The open sea beckoned us toward it, as I stared at the ever greater rise and fall of the bow. It seemed to be whispering “come my pretties,” as if somehow tied right into the wicked witch’s delivery from the Wizard of Oz.
Gularte made it up from the main cabin, just as we made our way forward, diving into one ever-growing swell after another. He bolstered himself into the seat that was between Richard and I but set back a few feet in the center.
“Are we out of our minds?” he asked, not really as a question.
The vessel’s design and its progress through the waves was quiet enough to allow conversation at near normal levels.
“We’re playing with forces so hugely out of our league that I can’t imagine just how deep in trouble we might be when we get to the island.”
“Won’t have to wait,” Richard replied, pointing forward just a bit to the port side from the tip of the rising and falling bow.
I stared intently at the horizon. The sun was high in the sky and the waves, being open ocean swells and not white-capped, gave off no spray at all. Very distantly another vessel was paralleling our course but just ahead of where we were moving. I involuntarily pulled my shoulders back, as a series of small shivers went up and down my spine.
“Get the binoculars from Elwell,” I instructed Gularte, “and take my blouse below.”
I was wearing class “A” greens but with the cotton short-sleeve shirt under the blouse instead of the heavier long sleeve made of wool. I knew I wasn’t equipped at all for the kind of open ocean boating we were doing. I’d decided earlier not to bring along an entire change of wardrobe. I’d handed off the brand new Leica binoculars I’d padded into my last purchase from the uniform shop to Gularte as I came aboard, briefly thinking about whether the over one-thousand dollar invoice price would go unnoticed at the compound. The 10 by 50 lenses gave a clarity that was almost better than the naked eye, and also brought whatever was viewed in the distance ten times closer. I’d also given him one of the Polaroid cameras the compound had ‘gifted’ me.
Gularte unstrapped himself and headed below with my blouse. His own change of attire; jeans, tennis shoes and a heavy sweatshirt was much more suited to being on deck at sea than my own.
“What do you think it is?” I asked Richard, both of us staring out over the waves toward the other vessel.
The boat seemed to be holding itself just ahead of our own moving position but there was no doubt that it was headed on a course parallel to our own.
“It’s red,” Richard replied.
“Red?” I shot back, my voice rising a bit in surprise.
“Red stripe. Coast Guard.”
Gularte came back up into the cabin from below and pressed the new binoculars, in their black leather case, into my right side, my full attention still on the other craft moving over the waves with us.
I pulled up the lenses and worked the focus knob. It was hard to find the boat through the glasses, as our own was bobbing and weaving so much, but I finally caught a closeup. There was no question. It was identical to one of the Coast Guard vessels that had been in near the pier when we’d been forcibly offloaded to the lifeguard boat earlier.
“We can continue to take this nice and easy, as Tina Turner might say, or we can do this nice and rough,” Richard said.
I pulled the Leica’s down to my lap and looked over at him.
We were in for a penny or a pound, I realized. Our speed in getting to the island was immaterial, and it was just as likely that running faster would mean nothing to the forces arrayed either in support of or in opposition to us.
“Nice and rough,” I replied, not truly understanding what Richard was talking about but not liking the slow bobbing and weaving motions the boat was currently putting us through.
“Oh great,” Gularte said, “did you hear anything I said?”
I didn’t reply, as the Palmer Johnson hyper-expensive craft leapt forward and climbed up the next incoming swell as if it was a giant cat articulating its way up the trunk of some African tree. Once into the upper branches of that ‘tree’ it didn’t stop or go down. It seemed to jump to the top of the next swell, as our speed dramatically increased.
“She’ll do forty-six knots flat out, which is probably about twenty, or so, more than that Coast Guard 83-footer out there. We’re going to run from here on out across the top of the swells instead of quartering up and down their moving surfaces.”
I held on to the dash in front of me as I was expecting it to get a whole lot rougher. I was surprised when just the opposite happened. The scene in front of me was wild, as water was thrown to each side of the now fast-moving craft in great high sheets. But the water thrown up was quickly behind us before entering the cabin or hitting any of the boat’s exposed deck. I realized that we were ‘bouncing’ from swell top to swell top but in such a cushioned way that it was much more comfortable than it had been before. I looked across toward where the Coast Guard cutter had been. It was gone, so far back in the distance I couldn’t see it through the spray thrown up and the distance we were putting between us.
