I left Mardian at the pool, since I’d given him everything I had about whatever it was I was supposed to know, but really didn’t. The money was invisibly held into the middle of the clamshell holster meant to hold and conceal a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum, 4 inch revolver. The Secret Service agent stood just aside of the big opening as I approached, a square of bright sunshine making the scene look like that of some old renaissance painting. The agent held out my duty weapon, the barrel pointed down, just as I’d delivered it to him.
Technically, the revolver should have been cleared when it was given to him, and then cleared again before it was handed back to me, but informality ruled inside the compound buildings among those who were so well known they didn’t need identification anymore. I accepted the Magnum, nodded with a smile, and then walked out, turning the corner to the right where I knew Gularte would be sitting in the idling Bronco, and waiting with infinite impatience.
As expected, he and the Bronco were there. Gularte frowned as I made my way through the passenger door opening and then into the interior of the vehicle, the exposed .44 in my right hand looking totally out of place.
“I didn’t hear a shot,” Gularte said, his expression not one of humor.
“They gave me cash. I didn’t want to give anyone else the idea that I had too much on me, so I put it into my holster.”
I worked the twenties out of the hard-sprung holster while I talked, and, once the bills were piled in my lap, inserted the Smith and Wesson back into the device.
“Cash,” Gularte said, staring down at my lap full of twenties.
“I didn’t want to hurt the envelope as it’s got Haldeman’s initial written on it. I pulled the single sheet of paper and the envelope from my pocket and handed them over before going to work to stack the twenties and stick them into the vehicle’s little locking glovebox.
“Let’s get out of here before we take some time to consider,” I said, pointing toward the slim alley that led back down to the beach. “This whole area is loaded with surveillance crap.”
Gularte handed the paper and envelope back to me and then gunned the Bronco, spinning it around as there was enough sand atop the edge of the asphalt to allow for that kind of lack of traction the balloon tires needed to slide around. Once we hit the beach, I directed Gularte to drive on the sand to where the railroad trestles crossed the river, which was at a very low level, low enough for the Bronco’s huge tires and height to allow us to drive right through the wide, one foot deep, mass of water slowly crossing the eaten away sand and making its way out to sea. Its presence was visible as a surface estuary atop the ocean’s surface, since fresh water is not as dense, and therefore heavy, as sea water. The effect was hard to detect and very subtle however as the surf broke all the water into a mess of currents, foam, and sand sucked up from the shallowing bottom. Gularte backed the Bronco under the far edge of the trestle foundation, the part of the bridge that was closest to the nuclear power plant.
“We consider?” he asked, turning the vehicles ignition off.
“Yes,” I replied, but didn’t go on, my mind lost in thought.
“We consider what? Gularte finally said.
I turned my head in surprise.
“We consider what the hell’s in that note and what it means,” I replied, my tone one of exasperation.
“Well, you don’t need another .45 because you’ve already got the model you received for winning that Basic Class contest, or whatever.”
“That piece is registered to me somewhere, I’m certain,” I replied.
“Whatever the new automatic is for I’m quite sure I want no attachment to.” “So, we’re considering how to acquire a .45 that’s not registered anywhere?” Gularte asked, nodding his head.
“No, damn it,” I shot back. “That’s minor crap. We’re considering what in hell I might be asked to do with it, how much one costs and what kind of clothing I’m supposed to buy with the rest of the money.”
“How much money did they give you?” Gularte asked.
“A thousand,” I said, still shocked by the size of the amount.
“I can get an unregistered model for about three hundred, which leaves you seven hundred for your costumes, but I have a question.”
“Yeah?” I replied, dreading adding another unanswerable question to the ones already buzzing around in his head.
“Why a .45 automatic?” Gularte asked. “It’s not the most modern handgun in the world. It’s big, heavy and the round it shoots lacks penetration or even the ability to use hollow points because velocity is too low to make them effective for anything but close in work. Why would whomever wants you to have this specify that particular firearm?”
“I don’t know,” I replied with a deep sigh, knowing before he got the question out that I’d be saying those words.
“The costumes are easy,” Gularte laughed. “Give the money to your lovely wife and let her loose at South Coast Shopping Center. Don’t give her the note with the rest of that stuff on it, though.”
“Stop calling them costumes,” I said, “It’s just clothing for a special occasion. I’m sure she’ll pick out stuff that can be worn to other events and for other purposes.”
