Read The Door to Bitterness Online

Authors: Martin Limon

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective

The Door to Bitterness



By the author

Jade Lady Burning

Slicky Boys

Buddha’s Money



Copyright © 2005 by Martin Limón

All rights reserved.

Published by
Soho Press, Inc.
853 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Limón, Martin, 1948–
The door to bitterness : a novel / by Martin Limón.
p. cm.
ISBN-10: 1-56947-404-4
ISBN-13: 978-1-56947-404-4
1. United States. Army—Military police—Fiction.
2. Military police—Crimes against—Fiction.
3. Americans—Korea—Fiction. 4. Revenge—Fiction.
5. Korea—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3562.I465D66 2005

9     8     7     6     5     4     3     2     1

To my son, Aaron

“You have opened

the door to bitterness.”



stood at the mouth of an alley that bled onto the main drag of Itaewon, the red light district of Seoul. Rows of unlit neon spread down the street, still shrouded in pre-dawn shadow. Acid boiled and bubbled against the lining of my stomach, and I felt the familiar nausea of hangover. All routine, even reassuring. Except for the knot on my head. I fingered it gently. About the size of a hand grenade.

My name is George Sueño. I’m an agent for the 8th United States Army Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Two minutes ago, I’d awoken face down on the pavement.

After struggling to my feet, I tried to figure out what had happened.

I felt my throbbing head, and my hand came away smeared with blood. Thick and purple. My limbs and fingers were all there. It was early September, 1973. I was in a dark alley. Hundreds of empty brown beer bottles in wooden crates, stacked to the height of a man, clinked softly in the early morning breeze.

How did I get here?

The cold breath of autumn bit into my lungs. It was then I sensed the odd lightness, and the glowering sky sucked the breath out of me.

My .45.

The army-issue pistol I’d been carrying last night. Where was it?

Frantically, I probed beneath my coat and jabbed my fingers into the loose leather of my shoulder holster. Empty. I pulled the inside pocket. Also empty. As empty as a GI’s heart.

Weapon, badge, wallet. Gone!

A cold anguish lumped in the pit of my stomach. Losing my .45 and my badge, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, was a court-martial offense. Korea has total gun control. Only the military and law enforcement are allowed to carry firearms. If the Korean government took gun control seriously, 8th Army took it even more so.

I searched the alley, peering through the dim light, stopping occasionally to toss garbage out of dented cans. In seconds, piles of filth lay on the ground: broken earthenware jars, smeared with the red juice of fermented cabbage—kim-chee reeked. Wadded tissue, clumps of toilet paper, smashed green pop bottles, crushed tins that once contained mackerel pickling in brine. The entire mess emitted a cloud of vile fumes. But no .45. And no badge of an agent of the 8th United States Army Criminal Investigation Division.

Whoever attacked me cleaned me out. My money, wallet, pistol, badge.

My head throbbed. I tried to concentrate, piecing together fragments. At first nothing came. Alcoholic blackout. Total. And then, without warning, memory flamed to life. A woman walking toward me. Tall. Statuesque. Winding her way through a crowded, smoke-filled nightclub. Staring right at me. Smiling.

* * *

It was already late, getting on toward the midnight curfew. Without bothering to ask permission, the smiling woman joined me at a small table shoved against the back wall of the King Club, a dive on the strip.

I had decided to sit at a table alone. All the shouting and drinking and smoking along the bar were too much for me. Staff Sergeant Riley and Ernie Bascom, and a couple of the other guys who worked at 8th Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, were hollering and hooting for the stripper to perform another number.

A brown bottle of OB Beer sat in front of me, I remember that. And when the smiling woman sat down, I sipped on the beer and it tasted warm. The pungent, grainy flavor of hops and barley and roasted malt rose like a storm cloud through the passages of my nose.

Her face was interesting. The type that puzzles you, trying to figure it out. I took another glance, unable to escape the tired American habit of classifying everyone by race. She was smiling. A girl in a toothpaste commercial. Maybe I was too drunk, but I had yet to figure out which ethnic group she might belong to when she started talking.

“Byong andei,” she said in Korean, pointing a polished nail at my beer. Bottle no good. “Kopum i nomu mana.” Too many bubbles.

