Straight to the Heart
Kaminski’s assistant poured snifters of Black label all around. He dispensed generously. The level of the full liter bottle was only half full when he capped. I rolled the straight booze around in my glass, and then sniffed, as if to inhale the bouquet of a fine red wine.
“Fine whiskey,” I boasted, holding the huge glass out, then taking an infinitely small sip.
I put the snifter down on to the chess table. The whiskey I left behind would be put to good use.
I prodded Kasinski, “Let us take a tour in a moment, but first I must check on the health of one of my associates. It seems that Purser Hathoot, a Lebanese American citizen, is under the weather. I’ll be right back. Don, I’ve heard that you play an excellent game of chess. Why don’t you challenge the Captain?"
Don peered at me quizzically, instilling in me a moment of doubt. I had no idea whether Don could play or not. After a big swig from his glass, he arose from his folding chair.
“I’d be happy to. I’ve never played a Russian before, though,” he said, moving to the table.
The Captain beamed a big smile, having already consumed half the booze in his own glass.
“Ah, as I said, all you Americans are great liars.” Clearly, the Russian Officer was no fool.
I leaned down, unzipped my bag and pulled out the smaller canvas sack. I re-zipped the bag, and then shoved it closer to Dutch.
I squinted at Kasinski, letting him know that I’d be right back. I told Dutch to stand fast, with the bag, until I returned. Once out of the building, bright sun blinded me as I stepped off the covered wooden porch. A big breath of fresh air convinced me that the entire building was infused with the Gulag stench. The drivers were talking together, unaware of my return. As expected, Hathoot silently writhed in pain. I climbed up to his side.
“How you taking the pain?” I asked him.
Regarding me as a complete idiot, he said nothing. I opened my small sack and took out the bottle of morphine. I pulled about seven milligrams into a syringe.
“This will hit you hard for a bit, but still let you navigate, when you need to navigate.” I plunged the needle right through the material of his shirt at the bicep. He winced.
“You could use a swab, you know,” he grated out through clenched teeth.
“Yeah,” I grunted, putting the opiate bottle in my bag, and then tossing the syringe onto the tundra, “and infection is most likely the biggest danger you’ll face this day.”
“So, do you have to trade me?” he said, watching the drivers drink in front of us.
“Not yet,” I told him, truthfully. “I need some advice, though.”
The Lebanese had no good reason to help me. He knew I’d sell him out if I had to. But I was without counsel. When he assented, I decided that I liked the little weasel of a man. Then I asked my question.
“I can get to Alexi, the dissident, but I need to get Kasinski, the Commissar, to go in after I leave. How can that be done?”
The Lebanese thought. I could see his facial features relaxing. The morphine was kicking in.
“If you can talk to this Alexi privately, and then talk to Kasinski, hmmmm.” Hathoot massaged his jaw for a moment. “Russians. They’re all paranoid. Kasinski’s tortured this dissident, but he probably hasn’t gotten much from him. The problem is that Kasinski doesn’t know what questions to ask, not that the dissident won’t talk. Hell, anybody down there will talk, eventually.”
I shuddered in memory.
There was no doubt about Hathoot’s last statement.
“So,” he went on, “you merely tell Kasinski that you had secret information you had to get from this Alexi. Thanks to Kasinski, you obtained it. Thank Kasinski profusely. Give him more of my money. As soon as you are away from the dissident, the thumb screws will go on.”
I weighed carefully his advice.
“Thanks,” I said, patting the man on the knee of his remaining good leg.
“You must really hate this Alexi, huh?” Hathoot asked. I turned back.
“Ah, not exactly,” I replied, “it’s rather complicated.”
The Purser nodded in return, as if he understood, which he could not possibly.
“Another bottle,” Hathoot said.
“What?” I inquired, surprised.
“That other vehicle over there,” he pointed to the side of the house, “give them a bottle. We might need them to be a little erratic later on.”
I went up front to liberate another bottle from the reluctant Russian drivers. They gave me token resistance. I pulled a bottle out and climbed down from the Tundra Cat. I went around the back of the vehicle, went around the edge and looked around. I put my small canvas sack, and the bottle, on the ground. I took out a roll of the tape. Then I took my Kel-tec out, and taped the weapon to my inner thigh. I pressed it in as tightly as I could bear, then put my pants back on. I had a good idea of where the missing guards might be posted, although I wasn’t sure they would be as passive as they had been for my last visit.
I moved around the vehicle, with my canvas sack and bottle of unopened booze in hand. A more exotic looking tracked vehicle was nearby. A two-man crew had spread a canvas on the ground near the front of it. They sat and smoked cheap Russian cigarettes. Both men jumped up as I approached. All I did was hold out the bottle, with a big grin on my face. They looked at one another, and, almost grudgingly, accepted the gift. I bowed, and then backed away to head for the main entrance to the house. I had to admit that Hathoot was more of a natural mission leader, than I was. Or maybe not. I had, after all, found and enlisted his services at the eleventh hour!
I made for the study. Dutch was the only one still where I had left him. Kasinski hung over the chessboard, while Don contemplated his next move. I replaced the canvas sack into the athletic bag. I zipped it up, and then I leaned down to whisper into Dutch’s ear.
“Your job, downstairs, is to get the kid out of there and onto the Tundra Cat. That’s it.”
I made sure to wait for his sign of agreement before I inspected the chessboard. They had moved from the opening to mid-game. Don was doing a creditable job, but his ultimate destruction was written across the field of the Russian’s advanced pawns. Don was going to lose, but it was going to take awhile. I looked at the Captain. Our eyes met. He knew that the game was over, as well. He was having a good time slowly performing the coup de grace.
