Authors: Giles Blunt
Owen combed his hair, naturally brown, and inspected his face for any remaining traces of spirit gum. “I don’t know about you, but I was ready for dinner about an hour ago.”
Max turned to him from the mirror, tweed jacket, khaki pants, polo shirt. “How do I look?” he said. “Old money?”
“Old perv is more like it.”
“Nonsense. I’m a splendid specimen of manhood.” He slapped his belly. “Not bad for sixty-four.”
“Doubting your loving uncle yet again.
. Suspicion is the habit of a guilty mind. Causes ulcers, cancer, all manner of plague and carbuncle. A healthy mind is free and open, willing to be informed.”
“Can we please go eat?”
T’S FOUR O’CLOCK,” THE
LVIS CLOCK SAID
and I’m all shook up
.” It was a passable imitation of the King’s voice, but it still gave Zig Zigler the creeps. Apparently his partner Clem didn’t like it either, because he threw his apple core at it and cursed when he missed.
Their acquaintance Melvin Togg was into Elvis in a big way. He had vinyl copies of all the King’s albums on a beautiful shelving unit built around his stereo. The shelves and the stereo were the only things in this grunge pit of an apartment that didn’t make you want to hang yourself. First off, it was a basement joint, hardly any light squeezing through its two windows. Second off, it was in one of the noisiest neighbourhoods in Las Vegas, jet planes blasting overhead every five minutes. Third off, the ceiling was low, meaning that if you actually employed the hot plate for any cooking you’d be inhaling your curry or whatever for the next month. Not to mention bathroom smells.
“Melvin,” Zig said, “how can you live in a pathetic little hole like this? Don’t you got any self-esteem?”
“It isn’t that bad, man. Rent’s real low.”
“Vegas ain’t New York, pal. You could do a lot better.”
“I got room for all my stuff. I know one day I’ll need a bigger place, but this fulfills my needs right now.”
“That would be your need for Elvis crap?” Clem said, picking up an Elvis mug from the row that lined one shelf.
Zig looked around at the Elvis calendar stuck to the fridge, surrounded by a halo of Elvis magnets, and the life-size Elvis doll, if that was the right word, that stood in the place of honour under the window. “Say, what do they make these out of, anyway?” Zig asked, tapping the doll with a knuckle.
“I don’t know. Zig, could you take the tape off me now? I don’t like this.”
“I’ve never actually seen one before. I mean, I’ve seen one, it just wasn’t an Elvis. It was a Bogart.”
“Yeah, I seen them too. But, you know, I prefer Elvis.”
“No shit,” Clem said.
“Tell me something, Melvin,” Zig said. “You still pulling that fake investigator shit?”
“Not just investigator. Food inspector. Water department. I got a bunch of ’em.”
“That’s something might interest me. You could possibly purchase some of my goodwill with one of those.”
“Blanks are in the top drawer. You gotta put in the proper-size photo and get it laminated and stamped.”
“Where do I do that?” Zig said, taking a couple of blanks.
“Ben Ditmar. He’s got all sorts of seals: city, state, you name it.”
“Ben Ditmar?” Clem said. “He’s okay. I beat the shit out of him once.”
“What’s this here?” Zig said.
Zig peered closely at the item on the wall. Actually, it was two items. A nice picture of Elvis—not one of the ones you see everywhere—looking thoughtful and relaxed, sitting on a couch with an old beat-up guitar. Beside it was a letter on Elvis letterhead, not Graceland, typewritten to somebody named “Mr. Schmelling,” thanking him for his help resolving a real estate issue. It was signed, “Sincerely, Elvis Presley.”
“This looks real,” Zig said. “I mean, to my untrained eye and all.”
“Zig, could you take this tape off me now?” Melvin said. “It’s totally not necessary.”
“I may take this home with me,” Zig said. “Depending.”
“Sure, man, you can take it. It’s worth a few hundred at least. But let’s untape my hands now, huh? This ain’t the way to discuss business.”
“Melvin, there’s only one question you have to answer: where is the take from the Discount Diamond job? Just tell me that and you’re free as a bird.”
“I told you, man. I didn’t have nothing to do with that.”
Zig didn’t answer. He opened up a pocket in his shoulder bag. It was hard to get a grip on the little zipper, wearing the latex gloves, but finally he managed to pull out a clear plastic bag that had a drawstring. It had actually taken a couple of days to come up with exactly the kind of bag he was looking for, and he’d finally found it at a shoe store. The salesman was happy to give him a couple of extras. Just the thing for when you’re packing a suitcase, the guy had said.
