CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

Beat to Quarters

The cylindrically machined suppressor was cold in my hand, where it had remained since Cherno returned it to my possession. It felt bitterly cold. I slipped it, with some difficulty, into my front left pants’ pocket, before opening the hatch to the bridge. The suppressor bulged outward, but my shirt, hanging loose over two belts of gold, partially concealed its size and shape. The empty automatic rested deep down at the bottom of my right front pocket.

Borman stood next to the helmsman, staring forward, his eyes obviously following the departing movement of the Russian cruiser, off the World Discoverer's starboard bow. Günter sat near the back of the bridge on a high cushioned bench. His head swiveled to take in my presence. The helmsman did not look up.

“Herr Indy is on the deck, my captain,” Günter said in German, his eyes riveted on me.

Borman glanced over.

“Leave us,” he ordered the helmsman.

Günter immediately sprang up and replaced the man, his hands settling themselves automatically atop the ship’s control console. There was no wheel on the Lindy’s bridge. The whole affair, from bow and stern thrusters to main engines, was operated by small gimbaled levers and sliding controllers. All were located on a single console in the center of the bridge area. A high chair, mounted atop a single thick pipe, was located just behind the console. Günter slipped into the seat easily, as if it had been molded for him.

“The Russian’s clear, all ahead, half, together,” Borman commanded.

Günter repeated the order exactly, except for the part about the Russian. The ship responded instantly to his adjustments of the implements on his console. The big vessel no longer wallowed and bobbed. Our movement through the water became smooth. Huge waves passed under us as we progressed forward, toward the U.S. mainland, running solidly in the trough.

There was a second high chair not far from the first. It sat behind what looked to be a radar-receiving console. Large overhead rubber hood concealed the screen, however. I inserted myself uncomfortably into the chair. Its swivel caused me to turn sideways. I had to grab the side of the console to right myself, and face toward the bow.

Borman placed his hands down, widespread, and leaned forward toward the thick glass of the bridge windows. He stood directly in front of Günter, in full uniform, wearing his white hat. He looked every bit the captain of a vessel driving through rough seas.

“What is it you request of me now?” The First Mate asked, this time in English.

I studied the man’s profile. When Borman was being First Mate, I realized, he was like a completely different man.   Now, as acting Captain, he was overcome with his own power. I had expected to be able to merely intimate the need for him to turn the vessel back over to Kessler, and have him comply. I saw, and felt, in looking at the man, and gauging the tone of his commanding voice, that that was not going to happen. Borman was not going to surrender command of the Lindy except under great pressure.

“I want you to return command of the ship to Kessler immediately. He’s ambulatory, waiting on the Lido deck, with respect, for you to stand down.”

I did not need an answer from the man.  I read my answer in his body language.

I knew he was not going to surrender his command so easily. When he finally did make a sound, I was very surprised, however. He began to laugh. Günter joined him. They laughed together, with some enthusiasm, for nearly half a minute. I knew that they were laughing, not only at the idea of Borman giving up command, but also at me for asking him to.

My face colored. It was probably not visible to either man in the weak light available at the center of the bridge area, but a red tinge suffused my appearance. I was not stunned by Borman’s behavior, but I was surprised at his open contempt for me, and the proper suggestion I had put before him. I breathed deeply, knowing that I was tied deeply into operational mode, and struggling to control myself.

When silence reigned, I spoke again.

“Actually, I came up here to make that request, but also to tell you a story.”

I waited for either man to comment, before I continued. “When I was in combat, some time ago, I returned from the field to the Battery area of my Artillery Regiment.  I was billeted with a bunch of lieutenants who ran the guns. One was lying in his bunk. His .45 automatic hung above him on a hook attached to the ammo crate wall of the hooch. Another lieutenant had taken a dislike to that officer. He said something disagreeable to him, which everyone there, except for me, thought was hilarious. When the laughing quieted, there was a period of deadly silence. The lieutenant on his bunk, who had been through some difficult combat, reached up, pulled his .45 from its holster, and announced: ‘You think that’s funny? That’s not funny. This is funny!’ He then aimed the .45 down at the floor, and shot the offending officer in the foot. The wounded man leaped upward, jumping about the hooch on one leg. He finally fell, spent, to grasp his shattered foot with both hands, half-screaming, half-crying. ‘Now that’s funny,’ the armed lieutenant said, laughing all by himself.”

I stopped talking. Only Günter looked over at me.

I pulled the suppressor from my left pocket, with some difficulty, working it free, and then placing in on my lap. With my right hand, I retrieved the Kel-tec. Slowly, I began fitting the silencer onto the muzzle of the automatic.

“Kapitan...” Günter called, his voice hesitant, as if he did not truly believe what he was seeing.

Borman turned, and then froze when his eyes fell fully upon me. I held the completed weapon system on my lap, my swivel chair turned to face both men.

