Unlike the Jeep that’d been waiting for me when I flew in on the C-130 the security people would not let Tom’s Blazer out onto the tarmac. I got out, thanked him for helping me with my plan, and grabbed my bag and new briefcase. Tom had found a used Hartmann case of worn but beautiful leather inside which he’d stashed the plan photos, or so he said and I wasn’t going to open the thing to find out.

“You got the key for the latches?” I asked, peering out into the shimmering distance, where the C-130 sat, all four engines running and aimed toward the end of the runway and ready for takeoff.

“Nah, just don’t lock them,” Tom replied, laughing out loud before he drove off. “See you soon.”

I heard him yell out through the open passenger window. It was a hot day in the southwest and I had a half-mile walk in front of me. The Strategic Air Command required huge runway areas for preparing and getting the B-52s off the ground. I understood that, but I didn’t understand why a man as seemingly connected, bright, and successful at real estate would drive a car that had no air-conditioning or electric windows, much less give away a briefcase that had no keys.

I started walking across the tarmac, the concrete so hot from the high-altitude-beating sun that the bottom of my feet were getting uncomfortably warm as I went. The wind was blowing down from the convergence of two distant mountain ranges I could see beyond the end of the runway. I knew the plane was pointed the way it was to face into that wind and gain altitude much quicker than if it had been attempting to take off with that wind.

Somewhere, however, down at the bottom of the A Shau Valley, I’d acquired a fungus or some other alien creature that covered the bottom of my soles. No doctors who’d noticed, from all my time in the hospitals had ever given me anything that did anything to affect what had grown to become a layer of seeming callus almost a quarter inch thick. Security and aircrew members would all be wearing thick-soled boots and not street shoes like mine I realized, not that they might care about any discomfort I might be experiencing.

My wife had commented once upon seeing one of my upturned feet on the beach about the strange ‘leather’ that covered the bottom of it. I explained.

She called the affliction a parasite but I corrected her.

“No, it’s a symbiont,” I replied. “It’ gives back as well as taking something”

“Well, what does it get, then?”.

“A place to live,” I said, not being able to think of anything better to fill in.

“Like our new place in Albuquerque?” she continued as if the conversation had much of any sense to it at all.

“We get a place to live, but what does it get back?”

I had no answer for that one so I ignored her and turned over on the sand, but I couldn’t get her question out of my mind. I’d already learned there was not much free in the world and culture of the seemingly free USA  Many times, what appeared to be free, however, simply had a price that either couldn’t be readily observed or would be charged later.

I made it to the the ramp of the great silver plane which was open, almost as if it’d never left the tarmac since I’d flown in on it. I jumped up over its strangely high bottom lip, working to make sure I didn’t drop my bag or the new briefcase. I walked past the cargo hold person, who wore an outfit without rank but striped all over with reflective yellow tape.

The wind dropped as I moved beyond the crewman and up to the top of the ramp. A female soprano voice singing a song I remembered from the movie Billie Jack came out of a big box radio set on the port side of the aircraft’s cargo bay flooring: “…there won’t be any trumpets blowing, come the judgment day. On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away…” were the words that stopped me as I moved toward the same nylon strap seat I’d occupied for the trip out.

The cargo master, or whatever he was, stepped to the radio and switched it off. The engines running once again overcame all other sounds as the man walked toward the door that had to lead to the piloting aircrew at the nose of the aircraft, while I sat down and contemplated the appropriateness of the song’s lyrics.

Was I riding away? Was I the tin soldier, a character making believe I was that? I shook my head at any message I was reading into the words. Paul had warned me about taking such things seriously but, upon occasion, I couldn’t seem to help myself. Was that an indication of mental illness of the most violent and worst sort? The man walking away looked back at me several times before reaching the door to the crew quarters.

I closed my eyes and tried to relax, right in the center of a sound and temperature complex that came together to be anything but that. It seemed only seconds later that I felt a tap on my right shoulder. My eyes popped open.

The cargo man stood in front of me, leaning forward and cupping his hands together.

“They don’t know you or your identity so you’ll have to deplane before takeoff,” he yelled, before stepping back.

“I flew out on this plane early in the morning, only hours ago,” I yelled back.

“Not the same crew,” the man said, with a great shrug of his stripped shoulders.

“Do you see any other passengers or cargo?” I asked, with a smile.

“You still need to get off,” the man said.

“If I get off then you, and the rest of the crew, will fly to El Toro without me, the very purpose of the flight, is not some phony experiment, and your military careers will be over once the wheels hit the tarmac.”

