by Martin Limón
Art by Tim Foley
When we walked into the interrogation room the cabdriver screamed “Kocheingi,” shoving his chair backward and almost toppling over.
We paused. Ernie grabbed his nose and squeezed it. “Not so big,” he said.
Even he knew what kocheingi meant. Big nose. A pejorative often used by Koreans to refer to Westerners in general.
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. My partner Ernie Bascom and I had been called to the downtown Korean National Police headquarters to interview this man who’d been mugged—and worse—by three American soldiers.
The cabdriver’s black hair was in disarray and bruises darkened the otherwise smooth skin of his face. His left eye had inflated like an overripe walnut. The right side of his mouth puffed purple and just below his neck, an open-collared yellow shirt was stained with dried blood. When he calmed down somewhat, he straightened his chair and fondled a sliver of sliced flesh perched a few inches above his collarbone. A tiny slit in his still functioning eye stared at us warily.
“He likes you,” Inspector Kill said in English.
Inspector Gil Kwon-up, known to American MPs as Mr. Kill, was the chief homicide investigator for the Korean National Police. As such he was the top ranking detective in the entire country. His English was fluent, and in recent months he’d often called on Ernie and me to assist him in investigations when members of the American military were thought to be involved.
The three of us sat at the long wooden table across from the cabdriver. Mr. Kill spoke to him in Korean, and as he did so the driver began to relax. Still, he continued to shoot furtive glances first at me and then, more often, at Ernie. His name was Chong Man-ok. The story he told was typical. About an hour before the midnight curfew, he picked up a young woman at the huge downtown taxi stand in the Namdaemun district of Seoul. She sat in back and asked him to take her to Sangbong-dong.
The midnight-to-four a.m. curfew is imposed by the Park Chung-hee government on all citizens of South Korea, from the Demilitarized Zone in the north to the port cities of Pusan and Wonsan in the south. The idea is to make it more difficult for commandoes and saboteurs from Communist North Korea to infiltrate into the country. Probably that was true. From midnight to four, extra police patrolled the quiet streets and heavily armed military units set up checkpoints along major thoroughfares. Anyone caught on the streets during the curfew would be locked up overnight and subject to a hefty fine. If they resisted or attempted to flee, they took the risk of being shot.
Since the spectre of the midnight curfew engendered such fear in the hearts of the Korean populace, it made sense that cabdrivers earned the bulk of their income in the minutes leading up to the witching hour. People were frantic to make their way home. This cabdriver wasn’t satisfied with just one customer heading across town to Sangbong-dong. He engaged in a supposedly illegal but common practice Koreans call hapsung. Pedestrians would hail a taxi and with his passenger side window rolled down the cabdriver would cruise past slowly. The prospective customer shouted out his destination. If it coincided with the cabbie’s current destination, and the driver calculated that he could drop off both his current passenger and the prospective passenger before curfew, he would pick up the extra fare.
This driver had tried exactly that and had no luck since everyone who shouted out a destination was traveling too far for him to make the circuit safely before midnight. And then he saw three Americans. Young men, standing on the edge of the sidewalk on Chong-no, one of the major thoroughfares through Seoul. There weren’t many Americans in this area since they were far from any military base and cabdriver Chong seldom picked up foreigners.
He slowed. One of the men shouted out Mia-ri. Why three foreigners were going there at this time of night he had no idea, but that was nowhere near his destination. He veered away from the curb and started to speed on. Before he could get past them, one of the Americans leapt in front of his headlights. He slammed on the brakes.
Immediately, another American opened the passenger door and jumped in. The third opened the door next to his female passenger and slid in beside her. The one up front with him was particularly ugly, the cabdriver claimed. The American’s nose was huge and his eyes bulged like boiled quail eggs and before he knew what was happening the kocheingi next to him had pressed a sharp blade into his throat.
“That’s how you received the cut?” Inspector Kill asked, motioning to the spot on his own neck where the driver had been injured.
“Yes,” the man said, nodding. “I was so frightened I didn’t feel it pierce my flesh. But I felt the hot blood flowing down my shirt.”
“What did he say to you?”
“He said, ‘Ka! Bali bali.’ Go! Quickly.”
By now the man who leapt in front of the headlights had joined his comrade in the back seat and the young female passenger was wedged between the two men, her eyes wide, terrified.
“What did you do?” Mr. Kill asked calmly.
“What could I do? I started to drive. Slowly at first but the man kept jabbing the knife in front of my nose and saying bali bali.”
“Did he tell you where he wanted to go?”
“Yes. He kept pointing with the knife. I drove, following his directions, faster than I should have but hoping some policeman would pull me over.”
“Where did you end up?” Mr. Kill asked.
