Somehow I knew right away who it was.
Walking along the fire-escape side of the Bijou, I'd heard a rattling down at the basement opening and smelled some kind of chemical smoke when a skinny kid in what looked like a dirty nightshirt burst through, cussing at the splinters.
"Sut!" I shouted, as if I knew him. "Sut Lovingood!"
He seemed dazed, but then brushed off some soot and looked at me skeptically. "I see my repootashun reeks even further than the stink uv my carcass. But whar in God-damnation am I?"
"Why, this is old Knoxville, Sut," I said.
"The hell you say," he said, spitting a foul, 150-year-old plug of rabbit tobacco on the sidewalk. "Whar's the pigs?"
"I suppose they're eaten," I said. "Where have you been this past sesqui-century?"
"Oh, how you talk," he said with a sneer. "I shoulda knowed by yore shirt buttons that you was a prissy boy. Why, I been a-sojornin in Hell, visitin ole neighbors. But then I got e-vick-tid. Colonel Lucifer, he never did know what to do with me. Always got this corn-fused look on his big red face, like I had rascality so deep down under my hide that he knowed he didn't put it thar hisself. I speck I troubled him someway."
"Well, glad to have you back," I said, hoping I'd feel the same tomorrow. "Things have changed, I bet."
"Them auty-mobiles, I'd heard tell about," he said, surveying Gay Street. "But I never woulda figgered on that considerable iceburg, this far South."
"No, that's Jake Butcher's old bank," I corrected.
Sut brightened. "I heard tell o' Jake down yonder, too," he said. "Done us ol' boys proud." He peered around the corner. "Glad to see John Scherf's old saloon's still here."
"They call it the Bistro, now," I said.
"Beast Roe? I don't know whar ol' John come up with that'n, but I am powerful thirsty." He shoved into what used to be the Lamar House Saloon and sat at the near end of the bar. Several stools around him emptied. Sut ordered Lightnin'. The bartender thought he said "Lite." As the glass arrived, I bit my tongue. Sut took it down in one drag.
"They've cleaned up this Knoxville water since the last time I tasted it," he said.
"Modern folks call that beer," I corrected. I told him they did serve stronger stuff here. Sut got an eager look in his eye and baffled the bartender with orders for rawbone, blindeye, rednose, crackskull, splo. He finally settled for a vodka gimlet.
After his third or fourth, he slowed down long enough to talk. "I swar I almost got more questions than boils," he said. "Who's the one finally got to shoot the Parson?"
"Nobody," I said. "Parson Brownlow died an old man. Natural causes."
"You don't mean it. I had money on that'n. Speakin uv money, who's the quarterhorse champeen this month?"
"We don't have much of that that anymore," I said.
"Wal then, who's yore bar rassler?"
"Bear-wrestling, cockfighting, snake-handling, eye-gouging--you pretty much have to cross county lines to find that kind of entertainment these days. Baseball, football, basketball--those are the games you see in the city now."
He looked at me blankly. "Prissy ball games in ol' Knoxville. I reckon yore fixin to tell me the ol' Flag Pond don't even stink no more."
"In fact it doesn't," I admitted. "They filled it in and built a railroad through it and developed it into a big wholesale commercial area. Then about a century later they developed it again into a place for bars and restaurants and shops."
"You know, I think I heard about some-a that from ole Kid Curry, the day he showed hisself. The Bowery, I think he called it."
"It's called the Old City now," I said. "It's a little different." I wanted to ask him what he knew about the fate of the Kid, but he was headlong on another track.
"You know, I never keered much for them stories George wrote about me," he said. Knoxville riverboatman George Harris immortalized Sut Lovingood in dozens of short stories popular in the 1850s and '60s.
"Why not, Sut?" I asked.
"Wal, it was partly cuz I couldn read em," he said. "I thought that was awful fancy of him, puttin them stories down on paper in them readin words. Ain't that a hell of a way to tell a story?"
"You know, you're not alone," I said. "Even graduate students have difficulty reading Harris' phonetic spellings."
"I ain't a bit sooprized," Sut said. "But the best stories I ever tole George I saved for the last. He put em in a new book called High Times and Hard Times."
I assumed he didn't know. "I hate to be the one to tell you this," I said. "That book is the one that's missing. George Harris had the only manuscript with him the night he died, right down Gay Street at the Atkin House. But then it disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to it. Nobody's ever even read it. People have been looking for it for 127 years."
Sut looked at his fourth empty glass and lowered his voice slyly. "George didn say nothin about bein pizened, did he?" Sut said.
"Yes, that's exactly what he said--poisoned--and then he died." I looked at Sut, thinking maybe he knew something he wasn't letting on. "Tell me, how did you know that, Sut?"
He glanced at the bartender and mumbled. "I just spected that's the sorter thang George might say."
Wondering whether I should report this suspect in a long-unsolved murder, I took a hard draw on my ale. Were my loyalties with George or Sut? Writer or character?
Then, suddenly, Sut was off his stool, making friends with a receptionist. I figure he's already done his time.