After a few hours of sleep in a motel halfway between Amarillo and Dallas, we pushed on to Memphis. The drive was a long, hard slog on interstates full of speeding big rigs. Tension filled the Camaro, in between the spaces filled up by the all the things we weren’t talking about. Things like the kiss, or the Gatlin brothers, or the kiss, or what might be waiting for us in Memphis, or the kiss. Mostly we just took turns driving and let the radio get us through.
Elvis lived in a rundown trailer park on the outskirts of Memphis. Weeds poked through the gravel that served as a parking spot. Rust painted the underpinning of the trailer, an old relic from the seventies. A Bowie knife pierced the door, holding a torn piece of paper in place. He removed the knife and read the note, then passed it to me without comment as he unlocked the door.
“I’m coming for you.” It was unsigned.
“Lewis,” I said, naming the last Gatlin brother standing.
“Yep.” Elvis eased a gun out of his duffel and gestured for me to wait. I wanted to ask, why leave a note if you’re going to ambush someone in their home? But I kept quiet. For all I knew, Elvis had plenty of vampire enemies who might want to ambush him. I reached into my bag and clutched my Zippo.
After a few minutes of checking the closets for fanged monsters, Elvis returned and led me inside. The place definitely had a bachelor look to it, clothes and stuff everywhere, but it was clean. The furnishings were as old as the trailer. The cloth-covered sofa had a few spots where stuffing peeked out. The TV was an honest-to-God RCA. A stack of magazines teetered next to a recliner. Paperbacks were everywhere. The wall opposite the front door held three velvet paintings: Elvis Presley flanked by a matador and dogs playing poker. Stepping further into the place I found a stereo cabinet with an old turntable, the shelves full of vinyl. I looked through his collection, finding a lot of gems.
I pulled out a copy of Whipped Cream & Other Delights to display the babe on the cover. “I’m surprised this isn’t on the wall.”
Elvis looked up from investigating the fridge, wincing at the date on a jug of milk. He set the old milk in the sink and grinned. “Got a poster in the bedroom.”
I laughed. “I take it the turntable works?”
He nodded. I put on the album, A Taste of Honey filling the small space. The speakers were top-notch, that was for sure.
We spent the next couple of hours continuing to avoid the things we needed to talk about, opting for showers and pizza delivery instead. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Dropping a half-eaten slice onto my plate, I said his name then stopped, unsure what to say next.
“There’s nothing you can say’s gonna change my mind.” He finished his beer, carrying the empty can to the trash and his plate to the sink. “It’s time.”
“Two of them are dead. Why can’t that be enough?”
He wouldn’t meet my eyes. “How can you ask me that?”
I bit my lip, embarrassed. Witnessing the brutal murder of a parent…I knew he couldn’t let it go. “What’s Lewis like?” Darnell and Micah had been scary, terrifying even, to me at least. Elvis had dispatched them easily.
“He’s the oldest brother and the worst.” Elvis retrieved a bottle of whiskey, an unopened two-liter of soda, two Bugs Bunny glasses, and returned to the table. Mixing the drinks, he jerked his chin in the direction of the Bowie knife left in his door, now resting on a countertop. “That’s mine. He took it from me the last time we tangled. After he stuck it my back.”
I tried to suppress a shudder but couldn’t quite make it. “Obviously you got away so he can’t be too badass.”
“His aim was lousy. He was trying to sever my spine. He pulled the knife out and licked the blood off, left me there to die.”
The pizza turned rancid in my stomach. I grabbed a glass and took a drink. The alcohol burned all the sweet out of the soda and mercifully all the images parading through my head. “You don’t have to stay here. If he can’t find you -”
“I want this done. I’ve been living with this for twenty years, Nikki.”
“You keep this up, you may not live much longer.”
He added more booze to his drink, mouth curled in a sneer. “The world’s not gonna mourn one less Elvis impersonator.”
“I would! You jackass, you can’t just throw your life away chasing vengeance! Do you really think that’s what your mother would want?”
He slammed his fist on the table, making the rickety thing shake so much I was afraid it would break. “You don’t know a damn thing about my mama, so just keep your damn mouth shut!”
I fled to the bedroom, not wanting to face his anger or whatever the hell it was I was feeling. This was about a story, I admonished myself. Not my own feelings. It was one thing to party with the band, play pool and hang out, but you don’t get personal. You have to maintain objectivity in order to write, that’s the key to being a good journalist. Because when you start having stupid feelings, well, you might as well pack your bags and go home.
Maybe that’s what I needed to do. I could be on a plane back to California the next day. Forget about vampires and Elvis Jones, pick up another assignment from my editor.