Then she raised her narrow shoulders, grabbed her stomach, puffed out her soft cheeks, and mimicked a man trying to burp. It made me laugh. When I did, her eyes brightened and she ran off to the bar. Seconds later, she returned with a clean glass with a red logo pasted on the side: OB on a shield, Oriental Brewery. She pried the bottle from my fingers, lifted it in the air with both hands, and ceremoniously poured the frothing hops into the glass. She was expert. The golden brew formed a perfect cylinder of yellow beneath a white cloud of carbonation that bubbled up to the edge. With two hands, she pushed the glass of beer directly in front of me.

“Duh-seiyo,” she said. Please partake.

I sipped, allowing a little of the foam to settle on my upper lip. I nodded approval.

“Better,” I said.

She stared, still smiling, waiting for me to talk. I didn’t. I just studied her. She kept smiling. Gradually, it dawned on my booze-flushed brain that she must be half Miguk. The offspring of an American GI and a Korean woman. I figured her to be nineteen at the youngest, twenty-three at the outside.

Twenty years ago, during the Korean War, the Korean Peninsula was crawling with Americans and other foreigners. All under the flag of the United Nations, fighting the communist North Koreans and the Red Chinese Army. Tens of thousands of half-Korean babies had been the predictable byproduct. Most were adopted by couples overseas. But some Korean mothers, no matter what the circumstances of their children’s birth, couldn’t give up their own flesh and blood. Despite poverty, and the scorn heaped on them by Korean society, they kept their children.

Now, two decades later, those kids were adults. Most lived at the lowest levels. The boys as common laborers, the girls often as prostitutes. Even occupations such as cab driver or waitress were too exalted for a half-caste. People thought them unclean. Most Koreans saw them as reminders of the shame and abuse that they’d all suffered during the war.

This smiling woman had grown up tough. There were three faded scars on the side of her head, one next to the ear, another on her chin. Not surprising with a GI for a father who’d probably abandoned her at birth. He might not even know she existed; or worse, didn’t care.

Her smile was a wide-open smile. Too broad. The lips too wide, the eyes open almost beyond endurance. It was a practiced smile. A smile that was born not of friendship but of fear. It was a smile that said, I’ll do anything you want me to do. Just tell me what you want, but please don’t hurt me.

Actually, the more I studied her, the more she repelled me.

It’s not that she wasn’t attractive. She was very attractive. With soft, light brown, almost blonde hair brushed to one side that fell to her shoulders, and broad, even features. Smooth cheeks and a rounded nose. But the best part about her, the most memorable part, were her eyes. They were startling. Bright blue in a creamy smooth Asian face. She was attractive, all right. But what repelled me was the madness in her forced smile, the madness in her eyes. The history they exposed. The willingness to please. The willingness to do anything for a man with money and power. All engendered by a history of abuse. Abuse that I guessed had lasted for years.

She seemed slightly upset by my gaze, but handled it. She fidgeted, almost imperceptibly, in her chair. Her smile grew broader.

“You like?” she asked.

Like what, she didn’t say. But I knew what she meant. Do you like me or anything about me? The question left it all open and the meaning was clear. If you want me, any part of me, it’s yours.

The stripper returned to the stage amidst a chorus of hoots and jeers from the drunken CID agents at the bar. Somebody cranked up the volume on the jukebox and somebody else dimmed the lights, and suddenly I felt queasy from all the booze. Without answering her question, I rapped my knuckles on the table, stood up, and staggered toward the byonso, the King Club’s co-educational bathroom.

When I returned, the smiling woman was still waiting. Sitting at my table, staring at the flat glass of beer in the center of our round table. As I took my seat, she tilted the smooth flesh of her face toward me and her smile was broader, and madder, than ever.

Looking back, I realize that, while I was in the latrine, she’d done what she’d come to do.

As I sipped on the drink, not noticing its altered taste, I thought about her naked. Instead of thinking about how she’d been abandoned by her father and the hunger she must’ve suffered during the cruel years after the devastation of the Korean War and how her psyche must’ve been distorted by so much hardship and how I didn’t want to contribute further to her debasement, I thought instead of the smooth flesh of her long legs. It didn’t take long for desire to make me ignore the essential depravity of taking advantage of a damaged woman, economically desperate. It made me think only of what I wanted. I wanted only her. The physical part of her. Nothing else.

