Even at this time of night, the stilt-tottering structure of Big Crawdaddy's Shrimp-House, its corrugated walls and roof rusting away into the swamp, was always packed out with the lowest of the low, be that in income or in morals.
"The Lowest Hole in the South"... at least Big Crawdaddy's wore that nickname with a certain ironic pride; it never really seemed to effect business overly much, so yeah. It was cool with them. And the punters, be they huddled under the trophy fish and grungy life rings plastering every wall or crammed together with roars of laughter on the balcony, took their seedy reputation as a badge of honour.
These crowds... this constantly cricket-shrilling summer... what with all the noise, it's no wonder that no one paid attention to the two guys huddling at their grimy little table, separated only by a sluggishly flickering candle in a bottle.
'So...' The older guy, a real ancient, croaked and wrung his gnarly hands with the same methodicalness that'd defined the last seventy-something years of his life. '... Did they shoot you or what?'
All his young friend could do was shake his bowed head, biting back a sigh of... of... frustration. Confusion. Rage.
'I think you know the answer to that,' the young guy groaned. 'It's not fair.'
'Life's not. Sad but true. Besides; they were only shooting a commercial, boy. So, you didn't get in? So what?'
'Oh, you know exactly what, man! I applied for the role with, like, three recommendations! I kicked that obstacle course's ass! I can fire a fricking gun! Everyone in the base would tell you that I pull my weight, that I deserve this chance. But no, no! I go to the Commander. I shake his hand, look him dead in the eye and say "Sir, for the recruiting commercial, I believe that I would make the most appropriate face of our base…".'
'Fair enough.' The old man shrugged. 'Folks tell me you're a good soldier.'
The younger guy ignored the compliment. 'I handed the Commander the Sargent’s recommendations, all written down properly... he read them, smirking the whole time under that grey crewcut of his. And then... he threw those recommendations over his shoulder.'
For a second, silence fell over the table.
'He what, boy?'
‘You heard me; he tossed them. And then, like he’d planned it all along, like he was making a point, he pointed at this mop and pail in the corner and was like “that’s a more accurate depiction of how someone like you can be of service round here, and to your country”. He… he wanted me to be a janitor! A frigging glorified janitor to be the face of everyone like us! And you know why, don’t you? Yeah! It’s because I’m black! No other reason! He tried the whole kindly grandfather act, like the role of scrubbing the floors was actually upstanding or something. But is that how my folks, my two new babies…’
‘By the way, congratulations for that.’
‘Thanks. But seriously, is that how they wanna see their daddy; their role model? It’s humiliating to my family, it’s humiliating to my race... it’s injustice! I was ready to… to… I don’t say this lightly; you know me. But I sure as hell was ready to pull my pistol on the Commander and put an end to him holding anyone back anymore! He’s done it again and again, and he’ll never stop until…’
‘Hmmm.’ the older man sucked at his lower lip, pondering all these awful revelations. ‘You quite sure of that?’
‘I’m telling you, he…’
‘You’d be surprised, son. Even the lowest of the low can be raised back up to the straight and narrow. Even all those hicks and conservatives… if they don’t change, they’ll get what’s coming to them, someday.’
‘How can you be sure?’ the younger guy fired back. ‘We need action now! Someone needs to get a gun and blow that sonofabitch’s head off his shoulders, or worse!’
‘Patience. Look… I know this because I’ve seen it. It isn’t just some kinda fable… it’s a legend. What I’m about to tell you is a story folks of my vintage barely dare to breathe…’
‘Well…’ For a second, the old man carefully weighed his words, almost like he was quaffing the taste of them. Between those rowdy punters and the crickets, the silence filled up fast.
But then… the old man leaned in, conspiratorially close.
‘Look, boy… did anyone ever tell you the tale of Bill Blackened?’
‘Nope. No one.’
‘That’s no surprise to me. Folks get cagey about Bill; even now, years after the fact, his name’s tambu amongst my generation. That is, if you could call Bill “he”. “It” might be more appropriate, for such a spirit.’
