I waited patiently for Gularte, sitting in the afternoon sun, rubbing my useless government pen with the fingers of my left hand. The pen wasn’t totally useless I knew, as its presence where it was found was very likely a valuable clue. Was the person who lost it not connected to the Marine’s disappearance, or did it belong to one of the people, or the single person, who invaded my beach to place personal materials there for unknown reasons? I thought while I waited. I believed it to be very unlikely that the three Marines carried any kind of pen, which then, if carried, would have fallen to the tracks. It was much more likely that some sort of professional carried such a pen and lost it inadvertently while passing along on the rail ties, or near them.
I heard the deep-throated beating exhaust of the Dodge before it arrived at the security gate. I wondered which of the other reserve officer’s Gularte would pick to be in the front seat next to him instead of locked in the rear. It was an interesting conundrum. The really bright but analytical personality, or the one with the expressive light behind his eyes. I put the pen back in my pocket and headed for the gate. The three had come in with me but there was no likely way the Marines would pass them without a long security examination and confirmation.
There were three Marines at the gate. A staff sergeant was present, having no doubt showed up while I was inside the compound. I presumed he was the detachment commander. No more a real commander than I was, of the reserve corps, but still. The Department Dodge pulled up to the gate. The sun shone perfectly down to make looking through the front windshield impossible without special glasses that I didn’t have. I walked up to the staff sergeant. I noted, as he turned and reacted to my presence, that his ribbons indicated that he’d been in the Nam. He held the Bronze Star with the combat V pinned into the center of it, and also a Purple Heart. He was one of ‘us,’ like Gularte and me.
“Staff Sergeant,” I said, stopping in front of him.
The corporal was at the window questioning Gularte, while the Lance Corporal stood aside, waiting to see if physical backup might be necessary. The Staff Sergeant had turned to face a potential threat from the rear. The gate guards, no matter who trained and led them, were a class act.
The staff sergeant saluted.
“I’m not in uniform, Sergeant,” I replied, instead of saluting back. Marines do not salute unless covered or inside unless armed.
“You were a Marine, sir?” he asked.
“Yes, Sergeant, I was,” I stated, without going further.
“I saluted you out of respect, sir, because you came from inside the compound. Everyone who works at that level we in security consider an officer and salute as a measure of that.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” I replied, “those men are with me, and I’ll be departing with them. There’s no need for any clearance.”
I watched the brief conflict appear inside the Marine’s eyes. He was probably called upon to clear any and everyone who arrived at the gate, as security had done nothing but become more pronounced and intense since I’d been reporting to the compound.
The staff sergeant saluted again, and then turned to motion toward the lance corporal. He then walked over to the Marine and said a few words. The corporal immediately pulled back from the window of the Dodge.
I walked around the gate, which was still open-ended, although I figured that, with the growing security, the gate would become much more secure and closed-in as time went by. I went around and opened the rear passenger door but turned to wave at the staff sergeant before I stepped inside.
Herberich was in the other passenger seat. I closed the door, which automatically locked me inside. Gularte had chosen Steed to ride ‘shotgun’ with him. Steed was a lot more like him than Herberich, but Herberich, quiet as he was, might not have taken the choice as lightly as he portrayed. My getting in the back seat with him might just make up for the small slight, I thought.
“Station, Gularte,” I said, having no intention of working a shift from a locked in back seat in my civilian attire. “You take Steed out and I’ll work with Herberich tomorrow. Check the parking lot of the state park while you’re out there.”
“What for?” Gularte asked.
“Steed will fill you in, but if you find something then take great care,” I replied. “There’s some sort of game afoot and I don’t know what it is.”
“Outside the wire?” Gularte asked, his voice turning serious as he stared into my eyes through the rear view mirror.
“Yes, but no incoming yet,” I shot back, alerting him to the potential of danger but not anything imminent or life-threatening.
Steed got out of the Dodge and opened the rear door for me when we got to the station.
My Volks sat untouched in the parking lot where I’d left it. I got out, let Herberich know I’d meet him at four the next afternoon. I said nothing in the way of thanking him for his work because I didn’t want Steed to feel bad about the Bronco. The Bronco was truly my fault for letting him operate it under difficult conditions his first time out. I’d thank Herberich the next day.
