CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

“Dust-off”

 

“Perhaps you’d like to see a bit of the ship?” I presumed on the Captain, to change the subject.

I needed time in spades. Time with Maxwell. Time with the radio on board the Coast Guard helicopter. Time to get myself together. The Captain held up his glass, and then drained it. He smacked it down on the table, causing Maxwell to jerk back a little.

“And, are you, beautiful woman, going to give me this tour of the vessel?” he said, turning to face Marlys.

She knew her lines well.

“I’ve been instructed to provide you with whatever it is that you might want while you’re aboard,” she responded sweetly, then flashed her eyes at me.

Captain Cherno’s eyebrows rose halfway up his forehead.

“Whatever? “ he sputtered, momentarily caught off guard.

I frowned at Marlys, trying to send her a message, but she ignored me completely, instead leaning in to brush the captain with her hip, while she poured him a double.

Don retreated. Only Maxwell, the Captain, Marlys and I remained on the Lido deck. The chopper perched out on the flat expanse of the exposed fantail, its rotor turning with the passing power of the wind. The fantail rose and fell in great ponderous movements, as thirty-foot seas slowly swept the ship up and down.

Borman was using the bow and stern thrusters, I realized, working madly, in order to keep his vessel faced into the wind and swell, or we would be in danger of damaging the helicopter, or even broaching the ship. The short, choppy, fast-moving swells of the shallow-bottomed Bering Sea were unpredictable, and very dangerous to remain stationary in, even with a ship the size of the Lindy.

I walked to the bar, and then leaned toward Marlys. I encouraged her to escort Captain Cherno.

“Take him on a tour. Meet me at my cabin in fifteen minutes. I have to fix things with Maxwell. And please stop acting like a strumpet. You’re not being funny.”

She waited a full minute to respond, her eyes on the Captain. Finally, she did.

“It’s ‘pudenda,’ not ‘strumpet,’” she chastised, before gracing me with the radiance of her fake smile, once again.

I liked her vulgar comeback, her counterpunch, but I still shook my head in frustration.

“This way, Captain, my name is Marlys,” she purred, holding out her right hand for him to take.

The Captain stood, carrying his drink up from the table in his left hand, raising his right high into the air.

“Let me take a moment, before we go,” he said.

Two Russian seamen, who had been standing outside, but out of sight along the external port deck, appeared at their captain’s side. Both wore holstered sidearms. I was relieved that they carried nothing larger. One sailor produced a black portable radio, placing it into the Captain’s open right hand. Cherno spoke into the radio.

“I will remain aboard the American ship for an hour, possibly longer. If the helicopter attempts to take off during that time.... shoot it down.”

He spoke English into the radio, although the voice that came back in acknowledgement was in Russian. I wondered if the man on the other end of the transmission understood at all, not that it mattered to any of us in our current situation. The two seamen returned to their positions out on the edge of the Lido deck.

Captain Cherno accepted Marlys’ left hand with his right. “Please lead on. I am happy to accompany you to wherever it is that you want to take me, and to do with me whatever it is that you want to do.”

His leer told me that he meant every word of what he had just said.

I then confronted Maxwell. “I need to use the radio aboard the Coast Guard chopper,” I said. “I’m not sure I even need your permission for that.”

Which was the truth. The Coast Guard and Immigration had been amalgamated together in some strange fashion recently. But, I was used to dealing with the different laws and agencies of foreign countries, not the organizations within my own.

“My ass,” Maxwell said, his voice cold and harsh. “You’re not getting anything, much less the usage of my chopper, until you explain what the hell’s been going on. The last time we met you stole my helicopter, then left me abandoned on that God- forsaken island all night long. Who is dead in Russia? What the hell did you have to do with it? Who is this Captain Cherno and why’s that Russian Heavy Cruiser sitting off our bow? Feel free to start explaining anywhere you like.”

While he had been eating, he had risen to a stand before me. His tone had switched from pure anger, however, to one of open curiosity, as he finished.

I didn’t have the time to brief the Immigration Agent, with respect to what had transpired since our last meeting. I had to take a chance. An opportunity had arrived to spin the roulette wheel yet again, and place my bet.

“I’m going to have the chopper reach Elmendorf Airbase on the radio. We’re in some pretty serious trouble here, which you seem not to have noticed in your pique and your ignorance about our predicament. Don’t try to stop me.”

