Tabloid Tales: Memphis Interlude
By Ellie Dauber
This is the second of my two stories about Twentieth Century icons. Except for this one, all the “Tabloid Tales” stories were written by a very fine writer named Pyrite, whose work I heartily recommend. The stories are part of a VERY long line of tales set in a pub, bar, or other drinking establishment by authors ranging from Lord Dunsany to Spider Robinson. In the Tabloid Tales, the characters are all writers working at tabloid newspapers, the sort of paper sold in the checkout line in grocery stores. Since they write about the odd and fantastic, they’re willing to listen, at least, to any sort of story told by one of their own. In this story, it’s a fellow named Billy McNeil, who has a KING-sized tale to tell.
Tabloid Tales: Memphis Interlude
By Ellie Dauber
The Wheatsheaf Pub -- Wapping London -- October '99
It was another Friday night at the Wheatsheaf, the small dockside pub that had somehow become the favorite place for London's tabloid reporters to relax and unwind after a day of muckraking. It was a warm and pleasant autumn night, the sort that people called "Indian Summer". Normally, the Wheatsheaf would have been filled, but some American rock stars had flown into Heathrow late that afternoon. There had been some sort of blow-up: drugs, under-aged girls, exotic pets -- maybe all three. Half the reporters in town, including a lot of the regulars, were waiting to see how it all sorted out.
Tom Walters and Mike Langston were sitting in a corner booth, trading "war stories" about rockers that they'd covered, when Billy McNeil came in. Tom shouted and waved him over. "Not out at Heathrow to see the ‘Dogs at Bay’? I thought you covered the rock scene?"
"Actually, they're called the ‘Baying Hounds’," Billy said, "which pretty well describes Snake Addison's singing voice." He sat down at the table and motioned for the barmaid to bring him a beer. "I do a story now and then when there's nobody else that wants it, but I lost interest -- especially in American rock -- over twenty years ago." Billy was a tall, stocky man of about 50, with thinning sandy brown hair going to gray. He seldom got rocker stories any more. Except for dinosaurs like Clapton or McCartney, what rock star would open up to a man who looked more like his father than one of his mates?
"Say, that's right," Tom said. "You got one of the last interviews with Elvis, didn't you?"
"Got that and a lot more." The barmaid brought his beer. He took a long swallow. "I got a story that -- well, that _nobody_ would believe."
"What is it?" Mike said. "You know who really killed him? You have proof he's really still alive?"
"No," Billy said. "In a crazy sort of way, he really did kill himself." He paused and looked around. He took another swallow of his beer and continued. "And he's regretted it ever since."
"Oh," Tom said. "So you're -- what do they call it -- you're channeling Elvis' ghost?"
Billy looked nervous. "I've said far too much. Nobody would believe me anyway. It would be hell, though, if they did." He put a two pound coin on the table to pay for the beer and stood up to leave.
Tom caught his arm. "Look, Billy. We're tabloid journalists here, the lot of us. We've all heard and seen too many things not to believe a story just because it seems strange. And if you ask us, the story goes no farther than this table."
"Promise?" Billy said.
"On my honor as a tabloid reporter," Tom said.
"Mine too," Mike added.
"Most blokes would say 'honor' and 'tabloid reporter' are mutually exclusive," Billy said. "But I know you two." He sat down and finished his pint, then motioned for the barmaid to come over. They all ordered another pint, making small talk until she'd brought the beers and left. Then Billy leaned forward and began his story.
***** Billy McNeil's Story -- Memphis -- August, 1977
Back in '77, I was something of a Young Turk. I'd done dozens of stories about the British rock scene. They'd all gone pretty well, and I had visions of even bigger things ahead. I managed to talk my editor, old Sammy Matthews, into flying me to the States to spend time with some of the big American names. The thing that set the deal was that I'd pulled in every favor anyone in the Business owed me, and managed to get a week with Elvis as a finish to the trip. Actually nothing was 'writ in stone' as they say. I had managed to get an interview. If we hit it off, I'd get to stay with him for the week. If not, well, at least I had the interview.
I read up on him as much as I could; real background stuff, not just the rubbish that we all write. He loved fast cars, especially sports cars. They made a museum out of his collection, in fact. My uncle Bill, the bloke I'm named for, worked at British motors back then. They had a small store on the factory grounds, mostly for employees and collectors. Uncle Bill got me the schematics and manuals for a couple of their classic models. I never really paid attention to what they were, but Uncle Bill said they were books anyone who fancied sports car would go crazy to have.
