“This guy is one of a kind.” The three of us, Eleanor, myself, and the diminutive Isabella – so tiny she could have walked between my legs if I wouldn’t have reflexively kicked her into Contra Costa county because of being tickled by her frizzy green hair – were huddling together in Isabella’s office near the Embarcadero, poring over her dog-eared yellow legal pad with its bizarre narration.
“It can’t be easy being a midget,” I thought to myself, looking down at her from my own gangling vantage. It isn’t always easy being six-foot-eight, either. Whenever Michael and I went out dancing, he inevitably loved to leer up at me, his nose tucked firmly in my cleavage, and I didn’t really mind, since it made him happy. I even left off the underwire bra when we danced so he wouldn’t hurt himself. But it could still be a pain, knocking your head against door jambs, being the cynosure of all eyes at otherwise serious gatherings, developing a slouch in a pathetic attempt to mitigate the vast height difference between myself and nearly everybody else outside the NBA, inevitably being asked “How’s the weather up there?” by some drooling, Armani-clad, chinless wonder. Even my beloved Olympic gold basketball medal didn’t offset the occasional wistful wish for middle-sized normality.
“So how’s the weather down there?” I asked Isabella.
“Que?” her eyes, black as a murderer’s heart, glinted angrily up at me.
“I mean down at San Quentin,” I went on hastily, suddenly aware of my faux pas. “You must have had to spend a lot of time with him to get this much information.”
Eleanor gasped, then compounded the gaffe I was trying to overcome. “Maggie!” her voice was as sharp as Stilton cheese. “San Quentin isn’t ‘down.’ It’s over in Marin County.” Properly admonished, I kept my humbled gaze fixed on Isabella. But mollified, she smiled and I was dazzled by the coruscating gleam of a sizable stash of diamonds inset in what seemed to be every one of her teeth.
“Oh, jes. I espend muy horas with mi client. We go over and over, and then I make him tell me otra bes. But ju know, he always esays exactly the esame thing. Lo mismo. I tell you, I think he is telling the truth. Berdad.”
“Let’s hope so,” Eleanor said quickly.
“Me, too,” said I. “since probably all three of us, and Calvin, too, are going to have to go down to San Quentin and talk to our bird all over again.”
“Bird? Ha!” Eleanor barked out a laugh as raucous as Bette Midler in a bath house. “Our Bird Man of Alcatraz.”
“No, Esenjora Eleanora, he is in Esan Quentin.” It seemed that Isabella lacked a sense of humor. Stepping in quickly, I complimented her about her actually rather horrid hair.
“Oh, ju like?” Now her eyes shone with gratitude. “I mix the color up myself. I juse cadmium blue and bright jellow.”
“Oh? Sugar-free or reg…. oh, sorry.” Now it was Eleanor’s turn to redden with embarrassment at a verbal slip, and for a moment, Isabella aimed her murderous glare at my friend. Then she smiled, and turning her face up toward me, she smiled broadly, flashing those gems again, and said:
“Jes, Esenjora Margarita, we mus’ go to Esan Quentin. She hesitated a moment, obviously embarrassed, then continued almost in a whisper: “But I mus’ ask ju one question, if ju don’t mind.” As I shrugged, expecting as always what was coming now from any new acquaintance, she continued shyly:
“How did ju lose jour eye?”
On the way down to San Quentin, I told her the whole long, engrossing story – about the rhinoceros and the sojourn with the Masai, and then the escape from the slavers and how the evil mullah died, his fingers scrabbling in the sand with ever-ebbing strength as the scorpion venom coursed inexorably through his veins. I even told her about turning thirty in the Malaccas when the Emir did such unspeakable things to the poor piccolo player, just for my amusement. And how I escaped that trap. I mean, an eye is little enough to sacrifice if the alternative is your life.
Calvin seemed restive throughout the trip across the Golden Gate Bridge and on toward California’s most famous prison.
“Hey. Maggie, I’ve always wondered,” he spoke up, voice quivering. “Who the hell was San Quentin? I never heard of a saint with that Anglo-Saxon name.”
“Not Anglo-Esaxon,” Isabella interposed quickly. “He was Esceltic. Bery, bery Esceltic. He never drank, either. Only esipped. He is bery famous in my country -- San Quentin de los Cohones, the Irish esettler who drove the esnakes out of Halisco. Mi compadres in Meheeco juse his estory to frighten little children who play in other peoples’jards.”
“Jards?” Eleanor looked bemused.
“Jes. Jards. Ju know. Jelping, jammering joungsters jearning to jusurp jour juse of jour own jurisdiction.”
She missed on that last one, I thought to myself.
“We’re here,” Eleanor said happily, waking Calvin up.
“Ju’re kidding me, aren’t ju?” Isabella asked me softly. “Ju can’t estick a piccolo in like that. Maybe in the fundamento. Or down la boca. But not like that.”
I smiled, enigmatically, then added: “You should have seen what the Emir did with the mandolin. Not to mention the oud and the samisen.”
