Gularte was waiting at the beach unit when I arrived at the city parking lot, my Volkswagen’s engine knocking a bit, which had me worried, but not unduly so. The thing was still under warranty, although I had no replacement if it might be in the dealership shop for any lengthy period of time. I knew there was no way the cheap new dealership up along the Pacific Coast Highway in Capistrano Beach was going to give out loaners.
I let Gularte remain in the driver’s seat as I climbed with all my junk into the passenger side, sliding a canvas sack with my weaponized flare pistol hidden inside and the kid’s guitar case that held my sawed off Mossberg 500 pump shotgun, since the Bronco wasn’t equipped with one because it wasn’t actually a San Clemente Police-owned vehicle, even if the decals on both doors indicated that it was.
“You think that guitar case is going to fool anybody?” Gularte laughed, easing the giant-wheeled Bronco out of the lot and onto Avenida Presidio.
“It wasn’t intended to fool you,” I replied, my mind not reacting to his good-hearted mood and humor, my wife’s instructions to fill him in on the Calafia incident result rolling around in my head.
“Let’s see,” Gularte went on, steering the slow-moving ungainly Bronco down the hill toward El Camino Real, the street leading directly to Avenida Del Mar, the shortest and quickest way to get to the beach, “you carry a .44 Magnum, with hot-loaded tungsten penetrators against police, city and likely state and federal policy, possess a totally illegal flare pistol that could burn down any nearby cathedral in minutes, and yet you have to conceal whatever’s inside that kid’s musical box. What’s wrong with this picture?”
I rode next to him in silence, grudgingly agreeing with him, however, that I might not be quite right in some minor ways.
Gularte started to go on as the vehicle approached the double chain link fence gates blocking the railroad track access to the Lifeguard Headquarters parking lot.
“Enough,” I whispered, in exasperation.
Gularte pushed the button on the remote clipped to the visor above his head and the gates noisily began to roll open. The operation took more than a full minute while we both sat in silence, the sound not too loud to drown out our conversation if either of us felt like saying anything. The gates stopped moving and silence returned. Gularte made no move to proceed across the tracks and onto the asphalt that ran north and south from one end of the guard tower control building to the other.
“You don’t carry a varied set of ordnance delivery devices, I know,” I began, quietly, intending to try to explain why I carried so much.
“That’s right,” Gularte replied, the rapidity of his response catching my about to be carefully worded apology and explanation off guard. “You want to know why?” he asked.
I turned my head to look at the too handsome man with the too black and too curly hair.
Gularte smiled a great smile, like he could read my thoughts. I was reminded of a Tony Curtis movie called The Great Race in which Tony’s character, looking about as handsome as Gularte, turned to face Jack Lemon and a glint of white light flashed from one his teeth. There was no flash, but Gularte’s effect on me was in full evidence, although I kept my facial features still and without expression.
“Why,” I replied, finally taking the bait he’d laid out in front of me.
“Because you’re my partner,” he said, wiping the smile from his face, like it’d never been there and punching the gas.
The Bronco lurched forward, the concrete surfaces guarding each side of each track still too hard for the vehicle to perform as it had been redesigned to do.
There was almost nobody on the beach. Gularte avoided the asphalt covered path to the base of the pier and punched the gas in first gear to launch the Bronco over a low barrier of sand mixed with clay that served as the final protection for the path from the incursion of large nearly expended waves. Today the waves were small, however, the sky overcast and the outside temperature okay but by no means warm. The Bronco accelerated through second gear, the sand working to give the Bronco all it needed to get up and run. The mechanics at the police garage said that their changes added a hundred pounds of torque, plus more horsepower than that to the engine, not that all that power was almost ever necessary when running up and down the dunes and flat surf-smoothed wet and rock-hard sand.
I made no comment about Gularte’s driving, my own being a bit on the rough and raw side from time to time too. The man was a class act as a partner, and I wasn’t going to rain on his parade or throw any negatives his way whatever.
We raced across the flat sand, Gularte flirting with the incoming and then receding waves with the Bronco acting sort of like it was having a good time. I smiled at the thought when we crossed through the thin slice of State Park that cut down from a giant crack in the bluff and extended all the way to the water. The state apparently didn’t care in the least that our vehicle constantly crossed the land without doing any more than occasionally stopping to talk to the single guard on duty during daylight hours almost always out sitting atop the entrance to his tower’s tiny, covered area. Today there were no people on the state part of the beach and no guard in or around the tower.
Once past the State Park I motioned for Gularte to steer the Bronco up the bank toward the big rocks that protected both the train tracks, and beachgoers from the passing trains.
“Pull up by the rocks,” I said, pointing needlessly.
The Bronco leaped up the bank and then settled on the flat dry stand that ran along the outside of the boulders, its powerful 302 idled gently but powerfully as the vehicle came to a full stop.
The compound was a full mile toward the point in the distance. I took a few seconds to study the scene. There was no optical or radar surveillance I knew of that extended as far down the beach as we were parked.
“They figured out that I was at the scene of that Calafia Beach incident,” I said carefully. My wife’s instructions that I owed Gularte at least the information I had about what it was Haldeman and Ehrlichman knew or might likely know.
