THE WANDERING GHOST A NOVEL
By MARTIN LIMÓN
Soho Press, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Martin Limón
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-56947-478-5
Stray flakes of snow swirled around the fur-lined edges of the MP's parka. He kept his M-16 rifle clutched close to his chest, glaring at us, and snatched the clipboard out of Ernie's hands.
"Emergency dispatch," Ernie said. "Good for anywhere Eighth Army operates, at any time of day or night."
"This ain't Eighth Army," the MP answered.
He was right. We were twenty miles north of Seoul sitting in a jeep at a checkpoint on the MSR, the Main Supply Route. Naked poplars lined the road, quivering in the cold wind of February. Five miles farther north stood Tongduchon, the city that straddles the front gate of Camp Casey, the headquarters of the United States Army's 2nd Infantry Division.
"You're a subordinate unit," Ernie said.
The MP tossed the clipboard back to Ernie and said, "We ain't subordinate to nobody."
Ernie studied the MP and the armed hon-byong, Korean Army military policeman, standing only a few feet away. Then he glanced at another American crouched behind an M-60 machine gun, muzzle pointed our way, safely ensconced behind sandbags in a reinforced concrete gun emplacement. Apparently, Ernie decided against raising hell. Instead, he grinned at the MP, shrugged, and handed the clipboard to me. Then he shoved the jeep in gear. Slowly, we zigzagged our way through rows of crosshatched metal stanchions strewn across the roadway like jacks discarded by a careless giant.
"Welcome to the Second Infantry Division," I said.
Wind-borne cones of snow swirled across the ice-slick blacktop. Ernie maneuvered the jeep smoothly from first to second gear and then shoved it into third and finally fourth. The road was lined on either side with frozen rice paddies, fallow now during the long Korean winter. In the distance, narrow chimneys above straw-thatched roofs spewed wisps of gray smoke toward the abodes of revered ancestors.
My name is George Sueño. My partner, Ernie Bascom, and I are agents for the 8th United States Army Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul, Republic of Korea. A congressional inquiry, a demand for information from an elected member of the United States House of Representatives, had dispatched us up here to the DMZ, the northernmost area near the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Why? An American female MP assigned to the headquarters of the 2nd Infantry Division was missing. Disappeared. Evaporated. The entire manpower of the 2nd Infantry Division had searched but had been unable to find her.
Nor her body.
The missing woman's name was Corporal Jill Q. Matthewson, but she wasn't just any missing female soldier. She was the first woman MP ever assigned to the 2nd Division Military Police. Female soldiers had only recently, within the last year, been allowed in the Division area. Prior to that they were prohibited.
A peace treaty had never been officially signed between the United States and North Korea. A ceasefire, and a ceasefire only, was agreed to in June of 1953. Now in the early seventies, more than twenty years later, the 2nd Infantry Division area of operations was still considered to be a combat zone. As if to prove it, about a dozen firefights per year flared up across the 150-mile Korean DMZ. With 700,000 heavily armed North Korean communist soldiers on one side of the Military Demarcation Line and almost half a million South Korean troops on the other, this was to be expected. Despite the danger, Congress decided to allow women to serve in the 2nd Division, smack dab in the middle of mayhem.
Back at 8th Army, the bulk of the speculation about Corporal Jill Matthewson's disappearance centered around rape. Namely, that someone had sexually assaulted her, murdered her, and then disposed of her body. That was certainly possible. But there was another school of thought that postulated Matthewson might have been killed due to professional jealousy. Wielding the baton of a military policeman in the midst of 20,000 barely civilized combat soldiers, most GIs thought, was not a job for a woman. If she had been doing her job, and doing it well, male egos would have been bruised. Not a comfortable position for a woman alone. Besides Corporal Jill Matthewson, only three dozen other women soldiers-none of them MPs-were assigned to the Division area of operations out of nearly 20,000 American troops.
We wound around a curve in the road and passed beneath a massive concrete overhang: two hundred tons of cement riddled with plastic explosives. A tank trap. Ready to be blown up by retreating Republic of Korea soldiers if the heavily armored North Korean Army tries to bull its way south again. Running perpendicular to the road, as far as the eye could see, were double rows of closely packed concrete megaliths. Dragon's teeth, GIs call them. Another obstacle designed to slow down any future communist juggernaut.
Since Jill Matthewson disappeared almost three weeks ago, the 2nd Infantry Division Military Police Investigators had yet to locate any clue as to her whereabouts. For some reason, 8th Army Criminal Investigation thought that a couple of outsiders, like Ernie and me, could do what the Division MPI couldn't. Maybe it was because I spoke the language and Ernie knew the back alleys and brothels of Korea better than any CID agent in country. Or maybe it was because our bosses wanted to send us as far away from the flagpole as possible. That is, away from 8th Army headquarters in Seoul. Ernie and I had acquired the nasty habit of following an investigation wherever it led, even into the carpeted and mahogany-paneled war rooms of the honchos of 8th Imperial Army. Whatever the reason, the 8th Army provost marshal had chosen the two of us for the assignment and now it was our duty to find Corporal Jill Matthewson.