I drove the Volks straight to the lifeguard headquarters to check on the Bronco reminding myself that I didn’t have much in the way of clothing, although I had a significant cash nest egg if I needed more. There was no point doing anything to the Bronco myself, however. I’d just upset Mitch.
Once home I filled my wife in on everything that had happened about the disappearance of the Marines. It was illuminating and disappointing, both at the same time.
“They’re dead,” my wife stated, flatly, “or they’d have turned up by now.”
“Most probably,” I agreed.
“They weren’t swimming and having a good time in the surf, no matter how adjusted on alcohol or drugs they were. Not part of the culture, the Marine Corps or any of that.”
“Most probably,” I repeated, waiting for more.
“Those cold-blooded people at the Nixon compound had something to do with it.”
“I don’t know,” I replied, backing off from either agreeing or wanting to agree about that conclusion.
She looked at me across the dining room table (there was no ‘dining room,’ really, just a corner off the living room) and stared into my eyes over the lip of her Manhattan glass. She carefully put the glass down before speaking again.
“Why are you risking everything we have for three dead Marines?”
I had no answer for her question. She turned away, and both of us knew she wasn’t expecting an answer, got up and walked into the kitchen. How could she possibly understand why I had to pursue the issue?
“The pen says a lot,” she concluded, doing something at the sink, not turning to face me. “Those men on the estate, they’re up to their necks in whatever happened, but there’s no chance those boys are alive and you’re playing with something hotter than fire, not that I can stop you,”
I knew she was right, about everything she’d said, as usual, but I still had a hard time accepting the fact that some of those around me might totally lack any moral or ethical code. The Chief I trusted. He’d gone along with me. Haldeman had given me a job and that job branched out to give me some self-respect and humanity back in a world where I wasn’t a good fit anymore and knew it. Ehrlichman was Haldeman’s almost unwilling henchman, but I got no vibes of evil emanating from him. Mardian was a hard ball player and quite possibly capable of anything. Nixon was some kind of autistic damaged but functional creature, at least judging from my brief encounters with him.
All in all, however, I read no murderous intent that I could detect, and I’d experienced plenty of murderous intent in my life. I headed down to the lifeguard headquarters first thing in the morning. It was Sunday, but I had a feeling that Mitch might be working away. I didn’t have a remote for the gates so I parked at the base of the pier, my “Fraternal Order of Police” sticker showing brightly red in the rear window of my car so I wouldn’t get a ticket if one of our officers didn’t recognize a fellow officer’s off-duty vehicle.
I crossed under the sub sidewalk bridge, walked up to the pier entrance and then headed over to the building. Two-person volleyball in the sand was going on in both courts nearby as I passed them to get to the only bay door that was open.
I entered the work area where the Bronco sat, the entire vehicle up on stands that were at least four feet tall. All four of the big puffy sand tires were off and parts appeared to be strategically strewn all over the concrete floor surface. I peered around the edge of the driver’s side of the Bronco expecting to see Mitch laboring under the hood. Not only was Mitch not there, neither was the engine.
I walked around the left front fender to see Mitch hard at work, leaning over the missing engine. The V8 was mounted on a stand three feet off the floor, looking like it was on display, while Mitch worked with probes, rags and other penetrating tools on the top of it.
“It’s not the water,” Mitch said, looking up, “it’s the sand. Not enough water reached the cylinders to matter but the small bits of sand the water brought with it will score the cylinder walls and that’ll be it. Any more water and you’d never been able to back out of the surf, but I’m afraid I’ll have to pull the heads, get new gaskets, clean it all up and then put it all back together.
“How long?” I asked, with some relief. The Bronco could be saved, quite possibly in short order
“Scalzo’s auto should have the gaskets on hand in the morning,” Mitch said, his full intent on what he was doing to the engine. “If all goes well, and they’ve got the parts, then this thing should be better than new by tomorrow afternoon.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” I said, my breathing settling down from seeing the mess the Bronco had at first appeared to be when I’d come through the door.
“It’s going to cost you, though,” Mitch said, catching me by surprise.
