The ride back into the harbor entrance at Dana Point went smoothly, the wind and waves were at our back and there was no traffic of boats or lines of fisherman along the sea walls to impede our progress. The sound of the dual MTU diesels, thrumming away underneath me, along with the very faint edges of seasickness still wanting to make an appearance from my lower body, made me sleepy but very relaxed…until I saw what was waiting at the end of the channel. There’d been no radio traffic coming out of Richard’s single side-band ship-to-shore radio while we’d been on the mission to the island so there was no chance of “see the man” kind of communication reaching me. I’d put the thought of the Western White House and its players out of my mind during the cruise back to the harbor. Reality rushed back in at me as I looked upon the scene, however.
A black Lincoln was parked parallel to the water atop the channel’s end. It wasn’t parked legally, instead just sitting there near the very edge of the reinforced concrete serving as a ending buttress against the harbor water. I needed no communication with anyone to understand the situation. I knew exactly what the vehicle was and why it was there.
I unstrapped myself from the bolster, saying nothing to either Richard or Gularte, and made my way down to the cabin hatch on the starboard side. I undogged it and stepped through. The only one of the Dwarfs standing was Hoodoo, the man I was looking for.
My hand came out of my pocket, where I’d unknowingly put it when I’d seen the compound vehicle waiting. I reached back inside and pulled the Polaroid from my pocket and held it out to Hoodoo. The single photo I’d found to be possibly so important I carefully peeled from the top of the pack. Hoodoo’s and my own eyes locked. I slid the single photo into one of the exterior chest pockets on the front of my blouse.
“They’re here for me at the end of the pier,” I said. “Analyze these and we’ll meet when I’m done. See what you think of what you can figure out.”
I didn’t mention anything about the Stoner 63, or the dark worrisome feelings I had about seeing what would likely prove to be the lettering and numbering I feared.
“Nobody knows we have these and let’s keep it that way,” I said, instantly wishing I’d said nothing. Hoodoo’s fleeting expression was one of hurt. I realized he’d already come to believe that he had my trust.
“I don’t know why I said that”, I quickly added. “I’m giving these to you because you’re vital to us finding out anything more at all.”
I stepped back outside the hatch, leaving it gaping open, and stood beside it for a moment. Just how in hell did some scrap of paper with that information on it end up on a boat, manned by no one, heading hell bent for leather toward the San Clemente Coast and into my life and lap? I took in the harbor scene around me. Maybe the letters were wrong or maybe the letters, not being wrong, led to something that was completely without substance. When I’d heard the conversation, standing where I was outside the wall between the residence and the main compound building, I’d been uncomfortable, since any discussion about or by the Secret Service and that tumultuous year never occurred anywhere or at any time before or since I’d been working at the compound. What were the Dwarfs stepping into, and what was I doing leading them into whatever it was?
I moved directly to the other side of the boat and stepped onto the concrete jetty as Gularte secured the lines, not wanting to give any time at all to anyone or anything that would keep me away from going over the suspect Polaroid in detail, but that examination couldn’t happen just yet. I could do many things, but ignoring the Western White House, particularly Haldeman and Ehrlichman, was not something I was ready at all to participate in. Haldeman’s brutal threat to the chief, as it could only have been delivered by him, was an exhibition of raw power that shocked me to the core. One word from that mean-spirited man and my life could be wiped away even quicker than the police department or lifeguard force. Ehrlichman didn’t seem to be cut from the same hard bitter cloth as Haldeman but, as he was Haldeman’s right-hand man, maybe he simply operated with a better cover.
“Seven at the place,” I whispered to Bob Elwell.
Bob hadn’t moved an inch, even after I indicated that I wasn’t going to be able to get together with everybody.
The other men aboard the yacht came ashore and moved past where I stood, getting myself together. They clambered into the waiting lifeguard Jeep, with Bob Elwell standing next to it.
“I can give you a lift,” he said, even though Hoodoo, Gularte and Steed were already sitting inside the vehicle, taking up all of the available space for passengers.
The slight wisp of a smile across Bob’s facial features, there for just a second, let me know that his comment hadn’t been made to actually drive me anywhere, but to let me know he understood the uncomfortable position I was being placed in, once again.
I didn’t say anything, instead heading over to the limo, its driver, of course, not getting out to open the passenger door.
“You know,” Bob said aloud, as I passed the Jeep, “Snow White does eventually end up with the prince.”
