CHARLIE HARRIS leaned forward, pinched the end of the Lucky Strike between his thumb and forefinger, and inhaled the last drag possible before the smoldering tobacco burned his lips. Easing the smoke out his nostrils, he dropped the stub to the floor and ground it out with the sole of his boot. The carcass joined the other dozen or more shredded on the floor of the bus.
He sat back, rubbed the two-day stubble, coarse as sandpaper, on his cheek, and inhaled the garbage stench of smoke, sweat, banana peels, and God knew what else the other passengers had stuffed in the paper sacks they’d leave for somebody else to clean up. The kid wearing the coonskin cap and Davy Crockett fringe coat, curled up asleep in the seat across the aisle, had peanut butter and jelly smeared around his mouth like cheap lipstick. Why the mother didn’t clean the crap off the brat was beyond him. Maybe she’d tired of his incessant running up and down the walkway, too, and was afraid to touch him for fear of an encore.
Charlie turned his head and stared at the window. The low light from the recessed lamp above him, under the luggage rack, illuminated his dark hair. His haloed reflection stared back against the pitch of the moonless night. Drops of drizzle running down the glass in rivulets disfigured his features, but not the memories. He shifted in his seat, resting his cheek on the backrest.
Need you had been the only words on the telegram—not an I want you stuck anywhere on the yellow paper. The first time Roger had said, “Need you,” Charlie’d fallen into his arms and bared his heart, soul, groin, and ass.
He dug the open pack of Luckies out of a pocket in his pea coat, shook the end of one out, and held it between his teeth. He returned the dwindling cache to the pocket, pulled out a book of matches, folded the cover behind a lone match with one hand, and scratched it across the striker without tearing it from the pack. The tobacco sizzled as he inhaled. He blew out the match flame when he exhaled and watched the smoke bounce off his reflection.
What was it? Nine years? No. Ten. Ten years already since the war ended and all the troops came marching home. Those that weren’t buried in some rathole of a town he couldn’t pronounce the name of in some European country he never wanted to see again. He blew out another cloud of smoke. He wasn’t a twenty-year-old kid anymore. But sure as hell, the minute Roger said, “Need you,” he’d walked off his job and caught a bus. For what? A chance of love with a man who’d walked away without looking back when they stormed the beaches of the good old US of A?
“Moron.” He rolled his body away from the reflection and stared at the beige metal above him. Another drag, another burst of smoke.
Lightning shattered the darkness. Thunder clapped against the bus. Raindrops transformed to a hail of rifle and machine gun bullets.
Charlie jerked. His eyes prowled the terrain for where the Germans’ attack would come from—goddamnit! It’s just rain. He fell back against the seat, brushed a jittery hand over his hair, and took a long, comforting pull off the cigarette. So long ago, so damn long ago, and still it took so little to bring the horror back to life.
“Whistle Pass. Whistle Pass,” the driver called out.
Charlie sat straight, grateful for something else to fill his mind with, and looked over the top of the wide brim hat of the passenger in the seat in front of him. Through the windshield eight rows away, a smattering of lights appeared in the distance. He crinkled his nose. Figured. He’d guessed a town in Illinois called Whistle Pass a hundred-fifty miles or so from Chicago wouldn’t be more than a pinhole on a map. By the few lights, he’d nailed it.
He narrowed his focus and strained in an attempt to look beyond the glare of the glass and drizzling rain but couldn’t make out anything except the glow of random streetlights as the bus entered the city. A porch light here and there indicated houses along the street. The bus rounded a slow curve, and a lone parking lot light’s glow illuminated jewels of rain on wet cars. A string of multicolored triangular banners hung limp. A dealership. He sat back and took in the blur of more houses.
The bus rounded another lazy curve, and the downtown spread her Main Street curbing like a whore. Each block had streetlamps strategically interspersed so every storefront was revealed. Vaughan’s Saddle and Tack, Goldman Jewelers, A&P Grocery, Ash Penn’s Stationery, Matson Jewelers…. Charlie chuckled. The business district looked about five blocks long, and two jewelry stores were battling it out for control of the bangle industry.
A hiss from the brakes. The bus slowed and pulled to the curb in front of a four-story building. A giant L with “Hotel” painted down the stem of the letter hung from an iron bracket. Rain dripped to the sidewalk from the base of the sign.
Charlie pushed out of his seat. In the aisle he rolled cramped shoulders, flexed the stiffness out of a knee, and combed his fingers through his hair before he retrieved his duffle from the overhead. The fact he was the only passenger to do so didn’t escape his notice. He pinched out the final draw of nicotine from the cigarette between his lips. Dropping the remnant to the floor, he opted to step over, not on, the butt and strode to the front of the bus.