I rose from the table, and when she took my hand I remember being startled at the roughness of her palm. Together we walked outside, through the big double doors of the King Club, out into the cold Korean night.

Despite the blustery wind that enveloped us, I felt warm. Cozy. Close to her. And despite what was about to happen, I think, in my inebriated state I was at that moment happy to be with the smiling woman. Not proud of myself. But happy.

After searching in vain for my .45 and my badge, I gave up and left the dark alley, returning to the main drag. The rows of unlit neon signs still hung listlessly over the barred and shuttered doors of the joints that, by night, teemed with American GIs, optimistic young men on the prowl for new and innovative ways to waste their money.

The dark, early morning street was empty. The King Club, the Seven Club, the Lucky Lady Club, were all closed. Locked. No movement. A lone GI appeared from a narrow alley. He marched bravely to the bottom of the hill, turned left at the MSR—the Main Supply Route—and began his slow trudge back to 8th Army’s Yongsan Compound. About a mile. Most units hold their first morning formation at zero six thirty. I didn’t have a watch but I figured it must be past five.

The woman and I had walked down the main drag together. I remember a few glimpses of flashing light, outof-tune rock bands. I remember staggering, her clutching my waist, shoving her shoulder into me, holding me up. Then darkness. Probably the alley.

If I’d just been drunk, no one would’ve attacked me. They wouldn’t have had the nerve. I’m six-foot-four and in good shape. I know how to fight. If I’d been drunk, I would’ve heard footsteps behind me. I would’ve swiveled and faced my attackers and jabbed, or, given enough room, I would’ve hopped forward and side-kicked someone in the ribs. They wouldn’t have taken me down easily. Probably not at all.

From behind me, something scurried. Footsteps? Even then, in my almost comatose state, I tried to turn. I tried to raise my hands. Apparently, I hadn’t been fast enough.

I remember the pain. The pain of a heavy clunk slamming into the top of my skull. I remember being upset by it. How had this happened? And then I remember nothing.

Who were these guys? Were they working with the smiling woman? If she’d drugged me, she had to be part of the plan. But why me? Why had they singled me out? Just blind luck, or had they targeted someone—someone alone—carrying a CID badge and a .45?

To have any chance of answering these questions—and to have any chance of recovering my badge and my .45—I had to talk face-to-face, once again, with the smiling woman. But after what she’d done last night, I could count on her to become scarce. To find her, I had first to talk to someone who’d been there in the King Club. Someone who might be able to help me develop a lead. Ernie. He was the logical candidate. He and I had been partners for almost a year and a half. He might seem like a flake to most people—a guy who drinks too much and chases skirts too much—but Agent Ernie Bascom is a good cop. Fearless, first and foremost, and observant. Two excellent traits for someone in his profession. But where could I find him?

A cold autumn breeze blew out of Manchuria and whistled down the main drag of Itaewon. I stepped out onto the street, holding my coat wrapped tightly around my chest, trying now to think like Ernie. What would he have done last night? Where would he have gone? Had he been attacked too? Was he lying in some alleyway nearby, bleeding to death or already dead? No time to worry about that. I had to assume, for the moment, that he was still alive. Ernie had no steady girlfriend out here in the ville. Since his old flame, the Nurse, had been killed, he hadn’t shacked up steady with anyone. Not in mourning, mind you, but more as if he were compelled to hop from woman to woman in a mad rush to embrace life.

Or embrace something.

He’d become a regular at 8th Army’s VD Clinic. Many days I’d see him hanging around his customized jeep in the CID parking lot, a couple of glass slides behind his ear. When I looked at him quizzically, he said, “In case it starts to drip.” I still didn’t get it, so in exasperation, he explained. “So I can capture a specimen.”

Standing alone on a cold overcast morning in the center of Itaewon, I tried, once again, to think like Ernie. Chances are, last night, he wouldn’t have returned to the barracks. We’d been at the King Club. Plenty of Korean business girls there. He’d have grabbed one. Almost certainly. Whenever Ernie saw something he liked, he took it. He never planned anything or put anything off until later so as to savor a particular delight; rather, he always obeyed every physical urge, immediately, no matter how primitive.

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