I walked on the cooling sand toward the Trestles railroad bridge, my mind clearing the web of fear the faux Claymore had brought down upon me. My thoughts were drawn back to a lesser fear. Richard. If Richard was the operative who had disposed of the troublesome Marines it meant that he was an analytically driven killer, and that made him dangerous to anyone who might be considered a threat. So far, in having Kennedy assassination evidence dumped in my lap I’d already become a bit jaded in my former belief that the U.S. government didn’t involve itself in directed assassinations, and if it did then certainly not back home within the confines of the USA. Richard might just be the kind of efficient and terminal tool who could be directed against me or any of the people I loved or cared about if I made a wrong move. My leadership in the A Shau brutally taught me that I have plenty of capability to make wrong moves that could have tragic effects.
I walked back to the Bronco. Gularte stood at the driver’s door, smoking a cigarette and staring up at the dull light radiating out from the lone window located under the triangle of white stucco up near the very peak of the home. Everyone working at the compound knew about that window and how light burned out from it many hours of the night, almost every night. It was the room that the president used to do his writing, and he wrote a lot.
“Gularte,” I said, raising my voice to be heard over the ceaseless pounding oif the nearby surf on hard sand as I closed the distance between us.
“What now?” Gularte answered, snapping the half-consumed cigarette off into the distance and turning to face me.
“Richard’s a potential risk, I believe.”
“What was your first clue?” Gularte replied, a big smile on his face.
“I need you to have my back,” I said, no humor in my tone.
“I will always have your back…however…” Gularte said, not finishing the sentence.
“However?” I countered, in surprise.
“We’re back in the land of the round eyes,” Gularte said, turning to face the open sea no more than ten yards from our position. “There’s nobody in this jungle after us and, if there are or might be, then would they not be searching as prey looking for two predators?”
I had to smile in spite of my fears and dark thoughts. “You have an amazingly strange way of answering sometimes.”
“I wasn’t with you over there and don’t really wish I was, as I really do believe I’d be dead like the rest of your men, but over here, back home, it’s a different story altogether. You’re the reserve commander, which is a meaningless leadership position, but the department and the compound people back behind us seem to give you a lot more unspoken power than that. Isolate Richard by giving him meaningless tasks, hours and assignments. He’ll get tired of that pretty damned quickly if I’ve got the drift of our new would-be adventurer.”
“Unless he’s really one of us,” I added, seriously thinking about the man and how he disguised the way he held himself, walked or even dressed.
The real Richard was another man entirely than the one he very cleverly portrayed.
“Unless he’s one of us,” Gularte agreed, “but then, after a while, he’ll be joining us.”
We drove up and down along the railroad tracks for several hours until it was full dark. The light in the presidential residence never wavered or went out. Nixon was an amazingly diligent and hard-working president, at least when it came to writing his own memoirs.
We finished our shift with no incidents, no calls and very little contact with any other humans. It was too late in the day for surfing, and nobody ever seemed to use or even come down to the sand or swim among even the gentlest of breaking waves.
On the following day I got up early. It was the day before the day before the day before March 12th, the day the gathering would be held. I dressed casually in my OP shorts, Hawaiian ‘go-aheads’ on my feet and an old Aloha shirt up top.
I didn’t walk the two blocks over to Del Mar, instead choosing to drive the Volks because I could park the car at that early hour right in front of Galloway’s restaurant, and from there jump into it to go anywhere else the day might take me.
The only thing I carried was a packet of lined loose-leaf papers. It’d been some time since I’d tried to write down what happened down in the A Shau Valley. For some reason it seemed easier to go at it in shifts, like the scheduled work times of the beach patrol.
I sat and wrote, using the latest U.S. government pen that we’d found aboard the yacht. One day maybe I’d make enough money to afford a real pen, but for the time being, stolen governmental pens would be my writing tools.
Lorraine almost ‘floated’ by, casually and smoothly setting a steaming cup of coffee on the table, not too close but not too far away either. The coffee was cream colored because Lorraine knew how I took it. She also knew I’d eat nothing unless I called her over to order it. I sipped the coffee carefully. The amount of sugar she’d used was just right. Tom remained in the back room where the single slab of a gas-powered flat top griddle was located accompanied by a set of burners located off to one side. He never came out front, never served customers and seldom talked, even if visited in the back. I’d given up on communicating with him right away. But my sales agent Lorraine was entirely different, although she would remain quiet while I was occupied.
