The Dwarfs, including Richard, had broken up the evening before, and I sat to consider what I was going to do about everything. Hoodoo had gone as far as he could in trying to find anything about the Cobb woman but had come to a dead end with one single minor violation for entering the country in Florida with an expired passport. The only surprising thing about it, other than providing a first name of Viola, was the fact that she’d been permitted to enter the country from Cuba with that out-of-date document. I knew Hoodoo was right when he said that any other information would have to come through someone at the compound, since intelligence agency and federal enforcement information wasn’t available in the public forum. Libraries would be useless to explore as police sources. Unless the woman had committed other violations of the law that were federal in nature then it was almost hopeless to search as states all kept their own legal information.

I sat drinking a bottomless cup of coffee at Tom and Lorraine’s restaurant on Del Mar Avenue, set in the very center of San Clemente trying to come to terms with everything that was going on.

Lorraine sat down across from me. There were no other customers, as it was seven-thirty in the morning and none of the businesses up and down the street opened until ten.

“You look like hell,” she remarked, and waited.

“Yesterday was kind of a tough day,” I replied, preparing myself to be unwilling to go into any of it if she wanted to know more.

“So, tell me,” Lorraine encouraged.

I stared at her over the lip of my coffee cup, as I took a sip. There was simply no way I could bring this really nice woman into the cyclone of a world that I was surrounded by. I thought I had come home from the hospital and rest, at least for a bit, but not only was that not to be, the accelerated pace of multiple lives and identities I was engaged in was almost overcoming me…and the feeling that what I was, where I was and what I was involved with was all of my own doing and fault. How was I to share any of that with a caring, albeit totally inexperienced woman, in a coffee shop that masqueraded as a restaurant?

I put the coffee cup gently down and tried to think of a really nice way to tell Lorraine to leave me alone.

“Too much,” Lorraine said, tapping a pencil against my saucer, the pencil she usually carried stuck into the bun she made of her hair, like the chop sticks Asian women used for styling in their own hair.

“You’re carrying too much, especially since you are fresh back from…well, whatever you are fresh back from. The solution is delegation. You have to share the stuff which means you have to trust the people you need to share it with.”

I sat silent but astounded. The woman in front of me, whom I barely knew but liked a lot, was putting her mental ‘finger’ right on the problem I was having.

“You still selling life insurance?” she asked, out of nowhere.

“Yes,” I replied, taking another sip of coffee.

“How’s that going?”

“Tired of making the guys buy on the force,” I answered, truthfully. “I think they’re pretty fed up with listening to me about that.”

“Go figure,” Lorraine intoned, the tone of her voice flat, not as sarcastic as the answer itself might indicate. “They don’t have any money, either. What about all the businessmen in the downtown here?”

“Haven’t tried,” I said, looking through the big picture window up and down the empty street. “Don’t know any of them so how do I get an appointment?”

“They all come in here for lunch or coffee all day long, and sometimes in the evening too,” Lorraine replied, carefully reinserting the number two pencil back into the bun without having to feel its exact position on the back of her head.

“What if I get an appointment for you,” she asked. “If I get you an appointment and you sell them a policy then I get fifty bucks…I mean if you make enough commission to pay that?”

My mind raced, running the commission structure through my brain at light speed, calculating amounts, premiums on my average sale, renewals and more. My average sale generated a three-hundred-dollar commission first year, a hundred and twenty second year and then seventy-five bucks forever after unless the client stopped paying or died. I could afford fifty dollars.

“How are you going to know if I make a sale or not?” I asked her.

“Trust, remember,” she laughed. I trust you and you’re going to trust me, and besides, they come in all the time and can’t keep their mouths shut about anything.”

“Oh,” I replied, embarrassed by my last question. “What are you going to say to them to get me an appointment?”

“That you’re a war hero just come home and now want to insure the lives of others,” she replied, like it was the best explanation anyone could think of. It could, of course, not be further from the truth but then, as I was learning, truth was something a lot more precious than I’d ever understood.

I couldn’t help but smile. Tom Thorkelson would be proud of Lorraine, although I wasn’t sure at all that he’d buy into the sales proposal. What I did feel like asking her was if she had any explanation or thoughts about how three dead Marines, a government ball point pen, a luxury yacht running ashore at full speed loaded with diesel filled barrels and a Stoner 63 were somehow held together. That question could never be asked, of almost anyone I’d met so far since coming home.

“It’s a deal,” I said to Lorraine, not even considering saying no to the expressively enthusiastic woman. Feeling a little ridiculous, I pulled out my Day-Timer notebook and calendar. I gave her some open times during daylight when I wasn’t scheduled for the beach patrol and hopefully wouldn’t be called in by anyone at the compound. I gave her only daylight hours as I’d already made the decision that I didn’t want to go on evening insurance appointments.

