Thursday, May 16, 2013


A tale from the road

DRIVING TO CHICAGO for an important assignment required our undivided attention to detail, so I took stock of our emergency road kit: four hits of acid, a small vial of nose candy, a half-ounce of weed, a few assorted pills. Not nearly enough to keep us in our cups for the weekend, but it seemed like a good afternoon sampler pack. Unfortunately, we didn't know a dealer in the Windy City, and this could be a problem. Road Trip Rule No. 1: Be prepared for anything, especially when you're going to be driving for 18 hours.

The photog riding shotgun dipped into his pocket and extracted a small bottle, spun the lid and took out a couple of yellow pills. "Want one of those?"

"Jesus Christ on a crutch," I replied. "You have to ask? Gimme two." I dry-swallowed the pills. "So, what did I just take?

"Phentermine," Mr. Shooter said, administering his own dose with a slug of soda. "Snagged 'em from a vet hospital."

I exploded. "You bastard! You just forced me to take drugs meant for soldiers? They need these almost as much as we do! What sort of American are you?"

"No worries, mate," he said. "Veterinary hospital. You know — dogs and cats, horses and pigs. No troops died in the making of this pill heist."

Shooter. He wasn't as experienced in pharmacology as I — the best eight-hour college course I suffered through involved memorizing the Physicians Desk Reference — but in our time together he had impressed me with his willingness to push past the envelope and jump off the adhesive flap, no questions asked. Plus, he'd brought a fat bottle of speed for our road trip to see Elvis.

Actually, 90 Elvises — Elvi, if you prefer. The international Elvis convention was being held in a mediocre convention center in Rosemont and our assignment was following a Springfield man in the competition. The pace was going to be brutal: leave Springfield at 6 p.m. Friday, drive nine hours to Chicago, cover the convention on Saturday, drive straight back Sunday to make deadline. It was worse than Kowalski's self-imposed schedule in Vanishing Point. Thank God Shooter brought speed.

I remembered taking a lot of Phentermine in college — back then it was called Fastine, and a grotesquely obese classmate was taking it for weight control. He refused to share so we had to resort to the usual methods of college torture: stealing his car, unscrewing the legs on his bed frame, making sure he got stuck with the bill during late-night chew-and-screw meals at Denny's. It took him a few weeks to hand over the Fastines, but we all made sure to congratulate him on his noticeable weight loss as we gobbled his speed. Most likely he was shedding pounds because of the constant stress we were putting on him, but hey, whatever works.

I heartily approve of amphetamines. You're not getting high so much as plugging in and getting amped. The brain works better because speed gives you blinders, it makes you see without distraction. It gives you the energy to get a third and fourth wind, long after mere mortals drop into bed and start drooling. And forget about methamphetamine, the stuff backwoods Ozarkers make in soda bottles while strolling the aisles of Walmart — that shit will make you blind and kill you, but only after you resort to squirrel hunting and sex with your sister. Nothing good can ever come from meth. I've seen it take too many otherwise good users down the road to hillbilly hell.

Shooter interrupted my reverie: "Disney Dogs."

"My God, man, what in hell are you talking about? Are you just trying to fuck with me? Did I just hit a dog?" It wouldn't have been the first time.

Shooter rattled his pill bottle. "Disney Dogs. You know, like Old Yeller. That's your code when you need more."

"Disney Dogs," I replied without hesitation, and he tapped another couple pills into the palm of my head. "We have to be at the top of our game. No sense wasting time." This was going to be a splendid assignment.

WE PULLED INTO THE Sheraton O'Hare a few minutes after 3 a.m., wide awake and already living in an absurd dream. Coming through the front doors of the hotel I saw a Japanese Elvis smoking a cig, his hair lacquered and combed to an impressive height. Standing next to him was a blonde Elvis decked out in sequins, her hips gyrating to a beat only she could hear.

The desk clerk seemed puzzled to see someone who wasn't sneering. "May I help you?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, just as a wave of head crawls raced from back to front, stopping just short of my forehead. I staggered back and scratched my scalp and the clerk looked alarmed, as if someone had smacked her upside the head with a frozen flounder. Great. Now the woman would be eyeballing us as freaks. The Disney Dogs were working a bit too well. Only one thing to do: act drunk.

