The morning came too soon, although ‘sleeping in’ like I’d loved to do when not at one of my jobs in college, had gone the way of the dinosaurs, lost somewhere down at the bottom of the A Shau Valley. That the valley’s name was known by no one, so never brought up by me anywhere at any time except with Gularte, was beside the point. My eyes popped open at six or a bit earlier every day, rain or shine, dark or light but that was only if I’d slept at all during the night. Amazingly, the Christmas presents from the Western White House had played so wildly, through my mental process as I’d lain with my wife on the night before, that I’d escaped the necessity to check the flank security I didn’t have but had to usually get up and check anyway.

Galloways called me from a block away, not on the phone but through the ether between us. Lorraine made better coffee than either Mary or I, even though we had purchased a coffee maker at some considerable expense for us. Three days to Christmas but only two to the Eve. The tree was up and I was still hard put to get gifts that had real meaning for my wife and daughter. I’d found a Winnie the Pooh doll at Coronets, although it was twenty dollars which seemed way out of the ball part but would have to do. My wife was getting high heels, lingerie, and a swimsuit I’d picked out for her in Laguna Beach. When I’d told Gularte about the gifts, he’d laughed for quite some time.

“You can’t replace Beasley, so you use a stand-in and then buy stuff for your wife that’s really for you. Before you know it you’ll have two kids, or more.”
I was hurt, although upon reflection I knew he was right.

“Julie’s not the real doll type, although Winnie the Pooh is a great choice,” he said, musing more to himself than me. “Get something hardcore, which is more like her to offset the gushy stuff.

“Like what?” I asked, baffled, as although Julie was a tough little character, I didn’t see her as hard about much of anything except disciplining me and making sure I had some order in my life.

“A rocket,” Gularte replied. “I’ll pick it up for her and get it to you before Christmas. She’ll love it.”

We’d gone off shift without my being able to get answers about what kind of rocket, or how big a rocket, or anything else. Maybe the doll was going to be it.

I dressed in my rumpled shorts and Marine Corps “T” shirt and left the house before anyone else was up. I parked right in front of Galloways in the Volks, not caring if anyone knew I was there. There were no other vehicles parked on Del Mar, but that wasn’t unusual at any time before seven a.m. Galloways was closed, as usual, but the door was unlocked, as usual. I went in and took my normal spot at the front table, only my Volks to stare out at. Lorraine got my coffee without saying a word, not even ‘Good morning.’ It was early, and I knew she and Tom were having difficulties between them, so I didn’t try to make conversation, just sipping my coffee and thinking hard about the artifact. The final tape might be revealing, just as the others had been, but neither what was on it, nor what had been on the others was in any way life-changing for me. The artifact was in another world from those. I smiled at my own humor when Mike Manning stepped through the door.’

We spoke some morning pleasantries before he asked an unexpected question.

“What’s on your mind, and don’t bother to deny it,” he said, “You don’t have that sort of face. Don’t ever try to become a spy, as you wear all your secrets on your sleeve.”

I looked at my short little sleeves, first the right and then the left one. Mike could have no possible way of knowing that I was being offered a position of some sort with the world’s premier spy organization, so I merely smiled and sipped some more coffee.

“Joe Beard, from the base,” I said, not giving him a real reply at all but asking a question that seemed like it was a complete change of subject although it wasn’t.

“He’s been in here,” Mike replied, mildly surprising me. I hadn’t been in Galloways at any time that Joe had been there.

“I don’t know if he’s out on that early release program or not. He’s a nuclear physicist who was never able to work as one while in the Corps, at least not so far.”

I stared over at my friend. I was up to my chin in nuclear, although I wasn’t at all sure how or why or how far into, I really might be. Admiral Rickover was at the Western White House I suspected and the incident at San Onofre probably hadn’t died down, but that wasn’t why I’d asked after Joe Beard. Joe had worked with me at the First Civil Affairs Group, the idiotic outfit I’d been transferred into as my last official active-duty post before the Western White House…and then on into the Marine Corps nether land I was currently a part of. I sighed. Winnie the Pooh, the made-up character and now toy doll was more real than I was becoming.