“Like they need to have us under surveillance?” Gularte said, his voice harder to hear as the twin monster MTU diesels no longer seemed to thunder. They roared.
“Forty knots,” Richard yelled, proudly, his smile over toward me bigger than it’d been before.
I realized, in looking over at the man, that all he needed was his cowboy hat, and, along with our rather whacked-out mission, to be riding a nuclear bomb while it was falling from a B-52 over Russia.
The boat was amazing, not just in its speed and comfort while traversing across large ocean swells, but also because the wind inside the cockpit was so low.
“This isn’t going to end well,” Gularte murmured.
“Well, at least, our time over the water to our destination is reduced to the point where we’ll be on station in less than an hour,” Richard said, never letting more than a little of his attention divert from steering the boat carefully from wave crest to wave crest.
I studied the man while he worked. The way in which he’d indicated we’d be arriving early was reminiscent of military special operations language. On station and destination, weren’t words common to civilians in normal conversation although his Navy experience might be on display since we weren’t involved in anything even close to normal civilian activity. I made a mental note to take a much closer look into Richard’s background when I had a chance.
It was quite evident in watching Richard’s moves, operating the wheel with his left hand and the dual throttle levers with his right, that he knew exactly what he was doing. It was much harder to watch the boat’s flying progress from the top of one swell to another, without ever diving down in between, than to simply close my eyes and feel the heavy but smooth flow of the boat through and over the water. Richard never made a bad move. After a while the trip became hypnotic and I grew a bit sleepy in spite of being rocked back and forth in my bolster. I knew some of what was going on was the latent sea sickness trying to make a return, but I could only pray that it remained tamped down.
The time flew by, along with the passing spray and wind. I knew I’d pay a price for the beating the boat’s movement was giving me but I didn’t care. I was as immersed in solving the mystery as much as the others in the group and I could never have turned down an opportunity to go after the yacht.
Richard piloted the boat straight toward the center of the elongated island as it lay spread before us, running from north to south. It was much bigger than I’d expected, as I’d never done any research on it nor really knew it was out so far beyond the small city, I lived in along the coastal shoreline.
The pier’s location became evident, the closer we got. Richard slowed our vessel down to little more than walking speed, and then less than that. The yacht was moored to a lone shore pier, small eddies of mildly swirling waters letting any observer know that just beyond the small ‘nook’ between two protecting outcrops of low land masses, the ocean waves swept by, tall and fast in their passage. There was no one there, no Coast Guard vessels, although Richard’s craft had no doubt left the following federal craft in its wake by a matter of hours. There were no buildings, fences nor anything else nearby. There was a launch ramp for small craft just to the right of the pier, as Richard pulled in his much larger craft to rest just off the side of the pier just behind the other yacht.
“Bumpers out,” Richard said, as if Gularte and I somehow knew what he was talking about.
“The bumpers that protect the hull from the pier are in the big slots located just inside the lip of the hull,” he finally continued.
Gularte unstrapped from his bolster and climbed the short distance down to the main deck and went to work throwing the big bumpers overboard along the starboard side of the hull.
I noted that ‘Small Change’ was written across the stern of the yacht, printed in worn gold paint. Underneath those words were tiny letters indicating that the vessel was out of San Diego, not that it much mattered, as yachts and boats of all kinds were bought and sold with most never changing the original place of origin painted across their sterns.
I unstrapped myself from my bolster as Richard guided the big vessel into the soft absorbing sides of the bumpers, while Gularte ran from bow to stern to secure the lines.
“Richard, you man the helm and have this thing ready to go at an instant’s notice, not that we’re planning to try to outrun a CH-53.”
“Aye, aye, mon capitan,” Richard dryly replied, his wide smile once more spreading across his face.
“Gularte, you’re with me. We have to get our formal blouses on in case of any contact, although it doesn’t look right now as if anybody’s around or even coming. You and Elwell can take up positions at the stem of the pier in case we have company.”
