “You do know how to siphon gas, right?”
I felt sick. “In theory.”
She walked over and slapped me on the back. “Well, it’s time to put all that theory to practice smart guy. I’ll be here trying not to break my foot kicking this thing out of frustration.”
My pride wouldn’t let me protest. The thought of getting mouthfuls of gasoline wasn’t a very cheerful prospect, but it was something that I could do to help in yet another situation where I was all but useless, so I slinked off to the barn to try and find a hose. Unfortunately for me, I succeeded. After running water through it to make sure that I wouldn’t get a mouthful of spiders or God knows what else, I set out to see what I could find that might have some gas. I got incredibly lucky and found an old gas can that was about a third full. It probably wasn’t more than a gallon, but it was a start. I figured that the tractor would probably run on diesel, but was surprised to find that it was actually a tractor from the 50’s, back when they still ran on regular gasoline. I opened the tank and gave it a sniff. The heady aroma of gasoline came back to greet me, which meant there was at least some left in the tank.
With a grimace I fed the hose into the tank and steeled myself for what I knew was about to come. After sucking on the hose for a minute I got a mouthful of the stuff. The suddenness of it caught me by surprise and I gagged, coughed, choked and ended up swallowing a bit before I could spit it all out. That was just as unpleasant as I expected.
I found a weedwacker that still had some gas in its tank as well, but luckily I didn’t have to siphon it. It was light enough that I could simply turn it over and pour the contents of the tank into my gas can using an old piece of cardboard as a crude funnel. With the nasty aftertaste of gasoline in my mouth and feeling a little sick to my stomach, I took my booty and carried it out to Nora.
She looked up from where she’d been bent over under the hood and came over to meet me, wiping her grease and oil coated hands on a dingy red rag. She took the offered can and eyed it. “Only ten gallons or so, but that should be enough to get us to town. Great job, Nicky.”
She gave me a peck on the cheek and then reared back with a grimace. “Yuck! Feel free to go and wash your mouth out. You’ve got gas breath.”
I stuck my tongue out at her and retreated back to the cabin. It took three vigorous brushing sessions followed by a generous dose of mouthwash, but I finally got that horrid taste out of my mouth. Afterwards, other than periodically checking on Nora and bringing her something to drink, I decided that the best use of my time would be to take care of things inside.
The sun was just beginning its decent behind the trees when I heard a shout followed closely by what sounded like a gunshot. I rushed from the house as quickly as my battered body would carry me, panicked and with a gun in each hand. I came around the corner, bracing myself for what I might find… and stumbled upon Nora doing a victory dance around the now-running Ford. She stopped mid-war whoop, saw me looking like the world’s most rotund action figure, and then she burst out laughing. In fact, she was laughing so hard that she collapsed to the ground, tears streaming from her eyes.
In hindsight it was pretty funny and I certainly overreacted, but in my defense an old truck backfiring sounds a hell of a lot like a gunshot and it’d been an eventful few days, so you could hardly blame me for being a bit skittish. As I watched her rolling on the ground and laughing at me I briefly considered using the guns. Instead I rolled my eyes and said, “When you’re done, dinner is ready,” and walked back into the house.
I hadn’t been idol while she was working. I spent the day de-dusting the cabin and preparing the best dinner I could with what we had available to us. The only spices available were salt and pepper, so I defrosted a few chicken breasts, lightly salted them, and then “blackened” them by coating them with pepper. After thoroughly cooking them on both sides I added a bit of shredded cheddar to the top while they were still on the stove top so it could melt. For sides I’d decided to do steamed carrots and baked potatoes. The carrots were easy enough, but the potatoes were a bit tricky given that I didn’t have a proper oven. Instead it was more like grilling them. Still, they came out okay.
By the time Nora had come inside and gotten cleaned up I had dinner set out on the little table. She emerged from the bathroom toweling off her hair, and when she saw dinner she stopped and gaped. “Wow, Nick, that looks great.”
I shrugged as I pulled out her chair. “Thanks. If we don’t end up dead by the time this case is over maybe I’ll look into becoming a chef.”
She snickered as she sat down. “That’d be great. I wouldn’t mind having my own personal chef at my beck and call.”
I took my own seat and snorted. “On your salary? You couldn’t afford me. Nice job on the truck, by the way. I knew you could do it.”
She finished chewing her bite of chicken and smiled. “Thanks. Hopefully it’ll make it to town. Of course, it’d help if we had some idea of how far town is from here.”
