The front hubs on the Bronco had obviously never been turned before. It took all the strength I had in my wrists to slowly move the hubs a hundred and eighty degrees. Finally, they were turned. I got back in the Bronco, backed up, and faced the six-foot-high berm of sand. I gunned the Bronco’s engine and depressed the clutch, about to launch myself and the vehicle forward in first gear to as fast as it would go before encountering the dune. I looked up and down the railway to make sure there were no trains coming. There was nothing. But then I backed off on the accelerator and, instead of heading toward the sand in front of me, I turned and drove a short distance toward San Clemente. A narrow cleft was visible in the giant rocks that the railroad had, years earlier, set along the tracks to block or at least lessen the damage high tide big surf waves might cause to the tracks.
I eased the Bronco into the cleft. There was enough clearance to fit through. I drove directly onto the tracks, then had to begin a laborious process of moving the Bronco back and forth, gaining a better angle to actually get on the tracks each time. It took about fifteen back and forth movements to succeed. Suddenly, I was on the tracks pointed south. I eased the Bronco ahead in first gear. The trip was only about three hundred yards long before I was at the asphalt crossing. I turned up onto the path and then stopped the vehicle, with the V8 humming gently away.
My hands gripped the steering wheel. I realized that I was gripping the wheel too hard. My fingers felt like claws. I had to get up and into the compound now that I’d avoided risking everything trying to jump over the berm. Whatever I was going to be assigned to do, and it could be nothing at all, I had to get home afterward as quickly as possible. I needed to talk to my wife. She was the only one who could possibly understand how I might be able to rebalance myself and regain my self-confidence. I could not be a police officer, security guard, or anything else, carrying a weapon strapped to my waist. Not if I might fall back into the valley and come to use it.
I beat my way through the underbrush and over-extending branches that made the path more of a passage through a thicket than an off-road route for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. I left the Bronco in the lot next to the limo I would also be driving again if I kept my job.
The Secret Service opened the door to the compound as I approached. They said nothing, only nodding in acknowledgment, letting me know that I was cleared to enter. I walked down the long hall and on into the great room. Haldeman sat at his desk while Ehrlichman was in a chair near one of the big windows, watching the surf pound into the beach. The windows had to be cleaned each and every day, as the ocean spray made looking through the glass problematic after only a few hours on high surf days.
I stood before Haldeman, roughly at attention, although not so stiff as Haldeman might find my military posture annoying.
Haldeman didn’t look up from whatever paperwork he was reading in front of him.
“Robert Mardian,” Haldeman said. “El Toro. Go get him and bring him to me.”
I stood waiting, in case there would be any more instructions. I wasn’t going to get the break I thought I needed, I knew. I also knew, coming to understand the strange dynamics of White House communications, that why the Secret Service or the Marshals were not selected to do the driving of whomever Robert Mardian was would never be explained, at least to me.
I went out without further comment or even being dismissed. Exchanging the Bronco for the limo took only a few minutes, most of that checking to see what level the fuel gauge was at and making certain the interior was spotless, which it was. I drove to the gate, which surprisingly didn’t open before I got there. Instead, I saw Bill, the head of the Secret Service, standing with his hands on his hips, having foregone his usual suit coat, with the sleeves of his brilliantly white cotton shirt uncharacteristically rolled up.
The gate opened when I got to it. I needed no prompting to stop when the Cadillac’s driver’s door was even with where Bill stood. I opened the window and looked out.
Bill leaned down and began speaking, almost in a whisper.
“This guy, you’re going to collect…watch yourself,” he said, looking around to make sure the Marine guard was not too close. “Speak only if spoken to and give away nothing about anything, especially your personal life.”
My personal life?
The sentence caused a slight shiver of fear to run up and down my back. There was no connection that I could determine, between my personal life (which was pretty slight with all the hours I was working to try to make my phony job into a real job) and the Western White House. My significance in the scheme of national politics and power was almost totally non-existent, the way I saw it.
“Who’s Bob Mardian?” I asked, suddenly very interested in the guy I was being so strangely ordered to transport.
Outside of being ordered to get a uniform and get the hell out of Halderman’s presence, the pick-up of Mardian was the only other order I’d been given by my supposed boss.
