Closing his eyes, he put the cigar once again to his lips before blowing out the smoke into the warm air around him. In his current position he might yet remember that he was on a break. With his cut off fatigues and nothing else he almost forgot about why he was here. Ah yes, today was a glorious day. The first of many he presumed. Sitting on the chair he'd just bought, he wondered what had possessed him to buy a house in the first place. He had no need of a house! Especially not one of this type in the middle of nowhere. Why had he picked such a remote location? The nearest town had a population of three hundred something and a decent size city was a full two hours drive. He was bored and what the hell was he to do now?
Challen got himself up and tossed the spent cigar onto the ground by the back door. Night was quickly closing in and the temperature was slowly dropping. He wasn't ready to turn in for the night but he sure as Hell wasn't going to get friendly with the locals just yet. So what was a man to do in such a state?
Hit the bar.
Stalking to his room, he grabbed one of the shirts from his still unpacked suitcase and pulled it on before grabbing the car keys off the kitchen table and heading out. He managed to reach the truck before the phone on his hip began to vibrate.
Damn, what now?
Challen closed his eyes tightly against the familiar sounding voice. "Well, I'll be damned, if it isn't the devil himself."
The man on the other line chuckled softly. "Aw, such sweet endearments."
Opening the trucks door, Challen sat himself on the bench and leaned his elbows on his knees. "So, my dear brother, what is this about?"
"Come on, can't a brother call his best friend?"
"No." It was a flat response meant to cut the shit. It did.
"Okay, but one of these days it will be."
"Get on with it, Greg."
"Right. Well, Kelly and I made plans to go on our honeymoon. You know, now that we're married and all."
"So next week. What's your point?"
"I'm getting there, you don't have to be so pushy."
"I do when you take a year to get to the chase." Challen rubbed his face and took a deep breath. His brother was someone he loved dearly, but the boy held no responsibility and was far too flighty to ever get anything accomplished. While he was off playing with girls Challen had been the one doing both their homework's and chores and even in college when Greg had gotten himself arrested for DWI, who'd he call? Challen, of course. Joining the Marines was probably the best thing Challen had ever done for either of them, but it obviously wasn't enough or they wouldn't be having this conversation.
"Anyway, the honeymoon just happens to be when Kelly has a big presentation due. One of her big clients had asked Kelly to show the mans daughter around town and to show her a good time while in the area. Anyway, so we have this honeymoon thing and-"
"Now wait just a minute!" Challen got to his feet, disbelief ringing in his ears. "You'd better not be asking me what I think you're asking me or you're going to be a dead man. Do you hear me, Greg? Dead."
"I knew you'd see it this way, but it's my honeymoon, Challen!" His voice dropped a little lower. "You've seen Kelly and a whole week with a hotel room? Come on, buddy, I need ya here."
Challen wanted to say no. Everything was screaming in his head to tell his brother to forget it and get on with his life. "I just bought this house. I haven't even unpacked yet."
"But you own it, so it's not going anywhere! I mean, you'll be back there after a week. It's real simple. It's next week. I already bought you the ticket, just pick it up from the airport and youonly have to do it for that week. "
"You do realize that I'm always doing shit like this for you and now," he said before Greg could get a word in, "and now I'm doing it for Kelly, too."
"Hey, I'll owe you big time, so will Kelly."
"I will, Challen, I'll owe you!" he heard Kelly say in the background.
Greg groaned, "Please? I mean, so I've been told this girl's not that hot. I don't even know how old she is, so just go out and do this whole diplomatic thing you do so well and handle it. Pawn her off on someone else if you have to!"
"How old are you?"
Greg paused. "Where're you taking this?"
"Just answer the question."
"Twenty-eight last month."
"Right, so at twenty-eight, when are you going to start learning responsibility?" But he knew he'd do it. He'd go ahead and let his baby brother have his honeymoon with his Playboy worthy new wife.
"Some day? Right after I get back. I'll work on it, I promise!"
