My wife’s comment reverberated through me to the core. The last thing I wanted or needed was for her to be exposed in any way to what was developing regarding my work with the people at the compound or what had become the Seven, now Eight Dwarfs. Richard’s unexpected easy association with her was uncommon, as well, which spoke straight to heart of who or what Richard might really be.

The yacht, supposedly owned by Ms. Cobb, a complete unknown out of nowhere, had been docked, and apparently left unattended in Dana Point Harbor. It’s appearance there, which had to be immediately checked out, had been done with lightning speed for no reason that I could figure out. The Navy, it was true, in fact the military in general, had no provision for interning and holding private property unless there was some legal reason for that possession. That might explain why the U.S. Navy wanted to get rid of it, but the speed with which it did was unsettling, to say the least.

Looking into Richard’s background would have to wait, as well as my concerns about my wife’s participation in any of what was going on except as my partially informed advisor would have to wait.

I drove my Volks to Dana Point and turned into the dirt road that would soon be concrete, I knew, but for the time being was nothing but a dusty mess with heavy equipment everywhere and workers performing tasks I had not time to consider as I tried to work my way in toward the water.
Richard was there, waiting, along with Gularte and Hoodoo. It was only a short walk to the slip where the yacht in question lay undisturbed with no one else around. There was no office that I could see or anyone to check in with. The marina was in its earliest build in process and there was no security staff around, if they yet existed for the complex messy construction site, so there was no entity or person at all to question about when the boat had arrived, who brought it in and under what private docking agreement the boat was allowed moorage and might or might not be authorized to stay where it was. The yacht appeared the same with minor differences when we stood looking at it from the pier.

The boat, sitting in its own slip, and without direction from Richard, would have been hard to spot except for its significant length. It wasn’t as long as Richard’s yacht but it was longer than most others so far docked in the many slips the harbor had only recently come to offer. Getting down to the wharf hadn’t been problematic, nor parking because, since the marina wasn’t fully in yet, there weren’t that many boaters around. Only Hoodoo and Gularte were able to respond to the calls I’d made to all the Dwarfs about the mysterious appearance of the yacht.

The starboard hull of the craft, up near where the deck slightly overhung the main part of the shiny white exterior, was battered from the un- cushioned beating it’d taken when it was tied to the pier on San Clemente Island, but from somewhere the proper bumpers had been found to make sure no more damage was done, even though the slip was in totally protected and flat calm waters.

Richard could not stay.

“Snow White and two Dwarfs, not exactly a quorum,” I murmured to myself, as I followed Hoodoo’s lead in getting aboard the craft. I noted that the detective was carrying a long metal rod in one hand and a pipe wrench in the other.

“What’s with the tools?” I asked, approaching the broken cabin door.

A sheet of clear plastic held on using police crime scene tape, barred any entrance to the lower part of the yacht. Of course, it didn’t bar Hoodoo.

“Fake tape,” Hoodoo said, examining the entrance to main cabin, “what a bunch of amateurs. The real stuff says, ‘crime scene’ written in bright black letters over the yellow tape background, not this mellow yellow crap with no lettering at all.”

I’d worn civilian attire, Levis and along sleeve cotton shirt, so I wasn’t in possession of my duty weapon in its special clamshell holster. Instead, I’d picked up the .45 Colt I’d won at the Basic School in what seemed like a lifetime ago. The heavy slab of a weapon fit perfectly inside my right front pocket. The shirt was hanging outside instead of being tucked in as I usually wore it. The front edge hung over the protruding butt of the weapon, hiding it pretty effectively unless I was to lean too far over to my left.

I pulled the .45 out and snapped the safety lever to its off position.

Hoodoo froze, kneeling down to my left.

“What’s up?” he said, slowly turning his head to look at my casually held Colt.

“Just because we’re taped out doesn’t mean someone isn’t taped inside,” I said as I moved slightly to the side of the taped door Hoodoo was about to cut through.

“Great,” he said, turning his attention back to the tape while pulling a slim folding knife from his pocket. “I didn’t’ think of that.”

