"Exit Strategy" (Working Title)
A Work of Fiction by Mark Goodin
Draft 2, June, 2007
Toccoa, Georgia (Present Day) - The red-clay cotton fields stretched for miles in every direction baking under a mean summer sun.
The heat didn't bother him; never had, even as a kid growing up dirt-poor in Tupelo. He still enjoyed sitting on the front porch -- under a single ceiling fan, a sweaty glass of sweet tea in his lap, watching the heat mirages that plumed up from the hardpan soil. For him, the quiet was intoxicating -- the hum of the fan, a dog barking somewhere in the distance, and the occasional buzz of shoe-flies.
There were elements of his former life that he missed, but by and large, Elvis Aaron Presley relished the anonymity and privacy that he'd had since August of 1977. He loved his new life. And he loved the solitude of his farm.
The "process" had wiped away any vestiges of his old appearance. Even now, decades after the surgery, he would stand in front of his bathroom mirror, running his fingers over his elongated nose and ruddy complexion, marveling at the intricacy of the plastic surgeon's work. Only his voice remained unchanged.
The farm was a far cry from Graceland. There were no fancy estate names. No gilded leopard-skin rooms, only a white clapboard four-bedroom house, with a picketed veranda facing the east and the Georgia sunrises. A split-rail fence ran the short distance from his front porch to the main road, where a dented and rusty mailbox read simply: J.T. Mallory. Keep Out.
He'd had decades to contemplate his fate, sitting on the porch much like he did today, staring up under a floppy straw hat that covered his completely bald head. He'd always preferred Ray-Ban sunglasses, but owned only one pair now - a simple and scratched set of aviator-style lens that sat perched on the ridge of a bulbous nose, giving him the appearance of a disapproving school teacher when he glared over the top of them.
He was certain there were others - like him, famous and infamous - who had claimed what he had: the right to an anonymous life before they died in fact. He read the newspaper and watched television with a jaundiced, suspicious view of any celebrity disappearance or death.
But he knew better than to ask. Even participants in The Program don't know who was enrolled.
The same was true of Howard Hughes, who had lived well into his nineties after having his death faked on a Lear jet from Mexico. The same was true of cult-rocker Jim Morrison, who was relocated to the French Seychelles, a remote island chain off the African coast of Kenya, where he spends his days painting watercolor seascapes under an assumed identity and new physical presence. And there were the Wall Street high rollers, including the CEO who bilked billions out of a Texas energy company but mysteriously suffered a "heart attack" before he could go to trial. "Yeah," Elvis thought. "They all fit the pattern."
He had his doubts about John Lennon. He remembered the day of the shooting, and had wondered for weeks: "Did he or didn't he?"
But there was something about the former Beatle's death that didn't seem surreal in the slightest -- only brutal and tragic. The lines at Graceland - the thousands that came to pay him homage when he died, paled in insignificance to the throngs who had gathered in Central Park to mourn Lennon. He had been mildly jealous when it happened, but scolded himself years later for being so selfish.
He didn't follow rap music (he considered it Pagan and unmelodic), but when Tupac Shakur was gunned down nearly a decade ago, he wondered anew whether the rapper had joined The Program, or had, in actuality, died in a hail of bullets outside a Las Vegas recording studio.
The fact the shooting occurred in Vegas peaked his interest. But Shakur's violent lifestyle made it hard to fathom a retreat into anonymity.
"It didn't make sense," Presley remembered thinking. But then neither did jumping from his jumbled and confused life to a place like Toccoa, a town of 25,000 whose main trade was textiles and agriculture. The unlikely change of scenery, from the mean streets of urban Los Angeles to a small town somewhere else, made the myth of Tupac's disapperance all the more unlikely - but for Presley, somehow more believable.
That was the beauty of Goss' work, Presley thought. Once you understood how the system worked, things that appeared unlikely were actually more believable. Goss called it "hiding in plain sight."
Presley recalled that his own "death" involved extraordinary preparation. And how, mere moments before the curtain was to rise on his deception, he fretted about the script Goss had carefully choreographed for him.
He had protested: "Dying on the commode, sprawled out on the floor of bathroom, was no way for a King to die." But Goss had stood firm. That was the way it was going down. And there was no sense arguing about it.
He remembered with admiration, though, the famous picture in National Enquirer - the one of him in a white tuxedo, laid out in his coffin.
"It was genius; it really was," Presley had mused with a smile. "Only someone as smart as Goss could have thought it up."
Inquirer editors thought they'd bought the photo from a freelance photographer who smuggled a miniature camera into Graceland during one of the public viewing sessions.
What they actually got was an intentionally grainy black-and-white photograph of a wax look-alike dummy it had taken months to perfect.
The thirty grand the Inquirer paid for the photo was simply a bonus. No one was the wiser. "Smart guy, Goss Anderson."
His relocation had cost a fortune. But Elvis always heeded his mother's advice. "Buy the best," she said, "you can afford it." And there was no question that Goss was the very best at what he did: Making people disappear.
There were no smoking guns, no trails of evidence leading people to his new life. No talkative witnesses or tell-all books. Elvis' "death" had been neat, clean and complete, and worth every red cent of what it cost. And it had cost a bundle.
