Regret for my conscious decision to let the artifact lie in the shattered mess of the overhead heater on the garage floor grew, as I headed for home. Down deep I realized the motivation for such a potentially idiotic decision. I didn’t need any more complications or problems in my life. I had a very young child to raise, also one that was growing rapidly beyond toddler years and a wife almost any man would give anything to be with. Worldly stuff simply couldn’t play much of a role in helping me with my family or adapting to a new career that seemed like it was made of a floating mix of sour but sticky cotton candy and fake butterflies gadding about in a dense but often breaking fog. It hadn’t occurred to me that if the object had broken from the box due to its inertial qualities that some child, including my own, could come upon it and end up with much worse injuries than I’d already suffered. I massaged the damaged palm against my knee as Richard guided the Mercedes on South Ola Vista toward my home.

“I don’t know what you’re role is going to be,” Richard said, slowing the car to give him time to finish saying whatever was on his mind, “But if you get the chance I’d appreciate the opportunity of doing some interesting work with you again.”

“This is what you call interesting?” I asked, looking over at him once more.

“No, the boat adventure,” Richard reminded me. “That’s the only real mission I’ve ever been on, other than driving people around and some other nonsense stuff.”

“You just want a free home,” I laughed out.

“No, I got a free boat probably worth more than your new home,” he said.

His comment stopped me and I thought back to our original discussions about his expensive yacht.

“You said you bought the boat with part of your inheritance,” I reminded him, my tone one of surprise.

Richard said nothing, in reply. I waited a few seconds before asking more.

“So, this car is CIA property, as well?”

“Not exactly, as you’ll see with the house. The Agency doesn’t hold mortgages or make loans. Other organizations do that for it.”

“You’re not that old, and you didn’t inherit, which likely means your parents are still alive,” I concluded, staring straight ahead toward where my street of Lobos Marinos was coming up fast, but possibly not fast enough.

“We can’t talk about our real personal lives to each other, not in the field,” Richard replied.

I laughed gently out loud. “You already did, about your boat and this wonderful bit of German engineering.”

There was a silence of a few seconds as Richard steered the Mercedes onto Lobos Marinos and eased up on the gas, braking gently to the curb across the street.

I waited, not moving to get my case and bag or opening the door.

“My dad’s a blacksmith at Anderson’s in Williamsburg, Virginia and my mom is an analyst for the agency.”

“Hence, your current career,” I answered, finally.

“Think what you will, and these things I’ve told you in confidence should give you room to think about my loyalties and wants for a similar one to the one you don’t really know you’re seeking.”

I got out of the car, retrieved my stuff, and gently closed both doors on my side. The doors closed with twin sounds of bank vaults easing shut with a sense of Teutonic finality. Many replies raced through my mind to some of the last things Richard had said but I decided that I would wait and think about those things as well as what was happening to me in almost every area. First Matt wanted aboard in any fashion he could find and now Richard. That fact that I, as before in my other pursuits, even down in the valley, had little in the way of powerful influence or the least of positions seemed to make no difference. I walked toward the front door thinking of something my wife had said to me while we were going together in college. I’d asked her about why she’d taken up with me, of all the male students on the campus she might have chosen. I admitted to having nothing which didn’t take much admitting.

Her answer, knowing the moment of her saying it, would stay with me for the rest of my life: “Because you have potential, and exploring that is something I can’t keep myself from doing.”

I knew Mary was home because Bozo was sitting in the window. If there’d been nobody in the house then he’d have been out in the wild doing whatever he did out there.

“How did it go,” Mary said, a Manhattan in her right hand and little baby Michael held to her left shoulder.

“I think it went great but your decision means everything in this one,” I answered, putting my sack with the .45 high up on a nearby bookcase, one that still didn’t hold any books as we hadn’t gotten that far in the move. I sat on the couch, opened the Hartmann, and dragged out the massive pile of Polaroids Tom had given me, only realizing as I looked at the amount of them that it was unlikely he’d taken them while we were out running up and down through the neighborhoods in Albuquerque.

I took the baby but not the Manhattan as she went to work checking out all the photographs. I noted that Tom had put the dozen, or so, of 4416 Magnolia right at the bottom of the stack.

