“I knew things were bad when the second whore shook, seized up, then slid sideways off of me like a concussed jockey falling out of the saddle. Shot right through the breast. I’d thought the other one just fell or something, you know? She was dicking around with the radio in the corner of the room. I rolled opposite the one who’d just been riding me, landed on the floor on my chest, and swept my arm across the roach hovel underneath the bed to retrieve my Colt, connecting with its handle just as the fuckers outside gave up on exploratory potshots and started up with the automatics. I don’t know. I guess they figured if they shot it enough times the brick wall of the hotel would perforate and collapse. You gotta understand, these people in third world countries are used to the slow pace of cooking over open fire and fishing eels out of rivers with reed nets. They just don’t get modern firepower. All they know is it’s fast, hot, and messy.”
This was Brave Captain Harvey.
Regular patron of the Black Wave bar.
He paused to order a pint of Abita and slowly drink the entire glass at one go, something he did every hour on the hour when the bell high in the tower of Our Lady of Humble Vengeance across the street rang its stern reminder than humans are confined to time but the church is eternal. Now, for the intervening hour, Brave Captain Harvey would sip a tumbler of Wilkes Booth Whiskey and confess.
I’d done errands all morning in the hot May humidsphere, and when my barber invited me to lunch around the corner in the Black Wave after he’d tamed my hair, I decided to go with him. Now, with two cartons of spicy fried shrimp gone and feeling four beers the wiser, Cristo and I were caught in the thrall of the old veteran of some vague service to our country, a thin and oak bark-skinned man. A man who always knew what he wanted for breakfast. A man, unlike ourselves, with a Past.
Brave Captain Harvey always wore heavy khaki chinos with a red bandana strung through his left hip belt loop and a spattered, dusty undershirt with a v-neck that neatly bordered an untended garden of black hair. Because of the heat his usual outer garment—a leather bomber jacket that looked older than Jesus but somehow still felt like a lithe, young calf when you touched it—hung from a hook on the pillar behind him. The sleeve that faced us had that ghostly dark spot, perfectly round, where some unknown patch had been detached. Brave Captain Harvey always liked to talk, but never about what insignia or emblem that patch used to bear. “Name and rank, only,” he always said to new people he met. “They recycled my serial number.”
I leaned forward to look at Cristo, sitting on the other side of the captain. He’d undone his bowtie and was staring at the veteran between us, holding onto the last words like a commercial slogan, conflating the whores and the guns: fast, hot…and messy. Cristo was chronically undersexed and easily overexcited. Between the chili powder in the shrimp and the Jaegermeister he’d mixed into his cocktail sauce, a man without Cristo’s composure would’ve been humping the captain’s leg. But Cristo is a gentleman and he reserves such enthusiasm for behind closed doors.
Harvey slid the last ounce of beer down his throat, set the glass down, and continued.
“The first whore who’d been dropped was clumsily crawling towards me, glass raining down on her back. She was shrieking, ‘Help me, G.I., save me, G.I.!’ I cocked my gun and aimed it at her, told her I wasn’t no dumbshit G.I. and that she better stay the fuck down. It was all the tenderness I could muster at the moment. She started to cry and cough blood. She turned back and headed for the other side of the room. I got my back up against the wall and could feel the bullets popping off chunks of plaster on the other side. I saw the whore’s hand reach up and land on the nightstand, searching for the money I’d set aside for both of them.
“I yelled at her that now wasn’t the time to get greedy, but it was too late. Two rounds zoomed through the window and caught her right through the ring finger and her tiny little wrist. She would bleed out in minutes then join her partner and all her ancestors in the shadow canopy. It was right about then that I decided I didn’t want to be in Hanoi anymore.”
Cristo pulled his spear of olives out of his martini and bit one off. “Cass, do you believe this shit?”
Brave Captain Harvey turned towards me, looked me up and down with a look perfected over decades, a look that had no doubt preceded a couple dozen knife fights.
“Yeah,” he answered for me. “He believes as long as I’m the one buying the drinks.”
The bartender set us up with another round and took a few bills out of the pile splayed in front of Harvey.
“Something I always wanted to ask you, Captain,” Cristo said. “Is that social security money or blood money?”
“Is there a difference?”
“Well, there’s no shortage of it, that’s for sure. But you’re unemployed.”
I looked away just in case a homicide was imminent. Harvey slammed a fist down on the bar. “I’m fucking retired! This fuckhead barber of yours is paying for his own from now on!” He sipped from the whiskey, slid his palms across the bar until his back unclenched and shook his head rapidly. “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.”