I opened the velvet-covered blue box and looked at the medal. There’d been no ‘pinning’ the medals to anyone’s chest, as I’d experienced in the Marine Corps. The medals and an eight-and-a-half by eleven blue plastic-covered certificates were handed out. The medal was the medal of valor, but the certificate didn’t mention the medal, only reading: “Certificate of Valor” across the top, written in ornate scrip. The medal box held the medal and a ribbon, pinned in just under it. I removed the ribbon to examine it in detail. The ribbon, blue and yellow striped with a thick red stripe running up and down it’s center, was the operational part of the award.

In the Marine Corps, there were rigid rules about not only the existence of decorations but also strict policies about how and when to wear full-sized medals, like the one I’d just been awarded. There were rules about the wearing of miniature ones to be worn with civilian attire, and then there was the positioning on the chest of where to place the ribbons and in what order. The ribbons were used on almost all uniforms and served to represent the medals themselves unless it was an unusual award like the combat action ribbon. There was no medal for that.

I stared at the ribbon and smiled to myself. There were no rules about the wearing of any decorations at the San Clemente Police Department simply because no one had ever received one before. Lieutenant Gates informed me about that when I stopped at the station to show Pat Bowman and Bobby Scruggs the decoration and to return the Marauder. My decision about wearing the decoration, or the ribbon that represented the decoration, was to pin it above my right breast just above the middle of the pocket like I would have worn the national defense ribbon if that was the only decoration I was entitled to in the military. The metal commander badge, which wasn’t an official San Clemente Police Department rank, could be retired, at least temporarily.
Lieutenant Gates had been uncommonly nice in letting me drive his Marauder to the awards ceremony, although I was and remained surprised afterward that nobody at all from the department, except for Richard, had bothered to go along with me. The reporter from the San Clemente Sun Post seemed more impressed with my medal than anyone in the department.

My uniform was ready to go, and my new, and lonely-looking ribbon, pinned to the top of the right pocket, looked a little out of place because the stiff starched pleat running up and down the front on that side was flattened by it. My badge went above the left pocket, the place where the military reserved for such ribbons since there were no badges of authority in the Marine Corps. The uniform itself served that purpose. Normally, only foreign decorations were placed on the right side but none of that applied for police forces in the U.S. because there was no foreign duty to be served, that I knew of.
I would serve my last shift on street patrol probation later from four to midnight, wherein I had to ride with another more senior officer before being released to be on my own if ever I was to patrol the streets of San Clemente again.

I was instrumental in getting Gularte promoted with a probationary waiver from having to be on probation but that waiver hadn’t applied to me and my qualification to be in the field. For some reason, the beach patrol had no rules about serving any time on probation, even though the complexity of working the beaches at all hours was more than that of normal street policing. All the same codes and rules applied to beach patrol shit as they did on street patrol and many more that non-beach patrol officers had to deal with.

Tony Herbert reached out through Richard, who had stationed himself in the parking lot behind the police station. I saw his Mercedes when I drove in but he was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t on the roster for beach patrol. That was Rodriquez and Gularte, but they’d gone out at midday which meant their shift would be over around the time I was going on duty.

“What’s he up to?” I growled to myself, as I got my nightstick out of the backseat and walked toward the rear entrance, already beginning to feel like I might be making one of my last entries to the place. I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave. The department had helped me have a unit again, to have a backup, to allow me to appear in uniform, a covering that layered over all of the physical and mental problems I’d accumulated down in the Ashau Valley.
I’d miss the Marauder, even though my wife’s Chevy was probably quicker. I passed my right hand over the hood as I walked by. I’d always harbored a deeply secret feeling that all the complex parts that went into the manufacture of such vehicles gave rise and potential power to the things having some sort of spirit. The Marauder was a gentle old man with the body and power of an Olympian, while Mary’s Caprice was a teenager of a spirit in almost every way.

I pulled the small medal box from the pocket and carried it into Pat’s office, but she wasn’t there.

“She’s always there,” I whispered to myself, as Chief Brown walked up behind me. I felt his phony cowboy presence and turned before he could say anything.

“Chief,” I murmured, attempting to put the medal back in my pocket.

“No, no, let me see it,’ he said. “Richard went to the ceremony to represent the rest of us who were too busy. He said that you did do what you promised and mentioned me and how great the department is doing.”

I handed the velvet-covered box to him, struck dumb. Even the governor hadn’t spoken and certainly none of the medal recipients. Evelle Younger was a hard organizer, politician, and manager, as well as a very driven and successful district attorney and nobody who wasn’t on the schedule was allowed to say anything. The entire medal ceremony had taken less than twenty minutes.