But Goss had given him what he and so many like him wanted more than anything else: A second chance. A new start. The end of one life, and the beginning of another.
Las Vegas, Nevada (1970) - The Cistern Bar was an unlikely place to close multi-million dollar deals. But Goss Anderson liked it that way. He worked hard not to draw attention to himself, and for a variety of reasons (the bar still served beer that was chilled in ice, not a refrigerator was miles from the Vegas strip), the place suited his needs.
Like everything else in Vegas, The Cistern was open all night, and catered mostly to locals who wanted a break from the hot lights and non-stop action of the casinos where they worked.
For Goss, it was a quiet oasis in a desert of desperate gamblers, carnivorous hookers and garish spotlights. No live bands. No casino tables -- just an old jukebox, ice-cold longnecks and a retired Marine Master Sergeant who served as owner and chief bartender.
Goss (it was short for the Nordic name "Gosslier" his father had given him) always had a love-hate relationship with the city of the stars - one that dated back to his first assignment as a rookie U.S. Marshal helping to manage the government's witness protection and relocation program.
His decision to enlist in law enforcement had infuriated his father - a wealthy New York investment banker - who had staked out a different future for him. He saw Goss inheriting the family business. Instead, upon his death the son inherited $20 million, Goss' mother having passed away a decade before. The investment firm bearing his father's name closed its doors, but not before Goss bought the rights to the company's name and left New York for good.
Overnight, Deputy U.S. Marshal Goss Anderson had became a genuinely rich man - wealthy enough to retire early from the work had he chosen to do so. But he had other ideas.
His family had bequeathed to him more than just money. Goss enjoyed his father's refined good looks, a full head of salt-and-pepper hair that gave him the credibility of much older man even at a young age, and a lean, athletic frame from hundreds of hours running back-and-forth on the family's tennis courts. At the age of 44, he began sporting a grey goatee, which he thought made him appear more hip and less like a "federal goon." He worked out three times a week, ran two miles every morning, and outside of his penchant for top-shelf Rum and single-malt scotch, kept to a strict diet of low-fat foods.
Father and son had never been close. But each had a penchant for high-risk ventures. Both liked living on the edge. And where most people saw danger and ran from it, Goss -- like his father --enjoyed looking into the abyss … staring down the demon of failure and coming out on top.
It was no wonder that five years into the federal witness protection program, he grew tired of helping felons and government witnesses disappear into the mist.
The thrill was gone, he'd said. His job, once exciting and mysterious, was now mundane and ordinary. He needed a new adventure, something that would utilize his unique skills and, like his father, super-charge his impatient senses.
He found himself almost envying some of the hoods he was enlisting in the witness protection program.
"Sooner or later, everybody wants to be somewhere else," he remembered saying. "And who wouldn't want to push the 'rewind' button on their life if they could?"
An idea began to take shape. If the government could transform peoples' lives … allow them to disappear and start over again … why couldn't he? But for a price. A purely private-sector program catering only to celebrities and the super rich. And by super-rich, Goss mean at least a hundred- million-or-better-in-cash rich.
That had been three years ago. Since then, the idea had blossomed into an enormously profitable venture, with annual revenues exceeding $80 million. And like it or not, Las Vegas became the official headquarters of Goss Inc., a secretive, and as far as he knew, the world's only for-profit relocation service for the famous and the infamous.
Growing up on a 50-acre estate on the banks of the Hudson River, Goss considered Vegas gaudy, morbidly hot and devoid of charm. But it had became the cornerstone of his life for one peculiar reason: It was prime hunting ground for wealthy clients who were looking for a way out of trouble, or the trappings of their fame. People who could afford the luxury of a brand new life. Or people who were on the run from something, or someone.
Vegas had one other thing going for it. It was one of the few places on earth where common folk could mix it up with five-star celebrities and entertainers without the hindrance of handlers and meddlesome agents.
And tonight, as he had every other night when he met prospects at The Cistern, Goss sat a dimly lit corner table at the back of the bar, nursing a scotch, waiting.
Tonight, he waited for Vernon Presley and his famous son to arrive.
Goss had met the elder Presley at blackjack table in the Hilton three nights before. Impressed with Anderson's gold embossed government badge and "don't-give-shit" attitude about celebrities, Elvis' father said he needed a favor. He wanted to arrange a meeting for his son with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. To help with the country's growing drug problem, he insisted.
It had been Anderson's idea to have the meeting at The Cistern.
"The Colonel don't like 'E' to leave the hotel," Vernon Presley had protested. "Especially late at night. There's the fans, the security and all that."
Anderson shrugged off the invitation to visit Presley's suite at the Hilton's penthouse, knowing it would only make the old man more curious. Just who in the hell turns down a chance to meet the King?
"Look, I'm happy to talk to your son about Hoover," Anderson had said, "but I'm no star-fucker. And this is where I do business."
The feigned blow-off worked. The old man set the meeting at The Cistern for 11 p.m. the following night.
But then Goss knew Presley would come. It would have been out-of-character for a guy of his stature not to.
He had added it up a thousand times, and had rarely been proven wrong: "There's something about celebrities," Goss had long ago concluded. "Something that forces them to leave the cocoons of their handlers and venture forth unprotected to hang with the rabble. They can't help it."
