Sueno & Bascom Mysteries: G. I. Bones
By Martin Limon
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $24
Cloth streamers hung from the front door of the fortune teller's hooch; bright red, yellow, and green. Tiny bells tied to the streamers tinkled in the late afternoon breeze. Doctor Yong In-ja, chief of the Itaewon branch of the Yongsan District Public Health Service, pulled three sticks of incense out of her pocket, struck a single wooden match against a dirty brick wall, and lit all three. She handed one to me, one to the young business girl I knew only as Miss Kwon, and kept the last for herself. Pungent smoke assaulted my nostrils. Turning, Doc Yong pushed open the small wooden door in the front wall and crouched through into the fortune teller's courtyard.
My name is George Sueño. I'm an agent for the Criminal Investigation Division of the 8th United States Army in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Normally, I don't seek consultations with fortune tellers. But when Doc Yong asked me to accompany her and the traumatized Miss Kwon to see the woman whom she referred to as "the most famous chom-cheingi in Seoul," I didn't refuse.
Miss Kwon was a cute kid, about nineteen years old, with cheeks that quivered like a chipmunk's. I had first seen her in Doc Yong's office some twenty minutes ago. She had been so nervous at meeting me that her hands shook. I spoke to her in Korean, using polite verb endings, and she calmed down, but only a bit. Miss Kwon's fear of men — especially Americans — was vast. Doc Yong had asked me to meet with her, talk to her, and eventually to accompany the two of them on this outing to the fortune teller, thinking I could show Miss Kwon the positive side of Western manhood: not drunk, not aggressive, not treating women as objects to be bought and sold. I'd been flattered by Doc's confidence and, more to the point, grateful that she had never seen me running the ville on a Saturday night.
Although she was escorting a superstitious young country girl to a fortune teller, Doc Yong had confided in me before we left that as a modern woman and a medical doctor, she did not believe in such nonsense herself. But Doc Yong felt that a visit to Auntie Mee, the fortune teller, would reassure Miss Kwon, give her hope that she had a future worth working toward, a future that would be better than the present she was suffering through now.
And, Doc Yong finally admitted, when we were already halfway there, that the chom-cheingi also wanted to speak to me. Me specifically, I'd asked, or just anyone representing 8th Army law enforcement? You specifically, Doc Yong had replied. The fortune teller had asked for me by name: Sueño. I asked how she had known my name. Doc Yong shook her head. But I could figure it out. Itaewon was a small village and word gets around. Quick. The fact that my partner, Ernie Bascom, and I were Criminal Investigation Division agents was no secret. What did this chom-cheingi want to talk to me about? Doc Yong shook her head again. I'd find out soon enough.
I wasn't sure I liked being maneuvered into meeting someone I wouldn't normally encounter. I consider fortune tellers to be charlatans, people who use trickery to prey on the insecurities of people - mostly women — who shell out hard-earned money and receive little or nothing in return. But if Doc Yong considered it worthwhile for me to talk to this woman I'd set my misgivings aside. That was good enough for me.
Frankly, I would've followed Doc Yong anywhere. We did a lot of work with her — what with Korean "business girls" being constantly beat up or raped or even occasionally tortured by our brave American fighting men — and I wanted to retain her goodwill. But the main reason I decided to join her on this gray afternoon was that I had a crush on her. She was probably in her early thirties, about seven or eight years older than me, and she had legs that were maybe a little too short and a chest that wouldn't make any Hollywood starlet jealous. Her face was round and never made up and, on top of that, she wore thick-rimmed glasses and cut her hair in a straight bob that hung just past her ears.
But I found her attractive because of her smile. It was brighter than the sun coming up over the Eastern Sea and filled whoever was lucky enough to see it with a sense of vibrant optimism. And her skin was pure, unblemished, the color of light gold with just a hint of brown. It sounds like a lousy pick-up line but I was also attracted to her mind. When I gazed into her eyes I could see her evaluating me, turning everything I said this way and that, not coming to a conclusion but storing data, ready to reach a conclusion when, and only when, it became necessary. She was the only person I knew who, when I gazed into her eyes, I was certain was more intelligent than me.
