CHAPTER 4 – Mortuary

They met in the most unsavory, unromantic place in the entirety of the Nam war theater. How well Ulises remembered it all.

By a fluke, that early May afternoon Ulises paid a visit to some hole-and-corner forensic laboratory at at the northend shore of Da Nang air base. In a refrigerated and dank room under a circular surgery lamp, Kikei Santos busily toiled on a death mask of a Special Forces colonel. Duque walked into the room silently and noticed the mortician was not aware of his presence.

The body lay on a gurney covered by a green, operating room sheet, legs out and arms tucked under. Lucas saw no blood stains on the cloth, nor a plastic bag enclosure, so he presumed the officer died of natural causes. Duque cleared his throat emphatically to gain her attention.

“Fuck!” The lady officer jumped up startled hard. “What are you doing in my morgue, soldier? How did you get in?”

“The door was open.”

“No, it wasn’t. That entryway has an external loaded spring to keep it closed and an interior latch to lock it.”

“The door was open. I mean, not locked,” Duque insisted. “I’m doing delivery of mortuary paperwork. It’s my first time here in this cadaver deposit. I may have strayed into the wrong opening. Is this your personal hole in the wall?”

She unwillingly smiled. “Oh, God, a standup comic in jungle fatigues. OK. you made me laugh a little. Leave the papers on that table and quietly slide away.”

Duque gazed at the body and then at the technician in her long mortuary robe. She was a bit over five feet tall with short, wavy hair. Since Duque did not move she glared at him with large, dark eyes in the shape of inverted almonds. Her eyebrows were a bit thicker than those of other nurses Ulises had met at the base. Three tiny, natural beauty marks were spread strategically all over her face, the largest almost at the center of her forehead in bindi  style. He swiftly made a mental note of her body-fit jungle fatigues. The drill material drew up with precision her wide hips and rounded buttocks. The rip stop fatigue shirt with its slanted pockets full of pens and stainless steel scissors showcased a full bosom. Not large, but firm and pleasantly pointed.

She must be Latina, Ulises Duque remembered thinking. A coquettish one, who probably had a Vietnamese seamstress in town to tailor the uniforms to her curviness. He tried to imagine her in undies while getting a fit. His mind rapidly wandered into every tailor shop he knew existed in Da Nang’s old town, poking around chimerically for her sewing lady’s backroom.

“Well?” the officer snapped as she noticed his drool. Ulises quickly jumped out of the illusory traipse.

“Uuuh, listen. Although I’m not in the Medical Corps, I’ve been put in charge on all the casualty reports, health records, sanitation procedures and medical supplies for our troop. We don’t have a medic yet. You’ll be seeing me around here frequently. Hi. I’m Ulises Duque, assigned to an expedition troop up at Rumba Hill, in Chu Lai.

He extended out his hand for a shake. She now stared at him impatiently. Both her gloved hands were smeared with mortuary mascara.

“Out” she added, this time with the overtones of a military order.

“OK, OK, mam. Just one more matter. Are you Hispanic? I’m from Puerto Rico. But, you know, raised in New York. Moved there after my mother and then my father passed away on the island. He left me a small endowment and I went on to do grad work on musical anthropology. Syracuse University,” Duque said eagerly.

Her entire body suddenly relaxed a bit. She turned around to the corpse and continued her work. Two more layers of the plaster went on and then she covered the masked face with a damp cloth napkin that she pulled out from a battered steam autoclave. Duque decided to stay put, stay quiet.

“Hang on while I finish this procedure,” she finally said.  Duque put the papers on the table and walked over closer to the grossing station.

“Don’t touch anything”, she ordered and then pointed over to a corner of the room for him to stay. “I’m Lieutenant Kikei Santos, the officer in charge at this shadow morgue. Put on a sterile mask. They’re over in that drawer.”  Duque took one but kept it in his hand.

She worked in silence for a few minutes, collecting forensic instruments, putting them in usage sequence inside a pan with sterile liquids, thoroughly washed another bowl with the leftover material under a tall faucet and large sink. Duque knew in an instant she was powered by a punctilious mind.