Elvis stood in the doorway, backlit from the kitchen. His face was lost in shadow. I stepped backward, calves meeting the bed. He moved forward, hands flexed at his sides and something like fear revealed in his eyes. I crossed my arms over my chest, at a loss for words again.
After a long moment, he spoke. “Wanna see my scar?” The side of his mouth ticked upward, a playful heat darkening his eyes.
“Which one?” I was determined not to be charmed by him.
He rubbed his jaw. “Yeah, I do have a few.” He stepped closer.
I put my hand on his chest. To keep him away, I told myself. Well, tried to tell myself. “You don’t have to do this.”
“It’s been twenty years.” He twined his hands in my hair, pulling me close. “I’m tired, Nikki. I’m so tired.” He kissed me, tentative, gentle, needing something I didn’t know if I could give. “Convince me.”
I pulled him down to the bed. That was all the invitation he needed. He took over, feasting on me like a man starved for touch. Desperate for connection, however fleeting. He made love like he sang, all power and passion. Afterward, I held him close, marveling at the strength he’d cultivated to fight vampires that was so at odds with his fragile heart.
He was in such a good mood later that he let me talk him into continuing our interview. “Favorite Elvis song from the fifties?”
“Sun or RCA?”
I scribbled hastily on my notepad. “Both.”
“Mystery Train for Sun. All Shook Up for RCA.”
Leaning against pillows and the headboard, bare chest displaying every muscle and scar like badges of honor, the sheet barely covered the rest of him and I had trouble focusing. “Do you ever wear anything other than the seventies jumpsuits? Maybe something like the black leather from the ’68 special?”
A lazy grin illuminated his features. “I might do that sometime. Would you like it if I did?”
Just like his namesake, Elvis Jones knew how to make a girl’s toes curl. I stammered some sort of reply.
He moved closer, taking a lock of my hair between two fingers and twisting it. “Black leather’s hot, you know. You gonna make it worth my while?” He softened the come-on with a laugh.
I pushed him away. “You’re shameless.”
He eased back against the pillows. “Yes, ma’am.”
There had been a question on my mind since first meeting him but it was rather delicate. Normally I didn’t let that stop me but, well…I still didn’t let it stop me, but I was prepared to back off if he didn’t want to answer. “Why did your mother name you after Elvis Presley?”
As with every time his mother was mentioned, pain shadowed his face and his eyes darkened. But after a moment he spoke. “She loved his music. Hell, she even loved all the movies. She liked his life story, too. The good parts of it, you know, not those last couple years. The fact that he grew up poor and made something of himself. She used to tell me I could do the same thing.” He paused for a long moment. His voice barely above a whisper, he said, “She loved to hear me sing. She used to tell me she’d see me on stage one day, and I’d make records and win Grammys. Mama wanted me to dream big.”
“Did you let go of that, or do you still dream?”
“You really think there’s any room for dreams in all this?”
“I think you’d have to make room.” I dropped the notepad to the floor and moved closer to him. “Have you ever considered leaving Memphis for Nashville? Or even LA? If the right people hear you, you’d have a real shot at a recording contract.”
Elvis draped an arm around my shoulders. “I listen to the radio sometimes. Been known to sing some Jack White. His solo stuff and songs from his various bands.”
I raised an eyebrow.
He took the bait, leaving the bed to find his jeans and guitar. I was treated to an acoustic version of Love Interruption. Like with everything else I’d heard him sing, Elvis made it his own.
I reached for his hand when he finished the song. “You really should give Nashville or LA a try.”
Now it was his turn to raise an eyebrow. “I don’t know.”
“I know people. Producers, club owners, A&R guys. I’m not saying it would be easy but with that voice and your looks and your charisma, you’d have a great shot at making something happen.”
He rubbed his chin, staring at the floor. “I used to want that. Man, I wanted it bad. Even after, you know. It was a long time before I stopped thinking about it.”
“Maybe you should start thinking about it again.”
He squeezed my hand and met my gaze. Something like hope bloomed in the golden brown depths of his eyes. He set the guitar aside and drew me into his lap, his kiss slow and thorough.
The moment was cut short by a pounding on the front door. Then a ragged voice called out, “Elvis Jones! I’m looking for Elvis Jones!”
Elvis moved me and reached under the bed, withdrawing a shotgun. “Stay here,” he ordered.
I watched him rush from the room, swearing and searching for my jeans. For about half a second I actually considered following his order, then hurried to the living room.
A boy of about ten or twelve stood in the doorway, looking up at Elvis with a mix of shock and desperation. “He said you’d know who he is and where to go. Please, you gotta do this. He’s got my mother.” The boy fought back tears as he handed Elvis a scrap of paper. “He’s got my momma.” Sweat stood out on his brown skin and his hands shook at his sides.
