When a U.S. Army Claims officer stationed in South Korea is murdered in grisly fashion the roustabout duo of George Sueño and Ernie Bascom go against orders to track a calculating killer.
Early one rainy morning, the head of the 8th United States Army Claims Office in Seoul, South Korea, is brutally murdered by a Korean man in a trench coat with a small iron sickle hidden in his sleeve. The attack is a complete surprise, carefully planned and clinically executed. How did this unidentified Korean civilian get onto the tightly controlled US Army base? And why attack the claims officer—is there an unsettled grudge, a claim of damages that was rejected by the US Army?
Against orders, CID agents George Sueño and Ernie Bascom start to investigate. Somehow, no one they speak to has been interviewed yet. The 8th Army isn't great at solving cases, but they aren't usually this bad, either. George and Ernie begin to suspect that someone doesn’t want the case solved.
Martin Limón proves once again why he is hailed by his peers as one of the greatest military writers of his time.
About the Author
Martin Limón retired from military service after twenty years in the US Army, including ten years in Korea. He is the author of numerous books in the Sueño and Bascom series, including the New York Times Notable Jade Lady Burning, Slicky Boys, The Iron Sickle, Nightmare Range, and The Ville Rat. He lives near Seattle.
Read an Excerpt
The man with the iron sickle entered Yongsan Compound on a Monday morning in the middle of October at approximately zero seven forty-five. This is the hour when the bulk of the Korean workforce rushes through the pedestrian entrance at Gate Number Five toward the hundreds of jobs they fill in the headquarters of the 8th United States Army in Seoul, Republic of Korea.
He must've shown an ID card.
Most of the Korean workers wear them dangling from lanyards or clipped to their lapels. A contract-hire gate guard checked the identification of every person shuffling single file through the narrow passageway, a chore he'd performed every weekday for years. Interviewed later, he admitted he didn't have time to compare every card to every face. The crush of people was too great. So the ID card might've been a forgery or it might've been stolen, and there's at least the chance it might've been borrowed from someone else.
The weather that morning had been blustery, with cold rain splashing beneath the tires of the military vehicles and the big PX Ford Granada taxis rolling through the heavily guarded gate. An American MP wearing a rain-soaked poncho slowed each vehicle and peered inside, looking for unauthorized passengers. Occasionally, he ordered a driver to stop and pop open a trunk. If no contraband was found and all the passengers showed military or dependent identification, he waved them through.
At first it was thought the man with the sickle might've taken a cab onto the compound, but every PX taxi driver on duty that morning was questioned and not one admitted to taking on a non-US military fare. Dispatch records confirmed the main pickup points had been Niblo Barracks, the UN Compound, and Yongsan Compound South Post — US military installations, all — thereby corroborating their assertions. Korean taxis — often called "kimchi cabs" — are never allowed on US military compounds.
What we did know was the man with the sickle was tall for a Korean, a couple of inches short of six feet, and that he wore a rain- damp overcoat. After entering Gate Five, he made his way through the headquarters complex approximately a quarter mile to the 8th United States Army Claims Office. Many of the 8th Army headquarters buildings are long, stately, two-story brick edifices originally constructed during occupation by the Japanese Imperial Army. Since then, the 8th United States Army built cement block single-story offices in a row that runs behind the ornate headquarters building itself. These utilitarian constructs reach some two hundred yards to the 8th Army Judge Advocate General's Office. It was from amongst this row of buildings that the man with the sickle struck.
The sickle itself was a small farm implement the Koreans call a naht, a twelve-inch, crescent-shaped blade attached to a wooden handle about a foot and a half long. It is meant to be used with one hand, most often to cut rice shoots or to trim grass. But when this otherwise innocuous instrument is sharpened to a razor's edge, it can be used quite effectively for murder.
