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He paused for a moment and looked at her. "You know what I mean when I say that?" He studied her for a moment and continued, "I see you do. Larry was still there, or at least the shell of Larry, but he was as close to dead as any man with a pulse could get. We didn't have a Corpsman, I mean a medic, not after Bill Morrison got hisself shot three days before. We didn't know whether the kid was going to die in a minute, an hour, or a month. He was alive, but we had no idea how alive. Does this ring any bells with you, miss, or should I stop now?"

She shook her head slowly. Tears stung at her eyes. "Johnny, my man, he was in the county jail. There was no way he was going to make bail, and no way we could afford to pay it even if he did. We both knew he was headed for Angola prison as soon as that trial date came round. Only it never did. They put some guy in the cell with him one night -- Johnny'd only been there a day. The sheriff said he heard them talking. The guy asking questions, Johnny telling him what he'd done. He's never denied it, so it weren't like he was giving anything away, but it struck me as strange. Johnny's never been much of a talker. . . ." She paused, dragged hard on the cigarette, and Freddie waited for her to continue. ". . . I got a call Monday last week, saying he was sick and I should get down to Memorial Hospital as soon as I could. When I got there, he was in a coma. I went on over to the jail, and those boys were in a hell of a way. They remembered this other guy . . . kind of. But no one knew who'd booked him in. No one could find any records. . . ."

"What was your man in for?"

"I worked in a bar down in Baton Rouge. One night after work, waiting for Johnny to pick me up, a couple guys got rough with me. I can take care of myself, but one of these guys hit me with a bottle. . . . That was when Johnny arrived. He saved my life, I think. Those kids would have . . . ."


"Well, that's the way the paper tried to paint it afterwards . . . but they were old enough to know better. Johnny was only trying to protect me, but once he started, he . . . well, he didn't stop, and one of the kids ended up dead. . . ."

"And they locked him up until they decided what to do with him," Frankie said.

"Uh-huh. They locked him up. They let this new guy in. Or this new guy lets himself in, but lets them think they did it. And then they go round in the morning to wake them . . . ."

"And Johnny was gone," Freddie said softly.

Susan nodded. "Johnny was gone like your buddy. The other guy was just plain not there . . . and no-one in that whole jail seemed to know a damn thing about him."

Freddie sighed. "You can't hold someone like him with mortar, stones, and chains."

"They took Johnny down to the hospital, and he's been there ever since. Sleeping the sleep of the dead. . . ."

"Not yet, Susan, not yet."

She thought about this for a moment, and then asked, "What happened after he disappeared?"

Freddie took a sip of the drink in front of him. "It was my decision. I thought about what Larry'd said to me the day before, and I thought I knew how he felt when he'd had a split second to make a decision about that little girl.

"We put together a makeshift stretcher and mounted out. We didn't make a whole lot of progress that day. We were still getting used to walking through jungle, never mind carrying a dead weight on a half-assed stretcher with us. We camped down that night in a clearing, and we were all asleep half an hour after dinner. Normally, guys would shoot the shit for a couple hours, but that night no one wanted to talk. We kept wonderin' whether that lonely soldier was gonna pop back up, maybe with an M16 he wanted to introduce us all to.

"Guess you know what happened. He did show up that night. I dreamt I saw him, and he was the same but different. He'd turned into Mr. Velvet Nose."

"Why do you keep calling him that?" Susan asked, too curious to stop herself.

He took a breath and another drink. "You look at a skull just right and it don't look like a hole in the middle of the face. If the light is wrong and the heat has got to you a little bit. You know how it is. When you're so tired and it's so hot the heat feels like it's walking right along with you? Maybe you don't. But it gets to be like a weight on your back.

"I don't even remember who started the expression, probably Billy Kovac; he was only eighteen and stoned out of his head most of the time. We came across a burned-out village; our own people had done it, and there was a pile of bodies. Someone, Billy I think, picked up one of the skulls and in this fucked-up voice, excuse my language, starts squealing, 'Oh, Mr. Velvet Nose been here, all right.'