“You need two people there” Gularte complained.
“One to be the guard and one to be the officer in charge, and that’s you, plus somebody’s got to handle the lines fore and aft freeing us quickly from the pier should it come to that.”
I’d made the decision on the way to the island about how to handle the Dwarfs. Hoodoo, Steed and Herberich would search the yacht from top to bottom, as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’d stand by in my dress uniform, keeping careful watch from the base of the pier over our own craft and the Dwarfs searching the boat. In the relatively small space inside the yacht, because the empty and full fifty-gallon barrels of diesel occupied so much space, three men searching was more than enough, and any soiling of my uniform would not look good if I was forced to confront anyone attempting to interdict our effort.
When I’d been at home, I’d prepared one of the two Polaroid cameras I’d been ‘gifted’ by the Western White House. I wanted pictures, not stuff, from the inside of the yacht’s cabin and bedroom interiors. Getting aboard and examining what was left there was vital to trying to figure out its place in the continuing mystery, if for no other reason than to mark it off as having nothing to do with anything back at the beach. Taking anything that might be known by other authorities to be there would be a whole other matter of procedure and potential liability, however. Breaking any chain of evidence wasn’t taken lightly or kindly by any investigative police, military or civilian police agency.
I opened the hatch to the passenger cabin, noting with some satisfaction that the men inside had made no attempt to exit the quarters when the boat was first docked.
I moved toward where I’d stashed my uniform blouse and the heavy case holding the camera. Before I put the coat on, I opened the Polaroid box and pulled out the large camera. It took only seconds to have the three men gather and watch while I described the total simplicity of its use. The light inside the yacht’s cabin would probably be plenty to avoid using the flash, but even that was automatically and brilliantly built into the nearly ‘point and shoot’ device. The hardest part was taking the developing film that whizzed out of the camera’s front slot, placing it somewhere dry and safe for a full minute, and then rubbing the accompanying stick of permanent developer over its surface. That took another minute. Each shot would take a couple of minutes unless compressed by simply taking many shots one after another, which I didn’t think was likely. There were three large square boxes of film, ten photos each, plus the camera itself inside the box.
“Do as good a job as you can,” I said, holding the closed camera container out to Hoodoo. “You’ll have only a limited time, if any time at all, so make the best of it.”
Hoodoo was already wearing surgeon’s gloves and handed out a set to each of the other men. The man was no doubt a pro, as I’d never thought about gloves, but they made all the sense in the world in such a strange situation. I threw my coat on, laboriously buttoned it up, wishing my wife was there to do the final difficult fasteners.
We climbed out of the hatch and jumped the short distance down to the pier. I could see right away that there was no one else present, other than Gularte and Bob, each stationed right at pier’s base. Both faced outward, looking for threats or any activity at all.
The yacht seemed unchanged as I took the lead in going aboard. The center door was still a tattered hanging wreck from being beaten in by the big wrench. I looked inside but could see little, except there was a lot less light than I’d thought. I hoped the Polaroid’s flash would do the job if any job at all was called for. I didn’t go down but instead motioned for the three to enter through the wreck of the door. Hoodoo took the lead, handing the Polaroid box to Steed behind him and taking out a Key-Lite flashlight from a hidden pocket cut and sewn into the back of his trousers. Another item I’d forgotten to bring or even think about.
Once all three were down inside I lost sight of them. There was no point in standing where I was, so I moved to the opening in the rail and hopped over to the pier. I noticed that the yacht was snugged right against the side of the pier, without bumpers, which would take a toll on every bit of its starboard hull over time. It was blatantly obvious that the authorities that had taken the boat didn’t care in the least about its eventual physical condition. Richard’s bigger and more powerful boat sat only feet away from the yacht’s stern, big cigar-shaped bumpers protecting its hull from any damage caused by the small, but ever present, ripples running across the top of the water’s surface.
There was nothing for me to do back at the yacht, so I turned, gave Richard a thumbs up and headed to join Gularte and Elwell.