Zig fitted the bag over Melvin’s head, not pulling the drawstring.
“Aw, no, Zig, take it off, man. No joke, man, take it off.” Melvin’s voice was muffled by the bag. “Fuck this, man, get it off me.”
“Take your time there, Melvin. Think it over. Simple question, simple answer.”
“I ain’t got nothing to do with no Discount Diamond job.”
“Don’t lie to us,” Clem said. “Honesty’s your best policy here.”
“I ain’t got nothing to do with it. Fuck, man. Take this thing off me. Please, man.”
“You know,” Zig said, “I can actually read your mind right now? I can actually hear what you’re thinking, Mel. You’re thinking, if I tell this asshole where the stuff is at, Conrad Moss is gonna kill me in some extremely painful fashion, so what’s to gain?”
Melvin shook his head vehemently. Zig wasn’t sure if that was in denial or in desperation to shake the bag off. You could hardly make out his features behind the condensation. In any case, what Zig said was perfectly true. If Conrad Moss was indeed the guy behind the Discount Diamond job, he would certainly kill Melvin for talking about it.
“I’m not going to ask again,” Zig said. “Last chance.”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll tell you. Take the bag off, man, please.”
“Tell us first,” Clem said. “Then we take the bag off.”
“No, man. Take the bag off first.”
“See ya, Melvin.” Zig slung his satchel over his shoulder and headed toward the door.
“Lock ‘n’ Leave Mini-Storage. Lock ‘n’ Leave Mini-Storage.”
Zig paused at the door, hand on the knob. “You got a key?”
“No, man. No way. Conrad keeps the key. Only Conrad.”
“What’s the locker number?”
“I don’t know, man. I forget, I forget! Come on, man. Take this fucking bag off!”
“Tell us the locker number.”
“Fuck, man, I don’t know. Oh, Christ, man, please.”
“What was that?”
“Seven-oh-four, man. Try locker seven-oh-four. I’m not sure. Bag, man. Bag. Please.”
Zig looked at him for a moment, debating. Then he looked over at Clem, who shrugged. Zig really didn’t want to make a second trip back to this dump. He went back and tightened the drawstring around Melvin’s neck.
Eight-thirty in the morning and here they were at Fisherman’s Wharf, Max gripping his second coffee of the day and looking as bewildered as Max ever looked.
“Seasides like me not,” he muttered, barely audible above the slap of waves and the wind whipping in off the bay. “Look, even the gulls have lost their mirth,” he said, pointing at a row of scruffy birds on the back of a bench.
Max was wearing a windbreaker with
stencilled on the back, and a Merrill Lynch baseball cap. No one could possibly mistake him for the man who had robbed the Margot Peabody fundraiser the night before. This morning he looked like a soccer dad, which, to give him his due, until rather recently he actually was. He used to show up at Owen’s games, wearing that cap and jacket, and bellow encouragement from the sidelines. The unsettling thing was, he bellowed encouragement to whoever happened to control the ball. He just liked to see goals, he didn’t mind which team scored them.
“I want to win!” Owen had cried. “My friends think you’re crazy! The coach hates you!”
“A goal is a wonderful thing,” Max said. “It doesn’t become a better thing just because your team scored it.”
Eventually Owen quit sports just to avoid the humiliation, but Max never threw clothes away, no matter how old and worn, so here he was in full regalia. Lately, Owen had been asking himself if Max is ever out of costume.
Not that he was asking himself any questions at the moment. He was reading from some pages he had downloaded off the Internet. The papers were curling in the waterfront damp, and he had to grip them tightly against the wind.
“Tell me again, my starry-eyed son, why we are going to this place at six o’clock in the morning.”
“It’s eight-thirty. They say to go early or it gets too crowded and you can’t enjoy the visit.”
“And why are we visiting a prison in the first place?”
“Oh, come on, Max. You saw the Clint Eastwood movie.”
“Yes, but he was leaving the place, which is what any sensible person does with a prison. No sane person, or even mad person whose medications are in order, goes
prison, Max. A decommissioned prison.”
“But look at it.”
Max gestured with his paper cup toward the island. Gulls, apparently now awake, circled its lighthouse and the forlorn buildings that looked as if they might slide off the rock into the lethal currents of San Francisco Bay. Even from this distance Owen could feel it putting an indefinable pressure on his heart.