I left the Galloway’s place and headed for home, walking at a brisk pace, as the apartment on Cabrillo was only a block and a half away. I needed the Volks to get to Santa Ana and the uniform/gun and whatever shop. The photo from the drawer of the desk aboard the boat was a vital piece of whatever mystery my investigation had become vaguely aimed at. What was a Stoner 63 weapons system and how did my overhearing a discussion about it between two presidential detail Secret Service agents, months before, ending up so coincidentally being portrayed in a photo aboard that boat? I was sure that the strange guys running that place would know what the system was and might be able to give me some clue, although I wasn’t about to reveal what I so far knew. It wasn’t something I felt I could share over the phone.

“The ball is next Friday night,” my wife said to me as I entered our apartment’s front door.

“I got it,” I answered, panic rising up to make an acidic taste in my mouth. How could I have forgotten the ball.

“A suit isn’t going to get it, no matter how nice it looks,” she went on, as I stood like a deer in the headlights. “You have to rent a tuxedo. It’s a presidential ball. That means a trip to South Coast Shopping Center.”

I moved into action, heading for the kitchen counter where I kept the keys to the Volkswagen. That it wasn’t a presidential ball but the president’s wife’s birthday ball I decided to leave alone.

“You’re right,” I replied, quickly. “I better get the measurements and reservation done right away.”

I grabbed the keys and headed for the door, glad that I wouldn’t have to explain going back to the gun shop, which was only a few more miles up the freeway. I drove off in relief, knowing from the look in my wife’s eye when I left that she wanted to make the trip to the shopping center for other purposes, which would have entailed an hours long shopping tour of a center that even getting measured for a tuxedo was too long a time to spend in such a place, at least for me.

I drove straight to the equipment shop. It was open and there were no customers. The man behind the counter was someone I’d never encountered before, but then I wasn’t there to expense anything to the governmental account I’d used before. I didn’t need permission or confirmation about anything. I needed information.

The man looked up attentively as I walked up to the counter pulling my badge wallet from my back pocket. I flashed the badge, so he’d know I wasn’t a civilian customer.

“You have a Stoner 63?” I asked, as if it was a common weapon anybody might come in to buy.

The man’s smile slowly faded, and his forehead wrinkled slightly. I noticed his Marine Corps tattoo on his left bicep, which was bare because all he wore was a pair of khaki trousers and a white shirtsleeve “T” shirt with the words, “If you love them let them go. If they don’t return, hunt them down and kill them,” printed in black letters across its front.

The man’s smile returned after he noticed my taking a few seconds to read and comprehend the words written across his shirt.

“I don’t really have anyone to let go, but I love the expression of intent,” he said.

I didn’t reply, instantly gauging that the man was looking for some comment to let him know whether I was a ‘fellow traveler’ in believing in such nonsense, or at least indicating that I might.

“Stoner?” I asked, keeping my expression flat and my delivery analytical.

“About two thousand, including the tripod and variants,” the man replied, “but I’d have to find one. You can purchase around four or five AR-15’s for the same money and they’re an improved version of the Stoner, although not as toughly made as the M-16 they’re derived from.”

“You an armorer?” I asked, the man’s obvious knowledge of gunsmithing coming through from the words he’d used in his response.

“Little school in Northern New Mexico.”

“Trinidad,” I replied, not even thinking about the fact that I might be giving too much away about myself.

“School’s actually across the border into Colorado,” he said, the tone of our conversation still analytical and matter-of-fact.

“Trinidad Junior College,” I said, nodding in memory of having once visited the facility with my dad to get a .45 Colt modified for tournament use.
We looked at one another for a few seconds, sizing each other up.

“So, who or what are you, really?” he asked.

“I don’t want to buy a Stoner,” I replied, knowing I was taking a risk but having no other place to go.

Nobody at the compound, especially nobody in the Secret Service, was going to give me anything, and by asking I might send signals that could become dangerous to my career, whatever I had in the way of a reputation or maybe something beyond that. “I need some information about it.”

“Shoot,” the man said, his smile gone, his look filled with intent, his eyes not blinking.

“Stoner 63, the Secret Service, John F. Kennedy, Viola Cobb and the current administration,” I blurted out, my hope for any answer overpowering my sense of caution, or the other thing, which was my feelings about whether I really wanted a response or an answer, or not.

“You’re a local San Clemente cop,” he said, after a moment of silence, his facial expression becoming more normal as he considered my rather obvious unimportance in the scheme and construct of law enforcement. “What’s your rank, since you look about seventeen?”

