The reels moved slowly, as I knelt by the bedside, transfixed by the words of the country’s sitting president.
“My friend,” Nixon began, after another pause, saying the words in his strange way that nobody on earth I’d ever heard talked like, “will you guide me through this time? My friends are deserting like rats from a sinking ship.”
The tape hissed but it seemed like there was nothing more, until the last two words were spoken, again by the President.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice once again decaying into what seemed like suppressed sobs.
The tape spun on, and I listened for more, but nothing followed until the entire tape was spinning on the takeup reel, ticking like the sound of some time bomb, which it well could be.
I put everything away but didn’t go downstairs immediately. What was I to tell Richard, and in telling Richard whom else would I be telling, as well as revealing that I’d stolen the tapes in my recovery of them from the sunken Porsche that I’d sunk, as well as used every subterfuge to keep the originators or the new owners and possessors of them from having not only access to them but also evidence that they’d survived?
Nixon’s falling apart in front of Kissinger had shaken me. Nothing was as it seemed, just as I’d observed when I was wheeled into the Naval Hospital back in Oakland. I’d been treated like a pariah, even roomed with prisoners, and my wife treated with the same disrespect I’d received…to the point where all I was reduced to was again killing my fellow humans instead of being valued by and valuing them. I’d killed no one back home, however, not yet. My shoulders slumped at the thought. What to tell Paul, my sort of therapist, as I’d thought those two words could only mean I wasn’t back home mentally at all. “Not yet,” I whispered to myself. I breathed in and out deeply. It was time for a run on the beach to rid myself of the demons surrounding me who seemed like they were inviting me to be one of them instead of fighting them off.
I changed into my Marine running gear, distinctive and identifying, but not importantly so, as I would run fast, dive into the cold refreshing surf, ride a few waves, and then return home without encountering anyone, if I was lucky. One day soon, I knew, I’d have to part with the Marine attire, even though I could no more shed the Corps any more than the Western White House crew, or parts of both. It was like I was living in an old movie I’d once seen that catapulted Steve McQueen into stardom called “The Blob”. If touched by the Blob one could never pull oneself free, like a fly having landed on flypaper.
The Volks sat in our driveway, but I didn’t get into it. A compound Lincoln eased its way down Cabrillo from South Ola Vista, moving so slowly that it was completely noticeable and distinctive. So much for any kind of secrecy, I thought to myself, my spirit slightly deflated because I wouldn’t be running any of my angst off anytime soon, I knew.
The Lincoln stopped in the middle of the street as if it owned the roadway itself. The side windows were too darkened to see inside but the Staff Sergeant was visible through the windshield. We looked at one another without moving or expression. It was like in sales, I recalled, where the first one to say anything or move is the “loser” in the sales process. Once again, the legendary words of (in my mind) the sales king of life insurance, Tom Thorkelson, flashed to the forefront of my thinking. The Staff Sergeant smiled slightly, no doubt knowing what I knew but not caring. The spell was broken, and by him, so I walked to the window on the passenger’s side. It slid silently down.
“I’ll get changed,” I said into the open window, not bothering to confront the Staff Sergeant or even look at him.
I was becoming emotionally fatigued by the way my life had fallen so much under the control of people whom I had no real understanding of or identification with.
“Hop in,” the Staff Sergeant replied. “This will be quick, in the parking lot and nobody’s going to care what you look like or are dressed in.”
I got in but the interior of the vehicle felt all wrong, although I knew it was what I was or wasn’t wearing that was what made me feel totally out of place. Although I knew the Staff Sergeant’s timing had to be accidental when it came to what I might be wearing, I still wondered, as being attired only in my workout shorts and “T” shirt made me feel vulnerable and weak. The Staff Sergeant said nothing during the short drive while I shifted uncomfortably in the spacious rear seat, my thoughts turning back to the valley and how even a helmet, poncho, and jungle boots would be preferable to what I was wearing.
