New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample chapter from Flight to Darkness by Gil Brewer

You know how it is when you believe you should do a thing, rushing ahead toward it because it’s a kind of adventure, before you realize you should have stayed in bed? Well, it dawned on me too late. That last day at the veteran’s hospital in California was rugged. But I’d waited a long time. I was optimistic.

Leda Thayer stood just at the head of the stairs as I came down the corridor that morning. I wanted to stop and talk with her, maybe touch her, but I had to see Prescott. It would be the last time.

She came up to me and her eyes were full of hell.

“Eric, you sure look different.”

“No bathrobe or pajamas.” I grinned, took her hand and felt that way. She was wearing her white nylon nurse’s uniform. It was the one that was always too tight in exactly the right way beneath her breasts and across her hips, and she was lovely. She had long shapely thighs, and her auburn hair was bright, full of light even in the somber, clinical nakedness of the hallway. There was in her face, in the damp turn of her lips, a secret lasciviousness. Deep-breasted, vigorous, Leda was like a lush, tropical flower blooming poisonously through a crack in a stretch of hot cement sidewalk. Her hand was warm.

“You going in there?” She nodded toward the chief neuropsychiatrist’s office.


“Anyway, it’s over with.”

“All but the goodbyes.”

“Baby can’t wait.” Her deep blue eyes got smoky as she watched me. “I like you in a suit of clothes. My big old Viking. Wish you’d grow a beard. A big blond beard.”

“So I could tickle you?”


“I better go.”

“All right.” She leaned in close, kissed me, her lips soft and hot, and for that brief instant we said something against each other not alone with lips. “I’m not so patient anymore.”

“Good for baby.” Inside I was scared but still optimistic. I watched Leda go on down the hall. She moved quickly, lithely, in her crepe-soled shoes, and I liked to hear the very soft hiss of her dress.

Dr. Prescott seemed to have changed. Only I knew he hadn’t. He’d been the ogre with whom I’d spent a good share of my time during the past year.

He didn’t rise from behind his desk. “How’s it feel?”

“Damned fine, Doc.”

I went over and sat in the good old chair beside the desk which seemed a little different now.

We looked at each other for a while. He smiled in his calm way and folded his hands on the desk blotter. The office had changed, too. There was the table up against the wall where Prescott administered the electrotherapy treatments, but the table no longer held that cloudy vision of terror. At least not for me. The windows were the same, only like everything else—different, somehow. There’d been a time when I had stared at those blinds and watched them grin at me, wink—even speak.

“You’re going home. You feel okay about that?”

“Sure,” I told him. It was a lie. I was scared, but it had to be all right because it was the only way. My stomach burned and my nerves were like banjo strings.

Prescott looked at his folded hands and pale sunlight ricocheted off the tiny bald spot on his skull. He wasn’t much older than my twenty-eight, but I imagined he supposed he was old as hell. His manner had always been a trifle supercilious. He had washed-out gray eyes, straw-colored hair, and he sported a mustache of perhaps nineteen hairs, which was incessantly scraggled. He always wore a blue polka-dot bow tie and, as now, a wrinkled gray gabardine suit. He didn’t have too much chin, but his overlarge Adam’s-apple helped compensate for the lack. His voice was rather high and, to me, irritating.

Prescott and I had been through a lot together.

“Anything happen since I’ve seen you?”


“Sleep well?”




“Thought we’d get rid of that. Intervals are longer, anyway. How long is it this time?”

“Been a week and a half.”

“How did you kill him?”

“Same way, Doc. With a wooden mallet.”

He let that coast for a while. Then he cleared his throat. “We can’t allow you to run around being haunted.”

“Like I told you, Doc—it doesn’t bother me anymore.”

“Yeah. Only you still go right ahead killing your brother every once in a while.”

I shrugged. “It’s a dream.” Somebody strummed the banjo strings. It had to be a dream. . . .

“I remember very clearly how you acted when you came in here,” Prescott said. “At least we’ve helped you some.”

“That or it’s wearing itself out.”

“You always doubted we could help you.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Eric. You’re sure this dream no longer bothers you?”

He was very serious and I suddenly felt sorry for the poor devil. How could he really know? He couldn’t. How could I tell him? I had to lie eight-tenths of the time now, because I was leaving the hospital today and this was goodbye. I’d been passed, I was okay. Sure.

