Call me Floyd. I have a last name, but nobody can pronounce it. I don’t even put it on my business cards. Those just say, Floyd: Private Detective.
Professional snooping is what brought me to Reno, a city I hate like some people hate spiders. But when Buddy called after almost a year of silence and asked me to drop everything to get proof that some guy was cheating on his wife, I quit the bail jumping case I was working and hit the highway. Elvis once said, “friends can never be family, but sometimes they’re a whole lot more.” He could have been describing the way I feel about Buddy. So I found myself lurking in the vending room of a sleazy motel with a camera in my hand, waiting to get some shots of my target.
People have an idea in their heads about P.I. work. That it’s glamorous or exciting. I blame TV. Hollywood could make mopping floors look fun. Truth is, detective work is like any other job.
I was on a long stakeout once and made a list of criteria you would need to meet to make it as a TV detective. Top of the list is a cool car. Magnum had a Ferrari, Rockford a Firebird. Me, I drive a ten-year-old Ford Taurus, bought secondhand. But you know what? I like my car. It’s reliable. If it does break down, any mechanic anywhere can fix it. And it blends in. Nobody notices a taupe sedan with a fading paint job. Ever.
The only info Buddy had given me on my target was a detailed description of his car and when he would be in Reno. That wouldn’t normally be enough to go on, but this guy drove a pimped up ’70s Camaro. Cherry red and loud as thunder. It just took a few bribed valets and an hour of cruising the casino parking lots to find it. All I had to do next was park nearby and wait. The dude eventually came out of the Golden Horseshoe with a tall skinny blonde of the large-breasted variety on his arm and I followed them to the Mermaid Motel.
There’s more to being a TV sleuth than a set of wheels of course. A quirky sidekick or partner helps, or having a buddy on the force. I have neither because I like working alone. It’s a lot less awkward when you’re trying to get photos of a philandering Camaro-driving jerk, or “Phil” as I’d come to think of him, putting his, uh, nose, where it doesn’t belong.
I raised the viewfinder of my PENTAX and pointed the lens out the window of the vending room. The Camaro was parked a few spaces away from the lobby. Phil had parked it diagonally across two spaces to prevent anyone from getting too close to it with their doors. Made me dislike him even more.
It had started to rain while Phil was inside the office getting a room. Fat, heavy drops were coming down in a light shower. The blonde in the passenger seat was grimacing at the rain as she primped her hair. A good photo op. I zoomed in and snapped a few shots. Still no sign of Phil, so I stepped back from the window and listened to the tuneless humming of the ice machine while I waited.
A few more things separate real-life detectives from their fictionalized counterparts. On TV, P.I.s live somewhere cool, like a billionaire’s guest house, or Albuquerque. Spenser’s place was an old firehouse and it doesn’t get better than that. I’m based in Pocatello, Idaho, same city where I was born, and there is exactly one thing Pocatelloians have to brag about—we are the world’s largest supplier of french fries to McDonald’s.
The TV-inspired misconceptions that snoops such as myself are always packing heat and tripping over dead bodies like cracks in the sidewalk are the dumbest ones. I am happy to inform you that I have never seen a dead body that wasn’t dressed up in Sunday best, varnished and carefully displayed in a casket. I’ve also never fired a gun, let alone owned one, and I’ve been doing detective work since I was a teenager.
I don’t care that being a private eye isn’t as exciting as it seems on TV. I love my job and I’m proud of what I do. But it is just a job. Buddy told me something once when I was nine or ten that has always stuck with me: “Work doesn’t make the man. It’s how you live.” He was quoting Elvis when he told me that. I decided a long time ago he was right.
I checked the number of shots left on the film load. Say what you will about digital cameras, but there’s simply no replacing 35mm film and a fast lens for night shooting.
The door to the vending room opened while I was fiddling with my camera and I had a brief moment of panic that Phil or The Blonde were on the way in. I breathed a small sigh of relief when I saw a wizened old man in a green flannel robe standing in the doorway with a hotel ice bucket.
He squinted his bloodshot eyes as he looked me over.
“Hello,” I said, and smiled at him.
It’s hard to act nonchalant when you’re in a hotel vending room wearing a sequined jumpsuit with a camera in your hand, but I thought I pulled it off.
