I could not talk to Paul, nor my wife, nor anyone else I could think of except one. Richard. He, Cobb, and Hunt had been intertwined in some fashion I didn’t understand, but intertwined they were, at least in my analysis of their proximity at the harbor, their special attachment, but at some sort of distance, from the White House staff and seemingly everyone else. My combined fear and grief over the passing of Hunt was haunting me. Her husband was being pursued by the legal authorities in D.C. for his role in the Watergate break-in and now coverup. There seemed no stopping any of that, and certainly no expressed sympathy for the man who’d just lost his wife. What kind of cold-blooded system was I dealing with, where I, at my great distance from it and unimportance to it all, was the only person who seemed to be hurt and giving a damn? I knew I wasn’t quite right. Lt. Jim Webb, the company commander of Echo Company, on my distant flank in Vietnam, had so accurately pointed that out one afternoon. Was my reaction to all I’d been through so far off that I couldn’t even understand the emotions of the people around me anymore?
I pulled into the harbor area. It was midday, so the workers were everywhere and work vehicles, as well. It was all I could do to guide my now dust-covered Volkswagen onto the part of the dirt road leading to where Richard’s and Cobb’s boats sat bobbing in their slips. Just before I made the turn to veer in that direction a figure appeared, waving me over. It was Butch. I didn’t have anything to say to him but couldn’t ignore his appearance before me.
The Volks shuddered in and out of one of the deeper ruts cut into the hardened mud as I pulled over, hoping I was far enough off the road to avoid being run over by some passing construction vehicle.
“In here,” Butch yelled, over the sound of nearby machinery, waving toward the open front door of his trailer.
I pulled the Volks off the mess of a road and parked it as snuggly as I could, next to the aluminum siding of the Airstream. I got out and walked through the door, wondering what Butch might have on his mind. The Army Corps of Engineers had scoured the bottom of the harbor all around the base of the launch area, no doubt recovering the Porsche and God knows what else. There’d been no word about anything that might have been found. If Little Mardian had been informed of the raising of his car, if he was being reimbursed by an insurance company or anything else remained unknown, at least to my ears or those of the PD or the Dwarfs.
“Coffee or tea,” Butch asked.
I wanted to get over to Richard’s yacht and not make small talk with Butch, as much as I liked him, I opted for the coffee, which I guessed would already be made.
“Cream and sugar,” Butch said, a certain laziness in his tone that caught my attention, “If my memory serves me.”
I waited while he poured, mixed, and then handed me a thick ceramic mug. Butch had something on his mind but there was no point in pushing him. I sipped and leaned against the folded-down table that served as the center of the trailer’s dining area.
Butch walked to the sink area and opened a drawer.
“The Army brought me an artifact, for some reason thinking it was mine, which I took more as a suspicion on their part that I might have had something to do with the submergence of the Porsche.” He tossed the eight-track tape from Little Mardian’s tape player onto the table next to me.
“How did that particular tape come to be found in the Porsche’s tape player?” Butch asked, although I knew now that he wasn’t asking me, so much as performing expressing his thoughts out into the air between us.
I sipped my coffee and didn’t meet his steady gaze, before murmuring an answer.
“The Doors are a very popular group.”
“That tape is your tape,” Butch said, a strange smile playing across his facial features.
He motioned slightly toward the tape with the hand he held his coffee mug in but didn’t spill a drop.
“I know it and you know it. Now, the question is, since you, with your henchmen, sank that car, why did you place the tape in the player? You didn’t do it for Mardian, as you had to know he’d never see, much less hear the music on it. You sank the Porsche, I’ve come to realize simply because of the insult the man gave you when he was right here where you are standing, not so long ago.”
I made no move at all, merely standing and staring at the man without any expression on my face that I was aware of. A full minute went by with neither of us saying a word or taking a drink from our coffee cups.
“You’re not the man you portray yourself to be, whatsoever,” Butch finally offered. “Little Mardian, if he knew you, really might just be very happy to still be walking around on the surface of this planet.”
“You’re, on the other hand, everything you portray yourself to be,” I replied, not wanting to confirm or deny anything.