"We have reservations," I slurred, giving her my name and assignment. "Important we get right into our room. There's a deadline to make. No time to waste, you know."

The clerk nodded, only half-listening. "And will you be paying by credit card or — "

"Cash. Only cash for us. And can you make sure we get a bottle of tequila brought up to us? Nothing too fancy, but make sure it's not swill like Cuervo. That stuff'll blind you. Ought to have a warning label on it. Patron if you have it." I flashed her a half-smile, suppressed the urge to scratch my scalp with both hands.

"Are you sure you need anything else to drink?" the clerk said in an almost-flirting voice. Good God, but this scam was working.

"Absolutely. Patron," I replied. "I do my best work on tequila. Only tequila. Faulkner can have his whiskey. Rotten stuff, that brown bullshit. Dunno how people write on it. Rotgut. Might as well drink Liquid Plumbr. And don't get me started on vodka swillers."

"Umm … OK, sir." The desk clerk now seemed more befuddled than suspicious, eager to hand over the keys to Room 223 so these strange men would go away and she could get back to ogling the Elvi. I really couldn't blame her. Through the high-pitched whine in my ears I could hear my own voice; it sounded like the chattering a rabid squirrel might make as it's being savaged by a pit bull. Frightful noise, that voice. Enough to make small children run squealing for their mothers. If I looked in a mirror right now I knew I would see the glittering eyes of a man hip-deep in a speed jag, so I scooted away from the clerk and motioned for Shooter to follow me to the elevator.

"You OK?" he whispered.

I nodded. "Just ordering a bottle." Now safe in the elevator, I could scratch my head until it bled. "Say, how many of those Dogs do you have? 'Cause I wouldn't want us to be in short supply, you know. Could be tragic."

Shooter laughed. "We've burned through 10 already, but no worries. That means 90 left, and it's already — " he glanced at his watch " — 4:02 Saturday morning."

"Four o'clock? Sweet Jebus, man, we've got to get cracking! The convention starts at 9. That gives us just enough time to shit, shower, shave and drop before food. You know that buffet is going to be three deep with Elvi. We've got to get that image."

I keyed into the room, hurried to close the door behind us, pulled out the powder vial. "Time for breakfast," I said, tapping out two fat lines. "You got a dollar?"

Shooter rolled a Washington into a straw, shook his head. "I dunno, man. Should we be doing this? I'm already pretty fucked up."

"Indeed," I assured him. "That's the perfect time to do this. Add a little edge to the Dogs. Just a little. Two lines would be too much. Don't want to overdo it." I took the straw from him, hoovered a line into my head. "Jean Claude Van Damn, but that's fine," I shivered.

Shooter followed suit, staggered around the room, shook his head clear. "OK, good enough. I'm getting in the shower. Now put that shit away before we blow a brain gasket."

I waved away his concern and reached into the Dopp kit. "No problem. We don't have enough of this shit to get in big trouble. Good thing, too. I could use another line right now." I pulled out the blotter instead, put a hit under my tongue. "Tell me when you're ready for one of these pups."

Shooter shook his head — he knew about my appetite and had long ago given up on trying to throttle it into submission — and held out his hand. "Fuck a duck, dude. Gimme."

"Body of Christ," I murmured, putting the piece of acid-soaked paper in his palm.

"When in Rome, amen," he replied, putting the blotter in his mouth. "Out in a minute."

NOTHING TO DO NOW except wait. That's always the worst part of acid — the waiting. Once I gobbled a sugar cube and waited almost two hours for the trip to start; when it didn't I cursed my dealer and ate the other two cubes, certain I'd been ripped off. I should have known better; within an hour I was tripping balls so hard, I had to watch TV to keep myself from grinding my teeth into oblivion, but then I realized the people on C-SPAN could see me watching them. The next few hours were spent in a dark corner, where the TV people couldn't see me. Lesson learned: patience is a virtue when it comes to LSD.

I picked up the room service menu and was about to order bacon when someone knocked. Scuttling to the front door, I peeked through the spy hole, saw the tired face of a worker who'd seen it all at least twice.

