I woke up the morning after Christmas and eased out of bed. My wife made me believe she was still asleep, like she always did although any move on my part to depart the bed never failed to bring her back to life. I moved as silently as possible to get ready for the day. She had awakened I knew, but I also knew she’d return to sleep in only seconds after figuring out that everything was okay and normal. I went downstairs to use that bathroom, which was considered my bathroom by both Mary and Julie. It was also Bozo’s adopted bathroom but only when I was in it. He only, however, sat or lay on the closed toilet lid while he made me believe he wasn’t there to watch or give me any company. I smiled as I shaved. He was a whole lot like my wife in temperament, as well as imbued with the same violent depth of Irish temper. Mary had come out of a dirt poor county in Ireland called Clare while Bozo had come out of a deep rugged and barren arroyo with no name that caused a similar response to survival in a world that was just as harsh but so much better disguised.

Paul’s transgression would not leave my thoughts. The future of the family, the coming move, money, life insurance sales, and even the beach patrol were all subjects that should have occupied my full attention. I looked down at my right palm after rinsing the leftover shaving cream from my face. And then there was the artifact, I thought, once more trying to rub the evidence of its existence from the altered skin of my hand. But, for some reason, it was Paul and his strange interaction with my wife that would not leave my mind.

I went back upstairs to get dressed for the day. It was a nothing day, other than going on back to the Dana Point Harbor construction area to meet some of Butch’s sub-contractors. Somehow, Lorraine Galloway had come into contact with Butch and pressured him to set up a meeting so I could try to sell them life insurance. The woman was seemingly wasted as a restaurant waitress or even owner. No sales meeting I’d been to so far had ever mentioned having a ‘bird dog’ like her as a foundational part of any new agent’s sales success.

When I passed the open door to Julie’s room I couldn’t help but notice the end of the big tall Estes rocket box sticking out from under the top edge of the blanket covering her, and Mrs. Beasley, of course. I shook my head. What kind of daughter went to bed with a rocket, and how could a rough war-tattered veteran like Gularte possibly know that the rocket would be not only a great gift for her but even more? It was an out-of-the-park home run with everyone.

Quite possibly I was the only person who, very silently, thought it was inappropriate as a gift for a developing young lady barely older than a toddler.

When I’d asked Gularte, before purchasing the rocket, about that he’d given me a strange answer, an answer I’d intended to ask Paul about, but that was before the incident with my wife. “Maybe for a regular little girl,” Gularte said, “but she’s not a normal daughter, she’s your daughter.” That response had stopped me cold. What did he, or it, really mean, about my daughter and me?

I got all my insurance papers and too expensive Texas Instruments handheld calculator and headed down to the car. Mary was quite used to the multiple careers, or jobs, existence I’d formed around myself after re-surfacing inside the American culture. She’d get up eventually, with Julie and Bozo, clean up around the house, make coffee and breakfast. If I didn’t return in short order, it would be off to the beach, where she and Julie spent most of their time when not at the apartment. When we’d looked at the house on Lobos Marinos Mary had spent all of twenty minutes inside, but then left to walk to the edge of the nearby cliff overlooking the ocean. It was a good six hundred feet down to the sand that ran on the other side of the railroad tracks. There was a tough-looking path that snaked all the way, set in between two cliff-edge homes.

“Not a problem,” she’d murmured. “We can do that.”

I had my doubts but remained silent. The deal was made, and the Lobos Marinos home was ours.

It was too early to head up to the marina, and the fact that Paul’s office at Straight Ahead was so close to that location only served to draw my thoughts back to him and a problem I had to solve since I knew I wasn’t going to be able to simply move on. Mary seemed fine, having recovered from her shock following the meeting, but I wasn’t fine, not by any stretch of the imagination.

The restaurant was empty, as usual at such an early hour, but my coffee was there, steaming away at my table before I even got through the door. Lorraine appeared from the back to welcome me and accompany me to my street-facing chair, although the view out the big window only held my Volkswagen as a central feature of any interest.

I  understood Lorraine’s exuberance, which had to be generated by her knowledge that I would be speaking soon to a whole group of prospects and that she’d be sharing any commission that was generated from my sales to them if I made any. When she left me alone I was there with the empty street, no people about, and the soft glow of the not yet fully risen sun. I thought about Paul. What might Paul do if I showed up and mid-way through our session I took out one of my  Colt .45s  and asked him a question.

So, Paul, since you’re a trained psychologist, would you explain to me, following what you did to my wife, and knowing in some detail all about my background, just exactly what you’re going to say to walk out of this office alive?” I shook my head to clear the thought from my brain.

