The beach was abandoned, at the point where it preceded south from the state beach but not yet a part of the Trestles Beach portion. There the point stuck out into the ocean to create the conflicting broken sea environment that led to sometimes legendary surf, which broke massively in unexpected and challenging directions. Herberich had been right where I’d expected him to be at the three o’clock time I’d given. I wondered how long he’d been there waiting. There was no end to the enthusiasm and energy that rookies could bring to any police scene, as long as that energy and enthusiasm was directed in such a way as to produce service to the public and peaceful resolutions to problems that didn’t seem to have those available to them.
The potential crime scene, where the towels and other materials had been carefully placed, was gone. Even the evidence of where the stuff had been was lost because of the constant wind and blowing spindrift. That substance the wind inherited from what blew off the top of the incoming waves of some considerable size was detrimental to anything left lying around on the shifting surface of the sand. It was a tough afternoon, at least for anyone not wanting to encounter elements that are not often advertised about a beaten shore situation. Any evidence tapes or indication that the authorities had been present was also gone. I explained the situation as I had witnessed it earlier, to both Steed and Herberich.
“Spread out and comb the area up through the growth leading to the big rocks guarding the rail tracks, and then on the other side.”
While Herberich and Steed moved slowly back and forth up and down the beach, I walked through the brush and weeds that protruded out from the rock barrier between the sand and the railroad tracks. I didn’t search. I needed time at the scene to take it all in. I eased down uncomfortably on one of the polished steel rails, looking both ways up and down the tracks, aware that there were no trains due. There was no way to come down the cliff, not without equipment, which meant that the Marines, or the humans carrying their stuff, would have had to approach from either south, from the direction of the compound, or from the state beach half a mile to the north, and there was no way anyone came through the compound beach area without being under surveillance from the sources within the complex. Reviewing that material, mostly to rule that route of entry out, would likely result in the state beach being the more logical, evident and private means of egress to the site.
“The state beach parking lot,” I said out loud to no one at all.
With no real investigation under way, as of yet, it was unlikely that the beach lot would have been searched for a vehicle that never moved, even though parking there was free. The beach closed at midnight every night, but the campers could stay without limits on time. There was no patrol of the lot either, as San Clemente had no contract to do much of anything on state land, unless a criminal complaint was made and referred formally. Herberich walked up to me, staring down the tracks toward the state beach.
“There’s nothing in the sand or the growth along the rocks, and nothing on the other side of the tracks either,” he said, scratching his blond hair-covered head.
“Kind of thought,” I replied, still thinking about how I might be able to acquire surveillance footage from the guys at the compound to see if access had been made through the compound from the Trestles Beach area.
“That leaves the tracks,” he said, after a few seconds.
“Tracks?” I asked, not understanding.
“They sure as hell didn’t walk all that way on the deep dry sand or along the edge of the spent wave edges in these rough conditions,” he replied.
“That means they walked along the tracks, whether it was the three supposedly missing men or those who deliberately placed the towels and junk here.”
I looked up at Herberich and reflected on the simple logic of his conclusion, and how I, sitting on a rail, hadn’t thought to search the rails that anyone walking up or down the beach for any distance, and carrying something, would be foolish not to use as the path of least resistance and trouble. I got up to see Steed standing by the Bronco located closer to the surf line.
“Tell Rick to drive to the state beach, while you and I go to work and walk the tracks,” I told Herberich.
When Herberich climbed over the rocks to approach the Bronco I got up and stared down at the treated wooden ties, the rough gravel they were set deep into, and the tracks that appeared more like silver threads disappearing toward San Clemente rather than the polished tops of aged, hardened and polished steel. A plan was forming in my mind. Search the rails, first north, and then south, and then check the parking lot up at the state park for an abandoned vehicle. At that point, if finding nothing, then make a risky attempt to access the surveillance data the Marshals and Secret Service, and God knew who else, might have stored at the compound. Whoever had put the towels and other junk down had to have come from one direction or the other. Herberich came back and we started our walk, I up near the cliff face and he on the other side of the tracks close in to the big rocks that guarded the railroad from intrusions of high tide and big surf.
We were halfway to the state beach path when Herberich stopped and held up one hand, closed to make a fist, as if to signal in silence during a jungle maneuver. I stopped.
“There,” he whispered across the tracks and back toward me. He pointed downward near one of the ties.
“There’s something,” he followed, dramatically.
I moved to join him and looked down to see what he was seeing.