“Of course, Chief,” I finally got out.

That Richard had known enough to understand that Brown wanted a mention was revealing all by itself. That meant the department was bugged too. Was there no end to the ability, manpower, and equipment of the CIA to do such things? And why was such importance being placed on me? Quite possibly, I reflected as Brown pulled the medal out and draped it over his own chest.

“That’s the medal I should have received for Coachella,” he said, with a big smile, before putting the medal back in its box, closing it carefully and gently handing it back.

“Nice work,” he said, then turned and walked back toward his office.

It was five minutes to four so I went into the squad room to take a seat and wait. The shift would consist of four cars on patrol to cover the whole city. They’d all be single officer cars as it was a quiet weeknight off-season and there were no ride-along cadets in their baby blue uniforms so there’d just be me to be chosen. The regular officers, senior to me, got to choose any probationary ride-along like me. I would do all the scut work, get the coffee, write the reports, and even fuel up the vehicle sometime during the shift since the big V8-powered cars ate so much fuel. Sometimes there was good-natured competition to see who would get the rookie. Riding with two officers the cars were social instruments, as well, since it was a lot easier to pass an eight-hour shift talking if no calls came in or illegal activity was witnessed.

I sat as the other officers filed in. Sergeant Chastney was the last to enter the room, closing the door behind him. The meetings in the squad bay, held before every shift, detailed the problems or crimes outstanding from the shift before, that we might run into out on our patrol.

The meeting was a short one, which most were since the eight to four shift would be coming in just as we were finishing. When the meeting ended Chastney walked out and then so did the other officers.

I sat where I was, waiting. Nobody had made any comment about my small but very prominent ribbon, not even in jest or with a derisive remark. Fifteen minutes went by, but I didn’t move, listening to the cars arrive just beyond the thin walls of the departmental building and where I was. Finally, it grew silent. I knew the prior shift was headed to the lockers and to get out of the station as fast as they could. The shift I’d been scheduled for had gone out on patrol. Without me. I knew I could go find Chastney and have somebody come back to pick me up, but I decided not to do that. The humiliation of not having anyone want me with them was simply too much to deny or to try to fight on even terms. I’d lost by winning and I needed to accept that.

Richard walked through the door, closing it behind him, and took a seat across the table from me.

“Nice ribbon,” he said, nodding toward the right side of my chest.

“Thank you,” I replied, quietly, wondering whether he was behind the rather universal abandonment I was experiencing.

“It’s called the “hero turd syndrome,” he said, his voice soft and gentle.

“What is?” I asked, after a few seconds.

“Herbert sent me,” Richard said, “He knows stuff, stuff like you do but different. He wants to meet you at your home in the morning early, like six, and then you can go over to the coffee shop for breakfast. He wants to meet in your garage so nobody will be disturbed and apparently, he likes that big garage for other reasons. I don’t know what those reasons might be, although I suspect you might.

“The hero turd syndrome, what is it?” I asked, turning the conversation away from what might or might not be in my garage. The main feature of working for the CIA I was beginning to believe was an emotion akin to being worried, unsettled, and surprised all at the same time.

“You experienced a whiff of that at Camp Pendleton when you stopped wearing your ribbons because you took so much heat in always being stopped to verify or prove they were real, and you deserved them.”

A more unsettled surprise came at me. I waited for the worry to follow.

“This time, you got the big medal and here it is, physical proof of just how pervasive and hurtful this syndrome is. The officers here don’t mean it, any more than they understand it. You have to have your medals or Herbert’s to know that. The syndrome is evident here because the men left without taking you because they believed they needed to bring you back to reality. They are unaware that you are sitting here cut to the bone and wondering if it’s worth going on through life at all.”

“The turd part,” I breathed out.

“Yes, they brought you back to their level and then cast you down so far it can be almost impossible to come back. Nobody means for that to happen, but it happens all the time.”

I breathed deeply in and out, for no good reason beginning to feel better. It wasn’t me. I hadn’t deserved the medal, nor most of the ones I’d been awarded in the military, but it didn’t matter. It was a social game and I was it.

“Colonel Herbert has a question he’d like you to think about before you meet at your garage tomorrow morning,” Richard asked.

“Okay,” I replied, curious but not saying anything more.

“Are you ready to leave here yet?” Richard walked over to the door and stepped through it. I thought he might say more, but that was it.

