I was able to locate city hall without too much trouble. It was in the center of the square, right where you’d expect a small-town seat of government to be. I found that reassuring. What I didn’t find all that reassuring was the fact that the columns on the building were decorated with the same weird carvings that were on the fountain at the mall.
“These people seem to lack imagination,” I said to Kitty 2 as we mounted the steps. “They have a very narrow definition of decorative art.”
“Maybe they just know what they like,” Kitty 2 said.
“Maybe someone should get them a subscription to Architectural Digest.”
The city hall was as dimly lit as the mall. I was beginning to suspect the town was in the midst of some sort of halfhearted conservation effort that involved using only 40 watt bulbs everywhere. Our footsteps echoed on the tile floor as we made our way down the hall. I pushed open the door to the register of deeds office and stepped into the nineteenth century. Instead of computer workstations , there were rows and rows of musty, leather-bound books covered in so much dust, that I wondered if anyone had touched them in decades. I also wondered if the janitor had quit. Kitty 2 started sneezing. The noise summoned a woman from deep within the shadows of the stacks. She was young, but her hair was pulled back in a bun so tight I imagined it must have hurt to blink, which was probably why she didn’t blink as she stood there staring at us as if her training hadn’t covered what to do if someone actually walked into the room.
“Hello,” I said.
“This is the register of deeds office,” the woman said, as if sure we were in the wrong place.
“That’s good,” I said. “Because I need to consult your records.”
“You…want to consult our records?”
“Yes,” I said. “I need to find out who owns the Innsbruck Outlet Mall.”
“The outlet mall?”
“Yes. Can you tell me which one of these books holds that information?”
A light seemed to go on in the woman’s head. “Follow me,” she said, turning and walking down a cramped row between shelves. Kitty 2 and I followed. The woman stopped and pulled a large book off the shelf, grunting under the strain. She carried the book to a table and dropped it, making a lot of noise and stirring up a huge cloud of dust that made Kitty 2 and I both start sneezing. When I was able to open my eyes again the woman had vanished.
“She wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, was she?” Kitty 2 said, sniffling.
“Probably some city council member’s cousin,” I said. “You know how it is with government work. It doesn’t matter if you can do the job. It matters who you know.”
“I wish I knew somebody,” Kitty 2 said. “I wouldn’t mind a job sitting around all day.”
“You have a job sitting around all day,” I said.
“I meant one with benefits.”
I ignored Kitty 2’s comment and opened the book. Flipping through the yellowed pages, I found the deed to mall. Unfortunately, it didn’t tell me much. The registered owner of the property was a Dagon Inc., and its address was a Cayman Islands P.O. box. I slammed the book shut and instantly regretted it as another cloud of dust erupted causing both of us to have sneezing fits again. When we could open our eyes again the woman had reappeared.
“Did you find what you need?” she inquired.
“Yes. Thank you,” I replied.
“Will there be anything else?”
“No,” I said.
“Then please leave,” the woman said, pointing toward the door.
Kitty 2 and I left city hall and got back into her car.
“Did you learn anything in there?” Kitty 2 asked.
“The owner is Cayman Islands based shell corporation,” I said.
“So where does that leave us?” she asked.
“Sitting in your car.” I said.
“I meant metaphorically. What do we do now? No one in this town seems particularly friendly, and we’ve pretty much been banned from the building you’re supposed to appraise.”
“Someone around here’s got to know something,” I said. “If I can just get in touch with the owner, then I can explain the whole situation and get permission to appraise the mall. If I can explain to him that someone is interested in buying the mall I’m sure we can get permission to appraise it. I’ve never known a businessman who wouldn’t at least listen to a proposition like that.”
“How do you propose we find somebody who’ll be willing to give us that information?” Kitty 2 said.
“Take me back to the grocery store,” I said. “I know where to start.”
The clerk looked up from her copy of Us Weekly when I came through the door.
“I told you you didn’t want to visit the mall,” she said.
“Oh, I still want to visit the mall,” I said. “But I want to learn something about it first.”
“Like who owns it for starters.”
The clerk shrugged. “No idea. Like I said, I’m not from around here, but if you really want to know I’d ask Old Wolfgang. He’s from around here, but he’s not like the others. If you get him stoned he’ll talk your ear off. Most of it won’t make sense, but I think he’s your best shot.”