That kind of behavior would take me back to when I ended up standing across the street from my surgeon’s home in San Francisco. I would be giving up my life, and possibly my family’s life, by taking his. I couldn’t do that.

My thoughts turned to the one-pound stick of C-4 I’d kept and stored for later use. I tried to clear my head. Blowing up Straight Ahead down the cliff and down into the marina construction area would lead to the same result, even given that I might be a master of deception and misdirection. Innocent people would die, maybe even Butch.

“You’re concentrating so hard,” Lorraine said, her voice coming from behind my left shoulder, “You must be preparing for the presentation you’re going to give those men.”

I physically jerked back. My thoughts jolted instantly into reality, just like my body.

“Yes, how did you know?” I stuttered out, getting myself together.

“You’re one hell of a salesman, I’ll say that for you,” Lorraine went on, her voice cheery and uplifting. “Everyone you present to buys a policy, almost.”

I couldn’t help laughing out loud. Most of my clients hadn’t been really ‘sold’ anything. They’d been forced through coercion of one kind or another, even using tools that bordered on extortion, to become clients of mine. Chuck Bartok, Tom Thorkelson, and likely the entire staff of Massachusetts Mutual would no doubt be aghast at the tactics I used to ‘sell’ policies. And then, my thoughts turned back to Paul and I laughed some more.

“Paul needs a life insurance policy badly,” I breathed out, my voice softening but not so much that Lorraine didn’t hear what I said.

“Is Paul one of the men you’re making a presentation to?” Lorraine asked.

I held back more laughter, about to deny that until it occurred to me that I was going to make a presentation to Paul, but it wouldn’t be about purchasing a life insurance policy.

“Yes indeed,” I answered, realizing that, other than saying ‘good morning,’ I hadn’t told anything but lies since I’d walked through the front door of the place.

I left Galloways and got into the Volks backing out of the parking space. I proceeded east on Del Mar until stopping for the signal at El Camino Real. Taking a right would eventually lead to either the compound, the Coast Guard Station, or beyond to San Onofre. Taking a left would point my Volks north and would take me inexorably back to Dana Point, the marina, or Straight Ahead. The light changed and my body seemed to decide for me. The car turned left as if all on its own. I breathed in and out deeply as drove. Even before I went further into investigating the artifact further, or listening to a tape I knew I didn’t want to, but had to, and I had to handle the situation that had arisen because of Paul’s conduct. What was I to do once I got in front of him was a question I either couldn’t or didn’t want to answer.

Making it to Dana Point to sit at the red light of the intersection leading into the marina a partial solution occurred to me. I need the advice and counsel of a woman. A woman uninvolved, but aged, jaded, and without normal social limiting rules she would not be above breaking. If she was still there. She’d left in a heated rush days before, the yacht leaving its slip empty, but I’d heard that she’d returned for some unknown reason, either to meet with an important personage or to pick something up. The light changed.

Richard’s Mercedes wasn’t parked anywhere near where his and Cobb’s yachts were located, but, staring at them in relief, both boats were sitting quietly and seemingly unattended in their respective slips.  I was relieved that she’d returned, wondering just how far I’d come in trying to accommodate such a strange and diffidently distant woman, that I’d be so pleased to see her back.

It wasn’t uncommon for Richard to park far from where he lived I’d learned. I also had no idea what Cobb drove if she drove at all. Both she and Richard conducted themselves in ways that were so arcanely secretive that they didn’t seem secretive at all. I parked as close as I could get to Cobb’s slip, right near the concrete abutment up from the gently lapping harbor waters. I sat for a few minutes, thinking about what to do. I had all the insurance papers. I knew Butch could gather his contractors at a moment’s notice but I wasn’t ready to meet with them yet.

I got out of the Volks and walked to the side of her yacht, noting that the cabin door was closed, as it always was. There was no sign of life anywhere around. I hopped aboard and went to stand at the door, bending down to knock, but not knocking. Cobb was a wild card and owed me nothing. I only felt I could trust her because she’d exhibited an ability to say nothing about practically anything. I was less than a gnat to her, but maybe that was in my favor.

The door opened and I stepped back in surprise.

“Enter,” a husky female voice intoned from within the cabin’s dusky dark interior. A wafting slight gust of flavored air pushed lightly against me as I stepped in and down to stand just inside the cabin confines. The aroma wasn’t of perfume or anything feminine. It was of cigarette smoke.

