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Lordy, thought the boy. It’s a miracle for sure.
He was seven and a half years old—the man of the house, really, what with his daddy being away in Como, and he had never seen anything like the fearful wonder of the newly chiseled monument.
here lies jesse garon presley.
deeply beloved of his mother gladys, father vernon,
and brother elvis.
a soul so pure, the good lord could not bear
to be apart from him.
born jan. 8, 1935,
taken unto god jan. 8, 1935.
Despite the unseasonable heat of the evening, gooseflesh ran up his thin arms as he read the words again. Whippoorwills and crickets trilled their amazement in the sweet, warm air. With a pounding heart, the boy inched forward and muttered hoarsely, “Jesse, are you here?”
The stone was cut from blindingly white marble that fairly glowed in the setting sun. The inscription had been inlaid with real gold—he was almost certain of that. He ran his fingers over the words and the cold, hard stone, as if afraid to discover that they weren’t real.
It must have cost a king’s ransom . . .
An enormous bunch of store-bought flowers had been placed upon a patch of freshly broken earth that still lay at the foot of the monument. Hundreds of tiny beads of water covered the petals and caught the last golden rays of daylight.
He dropped down on his knees as if he were in church and stared at the impossible vision for many minutes, heedless of the dirt he was getting on his old dungarees. He remained virtually motionless until one hand reached out and his fingers again brushed the surface of the headstone.
“Oh, my,” he whispered.
Then Elvis Aaron Presley leapt to his feet and ran so fast that he raised a trail of dust as he sprinted down the gravel lane, away from the pauper’s section of the Priceville Cemetery, a-hollerin’ for his mama.
“He’ll probably get his ass whupped, the poor little bastard.” Slim Jim Davidson smiled as he said it, peering over the sunglasses he had perched on his nose.
“Why?” asked the woman who was sitting next to him in the rear seat of the gaudy red Cadillac. You didn’t see babies like this every day. Slim Jim had seen to the detailing himself. The paint job, the bison leather seats, everything.
“For telling lies,” he said. “Headstones don’t just appear like that, you know. They’re gonna think he made it up, and when he won’t take it back, there’ll be hell to pay.”
The woman seemed to give the statement more thought than it was really due. “I suppose so,” she said after a few seconds.
Slim Jim could tell she didn’t approve. They were all the same, these people. They’d bomb an entire city into rubble without batting an eye, but they looked at you like you were some sort of hoodlum if you even suggested raising your hand against a snot-nosed kid. Or a smart-mouth dame, for that matter.
And this O’Brien, she was a helluva smart-mouth dame.
She’d kept her trap shut, though, while they’d been watching the Presley kid. In fact, she seemed to be fascinated by him. They’d been waiting in the Caddy up on Old Saltillo Road for nearly an hour before he showed. Long enough for Slim Jim to wonder if they were pissing their time up against a wall. But the kid did show, just as his cousin said he would. And he’d heard O’Brien’s stifled gasp when the small figure first appeared, walking out of a stand of trees about two hundred yards away.
“It’s him, all right,” she said. “Damned if it’s not.”
Slim Jim had grabbed the contract papers and made to get out of the car right then and there. He’d had enough of sitting still. His butt had fallen asleep, and he was downright bored.
But O’Brien shook her head. “Not here.”
He’d bristled at that. His temper had frayed during the long wait. Long enough even to make him feel some sympathy for the cops who’d had to stake him out once or twice. But he took her “advice” because it was always worth taking.
Her advice had cost him a goddamn packet, too, over the course of their relationship. But along the way, Slim Jim Davidson had learned that you had to spend money to make it. Problem was that up until recently, he didn’t have no money to spend. None of his own, anyway. And spending other people’s money had sent him to the road gangs.
Mississippi was a powerful reminder of those days. The air tasted the same as it had in Alabama, thick and sweet and tending toward rotten. The faces they’d driven past in town had brought back some unpleasant memories, too. Hard, lean faces with deep lines and dark pools for eyes. The sort of uncompromising faces a man might expect to see on Judgment Day. They’d sure looked that way to Slim Jim when they trooped in from the jury room.
Well, that felt like a thousand years ago. Now he could buy and sell that fucking jury. And the judge. And his crooked jailers. And the whole goddamned state of Alabama, if he felt like it.
Well, maybe not the whole state. But he was getting there. This Caddy was bigger and more comfortable than some of the flophouses he’d crashed in during the Depression. He had an apartment in an honest-to-goddamned brownstone overlooking Central Park back in New York, and a house designed by some faggot architect overlooking the beach at Santa Monica, out in L.A. He had stocks and bonds and a big wad of folding money he liked to carry in his new buffalo-hide wallet—just so’s he could pull it out and snap the crisp new bills between his fingers when he needed to remind himself that he wasn’t dreaming.
Hell, he was so rich now that when those C-notes lost their snap, he could give them away and get some new ones.
Not that he ever did, of course. Ms. O’Brien would kill him. And she was more than capable of it. No doubt about that.
