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|Publisher:||Open Road Distribution|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)|
About the Author
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By R.L. Crossland
Charter/Diamond BookCopyright © 1990 R. L. Crossland
All rights reserved.
It's not every tenant that gets to enjoy a bath with his landlady. Nor one so attractive as the long-legged porcelain doll opposite me.
But then again the taking of a bath here in Japan has been elevated to a social and spiritual occasion. Furthermore, Keiko, whose well-sculpted form had raised the height of my bathwater, was not your typical landlady.
"You're not too bad looking for dame hakkojin," she said, as if studying me for the first time. Dame hakkojin meant literally "useless man the color of luminous white paint." Keiko was a bit of a Japanese redneck. "You sure you're not tee-tee bit Japanese?"
I should start at the beginning. Like hundreds of other veterans, I heard the siren call of the Orient and vowed someday to go insanely Asiatic. It was an easy vow to take. A culture as rich and intriguing as Japan's makes the mere act of living, for an Occidental, an adventure. But above all, Japan still reveres adventure and the chivalrous warrior. My association with Japan has been a happy one.
"Look gray-eyed devil, don't start horizon-focus routine on me." She punctuated her comment with a splash. "Ara ma, much better to be bathing with the toothless old man picks up cigarette butts at Tokyo station."
Her tone softened. "You will not become serious at a time like this, I forbid it. Iya da wa! I don't like it. You make me sad when you become serious. With you seriousness and sadness are one."
In any event, the court martial made the decision to follow my vow all the easier. Perhaps if I had solicited publicity at the trial — receiving attention on the magnitude of the trial of Colonel Rheault of the Green Berets — I could have avoided the final injustice of a trial before the long green table. Regrettably that sort of publicity could only compromise other SEAL operations, and I was a man of codes and values and standards, none of which permitted the jeopardizing of men in the field for personal benefit. In the long run it made little difference, for my effectiveness as a military officer would be equally doomed by the taint of publicity or court martial. So I opted for the long green table, an ironic promotion, and an administrative discharge.
Later I met Keiko while salvage-diving off Honshu, in those first lonely months after discharge. As a remedy, she was over-cure for the Service Dress Blues. Raised among the Ama, women abalone divers on Izu Peninsula, she had, I was sure, cornered half the world's strategic reserve on curves. This in addition to inheriting their incredible endurance and phenomenal resistance to cold.
Like many Japanese women, she giggled into her hands and had a voice that made you think of wind chimes. But there was a pervasive impishness that was uniquely hers. She knew when to bubble with enthusiasm, and still rarer, when to be quiet. Sensitive and intuitive, she could read my moods like a newspaper. She was proud of her heritage and could be damned patronizing in her answers to my foreigner's questions. Aroused, she was the original Far Eastern spitfire.
Keiko was well known throughout Yokohama as the proprietress of the best restaurant and sushi bar on the waterfront. It was an enterprise she administered with the cool efficiency of a head accountant and the firm hand of a boss stevedore. Somewhere, someone long ago had started the rumor that Japanese women were submissive and fainthearted. Perhaps that was true, but I knew that in her case beneath that elfin manner and soft-spoken exterior lay a spine of 440-carbon steel. Stories about her evictions of unruly customers abounded. What she saw in me I never quite knew, possibly a similar inflexibility in matters of duty.
My delightful bathtub rested in an apartment above that restaurant, in a weathered-wood, quaintly Japanese building she owned. The apartment provided a refuge from the rigors of salvage diving — and the increasing number of free-lance military operations I was being called upon to engineer on a cash basis.
So here we both basked in the big boxlike tub, or ofuro. It had been a long day diving the ice-water salons of the Kamakura Mara, and every fiber of my neck and shoulders ached. A cool plum wine, an accommodating landlady, and a hot bath were surely the sinful answer to a broken-down frogman's dreams.
Keiko slid lower into the tub until only her beautiful long-lashed almond eyes were above the steaming water. Then, stealthily she kipped from sitting to prone as her eyes glided closer to mine. With an abrupt splash she bussed me and laid her cheek against my shoulder.
"Koibito, you have been captured by famed Japanese sneak attack," she giggled. "You must think of suitable ransom. There will be no rescue. MacArthur-sama is not around to rally the forces of right. Old Imperial Navel is gone."
"Have pity, you slippery Ama wench, on an impoverished sailor stranded on these beaches with no hope of ransom. Let's start with a proposition well-grounded in history. Will unconditional surrender do?" Holding my plum wine unsteadily, I gauged the appropriateness of counterattack.
"What hope do I have? I bow to your superior number. Keiko, you are perfidious, semi-inscrutable, and a peril-like credit to Nippon and ..."
"So na no? Is that so? Inscru-table? What means this word 'inscrutable'? I have not heard this word before."