At approximately zero eight oh five, when the man with the sickle entered the front door of the 8th United States Army Claims Office, he was greeted respectfully by Mrs. Han Ok-mi, the receptionist. The man stood with his hands at his side, his overcoat buttoned, and nodded to Mrs. Han. She testified later that his speech was guttural, as if he was either extremely nervous or suffering from some sort of speech defect. She also noticed the right side of his lower lip was puffy and dark purple. Being a polite woman, she didn't stare at the deformity. The man with the sickle requested to see Mr. Barretsford, the civilian boss and the head of the 8th United States Army Claims Office. Mrs. Han asked if he had an appointment and then asked for his name, but both questions were dodged. Mrs. Han informed the man Mr. Barretsford hadn't yet arrived for work, but just as she was about to ask him to take a seat, Mr. C. Winston Barretsford barreled into the office, shucking off his raincoat and tossing his wet umbrella into a holder by the door. All the Korean employees stood. Barretsford smiled and waved a hello, then rushed into his office and shut his door. The man with the sickle asked again if he could speak to Mr. Barretsford, and Mrs. Han motioned for him to have a seat against the wall and told him she would let Mr. Barretsford know of his request.
The function of the Claims Office is to evaluate the validity of claims for reparations, compensation, and damages made by outside parties against the various units attached to USFK, United States Forces Korea. There are over fifty military compounds — infantry, air force, and even a naval facility down south at the port of Chinhae — and these units are constantly on the go, training and conducting military operations in defense of "Freedom's Frontier." During these operations things get broken. Rice fields are churned up by tank tracks; pear trees are knocked over by towed artillery pieces; pedestrians are injured when convoys careen down muddy country roads. Under the ROK/US Status of Forces Agreement, the injured parties are allowed to make formal claims for reimbursement. A system for adjudicating these claims was set up outside the Korean courts and, over the years, a cadre of attorneys who specialize in such claims has developed. These men follow the troops, search out victims, and solicit claims on behalf of the injured — or not so injured — parties. For a hefty fee, they apply for reimbursement from 8th Army. That Monday morning at the Claims Office, all the workers assumed that, even though they'd never seen him before, the man asking to see Mr. Barretsford was one of those attorneys.
Through the intercom Mr. Barretsford notified Mrs. Han that he would be in phone conference for at least a half hour, and if the man who wanted to see him wouldn't identify the claim he was there about, he would just have to wait.
Records at the Yongsan Compound telephone exchange later revealed Mr. Barretsford had been on the phone to his wife, Evelyn Barretsford, who lived in their quarters on South Post. His wife would testify they'd been arguing about whether or not they could afford another midtour leave back to the States during Christmas break since they'd just shelled out a bundle for a trip home during their daughter Cindy's summer vacation. Finally, after slamming down the phone, Mr. Barretsford called Mrs. Han and asked her to bring three files he was working on into the office. Ever efficient, Mrs. Han already had the files ready and immediately rose from her desk and walked into Barretsford's office. According to the other workers at the Claims Office, the man with the iron sickle followed, uninvited.
What happened inside the office is somewhat unclear. Mrs. Han suffered only minor cuts and bruises inflicted when she tried to intervene, but her testimony is hampered by the hysteria that is brought on every time the attack itself is mentioned. At the advice of her doctors, 8th Army law enforcement has not been allowed to interrogate her and can only go by what she managed to babble after the incident.
The physical evidence was clear. The main cause of death of Mr. C. Winston Barretsford was a six-inch slash across the neck. The cut was so surgical that Barretsford was almost certainly not expecting it. Anyone, if by nothing more than reflex, would've raised their hands and stepped back to ward off the blow. The man with the sickle must've whipped the sickle out of his coat and slashed Mr. Barretsford's throat in one lightning-quick motion. It happened so fast and so unexpectedly that Mrs. Han didn't even scream right away. The workers outside testified they first heard what sounded like the desk being shoved and then Mr. Barretsford's chair falling backwards. During those few seconds, the man with the sickle lunged around Barretsford's desk and slashed him again and again with the wickedly sharp naht.
By then Mrs. Han was screaming bloody murder and everything was being spattered with gore, up to and including the uppermost Venetian blinds. In all, the 8th Army coroner counted two dozen stab wounds, all delivered in rapid succession and all but the first superfluous because that one had neatly sliced Barretsford's carotid artery, damaging it beyond any hope of repair.