“Cut the tape and then move to the left. We’ll both wait a few seconds before I enter. You have a backup?”

“Yes,” Hoodoo answered, putting the knife down for a few seconds to pull a very small automatic from an ankle holster I hadn’t seen. “Didn’t think of that either,” he murmured, his tone indicating that he was thinking that he might be losing it, I knew.

Hoodoo cut the tape using his right hand, carefully working the blade around the entire broken entrance. He let the taped plastic fall, placed his knife on the deck to the side and leaned to his left, his backup weapon pointed at the opening.

Before I could move into the opening a big silent body bumped me aside and then fluidly entered the hole and disappeared. I’d forgotten Gularte was behind me the whole time.

“I didn’t think of that,” I whispered, echoing Hoodoo’s comments.

I slipped into the main cabin, the horizontal side windows providing plenty of light.

“Clear,” Gularte intoned, coming around from the stern.

There was nothing in the cabin, I quickly realized. The inflatable raft, the diesel barrels, and even the desk that had held the vital clue inside were all gone, as if they’d never been there. The place was spotless. I put my .45 back into my pocket, wishing I had an off duty holster for it. The heavy piece of metal machinery that it was made moving about in a confined space more difficult.

Hoodoo dropped his wrench and metal pipe on the deck with a ringing series of clunks.

“I was going to search each of the barrels to see if there was anything hidden inside them,” he said, dispiritedly.

“Not that kind of operation,” I said, thinking out loud. “Whatever’s going on is going on at the highest, cleanest and well thought out level. Let’s start at the bow and work back,” I said.

“The place is spotless,” Hoodoo repeated. “What in hell should we expect to find. Like a pro cleanup crew that went through this thing would leave anything by accident?”

All three of us searched every inch of the inside of the yacht. It took over an hour and we had nothing to show for it at all.

“Maybe infrared or ultraviolet would show something…anything,” Hoodoo said, in a tone of utter frustration.

“Let’s go up on deck,” I said.

We all filed though the opening to stand near the front transom. I put both of my hands on the wheel, noting just how well all the controls were manufactured and polished. Off to my left was a radio. At first, I’d though it to be a ship to shore rig but there was no microphone. I rotated the left button to the right and the front of the radio lit up. Immediately music began to play, not too loudly but certainly not quietly from invisible speakers somehow embedded or placed around the area so as not to be seen. I recognized the music. It was the Tijuana Brass playing The Lonely Bull, one of the songs that had been played ad infinitum every day of my Marine Corps Basic School training. What was it doing playing on the yacht I couldn’t figure out. It was coincidental but, like with much of what had happened to me since coming home, almost too coincidental to be true.

Gularte and Hoodoo stood motionless, listening to the music but also looking around, like they were missing something too.

“This isn’t regular radio music,” I said, studying the front of the radio as best I could. “This is a tape or record, which means we missed something below because this has to be coming from somewhere. Back down to the main cabin.”

I turned off the radio, or the recording and followed Hoodoo and Gularte below.

“Forward,” Hoodoo said, pointing at the twin curving couches that lined both sides of the forward hull area.

I noticed that there was not even the faintest whiff of diesel fuel in the entire cabin area. How does a cleanup crew get rid of such fumes, I wondered?

Now that we knew what we were looking for, although not specifically what we might find in a hidden location, it took Hoodoo only minutes to depress one of the padded panels under the port couch. A long door popped open and the boats audio equipment system was revealed. The cassette deck was a Phillips. Hoodoo ejected the tape, which was of Herb Alpert and his group. There was a long white shelf under the audio unit with nothing on it except one small plastic tube. Gularte reached in and retrieved the tube, before handing it to me. It was a United States Government black pen, seemingly brand new, just exactly like the one that had been found on the railroad tracks near the San Clemente State Beach.

“It’s just a ball point pen,” Gularte said, as I studied the simple and cheap pen closely.

“It’s not a pen,” I replied, carefully putting the pen in my left breast pocket and buttoning the flap. “It’s what we were looking for, or, I think, what we were intended to find.