‘Once upon a time, in one of those little towns not too far upriver from these parts, there was a guy going by the name of Bill Hatfield. Man… I’ll never forget him. He was the county sheriff for a long time, and a mighty talented one at that. A man of the greatest charisma, that’s what he was; with his golden mane and sideburn-moustaches, loping along with that six-gun of his, he was for all the world like a lion… and, just like a lion, Bill was a pack animal. The demon drink no doubt didn’t help matters; he was always treating his posse with bourbon, raising a toast so loudly that the whole bar had to join in; sometimes they drank in this very establishment.’ The old man shuddered deeply. ‘For anyone in that little posse, his pride, Bill would’ve taken a bullet to the head. But as for anyone else, and that meant anyone, who might pose a threat to his boys? He… well… he’d do anything to put the “threats” in their place. Harassment. Damage to property. Humiliation. Beatings…’
‘Whoa-whoa-whoa! Wait up! Beatings?’
‘Sad but true. Basically, Bill was a man who saw in black and white, in “justice” and “injustice”. You know, “black and white” seems appropriate here, because the people he hated most? Well… I’m sure you can guess, given what happened to you. Just like your commander, Bill Hatfield had a deep, deep loathing for black people. The bitterness of his fury went far beyond those day’s inherent racism, I think something happened in his past… but anyway! That’s just some folks’ speculation. What’s known for a fact is that Bill’s natural viciousness was made even worse by any interaction with a black person. Bartenders… mechanics… general-store workers… they all felt the lash of his sneering tongue, or the sting of his palm. One time, he dragged a bartender I knew over the counter by his ear, tearing it halfway off, just for saying one of Bill’s posse had drunk quite enough for one night. So you see… to some, he was the watchdog of our county, a man of action who took even the slightest injustice by the throat. To many, many others… the people he put in cuffs for “wasting police time” because they’d looked at him… the people whose houses he threw stones at, breaking windows for weeks on end… that man was a monster. An unstoppable, unkillable monster of the worst kind. Me and my friends… we always used to say that if the bogeyman were to look under his bed, Bill Hatfield’s snarling face would be looking right back at him. And that’s when the first murder happened.’
‘I… how…’ The younger man’s voice quivered so deeply that his old friend poured him another drink, without a word.
‘The local mechanic was a friend of mine; a good man. He was a real ancient, though, so some of his faculties weren’t quite there. Actually, he was quite demented, but that just added to his abrupt charm. What it also meant was that even the simplest repair jobs could take hours; he couldn’t remember where he’d put the tools he’d placed just five minutes earlier, and he had a very specific route in which he searched for them. It drove Bill mad. Insane. Year after year this went on, Bill glaring cross-armed while the mechanic took his sweet time; quite deliberately I suspect… he’d stand up to just about anyone. That was the death of him, you know. One day, while Bill’s pickup was getting all fixed up, a murder happened a half-hour drive away, the murder of one of his posse’s children. It broke Bill’s spirit; he thought he’d failed his friends and his county, letting that killer get away… so he pointed the finger at the mechanic.’
'He’d have taken any excuse for retribution against my friend, I think. So he kicked through the garage door, cuffs in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other, and roared that the mechanic was under arrest for wasting police time and allowing the escape of a murderer. My old friend wasn’t having any of it; he must’ve muttered one of those savage roasts he always had stored up, because later that day his body was found… folks could barely recognise him when they dragged him out; his face… it was mush; a glop of red mush and teeth and sickly yellow bone, face down in a broken bottle slick with blood. Many of us were shocked that a dead body had so much blood in it. But the real shock?’
The old man’s voice cracked like dry grass underfoot as he leaned in closer still. ‘The real shock was, the mechanic’s hands were still cuffed tight behind his back. Bill saw nothing to fear from that, the knowledge that he’d killed a man he regarded as worthless. It was such a chilling message that, though I was very young when I saw it, nothing but death will erase the sense of damnation I felt that day.’
‘Was that man black too?’
‘Almost all of us were, round those parts.’
‘But… but… what did y’all do about it? About Bill? Couldn’t you call the law down on him?’
‘Boy, Bill was the law, round those parts. If capital punishment sated that greed for revenge of his, then capital punishment it was. So no; the law wasn’t an option. Instead… the townsfolk filed into the courthouse at one in the morning, a little posse of our own while the sheriff slept soundly in savage, untouchable satisfaction. The mood was… there was this sense of rising desperation, a kind of contagious, hysterical dread. The people Bill had loathed and harassed for year after year were deeply, deeply afraid. What if this set a new precedent? What if, like some kind of man-eating bear, he’d acquired a taste for blood? What if someone here was next on that long, long list of people he now knew he could kill without retribution? Some of those folks… the odds of them lasting another week, or even a day, were very small indeed; the screaming and sobbing of men, women and children doomed to die was like a physical pain in my gut. All this because we were black. All this not because of our characters or deeds, but something we couldn’t even help. Those cries… hearing that, I knew then how Hell itself would feel, all those wretched souls clamouring and begging and retching for a salvation that simply would not come. At least, a salvation that wouldn’t come from the law. That’s why our posse, in the light of the old courthouse candles, became judge, jury and executioner.’
