SAKE TOWN IN SASEBO
“Are you sure about this address, Sir?” Gunnery Sgt Hector Colón turned the paper over, as if the directions might make more sense that way. “It’s in Sake Town.”
“Is there a problem, gunny?”
General Lukasziewicz, the Marine Commandant, had plucked his sergeant out of a hospital ward a few months back, pinned a Purple Heart on him, and processed his promotion to Gunnery Sergeant. The injuries Colón had received in the action on Itbayat provided a convenient excuse to interrupt his progress through the infantry ranks, at least for a little while, and seemed like a good way to keep him from being debriefed about certain events by CIA operatives. Colón hadn’t been assigned to any unit that included Capt Tenno, but he’d flown in her bird a few times, and took part in the final firefight precipitated by her rescue of Princess Akane of Japan. When Admiral James Crichton, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, put a bug in his ear about deflecting any intrusive inquiries into the Jarheads who’d been there, Lukasziewicz obliged without asking too many questions of his own. So, for now, Hector Colón drove him wherever he needed to go in and around Sasebo, Japan.
“No sir… it’s just, most of the places on that end of the ginza don’t… how shall I say?... I don’t know…”
“Spit it out, Marine.”
“We may not be welcome there, sir.”
Lukasziewicz grumbled at this information, and watched as the Albuquerque Bridge, which connected Nimitz Square, at the west end of the base, to the ginza, slipped past the side window. “What exactly is an izakaya?”
“It’s like a bar, except usually with better food.”
“You like raw fish?”
“Not really, sir. But most izakayas seem to be more about fried foods… and noodles. Is that where we’re headed?” The gunny’s voice sounded hungry.
“I can’t bring you in this time, gunny. Private meeting. Can you find some grub nearby?” Lukasziewicz reached a handful of yen across the seat back. “Here. Take this.”
“Thank you, sir. I can get something at Tonchinkan, or maybe Raras.” Colón glanced at the bills in his hand, as he pulled up to the curb outside the address on the note. “This is way too much, sir. Like ten times too much.”
“Fine. Bring me the change, then… or don’t. Meet me out front in an hour.”
“Shall I wait, sir, just in case they don’t let you in?”
Lukasziewicz shook his head and watched Colón ease the car through a rather narrow alley, and head back to Sailor Town at the other end of the ginza, and finally turned to consider the rather unprepossessing entrance of the establishment Crichton had selected. A simple, wooden sign with a few Japanese characters etched in it hung over an open doorway, with a half-curtain obscuring whatever went on inside. He pushed past the curtain, and stood inside on an industrial rubber mat, perforated with penny-sized holes, over a large drain hole – a rather direct solution, he thought, to the problem of inclement weather and the lack of a covered entrance – and surveyed the interior.
The tables toward the front sported dim candles, and seemed to be positioned around a tiny stage, but no performers, or their gear, were in evidence. Every seat was occupied, and younger men even stood around a few tables, as a waiter squeezed in between bodies, finding passage where he could. Further back, booths lined two walls, and these were also full of people. In a corner beyond the end of the bar, a folding screen featuring what appeared to be a pen and ink drawing of an ancient battle scene obscured an area that might be large enough for one or two more booths. If Crichton was here at all, that’s probably where he’d be, since Lukasziewicz couldn’t see another western face anywhere.
“No GI’s, please,” the man behind the bar called out, when he took a few steps inside. “Sailor Town is that way.” A few faces turned to look, and a man seated in a corner – perhaps a bouncer – stepped forward, and then paused to consider the significance of all the gold braid on this American’s uniform.
Just then, another man, smaller and stooped from age, scurried out from behind the bar – “Irasshaimase,” he cried out, and gestured to him to follow. “Kono yo ni kuru… this way, come… here is Crichton-san.” Everyone else went back to whatever had occupied their attention a moment earlier, though Lukasziewicz could hardly imagine a less discreet way to make an entrance.
He paused before stepping behind the folding screen to consider its ink drawing. In the upper left corner, men in armor clashed with swords and spears, one side crashing through a defensive line. Nearby, on the right, servants rushed a palanquin across a dock toward a waiting barge. Snipers with long muskets took aim at their opponents on both sides of the main battle, while horsemen charged across an open field, brandishing swords or holding bows ready to shoot. A final scene in the lower right corner – perhaps the image was meant to be ‘read’ from upper left to lower right – showed the same barge taking on water as men in smaller boats mounted an attack, and the important personage had fallen from the overturned palanquin, an arrow in his side. In an outstretched, defiant arm, he held a golden sword out over the rushing waters of a mighty river.
The minimalism of the drawing impressed a career marine – only a few strokes served to suggest the strength and energy of each figure, no ink wasted showing the eye what the imagination could supply. The scene, taken as a whole, had the form of a cresting wave, moving from one side to the other, and crashing down in the image of the dying dignitary and the ceremonial sword.
