I drove the Volks down to the Dana Point Marina entrance and, after working my way through the ruts of dried mud, up to  Butch’s front door. It was closed, with a note taped to the handle: “If you sell vacuum cleaners or Encyclopedia Britannica’s then come right in.”

I smiled. The man was amazing, not to mention original…like either of those kinds of door-to-door salesmen would ever dirty their shoes to approach a trailer that only some construction worker or manager might inhabit. I tried the door, adding to the humor. I knocked loudly.

“Electrolux,” I yelled, cupping my hands against the aluminum door panel, remembering the sales pitch one of the door-to-door salespeople had made to my wife and me when were were living together in a garage at Quantico. We couldn’t have gathered enough change together to go to the base movie theater much less buy a vacuum that cost about one-quarter of what a car did.

The door unlocked with a click, not unlike that of a .45, but it didn’t open.

“That sounded more like a Colt to me, and not the door lock,” I said, stepping back, knowing of course that Butch would not answer the door with a weapon knowing who was outside.

I waited for a few minutes, realizing I’d not spent the time needed to get to know the man, and regretting it. I’d be leaving, possibly very soon, and I’d likely never see him again. The world was not filled with such men and I needed to do a better job in selecting them and then taking the time to develop friendships. I thought of the new chief of police while I waited. There were plenty of men like him around and I wasn’t going to make the mistake of spending any time with him or them if I could help it.

“What?” Butch asked as the door snapped all the way open on its hinges.

“I may be leaving one of these days for greener pastures,” I replied, taking a deep breath, before continuing with the truth, the truth that I hadn’t committed the time to know him better and that if and when I left, I’d miss him.

“You done?” he asked after my short speech was over.

“Yeah,” I replied, as he waved me inside.

“I’m heading over to the PCH coffee shop, or whatever the hell the place is called, for a cup of real Kona coffee,” he said. “Costs a buck but where the hell else are you going to get something like that in a place like this?”

“I’ve got to go but I want to book some time,” I said, sounding exactly the opposite of what I’d opened discussing only a few seconds earlier. “Tomorrow, what time?” I asked.

“You are here to make sure that I keep my mouth shut about the Porsche and then what was inside it, and maybe the rest…about that I don’t know.”

I had to laugh before answering.

“That’s all occurred to me, of course, but I’m not spending any time worrying about it. The reason I want to spend a bit more time getting to know you is exactly because of that. Who can anybody trust with stuff like that? You’re about it.”

“Either that or you are dying,” Butch replied. “Sit for a minute, you’re white as a sheet. What happened?”

“The fire,” I said, “burned a bit of lung tissue and stuff,” I went on before taking his suggestion and sitting behind the trailer’s single folding table.

“I know,” Butch said, moving over to the tiny kitchen counter where he had a Bunn coffee maker. “It ain’t Kona, but you look like you might need a cup. I heard about you on the radio and then the TV. Once more, into the breech, you went. Are you going to get tired of that hero shit or are you going to get dead?”

I didn’t know what to say, working a few seconds to catch my breath. Even just walking from the Volks and up into Butch’s trailer had taken a lot of energy out of me.

“But you can’t stop, although you don’t know it,” Butch went on, pouring a cup of coffee from the Bunn that had probably been kept hot for days. “That’s what the valley gave you and you’ll not be changing any time soon. It’s the danger. You have to have the danger or what’s the point?”

Once again, I said nothing, instead sipping from the hot cup of coffee Butch had shoved in front of me, not bothering to ask if I took cream and sugar.

The coffee was as bad as he’d described but not as bad as that usually found on the burners at the police department.

“Galloways,” I said, finally. “We’ll meet there tomorrow morning early and the coffee’s not Kona, but it is free.”

“Let me make my point using music,” Butch replied, although it was no reply at all.

He walked over to a stand-alone cassette deck, obviously plugged into some amplifier I couldn’t see. He pushed the play button, which was colored blue, the same as it was on the machine, I’d bought to play the tapes from the Western White House.

I heard a light trilling of piccolos and flutes come out from a hidden speaker somewhere. It was light pretty music and I faintly identified it as the beginning of a song by a group of growing popularity. And then the words came, and I sat frozen in place. I’d heard the song before. The group’s name was ABBA and the song was named in the first line: “Can you hear the drums, Fernando? I remember long ago another starry night like this In the firelight, Fernando
You were humming to yourself and softly strumming your guitar. I could hear the distant drums. And sounds of bugle calls were coming from afar”

Butch hit another button on the tape deck and the music was cut off immediately.

