The one thing I’d come to understand about whatever it was I was supposed to be doing for the Western Whitehouse, at first with Haldeman and now no doubt with Mardian, was immediacy. When people in their positions wanted something, they wanted it right now. Physically and psychologically I was beaten down for the day and only wanted to go back to the apartment on Cabrillo Avenue in downtown San Clemente and be with my wife and daughter, at least for a while.
“When?” I asked Mardian.
His eyebrows went up, and he lowered the glass from which he’d just taken a big drink.
“When what?” he replied, his big bushy brows knitting.
“The mission,” I said. “When is the mission?”
“Strange question,” Mardian responded, a smile fleetingly appearing across his facial features. “Don’t you want to know what the mission is?”
I noted the cracking of his cheeks from the smile. It wasn’t because of his age, as he wasn’t that old. I figured that he didn’t smile very much, and if he did it was the rueful kind of thing he’d just flashed me.
“What’s the mission, sir?” I asked, not exactly dreading but not looking forward to his answer with any enthusiasm either.
I used the word ‘sir’ for the first time, as my being inside the residence and at the poolside told me that Mardian was a very powerful figure indeed.
“I want you to go to D.C. and carry some papers, on your person, not in a briefcase or any of that. You’ll be met at the airport, the papers delivered, unread by you, and then you’ll return the way you came.”
“When?’ I repeated, “and am I flying government air?”
Mardian laughed out loud, before taking another swig of his drink.
“That’s funny,” he said, putting his drink down on the flat concrete surrounding the still pool. “No, you fly commercial tomorrow morning, from Orange County Airport to Washington National, and then come home. Tickets have been arranged for. You leave at nine a.m. arrive in D.C. at one and should be back by five. That’s it. Government air requires arrangements and documentation, neither of which you will need or process through.”
I sat on the edge of my chaise lounge, wondering what I was being asked to do, in reality. What was in the documents? Who would meet me? How would the meeting go down? The questions came at me, generated by my own mind. All I really wanted to do was get home, however.
“Here are the tickets,” Mardian said, handing me a thick envelope.
I opened the envelope and immediately saw that my new name was John S. Cotton.
“Cotton?” I asked, in surprise.
“The Cotton Estate,” Mardian replied, flashing another of his enigmatic smiles. “That’s what the property here was called before Nixon bought it, and oh, tell no one where you are going, when or any of that, much less why, and that includes your wife and any other friends or family members. Oh, and that includes telling anyone you are going at all.”
I almost laughed. My wife? I would, and did, tell my wife everything. Her judgment was better than my own and she’d already paid the price for earning her way in her endurance of what she’d been through because of marrying me. The way I saw it she was entitled to full disclosure about everything, but Mardian couldn’t be told that, I knew.
“Where do I pick up the documents?” I asked, going straight to the point, as I wanted to get out of the presidential residence area as fast as I could. The serene poolside area, with the surf lapping beyond the bushes and the quiet Spanish home sitting nearby, was unsettling. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be in the place I was.
“In the limo,” Mardian said, surprising me, because, generally, the limos were only used to transport notables, and I was anything but one of those.
He reached under the thin mat covering the nylon strap structure of the chaise lounge he was sitting on. One of the other people who drive the limos will deliver you and then be there when you return. Don’t open the envelope, and don’t share the fact that you carry, or carried it, to anyone, ever.”
Mardian took a white envelope out from beneath the cushion of his chaise lounge and held it in front of him but not in such a way that I got the idea he was going to hand it to me. The envelope was very thin, which was unexpected. It wouldn’t even create the slightest of bulges if carried in my sports coat pocket. The envelope was sealed with Scotch Tape across the flap. There was nothing written on the outside of it that I could see.
“Go,” Mardian ordered, placing the envelope on top of the cushion next to him, and then looking out across the pool to where the big windows were set into the side of the Spanish home.
I looked over at the same opaque windows, wondering if Nixon was standing and peering through those windows back at me. There was no way to know. I got up and headed back the way I’d come.
It took only minutes to get home after the strange meeting with Mardian. I knew my wife would want to know each and every detail of what I’d seen inside the residence, even though I hadn’t really been inside. I was headed for D.C. in the morning, and I needed to spend a little time at home getting ready and getting over the occurrences of the day before. When I got home, however, my wife wasn’t there. That meant only one thing to me since she seldom went anywhere with the neighbor’s wife next door and had no car of her own. I was home from the beach and she was on the beach. Julie loved to play near the lapping extent of the expiring energy of the incoming waves, that came in just to the south side of the pier. Mary was, no doubt, tanning herself while reading a book and keeping a close watch over Jules.