Already back from the A Shau for a couple of years, and all I’d completed of the book was four chapters and started a fifth. I fiddled with the pen, wondering if I’d ever finish it.
Mike Manning walked into the alcove, which was open to the sidewalk.
Tom and Lorraine’s restaurant took up the left front corner of the alcove if one was facing away from the street. There were three other businesses adjoining the open area but, since it was pretty early in the morning and none of the shops opened until ten, there was usually nobody about. I’d never asked Lorraine why Galloway’s was open for breakfast every day of the week at seven.
Mike stepped through the door to the restaurant and headed straight to my table. He didn’t ask if he could join me or sit down. He just did it.
“You came into the store and spent a lot of money,” he said, no smile on his face. There’d been no ‘good morning,’ ‘hello,’ or any of that.
“Yes,” I replied, staying as serious as he was.
“You bought all my green apple shampoo,” he went on.
“What are you going to do with all that?” Mike asked.
I pointed up at my hair.
“What are you writing?” he said, finally smiling at my physical reply to the previous question.
I turned the papers over. Since I only wrote on one side of them there was nothing for Mike to read. We’d spent enough time on Vietnam in our previous meeting and I didn’t want to be drawn back in, other than inside my own head.
“Lorraine tells me you’re selling life insurance to people working up and down Del Mar,” he said, his tone once again turning a bit aggressive or defensive.
“The businesses on Del Mar are part of my target marketing plan,” I replied, truthfully. “The Western White House is my first market, the police department my second, and then there’s you people on this street.”
“You actually have a target marketing plan?” Mike asked, real surprise in his voice.
“Coffee?” Lorraine asked, having come up behind me without my detecting her presence.
“Tea,” Mike replied, giving me a clue that he’d never been in the restaurant before or Lorraine would have known what he drank, and likely served him, like me, without his even having to order.
“Earl Grey?” Lorraine came back.
“American tea, not that European crap,” Mike said.
Lorraine disappeared back toward the kitchen.
“Chinese, with a touch of India,” I said.
“Chinese Indian what?” Mike asked.
“Earl Grey was a Prime Minister in England many years ago. A Chinese friend of his brewed a combination of Indian tea leaves and named the mix after his friend the Prime Minister.”
“What are you, some sort of historian of insignificant facts?” Mike said.
“You came in here for a reason, I presume.”
“I suppose, after what you did yesterday, I have to buy one of those policies now,” Mike replied, “but I don’t have the money.”
“You do now,” I replied. “Thirty bucks a month withdrawn from your checking account, answer a few questions and that’s it.”
“I don’t have a bank account since my credit is worthless. How is it that banks run my credit when I’m giving them money, not taking it from them?”
I replied, “My bank is down at the corner. You have to have a business account to accept credit cards and cash checks. After we’re done here you’ll have a business account in less than half an hour.”
I didn’t mention that I needed to get Mike an account for the insurance withdrawals. Mike’s policy would validate my contract with Mass Mutual for the whole month as Mass would count the whole first year commission, not just a month of it. A hundred and eighty dollars, along with the other two policies I’d sold, meant that I didn’t have to worry about all the other stuff I was involved with.
“Why would you open a bank account for me?”
“For what happened in country, for your friendship and because I’ve already invested a thousand in cash to help you help me.”
Lorraine came with Mike’s tea just as I finished the sentence.
“Oh, you’re buying a policy,” Lorraine said, her entire countenance lit up like a Christmas decoration. “That’s wonderful,” she gushed, looking into my eyes.
I knew I was on the hook for her commission bite, even though the original appointment had been a bust. “You get free tea here for the rest of the month.”
I almost laughed out loud, figuring that the cheap tea cost the operation about a nickel a cup. It was the tenth of March with 21 days left. The value of her reward was about a buck.
Amazingly, Mike changed completely, standing up, hugging Lorraine and smiling just like her.
