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-size 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.