The driver pushed the handle of the extended bar of the door, and Charlie stepped out onto the wet sidewalk. Drizzle quickly painted his face. A drop fell from the tip of his nose. He swiped the next one and took a deep breath. The air was clean, but beneath the overlay of rain was a taste of fish. Dead fish. He inhaled another lungful of air. Yeah. A river was somewhere close by.
Gears hissed into place. The engine revved, and the bus drove off. Diesel fumes encased in a swell of black smoke threatened to cloak Charlie. He stepped toward the building, away from the bus’s lingering stink. The wood-framed glass door had “Larson Hotel” painted in gold with black trim. He pulled it open, hoping they’d have a room available. If they didn’t, he was pretty much screwed.
He guessed the lobby’s ceiling to be around twelve feet with three ceiling fans suspended on pipes to about eight feet. Four black couches, a few wooden armchairs, and potted plants here and there decorated the place. At the far end of the room, the elevator’s iron gate stood open, the operator’s stool empty. A solitary broad-chested man puffing on a cigar sat on a couch. A snap-brim hat pulled low shadowed his face. Smoke curled upward, only to be blown back down by the fan blade’s slow rotation. To the right of the elevator was a wooden stairway, the banister nearly black from decades of hands sliding over it. A grandfather clock in a corner tolled 3:00 a.m.
Charlie turned left to the long, dark wood counter. A bank of pigeonholes, several with keys, was mounted to the wall. He smiled. Keys in the slots meant there was probably a vacancy. With the office chair at the desk unoccupied, he slapped a palm onto the silver bell. The clang rolled around the room. A pair of curtains parted, and an old man walked out.
“Morning. Sorry. No trains due in, so I was laying down.” He looked around and lowered his voice. “Most of our guests work for the railroad. Railroad changes crews in Whistle Pass. Not many tourists of late. Looking for a room? Don’t have much right now, though.”
Charlie set his bag on the floor. “Yeah. Whatever you have’s fine.”
The old man set a book on the counter. Opening it, he handed Charlie a pen. “Need you to register. How long you staying?”
Charlie wrote his name underneath a bevy of names without addresses. “Not sure. You need my address?”
The old man plucked a key from a slot and pivoted back around. “Not really. Nobody’s business but yours. That’s the way I see it, anyway. Manager tends to disagree, though, unless you work for the railroad, of course.” He flashed a wry smile. “But he ain’t here, is he?” He spun the book around and started to close it but paused. “Charlie Harris?”
Charlie tensed. The whiskey-dry voice spoke his name like the employee recognized it. “Yeah. Why?”
The clerk turned, set the key back in the slot, and pulled another one from a different hole. He handed the key to Charlie. “Had a note to expect you sometime tonight. Room 412’s reserved for you. Paid in advance for a week.”
Confused, Charlie looked at the brass tag with a machine-pressed L and 412. “Who got me a room?” And why a week? Not like the Roger he knew to have things planned out in advance.
“Don’t know. Note didn’t say. You can ask the manager when he comes in later. Need help with your bags?”
Charlie picked up the duffle. “Nah. I got it.”
“Good, ’cause I couldn’t help you anyway. You’ll have to use the stairs. I’m not allowed to leave the lobby since I’m the only one working. So there’s nobody to run the elevator.”
An amused snort leaked out of Charlie. The old man couldn’t leave the lobby unattended, but he could steal a few winks in the back room. He wheeled and noticed the sitting area was now empty.
The thick leather soles of his work boots clunked echoes as he walked up the stairs. Curtains of fresh cigar smoke hung in the air. On the second floor, Charlie made the turn and spotted half a cigar smoldering in a pedestal ashtray. The band identified it as a Red Dot. He glanced up and down the hallway but didn’t see anything that seemed out of place, other than a wasted choice smoke. He cocked his head and listened. Nothing. Unbuttoning his coat, he headed for the third floor landing.
On the third floor, he stalled his progress and looked and listened again. A stuttered snoring crawled along the empty hall. Charlie shook his head and blew out a breath. “You’re just nervous about why you’re here. Shake it off.” He grabbed the banister and pulled himself up the stairs, his booted steps rhythmically clomping his advance. At the midway point, he palmed the ball on the banister break and made the turn.
A Black Cat shoe heel came at him too quickly for Charlie to react. The blow caught him between the eyebrows.