“Who’s intending that we find things at all?” Hoodoo asked, shaking his head.

“There’s only one place this all leads, and that’s to a place none of us really want to go,” I said, wondering once again how all the things I was involved with could possibly coexist together, and how was I going to make sense out of them, or if making sense out of them was a mission I should even be considering much less deeply involved in.

We broke up and went our separate ways. Hoodoo would probably report to Pat and maybe even the Chief, as we had no agreements about confidentiality. Gularte was scheduled for beach patrol later in the afternoon, while I headed home to counsel with my wife, drop off my .45 and begin to get ready for Mrs. Nixon’s birthday ball. My tuxedo would have to be picked up and my wife would no doubt have a myriad assortment of chores that would have to be accomplished.

When I got up in the following morning I showered, shaved and threw on some clothes. Not having to report in to either the compound, the station or to the beach, I put on OP shorts and a white Polo shirt made by some Asian knockoff company. Before I could make coffee, the phone rang. I picked it up on the first ring, so as to prevent my wife and daughter from waking up. It wasn’t the tuxedo operation calling early as had been my first thought.

“You have a luncheon appointment with a former Marine officer who owns a new business on Del Mar,” Lorraine, from the restaurant, said. Eleven-thirty and don’t be late,” she said before hanging up.

I held the phone out in front of me. I hadn’t answered the phone by saying hello or anything at all. I put the phone down. The woman was nothing short of amazing. I had my first appointment ever from another person not even connected to the business in any way. No matter what happened, it was a warm feeling to know that I had a prospect and had to risk nothing, other than a small amount of commission sharing, not even a rejection. If the Marine officer didn’t like me or the life insurance, I was selling then I wouldn’t be rejected, Lorraine would. I knew my mindset wasn’t totally rational but it was enough for me. Sales of the product I was selling were emotionally difficult under the best of circumstances.

I got to the restaurant fifteen minutes early, as I was planning on relaxing with a cup of coffee, but it wasn’t to be.

Just as soon as I was seated at the only front window table Lorraine ushered a man over to where I was.

“This is Mike Manning, the man I told you about,” Lorraine said, never having told me anything about whom I was meeting.

I looked up at Mike Manning, a man who gave every appearance of being too short to be a Marine Officer just back from Vietnam, as Lorraine had described him. The look on my face must have given my dubious thoughts away.

I stood up and held out my hand.

“I got a waiver for my height,” Mike said, taking my hand with his own and shaking it with just the right amount of pressure while also displaying a completely open smile.

I nodded and smiled back before both of us took our seats. Our introduction and his comment were not the best way to begin a sales interview I knew, but there I was and him too.

“I heard you had a bad tour over there,” he said, waving to Lorraine so we could order.

“I’ve got to get back to the store pretty quickly as I’ve got nobody to replace me,” he said, “but much appreciate you buying me lunch.”

I looked up at Lorraine, standing between us with a small white pad and holding a pen like she was going to take our order. I knew Lorraine well enough to know that she didn’t need a pad to remember every detail of meal orders. I also knew why she wouldn’t meet my direct gaze, as I’d never said a word about buying anybody lunch.

“I’ll have the lobster,” Mike said, straight-faced.

I did a double take and pulled the menu toward me at the same time.

“No lobster,” Lorraine said, “you can stop trying to find it.”

Mike laughed, and I was forced to join him.

“Just a Cobb salad with blue cheese,” Mike said, not looking at the menu, as if he’d been into Tom and Lorraine’s many times before.

“Same for me,” trying to think of how to stay away from Vietnam as a subject and bring Mike around to considering the purchase of a life insurance policy.

“I met my end up on Highway One about thirty clicks from Hue,” Mike said, as Lorraine headed to the back of the restaurant to place our order.

“You got hit?” I asked, not being able to think of a way to gently change the subject.

“Motor “T” unit, six-bys one and all, ambush, got hit,” he said, cutting off the words, as if he was reading some agenda or list while taking a sip of the ice water from the glass in front of him. “I jumped out and ran into the jungle, where the Gunny finally found me about an hour later.”
I didn’t say a word, thinking about my own first moments underground fire.

