I opened my eyes to see Mary sitting next to the bed I was lying in, leaning forward, her face only inches from my own. The bed was tilted so I looked a bit down at her worried expression.

“Do you know where you are?” she asked, her expression serious and verbal delivery very studied and slow.

“San Clemente Hospital, where they brought me, I think,” I replied, looking over toward the room’s only window for verification but failing because the blinds covered every bit of the glass behind them.

I swallowed hard, my throat sore, and shook my head a little to try to clear my thoughts. My right arm was strapped to a board, an I.V. needle pierced the inside of that elbow although the bottle and other stuff had to be off somewhere behind me I knew. Mary was clutching my left hand, but not too tightly.

“Why are you asking?” I said, trying to think through the fuzzy feeling inside my head.

“You’ve been gone for two days,” she replied, looking into my eyes a bit too intently for my comfort.

“Where was I?” I said, realizing how stupid that had to sound. I was in a hospital bed following the fire. That much I knew. Where else could I possibly have been? I had no memory of being anywhere but on the roof then in the bush and finally inside a rocking and rolling ambulance probably on the way to where I was now.

“You were back in Vietnam,” Mary said, “I couldn’t make sense out of most of what you said. The super-heated air burned your lungs and esophagus, the doctor said so you’re on blood thinners and morphine for the pain.”

“Demerol,” I said, feeling a bit of discomfort for the first time. Talking was difficult. “Morphine makes me hallucinate but Demerol works fine, but I don’t think I need that at all. I’m not in that kind of pain.”

Her expression softened. I’d told her of my hallucinations when I was in the hospital at the Naval Hospital in Yokosuka. At least, possibly, she wouldn’t think I’d gone completely around the bend. I decided not to ask her about anything I’d said during the past two-day period as I’d hear about it soon enough if it were bad enough.

“How do I get out of here?” I asked, sighing deeply.

I had things that simply wouldn’t wait. The agency and reporting in, however, that was done, proving I was fit to keep my job, at least temporarily on the police force, meeting with Bob Elwell, who’d found me a secretary named Alice, further examining the artifact that I couldn’t get out of my mind, now that I had my mind back, and finally, listening to the last tape to make sure it contained nothing even more potentially cataclysmic than the tapes that preceded it.

It took all day to process out of the hospital, with Dr. Forsch, the neatest doctor I’d run into so far in my life, and I’d met a few, telling me that I should stay longer, be on blood thinners longer and, barring that, stay in bed for a week in order not to strain my lungs and esophagus. I fended him off, happy that he hadn’t brought up anything about my mental state during the two preceding days before I ‘popped out,’ as my wife put it.

When we got to the Chevy, parked in the doctor’s parking lot, Mary actually opened the passenger door for me.

“Where’s Julie?” I asked,

“With Bozo at the house,” she replied. “Elwell stopped by so he’s babysitting. It’s a wonderful house. Thank you,” she went on, pulling out of the hospital parking lot and hitting the gas, “The house, getting me this car, which I love since it’s like driving a great gentle bear, and coming back. I thought I’d lost you again.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, wishing she’d slow down a bit.

The low grumbling burble of the dual exhausts was something she’d instantly taken to, even though she’d always hated similar sounds emitted by both the GTO of old and some of the police cars I brought home upon occasion. I stared toward the south, as she held the Caprice to eighty-five miles per hour.

I watched the scenery go by, most of it undeveloped land on both sides of the freeway. I’d survived another potentially life-taking encounter. I felt inside myself that I was going to be okay, but I didn’t feel good about the Chevy. My wife had driven the car while I was in the hospital and came to love it. It was not her car. I was relegated to the Volks and there was absolutely nothing I could say or do about that seemingly small adjustment to my life, except I’d been so looking forward to blasting around town and up and down the freeways in the Caprice. It was like the Marauder, but instead of the macho presentation, it was a total sleeper. A family car turned into a road monster and now turned back into a family sedan.

“You might want to slow down a bit, even though there’s no traffic,” I offered.

“The speedometer says forty-five,” she replied, pointing between the spokes on the wheel.

“That’s the tachometer, that little thing,” I said, trying not to laugh. “The speedometer is that long bar running from one side of the panel to the other.”