I got up and headed for the back door of the station, passing Pat’s office on the way. Brown looked up from under the huge brim of his even huger cowboy hat and smiled as I passed. I headed for the back door, thinking about Herbert’s question, wondering if he meant the police department or all of what I’d become since getting home. I passed the trash container and stopped. The Marauder was in front of me, its engine crackling a bit from my relatively hard driving bout with it. The car seemed to be motioning to me although it didn’t move at all. I edged over to the trash can, reached into my pocket, and took out the velvet box. It seemed warm to the touch, maybe even hot.

I wondered if God had sent me to the Marauder, substituting the big, tough, and powerful vehicle for the sergeant major on the base. I tossed the box into the trash without opening it. I’d wait to take the ribbon off until I was getting undressed at home. It could go into the stash of military medals I’d wrapped in
Saran Wrap, like my wife had wrapped around me for almost a year to hold me together.

My walk over to the Volks took only seconds, but I was smiling when I got in. I sat looking at the building, my whole experience there coming into full view as if the place I was looking at was a giant panoramic photograph. I started the Volks and absently turned on the radio. A song played like the songs had so meaningfully played from down in the valley and then back in the real world. Songs to guide my Marines. I didn’t have any more songs to guide my own life. I recognized the voice before I remembered the song. It had played in the Valley but I’d never used it just been impressed by it. Shirley Bassey made me turn the ignition off. She sang the haunting first stanza: “If you go away on this summer day, then you might as well take the sun away. All the birds that flew in a summer sky, when our love was new and our hearts were high. When the day was young and the night was long and the moon stood still for the night birds song. If you go away, If you go away, If you go away.”

I drove toward my home, down Calafia, over to Del Mar, and then headed south on Ola Vista. I knew I was not going to need more time to think about my situation or answer Herbert’s very pertinent question.

I was going away, not just from the police department, the beach patrol, or any of the rest. I was going away from a mental construct that had been created for me and I’d accepted very willingly, out of complete ignorance of the human condition going on when I returned home. There was no point in being a hero, or in being considered a hero. The commander’s fake authority badge I’d taken off to substitute for the real medal’s ribbon over the right pocket of my duty uniform shirt was more real than the decoration or its representation.

A faded gold-colored Chevelle pickup sat in front of my house as I passed by. It was on the other side of the street, where almost nobody parked. I knew the vehicle. It was Fred Sweggles’ ‘Batmobile,’ as he called it. Fred was the one and only investigative reporter for the San Clemente Sun Post, about the last person on earth I wanted to see.

As soon as I was out of the car he was outside on his own, running across the street. Fred was a bit melodramatic, and his effusive personality was on full display.

“I didn’t know,” he said, “Nobody announced anything. I would have been there. Nobody’s ever gotten that medal from San Clemente. It’s a big deal. I have to do a story, and take some photos.”

“I’m really not in the mood,” I said, emotional fatigue starting to claim me. The squad bay event had been hard, although I hadn’t felt any physical effects while still at the department.

“I’ll lose my job,” Fred begged.

“Okay, okay,” I agreed. Fred had always been fair and kind to me. “But tomorrow sometime. I don’t want to wear the uniform, maybe a suit or something.”

“Oh, thanks so very much,” Fred gushed out. “I’ll make sure you’re on the front page.”

I wondered what part of the hero turd syndrome would be surfaced and worked over by the media as both of those social events could be magnified even more. There was a problem with the medal. I’d tossed it and I wasn’t going back for it. That left me with the certificate and ribbon. Those would have to be enough, and hopefully satisfy Fred’s needs.

The next morning Herbert was prompt, as usual. His Lincoln showed up right at six, as he’d promised. The sun was just beginning to make itself felt on the eastern horizon, invisible from my house because of the mountains that ran along the east side of Camp Pendleton.

I walked straight to the side door leading into the garage. I’d thought to lock it the night before merely to show that I kept it locked at all times, which I didn’t. The garage was just too easy to break into and there was no sense either having to replace the glass in the door or the lock if somebody wanted to get in.

Herbert stepped inside and I closed the door behind him, hitting the light switch, which lit up about twenty shop lights hanging from the ceiling, the owner, or the owner before him, was a brightness nut. He sat on one of the four stools near the workbench and I sat on another, not far away. I waited for him to talk, and it didn’t take long.

“Sandia Labs is in Albuquerque, right adjacent to the runway at the airport,” he began.

I thought about the fact that I had no idea what Sandia was but he simply went right on.

