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The tavern was filled with ghosts that night.
Grady Pierce could feel them, but he didn't much care as long as the bartender kept pouring the drinks.
They were ghosts of the old days, when recruits, mostly draftees, were bused almost daily into Fort Dix for basic training, scared or strutting, and hustled out of their seats by drill instructors with hard faces and hard eyes who never spoke in less than a yell. The scared became terrified, and the strutters soon lost that smug look they wore it was apparent from the moment they were shorn of their hair that this wasn't going tobe a Technicolor, wide-screen John Wayne movie.
This was real.
This was the real Army.
And there was a damn good chance they were going someplace to die.
Grady ought to know; he had trained enough of them himself.
But that was the old days.
This was now, and what the hell if the ghosts of the boys who never came back wanted to stand behind him and demand he teach them again and this time do it right, well, hell, that was what they did, no skin off his nose.
What he did these days was drink, and damned good at it he was.
He sat on his stool, bony shoulders hunched, hands clasped on the bar before him as if he were saying grace before taking up the glass. His face under the mostly gray brush cut was all angles, sharp and dark with shadows; he wore worn and stained fatigues loose at the waist, a too-large field jacket torn at one shoulder,scuffed hiking boots so thin he could feel pebbles beneath the soles.
From where he sat at the bar's far end, he could see the dozen scarred darkwood tables, the half-dozen dark booths along the side wall, the twenty or so customers bent over their drinks. Usually the place was close to bedlam with top-of-the-voice, not always good-natured arguments about theGiants, the Phillies, the 76ers, the government. Waylon would be howling on the jukebox, a game on the TV hanging on the wall, and beneath it all the comforting clatter of balls over at the pool table, floating green in the light of the single lamp above it. There might even be a few working girls hanging out, joining in, not always looking for business.
Good thing, too, he thought with a quick grin; most of the gals these days were a little long in the tooth and short in the looks.
Tonight, however, was pretty damn miserable.
Rain all day, changing to a hard mist at sundown. The temperature had risen, too, slipping pockets of shifting fog into the alleys and gutters.
It was April, nearly May, but it felt a whole lot like November.
He glanced at his watch just a few minutes past midnight and rubbed his eyes with bony knuckles. Time he was having one for the road, then getting on that road while he could still find it.
He reached for the glass, one ice cube and Jack Daniels halfway to the rim. He frowned and pulled his hand back. He could have sworn that that glass had been full a second ago.
Man, I'm worse than I thought.
He reached for it again.
"You sure about that?" Aaron Noel, who was more muscle than any man had a right to own and still be able to move, flipped a drying towel over his shoulder and leaned back against the shelf fronting the smoke-fogged mirror. His white T-shirt was tight, the sleeves cut off to give his upperarms some room. He was a younger man who looked as if he had, lived one lifetime too many. "Not that I'm complaining, Grady, but I ain't taking you home tonight again, no offense."
Grady grinned. "You my old lady now?"
"Nope. But the weather sucks, right? And every time the weather sucks, you get the miseries, drink too much and pass out, and then I gotta lug your sorry ass to that sorry hole you call a house." He shook his head. "No way. Not tonight." He waggled his eyebrows. "Got a meeting when I'm done."
Grady glanced at the window by the exit. Past the neon he could see the mist, the dark street, the empty storefronts on the other side.
"So?" the bartender said, nodding toward the unfinished glass.
Grady straightened, yanked on an earlobe and pinched his cheeks. It was an old trick to see if he was numb enough yet to go home and sleep without having those damn dreams. He wasn't, but he wasn't drunk enough to defy a man who could break his back with his pinky, either.
If the truth be known, Noel was good for him. More than once over the past fifteen years, he had stopped Grady from getting into fights that would have easily turned him into one of his own ghosts. He didn't know why the guy cared; it had just turned out that way.
He considered the glass carefully, grimaced at the way his stomach lurched with acid, and said with a resigned sigh, "Ah, the hell with it."
Grady slipped off the stool and held onto the bar with his left hand while he waited for his balance to get it right. When he figured he could walk without looking like he was on a steamer in a hurricane, he saluted the bartender and dropped a bill beside the glass. "Catch. you around," he said
"Whatever," the bartender said. "Just get the hell home and get some sleep."
Grady reached into his hip pocket and pulled out a Yankees cap, snapped it open and jammed it onto his head, and made his way toward the door.
When he checked over his shoulder, Aaron was already talking with another guy at the bar...