By the time the workers outside recovered from their initial shock, the man with the sickle was already walking quickly but not hurriedly out of the office. According to at least one eyewitness, his overcoat was once again buttoned, and he seemed to be holding something beneath it. After he left, everyone rushed into Barretsford's office.
Mrs. Han was still wide-eyed and screaming, and Mr. C. Winston Barretsford lay in a growing pool of his own blood. Life still pumped red from the gaping wound in his neck. Finally, an onlooker of some presence of mind called the Military Police.CHAPTER 2
The 8th United States Army was on lockdown.
I stood with an MP named Grimes on a low hill overlooking a drainage ditch that slithered darkly beneath jumbled concertina wire. The hour was zero six hundred on the morning after the attack. Grimes shifted the weight of his M-16 rifle in the crook of his arm, took another long drag on his cigarette, and stared beyond the chain- link fence at the shadows that enveloped the Yongsan district of Seoul.
"Commies," he told me. "They want to chase us out of Korea, so when we ain't looking, they kill as many of us as they can find."
"You think that's it?" I asked.
"Course that's it." He exhaled resolutely. "But we ain't going."
Already the general assumption was the man with the sickle had been an agent for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea. The honchos of 8th Army were convinced the assassin was a trained professional who had been sent south to create mayhem and drive a wedge between the US and our South Korean allies.
"They're tricky, those Commies," Grimes said.
My name is George Sueño. I'm an agent for the 8th United States Army's Criminal Investigation Division. My partner, Ernie Bascom, and I had been drafted, along with every other CID agent and MP Investigator on the compound, to perform the duties of Sergeants of the Guard around the five-mile perimeter of the 8th Army headquarters compound. It was our job to patrol the fences and the gates every half hour to make sure the MPs and the contract-hire Korean gate guards were alert. We couldn't have another attack like the one at the Claims Office.
"Seen anything unusual?" I asked Grimes.
"If I did," he responded, "don't you think I'd report it?"
"I guess you would."
Without saying goodbye, I continued my rounds, strolling past the now-dark brick buildings of the headquarters complex, stopping to talk to the pacing Korean guards heavily bundled in hooded parkas, M-1 rifles slung over their shoulders. No one reported seeing anything unusual. All quiet on the Yongsan front. This extra security was a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped. Many of us thought it was a waste of time. But the brass didn't, and in the army, only the opinions of those with eagles or stars on their shoulders truly count.
After finishing my circuit, I made my way back to the MP station and pushed through the swinging double doors. Ernie was already back, lounging on a wooden bench, a copy of the Pacific Stars and Stripes in front of him; this morning's edition, just flown in from Tokyo. With the back of his hand, Ernie slapped the paper.
"Nothing in here about the murder," he said.
"They haven't had time," I replied, shrugging off my field jacket. "Their deadline was something like noon yesterday."
"Barretsford was dead before that," Ernie said. "They knew about it."
Ernie was right. The editors at the Stripes office in Tokyo must've known about the brutal attack on C. Winston Barretsford before they went to press, and yet they'd chosen not to print the story. So far, our only source of information had been chatter amongst law enforcement personnel and the tight-lipped briefing we'd received when assigned to our sections along the perimeter. The radio and television outlets of the Armed Forces Korea Network had been completely mum about the man with the iron sickle. It was as if he hadn't existed.
"They're shutting the case down," Ernie said. "Total blackout. I bet even AP and UPI won't be able to pick up on it."
"Maybe not." I drew myself a mug of coffee out of the big metal urn the 8th Army chow hall had set up for us. It was barely warm but I'd been out in the cold so long it tasted good.
"No maybe about it," Ernie replied. "And you can bet the Korean papers won't say boo, not if the ROK government doesn't want them to."
The military dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee kept a tight control on their own news outlets: print, radio, and television. So tight they occasionally arrested a reporter without trial and threw him in jail to rot for as long as the regime saw fit.
