In ’68, the hot smoke and cold eyes of ‘Nam stalked ELVIN SUGGS. Now, it’s a blonde in a red dress—and, he doesn’t want to run. Suggs is no stranger to heartache. Years have passed since the Hubble brothers murdered CHERIE, his ex-wife. When he receives an offer on his Memphis home, Elvin decides it’s time to confront his poignant past. With his Airedale, VANNA, beside him, he leaves St. Louis. Thirty minutes outside of Memphis, he passes a silver Caddy with Tennessee plates, by the side of the road. He decides to stop, and meets SHELBY SWAIN.
Vivacious and sultry, Shelby also has a rocky past. She is working at a St. Louis nightclub when her ex-husband, MYLES LAMOUR informs her that a potential client, sleazy RONALD “JUPE” JUPITER, solicited his defense in a mysterious murder charge. SHELBY knows Jupiter, from a shady past. When she returns to the Galaxy Apartments, managed by parolee, NESTER ARSENEAUX, she discovers her look-alike friend, Claire Ireland, dead in her living room. Was the bullet intended for her? Shelby decides to run from St. Louis. In fact, she has been running from ARTURO PRIMO, and his two hombres, EDUARDO RUIZ AND SANTOS (Santy) COREJOS for months. When she stole enough cash from Arturo’s safe to start a new life, she killed Arturo’s brother, HECTOR, and ran, first to Reno, then to Chicago, and finally, St. Louis. She thought she would stay, but now, decides to hide out at her Mama’s trailer in Memphis. That’s when the Caddy broke down—and Elvin showed up.
DI REDDING and COBRA GLYNES, SUGGS’ business partners, smell trouble all the way from St. Louis. It wasn’t like Elvin not to call for hours. When he finally tells them that he has met a “blonde angel” and is reconsidering the sale of his home, they decide to go to Memphis. Meanwhile, Elvin is falling in love with Shelby. He has been lonely for too long, and disregards warning signs, even when Di and Cobra bring them to his attention. Back at the Galaxy Apartments, Jupe is homeless, and Nester allows him to stay in Shelby’s former apartment. They don’t know that Eduardo and Santy have murdered Shelby’s nosy next door neighbor, LAVERNE PIECE. Her corpse awaits discovery.
At one time, Jupiter, Nester, Eduardo and Santy were former inmates in a Texas prison. One night, outside The Lounge by Maurice, Jupiter runs into Eduardo and Santos. They bribe the owner, Maurice, for Shelby’s forwarding address. Jupe has regrets when he sees the paltry payoff he receives for his introductions, and visits Myles LaMour to explain the situation. Eduardo and Santy drive to Memphis, and spot Shelby and Elvin on Beale Street, where she applied for a job as a country singer at the Heartbreak Hideaway. They chase them through the crowd, but lose them—this time. Fortunately, Di and Cobra also spotted Elvin and Shelby. They convene at Elvin’s house on Newell Street.
It is here, in the rooms of his former home, that Elvin resurrects the feelings he has so carefully avoided. The memories of Cherie, good and bad, bombard him, and he turns to Di for emotional support. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Shelby confesses to Cobra that she is being pursued by ruthless killers, and begs for his protection. Cobra is alarmed and informs Elvin, but to no avail. Without warning, Shelby grabs the keys to Elvin’s car and takes off, dropping her cell phone on the way. The recorded message divulges her aliases. Elvin, Cobra and Di go to the trailer court to wait for Shelby; but, Shelby is headed for the Scotland Yard Motel to meet Jupe, before she returns to the El Dorado Trailer Court with Jupe, Eduardo and Santy. When she does, a shoot out ensues. Elvin shoots Santy. Arturo becomes impatient for Eduardo to return Shelby to him, and flies to Memphis.
Shelby leaves the El Dorado Trailer Court to perform at the Heartbreak Hideaway. Elvin, Di and Cobra are in the audience. As a parting gift to Elvin, she performs a song she has written expressly for him. Thought she has fallen in love with Elvin, but she feels he deserves a different kind of woman. The show ends, and she runs backstage, where Eduardo and Arturo wait for her in the darkness. They don’t know that Elvin is waiting for them. Arturo aims for Elvin, but Elvin’s trigger finger is faster. He shoots Arturo. Elvin searches for Shelby in her dressing room, but she is gone. He discovers a pink clutch purse that contains a Tennessee driver’s license that belongs to Shelby Swain. The other two licenses, like Shelby, are gone. Elvin realizes he fell in love with a woman he never knew. He sells his home in Memphis.