I had the books in my camera bag when I arrived in Memphis. I was staying in one of the cheaper local motels. Charlie Hodge, an acoustic guitar player who lived at Graceland with Elvis, picked me up at the door and drove me out to the mansion. Elvis met me at the door, wearing jeans and an old T-shirt from one of his tours. He looked rather well, I thought. He was hardly the skinny fellow the Yanks called "Young Elvis" on that stamp of theirs a few years back, but he had lost some weight from the pictures I'd seen that were taken a couple of months before.
That was the first thing that I asked him about. He looked unhappy for a bit, and I was certain that I'd just ruined my chances. "I got tired of my own fat ass, Mr. McNeil. Weight's a lot easier to put on than take off, but I'm trying."
"Looks like you're more than trying. Congratulations."
"Thanks, but I'm not sure that I want you to write about it. My fans will know soon enough. I leave tonight for a tour of New England. The Colonel's already up there in Portland setting things up."
Tonight? Nobody had mentioned anything about a tour. Now I was really worried.
"Yeah," Elvis continued. "I thought I needed to lose some weight. My fans expect, hell, they _deserve_ the best show I can give them."
This was a side that Elvis didn't normally show, and I could see that he felt uncomfortable about it. I decided to change the subject. "So, what other surprises are you planning for this tour?" Elvis started talking about a couple of the new songs that he'd been working on. He sang one -- no music, no back up, just that beautiful voice. I still have the tape, and he sounded great. We talked about the songs. One was a gospel number. That got him talking about his roots, singing at his family church. From there we went on to talk about the other influences on his music. And on and on.
His publicist had only offered me two hours. We talked for nearly four. It was one of the best interviews I ever got. And I was beginning to think that it might not be over. I reached into my camera bag. "Elvis," I said, "the deal was that you'd decide after this interview if this interview was it, or if I'd get some time with you."
"Yeah, and I've enjoyed it. You can stay if you still want to."
"I can't thank you enough for that. I wanted to give you this before you told me if I could stay, but, this way, I guess they don't quite qualify as a bribe." I pulled out the manuals and handed them to him.
Elvis looked at the one book and began spouting some automotive techno-babble that I could barely follow. As near as I could tell, I'd brought him just the book he needed to tinker with a fancy auto that he'd just bought.
The man all but kissed me.
He said that I could stay as long as I wanted and could ask him or anyone else anything that I wished. He even offered to drive me back to the motel to pick up my gear. As far as he was concerned, I was his guest, and he wanted me to stay there at Graceland. His road manager, Jerry Esposito, said somebody else should drive me, but Elvis was adamant. He wanted to show off one of the autos I'd brought the manual for, a car _nobody_ drove but him. He did agree to let a couple of others come along with us, though.
About halfway back to the hotel, Elvis asked if anybody else way hungry. It was almost noon. One of the others, Lamar Fike I think it was, agreed that he was a bit hungry. Elvis turned the car and headed towards a restaurant he knew nearby.
We were driving through a residential neighborhood. As we turned down one side street, we could see a man and woman on the sidewalk. They must have been arguing because the woman suddenly turned and walked away -- right into the path of Elvis' car. He tried to swerve, but it happened too fast. We heard a scream and then felt the "THUMP!" as the car hit her.
Elvis pulled the car over to the curb and started to get out. Lamar Fike grabbed his arm. "Elvis, what’re you doing? You want them to see it was you driving?"
"Hell, no," Elvis said. "But I don't want to leave that girl lying out there on the street. He pulled his arm free and got out of the car. The rest of us followed.
The woman -- the girl was about 18. She was Black, with skin the color of milk chocolate and hair down to her shoulders in a mass of dark curly ringlets. She was wearing a short, sleeveless sundress that showed off her figure. Her body -- what I could see of it -- wasn't heavily bruised. When the car hit, she'd been knocked back against the curb and hit her head. I could see a trickle of blood running down into her hair.
Lamar checked her pulse. Then he put two fingers against the side of her neck. He'd been one of those field medics the Yanks used in Viet Nam. He looked up at Elvis with tears in his eyes. "She's dead, man. Dead."
