The bar above B.B. King’s was Steph’s sanctuary. The blues drifted up from below as did the hazy, not-so-distant glow of Beale St. The world felt so far away, and he thought of his grandmother and church. He wondered if music sounded this way to angels on Sunday morning.
That was his guilt getting to him, not for what he did, but for what he was about to do. It’s better to be guilty and fed than have a free conscience and starve. It’s better to be on the inside of the con than be the sucker. In this life that was the biggest sin of all.
That was his ritual. Get the guilt out on the front end, and work with a quiet mind. With blow in nostrils and bourbon on his lips, he banished those thoughts. He left plenty of cash on the bar and made his way down the grated iron stairs to the street beneath.
Cons worked like illusions. They do best when you use what someone already wants to believe.
Steph walked into Silky’s and shook his head at that at stupid-ass goat they kept as a mascot. It wasn’t the goat’s fault. It’s people that are stupid. Those people were his marks. College kids drinking their parents money away. That’s what made it easy. It wasn’t even their money. It was daddy’s and they had so much they could waste it on the weekend.
The key to this con was that they were racists but none of them wanted to believe it. A well-dressed, well-spoken black man who looked like his momma might be white wasn’t a threat. He’d buy a round or two of beers; take a couple of selfies with the white girls to let them show the world they had black friends; and it was all over but the crime itself.
It worked like this: Steph paid a guy that worked there for access to the employee restroom. Places like these never have enough for the crowds they draw. Girls could waste a third of their night standing in line. He’d help them skip, and it wasn’t questioned. A girl that has to use the restroom can’t think of much else.Steph told them that the guy working the bar can get them blow, molly, whatever they need, and they could go upstairs into that private restroom away from prying eyes. He instantly became someone that’s good to know.
He held their seats. He watched the boy’s coats and girl’s bags. A server stated that he had a bigger booth in the back and even helped move the goods. When they returned, he was gone with all of it out of the back door. The key was paying your people well: the bartender, the bathroom guy, and the server who got extra for disabling the security cameras.
Steph just needed a goat, not the bar’s goat, but a scapegoat. He already marked one of girl’s because her wallet was designer and loaded with cards and cash. He took the brightest colored, frat boy, want-to-be mountain climber coat and tossed it to a kid working the street.
This kid wore a tattered, hand-me-down Grizzlies jersey of a player long traded away, and was selling candy bars to make a buck. He’s the kid they wanted to hate. He just looked like trouble to them, and that wallet was planted in the coat pocket. That kid learned a hard lesson when the police came. He scuffed his face eating refuse-lined pavement while getting handcuffed and screaming, “I didn’t do nothin.’” He’d never trust a cop again. He learned a hard lesson about not being the sucker.
Steph was that boy once. If he could, he’d show him the ropes, but that won’t happen. He’d already dropped off the goods to a guy for cash, and his train was departing for New Orleans.
Memphis was a city of soul. It’s past echoed with sounds of the sixties, music and Martin Luther King. Those echoes were like currents of the Mississippi. Even today the muck and mire of that hate and distrust could ensnare you and make you to drown just like the mud below.