Country singers were especially prone to the practice, Goss believed. He'd heard more than one complain about the prison of their success. How it was difficult to write interesting songs about heartbreak and humble beginnings when you spent most of your time in a luxury hotel and had traded beer and a pickup truck for a stretch limo and a bottle of Kristal.
His watch read 11:15 p.m. "So typical," Goss muttered to himself. "Fashionably late. But then a guy like Elvis had to be. If he showed up on time, it meant he wasn't busy enough." The way Goss figured it, big-time celebrities always kept people waiting. It was part of their schtick. Their time was more valuable than yours, and they had to let you know it.
But tonight, tired as Goss was, the mind games pissed him off.
A small flurry of activity at the door finally signaled Presley's arrival, as well as a small army of security personnel and overweight male hangers-on, each of them conspicuously wearing shoulder holsters with snub-nosed .38s bulging under their sport coats.
Presley's entrance created a stir of confusion among The Cistern's regulars, but two squat-and-muscular security men cleared a path to the table and kept unwanted visitors at arms length.
Elvis unceremoniously parked himself next to Anderson, shook hands without saying anything, and asked for a Dr. Pepper.
Even in the dim light of the bar, Anderson could see Presley hadn't aged well. Only in his late-30s, he was bloated and sweaty, and his sequined jumpsuit and white scarf were heavily stained with perspiration. Up close, his skin was pockmarked, the pores on his nose oily and dilated.
An enormous pair of gold wrap-around sunglasses obscured Elvis' eyes, but Anderson could see the puffiness and irritation just below the rim. When he sat down, Anderson got a look at the extent of Presley's girth. His ample belly cascaded over the massive gold and silver belt the entertainer was wearing, and the pressure it put on his diaphragm made his breathing sporadic and labored.
"This place is a dump, man," Presley said, gazing past, not at, Anderson. "The only reason I'm here is my Daddy says you can hook me up with Hoover. Can you do that, yes or no?"
Anderson nodded in silent agreement, trying to look nonchalant.
There was a slight slur to Presley's speech, and Anderson thought for a moment that his seatmate might be drunk, or at least slightly stoned.
He glanced sideways at Vernon Presley to judge his reaction, but the old man was well on his way to downing his first drink, and busy hitting on the bar maid. The rest of Presley's entourage had scattered to different parts of the bar, looking almost grateful to be free of their charge for a few moments. The two burly, stone-faced security guards took seats about ten feet away from the table.
"Hell, man, I've told 'em a million times:" Presley now lectured. "I could help them nail these damn dope peddlers if they gave me that thing you got in your pocket."
"You mean a gun?" Anderson inquired.
"Hell, no! "I've got plenty of guns," Presley laughed, patting his right pocket where Anderson now noticed the bulge of a long-barrel .45 protruding under his cape as well. "I'm talking about your badge, man."
Anderson chuckled out-loud at the thought of Presley wielding a badge around Vegas, but when he did his guest's tone turned ice cold.
"What's so fucking funny, man? You think I couldn't handle it?"
Anderson tried to backtrack without being patronizing: "No, I just don't know why you'd want to," he responded, trying to move the conversation in a different direction.
Presley stood up and abruptly pushed away from the barstool, the sweat now literally pouring off his face. He glared malevolently at Anderson over his sunglasses, and Goss could now see clearly that the entertainer's eyes were bloodshot and puffy, and his hands had a nervous tick. For a man his age, Goss thought, the guy looked totally spent.
Elvis performed a weird stretch, and then proceeded to strike one of his on-stage karate poses while the security guards remained seated. When he finished, Presley gazed intently at Anderson as the bar went quiet, except for the blare of the jukebox.
"I'm a black-belt," he said scornfully. "And I could kill you right here with just my hands."
The whole scene looked foolish, at least to Anderson, who now had to work hard to repress a laugh. "One kick in the balls," he thought, "and that would be that."
Anderson started to rise from his seat as the two men squared off, face-to-face, with Elvis' security detail quickly moving into position to break up what looked like a fight.
After a moment, Anderson broke the awkward silence.
"Sit the fuck down, he growled. "No one wants to see two middle-aged men mud-wrestling on the floor."
It took about 20 seconds to sink in, but Anderson finally noticed the hint of a smirk emerge on Elvis' face. "Was it grudging respect, or merely relief?" he wondered. Goss moved back toward his seat, and the talk eventually shifted to the subject of visiting Washington.
Presley and Anderson met again several times, including one trip to a Nevada small arms firing range, where the former federal agent spent three hours showing Elvis how to improve his accuracy with the .50 caliber pistol he'd received as a gift from J. Edgar Hoover, who secretly met with Presley on Anderson's recommendation. Later that same day, President Nixon awarded the singer an honorary DEA badge. Anderson had nothing to do with the White House meeting. Some Nixon aide, apparently a fan, had put it together. But Elvis gave Goss all the credit anyway. The badge, the meetings, the gun - all of them made Anderson indispensable to Presley, just like he had planned.