"Marie -- Marie Michelle!" The voice was ragged with fear. A man came over and bent down beside the girl. It was the one she'd been talking to -- arguing with -- on the sidewalk. He was a lot older than her, but the resemblance was obvious. Her father or grandfather, I thought.
"I -- I am Auguste deSange. My granddaughter, how she is?"
Elvis stepped forward and bowed his head. "I'm very sorry, Mr. DeSange, but I think she's dead."
DeSange turned and looked at his granddaughter. He never touched her or even walked closer, but I got the impression that he was examining her somehow. He sank down against the car and began to sob. Then he recognized Elvis and straightened up. "Cochon! Bastard! You think you can do this because you such a big star? My Marie Michelle, you kill her!"
Elvis looked as if the man had hit him. "Sir, Mr. deSange, I'm very, very sorry. I -- she walked out in front of me. There was nothing I could do, no way to avoid hitting her."
"You kill her! You kill my granddaughter! You will pay! So much you will pay!"
Elvis started to say something, when we heard the siren. An ambulance someone must have called. Jerry Esposito yelled for Charlie and me to get him out of there. Elvis protested. He wanted to stay, but he knew Jerry was right. He let us push him into the car. Jerry stayed behind while Charlie drove us out of there. It was the only time Elvis ever let anybody else drive that car.
Jerry Esposito showed up by cab about forty minutes after we got back to Graceland. He said a couple of other witnesses had backed up Elvis' story. The police wanted to see him later that afternoon to sign a statement, but that was all they wanted.
"What did they do with the girl?" Elvis asked.
"I don't know," Jerry said. "That old man -- the grandfather -- was really weird. The medics tried to put her in an ambulance to take her to a funeral parlor or something. He wouldn't let them. He told them to just take her into her house just up the block. The medics didn't want to, but he insisted. He swore at them in English _and_ French, he did. He said he was some kind of priest down in New Orleans. Finally, they did do what he wanted. One of the medics warned him to be careful; said the cops would get him on the health laws. He promised that the body would be gone by the morning. Then he gave me a look like death itself."
Elvis got very upset and began to pace. He wanted to track down deSange and try to explain again. He said that he would offer to pay all of the cost of getting the body back to New Orleans, pay for the funeral itself. If deSange wanted, he would even sing gratis at the funeral.
We could see how upset, how out of control he was getting. Lamar asked if he wanted a drink. Jerry said deSange was probably still too upset to appreciate the offer. In the morning, he'd have his office contact the man and offer whatever help was wanted.
That seemed to quiet Elvis somewhat. Somebody suggested a game of poker, and the five of us sat down to play in Elvis' dining room. Mostly, we just wanted to give Elvis something else to think about.
Now, I'm not a bad poker player, but these blokes were out for blood, even Elvis. I was soon very glad that the limit was fifty cents, about twenty-five p. back then, a hand. Even so, I was soon down by almost five pounds.
We'd been playing for an hour or so, when we suddenly heard the guard dogs barking. They sounded like they were after something, barking madly off at a distance. Then there was a loud yelp, and the barking stopped. "Cat," somebody said, and we all laughed.
A minute or two later, we heard a knock at the door. Charlie went to see who it was. I heard him scream and call for Elvis. "You okay, Charlie," Elvis called, but there was no answer. We all went to see what happened. Charlie was on the floor. He'd fainted dead away, and no wonder because the dead girl, Marie Michelle, was standing over him. DeSange was standing next to her with a truly evil smile on his face.
***** The Wheatsheaf Pub -- Wapping London -- October '99
"Wait a minute," Tom Walters said. "New Orleans, some baddie named deSange. Are you telling us that Elvis was killed by some voodoo zombie?"
"No," Billy said. "The zombie was as much for effect -- for shock value -- as anything else. Still it -- she -- _had_ to be there for what deSange had in mind."
***** Billy McNeil's Story -- Memphis -- August, 1977
We all took a look at the thing and tried to run. We couldn't. DeSange had done something to us somehow.
"The police, they say it was accident," deSange told us. His voice was low and even, almost without emotion. "Elvis would not do something like what you tell us, they say. Elvis is good man, they say." Now his voice was filled with emotion, with hate. "There is nothing we can do to Elvis, they say."
Elvis tried to speak, but deSange wasn't finished.
"Elvis kill my Marie Michelle, _I_ say. Elvis thinks he is too rich, too powerful to face justice, _I_ say." His voice was becoming shrill. "Elvis will face justice before something much, much more powerful than a _human_ judge." His eyes narrowed, and he seemed to fill with an inhuman anger. He just glared at Elvis, at all of us, for a moment.
