Nightmare RangeThe Collected Sueno and Bascom Short Stories
Soho CrimeCopyright © 2013 Martin Limon
All right reserved.ISBN: 9781616953324
The mama-san didn’t know how long the body had been out there. Three, maybe four days, she said. Her girls had just conducted their business a few yards farther away from it each day.
“Where is it now?” I asked.
“Policeman take go.” She waved her cigarette and smoke filtered through the darkened gaps between her teeth.
The morgue was in Chorwon-ni, ten miles to the south. Ten miles south of Nightmare Range, and fifteen miles from the Demilitarized Zone that slashes like a surgeon’s knife through the heart of the Korean Peninsula.
The war had been over for twenty years but still it lingered: a big dumb ghost that refused to go away. No peace treaty had been signed, just a cease-fire, so the fourth and fifth largest armies in the world, armed to their squinting eyeballs, faced each other across the line; fingers on trigger housings, knuckles white, dancing to the sound of no breathing.
Our police escort, Lieutenant Pak, stood back, arms crossed, glaring at the squatting woman. He was a tall man for a Korean, slim but muscular. His khakis were starched and fit as if he had been born in them. I didn’t ask him why it had taken so long to dispose of the body. The non-person status of a “business girl” follows her into death.
One by one the doors to the hooches slid open and groggy young women, their faces still puffed with sleep, gaped at us curiously. Some squatted in long underwear, their arms crossed over their knees, while others lay on the floor, beneath the wrinkled patchworks that were their blankets. All of the girls were ugly in some way: ravaged complexions, tufted hair, splotches of discolored skin arrayed around their bodies.
It seem more like a war for the incurably ill than a whorehouse.
Maybe it was both.
Lieutenant Pak asked a series of questions of the old woman and I managed, struggling, to keep up with most of it. There had been a number of American units in the field that day and just before nightfall the old woman had stationed a few of her girls near each encampment.
As darkness approached the girls called to the young GIs from just outside the concertina wire.
I’d seen the game before. Sometimes the GI would wade out into the tall grass and lie on the blanket, both he and the deformed girl protected by the enshrouding night. And sometimes the bolder fellows would bring the girls into their tents, risking the wrath of the Sergeant of the Guard; sneaking in and out of the camp with the stealth of a North Korean infiltrator.
I pulled out a map, showed it to the mama-san, and pointed to the area around Nightmare Range and the village of Mantong-ni. The old woman looked at it carefully and consulted with some of the girls. A few of them were up now and dressed. They chattered for a while, and then came to a conclusion. With my pen I marked the area beneath the old woman’s gnarled fingernail.
I asked what type of unit it was. Big guns, they decided.
Lieutenant Pak wiped his hands on the sides of his khaki trousers and took a step toward the gate.
“Mama-san,” I said. “This girl. What was her name?”
“Miss Chon,” the old woman said. “Chon Ki-suk.”
I wrote it down. “Do you have a picture of her?”
The mama-san barked an order and one of the girls handed me a tattered piece of cardboard folded in half like a small book. A VD card. Chon Ki-suk peered out at me from a small black and white photograph. She had a round face with full cheeks that sagged like a bloated chipmunk. All visible flesh had been pocked by the craters of skin disease. She differed little from her sisters now breathing heavily around me; a timid little girl awaiting death.
Lieutenant Pak stomped into the mud.
I stood up and walked with him to the gate. As he stooped to get through the small opening I looked back at the rows of blemished faces sullenly watching our every move. None of them smiled. None of them said goodbye.
My partner, Ernie Bascom, was in the jeep curled up with a brown-paper-wrapped magazine from somewhere in Scandinavia. He unfolded his six-foot frame as we approached and started up the jeep. Some people said he looked like the perfect soldier: blue eyes behind round-lensed glasses, short-cropped sandy-blond hair, the aquiline nose of the European races. What had blown it for him was Vietnam. Pure horse sold by dirty-faced kids through the wire, women taken on the dusty paths between rice paddies, the terror rocket attacks during innocent hours. His placid exterior hid a soul that had written off the world as a madhouse. Looks were deceiving. Especially in Ernie’s case.
We dropped Lieutenant Pak off in Mantong-ni. A dozen straw-thatched farm houses huddled around the brick-walled police station as if longing for an extinguishing warmth.
Ernie popped the clutch, our tires spun, and we lurched forward into the misted distance.
The roads were still slick but all that was left of the early morning rain were ponderous gray clouds rolling like slow-motion whales through the hills surrounding the long valley. We plunged into a damp tunnel and when we came out the valley widened before us. Dark clouds in the distance glowered at us like fat dragons lowering on their haunches for a nap.
“Nightmare Range,” Ernie said. “Where generals meet to see how much their boys can take.” He pumped lightly on the brakes and slid around a sharp curve. The water-filled rice paddies on either side of the road strained impatiently to embrace our spinning tires. This valley had been the scene of some of the most horrific battles of the Korean War. Americans, Chinese, Koreans, all had died her and the bones of some of them probably still embraced each other deep beneath the piled mud. I had looked it up in the military section in the library, how many had died here. All I remember is that there was a number followed by a lot of zeros.
The austere cement-block building of the Firing Range Headquarters was painted in three alternating shades of green. Inside, a brightly colored relief map of Nightmare Range covered a huge plywood table.
A ROK Army sergeant with short, black-spike hair and crisply pressed khaki uniform thumbed through a handwritten log of the units that had been using the training facility He came to the correct date and the correct position and pointed to the entry: Charlie Battery, 2nd of the 71st Artillery, Camp Pelham.