"I'd forgot all about it till that night I woke in the jungle. I saw an orange glow outside the tent, and he's sitting there. He's got a little fire going, and he's sitting next to it. He's got a little lantern, a little flame, flickering away in a little box, hung from a pole. The pole, see, looks a lot like a bone to me. I guess a thigh bone or somethin'. The lantern . . . the only way I can describe it is like some crazy jack-o'-lantern. Except normally you'd have a pumpkin face with a light shining inside of it -- here you got the light, and somewhere deep deep inside of it there's a face in there. Then I figure it all out and realize this is a dream. So I go on out and sit by the fire even though nights are as hot as hell out there, and I'm surprised that when I stick my hand near the flame, it's cold. But what the hell, it's a dream. He turns to me, and there's a face swimming on his skull, and the face is almost like the one in the lantern he's carrying. Almost, but it's not clear enough to make out properly, you know what I mean?"

Susan nodded. "Like fixing a focus on camera. It's there, it's gone, it's there . . . but it never quite stays clear."

Freddie nodded too. "Yeah, that's Mr. Velvet Nose all right."

He looked at her, inviting her to say what she'd seen. She felt the need to do it, to tell someone, anyone. "The night after it happened I saw him. He came into my room, the sonofabitch.

"He stood at the end of my bed and looked at me, and he was cold. The cold came off him like stinky lines in a comic book.

"He told me he had Johnny's soul in the lantern. I think I said something like 'Good for you, asshole,' because it was a dream. It had to be a dream because his coat was moving -- that's what I remember most. A thick, black coat, twitching, fluttering, and then I thought, just for a second, that it was . . ."

"Birds," he supplied.

"Yes," she answered, "made of ravens, or crows or something. All of them rustling their feathers, pulsing. I was so afraid he was going to throw that coat over me, and it would just--" She broke off, looking at him. "You okay? You forgot about the coat, didn't you?"

He nodded. "I thought I remembered everything. I remembered something about the coat, but I'd managed to . . . forget the birds."

"You remember the voice though, right?" she asked.

He shuddered, and lifted his arm, and at first, she didn't know what he was doing. When he spoke, she realized that they'd both been talking in absolute whispers for the last fifteen minutes or so because now his voice sounded louder than hell.

"Hey, Merle, bring some more goddamn drinks over here, now!"

The bartender threw him a look. "Goddammit, Freddie, since when have I been a fucking waitress? Get your damn ass over here and get them yourself!"

"That was funny the first time I heard it. What was that, ten years ago? Now bring the fucking drinks."

Merle showed him his middle finger, but went about getting the drinks.

Freddie turned back to her. "Can I get another one of those cigarettes, miss?"

She offered the pack. "Only if you can tell me what the fuck that voice was all about."

He took one and puffed for a moment. "It was twenty years before I figured it out. I had a friend, he was in 'Nam with me later, after the time I was telling you about. He got too much Agent Orange, or whatever other shit they were pumping down on us when we were black-Cadillacing it through the jungle with our shirts off. He got cancer of the throat. You ever hear anyone with cancer of the throat, just before they put that thing in?"

"Tracheotomy?" she asked.

"Yeah, tracheotomy. Well, he's waitin' for one of those when they realize it ain't gonna do no good, and he's got this shit crawlin' all the way through him. I was there when he died, in a shitty Vet hospital in Arkansas. The last words he spoke, just as he died. That's the closest thing I ever heard to that voice."

"You think he's Death?"

Freddie shook his head. "No, death ain't always cruel; sometimes it's welcome. Like old Frank, he was waiting for death, and he wasn't sad when it came. Like I said, that was the closest I've heard, but it wasn't exactly it. His voice was mocking me. You ever heard a man's dying words?"

She nodded, thinking of the kid (man, dammit; he was old enough to want to rape her) she'd watched Johnny kill, lying there, bleeding to death on a sidewalk, still cursing her as he died. She took a cigarette herself. "He stood there, his coat flapping around him, his face melting and coming back, and in that fucking voice he told me he had a deal for me. Told me about this river outside that looks as if it's about to wash this shit-hole away. He stood there in my own bedroom like some goddamn rapist and told me if I could catch him before he got to the end of the river, we could . . . talk. If not, bye-bye Johnny."

"You left the next morning?" he asked gently.

She lit her cigarette. "You'd have thought so, wouldn't you?"

