In the morning I got up early.  My Marine green alpha uniform was all laid out in the other bedroom, the other bedroom that wasn’t Julie’s.  All that was missing was the rows of ribbons I’d removed after being on the base over a month in the past.  I went back into my closet to get those ribbons, all assembled by an outfit that visited the base and did such work for less than twenty bucks.

I pinned the medal representations to the blouse (as Marine Corps coats or jackets are correctly called).  Thirteen ribbons were all put together, with the rows of four and one ribbon in the center at the top.  Six of the ribbons represented medals for valor, which was why the Chief had likened me to Audie Murphy.  Six combat valor medals were a lot, plus the Combat Action Ribbon for just being in combat.  The two expert crossed weapon medals in silver, hung from little silver bars under the ribbons. Two little crossed .45 Colts and two crossed M-1 rifles.  I’d finally received my promotion to First Lieutenant in the mail, along with a set of silver bars.  I pinned those on, glad to finally get rid of the ‘butter bars’ in brass or gold color.  If there were other Marines at the place Gularte and I were going it was very likely I would be the most highly decorated.  Usually, I didn’t like that but this time it was mission related and that made me feel better.  I knew that I would never come to like the medals.  I hadn’t done the things that were written in the citations that accompanied the awards, although I’d done other things not mentioned.  For the first, and quite last, time I’d been awarded them the decorations were finally being put to good use.

I thanked my wife and asked her how I looked.

“Your shoes are still as shiny as ever, but you better not gain any more weight, or you’ll be sending those back to the tailor in Quantico.  Other than that, you’ll do for whatever it is you’re doing.”

That was it, no compliments from my wonderful wife other than “you’ll do.”

Julie ran around the corner from the kitchen and stopped in front of me.  At two, she was ahead of her age for getting around and also for beginning to talk.

“Jimmer pretty,” she said.  Her word for me wasn’t dad or anything like that.

I smiled down at her and was amazed at how she wasn’t put off at all by the green giant dad with colored stuff all over his chest.

I called Gularte at home.  He picked up on the first ring.

“Well?” he answered, as if that was somehow an acceptable way of answering telephone call.

“Uniform, you got it ready to go?” I asked, hoping he did but knowing it wasn’t really required.  I just didn’t want to be the only phony ‘observer’ penetrating base security or any ongoing investigation.

“Of course, lieutenant, Class “B” or “C?”

Gularte calling me lieutenant for the first time was a surprise.  I wondered if he wasn’t simply getting into character for the role I’d asked him to perform.  Class “B” uniform of the normal green alpha outfit, worn under normal work conditions, was the uniform without the coat, or blouse.  Ribbons were worn pinned to the long-sleeved shirt.  Class “C” was the same, except the long sleeves were replaced with short sleeves.  Class “C” was what was normally worn at almost all times on Camp Pendleton grounds.

“C” with ribbons,” I replied, knowing the former sergeant already knew that.

“Roger that, lieutenant,” he replied, his serious tone making me want to tell him to knock it off unless we were in the presence of other Marines.

“When?” I asked, ignoring paying attention to stuff that didn’t matter.

“Meet you at the department parking lot in thirty minutes,” he said, and hung up.

I stared at the phone in my hand.  “Why the department parking lot?” I whispered to myself, very softly.  Maybe the Chief’s off duty Dodge was there.  I almost called him back but decided to run with whatever his plan was.

At the department lot I parked the Volks and got out.  Gularte pulled up right next to me, driving the black unmarked Dodge that was the chief’s private vehicle.  He stepped out, resplendent in his blues, which caused me some concern.  I was in my class “A” greens, and he was in more formal blues.  He was supposed to act as my aide, but the uniform disparity might be a problem, I knew.  Greens were working uniforms but blues were generally not unless is a color guard so something like that.

He walked to the right front fender of the Volks, and then gestured off toward the back of the police department building.  Pat came through the door and walked directly toward where we stood. She carried a small camera in her left hand.

“What the hell?” I asked Gularte, in exasperation.

“She wanted to see us in uniform, like we were, like we still are…sort of,” he replied, weakly.

I got out of the Volks, intending to tell Gularte off, and then chastise him about the wearing of an inappropriate uniform but Pat was all over us, her camera raised and clicking.

“You’re both so beautiful,” she said, causing Gularte and I both to back up a bit.

“Beautiful?” Gularte said, shock in his tone.

