When I arrived at Galloways, it not being my usual pre-seven a.m. visiting time, the place was half full. Mike Manning sat at my table, so I walked right over and took the seat next to him, which was also usually the chair I occupied.

“Want your chair?” he asked, without saying good morning or offering any other greeting.

“The fire,” I replied, waving over to where Lorraine worked serving customers sitting at the counter.

The seats were only 18 inches apart which made sitting on one of the stools uncomfortably close to anyone on a stool right next to you. I smiled to myself as she headed my way, as usual, the seats at the counter were only occupied leaving one cushioned top open between each customer.

“The fire?” Mike replied, caught by surprise.

“Yeah, it’s the fire, I see it in your eyes,”

Lorraine poured the coffee, which I accepted with some relief. I was still tired but rather quickly rejuvenating. The strong coffee would help I knew, psychologically if not physically.

“You can’t see shit in my eyes,” Mike replied.

I looked directly into his eyes for the first time, over the lip of my cup and through the vaporous steam. I knew Mike was right because the center of his eyes looked like two small pie plates made up of grayish-black soot. The marijuana he was partial to had either been taken in only moments before or the amount from the night before was nearly overwhelming. The drug seemed to help Mike although I couldn’t handle it at all. Why anyone would want to take a substance that made you less intelligent and unable to verbally express oneself I couldn’t understand except for the fact that I knew all drugs didn’t affect everyone the same. It was simply one that I would never take again in my life. Puffing on a ‘reefer’ made me feel like a regular human being, the way I saw it, and that was the last thing I ever wanted to be.

“It’s the hero thing, all over again,” I said, softly, knowing Mike was likely going through a rough patch. “They’re giving me another medal soon and they’re not giving you anything.”

“You didn’t know the gas tank was even there, I’ve been told,” Mike replied.

Lorraine had turned up the radio I noticed for the first time. A newly released song was playing, one that had lyrics that simply grabbed me each of the few times I’d heard it. I sipped my coffee and listened to the lyrics while I tried to think of what I might say to Mike. I wasn’t hurt by his comment, at least not for me. I was hurting a bit for him. The song played: “Last thing I remember, I was running for the door, had to find the passage back to the place I was before. Relax,’ said the night man, ‘We are programmed to receive,’ you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

I didn’t know the group’s name nor could I recall the name of the song, but its words were written by someone who had a soul not too different from my own.

“You can check out but you can never leave,” I said, wondering if he’d get my meaning.

“Vietnam, all over again, isn’t it,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s not me, and I apologize because it’s not you either. It’s that place and how we can keep it back there where it ought to have been left.”

Mike got up, turned, and then walked toward the door, throwing a smile over his shoulder at me as he went through. I wondered if he was going to his apartment to sleep it off or whether he was going to be in good enough shape to open and run his store. I’d noticed that some people actually performed better under the influence of the drug, although I also knew I wasn’t and would never be one of them.

I walked over to the back of the restaurant to use the Galloway phone.

“Hotel California,” Lorraine said, as she passed me by to deliver a couple of breakfast plates. “I saw your expression while it played.”

I stopped, stood still, and waited for her to come back from her delivery. I watched her closely, something I normally didn’t do. She was amazing in many ways and damn near prescient when it came to some things, like noting the effect of the song on me. It wasn’t a war song or from the war period, so what had she seen or felt? I had no idea.

“The new police Chief’s going to come in and meet you guys,” I said to her when she came back.

“Murray’s gone, I know,” she replied. “I heard the new guy’s a pansy. That true?”

“Yeah, but he’s buying a policy, and you’ll want to make sure that all goes down,”

“So, he goes from being a pansy to your client,” Lorraine laughed out loud.

“Our client,” I said. “How much do you need?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean,” I said, softly and gently. “You might be able to read me a bit, but I can read you a bit too. I know that look. You’re short and there’s no way to cover the shortage.”

“A thousand,” Lorraine replied. “Tom can’t know if you can do it.”

“The commission is five hundred, as usual, and Tom will figure it out, of course, as he always does. So, what about the rest?”

