I didn’t answer Mary’s question as I took a few seconds to consider its significance. Rick was a policyholder. Rick was the owner of the second-largest life insurance policy I’d ever sold. Three hundred thousand dollars was a lot of money, and the policy, being whole life, was the only kind of Mass Mutual policy I sold (the commissions paid out on term policies were simply too small to invest all the same time and trouble that whole life took to get written up, issued and serviced). I’d just met with Rick at Galloways the week before because he was having difficulty paying the two hundred and forty dollars a month in premiums. He’d agreed to hold on until I could figure something out. Selfishly, I was afraid to have the policy go out for non-payment as the back charge on the annual commission advanced to me would be in the neighborhood of fifteen hundred dollars.

A pang of deep guilt surged up inside me.

“What’s the matter?” my wife asked, but there was no way I was going to tell her why I was no doubt looking like hell.

“Yes, Rick is, or was a policyholder,” I replied, sidestepping the issue of my conduct and hoping at the bottom of my heart she was wrong about the reason for the unreasonable call. We weren’t even sure the call had been from Rick’s wife.

“Are you going to make the call?” she asked, accepting the change of direction I’d used to avoid saying anything further about the insurance.

“There’ll be nobody answering the business phone at the department and I’m not calling the 911 emergency number in order to satisfy our curiosity. I’m not a police officer anymore and I need to keep from trying to act like one.”

“Call it anyway,” Mary said, doggedly determined to find some resolution to what we were going through and possibly get back to sleep.

I didn’t reply, as she got up and threw on her robe.

“I’ll make coffee,” she said, not acting upset in any way. There’ll be no more sleep this night.”

I waited until she was out of the bedroom, heading for the kitchen and turning on the lights as she went. I sat on the edge of the bed and thought about who else I might call, but decided, finally, that I wasn’t going to call any of the people I knew who might know at this hour of the morning. I picked up the princess phone we kept on the nightstand next to the bed. I punched in the number from memory, although I normally never called in using it. The number rang on the other end, seemingly endlessly, as I thought about all the numbers stored in my strange memory I’d never be calling again.

“Scruggs,” was the one word that came through the microphone part of the handset, straight into my right ear and then my heart an instant later.

Scruggs shouldn’t be answering the business number at all in the earliest hours of the morning and he sure as hell shouldn’t be answering it using only his last name. That meant only one thing and it took no time at all to come to that conclusion. Hell had come to the department and Scruggs was doing his best to do his part as the world up on the hill was likely a nightmare.

“It’s true?” was all I asked back, no longer really needing an answer but only confirmation.

“The body’s at Lesnesky’s and Pat Bowman said you had a life insurance policy on him. You know Lesnesky. He’s going to need some guarantee of payment to start his process. There’s nothing here in place to do any of that.”

Bobby was using the past tense to describe Rick and also the need for financial data from the life polity in order to make sure that Lesnesky, the operator of San Clemente’s only funeral home, would fully cooperate in every way necessary with such an extraordinary death of an officer in the community. I decided that all the details of Steed’s death could wait for other sources to provide.

“When?” I asked Scruggs.

“When what?” he replied.

“When do you want me to get the paperwork to him?”

“Hell, who knows with that clown, like right now. Get him off the department’s back as soon as you can. I’m sorry you’re not here anymore. It’s not the same.”

The phone went dead but I didn’t put it down immediately. Questions rose up out of a well that seemed deep beyond belief in my mind. Steed was obviously killed in the line of duty. He was a California Peace Officer on top of being part of the department. There had to be all sorts of insurance and programs to cover the final costs of things. Who’d been with Steed, if anybody? How had he died, exactly? Lesnesky was a character but no a bad man so what was the problem about finances there? Wouldn’t handling the death of the first officer killed in the line of duty in San Clemente be good for future business? Had Steed died in the line of duty, although it sure sounded like he had?”

I replaced the phone on the side table, threw a pair of shorts, and a t-shirt, and headed for the kitchen for a cup of coffee and to council with my wife. What was happening was another mess, like a bad tasting frosting layered atop the ‘cake’ of my future which was tilting and cracking under its immense thick pressure.

