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.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

ch. 4: at the press

A long night turned into an early morning before Brownstreet fell asleep on my couch and I stumbled back to my own bed. In the morning he lit a cigarette of whatever that aromatic stuff was and I called Sophie, hoping to clear the way for a genuine trip to St. Louis with Broadstreet. To do that basically I had to unload the story of the athlete, or at least what I knew about it, and take care of whatever had happened at the high-school football game in my absence, a game which I had a sub for anyway, when I'd gotten my chance to go to Northeast Missouri. Turns out we'd have to go into the office, which we did, after we'd dressed, and got a little breakfast.

At the office Sophie began showing me the trail of the two lawyers, Williams and Wilson, a trail of class-action suits all brought to Madison County and mostly settled before they got to court. There was a pattern, she said; they'd go after the big companies; they'd bring all their suits to Madison County; if the suits came all the way to trial, the big companies would lose big; they'd settle halfway there, and they'd end up with a fair chunk of money. The suit they were involved in now involved Barbie dolls and was brought originally by a woman in California, but she had somehow been assured that Madison County was the ideal venue for this suit, and it was being heard right there in Madison County, which is not East St. Louis by the way, but is the next one over; its county seat is actually Edwardsville.

While she is talking I'm admiring her, as we've always had a kind of unrealized romance; she organizes me; I admire her, yet fear her, and go running off chasing things like this wedding invitation. I come this close to asking her to marry me, yet, she's so organized, so passionate, so overbearing, that sometimes I fear that I'd suffocate. And as I look at her, her long brown hair spilling over sheets of notes, she's never been more beautiful. I'm trying to concentrate on this situation. Barbies?

She's telling me all this stuff, showing me papers from the Barbie case, and I notice that Brownstreet has struck up a conversation with a young office worker named Christie Frank, who edits and writes stories for the weekend edition, is young, single, vulnerable, you get the picture. All of a sudden I notice that their conversation becomes more animated and lively, more so even than ours,though they have much less to talk about. I am suddenly rocked by the impulse to get Brownstreet out of there immediately, but the damage is already done. I quickly make sure the high school football game was covered adequately and would be represented in the paper; people lived for this stuff. The athlete, too; I unload what I know about him, so that Sophie could get some more information and put together what we needed for a story on Thursday or Friday. Then I beg off for the afternoon, saying I need to be in St. Louis for a Cards' press release. This was partly true, as there was one, but I knew that, given the way things were, that one might fall by the wayside.

Sophie gets the sense of what I am doing, I think, and asks me to stay in touch. These guys were trouble, she could see that; you threaten a company's livelihood, and you might run into some dangerous territory. She hadn't come across a name of Ben Salem in her research. She encourages me to drop it, go to the press release. Let go of the car. Get this guy Brownstreet out of here. Go take the afternoon, she says, and hang around with your Cards buddies, who follow the game, and who know it. They'll keep you out of trouble; they'll keep you up on what's going on. Then come back refreshed, and we'll put you on the race, the late-September annual event up at the track over by Springfield. We'll get your mind off this stuff.

Sweet Sophie, always looking out for me. That's what I love about her. She has a nose for getting the facts right; she could do it in a minute, but in the end, she wants what's best for me, and that is to stay away from this stuff.

I grabbed Brownstreet on my way out; he had the car. I told them I'd be back late in the afternoon.