I got in the limo and closed the door, quickly lowering the window to look out at the remaining Dwarfs at the Jeep and Richard checking the lines securing his boat. I wondered what position Richard was supposed to play in our small informal group, a bunch of players more important than the fictitious dwarfs were to Snow White in the Grimm’s Fairy Tale
The Lincoln moved out and worked its way through Dana Point, taking the Pacific Coast Highway until reaching the outskirts of northern San Clemente. The driver was well schooled, as he moved the vehicle up along El Camino Real and then down Del Mar to South Ola Vista. The limo gently and smoothly eased its way through the south side of San Clemente toward the compound, my anxiety rising higher and higher the closer we got. The day was long from over and I was already tired as could be, my Marine uniform having very tiny bits of salt speckling all over it like bits of confetti or glitter. I knew Haldeman would not be happy to see me in uniform once again, just as he hadn’t been on that first day I’d reported in to him. But there’d been no response at all by the driver when I’d asked him to stop at my apartment so I could change. He’d merely ignored me, letting me know that his orders were pretty directed and not to be deviated from.
I could see that the gate was open down along the narrow barely paved road, after the limo made the turn to head toward the ocean. The big double doors leading into the compound were waiting open like the black flaps of some gargantuan creature in a science fiction horror movie. I walked through them and was promptly met by two Secret Service agents who moved to walk along on each side of me, saying nothing as we proceeded. I was so tired that I limped a bit, shuffling my left foot almost imperceptibly at each step along the hallway, my hip still not completely healed from the bullet that had struck and then gone straight down to rest deeper inside my lower thigh muscle.
I steeled myself for the coming confrontation, straightening my back and squaring my shoulders, before the agents with me stopped halfway down the hall and directed me toward the gate-like door that led through the wall and on into the presidential residence.
“Mardian,” I breathed out, in relief.
Mardian was a ‘player’ by his own description and might not mind me showing up in my formal green ‘alpha’ uniform, with ribbons and shooting medals strewn all across the jacket’s left breast. I closed the small innocuous door behind and stopped to get my act together for a couple of minutes. One of the president’s dogs, Timahoe, the Irish Setter, came out of nowhere to sit in front of me. I petted him on the head, feeling like he’d heard my approach and then quickly gauged that I might need a bit of attention. His presence at that moment did make me feel better, and I couldn’t help smiling while I petted him, although I was feeling no humor inside me whatsoever.
I smelled the smoke from Mardian’s cigar before I rounded the corner to look out over the pool. Everything was the same as the last few times I’d visited.
Mardian sat in his usual chair, ‘my’ chaise lounge nearby. The man said nothing as I walked down the length of the pool, along its ocean paralleling side.
The chaise lounge was empty, so I sat down, knowing full well that I wasn’t there to relax and lay back.
“There are forces here and there which you know nothing about,” Mardian said, stopping to blow a couple of significant clouds of smoke from his lungs before going on. “The boat you chased, caught and then caught again is out of Mexico City. The person behind the owner of that craft, now a possession of the United States Navy, is named Cobb. She wasn’t on the boat but someone else was.”
Sitting transfixed, trying to put the pieces of a puzzle that seemed to have little or nothing to do with me or the Marines or anything else I might be involved with or care about. I breathed in and out deeply but not deep enough to have my exasperation noted by the intelligent, experienced and hardball playing character I was with, not to mention extremely powerful. I had so many questions but somehow got the feeling that I wasn’t there to ask questions and get answers. I was to be informed and then do whatever I was told to do.
Mrs. Nixon, or one of the servants, peeked out between a slit in the drapes covering the sliding glass window that led into the house. I stared at the opening, hoping she would come out. Our previous meeting, that had so impressed me because the wife of the president of the entire United States seemed to know of my existence. I wasn’t quite the nobody I thought I was. I felt warmly about my supposition but also knew it could totally be my own take on things and not the reality at all. The hugely powerful people I’d come into contact with since first being assigned to the Western White House usually had staff who knew everyone, and then that staff passed the information, things like names, titles and jobs, to the vitally important by ‘whispering’ to them just before they contacted the person who might think they, like me, were known. There was little question, however, whether Mrs. Nixon knew me or not, that Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mardian knew my name, and just about everything else about me very well. What my real job was, however, other than the beach patrol identity, remained unknown even to me.
“Cobb,” I blurted out of my mouth accidentally, as I’d been trying as best I could to place the name, or why Mardian had revealed it.
“Yes, her, that one,” Mardian answered right away, nodding his head, having somehow erroneously caught from my tone that I knew the name.
“She’s back from Cuba and out of there for good,” he went on, like I was in on whatever was rolling through his mind.