I waited for him to say anything, but he just dummied up in front of me. I walked quickly toward the chopper sitting on the ship’s open fantail. I scanned once, over my shoulder, to assure myself that Maxwell had remained where he was, which he had, and also to see if the two Russian seamen were in their accustomed places. They were, both smoking cigarettes.

The co-pilot’s door to the helicopter cracked open. I ducked under its slowly rotating blades. The heavy winds, even on the sheltered Lido fantail, turned the blades inexorably, all on their own. The big chopper did not budge, even with the rise and fall of the stern in such huge seas. The pilot and co-pilot wore their helmets and Ray-ban sunglasses, as if they were about to take off at any moment. I plucked a card from my wallet, and then pulled out my Mont Blanc to write. When I finished, I handed the card to the co-pilot. He read its front, then turned it over. He gave it to the pilot, who did the same.

“Is this about that Russkie Cruiser sitting there with its guns pointed right at us?” the pilot drawled.

I nodded.

“Call Elmendorf. We need an “Alert One” launched to do a flyover. That Russian is sitting off our bow in U.S. waters without permission. I work for the government, the contact number in Washington is that 202 area code number,” I touched the number, and then went on. “My identity number is the other one. Use them.”

The pilot and co-pilot traded glances. Then the co-pilot spoke.

“Is this alright with His Highness, Agent Maxwell Smart?”

“Yes, he’s given his full and absolute permission,” I lied, outrageously.

“You got it,” the pilot said, reaching to adjust the frequency knobs on the chopper’s radio.

I retraced my steps back to Maxwell with my tongue in my cheek, happy that the name I had hung on him was beginning to take hold. I brushed past the agent.

“Thanks,” I said, as I passed him. “I’ll fill you in just as soon as I get a minute.”

I headed for my cabin. Once in the corridor, however, I realized that I had a few minutes, so I changed direction. I ran down the stairs toward the infirmary, knocking eventually on the sealed hatch as loud as I could with my knuckles against its steel surface.

Slowly, very slowly, I heard the door being secured, then released. The doctor was not only almost blind, but was also deaf as a post, and weak as a kitten. The door swung open and I stepped in. I closed the hatch behind me, but did not re-seal it.

Kessler was conscious, lying back down on the table. His torso was bare, except for heavy bandaging around his entire left side. An empty syringe reclined on a tray next to the table. The doctor had administered morphine when the captain awoke.

“What have you done to me?” he implored, loudly, jabbing his finger up at me.

His free hand pushed and pulled at his bandages. I secured his hands by his sides, and then lectured him.

“You were stabbed by your step-daughter, not me. Figure that out! I sewed you up. I prepared that morphine for you. Now hold still or we’ll have to tie you down and give you more sedatives.”

Kessler let himself back down, but his fully dilated eyes stared at me in mute accusation, and open hatred. We would not be able to keep him down long. Hathoot sat in the chair, his eyes in no better shape than the captain’s. I leaned so close to him that I was reminded of a confessional, though I doubted that absolution was imminent.

“The Russian, believe it or not, is taking a grand tour of the Lindy with Marlys. But he’s ordered the American chopper shot down if we try to use it to leave. And his ship isn’t going anywhere, which means we aren’t going anywhere. I called Elmendorf for a fly-over of F-15’s. What will the Russian do? What can I do?”

Hathoot exhaled. He’d closed his eyes when I had briefed him. He opened one, to look up at me, when I finished talking.

“Threaten him,” he insisted.

I just stood mute, in response, with my face screwed up in disbelief.

“What?” I finally got out. “Me? Threaten him? He’s got the cruiser. He’s got the giant guns. We’re unarmed, undermanned and basically helpless in the water.” I sighed and shrugged at the same time, in utter exasperation.

By now a habit, bordering on a tic, Hathoot closed his one eye, and then opened the other.

“He’s not going to shoot you, or us. He’s the one who’s afraid of being shot. He’s not scared of you, but he’s damn well afraid of his superiors. He’s Russian. Remember that! Threaten to inter him as a prisoner. Have Maxwell threaten to arrest him as an illegal alien. He’d never have come aboard if he had any real position of power over you. He’d have issued an ultimatum and, if we hadn’t followed it, blown this ship out of the water.”

When he finished, he closed his eye again. He leaned his head against the bulkhead behind him. He did not detect my look of total skepticism regarding his recommendations.

