Bestselling author Peter Straub's Koko is a gripping psychological thriller in which horror and paranoia are indistinguishable from reality.Koko. Only four men knew what it meant. Now they must stop it. They were Vietnam vets-a doctor, a lawyer, a working stiff, and a writer. Very different from each other, they are nonetheless linked by a shared history and a single shattering secret. Now, they have been reunited and are about to embark on a quest that will take from Washington, D.C., to the graveyards and fleshpots of the Far East to the human jungle of New York, hunting someone from the past who has risen from the darkness to kill and kill and kill.
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July 14, 2009
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Excerpt from Koko by Peter Straub
1WASHINGTON, D.C.1At three o'clock in the afternoon of a grey, blowing mid-November day, a baby doctor named Michael Poole looked down through the windows of his second-floor room into the parking lot of the Sheraton Hotel. A VW van, spray-painted with fuzzy peace symbols and driven by either a drunk or a lunatic, was going for a ninety-eight-point turn in the space between the first parking row and the entrance, trapping a honking line of cars in the single entry lane. As Michael watched, the van completed its turn by grinding its front bumper into the grille and headlights of a dusty little Camaro. The whole front end of the Camaro buckled in. Horns blew. The van now faced a stalled, frustrated line of enemy vehicles. The driver backed up, and Michael thought he was going to escape by reversing down the first row of cars to the exit onto Woodley Road. Instead, the driver nipped the van into an empty space two cars down. "Well, damn," Michael said to himself--the van's driver had sacrificed the Camaro for a parking place.Michael had called down twice for messages, but none of the other three men had checked in yet. Unless Conor Linklater was going to ride a motorcycle all the way from Norwalk, they would almost certainly take the shuttle from New York, but Michael enjoyed the fantasy that while he stood at the window he would see them all step out of the van--Harry "Beans" Beevers, the Lost Boss, the world's worst lieutenant; Tina Pumo, Pumo the Puma, whom Underhill had called "Lady" Pumo; and wild little Conor Linklater, the only other survivors of their platoon. Of course they would arrive separately, in taxis, at the front of the hotel. But he wished they would get out of the van. He hadn't known how strongly he wanted them to join him--he wanted to see the Memorial first by himself, but he wanted even more to see it later with them.Michael Poole watched the doors of the van slide open. There appeared first a hand clamped around the neck of a bottle which Michael immediately recognized as Jack Daniel's sour mash whiskey.The Jack Daniel's was slowly followed by a thick arm, then a head concealed by a floppy jungle hat. The whole man, now slamming the driver's door, was well over six feet tall and weighed at least two hundred and thirty pounds. He wore tiger-stripe fatigues. Two smaller men similarly dressed left through the sliding door in the side of the van, and a big bearded man in a worn flak jacket closed the van's passenger door and went around the front to take the bottle. He laughed, shook his head, and upended it into his mouth before passing it to one of the others. Individually and collectively they looked just enough like dozens of soldiers Poole had known for him to lean forward, staring, his forehead pressed against the glass.Of course he knew none of these men. The resemblance was generic. The big man was not Underhill, and the others were none of the others.He wanted to see people he had known over there, that was the large simple truth. He wanted a great grand reunion with everyone he had ever seen in Vietnam, living or dead. And he wanted to see the Memorial--in fact Poole wanted to love the Memorial. He was almost afraid to see it. From the pictures he had seen, the Memorial was beautiful, strong and stark, and brooding. That would be a Memorial worth loving. The only memorial he'd ever expected to have was a memorial to separateness, but it belonged to him and to the cowboys out in the parking lot, because they were forever distinct, as the dead were finally distinct. Together they were all so distinct that to Poole they almost felt like a secret country of their own.There were names he wanted to find on the Memorial, names that stood in place of his own.The big cowboy had taken a slip of paper from his shirt pocket and was writing, bent halfway over the hood of the van. The others unloaded duffel bags from the back of the van. The Jack Daniel's bottle circulated until the driver took a last slug and eased it into one of the bags.Now Michael wanted to be outside, to be moving. According to the schedule he had picked up at the registration desk downstairs, the parade up Constitution