I was also wounded a bit. I didn’t see myself as a dangerous, much less lethal man. I viewed myself as a boy, a damaged adolescent boy who had every intention of following Paul’s advice and working to live in redemption for the awful things I’d done.
“Which is why you’re standing here, and also why you put the tape into that machine before you shoved it into the harbor,” Butch said, this time taking a drink from his coffee cup before laughing out loud.
I followed through in drinking my coffee while I waited for what else I thought might be coming from the man.
“I know why you went through this whole arcane process, and I’ve been amazed since I figured it out. You put that tape in there so eventually I’d know that it was you who sank the car.”
“Why would I bother?” I asked him, wondering just how deep the man was going to go.
“You came home from the war a tattered mess, and I haven’t even seen the physical side of that,” Butch said, “And believe me, after figuring this all out I don’t want to insult you. When you got back here, not so long ago, you came to understand that everything back here is sort of meaningless in the scope of life, that all the antics and actions of your fellow humans are strange and almost utterly meaningless to you. You did all this because of your modified, enlarged, and substantially bent sense of humor. You think, without giving off one bit of a clue, that this series of events you created and quite successfully implemented, is funny as hell.”
“I didn’t know,” I whispered, setting my cup on the table.
“You didn’t know what?” Butch asked.
I reached over and grasped the large Doors cartridge in my left hand. I stared at it, thinking about what Butch had said.
“You’re right,” I finally breathed out, placing the cartridge gently back on the table. “It’s all grandly funny as hell.” I smiled, more to myself than to Butch.
Why had I done what I’d done and how could I accommodate it into any kind of rational construct of current and future behavior?
“You can’t keep doing stuff like this,” Butch said, his voice gentle for the first time. “You’re going through life backward and you must get turned around. Are you in therapy of any kind?”
“Backwards,” I asked ignoring his therapy comment.
“You’re busy fixing things, taking vengeance if you will, against the injustices committed by so many around you, particularly if they are injustices, you see as being directed at you. Think of your life ahead as a highway. Visualize it. You are going down that highway of life with a view to the future. Taking vengeance is going down that highway while you are staring behind you and committing complex acts to right the wrongs of everyone. You are going down that highway staring backward with your attention on the things behind which means you can’t be looking ahead at all. What’s coming?”
“I was wrong,” I admitted.
“Wrong about which part?” Butch asked.
“Wrong about you. You’re not everything you portray yourself to be,” I replied. “You haven’t been in construction management all your life, have you?”
“Take the tape as a reminder,” Butch said, not answering my question. “It is all funny, but the humor, your part in it, can quickly become just more of the many burdens you already carry. You probably thought about hurting Mardian. I’ll never know. But I think the man came real close and I don’t want you to be hurt by others coming that close ever again. You’re a real war hero, whether you define yourself that way or not. Back here, nobody, almost nobody, understands the monumental cost and burden that idiotic phrase of supposed honor means or costs you all the time.”
“How old are you?” I asked, my thoughts veering away from the substance of what the man was saying.
“A good twenty years older than you,” not that that means anything.”
“It means everything,” I replied. “You weren’t in Vietnam. I know that. Where were you in Korea?”
“You’re a bright boy, I’ll give you that,” Butch said, his smile returning, as he took a few seconds to take a drink of his cooling coffee.
“Changjin,” he finally said.
I stared intently at Butch’s face. The roughness of his skin and its inherent redness. I realized it wasn’t from too much drinking, as I’d originally suspected. It was from the skin being frozen and then coming back after the Marines made their triumphant retreat down from the ’Frozen Chosin’ reservoir where they’d been surrounded and supposedly trapped. Lake Ghangjin was also known as the Chosen Reservoir in Korea. Butch was a real combat veteran like me and a fellow Marine, although he’d not said a word earlier about being any of that.
I walked to the door, stepped through, and stopped. I turned back and whispered an expression Marines only used with other Marines: “Oohhhrah.”