"Room service," he announced, so I threw open the door.

"How'd you know i wanted bacon?" I asked. "I didn't even call."

He shrugged, held up a bottle of Patron. "I don't know anything about that, sir. I'm just delivering this bottle. Did you order it?"

Shit. I'd forgotten about the tequila. Teach me to do cocaine before dawn. "Absolutely. Just set it down there — " I gestured to the couch and pulled out a five-spot. "Thanks for your prompt attention. As I told the clerk downstairs, this is much needed. Can't really start writing without it."

The room-service guy sighed, shrugged. "Yes, sir. Thank you. Will that be all?" He shuffled out of the room without waiting for an answer. Probably for the best; had he stuck around for another minute or two I probably would have invited him to take a bump with me. He looked like he could use it. And speaking of bumps …

By the time Shooter was done in the shower I'd already done two small bumps and the acid had started to kick in. Uncorking the bottle, I poured two one-finger shots into water glasses, handed one over. "Bottle in front of me," I said solemnly.

"Frontal lobotomy," Shooter replied, before gulping and gasping. "Fuck, but I never get used to that shit. Especially before 5 in the morning." He shook his head. "And I don't know about you, but I can already feel the 'cid. Time to take another Disney Dog. And maybe another line."

His logic seemed infallible.

AN HOUR LATER we were downstairs at the breakfast buffet. Coffee, juice, water — anything to stay hydrated. Anything but food. That's why doctors give speed to fat people; the last thing thing you want in the middle of an amphetamine jag is food. I glanced over at Shooter, who was agog at the scene before us:

What rough hell? There must be 90 people in sequined jump suits. White, black, Asian … look over there! It's El Vez, the hispanic impersonator. Little bastard with a pot belly … I can only assume he's Elvis in his last days, when Pizza Man Pizza and peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches ruled the King's gullet. And what in fuck is that? Looks like a tow-headed kid … can't be more than three feet tall, but he's rocking the TCB shades. Or maybe he's not really there …

I looked up from my reporter's notebook: nope, still there. My god, but that kid can put away the bacon. Maybe he's a midget. Next year this contest should be limited to little people. I'd watch that all weekend.

Three Elvi were clustered around a piano, singing "How Great Thou Art." I saw that as a signal to swallow more Disney Dogs. The atmosphere here … a madhouse carnival, only better, because there were no clowns. Few things in life are scarier than clowns (especially the clowns for Jesus, because no one in facepaint should be righteous, and clowns reading from the Gospel can trigger involuntary guffaws — not cool when you're pretending to be pious).

More than 100 credentialed reporters were here to cover the convention. Insanity. There was no news to cover, only a gaudy carnival of celebratory kitsch over a fat, dead entertainer. Had Elvis lived he would have wound up in Branson, crooning to old people hunched over plates of mediocre scrambled eggs and bowls of oatmeal. And that would have been his best-case scenario; more likely the King would have become a sideshow celebrity, signing autographs in the bathroom of the Shoji Tabuchi theater in exchange for handfuls of Demerol and buckets of fried chicken and biscuits.

Lesser mortals would have taken one look at this panoply from Hell and run screaming from the building, and for a moment the temptation to punt and flee took hold. But the lack of news couldn't stop us from our assignment — we were Trained Professionals, here to find the story, wrestle it to the ground and bring it back on deadline. No excuses.

I interviewed the midget, who turned out to be nine years old and from Australia (or maybe it was New Zealand — at this point, my notes resembled nothing more than jagged spikes. Goddamned speed). The kid didn't know shit about Elvis; his parents were the ones pushing him to be a barker in the freak show. But he did a passable "Don't Be Cruel" for us, and his lip curl was especially attractive. By the time he grows up he'll either be a sneering crook or a back-alley pimp. Or both. Good to see it's not only American parents who push their kids into doing stupid things.

