Friday, May 20, 2011

I hope you enjoy

my new novel

It has no name yet.
To read it, start at CH 1

When it is a best-seller, you
will be able to say that you
READ IT WHEN

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ch. 9: at busch

At first I don't believe it, that I've let Brownstreet go and break into Hall's apartment, with his key, with these murderers lurking around probably about to pop him one the minute he shows up. But I also badly need a break, I need to get back to my job, I need to get over and take in a Cards game, or I'll go nuts. And Brownstreet was clearly up for it; I wasn't. Whatever happened, he wanted it; he volunteered to do it; I didn't. I stood, surveyed the river once more, and prepared to walk across the bridge to Busch, to take in the game. That's the good thing about being a sports reporter; you get this free pass to all these games. Yes, you have to write about them. But the main thing is, you get to go to them.

The Cards are overall a pretty good deal, too. They don't win it all every year, and were already out of the race in this particular one, but they were often competitive, often won it all, and always gave you a good show. This of course was before I became disillusioned with all sports and particularly with the big-money sports, that chewed up and spit out players like Arlen Brand and that created huge big-money empires of people who had only one thing in common: they'd do anything to win.

The bridge has a walkway and is fairly accessible and actually good for the spirit, given the stiff wind, the September sky, the big river below and the ubiquitous Arch. Downtown St. Louis isn't all that big; it's fairly easy to get over to Busch and there wasn't much between me and the stadium though it was a fairly long walk. About a block away, though, I was surprised to come up from behind Eldon Stearns, who was also going to the game.

He recognized me immediately, stopping on the sidewalk, and actually offered me a ticket; he had an extra. I of course had a press pass, but agreed to use his ticket and avoid the press box altogether, though it would have been good for the information I could learn up there. Given the choice, a simple seat on the first-base side sounded good, and sounded like the best way to get away from it all: away from Arlen Brand, away from the press, away from Ben Salem. The Cards had always been my escape hatch.

There was an upbeat feeling in the stadium, though it was by no means full; fans, all wearing red, filled the place up steadily, and the game started and settled into baseball's usual, gentle pace, one pitch after another; we settled in with hot dogs and chips for a relaxing afternoon. Stearns knew his baseball, and was able to spot a curve and a slider, able to identify who was not playing and why not. The game was interesting and the visiting Reds would give the Cards a fight. But also we got along well and kept up a lively conversation.

He asked me about the man whose life we had saved: who was he, and what had happened? I gave him a general outline of what I knew, leaving out meeting him later, the shootout and the planned apartment break-in, happening across town as we spoke. He was aware of the string of class-action lawsuits in Madison County, including the Barbie case, which had attracted a bit of publicity, and controversy as well, since so much money was involved in each suit. He was curious about what kind of enemies these guys would have, that would run them off the road, if indeed it happened intentionally. Someone wanted them both dead? One had jumped? It seemed kind of fantastic.

Eventually the Arlen Brand story came out too, because I explained what I was doing on that bridge at that hour. I'd actually been in Iowa, where Arlen Brand had been thrown in jail for drunken driving and possession of cocaine a week earlier, and was now being released from jail, but also being released by the Iowa Hawkeyes, thrown off the team in disgrace; the press conference announcing his starting up with a local St. Louis team would be this afternoon, and I would of course attend. I say of course, because Arlen Brand was a local, home-town hero, quarterback of a famous Mt. Zion team that won the championship only three years ago, on a famous so called "hail-mary" pass that was perhaps the high point of sports writing in the Mt. Zion newspaper.

I call it the high point, because basically you can write about sports for years, as I have learned, and you'll have some very faithful and religious readers, so to speak, who hang on every word, and get very angry or personal about any implication that they are not the perfect athletes. Then you'll get a small minority of people who read the stories, are satisfied with a general account of what happened, and may or may not dispute some details assuming they attended the game or had some reason to care. But it's a rare story that virtually everyone reads and discusses; that literally has the whole town buying the paper and opening it up to the sports section; this may not happen today, but even at this time, roughly 2005, this was rare but you could notice it, say at a barber shop or a Denny's, where a paper is sitting around, and people actually pick it up, and open it to the sports page. This play, and the ensuing story and picture about it, was the talk of the town for weeks.