“There’ve been what, maybe 30 presidents with maybe 30 wives, probably serving about an average of six years each. That’s a hundred and eighty likely birthday balls for president’s wives. Maybe fifty people have gone to each ball. That’s nine thousand people who’ve been to such balls since the start of this country. You and your wife will be two out of little more than nine thousand others who’ve attended such an event. This is a big deal. You’re both going to a ball and you’re both wearing costumes because that’s what you wear to balls like that.”
I sat beside my partner stunned. Nixon was the 35th president to serve and there were at least five presidents who served years alone without wives through all or part of their terms. But, there was no point in picking at small points. That Gularte knew what he knew was also surprising and a bit baffling at the same time. It was always way too easy to underestimate either the knowledge or capability of enlisted men.
“I don’t want to shoot that weapon, Jim,” I said, my voice low and my tone sincere.
“That’s what makes you good at it,” Gularte replied.
“I mean that I don’t want to shoot anybody with it,” I said, being more specific about my concern.
“That’s what makes you good at it,” Gularte repeated.
“How nice,” I replied, my voice flat, staring out across the sand at the endless runs of two cross currents of surf encountering one another.
Trestles Beach, the strange surf effect a big part of its underground social foundations and popularity. My own life seemed to have five or six different currents driving my life ‘surf’ in so many directions that I was pretty much lost. Still on my ‘surf board,’so to speak, but that was about it.
“When?” Gularte asked into the silence.
“When what?” I replied.
“When’s the Cinderella Ball and when do you have to have the .45 for whatever purpose you, as of yet, have no idea about.”
“You read the note like I did,” I said. “Mardian knew nothing and nobody else has said a word, other than at the meeting with Haldeman and Ehrlichman when they decided my wife and I would be going to the ball. Attire, cash, and a .45 Colt were never brought up in any way.”
“You don’t look like a street person to me,” Gularte said.
I could tell from the suppressed laughter barely detectable in the tone of his voice that the whole thing was one big rolling mess of humor to him. That he himself was still very much in danger, since the evidence of his being with me at the Califia incident was pretty easy to acquire hadn’t occurred to him. Gularte had no glimmer of just how powerful the men I was associating with at the Western White House really were. There was nothing I could do about any of what had occurred or might occur because of that event. I just wanted it to go away and also not to get anymore envelopes stuffed with cash accompanied by laconic instructive notes and the necessity of me finding and buying a specific handgun. I wanted to withdraw from it all, but I needed the money from the police work, the insurance work and even the remainder of cash in the dashboard, just to survive without becoming a real street person.
“Fire it up, we need to go back to the Lifeguard Headquarters. Herberich, a brand-new reserve officer is supposed to get training this evening and, besides, I need some new prospects to buy life insurance.”
Gularte drove slowly and easily along the edge of the lapping water, as the tide was out. Normally I checked the tides every day. High tides could run upwards of seven feet and low tides at two to three feet negative. That kind of spread could cause serious problems, particularly at night, if fast passage had to be made along the lower part of the sand formations.
I opened the dashboard glove compartment and counted out fifteen of the brand-new twenties, crinkling them slightly to make them easier to handle, and held the reassembled smaller stack out toward Gularte.
“I don’t have a timeline on the .45 but the ball is in two weeks,” I said, closing the glove box and motioning for him to twist the ignition key in the ignition. “I wish you were going.”
“Me, go to a ball?” Gularte exclaimed, starting the Bronco, and laughing as we eased out from under the trestle’s protection.
“Not as you individually, but as a replacement for me,” I shot back, wishing I’d just remained silent.
“Let’s head to the station,” I said, when we were halfway back to the Lifeguard Headquarters, as I don’t suppose you want to listen to me try to train a new reserve officer and sell him a life insurance policy at the same time.”
“So, I cut short my shift so this kid can be told to buy a policy, or die, like the presentation you gave me?” Gularte replied, shaking his head and thumping the wheel with his gloved right fist.
“Do you have to wear those damned leather gloves all the time,” I asked, changing the subject.
“They protect my hands, and they make me look more serious and cooler, all at the same time.”
“The one on your right hand makes it damned near impossible to get your weapon free and discharge it, if need be,” I pointed out.
“I see,” Gularte said, after another quarter mile of sand passed underneath us. “I couldn’t properly back you up. It’s about you, not me saving myself, as usual.”
“If that’s the way you want to look at it,” I shrugged out.
“And you’re Reserve Commander,” he went on, taking his hands off the wheel, stripping his right glove off his hand and flipping it out the window onto the passing sand.