The Staff Sergeant pulled the Lincoln up to the gate guarding the compound parking lot, slowed to nod at the two Marine guards, and drove on into the nearly empty lot. Since the President’s troubles in Washington had taken over the front page, the number of visitors had declined to almost zero. Sometimes I wondered why the media never showed up, but I wasn’t unhappy about that obvious fact either. My own time and income from my work for those at the compound had to be coming to an end, although I really didn’t want to think about it until I’d tied up some loose ends. My wife had found a home on Lobos Marinos, a street much closer to the Nixon estate, making me a little uncomfortable unless that whole affair was soon to be over. The home was owned by one of the actors who played a gunfighter in the O.K. Corral movie, although she wasn’t sure which one. The actor was ill and renting out the house for a good bit more than we were paying for our apartment, but it was located only two blocks from the beach.
Mardian stepped through one of the double doors before the Lincoln came to a halt. He walked purposely to the car, opened the rear door on the driver’s side, and got in. As if on cue, the Staff Sergeant turned off the ignition, stepped out of the door, and walked over to where two of his enlisted Marines stood guarding the gate. None of the three looked back at the Lincoln.
“I wanted an opportunity to say goodbye and thanks for all you’ve done, and all you’ve kept from reaching the public or anyone else… I’ll be going back to Washington and it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever get back to this neck of the woods.” He looked around when he stopped talking, his expression wistful, although there was nothing to be seen except the north side of the Coast Guard Station, the compound wall, and the rest of the parking lot.
I didn’t respond, except to look directly into his eyes, letting him know he had my full attention.
He noticed my attire for the first time. “Nice outfit, although a little informal for around here,” he said, the hint of a smile crossing his lips.
“The President’s coming apart at the seams, which means he’s not going to be in any shape or attitude to reward those who’ve served him so silently and well. That’s not going to go down well for me or some others you’ve been dealing with here, although you should be safe since you barely exist on anyone’s radar, except for your eventual new employers.”
I stared over at the man. His comment about my outfit was the first humor I’d ever heard the man use or respond to. He was in a state of tension that would have caused me to feel fear before I’d gone down into the valley, never to come out, but having come out as somebody else I was no stranger to fear. I wasn’t afraid for myself, however, and my fear for Mardian was close to being non-existent. He was a man very adroit and adept at taking care of himself. I had to make sure that his taking care of him didn’t mean sacrificing me in any way. The fear I felt was of the unknown, something I thought would have disappeared with my homecoming but certainly had not.
“What new employers?” I asked, his words ‘eventual new employers’ having been driven into me like hot red stakes instead of words.
“You already know, so don’t act like the innocuous beach boy the President and his wife think you to be. Hunt, Cobb, Richard, and the others that inhabit this place all work for the same alphabet soup operation, just like they run that San Onofre mess for Rickover.”
“What’s a Rickover?” I asked, feeling more and more lost as Mardian seemed to fade in his ability to concentrate on any mission orientation. I was so used to him holding it all together in my presence that the seemingly minor difference from that was unsettling.
“Hyman G. Rickover, the nuclear admiral or Grand Old Gentleman, as he’s sometimes called. He’s grand alright but he’s no gentleman, that’s for damn sure. Your new boss.”
I thought about what he was saying, having little understanding, other than I wasn’t apparently, going to be left to fend for myself. No certainty or assurance was coming from Mardian. What did an admiral in the Navy have to do with San Onofre? Why would he be my boss? The CIA had to be the ‘alphabet soup’ Mardian was talking about but it wasn’t run by the Navy or any admirals I’d ever heard of.
“The CIA can’t operate at home or anywhere in the USA,” I said to Mardian, but the man just laughed for the first time since the faint smile.
“Define home or even the USA…good luck on that,” he replied, once again giving me a rueful smile. “I’ll be out of circulation for a while although we could run into one another in D.C. or thereabouts in the future. Unlikely though. Don’t take an employee’s role in whatever’s coming. It puts you in too close and there’s little protection when in too close, and besides, you can never rise into the top ranks of that organization as it’s all political at the top…and that’s not you. Take a contractor’s role or nothing. Contractors simply get written off, not sent to prison if the leaders don’t like their work.”