Mary worked away downstairs as I went up to put Michael down for his nap, after changing him and getting a bottle ready. I wondered how parents who’d come along before me handled taking care of a newborn without disposable diapers and Enfamil. When I was ready to put him down, Julie, Mrs. Beasley, and Bozo stood by, like three characters perfectly illustrated for some children’s book cover.

“What are you guys looking at?” I whispered as Michael immediately drifted off, for some reason his upstairs crib was much preferred to the downstairs one, at least for going to sleep quickly and remaining in that state for a good measure of time.

The artifact, in whatever tattered state I’d find it seemed to call out to me but before I could handle that, there was the remainder of Butch’s plan to play out.

Mary sat on the couch like I’d left her, the stack of photos laid out on the coffee table in front of her. Only one photo was held up in her right hand, as if deserving of more intense study. I held my breath as I sat down beside her, but I didn’t say anything.

“You already know, of course,” she said, still looking at the photo.

“Actually, I don’t,” I replied, happy to be telling the truth.

The plan might work but it might all backfire and throw everything into some kind of nightmare quagmire I didn’t even want to think about. Why the CIA would purchase a home for my family and me to live in without consulting my wife, or me for that matter, once again made me wonder about just how much of the intelligence part of the outfit’s name was truly defined.

“Which place did you decide on?” she asked.

“The one you are holding in your hand,” I replied, again telling the truth.

There was no way I was going to proceed with 4416 Magnolia if my wife didn’t want to live there. The hell of that kind of existence wasn’t worth the new career if that’s how my role in working for the country could properly be described.

“The others are not part of the same puzzle,” Mary said, motioning with her free hand toward the mess of photos strewn across the top of the table.

“You’d have to know that since you looked at them all, in person, I presume.”

The artifact’s condition or even remaining presence was beginning to infringe on my thoughts to the point where I didn’t want to continue jousting with my wife about the place in Albuquerque. It was bad enough that I knew that she’d never even been to New Mexico or Albuquerque. We’d driven through the state in the GTO on our trip from the artillery school in Fort Sill to San Francisco but that wasn’t exactly like experiencing the place. The house selection, or lack of it, was absolutely vital to everything. I had to snap my mind back and pay full attention. The woman I married was as sensitive as a frightened porcupine and could be just as painful if not respected and paid close attention to. That she was often right was also bothersome when it came to making joint decisions. If I decided against her judgment she’d simply grow quiet and wait until the results came in. Even then, she’d let me know about my choosing the wrong path but had strange ways of showing that without verbalization.

“I think they’re buying us,” Mary said, still not bringing the photo down to where I could see the image and confirm that she might have picked the 4416 address.

I tried not to show any surprise or react at all. Had she figured out the whole plan with only the slightest shreds of evidence? It just wasn’t possible, so I waited for her to go on.

Slowly she turned the photo so I could see it. I unconsciously breathed a sigh of relief. It was a frontal shot of the place, excluding most of the unfinished yard areas, as Tom had planned it. The agency was buying us, as every employer ‘purchased’ employees by paying them money and benefits. My relief at her decision was impossible to hide, however, in its extensiveness, and that she didn’t miss.

“Since we can’t afford such a brand-new place nor probably qualify to purchase it, yet you allude to the fact that it’s ours if we want it, well, that means we are ‘neck deep in the big muddy, and the big fool said to push on…,’ as that old song predicted.”

“Thanks,” was all I could think to reply, afraid her sensitivity would detect anything I might reveal by saying anything more. “I’ve got to clear that old heater from the garage.”

“Why would anyone build a garage with a heater in San Clemente, California?” she asked, which relieved me. We were moving beyond the house issue, and I could call Tom in the morning to confirm that the plan worked.

I got up and went out to the garage, wondering, as I opened the side door that wasn’t locked because it had no lock. I’d thought about installing one but then discarded the idea because the new lock might indicate that there was something inside the garage worth stealing or at least discovering.

As expected, and with great relief, I saw the wreck of the heater lying on the floor below the supports that should have held it securely without any problem at all. The aluminum case and the object itself didn’t ‘weigh’ that much unless inertia entered the equation.

