Half-conscious by the stony path, Ulises called it all back to mind and the anguish of recall hurt deeper than his bleeding wound. Was it that a dying soldier becomes all shrouded in memory?
His remembrance placed him in the somber morgue building as it sat all by itself in a corner at the northeast perimeter of Da Nang’s huge military compound. It lay by the shore, under the Monkey Mountain radar sites just north of the bay. A well guarded but secluded area.
The US Army Special Operations Command had quietly set up the mortuary Quonset in the isolated stretch of the coast, accessed only by a narrow, hard sand road. Anyone who was to do business there required a special security clearance. So as not to attract much attention –Ulises figured out– no checkpoint or fences surrounded the morgue. Only a rustic Off Limits sign on a fence pole near the entrance.
As fate determined it that day in late May, captain Ruddy Cardenas had ordered Duque to visit the shut out morgue for a discreet pickup of documents. He was to collect maps and diaries found on the cadaver of an elderly Viet Minh cadre, kidnapped a month before from the Hue University campus where he disguised as a geography professor. A mixed team of US Army and South Vietnamese commandos abducted, interrogated and tortured the partisan to death.
The abductee’s body ended up at lieutenant Santos’ morgue for stealthy disposition. Such cases were disposed of even more expeditiously in a small crematorium behind the structure. Ironically. the Viet Cong cadre’s body laid till day of Dique’s in a refrigerated vault side by side with the commando colonel with the face mask.
Duque suspected it was the same officer who led the professor kidnapping at Hue before moving to his covert mission in Laos. Ulises did not tell Kikei, but the colonel and captain Cardenas were secretly working together to capture Quyet Thang.
Cardenas, in turn, suspected Quyet Thang had personally executed the Skyraider pilot at his camp in Bao Cat and later riddled the colonel with bullets during the extraction encounter. It was the guerrilla chieftain’s trademark in dealing with American captives.
Duque, for whom Cardenas had already procured a security clearance for such intel errands, arrived at the morgue under the guise of a medical equipment run. He faked the delivery of a portable autoclave for autopsy surgical instruments. The apparatus sat in the back of a tonneau covered Jeep that had been assigned to Ulises for such tasks. I
In a sealed envelope Duque carried the orders for lieutenant Santos to hand over the abductee’s documents. Only then would he deliver the autoclave. It was a swap ritual, Duque conjecture, devised by spooks to interchange instruments instead of secret code words.
Duque remembered the final conversation that day.
“You get the much-needed autoclave. I get the documents,” Duque told the lady mortician soberly. The lieutenant hesitated a bit, stared at the brand new machine, went over to the refrigerated vault and handed him a weathered leather pouch with the insurgent documents.
But, in those days Duque was not visiting the Da Nang military morgues by chance. As an added duty. Cardenas’ infantry company needed someone to formally identify casualties over at the graves-registration detachment in Chu Lai, another large military compound the Army grunts baptized as Fat City. The mission was now part of Duque’s weekly rounds as company clerk. He also frequently visited the other larger morgue at the Da Nang naval base where from afar he had once caught glimpses of Kikei Santos. He had not paid much attention to her presence then, nor knew of her duties. Yet, so soon were they to be face to face and their love lives braided.
As she cleaned up and put away the tools of the funerary mask, Santos became more chatty.
“You know… They don’t tell you these things at closed-door Command Center meetings, but a little math will. Every day in Nam, half a hundred good GIs either die in battle, in accidents, by self-inflicted wounds or by a varmint sting. Do your best to stay out of that statistic,” the mortician said as she took off the rubber gloves and slowly rubbed hydration cream on her hands.
“I sure will. And now that we’ve met, more than ever,” said Duque.
Lieutenant Santos gave him a hard stare. “I don’t think we’ve met formally yet. But one cannot expect such protocols in Vietnam. What did you say your name was?”
“Corporal Ulises Duque. Chief courier for the Papa, Whiskey, Tango platoons at Fat City. I do all the paperwork for our executive officer captain Ruddy Cardenas,” Ulises briefly repeated.
“Chief courier, huh?” the lieutenant said humorously. “Well I’m the Lady of the Lamps of the US Army stiffs. You know all that Florence Nightingale kinda crap.”
“Ah, I see you also read the Catcher in the Rye novel,” Duque said triumphantly.