“Your team was aboard the boat for almost half an hour, but the camera was unused,” Mardian reflected. “The camera was, apparently, in good working order.”
“I understand,” I replied, quickly, not understanding at all.
“The pier where the craft was deposited by the Coast Guard remains under full surveillance, hence the half hour report,” Mardian said, saying all the words slowly, sometimes puffing on his cigar.
“Yes, sir,” I came back, trying to say nothing at all, while remaining fully attentive and respectful.
“Do I have to say the words?” Mardian hissed, and I knew he wasn’t saying the words as a question.
“They took ten shots of the inside, mostly of nothing,” I replied, hoping to mollify him, my heart beginning to sink as I was quickly coming to realize I might never see the other photos I’d given to Hoodoo and the one of import, that was still in my chest pocket started to radiate a heat all of its own.
Mardian’s knowledge, experience and brilliance was fully on display before me. I knew I couldn’t play at his level, but I wasn’t about to let go of the tenth photo without analyzing it for what I might find.
“I can call Hoodoo at the station and have them be ready for me to pick up,” I offered.
“No, you won’t. Instead of wasting that time you’ll ride with my driver and both of you will retrieve them together.” Mardian put his cigar out in his coffee cup when he finished talking.
“I’ll wait right here. You go over to the compound and get the driver, and don’t even think of stopping to make a phone call.”
I got up and left for the parking lot, relieved so far that no one had been assigned to search me. What was going to happen when the normal Polaroid box of ten negatives only produced nine photos, I didn’t know. All I could do is accompany the driver get the nine shots from Hoodoo and deliver them back to Mardian as quickly as possible. I had no idea if Hoodoo would be at the department when I got there, and if he wasn’t, what then? The complexities of what I’d involved myself in were swirling around in waves and eddies I had no control over or any ability to predict.
The driver was sitting in the lot, the engine on his Lincoln idling away, as if he knew I’d be coming out to go somewhere. I shook my head, opening the rear door, maybe Mardian already know Hoodoo had the photos and was indeed at the department.
“San Clemente Police Department,” I instructed the driver.
As usual, he said nothing in return. I’d not been spoken to by the man since he’d first showed up to escort me around. Mardian’s comment about the man being his driver explained why the guy was a complete stranger to me, when I knew most everyone who worked at the complex, at least by sight.
The ride was one of minutes, although I wanted it to be longer. I needed time to think, to come up with a plan, but there was none. The driver parked near the rear entrance, like he knew why we were there, although he’d been in the Lincoln while I’d talked to Mardian.
“You coming in?” I asked, as I stepped out of the vehicle.
The man shook his head, giving me my first bit of relief. At first, I’d hoped that Hoodoo wouldn’t be there, but now everything was changed. I could spend a few minutes with him and devise a plan.
I walked quickly through the back door and into the station. I headed straight for the back counter which allowed me to see the whole operations center, as Bobby called it, although the open space was only filled with a few counters, a couple of small desks, the red, White House emergency phone on its white pedestal and Bobby’s small array of radio equipment. The back wall’s drunk cage grill wasn’t visible from my viewpoint.
“Hoodoo?” I asked of Bobby.
“Suspect investigation room number one,” Bobby replied, with a grin.
The station only had one room set aside for interviews or privacy or whatever, and Hoodoo therefore had to be in it, probably poring over the photographs I figured.
The door was locked. I knocked, and then again when Hoodoo didn’t answer or open up.
The door opened, Hoodoo stuck one arm out and pulled me inside before locking it again.
“They want the photos, I presume, by the fact that your driver’s waiting outside and the look on your face lacks all blood pressure behind it.”
I looked down at the table before me which Hoodoo had obviously been working on. The photos were spread out evenly, with papers having notes and arrows marked all over them.
“There’s a problem,” I got out, not thinking about what the detective had just said. “Mardian knows how long you were inside the yacht, he knows about the Polaroid and the knows you took pictures, and he wants them.”
“Yes,” Hoodoo said, moving around the table to pick up a reflex film camera which he first held out and then swung down to let it hang twisting from his left wrist.
“I have the tenth photo,” I gushed out, reaching into my breast pocket. “We can’t give it to him, and we can’t keep it from him.” I pulled the photo carefully from my breast pocket.
“You said he was a smart man,” Hoodoo reflected, quietly, not moving from his position across the small table from me. “He won’t be believing the tenth was destroyed or somehow caused to be blank, etcetera, etcetera…”
“That’s right, so what do we do?” I replied, holding the photo out.
Hoodoo took the photo with his right hand, placed it carefully down onto a blank space between the other photos and papers strewn over the top of the desk.
