I sat still inside the idling Bronco, my mind twisting and turning about the call that had come in and the mission Gularte and I had just finished, except we hadn’t finished it. The call was beyond strange, as Chiefs of Staff for presidents of the country were about as likely to make an appointment with someone as low as I was on the totem pole as with the man in the moon, and, without thinking about it, I’d returned the Marauder to the police lot without washing and waxing it.

“Back,” I said, “we’ve got to go back, get Gates’ car and take it to the headquarters for washing and waxing, and also collect the special wax from my car, and we’ve got to do it fast because his shift will be ending and he’s going to be looking for his Marauder.”

“That’s it?” Gularte replied, his tone one of wonder. “All you can think about is waxing a car when we’re about to be executed, or something, for dumping Mardian’s son’s Porsche into the Dana Point toilet?”

“There’s no ‘we’ involved in this,” I said, turning the Bronco’s wheel and heading back for the headquarters building. “They know something about you but that’s it, they can’t really know you were with me on the mission, and, in fact, if they knew anything at all about what we did we’d both be talking to federal, state, and quite possibly our own local police detectives. No, that strange meeting is about something else entirely but meanwhile, we follow the Marine Corps way.”

“What way is that?” Gularte asked.

“If you don’t take care of the little stuff then the big stuff goes to hell.”

“I thought it was ‘if it can go wrong, it will go wrong’,” Gularte replied.

“Can we stay about as positive as circumstances will allow about all this?” I asked, about to push the button on the railroad fence gate remote. “The Blue Coral wax is in the back seat of my Volks which is in the parking lot.”

“What about Bob Elwell?” Gularte said,

I hesitated in pushing the button. Gularte was right and I was making one small mistake after another. We needed a place to do the wax job, a water source, and Bob’s help or we’d never get the Marauder done in time.

I backed the Bronco up to the building, climbed out, and went through the small door cut within the big one. Bob was working, once more, on his surfboard, the sander making a soft whine as he shaped the thing. I tapped him on the shoulder and explained what we needed.

“I’m all in, and I’ll call Bro, as he’d be happy to help too,” Bob said, after shutting the little sander off. I thought for a few quick seconds. Bob wasn’t making Bro’s inclusion a requirement but I knew he was adding him because Bro and I weren’t exactly hitting it off, and Bro was Bob’s best friend and partner as a lifeguard.

“Okay, but please don’t tell him about what we’ve been up to,” I said, turning to get back to the Bronco.

“I don’t know anything about what you were doing while you were gone, except that two mystery men appeared to check and, apparently, to make sure you weren’t sitting somewhere dead.”

“Thanks,” I replied and then stopped. “Bob, you’re a class act and I never expected that you’d become this key person and friend to me like this. Thanks for that.”

“Bro and I didn’t go to Vietnam because we didn’t believe in it,” Bob, replied, the statement coming out of nowhere, and leaving me to stand speechless before him. We stood for a moment looking at one another.

I noticed the dust from his sanding still settling out of the air, like one of the weird fine mists that a hundred degrees and hundred percent humidity can cause like it often had done at the bottom of the A Shau Valley. I realized, after a bit, that Bob was waiting for some comment on my part. I wasn’t sure that the answer I wanted to give him was anything someone who hadn’t gone through what I’d gone through and was still going through, would believe. His conduct so far, however, deserved as much of the truth as I could give him.

“You’re here,” I said, staring into his eyes, my own unblinking and direct. “You’re here and talking to me. If you’d gone with me, I’d likely be talking to your headstone and that’d be a poor substitute. I can’t absolve, forgive or even define what your reasons were, but I can say that both you and Bro have all the foundations that would have made you fine Marines to serve with.”

“I’ll call Bro,” Elwell said as if that was any kind of rational response to what I’d said.

I turned and went out through the door, and found Gularte on his hands and knees, looking under the Bronco’s right front fender well.

“Found it,” he said, his flashlight extended out in his right hand, “so now’s the hard question.”

“What question?” I asked, amazed that I’d forgotten about the search I’d requested.

“Do we remove it and give away the fact that we know they are tracking our vehicle’s every move or leave it there and think about the fact that they know where we are, or at least the Bronco is, at any given time?”