“It’s a pen,” I said, my forehead wrinkled in question.
“It’s a pen, only a pen,” I breathed out in frustration. I’d been so hoping for a major clue.
“It’s a United States Government pen,” Herberich answered.
I peered down, neither of us making any attempt to touch the black object.
“You’re correct,” I replied, the wheels turning in my mind. “Who in hell would be moving along the railroad tracks, and then bend over and drop a shiny and nearly new government pen.”
I moved closer to the object and read the tiny U.S. government stamping on the ballpoint pen’s side. I carefully grasped the pen by the very tip and slipped it into my chest pocket. There’d be prints on the shiny surface. Somebody’s partial prints would have to appear on such perfectly pristine and hard surfaces.
“You’re right, and my thinking was wrong, Herberich,” I said, turning to see where Steed was with the Bronco. I didn’t have to look long or far, as I watched Steed turn the Bronco toward the pounding surf in order to somehow back up through the space cleared on both sides of the tracks between the giant rocks and onto the state park path main passage.
“What in hell is he doing?” I said, more to myself than Herberich.
The distance was too great and the sound coming from the roiled ocean waves too loud for there to be any possibility of Steed hearing me, even using the radio. Steed was brand new to the Bronco and leaving him to drive it had been a mistake, as was being graphically made clear to me. The Bronco was sideways, about to pull itself backwards toward the opening when a huge wave broke just offshore of it, swept underneath the body, and literally lifted it off the sand. The Bronco slowly turned, and then, facing out to sea, began to slowly head into the surf, as one wave after another struck its bumper, then its grill and finally its hood. I gently pulled the pen we’d found from my pocket and handed it over to Herberich.
“Keep this away from the ocean,” I said, “there’s got to be prints on it.”
I ran toward the Bronco, leaping up on the rocks and over, down onto the sand. I was next to the vehicle in seconds. The Bronco was in the waves. When I got to the driver’s door I immediately pulled it open. Rick Steed was trying to restart the engine, even as waves broke over the hood and slammed directly into the vehicle’s flat windshield. I pulled at Steed’s left upper arm and jarred him loose from what he was trying to do. “Get out,” I yelled into his exposed left ear, and then clutched my arms around his upper chest and pulled.
“You’ll just pump water into the carburetor and that’ll be it.”
Steed slid from the vinyl seat and fell sideways into the surf-beaten sand, before climbing to his feet in shock. I pushed him once in the direction of the dry sand.
“Get the hell out of here and call Bobby,” I intoned into his right ear.
Steed staggered through the smaller breaking waves and clambered onto the drier but still wet sand. I followed him up.
“Call Bobby on your portable and let him know we need the beach crew with the tractor to save the Bronco,” I said, my mouth not three inches from his right ear.
“Got it, commander,” Steed breathed out, sinking to the sand in order to recover himself.
He pulled his chest-clip mounted Motorola unit to his lips. I didn’t hear what he said, instead rushing back to the battered and abused Bronco, bouncing a bit when struck by incoming waves.
“Make sure you tell them I was driving, and that I’m still at the wheel,” I yelled back at Steed, not wanting such a new rookie to take the heat, while also knowing deep down, as well, that firing me for ditching the Bronco would be unlikely, if not impossible, by either the department or the Western White House personnel at the present time.
I staggered through the Bronco’s driver door that was gaping open, ocean water trying to make its way further into the interior of the vehicle. I clambered onto the driver’s seat, but didn’t do anything to start the engine, hoping only that I still had battery power. Low voltage but high amperage battery power should still be available, I knew, as sea water, a powerful conductor of alternating current, was lousy at conducting direct current. I turned on the windshield wipers with the ignition switch. The wipers worked. I immediately turned them off. I had power. Help would be coming, I knew, but the engine of the Bronco would not likely be saved, because the tractor would be at least half an hour in reaching us. I was certain the front hubs had been turned to give the Bronco four-wheel drive, even though the type of four-wheel drive really meant only two-wheel drive, the wheels with the least traction doing the turning, not that it mattered since all four wheels were half submerged in the sand and rapidly moving water. I put the transmission into neutral, then reached past that gearshift lever to grab the shorter lever. I had to work the lever back and forth as quickly and strongly as I could. Finally, as I worked away, the gear pulled back and the vehicle was in low register. I pushed in the clutch and shifted the transmission into low reverse.