“Of course, at Honolulu High. Who hasn’t read it? Anyway, hope you have a security pass. Otherwise you’re not supposed to be here.”
Duque was taken aback by the new attitude. “I do. I am the captain’s special aide.”
“Yeah, yeah. Your the company mailman. Show it to me,” Santos said tersely, lips twisted to one side. Duque pulled out from his undershirt a hanging, plastified ID card with the security pass. She nodded and walked over back to the cart on which colonel’s body laid. She checked the mask for consistency.
“Am I supposed to call you mam?” Duque inquired with a tinge of sarcasm.
“Probably. But you don’t need to. Put on these gloves and help me remove the plaster cast. My two Vietnamese assistants are off today. Don’t pull back hard. Just follow my cue as I gently lift up the mask.”
She positioned Ulises across from her on the cart and bent down on the cadaver torso, placing all her fingers at the sides of the cast. The formaldehyde scent in her hair wafted up to Ulises’s nostrils. The sheet covering the body partially slipped off and he could see dry, crusted rings of blood around bullet holes on the colonel’s chest. Caked hemorrhaging circled the abrasions of the shrapnel wounds. Duque could imagine the agony and trauma of the warrior’s last hours. Expertly, Santos began lifting the mask from the top down.
“Very slowly lift up with me until we are in synch for a pullback,” she instructed. They hoisted together. In a few seconds, the mask was off. To Duque’s surprise, the colonel wore a soft smile on his lips. He had expected a grimace of torment.
“He actually looks more life Jeff Chandler. You know, the smiling, silver-haired Chandler?” Ulises quipped. “But… that smile…”
Santos quickly detected his curiosity.
“Out of compassion,” she said,” we fix up the faces. Only in certain cases, of course. It’s because some kin insists on an open casket. Or request a mask, as in this case. Both instances are rare, but do occur. We’ve even had cases of kin who do not want their dead soldier back. Or, of GI’s put in plastic bag in the battlefield while in a catatonic shock. They later wake up in my morgue. That always scares the shit of me.””
“I wouldn’t want a faux happy face for my burial. Nor my family to stare at my last anguish,” Duque commented dryly.
“Not to worry. You said you’d be out of my casualties statistics.”
“True,” Duque shot back quickly. He took a furtive glance at his watch. Captain Cardenas was probably wondering of his whereabouts.
“Ah. One more thing I need to do here today,” Santos said. “Bear with me a second.” She took out a scalpel from a drawer, made a small cut of the colonel’s flesh on the chest area near the cross-chest autopsy incision. She stored the tissue sample in a vial and into her pocket. “Some more shadowy stuff. This I cannot talk about.”
“Of course,” Ulises accepted. He was about to take leave when lieutenant Santos yawned hard, took off her lab rope and stretched out in a gymnastic-type maneuver. “I’ve been up with this case since the first rooster crows this morning.”
Duque now got a full breadth of her. She was so not tall, yet ported a sensually full, curvy figure. She stared at him groveling over her and he detected a faint smirk form on her lips. Then, the air around him felt aromatized by mating hormones. Or was it that he had been without woman too long and by now, drowning in wanton lust.
He shut his mind and was about to leave when she put her hand on his arm. It was not cold, spite of the refrigeration inside the morgue. In fact, it transmitted a sensual heat into Duque’s body as id she had just inoculated him with lava flow.
“I like you.” Kikei brashly said. “It’s so lonely here. This work. You know, the dead and the clandestine. I think we can be friends.”
“Sure, sure enough, of course. We can be tropical confidantes,” Duque said with a stumble of words.
Duque’s jungle fatigue sleeves were rolled as Kikei kept her hand on his arm, skin to skin. It was then that he felt her full resonance. An upswell of carnal stirrings, neatly pacified, yet silent, tremulous, beckoning. What the flesh safely stowed her away, her eyes revealed.
In Kikei’s now subdued gaze, he saw a host of amatory needs. A beckoning for intimate attachment, deceptively shrouded but perceivable. At the least amity, at most fiery passion. He felt it there pulsating in rhythmic cadence. In a silent turmoil, expecting someday to burst out like the hidden lava curls of the dormant Loihi seamount. Torrid, igneous. Ready to spurt out from within the under skins of her enkindled Hawaiian body.
♠ ♠ ♠