“Figured,” Gularte replied.
I waited but he didn’t go on.
“They called me in,” I said, “and it went better than I thought. Your name or presence never came up and I’m not bringing it up in the future.”
“I’m not going to be famous, like you?” Gularte laughed.
I couldn’t help but smile. Famous. I was the least important character imaginable in the Western White House operation, and an operation that was about as disorganized as it seemingly could be.
“They trust me,” I replied, hoping to assure that Gularte, with his wildly expressive personality and near total lack of fear, would understand the situation.
“I don’t know why, but there’s little question they aren’t worried that their antics will somehow go public. Those two men are quite possibly the most powerful humans on the planet right now and if they thought for an instant that they might lose their power over something like what happened at Calafia Beach then there might be no limit to what they might do.”
There was another silence, as both of us stared out in the distance at the rocky point beyond where nothing was happening, but everything could happen out of.
“They don’t know you, and because of that they wouldn’t trust you.”
“Wow,” Gularte murmured. “I guess we better keep our mouths shut. If they trust you so much and talked to you about the incident, what are they giving you to reward your loyalty and silence?”
I inhaled quietly. Gularte was as sharp as a tack, I realized, not for the first time. He’d caught the depth of the potential threat to himself, I was certain, but he was treating it as lightly as possible.
“My wife and I are getting to attend the birthday ball for Mrs. Nixon’s birthday.”
Gularte started to laugh. “That’s it? I get to live, and you get to go to some sort of a world-renowned ball, like Cinderella? You have shoes, and all? Hardly seems fair.”
I didn’t join him in laughter. The ball was what I considered nothing more than a potential place to get in even more trouble. The ball was for my wife and I had yet to fathom what was at the bottom of her mind about wanting to attend. I owned one cheap suit, a bunch of expensive but unwearable Marine uniforms, and my Volkswagen ‘carriage’ was not in the best of shape, sounding more like a broken washing machine than a car.
“Well, what the hell, at least I’ll get to keep my job,” Gularte finally said.
I looked over at him and our eyes met. I wasn’t smiling at all.
“That’s not all I might have to fear, is it?” he asked after a few seconds.
“I know that look, Junior.”
“These guys pitch for the big league,” I began, using a sports analogy to try to get Gularte to understand the reality of our situation, and the absolute necessity of him never mentioning what had happened in the parking lot.
“They throw fast hard balls all the time, effortlessly and at high speed. We’re catchers and we don’t have any mitts. If one of us, or both of us, went missing those people wouldn’t even notice.”
“That sounds a little ominous,” Gularte whispered.
“It’s the Nam, Jim, just like both of us remember,” I whispered back, my voice barely audible over the pleasant but not quiet sounds of the slowly turning engine parts. I didn’t know Gularte’s full story of his own combat experience, as we never talked about any of that when we were together, but I had to imagine it wasn’t too far from my own.
“No wonder you carry all that firepower,” Gularte said, hitting the clutch pedal and putting the Bronco in first gear. The vehicle eased forward, as silent as could be, whatever noise it made covered completely by the sounds of lapping surf and spindrift topped wind. “Just like the Nam. The enemy is everyone, with the guys in black pajamas only the obvious ones.”
An image of Haldeman wearing black pajamas came instantly to my mind and I had to laugh.
“Only you would think this thing is funny,” Gularte said, “but I guess that’s why you’re you.”
I didn’t understand what Gularte was trying to get at, but I didn’t think it worth discussing, as the compound was only minutes away. Video, radar and audio receiving devices were state-of-the-art in every bit of the surrounding areas adjacent or attached to the compound property. All talk about the Calafia incident had to go silent. The fact that Gularte had been my partner facing Haldeman and Ehrlichman could be relatively easily acquired, simply by checking the roster of who had been assigned to what patrol vehicles for the time involved but going after that protected data would require demonstration of some interest in what we had been up to. Neither of the nation’s most powerful people would likely take any risk at all in revealing they had an interest.
As long as they thought only I knew, and one rather questionable Reserve Commander’s story about what had happened, on its own would likely be rather worthless. If Gularte was to be revealed that would have already occurred. Both Haldeman and Ehrlichman, in entirely different ways, were brilliant men, and their capabilities, if called for to be applied, were not something to be taken lightly.
“Beach Boy,” came out of the radio speaker. “You’re right down front. Tool up here and make a visit.”
“If you’re Beach Boy, then who am I?” Gularte asked, turning the Bronco to head toward the gap in the giant rocks and cross the railroad tracks.
“You serious?” I asked, in surprise, following our recent conversation.
“Nobody,” Gularte sighed. “I guess that’s good news, given the situation. I had no real identity in the Nam either. At least you had a nickname.”
I wasn’t going to go into either of our experiences in the Nam, not with another meeting with the ‘deadly duo’ only moments away. In fact, I reflected, I really didn’t want to make any attempt to review what happened in the A Shau Valley to anyone. It hadn’t taken much thought for me to figure out that the whole nightmare of my time in combat in that country was a ‘one off’ kind of thing. How was anyone who wasn’t in that valley with me going through the nightmare going to be able to understand or even believe what happened? The ones who’d gone through with me were mostly dead or lost in some other way awaiting death.
