I sat facing both Haldeman and Ehrlichman, as I had in our previous session. They sat on the couch while I was in an overstuffed easy chair ninety degrees off the view of the ocean that they were facing. I didn’t make any effort to enjoy the stunning view, my full attention directed at both men while I covered the intensity of my interest as best I could.
“You understand?” Ehrlichman asked, after pausing a few seconds to take a sip of his coffee.
The ceramic cups and saucers were from a collection of Irish China similar to one my wife’s mother had accumulated after World War II. Wedgewood was an exotic producer of ceramics that, although we had way too little money to buy it, I had a full knowledge of. I noted the raised little finger of Ehrlichman’s right hand as he took some of the hot drink in. It reminded me so much of the fake debater’s fist most eastern Ivy League school speakers had used when I was debating in college. I had no cup of coffee offered to me, however, so there was no opportunity to my drinking my own cup in a way that I thought might be more appropriate for men in the kind of circumstance we were in.
“I take the special briefcase to Washington D.C. aboard an Air West flight booked by me, walk into the Old Executive Building next door to the White House, and tell security my name. Security will let me pass, and then I take one of the available elevators up to the fifth floor where the Navy Offices are located and knock on the heavy door with the number 543 next to it. That door will open, and I’ll enter to be seated in front of a desk. A woman will take the briefcase I’ve brought. I’ll be asked to leave and take the case with me. I’ll then proceed back to my place of origin.”
“Then you fly home,” Ehrlichman said, putting his delicate and expensive coffee cup down upon its equally expensive saucer.
“What’s in the documents inside, if I may ask?” I asked.
Haldeman and Ehrlichman looked at one another before Haldeman responded.
“Suppose it doesn’t matter right now. This is vital, and it will save the Vice President, or something like that, if you do the job properly. Your transmission of the documents will allow…for things that will be better for the country.”
I thought briefly about the men in front.
“Will the briefcase be handcuffed to my wrist?” I asked.
Both men broke up laughing.
“That’s in the movies,” Ehrlichman said. “In real life everyone on the plane would target you as some sort of secret agent document carrier, and we can’t have that. You’re nobody with no track record anywhere which is a lot better assurance that the stuff will get where it needs to go than any handcuffs might provide.”
“The Staff Sergeant at the gate will take care of the funds necessary for this short incidental trip,” Ehrlichman said, both men getting up as he finished the sentence.
I arose with them but there was nothing more to be said. I turned and walked toward the hall, my mind roiling as it usually did after ‘visits’ with the men who ran the country. As I walked, I also wondered about the money. It seemed that there was always plenty of cash, at least for my needs as they described them, but nobody was really in charge of much of it, or quite possibly any of it. Sometimes Helen Hunt had the money, sometimes June Cobb and now the Staff Sergeant. Where did the cash come from and why there was no accounting, signing for anything, requirement of receipts or even requests for the return of unused funds? Those were all subjects that I knew nothing about but fully understood that I wasn’t to ever bring up either.
The Staff Sergeant was waiting outside the Secret Service’s opened door, the agent letting me out seeming so unconcerned with my passing in and out of the place that it seemed like an act. I walked out without comment and got none in return except the mechanical clicking as the door closed.
The Staff Sergeant pulled an unmarked white envelope from his tailor-made Marine Blues blouse, it’s fit making me wonder how his NCO rank qualified him to wear tailored material. Supposedly, in the real Marine Corps, the wearing of officer material uniforms tailored to fit, were only the prerogative of officers.
I took the envelope, looking around at the empty lot, but no one was visible. I felt like we were doing some sort of drug transaction.
“Your wife will be alone for a period of time, but not really,” the Sergeant said. “If she needs anything then please instruct her to call my number no matter what the day or time until you come back.”
I folded the business size envelope and put it into my pocket without opening it. There seemed little point. One thing all my time and dealings with the country’s leaders had taught me was that they were not stingy pikers and were a lot more trusting of me, to use Paul’s word, than I would have ever expected before I became part of whatever it was that I was truly a part of.