There was no point in staying home alone. I changed into my workout gear, a short-sleeve shirt, and running shorts put on my flip-flops, and headed for the same beach.
My wife and daughter were easy to find. Without much comment, I got out of my flip-flops and took off running. It was exactly two-and-a-half miles to the blank metal signpost that stuck out of the sand just down from the compound residence. On a hard flat sand day at low tide, I could make the run in under thirty-five minutes but the tide was in and the surf slightly up so I had to run in the deep hot sand just beyond the water’s top edges.
The harder I ran and the more I got into my running ‘groove’ I realized that I didn’t really need to share the misgivings I was having about my interior thought process. I wasn’t beyond revealing weakness to my wife but doing so if I thought I could handle the process myself was unnecessary and quite possibly a needless burden or source of concern to her. I worked what had happened since the morning of the day before through my mind, as I ran. The faster and harder I ran, the better I felt. Maybe the flashback was simply a common fleeting thing among men who’d been through what I’d been through.
When I got back to where Julie still played near the water I was a sweating mess. I swam out into the surf, where I stayed for another half an hour. I realized what I did have to tell my wife was that I’d be being picked up at eight a.m. by one of the estate limos, not that she’d miss that little detail when it occurred. D.C. and back in under six hours might bear some explaining but I had little to give her about that since I didn’t know very much myself. The mystery of the white envelope would have to wait until I knew more.
After digging a hole and then building a sandcastle with Julie, told her what I was going to be up to, but she merely nodded and went on reading whatever novel she was deeply engrossed in. I decided to run home, shower, dress in uniform, and patrol the beach for a while. I wanted as much alone time in the Bronco as I could get before the coming new reserves took over, even if they were supposedly my reserve force.
Steve Bro was an unassuming young man, about my height but much thicker in the body. He reminded me of a smaller version of the Zero tower lifeguard named Bob Elwell, whom I’d met earlier. Steve wore large horn-rimmed glasses, however. My encounter was different with him, although the word ‘different’ was taking on much more expansive and deeper meanings to me as I tried to center on being back in the “real” world. Steve drove his yellow Jeep right across the Bronco’s path, just after I got through the gates and tried to turn toward where my wife and daughter frolicked on the sand. His Jeep blocked my way unless I wanted to either drive into the interior fence protecting the nearby train tracks or motor out into the surf, which was pounding the shoreline at near high tide.
I stopped the Bronco and idled the V8, without getting out. Instead, I sat and waited. Bro stepped down from his bright yellow Jeep, which had no cabin or external protections from either the sun or the elements, unlike the Bronco.
“So, you’re the new reserve assigned to the old, but now new, beach patrol?” he said, in a knowing and conclusionary way, instead of stating what he said as a question.
I didn’t know how to answer him. I nodded my head. His warm. welcoming smile was a clone of Elwell’s smile, his eyes flashing the same glint of intellect but with a hint of flint, Bob Elwell’s hadn’t had.
“Steve Bro,” he said, in a tone that made his name sound like one I should already know.
Bro stuck out his hand, exactly as Elwell had done.
Before shaking it, I thought of the other three guards I’d met earlier at the station and their treatment of Captain Byerly. Neither Elwell nor Bro were cut from that cloth, I realized.
“What am I supposed to call you?” Bro asked, the smile remaining on his face as we dropped our hands.
I thought about all the nicknames I’d held so far in my life. In elementary school, everyone, including the Maryknoll nuns had called me Shadow, since I was always to be found with my brother. I became known as his shadow. In Vietnam, it’d been Junior and Flash. None of them seemed to apply.
“They call me Beachboy at the Western White House,” I replied, almost instantly regretting what I’d said, so I added: “but I don’t much like it.”
“Beachboy it is,” Bro replied, laughing openly.
Steve and I chatted about almost nothing at all until he brought up Vietnam. He hadn’t gone for a variety of reasons and I listened without comment. I didn’t care but didn’t let on. I appreciated all things living, including him. If he’d gone with me I knew he’d be dead.
I didn’t want to hang with Steve Bro, at least not yet, and I didn’t want to think about Vietnam. Steve took off in his Jeep and I decided to turn around and head for home, instead of going on patrol. I had other things I could do to take my mind off that subject.
I didn’t bother to change out of my uniform, instead parked the Bronco at the police lot and got into the Volks, which I’d left in a nearby slot.
