The letter had stated that I was to proceed to a place called the Cotton Estate, in San Clemente, and report in there. It had included no additional instructions, other than the confidentiality clause, and it had not been signed by anyone. I reflected ruefully, for a moment, on my departure from the First Civil Affiars Group. If I had been able to control myself better, when I was with Colonel Taylor and Captain Merrill, I might have learned more. I might have been able to get a peek at the orders which had been delivered to Howling Jack. My orders had been unsigned, but it was very unlikely that the Commanding Officer of any Regimental Support Team in the United States Marine Corps would have accepted any document that was not impeccably inscribed and signed. But, that chance, to at least have the identity of whoever was behind the orders, was lost. I smiled widely, however, as I wound the Volkswagen deftly through the curves of Camp Horno, on my way back to the Pulgas gate. I repeated the words of my exit from the Civil Affairs Group, then laughed aloud. The XO had given me a last look, so twisted and intense, that it had been as if a lighted cigar had been inserted into his mouth, burning tip first. I laughed some more, with both front door windows cranked down, and the small tinny FM radio belting out: "In the Year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive...."
The Calafia exit, from Northbound Interstate 5, loomed ahead. I began to slow from my Volks' top speed of eighty-eight miles per hour. I had thought to call my wife, back at our apartment, but there had been no place to call from. There was also the stipulation, in my single sheet of orders, which said "immediately." I guided the car across the overpass, and toward the ribbon of blue ocean visible near the horizon, to the West. The exit took me to El Camino, which took me to the San Luis Rey overpass. The overpass ran into Pacific Palisades. That street ran half the length of San Clemente, paralleling the beach atop, alternately, one hundred foot bluffs and dunes rolling just above flat sandy beach coves. I turned South at the "T" made by the dead-ending of the road over the interstate. I crumpled my one page of orders between the buttons of my Class A green coat, straightened the tie clip on my cream colored Marine tie, then headed for the end of the road. Expensive homes lined the area, between the cliff down to the ocean, and the road I was on. I passed first, a small grade school, then the Coast Guard station. The road abruptly ended, just beyond the station. I turned around and crept back the way I had come. Recessed back, just before you got to the Coast Guard Station, was a large white wall with a big arch in it. I had missed it. A small asphalt road rant under the arch.
I drove to the arch, which had been converted into a gate. The gate had a guard, who only stepped out after I had stopped in front of a rickety looking wooden saw-horse. The guard turned out to be a single Marine Lance Corporal in field utilities. He stood at Parade Rest, next to the driver-side window, then slowly saluted. I didn't know if he was saluting the blue Officer base-sticker on the windshield, or if he had seen the yellow bars on my shoulders. I did not salute back. My cover was on the passenger seat. Marines did not salute indoors or uncovered, unlike Army personnel.
"How can I help you, sir," the Marine said, his arms dropping to his sides. Once he had finished the short sentence, his right hand rose up and extended to the window, as if waiting for some contribution. I looked at the hand. I knew immediately that security was tighter than the saw horse gave the impression of. The hand was waiting for documents of identification and some sort of clearance for why I was there. I said nothing, working my wallet our of my back pocket. I took out my military identification card, then pulled out the single sheet of orders from inside my blouse. He took the I.D. card, but just waved at the piece of paper. "Be right back, sir," the Lance Corporal said. I waited. I looked over at the Coast Guard Station, wondering if I was somehow going to be connected to that place until I processed out of the Corps. The wait grew so lengthy that I finally turned the ignition key off, and pulled my left arm out of the hot morning sun.
The Lance Corporal came back. "Proceed down the road, and through the next gate. Park next to the wall. Someone will meet you at the door." I took my I.D. card back. "What is the Cotton Estate, anyway?" I asked, then "Do they grow cotton here?" The Corporal just looked at me. "I don't know, sir," he said, deadpan, then moved to the front of the car to pull back the saw-horse. I shrugged. I had been having a nice day-dream about sailing a Coast Guard skiff among a bevy of Southern California beach beauties, but it did not appear that that was going to be my assigned function. I drove away, as instructed. The new black tarmac weaved back and forth several times, before the vegetation cleared, and I as able to see a second wall, with a second arch. I presumed the Marine's description of a second gate was, in reality, the second arch. I stopped near a barred wooden door, set deep into the solid stone wall. I got out of the Volks to examine it. It was one of those thick old wooden things with black steel straps. There was no visible handle or port. I looked around, feeling foolish, then tapped on the door. I would have said "open sesame" at the same time, but I was intrigued by everything that had happened that morning, and a bit unsure of myself.
