Breach Kick


The next day—actually, the same day, a few hours later, but the next day to me and since I'm writing this novel I'm calling it the next day—the next day, I turned my attention to Sneed's telephone bill, which I had stolen from his motel room. Even though I had already seen it once, removing it from its envelope and unfolding it gave me some pleasure, and I thought that must be how a married man feels who is still attracted by the sight of his wife's body, even after he's already had sex with it a few times.

I smoothed the phone bill out on the kitchen table. Sneed hadn't made many long distance phone calls, but he had called one number far more than any other: (309) 631-7321, a Peoria number, according to the bill. I needed to find out who Sneed was calling, and why. Maybe this person could give me a clew that would lead to Bruce.

I drove to Peoria, to the Peoria Public Library's main branch downtown. It was the day before Thanksgiving. Downtown Peoria had been decorated for Christmas: tinsly snowmen hanging from the street lamps, a Christmas creche in the park, and fake pine garlands strung above Main Street with fake wreaths in the center of the garlands and fake candles in the center of the wreaths. Why bother to decorate the downtown for Christmas when all the stores and shoppers and restaurants had abandoned the downtown years ago? The Christmas decorations only starkened the desolation. The public library did too.

The library would have looked very modern about 1968, which is probably the year they demolished the old one to make way for the new. Inside, its walls were carpeted and the floors had octagonal discussion pits built into them. Vinyl beanbags scattered about the reading room like giant splotches of paint on a palette. On posters stapled to the carpeted walls, Mary Lou Retton and Bill Cosby exhorted library patrons to READ.

The reference department, for some reason, was located on the second floor. I didn't see any stairs, so I rode the elevator. Very modern. Short line at the reference desk, and I was behind a woman who kept waving at somebody, but I couldn't figure out who. It seemed to me that her behavior was every bit as disruptive as a patron speaking too loudly, but since you could only see what she was doing, and not hear it, nobody shushed her. Suddenly, as if begging to be disciplined, the woman called out to a young guy walking past, "Caleb, Caleb!" The guy was carrying a stack of video cassettes. You could tell he was the kind of guy that lots of girls would consider sexy. He also looked like he'd be hell in a fistfight.

He squinted, as if trying to remember how he was supposed to know her, or as if trying to decide whether he wanted to acknowledge knowing her. I myself would have kept walking.

"It's me," she shouted, "Tammy Hassler. Jason's mom."

"Oh. Hi, Missus Hassler." He sounded somewhat surprised to see her.

She asked, "When did you get out?"

"Just this week, actually."

She pointed to his video cassettes, and said, "Stocking up for Thanksgiving day?"

"Yeah, I'm having some of the guys over."

"What're you going to watch?"

Somewhat evasively, he replied, "Oh, just some movies."

Apparently missing the hint to mind her own goddamned business, she grabbed the cassette at the top of his stack, and read aloud from the label, "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Video Special? Well, you boys will be boys, won't you?" If I were him, I would have decked her. No I wouldn't. But I would have wanted to.

He politely laughed along with her, and then said, "Makin' time to doin' time to Miller time and then back again to makin' time. I hope anyway!"

The reference librarian interrupted their conversation to tell the woman, Tammy Hassler, that she was next in line. As she approached the reference desk, she turned back and hollered, "Give Lacy Ditch a call before too long. She'll be tickled pink to hear from you."

Ugly from behind, leaning over the reference desk, she could certainly have afforded to lose about 15 pounds from her ass alone. I wondered what she was asking the reference librarian—hopefully for books about dieting—but from where I stood I could not hear anything they said to each other.

When it was my turn to consult the librarian, I asked for the city directories.

Bitchily, he said, "You mean the Polk directories."

"Yeah," I said, "the Polk directories." I never knew there was any other kind of city directory.

"The Polk directories are around the corner, third row to your left."

"Thanks," I said, but didn't mean it. I hate librarians.

