The ‘unseeable’ was coming home to roost, I now understood. The artifact that was entrusted to me had something to do with San Onofre, the one ‘pod’ that had been taken out of service to become some sort of hyper-secret nearly impenetrable laboratory or meeting place was involved, as well as an admiral in the Navy who I was finding out scared the living crap out of every person in the government, including the President himself.
“Why am I becoming the repository for all of this?” I complained in frustration, tinged with a good bit of fear, to my wife.
“Well, let’s see, you deliberately stole the tapes from the car which you and your friends sank for no good reason at all. On top of that, you have managed to become the only person left near these not-so-cleverly conniving people of great power but not great intellect, to the point where they have nobody left to trust at all, including the people they thought they could trust. In other words, you’ve done this to yourself, and us by association, because of things you could have predicted and also things that you couldn’t have possibly foreseen. There, that’s the gist of it. Now, instead of bothering trying to explain all that why don’t you talk to me about what we’re going to do, other than moving at our earliest opportunity.”
I hadn’t been ready for that kind of response from her, so I didn’t answer, instead sitting in stunned silence. As if reading my mind, she went on.
“It’s not all your fault,” she continued. “They put you over there in that war and then wrote you off when you came back. And I’ve known almost all of this stuff as it has been happening but have said little or nothing.”
I wanted to get out of the apartment, drive somewhere else, anywhere else, and think about what my wife had so succinctly stated. That she had delivered her opinion about things as she saw them without any anger, accusation, or rancor of any sort was almost worse than if she’d been angry. First Butch’s diatribe and then Mary’s own. My supposed ‘redemptive’ self-image was taking a few hits and I wondered if I was tough enough to take it. The only real confidence anyone seemed to express toward me was the leadership at the Western White House, and that leadership was trusting me like no other person or outfit I’d ever experienced in my life except for my wife, daughter, and possibly Mrs. Beasley. Bozo liked and respected me, I felt, as I looked over at him. Our eyes locked. I was forced to smile. He sure as hell didn’t trust me, or me him, and I was pleased in the honesty of our unexpressed feelings that needed no other kind of communication.
I was about to make up some lie to escape from where I was when the phone rang.
My wife, sitting at the kitchen counter, answered by picking up the receiver. She didn’t like official calls, especially from the compound, so unless the person calling said something first she merely held the handset to her ear. After a few seconds, she hung up, having said not one word.
“It was them?” I asked, knowing the answer but having to ask.
“Of course,” she said, but with a smile on her face. “You want to dress out in uniform or wear your compound costume? They’re sending one of those funeral vehicles for you.”
My wife didn’t like the compound’s choice of cars, particularly their color.
“We’re never buying a black car,” she’d remarked one day as I’d gone out the door to get into one of the Lincolns. I’d shaken my head but said nothing back to her. The way her mind worked was terrific most of the time but inscrutable at other times.
I looked at my Seiko. It was early afternoon, and I had no idea how long I’d be stuck at the compound. “Uniform,” I replied, deciding that even if I was in and out of the compound in minutes I’d find somewhere like Galloway’s to hole up and think. My thoughts turned back to the one thing that was bothering me most. The artifact and what had to be coming in the meeting I was being called to was lying out there like it was waiting for me. I wasn’t afraid but I was, once more, filled with trepidation. Trusting me was one thing, but making me a potential target, along with my family, was quite another although when dealing with people so powerful the two seemed to run hand in hand.
I got dressed upstairs before going down to say goodbye to Julie, who sat with her doll on the couch, the ‘statue’ of a cat at his place sitting on the side table. Bozo never sat close to her, nor did she make any attempts to pet him. They had an understanding that was beyond my ability to comprehend. The cat, staring as he was, reminded me that some people were exactly like him…very close but also very far away at the same time.
Mary was in the kitchen. I didn’t go out there, instead exiting through the front door and walking down the steps to the street below. I hadn’t checked to see if a ‘funeral’ Lincoln was out there, I just knew it would be.
