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.