I entered the Union Bank Building elevator, the building itself located on the grounds of the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach. The building was just another square high rise but the elevator buttons pointed out one uncommon irregularity. The address I was going to and the corresponding button, missing on most buildings across America, was the number 13. Tom’s office was on the 13th floor. Superstition ran deep in the business rental industry, so most buildings did not have a 13th floor. My opinion of Thorkelson went up as I pushed the 13th Floor button and the elevator went up.
My brand new Sears and Roebuck gray suit was a little tight in places but looked good to my wife and to me in the bedroom full-length mirror. I wore my one non-Marine Corps tie, made by a new designer named Ralph Lauren. It was bright red and cost almost twenty percent of what the suit had cost.
The elevator opened and I stepped out into a different world.
There was no hallway or entry. The elevator let me off right in front of the center of a long counter. I stood and stared. The rug, the wall coverings, the art on those walls, and the use of wood and fabric breathed money and quality. The big gold lettering behind the counter on the wall read: “Tom Thorkelson and Associates.”
I walked over to the counter, behind which two seated women were working.
“I’m here for the seminar,” I said, more hopeful than I’d been prepared to admit before coming out of the elevator.
“Through that door,” the woman on the right said, pointing at a big expensive door made of some exotically beautiful wood.
I walked over to the door, then stopped to take a look around me, wondering if I’d somehow wandered onto the set of some Outer Limits or Twilight Zone production. I turned back and asked myself what might be behind the door?
The European-style classy door handle was made of brushed stainless. I pushed down and the door opened all by itself. I was staring at rows of tables set up to face a stage. There were half a dozen young men and women already seated in the room.
I took a seat next to a beautiful woman wearing a sticky nametag high on the right side of her chest. Ava Nawy.
She pointed at the blank name tag on the table in an open space next to her. I sat down and wrote my name on the tag with the pen that was provided with the tag. Tom Thorkelson walked onto the raised platform in front of the tables. He smiled and began to talk.
The man proved to be a gifted speaker, but more than that, a person seemingly of sublime intellect and apparent truth-telling. Until walking into his offices I’d known almost nothing about life insurance. After the single seminar indoctrination, supported with visual aids and frequent breaks, I was educated and enthralled. I wanted to be involved with whatever Tom Thorkelson was doing. Part of the first hour consisted of Tom’s sales presentation, to be given to all prospects. It was two pages long and single-spaced. There would be a second meeting with Tom in a week and everyone in the room was expected to have the presentation memorized for recitation by then. The presentation was all about saving money, and nowhere in it did any discussion come up about people dying and leaving cash to others because of the purchaser’s passing.
When the seminar ended, I got up with my package of paperwork, which included a contract indicating I was to work for one year with the agency. The contract also included production requirements that kicked in immediately but not terminally (if not met) until the end of the six-month point Chuck Bartok had mentioned. As I exited the room Tom, who’d gone out through another door at the head of the room stood and waved me to him. His smile was huge and welcoming.
“Chuck says great things about you,” he said, sticking out his right hand.
I took it, but only smiled in response, not having a clue as to what Chuck told him. I didn’t want to blow a chance on missing out on at least the first thousand dollars of the strangely qualified ‘advance.’ I’d charged my suit, shoes, and tie at Sears and that bill would be coming up, although it wouldn’t amount to anything close to the thousand.
“You’ve got mail in your mailbox, so don’t forget to pick it up on your way out,” Tom said, letting my hand go and beginning to turn away to welcome another of the trainees.
Mail in my mailbox, I wondered? I had a mailbox?
“The most important thing you heard today was my instructions to memorize the presentation by next week’s seminar, which I promise you will be much shorter. I was a Marine officer too.”
I was surprised again. Chuck had said nothing about Tom’s background.
“I’ve already memorized the presentation,” I replied, not mentioning that the opening sentence of that presentation was “Are you interested in saving money?” a questioning phrase I had no intention of saying to anyone I knew or might meet in San Clemente.
“Oh,” Tom replied, his tone indicating surprise, before turning away.
“I can recite it now, if you want,” I said to his back, to possibly allay any doubt he might have about me and also to, hopefully, seal the deal about the money.