When I found the directories, I took the most recent volume from the shelf and sat with it at a nearby reading table. I turned to the numerical telephone directory at the back, but the number Sneed had been calling was unlisted. I went back to the shelf for the preceding edition of the directory, but again the number was unlisted. I kept checking earlier volumes, until the number finally appeared in a 1979 edition. The number had been registered to a man named Richard Kevner. I looked in the alphabetical name directory, and found his entry:

KEVNER Richd h1533 Grand View dr

No occupation, no wife, no children. Just the owner of a home in a very exclusive neighborhood. I cross-checked his name in the most recent edition's alphabetical name directory, and there he was, still living at the same address:

KEVNER Richd asst v pres W Central Illinois hdqrs UAW h1533 Grand View dr

Still unmarried, still living on Grand View Drive, but now an Assistant Vice President with the United Auto Workers. I thought it a little odd that a man like Sneed, who, according to his girlfriend, could barely make the ends meet, would be close friends with somebody who lived on Grand View Drive. Or that Sneed would be phoning this person at his home, rather than at his office. I also thought it odd that an officer of the UAW would be living on Grand View Drive, probably the most exclusive neighborhood in Peoria. Then I remembered Leona's statement that "Mr. J" believed Sneed was working a labor union shakedown. Kevner was beginning to look like a racketeer, probably operating Sneed. In which case I guess it made perfect sense that he would be living on Grand View Drive.

I called Kevner from the payphone in the library's entryway foyer. While the telephone rang, I stared outside the front doors, at a green school bus with the warning "Caution Church Bus" painted in white letters on the side. Would it have killed them to paint a colon between the words "caution" and "church"?

A man answered the telephone, "Hello?"

"Hello," I said. "May I speak with Richard?"

"Who's calling?"

I gave him some made-up name, "Tinney Cosgrove", I think.

"I don't know anybody by that name. What do you want?"

"Will Sneed told me to call you if anything ever happened to him."

He hesitated before saying "I don't know who you're talking about or what you're talking about. I think you must have the wrong number"

"You are Richard Kevner, aren't you?

Again, he hesitated, before responding, "Yes. Where did you get this telephone number?"

"I'm a friend of Will's. I was helping him up in Elmville. He told me that, if anything ever happened to him, I should get in touch with you. He gave me your name and your telephone number. He said you would be able to help, and that you would know what to do."

Kevner was very guarded now, and he asked, "What did Will say I would be able to help you with?"

"He didn't. I assumed you'd know. I guess help find out what happened to him. That's what I want to do, anyway."

"And why do you think anything has happened to him?"

"Because he hasn't been seen in two months," I said.

"Why are you only calling me now?"

"I thought about calling you earlier, but I wasn't sure. I kept thinking he would turn up again. I don't know. I was confused."

"What do you want Mister Cosgrove?"

"I want to find out what happened to Will."

"Alright. I'm willing to meet with you. There's a waterfowl refuge south of Peoria, called Emiquon. Are you familiar with it?"


"Well, it's easy enough to find. Take Adams Street out of the city, and then turn south onto highway seventy eight. You'll see signs. It's difficult to miss. Meet me in two hours at the observation deck by the old pumping station. I'll be there. Ask the person you see if there are any pie-billed grebe today. I'll know you that way. Come alone or I'll have you killed." He hung up.

The drive south was pleasant. I like 2-lane highways. I hate Interstates, which is one reason I prefer driving to Peoria over Rock Island. There's no Interstate to Peoria—just the old, 2-lane highway. To Rock Island, however, there's a great big coast-to-coast, 4-lane, divided Interstate highway. I can only enjoy a 2-lane highway when I know that I have no alternative; otherwise I get impatient. One reason I hate Interestate highways is that the billboard advertisers can't seem to agree on a single meaning for the phrases "next exit" and "this exit". Well, "this exit" is pretty unambiguous, but I often see a billboard that reads something like "Mister Donut, Next Exit" and I never know whether they mean the next exit I encounter, or the next exit after the one I'm about to pass. It's sort of like when a pal says to you on a Tuesday, "Would you like to go shooting next Friday?" I don't know whether he means this coming Friday, or the following Friday. It's one reason I don't like social life. I find the work of making myself understood, or of understanding other people, to be almost unbearable. I wonder if I'll ever meet somebody who I understand, and who understands me. I guess I sort of had that with Durney. He communicated in orders, and his orders were given clearly and plainly: kill this man; do whatever it takes to make this man pay what he owes me; make this man pay what he owes but don't break any bones. These are unambiguous messages, and my message back was simply to execute the command.

I wondered what Kevner's communication style would be like. I hadn't formed a very favorable impression from our telephone conversation. He wasn't even very good at dissimulating—that's a word I learned from a novel I just read.