“I’ll have to owe you,” she said, “and I don’t care if he knows later, but right now he’s got too much on his plate.”

“Owing is a lousy foundation for a friendship,” I replied, not waiting for her to say anything before acquiescing to the deal.

“When do you need it?” I asked, as my schedule for the day was starting to fill up.

“The day before yesterday, or maybe earlier,” Lorraine said, not smiling when she said the words.

“Okay,” I said, hoping Mary was already at the beach with Jules, or at least headed that way.

I found it very uncomfortable to try to explain to her why I was doing what I was doing with the money. I hadn’t taken great pains to change the ‘hiding place’ for the cash, which meant that she probably knew about the twenty thousand, but explaining, once again, why I was supporting Lorraine as my bird dog for insurance would be difficult ground to cover again.

I used the phone to call Butch. We’d briefly talked the day before after I’d missed our appointment. We were back on for the following morning. I made certain he understood just how important meeting with him was to me. Despite my luck at coming home and meeting some really good people, I was also becoming aware, particularly in working with the Western White House, and then likely the CIA personnel to be coming my way, that such people were very uncommon, and, in my condition, I needed a good supply of them.

The Volks waited, parked on the street. I’d recommended that the Chief stop at Galloways to grill Lorraine about life in San Clemente since the man knew nothing about the place but what might be found in travel brochures and on maps. The police department itself was a poor place to try to learn about the community because all one got when asking culturally related questions of cops was negative or ribald jokes made in mostly bad taste. I almost started walking across Del Mar when I remembered that I didn’t live in an apartment only a few hundred meters from Galloways anymore. Lobos Marinos was a good bit further at just over a mile.

The transit from Del Mar to home was almost nothing at all. The Chevy was in the driveway when I pulled in, but then it would be, I realized. The almost always clean and groomed beach was two blocks west, down a rough path and across the railroad tracks. For some reason, Mary and Jules both loved negotiating what was a difficult path for most people. Both of them thought that the path and the lack of any decent parking near the top entrance made the beach almost like a private one.

There was no one home and I breathed a sigh of relief. Mary had purchased a fake rock to keep the front door key in, which made me laugh every time I opened the rock to get the thing. Although the rock looked real enough it only weighed about two ounces, which would be a dead giveaway to some halfway-bright burglar that it was a key repository. I carefully put the key back. The door would lock itself when I left.

I went upstairs and there was, of course, no one there. The shoeshine box was now located in an upper wall panel over the closet. It was too high for Mary, at five feet tall, to reach, which I knew meant little. She had a mind much bigger and taller than her physical height.

I counted out 15 of the crisp consecutively numbered hundred-dollar bills. They were so new that they stuck together. I was getting fifteen hundred for Lorraine because I knew that if she needed a thousand as badly as she’d let on then fifteen hundred might be a real relieving help. One thing I knew for certain, the ability Lorraine had to enthusiastically find and then convert prospects to giving me an appointment, if not outright closing a deal on the spot, had everything to do with her being in a great state of mind. Desperation was no place to be when trying to convince someone to buy something they might not think they need.

I found an envelope and put the bills inside, noticing for the first time that not only were they consecutively numbered but they were old silver certificates issued in 1934. I’d had some silver certificate one-dollar bills when I was younger, but I also knew they’d gone out of production in favor of treasury notes in the early sixties. What I possessed, now a hundred and eighty-five of them, might be collectors’ items not that that was important for the short term. Lorraine needed the cash right now, and it wasn’t like there was some sort of collector’s store located within many miles. The main thing was to get the cash to her and have her go to the bank and get change. Twenties, older money, nobody questioned at all, but all those hundreds might cause suspicion and questions I didn’t want to have to answer or have her attempt to answer. The bank wouldn’t care, as the employees at any bank would only be concerned about whether the hundreds were any good or not. I smiled at that thought. I didn’t think the government itself ever handed out bad bills.

