The tapes were proving to be a nightmare, not just because the job was boring and delicate but also because of the time. There was the beach patrol issue to be dealt with, as I was on at four in the afternoon and no real way out of not spending six hours, or so doing that. Then there was the very likely probability that I would not be done simply cleaning and drying all the tapes, and there was no possibility I could put any of them up wet. The third thing that bothered me was that there might be nothing on them, the seawater having done a more penetrating job than Chuck had alleged in our short conversation.
I sat back, my fingers tiring of the delicate process of putting just enough pressure on the gauze to dry the tapes but not break them. They were a lot more difficult to handle, once they were unspooled, than I would have believed, having broken two of them. According to Chuck, any breaks could be repaired simply by gluing the ends back together, but I was left wondering what potentially vital part of a conversation might be lost to such damage and repair. The biggest problem was in not sharing the fact of the tape’s existence, plus there was also the problem of returning the gear I’d checked out for the mission in the harbor, not that there had been any paperwork to fill out or sign when I had.
I pulled out my wallet and took out the little piece of paper I’d written the armory’s number on and used Gularte’s phone to call it.
“Marine Corps armory and shooting range,” a gruff voice answered, with a short silence following. There was no ‘can I help you,’ or anything like that following the announcement.
“Is the warrant officer there?” I asked, having identified the voice answering the phone as not being anything like the light tone of the warrant officer’s voice.
“This is Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Bone. We have no warrant officer here, and never did, not that I can recall.”
I wanted to call the sergeant “T-bone,” just for the humor of it, but presumed that the Marine had been hearing that expression all his life.
“Gunnery Sergeant, I’m a Marine Lieutenant out of Mainside, and I’m calling with a request for instructions to return some equipment that I checked out of the armory a few days back,” I replied as flatly as I could.
I withheld my name simply because the Gunnery Sergeant’s comment had been so seemingly out of place.
“I report to the commanding officer here, and he’s a captain, sir,” the Gunnery Sergeant said. “I’ve had this billet for two years and there’s never been a warrant officer here that I know of or at the attached range. There’s a Major running the range from another building if you want his number.”
“No, that’s okay Gunny,” I replied. The man sounded like a complete straight arrow of a noncom, and I could figure out no reason he’d lie to someone like me calling in on such a seemingly small item, much less to a man who said he was an officer in the Corps.
“Do you have a receipt for the equipment?” the Gunny asked.
“No,” I replied, he didn’t give me one,” I replied, growing ever more uncomfortable with the call.
“We don’t check out equipment of any kind from this facility without full identification, a written request for the equipment, and a return date and time.”
I hesitated, before deciding that nothing more of any good could be accomplished by continuing my discussion with the man.
“Thanks for the help, Gunny,” I said, hanging up the phone before he could say or ask anything else.
I thought back about the meeting I’d had with the warrant officer when I’d gotten the materials for the dive. Since there’d been no warrant officer, at least T.O. the operation, then the Navy SEALs must not have been real Navy SEALs either. They’d looked the role, but in putting some real thought to the ‘training’ session, they were supposed to give, I now realized there’d also been no training of any sort. They’d given a rough ‘how to’ talk and that had been it.
Something had happened at that facility but the likelihood of me ever knowing more was about non-existent, I realized. Nobody wanted the equipment that probably didn’t exist in any inventory, and there was nobody to turn it in to. The power of the players inside the Western White House was again driven into me like a spike into my chest. The equipment was real, although I almost was tempted to go look in the back seat of the Volks to make sure. Marine Corps armories, attached to shooting ranges, on a well-run and tightly operated Marine base were also not likely to ever ‘check out’ high explosives or have much to do at all with underwater UDT equipment of the latest kind and highly expensive.
I looked at the tapes in front of me and came to a conclusion. It wasn’t likely that the questionable non-recovery of the tapes would be found acceptable, depending upon when one of the powers that be at the compound took the time or had the time, to think about it. It was probable that the place was in such a state of disorganization and fear that normal rules of either ethics or social manners could not be applied.
I grabbed Gularte’s phone and called Bartok. He answered on the first ring, which was common with him.
“About that tape that I pulled from the ocean and soaked in the distilled water, as you instructed?”
