Into the Breach
Dr. Murphy was in his cabin. In spite of the shipboard informality I was becoming accustomed to, I knocked. His door opened. The aging man let me in. He waved me to recline on one of his unmade bunks. I looked around briefly, wondering if the Filipinos ever entered his place. It wasn’t dirty, but the room was unkempt everywhere I could see. He sat in his single small chair, identical to the one in my own cabin. He peered at me over the top of his tri-focal glasses. I thought about what I needed to say for a moment.
The doctor might be totally unnecessary, with respect to the mission, or he could determine, like in the song, “who went free or who to blame.” Earlier, we had worked well together as a team. I had acted as the doctor, however, and he as my assistant. We had administered more than fifty morphine injections to seasick passengers, as well as to the Basque and Dutch, who more likely suffered from hangovers from the Mouseketeer blowout, rather than seasickness. In many ways, we had left legality behind when we departed St. Lawrence Island.
The highlight of the services we performed had involved the strange antics of a beautiful female passenger. She had demanded to strip naked in front of us, in order to receive the injection in one of her buttock muscles. Afterward, outside her closed cabin door, both of us had taken some deep breaths. If we’d been smokers, we’d have lighted up right there and then.
“I have some business in the part of Russia we’ll enter tomorrow morning. The kind of business that it is, well, that could end with one or more people suffering trauma. One of them could be me. I need you aboard, standing by, in case that happens.”
The doctor fiddled with some small items on his dresser. I noted that there were none of the native carvings present. Finally, he took his glasses off entirely, setting them aside.
“You’re Agency material, aren’t you?” the doctor remarked.
My eyes widened for an instant. I had not expected such an accurate observation. I didn’t know what to say, so I remained silent, attempting to give nothing away.
“I’ve been around, you know,” he went on. “I’ve been around the horn a time or two myself.” He laughed, obviously relishing the memory of earlier exploits, when he was much younger.
“They call you Indy, after that Hollywood character. Didn’t much like the movie, myself. But you’re no make-believe joker like him. You know how I know?”
I was nonplussed. I signaled for him to continue.
“I know because you look like the others. The others I knew. Not many. There’s not many of you. You guys don’t look like what you are. And you don’t act like it either. In fact, you act like the nicest guys in the world. All heart. But your heart is totally owned by the Agency. Isn’t it?”
He finished, probably not expecting an answer, and replaced the glasses back onto the bridge of his long thin nose. Again, I had nothing to say. I could not honestly answer his question, and I didn’t want to lie to wise old gentleman. I didn’t really know the answer anyway, and I surely didn’t like the feeling it gave me thinking about it.
“I’ll stand by,” he said. “God knows we’ve plenty of morphine left. Should buy some more, but I’ll stay on board. Whatever you’re doing, I’ll support you. You thought you helped me out. I appreciate that.” He held out his gnarled bony hand.
I took it. We shook firmly, like real men. I just was not at all certain that I was a real man, not his definition of one, anyway. As I was leaving, I doubted about his choice of tense. He had said that I ‘thought’ I had helped him. Why he had not thanked me for actually helping him I didn’t know. But I didn’t like it.
Another series of huge swells swept under the hull of the ‘Lindy’. I had to stop outside in the corridor, and hang on to a railing support stanchion, before I could go on. I realized that very soon I would sorely miss this tossing deck, the smell of the wild sea and, quite possibly, the whacked-out people I had met since boarding the ship.
I made it to my cabin. I had left it unlocked, but my deadbolt was thrown. I checked my pockets. I didn’t have my key. I was locked out of my own cabin.
“Jesus Christ,” I swore in anger.
I tried knocking. I heard the sound of the deadbolt, and the door opened. There were no lights on. The porthole was taped over. I stepped in and hit the light switch. Benito sat on my bunk. I would have said Jesus Christ again, this time even louder, but I was too afraid.
“I gave up,” the big woman said, looking a little less like Mussolini, maybe a little more like Washington up on that cliff at Rushmore.
I elevated one eyebrow, sending the message of surprise across the room to her.
“I brought my bag. I decided that the only real way to spend time with you was to sleep in your cabin. You have an extra bunk. I’ve decided to settle in.”