“So, I guess I’m going on a trip,” I said, as the Sergeant walked me to my car.
“What trip?” he replied, stepping back as I opened the driver’s door of the Volks.
The sergeant had spoken the two words in question, but not as a question, hard and tight, and I got the message he was giving me. I was to shut up about the whole thing, even though he himself had said that my wife would be taken care of until I came back.
“The six-thirty flight out of Orange County will have a seat when you book it, as well as the morning flight the following day. The briefcase will be on the back seat of the staff car picking you up. Call me and let me know when you plan on leaving. Don’t leave the empty briefcase where you are going, and don’t ask anyone what you might do with it. Just keep it to use in your insurance identity.”
I nodded at the man, having no idea how he could know about available tickets aboard an airliner I hadn’t even checked out. I got into the car and started it. I felt like such an amateur as I drove through the open gate, the corporal and lance corporal on duty both saluting me crisply. My wife would have the Volks while I was gone in case she needed to go somewhere. I wasn’t worried about her being alone for a short time, but the Sergeant’s words had warmly assured me anyway. In spite of my being nobody, I was part of a team and the members of that team, not all known or understood by me, didn’t consider me to be a nobody at all.
Haldeman’s words about the Vice President had relieved me. I’d spent two nights twisting dreams about quite possibly having to be involved with something that involved a solution to the President’s problem that might have more human physicality to it, again thinking about Paul’s words. I was uncomfortable with the comment the Staff Sergeant made about my ‘insurance identity,’ like that potentially lucrative career was some sort of intelligence or spying cover.
Orange County Airport was only twenty miles from our apartment, and my flight was due to leave at 6:30 a.m. I’d booked the tickets and reservations at El Camino Travel, paying with some of the cash the Staff Sergeant provided at the compound. Two thousand dollars was too much money, but not untypical I was discovering. The whole trip would take much less, as I had no intention of renting a car and staying overnight in a hotel or even a cheap motel. I wanted to be in and out without leaving much of a trace, and nobody would have much interest, or so I felt, in some guy laying across a row of seat cushions through the night at National Airport, Washington D.C.
The flight out on Hughes Air West was nonstop, leaving the following morning at 6:30 a.m., but with the three-hour time change and five hours in flight. that put me into D.C., a place I’d never been to before, at late in the afternoon. I’d have to take a cab from National to the Old Administration building, located next to the White House, once I arrived. That would likely take an hour. I could do the delivery on time in late afternoon I was certain unless something unforeseen took place. I’d get back to Orange County early in the morning, but the wear and tear might make things difficult in getting through the rest of that day in some coherent condition.
When I got home I filled my wife in about the trip, not mentioning what was inside the briefcase I’d be delivering which I really didn’t, and likely wouldn’t, ever know. How the Vice President might be ‘saved’ from a fate I had no idea about was totally beyond me. She was great and didn’t pursue the matter.
The flights had cost two hundred and forty dollars each way. I kept back four hundred for whatever I might need and gave her the rest. After that, she was all in, as long as there was no danger or risk. I didn’t know about the danger or risk, although thoughts of those things flickered here and there through my well-experienced consciousness.
I called Pat Bowman to let her know I’d be out of town for two days, or so, and then asked her to modify the beach patrol schedule and take me off. Tom “Yello” Turner would be a perfectly acceptable replacement, as he so badly wanted the time. The patrol and the Dwarfs would have to await my return without most of them knowing I was gone.
I also called Chuck Bartok so he could finish the applications on Butch and his family. Chuck once again argued against my common practice of always splitting the incoming premium total into parcels that paid for policies on the wives and kids of clients. I didn’t know why I required that of my clients, but I was adamant about it. Tom Thorkelson, our boss, being a Mormon might better understand but I wasn’t at all certain about that either. Tom was such a committed ‘good’ Mormon he scared me.