And find her we would.
Ernie didn't talk about it but I knew his determination was total. He'd spent two tours in Vietnam, seeing fellow GIs and Vietnamese civilians being wasted for no reason. He'd become fed up and now, day to day, he tried to do the best he could to protect people. If you asked him, he'd deny it. He'd claim that he was just doing his job, keeping a low profile, trying to put in his twenty. But he knew and I knew and even the honchos at 8th Army knew, that Ernie and I worked for the little guy. We worked for the private or the sergeant or the Korean civilian who'd been stepped on by criminals or by the system. And a female corporal who'd disappeared from a military environment where everyone and everything is accounted for daily-and then accounted for again-definitely fell into that category.
As we continued north, the landscape became more barren and the wind became colder and every few feet seemed to harbor a new military compound or gun emplacement.
"Cozy," Ernie said. "Just like 'Nam."
"A tad. 'Nam on ice."
I pulled Corporal Jill Matthewson's photograph out of my inside jacket pocket. Ernie gave me a sidelong glance.
"You still mooning over that photo?"
"Not mooning," I answered. "Investigating."
I turned my attention to the photo and studied it once again, for the umpteenth time. Full-length, black-and-white, taken directly from Corporal Jill Matthewson's military personnel records. She was tall, five-seven-and-a-half according to her recruitment physical, husky-appearing in her uniform but not fat. She had long hair, light I guessed from the photo, tied back tightly behind her head. She wore the mandatory army dress green uniform sporting a corporal's stripes on her sleeves and, on her collar, the crossed-pistols brass of the United States Army Military Police Corps. She was smiling, just slightly, just enough to show that she was confident in who she was and what she was doing. Her face was dusted across the nose with a smattering of freckles, the cheeks broad, the nose rounded at the end. Not a beauty but an attractive woman nevertheless. The type of woman who seemed full of life. The type of woman most healthy young GIs would like to get to know better.
Maybe Ernie was right. Maybe I was mooning over her a little. But what was wrong with that? Until we found her, she'd be the object of all my affection.
Ernie swerved past an ox-drawn cart laden with frozen hay. I shoved the photo back into the folder and pulled out a copy of the letter attached to the congressional inquiry cover sheet. It was from Jill Matthewson's mother, to her congressman in the district that includes Terre Haute, Indiana. The handwriting was childish. The ink was smeared and some of the letters were difficult to read. Still, it was legible. Jill had grown up in a trailer park, her mother wrote, and her mother had struggled to get by, working nights in a convenience store. Jill's father never paid his child support and never, not once, came to visit Jill. In fact, the only thing he'd ever done for his daughter was send her a birthday card on her fifth birthday. Jill treasured it. Kept it wrapped in plastic and took the card with her when, at the age of eighteen, she enlisted in the army and shipped out to boot camp. Her mother asked that we check for the card amongst Jill's personal effects. If it was gone, if Jill had taken it, then her mother would know that she was still alive. If, on the other hand, the card was still there, her mother would know she was dead.
Maybe. As a cop, I couldn't assume any such thing. Still, I'd search for the card. Immediately.
The letter also explained why Jill had joined the army. To buy her mother a car. After years of interminable waits at bus stops-lugging torn bags of groceries home from the supermarket and baskets of damp clothing back from the Laundromat-Jill had sworn, even as a little girl, that someday she'd buy her mother a car. After six months in the army, Jill kept her promise and managed to buy her mom a used Toyota Corolla. It didn't run anymore, according to Jill's mom, but she was grateful for the months that she'd been able to drive it. And then the letter trailed off in smeared ink as Jill's mother said that Jill was her only child and she pleaded with the congressman to find her daughter and send her home. The congressman, as far as I could tell from the paperwork enclosed in the congressional inquiry packet, hadn't answered. Yet.
I would. As soon as I had more information. You could bet on it.
A convoy of ROK Army two-and-a-half-ton trucks passed us rolling south. Attached to the front bumpers were white placards splashed with red lettering in hangul, the indigenous Korean script: UIHOM! POKPAL MUL. Danger! High Explosives.
A twenty-foot-high statue of a military policeman stood in front of the 2nd Infantry Division Provost Marshal's Office. The huge MP wore a black helmet emblazoned with the letters MP and was clad in a dark green fatigue uniform and black boots laced with fake white strings. One hand rested on his hip, just above a holstered .45. His face was bright pink and his eyes a glassy blue, with an expression about as mindless as some flesh-and-blood MPs that I knew.
