Part 1 of 2
A lipstick sunset was smeared against the August sky and reflected in the river rolling by. Susan could hear a distant rumble from way behind her, possibly as far back as Hickman. She thought of the long drive ahead of her tonight. Hickman was only two nights ago, but it seemed like longer.
The red neon ahead in the distance shivered in the heat that still hung in the air, a heat that was losing its grip but not giving in without a fight. She drove on at a steady forty and the sign came into view more clearly. A roadside bar. The same roadside bar as in Arkansas City, Greenville, Wilson, and a dozen other places she'd driven through in the last few days, or not different enough to matter. She rubbed a tired hand over weary eyes and coasted into the empty parking lot.
The car gave a wheeze, followed by a shudder that, if not a death rattle, was at least an advanced stage of a terminal disease. She pushed the door open, got out, and gave the car an almost affectionate pat before walking into the bar.
The ghosts of a thousand smoked cigarettes and even more spilled drinks rolled over her as the door shut behind her. Some woman on the jukebox was singing about her cheatin' husband and her lonely nights.
This bar, like all the others, clearly relied on its weekend bingers to limp through the quiet weekdays. The owner apparently saved money during the week by not bothering to light the place. The room was almost empty. Two men sat on stools at the bar, talking with the bartender. In the dim light, Susan could just make out someone sitting alone at a booth in the back.
She ignored the watching eyes of the men at the bar. She sat on the empty stool at the end of the bar, a few stools away from the men, and ordered a beer. The bartender gave her a close look, and she gave him a weary half-smile, the best she could muster. "What's the matter? Want to see some ID?"
He didn't blush the way that young pretty-boy had, back in that bar a few miles outside of Ripley, when she'd asked him if she had something hanging from her nose. This man didn't look as if he'd ever blushed. He just turned, took a glass, and started pouring.
Susan took the beer and pulled a pack of red Marlboros from her jeans pocket, using a matchbook sitting on the bar to light one.
One of the two men at the bar, a red-faced good old boy who'd probably been a football player a lifetime ago, decided a decent amount of time had passed. "What brings a pretty lady like you into a place like this?"
Susan sighed. A pretty lady. She didn't feel it, and looking in the mirror behind the bar, she didn't see it in herself. Still had the charcoal eyes, though. They always liked that. Charcoal eyes and Monroe hips. That's what Johnny used to say.
She looked along the bar at the men: the ex-footballer with a scrap-iron jaw, and the other, who looked as if he'd always been the football player's scrawny sidekick.
"I'm looking for a man," she said quietly.
"Well, honey," smiled the one-time jock, revealing a mouth containing crooked teeth and a few gaps, "you come to the right place."
As the men yukked it up, she moved her own mouth to resemble a smile, as though it were the first time she'd heard the joke. They always asked, and they always managed to get something suggestive out of whatever she said. She let the smile die on her lips and took a small drink from the bottle. "Actually, sweetheart, I already got a man. He's back in Angola doin' 9 to 12. Killed a man that was nasty to me."
They always paid a bit more attention after that, and it was almost true. Johnny was her man, and he'd been headed for Angola, back in Louisiana. He'd been in limbo (and he still is, a small voice in her mind said) --in jail waiting for his trial. He would have got 9 to 12; she didn't think anyone was going to believe the self-defense claim when the prosecutors got through showing pictures of the dead kid. She didn't see the need to tell these men that he'd never made it to the prison. That they'd been holding him for arraignment when it had all happened. She didn't need to tell them that, any more than she needed to tell them that for a week now Johnny had been in the hospital, dead to everything but the machine that breathed for him.
She saw the bartender flash the man a warning look. She'd become an expert at picking up glances from sad men who told a "pretty woman" how lonely they were. Men who all thought that Hank Williams had written their life stories.
Men who had no idea how lucky they were.
The bartender, sallow-skinned, with slitted, suspicion-filled eyes too close together, took a rag from behind the counter and started wiping a glass that didn't need wiping.
"You stayin' on around here, ma'am?"
She took another mouthful and shook her head. "Nope. Don't worry about it. Just lookin' for someone."
"Maybe I can help," he said, and she heard what he was not saying: I'm going to say "Never seen him" to whatever you ask me. So, get that startin'-to-spread-south ass of yours out of this bar.
"A man with a lantern," she said simply. Sometimes when she said it straight out, there was a glint in their eyes before they could hide it. This time it was different. She'd never had muffled laughter before.