“Yes,” Chuck replied and waited.
“How long can I leave it in the fresh water without causing further harm to what might be on it?” I asked.
“The recording medium for the tape-recording process is typically made by embedding tiny magnetic oxide particles in a plastic binder on a polyester film tape. Iron oxide has been the most widely used oxide.”
“And that means what?” I asked, growing frustrated.
“Rust, yes, rust will form around the iron oxide if the tape’s left in the water too long, of course, assuming that iron oxide particles are those used in the binder of your tape. Nothing like the reaction you’d get from salt water though.”
“How long do I have, since I haven’t got the time to mess with it today?”
“Couple of days or maybe more,” Chuck said, laughing. “Lot of work and thought going into the recovery of a simple, and replaceable, tape cassette.”
“Thanks, Chuck,” I replied, hanging up. Chuck deserved better but then at the point I was at, in what I was involved with, normal rules of either ethics or social mannerisms could be applied.
The tapes could wait, as long as I gave them a cursory drying, which wasn’t what I’d been doing. The four-by-four pads weren’t as absorbent as I needed. I checked Gularte’s only bathroom and found a couple of spare Charmin rolls of toilet paper. They would do. Instead of half an hour of time for each tape, the last ones only took ten minutes apiece. They wouldn’t be as dry as I’d hoped but the job would have to do.
When the tapes were all rewound back onto the reels I gathered them together and headed for my car. Butch had to be delayed in his recovery of the Porsche, at least until I could get the tapes put onto blank reels and blank tapes put onto the existing ones. The plastic reels had all been heat engraved and there was no way I was going to be able to forge reproductions of what they said. The trunk, or frunk, of that Porsche, was going to be found to be open when it was pulled up.
My quickly thought-out plan was to get the counterfeit tapes and sprinkle them over the wreck, which would mean they would be on the bottom around it as it went up. A second dive would likely have to be made to recover them, or they might never be found, and they had to be found. I also had to get rid of the explosive C-4. The rebreathers wouldn’t matter, at least not for some time, because there was no danger from them, of their being left inside my garage, or even down at the lifeguard headquarters. I was certain the guards would love to have the things, but some time would have to go by before I was comfortable to the point where I felt nobody would come looking for them. Not preserving the original tapes didn’t ever occur to me as I went about making certain that each tape was coiled onto the proper reel, as the reels were so definitively marked.
I wrapped the tapes in the remains of one of the toilet paper rolls and put them back inside the damp canvas bag I’d found them in. The bag would dry in due time. The problem with my plan to deposit the substitute tapes to the floor of the harbor had one distinct disadvantage. I needed four more tapes. I thought of Chuck, but then realized there was likely only one place I was going to get such tapes, as the High-Fidelity store up the coast had included four extra in the box I’d gotten with the machine. He would also know if the tapes were iron oxide. For my plan to work, I needed iron oxide. I could then place the substitute tapes in a bath of intensely strong salt water before tossing them to the bottom of the harbor.
I pulled the Orange County telephone book from under Gularte’s phone and quickly found what I was looking for in the yellow pages. I called the number, nervous about how one mistake in my new plan might just get me and a few others very close to me very dead. It didn’t take a genius to simply look at the titles carved into the plastic reels to realize why what was on the tapes had Mardian half-scared to death. He was a man who didn’t seem to be a stranger to fear but he sure seemed scared of what was or might be on the tapes in my possession.
The store salesman, clerk, or owner was there. I knew it was him simply from how he answered the store business phone: “It’s your nickel.”
I wanted to tell the arrogant man that telephone calls were fifteen cents, not a nickel but I knew it would be useless. It took only seconds for him to rummage around his counter area and come up with the tapes I would need. He then proved himself about as unprincipled as he’d indicated he was by selling me a used machine I still had no idea that worked. He wanted twenty dollars for the tapes, which is what I’d paid for the machine with everything thrown in. I agreed, after waiting a few seconds so as not to seem too eager.
“Are they iron oxide tapes?” I asked him.
“Indeed, they are, although I don’t know why you care,” he said, sounding surprised. “Chrome is better and just as inexpensive.”