Then he regained his self-control. "No," he said as if talking to someone, "that is the way of vengeance, not justice." He turned back to face us. "You will take us, all of us, to your inner sanctum, Elvis. To the place where you sleep, where you think you are safest. That is where you will receive your punishment."
Elvis tried to fight the command. We all did. It was no use. Elvis turned and led us up the stairs to his bedroom. DeSange and Marie Michelle, the zombie, followed at the end.
Once we were all in the bedroom, deSange had Elvis and the zombie stand in the center of the room. "Remove your clothes," deSange said. "You face your ends as naked and defenseless as you were at your beginnings."
Elvis and the zombie began to slowly take off all their clothing, tossing each item into a separate pile in front of them. I could see that Elvis was fighting it. His teeth were clenched and his body shook as he tried to regain control of it. Whatever he was trying, it didn't work.
In a few moments, the pair were both naked, a 42-year-old man standing there next to a teen-aged girl. Frankly, she was the much better show as far as I was concerned. There was no sign of the bruises that we'd seen before, more of deSange's work, I guessed. She was just standing there totally unaware of any of us, her female charms on full display for her paralyzed audience.
DeSange began to speak again. A little of what he said was in English and a bit more in French. That I could follow, but much of it was in a language that I'd never heard before -- and _never_ want to hear again. I got a feeling of things ancient, of demons that had ruled the world while our ancestors still hid in caves and barely knew fire. These were dark beings that came, now, to do justice as deSange directed them.
A strange yellow-green mist seemed to form in the air around Elvis and the girl. It gradually thickened to hide them. Before it had totally hidden them, I could see Elvis' body shrinking and growing darker. The girl seemed to be growing and becoming more muscular as her skin seemed to lighten.
The mist stayed there, surrounding and hiding the pair for what seemed like hours, though I later noticed that it had only been a few minutes. It hung there around the two of them, not moving at all, despite the air conditioners loudly humming away in the windows. Then it went away. It didn't drift off like a fog; it just faded away, losing color until it was just the air in the room. Elvis and the girl were still there. They looked exactly the same as they had when the mist appeared around them. Except they had switched positions. No, I realized, they had exchanged bodies.
"Elvis," I said aloud. I could talk, if not move about. The girl turned and looked at me. Then she looked down at her body. She was about to scream when deSange made some kind of weird gesture. Her face went blank. She walked over to where her clothes were, right in front of Elvis, and began to dress.
"Where does Elvis keep his night clothes," deSange said. Lamar pointed to a dresser against one wall. He seemed to be fighting the compulsion. “Th-there. Se -- Second drawer."
DeSange pointed to the dresser. Elvis -- his body anyway -- slowly moved to the dresser. He opened the drawer and pulled out a pair of white silk pajamas, which he slowly put on. Once he had the pajamas on, he picked up a brown robe that was draped over a chair. After typing the belt around his waist, he just stood there as if waiting for something.
Me, I watched Elvis dress him -- or her now, I supposed -- her pretty new body. She moved slowly as if half asleep or in a trance -- which, I guess, she was. Still, she put on those clothes as if she had always worn such things. She didn't even seem to have trouble with the bra. After she'd finished, her hands dropped to her sides. She stood there, too, just waiting for the next command.
DeSange saw that they had both finished. He pointed to the half-opened door to Elvis' bathroom. Elvis' body walked over and went into the bathroom. DeSange mumbled something and snapped his fingers. I heard a thud as something heavy hit the bathroom floor. "I could only keep my poor Marie Michelle alive for a short time, even in her new body. She will shortly be dead again, this time forever. If they investigate, it will seem as if her new body die of a heart attack."
'What about us,' I thought. 'We all know the truth.'
DeSange turned towards me. "What these others know now is not what they know five minutes after we leave. Elvis spend a quiet day at home. You talked, then you leave. After lunch, he go upstairs. Soon they find him dying or dead."
He gestured again. I watched as everyone else seemed to fall into a sort of trance. They just stood there a few moments, their eyes glazed, their faces drained of any emotion. Then, they all quietly turned and left.
"No one will remember that my Marie Michelle die. The police, they have no need to see Elvis."
My reporter's curiosity got the best of me. "Why are you telling me all this?"