Crichton’s voice pulled him back into the moment and Lukasziewicz slid into the booth. “Sorry, Jim. I couldn’t help looking at the other side.”
“It’s just a cheap reproduction, Paul. You can probably buy one at the PX.”
“I figured, but that’s what’s interesting… not that it’s expensive, or original, but that an image like that one is considered ordinary. It tells the whole story of a battle, with lots of gory detail, and fierce passions, and you find it in a bar.”
“You’re saying the Japanese are fierce?”
“… or at least that they’re proud of that history. Even the Shogun, or the General, or whoever that figure is, he’s dying at the end, and he holds up his sword rather than clutching at his wounds.”
“Well, now I know what to get you for Christmas.” Crichton laughed, and then glanced at the booths visible from behind the screen to make sure they were empty. But that’s not why I asked you to meet me here.”
“Has there been a new development on your end?”
“Not exactly a development.” Crichton gestured to the old man who’d led Lukasziewicz to the back, and waited as he drew the folding screen further out, effectively blocking the now empty booths next to them from view as well. No new customers would be sitting there – though it was getting late, and the crowd out front had already begun to thin out. He reappeared a moment later with two glasses of beer and several small plates of food. “I took the liberty of ordering for you.”
“How do you even know about this place?” Lukasziewicz temporized, since it was clear his host was waiting for the right moment to break the news, whatever it was. “My driver was worried they wouldn’t even let me in.”
“Ordinarily, they wouldn’t let either of us in. But Tenno introduced me to the owner. That’s how it is over here… no admission without an invite.”
“Naturally… it would be Tenno. I suppose she fits right in wherever she goes around here.”
“She told me even she needed an invite at first. But after the Imperial Palace publically acknowledged her part in the rescue… well, I don’t think there’s a bar in Japan where she’d be allowed to pay for a drink.”
Crichton gestured to the tempura plate in the middle of the table. “These are my favorite.” He held up a large, crescent shaped vegetable, covered in a crispy shell, and dipped it in a smaller sauce bowl. “I think it’s some sort of pumpkin. Dig in. I ordered the shrimps for you.”
“Last week, SECNAV sent my office a list of O-3s he wants transferred to a temporary billet at Quantico, and she’s on it.” There, he’d broken the ice. Now Crichton would be free to reveal even bad news. He tried the shrimp. It was good.
“Does the Secretary normally take an interest in personnel decisions on this level?”
“No, and I think the rest of the list is probably a cover. Plus, I have no idea what a dozen O-3s will find to do there. It’s not like there’s that much paperwork for them to shift from one desk to another.”
“I was contacted directly by CIA… some functionary from the Beijing station flew over… Nyquist, I think.” Crichton rubbed his chin and growled out the next few words: “I imagine this is coming from higher up in operations, or maybe one of the tech companies they control… it’s hard to keep track of the pies they have fingers in… anyway, someone wants her in Virginia.”
“That figures. At my level, they have to disguise what they’re doing, but lower down, at fleet level, they aren’t afraid to move openly.”
“What about Cardano? He should be able to protect her from something like this. He has in the past.”
“He may not even be aware.” Lukasziewicz paused to give the question a second thought. “The Intelligence Directorate doesn’t report to the Director of Clandestine Services, and the tech guys seem to be all on the side of the DI. What’s more, with the summit meeting in Rome, he probably has his hands full.”
“What options does that leave her?”
“The usual, re-up, or resign her commission. But these are the usual things that face any career officer. If you stay, you accept the possibility of an unpleasant billet…
“… and if you go, you may be ‘stop-lossed’ back in.”
“You know as well as I do that stop-loss has never been applied to the Corps or the Fleet, except in wartime. There’s something you’re not telling me about this. What is it?” Lukasziewicz examined Crichton’s face, and he paid more attention to the beer he was nursing. “Look, Tenno can finish out her twenty, or not, without any interference from us. I already as much as offered her a job if she musters out next spring, like you asked… and it’s not like I can’t see a use for her ‘colorful’ skill set in our firm. She could prove to be an invaluable asset. But from what I can see, she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself. What am I missing?”
“I don’t know as much about her situation as I’d like, and she certainly seems to be a magnet for bizarre and dangerous, types.”
“Are you referring to the incident with General Diao’s son?”
“Sure, that, but there’s more. I mean, she’s just one marine, but somehow she’s got the attention of the Japanese imperial Household, and becomes a target of the coup plotters. Why her, out of all the damn jarheads in the Corps?”
“You have a longer connection with her…”
“Yeah. I knew her father, and he was another one of those types… you know, when you’re around them it’s like you’re at the center of some vortex of violent forces, and the only safe course is to follow in his wake. He pulled the two of us out of more than one hairy scene in Manila.”
“That’s funny, because I wouldn’t normally take you for a brawler, Jim.”