Freddie shrugged. "Not really. A sensible person would put it down to a nightmare, shrug it off, feel strange about it all day, but carry on trying to do normal things. Then when that person had the same dream the next night, they'd wonder how it could happen. Then they'd brood on it more; wish they could talk to someone about it, but think what was the chance of findin' a head doctor out in the jungle. Then they'd let it slip in front of the rest of the unit and find everyone else there'd had the same dream, both nights. . . ."

Susan looked at him, and tears of gratitude started to well in her eyes. "Really?" she asked. "That's what happened?"

"That's the way it was. Honey, I wouldn't blame you if you hadn't started out on such a crazy road trip for a week. I wouldn't have if it hadn't been for the others. You were on your own."

"It was three days before I set out," she said flatly. "I can't get those three days back, though, can I? He has three days on me. He's on foot, I'm in a car. But what does that mean if the guy can appear in a bedroom, in a prison cell . . . shit, in the jungle. How fast can he go? And what good is the car, when I have to keep getting out every couple of miles to check the river?" Freddie said nothing. Susan lit another cigarette before carrying on. "I keep calling the hospital, and they tell me no change. They say I can go see him, and I know they wonder why I'm not there."

"Nothing you can do there; maybe you can here."

Merle brought the new round of drinks, put them down heavily on the table and left without a word.

Freddie looked at her kindly. "How long's it been, Susan? How long you been on the road?"

"Seven days. Only a week but it seems longer. It's slow going. Half the time there aren't even proper roads. I keep thinking, Should I go for the main ones and make better time? Then I think, What if I miss him?"

Freddie shook his head. "No, I think you're doin' the right thing stickin' to the river. You got to."

"But it's slow!"

"How many hours a night you drivin'?"

"All of them." She took a drink from the bottle in front of her, knowing she shouldn't if she was to get through the night, but unable to resist talking to someone who understood. "So, what did you do when you all found out you weren't dreaming?" she asked.

"I don't know that we weren't dreamin'. I don't know that it makes any difference. We all knew we could do somethin' about it. If we could catch that bastard somewhere before he got to the end of the river, we could maybe save Larry. He'd saved us."

"You caught him?" she asked, and there was desperation in her voice, hoping for a hint.

"I never seen a bunch of men work harder," he said. "I was so proud of my boys over those next few days. We marched triple time, barely rested, walked through the nights."

"You think that's the best time to catch him?"

He nodded. "Honey, I think that's the only time he comes out.

"We made a five-day hump in three nights. By the time we got to the end, we were almost dead on our feet, bloodied beyond belief."

"You . . . you got to the end?" she asked nervously.

He looked at her and smiled, and it was the saddest smile she had ever seen.

"We got to the end, and we never saw that bastard once. We walked on a couple of days, to the base. We'd been there but ten minutes when the infirmary called me in and said Larry had died.

"You didn't want to hear that, did you? So, now tell me what you going to do when you reach the end? Ain't far now, another couple of days -- or nights -- and you'll get there."

"I'm going to find him. I'm not thinking beyond that. I figure I'm just a few miles behind him. I'll get him. Maybe not tonight, but tomorrow, or the next night for sure."

"I hope you're right. What if you do catch up to him?"

She thought of the gun in the trunk of the car and wondered if it would do any good. She doubted it. "It's funny, isn't it? I spend all this time in the car thinking about that, playing out the scenarios. I always see me getting Johnny back. I just haven't figured out the how part yet."

"I don't think it's the sort of thing you can plan for. What makes you check out little shit pokes like this place?"

"See if anyone's seen him on the river. . . ."

"Is that the only reason?" Freddie asked, and she answered honestly, not concerned about how it might sound.

"I sometimes think I might just see him standing at the bar. . . . I don't know why. I just think he'd like the idea of being in places where bad things could happen. Some drunk beatin' his buddy over the head with a bottle. Maybe that lantern of his can carry more than one. . . ."

He nodded in agreement. "Things are tough around these parts -- when things are tough, good people do crazy things. I always thought, if I hadn't been reassigned South straight after that, if I'd gone into some side-street brothel I'd have found him buying drinks, looking around at desperate men and women. All the time thinkin', 'I'm gonna get you soon. . . .' He's dirty like that, I think."

"Why does he do it?" she asked.

"Dunno. Maybe it's when Hell doesn't want you, and Heaven is full. Maybe it's when a good man does a bad thing. Do you think there is such a thing?"

She thought of Johnny. "Yeah."