“Cobb? I asked, knowing the question sounded stupid, but not being able to see clearly into the cabin’s entire interior.

She straightened up to stand behind the single counter just a few feet from the starboard bulkhead lined with closed cabinet doors.

“Whom were you expecting?” she asked, blowing a breath of smoke across the counter toward me.

“I never know,” I answered, truthfully.

“Which means you’ve been here too often,” she replied. “Hunt’s dead and I’m probably on that same list, maybe a bit further down, so what do you want?”

“Help,” I answered, again truthfully, not knowing what else to say. The woman was so confounding, her strange staccato delivery like gentle but sharpened spears coming at me through brief dissipating clouds of smoke.

“Help, really?” She said with a brief laugh that sounded more like a grunt. “Help is what I give. It sure as hell never walks through that cabin door to
be offered to me.”

“You need help?” I asked with genuine surprise in the tone of my knee-jerk response.

There was a short silence between us, one in which she didn’t appear to take in or exhale smoke in my direction.

“Thank you for that,” she murmured. “I know you mean well but I think I’m well beyond hope of doing anything but leaving this country for good. Now, what is it?”

Her comment and question were spoken in a completely different tone than she’d used since my entry into the confines of her yacht’s cabin. She then walked around the counter, extinguished her cigarette, and took a seat on one of the many cushions that lined the interior of the portside hull.

I sat down a few cushions away from her, more toward the bow taking a few seconds to organize my thoughts. Then I began. As quickly as I could I covered the reason I’d enlisted Paul to help in my recovery. I went over the things he’d done for me before coming to the incident. Finally, I told her what my wife had said to me about what had happened at the meeting. When I was done Cobb slowly moved to light herself another cigarette. That she hadn’t done so while I’d been deep into revealing some of my most personal history and then going into my marriage, I considered a silent compliment. She hadn’t stopped me and then sent me on my way out of hand, which I thought might have been a distinct possibility.

She didn’t say anything, instead getting up and walking over to an electronic complex set into the wall between the cabinets on the starboard side of the boat. At first, thinking the action strange, I prepared myself to depart, but I didn’t end up moving. Cobb returned as some music came from all around me, delivered by invisible speakers.

The song ‘Angel of the Morning‘ began to play, as it it’d been set onto her machine to be available at just the right time. The song was the song of my marriage, adopted by us when Mary lay so pregnant with Julie that she couldn’t roll out of bed without help. We laughed together every time it played and sang the lyrics without thinking about what they might mean. That it was playing now, after what I’d told Cobb was stunning, but I said nothing.

Cobb smoked her cigarette before turning slightly. “Listen to the third stanza, last three lines,” she said, turning back to wait.

I listened to the song, recognizing the singer, Merilee Rush who hadn’t done much since that number one hit. The third stanza came, and then the three lines:: “If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned, well, it was what I wanted now, and if we’re victims of the night I won’t be blinded by the light.” The rest of the song played out, and there was no additional music from the speakers.

“I don’t get it,” I said, after a few seconds.

“I had a man several years ago when that song came out,” she said, more to herself than me, looking at the far wall, her face expressionless from my angle of view. “The words, if lived, say it all. You don’t need to say or do anything to your therapist. Your wife says it all, you’re both ‘victims of the night,’ and she won’t be blinded by the light.”

“What about me?” I replied, feeling foolish as soon as I said the words.

“I know your past and your present,” Cobb replied, “And I’m sure from what you’ve told me, so does Paul. He’s waiting for your visit and he’s doing so in fear, uncertain if what he’s helped you gain in coming home has fully taken.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, befuddled by her strange answer.

“You are dangerous. You come across in physical appearance like an innocent child, filled with expressive playfulness and your verbal talents are similar. Yet, here you are, one of the most dangerous men I’ve ever had sitting inside this yacht, part of it because of life experience, part of it due to your ‘act,’ so to speak, and part of it because of your intellect and memory. You are made of coiled spring steel but you also know that such a condition can’t work to allow your long-term survival in this culture. Let Paul enjoy being one of your choices, which he recommended to you, to gain redemption.”

“And my wife?” I asked as if Cobb was some sort of a seer instead of a woman with a very secretive and shady past and present.

“Never met her but it certainly sounds like she’s your match in many areas. She can stare across the distance of a deep chasm and know what’s on the other side without going there, and never forget that you have lied to her throughout your relationship. You think that’s all you but, given what you’ve told me, she’s lied to you a good deal of the time too. In other words, you probably have a great relationship. What she heard may not be what she related. What she heard may not be what he meant. What she heard may also be shaped to fit into what she feels you need to know to continue without destroying everything, which you’ve thought of doing…which I’d think of doing.”