So Brand had been a stellar quarterback all year on the local football team; had led the team to state, had won most of the tournament with his dazzling arm and smart play-calling, yet when it came down to the end, it all hinged on a single play, which in football those days was call a "Hail Mary" pass, one in which you throw the ball way up in the air, and just hope that, when it comes down, your man is the one who can catch it. Often he can't, or, someone beats him to it, but generally this play occurs at the end of the game, when you have no other options, and hoping for blind luck is the last or only thing you can do, because a shorter pass, or a run, or another option will lead to losing the game, whereas this pass could possibly lead to winning. But it all hinges on your receiver having a good position, and a good ability to jump, and the ability to come down with the ball at that right moment. And, by some quirk of luck, we had all that stuff at that moment. The receiver, in fact, I had forgotten his name, but he just happened to be there. And the photographers too: we had by luck gotten both the throw and the catch, in two separate photos, and put them side by side on the front page.

Whereupon we, and by we I mean the entire town of Mt. Zion, which was completely in love with Arlen Brand, sent him on full scholarship up to Iowa where he was expected to be a star quarterback within a couple of years. Now here, I can say that I often associate Iowa with that American Gothic painting, with the farmer, and his wife, and the pitchfork, and that painting is one of moral certainty, I always thought, like that farmer was saying to you, you'd better do good, better do right, better not mess around on your wife, or this pitchfork will be coming after you. It's got that sense of church-going, god-fearing moral certainty that somehow has transferred entirely over to the state itself, in people's minds. So that's why it was kind of a surprise to find that Arlen Brand was in jail just a few years later. What happened?

We discussed this case, while down on the field, and this was sneaking up on us, it appeared that some young Reds pitcher was no-hitting the Cards. We were well into the fourth or fifth inning before we realized it, but the Cards had in fact got nothing, zilch, zippo, even though their lineup was full of stars and even had one All-Star third baseman, on a fifteen-game hitting streak, bound to retire at the end of the month to great acclaim city-wide. One thing you can say for St. Louis, it loves its baseball stars; it has genuine good feeling, and this was evident every time this guy came up to bat. But twice so far, no hit; no hit for any of them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

ch. 8: by the river

So Browstreet and I are in the Volvo and out of there before we realize: we aren't going anywhere in particular, and don't especially want to be seen driving around in this Volvo, given the situation. We're near the casino, though, so we go in there and park, although the place is sure to have cameras around the lots that can see a New Hampshire plate when they have the opportunity. It's a huge lot; it's right by the river; some people in Illinois use the lot to take the Metro over to the Cards game thus never actually driving into Missouri. But the lot is intended for gamblers; the casino is huge, and it does an active business there on the river, getting money off people who are glazed in the eyes and down to their last pocketful of hope.

You see, already, that I have a bad attitude toward this place, but I'm not like Brownstreet, who as you'll remember has a gig promised here; if all goes well, he'll be able to play here soon, doing steamboat songs, or old delta songs, or some kind of blues, but, as he makes it clear, he needs to straighten things out with this woman, over in the city, before he approaches the manager, who apparently expects him but is waiting to hear from her. He's kind of scouting out the place as we walk around it, but he wants to avoid the casino itself for now, and he's just as eager as I am to park the car, get out of it, take stock, and figure out what we just saw.

We go around to a bench near the river, and it's facing the city itself, the very sports venues that I've made a short living occupying. The Arch looms above us, as usual, its symbol of the gateway to the west or whatever; the river in its relentless certainty shoots downstream at our feet. The smell of stale cigarettes finds us even though we're quite a ways from the casino itself and even the parking lot.