I didn’t reply, wondering if he was making some mechanic’s joke. Mitch worked for the city and took care of all the department vehicles. He’d no doubt been a part of souping up the Bronco’s engine before I’d arrived to assume control of it and start the beach patrol. He continued to work away, as I stood waiting. He wasn’t kidding, I figured after a bit, but his request and any discussion of price seemed totally out of place. The Bronco wasn’t mine and I couldn’t figure out any way he might have come to understand its survival and rapid return to service might be vitally important to me personally.
“You’re selling them life insurance policies,” Mitch said, finally and matter-of-factly.
“Yeah?” I replied in question, mystified.
“I want one,” He said. “I don’t want to pay for it though, so you’ve got to figure that out.”
I was more than surprised this time. “Are you ill?” I asked, a conclusion I’d already learned from Chuck Bartok about anyone who came up to request a life insurance policy was probably dying of something.
“No, it’s for my wife,” Mitch answered. “She’s got this cough. It’s been coming and going for a long time. We’ve got two little ones and if something happened to her, then I’ll be between a rock and a hard place.”
I thought fast, putting numbers together, approximating the woman’s age, as I’d never met the woman. The rules would allow the policy to be issued through underwriting if she was any age close to Mitch’s so my usual twenty-five-thousand-dollar policy would come in at about two-hundred and fifty dollars a year. My first-year commission would be just over a hundred and thirty dollars, the second year fifty dollars, if the policy renewed and Mrs. Mitch remained alive. There were health questions but my notes to Chuck wouldn’t have to have the persistent cough in them. Bartok was a stickler for detail, particularly in the answers to questions in the non-med part of the application. The information from Mitch was hearsay so the real answers to the coughing question would have to be his wife’s. At that coverage amount and premium level no medical physical would be required, however. Cash for the first year’s annual payment, which I had from Haldeman, was readily available.
“First year premium I’ll cover,” I said to Mitch, “but you’ve got to pay twenty bucks a month out of your bank account for the second year and beyond.”
“Deal,” Mitch replied, without looking at me.
I’d have to find time to get over to where Mitch lived in San Juan Capistrano, to take the application information. I absently wondered, while I watched Mitch’s meticulous work on the engine, whether Tom Thorkelson, who’s agency I was fast becoming a big sales producer in, had any clue as to how I was going about selling the company’s products. There’d been nothing in his very professional sales course to describe trading to sell a policy or forcing guys to buy just because they couldn’t stand the pressure of riding around with someone that was either pushing the products on them or, worse yet, pouting because of their failure to purchase.
One of the best things I’d learned in the Thorkelson sales school was to keep what was called a ‘day timer.’ With those little daily records, which I’d come to start filling in with attentive detail, I couldn’t fail to keep appointments of any kind unless I wasn’t paying attention.
Gularte called me on my home phone. I figured he was at the station. There was no car at the state park lot, just as I had thought. If the men at the Western White House were involved then the three Marines hadn’t parked there to get to the beach and drown while swimming in a disturbed surf line that even I wouldn’t go out and encounter, and I was a great team and open ocean swimmer, ever after the surgeries and my recovery. My wife had taken Julie to Coronets, a small five and dime kind of store located only a couple blocks from our apartment, so I was able to openly ask Jim why he hadn’t simply come by instead of calling.
“Your wife,” he said, keeping his voice down on the station phone he was using.
“My wife?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“She’s like, well…she’s like…she looks kind of right through me.”
“Really?” I blurted out. My wife was the neatest, quiet and most wonderfully soft woman I’d ever met. “What might she see by looking through you, as you put it, that would bother you?”
There was a silence on the other end of the phone. Finally, Gularte blurted out only one word, “stuff.”
There was no point in talking further so I hung up the phone. Steed plowed the Bronco into the surf the day before, the Chief was being strange, with Haldeman and Ehrlichman even stranger, and then Mitch’s request and now Gularte’s unfathomable comment. It’d been a hell of a two days, and the second day wasn’t over. I had to go back out with Herberich, and since the Bronco was down that meant getting a patrol car to work the streets.