She’d insisted that he pick up the Santa Monica house as a long-term investment, too, even though he thought it was kind of down-market, given his newly acquired status.
“You can stay at the Ambassador if you don’t like rubbing shoulders with your old cell mates down on the piers,” she’d said. “Believe me, Santa Monica will come back, and you need to diversify your asset base. Waterfront property is always a sure bet.”
Yes, indeed, and Slim Jim was fond of sure bets. After all, they’d made him richer than God. They’d also delivered him a conga line of horny babes, a small army of his own hired muscle, and the slightly scary Ms. O’Brien.
Thinking about the slightly scary Ms. O’Brien sitting next to him there in the Caddy, however, led naturally to thinking about the slightly scary Ms. O’Brien sliding her body over his in a king-sized hotel bed. But that was a dangerous line of thought, he knew. Because Ms. O’Brien wasn’t inclined to get anywhere near a bed with Slim Jim Davidson, naked or not.
He’d tried feeling her up once, and she’d nearly broken his arm for it. She’d snapped an excruciating wristlock on him without even breaking a sweat, no doubt a party trick she’d picked up back when she was a captain in the Eighty-second MEU. And she’d kept him locked up, gasping for breath and nearly fainting away, while she explained to him the facts of life:
One, she was his employee, not his girlfriend.
Two, she would be his employee only for as long as she needed to be, and she would never be his girlfriend.
Three, she could kick his scrawny ass black and blue without bothering to lace up her boots.
And four, she . . .
Slim Jim jumped, feeling guilty and worried that she might have figured out what he was thinking. But no, luckily she was just dragging him out of his slightly bored daze.
“Elvis has left the cemetery,” she announced. She said it in a singsong way, and it seemed to amuse her more than it should have. But Slim Jim had given up trying to figure her out.
“Let’s go over it one last time, just to be sure,” she said, pulling out a flexipad.
“Oh, please,” he begged. “Let’s not.”
O’Brien ignored him, and his shades suddenly flickered into life. Windows opened up on the lenses and seemed to float in the air in front of him. Some carried photographs of the boy they’d just seen. Others were full of words. Small words in large type. She’d learned not to burden him with too much text.
Bitch thinks she’s so goddamned smart . . .
Slim Jim sighed, and read through the briefing notes again. Some of his reluctance was for show, though. He never really got tired of the amazing gadgets these guys had brought with them.
“Elvis Aaron Presley, age eight and a half. Mother’s name, Gladys. Father’s name, Vernon,” he recited. “Dead brother, Jesse. Attends school at East Tupelo Consolidated. Father jailed for fraud. Asshole tried to ink a four-dollar check into forty . . .”
O’Brien shot him a warning look, but he hid behind the shades, pretending he couldn’t see her.
“Daddy’s out now, away in Como, Mississippi, building a POW camp for the government. Mama takes in sewing when she can get it. Local yokels call ’em white trash behind their backs . . .”
Slim Jim laughed out loud, glancing out across the ragged fields of corn and soybean that stretched between the cemetery and the edge of the town. “Ha! There’s a fucking pot calling a kettle black if I ever—”
“The notes, Mr. Davidson. Just review the notes,” said O’Brien.
Slim Jim returned to the readout for what felt like the hundredth time. He’d heard about some big-time grifters who worked like this. Getting so far inside the heads of their marks that they knew what was going on in there before the chumps realized it themselves. He could sort of see the point.
O’Brien had helped him close some amazing deals these last few months. But damn, it was hard work. Nevertheless, he plowed on, reciting most of the notes from memory even though the words still hung there in front of him.
“Gladys drinks in private. She finds her comfort in the church. Her first love was dance, her second music. But she’s kind of a fat bitch now so . . . Sorry! Sorry . . . She gets around in bare feet and old socks so her kid can have shoes. Elvis, he’s aware of his family’s low standing. It eats him up and he wants to rescue them. It always tickles him when his mama says she’s proud of him.”
In spite of himself, Slim Jim couldn’t help but warm to the little prick. They’d listened to his music all the way down here, and you had to admit, the kid had a gift. Or would have.
Then again, maybe he wouldn’t. If Slim Jim bought him a ticket out of Tupelo now, gave him enough money for a comfortable life, maybe the kid would never sing a song worth a tinker’s crap. Not that the thought really bothered him. Those songs were recorded by an Elvis from another time. No, this was all about who was gonna get paid for them.
Not some asshole called Colonel Tom Parker, you could bet on that.
Nope. “Slim Jim Enterprises” would be latching itself on to this particular money tit. And if the kid never became an actual recording star, just because he grew up rich instead of poor, well, who gave a damn? Slim Jim had grown up in a town a lot like this, with a daddy a lot like Vernon. And if some asshole had turned up on their doorstep, offering to buy them out of poverty, Daddy would have been trampled to death by the entire Davidson clan rushing to sign on the dotted line. And to hell with the consequences.
