I left the Seven Dwarfs at the restaurant, wondering if a group having so much fun forming up to play private investigators, could possibly be at all effective. Gularte drove, while I prepared myself for the coming meeting. I had little doubt that Haldeman was going to be in some sort of rage over my conduct. I’d been foolish to think that my showing up a mile from the compound, playing as a representative of the base commander at Camp Pendleton, wasn’t going to reach his ears. I also knew it should not have mattered at all to him, so why was it very likely that it did?
I thought about my responsibility as the beach patrol commander. I would send Gularte back from dropping me off at my Cabrillo apartment to pick up Steed to be his partner for the shift, replacing me in that role. Neither Herberich nor Steed were suited up for beach patrol work, however, so I instructed him to take Steed home to get into uniform.
“That Shawna, she’s something else,” Gularte murmured as we drove slowly up my street.
I didn’t say anything. Shawna, to me, was a great babysitter and a terrific person to be having as the waitress, and everything else, in the restaurant out at the end of the pier. Other than that, she was a teenager with all the problematic emotions that teenagers live with and go through. All those things ran together.
“She can be Happy,” he said with a laugh, “and she can get her friends together and really give the site where we found the stuff a real going over without anybody suspecting anything.”
At first, I tended to discount what he said about that, but then it occurred to me that Shawna and her friends might find more than what we’d found so far. After discovering the U.S. government pen, we’d left and never gone back to search further along other parts of that area of the beach.
A black unmarked sedan sat on the other side of Cabrillo, across from my place, waiting in dark silence, the way I viewed it, although it wasn’t dark outside.
“Somebody in that thing?” Gularte asked, stopping to let me out, and noting that the windows of the vehicle were near totally coated over with some substance to make them nearly impossible to see through.
“Really?” I replied, sarcastically, but not directly to Gularte, before getting out of the Bronco and slamming the door. Gularte drove off, moving the Bronco along too fast on the hard asphalt surface. I shook my head. There was no way I was going to change the man, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to try. The Bronco would survive, although whether Gularte would or not was up to God.
My wife was surprised that I was back so soon. I told her that I was on a tight schedule with a car waiting out front, but she wouldn’t have any of that. She knew, I could tell, the instant I walked through the door, that something was wrong.
I hurriedly filled her in, all about Pat forming what was becoming the Seven Dwarfs, Hoodoo apologizing and joining the crew, and everything else I could remember. I went upstairs to the bedroom, undressed and redressed quickly, before hurriedly going down to the living room. I felt more at home in the uniform I’d taken off, but the civilian attire at least gave me a feeling that I was really back home in the ‘land of the round eyes.’
“The Chief was buying the coffee?” my wife asked, while she sat on the couch and I paced back and forth before her, in a rush to get to the waiting car but not in a rush at all to be forced to confront Haldeman. I was amazed that she’d picked out that tiny bit of information from everything I told her.
“That’s what Shawna said, I’m sure of it,” I replied.
“ Interesting and very revealing comment, and Pat wanted to see you in uniform,” my wife went on, her voice flat in her analytically inquiring delivery. “Pat called the meeting. Pat brought in Hoodoo. Pat is the Chief’s secretary and the Chief bought coffee for the group you described.”
The statements were not made by her in questioning form or delivery.
“That’s right,” I agreed, getting a vaguely uncomfortable feeling in the back of my mind.
“I don’t care what anybody is telling you right now,” my wife said, this time emotion affecting her delivery. “You’re being handled like a puppet and the Chief is pulling the strings. Haldeman is about to pull on a few more, but I’m not sure what part he’s playing in any of this.”
“I don’t know,” I replied, uneasily. “The Chief is a great guy and Pat is an even greater woman. They are my friends.”
Julie dragged a tattered rag dog across the living room toward me. “Jimmer play,” she said, holding out what was once a stuffed animal that looked like a cocker spaniel, but no more.
“She is your friend,” my wife said, pointing at Julie. “I am your friend,” turned her hand to point at herself. “We are your only friends…living, that is.”
I was struck by her words. I stopped pacing and sat in the chair by the couch, designated by my wife to be my chair. I liked the chair, as Bart Abrate, the gay furniture guy I liked had picked it out and, when I complained about the price which I could not pay, gifted it to me.
I grabbed the tattered dog and held it out in front of Julie. She took it back, immediately. “Dog,” was all she said, and raced off to hide it somewhere in the house. When I came home, my part in the game, which she would not forget about, would be to find it.
I went out on the patio, stepping through the sliding glass door opening to check and see if the compound vehicle was still there. It was.
