I drove the Marauder to the pier in silence, neither Gularte nor I saying a word, even as the vehicle, much heavier than the Bronco built for the off-road job of patrolling the beach and incidental structures, made a smooth surface out of the rough wooden slat surface the pier offered up.
“Too bad this thing doesn’t have four-wheel drive,” Gularte finally mentioned as the car took the bumps out but also waddled back and forth a bit as it made its way slowly out to the well-lit restaurant.
The thought made me smile. I was feeling better about the incident at Calafia, as it seemed there was no way Haldeman would be able to tell who was in the patrol car unless he went to the department and conducted an investigation. That occurrence was most unlikely, not that Haldeman was at all predicable. He did not give off vibrations that he might take a chance on acting against his own best interests.
Gates’ conduct was to be expected, but not that of Stockdale, unless Gates hadn’t left the department communications center, but remained to order Stockdale about what he had to say, or not say at all. The incident had been so much like what happened down in the A Shau. Battalion would just go silent and leave the companies in trouble to solve their own problems, and then later the company commanders would be blamed if those solutions didn’t work out.
Gularte and I finished the shift without incident, our Marauder never getting close to the entrance down into the Calafia Beach Park lot again.
“What do we say about it?” Gularte asked, smoking a cigarette while standing between our private cars parked in the lot behind the station.
“About what?” I asked, sounding as innocent as I could, knowing full well that Gularte would get the message without further discussion. “We go home and come back for our next assignment, which is beach patrol, thank God. I’m on with another trainee named Herberich from noon to four and back with you from eight to midnight.”
I went to bed without saying a word to my wife. There was no point. The incident hadn’t been an incident at all. As far as the rest of the world, outside of the people in both cars in the night, was concerned nothing at all had happened. Other than two police officers duly sworn into service and on duty in the middle of their operations area had totally backed down from the potential of power that sat right in front of them would never be discussed.
Seven AM. came with the sound of Julie’s electric four-wheel cart, or whatever the hell it was, droning away around the downstairs living room, and a ringing phone. That Julie was up on her own, with my wife still sleeping beside me was not uncommon. She was an early riser and determined to be determined at just about everything she did. Mary woke up just as I grabbed the receiver.
“See the man,” was all the voice said, before hanging up abruptly.
There was no time given or anything else. With a feeling of dread, I eased myself from the bed and went to stand at the double glass doors that led out to the small outside patio. The view was limited as the apartment building was located well back from the ocean and on a sloping hillside leading toward that ocean, but it was good enough to see the black limo sitting across the street.
“Who was that?” My wife asked, before continuing, “Jules is going to drive me mad with that electric contraption.”
“Guess,” I replied, ignoring the droning Julie noise and my wife’s accurate comment. “I’ll need the compound outfit.”
I went into the bathroom, turning the temperature up to produce water just as hot as our aged hot water heater could get it. A knot formed in my midsection. The call was no coincidence. The call was from Haldeman through one of his many minions. The call was somehow, and very likely, going to deal with what happened the night before. The nothing that happened that, of course, couldn’t be really a nothing at all in such a surveillance and spy loaded area. The small piece of ground the compound was composed of was surveilled from and to everywhere in its general vicinity. Calafia beach was well within the scope of some of the electronic magic I’d already witnessed operating several times. My only hope was that the parking lot itself was down inside the flaring end of a craggy arroyo. It was extremely doubtful if there was any kind of camera located there and trying to see in from the outside, except from directly out to sea, was damn near impossible.
“It never happened,” I kept whispering as the hot water poured over me, and I tried to convince myself that I still had a job, an income, developing relationships and more.
“What never happened?” my wife said, from just outside the frosted shower door.
I turned the handle, shutting down the water. I hadn’t even shampooed my hair or scrubbed my body, but my wife had to be attended to and possibly she could make me feel a bit less fear than what I was feeling. It wasn’t A Shau deep-bitten burning and agonizing terror. It was the fear of losing a life I thought I was rebuilding from the ashes of what the war had burned everything down into. Those ashes still evident here and there, with buried hot embers still embedded and still occasionally putting out painful heat. The pain of this fear wasn’t the chopping block kind of life or death stuff so there was no need, or place to go, to hide.
I put my blue robe on, walked past my wife and sat on the end of the bed. I poured out the whole story while she paced in front of me, her favorite long cotton nightdress swaying outward with every turn.
“Have you told Gularte, your partner?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I’ve done nothing except take that short call and shower since we got up.”
“You’ve got to alert him, and you can’t do it by phone,” she said, pointing over at the phone on a small end table next to our bed. “They trust you at that place, for some reason or other, but I don’t trust them and you shouldn’t either.”
