My first meeting with Paul, my shrink of questionable credentials and experience, had gone amazingly well. My first act of redemption, which he never truly defined, made me feel better about myself in spite of the fact that I wasn’t sure why. I’d bought in immediately to Paul’s blurted out solution. It was something I could do, didn’t involve drugs and I didn’t have to discuss with anyone, although my wife would have to know eventually, or she’d have me put into an institution for doing idiotically good stuff for people who either didn’t matter or didn’t really deserve whatever product or service I might provide them.
The Kissinger ride out to El Toro had been, and remained, unsettling, like he knew something about what might be going on with me that I didn’t have a clue about, and that something didn’t seem to me to be one that had anything to do with good stuff happening in my present or future. That the brilliantly strange man knew me at all was a bit disconcerting all in itself.
I drove back to the station and parked the Volks. I went inside to do a bit of scheduling work for the reserve force operating the beach patrol. Calling everyone to transmit work hours and days was irritating because the reserves mostly held other, sometimes, full time jobs. I walked past Pat’s office, but she wasn’t in. The Chief’s car was also missing from his special slot near the back door. One small office was dedicated to questioning suspects, which was almost never used because crime was so uncommon to San Clemente, other than tourist related stuff like loud parties and too much drinking. I sat down, pulling my previously made-up schedule from the center drawer of the desk, when Lieutenant Gates, in all of his former U.S. Marine Corps NCO blustery presence, appeared at the door.
Gates threw a set of keys at me. I caught the ringed mass of keys deftly but was a little shocked by the fact that he’d done such an aggressive thing. It wasn’t like we were close or anything close to being friends.
“Take the Marauder and go Code Alex at the Christianitos gate onramp to the freeway. There’s some clown driving a white Porsche who came through Santa Ana a few minutes ago at over a hundred miles an hour. Probably be stopped or kill himself long before he gets here but still, there’s no time to spare if he’s really moving that fast.”
“He?” I answered, rising from behind the desk.
“Very funny, L.T.,” he snarled, “or is it Commander?”
I walked past him, quickly moving down the hall, and on out to where Gates’ Marauder was parked. He hadn’t bothered to put the black beast in a slot, instead just parking it on the grass outside of the corner office he inhabited in the building. For some reason the Chief had a smaller interior office with only a view of the parking lot. Gates got a veritable panorama of at least part of the ocean from his corner glass windows.
The Marauder lit up instantly upon my turning the key. I loved the sound of the big V8 engine, but sort of wondered, looking out the windshield, about the two intake vents Gates had requested and got approved for mounting on both sides of the wide hood. They looked like giant nostrils on the flat face of some comic book monster.
I pulled the vehicle out of the parking lot onto Presidio to head down to El Camino Real so I could get to the onramp that was located only about a mile and a half from that intersection. I realized on pushing down gently on the gas pedal that the Marauder had more work done under the hood than the simple addition of the two big intake scoops I could see out the windshield in front of me. The low-end torque of the big motor had been increased substantially, as it was nearly impossible to keep from squealing the rear tires when taking off from a full stop.
Upon reaching the onramp I pulled halfway up it and then over to the side, still fully on the asphalt but far enough from the lane so as not to be a hazard to other vehicles accelerating to get on the freeway safely.
I looked at my watch, wishing once more that I could afford an Omega Speed Master, like the astronauts wore, and like I’d inherited from the rich lieutenant who’d died before I really got to know him in the valley. The Omega had regretfully disappeared from my belongings at the First Med Station in Da Nang. My Seiko would have to do, however, until the insurance business really began to pay off, if it ever did. I wasn’t going to invade the family shoe box reserve of cash to buy a watch.
There was little traffic on the freeway, and nobody was using the onramp. The entire freeway had only been recently constructed to replace the two-lane run back and forth from L.A. to San Diego that had been most accurately called “Slaughter Alley” when I’d first come to the base at Camp Pendleton and to live in the city itself.
Suddenly, a white shape passed by, the whine of its high revving engine piercing right through all other sounds. I hit the Code 3 lever and put the Marauder’s pedal to the floor. With lights and siren blaring, and rear tires burning, the Marauder accelerated faster than any vehicle I’d ever driven, including my old Mickey Thompson prepared GTO. In seconds, I was right behind the white Porsche that had been described to me by Gates. The speedometer was at one hundred and forty with the needle still going up. I noted that the Porsche was an uncommonly powerful ‘S’ model. I guessed it might be good for about one hundred and fifty if the driver wanted to push things to the max. I also had no doubt whatever that, even though the speedometer of the Mercury could ‘peg’ at 150, that the Marauder could run significantly above that number.
