I made no attempt to rise to my feet, as I lay next to the lapping water on the slanted ramp. The reddish dirty bag rope dangled from my right hand. When I’d been out in the pier-end restaurant with Shawna, neither she nor any of the members of the Dwarfs, really had much to do with the Western White House machinations, except for Gularte and now Bob Elwell. In thinking about what Paul had said in guiding me, with respect to the ‘sinking of the Porsche,’ as my mind always went to in thinking about the incident, and my ever more strange meetings with Mardian, I’d come to realize that having certain information could risk the person who had the information. The White House’s level of power was so great that just a hint that somebody might need to be ‘taken care of’ at a lower level, particularly when things were falling apart all over, could be a terminal kind of discussion, or instruction, or order.

I was cold to my core. The canvas sack dangled against my leg, water cascading its way through the rough canvas threads. Whatever was inside the sack was soaked through unless somehow water repellant in some other way. Mardian had no trouble believing the package would be destroyed by the smallest of explosives, even the pound of C-4 I’d been saddled with wouldn’t have left much of the car to be recognizable if and when the wreck finally surfaced. There was little doubt in my mind that Butch wouldn’t be after the Porsche first thing in the morning. His enthusiasm had been most evident when he’d talked about it.

The car lights sat thirty yards away from the eastern end of the ramp. Butch was gone and so was Richard, although it surprised me a little that he hadn’t returned since it was rather obvious that his mast-high video camera picked up a lot more than I would have guessed…unless he knew who was in the car.

I pulled the bag slowly up and eased it over my left shoulder. The light illumination from the car’s headlights wasn’t likely to be enough for anyone inside the thing to see much detail. On top of that, Bob and I were soaking wet and so was the bag.

“Go do your thing,” I said to Gularte, who hadn’t spoken at all since Bob and I had completed our dive. Gularte only nodded and then moved toward the front of the mystery vehicle. I walked over to Bob and handed him my goggles and the bag.

“Just toss your own goggles and mine, plus the bag onto the passenger seat of Gularte’s truck. I’ll approach the scene over there slowly and wait to see what Gularte finds out. There was no package, and we didn’t get into the frunk of the thing.”

Bob nodded and took the stuff from me.

“Wait inside the truck,” I instructed, as Bob moved, making no reply.

I walked slowly toward the car, which I identified as I got closer. It was one of the compound limo vehicles, not the regular Lincolns I normally rode in that were called limos but weren’t really. Gularte was at the driver’s open window leaning down and speaking so softly I could not make the words out.
I stopped on the passenger side of the vehicle and nearly jumped backward when the rear window, located right next to my left shoulder, silently descended.

“Report in,” the voice said.

I was surprised to my core. The voice was that of H.R. Haldeman himself. The President’s Chief of Staff was out in a staff car, coming to visit me at Dana Point Harbor in the middle of the night. Whatever was in that bag was of vital importance, but I could not be sure, or really have a clue, as to why.

“The package, as you have termed it, may be in the trunk of the Porsche but we lacked the tools to get it as the latch will not operate,” I replied, keeping my voice and tone as analytical as possible. “Mardian said we should ‘blow it in place,’ if we couldn’t get it out and deliver it to the compound but the fallout from that would be pretty terrible so I decided to go another way.”

“Mardian,” Haldeman hissed out but said nothing more.

“You want us to go back down, retrieve the package, and get it to the compound or do you want it destroyed in some other way that doesn’t involve engaging and possibly enraging every police department within fifty miles of us?”

I knew I was risking almost everything, as I’d known Haldeman took it very badly when anyone gave him an idea that wasn’t his own.

Another voice spoke out from the darkness, it being so black inside the limo that my eyes, even though adjusting, still could not make out facial features. I knew that voice, as well, so I didn’t need to see the speaker.

“Do what you think is best, but turn nothing over to anyone, including any information whatsoever to no one except the Chief of Staff or myself and that includes Mr. Mardian. Do you understand?”

I waited for a few seconds, not to comprehend the strange but very trusting comment, but to see if Haldeman was going to support it by saying something. Haldeman remained silent, which I decided was his form of supporting the direct order.

“Now, go to tell your gorilla to leave the Staff Sergeant alone,” Haldeman ordered, raising his voice a bit as if to let me know that he, and he alone, was the one in command.

I walked around the car and came up behind Gularte. I was trying to suppress a laugh, which would have been a big mistake to let out I knew. Gularte was hassling the Staff Sergeant over the vehicle’s insurance, registration, and even the Staff Sergeant’s driver’s license.