The older guy wrung the neck of his bottle in leathery, shaking hands, and his voice softened down to a horrified barely-croak.
‘A plan was quickly haggled out; it was quick, effective… and deeply poetic. Justice. True justice. We left the courthouse, silently gathered up what we needed and made for a particular belt of woods deep in the swamp; there was a clearing in those trees, a place of rank grass and rusted out trucks that no one, and I mean no one, would hear a man scream. One of our posse stayed back in town; he rang up Bill, his voice shaking, claiming he’d spotted that day’s murderer camped out in the clearing. It was a place the local teens would sometimes stay the night in, as a dare, so Bill bought the story no questions asked. The thing was, as he rushed to investigate, he never got that what he’d taken as terror in the man on the phone’s voice was anticipation, the savage anticipation we all felt as we hid around the edges of the clearing, like an open mantrap yet to be sprung. This was our chance, our only chance, to show Bill Hatfield how deeply he’d wronged his county… how deeply he’d wronged us.’
‘How did you do that?’
‘Let’s just say that by the time we were done with him, Bill wouldn’t feel anything but sympathy for us… sympathy and pain. We waited like coiled springs in our many hiding places, shushing each other intermittently, staring down that one pathway into the clearing through the swamp. And then… there! A flashlight! A cursing, muttering voice! Bill marched right out into the open, expecting to catch his murderer… but all he saw was a lonely oil-drum filled with thick, steaming tar. In the second he stood there, his sneer giving way to a furious confusion, we had him. Slowly, silently, we filed out into that dark clearing, surrounding the tormentor who stood with slowly dawning dread before the barrel like a sacrificial lamb before an altar. Panicking, he tried to barrel back to the path, but our biggest boys had been stationed there; they caught him, throwing him right down to the ground. He struggled… how he struggled, hurling punches, roaring from his gut that that he would kill us… he swore to kill us all. But he couldn’t break free of our stranglehold. The boys restraining him and the women and children like myself watching on… we all began screaming as one right over top of him; we called him out on everything he’d put us through. We spat our fears and traumas and humiliations back in his face, screaming that we were just like him… and we proved it to him. Good God we proved it, an undisputed proof.’
The old man’s eyes spilled over with silent tears, tears of trauma and pride mixed together. ‘Now Bill’s energy was flagging; he wheezed that even a blind man would tell you that black men were nothing like him. That’s when we fell silent, and some of the boys pulled out their knives. They were farm boys, you know. Hog farmers. Skinning a hog was second nature to them… but skinning a man, until he was no longer white? That was a far longer, far messier business…’
The implication of these trailed-off words hung between the two men, each as silently sickened as the other. Sickened by what? The deed itself? Or maybe what would’ve happened if such measures hadn’t been taken?
‘Dear lord,’ the old man croaked, crossing himself. ‘What I saw that night… the red, raw creature curled up on the ground, gurgling bloody tears into the discarded strips of his own face… that nightmare didn’t last long, though, because that’s when we gave him the gift of understanding.’
‘Yes, son. We gave him a new skin to live in… our skin. Watching the boys dip the creature that had once been Bill in that barrel… the godawful smell that steamed up off him… if he could’ve screamed with his head beneath the surface, I’m sure the sound would’ve haunted me right up to this day, just like the sight of it. Anyway! He was a black man when we tipped the barrel up; a pitch-black man. And there we left him splayed on the ground, gargling for air, to think about everything he’d done to folks just like himself.’
‘What… what happened to him?’
