Chapter 2 – Zinged

   

After a sniper shot put Duque down, the peculiar battle of the remote hamlet on the ridges of the Annamite Mountains took on an offensive intensity.  Inside Duque’s throat, the made-in-China slug seemed alive and burning.  In the wake of being a desintralled spirit for an instant, he was again an injured body and it ached. He gasped for air but with a certain sentiment of honor. The annals of the war in Vietnam would jot down a footnote that he had become the first casualty of the assault on Bao Cat.

As he began to shake away such vain thoughts, three more shots hit the ground around him, no doubt aimed at the nearby machine gunner.  Charlemagne Papio Pina, nicknamed Pap Eye –because soldiers usually baptize each other with suitable battlefield monikers– snapped out of his stupor. He moved forward towards the gate, knelt on one leg and let out a long blast of suppressive fire with the M-60.  He then hit the ground low again and reloaded another belt of ammo.

The platoon a few meters behind Duque and down the sloping path, began to cautiously flank the hamlet through taller foliage. They also let go a rapid rifle fire sequence and a few pistol volleys.  Soon Ulises heard the double zoot-zoot of Jairo Jaramillo’s grenade launcher followed by ensuing explosions behind the village pig pen. The attack maneuver,  led by the feisty lieutenant Jeremy Popper began at last to garner some operational unity.

“Free fire. Open fire. Move to the quaters,” Duque could gear Popper desperately screaming orders.

Under the protective volley, Papio anxiously crawled back next to Duque and wrapped a sweat towel around his neck to hold the bleeding. He then moved nearer to the gate entrance and let out a few more bursts of machine gun fire.

Bullets zinged all around the hamlet, ricocheting off the volcanic boulders or swallowed swiftly by the thin, straw walls of the huts. Clay pottery atop rustic benches at the central plaza split up into fragments as straw baskets tumbled in shatters to the hard ground.  A hog, half his snout blown away by shrapnel, ran around crazily, squealing in pain. Chicken, geese, ducks and an old rooster sought refuge in the shrubs.

Ulises did another eye search for the sniper.  No sight of villagers anywhere. He got the sense that the dwellers, or their custodial guerrillas were now in deep trenches, in  tunnels or sniping from atop the thicker trees above the ridge.

Immediately after the apparition vanished, Ulises felt another terrible pang in his Adam’s Apple and his throat became engorged with saliva. A drivel of blood burped out one side of his mouth.

In this new death throe, the bridled poet in him sprang loose. Just his luck –Duque fancied– a young life oozing vitality into the crystal brook that sprang out from the thick jungle, streaming down hamlet rivulets, past gigantic boulders and cascading to the river valley below. He imagined the waiting waterways beneath him would carry his lifeblood eastward towards the China Sea, on to the oceanic currents. Back home to the west.

Probably not, he assumed. No current backtracks itself.  Yet Duque fantasized that once in the Mekong Delta, his life sap would retrace north and taint crimson the River Sai Gon. The majestic Song Sai Gon. Vietnam’s waterway of life and just last summer the backdrop for his love days with Kikei Santos. The setting for his Sai Gon Song to her heart.

The Sai Gon waters. Since time immemorial, Vietnam’s riverine artery  –boggy and clouded with the blood of its ancestral poets and patriots. Set now to become the spiritual grave for a foreign bard, sacrificed by comat to love rebuffed. A liquid potter’s field to lay to rest the vital fluids of Ulises Duque, the willing musician of war, yet reluctant warrior. While braveVietnamese souls before him died in patriotic glory for the Fatherland, Ulises was giving up the ghost as a downcast, scorned lover. Or was it spite and impatience?

Drowned in such thoughts, Duque began to tremble. So little time left to figure it all out. He sighed deep and silent, seeking to calm his drumming heart. As spirit and body wrestled to let each other go, Ulises yearned to compose what he expected to be a last sanguine song. A tune in cadence with a swiftly languishing anatomy that would sing no more. A big sob assembled in his throat, but it refused to  escape from the bullet-broken crannies of his voice box. Desperate, Ulises searched once more for the monk’s spirit.