“They sent two guys to check on us,” I replied. “They now know that we know, and evidently don’t care that we know. Leave it. With this one rather rare exception, why should we care? I doubt if they would ever do anything other than help us if we needed such help.”

Gularte got up and turned his flashlight off.

We got in the Bronco, crossed the tracks, and were half way to the station before Bobby’s voice came out of the Motorola speaker.

“The new restaurant owner’s Yellow Porsche has been stolen from the Dana Point Marina, and all departments within the vicinity are being notified to set up Code Alex positions to interdict. The vehicle is a 1972 Porsche Targa and the theft likely took place only minutes ago.”

“That’s the longest radio message Bobby’s ever given,” Gularte said, laughing.

“It means that tomorrow’s meeting has nothing to do with the mission, as they, or at least local departments, believe the car was stolen and that the ‘theft’ occurred only minutes ago instead of hours.”

“Roger that,” Gularte said, grabbing the transmitter with his left hand and responding. “We’ll keep our eyes peeled on the sand down here.”

There was no response from Bobby.

The Marauder was right where I’d parked it earlier, as was my own vehicle. Gularte got the wax and then got into the Bronco to take it down to the beach. I realized, only at that point, that I’d placed the Marauder keys in a hollow space inside the leather handcuff container on my belt. How would Gates have driven his car if I still had the keys? It was my fourth misstep in a night seemingly filled with them.

When I followed the Bronco through the gates and into the headquarters parking lot, I saw Metzger’s red truck. Gularte parked the Bronco and got out to open the garage door. Seconds later it began to rise. I eased the Marauder inside, as all the surfboard stuff and tools were once again cleared from the space.

Tom Metzger, Steve Bro, and Elwell stood waiting, Elwell with a bundle of folded towels stacked on a nearby stool and Steve Bro holding a bottle of the new miracle spray called Armor All GT10.

I turned the Marauder’s engine off. Elwell immediately handed out the rags and began giving orders.

“Steve, you’re on the interior. Tom, you get the grill, bumpers, and wheels while Beachboy, Gularte, and I’ll take care of waxing the paint, although you two might think about changing into some of the spare swimsuits in the locker room as your uniforms probably won’t hold up against the sweat and wax residue.”

Bob’s point about our uniforms was valid, but rather than change into swimsuits we decided to get back into our tactical gear. My wife could toss that stuff straight into our washing machine and dryer.

The job took the most part of an hour, finally ending with all five of us working very hard to rub the stone-hard wax from the vehicle’s paint. We stood back when we were done. The Marauder shined like a black patent shoe and I knew Gates would be pleased. Once done we all stood around for a few minutes to discuss almost nothing at all. Just as Gularte and I completed our change back into uniform and moved to leave Tom Metzger spoke.

“I didn’t go to Vietnam either,” he said, although none of us had talked about the war at all up until that point.

“Where did you go?” Gularte asked, and from his tone, I knew he was poking some barbed fun at Tom. Tom didn’t seem to notice.

“Nowhere,” he replied, matter-of-factly. “I took speed for both draft physicals and that sped up my heart so much they didn’t want me.”

I looked over at Bro, the only one of the three to remain completely silent about his military service, or lack of it. I caught some subtle movement from Gularte before he made a comment. There was no question that the single word was directed at Bro.

“Claymore,” he said, his voice low and flat.

Bro didn’t respond, only looking back at us both with a frown so sincere that I didn’t think he understood the word, but he remained silent.

“Thanks for letting us know that,” I said to Tom, not knowing what else to say. I pushed Gularte through the door before he could cause any more damage that might prove to be irreparable.

I helped him load the gear into the back of the Bronco and then went back inside to get the Marauder. Nobody had followed us out, so the three guards were right where we left them. The guards stood by and said nothing and neither did I, figuring the subject of Vietnam was, and likely would be on into the future, not one that engendered either much discussion or any good feelings at all for anyone involved. I eased out of the garage. The big door slid down behind me, as I turned to follow Gularte out across the tracks. The trip back to the station was quick and uneventful.

I placed the Marauder carefully into the exact center of the white-outlined parking spot reserved for Lieutenant Gates with Gularte guiding the Bronco just behind and a little off to the passenger side. I climbed out of the car and checked my Seiko. We’d finished the job and returned the car well before the end of Gates’ shift. I closed the door and stood to admire how the vehicle shone brightly under the parking lot lights. The Marauder was truly a rolling automotive piece of specialized art.