“You know,” my wife said from right behind me, “what with your costume change and the carriage across the street waiting, you’re a whole lot more like Cinderella than Snow White.”
“Very funny,” I replied, no humor in my tone. I stepped back inside, adjusted my tie and headed for the door.
“Don’t forget…” she started, but I cut in before she could finish.
“Yeah, I know, I’m nobody, so keep my mouth shut and don’t get fired before the birthday ball.”
The fact that she didn’t laugh told me just how important the president’s wife’s birthday ball was to her.
The compound vehicle sat idling as I crossed the street, the sun setting low in the sky but still bright, making the afternoon seem warmer on my exterior than I felt on the inside. The driver made no move to open the back door for me so I stepped in and slammed the door.
“You may proceed,” I said, needlessly, trying to sound important to somebody who didn’t care at all whether I was someone of import or not.
The drive was over in minutes. I didn’t want it to be over and I didn’t want to get out of the car. Things were spinning out of a control I’d never had in the first place. I sat in the idling vehicle, the driver merely waiting, acting like he’d sit there for the rest of the day while I tried to figure out my life. I’d unwittingly made myself a focal point where titanic forces swirled in eddies, any one of which I might drown in at any time. I wanted to talk to someone, anyone, about my predicament, but I knew my wife was right, once more, about talking truth to her alone. Outside of my family I was nobody, and nobodies don’t talk, they listen, and then do what they’re told.
I got out of the car and turned my face up to the waning sun, before moving away toward the big thick double doors, both open like jaws, and maybe more like the giant castle doors I imagined that might lead into Dracula’s castle. I glanced toward the Marine entry gate, which had also been open and waiting. The sergeant of the guard was the same one I’d encountered earlier. He saluted, and then gave me a big smile and a wave.
It was a small thing, but suddenly I felt better. I didn’t wave back, instead stepping through the doors and walking directly toward where Haldeman usually sat, his desk strategically positioned where he could look up from his work and effortlessly see anyone entering or leaving the complex. There was nobody at the desk, however, and, as I got closer, and I noted that Ehrlichman’s desk was empty as well.
A young lady noticed me, appearing from another smaller desk located so close to the north wall that it looked inset into it from a distance.
“They’re in the study,” she said, pointing across the widened hallway, before she turned and went back to her tiny work space.
I looked in the direction she’d pointed, and there they were, just like the time the three of us had met before. Haldeman was sitting on the couch and Ehrlichman on one of the two stuffed chairs, all three pieces of out of place furniture separated by a low coffee table.
Haldeman got up, which surprised me. I stopped on the other side of the table from him, thinking for a second that he was going to shake my hand, but that wasn’t it.
He moved to the chair that sat in opposition to Ehrlichman’s. He pointed at the couch he’d vacated.
“Sit,” he ordered, dropping both hands to rest on the overly stuffed chair arms.
I wondered about the openness of it all, as the ‘study’ was set in a part of the hall that was much wider. There were no real doors or walls containing anything.
Ehrlichman reached to his right and fiddled briefly with a Bose Wave Radio, a device I so badly wanted to own but cost almost ten percent of what I’d paid for the Volks. The modern looking flat radio was mounted atop a small round side table. I had the money to buy one, thanks to the overpayment I’d received, but I was still worried about the fact that I’d done nothing for that money and the remainder might be recalled at any time.
Ehrlichman adjusted the volume after turning the machine on, although the song that played out into the open area before us was one that didn’t take well to being played at low volume. It was ‘Light my Fire’ by The Doors. The song didn’t take me back to Vietnam, but I remembered it well from my hospital days and nights. I waited in silence for what must be coming, the song gently belting out it’s lyrics: “You know that it would be untrue…You know that I would be a liar…”
It was as if the writer of the song was somehow sitting in on the meeting. I understood that the music had nothing to do, as far as Haldeman and Ehrlichman were concerned, with the ambiance or the calming influence that music can exert. The Bose was playing because, even with nobody around within seeming earshot, the music would confuse most human ears and listening devices, making conversation at normal vocal levels nothing more or less than mumbled gibberish.
A young lady appeared from somewhere behind where I was sitting, a coffee cup on saucer in each hand. I looked at the liquid in the cups as she passed, filled nearly to the brim in each case, wondering how the woman managed to carry the vessels without spilling a drop. The liquid wasn’t black or deep brown. It was faintly yellow. Apparently, both men drank tea, although there were no strings for bags hanging over the lip of either cup. The woman left. Nobody asked me if I wanted anything, so I continued to follow my wife’s instructions, although waiting in silence was nerve-wracking. I concentrated on breathing normally as both men sipped tea, neither of them looking at me or one another.