“Ju’re funny, Margarita,” Isabella said happily as I lifted her down from the car seat to the walkway. “Ju make me laugh.”
And then we were penetrating San Quentin’s frowning battlements, working our way through the prison’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, marching across vast yards and along what seemed like miles of corridors -- Calvin reflexively snapping everything in sight with his trusty Leica, me striding purposefully ahead with Eleanor sprinting after me, gasping for breath as she gamely tried to keep up, and Isabella cradled under my arm -- to the prison’s storied Death Row. And thus we were finally brought face to face with our client and quarry -- mano-a-mano (actually andro-a-gyno) with the one-of-a-kind man who is central to my tale.
. Face to face, but not yet hand to hand. We could see him waiting for us in an empty, glass-walled room directly ahead, through one final electronic barrier. And here is where my underwire bra either betrayed us, or accelerated our story precipitously.
Approaching the barrier, I examined our client searchingly through the heavy, lead-alloyed glass. A large man, even by my standards, with a huge head completely devoid of hair. His face was placid, not unhandsome, and I could see that his bright blue eyes sparkled happily at the sight of us. Truly blue, his eyes were – or rather, their irises – since the whites of his eyes were tinged an angry red from their networks of little, ruptured veins. A legacy of addictive glue sniffing in his youth, according to Isabella’s notes.
From that narrative, the most pointed salient for me was the fact that he stuttered so badly as to be all but incoherent. “Even esinging doesn’t eseem to help,” she had written. “The only way he can talk to ju is by reciting other people’s quotes. If esomebody else esaid it first, then he can pass it on to ju.”
I was marveling at this apt description, knowing that our amazing client’s name was Bartlett John, when a banshee wail utterly shattered my wa as well as the silence of our entire Death Row wing of San Quentin. Stooped and folded painfully into the electronic monitoring booth leading through the glass-walled barrier between our corridor and the room where Eleanor and Isabella already were shaking hands with our client – Calvin snapping away despite the guard’s suspicious frown – I had found from the start that my head was pressed tightly against the ceiling of the booth. Now, in that sudden cacophony, I realized almost immediately that I had been betrayed by my underwire bra.
The sudden shock of that explosion of searing noise, seemingly into my head directly, caused me to straighten myself precipitously. As you know, I am a tall woman. I am also large, heavily muscled despite my hour-glass figure, and strong from a lifetime of athletic adventure. My spasm shattered both the electronic booth and the glass wall into which it was built, sending shards of grayish glass in every direction. I looked in horror at the prison guard who had escorted us thus far, screaming as he pawed desperately at a long, thin spear of glass embedded in his throat. Blood was spewing from the wound. Obviously, the shard had pierced his carotid artery. In what seemed only a second, he slumped, lifeless, to the corridor floor.
“What have you done. Lady?” the guard inside our client’s conference room was shouting, moving toward me, pulling his pistol from its always unlatched holster. “You had an underwire bra? You’ve fried the entire San Quentin electronics grid, along with most of Marin County. You’ll do ten years for this. Off with that bra! Quickly, bare ‘em, bitch.”
Eleanor frowned at him for his sexist redneckery. But before he could manage his second angry step, Isabella hitched up her long peasant skirt, fumbled in her garter, and pulled out a surprisingly long ceramic dagger. Silent as a gila monster, if far prettier, she gathered herself and sprang upward with all her strength just as the guard reached her spot in the glass-strewn conference room. The aim of her knife was true. Its white blade, evidently scalpel-sharp, penetrated the guard’s left eye so deeply that the thin and lethal looking skewer’s point stood out a good two inches behind the back of his skull. He dropped like the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball, slowly, to land at my feet.
“Quick, amigas,” Isabella said as she bent over the guard’s body to retrieve her dagger. “Bamanos.”
“What about him?” the still half-stunned Eleanor asked, pointing to Bartlett John. It was hard for us to hear each other in the wild din of a prison in full hysterical lockdown.
“He comes, too. Jes.” Isabella’s tone told us she had reached a decision.
“They’ll blame him for all this,” she waved one hand at the shambles around us, sliding her dagger back into its sheath against her diminutive thigh. “We mus’ save him from their revenge. Come quickly.”
“You can’t believe we’ll really be able to get him out of here, can you?” Eleanor was rapidly regaining her composure as she carefully picked tiny pieces of shattered glass out of her hair. I was far less disheveled, my reflexive spasm having sent the shattered glass shards flying away from me, rather than haphazardly.
“I think Eleanor’s right, Isabella,” I said. “With hundreds of armed guards swarming all over the place, and with all those high walls and electrified fence – even if the fuses are all blown -- and guard dogs, and sharpshooters in the towers, with all that it would take a miracle for us to get out of her safely.”
“Jes. Jes. Maybe several miracles. But we mus’ try, amigas.”
“Guh, guh, guh-guh-guh …” odd sounds were emanating from our obese, baldheaded client as tiny Isabella tugged him to his feet.