Elvis peered out the door then pulled the kid inside and guided him to the sofa. Stone-faced, he read the note. He swore, then headed for the room at the opposite end of the trailer. Torn between wanting to comfort the kid and talk to Elvis, I followed Elvis. I didn’t know how to deal with kids.
I caught him as he was about to open the door to the second bedroom. “What are you going to do?”
The hope in his eyes was gone, replaced with a cold rage. “I’m gonna kill Lewis Gatlin.” He flung the door open.
The room was full of weapons. A bookcase full of sharpened stakes and flasks of holy water stood against one wall. Two shotguns and a hunting rifle were mounted opposite the bookcase. A heavy wire rack held various handguns and knives. What really drew the eye, though, was what dominated the back wall. A reproduction of the black leather suit Elvis Presley wore in his 1968 Christmas special hung there, flanked by a samurai sword. Elvis slammed the door before I could step inside.
I spoke to the child, learned his name was Kevin and tried to do what I could for him. Not having much experience with kids, that pretty much meant making him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and finding some juice for him to drink. He didn’t say much, just sat on the sofa twisting his Spider-Man watch around.
The door to the weapons room opened. Elvis emerged, wearing the black leather suit with the samurai sword strapped to his back. He carried a small duffel that sagged from the weight of weapons. Without a word he pushed me against the fridge, kissing me with a ferocity that was almost frightening. Everything fell away – vampires, the kid and his mother, the fear that Elvis might not come back. All thought surrendered under the onslaught of his lips.
Until I felt a circle of cold metal on my wrist and heard the click that trapped me to the fridge door. With my free hand, I pushed him away. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Keeping you safe.” He crossed into the living room and gave Kevin a small key. “I’m going after your momma but I need you to stay here and keep my friend from doing something crazy. So you keep this key and don’t unlock those cuffs unless I don’t come back or call in two hours.” He gave me a significant look. “If y’all don’t hear from me in two hours, get out and don’t come back. Not at night.”
If he didn’t survive he was afraid Lewis Gatlin would come here. That’s what he was telling me with that look. My stomach twisted into knots. “Is there anyone you can call for help?”
“I know some folks, sure, but they’re too far away to get here in time.” He disappeared into the bedroom for a minute. When he returned he brought me a bar stool to sit on and handed me a piece of paper. “This guy’s a buddy of mine. You call him if it comes to that, tell him what happened. He’ll help you.” He looked at Kevin. “He’ll help you both.”
Elvis kissed me one last time, then made for the door. I said, “I know you have to go but please, don’t leave me handcuffed.”
“I don’t want you coming after me, thinking you can help. This is too dangerous.” He looked at the boy. Did he see a ghost in that child’s face, the ghost of himself at that age?
Elvis was gone before I could say another word. The door hadn’t finished swinging shut before I turned to the kid. “Bring me that key.”
“No.” He sat back and crossed his arms over his chest, the key tight in one balled fist.
“I’m an adult, you need to do as I say.”
He laughed. The little brat laughed at me. “That’s the man that’s gonna bring my momma back. I’m gonna do what he says.”
It was hard to argue with that. I didn’t think I had much chance of convincing him of my vampire fighting skills and that Elvis needed me as backup. The kid was no dummy, he’d see right through that. So I waited, a good half hour by the clock over the stove, while Kevin watched TV and twisted that Spider-Man watch enough he’d probably left marks on his skin.
I said, “I need to use the bathroom.”
He turned down the volume. “For real?”
“Yes, I promise. I’ll behave and follow orders and do what Elvis said. Now unlock these cuffs or get a mop.”
That got him up and running. I retreated to the bedroom and availed myself of the master bathroom (hey, I didn’t lie to the kid). Then I gathered up some cash, my lighter, a handgun I found under the bathroom sink, and a light jacket out of my luggage.
Kevin shook his head when he saw me. “I should have let you go on the floor.”
“Where’s the vampire got your mother?”
He flinched, whether at the mention of his mother or the word vampire I couldn’t tell. “A warehouse down by the river. I don’t know the address.”
“Can you find it again if you go with me?”
“He said we should stay here.”
“He may be a badass but he’s not a superhero. He might need help.” I found a phone book and called a cab while he thought about it.
Between waiting for the cab and the drive into Memphis, almost an hour passed. The deadline was fast approaching. I had my phone and the paper with the number of Elvis’s hunter friend in one pocket, the gun in the other. Kevin led the driver to the warehouse. To smooth over any suspicion I tipped the driver almost as much as the cost of the fare.