‘That night, Bill Hatfield died… at least, the man we once knew did. The stories differ a little at this point as to what really happened, but most agree on one thing. The creature was close to death, very close. Skinned… burned… encased in a jet-black skin… only that leonine strength of his pulled him through the night and dragged him out onto the nearest road; even then, he’d surely have been vulture food if not for the oldest and wisest of us all, round those parts. Her name was Mama Sidibe. She must’ve been a hundred at the very least, a bald, rail thin creature covered in folds of leathery skin. As kind as she was, she was still a mystery to us; we kids back then used to dream up all kinds of back stories for her. She was everything from the last runaway slave to a Voodoo Queen in exile. She lived too far out of town, and also too mute with age, to contradict these wild tales. I suspect she rather enjoyed them, for her eyes always had a silent glimmer of good humour in them. And so, the next day, as Mama Sidibe took her little horse and trap into town, she stumbled across that wretched, blackened creature sprawled on the road. We know she loaded him into her trap and took him home, but after that? Again, the tales vary wildly. Some swear blind she revived that barely living corpse with the arcane magics of her ancestors, increasing his strength and senses tenfold, and teaching him all the secret plants and animals of the swamp. Others believe she merely gave him a bed and cool water for his skin, and as much food as her little farm could produce. The only magic she performed was an act of simple kindness. Whatever the case, Mama Sidibe had spared the life of that once-damned creature; more than that, she’d shown him every kindness imaginable, as well as effectively bringing him back to life. That’s got to be why a fundamental change took place deep down inside him.’
‘So he wasn’t dead?’
‘Bill Hatfield was long dead and gone by that time, boy. But his physical vessel… one way or another, it was filled up by something else. Something. Not human, but definitely not animal. The thing is, when the authorities learned of Bill’s disappearance, they came down hard on our town. They came down hard on us. They full well knew his atrocities, but the way the areas’ crime statistics had been crushed beneath his heel? To the politicians and police and all, Bill was a legend, and legends need to be avenged. What followed was the biggest investigation by the police in the history of the state, at that time, and by investigation, I mean police brutality. It was obvious to them that most of the town had loathed Bill, so they suspected a group effort on our part… so they made our lives as much a misery as they could. Curfews… trespassing… gangs of officers trying to beat a confession out of someone, anyone, so they could sate their craving for justice… it seemed to us, in those dark, dark weeks, that we’d achieved absolutely nothing. But we were wrong. Dead wrong.’
As he leaned back into that grimy wicker chair, the elder of the two friends no longer spoke in sickened horror. Now? This voice, low and rumbling… the was the sound of the most devastatingly serious respect.
‘It first happened two months after Bill’s death. The police had slowly whittled down a list of people they’d pushed to breaking point, people they thought would confess to Bill’s murder with just a little more torture. And so, one night, at the bar of this very establishment, they laid their hands on the man who’d made that phone call to Bill’s office. I wasn’t there that night, but several of my friends could tell you to this day what went down. Right there, in front of everyone, those three cops picked a fight with our man, an excuse for them to get out their nightsticks and beat him raw. The punters were screaming at them to stop, begging even, but did they listen? Only one thing was going to stop the torture, and that was a confession… or so they’d thought. What really stopped them was… well… it came out of nowhere. Perhaps it’d been lurking, watching, in the shadowy corners of the room this whole time. Maybe it slipped with supernatural silence through the back door. Whatever the case, the police stopped, agog, staring at the figure that drifted slowly towards them, utterly still besides the walking of its legs. They pulled their guns, but their hands shook hard enough that everyone could see the gesture was useless. People stared. They crawled beneath the tables, curling in on themselves in terror. Only two features stood out on the entity’s utterly black skin; the staring, stark white eyes, and the ferally grinning teeth painted on the creature’s black bandana. I’m sure everyone assumed this was going to be some kind of unholy revenge from their former sheriff… which was true, in a way. Just not at all how they’d thought.’
And there it was; a fundamental truth, that even the crickets seemed to go momentarily silent for.
‘That night, with bare hands and terrible silence, Bill Blackened took out those three policemen; they never stood a chance against his silent brute strength. He began his one-man war against all those who might make the mistakes that he once did. To this day, he makes up for lost time in the only way he knows, killing, fanatically protecting those he once betrayed. He roams deep in the swamps by day, sobbing over the past, unable to show his disfigured self… but then night falls, and he silently hunts down all those whose horrific reputations and vile deeds he somehow knows. He’s not a black man… he’s not a white man… he is the rawest increment of humanity. And that, son, is how I know that your Commander will change his views someday, since even a man like Bill Hatfield can change. But, if your man can’t show you respect, you can be rest assured that he’ll pay the price eventually… and that price, without fail round these parts, is a visit from that awesome, terrible creature we call Bill Blackened.’