Gularte turned to face me, displaying both hands, his left wearing the black glove he was known for, the right glove folded into his leather belt.

“He has no identification and there’s nothing on this car, nothing at all,” he said, sounding serious, although I’d come to know Gularte pretty well and could read some of his basal dark humor being restrained.

“Come on, we’re out of here,” I said as we both stepped back. The Staff Sergeant smiled, closed his window, and put the limo in reverse.

“What the hell was that all about?” Gularte asked. “All this over some little canvas sack, that you sure as hell are going to tell me about before the sun rises on the morrow.”

“Haldeman, the President of the United States of America’s Chief of Staff told me, and I quote: “…now, go tell your gorilla to leave the Staff Sergeant alone,” I said before I started to laugh out loud.

“That’s a racial slur,” Gularte said, sounding like his feelings were hurt.

“Gorillas are black, not pleasingly brown like you,” I replied.

“That’s not entirely true,” Gualarte shot back, peeling his signature glove.

“Oh, you’ve met a real gorilla in the wild or even seen one in a zoo?” I asked.

“That’s got nothing to do with this,” he replied, finally going silent as we both headed over to the Pickup.

“This never happened, and I’m sure both of you know that. A lot of people knew and know about it but that’s just the way it is, as only three of us have our butts on the line if this formally gets out.” I said. 

“Gularte, let’s head to my house,” I added. I felt the cold moisture bleed from it as we drove.

When I got home, both Bob and Gularte immediately left and I carried the package inside, wrapped inside my U.S. Navy sweatshirt. Julie was no doubt in bed, Mary was in the kitchen and Bozo was nowhere to be seen. I placed the wet mess in the upstairs bathroom tub. I changed into my robe and went immediately downstairs to assure my wife that I was home, as, after all, she would have had to have heard me coming through the front door and closing it.

“Hi,” I began. “ I was at the Dana Point Marina and the mission was to retrieve a package from the submerged Porsche Little Mardian owns. I was sent by his father to get the thing.” I walked by her to get a Coke out of the fridge, popped the top, and waited.

I knew that most husbands wouldn’t show up after dark to make such an announcement. I sat at the counter. My wife was finishing the dishes from the dinner I hadn’t had time to eat. Since she wasn’t talking, responding, or doing anything but concentrating on working through the silverware and whatnot I knew she wasn’t happy.

“A package,” she finally said, “and what was in the package, or did you return it already?”

“No,” I answered, fatigue from the tension of the mission washing over me. “It’s up in the tub as it’s in a canvas bag that sat down there at the bottom for a few days.”

“Is it, as you might say the word, pyrotechnical?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, realizing that tossing the package into the tub, unexamined, right next to a wall my daughter was sleeping right next to was another of my many mistakes.

The missions in Vietnam’s awful Valley had been so much more violent but so much simpler to execute with a minimum of mental errors, or so I had thought at the time. I got up and headed for the stairs, leaving my Coke bubbling over on the counter where I’d set it down with too much force. I walked deliberately but smoothly and climbed upstairs as quietly as I could. I didn’t need Julie rising, coming out to join me, or raising any other kind of ruckus.
I’d left the bathroom light on so all I had to do was ease inside the narrow room and kneel down. The canvas bag was as before. There had never been and was not now a knot to secure the short but heavy rope that secured the top of it. The container was no longer weeping sea water, although a very tiny trail of it seeped toward the tub’s drain.

As gently as I could, I eased the rope slowly loose, not failing to remember that I’d treated the entire package with no sensitivity at all when the mission was underway and concluding. I was playing with very powerful forces I had little understanding of, I reflected once again, and it might be very likely that pyrotechnics could be a part of whatever they did. I trusted Mardian. to a degree, to have informed me if the bag was booby-trapped, but then again, he hadn’t seemed to have a good idea of what the package was when we spoke so briefly.

I peered down inside the bag, once the opening was about the size of my closed fist. The light in the ceiling, directly over the center of the tub, allowed me to see inside. A very wet, weathered, and falling apart cardboard box was what the bag contained.

“Strange,” I murmured to myself.

I eased the canvas sack as fully open as it would go, having a pretty solid idea that no explosives were involved in its contents, and there appeared to be no trip wire or detonator materials present either. I brushed the soggy cardboard aside with my fingers.

“Wow,” I whispered.