“Tough duty, pal.” Ernie was leaned back in a patio chair at the snack stand just inside the front gate of Camp Pelham sipping a cold can of PBR. We were dressed the same way: blue jeans, sneakers, and black nylon jackets with brilliantly hand-embroidered dragons on the back. Standard issue for GIs running the ville.
The outfit usually got us over. We were the right age, both in our early twenties, and we both had the clean, fresh-faced look of American GIs. If we played with the girls enough, laughed, horsed around, toked a few joints, no one would suspect that we were conducting a criminal investigation.
Ernie looked like the typical American GI from the heartland of America. I looked like his ethnic sidekick. Taller than him by about three inches, broader at the shoulders, with the short jet-black hair of my Mexican ancestors. My face often threw people. The nose was pointed enough, and the skin light enough to make them think that maybe I was just one of them. But I’d grown up on the streets of east L.A. and I’d heard the racial slurs before and when some GI started in on “wetbacks” somebody usually elbowed him and whispered something in his ear and looked nervously in my direction. They didn’t have to worry though. That’s part of America, after all. I wouldn’t deny them their fun.
The afternoon was glorious but cold. The crisp, clear blue sky of the DMZ, far away from the ravages of industrialism, seemed to welcome even the likes of us.
Camp Pelham is in the Western Corridor, about twenty miles from the Division Headquarters at Camp Casey and forty miles from Nightmare Range. The Western Corridor was the route the North Korean tanks had taken on their way to Seoul in the spring of 1950. It was expected to be the route they would take again.
The camp was small, you could walk around it in ten minutes, but it still managed to house the battalion’s three batteries of six guns each. The big howitzers of Alpha and Bravo Batteries pointed to the sky, their barrels snugly sheathed in plastic, behind protective bunkers. Charlie Battery was out in the field again but scheduled to return that afternoon.
We heard distant thunder and ran to the chain-link fence. Across the narrow river, rows of dilapidated wooden shacks sat jumbled behind a main street that was lined with nightclubs and tailor shops.
Charlie Battery rumbled down the two hundred yard strip. A small jeep maintained the lead while six big two-and-a-half ton trucks barreled after it as if trying to run it down. A half dozen 105 millimeter howitzers bounced behind the big trucks like baby elephants trotting behind their mothers.
The men of Charlie Battery stood in the beds of the trucks, shouting, the flaps of their winter headgear bouncing wildly in the wind.
An M-60 machine gun crowned the cab of each truck, partially hidden behind bundles of neatly tied camouflage netting. Rolls of razor-sharp concertina wire, draped over stanchions on either side of the truck bed, swayed lazily with the rattling of the trucks, like huge and sinister gypsy earrings.
Some of the villagers of Sonyu-ri waved happily at the unstoppable convoy. Others scurried desperately to get themselves and their children out of the way.
When the Camp Pelham gate guards swung open the big chain-link fence, the men yelled and laughed and the drivers gunned the big truck engines. Diesel fumes billowed into the air.
The jeep sped by and headed for the Battery Orderly Room. The truck turned in the other direction to get hosed down at the wash point and topped of with diesel at the fuel point.
We finished our beers and walked down the road. In front of the Orderly Room a disheveled-looking little man rummaged through the back of the jeep trying to locate his gear. I spotted his name tag. Sergeant Pickering, the Chief of the Firing Battery.
“Chief of Smoke,” I said.
He looked up and squinted; a crooked-toothed weasel who hadn’t shaved in a couple of days.
“Who are you?”
I showed him my identification. “George Sueno, Criminal Investigation Division. This is my partner, Ernie Bascom.”
He looked at the badge and turned back to his gear. “Why ain’t you wearing a coat and tie?” he asked. “I thought you guys always wore a coat and tie.”
“Not under cover,” Ernie said.
The Chief of Smoke ignored us and continued to rummage through his gear, sticking his hand way down into the depths of his dirty green canvas.
“Here’s the son of a bitch,” he said. “Kim! Kim! I found it.”
His Korean Army driver came running out of the Orderly Room as the Chief of Smoke wrenched his hand free from the enveloping material. He held up a dirty, unwrapped, white bread sandwich and they both beamed. He tore it and handed half to the Korean. They munched contentedly and the driver, smiling, returned to the Orderly Room.
“Kimchi and bologna,” the Chief of Smoke said. “Made it myself.” His mouth was open. The odor of the hot pickled cabbage flushed the diesel fumes from my sinuses. He didn’t offer us any.
“The last field problem you were on,” I said, “you were at Nightmare Range.”
The Chief looked at me, still chewing with his mouth open, but didn’t say anything.
“There was a problem,” I said. “Somebody from your unit went a little too far with one of the girls outside the wire.”
He closed one eye completely. “What do you mean, ‘too far?’”
“He killed her.”
The Chief of Smoke chomped viciously on his sandwich. Cabbage crunched.
“Probably deserved it.” He continued to chew, turning his head to squint at the brilliantly outlined hills in the blue-sky distance. “I know my first wife did.”
“Did you notice anything unusual that trip? Anything that might have . . . “
“Had to be Bogard. Only one mean enough to do it. And he was always messing with those girls out in the field. Didn’t pay ‘em I don’t think. Never had enough money anyway what with all the trouble he’s been in.”
“Yeah. Article Fifteens for not making formations, over-purchasing on his ration card, shit like that.”
“Where’s he at now?”
“He’s not in your unit anymore?”
“Well, we’re still carrying him on the books. They say he’s down in the ville.” The Chief of Smoke swallowed the last of his rancid sandwich, turned away from the hills and looked at me. Bread and bologna still stuck to his teeth. “He’s been AWOL ever since we came back from Nightmare Range.”