Invitations to visit Presley's penthouse became commonplace. Anderson would stretch out on one of the white leather couches in the six-room suite and listen as Elvis played a Steinway grand piano, singing gospel songs in his silk robe and brushed satin slippers into the wee hours of the morning. On many nights it was just the two of them; others in the entourage having long-since gone to bed.
Always, even in the darkness of his sprawling hotel suite, Presley wore sunglasses. Anderson began to suspect he was on prescription medication for some condition, and that he routinely used uppers to remain active through the night.
But drug use was an issue Anderson never broached.
Nonetheless, their conversations became intensely personal on virtually every other front. It was Anderson's stock-in-trade. He always led talks in that direction when he gained a potential client's confidence.
And once the door was open, Elvis walked through it without a moment's hesitation.
"You don't know much about me, Goss. Least, not enough to know what's really inside me." Presley paused then added sadly: "Satin knew; she always knew. But she's gone."
Elvis began tinkering with the piano keys again, and then burst into a loud three bars of "How Great Thou Art."
"Your mother, right?" Anderson inquired.
"Yeah, but she's been dead a long time now," Presley responded, still tinkering with the piano keys.
"Ever think back on your childhood and wonder how things would've been if you hadn't become famous?" Anderson queried.
"Yeah, I'd still be driving a delivery truck … back and forth on those damn red-clay roads," Presley said. "Or I'd be a traveling salesman selling whatever and banging diner waitresses up and down I-28."
Elvis rose from the piano and stared out the window overlooking the Vegas strip, ablaze in lights and activity.
"I'm a driven guy," he continued. "Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be famous; with so much money I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to.
"Being famous is the best drug I know. It'll get you laid; get you anything you want. But, man, it's a monster that's never full; never satisfied."
It was 4 a.m., and Anderson was exhausted. But he sensed finally an opening to talk with Presley about The Process.
"Always hungry, huh?" Goss asked, fighting hard to suppress a yawn.
"That's right," Elvis said, gazing dreamily into the space between him and the black and white piano keys. "And whatever happened yesterday ain't enough to fill that rascal up. It always ends up wantin' more."
"Ever thought about walking away?"
Presley looked at Anderson almost incredulously. "And go where, man? Back to Tupelo? Sing in some shithouse for nickels and quarters. No thanks."
"No, I mean claiming a place for yourself," Anderson quickly replied. "Some place where it's just you. A place where you could live out your life the way you wanted to …"
Elvis cut him off.
"Look at me," he thundered. "Take a good, long look at me. I'm fuckin' Elvis Presley! There's no place I can go without being recognized. Hell, I can't even go out for ice cream with my kid!"
Elvis moved away from Goss, his voice suddenly forlorn.
"I'm stuck," he continued. "Stuck right here. Stuck in Graceland. Stuck wherever. It's one show a night, four nights a week … "
Goss tried to speak, but Presley shut him down.
"You know, I counted the steps one time," he said in a hushed tone. "It's exactly 319 between this room and that ballroom stage. And they're the same 319 every damn night … "
He voice trailed off: "That's my life, man. And that's the way it'll always be."
Anderson let the silence sink in for a moment before he spoke:
"How long have you been here at the Hilton? Four, five years now?"
"I've lost track," Elvis said glumly. "I started back when 50 grand a show was a truck load of dough, and that had to be nearly six years ago now."
Anderson stood face-to-face with the King in the murky darkness of the room. He noticed an almost hopeless tone in Presley's voice. He put his left hand on Presley's shoulder and went for broke:
"I can change it all," he whispered. "Whenever you're ever ready, I can change it all."
Goss had rules of engagement, just like the FBI. All of them were deal-breakers. One of the toughest was that even family members couldn't know about a relocation. For them, the "death" and disappearance of a loved one had to be both real and unexpected.
He found it mildly amusing that the bigger the celebrity, the richer or more famous, the more they wanted to cut the chord completely and simply disappear into the mist.
He had learned long ago not to make moral judgments about the "whys" of the disappearance. "They had their reasons," he said. And he had their money. "Case closed."
It was "the money" that made the business both rewarding and challenging. You don't move five or ten million dollars around without raising a few eyebrows, Anderson had said on more than one occasion.
First, he explained, there were the armies of celebrity enablers and business managers whose job it was to watch where large amounts of money went. "They're happy to squander the dough on glittering parties, bottles of champagne and premium blow," he said, "but large transactions always managed to draw the attention of accountants."
"Then there were the God-damned bankers." Even the Swiss are governed by restrictions that didn't exist 20 years ago. And the offshore banks - in the Caymans and in Turks and Caicos
Islands - were under enormous pressure to work more closely with the Feds.
All this was why Anderson's schemes were more works of art than business deals.
Elvis' death took two years to plan and pull off. Every angle had been considered. Every potential problem anticipated, including the bizarre protocols involving the certificate of death.
Fooling a county coroner was one thing, but Goss knew that when the celebrity was a big-name or infamous, the state medical examiner almost always took over the autopsy and post-mortem investigation.
He'd found ways around that, too.
Dental records, blood and toxicology tests were diverted on their way to the state lab, and falsifying results was relatively easy once the system was infiltrated.
Examination of the body was more difficult.