The next four days were a blur. I didn’t sleep almost at all. I went to Lesnesky’s with the policy I’d never even delivered, having finally found it in the bottom of one of my desk drawers The funeral was like a Hollywood movie with hundreds of departments sending cars, motorcycles, and men. I spoke at the funeral, rode in the hearse with my wife, selected the gravesite myself, and was treated like some sort of royal functionary by almost everyone, except Chief Brown. After the funeral, as we departed he called me aside to say a few words.

“You wore your Marine Corps uniform to a police funeral?” he hissed at me, “with all those garish decorations and such,” he continued, flipping his right hand toward the left side of my chest. “You sold the policy that’ll take care of the widow, but you’re through and you need to move on and just as quickly as you can put it all together. Cops have short memories, as you’ve already learned. Take your wife, she looks nice enough, and get out.”

He took off his hat and dusted it on his right thigh, as if there was any dust on it, before walking back to his car and getting into the back seat. One of the full-time officers on the force was acting as his chauffeur and servant. What a department it was going to change into.

The next day I called Matt and set everything up to clear out as quickly as I could. I needed to get Bob together with Tom Thorkelson to replace me.

There were a lot of people I needed to say goodbye to, even if I intended that most of them not be permanent. The furniture, the broken lease, and so much more would have to be handled, quickly. But they could wait until I got back from Albuquerque. Before I could pick up and leave, we had to have somewhere to go, but before almost any of that, I had to get away and handle the grief and stress of reliving all that had come down during my time in the valley, the recovery in surgeries and now inflamed once more by Rick’s passing.

I drove on into the night, Matt snoring lightly, wedged into the corner where the passenger seat pressed into the unpadded inside of the closed door. The lights of the deuce-and-a-half were more than adequate to punch holes out in front of us into the cold Arizona night air. There was no traffic at all, not that much could be expected at two in the morning. Matt had wanted to stay over someplace, but I was still driven by the demons back to haunt me from the A Shau Valley, although Rick Steed, former Marine that he was, had never served there or in combat at all.

Matt didn’t trust me to drive the big beefy truck and remained upset that I’d changed the plan from putting the thing on a rail car to taking it directly across the desert. I didn’t trust myself at first either but after about an hour, with no traffic and running in fifth gear, things settled in. The engine’s turbocharger whistled pretty loudly, even though the cab windows were closed as tight as they would go. It was an interesting sound but rapidly grew tiresome and even a bit irritating over time. The transmission gearshift was the worst, and I thanked my good fortune that there was little shifting to do until we stopped the thing to refuel. Shifting from third gear to fourth was a ‘dogleg’ thing that was unnatural and flat-out weird to me. I had to pull the shift lever about a foot to the rear, slam it slightly forward, push it to my right, and then pull it backward again. Fifth gear was easy, except nothing was easy about the truck. It was built to be tough and tough it was.

In top gear, somewhere around twenty-one hundred revolutions per minute, although the monster had no tachometer, the two of us cruised along on the Interstate, being passed by no one, and certainly not passing anyone. Fifty-five was the beast’s top speed but it ate so much gas from the fifty-five-gallon tank at that speed I had to hold it down to forty-five.

The truck was loud at any speed, almost loud enough to merit earplugs. I fiddled between the seats to pull out my Roberts transistor radio I’d picked up at Cornets for thirty dollars. A lot of money for a portable radio but supposedly worth it because it was highly sensitive to long-range transmissions. I turned it on and toyed with the controls, knowing I needed A.M. as no FM stuff would reach out far enough to provide anything at all so many miles out in the desert. Albuquerque was just about 840 miles, or so I’d calculated using my maps earlier. Matt only knew air miles but then, that was his thing.

“Seven-thirty-three,” he’d intoned when I’d asked, delivering the data as if he was somehow attached to a calculator.

I turned the radio up once I got on the right frequency modulation, and almost pulled the deuce over when a voice filled the noisy cabin, the low timber of it easily penetrating my nearly uncomprehending ears.

“This is Brother John, coming to you from WLS in Chicago with the Hour of Love,”

I drove on, waiting through the long delay there always was between the man’s introduction of a song and then playing it. Matt snored, the engine turbo whined and I waited, wondering what strange twist of fate had led me to a place in the cold hard desert of Arizona, where I presumed I was, to once again hear the voice of a man I’d never known but followed without question, hung back then, as now, on a hook of home I might ever be able to describe. The song began: “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas rising up through the air. Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light. My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night.”

The station faded out almost instantly. I tried to move the fine frequency adjustment now but it was no good. With the rough ride of the truck, there was no way I could do much of anything with the Roberts unless I stopped the truck.