“Well, we weren’t in the car for more than an hour or so.”
“Yeah, and once we get out of the hillbilly jungle here hopefully we’ll be able to get a signal on our cell phones so that we can use GPS to figure out where the hell we’re going. I’d rather not pick the wrong direction and end up stranded on the side of the road somewhere.” She added with a smirk, “But at least I know you’ll be there to protect me if the truck gets violent.”
“Har har.” I felt my cheeks warm. “So what’s the gameplan, chief? Once we get into town that is.”
“Well, first we’ll need to stop at an auto shop and pick up some supplies so I can make sure that we can keep that rust heap running.”
“Not to mention more gas.” Just the thought of it made me a feel a little green.
“That too.” As she cut another piece of chicken she casually mentioned, “Then I thought that you could give your brother Richard a call.”
I’m the youngest of three boys. As I mentioned before, both of my brothers followed in the family tradition and went into law enforcement. Kurt, the middle child, was a U.S. Marshal and lived in Texas. Richard, the oldest, worked for the F.B.I. and was currently in Washington, probably being nagged to death by our grandmother.
Rich and I aren’t exactly close. When our parents died Rich, being the oldest, took it the hardest. He was very angry for a very long time and Rich liked to take out said anger on us younger boys- me especially since I was a much easier target. Eventually our grandparents clued in to just how bad it had gotten when he sent me to the hospital one day when his “rough housing” got a little too rough. They made him go to counseling after that. He got better, and he apologized to me for what he’d done, but there was always a distance between us after that. Rich joined the army a few years later, and that was pretty much that. I only ever saw him on the occasional holiday and even that rare occurrence became less frequent in the last few years after Grandpa passed.
All of which Nora knew.
I arched an eyebrow at her as she continued to cut her chicken, her attention completely engrossed on her food. I kept on staring at her until she finally put down the knife and fork in resignation. “Oh come on, Taft! I know you and Rich don’t get along too well.”
“Understatement,” I growled.
“But,” she continued, “he’s the only one who can give us the information we need on the Carnelli family. We can’t use department resources without Matt or my dad finding out, and we don’t want to walk into that bar flying completely blind. We’ll have no idea who we’re looking for.”
My plate screeched as I cut into my own chicken a bit more forcefully than was necessary. “What makes you think that he’d even help us?”
“When he came last year for Thanksgiving we talked a bit. He told me how horrible he still feels about when you were kids and how you guys aren’t that close now because of it.”
I sneered. “Excuse me while I cry him a river.”
She rolled her eyes. “Look, I know he hurt you, Nick.”
My knife and fork hit the plate with a clang. “Hurt? The guy tormented me every day for over a year, culminating in broken bones! You know that metal plate holding my ankle together? The reason I have to carry that little laminated card around with me in case I have to go through a metal detector? Shit, I had to go to therapy for a while to get over the nightmares I used to have about him. Did you know that?”
Her eyes dropped and her voice was not much more than a whisper. “No, you never told me that before.”
“Now you want me to call him up and say ‘Hey bro, we haven’t said more than ten words to each other in as many years but would you mind giving me information that could probably get us both in legal trouble and maybe get me killed? Thanks. By the way, how’s the quality time with grandma going? Did I mention that her house got turned into Swiss cheese by a gangbanger hit squad?’”
“Well, I’d leave out that last part.”
The corner of her mouth quirked up into a smile as she raised her eyes to meet mine. I chuckled and shook my head. “You’re nuts, you know that?”
She nodded earnestly. “Certifiable, but you love that about me.” Her hand reached out to grip mine. “Please, Nick? For me?”
“You owe me. You owe me so big.”
She nodded emphatically as she stood up and grabbed our plates. “Absolutely. I’ll do the dishes.”
“And then a back rub and foot massage.”
“Don’t push your luck, Taft.”
Once everything was cleaned and put away we retired back to the couch and I read a few more chapters from the book. I was happy to see that Nora seemed to be enjoying it, and for a couple of hours at least I was able to relax and not think about just how craptacular things had been, and how much worse they were likely to get. It wasn’t until we’d retired to our respective bedrooms for the night that my mind started going into overdrive thinking about the multiple ways things could go horribly wrong in the next few days. That wasn’t even including a conversation with my estranged brother that I was completely dreading. I sighed and forced myself to close my eyes and try to sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day one way or another.