Page 11


Standing there, gazing up, I didn’t realize that the crow was an omen, or that Poe’s famous verse would, in fact, serve as the key to unlock its meaning. Had I understood then that this shrill crow was my raven, I would have acted much differently in the hours that fol­lowed; and Pico Mundo would still be a place of hope.


Failing to understand the importance of the crow, I returned to the Mustang, where I found Elvis sitting in the passenger’s seat. He wore boat shoes, khaki slacks, and a Hawaiian shirt.


All other ghosts of my acquaintance have been limited in their wardrobes to the clothes that they were wearing when they perished.


For instance, Mr. Callaway, my high-school English teacher, died on his way to a costume party, dressed as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. Because he had been a man of some refinement, born with dignity and poise, I found it depressing, in the months following his death, to encounter him around town in his cheap velour costume, his whiskers drooping, his tail dragging the ground after him. I was much relieved when at last he let go of this world and moved on.


In death as in life, Elvis Presley makes his own rules. He seems to be able to conjure any costume that he wore on a stage or in the movies, as well as the clothes that he wore when not performing. His attire is different from one manifestation to the next.


I have read that after downing an imprudent number of sleeping


pills and depressants, he died in his underwear or maybe in his paja­mas. Some say that he was found in a bathrobe as well, but some say not. He has never yet appeared to me in quite such casual dress.


For certain, he died in his bathroom at Graceland, unshaven and facedown in a puddle of vomit. This is in the coroner’s report.


Happily, he always greets me clean-shaven and without a beard of upchuck.


On this occasion, when I sat behind the steering wheel and closed the car door, he smiled and nodded. His smile had an unusual melan­choly quality.


He reached out and patted me on the arm, clearly expressing sym­pathy, if not pity. This puzzled and somewhat troubled me, for I had suffered nothing that would warrant such an expression of commiser­ation.


Here in the aftermath of August 15, I still cannot say how much Elvis knew then of the terrible events that were about to unfold. I sus­pect he foresaw all of it.


Like other ghosts, Elvis does not speak. Nor sing.


He dances sometimes if he’s in a rhythmic mood. He’s got some cool moves, but he’s no Gene Kelly.


I started the car and punched up some random-play music on the CD box. Terri keeps the six-disc magazine stocked with the best work of her idol.


When “Suspicious Minds” came from the speakers, Elvis seemed to be pleased. With his fingertips, he tapped the rhythm on the dash­board as I drove out of Camp’s End.


By the time we reached Chief Wyatt Porter’s house in a better neighborhood, we were listening to “Mama Liked the Roses,” from Elvis’s Christmas Album, and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll had succumbed to quiet tears.


I prefer not to see him like this. The hard-driving rocker who sang


“Blue Suede Shoes” wears a cocky smile and even a sneer better than he does tears.


Karla Porter, Wyatt’s wife, answered the door. Willowy, lovely, with eyes as green as lotus petals, she unfailingly projects an aura of seren­ity and quiet optimism that is in contrast with her husband’s doleful face and mournful eyes.


I suspect Karla is the reason that Wyatt’s job has not worn him down to total ruin. Each of us needs a source of inspiration in his life, a cause for hope, and Karla is Wyatt’s.


“Oddie,” she said, “what a pleasure to see you. Come in, come in. Wyatt is out back, getting ready to destroy some perfectly good steaks on the barbecue. We’re having a few people to dinner, we’ve got plenty extra, so I hope you’ll stay.”


As she led me through the house, unaware that Elvis accompanied us in a “Heartbreak Hotel” mood, I said, “Thank you, ma’am, that’s very gracious of you, but I’ve got another engagement. I just stopped by to have a quick word with the chief.”


“He’ll be delighted to see you,” she assured me. “He always is.”


In the backyard, she turned me over to Wyatt, who was wearing an apron bearing the words BURNT AND GREASY GOES BETTER WITH BEER.


“Odd,” Chief Porter said, “I hope you’ve not come here to ruin my evening.”


“That’s not my intention, sir.”


The chief was tending to two grills - the first fired by gas for veg­etables and ears of corn, the second by charcoal for the steaks.


