Tuesday, May 17, 2011

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.

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