“Well, well, well,” a voice said from behind me.

I jerked around, caught totally off-guard and completely by surprise. Gularte started to walk my way as I recognized the man the words had come from. Sergeant Chastney emerged, once again, out from behind the bushes, no doubt hanging around the station while waiting to start his own shift. A cigarette hung from the left side of his mouth, giving a poor comparative nod to the Marlboro Man, or maybe Marlin Brando, but in a more indolent classless way.

“I presume you’ve heard the APB by now?” he asked, pulling the half-smoked cigarette from his mouth and tossing it fully lit and carelessly behind him.

Gularte stepped around the back of the Marauder and joined me.

“You and your dusky reserve companion,” the sergeant said, without waiting for an answer to his question.

Neither Gualarte nor I said anything, as Chastney gave every indication of being modified in his behavior by some substance other than, and much more powerful than, the nicotine in his cigarettes.

“The Porsche,” he finally said, shaking his head, while turning to go back through the department’s single back door.

“You stole a Porsche wheel, making a fool out of me, and then you stole a whole Porsche, making a fool out of the whole department; in fact, several departments. What’s next, a Ferrari?”

Neither Gularte nor I moved or responded.

Chastney let out a snort of disgust and went through the door. It would have slammed except it was only allowed to move slowly by the shock absorber screwed to its top.

“Why does he keep the Porsche wheel next to his desk, with his ashtray on top of it, if he hates it and you so much?” Gularte asked.

“He’s a nasty guy but a good cop,” I replied.

“What does that mean?” Gularte said, with a tone of surprise in his voice.

“He knows I took the wheel and put it there,” I explained. “He knows I took, or did something to the Porsche, as well, and that makes him a good cop.”

“Good cop or not, it’s weird, and I understand why you took the wheel back then, but I can’t figure out the car. The insult wasn’t serious enough, the character not important enough, and the risk pretty extreme for both of us…and then there’s the Doors tape.”

“I didn’t say that Chastney was the sharpest knife in the drawer, only that he was a good cop and could and did certainly put two and two together. There’s something you don’t know about the Porsche but I won’t explain it yet. I can’t believe that everyone, absolutely everyone, is buying the idea that the thing was stolen and not sitting down more than twenty or twenty-five feet below the water at the ramp.”

“Jesus Christ, you wanted it to be found!” Gularte whispered the words like somebody might be trying to listen in.

“I didn’t foresee that it wouldn’t be,” I replied, but going no further.

“The Porsche, Little Mardian, Mardian senior, Cobb, Richard, Butch,” Gularte continued whispering, as his mind worked away. “It’s all tied together in a way that only you’ve figured out. I get that. But what are you doing with all that information, if I’m right?”

That Gularte’s last sentence didn’t seem to make much sense made no difference to me. What he’d meant to ask was the question that I’d already refused to answer, and I wasn’t going to take the issue any further despite how much I’d come to trust Gularte.

“What about the Volks?” he asked, catching me off guard.

“If they bugged the Bronco then why wouldn’t they bug the Volks?” he asked.

I realized instantly that his question illustrated the sixth mistake I’d made in conducting the mission. It hadn’t occurred to me to check either the Bronco nor my own vehicle for a tracking device once we’d found the one attached to the Bronco.

“I’ll check it when I get home,” I replied, shaking off the small spear of fear that had gone through me in simply contemplating such aggressive surveillance behavior being conducted on me.

Gularte and I got into the Bronco and headed back down to finish out our shift. He drove.

“Why didn’t our mission have a name, like I heard you got famous for doing in Vietnam?” Gularte asked, catching me by surprise. I hadn’t mentioned that tidbit of information to him, I was almost sure, although on late-night beach patrol runs up and down an empty beach partners talked about all manner of things, many not remembered.

“Yellow Submarine,” I replied.

“That’s a great name and a great Beatles song,” Gularte answered, letting out a loud whoop and Marine Corps ‘uuuuhhhrahhhh’ yell.

“Think about it, Jim, I said, after a few seconds had gone by. “Only you knew or know anything about the mission. In Vietnam, I needed to motivate a lot of Marines to go along with me. That wasn’t the case here. Secondly, and the major point here, is that the name I selected and never mentioned might just reveal where the hell the Porsche really is instead of the way it is.”

