The Magic in Your Touch Ch. 16bywavyscribe©
Nate picked up his bowl and carried it to the sink. “Are you sure I can’t get you some more stew or another piece of cornbread, Mike?”
Mike shook his head. “No thanks, Nate. I don’t know where I’d put any more, but everything was great.” He lowered his eyes to the table. “Thanks for having me over here tonight. My place isn’t the same without. . .well, you know.”
Nate nodded. “I know. I wish there was something I could say, but I know there isn’t. There’s nothing I can do, and it kills me.”
Mike said, “There’s nothing either of us can do to bring Amy back, but there is something I’d like you to do for me, if you don’t mind. A favor, I guess you’d say.”
Mike stood up and walked over to the kitchen windows, staring out at the night sky. He was quiet for a full minute before he turned back to Nate and said, “Of all the things Amy wanted, nothing was more important to her than knowing that the two people she loved most in this world cared for each other, too.” He rubbed his hand over his face. “Did Amy ever tell you that she and I were trying to get pregnant? She wanted to name our first born son Nathan.”
Nate swallowed past the lump in his throat. “No, she didn’t tell me, but I’m sure she would have eventually. Amy and I talk about—” He broke off when he realized what he’d said. “We talked about everything.”
“I know. You guys were always so close. Sometimes I envied that.”
Mike waved him off. “No, Nate. It took me a while, but I really do understand the bond you guys had. I’m just saying I was a little jealous, that’s all.”
Not sure how to respond, Nate said, “So what was the favor you wanted?”
Mike sighed. “Like I said, nothing was more important to Amy than knowing that the two men she loved the most were on good terms. When you and I got into that fight over Nash, Amy was crushed. She cried all night long. And even though she’s gone now, I can’t help but think that maybe, in some way, she knows about what happened between us after the funeral. I want Amy to see that you and I have patched up our differences so she can rest in peace. I want you to drive out to the cemetery with me, so we can tell her, together.”
Nate was surprised. He never figured Mike for the type to wax existential. The only thing he’d ever heard Mike say about the hereafter was they’d better have beer and college football in Heaven or he wasn’t going. Now he was standing in Nate’s kitchen carrying on about Amy resting in peace by knowing the two of them had patched things up. Nate started to refuse straight away, but decided to try and talk him out of it instead. “Mike, the temperature is in the high thirties tonight. Maybe we can go out there tomorrow afternoon, before the sun sets.”
Mike’s face took on a look of pleading. “I need to do this, Nate. Please? For Amy?”
Nate sighed. Mike had played the one card he knew Nate couldn’t refuse. “Fine. Let me get my coat and we’ll go.”
Nate grabbed his coat and his keys. Giving Sasha one final pat, he motioned Mike outside and then locked the place up tight. When they got to the driveway, Mike started towards his car, but Nate shook his head.
“Lets use my car, Mike. I haven’t had much of a chance to drive it yet, and it’ll give me a chance to show you what she can do.”
Nate thought Mike seemed a little agitated, but he wrote it off as a natural reaction to visiting Amy’s grave. Mike was hesitant, looking down at his watch a couple of times before saying, “Fine, let’s just go and get this over with.”
Nate waited until Mike slid into the passenger seat before taking his own place behind the wheel. After starting the car, he switched on the power locks and backed out of the driveway.
* * *
Brandon flew out of Marjorie’s room and down the stairs to the basement parking area, the acrid taste of fear burning his mouth. He barked orders into his radio as he went, Sam at his heels. In between yelling into the radio, Brandon told Sam about Marjorie’s revelation. When they reached the garage, Sam said, “What now, Boss?”
“I’ve called every unit I’ve got, and I’ve also got the state police on their way to block all the roads leading out of town.” His hands were shaking as he got into the SUV and grabbed his pistol from under the seat. “Follow me out to the house. Jim and Dewey are already on their way. Stay out of sight until I give the signal to move. I don’t know what Vaughn is planning, but he knows Marjorie is awake, and he’s got to be afraid she’s gonna remember something.” He punched his keys into the ignition. “We’re wasting time. Follow me in your car, and I’ll fill you in on the rest over the radio.”
Sam nodded and ran to his car. Only seconds had passed since Brandon had heard Marjorie’s statement and raced to the garage, but it seemed like hours to Bran. He pulled out of the underground parking area without even looking and headed back towards Reed. He switched on the radio and said, “Sam, you there?”
