South Korea, 1970s: A rash of armed robberies at local Korean banks doesn’t concern the American military—until a fatality occurs, and proof surfaces that US soldiers are behind the crimes. The case has been assigned to CID Agents Jake Burrows and Felix Slabem, but they certainly won’t do anything that might make 8th United States Army look bad. So Sergeants George Sueño and Ernie Bascom have decided to step in and investigate the robberies—and murder—themselves.
George and Ernie have their own problems to worry about, namely one Katie Byrd Worthington, a pesky reporter for the Overseas Observer—an unsanctioned English-language tabloid that has found strong roots in South Korea. Katie has published a story that implicates Army higher-ups in both sex trafficking and treason, and the pressure is on for the CID to disprove her claims. But what if they aren’t false? As George and Ernie dig deeper into the case, they find themselves the targets of a very unflattering publicity campaign, but perhaps also something much more dangerous.
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A rifle butt to the face neutralized the bank guard.
Teeth, saliva, and blood flew everywhere. Then, waving M16 rifles, the three American soldiers stormed across the lobby of the Itaewon Branch of the Kukmin Bank, shouting at the female tellers, male clerks, and gray-haired bank manager to get on the ground. They did, kneeling on the floor and raising their hands over their heads. Whether the Korean employees really understood these English commands or had just picked up on the men’s frantic hand signals and the swinging barrels of their weapons, every one of them complied.
Two of the robbers hopped over the counter and began pulling 10,000-won bills and other cash out of metal trays, stuffing the loot into gunny sacks. The third man kept watch at the front door. Within less than two minutes, the thieves had emptied all the cash drawers, but instead of trying to enter the locked vault, they climbed back over the counter, still clutching their rifles and their gunny sacks now stuffed with ill-gotten lucre. Then, like a well-drilled infantry squad, they backed across the lobby, maintaining a two-arms-length distance and, in good military order, exited the building.
That quickly, it was over.
Some of the tellers and one of the clerks began to cry. Two of the senior women plucked up their courage, came around the counter, and tended to the injured door guard. The bank manager, hands shaking, dialed the Korean National Police. Then he called an ambulance.
When the authorities arrived, they were dumbfounded to hear that the thieves had been American soldiers. The first question they asked was, “How can you be so sure?” The answer was unanimous. The men had been tall and husky; they’d worn fur-lined headgear pulled down low over their ears, but despite the camo paint, they couldn’t hide the contours of their faces.
“Kocheingi,” the employees agreed. Big noses.
The captain of the Itaewon Police Station sighed and put in a call to Yongsan District Police Headquarters. They certainly wouldn’t believe it. GIs had never robbed a bank before. Not in South Korea, not even during the chaos of the Korean War some twenty years ago. Of course, back in those days, none of the banks had had any money, at least, nothing worth more than the paper it was printed on. But now, a single ten-thousand-won note could be exchanged for almost twenty bucks US.
An amount worth stealing for. An amount worth taking a risk for. Maybe even an amount worth killing for.
“Had any strange lately?”
Strange leaned across a Formica-topped table in the 8th Army Snack Bar. His hair was slicked back, his eyes were hidden behind opaque shades, and a plastic cigarette holder waggled excitedly from thin lips.
“What’s it to ya?” Ernie replied, looming over the table.
People in the dining area turned their heads toward us. My investigative partner, Ernie Bascom, was tall, slightly over six feet, with sandy-colored hair and green eyes behind round-lensed glasses. His pointed nose swiveled during his occasional visual sweeps, like radar homing in on an incoming missile. For some reason, women found him attractive. Why, I never had figured out. Maybe because he was nervous, fidgety, always looking for someone to arrest—or someone on whom he could focus all his formidable attention. I was even taller than Ernie. Dark hair, Hispanic, no glasses. People’s eyes often followed me, too. Maybe they were afraid of getting mugged.
We pulled out chairs and sat opposite Strange.
Undaunted, Strange said, “That bank robbery this morning. How much did they get away with?”
“Ongoing investigation,” Ernie said.
“Everybody’s talking about it at the head shed. Even the Chief of Staff.”
“They’ll get their report in due time.”
“But if I give them info now, that’ll set me up for repayment later. See what I mean?”
Strange is a pervert. He likes to have other GIs—especially Ernie—recount their sexual exploits to him. His real name, according to the plate on his khaki uniform, is Harvey. His shoulder stripes indicate that he’s a Sergeant First Class, a senior noncommissioned officer. Titles normally deserving of respect. Ernie and I don’t have much of that for him, but we cater to him on occasion because he’s the NCO in charge of the Classified Documents Section at the headquarters of the 8th United States Army. As such, he’s privy to certain information that we need to conduct our investigations. Not to mention he’s a notorious gossip, and despite his obnoxious demeanor, he knows everybody at the head shed. More importantly, he knows what their best-kept secrets are and keeps tabs on what they’re up to.
