Line of Descent chapter 2
Krupmeyer sat in a booth in the diner, taking occasional sips from a glass of iced tea. It was tasteless and beautifully cold. Outside, the night life of Washington sweltered in the heat of a summer heat wave. People passed by the window, walking with a languid sliding step that was all the clammy heat would allow. He sat by the window, listening to the hum of the air conditioning and enjoying its delicious chill. His large square hands turned the tall glass around absently as he reflected on all the hours he had spent waiting for people. He was a big bulky man whose straight kind face hid a quick and cultured intelligence. It came as a surprise to many who met him. That always irritated him. Big equals dumb. He was tall, well over six foot, but had never acquired that slight stoop that most people of his height did. Instead, he walked around like a latter-day Paul Bunyan, shoulders back and spine straight.
He knew nothing about the person he was due to meet nor what they wanted to see him about. He had developed a phlegmatic view on the worth of mysterious meetings. The area he worked in had more than its fair share of cranks and conspiracy theorists. This meeting had all the hallmarks. A note pushed under the door of his room at the hotel, too secret to be left at reception. No name on it. Just the name of the diner and a time. The one promising item, was that the writer had written the time as twenty hours. That smacked of the military and the military was what Krupmeyer was definitely interested in.
He was a Special Investigator, working for an American Prisoner of War association, a loose conglomeration of pressure groups that had nothing in common except a belief that there were still American soldiers being held prisoner in Southeast Asia. There was nothing special about the job, he reflected. He had been sucked into it gradually. What had started as an occasional favour, had grown into a full-time job, until he had finally folded the shoe string detective agency he had set up after leaving the police. It had taken him all over Asia while he was not camped in Washington, worrying at the edges of the military machine. He had spent the last four years of his life trailing after gossamer scraps of evidence, always on the track of that one piece of irrefutable proof of the existence of American POWs left behind after the war. It had always eluded him. Occasionally, the frustration and hopelessness welled up into a despairing anger that made him reconsider the whole deal. But he had always ridden it out and come back to it. A sucker for punishment, he reflected without humour.
It was good to be back in America, he thought, remembering the trip to Laos that he had just returned from. He had sat for two weeks in a refugee camp, listening in the heat and squalor to the stories. They were terrible, heart rendering stories that shared only one common denominator. Cruelty. It ran through them, stitching them together into a patchwork quilt, a mosaic, illustrating the agony and chaos that still prevailed in that part of the world.
After a while you turned off, tuned out the people telling you their story. You had pressed the mute button, all that was left was a face with nervous, desperate eyes and a mouth that moved but magically made no sounds. You were only interested in stories with Americans in them. They had those stories too. Sometimes they just made them up to please him. Sometimes it was obvious they manufactured them for the money they needed so badly. The number of dog‑eared photographs and battered dog tags that turned up at those meetings attested to their ingenuity and desperation. But just occasionally, a nugget of fact or a faded photograph came through which gave him hope. Then it was all worthwhile. He knew the prisoners existed despite official denials but the evidence, though voluminous, had never been strong enough to crack the whole mess open.
He had served in Vietnam himself. His superiors in Basic Training had despaired of getting the right amount of aggressiveness out of the personable giant and had instead decided to make him a Medic. There was as much logic to the decision as there was to any military decision of the time and Krupmeyer had gone along with it. He had no choice, after all. A couple of weeks in the bush had been enough to change his mind completely.
When the other grunts lay exhausted after long rambling patrols through the bush, Krupmeyer could be found poring over the few medical manuals he had been issued with. They were meagre and pitifully inadequate. His job was to simply keep them alive until the dustoff arrived. Patch ’em up and pack ’em off went the routine but for him, as for so many of the Medics, it wasn’t enough. For the first time in his life, he never felt so needed nor so inadequate. He cared deeply and desperately, every man he lost became a bitter personal defeat. He began to spend his army pay ordering medical books and drug catalogues from the States. He stopped carrying the M-16 on patrols. Leaving it behind allowed him to carry more medicines and dressings. Nobody argued with that.
He spent his time with the other Medics, swapping tips and techniques. They had evolved their own way of doing things, had concocted their own mixtures of drugs, like one nicknamed jungle juice. He had once described it to a Doctor in the rear who had turned white as Krupmeyer described the contents. He had warned Krupmeyer against ever using that concoction on a human being. Krupmeyer had promised he wouldn’t but he knew the Doctor would never understand. There were chances and there was no chance. Things like jungle juice worked often enough when nothing else would. Anything to keep them alive. By the time he was medevaced out of Vietnam, he had been decorated several times. He had also been nearly killed by a land mine.
His thoughts turned to the prisoners. There had been too many official denials of their existence to allow for any retractions. Too many good men had sworn that peace with honour had been achieved, but the reality was shoddy and deceitful. The north Vietnamese had held some back, assuming we would pay for them afterwards on the sly, like the French had, but they were wrong. It had been a total misunderstanding of how the American political system worked. The government would not pay reparations under the table, for that is what it would have been, to an enemy who had already proved itself so deceitful, especially as by doing so, they would be leaving themselves at the mercy of their hated enemy’s discretion.
