The seat in the Lear Jet was hypnotically comfortable and, as the pilot or pilots, since I could not see forward of the canvas between us, pushed the engine controls to maximum, I breathed deeply and went to sleep. The level of exhaustion I felt could not be held off any longer nor the fact that I’d eaten only one cheeseburger in two days without sleep. I wanted to think about San Clemente, the Dwarfs meeting again, Steed, and all of what that might be but none of that could happen until I was recovered.

“Orange County,” a voice near to my left ear said, startling me into full wakefulness.

“Are we landing?” I asked, groggily, trying to get my bearings.

“We’re on the ground in the hangar, so take your time,” the voice said, as I stared into two large perfect blue eyes. A young woman wearing a well-tailored but nondescript blue uniform eased back up from her forward-leaning position.

I unclipped my seatbelt, feeling a bit disappointed. I’d taken my first ride ever in a Lear Jet, the jet dedicated to my travel alone, and I had no memory at all of the flight. Another young woman came out from behind the canvas cover leading to the cockpit.

“Thank the pilots,” I murmured.

“We’re the pilots,” the young woman who’d awakened me said, laughing while she said it.

“There’s a police car waiting by the cabin door to pick you up,” the woman said, as I stood, rubbing my head in embarrassment about being a rather obvious misogynist, which I wasn’t really, but had seemed to be one for a few seconds.

I grabbed my bag, which seemed about the same size and density as I’d left when I’d gotten aboard.

“Do I have to sign anything or pay you something?” I asked, never having flown on a private jet before.

The woman pulled a piece of paper from her pocket and unfolded it.

“You’ve already paid, apparently,” she said, turning the paper so I could read the brief cargo notation, date, departure, and arrival locations.

In the large ‘Cargo Contents’ space was a short, typed phrase that read: “Legal Tender.”

I wanted to ask her what the words meant, as I whispered them repeatedly under my breath, but the young woman had walked to the front of the plane and rezipped herself into the cockpit. How could any living being be termed to be ‘legal tender’ and what could that possibly mean?

“Legal tender means cash,” I said, stopping where I was in the aisle, hunched over from its low interior ceiling being just under my standing height.

Why was there a cargo manifest accompanying a plane that was only configured with six passenger seats inside the cramped cabin? I opened my small bag and checked the contents.

“Legal tender,” I repeated as, upon opening, I immediately saw a bare pack of banded hundred-dollar bills. There were eight bundles of them I noted. I was now getting used to some of the cash transfers that were much more common to the Western White House and the CIA than I would ever have believed. There was a note held under the big rubber band holding the mass together. I pulled it out.

“She’s going to need some cash to ‘bridge’ the gap,” the short sentence read, written in rough cursive.

I didn’t know Matt’s handwriting, but I presumed the note was written by him.

I sat down again in the seat next to the open cabin door. I saw through the opening that the black Marauder was parked next to the Lear on the tarmac waiting. I had to think for a few seconds, still only half awake.

Once again, I was being trusted without comment or question. How could I be expected to either deposit the money to Kathy Steed’s account, which I’d opened with my own money, or give it directly to her in cash? Why weren’t the people in the system saying to themselves; ‘what’s our protection from him just taking the money and saying he delivered it?’ Why was I being so openly trusted, along with Matt, again? It didn’t seem to make much sense.

I went down the cabin steps and over to the Marauder, as the passenger door flipped open with Gularte leaning out.

“Traveling in style, are we?” he asked, a big grin on his face.

The engines started, one after the other, on the Lear and the steps retreated up into it. Once the door was closed the plane slowly eased away, the pilots through the small forward windows were invisible because of the sun shining on the dark-filtered glass.

Once inside the car, I didn’t have to close the door, as Gularte chirped the rear wheels in taking off. The door slammed, as I shook my head. Some of his antics I hated but I knew I was going to miss having such a loyal friend nearby and always there when I needed him most.

