Hell Comes to Breakfast
I waited in the dark. The cell door did not open. My mind wandered briefly. Were the six rounds remaining in the Kel-tec meant for more than Kasinski and Alexi? At any time in my career I could have played out my string. The world of active operational espionage overflowed with serendipity. The same roulette wheel stop that favored me could, with a small change in the dynamics of the universe, cost me my life. I breathed shallow breaths.
A moment passed, then the lever completed its travel. Kasinski smiled widely. I showed nothing of what I had been feeling. I eased a bit back down the pipe, away from the door. He slammed the heavy slab behind me, not even bothering to replace the lever in its locked position. The Commissar had only locked me in to make a point. Or else to satisfy his own twisted sense of humor.
“Come, my new American friend, let me show you something.”
I could not detect Dutch or the boy anywhere inside the pipe. I worried about exactly where they were. I followed Kasinski, unwillingly, my athletic bag of medicine and cash weighing heavily upon me. Kasinski carried his own sack high, against his chest. The gold close to his heart, I mused. We came to another “T” in the pipe, an intersection of dungeons. People sat on the bottom of both pipes. Every last one of them was staring at me.
They seemed not to blink. I counted forty, and then gave up. All were adults, mostly men. But they shared the same eyes. Living eyes of the night, of another world, a world written of by Dante. They just vegetated there, every one like the other, arms clutching knees, feet buried into a miserable muck of earth and their own excrement.
“There are my charges,” the Commissar bragged, using his free hand to gesture outward, toward one pipe, then again toward the other.
There was no sound, save for water dripping from holes or cracks in the top of the pipe. The living dead in both pipes uttered no sound at all. I turned away, afraid that I would inadvertently reveal my sense of revulsion, my horror, and my heart-wrenching sense of compassion.
“Very well done,” I stated, as tonelessly as I could, as we started back the way we had come. Kasinski was all merriment behind me.
“Ah, you Americans. You do not understand how to handle this kind of criminal element. You must extinguish it. You must quench the heat of it, at its very foundations.”
I strode faster, wishing that the mud-crusted flooring would allow me to move even faster. Kasinski kept yammering, but I was no longer listening to the fiend. My goal was to get to the white room, then up the stairs to the study. And to attempt to forget the images from the pipes, which I feared were burned into my memory for eternity.
There was a drug, I had heard somewhere, that if you took right after suffering a traumatic experience would promptly make you forget the stuff you had seen or done. Truly better living through chemistry. If I had had that drug, I would have ingested it, even before I got to the white room. I noticed that I could not smell the horrid odor of the place anymore. I was getting used to it. I sped up my pace.
I passed the American boy’s cell door, but did not stop. If Dutch and the boy were still inside, there was little that I could do. My objective was to get to the study. I could adapt from there. In the underworld I was in Kasinski’s element, where the past overtook the present. I surged into the white room fighting for self-control. I needed to slow the pace, of both my movement and thought. A prey moves uncertainly and quickly. A prey thinks of flight and shows visceral fear. I had to stop acting like prey.
The two guards had vanished. The white room stood empty, save for the table and chairs we had used earlier. I threw my bag onto the table and sat in one of the chairs. Seconds later Kasinski arrived. I heard the loud click of the door’s latch mechanism. If Dutch and the boy were still inside the pipe complex, then they were now behind two locked partitions. After a moment Kasinski sat down across from me. His bag was before him, as mine was before me.
“We have more to discuss?” he asked.
I indicated that I did with one raised eyebrow, and then spoke.
“You seem a really decent sort,” I began, “and I want to do the best for you if I can. I spoke to Alexi. I cannot tell you the information that passed between us, as you know. But, I can tell you that the information could be very damaging for you personally. And we have become friends, have we not?”
The Russian nodded his head vigorously, but I saw lines of worry and concern crease his forehead.
I could not control timing. Nor could I regulate what Alexi might or might not do. I required enough time to get everyone into the Tundra Cat and out of there, but I also needed to render any pursuit as slow and weak as possible. The Navy Captain added an extra level of concern to our egress. He had, at his disposal, a naval warship. It was off the coast, but actually not that far away. Russian cruisers had flank speeds of over thirty knots. All of them. It would take only five or six hours for the cruiser to make it to the opening of Providence Bay. If the cruiser Churkin beat theWorld Discoverer to that opening, the life-and-death game we were playing was over. Terminally so.