Reverse gear was actually the lowest ratio gear in the Bronco and that fact, coupled with the four-wheel low register just might give me a chance. I let up on the clutch, prayed, and waited. The starter’s power to move the vehicle would be extremely limited, short in time and weak in power. I waited, hanging my head out of the open driver’s window, watching the surf because the windshield was constantly awash in water and foam from the waves breaking onto the hood. I waited, like I was waiting to catch a giant wave while surfing at Waimea Beach in Hawaii. The surf wasn’t that large, but its occasional larger size was all that was likely to save the Bronco, our jobs and just about everything else I had going. One big wave, bigger than all the rest, reared up before my eyes, I held my hand wrapped tightly around the ignition key. When the wave struck, I turned the key clockwise all the way. The Bronco jumped upward slightly from the starter’s engagement, and then the big wave struck, pounding the vehicle backwards, and my face into the top arc of the steering wheel. I pulled back in pain but couldn’t react in any other way except to shut off the ignition, as I knew I’d only have an instant and one more chance once the wave finished its pushing action up the beach. The Bronco floated loose from the sand but quickly re-contacted it, although still slightly moving up the shallow slope. I hit the ignition switch again, my foot on the brake but not pressing down.
The Bronco came to a halt as the wave began to fall back and away. The Bronco stuttered backwards up the slope for a couple of body lengths before it stopped. I turned the ignition off again, and then pushed down hard on the brake pedal, trying to breath in and out through my mouth, as my nose had taken quite a hit on the steering wheel. The waves no longer struck the Bronco. I stuck my head out the window and called to Herberich and Steed, who both were standing only a few feet away.
“Push,” I yelled, before turning back and waiting.
The battery would regenerate a slight charge I knew, if I was lucky. When both men were pushing hard on the front of the Bronco I keyed the ignition again. The vehicle moved backwards but only about a full body length. Quickly, I jammed the transmission into neutral. The momentum and pushing from the front gained another length. I put the emergency brake on and exited the vehicle.
“Can we start it now?” Steed asked, as the progress we’d made allowed for the Bronco to be sitting on hard wet sand, the waves only reaching up to the lower portions of its front tires.
“Not a chance,” I replied. “At the lifeguard headquarters we can pull the carburetors and intake manifold to get any water out of the cylinder tops. Water doesn’t compress, not easily anyway. Any water in the cylinders and the heads will cause the block to blow, and then we’re toast.”
“Wouldn’t the department just buy another one?” Herberich asked.
“Not on your life,” I replied, knowingly. “The department doesn’t own the Bronco, the feds do, and nothing there happens quickly. By the time they got around to replacing it, we’d all be long gone, and the beach patrol disbanded.”
I didn’t mention the recent case of the missing Marines. The compound personnel might have an opportunity to get rid of the whole affair, if that’s what they really wanted, by having a perfectly rational reason to disband the beach patrol. In reality, I knew that the Western White House, if that happened, would simply let me go and the reserves would be absorbed by the police department for regular street patrol. There seemed no point to go into any of that with my trainees, however.
One of the caterpillars normally used for daily beach sweeping and cleaning made its way along, atop the sand berm, its diesel belching black smoke and the clanking of its steel cleats unmistakable for anything other than for what it was.
Steed stepped toward the Bronco, but I called him back, as I moved up toward the giant rocks. Bob Elwell, the lifeguard I’d encountered at lifeguard tower zero, was riding on the back of the machine, wedged in behind Billy and Lester, the beach maintenance crew. He waved, with his usual great smile. It was good to see him and, other than Gularte and Chuck Bartok, the closest I had to a friend in the area.
The Bronco no longer needed to be extracted, only towed away. Billy ran a chain to the tractor and then rotated the locking hub on each front wheel to disengage the four-wheel drive. It took him only seconds to put the lock the steering wheel with a rope and make sure the thing was in neutral before towing it away. He and Lester left Elwell behind and headed for the lifeguard headquarters.
“Well, well, well,” Elwell commented, “so Ford doesn’t make a model that floats.”
I laughed, as best I could, as I liked the man and there didn’t seem to be a nasty bone in him.
“Can we keep it at the headquarters, have Mitch from the yard come down and make sure the engine’s good to go?” I asked.
“I’m not the chief, the captain or even a lieutenant,” Bob replied, “but Byerly, the captain probably wouldn’t mind. I presume that you want the thing up and running as quickly as possible because there’s no way the chief is going to let you guys use one of our few prized Jeeps.”