When we arrived at Lobos Marinos Gates’ department Marauder was parked in the driveway.

I got out after Mary parked the Caprice next to it. He opened his door and stepped out, making no move to come around the rough idling vehicle.

“He wants to see you right away, so you better get into uniform,” Gates said, lighting a cigarette and taking a few initial puffs before going on. “That little prick has it in for ex-Marines so watch yourself. I don’t think either one of us is long for this job.”

“Thanks,” I replied, not wanting to confirm or deny anything about the new Chief.

I needed the job, at least temporarily, not just for the money but because I wasn’t ready to leave the guys on the force, the beach patrol crew, or the association it gave me with the lifeguards, the pier, and all the rest of it.

I thanked the lieutenant, went inside, and moved around among the strewn pieces of furniture and boxes. Bob was there playing with Julie, as usual when he was there. Bozo sat on the tallest clothing box, seeming to enjoy his new quarters.

Before climbing into my uniform, I checked to make sure my shoe shine box was ok, and the canvas sack holding the tapes was under the bed. They were. I’d have to search around for the tape deck but I was sure it was somewhere among all the junk that had been placed in our main bedroom.

Mary was working in the kitchen. I let her know I had to report in. She kept working, a shrug of her shoulders letting me know she’d heard but was too busy to discuss anything.

I drove ‘my car,’ the Volks up to the station and parked in the back.

Getting out of the vehicle I made sure I was properly attired, with everything on my uniform exactly where it had to be for an inspection. I’d even swapped out the .44 Magnum for the .38 the department provided for approved police work.

I braced myself and then walked in through the department’s back door and straight to Pat Bowman’s office.

Her door was open, as usual, and she was in her normal position behind the desk facing the opening.

I could walk without limping and my posture was fully erect, unlike the many months I’d moved around hunched over from the stomach wounds just after coming home and getting out of those hospitals. Sitting was easier than standing but standing straight up sent a message of health, whereas asking to take a seat did just the opposite after what I’d just been through.

“You want to sit down?” Pat Bowman said, noticing that I’d looked at the two chairs that were positioned against the glass wall that sat in opposition to her desk’s door-facing spot.

I shook my head, waiting for the chief’s door to open up, the door that had never been closed when Murray was chief but there was a new play in town and it wasn’t a comedy or a feel-good drama kind of thing.

“That was an amazing thing you did,” Pat said, her usual smile growing to be even larger.

“Thanks,” I replied, not really wanting to talk about it until I found out what Gary Brown wanted from me or to do to me.

“You formed the Dwarfs, let me in and I’ve so loved that, plus you never gave up on those Marines, like everyone else did. All that other stuff in the war too. Your wife must be so proud of you.”

“Thanks, Pat,” I said, not knowing what to make out of all her praise.

I wasn’t used to hearing it from anyone. My wife said I simply moved too fast to allow anyone to do much of that. That veiled lie was another reason I loved her.

The Chief’s door opened, but Chief Brown wasn’t standing in or offering to welcome me. I looked at Pat with a frown. Pat nodded back toward the opening and then whispered up to me so quietly that I almost couldn’t make out what she said.

“Be careful with him. When you see him don’t react like you have a way of doing.”

I walked through the door, wondering what Pat was getting at until I was inside the office. Chief Brown wasn’t smoking, and his feet were carefully tucked under his inherited desk. He sat in Paul’s position, his back ramrod straight with his torso leaning slightly forward, his chin placed firmly atop the interlaced fingers of both hands. I stopped to stand in front of his desk, looking over at him but keeping a straight face. I wanted to laugh so badly that I almost couldn’t stop myself.

The man was in full San Clemente police uniform, which was pretty extraordinary in of itself as he’d only been conditionally appointed only days before. It was the giant cowboy hat with a huge floppy brim that almost caused me to lose it.

“Jingles,” I wanted to say, as he looked for all the world like a thin miniature of Andy Devine, who played the sidekick to Guy Madison in the Wild Bill Hickok series on the many early morning television shows of my childhood. To make matters worse, he also wore a bandana that was held together under his chin with some sort of special pin I couldn’t quite make out. It was a six-pointed star but that was all I got.

“Close the door and sit,” he said, using his right index finger to point toward the only chair left in the office beside his own. He hadn’t moved his hands to do the pointing, which I also thought was odd.