I got up and walked past her to the door. I looked down at her, meeting her deep dark, and unfathomable stare. I didn’t know what to say.

“You’ll need to think a bit before you act…about Paul, your wife, and a whole lot of other stuff both of us have on our desks.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. There was a whole lot of stuff she’d given me to think about but my mind was now clearer when it came to dealing with Paul.

I left the boat and got back into the Volks and drove up to Pacific Coast Highway. The facility was only a quarter mile north up the hill. I turned and drove until I was able to cross the traffic and turn into the lot.

I walked through the Straight Ahead complex, once again having parked on the side to avoid anyone seeing and recognizing my Volkswagen and assuming that I was a patient of the rehab part of the facility. Paul’s office door was open so I stuck my head in before entering.

“Got a few minutes?” I asked him, even though he held a telephone handset to his right ear.

Paul looked at me, and we both knew. I wasn’t there seeking his assistance as a therapist. He motioned me toward the two chairs in front of his desk and I sat in the one closest to the northern wall. It’s the chair I always sat in. I had no fear of open doors or having to keep my back to the wall to be alert for danger. I’d learned very quickly, after getting out of the hospital in San Francisco, that living one’s life back home in the expectation of danger coming from anywhere at any time was no life at all.

Paul hung up the phone and looked across the desk at me without commenting like he was waiting for me to say something, which I wasn’t about to, following Chuck Bartok and Tom Thorkelson’s sales instructions to the letter about not being the first one to talk when a sale was on the table. Before talking to Cobb what might have been on the table was Paul’s life, but that wasn’t true anymore. Her words held a series of hard-learned truths that I didn’t fully understand but resonated deeply inside my thoughts about what had happened. What had likely happened?

“I suppose we need to talk about Mary’s visit,” Paul said, looking at me expectantly.

I remained silent, allowing some emotion to build but not wanting too much.

I thought of the Merilee Rush song, and how it was possible that life’s vagaries and unreal coincidences could land on us at any time. That Cobb would have the song, to use it as an illustration for something I’d not even discussed until arriving in her cabin, and then have that song as the only one that played when she’d turned the machine on…well, the strangeness of that was almost equivalent to the strangeness of the artifact, although not nearly as all-pervasive.

“What do you want to do?” Paul finally asked, going right to the heart of the matter. In many ways, coming from somewhere that was different, he reminded me of Cobb when he talked. There was no beating around the bush.

“What are the options?” I asked back, speaking softly and trying my best to keep hidden what Cobb had so easily observed about me.

“Right now I can’t think of any good ones for either of us,” Paul replied, resting his elbows on the desktop while crossing one arm and massaging his chin with the hand of his other arm.

I was glad to see that he was relaxing from possibly thinking I was there to cause him harm.

“I’m in the middle of some rather difficult circumstances, and I’m going to need advice, some of which I have already received but one major problem I have is that I can’t tell almost anyone what is happening in a few areas and you already know a considerable amount of this kind of stuff. Before I do anything I’m going to talk to Mary. If she agrees that this plan of seeing you again is sound then I’ll be back. The entire White House team is falling apart, although, mercifully, most of it is going down back in Washington and not here. The compound is beginning to look like an abandoned wasteland and I’m presuming that’s just going to get worse until there’s nothing left in San Clemente that will do much to prove that a controversial president once tried to get away from it all, and pretty much succeeded, while he had a residence here.”

“The passing comment I made to your wife, and I won’t try to minimize it, was a professional and personal mistake,” Paul said, his concentration on his situation maintaining front and center in his presentation.

“I understand,” I murmured, getting up to leave, although in truth I was a long way from truly understanding, I needed the kind of counsel I’d gotten before and I needed a place and person who was not a part of the rest of my life.

Paul stood and stuck out his hand.

I looked at him in surprise. We’d never shaken hands, but I held out my own.

When I got to the car I sat in the driver’s seat to think. Everything was happening so fast. Had the ‘new me’ become much weaker than the old me from the A Shau? I didn’t think so, but the games, movements, and involvement in the things that had been attracted to me, required that the old Marine Corps saying, often repeated but not necessarily often acted upon seemed to apply. If you can’t baffle them with your bullshit, then dazzle them with your footwork. Whatever happened between Paul and me would be up to me which made me feel both good and bad. I didn’t like the daydreams about ‘getting even’ that I’d experienced, and I didn’t want that kind of thinking to penetrate and bring negative results to my family.

