The day grew ever darker and more threatening. I knew the storm wasn’t going to miss San Clemente, as it sometimes did. Living right on the shore wasn’t the best place on the planet to make weather predictions about I’d learned over time.
I had little time to get to the compound and enlist the Staff Sergeant, as well as the rest of his detail. I had to get back to the Bronco and install my portable 8-Track player somewhere I could reach it from the front seat. Steed and Herberich had to be available or make themselves available to do the work of removing, transporting, and later installing the aluminum doors on Butch’s trailer. I also had to time everything so that Butch would not be at his trailer when necessary and then would be when he had to be. There were way too many variables for me to be able to count on the whole thing working. Taking Gularte and beating Butch to a pulp would probably be effective at enlisting his cooperation but I didn’t want to do that if it was at all possible to avoid it. I was home. I was not in Vietnam or down in that cursed valley. I not only was opposed to using physical violence after what I’d been through, I was opposed to having such stuff done not only in my country but right near where I lived with my wife, daughter and now Bozo.
When I was done putting all the pieces into place, the last thing I had to do was call Richard. Richard’s surveillance was the key to the whole thing I was setting up. Richard monitoring the camera’s images was also vital. I needed him to be glued to the screen. Steed and Herberich were on the way to the Bronco in order to place it near Richard’s yacht and have the straps available to secure the doors to the top of the Bronco. Once Butch was deemed to be out of his trailer, and out of sight from it, then the plan could begin to be implemented.
Richard picked up right away when I called.
“That’s not a problem,” Richard replied, after I’d laid out the need for us to have Butch away from the Airstream, “I’ve got plenty of reserve here. Butch left the place just after eight and is working his way toward the northern part of the basin. He won’t see a thing, although somebody else, once you get the doors off, might be quick to report the situation to him.”
That was all I needed to know about Butch.
“Can you view the Bronco with Steed and Herberich in it?” I asked, as I had no radio to reach out to them and I wasn’t going to risk irritating Gates even more.
“It’s here,” Richard said. “You want me to go over there and tickle their funny bones?”
“Yes,” I replied, wondering where in Richard’s background he got such strange sayings to use in his everyday communications. It was like Turner always answering the phone with ‘yello’ instead of hello. Annoying but not something worth bringing up.
“Wind’s kicking up out there,” Richard commented, “hope the guy’s place doesn’t get torn up without doors.”
I didn’t reply, sitting frustrated while waiting for Richard to get over to the Bronco and initiate the action part of the mission. The phone had gone silent, so I presumed he was on his way. Five minutes later he came back on the line.
“Okay, they’re off,” he reported. “Want me to call you back when they’re done and on their way, to wherever the hell they’re going?”
“No, just stand by for Butch’s return. The guys know exactly what to do. When they get back I’ll be there. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait all day long for Butch to come back to his residence.”
“We could ‘tickle’ him a bit,” Richard replied.
“Nope, let it alone,” I said, a little annoyed again.
I got off the phone. Everything was working. All I had to do was wait for about an hour and then get down to Richard’s yacht.
I’d dressed in my Western White House attire. Steed and Herberich would be wearing their duty uniforms. My position in the operation was beyond a rank designation position. I had to act in full command, not just be attired for the role. Only that would enhance the seriousness of the plan in Butch’s mind, hopefully.
My wife came home with Julie, both wearing their swimsuits. Bozo crept in behind them, no doubt having stationed himself outside to await their return. I felt his appraisal of me and studied his behavior. I’d been raised with boxers. Those dogs left little to the imagination, as their willing acceptance, loyalty and constant play was mostly self-evident. Bozo was another matter entirely. He loved my wife and daughter but found me to be something of a contestant as the alpha male of our little tribe, or pride as families of cats are described. I knew that what I wanted to be was immaterial to the cat. I didn’t want to be the alpha male, but I was, and that was it.
“What’s going on at the compound?” my wife asked, the tone of her voice light, although I could tell there was a serious edge to it she was trying not to reveal. I hadn’t been very forthcoming lately about what I was doing in several areas, and I knew she knew that.
I looked over at her and made a decision. Beginning with the assignment by Mardian I detailed what I was doing, laying out the mission step by step until I finished with telling her about what I was waiting for and how I hoped it would all work out.
She went to the refrigerator and pulled out a big pitcher of iced tea, the kind of natural stuff she made by putting tea into a big jug and leaving that jug out on the patio in the sun for most of the day. She poured a glass for each of us, carefully measuring three spoons of sugar for mine. She drank her tea straight, which I could never understand.
I waited when I was finished talking, knowing that her mind was processing everything I’d told her. The tea service was her way of delaying while she chose exactly what she might say.
