When I finished my delivery to the assembled passengers, the staff crew and the audience repaired to the back of the Lido deck. The World Discoverer's ('Lindy') fantail was one flat teak surface, polished clean with brushes and stones at least once a day. There were tables and lounge chairs aplenty. No one had to stand, so, except for a few people at the rail who were watching both Isle of the Tsar of Russia Islands waning in the distance, everyone collected in pockets around the tables. Marlys and a few of her assistants took orders. They brought out drinks from the inside bar. I sat with Don and Dutch at the same table. Marlys delivered a bowl of coffee, already pre-mixed with cream and sugar, and placed it in front of me, then walked off to let an assistant take the other’s orders. Don’s eyes twinkled. He looked at my coffee bowl, his squinty expression one of suspicion.
Several passengers had come and gone from our table. Their questions were endless, all revolving around the rather grim survival tale I had spun earlier. By transforming Don into the true leader of our adventure away from the ship, my fake story never approached the true risks we had faced. A young woman made her way through the crowd. I was amazed when I recognized her. I had never seen the Basque outside of Don’s cabin. Her body was as exotic and alluring as her face. The crowd parted around her, the men turning in waves to watch her movements. She leaned over Don’s shoulder. He didn’t notice. She tapped him on the arm. Don started, leaning to hear something she said. When she finished, he got up and departed. They walked away together.
Dutch and I watched them intently. Mostly we analyzed and appreciated the back of her body. Dutch signed for several large tropical drinks when Marlys’ assistant returned. I wondered what an Assistant Cruise Director earned, particularly when I spied the size of the bill. Drinks from the Lido bar were not cheap.
Dutch drank half of one of the Mai Tai’s down, or whatever the bright colored drink was.
Wiping his mouth, he asked: “What do you suppose she wants?”
I drew a blank. The Basque was not a woman I could possibly figure out. The mere thought of attempting it caused me to look for Marlys.
“What’s the plan when we get to St. Paul?” Dutch inquired when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be drawn into a discussion about the strange woman.
“St. Paul?” I asked.
I had already checked my satellite maps though, and I knew that St. Paul was the westernmost of the Pribilof Island chain. The only one with a natural harbor. It also had a permanent population. Dutch presumed correctly that I knew something about the place. I concealed my knowledge, however.
“The pouch? Are you going to tell me about the pouch?” I pestered him, still watching the serious discussion between the Basque and Botany Bay.
Dutch went to work on the second drink saying nothing more. He vacated his seat without comment when Don returned with Maialen on his arm, but he didn’t leave. Dutch didn’t comment until he was ready to depart.
“Kessler’s meeting us in St. Paul. He got himself aboard a fishing boat out of Sitka.” Dutch shook his head while he spoke, his expression sour, but there was something else in it.
I couldn’t quite understand, possibly a tinge of fear or despondency.
“Who’s Kessler?” I asked, not liking Dutch’s expression at all.
Don answered as the Assistant Cruise Director was walking away.
“Kessler’s the real captain. He’s quite a nice gentleman. But he exercises no control over Borman. And Borman will be angry that he can’t make believe he’s the captain anymore. He’ll also be all over the place with his sadistic anger, instead of up on the bridge.”
The Basque began to hum gently. It was The Mouseketeer Song. Don smiled at her but spoke to me.
“Kessler’s also her Dad, or rather, her step-father,” Don continued.
I grimaced, covering my intense surprise, but said nothing. Kessler was the Basque’s father. Somehow, that had to be bad news, I knew.
Don had indicated that the Aguiak Island would be reached around dawn.
I needed sleep. I was also intensely hungry. I ran down to the empty Filipino kitchen. Ham sandwiches sat atop a serving plate. I ate four of them, in only minutes, before departing to my cabin.
A constant knocking brought me out of my sleep. The cabin was totally dark. I had sealed over the porthole using duct tape and cardboard. I oriented myself and then checked my watch. The big radiating numbers and hands indicated that it was nearly two a.m. I moved to my door, the top sheet wrapped about my body. I didn’t switch on the light. I turned the handle. Marlys forced the door open. She slid through, closing it behind her, then glided by me. She found my single chair in the dark. I returned to my bunk pressing myself into the bulkhead.