“Thanks,” he murmured, sitting back down to face me once more.
We talked about doing business on Del Mar and the likelihood that his business might make it.
“Bank at eleven,” I said, finally getting up, “we’ll do the insurance paperwork at my place this evening.”
“You going to pay for the coffee?” Mike said, as I headed for the door.
“Nah, I have an account here,” I said, lying to Mike for the first time.
I wanted to catch Pat in her office and then draw her away for a straight talk. Richard might be the heat and a plant, but Pat had to be the major mole in our Dwarf outfit. She wasn’t the mole for herself but for the Chief. I felt that the wonderful woman was more worried about the chief’s job than her own, although I wasn’t certain of anything or anybody yet, except for my wife and Gularte.
There was only one dedicated telephone line that had been run between the compound and the police department. The showy red phone was mounted on a pedestal in the open entry area behind the counter and in front of the drunk cage and Bobby’s radio suite. The other telephone on that same line was in the Chief’s office. I’d never seen anyone from the police department at or near the compound except the Chief, and that had been only on two occasions. Other than the Chief himself, the only other person with potential access and communication ability was Pat.
When I got to the department parking lot I noted that the Chief was not likely to be in yet, unless his car was being serviced at the city’s garage.
Pat’s car was in its usual slot but so was Lieutenant Gates’ Marauder. I needed to talk to her but didn’t want to run into him. Fortunately, the ranking officers all had small private offices at the end of the hall that ran back behind the Chief’s larger, more centrally located office.
I went inside and down the short hall to the normally open door of Pat’s office. She looked up as I edged around the corner of the doorway. I said nothing, instead motioning with my head back toward the way I’d come. Pat nodded and got up. I went back to the Volks and waited. Pat walked out but didn’t come my way or even look at me. Instead, she got into her own vehicle and drove off.
I jumped in the Volks and followed her. She drove straight down to South Ola Vista and then headed south on it until both of us reached El Presidio, which surprised me. El Presidio led past Concordia grade school where my daughter was enrolled in kindergarten. Past the grade school was only one other important feature at the south end of town. Pat drove directly to the compound, stopped at the gate for a few seconds and then drove into the parking lot, all the way to the back. The Marines at the gate saluted and let me pass without lowering the gate. The Staff Sergeant was nowhere to be seen, with only the corporal and lance corporals on duty.
I slowly guided the Volks to where Pat sat in her car. The sun was moving up in the sky and the angle of her windshield wouldn’t let me see inside. I drove into the slot next to hers and looked through the front passenger window. Pat pointed down at the seat next to her.
I got out and got in.
“Don’t say it,” she began. “I knew you’d figure it out eventually but there’s really no choice here. Not for the Chief, not for me and not for you and Dwarfs either.” With her left elbow resting on the sill of her car door with the window open she cradled the left side of her head.
“Why here?” I asked. “We could have talked anywhere.”
“You have an extraordinary background,” Pat replied. “I’ve seen it all, but you are a novice when it comes to all this.”
“Aren’t you a novice in whatever this is too?” I asked, a bit bewildered. I’d expected her to deny spying on the Dwarfs for Haldeman or Ehrlichman, not take me right into the very belly of the beast.
“That’s true, but I have one real advantage. I know I’m a novice and I know just how badly I can get hurt in so many ways. You’ve been hurt so bad that this is all old-school, with lemmings substituted for real warriors like you and Gularte, and we’re here because there aren’t many safe places out there to talk like this. Everything’s recorded, no matter what anyone tells you. What’s going on in Washington is the same thing.”
I knew Nixon was talked about on the news as being in trouble, but the attitude at the compound had remained the same since I’d been reporting in there. It was difficult to believe the reports about how the President of the United States might have to resign or be impeached.
“Why the Kennedy assassination?” I asked, watching the side of her face intently.
“Nixon knows,” Pat breathed out. “He’s consumed by that event and the loss of JFK whom I think he saw as a better man and leader than he’s been. They were both Navy Lieutenants.”
My mind reeled. Was it possible that the president was the one who had launched me on my crusade with the Dwarfs. Was it possible that someone in as lowly a position as Pat was actually talking directly to the man, up there in that single-windowed office at night?