The Staff Sergeant sat behind the wheel. I got in and we pulled easily and silently away.
“Since when did you become a driver for the organization?” I asked, absently, just making conversation while I prepared myself for what might lay before me.
“What organization would that be, commander, lieutenant, agent, or whatever you are or about to become?” he asked back, checking me out in the rearview mirror.
The man was a good man and likely a great Marine but he was steeped in mystery and seemed to truly enjoy being seen that way, like he was playing some role in a Goldfinger kind of 007 movie, which I admitted to myself rather ruefully, he was.
“Where am I meeting him?” I asked, changing the subject. I had too much on my mind to bother discussing what my future might have in store for me with the CIA or whomever else might want my ‘nobody’ services.
“Nobody,” the Staff Sergeant replied.
“Why are we driving in then?” I asked back, surprised.
“To pick up a package,” he replied.
“Why didn’t you just deliver it?” I asked in frustration.
“It’s not that kind of package. It’s an eyes-only kind of thing.”
“If it’s eyes only then how is that other eyes have got to see it to give it to me?” I said, feeling like I was in grade school and having to deal with students at that level.
“Eyes only is a designation, not an indicator of true sight,” the Staff Sergeant replied.
I felt like an idiot. In RPS school, while still in the Marine Corps (officially, as opposed to the Marine Corps identity I currently carried in my wallet), I’d heard the phrase, but only spoken in humor. Top Secret was the highest classification of secret materials or documents. There was no Eyes Only, Q Clearance, or any of that. There was a ‘Compartmentalized Top Secret’ but nobody at the school would ever reveal what that was. As a custodian I would never be involved with such stuff, I was told. But here I was.
We pulled into the lot, the gate already open and waiting, with the two very spiffy-looking Marines saluting as we entered the nearly empty lot. There was a white pickup truck parked off to one unusual side, as it had three large letters in red painted on its side. The letters were “AEC.” I knew those letters from being around the San Onofre plant. They stood for the Atomic Energy Commission. I knew immediately that the truck was there for me.
We rolled up next to the truck, but nobody got out of the vehicle and its windows were covered with some material that made seeing anybody inside impossible, at least from the angle I was viewing it. The Staff Sergeant got out of the Lincoln without saying anything and walked to the back of the truck, but before he did that he popped open the trunk of the Lincoln. He pulled a wooden crate from the back of the truck after putting its gate down. The box appeared to be a cube about two feet on a side, but the way he carried it made it also appear quite heavy. He hefted the thing into the Lincoln’s trunk, closed the lid, and then got back behind the wheel. The whole transfer had taken only seconds before the car was moving again.
“What did you need me for?” I got out, saying the words more to myself than him, but knowing the answer before he said it.
“Eyes only,” he stated but said no more.
I knew that he meant I had to see the transfer for myself, but I didn’t understand why. The whole affair was cloaked in the weirdest, almost sophomoric, secrecy I’d ever encountered or might have imagined.
“There’s a phone just inside the door there,” the Staff Sergeant said. “The man wants a word with you before we go.”
I got out of the car and walked toward the double doors and, as I expected, the one on the left opened as I approached. I stepped inside and one of the agents handed me a phone handset.
“You got the package, I presume?” Mardian asked, but not saying the words in the tone of a question.
“What do you want me to do with it?” I asked.
Store it in your bedroom,” Mardian said. “Put a lamp on it. Who the hell would ever think about what might be inside of it? You can pass it off as an odd designer thing. The best-kept secrets are kept in plain sight. This object is beyond classified and I know you’re eventually going to want to know why I’m seemingly getting rid of it. Well, I’m not, I’m storing it for later discovery during a more favorable time.”