“What do you want with Beard?” Mike asked, accepting his tea from Lorraine who said ‘good morning’ to him before heading back into the kitchen behind the counter.

I wondered if I owed her money for one of my life insurance clients I hadn’t come through on but I wasn’t at all certain. Trying to prioritize seemingly mundane tasks like what Lorraine might want or need had been pushed to the back burners of my mind by the overwhelming stuff I’d uncovered or avalanched right on up and over my life. Lorrain, Mike Manning, Gularte, Tom Thorkelson, Chuck Bartok, and now many more were, however, the backbone of my social, and quite possibly physical, survival and I didn’t need Paul’s conclusions about such things to know that.

I got up and went to the back of the restaurant without answering Mike’s pesky question. I wanted badly to talk to someone who was deep into the well of theoretical physics before I encountered what Mardian had so briefly described. Joe Beard was into what he called ‘state’s rights’ and hated the central government, including the Marine Corps. I presumed his hatred of the Corps was based upon the fact that he’d spent his three-year tour doing mundane clerical work…although at the very back of my mind the nuclear admiral lurked, along with three dead Marines, half a nuclear facility that was being used as an armored meeting place for somebody or something I had no real idea of, as well as now the potentially alien artifact.

“What do I owe you?” I asked Lorraine when she saw me and walked out to stand behind the county, her facial expression that of a minor pout.

“Coffee and teas on the house today,” she said.

My coffee was always on the house, so I didn’t know what to make of that. I looked around and waited. After a moment she spoke again.

“Five hundred,” she whispered, looking over to where Mike sat, making believe his full attention was concentrated out the window.

“What client?” I asked, afraid to let her know that I didn’t know, but more afraid that I’d lose her goodwill. Galloway’s Cafe was something of an anchor in my new life and there was no way I wanted to lose my welcome.

“No client, no police, since you aren’t doing your job lately,” she said, her face brightening as she talked. “I have three prospects for you but you’ve got to take the time to see them and you’ve missed appointments with two. They love me though so you’re still in. Got to make the car payment or lose the car and losing that car would kill Tom.”

My mind whirled. She wanted an advance, which was okay except I just didn’t have time. I had to find Joe, as the artifact was sitting in my garage and the garage door didn’t even have a lock on it. I had to see Richard and firm up the job offer, or at least make sure there was a job offer. I needed to know what was on the last tape and then act accordingly over that. Bob Elwell had called so I need to call him back and probably visit with him. Lorraine’s referrals were vital to me because I didn’t know for sure where any real money was going to come from when the White House job went down and quite possibly the police job with it. The twenty-two thousand dollar ‘sort of’ offer Richard had brought up had to be brought into focus, discussed, and then memorialized.

“When do you need it?” I asked, trying to act like there was no tension in my life whatsoever.

“They’re coming from Costa Mesa now,” Lorraine said, shrugging her shoulders. “I didn’t want to call you at home about something like this. Tom didn’t, and doesn’t want me to ask you at all but what are we supposed to do?”

“Okay,” I said, turning and walking back to the table. I didn’t sit down.

“You be here in fifteen minutes?” I asked Mike. “We’ll talk then if you still want to know some stuff. When’s your shop open?”

I knew when his shop opened. All the stores on Del Mar, for the most part, opened at ten a.m. but I knew it would take Mike about an hour to get ready to open, being the analytical clean freak character, he was.

“I’ll be here,” he said. I downed my remaining coffee in one big gulp, it had cooled considerably enough. My morning relaxation was at an end.
I tried not to run to the Volks, but I was time-crunched. If the repo truck showed up there’d be no stopping the repossession, and that would mean another five hundred or more to get the thing back. I wasn’t short of money unless the bottom fell out, but I kept catching glimpses of such a bottom everywhere I looked.