“Yes,” murmured Matt, rousing from his slumber. “We’re going to stop for the night.”

“What?” I asked, wondering, without thinking, why he’d repeated his earlier request which I’d over-ridden to say that I would be driving through then night. The lyrics to Brother John’s selection of the new song called Hotel California, I suddenly realized, shaking my head in wonder. Brother John returned to let us know we should stop for the night. It was downright eerie but I wasn’t going to argue with it.

“What’s the next town out here in the wilderness?” Matt asked, reaching for one of the maps I’d tossed onto the cabin floor beneath his feet. There was little need for consulting them as the driving trip was a straight shot to the east on Interstate 40. He pawed around as I concentrated on driving the truck. There was no power steering, power brakes, or any of that, not like my wife’s Chevy Caprice at all. More like a giant lumbering monster version of the Volkswagen.

“Seligman,” Matt concluded, looking out the window and trying to make out mileage markers that appeared every mile along the right-hand side of the highway. “About ten miles. How’s our fuel?”

I tapped the fuel gauge, which was nearing the one-quarter mark. “Good call on stopping there,” I told Matt, as a quarter tank only gave us about a hundred miles in range unless I slowed the behemoth even more. At night it wouldn’t be that much more difficult to drive slower but during the coming day, it might be very problematic, what with a vast increase in traffic.

Half an hour later we pulled into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn, many of its normally bright surrounding light bulbs unlit. Not a good sign, but it was a Holliday Inn, which meant it’d be clean and possessed of a pool. I felt used up, mentally and physically, trying to guide the giant truck while also trying to deal with my mental demons.

I almost fell off the truck, once I switched off the ignition. I’d been surprised to learn that military trucks, like tracked and armored vehicles, don’t have keys. Under attack, at night, in a storm or whatever, it would be almost impossible to find something like vehicular keys. For many reasons, most people don’t bother to steal such vehicles, Matt informed me, although never fully explained why.

The deuce sat across the entrance to the place, having easily fit under the entry porch cover while we carefully got out, stretched and then went inside.

Both of us walked up to the counter.

“Pay cash,” Matt whispered to me, very quietly.

I frowned. We were two civilians with proper identification. I breathe in deeply while sighing, wondering if I was learning something but doubting it.
The attendant came up with a room for us with two double beds and costing only thirty-seven dollars. It would do. I looked at the form she pushed in front of us to fill out.

“Just pay here with something big and let her keep the change,” Matt whispered again, although his whispers might be taken as odd, not only by me but the woman in front of me. She didn’t appear to be suffering even marginal deafness. I followed Matt’s instructions, taking out a hundred and handing it to her.

“Keep the change,” Matt said.

The woman stopped, looking first at Matt before slowly turning her head to examine me, before accepting the hundred from my extended hand.

I heard boots or maybe a set of high heels striking the hardwood floor behind. Both Matt and I turned.

A police officer stopped just short of us. One of those police officers wearing a D.I. hat with a severely flat brim.

“Your truck out there?” he asked, jerking his right thumb over his shoulder but not turning. His other hand was hooked into his Sam Brown belt. His khaki-colored uniform was the same color as his hat. The only thing out of place was his midnight black tie.

“Yes,” I replied, at the same instant Matt said no.

The officer stepped back slightly.

“We’re not the owners, that’s the U.S. Army,” Matt followed up. “We’re just the drivers.”

“You got no plates or numbers on that thing,” the officer said.

I looked for a name tag on his chest but there was none.

“This is Arizona, you gotta have numbers to drive that thing on these highways.”

Matt eased forward toward the man, moving slightly in front of me. I realized that I was to neither say anything or do anything without instructions.

Although I’d recently been a cop myself I knew I was totally out of my element in this situation.

“Where you headed?” the officer asked, finally removing his hat and nodding slightly toward the woman behind the counter.

“Los Angeles,” Matt replied, surprising me.

“Where from?”

“Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque,” Matt said, surprising me again, although I stayed quiet.

“You got some papers about what you’re carrying?” the officer asked.

“Only a number,” Matt lied again.

“Number, what number?”

I wanted to giggle. This was like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and we were playing the role Humphrey Bogart had just before he got shot for his gold.

“Let’s have it,” the officer demanded, holding out the same hand he’d hooked back at our deuce.