“On the banks of the Chungnan River. Once I stopped the cab, he motioned for me to get out. One kocheingi stayed with the passenger. The other two dragged me toward the river. They checked my pockets and when they didn’t find any money they beat me up.”
“They knocked you out,” Kill said.
The man nodded slowly.
“When did you come to?”
“Dawn. I must’ve been unconscious for hours. It was a struggle but I managed to rise to my feet and made my way to a kagei nearby.” An open-front store. “The owner was kind. She sat me down and wiped my face with a warm towel. Then she called the police.”
“The foreigners took your keys,” Kill said.
“Yes,” the man nodded sadly. “And my cab. And the money I kept in a box next to the front seat.”
“What of your passenger?”
“I don’t know.” The man shook his head vehemently. “They must’ve taken her too.”
Mr. Kill looked at me. I cleared my throat and said in Korean, “How do you know they were Americans?”
The man shrugged. “They were young. They had short hair. They looked like American soldiers.”
Migun was the word he used. American soldiers. There were more than fifty thousand of us in country, stationed at over fifty military compounds. Because the economy had not yet fully recovered from the devastation of the Korean War twenty years ago there was little tourism and very little commerce done with foreign companies. The odds of three young Caucasian men with short hair being anything other than American soldiers was slim. Which of course wasn’t something the honchos at 8th Army were going to be happy about.
“What did these Americans look like?”
The cabdriver widened his good eye. “They were big. Kocheingi.”
“Yes, big noses,” I said. “I understand that. What about their skin color? Were they white or black?”
“White,” he said. “Like him.” He pointed toward Ernie.
Ernie Bascom was fair skinned with a pointed nose and green eyes behind round-lensed glasses. When he wore his dress-green uniform, he looked like he belonged on a recruiting poster. But inside he’d been cracked by two tours in Vietnam, not to mention the effort it took to kick the heroin habit when he returned to the “world.” He stared impassively at the cabbie and the man visibly winced beneath his gaze.
I asked how tall they were or how heavy and about their hair and eye color, but he could give me no particulars. He’d been panicked during the attack and traumatized afterward. But most importantly, he’d had little contact with foreigners in his life and to him all white people looked alike.
Mr. Kill asked about his female passenger. She was young, he said, and cute. She wore a skirt that was maybe shorter than the Park Chung-hee government said skirts should be.
“Was she a bar girl?” Kill asked.
“Maybe,” the cabbie replied. “But probably not. They usually stink of tobacco.”
“You don’t smoke?”
He shook his head negatively. “Can’t afford to.”
“What do you think she was?” Kill asked.
“A barbershop girl,” the driver replied.
“A barbershop girl,” Kill repeated.
The man nodded vigorously. “She was young, cute, she carried a bag that maybe held her uniform. And she smelled clean and fresh, like the lotion you get after a shave.”
“Did you talk to her during the drive?”
“No. She kept staring out the window as if something was on her mind. I did notice one thing, though.”
“What was that?” Kill asked.
“Her fingernails were long, red, almost vicious looking. In fact, that was what was noticeable about her.”
“The way she looked. She looked wicked.”
Outside of the interrogation room, Mr. Kill conferred with us in the long hallway.
“No reports of an abandoned taxicab yet,” Kill told us. “But we’ve broadcast an areawide alert, along with the license plate number. It shouldn’t take long.”
“And the girl?” Ernie asked.
“No sign of her either. And no missing person’s report so far.”
“Probably won’t get one until she doesn’t show up for work,” I said, “if then.”
Mr. Kill nodded.
There were plenty of barrooms and nightclubs and teahouses and masseuse parlors and beauty shops in the Namdaemun area that employed attractive young women. Mr. Kill seemed to read my mind.
“I’ll have my men canvassing the area, asking questions at the taxi stand, checking the local shops. Can’t expect to find much yet. We don’t even have her photograph.”
All we had was the driver’s vague description. She was young, cute, very thin, stylish in a short skirt and white silk blouse, long red nails, and a look that he thought of as “wicked.” A description that could match hundreds of women in the jam-packed Namdaemun area. Seoul was a city, officially, of eight million souls. Actually, it was probably much larger since not everyone registered as they were supposed to at their local KNP station.
“And us,” Ernie said, “you want us to find the three GIs?”
Mr. Kill nodded again. “The sooner the better. That girl, whoever she is, might be in grave danger.”
We’d already figured that part out.
Ernie pulled a stick of ginseng gum out of a pack, unwrapped it, and stuck it in his mouth. As he chomped, he said, “Whatever was going to happen to that girl has already happened. Chances are they raped her. Left her somewhere.”