I was about to call the pursuit in when the Porsche began to slow to the side of the road so quickly that I had a hard time bringing the Marauder down from such a high speed in time to avoid rear-ending the smaller vehicle.
The Porsche was pulled over and stopped for a few seconds before a man stepped out through the driver’s door and walked around the front of the Porsche to stand looking back at me. I was already out of the Marauder, the microphone in my left hand in case I needed my right. I’d never made a car stop at such high speed and, even though the Porsche was a frightfully expensive machine, the driver could be anybody and the situation turn into anything.
The man stood looking directly at me, probably not knowing what to expect. He looked completely out of place to be in the car he was in and running it at the speed he’d been driving it. He appeared to be about fifty years old, wearing a blue sport coat, and a white shirt with no tie. I focused in on his face. He looked familiar to me but I couldn’t place from where.
“I missed the exit,” he said, pointing back the way we’d come. “I was nervous and upset and missed the exit.”
“I didn’t pull you over for missing an exit,” I replied, matter-of-factly, as if I stopped Porsches every day or night for running at such high speed.
“I’ve seen you before,” I said, it began to dawn on me who the man might be.
I didn’t bother to ask for his license or registration as I knew where this car stop was going. “You’re with the Western White House and you’re headed there from wherever you came from.”
“Long Beach,” the man replied, “how did you know, about the White House part, I mean.”
I ignored the question as it didn’t matter. “Who are you?” I asked back.
“Doctor John C. Longren Junior,” he replied.
“The president’s physician,” I said, breathing in and out deeply as I tried to think the car stop through and select a course of action that wouldn’t get me in trouble.
“Yes, and he’s not in good shape, physically or mentally,” the man went on, as if telling me more detail than I might otherwise be allowed to know might get him out of his rather difficult situation.
Speeding at the amount over the 65 mile per hour limit he’d been traveling would mean a charge of reckless driving, immediate arrest, impoundment of the vehicle and then transport up to Santa Ana for a bail bond hearing. And then there would be the media, as well.
“Get in your car and follow me,” I said, looking back and forth along both directions of the little used freeway. “We’re headed south to the Pulgas offramp where we’ll flip around and come back to the Christianitos offramp going in the other direction.”
“Really?” he asked, not moving.
“Get in the damned car before someone sees us,” I ordered, climbing back into the Marauder.
Code Alex was an assigned waiting position for a police vehicle and the rules about how to perform the waiting service were pretty strict. An immediate report was required over the radio if contact was made, and then the pursuit had to be reported step by step while it was underway, and then finally the stop, or the failure to stop. If no contact was made the Code Alex unit waited to be discharged by radio from the duty.
I pulled back onto the freeway and took the Mercury up to 90, looking in my rear-view mirror to see if the Porsche would keep up. It did, without difficulty. I flipped the car around at Pulgas and headed back. Minutes later both of us were cruising gently across the Christianitos overpass and heading on into the compound. I didn’t know what to do, so I bailed out, once again. I couldn’t arrest the doctor, and I didn’t want to just let him go. The only place I could think of to take him was back to the compound and see what anyone on duty there might be able to manage.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I drove through the Marine gate, the corporal saluting me even though I wasn’t in Marine uniform. The Staff Sergeant was there. I pulled up and stopped right after getting past the bar of the gate and waved Bill toward me.
“I’ve got the president’s doctor here behind me in that Porsche,” I quickly said, “he was doing about 140 and he seems a little scrambled. I didn’t want to arrest him, so I brought him here. I’ve got to rush back and sit at the on-ramp before they know I’m gone.” I stopped talking and waited. I watched Bill think quickly through the problem.
“You did the right thing,” he replied, his words quickly spoken and tight.
“Get back out there.”
I hit the accelerator and spun the big powerful Marauder around. It took only a few minutes, breaking every speed law, to get back to my Code Alex position.