“It doesn’t bother me. I don’t get in a sweat anymore. If I pound in my brother’s head with a wooden mallet in a dream, it’s all right. Isn’t it?”

“Just dandy.” He sighed, shook his head. “Only he’s not even your brother, really. Adopted into the family.”

“I’ve always known him as my brother.”

“Only you knew he wasn’t. Eric, we’ve done all we can—”

“But you don’t really know a damn bit more than you did when I came in here. Right?”

It was his turn to keep quiet. We sat there for a time without speaking. Then he looked at me. “You say you hate your brother’s guts. What’s going to happen when you see him?”

“Nothing.” God, I thought, suppose he won’t let me go. “So we hate each other,” I said. “We’ve been over all this, Doc.”

He went on just the same. He always would and perhaps someday he’d write a book, as many of them did. “There was this man—” maybe it would be the last time— “this new man, who came up to the third platoon as a replacement. He looked like your brother.”

I sighed. A spider was building a web under the table where they gave the electrotherapy. Maybe it was a black widow.

I knew what he was thinking. He would be going over the same old story in his mind, searching for the loose ends that weren’t there, and my raced back, too. I’d been in charge of the platoon, a buck sergeant, because it was down to that and oh God all the rest of it, the platoon wiped out on a ridge, all but myself and this new replacement who looked like Frank, my brother, in the bloody twilight with the guns, so the two of us tried to get back to our lines only this other man was now thinking two would draw enemy fire so he lost his head and he tried to kill me and get back alone then I knocked him on the head with a rifle butt and started shouldering him back but I remembered how I hated Frank, damn him, and this was suddenly Frank on my back hating me while they laid a barrage just for us boxed in and then the man Frank came to so I hated him all my life and I picked up the wooden mallet and smashed his head in.

—Claim you killed him only it wasn’t your brother and you know that now.

—Still worse that way.

—You got hit then too, machine-gunned through both legs, slow tick-tick-tick-tick-tick, and shell fragments in your back, but you brought Frank in carrying him on your back, and he was dead.


—Raved around telling them what you had done.

—I killed my brother.

—Came to a hospital.


—Only it wasn’t your brother and you hadn’t killed him; there was no wooden mallet!

Yes there is!

—Where in God’s name would you find a wooden mallet on the battlefield in Korea where countless men saw what happened, saw this man killed by enemy machine-gun fire while he was being hauled and carried by you, killed by the same gun that got you in the legs because he melted the soap carvings. . . .

Prescott had said nothing.

I tried to control my heart and breathing. They were very rapid. Perspiration brightened the backs of my hands. I didn’t brush it away because Prescott would notice.

His voice was quite calm. “I swear you still believe you killed him. With that damned wooden mallet. And you dream it all the time. Only now it is your brother.

I stared at the floor. “I don’t believe it anymore.”

“All right.” He sighed. He didn’t believe me, either. “Because of hate. You hated each other all your lives. Because you want to be a sculptor; you are now. But then you had these prize-winning soap carvings on the shelf in your room. Six years old. You came home from school and Frank had melted them down in a pail. He was pouring the melted soap over the shelf. Kids. And he said—”

“Not that alone, Doc. We fought all through childhood. I still hate his guts.”

“All right. The thieving, the lies. You tried to kill him time after time when you were kids. Malarky. But he didn’t stop. But not to kill him, Eric. There’s no reason for that. Even thinking you had—out there. Dreaming it all the time—with a wooden mallet.”

“It’s a wooden mallet I use when I work with stone. With a chisel. It’s hanging on a rack back home right now.”

“And for a time you went after people. Fought with them. You go berserk, Eric. Probably a defensive attitude of some kind stemming from the obsession.” Again he sighed. “It’ll be a good while before you lose that damned dream. “

“It’s all right.”

“We wouldn’t let you go if we didn’t think it was all right. It was a dream on the battlefield, Eric. Battle fatigue—could happen to anyone. The recurrence of the dream is because you still feel yourself guilty, dream or not, and not only of the dream, either. You hate your brother. But not enough to kill him. It frightens you, back there someplace in your mind. Until that part of you is convinced it’s a dream, that the man was machine-gunned by an enemy apart from you—until that time, Eric, you’ll continue to dream and go through your own particular hell. Because you could never kill him.”