My name is George Sueño. I’m an agent for the Criminal Investigation Division here at 8th Army Headquarters in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Ernie usually deals with Strange, telling him the dirty stories he wants to hear and using pressure and mind games to keep the information flowing.
Ernie reached forward and flicked the tip of the greasy holder dangling from Strange’s lips. “How come you never have a cigarette in that thing?”
“I’m trying to quit.”
“How can you quit when nobody’s seen you smoke?”
“What are you, the chaplain?”
“Yeah. The Church of Ernie.” He turned to me. “Pass the plate, Sueño.”
“They took about two million won,” I told Strange.
He whistled. The holder almost fell out of his mouth. “On the black market,” he replied, “you could exchange that much won for about four thousand dollars. Easy.”
Illegal money changers usually offered a better deal than the official conversion rate at a government-authorized foreign exchange bank.
“Not a bad haul for two minutes’ work,” Ernie said.
“That’s all the time they were in there?”
“Precision raid,” Ernie said. “The Green Berets would’ve been proud.”
“Maybe it was the Green Berets.”
“Nah. The Provost Marshal already checked. The Special Forces unit has been out in the field on a joint training exercise since last week.”
“That only leaves about fifty thousand other GIs in-country,” I said, “that we don’t have alibis for.”
“Then why are you sitting here?” Strange asked. “Get off your butts and start working the case.” When we didn’t respond, he looked back and forth between us. An epiphany lit up his eyes. “You aren’t on the case.” He grinned. It was a gruesome thing to see, like a rat having its teeth cleaned. “The Provost Marshal doesn’t trust you,” Strange continued. “He’s keeping you on the black market detail.”
The two CID agents officially handling the bank robbery, Jake Burrows and Felix Slabem, were brownnosers from way back. They’d do what the 8th Army honchos asked, without exception. And what those honchos wanted was deniability. So far, the official party line was that it hadn’t been established that the three men involved in the bank robbery were actually American soldiers. In the early seventies, there were few foreigners of any type living in South Korea who weren’t either civilians or service members working for the US military. And there was virtually no tourism. So the thought that the three robbers might’ve been someone other than American GIs stretched the credulity of even the most gullible. Not to mention that each of the robbers carried an M16 rifle, standard weaponry issued to every American soldier in-country.
The United States military presence here was at the sufferance of the South Korean government, and more importantly, the sufferance of the South Korean citizenry. If the twenty-five million people of South Korea were to suddenly turn against us, the US would have to abandon its only remaining combat-capable presence in mainland Asia. The last of the major military units had withdrawn from South Vietnam just a few months ago, in accordance with President Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization.” Leaving Korea as well was something the American government didn’t want to contemplate. Not in the middle of a Cold War, the world divided between the Western powers and the Soviet Union and Red China.
Thus, until proven otherwise, the three men who robbed the Kukmin Bank weren’t Americans. A fiction that Agents Burrows and Slabem could tolerate, even pretend to believe. One that Ernie and I couldn’t. And that was why we’d been ordered to stay on the black market detail, chasing down Korean military dependents who were buying cigarettes and freeze-dried coffee and imported Scotch at the 8th Army Post Exchange and selling it to black marketeers at twice what they paid for it.
Honest work for us. Sort of. But I doubted that Burrows and Slabem had the skill or tenacity to find these bank robbers, which was likely why 8th Army had assigned them to the case.
“So you two are just sitting on your butts doing nothing?” Strange asked.
“Nope,” Ernie said. “I’m seriously considering reaching across this table and slapping you in your fat chops, then kicking your butt from here to the parade field.”
Strange sat up taller. “I’m a Sergeant First Class,” he said. “You can’t do that to me.”
“Keep mouthing off,” Ernie said, pointing his forefinger at him, “and I’ll eventually manage to override my respect for your exalted rank.”
“That’s more like it,” Strange said, glancing back and forth between us, unsure if he liked that answer but willing to pretend it worked for him.
“Find out what you can,” I told Strange, “about what the Chief of Staff is telling the Provost Marshal.”
“Because Eighth Army policy can change direction as fast as a fart in the wind. We want to be ready for it.”
Strange glanced at us slyly. “You’re planning on investigating on your own, aren’t you?”
“You don’t have a need-to-know,” Ernie told him. “Just do what the man says.”
After I bought him a cup of hot chocolate with two marshmallows, Strange promised he would keep his eyes and ears open at the head shed.
“What about us?” Ernie asked as we walked out of the snack bar. “We going to let Burrows and Slabem screw this thing up?”
“Not on your life. These guys, whoever they are, robbed a bank in Itaewon, and Itaewon might as well be our hometown.”
“Can’t let them get away with crap like that,” Ernie said. “Not in our neighborhood.”
“No way. We’ll catch these guys and make ’em pay for what they did, regardless of whether the Eighth Army honchos like it or not.”
“They definitely won’t,” Ernie said. “Not if it embarrasses the Command.”
“We’ve embarrassed them before.”
“Yeah. Which is why we hold an esteemed place on the Eighth Army shit list.”