The door sucked silently open. A tall suited stranger filled the space left by the door. The man wore a small radio microphone in his right ear, and aviator sun glasses. The glasses were of too dark a material to allow me to see the man's eyes. I had only seen Secret Service Agents on television, but I knew instantly that I was standing in front of one of them.
"Identification?" the man said, his hand extending out, in exactly the same way the Marine's had. I noted that he did not refer to me as 'sir.' "Wait here," he said, then left with my I.D. card, just as the Marine had. "Holy shit," i breathed, very quietly. Until that moment I had not realized that, whatever I had somehow stepped into, was not to be taken lightly. The Secret Service was a serious outfit. Also, the Marine guard out front was not there for play. Real Marine guards were only used for National Security assignments. The rest of security was contracted out. The man returned, but his hands were empty.
"This way," he said, gesturing with the slight flip of his left shoulder, while closing the door with his right hand. The door clicked instead of slamming. I realized that the door only looked like an old Spanish entryway. I wondered what it was really made of. I followed the man. "What about my I.D. card?" I said to the walking man's back. We walked through several more doorways, the doors always open. Finally, we stepped through an interior arch into a great windowed room. The agent stopped, turned, then leaned close to whisper, "You'll get your I.D., and a new one, when you leave....I think." He then departed the way we had come. "He thinks?" I whispered to myself. I looked out across the Spanish tile floor of the room. It was well appointed, with expensive furniture. The floor was partially covered by large Persian rugs, the kind I had only seen in stores.
The room's windows ran side by side along the far wall, giving a complete curved panorama of the breaking waves, which were moving ceaselessly in toward a long beach of flat beautiful sand. I noticed a man. He was standing, facing the ocean, right up close to the windows. He wore an unusual cream-colored suit. A distinctive feature caught my immediate attention. The man's blond hair was cut strangely. His haircut was like a Marine cut, except it was flat on top. It was an old flat-top cut I had only seen in photos and on television, not in real life. I looked around, but there was no one else in the room. I walked to stand next to the blond, flat-topped man. He was taller than me by several inches. I looked up at his chiseled profile. He face was clean-shaven, the muscles of his jaw tight, individually distinguishable, while his nose was long and straight. His face was slightly too long, I decided, and he looked a little too much like the Marine Corps posters of the perfect Marine. Every real Marine hated those posters. I didn't know what to say, so I turned and looked out at the waves too. We stood like that for several minutes.
"You're orders are from me," he said, his eyes remaining glued to the ocean just outside the windows. I held myself rigid, next to the man. I felt that he would tell me when to say something. I listened, and stared at the sea. When the man talked it was almost impossible to discern lip movement, I noted. "You'll be working for me," the man said, his lips again not moving. I felt an impulse to giggle. Maybe the man was a ventriloquist sent to entertain the President, I thought. But I did not even smile. I finally could not contain myself anymore. "Who are you, sir?" I asked.
"I'm H.R. Halderman, advisor to the President of the United States," he said, the words rolling out one after another, as if a tape was being played at a slower speed than it was recorded, with all emotion sucked out of it. "They call me H.R., behind my back....so don't." I nodded, wanting to ask "don't what?" but I didn't. H.R. Halderman flicked his head to the rear. Somehow I knew, from the gesture, that our strange, one-sided interview was over. I turned, heading for the arch I had come in under. "We start at 0900 in the morning around here," he said. I nodded, although I knew he couldn't see me. The Secret Service agent appeared, magically, at the arch by the time I got there. He handed me my I.D. back. "You get a new one in the morning. Don't be late. He doesn't like to start late." I nodded, putting my I.D. card away. "Start what?" I said, very quietly, so H.R. Halderman would not hear me.
"You work for H.R. now. Welcome to his world," the agent said.