“Threaten me? Who’s going to threaten me? I’m the captain. I threaten people. They don’t threaten me,” Kessler chirped, from the table where he lay, nearby.

Hathoot and I both snickered. Kessler’s lisp, in his heavy German accent, was something to hear.

“Dog the hatch. Keep him in here until I get back,” I instructed the doctor.

He looked at me quizzically. “Kessler,” I repeated, pointing at the man. “Don’t let him out.”

The old man nodded. I headed for my cabin, thinking briefly of the two boys, hidden away in the storage area nearby and vegetating. It seemed pointless to check on them.  I had nothing, yet, to say to either one. I hustled as fast as I could to my quarters. Its door was open, and I heard female laughter long before I arrived.

I stepped inside. It seemed that almost everybody aboard ship had a key to my space, not that it mattered. Marlys and Captain Cherno sat cozily on my bunk, still holding hands, as if they’d recently returned from attending their high school prom. Marlys stood, as I entered, any radiance quickly leaving her face.

“Thank you captain, you’ve been just wonderful,” she said, then dropped his hand and headed for the door.

Her right shoulder struck my chest a glancing blow, as she went by. The door slammed behind her.

“You seem to have quite a negative impact on women,” the Captain joked, tossing down the last of his whiskey, but disinclined to get up from my bunk.

Without commenting, I opened and dogged down the porthole, and then backed up against the far bulkhead. I faced the Russian Officer.

“You know,” he said, conversationally, “I believe you are good at chess. Really good. I also believe you were an anthropology professor, and much, much more.

My question is this: “where the hell do they find people like you to work for them? You came to my country, single-handed, to retrieve that boy. And so you did. You took a dislike to Commissar Kasinski. So you took him out. Dead. Then there was the dissident. Too far gone to save. Dead. But you didn’t kill that assistant or me. You were fair. And I thank you for that. Little wonder we lost the cold war. We had too few people like you.”

He shook his head then, sending me a message that he was not telling me those things to compliment me. Maybe he was reflecting upon the sorry past of his own people and country, but I knew his flattery had some ulterior motive. He stepped over to the porthole before tossing his glass out through the opening, into the churning sea.

“But, you are in deep trouble now Indy. You have placed yourself into my hands. I will be taking you back to the Russian system of justice, which I assure you, is nothing like your own. What can you do? I have the cruiser and the guns. You have nothing. What rabbit do you think you can pull out of your hat this time?”

I did not hear any sound, at first. I felt it. A strong puff of air rushed into the cabin through the open porthole. A fraction of a second later, the same air whooshed back out. Then the sound exploded. It was almost exactly the same sound as a very close lightning strike. The sharp crack of it caused both Captain Cherno and myself to physically flinch backward. Then it was gone, except for a distant rolling thunder, diminishing rapidly as the seconds went by.

There is no way to disguise, to men who have lived around the military, the sound of two jet fighters, flying nap-of-the-earth, at supersonic speed, only feet above their heads. On the exposed deck, anyone not wearing ear protection would be deaf for many minutes, and would then spend days recovering from ringing in their ears. A super-sonic ‘dust-off’ was a miserable experience for anyone in the open, particularly if they were right under the jet’s passage.

“What have you done?” shouted Captain Cherno. “My career. It may be over.”

All the man’s starch and arrogance oozed out of him. His shoulders sagged with the knowledge that American airpower had extended itself out to our small part of the Bering Sea. Two F-15’s had almost completely neutralized, in a single high-speed pass, the menace of his Heavy Cruiser.

We returned to the Lido deck without speaking. There, Maxwell’s feet protruded from the end of the booth where he had been sitting. I bent over to evaluate him. His hands cupped his ears, his eyes were slammed tightly shut, even though the F-15’s were long gone. Two Russian seamen, on the port outside deck, were in similar condition.

Through the canopy of the helicopter both pilots, still wearing their protective helmets, flashed me the ‘thumbs up’ gesture. I gave it back to them, my smile more rueful than theirs. They had not warned Agent Maxwell of the impending ‘dust-off,’ and by failing to do so, manifested their disdain for the man.

Captain Cherno went out to check on his men, while I waited with Agent Maxwell. His eyes opened, but he still covered his ears with both hands. The message he sent me with those opened eyes exuded pure venom.

“Can you hear anything, yet?” I asked.