“Too quiet,” Elwell said, “It’s too quiet,” he said again, his voice low, as if repeating some words from a movie or television show.
“Where are they?” Gularte asked, all three of us peering intently up the small dirt road that wound into the island’s higher ground. I’d never been to the island before. I was not expecting the size of the mountain I could see far in the distance. It had to be several thousand feet high. My surprise was apparent, as Elwell laughed out loud.
“Never been here before, huh?” he said. “How does the Navy get to take over and keep places like this? Can you imagine the value of the real estate here if subdivided and built on?”
I saw a dust trail far in the distance, far up the road.
“Company coming,” I said, stepping a bit forward of the other two men. “I’ll take the lead,” I instructed. “If they ask you any questions directly then answer them as best as you can.”
“Tell them the truth?” Bob asked back, his tone one of surprise.
“There’s no truth here, whatever, so use your own judgment, or defer to me since I’ve got the paper.”
I took the general’s letter out of my breast pocket and unfolded it. There was little doubt that I’d need it, even though the ‘opposition’ was no longer coming at us with the overwhelming force it’d used before.
“Our current objective to accomplish this mission is to stall as long as possible so we can get an adequate search done,” I said, as the Jeep grew ever closer.
It took several minutes for the vehicle to arrive. It pulled up just feet from where I stood, dust flying about, driven by a gentle breeze coming off the water behind us. My barracks cover didn’t want to stay on but there was nothing to be done except keep pushing it down at every opportunity.
The driver remained at the wheel of the Jeep, but the passenger, a Navy lieutenant commander, with gold oak leaves on his shirt collar, stepped out. Gularte and I saluted. The Navy officer saluted back but rather than a real salute it was sort of a hand flip, his loose fingers never reaching his forehead.
“What are you men doing here and who the hell are you, anyway?” he said, his tone one of suppressed anger, as if he’d been pulled away from doing something important to handle some sort of annoying nuisance.
“From the Commanding General of the First Marine Division,” I said, extending the unfolded paper into the wind between us.
The commander took the letter and read it as best he could under the breezy conditions before handing it back.
“Your presence here,” the lieutenant commander said,” is allowable, as this is Navy property, but who’s the civilian?”
“San Clemente Lifeguard,” Bob responded, although not moving from his position just behind me when he spoke.
“What’s your business here? The Navy Officer asked, directing the question at me, “since the Marine Corps base has little say or authority over anything that goes on out here.”
I launched into a long-winded version of what had happened, going back to the three Marines dying along the shore and then into the details of the yacht and how it all seemed to fit together.
“I don’t know anything about the yacht here,” the officer said, nodding toward the boat, but I presume that it’s now in the possession of the United States Navy and therefore off limits to everyone else, which would include you, this San Clemente Lifeguard and anybody else you brought along.”
I’d expected nothing less when we’d arrived, only surprised by the very light response from whoever was behind the taking of the yacht. Either total disorganization was going on, not untypical of joint military/civilian operations, or whomever was behind this was trying to reduce the level of importance and take the temperature down a few degrees.
“I’ve got three men checking out the interior of the yacht,” I volunteered, hoping the three Dwarfs had been given enough time to find anything that might be findable.
“What?” the lieutenant commander yelled, losing his composure for the first time. “Get them the hell out of there. That’s U.S. government property.”
“Gularte, tell them to come out and get aboard our vessel,” I said, turning slightly toward him.
The Naval officer burst past me, catching up with Gularte, his driver running from the Jeep to stay beside him.
Hoodoo emerged from the cockpit of the yacht before they got there, hopping down to the pier surface and turning as if he was heading back to Richard’s vessel.
“Hold on,” the lieutenant commander called out.
Hoodoo stopped, turned, and waited.
“What are you carrying?”
“A Polaroid camera,” Hoodoo offered, putting the plastic container down.
“I’ll take that,” the driver said, grabbing the camera.
“You take any photos in there?”
“Nothing at all to take photos of and the lights too bad, anyway.” Hoodoo said the words while spreading both arms out, as if to show that he had nothing else and nothing to hide.
“You men get the hell off this island right now,” the lieutenant commander said, his anger still evident in each word he spoke.