“Wow, what?” my wife said, having crept up behind me to stand leaning over my right shoulder.

I knew there would be no lying that would work with her under the circumstances.

“It’s a wet cardboard box, about four inches on a side,” I recited, staring down into the mess. Inside are seven tape reels, three-and-a-quarter-inch ones, I think,” I said. “Audio tapes.”

“That’s it?” Mary asked, straightening up as if discovering that there were no explosives or other dangerous materials inside the package and so none of it really mattered.

“It’s not the tapes themselves,” I said, easing one out of the bag. “It’s what might be on them.”

“There’s a little tag on one, red and gold,” she murmured, looking down at my exposed hand, the tape sitting flat on my palm.

“It says: “RQ-3005.”

“Does that mean anything?” she asked.

“I don’t know, but I know somebody who might,” I replied, and I better call him right now as these tapes have been sitting at the bottom of Dana Point Harbor for at least 48 hours, in salt water.”

“Are you turning them in and do you really want to know what’s on them?”

I turned the tape reel over. Etched in the clear plastic were the letters and numbers I never expected to see: “San Clemente Three USMC.”

I inhaled slowly and deeply. There was only one situation I’d been involved with, and, in fact, had forced me to become something much more than merely a beach patrol Bronco driver for the Western White House. The three dead Marines was where and when it had all started, and now, in front of me, was a small audio tape reel that might hold the key to everything. No wonder that Mardian was afraid of what was in the package. He’d known, at least part of it, but had remained almost totally stoic about the contents. Had he been right in expressing his opinion that the package was better off destroyed and that I didn’t really want to know what the thing contained? The question of what it was doing in his son’s frunk was another issue entirely. It seemed that every time something revealed itself to possibly be an explanation for the strange behavior of the people at the compound another piece of information appeared to either parallel it, run in opposition to it, or explain it. Which of the three was I involved with, or was it all three?

I put the tape back inside the bag. I knew one thing, and that was about salt water. It was extremely corrosive to almost all metals, and audio tapes had metallic elements within the body of the tape material. I laid the bag back on its side, put the bathtub plug in, and started running the cold water. The first thing I was doing was hoping to minimize the damage done to the tapes by their submergence.

“Chuck Bartok,” I said, turning to stand and face my wife, while the tub water ran behind me.

“The answer to the next question I was going to ask?” she asked.

“You’re not done with the questions, I know,” I said, with a tone of fatalism in my voice. “Chuck is a stereo nut and he’ll know what to do to save the tapes, and that’s of course, if they can be saved. This may all be a moot discussion.”

“Do you want to tell Chuck?”

I was amazed once again by my wife’s ability to leap over hurdles where there was nothing there to support the direction of her inquiry. I hadn’t read the inscription to her and it was too small for her to have read while I was holding it down in my palm. She knew about the three Marines but she didn’t know that the tape, and more of them that I didn’t know about their content, might be truly dangerous to have or even know about.

“I’ll tell him that we were at the beach with our tape deck and dropped some tapes when a higher-than-normal wave swept up the sand.”

“Does he know we don’t have a tape machine to play these, since the big one you bought is for those large cartridge things? Where is that machine, by the way?”

I turned to the tub and shut off the water, as the level was already above the top of the sack, which I’d gently laid on its side. I got up, walked past where Mary stood, seemingly rooted to the scene, and headed for our bedroom and the telephone. Chuck answered my call on the second ring, which was just like him. Chuck was my boss in the life insurance business but truly acted more like the nearly perfect assistant.

I told him my fairy tale about the damaged tapes.

“You need distilled water, not regular tap water,” Chuck replied when I was done. “Tap water will dilute the salt solution but not leech out the salt from the tape itself, depending upon what kind of take it is, of course.”

“What kind of tape are you talking about?” I asked him, already making up my mind to walk quickly to Coronet’s store up on the corner of Ola Vista and Del Mar to get a few gallons of distilled water, the same that my wife used in her iron but her supply was not nearly enough.

“How thick is the tape you have?” Chuck asked.

“What do you mean, how thick?’ I answered, realizing I was getting farther into detail than I wanted to be.

“Microns,” Chuck said. “Do the tapes say C60, C90, or C120 on their labels?

“Labels were washed off,” I lied, not knowing what else to say, other than wanting to get off the line as quickly as I could.

“You have a micrometer with mils on it. Just take one tape and refold a piece about thirty times and measure that in mils and you’ll be able to convert to microns.”

