The sun’s early light emerged from behind me as I faced out toward the large rolling Pacific swells that came in so innocently and inexorably to rise, form curls with white frothy water, and then smash themselves down on the sand as they approached the beach a quarter mile distant. It wasn’t quite six-thirty and Shawna wouldn’t show up to open the small restaurant located at the very end of the San Clemente pier until the appointed hour exactly. I looked behind me, all the way down toward the base of the pier so far away. At just over a quarter of a mile in length, it was second only to the Oceanside pier for being the longest wooden pier in the entire state of California.

That I was depressed hadn’t occurred to me and if to describe my current state I would have said only that I was a bit lost. Gary Brown, the supposed hero police chief from Chowchilla had come in to replace Chief Murray, one of my biggest supporters ever. The new police chief, (Mel Portner was standing in for him until his appointment could be confirmed but that was merely a formality. He was rumored to have no use at all for Vietnam veterans, and certainly not vets like myself who had so many decorations for valor. I hadn’t yet met him, since his pre-appointment, and the passing of Chief Murray into retirement history had only been announced the morning before. There’d been enough time however for the new not-yet-chief to write me a short note on Murray’s stationery in which he stated laconically that I was no longer to wear the ‘commander’ tag on my uniform, however, I’d remain the ‘tacit’ commander of that part of the force due to my service time and record. Whatever that assembly of words meant.

I stared out across the tops of the never-ending swells before looking back toward the shore to see Shawna making her way against the wind as she approached. I waved but she didn’t wave back, probably not able to see me over the hand she held up to ward off spray and foam thrown up from under the bridge supports by passing swells striking the underside of the pier. I turned back to wait.

Coffee would be good. I’d gotten out of the apartment so I could avoid trying to explain my current mood to my wife, or worse to a very perceptive and bright six-year-old daughter named Julie. How Gary Brown’s note had come to be placed in the same envelope that H.R. Haldeman’s acceptance of my resignation was folded and placed in would probably never be known. Reading the acceptance letter had taken all of three seconds. I’d resigned from nothing as there was no indication about whom I’d worked for, and the letter was typed on plain white paper instead of the ornately beautiful White House stuff.

The unsealed envelope had been dropped at the police department front window without comment or ceremony. I felt the hand of the CIA touching my life but there was no evidence to support that feeling. It just seemed logical that the agency, depending upon what and where they had me do anything, might want my track record with the U.S. government at the highest level to be kept from my discoverable history. So far, however, the only person that connected me with the CIA at all was Richard, and, from the very first time I’d met him, he made me uncomfortable, and that was still the case. There was no one I was going to counsel with about my frustration of being discharged from the Western White House, getting a crummy note from the new ‘make-believe’ police chief, and then having absolutely no contact, contract, or any other paperwork to support my new situation.

I had twenty-two thousand in new hundred-dollar bills inside my shoeshine box. Was the money an advance? Was it a signing bonus, even though I’d signed nothing? Was it even legal currency since taking that much cash with continuous serial numbers could only lead to the same kind of trouble the agency should be trying to avoid? I didn’t really believe the money was from them, however. In my heart of hearts, I felt it was my ‘reward’ for doing all the bidding I’d done, much of which had been illegal or at least unethical…as well, as being stuff I could tell no one about, not even my wife.

Shawna went straight to the door, unlocked it, and went inside, not even pausing in the slightest to recognize me standing nearby. She was no doubt as cold and wet as I was, although my physical discomfort was nothing compared to my mental state.

“You’re up early,” she said, after getting the place in order, starting a pot of coffee, and then sitting at the table I’d taken in the corner of the empty place.

I nodded but said nothing, merely waiting because Shawna seldom had only a few words to say.

“There’s a new chief of police coming, the White House is shutting down Casa Romantica so where does that leave the Dwarfs?”