I drove the thirty-five miles to Santa Ana from San Clemente to visit the police supply shop once more. I’d called in my need for the shop to produce a ‘Reserve Commander’ I.D. tag, to be made in the same brass design as the nametag I’d been required to order when I’d gotten through the academy training. The Volks had a top speed of just shy of 88 miles per hour, so I made the trip, without traffic, and at that top speed in something less than half an hour. My arrival was innocuous and made without announcement as I stepped in and stood in front of the only counter. There was a young woman across from me who I’d never seen before. I was about to ask for the guy who’d been my previous contact there but then thought better of it.
“I’m from San Clemente police and I came for the Reserve Commander tag I ordered earlier,” I said.
“Oh, you’re that guy,” the woman responded, reaching into a drawer located and built into the other side of the counter. She pulled a small brown envelope out and then pushed it gently across the top of the counter.
I clutched the small envelope in my left hand and then asked about the bill.
“U.S. government account,” the woman said as if that revelation was somehow very important.
All I did was shrug, wondering if anybody seeing the bill at the compound (if that was really where the bill might end up) would figure out that the San Clemente Police Department wasn’t in any way affiliated with the feds when it came to paying the bills. I took the new tag and left. Once I got to my car I opened the envelope. I read the engraved printing on the tag. It read, in very tiny print across the top of it; ‘reserve,’ but the main engraving, four times as large and more deeply indented into the polished brass, read simply: “COMMANDER.”
I liked the title, a lot, but frowned, before starting the Volks. I thought of taking the tag and going back into the shop in order to have another one generated that might have the word ‘reserve’ engraved a bit larger but then decided to run with what I had. I was a nobody on the police force, I knew. I was the lowest grade of patrolman and that was if I wasn’t an even more lowly ‘reserve’ myself. There was going to be trouble, I knew, when I wore the tag on my uniform shirt, just as there had been, for different reasons, when I’d worn my decoration ribbons on the front of my Marine Officer’s uniform while still full time in the Corps.
“Let the chips fall where they may,” I whispered to myself, pinning the small but distinctive and shiny tag above the right front pocket of my uniform shirt.
I drove straight home and my wife was home when I got there. Amazingly, and unexpectedly, she didn’t bring up the subject of my mystery trip to Washington, which was odd. I’d never traveled without her since we’d been married, except to Vietnam, and the hospital in Japan.
In the morning, well before I had to leave, my only sport coat, in dark blue, a long sleeve white shirt, and khaki pants were waiting for me, all laid out, as if I was going on some job-hunting appointment. I had coffee and then checked out front for the limo, even though it was ten minutes before the appointed hour. The limo was there, sitting well out from the curb, waiting.
I left early and went outside to get into the vehicle. Thankfully, the driver, probably knowing that I was a nobody, didn’t get up and go around the limo to open the rear door for me. In fact, he did nothing but drive away once the door was closed. He never spoke during the drive, which he handled masterfully, although there was no real traffic to test his abilities. I arrived at the small terminal forty minutes before the flight.
I went directly to the correct United Gate to register for the flight.
I could see the plane through the window behind the gate counter. It was a United 727, with a single aisle running up and down the center and three seats on each side in economy class. My row was 27, and I had the window seat. If given the chance I’d have booked the aisle, so as to easily get in and out of the row and also to watch up and down the aisle for security…not that there was much to be done or any place to go if there was a threat.
I had no carry-on and no checked baggage. Presenting my ticket had gotten me a boarding pass without showing any identification, which I didn’t have anyway. The ticket cost the government five-hundred and fifty dollars I saw, which was a lot of money, and that was for what I presumed was coach passage. The passenger in the middle seat was already in his seat. He was younger than me by a few years, sported a short haircut of his very blond hair, and wore a Notre Dame sweatshirt and jeans He spent the few hours of the trip talking to an attractive middle-aged woman who sat next to him in the aisle seat.
Washington National was a busy and densely populated airport. As soon as I got off the plane, I felt the place close in on me. The walk from the tarmac had been uneventful but the airport facility itself was filled with what seemed like seething mobs of unconnected and constantly moving human beings. There were three men stationed on the other side of the open door I walked in through. They all held white cardboard signs with black magic marker letters written on them. One said “COTTON.” I walked over to the unassuming-looking black man holding the sign.
“You Cotton?” he asked, looking skeptical.
I nodded, and then looked around. There was no organization to anything, just people moving every which way in what seemed like one great mass of shifting bodies.
“Do you have it?” the man asked.
I produced the envelope I’d been given and handed it to him.
