I was working in a bar in Deadwood one summer. The town is pretty much given over to tourism being the place where Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead. It was early in the season and a slow period of the afternoon. There was a tall, well-made guy at the bar who’d been quietly nursing a beer but who was clearly sociably inclined. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I learned he was a master sergeant in the army and had some assignment to do with a big National Guard exercise in the Black Hills.
Then a couple of tourists came in. It’s not that the apparel has to be very colourful, or that they are draped with cameras. Somehow the clothes are always a tad too new and clean and people look around in a ‘what should we notice’ way. This pair was casually but nicely dressed; middle-aged I guessed, but fit looking enough without suggesting a lot of gym work. They ordered a beer each in tones that spoke of the heat outside. They were British.
After a while they fell into conversation with the army guy. It was the usual kind of conversation. I don’t pay too much attention to these things but the odd snatches suggested he had spent time with the British army in the Middle East. Whatever it was they got on well enough to have another round of beers. At some point the woman discovered she had mislaid her camera. The husband said he’d go back to the car park as she’d obviously left it there. The army guy and the woman chatted for a while and some other customers came in. Next I knew, the two of them had gone. So I guessed they’d gone to meet the husband, given the parking lot was a good ten minutes’ walk.
Not long after, the husband comes in carrying a camera. He looks round the room which has now gathered a few more clients. He comes up to the bar.
‘They left a while ago,’ I told him. He looked baffled.
‘Maybe they went to look for you,’ I suggested. He shook his head.
‘Or he took her down to the history and information center?’ The guy looked even more bewildered.
‘She wouldn’t do that,’ he said.
He left. Maybe an hour later he came back. He had a cop with him. I knew the cop. He was called Al. This was short for Alvarez.
He said, ‘This guy tells me he was in here with his wife and he left her with one of the customers and now they’re both gone?’
‘Did you see them go, like were they together?’
‘No, I didn’t see.’
‘Did they say anything to you?’
‘After Mr Peters here left, what was their demeanour?’
‘I didn’t listen in, but it seemed perfectly cordial.’
On reflection I think it could have been described as warmer than that. She – Mrs Peters I suppose – was hanging on the soldier’s every word, and doing those quick arm-touching things that women do.
‘You didn’t see or hear anything that would suggest an argument or the use of force?’
‘And Mr Peters and his wife seemed on good terms?’
Al turned to Peters.
‘I’m sorry Mr Peters but whatever is going on here there’s no reason to suppose a problem. Maybe they just went off sight-seeing.’
He looked at me for support – an unspoken ‘women eh, kind of do their whim thing’. He turned to Peters:
‘Are you staying in town?’
‘No, no, we were just here for the day’.
The poor guy was clearly coming unravelled.
Alvarez pulled out his notebook and wrote down a number.
‘Here, I suggest you check in to a place in town and – you have rooms here don’t you?’ he said to me, and continued, ‘I’ll log this in and you call when she comes back.’
He half turned away, paused and said ‘If she hasn’t turned up by tomorrow, let us know and we’ll put out a missing persons call – but it’ll be fine’. He patted Peters on the shoulder and left.
The two of us looked at each other. I think Peters was close to tears.
‘Go get your bags’ I said ‘I’ll book you a room.’
‘I can’t think what has happened’ he said.
I was due my break but I waited until he returned and showed him to his room. I told him, ‘We, that is our whole team, we’re on the alert should your wife turn up.’
It was my duty-management weekend in the bar. I saw a lot of Peters. To be fair, his distress was understandable. His wife of over twenty years had either been kidnapped or run off. The bar opened at eleven and didn’t close until two in the morning. Other than a late afternoon break I was there all the time. Luckily for me or not, at night we had a full team of bar staff. All of which meant I had Mr Peters sitting not far away at the end of the counter. He was an orderly drunk who seemed able to soak up a lot of liquor without losing the plot. I got to know a great deal about his life and marriage through that Friday night and when he came into the bar on Saturday afternoon. He had spent most of the morning wandering around Deadwood looking for his wife. He told me about their nice house in some London suburb, and the two bright children and his important job as a local government official. There was also Mrs Peters and her many virtues as a housewife and mother and her academic abilities in some field or another that could have taken her far. When he talked about her he started to cry gently and discreetly.
It turned out the military guy was called Jim. He was about to retire and had plans to run a horse ranch in Montana. There was stuff in his life that Peters himself hadn’t taken much note of but Mrs Peters had been very engaged by.
I called Alvarez on Saturday mid-afternoon and told him that Mrs P was a no-show. H e said he’d put out an APB and left a message for the National Guard colonel in charge of the exercise to see if the Master Sergeant called Jim was known to them. Mr Peters was near me when I phoned and I hoped he hadn’t heard Al say ‘I think she’s just split with the all-American hero.’ So I could only say, ‘Sure thing Al.’
It was much the same in the evening. I put a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bucket of ice, a jug of water and a bowl of salted nuts in front of him and let him work his way through it all. This he did, quietly and methodically, and about midnight fell asleep sprawled forward on the bar his head cradled on his arms. Two of us got him to his room, took off his shoes and laid him on his side on the bed. He opened his eyes briefly and said ‘let me know when she comes back’ then closed them again and started snoring.
I opened the bar at noon on Sunday. Peters had not left his room. About one o’clock, Mrs Peters walked in. She looked a little raddled – puffy round the eyes and mouth. I’d seen a lot of people like that after a fun night or two out. Her manner was a mix of apprehension and defiance. I gave her my ‘how can I help you’ look.
‘Do you remember me?’
‘Sure, you’re Mrs Peters.’
‘Do you know where my husband is by any chance?’
‘He’s in room seven’
She half sat on a barstool and put her head in her hands.
‘How is he?’
‘I think you could use a drink,” I said.
She looked up angrily at first and then nodded. ‘Sounds like a good idea’.
As I mixed a Bloody Mary, I said, ‘He was worried.’
I called Al and told him Mrs Peters was back.
‘Tourists,’ he said.
‘I don’t know how to explain it’ she said.
‘You’ll think of something.’
‘I just had the impulse.’
‘He’s been a very good husband.’
‘He seemed a decent guy to me.’
I went about my work at the bar and Mrs Peters sat, and presumably reflected on life. She finished her drink.
‘What room did you say?’
‘Seven, through the door in back of the bar, by the restrooms.’
She left, and later, I suppose, they both left. The receptionist said the couple in room seven checked out about five.
I wondered how it went for the Peters for about three seconds.
Then the bar filled and it was show time again.