I sat frozen in place.

“You’ve heard the song before and it never occurred to you that it’s about you, right?” Butch said, his voice low and a bit sad.

I shook my head. The words had reached deep inside me but would never have made their impact without the postscript Dutch had given them in his own words.

“The next stanza’s even more penetrating: ‘We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die,’ Butch intoned by heart, ‘and I’m not ashamed to say, the roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry.’ Those Swedes have a way about them, and probably wrote the lyrics thinking of loves won and lost, but here we are, lives won and lost.”

“I don’t know what to say,” I whispered in response.

“Can you hear the drums, Fernando?” Butch asked but didn’t wait for an answer. “You will always hear those damned drums, my friend, and no you didn’t come home from that war, you came home to a never-ending transit through a warring set of human cultures that you have to keep moving among. I knew you’d be leaving soon, just as you will leave where you’re going. The question becomes of your accommodation to that about yourself.”

“You sound like a shrink,” I got out, my mind whirling, no longer interested in the coffee in front of me.

“No, not at all,” Butch smiled as he said the four words. “No shrink would know about the trip you and people like both you and I are on. The drums and bugles calling us back can’t be heard by anyone else any more than they can be if described by someone like you and me.”

“Thanks,” I said, not knowing what I was thanking him for.

“Tomorrow at Galloways” Butch said, “I hope they are up and serving at seven. You’ll get a good night’s sleep tonight. You generally do. It’s the people around you that don’t sleep well, or if they do, they shouldn’t.”

I moved from under the table’s edge and headed for the door without saying anything further. I made it out the door and to my car before I turned to listen to what else the amazing but so strange man had to say before I left.

“Kirby’s a more modestly priced and handier machine but you were right to mention the Electrolux,” he said, his rough voice carrying across the mud and rocks between us. “Rather simple and innocent looking but powerful as all hell.”

He closed the door.

I got in the Volks, knowing that tomorrow would be a better day simply because Butch would be starting the day with me.

As I drove back toward San Clemente on PCH I thought about Butch and all the people I’d almost magically collected together and not only gotten to know but received so much warm attention from. How was it that I could leave them, even knowing I would meet more where I was going? It wasn’t like when I’d been a kid and moved from school to school every time Dad got transferred. It was deeper than that.

I drove to the police department, noting that the new Chief’s Datsun pickup wasn’t in his reserved parking spot.

Pat Bowman’s office door was open, as it always was even when she wasn’t there. Brown’s office door was closed, which was no surprise to me at all.

“We need to get the Dwarfs back together for a meeting,” I said to her, trying not to return her ever-present and ever-welcoming smile. “There’ve been developments,” I went on, even though I hadn’t quite thought through what developments I wanted to share.

I could not, however, just leave that wonderful small group of people hanging if I were to depart relatively quickly for Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“Good morning, commander,” a voice from behind me said before Pat had a chance to respond to my request.

My back stiffened involuntarily, and I had to stifle a cough as I turned to face the Chief. My many little injuries to my back made me cringe, at the same time.

“Not happy to see me?” Gary Brown asked, one of his now patented giant smiles crossing his face. He went so far as to tap the edge of his floppy cowboy hat as a gesture of welcome.

“No sir,” I replied, caught totally off guard, “I was just filling Pat in on something.”

“Yes, the Dwarfs, whoever or whatever those might be.” I realized that the man’s hearing capability was nearly uncanny. I ignored his comment and asked a question to change the subject.

“How can I help you, sir?” I said.

“Where are the keys to the Bronco?” he asked. “I want to drive that thing. It’s sitting right out in the lot.”

I looked over the Chief’s shoulder in reaction to his statement, although the Bronco wasn’t visible from where I stood. The keys for the Bronco could only be in one place if they weren’t on the vehicle keyboard maintained by Bobby Scruggs inside the central office. Gularte was being promoted but he would still be on beach patrol for a few more shifts. I hadn’t checked the schedule to see when those days and times were but had a hunch about it.

The Chief waited while I thought until he could wait no more. “What about the spare keys? I want to drive that vehicle. I’m the Chief of Police here. There are no keys where they should be.”