"Looks like one for Freddie, wouldn't you say?" the former football player sniggered.
"You got that right," agreed his sidekick.
She wondered what this was, whether they were playing with her. She wasn't going to bite, not that easy. She asked the lizard behind the bar where the ladies' room was; he pointed vaguely towards the back of the bar. She nodded and left them to watch her walk across to it.
The man sitting in the corner looked at her with interest. She glanced at him, not slowing. In his mid-fifties, she guessed, with what looked like it had been a thin face, now swollen around the chin and cheeks. Probably another boozehound, she thought, pushing through the door into the bathroom.
She splashed water over her face and tied her dusty hair back where it had started to come undone on the road.
"Thirty-nine going on sixty," she said to herself, unsmiling. The last week had worn her down. She stared defiantly at her reflection, and when she spoke again the words were hard, unpitying. "Don't you go getting desperate, Suzy!" She took a step back in surprise. There was the old, cold determination back again. Hello, old friend, she thought. Where you been? Skipped out for a few hours back there, didn't ya? Good to have you back.
"We're gonna get that skin-and-bones son of a bitch, aren't we?" She answered her own question with a nod, liking this determined voice more than the doubts she'd been listening to in the car for the last few hours.
She felt more ready for the night's search. Get out of here and head on down to the riverside. She promised herself the luxury of a motel tomorrow morning.
She was still thinking of the joys of a shower and a bed, rather than catnaps in the back of the Chevy, as she walked out past the man in the corner.
"Miss?" he asked, and his voice held none of the leer she had heard at the bar.
Susan turned to look at him.
"Did I hear you say you're lookin' for the man with the lantern?"
A voice called from the bar: "You ignore old Freddie, sugar. He asks everyone comes in here about his damn old lantern man. Come on over here and let me buy you a drink."
She ignored the voice. "Yessir, I did."
The voice from the bar came again. "He's crazy, honey, and he ain't got much left to satisfy a woman, if you know what I mean. Come on over--"
Susan spun round and fixed the would-be Romeo at the bar with a killer look. "Shut your pie hole, else I'm gonna come over there and bust you across the head so hard you'll be seein' stars for a week. Got it?"
The bartender said, "Lady, this here's my bar. I think it's time you--"
He broke off as she left the man in the corner and stalked back to the bar. "Listen, Cletus, or whatever your name is. I'm talking to someone over there and you boys are interruptin' us."
The bartender sneered at her as he came around the bar. When he spoke, his voice was quiet enough so that only she and the two at the bar could hear it. "Get outta the bar, bitch, before I throw you out."
She stepped right up to him. When he put his hand on her arm, ready to make good on his threat, she didn't stop him, but instead leaned in close. Speaking softly in his ear, so only he could hear her, she said, "I understand you don't like me raisin' my voice. I'm talkin' real quiet now, cause I want to make sure you understand what I'm saying. That bein' the case, I'm gonna speak slow as well. I'm gonna go and talk to that gentleman there, and if you interrupt me one more time" -- she laid a hand on top of his and touched something that made him gasp in pain -- "you'll be serving drinks with a hook, got it? Now get your hand off my arm before I break it."
When she let go of his hand, he dropped it off her arm with a confused and pained look on his face. He stepped back, and she spoke louder, so the men at the bar could hear her apparent good cheer. "It's been a long day, sugar, and all I want is a drink. Could you get me a bottle, and him over there" -- she jerked a thumb at the man in the corner -- "whatever he drinks? Then bring it over. Keep a tab running." The bartender stared at her, unsure what had just happened.
Not waiting for an answer, she headed back to the corner booth.
She sat down opposite the man. She pulled out her cigarettes, lit one, and offered him the pack. He took one, lit it, and smiled. "Ain't half as fearsome as he thinks he is, is he?"
"No," she said, smiling a little herself.
"Not when you've seen what you've seen, am I right?" There was a twinkle in his eye, and she thought that once he might have been a good-looking man. Now, the unruly beard and crisscross-veined face hid it pretty well.
"Honey, he wouldn't have been scary even before that."
"Reckon you're right," he said, and gave a little chuckle that made his chin wobble. "So, they told you I was crazy. What you doin' talkin' to a crazy man?"
She blew smoke out. "Hell, I'm crazy myself. Ain't you figured that out?"
The man ran a hand through his beard, smoothing it down a little. "Reckon you are, or if you're not, you're goin' that way. He'll do that to you."
"He?" she asked quietly.