When I finally reached highway 78, I was surprised by how completely it had changed since I last drove it, about a decade ago, on a trip to Canton. At that time, the road cut through corn and soybean fields, like country roads do everywhere. Since then, the whole region had been transformed, almost magically, and the road had become a causeway over vast sweeps of wetland and prairie.

As Kevner promised, the rendezvous was easy to find. A sign marked the turnoff for the Old Pumping Station Observation Deck. I pulled my car slowly onto a gravel road edged by dead tallgrass. The road descended steeply from the causeway, and my car skidded a little on the loose gravel, until the road became a parking lot. From the parking lot I was just about level with a large marsh. A hundred yards out, the marsh became a lake, which stretched clear out to a levee, barely visible as a thin line upon the horizon. Beyond the levee would be the river, though I couldn't see it from where I stood.

I followed a pebbled trail that led to a wooden boardwalk, which crossed the marsh to the observation deck. As I walked across the boardwalk, I saw a muskrat swimming in the water. The observation deck was about half a mile from the parking lot. Kevner had chosen a good place to meet. He would have clear sight lines in every direction. As I hiked toward our meeting place, I could already see him sitting on the observation deck. He, no doubt, had already seen me. It would be difficult to surprise somebody here. If your intention was to kill, your victim would have to be weak or unsuspecting. But I doubted Kevner was the type to do his own killing.

2 wooden steps brought me onto the observation deck; Kevner didn't even acknowledge my presence. I sat down beside him, and asked, "Have you seen any pie-billed grebe?"

He said, "You're the friend of Will's?"


"Can you prove it?"

"No, I suppose I can't."

"Well," he sighed, "If you weren't really his friend, then you would have expected me to ask for proof, and you would have come prepared with it anyway, so I suppose it doesn't really matter."

I guess I was lucky he responded in that way, but I felt insulted, since I hadn't thought to devise some proof that Sneed and I were friends. Secretly, I thought of myself as smart. I was one of those people who always thinks he knows more than everybody else. I read a lot of books, but reading books doesn't make you smart, and if it causes you to think you're smart when you aren't, then it can even, in a way, make you stupid. Durney understood me better than I understood myself, understood that my strong suit was executing orders, was in the blunt application of force. There was one thing Durney never did understand, though. He used to say, "Ora, you aren't afraid of anything. That's how come you succeed at every job I give you." He was wrong about that. I'm afraid of everything. I was just afraid of Durney more. That's all my courage amounted to.

Kevner said, "In any case, you're Tinney Cosgrove."

I nodded.

"I realize that probably isn't your real name, but I can call you Tinney Cosgrove if that's what you want."

Somewhat taken aback, I asked, "Why would you think that's not my real name?"

"I don't really care either way. Suit yourself. I just doubt it is. In a way, I would think less of Will if he hadn't told you to use a fake."

"Why would Will have told me to use a fake name?"

"If you didn't know the answer to that question, Mister Cosgrove, then you wouldn't be here right now, and you don't really know Will."

"Well, I do know Will, and Tinny Cosgrove is my name."

"It's a name, I grant you that, and you're going by it, so it is your name. I'm sorry I even brought the subject up, if you're going to be so difficult about the whole thing. Only you can know whether or not it's your real name, so I leave you to judge me in secret. Just remember that I judge in secret too." He then turned toward me and studied my face. He asked, "What happened to your eye?"

I wondered if Kevner was just going to throw down one challenge after another. "Oh," I said, "the red spots? They're caused by stress."

"Most stress, in turn, is caused by diet, and can be thus regulated too. Did you know that? You probably eat too much starch. Gluten too. Cut out the wheat. Start including more brown rice and elder berry extract in your diet. I have to go to my sister's tomorrow for Thanksgiving; she won't have a damned thing I can eat, and it's a long drive there and a long drive back and nothing'll be open. I'll have to bring my own food and she'll be offended. What can I do for you Mister Cosgrove?"

"Thank you, but nothing, really," I said. "Not now anyway. I'll look into it, though."

"You'll look into what?"

"Into your suggestions about my diet."

"Oh, that. No, I mean, why did you want to meet with me?"

I was having the hell of a time following him. "I don't know," I said. "Why did Will tell me to contact you?"