“That’s right,” Gularte replied, his tone having softened considerably. That’s also why you’re the company commander because you think of stuff like that. So, when is the Porsche supposed to surface or be found?  Don’t tell me that’s not part of your diabolical plan.”

I was more than surprised by his conclusion. I was shocked. How could this seemingly simple yet expressively brilliant personality rolling along atop the shoulders of a great-looking man have come to that conclusion?

I didn’t answer, instead changing the subject and keeping our discussions away from anything more about the mission until we were done for the night.

The next morning, I headed over to Straight Ahead once I was finished having coffee with Mike Manning on Del Mar. Starting the day talking to Mike over coffee and having Lorraine move around us as if caring for two favorite puppy dogs was comforting in a way I’d never really thought of trying to experience in the past.

Paul was in, even as early as it was, his own VW, a powder blue Karmann Ghia sat out next to the main entrance to the Straight Ahead facility. I pulled my own car to its usual spot on the far side. I stepped through the door to his office, noting that there were now two chairs in front of his desk instead of one. I took the one on the right allowing most of my back to be exposed to the closed door. I’d heard that many vets didn’t want to have their back to doors when sitting in offices or restaurants but I would not succumb to that tendency. In Vietnam, I’d been exposed all the time, but I was home and not exposed to almost any danger at all. Drinking coffee with cream and sugar back home was a requirement because I couldn’t get those fixings over there. I knew I was trying to run in direct opposition to what I’d experienced but doing so made me feel that I was ‘getting better’ or adapting. Paul was on the phone so I looked around his office.

There’d been no bug planted on or under the Volks. For some reason the Bronco, possibly because it was owned by the federal government, was fair game but not my personal vehicle. I had no way of knowing, but I also knew that the bugging could very possibly extend to Paul’s office as I had no idea who owned the Straight Ahead complex and I also remained unsure of just how much I could or should trust Paul.

Paul hung up the phone and looked across the desk at me.

“Two chairs instead of one,” I commented, “you coming up in the world?”

“One for your wife who I want to see as soon as you can get her to come in,” Paul replied.

I wasn’t at all sure that my wife would agree to talk to my ‘shrink’ as she had her very own ideas about such things. I was also not sure that Paul was at all ready to deal with what my wife was, so I didn’t make any response. I was uncertain about even asking her to see him, although I knew she’d do just about anything to help me.

“I heard the rumor,’ Paul said, letting my wife’s future appearance go. “It would seem that the Wind and Sea restaurant owner has lost his beloved and brand new Porsche.”

“Seems like a rumor that traveled awfully fast, in spite of the fact that the new place under construction is right down the cliff from here,” I replied, wanting to give away nothing at that point.

“Robert C. Mardian Junior, the owner of the Porsche in question, attends Straight Ahead as an outpatient upon occasion,” Paul said, surprising me, as I’d assumed that anyone taking part in the organization’s drug rehabilitation program would have some sort of confidentiality protection, which also didn’t say much for the secretiveness of my own communications with Paul.

Drugs might explain, however, why Little Mardian had been so aggressively nasty toward me, without much cause, when we’d met. That thought added a bit to my being uncomfortable with the whole Mardian situation. I wasn’t expecting to meet with Haldeman in the morning. He didn’t make appointments with people at my gerbil level, but Mardian was in and out all the time and would more likely need a dependable date and time.

“What’s on your mind?” Paul asked, leaning forward, cradling his chin with his hands while his elbows spread out on the desktop before him.

From his expression and his position, I knew he was interested in whatever it was that I might have to say. The Watergate investigation was at the top of television news, even though that situation hadn’t seemed to change the behavior of anyone at the Western White House complex, at least so far.

“I feel like I’m on a ship sailing into a distant shore where there are only rocks and cliffs to crash down upon,” I said, surprising myself. It was the blatant truth, and I’d already learned in life that blabbing out the blatant truth generally surrendered the blabberer down into an identity of prey.

“You’re afraid,” Paul replied, not putting it to me as a question.

“I don’t know if that’s really it, not like it was, the terror down in the valley,” I replied.

