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Three miniskirted business girls flitted around Ernie like butterflies bothering a bear. He pulled out a packet of ginseng gum, grinned, and passed out a few sticks.
Another business girl, her face as brightly painted as the flickering neon of Itaewon, trotted across the road. I recognized her. Her name was Sooki. She grabbed Ernie's arm and peered up at him.
"You MP, right?"
"CID," Emie told her. "Criminal Investigation Division. Not MP."
"Same same," Sooki said.
"Not same same," Ernie told Sooki. "And anyway, I'm working tonight. So don't bother me."
We were working, all right. The black market detail. Undercover. Wearing our running-the-villa outfits: blue jeans, sports shirts, sneakers, and black nylon jackets with golden dragons embroidered on the back. Trying to catch off-duty GIs trading PX liquor and cigarettes for the charms that only a beautiful young woman can provide.
Red lips mounded into a pout. Sooki slapped polished nails on her out-thrust hip and purred in the voice of a vixen. "MP, CID, all same same. Any GI slicky my ping-pong heart. No bullshit."
The other girls exploded into laughter and chomped on their gum, seeming more like children in a playground than women ready to sell their bodies to the highest bidder.
Through round-lensed glasses, Ernie's green eyes studied the painted businesswoman. His grin never faltered, just gradually widened at the upturned corners. He's like that. If you're half nuts, he's interested in you. But if you're a sober professional, he'd just as soon see you take a flying leap off the edge of the world.
We were in Itaewon, the red-light district that servicesAmerican soldiers stationed at the headquarters of the Eighth United States Army in Korea. More than twenty years ago a cease-fire had been signed ending the Korean War but GIs have been here ever since. Thirty thousand of us. Protecting the wire. Staring across the Demilitarized Zone at the 700,000 stone-cold eyes of the North Korean People's Army.
My name is George Sueo. Me and my partner, Ernie Bascom, are agents for the Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul.
Prostitution is legal in Korea as long as you are eighteen years old and you register with the county health officials and you keep the stamps on your VD card up to date. Most of these girls looked as if they'd turned eighteen yesterday. Some of them still wore their hair straight, in short-cropped bangs, the cut required of every uniformed schoolgirl in the country.
Ernie and I were sent out to Itaewon to enforce rules that both of us thought were stupid. But being in the army kept Ernie off of heroin--a habit he'd picked up in Vietnam--and kept me off the streets of East L.A. Not incidentally, being in the army also kept money in my pocket and a clean shirt on my back. From where I'd come--an orphan at the mercy of the Supervisors of Los Angeles County--it was a big step up.
Sooki grabbed Ernie's arm. He jerked it away.
"I told you, Sooki. Don't bother me. I'm taaksan busy."
"No way, GI. You come. You help. Something bad happen."
Ernie's brow crinkled. "What the hell are you talking about, Sooki?"
In the center of the cobbled road, a few splats of rain pattered onto dirty slabs of stone. Dust and the odor of rust exploded into the air.
The humidity felt like a warm hand fondling me under my shirt.
Cockroaches the size of a hitchhiker's thumb scurried out of stone gutters. In the fading twilight, I could still see dark clouds hovering in the distance.
It always strikes during July and August. A warm current boils up out of the South Pacific, slamming into the shallow waters of the Yellow Sea, and fat clouds bubble across the low-lying valleys of the Korean Peninsula.
Chol param, the Koreans call it. The seasonal winds. The monsoon.
"GI punch somebody," Sooki insisted. "Chogi." There.
She pointed up the dark hill behind the glittering nightclubs. Tin and cement and red tile roofs covered hovels clustered together as tightly as chips on a poker table.
"Go tell the Military Police," I told her.
Her painted face swiveled. "No MP jeep in village now! They still on compound. GI beat somebody up. No have time wait MP!" She turned back to Ernie. "You come. You help. Bali bali." Hurry. "Somebody apo!"
Ernie tossed the foil wrapper of his ginseng gum into the gutter. "Who's hurt?"
"How you say?" Her face crinkled in concentration, searching for the English.
"Hanbuk mallo," I told her. Say it in Korean.
"Deing deingi chung."
Clouds like bad dreams drifted across the silver face of the rising monsoon moon. Ernie pushed away from the damp stone wall he'd been leaning against.
"What'd she say?" he asked me. "Who's hurt?"
"A monk ringing a bell."
"A Buddhist monk."
The monks sometimes come to Itaewon to collect money for their temples. Usually during the day, when the GI's are still on compound. Although most of the denizens of Itaewon are pimps or whores or worse, many of them are still devout, and sacrificing some of their ill-gotten gain to the representative of the Maitreya Buddha will buy them credit in paradise. At least they hope so.
"Bali bali," Sooki insisted. Quickly. "You come."
Ernie zipped up his jacket. "We're good guys, Sueo. Can't let anybody kick the crap out of a Buddhist."
I didn't like it. We were on black market detail. Not village patrol. Still, Sooki was right. There were no other law enforcement officers in the area.
Like a quivering rainbow, a jumble of neon signs sparkled to life along Itaewon's main drag. Above us, in a symphony of black and purple, the monsoon night lowered.
"Okay," I said. "I guess we have no choice."
Sooki didn't hesitate but trotted off, her high-heels clicking on the slick stone road. We followed her up the main drag of Itaewon, past the open-doored nightclubs blaring out versions of Stateside rock and roll.
When the girls on Hooker Hill swarmed around us, we straight-armed them and kept our sights on the gyrating butt of the little business girl devotee ahead. Sooki disappeared into a crack in the brick-and-stone walls.
As we ran, pellets of rain slammed onto my head and back. A dim glow emanated from behind oil-papered windows. The edges of tiled roofs leaned above us, sometimes blocking the light of the three-quarter moon.
Water reeking of urine leaked down the jagged stones that paved the walkway. Charcoal gas from the ondol, subterranean heating flues, elbowed out most of the breathable air.
Ernie's footsteps pounded ahead of me. Molars rhythmically ground on gum.
The faint remnants of a high-pitched scream drifted through the alley.
"What was that?" I called to Ernie.
"What was what?"
The narrow lane was lined with high walls topped with rusty barbed wire and shards of jagged glass. Then we heard it again. Another sound. This one a harsh bark. Male. A shout of rage.
Ernie chomped faster on his gum. "Sounds like somebody's getting their ass kicked."
Sooki didn't slow down.
The female scream again. Ernie heard this one clearly. He turned to me, his eyes blazing with glee.
"We're going to catch some asshole in the act," he said.
Ernie is always in search of something that will make his heart race and his blood bubble. I'm a little less crazy about the wild life. I face trouble when it comes, but I sure as shit don't look for it.
I reached into the pocket of my nylon jacket and gripped the roll of dimes I always carry with me. It felt firm in my hand, adding heft to my knuckles.
Despite the rain and the mud and the darkening alleys, I felt almost cozy. Right at home. Back on the mean streets where I was born.
We rounded a corner. Up ahead, at a crossing alley, we heard it. Cursing, heavy breathing, the thud of flesh on flesh.
Ernie's sneakers splashed rainwater out of invisible puddles. I pulled the roll of dimes out of my pocket. Sooki found a corner and knelt down, doing her best to make herself small.