I left Butch’s trailer and headed back toward San Clemente, but not before stopping back at Straight Ahead just to see if Paul might have showed up since I’d been spending time with Butch. The place was open like it always was, but Paul was nowhere to be seen. I’d known he likely wasn’t there because his car wasn’t parked out front, but I’d already decided to contact him. I sat at his desk and, searched around until I found a blank piece of copy paper to write a note. My message was simple since all I wanted was at least one more opportunity to talk to the man who’d been so helpful to me in so many ways. I didn’t know when I’d be leaving and it was important to at least say goodbye if not discuss other things a little bit more. Butch was a great counselor but he was hard-core tough, not classically educated in psychology nor as objective as he might be for the job of being my therapist. I scribbled out the note to have him call me and folded it up. There was no envelope so I simply let the paper lay in the center of the desk.

“Who are you?” A female voice said from the doorway.

I nearly jumped back from the desk in surprise. I wasn’t used to being encountered by anyone at the facility, much less encountered in a position behind the desk of a man who’d given no approval for my presence in his office alone, much less sitting behind his desk.

“Who are you?” I asked, pulling back from the desk to the point where my butt bumped into the windowsill, the young woman’s radiant beauty setting me a bit aback.

“You’re looking for Doctor “P,” I presume?” she asked, standing with her arms folded across her chest.

I gauged her to be in her early twenties, which meant she wasn’t likely one of the rehabilitation staff.

I nodded and waited, arms at my sides, hoping she’d stand aside from the doorway so I could exit the place.

“You’re that Vietnam guy, aren’t you?” the girl said, the sentence left hanging in the air, no answer from me seemingly required.

“You’re his girlfriend,” I replied, making a leap in logic that I knew might be way out of line or simply wrong.

“Fiancée,” she replied.

The not too subtle of Paul’s threesome request to Mary blossomed into the forefront of my mind. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing at all.

“He’s not here today so I’m kind of standing in,” she finally said into the uncomfortable silence that separated us. 

“You’re a psychologist too?” I asked, just to have something to say that might not come out wrong.

“No, just a babysitter. Most of the kids who go through here don’t have any family or friends, so we’re it.”

“Know when he’s coming in?” I asked, hoping she’d step away from blocking the door and let me leave graciously but quickly.

“You will be gone tomorrow but he’ll be back the day after all day, and not much is going on right now,” she replied, finally stepping inside the office and away from the door.

I walked past her without examining her further. The last thing I wanted or needed was any kind of reference about my wife or what Paul’s fiancée might have been informed regarding the occurrence. I turned back at the door to smile and indicate that it was a pleasure to have met her.

She didn’t respond, merely smiling while waiting for me to leave.

Once I got to the parking lot I crawled into the front seat of the VW and sat for a couple of minutes before leaving. The encounter had been unexpected and somehow a bit disconcerting. I hadn’t made a final decision about Paul. However, I was coming to see that there was a totality of the man that had to be considered, not just his professional training and presentation as a therapist. The woman was real, the invitation he’d extended to Mary was real, but I hadn’t internalized that, I finally realized, until I’d met his fiancée, and I’d been so off-kilter I didn’t know her name as I hadn’t bothered to ask.

When I got home, Mary’s Caprice was parked in the driveway. Her trips to the beach had been severely curtailed with the coming of tiny Michael. The baby was way too young for a beach visit. The effects of the sun and blowing sand would be more than enough to cause him great discomfort if not physical damage.

The other car in the driveway was a silver Mercedes. Richard’s car, as he was the only one I’d seen since arriving in San Clemente who drove that exact model, year, and colored Mercedes. I pulled around and parked on the street in front of the house. When I got out I noted that Bozo was not inside the house, where he usually resided but instead sitting on the ledge that ran across the exterior front wall extending out about eight inches. He watched me closely. I said hello but he said nothing as I passed, but his expression said a lot.

“Take the pebbles from my paw, grasshopper,” was what it appeared he would have said if he had the power of speech. I smiled to myself and went inside, wondering what Richard might want.

Mary was sitting on the couch, Julie was in my wing chair with Mrs. Beasley and Richard was crouched on the small flat step leading out from the fireplace, which had never seen a fire inside its confines.

“Richard says you’re headed for Albuquerque on a special flight tomorrow morning to spend the day. Isn’t that right Richard?”