Matt reached own into his right pocket and took out a very distinctive and expensive-appearing pen. Without turning, he reached back and took the form the woman had slid toward us only minutes earlier. He turned to me and twisted me sideways, using my left shoulder blade as a writing surface. Turning back to face the officer, he returned the pen to his pocket and held out the piece of paper.

The officer took in the small sheet in his own hand.

“What’s this?’ he asked.

“Telephone number,” Matt said.

“Telephone number to where?”

“To some place that’ll verify the cargo and our driving it and also to a place where you probably don’t want yourself registered. Those people are filled with misplaced attribution. The area code of 202 there is Washington D.C.”

“I know that,” the officer breathed out, but not in such a way as to express he was angry. “Attribution,” he murmured, looking intensely at the phone number, before raising his head to take me in.

“You don’t talk much?” he asked, as if changing the subject from an uncomfortable one.

“Nope, he drives,” Matt answered before I could say anything. Not much on talking.”

“You staying here for the night?”

“Nope, just stopped in to get directions to the nearest truck stop, as we’re almost out of diesel,” Matt replied.

“Head east on the Interstate and you’ll find one about five miles up the way,” the officer said, his facial expressions seeming to change quickly from one to another. “I’ll just keep this if you don’t mind, in case anything happens.” He turned on his heel and walked out.

I looked at the woman behind the counter, who’d stood quiet and still for the whole conversation. She clutched the hundred in her right hand, apparently never having lowered it to her side, likely afraid that whatever happened would cost her the substantial tip.

“You’re both militaries,” she said, her eyes glancing out through the glass of the front entrance to make sure the officer was departing. “My dad was in Vietnam. I know the look, the talk…all of it.” She went on.

“Just a couple of guys passing through,” I replied, nodding down at her clutched hundred. “Thanks for the help there.”

“Let’s go,” Matt said, from behind me.

I turned in surprise. “To where?”

“Back to the truck,” he replied and walk out through the automatic double doors.

I followed him out, wondering what he was up to.

“Get in and get us out of here and onto the highway headed back west while I read the map to find a road off of it that’ll take us north or south.”

I climbed back up and through the driver’s door, tired and disappointed we weren’t staying the night. The past few minutes though, had at least shelved almost all depression and thoughts of my poor conduct in Steed’s death.

“What are we doing, Matt?” I said, this time demonstratively, turning the ignition and starting the diesel. “We’re not going to Albuquerque?”

“We were never going to Albuquerque,” he replied. “Get this thing under way. There’s no governor on it and without it this piece of Army junk can hit just under seventy. Do it. You can’t lie to the highway patrol and get away with it for long.”

“You lied about absolutely everything you told him,” I said, almost in shock.

“Well, not everything. I told him you drove and didn’t talk.”

I got the truck onto I-40 headed east and floorboard the gas pedal. The trunk had no real acceleration, due to its mighty weight, but the turbo six wound up to a near impossibly howl as the speedometer pegged at sixty miles per hour and the speed kept increasing.

“I might be getting a little afraid here, Matt,” I said, above the significant complaints the truck was washing back and through us.

“You don’t know enough to be afraid, yet,” he replied. “Here it is, three miles or so. There’s a crossroad where we can head south for about six miles and then back west. That guy’s country boy, and we just bearded the country boy in his own den . He won’t be able to handle that, so he’ll be coming back. I know the type.”

“Yet?” I asked him, getting ready to make the turn, which seem to be coming up at us faster than could be possible.

“You sure this thing’s a six cylinder?” I asked, but Matt ignored me.

“Whatever’s in the back of this thing only you know,” he said, but not in reply. “You know what’s back there and I don’t want to, but whatever it is can cause people to die. They don’t isolate C-130 planes to transport one man back and forth. They don’t’ give him houses, they don’t put him in the CIA and they sure as hell don’t let him get fired while wearing California’s highest award for valor. That kind of stuff can cause people to die. That phone number I gave him is the number for the Agency is D.C. Anybody can call it. It’s in the Yellow Pages there for Christ’s sake. But if he says, and he will, what happened here then he’s going to set off a terminally dangerous flare into the heavens as big as the largest sun spot every known to man. People can lose their lives here, very quickly and easily.”

“You mean we’re running for our lives?” I asked, an old, long-ago and nearly forgotten, shiver ran up and down my spine.

“No, we’re running to save that officer’s life.”

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