Vendors were jammed into every corner of the convention hall, selling the most ungodly shit: plastic TCB necklaces, Elvis wallets, black-lacquer wigs — over there, the expected array of jumpsuits, and the unexpected display of Elvis underwear. I don't mean underwear with Presley's logo — these were white briefs once worn by the King, mercifully scrubbed free of skid marks but with a certificate of authenticity, signed by someone from the Memphis Mafia. I would have bought a pair, but $200 was a steep price to pay for used Size 46 Fruit of the Loom briefs, even ones that once fit snugly over the King's family jewels.

But there were plenty of gullible idiots here, eager to fork over their grubby dollars for a piece of infamy. I watched one corpulent woman pay several hundred dollars for a sequined purple jumpsuit, size XXXL. Tonight she will probably don the outfit and try to seduce one of the ersatz Elvi. My skin crawled, and not just from the speed.

Speaking of groupies: You can't walk a dozen steps here without running into a woman who wants to fuck a fake Elvis. The word "pitiful" doesn't come close to describing the desperation these women must feel — they're willing to get on their knees for someone who's pretending to be a dead entertainer? Most of them look like rejected Lot Lizards from an Ozarks truck stop, a dozen years past their prime and a dozen lifetimes beyond their pride. It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for them, to make you see past the pancake makeup and thick mascara into what remains of their ruined lives. Almost enough — but then you see their glittery eyes and realize they're getting off on this experience, on the chance to boast to their friends back home about getting naked with a kinda celebrity. The sick freakishness of their devotion is fascinating; with more time and more drugs, it would make a great little sidebar to the convention. Perhaps next year.

I see Shooter on the other side of the convention hall and give him the high sign — time for us to get the fuck out of this madhouse and reconvene in our room over a bottle of tequila. I'm already cruising at 35,000 feet, but a rocket boost is necessary for the next step in our journey.

"Jesus Christ!" he says in the elevator. "What the fuck have we gotten ourselves into?" Shooter is visibly shaken by our morning; all the color has drained from his face, and his reliably steady hands are thrumming with a faint tremor. "Fuck the circus, man — that's the real freakshow downstairs. Did you see the fatty in the tube top?"

Indeed I had — a woman, not an ounce under 400 pounds, her enormous breasts sausaged into a piece of black spandex, her belly hanging halfway down her thighs, with stretch marks that looked like thick-cut bacon. She had taken a special interest in a black Elvis, rubbing herself against him as he did his best to not get knocked over.

"It takes all kinds," I mumbled, shuddering at the memory. "Poor sumbitch. If he doesn't watch it he'll be in for a smothering tonight."

"God, just stop," Shooter insisted. "There aren't enough drugs in the world to erase that memory. I need a drink."

We get back to the room and toast our morning. "You realize, of course, that we've got a lot of shit to do," I said. "There's the luncheon, the afternoon concert competition, the dinner, and then the evening performance."

"Yeah, don't fucking remind me," Shooter said. "I'm already exhausted and it's" — he glanced at his watch — "FUCK! Not even 8 a.m.? Dude, we're never going to hold up!"

"Pah." I dismiss his concern with a wave of a shaky hand. "We're in great shape. Disney Dogs, my man. The start to any great breakfast." I see the tracers left behind by my wave. This is some really kick-ass acid. Good thing we don't have more; if I'm not careful I'll spend the rest of the weekend staring into space. No time for that.

Shooter fires up a smoke, examines the contrail. "This pace is going to kill us, dude. We've been up since yesterday morning. Drove all night to get here. We're going to be up all night tonight covering this shit and then driving back Sunday night to make deadline. When the fuck are we supposed to sleep?"

"Tuesday," I said. "We sleep Tuesday. Or maybe Wednesday, depending on how deep we dive into the Disney Dogs." Just the sound of that pace made me feel exhausted inside. "Above all — coma by Thursday. We can't go more than six days without sleep. That wouldn't be wise."

Shooter gave me one of those looks. "Fuck a duck," he sighed. "You're not kidding, are you?"


He snubbed out his smoke, got up, stretched. "All righty, then. Here goes nothing." He opened the door to our room. The noise from the convention drifted into our heads. Showtime, kids.


Shooter sidled up to me. "If I hear one more fucking version of this song," he hissed, "I'm going to kill the fat lady."