“Don’t forget the mail,” Tom replied, over his shoulder, as he went.
The same woman who’d directed me hours earlier through the training room door pointed in the opposite direction Tom had taken. “Mailboxes are all located at the new business window.”
I walked a short distance before I came upon an area of the hallway where a shelf stuck out of the wall and a window was inset. Just beyond the window, I saw a bunch of old-fashioned mailboxes set into the drywall. I stopped in front of them. One box had my name under it in small white print. I pulled the little metal button on the box and the door opened.
A single envelope was inside. I pulled it out. My name was typed on the front with the agency return address in the left-hand corner. I opened the unsealed envelope. There was a check slipped inside the already filled-out contract I’d seen during the training. The check was for one thousand dollars, issued from an account with the company name of Massachusetts Mutual in its lower left corner.
I closed the door to my mailbox and turned to the window.
“Do you want this contract here?” I asked, slipping the now folded check into the inside breast pocket of my Sears and Roebuck coat.
“That will be fine,” the young lady replied.
I signed the contract in front of her, wondering if somehow the signing of it would make the check good. It mattered, but I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the contract, along with everything else I was involved with in San Clemente, might just point my life in a direction I could be happy with instead of simply accommodating. I knew I couldn’t feel the check resting against my left breast, not through the thick material of my shirt and the coat’s liner, but the ‘heat’ of it seemed to radiate into my very core. As soon as I left I was going straight to the Newport bank it was issued on and getting cash, just to be dead certain.
Walking away from the counter I heard the new-business person say: “a copy of the contract will be in your mailbox. “Welcome to the agency.”
“Can I really be bought for a thousand dollars?” I whispered to myself when I stood before the elevator door, waiting for it to come up to my floor. I thought about the check in my pocket for a few seconds, as the elevator descended with me in it alone, and came to the conclusion, before the elevator reached the first floor, that I’d already been bought when I’d signed the contract and taken the money.
Tom Thorkelson, and Mass Mutual, had already ‘bought’ at least some of my services. I wondered as I headed for the bank, whether he or the company had any clue about the rest of my ‘services.’ I also thought about my mailbox in the Newport Beach office with my name on it. I worked for the Western White House and the San Clemente Police Department, but I had no mailbox in either place, and my personal mailbox at home was delivered to, and serviced by, an ex-combat Marine from hell. My hell, that I was trying so hard to leave behind.
Once back in San Clemente it weighed heavily on me that my next visit back to the agency in Newport Beach was only days away. The check had been good, although I’d waited for nearly half a nervous hour in the branch to get ten hundred dollar bills to prove it. The first meeting with Tom was to be about the sales of Mass Mutual products and how I was doing at it. I had no sales, nor much real understanding of the products. I had a box filled with books, applications, and other supporting paperwork. I’d scanned some of the material but not to the point that I understood most of it.
I drove down to the lifeguard headquarters and went through the double railroad protecting gates with my purloined clicker I’d lifted from a parked department Jeep. The only lifeguard on duty in the building was named Tom Metzger. He was a tallish gangly guy with a great, ribald, and biting sense of humor. I approached him with what I’d decided to do on the side. I asked him to sit and listen to my presentation and tell me how I was at presenting it.
“I give up,” he said, getting into one of the parked lifeguard jeeps nearby. “I’m not listening to anything. I’ll get a policy if you buy me two prime rib dinners. All I can afford is twenty-five bucks a month, though.”
“You’ve got a deal,” I replied, sticking out my right hand. I had no idea what amount of insurance that much money would buy, but it assured me, at the very least, that I wouldn’t be walking into Tom’s office in a few days with nothing in hand. I’d received my thousand dollars and now my first non-Western White House mission was to get a second thousand.
Tom laughed at my outstretched hand. “After the dinner,” he said.
“What about your brother?” I asked, just to have something to say, while I thought about what restaurant Tom and I might go to that served the cheapest prime rib.
“You’ll have to beat him at chess, and he’s damned good at that game,” Tom replied.
“I’ll arrange the dinner,” I said my mind racing. “You arrange the game.”
Metzger laughed louder this time, before starting the Jeep, putting it in first gear, and driving off toward the pier.