"I think he likes the game. Likes the suffering. . . ." He paused. "You asked me earlier if he was death."

"You said no."

He nodded. "I think he's the one that gets the in-betweens. Does that make sense?"

"No," she lied, thinking of the look on Johnny's face as he had hit that kid (man?) again. One time too many. One time when he must have known he was no longer a threat. He'd done it to protect her; she'd never doubted that. But in the darkest reaches of night, she'd sometimes thought he'd been almost glad it had happened, so that he could kill this man. Some party in his own head he'd brought back from the war, she thought, remembering Freddie's earlier words.

"The ones that death, or whoever, just doesn't know what to do with, whether to send them up or down."

"Your friend saved your lives. He was a hero."

He nodded. "And he killed a little girl he could have let live. But you're right. He did a good thing and a bad thing. The question was, who cared?"

She looked at him, confused. "You cared, you and all the men in your troop."

"And you care for your man?"

"I love him," she said, and when that didn't seem enough, she added, "More than you could know."

He nodded again. "So, maybe that's the answer."

"What is?" she asked, but she was already getting it.

"A man who's basically good. A man who has done a good thing, but with just too much badness. Someone who didn't stop when they could have. And someone who loves that person. There's the fun for that freak bastard." He sighed. "Sometimes, you know, sometimes I think we went too fast."

"What do you mean?"

"I'll ask the question again, because it's important. What you gonna do at the end of the river when you ain't found him, what then?"

"I don't even think about that. I will find him."

"Uh-huh, that's what we thought when we trekked triple time through the jungle. Never did, though."

"Why you sayin' this?"

"Because, in these many years since, I keep thinkin' the same thing. Why did we give up when we got to the end?"

"Because you hadn't seen him. He'd beaten you. You weren't fast enough."

"Probably you're right. But what I keep thinkin' is, what if he didn't?"

"You mean . . . ?"

"You ever look back down the road when you're drivin' at night? You ever check that cracked rear-view?"

"I . . . ."

"We didn't."

She looked at him long and hard. She smoked a whole cigarette, he did too, and neither of them said a word. A fever of ideas beat in her mind like a drum. As she stubbed the cigarette out, she cursed. "I haven't got time to think about what-ifs. I've got to go."

"I could come."

She didn't even answer that, just grabbed the half-smoked pack and crammed it into her bag. Getting up, she turned to him. "Why do they call you crazy, anyway?"

He shrugged, shuffling to the side of the booth, leaning to the one next door and retrieving his wheelchair. "Search me, baby. Burn a few things down, kill a few animals, mummify your mother, and people just overreact so much 'round these parts. . . ."

She nodded, and a smile stole across her face. "Or sit in a bar waiting for travellers in distress."

He nodded. "Who never take my advice anyway. I guess I must be crazy."

"There've been others?"

"Just two, in twenty years or so. First fella went racing along the highway in his fast sports car, got to the end, then sat, and waited. Still waitin' there when his wife died, I think. Too tricky to say where a river really ends. You got to stop him before he gets there."

"And the second one?"

"She got to the end too. Didn't see nothin'. I read she jumped off the old bridge there. Made news, her dying like that. Her husband slipping away the very next day after being in a coma for three weeks. She was half-crazy by the time I saw her, though. Wouldn't listen. She was on speed so she could keep drivin' all night."

"Goodbye, Freddie." She shook his hand. "Nice meetin' you."

". . . but you wish you'd never had to. If you do see him, kill the sonofabitch for me, and come tell me about it someday."

She turned and walked out, not slowing as she tossed the bills on the bar.

Outside, she took a large canister from the trunk and fed the car some water. She thought the head gasket had a minor crack that was going to grow into a big headache by the morning. She'd gotten lazy with the car maintenance since Johnny had started doing it. When the car had drunk all it wanted, she replaced the cap and climbed inside. She looked at the sky, black and bruised.

She turned the key, and the car started second time -- best it had managed in a week. She thought for a moment and then was out of the car, running into the bar, shouting across the room, "Hey, old man, you want a ride?"

He was in his wheelchair now and pushed himself forward. "Which way you goin'?"

She looked at him a moment. "You're navigating."


Copyright © 2001 Simon Bewick

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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. Simon's previous publication in Strange Horizons was "Special Edition."

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