CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

The Missed Rung

Captain Cherno and I both rose to our feet simultaneously, our business together obviously concluded. We repaired to the interior of the Lido deck where Agent Maxwell sat across the booth from Captain Kessler. My eyes flared slightly, when I saw the World Discoverer's captain. Only hours earlier he had been nearly incoherent and immobile in the infirmary.

Marlys had also returned to her special place behind the bar, while in front of her sat Hathoot and Dutch. Both men seemed glum and stoical, nursing glasses of water. Nonetheless, they tipped their glasses half-heartedly and drank in unison. By contrast, Marlys smiled mischievously. At least the mystery of how Kessler had made it up the stairs was solved. Marlys provided the physical assistance and booze was the anesthetic. I mused to myself, as I tried to figure out the complexities of what I was presently facing.

The Russian captain never acknowledged Kessler or Maxwell, as he headed immediately for the stairs and his waiting boat. I recorded that non-event for later consideration. I walked up to the booth where both men sat. Neither was talking. I pulled up a chair and sat down. Neither man conferred on me as much malice as I thought my proper due. Marlys delivered a bowl of hot coffee over my left shoulder, then her shapely figure, attired in a sweeping blue dress, disappeared behind the bar. Dutch and Hathoot both acted woozy and disengaged. I frowned at them, before engaging Kessler and Maxwell.

“We’re going to Sitka. I demand it. I order it!” Maxwell stated, with all the authority he could marshal.

He implored Kessler, as he spoke. I did too. Kessler looked like he was being held together with scotch tape and bailing wire, which was not far from the truth. He was ashen from loss of blood, and sat stiffly, his uniform loose about him, his white hat resting, top down, on the table.

“You can demand whatever you want. You can even give orders. But I am the captain of this ship. You will not be listened to unless I agree with your recommendations.” Kessler re-directed his steely gaze toward me. “Isn’t that right, Herr Professor Indy?” he taunted, his accompanying smile as insincere as his tone.

I took a drink of my coffee; once more glad I had it in the bowl. I could lengthen the time it took to draw from it, while mulling over the delicate situation I was in. Kessler had been nearly delirious on morphine, only hours earlier, but his mental sharpness was now acute. How had that happened? Maxwell wasn’t done with his attack on the Kessler, however.

“Why aren’t you on the bridge? That’s a Russian Cruiser over there,” the agent pointed in the direction where the warship lay, “in U.S. waters! Why aren’t you at the helm of your ship?”

Maxwell, paused, while I took another sip of my coffee.

“Why don’t you ask him?” Kessler raised his right hand, and then pointed his index finger straight at me.

Agent Maxwell laughed. “Him? I’m having him arrested, just as soon as we hit land. I’d take him out right now, aboard the chopper, but I have the feeling that he’s just the tip of a huge iceberg. Something illegal is going on aboard this ship and I’m not leaving until I get to the bottom of it.” Maxwell then slammed both hands down onto the surface of the table.

I saw the move coming, and had just enough time to raise my bowl. I put it back down when the table settled.

Kessler sniffed at the agent, then curled his lip. “Get out. Go sit in your chopper until we hit land. You have no power out on the open sea to do anything, although if you want to arrest Indy here, and put him in cuffs, and maybe attach electrodes to his privates, well, that I would approve of. But, as you sit out there, think about it. Who called in the air strike? How was that done so quickly? Who is this Indy, really, and how big a piece of him do you want?”

Maxwell extricated himself quickly from his side of the booth. I stood, moved aside, giving him room to exit, while carefully shielding my coffee bowl.

“You haven’t heard the last of this, or me, either one of you, and I don’t give a damn who or what you are,” the agent bristled, his voice stiff with rage, his wagging finger working overtime, going back and forth between Kessler and myself.

Once he was gone, I slid into his vacated space, directly opposite Kessler, who launched into a tirade.

“You’re fired. You’re beyond fired, if there is such a thing. I don’t care what Maxwell does with you, which I expect will turn out to be nothing. I want you off my ship in Sitka. I never want to see you again. You’re a leper, a pariah.” Kessler’s voice had lost a lot of the timber he had used on Maxwell.