The man turned around, his facial expression one of near agony. He walked to the other side of the bay and put a headset on. Minutes went by while he talked into a little tube and listened through the big earphones. He pulled the earphones off and walked back to where I sat, watching him and wondering what was going to happen. I had no ride at the airport and knew only one person in the entire city whom I had no phone number for.

“Alright, but I have to ride security and you can’t leave your seat.”

“Where would I go?” I asked, examining the man’s outfit more closely.

I leaned to my left and zipped my bag open. I reached inside and pulled out the Colt.

“Jesus Christ, you’re armed,” the man screamed, holding out both hands in front of him, palms facing me.

“Comes with the job, I guess,” I replied, truthfully.

I flipped the .45 around, safety on but with a round in the chamber. I extended the automatic out toward the man’s open hands. “If you’re going to be any kind of effective security then you’ve got to be armed against all threats, including me.”

“No,” the man said, lowering his arms. “Keep it, I don’t care, just don’t do anything else.”

He turned around abruptly, walked across the cargo bay, and hit a lever. The cargo door immediately started closing. The man sat down, not putting on his communication rig or doing anything else but sitting in his own nylon ‘beach chair’ kind of seat, pulling his arms into his torso and looking for all the world like a child hiding out from a ghost in his closet. He didn’t look over at me as I eased the automatic back into the bag, wondering how many laws and regulations I’d broken just by displaying it, not to mention scaring an Air Force crewman nearly to death.

The engines revved up to some unknown maximum and then the pilot let the brakes off and the big empty craft jumped forward and started its take off. It seemed only seconds later that the nose pulled up at an angle I’ve never experienced in a civilian aircraft and the thing leaped from the tarmac.

Once in the air, the C-130 didn’t bank steeply, as it’d done coming out of El Toro, instead just seeming to go straight up or at an angle that gave every appearance from back in the cargo hold as going straight up. Once at altitude, only moments later, the plane transitioned as it had on the way in, flying flat, without turns, its engines droning away.

I thought about the flight. My conclusion that there was no experiment involved I knew was true. The U.S. Air Force didn’t fly over civilians while testing aircraft, not when it had the huge flat desert of the Mojave to work with. Edwards Air Force Base not only had the facilities for such things it also had the test pilots and equipment ready if something went wrong. No, the experimental explanation was a lie, but why the lie? Why bother? And why hadn’t this crew been brought into the loop about the flight’s only passenger? Was the Air Force that screwed up or was it the CIA, or both?

The plane covered the distance in less than two hours, making me wonder just how fast the propeller-driven aircraft really was…since commercial jet planes got all the attention for their speed. It was hard to believe that a propeller plane could travel through the air at nearly that kind of speed too. I had time to close my eyes and think through the period of travel since the sound of the engines ruled out any kind of napping or sleep, for me anyway.

Displaying the .45 had been a mistake. I knew I’d done it to make a point but in making it I could have created a nearly overwhelming incident that might have ruined my new career right before it got started. And then there was the house. The CIA could create things out of seeming nothing in an instant which meant that it could make things go away just as magically. I breathed in and out deeply, opening my eyes to gaze across the cavernous space of the cargo hold. I needed Tony Herbert in my life badly I decided at that point, staring over at the laodmaster, crew chief, or whatever title the man held. Tony could guide me through just how to present myself in almost every circumstance I was likely to experience back at home. Work abroad might be another matter entirely, but I wasn’t quite right, as had been pointed out to me graphically once while in the A Shau. I hadn’t been back then and I knew I wasn’t now.

The feeling of belonging was what I’d felt when I gripped the automatic only hours earlier. I had taken it out but had not clicked off the safety, but the feeling had been like finding and slipping into an old pair of long-lost slippers. As good as that felt, the feeling itself was a warning indicator, and I knew it.

The plane came in hard, seeming to bank upwards at the last moment before touching down and then the propellers went into reverse an instant after that. In no time we taxied toward whatever hanger we were headed for. The C-130 came to a full stop and swiveled around to once more, no doubt face down the runway although it was impossible to see outside from the cargo bay as there were no windows.

The loadmaster let the rear door down once again so I wouldn’t have to exit through the ridiculously difficult ladder and hole I’d climbed up the first time. I walked down the ramp behind him, hoping to avoid any encounter with him after our slight altercation aboard. The occasion might have appeared slight to him, I knew.

“Here,” the crew chief said, turning to face me and holding a piece of paper in his outstretched right hand. “My name’s Matt Renfri and that’s my number.”

I stepped closer and let my bag fall to the tarmac. I took the piece of paper and looked at it. The phone number, under the printed name of Matthew Renfri, had a 303 area code, which meant it went to a location in Colorado, not California or New Mexico, the two places I would have assumed. I looked up into the man’s speckled brown eyes, expecting some sort of disapproval over the threat I’d had potentially posed to his safety, if not his very life, but I found none.