“Do you have to over-react to everything?” I asked, tired of the number of times Gularte made me sigh to myself.
“I’ll ride for the shift,” the one-gloved driver said, his facial expression set in an emotional pout. “You can ride in the back with Herberdick in the passenger seat, as befits your rank and importance, and these gloves cost me twenty-bucks and that was at the PX on base.”
“So, you lost twelve-fifty in value, take it out of the three hundred, or whatever your cut of the Colt deal is,” I replied, “and don’t call the new kid Herberdick. His name’s Herberich.”
“1st amendment is free speech, so you can’t tell me what to call him, even from your newly appointed exalted position, and I don’t get a cut of the gun deal. The .45 you’re getting was found by my dad twenty years ago. He was a cop in Chicago. Some guys had been killed at a chop shop junk yard. After all the investigations were over an employee found the .45 at the bottom of an old oil barrel filled with junk parts and used motor oil. God only knows how old it is, although it cleaned up great That’s about as unregistered a weapon as you’re ever likely to see. It’s a family heirloom, since Dad died.”
I said nothing in return, as I was struck. I hadn’t spent that much time with Gularte, although I much enjoyed every bit of time we’d had together. I didn’t know his dad had been a cop or that he’d passed on. In his mind the automatic was indeed a family heirloom, and not one I could therefore refuse, even though I had my doubts about a gun that’d been found following a multiple killing in some junk yard in Chicago many years ago.
“Thank you,” I murmured, as the double gates opened, and the Bronco began making its way back up to the station.
Haldeman wanted the gun, or me to have the thing. I quietly smiled to myself as Gularte slowly guided the dedicated but ungainly and machine along the concrete streets. A murder weapon from Chicago. Haldeman had no idea whom he was dealing with, or the fact that those men didn’t know whom they were dealing with either, or even what they really were.
“You want me to stop at home so you can drop that package off to your wife? Gularte asked, looking over at the small blue door of the box.
“Nah, I’ll put it in the Volkswagen and take it home when we’re done out here. There’s no way I’m telling her about going to the ball and then having to come back out here. She’s going to go crazy.”
I didn’t say anything about the fact that I was only going to give her five hundred for the ‘costumes,’ as I’d made the decision to keep Gularte’s dad’s automatic but also to buy another that didn’t have either its meaning or its history. The guy at the gun shop in Santa Ana would know somebody who knew somebody I was certain, and one day Gularte would want his dad’s old .45 back.
We pulled into the lot and Gularte moved the Bronco to within a few feet of my red Volks. He went in to get the rookie while I transferred the cash. I had no idea how much clothing five hundred dollars would buy, but was stunned when I got the package from Mardian. The Volkswagen I was driving cost $2200 out the door. Five hundred would no doubt purchase plenty of decent clothing, even if it was more like costume attire as Gularte insisted on calling it.
Herberich came out of the station’s back door, carrying an athletic bag and wearing a baseball cap with no logo or markings on it. Gularte held the passenger door for him. I’d gotten inside the two-door vehicle and settled into the small but sufficient bench back seat on the passenger side, as Gularte had instructed.
“Let the man have his day,” I said, but not loud enough for the two returning officers to hear.
Gularte pulled from the lot and began our journey back down to the beach. I could tell that Herberich was scared to death and a bit shaky.
“Lose the hat,” Gularte instructed. “We don’t wear hats, not on duty anyway.”
Once we got back to the beach and through the gates Gularte inched the Bronco toward the base of the pier. Just before pulling up on the rather steep asphalt entry to the wooden structure, he stopped the Bronco, and we sat idling.
“Now, Herberdick, this is the pier and it’s our responsibility to take care of the structure and the people on it, not the people in the water. Those are the responsibility of the lifeguard department. Isn’t that so Commander?”
I remained silent, consumed with anger and thinking about what to do.
I reached into my canvas bag and took out the sawed-off shotgun. I reached over the front seat back and pushed the weapon into Herberich’s hands.
“You’re riding in the shotgun seat. Normally, only the street units have shotguns as a part of their inventory. We have to make do down here, as we’re mostly on our own. Without a specialized vehicle like this one, our back up can’t reach us in any kind of timely manner. The weapon is locked, loaded and a small safety lever on the left hand side near the trigger is turned toward you. That indicates the safety is on. If you push it then you can shoot the first round without pumping. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Commander,” rookie Herberich replied.
“Now, just hold onto it for a while before you rest it on the seat between you and officer Gularte.”
Yes, Commander,” Herberich said again.