Instead, they had tightened the economic screw on the Vietnamese even further, hoping to force them to come clean and surrender the prisoners in order to get out from under the economic rock. That would have involved a loss of face, which was as unthinkable for them, as paying ransom money would have been to the US Government. That was where the situation stood sixteen years ago and it had not changed since. Add in the current thaw in east west relations and politically the prisoners definitely did not exist. They were the leftovers of a mistake, an embarrassment on either side of the political fence.
A middle‑aged heavy set man entered the diner. He was dressed in civilian clothes but his appearance proclaimed him to be military, from the top of his close cut hair to the bottom of his burnished shoes. The military were as bad as cops, thought Krupmeyer, there was just no way of disguising themselves. A bird Colonel, he guessed. What would a full Colonel be doing taking the risk of being seen with a pariah like me, Krupmeyer wondered.
The man sized up the diner and its occupants with one no-nonsense glance and headed towards Krupmeyer. He placed both his hands on the table and slid his bulky frame into the bench seat opposite Krupmeyer. His hands stayed palm down on the table while he stared across at Krupmeyer, weighing him up, making up his mind. Krupmeyer sensed that this man might have something good, but he had not finally made his decision yet. That was happening across the table right now. Krupmeyer held his breath and maintained an easy eye contact, while the man stared expressionless at him. With the slightest exhalation of breath, the man’s shoulders dropped and his eyes went to the table top.
‘You’re Krupmeyer’ he said.
‘Yes’ replied Krupmeyer, although it had not really been a question. He relaxed. ‘Who’re you?’
The man smiled thinly. ‘Let’s just skip the names bit.’
‘No problem’ replied Krupmeyer lightly. ‘Why did you want to see me?’
‘You’re looking for information on POWs, I’ve got some.’ He spoke in the classical clipped manner of the military, as if the fewer words he used, the clearer would be his meaning.
‘Do you mind if I take notes?’ asked Krupmeyer, reaching for the battered notebook he always kept in his inside pocket.
The man nodded absently, his eyes still on the table top. His hands came together and began to massage each other steadily. They were chubby, powerful hands with nails trimmed back to the quick. He waited until Krupmeyer was ready before speaking.
‘I came across some information in a file’ he began quietly. ‘It’s about a POW who escaped from Russia nine years ago.’
Krupmeyer’s heart thudded. ‘Jesus’, he thought. The pen made a small convulsive squiggle on the notebook.
The Colonel paused for a moment, perhaps expecting an answer but Krupmeyer was too stunned, too surprised. After years chasing the thinnest of evidence, here was the Proof. Proof with a big fat fucking capital P. ‘Don’t lose him, don’t lose him’ was all Krupmeyer could think of. The words circled around in his mind like a litany while he pulled himself together, willing the excitement to subside.
‘Have you got the file?’ he asked.
The man gave a quick impatient shake of his head. ‘Not possible, but I have notes.’
‘Can I see them?’ asked Krupmeyer. He had nearly asked could he have them, but had retreated from pushing him too hard. He was scared of frightening him off when he was so close to coming across. Krupmeyer could see he was still struggling with the decision to leak. He was breaking the habit of a lifetime, a canon of his chosen profession and it came hard.
‘Before you get anything, I want to know what you’re going to do with it’ he replied, ignoring the request.
Krupmeyer backed up. He did not have a pat answer ready. Coming across a find of this magnitude had never crossed his mind. Perhaps it was the emotion of the moment or sheer panic at the thought of losing him but the words welled up and popped out fully formed before he could stop them.
‘I’m going to shame them. I’m going to shame them into bringing the men home.’ He felt foolish, wishing the hell he’d come back with something better. He waited on tenterhooks, hoping and praying he had somehow passed the test. The man looked taken aback. He smiled briefly, perhaps surprised by the emotion.
‘I’m military’ he said, ‘and I want you to know that this area is purely political.’ He leaned in across the table and his eyes drilled into Krupmeyer’s as he bit out the words with distaste. ‘We do and we say what we’re told. We don’t have to like it and in this area we definitely don’t like it. I don’t want it used to crucify us. Use it on them, and use it good.’
He reached into his inside pocket and after a belligerent glance around the diner, took out a thick envelope and pushed it across the table. Krupmeyer slid it off the top and into his inside pocket.
‘Is there a way I can get back in touch with you?’ he asked.
‘No. That’s it. That’s all’ he replied starting to get up from the table.
‘Wait, hang on’ said Krupmeyer. ‘Why? Tell me why. Why this?’ he said, tapping the outside of the pocket containing the envelope. The Colonel paused, frozen half way out of the seat and looked at Krupmeyer.
‘I saw a name I knew and I couldn’t walk away from it. Stick it to them soldier, you screw ’em good.’
With that he marched out of the diner, straight-backed, best foot forward. Back to the closed ranks and some anonymous trusted job deep in the bowels of the Pentagon. He had done his bit. His conscience was clear. He had unloaded it on someone else and he could sleep at nights now.
Krupmeyer never saw him again.