I directed Gularte to head for the bank in San Juan Capistrano where I’d opened Kathy’s account. I wanted to be rid of the eight grand as quickly as could be, not because of temptation but because I was uncomfortable with whatever was going on following Steed’s death. Matt’s knowledge, and the addition of eight grand in cash to Kathy’s account, meant that somehow the CIA was involved, not necessarily in Rick’s death but in knowing what happened. The CIA didn’t strike me as an organization that was overly sympathetic to new widows, no matter what the circumstance. And where was Kathy in the whole thing, just having lost her husband and then the weird circumstance of the life insurance proceeds being transferred by her? The check from Mass Mutual had been made out to her personally, the only beneficiary on the policy.

The drive to San Juan took only minutes at the Marauder’s triple-digit speed.

Once at the bank I got out and instructed Gularte to wait and to wait in some area not pulled right up to the bank’s front door.

I walked into the lobby and looked around, not taking my pack off. There were several offices along the far wall. I picked the one that had a man in it behind his desk. I didn’t knock as the office door was open.

“I can’t tell you, and you know that. It’s protected information. You opened the account but Kathy’s the only signatory. That doesn’t allow you any privileges at all, except deposit privileges.

“Tom,” I said, softly, staring unblinkingly and deeply into the man’s brown eyes, and waited.

“I know, I know,” Tom finally said.

I waited again, my time as a life insurance agent under Tom Thorkelson and Chuck Bartok keeping me from saying a word. If left in silence, Tom the banker was very likely going to tell me what I desperately needed to know. It took almost a full minute until he swiveled his chair to face a nearby wall.

“She withdrew the money, almost all of it, in the form of a cashier’s check. She was on the phone to a man in Florida from a company called Treasure Salvors, to which the check was made out.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing, once again. I’d been convinced that the CIA was somehow involved, but a treasure-seeking company? Into the silence, Tom made another admission of confidential data he wasn’t allowed to release.

“The man’s name is Mel Fisher.”

“Where’s Kathy?” I asked, for no good reason I could think of.

“Florida,” Tom answered.

Florida, I thought to myself. Where else would a treasure company be based, and quite likely the man who ran it? I got up from my chair and turned to leave, but not before reaching into my back and pulling out the banded stack of cash, which I placed on the broad open part of the desk in front of his gold embossed name tag.

“Deposit to her account, as she’s likely to need some walking around cash soon,” I said. I got to the door before Tom spoke again.

Tom pulled forward, gathered in the package, and then pulled it apart, rapidly counting all the hundred-dollar bills.

“Here,” he said, holding out a thin stack of bills with his right hand. “She wanted you to have your money back, with her thanks.”

I took the hundreds, folded them in half, and put them in my pocket. I turned to walk out of his office.

“Hey, where you going?” he asked.

“Florida,” I replied, and walked through the office door and then out of the bank. Gularte opened the door for me from the inside again, as the Marauder sat burbling away, illegally parked right in front of the bank’s front door.

The drive home was uneventful. I didn’t share anything about my trip to Los Alamos with him except I did let him know the artifact was gone into the U.S. system to governmental laboratories for further study.

“About time, and that’s got to be a relief for all of us.”

I agreed and was going to invite Gularte inside our home when we got there but Herbert’s car was parked right out front. Gularte would impede any discussion Herbert wanted to have with me and there was a lot I needed to know so I waved him off.

“I’ve got Gates’ car for the day,” he said before roaring off, “I’ll come back if you want to go out and have some fun later.”

The Marauder left black marks on the concrete in front of my house as Gularte floored the accelerator.

I went inside, dropped my pack, and nodded to Bozo sitting on the small wing table next to the couch. The cat looked at me quizzically, as was his style, and then turned his head slightly to keep a watchful eye on Herbert, sitting next to my wife on the couch. Both were drinking from mugs set down in front of them which I presumed to be coffee.

“This is one different animal,” Herbert said, looking back at Bozo, sitting no more than a foot from him with his eyes staring into Herbert’s own.

“I thought agents weren’t supposed to have coffee or anything else when visiting personal homes,” I remarked, fatigue setting in so deeply that I knew I shouldn’t sit down, or I’d fall instantly asleep.

All I wanted was a shower and the bed, the brief period of sleep aboard the Lear was not nearly enough to satisfy my body or mind.

“That’s the FBI, not us,” Herbert replied, “and besides, you’re not a suspect.”

“Not yet, anyway,” My wife interjected.