I raced back to my spot where I was expected to remain until relieved, but there was a car already there waiting, not far from where I’d been earlier. I pulled behind the sleek convertible Mercedes. The numbers on the trunk lid indicated that it was a 280. Richard’s car.
I parked behind the Mercedes and walked over to the passenger door of the convertible. The top was up but it didn’t really seem like a convertible top at all in that car.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I was at the station and decided to come by in case you needed help.”
“Help with what?” I asked.
“Explaining how you left your position, apprehended a suspect and then let him go and returned, telling no one,” Richard replied, turning his head to face me with a big smile when he finished.
“How?” I asked, knowing immediately that I’d not been discovered missing by Lieutenant Gates or my radio would have been going crazy by now.
“They just know,” Richard said.
“You’re here in case I didn’t let the doctor go,” I said, working to figure his presence out.
He’d been either at the compound or at the police station when the Code Alex went down because there was no way he could have driven all the way from the harbor at Dana Point and made it in time to do anything. The guys on duty at the compound, whoever they were, had sent in backup, somehow knowing the doctor was coming from Long Beach and driving at truly unsafe speeds.
“What’s wrong with Nixon?” I asked.
Richard went quiet. It took me a few seconds to figure out his lack of an immediate response. He was waiting for more. He’d not only come to ride herd over me he’d come to make certain the doctor had told me nothing about Nixon that might get out. Watergate was looming huge on the Washington D.C. circuit although it was amazingly almost undiscussed at the Western White House.
“His state of mind,” I filled in for Richard, “and his outrageous driving, plus his complete lack of fear at being stopped. Our doctor Longren is afraid of losing his prized patient and being held responsible.”
“And you let him go, why?” Richard asked.
“I didn’t let him go,” I replied, “I took him to the compound, to let the Staff Sergeant of the Guard, a guy, not unlike you, handle the situation.”
“Smart move, Commander,” Richard replied, in a tone that didn’t come close to convincing me that he held a position subservient to my own.
“You got all that about Nixon’s health from that brief meeting with Longren?”
“I walked on the beach with Nixon,” I said, tired of explaining myself but helpless unless I could figure out Richard’s place in things. “He limped badly. His one leg is seriously shot. He doesn’t talk almost at all when spoken to, and I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t want to. He can’t talk sometimes, even if he wants to, and he’s hiding that fact. I felt kind of bad for him at the time but now I understand more.”
“You, the Staff Sergeant and Ms. Cobb are all in this together in my opinion,” I finally said, hoping to get some kind of understanding about the three most mysterious people in my life, aside from Mardian and Kissinger.
I didn’t mention Kissinger’s name out loud since I felt it unlikely that he knew Kissinger had met with me, and then committed me to silence, but I could not be certain of anything.
“I enjoy working for you and being trained by you,” Richard said, not replying to my question at all. “I like you and I owe you for getting me back in.”
Back in to what? I wanted to yell at him.
There was no way, after everything that had gone on, and was still going on, that I could think of Richard or treat him like he was a brand new police officer undergoing training in a rather minor specialty of that profession called beach patrol.
“My pleasure,” I replied, giving up and getting out of the Mercedes.
The door slammed but the sound was like that of a bank door closing, not the closing of any door on a regular car. The Mercedes quietly took off, heading up the ramp and onto the slow lane of the freeway. I shrugged to myself, climbed into the Marauder and simply backed up about fifty yards, right off the entrance to on-ramp, and headed into the station to report back to Lieutenant Gates.
“I trusted you with my Marauder,” Gates exclaimed, when I turned it back in at the station, “And what do you come up with. The Porsche was seen blasting through San Juan Capistrano, headed south toward San Diego and then it was gone. It should have fallen right into your loving arms at the onramp, but no, you never saw a thing. Then you traipse back in here with one of your rookie cronies who’s about as much a rookie in life as Al Capone was. Finish this shift out on the street, we’re short one car and no, you can’t have the Marauder. Here’s the address of your next call and don’t screw it up.”
When I got to the address, I knew immediately that the ‘call’ was not one common to regular police work.
It was about an old woman and a cat. The cat was a mess. The woman who’d trapped it when it was coming up to scrounge food and garbage from the arroyo below where her house was. She delivered it wearing thick rubber gloves.
“It scratches and bites,” she said. “Should be put out of its misery, which is why I called the police. Maybe you can just shoot it, or maybe you can take it somewhere where they give it gas or something. I don’t mind cats, mind you, but I can’t stand this one and the feelings mutual.”