Some fiend played havoc with the banjo strings. My jaws ached from being clamped together so tightly.

“Permit me, Eric. It could be you’re the son-of-a-bitch.” Prescott colored slightly. “You have all, he had nothing. Yet you slaughter him in your dreams. Guilt, Eric. Damn it, we can’t do anything more. Unless you want to live here for a few years. You’re oriented. The dreams wearing itself out, as you say.” He paused, breathed deeply. “Just that you’re a little crazier in a more positive way than I am, or anybody else.” He lifted his hands, dropped them to the desk, stared at them. Then he slowly raised his eyes beneath his brows and watched me. “You sure there’s nothing new?”

“Nothing.” My voice was hoarse.

“You’ll be seeing Frank before long.”

I didn’t say anything.

“You’re leaving here. That means there’s nobody to grab you if you go after somebody.”

I’d always felt he exaggerated this. If I went after somebody—as he put it—it would be because they needed just that. Maybe I’d got out of hand in the past, but that was finished.

“I’ve said too much and said it wrong, maybe. But you’ll have to take more than this. You’re intelligent enough. You’ll have times of mental depression. Ups and downs—normal to everyone but you. You’ll imagine they’re something else. Ride it through. Battle fatigue is just a name that covers countless variations from a specific norm. It can be tough.”


“You going ahead with the sculpturing?”

“Yeah. It’s all I ever really wanted.”

“You’re going home to a pile of money.”

“Well, there’s the business, a loan business. It’s worth close to a half million right now. Frank’s running it for the time being. God knows how. That’s supposed to be split between the two of us when mother dies.” I hesitated. “Then there’s more money, inheritance, that comes to me when she dies. My father’s will.”

“Frank’s out of that?”

“Yes. But I want to get to work, Doc. I want that business so I can get straightened out. It’ll give me the money and time for my sculpturing. Maybe eventually—”

“Never heard from your mother?”

I shook my head. “I told Frank in a letter I was leaving California, heading for home.”

“I talked with Frank on the phone, Eric.”

I went in tight all over, forced myself to relax. But Prescott noticed. He noticed every damned thing.

“I haven’t told him anything about what you’ve been through; it didn’t involve him. That’s for you to work out. Not the first time I’ve talked with him. He doesn’t know what you dream, only that you do. Your mother’s very ill. Sorry. It’s her heart, as you know.”

I was wearing a light tan suit. It was getting hot. A fly lit on my left sleeve. I flicked him off, watched him buzz in an angry circle.

“You’re driving home?”

I nodded. “Bought a car. Going into L.A for it this afternoon.”

The fly pulled a vertical bank and if he’d had machine guns he could have strafed Prescott’s skull neatly. Prescott reached out with that irritating calmness of his and plucked the fly from mid-air. He thoughtfully squashed it inside his fist, dropped it into the waste basket.

“Leda Thayer—”

“Driving back with me, Doc. She’s through nursing; her hitch is up.”

“Yes. Going to marry?”

“Soon as I see—get things straightened out.”

He sighed again. “She’s a good nurse. Make a good wife. Knows what to expect. Fine girl.” He paused, then said, “You know she planned to make Army nursing her career?”

I hadn’t known. But right then all that mattered was getting out of there. I didn’t want to talk with Prescott any longer, answer his questions, wonder what the hell was going on behind his eyes. I knew why he’d kept me here so long. Just to make sure old Garth was headed straight.

He rose, walked around his desk. I stood. We looked at each other. I wished to hell he hadn’t killed that fly.

“How do your legs feel?”


“You walk all right. Back bother you?”

“No—a little.”

“Still a few pieces of metal in there for you to tote around.”

“Well,” I said. “I guess this is it.”

We shook hands. “Don’t have to warn you. But stay away from the bottle. No telling what alcohol might do to you. Might start knocking people around just for the noise.” He was quite serious. He’d told me about that before.

I forced a grin to let him know nothing bothered me. Because he was trying to bother me—and succeeding. He always had to make sure. I wondered what he’d told Frank over the phone. And what Frank had said, damn him.

“If you feel like things are falling apart, take a walk. Especially if you feel like tearing anybody apart. Take it quick and take it far. I’ll always be here.” He smiled wryly. “Until I die—or until some guy like you smashes me with my desk.”

I began to like him now, after it was too late. “Well, so long, Doc. And—thanks.”