Avenue had already begun. By the time he had his first look at the Memorial and came back, the others would have checked in.Unless, that is, Harry Beevers had managed to get drunk at the bar of Tina Pumo's restaurant and was still asking for one more vodka martini, one more little teeny martooni, we'll catch the five o'clock shuttle instead of the four o'clock, or the six o'clock, or the seven. Tina Pumo, the only one of the old group Poole saw with anything like regularity, had told him that Beevers sometimes spent all afternoon in his place. Poole's only contact with Harry Beevers in four or five years had come three months before, when Beevers had called him up to read aloud a Stars and Stripes article, sent to Beevers by his brother, about a series of random murders committed in the Far East by someone who identified himself as Koko.Poole stepped back from the window. It was not time for Koko, now. The giant in tiger stripes and jungle hat finished putting his note under one of the Camaro's windshield wipers. What could it say? Sorry I beat up your car, man, come around for a shot of Jack--Poole sat down on the edge of the bed, picked up the receiver, and after a second of hesitation dialed Judy's number at school. When she answered he said, "Well, I'm here, but the other guys haven't checked in yet.""Do you want me to say, 'Poor Michael'?" asked Judy."No, I thought you'd like to know what's going on.""Look, Michael, is something special on your mind? This conversation has no point. You're going to spend a couple of days going all drunk and sentimental with your old army buddies. Do I have any place in that? I'd just make you feel guilty.""I still wish you'd have come along.""I think the past is in the past because that's where it belongs. Does that tell you anything?""I guess it does," Michael said. There was a moment of silence that went on too long. She would not speak until he did. "Okay," Michael finally said. "I'll probably see Beevers and Tina Pumo and Conor tonight, and there are some ceremonies I'd like to take part in tomorrow. I'll get home Sunday about five or six, I suppose.""Your patients are extremely understanding.""Diaper rash is rarely fatal," Michael said, and Judy uttered a smoky exhalation that might have been laughter."Should I call you tomorrow?""Don't bother. It's nice, but don't bother, really.""Really," Michael said, and hung up.2Michael moved slowly through the Sheraton's lobby looking at the men lined up at the registration desk, among them the big cowboy in tiger-stripe fatigues and his three buddies, and the groups of people sitting on padded dark green chairs and banquettes. The Sheraton was one of those hotels with no true bar. Women in clinging, filmy dresses brought drinks to the twenty or thirty tables in the sunken lobby. The waitresses all seemed to have descended from the same tall, languid, handsome family. Where these princesses might normally have served gin-and-tonics and Perriers-and-lime to men with dark suits and power haircuts--to men like Michael Poole's neighbors in Westchester County--now they set down shots of tequila and bottles of beer before wildmen in battle jackets and bush hats, in funky fatigues and funkier khaki ballcaps.The sulphurous conversation with his wife made Michael want to sit down among the wildmen and order a drink. But if he sat down, he would be drawn into things. Someone would begin to talk to him. He would buy a drink for a man who had been in some of the same places he had been, or had been near the places he had been, or who had a friend who had been near those places. Then the man would buy him a drink. This would lead to stories, memories, theories, introductions, vows of brotherhood. Eventually he would join the parade as part of a gang of strangers and see the Memorial through the thick insulating comfort of alcohol. Michael kept moving."Cavalry all the way!" shouted a whiskey voice behind his back.Michael went through a side door out into the parking lot. It was just a little too cold for his tweed jacket and sweater, but he decided not to go back upstairs for his coat. The heavy billowing sky threatened rain, but Michael decided that he didn't much care if it rained.Cars streamed up the ramp from the street. Florida license plates, Texas plates, Iowa and Kansas and Alabama, every kind and make of vehicle, from hardcore GM pickups to tinny Japanese imports. The van cowboy and his friends had driven to Washington from New Jersey, the Garden State. Tucked beneath the Camaro's windshield wiper was the note: You were in my way so FUCK YA!!!Down on the street, Michael flagged a cab and asked the driver to take him to Constitution Avenue."You gonna walk in the parade?" the driver immediately asked."That's right.""You re a vet, you were over there?""That's right." Michael looked up. From the back, the cabdriver could have been one of the earnest, desperate, slightly crazed students doomed to flunk out of medical school: colorless plastic glasses, dishwater hair, pale youthful skin. His ID plate said that his name was Thomas Strack. Blood from an enormous pimple had dried on the collar of his shirt."You ever in combat? Like in a firefight or something?""Now and then.""There's somethin' I always wanted to ask--I hope you don't take no offense or nothing."Michael knew what the cabdriver was going to ask. "If you don't want me to take offense, don't ask an offensive question.""Okay." The driver turned his head to glance at Michael, then looked straight ahead again. "Okay, no need to get heavy.""I can't tell you how it feels to kill someone," Michael said."You mean you never did it.""No, I mean I can't tell you."The cabbie drove the rest of the way in boiling silence. You coulda told me something. Gimme a little gore, why don't you? Lemme see that good old guilt, lemme see that fine old rapture. The past is in the past because that's where it belongs. Don't bother, really. You were in my way, so fuck ya.I'll take a triple Finlandia martini on the rocks, please, hold the olives, hold the vermouth, please, hold the rocks, please, and get the same thing for my four hundred buddies in here, please. They might look a little funny, but they're my tribe."This okay?" the cabbie asked. Beside the car was a wall of people. Michael could see flags and men carrying banners suspended between poles. He paid the driver and left the cab.Michael could see over the heads of most of the people lining the sidewalk. Here the tribe had gathered, all right. Men who had once been soldiers, most of them dressed as though they were still soldiers, filled the width of Constitution Avenue. In platoon-sized groups interspersed with high school bands, they marched raggedly down the street. Other people stood on the sidewalk and watched them go by because they approved of what they were, what they meant because of what they had done. By standing there the bystanders applauded. Until now, Michael realized, he had resisted fully believing in the reality of this parade.It was not ticker tape and limousines on Fifth Avenue--the Iranian hostages had been given that one--but in most ways this was better, being more inclusive, less euphoric but more emotional. Michael edged through the people on the sidewalk. He stepped off the curb and fell in behind the nearest large and irregular group. Surprised tears instantly filled his eyes.The men before him were three-fourths jungle fighters with everything but Claymores and M-16s, and one-fourth pudgy WWII vets who looked like ex-boxers. Michael realized that the sun had come out only when he saw their long shadows stretching out to him on the street.He could see Tim Underhill, another long shadow, striding along with his belly before him and cigar smoke drifting in his wake. In his mind, Underhill was muttering obscene hilarious remarks about everyone in sight and wearing his summer uniform of a bandanna and blousy fatigue pants. A streak of mosquito blood was smeared across his left shoulder.In spite of everything, Michael wished that Underhill were beside him now. Michael realized that he had been considering Underhill--not brooding or thinking about him, considering him--since Harry Beevers had called him up at the end of October to tell him about the newspaper articles his brother had sent him from Okinawa.In two separate incidents, three people, an English tourist in his early forties and an older American couple, had been murdered in Singapore just about the time the Iranian hostages had returned to America. The murders were thought to have been committed at least a week to ten days apart. The Englishman's body was found on the grounds of the Goodwood Park hotel, those of the American couple in a vacant bungalow in the Orchard Road section of the city. All three bodies had been mutilated, and on two of them had been found playing cards scrawled with an unusual and enigmatic name: Koko. Six months later, in the summer of 1981, two French journalists were found similarly mutilated in their Bangkok hotel room. Playing cards with the same name had been placed on the bodies. The only difference between these killings and those that had happened after Ia Thuc, a decade and a half earlier, was that the cards were not regimental, but ordinary commercial playing cards.Michael thought Underhill lived in Singapore. At least Underhill had always claimed that he was going to move there after he got out of the army. But Poole could not make the mental leap required to convict Tim Underhill of murder.Poole had known two extraordinary human beings during his time in Vietnam, two men who had stood out as exceptionally worthy of respect and affection in the half-circus, half-laboratory of human behavior that a longstanding combat unit becomes. Tim Underhill was one, and a boy from Milwaukee named M.O. Dengler was the other. The bravest people he had ever known, Underhill and little Dengler had seemed perfectly at home in Vietnam.