“All those ribbons mean you’ve both been to a lot of places, doesn’t it?” she asked, snapping away.

Gularte laughed.  I couldn’t help but join him.

“Yes, that’s true,” I agreed, not wanting to go further into my medals for valor, that I was about to use to get information I wasn’t entitled to.

Civilians, like Pat, had no idea about valor, medals for valor or any distinction between what was worn on veteran’s chests and what they might have done to be awarded them.  Or, in my case, what they might not have done.

Gularte and I got into the Chief’s personal, city provided, unmarked Dodge.  We drove away, and headed for the Avenida Santa Margarita overpass, which we had to take to get to the base gate closest to the city and the only road down into the San Onofre nuclear facility.

“What was that show and tell crap?” I asked him, disturbed about being paraded out, like I was a kid in costume going on stage for my first recital.

Gularte drove the Dodge hard toward the overpass, and then into the gate.  The guards gave us no difficulty in letting us through, once peering into the passenger side of the vehicle and looking at my uniform. A radio transmission came through from Bobby Scruggs just before we headed down the gravel road to the nuclear plant.

“The Chief might file a stolen vehicle report about the fact that his personal department vehicle was stolen,” Bobby sent.

“You didn’t’ get the Chief’s approval?” I asked, turning to face  Gularte, my voice rising at the utterance of every word.  “We stole the Chief’s personal car?”

Gularte didn’t answer, making believe the gravel road we were driving on was demanding his full attention.

“Oh, that’s just great!” I said, bouncing around in my seat.  “Not only are we passing ourselves off as ’whatever,’ we have not one credential for but we’ve stolen the Chief’s personal vehicle?”

I slunk down in my seat, at least as far as my overly tight uniform would allow.
“What’s next, we run for the border?”

“What border? Gularte asked, like maybe he was ready to run for one.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, you’re an idiot,” I replied, not being able to think of anything else to say.  I grabbed the Motorola handset and pushed own on the transmit button.

“We’ve got the Chief’s car, Bobby, and we’re out here on the base looking into the Marines that died.  I don’t know what else to tell you.” I finished and then hung up the microphone on the dash.

“Roger that,” Bobby sent back, as if the kind of thing we were up to was just business as usual.

When we got to the area the bodies were all uncovered.

I squatted down to examine one of the Marines.  There was a white froth exuded from his mouth, that just stayed there, as there was no inhalation or exhalation from the man’s lungs to disturb it.  I stepped to the head of the second boy and saw the same thing, and then the third.

“What’s the white froth?” I asked to an attendant dressed to look like a nurse or doctor going into an emergency room.

She turned from what she was doing, her mask not allowing me to really tell what she looked like.  “Probably sea foam from the wave action,” she said, then turned back to work at the one of the folding tables that had been erected around the scene.

I’d never seen froth like that before in anybody’s mouth near the ocean, no matter what the ocean state but, then again, I had little experience checking out cadavers who’d died from drowning.

There was nothing more to be accomplished on the base, other than to get off of it before anyone figured out we were looking into the deaths without any authorization or backing whatsoever.

The trip to the station went by quickly, until we hit the back parking lot.  The Chief was standing at the door waiting.

“You stole his car,” I breathed out, not having any idea about what to say to the man.

“We stole his car,” Gularte replied.

He parked the car in the only reserved slot near where the Chief stood.

I got out of the passenger side, holding my barracks cover without putting it on.  Gularte did the same.

The Chief held out his hand for the keys, which Gularte handed over without saying anything.

“Next time you take my car would you mind telling me first?” was all he said, before going back inside.

“I think he’s upset with you,” Gularte said.

“Me? You stole his car,” I accused.

“Let’s get home, get changed and out on patrol,” I said. “At least we’ll be working and maybe doing something productive.”

I drove the Bronco through the streets at a speed under fifteen miles per hour and made it the few blocks to where Gularte lived.  He was waiting in his driveway, ready to go.  I stuck to the back streets in the neighborhoods, as we made our way to the lifeguard headquarters.  When we drove through the railroad gates, I noticed civilian vehicles parked behind the building.  There should have been one or two for the guards on late duty but there was half a dozen. I recognized some from the police lot but not who might be driving any one of them. I hadn’t been with the department long enough to learn about who drove what and when.

Gularte wanted coffee at the end of the pier, although it was mid-afternoon.  But then, Gularte wanted coffee all the time and which had to include places to stop to get rid of it.