“Alive, I hope,” I said.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Ernie replied. “These guys sound like they don’t mess around.”
“Neither do the Korean National Police,” Mr. Kill replied, which meant to me that these three Americans might meet with an unfortunate “accident” if we didn’t find them first.
Other than rape, beating and robbing Korean cabdrivers is the most common crime committed by members of the U.S. Forces Korea. Staff Sergeant Riley, the Admin NCO of the 8th Army CID, had the stats to prove it. After we returned to the office, we put him to work. A half hour later he gave us his report.
“A hundred and seven kimchi cab robberies just last year,” Riley said, jabbing with a pencil at a printout unfolded on his desk. “Most of them up north in the Second Division area.”
Which figured. The Second Infantry Division guarded the main invasion routes between the DMZ, some thirty miles to the north, and the capital city of Seoul. Infantry, armor, and artillery units were placed in defensive positions in more than two dozen encampments. Each compound not only had its own infrastructure and logistical support, but GI villages, composed of nightclubs and bars and brothels, had sprung up outside of each one. Since the average per capita income in South Korea during the early seventies had still not reached the equivalent of a thousand dollars per year, young American soldiers, most of them single and with steady paychecks, were seen as being rich. Outside the front gate of most compounds, a line of kimchi cabs waited to whisk the young American princes away to whatever destination their wanton hearts desired. The cabs were usually beat-up old Hyundai sedans and some of the drivers were less than skillful. But the fares were cheap and a group of buddies could hop from one GI village to another without undue expense. Sometimes, of course, one of them came up with the bright idea to stiff the driver or even beat him up and rob him. But most of the GIs were honest and paid the fares that were due. Unfortunately, not all.
“How many of these cases were closed?” I asked.
Riley adjusted his glasses. “Twenty-four.”
“Nice,” Ernie replied. “Military law enforcement is really on the ball.”
“Can it, Bascom,” Riley said. Although his physique was only slightly more robust than a consumptive canary, Riley liked to act tough. He continued. “Most of these cases leave the MPs little to work with. A gang of GIs, black or white, beat up the cabdriver, take his money, then disappear into the ville. The cabbies can’t tell one American from another. What the hell are we supposed to do about it?”
“Increase MP patrols,” Ernie replied. “Investigate. Sueño and I could track them down.”
Riley sat back down at his desk. “Too much time and manpower.”
“And Eighth Army really doesn’t give a damn,” Ernie added. “As long as the ROK government keeps our crimes out of the newspapers, it’s as if nothing happened.”
The Park Chung-hee regime has total control over not only the Republic of Korea’s newspapers, but also their radio and television outlets. Broadcasting news of GI-on-Korean crime is frowned upon. The United States government provides millions of dollars each year in economic and military aid to the South Korean government. Relaying bad news to the Korean populace is not seen as being conducive to friendly U.S./Korean relations. Or to the flow of money.
I walked toward the coffee urn and poured myself a cup of java. When I returned, I sat down in a gray vinyl government-issued chair. “These guys have done it before,” I said.
Ernie looked at me.
“How do you know?” Riley asked.
“They were quick. When the cabdriver slowed to hear where they wanted to go, one of them jumped in front of his headlights and the other two were in place to open the doors and immediately jump in and take control of the vehicle. The knife they used—I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a bayonet.”
“Routine field equipment,” Ernie said.
“Right. And then they force the driver to take them to an isolated area. Beat him up, leave him unconscious, so he won’t alert the KNPs right away. They drive off.”
“And the girl in the back seat?”
“A bonus,” I said.
Miss Kim, the statuesque admin secretary, had been sitting a few feet away from us, ignoring our conversation, pecking away at her hangul typewriter. Suddenly the typing stopped. Riley didn’t seem to notice. “You think they raped her?” he asked. “And maybe killed her already and dropped her body somewhere?”
I didn’t answer.
Miss Kim grabbed a tissue, rose from her desk, and hurried out of the office. Her high heels clicked down the long hallway.
“Real sensitive you guys are,” I said.
Both Ernie and Riley stared at me with blank looks. “What?” they said almost in unison.
I stood and walked to the far wall of the office, which was covered by a large map of the city of Seoul. I studied it. I located an icon of an Asian-style stone gate. Namdaemun. The Great South Gate. It had once been the southernmost entrance to the ancient city, which at that time was completely surrounded by an enormous wall. There was a curfew in those days, too, established by the king, and once the city gates were closed no one could enter or leave, on pain of death.
