On the morning of July 10, 1953, at the Eighth Army headquarters in the upper Pusan Delta, Korea, the investigation of the arms merchant John Bryan began. It was triggered by the last straw, at least for the French allies, in a series of unexplainable, or maybe too explainable, events: the explosion of the munitions freighter in Da Nang.
"Quantum mechanics? What in hell . . . Army's putting some sergeant into college to study--what in hell's this, Captain? Quantum mechanics? Is that some kind of physics?"
"Being sent to Kumsong first on the Da Nang investigation, remember, Colonel. So whether he survives that-"
"-What's his name? Let's see his file there, would you?"
"Marion Apollo, sir. Sergeant Marion Ramirez Apollo."
"What kind of name's this, Marion? Isn't Apollo the name of a vacuum cleaner? . . . Look, 201 file says he's Mexican American--a Chicano? Bullshit, we're sending some Chicano to college to spy on school kids, for Chrissake, so here he applies for . . . what the hell's quantum mechanics?"
"Don't know exactly, sir, but he could handle whatever . . . look there at his AFQT and aptitude scores."
"Screw his aptitude scores."
It was a hell of a bad time to start any kind of investigation. The peace negotiators were within days of signing the truce at Panmunjon. The Chinese, to keep Kumsong in North Korea, had thrown eighty thousand people into a twenty-mile line between the Iron Triangle and Finger Ridge, just above the 38th Parallel. G-2 had neither the manpower nor the will to begin an investigation of arms shipments to Vietnam, wherever the hell that was.
"Look here at his record, Captain. Another bastard-kid street fighter who joins up to dodge a manslaughter rap. Now we send this guy to college, right? Another goddamned eightball?"
"Going to Kumsong first, Colonel. Might never live to see any college."
"Bet your ass. Why bring him in from Okinawa?"
"General Novinger's memo asked for a noncom familiar with the Kumsong sector-"
"-Great choice for a high-security assignment, isn't it? Look here, Okinawan CO reports he daydreams half the time. So now we send him to colleg. That make any sense?"
"Minority with high aptitude scores, sir. Good fit for campus surveillance."
"Well, give a shit, I suppose. Who's the other poor bastard?"
"The one they specifically requested for Kumsong. Name's Kim Chau Dao."
"Oh, God. . . . "
General Arnold Novinger of the National Security Council had started this investigation with NEED-TO-KNOW-ONLY instructions through FECOM G-2 in Tokyo, ending at the desk of Colonel George Purdy, requesting that he send two men to make the inquiry. It was quite specific about one of them: "A lieutenant in our Army, sir," the captain continued, "Born in Indo-China, attended a French military academy there called Da Lat."
"I thought the Chinese already took Finger Ridge-"
"-Dao's father requested this investigation, Colonel. He's the Minister of Defense in Vietnam there. Name of Dao Phuong."
"What in hell do we know or care about Vietnam? We got our own goddamn war."
The French Bao Dai government, following rumors about the freighter explosion in Da Nang, had accused an American arms merchant, John Bryan, of continuing the arms shipments to the Viet Minh that were started by the OSS against the Japanese during World War II. The memo "anticipated" that the investigation could be opened and closed quickly to avoid problems for a man of Mr. Bryan's stature and possibly--more than possibly, if Purdy was reading this right--to the U.S. Government itself. Even Colonel Purdy recognized that someone high up preferred not to dig too deeply into this investigation: "There are political considerations involved here," said the memo, "that certain members of the Administration would prefer not to complicate at this time." That was clear enough to Colonel George Purdy.
Future communications were not to mention Vietnam or John Bryan by name. They would use only the name suggested by Lieutenant Dao's father, Dao Phuong, the Vietnam Minister of Defense. . . . Touchstone.
"Shall I call them in?"
"Finger Ridge, how's that for a screwed-up place to start?"
Captain Hensley nodded through the door at the men in the corridor and, as they came in, Colonel Purdy noted with peripheral satisfaction that they were about what the memo was looking for: a tall motley grunt sergeant and a lieutenant who looked more like a samurai. A Cervantian duo. The sergeant wore unpressed combat fatigues that were faded to uncamoflaging green-white while the lieutenant was razor-starched, forest-green. Exact opposites. Perfect, except, maybe, something about this sergeant. . . . Shadow-grey eyes, for instance, too light for some 25-year old half-breed. Droopy-lidded eyes. The man looked half-asleep, or drunk, or dim-witted. His looks didn't fit with those big aptitude scores.
"Come along, step in please, Sergeant," snapped Captain Hensley, who was barely noticeable in the same room with the large, bald, heavy-jowled Colonel Purdy. A big foul-smelling spittled cigar stuck out from a series of skinpuffs composing the colonel's eyes, cheeks, nose, chin--a coalescence, with the cigar anchoring his face, that was described by the local E.M.'s as a toilet bowl's view of a fat woman defecating.
"Lieutenant Dao, sir." The lieutenant's hand split the air. Hair whitewalled to a spray on top. A face that resembled small rocks, symmetrically piled.
"Sergeant Apollo, sir." The sergeant touched his fingers to his eyebrow, which shadowed over his defined cheekbones. Full brown hair combed flat back--some kind of barrio pachuko hairstyle, the colonel supposed. Purdy's cigar slid to the middle of his face, forcing the remaining bad taste through his teeth, aiming the cigar at the sergeant's mid-gut. "File says you're going to college as `campus surveillance'. What kind of background you have for spying on school kids? You got any college experience?"