“I came to let you know the plan,” Herbert said, ignoring Mary’s sharp comment.

“I need to go to Florida first,” I blurted out.

Bozo, Herbert, and my wife looked at me, all sitting there and giving me the same unblinking and surprised stare.

I briefly described my talk with Matt, the money going to Florida, and even the eight-thousand-dollar contribution from Matt. Suddenly, I stopped talking. I realized that I wasn’t making a lot of sense and Herbert’s comment in reply came at the same time as Mary’s.

“You’re not going to Florida,” they both said together. Bozo jumped down from the table and disappeared, making his sort of negative comment, or so I presumed.

“You’re both going to Albuquerque with the kids tomorrow. You’ll be staying at the hotel by the airport. You can either fly or drive one of your cars since you must get them there anyway. Whatever the Steed situation is, well, unfortunately, or fortunately, is none of your doing and not the CIA’s business or interest either, no matter what might have happened up to now. Mrs. Steed’s decision about the money, even though you sold her husband the policy, is her affair, and it is private.

“Thank God,” my wife said, under her breath although I could still hear her say the words.

“I don’t want her hurt,” I said, my tone one of deflated resignation, however.

“Nobody does, and there are things you don’t know and may never know,” Herbert said. “Now, you spend three days and nights in Albuquerque, and then come back here to oversee the move, at least your wife does if she’s willing.”

Herbert went silent, turning to look at Mary.

“Of course, Mary replied immediately, “because he’s going to be in training?”

“Yes…sort of,” Herbert replied, looking away. “There’re some parts of his work that have to remain the domain of the Agency itself and nobody else gets to know and that means family as well, unfortunately. Sometimes I don’t get to know things either. It’s simply the way it is. “We’ll step outside, and thanks for the warm welcome and the coffee.”

Herbert stood up and headed for the door but stopped. Bozo sat in front of the door facing him but staring over toward where I still stood.

“Bozo,” I said, frowning.

Bozo got up and walked across the living room toward the kitchen where his water and food bowls were located.

“Strange animal, as I said,” Herbert remarked, heading outside.

I followed him out, wondering about the same two words my wife inside was also probably rolling around inside her intelligent brain, but I said nothing. We’d come outside for a reason and that reason was all his.

“In my car, this house has ears,” he said, pointing needlessly at his vehicle.

Once inside, with the doors closed and the windows up he began to talk.

“On the fourth day you’re flying to Seoul, Korea,” Herbert began, before taking a breath and staring out through the windshield, continuing as if he was reading the rest from the inside of the glass. “When you arrive there, you’ll be greeted by the former U.S. Ambassador to the newly formed country, Namibia. You’ll proceed with him to where there’s an American school for American kids of financial worth, usually kids of those civilians working at U.S. companies in that country. The world has hundreds of those private schools around the globe which you likely don’t know about, at least until now. You’ll meet with the head of that school and the three of you will come up with the creation of a company, or series of companies that will allow for the kind of entry and exit to other countries without suspicion that the CIA rather desperately needs.”

He stopped talking so I waited, but nothing more came.

“What’s the rest?” I asked.

“The rest of what?” Herbert replied.

“Like what new company or companies are going to be created and where will they be located and who will staff them and when do I come home? Stuff like that?”

“That’s it, that’s the mission,” Herbert said, sounding surprised before going silent for almost a full minute.

“Well?” I finally asked.

“The mission is your first mission, and you have to figure all that out. You don’t need training for this first thing, and it should be well within your purview and experience.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Once again people were making assumptions about me that were either not true, not known, or expected with even the people making those assumptions and giving such orders remaining unknown. Even Herbert was not in on what was truly expected of me or the ‘mission’ as he termed it. It was more like a get-together for three players who didn’t know each other to come up with something tangible, real and important. How could such a meeting come to any kind of success was beyond me.

“When do I come home and where will home be when I do come back and then what about training?”

“When you’re done, and I guess your wife will likely have you moved by then to the house in Albuquerque. I’ll make sure the new Mercedes is delivered while you’re gone.”

“Oh great, another car for Mary to absorb as her own,” I said in exasperation, realizing for the first time just how small a player in everything we were about to pursue with the Agency my control agent was. He was more like a messenger than a manager. “I presume the Chevy will soon be handed down to me.”