Sam’s voice came through loud and clear despite the impossible speed they were both traveling. “Yeah, Bran, go ahead.”
“Vaughn made a phone call just after you called to tell me about Marjorie. My guess is, he’s not working alone. If I’m right, he’s gonna call in his partner for backup.”
Before he could say anything else, his cell phone rang. Bran pressed the talk button and all but yelled, “What,” into the mouthpiece.
The dispatcher said, “I just got a report back from the deputies I sent to your house. No one’s there, Sheriff. No sign of either Dr. Morris or Mike Vaughn.”
Brandon swore under his breath. Where the hell were they?
* * *
Just as they reached the cemetery gates, Nate remembered something. “Mike, I forgot to grab the flower arrangement Grandma Taylor made to go over Amy’s headstone. Let me just run back to the house and get them.”
Mike shook his head. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
Even in the confines of the darkened car, Nate could see the glint of silver as Mike pulled out the small pistol he’d tucked in his pocket. Mike held it steady and pointed the thing directly at Nate. “Flowers are the last thing you need to be worried about right now.”
* * *
Brandon flexed his foot on the accelerator, a million gruesome scenarios playing out in his mind. He refused to give credence to the worst case scenario, because his mind simply couldn’t wrap itself around the concept that Nate might be dead. He and Nate were supposed to have the next fifty years to worship each other, to grow old and watch their grandchildren play on the front porch of that big old house together. He wasn’t about to give voice to the fact that it might never happen. Unfortunately, Sam came back over the radio and did it for him.
“Boss, are you still there?”
“What? Yeah, Sam, go ahead.”
He could hear the hesitation in Sam’s voice. “Bran, we have to be prepared just in case Vaughn has already done something to the Doc.”
Brandon set his jaw. “No. Nate’s alive. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”
“How do you know?”
Brandon gritted his teeth. “Because I would feel it if he weren’t.” He was about to say more when his cell phone rang. He almost wept with relief when he recognized the number.
* * *
The Reed City Cemetery was one of those old fashioned types with the wrought iron fences and trees dotting the landscape. Some of the graves dated back to the early eighteen hundreds, back to the days when Reed was nothing more than a tiny village of settlers. The old cemetery and the new burial plots, one of which was Amy’s, were separated by a copse of trees—a small woods, actually—with only an overgrown path in the middle to lead the mourners thru. There was a way to get to the new cemetery without having to go through the woods, but for some reason Mike directed Nate to go in the hard way. It wasn’t until they were well on their way that Nate realized why: had they gone around to the gate of the new part, Nate’s car would have been clearly visible from the road, and Brandon’s men would know where they were. Apparently, Mike was taking no chances.
Walking through the woods at night was hard enough when you didn’t have a gun pressed into your back. Every time Nate stumbled, Mike would slap him on the back of the head with his free hand. The only consolation Nate had was that Mike wasn’t finding it any easier to navigate through the maze of trees lining the path than he was. Several times he stumbled, and twice he actually fell. The second time, Nate used Mike’s temporary state of confusion to reach into his pocket and grab his cell phone. The noise of the snapping twigs and Mike’s struggle to right himself covered up the sound as Nate pressed Brandon’s number on the speed dial. He slid the phone into his coat pocket as soon as he heard Brandon pick up.
Mike made it to his feet and pressed the gun into Nate’s back again. “Keep going, dammit. I’m ready to get out into the open so I can see where the hell I am.”
Nate kept walking. “If you hate the great outdoors so much, why didn’t you just kill me back at the house?”
Mike made a clicking sound with his tongue. “Now where would the fun be in that? Because of you, I’ve lost everything. Killing you out-right would be too easy. No, I’m gonna have a little play time with you first. When I do decide to put an end to your miserable existence, I want the last place you see to be that special place where my wife is condemned to rot, all because of you. I’d thought to kill you at the bluff, so that the last place you saw would be the last place you and Nash got it on, but Marjorie’s early awakening nixed that plan. I’m pretty sure the old bat is going to remember I’m the one who turned the lights out for her.”
Nate dodged a spruce sapling growing in the middle of the path. So Mike was the one who’d almost killed poor Marjorie. Nate was too afraid of pushing Mike into doing something desperate to mention Marjorie just yet, so he decided to focus on the other part pf Mike’s confession first. “You were out there, watching the two of us make love?”
“Well of course I was, dumbass. Once I bumped Wilson off, someone had to do it. I sure as hell couldn’t talk my partner into sitting out there in the woods and watching you and Nash go at it like a couple of animals.”
