The bus stopped in a small town called Cross, and Hank Rivers decided he’d gone far enough. He tipped his hat to the driver, shouldered his sea-bag, and stepped out. Once on the sidewalk, Hank took out his pipe, packed it, and lit it.
As the smoke curled up from the bowl and escaped from the corner of his mouth, Hank glanced up and down the street. A few Fords, all older models, were parked at the curb. But like all the New England towns he had passed through, after 6 PM the center of town was battened down like a destroyer ready to ride out a storm.
Hank sought out a place to drink and was relieved to see a sign for a watering hole.
The faded, wooden sign hung from a rusted iron swing pole affixed to a brick wall near the mouth of an alley. Hank could make out the carved images of a mug of beer and a bottle of whiskey, and three words engraved above them.
The Cajun Tap, he read. Then, with a shrug, he adjusted his sea-bag and made his way to the sign.
When he reached it, Hank saw a flight of narrow stairs leading down below street level. A dull, orange tinted light seeped out of a large rectangular window set high in an ancient, dark wood door. Hank descended the stairs and caught a glimpse of a small brass plate engraved with the word, Knock.
He rapped on the center of the door twice.
It opened a moment later, and an old man who looked like death warmed over stood in the doorway. He wore a battered bowler hat that was ragged and threadbare with age. The man’s blue eyes were sunk deep within their sockets, and lines spread out to either side of his thin face from the corners of his eyes and mouth. He had on a pair of dungarees held up by stained red suspenders, and the boon-dockers on his feet looked older than Hank. The sleeves of a collarless shirt had been rolled up to the elbow, revealing thick scars on the man’s pale flesh.
“What do you want?” The old man asked in a heavy Louisiana accent.
“A drink and a meal, if you have them,” Hank answered.
The old man leaned forward a fraction, his nostrils flared, and then he nodded.
“Come on in,” the man said, stepping aside. “Straight to the back, you’ll find the bar. Booths are private.”
“Can I get a booth?” Hank asked.
The old man chortled and said, “What’s your name, son?”
“I’m Louis Crowley, Hank,” the old man said, closing and locking the door behind them. “And we’ll see if you warrant a booth when you’ve finished your drink at the bar.”
Hank shrugged and walked along the length of a slim, dark aisle. He could make out the booths on either side, but the angle of the lights above each hid the occupants from view.
The sound of murmured conversations rose and fell around him.
At the end of the aisle, the room opened to face a long bar with seven unoccupied bar stools. The bar itself was a long piece of planking that, judging by the scars upon its surface, looked as if it had come from an old battleship. Bottles and jars and glasses cluttered a series of shelves, and candles threatened to gutter out in old ship’s lamps that hung from the exposed beams of the ceiling.
“Sit down, Marine,” Louis said, going around to the back of the bar.
Hank set his sea-bag down on the floor, placed his hat on the bar, and settled down on a stool. “How’d you know I was a Marine?”
“I’ve an eye for your breed,” Louis said. “What’re you drinking?”
“Whiskey,” Hank answered. He took his pipe out of his mouth and knocked the ashes out into an old brass ashtray.
The old man chuckled, nodded and said, “Course it’s whiskey.”
“Good drink for a thirsty man,” Hank said, grinning.
“Only drink for a Marine, so’s I been told,” Louis replied. He took a dark bottle and a large tumbler down from their respective shelves and poured Hank a healthy dose of strong smelling liquor.
“Damn if that doesn’t smell fine,” Hank said, nodding his thanks as Louis slid the glass in front of him. The old Cajun left the bottle uncorked on the bar as Hank took a long drink.
“Tastes as good as it smells,” Hank announced.
“Glad to hear it,” Louis said, adding a little more to Hank’s glass. “Where’ve you been?”
“Up and down the coast,” Hank said. He glanced around the bar, and for the first time, he noticed the curious decorations. A wide array of weapons hung from or were supported by old belaying pins. Hank saw bayonets and swords, trench knives and bowie knives. Pistols and rifles ranging from old muskets to Lee-Enfields and a Maxim machine gun. Hank shook his head and said, “Damn. That’s a hell of an arsenal you’ve got.”
Louis nodded. “Friends leave them on their way through. Which brings me back to my question, Hank. Where’ve you been?”
Hank looked at the old barkeep. “I told you –”
Louis cut him off with a shake of his head.
“I asked it wrong,” the old man muttered. “Here, what took you so long, Marine?”
The question chilled Hank to the bone, and his hand trembled as he reached for his whiskey. He managed to empty the glass without spilling any and set the tumbler back on the bar top. Hank felt sufficiently fortified, and he asked, “What in the hell are you talking about?”
“The wheat field,” Louis said, refilling Hank’s glass.
A wave of brutal memories crashed over Hank and threatened to drown him with the images of violence. He saw his friends mown down on either side of him by German machine guns. The Marines leaning forward as if they walked into a high wind as they moved through the golden wheat. Over the staccato bursts of the machine guns, Hank heard men screaming in pain, others shouting in English or German.
He gripped the edge of the bar, squeezing it with both hands, and shook his head.
“How,” Hank asked in a harsh, rasping whisper, “in God’s name do you know I was there?”
Louis looked at him not with sympathy or compassion, but admiration.
“I’ve only met a few men,” the old man said, “who carried on as you did.”
Louis reached beneath the bar and extracted a large, new grocer’s ledger. The year 1918, Vol. II was stamped in gold-leaf on the marbled cover.
“Been a long time,” the old man said, “since I needed more than one ledger for a single year.”
Hank watched as Louis laid the ledger on the bar and flipped it open. The old man turned several pages, nodded and cleared his throat.
“Gunnery Sergeant Henry “Hank” Rivers. Killed in the wheat field, sixth of June, 1918. Despite death, Gunner Sergeant Rivers led the charge into Belleau Wood. Vanished before collection.”
Without a word, his mind spinning, Hank reached up with surprisingly steady hands and unbuttoned his shirt. He slid his arms out of the sleeves and folded the garment before he placed it on the bar. Then, with Louis standing impassively in front of him, Hank stripped off his undershirt.
He looked down at his chest and saw a trio of small, neat circles, one above each nipple, the third between them both. With his left hand, Hank reached behind him and felt the edge of a gaping exit wound.
Hank sighed and picked up the whiskey. While Louis put away the ledger, Hank finished his drink. With the liquor gone, he put his shirts back on and asked in a soft voice, “How is this possible?”
Louis shrugged. “I don’t know. Some few can do what you did, but it is a rare feat. I do know that you’ve led them on a merry chase for which they’ll surely call you out on.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” Hank murmured. “Who’s been looking for me?”
“The Valkyrie, Marine,” Louis said, pouring the last of the whiskey into the tumbler. “You’re due in Valhalla. Well, past due.”
“How do you know all this?” Hank asked, confused. “What is this place?”
“I’ve been around a long time, Hank,” Louis said. “And as for what this place is, that’s easy. This is my bar and a way station for Valhalla.”
Behind him, Hank heard the door to the bar thrown wide, and the sound of boisterous female voices filled the air. Men cheered from the darkened booths and Louis smiled.
“Well,” the old Cajun said, “looks like your ride is here, Marine.”
Before Hank could respond, a firm hand gripped his arm, and a woman said over his shoulder, “Gunnery Sergeant Rivers. You are a pain in the ass.”
Still, in shock at what had transpired, Hank laughed and said, “Yeah. That sounds about right.”
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