It was another muggy summer evening in Song-tan, South Korea, an industrial city roughly sixty miles south of Seoul, and I was playing salesman in my wife's jewelry store located in the Ville, the GI term for the ten square blocks of shops, bars, and whorehouses outside the main gate of Osan Air Base. A vaguely familiar young airman in a green Battle Dress Utility uniform stood before me at the counter, intently looking over a diamond engagement ring. He glanced up and asked nervously, "How much is it, Major Webber?"
"Eleven hundred dollars," I answered, finally placing him as the personnel clerk who had processed my separation paperwork from the Air Force last month. I added, "And you can relax, Tanner. I'm not a major or a cop anymore. Call me Burt."
Airman Tanner quickly diverted his eyes back to the ring. "Sure, Maj -- uh, Burt."
I had to smile at his reaction. Like most of the base personnel who came into the store, Tanner treated me as if I were still Major Burton Webber, the chief of the Osan Air Base Office of Special Investigations. Frankly, I saw myself that way, too. I'd planned on being a military criminal investigator until I could have retired at twenty years. Instead, I'd abruptly resigned from the Air Force after fifteen, forgoing any chance of a pension. A lot of people thought I was crazy not to stick out the extra time, but in light of the circumstances, I really had no choice. Besides, it's not like my wife, Chung-hee, and I are hurting for money. Even though her jewelry store, which Chung-hee's father left to her when he died, is fairly modest compared to those back home, it does pretty well. Last year we cleared almost two hundred grand, give or take.
Not that I saw myself running a jewelry store in Korea for the rest of my life. But until Chung-hee and I could figure out our next move, maybe sell out and move back to the States, it's not a bad gig.
Airman Tanner sighed dejectedly and handed me the ring. "It's sure pretty, but -- "
"Too much, huh?" I said, knowing it was. As a two-striper, Tanner barely made that much money in a month. To me, it's a crime how little military enlisted were paid, but don't get me started.
I said, "You could make payments -- no?" He was shaking his head.
"I'm heading home to Iowa in a couple of weeks. I was going to give it to my girl then."
"How much can you afford?"
"Maybe seven, eight hundred."
"A ring like this will run you a couple of grand back in the States. Maybe more."
"I know..." He drifted off with a shrug. "Guess I'd better go with something smaller -- "
"Not so fast. Maybe we can still work something out."
Before knocking that much off the sticker, I'd wanted to clear it with my wife. Even though she's always gone along with my altruism, it bugs her when I let items go below cost.
At the moment, Chung-hee was at the far end of the counter, haggling over the price of Korean Rolex knockoffs with a couple of fighter pilots in flight suits. I settled on a stool, waiting for her to finish. Watching her, I kept thinking I was one lucky man.
By any standard, Chung-hee was a beautiful woman. At five-seven, she's tall for a Korean, with shiny, waist-length black hair and delicate, almost fragile, features. She's pushing thirty, looks twenty, and has the kind of willowy figure made for magazine covers. We'd met shortly after I arrived in Korea, when I'd popped in to buy something for my sister's birthday. While I'd definitely noticed her looks, what really heightened my interest was her accent. Chung-hee speaks English with a soft southern drawl, like she'd been raised in the Deep South. Later, after I finally wore her down and she agreed to go out with me, she explained that she'd received her undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama and earned her master's in economics at Auburn. She'd planned on a career as a Wall Street analyst but, upon her father's sudden death, had to return to run the store and look after her mother.
We had a whirlwind courtship that caught us both by surprise and became engaged within a month. In hindsight, I probably should have kept our relationship quiet until my tour was up and married Chung-hee when I returned to the States. But when you're in love, you don't really stop to think. My biggest mistake was misjudging my superiors' resistance to the marriage. Once I announced our engagement, they acted as if I'd suddenly lost my senses. Next thing I knew, I was summoned before a very annoyed Lieutenant General Harry Muller, the 7th Air Force commander.
General Muller started off by reminding me that the military had an informal policy of discouraging marriages between servicemen and Korean nationals. He rehashed what I already knew, that most of these unions were shams, where some naive kid was enticed, hooked, reeled in, then dumped once he brought the woman to the States. Muller stated that, in my position as a commander and the base's top cop, I had a responsibility to set an example for the troops.
"For chrissakes, Burt," General Muller had said, "fucking these women is one thing, but marrying them. You gotta be shitting me."
I almost lost it then, but didn't feel like going to Leavenworth for punching out a three-star. I tried to explain that Chung-hee wasn't just some hooker I'd picked up, but Muller wasn't in any mood to listen. He cut me off with a not-so-subtle threat about what the marriage could do to my career. After a heated exchange, I bluntly told him my mind was made up, saluted smartly, and left.
