Sunday, November 14, 2010

ch. 2: long ride home

Later on Sunday afternoon, I'm in the car of this police employee, a gentle but silent type, and we're driving along the interstate beside Illinois cornfields, and reality begins to set in. First, it didn't especially bother me to have lost a car, to tell the truth, because, as I said, by freak circumstance I'd gotten comprehensive insurance and it was all covered, regardless of whether Mr. Williams was covered or not. It was State Farm's problem, not mine; I didn't have to care. There was one thing about the car that I'd miss, though, and that was a wedding invitation that happened to be in the passenger seat; this was a wedding of an ex-girlfriend, but it was important nevertheless. To make a long story short, it was a friend of hers who I was stuck on, but, this ex-girlfriend was my only connection to this situation, so I felt like I had to go to that wedding, which, as I tried to recollect, was sometime in January, and somewhere up in Iowa maybe, and brought up the question of who would have a January wedding, and why. It was possible that the information about this wedding was gone forever, buried in shards of glass on the front seat, but what did I know; I hadn't seen the thing yet, and all I had to go on was an address of a tow company on the north side of East St. Louis. I can tell you this, though, if you get stuck on a woman, and I was kind of stuck on this one, though she was barely an acquaintance, you get stuck on the very path of circumstances that might lead you back up to her sight. And in my case (this was before Facebook), it was that wedding invitation, on the seat beneath some old food wrappers.

Second, though the police employee was a kind man, slightly overweight, a nice guy, and would have been willing to talk, I wanted to brood for several reasons. A few things about the experience of the previous evening were haunting me, even as we drove. I work in a newsroom, and you hear a lot about East St. Louis, about the crime, the porn business, the casinos, the bar fights. It was a down-and-out kind of place; we in Illinois have our prejudices and all, but it wasn't anything like I would have thought. It's not like anyone treated me poorly; no, on the contrary, everyone, even down to the hospital orderlies, was nice to me. No, it was more, being in the shadow of Cahokia Mound: there's that huge mound, looming over the place. And over here, we have, racetrack, liquor store, Casey's. A kind of disconnect between past and future, is what struck me. I suppose we white folks, random visitors, weren't in either one, really. I was just passing through.

Eldon Stearns' story also kind of stuck with me, stuck under my consciousness and refused to dislodge. An ancient civilization, right there in East St. Louis, and he was able to point out different parts of it, Monk's Mound, various other mounds, as if it were a city he was familiar with. A thousand years ago, eh? Came and went, before the Europeans even showed up? I thought briefly of Sophie, the office worker at the newsroom, who loved googling things, digging up information; she'd look them up on the internet and come back with all kinds of interesting little facts. But I could only justify asking her to look them up, if they were relevant to a story I was working on. The story I was working on was of a local boy, gone up to northern Missouri, a boy who ended up in a heap of trouble. Nothing Cahokian on the horizon.

In due time the policeman turned in my driveway, dropped me off, and headed back to the city; my little house, on a small dead-end street in a small town, sounded with fall crickets and welcomed me home. A few stray you-buy-it newspapers littered the stoop, but I was eager to get in the house and sprawl on the couch. It was now late Sunday afternoon and I was ready for a nap.

Almost immediately the cell phone rang in my pocket; I'd forgotten all about it. On the other end, a low growling woman's voice threatened to kill me and dismember me; she promised me she knew where I was, who I was, and why I still had that phone, and her people were numerous and were on their way. My jaw dropped in silence; I didn't say a word. She hung up immediately and left chills in my spine, standing there by my own kitchen sink. I considered opening the window and pitching the phone; I didn't need this. Somehow, though, Wilson's look came to me at that moment, the look of desperation, the look that told me I was the only one who could save his life at that moment.

And that was the last reason I couldn't just walk away: probably that call was intended for poor Wilson, but I got it, and had some idea right away where that terror was coming from. This woman was a lethal killer, or represented one, and meant business. The obvious question was whether she had any way of finding the phone, or me, not to mention Wilson himself, or whether she was bluffing.

