The doctor was examining Kessler, who lay on his back, as I stepped through the hatch to the infirmary. He had cut away any clothing surrounding the laceration. When he noticed my presence next to him, he moved slightly to the right in order to allow me room to see.

Kessler was unconscious, although his breathing was deep and regular. His wound was a vertical incision about ten inches long. It started above his left hip, just atop the iliac crest of his hipbone, and ended at the beginning of his rib cage where, apparently, a sharp steak knife had been blunted by the horizontal bone of that lowermost rib. I knew the cutting instrument was a steak knife because it lay on the table beside Kessler. The incision welled with dark red blood, which gathered in the gaping puncture, then spilled over onto the table. No pumping or pulsating in the blood flowing from the wound was detectable.

It appeared, from cursory examination, that the Basque had stabbed Kessler by thrusting straight forward into his side. Then, with the knife’s edge facing upward, cutting in that direction. The wound resulted from a calculated action, by someone who was attempting to inflict mortal damage. The blade of the knife, however, was only about four inches long. The Basque had done everything correctly in the execution of her attempt on the man’s life, but she had chosen her weapon unwisely. A longer, thicker blade would have made the doctor’s examination, and my own, merely pathological, as the captain would not have survived.

Don stepped into the infirmary behind me. I felt his presence, and worry, even before he spoke, which he did without preamble.

“The Cruiser is just off our bow. We can’t go anywhere.  Maxwell’s Coast Guard chopper landed on the Lido deck, and he’s waiting inside. Borman doesn’t know what to do. He begged me to bring you to the bridge.”

I had no idea of what to do about anything. We were in United States waters. That should have been the end of it, at least as far as the Russians were concerned. But that was not the case.

Borman knew nothing of what had happened at the gulag, other than with respect to the O’Donelly boy’s escape. I thought for a moment, while Kessler continued to bleed. Hathoot’s heavy breathing from the chair against the bulkhead intruded upon my thought process. I leaned down close to his ear.

“The Cruiser is a problem. We’re in U.S. waters. I believe Alexi used the gun I gave him to kill Commissar Kasinski, and maybe a few others. I drugged Captain Cherno but now he’s out there, blocking our movements.” I finished informing him, and he opened one pained eye to look up at me.

“He’s Russian,” was all he said, before closing the one eye again.

“I know that,” I fired back at him, in exasperation. “What do we do?”

His one eye locked onto me.

“For more of that morphine, I’ll tell you.” His eye re-closed.

I had come to know the little Lebanese caricature of a mariner. Nothing was sacred to him, and his humor was dry, hard to follow, and often cryptic.

“Alright, alright,” he gushed out finally. “Have Borman tell that Russian to come aboard for a discussion about the problem. He’s Russian. They love to talk things to death, over whiskey, chess and cigars. Or women. Use ‘The Marlys Weapon’ on him.”

Hathoot shrank back down, his suffering fully in evidence by his contortions. I consulted Don.

“Do it. See if it’ll work. Tell Borman to stay on the bridge until I call him down to the Lido deck. Give our good Captain Cherno drinks. Have Marlys serve him, semi-dressed like she was earlier. Borman can stall Maxwell by letting him know that the chopper landed without permission. That’s a violation of U.S. Federal and International Admiralty law. Reports are being generated. Let Maxwell absorb some of Cherno’s vitriol, while he thinks that one over. I’ll be up as soon as I’m done here. And make sure those boys are kept under wraps. We have enough trouble right now.”

Don headed out. I dogged the hatch behind him. Kessler did not appear to be mortally wounded, or that he might die without immediate attention. I moved to the drug cabinet, took down a bottle of Morphine, and loaded two syringes with ten milligrams each. One for Hathoot, and one for when Kessler returned to consciousness.

It was difficult to work on Kessler in his current state. At any second he might awaken into devastating pain, and his reaction to that could be cataclysmic. I injected Hathoot, who stared into my eyes with great relief, even before the drug had time to truly affect him. I could not administer the morphine to Kessler, however. It might depress his breathing and blood pressure too greatly. I set the loaded syringe nearby, and then addressed the doctor.

“What do you recommend?” I asked him, directly.

He massaged the stubble on his chin, and then spoke.

“Look into the wound. If there is herniation of the lining, then he has to be operated on immediately. If not, then he can be stitched back up, given an I.V. for hydration, some antibiotics, and he should be fine. He’s out from shock and loss of blood right now, but he won’t stay out long, unless we fail to stop his bleeding.”

The doctor could not see well enough to do even a cursory examination of the wound. I grabbed a laceration kit from the counter, ripped it open and retrieved a forceps. I washed the wound in Betadine, and then pulled the skin and surface muscle tissues wide apart. I prayed that Kessler would not awaken. It took me several minutes of work, pouring saline into the wound, and then shoving four-by-fours inside to absorb the blood, before I examined it completely.

I found no damage to the intestinal lining, to my vast relief. The doctor handed me a suture kit, without my asking for it. Half an hour later I was done. I took a few minutes to start the I.V. of saline. Then, I moved over to the semi-comatose Purser. I cut away his pant leg, flushed his bullet hole with more saline before wrapping both sides with four-by-fours and tape. Hathoot moaned constantly, but he did not give me too much trouble throughout the procedure. The Lebanese had grit.