I sighed before hanging up, after telling him to set the tapes aside because I’d be up to get them in an hour. I knew that chrome bumpers didn’t rust unless the plating was worn through. I had to be sure upon my arrival at the store, so I called Chuck back.
“What color are chrome tapes and are they really made with chrome instead of iron oxide in them?” I asked and then waited.
Chuck was a bright guy in many areas, like a polymath, but could have difficulties paying attention or staying interested in stuff he either found out or thought up.
“Chrome is the new thing instead of iron oxide and it isn’t chrome colored. It’s almost black compared to the rather light brown of iron oxide tapes, and what’s really going on with all this tape-recording stuff?”
I had no time. I was due at the store to get the tapes, then had to get back to Gularte’s to rewind the fake tape onto the reels after taking the regular tapes off and then labeling them with small pieces of torn-off paper towel material, and sealing each carefully to the sides of the seemingly dry reels. With any soldering iron, I could reproduce the tine carvings on them if I chose to do that at a later time.
I needed Gularte and Bob Elwell again, as the only way to do the operation properly was to do it again in the same way it had been successful the first time, except this time we wouldn’t use Gates’ Marauder for anything. We would again use Gularte’s truck. Where was the man? I was supposed to go on duty at four with Tom Turner but I needed Gularte to replace him. Gularte, Elwell, and my wife were the only people who knew that the package had already been retrieved and I wanted to keep it that way. Haldeman and Ehrlichman had guessed some of our pursuit of the package, as I was certain Richard and Cobb had too. Butch knew the Porsche was down at the bottom and he’d be chomping at the bit to pull it out. I had to stop there, I knew, on my way up to Corona Del Mar. If Butch bulled in, as that was the best word to use for the expression of his personality, then all might be lost before the plan was even launched.
I headed for the Marina. It was early in the afternoon during the week so work would be going full blast. It might be hard to find Butch, I knew, because of the different parts of the harbor that were being developed all at once. I drove the Volks to his trailer, stopped, and got out. It would be a lot easier for him to see me at the car than it would be to pick him out of the construction ‘haystack.’
It only took minutes for that part of my plan to work. Butch was a brilliant and attentive man, even though he looked anything but the part.
“What’s the occasion of your visit?” he asked formally.
I filled him in on my plan, only neglecting to mention the substance of the objects I’d found inside the bag.
“It’s got to go back down as if it was never pulled out, but it’ll only be nearby, not in the car when you pull it out. I need a couple of days before you do that too. Just pull the car out and leave it alone. It’s going to get plenty of attention and not the kind of attention either you or I are really equipped or want to deal with.”
“Me, for sure,” Butch replied with a brief laugh. “You, I’m not so sure at all. You and your strange associates are right beyond the launch ramp. Am I ever going to know about the story? I mean, other from what I might learn when the car surfaces?”
“As time passes and we know each other better, yes,” I replied. “You’ve earned that, not to mention my thanks. Richard and Cobb really are my associates, by the way, but I’m not really happy about that. Richard’s a cop for San Clemente, too, and supposedly works with or for me and I’m not too happy about that either.”
“When are you coming back?” he asked, not going any further about the strange people and behavior that he was now dealing with.
“About an hour after dark,” I told him, “I’ll do a very quick dive down and then get the hell out of there. Gularte will be with me but only standing guard.”
“The Gorilla,” Butch said, laughing, unlike Haldeman, but making me wonder who didn’t have some surveillance equipment in the area. “He seems like a pretty good cop and guy to me.”
“Your judgment is as good as your perception,” I replied. “He’s a great guy, and was a great Marine.”
“When we pull it out do you want me to check the bottom for anything that might be of interest left down there?”
“I sure as hell can’t stop you, but, as I like you, let me say straight from the shoulder that what’s down there is of no value to you but that’s not true of some of the forces in play here. What’ll be down here will likely be lost in the mud but these people not only have the backing, the finance, and the power, they might also have the intent to dredge the whole area if they have a mind to.”
“See you later then,” Butch said, slightly shaking his head and walking back over to his own pickup truck.
I watched him drive away. Once again all I ever got from the man was good vibrations. I knew he’d wait to pull the car up just by the way he conducted himself. My reasons for the delay had been iffy, at best, but maybe had been enough.