"Keep it simple," Goss always preached. "Rent the talent you can't buy." He'd spent years cultivating the medical examiners in four separate states, and if there was any commonality in all of his deceptions, it was this: Celebrity clients all managed to die in either Nevada, Tennessee, Colorado, Alabama or West Virginia.
Goss had spent millions to "own" outright whoever managed big-name deaths in those four states, and he steadfastly avoided any place where the senior medical examiner couldn't take complete control of a case.
When an autopsy was required by state law, Anderson relied on a body substitution scheme like the one JFK conspiracy hacks claimed the government employed just prior to the slain president's post-mortem.
"It was crap of course," Goss said of the Kennedy conspiracy. But the body substitution idea had been an inspiration nonetheless.
"When you pay someone off, it has to be for life," he told associates at every turn. "I've never met a person who couldn't be bought. It's just a question of how much it's going to cost me."
The King's paperwork -- the all-important signature on the death certificate -- cost three million. But like everything else Anderson did involving matters of finance, the money was paid out in annuity increments.
Goss considered it good business. The individual stayed indebted to the process, and the relatively small transactions prevented large sums of money from showing up in an individual's account at one time. Whenever possible, individual payments were made in denominations of $9,900 - one hundred dollars below the federal reporting limit for banks.
Anderson also knew that once a public official accepted the first payment, they were compromised for life and, most important, financially beholden to continued secrecy.
Having a "friendly" jurisdiction was the absolute key to a trouble-free autopsy, he firmly believed.
And while there were never overt threats, Anderson's people also made it clear to the medical examiners that disclosing the deception to anyone would void more than the deal's financial aspects.
Hiding Goss Incorporated's profits from prying eyes was an even bigger challenge.
"It's all about small moves," Anderson counseled his associates. "There are two ways to move large amount of dough out of the country, and the fast way gets you caught every time."
He'd learned a lot working 20 years for the federal government's witness protection program, but nothing more important than moving slowly and methodically. Sudden moves were dangerous. He'd done his best to remain cold, aloof and above the fray of emotions - especially when it came to laundering money.
Anderson also favored financial transactions that appeared to be totally independent of one another. He'd established four principal international charities as the biggest pipelines for financial "donations" from big-named celebrities, the vast majority of whom weren't Anderson's customers, just "Hollywood do-gooders guilty about all the money they make."
If anyone cared to look, Elvis' financial records would show that the King donated roughly $6.6 million during a six-year period to not-for-profit enterprises (a little over a million to each of Anderson's three "charities").
The records also indicated that during the same period, the Presley machine blew-through another $12 million in paper "losses" from non-performing real estate investments -- most of them dummy South American coffee farms that went bust a few months after the King had bought in as a stakeholder.
The rest of the money - some $2 million and change - was due in annual annuities through a revolving account that distributed the King's recording royalties to a number of parties - among them the "Memphis Gospel Music Preservation Foundation," another Anderson front group.
Anderson relished the irony that many of his front organizations - like the gospel music foundation in Memphis - actually turned into cash cows for legitimate donations.
If the authorities ever needed to "take a look under the hood," he said, there was enough real business in the books to fool the best IRS auditor.
There were other cardinal rules governing every Anderson masterpiece:
Ø No former presidents or heads of state as clients. The on-going security concerns of the Secret Service and other elite departments made relocation virtually impossible. And he knew from experience that most federal agents couldn't keep a secret.
Ø Being relocated meant saying goodbye to infinite wealth. You'd have enough to live on, but you'd never be rich again.
Ø No re-entries. There could be no second thoughts about relocation. Once the game was on, you never looked back. Your new life was un-changeable. Your new status non-negotiable.
Goss was glad he'd never had to act on the third commandment; relieved in fact. Privately, he'd always wondered whether he had what it took to actually kill someone for non-compliance. But he knew this: If it came down to him or a client, the client would go in a heartbeat.
Still, precautions had to be taken. Beyond physical appearance, there were issues such as fingerprints and DNA evidence; the kind of things that could be used to identify someone who might try to re-claim their former life.
He'd perfected his trade, a process Anderson proudly referred to as "identity management."
It meant not only opening up new lives for people (new Social Security numbers, birthdates etc.), it involved "closing the door" on someone's former self -- altering their physical appearance, changing fingerprint records and deleting/updating medical information. In short, inventing a person out of thin air.
"Thank God for the information age!" Anderson preached time and again. "It makes everything possible."
"No need to physically alter fingerprints or DNA," he had reasoned. "Simply change the computer information about those characteristics. The end result was the same."
The digital revolution literally transformed his enterprise. What had been difficult to do with paper records was now a breeze in the digital nether world of ones-and-zeros, where a keystroke could "update" records across-the-board in government and private security databases around the world.
"Who the hell's gonna know how Elvis Presley's fingerprints, or his DNA profile for that matter, looks now versus ten years ago?" he bragged. "We're a nation of sheep. Where one goes, we all follow. And whatever the computer tells us, we believe. Even if it takes us right over a cliff."
There had been a few screw-ups along the way. Mostly little stuff. But Goss was obsessed with details.
"Fuck that up," he said, "and the big picture goes to hell in a heart-beat."