My wife’s voice had taken on a tone I hadn’t heard in some time. The poisoned sweetness when she formed and delivered her words was likely only evident to me.

“I haven’t heard a word about it, or I’d have called,” I said. “Richard, can we step outside for a bit? The baby’s only days old and I don’t want to wake him.”

“Normally, I’d say no,” Mary unaccountably replied, “but, in this case, maybe I think it’s a good idea.” She turned her face and looked directly into my eyes. The poison aimed at Richard was rapidly moving toward me.

I got up and walked back through the front door the screen slamming slightly behind me.

Richard followed me. I heard my wife get up, in her postpartum slow way, and begin to work her way up the stairs that stuck out of the southern wall of the house and allowed for access to the upper story.

“What the hell’s going on?” I asked, my voice pitched low and my tone making it nearly a whisper.

“You have to sign the papers on the house and there are some issues Herbert said you’d have to take care of to make the deal work.”

“Why didn’t you just sit down the street and wait for me to arrive instead of encountering her in there?” I asked.

“Sorry, you’re right. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Here’s something else you weren’t thinking,” I said, my tone changing from one of frustrated anger to one more analytical contemplative. “How is it that Paul’s fiancée knew, when I met her not more than an hour ago, that I was going to be gone tomorrow but return the following day?”

“I have no idea,” Richard replied, shocking surprise in his tone. “I don’t know her, but I do know that the agency is very thorough, and they have to be looking into your back and foreground very intensely right now. Paul is that therapist which means you must tell him things. The girlfriend is an unknown.”

I moved to the curb and leaned against the hot rear fender of the Volks. Richard called Paul’s fiancée his girlfriend, but I’d said she was Paul’s fiancée. It was a seemingly small point but a ‘tell’ as far as I was concerned. I wasn’t going to get anything out of Richard that didn’t come out by accident. I felt like I was in the middle of a board game but didn’t know any of the rules or how to make any kind of informed moves that wouldn’t harm me or cause me to lose.

“You’re headed for Albuquerque on a new C-130 H model, making a test flight,” Richard intoned. “I wish I was going on that thing. You should be ready to go at six a.m. sharp tomorrow morning. I’ll pick you up and drop you at El Toro. You do what you have to during the day there and the flight returns with you on it back here at about seven in the evening. I’ll be there to get you and bring you home.”

“Why aren’t I taking my car?” I asked.

“Don’t know, just what I was ordered to do.”

“What do I take for the trip, or do you know?” I asked, sounding sarcastic.

“Your Polaroid camera, so Mary will know you took it along, that and your .45 Colt.”

Once more I was left with a slight sense of shock. I wanted to ask whatever would I need the .45 for if I was untrained and going to sign house non-existent ownership papers and also why Mary would need to know I took one of the Polaroid cameras with me, but I decided not to waste my time, nor let Richard know that I knew damn near nothing about anything, not that he hadn’t guessed that a good number of times already.

Richard took off and I went back inside the house to try to explain the grand assortment of lies to a woman who was like a living lie detector.

The morning came fast after a very quiet night. Mary purported to buy the story hook, line, and sinker but I knew better. The quiet after the explanations was more like the quiet before the storm. Only one thing she said before falling asleep stuck with me as valid. She wanted her own house and if this was how we were going to get it she was all in.

Richard showed up on time, as I waited outside at the curb. I hadn’t even made coffee and I wanted as little disturbance in the house before my leaving.

The drive to El Toro was without incident and Richard was entertaining to talk to as long as we weren’t talking shop. The plane was there, bright and shiny with no paint covering it. I left Richard and boarded. The plane took off without any strangeness, other than that on a plane that could carry over 20 tons of cargo I was the only person or thing aboard except for the flight crew.

I quickly discovered that flying aboard an Air Force transport plane wasn’t comfortable, or even adventurous. I sat in a metal framed bed of cross-thatched nylon straps on the right side of the cave-like interior of the C-130H. The plane was brand new, or so both Richard and the crew said, which didn’t make me feel any better when it took off and banked so steeply out of El Toro that unless I was strapped to the hull of the interior I would have fallen straight to the other side. I regretted not simply dipping into our reserve of cash and not taking Herbert’s recommendation to ‘let the government foot the bill’ for my flight. I also wasn’t forgetting that Richard also mentioned that the flight was a ‘test flight,’ whatever that might mean. What would the flight be testing, other than me?