“They called in for a Medivac that day,” I said, softly, my voice almost a purr. “They had to take one officer to the aid station for surgery, and the other one for a psych evaluation. Which place do you think they’ll be taking you?”

Borman and Günter looked at one another, and then stared back at me. Borman brought his hands up before his chest.

“There is no need for this kind of thing. I did not say I would not give Kessler his command back. If he is capable, then he is the captain, after all.”

“He wouldn’t really shoot us,” Günter assured the Captain, and then looked back at me, as if for confirmation.

I just sat there with the assembled gun in my lap, pointing it at no one.

“No, no, I don’t think so,” Borman stated, but his attitude was conciliatory, as he spoke the words, his hands still palm out in front of him. “Indy here, is, however, a rather small, innocent looking, and very violent man.

He shot the Purser without even blinking, and then would have shot him again without hesitation. People died outside Provideniya. I don’t know how many died at his hand. I am simply making the correct and rational decision.” He directed his last comment at me.

“Good.” I said.  “Sorry we had to have this discussion. We’ll just pretend that our misunderstanding never happened. Borman, you take the helm. Günter, you go down to the Lido deck and retrieve the Captain. Dutch is at the bar, of course, so enlist his help. First Mate Borman and I will wait up here for your return.”

I disassembled the Kel-tec, returning its parts back into my pockets. Günter was gone when I looked up.

Borman stood at the helm. He gestured toward the bow.

“That Russkie isn’t done with us. I just get that feeling from the man. I don’t like him.” Borman talked nervously.

I settled him down, as best I could, by talking to him.

“I’m just a tool, you know. Like any other tool. Use me. I’m on your side. I have good reason to be. I want and need the gold, too. I have the credentials, and, as you suggest, quite possibly the most pertinent qualifications to accomplish that mission, on all of our behalf’s.”

I finished, then stepped over to the German. I stuck out my hand. He took it immediately, his grip strong and solid. We both smiled. I sensed that his smile was genuine.

“You wouldn’t have needed a silencer,” he said. “There is nobody else who could have heard the gun.”

“It was for dramatic effect. I didn’t really want to shoot you at all, much less poor Günter. He would be ruined for Marlys.”

Borman snorted, his confidence fully restored.

“But you would have shot us anyway, wouldn’t you?”

I nodded. The man deserved to know, indeed, that I would have fired my gun. But I was not about to tell him that the Kel-tec had no bullets, and that none were available within a hundred miles of our position. I had bluffed and they had folded.

“We have a deal then? Just like before?” he asked. I told him that we did.

He went on. “We have to go on down to Antarctica. All of us. We don’t have any money. We need the jobs.”

I didn’t quite understand what he was saying.

“Most of us will have to wait four or five months to get back. Maybe more.”

I understood then. Borman was fishing for some guarantee that he would have something in the deal. But I had no assurance to give.

In my mind, the gold had become ephemeral. Only one nugget remained of the bullion, and the image of the vein had dimmed to the point of hallucination.

I uttered the only thing I could think of: “No problem. You’re in for a full share.”

But I did not attempt invoke the Kelly’s Heroes allusion. It seemed, up in the Northern reaches of the Bering Sea, that nobody watched much in the way of old Hollywood movies.

The hatch opened on the starboard side. Kessler thrust himself through it, pushing off the supporting hands of Dutch and Günter.

“Captain is on the deck,” Borman broadcast, loudly.

Stiffly, the captain made his way to the chair I had vacated.

“Where the hell is the helmsman? Kessler grumbled, in German, “And you,” he pointed at me, “land-lubbing anthropology swine, get off my bridge.”

I hastened from the bridge without comment, as he started giving orders to both remaining officers.

“Make all speed for Sitka,” I heard, just as the hatch slammed shut behind me.

We were only hours from Sitka and American soil.

Back on the Lido passengers thronged the deck. Even in the thirty-foot trough waves, they milled about. Most had adapted, I realized, and had acquired their sea legs. I would not be making any more runs with my special morphine seasickness remedy. They even circled all about the exterior of the helicopter way out on the exposed portion of the deck. I could see its pilots through their canopy, just sitting and waiting. The Immigration agent was nowhere to be seen.  I rested on the empty stool next to Hathoot. His color had gone back to a pasty white. The only thing holding him up was the residual morphine still in his body. Marlys came over and poured him another glass of water.

“Can I see you in my cabin later?” she asked me, her voice more commanding than inviting.

I stared at her necklace. Yemaya was back. I was no longer put off by her mystical alter ego, or whatever it was.

“Sure, when do you want me?” I laughed.

Marlys replied with a rare twitter. It made her all the more fetching. While Marlys attended waiting passengers, Hathoot removed the glass away from his mouth long enough to slur some words out.

“So, is the Captain the Captain again?” he asked, his words much less garbled.