Everything went as planned. The staff car showed up, with the driver at the wheel who never talked, or if required, tried to speak in one-word sentences. Experiencing him was humorous but also boring for a longer drive. The surprising thing was the briefcase in the back seat. It was made by a company I’d never heard of called Rimowa, which sounded Japanese. It was larger than I thought with two rather complex and ornate latches requiring a combination. I smiled when I saw the Nixon campaign button annealed into its front surface. Who would have done that, and why? If anybody riding on the plane with me saw it, I’d have to have a story ready.
“Here,” ‘One Word’ said, handing me a note over the edge of the front bench seat. I opened the unsealed white envelope and read: “Relax, you’re in good hands. Gularte and I will provide surveillance. Go to the Willard Hotel and then walk over to the address. Room 543.”
I crumpled the note and put it into my pocket, the same pocket that held the remainder of my cash. I presumed from the message that the Willard Hotel would be known by just about every cab driver in D.C., but the sinister part of the note bothered me. If there was no danger, then why was my family going under 24 hour a day surveillance while I was gone?
The airport wasn’t busy, so I simply walked to the gate where the plane was assigned to take off. It was there, waiting. Everything went smoothly. My seat was deliberately a middle seat, since the plane was a Boeing 727-200 where the middle seats allowed for the most space under them. I didn’t want to put the Rimowa in the overhead and certainly would never have checked it. Until the meeting I wanted no one else to touch it and I wouldn’t take my eyes far from it.
The plane took off but was only half full. There was no one in either the window or aisle seats. I’d brought only one book with me, The Count of Monte Cristo. I hadn’t read it since high school but had never forgotten it. I read for the whole flight, stopping only for occasional cups of coffee and to eat lunch. Arriving in D.C. was chaotic. People were everywhere and I had to wait fifteen minutes for a cab. The cab driver knew exactly where the Willard was and once there, through heavy afternoon traffic I was able to get into the lobby and get directions to the Old Administration Building. It was only a few blocks away, although the blocks in downtown D.C. were extraordinarily long.
Once in the lobby, my Rimowa in hand, I walked up to a Marine, obviously one of the many security guards, as the place was no ordinary old building. Everything in the spacious lobby was made from either solid oak, marble or polished brass. I handed the Marine corporal my military I.D. but he pushed it back toward me.
“The case speaks for you,” he said and pointed to the elevators. I looked down, suddenly understanding that the campaign button on the side of the case was identification enough. Whoever had the Rimowa and took it where it had to go was secure simply by having the thing and knowing where to bring it. I shook my head. It was simplicity myself. I could remain nobody.
I rode the elevator alone, walked the short distance down the hall to number 543, indicated in beautiful, scripted numbers carved into a heavy brass plaque placed on the wall beside it. I noted that there were two doorknobs, one at the normal height and one about a foot lower. I knocked on the door and it immediately opened. A woman stood before me, but my eyes were drawn to her hand, which rested on the higher inside knob.
“Oh,” the woman said, with a smile. “They were shorter when this place was built.”
I stepped into the room nodding, as if that strangeness made all the sense in the world. There were two men sitting behind the desk in front of me. There was one chair in front of the desk. I didn’t wait to be given the one word order to sit. The woman, who had no seat, eased the case from my left hand, took it around the desk and gave it to the man on the left. Both men, I realized, could have been twins. Same height, about the same age and both sporting thin cut Errol Flynn type mustaches.
The woman walked to the door, opened it quietly, and left.
I noted that there was only a single thick folder inside the case as the man on the right operated the combinations on both locks and pulled the top upward. He took the folder out, closed the lid and then looked up at me, before even putting the file down before him.
“Take the case and you’re dismissed,” he said, catching me completely by surprise. Neither man looked me in the eyes, their gazes fixated on the file the one man held in mid-air.
I picked up the case, pulled it up and made sure the lid was secure. When I got to the door I turned my head back.
“High doorknob or low?” I asked, unable to hold back my sense of humor.
“Either”, the man on the right said, finally putting the file on the desktop in front of him.