I worked out by getting my shorts on and running the beach. I almost always ran to the compound and back, but with what had happened past the state beach I ran the other way, toward Capistrano Beach. Five miles wen by in just under forty minutes, which was pretty quick for me, but the time had passed like no time at all, my mind lost in trying to comprehend the mystery of ‘my’ Marine’s situation.
I met Herberich at the station. The black Dodge was prepped and ready for service with Herberich already standing by. We went out and roamed the darkening streets, getting ever more familiar where all the streets, all mostly empty, were located and how they differed in small details. Answering a call was not something that could effectively be done by resorting to map reading. We had to know ins and outs and intricacies of almost every street, road, and ally of the city, and how those interacted with the freeway that ran north and south right through the center of it.
I got home late, the beach rough and windy but Herberich so interested in everything, and interesting himself, that I’d wanted to continue living up to my word and also his training.
Before retiring I shared the rest of the day’s and night’s events with her in bed. She wondered about whether I should have taken the hit for Steed’s driving or slipped out of that potential trouble simply by telling the truth about what had happened. I thought about it as I closed my eyes, but I knew, in spite of her bringing up the option, that that course of action is not one I’d ever have gone with.
When I got up in the morning, I was barely showered, shaved and dressed before the phone rang. It was Pat, the Chief’s secretary. The Chief wanted to see me right away, which was unusual and therefore ominous. I got into uniform as fast as I could, my wife having ironed everything earlier. I drove the Volks as fast as it would go up to the station halfway up Avenida Presidio.
When I walked in, I knew I’d been right about the phone call, whatever the Chief wanted to talk to me about wasn’t good. Pat, who usually greeted me with a smile failed to do that, instead she was faintly frowning when she waved me into the Chief’s office.
I inhaled slowly and deeply as I moved though the Chief’s open door. The man sat, as usual, lankily sprawled back in his expansive executive chair. He was staring out the window toward the parking lot, obviously lost in thought. I decided to wait until his attention came back to the present time and location from wherever it’d gone.
“Sit,” he finally said, turning the chair and putting his elbows on the leather covered top of the desk, a pose not unlike Ehrlichman’s on my last trip to see him.
I sat down in the leftmost straight back chair and waited.
“The three Marines are dead,” the Chief intoned, flatly. “Their bodies showed up offshore not far from the San Onofre nuclear plant just south of Trestles Beach. The investigation is over and Hoodoo’s standing down. The rocks where the bodies were found is just on the border but inside Camp Pendleton. The Marines will be handling everything from here on in.”
I sat unmoving, not replying or speaking in any way. It was all as my wife predicted. The investigation was being moved so whatever happened would only be looked into, if at all, by an agency other than the police department that had discovered the evidence of the missing Marines. The investigation was being totally dead ended. The bodies had somehow floated two miles or more in a direction that ran opposite of all known and observable currents running exactly in the other direction. My disappointment was complete and I knew my control of facial expressions wasn’t good enough to keep it from the Chief. He was a good man. That he was going along with the charade was surprising, but I knew, in order to secure his cooperation, whatever forces were involved must have a good enough reason for acting as they were, or he wouldn’t cooperate.
I took the U.S. government pen out of my pocket. I’d never shown it to the detectives or anyone else other than Steed, Herberich, Haldeman and Ehrlichman. I tossed it onto the desk in front of him. The Chief looked me in the eyes, and then down at the pen.
“Are you…” the Chief started to say.
I held up one hand, smiling inside myself. I knew in my heart of hearts that the Chief thought that my tossing the pen indicated my intent to resign.
“We found it on the tracks not far from the scene down on the beach,” I said, lowering my hand.
The Chief picked up the pen and examined it, glancing over at me when he was done.
“No prints,” I said, answering the question that was written across his facial expression. “Those were destroyed by Haldeman when I showed the pen to him.”
“Damn it to hell,” he breathed out, worrying the pen in his right hand, absently, like it was there to be used instead of the indicator it appeared to be.
I got up to leave, not having anything else to say, leaving the useless pen with him. I waited for a brief few seconds to see if he was going to require that I give some sort of ‘yes, sir’ assent to his order to stay out of it, but he didn’t. I turned and walked to the door of his office before he spoke.
