the eighty-eighth key
James Parish, MD hardly ever made it to Saigon anymore, not since his little epiphany, anyway.
Which came one night a few months after Tet, and not long after Callahan was sent packing.
It had been a rough night, with non-stop casualties arriving every fifteen minutes from C-Med’s three forward aid stations. They’d been taking sustained fire all afternoon and into the evening, and yet the operational tempo just kept getting faster and faster. He’d been on his feet in the OR for so many hours he’d lost count, and he knew he had it bad when he went out expecting to find the noonday sun only to find it was well past midnight.
Then real fighting flared-up around Hué City, and soon all the helicopters headed to Phu Bai began diverting to C-Med; before long the parade of Hueys became a nonstop torrent as word of a new offensive reached Parish and the other surgeons huddled in the OR.
Then C-Med began taking fire.
Mortar rounds at first, then a first human wave going for the wire.
More mortar rounds, one just outside the main OR tent, hit inside the perimeter – then something larger than a Huey came in low overhead and the tent started to come apart at the seams – just as more rounds hit and the dirt from each new explosion began raining down on both the surgeons and their patients. Generators went offline and medics were holding flashlights over open chests, and Parish – then desperately trying to resection a perforated bowel – just felt the concussive heat of an explosion milliseconds before the blast-wave hit.
He was thrown across the OR and landed in a heap of something wet, but it was pitch black now – whenever now was – and then he realized he had absolutely no idea when or where ‘now’ was…
Someone tripped and fell on top of him – which is probably what saved his life. Several Viet Cong stormed inside the tent just then and lay down a continuous barrage of fire, killing most of the doctors and all of the wounded inside…just before the noise level went up even more as several jets arced in, dropping napalm just outside the perimeter…providing cover for dozens of helicopters arriving to offload reinforcements.
When help finally got to what was left of the OR, Parish was found face down in an open belly, pinned under an overturned operating table, yet he was alive. Barely, he thought, because his ears were ringing and that had to be a good thing.
He’d been hit in both thighs and lost a lot of blood, but all he was aware of was someone swabbing his arm then starting an IV – before he realized he was in a Huey, before he faded away inside an impossible new world.
When he opened his eyes, he saw the Constellation out an open door and watched the Huey flare over the stern of the carrier – then he winced after the helicopter came down hard. More hands lifted his gurney and he could feel the heavy sea air washing over his soul – and just as suddenly he knew he was going to die…
‘What a waste,’ he thought. ‘All the things I could’ve done, the people I could’ve helped…’
He squinted as corpsmen muscled him through a hatch and then around densely-arrayed medical equipment, and he swallowed hard when he saw the huge domed surgical lights suspended from the ceiling.
“He’s one of the docs from C-Med,” he heard someone say. “A surgeon, I think. Heard he was in the main tent.”
“Jesus…” another disembodied voice said: “He’s lucky to be with us tonight.”
Then he saw a masked man leaning over, shining a light in his eyes. “Got a bleeder in your thigh, doc. We’ll patch you up and get you on your way…”
“So…this is it,” Jim Parish thought. “This is what it feels like to die.”
His eyes closed and that was that.
“So, you’re Callahan,” the woman stated matter-of-factly. “Heard you had a pretty fucked-up afternoon.”
Harry, trailing Frank and Cathy, had just walked up to Captain Bennett to stand behind the coals – and to postpone the inevitable for as long as possible – when Stacy Bennett sidled over to the brick grill.
“Yup,” Harry said as leaned over and plucked an ice-cold Oly from the open tub of ice. “And who might you be?”
“Harry, say hello to Stacy. She’s visiting for a few weeks, so try not to scare her too much, okay?”
Callahan blinked twice and scrunched-up his nose while he held out his right hand. “Howdy,” he managed to say, but he was still scoping her out, trying to get a bead on her…and trying not to let his first impressions run away screaming into the night…
“So,” she began – apparently wanting to dive right into the deep-end, “Sam tells me you nailed that Scorpio fucker today?”
Callahan nodded before he took a long pull from the beer, and then he tried – unsuccessfully – to stifle a huge burp.
Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at Callahan, who turned away – red-faced.
“Hey, bring it up again and we’ll vote on it…” Stacy said, grinning. “That was really impressive. Do that on all your first dates?”