There were only a few people about, most tourists lazily walking along the quarter mile distance to the restaurant at the end.  As we slowly approached the end many fishermen stood with poles over the side of the sturdy wooden rails.  The rails had wide flat tops so the fishermen could have some of their gear up near them when they fished.

I pulled up to the right side of the restaurant, having noted the big ‘closed’ sign plastered across its door, but saying nothing.

“It’s a special gathering,” Gularte said, when I looked over at him quizzically.

“Special party?” I asked, but Gularte ignored the question, instead getting out of the vehicle, slamming the door, and heading toward the entrance to the restaurant.

“Gathering,” he said, when he passed through the door.

I followed, looking inside as I went.  Pat was seated at the head of a group of tables that had been pushed together near the left side of the place.  At the extended set of tables sat Hoodoo, Herberich, and Steed.

I stopped.  Everyone was looking at me.  Shawna Murphy walked up with a pot of coffee in one hand, having already placed cups in front of everyone seated.

“Coffees on the Chief of Police,” she said, with a big smile.

Pat stood up and moved around the edge of the assembled tables.

“Sorry to surprise you but we wanted to meet without fanfare,” she said, gesturing for me to take the seat at the head of the table.

I didn’t know what to say, although thoughts rolled through my mind like rapidly moving swells of waves getting ready to hit the shore.  Pat pointed at the head of the table; toward the seat she’d just vacated.  I moved to it with trepidation, while Shawna poured black coffee from cup to cup, whether anybody there indicated they wanted it or not.

I looked toward the door, to see the open sign on the single window at its center, which meant that the closed part of the sign was facing outward.
Pat sat down with the rest, all looking at me, standing behind my chair looking back at them.  I knew why they were there, but I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with it.

“There are six of us,” Pat said, gesturing to everyone around the long table.  You, me, Herberich, Steed, Gularte. and Hoodoo. The half dozen, sort of like the Dirty Dozen but only half.”

“Seven,” Shawna said, after everyone in the gathering laughed.

“You’re just a child,” I replied, grudgingly taking the seat I’d been assigned.

“My dad is a fireman, so I was raised tough, and, in this place, I hear a whole lot that might help,” she said, her tone indicating that she was a bit hurt by my comment.

“You’re in,” I said, as if I had any choice.  Shawna was the best and most responsible and dependable babysitter my wife and I’d ever had for Julie, and no matter what, I wasn’t going to lose her.

“I guess that won’t fit with the Dirty Dozen,” Gularte concluded, taking a seat at the other end of the table.  “How about the Seven Dwarfs?”

There was a silence until Shawna replied: “Oh they’re so cute.”

Everyone laughed again, including me, although I was just going along. I looked at the people around the table one after another, only avoiding looking directly into Hoodoo’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Hoodoo said, as if I’d made some comment instead of simply not looking at him.  “I was wrong about you and what I said,” he finished, before tossing three files across the table toward me.  “These are OMPF files on the dead Marines.  Official Military Personnel Files, for those of you not familiar sometimes it’s called a 201 file in the Army.  They’re on loan from a friend of mine on the base.”

I wanted to the grab the files and immediately go through them, but I held myself back.  Those files were likely Confidential, I knew from my attendance in RPS school, although by now they were probably at least Secret in classification.

Just how much trouble was I bringing down on my own head, not to mention those of the other people that were beginning to place confidence and trust in doing, was something I had no idea about.  What I was really doing, I shuddered to think about.

“Thanks,” I replied, willing to accept his apology since I’d received so few in my life, but still reserving judgment about the man.

“I’m with you on this, Doc,” he said.

“Doc?” I blurted out.  Doc was a title given to Navy corpsmen in the Marine Corps.  It was a title of great respect.

“You’re the leader of the Dwarfs,” he added, “the leader of the Seven Dwarfs is Doc.”

Immediately, everyone except me began talking, trying to decide whom would be whom among the dwarfs by reciting the names of those mythical fictional creatures.

Gularte finally stopped the discussion by raising his voice and yelling.

“We’re not here about that, so give it a rest.”

Everyone stopped talking, but Pat finished the discussion by whispering, “He’s Grumpy, and the real leader of the dwarfs was Snow White.”