“You supposed to be Elvis or sumthin’?” he grumbled. The cigarette stuck between his lips bounced as he spoke.
“Back off, ya fuckin’ freak,” he said, raising a palsied hand and pointing his shaking finger at me.
This is why I hate Reno.
Mr. Wizened opened the top to the ice machine and dunked his bucket, letting Little Mr. Wizened out. “Damn Elvis impersonators make me sick,” he spat, knocking an inch long tube of ash from his cigarette into the machine. Bucket filled, he gave me one last disgusted glare and let himself out.
For the record, I am not an Elvis impersonator, I am a Lifestyle Elvis. There’s a difference. Yes, I wear a cape. And yes, it invites questions. It even makes it harder to do my job sometimes. But I’ve been dressing like Elvis since I was six and I’m not stopping now. Say what you will, but Elvis did have it right when it came to clothes. Jumpsuits are comfortable. You don’t have to worry about matching your shirt and pants. And contrary to popular belief, they’re functional. Most of them have lots of pockets, which is very helpful for a P.I. The one I had on was a powder blue one-piece with a gold lace-embroidered V-neck and cuffs. Not too showy, but still a bit of flair.
I put Mr. Wizened out of my mind and took a look out the vending room door. Phil was standing under the shelter of the lobby’s overhang, holding up a key and a bottle of whiskey.
I raised my camera and fired off a few frames as The Blonde got out of the Camaro and ran, rather ungracefully I might add, through the rain and into Phil’s waiting arms. I captured everything on film as she rubbed up against him, took a hit off of the bottle, coughed, grabbed Phil by the hand and led him up the concrete steps to the second floor rooms. I even got a few good stills of Phil standing halfway inside room 22, looking around to make sure no one was watching.
The ironic thing about jilted spouses is that even though they are suspicious enough to hire me, and I can show them pictures of their beloved going into a hotel room with a strange man or woman, they almost always convince themselves that there is a benign explanation for this activity. I’ve heard it all, from “That looks just like his brother,” to “Maybe she’s planning a romantic weekend and wanted to see the room first.” This is where the Peeping Tom part of the job comes in. I used to feel a little guilty about taking pictures of people during their most private moments. I don’t anymore. No one, not even the most self-deluded spouse, can argue with action photography. Infidelity can have devastating effects on a husband or wife, but not knowing for sure is worse. Providing the knowledge that the love of my client’s life is a cheater is an incredibly valuable service. So, guilt gone, I take pictures that would make Hefner blush.
Elvis once told a reporter that patience gets better results than impatience, which makes me think that maybe he’d have made a good private detective. You can’t rush up to a room and start trying to snap shots right after a couple goes in. If they have even half a brain between them, they’re usually still a little nervous about getting caught. For the first fifteen minutes or so, a cheating couple is excited, giggling and hyper aware of their surroundings. Then biology—or lust, if you prefer—takes over, and they get on to what they came for. That’s when you can walk right up to a window and take whatever pictures you want, in full view, without being noticed. Speaking of which, Phil’s fifteen minutes were up.
If you’re ever going to cheat on your spouse in a cheap motel, let me offer you a piece of advice. Always, always check the curtains. My guess is they are shabby and don’t quite fit right, leaving gaps for any nosy parker to look through. The truth is there are a lot of Peeping Toms out there without my altruistic motives, and you can usually find them meticulously checking every window in a place like the Mermaid. People don’t go there for the continental breakfast.
I doubt these two checked the curtains in room 22 at all, because there was at least a three-inch gap between the shades, giving me a perfectly framed shot of the bed, Phil, and The Blonde. Who, as it turns out, is not a natural blonde at all.
The next morning I took the photos to a discreet one-hour place I know and called the number Buddy had given me.
“Hello,” a woman answered.
“I’m calling for Buddy.”
“Is this…Señor Floyd?” She had a distinct Hispanic accent.
“And did you get the proof?”
I could hear the eagerness in her voice.
“I don’t discuss my cases,” I told her.
“Uh-huh,” she replied. “Buddy can’t get to the phone right now. He’d like you to come out and see him.”
She gave me an address on a rural route outside of Sparks, Nevada, a one gas station kind of town about sixty miles from Reno, but as good a place as any for Buddy to park his truck. With the pictures in hand, I was on my way.