The word ‘date’ registered and Harry turned – wide-eyed – and looked at Captain Bennett.
Who grinned and shrugged, kind of all at the same time, before looking away and turning a steak on the grill.
Harry was beginning to think this girl was into sports, like maybe she played linebacker for the Bears or the Packers, but he still hadn’t figured her out yet – and that bothered him. Too many mixed signals, he thought, so he reached into the tub of ice and plucked out a longneck and handed it to her.
“Your turn,” Callahan said, inexplicably throwing down a gauntlet.
She popped the cap with practiced ease and took the entire contents down in one go, then she leaned back a little and shook her head before letting it rip…
The Bennett’s dog stopped dead in its tracks – the hair on the back of its neck standing on end – then the pup inched away from the eruption before finally turning and running into the house.
“Holy shit, Stacy,” a stunned Captain Bennett muttered under his breath, “they heard that one over in Oakland…”
Callahan nodded in approval, then watched as she reached into the tub and handed him another bottle. He looked at Bennett – who was shaking his head and trying not to smile – then noticed Frank had just walked over with one of Bennett’s boys in-tow.
He popped the top and guzzled it down, then pinched off his nose and hopped up and down a few times before letting his chin drop low, then…
…he opened his mouth just a little and let it begin…
It started as kind of a high-pitched tearing sound before Callahan formed a wider ‘O’ shape with his mouth, and this modulated the magmatic rumble somewhat – before the main thrust burst across the back yard.
Neighbors stopped what they were doing in their backyards and looked up at the sky.
“Way to go, Callahan,” Frank beamed. “That sounded just like a sewer main breaking in half.”
“Smells like it, too,” Captain Bennett growled, still shaking his head.
“So?” Callahan said, looking Stacy Bennett right in the eye. “You concede, or do we continue?”
“Uh, Harry,” Frank said, coming to his side and taking him in-tow by the elbow, frog-marching him to the sidelines. “Look man, you gotta watch what you’re doin’ here. You get three or four beers in that broad and you ain’t gonna know what hit you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, man, just don’t do it… You’re playin’ with fire…know what I mean?”
“Uh, no…I don’t.”
Bullitt shook his head. “Okay man, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
When they got back to the grill Stacy was downing number three – and Bullitt looked-on in wide-eyed alarm as she started hopping across the yard on one leg…then she leaned back to prime the pump…
…and fell backwards onto the lawn, laughing all the way down – with a stream of beer flying out her nose…
Dinner was more of the same, if a little more sedate, until Bennett’s son asked if anyone had seen the new Mel Brooks movie that had been out a few weeks. “It’s called Blazing Saddles, and it’s got the funniest scene ever,” he said.
“Oh?” Captain Bennett looked up, wondering what the punch-line was.
“Yeah, a bunch of cowboys sitting around a campfire eating beans, then one by one they all start farting. It’s like the biggest, loudest farting contest of all time…”
Captain Bennett’s face turned ice white, then he saw Stacy scorching around in her chair, getting ready to lift a cheek…
“Stacy!” Bennett roared. “Don’t you do it! Not in my house…”
But of course, he spoke too late.
He woke some time later in a sun-bathed, wind-swept room, tall palms swaying in a gentle breeze just beyond a wall of tall windows. He looked around the large room, trying to make sense of his surroundings – until he figured it all out and a stream of unwanted memory came crashing down, swamping his soul.
‘This is a post-op floor,’ he said under his breath as his eyes swept the familiar contours of a military hospital ward, then he remembered someone on the Constellation saying he’d be moved to Hawaii…
“So here I am.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
He turned to the unseen voice, saw half a man propped-up on a hospital bed, the not-yet-healed stumps where both his legs had been amputated in full view – and in a flash of dread he reached down and felt for his own…
‘Still there,’ he sighed as he turned to his roommate. “How long have I been here?”
“They brought you in last night, from Subic…I think.”
He felt for the catheter he knew must be there and just as quickly he wanted to talk to somebody, anybody, about his wounds and the proposed treatment plan…but most everyone in the ward was asleep and he couldn’t see a nurse or any other attendant on duty. “Anyone working the floor?” he asked his neighbor.