I used the higher knob, not fathoming how mechanically both knobs might be linked together. It was either that or the man’s sense of humor was even drier than my own. I knew I’d probably never know.
I returned exactly the way I’d come. The guards ignored my departure. I walked the distance to the Willard, taking in the summer breeze and now enjoying the constant flow of well-dressed people going everywhere. A cab was in line at the Willard, which meant the place had to be quite upscale so there was no problem getting to the airport. I relaxed totally, as I was now in no hurry at all. A night at the airport, which had plenty of restaurants and hundreds of padded chairs didn’t seem too bad at all. I could get back to reading the Count, which had drawn me in completely.
When I’d first read it so many years ago, I’d had a hard time identifying with the characters, but now I was living with and circulating among them. Danglars, Lord Whitmore, Mercedes, Noirtier, Villifort and even Vampa had become real and believable, although certainly characters of pure fiction. I read on into the night, ate dinner and slept fitfully on some chairs pushed together. Nobody awakened or bothered me in any way. I slept with the empty case clutched to my chest, going to sleep remembering my wife’s words not long after I’d taken the job with the Western White House: “you’re not living history here, you’re helping make it.”
The staff car was waiting with ‘One Word,’ again at the wheel, the obviously official vehicle sitting in an illegal curbside spot.
“You’re back,” One Word said, making me wonder whether to think of the man as two words on into the future.
I didn’t reply, instead sitting in the back seat of the car, relieved to be going home. The 1456 page Count of Monte Cristo book was inside the case. I was amazed that I’d finished the entire unabridged and unexpurgated novel during my travel.
When I got home I went in to change, shower and shave. Bozo, Julie and Mrs. Beasley sat on the couch, each one sitting in silent welcome but saying nothing. The sight warmed my heart. When I came back down from cleaning up, however, none of the three were anywhere to be seen.
My wife was in the kitchen.
“How’d it go?” she asked before I could even say hello.
“Boring as hell,” I admitted, hugging her close.
“What did they tell you?” she wanted to know.
“Basically,” I reflected, “they said I was dismissed and told me either of the door handles would let me out of Room 543.”
“That’s it?” She asked, pushing me backwards. “For that kind of money? When’s your next trip?”
I told her I’d give her all the details when I got home. I wanted to meet with Paul on time and keep my appointment.
On the way to Dana Point I drilled myself about not being too open, and not at all open about the Agnew thing or the trip to D.C. My living characters from the Count of Monte Cristo were probably as tough and nasty as so many characters in that book and I didn’t want to consider being in their bad graces.
The parking lot in front of Straight Ahead was empty which made me just a bit uncomfortable, as I didn’t want anyone who saw my rather distinctive and bright red Volkswagen to know I might be inside getting treatment for a drug problem I didn’t have. What I did have, I knew, might be considered worse than any drug addiction if someone really understood. I parked as deep as I could into the space just south of the long building’s left side.
There seemed to be nobody around, the only activity being the constant flow of cars going both ways on the Pacific Coast Highway. Paul was behind what passed for his desk, reading something.
“Sit,” he said, almost exactly like Haldeman said, but there was no razor blade concealed in his tone.
I put the cash on his tabletop and slid it toward him. He still didn’t look up, merely moving one hand to gather the thin pile in and brush it into the center drawer which he quickly opened and closed with his other hand. I liked that fact that he hadn’t bothered to count it.
“Tell me about it,” he finally said, as he looked up and pushed backwards, deeply reclining into his cheap executive chair.
His single sentence was strange for the opening of a therapeutic session, I understood without knowing anything about how such sessions were normally conducted. I liked the strangeness as I felt he was talking the way he was because I understood him and what we were trying to do. I wasn’t broken and didn’t need to be fixed, but I did need help adjusting to and accommodating the seemingly foreign environment I’d come home to.
I began with Lieutenant Gates and what had happened between us.
“How’s your hand and, if that incision broke open, even a little bit, then you need to go in and see someone. The smallest of infections wouldn’t be small at all with the likely depth of that thing.”