He swept the reflex camera up and adjusted the lens to point directly down on the tenth Polaroid.
“Hit the other lights,” he instructed, holding the camera and himself still over the photo.
“There’s no way to blow up a Polaroid so a quality photograph from another camera must be used to reproduce it. We can then blow up the copy pretty effectively.”
I pushed the only other switch located on the wall just to the left of where we walked in. A bright light, three or four times more powerful than what had been on when I walked in, showered the room with light. The camera clicked loudly three times.
“Got it,” Hoodoo said, pulling himself up to stand straight. He put the camera down and gathered all the photos together into one packet.
“Get out there and move quickly to get back to the compound. Mardian won’t like any delay, and we don’t want your lazy limo driver, who should have come in with you so he could have prevented what we’ve done, questioned about it.”
He pushed the pack at me, unlocked the door and then turned, grabbed my right arm and pushed me roughly through it.
“Nice uniform, lieutenant,” he whispered as I moved out and into the hall.
“Cobb, a woman,” I said to him, over my shoulder, “just got back from Cuba, out of Mexico City, like the yacht.”
I ran down the hall, grasping the photo pack in my right hand.
“Don’t run to the limo,” Hoodoo yelled at my back, just as I reached the rear door.
I got control of myself. I opened the door and walked slowly out, stopping for a few seconds to take in the mild wind blowing in off the ocean. Even up at elevation, where the department headquarters sat, the aroma of sea spume and spray was wonderful to take into my lungs.
The ride back to the compound was as uncircumspect as the trip up to the police station had been. Mardian’s driver didn’t speed or break any traffic laws at all. The Marine gate was open, the staff sergeant on duty saluting and one of the huge doors hanging on the wall was open and waiting.
I got out of the limo, turned toward the staff sergeant and give him a classic Marine salute, tight and perfect. He returned it with a smile. The other two Marines with the sergeant noted their commander saluting so they turned and did the same. It felt good to be back in uniform and among such disciplined men, even though I knew full well that I was participating in a pretty complicated façade.
Mardian was exactly where I’d left him, working on his third cigar, as the butts of the other two were sticking out of the coffee cup next to his right knee on the small glass table.
“The photos,” I said, placing the stack on the table and sitting down on the edge of the chaise lounge.
Mardian carefully counted the photographs, not bothering to examine any of them closely.
“Learn anything?” he asked, his voice sounding perfectly conversational.
“What with the rough trip back, the rush to get here and now back and forth from the compound to the department, I haven’t had any time to look at the photos at all.”
“I didn’t mean the photos,” he said, working on his cigar once again, even though I could see that it’d gone out. “Your chest says that you’ve been around the Horn a few times. You’re looking into things, which nobody seems to mind, in fact some are supporting. It’s not that you’re going to find something or not, it’s more that you do not use, discuss or let anyone else come to understand what you find that’s important.”
“I won’t say anything, sir,” I replied. “I like this job and I want to keep it as long as I can.”
I was being as truthful as I could, my feeling of relief about covering up about the photos and not being discovered nearly overcoming me. All I wanted to do was get home, get showered, dally a bit with Julie and then sleep.
“I’m not talking about the job,” Mardian said back. “You and I are employed for life, although you’re not aware of that yet. I’m talking about how long that life may end up being.”
“I understand, sir,” I answered, having no other answer that might take in just how unusual our conversation was, at least to me.
Mardian didn’t seem the least put out by what he’d said, which also told me that he was so weathered at what he did, part of which I was doing, that I might never really understand him.
“Go, take a break, I’m off to Washington tomorrow, which I dread. There’s stuff coming down the pike you happily have no clue about. Watch out for private contractors, as our fearless leader has a penchant for trusting them.”
I got up and headed for the door in the wall, passing Timahoe, the seemingly faithful Irish Setter who gave me every impression he was waiting for me to come back. I rubbed the top of his head before I went through the door and re-entered what seemed to be much more real and comfortable than the pool area of the president’s residence.
The limo was gone when I got back through the big door, which closed behind me.
“Great,” I breathed out.
The staff sergeant was still on duty so I approached him to see if I could use the security phone to call the department and get a ride home. The photo, a great reproduction now in Hoodoo’s possession called to me but I had to get down or I was going to be useless to everyone and everything around me. My hip hurt, my not fully healed center incision hurt and my brain was like mush, even when it wasn’t still reacting to the vague queasiness caused by my recent extended sea adventures.
