My mind was racing, as I faced the man, my body now only exposing one side to him. I was in San Clemente, California where there was no war, where I was marginally respected for things I had little understanding of, and where I enjoyed my wonderful wife and fantastic little daughter. I moved two steps further away from the aggressive-seeming and bigger man. Rationality overcame me so I dropped my defensive posture and walked toward one of the front windows located on either side of the front door facing South Ola Vista Drive.

“Would you look out there?” I asked the man, having turned my back to him while holding a curtain aside and pointing toward the car parked out front.

Wilson very slowly eased toward the window located on the other side of the door, slipped those split curtains apart, and stared.

“Those two men standing on either side of the limousine are Secret Service agents,” I said softly. “There are twenty-two more of them on the compound and grounds of the Western White House. I brought them along so you might understand that the entire security staff over there will be embarrassed if you attempt to do what you’re trying to do with H.R. Haldeman. Those men wanted to come. They wanted to come in with me and talk to you. You don’t want that, although you can’t possibly really know that. What you want, or at some time in the very near future will sorely and dearly want, is to accept this first check from Mr. Haldeman, and then the following ones as well. You also want to stay as far away from this property as you can during the period of its rental. If you want cash, instead of simply to embarrass the White House staff, then the bank this check is drawn on, the same one I have my account at, will cash it instantly and without any kind of hassle or problem.”

I stopped talking, hoping that I hadn’t made too complex a presentation to the man.

Wilson backed away from the window and then turned to face me, a weakening resolve coming over his facial features.

“I feel sort of like I’m being threatened here,” Wilson got out, a tinge of fear coming through in his slightly quivering tone and body language.

“I’m not threatening you,” I corrected. “Think of me as that gentle breath of light wind you can occasionally feel just before a powerful thunderstorm hits.”

“You say things that sound funny,” Wilson replied, no trace of humor in his tone.

“Do you need more time to think about it?” I asked, ignoring his statement. “I have the time to wait, but you probably don’t need that limousine sitting out front with those guys hanging all over it. This is a small neighborhood and you have a reputation to uphold.

“Yeah,” Wilson murmured.

I knew he didn’t need more time, just from what he was transmitting through his non-verbal movements and the gentled-down unaggressive tone of his voice. He likely had no local reputation at all, but he knew how to be afraid when he should be afraid. The Secret Service would not be coming at him to commit any kind of violence, of course. The Service didn’t do that sort of thing. But I was another matter, although I also knew, bringing the considerable effort to bear, that violence would only be administered as a very last resort.

I took the folded envelope out of my too-tight suit jacket and held it out to him.

Wilson delayed for only a few seconds before taking it from my hand.

“It’s okay if you want to see if it’s the right amount, and all,” I said, expressing some conciliation of my own.

“I’m sure it’s okay,” he replied, letting the hand he held the envelope in fall to his side. “Should I leave now?” he asked.

“Do you want me to follow you to Security Pacific to make sure they give you the cash?” I said.

“No, no,” Wilson said, insistently. “I’ll just deposit it. I don’t need the cash.”

“Then I’ll take your leave,” I replied, stepping toward the door.

“Talking funny again,” Wilson said, before going on “not that I meant anything by that. You aren’t coming back, are you?

“Not unless you feel the need or Mr. Haldeman tells me to,” I answered honestly.

“How might I reach you?” he asked, not looking at all like he wanted to ever see or reach me again.

“Call the local police number and tell the dispatcher on duty that you need to talk to Beachball. That’s what they call me.”

“Beachball?” Wilson replied, surprise in his voice.

I frowned and turned the door knob to open the door, sorry I’d used the nickname.

“I meant nothing by it, I swear,” Wilson said, gauging the change in my expression, “I’m sure it’s an important name or they wouldn’t call you that.”

I got through the door, happy to be leaving, and failing, once again, to understand why people like Wilson seemed to find some form of malice coming from me while I was engaged in the gentlest of dialogues. I hadn’t really threatened him at all, physically, and not much psychologically either. I’d just offered him the course of least resistance for everyone concerned, and he’d wisely taken it.

I walked down to the limo and motioned for the agents to get in, knowing they’d immediately call in while “off duty” to report that ‘Beachball’ was leaving.

“He took the check,” Sam said, laughing. “You guys owe me five bucks each”, he went on, holding out his hand to each of the agents in turn.

They didn’t respond at all, merely doing their ‘looking straight ahead, boss’ kind of silent thing.

“I tried to tell them,” Sam went on, putting the limo in gear, “but they didn’t believe me.”