“Gates got hold of my medical records from the base, so I really can’t go there,” I replied, understanding that he was right. I never wanted to return to that level of deep penetrating pain.
“Doctor Otero, across the street,” Paul said. “Probably charge you a hundred bucks to prescribe some antibiotics and take a look at it.”
I nodded, glad there was a medical office nearby and possibly someone reasonable working at it. It would be ideal to park there instead of the Straight Ahead parking lot for upcoming visits.
“What else?” Paul asked.
I told him what had happened when I’d visited Butch with Mardian’s son being there, and our exchange of words.
“Violence,” Paul remarked, as if to himself instead of across the table to me.
“What would you have done with Gates if he hadn’t come around?”
“I’d have had to change him, somehow,” I replied, relying on June Cobb’s definition of what my ‘occupation’ really was. I didn’t mention Cobb, the money for Butch’s policy or any of that.
“But he came around,” Paul repeated, again speaking ethereally, like I wasn’t really in front of him.
“What might you have to do with Mardian’s son?” he asked, stopping my wandering thought process completely.
I wasn’t ready for the question. That I might be considering doing anything at all, and Paul knowing that, bothered and surprised me. That Paul was able to get that deeply inside the inner workings of my mind was a bit scary. I couldn’t think of anything to say so I said nothing, and waited.
“You don’t trust Gates, Mardian, or almost anyone else,” Paul said, after almost a full minute of silence. “Whom do you trust?”
“My wife, my daughter, maybe Mike Manning, Lorraine Galloway, Chuck Bartok and Bob Elwell too, to an extent.” I replied, after a brief few second of thought. I wasn’t comfortable with the questionable root I perceived evident in the bright man’s question. I did have people I trusted or wanted to trust but I wasn’t sure what the word trust meant anymore.
“Do you trust me?” Paul asked.
I inhaled slowly, taking time to think. I needed Paul’s help and had come to depend upon his opinion more than I would have ever believed. For the first time he stared straight into my eyes while he waited for my response.
“You haven’t been tested,” I said, giving him the straight truth as I saw it.
“You’re not in combat anymore,” he replied.
There was no reasonable reply I thought might apply, and his response hadn’t been a question, so I said nothing and waited.
Paul swiveled in his chair to stare out through the window that had no interesting view at all. The empty parking lot was there and then the vehicles passing all the time on PCH. I wanted to ask where his car was and why the sign for his services had been removed, but I didn’t. The ball was in his court. The fact that I hadn’t replied to him with any kind of trust assurance might be a deal-breaker in our developing relationship.
Paul swung back around.
“The problem you are working on, envisioning violent responses to, with the younger Mardian…” he said, his voice trailing off as he obviously thought about how to phrase what he was going to say next. “Take the personal violence off the table. Make your solution, if you are going to apply any, have it be one directed at property not human physicality.”
I didn’t understand his statement, although I was relieved that he was going to let the trust issue slide to a future time or session. I tried to think of how I might ask him about what he meant about ‘human physicality’ in a more detailed way but before I could he held up his right hand, as if knowing exactly what I was thinking.
“Time’s up for today. Thursday at two should be fine,” he said, writing inside a large open book he had open before him.
“What, exactly…” I began, but he cut me off in mid-sentence.
“Whatever it is you do I’m certain I’ll find it most interesting,” he replied, waving his hand toward the door.
Upon leaving the building, I walked slowly toward the back area on the side I’d parked. There were still no cars in the lot and I wondered, absently, how long the place would stay open if there were no employees or clients to be treated by them.