“But it all started with the deaths of the Marines,” I said, more to myself than to Pat. “Which means that those deaths are connected in some fashion to all of this.”
“I’ll stop going to the Dwarf’s meetings,” Pat said, her voice so low I almost couldn’t hear it. “It’s been such great fun though and I don’t have much great fun in my life.”
“No, please Pat, don’t do that. There may, indeed, be some danger in all this but I don’t get that feeling. As Snow White I’m not accepting your resignation. You are too much of a force for good and I’m also so glad that I’m not the only connection to these people we’re sitting near the middle of.”
I looked at my watch. I only had minutes to get back to the bank and join Manning to keep my word and also to assure that I’d have the stress-relieving policy to turn in to Chuck Bartok and Tom Thorkelson.
“I’ve got to go, and thank you so much,” I said, opening the door. “Not a word to anyone from either one of us. We’ll figure this all out, but we’ll do it together.”
I got into the Volks as Pat started her car and pulled out. Suddenly, the Staff Sergeant was at my window. I quickly rolled it down.
“At one this afternoon I’d appreciate the benefit of your company, lieutenant,” he said, his voice flat and very official sounding. “We have to go to El Toro and pick some people up.”
“I’ll be here,” I said, turning the key in my ignition and starting the engine.
“Better if I pick you up at your place,” He replied.
“I’ll be there,” I threw out the window driving straight to the still open gate. The Marines there saluted again, which, as usual, made me feel more important than I knew I really was.
I made it to the bank where my next-door neighbor was the manager. Mike was standing out front with a small package in his hand.
“Wait right here,” I said, going in through one of the bank’s big double doors. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw Tom at the very back wall behind the teller’s cages. I waved and walked over.
“Can I see you for a bit?” I asked. The man had been a Marine major and had also been in the Nam. We’d only talked a few times, long enough for him to know I was a police officer and worked with Nixon.
Tom pulled up a hinged panel on one part of the counter and came through.
We shook hands.
“Will you be at the gathering at the Inn on Wednesday?” I asked.
“With my wife, yes, and I presume you too?” Tom replied, smiling but also a look of surprise showing through a bit.
“I’ve got a former Marine officer from the Nam outside,” I said, looking back to make sure Mike hadn’t come in behind me. “He’s still suffering a bit from what happened over there. He has lousy credit but acquired Uniquities, a small jewelry store on Del Mar and needs a business account. Can you help him out?”
“All the way, up the hill,” Tom said, making me like him even more than I had before.
“Let me get him,” I said, heading for the doors.
“Do you have a deposit, or should I take some out of my own account to help?” I asked, looking at my watch. I was going to need time to clean up and change into my Western White House costume, and then fill in my wife on the day’s activities, including the part about Pat. There was nothing I would hold back until after I had my appointment with the shrink at Straight Ahead.
“It’s the thousand you spent at the store,” Mike said, handing me the package.
“I’m never giving up my green apple shampoo,” I replied, pushing the bag back at him.”
“You did it?” Mike said, taking the money. “In like four minutes, you did it?”
“Tom’s not your normal banker”, I replied, intentionally not bringing up his Marine background. Mike had issues he was going to have to figure out how to deal with. I was doing my part, the way I saw it and he had to do his, as well.
I didn’t go back into the bank. Mike was on his own in there, although unless things were not as he told me, he’d have his account, be able to accept credit cards and quite possibly feel better about himself. Deep inside I just knew that Mike was a terrific man.
I got the Volks home and went inside. My wife was working in the kitchen when I walked in. I went right at it before she could ask me how the day had gone so far. I immediately decided to violate my own oath and not mention the thousand I’d spent at Mike’s new business, the bank or any of that. I’d clue her in later and my new relationship with him would either begin to work out or not. I did have to mention he was coming over to fill out an application later in the evening.
“Why aren’t you going to his place for that?” she asked, her first question and near prescient, as usual.
“Oh, I didn’t think about it,” I replied weakly, avoiding the fact that Mike was still living in a car at the beach.
When I got to the part about Pat I could tell that my wife had already guessed that Pat was the leak or the mole.