“Straight to the point,” I replied, with a smile while she got up and went to get two cups of coffee. She poured them black, stepped back, opened one door of the fridge, and grabbed a tiny bottle of Elsie the Cow creamer made by a company called Bordens. Even though the restaurant served only Maxwell House Coffee, unlike the better stuff (or so Lorraine claimed) at Galloways, I preferred the cups Shawna served with the Elsie milk nobody else seemed to have. Julie had one of the little bottles at home, although Shawna made me pay a dollar for it months earlier.

I poured the whole bottle of milk into my cup, didn’t bother asking for sugar, and took a long satisfying sip. The cheap Bunn rig used to make the coffee kept it plenty hot but not without adding a burned aftertaste if kept in the pot too long, which was almost always. Shawna was right, having guessed that I wouldn’t be staying in the area and therefore the Dwarfs would lose Snow White all heart would go out of its mission. The Marines would move on into history along with the story that they’d drowned while swimming alone on a stormy beach. There was no other story to replace it. That they’d died, very likely, at the hands of hard-bitten holders of national security, which I more than believed, particularly after standing inside the chamber-like room they died in. But there was no one I could tell, not without endangering myself, further, and the person or persons I might tell.

“I’ll be fired by this new chief when he fully takes over,” I replied, as he doesn’t like the cut of my jib, and that’ll leave me only with the insurance business that I really can’t make much of a living at without being fed business from the other stuff I’ve been doing.

“You’re a war hero, and you built the beach patrol from almost nothing at all, not to mention working for the President of the United States personally, so he can’t fire you, not without a whole lot of trouble,” Shawna said without drinking any of her own coffee.

Shawna was hurt and I was complimented by her feelings of pain for me. She had a glorified idea of who and what I was, which had been added to over time with my taking over the beach patrol, creating the Dwarfs, and working for the Western White House, but, in reality, I was just a guy, messed up from a horrid war, coming home and trying to make it back to a place I could no longer find or identify. People in San Clemente had come to put a whole lot of faith in me and I knew at my core, without getting any of that from Paul, that I needed to move on before the weight of everyone’s expectations crushed me down into nothing.

I knew a good bit more about higher-ranking officers and those who’ve achieved or inherited positions of power. For the most part, they soon lost all thought about the subjects they controlled or governed. It was either the common good, for the best of them, or about their glorification for the worst of them. I hadn’t met Chief Brown yet but it wasn’t hard to come to an early conclusion about what kind of leader he was going to be. Just another reason, if it panned out, to move on in life.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as I know anything,” I said, finishing my coffee and getting up to go.

I was lying to her and she no doubt knew it. For a teenager, she was extraordinarily sharp and very prescient, but she accepted my excuse and barely held together explanation.

Beach Patrol was scheduled to start at noon, as the weather had turned. The sun would be bright in the sky all day, the weather dry as a bone, or too dry according to forecasters, as the brush densely packed in the many arroyos surrounding the town were filled with many years of tinder that was merely ‘lying in wait’ if one was to believe the early morning news. I walked the length of the pier and climbed into my Volks. I drove home wondering whether my stint with Gularte would be my last beach patrol shift, as well as the end of my being whatever kind of police officer I was supposed to be.

When I drove up to the apartment’s driveway there was a Chevy Caprice, one of the rather rare two-door versions of the big Classic automobile. It was cream in color and had temporary license plates. I knew right away the car wasn’t from the compound, not that there were governmental vehicles there anymore. I hadn‘t gone back, as there was no point. 

As I got out of the Volks to check the strange vehicle out Richard stepped forth from the Caprice.

“Nice car,” I said, only staring at the sparkling new Caprice.

“I don’t have any time,” Richard said, throwing a set of keys across the street toward me. “It’s yours. You can’t drive a red Volkswagen and be with us. It’s not fitting. This thing has only 348 cubic inches but makes the same horsepower as Gates’ Marauder, only it weighs eight hundred pounds less. You do the math.

Dual exhausts, no catalytic converters, no restrictions at all. Now take me to the station where you are headed anyway, as I think you’re on today’s shift.”