Haldeman leaned forward and placed his cup precisely on the saucer without the confluence of ceramic surfaces making the slightest of sounds.
“You’ve performed well in the investigation that’s not going to be an investigation,” He said, looking directly into my eyes.
The phrase “mean-spirited” instantly ran across the surface of my mind, but my anxiety began to lessen. Again, I waited, not even nodding or changing my stiff-backed position of near attention. I knew relief would come in waves, as it was apparent I wasn’t being fired. I’d guessed that because, if I was out, then neither of the important men on either side of me would have bothered to ever see me again. They were there because, once again, they wanted something. As my fear of being fired went down my anxiety over what they might want me to do rose to replace it.
“Snow White isn’t the best nickname in the world,” Ehrlichman said, dryly. “You might think about changing that.”
My surprise at such a comment being stated by someone known to be so brilliant must have shown because Haldeman laughed out loud, the first time I’d ever heard him laugh.
“It’s perfect,” he said, picking up his teacup once more and holding it out before him.
“War hero, Marine officer, Police commander and hot shot insurance agent…yet not any kind of image that anyone would ever believe any of that. Snow White is perfect.” He took another sip, his little finger sticking straight out as he imbibed.
I said nothing again, thinking about how quickly the man would have been literally laughed out of any Marine mess or officers club I’d ever been in.
“Chief Murray doesn’t want any part of this, so your brand of looking into this thing makes him feel better,” Haldeman said, resting his teacup before him, once again. “You’re a minor leaguer playing in a major league game. Make the Chief feel better; keep up your impotent investigation; find nothing of substance of course; and then report to Mardian when he gets back here the day after tomorrow. He’s been doing this sort of thing for a long time, and he’ll act as your guide on how to play whatever it is you may find.”
“I’m to find nothing,” I finally said, unable to remain silent. The three Marines, their photos from their files and I.D. cards indelibly imprinted in my memory, “that’s the mission.”
“There is no mission,” Haldeman shot back, his tone and stare drilling themselves into me. “You just received a bonus that’s more cash than you’ve ever seen in your life and you and your wife are going to a presidential ball where people like you are never ever invited.”
I stared back, not to challenge him, but because I realized my wife was right. I should have said nothing and I wasn’t going to say anymore. My wife and I weren’t being ‘invited’ to the ball, which was a ball on behalf of the president’s wife, not Haldeman. He was right about the cash, however, and his words gave me the impression that nobody would be coming for all, or any part of, what I had left, but I didn’t like the feeling of being paid off. I didn’t want the expression ‘this,’ whatever it was, to be a part of ruling my current life or future. What did Bob Mardian really do? He’d talked the same way as Haldeman, saying things that were ominous and filled with menace but somehow avoiding any real discussion about what those things were.
“Anything to add, John?” Haldeman asked, speaking out across the coffee table to where Ehrlichman sat.
I noticed, for the first time, that Ehrlichman hadn’t touched his own cup of tea, after taking that first sip. Was he drinking tea to make Haldeman happy?
“What might you need?” Ehrlichman asked, looking at me, his voice much softer and not as demanding as Haldeman’s.
“I passed myself off as an officer working for the base command when I was looking into the…missing Marines,” I said, knowing that the time to remain silent was over. “I’m still on active duty. Base command will soon know, or might know already, that I’m nothing of the sort. I don’t need to be court martialed before I get out. Secondly, I need base stickers for my Volks, since I’ll lose mine when I get out, and also a couple for department vehicles. Officer stickers, active duty, would be best, with the ‘indefinite’ expiration date on them. I mean, if any of this is possible.”
I stopped talking, wondering if my wife would approve of me going ‘off script’.
Haldeman and Ehrlichman looked at one another for a few seconds.
“What do you think, Harry?” Ehrlichman asked.
I stared back and forth at the men but remained silent. People close to Haldeman called him Bob. That’s the only name I knew him by, although I never used it. I wondered where the name Harry came from. Maybe it was his nickname.
“Do it,” Haldeman said, getting up out of his chair.
I stood up out of respect. Haldeman didn’t move, apparently waiting until Ehrlichman got up too, which he did. Haldeman walked off toward where his desk sat not twenty feet away.
The interview was over, I knew, although Ehrlichman remained standing where he was. I didn’t move, waiting, in case there was anything more.