"That's a good question. Didn't you ever think to ask it when he gave you these strange instructions?"

"No. I guess I didn't take it too seriously."

"And yet you took it seriously enough to remember. He never mentioned you to me. I find that strange too. So you've contacted me, which must mean that something has happened."

"Don't you know?"

"What is there to know, Mister Cosgrove?"

At last he said something that gave me a little satisfaction. I had already told him on the telephone that Will was missing. I guess Kevner wasn't half as wise as he liked to think, but that's one of the problems with lying: it becomes increasingly difficult to remember what you're supposed to know, and what you aren't. And we hadn't even gotten very far yet. As much as I wanted to rub his face in his own mistake, I decided against it, and simply said, "Will has gone missing." Then, just for the pleasure of watching him bungle his lie one more time, I added, "I assumed you would already have known."

"Why did you assume that? Why would he ask you to contact me if he thought I would already know? I don't know much, Mister Cosgrove. I mostly just wonder. I wonder, for example, why Thanksgiving is such a depressing holiday. It wasn't always. Then I remember. Remembering, eventually it kills you. Humans can't handle very much pain. That's why we're able to forget. It's a defense mechanism. Defending ourselves against ourselves. The reason Thanksgiving is so depressing is that the old gang never come back anymore. I wonder where they went, the old gang, and the old places too. I don't even have deep roots here. Peoria, I mean, not Emiquon. My parents came here from New Jersey. But my roots here are deeper than any I'll ever have anywhere. Still, I guess that, by the standards of a nature preserve, like this one, my family is an invasive species. I'd have to be cleared away and all the others, with deeper roots, gathered up from around the country and brought back. Probably against their wills. It's strange, when you think about it: the people with roots leave, and in their place, hundreds of young couples move in, start families of their own, and their children think of Peoria as their home, until they themselves grow up and move away and I suppose they'll wonder how they could ever have felt that way about Peoria. Such a pitiful, provincial town, such a sorry excuse for a childhood. And it'll just keep happening, wave after wave of new arrivals followed by wave after wave of new departures. Why don't people stay where they're planted? Was I the only one who grew up thinking there was something permanent here, something of lasting value, of enduring importance? But wherever they are now, I doubt they stop to think of Peoria very often, and even when they do, it's probably with contempt rather than fondness. I doubt they stop to think of me. But I do wonder about them, the old gang. And I wonder what happened to the old places, and the people who ran the old places. Hunt's hotdog stand, Downey Flake donut shop, Block and Kuhl's department store, the Palace cafeteria, the Madison movie theater. The people who owned them and the people who worked in them, they must be dead or dying. Their businesses and their careers didn't outlive them. I think we like to imagine that something we have created will outlive us, but I guess very little does. It's more likely that the things we destroy will outlive us. That must be why people have children. They destroy their children, but the children still outlive them. On the other hand, the children rarely choose to continue what their parents have started; they begin lives of their own. And yet, they probably do continue what their parents started, even when they try not to. I like coming out here, to Emiquon. It feels eternal. Funny, when you stop to think of it, seeing as it's only a few years old. But they've somehow brought the past back to life and made it feel permanent and everlasting, even amidst all the constant flux of nature. Why do people want to leave home? Don't they know that, once you do, you can never get it back? Sure, they create new homes and new lives, but built on what? Their own sheer will power. There's nothing to sustain them, no tap root, as Jesus says in the Bible. So when their will power fails them, they fail too. And it will happen: their children will leave them and their will power will fail. I can't help but feel a little bit betrayed by the old gang, the way they just, one by one, left all this behind, this place, me, their lives here. I shouldn't feel that way, though: I remember well enough that it was considered a sign of failure not to leave, a sign that you lacked the will power and the ingenuity to make something of yourself, to make yourself anew, as if this place hadn't made you already, as if you could just start all over again, by sheer force of will power. But you can't." He pointed to a building far off in the distance, where the levee met the shore: "That's the old pumping station. I guess they keep it there as a reminder."

Kevner obviously had a diseased mind. As he rolled on through this inventory of strange thoughts, I entertained myself by imagining him as an inmate of the South Bluff Sanitarium. Leona Pecorelli could probably fix him real fast. Either fix him or fall in love with him.