I drove down toward the entrance to the new Dana Point Marina and decided to turn in. I had no plan, although I wasn’t going to let my meeting with Little Mardian simply slip into the past. The road around the marina was rough and potholed but no challenge for the Volks. I drove over to where the long boat launch ramp had just been completed, just beyond which I could stop, sit and stare across the water toward the end of the piece of land where the Wind and Sea Restaurant was now proceeding under construction, because of me. I turned off the engine and sat to consider, but nothing came to me. I got out of my car to walk over to the ramp. Only one car was parked at the top. It drew me like a magnet. It was a bright yellow Porsche and I didn’t have to check the badge on its rear deck to know it was the special high-powered and very expensive 911S model. The squat wide stance, wide tires and special polished aluminum wheels gave it away, even from a distance. I stood next to the rolling work of art in admiration.
“It’s the Targa,” a voice said from behind me.
I turned to see a man standing nearby wearing a baby blue outfit with a sewn badge over his left breast. The title read: “Launch Attendant.”
“Hi,” I said, walking toward the man, although he looked more to be a boy than a full-grown adult.
“Great car, don’t you think?” he said, with a big smile.
“What do you attend, as there don’t seem to be many boats coming into or out of this place yet?” I asked.
We shook hands as I finished the sentence.
“I have to watch the place,” he replied. “The ramp’s done but steep and slippery. The water at its end is twenty-five feet deep so it can handle sail boats with their long skegs.”
I turned back to look at the Porsche.
“Whose is that?” I asked.
“The guy who owns the restaurant they’re building over there,” he replied, pointing over at the foundations going in at the Wind and Sea location.
“What’s his name,” I asked, or nearly blurted out in surprise, staring across the water.
“Marty, or something like that. He’s not very nice. He parks the Porsche here though when he’s out on his own boat, like today.”
“When does he come back?” I asked, my mind whirling.
“Stays out there all night sometimes, but I don’t know about today,” the attendant replied. “He’s a power boat guy so he’s not into sailboats. If he has a woman aboard, which he usually does, he keeps the boat moored in the middle of the bay here where the water is protected and calm.”
“Like his own sort of private bordello,” I concluded, my voice low while thoughts of Paul’s comment about human physicality played back and forth through my thoughts.
“He goes to all the trouble of trailering his boat instead of having a slip for it?” I asked, the strangeness of the situation demanding some sort of resolution before I could formulate a plan.
“His real boat is being built in Italy, so this is his temporary home away from home, as he describes it. I put the boat in the water and take it out using a big truck that’s over with all the other trucks parked deeper inside the marina. He uses the Targa to drive himself and his women friends to places unknown by me.”
“Interesting life,” I said, continuing the conversation before getting ready to disengage.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked, which I’d been expecting but hoped to avoid. I wanted to occupy as small a spot in his memory banks as possible.
“Henry Blake,” I replied, regretting that I wasn’t giving the nice kid my real name, instead using one from a new television series about a mythical MASH unit during the Korean war. I loved the character, as Colonel Blake was the kind of humorous, carefree and loving commander I’d have loved to have been.
“You have a boat?”
“No, can’t afford one yet,” I replied, not lying but not exactly telling the truth either. “I just wanted to see what was going on with the new construction.”
I looked over to where my Volks was parked, wishing it was gray or some other non-descript color other than fiery red. “Well, you take care. Hope they have a comfortable place for you to sleep when you guard the ramp at night,” I said, while turning to walk back to my car.
“Oh, I don’t stay here at night. There’s nobody around. They won’t contract for real security until there’s something to protect, and this isn’t it,” Adam said, swinging his right arm around to take in the mess of construction all around us.
I nodded, knowingly, and walked to where my car was parked. I waited until Adam disappeared to some place I couldn’t see and then drove as slowly and silently as I could back toward the main entrance to the marina.
There was one person I had failed to list when I’d been forced to tell Paul whom I trusted. I drove straight toward Gularte’s place. There was only one person I not only trusted but whom I knew would risk for and with me, while enjoying it and being thankful to be a part of any mission, no matter what the mission’s motivations were based on. As I drove, I thought about the eight-track player I’d seen under the Blaupunkt Radio mounted into the dash of Little Mardian’s Yellow Porsche.
I might get sleepy during the day ahead but there’d be plenty of adrenalin to keep me awake on into a very interesting night.