I saw Pat Bowman let the slightest of smiles cross her lips behind the Chief’s back. That told me Gularte was probably aware that Brown wanted to use the vehicle, and likely had no experience with such a specialized piece of equipment. That meant that Gularte had the spare keys too. I breathed in and out gently but deeply. Instead of going home to Mary, Julie, Bozo, and the unborn child we’d already named Michael due to an in vitro ultrasound result giving away his sex. My brother had been named Michael Charles and so my unborn son would bear those monikers.

Now I had to get to Gularte before Gary Brown figured things out. The man was a fashion idiot, but he wasn’t anything close to being an idiot. He was the Chief, although beginning not to be a very effective one because he had to keep telling everyone who he was.

I turned to head toward the parking lot.

“Thursday evening,” Pat whispered, although the Chief was well within earshot.

I nodded at both the Chief and Pat and then went through the back door, hoping that the Chief wouldn’t follow. I drove quickly toward Gularte’s apartment.

There was no way he was going to be able to prevent the Chief from driving the Bronco by hanging on to the keys. I had to fix that potentially disastrous mess before it exploded, and Gularte’s promotion sank into a bottomless pit.

Gularte was home when I got there as his front door was gaping open, although that wasn’t always an indicator that he was there, as I’d discovered in the past. I parked the Volks and ran through the doorway, only coming to a stop when I stood in what passed for his living room. He was sprawled on the couch.

“Where are they?” I yelled, with as much energy as my tattered lungs would allow.

“You sound like Metzger’s Husky trying to talk,” Gularte observed, coming to a sitting position.

“Where are the keys?” I asked, holding out my right hand.

“Man, you sure figured that one out fast, either that or the little prick already encountered you to get them.

“Hand them over,” I said, still holding out my hand.

Gularte just looked at me and waited.

“I got the promotion for you, and then some,” I hissed down across the short distance between us. “That promotion isn’t a council approval kind of thing. It’s at the whim of the Chief, even though it’s rumored to be the result of extensive testing. You took no test…and if you did you wouldn’t have passed it…obviously.”

“Oh, there’s that, I guess,” Gularte finally said, getting to his feet and then working to pry both sets of keys from his right front pocket. “You know he’ll tear that thing apart if he goes speeding along on concrete streets.”

“That’s a different problem, and our streets are all made of asphalt if you haven’t noticed,” I said the words with relief as sometimes, especially when

Gularte wasn’t fully recovered from his past night’s drinking, which I presumed to be his current state, he wasn’t the agreeable and wonderfully expressive character I knew him to be.

“I’m just trying to save the department,” Gularte said, the tone of his voice having turned apologetic.

“You can’t save the department, and neither can I, we can only suffer through what’s coming for ourselves and do what we can for the citizenry we’re supposed to serve. The council decided to trash things without realizing what Brown was or remains.”

“You’re on the schedule for this afternoon, I presume,” I replied, not wanting to go further into commenting about the vital mistake the city council had made or the coming ramifications for everyone in the department and residing in the community.

Gularte nodded, sitting back down on the couch. I tossed the main set of keys at him.

“Sleep the rest of it off and go to work while I cover your six,” I said, turning to leave the way I’d come, but not capable of running like when I’d come in.

I drove back to the department but parked out front, leaving the little air-cooled engine of the Volks running, reminded once again that my wife was driving a real car instead of the overgrown toy-like thing I was relegated to.

Pat was in her usual place behind her desk. The Chief’s door was closed like it now always was. I tossed the spare set of Bronco keys on her desk.

“Please advise him that the Bronco can’t be driven over twenty-five miles per hour on the city streets without the whole thing coming apart before he might get it stopped.”

“No,” Pat replied, with no pause whatever. “I’m not going to advise or recommend anything to that man. I want to keep my job as long as possible, which probably won’t be that long anyway as he’s already stated that I don’t have the appearance of someone who should be holding such an important job.”

“I see,” was all I could think to reply.

“You need to go home and get some rest or find some makeup,” she replied.

“You’re white as a ghost and I don’t think it’s very healthy for you to be around here until the medal thing dies down…although what you tried to do was a wonderful thing.”

“Thanks, Pat,” I replied, once again impressed with the woman’s intellect and always evident diplomacy. I hadn’t stopped the fire. I’d tried to stop the progress of the fire’s direction, but the explosion was going to take place anyway, and that explosion was what had done the job. Pat had not only picked up on that usually overlooked fact but made my actions admirable, unlike the media which was continuing to blow the entire incident way out of proportion to my supposed benefit as a hero. I much preferred Pat’s compliment to all of what I heard from those supposedly accurate and researched sources.