I swallowed hard, in hearing her words, Doc was the best nickname I’d ever been considered for, but Snow White? I hadn’t much cared for Junior and both Beach Ball and Beach Boy were not much better, but Snow White?  I wondered how many nicknames I’d accumulate as I went into my older years.

Gularte’s face turned red, in considering his own nickname, but before he could say anything I interrupted, hoping to change the subject away from identifying everyone with Disney titles, particularly my own.

“I presume we’re here about the Marines, just as I further presume that you want to have this group be a part of looking into finding out about what happened to them,” I said, without making the questions sound like questions.

I took a swig of my coffee, although I didn’t generally drink it black.  I wasn’t used to leading a group of people back in the real world.  My last commands hadn’t gone so well, either, and the reserves hadn’t really come together as a group, at least yet.  They were merely a bunch of trainee rookies I was working with. I wondered how many nicknames I’d accumulate s I went into my older years.

I looked Hoodoo in the eyes for the first time.  He locked his own eyes into mine, and neither of us blinked…until he sneezed.

“That’s it,” Pat said, “he’s Sneezy,” and the group began to comment, and then laugh some more.

“Ah, can we get back to it?” I asked.  “What are we doing and are you aware that all of us are at a certain measure of risk, career-wise and quite possibly more?”

“Oh, this is really great,” Shawna said, her face a picture of a craven teenage need for adventure.  “You have to be Snow White because the rest of us are the dwarfs.”

“You got dressed up this morning and went to the base,” Pat intoned, not looking at me but the group, casting her gaze up and down the table while she did so.

I got the distinct feeling that, although I was being given the titular head of the group, Pat was really the one who was leading, which didn’t bother me.  I was appreciating the fact that she was helping change the subject.  The same strange behavior of the dwarfs reminded me so much of my units in the valley, where the ridiculous names I gave to missions were extremely popular without any seemingly good reasons.

“What did you find out?” she asked, turning her head to face me, and then waiting.

I replayed the incident in my mind.  The uniforms worked, even though Gularte’s uniform was out of place and there’s no way a sergeant of any rank might be the ‘aide’ to a mere lieutenant. Gularte saluted and identified himself as that, to the point I’d been embarrassed and angry.  When the people at the scene, all of mixed rank from corporal on up to colonel, bought it, however, I came around.  Everyone at the scene was from the division posted to the base.  I’d claimed, without being asked, that Gularte and I were representing the base command structure.  The fact that
I‘d said I was with the base command, changed everything, that and the Colonel on site looked down at my chest, from his over six feet in height.  “Little bit low in rank to be the commanding general’s aide,” the colonel said, still visibly reacting to from my chest full of combat valor ribbons.  I carefully thought about what to say before speaking.

“They all had a heavy white froth in their mouths,” I said, snapping myself back to the present in front of the Dwarfs.  “It’s the one distinctive thing

I noticed, but I’m not a doctor, much less someone experienced in performing autopsies.”

“Could be froth caused by drowning, but I didn’t see it myself,” Hoodoo said, more to himself than the assembled group.  “White froth, really white, that might be cyanide poisoning,” he concluded, looking around at everyone there.  No investigation means no autopsy and no screen for drugs or anything else.  No toxicology will be done, unless I’m wrong and the Marines do this differently than I think they’ve been ordered to do.”

“There’s not going to be an investigation from them,” I added.  “The Colonel said as much when Gularte and I were on the base.  It’s a drowning right now, or three of them, and I don’t think we can do anything about that.”

“Well, one thing,” Hoodoo said.  “There’s the Orange County Sheriff.  It’s likely the deaths give the appearance of having happened on a part of the beach that’s owned by San Clemente.  That part of the beach isn’t state park land.”  He looked around the table meaningfully.

“That means?” Pat asked, not finishing the sentence.

The county sheriff has a lot more power than a local police chief.  Camp Pendleton is in San Diego County, so there’s no help there, but the Orange County Sheriff could launch an investigation if was somehow likely that the deaths occurred on county land, regardless of where the bodies were discovered.”

I realized that my investigative knowledge was severely limited.  I hadn’t even known that the base was located on San Diego County property, which meant that the nuclear plant land was in that county too.  Hoodoo had gotten hold the personnel files on his own and was agreeing to work with the nearly ridiculous self-assembled team calling itself the Seven Dwarfs, of all things.