The big gate near the imposing front wall, just down from the minimal parking lot and not far from the Marine guards was open. That anyone could drive straight up to where we were from the beach had never been brought up by anyone. Maybe surveillance was so good that anybody attempting that would be instantly interdicted.
The Secret Service agent just beyond the open door held his hand out. I pulled my service revolver out and handed it to him, the barrel pointing down. There was no safety on a Smith and Wesson revolver, so it was best to never point the end of the barrel at anyone at any time, unless one had to.
Bob Mardian stepped through the door that led to the alley connecting the compound to the nearby presidential residence. He motioned with his right hand toward the door, which I stepped through. The walk back to his official ‘office’ at poolside in the back awaited with its sparse assortment of beach chairs and chaise lounges.
“You know why we meet out here?” he said, taking a seat at the only real chair that set by the only table. I stood, waiting for him to tell me to sit down, but he didn’t.
“I’m out here because the president’s wife doesn’t like my cigar smoking. I never smoked inside. She says my clothes are filled with the obnoxious aroma.”
My wife smoked. I didn’t mind the aroma of her tobacco usage no matter where I smelled it. It reminded me of her and that was okay with me.
Maybe Bob Mardian was not liked by the president’s wife. I knew I’d never know, so I stood and waited.
“Here,” Mardian said, pulling a white envelope from his pocket and placing it between us atop the table’s white surface.
I bent down, took the envelope and opened it, glancing at Mardian to make sure that was okay. Mardian ignored me, pulling out a cigar from his suit coat pocket, clipping the tip with some instrument, and then slowly lighting it and inhaling the smoke.
The envelope held fifty twenty-dollar bills. The bills brand new and difficult to get apart to properly count. One thousand dollars. That was more cash than I had ever handled physically at one time in my life. I breathed in Mardian’s smoke and enjoyed the experience. The money had been folded inside a single sheet of blank white paper. Blank as to salutation or anything other than a short set of sentences. “Use the money to buy some decent clothing for your wife and yourself. Do not show up looking like Charlie Suitcase. The rest of the money is for a .45 Colt automatic, which you are to personally purchase for cash.”
That was it. No explanation of anything else. I inhaled smoke and stared over and down at Mardian.
“Questions, I presume?” he asked, puffing before and after the words. The man smoked a lot, I realized. Maybe the smoke was the only reason the president’s wife didn’t want him in her house, after all.
“Who is Charlie Suitcase,” I asked, somewhat mystified, although I hadn’t missed the rather twisted insult the word’s name probably implied.
“Euphemism,” Mardian replied with a laugh. “You have to not look like a street person where you’re going…where I’m specifically not invited.”
“Okay, but what about the automatic? How much do those cost, where do I get one and why am I buying it for my personal use when I already have a duty weapon?”
“That’s three questions,” the big overweight man said, although I could tell he was enjoying the back and forth he was putting me through.
“I don’t know how much things like that cost, much less what ball costumes go for today. Never been to one. But I have a question of my own.”
I folded the single sheet of paper up along with the thick packet of twenties. The envelope had writing on the back I noted as I was about to replace the twenties inside it. The notation in cursive was “no questions no instructions.” A single letter “H” was under the strange notation. I decided to jam the twenties into my clamshell holster as they were not going to fit inside any of my police uniform pockets. I placed the envelope, similarily folded, into my breast pocket with the paper.
“What’s the automatic for?” Mardian asked, after patiently waiting while I put everything away. It was obvious that he either hadn’t bothered to read the notation on the envelope or didn’t care what Haldeman had written.
I didn’t know how to answer the man, so I simply stared down at him and waited.
“We both do the same thing but at different levels,” he finally said, working his cigar around and around in his mouth like it was a lollipop.
“What’s that?” I asked, in true curiosity.
“Whatever they tell us that nobody wants, will or can do,” Mardian replied.
“So, you’re saying that our sort of strange kinship, for want of a better word, should induce or motivate me to answer questions about all this that both of us are ordered not to do?”
I tried to smile at the man when I was done. He wasn’t scary at all in any way which made me feel that he could be truly threatening too almost anyone. I decide to give in.
“I don’t know is the only answer I have,” I said. “We’re not invited to the ball; we’re going to the ball in advance of everyone else as part of a deal. We’ll be there but not really there at all. Maybe they’ll have us wait tables, although if they are buying us clothes which, embarrassingly, we can’t afford, then maybe not. If they want us to wait tables, or anything else, we’ll do it because we don’t have any choice. Who wants me to have a particular piece of weaponry, when they must know what kind of firepower I already possess, is beyond me, as well. I must presume that somewhere, at some time, in some capacity, I am going to be expected to use the device and my use of it cannot be traced back to who wants me to use it or for what. There; is that enough for you, sir?”
I waited but the big man said nothing, instead sitting back and blowing one smoke ring after another. I was taken all the way back to General Dwyer in Da Nang, seemingly so long ago, blowing smoke rings while he ordered others to send me to my death.