It was a dull drive filled with sagebrush and dirt, so my thoughts quickly turned to Buddy. He probably knows more about Elvis than Elvis does, and over the years he’d turned all that trivia into a philosophy rooted in the words and deeds of the King. Buddy has an Elvis quote for just about any situation, but his favorite is “Do what’s right for you as long as it don’t hurt no one,” a motto I’ve taken to heart. It’s because of Buddy that I’m a Lifestyle Elvis. There aren’t a lot of us, but it’s a growing movement, getting bigger every year. Most Lifestylers channel their inner Elvis privately, but I wear him on my sleeve. The jumpsuits and half capes pretty much give it away. So, like I said, being a Lifestyle Elvis is not the same as being an Elvis impersonator. Impersonating is performing. Lifestyling is more like abiding by the code of the 4-H or the Boy Scouts.
My turn-off was coming up so I shifted my attention back to the highway. Blink doing 75 and you can completely miss the unpaved lanes that pass for roads out here. Not this one, though. The exit off Interstate 80 was marked with a large wooden sign cut in the shape of a pork rind. “Pritchard Rind Ranch” was spelled out inside a circle of flaking black paint, with a picture of a happy cartoon pig eating pork rinds in the center.
I hit the brakes and stared at that sign.
Pritchard Pork Rinds are legendary in the Elvis community. Both because Vernon Pritchard, the reclusive owner of the company, is rumored to be a Lifestyler himself and because they were Elvis’s favorite brand. Buddy always had a case of them in the cab of his eighteen-wheeler, despite his fervid dislike for all things pork. No bacon, no ham, no chops. It was the one thing about Elvis he just couldn’t relate to. He was always trying to get me to take a bag or two of the things when he came to see me and my momma, but the idea of eating fried pig skin is about as appealing to me as downing a lard sundae.
I didn’t know what the relationship between Phil, Pritchard Pork Rinds, and Buddy was, but seeing that sign brought back memories of the conversation that had driven us apart a year ago.
Buddy believes that Elvis is still alive and living under the name Jon Burrows. For all I know he’s right. But Buddy’d taken me on my first Burrows hunt when I was a teenager and I’d grown tired of following up on leads that went nowhere. Eighteen years of looking and Jon Burrows was still a ghost. The up side was that I’d developed a talent for detective work and our efforts had resulted in a nice side business for Buddy, buying and selling Elvis memorabilia. After my last assignment, checking on a lounge singer in Cincinnati that might have been Elvis and wasn’t, I told Buddy I was done. We fought. It was bad. He hung up. And that was it for a year, until he reached out to have me get dirt on Phil.
As much as I wanted to see Buddy again, I didn’t want to get pulled back into the search for Elvis. I thought about turning around, decided against it, and stepped on the gas. Besides, I wanted to know what Pritchard Pork Rinds had to do with a dick in a vintage Camaro.
I turned off the highway onto a gravel access road. After a few miles, I came upon an electric fence penning in flocks of large, fuzzy, ostrichlike birds. They were pacing back and forth, letting out booming honks as I passed.
My drive finally came to an end at a large circular parking area closed off on three sides by a rustic wooden fence. A grand maple tree stood to one side of the circle, and I parked my Ford under its shady arms.
The red Camaro from the night before was parked across the circle from me. Several ranch hands were busy rubbing terrycloth towels over its spotless surface. Phil sat beneath a smaller maple directing their efforts from the shady comfort of his deck chair.
“Dry it faster! Come on! I don’t want water spots!”
I got out of my car and Phil stopped barking commands long enough to squint at me suspiciously. Then he rose from his chair, chest puffed out like one of those weird birds I’d passed on the way in, and bellowed at the help.
“Hey! Don’t use the dirty towels! You’ll scratch the finish!”
Alpha male status firmly established, Phil thrust his chin in my direction and grunted loudly in greeting.
I nodded back.
The screen door at the front of the house opened with a squeak of old hinges. An ancient-looking Mexican woman in a brightly colored skirt and blouse stepped out with what appeared to be a tall glass of iced lemonade. Her arms were thin and frail looking, but she held the glass steady as a rock.