The PMO building was, like most buildings here on Camp Casey, a series of Quonset huts connected by mazes of corridors made of plywood and glass, topped with corrugated tin. The entire edifice was then spray painted in a camouflage pattern of various shades of puke green.
We pushed through the front door at the end of the main Quonset hut into a reception area lined with wooden benches. At a high counter in front, a mustachioed black sergeant glowered at us. His shoulders were bulky-hunched-as if expecting the worse. The embroidered name tag on his fatigue blouse said OTIS. Five black stripes were pinned to his lapel: sergeant first class.
When we approached him, he said, "Why you dressed like that?"
He was referring to our civilian coats and ties.
Ernie didn't bother to answer. Instead, he brushed melting flakes of snow off his shoulders and then pulled out his identification. With a flourish, he flipped open the leather case. The desk sergeant peered at the Criminal Investigation badge and then aimed his red-rimmed eyes at me. I performed the same ritual.
"You here about Druwood."
It wasn't a question, it was a statement of fact. Ernie didn't correct him; he just waited. Sergeant First Class Otis shook his head slowly. "Shame. Young trooper like him."
Lost in thought for a moment, Otis seemed to realize that we were still waiting. He looked up at us and as he did so he understood, probably from the blank expressions on our faces, that we'd never heard about anybody named Druwood. He sat up straight, thrust back his shoulders, and cleared his throat. This time his voice was even gruffer than before.
"Who you want to see?"
"Bufford," Ernie replied.
"Then it's 'Mister' Bufford to you," the desk sergeant said. "You in Division now. You call a warrant officer by his proper title."
Ernie squinted at the desk sergeant, unable to fathom whether or not he was serious. Kowtowing to a wobbly-one military police investigator? At 8th Army headquarters in Seoul, there's so much brass wandering the hallways that warrant officers empty the trash. Sergeant Otis grabbed the black phone in front of him and started dialing. I took the opportunity to pull Ernie aside.
"Remember," I told him. "We're in Division now."
Ernie mumbled something obscene.
Cradling the phone against his beefy shoulder, Otis scribbled in his logbook and told us to spell our names. Then someone apparently picked up on the other end of the line; the desk sergeant whispered discreetly into the receiver and, after listening for a few seconds, hung up.
"Room 137," he said, pointing to his right. "Down the hall, take a left at the water cooler, then follow the signs."
As our highly spit-shined footgear clattered down the hallway, MPs and clerical staff in fatigues stopped what they were doing and stared at us from their cramped cubicles. The suits gave us away. They knew we had to be from Seoul and they knew we had to be from the Criminal Investigation Division. It all has to do with the way the military mind works. The honchos at 8th Army are smart enough to realize that for criminal investigators to be effective they have to blend in with the general populace. To do that, they have to wear civilian clothes. However, being military men, they didn't want us to gain an advantage over them by not having to wear a military uniform during duty hours. Therefore, they dictated that, while on duty, the civilian clothes we were required to wear would be white shirts, ties, and jackets. But this is the seventies! Nobody wears a coat and tie unless they're getting married, attending a funeral, or having an audience with the Pope. So the whole purpose of allowing us to wear civilian clothes-to blend in with the general populace-was defeated. Whenever anyone-Korean or American-saw a young American male with a short haircut wearing a coat and tie, they automatically assumed that he was an agent for the Criminal Investigation Division.
So much for sneaking up on the bad guys.
Mumbles followed us down the hallway: "REMFs." The acronym for Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers.
If the coddled staff at 8th Army headquarters looked down their snooty noses at the 2nd Infantry Division, the combat soldiers up here at Division returned the animosity tenfold. Anybody stationed in Seoul, they believed, lived in the lap of luxury and would be no more useful in a firefight than a hand grenade with a soldered pin.
"So far," Ernie said, "we're receiving a warm reception."
In addition to the epithets, I also heard the name Druwood spoken a few times, in hushed tones. At the water cooler we hung a left, wandered down the meandering hallway until we spotted the signs, and this time turned right. Finally, after two more turns, we stood in front of a placard that read: ROOM 137, MILITARY POLICE INVESTIGATION.
We strode through the open doorway.
The office was plastered from floor to ceiling with enlarged black-and-white photos of blood, guts, and gore. An overhead fluorescent light buzzed. At a small gray desk, a lanky GI seemed to rise from his chair in sections. The name tag on his faded fatigues said BUFFORD and the rank insignia on his collar was the black-striped rectangle of a warrant officer one.
Excerpted from THE WANDERING GHOST by MARTIN LIMÓN Copyright © 2007 by Martin Limón. Excerpted by permission.
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