“Where might I find this Wolfgang?” I inquired.
“There’s a park about four blocks south of here. He’s usually there just staring at clouds.”
“Thanks,” I said. “One more question.”
“Do you know where I can get some weed?”
“I wish,” the clerk replied.
I went back to Kitty 2, who was sitting in the car drumming her fingers on the steering wheel.
“I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news,” I said.
“Is the good news that we can go home?”
“No. It’s that I’ve got a lead on someone who might be willing to give us information about the mall.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“Apparently the guy needs some marijuana to get him talking, and I’ve got no idea where to get any.”
“That’s not as big a problem as you think,” Kitty 2 said, opening her purse and pulling out a joint roughly the length and width of my index finger.
“Kitty 2, I’m shocked.” I said. “I had no idea you were a dope fiend.”
“It’s my emergency stash,” she said. “In case I find myself at a jam band concert. I got caught at a String Cheese Incident show sober in college, and I swore it would never happen again. Ever. So I keep an emergency doobie on me at all times.”
I took the joint and dropped it in my shirt pocket.
“Let’s walk down to the park and see if we can find this guy,” I said. “And I’ve got to come up with some sort of drug testing policy.”
“Bite me,” Kitty 2 said, getting out of the car.
I joined her on the sidewalk and we set out toward the park to see if we could find the mysterious stoner who might be willing to talk to us.
“So,” I said. “Are you high at work a lot?”
“Not nearly as much as you would think or I would like.”
It was starting to get dark, and the town was starting to show some signs of life. As we walked, we saw people coming out of the run down houses and walking down the street. Most of them had the same big-lipped, scaly appearance that seemed common here. They were all moving in the same direction, heading toward the center of town while we were heading away. While they were careful not to make eye contact, the locals definitely noticed us, stiffening up and being careful to keep their eyes front as we approached.
The park wasn’t very well kept up, either. Between the run down houses, the register of deeds office without computers, and the lack of lawn care, I was beginning to wonder where all the money went. The mall was doing business and the people, while quite ugly, didn’t seem to be poor. In fact, the uglier the person was, the better dressed they seemed to be. If they were hoping to draw attention away from their looks with their clothing, it wasn’t working. A man with a terrible case of eczema in a Brooks Brothers suit is the sort of thing you notice.
Kitty 2 and I followed a cobblestone path into the park. Kitty 2 pointed to a figure reclining on a bench in the distance.
“That’s gotta be the guy,” she said.
“Let’s go introduce ourselves.” I replied.
As we got closer, I could see we were dealing with a full on casualty of the Sixties. He had a beard down to his bellybutton, and he persisted in wearing a ponytail, even though all the hair had long ago disappeared from the top of his head, leaving with only a sad bald man’s fringe. And speaking of fringes, he was also wearing a pair of buckskin pants so ratty and stained that I was pretty sure he had bought them from the wardrobe assistant who worked on Easy Rider. The pants drew attention away from his ridiculous poncho, though, so I wasn’t really that put off by them. What I was put off by was the funk of patchouli, body odor and stale weed coming off of him.
As Kitty 2 and I approached, the old burnout straightened up a bit and looked at us, a flicker of surprise crossing his face as he realized we weren’t locals.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you Wolfgang?”
“Who wants to know?” he replied.
“Just a couple of humble pilgrims in search of enlightenment,” I said.
“You might be better off going out to Big Sur.”
“I hear Big Sur has gotten kind of touristy,” I replied.
“Yeah man, nothing’s what it used to be,” he said, shaking his head. “Did I ever tell you how I helped organize the first Big Sur Folk Fest in ’64?”
“No,” I told him. “We just met. We’ve never spoken about anything before.”
“Right. Right,” he said. “My memory’s not what it used to be.”
“Whose is?” I said, pulling Kitty 2’s joint out of my pocket. “What say you, me and my friend here smoke this joint and reminisce about how everything was better in the Sixties?”
“Were either of you even alive in the Sixties?” Wolfgang asked.
“Let’s not get bogged down in details,” I said, handing the old man the joint.
He shrugged, produced a lighter from his poncho and sparked up. He took a couple of big puffs, exhaling large clouds of smoke.
“Don’t bogart that joint,” Kitty 2 said, sitting on the bench next to him. Wolfgang passed it to her. As she took a toke he started to talk.