Two weeks later, Chung-hee and I got married in a traditional Korean ceremony. Only a few people from the base bothered to attend. My primary promotion board for lieutenant colonel met the following year. I had a fistful of outstanding ratings and should have been a shoo-in.
I was passed over.
"I tried to warn you" was all General Muller had said, when he gave me the news.
That episode occurred two months ago. The next day I handed in my resignation and --
I glanced out the front window at the sound of a car door slamming. It was dusk now, and the streetlights had come on. I saw a tall, black colonel in Air Force blues emerge from a staff car, a cell phone to his ear. He paused on the curb, continuing his conversation.
My jaw tightened. Him? Coming here?
"You need something, hon?"
When I faced Chung-hee, she was giving me a quizzical look as she rang up a sale for the fighter jocks. As they left, I went over and made my pitch about giving Tanner a break on the ring.
Chung-hee rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Burt, this is a business. We can't keep -- "
She broke off, stiffening visibly. I grimaced, turning toward the front door. The bell above it tinkled as the colonel entered, tucking his cell phone into his jacket. In his late thirties, he was young for a full bull, athletically built and with prominent cheekbones that tapered to a square jaw. Decked out in his uniform, with the rows of fruit salad on his chest, he cut an imposing figure. He slowly removed his wheel cap, took a few tentative steps, then stopped, eyes on us. He flashed a friendly smile.
"Hello, Chung-hee," he said.
He nodded to me. "Burt."
I glowered back at Colonel Raymond Johnson, General Muller's executive officer and chief dog walker, not trusting myself to speak. I noticed Airman Tanner had automatically popped to attention, eyes riveted to the silver eagles on Raymond's shoulders. In Tanner's world, the only things higher than a colonel were generals and God, not necessarily in that order.
We all stood in an awkward silence, listening to the rattle of the ancient window air conditioner. Rock music pulsed faintly from the bar next door.
"It really is good to see you, Raymond," Chung-hee said, sounding as if she meant it.
I shot her a look of annoyance. But then she'd always liked him.
Raymond nodded. "Look, I'm sorry I haven't come around recently -- "
I cut him off. "Save the excuses, Ray. What are you doing here?"
He shrugged. "Just wanted to drop by and say hello."
"That's the only reason, huh?"
"That's it." He tossed out another smile.
"You're lying," I said.
Ray blinked in surprise.
"Burt...," Chung-hee said, her voice rising in warning.
I ignored her, my eyes boring into Ray's, whose face was now a mask. "Two months. We haven't heard from you for two months. Not even a goddamn phone call. What's the matter? Too busy playing lapdog for General Muller..."
"Burt, please...," Chung-hee said.
"...or maybe screwing over another buddy?"
"Fuck you, Burt," Ray snarled, suddenly stepping toward me. He planted his feet wide, glaring at me.
I waved a hand toward him in disgust. At six-three, Ray was big, but I was bigger. I had him by forty pounds and two inches. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Airman Tanner staring at us in shock. In his mind it didn't compute, an ex-major chewing out a full bird.
Chung-hee grabbed my arm hard, letting me have it with a stream of rapid-fire Korean. She stuck her face up to my chin, saying, "That's enough, Burton. Raymond made the effort to come by. The least you can do is -- "
"He drove up in General Muller's staff car," I interrupted.
Her pretty brow furrowed.
I pointed at the curb, where the car was parked, its three-star placard visible under the glow of the streetlights. "Ask him, honey," I said. "Ask Ray when he suddenly began using the general's car for social calls."
Chung-hee looked at Ray.
He sighed, his anger fading into something approaching embarrassment. "Guilty as charged. I was sent here by General Muller. He has a...proposal for Burt." Noting Chung-hee's disappointment, he added, "Look, I've been meaning to talk things out. Clear the air. But it never seemed the right time..." He lapsed into silence, realizing Chung-hee had tuned him out.
No one spoke for a moment.
I spotted Tanner, sneaking toward the door. I said, "Tanner, wait. The ring -- "
By then, Tanner had flung the door open and was motoring down the sidewalk.
I shook my head. To Ray, I said, "Tell General Muller the answer is no."
"Burt, at least hear me out -- "
"No point. I'm not interested." For emphasis, I pivoted, heading for the stairs at the back, which led up to the office on the second floor.
Ray said, "Dammit, this is important. We need your help."
I kept walking. "Talk to Captain Sorenson."
"Sorenson is in Pusan, working a case with the Navy. Besides, this thing is out of her league."