I realized he’d kept the vehicle running the whole time as if we’d have to make some quick getaway.

“Beachball being delivered to his residence,” the agent said into the inside of his wrist as I’d only seen done in a few movies.

On the ride back to my apartment I thought about the men I was associating with. They all wanted something to happen and expected me to provide that something, yet my job was to make nothing happen every time I was called upon to do anything unless it was doing something like taking seemingly idiotic photographs with a monster instant camera, which was sort of like being paid to do nothing at all as well.

“Can the Secret Service provide me with a file on the man I just met with?” I asked of the agent sitting like a stone next to me, staring at the back of his partner’s head.

“What do you want that for?” Sam asked, glancing back at me through the extra-wide rear-view mirror, located above the center of the Lincoln’s windshield.

“In case I have to make any adjustments to his life in the future,” I replied, trying to phrase the words to allow me to gain access without any of the other men in the car thinking there might be a threat left floating in the air between Wilson and me.

“No,” the man in the front seat replied, refusing to turn his head to face or confront me. “We don’t do that unless it’s a report given directly to Mr. Haldeman, or one of those others holding a similar position. We don’t work for you, and, in fact, have no real idea about what you do at the compound, or otherwise.”

The lengthy response, flatly and analytically delivered without emotion, surprised me. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all if both agents had ignored my request completely instead of the strange explanation.

“I work at the pleasure of the President of the United States, like everyone else on the White House staff, except for maybe you guys,” I shot back, not at all certain that my lowly job measured up to any presidential consideration, much less any notice at all.

I’d walked with Nixon in the sand, not exchanging a word, which hardly made me any kind of highly regarded staffer, or lowly regarded for that matter, in my own opinion.

“Go straight to Haldeman, or maybe the local police chief you are so chummy with,” the agent replied, ignoring my status or lack thereof.

It was obvious, and verbalized for the first time, that my nickname of ‘beachball’ wasn’t one I’d been given because they were impressed with either my presence or my position. To the Secret Service, I was a beach toy, observable but not to be confused with anything important. I smiled to myself as I exited the rear door of the limo when it stopped. I did so without Sam’s assistance. At least the agents hadn’t picked up on the veiled threat I’d inadvertently transmitted in asking for Wilson’s file. They were correct about the file, I knew. I needed to get that from a source where there would be no comment, no record, and no back draft should Mr. Wilson need, at some point, to be modified in a new direction of his life continuance.

“Sam,” I said, leaning into his open window, “I’m going to change and then come to visit you at the compound if you’re going to be there.”

“Alright,” Sam said, resignation written all over him, as he put the Lincoln in gear.

I watched the limo drive away, the agents never saying a word, like goodbye, but then they hadn’t said hello either. Sam’s single-word reply, delivered as he’d delivered it, told me that he’d already heard I was selling insurance and that he was duty bound to have to listen to me about it. I realized at that point, I didn’t much like sales. It was a much milder way of getting people to do what I’d gotten Wilson to do back at the house. But, Mary, me, and Julie needed the money. I wondered to myself, as I went in to change clothing (as I wasn’t going to enter the structural part of the compound) just how many times through the ages that excuse had been used to justify questionable behavior.

Monday morning at nine a.m. I was going to have to appear in Tom Thorkelson’s luxurious office with the other members of the seminar class I’d attended. That would be the first ‘show and tell’ meeting, and I was determined to have at least as much to ‘show’ as the other new agents. I didn’t think about the ‘tell’ part because I had no idea about the agenda, format, or even the specific intent of this first sales meeting. I was just getting out of my ‘official’ Sears and Roebuck suit when the phone rang. I picked up. It was Lieutenant Gates at the police department.

“Monday you go out with Gularte and work the beach unless those clowns at the south end of the town decide to do something else with you. As Reserve Commander, you conduct the on-the-job training part of the new guy’s probation. I’ll be on four to midnight for both days, I mean if you need any help.” At that point, he laughed, but then finished, “start at high noon, and work him hard.”

I stood looking at the phone in my hand that had gone dead. Gates’ commentary and orders were laced through with a syrupy tone. Another man who didn’t like me, but this time I knew the reason. When I’d been required to take the San Clemente proficiency test following the academy, in order to be an official peace officer in the State of California, and San Clemente in particular, Gates had administered the test. I’d been left alone for two hours. When I was done he commented on the fact that just because I’d been a Marine officer, and he was an enlisted man (1st sergeant before retirement) didn’t make me necessarily smarter than him. He graded the test and approached me the next day. He indicated that I’d passed with a clear and uncommon top score, but then he overtly gave himself away.