“He heads up the ‘dirty tricks’ division,” Bill said, turning his head slightly, so the Marine Staff Sergeant standing at attention nearby could not see his lips.
I wondered if I was supposed to know what a dirty tricks division was, but I didn’t ask anything of Bill in return. If the head of the Secret Service was a bit in fear of this Mardian character, and obviously looking out for me, then that was enough of a warning to give me concern. I didn’t need to know any more. I drove through the open gate, the sergeant characteristically saluting as my limo went through. I was fully alert, driving the well-known route while obeying all the traffic laws. Just below the surface of my conscious mind, I could feel Junior coiling and waiting to be called into service. Breathing deeply, I settled into the drive and my mission. There was no clear and present danger. Mardian was simply another human being, composed of seventy-five percent water and bone with the remaining amount taken up by cellular matter. Human beings, as I’d so viciously learned, were only dangerous in action, not in repose. Part of my mission was to keep Mardian in that reposed state, which I knew Bill had been trying to help me with.
The trip to El Toro took forty minutes, which was about fifteen minutes more than it normally took, because driving fast was a habit I’d found very difficult to shake, especially with the freedom of being a police officer and almost totally immune to traffic citations of any kind.
The main gate guard bar went up as soon as my Caddy approached. The Marines at the base all knew the White House vehicles, and, somehow, all those assigned to drive them. Once past the gate, I waited until I was out of sight of the guards before pulling over. I sat for a moment, getting myself ready to head into the third left turn, which would take me right out on the tarmac where the presidential aircraft all ended up after flying or waiting to fly out. My hands were not shaking, and that meant I was okay, the way I saw it.
I checked my Magnum, making certain it was loaded with a single shot shell as the first round, followed by a hot-loaded hollow point, and then the tungsten cored penetrator round. I checked myself in the dash mirror, as best I could, holstered the Magnum, and then snapped the leather strap that held the clamshell arrangement together. I was ready.
The stairway leading up to the 707’s passenger cabin was set up and waiting, with the door at the top open.
I waited inside the limo and then was surprised by the man who walked through the plane’s open door and deftly skipped down the stairs. He was portly, wearing the usual formal blue suit, and looking about as scary as a Koala bear. He walked to the passenger side of the limo, opened the door, and got in the back seat. I’d been informed that I was supposed to wait by that passenger door in order to open and close it for anyone I might be driving, but so far I’d been unable to go that far in providing service. I had no intention of becoming a real chauffeur of any kind, and famous politicians did not impress me at all, much less make me want to wait on them.
I gently eased the Cadillac from the plane’s stairs, off the tarmac, and then on toward El Toro’s main gate. My passenger said nothing.
Having been alerted and prepared by Bill, I was ready for anything. I tried to not look in the rearview mirror and stare at my passenger as I drove. I’d been ready for anything, not nothing at all.
The unassuming middle-aged man carried no briefcase or other materials, which was uncommon. If he’d had luggage, then that would have been carried out by some crew member from the aircraft, but there’d been nothing. I wondered if he was simply stopping by for a meeting and then departing before the day was over to go back to wherever he’d come from. I didn’t want to make another trip. I needed a break badly and I much preferred driving the Bronco on the beach, or just sitting and watching the surf and other interesting stuff that happened near the water’s edge, not that I always had a choice. Driving notables in the limo was boring and yet carried the potential for real trouble, as Bill had tried to warn me about.
I glanced at Mr. Mardian every couple of miles, but he only sat and looked out the side window as Mission Viejo flew by. It occurred to me in my examination of what I’d seen and could see in the back seat that the man might, indeed, be very dangerous, simply because he projected such an air of innocence and disinterest, along with a silently amiable and pleasing visage.
The trip back was made without any conversation until the limo approached the back gate into the compound parking lot. The staff sergeant was gone, replaced with two corporals. Both Marines saluted, as the single steel tube of pipe went up and stayed there. I drove through and both of the Marines saluted, and Mardian spoke his first words.
“You must be or were a Marine officer,” Mardian stated, looking at me through the rearview mirror. “They sure as hell aren’t saluting me.”