I fidgeted a bit, my back shoved into the very corner of where the seat was barely separated from the inside panel of the door. I was memorizing every word Mardian said, but I wasn’t truly comprehending almost any of it. My wife would be better at interpreting what might be coming, and also what we were likely leaving behind as changes began to take place that we had little or no control over.
“There’s one more thing, to go with the other stuff and information you have,” Mardian said, lowering his voice and looking around as if somebody might be close by, but there was no one.
The Staff Sergeant was many yards away, talking with his security gate team.
“There’s an artifact. I’m going to have it delivered to you. This particular thing came from the nuclear plant you’ve been trying to learn more about. Don’t be particularly put off by it when you receive it.”
“Artifact?” I echoed, “Like in an archaeological piece of concrete evidence?” I asked back, a frown wrinkling the skin of my forehead.
“Just keep the unusual artifact until you don’t keep it anymore,” Mardian intoned as if the entire conversation was uncomfortable for him to proceed with.
“Unusual, how?” I asked, not being able to leave things where they were.
I was already driving around with a pound of high explosives, detonators, fuses, and more in the back of my Volkswagen.
“It doesn’t obey the physics we have come to understand that controls the universe we live in,” Mardian whispered, “but it doesn’t matter. Just put it somewhere safe until a later time.”
I sighed but kept Mardian from noticing the slight slumping of my shoulders in frustration. Every turn brought some other strange event, object or person onto a stage already loaded with too much for any sane person to understand much less accommodate.
“I’ll have him take you back home, and good luck to you,” Mardian said, in dismissal. He held out his right hand.
I was so shocked that I just sat there for a few seconds before taking it.
“You’ve performed just as described,” he said, before letting go of my hand and getting out of the Lincoln.
The Sergeant was already back at the car, somehow knowing we were done with our ‘secret’ meeting.
As with during the trip to the compound, neither the Staff Sergeant nor I spoke.
When I made it home, I didn’t take the Volks and headed for the beach. My day was running out and a good exhaustive cleansing run and a cold washing swim in the rough surf would have to wait. I changed into my police ‘commander’ uniform, everything about it perfect, right down to inspecting in detail the .44 Magnum hot-loaded with tungsten rounds ready for combat that would hopefully never reach out to pull me in ever again. I was on with Richard, although for some reason Gularte was riding along. What did that man, the only true confidant about the tapes and many other things have on his mind, particularly since he had his suspicions about Richard?
I sat and then lay back down on the bed, trying to clear my head about what Mardian had been talking about. I was nobody but trusted with almost everything. How was that even possible in anyone’s eyes or head? I heard the stereo downstairs. Mary had the tuner set to WLS, bounced somehow through from Chicago by something called syndication, which I’d never heard of until she told me. The Seekers, a wonderful rock group, were coming up the stairs and into the bedroom. The song was something about a carnival that I didn’t know anything about. But the lyrics caught me right in the solar plexus: “Now the harbor light is calling, this will be our last goodbye, though the carnival is over, I will love you till I die.” Another stanza followed but I wasn’t listening anymore. The harbor was Dana Point Harbor, the ‘you’ I loved was the life I’d been living as an unknown security person of little consequence who thought of himself as special because of that association. The Western White House, Mardian, Nixon, Kissinger, and even the President’s wife, were all passing quickly into history and I wasn’t going with them.
I rubbed my eyes with my right hand, the same one I’d handled the Smith and Wesson with before holstering it. My fingers smelled like Hoppes No. 9 gun cleaning fluid, which, for someone who liked guns and everything about them, could better have been labeled Love Potion No. 9, like in the famous song lyrics. My eyes didn’t tear up. It wasn’t that kind of grief I was feeling. It was a dry thing. A loss of something big and important but also one that was buffered by a whole lot of other big important things remaining very much in my life. How many of them would survive the upheavals coming was anybody’s guess.