Brownstreet makes himself comfortable and rolls a cigarette from some hidden bag of tobacco. "For sure, somebody wants Hall dead," says Brownstreet. "We need to get into that freezer and get those bastards."

"Whoa," I say. "You may have to take that one on yourself. I'm tired. And I'm busy. I have no interest in becoming a detective, a break-and-enter guy, and running up against these thugs. Are you pretty sure it's this Ben Salem guy we're up against?"

"Who else could it be?" he asks. A silence hangs, broken only by driftwood in the river, which is actually splashing the river on its hard trip downstream.

Three things bugged me about what happened, and I was still sorting them out, so I brought up the issues and we discussed them. First, Hall seemed somewhat aware that it was going to happen; he placed himself near the hallway and was out of there like a bolt of lightning when something did happen. In fact his body-check of the poor woman, his long quick strides down the hallway, and his rapid cut left out of sight, had left an image in my mind that I couldn't shake. But whoever was after him, he had seemed to have adjusted to it, even prepared for it.

Second, the gunmen - who were they? They seemed particularly inept, since they both had a clear shot at him, but missed, not only him, but everyone else, though they may have been trying to get only him. This was not a professional hit, or Hall himself at least would have been dead. They had looked to be about fifty, old drunkards, white, mafia maybe, but it was hard to tell. Who was paying them? Ben Salem, presumably. What happened to them? We had no idea; we had left them there, restrained by local black men who may or may not have called the police, men who may or may not have known Wilson Hall. My guess was, they didn't know Wilson Hall, though they may have seen him a time or two.

And finally, there was Hall himself, who had not paid the bill, but was clearly prepared to, and probably would pay it upon his eventual return to the place. Things he said bothered me: that he couldn't get to Williams' funeral; that they'd uncovered dirt on Ben Salem's asbestos racket and he was hanging onto it; that he had no car, or phone, now, or even a place to live, as his apartment was surely being watched and death would meet him at his own door, should he return. How was this guy living? What were his plans? Why was he even hanging around?

Somewhere in there Sophie calls me, and has a little more information. She also wants to know if I was still ok, still planning on going to the baseball game and the press conference, still basically working for the paper covering the unfolding stories like the Aldon Brand scandal unfolding as we spoke. In fact I had forgotten, temporarily of course, about both the game and the press conference. And, in fact, I was glad to be reminded of them, because there's nothing better than sports to get your mind off all the ugly stuff that reality shoves our way sometimes. Sophie's voice was busy but calm and reassuring in its own way. I asked her if there was any news on the wire about a shootout at Al's Barbecue in East St. Louis and she said no, she had her ear to the AP wires and nothing like that had come in.

She said that this Ben Salem guy was actually Benito Eduardo Nunez-Salem, and was in fact a ruthless president of an asbestos company, with quite a personal rap sheet but also a record of making piles of money, and actually having key congressmen by his side for important votes related to the asbestos industry, or rather, the asbestos removal industry.

Brownstreet was restless, having smoked most of the remaining tobacco. He had a date with a woman across town, and yet other plans, but somehow had forgotten them. Whereas I was overcome with reluctance, a desire not to get involved in this sordid affair, Brownstreet could think of nothing else. "That reminds me," he says, "I'm going after those documents. I hope you'll be ok if I leave you here, without a car, for a few hours?" It was now about twelve thirty; the barbecue was settling, and Busch stadium was calling. The game was at about two. I had no desire to break into an apartment, and Brownstreet had no patience with talking me into it.

"I'll meet you at this very bench at five....Hope that's OK?" It was. He got up and strolled away, purposely, toward the Volvo.