Butch closed the door without responding, as I stood, looking out at the Marina and the ocean beyond. I was shaken to my core. Butch’s rendition of my condition and conduct was spot on, and complimentary, but I still felt somehow exposed by what I’d divulged about myself. I directed my glazed stare over toward where Richard’s boat sat in its slip. After talking to Butch I wasn’t as enthusiastic or rushed in getting in front of the man. Hunt was dead, and her death was highly suspicious, but I hadn’t heard from Cobb, Richard, or anyone on the Western White House staff about it. It was true that I was the lowest of the low on the totem pole of the compound power structure, but I was one of them and I was deeply involved.
It also irritated me that the government, in its many iterations, was such an intrusive, yet mostly silent player in my life and the lives of so many around me. The Army Corps of Engineers had gone to the trouble of pulling a Doors tape from a tape player taken from a submerged Porsche belonging to the son of one of the most important, but nearly nameless men in government service. Why did someone bother to give that tape to Butch, of all things? The cartridge should have had no interest in anyone finding it. Any investigator, unless interviewing Little Mardian directly, would assume that it belonged to the owner. Why Butch? I was once again left with a small mystery that might have serious consequences for me, although I couldn’t think of any. I’d taken money from both Cobb and Hunt. Cash is supposedly untraceable. I’d stolen tapes that belonged to the government, even if they were made illicitly or secretly. They sure as hell would never meet the definition of being mine. I’d committed several felonies, and involved others, in sinking the Porsche.
Butch was right in his analysis and his conclusion. I had to make some changes.
I walked past the mess of a boat ramp and toward Richard’s boat in a state of emotional shock. Butch wasn’t Butch anymore. When I lay in Yokosuka between General Master’s son and the son of Chesty Puller, I’d been visited several times by Masters, always thanking me for helping cheer up and save his son. Chesty had come only once, looking every bit of the rough and tough Marine his reputation allowed for. He’d spoken in whispers to his grievously wounded son but not to me. Butch now reminded me of Puller and I wasn’t comfortable with his analysis of my conduct. He was right and I was already making changes but they couldn’t come fast enough, what with what I was involved with. I had a therapist. I had a life or a variety of them. In short order, I’d formed a cadre of people who seemed to like me and whom I trusted, for the most part. The character Butch described was that of a suppressed, barely held-together murdering son of a bitch who would kill if even slightly violated.
Butch didn’t know of the doctor up in San Francisco. That event, which proved to be a non-event was even more pronounced than my modified expression toward Little Mardian. I had to stop. I had to move. I had to get myself right and I had to do it without revealing a whole lot about who I was, what I was, and what I was reverting to if I didn’t do something.
As usual, I didn’t have to board the yacht, cross the cockpit area, and knock on his beautiful cedar door. Richard stepped through and offered his right hand as I negotiated my way over the chain railing. For some reason, he’d withdrawn the boat’s gangplank and chained the opening.
“Me casa…” he said, but not continuing the Spanish welcome any further.
“Me bote…” I whispered to myself. The yacht was a boat, not a home. It was more a floating base of surveillance technology rather than anything anybody would want to have as a full-time home.
As I walked behind Richard, he veered to his right, or starboard, and stepped over to the electronics nerve center of the yacht, while Cobb walked into the cabin from the door set into the bulkhead further forward.
“Beach Boy,” she said, smiling weakly.
I could tell she’d been either crying or suffering some allergic attack. Her eyes were red and she was sniffling a bit, although padding her nose occasionally with a piece of toilet paper.
“June,” I replied, my voice soft as her pronunciation of my nickname had been made the same way.
I felt a lonely hollowness projecting from the woman toward me. In our other short meetings, she’d been tough, more like Lauren Bacall toward Humphrey Bogart. She sat down on the cushioned sofa built into the port bulkhead, overstuffed and comfortable. I stood where I was, not wanting to cross the cabin and join Richard nor wanting to sit with Cobb. I wasn’t sure why I’d bothered to come but was now much more sensitized after my short visit with Butch than I’d been before.
I’d been sick and tired of all the different roles everyone around me seemed to be playing. I was still hurt over the three Marines dying, for what now seemed like a ridiculous reason, if not completely by accident, and then there was Dorothy Hunt and whatever had happened to her. People were dying and the tape I was dreading hearing might have a whole lot more of that set to happen soon.
“Do you want to know why I’m here?” I asked, expecting no answer from either of them.