Elvin, Di and Cobra return to St. Louis. The JEOPARDY championship is on television, and they watch as Nester wins the grand prize. He decides to donate a portion to military veterans, so they can enjoy a chance to do something they always wanted to do. He believes the important thing in life is not the outcome, but the opportunity to participate. Elvin agrees!
The rain pelted the windshield of Elvin’s car like a gushing waterfall. The oldies station played the Motown version of “My Girl,” and Elvin sang along with every word. “Hear that, Vanna?” He sang about sunshine on a rainy day. “Used to be talking about my Cherie. Yeah.” The Airedale blinked and stared at him with expectancy in her keen dark eyes, as if Cherie might appear any second. “No, gal. Don’t get your hopes up. My little lady ain’t coming back no more.” Elvin laughed. “Didn’t mean to get you all riled.”
The rain eased a bit, though the radio announcer said a tornado touched down in Sikeston. “Maybe we should get a burger, Vanna. Yeah, I bet you’d like that idea.” His eyes drifted to the side of the road. “Hey look, there’s a car just like this one.” He tried to shield his eyes from the driving rain with his hands. “Even got itself some Tennessee plates.” He pulled over to the shoulder on the highway and stopped the car. “Looks like a lady’s done broke down in the rain, shore ‘nuf. You stay here, Vanna. No use getting you all wet, too.”
She spotted him through sheets of rain. The mound of a man plodded through the deep puddles as if they didn’t exist. For a moment, Shelby figured he was a cop, and she prepared to run. Then, she saw that Tennessee smile, broad and friendly. He was from around here. Oh yeah, he was. She’d bet her life on it. Hey, she’d done enough of that to recognize the feeling.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey, yourself.” He extended his hand. “Name’s Elvin. Elvin Suggs.”
Shelby shook his wet hand. It felt warm. “Well, which is it?”
“Is it Elvin or Elvin Suggs?”
The man grinned. “Kinda wet out here to be so particular, ain’t it? I answer to either one, ma’am. You can just call me Elvin. That’ll be fine. This your car?”
“Yeah. It is. Was, I mean. It died a few minutes ago, and I was fixing to call my mama.”
“Your mama? Where’s your mama’s house? I could give you a ride, if it isn’t too far from here.”
Shelby knew he was going to say that. Of course he was going to say that. All men offered to take her someplace sooner or later. But, this one seemed different from the rest. She had a different feeling about him. “All right, then.”
“Okay. Where we headed?”
“You know the El Dorado Trailer Court in Wisdom?”
“Just outside of Memphis. By the Dog Tracks.”
“Shore ‘nuf know those parts. Ma’am, I don’t mean to be forward or nothing, but if you don’t mind, what’s your name?”
“Shelby.” She smiled and looked away.
He opened the passenger side door to the Caddy. “Okay then, Shelby, now you get to meet the best part of this ride.”
“We got company?”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you about Vanna.”
“Well, she looks like a dog, but I guess you could call her a girl.”
“Why, Elvin, no matter what she looks like, you shouldn’t call a lady a dog.”
Elvin grinned at the fuzzy Airedale lounging in the corner of the backseat. “This is gonna work out just great, isn’t it Vanna? Come on girl, slide on in!”
“So, Shelby is it?” Elvin smiled a bit and glanced sideways at his passenger. The faint scent of Shelby’s spicy perfume filled the air. “Vanna and me were going to grab a burger. How does that sound to you?”
Shelby turned to stare at the large terrier, sitting on the seat behind Elvin. “So, this is Vanna?”
“How’d you guess?”
“This car isn’t that large, Mr. Suggs.”
“Call me Elvin. Or Suggs. Just don’t call me Mister anything.”
“Fine. You know, I am a little hungry. It’s been a while since I ate.”
“How long you been on the road, Shelby?”
The blonde turned her head and Elvin sensed a stony silence. “Shelby? I said…”
“You asked me how long I’ve been on the road.” Shelby stared out the window. “And, I’m thinking.” A few moments lapsed before she spoke. “I heard you, Elvin.”
“Shore ‘nuf.” Elvin stared straight ahead and said nothing. What did he say to offend this gal? Di would know, he felt certain. Di always knew what he did wrong. Never thought he would miss that part of having Di around, but then, a man never could tell what he might miss about a woman. He learned that the day he lost Cherie. “Burger Barn okay by you?”
“I’m not picky.”
Elvin grinned. “Well, we sure aren’t, are we, Vanna?” The silver Caddy cruised onto the ramp and the terrier began to drool on Shelby’s arm. The signature red structure with BURGER BARN in large white letters awaited them on the rolling hill.
