The address Chopper gave me belonged to Spivak Stone, a failed quarry that was apparently abandoned. There were two signs out front. The first was old and weathered and advertised sand, gravel, and crushed stone. The second listed the name and phone number of a finance company.
I turned off 169 and drove slowly past the quarry over a worn and gravel-strewn service road. I noted two large buildings, both tightly sealed, just inside a high Cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. The gate was open, allowing access to a dirt road that veered into the opening of the quarry itself. Beyond the opening I could just make out what resembled a huge bowl carved out of an immense five-story-high bluff. The second time I drove past I noticed an SUV parked alongside a mound of sand midway between the fence and the quarry. There were two men sitting in the SUV. They watched me carefully. I didn’t dare make a return trip.
Instead, I followed the service road until it abruptly ended about a half mile from the quarry. There were no other businesses along the road, and I figured a parked car would look mighty suspicious, so I edged the Neon off the hard-packed gravel into a shallow ditch surrounded by waist-high brown grass, shrubs, and weed trees. You could still see it, but only if you were looking.
I left the Neon and made my way up the bluff, more or less climbing at a forty-five-degree angle to the summit. It was tough going, and I had to stop twice to regain my breath. I was covered with a fine tan-colored dirt by the time I reached the top. The bluff itself was flat and thick with the same kind of grass, brush, and trees as below. Birds sang somewhere, but I didn’t see them, and there was a low buzzing sound that I guessed was wind blowing through the tall grass.
I pushed east toward the quarry. Along the way I discovered a broken and rotting rail fence. After another tenth of a mile I came across an ancient road not used for years, perhaps decades. I wondered if someone had farmed the top of the bluff at one time and had been bought or driven off. I kept on until I came to within a stone’s throw of the quarry. That’s where my acrophobia kicked in. I sank to my hands and knees and crawled forward. I was lying flat on my stomach, screened from sight by the scrub growth that hung above the quarry, by the time I reached the edge.
The walls were sheer and descended fifty feet to the sand-and-gravel floor of an irregular oval about the size of a professional baseball field. There was only one way in, the single dirt road I had seen earlier. It was cut wide enough for heavy earth movers, steam shovels, and dump trucks, although there were now none to be seen. From my perch I could just barely make out the back end of the SUV stationed at the mouth of the road with my binoculars.
I challenged my fear of heights by looking straight down. That lasted about three seconds before I squirmed backward away from the edge. Never look down, I told myself. It seemed like wise advice.
A few moments later, a small van drove into the quarry and parked along the north wall. It was followed a half minute later by a battered Ford Taurus. I glanced at my watch. 7:53.
During the next hour, the quarry filled up with assorted vans, SUVs, pickups, cars, and even a few ancient station wagons, the vehicles forming an irregular circle along the sand-and-gravel walls. Some of the drivers sat inside their vehicles. Others sprawled on their hoods or leaned against bumpers. Still others moved about with hands in their pockets. There was scant conversation as far as I could see. All in all, the gathering reminded me of an unhappy family reunion.
I examined the drivers with my binoculars. There was a mixture of Caucasians, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Hmong, Pakistanis, Indians—what is this, the United Nations? I recalled Chopper’s telephone conversation. He had said, “Whaddaya mean, do I have a store?” I guessed these guys were all owners and operators of neighborhood convenience stores. Who else could sell a high volume of illegal cigarettes? It fit the stereotype, anyway.
Finally my binoculars rested on a decidedly white, European face. It belonged to a man who seemed to wander aimlessly among the other drivers while surreptitiously jotting down license plate numbers in a tiny notebook he hid in the palm of his hand.
I followed his movements. Eventually he led me to more than a dozen men standing in separate clusters of two and three near two vans parked on opposite sides of the road near the entrance to the quarry. Some of the men looked intense, like athletes waiting for the game to commence. Others were smiling like a pride of hungry lions that had happened upon a herd of sleeping wildebeests.