But that was a problem to be dealt with upstairs. I needed Kasinski down here. To remain exactly where he was. Even if nothing happened with Alexi, I still required time, and time alone with Captain Cherno. As I looked at the Commissar, my appearance relaxed and steadied. I tried, non-verbally, to communicate that I was uninvolved, at that point, with his problems. That I had tried to help. He did not move from his seat. Finally, I took a risk.
“If I were you, my Russian friend, I’d talk to Alexi and see if you can get him to be truthful with you. After all, I can’t control what citizens of another country do or say to one another.” I smiled, what I hoped was a co-conspirator’s smile.
I stood, picked up my bag, and turned to the other door.
“I know the way.” I said, quietly, and then walked through it.
I prayed that the Russian would not follow me.
He didn’t. Kasinski was so taken with his own concerns he didn’t even say goodbye. I walked up the stairs, not moving fast. I listened for sounds behind me, but heard none. I checked my watch. If we left in the next few minutes, we would just make the sailing of the ship. I did not believe that Kessler would really leave all of us behind, but I was not entirely certain of that. With no ship, we were lost. I heard a mechanical sound behind me. It had been the opening of the other door to the white room, the one leading into the pipes.
“The game’s afoot,” I recited, quoting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
At the landing I looked around. The assistant was nowhere in sight. Neither were the missing guards, who I suspected might be stationed out at the front of the building again. Another problem. Actually, two of them. Both with AKM automatic weapons. I walked into the study. Captain Cherno and Botany Bay sat transfixed over the board. The bottle of Black Label was empty on the counter. Even my abandoned snifter was empty.
The Captain swirled the remains of his golden liquid around in his glass. His cigar had only an inch left in its length, yet still burned. I stepped up to the board. Don was fighting a hopeless end battle. He was a major piece and three pawns down. Against even a good amateur he was toast, but like an amateur he fought on tenaciously.
“It appears that you are doing quite well,” I saluted Cherno.
He inhaled deeply from his stubby cigar and nodded, almost imperceptibly. He did not seem inebriated in the least.
“I wonder if you could do me a favor,” I said to the Captain. His eyebrows went up. “The Commissar seems taken with the idea of interrogating one of his prisoners at this time. He asked me to have his men attend him in the pipes. My Russian is very limited. Could you ask them for me?”
Being told to do anything by a Russian Naval Officer would have a result like none I could produce myself. If, however, I had guessed wrong, and the guards were not out front, then I knew I had a different dilemma. In that case, I needed to speak to Don alone. Fortunately, the Captain obliged me.
“No cheating while I’m gone,” he kidded Don, who laughed with him.
He got up and placed his hat on his head. Even before he was out of the study, I was instructing Don.
“When he returns, we must overpower him. I need you to hold him down.”
Don looked at me with big round eyes. Cherno was as formidable as Don, and probably in much better physical shape.
“Did Dutch take the boy out there?” I asked, ignoring Don’s shocked state.
“Yes,” he replied softly, even though the Captain was past hearing range. I sighed in relief. The mission remained intact. The bailing wire was holding.
‘”Alright, I’ll get Dutch. You play the game here. When Dutch comes in I’ll give the signal by unzipping my bag. You and Dutch hold Cherno down, then I’ll do the rest.”
He agreed, his look one of worry, however.
“Are you going to kill him?” he asked.
“Not even close,” I lied.
I was not sure what result we would get from subduing the big Naval Officer, and death could be a very likely consequence of it, but there was no sense telling Don that. With that I opened the bag, while keeping an eye on the door. I loaded twenty-five milligrams of morphine into a syringe, and then positioned it atop the remainder of Hathoot’s money. I zipped the bag up, just as the guards came in. Both men had their AKM’s strapped to their shoulders. I gave them a wide berth. Cherno strode in behind them.
“Seems that my men have found a supply of local booze.” He held out a bottle, with about a third of its contents left inside. “Where could they have found the exact same drink we have been enjoying?”