I drove home wondering how I’d managed to sleep through the night before so soundly. I’d discussed the sleeping problems I experienced since my return home. His conclusion had been as strange as some of his other stuff, although extremely logical once thought about. I slept best under the direst of experience, according to Paul. When I relaxed and everything was going fine then my attention was drawn almost fully to what terrorizing event or experience might be up ahead that I had to be ready for.

Accessing the cash stored in my shoeshine box wasn’t the time-absorbing problem I knew might ensue from getting it and then returning to the restaurant and handing it off to Lorraine. As I suspected before I left to get it there was one big impediment, standing all of five feet tall. My wife could not be ignored, even though I gave it my best shot, only to end up sitting on the end of our bed explaining what I was about to do.

“Let’s get this straight,” she said, walking slowly back and forth in front of me, still wearing her bathrobe, while Julie rode her electric cycle downstairs around the living and dining areas of the big apartment.

“More money advance to Lorraine at Galloway’s,” she said. “That’s on top of the advances you’ve already given her, and that you don’t keep any kind of formal track of. That’s with us about to live without your governmental pay, quite possibly your police pay, and only on your life insurance sales which seem large but don’t pay all that much until the policies you sell go through a rather extensive issuing process. Have I missed something?”

I just wanted to be somewhere else. I explained as best I could, willing myself not to look at my watch or out the upstairs windows to see if a tow truck was somewhere on Del Mar, the main street partially visible but not the area where the restaurant was located.

“I kind of need you to go with me on this right now,” I said, not knowing what to say that might defend what I was doing in time to get back to Galloway’s before the tow truck arrived. “I know things aren’t ideal at all, but the CIA’s offering me a position that will give us twenty-two thousand dollars up front and half the pay I’ve been getting from the Western White House thing.”

“And you were going to break that news to me when,” Mary said, stopping her pacing and pointing her right index finger at me.

“Just found out while I was over there,” I lied, getting up from the bed. Her expression had changed from one of attack to one of consideration. I knew I had her support but would the new information satisfy her in time?

I waited, laying back on my elbows on the rumpled blanket, making believe I had all the time in the world.

“Oh, just go, we’ll discuss this later. I presume you’ll be gone most of the day and God knows about the night.”

She didn’t wait for any more of my made-up stories, walking to the top of the stairs, looking back, and then heading down to join Julie, Mrs. Beasley, and Bozo if he was choosing to be present.

I jumped up, jammed the five hundred into my pocket, and followed her.

Once back at the restaurant, there being no tow truck in sight, I walked in through the door, where Mike still sat, waiting, as I’d asked him to. Lorraine met me and I furtively took the bills out and jammed them into her hand.

“You don’t know what this means to us,” she said, a tear forming in her eye.

I rushed over to Mike, all the emotion of the morning making me nervous and a bit skittery.

“I need Joe’s number if you have it,” I asked, noting that my coffee cup was full of steaming brew once more.

Lorraine must have spotted me parking and assumed that I was back with the money. I sipped the coffee, once more being impressed by the intuition of women, a talent I so vitally lacked.

“I’ll get it. He changes his home number every month, or so,” Mike said, rising to his feet. “It’s at the shop. Besides believing in little green men from Mars, and his paranoia, he’s a pretty bright entertaining guy. He’s the only customer I have for the Green Apple shampoo, I mean except for you, of course.”

I sat by myself and thought for the few moments I knew I’d have, absently thinking about how the two boxes of Green Apple shampoo sat not more than a foot or two from the special box holding the artifact. Both might be alien, as far as my wife would be concerned, if and when she learned of the artifact’s existence.

I thought about what I knew of the artifact from Mardian’s brief description. He’d been in such a hurry I hadn’t gotten that much. When we were together for that brief period he’d taken a few seconds to gather himself before beginning his description of the artifact.