“You should lead this team,” I said to him, not wanting to surrender leadership but knowing in my heart that he was so much better equipped to do the job.  He was like the Gunny, seemingly just as moody and grim, but he knew what he was doing, and I didn’t.
Hoodoo stood up so quickly I thought he was leaving the restaurant, but he didn’t.  Instead, he stared at each person there individually for a few seconds, finally resting his eyes on me.

“Not one person here, not one soul, better ever call me Snow White,” he said, his voice filled with so much menace that none of us laughed or even smiled.

I felt more than heard the movement of the pier that had to be caused by something heavy striking it or on it.  I turned and looked out the spray-covered picture window.  A lifeguard Jeep sat next to the Bronco.  There was a knock at the door.

Shawna ran to unlock and open the door.

Bob Elwell, the burly tough lifeguard I’d run into several times before, stepped uninvited into the room.

“Got a report that you were closed,” he said to Shawna, while looking suspiciously around at the rest of us.  “What’s going on?” he asked, his voice low and eyes squinting with suspicion.

“Close the door Shawna, and lock it,” I instructed, turning back to look at Hoodoo.  “You want to fill him in?”

“I’m happy to do what I can here, but Snow White has to lead the way,” he replied, with a smile that was as wide as it was sardonically evil.

“You look tired,” Shawna said to Elwell.  “I’ll get you some coffee.  Maybe we can call him Sleepy if he’s okay,” she whispered, walking away.  “There was room for one more dwarf.  It’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

I looked at Bob.  Six feet tall, blond hair, two hundred pounds of grit and muscle that dominated every water polo game he played for fun when he wasn’t guarding.  Some dwarf, indeed.

I quickly filled Bob in about what we were doing there.  He started to smile before I even got near the end of my report about everything that had happened.

“I’m in,” he said, taking a seat next to Gularte.

“I knew it,” Shawna said, plopping a ceramic cup down in front of him and pouring the coffee.

Before I could fill him in about the bodies being found he gave us all his estimate of when and where the bodies would surface.

“Probably tomorrow, somewhere around Capistrano Beach, since the summer current, with the south swell coming in, is always running in that direction.

“The rocks just south of San Onofre,” I said, when he was done talking.

“The rocks?” Bob replied.

“The bodies already surfaced and were cast upon the rocks just beyond the plant,” I said.

“Not likely, the current runs the other way,” Bob replied, looking around him into the silence.  “Oh, that’s why you’re all here.  You don’t think it was a drowning and nobody’s going to look into it.”

I was truly surprised that such a physical specimen, which he certainly was, might be so quick mentally.

I explained the white froth I’d seen in all of their mouths.

“Not possible, really, not from what I’ve seen in all the drownings we’ve had,” Bob said, “The sea washes everything away if they’re in it long enough, and they were in it long enough.”

It struck me, almost like a physical blow.  I reviewed the look all the bodies had.  No swelling or puffing of the tissues pushing out at all.  Froth in their mouths, not washed away.  The Marines hadn’t been in the water for days and nights.  They’d only been in the ocean for a short while.  So where were they before that?

The phone rang, its irritating ringer turned way up to overpower the sound of wind, surf and many people sometimes filling the small restaurant.  Shawna ran for the back, deftly depositing the Bunn coffee pot onto one of the two burners made for it near the door into the kitchen.

She raced back, only seconds later.

“It’s for you I think,” she said, “but they called you Beach Boy.”  She pointed toward the door to the kitchen.

I walked deliberately and steadily, not wanting to take the call, knowing who it had to be.  The phone lay next to the hot grill, its surface clean but hot and ready to cook something with just a few seconds notice, its long springy cord draped over a side table and coiled down on the floor.

I put the old black plastic microphone to my ear and said only one word, “yes.”

“See the man,” the voice said, and then whomever it was at the compound hung up.

They knew where I was, how could that be, the compound was five miles across the water to the south? The surveillance they had was a whole lot more long range and qualitative then I’d estimated.  What did Haldeman want?  Did he know I’d been to the base?  Was he aware that a group was meeting with me at the end of the pier, thrown together like a meeting of the cub scouts or Webelo’s?

I went back to the group.  Hoodoo was opting out of leadership, just like the Gunny, but was in for the game, just like the Gunny.  There was stuff to be done and looked into and I had to proceed like I wasn’t about to be fired or worse in just a few minutes.  I breathed in and out deeply as I walked back to the head of the table.  I realized it wasn’t combat, and nobody was at all likely to die, but Marines had died once again, and we were all they had.

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