“You think she really talks to the president?” she asked.
“Anything’s possible right now, what with what’s going on in Washington. He may not have very many people that want to talk to him right now.”
“Weak answer,” she replied. “He’s still the most powerful man in the world. Even the captain of a sinking ship still gets obeyed.”
I wondered about that analogy, as being on a sinking ship would probably be more like being down in the A Shau Valley rather than following mythologically-derived stories about what might happen in such an event.
I told her that I had a pickup to make at El Toro but didn’t know who I was to pick up yet. I didn’t mention the Staff Sergeant or how strange his invitation had been delivered and in such an official sounding way.
I was ready fifteen minutes early so I went outside to sit on the steps. My wife would mull over everything I’d told her and then have some advice and criticism by the time I got home. With any luck the trip to El Toro and back should take about two hours at the most. I started to get comfortable and wind down from another frizzled wild day, but then I looked up and down the street. The Staff Sergeant was early too. I sighed and got up to cross the street and get into the staff car. It was a regular car and not like the one the Chief of Protocol had been given. For that I was relieved. I was getting a bit tired of important people and the coming gathering was going to be a lot more of that.
“What am I doing here?” I asked the Staff Sergeant, who was wearing Class A blues with blouse and barracks cap.
The limo pulled out and we were off. It was a Monday not too far past noon, so the traffic would be light on and off the freeway.
“I was afraid, so I brought you along to ride shotgun,” he said, with a laugh.
I wondered immediately whether the man was simply making new friends or sincerely concerned about somebody we were picking up. I hadn’t brought a handgun because it didn’t seem fitting, and I noted that the sergeant was not strapped into one either. I was riding shotgun without a shotgun or any other weapon.
“Women, we are picking up two women,” he said, and I thought it would be more entertaining for them if we talked the whole way. You’re an interesting guy so they might enjoy some of what you’ve come to know.”
“Come to know?” I asked back, but my tone wasn’t truly serious. Was the sergeant making a play on words with the expression. The only thing that came to my mind about what I’d come to know in life was either about the anthropology I’d studied in college, going to Vietnam, or working with the Dwarfs.
We made small talk after that, about San Onofre and why a presidential vacation home, whether it was called a ‘home of the Western White House’ or not wasn’t possibly the safest place to stick the nation’s leader. The sergeant had no better explanation than I could come up with. Was Nixon making a big deal about how safe nuclear power was because he was a big supporter of it? There was no way to answer the question but we tried.
The limo cruised right on through the open gate, the guards pre-informed of our arrival, no doubt. They didn’t salute so they likely had no idea I was in the car or that they would have known I was an officer even if they had my name.
This time there was a plane instead of nothing at all. It was a military transport plane, but one built like a commercial liner, to only carry passengers.
Two women came down the stairs, one after the other, both wearing dresses and high heels. Two attendants followed, each with a single suitcase.
The women came directly to the limo. I got out to open the passenger door on my side first before going to the other, as the sergeant opened the trunk for the suitcases. I noted that the women were both in their forties to fifties in age. The fortyish woman was quite beautiful in a thin angular sort of way.
The women entered the vehicle. I closed the passenger door because they’d both gotten into the driver’s side passenger door and one slid across the bench seat. It was like they weren’t used to riding in limos.
The sergeant got into the car and we were off once more. I was relieved, as it was going to be a simple pick-up and drop off. I wondered why the sergeant had picked me up at home instead of leaving from the compound. We’d have to drop the women at the compound and then he’d have to take me home. Strange.
Once we were off the base and onto the Interstate the Staff Sergeant did the introductions.
“This is June Cobb, right behind you and next to her is Dorothy Hunt.”
I had turned to face them as best I could, with a welcoming smile on my face, but at the sound of their names I couldn’t hold the smile.
I was in a car with the woman I was never supposed to mention and very likely never supposed to meet or talk to about anything. The other woman was from television. Dorothy was the wife of E. Howard Hunt, who was on television almost daily as somehow involved in the break in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington.
I turned back around after merely nodding my head at each of them. I stared straight ahead, willing the limo to move faster. The day was not ending at all as I had hoped.