“Now. I’m stark naked, holed up in a cramped room with two dead whores, my radio is shot to shit, and I’m blue-balled all to hell. Twelve shots in the clip. I’m estimating there’s at least seven of ‘em outside, and they ain’t all going down with one bullet. My options were severely limited.”
“Headshots?” Cristo asked.
“Seven headshots in a row? That’s a wet dream even for Clint Eastwood. No. I just had to wait them out. Or so I thought. These weren’t your regular gook gendarmes or even VC. These were some real deep country, bloodthirsty wolves brought in on some colonial power’s payroll. I didn’t know which one, but I knew what they wanted. My tattoo.”
“What, the hula girl?” my barber asked.
“No, no. The hula girl came way after this. This was a tattoo of a number. Digits.”
“I couldn’t be trusted with that information. I was just the mule, man. Could be coordinates, or a cipher code or any number of things. Okay, quick aside. Two nights before a pouch is delivered at the usual drop. Inside is a little laminated card. Old school directions, you know. Left ten paces. Right sixteen paces. Pass the well. It leads me to the slums. Torchlight. Shit and piss running in the gutters. All the little shacks shuttering up as I walk by. I get where I’m supposed to be, this tiny little grocer selling roots and sacks of grubs and dried rat tails, I don’t know what. His eyes get real big like I was a vision he’d hoped would never come true. He leads me in the back into this tiny room lit only by a candle. He hisses to this old man asleep on the floor. The old man sits up and they start chattering emphatically. Finally the old man grabs my wrist and sits me down. He pulls out a kit, rolls up my trousers, then gives me this tattoo down my shin the old way, hammering the ink in point by point. The ink stunk. Could’ve been eel blood or scorpion venom for all I knew. But I just had to sit there and take it and think about how much I loved Uncle Sam.”
“So these guys wanted you bad.”
“Best case scenario, they would’ve left me alive and just shaved my skin clean off my leg. But me and my Colt weren’t about to let that happen.”
The old man got a squint in his eye, the hard squint of proud memories. I waved the bartender away from my nearly empty pint glass and squared up in the stool. Whether he was a true forgotten hero or the city’s best, I wanted to get the full effect.
“There was a time in my life when I would’ve stayed like that—quiet and my back against the wall—and waited for the doom to fly in through the windows. Take my chances from the defensive position. But that was before I’d seen men cut and corded like firewood or dug my own living carcass out from under a dogpile of the stinking unlucky. Waiting and praying never saved anyone’s ass. The only thing between you and a little white cross on the government green is the same thing that made a man out of anybody: pull up your bootstraps as high as your cojones and walk out the door shooting.”
Cristo’s eyes were wide now, his right hand unconsciously curled around a phantom gun. “So you gave it to ‘em?”
“Ho, partner. I gave it to ‘em. I pounced through what was left of my window, still buck naked and covered in a righteous kinky sweat. I fired three shots across the street, all into one poor bastard’s torso. He went down and the others scattered, forgetting their advantage, forgetting their firepower, forgetting everything but their mama’s names. I sprinted with my head down, collected the dead gook’s automatic rifle, then tore off after the rest of them shooting holy hell above their heads.”
He turned straight towards me, locking on with that gaze shared by all fundamentally needy barflies. “You see, Cass. I didn’t need to kill them all. I didn’t need to kill them all. It’s not in me to take more life than I have to, whether the bastards deserve it or not. I just needed to set them running.”
Harvey drew another mouthful off whiskey then licked his lips. “I’ve bought enough drinks for one afternoon. Let’s see you guys cough up some green for an old vet.”
Cristo, while wholeheartedly engaged in the story of the firefight, grew a little wary. “Hold on, hold on. I’ve got an idea. Let’s see those shins of yours.”
Brave Captain Harvey still said it the old-fashioned way: “Mother-fucker.”
I nodded. “Ante up.”
The old man leaned back in his stool, swept one leg up on the bar, then rolled down his chinos with his spidery, spotted fingers. Spread over his entire lower leg was a blurry, fading tattoo of a giant black panther prowling through tall ferns. His tail curled outward, its tip lit like a torch.
“What the hell is that?” asked Cristo. “That’s American, man. No old oriental did that.”
“What the hell did you expect? That I’ve been walking around with some government secret exposed on my skin? The brass gave me two choices: burn it off or cover it up. Army doctor or Navy sissy boy with a needle gun. I figured, what the hell.”
The bells across the street pealed again, signaling Harvey’s hourly pint of beer. I laid down a fiver in front of his little pile of cash. He grinned and cocked his head. “You think you could’ve done what I did?”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I sure couldn’t tell it like you do.”