My breath sagged out of me, more air coming out each time, than went back in. I didn’t know what to say to my uninvited guest.
Benito did not ask questions, even when she ended sentences with a question mark. She simply declared, and that was it. If I slept this night, in my cabin, then I would do so with Benito in, at the very least, my adjoining bunk. Under the circumstances, I did the only thing I thought possible at the moment.
“I’ll be right back,” I vowed.
Then I fled. I noted that she was playing my newly acquired CD player. The song was Somewhere Over the Rainbow, by a Hawaiian singer named Izzy something. Another great song, and, again, so very appropriate, I thought.
I careened down the corridor to Don’s cabin. This one I went right into. Don was lounging on his extra bunk. An indistinguishable shape lay under the sheets of the other. The Basque, like Dutch in his own cabin, would likely be out until morning. I’d hit her with ten milligrams and Dutch with fifteen. I wouldn’t have used the morphine on either if I’d had a choice. I needed them both clear-headed in the morning. Dutch, at the very least. Don had been insistent that they get the shots, however, once he found out what I was giving them.
“Thanks for putting her out. She’s been an emotional mess for days. She needed the break,” he said, holding out his hand. I shook it, and then spoke.
“And here I thought you might want to enjoy the fruits of my work all night long.” We both laughed.
Don had been enjoying those ‘fruits’ since we’d left Nome, and probably before, without any drugs, and we both knew it.
“What’s your plan?” he asked.
First I told him of Benito’s encampment in my quarters. All he could do was howl.
“What do ya think? Maybe thirty, no, make that forty milligrams of morphine to put her out.” He got hysterical.
I kept my poise. Finally, he returned to a serious state.
I explained; “The reason I didn’t want anybody from the team out cold is because I need to brief them on what we’re going to do. We’ll be in Provideniya in the morning.”
Don interrupted me: “You’ve not sailed this coast before, have you?”
He knew the answer. I went along with the interrogation, as he knew I would.
He clarified matters: “In the morning we’ll actually arrive in the mouth of a long stretch of calm water leading to Provideniya. Provideniya is another hundred and fifty miles after that, plus we have to wait for a Russian pilot to be brought out. When we get to the port we have to collect everybody’s passports and turn them over to the authorities. Then we have to wait till they clear us. You’ll have plenty of time. We won’t be going ashore until the following morning.”
My relief was palpable.
“Ever done a ‘business thing’ like this before,” he asked, taking out one of the cigarettes he no longer smoked.
He glanced quickly at the Basque’s unconscious form. I got the idea that she did not allow him to smoke in the cabin. He lit up while I thought. Don was my most important contact, player and the one man aboard I trusted completely. I would not lie to him if I did not have to. I held up four fingers.
“Four? You’ve done this four times before?” “Where?” he said, his inflection telling me that he did not believe me.
“Colombia, Morocco, Kenya, and Sierra Leone,” I ticked off, quickly.
“Okay, I believe you. I’m not sure why. But I’m glad. Glad you have an idea what you’re doing.” Don nodded his head, sagely. “What about the gold? What are we going to do? How are we going to do that? We can’t just claim we’re doing archeological work and dig for gold!” He took a few more hits from his cigarette, and then extinguished it. “I’ve been up on that damned peak a dozen times. I’ve seen that cleft. It’s some sort of volcanic stress relief crack, I know. God, who would ever have thought?”
I lacked answers to his questions. The gold was a nearly mythical quest. I could not reconcile these three facts: the gold was genuine; extraordinarily inaccessible and more importantly; subordinate to the mission. There was no sense thinking about some sort of great fortune if I was not going to be around to enjoy it. Missions of the nature I was embarked upon were insidiously dangerous, entirely unpredictable, and without a ‘Plan B’ or fallback position.
“That’s good news, about the channel we have to travel up. It’ll be calm, so we don’t have these swells to contend with, or all the seasick people.”
I raised one eyebrow at the Basque, when I said that, but Don only coughed.
“I can get a night’s sleep, maybe,” I said, wistfully.
Where?” Don said.
I grimaced, and then went to the door.