I pulled the handset away and stared at it in wonder. This artifact had made, or found, its home somewhere inside a nuclear complex. I had no equipment to measure radioactivity and my trust level for the people working in the field was extremely low, after hearing about what had happened to the Marines. Whether that had been deliberate or accidental didn’t matter when it came to a state of hard unmeasurable incompetence the men at the complex had exhibited. That I might store the box in my home next to my wife and my bed was laughable to me, but Mardian talked like anybody might do such a thing.
“You know what’s inside that crate?” I asked the Staff Sergeant from the back seat.
“No sir, and I don’t want to,” he quickly replied. “That’s way above my pay grade.”
His answer made no more sense than the rest of what was happening, so I ignored it and said no more. Upon arriving back on Cabrillo, I indicated that he should park the Lincoln in the driveway next to my Volks. He did so without question, wisely backing into the slot. Putting the car in park, he got out, popped the trunk, and hauled out the crate. As quickly as I could, I exited the vehicle and opened the garage door.
“I was never here, and neither was this thing,” the Staff Sergeant said, before walking out to the Lincoln and quickly driving away.
I stared at the wooden crate and sighed deeply. With a nearby claw hammer, I pried the small nails out that were holding the pieces of wood together until I fully exposed what was inside. I stood and examined what I’d uncovered.
Whatever the object it contained, the aluminum box the artifact was contained, or housed in, was quite something all on its own. Hand-made with aluminum or some similar metal, it was held together with what seemed like patches with two handles, one on each side. Rivets were everywhere around its edges with riveted caps on all its eight corners. A simple locking mechanism mounted three-quarters of the way up one of its faces, held the lid on, which was made of the same metallic material put together with the same kind of hand-crafted expertise. It was the neatest small metal box I’d ever seen. There was a note taped to the top of the box. I opened the sealed envelope and then laughed out loud. The combination to the lock was written on a piece of white paper. So much for high security. The small dial was to be turned five times until the red arrow was pointing straight up. At that time, within four seconds, the smaller button located in the center of the dial was to be pushed in twice and then held until the lock clicked open. I stepped back, turned, and walked out to where my Volks sat parked a few feet away. I decided to wait to examine the artifact itself until I either finished the beach patrol shift, for which if I didn’t leave immediately I’be be late for, or open the box in the morning.
There was also the next tape to be listened to if my life would slow down to some kind of easier pace to allow me to get to it.
Once in the Bronco with Gularte, I finally felt I could relax for the first time in days. What was going on with the White House scandal, the President being in deep trouble, Hunt being killed, and then the stunning revelations about San Onofre, the tapes, the artifact, and even Butch’s brutal assessment of my returned identity back in the ‘real’ world, had shaken me to the core. My wife’s assessment that I’d brought a lot of it on myself wasn’t in any way inaccurate, but hearing her lay it out as only she could still hurt.
Neither of us spoke as we cruised slowly through the city streets until reaching the railroad crossing. There were no trains scheduled that we knew of but nobody working the beach patrol took their appearance lightly. The speed of the trains approaching and passing was extremely deceptive, but there was nothing on this night.
Gularte and I made small talk, mostly about his love life and my strange involvement with the Western White House Crew. My earlier idea that he might be working in cahoots with them had been retired long ago.
“Why did you turn down the CIA offer, if that’s what it was or is?” I asked him, finally, as his refusal had taken me totally by surprise. Of the two of us I would have thought that he, without the responsibility of wife and children and being a rather swashbuckling adventurer would have been the first one to dive right in, but that hadn’t been the case.
“I was a squad leader in combat and then a sergeant instructor when I came home,” he replied in a way that told me he was expecting my question. “You were a commander, and an outstanding one, and you still are although you remain so cloaked almost nobody else can see it. You organized the beach patrol from nothing into something valuable. You did the same with the Dwarfs. That’s not me and I don’t want it to be me. I like my simple life and I always want to be able to quit without notice. That wasn’t the case with the Marine Corps and it’s why I got out. It sure as hell isn’t the case with the CIA, not that anybody affiliated seems to want to say they work for or with that outfit.”