"You know who I'm talking about. That old velvet-nosed bastard. Tell me what happened, and I'll tell you what I know."
She shook her head. "Not the way it's going to go. You tell me what you know. I'll buy you drinks, and if you're not tryin' to yank my chain or get me into bed, I won't kick your ass for you. How's that?"
He laughed a wet, slightly sick-sounding laugh. "Sounds good. But I am crazy. They told you that. So if I tell you anythin' that you don't believe, well, maybe it's just this party in my head that I brought back from the war with me."
He rocked a little with laughter, and there was something not quite right about the movement. She glanced down and saw there was nothing below either of his knees. He caught her looking, and it reminded her of when she'd caught guys in these places staring at her titties. She felt ashamed.
He chuckled at her shocked expression. "I got a million war stories, honey, but you don't want to hear about me losin' my legs."
"I'm sorry about the 'gettin' me into bed' comment," she said.
He shrugged. "Well, I still could be tryin' . . . but I ain't. Let's talk."
Before she could say anything, drinks appeared in front of them. Budweiser for her and a shot of something she couldn't place for the old soldier. The bartender gave her a look again, but this time there was a tinge of fear in it. He returned to the bar without a word.
The man tipped his glass in a salute to her. "Name's Freddie, just like the moron at the bar said. Once it was Captain F. T. Worthington. But that was a long time ago . . . ."
"Nice to meet you, Freddie. I'm Susan." She gave him an encouraging smile.
He returned the smile, and his eye did a lazy wink. "Don't worry, Susan. I ain't one to talk much, and you're wantin' to get out of here quick. It's just that the military stuff's important."
"Okay," she agreed. "When you say military you're talkin' about Vietnam, aren't you?"
He nodded agreement. "You know how many Vietnam vets it takes to change a lightbulb?"
She looked at him, puzzled. "No."
"That's right," he snarled, mock anger in his voice. "'Cause you weren't there!"
She didn't laugh, but she smiled a genuine smile.
"You're here for a man." A statement, not a question.
"The man with the lantern. Yes."
He made a pshwah sound. "You're here for another man as well, ain't you? A man you're tryin' to help?"
She caught his drift. "Yeah. Another man. Johnny. Even got his name next to mine on my arm. Didn't seem that corny when we had them done."
"A lot of us are like that joke I just told you. You can't know what it was like if you weren't there. Your man fight in the war?"
She nodded. "Not yours, though . . . the Gulf."
He smiled sadly. "Weren't ever mine, sugar. Weren't ever mine."
"That's where you saw him, though? What did you call him? Old Velvet Nose?"
He nodded and took a small sip of his drink. "I'll tell this quick. You won't get the whole picture, but enough so you'll know if it means anything to you."
She nodded for him to go on, grateful that he seemed to understand the urgency. She could almost see the memory clouding over his face; part of him was no longer with her in this shitty little redneck bar.
"It was back in 1968, deep in Vietnam, near a big river. I could tell you where, how green the jungle was, how hot the air was, but this ain't no geography or history lesson, so I'll leave it at that; you know why the river's important.
"I was heading up a twelve-man unit, and we'd come under sniper attack. One young fella, Larry Bradbury, crept 'round back and took the sniper out about the time we all thought we were done for. There was a lot of shooting going on, then we heard a different gunshot, a pause, and another shot. Larry came walkin' back, gun hanging down and face like a ghost. We were all telling him he was a hero and he was going to get a medal, but he started snapping at people to forget about it.
"He told me what had happened as we moved out -- I don't know if it was 'cause I was the Officer In Charge, or 'cause I was his friend. Maybe both. The shooter had been a kid, no more than nine, he said. Next to the shooter was a girl of about six, probably his sister. Larry took them both out. He asked me what I would have done, what I thought he should have done with the little girl."
"What did you tell him?" Susan asked, but he either didn't hear her or didn't want to answer, because he carried on.
"That afternoon we came across a young American soldier who told us he'd been separated from his lash-up when they'd been attacked. He came along with us, heading back to base. We racked out for the night a couple of hours after that. He shared a tent with Larry. Larry had barely spoken two words since he'd told me about the kids, but as I lay in my bag, I could hear them talking in quiet whispers.
"Next morning, they were both gone."
Copyright © 2001 Simon Bewick
Simon Bewick lives in Oxfordshire, England. He has had stories published in Strange Horizons, Blue Murder, Quantum Muse, and Digital Catapult, among others. He's an e-mail fiend and welcomes any comments you might have.