Slim Jim was only vaguely aware of the deepening dusk as he sat in the Caddy, chanting his way through O’Brien’s notes like some kind of mad priest. Yeah, Tupelo is a lot like home. Besides the two main roads in the center of town, every street was a strip of dirt or gravel. Clouds of dust would rise from them in summer. They’d turn into rivers of mud during the spring rains. Most folks would have worked the Roosevelt program during the Depression, cutting brush, fixing roads. Most, like Gladys Presley, wouldn’t ask for handouts, but would accept what was offered. The men would all be factory workers and sharecroppers.
Now most of them would be in the army or working in the war industries. Poor but honest, they’d think of themselves. Screwed and stupid was how Slim Jim would have put it.
A guy like Vernon Presley he could understand. He knew the type. He’d have had good intentions, but not enough character to see them through. Slim Jim wished they could deal with Vernon rather than Gladys. It was a laydown that they could sneak a signature out of old Vern, just for a crate of beer and a hundred bucks.
But O’Brien had been a real ballbreaker on that particular subject, even more so than usual. There’d be no grifting the Presley family. They’d get the industry standard percentage, and Slim Jim would take the industry standard cut. It was a shitload of money to be tossing away to a bunch of dumbass crackers, at least to his way of thinking. But she’d given him that stone face of hers again, and he’d buckled. She was a scary bitch—and bottom line, he was rich because of it.
“And then Vernon told Elvis he was responsible for his mama’s ill health because of the bad birth . . . ,” he continued, only half his mind on the task.
“No,” O’Brien said. “We don’t know for sure that that’s happened yet, so it’s better not to bring it up. But it’s supposed to happen around about now, so just keep it in mind.”
“Right.” He nodded. “So are we gonna fuck this puppy or what?”
His lawyer rolled her eyes, but she leaned forward to tap on the glass partition that separated them from the driver.
“Okay,” she said, raising her voice. “Let’s roll.”
It was a short drive from Priceville Cemetery to East Tupelo, a pissant little rats’ nest of meandering unpaved streets running down off the Old Saltillo Road. A couple of creeks, two sets of railroad tracks, some open fields, and a whole world of dreams separated the hamlet’s beaten-down inhabitants from the good people of Tupelo proper. Slim Jim wasn’t bothered none driving into such a place.
Nor, he noticed, was Ms. O’Brien. He figured it was just another one of those things about your dames from the future. Not much seemed to rattle them, unless you tried to cop a feel without being invited.
“That’s it,” she announced.
She indicated a small wooden frame house, a “shotgun shack,” they called them. This one stood about a hundred yards up the street they’d just entered. Dusk was full upon them now, and the car’s headlights lanced through the gloom and the dust and pollen that always seemed to hang in the air, even at this time of year.
“You sure you don’t want to do the talking?” he asked, suddenly nervous for no good reason. That wasn’t like him at all.
“You’ll be fine,” O’Brien assured him. “It’s just business. Be sure and treat them with respect.”
“But . . .”
“No buts. You’ll nail it. I’ve never known such a rolled gold bullshit artist. If you’d been born any luckier, you could have been a senator or a televangelist.”
Slim Jim wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but she didn’t seem to mean it as a compliment.
His driver pulled over into the gutter. As soon as he stepped out, the smell took him by the throat. Sour sweat. Outdoor toilets. Woodsmoke. Corn bread, grits, and boiled spuds. The smell of his childhood.
He could tell, without needing to check, that dozens of pairs of eyes had settled on the back of his newly cut, lightweight suit. Some of the bolder folks would have wandered right out onto their verandas—an awful fancy name for a thin porch made of raw pine boards, roofed in by scraps of tin, and supported at each corner by sawed-off bits of two-by-four. Others would be hiding in their front rooms, twitching aside sun-faded curtains, if they had any, peering out suspiciously at the Presleys’ unexplained visitors.
And if they thought he was something, he wondered what sort of ripple went up and down when Ms. O’Brien emerged from the car. East Tupelo wasn’t used to women like that, not yet. Hell, neither was the rest of America. That skirt of hers would surely send tongues wagging, showing off so much leg above the knee as it did.
But it was time to get into character, so he pasted a harmless, well- meaning expression on his dial. A neutral grin that said to the world he was hoping he’d found the right address.
Slim Jim took in the details of the kid’s house in one quick glance. Again, he didn’t need to stare. It was all old news to him. There’d be only two rooms running off one corridor. You could shoot a gun clean through without hitting anything, hence the name. The kid would probably sleep where Slim Jim himself had for years, on an old sofa in the front room—which did double duty as a kitchen, and a parlor when guests came a-calling. Every stick of furniture would be someone else’s cast-offs, but it’d most likely be clean. Gladys would make sure of that.
The water would be pumped by hand, from a well out in the backyard. There’d be bare boards on the floor and walls. No little comforts or luxuries. Not a blade of grass grew in the brown dirt that substituted for a front yard. Even in the gloom, he recognized the scratch marks of a homemade dogwood broom in the hard-packed earth, and the telltale prints of chicken feet. He bit down on a sigh. It was going to be like a goddamned oven in there.
He really missed his brownstone.
From the Trade Paperback edition.