“You able to call up one of those prized Jeeps to take us all in?” I asked, seeing as it was either a four mile, or so, walk on a rough beach without a path or using the railroad ties for getting back to the headquarters. I didn’t want to walk to the compound or a call a unit to meet us at the state park or Calafia Beach.
“Already on the way, although it’ll be a tight fit,” Bob replied, with a smile.
The yellow Jeep came into view just as he finished his sentence, blasting along at full speed atop the lengthy wide sand berm that ran between the raging sea and the big rocks guarding the tracks.
Steve Bro, another guard, pulled up in front of us, also smiling widely. I realized there was going to be no end to the gallows humor about the incident, and that my position, as the admitted driver, was going to take some explanation to someone at some time. We rode back, Steve and Bob in the front and us crammed into the flat bench seat across the back just behind them. There were no seat belts and no mercy from Steve Bro driving the Jeep like a wild man, passing the Caterpillar towing the Bronco along the way like it was standing still. The only good thing was that it was a short ride with him at the wheel.
Captain Byerly met us, as Bob had somehow figured. He was a tall man with an elegant mustache and slicked back hair, not lifeguard-like at all. The guards were all tough young conditioned men, and a couple of women, with little or no elegance and certainly no facial hair. Although the captain turned out to be something different than anybody’d expect, he was very accommodating and nice. The Bronco would have a stall inside the building where Mitch could do the magic that Mitch was capable of doing. I was relieved but had to get home, get changed and get to the compound. Steed mentioned on the ride back, rollicking as it was, that there’d been a radio communication just before the Bronco went into the surf.
“I didn’t understand it,” Steed had said. “What does ‘see the man’ mean, really, and who was the message from?”
There was no point bringing Rick up to speed about the special radio situation or the compound in the short time I had, so I ignored the information, but knew I couldn’t ignore reacting to it.
Before I could consider getting a ride to the station, and then rushing home to change clothes and talk to my wife, Gularte showed up, coming slowly through the double gates in a Dodge cruiser. When he pulled up I couldn’t believe it.
“Who let you out alone?” I asked, as he was still a reserve and still in training.
“I’m not alone,” he replied, his perfect white teeth flashing in a smile. “I’m partnered with you, since you have no wheels now.”
“Bad news travels fast,” I replied, my mind racing.
I had to call Mitch and get him to work, then see my wife and get proper clothing to visit ‘the man,’ and also protect the pen Herberich had found, and finally take care of the reserves I had in training.
“Thanks Bob, Steve and Captain Byerly,” I said, as quickly and kindly as I could, before turning to Steed and Herberich. “You guys are in the back seat, as I’m not going to have a duty weapon or equipment, so that’s what you are.”
“Which is which?” Gularte asked, innocently, and I could not help laughing, and also loving the man.
Once home I changed quickly, filled in my wife about the pen and was about to leave before she stopped me, took me to the kitchen and gave me a plastic bag.
“For the pen, for the prints on the pen and for the trouble you’re getting yourself and us into,” she said, although her tone was neither negative nor scolding.
“What happened to your nose?” she asked, handing me a paper towel.
“Hit it in the steering wheel,” I replied. “It’s a long boring story.”
“Why do I doubt that?” she answered, before turning away
Once back in the cruiser I told Gularte to get me to the compound as quickly as possible, and then transferred the pen from Herberich’s pocket to the plastic bag.
I hoped there’d be no delay at the gate to the compound, as we were carrying three officers who’d never been cleared by security, but that turned out to be no problem at all. The guards were Marines I’d experienced before. The gate came up without comment and was accompanied by a stiff salute from each Marine.
Haldeman sat at his desk, just as always when he was in, his long sleeve shirt, in light blue with the collar tips held down by little white buttons, just as always. Somewhere there had to be a coat, I knew, because dress codes around the president were pretty strict for supporting personnel, exclusive of people as low on the totem pole as I was. The president, hadn’t even really noticed that I was nearby, much less had spoken to me.
“You were out there on the beach with two of those others of your tribe or pride or whatever you call yourselves,” Haldeman said, without looking up.
I was stunned. The compound had surveillance in video all the way out to where we’d been checking out the beach area. That had to mean that someone inside the complex had video of what had happened with the three Marines, unless it was in the middle of the night, and whatever starlight scope technology they were using didn’t have that kind of distance capability. Our starlight scopes in the valley, as vital and as important as they’d been, could only be effective to a hundred meters, or maybe two hundred under optimal conditions. The ‘beaten ground’ where the Marines effects were found was many times that distance. It wasn’t likely that the cliff tops along the way, privately owned or state owned would have federal equipment mounted up on them, but anything at the moment seemed possible.