I removed the sheet metal covering gently until only the case sat there alone. I pried the case up slightly to see if the object, having been accelerated substantially, had broken through, but it hadn’t. However, the bottom side of the box was slightly crushed and flattened even more. The corners of the metal were no longer nicely rounded, but instead sharp and a bit crumpled. I examined the concrete surface but there were no cracks, for which I was very grateful. How much would repairing cracks that became evident on the surface of such a huge expanse of thick flooring cost? I had no idea, but it would no doubt be expensive, and maybe even more expensive than I could afford to pay for.

I went back to examining the damaged cover and stopped in my tracks with what I found. I’d refashioned the points to have the thing held up by four five-eighths rods at the top corners instead of the shorter bolts that had held it together before. Three of the rods were still in place, having pulled the metal down that held them from the remaining top of the structure, but the fourth one was missing. I examined the hole it was supposed to have been in but that hole was undamaged. I sat back to consider.

I thought about how that rod might have come loose but couldn’t wrap my mind around any solution that made sense. I went to get the ladder to climb up. The ladder wasn’t there. I stood at the bare wall next to the door opening, where I always leaned the tall thing. Nothing. I looked around to see it standing against the back wall.

“I don’t need to climb up, “I whispered to myself.

The ladder had been moved. Someone had used it, and then, in their likely haste and possible panic, replaced it against the wrong wall. I looked down at the undamaged hole where the rod would have held up the one corner. I realized that whoever had climbed up to the heater hadn’t realized that the new form of the structure had to be supported for the rods to be pulled out and the whole thing gently lowered. Someone had pulled the corner rod out and the whole edifice had canted, and then broken loose at the other three corners and fallen to the floor.

I moved back to get on my knees and examine the aluminum case. I spun the big knob, clicking in the right combination, and pulled the door open. The object was there, although no longer wrapped in the covering I’d cut for it. The steel interior of the box had taken the abrupt stoppage of something that had gone from a few pounds in ‘weight’ to one of more than likely five hundred pounds or even more. The hard steel was slightly dented, but I didn’t examine anything further. I didn’t have my thick gloves handy and I didn’t need to know anymore.

I sat back from the wreckage and tried to solve the mystery, which wasn’t a mystery at all. Someone had entered the garage without detection between the time I left for Albuquerque and the time I got back. Someone had brilliantly and amazingly figured out where the object was hidden. Even though our home was bugged by the agency there’d never been a verbal discussion about the artifact nor where it might be located after my hiding it.

Who knew about the thing’s existence? The astronaut Mitchell who’d supposedly found it. Mardian Senior with the White House crew. Gularte. Elwell, but in only a tangential marginal way. And then there was anybody else that one of those people might or had told. I mentally worked through what I had and what I could conjecture. It wasn’t Gularte. That was a given. It wasn’t Elwell, equally and quite possibly impossible. Mitchell didn’t know me or anything about me, so far as I knew. That let him out. Which left me with Mardian. Mardian was in Washington, as far as I knew, although my contact with all of the staff had almost instantly evaporated when they departed in light of the President’s terminal situation. Besides, he could simply call me, or have someone call me, and take possession of the thing at any time. He gave it to me and he had to know I’d quickly give it back with some great relief. The object had that additional quality about it.

I cleaned up the mess and hauled the reclosed box out through the garage door to the Caprice. The car was unlocked, and the trunk lid button popped the thing without the need for the ignition to be on.

I wrestled the box into the trunk and slammed the lid. I’d find another hiding place but that would be on the next day. I hit the door lock button and the car locked up. It was about the only security I could think of, now knowing that someone had some kind of attentive interest in the object and obviously had information about it to support such interest.

Once inside the house again I finally changed into my robe and sat in front of the television, moving boxes still strewn about the place. The question of whether we unpacked everything only to pack it all up again for the move to Albuquerque hadn’t been broached yet, but that discussion and decision would be coming soon, I knew.

“Oh, someone left a note for you,” Mary said, coming down the stairs, Julie trailing behind her having exchanged Mrs. Beasley for her ratty little blue  blanket.