I was almost to the staircase. I swung around and squinted at Ray. The desperation in his voice confirmed the obvious, that something damned serious had occurred to bring him here. His dig against Captain Melissa Sorenson, my former deputy who'd run the base OSI office, suggested what that probably was.
The cop in me wanted to give in, hear him out. And if it had just been my anger toward General Muller holding me back, maybe I would have. But I couldn't get past my deeper resentment toward the institutional racism that existed on Osan and its effect on Chung-hee.
After our marriage, I'd tried to prepare Chung-hee for the bias she would face, but she wouldn't listen.
She was determined to fit into my world, become the ideal officer's wife. With her education and fluency in English, she was convinced her assimilation into the country-club world of the military spouse wouldn't be a problem.
She was mistaken.
From the beginning, wherever we went on base there were disapproving glances and whispered comments. When Chung-hee tried to reach out to the other wives, she was not-so-politely rebuffed. In social gatherings, the women went out of their way to avoid her. After a month, Chung-hee finally got the painful message that no one would ever care about her degrees or accomplishments. In their eyes, she was judged to be no different from the hundreds of women who plied their trade in the Ville's seedy bars.
I gazed into Chung-hee's beautiful face, to see how she wanted me to play this. She gave me a nod, which I anticipated. She'd always had a capacity for forgiveness that went way beyond mine.
I shifted my attention to Ray. "We talking about a murder?"
He hesitated. "I'm not allowed to say anything until you agree to help."
"Fine. Have it your way."
I turned my back on him and went up the stairs.
The colorful flower-print wallpaper in the upstairs office projected a sense of cheerfulness that contrasted with my mood. An ornately carved rosewood desk sat across from the door, and a six-foot-high steel safe was tucked in the back corner. In between were four metal file cabinets, a wooden table topped by a computer and fax machine, and two straight-backed rattan chairs. Dozens of grainy black-and-white photographs of Chung-hee's family covered one wall. Most depicted relatives who had been trapped in North Korea when the armistice was signed. Chung-hee's father had hoped to live long enough to see a reunified Korea, but hadn't made it.
I slumped down heavily in the worn leather chair behind the cluttered desk, surprised at the turmoil I felt. I tried to convince myself that I wasn't a cop anymore, that I had no obligation to help. Still the guilt tugged at me. I swore.
I'd left the office door open and could hear Ray and Chung-hee conversing downstairs. Ray seemed to do most of the talking. From the bits and pieces floating up, I realized he was trying to talk Chung-hee into approaching me, to see if she could get me to change my mind.
She would go along, of course. In spite of the recent problems between Ray and me, she still considered him my closest friend.
And for almost twenty years, he had been.
Ray and I went back to our days as freshman cadets at the Citadel, the military college in Charleston, South Carolina. We'd been recruited for football; I was an offensive tackle from upstate New York, and he was a highly regarded quarterback out of Virginia. We became friends early on because we were both initially regarded with indifference by our classmates, most of whom hailed from prominent southern families. My sin was to be from New York, and his was being black. During our four years together, Ray and I grew extremely close, despite sharing few interests outside football. My approach to school was to have fun and get by with as little effort as possible. Ray, on the other hand, was always striving. Whether it was academics, athletics, or playing soldier, he always had to be the best. He got pretty close, too, graduating number three in our class.
But for Ray, close wasn't good enough. I remembered going with him to a bar a few days after the final class standings were announced. Ray wasn't much of a drinker, so when he inhaled his third bourbon, I knew something was wrong.
Ray had never been one to share his feelings, and I had to ask a half dozen times before he got drunk enough to tell me. He said he'd called his father, a retired Navy captain, and told him his graduation order.
"And you know what the son of a bitch said," Ray said bitterly.
I shook my head.
"Said if I'd worked harder, I coulda been the first black man to graduate number one."
At that moment, I remembered feeling truly sorry for him.
Ray got an odd look in his eyes as he drained his drink. "I'm gonna show him, Burt. I'm gonna show that bastard. You'll see."
The raw emotion in his voice unnerved me. There wasn't anything I could say, so I just nodded.
In the ensuing years, Ray had kept that promise. By continuing to work and achieve, he'd risen spectacularly up the Air Force pecking order, pinning on full colonel years ahead of his contemporaries, like me. Still, that only put him even in his personal competition and Ray wanted more.
Frankly, that's what started our rift: his ambition to make general and surpass his father, no matter the cost. Even if that meant abandoning a friend.
I frowned, realizing the voices had stopped. Moments later I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Heavy steps.
I looked toward the door.
Copyright © 2002 by Patrick A. Davis