“If you’re not afraid, then ought you to be afraid since the valley you speak of may well have deadened you completely to experiencing a quite necessary emotion in facing lesser threats. The missing Porsche isn’t a small thing in this culture, and although I know you know that, still, does the potential of such a thing’s true import reach anymore than a shallow trench laid out before you in life?”

I stared across the desk at the man, impressed by the man’s ability to go right to the heart of things but also disturbed by the fact that answering such a question might be considered an admission under the law, which wasn’t something I was ready or willing to do. I didn’t reply, taking as much time as I could to think.

“Don’t answer,” Paul finally said, with a sigh. “It’s not a fair question and the data I’m running with is flawed, as well as unconfirmed. The real question is about your options. You can either run up upon those not-so-distant rocks to a potentially life-changing effect, or you can bail off and recover what you can from the coming wreckage…that is, if you’re allowed to bail off.”

“That’s not a question,” I shot back, knowing it was a wise ass comment to make to one’s therapist.

“Yes, actually, without the verbal punctuation, it is,” Paul replied, sitting back in his chair as if to await my response with infinite patience.

“I believe I won’t know the answer to that question, which really isn’t a question, until tomorrow morning,” I replied, sighing all on my own. I reached into my pocket for my wallet.”

“I’ll be here all day,” Paul said, motioning my hand away from my wallet with his right arm. “Pay me tomorrow, but the charge will only be for one session because I think we’re done here for now… and talk to your wife. You have a special relationship with her that’s uncommon in my experience and speaking with her may help me.”

I pushed my wallet back into my pocket and then stood up. The tone of his last sentence had been strange, even for him. Was my wife to be interviewed for him to help me or for him to help himself?

“We’re pair bonded,” I said, not really knowing why I said it.

“What?” Paul replied, his head coming up as we looked into each other’s eyes.

“Like beavers, wolves, or bald eagles,” I said, bringing up a few of the very rare animal species that mate for life, as I’d studied in anthropology.

Paul shook his head with a frown but said nothing more as I departed.

I went home, changed, and went to the beach near the south side of the pier, where my wife and Julie hung out when I wasn’t around. The day passed as I body surfed, built sand castles with Julie, and shared as much as I could in discussion with my wife, the next day’s meeting or the mission not being two of those things. After dinner, we watched Mary Tyler Moore and then Hawaii Five-O before retiring for the night. I tossed and turned, but that wasn’t uncommon for me although I never wrote it off to nightmares from Vietnam with my wife. She had enough worries about what I’d come home as from that war.
In the morning I took special care in getting ready for the meeting, not heading over to Galloway’s as had become my custom following a quick cup of coffee with my wife. Over that coffee, she asked a question.

“So, you going to tell me or do I just worry on through the day until you get home, if you’re coming home?” she asked.

I leaned back in my chair and rubbed one hand up and down over my freshly shaved cheeks and chin. Of course, she’d figured out that something was up.

She almost always did, many times not bringing up her conclusions although I knew they were often there.

I told her the story of the message and how the formality and future appointments might portend bad things. I did not mention either the Porsche or anything about the mission. When I finished I just stared across the table and waited.

“It’s not about you,” she said staring at me with her most serious facial expression. “It almost never is, but you always feel like it’s going to be all about you, like that Naval Board of Inquiry back at the Yokosuka Hospital. I understand that it’s hard, doing whatever it is you’re doing for them since I found that other uniform stuff you left in the Volkswagen. It’s in the washing machine, by the way, if you need to wear it soon again.”

Bozo leaped up on the table but made no other move, sitting facing me not a foot away, taking up his dead-still statue pose. Mrs. Beasley, her recording device going bad once again, just kept saying “honorable man,” to me, time after time into the silence that followed my wife’s response and revelation. That she remembered the Board of Inquiry was surprising but not unlike some of the other stuff that she kept deposited inside her big brain.

I checked my Seiko, finished my coffee, and told her it was time to go, and that I’d be back to ‘report in.’

What I most remembered, as I drove toward the compound, was the expression “honorable man” that kept playing time after time through my mind.

The gate was open, and the corporal and the staff sergeant stood saluting as I stopped, smiled, and waved before driving through. After I parked near the big wall gates, I walked toward them and one opened, like it was part of a movie set with secret operators unseen watching my every move, which had to be close to the truth. Everything was as it had come to be for one of my ‘see the man’ visits.