“I too am of Puerto Rican descent,” Santos said, her back to him. “But, born and raised in Hawaii. Never been to the land of my ancestors.” She spoke over her shoulder toiling over the cadaver in preparation for the final top layer. “It’s ironic. This US Army commando colonel was hit by bullets five times and badly wounded by fragmentation. He survived, yet died two days later of septicemia after stepping on a punji trap during an extraction attempt at the Plain of Jars.”

Ulises came closer, arms crossed over his chest to relay to her that he would not touch anything. “He’s got the body build of Charlton Heston.”

Santos gave Duque a sneer.

“Sorry,” he pleaded. “I’m a cinema fiend. Of film musical scores,  anyway”  The lieutenant shrugged slightly and went on.

“He wasn’t supposed to be where he was,” she went on. “Neither his troops.  They call this now special ops,” said Santos. She became suddenly engrossed in thought and added in a low voice:  “I’m not supposed to be telling you all these things.”

“It’s OK.” said Duque. “I’ve got security clearance.”

“I don’t know why, but I can sense you’re a discreet gentleman and  mature, too. Also, put that mouth mask on. In my morgue, you do as I say,” Kikei expounded, facing Duque now straight on.

Duque complied, holding the mask with two fingers, taking it off to converse. “Anyway, the guy’s a corpse,” he sentenced. “Doesn’t matter anymore now where or how he died.”

While she beat some more alginate into a puree inside a larger bowl for the new batch, Santos went into a low litany, as if dictating into a voice machine. She narrated how the officer was killed during a covert operation, deep in the Laotian side of the border where his team had a secret camp for sabotage operations. The Green Beret squad of six and three Montagnards fell during an upland valley ambush while trying to extract a downed Skyraider pilot who parachuted into the Jars plateau soon after strafing North Vietnamese infiltration routes.

On the spot, soon after hitting the ground, Pathet Lao insurgents shot the aviator dead, she explained in a monotone. The American commando team succumbed after a twelve-hour standoff defending the corpse of a fallen airman. Kikei Santos then went quiet, diligently performing the final mask procedure while cautiously hiding from Ulises certain details of the grim episode. 

At Bao Cat now, Duque remembered how months later after the morgue encounter, while doing some aerial searches for Bao Cat with captain Cardenas, he found out from a buddy helicopter pilot some more knotted facts about American clandestine operations. His friend regularly did covert insertions of commando soldiers into Laos and Cambodia. It turned out that the colonel had also been manically searching for Bao Cat for almost a year, in covert liaisons with captain Ruddy Cardenas himself.

But, that day at the morgue, Ulises was only interested in the lady mortician’s agile hands as she nimbly spread the final gel on the dead officer’s face.  Her lithe fingers danced about deftly over the tight skin as if playing an descending arpeggio on a piano keyboard, her unpainted lips puckering and pouting as she calibrated the depth of the mask. To his shame, Ulises felt a certain pubescent arousal.

Her entire demeanor, the graceful way she moved her limbs around the work table, her intensity, the wide curves under the jungle fatigues… All immediately latched unto his war-stifled sexual yearnings. Now he ached for this woman.

“Time now for the final impression.” she said softly and with a certain melancholy. Ulises reeled. He intuited a musicality of woe with angst in her voice.

She now put on a mouth cover and began with the highest features. First, the jaw and nose, cheekbones and then spreaded over to the entire countenance.  It turned out, this was an atypical day for lieutenant Santos. As Da Nang’s official base mortician, death masks were an anomaly. Her principal mission at the morgue was to clean up and prepare bodies of fallen commandos for quick, furtive shipment back home. The invisible dead of  Viet Nam’s secret wars.

Santos discretely instructed Ulises that her duties as the only officer in charge of the surreptitious morgue were to be hush-hush. No loose comments out of the morgue door. Hermetical. 

“Of course, mam,” confirmed Duque.