“They say I look younger than I am, that’s true,” I replied, deciding to be as straight as I could with the man, simply because he hadn’t shut me down immediately when I’d mention some stuff that might easily have written me off as a nut job to any normal retail salesperson.

“I was a company commander in the A Shau, shot three times now out and working as a local police officer in a tiny town in Southern California because my wife, daughter and I couldn’t afford to move anywhere else after getting out.”

“Serial number?” the man asked, which surprised me.

No one, outside of the Marine Corps, had ever asked me for that number and, as the man stood there silently waiting, I understood that he was waiting for me to repeat it from memory, and likely, if I could not, toss me from the shop for being a phony.

“Zero one zero, four three five eight,” I replied, accepting the test.

“Officer,” the man concluded, smiling once more. “The hundred and four thousandth three hundredth and fifty-eighth, to be exact, ever commission by the Corps.”

I rocked back a little in shock. I’d never thought of my serial number as being the consecutive commissioning number result through the history of the Corps. It made all the sense in the world. No wonder all officers of the same rank used it to determine seniority. I felt silly for never thinking about the numbers as a part of the entire Marine Corps history going all the way back to November 10th in 1775.

“Jason Jasper Nulty,” the man said, extending his right hand over the top of the counter. “Staff Sergeant, Da Nang and Dong Ha, nineteen sixty-eight.”

“Short tour?” I asked, knowing that there was very little chance of serving less than a full year and a month in country during the war without getting wounded or hurt badly enough to be sent home.

“Like you, sir,” he replied, surprising me again by giving me the rank. “When did you get out?”

I looked across the counter, letting my arm drop back to my side. I didn’t want to lie to the man, but I also didn’t want to tell the truth.
Staff sergeant Nulty was quick, however and caught the slight delay in my answering.

“Still active duty aren’t you, sir?” he said, and then waited.

I made no reply, only grimacing slightly, being put on the spot like I’d never imagined when I’d entered the store, and not doing well at it. I wasn’t a secret agent, but I also knew I wasn’t something a civilian, or even a military veteran like the staff sergeant, could likely understand.

“Eugene Stoner,” the staff sergeant began, “Worked with Armalite to develop the AR-10, which became the AR-15 before Armalite sold it to Colt. Stoner than developed the 62, before putting together his 63 system. Never heard of Cobb and know nothing about the current administration. Stoner gave his system to the Secret Service to test for evaluation by the Pentagon. The M-16 actually was chosen because the Stoner system worked so well, but the original AR-15 variant was actually put into production and Stoner went out of business. Check out the published autopsy photos of the back of his head. The entry wound. Measure the diameter and you’ll understand something about the Stoner 63 association you mentioned. Less than a quarter of an inch is a lot different from the third of an inch certified.”

“Thanks,” was all I could think to say. I was not a conspiracy nut or particularly up on the investigation into JFK’s assassination. I’d heard of the autopsy photos but never taken a look at them. I didn’t know where to find them, but I knew someone of the Dwarfs would, I realized, along with the fact that I seemed headed down a slippery slope I had no way of escaping.

“Thanks again,” I repeated, once more shaking Nulty’s hand.

“You’ll be back, sir,” he replied, a big smile radiating out across his facial features.

I left the shop and drove to South Coast, spending the better part of an hour choosing, paying for and then being measured for the required tuxedo. There were three suits to choose from and, backed by the knowledge that I still had several thousand dollars stashed in my shoebox, I went with the highest quality, although to me they all really looked perfectly alike.

The trip back to the police station took only about twenty minutes at the Volk’s top speed of 79 miles per hour against a fairly strong wind. It was my intent to talk seriously to Pat, as her comments at the Dwarf’s meeting were understandable but also a bit disconcerting because she made them in front of everyone there. I also needed her to do an in-depth background on Richard, whom I liked, but had to know more about to completely trust. There was no way I could, any longer, go to the compound to ask for much of anything.

When I pulled into the parking lot, I was pleased to see the Chief’s slot open, not that that necessarily meant he wasn’t in since Gularte had stolen his car once and somebody else on the force might well do the same. I smiled at the thought of Gularte’s sometimes uncontrollable but usually innocent actions.

The Chief’s door was open, but this desk light wasn’t lit. His desk light was always on when he was in, for whatever reason. Pat sat, looking up at me with her usual accepting and supporting smile, making it more difficult to put any difficult questions to her.

“I was expecting you,” she said.

I was surprised, wondering if the woman somehow had psychic abilities.

“Here,” she said, leaning down to pick up something next to her chair.

She brought up a flat broad box atop which was a smaller pure white box.

“What’s this?” I asked, in astonishment.