Leaving Namdaemun, the cabbie would’ve been heading northeast. In Chong-no, which means Road of the Bell, he slowed. Had it been a different time of day he might’ve heard the Buddhist monks sounding the ancient bronze bell as a call to prayer. Instead, all he heard was the shout from the Americans as they stopped him and then leapt into his cab. From there they forced him to continue in a northeasterly direction. Finally, they reached the Chungnan River, a tributary of the mighty River Han which flows down from North Korea and embraces the southern bulge of the city. That’s where they beat him and left him unconscious. I pointed to the spot.
“They were just a half mile from the Main Supply Route,” Ernie said.
The MSR, as it is known, is the network of paved roads built by 8th Army Combat Engineers during and shortly after the Korean War. The purpose was to insure the efficient reinforcement and resupply of all U.S. military units.
“If they returned to the MSR and continued north,” I said, “it would only take fifteen minutes or so until they reached Uijeongbu. From there it’s just a few more miles to the Division area and depending on which direction they headed, any one of at least two dozen military compounds.”
“They’d have to avoid the MP checkpoints,” Ernie said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “A GI driving a kimchi cab. Even the Division MPs would find that suspicious.”
“So they either stopped somewhere near Uijeongbu or they took side roads out into the countryside to God-knows-where.”
I continued to study the map. The area outside of Seoul is known as Gyeonggi Province. If you travel far enough east, maybe twenty miles, you reach the foothills of the great Taebaek Mountain range that runs up and down the east coast of Korea.
“Where were these guys going?” I asked.
“Back to their compound,” Ernie said. “It was Sunday night, their three-day pass was almost over.”
“And they’d blown all their money.”
“Beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
“So they commandeered a vehicle.”
“Right,” Ernie said. “And a sweet dolly with it.”
Red-bulbed tacks dotted the map near the DMZ like a serious skin condition. Each one represented an American compound or at least a logistical support facility.
“They could’ve gone anywhere,” I said.
“Don’t sweat it, Sueño,” Ernie told me. “If that cab was abandoned, the KNPs will find it soon enough.”
Then we’d have another point to plot on the map. What I was worried about was finding the passenger’s body. That was a point I hoped I’d never have to plot.
An hour later, Staff Sergeant Riley shouted from across the room. “They found the cab,” he said. “The call just came in from the KNP liaison.”
“Where?” I asked.
I groaned. TDC is what GIs call Tongduchon, the largest town in the Division area. It sits right outside Camp Casey, the headquarters of the 2nd Infantry Division. From there, escape would be easy. There were plenty of transportation options: cabs, military vehicles, buses, even a train that ran south toward Seoul. Also, the GI population was large enough that they could disappear easily into either the village of Tongduchon, which swarmed with Americans, or Camp Casey itself, which housed not only an aviation unit but also two infantry battalions and plenty of support units.
“We’ll never find ’em there,” Ernie said.
“We’ll find ’em,” I replied. I asked Riley, “What about the girl?”
“No sign of her. The cab was burnt almost beyond recognition but no indication that anyone had been inside.”
He gave us the particulars of where in Tongduchon the cab had been found. Ernie and I trotted outside to the parking lot. When we reached Ernie’s jeep, we climbed inside and he fired up the engine. It roared to life.
The taxicab was canted on the edge of a berm that led downhill into a fallow rice paddy. We’d reported in to the Tongduchon KNP Station, and after some futzing around, we’d been assigned an officer named Pil to escort us out there. He covered his mouth with a white medical face mask and offered extras to both Ernie and me. We accepted. I slipped mine on over the lower half of my face. Ernie kept his atop his head, like a yarmulke.
The cab was charred almost beyond recognition. It was only a burnt shell of a vehicle. I peered inside. Nothing that indicated anyone had ever sat in what had once been seats.
I stood and asked Officer Pil. “Did you find a body?”
He shook his head negatively. “No. No body.”
We studied the tire tracks. There didn’t seem to be any but those made by the taxicab. There were a few footprints—large, men’s footprints. I didn’t see anything that looked like a woman’s shoe. But nothing was very clear because the soil was so damp that the impressions had already filled with water. Casts would do no good. The cab reeked of burnt diesel fumes, as if we were standing around a smoldering charcoal pit.
“Where’d they get the diesel?” Ernie asked.
We looked back up the road at the approach to the city of Tongduchon. There was a large gas station with a huge sign over it saying sokyu. Rock oil. The Korean word for petroleum. GIs seldom stopped there. Their gas and diesel was provided free, on base. The Second Division had thousands of vehicles including jeeps, three-quarter-ton trucks, five-ton trucks, tanks, self-propelled guns, mobile cranes, water tankers, tow trucks, and just about anything one could imagine that moved on wheels or tracks. What they didn’t have was personally owned civilian vehicles. That wasn’t allowed in the Division area. GIs had to leave their Chevys at home. For some of them this was a traumatic experience, almost as bad as not being able to bring their dog.