“The Chief needs a few words, back at the department,” Ehrlichman said, quietly. “You may be able to help there.” He turned toward the Bose and leaned over it. “the poundin’ of the drums, the pride and disgrace. You can bury your dead, but don’t leave a trace…” came through the speaker before it went silent. Once more, as in the valley, the lyrics, this time from the Eve of Destruction, burned their way into my very being, as if God Himself was sending me a vital message, or, at the very least, hinting at some cosmic conclusion.
Ehrlichman left so I walked the long walk back to the double doors, one held open by a Secret Service agent. I walked through into the parking lot. It was late in the day and the sun, although still illuminating everything, wasn’t the bright warm orb it usually was in daytime, shining down upon Southern California. There was no car waiting. I looked around. The Marine Sergeant of the Guard at the gate waved me toward him.
“Your car went on some sort of errand,” he said, after saluting.
“Do you have a phone out here?” I asked, frowning. My importance, which sometimes felt like it was growing, was once again proving to be illusory, very low, or non-existent.
“I’m off duty in ten minutes,” the sergeant replied. “If the call is to get a ride, well, I’ll give you a lift. Give me about ten minutes to check out.”
I said it was, thanked him and then went to sit on one of the benches set next to the double doors.
I thought about the meeting I’d just been through. The amount of data Haldeman had at his command was substantial, and his power to do things that shouldn’t be possible at all, was more than impressively significant. How did he know about my new nickname of Snow White? Unless there were recording devices in the restaurant at the end of the pier, that didn’t seem likely. Somebody at the meeting was giving him information. It wasn’t Shawna, and not Gularte either. I doubted that the withdrawn and taciturn Hoodoo talked to anybody. It wasn’t Bob Elwell, as the guards were neither respected nor ever invited into the compound. That left Herberich, Steed and Pat Bowman, which meant it was Pat. Herberich and Steed were simply too new and too inexperienced to be of any kind of recruiting material at all for somebody like Haldeman. Pat had formed the group. Pat was the Chief’s secretary. Everyone loved Pat. She was perfect for the role of informant, at the very least. I was disappointed at coming to that conclusion, but there had to be reasons why such seemingly great people like the Chief and her were doing them.
The sergeant and I talked while he drove, almost all of our conversation about the embassy duty he’d just come off of, and how he’d expected the presidential service to be much more squared-away and formal…which it was anything but. His name was Nicolas, with his wife Mary in the process of moving to San Clemente. He was another interesting man who I enjoyed being with. We didn’t talk about me or what I might be doing for the people inside the compound. I didn’t offer anything, and he didn’t ask.
The Chief was in, if his car being parked in its special spot, was any indication. If the Chief was there, then I knew Pat was there too. I glanced at the car as the sergeant drove out of the parking lot. It was a Mercedes Benz 280CE, the numbers in silver plate attached to one side of the car’s trunk.
“What the hell?” I breathed to myself. What was a Marine sergeant doing driving that kind of expensive car? That car had to sell for ten thousand or more, whereas my Volks was just over two grand. He’d said he was driving home, which didn’t leave much room for me to think it was somebody else’s vehicle. What game was Nicolas playing, or were we both playing the same game but not knowing about the other’s participation? I shook my head and went inside.
All the lights were on, not just the hall lights and those of Bobby’s radio dispatch area. I walked down the short hallway. Pat sat at her desk, as usual. Her smile was the one I knew, muted, slight but deeply meaningful and warm.
“He’s in,” she whispered, “are you ready?”
I didn’t understand the question. I wanted to ask, “ready for what?” but we were only a few feet from the Chief’s office door and I didn’t want to take any chances about revealing too much or even wanting to know too much.
The Chief sat behind his desk, his hands clasped at the back of his neck, elbows extended outward in both directions.
Before I could take my usual seat, he brought his hands down and placed his elbows on the surface of his desk.
“I got a call a bit ago from the Marine Base Commander’s aide to his Chief of Staff,” he said, his expression unreadable.
I remained silent, once again following my wife’s advice. I wasn’t fired from the Western White House. The ball was on. But the San Clemente Police Department was a different beast altogether. I couldn’t stand Haldeman, and barely could tolerate Ehrlichman, but the chief was a different thing altogether. I felt the same for just about everyone I’d run into on the force. I was among really good people and I wanted to stay there and be one of them.
“The aide wanted to know who you were and whether you were one of my men,” the Chief said, before pausing and looking at me expectantly.
“What did you say?” I asked, no longer able to keep silent. I had to know.
“I told him the truth,” the Chief replied, pausing once again.
I couldn’t breathe. Thoughts of going to the stockade, jail or being fired from the department, or worse, exploded in my mind, but I held my tongue.