Amid the dead tree limbs dangling from escarpments of the Annamite Sierra and  ridges fringing the Laotian border, Duque sensed that whatever melody came to him now was no love song.  Instead, the ancient requiem soldiers hear when fatally shot in battle. A hymn to the futility of dying without a gallant fight. A farewell dirge to the estrangement of war, accompanied by a choral group of Cambodian vultures. He stared in angst at the expiry birds, sitting there stoic and stern amid the jade choir stalls and pee green misericords of the jungle cathedral.

“God!  How long would it be to the end?  Rigor mortis will soon set in by this bamboo gate and crumbling monkey bridge and to what purpose?”  he cried to himself.   Bao Cat… Truly not a quaint place to die, Duque supposed. A place with no strategic value, not even found in ancient Chinese maps. A futile war trophy.

To get to Bao Cat in search of the the guerrilla commander Quyet Thang, all summer Duque plied through piles of tattered Viet Minh war chronicles from the early nationalist rebellions. He peered into old French annals predating the Second Indochina War and some captured rebel diaries, including insurrection battle logs. With translations by lieutenant Boi Pham and prodded on by captain Rodolfo “Ruddy” Cardenas, Duque went on to peruse hundreds of frayed maps, propaganda pamphlets, civil registries or arrest and interrogation records stored in shuttered, dark and damp colonial Securité stations in downtown Saigon. The captain was frenetical in attempting to profile Thang’s real identity and locate his secretive whereabouts. Duque discovered that Quyet Thang was a nom de guerre and it seemed the crafty guerrilla honcho had designed the optimum hideout. As a teenage radical in 1954, after escaping from the infamous French penal island of Paulo Condore disguised as a woman, Thang had been on the run in charge of underground guerrilla cells and assassination squads.

Still clueless by the end of summer, Cardenas –a savvy US Army field intelligence officer–then led Boi and Duque to remote battle sites wherever field testimonials pertinent to Quyet Thang bearings could be jerked out of shady Viet Cong informants, or new and too eager deserters. All to no avail.

Cardenas always carried a leather pouch filled with covert military intel charts that all in the troop figured had accurate tacks for the location of the elusive guerrilla chieftain. All hoped that the haphazardly  gathered intelligence would finally convinced the captain that Thang was so invisible because in fact, he layed buried in an unmarked tomb at a village communal cemetery. That would signify the end of an obscure mission, troop disband and return of the Papa, Whiskey, Tango field company soldiers to their original units to wile away their remaining time in Vietnam.

Not quite. Duque recalled how primarily hellbent on exerting reprisal, Cardenas asserted the cunning Viet Cong commander to be alive and deadly, needing to be promptly humiliated, chastised for the rash of executions committed against US and South Vietnamese military officers. Secondly, Duque knew the captain needed to gain fame as a top Vietnam war theater intel officer.  But the maps and the old French or Viet Minh tomes did not help his cause. In despair, honed in psychological warfare during his second tour in Vietnam, Cardenas turned to less worldly sources by shifting the quest towards the portals of the Vietnamese spirit world. The phantom chase led to Bao Cat.

Half stunned with such evocations, a gush of chemicals began suffocate Duque’s moribund brain. Memories became a slop of mismatched events and feelings, all swirling about in parallel threads. As his body bled in cinematic slow motion, Ulises felt himself sitting front row to his life drama. Dreamscapes in vivid,  chromatic virtuality.

A Bao Cat’s deathbed, Duque felt a final hum of musical strands. The rhapsodies and diapasons of his soul in fugue. A melody for each moment in life. Varying tempos and beats for every ordeal. The inner music vibrated stronger as his body became weaker. 

It had always been that way.  In him, feelings always took a melodic mood. Emotions became wrapped in tonalities captured from the world around him. Jampa Kuchen, the monk had explained  to him that it was the psyche inhaling the effluvia of vibes ejected by living things in the landscape. Duque’s way of metabolizing sentiment with musicality. 

 

 

 

He marveled. In the present agony, Ulises evoked a lazy summer afternoon at Firebase Marshmallow when he shut down the grotesque roar of war and composed tunes to homesickness, fleeting love,   youthful escapades and to the agony of military disruption. He remembered the jocular calypso he strung together with his guitar for the Papa, Whiskey, Tango company troupe. One line for each of the troop’s three ragtag platoons.