All I wanted to do was get in the Caprice and take it for a spin, but I turned back toward the apartment.

“Paperwork’s all in the glove box, license plates in the trunk. I didn’t have any bolts and Chevy leaves that to the new owner.”

I was full of questions about the car but contained myself. There was no reason on earth for the CIA to purchase a new full-size automobile for me that I could see. I hadn’t even been through training, had no interviews, wasn’t reporting to anyone. Was I about to go to work for the biggest confederacy of dunces in the country?

I dressed quickly, putting on the uniform, no longer having a single thought about it possibly being for the last time. I wanted to drive the Classic, specially prepared to outrun Gates’ beast of Marauder, and it was to be all mine. The Volks had been my first new car and I hadn’t had any thoughts about buying another but there was the Caprice, sitting out at the curb. I walked over as I removed the “Commander” badge from my uniform shirt. The car was there.

The badge didn’t matter. The car was real while the badge never had been.

I was in a hurry because Richard was downstairs with my wife, and they were talking away. I didn’t want either of them learning any more about one another or me than they already did, not from each other anyway.

In minutes I was ready. I rushed downstairs and made it to the kitchen before I remembered that I’d forgotten the keys to the new Caprice. I ran back up the steps and was pleased and smiling to see the keys on the bed, waiting, as if in accusation. I rushed back down.

“We have a new car,” Mary said, as I approached the bar area adjacent to the kitchen. “I hear it’s a real car and not one of those little things like the Volkswagen.”

I realized that she was speaking to Richard. I knew she loved the Volks, particularly since it’d replaced the GTO which she’d hated all through our possession of it.

“Richard tells me that you’re going to take a position with his company,” Mary laughed out loud, doing something with the dishes in the sink. “Now that you’ve lost the last job maybe that’s a piece of real good news.”

I kept a smile pasted to my face but my mind was running at high speed. She knew all about my interest in the CIA, their offer, and more. She was letting Richard know she knew nothing, and he appeared to be buying that load of baloney all the way. She was perfectly brilliant at playing the role of a dutiful housewife supporting her husband. I realized at that moment that Mary might be the best candidate for the agency and not me.

“Let’s go, Richard,” I said, turning toward the door. I was no longer the least concerned that Mary would give anything away, instead, I wondered what she might have learned from Richard in that brief time. All that would have to wait.

Richard and I climbed into the Caprice, the doors both slamming, making a solid metallic sound. Not the bank vault closing like one experienced when closing one of the doors in Richard’s Mercedes, but quality, nevertheless.

I stared down through the steering wheel. It had a leaping stag in its very center. I noticed that there was no tachometer and the long flat speedometer pegged at 120 miles per hour.

“No tach?” I asked as the Marauder had a big round one right in the center of its instrument console.

“Three-speed built transmission, not a Hydramatic or any of that stuff. You don’t need a tach, so one wasn’t installed at the factory, as the red line fuel shut-off is set at 6000 rpm, which is extremely high for a V8. Solid lifters, 275 cam, and more. No twenty-five miles to a gallon though. Sorry.  Oh, that little instrument on the stalk under the window washer lever is an after-market tach just so you can see what’s going on at any time,” Richard explained.

I drove the Caprice up to South Ola Vista and headed toward the compound. We had about half an hour before Gularte would be expecting us in the police lot.

I didn’t turn toward the compound or residence, however, instead pulling on the onramp and accelerating. I was pleased that the deep beat of the unrestricted and oversized exhaust pipes wasn’t too loud. Mary hated the sound of the GTO more than anything else. I pushed the accelerator to the floor. The car downshifted and took off, forcing me back into the seat. Gone was the quiet burble and filling the cabin was the sound of a monster roaring. The Caprice shifted automatically to second gear and I held the pedal to the floor. The car’s hood jumped up a good six inches and then settled back, the speedometer showing 100. I was astounded. The car was almost as fast as the GTO but had a much higher top end. I eased up on the pedal.