“I told him the truth,” the Chief said again. “I told him you were a Fed.”
“What did he say?” I asked, trying to keep any emotion out of my voice.
“He wanted to know what kind of Fed you are,” the Chief replied, “so I told him you were the Western White House kind of Fed.”
“That was it?” I asked, trying to feel relieved but not quite managing it.
“Yes, he kind of ran down at that point, saying only, ‘Oh, one of those,’ before he hung up.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to thank the Chief for covering for me on my potentially injudicious use of my Marine Officer’s uniform, and also the fact that he’d lied to the Base Commander’s aide. I was ‘one of those,’ it was true, but I was also a full-fledged and sworn California Peace Officer assigned to the San Clement Police Department. Also, the wearing of my Marine uniform had really been the Chief’s idea, although he’d only sort of hinted at my wearing it.
The Chief leaned back in his chair once more and breathing in and out deeply.
“What can you tell me?” he asked, causing me to jerk back a little in surprise.
I tried to think as fast as I could. What could I tell him that would be meaningful? I realized that I’d tell him whatever he wanted to know. I trusted him completely and Pat, even if she was filling him in on everything the Dwarfs did, the same. That the Chief had framed his last question the way he did also revealed that he was letting me run fast and loose with the investigation that wasn’t an investigation.
“I believe the Marines were murdered,” I said, slowly. I gave him the particulars on the white substance I saw in their mouths and their battered bodies, which seemed to go beyond having suffered the kind of damage that might be caused by being thrown in and among the rather smoothly polished shore rocks.
“What does Hoodoo think?” the Chief replied.
“Ah, you didn’t ask him?” I asked, again in surprise.
“No, he reports to you while this whole thing goes on.”
I sat all the way back in my chair, trying to adjust to what I felt was a rapidly changing situation. I was back in the valley. I was a new police officer, like I was a new second lieutenant over there. I was in charge as a commander of the police reserve corps and wearing a nickname of Snow White while leading the Dwarfs, like I was a company commander in combat wearing the nickname of Junior. It was as if I was doing the same thing all over again, the only real difference was that nobody, except the three Marines, was dying, at least yet.
“What are you going to do?” the Chief asked.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked back, truly curious as to what he might say.
The Chief didn’t reply, instead standing up and going to the door and shutting it. When he came back he didn’t sit. He turned to stand at the window that faced into the parking lot. He stared out through the clear glass.
“In three phone calls and less days, they can, and may, disband this police force, fire the personnel, and turn the cars and equipment over to the Orange County Sheriffs. This office would close and the sheriffs would get a contract to replace our services. The city would get a large governmental supplement to pay for all of that, and more. Then they’d get rid of the lifeguards, fire everybody, and turn that operation over to the state park guards. They’d tear the lifeguard headquarters building down and then smooth over the sand like it’d never been there.”
“Oh my God,” was all I could whisper, in reply. I was completely stunned.
“Those are the kinds of guys we are playing with here, and that’s why I bought into letting the missing, now dead Marine situation, be taken from us as a murder investigation.” The Chief turned to face me, as I hadn’t moved at all since I’d come in through the door.
“You’re not a Marine anymore, as of tomorrow, so you’ll be going to the base to finalize that,” the Chief added. “The captain, or the aide, as he called himself, said it’s called a Reduction in Force, since the war in Vietnam is tailing to an end.”
I was shocked to my very center. I wanted out of the Marine Corps, but I didn’t. I was twisted inside. Tomorrow would be the last time I would ever officially wear the uniform I so loved. I’d been putting off the thought of that event, but here it was. One phone call from Ehrlichman, and I was out of the Corps, just like that. I’d never wear my blues again, never be able to complain about my medals and I’d also not be welcome on any military base, unless the rest of what I’d asked for came through.
The Chief stared into my eyes.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he said, before going on. “You’re not out of the military, you’re just transitioning. You have a new uniform, as long as we can hold onto this department, and you have a command, of sorts.”
I could not help letting out a small laugh, which he then joined in on.
“Of sorts,” he repeated, “and Pat doesn’t know about the potential of loss here that I’ve told you. Let’s keep it that way.”
I opened the door behind me and I walked past Pat without looking at her. I headed straight out to the Volks.
“No wonder,” I breathed to myself. No wonder the Chief had been forced to knuckle down to Haldeman. He was fighting for the survival of all of us. I got in and sat behind the wheel of the Volks before realizing something else. The Chief was the battalion commander I hadn’t had while I’d been in the A Shau Valley. He was the real deal, and I was going ‘all in’ with and for him.