“The bodies are still fresh at that location,” the Chief said, his voice low. “They’ll probably be there until late in the day. You go out to the Marine gate, get access to the base, and then drive over to the nuclear plant. You’ll see all the men and equipment setting up to study the scene and move the bodies.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Hoodoo was off the case, the Marines were taking over, the dead bodies were miles away and the Chief more than seemed to be encouraging me to check it all out. I turned fully to face him, bracing both hands against the wooden frames of the door.
“Who would I be?” I asked, beginning to comprehend the fact that the Chief was being forced to end the investigation, but not totally.
“You’d be my observer, simply there to see what the result of all this is,” the Chief said, his voice likely modulated almost too low for Pat to make out, in spite of her nearly miraculous hearing ability. “No police uniform and no official status. If they don’t want you there, telling you to go, then you’re out of there. No international incidents…not on my watch. Only you, with your strange status or identity, can get anywhere near the scene.”
“I want to take somebody with me,” I replied, letting the Chief know I was going to go.
“You’re not going, if you go, officially, so you do what you want, take whomever you care to take, except not one of the detectives. Your expiration of active service from the Marines is in two weeks. Your record shows that you’ve got more medals than Audie Murphy. This might be the last time you get to wear that uniform and those medals.”
I didn’t have more medals than Murphy, nor the Medal of Honor, but I caught the Chief’s drift. He wanted me to use my Marine uniform to get through the security the Marines would have around the scene. Once again, I was struck into silence. I had to think about the situation. Not about going. I was going. About the uniform. My wife would have to know and that was good, but I couldn’t take Herberich or Steed. Herberich the genius who’d found the pen and Steed the terribly nice guy. I needed something and someone else entirely.
I said nothing, hoping he wasn’t expecting some response, like I would agree to go to the base under false pretenses. I had to think about it and consult with my wife. I had no idea whether she’d think it was a good idea, even though I knew my mind was pretty set on following my internal decision.
I got into the Volks and sat thinking. I turned the ignition key but not all the way. The local radio station up in Santa Ana came in loud and clear. The song playing took me back to the valley. A song with lyrics that somehow fit. “To everything there is a season, a time to be born, a time to plant, a time to kill, and a time to laugh…” I turned the radio off, wondering which of those times I was in.
“There’s a time to every purpose under heaven,” I murmured, remembering the other words to the great biblically derived song. I thought about the mission I knew I was going to perform, unless my wife totally wouldn’t have it. I didn’t need to name the missions anymore. I had no audience of waiting Marines striving with their entire beings to survive and return home alive. I only had three dead Marines, a dead audience, but that wasn’t something I wasn’t used to, especially at night.
Pat, the Chief’s secretary, stepped out of the back door of the department. It wasn’t quitting time, I knew. She looked all around the lot before her gaze settled on me sitting inside the Volks, at which point she began walking directly toward the car.
She walked directly to the driver’s door, as I brought the window down.
“Mind if we talk a bit?” she inquired.
I was struck. Up until now, the any communication I’d had with the woman was single word or single syllable. Why she, of all people, would want to talk to me, I had no idea.
“Okay,” I replied, weakly.
She walked around the front of the car, opened the passenger door and then leaned in.
“Mind if we talk in here?”
I nodded my head. How could I mind. The impressive and imposing woman could have told me to do just about anything she pleased. Although more than twice my age, she was still very much a powerfully intelligent and attractive woman.
She settled in and closed the door.
“Mind putting your window up?” she asked.
I turned the handle, wondering about whether the development of her asking denoted the transmission of some ominous or damaging information.
“I have to know,” she said, and then waited, looking over at me,
I looked straight ahead, purposely not turning to look at her.
“Which time under heaven?” I unconsciously whispered out, my mind still on the song’s lyrics.
“What?” she asked.
“What do you want to know?” I asked back.
“About the Marines,” she replied, surprising me again.
There were all kinds of reasons why I probably shouldn’t say a thing about that issue or situation, I knew, but the woman was a key person in a key position, and I could always feel her approval radiating out toward me. I made a snap decision.