“Up to Santa Fe, and from there north about fifty more miles is the turn to Los Alamos. Those are both national labs. I’m sure you’ve heard of Los Alamos where they built the bomb.”

“I don’t understand,” I began, but he cut me off again.

“You understand perfectly well. I’m the one in the dark here. There’s something here, I know that. Whatever it is you know all about or as much as anyone else on this planet. It’s dangerous, to you and a whole lot of other people but it’s also political, strange, alien, and exotic. I don’t see anything that comes close to matching that in this garage, except maybe for you…and they tell me that it’s not you. Those labs need to be contacted and brought in, whatever that might mean to you.

“How am I supposed to do that, and transport the thing?” I asked, a bit perplexed at the general nature of the discussion.

The fact that the object was no more than ten feet from either of us also seemed weird, although Herbert appeared to have no interest whatsoever in seeing it or knowing more about it.

“They said you’d know,” he answered, contorting the lines across his forehead into a frown.

I didn’t know, of course. I’d have to figure it all out. Questions like; why wasn’t a team there or being sent to get the artifact? How was I to move the object more than eight hundred miles since it didn’t take well to almost any transportation? What was the timeline for all this to happen, bounced around in my mind as I waited through another of our silences. One name came to mind as the only person who’d volunteered to work on whatever mission I might be involved with. I was glad that I’d kept Matt’s number. It would be interesting to see if he was the kind of guy I thought he might be.

“The question,” Tony finally said after a couple of minutes, knowing I wouldn’t forget his request for Richard to ask me the question.

“I’m going,” I answered immediately, without saying more.

“Good, what will you need from me?”

I wondered what the simple appearing, but very complex man meant.

“Leave me just enough love to fill up my hand,” I replied, quoting from the Shirley Bassey hit, knowing he wouldn’t understand but not caring.

He shook his head, his facial expression one of faint disgust, but he said nothing. It was his turn to wait.

“Is Paul with the CIA?” I asked, knowing I’d be leaving my therapist, or whatever he was, behind.

“Can’t discuss employees with employees,” Herbert said.

“I wasn’t sure what my status was with the agency but I guess you just answered that and my question,” I laughed as I spoke the words.

“Jesus Christ,” Herbert said, getting up off his stool. “Paul’s an asset and that’s it. He wouldn’t be that if you hadn’t made him so and drawn him into all this.”

I wanted to ask Herbert what an asset was but didn’t. The word must be part of the jargon I’d learn in training or as time in service went along. Paul was being used and manipulated just like I was but held a different position. His relative importance, by knowledge and behavior, however, made me think that he was way more than an ‘asset’ to be used and discarded.

“I have to sit for the newspaper story about my alleged heroism so I can’t do the coffee shop this morning,” I said, sorry we wouldn’t be getting together socially. The big Army officer was impossible not to like and even admire and I much enjoyed his apparent enjoyment in spending time with me.

“And then Paul, no doubt,” Herbert replied heading for the garage door. “Don’t hurt him. He’s innocent. He’s afraid about what happened with your wife and that you might not take it as lightly as you apparently did.”

“Oh great,” I said to his back as we walked toward his car, “My life is a totally open book now. You bugged his office too?”

“Nope, he told me during the interview,” Herbert replied, climbing into the Lincoln, and smiling back at me as he pulled the big barge of a car away from the curb and did a U-turn to head back to Ola Vista.

I stood by the curb, watching the vehicle depart, becoming ever more certain that the CIA was anything but the Marine Corps or even the police department. It was more like Massachusetts Mutual. Everything was loose and depended upon field people to make their way. The rules were there but only discovered when one was violated.

The newspaper appointment awaited so I went into the house to change. The schedule for getting Mary and the kids to Albuquerque would have to be discussed with her as well as about a hundred other details. How I was to be paid hadn’t been discussed, nor when. I had the advance but how long would that last? The American Express card was in my wallet but what were the rules on its use and what were the limits that had to be there somewhere?

Herbert had sensed somehow that I had lingering feelings about Paul and what he’d pulled with Mary. I wanted to see him one more time so that time might as well be right after I was about to be published once more as a hero. The turd part of that might lurk right there in Dana Point. Little Mardian was there, as was Butch and Richard. It was about to become an interesting day, I realized, the lyrics to If You Go Away still resonating in my mind as I stared at the home I’d worked so hard to find and get into.

I was going away, but would I only have a bit of that love left in my hand, as I’d quoted to Herbert when I arrived wherever it was that I was going?