“From them, dropped off earlier,” Pat replied, waiting for me to accept the boxes. “Well, open them up, you just have to,” she went on, her excitement communicable, although, since the boxes had something to do with the Western White House, I tried to remain reserved.

I opened the bigger flat box, opened the tissue paper hiding what was inside and found a shirt made of very bright white material. I stared, wondering why I’d been sent a shirt by Haldeman, or Ehrlichman, or somebody else from the compound.

“Turnbull and Asser, expensive, very expensive,” Pat breathed out, running her fingers over the material. “Nothing you’re going to buy anywhere on the West Coast that I know of.”

“Open the other,” she went on, holding the little box out in one hand, which somehow swept back into her grasp after giving it to me only seconds earlier. Without waiting, she opened the tiny box herself.

Gold reflected up out of the little box. I stared down in wonder, but my wonder at what was inside the little box was tinged by the prior ‘gift.’ The Turnbull and Asser shirt, produced in something called Sea Island Cotton, was in size fourteen. My neck size. Who could know that other than myself or my wife?

I saw that the small inserts inside the box held two cuff links. I squinted down with my eyes to concentrate and read the printing that ran around the strange triangular shaped links. I read the words out loud, more for myself than Pat. The little black letters were set into a thin ring of blue ceramic or paint. “The Inauguration of,” was arced across the top, “President and Vice President” was arced along the bottom of the curve.

“The man in the Lincoln said that you forgot to order these at the shopping center,” Pat said.

“What man?” I asked, looking up into Pat’s big brown eyes.

“The driver of one of those big black cars they carry you around in.

I pulled one cuff link from the box and massaged it gently with the fingers of my left hand, while I thought, and then spoke quietly to myself rather than Pat. “How was it possible that they could know I was going to the South Coast Shopping Center to order a tuxedo, and how could they know that I’d not known to order a French Cuff shirt and cufflinks, of which I own neither. I’ve never worn those before.” I put the link back inside the box.

“I’ll bet those aren’t a dime a dozen or for sale anywhere,” Pat commented, as I carried the packages out to the parking lot.

Once there I realized I’d been totally redirected from asking the difficult questions I needed Pat Bowman to answer. I also thought about being followed. Either I’d been intensely followed, or my apartment was bugged. Should I be afraid or complimented, I asked myself but could come to no conclusion. It wasn’t the kind of thing that I would take to anyone and expect an answer, but then I didn’t think I was supposed to do that. I was being warned or alerted, maybe both of those things. My life had changed seemingly in subtle ways since the death of the Marines, but it could go from subtle to bizarre in no time at all, as the descending of heavy-duty governmental attack forces had proved when the yacht was taken.
I went back inside, no longer wanting to question the woman about the meeting or any of that. I needed to know whatever she knew about Richard because his Mercedes was parked in the lot not far from my own Volks. What was he doing and whatever he was doing or who he was really was might be important to me and the other Dwarfs?

Beach patrol was due to begin at four p.m. and my partner was Gularte, once again. I hadn’t been careful in scheduling who I worked with because I’d been so busy that scheduling had eluded me, whatever my commander status seemed to otherwise indicate.

I went home to change into uniform, marginally upset that I’d been seeking answers from Pat that I might have otherwise sought from my wife, who had more life experience, more intellect and had only our family’s survival and success in mind. What was I thinking?

When I drove into my driveway and parked it was impossible not to notice Richard’s Mercedes parked in the next driveway over, the one that belonged to Chuck Stewart, a not so nice young dentist who wouldn’t appreciate his driveway being blocked.

I rushed inside. I didn’t think Richard was stopping by to be social as he didn’t seem the type, although about that, because of his trademark cowboy hat, boots and always ready smile, I couldn’t be certain.

I walked through the front door and immediately saw Richard sitting at the edge of the kitchen counter across the expanse of the living room, his smile bigger than ever.

“Richard,” I said, my tone not one of real greeting or question.

“It’s in the harbor,” Richard said, getting to his feet but not letting go of a cup of coffee my wife had obviously made for him. Richard had been in my apartment for some time, I realized.

“What’s in the harbor?” I asked, walking up to the counter.

“The boat you went to search on that island,” my wife replied, walking over to the counter to take a seat next to Richard.

“How’s that possible?” I asked, stunned, “we were just out there.”

“Richard has an even bigger boat,” my wife said, ignoring my question. “When can we go look at both of them?”

I just stood looking at the two of them, both wearing the same goofy expressions the Dwarfs all wore when we were at one of our meetings.

“This isn’t entertainment,” I hissed, “there’s danger in whatever’s going on and, apparently, nobody else seems to understand that.”

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Cowardly Lion Book One by James Strauss