There was the gravesite at Graceland. In the rush to finish the project, the guys that ran the mausoleum for Anderson managed to misspell Presley's middle name.
While everyone else in the organization stood around high-fiving each other on the day of the funeral, it was Anderson who noticed the mistake as he watched the graveside procession on television.
"It's Aaron with two a's, not one!" he roared over the noisy celebration going on behind him. "We misspelled the guy's middle name!"
Anderson wasn't going to wait for someone in the family to bring the mistake to the public's attention. He'd simply ordered up another cast-bronze grave marker on the spot, and had his people quietly make the change the next night.
The cost of a new marker was roughly $50,000. He'd eat it, of course. But cost wasn't the issue. Closing off any avenue for meddlesome questions, that was the point.
"Hide in plain sight, baby," he always told his guys. "Because it's where no one bothers to look."
Anderson's far-flung enterprises also included the real estate and banking companies required for complex relocations. In Elvis' case, the farm was purchased by the "Kansas City Real Estate Investment Trust," one of 60 wholly owned subsidiaries of Goss Inc., but all "ghost entities," meaning none of the corporate documentation could ever be traced back to Anderson or the parent company. The investment bank that handled the closing and property management was a venture-capital firm owned jointly by Anderson and his three principal partners. Same rules applied. No direct corporate connections. Anyone trying to investigate would end up down a blind alley.
Even a moving and storage company, located on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., was part of the Anderson stable of companies. Its trucks proudly proclaimed what Anderson himself could not: "World-Class Service in Relocation."
The best plastic surgeon in the world is Dr. Abraham Reyim, a bearded and eccentric transplant Jew from Israel who first met Anderson in 1965.
The two hit it off instantly. Each had a passion for excitement.
But that's where the similarities ended. Reyim was an almost pathological extrovert who enjoyed pushing the boundaries of good taste. When he wasn't in the operating room, Reyim pursued a Bohemian lifestyle of wild singles parties and outlandish behavior. Where Goss preferred silk-and-cotton pullovers, white linen slacks and stylish Italian loafers, Reyim had an affinity for gaudy Hawaiian shirts and cut-offs. Even around his office he wore the wild-plaid shirts, open halfway to his belly button, showing off several garish gold and silver necklaces with heavy Hebrew pendants. When he wore long pants, they looked like he'd pulled them out of a Goodwill box somewhere around 1974. Most were wide-wale bell-bottoms, which he proudly married with pairs of high-gloss white patent-leather shoes with enormous faux-brass buckles.
He detested chest and leg hair, and routinely gave himself a whole-body bikini-wax because he thought it made him look sexy. When laser hair removal was invented, Reyim bought one of the first units and had a technician permanently settle the issue for him.
To say Reyim had no fashion sense was an understatement. The doctor wore his contempt for clothing trends as a badge of honor, especially around the condo swimming pool where he bravely sported a tiny White Stag Speedo bathing suit that barely covered his manhood but accentuated the ample spare tire around his waist.
He was quick, however, to remind friends and the merely curious that the money he made was a powerful enough aphrodisiac, and that a guy with a pocket full of dough and a great sense of
humor -- a man who also practiced a profession beautiful women actually adored and would do anything to get close to -- could do very well in the romance department, thank you.
True or not, Goss was always amazed at the never-ending parade of 30-something lovelies that Reyim constantly squired around town. "The guy's a preternatural stud," he'd joke about Reyim. "He gets more pussy than a litter box."
The first time Goss' sometime girlfriend, Kate, met Reyim, she took an instant dislike to a man she considered profanely ugly, madly egotistical and hopelessly misogynous.
"The man has a fake tan and capped teeth, for chissakes!" she howled after seeing him drunkenly take the dance floor at a party, place his hands high in the air and luridly grind his hips in the direction of two married women who were in the company of their stick-in-the-mud physician husbands.
"Hates the sun," Goss told her then. "His mother got skin cancer and died at a young age, so he uses that tan-in-a-can crap to keep from looking like a ghost.
"The stuff smells like shit," he added with a boyish smile on his face. "But he wears so God-damn much aftershave you really don't notice."
Over time, Kate and Reyim became good friends, but not before she had to smack his roving hands several times when he made plays for her ample chest.
Years into the friendship, Reyim continued to joke openly about wanting to take Kate to bed. He knew she was Goss' girl, but liked to flirt just the same. Kate went along with the joke, blushing at Reyim's lurid suggestions, largely because she knew it made him smile.
Years before he and Goss had met, Reyim set up shop in Las Vegas, catering exclusively to self-worshipping trophy brides of the very rich, but later branched out to help children in Central and South America with severe cleft palates and other cosmetic birth defects. He found his work with the world's poor to be his most satisfying and never bragged about it in public.
A pioneer in facial reconstruction, Reyim was more sculptor than physician. He enjoyed the challenge of literally rebuilding someone's face that had been disfigured or destroyed in an accident. And he wielded his scalpel, bone chisels and sutures like a modern-day Michelangelo.
He'd performed miracles - literally transforming pulverized flesh and bone into new faces that were not only functional, but in many cases actually attractive again.