“Good morning!” she said with a smile and a heavy, familiar accent. “I am Louisa.”
This was evidently the woman I’d spoken to on the phone.
“It’s very nice to meet you Louisa, I’m—”
“Señor Floyd. I know. Buddy is expecting you. That is a lovely jumpsuit you are wearing.”
Compliments on my apparel, although always appreciated, are fairly unusual the first time I meet someone. The fact that Louisa didn’t bat an eye at me must have been Buddy’s influence.
This jumpsuit—although it’s really more of anensemble—is one of my favorites. It’s called the “Black Fireworks Suit,” and the black pants, black sash, and black jacket are adorned with gold sequins arranged in starbursts and arcing contrails. The patterns really do look like fireworks on a summer night. The sash has a large, gold-colored oval where the belt buckle would be, and gold chains coming from the sides and around the waist. A sequined black half cape with a crimson lining ties it all together.
“It’s a replica of one Elvis wore on the ’71 national tour,” I told her.
“Well you’re simply dashing in it, Señor Floyd. Would you like a nice drink to cool you down?”
“I’d love one,” I admitted, and accepted the sweaty glass from her.
Phil saw the lemonade in my hand and yelled out, “Hey, Lucy, bring me a glass of that, will you?”
I took a sip. It was perfect. Icy cold, not too tart, not too sweet.
“Did you hear something, Señor Floyd? The wind I think,” Louisa said in a voice loud enough for Phil to hear.
I decided I liked her very much.
She continued to ignore Phil’s calls for lemonade and disappeared back into the cool darkness of the house with a curt “come with me.” The old springs on the screen door pulled it closed with a bang behind me.
The foyer of the Pritchard Ranch had wood-paneled walls hung with oil paintings. I stopped to admire an abstract portrait of a chubby naked woman. “Picasso” was scrawled in the lower corner. The one next to it I can only describe as some sort of astral wedding ceremony. It was signed “Chagall.”
Louisa watched me examine the paintings.
“Are these—?” I asked.
She just smiled and said, “Investments. This way, Señor Floyd.”
At the end of the hall was a sunken living room with a spectacular view of the back half of the Pritchard estate. Pork rinds had obviously been a very lucrative business.
“When did you last see Buddy?” Louisa asked me.
“It’s been a while,” I admitted.
She patted my cheek.
“Go down the hall. He’s in the room on the right. Try not to get him too excited, okay?”
I knocked on the door she’d pointed to.
“Come in,” I heard Buddy say.
I let myself into an infirmary. Complex medical equipment mounted to the walls monitored Buddy’s pulse, blood pressure and who knows what else. Buddy was sitting in a hospital bed with a book in his lap and an IV line running from under his collar to a bag hanging from a pole behind the bed. More IV bags filled a rack of stainless-steel shelves.
The last time I had seen Buddy he’d looked fine. A bit thin, but fine. He’d lost at least half his weight since then. His normally ruddy, clean-shaven face was gaunt, pale and covered with patchy stubble. White crud had built up in the corners of his mouth, and his lips were dry and cracked. The kind brown eyes were the same, though.
“It is good to see you again, boy,” Buddy said.
His voice was raspy and thick, like he had a sore throat.
“What’s going on?” I asked, still trying to understand what I was looking at.
“I got liver cancer, Floyd.”
“How long?” I asked, stunned.
“How long I had it, or how long I got left?”
“Both, I guess.”
“I’ve known for six months,” Buddy told me. “Doc says I’m about done. Could be days. Could be weeks. But not longer. Tumors are all over my body, in my guts, my lungs, eating me up.” He paused and frowned. “Don’t look at me that way, boy. Like Elvis said, ‘Ain’t nothing you can do about death and taxes.’ Now pull up a chair and let’s have a chat.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, sitting down next to him.
“You’ve lost enough people already. Didn’t want you burdened with this.”
“I’m sorry. About our fight,” I said. “I wish you would have called me sooner.”
“Me too, boy,” he said wearily.
I sat, looking at him, not knowing what to say. Elvis had brought us together and then driven us apart. Elvis was big on forgiveness, though, so I had always believed Buddy and I would make amends. I just didn’t think it would be to say goodbye.
“Hey, you see them crazy birds?” he asked finally.