Once again, the Staff Sergeant offered me a ride home. He was such a pleasing fellow, and totally respectful of my combat ribbons that I couldn’t say no. Only on the short trip home did I realize that there was no way that his shift was up every time I walked out of the compound door and needed a ride. Who was he reporting to, I wondered, but I said nothing, just happy that he was there, a real Marine, and that I was going to make it home okay.
I went down for three hours, my wife being the most accommodating and accepting person I’d ever met on the planet, my daughter wanting to play but instead posting herself like a guard at the foot of my bed, toying with her small blocks and miniature characters from some television show. When I awakened, I realized there’d been no bad dreams and the sun was still shining in the sky, although getting low over the ocean. The distant water wasn’t visible from our rather inexpensive apartment, but its presence was ever nearby and had a great effect in just about everything we did.
I took the Volks to the lifeguard headquarters, relieved to be out of my tight-fitting class “A” greens and also able to pass as just a regular citizen to those around me. Bob Elwell was still at the headquarters and it took no time at all to convince him that giving me a lift out to the end of the pier with him was better than having to call 911 because I’d collapsed half way out.
I walked through the door of the restaurant, the closed sign out but the lights on bright inside the place. The Dwarfs were all there, with Shawna serving, as usual and my spot at the head of the long table the only one open. Before I sat down Shawna already had coffee waiting with a tiny creamer and a sugar bowl. The woman was amazing. Hoodoo had a stack of large blowups he’d brought piled in front of him, no doubt of the ten photos he taken while aboard the yacht.
The surprise, a welcome one, was Richard walking through the door before I could say anything or even take a sip of my most welcome coffee. There was little question that the Dwarfs were eight, not seven. Richard advanced to the table, sweeping off his big Stetson from which he pulled out a small envelope. He handed it to me, while Shawna rearranged everyone on one side of the table in order to provide another chair for him. I clutched the small envelope in my left hand and extended my right out to him. Putting the big hat down he reached out his own.
“Uuuuurah, brother,” I murmured, without a smile while staring knowingly into his eyes.
The man was more than ex-military I’d decided after some thought. He was special operations military from some time and place or a real combat veteran like me and Gularte. There’d been no bending, backing or quit in the man while at sea or at the San Clemente Island pier, or in the run back to Dana Point. It just wasn’t possible that he was a regular citizen. He nodded back at my coded message, but neither said anything nor lessened his usual big smile.
I called the meeting to order and turned immediately to Hoodoo.
“What have we got?” I asked, not wanting to lay out everything that had happened yet to those of the group who hadn’t been able to go.
“Photo number ten, the last one I took, is of an open desk wherein some papers were strewn about,” he said, his tone casual but analytically clipped a bit.
“There’s a reference to a weapons system called Stoner 63.”
I breathed in and out carefully, my suspicions confirmed without my ever having to examine the photo.
The group passed the blow up around the table until Hoodoo held it once more. “The caliber is 5.56 millimeters, and the system was in the possession of the U.S. Secret Service back in early 1963. There are those who think and have photographic autopsy evidence that one of the bullets in the assassination of the president of the time was exactly that caliber, not the thirty caliber generally accepted to be the assassin’s weapon.”
There was a total silence in the room, only the wind and creaking of the pier’s wooden poles holding it up made any noise at all.
“You’re kidding,” Pat said. This is heading in a whole horrible direction. This just can’t be. Who would believe this.”
“I’m not making any conclusions or connections here, just laying out the facts as they’ve fallen in front of me,” Hoodoo replied, looking up and down the table, as if he was losing all credibility.
“You gave me the name of Cobb, a woman, and her time in Cuba and recently Mexico City, where the yacht is out of,” Hoodoo said, as if in his defense.
“I don’t like that either,” Pat said, her voice tone rising. “Cuba, assassination, Mexico City. What is all this turning into?”
“Hold on,” I finally said. Don’t go running off in different directions. We’ve got the dead Marines. We’ve got the yacht coming ashore empty with huge, long range supplies of diesel fuel aboard. We’ve got the U.S. government in just about every agency working to cover something up. The question I have to put to you all is “do you want to continue or just let this all go?’”
Everyone started talking at once, the other photos distributed around the table, with Gularte and Herberich studying photo number ten with a giant magnifying glass Hoodoo had brought along with him.
I opened the small envelope Richard had given me.
“Nobody on this planet could have gotten me back in, but you did, and therefore I owe you a debt that can never be fully repaid.”
I looked up at him, sitting quietly without joining in with the rest, looking back at me.
“I’m all in,” he said, just loud enough for me to be able to hear him.
<<<<<< The Beginning |