"Not wise, my friend," I cautioned. "You'd need a machete to do it, and the mess — " I shook my head. "She'd bleed worse than a stuck pig. God, imagine the cleaning bill."

But he had a point. We had already heard a dozen Elvi croon to the groupies, all of them sweating like boor hogs on a hot summer day. The room stank of bad perfume and BO and fetid, damp panties. This was Torture, and there weren't enough drugs in the world to lessen the sting.

"What the fuck were we thinking?" I asked Shooter, but he was already scampering away, going for the money shot — a fat groupie holding a scarf for a sweaty fake Elvis to mop his brow. God bless that boy, I thought. The Army could have used more men like him in Vietnam and Afghanistan. He'll go after anything, no questions asked.

I looked at my notebook, saw nothing but scribbles. Jesus, this was a monumental debacle. No legible notes. No interviews worth saving for the scrapbook. About the only thing I had going for me right now was a head full of illegal drugs, and I suspected the editors would not accept that for publication, no matter how well-written and free of typos.

After our buzzworthy morning the afternoon had slowed to a literal crawl. Most of the Elvi were hiding out in their rooms, either with groupies or their own pick of poisons — I saw one especially corpulent impersonator cuddling two bottles of Cutty Sark and a carton of Camels — and the journos covering this clusterfuck were nursing scotch-rocks at the bar. The big draw was dinner and the evening gala, when the spirit of Elvis would descend from the heavens and grace us with boffo performances worthy of the King's memory. Or so I hoped, for God's sake — otherwise, the bosses would be screaming at our tab once we made it back to Springfield.

I was also nursing one helluva hangover, courtesy of the Disney Dogs. Coming down off an amphetamine jag is a cruel punishment, one akin to having your skin slowly removed with a vegetable peeler. Why in God's name did I let Shooter pour so many pills down my throat? Goddamn him all to hell. There would be repercussions for that boy's insolence. But only after we hit deadline.

Deadline — the other big bitch. Shooter was right about one thing — we were in some deep shit. The odds of us being able to turn in readable copy and printworthy photos by Monday morning were approximately diddly over squat, and that was being generous.

But we were professional journalists, for Chrissakes, not some stumbling amateur scribes — we were the fucking A-Team of reporting. We made a promise to our editors that we would bring this story back alive, and there was no way we were going to fail, even if there was no story. The lack of a compelling narrative never stopped us.

The morning blotter had long since worn off, or been replaced by the shots of Patron and the endless supply of Disney Dogs. It was hard to tell at this point — every tick off the clock was accompanied by a steady head buzz — but it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was finding the nut graf of this tale, the two or three sentences that would grab the editors by their gonads.

But where was it? Not in this crowd of freaks. That much was certain. Staying here was certain death, and I wasn't quite ready to die. Time to roam the hotel's hallways.

I caught the elevator and took it to the 11th floor — the number seemed appropriately random, and besides, that's where the other people in the lift were headed. They gave me a sideways glance as we rose above the madness, and one of them cleared his throat when he saw me dry-swallow a couple of random pills I found in my pants — Percodan, I guessed, but I really wasn't sure. At this point it didn't matter.

"What brings you to Chicago?" one of the women asked. She was holding a puntable dog in one hand and a tall tumbler of bourbon in the other.

"Elvis," I muttered. "Covering the convention downstairs. Goddamned insanity is what it is."

She glanced at her companions and laughed. "You think that's insane? You haven't seen anything yet." The others murmured in agreement and exchanged knowing glances.

A challenge: now that was something intriguing. The car came to a stop and I followed the group — two men, three women and the aforementioned mutt — to Room 1129. One of the men rapped a code on the door — three sharp taps, one pound, two more swift taps — and from the other side of the door a low rumble of a voice called out: "Password!"

"Aaron," the woman answered, and the door swung open into darkness.

The blackout curtains in this room are remarkable, I thought. The only shapes I could make out were three or four hulking figures sitting around a bong at the table. The smell of Northern Lights weed filled my nostrils.

"Who'd you bring?" asked one of the shadows.

"He's cool," said the woman with the dog. "High as blazes, from the looks of his eyes."