Papa loves mambo  /  Our captain loves Whiskey   /  It takes two to Tango   /   Search and destroy too risky   /  Use  pineapple grenade and a mango /  Make the VC scramble…   

The tune lacked no festivity. It reeked with tropical verve and an unstoppable conga beat. Under captain Cardena’s behest and Duque’s musical mentorship, the Tango platoon came together as a Latin pop band for morale uplifting of Latino grunts in Nam’s perilous  First Corps  tactical zone. For a short spell that summer of 1967, the ensemble did a string of tours along central Vietnam’s forward position firebases and played twice to US military headquarters troops in Saigon. The allied Vietnamese military commanders at Tan Sun Nhut were mystified. This music was too far from the inelastic, traditional court music of the emperor days or the sullen, high-pitched notes of the national folklore.  Yet, Duque found they Vet commanders took a liking to the catchy rhythms and vigorous swing of the band’s tropicalia style.

Ulises baptized the ensemble Viet Nam Son. Partly to respect the Vietnamese tradition of dividing names into syllables and also in homage to the pleasurable, the unholy sensuality of the Cuban montuno son

The Papa, Whiskey, Tango sextet included two guitars, trumpet, an old German accordion brought in Da Nang’s black market,  PX bought bongos made in Japan, a home-fashioned conga with water buffalo hide, a pair of cracked maracas and three human voices. Some arrangements included a rustic, handheld marimba that staff sergeant Chuco Tabal fashioned out of  Vietnamese noble woods he found in the rural villages.

Duque preferred playing au naturale, no speakers or electrical hook ups for both a clear sound and practical setups at the rustic forward bases.  The marimba gave the troupe a sugary, cinnamon sound straight out of Mexico’s Chiapaneca jungles. When coupled with bongos, sticks or clave, the band exuded out a fiery, flirtatious footwork that no sane, living thing could forsake at the dusty dance floors of the military compounds.  As Viet Nam Son’s sound spilled all over the boondock enclaves, even the grunt’s macaque mascots twirled and twisted on their perches. Long tails swinging to and fro.  Duque conjured it all diaphanously.

“Tropical animals know too well the taste of a jungle sound,” proclaimed Cuban grunt and troupe main vocalist, Mimas Bolaños.  Raised in Miami Beach’s rundown South Point, he got rid of the Castillian  “ñ”   motu propio because when he migrated to the city from Cuba via Spain as a child, his gringo teachers got tongue-twisted when calling out his name.  In Nam, he dug up from his duffel bag an old girlfriend’s Spanish castanets and they were also thrown into the band’s instrumentation.  A succulent mix. Old World, Latin American and tropical music merged and went live to the US military jungle encampments.

Laying still and almost exsanguinate, Duque evoked the bizarre joy the band’s music stirred up amidst the rancor of battle. The band’s fare included Latino dance songs of the late 50’s to early 60’s and lots of Antillean calypso. Ah, some recent bossa nova sensuality. Viet Nam Son also cracked up mambo, boleros, three-step cha-cha-cha and the latest charanga styles from the streets of Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, majestic Havana. Plus, Duque threw in some mariachi euphoria for the chicano comrade-in-arms. When Viet Nam Son played Cherry, pink and apple blossom in mambo time up at the Marble Mountain Marine Base even chaplain Lombardi torqued his groin.

The almost Cuban national hymn, Guantanamera was a favorite of the crowds in their olive drab jungle fatigues as they sat under the dog day sun of the unshaded military bases below the Demilitarized Zone.  As impromptu dance partners, the nurse entourages and the Donut Dollies at the larger hospital bases gave the shows a perfumed, coiffured feminine touch. Atop the improvised bandstands, as he strung the acoustic guitar, Ulises remembered looking into the crowd faces trying not to seep in how many of the spectators would not be there for the next performance. Tango platoon musicians, included.

In a vapor memory, Duque  evoked how happily grunts at the firebases north, west and south of Da Nang, or troops arriving at replacement depots in Saigon, fell for Cardena’s musical charade  The warriors revelled, stomped their feet, clapped and danced on the sands of China Beach to the polyphony of the impromptu troupe. For the emotionally mangled grunts, Viet Nam Son was but a tuneful respite from the gruel and dread of the long-range patrols and the lethal ambushes.