"Just remember you'll owe me. I don't like playing babysitter to any teenage junky, got me?"
Greg let out an audible sigh. "Thank you so much! I really owe you one, dude. Anything, you need anything and you call me."
"I'll remember that."
With that he shut the phone and propped his arm on the hood of his '85 pickup. He could not believe he'd agreed to do this. Was he insane? Must be, because he's sure as hell acting like it. He looked back at the house. His rugged house, his wooden cabin amongst rich people's monstrosities, yup, this was him. But hey, it was on sale in his price range and he was out far enough that he couldn't see the other houses and they couldn't see him, so what was the problem.
Anyway, what was he doing before his brother so rudely interrupted him? Oh yeah. He needed a drink.
The building was in the middle of a field with a gravel parking lot and a yellow neon sign, one that had obviously seen better days, advertising the name of the bar, "Bunky's".
Challen pulled up his truck and nestled it in between two other cars that were there, noticing that the place didn't lack for clientele. Who would have thought that on a Tuesday night the place would be so full? Running his fingers through his hair, he locked the truck, although Lord knows why-they were out in the middle of a corn field, not Long Beach!- and made his way to the front door. Upon closer inspection, he saw that the bar needed a very big face lift. When was the last time a coat of paint had been added to the outside paneling? The whole finish was chipping and peeling and overall cracking. For some reason Challen found this all quite comforting. He liked the lack of windows and the rustic décor. It was dingey, warm and welcoming. Just like a bar should be.
The door was something he had to really pull to open and it did so with a great wheeze. Immediately his senses were bombarded by the smoke and the dim lights and the smell that only a bar could have. A mix between stale beer and cigarettes. He'd found his home away from home.
Challen made his way to the bar counter and took a seat next to an older guy nursing half a beer.
"What can I get ya?" the bartender asked. He was a middle aged man with a calm acceptance of life. He suspected that he was the owner.
"I'll take your best dark."
A moment later he had a glass in hand and much to his surprise, it looked clean. Wow, the day was looking up. Taking a sip, he wondered about his brother's phone call, which made him instantly think about why he had really moved here. Seriously, why move thousands of miles from family, friends, and work? Easy, because it was time. Challen knew it was only semi- true. He'd moved because for starters, it was time for him to get out of the Corps. He'd seen to much death and destruction lately and he needed a break from all the chaos of people. Out here he didn't have that problem. Out here it was just bush. Sure, if you dig around enough you'll find spread out mansions, but there was no big town as an accompaniment, only a small little hamlet for the basic facilities.
Basics. That wasn't what his brother was asking of him. No, his brother wanted him to dress up and jump in the big crowd and go back into the life they'd had when he was still living at home. His parents had been big time business people and he'd certainly had his fair share of making people happy to get a deal. But he'd left all that behind him years ago when he sold his soul to his country. He never regretted it, but he needed this break. He needed to get back to life for just a moment. This reserve option was just what he needed. Give himself a little bit of time before going back. Hell, he might not period.
He took a gulp of the beer and scanned the room. A group of guys had three games of pool going in the corner and there were darts on the other side. He saw the exchange of money and grinned. It'd been a while since he and his buddies had played like that, just for the Hell of it. A long time. He remembered one posting where he'd lived in the barracks and they'd set up a dart board in the corner. They were up at all hours. There was always someone who was over there just to wind down and work out their days events.
Challen looked at the bartender before following his gaze to the end of the counter.
"You outsiders cause more trouble than you're worth."
A guy was leaning on the bar, a cocky grin on his face and reaching out to a girl sitting on a stool. Another guy had come to stand between the two.
"He bothering you, Gretch?"
The guy leaning stood up to his full height, "Listen, old man, the girly here and I are just having a nice chat so you need to go get lost. Everything's fine."
"It's okay, Charlie," the girl, Gretch, said, "The man was just leaving." She hadn't taken her eyes off her glass in her hands.
"I'm not going anywhere. You and I are gonna go out dancing."
"If she says, you were just leaving, then you were just leaving."