What separated Reyim from his colleagues was his vast experience in facial orthopedics. Early on, he'd learned that bone, not flesh, was the key to rebuilding someone's face. It was the skin's superstructure. Alter just one of the cranium's many fused facial bones, and an individual's visage could be altogether different.
Facial transplants were nearly fifty years in the future when Reyim hypothesized in 1956 in an obscure medical journal that they were not only possible, but would one day be considered almost routine. In the meantime, he reasoned, complete reconstructions were limited only by the tools of the trade. As medical technology improved, he would later tell Anderson, altering an individual's entire appearance would become easier and faster.
"What limits you now?" Anderson asked during a poolside bull session at Reyim's condo.
"The tools, mostly," he answered in his heavy Israeli accent, all the while surveying the bikini-clad women lounging at the water's edge. "They're still pretty primitive. Vascular re-orientation in the face and skull requires micro-surgical tools that haven't even been invented yet. And then there's the need to manipulate and re-arrange the bone plates in the skull, the nose and the mandibular areas of the face."
Reyim's clowning around ended when he walked into an operating suite. There, he became a sticker for perfection, the temperamental conductor of an orchestra of other doctors and attendants that together worked miracles.
Goss would eventually lure him into the witness protection program as a federal consultant on a number of high-risk cases involving organized crime enforcers who had "flipped" to become government informants, and then needed to "disappear."
The doctor's work, even in the late 1960s, was far-and-away beyond the capabilities of ordinary plastic and reconstructive surgeons. Reyim was given a nearly impossible task: Substantially alter the facial features and upper torsos of two bull-necked, black-haired Sicilians who had entered the witness protection program, and do it as quickly as possible.
The surgeries each took more than 18-and-a-half hours, and required two operating suites, as well as a team of eight nurses, four surgical assistants and three anesthesiologists - all with top-secret or better clearances who had been shipped in from the Bethesda Naval Hospital outside of Washington. Most of the outfit would later join Reyim and Anderson in the celebrity relocation program.
When both surgeries were complete, each patient's face and neck were completely covered in gauze wraps and heavy, opaque bandages. Both men looked like trauma victims who'd been in a 100-mile-an-hour car crash. Their faces were severely swollen, and the heavier wraps around their heads and noses virtually compressed their once-wide faces into a miss-mash of bloodstained cotton wrap.
Even their eye-lids were covered with moist, antibacterial bandages.
Reyim made no promises, only that he had done his best. And to a man, the federal agents privately speculated the surgeries would, at the very least, make only modest changes to the Italians. At most, they gossiped, both men would be grossly disfigured.
Six-weeks later, Anderson and the others agents anxiously gathered in Reyim's office to watch the secondary bandages come off.
"Jesus H. Christ!" Anderson hissed in disbelief as Reyim unwound the last of the gauze around the first patient's head. "That is the God-damned-est thing I have ever seen!"
There, instead of a husky Italian hitman sat a thinner, silver-haired Anglo with a short nose, high cheek bones and a ruddy, almost red complexion.
The transformation of the second man was every bit as dramatic. Reyim had removed all of his hair, used a new procedure to strip entire layers of fat and flesh from his neck and shoulders, and then augmented the entire nasal and mandible bones of the face with cartilage from a baboon.
Combined with a comprehensive face-lift, an alteration of the ears and the same skin-dying process he used on the other Italian, Reyim's patient was now the spitting image of an Irish Brahman. Add a pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses, and the one-time enforcer in the Tampico crime family could pass for an establishment banker from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Complete changes in eye color were still years off, but it was Reyim who, with the help of an ophthalmologist, developed the earliest versions of colored contact lens. Both men now had blue eyes. Their dental profiles were altered when Reyim replaced the original teeth with specially designed dentures, for which there was no record on file with the authorities.
The work wasn't perfect. Once the bruising subsided, close examination of the face would reveal significant scarring behind the ears and above the eyes, even years after the surgery. And skin and hair re-coloration often required additional treatments. The best Reyim could do with altering fingerprints was to purposefully scar the skin around the palms and fingertips, making difficult a perfect match with existing records.
Nonetheless, it was the most amazing physical transformation Anderson and his colleagues had ever witnessed. And the genius of Reyim's work lay in the fact that both Italian patients disappeared into the witness protection system shortly after the surgeries, lived 15 and 20 years respectively as private citizens under assumed identities, and ended up dying quietly of natural causes in their respective homes in Arizona.
As Reyim predicted, as medical technology improved, so did his handiwork. With advances in microsurgery - some of which were originated by the doctor - facial and physical transformation became faster, easier and involved substantially less-visible scarring.
Hair implants replaced the use of wigs and dyes, and permanent, colored, surgically implanted "corneal gels," made contact lens obsolete.
Height alteration could be accomplished two ways: Shoe-lifts or surgical extensions to the femurs bones that added as much as two inches to an individual's stature.
Goss' enterprise had a humble enough beginning. The idea was actually hatched by Reyim on an early evening jog through a Vegas park.
"When you relocate a federal witness, how confident are you that they'll remain hidden?" Reyim asked Anderson as they ran through Vegas' suburban backstreets.
"I've never lost one, if that's what you're asking."
"Let me correct that," Goss added quickly, a little winded from the run. "They stay hidden unless they do something stupid.