"Elvis must be punished for what he do, but I am not a cruel man. His life, his career, they are gone. He will need help -- someone to care for him -- while he make a new life. It cannot be his friends for they would help him be Elvis again. I will not do it -- I _can_ not do it -- for I grieve for my Marie Michelle, and I do not want a living reminder of her. That leave you."
"And if I refuse?"
"I think you will not. You are, I sense, a good man." He pointed to Elvis. "Tell her, tell her now -- if you can -- that you will not help her."
I looked over. Elvis didn't move. His -- her -- blank expression didn't change, and she was still staring off into space as if she didn't know that anyone else was in the room.
But she was crying, tears running down her face.
"I'll help," I said.
"Good." He handed me a purse that I would have sworn wasn't in his hands a moment before. "I give you Marie Michelle's life. The purse contains her birth certificate, her bankbook and her check book, her Social Security card, even her passport. You will need them. I have also put in $1,000 cash to help start her new life."
"But how can she ever adjust to her new body?"
"Her body will help her adjust. It has its own memory, and it will not let her disgrace herself by acting like a man."
"It'll force her to act like a woman, then?"
"No, not force her. It just will seem natural to her to act that way."
He walked over and took Elvis by the hand. He led her over to where I was standing. She still seemed to be in a trance, but her movements seemed much more graceful and feminine. He put her hand in mind. "I give her over to your care." There was a sudden noise from downstairs. "Now we must leave for the others, they begin to wake up."
We hurried downstairs and out of the mansion. There were two cars parked in the circular driveway, my rental car and an old black Cadillac. De Sange got in the other car, while I led Elvis -- Marie -- to mine. Somehow, all of my luggage from the hotel was in the back seat, along with a light blue suitcase that I didn't recognize. I helped Marie into the car. She seemed to be waking up, too, but she didn't say anything. She got into the car the way a woman would, sitting down with her dress tucked under her, then moving her feet into the car.
I thought about driving back to my motel, but as I started the car, I heard deSange's voice in my head. "You must take her far, far from this place." I drove straight to the airport. My ticket home was in my camera bag. I traded it for one on an immediate flight to London and bought a second ticket for Marie. Our plane left for London by way of New York within the hour.
We heard the first reports of Elvis' death during the layover in New York. Marie cried a little when she saw the papers, but so did a lot of people.
***** The Wheatsheaf Pub -- Wapping London -- October '99
Tom and Mike looked at Billy in disbelief.
"You're saying that Elvis didn't really die all those years ago?" Mike said. "He got turned into a girl, and you brought her back to London with you."
"Yes, but please don't tell anyone. Frankly, I'm rather surprised that you believe me."
"I'm still not sure I do, even though I've heard other stories just as strange," Tom said. "But, if it _is_ true, what happened to her after you two got to London?"
Before Billy could answer, a tall young man in his late teens burst into the pub. "Dad," he yelled. "Are you in here?"
"Over here, son," Billy called and waved him over.
"Mom said to tell you to stop hanging around with this lot and get yourself home."
Mike and Tom looked at the boy. He was tall and lanky with very closely cropped black hair. His skin was the color of coffee with cream. He was wearing the jacket of one of the local football clubs and a pair of jeans.
Mike noticed that he didn't look at all like Billy. Both men stared at him, imagining him with long black hair cut in a style from the 1950s and a sequined leather jacket.
Billy must have guessed what they were thinking. As he and his son turned to leave, he said, "A final joke of deSange's. My son, Aaron Jesse, looks just like his mother."
Author's Note: There are bits of fact in this story.
Elvis was to leave at 11:30 PM for a concert the next day in Portland, Maine, the start of a new tour. Col. Parker, his manager, was in Portland the day of the story preparing for the concert.
Jerry Esposito, Elvis's road manager, is the man who found the body. Charlie Hodge was an acoustic guitarist who lived at Graceland. Lamar Fike was Elvis' music publisher. The three men were pallbearers at Elvis' funeral. Vester Presley, Elvis' uncle, was head of security at Graceland.
Elvis was found around 2:30 in the afternoon in his bathroom, wearing his pajamas and bathrobe. He was still alive, but unconscious and dying. A paramedic team that was summoned to the site could not revive him. The coroner's verdict was death due to heart attack.
Elvis' full name was Elvis Aron Presley. He had a twin brother, Jesse, who died at birth.
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