Wolfgang, it turned out, had been at every culturally significant event and met every single artist, celebrity and politician of the decade. He’d also slept with a lot of them apparently. He said Joan Baez was into some pretty kinky stuff. I’d always suspected that on some level.
Wolfgang had been in Dallas when JFK was shot, attended Woodstock and Altamont, partied with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground at the Factory, shot heroin with William S. Burroughs at the Beat Hotel in Paris, driven the bus for Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, walked arm in arm with Civil Rights protesters in Birmingham, tried to levitate the Pentagon with Abbie Hoffman and Norman Mailer, and even worked craft services on the soundstage where the CIA faked the moon landing. He was supposed to be killed after that job, but he got Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong some really good weed, so they pulled some strings and instead of being murdered and buried in the desert, he got to be a test subject in MK Ultra, which really wasn’t that bad since he took a lot of acid anyway.
When Kitty 2 and Wolfgang had smoked the joint down to the roach, I decided I had been patient enough with the old man’s ramblings and decided to cut to the chase.
“So,” I said. “What do you think of the Innsbruck Outlet Mall?”
“Oh man, that mall man,” he said. “When I left Innsbruck it was this quaint, little New England town, man. A little uptight, yeah, but a nice place, you know, friendly. But when I came back after they kicked me out of MK Ultra, that mall was here and everything changed, man. That mall was here and all kinds of people were coming to visit, you know, spending all this money, like buying stuff was going to solve all their problems.
I tell you, that Lucius Waite, he made money hand over first for years, and the mall employed a lot of people. Prices were cheap. They were so cheap that there were rumors that the old man would travel to places like China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, anywhere there were sweatshops, and he’d actually cut out the middlemen, you know. They said he could just persuade sweatshop owners to just sell the goods directly to him and that all those shops at the mall were just fronts. All of the money just went back to Waite.
“Then the bypass came. Sure, Old Man Waite threw his money and influence around at the legislature, but even he couldn’t stop the bypass. That was when things got weird. Old Man Waite disappeared for a while. Some said he had some kind of breakdown, but most people seemed to think he’d gone somewhere overseas. When he reappeared a few months later, he seemed different. He called all of the mall management to a meeting at his house in the dead of night. A week later the mall reopened with a a lot of fanfare. There was a huge ceremony and entertainment. The entire town turned out, and the Old Man himself spoke. He promised everyone a new age of prosperity if they trusted him. He rehired everyone who used to work at the mall and then some. “
“So a guy named Waite owned the mall?” I asked.
“Yeah. Or he did. He’s been dead for a while now,” Wolfgang said.
“Who owns it now?”
Wolfgang shrugged. “No idea, man.”
“Did this Waite guy have any heirs?”
“Have you ever heard of Dagon Incorporated?” I asked.
Wolfgang sat up a little straighter and looked me in the eye.
“You’re asking a lot of questions.” he said.
“You’re just now noticing this?”
“Well, yeah. I’m pretty stoned, really. But my point is….What were we talking about?”
“Dagon Incorporated,” I said.
“Oh, yeah.” Wolfgang said. “Take my advice, man. Stop asking so many questions. Where’d you hear that name anyway?”
“It’s listed on the mall’s deed at city hall,” I replied.
“Oh, man. You want another piece of advice?” Wolfgang asked.
“Are you going to tell me to stay away from the mall?” I asked. “Because I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that advice, and if I were going to listen to it I’d of already listened to it.”
“That’s good advice, but I was thinking more along the lines of get out of town, now,” Wolfgang said. “People around here aren’t going to be happy you’ve been asking questions, and if you went down to city hall everyone in town knows about it by now.”
“You know leaving’s not a half-bad idea,” Kitty 2 said. “It’s getting late, and I would kill someone for a plate of hash browns.”
I looked at my watch. It was getting late, and spending the night in Innsbruck didn’t seem like that appealing of a prospect. I wasn’t particularly worried in the way Wolfgang seemed to think I should be, but I didn’t want to have to spring for a hotel room.
“Thanks for the information, Wolfgang,” I said.
“No problem man,” he replied. “Thanks for the weed. Hey, did I ever tell you about how I helped organize the first Big Sur Folk Festival in ’64?”
“You mentioned it,” I said. “Well, I guess we’ll see you around.”
“Not if you’re smart,” Wolfgang said as we walked away.