“What’s this?” I asked, noticing Richard’s Mercedes slowly approaching in the distance, obviously not denied driving privileges across the base airport tarmac.

“The name’s Scottish,” Matthew Renfri said, glancing to his left, also noting the Mercedes’ pending arrival, “The name means ‘gathered at the head of the waters’ in Gaelic. I’ve been just about everywhere in the developed world, and many beyond that, and I have a variety of things I’m good at. You commandeered a U.S. Air Force cargo plane for your own use. You’ve got to be involved in special operations. I’m stuck here doing this for eternity. You’re going to need trusted and capable people at some point. I want to be one of them. Call that number and I’ll reach back to you. I’ll come at your convenience and my own expense.”

Matthew nodded gently when I said nothing and then walked past me. He jumped up and followed the ramp to the interior of the still-idling plane. Richard pulled up as the ramp went back up. I looked at the piece of paper still in my half-extended hand. The man’s reaction to my threatening him with the .45 wasn’t going to end up as a written complaint somewhere. I carefully placed the piece of paper inside my billfold. The paper was an indication of the neatest thing that had happened since I’d been folded into the agency. I might never be able to make the call or want to, but the sense of warmth it gave me was impossible to describe. I shook my head as the plane eased slightly forward as if giving me distance. The man hadn’t been afraid of me or my Colt, he’d been impressed.

I opened the front passenger door and climbed in, gently hefting the briefcase and the bag through the space between the front seats as I settled in.

“Anything notable to report?” Richard asked, pulling gently away from the C-130’s tail and making it toward the main road leading to the base’s main gate. He said the words with humor, however, not like he was looking for an analytical report at all.

“Renfri, the word,” I replied. “Do you know that it means ‘gathered at the headwaters’ in Gaelic?”

“Headwaters?” Richard asked, waving at the Marines on duty, all three of them looking over at us as we passed through the open gate, no doubt their attention was drawn to the beautiful and uncommon Mercedes.

“Soon,” Richard began, his tone telling me that whatever he was going to continue with was serious, at least the way he might view it.

“The ceremony for your medal is coming up soon. The new Chief of Police has recertified you as the ‘commander’ of the beach patrol and there’s the life insurance connection to consider as you begin to gently pull away from this location to move to the more satisfactory one. This all needs to be handled in the smoothest way possible to allay any suspicion about what you are going to be doing.”

“Don’t I have a control officer for all of that?” I asked, knowing I was sounding like I was complaining, but getting pretty tired, not to mention surprised, by the fact that so many people connected to such a secret operations group like the CIA would have so much information floating around about me and where I was and what I might be considering doing.

My existence in working through my strange discharge from the Marine Corps, recovering from my wounds, and working for the Western White House and then the police force were things of low-class uninspiring performance and recognition, in my opinion. Everyone’s interest, from Richard, to Herbert, Mardian, and even the CIA itself seemed to point in only one direction. That direction was the future. What was in mind for me that was well beyond any current importance or position had to be something indeed and the one person being kept completely in the dark about it, except for doing things like paying upfront and in cash for a hundred-thousand-dollar home on my family’s behalf, was me. Whatever it was that I was guessing about had to be something I wasn’t going to want to do, or quite possibly survive. Why in hell was I always being pushed toward firearms? The first .45 given to me hadn’t been called upon to be used, so too the recent request that I go to New Mexico armed. My usage of the weapon had been anything but called for and certainly wouldn’t be seen as a good thing if I related the details to Herbert, which I had no intention of doing.

“Do you even know enough, given that you are something with the agency that I know not what, to be able to tell me what’s going to happen when I’m finally in place and operational?”

“No,” Richard replied and then went silent for most of the rest of the drive back to my residence in San Clemente. I sat and enjoyed the feeling of quiet but very evident richness of the automobile’s interior, powertrain, and rather wondrous existence around me. American automobiles, even those as neat as the Caprice, had a long way to go before they could be built at such a level.

As the Benz exited the freeway at Calafia Richard finally spoke up, keeping his voice very low and soft. “Rumor-only stuff,” he said, looking around like there was some secret way our conversation might be overheard or recorded.

“I think the car is secure,” I said, shaking my head, the tone of my voice sarcastic.
“Nothing is secure anymore,” he replied. “I think you’re being groomed, after training, to go out there and start a company that will provide cover, entry, and exit for yourself and other agents causing little or no suspicion by any foreign or even domestic intelligence agencies.”