“Bob Mardian isn’t the United States Government, nor any real form of it, in my opinion,” she said, holding her sweating glass of tea in her right hand, as if it was some sort of short thick pointer.
“True,” I answered, wondering where her train of thought was going.
“So, you pull this off, and then what?” she asked, taking a swig of her tea while I tried to think of some intelligent answer to the question.
“Mardian has you marshal official personnel and resources to rectify a course of action that’s gone south because his son is a drug-taking, drunk and isolated creep, and he’s building a big restaurant on property neither Mardian ‘s entitled to own nor build on; but the investors and Dana Point have no choice but to allow; except there’s one man in charge who’s figured it all out and is stopping the process.”
I stared at her. Her summation was astoundingly accurate in every respect. I was once more amazed.
“And?” I asked, knowing she wasn’t done just by the look in her eyes.
“So, you’re working for the bad guys and trying to do what you can not to commit too big a mistake in adding this potential misfortune to your significant list of unknowable misfortunes from your, and our, past?” She laughed a bit, before drinking more of her tea.
I hadn’t sipped any after she’d started talking.
“I guess so,” I answered, a bit embarrassed.
I hadn’t considered myself as a bad guy in the operation until she’d sort of assigned that role to me.
“What’s Mardian going to do to repay you, and that’s the other problem, other than pulling the rest of your plan off, I mean,” she concluded.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Mardian’s the kind of man who has to repay a debt, I think, from all you’ve told me and described him as being. His repayment of his debt is likely to be something that’s dangerous, like that pack of cash you keep hidden in your shoeshine box. It can be a good thing, but it can sure cause a load of problems too.”
I was shocked. I’d never considered anybody going into the hidden bottom of my shoeshine box, much less my wife who cared nothing for my shoe-shining habit.
I looked at my watch.
“I have to go and meet the guys at Dana Point,” I said, getting off the bar stool regretfully although feeling much better.
My wife’s advice was as great as it almost always was, and I would be thinking about it for the rest of the mission and on into the days ahead. I was feeling good because I’d finally brought her back in and there was nobody else in my life who could get and hold my attention like she could. I’d mentioned to Paul, only once, that I was feeling bad about holding stuff back from her. There was no need, at the coming appointments in the weeks ahead to reveal that things were better in that department. Paul was not ‘secure’ in my mind. I trusted him, but not with potentially devastating information he might not understand nature of.
Bozo looked at me as I departed, turning his attention away from Julie and Mrs. Beasley. The way the cat looked at the doll was also revealing. Bozo obviously liked my daughter, but the doll was another matter. It was like every pull on that string brought it one step closer to dismemberment.
The drive back to Dana Point was uneventful. I found the Bronco quickly and parked just beyond it. I noticed right away that the doors were already off the Airstream and mounted atop the Bronco, firmly secured with the thick and very strong nylon straps.
There was no need to say anything to Steed and Herberich. Steed, doing the driving, merely waved and pulled the vehicle out of its slot, heading for San Clemente. I walked over to Richard’s yacht, looking over at the Airstream as I went. I was a bit surprised to see that a cloth drape or door covering was blowing outside through the door, like a flag gone wild in the wind.
Richard was inside the cabin. I went right in.
“Well, that’s got to get somebody’s attention,” Richard commented, his screen filled with the video of the Airstream’s door opening. “They can’t work much longer, anyway, what with this storm building. How long will it take for the guys to get to Trestles, unload the doors and then get back here?”
“Less than an hour,” I said, knowing that the next part of the plan was critical.
What if Butch never came back, instead heading out to have some beer with his fellow workers? I breathed in and out deeply. There was nothing to do but wait and try not to let my mind run wild with bizarre thoughts of things that might go wrong.
Richard and I talked for about half an hour, discussing nothing of substance about anything. He wasn’t going to reveal anything of his past voluntarily I realized. That would have to be pried out of him when enough trust was built between us over time…if it ever was.
“Company,” Richard suddenly said.
I got up and walked over to the big monitor. Three men were gathered at the Airstream’s door, two of them carrying what appeared to be a great chunk of flat wood.
“They’re quick,” Richard commented. “Plywood from their worksite, no question. That’s got to be Butch directing them to cover the opening without damaging the rather fragile aluminum around it.”
I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes was the likely return time of the Bronco, since speeding on city streets wasn’t an option with its huge deep sand tires.
“Stay,” I whispered.
Richard and I waited. The plywood was secured to the Airstream using giant bungee cords. The two workers departed, but Butch stayed, walking carefully all around the Airstream looking at the ground. I knew what he was doing. He was trying to observe anything out of the ordinary that might give him a clue as to what could possibly have happened to his doors.
The Bronco pulled up on the screen. Steed and Herberich were back. There were no doors atop the vehicle. I presumed that had all gone smoothly or they’d have come straight to Richard’s boat. My Volks was still in the lot and I wasn’t in it.