“It’s spherical and about the size of a lemon or small orange, but near perfect in its circumference at every angle it’s observed from. The aluminum container is specially built to handle its odd behavior, and that’s why it’s so heavy. The object isn’t heavy at all, not in the sense that anyone might be able to explain it. Upon first examination, it would appear to be made of iron, although its ‘weight,’ if you will, is that of aluminum or a little less. The box is lined with thick iron to prevent the object’s penetration upon inertial movement. It’s an element. There are a hundred and five elements on the periodic table chart. This is not one of them. It’s impossible to try to describe how it might be comprised of something that doesn’t and likely can’t exist.” Mardian stopped as if he was done explaining the package I was about to assume possession of, if not control over.

“Yes,” I said, a bit shakily. “But what does it do or what is it that makes it not obey nature’s laws,” I asked.

“I think the statement made about it, that it doesn’t obey the laws of the universe as we know them to be is more accurate, but you’ll have to discover that for yourself. Nobody’s going to order you to do anything except hold onto it until later. If you show it to someone or demonstrate its oddity to anyone you will no doubt, at some point, be in potentially terminal trouble, so my advice is to not do that, ever.”

“Where did it come from?” I asked, going in a new direction, knowing I wasn’t going to have much more time with Mardian before I was on my own, with a potential nightmare ahead. I wanted to leave, not accept the artifact, but I also badly needed the job I was being offered and I knew down in my depths that the artifact was a full player in that situation.

“Mitchell, Apollo 14. He brought it back but almost didn’t make it because of that thing. The admiral, NASA, the CIA, nobody knows what it is, those that know of it, but Mitchell thinks it’s of intelligent alien origin, and that alone is scaring everyone to death.”

Mardian had left it at that, and I hadn’t pursued my question further. Whatever the artifact was or how it acted was going to be up to me to find out.

I pulled out the note he’d shoved over to me just as he departed and read the few lines.

“The Count of Monte Cristo and the code. Your edition,” it said, followed by “The page will always be one of your ten codes from the beach patrol.”

I put the paper back in my pocket and not in my wallet. Since coming home my wife searched my wallet every day, looking for clues to what I didn’t know. What was she hoping to find, I always wondered, but I never brought her searches up and she never revealed she performed them.

The ten codes from the beach patrol. Mardian knew so little of California Peace Officer procedure that he was probably unaware that the ‘ten codes,’ as they were called, were part of a statewide system of radio communications, there to keep criminals from figuring out police talk they picked up on radio receiving scanners. The solution to getting me the proper page in the book, should I need to either decrypt or encrypt such messages, which I hoped I’d never receive or have to send myself, was brilliant. I pictured in my mind getting a message that was a couple of paragraphs of letter gibberish and then some reference to a burglary. That would take me immediately to page number 459. Who would ever figure that one out even though the use of encryption would be obvious from the mere fact that there was such a construct of unending unconnected letters sitting in front of a suspecting individual?

I needed Joe Beard to talk to me before I opened the case and examined the object. I needed some frame of reference since it was becoming rather obvious that any encounter with the object was so disturbing that not even the most educated and weathered leaders wanted anything to do with it. I wanted to be ready for anything, although my curiosity and my building some self-defense perimeter for my internal belief system would not lead me to present the object to Joe. No, I intrinsically understood that Mardian was right. Conjecture with Joe, about something I might have overheard at the Western White House was a long way from either admitting I had the artifact or that if I did I might be willing to share either its location or allow for a personal viewing or handling of it.

Mike came back, holding out one of his “Iniquities” store receipts.

“Enjoy,” he said, before leaving again. “He’s an interesting guy but you may want to visit him wearing a tin foil hat.”

“Funny,” I murmured, before heading out to my car and driving to Gularte’s apartment.

I passed the tow truck, which was headed down Del Mar toward the Galloways. I’d been just in time. I pumped my right fist before shifting into third gear and yelled “Yes” out the open window. It was before ten in the morning, two days before Christmas, and I’d already done my redemptive deed for the day. Paul was right. I was a good guy.

As I drove, I thought a bit more about the incident. Paul never commented on the fact that if you pulled off the redemptive act very early in the day you might have the rest of the day left to do something that might call for another redemptive act.