The cherry soldiers not yet in battle, upon arriving to a Viet Nam Son show, probably imagined their war tour might be, after all, one big, sonorous wallop. An upbeat expedition under the pyrotechnics of luminescent flares, clouds of purple landing smoke, zinging tracer bullets, to a soundtrack of  conga drums and the roll of a thumping rumba. To Duque, at least it seemed so in those initial days of  the Papa, Whiskey, Tango assignment.

In late June, during a solstice day tour at the US Tan Son Nhut airport compound, Ulises recalled how a naval commander from Pentagon East  who had recently deployed to Nam after a tense Missile Crisis tour at Cuba’s Guantanamo Base, ordered a name change. The officer insisted that a “G” be added at the end of the band’s name.  He figured that “Song” was to be more acceptable and inclusive of the American GIs that were not of Hispanic extraction. Thus, much to Duque’s chagrin, the troupe became Viet Nam Song.  Of course, title name mattered little when soon Duque found out the band would be disbanded.

The sextet’s mission,though short-lived did become a joy for the Tango platoon. It provided the foot soldiers with some soulful satisfactions and a sense of reverie amidst the folly of their surreal days of war.

But, there were arms to bear and strange tidings to bare as Duque stumbled upon a less musical truth. The Son band was but a ruse for a more deadly, shadowy military mission that was to bring peril, harm and pangs of sorrow for all involved.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CHAPTER 4 – Mortuary

They met in the most unsavory and 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 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 soldier died of natural causes. He cleared his throat emphatically to gain her attention.

“Fuck!” The lady officer jumped up startled. “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 cadaver and then at the technician in her mortuary robe. She was a little five foot 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. Five tiny, natural beauty marks were spread strategically all over her face, the largest one almost at the center of her forehead in  bindi  style.  He swiftly made a mental note of her form-fitting 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, too 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 wandering into every tailor shop he knew existed in Da Nang’s old town, searching chimericaly for her sewing lady’s backroom.

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

“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 at Marshmellow 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 morgue 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 graduate work on musical anthropology. Syracuse University,” said Duque eagerly.

Her entire body suddenly relaxed. 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 as she toiled 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 musical scores,  anyway”  The lieutenant shrugged slightly and went on.

“He wasn’t supposed to be where was. Nor his troops.  Special ops they call it now. And you know, I’m not supposed to be telling you all these things,” Kikei expounded, facing Duque now straight on. “I don’t know why, but I can sense you’re a discreet gentleman and a mature one, too. Also, put that mouth mask on. In my morgue, you do as I say.”

Duque complied, holding the mask with two fingers, Taking it off to converse. “The guy’s a corpse,” he sentenced. “Doesn’t matter anymore now where 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, cautiously hiding from Ulises certain details of the grim episode as she diligently performed the final mask procedure.

In spite of it all, months later, during some aerial searches for Bao Cat with captain Cardenas, Duque found out from a helicopter pilot buddy of his other knotted facts about American clandestine border 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 liaison with captain Ruddy Cardenas.

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 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 Ulises Duque’s 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 low tone musicality of woe and angst in her voice.

She 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 then told Ulises that her duties as the only officer in charge of the surreptitious morgue were to be hush-hush to all. Hermetical.

“Officially, at least.  But even the VC already knows about this place. We’ve been mortared twice. Most of the shadows we get here,” she casually added while placing both her hands lightly over the still bland mask, “usually die in places that the US military is not supposed to be and the insurgents aren’t supposed to go. Everyone illegally penetrates each other’s domains.”

“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 task, 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,” Santos said, this time  without a single inflection in her voice. She was talkative, Duque remembered, but usually with a cold disposition, much like the skin temperature 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 bodies she inspected daily for a final disposition. He froze. He instantly sensed though, hers was a intense, bottomless peering deep inside his soul with the sentimental x-rays of endearment only woman had. So intense was her stare that he felt goose bumps all over his inner being.  The almond eyes glare gusted into an alchemy of Polynesian beauty and Caribbean firebranding that unsettled him in ways he could not surmise at that moment. The previous sensual stirrings this woman instilled in him, suddenly became urges to commit and protect; an impetus to engage and be hers. Truly strange yearnings in a military morgue and in front of a cadaver as main witness.