I left the yacht quickly.
“Hold down the fort,” I said to Richard as I hastened to depart.
Walking quickly, I moved toward the trailer. Butch had encountered both officers by the time I arrived on the scene.
“You again,” Butch said, his tone one of aggressive anger. “What in hell do you want and where are my doors?”
“I have no idea what I really want,” I replied, with a smile. “I do know where your doors are, though.”
“Where?” he nearly screamed.
“We need to go for a ride,” I replied.
“Go for a ride?” he exclaimed. “What is this, some sort of mafia movie? I’m not scared of you.”
“Yes, a short ride, and all of this will be cleared up,” I said, motioning Steed and Herberich back toward the waiting Bronco.
Tension had to be reduced, not increased. I didn’t have them present and in uniform to be aggressive, but just the opposite, once their presence was noted.
“I don’t scare me either,” I finally said, walking up to the man.
“I’m not going to ask you to trust me,” I said, “I brought these officers to let you know that you’re safe, and to accompany me to get your doors back.”
“Everything you say makes me feel anything but safe,” Butch shot back, but I could tell that some of his anger was abating.
The next few seconds were critical, I knew. Butch had to get into the Bronco willingly, without violence or force, or the whole thing wasn’t going to work. I stopped talking and motioned with my right hand. Butch, in a resigned way, looked back at the plywood strapped to his Airstream and then slowly made his way to the Bronco. Steed stood with the passenger door open, and the seat back folded down for entry.
Butch climbed in after Herberich. Gularte was at the wheel.
“I’m not asking you to trust me, just go along with me on this short ride,” I said, gently, as I got into the passenger seat.
We drove off, everyone except Gularte and I looking about as uncomfortable as they could get.
The silent ride took less than twenty minutes, before we got through the gates at the lifeguard headquarters and drove out onto the sand. The wind was blowing harder and ocean spray was everywhere. Gularte turned on the wipers and we made our way slowly across the ruffled and blowing sand toward the point where Trestles beach was just beyond and the compound just before.
Once there, Gularte stopped the vehicle and waited. We all waited without comment.
The Staff Sergeant came down the path, as we sat waiting inside the Bronco, the storm beginning to deliver rain on top of the building wind and spindrift flying all around from the increasing size of the pounding surf nearby. The windshield wipers handled the rain but didn’t much care for the sizeable ‘clouds’ of sea foam that bounced about in the disturbed air outside. He wasn’t alone. In Marine blues full uniform with barracks cover and all, Bill walked slowly across the railroad tracks until he stood at the end of the short stretch of faced asphalt before stepping into the sand. The corporal with him held out a huge clear plastic umbrella to try to shield them both from the blowing spindrift and light rain. I knew immediately that I was going to have to cough up a few dollars for their cleaning bills. Cleaning a Marine blues uniform didn’t come cheap and had to be done by one of the specialty cleaners on base.
Gularte rolled the driver’s side window down and waved once with his extended left hand.
The Staff Sergeant snapped off a quick but very sharp salute.
I noted that he was wearing white cotton gloves, only used in the Corps at the most formal of occasions. Bill was very much into his role, I could see.
“What’s this all about?” Butch said, his voice no longer demanding or threatening.
“They’re guarding your doors,” I replied.
“Pull down to the water’s edge so we can retrieve them,” I ordered Gularte.
“How did my trailer doors get here?” Butch asked.
“It gives every appearance, after my people looked into it, that the wind must have freed the doors from their hinges, flung them into the sea and the wind and currents brought them here,” I explained, as the Bronco eased down over the edge of the two-foot-high berm and eased onto the harder sand.
The Bronco faced straight into the surf, the bigger waves looking like they’d come right up over the hood of the idling vehicle but always falling down into ever smaller rushing surfaces of whitewater.
“I’m not stupid,” Butch uttered, once again not transmitting any tone other than a developing submission. “Aluminum doesn’t float,” he went on. “It’s too dense to float, even in salt water. Wood floats because of its low density. I’ve been in construction around the water for my entire life.”
“Let’s take a look,” I said, ignoring Butch’s statements.
Gularte put the Bronco in park, his eyes never leaving the waves in front of him. I knew he’d back out of any coming trouble instantly, if a freak wave might appear.
Herberich and Steed climbed out, forcing Butch to exit between them behind the folded down seat I’d just vacated. Steed pulled a pile of ratcheted nylon straps out when he came, holding the mess a bit away from his chest, not wanting to soil his uniform any more than the light mist and ocean spindrift was already doing. I knew I’d have a lot of cleaning bills, not just those of the Marines.