The man didn’t open the sealed and taped envelope. He simply put it into his pants pocket, handed me the white cardboard sign with my pseudo last name on it, and walked away without saying anything further. I waited a few seconds. It seemed so ridiculous, but then so sensible. How anybody could make anything out of the transfer of the thin plain and innocuous-looking envelope was beyond me, and that must have been part of the plan. I took out the other envelope and confirmed my return flight, which was scheduled for two hours later.
I folded up the cardboard with the letters COTTON hand-printed on its surface and put it into my pocket. I smiled to myself at the thought that the memento might have significance sometime in the future if I wanted to start keeping a diary of my experiences.
I’d received both boarding passes in Chicago but only looked at the one I needed to use to get to D.C. When I read the remaining ticket, I saw the row number of the seat I was assigned and I realized why the round-trip ticket had cost so much. I was in row two. The plane was another 727, as the first one. Row two was in First Class. For some reason, I was going back to Chicago in First Class. I wondered if the flight was totally sold out. I could think of no other reason why Mardian would have spent the extra money just to make me more comfortable, but I wasn’t going to complain.
First Class would be called to board first so I took a seat near the gate the 727 was already parked at. I waited out most of the two hours doing nothing but watching other passengers and those picking up passengers at nearby gates. Just after an attendant showed up to man the gate counter and it seemed likely she would be calling for First Class boarding, I stood up to stretch my legs and get ready. I breathed in and out, not to release any tension but out of boredom. The ‘job’ I was doing was terribly boring and I wouldn’t travel doing it again without taking along some reading material.
“Would Mr. John S. Cotton please report to the United ticketing desk,” came out over the paging system.
I looked around me in disbelief. Who knew I was in D.C. under that assumed name? Only Mardian, and United Airlines. I walked the short distance to the gate attendant.
“I’ve been paged,” I said, as no other passengers stood before her small counter. “I’m supposed to go to the ticketing counter, which is way back down the concourse. Is there some problem that can be handled here? We’re going to board soon.”
“I’ll check,” the woman said, going to work on her computer. Her check only took a few seconds. “Nothing I can see here. Someone must have left you a message at the ticketing counter but I can’t access it from here.”
Bob Mardian was my only other suspect. If it was anything to do with my ticket home or United then the gate attendant would know. Why would he page me at the ticketing counter?
I turned and began walking back down the concourse toward the main ticketing counter. It was a good thousand feet away. The boarding announcement for my flight came out through the speakers as I walked as fast as I could without running. I wasn’t going to miss my flight no matter what the message was.
I arrived at the counter out of breath.
I’m John S. Cotton,” I said to one of the available attendants behind the counter. “I was paged to come here.”
“Oh, I see,” the woman said, walking a few feet to another part of the counter and retrieving a United envelope.
I opened it. There were only a few words written on the single sheet of paper: “Call me when you reach Orange County,” the message said. There was no name or salutation at all, but then there really didn’t have to be. I knew who’d messaged me, but for the life of me couldn’t figure out why, unless when I got back to Orange County I had to go somewhere else before heading for home.
I rushed to get back to the gate. I made it with ten minutes or so to spare. When I got aboard I found my seat easily, as I was the only one of five First Class passengers aboard and there was no one in the seat next to my own. I sat down and relaxed, getting the strange message out of my thoughts. I’d deal with Mardian when I got back.
The flight was fine, with free food and everything. Following the snack and with the aircraft reaching altitude, I tried to nod off for a bit but felt the need to use the washroom first. I unbelted, got up, and moved the short distance to the single First-Class bathroom, but stopped in front of the plastic door. A small sign was taped to the door’s surface that read; ‘out of order.’ I sighed, which the only First-Class flight attendant nearby heard. She turned from whatever she was doing.
“You’ll have to use the coach bathrooms located at the back of the plane,” she said, with a sympathetic smile, her right index finger needlessly pointing toward the back of the plane.
I turned and began to make my way to the rear, where there was a small line formed in the aisle, made by a few other coach passengers waiting to take turns using the only two functioning bathrooms aboard. I looked to my right, as I waited and was more than surprised. Sitting at the window in one of the last rows, in the window seat, with his face mostly averted, sat the blond kid I’d flown next to when coming into D.C. only hours earlier.
My mind raced. Suddenly, I didn’t have to use the washroom anymore. I turned slowly, trying to draw no attention to myself, and made my way back to my seat at the front of the plane. I sat down, leaned the thing as far back as the seat would allow, and then closed my eyes…not to sleep or nap, but to think.