Now you at this point might ask two fairly obvious questions, which I'll answer the best i can. First, why would I still be carrying that cell phone, when I'd just finished talking to the police for hours? Simple: I'd forgot. I'll be honest; I was a little distracted; I'd been coming back from northeast Missouri, writing a disturbing story about an Illinois local athlete who had met a bad fate in Missouri; I'd interviewed him, and had a terrible story to write. But, beyond that, I'm just not used to cell phones; I'd slipped it in my pocket, and it didn't occur to me that it was still there, until it rang.

Then the second question would be, why not just turn it over to the police right away? I was, after all, dealing with a true pathological killer, one who would stop at nothing (this was obvious) and, who had the cell phone number of the dead lawyer; one who, presumably, could be tracked by her own calls, given the right police technology. But I didn't do that either. I didn't really have a good reason. At that point I had no intention of tracking down the killer or getting involved in a grisly mess. Yet I wasn't quite ready to wash my hands of the whole thing either. For one thing, I was pretty sure the police weren't going to give poor Wilson the benefit of the doubt. I was his only hope, as far as I could tell.

And, there was a number on there that I still wanted - that of Eldon Stearns.

I reopened the phone, copied down the number Stearns had called, and copied down a couple of other numbers that had been on the phone. Then finally I turned it off, and slipped it into a bottom drawer way in the back room. I fed the cat, took off my shoes, and settled in for what was left of a Cardinals game on television. They were down 2-1 in the sixth. Their season wasn't quite over, but it might as well be, I thought, if I keep letting myself get sidetracked. After that would be some Yankees game. I opened a beer, and jammed myself way low in the couch. Time to forget the whole mess, and watch some baseball.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

ch. 1: a little accident

I was coming through St. Louis, had just crossed over what they call the Poplar Street Bridge into Illinois, and was looking out over the vast lowlands of East St. Louis, when a tire unceremoniously blew on the passenger side of my old car and all I could do was to pull way over to the right, get out of the car, and open the trunk, calculating the time it would take, which would include finding the jack in the compost heap of the trunk. Cars whizzed by me on the seven-lane highway on the other side of the car; fortunately, the flat was on the protected side, so I thought about the process for a minute: open the trunk (it was an old Mazda sedan), fish around amongst the garbage back there, find the jack, etc. An hour and a half, maybe, tops. I looked at the Arch there, glowing across the river, and I could see the lights of casino boats and such off in the distance up the river a little. It was the autumnal equinox; the fall was just beginning; there was a bright moon way off over the seamy strip clubs and dumps of East St. Louis.

First, I thought, I've got to pee, and I jumped the little steel rail there and ran down the gravel hill about twenty yards until I was a little out of sight from the road, and did my business. I could still see the wide expanse of East St. Louis, but was a little sheltered now from the noise of the highway. Nevertheless, suddenly, a number of things happened in rapid succession. First, a man came flying over the railing, and landed below me on the same hill, with a scream that became quiet when he landed. He appeared to be a black man, or mixed race maybe, slightly smaller than I, thin and muscular with a slight mustache, all dressed up; up on the road, I could hear a horrifying crash, and knew instantly that my car was finished. It had to be my car, I figured; the sound came from right where my car was, and sounded exactly like my car would if it were smashed into a wreck of twisted steel alloy which would have been the same railing I had just jumped over.

I don't want to make myself out as a saint, but I wasn't really too worried about the car; I knew I had to get somebody's insurance information, if in fact they were alive, but there was also this guy, on the rocks below, so I went down to see about him. He was alive, but out cold, and he was, in fact, dressed up, very well, very nice, but in pretty bad condition from the fall. On closer inspection I could see many races in him, black and white for sure, also maybe Asian, or Native American. I rolled him around and made him comfortable on the rocks there, using some of my clothes as necessary as a pillow and to keep the hard edges of the rocks out of him. He was not dying, though, not suffering; he was just out cold. Getting him out of here would be a task, I could tell. Now the immediate question I had, and I still have it today, was, had he jumped, upon seeing that his car was about to crash into mine, or, was he thrown down here by force of impact, either impact before his car hit mine, or the impact of hitting mine? He had to have flown over well before his car hit mine (if that's what happened) - because, when he finally landed, he was about even with me, only further down the hill; and, he had been coming forward, or toward me, at a good clip. My guess, at this point, was that he had jumped. But it was quite a jump, that swung him so wide of me, so far down the hill. How did he do it?