"Look, I'm not going anywh-"
She turned to look at him then and the guy audibly gasped. The right side of her face was marred with three slices that splattered across her face from eyebrow to jaw, from hairline to nose, and from ear to lip. The guy sneered before buggering off.
He stormed out of the bar and disappeared into the night. The girl went back to her drink and the guy went back to the table he was sitting at, once again engrossed at the topic in hand.
"What was that all about?" Challen asked the bartender.
"Gretchen appeared here one day when she was about fifteen. She had no family, no home, no nothing. Just appeared. She got a job at the local laundry mat and when into the woods at night. We don't know where she really lived, but she certainly settled in real fast. Everyone got to know her, such a sweet girl back then. Anyway, she disappeared for a few years when she was nineteen and came back five years later looking like that. She has more across her body. She never talks about it and we don't ask. She lives in an apartment in town. Anyway, some guys come in here looking for a good time and the local boys take care of her. She's one of their own."
"Do I hear you talking about me, Ruddy?"
Challen looked down and, sure enough, she was staring right at them.
She laughed and he thought it sounded real to him.
"It's better than him making up some excuse of his own."
She nodded, "That's true, isn't it?"
"So, buddy, why don't you come down here and bug me with your questions and leave Ruddy to his job?"
Did she just go ask him to go drink with her?
Shrugging to himself, Challen got off his stool and headed down the bar, placing himself next to her. He held out his hand. "The name's Calder. Challen Calder."
"Gretchen." She took his hand and he was surprised at the strength he found in it.
"So, what's your business around here, Mr. Calder?"
"It's Challen and I just moved into town."
An eyebrow shot up. "Did you really, now. Huh."
He took another swig and stared down into the dark amber liquid. He could feel her staring at him. "So why didn't you flinch?"
"When I showed that guy my face, why didn't you flinch. Everyone does, you didn't. Hell, some of the local guys still do and they've had four years to get used to it."
"Scars are something I'm not a stranger to."
"And why's that?"
"This isn't twenty questions."
Her laugh was deep and throaty and he got the impression she didn't laugh often. "You've got bite, I'll give you that much."
"I learned that barking didn't do too much." He called down the bar, "Can I get another one?"
"Are we trying to drown something?"
"I told you I'm not big on questions."
"Forget that beer, Ruddy. He's not going to need it."
Challen looked at her with measuring eyes.
"Come with me."
She stood up and headed out the front door. To his own surprise he got up and followed. The moment the door closed behind him he was thrust up against the side of the building, the wooden splinters biting through his shirt. He felt cold steel at his neck and her capable fingers at his neck. If he struggled, she'd kill him.
"So, I take it you got a lot out of girl scouts?"
"Aren't we the charmer. Now, why are you here?"
"I told you, I just moved-"
The blade at his neck shifted, but he didn't think she'd drawn blood yet.
"Who sent you?"
"Just a little paranoid, are you?"
"I don't have time for these games."
With one quick movement, he spun and had her tacked to the wall as she'd had him. It was the first time he'd noticed how tall she was. He was putting her at around six foot and that impressed him. Not many times could someone, let alone a girl, come close to his own six-seven.
"Now, you listen to me," he said calmly as if they were strolling through the park. "I don't know who the fucking Hell you're looking for, but I'm not him." He took the blade away from her neck and placed it in the waist band of his pants. His hands kept her pinned. "I came to get a drink. It's been a long fucking day and I want my beer. After this little routine, Hell, I think I'm going to go for a nice clean vodka. Now, are we done here, because I'm getting bored."
Her legs came around him so fast that he didn't think to move. She pulled him towards her, so their bodies were flat against one another and she brought her face close to his, her lips almost touching his. "If you don't get your hands off my body," she whispered, bringing her mouth to his ear, "I'm going to make you a eunuch."
With that, she pushed off of him and strode inside, letting her laugh fill the air around him.
"Ruddy, your best vodka for Mr. Calder here!" she shouted the moment he walked through the door.