Tom showed up that night at the El Adobe Restaurant in San Juan Capistrano as planned. Three prime rib dinners cost me one full month’s premium on Tom’s policy, but I knew it was worth it. Tom’s brother would meet me the following afternoon for the big chess game. It had taken me an hour to figure out how to fill out an application for the coverage, and all the other paperwork that went with it. The whole thing was an analytical mess, in my opinion, but I had to do it for the money. Tom signed everything and gave me a check following the dinner. He ate the prime rib on his two plates, and what was left on my own.
“I would have gotten the policy anyway, you know,” he said when he was done.
“Why?” I asked him in surprise.
“To be your first client,” Tom replied, finishing his fourth bottle of beer, “you’re an unusual person.”
I left Tom, mystified, paperwork in hand, and went home to celebrate my first sale. My wife hadn’t been really supportive of my going out to dinner without her, but the new income was as important to her as it was to me.
After I headed down Avenida Cabrillo I could not help but see the same compound limousine parked just up from the short driveway slanting down from beneath the first-floor balcony of our apartment.
This time I didn’t delay at all. I walked straight up to the limo’s front door. The window moved smoothly down and Sam stuck his head out.
“See the man, no doubt,” I said, not smiling, and standing a bit back from the window.
Sam laughed. “Right now, for the assignment, and then when I bring you back I’ll pick you up here at three tomorrow for the execution.”
“What’s the attire?” I asked, not comfortable with the last word Sam had spoken. I had no idea where the new mission might take me, although seeing Metzger’s brother would fit in nicely as long as it went as planned prior to the mission. I wasn’t about to forget about the first ‘mission to nowhere’ that had taken a full day to accomplish nothing, at least from my perspective.
“Just business dress, as usual,” Sam replied. “It’s an easy one, I think.”
“Thanks, Sam,” I said, smiling at the man who was so obviously getting a kick out of being my driver, superior, advisor, or whatever he was assigned or supposed to be in my undefinable employment position with the Western White House.
Tom Metzger had arranged for the chess game to occur at high noon, the following day, which fit in nicely.
Sam had to wait while my wife attired me in the only business outfit I had. The trip back to the compound was without incident or comment. Once again we drove right in, and I went right through the compound door. One of the secretaries or assistants pointed as I walked down the hall and I diverted to pass through the door toward the residence.
Mardian sat at the poolside, like before. I took my place on the extended foot of a chaise lounge, also like before, wondering how Mardian was able to claim a place on the residence property instead of being consigned, like everyone else I associated with on the compound, to the adjacent building which had become the business center for White House operations.
“Haldeman is renting a house for his wife and four kids to use whenever he’s in town,” Mardian said, finally revealing what the third mission had to be all about. The man was very intelligent. He had to know I wasn’t involved in real estate at all, so I waited for some explanation I knew had to be forthcoming.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, and then waited..
The glass door leading into the house opened with a metal sliding on metal sound, and a middle-aged woman appeared, wearing a skirt and blouse. She didn’t step out, merely standing with the drape held over to her left side with one hand.
“Oh, Mr. Mardian,” she said, but looking at me.
“Stand up,” Bob said, in a forced whisper, as he came to his feet.
I stood, facing the woman.
“And you’re Beachboy,” she went on, with a radiant smile. I recognized that I was being addressed by the president’s wife, Patricia Nixon. Her warmth of welcome radiated out from her in a strange sort of laid-back way.
I smiled without even knowing I was smiling, not for a few seconds, anyway.
“You can stay as long as you need to…and thanks for looking after things for us.”
I nodded, not knowing what she might be talking about, and whether the comment included me. I didn’t know what to say, noting, however, that she spoke only to me, her eyes never straying toward Bob, and also that she’d used a nickname (however much I considered it denigrating) when addressing me but called Bob Mr. Mardian.
With that, the drape fell across the opening and the glass door slid shut.
“You always stand in the presence of either the president, the vice-president, or their wives,” Bob said, before sitting back down.
I’d know about standing for the president but not for others. I didn’t reply, since Bob hadn’t phrased his comment as a question.