“Cat got your tongue?” Haldeman asked, leaning back in his executive chair, placing his hands behind his head with elbows spread wide to the point that I could see he’d failed to button the tiny buttons that held the shirt sleeves together above his wrists.
I hated those buttons on my own shirts, but never failed to button them.
Haldeman looked me directly in the eyes, a fake smug smile plastered across his face, no doubt enjoying my realization that the compound had watched everything we did without our having any idea. There was nothing to be said, so I waited for him to get to whatever point he was trying to make. I did notice out of the corner of my eyes, although my focus remained glued to Haldeman, that Ehrlichman was paying close attention, his own elbows on his desktop with his hands holding up his chin.
“Find anything, Sergeant Friday?” Haldeman asked.
“Yes,” I replied, lightly, “and they’re reserve officers, not natives or cats, sir,” I replied, wondering why I was taking any chances with the dangerous man whatsoever.
Haldeman’s hands came down to his desk as he leaned forward, the smile disappearing form his face and a flat dead expression replacing it. Ehrlichman’s hands came down to his desk at the same time. I wondered immediately if I shouldn’t have remained silent, but it was too late for that.
“What?” Haldeman asked, this time looking briefly away from me to over where Ehrlichman sat.
“This,” I replied, taking the plastic bag with the pen inside and holding it out in my right hand.
Haldeman leaned forward quickly and grabbed the bag before I could really react. I knew I’d made my second mistake. I should never have brought out the object, instead just described it.
Haldeman stared through the clear plastic, not an evidence bag but the one I’d gotten at home from my wife, as I was not part of any approved investigation or anything else on the matter that I referred to as a case, although I didn’t think anyone else either felt that way or would use that term.
“John, it’s a U.S. Government pen,” Haldeman said, once more facing Ehrlichman rather than me.
“Where did you find it?” Ehrlichman asked, telling me he hadn’t seen any video of us, or possibly because the surveillance could only reach so far and Steed, Herberich and I’d walked a good distance up the tracks to a place not far from where the path came down from the state park.
“Here it is,” Haldeman said, having quickly opened up the amateur evidence bag and, with his bare hand grasping it, leaning to his left to hand the pen to Ehrlichman.
I was dumbfounded. Haldeman was anything but stupid or inexperienced. He had to know what he’d just done, but I also knew that my mistakes in being in front of both men had just been compounded by many degrees.
Ehrlichman passed the pen back to Haldeman who held it out to me.
I took it, but ignored the plastic bag he shoved after it. The bag didn’t matter anymore as there were no prints to be protected.
“What’s your conclusion, detective?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied, as if I didn’t have a clue, allowing no anger, disappointment or anything else to give away my true feelings through facial expression.
“It’s a government pen,” Haldeman said, after a few seconds. “A whole lot of government people use the beaches around here so I wouldn’t make much of it.”
“I’d turn that thing over to Cliff, if I was you,” he went on, before looking over at Ehrlichman once again.
Ehrlichman made like he was working on reading some paper in front of him, however.
I knew the interview, or whatever it’d been, maybe a warning but delivered in such a fashion that it could never be found to be that, was over. I wasn’t about to turn the pen over to the Chief or the acknowledge the fact that I’d found it or even possessed it. I felt that somehow Haldeman knew that too and wouldn’t mention it to him either.
When I left, I walked the long hall alone, then went through the thick door into the parking lot but there was no police car waiting for me. The car was gone.
I couldn’t believe it. I moved slowly toward the gate, looking everywhere, as if I’d somehow missed seeing the big black and white Dodge.
The corporal at the gate saw me coming.
“They had a call, sir,” he said. “They said they’d be right back.”
I was stunned. Three rookies loose in San Clemente, with two of them probably still locked into a back seat where the doors could only be unlocked from the outside, being driven around by a combat-toughed brilliant madman. I walked back to the big doors to the compound but didn’t attempt to get in. There was a bench nearby. I sat down to wait and contemplate the mess of my life. It wasn’t the A Shau Valley and it wasn’t the hospitals following that, so I felt a sense of relief, but my life was mostly a mixed up mess just beyond and above those two awful states.