“So if they stopped to buy a can of diesel at that station, they would’ve not only had to pay for the diesel, they’d have had to buy the can also.”
“Maybe the cabbie had a spare can in his trunk.”
“Even if he did, a bored gas station attendant isn’t likely to forget three GIs driving a kimchi cab.”
“With a girl in the back.”
“No,” I agreed. “So we’ll talk to them.”
We continued to study the burnt cab. We were within the TDC city limits but the city proper didn’t start for about another half mile up the road. There, the first cement block buildings started and farther on the buildings grew progressively larger, reaching four or five stories in some cases. Most of the nightclubs were clustered along the MSR across from the front gate of Camp Casey. Whoever fired up this cab would have an easy walk, less than a mile, until they could blend in with the GIs in the nightclub district.
“How about that farmhouse over there?” Officer Pil’s eyes followed my pointing finger.
“He see nothing,” Pil said in his broken English.
“Did he see the fire?” Ernie asked.
Pil shook his head negatively.
We’d have to talk to him too.
I knelt down and rubbed soot from the rear license plate. I pulled my notebook out of my shirt pocket and just to make sure, compared the license plate number to the number the driver, Chong Man-ok had given us. It matched.
But still no girl.
Both the gas station and the nearby farmhouse turned out to be busts. The gas station wasn’t even open until six a.m. this morning, which was after a KNP patrol had first located the burnt taxicab. The farmer who we found in his fields claimed that he and his wife had slept soundly all night until dawn and had been awoken by neither unusual noises nor a fire.
We returned to the burnt cab.
“They must’ve siphoned some gas out of the cab,” I said. “And used that to start the fire.”
“No siphon hose,” Ernie replied.
“Maybe they took it with them.”
“Or,” Ernie said, “somebody delivered it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the can of diesel they used to start this fire. I’ll bet someone from their unit drove out here . . .”
“In a military vehicle?”
“Right. And whoever it was, brought a can of diesel with him. They set the fire and hopped in his jeep or truck or whatever it was and took off.”
“With the girl?”
“So maybe she’s still alive.”
“Maybe. If they were going to kill her and dump her, they would’ve done it by now.”
“Unless we just haven’t found the body.”
“I’m thinking she’s just a complication. When they commandeered this cab, they hadn’t planned on a passenger in the back seat. If it had been a man, they probably would’ve beat him up and robbed him and left him on the banks of the river with the driver.”
“But she was just too cute to let go,” I said.
“Right. They might’ve kept her.”
“If they had,” I said, “and now she’s in their jeep or their three-quarter-ton truck or whatever it is they’re using, and the kimchi cab is burning behind them and it seems as if they’ve gotten away with it, what would they do with her then?”
“In Nam, I heard of guys taking women to their bunker.”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“Wouldn’t the guard at the gate stop them?”
“Not necessarily. Some guards don’t want the hassle of turning fellow GIs into enemies.”
I thought of this for a moment. Ernie seemed to read my mind. I was thinking about the complications they’d face.
“You’re right,” he said. “Here in Korea things are too damn civilized. The guy at the gate might turn them in. They would for sure here at Camp Casey.”
The big arch-covered entranceway to Camp Casey was manned by about a half dozen MPs including a staff duty officer, usually a junior lieutenant. Passes and ID cards and leave authorizations were checked meticulously. Anyone who came on compound was signed in on a handwritten log.
“So maybe they’re not stationed at Camp Casey,” I said. “Maybe they stopped somewhere along the way, found a telephone, and called their base. Told whoever was driving the vehicle to meet them here on the southern edge of TDC.”
“And bring a can of diesel.”
“Right. So that means they could be from almost any compound in the Division area.”
“Any compound that isn’t as strict as Camp Casey.”
“Which is most of them,” I said.
On the small military compounds with as few as fifty to a hundred GIs, everyone knows everyone else and they’re much less likely to rat on one another. And local GIs take turns pulling guard duty, not MPs.
“So they could be anywhere,” I said.
“Yeah. That girl might be spread-eagled on a bunk right now, her wrists and ankles tied to the bedposts, a squad of GIs waiting in line.”
I grimaced. “Do you have to make it sound like that?”
Ernie shrugged. “Real life, Sueño. You might as well face it. If they kept her, they’re using her.”
We returned to downtown Seoul and were met at the front door of the KNP headquarters by Officer Oh, Mr. Kill’s assistant. She escorted us upstairs. Mr. Kill informed us that a new missing person’s report had been filed and the particulars indicated that this might pertain to the passenger in the burnt taxicab. We entered a small conference room and sat down opposite the concerned parents who’d filed the report.
