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.

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