“H.R. rented a house”, Mardian began, sitting back down and moving on as if Patricia Nixon hadn’t made an appearance at all. The place was formerly owned by one of San Clemente’s famous leaders. The guy who currently owns it threw a monkey wrench into the beach house rental. He’s demanding that H.R. pay him cash because he doesn’t trust Republicans. H.R. will pay him by check, delivered on the first of every month, according to the terms of the lease. The first payment of rent plus deposit will be given to you by Ehrlichman’s secretary when you go back to the other building, and you’re supposed to be at the home to meet with the man in half an hour. There, that’s it,” Bob finished, standing up like he wanted to be either done with the issue or possibly away from the residence as quickly as possible.
“How am I supposed to deliver a check when the man says he’ll only take cash?” I asked, rolling the whole thing around in my mind.
“That’s the mission,” Mardian replied, walking past me toward the end of the pool. “Make it happen.”
With that, he disappeared around the corner of the residence. I knew he’d be gone from the compound by the time I got to Ehrlichman’s desk.
Neither Haldeman nor Ehrlichman were at their desks when I got there, instead, Sam stood waiting, a white envelope in his hand, his blue chauffeur uniform bright but out of place.
“Sam,” I said, walking up to him.
“I’ll drive you to the rental residence tomorrow at three,” Sam said, as I opened the unsealed envelope and saw that there was a six-thousand-five-hundred dollar check enclosed. The check was drawn on Security Pacific Bank check stock. There was a branch, not one block from where I lived, and I happened to bank there too.
Sam drove me home. The next day came quickly, as I tossed, turned, and thought about how both situations I was to be involved with might turn out. Metzger’s brother lived only a few blocks away, which would make the trip back and forth in the Volks easy. Unless the brother was some kind of secret professional point grandmaster I would easily make it back to meet Sam.
The trip to Metzger’s brother’s house, only a few blocks away was quick and I made certain to be exactly on time.
The older ‘little’ Metzger, who was actually bigger than his brother, welcomed me with a bottle of Budweiser open in his right hand. He didn’t offer to shake hands, instead swinging the front door wide open and gesturing with the bottle towards a kitchen table where a chess board was all set up for the game. Tom had already arrived and was sitting in the kitchen, just back from where the board was set up and waiting.
“You win, I buy a policy, that’s the deal,” the older Metzger said, walking to the table. “You lose and I don’t owe you anything.”
I took a seat at the table, not replying. The bigger older brother was drinking, and wildly expressive in gesture and speech, not to mention wearing only a pair of Ocean Pacific shorts that had never seen the inside of a washing machine. He did, however, have the most successful plumbing business in San Clemente. Tom followed along and took a seat at my right side, not saying anything either, but I could inherently tell he was looking for more than the play and end of a simple board game.
“You can be white,” the brother said, sitting down behind the black pieces on the board. There was no introduction or shaking of hands or any of that. I understood right away that the man was a rank amateur at the game of chess. There were certain traditions in playing the age-old game. Choosing who was to be white and who was to be black was a part of that tradition. Amateurs, however, no matter how seemingly rough and uncaring about tradition or even good manners were never to be underestimated, however. Bobby Fisher had been an ill-mannered amateur for a long time before going pro, and the men who’d taught me chess, on the pier overlooking Waikiki Beach along the sidewalks of Kalakaua Boulevard in Hawaii, had never seen one master’s chess point much less understanding such designations or ranks.
I opened with the King’s pawn, planning to head straight into the Ruy Lopez attack. It was less aggressive than the other nine openings I usually used. I was a memory chess player and I knew it. By simply memorizing all the great games, openings, and defenses, of the masters through the years, all available in the library for free, it wasn’t too difficult to be fairly good at the game of chess.
To his credit, the older Metzger moved his pieces in the correct responses to my opening, until his fifth move. I’d gone with the Berlin variation upon deciding that the brother’s expressive impatience also likely meant that he would be overly aggressive in developing his own pieces, and the Berlin was perfect for drawing out such actions on the part of a black opponent. When I took his Knight with my extended bishop on that fifth move on my part, he used his king’s pawn to capture the bishop in return, instead of using his other pawn near the edge of the board. The brother had stepped right into a common trap. All I had to do was castle my king onto the king side and then move the centrally located castle to place his king, all the way across the board, in check, and, at that point, the game was, for all intents and purposes, over. We played for another hour, with three more Budweisers being consumed by the brother. In the end game, I was two pawns up with one extended past the midpoint of the board. The brother was in a hopeless position, but fighting on in true rank amateur, but still capable style. A pro in his place would have resigned long ago. I realized at that point I was likely making a mistake.