I knew I was way in over my head with Chuck. “Why does the thickness matter?” I asked, hoping Chuck wouldn’t go deeper into the details.
“So, you can clean the tapes once you soak them for a day or so in distilled water,” he replied. “If they’re less than a micron then you want to be super gentle because you’re going to have to hand dry each section of tape with a soft cloth. Don’t use Kleenex or toilet paper though, as that will leave lint which will affect sound quality.”

I went downstairs, thankful that my wife hadn’t come down. I checked my Seiko. It was too late to go to the Coronet. The tapes were simply going to have to wait, soaking away in tap water.

“What’s wrong?” Mary asked, stopping just before coming all the way down the stairs.

“Coronet is closed and I need some distilled water to soak the tapes in or they may be a total loss,” I said, sighing as I said it.

“I’ve got distilled water,” she said, coming all the way down the stairs to join me.

“I probably need at least a gallon or so,” I replied, shaking my head.

“I have an extra gallon, what with the amount of ironing it takes to keep you and your daughter in clean, pressed clothing.” She turned as she finished and headed for the kitchen. “Take the tapes out of the bag, which is full of salt water in its fibers, put them in a cooking pan, and pour this jug of distilled water over them.”

I took the pan and headed back upstairs, thankful that I’d married a woman who bought oversupplies of almost everything. I pulled the tapes from the bag and carefully placed them in the bottom of the pan. I wanted there to be no mistakes of any kind in the handling of the pan so I put it, half-filled with distilled water inside our bedroom closet and closed the door.

I went downstairs and talked to my wife.

“I have to go over to Gularte’s and let him know what I found,” I said, expecting an argument on her part.

“I understand, although I don’t really,” she said, surprising me, “you have to have all the help you can in this thing whatever this thing really is.”

I changed out of my robe into shorts and one of my Marine “T” shirts. I wore tennis shoes with white socks, since, as a kid in Hawaii, I’d always hated flip-flops, which had been called ‘go-aheads’ for obvious reasons if you ever wore the strange toe-thong things.

Gularte wasn’t on duty, which I could tell, not just from his pickup truck sitting in his driveway, but from the music blaring out from his front door.

“It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son…” confronted me as I went through the door. Gularte was sitting on his couch holding a bottle of Hamm’s beer, a smile on his face, as he’d no doubt, heard the chattering exhaust of my Volks pulling in behind his truck. I walked over to the stereo and turned it off.

“If we’re going to talk about what I think we’re going to talk about then you might want to turn that thing back on,” he said, motioning toward the television/stereo with his beer bottle.

I realized the wisdom of what he was saying, given the contents of the package and evidence compounding daily about the capability of the operators working for the Western White House when it came to surveillance. That we were supposed to be the ‘good guys’ with them didn’t seem to make any difference, not so far as I’d observed. I turned the music back on, which picked up the lyrics of the song it’d been playing when I walked in. An audio tape, most probably I reflected a smile on my face at the coincidence of almost everything in my life recently.

I sat next to Gularte and filled him in on everything. When I was done, I waited to see what he was going to say. I’d kept my word and succumbed to his demand that he be filled in on the mission and what was in the package, but I had no idea how he’d handle the information once I gave it to him.

“The one tape is stunning, with that writing on it,” he said, taking a sip from his Hamm’s bottle. “What was written on the other tapes?” he finally asked, while Creedence Clear Water Revival sang another of their Vietnam war songs: “Over on the mountain, thunder magic spoke…let the people know my wisdom, fill the land with smoke…

“I don’t know,” I said, wondering why I was delaying getting just that information. Even the titles on the tapes might be of great import, much less what was recorded on the reels. I was beat to the bone, both physically and mentally, I knew. The tapes would soak, and I’d deal with them in the morning as they weren’t about to go anywhere.

“What if they come for them in the night?” Gularte asked as if reading my mind. “You know, SWAT style.”

I’d considered that very thought but wasn’t going to admit to it. I’d also considered the huge supply of pyrotechnic equipment still loaded into the trunk, or frunk, of my Volkswagen.

“See you tomorrow with more,” I said, getting up, trying to figure out how I could ensure that my family was fully protected from what I’d gotten myself into.

“You gonna tell Bob anything?” Gularte asked.

“No, not unless he wants to know, and I don’t think he will. Bob’s a different animal entirely from us, but if he wants to know then he gets to know, with the same rights you and I have, He stepped up and rode for the brand, and not for the first time. He’d have been a good Marine.”

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