Richard’s comment was so unexpected and seemingly pulled out of the ether itself that I couldn’t reply, my mind racing. Just what qualities or capabilities did whoever made such decisions think that I might have? I didn’t believe for a second that I had what it took to do such a thing. I knew there were about a hundred and seventy-five countries on the planet but I’d been to exactly none of them, only Hawaii possibly counting when it was a territory instead of a state. I could get by in German or Spanish but I knew full well that my language abilities, even with those two, had been gained in school, which was a pretty poor place to attempt to pick up the true idiomatic dialogues used in almost all countries of the world.

“Great…thanks,” I finally said, as the Mercedes pulled up in front of my house.

I got my stuff out of the back seat and headed for the door. Richard drove away, leaving me wondering if he hadn’t told me too much. Whatever it was certainly put Herbert to shame at informing me but then, I hadn’t asked him anything about the future either. I was too taken by being concerned about surviving the present and preparing for some future I had no idea about.

“Maybe it doesn’t really matter,” I whispered to myself, as I elbowed my way through and past the screen door.

“What doesn’t really matter?” my wife said, standing in the middle of the living room, “And you could have found a way to take the time to call,” she followed.

I knew she was disturbed, and not by my failure to call, as I’d only left early in the morning, and was back in plenty of time. I put my stuff down except for the briefcase, which I quickly set down on the coffee table and opened.

“Here are all the pictures the realtor, Tom Hansen, put together to give some comparisons to other places in Albuquerque that run about the same in price.

The change of subject was an instant success. Mary sat on the couch and pulled out the pile of photos while I went upstairs to change clothes. The beach patrol beckoned, and I only had about half an hour to change and get to the station where Gularte would be waiting. While Mary worked I had a few minutes to think again about how much I would be giving up. The ocean. The beaches. The beach patrol. Our friends. Lorraine, and so many and much more. The beach patrol was one of those rare places of rest, repose, and also, like the briefcase Mary was going through, a very welcome change of subject. I couldn’t decide what or whom I would miss more but, like the effect of the phantom company of men who always accompanied me, only sometimes truly visible at night, I felt the rise of grief coming again to claim me. After replacing the .45 Colt up onto the highest shelf in our bedroom and closing that tight sealing panel, I dressed faster and rushed downstairs, only to be greeted by Julie, Bozo, and Mrs. Beasley, an unlikely trio if there ever was one.

“Jimmer’s going to play policeman,” Julie said, standing at the bottom of the stairs as if to block my descent. She pulled Mrs. Beasley’s string and let it go, as once again the doll pronounced me an honorable man. Bozo sat nearby, but not blocking my way. Bozo wasn’t an attack predator. He was a predator who laid or sat back just waiting for the right moment to strike. Our eyes met, which was uncommon for him, and we spent the briefest part of a second sharing our mutual identities. I moved gently past the three.

“There’s no question about it,” my wife said, holding one of the 4416 photos in her hand. “This is the one but the list price is one hundred and thirteen thousand, which is more than thirteen thousand above the others. We can’t afford it, but I don’t like the rest.”

“The price was discounted a few days ago to a hundred thousand using the VA home loan I have coming, according to Tom,” I said, getting ready to leave.

“How much is that a month?”

“About thirteen hundred at today’s interest rates,” I replied, Tom having prepared me for that question.

“How much will we be paid?” Mary continued.

“About seven thousand a month, and some for expenses like moving and travel,” I replied, using Tom’s one-fifth rule, for house payment to gross income. In truth, I had no idea what the CIA was going to pay me but beyond all the strangeness of my relationship with them, I had developed a belief that the agency didn’t let its people down financially or expense-wise. I moved toward the door, growing ever more uncomfortable with the lies I was telling, no matter how well intended those lies were. Julie seemed to understand and she drilled my regrets ever deeper into me using Mrs. Beasley once again.

“When you get home,” Mary said, almost all of her attention being held by going through photo after photo from Tom’s collection, “That heater in the garage, the one that’s idiotically installed there even though it never gets really cold here, fell so you probably need to look at it.”

I stepped outside and falteringly headed for the garage. I stopped when I reached the Volks in the driveway, realizing there was no point in bothering to examine the storage place I’d selected for the artifact. It wasn’t going anywhere. All I could hope was that its strange nature in violating the law of inertia hadn’t broken the concrete floor all to hell. I got into the car and drove to the station, knowing that I was neither honorable nor likely to get any kind of contemplative peace from working the beach patrol shift.

“It’s not the Valley, and it’s not the hospitals,” I concluded out loud to myself as I drove with the Volks windows down, letting the warm wind work to drive my demons away, or at least back to the place where they always lurked waiting to rise once more.

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