I closed the door, as ordered, and then took the instructed seat, making my moves as smooth as possible. I wanted to give this caricature of a man as little reason to fire me as possible. Until the CIA officially came through I wanted to give this new very strange chief as little as I could to get rid of me.

“I got this job because of the kidnapped school kids in Chowchilla,” he said, surprising me. “But I was just the chief of a tiny department. We did nothing. The sheriffs out there, and the feds, did it all, but I got the credit.”

I stared at the man, who delivered his small speech while looking at the wall across the office in front of his desk, not at me. I waited a few seconds but said nothing, once again following Chuck Bartok and Tom Thorkelson’s sales advice.

“You climbed up on top of a house to do God knows what, the gas tank next door blew up, putting you in the hospital and stopping the progression of the fire. In other words, you did nothing except get the credit. We’re the same, except for that military crap. I wasn’t in the military, so I don’t give much of a damn about that.”

“I got to be chief,” he repeated, before turning his head to stare directly into my eyes. “You get to keep your job until it’s safe for me to send you on to something better. You are way too experienced and educated for this kind of thing and I think you know it. Officer Jordon, Sergeant Yeager, Gularte, and more of the officers, including firemen, are putting you up for the California Medal of Valor. It’s a big deal, to have one of my officers be given that award.”

I replied with the only phrase I could think of that might not set the seemingly unstable, or at least odd, man off, “Thank you, sir.”

“There’ll be no big celebration when they give you that medal, by the way, not here at the department, anyway. I don’t believe in that crap, but I don’t need any headaches from the department’s only duty hero ever. I know the power of that because it got me this job. What do you want?”

The man continued to stare at me, while I still fought to control the inner human demons that were threatening to express themselves and cause my demise. I had to get out of Brown’s presence as quickly as possible, I knew. He was potentially more capable of hurting me than even Haldeman had been, but I also knew I had to ask for something, only then would he feel satisfied that I was buying into the deal he was offering, even though he wasn’t really offering it to help me, but only himself.

“I’d like to wear my commander badge again, even though that’s kind of not real either.”

Brown nodded very slightly, looking away and then dropping his hand to grab a pen and write my request down, as it would take written annotation to remember the request. He paused and waited but didn’t look up or say anything. His fingers remained strangely still, holding the pen as if there was more writing to be done. I searched my mind for anything I could think of. I needed more, and then it came to me.

“I’d like you to promote Jim Gularte from the reserves to full-time as a Patrolman Two, I’d like not to have to attend any more meetings of any kind I don’t choose to until we agree that it’s time for me to retire. At that time I’d like to retire on disability instead of resigning and finally, I’d appreciate it if you bought a life insurance policy from me for both you and your wife.”

The chief stopped writing and looked across the top of the desk at me.

“Not my wife, she’s a Seventh-Day Adventist and won’t have it. How much will it cost in premium a year?”

I was shocked, as I had only added the life insurance as something to be denied, not to be purchased.

“About a hundred a month,” I said, no expression on my face.

The Chief wrote some more. “I’ll have the city add it to my benefit package, as long as you don’t want to be the beneficiary.”

I smiled, losing control for just a second.

“Oh, that’s kind of funny, isn’t it,” he said, smiling over at me, although his smile was more like that of a Japanese Samurai warrior.

It wasn’t really a smile so much as a very threatening grimace.

“That it?” he asked, putting his pen down and leaning back in the chair.

“When you get that medal the governor will be here for the event,” he said, finally removing the big hat and placing it carefully in front of him, before going on. “I want you to honor me at that luncheon, dinner, or whatever else they come up with.”

I still wanted to laugh but held myself together, looking intently at the man’s monster hat taking up fully a third of his desktop. Paying attention to every detail of the hat kept me from laughing out loud, which would be a disaster. I knew I was dealing with a kind of mental illness I’d never encountered before.

“Thank you, sir,” I said, getting to my feet, hoping against hope that I’d be able to avoid the man until I was retired, or whatever he arranged, at my departure.

“You’re gone when you get that medal, and don’t even give it a thought that you’ll be pinning that thing to your chest and showing up back at the department. I got diddly squat for the kidnapping mess.”