“What about our camera?” I asked, walking by him.
“You’ll get it back through channels, or not,” the man replied, moving to go aboard the yacht.
I walked slowly but firmly toward Richard’s yacht, knowing the four men behind me were following. I glanced back. The commander’s driver headed back to his Jeep with the camera tucked under his left arm.
The six of us climbed aboard Richard’s yacht. Elwell untied the ropes fore and aft before throwing the big bumpers up over the side. Richard held the yacht close into the pier without rubbing the bare hull against it while Bob got aboard.
I stopped Hoodoo before he went through the hatch into the lower passenger cabin.
“They got the camera and all the film?” I asked, even before inquiring whether they’d found anything.
“Took just one roll of ten,” he said, pulling a pack of ten square photographs from his back pocket. “The thing worked perfectly but that gooey stuff that goes on them is awful and it took forever to dry.”
I took the stack of Polaroid photos in one hand and held them to my chest.
“Thank you,” I breathed out, “hope you got something good.”
“Don’t know, not likely, not today,’ the normally laconic man said, going through the hatch.
I followed him inside. I rushed to get out of my formal Green alpha blouse and then to display the photos across one of the white coffee tables screwed to the deck with big stainless-steel bolts. I felt the boat move under me as Richard got us underway. I also felt that he didn’t need instructions. We wanted out of there just as quickly as we could get out of there without causing any more fuss than we already had. That the whole thing had gone so smoothly and without much of any kind of hitch was astounding. In truth, I hadn’t expected that we’d be allowed to do anything more than possibly dock and be escorted back out to sea.
I poured over the photos, getting on my hands and knees to bend down over the low table and view them as closely as I could. I scanned through nine and found absolutely nothing. The tenth proved to be more problematic. It was a picture of a desk with a top that was tilted up along the edge of a hinge part way past its center. The picture before had been of the desk’s empty closed surface. The final photo was of the documents inside the desk with the top held open. Some of the documents were visible but it was difficult to make out what the printed letters on the documents read.
Richard accelerated the boat up to speed again, for the return trip. I gathered the photos together and gave them back to Hoodoo to hold onto, minus the tenth one, which I put in my breast pocket. I knew I needed a magnifying glass and there wasn’t likely going to be one of those aboard. Also, the yacht was picking up speed quickly. I remembered what Richard had said about the performance of the craft facing into the waves instead of running with a following sea. We would be running with that following sea all the way to Dana Point Harbor, so I was expecting a faster trip back then we’d made on the way to the island. I needed to get up topside and bolstered in. Hoodoo, Elwell, Herberich, and Steed all lay down and nestled into the deep thick cushions of the couch-like furniture that lined the bulkheads along each side of the hull.
I got to my feet unsteadily and went out the hatch, dogging it behind me, and then climbing the few steps into the cockpit. The movement of the boat seemed much more severe topside than it felt down below. I strapped into my bolster and immediately noticed that, although our speed was even faster than on the way out, the trip was smoother and more entertaining than fearful. I breathed the sea air in deeply, and even while working my torso a bit to share the movements of the boat under me, I felt like I was relaxing for the first time in a long while.
There was only one discomfort I felt, and it wasn’t physical. In the corner of the photo I carried in my pocket was one distinguishable bit of printing. That short line read, ‘stoner 63’ and it bothered me to the point I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I knew the Stoner weapons system and I also knew that the 63 was the number that company used to describe an automatic weapons system it had invented. I didn’t know the weapon system personally as I had long left dealing with my dad’s shooting team competitions.
I knew of it from the Western White House and, being bored waiting around for Mardian one day, listened in on a short conversation I’d overheard between two Secret Service agents. They’d been talking about how the Stoner system, the very same system the government later bought and designated as the Mk23 used by Navy S.E.A.L’s had been provided to the Secret Service at their gun range in Washington D.C. prior to its submission to the Pentagon. They’d been speaking of the year it was submitted when one cut the other off and looked around. The more I thought about what I thought was going to be confirmed, when I examined the photograph closer, the colder my insides became. The year of the system’s submission was 1963.