I stopped at Butch’s trailer on my way out. He’d not stopped by my place on Christmas Eve although I’d invited him. He wasn’t in the trailer, however. The meeting with his contractors would have to wait until later in the week, after all, it was still Christmas week with plenty of other stuff going on.

When I arrived back at the apartment Julie and Mary were gone. I assumed they were at the beach. I decided that I’d had enough emotional adjustment to make in my day. The last tape would have to wait. I went downstairs to the garage, pulled out my six “D” cell Maglite from its wall hook, turned it on, and went to work. With the garage door closed and locked with a bar from the inside I was completely alone. The garage had no other entrance or windows. I left the light off and worked with the Maglite on. I didn’t want anybody passing by to notice there was someone inside.  When Bob had revealed what his concerns were about the artifact, and with Gularte possessing the knowledge he had my decision to pull the box from storage was nearly automatic.  Nobody but me could know where it was and having it in storage nearby wasn’t going to be sufficient to allow me to sleep at night.  Hauling the box home on the top rack of the Volkswagen hadn’t been easy or particularly safe but somehow I’d gotten it there and then wrestled into the garage without, hopefully, anyone seeing what I was up to.  Where the thing would go next was another problem entirely.  With the coming move to Lobos Marinos and a real house, there might be more opportunity to hide it there…and then there was the coming relationship with the CIA. Maybe something would happen with all that. 

The box was easy to open, and I was once again happy that there wasn’t some complex set of moves to make to get inside it. I put on a heavy set of rubberized asbestos gloves left over from the car work I’d done on the MG with Joe Beard and slowly removed the artifact from the box. There was no feeling of the object through the thick gloves, other than its extraordinarily light weight. I hefted and made my decision. One of the object’s characteristics that had been ‘burned’ into my hand was the scuff marks that seemed to cover its entire surface. Was the object so soft a metal that it could be ground away or sawed up? I wanted to know.

For Joe’s job, I’d purchased an industrial bench grinding wheel. The stone surface of the wheel was almost new since it was so hard that the light work required to do minor stuff on the MG hadn’t worn it down at all. Knowing that the sound of the grinder might give my presence away I turned it on anyway.

The stone took almost half a minute to come up to full speed. Without thinking anything else through I held the edge of the artifact to the outer edge of the whirling wheel. Instantly the stone was taken from my hand, a plume of smoke coming out from the inner surface of my right glove, as well as a larger one from the wheel. I rushed to turn the grinder off and looked around in shock for the object. I only was able to see it because it had embedded itself into the bottom edge of the wooden door and a thin plume of smoke moved upward from it.

I stripped the glove and threw it down. Its material had impossibly burned to the point where any longer exposure to the grinder with the object in my hand would have resulted in an injury a whole lot worse than the mere serrated marks I already had. I shone the Maglite on the wheel. Where I’d touched the artifact to it, the wheel was melted. The artifact wasn’t melted, although it smoked a bit, I guessed because it wasn’t hot. The object had somehow bit into the wheel a good half inch, reacted to that, and burned my glove and then the wood of the door.

With a chisel and two steel picks, I pulled the artifact out of the door. The cheap set of fireplace tongs I’d replaced were nearby. Very gingerly I pulled the artifact from the wood, grabbed it with the tongs, and moved very slowly to put it back into the box. I then threw the straw-like stuff inside over it and closed the aluminum lid until it clicked. I sat on the box, directing my light toward the hole in the door. How would I explain that, unless I made a plug to put into it? Either way, I knew that my days of experimenting with the object had to stop or I was going to hurt myself badly, or worse. Once again, the object hadn’t obeyed the laws of science I knew to be true. There was simply no way an object, no matter what element it was made of, could literally melt a whirling stone wheel and then not have residual heat emitted in gobs. And then the only heat had been generated by the object itself but even that had been minimal. The wood was still smoking when I pulled the object from the hole, but the object itself could easily have been once again, handled without any protection…at least from burns.

Whatever was on the tape I was going to listen to was less of a threat than the potential of what the box seemed to hold in reserve, or at least so I hoped. I hung up the light, opened the door to air the place out, and then stood by for a while until all the smoke seemed clear. I had time to wonder about how I’d become so engaged with some of the most powerful people in the world and how the ‘toys,’ devices, and objects they ran into could cost a new guy his life. I was the FNG being put out on the point, time after time, and that thought didn’t make me feel comfortable.

Guys on the point didn’t live real long, or at best came home in pieces.

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