“Good luck, Eric.”

I went on out. The tenseness that had been with me in the office became worse. I stopped there in the hall, took some deep breaths. It was as if this were some kind of trial. I tried not to think they were just giving me a chance to see what I’d do, that they’d come along after me in a minute. But I couldn’t stop thinking that way. It was bad.

One of the men in the ward said there was a guy out on the sunporch who wanted to see me.

“What kind of a guy?”

“A guy! A guy. St. Peter, maybe. Just a guy!”

He was an excitable patient. I noticed Leda down at the other end of the room. She was saying goodbye to some of the men. She no longer wore the nurse’s uniform. I knew she’d put it on just for me because I liked it. I waved at her. She wrinkled her eyes and waved back.

I went on out to the sunporch. This fellow was sitting in the wicker chair by the magazine rack. He put down a copy of the Reader’s Digest and stood up as I entered.

“I’m Eric Garth. Somebody told me—”

“Well, sure. I’m from Decker’s.”


“Your car.” He stood there a moment. He was about my height, six two, but maybe a little heavier in the middle. His yellow sport shirt bulged over his belt between the flaps of a tweed jacket. He was bright-eyed and smiling too much and his hair was combed too neatly. It was brown hair and it looked as if it had been cut directly into his skull with a very fine chisel, lacquered, then buffed to a sheen. He didn’t quite know what to do with his hands. Then he seemed to remember and hauled a pad of paper from his coat pocket. “The Mercury convertible. Gun-metal color.” He cleared his throat and smiled some more.

“What about it?’

“Why—” He flapped at the air with the pad but he didn’t lose the smile. “It’s down in the drive. Mr. Decker thought it would be fine to bring it out to you.”

“Oh. I was coming in for it this afternoon.”

“Yes. Certainly.” His voice was all full of this smiling ha-ha. “Thought we’d save you the trip. Not really necessary. Just so Decker’ll know I delivered it.” He winked. “Not that he don’t trust me, y’know.”

I sighed. He pointed through the screen in the sunporch, down at the parking lot in front of the hospital. “Right there, she is. Drives like a dream, too.”

“Thanks.” I didn’t like the guy and I had kind of wanted to go pick it up myself. We shook hands.

“Well, that’s that, Mr. Garth.”

I nodded. He swallowed, turned and left. As he passed through the doorway leading into the ward, Leda brushed by him. She looked at him, frowned, then came over to me.

She was an orgy of loveliness.

“Who’s he?”

I told her. She wore a pale-green silk dress that had black streaks running through it, and it clung. Her auburn hair set fire to that green and when she moved—which she did even when she didn’t—I felt like that Roman of Nero’s time at the feast where the naked princess stepped out of the pie with a snake in her teeth.

Leda moved over to the porch screen and looked down. “I’ve seen that fellow before. He’s been hanging around out here, with someone else. Just lately.”

“Probably delivers other cars, baby.”


I went over and stood beside her. The big fellow was just coming down the outside hospital steps. He joined a smaller man and they went on down and sat on a stone bench to wait for the bus. The smaller one had carrot-colored hair and even from this distance a sharp, bright-eyed face. He was pale and middle-aged.

“We’ve got the car,” I told Leda. “There she is. Like it?”

She turned, slid her arms up around my neck. “Anything would do. I’ll run along now. You can say goodbye and meet me at my place this afternoon.”

“All right.”

“I love you so damned much,” she said. “Because you’re going to be a great sculptor and because you’re just a little nutty. And, of course, you’re going to be very, very rich.” She hesitated. “Eric, why don’t we get married here before we leave? Then we wouldn’t have to hide. . . .”

“We don’t hide,” I said. “You know that. Make believe. It’s all right this way, for now. We’ll be married as soon as we get home.” I didn’t tell her I couldn’t take the chance until I knew more about myself. I wanted her as my wife but we’d have to wait for a while.

She poked the fingers of her right hand under my belt, twiddled them. “All right.”

I laughed, pulled her close. For a moment she was quite still. “This way,” I told her, “you’ll be able to make sure I get all that dough.”

Her body moved against me and she wasn’t breathing. Then she did breathe. Right up against my throat. Hot breath and warm, damp lips. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, that’s right.”

A psycho case back in the ward cursed monotonously, then screamed with laughter.