Another shadow clicked a flashlight on my face. "No shit he's high. What you on, boy — a little coke? Acid? Speed? Downers?"

"All of the above," I copped.

"Well, mellow that harsh high with some of this," he said, holding the bong out to me.

One hit, two hits, three — and the bowl was played. I coughed out a massive smoke plume, which earned polite golf applause from the room.

"Jean Claude Van Damn, that's — " and suddenly I couldn't say another word. The room started spinning, I fell to my knees and I had time for one conscious thought — whafuck? — before I passed out face-first on the carpet.

"YOU OK, BOY?" The voice was low and rumbling, like oil burbling in a deep fryer.

"Yeah. What the fuck just happened? What's in that fucking weed?"

Laughter filled the room. "A little a' this, a little a' that," the rumbler said. "Maybe some opium. Maybe some PCP. Nothing too drastic." More titters. "You wide awake in dreamland, baby?"

"Betcha," I said, but that was bullshit — I could barely speak, much less stand. Good thing I was stretched out on a bed, my hands and legs tied to the corner posts …

"Don't worry," the dog lady said. "We just needed to make sure you weren't going anywhere anytime soon." And with that she clicked on the bedside lamp.

One of me, nine of them — and the fucking dog, who looked as high as I felt. Probably a contact buzz; the air in the room was thick with smoke. Through the haze I could see the men at the table staring at me with curious amusement.

"Think we should tell him? Huh? Huh?" The man with the rumbling voice stood up and walked over to me. "Think this peckerwood should know the truth? Huh?" He chuckled. "Think he might wanna find out the secret? Huh?"

Goddamn, but that was some killer weed. The rumbler was now five inches from my face, coming into focus, and —

"That's right, little buddy," he said. "It's me. Uh-huh. How you like them apples?"

"You?" He nodded and leered, gave his fat ass a little shimmy.

"I may be dead, sonny boy, but for a dead man I can still move, uh-huh," he said. "You think this is some sorta hallucinatory mumbo-jumbo bullshit, you betcha. You think the weed is making you crazy loco, but it ain't." Another leer, another shimmy, a hand through his thick silver hair. "It's me. Ain't nobody else looks like me, ain't nobody else sounds like me. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Put that in your pen and write it."

"But you're dead. Fell off the toilet. Buried at Graceland. I've seen your grave."

"You look inside the casket? Didn't think so. All you'll find in there is six big rocks and my leather jacket from the Hawaii comeback special — fucker was too small for me, anyway." He bobbed his head. "Uh-huh. Decided I needed to take me a little time off, see some-a the countryside. You been to Branson, boy? Now there's a place Big E could call home. Specially now that Wayne Newton's outta there. Always hated that fat fuck and his pussy voice."

I nodded at his spot-on assessment of Mr. Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast — God, someone should have emptied a pistol into Newton's impressive gut before that song was immortalized on tape. The country would have been better off.

E turned to his posse and clapped his hands. "Boys and girls, it's time we cut this fella loose and commence to getting ready. We gotta big show to do, you betcha. Gonna show them fakers how the King does it, uh-huh." And with that he whipped out a pocket knife and cut the cords. "You get going now. Not a word of this to that fancy photo boy you're with — not a word to anybody, or Big E's gonna track you down and gut you like a pig. Now gimme your hand and get up."

He got me to my feet, gave me a gentle shove in the direction of the door. From behind me I could hear Dog Lady say something about a jar of peanut butter and a pound of bacon, and then I was back in the hallways, the door snickering shut against my ass, the harsh day filling my eyeballs with light.

"Uh-huh," I said aloud. On wobbly legs I hit the elevator and went down, down to the convention hall.

"WHERE IN THE HELL have you been?" Shooter wanted to know. "I've been looking all over for you. Our guy just finished his song and — sweet Jesus, man, are you awake?"

"Never felt better," I answered truthfully. "Just taking care of business in a flash, good buddy."

"Well, here's some business for your ass — I got the shots I need. Got this fucker in the can, baby." Shooter's eyes blazed with amped excitement. "All we need now is a couple more interviews and we can call it soup. Mmm … soup. Wonder if room service can bring us some."

