My time at night, before sleep and thankfully not during sleep, I thought about things that were occurring, and the less sense they made the more I couldn’t stop lying awake trying not to think about them.
“I’m not that special,” I thought, lying there, not realizing I had also softly whispered the words aloud.
“No, you’re not,” my wife right next to me said, possibly thinking about her own occurring and unfolding events.
I smiled broadly, leaning over toward where she lay, so close, but also so far away. She gave every appearance of being deep in sleep so I didn’t say anything further. I had come to see our marriage as a very charged up and powerful battery wherein I was the positive node, sparking with great sparks of intensity while she was very much the grounding force. No matter what flight of egomaniacal fancy I flew off in she was always right there to bring me back to that very well-grounded reality.
“You are special in one way tonight,” Mary said.
“What?” I asked, now understanding that she was fully awake next to me.
“Wow,” I replied instantly, shocked but not in a bad way. Mary had been taking the relatively new birth control pills regularly until both of us felt it was time to add another child to the family. Whether she’d decided to stop taking the pills earlier now didn’t make any difference.
“That’s great,” I whispered after a few minutes, but a soft snore was already coming from her side of the bed which made me feel good. She had no doubts about my approving of having another child. In the life I was fashioning for myself, and my family, there was going to be no time when everything was just perfect for the creation of another human being. Julie had been the product of a seeming accident and the result had been wonderful.
The following day I went to work on our behalf, neither of us mentioning the conversation in bed the night before. I closed the deal on the house pulling fifteen hundred dollars from our checking account, which took us down to near zero. Seven-fifty a month for rent was steep but certainly doable, especially if the CIA offer came through with significant cash up front. I visited with Bob Elwell and came to what I hoped was an understanding about the artifact, and just how terminal the information about it could be getting out for him and anyone he knew.
I knew I was putting off seeing Paul, but I hadn’t come to any real conclusion about him since our last meeting. Preparing for the move meant gathering people together to help and renting a truck. Gularte’s pickup was great but using it as the main moving vehicle would mean nearly endless trips back and forth across town.
The artifact would be moved by me, and it would have to go first since I wanted no one else on the planet to know its new location. What to do with it once I got it over to the Lobos Marinos residence was a problem for the future.
It all came at me at once, not how I’d envisioned the changes that I knew would be forthcoming once the Western White House went down. A call had come from Richard. He’d said, when he spoke to my wife on the telephone, that he’d discuss the coming plan while we were in the Bronco on beach patrol duty later in the night. When I got home to discover that such a conversation had taken place I was surprised, but the beach patrol comment more than surprised me. Richard’s role was changing as fast as, apparently, my own. Richard wasn’t scheduled for beach patrol, which meant I would have to redraw the schedule.
He’d called my wife, which hadn’t happened before. No one from the police department ever called my home, unless it was to ask for me, and certainly not to give a message of instruction for me. Not only was our income changing but also our status. Whereas I’d been a ‘nobody’ working with the White House, I’d been respected and treated that way. It was beginning to look like my relationship with the CIA wasn’t going to include the word respect, at least not in its dealings with me.
I drove over to Gularte’s place. He wasn’t home, as usual. I used his phone to call Richard, so my wife wouldn’t be around to listen in. Whatever was going to happen in the next few weeks and months was going to be rocky and difficult and filled with changes, most of them probably, like the change in my relationship with Richard, not those that were going to be either comfortable or entirely acceptable to put up with. Richard didn’t pick up. I’d have no choice but to rebook the evening’s beach patrol shift. I left a note for Gularte to either call me or accept the fact that he and Rodríguez were both being scratched from duty for the night. I called Rodriguez. His full-time job was as the tree specialist for the city so I knew I wouldn’t get him, but Gloria, his wife picked up. She was always great when it came to dealing with me or anyone else I’d ever encountered who knew her, but this time there was an uncommon element of angst in her voice.
After I stopped talking and waited for a bit in silence.
“We need the money,” Gloria finally said. “The beach patrol pays weekly but Rod only gets a check from the city once a month and the first of next month is a long way away.”
I didn’t wait for a better place to break into the conversation. For Gloria to admit the financial problem was theirs, no doubt in my mind, a huge violation of her trust in Rod and a revelation of private stuff she’d likely never want to share with anyone.
“Can you go to Galloways’ on Del Mar before they close at two this afternoon?”
“What?” she asked, in surprise, before I could go on.
“I’ll get you an advance but do not tell anyone at the department and I will leave it with Lorraine,” I said, trying to remember what was left of my hidden cash supply.