His name was Hong Kun-yol. He was an impressive looking middle-aged man with square shoulders, square head, and dark eyes that peered steadily from behind thick-lensed glasses.
“They don’t look as stupid as most Americans,” he told his wife. Apparently, he hadn’t figured out yet that I understood Korean.
His wife seemed frightened, staring at me with a worried, slightly off-kilter smile, fingers twisting a knotted handkerchief. They were both dressed to make sure you understood they were important: him with a tailored wool suit and a bulky foreign wristwatch, her with a shimmering silk skirt and matching jacket that would be appropriate for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
I asked their daughter’s name.
Mr. Hong seemed reluctant to give it to me, as if I had not yet earned the right. His wife wasn’t as demur. She said it slowly: Hong Chun-hui. I wrote it in my notebook using hangul. Then I turned the page around and showed it to her, to make sure I’d spelled it correctly. She nodded her head.
Neither one of them seemed embarrassed about having just insulted me.
Mr. Kill took over the questioning.
A few months ago, Chun-hui had moved out of the family home and taken an apartment in Sangbong-dong. Her parents hadn’t been happy about it, but she said she needed freedom to come and go while she and a friend from university worked to establish an art gallery in Namdaemun. There were a number of trendy places springing up in the district and Chun-hui wanted to be in the forefront of the new art movement that was taking root in the southern part of Seoul. What that movement was, neither of her parents knew, but apparently Chun-hui had been passionate about it.
“She often worked late at the gallery,” her mother said. “And then she would walk to the taxi stand and take a cab home to Sangbong-dong.” As she said it she started to cry. Through her damp handkerchief she said, “She didn’t call me the next day. I called her, but the phone went unanswered. I didn’t want to make a fuss because she becomes so impatient with me but finally, on the second day, I spoke to her father.”
“Should’ve been earlier,” he said.
“We went to her apartment. She wasn’t there. The landlady said she hadn’t seen her for almost two days.”
Kill asked them about a boyfriend, but they denied that she had one and they assured us that she couldn’t possibly have any enemies. She was a complete angel, of this they were convinced. The mother handed Kill a colored photograph. An attractive young Korean woman was smiling and wearing a bright red cap and gown. Kill handed the photo to Officer Oh and without further instruction; she left the room. I knew what she was going to do. Show it to the cabdriver and confirm whether or not this was the actual abductee.
Mr. Hong took over the conversation. He told Kill how much he supported the Korean National Police and how many of his business associates felt strongly that the government needed to redouble its effort to provide the citizenry with law and order. What he was actually doing, of course, was dropping names and making sure that Mr. Kill was aware that if he didn’t find this man’s daughter, his bureaucratic corpse would be left to twist in the wind.
Kill had heard it before. He nodded and commiserated with the parents and thanked them for coming in and promised that he would personally be calling them later this evening with a progress report.
As he stood to leave, Hong looked at me.
“It’s you Americans,” he said in English. “No education. Not civilized.”
His wife grabbed his elbow and tried to lead him out of the room. He moved but kept his eyes on me. Before he stepped through the door, he wagged his forefinger at me. “You find,” he said. “You find!”
Ernie had been sitting quietly in a corner. But now he stood and approached me. “Asshole,” he said.
“Wouldn’t you be?” I replied.
“Damn, Sueño. You’re just too bighearted for your own freaking good.”
The neon lights of Yongjugol flickered to life. Beyond the hills, the sun was lowering red into the Yellow Sea. It had been a long day for us but there’s something about entering a GI bar district that makes me come alive.
On the drive up, Ernie asked, “Why Yongjugol?”
“That printout Riley had goes back a year and covers the entire country. In all that time over a hundred kimchi cabs were robbed by GIs.”
“The ones that were reported,” Ernie said.
“Yeah. Almost all were cabdrivers being stiffed for the fare, then being strong-armed and robbed of whatever cash they had on hand. Occasionally, the GIs took the keys and kept them or tossed them away so he couldn’t report the crime right away. In only two cases was the cab actually stolen.”
“The one we’re working on and one more.”
“Right. About three months ago. The driver claimed two Americans approached him while he sat parked in Itaewon waiting for a fare. They didn’t speak Korean but they told him they wanted to go to Walker Hill.”
Ernie nodded. It made sense. Walker Hill was named after General Walton H. Walker who was killed during the Korean War. After the ceasefire, a military rest-and-recreation center was set up in the eastern area of Seoul on hills overlooking a bend in the Han River. In his honor, it was christened Walker Hill. The good part about it, from a criminal’s point of view, was that it is located in an isolated area, heavily wooded, away from prying eyes, unlike the crowded environs of the rest of the city.