I went downstairs where Julie was riding her electric cycle endlessly around the dining room, out through the open door to the patio, around that, and then back inside. The whine of the machine I usually found bothersome, but it seemed more of a calming influence than anything else as I approached Mary, working in the kitchen laundry machines, to discuss the visit I had with Mardian.
I sat at the dining room table. Mrs. Beasley was carefully propped up on one of the other chairs, while Bozo remained just outside the patio door, either examining Julie’s continuous ride of her vehicle or merely waiting for her to stop.
The recitation of everything Mardian had said during our informally strange visit took about twenty minutes, during which my wife didn’t say a word. When I was done I simply stopped talking and waited, not asking any questions at all.
“This is going to be a very delicate time,” she began, pausing to light one of her Kent cigarettes before saying anything more. “You have no choice, though, and no matter what Mardian said, if the CIA extends an offer to us then you have to take it. We’re going to need all the protection we can get and their expectation that you might be of use will serve to gain us just that, or so I hope. You’ve made some mistakes, but nobody knows or has evidence of them. You might even consider destroying those tapes, just in case. The president is unstable, Kissinger appears in charge, and it would seem to me that both Haldeman and Ehrlichman will have to be sacrificed to save the President, so they won’t be any help at all.”
I hadn’t informed my wife about the contents of the Nixon tape detailing the nuclear threat he wanted to make to save himself but promised he wouldn’t follow through on. I also knew in my heart of hearts that I couldn’t destroy the tapes, as they were historical documents that might one day be an important part of the nation’s historical development. I realized from her comments and conclusion that my ride later in the day with Richard was going to be a definitive one. If Richard wasn’t the man I needed to see about some coming offer then he would certainly know who that was.
Taking my time, after talking to Mary, I decided to relax for a bit. I drove to Galloways but there was nobody there. I had the free coffee alone, except for the marginal passing company of Lorraine. Even though I was in full uniform and not properly in the San Clemente Police area of operations I left the restaurant and made a run out to Straight Ahead, but Paul wasn’t around and it wasn’t a scheduled visit anyway. There was only one more place to go where I thought I might find any solace at all, since the complexity of what was occurring in and around the compound was too much for me to take in all at once, even given my wife’s most excellent take on things and advice about what to do. Unfortunately, Butch wasn’t in his trailer either, which made sense, as the construction activity in and around the harbor was running at full tilt. I gave up and headed back to San Clemente to meet Richard and Gularte.
When I got to the department parking lot, I immediately saw Richard’s Mercedes parked where it was usually parked. We were on for the afternoon and evening tour of the beaches. Richard came out of the building dangling the keys to the Bronco in his left hand. I walked to the vehicle and climbed into the passenger seat just as Gularte came from somewhere behind me. He stood outside the door so I wound down the window. He wasn’t wearing his uniform which surprised me. Going out on patrol unarmed and without other parts of the uniforms we wore, for identification and self-protection was against regulations. The beach patrol had no policy of civilian ride-along or any of some of the stuff that normal street patrol units engaged in. Richard climbed in behind the wheel, looking over at both Gularte and me, but he didn’t say a word.
“I don’t want anything to do with the agency,” Gularte said, surprising me. “I just want to be a full-time officer in the department, if that part of the deal can be worked out after you guys talk.”
Neither Richard nor I said anything. I was completely in the dark about whatever had transpired between them but knew something had, and that Richard would likely be the man I needed to talk to about my future.
“That’s doable,” Richard finally said, nodding to Gularte, who didn’t respond, at least not to him.
“Sorry,” he whispered to me, before pulling back and walking away to wherever his car was parked. I had no time to reply, not that I could think of anything to reply in light of what he’d said to Richard.
Richard started the Bronco and we slowly cruised out of the parking lot. I’d planned to confront Richard directly, as soon as our shift began, but now saw no need to do that. According to what I’d understood of Gularte’s comments, Richard would be making some offer to me, as he no doubt had already made one to Gularte but been turned down.