The man hadn’t asked a question so I didn’t answer, instead parking the car and getting out to go around and let him out. I just wanted him to go and then hope that I wouldn’t be called on to drive him back to the base.
“Vietnam?” Mardian asked, getting out of the door I’d opened for him, noting that this time he’d waited for me to perform that service instead of doing it for himself.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, knowing damned well, after Bill’s warning and pure logic, that Mardian hadn’t gleaned my former Marine Officer occupation from the mere saluting of the corporals at the gate.
I waited until he was fully out and clear before closing the back door of the limo.
Mardian moved a few feet toward the back door of the compound before stopping and turning back to where I stood.
“With your background, I might be able to take a deeper interest in you,” he said, with a light laugh.
My suspicions were confirmed, that the man had done some homework and I’d also likely not been picked to drive by Halderman on his own. For some reason, the man in front of me, the head of the dirty tricks division, whatever that was, had picked me to be his driver.
There was a slight pause before he turned once more and walked to the door that was already open and waiting for him to pass through into the compound.
I made no effort to respond but didn’t move toward the Bronco until Mardian disappeared inside with the door quietly closing behind him. I moved toward the Bronco, breathing in and out deeply while trying to figure out the unusual confrontation that hadn’t really been a confrontation at all.
With relief, I started the Bronco and was about to head down the Trestles Beach path when the radio clicked and Bobby Scruggs’s voice came through the San Clemente Department’s handset.
“Four-Six-Six-Seventy-Three, ten-nineteen,” Bobby said.
Ten-nineteen meant ‘return to the station,’ according to my memory of the ten codes.
“Ten-Four,” I sent back, pushing the little button on the Motorola without detaching the handset.
Getting two calls in one day was uncommon, to say the least, for the kind of roving and wandering I’d normally been doing in the Bronco.
“Now what?” I whispered to myself. I reviewed everything in my mind that had happened over the past few days but could think of nothing that might rise to my being called in to be chewed out again by the Chief.
Even at the Bronco’s highest safe speed of twenty-five miles per hour on hard pavement, it took only minutes to reach the station. I walked away slowly, once parked, holding back, but all the while expecting some sort of trouble to rise up and touch me once again.
I walked directly to Pat’s office, expecting to be ‘invited’ once more in to visit with Chief Murray, but Pat just laughed when she gauged my apprehensive expression and waved me toward the door to the station’s largest conference room. The only room without locks to hold suspects being questioned.
I opened the door and stepped in. Chief Murray and Sergeant Chastney, the watch commander of the day shift, stood talking to three young men sitting at the conference table. All three men were wearing civilian clothes and seemed quite happy to be visiting the station.
“These are the first three reserve candidates to make it through the selection process,” Chief Murray said, with a big smile, waving his left hand at the three young men while holding a lit cigarette with his right.
I didn’t know what to say. When I’d heard about the coming reserve force I’d had no idea that candidates were already being enlisted and tested. I also had no idea why I was invited to share the celebration of their making it this far into the program, or even how the program was going to work, much less what my place might be in it.
“Introduce yourselves,” Sergeant Chastney ordered the three men, his expression and presentation a long way from the Chief’s enthusiastic reception.
“Turner,” the youngest of the three with a short crop of blond hair said, standing and sticking his right hand across the table.
“Rodriguez,” the dark-skinned but very handsome guy, obviously the oldest, followed.
I shook their hands in order with Gularte, another Spanish candidate, being the last.
“Uuuurah,” he said, shaking my hand strongly, but not putting too much pressure on it.
“Marine?” I asked needlessly, as the man’s stature, comment, and everything else about him exuded the kind of Marine I’d always wanted to look like.
“Yes, sir,” he answered crisply, before sitting down. The other two men followed suit
“You don’t have to call me sir,” I said, not knowing why I was saying it. “I’m just a patrolman like you will soon be, reserve officers or not.”
“Well, the sir part might be overdoing it,” Chief Murray said, with a faint smile when he was done. “You see, you’re the Reserve Commander of this new outfit.”
I was stunned. I’d just gotten out of the academy and done absolutely nothing when it came to putting any of the training I’d received there, both good and bad. I wasn’t even certain I was a full-time patrolman or a reserve like the candidates sitting in front of me.