“You’re smart alright, but likely not the way the test results indicate,” he said with a vicious smile. “You’re the kind of smart that found some way to get hold of the right answers and memorized them.”

I turned in my handwritten request for Wilson’s records directly to the chief’s secretary Pat. She read it while I stood in front of her, as I’d not put the paper in an envelope.

“I’m not going to ask what you want this for, but you know full well that you can’t track people down or examine them using police resources for personal reasons.” She smiled while she talked, however.

“Haldeman,” I responded since I’d given no reason for the request in the body of the written request.

“Thought so,” she signed out. “You watch out for those people. They’re not quite right, you know.”

I didn’t respond, other than to nod. I didn’t tell her that those same words were used recently to describe me.

I got up early on Monday morning after spending the weekend working out, running up and down the tourist-filled beaches in the Bronco before getting ready for the busy day. With a cup of coffee and a smile, I played with Julie, who loved to simply crawl around on the living room rug, or ride on her electric four-wheel bike I’d found in a closet at the compound. There were no kids on the compound grounds or the residence. “Junk it,” a nearby Secret Service agent said to me, as I examined the dust-covered thing, and wondered what to do with it. There was no charger but I knew I could fashion one at home in minutes out of the electronic junk I always kept in my garage. All I had to do was make something that would convert a hundred and ten volts A.C. to ten volts D.C. No problem.

I went for a run on the beach to start the activity part of my day, running to and from the beach, as well. I wore an over-large “T” shirt to hide my scars, and cover the ACE bandage Mary had wrapped around my torso. I could run without destroying the hip bone previously shattered by a bullet, but I had to do so gently, gliding across the sand rather than encountering it aggressively. I had no idea if the workouts were helping or hurting as I’d avoided the doctors and hospital following my last encounter with them while working for Colonel Fennessy a year or so back.

I showered and got into my insurance agent uniform, which was the same as my compound outfit except I wore the coat open with no tie. I called Gularte to get him ready for our training day.

Gularte answered when I called on the first ring.

“That you, boss?” he said before I could say anything.

“Noon to nine on Monday,” I instructed. “The beach closes at nine. Wear the tan shorts, if you picked up a pair. It gets hot under the sun, even for you guys born south of the border. Meet me at the Life Guard Headquarters. There’s nobody at the station of any import and we’ve got all we need.”

“Who’s driving, and I was born in Virginia,” Gularte replied, as his way of acknowledgment.

“you are,” I replied, knowing that he’d have to learn the idiosyncrasies of driving the strange beach vehicle as quickly as possible.

I wouldn’t be along with him for many of the coming beach patrol shifts, depending upon both the Chief’s and White House schedule, and there were four more reserves coming up who would also be in training. I also knew that I had to get with the lifeguards as quickly as I could to learn more myself. The lifeguards, in their V8 powered Jeeps, had been working at beach patrol for years on their own.

The appointment at Tom’s office was at nine. If the meeting took longer than two hours I would be very hard put to get all the way back from Newport Beach, change into my police uniform, get the Bronco, and then make it to the lifeguard headquarters on time.

The drive to Newport Beach on Pacific Coast Highway only took half an hour, what with the lack of traffic at seven in the morning and it being early on a Monday. The traffic was quiet compared to a weekend, passing through Laguna Beach and up on into the Fashion Island shopping center would have made the trip a lot longer. Tom’s office building had plenty of free parking. I pulled in with time to spare and took the elevator up to the 13th floor. I was early so there was nobody at the front desk.

I walked down the hall to my mailbox, wondering if I should turn in the applications I carried in a file folder at my side to the new business clerk, but then thought better of it. When I got to my mailbox I checked it, but it was empty. I looked over and noted that the door leading to Tom’s office was open. Tom appeared at the door, gave me a big smile, and waved me forward. When I walked into his sumptuous office I noted that there were two students from the class already there, sitting on a couch against the wall. Tom waved me to a chair across from them.

Several other students entered the office and filled the remaining chairs around the expensive coffee table. Ava Nawy sat directly across from me, her cold beauty in full evidence. She ignored me, as did the others, talking among themselves, some with coffee cups in their hands or hands resting on the table. I wanted no coffee or anything else, my nerves feeling hot and frayed. I noted that none of the other seminar students carried a file or anything else that might have held paperwork. I was nervous but all I could do was remain motionless and wait.