Recalling my time back in the valley, I carefully tore and twisted two pieces of a napkin I’d put in my pocket in case I had to blow my nose once I found out that there would be no services aboard. The plane was so new it hadn’t been properly outfitted with a commode or any other amenities but it was quick. At four hundred miles per hour cruising speed Albuquerque was only a two-hour flight, slower than commercial jets but no airport nonsense, loading, waiting or even parking at either airport saved hours and money. I stuffed the tissue into both ear canals and relaxed a little bit but there would be no dozing off. The C-130 model was so new that it scared me. I wanted nothing to do with riding on experimental aircraft of any kind. I’d been close enough to death too many times to push the outer edge of the envelope any further than I had to.

The plane was to fly into Kirtland AFB, where I would deplane and ride in a Jeep to the 4416 address, look it over, take some photos, and then bring those back to my wife with the ‘deal’ Herbert had made with the agency for me. How I was to ‘sell’ the place to my wife, sight unseen was my problem. Butch’s advice was solid though. I knew I’d think of something. My understanding was that the crew of the C-130 would fuel up and wait for my return, hopefully flying out into the night to make it back to El Toro before midnight of the same day.

“What’s the crew going to think?” I asked Herbert, but he just laughed. “Like they care. You’re a means to an end for them, nothing more. They get the hours they need to qualify and gain rank. What or who you are are two things they not only won’t know but they won’t want to know. Real life for people like us isn’t like the movies, and none of the players either. Get used to it. You’re a Marine Captain, like your I.D. says, so use it. Make up whatever story you want but make it boring. Nobody cares much about a low-level new officer finding a low-priced home to live in while working on the giant airbase.

‘I can’t go around in a governmental Jeep looking at homes,” I said, shaking my head over what seemed like an amateur solution to my problems.

“Tom Hansen is the realtor who’ll be stationed at the house waiting for you. Ride in his car and use his advice. He’s not one of us but what he is is close enough.”

The Jeep was waiting when the cavernous rear of the transport dropped slowly down to the tarmac. I stumbled down, the grating rougher than it looked and the steepness of the descent also greater than I expected. I had to jump down the two feet of space between the end of the ramp and the hard concrete. Nobody was there or anywhere around except for the driver, and he was dressed in civilian attire making it impossible to gauge or guess his rank. I tossed my bag in the back and got into the passenger seat. He nodded but said nothing as we took off. Since he didn’t ask I assumed he knew where we were going. Minutes later the Jeep cruised through the gate, there were no barriers for exiting vehicles, and we turned south, heading up a street called Juan Tabo. I’d taken Spanish in high school, so I knew the “J” was silent or nearly so. Tabo I had no idea about although.

I was rapidly trying to get used to the fact that I was going to have to become a little more conversant in Spanish to accommodate the linguistics of the area. As the Jeep made its way up into the foothills of the lower part of the huge mountain range blocking the southern exposure of the city, the street names became more English sounding. Tramway, Montgomery, and finally Magnolia.

The Jeep stopped in front of a brand-new white house, Spanish in design, with no yard around it to speak of, except spots of rough gravel and obvious detritus from its just completed construction. The open Jeep, constantly moving, had been no place to have a discussion, although the driver didn’t seem to be the conversational type anyway. I grabbed my bag and hopped out of the vehicle, intending to thank the man but there was no need as he instantly accelerated away.

I walked up the driveway, past a brand-new blue and white two-door Blazer. It looked like the perfect new tough little vehicle for the cute little house. I liked both immediately. I wondered why there was a for sale sign in the front yard since the CIA purportedly already owned it, but ignored the strangeness of that and stepped through the right open door of the double door arrangement that served as the main entrance.

I realized, by surprise, that I was a bit out of breath from the short walk and then traversing up the driveway, even though the incline wasn’t that steep. I stood at the door, setting my bag down just inside, as an affable, aging male walked toward me with his right hand out and a big smile on his face.

“Hi, Captain it’s good to finally meet you. I’m Tom Hansen with the Vaughn company, here to show you the house, see what you think, and then do whatever has to be done.”

I shook his hand; his warm welcome made me feel good even though I knew the man had to be an actor sent in by the agency since he was acting like the place was still for sale and I was there to decide between buying it or not.

Tom moved to close the door behind me, locking the deadbolt after he did.