“You killed Wilson?”
Mike sounded almost proud. “Sure did. The bastard was trying to blackmail me. Threatened to expose me and my partner if I didn’t give him half of the money I was being paid.” He snorted. “Half. Can you believe that shit? I’m the one who pulled his sorry ass out of a sling. His brother and I worked in the stock-room at More-co together. He was always bragging about what a tough guy Wilson was. So when my partner first approached me with the idea of offing you and framing Calder, Wilson was the first guy I thought of. He was only too glad to help, let me tell you. Seems he’d crossed the head of the Nikoli family on his last job for them and was laying low. He needed the money, and I needed Wilson’s know-how. Seemed like the perfect arrangement. It worked out just fine until he decided to get all greedy on me.”
“So what, you shot him full of so much garbage his heart exploded?” Nate stopped walking and turned, struggling to see Mike in the non-light.
He could just make out the shaking of Mike’s head. “You make it sound so sordid, so cheap. I’ll have you know I put a lot of thought and effort into our friend Wilson’s grand exit. He called me to tell me he needed more money. Seems the cash he got when we canceled your insurance wasn’t enough to hold him. He wanted more.”
Nate was stunned. “You cashed in my insurance to pay Wilson? Why not just use your own money? Or Amy’s, for that matter? And surely your partner has the cash.”
Nate could barely see Mike’s hand as he waved him forward with the gun. “Keep walking. My partner is going to meet us there.” As Nate resumed his trek, Mike said, “In answer to your questions, yes, we did cash in your insurance to pay Wilson, but that was just enough to cover his expenses. If he hadn’t tried to screw me over, he’d have gotten a cool two million out of the deal when all was said and done. As far as Amy’s money goes, I couldn’t touch it. Your grandmother set it up so that only Amy could access the trust. Now that she’s gone,” Mike’s voice broke. After a minute, he said, “Now that my wife is dead, all her money goes to me, but I couldn’t touch it while she was alive. As for my own salary, let’s just say I’m using it to recover from a few bad business decisions I’ve made over the years. When I was approached with the idea of killing you and framing Calder, I jumped at the chance. Your money would have gone to Amy, and my partner’s funds would have been freed up so that I’d have made close to ten million just for bumping you off. Of course, you refused to die like you should have, so the deal’s off.”
Nate could see the clearing in the distance, and he knew his time was rapidly running out. “So if the deal’s off, then why kill me now?”
Mike laughed, a sound so bitter Nate winced. “Do you really have to ask? Hell, I’ve wanted you dead since that night I saw you and Amy wrapped up in each others arms on her couch.” When Nate started to speak, Mike said, “Save it. The only reason nothing ever happened between the two of you is because you prefer a hard cock over anything Amy had to offer. If you’d been straight, or even bisexual, Amy would’ve thrown me over and gone to you in a heartbeat. You have no idea how hard it is to be in love with a woman who’s lusting after a faggot. I can’t tell you how many times she compared me to you. Needless to say, I was always found to be lacking when held up to the great Nathan Morris. I thought maybe if I made nice with you, I could come between you guys. You know, do something to break apart the friendship, at least weaken it a little. But you and Amy were too tight. Killing you off seemed like the best option. It would’ve worked if you hadn’t hooked up with Nash. From day one that guy has been like a gnat up my ass. Since Wilson screwed up, I was sure he’d be willing to make it up to me by offing Nash, too, sort of two-for-the-price-of-one. But the cocky little shit wanted more money, and he was willing to blackmail me to get it.”
Mike paused as he scanned his surroundings. When he was satisfied as to where they were, he said, “I was pissed as hell, but I figured once he blew up the office and you were dead, I’d have enough money to keep him quiet. I needed him too much to make him mad. I planted the bomb that afternoon when I brought you guys lunch. Wilson was watching the office, waiting for Amy’s car to pull out. He thought you were still inside and Amy was clear. He waited just to be sure she was gone, then tried to blow the place. But something went wrong with the detonator. The damn thing stalled. When he saw you coming back, he thought Amy had returned, and he went crazy trying to set the damn thing off. When you get out of the car, he realized what had happened, but it was too late.”
Mike brushed a tear out of his eye. “You were still alive, and the only woman I’ll ever love is rotting in your place. Wilson went on and on about how sorry he was, but it was too late. The minute Amy died, Wilson signed his own death warrant.”
Nate said, “And you were only too happy to play executioner.”