And he would; I was sure of it. He wasn't very good about times, but he was true to me, always had been. You'd think, why would he leave a close friend, without a car, down by the river, without offering him a ride wherever. But he didn't have to. I was close enough to where I needed to be, could get there easily, and could get back easily enough, in five hours.

ch. 7: al's barbecue

We end up in a small barbeque place on a corner of East St. Louis. Black guys are hanging around the corner, pacing back and forth; I'm wondering if this is a sign that drug-dealing is going on, or just the rampant unemployment one always hears about. The restaurant has four or five other pairs of people eating; Wilson Hall directs us over to a table that is near a long hallway going presumably to the back of the place and the exit. He wants to face the door and he does; we sit with him and he orders barbeque for all three of us. He's buying. He says he made good money while he was doing what he was doing and it's not better spent than on someone who saved his life. He's genuine and sincere about that.

There's something in his light eyes that are familiar, besides that time in the hospital when he looked at me with a desperation totally unforgettable, as if I'm the only guy in the world who could get him out of this jam. And in fact, he mentions an apartment at 1622 Carondelet which he cannot enter, because these people know who he is, know what he looks like, are fixing to kill him, he's sure of it, but there are valuable documents in that place, documents that would certainly destroy Ben Salem but possibly do much more. Why wouldn't Ben Salem simply break in, and grab them? Because, he says, they're in the freezer, where no one would think to look. Under a huge slab of meat.

Brownstreet shows great interest and actually promises to go in after them, though I am quite ambivalent, not wanting to risk my life, and still not truly involved in this as a detective might rather be. Who exactly would be paying us to risk our lives? For what? To take on this murderous Ben Salem dude and prove that he's been ripping people off in the asbestos business? My head was spinning and I stalled, begging to wait and think about it. Brownstreet however not only agreed to do it but got the key from Hall and pocketed it, promising to find a way to contact him immediately afterward. They were working on this alleged way, given the fact that Hall had no cell phone, no address, etc. and more or less the same could be said for Brownstreet. By now the barbeque had arrived and Brownstreet was wolfing it down, piece after piece; it was delicious, and we had messy fingers and not nearly enough napkins.

Briefly the topic of Cahokia came up; I'm not sure how, but maybe we were talking about the guy who had given us a ride to the hospital that night, who saved Hall's life, who mentioned, in passing, that this place, this east side of the river, had been the center of a huge civilization for its time, a place that attracted people from all over, where they grew corn and barbequed deer and got jewelry from the far corners of North America, Lake Superior, the Canadian Rockies, the Gulf, the caves of Appalachia. Hall's eyes grew wide, and it was strange; it was like the same kind of familiarity that I had seen in him, he saw in my story, though I was just repeating what Eldon Stearns had said. It was the story of an empire, grown huge, turned in on itself perhaps, gone with barely a trace except the thin story line, here in a barbeque restaurant.

But all that changed in a blaze of gunfire within minutes. Two guys had apparently walked into the restaurant and started shooting in the direction of Hall, who had within seconds lifted up the entire table to hide behind it, sending barbeque into my lap, except that I, at that moment, was actually almost out of my seat retrieving a fork which had flown about five feet away, on the floor. Gunfire was everywhere, and it was coming our way, so I quickly got behind the table, with Brownstreet, and within seconds Hall had more or less pushed this lady in the hallway aside, and went loping down the hallway with long strides, and gunshots following him, the lady screaming, and him getting successfully around the corner and presumably out the door. One of the gunmen was pushing his way into the restaurant to chase him but now a group of the local black men, who had been pacing, where now restraining him, as well as the owner of the place, a large black man who in spite of being a few hundred pounds, was mighty quick to get at anyone who disrupted his customers' ability to enjoy good barbeque.