There would be no other prospective buyers coming in, I knew, adding another bit of confirmation about the fixed nature of the ‘sale.’
“I’m not really a captain,” I said, sorry the moment the words left my mouth as Tom’s smile evaporated so quickly it seemed it had never been there.

“You haven’t been through training, have you, so let me help,” Tom said, his voice flat, level, and a bit hard. “The world is our stage, and you have a role to play. No matter what the situation you play the role and never drop from it. Sometimes the only success is gained because of a continued and fully applied inertia. We keep on going. So, you are every bit a Marine captain in civilian attire, and I am a Vaughn company realtor in the top tier of sales success. There’s no furnishing in here so let’s sit on the step leading down into the living room here.”

He turned and walked the short distance across a few feet covered with Mexican Talavera tiles. They were polished and beautiful and clean. The whole house was so clean it could have passed for an operating room in some local hospital. How that could be, given the mess the yard was in I didn’t know, or care.

“What’s the plan as Tony indicated you might have one.”

I laid out Butch’s plan to Tom, indicating that the only reason I was there was to gain my wife’s acceptance of the house as being something she could not only live in, and accommodate but also something she would choose, in fact, had to choose or nothing about the move was going to work, not in the timeline that was developing for my entry into the service.

“Okay,” Tom replied, “I love this plan. We’ll head out and take shots with my Polaroid of really mediocre places to compare, then put those together with a few of this terrific house. We can always lower the price to beat out the other places if we feel like it since the CIA will be paying itself anyway.”

I realized why Richard had told me to bring the camera. How did he know the plan, though, and then give Tom a heads up because there was no way Tom wasn’t ready to go, even before I walked through the door.

I threw my bag into the back seat and then got into Tom’s car and traveled about the upper reaches of Albuquerque with Tom snapping shots in open houses while I worked on memorizing the streets and neighborhoods of a city that was sort of pasted together like a bad stamp collection. A mix of Mexican and other cultures with the Caucasian population being in the minority, not only in number but in cultural expression. The camera was explained for my needs but the .45 was another matter entirely. Once before I’d been given another .45 to hold until it might be needed, and that need had never been explained much less called for, at least so far. Like working for the Western White House, it seemed that the CIA played a long ball kind of game and not simply one of reacting to what others were doing or saying.

We got back to the house and Tom worked at taking some shots of the interior and the exterior, carefully avoiding getting any of the mess of all the yard areas in any of the shots.

Sadie’s Bowling Alley was where Tom took me for lunch before heading back to Kirtland, as he wanted to introduce me to green chili and southwestern food and cooking. My brain was spinning with all that I was learning and with how wonderfully Tom had taken over the project.

As we sat down, he instructed me about how I should handle the situation with my wife.

“You have her call me and I’ll walk her through,” he said, taking a fork full of green chili tamale into his ever-smiling mouth.

I did the same but the results weren’t the same. My mouth almost expelled the food but could not because I’d already swallowed the forkful. I began to perspire. The food was a wonder of taste but so hot I had to keep drinking a couple of swigs of ice water after each bite. I both loved and hated the stuff and told Tom so. Tom took note.

“You’ll overcome the hatred and be consumed by the love of this stuff but it’ll take some time.”

“What’s the test part of the C-130 H cargo plane they flew me in on. I’m a bit worried about stepping back aboard that thing.”

“I’m not a flier at all, but I pay attention to rumors about what’s going on at that base. That new plane has very powerful turboprop engines and they apparently twist those big new propellers at near impossible-to-describe speeds.”

“Okay,” I responded, but said the word more as a question than a statement.

Tom ate some more green chili fire food but I’d had my fill. I knew, with my reconstructed lower end that I’d pay dearly for eating any of the stuff at all and the C-130 had no bathroom.

“What about the propellers?” I asked since Tom gave no indication he was going to go on.

“They probably need to make a top-speed high rotation run over a long distance to make sure the propellers don’t break up and fall off, and maybe they want to do that over the desert in case they have to come down without any power at all.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said, as Tom reached I-25 in his Blazer. From the Rio Grande to the Air Force Base was only minutes away.

“I wonder why you’re aboard that flight if it’s a test pilot kind of thing. What could go wrong that you might fix and what tools would you have to do it anyway?”

I looked over at Tom, as the Blazer accelerated toward the airport. I carried only one tool, other than the Polaroid, but I couldn’t tell Tom about that.

<<<<<< The Beginning | Next Chapter >>>>>>