The door in the wall leading to the path that would take me to the residence pool was open. I stopped at the opening and looked at my single Secret Service escort. He nodded, then spoke into a small walkie-talkie: “Subject 4358 is en route on the ground,” he said, as I stepped through the door. Four three five eight were the last four numbers of my Marine Corps identification number. I walked the path, with no dogs present this time. Mardian was sitting on the side of a chaise lounge like he always did, with a cardboard box atop the table next to him where his cigar sat smoking on its ashtray.

Before I could take a seat on the lounge next to him he began to speak.

“Two things,” he said, needlessly holding up two fingers on his right hand. “First, a question”, he went on, dropping his fingers to pick up his cigar.

I sat down beginning to relax just a small bit. I’d not been attacked or accused of anything, at least not yet, and I knew I wasn’t dealing with a man who was shy about such things.

“Did they teach you the one-time pad communications system in RPS School?”

“No, sir, “ I replied, wondering why Mardian, as his level wasn’t better informed.

“Do you know what it is?” he asked.

“The one-time pad is a system of written communication that goes back to the 1800’s,” I replied. “Either a machine or manual scrambled set of numbers are assembled and the numbers are reproduced from the original on a single pad given to the recipient awaiting a message. A book or other piece of literature may be used as a random numbers generator simply because only a person who knows what the book of the origination numbers is and what page the letters are being translated into numbers then the code is considered unbreakable to this day.”

“Figures,” Mardian said.

“I want you to take these books and put them in your library at home, and I know you have one. Do you speak French?”

“No,” I answered, slightly mystified.

“Good, these three books are in French so it’s not likely anybody might guess that one or more of them is being used as a code generator. Things are happening fast and it will be important to have a way to communicate that is unbreakable. Should someone send you a request to send them a book then buy two identical books and send them one. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, not understanding at all. I understood the process but not one whit of what kind of communications would be necessary and why I would be trusted to be the encryption and decryption agent for them. I’d never sent or received a one-time pad communication and I’d have to do what I could to better understand the complexity of it.

“Good, there will be somebody you know to help you with that at the Marina, and that brings us to the second request I have for you,” Mardian went on. “My son’s Porsche was taken at the marina and I’m willing to bet the man you convinced to let the project go on is the culprit. I want you to find out and then recover the Porsche if you can.”

My relief was complete. Evidently, although the compound was keeping track of my whereabouts using bugs that entity had no interest in following Mardian’s son.

I asked, immediately having no idea why I asked, “What will he replace it with?”

“He’s getting a Ferrari,” Mardian said, putting his cigar down in the ashtray and picking up the small heavy box. “There are some books inside this, so get to work.”

I stood and accepted the package, my mind racing however in thinking about Sergeant Chastney. The man knew I’d stolen the wheel from the doctor, and guessed that I had something to do with Little Mardian’s Targa and now would find out that his prediction of the kid driving a Ferrari was coming true. I wondered how much the tightly wound-smoking chimney of a sergeant could take.

I quickly exited the residence yard, passed through the compound hallway, and made it to my car. The staff sergeant didn’t approach me, and I made no effort to reach out to him. I wanted the books home at the soonest possible time, with nobody knowing or guessing anything about any of it. I drove slowly and carefully. When I reached home I took the box inside but didn’t open it until I was in our small downstairs bedroom converted into my quasi-office and library. Mardian had been correct about our library. I’d neglected to tell him that my wife spoke French, but only the kind of French she’d taken in college. We’d never traveled outside of the United States.

I was more than amazed to examine the three volumes of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, printed in Paris and beautifully bound in leather. That Mardian, or someone, had three exactly like them was a bit hard to believe, and that I’d bought my own copy, in a cheaper mass market edition, to read on the plane riding back and forth to D.C. was even more amazing. It just couldn’t be a coincidence. The feeling that I was under almost continuous surveillance was pervading everything I thought and did. The books looked very expensive and very rare. The publishing date read ‘1849 Paris.’ I had no idea when the first edition in French had come out but I knew that the three volumes I possessed were very close to that date.

My wife handled the books like they were made of 24-carat gold but asked no questions. “What a wonderful gift,” was all that she said, mounting the three on a top shelf to be out of Julie and Bozo’s notice or handling. In handling the books as gingerly and carefully as she did, a folded slip of paper fell out, wafting to the floor.