Charlie slammed against the wall. Pain exploded in his head. Blinded from shock, he swung the duffle. The weight of the bag in his left hand pulled him to his right, so he let go of it, balled a fist, and blasted it back across his front. The backhand blow struck pay dirt in a jaw. The attacker cursed. Charlie followed up with a right fist to the shadowy figure coming into focus. His fist hammered into a rib cage. Charlie pumped two more quick jabs into the ribs.
“Gack.” The man’s torso leaned left.
Charlie reached out, grabbed two handfuls of shirt, and flung the man past him, into the wall. Staying with his target, he planted his feet and loosed a flurry of punches onto the exposed back, over the kidneys.
The snap-brim-hatted attacker’s knees bent, and he sank to the floor.
Click. Click. Charlie whirled. At the top of the stairs, two more men. Young. Late teens, early twenties maybe. Each wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket, and… each held a switchblade knife.
“Enough of this crap.” Charlie snarled, stuck his left hand into his coat pocket, and pressed the barrel of the gun against the cloth. “First lesson, assholes. Never bring a knife to a gunfight.”
The two youths froze in place. They exchanged looks. One turned and ran. The other, red hair swept back under layers of grease, gulped a prominent Adam’s apple, then took off in the direction of the first.
Charlie bolted up the stairs, rounded the turn to the hallway, and saw the young men scamper out an open door at the end of the hall. He scrambled to the open exit and found himself at the top of an iron fire escape. The clanking footfalls of the duo were already two floors below him.
Charlie stood and waited. The two men hit the alley and continued running. He pulled the hand gun from his pocket, took careful aim, and fired.
“Bang. Bang,” he softly said, then he blew on the fingernail of his index finger gun barrel. “Idiots.”
He went inside the hotel to the stairway. The first one, the cigar smoker, was gone as well. He retrieved his duffle, located room 412 next to the fire escape, and unlocked the door.
Charlie set the duffle on the metal-framed bed and went back to the hall. The bathroom was across from his room. His brows rose in satisfaction. Entering the water closet, he pulled the dangling chain. A bare, single lightbulb clicked on in a ceiling lamp. In the small mirror on the wall, he examined his face. Not bad. The blow had struck more forehead than anything else. He rubbed the reddened skin, then turned on the faucet, cupped his hands full of cool water, and lightly scrubbed his face. He grabbed the sides of the sink and stared at his reflection. His jaw trembled, his teeth chattered, his gut knotted, and his chest tightened. He flung his arms around him and sat on the toilet, shaking in fear.
In the war, he’d reacted the same way. Always calm when the shit went down, and always fell apart after. The men around him had learned to stick to him when the bullets flew. Charlie Harris could fight and shoot. You wanted to live, you needed to be wherever Charlie was. Only Roger ever sat with him after. Only Roger ever put his arms around him and held him until the terror passed.
He closed his eyes. How he wanted Roger’s arms around him right now, his breath on his skin, the taste of him on his lips. A tear rolled down his cheek.
The door swung open. “You Harris?”
Charlie looked up. A uniformed cop stood in the doorway, badged cap resting at an angle on the man’s head. Still shaking, Charlie only nodded.
The cop walked to him, placed a hand under his arm, and helped him to stand. “Come on. Let’s get you to your room.”
Grateful, Charlie staggered to his room. The door clicked closed behind him. Charlie sat on the bed, his hands stuck between his thighs as he tried to control the tremors. The cop walked over and stood in front of him. Charlie glanced up. “Did someone call you? I got attacked on the stairs.”
The cop reached into a pocket sewn into the lower leg of the dark blue uniform trousers and produced a leather sap. “Nobody called me, boy.” The cop reared back and slapped the lead-filled sap across Charlie’s thigh.
Charlie screamed in pain.
“Shut up,” the cop growled, and he hit his thigh again.
Pain seared, burned through his bones. Charlie fell back on the bed. Tears flowed, snot rolled out of his nose. He wanted to puke. He stuffed a hand in his mouth and bit into it to muffle his cries.
The cop hit his thigh again. Then again.
Charlie went fetal, whimpering. He clamped his eyes closed against the twisting daggers flowing through his blood, shredding his nerves, clawing at his brain.
A whisper at his ear. “You watch yourself, boy. One step—just one step—out of line, and you’ll be turtle food.”
The sap bludgeoned his thigh again. Charlie dug his teeth into his hand. Blood washed over his gums and tongue. The door opened and closed.
Charlie pulled his knees even tighter to his chest and sobbed. “Roger. Where are you?”