The doors were laid out, side by side, just out of the reach of the surf but their bottom edges half buried by the unpredictably moving sand. They looked bright and newer than they’d appeared when in their proper place pinned to the side of Butch’s Airstream. I walked around the Bronco and approached where they lay.
I looked over at the president’s residence and saw the Staff Sergeant and Corporal disappear over the tracks and back up the trial along the wall of the compound.
Butch stared down at the doors to my left while Steed and Herberich walked on the hardened sand to stand next to them.
I nodded, “Okay, let’s get them strapped to the rack for the trip to Dana Point,” I ordered.
“It probably be better to wait inside,” I said to Butch as the two young officers went to work.
Butch got inside, returning to the back seat. I pushed the seat back into place and got in. Gularte still watched the sea, the wipers on low, his eyes vigilant and nearly unblinking.
I slammed the door while Steed and Herberich worked away in the rain, the aluminum doors knocking around as they got the things positioned on the roof. They used the back ladder to get up on top, although with the slipperiness of ocean spray and rain I couldn’t figure out how they stayed up there, much less got the doors secured.
“What about some music, officer Gularte?” I asked, turning the switch on to the 8-track portable stereo I’d roughly mounted under the Bronco’s metal dashboard using only duct tape.
The machine wouldn’t stay in its place for long, between the two banks of Motorolas, but I didn’t need it to stay there for very long.
The song I’d set the tape to play overpowered the sounds coming from the work being done on top of the vehicle. Riders of the Storm played. I waited until the second stanza of lyrics played through: “There’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirmin’ like a toad. Take a long holiday, let your children play. If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die. Killer on the road, yeah…”
I switched the player off, then slowly turned back to look Butch in the eyes.
I said nothing while I waited.
“Jesus Christ,” Butch finally said, looking around him out the windows. “This is all some sort of Alice going down the rabbit hole, isn’t it?”
“They’re going to take these things back to the trailer and make sure they are put on properly,” I said, again not answering his question, which really wasn’t a question anyway. “You’ve been working in the field for a long time, so I’m sure you can guide them on how to do it right. We don’t want those things getting away again.”
“They?” Butch replied, surprising me.
There was nothing wrong with the man’s mind. I had given him only that one word hint that he and I wouldn’t be riding back in the Bronco, and he’d jumped right on the slight hint.
“Come on,” I said, opening my door. “We’ll take a staff car back. It’s warmer, dryer and has a lot more room.” I pulled the seat down so he could get out.
“The song,” Butch replied, uncomfortably getting out of the two-door vehicle, which hadn’t been very well designed for back seat entry and exit by large-framed male humans. “If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die.”
“I’m giving you a ride, or rather the Western White House and the United States Marine corps are giving you a ride.”
“You know what I mean,” Butch said, standing at my side, shielding his eyes against the increasing wind and rain.
“Let’s go,” I replied, looking across the seat at Gularte.
“Meet you on the other side,” I said, using a line from an old early mountain man novel both of us had read before the Nam. In mountain man parlance the phrase was about dying and then meeting again in whatever existence might be after death.
I walked toward the railroad tracks without looking back. I knew Butch would follow. I smiled to myself as I walked, the man was proving to be a lot smarter than I had gauged or judged him to be, and I was growing to like him which I thought might be dangerous to the mission.
We walked in silence up to the parking lot behind the compound. Butch looked at everything along the way, like he was in Disneyland for the first time.
I’d thought of the place as a bit idyllic when I’d first gone into Haldeman’s service but not to the eye-popping enthusiasm, I could see rising up in the man accompanying me. The staff car was there. I saw immediately that the Staff Sergeant had pulled in a lot of favors. The small presidential fender flags were mounted just back from the headlights of the Lincoln. The Staff Sergeant stood beside the machine, opening the back door on the driver’s side as we approached. The corporal stood on the other side of the car, obviously waiting to perform the same service if it became necessary.
I motioned for Butch to get in and he did. I put one foot inside and he caught on and slid himself to the passenger side of the car.
Two Marines from the compound detail saluted, the gate being open for our departure. The Staff Sergeant and Corporal, both wearing blues, but not under arms or wearing their covers didn’t salute back.
The show of force I’d assembled, in as peaceful a manner as I could think to design, was still assembled and would be evident at the trailer when we got there.
The plywood would be quickly removed from the trailer and the doors re-attached.
Richard would be in the distance, the reserve force of unmeasurable capability and potential lethal force.
I looked obliquely over to where Butch sat silent next to me.
What was the man going to do, and what exactly did I have in mind in telling him what I’d come to feel, without much instruction from Bob Mardian had to be done. My wife’s analysis and words leading up to it reverberated through my thoughts.
Was I getting out of something without violence or was I headed ever deeper into an abyss not of my own making but certainly with my participation?