“What’s this?” Mary asked, unfolding the piece of paper.

“What does it say?” I asked since it was too late to stop her from reading whatever was on the note.

“Just one word,” she replied, “Cobb.”

“Wonder what that means?” I asked her, truthfully, although Cobb and Hunt were always the money, if not more when it came to the Porsche. My wife let it go and I was relieved.

The next morning, I first went for coffee, as Mary and Julie slept in. After about an hour I left and went to Gularte’s to fill him in. I owed him the same feeling of relief I’d received when Mardian assigned me to find the Porsche.

Gularte accepted the information but then returned to his bedroom to sleep, no doubt after a night of bachelor drinking and cavorting in the Laguna Beach bars, as none of the members of the local police department would drink at local haunts.

My next stop was to Straight Ahead, as I’d promised the day before. I’d have to encounter Cobb once again, but I wanted to do so after visiting Paul.
Paul’s car was parked out front as I passed to park along the side of the building. The side door was unlocked so I let myself in.

He was at his desk as I eased through the open door, closed it, and sat down. I pulled the cash I owed him from my pocket and placed it on the desk.

“When you came in yesterday, I failed to ask you why you’d come in, since we only meet twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Paul said, and I noted that he was wearing exactly the same outfit he’d been wearing the day before, something my wife would never let me do, and more than the Marine Corps had.

A shirt could only be worn once without laundering, trousers twice, underwear and socks once, and then there were two showers and a shave also required.

Paul usually asked the questions that I tried to answer, so I remained unaware if he was married or not, but knew by instinct he’d never served in the Marines.

I told him about how I’d confronted three of my closest associates in the lifeguard department about their deliberate avoidance of serving in Vietnam, and how I accepted that avoidance even though I didn’t understand why they felt it necessary to discuss their lack of service with me.

“Absolution,” Paul replied. “like with Mike Manning, the motor transport officer,” he went on. “Your voluntary presence in their lives without criticism or question is a form of your acceptance and provides them a measure of absolution they can find nowhere else. Your own service was exemplary enough to raise you up to a position, in that regard, than you understand, or probably care about.”

I sat and considered for a short time, while Paul moved some papers about his desktop.

“The driver’s side windshield wiper sprayer on my Karmann Ghia doesn’t work,” he finally said. “Know anything about those since they’ve got to be the same as the ones on your model?”

“Get a spray bottle from the grocery store and stick your hand out the window with the wipers on,” I replied, having had the same problem once, “then get into Fred’s on El Camino Real and tell him you’re a friend of ours.”

“Ours?” Paul asked. “Which group, the police, the compound, the insurance guys…or am I missing some other outfit you work for or with?”

“Police,” I came back, not showing any response to what I considered his humor-related question.

“What about your ship, sailing along toward rough waters?” Paul asked.

“I won’t be abandoning ship,” if that’s what you mean,” I replied and then waited.

“So, you have to either die when the ship goes on the rocks or find a way to take advantage of surviving the wreck,” he replied, surprising me once again by hinting that maybe going down with the ship, any ship, might be some kind of sane alternative to living on into the future. What kind of therapist said or hinted at something like that?

I thanked Paul and headed on down to the harbor construction area and the already occupied yacht slips. I drove by the ramp but there was nothing at all going on so I kept going until I was close to where Cobb’s boat was docked. She was already up I could see as I approached on foot. She was sitting on a bench by the side of her slip with Richard sitting beside her. They were both drinking either coffee or tea from paper cups they’d gotten from somewhere. I walked up and stood before them.

“Good morning,” I said, knowing from the expressions on their faces that good was probably not part of their day so far.

“You want to tell us about it,” Cobb asked, holding out her free hand which held one of Mardian’s blank white envelopes.

I took the envelope, guessing that if it held hundreds then there was a tidy sum inside. Instead of ignoring Cobb’s question and departing with the money I took a seat on the other side of her from where Richard sat. I slipped the envelope into my right front pocket without unsealing it. I knew full well that I wasn’t dealing with normal people in any sense of the word. Either one of them, or both together, could probably make my life a living hell in very short order. I had to think my way through what I was about to say and then do.

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