“You’ll enjoy it once we’re there,” he said, not that Max had any choice. This was their deal on their summer road trips: Max chose the shows, but Owen chose the sights they saw in their off-hours.
He read the prison history aloud to Max as they crossed over in the ferry. There were perhaps two dozen people on board, some paging through guidebooks, others snapping pictures. As they approached, Owen opened his backpack and took out his own camera. He took several shots, showing the best ones to Max on the stamp-size digital screen, but Max just harrumphed and looked away.
Owen manoeuvred them over to the ferry’s exit so that they could be first off. “It says be sure to go up to the cellblocks first,” he explained, “before everyone crowds in and spoils the atmosphere.”
“It’s not possible to spoil the atmosphere of a cellblock.”
It was a steep climb, and Owen herded Max along as if he were an irritable old camel. When they got to the top, Max sat down heavily on a bench, red in the face and puffing.
“Wow, look at the city,” Owen said, snapping another picture. “It looks great with the sun hitting it.”
But Max was staring in front of them. “What manner of fiend would lock a human being up on a godforsaken rock like this?”
“These were not minor criminals,” Owen said. “These were hit men. Multiple murderers.”
“Not likely to be improved by sea air and a sound regimen, then.”
Max’s mood didn’t improve when they visited cellblock D, which was once reserved for the worst of the worst. Toilets in the solitary confinement cells were holes in the floor. In some of these, the light had been kept on twenty-four hours a day. In others, there was no light at all.
Max cheered up when they got to cellblock B, which had housed Frank Morris, who, along with two fellow prisoners, managed to pull off the only successful escape in Alcatraz’s history. He and his colleagues had chiselled away at the cement around an air vent, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver they had melted down from a dime, and an electric drill created out of a vacuum cleaner motor stolen from the prison shop. They covered their exit by placing papier mâché heads in their beds. The heads were now on display on the bunks.
“What ghastly wigs,” Max said. “Must have made them out of old paintbrushes. Now, may we please leave? What kind of nephew hauls his gentle old uncle off to prison on a bright sunny day?”
By now the rest of the ferry-load of visitors had made their way up to the cellblocks. The place was taking on a Disneyland feel.
“Just one last stop,” Owen said.
It was in block C, his downloaded material informed them, that a psychic visiting the prison had been disturbed by a “disruptive spirit” named Butcher. Deep in the night, long ago, inmates had awoken to the sound of a prisoner yelling for help, screaming that a wild creature with red eyes was trying to kill him. The next day, it turned out, one Abie Maldowitz had died in his bed, apparently suffocated. He had been a hit man for the mob, and his nickname had been “The Butcher.”
Cellblock C was as dank a ruin as the rest of the place.
“Get me out of this house, Benvolio,” Max said, “or I shall faint. Truly, Owen. The exit. Now.”
They had to walk against the incoming crowds to get out. The sun had taken the chill out of the air, but the wind was still howling around the prison, and their windbreakers flapped like pennants. They walked past the ruin of the warden’s house, past the gardens that the guards’ wives had planted, long overgrown, and sat on a large flat rock facing the water.
Max immediately decided that he should have used the washroom and lumbered back toward the prison, leaving Owen staring at the gulls, the whitecaps and the enormous freighters in the bay. He had something important he had been waiting to tell Max. Something Max was not going to want to hear. He had thought the ferry ride and the sea air might provide a good occasion, but Alcatraz was having an unsettling effect on his guardian, and now did not seem an opportune moment. He was beginning to wonder why Max was taking so long when a voice called out behind him.
“Excuse me, I think I’ve found something of yours.”
Owen turned to see Max being led down the hill toward him by a chubby young man in a yellow pullover.
“They need more signs,” Max said. “All these bloody brambles look the same.”
“Seemed a little disoriented,” the young man said in a quieter voice.
“That happens sometimes,” Owen said. “Thanks for bringing him back.”
“Let’s have no more prisons,” Max said when the man was gone. “Sightseeing may be your department, but I’m putting in a formal request.”
“Max, how can we keep putting on shows if you forget where you are half the time?”
“Rubbish. Just got turned around, that’s all.”
“I don’t know. There were a couple of moments I thought you zoned out when you were dancing with Evelyn del Rio.”
“I was having fun. You remember fun, don’t you?”
“You’re worrying me these days, Max.”
Max did a King Kong imitation, drumming on his chest and hooting. “Fit as a fiddle,” he said, “and ready to roll. Las Vegas, Tucson, Dallas—not to mention Savannah, Georgia—the Max and Owen show is going to bring down the house!”