"Okay," I said, sitting down on the bench next to Ernie. "So Eighth Army's keeping it buttoned up. That doesn't make Barretsford any less dead. And it doesn't make the guy with the sickle any less out there."
"That's my point," Ernie said. "So far we haven't found zilch. No evidence that would lead us to this guy. Not even any clue as to his motive. With publicity, maybe somebody who knows something would drop a dime on him."
"You mean ten won."
"Okay," Ernie replied. "Ten won."
I picked the paper up off the bench, sipped my coffee, and started reading the front page story about two cub reporters who were giving President Nixon hell. It was fun to read, like a soap opera, and it took my mind off our current troubles. After finishing my coffee, I put the paper down, slipped back into my field jacket, and trudged out into the still, dark morning to make my final round of the perimeter. When I returned, I waited until Ernie had finished his inspection tour on the far side of the compound, and we marched over to the 8th Army movie theater. Colonel Brace, the Provost Marshal, was giving a briefing for law enforcement personnel at zero eight hundred, and our attendance was not only requested but mandatory. At the entranceway to the theater, a colorful movie poster announced the upcoming re- release of Steve McQueen and Candice Bergen in The Sand Pebbles.
"Don't they ever get any new movies?" Ernie asked.
I didn't answer. We pushed through the double doors.
Just past the empty popcorn machine, Staff Sergeant Riley, the Admin NCO of the CID Detachment, was taking roll. His thin body looked lost in the neatly pressed folds of his khaki uniform. As GIs passed, he checked names off a list on a clipboard.
"Fill up the front rows," Riley growled. "The Colonel doesn't want to shout."
"Yes, Teacher," Ernie said.
Riley pursed his thin lips and jammed his pen toward the front of the theater as if to say, "Keep moving."
During the day when he was sober, Riley was one of the most efficient men I knew. At night, he pulled out a bottle of Old Overwart he kept hidden in the back of his wall locker and laid into it. After three or four shots, he was completely stupid, which was how he wanted to be when the sun was down anyway.
Contrary to Riley's orders, Ernie and I took seats in the seventh row from the front. More CID agents and MP investigators filtered in. After about three dozen of us had taken our seats, the murmured conversation started to subside. Finally, Colonel Brace strode down the aisle. Riley shouted, "On your feet!" and we all stood at the position of attention.
Colonel Brace stared at us for a moment from the stage, then told us to be seated. Riley switched on an overhead projector and soon the Colonel was droning on about crime statistics and the progress the command had made since he'd taken over as 8th Army Provost Marshal. A couple of guys were starting to snore when he finally got to the point.
He informed us we were going to apprehend the man with the iron sickle.
"The Korean National Police think this is their baby," Colonel Brace said, "but they've got another thing coming. I've just been in conference with the Chief of Staff, and he says this happened on our compound, to one of our own. A Department of Defense civilian, but still someone who those of us here are sworn to protect."
He glared around the quiet theater, as if daring anyone to contradict him. No one did. All fifty thousand GIs stationed in Korea, their dependents, and the DOD civilians fell under our jurisdiction.
"The KNPs will be involved. We might need their help off compound, but it's us who are going to catch this guy. Is that understood?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Iron Sickle"
Copyright © 2014 Martin Limón.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Twenty years after the truce brought hostilities to an end on the Korean peninsula, the head of the 8th United States Army Claims Office in Seoul is murdered when a Korean man slices his throat with a small iron sickle, bringing in CID agents George Sueno and Ernie Bascom to investigate. The two have demonstrated in previous novels that they irreverently disobey orders but somehow achieve results. In this case, they are stonewalled by both the Americans and Koreans, both of whom apparently do not wish the two to solve it. It seems there is a dirty secret buried and the agents have to steal clues to guide their investigation. The author’s novels ring with authenticity gained from firsthand knowledge. He served 20 years in the Army, ten of them in Korea. As a result, the sights and sounds provide the reader with the real flavor of the city, the taste of foods, the nights filled with bars, drinks and sex. And, more important, the rigidness of the Army bureaucracy. Recommended.