“You can work some extra hours at this year’s fiesta corn booth to pay it off this summer,” I said, not letting her have a chance to break in and say anything further.
I hung up before she could reply, only then realizing I hadn’t given her a time to be there, except before the two o’clock closing. I looked at my new Seiko.
It was closing in on noon. I’d come away from the apartment, hoping to return and listen to the final tape but that might have to wait. If Gloria was willing to say she needed money then the circumstance had to be dire and the amount probably beyond anything she could mention. I went out, got in the Volks, and drove straight home as quickly as I could. The last thing I needed to make my day was for Gloria to rush over to Galloways and ask for an envelope that wasn’t there. That thought made me think of Lorraine. No envelope would suffice as Lorraine would figure it out. I’d have to make a quick stop at Coronets, buy a silly gift for Rod’s daughter, and put it in a gift bag. A card would suffice for the cash. Not something that was beyond all suspicion but far enough from it that the mild deception might fly.
My wife and Julie were gone. Even Bozo had disappeared. Mary and Jules were his primary humans of interest while I, no doubt a contesting alpha male, was a very distant third when it came to his caring interest. It would have been the perfect time to review the remaining tape recording but I had other things to accomplish first, no matter the current opportunity.
The shoeshine box held thirty-four hundred dollars. I pulled out eight hundred, guessing it might be enough and beginning to hope that the twenty-two thousand advance mentioned earlier wasn’t some sort of lure or pipe dream. After paying the rent and deposit at the new place our reserves were down to twenty-six hundred, which was still a lot of money, but only if I had money coming in. Moments later I was at Coronets purchasing a small teddy bear, one with a big red bow around its neck, a birthday gift bag and a card. I wrote a quick note in the card: “Gloria, I’m presuming that neither of us will ever mention this to anyone, ever.” I didn’t sign it, as I knew I didn’t need to. Eight hundred dollars was a lot of money, no matter how I’d come by it, but the tone in Gloria’s voice seemed to indicate that it really might not be to her in her circumstances. Galloways was almost full by the time I got there. Lorraine’s signature meatloaf with gravy and mashed potatoes had proven to be a hit with the lunch crowd of businessmen and women up and down Del Mar. Her green beans (canned and heated all day) with chunks of sweet onions and bacon slices thrown in were worth every bit of the one dollar extra she charged.
Lorraine was busy, accepting the bag on the run, hot pot of coffee in one hand and a tray held up by the other. She took the bag by curling out the index finger of her coffee-carrying hand and giving me a quick perfunctory smile. I turned and left after quietly whispering to her departing back that Gloria Rodriguez would be in for the gift. Since she didn’t stop and turn I presumed that Gloria hadn’t beaten me in. Maybe her need wasn’t that critical yet, although I hoped I’d never really get to know her. My day’s redemptive act was done, which brought my mind back to Paul. I sat down the street from Galloways and thought for a few minutes. I thought about Paul. I owed him deeply. The money going out to Gloria made me feel warm inside, about me, as Paul had indicated it would. Paul owed me for his mistake and revelation of one of his problems, but the two debts didn’t cancel one another out. I owed him more. I owed him not to introduce him to Junior, an experience that even barring death, dismemberment, or violence of any kind, would leave him scarred for life. I didn’t want that place in his memory banks. At night, I could not help recalling, that sometimes I did want that place, but then nights were different, not to be played out in the daytime following, not like down in the valley, when the bodies, parts, and other things would be tallied up in a morning of revealing daylight.
The homologated beach patrol shift started in silence, Richard drove the Bronco through the city, out onto the beach, finally stopping in front of the President’s residence near Trestles Beach.
Sitting there with Richard to get the details about my new ‘career opportunity’ didn’t go at all like I’d planned. In meeting with him, I’d expected details about what we’d discussed, not a layout of a plan I had absolutely no control over, and with a sickening feeling, no control over, not even whether I would participate or not. We wouldn’t be staying in San Clemente, even though I’d signed a one-year lease. We didn’t get to know where we were going yet. That would be announced at a later time and there’d be no choice in the location. I would be staying with Mass Mutual, but in management of an agency, again to be determined at some time shortly.
“I’m not trained for this, whatever this is,” I said to Richard.
“You’ll be trained,” Richard responded with an audible laugh. “Field agents all go to charm school on the east coast, then to weapons training on from there to specialist training to be determined.”
“Will I be reporting to you?” I asked, not knowing what to believe anymore and not ready to throw myself completely, once again, into the hands of people I not only didn’t know but had never met.
“No, I’m not a field agent or handler. You’ll be assigned a control officer while you’re in training.”
