“And will you forget, when we have paid our debt,
Who did we borrow from? Who did we borrow from?”
—The Avett Brothers, ‘A Perfect Space,’ I and Love and You (2009)
Before Mark arrives at the Black Dogg, I’ve had two Johnny Walker’s. Though it makes me nervous to be emulating my father’s drink selections, a sit-down with Gil Grady demands something a bit stiffer than a beer.
If I didn’t know better, I would swear that the bar is exactly the same as last night, as if I’ve stepped through a time warp rather than a dry-rotted doorway. Same people, same vibe, same everything. The only noticeable difference is the absence of Emmet, the old man at the end the bar. Other than that, everything seems the same, down to the dog crumpled in the corner.
When Mark finally enters the bar, he seems a bit off, not his usual jovial self. “Everything all right?”
“Sure, man, sure. We’re good to go.” He points to the drink in front of me and holds up two fingers.
I hold up my hands in protest. “I shouldn’t, I’ve already had two. I need to have my head on straight for this meeting.”
“Aw, come on, man. Fuck it. It will be fine. Just have one with me.”
Reluctantly, I take the drink and Mark sits at the stool next to me.
“You’re sure about this, right?” he asks.
I pat him firmly on the shoulder. “Relax, man. I know it’s weird, but I know what I’m doing.”
Though we sit for a half-hour making pleasant conversation and rehashing old stories, the vibe between us seems a bit off. I keep wondering if Mark is nervous, but the reality is that it’s me. For all of my planning, the thought of actually sitting down in front of Gil Grady is terrifying.
When we were younger, the movie The Usual Suspects came out, and we all loved it. I saw it in the theaters with Mark and David at least three or four times. The villain at the heart of the film is a guy named Keizer Soze, a sort of boogeyman of the criminal underworld. The bad guy that everyone knew but had never laid eyes on.
In Culver County, Gil Grady was Keizer Soze without the mystery. We’d all see him out and about, chatting with the chief of police on the town square or standing in the lemonade shake-up line at the Fourth of July picnic. He was a visible presence in the community, and he worked hard to foster a ‘man of the people’ reputation. Unfortunately, the people were all terrified of him. Wherever he went, he parted crowds and turned heads, leaving a trail of quick glances and inaudible whispers.
We pointed and whispered in Gil Grady’s wake because we knew the stories. In the seventies, he consolidated his power when he took over the Piedmont from his father, Arlo. For years, Arlo had been a small-time gangster and drug dealer, running his third-rate criminal enterprise from the Piedmont, supplying the locals with meth and the occasional baggie of heroine. At that time, though, the Grady name was nothing special, just one of a few dozen names that you wanted to avoid in a dark alley. A small time, backwoods scumbag, and nothing more.
It wasn’t until Gil came home and took over the family business that the Grady name became synonymous with corruption in Culver County. Very few people know all the details, but there was a struggle for power as Grady consolidated the drug trade up and down the river. Those who balked at Grady’s change in leadership either disappeared or wound up floating face-down in the river. At one point, a little gang with some loose connections to a Mexican cartel got involved, which typically would have been enough to end an upstart like Gil Grady. In the end, though, more than a few bodies piled up, and Gil was the only one left standing.
From there, he amassed the cover of legitimate businesses and political connections that has allowed him to hold power over the entire river valley for the last twenty-five years.
My father has spent a good portion of that time working for Gil Grady in one capacity or another. It’s a fact that I’ve known for most of my life, yet I’ve never been able to reconcile my perceptions of my father with the legends that surround Gil Grady.
It’s hard to separate the truth from the myths, but certain stories persist. Many of them revolve around his supposed connection with Mexican drug cartels, the same group that was involved in the war so many years ago. The story goes that, one way or another, Gil managed to settle his feud with the cartel, and then used the connection to help his empire. By the time I was old enough to know any better, Gil’s war with his rivals was over, and a quiet sleepiness once again settled across the county. In the years that passed, Gil’s dealings became the stuff of legend and innuendo. I doubt anyone, outside of Gil himself, could completely separate the stories from verified history.