Admittedly, I didn't live in a world of massive brain power. Most of the people I worked with were Army MPs, Korean cops, or miscreant criminals of either Korean or American vintage. Every time I talked to Doc Yong I felt as if I'd been hit by a breath of fresh air blowing in off the cold Yellow Sea.
Now we sat in the courtyard holding our sticks of burning incense for what seemed a long time, squatting on our haunches. Or maybe it just seemed like a long time because my thigh muscles had started to cramp. After a few minutes I had to stand up and stretch. Doc Yong motioned me back down.
The courtyard was like most courtyards of the working class poor: a byonso — an outhouse — made of cement blocks sat in one corner, earthenware kimchee pots lined the side walls, and in the center of the courtyard were a few scraggly rose bushes, barren now in the middle of winter, reaching toward gray clouds like the gnarled fingers of the dead. Miss Kwon held her stick of incense straight up in front of her face with both hands and remained totally immobile, except for her lips which mumbled an incomprehensible prayer. Doc Yong did pretty much the same except her eyes darted about occasionally. My legs were so stiff and the joints of my knees ached so badly that I was about to stand and call the whole thing off when footsteps pattered on the raised wooden floor of the hooch. Silently, the latticework door slid open. A woman stepped onto the porch and bowed.
She wasn't what I expected; not a withered crone with a hooked nose and warts. Auntie Mee was a slender Korean woman, maybe in her thirties, clad in robes of embroidered blue silk. She bowed at the waist, and thanked us in a melodious voice for being good enough to join her in her humble household. We all stood. Doc Yong bowed first and then Miss Kwon and then me. Following Doc Yong's lead, we placed our burning incense sticks into a bronze holder encircled by rose bushes. Auntie Mee motioned for us to enter. We slipped off our shoes, stepped up onto the varnished wooden porch and ducked through the doorway onto the vinyl-covered floor of the home of the fortune teller.
We followed her down a dark hallway and emerged into a rear courtyard. This one was far better kept, with bonsai trees, ponds with tiny waterfalls and golden carp frolicking in the green water. Fortune-telling paid well. We followed a long porch around the edge of the courtyard to the rear. Auntie Mee bowed once more and led us into a room, twice as big as the hooch up front. It held a shrine. Above flickering candles, many pairs of huge round eyes glared at me: the Conquering General of Heaven, the Goddess of the Land Below, sleek copper Buddhas, fat bronze kitchen gods. Just about every sort of religion was represented here. A bearded figure in one of the murals seemed to be Jesus Christ.
Miss Kwon appeared completely awed. She knelt in the center of the room and bowed her head to the floor. Turning from us, Auntie Mee covered herself in a thick red robe, strode into the middle of the room, and squatted in front of Miss Kwon. Gently, she took the girl's quivering hands in hers. Auntie Mee closed her eyes and began to chant. The two of them seemed to be engaged in a spiritual communion. Neither moved but they held on to one another firmly. Finally, softly, Auntie Mee began to speak.
She asked Miss Kwon for her date of birth and then her hour of birth. After that she pulled a small table away from the wall and began to thumb through a sheaf of loose-leafed pages, tattered at the edges and held together by copper studs. In the center of the title page sat three characters; the one in the middle was too complicated for me to read but those on either end were composed of only a few strokes. By the flickering candlelight, Auntie Mee's finger traced row after row of Chinese characters, elegantly slashed thick lines made by an ink-dipped horsehair brush. Many of the manuscript pages were partially blank, as if chunks were missing.
Auntie Mee stopped — still mumbling to herself — and seized three large bronze coins with small squares punched in the middle. She threw them up in the air and allowed them to clatter to the surface of the wooden table. When they had stopped moving, she took note of how they landed and resumed her search through the grimy stack of curled paper. Finally, she grabbed Miss Kwon's hand, and started chanting again. I could follow little of what she said. Much of the incantation was whispered in Miss Kwon's ear, so only she could hear it. Also, my Korean is conversational, not completely fluent. If I steer the topic of conversation to areas where my vocabulary is extensive, and if the person I'm talking to keeps the words and syntax simple, I can communicate effectively. But when someone takes off into the exotic realms where Auntie Mee was heading, into ancient incantations pulled from the hoary recesses of time, I become lost. Only a few words or phrases seeped in: "trouble with your family;" "men who don't respect you;" "foreigners who treat Koreans badly."