They could, and they did, and over steaming bowls of chicken noodle we compared notes. The evening competition would be our best chance to suss out a mainbar lede. A couple hours there, a few more trips to get tuned up, maybe a late-night visit to the hotel bar to find drunken Elvi and we could hit the road and make it back before deadline. I love it when a plan comes together.

"So dude," Shooter asked. "Seriously, where the fuck did you disappear to? I checked the room, checked the bathrooms. Figured you were trying to pick up one of the skanks." He tipped a wink. "Was I wrong? Did you crack open one of those fatties?" Shooter. Such a suave operator.

I shook my head. "Good lord, man, I have some taste. Nothing like that at all. Just ran into an interesting group of people and partied in their room. We should be seeing them tonight."

"Well, for fuck's sake, introduce me. And here." He tossed two more yellow pills in my direction. "Dr. Shooter says it's time to be a good boy and take your meds." I caught the pills in my mouth and Shooter laughed. "Nice trick, Ace. Just don't get one stuck in your throat. That'd be a waste of a perfectly good speeder." He swallowed his own pair, reached out a hand. "Time for a line. Gotta get ready for the big show."

"Blotter first, then powder," I insisted. "Gotta do it in the right order." I was right, of course — the delicate balance of drugs needed to be maintained at all costs. Otherwise it's anarchy, like whiskey after beer, and next thing you know you're dealing with a pukefest. No good can come from this. I remember being at a party where some weekend warrior downed an array of pills and then snorted a foot-long line of Peruvian. He threw up the pills within minutes, and I wasn't the only one eyeballing the puke and wondering if it was safe to pluck out the half-digested capsules and recycle them. Madness.

We decided to get dressed up for the evening concert. In the shower I felt the second trip starting to rear its magnificent head, roaring to life through the fine spray of water hitting my chest. I could still feel the effects of the bongload I'd done upstairs — a jarring rush from the PCP, a sweet bass line from the opium, the good mid-range from that fucking Northern Lights. God, such a good ganja. Not too cerebral, and definitely no body high. A man could smoke a half-dozen joints of that a day and still be able to function with panache, so long as he didn't decide to hop in the car and drive, or pilot a cigarette boat at 70 mph across a choppy lake.

"Dude!" Shooter called out through the door. "Some lady with a dog just dropped off a package for you." This I had to see. I wrapped a towel around my ass and hustled out of the bathroom to find Shooter shaking a small box about four inches square.

"Careful — could be explosives," I said. "Or some sort of poison that's activated by vigorous agitation."

"Or it's fucking weed," Shooter said, sniffing the box. "Smells like a skunk up and died in there. Hey, was that one of the people you partied with? 'Cause she's not bad — I mean, no looker, but she looked like she'd be a lot of fun."

"You don't know the half of it, dude," I said. opening the box. Shooter was right — it was a fat cola of Northern Lights, trimmed to perfection so the THC crystals glistened. Accompanying the bud was a business card with five letters: EP TCB.

"God bless you, Dog Lady," I sighed, opening my overnight bag to find the Zig-Zags. "Roll one up, Shooter," I said. "Fat as your thumb. But be careful — this shit is laced with something. It'll knock your dick in the dirt if you're not careful."

We weren't careful, of course. We burned Shooter's spliff down to a nubbin of a roach, stopping only when the world started spinning and Shooter staggered into the bathroom to take a piss. "You weren't kidding, man," he called out. "That's some potent weed. And the colors in this mirror are unfuckingbelievable. Like Lucky Charms marshmallows, only brighter. Jesus, did I just say that?"

"You did, my friend. That's probably the LSD talking, but we're not taking any chances. The best thing we can do right now is hoover the rest of the coke and drink heavily. That should balance out the hallucinations, or at least make them tolerable. And then it'll be time to get dressed. You did bring a tie, didn't you? We don't want to disappoint the groupies."

"All taken care of," Shooter said. He stepped out of the bathroom and I watched his face melt into rivulets of colorful candle wax — first red, then purple, then green and blue and yellow.

"I don't know how you see through that wax," I said.

"It ain't easy," he said, peeling away some of the mess with a hand made of butter knives. Yeah. We were ready for the concert.