Tom started the meeting by welcoming everyone and then turning to discuss the production requirements that would become measurable at the beginning of each weekly session in the future. The contracts (and I assumed that all of us had signed the same papers) were for one year, after which all of us would revert to commission-only income.

Tom discussed more facets of the insurance products contained in the portfolio of products Mass Mutual fielded through us. When it looked like the meeting was about to end, I interrupted Tom.

“Excuse me, but are we supposed to give you our applications now or just present them at the new business window?” I asked, standing up to face him while holding my folder of applications in both hands before me.

There was only silence in the office.

“I have them here,” I offered, pushing the file further out toward Tom.

Tom made no move to take the folder, instead asking a question, his tone one of surprise.

“Them?” Tom asked. “You have applications?’ He went on, his smile gone, replaced by a slight frown.

“Yes,” I replied, truthfully. “I didn’t want to be the only one of us not to bring in a sale.”

Tom laughed out loud and then held his hand out for the file.

I gave it to him.

“Six applications, with checks, no less,” Tom said, after taking a moment to count the six stapled documents. “Six applications,” he murmured, holding the file back out to me.

“New business is certainly where you take them,” he said, before turning slightly to face the other agents directly.

“Anybody else have any applications?” he asked, the smile returning to his face, but seeming more pasted on than real.

None of the other young men and women gathered said anything in reply.

“I thought not,” Tom said, with a sigh, before turning back to me.

I sat down once more, feeling that Tom wasn’t done and the meeting wasn’t over.

“Tell us how you sold six policies in your first week,” Tom said, and then waited.

I was stymied. My mind raced. There was no way I could tell Tom that I’d sold the policies by buying prime rib dinners, playing a chess game, and then forcing Sam to take out policies on himself and his two kids, as well, so that he wouldn’t have to listen to my presentation.

“I gave them the ‘are you interested in saving money presentation,” I finally said, “it worked like magic.”

Tom was overjoyed.

“I knew it,” he breathed out, a sense of relief in his voice.

“Probably all relatives,” Ava Nawy quietly whispered to the agent next to her.

If Tom heard her then he didn’t let on. At that, the meeting was over. Ava stood up, bent to pick up her purse, and then came back to a standing position. Our eyes met. It had taken me a moment to figure out what she’d meant by her comment, meant to be heard by everyone there, but not intended to be something truly said aloud. She’d meant that I hadn’t ‘sold’ anything at all and that what I’d done was most probably gotten my family to fill out applications in order to make me look good and keep the advance money coming.

She could not know that the members of my family would probably be the hardest sales I could ever make, but then it didn’t matter. She’d made her statement and I’d received the message. I stared into her large beautiful black eyes, equally black as her beautiful long hair. I did not blink. I did not portray any emotion. She tried to stare back, but then finally turned her head away and then quickly left the office. The Secret Service didn’t like me. Haldeman sure as hell didn’t like me and now this unknown. barely noticeable woman didn’t like me either. I wasn’t cut out to work in the Western White House. I wasn’t really cut out to be a beach patrol officer, and I was quickly finding out that selling insurance wasn’t my true calling.

About all I enjoyed or was really good at, upon returning to the world of the round eyes, was working through situations as I’d done with Mr. Wilson, or with my old commander on Treasure Island. I was terrifically talented at calling artillery but I’d come home to the obvious fact that people really talented at hitting little balls into holes in the grass, or bouncing them in almost any sport, made millions a year, while all I could do with my real talent was kill people.

I’d been first in my class in OCS and truly excelled in leading a good part of my Basic School class in the Marine Corps, but I hadn’t been liked in those pursuits by almost anyone at all. I was wistfully reminded of the lyrics to a song I couldn’t remember the title to. I was living among strangers while thinking they were my friends.

I went to turn in my applications while the other agents filed out. An older man stood at the window as if waiting for me. I realized it was Don Tippett, the financial operations officer in the agency, second in authority only to Tom himself.

“Mr. Tippett,” I said, taking his extended right hand in my own.

“You’ve had quite a day, already, I’ve heard,” he replied, a big smile on his face.

“Just turning in these applications,” I said, not understanding what the man meant.

“Nobody comes through the training and writes six applications in the first week,” he said, shaking his head gently.

“Nobody,” he repeated.

I let go of his hand, not really knowing if he was being as facetious as Ava or as genuine as Tom.

“I just wanted to say, before you go back out in the field, is that this agency survives on the talent of only a very few of the forty-eight agents under contract. Those few are the real deal. You are the real deal. Thanks, and it’s going to be interesting to watch you grow.”