He saw the scorn behind the man’s derisive laugh and knew the score. After Tet, and especially after Mÿ Lai, recruitment had fallen off a cliff – and now almost all medical staff had to be drafted – or otherwise induced to serve. He shook his head, because all he could think about was getting back to C-Med, to his responsibilities and duties there.
An orderly walked by a few minutes later and Parish asked the kid to stop – but he walked on by without even looking his way. A few minutes later the kid returned and a seething Parish barked a command to the kid…who skidded to a stop this time.
“Private, I’m Captain James Parish,” he yelled, “United States Army Medical Corp, and I need to see the physician in charge of this ward –– and right this fucking minute. Do I make myself clear?”
The kid scoffed as he shook his head on the way off the floor, and Parish’s neighbor leaned-back and sighed. “Man, you better just sit back and enjoy the ride ‘cause your regular army rules don’t work in this place. B’sides, you a short timer, so might as well just lay back and chill.”
“What do you mean, ‘short-timer?’”
“This a Navy hospital, Cap. They sending you someplace stateside.”
A minute or so later a Navy ensign walked onto the floor and over to Parish, looking over a chart as he came. The ensign looked up as he stopped by Parish’s side, but the man looked more than a little angry. “What’s on your mind, Captain?”
“I’d like to know my condition and, if you don’t mind, anything else you can tell me about what’s going on would be appreciated.”
By this point all eyes in the ward were on Parish, even the kids on morphine had propped themselves up to take a look at this new floor-show…
“So, you want me to read out your labs, maybe? Like you’d know what the fuck I’m talking about…”
The ensign laughed at that. “Yeah? And where’d you get your fuckin’ MD?”
The ensign stiffened a little: “Excuse me?”
“You asked where I got my MD. Stanford University. I did my internship at Mass General and had just finished the second year of my residency in thoracic surgery when I got my invitation to this little party.”
“You’re a physician,” the ensign said.
“Oh, you’re a smart one,” Parish barked. “You’ll go far in this world. Now, would you let me have a look at my chart, or do I need to call my father? Oh, by the way, he’s chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, if that helps.”
The ensign blanched as he handed the clipboard over, and he watched as Parish flipped through the surgical notes and his post-op records.
“Let me take a look at the wound,” he said when he’d finished reading and had just looked up at the ensign.
As the ensign bent over and pulled away the gauze the smell hit them both; Parish already knew what he’d find but the red streaks running up his thigh and into his groin startled him nonetheless.
“Could I use your pen, please,” Parish asked, then he started by writing down the names of all the soil microbes he’d been exposed to at C-Med – and how to treat them. “I’d recommend you start treating by…”
And by the time the ensign left the floor Parish felt like he’d just taught a quick course in tropical medicine – but suddenly he noticed all the kids on the floor were looking at him. A few were smiling, but for the most part the rest looked scared as hell – because the doc taking care of them apparently didn’t know jack – and just as suddenly Parish knew he was responsible for their fear.
The ensign returned with a couple of nurses a few minutes later and began hanging bags on his IV tree, then the ensign surprised the hell out of him – and everyone else in the room:
“If we can get you into a chair, could you help me with rounds?”
Parish crawled back into his bed ten hours later.
Callahan sat up in bed and yawned, then he stood and made his way to the can…
His eyes were lost somewhere between dead and half-shut, so he thought about making coffee – until he heard someone snoring…
…and all in a rush he remembered taking shots of tequila – an impossible number of them – with Frank and Cathy.
And – Stacy Bennett?
He spun around and looked at the inert mass in his bed, then down at his dick…
“How could you do this to me, you asshole?” he said to his now flaccid member.
“Hey man,” his dick replied, “I just go where the driver points the car, ya know?”
“But…but…how COULD you?”
“Look Dude, I got some hot 4-1-1 for you, but they all feel alike to me. You got that?”
Callahan shook his head and jumped into the shower, wondering what the etiquette was in a situation like this…as the scalding hot water beat down on his traitorous…
But then he heard someone sitting on the pot, a tequila-soaked stream blasting the bowl before the inevitable flush. Then the curtain parted ways and Stacy Bennett stepped into the shower with him…and his first instinct was to run. To run like hell.
She was almost his height and he guessed she had ten pounds on him, then he remembered her sitting on his face and he wanted to recalibrate this thinking, maybe work on that number a little…
Then, with a bar of soap in hand, she began washing his sodden dick – and against his wishes he felt the thing stiffening in the breeze…
“What are you doing, Peckerhead!” he screamed at his dick.