“What are you, if you’re not a field agent?” I asked, mystified.
“Field agents can’t work within the confines of the USA by federal law, not unless it’s some sort of exceptional counter-intelligence operation. You’ll be going abroad, although your control officer who might have come from the field will never be going back.”
I noticed Richard avoided the question asked of him.
“You’re not with the agency at all, are you?”
“You don’t have to be on the agency payroll to do the agency’s bidding,” Richard replied, evading my question again. “You get to keep your military identification, although it’ll be updated concerning future missions where and when needed.”
“Why would I need that out there in the world, if that’s where I’m going?” I asked, knowing I’d probably not like the answer.
Richard thought for a moment, both of us staring out into the waves, only their breaking white waters visible in the darkness. My thoughts turned to a song I’d heard years ago while at the Basic School. “Hip Deep in the Big Muddy” it was called, all about some army guys caught in a stormy swamp but having to forge on regardless of the danger and their losses to the violent elements. The line that popped out at me was: “…waist deep in the Big Muddy, but the big fool says to push on.” Just who was being the big fool as all of this unfolded before me?
“You’ve got a whole lot to learn,” Richard said, shaking his head gently.
“On this planet, there are a hundred and eighty countries or more, and almost all of them have U.S. embassies or consulates, or both. Who guards those facilities?
“Holy cow,” I replied. “The Marines are good cover.”
“See, you’ll do fine out there.”
“When do I have to start?” I asked, hoping that date would be well down the road from the present.
“You already started,” Richard replied, laughing out loud again.
“I don’t think you can work for anybody in this country without getting paid,” I shot back, not liking the strangeness of an honor system I knew nothing about nor trusted at all.
Richard reached into the back seat and rummaged in the athletic bag he’d brought along with him. After a few seconds, he twisted back and shoved a handful of something at me.
“Here’s an inch of bills, two ounces, give or take, which should amount to exactly what was discussed earlier. They’re new bills from the mint so you will probably want to age them a bit before you deposit or spend or whatever. You don’t want to start out fresh being known as the local drug dealer.”
“They feel so sharp-edged, and this amount of money only weighs two ounces?” I asked, feeling the packages, realizing I could put each one in a front pocket and nobody would likely notice.
“They’re called straps in the business,” Richard said, obviously enjoying the fact that he knew so much more than me. “The straps stand for the paper bands holding the bills together. Of course, out in the wild and woolly world you are headed into, five-hundred and thousand-dollar bills work better and are much easier to conceal.”
“You said the first payment would be twenty-two thousand,” I said, not knowing why I said it. That much money was a lot and, although I had my doubts about working for the CIA I didn’t want to make anyone there angry at me on my first day, or my first few days, if ever at all.
“Count it when you get home. Never, ever take money from the agency. You can steal money from others, lose equipment, spend money on ridiculous things and even bribe people, or even kill them but you don’t ever steal agency money. I don’t have to count what’s in your pockets, I just know, and you will come to know that too. The agency doesn’t take your money or short you. Never.”
I believed Richard. I would count the money but would be more than shocked, after listening to him, if the amount wasn’t exactly the amount he’d previously said it would be.
I’d heard of the five-hundred and thousand-dollar U.S. bills, last minted in 1934, but I’d never seen one and hadn’t really believed they might still be used as an accepted currency. I didn’t reply, however, as I was coming to believe every word Richard was saying. The world I was about to enter was just as likely to be about as alien as the artifact itself. I tucked the packs into my pockets, as I’d imagined only minutes before. I was in but with a certain bitterness forming an uncomfortable taste in my mouth.
At least when I joined the Marine Corps, I was allowed to opt-out. Unlike leaving the A Shau, or even the hospitals afterward, I wasn’t leaving behind everything I so badly wanted to leave behind. In a broken and tattered way, I’d succeeded at coming home and being accepted, and I hadn’t killed or wounded anyone seriously, only drowning a Porsche that had had it coming.
The future was coming at me in a heated rush and although I feared what might be ahead, I also relished the prospect of learning more about the world and what was really going on all over it, but giving up what I’d been able to build, luck into and enjoy wasn’t going to be easy or comfortable for me, Mary, Julie and quite possibly even Bozo.