“Officially, anyway,” Kikei stated with a snide. “Because even the VC knows about this place. We’ve been mortared twice. Most of the shadows we get here usually die in places that the US military is not to be, nor the VC insurgents supposed to go. Everyone illegally penetrates each other’s domains,” she casually said while placing both her hands lightly over the still bland mask.

“That’s what wars do, mam. Break every rule of civilized order. What’s your charge? I mean, what do you do to wrap up  –no pun intended–  such cases?” asked Ulises, feigning utmost interest. Somehow he sensed this woman’s ghastly work and the loneliness of the tasks, gave her a longing for live conversation.

“These bodies, by the set protocol of cloak-and-dagger operations, are to be disposed of diligently and speedily. No traces of cause. No overt reports of time and place. It’s sad. So much heroics for so little glory,” said Santos, this time without a single inflection in her voice. She was talkative, Duque remembered, but usually with a cold disposition, much like the skin temperatures of her undercover stiffs.

Walking back his memory to that day, Ulises remembered that Kikei Santos did explain that the colonel’s very traditional and military family from Virginia knew well-placed politicos in Washington and key people at the Pentagon. Through the high command grapevine, the survivors requested a death mask before his metal casket was to be sealed.

“The mask is to be a family military heirloom,” the lieutenant said as she spread the final layer and covered her opus with a another cloth towel to let it all air dry.

Kikei Santos then took off her mouth cover and gave Ulises a hard, deep stare as if he were one of the newly arrived corpses she inspected daily for a final disposition. He froze. Yet, he also instantly sensed hers was a intense, bottomless stare, deep into his soul. A sentimental x-ray of  silent endearment as only woman were capable of.  Duque felt goosebumps somewhere in the inner linings of the flesh. The almondy eyes glared intently, blinked then lighted up with a gushed alchemy of Polynesian sesuality and Caribbean firebranding. The gaze unsettled him in ways he could not surmise. 

It was a bizarre stirring, rather an urge to commit to this newly found woman; an impetus to engage and protect. Strangely, a feeling also tainted with the impetus to give of himself fully to her. Spiritual nuptials, Kikei Santos later termed the moment.  All with a cadaver as a main witness.

Ulises quickly acquiesced her with his eyes. Their gazes morphed to empathy, mutually embracing a shared emotion. No words came out, but both grasped the same feeling, fully tuned into each other, as if playing a violin and viola concerto in duo. The melodics of awoken  love.  

Yet, in an instant, the quick-minded lieutenant snapped out of it. He  sensed immediately how she fought off the warmth and went about her routine chores in silence, hiding from him a shy blush of the soul.

Duque despaired as the enchanted moment puffed away so swiftly. Helplessly, noted how fast the mortician Kieki Santos inhumed her emotions. Felt the vibe of cold distance in the room. A mechanical rebuff. He wondered whether it was her military training as an officer, or a female’s instinct of self protection from sentimental depredation.

Too late, though. Ulises Duque had already picked up a stronger, deep vibe in her. A sensual   beat unwillingly humming out her her psyche. A one which she could not disguise.  Fast enough he attuned to the inner stirring of tenderheartedness and candid giving of herself. He delighted in it because it was at a tempo akin to his own. Matching pulsations. Raw, sudden ardent vibes dancing inside their souls and outside that tenebrous mortuary ward.

Thus it happened. Duque recalled it all so well. A forbidden serendipity. A sudden entanglement with a captivating woman garbed in a forensic tunic. And he quickly surmised for him a fresh, new destiny with all the complexitiesof entailed by the happy providence. The list in his mind included the tragedy of love amidst a war scenario. The certainty of death. Lack of free reign as a simple foot soldier. Restrictions put on any rank miscegenation. 

Yet, he would take it all on with a heroic heart.  Kikei Santos was his nw  purpose in life, a necesarry love quest because he had been loveless until now.

It didn’t matter many enemy bullets the adversary fired his way from a jungle tree line, a  canopy top, an ambush bunker. Love made him invincible and he would survive all for her. 

By sentiment and fate, Duque felt entangled to the lady in the mortician robe. It didn’t matter, likewise, how many refusals Kikei Santos would aim at his heart.


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