“We’ve heard about our Bronco and I’ve seen it around town,” Rodriguez piped up, turning his head slightly to look back through the picture window that allowed a partial view of the parking lot. “I run the tree service for the city so I’m no stranger when it comes to having seen you driving it around.”
“Your Bronco’s out in the parking lot,” Sergeant Chastney replied to Rodriguez but looked me directly in the eyes when he said it.
I knew the hard, toughened sergeant, no fan of mine so far, was looking deep inside me to gauge the import of his words. I identified the Bronco as being almost my very own, and that fact was obviously evident to him. I tried to give him nothing, although the use of the word “our” and “your,” when it came to the Bronco, had bitten deep. My long day, and sometimes nightly, rides up and down the beach areas were coming to an abrupt end. I’d soon have a reserve with me as a partner and then the other reserves would take the vehicle out on their own. There was no avoiding any of that. The Chief, I knew, had thrown me a bone in giving me the non-existent title of Reserve Commander. I understood. He had a police department to run and every move he was making made departmental sense. He wasn’t there to give me therapy or allow me to run the beach the way I might feel like it.
“Get some sort of nametag with your new title on it made by that Santa Fe outfit,” the Chief said to me.
“If you guys are done,” I replied, with a big manufactured smile, which I radiated right into Chastney’s eyes, “let’s go out to the parking lot and I’ll introduce you to your Bronco.”
The group broke up and I headed for the vehicle, soon to become a real beach patrol vehicle, and not my own personal beach conveyance.
Turner and Rodriquez jumped in, with Rod at the wheel.
I tossed him the keys through the open driver’s window.
Rod caught them handily, a giant smile flashing his stunningly white teeth. I noted his pencil-thin mustache. All he lacked to be the spitting image of Poncho Villa was a big sombrero.
“Take it for a cruise on the street but don’t go over twenty-five miles an hour,” I said.
“Why’s that?” he asked, starting the V8 with a turn of the key.
“You’ll see,” I shot back.
“This thing isn’t stock, is it?” he said back, revving the powerful little V8 a bit.
“No, but it’s not hopped up much,” I answered, not surprised by his question, as the Bronco’s engine gave off plenty of throaty sounds denoting more than stock horsepower. “The little two-barrel carb was replaced at the shop with a four-barrel Holley and the cam went from a rise of two-ten to two-sixty-five.”
Gularte and I stood and watched the two would-be reserve officers ease the Bronco onto the highway, treating it as if it was made of very thin glass.
“Who were you with over there?” I asked Gularte, knowing he wasn’t only a former Marine but a combat veteran, like myself, from Vietnam.
“Two-Seven,” Gularte replied.
“Ah, the Second of the Seventh, the Wardogs,” I said, having heard of the outfit several times both in-country and when I got home. “Where were you out of?”
“An Hoa,” Gularte said, still looking attentively toward where the Bronco had disappeared several minutes before.
I could tell that the tough-looking and acting former combat Marine didn’t want to talk about his experience.
“What was your rank?” I asked, more interested as his new ‘Reserve Commander’ than I was personally.
“Got the tattoo,” Gularte shot back, as the Bronco came around the corner, cutting it short so that the big right front tire bounced up and over the curb as it made its way to where we still stood.
I didn’t ask to see the tattoo he admitted to having. His message was clear to me. Gularte had been an enlisted man. It was common for enlisted ranks in numbers to get drunk and then have tattoos strategically placed on parts of their bodies, arms being the preferred locations for most of them. It was also common knowledge that Marine officers never got tattoos, drunk or sober. I knew Gularte wasn’t talking because he hadn’t conducted himself honorably, or at least been accused of such. He would not have made it through the department’s vetting if he had anything but a clear honorable discharge. San Clemente’s police department had come under much closer scrutiny, what with the Western White House being located in its area of operations.
Turner and Rod climbed out of the Bronco, both laughing.
“Man, you weren’t kidding about that twenty-five thing, were you?” Rod said, tossing me the keys. “I’m not sure I want to drive it back and forth to and from the beach even to get fuel at the yard.”