“If they trust me then maybe I owe some back,” I replied, figuring such action and thought would only be fair.
“Did you do things in Vietnam because you had to,” she shot back. “Did you hurt or kill people and remain sorry to this day, but it had to be done?”
I just sat and stared at her, thinking intensely about what she was saying and taking myself back. There was no reason to answer. I stared at her moving figure. The men at the compound might simply be forced to sacrifice me for all the best of reasons. I didn’t want to be sacrificed, but I’d have little or no say if things went far enough or beyond a certain point.
“They know it was me and are afraid I might talk,” I concluded. “What do I do?”
“I don’t think so,” my wife replied, still moving. “They know or guess it was you, in fact they are probably hoping it was you. They can’t exactly go around investigating that weird car you were in or who both of you might have been. This can’t get out, and that means they can’t do anything that might let it out. They are afraid for themselves, not after you. Christian Scientists don’t drink or mess around with young women. They’d be through.”
“So, what do I do?”
“Shut up and listen,” my wife replied, finally coming to a stop in front of me. “Use that big brain and remarkable memory. Listen. If I’m wrong it isn’t going to go well but there’s nothing to be done for it except not make it worse. If I’m right then they’ll want to know what you might want to be a full playing member on their team, not that a direct trade is really in anybody’s best interest.”
“What might I want?” I asked, trying to think of something a lowly beach patrol officer, subbed out to the local police department and selling life insurance on the side might be able to secure from the Western White House that might be worth anything of real use or value.”
“Ask for something along your insurance lines, like doing the group insurance for the city or the police department like you’re always talking about with Chuck. Sure, help pay the bills. Secondly, Mrs. Nixon’s birthday is the 16th of March and there’s going to be a party with close friends and supporters at the San Clemente Inn. We want to be invited.”
“Are you crazy?” I asked, in shock. “I’m nobody. I’m so low that they don’t even call me by name. I’m beach ball or beach boy to them.”
“If they give you the idea, however arcanely they might do it, that you might be the officer in that car last night, then you have to support their belief, thereby relieving them somewhat. Then, if that happens, you ask for those things, which are extremely easy for them to provide which will give them the idea that you’re a player on their team, no matter how minor. When the chips are down you come through, just like in Vietnam.”
I sat shaking my head in wonder. “Why do we want to go to the ball? I asked, not understanding that part of her plan at all.
“It forces their hand and makes it a bit, not a ton, uncomfortable for them because they’ll have to explain why you’re there, and that explanation will do you well, compared to the real reason we’ll be there. Besides, you can use the money we make from the group policy Chuck talked about to buy a new dress and high heels for me.”
She went to the full-length mirror set up next to the double glass doors I’d stepped through to check on the limo. She twisted and turned while she smiled, no doubt already imagining the dress shoes and the rest she would acquire to attend the ball.
I went out to the waiting limo. The driver was new, as I’d never seen him before. He proved he was brand new by getting out to open the door before I got to the car. Although I appreciated the courtesy, I also realized I was probably better off in the neighborhood if everyone didn’t get the idea that I was something important when I surely wasn’t.
Gularte lived only a mile south on Ola Vista. I informed the driver that I wanted to stop there but he indicated that his orders would not allow for any stops along the way, which just added to my fear and discomfort. There was little chance that Gularte would be drawn into anything, and I wasn’t even certain that my being ushered into the compound so early and on such short notice had anything to do with the incident at Calafia Beach.
The Marine corporal saluted the limo as we drove through, the gate already open and waiting. I didn’t respond, not knowing who the salute was being directed at and not being in uniform myself. I didn’t take it as a good omen, neither the open gate nor the salute. I got out of the limo before the driver could let me out, on the compound wall side. The armored door into the compound was also open, as if set that way to send me a message, which I got. It wasn’t a good message. I much preferred to be treated as the lowest human in the compound social order.
I walked down the hall with two waiting members of the Secret Service. One never called them by name, even if a name was known. Like the FBI agents, all Secret Service agents were ‘special’ agents, and always demanding to be called that. The agents said nothing and neither did I. We walked past the empty desks usually occupied by Haldeman and Ehrlichman. I looked toward the corner of the great room, the surf beating away across the low bushes set next to the passing railroad tracks. Haldeman and Ehrlichman both sat on a couch set near the farthest corner of the room. An easy chair was conveniently positioned across from them.