“Finally, and this is important, if officer Gularte calls you Herberdick again I want you to take the weapon, push the safety off and then shoot him in his right foot.”
There was a total silence in the car before Herberich replied again.
“He’s kidding,” Gularte yelled, facing first Herberich and then turning toward me in the back seat.
“Yes, I’m kidding,” I replied, my voice calm and quiet.
“I don’t think he’s kidding officer Gularte,” Herberich said, holding the shotgun hugged to his chest like it was his long ago given up teddy bear.
“Tell him you’re kidding,” Gularte said, no longer yelling but a little bit of spittle leaked from the left side of his mouth.
“I already said I was kidding, Jim,” I reaffirmed, my tone the same as it was before.
“Please give the shotgun back to the commander,” Gularte said to Herberich.
Herberich didn’t move, still cradling the twelve gauge against his chest.
“Tell him,” Jim breathed out, his eyes never leaving the weapon.
I didn’t reply. All three of us breathed audibly together as a lot of time seemed to go by, even though I knew it was only seconds.
“All right, I’ll call him Herberich from now on,” Gularte said, venting his held breath noisily.
I leaned forward and stretched out my right arm, my hand open and waiting. Herberich placed the weapon in it and I pulled the shotgun over the seat, and then sat back to take in the scene around us.
“The San Clemente Police Reserve Officer Commander is a made up position,” Gularte said, his hands gripping the steering wheel of the Bronco. The rank doesn’t really exist in any other department and is not supported or authorized by the State of California, and, in fact, the officer in the back seat isn’t even a real San Clement Police Officer. He works for the Western White house. You don’t have to take his orders or really do anything he says.”
“Herberich,” I said, my voice low and hard. “You don’t’ let anyone denigrate you or humiliate you because of your name or anything else. The first round in the shotgun you had is a shell of birdshot. A bunch of fast-moving bb’s. Gularte would have survived and recovered, but if you let the men and women around you call you names intending to hurt you then you hurt them back, and hard, immediately, or you’ll never recover. Do you understand?
“Yes, sir,” Herberich immediately replied. “Do I have to do that to the other officers in the department?”
“No,” I said, “believe me, officer Gularte here is going to tell all of them what happened, so you won’t have to.”
“Including the shift commander,” Gularte added.
“That would be Sergeant Chastney, who you yourself nicknamed Chastity on your first day,” I replied, matter of factly. “I’m sure he’d appreciate whomever came up with that wonderful moniker, and then spread it all over the department.”
“You wouldn’t,” Gularte breathed out.
“Of course not,” I quickly replied, replacing the shotgun in my canvas sack.
“Let’s move out and head toward the compound before any trouble crops up down here. We can show the kid the pier and all its niceties later in the shift. He’d probably like to see the Nixon estate up close and how it all works out there.”
“Yes, Commander, I’d love that, Herberich said enthusiastically, “and it’s wonderful that you work with them.”
“Stop calling him Commander,” Gularte said, putting the Bronco in reverse and then slowly pulling off the pier entry in reverse. “And his working with them isn’t what you think it is at all.”
“What happened to your other glove,” Herberich said, finally getting some normality back in his voice and losing the shakiness that’d come over him earlier.
“I was in a fight and punched a guy so hard I couldn’t get the leather out of his mouth without causing him more injury,” Gularte replied, his tone rough and serious.
The Bronco retraced the tire tracks we’d laid down in driving in from the compound earlier.
Suddenly, Herberich screamed: “Stop!”
Gularte pushed hard on the brake pedal and the Bronco stopped after a short four wheel slide forward.
“What the hell,” he said, as I pulled my slightly bruised face back from the seat surface it’d struck. We didn’t’ have or wear seat belts in the vehicles because the department thought officers needed more freedom to move quickly if encountered by a dangerous situation.
Herberich opened his door, jumped out, and then ran around the front of the Bronco to Gularte’s side. He bent down, quickly stood up and before running back to climb into the door once more, slamming it loudly behind him.
“What in hell was that…Herberich?” Gularte asked, the name of our new rookie coming out of his mouth correctly, but with difficulty.
“I found it,” Herberich said. “I found the glove you lost in that fight officer Gularte,” he said, handing the dangling glove back to Gularte before turning to face straight ahead without any expression, and saying nothing more.
“As I recall, that was sure one helluva fight,” I said.
Gularte pushed the glove forward where it came to rest against the bottom of the windshield in front of him. He said nothing as we drove further onward toward the presidential compound.