It was over in minutes. Hall was gone; the lady, shaken, was sobbing uncontrollably, but ok, not hit by gunfire; we also were unhit; as far as I could tell, nobody had been hit. The wall, and a picture on it, had been hit; I know the gunshots were real. The owner looked at us with wide eyes and made a large motion with his hands that seemed to say: you get out of here, don't worry about the check. We did. We ran out into the back alley and out into the East St. Louis afternoon. I was still slightly hungry, licking the barbecue off my fingers.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

ch. 6: mike's junkyard

There's a tension in the car now, as we snake through East St. Louis toward the junkyard; we've agreed to do my errand first, since it involves signing off on some legal papers that will affirm that I know it was my car; I recognize that it's totally demolished; I hand over all rights to junk it; I've gotten everything I need, etc. The wedding invitation is, of course, on my mind. But the tension? I'm wondering, how could he do it? A recognizable brand-name car, unique, unique tags, plain sight, plain daylight, and he causes a wreck that could have killed people. he did it without thinking, he says. the cell phone seemed dangerous, dark, murky. He didn't want it in his car.

The junkyard dealer lets us in and leads us to the Mazda directly; it is in fact entirely demolished, and I can see that there would be no point in trying to rebuild even part of it, though some parts of it might be salvageable by someone, someone who knew how to do such a thing. And sure enough, it's been pretty much untouched; nobody could imagine that an old wedding invitation on the front seat could be of value, and I find it; it's buried, now, under shards of glass and pieces of broken air-bag and car detritus. I tuck it away in my pocket and try to imagine if there's anything else that could still be of value; there isn't. I sign their documents. They can melt it down for steel. I turn over the title. The junkyard dealer, a large black guy named Mike, is satisfied; he didn't want to sit on this car for weeks, unable to get anything out of it. It seems to him he should get something for just holding it, but he's satisfied to now have the right to at least get a few scraps, and some money for melted-down metal. He walks back to his little office, and we're left to go back to the Volvo and on to the next errand, at the casino.

But this is when we are approached by Wilson Hall himself. He is unmistakable, his curly hair, large blue eyes, a pure youthful vibrancy in spite of any trouble he may be in. I recall quickly what I know, or at least what I believe; his partner has been killed; he is being called by a ruthless woman who wants him to lay off of someone by the name of Ben Salem; he now has no law firm, no car, no cell phone, no apparent ability to do his job; he has just managed to live through a life-threatening accident and coma, but somehow recovered and appears now to be in pretty good health, in spite of everything. And, he recognizes me. He shakes my hand and thanks me again for apparently saving his life, and getting him to the hospital, several nights ago. He's noticed the condition of my car; he says the Cadillac they were driving was also demolished and brought to this same place.

I look briefly over to the office of Mike the junkyard operator, but he has disappeared; the conversation is taking place just outside his fence, so he doesn't feel inclined, maybe, to get involved. He doesn't mind if we stand here all day. Brownstreet studies Hall intently. The morning sun is coming to the top of the sky; it's almost noon. Hall offers to take us to lunch; it's the least he can do; I saved his life; please let him; we accept. He fits into the back of the Volvo among jackets, bags of clothes, old magazines, and an occasional soda can; the guitar is back there too, and parts of it are very tightly packed, but the part where he's sitting is best described as a compost heap. It's not a problem. We're off to a local place in East St. Louis, about a mile from the junkyard.

"I'm sorry about your partner, Williams. Were you close?" I ask.

"Been with him about a year. His funeral is Friday, in Chicago, but it I'm not sure I'll make it. Yeah, I'm still a little upset about that too."

"It was attempted murder, you're pretty sure? You know who did it?"

"I'd never seen these people in my life. They came up behind us on the Poplar Street Bridge and started trying to run us off the road. They almost did, twice. I rolled my window down because it seemed like I'd have to jump. When I saw your car in the way, I knew I'd have to jump and I did. It was that simple. I don't know who they were or why they wanted to kill us. I assume it had to do with Ben Salem."

"Oh by the way we've been hearing from Ben Salem."

"You know who Ben Salem is?"

"Well, not exactly." I told the tale of the cell-phone, somewhat reluctantly. It got bogged down in the part about smashing the truck windshield on the interstate, practically causing a pile-up, at the very least considerable tumult and police activity, all this morning, all probably directing at least some people to be looking for a Volvo with New Hampshire tags. Hall looked at us quizzically; our story was beginning to match his for pure unbelievability. The question centered, really, on whether a phone could survive smashing through a windshield; could, say, a person still make an incoming call such as the ones we'd received?"