There was no way I was going to win the game and make a sale. The brother was not like his brother Tom. He would be very angry since he had a self-proclaimed track record of never losing at chess. I’d be lucky to keep the policy I’d sold his brother. I resigned, tipping over my king, surprising the brother and Tom both.
“What the hell?” Tom asked, his brother silently pouring over the remaining pieces arranged around the fallen king.
“Okay, you win,” I said, extending my hand across the board. The brother put his beer down and shook firmly. He withdrew his hand at that point and went back to studying the board.
“Alright,” he finally said, looking up. “I’ll buy the damned policy but I want the double prime rib dinner like my brother got,” he said, shaking his head, while still puzzling over the positions of the final pieces still on the board. “What’s the cheapest policy you have?”
“Twenty-five dollars a month, bank withdrawal,” I replied, having no idea what the cheapest policy might be that Mass Mutual marketed but not wanting to charge the brother more than Tom, as I was certain they probably talked to each other about everything. I hadn’t overlooked the commission part of Thorkelson’s seminar, however.
My commission on a whole life policy, costing four or five times per thousand what a term policy costs to the client, paid fifty-five percent of the first year’s premium to me. Term paid fifteen percent. I knew I wouldn’t be selling any term products unless something weird demanded it.
“Dinner tonight at seven,” the brother said, moving back from the board and shaking his head. I completed the same paperwork I’d done with his brother and got another twenty-five dollar check, before leaving. Tom and his brother still sat trying to figure out the final arrangement of pieces on the board. I quietly let myself out and drove home
Sam showed up, while I waited impatiently, at two-forty-five, exactly. Marine Corps time. Fifteen minutes early was ‘on time in the Corps, and obviously for the Western White House personnel, as well. The appointment with Wilson was set for three, in fifteen minutes, which wouldn’t be a problem I knew, as the rental house was only about eight or nine blocks south on Ola Vista from the apartment.
Surprisingly, when I crossed the street and walked up to the limo Sam opened the rear door for me to step in. I immediately noted that there were two other men in the vehicle, both wearing earpieces, a sure sign that they were Secret Service agents. I stared from one to the other, as Sam got in and started the limo.
“I’m not entitled to Secret Service protection,” I said, wondering why nobody had spoken to me first.
“We’re not on duty,” the larger of the two men said, without looking back at me. “We’re doing a favor for a friend. You’re walking into some situation that could lead to trouble, and we’re here to back you up, right Charley?”
The man next to me, also not looking in my direction replied.
“Aye aye, sir,” he said.
Looking at the expressionless and impassive agents, I suddenly didn’t like the feel of whatever was happening. What situation, exactly, was I being delivered to? It sure didn’t seem like what Mardian described back at the pool. My thoughts had been shifted unwillingly from being able to tell my wife that the president’s wife knew of my existence, omitting her use of my nickname, of course, to considering what physical danger might be ahead of me.
“Beachball exiting apartment,” the agent in the front seat said into some radio transmitter he had on him that I couldn’t see.
“Beachball?” My nickname had been beachboy, but now it was being changed to something even more inconsequential by the Secret Service. I had been on the grounds long enough to know that the service nicknamed all those they gave protection to, and very few of those assigned a name liked the one assigned. I was in good company, but once again vaguely complimented, except for the obvious fact that the agents weren’t off duty at all or they would not have been giving a position report about either my or their whereabouts.
“Into the valley of death rode the six hundred,” I whispered, more to myself than the other men in the vehicle, none of whom seemed like they’d have any familiarity with Tennyson’s poem.
“Sir?” the agent next to me asked, but I didn’t respond, as my mind had moved on to the meeting ahead.