The meeting was over much quicker than I’d expected. I relaxed and drove the Pacific Coast Highway back down to San Clement instead of I-5, the radio volume as high as it would go with the wind blasting through the wide-open windows of the Volks.

Mary was gone with Julie when I got back, which meant she was walking the streets of San Clemente, going from shop to shop looking for whatever it was women seemed to always be looking for. I took my time going up to the department to get the Bronco, seeing no one in the process.

Gularte was waiting for me at the lifeguard headquarters when I drove the Bronco through the double gates protecting the railroad, or rather protecting people from the railroad. He was impossible to miss, standing about six-foot-two and looking almost exactly like he was straight out of Hollywood, with his perfect black hair and matching jet-black mustache. I drove up and stopped, before getting out while leaving the V8 with the engine quietly running. Gularte wore the P.D. tan long pants, with polished jump boots below. A thin leather black glove was tucked into the left side of his belt.

“You’re going to be hot out here,” I said, but with a laugh and shaking his extended right hand.

I liked the man, as I had the first time I’d met him. I knew little of his war experience, other than what his file said. Ganoi Island, a short tour like me, and the wound. He was one with me in some ways. I wondered about how coming home affected him but figured we’d have long enough riding up and down the beaches to discuss that in the time ahead.

The day went quickly, part of it spent out at the restaurant at the end of the pier. I worked slowly to make sure that Gularte was memorizing the necessary rules and laws we would be working under. The ordinances for ‘dog on the beach,’ ‘beach closure violation,’ ‘drinking on the beach,’ ‘public nudity,’ and ‘parking too close to the railroad tracks were among the most important. We also moved very slowly up and down our entire stretch of beach, a distance of just over two and a half miles. I didn’t show Gularte where the entrances and exits were in order to access the tracks and use them to move back and forth if needed. That would come later if I came to trust him enough.

The sun went down at seven following our dinner break, which was a double cheeseburger apiece from the stand on the sand just south of the base of the main pier. Charlie, the guy who owned the place, tried to buy our dinner but I wouldn’t accept that, and explained later to Gularte how citizens allowed to pay for things would at some future date expect a ‘return on their investment.’ Gularte got it or at least indicated that he did.

Gularte turned our vehicle south and headed slowly toward the beach in front of the compound but we didn’t get far.

“46673,” came out of one of the two handset speakers clicked into slots mounted in the center and lower down on the all-metal dashboard.

“My number,” I said, glancing over at Gularte, the Bronco still proceeding at about ten miles per hour south on the beach, not far from the main (and only) pier.

Gularte glanced back, neither of us having any need to speak, as the driver of any police vehicle is the commander of that vehicle and therefore normally receives and sends radio traffic He grabbed the correct handset, not the compound one, unclipped it, pushed the red button on its right side and responded to the call.

“46673, roger, got that, over,” he said, using regular military jargon from his recent background (the ‘roger’ and ‘over’ parts) instead of the abbreviated police adaptation to radio procedure (there were no ‘overs’ or ‘outs,’ or any of that, and acknowledgment over the radio was made with the ten code ‘ten-four’ or sometimes with a simple click using the transmission button).

“415 on Victoria near the beach entrance,” Bobby said.

“Address, over?” Gularte asked, immediately transmitting back.

“Oh, you’ll know when you get there,” Scruggs replied.

Gularte carefully placed the microphone/speaker back into its slot on the dash.

He said nothing about our unusual call, but then, it was his first time in the field after the academy. A 415 call was dangerous and usually called for a backup. Family disturbance was what officers called it, although the same numbers were used for breaking the peace, too much noise, and more. Since working the beach patrol alone, and now with a partner, I’d never received a call to ‘hit the street’ and respond to a normal police-related matter in the regular populated community, much less without a backup rolling.

Bobby Scruggs, and certainly Chief Murray well understood the limitations of driving the Bronco on surface streets. The huge wide and under-inflated tires, making the vehicle totally effective at moving across wet and dry sands, also made it a potential rolling disaster when driven at almost any speed atop concrete or asphalt streets. The call coming in to respond to such a ridiculously minor incident was a bit galling and stupefying at the same time.

Admittedly, our unit was very close to the site of the supposed incident, not that Bobby would have known that tucked away inside the very center of the police station. The other factor I could not overlook was that Lieutenant Gates was the duty watch commander. The unlikely assignment of the call might have more to do with him than anything else. If that was the case then there had to be some ‘hook’ in the call itself, and quite possibly, danger.