“Sent me home, they did, what with the after-action report and all,” Mike said, matter-of-factly, although I knew no such occurrence could be anything but lifetime memorable and burned into his very core.

Lorraine came out with our salads, both overfilled to the point where she had to have dinner plates under the bowls to catch stuff.

“Roquefort, all we had for dressing,” she said.

“Blue cheese,” Mike murmured as she turned to leave. “Roquefort is a place in France where their blue cheese is made, that’s all.”

“How in hell did you know that?” I asked, stunned by such a seemingly common place bit of information that I’d never heard of in my life.

“Liberal Arts degree,” Mike replied, “as opposed to all the medals you came home with on your chest.”

There was a hurt inside the man, I knew. I felt it radiate from him like a low moist heat. There was no way I was going to be able to change the subject and interject the sale of a life insurance policy when my prospect didn’t give much appearance or motivation to even remaining alive on the planet. I wondered how Mike had learned about my own recent service, or the decorations, or any of it, but San Clemente was a small town and I was starting to become known in several rather vital parts of it.

“I ran my first time under fire,” I said, not touching my salad. “I was the company commander, and I ran. My Gunny caught up with me, buried me in the mud and told me to stay where I was until he came to get me.”

“I don’t understand,” Mike said, holding his unmoving fork out and pointing at me like it was some sort of lecture aid.

“It’s pretty easy, really,” replied, sighing and picking up my own fork. “I had a good Gunny and you had a lousy one. Simple, really.”

“That didn’t get you the big medals I’ve heard you have,” Mike said, sticking his fork into the thick mass of salad Lorraine had served up.

“Everybody getting killed got me those,” I said, stretching the truth a bit but not too far from my own perspective. “They needed to let the Stars and Stripes and guys coming home know that we’d died down in that valley fighting courageously.”

“You didn’t die,” Mike said, taking his first rather dainty mouthful.

“Of course, I died,” I breathed out. “You’re talking to the wind, a wind that was blown into this place so you could come to terms with what happened. I died in that valley just as you died beside that highway. Now, here we are, resurrected, but never to really be able to understand any of it or go back and fix the parts that we sure as hell could have done better.”

“You’re not a normal veteran, or ex-Marine, or war hero…or any of that, are you?”

“Nope, I sell life insurance for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company now, and I’m buying you lunch in order to induce you to let me sign you up.” I took a few more bites of my salad, much happier with the direction the conversation was going.

“Anybody ever told you that you’re a lousy life insurance agent?” Mike asked, although I could tell that there was a new level of mirth layering over the intensity of emotion that had been coursing through him.

“Not yet, since I’m so new,” I replied, again telling the truth. “I have a certain production level that I have to meet every month to keep Mass Mutual on the hook for paying me my thousand a month.”

“A thousand a month?” Mike gasped out. “That’s less than I pay for the rent on my shop. Lorraine said you have a wife and daughter and live close by. What’s the real story here?”

I looked over Mike’s shoulder, watching Lorraine clean her fingernails and then file them with some metal instrument. I just knew she was listening carefully and intently to every word we were saying.

Mike ate deep into his salad without saying anything further. I knew I wasn’t going to make a sale but for a variety of reasons I was entranced with the smallish, but not so small, man in front of me.

“I have to go,” Mike said, having only eaten half his salad. “My shop’s waiting and my girlfriend, Nancy, is coming by any minute. He stood up, wiped his lower face with one of Lorraine’s signature napkins, tossed it on the table and walked out.

“Semper fi, Marine,” I said, my voice too low for him to hear as he went through the door.

I simply sat where I was, staring into nowhere. I was truly of and in the wind, I knew, realizing that there was not one word of prevarication or misstatement in my entire conversation with the man.

Lorraine cleared the table.

“You mind if I combine these and put it in a box?” she asked, stopping her quick but efficient movements for a few seconds. I came rushing back to reality.

“Ah, no, my wife will make something later.”