I sat in the chair without being told to, looking over at two stereo speakers set up on small towers, one on either side of the couch. The stereo was on. Linda Ronstadt was singing one of her songs. The song playing was called A Different Drum and the words coming out of the speakers were like they came straight up out of the A Shau Valley: “You and I travel to the beat of a different drum,
oh, can’t you tell by the way I run…”
I realized, as I looked across at the two men staring intently back at me that the music was there, and a little too loud, to prevent anyone from overhearing or recording what we would say. It also confirmed that Calafia Beach was very much the subject of our meeting.
“You, was it you?” Haldeman asked, although there was little trace of any question mark to be found after he asked it.
I thought about what my wife told me. I prayed that she was right, and also, I knew right then and there that I wasn’t going to fool the two men in front of me about anything except possibly some of the details.
“Yes,” I replied, trying not to take in the lyrics of Linda’s lonesome tough song to heart. I was travelling, so desperately and differently, to the beat of a different drum, particularly when stacked up to what was in front of me.
“What was said to you in that exchange?” Haldeman went on, surprising me.
Why was it important that I prove that I was the cop in front of them? But I knew I had to answer whatever questions they might ask as best I could.
”Get the hell out of here,” I replied, “followed by the tossing of a full beer can onto the vehicle’s hood and windshield.”
“The can wasn’t full,” Haldeman said, as if it mattered.
I said nothing, as there’d been no question to answer.
“Who else knows?” Ehrlichman said, speaking for the first time, his tone very gentle and quiet compared to the cutting and demanding edge Haldeman used.
“No one,” I replied.
They both stared at me without responding. I knew I had to go on.
“I backed out of there at your orders, sir,” I said, looking straight back into Haldeman’s glaring eyes. “I drove to the station, cleaned up the unit, got my stuff and went home.”
I left Gates and Stockdale, not to mention Bobby Scruggs out of it, hoping their roles would go undiscovered.
“Who took your place on patrol?” Haldeman asked, his tone begin to moderate in the first indication that they were buying what I said as the truth.
“Officer Gularte,” I replied. “He was available and is one of my new beach patrol officers. He wanted some street time. I thought it was important, after the incident, that I get out of there and stay out.”
Both men in front of me began to visibly relax, but not me. My wife had been right. They were afraid for themselves without one care in the world about me except the fact that I alone held their secret and would keep that secret. My lies were transparent and pretty easy to penetrate but I was gambling everything that the men in front of me wanted nothing to do with chasing after information that might end up revealing them or at the very least coming to the attention of the president in some way.
“What can we do to help you?” Ehrlichman asked, his question coming completely out of the blue, although my wife’s advice had predicted some form of it.
I wasn’t at all surprised that Haldeman said nothing and seemed to ignore Ehrlichman’s comment. Instead of interacting he merely stared down at one of his legal tablets, as if studying something I couldn’t see.
My wife had been wrong about a couple of things, I knew. I wasn’t given any opportunity to warn Gularte and also, the Western White House had absolutely nothing to do with the City of San Clement, either it’s civilian staff or the distinctly separate entities of police and fire. There would be no influencing of city officials to somehow get them to make me the city’s insurance agent. Medical insurance was still an unknown to me, although I was licensed to sell it. I could only imagine the amount of attention and work it would take to add new employees, take out old ones and then there would be the claims. I would have to learn a whole lot more from Chuck Bartok to figure out how I might proceed with selling medical insurance products.
“My wife and I want to be invited to the ball,” I blurted out, knowing I had to ask for something.
“What ball?” Haldeman and Ehrlichman asked back, talking at the same time.
“The ball for Mrs. Nixon’s birthday coming up,” I replied, surprised that something so evident to someone as lowly in political life as my wife would know but the men in front of me, at the very top of the entire government, seemed not to.
“You can’t be invited to anything official at all,” Haldeman stated flatly.
“There’s a record of everyone invited to everything dealing with the president or his family and you can’t appear in any kind of register related to that, and that’s not negotiable.”
“They could attend, however,” Ehrlichman said, after a few uncomfortable seconds.
“Attend, how?” Haldeman replied, his voice softening. I sensed that both men were comfortable with the request although I really did wonder if either one of them knew anything about the coming ball.
“You’re Chief of Staff,” Ehrlichman said, a slight smile crossing his facial features. “You simply tell the Secret Service they’re coming and to let them in. There should be plenty of time in order to get his wife cleared, and that’s it.”
I sat at the position of attention, or as close to it as a person sitting can get. I could not get the tension to flow out of my body or mind. I didn’t care in the least about the ball. I was fighting for my very existence in every area that was important to me, and I knew it. I was also playing fast and hard with men who’d been playing fast and hard in circles way beyond my own for many years.