“Yeah, I did. Ostriches?”
“Uh-uh. Emus. Guess they make good eating, but I wouldn’t know. They crap all over the place. Practically wallow in it.” Then, to himself, he added, “Worse than pigs. Don’t know how the hell Elvis could eat those things.”
There was another moment of awkward silence while the two of us struggled for something other than Buddy’s cancer to talk about.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I met Him?” he asked. His eyes sparkled with anticipation. It was his favorite story, and he had told it to me. Dozens of times. And he knew it.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
Buddy looked up at the ceiling, closed his eyes, and remembered.
“This was November, ’77,” he began. “I still owned the guitar shop in Boise. Elvis had just died a few months before. Your dad had passed, too. You would have been eight then?”
“Six,” I corrected him.
“That’s right. And already dressing up like Elvis. Boy that made your momma happy. My heart just wasn’t in it anymore, so I decided to close the store. I’d sold almost everything when a fella in a white suit and Panama hat came in. Told me his name was Jon Burrows, and he was looking for a Gibson Dove. I had one. In fact, it was just like the one Elvis used on tour. That six-string had the darkest ebony finish you ever saw. I even lacquered a Kenpo badge next to the bridge the same way Elvis had done. Your dad used to play that Gibson for you and your mom and sing Elvis tunes. I think that’s why she liked seeing her little man dressed up.”
Buddy stopped his story to cough and pointed to a glass of water sitting just out of his reach on the nightstand.
“Give me a little of that, would ya?”
I held the glass for him as he sipped from the straw.
“Thanks,” he said, motioning the glass away. “The cancer drugs make me thirsty as hell but I can’t hardly keep anything down. Anyway, this fella took one look at that Gibson and said to me, ‘Buddy, you got to let me buy that guitar.’ Problem was, that’s the only one I wouldn’t sell. I wanted you to have it when you got older. So I apologized to this fella that he couldn’t have it and told him about you and your dad. He thought about that, then told me to hold on a minute while he got something out of his car. I was afraid he was going to come back in with a gun.”
Buddy usually punctuated this story with a laugh when he mentioned the gun, but it was another burst of coughing that interrupted it this time. I gave him some more water and when his hacking settled down, he continued.
“The fella came back with a roll of hundred dollar bills and a photograph. He put that roll on my counter and said, ‘Buddy, there’s five grand.’ Then he set the picture down beside it. It was an autographed photo of Elvis with a note beneath the signature. You know what it said?”
“What did the note say, Buddy?” I asked on cue.
“It said, ‘Obey your momma, live a clean life, and do what’s right for you as long as it don’t hurt no one.’ Then the fella looked me in the eye and said, ‘Sounds to me like that boy could use Elvis’s advice and his momma could use the money. And I sure could use that guitar. What do you say?’
“Well I thought about it. He was right. About you and your mom. So I handed over the Gibson and he held it like an old friend. I picked up the roll of cash and slipped off the rubber band to count it, thanking the fella on his way out. He stopped in the doorway, guitar in hand, and looked over his shoulder at me. That’s when I knew it was him. But even if I didn’t know it then, I would have in a minute, ’cause this fella, he said to me, ‘No Buddy. Thank you. Thank you very much.’ Then he was gone. Like a puff of smoke.” Buddy nodded his head, satisfied with the end to his story.
“Elvis did not die on a toilet,” he said with conviction. “He is alive and well.”
I’ve been listening to Buddy tell this story almost my entire life. I don’t doubt that a guy really did come in and buy a Gibson. I’m just not sure it was Elvis. What I do know is that day set Buddy on a new path. He closed the shop, bought a big-rig truck and hauled freight all over the country, looking for the man in the Panama hat. The fact that Jon Burrows was the name Elvis used during his performing days when he didn’t want his fans, or the press, beating down his hotel room doors just added to Buddy’s sureness.
I’ve never understood why Buddy wanted to find Elvis. If the man wanted to fake his death, who were we to look for him? But I loved Buddy like a father, so I helped him. Until I just couldn’t anymore. I realized now that the cost of walking away from his quest was too high. I couldn’t undo that decision, but I could try to make up for it by staying by Buddy’s side until the end.
“You do what I asked you?” Buddy said.