"I've had one or two come close to being found-out," he huffed, "but that's because they tried to contact people they shouldn't have been talking to in the first place."
Reyim suggested a short rest, and the conversation continued as both men slowed their pace to a brisk walk.
"Surely they don't all involve facial or physical reconstruction," Reyim speculated.
"Only the biggest of the big dogs," Anderson countered. "Like the guys you worked on.
"And trust me," he added. "Guys at that level don't want to be found. They're like crabs in the mud. They burrow in so deep we sometimes have trouble connecting with them."
Reyim stopped walking altogether, bending down with his hands on his knees to catch his breath. Anderson followed suit.
"What does a deal like that cost the taxpayer?" Reyim inquired.
Anderson smiled and took a moment to catch his breath: "Depending on its complexity, more than I make in about 20 years."
"Too bad you couldn't go private with something like that," the doctor continued with a sparkle in his eyes. "I bet there are people who'd spend every sheckle they had for a chance to vanish into the woodwork."
It was, as Anderson called it later, an epiphany. Both men stared at each other speechless for what seemed like minutes, neither wanting to say in specific terms what they were thinking.
"Every sheckle, huh?" Anderson asked, finally breaking the silence.
An impish grin crossed Reyim's face. "Damn near," he said. "I'd bet the kibbutz on it."
Both men laughed hard and began walking back in the direction of Anderson's tiny apartment, talking in hushed tones as they started war-gaming the possibilities.
Aguadilla, Puerto Rico (Present Day) - Augusto Cerezo banked the silver-and-white Beachcraft Baron into the sun and lined it up for final approach to the tiny one-strip airport on the far eastern side of the island of Puerto Rico. His mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had all hailed from this, one of the least-populated and "un-touristed" towns on the island.
He loved it here, and as wealthy as he was, he looked for any reason to return to its simple, uncluttered lifestyle.
Cerezo had had a taste all day for fresh Dorado, and as soon as he landed he was headed to the beach where fishermen hung their catch of the day from the palm trees lining the shore.
There, he'd found the biggest of the brilliant rainbow fish - everywhere else called "Mahi Mahi" or "Dolphin" -- and would have an entire side cut fresh on the spot.
From here, it was less than seven minutes to an unpretentious three-room bungalow, where he'd heat some garlic in olive oil in a cast-iron skillet, and then pan-fry the strip of fish until it turned a light golden brown.
Cerezo devoured the fried Dorado along with a cold Red Stripe as he sat in the screened-in porch that overlooked the azure-blue Caribbean Sea. A gentle breeze from the overhead bamboo ceiling fans, and whatever wind was blowing from the shore, kept the porch at a comfortable 76 degrees, even in the pressure-cooker heat of August, where everywhere else it was at least 90 and oppressively humid.
As a child, Cerezo grew up in some of San Juan's worst housing projects. He lived with his alcoholic father and mother, a maid at a local hotel, in a two-room concrete building that looked more like a bomb shelter than an apartment. Nighttime stabbings in the outdoor playground just below the apartment were a regular occurrence, as were robberies, rapes and murders.
By the time he was 16, Cerezo discovered he had an affinity for math and statistics, along with a burning desire for a better life.
"Any place but here," he told his mother once. "This is where I'll die if I don't leave now."
He worked his way through the University of Puerto Rico, taking night jobs as a janitor in a nearby Hato Rey office building, where he earned 50 cents an hour cleaning toilets and emptying trashcans.
Later, he talked his way into an internship as a junior accountant for one of the island's richest men, former Governor and cement mogul, Don Ricardo Fermete, who had earned billions during the U.S. economic aid program "Operation Bootstrap," churning out concrete for Puerto Rico's roads, houses and airports.
The old man took a liking to Cerezo, and over time introduced him to the island's richest patrons. He also exposed the young man to some of the brightest minds in accounting and tax management -- the 14 men Fermete had working for him to manage his far-flung holdings.
Trained at the best business schools in the world, Fermete's "brain trust" kept his tax liabilities to an absolute minimum by moving millions of his earnings out of the Federal Reserve System into foreign banks in Cuba, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland.
Cerezo was a quick and careful study, and within 10 years was originating and managing tax shelter schemes so complex they surpassed anything ever dreamed up by his teachers. The young man also acquired many of his mentor's obsessions, including a love of Spanish and European artwork. Cerezo had spent millions acquiring Degas and classics of the Flemish masters for privately endowed Puerto Rican museums, one of which bore now bore his name.
Over time Cerezo gained the prestigious title "Don," and like his teacher and employer eschewed conspicuous signs of wealth.
By the time he was 40, he had became successful in his own right, and was among the most sought-after financial managers in the western hemisphere. When he banked his first million, the first place he went was Aguadilla, where he bought his mother's ancestral property from a housing developer who had plans to turn it into a convenience store strip mall.
Over the years, Cerezo bought 100 acres of property surrounding his mother's old home, and sold small parcels of it back for pennies on the dollar to Puerto Rican homesteaders who, like him, wanted to preserve the charm of the old, traditional ways.
At 50, Cerezo was worth tens of millions of dollars, but Cerezo still preferred the lifestyle of an ordinary businessman.