“I must not sleep with this woman,” I murmured over and over again to myself, too silently for her to hear.
She began to talk. “I promised to take off my clothes if you asked me to,”
I said nothing, but blood rushed to all the inappropriate places of my body.
“Are you going to ask me?” she went on.
I looked to where she had to be but could see nothing of her in the darkness.
“It’s dark. I can’t see in the dark. It’d be pointless,” I stalled.
She knew it and came right back at me. “You can turn on the light. It won’t offend me.”
I swallowed. I had expected the meeting, but I had not expected a full frontal attack as I emerged from a deep sleep. Where was her finesse? And I had not expected her analytical presentation, flatly cold in its delivery, with emotional words expressed without emotion.
“You said you wanted to talk to me,” I began. “It’s late. I’m tired. Very tired. What is it you came here to say?”
I looked to where I thought the door to be and wondered who else might wander on in. Alice, I thought, from Alice in Wonderland. Why not?
“You seem to think that I’m some sort of religious leader, or guru, or something like that. I’ve heard the talk. I’m not what you think. They also say that you are something other than what you say. That you are more than you admit. I don’t know what to believe. But I need your help.”
My eyes could finally make her out, sitting on my chair, not five feet away. I considered her words.
“Is that why you’re willing to take your clothes off? To induce me to help you in some unknown way?” I didn’t need to put the question to her, of course. I knew the answer.
“Yes,” she answered, immediately, and then paused. “Mostly,” she finished. My heart fluttered a little at her last.
“Will you help me?” she begged. I breathed in and out deeply.
“Let’s make a deal,” I suggested. “You keep your clothes on until you want to take them off because you want to take them off. Whatever the problem is, if it’s within my power, I’ll help. Can I go back to sleep now?”
She said nothing, sitting in the darkness. I heard gentle movement. I felt her close. Her lips somehow found mine in the dark. She kissed me, so quickly and gently that I had no time to react at all. Then she went to the door and was gone. The door clicked after her, and I couldn’t sleep for another hour, or so. My last thought was about the assistance she needed. Probably wanted somebody killed, which seemed likely with everything else that had happened. I realized that, if that was the case, it was assistance I could provide a lot more easily than what I thought might be expected of me.
My chain locker alarm went off with wild abandon. I jumped out of sleep and then settled back. The Filipinos were beginning their work on the anchor. Sleep was done. I hurried into my clothes and gear, wearing the Wellingtons, even though there would be some climbing. With the cardboard off my porthole, I saw that the summit of the island approximated the altitude of the massif we had climbed when we were on the Isle of the Tsar of Russia.
I grabbed my canvas sack with the Stryker and morphine inside, just in case, then made my way towards the Zodiac portal, arriving just in time. Filipe saw me stick my head out the hatch. I heard Dutch command him to depart, but Filipe only looked around and dawdled. I jumped onto the big rubber tube, depositing myself next to Dutch at the bow.
“Thanks for waiting,” I said, as Filipe opened up the outboard’s throttle.
We skimmed across the calm water at top speed. Our passenger group of ‘volunteers’ for the ‘hearty athletic hike’ was small. Only six males. Filipe kept the throttle at maximum. The shore of Aguiak closed quickly. I could see small lapping surf throwing itself onto mounded stacks of golf ball sized stones. Polished black stones. We went at the beach hard, hitting the rocks at nearly thirty-five miles per hour. The Zodiac glided up onto the stones. We stopped dead, after sliding a distance twice the length of the boat. Filipe had canted the motor up at the very last second, to clear the shallows and any underwater rocks. I thought it an amazing feat of seamanship. I saluted the man, without expression. His own face turned serious. He made no gesture, but I read his look. One warrior to another.
Aguiak Island had two mountains, one on either end of the kidney shaped island. It was almost two islands, I saw, with the surf nearly crossing the flats between the two raised portions. Dutch set out as soon as all passengers were helped out of their life vests. We followed his brisk lead. I took up the rear. The stones made fatigue the hike’s most significant factor. My feet plunged nearly a foot deep into the stones with each step. The labor of inserting them into the stones, then forcefully withdrawing them, was draining. It got harder with each step.