The sergeant's eyes closed and opened again. He seemed to lean away from the question. "My father's a professor of quantum physics."
"Quantum shit, Sergeant. I read your file. You don't know who the hell your father was." The colonel squinted down the length of his cigar. "You really kill some L.A. street punk?"
The sergeant almost rolled his eyes. "Name was Chuy Gonzales, sir."
"'s name was Chuy Gonzalez," said the sergeant, sniffing. "He w's more than just an L.A. punk."
Purdy eyed the sergeant. "Sergeant, you been drinking?"
"Stayed the night in the village, Colonel. No one said t'get here sober."
"God Almighty." Colonel Purdy took the cigar out to spit into his trash can. "You go through life like this, Sergeant? Drunk in the villages? Signing up to spy on a bunch of school kids? Can't find a better way to use these big aptitude scores?"
Sergeant Apollo tried to focus on Colonel Purdy. "Maybe I'll go look for the 'splanation of existence, Col'nel."
"Be careful, Sergeant," Purdy growled. "Be damn careful how you talk to me. You're just lucky we're under pressure here, or by damn . . . You have any idea why you're here?"
"I think so, sir," Chau answered. "My father said we'd be assigned to the Touchstone investigation-"
"-The what? Where the hell'd you hear that?"
"He--my father--thought up the code word for the assignment, sir." Seeing the colonel's scowl, Chau retreated to a blinkless forward stare. "Said he got it from a sermon that my sister-"
"-Okay, enough, Lieutenant." Flesh moved along the lines where Colonel Purdy's jaw hid. Top Secret my ass, he thought. The gook lieutenant hears about this assignment before I do. "Lieutenant, I was asking this sergeant . . . You ever hear of Daniel Bryan, Lieutenant?"
"All-American at Stanford?" said the colonel. "Don't you follow football?" Colonel Purdy waited, shrugged, swivelled back into the stare of Sergeant Apollo, who watched Colonel Purdy now and didn't look away as a sergeant should do and in fact should be goddamned obliged to do. Colonel Purdy felt he was being appraised by this enlisted sonofabitch. "I understand you were at Hadong with the 29th, Sergeant."
The eyes, then, tiredly moved away from Colonel Purdy. "We were overrun."
"Yes . . . right." The Colonel leafed through the 201 file. "An F.O. for Third Battalion, says here. Watched Third Battalion get their asses shot off, right?" Hearing no response he continued flipping the pages. "Didn't fire a shot yourself?"
"Where I was, Colonel, that would've gotten me killed. Not much more."
"Who's to say? Here you didn't even try? Don't you put any importance on self-esteem, Sergeant?"
"Self-esteem? Not sure what that means, Colonel."
Colonel Purdy grunted and turned a page. That answer seemed sufficiently eight-ballish. The tone of the general's memo warned him to check out the lieutenant's escort to insure that he wouldn't get "too involved" in the investigation. No danger of that from this half-drunk sergeant. "Last C.O. says here he can't find you half the time. What've you been doing? You got a happy-girl, a joson, on Okinawa?"
The sergeant shook his head and looked away. These were strange questions. "Spend most of my time around the north end."
"North? Hell, not even a good whorehouse up there." The colonel glanced at the captain for his accommodating snigger, delivered on cue.
"I go to watch th' albatross mainly, Colonel." Not an eyelash flickered as the sergeant said that, not a muscle in his face moved, although Purdy at first thought the sergeant was trying to make a joke. The man's face showed no sign of humor.
"Something wrong with you, boy? Something addled up there somewhere?" Colonel Purdy stabbed his own forehead with his finger. "You're supposed to help reorganize an RCT that gets its ass shot off and you go watch birds--that what you said? What the hell're you talking about, albatross? The `45 invasion blew away any birds up there."
"Things've a way of coming back, Colonel."
Colonel Purdy dismissed that with a sideways swipe of his hand. "Anyway, you've got one more assignment before you go spy on school kids, Sergeant. You get to take the lieutenant here through the Iron Triangle near Kumsong, right below Finger Ridge." He watched for a reaction that didn't come. "Like the lieutenant says, we've been told to investigate some arms shipments to some postage-stamp country in order to satisfy some higher-ups. You're assigned to get the lieutenant to Kumsong, do this investigating, then get him the hell out again. All secret. No mention of Bryan, Indo-China, any of that crap. From this point we refer to this investigation as 'Touchstone,' like the lieutenant says. You follow?"
"I'm s'posed to go into a zone like Finger Ridge with one goddamn green lieutenant?"
"What the hell'd you say, Sergeant?"
"What am I supposed to be investigating at Kumsong, Colonel?" asked Lieutenant Dao.
Purdy tapped on his desk and watched the sergeant for a moment before turning back to Chau. "This lieutenant I mentioned--Bryan--he's a platoon leader in the 23rd Regiment there . . . probably only battalion-size by now, from all reports. Probably doesn't know shit about his father's arms business but since he's with the Army he's the easiest place to start. Just ask if he knows anything about his father's shipments to Indo-China, write down what he says and then get the hell out." He slid two sets of mimeographed orders toward them. "These'll tell you what to ask and get you through the lines to Kumsong. That's it, gentlemen. . . . "
After the two had left, the colonel poked a new cigar from his five-pack and winked toward Captain Hensley. "If there's any can of worms here, it's not going to be opened by those two. What was that half-drunk son of a bitch saying? He was looking for the explanation of existence? Did I hear that right?" The colonel chuckled as he lit his cigar. "Hell, then, Finger Ridge should be the exact right place to start."