The key to Gularte’s place was under a dirty black mat, which was just outside of his dirty black door to the place. But I never used the key and wasn’t even sure it was there. Gularte never locked the place. His post-combat paranoia was of a different kind than mine. He claimed that he was ready and waiting for some burglar or worse, that he needed to feel again the massive amounts of adrenalin he’d experienced in combat. When I entered his place I did so gingerly, not wanting to be an accidental result of his need for intense emotion.

“Beard,” was all that came out of the phone after it rang on the other end for the fifth time.

“Remember me, amigo?” I asked.

“We built that MG together, right?” he replied, referring to his 1952 MG TD, which both of us had rebuilt in my garage over a few months when I was newly stationed in Pendleton.

“I need a moment of your time,” I said.

“Always,” Beard replied. “Concerning what?”

“Some advice on nuclear science, in that area,” I replied.

There was a long pause. I said nothing and neither did Joe. Finally, he spoke, but the tone of his voice changed completely from what it’d been.

“You work for the people in government over there,” he said, his voice tight and no longer friendly. “I have nothing to do with San Onofre, what’s going on there or that Rickover creep, period.”

I sat shocked on the other end of the phone. Neither San Onofre nor Hyman Rickover hadn’t and shouldn’t have come up, not if Joe was out of the Marine Corps or had simply been working as a clerk in something unrelated to his Ph.D. in nuclear science. The lack of sense in what he’d been doing only now began to make sense to me. That I’d not picked up the ridiculousness of such a Marine officer’s misuse of such refined education only now impacted upon me.

“I thought you might talk to me about an alien relic I found out about,” I replied, figuring that Joe was a dead end, and also that he was a part of whatever was going on at that nuclear plant.

“Alien?” he whispered into the phone.

I wondered how far to go in trying to draw him out but didn’t get a chance to go on.

“Where are you?” He asked, his tone no longer negative or guarded.

I gave him Gularte’s address. I didn’t want to meet him at my place or the restaurant, as we needed to have no one around.

“I’ll be there in one hour exactly,” Joe said, hanging up before I could agree or disagree with the time.

I sat at Gularte’s kitchen table, holding the phone, wondering if I’d made a mistake in bringing Joe aboard, even in a passing way.

There was one thing to be done before meeting Joe, and the rest of my day could wait. I drove home and parked in the driveway, but I didn’t go up to the apartment. I went into the garage. The box sat exactly where it’d been left, apparently undisturbed. I moved close and examined the exterior for marks of any kind. There were none, which seemed strange. I went to my work table and got a cold chisel and a hammer. I put the chisel on the top of the riveted-together surface of the box and hit the flat end with a hammer, holding the chisel at an angle. The chisel slid away, leaving no mark. I backed off. The box wasn’t made of iron or even steel. There would have been some mark from the scoring of the hardened steel ends of the chisel passing over it.

“No wonder you’re riveted together,” I murmured to the box. “Probably had one hell of a time drilling the holes.”

Without further ado, I twisted the dial the prescribed number of times and then pushed the center button. The box clicked but did nothing more. I eased the heavy top up and looked inside. The light in my garage wasn’t that great but I could see the artifact that had caused so much concern and even fear.

The box was filled with some sort of straw-like material which I didn’t remove. I merely prodded and pushed the stuff aside until the object was revealed.

It looked like a metallic golf ball, only a bit larger and without a golf ball’s little holes all over. It looked harmless and not much worth considering unless someone was possessed of the kind of verified information that I had.

I pushed the packing stuff back over the ball and closed the box. Further examination would be in order, but not until after I talked to Joe Beard, and now that I’d figured out he was somehow involved, that talk had to be conducted with great delicacy and a bit of fear. I had a lot on the line, for both myself and my family and I didn’t want to screw anything up because of my having ‘loose lips.’

Although an hour hadn’t passed, a Camaro SS was sitting not far from Gularte’s front door, but there was nobody in it. I walked up to the door, opened it, and stepped in.