A Novel

Chapter 31: South Bluff

Camden left. Todd picks up his telephone and dials the South Bluff Sanitarium in La Salle.

Woman answers with a tough-as-leather voice: "South Bluff," as if to say, "What is it now?" But all she says is "South Bluff." She says "South Bluff" and exhales and you can practically hear the plume of cigarette smoke.

"Leona, it's Todd. Todd Menocken."

"Todd. How're things down there?"

"Can't complain, mostly." He chuckles. "No, mostly I can't complain at all. I hooked a prize fish, and I'm reeling him now. How are things with you?"

"Things? They could be better if you want to know the truth."

"You know me Leona: I always want to know the truth."

"Yeah, but I don't always want to tell it."

Todd laughed.

"Anyway, looks like it's time to quit the sanitarium racket. Another long con turned short. I got G-men nosing around up here, and the weird thing is I don't think they're looking for what they ought to be looking for. Maybe they're makin' 'em more clever these days."

"Yeah maybe. And maybe the river flows north."

She coughed. Smoker's cough. "Maybe it does at that."

Todd could hear a man screaming in the background: "I keep telling you, there are no backroads to the rest stops. Just one way in and one way out."

Todd asked, "What's all that racket?"

"A whiteliner with a suppurating head wound and orange teeth. Just admitted. The daughter said he brushes his teeth with ten-oh-six. Where's that court order? Hold on, I'll shut the door." Half a minute later, she returned, "That better?"

"Yeah. Say, Leona, remember when you asked if I could find a union organizer? Bring a union organizer to Elmville?"

"I do. And you did. Something Sneed, wasn't it?"

"That's right, Will Sneed. It's been over three weeks since he heard anything from whoever he's supposed to be hearing from."

"That's strange. Will Sneed..."

"He says when he first arrived he got a money wire, and a message to expect a Puerto Rican. The Puerto Rican was supposed to have more money and instructions. The wire also said to expect two assistants later on: a young guy and a younger guy."

"A young guy and a younger guy? What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"Fuck if I know. In any case, none of them never showed, and he hasn't heard a peep since. You got any idea what's going on? I know I don't need to say this, but I only brought him up here as a favor to you."

"Christ, I never should have—"

"What's it all about anyway?"

"You know how it goes: some guy calls in a few favors—a friend of a friend of a friend—and then one day, out of the blue, you get a strange request that doesn't connect any dots, but you do it anyway. The person who asked me, he's an old friend in Winnetka, and I owed him a favor. He knew I had some contacts down there, in Bureau County, so he asks if I can find a union organizer and set the guy up for business in Elmville. But I don't have the foggiest what it's for or who's behind it all."

"What's his name?"

"Whose name?"

"Your friend in Winnetka. The guy you did the favor for."

"Oh, Silas Jayne. You probably heard of him—not all of it's true. Believe me, he's got no interests in Bureau County. He was just doing somebody else a favor, same as me."

"Didn't you ever think that whole business was a little strange?"

"Strange how?"

"That none of these people had any labor union contacts? That this business got pushed all the way down to you and then me?"

"Oh, that. Yes, well, I guess I see your point. Whoever it was, he probably just wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and the job. I don't know why. I never stopped to think about it. Christ, if I spent time wondering about every little thing that didn't seem to make sense, I'd never get anything done."

"Well, in any case, when I brought Sneed up here, I told him he would have a job for at least six months. That's what you told me to tell him."

"Jesus Christ. Okay, can you find out how much money he wants to just pack his bags and go back to wherever the hell he came from?

Todd was getting a little angry. "He came from Peoria, Leona. I only did this as a favor to you—"

"Don't get on your goddamned high horse Todd. You did this because you owed me a favor. Same reason I did it for Silas."

"Fine, fine. I know. You're right. In any case, this guy, Sneed, he's starting to make a nuisance of himself. I'd like to get this problem taken care of."

"Just find out how much money he wants to go away, and I'll get it from Silas."

"Silas will give you the money? Just like that?"

"He paid back a favor, and that's the end of it. The favor's just gonna cost him more than he originally thought. That's how he'll see it. And that's how I see it too. We start asking a lot of questions and we're liable to end up with bullets in our brains. You know that. Why are you acting difficult about all this? Just find out how much money Sneed wants, and sorry about the trouble."

"Okay. I'll call you back when I find out."

Todd hung up the telephone and thought about Will Sneed, out there at the Blue Top motor court, waiting, week after week. Waiting for something. What's it like to be the kind of person who believes in things, in causes, in ideas? I guess I'll never know.