I was baffled by how improved his health really was. I said nothing, accepting the Navy bowl of coffee Marlys had somehow prepared and delivered, before waiting on others.

“Thought so,” he said. “You’re remarkably effective and dependable. I mean, for what you are.”

I pondered his meaning, but he didn’t elaborate, as I drank my coffee.  I realized that I was famished. My belly was entitled to more than peanut butter & jelly. There was no food at the bar. Since I had to visit the boys, I could stop at the Filipino mess, along the way. I was also terribly tired, but I did not see sleep in the offing, or even the distant future. I dozed while Hathoot basically talked to himself.

“I can’t move, you know. I am quite stuck here. If I get down to Benito’s quarters, I can get some care.” He complained heartily.

Yes, he was getting better. As Dutch came onto the Lido, I beckoned him over.

“Do I have any money left at all?” Hathoot asked.

Ignoring his plea, I instructed Dutch to take him down to Benito’s quarters. At least I could do him that favor. What money Hathoot had left was jammed into my back pockets. About eight thousand, by my approximation, but I was not returning it to its owner. Not yet, if ever.

Dutch escorted the Lebanese without my answering his question. They slowly staggered off. The flesh wound in Hathoot’s thigh would heal fast, unless there were problems with infection. How fast was the only issue. He could have almost full mobility, as long as he could take the lingering pain. And the doctor had morphine, even if he could no longer read the letters on the bottle he administered it from.

I hauled my coffee with me to the bilge deck. At the mess I ate three old ham sandwiches loaded with mayonnaise and lettuce. The white bread was Wonder, or some such impersonation, and I loved it, or maybe I was just that hungry. I never sat down. I wolfed the remainder of the coffee, then made my way to the old workout room. The door was secured with a chain. Felipe had been at work. I went to his cabin where Gloria answered my knock, a key in her hand. I marveled that she knew I was coming. It was uncanny. The ways of the Filipinos were like the ways of the Chinese, inscrutable to the minds of Westerners. Filipe and Gloria both beckoned me in, but I wanted to check on the boys. I promised that I would return with the key.

I found the boys in decent shape. Ivan informed me that the Filipino crew had taken them in as two of their own, whatever that meant. I referred to the Senator’s nephew as O’Donelly. He corrected me.

“My name is Kenneth, or Ken. It isn’t O’Donelly, or kid, or boy.” I’m an adult, not a child.” He battered me with words delivered in a strident child’s tone.

I absorbed his anger, indicating my full agreement.

“And thank you,” he went on, his voice softened. “Thank you from both of us, for saving us.”

Ivan seconded that sentiment. I realized that they had had a lot of time to talk and swap stories.

“You’ll be back with your parents soon,” I promised.

They looked at one another. I felt something unpredictable coming, and waited.

“I’m not going back,” O’Donelly announced, his voice revealing only deadly conviction.

“You’re not? Then where are you going?” was all I could think of to say to that news.

“I’m going with you and Ivan.” They both smiled at one another, before smiling at me.

I was dumbstruck for a full minute.

“Where are Ivan and I going?” I asked, trying but not succeeding in overcoming my confusion.

“Wherever you tell us,” Ivan allowed.

They both just stood there, like young idiots filled with the trust and loyalty they should have been dispensing to a parent. I knew not what cliché to utter or Biblical passage to quote. I had not considered the problems inherent in their situations after our landing on U.S. soil. Of course, they would have to be assimilated in some manner or fashion. I certainly had no intention of being accompanied anywhere by two young and inexperienced acolytes, or of earning the enmity of a powerful senator who headed up the Appropriations Committee.

“We’re headed into Sitka. We’re maybe hours out. Things are going to get a bit sticky with Maxwell, and whatever authorities we might encounter there. You have no papers, neither one of you, and I am beloved by almost no one on or off this surreal ship. I’m going to leave the door unlocked now. Don’t leave this space. Just stand by until you hear from me, or anyone who says they’re from me.”

They both assented, as if young Marines responding to the orders of a senior Commanding Officer. It made me more uncomfortable.

Out in the hall, I intended to return to Filipe’s cabin and return his key. But the key was unimportant without the lock and chain. I ran into Dutch who was only slightly worse for wear from his bullet strike. He was assisting Hathoot, as if he had recovered, causing me to speculate as to whether being dumb was beneficial to physical recovery from wounds. I let the thought trail away. Dutch was like a hulking Labrador retriever, except better. As a scientist, I knew it was unfashionable to think in such terms.

I blamed my unscientific hypothesis on sleep deprivation and the wildly bizarre circumstance of the entire mission. I had not checked on Don, and I had not seen anything of him. It was time to find him and confront the Basque in their lair. I did not relish that. I passed Benito’s cabin on the way, but there was nothing to see or hear. I expected to find Hathoot’s beaten and bloody corpse sprawled on the floor outside of her cabin. But he was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Dutch, his guardian

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