“You have to fly economy, by the way, just the rules although I was able to get you moved from the YMCA in Seoul to the Hyatt. No tub but a shower. The ambassador will meet you at Seoul International and take care of all the transportation and such. He talks a lot though, so you’ll have to put up with that. And oh, he gets to be the president of the company or at least one of the companies you guys come up with.”

“The home office really sends out brand new guys to do stuff like this all the time?” I asked, still flabbergasted.

“No, this is very uncommon, I’m told,” Herbert admitted. “Someone somewhere up in the organization has a lot of trust in you.”

“For no good reason, I can figure out,” I said.

“Tickets will be at the counter for your flight out of LAX. Be there on the fourth morning at seven a.m. sharp. There will be a package of stuff to help you. United, the Agency’s preferred airline, will take care of all that.”

“Gee, I thought it’d be Lufthansa,” I replied, trying to be funny.

“No, they don’t fly from LAX to Seoul, Herbert replied without even a smile. “We’re done here, see you when you get back.”

I was dismissed so I got out of the car and closed the door without even saying goodbye. I. was in shock. I’d been to Vietnam and Japan but in neither country had I experienced much of anything of the cultures there or the countryside at all, except for a few very tiny patches. Herbert drove away before I could ask him about the language or cultural stuff, including the currency there that I might need to know about.

I walked back into the living room and confronted my wife, who I knew would have a million questions.

“Get changed and get the kids ready for the beach,” I said before she could ask anything. “I’m going down now so I can try to stay awake. Drive to the main beach, park and then I’ll meet you below lifeguard tower zero, where we usually go. No sense risking the cliff walk or the stairs at “T” Street.”

I changed quickly into my swimsuit, grabbed a towel, and left barefoot. It took only minutes to get to the base of the main pier and park. I no longer had any ability to get through the railroad fence gates so had to park in the big public lot, which early in the morning was nearly empty. Mary would have no problem parking the Chevy close in for the walk with Jules and carrying Mike.

Once down at the normal spot we picked out when going to the main beach I threw my towel down and took the short walk to the pier. I trotted out to the end, avoiding the spots of old splinter-laden wood I could easily spot. I stood on the very end, the restaurant not being open.

A feeling of loss was hanging along with me, like some large flapping cloak behind my back. I could feel it, almost hear it but never see or come to believe it was there. The object, the artifact, was gone and something of myself went with it. I’d never be able to discuss, explain, or truly describe it or its effects and be believed. There was no object in the special aluminum box to be cared for, transported properly, or even feared. I rubbed my left hand with the striations, once again marveling at the fact that it never ached. I’d had the artifact thrust upon me without there being any understanding of what it might be and absolutely no help in dealing with it, even as a confidential repository. I’d kept it, only revealed parts of it very marginally to a very few, and then delivered it, with Gularte’s and Matt’s help, to where I was instructed to deliver it.

There was so much more I wanted to know but once the object disappeared into one of the Los Alamos tech areas there was very little chance I’d ever see it again, much less learn anything more about it. I craned my head around to survey the ocean in both directions, up and down the beach. The artifact had changed me and that change wasn’t reversible. The world I was looking at wasn’t the world I understood it to be, or had understood it to be only months earlier.

Mary would arrive soon. I’d already decided to tell her everything. I couldn’t fly thousands of miles away in mystery or ride along on a series of great lies. I had no idea of what kind of creative minds I might be dealing with when I got to Seoul, but I knew Mary’s quite well, and she might be able to give me something I could use. I wasn’t at my best but there was no way I could get down and rest at home without talking to her first, and away from the surveillance equipment I felt was disguised just about everywhere in the rental, and likely going into the 4416 Magnolia place in Albuquerque right while I was standing where I was.

And what about Steed? What about the Dwarfs? What about our friends? I hadn’t considered that we might be leaving in the middle of the night or ‘on the fourth day’ like in the Bible. God created the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars on the fourth day if my memory was correct. I wondered idly, as I made my way back to the beach, whether anyone in the Agency had the kind of ability it would take to give a mission biblical significance.

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