We didn’t talk, and part of that was all about what I’d learned in the Tom Thorkelson sales training program for selling life insurance. The first one to speak was the loser or in the weaker position. No matter how long it took I wasn’t going to comment until Richard did.
Richard detoured the vehicle up onto the base of the pier and then very cautiously gentled the machine along to where the restaurant sat at the end. The sign, written by hand and hanging crookedly from a string, said “OPEN,” although sometimes Shawna forgot to turn it over when she left.
I opened my door but didn’t get out, as Richard stopped me with one word.
“Don’t” was all he said.
I eased myself back inside the Bronco, closed the door, and wound the window back up. A steady breeze was blowing across the surface of the pier which made hearing difficult, but hearing inside the vehicle, I knew, wasn’t what Richard had to be cautious about. I sat, looking through the fuzzy salt-sprayed windows to see if Shawna was behind the counter.
“The Agency wants you,” Richard said. “I’m not a card-carrying member of that club, although you probably think so at this point. I’m merely a messenger.”
“Why did Gularte turn you down?” I asked, surprised that the ‘offer’ was being delivered so informally and without any substance to it at all.
“He’s loyal to you but not to any operation, agency, or anyone who’s not a combat veteran, whatever the hell that is,” Richard replied. “He’s not a team player, he lacks your talent, rank, and experience and he doesn’t like me.”
I couldn’t help but smile. He’d described Gularte to a “T.”
“What’s the pay?” I asked since it didn’t seem to be possible to mention Mardian’s recommendation to someone simply carrying messages back and forth.
I was in no position to negotiate, not with what might be coming on the legal side, and also the financial hit was likely to take place pretty quickly.
“Your last DD214 discharge form, even though you’re not discharged yet, was for expiration of active service under honorable conditions. Your new DD214 will be for disability. You’ll be deemed unfit to serve, honorably of course, but you’ll get a lump sum payment of twenty thousand dollars. Your pay will be under the old federal contract you’ve had through the compound, but it’ll be only fifty percent of what you’ve been getting. The twenty grand should get you through to the point where you can work full-time for the Agency.”
“As a contractor, not an agent or employee,” I replied, knowing I was giving the man tacit assent to his offer.
“Not my call,” Richard said, opening the Bronco’s driver’s door. “It’s kind of a take it or leave it deal, like with Gularte. The details will work themselves out.”
“Do I turn in my I.D. card?” I asked.
“No, you keep that, at least for the time being,” he said, moving toward the door to the restaurant. The second discharge will likely be followed by a few more along the way.”
I knew the man didn’t want to talk anymore, but it was a complex thing that was happening, at least from my perspective and I was taking an awful lot on someone’s spoken word who, admittedly, whether it was true or not, wasn’t a member of the ‘club,’ I was being asked to join.
I thought about the next tape as we entered the restaurant to get coffee. There were two more reels left. Jackie Kennedy’s had been the first, the accidental, or otherwise, departure of the three Marines from the planet the second, Kissinger’s disclosures about tax haven offshore accounts to hide cash was the third, and then the Nixon pardon stuff was the fourth. The fifth tape I was mentally committed to listening to was titled ‘Immediate Measures.’ What that phrase meant I was sure I wouldn’t know, or come to try to understand, until I was through the reel, however long or short that tape was. None of the tapes seemed to hold any good news for almost anyone. I could only hope, upon returning home, that the immediate measures didn’t involve more things that might change my life substantially.
We rode quietly across the soft sands, from beach to beach until we reached Trestles, just beyond the estate.
Richard backed the Bronco up until the back of it was nearly touching the giant rocks stacked to protect the rails but didn’t turn the ignition off. We sat in the vehicle while it idled away. I didn’t know what to say to him anymore. He worked for me on the beach patrol but was a major player of some sort for an organization that was so hugely powerful I couldn’t even take it all in. I had no idea about just how important or unimportant Richard, as the messenger, really was, or how much he knew until he spoke.
“They’re going to know what the artifact is,” he said, in a tone that seemed to transmit sympathy, or that he was doing me a personal favor by letting me know.