By the time the group reached the foot of the mountain, Dutch was already a hundred feet above us, up into the rise. I realized that he was younger and in great shape and that he was using those attributes to distance himself. The passengers were tuckered out. They sat or milled about near the base of the mount. I told them that I’d make the climb with Dutch, then return and lead them back to the boat. I got no argument from any of them.
I pulled off my Wellingtons, threw them over my shoulders and ran. My double-socked feet barely sunk into the rocks at all. I skimmed over the stones, like a boat when it hits planning. Upon reaching the mountain itself, I jammed the Wellingtons back on and climbed aggressively. I was actually running up the side of the mountain. Just before Dutch reached the summit I caught up with him. His natural advantages below had done him little good as the climb got steeper. He was simply too big and heavy to be a fast climber. Gravity made the rules and enforced them. When I pulled up next to him, he collapsed to the ground. His breathing was hard, as was mine. We rested together.
“Damn,” he wheezed out, finally. “I guess you are in. What else can I do?”
I just looked at him, catching my own breath. The view was staggering. The entire island lay below us, with the ship beautifully set into the gentle waters of the natural harbor. Both mountains of Aguiak were covered in bright green lichen run through with clumps of yellow and red flowers. A great black band of stones surrounded the base of both peaks. It also ran as a thick band between them. I couldn’t think of anywhere I had ever been in my life that was as magnificent.
“You might as well show me whatever it is you’re talking about,” I stated, rising to my feet.
Dutch rose, his expression resigned. He turned toward the summit above us. We climbed carefully, and then ambled right over the top, not stopping. Down the other side, we entered into a narrow cleft. It spiraled down for a short distance then petered out. It appeared to be a crack in the mountain, not something caused by erosion.
I prepared myself for a stash of drugs or smuggled jewelry. I was not at all prepared, however, for what was there
Dutch continued to where the cleft narrowed. His big shoulders were almost touching each side when he stooped down. From one of his thigh pockets, he pulled out a small fold-up pick and struck the bottom of one wall, time after time. Then he stopped, replaced the hammer-like instrument back into his pocket, and took out the pouch Günter had provided. Dutch turned to me with a slowly opening fist. What he held in his unclenched hand was a gold nugget.
I had never seen one like it, but there was no doubt what it was. The nugget was run through with green lines. I plucked the lemon-sized nugget out of his hand. I hefted it. It was extremely heavy for its size.
“The green lines are copper,” I thought, the knowledge coming from somewhere in the archives of useless data stored within an unused corner of my mind. The nugget must have weighed four pounds. Dutch snatched it back. He forced it into the small pouch and then placed the pouch in one of his trouser thigh pockets.
I waited for him to move out of the way and then knelt to check out the place from which he’d had removed the nugget. What I saw was a vein. A foot wide, and about ten feet long, running down into the ground at the end of the cleft. I did some very rough calculations in my head. I came up with maybe ten tons of gold, if the vein played out after only twenty feet, or so, and was only five feet deep. The likelihood was that it ran farther and deeper than that. We climbed out of the cleft without saying anything. Dutch walked over to the very summit, sat on the highest stone, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. I crouched next to him.
“So now you know,” he said with regret, as he blew out a puff of smoke.
I knew. My mind whirled.
“Who else knows?” I asked him.
“Kessler, Günter, and me,” he answered. “But it’s U.S. government land. Kessler’s got to get some rights or permission. We’re not even supposed to be here right now. Borman’s drunk in his quarters, or else we wouldn’t be here. Had to get him drunk. Had to get here. Günter’s got to get this sample assayed in Dutch Harbor, so we’re sure. It’s my only chance now.”
“You’re only chance?” I said, in exasperation. “What the hell was that all about with the anchor, then?”
He studied me.
“None of this matters if immigration takes me in St. Paul. I go straight into the system. I get deported back to Easter Island without ever seeing or talking to anyone. I don’t get a share of anything.” His frown was so intense that both of his eyebrows had become one.
I could not help but smile.
“What’s so funny?” he snapped, with real anger.
“This isn’t your only chance,” I said, pointing back behind us at the cleft. “I’m your only chance.” I smiled up at him again. The frown left his face, as he began to think.
“Yeah, I guess so, but what about this?” At that, I snickered openly.
He pulled the fat canvas pouch from his pocket to inspect it.
“That,” I said, slowly and carefully, “is why immigration is waiting for you in St. Paul.”