“Just put it in the trunk,” I said, having decided that I wasn’t going to have the cat euthanized for no good reason at all, other than it probably very accurately and correctly didn’t like humans, and there was no way I could or would shoot it.
I slammed the trunk lid down. The cat never made a peep or yowl of sound in protest. It was probably as happy to get away from the woman as I was. The cat was punishment, I knew. Gates didn’t know what had happened with respect to the Code Alex but he knew the Porsche escaped and that somehow, I was responsible for the car and the man driving it getting away. Gates was tough and a bit mean-spirited but not stupid at all.
Mrs. Newman was the punishment call and the cat in the trunk was the result.
“That cat is a Bozo and I never want to see it again,” the woman yelled, stripping off her rubber gloves as I drove off.
“Bozo, that works for me,” I said to myself, wondering how my wife was going to act with having a wild cat around, although once the dirty mess of an animal got out of Mrs. Newman’s hands, he’d been remarkably docile in mine as I’d locked him inside the trunk.
I could not tour the city with the cat in the trunk, although no sounds came through into the driving compartment from that area of the car. When I got to the apartment on Cabrillo I immediately went inside to let Mary know what my intentions were about keeping a cat in an apartment where no cats were allowed, even if I was managing the apartments on the side and the owner, Mr. Stedman, was a hundred miles away and never ever came to the complex.
My wife and daughter came down the stairs to where the patrol vehicle sat, still idling as San Clemente cops never turned off their unit’s ignitions until the end of shifts.
I popped open the trunk, having prepared my wife and Julie for the potential of the wild cat jumping out and running away once free. That didn’t happen. I opened the trunk and the cat peered out, its big hazel eyes blinking slowly while it took in the new surroundings, almost all concrete except for the field of short undergrowth across the street.
Julie walked up to the edge of the trunk, while I hovered nearby protectively in case the cat attacked. It did not. Julie talked gently to the creature until, after a few minutes, it eased out of the trunk and sat down beside her. They stared at one another.
“Good cat,” Julie concluded. “Come on, let’s go inside and I’ll show you Mrs. Beasley.”
I stood in amazement as the cat followed Julie up and into the open door to the living room.
“House rules here,” my wife said, at that point. “The cat gets a bath.
The cat bites no one, particularly myself or Julie. The cat scratches nobody.
“That’s it. If any of that doesn’t work, then the cat’s out of here. Tomorrow, he goes to the vet to get shots, wormed or whatever else they do to wild animals.”
“Bozo, the cat’s name is Bozo,” I replied, sighing, and wondering if any or all of the three demands she’d stated could be met, not to mention the fourth.
Drawing a bath for the animal and then getting him soaked and washed caused a lot of complaining from the cat, but he never once made any attempt to attack back or defend himself. From his reaction, and the fact that he’d been neutered years earlier, I presumed that he hadn’t always been a wild cat living down in some throwaway arroyo.
Once semi-dried, he found a place under our living room’s only Bart Abrate supplied chair. Julie sat down next to it, peered under, and then placed Mrs. Beasley down on the floor. She pulled the string.
I could only shake my head. Bozo was about to listen endlessly to Mrs. Beasley tell him how charming he was.
The phone rang while I was cleaning the tub and trying to figure out where to take the cat to get it ready for some sort of domestic existence with us.
“See the man,” was what the male voice said when I answered.
I hung up, wondering what the voice would have said if my wife had answered.
I changed out of my uniform and got into Western White House attire. Gates would have to find somebody else or run ‘light’ to end the shift. I rushed to get changed, let my wife know where I was going and then to get the patrol vehicle back to the station where my Volks was parked. Pat Bowman was back in her office, so I stepped in.
“Can you let Lieutenant Gates know I was called to the compound?” I asked, “And can we get the meeting with the Dwarfs set up, as there’s more…”
Pat smiled, as always. “He’s not in right now, probably out test driving that awful car to see if you damaged it in any way,” she said, laughing while she talked.
I headed out for the compound, feeling my usual trepidation in being called in for whatever it was I would be told that I’d probably not want to hear.