“Careful on high-speed corners, like off ramps and such. That jump we both felt was the torque bringing the front tires nearly off the road. Much less traction when you might be deep into a tight corner.”

I noticed that Richard was holding tight to a bar mounted above the passenger window. We made it to where the Border Patrol had its checkpoint before I dived into the illegal U-Turn slot built there, but only for police use. I waved at the agents who stood by doing nothing except watching us. I took off for San Clemente but kept the speed down. The Caprice had shown me all I needed to know about it and I could explore the outer edges of its driving envelope later at my leisure, without scaring Richard, or anybody else, to death.

As we approached the police lot I looked up to see a distant cloud that seemed to be rolling up from the south. I watched the cloud moving toward us as I phrased a question I’d been thinking about since Richard told me the car was mine.

“Richard, I was once given a special handgun and told that I’d need it sometime in the future. I never needed to use it and that future never came. Is this the same sort of thing? I’m given this specially prepared and quite wonderful car with that same thing in somebody’s mind?”

“Yet,” Richard answered as I shut the smaller but ungodly powerful motor down. “You were told you would need it sometime in the future. There’s plenty of future left.”

“Oh,” was all I could think to say. Richard walked away and disappeared into the back entrance of the station. Gularte stood next to the Bronco, waiting for me. I had a lot to tell him, since he was one of the very few I’d already entrusted with too much.

“In for a penny, in for a pound,” I breathed out, making sure to lock the Caprice and put the keys in my pocket.

Richard had said that the license plates were in the trunk. I wondered what else might be in the trunk but I wasn’t going to open it in front of anyone else. The surprises were still coming at me at full speed and it was either duck and cover or charge into the breach. Ducking and covering seemed a better way to go until I could figure out what was going on. Either way, as I’d inhaled the wonderful new car smell of the Caprice. I’d made a simple decision. I wasn’t giving it back. Maybe that decision is the one the agency wanted as a closing presentation. If it was, then they’d succeeded.

I walked to where Gularte stood facing me. I noticed now that there was a constant wind blowing in my face, and the air seemed to be hotter than it usually was.

“What the hell is that?” I asked Gularte, pointing a bit upward over his left shoulder.

“Brush fire,” Gularte concluded, “but that’s one hell of a huge one. We better get over to it. I don’t hear any fire engines going code three yet so call it in while we’re on the way.”

We both jumped into the Bronco and took off. I grabbed the department microphone, not even bothering to fasten my seat belt in my haste. I didn’t call the fire department, which was only doors from where we’d stood, instead reaching out to Bobby Scruggs to get hold of them right away. I told him we were headed up Presidio onto Salvador and then along the utility access and to stand by for more reports as we encountered the fire.
Smoke was the biggest problem. Gularte drove uncharacteristically slow because there were so many cars coming out of the smoke clouds filled with residents running from whatever conflagration had to be frightening them.

“Hit the utility access road right there,” I yelled, pointing. “Salvador runs parallel to this thing so the homes on both sides are probably all ablaze by now, by the size of these clouds. Let’s see if we can do anything further east. I can’t remember the name of that street, but it runs perpendicular to the fire’s line of travel.”

Smoke, ash, and cinders flew as Gularte bounced the Bronco along the rough rutted road until we hit pavement again. We drove north, homes, only built on the east side of the street, were burning intensely. We both closed our windows.

“Up ahead, there’s got to be a point the fires haven’t reached yet,’ I yelled, as needless in the small confines of the closed-in Bronco as the pointing I was doing. We had no other direction to go as there’d be no going back through or into the heart of the inferno we were trying to leave behind.

“Never seen anything like this,” Gularte yelled back.

“You don’t get to see anything like this or be inside it, and live I guess,” I replied, scared but not terrified by what was going on all around us. The A Shau was right with me, the canyon walls replaced by fire ‘cliffs’ to my right and smoke ‘cliffs’ to my left.