I wondered how much of this was fortune-telling and how much common sense. The Korean economy was desperately trying to rebuild itself in the early seventies, some twenty years after the devastation of the Korean War. Things were tough for the working poor in Seoul and, when crops failed, even tougher for the farmers in the countryside. Despite massive population growth in the cities - Seoul was up to eight million people — most of the Korean population still lived in agricultural areas. When girls reached marriageable age, they found it difficult to find a husband. Landless boys were not only drafted into the army for three years but afterward they ran off to the cities to find work. The girls were left to labor in factories hoping to build a dowry or, if their grades weren't so good in school, as bus attendants or janitors or scullery maids if they were lucky. The unlucky ones signed contracts with labor recruiters. Money would be sent home to their parents. They would work as "hostesses" in bars or nightclubs. Hostesses are expected to perform additional duties, duties that encompass prostitution. Often, after poverty and the system has broken them down, the girls give up all hope of living a decent life and plunge into drunkenness and drugs and sex-for-sale. These are the ones who end up being hauled into jail by Korean cops or, occasionally, G.I. cops like me.
I'm not a fortune teller but I saw all this in Miss Kwon's future. So did Doc Yong. The difference was that Doc Yong was trying to save her. I didn't know how.
Now Auntie Mee spoke in a strong clear voice. Miss Kwon was crying and bowing. Auntie Mee asked her an occasional question. Miss Kwon answered. Auntie Mee made what seemed to be pronouncements and Miss Kwon nodded vigorously.
During all this, Doc Yong had been sitting quietly, her head bowed. But now her fists clenched and she stared directly at Auntie Mee.
"Weikurei?" Doc Yong demanded. Why this way? Auntie Mee shrugged and gestured toward the tattered manuscript, as if to say, That's what the book told me.
Finally, the reading was done and Auntie Mee and Miss Kwon hugged one another. Then Auntie Mee slid backward on her bent knees, and Miss Kwon, crying more than ever, bowed twice. Doc Yong, still scowling, comforted her and dragged her off to the side of the room, away from the glow of the flickering candlelight. They whispered to one another, conferring over the full meaning of the fortune that had just been told.
Auntie Mee motioned for me to sit before her. I slid across the floor and knelt, although my butt wouldn't descend as low as Auntie Mee's. My head towered a foot above hers. She backed up a little, uncomfortable looking up at me.
Many Koreans find Westerners unattractive. Upsetting, even. Our features are too gross, our bone structure too oddly shaped, our bodies too massive and reeking of the odor of meat. Apparently, that was Auntie Mee's attitude.
When she had put some distance between us she relaxed, arranged her blue robe around herself and began to talk, speaking Korean slowly and simply so I could understand.
First, she asked me for my date of birth. I wouldn't give it to her.
"Why? Don't you want your fortune read?"
I shook my head. "I don't believe in these things," I said.
She seemed greatly amused. "But many people do."
"Many people do a lot of things," I replied.
"As you wish." Auntie Mee sighed and slammed shut her pile of dog-eared pages. Then, still in Korean, she said something to me. It was a jarring change of subject and it took me a few moments to translate the sentence, mentally, into English.
"I want you to arrest someone," she told me.
"A compatriate of yours," she said. "An American soldier."
"What has he done?" I asked.
"He bothers me every night. Wakes me. Makes me rise from my bed and forces me to light sticks of incense and speaks to me through the Conquering General of Heaven. He even interrupts me when I'm working with my clients, causing delays and confusing my readings. He's quite a pest. Rude, like so many of you Americans. And impatient too."
"Yes. Why doesn't he wait to take his revenge in the land of the dead like everyone else? Why must he bother me to take action on his behalf, here in the land of the living? What has he ever done for me?"
I was more confused than ever. "This American soldier," I said.
"He is your boyfriend? He lives with you?"
The smooth contours of Auntie Mee's face twisted into a sneer. Doc Yong and Miss Kwon had both stopped talking.
"No!" Auntie Mee shouted so emphatically that I could scarcely believe the sound emanated from so slender a woman. "He visits me at night," she said. "He awakens me. He interrupts me when I am in trance. He bothers me always and he won't go away until someone finds his bones."
From G. I. Bones, by Martin Limon. Copyright 2009 by Martin Limon. Published by Soho Crime. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.