The compound was quiet, no sign of either the Staff Sergeant or anyone else I recognized either at the gate or in my short walk down the hall to the door opening in the residence part of the property. Three dogs were waiting while sitting politely until I walked down the southern wall of the house toward the pool area. They escorted me silently but didn’t go around the corner when I did, like their job was done.
Bob Mardian sat where he always sat, a cigar in his mouth. The president sat next to him, smoking a pipe. I didn’t know that the president smoked at all, and wondered why Mardian was barred from being allowed inside the house proper because of his smoking, supposedly, but the president was allowed. I walked the length of the pool and sat on the edge of a nearby chaise lounge, my usual place. I noted that the president was fully clothed and wearing his usual polished black shoes and black socks. He looked totally out of place at poolside but somehow seemed relaxed in a way I hadn’t expected.
President Nixon didn’t acknowledge my presence, which didn’t catch me by surprise. I was nothing to someone in his position and I knew it. He got up from his chair, looking and acting healthier than I’d expected after encountering his doctor in the Porsche. He put his pipe on the table that sat between himself and Bob Mardian. When he turned and walked toward the sliding glass door it magically opened before him and then closed once he was inside. A hand waved, but that was all that alerted me to the fact that Mrs. Nixon had been the one to let him in. I knew that no servant would ever have waved. I didn’t know Pat Nixon, but I liked her a lot just from what I’d observed.
I waited for Bob to say what it was he was going to say.
“Surprised to see me?” he asked, taking me by surprise.
Usually, the man was all business from beginning to end.
“I’m not surprised by anything that happens in and around this place, while, at the same time, I’m kind of surprised by it all, if that makes any sense.”
“You were in combat quite extensively,” Mardian said, completely changing the subject.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, knowing the man had access to a lot of my experience over in the A Shau Valley but certainly not all of it.
“None of these men surrounding the president have been in combat and that includes me.” Mardian blew a smoke ring out over the pool’s flat surface.
There was no question, so I gave no answer, merely waiting for what had to be coming. The man wasn’t discussing my combat background for no reason at all.
“I’m told that in actual combat you think and then act, and how you act is determined partly by how much time you have to process what’s going on before you act.”
I waited again.
“Is that about how it was?” he finally asked.
“I presume that’s how it always is,” I replied, speaking as truthfully about something I knew wasn’t truly believable by anyone who’d not been in the thick of it.
“That makes you unique here, and among most of those gathered together in what’s become the Watergate affair,” Mardian went on.
Once again I had no question to answer and was too uncomfortable to engage in the conversation as it was developing.
“We may need some of your special services again,” Mardian finally got out.
“When?” was all I asked back. I had no idea what ‘special services’ I might be expected to provide, but my whole identity, or lack of it, had been turned upside down by my attempt to solve the mystery of the black Marines and then their still unexplainable linkage to the Kennedy assassination. That Watergate might reach out and ‘touch’ me in some fashion had not occurred to me. Just how much more of what was being directed toward me could I keep from my wife or even Paul, my shrink?
“Then you’re in?” Mardian asked, surprising me once more.
Did I really have any chance of saying no to such people, even if there was to be a return to violence at a level I didn’t in any way feel I could accommodate in my life again?
I sat staring at the drapes covering the sliding glass door Nixon had disappeared through, not answering Mardian’s question, the president’s pipe laying on the table before me.
“He was here to let you know how important it is that you make yourself available,” Mardian finally said.
I nodded my head ever so slightly. I understood but didn’t understand at all.
I had my wife and daughter whom I’d so dearly prayed to one day get back to. I had the Dwarfs, was Commander of the Police Reserves, kind of successful at selling life insurance, if sales could be defined the way I did it and I was of some low level but seemingly vital player in the federal government, not to mention the only apparent amateur investigator still at work on the Kennedy assassination. I had the life I’d so fought my way back to but was it a livable and survivable life in any form that I could find happiness and contentment in?
“Good,” Mardian answered, in an expressive enough tone that made it sound like I’d jumped up to a position of attention and shouted ‘yes, sir,’ to his question.
I walked out to where my car sat in the lot. The Staff Sergeant was leaning against the driver side door, smoking a cigarette. I wondered if I was the only person working for the Western White House that didn’t smoke something. The Gunny and my occasional cigarette when down in the valley with him seemed like it had all happened in a previous life, which maybe it had.
“You ready?” Bill said, flicking his cigarette off into the distance. .