I lay awake. The night following the shift on beach patrol had come hours earlier, not as a nightmare in sleep, as I’d still been awake earlier, inside the Bronco, to hear Richard’s CIA career plan for my future, Tom Thorkelson’s insurance also had a plan for me as a district manager for Mass Mutual, since Chuck Bartok was planning a move to Northern California, plus the coming moves in residence locally, and then on to wherever the agency wanted me to settle while I worked with them. Finally, there was the coming end of my police career which wasn’t ever really a career at all, along with my wife’s announcement that she was pregnant with our second child. I knew I’d trusted a lot of people I didn’t know well enough to place such trust, but I felt I had no choice, and not all of them had panned out, like Paul. The trust held was a mixed blessing because there might be no permanence to it, but here I was about to trust the security and safety of my family to people I knew even less than almost all the ones I’d be leaving behind.
How was it possible that a single person’s life could be so tossed up in the air and then plunged back to earth, breaking apart as they fell, with me, that single person, trying to mold and meld them back into some form of recognizable sanity before they hit and smashed everything into broken pieces of unstable and unrepairable flotsam?
I didn’t want to give up the beach patrol, since my position there, even as a phony ‘commander’ gave me so much meaning and seeming control over something, however hard it was to measure. I didn’t want to give up the Dwarfs, even though I had nothing more for them. I couldn’t share the tapes nor even the existence of the artifact, yet I also couldn’t go on glad-handing them. They too, like Chief Murray and the police department, had given my life more meaning than I’d have believed possible again following my time in the valley and then the hospitals. And then there was Mary’s pregnancy. That was going to take special treatment and expense, as well. Julie had turned out so wonderful that any thought that another child’s arrival would do anything but add to all of our lives wasn’t something I had to be concerned about. I smiled at the simple fact that I knew a lot of men who’d be very disturbed in many ways about bringing a child into this world.
I drove over to the Lobos Marinos house, open and waiting for our move. The house was owned by a cowboy actor named Jack Elam who had been going to rebuild the old home, made of solid wood. No asphalt shingles, no drywall, and plumbing of solid iron or copper. It had been uninhabited, waiting for demolition for three years until Elam’s manager convinced the actor to give up on the project and rent the place out.
The garage was huge, with half of it possessing a door that was almost twenty feet high, likely rebuilt to handle a giant motor home or boat. At one time it had been heated with a propane unit mounted way up in one corner of the place. It is that unit I returned to before the move, to inspect. A tall ladder was still set against one wall of the place. I climbed up to the unit and examined its sheet metal exterior and the removable back, mounted for servicing with only four bolts holding it on. I grabbed one edge of the aluminum frame and put almost my full weight into trying to pull it down. There was almost no give. The unit wasn’t going anywhere.
“Perfect,” I said to myself, climbing back down, getting into the Volks, and heading over to Ace Hardware where I purchased fifty feet of half-inch rope and a decently priced pulley block with a swivel head. I then drove home and got some tools from my garage after making enough room to back the Volks inside it. With the door down I took great pains to shuffle, wedge, and then lift the artifact’s container into the back seat. When I re-opened the garage door I made sure there was no one else around, and there wasn’t. I didn’t bother covering the distinctive aluminum box, the trip wasn’t going to be that long. Minutes later, taking corners very gently due to the object’s strange association with changing directions that deeply affected its mass, I was back at Lobos Marinos.
The job proved easier than I expected it to be. Pulling the guts out of the appliance’s interior was easy, especially since the propane had been disconnected sometime in the thing’s past. With that done and the interior parts on the floor, I mounted the pulley block up on the overhead beam. There was enough rope left over after stringing it through the pulley block that I had enough left over to make a sling for the artifact’s box. I then pulled it up, tied off the floor end of the rope, and climbed the ladder once more. The box slid right into the interior of the heater’s cover. The object didn’t do anything weird as I worked to hide it, but I had to do the job slowly in fear that it would. Once I was done, I jammed all the gas heater parts into the back seat of the Volks, took the ladder down, hid the rope and pulley blockl inside two big cabinets, and headed for the police yard to get rid of the heater parts.
The work made me feel more relaxed and secure. Nobody, but nobody was going to find the artifact, which also made me feel good. Being at the police yard by myself hadn’t been too comforting, however. I once again realized all the things that I valued, no matter how marginally they seemed to affect my everyday life, were going to cause me a lot of grief in leaving behind.
I would move on, as I had no other options available to me that made any sense at all. I knew I couldn’t give up finding out more about the artifact, but I also knew I couldn’t hold on to it forever. Would I ever find out whether the deaths of the three Marines had been an act of murder or an accident? What would be the conclusion to my relationship with Paul? There were so many questions I had no answers for that it was mind-boggling, but my path into a future with the CIA wasn’t one of them. I was going, with my growing family, and we would simply have to accommodate all that we were leaving behind.