Mike went on as if Nate hadn’t spoken. “So I waited until he went out and snuck into his room via the extra key he’d so kindly provided for emergencies. I laced that bottle of Jack Daniel’s he always kept on hand with several of More-co’s best diazepam, slipped out, and then waited until he drank a healthy glass full and passed out. I came back in and shot him full of a lethal dose of heroin and liquid cocaine. When his ticker stopped ticking, I replaced the bottle with a clean one, cleared away the evidence, and left. It was just sheer luck that his brother happened to call and send that clerk down to his room to find the body.” Mike pointed to the graves ahead, now in full view. “Keep walking, buddy. Just a little bit further.” He maneuvered Nate forward until he was practically on top of Amy’s marker.
Nate shuddered at the site of an open grave not far from where he stood. It dawned on him what Mike was going to do. “So what, you’re gonna shoot me and then push me into that hole.”
Mike smiled. Now that they were out in the open, Nate could clearly see the malice etching Mike’s features. “Like I said, Nate, we’re gonna wait a few minutes for my partner, then we’ll go over the game plan.” He looked around, taking in the scenery. “Nice place. Amy and I were gonna buy a plot just like this one day, but we thought we’d have years yet to worry about death and dying. If Wilson had knocked you off that first night like he was supposed to, we’d have had those years together. You have no idea how upset I was when I came back from Atlanta and found you not only still alive, but shacked up with Nash. And after I came up with a sick aunt and everything.” He sighed. “You caused us all a hell of a lot of extra work. We intended to kill you, then make it look like Calder had hired someone to do the job by exposing his scheme with Phillip and his prejudice against gays. Because of you, we were forced to go through the whole gay bashing scenario. You have any idea how hard it is to torch a place without getting caught? Wilson did it right when he burned H&G. I’ll give him that much. Too bad he screwed up and left that fingerprint on the undercarriage of your car. We were forced to re-think our entire strategy.” Mike looked at Nate, his hatred shining in the pale light. “Why didn’t you just die like you were supposed to? What the hell are you, a cat? You’ve got more lives than I can count.”
Nate scanned the area for something he could use as a weapon, but apart from a few scraggly branches, he saw nothing. He decided his best bet was to keep Mike talking. “Okay, so you hate me. I got that part. But why hurt Marjorie Newman? What did she ever do to you?”
Mike shook his head. “Nate, Nate, Nate. Don’t you realize that in every war, there are a few casualties? I hadn’t planned on hurting Marjorie. Hell, I’ve been buying books from her on a weekly basis since Amy and I moved here. But when Calder announced he was coming to Reed to save Seth from his queer brother, it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Planting that receipt to expose the connection between Calder and Phillip was a must. Since I’m so well acquainted with the layout of the store, I volunteered to do it. When Amy came to tell you about Calder’s impending visit, I snatched the receipt out of Philip’s room during all the confusion. I took Amy home, tucked her in bed, and went down to the Book Barn. I waited until Marjorie was busy, then snuck into the men’s bathroom to hide out until she left. Marjorie always closes right at five, so I thought I was safe. I waited until five-thirty, and then came out, expecting the shop to be empty. Instead I ran right into poor Marjorie. Apparently, she got delayed by a last-minute customer. She demanded to know what I was doing, lurking in the bathroom like that.” Mike shrugged. “The old bat didn’t leave me much choice. I conked her over the head with one of those brass bookends she sells and then burned the place. Went up in seconds, thanks to all those book-binding glues.” He grinned. “Not bad for a first time pyro, huh?”
Nate wanted to throw up, but he knew he couldn’t afford to be sick. Swallowing hard, he started to speak, but a noise coming from the woods stopped him. He could just make out the shadow of someone coming through the trees. Mike’s partner had arrived.
* * *
Brandon exhaled the breath he’d been holding when the Reed City limits sign came into view. He’d been so relieved when he heard Nate’s voice on the phone, but his relief turned to dread when he heard where Vaughn had taken him. He’d instructed his men to surround the cemetery, but to stay out of sight until he got there. He wasn’t sure just how over the edge Vaughn really was, but he couldn’t take any chances. If one of Bran’s men spooked him, Vaughn would shoot Nate without even thinking twice about it. He took little comfort from the fact that Vaughn was waiting for his cohort to arrive, but at least it bought him some time. Just as he turned onto the main highway into Reed, he heard Nate gasp over the cell. Brandon knew his grace period was over.