“You’ll change your mind completely, once you get it down on the sand,” I laughed, glad he’d brought the vehicle back in one piece.
I wasn’t ready to completely let go of the Bronco yet. I had some time. The men, even if there were more being added to the reserve force, would all have to attend the academy if they were going to get into uniform at all. I’d been an exception because of the intercession of Halderman, I knew.
We all shook hands once again.
“Keep me posted on your progress,” I said, giving them my home phone number. “You can always come to the station and have Scruggs call me on the radio if you’ve got something vital or important, otherwise just leave a message on the home phone or come to the beach and encounter me if you can find me.”
The men went back into the station. I had some hours to kill before the end of the day shift. With the addition of the reserves the nights would be easier, I realized. The night shift was usually boring and sometimes a bit discomforting with respect to hearing or seeing things that weren’t really there. Not exactly flashback stuff, like had happened at the lifeguard station, but still, not quite right. I felt that a partner in the vehicle might take all of those not uncommon occurrences away, or maybe confirm that they were real and not the product of my paranoid post-combat mind.
“See the man,” came out of the dash just as I started the car. It was the White House crew, but at least they hadn’t referred to me as Beachboy in the call. Maybe the dispatcher who irritated me with the nickname wasn’t on duty. I clicked the transmit button twice and then waited a few seconds. The speaker clicked back once.
There was no need to respond using the radio any further.
I drove to the back parking lot of the compound, the staff sergeant back on duty alone. He raised the bar and saluted, just like before. I wondered why it took only one staff sergeant to man the guard post but two corporals. It was the Marine Corps, however, so I knew better than to ask. Nobody in the detachment would know.
I walked in, the door opening before I got there, just as it had done for Bob Mardian earlier in the day. What could Halderman want so quickly, other than driving Bob back to El Toro, which I didn’t want to do but did not have any choice about?
I never made it to Halderman’s desk, however. A Secret Service Special Agent, identifiable by the earphone sticking out of his head and the twirly little wire running under the collar of his sports coat, intercepted me.
“To the residence,” he said, pointing at the side door located just beyond Ehrlichman’s desk.
“The residence?” I asked, in surprise. There was only one residence in the compound and that belonged to the President and his wife.
“Yeah,” just walk around, once you get inside the wall,” the agent said. “The low gate isn’t locked. Go around the pool and Bob will meet you there, but don’t go inside at all.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering what Halderman was doing at the residence and why I was being invited there.
“Oh, and watch out for Tim, the Irish Setter,” the agent intoned. “He’ll want to shake hands, so do it and then go to the pool, but don’t let the dog out. He’s hell to try to catch without hurting him.”
I walked to the wall, unlatched the gate, and stepped inside the residence grounds. I walked past the south-facing wall, made of plaster in the white Spanish style. The Irish Setter, King Timahoe, caught me before I turned the corner, but I was ready. He sat down and stuck out his right paw. I bent down and shook the paw. That was it, and he was off running back along the wall. I turned the corner and looked out over the small but well-appointed pool. I instantly saw that Bob Halderman wasn’t there. Bob Mardian sat on the edge of a chaise lounge, drinking some drink from a short glass.
“Damn,” I whispered to myself, realizing why we were meeting where we were meeting. The sound of the surf just beyond a low row of bushes between the train tracks and an upraised pool area would prevent listening devices or other interested parties from hearing what was said. The arrangement also confirmed that Mardian was no fringe player in the administration. The President’s residence was almost reverential to the security forces located all around the compound. The President’s only two friends, Abplanalp and Rebozo, the President’s wife Pat, some special agents of the presidential detail, and one vetted cleaning woman were the only people normally allowed into the residence. Even Kissinger was rumored to have only had one visit.
“Sit,” Mardian said, flatly, pointing at another lounge nearby.
“I have a mission for you,” Mardian stated, again flatly, as if I had no choice in the matter, which I didn’t.
He didn’t offer me a drink or any of that. The day had been a surprising and rather difficult transitional one and it wasn’t ready to let me go yet, I knew. Whatever the man had to say, and whatever mission I was to be assigned, I wasn’t going to like.