I almost replied that he’d been given the San Clemente Chief’s job but instead headed for the door. I wanted to stay and tell him all about the problems that were hidden when receiving a big decoration for valor but then remembered what I was dealing with.

As I walked by Pat’s desk she looked up, but her normal ebullient smile was reduced to a slight curving line across her lips. She shook her head gently. I kept going but understood. She was going to have a whole lot more difficulty in keeping her job than I’d have in losing mine.

When I was finally outside, standing in the parking lot next to the Volks I breathed in and out several times before getting inside and heading for home. The man had so rattled me that I drove to the old apartment instead of the new house at Lobos Marinos. There was already a family moving in. We’d finished moving out the day before. I sat watching for a while, amazed at how quickly property in San Clemente was sold or rented out if it was located anywhere near the ocean.

I headed for Lobos Marinos, but pulled off of Ola Vista to stop at Gularte’s place. His truck was there and the single entrance door was wide open. Before I could get the ignition turned off on the Volks he ran through the door and straight to my open window before I could get out.

“That little cretin’s promoted me to full-time!” he yelled, beating his chest with both fists. “Not only that, he’s jumped me right over Patrolman Three to Patrolman Two so I don’t have to do ride-along junk or go through the normally required probationary period. I can’t believe that such a weird creature, new to the job, might see the inherent talent and intellect of a man like me.”

I slowly got out of the Volks to stand at its side. Once again I was in full emotional and verbal suppression. To take credit for Gularte’s success would reduce his feelings of self-importance, which he didn’t have a lot of under almost any circumstances I’d witnessed so far in the time I’d known him. I had to say nothing about what had taken place and celebrate with him. I also didn’t thank him for writing me up, the real reason I’d stopped by, as Gularte was no dummy. He’d put two and two together, which he might eventually do anyway, but for the time being his life, and my own, was pretty good.

There was no time to go out and celebrate with Gularte. I wanted to return home and catch Elwell before he left. I knew nothing about Alice Ray, the woman Bob had ‘hired’ to be our assistant/secretary/whatever for the Mass Mutual District Office I was supposedly the manager of, now that Bartok was moving to Northern California. We hadn’t really discussed the artifact and the vital importance of keeping that secret a total secret for all of our protection.

When I got home Bob was already gone. Jules played among the boxes, making new play spaces using blankets and pillows that should have gone upstairs but there was only so much we could do in the day in getting unpacked.

I went upstairs to change. Once into my shorts and T-shirt, my usual San Clemente attire, I reached under the bed and pulled out the canvas sack. It took only a few minutes to open three boxes before I found the tape machine. There were certain things I was driven to do, and listening to the last tape was one of them. I knew I wasn’t in much shape to carry or lift boxes, or even unpack them as I’d had to sit and rest three times in searching for the tape deck.

The upstairs bathroom was a double bathroom for some reason or other. I went into the back one, closed the door, and locked myself in. There was a plug outlet by the small sink. I set the deck on the toilet after putting the lid down. It took only a minute or so to load the tape on the machine. I knelt. I’d listen to the tape as quickly as I could, and think about what was on it while I went back to work helping Mary finish the move-in.

The tape moved when I hit the play button. I adjusted the earphones trying to get more than a hissing sound out of them until the President’s voice could be heard. There was no question that the voice was his.

I listened intently for a few seconds before pulling the earphones abruptly from my head. His words had burned themselves into my brain so hotly that I knew I’d never forget them. I couldn’t go on. I shut the machine down and put it back inside its box with the tape still mounted on its flat playing surface. It took only seconds to replace the machine and the tape sack under our bed. I sat on the end of the bed thinking.

Mary climbed the stairs, Julie in tow, along with Mrs. Beasley. Bozo appeared atop the bed right next to me, standing before settling down to lie at the end of the unmade mattress next to me. Not characteristic of his behavior at all.

“You got tired and had to rest, didn’t you,” my wife accused.

I nodded. The words that I’d heard on the tape could not be repeated to her, or anyone else. I’d stopped the tape but there was more, and likely more that I didn’t want to hear. Richard Nixon’s words replayed in my mind as I watched my three favorite living beings, plus one not living, scamper around the bedroom.

“Kilgallen had to go and through time that work isn’t completed just yet. Are we together in that?”