“Once they arrived,” I told Ernie, “they forced the driver to pull over, robbed him, and beat him and left him unconscious on the edge of the woods.”
“Sounds familiar,” Ernie said. “Where does Yongjugol come in?”
“Two days later, the KNPs found the cab in a rice paddy near Camp Garry Owen, on the edge of Yongjugol.”
“Was it burnt?”
“No. Apparently they didn’t bother with that, or they didn’t think of it. But also the KNPs didn’t bother dusting for fingerprints. It just wasn’t that high of a priority.”
“And even if they had fingerprints,” Ernie added, “what would they do with them? No U.S. commander would allow a bunch of kimchi-breath Korean cops to compare them to the fingerprints of his men. Not voluntarily.”
We both knew that to be true. We also knew that even though the stakes had been raised in this case with the abduction of a young woman, the attitude of the commanders would be the same.
“If you’re right,” Ernie said, “and the perps are stationed somewhere near Yongjugol, they took extra precautions this time. They abandoned the cab miles away and they burnt it to a crisp to eliminate evidence.” He thought about that for a moment and said, “Even creeps have a learning curve.”
The first nightclub we entered was the Four Dragons. Our problem was that we really didn’t know where to begin. There are three small U.S. compounds dotting the hills around Yongjugol, all within walking distance, less than a mile from the center of town. Yongjugol sits at a crossroads, on the main road between what the military calls the Western Corridor and Eastern Corridor. Camp Casey, the 2nd Division headquarters, with two battalions of infantry, sits astride the Eastern Corridor. A smaller series of compounds lines the Western Corridor, the most famous of which is the Joint Security Area adjacent to Panmunjom, the so-called peace village where representatives from North and South Korea periodically meet.
We pushed through the double swinging doors of the Four Dragons Club. The music was too loud to think. A few GIs shot pool listlessly in the back room. We surveyed the club. “Boring,” Ernie said. After checking both the men’s byonso and the ladies’ and finding nothing untoward, we left.
Once we were back out on the street, Ernie said, “This isn’t going to work.” Down the narrow road, dozens of brightly colored neon signs winked on and off, as if taunting us.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Our usual techniques aren’t going to work. Rubbing elbows with GIs and getting to know them and asking questions until we can zero in on some likely suspect is going to take too long.”
I thought about Hong Chun-hui, the young woman in the red graduation cap and gown. Maybe tied up, like Ernie imagined. Maybe being raped right now. Maybe being tortured. I tried to shove the image out of my mind.
“You’re right,” I told Ernie. “What we need is an intuitive leap.”
“Like Tesla,” I said, “when he discovered alternating current. Or Einstein.”
“Would you knock off the bullshit, Sueño?”
The main drag of Yongjugol was a two-lane road. The occasional kimchi cab cruised slowly by, searching for a fare.
There must’ve been at least three dozen bars in the half-mile stretch of road known as Yongjugol, all of them with their own cute little signs. Before we left Seoul, Ernie and I had changed into our running-the-ville outfits: blue jeans, sneakers, sports shirt with a collar, and nylon jackets with fire-breathing dragons embroidered on the back. Now we looked like typical GIs.
Three Americans paraded on the opposite side of the street, their fists pushed into the pockets of their blue jeans, sheltering against the evening breeze blowing in off the Yellow Sea. They glanced our way but then turned resolutely forward, heading for one of the bars up the street.
“So what do we do?” Ernie asked. “If we flash our badges and demand to see the sign-out logs of every unit on every compound in the area, we could develop a list of GIs who’d gone to Seoul in the last few days.”
“That’ll take too long,” I said. “We have to cut to the heart of the matter.” I started to talk, thinking out loud. “Camp Garry Owen is the largest compound in the area, so we start there.” Ernie nodded. “If they kept the girl like you suggest, then they would’ve had to hide her somewhere. Unlikely they would rent a room here in Yongjugol.”
“GIs are too cheap.”
“Right. And too many prying eyes.” I thought about it for a while, trying to put myself in their position. “If your theory is correct, they already had her tied and gagged inside of the military vehicle they used to transport her here. They know the guy working the gate and they slipped the girl on compound past him. Mainly because he’s their buddy and he didn’t do what he was supposed to do, which is search the vehicle thoroughly.”
“He doesn’t want to be labeled a tight-ass.” In the army, peer pressure is everything.
“Then they have to find a place for her,” I said.
“The barracks is too crowded. Some do-gooder will turn them in.”
“Yes. They have to find a place that is isolated and where few people are allowed to enter.”
“Not many places like that on a military compound.”
“Except for places that store intelligence,” I said, “or supplies.”