She walked over to the couch and handed me a plain white envelope with no writing on it.

“You opened it?” I asked her, not truly surprised, but a little peeved anyway.

With the tricks I was playing on her, she had every reason to suspect any and everything I knew but still couldn’t stop myself.

“Ah, that’s how I knew it was for you,” she replied, her tone one of laughing surprise. “It was left on the doorstep, so I didn’t get a chance to see who it was from.”

I opened the unsealed envelope. A single folded sheet of paper was inside informing me that on the coming Saturday, the awards ceremony would be held in Redondo Beach for the awarding of my medal. Evelle Younger would be presiding and my presence was required. It was signed by the Chief, using his one silly line signature. I wonder if Pat Bowman had laughed when she’d held it out for such a signature that any adolescent could forge with eyes closed.

“Great,” I whispered to myself.

“You don’t want another medal, do you?” Mary asked, sitting down next to me, the photos all put away somewhere to the point where there was enough room. Julie sat next to her, chewing on the edge of her blanket.

“I would like a medal,” Julie said, between chews.

“The medal shall be yours,” I replied with no hesitation.

The night ended without further discussion, Julie going down first and then Mary and I after watching Police Story, which I loved simply because the show portrayed police work the way it ought to be not the way it really was.

I got up early in the morning, intending to head over to Gularte’s place in order to get help in finding a new hiding place for the artifact, but before heading there, since it was early I decided to get a cup of coffee from Lorraine. Since the aluminum box was in the Chevy’s trunk, I had to take Mary’s car, which for some reason she didn’t mind or question. The power of the Caprice was addictive and I much enjoyed being back in the driver’s seat to the point where I punched the gas as I was turning the corner onto Del Mar, heading for Galloways.

The car’s rear end came completely around. I stomped on the brakes, the Caprice sitting broadside across both lanes of the street. The artifact. I’d forgotten about the inertia thing and thanked God that there was no other traffic and that Mary hadn’t decided to drive somewhere before I got out of bed.

A blue Ferrari, almost exactly like the one Little Mardian had gotten after I’d sunk his yellow Porsche to the bottom of Dana Point Harbor, sat parked in one of the diagonal places in front of Galloways Restaurant. I pulled the Chevy into a slot some distance down Del Mar, hoping that the extremely rare and uncommon vehicle didn’t belong to Mardian, or if it did, then he wasn’t in the immediate area where I might encounter him. Our last meeting, our only meeting, hadn’t ended well. As I got out of the door I looked back at the rear of the car and was uncomfortably surprised. There was a slight bulge behind the rear wheel in the sheet metal.

“Damn,” I said to myself, realizing that having the object in my possession, no matter what innocent action might be used in encountering it, seemed to cause trouble of enormous proportions. How was I going to explain the damage to the area which my wife was certain to notice and why did I have to keep coming up with more and more lies in order to live any kind of truth?

I walked into Galloways without having first looked in through the front window to see if he was there. He was, sitting at my table. I wondered what it was about my favorite table, out of the eight in the place, that seemed to attract anyone I knew to sit at, either on their own or waiting for me. There was nobody else inside. He turned to look at me before I could back out of the place.

I went straight to my table and sat down next to him. The whole artifact/heater hiding place mystery fell into conclusion. The circumstantial evidence of the garage mess and then Mardian’s spawn ending up at Galloways the morning after was just too much. The man, snotty and arrogant as he was, knew about the object and had somehow figured out not only where it was but then had violated my home to gain access to it or steal it outright. I smiled ruefully as Lorraine headed my way with a hot cup of coffee. Bob Mardian made me swear to never tell a soul but then blabs to his own rotten son everything. How so typical of the men and women I’d worked with at the Western White House.

“Good morning to you too,” Little Mardian said, with his usual evil grin pasted across his face.

I stared into his eyes but said nothing, moving to take a sip of my coffee, my anger almost uncontainable.

“That’s it, you have no comment of good cheer to start this wonderful day?” he went on.

I waited, finally putting my cup back onto its saucer.

“You’re not in Kansas, anymore…” I whispered across the short distance between us.