“What’s he saying? Eleanor asked plaintively.
“He’s trying to tell us something,” I said. Duh. How observant.
“Guh-guh-guh, guh,” Bartlett John beat one fist against his leg in frustration, then stopped, pulled himself to his full height and took a deep, wheezing breath.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he said.
We ran for our lives then, and not one but two miracles helped us escape San Quentin.
First was the swarm of killer bees that drove the entire compliment of prison guards, human and canine both, inside and away from all windows as we ran for our lives through the compound. As we scampered, I could hear Bartlett John musing to himself quietly: “To be or not to be.” I am no stranger to killer bees, but I could not see how they would attack only the guards and not us. That was our first miracle. Miraculously, the swarm never bothered us at all. It may have been the scent of Isabella’s hair dye.
When we reached the outside walls, we found that the electricity had indeed shorted out because of my bravura performance. But to our astonishment, one whole side of those frowning battlements was no longer intact, but lay in rubble, a deep, oval hole gouged in the earth with at its edges a head-high scree of concrete blocks and pieces of shattered cement.
“What on earth happened here?” I asked my friends as we looked around us, hoping to find a path up and across the ruined mound to freedom beyond.
“I think I know,” Eleanor said. “It must have been a small meteorite, coming in at a steep angle. It had to be small because if it had weighed too much, its impact would have gouged a crater as big as San Francisco. And its angle had to be steep because the impact area is so restricted. See? If you look carefully you can see an almost circular footprint.”
“I think ju’re right,” Isabella said before I could demur. “I have eseen many meteor craters in Meheeco. And this one looks bery esimilar to me.”
“Anyway, we’d better try to get across this gap and out up the other side before the guards recover from the bees,” said Eleanor. So we jumped into the crater, whether it was meteor-caused or not, and found that we had made a big mistake.
The shattered scree kept sliding out from under our feet as we tried to scale the almost perpendicular far wall of the crater. We tried rushing pell-mell up the slope, only to slide back before we could make the top. We tried sidling slowly and carefully up the wall. No progress at all. It wasn’t awfully high. But the slope’s slippery consistency defied our best efforts.
“Solamente one thing we can do,” Isabella said finally as the five of us fanned ourselves, gasping in the dust of the crater. “Senjora Margarita, ju must fling me up and I will try to find us a rope.”
“Fling you? Like a javelin?” Eleanor asked.
“Ju calling me a pig?” Isabella’s fingers inched toward her thigh.
“No! No! A javelin. A spear.”
“Oh. OK. Like an espear. What do ju say, Senjora Margarita?”
It seemed like our only chance. So I carefully set my feet in the scree, then picked up Isabella, hefted her once or twice to gauge the needed force, and hurled her upward toward a low part of the crater wall – sort of a breach in the rampart. My effort was more like a hammer throw than a javelin. Without the spin, of course. Isabella landed almost at the head of the slope, but didn’t quite make the top. So slowly but inexorably, she slid back down to me. I tried again, with the same unfortunate result. I was gasping myself, now, realizing that despite her diminutive stature Isabella was a hefty little person. A real handful. Gathering my strength, I tried once more. With the same result.
“I’m sorry,” I panted. “I don’t think we can do this.”
“They do it in Australia,” said Calvin.
“Ju havelina.” Isabella snarled.
We were all feeling blue and defeated, so close to our escape, yet stymied. Then Bartlett John started to go “guh, guh” again, and it didn’t take us long to get him to breathe deeply. With bated breath ourselves, we waited for him to speak. Finally, with a shy smile at Isabella and me, he got his statement voiced:
“Once more, dear friends, into the breach.”
Thus heartened, I tried yet again, and this time, against all odds and expectations, Isabella sailed over the top of the crater and through the gap to land beyond our sight on the ground well away from the rim. We could hear the thump and her grunt upon impact.
“Are you all right?” I cried, hopping up and down in the slippery scree in a vain attempt to see her. Then her head appeared over the rim, sunshine glinting from her diamoned teeth, and she said: “Jes. Jes. Esoon, I’ll be back with a rope.”
And then we were graced by our second miracle enabling our escape: I’m not talking about finally being able to fling Isabella far enough to win our freedom. Or that she was capable, once on solid ground again, of discovering some rope. Or even that we were able to anchor it securely enough to let us clamber up the side of the crater. And certainly not such a petty thing as a mini-meteor strike exactly on the walls of San Quentin. Our second miracle was finding our car still there in the San Quentin parking lot. Still there! Even though we had inadvertently left it unlocked!
And if my account so far of our quest to discover who really killed Grace Plummer seems bizarre and unbelievable (not to say outré, so I won’t), then let me warn you that once we escaped from San Quentin, things began to get really strange. And besides, if you doubt me, you can look at the scores of pictures Calvin took of us at every stage of the game. There’s a particularly good one of the bees, and of Isabella flying over the crater’s edge. Eleanor took the shots of the dead and dying guards herself to hide them away securely, since she can always protect us by invoking client privilege.
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