With the sun still more than two hours above the horizon, a day of desert sunshine stored in the patio concrete, and visible waves of heat pouring off both barbecues, he should have been making enough salt water to reconstitute the long-dead sea of Pico Mundo. He was, how­ever, as dry as the star of an antiperspirant commercial.


Over the years, I have seen Chief Porter sweat only twice. On the


first occasion, a thoroughly nasty man was aiming a spear gun at the chief’s crotch from a distance of just two feet, and the second occa­sion was much more unnerving than that.


Checking out the bowls of potato salad, corn chips, and fresh fruit salad on the picnic table, Elvis seemed to lose interest when he real­ized that no deep-fried banana-and-peanut-butter sandwiches would be provided. He wandered off to the swimming pool.


After I declined a bottle of Corona, the chief and I sat in lawn chairs, and he said, “You been communing with the dead again?”


“Yes, sir, off and on all day. But this isn’t so much about who’s dead as who might be soon.”


I told him about Fungus Man at the restaurant and later at Green Moon Mall.


“I saw him at the Grille,” the chief said, “but he didn’t strike me as suspicious, just… unfortunate.”


“Yes, sir, but you didn’t have the advantage of being able to see his fan club.” I described the disturbing size of Fungus Man’s bodach en­tourage.


When I recounted my visit to the small house in Camp’s End, I pre­tended, rather ludicrously, that the side door had been standing open and that I had gone inside under the impression that someone might be in trouble. This relieved the chief of the need to conspire with me, after the fact, in the crime of breaking and entering.


“I’m not a high-wire artist,” he reminded me.


“No, sir.”


“You expect me to walk a dangerously narrow line sometimes.”


“I have great respect for your balance, sir.”


“Son, that sounds perilously like bullshit.”


“There’s some bullshit in it, sir, but it’s mostly sincerity”


Telling him what I found in the house, I omitted any mention of the black room and the traveling swarm. Even a man as sympathetic


and open-minded as Wyatt Porter will become a skeptic if you force too much exotic detail upon him.


When I finished my story, the chief said, “What’s got your atten­tion, son?”


“Sir?”


“You keep looking over toward the pool.”


“It’s Elvis,” I explained. “He’s behaving strangely.”


“Elvis Presley is here? Now? At my house?”


“He’s walking on the water, back and forth, and gesticulating.”


“Gesticulating?”


“Not rudely, sir, and not at us. He looks like he’s arguing with him­self. Sometimes I worry about him.”


Karla Wyatt reappeared, this time with their first two dinner guests in tow.


Bern Eckles, in his late twenties, was a recent addition to the Pico Mundo Police Department. He had been on the force just two months.


Lysette Rains, who specialized in false fingernails, was the assis­tant manager at the thriving beauty shop that Karla owned on Olive Street, around the corner and two blocks from where I worked at the Grille.


These two had not arrived as a couple, but I could see that the chief and Karla were engaged in some matchmaking.


Because he didn’t know - and never would - about my sixth sense, Officer Eckles couldn’t figure out what to make of me, and he had not yet decided whether he liked me. He couldn’t understand why the chief always made time for me even on the busiest of days.


After the new arrivals had been served drinks, the chief asked Eckles to come to his study for a few minutes. “I’ll get on the com­puter to the DMV while you make some phone calls for me. We need to work up a quick profile on this odd duck from Camp’s End.”


On his way into the house with the chief, Bern Eckles twice looked


over his shoulder at me, frowning. Maybe he thought that in his ab­sence I would try to make time with Lysette Rains.


When Karla returned to the kitchen, where she was working on the dessert, Lysette sat in the chair that the chief had occupied. With both hands, she held a glass of Coke spiked with orange vodka, from which she took tiny sips, licking her lips after each.


“How does that taste?” I wondered.


“Sort of like cleaning fluid with sugar. But sometimes I have a low energy level, and the caffeine helps.”


She was wearing yellow shorts and a frilly yellow blouse. She looked like a lemon cupcake with fancy icing.


“How’s your mother these days, Odd?”


“Still colorful.”


“I would expect so. And your dad?”