I drove to Corona Del Mar. The stereo shop was as before with the same smooth but strange man standing at the counter. Once again, I was his only customer, as well as I could perceive from all the boxes of equipment stacking higher than me up and down the filled shelves of the place. I wondered what wave of sales he was waiting for to sweep in and buy all the inventory but I kept my mouth shut. The man was clever, bright, and obviously bored which was a potentially bad combination for someone like me…a man wanting to remain unnoticed and anonymous, which at least our cash way of doing business helped with.
The tapes were stacked on the counter, not bagged or in a box. I didn’t comment, other than to say hello. I took out the twenty I’d transferred from my wallet to my front pocket, and put it on the counter next to the stack of reels.
“My nickel,” I couldn’t help saying.
“You want a bag?” he responded, taking the twenty dollar bill, before examining it closely.
I’d have liked to ask him ‘Who counterfeit’s a twenty?’ but thought better of it.
“Please,” I replied, instead.
The man put the tapes in a bag. I didn’t bother to examine them.
“I threw a few extras in since they’re not that expensive,” he said, handing the bag to me. “Iron oxide. Strange request. To say the least.”
I nodded, took the bag, and headed for the door without replying. Trying not to be noticed or remembered hadn’t worked. I could only hope that the lack of connection and the distance from where I usually lived and worked would provide all the protection I might need. Somewhere, if the right people became involved, I would be associated with the tapes, if they were ever found. I needed as much distance from having, playing, or making tape recordings as I could get.
I drove to San Clemente, thinking about the details of the rest of the plan. I was making fewer obvious mistakes but all it would take was one.
The trip back to Gularte’s was without incident, as was the faster but still laborious unwinding and rewinding of the tapes. I left to go home. The only place I trusted to store the original tapes was at home.
When I got out of the car at the apartment, I pulled both the canvas bag with the real tapes and the paper bag the salesman had given me for my convenience. When I walked in the front door Bozo, Julie, and Mary were waiting on the couch in the living room, as if to repeat the same scene I seemed to be reliving. I realized, sheepishly that there might be no salt. I needed a hefty dose of salt, hot water, and then the pan to put the fake tapes in.
“Salt,” I said to the three of them.
“Salt,” Julie repeated in a whisper, leaning toward the cat, who didn’t move at all, simply staring at me as if I was some apparition.
“Kitchen,” my wife said, pointing as if I didn’t know where the kitchen was.
I didn’t look for the supply that had to be in a container inside one of the cabinets when I got to the kitchen sink. I put the stack of fake tapes on the counter. The saltshaker was there, near the sink, like the pan I’d used before was. It was eerie as I hadn’t informed my wife that I was coming or what I planned to do. I ran the hot water, frequently feeling it. I wanted it hot but not too hot, as the hottest water might damage the tape or plastic reels. When the heat was too much for my hand, I put the pan under the spigot and filled it halfway to the top before setting it aside and pulling a big mixing spoon from one of the open implement containers Mary kept strewn about the kitchen counters. I poured the whole container of salt in and then began mixing the water slowly. I wanted no chance that a grain of salt might somehow survive in a crevice somewhere in one of the tapes.
It took several minutes until the water was clear. I carefully placed the tapes inside the pan, making sure they were fully under the salty water. I stirred the water over them once more until I thought there was nothing more I could do. I could leave the pan filled with tapes where it was but only for a couple of hours before I had to be on beach patrol and, once again, waiting for darkness to proceed with the second dive.
Bozo and Julie appeared at my feet.
“Salt,” she whispered again, this time with a big smile, while Bozo walked over to take a few bites of his food from his bowl that I’d made by cutting the bottom of a 105 mm howitzer round cartridge. I’d plugged the primer hole with lead, which my wife thought would poison the cat, so I’d had to make a small wooden plug to go over the top of the lead plug. The strange cat didn’t seem to mind the fact that the bowl, as opposed to the glass bowl my wife gave him for water, might have some strange and leftover tastes still exuding from its heavy brass metal.
Mary took a seat on the other side of the counter. The look on her face told me all I needed to know.
“I’m keeping the real tapes and putting these fake tapes back around the Porsche. The salt’s for encouraging the iron in the tapes themselves to develop enough rust that if they are ever recovered and played back they’ll be blank, the iron having turned to rust and therefore presumed to have been left in sea water too long.”