“Will you be recovered enough by Thursday, for the Dwarfs?”

“Yeah, I’m going home to take a rest,” I replied, turning, and heading outside to my still idling Volks.

I went home, not realizing that I wouldn’t be up and ready for anything at all for two full days and nights. I’d never slept so much in my life, Mary and Julie coming by all the time to awaken me to see if I was still alive. Bozo had even taken up an unaccustomed position, laying at the foot of the bed, doing his sort of ‘breath check’ kind of a thing. I lived for two days off of 7-up and infrequent visits to the bathroom.

It was Thursday, late morning before I was ready to encounter the world outside again, but I felt many times better than I had since ever encountered the fire. I called to make sure Gularte was going on duty and nothing had happened there. I called Butch to thank him for what he’d said. We both laughed at the fact that I’d never be able to listen to ABBA’s Fernando without associating the lyrics with the war. Finally, I called Pat Bowman to make sure the Bronco was still running and ready for duty.

“You mean he’s not there?” she said immediately after realizing who I was.

“There?” I asked. “Where’s the there he’s coming to?”

I no more than finished the sentence when there was a heavy knocking at the door downstairs.

“Oh, good Christ,” I whispered, hanging up the phone without finishing the call.

I threw on my robe and rushed downstairs in bare feet. Realizing that I was going to live earlier in the morning, Mary and Jules had taken off to spend time away from their vigil by my bedside and onto the beach.

I opened the door and the Chief stepped through. I pulled back to avoid being struck by the edge of his cowboy hat.

“Nice place,” he murmured, before I could even welcome him in. “It’s all made of real wood.”

I stood back in silence, not knowing what to say.

“It’s bouncing around every corner so I figured I’d stop by to see how the duty hero was managing and maybe inform me about what the problem might be.

The Chief turned around and walked out the door.

“Come on, and I’ll show you,” he said, seeming not to notice that I was attired in only a cloth bathrobe with no slippers or anything on my feet.

I dutifully followed him outside and closed the door behind me, happy that the small sidewalk was made of concrete and not gravel.

I walked to the edge of the curb and looked down at the Bronco’s front wheel on the driver’s side since the Chief hadn’t bothered to turn around so the vehicle would be in the correct lane for its direction of travel. I was trying to make believe the man wasn’t a complete idiot but he was working hard to overcome my efforts.

Immediately I saw the problem, and then I let out a big sigh. Gularte, I wanted to yell out but didn’t.

“The front locks on the wheels have to be turned to unlock them or the thing’s always in true four-wheel drive,” I said, pointing at the center of the front wheel.

“Isn’t it a four-wheel drive car?” he asked, making no move to turn the center knob I was pointing at.

I stepped forward and leaned down, noting that I wasn’t fighting for breath anymore from my damaged lung capacity. I turned the hub, and then went around to the other side and did the same on the passenger side wheel. I knew deep down that Gularte had gone to the parking lot and set the hubs. There was no chance at all that any of the officers on beach patrol would ever drive up from the beach in a fully locked four-wheel drive. Turning the hubs was uncomfortable and could be difficult, depending upon how the Bronco was sitting and the exact adjustment of its steering wheel so no officers ever ignored the hub settings.

“Somebody forgot to change the settings when coming back from beach patrol,” I said, as casually as I could.

The Chief opened the Bronco’s door to get in but stopped mid-way through.

“You know, after driving it here, which was damned near impossible, I’m led to think somebody turned the hubs just to get me,” Brown said.

He got inside, closed the door, and took off, still wearing his giant hat and with a smile on his face.

The man wasn’t an idiot, I realized, and thinking that made things seem even worse for the department than they had been before.

I went back inside. The Chief had said neither a hello nor a goodbye before or after his visit. He might have half a brain, I realized but he lacked decent common manners.

I got dressed and made a snap decision. I pulled out the tape machine from its wreck of a cardboard box, set it up, plugged the earphones in, and listened to what I knew I’d been avoiding hearing.

As I feared, there were more. Many names I didn’t recognize but some I did. Thirteen in all before the machine only sat there hissing away as blank tape spooled on through. Some of the names were of people recently among the living.

I put everything away. I had been set on heading over to Galloways for one of Lorraine’s ‘wet’ sandwiches, but I was no longer hungry. I didn’t want to be alone, however, so coffee would have to do. I knew I had to think about what I was going to say, or offer, to the Dwarfs. I also knew it wouldn’t be anything from this latest tape.