Brownstreet recalled the one he'd received, partly to defend himself from the absurdity of what he'd done, throwing the phone up through the sunroof and into the windshield of a tailgating semi. He practically shivered as he retold the story of being threatened life and limb by an evil woman.

"I've actually met that woman," Hall says; "she's already told me not to mess with Ben Salem. Ben Salem is a nickname for this guy that runs an asbestos empire. He actually cleans asbestos, but he finds it everywhere, and since nobody really knows what it looks like, he makes a lot of money pretending to remove it. Or his goons do. But in the process, a lot of people get hurt. If it's really asbestos, and workers are getting injured in the process of removing it, and he knows this, and he's not doing anything, he's guilty and he knows it. But if it's not asbestos, then he's a fraud that way too, and a lot of other people are going to be mad, and, how is he going to explain the people that have gotten hurt removing it?"

"So what's your role in this?"

"Well, my partner used to say: if you've secretly stolen a million, we can get a few hundred thou just by knowing your secret; that's our racket. But if you've secretly stolen a billion, we could probably get a few hundred million, but now our lives are worth a little less than what we could be making..."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

ch. 5: westbound

We leave the offices of the newspaper, and once again I take a huge deep breath at the opportunity to basically flee a small town for a big city, with any excuse at all, flimsy or nonexistent. In our case we had several reasons to go, though Brownstreet was backpedaling on his quickly...he now wanted to be with his love interest,right here in my workplace; he made arrangements to call her as soon as he was done with this errand, which should be sometime tonight. I practically pulled him out of the office, his eyes still hanging on the very ground she'd walked on. No sooner did we get out on the little two-lane that connects Jackson City with the interstate, than he began questioning me about her, who she was,l her romantic history, etc. But I was of little help; I could hardly bring myself to tell him what little I knew.

It was another gorgeous fall day, sunny with blue sky, the corn browning in the fields and farmers rushing to haul it in before it was too late. Brown street opened the sunroof and kept under the speed limit, which meant that a steady stream of cars passed us regularly. He reexplained his business in the city. He had a possible gig in a steamboat kind of place owned by the casino, and this was down on the river on the Illinois side, but he had to work out the details, and it would involve going right down to the casino itself, and possibly to yet another stop. I myself was going directly to the We-Tow-It down on the north side of town where I knew I could find what was left of my car.

We discussed the cell phone and the nasty calls poor Wilson Hall had been receiving, or, to be more accurate, we had been receiving in his name. Brown street was still very unsettled that anyone could use such a hostile tone on such a phone; guess he didn't have much experience with them. It stood between us in the little tray that separated our seats. At this point neither of us was in the slightest mood tom pursue the matter; I remember this clearly. I had a story to write, a game to go to the following evening, and, though I felt badlymfor Wilson Hall and the jam he'd gotten himself into, I wasn't about to risk everything I had just timbering the middle between some lawyer, or what was left of his operation, and some multinational with a female killer hurling threats over the phone. I took those threats seriously. That's why, when the phone rang again, I jumped about a foot.

But Brownstreet was quicker. He grabbed thie phone, and, with a quick snap of his wrist, flicked it up out of the sunroof and out of the car.

A large semi was bearing down on us at that moment, and I couldn't bear to turn around and watch, but I heard the crack of a window, the screech of brakes, and more brakes as the truck apparently slowed down, and pulled over. Brown street looked at me and shrugged sheepishly, but didn't even slow down. We discussedmit at length much later. He was fully aware that his Live-Free-or-Die tags were a dead giveaway, that Midwestern truckers were not about to let little slights like this go untracked down, and that this was an era in which presumably the police could track down an errant driver like himself quite easily. His explanation went like this: he'd been genuinely spooked by the phone, and needed to getmit out of the car as soon as possible.