“Intelligence operations are always staffed, night and day. That’s out. But supplies are sometimes locked up and left unguarded, other than the guards who surround the compound. So maybe a motor pool, where they lock up the tools and the spare parts and the petroleum products.”
“Or a maintenance repair shop where they store copper wire.”
Copper was a highly prized commodity in South Korea. They produced none of their own and it was expensive to import.
“Or the mess hall,” Ernie said. “They have to lock up the freezers or the meat would be stolen and sold on the black market. But they couldn’t keep her there. She’d freeze to death. So maybe in a pantry where they keep the canned goods.”
“Could be,” I said. “Maybe these guys are cooks. Maybe one of them is the mess sergeant and keeps a ring of keys on his person at all times.”
I continued to think about it. The motor pool was a hangout for all kinds of scum. GIs shelter inside the garage, smoking and joking with the other goof-offs. Too many prying eyes. Too many idle GIs with nothing to do. Not a good place to hide a girl.
“The mess hall,” I said. “The storage out back. That’s where we should start,” I said.
Ernie’d been thinking about it too. “Yeah. Especially at night. Nobody’s around to bother you.”
We turned our backs on the flickering neon of Yongjugol and walked toward darkness. Toward the home of the 4th Squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Toward Camp Garry Owen.
A two-and-a-half ton truck with a ten-foot-high square cab mounted on the back was parked next to the Camp Garry Owen mess hall. A white wooden sign propped in the window had been stenciled with red lettering: Rations. Do Not Delay.
“Diesel,” Ernie said, which is what the deuce-and-a-half runs on.
“And a mess sergeant has total control over his truck,” I said. He didn’t have to worry about requesting a dispatch because the mess sergeant was issued a permanent dispatch. He in effect “owned” his mess truck, along with everything in the mess hall. He was signed for and responsible for all government-issued supplies and equipment until the day he was officially transferred and somebody else inventoried and signed for the entire outfit. Then and only then would he turn over the keys to his replacement.
Ernie stepped in back of the truck and pulled out his lockpick. Overhead floodlights at each corner of the compound provided some ambient light, but Ernie stayed crouched to make himself less noticeable. After five minutes of fiddling, the lock on the back door of the mess truck clicked.
Ernie motioned for me to go in. He’d stand watch out here. The wooden door creaked as I opened it. Inside the stench of burnt grease was almost overpowering. Still on my knees I pulled out my flashlight and switched it on. A heavy stove on one side of the truck, a huge oven on the other. I searched the cab thoroughly, and then hopped out.
“Nothing,” I told Ernie.
We walked to the back door of the mess hall. It was a wooden double door but this padlock was much bigger. Ernie pulled out his lockpicks and knelt to study it as I sheltered a short beam from my flashlight to give him some light. Abruptly he stood up. I switched off the flash.
“Combination,” he said. “To get inside we’ll need bolt cutters.”
“Did you bring any?”
Ernie patted his jacket. “I knew I forgot something.”
“Maybe we can find some somewhere.”
From the far side of the building, leather crunched on gravel. We scurried to the truck and as the footsteps came closer we knelt down and then quietly crawled beneath the chassis.
From our lowered position, we watched a pair of shoes walk by. Civilian shoes. Brown slip-ons. The shoes passed us without pausing and angled toward the back wall of the chow hall. Then they stopped. We listened. The faintest sound of dials being turned reached our ears. Then we heard a lock snap, wooden doors creak, and footsteps entered the back of the building. Ernie and I scurried out from beneath the truck. At the back doorway, he motioned for me to wait. We stood with our backs against the outer wall on either side of the door. I figured what Ernie was planning. Better to wait to see what this guy did. We didn’t want to enter too early and frighten him into not doing whatever nefarious activity he had planned. We could always barge in when we thought the time was right. Or if we heard a scream.
As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long. In less than two minutes, we heard the same footsteps approaching the back door. The guy stepped through, something under his arm; could see that he was a tall man, rail thin, as mess sergeants tended to be either fat or thin. Fat because they live amongst too much temptation or thin because they become nauseated by the product they have to churn out every day. He had just turned and reached out to close the doors behind him when he saw us. Startled, he dropped whatever it was beneath his arm. It was about the size of a human head and for a moment I feared someone had been decapitated, but then Ernie was on him and the guy screamed and he threw a punch. Ernie was caught off guard because he thought I would’ve already collared the guy from behind.
Instead, I stared at the thing rolling in the dust. My eyes felt out of focus. Light reflected crazily off the cylindrical object. I knelt and touched it. Metallic. And then I realized what it was. . . .
Copyright © 2018. High Explosive by Martin Limón