There is no doubt, for example, that his slaughterhouse down the river in Hannerville is filled with Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal. Folks say that half of his workers are nothing more than drug mules, and the whole place is a front for the import side of the Grady empire. Supposedly, Grady has borrowed some of his advanced interrogation techniques from his south of the border brethren over the years. Of course, most of the stories are probably greatly exaggerated, there’s no doubt that they contain some kernel of truth.
Though I know my father has been involved with Grady for years, it’s hard to imagine my father taking part in any of the more gruesome stuff. Though I was always aware of the violence that surrounded him, I couldn’t really imagine him going that far. Moral flexibility? Yes, but that’s a long way off from placing a man in a barrel of gasoline and lighting him on fire, or flaying the skin from his arms. He’s never seemed to have the stomach for such extremities. He might get in a bar fight, or break into a house late at night, but overall he’d prefer to avoid the conflict all together.
If I had to guess, I would say that he has spent his whole life as a bagman or a glorified errand boy, serving other people’s whims while he avoided the truly horrific. Of course, that was all just speculation.
When we finish our drink, Mark looks quickly at his watch. “We’d better get going,” he says. “I’ll drive.”
It’s just after seven when we drive up Highway 12 towards the Piedmont. Though the sun has barely faded below the horizon, it’s almost completely dark in the valley. The highway traces a path along the river, climbing upwards in the shadow of the steep bluffs. Looking back through the darkness, I can barely make out the swirling water of the river below.
The dark water makes me think again about Whistler. All of his pontificating and half-assed sermons. How could I ever have been dumb enough to buy into all of that? How did I not see what was right in front of my face?
The truth is, we see only what we want to see. Sometimes, our desire is so clear and so deep, that we see those things were nothing even exists. We conjure hallucinations, breathe life into our dreams and fantasies.
If that’s true, then it must mean that our nightmares, too, are the product of some secret desire.
I guess that’s the kind of thing a psychiatrist would tell me, that I’m digging myself deeper into a hole because I can’t forgive myself for the things that I’ve already done. A rational person would look at my situation and say that a man like Gil Grady could never make my situation any better, only worse.
Of course, those people don’t know Whistler’s resolve. The only way to get out from under his net is to seek out an alpha, a larger predator. I need someone who can play in Whistler’s world, someone that already has a stack of chips on the table.
We finally turn off of Highway 12 and follow a crumbling asphalt drive up to the Piedmont Inn. The building sits perched on top of a bluff that is almost as tall as Baird’s Bluff. In its day, it must have been an impressive site, a huge building—at least by local standards—with a view of the river valley that stretched on for miles.
In the sixties, while it was still operational as a hotel, the Piedmont had brought a fairly decent stream of tourism to Culver County. Rich businessmen and even famous ballplayers from Chicago and St. Louis would travel to Culver County for hunting trips, hiring a local good-old boy as their guide and staying a few days at the Piedmont. In fact, almost everyone in town had a knick-knack or piece of memorabilia, signed by some celebrity who had stayed at the Piedmont. The novelty items then passed from generation to generation like enchanted gems.
Of course, like all the whims of the rich, the hunting trips eventually fell out of fashion, leaving many backwoods guides completely out of work. Everything in life, including commerce and social trends, is subject to the cycle of life and death. Callahan County is no different, though the lull between cycles somehow seems much longer when compared with the rest of the world.
The Piedmont was built not long after the turn of the century and had spent its first life as a refuge for famous Chicago gangsters like Al Capone and Dean O’Banion. When the power of the Italian syndicate waned in the 1940’s, the place fell into solitude for nearly twenty years, before the great hunting resurgence of the 1960s. Somewhere towards the end of its prime, it fell into the hands of Gil Grady’s father, and now, in its third act, it has become home to Gil Grady and his shady crew.