“Not for you,” Lorraine said, “for him. His shops not doing well. I don’t think he’s made a sale all week. He’s living in a DKW down along Doheny Park on Pacific Coast Highway. One of those little foreign cars with suicide doors.”

I got up and took out a twenty. Lunch was only seven dollars but for some reason the whole experience was worth a lot more to me. I walked to the front door and was about to step through.

“That was a really wonderful thing you did” Lorraine said, standing just behind me. I didn’t turn.

“Did you see him walk out of here, it was like he was on air,” she said, her voice filled with loving emotion. “You, being what you are, and letting him know that he’s also what you are, that was unbelievable.”

I didn’t turn because I couldn’t think of anything to say that might make any sense. The word ‘suicide’ in her description of Mike’s car and residence, was not something I could get from my mind.

I walked home, my mind concentrating on only one thing, the cash I had stashed in my shoeshine box in the closet. Mike’s shop, Uniquities on Del Mar, was about to have a very big day, indeed.

My wife was, no doubt at the beach with Julie, where they hung out so much of the day whenever other stuff wasn’t on their rather loose calendar. I went upstairs, pulled my shoeshine box down and removed a thousand dollars from what I considered my ‘ill gotten’ reserves supply. I folded the ten hundred-dollar bills in half and put them in my pocket. The walk back to Del Mar Avenue and Uniquities took only a few minutes but, as I stepped through the open glass doors I was immediately encountered by a beautiful young woman.

“Hi, I’m Nancy,” she said, with a huge welcoming smile. “Mike’s not here right now, if you’re looking for him.”

I was looking for him, but I didn’t say so. “That’s alright. He mentioned his girlfriend, so would that be you?”

“Yes,” she replied, “what are you looking for?”

There was a tall thin bottle of shampoo standing next to her on the counter that separated us. I noticed that Nancy’s hair was springy curly like my daughter’s. I liked her for that and her smile. Mike wasn’t totally a lost cause, and that thought made me smile.

“How much is the shampoo?”

“Ten dollars, but it’s expensive because it’s so rare. Green apple shampoo made from real apples grown in Fallbrook,” Nancy replied, holding the bottle out toward me.

I didn’t take it. “How many do you have?” I asked instead.

“I’ll go check,” she replied, placing the bottle back on the counter and heading through a door in the back of the store.

I looked at the rest of the wares for sale under the counter glass. One collection of Jewelry, made by an artist by the name of Jagoda, was gathered together under half of a big plastic bubble. I couldn’t see the prices, but the work was all in silver. Necklaces, earrings and pendants were all squeezed into the small space but laid neatly on a red velvet surface.

Nancy came back.

“We have three cases, with ten to a case,” she said, her smile indicating that she thought this amount to be somehow humorous.

“I’ll take them all, and everything under this plastic bubble,” I said, pointing.

“Oh,” Nancy said, obviously struck by the sheer amount of goods I was about to purchase, and no doubt also by the abruptness of my request.

“Total it all up, and I’ll be back to pick it up later,” I said, carefully pulling the folded bills from my pocket. “This should cover everything, and then some. I’ll pick up the stuff and settle up with Mike tomorrow.

Nancy accepted the bills but handled them like she’d never held hundred dollar bills before. She counted them carefully, one by one while I waited, impatient to get out of the store before anyone else came in.

“Who are you?” she asked, the smile gone from her face, the bills tightly gripped in her left hand.

“Mike and I fought together in Vietnam,” I replied, not knowing how else to put our new association or satisfy the questions that had to be rolling through her mind.

Nancy stared into my expressionless eyes, as I watched her process what I’d told her.

“Mike came back last year sometime,” she said, “when did you come home?

“I didn’t,” I replied curtly, cutting off saying anything else, growing ever more uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation.

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” I finally got out before turning and walking through the open double doors to the sidewalk.

I walked down the street for a bit before crossing to head home. I’d answered her question honestly, as I looked around me at the warm and comfortable example of a great American small town. It was true that I hadn’t come ‘home’ but I was sure in a better place than the A Shau Valley or the hospitals I’d spent time.

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