"... the gal with whom I most enjoy discussing global strategy, unconventional tactics, and matters of state with. Inscrutable? Oh, mysterious ... er ... hard to fathom, hard to really know."
"Ah, I understan'. Yes, I am mysterious sometimes, ne? But it is you who is inscrutable, true?"
She reached over and gently dabbed her wet fingertips along the zipperlike scar on my right shoulder. "Sometimes I wish I could unzip one of these and get inside to see the true Quillon Frazer. Sometimes I see you thinkin' so hard but you never let me know what you're thinkin'...."
One of the girls from the restaurant called through the door to Keiko. A messenger had left a note for me downstairs.
Keiko looked at me with an appealing tilt to her head, her round breasts bobbing faintly with the motion of the water. Unconditional surrender. Yes, there is something to be said for unconditional surrender — to a magnanimous victor, accepted ever so gracefully.
The next November morning was crisp and clear. As I shaved, I studied the man beyond the mirror.
Inscrutable might have been an overplayed word because his appearance itself told too much. In his late thirties, the man was trim, hardy, with a relaxed but distinctly military bearing, and weary eyes. His high, broad cheekbones, those of a boxer or wrestler, were impassive, though his jet black hair hinted at Celtic turbulence. The broken nose told of a certain self-destructiveness. Only a faint glimmer deep behind the eyes revealed a wry and sanity-saving sense of humor. Frozen in a snapshot, he might have been an athletic stockbroker, a lobsterman, or a tennis pro. In the motion of real life, an erectness and slight rigidity of carriage betrayed a more adversarial calling.
No, little more than a quick look made it all too clear; here was a stiff-necked, hard-nosed, old-school officer who'd taken that duty-and-honor bilge seriously, and it'd nearly destroyed him. It was an easy guess that off watch he would be unremarkable in general — inclination to be cosmopolitan, perhaps; surely culturally adventurous, as that type generally were; occasionally roisterous, under the right circumstances. Study him stressed under the responsibility of command and all those drearily conventional attributes of the classic military officer oozed through the casing, like sweating plastic explosive. Incorruptible, steadfast, selfless, courageous — all that hokum people had once pretended mattered. Here he is, ladies and gents, a bygone archetype, the warrior monk, in modern dress. Sees command as a moral charge, he does, he does. Ready to share the burden of sacrifice with his men at any moment. Step this way, our next exhibit ...
In one aspect, however, the display of emotion, he was inscrutable; that element remained locked behind a case hardened will. Sometimes, not often, emotion flickered, accompanied by a subtle tightening of the jaw muscles. This single mannerism betrayed a building anger that might someday flare into white hot fury.
Soon I was bounding down for breakfast at Keiko's. Its heavy timbers and sophisticated Japanese joinery lent stability to the early morning. She handed me my usual breakfast of fried eggs and misoshiro soup, along with a business card and a smile. It was a lawyer's card with a note on the back. The lawyer was asking me to visit his office that afternoon to discuss a confidential matter. The address given was an impressive one in the Ginza section of Tokyo, a short train ride away.
As I had just finished the Kamakura Maru job and my next project wasn't for a week, I dug out a tweed jacket to make my turtleneck sweater more respectable. Then I set course for the Ginza.CHAPTER 2
Ginza in Japanese means market. The Ginza in Tokyo had evolved into the Far Eastern version of Fifth Avenue. Without the shoppers and signs to give it away, a visitor would be hard pressed to distinguish it from midtown Manhattan or the Market Street section of San Francisco.
Here, however, the constant throng of shoppers is quietly different. The crowds are thick yet without jar or aggression, a reflection on the ingrained courtesy of the Japanese. For some unknown reason you must pack the inhabitants of Tokyo more tightly before they reach critical mass than you can their Occidental cousins.
The law office was nestled in a modern tower of innovative design. There the receptionist greeted me with the proper mixture of cordiality and distance befitting a firm of significance. While I stated my business, I noticed her eyes drifted to the perceptible lack of crease in my trousers. She then announced my name into the intercom and remained unerringly polite and courteous as I cooled my heels in that outer office. Looking around the office, I concluded that this lawyer's client could afford the best. In salvage, I was neither the biggest nor the best, and under the circumstances this was the type of work I expected.
"Frazer-san, Sato-san will now see you. Please excuse his delay, he is most interested in seeing you," the receptionist murmured in flawless, inflectionless English, gesturing to the door on the left.
As I entered an office about the size of a small gymnasium, a forceful-looking gray-haired man rose and offered me his hand in firm American style. Sato, the lawyer, had clearly seen something of the world and was used to commanding respect. I sensed the calculating mind of a chessplayer, always three moves in the future, and that this trait fused well with his bearing, which would-have done honor to a Roman senator. Everything about his manner radiated tenacious intelligence.