I step out onto the gravel parking lot and look up at the ancient relic. The walls of this place have surely witnessed all manner of human behavior, from grand decadence to the lowest forms of violence and degradation. The building itself seems to yearn for some kind of reckoning, standing defiantly at the edge of the bluff, refusing to crumble like the other architectures of bygone eras that litter the riverside. Perhaps, one day, the old girl will finally crumble away like those old mansions, but looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine that. Somehow, that would be too casual an end for this hulking mass of wood and stone. Better for the whole place to slide off the face of the bluff in one grand swoop, carried, foundation and all, down the river and out of Culver County forever.
If it’s true that, like people, buildings have souls, then the Piedmont is smack in the middle of purgatory. Riding out the interim between a grand past and mysterious future as a shitty little bar and half-assed headquarters for a backwoods gangster and his crew of anti-social dipshits.
When we walk into the bar, it feels as though every face turns instantly to stare me down as I walk across the threshold. They don’t even need to look to know that I don’t belong. I am an interloper, and they are all keenly aware. Sensing the tension, Mark shuffles me off to a dart room on the right hand side of the bar. “Wait for me in here,” he says. “I’ll get us a drink.”
Though the room is separated from the main bar by only a half-wall, everyone seems satisfied that I’ve been sufficiently removed from the action. They turn back to their murky drinks and hushed conversations as I stand, leaning on the edge of the half-wall, looking across the room.
At one time, this was surely a beautiful place. Ornate moldings adorn the ceiling and each corner of the bar, the type of frills that are too expensive for modern construction methods. The bar itself is massive and ancient, hand-carved from some dark, rich timber several generations before I was even born. Even the barstools are old and rich in detail.
Of course, the decadent beauty of the old bar is oddly juxtaposed against an aura of general filth. Several decades of tobacco smoke and a hands-off approach to cleaning have left the entire bar covered in a thin layer of sticky brown tar, and large swaths of cobwebs cover most of the nooks and crannies. Behind the bar, mostly emptied bottles of finer liquors are covered in thick layers of dust. I can only assume that most of the Piedmont’s regulars opt for simpler drinks, like cheap rye whiskey or bad tequila.
A large man in a cut-off t-shirt sits at a table a few feet from me, talking with a rail-thin Asian fellow. The big one casts a glance back at me over the top of his hairy shoulders, instantly aware that I had looked in his direction. He’s pushing four hundred pounds and he looks as though he could crush me with a single, hairy paw, so I retreat back into the dart room and sit on a lone stool in the corner, waiting for Mark to return. After an agonizing few minutes, Mark finally reappears, nodding in the direction of the hairy ape as he walked through the doorway.
“Sorry about leaving you with them,” he said, “had a few loose ends to deal with. Here.” He hands me another scotch, and though I’m still feeling pretty warm from the last round, I happily down the drink in a few gulps, desperate to chase away the panic that seems to be gripping at my chest.
“So what’s next?” I ask.
“Gil will send someone down to get you in a minute. He’s probably up in his office right now, but he’ll be ready soon. He never lets people in right away. Make them sweat, you know?” Mark seems to be talking very fast, and he leans awkwardly on the half-wall, tapping his foot and shifting his weight back and forth.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. “You seem…” Suddenly, a warm sensation rolls slowly up my spine, something akin to nausea, only not entirely unpleasant. I start to stand up off the stool to walk around, but the feeling only rises higher, settling like a fog in my skull. I find myself wobbling as I try to stand, dangerously close to tipping over.
Mark grabs my arm to steady me. “Hold still man. Are you ok?”
I try to speak, but nothing besides a jangled mush of words escapes my lips. The next thing I know, I am careening backwards, falling off the stool in slow motion, the highball glass shattering on the hardwood floor a few inches from my face.
As a veil of black begins to cover my eyes, I look towards Mark and try to push myself up on my elbow, but it was no use, my whole body feels limp, like a length of worn rope. As the room around me begin to slowly fade to black, Mark kneels down beside me, placing his mouth a few inches from my ear.
“I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry…”
Though I try to fight away the darkness, it keeps rolling in like a fog.
“…I had to do it, man. Gil said…I had to…”
A moment later, I succumb to the blackness entirely.