“I did.” I patted the envelope of photographs in the breast pocket of my jumpsuit. “But why are you here and not in a hospital?”
“’Cause I hate hospitals,” Buddy said. “And because there are two things left I want to do before my time on this good green Earth is done.”
“And they are?”
“You meet Vernon yet?”
“Turn around, boy.”
A woman was standing in the doorway behind me, looking at Buddy with a small, sad smile.
Her hair was as black as midnight and fell to either side of her pale, pretty face. Bright red lipstick played up her full lips. She was wearing a deep purple velvet jumpsuit with a collar that rose up to her ears and a neckline that dipped down to her navel. Gold chains held the front of the jumpsuit together, revealing everything without revealing anything. Another gold chain was cinched around her waist and the legs of the suit were tucked into high-heeled, rhinestone boots.
I knew there were some lady Lifestyle Elvises out there, but it didn’t occur to me they might suit up. Vernon managed to both look the part and still come across as all woman.
Her gaze shifted from Buddy to me.
“You’re staring,” she said.
“Sorry. You’re Vernon Pritchard? I thought you were an old man.”
She let out little snort. “It’s a long story.”
I was about to ask to hear it when Buddy started coughing again. It was worse this time. The cough racked his body, and Buddy rolled onto his side, his hands grasping at his chest as he struggled for breath. Bloody foam began to dribble from the corner of his mouth. Vernon’s forehead wrinkled in concern and she pushed me out of the way to check on him.
Buddy’s face had flushed a bright red and the strain of the coughing made the veins in his neck and face swell and pulse.
“You haven’t been using the morphine,” she said, pressing a button on a box attached to the IV stand.
“I’m not sleeping away my last days, girl,” Buddy sputtered as his spasms subsided.
Buddy had never married and had no children of his own. If I’d been the son he never had, Vernon was clearly the daughter. As she adjusted the flow on the IV, Buddy watched her with the same affection I’d seen in his face when he used to take me out for ice cream on hot Saturday afternoons.
I suddenly felt hurt that he’d never told me about her.
“We should let Buddy rest,” Vernon told me, wiping the blood from his chin. “I just gave him a bolus of morphine. It’s nap time.”
“Not yet,” Buddy objected. “Floyd, I still got two things left to do! The photos…for Vernon. She’ll tell…tell you…the other.”
Buddy’s eyes closed and his breathing deepened. He was asleep.
Vernon brushed a wispy lock of hair off of Buddy’s forehead and pulled the covers up around him.
“Why don’t you go wait in my study,” she said. “Go through the double doors in the living room. I’m just going to make sure Buddy’s comfortable and that his meds are ready. I’ll join you in a minute.”
I nodded and slipped out of Buddy’s sickroom. Vernon had a nice house, and she was obviously rich, but nothing could have prepared me for what was behind the two heavy wooden doors leading to her “study.”
I stood in the doorway, my mouth hanging open like an idiot. Study was the wrong name for the room. Museum would have been better. Crossing the threshold was like stepping into a shrine to Elvis.
A perfectly preserved 1968 baby blue Cadillac convertible with white leather seats sat dead center. Elvis loved cars, and once called the ’68 Caddy as close to perfect as any car can get. I could see why.
“That one was Priscilla’s,” I heard Vernon say from behind me.
“It’s beautiful.” I meant it. Looking at the curves and sweeps of the body and the gleam of the chrome was like looking at art.
“Start it up,” she told me. “Keys are in it.”
I walked around to the driver’s side of the car, trailing my fingers over the hood as I went. The heavy steel door opened without a creak and I sat down on the soft leather.
I double-checked to make sure the car was in park and the brake was on, reached down to the side of the steering column, and turned over the ignition. The big block V8 roared to life. Vernon walked around and put her hand on my shoulder and smiled as we listened to the engine music.
Idling the car was only delaying the inevitable, though. Buddy didn’t bring me here to play with toys. I turned the ignition off and handed her the packet of photos. “Buddy said these are for you. I’m guessing the guy with the Camaro is your husband?”
“That’s right,” Vernon said tightly.
“Do you want to see them, or do you want me to tell you what’s on them?” I asked.
Vernon took the envelope and walked over to a small desk in the corner. She dropped down into a black leather chair and spread the photos out onto the blotter. Her face was expressionless as she looked through them.