I tried to convince Kevin to take the cab to a relative’s house but he refused. I couldn’t blame him. A scream pierced the night as we searched for a way into the warehouse. Kevin found a door and ran inside. I followed, not quite fast enough to keep up.
I found myself in a large open bay with some rusty equipment of some sort on the far left side. Kevin was huddled there with a woman in blue scrubs, their arms wrapped around each other. She looked scared but unharmed.
Elvis was at the far end of the bay, facing my direction. A man I presumed to be the vampire Lewis Gatlin was several feet away. Elvis raised his sword, rushing the vampire. Gatlin moved so fast I couldn’t see him. Between the vampire’s speed and the darkness, it was hard to tell what was happening until suddenly there was only one man standing.
Red flames engulfed the vampire, quickly leaving nothing behind but a drift of ash. I smiled at Elvis, so relieved he’d survived and so happy for him. He’d been waiting for this moment for twenty years. Would vengeance finally give him peace and let him move on with his life? God, I hoped so.
I ran toward him. “Elvis, you did it!”
He fell to his knees and that’s when I saw that the black leather of his outfit was slashed in a dozen or more places and slick with blood. More blood painted his face and neck, wet his hair, dripped into his eyes. The sword clattered to the concrete floor and he pitched over.
I knelt at his side and put a hand on his chest. It came away bloody. “Oh God,” I murmured.
“Is she okay? The mother?” It was a struggle for him to speak.
I glanced at the mother and son. “Yeah, I think so.” I took his hand in mine. “They’re together.”
Kevin’s mother rushed over and gave Elvis first aid as best she could with no supplies. I called 911, though I had no idea what I would tell the authorities about how he sustained his injuries. Fighting vampires seemed a risky story to tell, to put it mildly. Right then, all I cared about was getting him the medical help he needed.
The song says it never rains in Southern California. That’s not true, but it feels true, even when a light rain washes away the day and makes the sunlight sparkle like diamonds. I turned away from a corner window at Turntable Magazine’s headquarters to return to my desk and finish some work, wanting to hurry so I could beat the Friday traffic. I had an album review to write and still hadn’t listened to the album.
The rain had passed by the time I made it out of the office. It took over an hour to get home, thanks to the usual traffic and freeway construction. The drive gave me plenty of time to think.
I had wanted to write about Elvis Jones, Vampire Hunter, and I did. For weeks it stayed on my hard drive, unread by anyone. Eventually, I succumbed to temptation and set up an anonymous blog, passing the story off as fiction. Page views were low, which was fine with me, and I’d made sure to change names to protect the innocent. I didn’t want any blowback on the family Elvis saved. Seeing that mother and son holding tight to each other in that warehouse had made me realize a truth about Elvis that had eluded me until then. It wasn’t revenge he was after in all those years of hunting vampires and finally killing the three who’d murdered his mother. It was redemption. An adult can at least try to tell themselves that it wasn’t their fault, that there was nothing they could have done. But a twelve-year-old boy who witnessed the horrific murder of his mother? There’s no rationality there, no logic. Just pure emotion. It was a demon he’d had to exorcise.
The hell of it is, I think Lewis Gatlin helped him do it, in a way. Just killing the Gatlin brothers might not have been enough to free Elvis from the trap his heart and soul had been in for twenty years. By kidnapping Janice Thompson and sending her child to Elvis for help, Gatlin might have thought he was twisting the knife when really he was showing Elvis the way out. And like another song says, the only way out is through. That’s why I didn’t even consider trying to talk Elvis out of going. I knew it would have been pointless and besides, that little boy’s mother needed help.
But at what cost? Well, that’s the thing about heroes – they don’t count the cost beforehand.
A postcard from Nashville waited in my mailbox at home. The front was a glossy photo collage of the clubs on Lower Broadway. The back was a message from Elvis.
Got a regular gig two nights a week. Think I’m going to like it here. – E
He’d never said a word about giving up vampire hunting. The fact that he’d moved to Nashville and was actively pursuing a career in music was a good sign, though. I wished him the best and hoped he stayed safe.
As for me? I still hadn’t figured out how to deal with my newfound knowledge of things that went bump in the night. Music was my first love, but I found myself more and more curious about what else was out there in the dark. I had no plans to go looking, though. Curiosity was one thing, but deliberately seeking out danger was a bridge too far.
I put the postcard on the fridge with the other two he’d sent me. After a quick shower, I went for a drive on the Pacific Coast Highway. I’d been doing that a lot lately. Sunglasses on, windows down, stereo up, this time blasting The Doors. I’d made it a point to use the drives to discover new places, always on the lookout for good Mexican food and good music. There’s a lot of nice places along the coast.
As long as I stayed out of Santa Carla. That place was crawling with vampires.
<- Part Three