His last words, spoken in German, were filled with fatigue. The very last word, ‘asbestoses,’ would have more properly translated as ‘outcast,’ but I grasped his meaning.

I could not disagree with the captain. My signing on, as part of his crew, had been problematic from my first day. I sympathized with the man, although I also deeply distrusted and disliked him.

“I want my ship back,” Kessler thundered, his voice almost plaintive.

I looked at him, over the top of my bowl, uncertain I had heard him properly. I looked at the captain’s sallow, drawn, deadpan visage, then over at the funereal Hathoot and Dutch.

“Excuse me, just for a second,” I replied, then quickly slid out from the booth, and walked over to the bar.

There I conversed with a still ailing Hathoot.

“Kessler’s around the bend. He just asked me for his ship back? You know anything about that, by chance?” Hathoot cleared his throat before conducting another of his tutorials.

“Borman’s at the helm. He thinks you somehow saved the ship by having those fighters appear overhead. I don’t think he wants to relinquish command back to Kessler. But he’ll probably listen to you. I suspect that’s it.”

“Why would Borman listen to me?” I asked, baffled by not only Hathoot’s strange logic but also by the amazing transmission of information, which permeated near instantly throughout the ship’s interior.

Hathoot confided something to Dutch, as both men came to life. Even Marlys became animated.

“The gold,” Hathoot repeated to me. “You’re in control of the gold. Everyone, except Kessler, has figured that out.”

I returned to the booth, propelled by the Purser’s insight, to once again take my place across from the captain. Marlys came over to refresh my coffee. In his weakened condition Kessler drank nothing.

“What do I get?” I asked Kessler, directly, looking him right in the eyes.

“What do you get for what?” he responded, a genuine curiosity betrayed by his facial features.

“You want me to have Borman stand down, which means you already tried and he said no. You think I have the power to relieve him. What do I get, if that’s true, and I do it?” I winked at him.

The insincerity of my wink rivaled by the insincerity of his responding grin.

The man reflected. In a way, I felt sorry for him. He had to ask a lowly employee, one he didn’t care for at all, for the favor of returning him to a position he was, by all rights, legally entitled to.

“Alright,” he said. “I’ll share some information you badly need. But you don’t know you need it.” He smiled, after he said the words, as if he was privy to some deep dark secret, and I was not.

“What, you going to tell me why your own step-daughter tried to kill you, and damn near succeeded? Or maybe why I bothered to save your life, after the event?”

“You really are a son-of-a-bitch, you know. My stepdaughter thinks I killed her child. She got pregnant, out of wedlock. Then, after I made them get married, her husband kills himself on a motorcycle. She was still pregnant. I arranged for an abortion, which she did not oppose, until after. She claimed I took advantage of her depression to kill her child. I did no such thing. I tried to help a young woman in trouble. Her mother agrees with her, even though she once agreed with me before the abortion. She’s leaving me. I am the great evil. I brought her out here to better understand me. To learn a new life. To find peace. Instead, she takes up with the likes of you. I suppose you’re going to stick around until she turns out to be pregnant again?”

I just sat there and absorbed another resume, of another tragic life. I could not believe what I was hearing. The captain was the only person aboard ship not tapped into its information network. I wondered if he counseled with anyone aboard. At least I now understood a bit of what was going on with the Basque. I wondered, as well, what Don knew. Then an even darker thought overcame me.

“Was the fetus male or female?” I asked Kessler, my voice low and serious.

“Warum?” he replied, in German.

“Humor me,” I said.

“It was male,” he avowed, meeting my eyes.

“And its name? Do you remember if she ever named the fetus?” I pressed on. It was Kessler’s turn to shrug, which he did, until the pain from his wound overcame him. He winced.

“Michael, it was Michael,” he revealed, his voice strained from the lance of pain.

“Michael,” I reassured myself. “Mickey,” came out of me a few seconds later.

“Take the flag down,” I ordered Kessler. “The Mouseketeer flag is flying from the mast. When you’re captain again, I mean.”