Another older man — undoubtedly Western — lean, stooped, his beard streaked with white and gray — said something to me in an eastern European language and gave me a Continental dead-fish handshake. On an empty chair next to him lay a pile of outer clothing and a pair of sunglasses. Neither were suitable for November Japan. No, this wasn't going to be a marine salvage job, after all.
I'd never met either one of them before, but there was something hauntingly familiar about the stooped man and those mournful hound-dog eyes of his.
"Mr. Frazer, I am Kiyoshi Sato. I sent you the business card. Please be seated. This meeting must be kept in the strictest confidence...."
"... for reasons which my client assures me will soon be obvious. The gentleman here on my left, as I am sure you have already recognized, is my client, Sergei Kurganov."
I must have paled. No wonder he had looked familiar; Kurganov was the Iron Curtain exile whose novels had rocked the West to its long-ignored or forgotten foundations. Perhaps no man in this century had endured the fathomless pain or had seen the unquantifiable suffering he had — and still maintained the resilience to skewer the most powerful and oppressive political system in the world with his pen. He dwarfed the other great men of the decade. I could not help feeling humble.
Sato, sensing my unabashed awe, started in, "Mr. Kurganov, as you probably know, does not speak English. I do not know the reasons why he has arranged for this meeting. He has asked me to translate for him and, as a lawyer, keep these communications in the strictest confidence."
Sato began, at first haltingly, to interpret Kurganov's famous sardonic style:
"The creative thinking of the Soviet penal system established a rehabilitative marvel, the Corrective Labor Camp, to attend to its class enemies. Class enemies leave such camps vertically or feet-first. There is, of course, always some doubt about those who leave the camps vertically. It is, therefore, a credit to the camps that the majority of the inmates leave feet-first and unquestionably rehabilitated to the requirements of Soviet society."
Kurganov swayed slightly as he stood up, holding his hands tightly behind him as if still manacled.
"A statistically predeterminable percentage die in the railroad cars and on the trek to the camps. This cannot be helped. Those weak in ideology will be weak in body. In the frozen cemeteries that pass as Corrective Labor Camps, these class enemies — a good many of which haven't the remotest idea what they have done, and whose persecutors often have little better idea — may expect a degrading end in utter despair. Slow death by interminable beatings, exposure, or starvation are the prevalent options; the stronger, however, can add scurvy and pellagra to their choices.
"Families are divided among the camps. Daughters and wives are used by the camp officers, guards, trustees...."
And this stooped, frail man had withstood it all. He had endured fifteen years in an icy hell that, by sheer number of deaths, made Hitler's a five-and-dime operation. It was beyond imagining how anyone could survive the sixty-below-zero winters of Siberia in what we would consider spring street clothing.
But where and how did I enter into all this?
"... in calling the world's attention to this continuing atrocity, I incurred the wrath of the Soviet Republic (which had been so good as to return to me the freedom with which I had been born). I expected and was prepared to accept whatever treachery lay in store for me personally. By this time my wife was dead, my daughter, as if by a gift, insane. But the benevolent and all-knowing republic has found a way to bring revenge upon me, though it knows nothing short of death will stop my writing."
Yes, I thought, there was little that could or should stop his writing, yet what cost must a man pay — and keep paying? would he ever have any peace, whether he continued or not?
"As a university student before the war, I studied to be a physicist. At the university an older student from my hometown, Yuri Vyshinsky, took me under his tutelage. We were very close. It was he who introduced me to my wife. Those were happy times, vibrant with laughter in the student drinking halls. I was blissfully ignorant of politics and strove to remain that way.
"Yuri often asked me, in a veiled way, what good was harnessing the universe when at the same time men's souls were being tethered. 'Couldn't I think of any higher calling than physics?' I couldn't understand him. Wasn't he a physics student himself? I sensed he questioned my particular vocational choice. Despite these mystifying exchanges, we remained firm and loyal friends.
"Not until several years later, after capture with my artillery unit and my subsequent escape from a German POW camp, did I begin to understand Yuri. To our Soviet masters, the story of my escape and naïve return to the Red Army had to be the flimsy cover story of a spy. (In retrospect, I now fully appreciate how incredible such an act must have appeared to one who understood the Soviet system — which I did not, then.)
"The first weeks, those weeks before you're sent to a camp, are the hardest. I was thrown into an ancient prison east of Moscow. Despair is simply a word until you have survived long periods of torture and lack of sleep.
"Your thinking changes when the single driving purpose of life is the avoidance of pain. You begin to doubt everything and abandon all you once valued. You decide that you were a fool. Your whole spectrum was off center. If this is the depths of man's depravity toward man then you must shift your moral spectrum a good deal lower. You were aiming too high when you sought the center. You expected too much. Obviously if men permit such a system, this is the system they deserve. I had hit, I believe the American expression is, 'rock bottom.'
Excerpted from Red Ice by R.L. Crossland. Copyright © 1990 R. L. Crossland. Excerpted by permission of Charter/Diamond Book.
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