Gularte had never spoken in as much detail without stopping since I’d known him. I was surprised and impressed, not just by his delivery but by the fact that he could not have been more right about anything he said.
“I’m a cop and I like being a cop, and I can thank you for allowing me to be part of what we’ve done because I think all that is what’s behind the department being forced to bring me on full-time.”
“You won’t be working the beach patrol when you’re full-time,” I said, thinking about the obvious fact that I’d be seeing a whole lot less of the man very shortly.
“I know that, which is what I’m talking about,” he shot back with a laugh.
“Neither will you but you don’t know that yet. The uncertainty of that is something that doesn’t bother you at all but I don’t want it in my life.”
“Do you believe in God?” he asked, the question coming out of nowhere.
“What?” was all I could think to reply.
“You heard me,” Gularte said.
The Bronco eased comfortably over the dry sand humps that stretched to the water at low tide. The storm surf was gone, the wind subsided and the peaceful nature of the beach seemed almost permanent. Gularte let the silence stretch on as he guided the vehicle expertly along.
I didn’t want to answer the question, and worse, I couldn’t explain to myself why I wasn’t just tossing something out since it made me so uncomfortable. Gularte deserved more than that, however.
“You were hit badly down in the valley,” Gularte said, his voice soft and low as if he was talking to himself instead of to me. “When you were dying you said that you spoke to God, letting Him know you didn’t believe in him so you wouldn’t have any worries about some afterlife. Then, when the doctors decided you were going to live and you were alone you looked up and asked God to not let you live a normal life.”
I was amazed that Gularte remembered so much from our many conversations. In a two-person police unit, when nothing was going on, as was the case for most beach patrols, there was only one another to talk to. I thought about the dissonant logic my comments, brought together seemed to mean.
“In my opinion, since you’re not answering, you do believe in God. And I think that He was entertained by your first denial of Him so brought you along, just to see what you were going to come up with next. A few months later you did, and He was made to laugh again, as He reached down one finger toward your broken body and granted that wish.”
I was amazed again. As with Butch, I realized that I was missing a lot of depth in the people around me. Gularte had a depth I hadn’t thought existed but you couldn’t recall, recite, and then make such conclusions from anything but an impressive intellect and foundation of some wisdom.
My mind raced in the silence as we drove on, Trestles Beach in the distance, where we’d stop, sit for a bit, and then make the slow trip back to the base of the pier. My belief in God had not been anything I’d thought about since coming home. I wondered if I was supposed to modify whatever belief I had, given that I’d completely shed myself of so many years of being immersed in Catholicism, now that I was aware that it was very likely humans were not the only intelligent life in the universe. That wasn’t something I could share with Gularte but his bringing the subject up had been like a flash across the stretch of my recent life.
What was the meaning of everything I was doing? It appeared that many people somehow knew and trusted that I had some organized and well-thought-out direction when, in reality, I had none. I was still down in the valley, reacting to every new threat, and then moving on to wait for the next.
After our shift together I drove home in the Volks. It was near midnight so I expected everyone to be in bed already asleep at home. When I walked through the front door of the apartment I immediately saw my wife snuggled up under a blanket, awake and waiting for my return. I walked over to sit next to her. She was playing the stereo. The quiet soft sounds of a Beatles song drifted across the room: “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too. Imagine all the people. Livin’ life in peace…”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “What I said was true but the way I said it and when I said it was all wrong.”
I smiled but only hugged her close. Christmas was only days away, and my special gifts of the artifact and the tape were about to be ‘unwrapped.’ The song repeated itself. I wondered how some entertainer, with seemingly so little in the way of harsh life experience, could get it all so right with something so moving but short in length.
With my wife in my arms, my daughter asleep upstairs, and a cat who loved but didn’t trust me, I understood that the God I was trying so hard to either not believe in or truly believe in had allowed me Christmas presents that there could be no higher value placed upon, but quite possibly He’d also added a couple to satisfy my prayer to Him that I did not come home to live a regular life.