Obviously, either more had been exchanged in the dialogue between the man and whoever represented Haldeman or he had a violent reputation, probably backed up by evidence or the non-standard and potentially illegal presence of the Secret Service would never have occurred. There had been no copy of the lease in the envelope I’d been given. Mardian’s comment about the lease specifying payment by check instead of by cash just didn’t ring true with me. The leases I was familiar with, and there weren’t that many, stipulated that money had to be paid for the benefits provided. I’d never seen anything specific as to the kind of currency or other forms of compensation necessary to meet the lessee’s obligation.
I was unarmed. I was likely unknown to the man I was meeting. I was representing someone who the man didn’t like or have any use for. Mardian seemed to have absolutely no doubt that I would be able to take care of the situation to Haldeman’s satisfaction. I wasn’t so sure, at all. I didn’t want to get hurt or hurt the man, even though he might need to be hurt. I also didn’t want to show up back at the compound without having succeeded in the mission. Mrs. Nixon had struck me, in the short few seconds I’d been in front of her, as being a really nice caring woman, totally unlike the presentation her husband made. I didn’t want a cloud of failure to orbit above me, like Pigpen’s constant cloud in the Peanuts cartoons. Just before transiting from South Ola Vista to the street, the house was located, I devised a plan.
Sam stopped the car at the curb in front of an old Spanish-style home, large, spacious, and with a tile-topped plaster wall all around it.
“Beachball arriving at the target,” the agent in the front seat transmitted.
There was no gate through the wall, just some stairs and then a rather steep walkway up to the front door that was well shaded by an empty veranda sticking out above it.
“Sam, have the agents stay here with you,” I ordered, in my old Marine Officer’s tone, “but after I get inside, I want them standing outside, one on either side of the vehicle. Have them both look toward the house and continue to do that until I come out.”
I didn’t want to try to order the agents to do anything. They hadn’t indicated that they were under my orders, but if they were to take instructions at all it was likely they’d take them from Sam, who seemed, from time to time, to be more than just a limo driver.
I exited the vehicle. Neither agent nor Sam had spoken a word in response to the presentation of their part in my plan.
I walked up to the front door, which was a screen door, almost impossible to see through because of a great buildup of dust and tiny bits of debris. I immediately wondered about the state the rest of the house might be in if the screen door was in such bad shape. What was Haldeman thinking?
I knocked on the wood edge of the door, as there was no button visible anywhere.
“Open it up and come on in,” a deep gruff voice said from somewhere well within the home.
I took a long deep breath and prepared myself before opening the door and stepping inside. A man stood looking out of a huge picture window that gave a sweeping view of the ocean and the beaches running from beyond the pier south and then all the way north up to where Trestles beach extended out from beyond the compound.
The man turned. I saw that he was well above my own height and much thicker. The expression on his face was neither friendly nor peaceful.
“You the errand boy they sent with the cash?” he said, his voice so graveling and threatening that the word errand became errant and cash was transposed to catch. I tried not to smile, thinking about the sentence. I was a wayward lad coming home to deliver a load of fish, the way he used the words.
“Funny?” the man said, being more observant in the dim light than I expected.
“Not at all,” I replied, moving closer until I was standing next to the man and looking out the window with him. “I was just interested in your dialect.”
“What in hell is a dialect,” he asked, staring down across the short distance between us.
“It’s a different version of something, usually a word used to describe something in the presentation of a language,” I replied, wondering if he’d understand a word I’d said.
“A different version…” the man said, his voice trailing off.
“Mr. Wilson, I’m here to talk to you about a different version of something, but not dealing with language.
” I’m Wilson all right, and I don’t think I like you,” the man said, moving a step closer. His expression became ever more fearsome.
I relaxed my body as completely as I could, began controlling my breathing, and watched his eyes. My own eyes began to synchronize with the blinking of his eyes. Mr. Wilson and I were becoming one. I turned slightly to present the angle of my left side, exposing as little of my torso as I could. I’d already taken in the man’s physical presence and parts. Standing sideways to me, his right knee was exposed, and since he was wearing shorts a scar was barely visible running at an angle up and down his knee area. I didn’t glance at the knee. I didn’t need to. His right knee was where I would first take him.