His voice was stern. I did not know how to handle this new development, so I tried the truth, sort of.
“I gave it to them. They get only the local rotgut here. I thought they would enjoy it.” I acted embarrassed.
To my great relief, the Captain bought it, laughing lightly before heading back to the chessboard.
“But we cannot have the enlisted personnel drinking while on duty, can we?” he announced, taking his seat, then refilling his snifter from a new bottle.
I was thankful he didn’t offer any to Don.
“Be right back,” I said, lamely, and then walked outside.
Once again I breathed in heavily. It was so very good to be outside of that miserable place, away from the pipes and the evil that lurked beneath. My respite was short-lived, though. Hathoot and the boy sat across the backbench seat of the Tundra Cat. I signaled to Dutch, who hovered over them. He bent down.
“Move them forward, closer to those two, but leave room for me.” I pointed toward the drivers, who seemed near comatose from drinking.
I hoped that they could still drive. I would have to ride up front, right behind them. If they needed gentle persuasion to start, or continue, our journey, then I would provide it. I wanted the injured Hathoot, and the boy, to be as protected as possible. If we took rounds in the vehicle, they would probably come from the rear. Both Don and Dutch were, as of yet, uninjured. They could take a hit better than wounded smaller men, not that I would divulge that fact to them. Dutch rearranged the passengers without the drivers either noticing or caring.
When he was done, I beckoned him down.
“Accompany me,” I instructed him.
We walked toward the Captain’s vehicle, but stopped before we got there. I spoke quietly. “I want you to go back inside and watch the chess game. When I come in, a couple of minutes from now, I’ll lean down and unzip my bag. That’s your cue to grab the Captain, with Don’s help, and hold him still. Got that?”
“But I don’t play chess,” he pointed out, with some confusion. I almost swore, but relaxed myself instead.
“Ah, just make believe you’re watching them play,” I said. Dutch thought for a moment, then said okay.
“Are we going to kill that guy?” he asked.
“We’ll see,” I said. “If we have to, can you do it?”
I wondered, unsure as to what my own point was, but too late to retrieve the question. The over-sized man-child nodded his large head, and I believed the message of his nod.
“Go,” I said.
I swung back to the Captain’s vehicle. The two men, who had been smoking on the spread canvas when I last encountered them, were still there, asleep, or passed out.
I picked up a large hand-held radio from the vehicle’s passenger seat. They would have communications at the airport, but that was, at the very least, an hour’s run across the tundra. The timing of everything was coming down to very fine details. I wished I could take a break to think things through. I knew I was making mistakes, but were they fatal mistakes? I took one minute to think. What could possibly happen in the next few minutes? What might happen after that? How might I maximize our survival potential?
I had my epiphany. I leaned into the low-sided cab of the Captain’s vehicle, searching the compartment between the seats.
“Voila!” I celebrated, in a whisper.
I found the Captain’s side arm, an automatic I did not recognize. I pushed the magazine catch, letting the magazine slide onto the seat. The rounds looked like nine-millimeter ammunition. Ball. Standard military issue. The magazine was a staggered load model, probably holding a dozen rounds or more. I re-inserted the magazine, gently engaging it at the end of its travel. I pulled back on the slide. No round ejected, but one slid right into the chamber as I let the slide go back into battery. I clicked off the side-mounted safety, checked the piece to make sure there were no others, and then put it into my right front vest pocket. We remained operational. Safeties were for the gun range. There was nothing safe where we were. I hoped I would not have to shoot anybody. Shooting people creates bad press, everywhere in the world. We wanted no coverage at all.
I hid the radio out of eyesight of the Tundra Cat drivers, not that the men were interested in anything except the liquid they drank. I carefully made sure the device was turned off, and then stuck it deep under the slats of the front porch. Back in the study, Dutch stood, dutifully, staring down at the chessboard, as good as his word. Captain Victor Cherno toasted me with his nearly empty snifter. I prepared to reach down to my bag, and unzip it, when several very muffled gunshots originated down the stairs. There was no mistaking what they were.
I realized instantly that Kasinski had not closed the inner door of the white room. Both doors gaped open. Nothing but open air existed between the study and those shots. The plan was blown, and far too early.
Hell had come to breakfast.