I wanted to give Vernon some space and turned my attention to the glass cases on the walls. I moved closer to read one of the small brass plaques. White Nail Jumpsuit, 1973. I’d seen pictures of this one from his Vegas shows. The next one read Smoking Jacket, 1961—Memphis Concert. In February of that year Elvis was honored for the annual donations he made to Memphis charities. Tennessee governor Buford Ellington even declared it Elvis Presley Day. This was the jacket he wore at the concert that evening. I wanted to ask Vernon where she’d gotten it, but she was still looking through the photos.
I know from experience there is no right thing to say after a jilted spouse has seen photographic evidence of adultery. It doesn’t matter that they already suspected. They feel like they just got punched in the gut and want to know details like how long, or how many times. The victim wants to lash out and I’m the only one standing there. About the only thing a P.I. can do that won’t get a book, or something harder, thrown in his general direction is to wait quietly for the inevitable questions.
“Have you ever been to Kresge, Wyoming?” Vernon asked.
That wasn’t normally one of the inevitable questions. “I’ve never even heard of Kresge.”
Vernon’s face revealed no hint of what she was feeling. She got up from her desk and stood before a glass case containing a mounted karate robe, complete with black belt. It took me a second to recognize it as a set that Buddy had me buy for him eight or nine years ago. It had been a race to get it, between me and Cougar Watts, a finder for an Elvis memorabilia broker named Anton Sebastian Bergstrom. Bergstrom is Buddy’s archnemesis, for lack of a better word. He doesn’t have any respect for the King beyond how he can make a buck. Glancing quickly around the room, I spotted a number of other Elvis artifacts I’d been sent to acquire.
“Did you know that when Priscilla left Graceland, Elvis threw himself into the martial arts?” Vernon asked.
I did, actually. It’s what inspired me to take up Judo, although I’d never be as good at it as Elvis was at karate. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t think Vernon was really looking for an answer.
She reached out a finger to the glass and traced the belt’s course before turning to me to say, “That’s when he earned his black belt. I can understand why he might have needed to punch things.”
“It’s okay. Buddy never approved of Roger. My husband. Said he was a gold digger. And not the good-hearted, happy-ending, Dianne-Carter type.”
“You and Buddy must be pretty close, you taking care of him like this,” I said.
“He’s my godfather. When my dad passed, Buddy came out to stay with me a while and got the estate in order. That’s when he told me about your picture, the one from his story. ‘Do what’s right for you, as long as it don’t hurt no one.’ That made sense to me.”
“So he talks to you about me?” I asked.
“Yeah. Telling stories about you and him on the road makes him happy.”
“Why hasn’t Buddy ever mentioned you to me?”
“I told him not to,” she said plainly.
“No matter what Buddy said, I didn’t know if I could trust you. A lot of people tried to get a piece of the business when I took over. Or a piece of me. It’s easier to run a pork rind business if everyone thinks you’re a man.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but about that…”
Vernon closed her eyes and sighed, as if this were a question she had to answer too often.
“Daddy only married my mom because she told him she was having a boy. He didn’t find out I was a girl until she ran off with his money when I was four.”
“Oh,” I said uncomfortably. What else is there to say to that? I decided to change the subject.
“Buddy said he has two things left to do…”
“Convincing me that Roger is a rotten, cheating bastard was one of them,” she said.
I suppose I could have chosen a better subject. “And the second?”
“I think you already know. Before he dies, Buddy wants you to find Jon Burrows.”
I did know it. But hearing her say it brought back the sick feeling in my gut.
“I’m not sure I even believe Elvis is alive,” I said.
Vernon shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Buddy does and he thinks you can find him.”
“I’ve tried. Believe me. You don’t really expect me to go off on a Burrows hunt while Buddy lays dying, do you?”
“Yes. I do. And you will,” Vernon said. “Ever wonder where Buddy found the money to send you looking for Elvis?”
Actually, I had. Quite a few times.
“I’ve been bankrolling your Burrows hunts, Floyd,” Vernon told me. “I don’t know where Buddy gets his information, but he gets good tips and I pay to follow them up. It’s the least I can do for him.”