I drove back to the restaurant, went in, and delivered the envelope without waiting for any response or effect. I knew how very serious the money was to her, however, she said nothing, only turning to open the unsealed envelope and begin counting.

The drive back home was without incident, although when I drove past Fred’s Liquor store on South Ola Vista, I thought about stopping in for a bottle of Bacardi. It would be good to have a Rum and Coke and hit the sack again, and the woman who managed the place thought I was a real war hero from what she’d read about me in the local paper when the Corps had finally given me the Navy and Marine Corps medal for saving Young in the sure. God knows how she’d treat me following the fire and the outlandish hero the media had made of me over that. I drove on, she was no tony too attractive to flirt with, but I had plenty to do. I was tired but would just have to tough it out.

Gularte needed some of my time or the new Chief was going to end up either very screwed up or dead. The cowboy-style man had absolutely no idea of what he might be dealing with in someone as potentially lethal as Gularte. I didn’t care about the Chief, however, I cared about Gularte and the simple fact that he didn’t have either the constant therapy I was getting from friends and family or the innate ability to look young and innocent despite such brutal life experiences like I too had. There was also the scheduling of the beach patrol, the arrangements for presenting a package to Chief Brown so I could get the nearly fifteen hundred commission from that sale, the coming meeting with first the Dwarfs, then Butch the following morning, and finally, the very strange arrangement to have a confidential meeting with Herbert, my current ‘employer’ inside the back of a limo while sitting on Del Mar, the main street of the city.

Just what kind of secrecy was taught at the coming schools I was supposed to attend? My confidence level was continuing to erode and I hadn’t even started with the outfit yet. Just how many big limos did my control officer think might sit all alone on Del Mar in mid-morning, and why wouldn’t it be thought that the attention this might draw would outweigh whatever the merits of the discussion inside might be?

Once home I decided to ‘take a break’ and spend a few minutes checking out the artifact once more. Instinctively, I knew that I couldn’t possibly be holding on to the object for much longer. Something like what it represented, to the world of physics alone, had to mean that someone was going to come for it. But my curiosity was endless when it came to considering what the thing represented. My life had changed in its presence, the first time I’d seen for myself its effects, and there’d be no changing my life back to what it had been before. If nothing else, I wanted to make sure the thing had not disappeared, not physically but mentally for me. Had I made the whole thing of the experience up? If nothing else, and there was a lot ‘else,’ the A Shau taught me that my perception of reality around me wasn’t really of reality at all. It was only my view of reality.

The garage was huge, one side built to house some monster of a motor home that wasn’t present any longer. I spent only a few moments climbing up the ladder to release the bolts I’d used to hold the heater in place, the bolts not having or needing the nuts to be screwed onto their four ends.

I opened the aluminum safe-like box after entering the simple combination and there it was, once unwrapped, just like it was before. I looked at the palm of my hand, trying to match up the serrations somehow formed into the skin, except a bit deeper, and the markings on the outside of the object. The exercise was useless unless I was to remove it from the container and hold it closer to my eyes, something I wasn’t going to do. I’d never handle the thing with my bare hands again. Its power was well beyond my understanding, and maybe, exclusive of trying out some more Mr. Wizard kind of amateur experiments, that was all I needed. The unreality of the thing’s existence gave my presence in what I conceived the universe, to be more real. The thing wasn’t real, not in any definition of that word, but I was. My mind was taken back to the theologians I’d been forced to study under at St. Norbert College. The wild mental speculation adventures they’d taken classes of us students on had been remarkable, now that I was older and in the presence of the artifact. They’d inadvertently made unbelievers of many of us, simply because our earlier catechism learnings were disproven one after another and there was nothing left to replace them.

The low burble of the Caprice penetrated through the closed garage door. My wife had come home from the beach, gotten changed and not come out to the garage to get me, even though the Volks was parked right next to her car. I quickly replaced the object into the box, shoved the box into the heater, and raised the affair back up to the ceiling. It took only a few minutes. I rushed out of the side door. The Chevy was still idling in the driveway but there was nobody in it. Mystified, I went inside the house.

