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.

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