“Hey Amigo, mi casa es su casa…know what I mean?”
Callahan closed his eyes, tried to remember Mr Kohl’s Algebra II class and how to work through quadratic equations – backwards – but it was no use…
“You worthless prick!” Callahan screamed at his dick. “What the fuck…?!”
Then she was on her knees, taking him in her mouth; violent swirls led to buckling knees and just as surely as one thing leads to another and faster than you can say ‘Jimmie-crack-corn…’ she was hitting the short-strokes and Callahan was clawing at the shower walls…
She stood a moment later and smiled at him, her mouth a spume-filled chasm that defied further description, and then he realized she was moving-in to kiss him…
The shower curtain-rod exploded into a million pieces as he fell out of the bathroom, but then he realized he was naked and didn’t even know where to run…
“I come across like that,” Stacy said, her eyes still red from crying, “and I guess because I grew up in a house full of cops.”
“Look, I’m sorry about…”
“Harry, you don’t have to apologize. I know I’m not Twiggy, but dammit-all, I like men. I like being with men, spending time like we did last night…”
“Look, about last night…”
“Harry, stop it. It’s not like I expect you to propose, so just calm down…would you?”
He nodded, but even so he was finding it hard to look her in the eye.
“Anyway, I liked last night. Not the sex – which was great, by the way – but just shootin’ the shit with you guys. Even Cathy was fun to be with…”
“She’s having a hard time with Frank and the whole police thing,” Harry added.
“Not as hard as you might think, Harry. Besides, she loves Frank about as much as one person can love another, so I wouldn’t worry too much about them.”
“You’ve known them for a while, haven’t you?”
She nodded. “Yeah. He was one of Sam’s first recruits to work homicide. He rebuilt the whole division around Frank after the whole Fanducci and Dietrich thing…”
Callahan looked down at his hands and shook his head…
“No one blames you, Harry. Especially not Sam. But ya know, he’s got a lot riding on you guys. Dell and Carl, Early and even some of the old hands like Frank DiGiorgio. He’s building a team around you guys.”
“Pardon me for saying so, but you seem to know an awful lot about the department. How so?”
She looked away for a while, then turned and looked Callahan in the eye. “I help Sam with stuff.”
“Look Harry, I really like you, ya know? I don’t want anything to get between us, if you know what I mean.”
Callahan shrugged. “No, I’m not sure I do.”
“I come to the City a couple of times a year to see the boys, usually Christmas and Thanksgiving. I wouldn’t mind seeing you too, ya know?”
He was studying her as she spoke, her eyes for the most part. Deep brown with little green flecks here and there; she had strong eyes, a strong face. Character, he thought. Even her hair – deep brown with a few silver streaks just showing up – somehow seemed intrinsically honest…then it hit him…
“Are you a cop?” he asked, and he watched her turn away again. ‘Bingo,’ he said to himself.
Then she turned to face him again, but now she looked defeated.
“So? What department do you work for?”
“I work in Boston.”
“Boston PD? That’s cool…” But he stopped talking when she shook her head.
“I work for the FBI, Harry. I’m the assistant SAC – in Boston.”
“So that’s it, huh? No more Harry Callahan, I guess,” she said as she reached for her purse…
But Callahan put his hand out and covered hers. “I didn’t say that.”
“No, you didn’t.”
They looked at one another, each afraid to break the spell, each afraid of their past, afraid for all the right reasons, but Harry kept looking into her eyes, and the more he looked the more he liked what he felt.
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | and thanks for reading…
[note: I typically don’t put all a story’s acknowledgements until I’ve finished, if only because I’m not sure how many I’ll need until the work is finalized. Yet with the current circumstances that might not be the best way to proceed, and I’d hate to have this story stop ‘unexpectedly’ without some mention of these folks. Of course, the source material in this case – so far, at least – derives from two Hollywood films: Dirty Harry and Bullitt. The first Harry film was penned by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius, Terrence Malick, and Jo Heims. Bullitt came primarily from the author of The Thomas Crown Affair, Alan R Trustman, with help from Harry Kleiner, as well as Robert L Fish, whose short story Mute Witness formed the basis of Trustman’s screenplay.]