“Where are you going now?” she perceptively asked.
I told her the rest of the plan, leaving as little out as I could.
“You realize just how much trust you’re putting in these new people in our lives, and we don’t know them that well. Is it really worth it?”
“I believe so,” was all I could think to say, as Julie pushed Mrs. Beasley up onto the counter and then climbed up on the stool next to my wife.
“What do you think, Julie?” Mary asked our daughter, who turned to look at her and then to me.
“Salt,” she whispered, reaching to pull on Mrs. Beasley’s cord.
“That’s a good word,” my wife replied. “I’ll heat more water and put more salt in while you’re gone. Better put the supposed real tapes up in the closet where you hide everything.”
“Supposed?” I asked, in surprise.
“You don’t know yet if there’s anything on them,” she replied, surprising me with the accuracy of the statement.
She was right, I knew. I could be making a huge thing out of something that was nothing at all.
I took the canvas bag and headed upstairs. When the tapes were properly placed into my shoe box, I closed the lid and folded the bag. After everything, it was still damp to the touch. The tapes, however, when I rewound them, however, felt and appeared like they were completely dry.
When I went back downstairs, Gularte was in the kitchen talking to my wife and daughter. Bozo sat on the dining room table staring at Gularte.
“Does he have some sort of problem with me?” Gularte said, staring back into Bozo’s black shiny eyes.
“Do you ever knock or ring the doorbell?” I asked. “You and that collection of lifeguards from the beach have come to think of this as your home away from home.”
“Hot salt water,” Gularte replied, ignoring my comments, “Now that’s a good idea, your wife’s no doubt. We have to get out on patrol,” he followed up with, “and then hope that Elwell is down at headquarters and that he’ll be working the duty tonight. Just a few small details, not to mention our getting into uniform so we’ll look the part of whatever it is we are looking the part for.”
“Agreed,” I replied.
Gularte looked down at Julie.
“What do you think?” he asked, displaying one of his huge genuine smiles.
Julie pulled the string on her doll.
“You are an honorable man,” Mrs. Beasley said, in her grandmotherly voice.
“We’ll see you later,” Gularte said to Mary, again smiling down at Julie before turning toward Bozo, who didn’t move an inch, his stare unbroken.
“Two out of three ain’t bad,” Gularte murmured. “I’ll pick you up in the truck in twenty and we’ll head up to the station. No point in taking Gates’ monster Marauder as it and he are more trouble than they’re worth.”
Gularte and I drove down to the lifeguard headquarters, me in the Bronco, and he drove his own truck. The red Volks was just too noticeable to have taken, and its exhaust too distinctive. Elwell was there, although there was other staff around. We met outside where Bob informed us that everyone would be gone by sunset except for him.
After running up and down the beaches for two hours we met Bob back at the headquarters, just like before. I knew he’d wanted to be the one to go with me, as he’d been pretty excited about the first dive, both before and after, but there’d be no explanation if Gularte was the only person at the headquarters building if either the Chief or Sheridan Byerly showed up. All the protective services in the small beach town were pretty protective of their space and equipment.
Butch knew we were going down, but this time had put up none of the sawhorses he erected for that first time.
Gularte was once more in uniform while I was dressed for the dive wearing my same Blue Navy Sweatshirt and a pair of OP shorts instead of swim trunks. My own police uniform was folded once again, waiting for me back on the passenger seat of the Bronco which was nestled in with the beach equipment at the headquarters. I’d tossed a pair of goggles and one of the bright underwater lights into the bed of Gularte’s truck so I grabbed them as we exited the truck which Gularte parked well away from the ramp but close enough, so we didn’t have to cover much ground to get back and forth.
I couldn’t help but glance back toward the entrance to the marina, remembering the set of headlights that had appeared as we’d finished the last dive.
Everything was repeating itself, but I didn’t want that repetition to be a part of it.
What was happening in Washington D.C. was affecting the mental states and actions of everyone I was used to dealing with in the Western White House and I could not help but taste the bitterness of fear-generated adrenaline in my mouth, as I prepared to go down to the bottom of the marina once more.