Mary was in the kitchen, with Julie on the couch trying to communicate with Bozo who sat on the side table in one of his classic statuary poses.

“Why’s the car running?” I asked, walking through the kitchen door.

“Because you were in the garage doing something and I didn’t want your daughter to see what it was,” she replied.

I thought for a minute. “How did you know I wasn’t out for a run or something?”

“You can’t run yet, at least not very far, if you’ve forgotten, which might be a good thing. Besides, your clothes would be strewn all over the floor upstairs and they weren’t.”

I walked out of the kitchen and then the house toward the Chevy. My wife was a Chinese box of mysteries that I knew I was never going to figure out. Maybe that was a ‘good thing,’ as she’d used the phrase, but I wasn’t sure. She’d been right, once again, I also knew.

The Caprice sat idling, like me, but sounding a whole lot better. I wanted to simply get in the car and go for a drive, but I knew better. I’d have to think up something to tell Mary later in the day or toward evening. She was never going to let go of what I might have been up to in the empty garage and the last thing I needed her to do was somehow, which might even be likely given her native high intellect, search the place and come up with the artifact, or at least the mysterious box that held it.

I moved into the driver’s part of the front bench seat and switched the ignition off.

Instead of reflecting on my busy schedule, the money going in and out too rapidly, the coming meeting with my control officer, or even thinking up a grand lie believably enough to fool my wife into some kind of contentment, I sat thinking about the names that had played in the tape and President Nixon’s disturbing comments about their passing. Dorothy Kilgallen’s name had been a complete surprise since I’d barely heard of her before doing some investigation. She was tied up in the investigation of the Kennedy assassination and the papers she’d had with her that she’d been about to share with her published had vanished with her death. The second name was more shocking. Aristotle Onassis. Again, the Kennedy assassination came to my mind and what Nixon said about his passing; “Had to be, and not truly undeserved, I might add, not that one, but choking himself to death.”

My memory kicked in with the expression of the president’s comment even more than the nature of the wealthy Greek shipping magnet’s passing.

Supposedly the man had Myasthenia Gravis all his life and was hospitalized at the end because of it. Few people suffering from the autoimmune disease, which was incurable, die from not being able to breathe anymore, much less from self-strangulation, as the president mentioned. It was going to take some research at the San Clemente library to learn more.

My memory of the previous exchange between Nixon and Jackie I’d listened to on the earlier tape came to mind when he’d asked her how she was getting along with Aristotle. She replied that she didn’t expect they’d be together much longer. When Nixon asked if she was leaving him Jackie promptly replied “No, he would be.” Until listening to the last tape I hadn’t thought to reflect on the strangeness of her answer, but now it seemed to make sense.

Right after that exchange, she’d left the Western White House. Not long after that Aristotle had ‘self-strangled’ himself in a Greek hospital. Jackie’s comment indicated to me something I didn’t want indicated. She knew. How could she possibly know something like that or was it mere coincidence wherein she was talking about his potential dissatisfaction with her as his wife in some way?

Kilgallen was a mystery, but Aristotle’s passing and what had transpired between Nixon and Jackie was much bigger. There were more names but none as big as the first two, yet that didn’t mean they might not be even more revealing. The question of who was on the receiving end of the conversation Nixon had about the identities of the dead and the nature of their passing was becoming ever more on my mind. Who had Nixon been talking to? The end of that tape was filled with several minutes of crackling and hiss that were different from all the others. Was there some hope that special equipment could draw a conversational response from that mess of sounds?

I got out of the car and breathed the wonderfully clear afternoon air into and out of my damaged lungs. Despite everything, it was good to be alive, maybe as good to be alive as the people on that tape might have felt just before it was over for them. I was home, but the dangers of the valley were ever present, nearly as deadly, but very much more subtle and better hidden. I was reminded of an expression of thought and conjecture moving to action written using Sherlock Holmes as the protagonist in a series of novels.

“The game is afoot,” I said out into the empty air. I smiled as I turned to go back inside and face a mental firing squad being artfully and dutifully prepared by my wife.

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