Over the past ten, twelve years, Buddy had picked up lines on Burrows’s travels and sent me to every corner of the country hound-dogging them. I’d always arrived days, weeks, even years, in the most recent case, too late. And there was absolutely no proof that the Jon Burrows I was tracking was actually Elvis.
“Buddy got a new tip that Burrows is in Kresge. Right now. You’re going to go find him.”
Vernon went back to her desk and pulled a roll of cash and some keys out of a drawer.
“Why is this Burrows hunt any different than the last one?” I asked.
“Because we heard that Bergstrom sent Cougar Watts to Kresge two, maybe three weeks ago,” she said.
If Watts was in Kresge, then there was definitely something worth looking into. But not something more valuable than spending time with Buddy.
“That doesn’t change anything,” I protested. “I’m not going.”
“I figured you’d say that. I don’t want to fight, so I’m going to make it easy for you. Buddy wants you to find Burrows, so that means I want you to find Burrows. Be on the road by sunset or I’ll have you thrown out. Either way, you won’t be sticking around my ranch. Understand?”
“You wouldn’t do that,” I said.
“Yes. I would.”
If this is the way Vernon handles people who aren’t trying to get something from her, she didn’t really need to worry about people knowing she’s a she.
“Why? He could be dead before I get back.”
Vernon cocked her head to the side and gave me a condescending look.
“Buddy has spent two decades helping people find their inner Elvis. He wants his idol to know what an impact he’s made.”
“If he is alive, seems like all the impersonators and commemorative plates would give him an idea.”
“It’s not the same thing,” Vernon chided.
She was right. Living like Elvis would want you to is not the same thing as buying crap from the Franklin Mint.
“Fine. I’ll go. But if I don’t find something quickly, I come back and you let me see Buddy.”
“Deal,” she said. “How’s that car of yours running, Floyd? It looks like a junker.”
“Don’t worry. It will get me there,” I assured her.
Vernon put the keys and money she was holding into my hand.
“Some traveling cash,” she said. “You should be driving in style. I’ve signed the title of the Camaro over to you. Roger just had it washed and waxed.”
Vernon excused herself, so I went back to Buddy’s room and waited by his bed until he woke up. We spent a good hour together, just talking. What we said wasn’t important to either one of us. The simple act of spending time together was what counted. My last words to him before hitting the road were that I would find Jon Burrows and prove he was Elvis.
I doubted that the two men were one and the same, or that the Jon Burrows from Buddy’s guitar shop in Boise could really be found in Kresge, Wyoming. But I’d try anyway. One last Burrows hunt.
Roger was still polishing the Camaro when I closed the screen door to Vernon’s home behind me.
“That is a beautiful car,” I called out to him, grabbing my bags out of the Ford’s trunk.
“Cherry,” Roger confirmed before rattling off a bunch of numbers and words about engines and transmissions that I didn’t understand.
I walked around to the trunk of the Camaro and used the key Vernon had given me to open it.
“What the hell are you doing?” Roger asked as I tossed my stuff in.
I shut the trunk with a metallic bang.
“Taking my new car for a drive,” I answered.
Roger put himself between me and the door of the car.
“This is my car,” he said.
I dangled the keys in front of him.
“Should have kept it in your pants, pal. Hey, did that blonde at The Mermaid like you or your ride? Maybe I should give her a call?”
I was baiting him, I know, but the guy was an ass.
Roger balled his fist and took a shot at me, but swung wide like an amateur. I stepped inside his reach, grabbed his arm, and pulled him forward. I planted my left foot in front of him to put him off balance and let his own momentum send him sprawling in the soapy mud and grass. I love Judo.
Louisa’s laughter came to me from inside the house. I don’t know whether or not Vernon was watching, but I’d bet a box of pork rinds that this is exactly what she’d hoped would happen. By the time Roger was up on his feet, I had the Camaro started and was pulling away, the setting sun in my rearview.
Five fill ups later I was slowing my new gas guzzler to 25 just ahead of the green-and-white “Welcome to Kresge, Population 3,452” sign. Travel enough in the West and you learn quickly that nearly every little town has a speed trap right inside the city limits. But it wasn’t a police cruiser waiting for me as I coasted into town, it was a step back in time—to Denmark, circa 1890.