I shared none of what I was thinking with Gularte.

He’d been a Marine Staff Sergeant in Vietnam. He’d been out of An Hoa at about the same time as me, but we’d never crossed tracks or met in the country. He’d been hit on Ganoi Island, also just like me, except his wound had been in his upper left arm. He hid the effects of the injury well, like I did my hip injury. I sensed the weakness in his arm and I knew he sensed my own, as I worked at standing straight and not limping, which, when I was fatigued, was very difficult. I knew I was in good company.

The call was about noise, and that became very evident, as Bobby had described in his graphic way over the radio. Loud acid rock music was being broadcast from one of the homes that rested atop the cliff, as Victoria began its turn back toward the center of San Clemente.

Once Gularte drove us through the railroad gates I had him wait until the electric screeching chain-link fences on rollers stopped moving before I hit the remote to close them. Before the Bronco started moving again I motioned to Gularte with one hand to wait, my hand held up and clenched into a fist. I knew he’d catch and recall the sign language we’d learned in the bush, as the jungle in the Nam was generally called.

“We’re not getting any backup,” I said, staring up ahead to where the call-generating problem lay up ahead.

“Cliff Gates is a first-class prick, and he resents the hell out of me for being an officer when he was a non-com. You get to pay for that by being with me. I just wanted you to know since both of us served on that island.”

“You were on Ganoi?” Gularte asked, but there didn’t seem to be any tone of questioning in his comment.

“I made it back out of the valley, but only lasted part of one night back up on the plateau before I got hit,” I replied, hoping the reminiscence would end there.

“The A Shau,” Gularte said quietly, looking straight out through the front windshield.

“Yes,” I replied, wanting to get on with the call but waiting.

I knew our discussion wasn’t quite over, just from Gularte’s careful placement of words, and his flat dead tone.

“You’re the kid from the valley, aren’t you?” he asked after almost half a minute, although his question sounded much more like a statement than a question.

I said nothing, didn’t change expression or move in any way, except to gently breathe in and out.

“The kid with the shoe-button eyes,” Gularte went on.

I hadn’t heard anything like that about me since returning home. I wasn’t surprised, however, just resigned. Flash, Junior, Beach Boy, and Beach Ball were my nicknames assigned one after another. I wondered how many more I could accumulate before my time was up, but at least this new one, “The Kid From the Valley,” was less descriptive and more anonymous than some of the others, and therefore more acceptable.

I didn’t reply in any way, although I knew Gularte would take my silence as assent. There was nothing to be done about it. I couldn’t stay totally cloaked when I was around ‘real deal’ guys like Gularte, not if they wouldn’t let it go.

“You ready?” Gularte asked, his voice changing and becoming more powerful. “You got to be kidding me,” he went on, “the two of us are going into that house alone with no backup? Why do I think that whoever is inside may need the backup, and maybe some real solid weaponry, as well?”

Gularte eased the Bronco along at less than ten miles an hour until we were directly in front of the house. The front door of the place was wide open, as well as all the hand-crank kind of windows. The slight night breeze worked on the light white curtains, waving them outside all the windows like they were welcoming us or maybe seeking some kind of relief.

We both moved toward the open door, beyond which were hazy figures visible inside, moving about in what seemed like a brightly lit but threatening mist. The Bronco was left running, its burbling murmur adding to the strange atmosphere.

I stopped before the beaten-down steps leading up to the entrance and then turned to take in our surroundings. There was no one about, no threats of any kind that were in any way evident. I turned to Gularte, standing next to me, but a little behind to my right. He was carefully putting on the single black leather glove he carried folded onto his belt. Once he got that on he pulled a set of dark aviator sunglasses from his chest pocket and put them on, as well. I stared at the apparition he’d suddenly become, his mouth a grim straight line under his finely trimmed ‘Errol Flynn’ mustache. At six-foot-two, with his gold badge gleaming on his right breast, it was apparent that there was no ‘peace’ emitting out from the inside of what was supposed to be a peace officer.

I knew it was only a loud noise complaint, and therefore not likely to be dangerous at all, but I also felt the rise of Junior inside me. I was unnecessarily afraid and elated at the same time. Junior was back, and I was afraid of that too.

“It’s only a noise complaint,” I whispered to Gularte as I eased through the door and on into the mist, my right hand automatically having come to rest on the butt of my wildly modified .44 Magnum. The snap of the holster safety strap gave a muffled ‘snick’ out into the mist as if all on its own.

“Ready on the right …” Gularte whispered back, over my right shoulder.

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