Now the obvious thing to do would have been to go back up to the highway, deal with the wreckage up there, and the people, and the police, and get a ride somewhere maybe on my way home, see if I still had a car, that kind of stuff. I could hear ambulance sirens and sensed that somebody had called 911; things were happening up there. But I couldn't do it. There was a gentle breeze; it was cool and comfortable, though getting colder, and an overwhelming tiredness came over me, so I fell asleep, right there on the rocks, the man more or less on my lap. I guess that, in tending to this man, this unconscious guy on the rocks, all dressed up, pinstripe suit and all, I'd noticed that he was out cold, and was in a kind of coma, and was so deeply unconscious that it kind of influenced me in the same direction. I knew that it was probably urgent to get him medical care, but for some reason, as I looked at him, it seemed less urgent, and my own tiredness overcame me.

A couple of hours later I was shaken awake by an elderly gentleman with white hair and a kind face. He was surprised that his shaking actually had waken me up, as he apparently had already tried the unconscious man near me, unsuccessfully, and was beginning to realize that we had a problem on our hands. When he shook me I woke up immediately, somewhat disoriented, but I still was able to explain to him what had happened. This man, I said, is unconscious; he came flying over the rail, and probably my car was up there, or destroyed in an accident. "There are no cars up there," he said, "except my own, and the ones driving by, though there is quite a bit of glass and evidence of an accident." We talked for a while and concluded that the right thing to do would be to work together, get this man up to the elderly man's car, and transport him to the hospital, which he said was nearby in Granite City; he was going that way anyway. The elderly man, dressed in an open, breezy white shirt, had a calm authority about him and I saw the sense of getting medical care for this man, right away, and in addition, I, having no car now, had little choice but to stick with someone who seemed to know where to go and what to do.

We were questioned later as to why we didn't call 911. I can't say exactly why not; that would surely have been safer, just in terms of getting the guy up the rocky hill; but, we didn't think of it, for some reason. Maybe it's that East St. Louis is notorious for not having an ambulance, true or not, or maybe it's that they charge you an arm and a leg, and we wouldn't know who to charge it to. Calling the police, and getting them involved, would clearly have been the best option, but for some reason, we didn't. Instead, together we dragged the guy up the hill, put him in the elderly gentleman's car; we strapped him in, and, again, made him comfortable. The cars whizzed around us as if we were just parked there on the shoulder, changing drivers. the man was right; there was no sign of my own car, anywhere; it was gone. There was glass everywhere, however; he had apparently parked in the middle of it. It was those tiny little beads of glass that modern car windshields turn into when you smash them; they crunch under your feet, but don't cut you as they are rock-shaped. After I was strapped in also, we drove off to Granite City, site of the nearest hospital; we had to get down off the interstate, and drive along a two-lane road, past a race track and some other businesses.

At one point, a huge dark mound loomed above us and I knew instantly what it was: Cahokia Mound. The elderly gentleman, it turned out, knew a little about it. It was the center of the Americas for over a thousand years, he said; reached its peak at about 1100 or thereabouts; at that time, it was larger than London. It was a city, not a burial tomb. It was a city that had access to people and goods from all over North America, from the Gulf to the Canadian Rockies, the Appalachians to Lake Superior. After about 1200, the civilization disappeared, and nobody has ever figured out for sure why. By the time Europeans came floating up the river, or down it, it was well buried under grasses and trees, and looked like an ordinary hill.

So we're driving along in his car, the car of this elderly gentleman, and we go from being in the shadow of this huge mound, to being near these steel mills, on the way to the hospital. Now steel mills stir up emotions in me also, since I grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and these are not blissful, peaceful emotions, if you know what I mean, but there's little point in going into it, since we were coming upon a hospital, and this was important, at least at the moment, and I was thinking about my own luck and the turns of fate, since I myself had just escaped death by a moment or two, at least once. I'll say this, looking back at the drive from the Poplar Street Bridge to the Granite City Hospital. The elderly man, whose name turned out to be Eldon Stearns, was like an angel, in a sense, coming down off the highway to deliver us to safety, and, as it turned out, to save the life of the fallen guy, who in fact did need hospital care immediately. And there was more to the story than this. Eldon Stearns, it turned out, had pulled over simply because he had seen a cell phone; and, when he pulled over, he had gotten out, and picked it up; when he had picked it up, he had seen us down the hill; or, to be more specific, he had seen me moving. I had been asleep, but somehow, at that moment, I was moving. And now, he used the phone to call his wife and say he'd be a bit late; then, he told me to take the phone; he didn't need it. I'd need it to tell the police what happened; he didn't. And he gave it to me. Without questioning, I took it and put it in my pocket. I had come to rely on Mr. Stearns as being in control, and knowing what was best.