He nodded, but didn’t speak. “You’ll be okay in a bit. Two fighters just flew over to check us out. They made sure to fly in such a way that nobody could miss their presence.” I watched the man, carefully.

There appeared to be no blood coming from his ears. His eardrums were not punctured, just shocked a bit.

“Will they come back?’ He asked, his voice too loud by some margin.

I shook my head.

“Not unless I ask them to,” I vowed, in a tone of about the same magnitude.

Cherno returned to the booth, carrying a small canvas bag, rather similar to the one I had had not long before.

“I need to talk to you in private,” he said.

I almost told him that Agent Maxwell was not going to be hearing anything for quite some time, but the captain’s somber tone made me forego the gibe. I motioned with my head, toward the other side of the interior of the Lido deck. I tailed him to a booth in the far corner, as far from Agent Maxwell as it was possible for us to get, and still remain on the deck.

“It seems that I managed to think of something,” I said.

The Russian did not smile, so I didn’t either. He did unzip the bag he carried, however.   He pulled out my Kel-tec automatic and pushed it across the table.

“It is empty, but then you knew it probably would be,” he remarked. “It was recovered by the guards, then fell into the hands of one of my men. As well as this.”

He rolled the suppressor across the table. I had to catch it to keep it from falling to the deck.

“I return these pieces of evidence to you as my gift,” he declared.

His tone was dead serious. Then he turned the bag on its side so no one watching could see.

“Now you may return the favor. Where is this from?” he asked, holding the fist-sized nugget of gold, the one Dutch had had, in his meaty right hand.

The Captain kept it inside the unzipped bag.

I looked at the man, sizing him up again. I liked him. It was almost impossible not to. He seemed to have integrity, honor and intellect. He also had an inflated opinion of my worth, although I felt unaffected by his judgment. Without choice, I lied to him.

“It’s from the Isle of the Tsar of Russia, where we first encountered one another.”

“I knew that had to be you.” He removed his hand from the nugget, and then zipped the bag back up.

“My ship could blow you out of the water,” he warned. “I could demand your return to Russia, now or later on, for murder. But I will do none of those things, for the information you have given me, and because I too hated the torturing monster of a man named Kasinski. Russia owes you a debt. That debt has been paid. However, you are a very clever man. What if this gold,” he held the bag out in front of him, “is not from the Isle, as you say?”

I was only mildly disturbed that my word had not been accepted at face value. I almost tried to explain that the gold was located in Russian waters, and therefore it would be useless information for me to withhold, but I didn’t. I considered threatening him, as Hathoot had recommended, but then realized that it was unnecessary. I waited. He waited. After several full minutes, I broke the ice.

“What is it that you’re asking of me, really?” I inquired.

He examined his hands. They shook just a small bit. He noticed me notice that. His eyes met mine.

“If the gold is from somewhere else, but nearby, as I believe it is, then I want your word that you will give me a share. I will find a way to come to you for that, if it is true. This is a chunk of the purest ore I have ever seen. I want to be a part of getting more. My association with you has probably cost me my career. I have done you favors.”

I sat, glued to my seat.

“This isn’t a movie. It’s not Kelly’s Heroes, I said, in exasperation, but my comments made no impact.

In the movie, everyone Lieutenant Kelly had approached to go after the gold had been wildly enthusiastic in their support.

“What is this Kelly’s Heroes? he asked.

I shifted my weight. How to explain to him? What to explain to him? Taking the movie’s theme for inspiration, I told him the truth.

“It’s a deal. If the information I’ve given you is not exact, then I’ll make good on it. You’re in for a full share.” I held out my hand. He smiled.

“Even if my career is over, which it may be, then I will have some gold for retirement.” We shook hands. I also shook my head all the while. Even the supply of gold I had seen in that vein on the island was becoming no match for the ever-expanding participants in its sharing.

“I could use that nugget back,” I stated, “for assay purposes. You can keep the Kruggerrands, though.”

Captain Cherno pushed the re-zipped bag across the table to me.

“What Kruggerrands do you speak of?” he asked.”

“There are twenty one-ounce pieces of South African gold, which I gave to Kasinski. At least, there were. You need to check with your men about those when you get back.”

The big Russian nodded at me, very seriously. I knew that there were going to be some very uncomfortable guards at that Gulag when he returned to Provideniya.

<<<<<< Prologue | Chapter Fifty-Three >>>>>>