June sat complacent while Richard stood with his butt pushed into the edge of his electronics table, filled with computer screens and other stuff I had no idea about.
“We know why you’re here,” Richard replied. “Want a cup of coffee or something stronger?”
His smile seemed genuine, but June’s flat expression didn’t change at all.
“All right, why am I here then?”
“You’re here because you figured out that we are working with the CIA and you’d like to know your place in all of that and this,” Richard said, a big, seemingly out-of-place smile creasing his lips. “You here because you’re what we call a natural or an adept. You’ve delved deeper and figured out more than almost anyone possibly could have in your circumstance.”
“What?” was all I could get out, I was so shocked by his admission and then his stated conclusion about me following that.
“You’re one of us now,” Richard concluded, bringing up a coffee cup that had been on the table behind him to hold as a toast.
“I don’t even know what you are,” I replied, wondering just how much stranger my communications with those around me could get, following the rather bizarre meeting with Butch and now encountering Cobb and Richard.
“We don’t matter quite so much as you matter right now,” Richard said, putting the coffee cup down without ever having taken a sip, and slightly turning toward where Cobb sat silent. “Tell him,” he went on and then waited.
“You’ve got tapes, or at least we suspect you do, but this isn’t an accusation session. If there is stuff on those tapes that we think you somehow spirited away right under everyone’s watching eyes, then we need to know what’s on them that we might need to know. Since you are not being asked to admit anything here, what we want, for you to truly be a member of this strange ‘club’ surrounding you, is to know if what you get from the tapes, if anything, is stuff that you think we should or need to know. This is a very uncommon question for us to ask of anyone but you are a most uncommon human being…or whatever it is that came out of where you served in that war.”
My shock continued to extend itself. Club, I thought to myself while I tried to collect my thoughts. They called themselves part of a club, said they were working for the CIA didn’t admit to being members, employees, or even agents of that secretive organization. I was, once again, in way over my head and I knew it. I couldn’t be on my own anymore, not running around like I was, playing a game in which I didn’t know any of the rules, but understanding that it might be a life or death game at any moment, as I now believed Mrs. Hunt’s death had proven.
“Do you know what the “unseeable” thing is that took place or is taking place inside the containment chamber at San Onofre?” I blurted out, not wanting to reveal anything until I could somehow be assured that I would indeed if I was a part of some club, have the confidence, understanding, knowledge and protection such a ‘club’ might give.
“I love tests,” Richard laughed out, in reply, but said nothing more.
“You won’t see me again,” Cobb unexpectedly said. “What you’re referring to might be classified by the word you used but I’ve never heard it before. That module of San Onofre is no longer operational for nuclear power generation. There’s another project that’s centered there. Richard, after I’m gone, may trade you for that information, as well as introduce you to what you will become.”
I looked at Richard in question. It was difficult for me to understand what the woman was trying to tell me.
“Listen to the tapes, which you have or the word ‘unseeable’ which isn’t a word at all, would be unknown to you. Come see me with what you’ve found and some of the mysteries you’ve immersed yourself in will become known to you.”
Cobb got up and walked past me to exit out through the cabin door. There were no goodbyes, but I felt like I’d never see her again, not that I would miss the presence of her strange personality in my life.
Richard changed the subject, to discuss the beach patrol schedule, and some of the details of Gularte’s and Elwell’s participation in the Dwarf Project, as he referred to it. I fended him off, as best I could until he tired a bit. He extended his left hand toward the open cabin door.
“Go forth and do great works,” he said.
I knew exactly what he meant. There was no point in lying to him about the tapes. He knew, but he couldn’t know what was on them or what had survived their submergence in the harbor waters.
When I climbed off the yacht, I noticed that two non-descript men were untying Cobb’s boat from its moorings in the slip. The woman was leaving on her boat and leaving immediately. She was scared, and likely suffering some grief over the loss of her friend and co-conspirator, or so I thought to myself.
My thoughts blasted around my brain at light speed as I drove home.
Mary, Julie, Mrs. Beasley, and Bozo were all present in the living room when I got to the apartment. I brushed past and headed upstairs. My wife followed me.