"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, welcome to tonight's competition," said the announcer, a man with an AM-phony voice. "Our 10 finalists will each sing one song. Our celebrity judges will grade them on vocal quality, attire and resemblance to the King — and by the end of the night, one of these contestants will be crowned the best Elvis impersonator in the world!"

Out of the corner of my eye I see my afternoon companions enter the room. The Rumbler is decked out in an all-white jumpsuit, cowl collar way up firm and high, sunglasses covering half his face. He's enormous — about 360 pounds, I guesstimate — and he waddles when he walks, like a walrus sporting sideburns.

The first three or four contestants bellow their way through the standard E-fare: "Jailhouse Rock," "Return to Sender," "Hound Dog" — all the stuff you'd expect bad Elvis impersonators to do at a karaoke bar. Shit, anyone can do a passable Elvis, especially with a tune that accentuates the bad Presley vocal tics, the same way any kid over 12 can get by with a lame Michael Jackson "sh-mon" imitation.

Now it was time for the real deal to hit the stage. The MC introduced him with the delicious Irish pseudonym "Pat McGroin," earning a few guffaws and jeers from the boozed-up crowd (and a couple of swoons from the sweaty groupies, who were dripping all the way down to their cankles).

"Thankyaverymuch," Elvis slurred, eating the mic with one hand while using the other to wipe his brow with a pair of XXL pink panties someone threw onto the stage. The sweat stains under his arms were huge blossoms, nearly reaching his nipples, and even from a dozen steps away I could smell the King's tang.

"As the snow flies," Elvis started to sing, and a hush fell over the room, a hundred, two hundred people stopped talking and calling out for doubles and started listening to the sweaty fat man crooning "In The Ghetto." For a second I got chills, but it was just the speed talking up my arms.

I could see Elvis was having problems getting the sweat out of his eyes — those panties may have been huge but they weren't 100-percent cotton so they didn't absorb much — and he was also having a tough time remembering the words. I mean, the guy's been dead for decades — cut him some slack for not remembering every line. He didn't even write the damned song — that would be Mac Davis — and I'll bet there are some days when even Mac has trouble recalling what was happening on that cold and grey Chicago morning.

But that didn't matter to this crowd; it demanded perfection from its fake Elvi, and by the real deal was halfway through the song he was getting a few jeers from the crowd,Two-thirds of the way through and someone threw a wadded-up paper cup into the stage with the catcall, "YOU SUCK!" I could see Elvis start to twitch, and somewhere in my brain he was itching to get his hands on a pistol so he could open fire on the heckler.

By the time the song was over there was a steady chorus of boos and hisses, and the fat man in the white jumpsuit whipped off his sunglasses and fixed the naysayers with an evil eye.

"FUCK ALL Y'ALL," he shouted into the microphone, before unzipping the front of his outfit and whipping out Lil Elvis. "YOU CAN SUCK MY BALLS!" And having taken care of his business, quick as a flash he was gone.

Elvis finished fourth in the competition — not bad, considering his flubs. Dog Lady came up to accept his tiny loving cup trophy; the King had already left the building, last seen in the back of a cab headed to the bus station, where witnesses say he caught a 9:15 Trailways to Albuquerque, N.M. From there the trail goes cold.

WE STAYED UP PARTYING all night with a roomful of Elvi and their groupies and left Chicago at noon Sunday. We would have made deadline with plenty of time to spare, but we had to stop near Rolla, a hundred miles from home, to cover the drownings of two cave-divers. Crazed from lack of sleep and an intolerably high level of amphetamines in my bloodstream, I nearly punched a sheriff's deputy who wouldn't let us near the scene. Shooter managed to pull me away before I unsheathed a letter opener on the cop's ass, and a couple of local stoners showed us the back way to the crime scene. We grabbed the shots, gave the stoners a fat spliff for their troubles and punched back to town at 110 mph.

We rolled into the newsroom at 11:50 p.m. Ten minutes to deadline — enough time to crack open a Disney Dog and snog it before firing up a Marlboro and sitting down to bang out the lede:

DRIVING TO CHICAGO for an important assignment required our undivided attention to detail ...

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