“I don’t believe the Marines drowned, not without assistance, anyway. I think they were killed. The President’s Chief of Staff and his top advisor have something to do with what happened, or in covering it up
I gave the Chief the government pen we found. It could have been anybody’s since governmental employees use the beaches too, but the coincidence of a shiny new pen like that falling onto the tracks very close to the folded towels and personal effects is pretty small. Somehow or other, I think the government is involved in the missing, and now dead Marines.”
I stopped for a few seconds, trying to decide if I should go on.
“As you probably heard, I’m going out to the area where they found the bodies, although even that may not be the ‘scene of the crime,’ and that’s about it.”
“Would it be all right if I told Hoodoo?” Pat asked, after a slight delay, her tone one of such sincerity I didn’t want to say no, even though I badly wanted to.
“He’s old and retiring,” she said, “but he was a Marine a long time ago and I think the way this case has been handled is hurting him a lot. He’s also quite smart and has a ton of experience.”
“The Chief wants to be my only resource for information,” I said, stalling for time to think about what she’d asked. In reality, the chief had never asked me to keep anything confidential. And Pat had only ever helped me and never asked for anything. Her greatest help had, and continued to be, the tacit silent support I always felt.
“You’re talking to me, and I think you’re telling the truth,” Pat replied, using her perpetual smile of sincerity on me.
“I can’t take him,” I said, after a few seconds. “I’ve got to go to the base incognito. Hoodoo’s not a fish that can swim in that sea.”
“I know that, but can I fill him in?” Pat continued, working a verbal stiletto slowly into my heart.
“Okay, you can tell him, and I’ll update you both, but you have to tell me any conclusions you come to, as well. I can’t afford to lose my job. I can’t afford, even more, to get caught crossing Haldeman or Ehrlichman.” I said the words softly, thinking about how big a mistake, or a series of them, I might be making.
I didn’t know any of the people around me very well, and Hoodoo, among them all, except for possibly Gates, had let it be known to my face that he didn’t care for me at all.
“Thank you,” Pat whispered, opening the passenger door to get out. She turned, with the door still open, and leaned back into the passenger compartment.
“You didn’t make me promise to not say anything to anyone,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper.
“No, I didn’t have to,” I replied.
She closed the door, as quietly as the cheap Volkswagen door could be closed and walked toward the rear entrance to the department. I watched her go, wondering how the Chief had found such a wonderful talented secretary.
I couldn’t think of myself as a friend of hers, but I believed deep down that she was an ally. Possibly, I wouldn’t have to deal with Hoodoo in person at all, either. I shook my shoulders and shivered a bit. I had to move on.
I drove toward home. I had to get my uniform ready and call Gularte. He was off duty, and I hoped not hung over as hell. I wanted Herberich, or even Steed but I didn’t need investigative talent. I needed a backup I could count on no matter what the threat or circumstance. I was about to enter enemy forces ‘outside the wire,’ and I wasn’t about to do that without flank security.
Gularte answered the phone. I filled him in with what I wanted after asking him if he still had his full Class A green Marine Corps uniform. I knew he’d been discharged and some Marines, upon expiry of active service immediately gave away, sold or trashed their uniforms.
“We’re going to Pendleton, faking our duty status, our purpose for being there and just about everything else?” he asked after I’d finished filling him in on the mission.
“Well, not exactly,” I said, stalling for some time to come up with a good reason for doing what we might be about to do.
“Not exactly, Junior?” he shot back. “Not exactly, like in grenades and artillery, or not exactly like in truth?”
Gularte wasn’t usually deep, when it came to figuring things out, but this time it was like he’d stepped off the deep end and I was paddling in the shallows. I decided to be more direct.
“I need backup,” I replied.
“That’s all you had to say,” Gularte said, with a deep laugh. “We can’t exactly take a patrol car, or our personal vehicles. We need a look. Can we get the Chief’s duty vehicle, by chance? It’s so plain that it’ll pass for being a spook car.”
Spook car, I thought, shaking my head. Was I making a mistake having the wonderfully damaged combat vet backing me up. He had to know there was no real threat that might come about because of our mission to the base, which he didn’t really know anything much about it, but I could feel him reaching out from the A Shau Valley. There was always a threat. It was just that the threat hadn’t manifested itself yet. The sounds of the artillery impacting, the sounds of the small arms ground fire played across the hills and valleys of my mind…they were calling us back.