I washed up, then instantly began to worry about what was happening on the Lido deck. As soon as I thought that thought, there came a small knocking upon the metal surface of the infirmary hatch. I looked over at the doctor, and then handed him the morphine syringe.

“If he comes to, give him that immediately. He can’t take over as captain right now, or we’re all screwed. Keep him under until I come back.” I dried my hands and undogged the hatch.

Marlys frowned on the other side.

“I’m not some sort of prostitute,” she erupted angrily, and then went on, “Every time you use me for your purposes it’s to serve as a concubine, or sex surrogate, or something like that. I’m not going to do it anymore.”

I waited to see if she was going to give me a chance to say anything. When she stopped berating me, I reached out my right hand and touched her shoulder.

“You’re no prostitute, or anything like that. I apologize. We’ve just needed your help so badly, and you have this tremendous natural beauty. Hathoot’s going to forgive the twenty thousand you, and your Mom, owe him. You’re doing more than your part. The Russian Captain is up there, waiting. Please help us.”

I nudged her gently back toward the direction of the corridor and stairs. Her scorn subsided. I had lied about the money, but I intended to make what I had said the truth, as best I could. But then she made me feel even worse.

“You’ve convinced him to forgive our debt?” she asked, weakly. I nodded again, guiding her toward the stairs. “Thank you,” she said, so sincerely that I felt like a complete manipulating con artist. “Alright, I’ll do it, whatever it takes. That Captain isn’t so bad, but he’s got wandering hands. I’ll do it for you, not for the money, though.”

She accelerated her climb up the stairs, leading me onto the surface of the Lido. Her skirt was so short I watched white half-circles, the bottoms of her panties, ascend. I daydreamed, before I faced Captain Cherno and Special Agent Maxwell, about Marlys’ tattoo. Someone had recently told me that a tattoo applied just above a woman’s buttock area was referred to as a ‘tramp stamp.’ I shook my head to clear away thoughts about Marlys, and, in particular, about a certain area of her body.

Captain Cherno sat at the largest of the rounded booths inside the covered part of the Lido deck. Agent Maxwell sat across from him. The Russian was drinking what appeared to be whiskey, while Maxwell drank something from a mug. I presumed it to be coffee. Marlys had her back up against the end of the bar. A full bottle of Black Label sat behind her, within easy reach. I approached the two men.

“Gentlemen,” I said softly, and then bowed, ever so slightly.

The Russian had seen me coming. His eyes had narrowed to slits upon recognizing me. He refused to acknowledge me any other way. Maxwell lit up.

“Well, well, well, look who we have here. The man from nowhere, who exists but does not. Professor Indiana, with all sorts of real diplomas from real institutions, but he’s not in any yearbooks.”

I hid my distaste for Maxwell as best I could.  Any expression that might have given my feelings away went unnoticed, for he liked the sound of his own voice.

“Captain Kessler was kind enough to give me a bit more information about you from your file. You have never had a credit report run on you, gotten a traffic ticket, or even registered your name to acquire utility services. And, I ask myself, how is that possible?” He halted, briefly, but held up one hand when I tried to respond. “And, you son-of-a-bitch, you left me stranded on that goddamned island overnight. You stole my helicopter!”

He banged his fist on the table when he was finished, for extra emphasis. Captain Cherno fought to contain a chuckle, upon hearing Maxwell’s grievances.

“Where is Captain Kessler, if I might ask?” Maxwell inquired, his voice dripping with venomous sarcasm.

Don walked onto the deck, and then approached the booth where we were all gathered. He put an envelope in front of Maxwell, looked over at me with a twinkle in his eye, and then quickly left.

“What’s this?” Maxwell asked, holding the envelope by one corner.

I shrugged.

“It must be something from the ‘acting’ captain. Kessler is indisposed.” I did a little curtsy when I finished speaking.

Maxwell unfolded a piece of stationary he pulled from the envelope. I watched his face turn red and blotchy. When he finished reading, he slammed the paper down in front of him, but said nothing.

“You’ve left a trail of bodies behind,” Captain Cherno declared, matter-of-factly. “I cannot simply let that go.”

He drank deeply from his whiskey glass when he was done talking, glancing over the top of the lip at Marlys. She reached behind her, and then stepped to the Captain’s side. Flirtatiously, she rested her left hand on the man’s right shoulder board, and then poured his glass two thirds full. The Captain almost glowed with her attention.

“I thank you,” he said, whispering the words, to make them appear more personal.

“What dead bodies?” Maxwell asked. Nobody answered. “What’s he talking about?” the agent said, with more emphasis, his eyes meeting mine for the first time.

I ignored him, instead speaking directly to Captain Cherno.

“What is it that you want?” I prodded him.

“I want you. I’m not leaving without you. There’s a dead Commissar who needs explaining, not to mention a few of his guards. And then there’s the matter of Alexi, who also met his demise, at your hands. Somehow or other.” The captain then rubbed the right side of his neck with his left hand. “And you damn near killed me, as I recall.”

<<<<<<< Prologue | Chapter Fifty-Two >>>>>>