Ulises quickly acquiesced her with his eyes. Their gaze unwillingly interlaced with empathy, as if embracing a shared emotion that needed no words.  Yet, in an instant the quick-minded lieutenant snapped out of it. She went about her routine chores in silence, shyly blushing, Duque knew, at the soul. Inhuming her new  sentiments.

Too late. Ulises Duque had already picked up on her secret song, capturin an inner hymn of tenderheartedness and giving of herself, too He silently delighted on it because it was in tune with what he also felt. Matching pulsations.

Thus it happened, Duque recalled it so well. His incurable entanglement to a captivating woman in forensic lab tunics. A forbidden fixation to too exotic lover girl. He craved to play such a womanly instrument of fine melody.

But, he also knew that playing to her tune would require a relentless flow of tenderness; a gentle and unstoppable flow of seductions, albeit wanton passion. All with so little time for each other and much less free rein. A daring quest for a regimented foot soldier at war,

It didn’t matter, though.  Ulises Duque remembered how at the morgue he took it on with heroic sentiments, making the quest his unswerving purpose of life from that instance on and forever.

Breaking all  the military codes of conduct that need be. In spite of all the enemy bullets fired his way. No matter how many refusals his lover might aim at his heart.

   

 

Chapter 5 – Kismet

Half-conscious by now at the stony path, Ulises called it all back to mind, those South China Sea days at Da Nang. Somehow, the anguish of recall hurt deeper than his bleeding wound. Was it that a dying soldier becomes crushed by memory?

The remembrance stream took him back again to the somber morgue building as it sat all by itself in a corner at the northeast perimeter of the huge military compound by the shore under the Monkey Mountain radar sites. It was a secluded but well guarded area north of the lunated bay.

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. But in Nam at such a time, no security was ever bullet-proof

As fate determined it that day in late May, captain Ruddy Cardenas 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 aging 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 Quonset. Ironically, the Viet Cong cadre’s body laid in a refrigerated vault side by side with the face-masked commando colonel.

Duque suspected it was the colonel who led the professor’s kidnapping at Hue before moving to his covert mission in Laos. Ulises never told 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 the 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.

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, devised by the Da Nang spooks for the interchange of work 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 after he unloaded the apparatus . 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’s documents.

“Mission accomplished”, Duque said.

“I’ll get back to you for this. I’ll extract something from you soon,” the mortician joked.

“My heart,” .”

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 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.  Almost every day in Nam, half a hundred good GIs either die in battle. Or by 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. Coquettishly she had her short nails painted pearly white.

“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 formaities 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 the pass 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. His voice carried 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 the 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.

“Haven’t had time to cleanse the corpse yet,” said Santos as she expertly 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 and 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 the 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 as it took shape on her lips. Then, the air around him felt aromatized by mating hormones. Or, at least he imagined so. It was so long now that he had been without woman and felt shamelessly 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, in spite of the refrigeration inside the morgue. In fact, it transmitted a sensual heat into Duque’s body as if she had just inoculated him with lava flow.

“I like you your conversation.” 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,” Duque said with a stumble of words. “We can be tropical confidantes.”

Kikei moved her hand a bit up Duque’s arm, skin to skin almost to the sleeve roll of his jungle fatigue. It was then that he felt her full resonance.  An upswell of carnal stirrings tingled his flesh from a neatly stowed, yet silent, tremulous, beckoning urge, deep inside her body.

Kikei flushed at his realization of her sensuality but it was too late, what her tissues safely hid, her eyes revealed.

 

Enclosed in Kikei’s now subdued gaze, Ulises sensed  a hive of ardent beckoning. An subdued but strong urge for attachment, deceptively shrouded yet perceivable by the primal instinct of a man on the prowl.

It seemed to him at least a call for intimate cordiality, or at most, of a fiery passion. It pulsated under her skin in an invisible but harmonic cadence. Perhaps, Ulises  fancied on, something like hidden lava curls trapped in the entrails of the dormant Loihi seamount. Silently torrid, muffled but igneous, ready to eject from the core of an aroused, enkindled Hawaiian goddess body.