At the hospital, things were busy, but we were wheeled in, and, much to our surprise, the guy we had brought came out of it; he was somewhat disoriented, but spoke to people, and we were soon separated as it was necessary to determine that each of us was ok. This all happened within minutes, and soon after he awoke he turned around and caught my eye; at the time, we were walking in a group down a hospital corridor. I'll never forget the look he had when he saw me, though of course I'd been by his side for hours at that point. It was a combination of absolute terror, and recognition, as if we'd known each other forever. It was as if, the minute he came to, he knew he had to find me and connect, and he did. He had large blue eyes and curly dark hair around his face; he was the kind of guy, I'm sure, that had several girlfriends; yet, he was absolutely, profoundly desperate, terrified to be where he was. I was, at the same time, shocked and confused. I couldn't imagine such terror, couldn't imagine why he'd be so afraid, in this hallway, at this time; at the same time, I couldn't imagine how he could recognize me so thoroughly, as if there was no doubt in his mind who I was.

I, in fact, was just a young sports writer from small-town Illinois, an hour or so east, and I was fine, in good health and all, but was told to stay in a little side room, because the police would need to talk to me. Eldon Stearns told everyone his side of the story, and took his leave; he was gone. At about 2 AM a policeman came in to get my story. He soon got a friend, another policeman, and they settled in for questioning.

Under questioning several things came out. One, my car was in fact destroyed, destroyed by a Cadillac that had held two lawyers, Mandell Williams and Wilson Hall. Hall was the man here at the hospital, who had been in a coma but who would apparently survive. Williams had not survived. Their car and mine were both totally wrecked in the accident.

Witnesses had seen one car running the other off the road just on the Illinois side of the Poplar Street Bridge. Both were speeding; one kept sideswiping the other. Both were large cars; that's all they knew. The police were convinced I would know more and utterly disappointed that I didn't. My name matched up with their ID of the destroyed Mazda; they were happy about that. But I had been out of sight of the wreck; I hadn't seen it. I told them the truth. I'd stuck with the body. I'd fallen asleep. That's all I knew.

It was a long night of questioning, but I'll say one thing: they had no choice but to believe me. I knew nothing, after all, except what I'd seen, and I hadn't seen much. Out in the lobby, I would occasionally get snatches of the local news, and later, it occurred to me that I'd already heard of the death of Mandel Williams in a fiery crash, and the disappearance of his partner, Wilson Hall. The news was saying nothing about it possibly being a murder, or reckless driving charges, or about anyone who might be involved in trying to kill these two. They, Williams and Hall, were apparently high-profile lawyers, involved in a big class-action suit in nearby Madison County.

The police, by now pretty sure I wouldn't flee, asked me to stick around for a day, and actually put me up in a small motel not far from the police station, somewhere there in Granite City. The motel clerk kept a wary eye on me. I only wanted to sleep, though, and didn't worry too much about the day lost in my life; it didn't amount to much; it was a Saturday anyway, and I was a single guy; the following day, they asked me more questions, but then an employee of the police would give me a ride the two hours to my home in south-central Illinois. From all I could tell, my insurance would cover the car and wouldn't worry too much about what happened; this was due to a freak circumstance by which I had insured the old wreck totally, more or less on a whim. Within days I would have a car of roughly equal value, and at that point I might very easily have forgotten the whole nightmare, except that a number of memories of the evening would stick in my memory and refuse to be dislodged. The look of Wilson Hall was first: as a sports writer, I recognized the look of a kid, with talent, skill and grace maybe, who, with all good things going for him, still finds that big money gets him in with unsavory people, and gets him over his head. What do you say to such a kid? Told you so?