“See you in the morning. You need to know the target, and I need your experience on the ground. We have one contact, a Doctor Khromov, director of the Anthropology Museum in Provideniya. Do you know him?”
Don shook his head. “I know the place though. A neat little operation, in an otherwise wreck of a city.”
I closed the door behind me and headed for Marlys’ cabin.
Marlys opened her door. She was wearing a white robe, and little else. The robe had cascaded open when she’d turned. I swallowed twice, then stepped in, and closed the door behind me. She sat in her small chair, the robe splitting open when she crossed her legs. I could not help glancing down.
“You Americans are so hung up on this body stuff,” she reproached me, shaking her head, but she did not cover her exposed legs.
She rummaged in a dresser drawer, while I looked at the open cabinet of her shrine. A single candle burned inside, next to the shot glass of water. I wondered if my photo was still in there, but I was too low, sitting on the edge of her bunk, to be able to see. She took out a long cigarette and lit it, blowing the smoke toward me. I inhaled. Normally, the smell of cigarette smoke bothered me. Not so with her smoke. I inhaled, as if taking it directly from her lungs. I liked the smell and the feeling.
Then I caught myself. I was in enough trouble on this mission. I did not need more.
“You said ‘thanks’ when we were at the bar,” I said. But she just blew more smoke my way. “Thanks for what?” I went on.
“For helping me with that little fat bastard Hathoot,” she finally answered.
I replied, “I didn’t do anything, really. He came to me and told me about the twenty thousand in indentures. Later, of course, he said that I could have my way with you, as long as I stayed out of his business.”
We looked at each other, and she inhaled some more smoke. She was the first to speak.
“Do you think you can have your way with me?” she asked.
I rubbed my hands together in my lap, hard, and I felt tension build across my shoulders.
“I have business in Russia. I think you’re…unusual. I think you could be very, very dangerous. First though, I must do this thing. I need your help. I’ll help you with Hathoot. I’ll help you get off the ship and out of his control.” My shoulders dropped in release. I watched her closely as she sifted my remarks.
“My mother is his hostage in Sri Lanka. I can’t do anything. And you didn’t answer my question. But I’ll help you. I must help you. It has nothing to do with you, really.”
She smoked some more.
“We need to talk about the mission tomorrow so you know what to do,” I said, glad to talk about something other than that question. “Your mother’s not a problem. We can get her out too.”
“The Commander will never allow that,” she shot back, anger in her voice.
I looked at her without expression. “However, Commander Hathoot may well become a non-issue in this whole affair…or quite possibly, in life.”
She met my eyes. “And I know what you want me to do.”
I scratched my temple at that. “What?” I asked her, almost not wanting her opinion.
She answered anyway.
“You want me to do what I do. You want me to be me. And you don’t want me to wear a shroud when I do it.”
I appreciated that, but she went on without emotion, “You need a good night’s sleep. I’ll help you.”
She stood up. “Take off your sweater and the shirt under it,” she said, standing, and then turned her back to rummage again in her dresser.
I complied, feeling exposed. I stood there, bare-chested. She held a piece of string out in front of her. She approached me, took my right hand and pressed it against the string, where she had placed one end against the skin of my chest. She backed up, pulled, and then made the string tight.
“Now walk toward me slowly, pulling in the string with your other hand.”
Slowly I complied, until I was standing six inches away from her. It was intoxicating to stand there, so close to her, and stare into her eyes. I caught sight of my photo, still adorning the shrine.
“Okay, that’s it, you can go sleep in your room, she’s gone.”
Marlys replaced the piece of string in her drawer and took out a small bottle of clear water, tightly capped. She took my hand and plopped the bottle into it.
“Put this under your bed. It’ll keep her from coming back.”
I nodded, dumbly, bottle in hand.
“Who?” I inquired, innocently.
“I think you know who, but if you want to sleep here, in the extra bunk, you can.” She patted the upper berth.
My eyes went back to the open shrine, and my photo. I thanked her and left, putting my shirt and sweater on in the corridor. My cabin door gaped open, when I arrived there. Benito was nowhere to be seen. I locked the dead bolt. Slowly, I reached under the mattress and set the small bottle under the outside edge.
“I’ll be double-damned…” I said, then lay down, and fell fast asleep.