“He’s about to get rich quick.”


“What with this time?”


“Selling real estate on the moon.”


“How does that work?”


“You pay fifteen bucks, you get a deed to one square foot of the moon.”


“Your father doesn’t own the moon,” Lysette said with the faintest note of disapproval.


She is a sweet person and reluctant to give offense even at evidence of flagrant fraud.


“No, he doesn’t,” I agreed. “But he realized that nobody else owned it, either, so he sent a letter to the United Nations, staking claim to it. The next day he started peddling moon property. I hear you’ve been made assistant manager of the shop.”


“It’s quite a responsibility. Especially ’cause I’ve also moved up in my specialty.”


“You’re not doing fingernails anymore?”


“Yes, I am. But I was just a nail technician, and now I’m a certified nail artist.”


“Congratulations. That’s really something.”


Her shy smile of pride made me love her. “It’s not so much to some people, but it’s a thrill to me.”


Elvis returned from the swimming pool and sat in a lawn chair op­posite us. He was weeping again. Through his tears, he smiled at Lysette - or at her cleavage. Even in death he likes the ladies.


“Are you and Bronwen still an item?” Lysette asked.


“Forever. We have matching birthmarks.”


“I’d forgotten about that.”


“She prefers to be called Stormy.”


“Who wouldn’t?” Lysette said.


“How about you and Officer Eckles?”


“Oh, we just met. He seems nice.”


“‘Nice.’” I winced. “The poor guy’s already struck out with you, hasn’t he?”


“Two years ago, he would’ve, yeah. But lately, I’m thinking nice would be enough. You know?”


“There’s a lot worse than nice out there.”


“For sure,” she agreed. “It takes a while to realize what a lonely world it is, and when you do… then the future looks kinda scary.”


Already in a delicate emotional condition, Elvis was wrecked by Lysette’s observation. The rillets of tears on his checks became twin floods, and he buried his face in his hands.


Lysette and I chatted for a while, and Elvis sobbed without making a sound, and eventually four more guests showed up.


Karla was circulating with a tray of cheese dumplings that gave new weight to the word hors d’oeuvre, when the chief returned with Officer Eckles. He drew me aside and walked with me to the far end of the pool, so we could talk in private.


He said, “Robertson moved into town five months ago. Paid in full for that house in Camp’s End, no mortgage.”


“Where’s he get his money?”


“Inherited. Bonnie Chan says he moved here from San Diego af­ter his mother’s death. He was still living with his mother at thirty-four.”


Bonnie Chan, a Realtor famous in Pico Mundo for her flamboyant hats, had evidently sold the residence to Robertson.


‘As far as I can see at this point,” the chief said, “he’s got a clean record. He’s never even had a speeding ticket.”


“You might look into how the mother died.”


“I’ve already put out some inquiries about that. But right now I don’t have any handle to pick him up.”


“All those files on all those killers.”


“Even if I had a legitimate way of knowing he keeps them, it’s just a sick hobby or maybe book research. There’s nothing illegal about it.”


“Suspicious, though.”


He shrugged. “If being suspicious was enough, we’d all be in jail. You first.”


“But you’re gonna keep a watch on him?” I asked.


“Only because you’ve never been wrong. I’ll park somebody over there this evening, pin a tail on this Mr. Robertson.”


“I wish you could do more,” I said,


“Son, this is the United States of America. Some would say it’s un­constitutional to try to prevent psychopaths from fulfilling their po­tential.”


Sometimes the chief can amuse me with that kind of cynical-cop patter. This wasn’t one of those occasions.


I said, “This one’s really bad, sir. This guy, when I picture his face in my mind… I get spiders down the spine.”


“We’re watching him, son. Can’t do more than that. Can’t just go


to Camp’s End and shoot him.” The chief gave me a peculiar look and added, “Neither can you.”


“Guns scare me,” I assured him.


The chief looked over toward the swimming pool and said, “He still walking the water?”


“No, sir. He’s standing next to Lysette, looking down her blouse and crying.”


“That’s nothing to cry about,” the chief said, and winked.


“The crying has nothing to do with Lysette. He’s just in a mood today.”

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