“You’ll talk to Borman?” Kessler asked, his voice one of surprise.

I agreed.

“Then I will give you some valuable information,” he promised.

My mind was still on the strange connection between the Mouseketeer Club and the Basque. What had I stepped into when I walked, unknowingly, aboard Kessler’s ship of folly, right into a different dimension? A twilight zone where the sun always shines.

“Cherno, Captain, Russian Navy. You think he’s your friend. He’s not. You think he’s some kind of hero, like you. He’s not. I’ll bet he’s in on the gold. It would be just like him to sniff that out. You went to the gulag. People died. I don’t know the story. But I do know that Kasinski and Cherno had some good times together down there. Why do you think he was there in the first place? What’s a Navy Captain doing, flying his ship’s helicopter hundreds of miles to a dying gulag? And with regularity?”

Kessler continued. “Cherno was addicted, like Kasinski, to the torture, to the killing, to the suffering of those poor souls. I hated them both. I had to deal with Kasinski, to get clearance to land in Russia. But I hate both of them. If you have dealings with that man in the future, he will find a way to kill you. A way that is very, very slow. If you played chess with him, you will recall those pieces. The tops of the pieces are not made of glass. Those two monsters are very proud of those unusual pieces. The tops are made of very well polished, and trimmed, finger nails.”

I shuddered at his last comment. I decided never to tell Don of what I had just learned.  I had been played like the Martin Guitar I so highly prized. I had been adroitly manipulated by a master, and I had bought in all the way. What was Cherno really up to? What had been his plan in coming aboard the ship? Why had such a master player toured the ship like some naïve amateur?

My mind raced with my new knowledge, which I did not disbelieve at all. Cherno had been with Marlys for his tour. What had he learned from her? He’d sat in my cabin, and maybe more. What had he uncovered from that experience? He’d acted like he’d known all about the gold, but all he had had was the nugget, without any other information. How had he known what to ask of me? And why had he so quickly suspected my Isle of the Tsar of Russia disinformation, then accepted my word for his ‘full share,’ and then been so seemingly well satisfied with my response? Something was very wrong.

Kessler’s disclosure about the Basque had rocked me. While I struggled to assimilate that revelation, I got hit by the Cherno haymaker. I concealed my shock and confusion by rising and leaving the table, a bit wobbly.

“I’ll talk to Borman immediately,” I promised, knowing that Kessler was going nowhere, without the assistance of someone Dutch’s size.

In fact, I went to the rail of the ship, instead. I watched Cherno’s launch approach the waiting cruiser.  Skilled Russian seamen plucked his launch from the roiling waters of the Bering Sea. It was too far to see anything as small as a human being. In my mind I pictured Captain Cherno taking a moment on his own deck to look across at the 'Lindy'. Reality had rushed in. His cruiser was a predator. The 'Lindy' was its prey. Captain Cherno was a predator. I was his prey.

I moved toward the bow. The bridge was several decks up. I took the ladders like a seaman, my hands not grabbing the rungs, instead sliding and holding the side bars. You could never miss a rung if you did not use one. I thought of Cherno. I had been using the ‘rungs’ of intelligence, and I had missed one. I was in free fall. I might recover, but it was always dicey, when you missed a rung.

I needed some sleep. I needed to get Borman to stand down. I needed to get to the boys and somehow figure out how to slip them past Maxwell and onto U.S. soil. Maxwell had inordinate powers, as long as the boys were aboard the ship, or even in port. I had to get them ashore.

I also wanted to get the Basque’s side of the story. Don might be in a lot more trouble than he knew, and I really liked Don. And then there was Marlys. I analyzed all my needs rationally, but it left me paralyzed with dread.

My mission had transformed itself, heightening my unease. It was different; entirely different from any other mission I had ever been a part of. I had become attached to these people.  All of them.  Even Kessler, who hated me so badly he could not conceal his loathing. What would I do, after the mission ended, without them?

I shivered from the cold, and the deep tiredness that had permeated to the very core of my being.

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