“I’ve got to listen to this one tape,” I told her.
Unaccountably, as if knowing exactly everything I’d been through in the last hour, she nodded and headed back down to the living room. I pulled the equipment and box of tapes down from the closet shelf and put them on the bed, selecting the reel I wanted and then getting ready.
I studied the reel I was about to put onto the machine. I plugged in the amateur hobby tool I’d gotten from Coronets at the corner of South Ola Vista and Del Mar. The ‘wood burner’ as it was called, didn’t get hot enough or got too hot, either way making it difficult to burn the necessary letters into the plastic side of the reels. Whoever had made the tapes had better equipment and likely much more experience at etching such things. But, those original reels, once at the bottom of the Dana Point Harbor, but now, according to Butch’s allegation, were most probably in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers, had been deep-sixed because there’d been no possibility, once I looked at my work, of counterfeiting it. I could read the scribble I’d made but barely. The notes originally taped to them came loose from the slippery spindles holding the tapes onto the reels. Confusing the things was not an option, not once I’d come to realize what might be on them.
I carefully and gently ran the tape sideways into the slot behind the playback head. The takeup reel was ready, finally. I knew I was stalling a bit. There was no way I wanted to try to sleep the coming night away while worrying in my core that the world might go up in nuclear clouds by morning, and even worse, having Mary know there was something wrong that I couldn’t say a word about…or there’d simply be two sleepless people laying side by side with eyes wide open into a hoped-for coming dawn.
The headphones slipped over my ears, as if of their own accord. I hit the play button immediately without any hesitation. I was in and there was no going back.
“I don’t want you to say a word, Hank,” the President said.
There was no mistaking his voice and there was only one Hank I’d ever heard of identified with the White House, in D.C., or where we were. Henry Kissinger had to be close by. I heard the sound of surf breaking on the sand, a distance away but the sound was distinctive. The conversation had to be occurring out by the pool, as the compound walls and glass were too thick to let in any sound from the outside other than that made from some storm.
The thought gave me goosebumps. I’d assumed, completely without knowledge or care, that my conversations with Mardian had taken place in secret. The microphone had to be located on the table, which meant it was also battery-powered. The surf would have overwhelmed any listening device placed between the pool area and the beating of the surf down on the beach. I was again shocked at the quality of the equipment I was facing, or, in this case, the President was facing. If the President didn’t want Kissinger to say a word, did he suspect he was being taped, and if he did then why use Kissinger’s name?
“If a pardon isn’t offered then my life is over,” Nixon said, his voice shaky.
I stopped the tape and rewound it using my hands to manually turn the reels backward at the same time. I hit the play button again. I wanted to be certain of what I was hearing. There was no doubt, as the tape played through the short sequence again. Nixon was slightly weeping.
“Even with a pardon, I’m not safe from state charges,” he went on, seeming to recover the former timbre in his voice. “There’d have to be a deal on that too.”
I waited for what seemed like minutes, wondering with some relief that the tape might be over, and I had it all wrong, despite what had been written into the plastic with my hand.
“Just nod or shake your head,” Nixon went on.
I felt like Nixon was nodding his head, but there was no sound to support the image that had formed in my mind. There was another long silence, but I felt Nixon wasn’t finished.
“They have to know in their bones that I’ll use it,” he breathed out, his voice going ever lower as he said the dreadful words. “And don’t shake your head now, we’re past that. I won’t but they don’t know that. They must believe. There’s also that stuff going on at the plant. Now that would blow the lid off the whole world but we’re back to belief. Nobody would believe that, but the voters don’t have to be involved, only them.”
I stopped the tape and rewound it. The long sequence had to be burned into my memory, in case of what I didn’t know. The allegation of a potential nuclear launch, a power only the President had, and an unstoppable power, was on the table but only as a threat. A threat denied. I wanted to believe it, but belief was what the President was talking about. The ‘unseeable’ thing or event was back in the distance, not admitted as to what it might be but now confirmed once again, and by the President himself. What could be so huge or monstrous that the President, in his time of great fear and weakness, might consider using its revelation to save himself?
The tape glided, hissing and spackling until the President’s words began again, the tone of them more frightening than the words themselves.