"I suppose that's why Thanksgiving is so depressing now," he continued. "For a while, at Thanksgiving, they used to come back, the old gang would. But then they started families of their own, and their parents started dying or moving into nursing homes. What do they have to come back for? That's why I'd rather go to my sister's where the food will make me sick—I'd rather do that than stay here and face the loneliness." He stopped talking, and just stared off into the nature preserve.

After a long silence, I asked him, "Do you think you can help me find Will?"

He said, apparently ignoring my question, "I don't like seep forests. Have you ever been in one? It's difficult to keep from looking up into the trees all the time. At my age it gives you a stiff neck, and besides it's what's straight ahead that matters most. I like it here, where you can just sit and see. Do you believe in sin, Mister Cosgrove?"

"Yes, I suppose I do."

"The important thing, of course, is whether one believes he will be punished for his sins. It's easy to believe in sin. I'd say it's almost impossible not to believe in it. But whether or not we'll be punished for our sins...that's not so easy a question to settle."

Again, I asked, "Sir, do you think you can help me find Will Sneed?"

"No," he said, "I doubt very much that I can. The last time I spoke with Will, he said he had been told to expect a Puerto Rican. This Puerto Rican was supposed to be Will's contact, the contact between Will and the man who hired him."

"Did he ever tell you who hired him? Or why?"

"He said. . .he just referred to the man as 'Mister X'. Beyond that, I guess he was supposed to organize the workers at a factory up there. Will and I were only acquaintances. I'm surprised he told you to contact me. I'm sorry something has happened to him, but we weren't close."

"That's all you have to say," I asked, in disbelief.

"That's it," he said. "I know somebody who might be able to help you, though. He works at a bar on the Old Rome Road. Do you know the Old Rome Road?"


"You never used to sing the song as a kid, about the Old Rome Road? 'There once was a lady on the Old Rome Road'?"


"Well, Take the Galena Road north out of Peoria. When you reach the Mossville Caterpillar plant, there'll be a stoplight. Take the first right after that stoplight. Look carefully; the first right is difficult to see because it looks like a a private drive that crosses a high track bed. The road eventually bends north, and becomes the Old Rome Road. It runs about three miles along the river levee. There's just one way in, near the Mossville Caterpillar plant, and one way out, north of Chillicothe. Be careful because the road is in bad repair. Property down there's almost worthless, since the river floods every decade or so, and nobody who could afford to buy flood insurance would want to live there anyway. There're a few dives down there. One is called the Columbia Club. There's a kid who tends bar there—I'm sure he'll be there tonight even. Night before a holiday is always a big night at places like that. The kid's name is Harry, Harry Thomasson. Just ask for him at the bar. He might know something."

"What does he know?"

"If I knew that, I'd just tell you myself."

"Okay, but then what makes you think he knows something?"

"Look Mister Cosgrove, I'm just trying to help you out here. Take it or leave it, makes no difference to me."

I don't really believe in intuition, but I had a strong feeling that, if I were to ask Kevner whether he knew Bruce, he would snap out of his brooding indifference pretty quickly. I also had a feeling, however, that Kevner was a very dangerous man, perhaps more dangerous than any I had ever met. I sensed a depth to his anger which was very likely matched by an equal capacity to exercise it. A man like this had vast resources at his disposal; you didn't want to go up against them unprepared. For now, I would let him be. I said, "Sure, of course, thank you for your time." I stood up and left him sitting there on the observation deck. I wasn't finished with Richard Kevner, not by a long shot, but in the meantime I decided to investigate the Columbia Club on the Old Rome Road.

Kevner was right about the road being difficult to find. I missed it the first time I passed the Caterpillar plant, and had to turn back around. It was, as he described, a narrow road over a railroad track on a high embankment. From the Galena Road, I could not see over the embankment and, as Kevner said, anyone would assume it was a private drive, except for an old, faded highway sign pointing over the embankment, "To Rome." The rail crossing was uncontrolled and poorly graded.

Once over the embankment, the road dipped steeply toward the floodplain, turned sharply to the left, almost exactly at the levee, and then straightened itself into a series of pock marked, concrete paving slabs, with wild grass growing in the slab joints. The road was bordered on the left by a row of dilapidated houses, and on the right by the river, which was orange from the setting sun. A few of houses had been built on stilts over the river.

About a mile in, I saw the Columbia Club.