“Me, neither, but it’s not like we were picking fights… and her jacket was full of stuff like that at the Academy.”
Lukasziewicz laughed for a moment at the reminder of his own time as a midshipman. “So she was a hellion in Annapolis?”
“That’s just it. She wasn’t like that at all. Nose in a book, top marks in engineering, and every tech subject we threw at her… and she even aced those damn poetry classes. Just try to picture her third year. She helps the Fightin’ 28th win Iron Company for the second year in a row by dominating in the pugil sticks, meanwhile NCIS is investigating her for a string of assaults and a couple of suspicious deaths in town. Then she agrees to go to the annual martial arts tournament at Quantico…”
“I heard about this one. Didn’t some fool put her in the men’s bracket… nearly got her killed?”
“Well, that part’s on me. But in my defense, there’d be no point having her compete in the women’s bracket, plus the morale issues… Anyway, she held her own against the men, took out a few marines, including the Pendleton boxing champ, and even a few SEALs who’d been sent over. In the semifinals, she’s up against a Chinese entrant, a former hand-to-hand combat trainer in the People’s Liberation Army, and he’s good, maybe better than her. But it’s a close match, until he pulls a blade he’s snuck into the ring…”
“A blade? What the hell? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I know. This is what I mean. It’s like nothing’s ever ordinary around her, just like with her father.”
“I take it they stopped the fight.”
“There wasn’t time. One moment he has her in a chokehold from behind, the next she manages to escape, and before anyone knows what’s happened, he’s about to jam a K-Bar through her eye.”
“Holy hell. Why haven’t I heard about this before?”
“SECNAV put a lid on it, even scrubbed the videos from the MCEN… something about delicate negotiations and helping the Chinese save face. You remember the Pacific Rim conference?”
“Oh, yeah. That was a few years before the coup. So, how’d you get her out of there?”
“I had nothing to do with it, and to this day, I have no idea how she pulled it off, because Colonel Feng was bigger, stronger, and at least as skilled as her. I mean, she was just a third year mid up against a seasoned soldier. By the time anyone outside the ring spotted the knife, he already had the complete upper hand, and there’s no way she could have held him off for long, with the blade inches from her face, and all his weight behind it. But then, in the twinkling of an eye, somehow she turned the tables on him. It was like, one moment she’s about to crumble under his onslaught, and the next she’s managed to duck under the blade, slash his ribs with it, and then jam it through his neck, from one ear to the other… all while he’s still holding the damn thing.”
“She killed him, right there in the ring?”
“Yeah, she’s a finisher.”
“Sounds like a marine, to me. That’s what she did on Itbayat, isn’t it?”
Crichton took the last of the tempura, and picked up his glass.
“She did what I sent her there to do.”
“I’m sure we can find something for her to do in our… concern.” Lukasziewicz laughed as he considered the advantages such an operator might bring.
“Then you can see why we might not want her to be ensnared in the Agency’s shadow.”
“Maybe, but how can we prevent it? SECNAV has already made the request.”
“Can you stall?”
“Sure, a month, maybe six weeks. How would that help us?”
“The Commandant of the Marine Corps has discretion over staff appointments, right?”
“Yes, but only in the sense that I can put her name through to SECDEF’s final list without SECNAV’s review. But he can intervene if gets wind of it.”
“I think, if you push it through in the next few days, with SECDEF in Rome next week for the summit it may turn out the paperwork never finds its way to SECNAV’s office. This is one of those things Cardano just might be able to help with.”
Lukasziewicz laughed again. “You realize this means we’ll have to promote her to an O-4. Don’t you remember the last time we promoted her?”
“Yeah, she was pissed. I’ll take the heat for it, don’t worry. Just put her on my staff, and I’ll make sure she’s out of reach for the duration of Operation Talisman Blade. After that, it’ll be up to her. If she signs a new contract, we can’t shield her from whatever CIA has in mind… or she can retire free and clear, if she’s willing to give up her twenty.”
“It’ll be a loss to the corps.” Lukasziewicz rubbed his chin as he turned his mind to the downside of their little plan.
“Knowing the agency, she’s already lost to the corps. At least, we can make it worth her while.”
“It’s a good thing I’m retiring in the spring… because this smells a lot like a burning bridge.”
On the ride back to the base, Lukasziewicz reflected on the nature of Jim Crichton’s loyalty. “Even now, after three decades, he’s still watching out for George Kane’s kid. Yeah, he’ll make a trustworthy business partner.”
“What was that, sir?” Colón asked from the front seat.
“Nothing, gunny. Did you find something diverting to do?”
“Yes, sir. What with all the Aussies arriving in town, Sailor Town is hopping.”“I guess the whole city has an interest in the upcoming exercises.” Albuquerque Bridge slipped past the car window on the right, and Lukasziewicz watched a stream of sailors making the long, rather unruly, march back to base.
Continue to Ch 3