“Does Vicki eat hamburgers?” Shelby frowned and glanced at Vanna.
“Shore ‘nuf. Mostly, we eat the same, see. I buy her dog food, sure, but Vanna likes what looks good. I can’t say that I blame her. Besides that, she eats the dog food, too. Tell you what, her favorite is the Barn Buster – maybe you would like that too, you being a girl and all.”
Shelby stared at Elvin for a second and then burst into laughter. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Well, it’s a lot to eat. Maybe you’re on a diet.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“You don’t like mayo on your burger?”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“Well, then let’s hear it, because I’m ready to order.”
“I’ve never met anyone quite like you, Elvin Suggs.”
Elvin shrugged. “The woman I live with says that all the time.”
Shelby’s expression changed, in a way that Elvin didn’t quite understand. He wasn’t certain, but he could have sworn she looked disappointed. That was crazy, he told himself. She didn’t know him. He imagined it, that’s what it was – his imagination. He would ignore it.
No, he wouldn’t.
“Di’s just a friend, now, Shelby. Don’t misunderstand.”
“You live with a woman who’s ‘just a friend?’ C’mon Suggs, I was born at night – just not last night.”
“Don’t read you there, Shelby. Di’s my friend. Cain’t never be nothin’ more than that.”
Elvin opened the car door and came around to the passenger side to help Shelby out of the Caddy. “Lots of reasons. Vanna, for one. Her husband’s another.”
“You live with a married woman?”
Elvin looked shocked. “No, ma’am. Di was married to Don, but he ain’t with us no more. He was my best friend in ‘Nam.”
“So Di’s a widow?”
“So, she’s available?”
“I guess she is. To somebody. She tried that a while back. Didn’t work out, though.”
“Guy was crazy. Wanted to experiment on animals, do stuff with electric shock treatments and popcorn. He even wanted to experiment on Vanna.”
“Maybe that’s what your Di liked about him.”
Elvin stopped walking and paused. “You know something, Shelby? You might be on to something there. I never thought about that. He seemed crazy, but maybe he wasn’t.” He paused again. “He sure acted crazy.”
“What happened to him?”
“Cobra shot him.”
“Cobra? Is that a person – or a snake?”
“Oh.” Elvin chuckled. “He’s a person, alright. Nervous kind of guy, but he gets by. He just feels a whole lot better with a gun in his hand. That might be hard for a lady like you to understand.” Elvin sensed her hesitation, but he restrained his urge to deluge her with nosy questions. Di would have been proud. This habit required extraordinary “Suggs” effort.
“Your friend Cobra is a good shot, is he?” Elvin noticed that Shelby didn’t even flinch at the mention of Cobra’s gun. In fact, she seemed intrigued at his skill, a fact that intrigued Elvin.
“Yes ma’am, he is. Cobra was a sniper in ‘Nam, Marine–brand kind of guy. Wishes he was back there, I do believe. He would tell you otherwise, but the man doesn’t know what else to do with himself. Every chance he gets, he shoots something or somebody, I should say. But, that’s a good thing, since we run a detective agency. Or did I already tell you that part?”
Shelby’s eyes widened at the mention of his detective business. Elvin noticed that part. He also noticed her big blue eyes, and that wavy blonde hair with the curls on the end. Pretty lady this Shelby Swain. Looked a lot like Cherie…
“No, you didn’t.”
“I didn’t?” Elvin’s reverie faded, and he found himself standing at the counter of Burger Barn.
“Your detective agency. You didn’t say anything about it.”
“Oh,” Elvin said. He glanced down at the empty leash in his hand and panic pulsed through his veins. “Vanna! Where did she go?”
Shelby giggled. “You left Vicki in the car, remember? You said they don’t allow dogs in here.”
“I said that?” Elvin felt confused. He didn’t recall saying that, or for that matter, anything else, even the way that Shelby called his dog “Vicki.” This Shelby Swain made him forget mostly everything about the past and even the present. For the first time in a helluva long time, he felt a kind of magic he thought died a long time ago. He noticed other men in the Burger Barn staring at him with envy at his good fortune in earning a place at Shelby’s side.
He couldn’t believe he said anything about leaving Vanna in the car. Had he really said that? Well, a fresh, hot Barn Buster bought a lot of forgiveness. Vanna could tackle two all by herself, and Vicki, whoever she was, probably could too. The way he was going, he would flub up a lot more before they hit Wisdom, Tennessee. It was going to be one wild ride.
Better order half a dozen of those critters.