The same kid was on the plane. There could be no coincidence that substantial I could come up with. The kid had flown into D.C. and then gotten aboard my flight back to Orange County two hours later, so he’d likely never left the airport either. The call. I thought about the message from Mardian, with no name or number accompanying it. The kid had to get on the plane but I would have seen him, as I was in First Class at the very front and would be boarding earliest. I realized then that I was only in First Class so I wouldn’t interact with him. The call had been to draw me away so he could get aboard without my seeing him. I would also be deplaning before him. Only the bathroom being shut down had changed everything and revealed so much.
I was not to be trusted. I’d worried about being trusted when I could see no reason why I was placed in such a position among people who gave me little indication that they trusted anyone on the planet at all. I was not trusted, as was being graphically demonstrated to me, at least by Mardian. However, I wasn’t really be allowed to know I wasn’t trusted. The boy had probably tailed me all the way to the point where I delivered the sealed envelope. The envelope had never been in my possession without someone else’s eyes monitoring its every move. I opened my eyes and canted my seatback upright. I was in no danger that I could see or think of so I wasn’t emotionally charged or upset. I was just contemplative and inquisitive. Why such arcane plans had been laid and executed was beyond my ability to figure out.
If the kid was trusted to watch my every move on the supposed ‘mission’ then why wasn’t he simply used as the messenger? The only part of the whole mission, if, in fact, the mission was over when I arrived back at the Orange County Airport, that was seemingly apparent was the likely import of the message, or whatever it was, that I’d delivered inside that envelope. Much more expense, planning, and thought had gone into getting that envelope to D.C. than I would ever have thought before finding the bathroom in First Class out of order. I was playing in a game I didn’t understand and with players far beyond my experience or capability. Lingering in the back of my mind, as I waited for the flight to be over, was a developing conclusion that attributability might be involved. If something went wrong, no matter what, then who would be accountable? I was an FNG all over again and, somehow, I had to adroitly dance my way through the early days of my ‘combat’ period without getting myself and my family killed off socially, financially, or physically.
I got off the plane but didn’t head for the nearest telephone. For one thing, although I knew the general number for the operator at the Western White House, I didn’t know any number exclusive to Bob Mardian. I walked out of the terminal entrance and immediately saw the limo. Once more I got in and was whisked away. I said nothing to the driver and he didn’t say anything to me all the way back to my place on Cabrillo. Once home, I got out of the car and it took off, no doubt headed back for the compound. I realized I was going there, as well. I was inexorably drawn. I hadn’t made the phone call I’d been instructed to make in the message. It didn’t matter whether I had a number for Mardian or not. I couldn’t leave things the way they were.
I went inside to change into my uniform. I felt like I was getting into a set of armor. Maybe it was the last time I’d wear it, I thought. Maybe I’d lasted less than a day as the ‘reserve commander.’
My wife wanted to know what was wrong with me, so I told her about the mission and the details of how it had gone off. Her take, almost instantly given, shocked me.
“They were testing you,” she concluded. “There was no message. You’re not important enough to carry presidential messages or much of any other kind. Go to the compound, since from what you say it appears you passed the test. Maybe there’s a real job in all of this after all.”
I finished getting ready and took off for the compound. I was there in minutes, waved through into the parking lot, out of the Volks, and then stepped through the door that was opened for me before I got to it.
I walked straight to Halde
man’s desk, but on approach, quickly observed he wasn’t at his desk. He was almost always at the same desk, at least since I’d been moving in and out of the building. Ehrlichman was sitting at his own desk nearby so I diverted, intending to question him about how I might reach Mardian, even if he was still at the compound.
I didn’t get the chance.
Ehrlichman pointed toward the side door. “Residence pool,” he said, his facial features expressionless.
My shoulders slumped. Not the residence again. Bob Mardian had to be there waiting. What could he possibly have to say, other than berating me for not calling him on a number I didn’t even have?
I went through the door, then the gate through the small wall. Tim, the dog, was nowhere to be seen. I walked around the corner of the house. He was there.
It was a setting exactly like had occurred the day before. Even the same drink seemed to be in Mardian’s left hand. I stopped short of the chaise lounge I’d been told to sit on before but made no other move. I stood at near attention, waiting for what the ‘dirty tricks’ division head might have to say. The man looked up but didn’t order me to sit down, as he’d done previously.
“Tomorrow, at nine hundred hours you’ll drive me to El Toro.”
My relief was palpable but short-lived.
“When I arrive there, I’ll inform you of your second mission.”
stared into his eyes. There seemed like some sort of a smile behind them like he was having a good time twisting, turning, and teasing me, but I knew from what I’d observed so far, in my brief contact with the man, that there didn’t seem to be a lot of good humor in him.
I thought of a dozen questions to ask but didn’t get even one out.
“Go,” he said, just like he’d done the day before.