Suddenly we were out of the smoke and fire, as if we’d been flying through a thick cloud and then breaking through to clear air.

“Pull over,” I ordered.

Gularte pulled into the front yard of the home I was pointing at. There was a ladder leaning against the north wall of the house extending up past the roof’s gutter. A garden hose lay coiled near the bottom of it.

I jumped out of the Bronco and ran to the base of the ladder, Gularte quickly joining me.

“What are you thinking?’ he asked, as I stopped to survey the situation.

“I’m going up to the top of the roof, right near its apex, with the hose on full. You feed it up to me as I climb. From there I can spray the side of the house and the house next door if the pressure’s strong enough. I can stop the fire in its tracks since it’s going from house to house like dominos falling.”

“You’re an idiot, let the fire department handle this. We’re cops, not firemen.” Gularte yelled over the sound of the approaching fire with sirens in the distance and Bobby Scruggs trying to make himself heard over the radio. I’d hit the switch to put his transmission through the vehicle’s outside speaker but whatever he was saying was unintelligible.

“We’re here and they’re not,” I replied, climbing slowly up the ladder holding the hose nozzle thanking God that the ladder was made of wood.

At least I wasn’t likely to be electrocuted. The smoke, although not impenetrable, made everything hazy and hard to make out beyond a distance of more than a few feet.

“Turn on the pressure and feed the hose up to me now. Turn it on full.” I shouted

I got to the top edge of the roof and stepped onto its slope, which wasn’t too steep. I leaned down and in, working my way to the top, the hose beginning to squirt out the tip of its nozzle.

The house next door wasn’t burning, not that I could see. I began spraying up and down the roof of the house I was on. The water pressure was excellent. I shot a stream across the distance to the home beyond and was able to put some water onto it as well. My plan was working.

“I’m getting it,” I yelled back to Gularte, wishing I’d grabbed and pinned on one of our miniature body radio units.

There was no way he was going to hear me so I stopped trying. I continued to shower the top of the roof, glad it was made of composite tiles rather than wooden shake roof shingles. I looked down as the smoke cleared a bit from my spraying, just as a tongue of white yellow, and red fire shot through the side of the garage window, blowing it out. I was amazed as there seemed to be no fire inside the house since I’d begun my firefighting efforts. I directed my hose down to spray the window when I saw it. The fire had engulfed an overly large propane tank set next to the side of the garage wall.

I lay looking up at the smoky sky before trying to move. What had happened? One second I was working on the roof and the next I was somewhere else. I craned my head around. I was lying trapped, back down atop and partially inside a big bush.

“I’m coming lieutenant,” Guarte screamed from below and to the side of where I lay.

I tried to move and quickly realized that my arms and legs were okay. I touched my face, which seemed okay except I couldn’t feel any hair where my eyebrows had been. I was smooth-faced and the fact that I was thinking about that bothered me. There was more important stuff to consider but I couldn’t seem to concentrate enough to figure out what those things might be. I was having some difficulty breathing but not too bad. Hands began pulling at me from what seemed like all directions.

“Something in the house next door blew up,” Gularte was saying from very close by, to someone I couldn’t see, as my head didn’t seem to want to turn to either side. “The fire’s out. The explosion blew both houses up but put out the fire. He saved the day.”

I was on a gurney, just like the one I’d been on when the chopper had landed at First Medical in Da Nang. I was being rushed into the back of a truck. Needles were being plunged into me along the way until everything grew hazy, lazy, and soft.

“You’re going to be okay,” a voice said, the person’s face no more than three inches from my own.

I closed my eyes, trying to understand what had happened, but the explanation wouldn’t come.

“Get him to San Clemente General right the hell now or you’re going to be handing him over to the coroner.”

I tried to open my eyes. It was like being in the chopper flying from the Go Noi Island to the aid station. I tried to open my eyes to let everyone on the chopper know I was still alive and not to toss me out to gain altitude.