I then confronted Kasinski.
“Let’s take a look at the place,” I encouraged him, grabbing my bag, then motioning to Dutch.
Kasinski led the way, which turned out to be a great blessing. Just before we reached the descending stairs, I remembered the suppressor in my vest. No way could I pass even the most cursory of inspections or searches, while carrying a silencer. It not only screamed ‘gun,’ but it also revealed that I had to be a professional, of some sort. I removed the suppressor, and gently placed it into an urn at the top of the stairs.
The white room had changed. Yesterday, it had been completely bare. Now there was a table and four chairs in the middle of it. Kasinski closed, and then locked the door after I stepped in.
“Please,” he said, gesturing for us to sit on one side of the table.
He sat on the other side, setting down his re-filled snifter next to a lit cigar. The cigar burned the wood of the tabletop, but the Commissar seemed not to care. I did not mind the blended smell of the smoke, as the room’s odor of decay was already bothering me. I checked on Dutch, to make sure he was following Benito’s earlier lead, but he seemed unaffected.
“What do you have for me?” The Russian spread his arms out with fake bonhomie.
“Here’s what I want,” I said, ignoring his request. “I want the boy. I want to take him out of here in a few minutes with no interference from you or any of your men. And I want to spend five minutes in private with Alexi Demitri. Then you can do what you want with him.”
The Commissar’s smile did not fade. It was as if I had said nothing at all.
“So, what do you have for me?” he repeated.
I unzipped the athletic bag. I pulled out twenty of the banded hundreds. I stacked them in front of Kasinski, and then unbuttoned the three front snaps of my vest. So he could not see how many of the narrow leather belts I had strapped to my waist I turned, unbuckling two of them. I re-snapped my vest and tossed two straps of Krueggerrand across the table. I told him what they were, and how many coins were inside. Lastly, I unveiled the huge nugget.
I rolled the gold across the table, but the nugget was rough and did not roll well. It didn’t have to. Kasinski grabbed it with both hands. The money and the Kruggerrands had had their desired impact, but as I had earlier suspected, the big nugget lit the man up.
“This is natural. This is real. Where did you take it from?” he asked.
“The Isle of the Tsar of Russia,” I replied, flatly.
“That small island. Those islands,” he corrected.
I nodded, watching to see if the Naval Officer might have mentioned his own recent experience there.
“The Captain,” Kasinski muttered, examining the precious metal closely, “he discussed some recent problems there. But he did not mention gold. A gold discovery. On islands so small. This is wonderful.”
The Commissar shifted the nugget to his left hand and then held his right out.
“We will do this,” he announced, seriously, “but you must get the boy onto the ship and out of the Oblast. Kessler will not be too keen on that. I don’t care. If he stays in this Oblast, he will not be brought back here. His remains will be left in Providence Bay.”
I shook the scoundrel’s hand. It mattered not what he said at this point. The plan either worked, in which case nothing the Commissar did later would matter, or if it didn’t, in which case nothing mattered. From his coat, the Commissar removed a sack of his own. He carefully put his new fortune into the bag and clutched it close to his body.
“Let us go,” he said and stepped to the door, which led straight to a hell that Dante couldn’t imagine.
The door opened to admit two armed guards from the day before.
“Just a formality,” Kasinski said, waving the guards towards us.
They did a quick search. I thanked God that I had been so careful with the automatic. My guard missed it. But then, he wasn’t really looking for a gun at all. He missed the two belts of Kruggerrands, as well, but he didn’t miss the athletic bag where the remainder of Hathoot’s money was stored. One guard motioned to Kasinski. He looked through the gaping zipper.
“Ah, you came prepared. I see. You maybe have to pay the Navy, too?” He pointed up to the ceiling. I nodded, the thought never has crossed my mind. The Captain of the Cruiser was not cut from the same seedy cloth as the Commissar. But the Commissar didn’t know that.
“But I have the real treasure. How much is there? On the islands, do you think? It’s in Russian waters so you can’t go after it. You already tried, but all you got was this.” He swung his booty bag out from his body.
The guards stood down. One of them re-opened the door. The horrible smell emanating from the sewer pipe was sickening. Dutch’s nose turned up, and his eyes blinked rapidly.
“About ten tons, from what I could gauge,” I answered back to Kasinski. “Good luck. It’s right there, running along a surface vein on the Eastern Isle.”
I watched the Commissar’s eyes get distant, just thinking about that amount of gold.
We eased into the corridor. The guards did not follow. At the first alcove of cells, we stopped. Kasinski opened the cell, as before. This time I switched the light on before entering. O’Donelly was crouched on the concrete slab, buried inside my vicuna coat. I reached out to him.
“We’re here. We’re leaving. This is Dutch. He’ll help you get up the stairs and into the vehicle.”
The boy was not elated, but he cooperated. I left the cell. Kasinski and I squished our way toward Alexi’s part of the dungeon. I was glad that I had worn the Wellingtons this time. They were a tradeoff, however. It would play hell running in them later if flight became necessary.
Kasinski halted at the dissident’s steel door, his hand on the lever.
“What is it that you must discuss with this traitor?” he demanded to know.
I was prepared for his question.
“It’s the real purpose of my visit, as you might have guessed. I cannot tell you though. I thought we had an agreement?”
Kasinski opened the cell. Alexi was as before. He was at least conscious and his look was just as piercing. The big thick door clanged shut. I turned back.
“English?” I asked.
“Aye,” he forced roughly out of his throat.
“Good. I cannot help you. You cannot survive here. I don’t think you’d live much longer if I could get you out.”
The shattered man shook his head, in resignation. His hands clutched the chains in front of him. I was relieved to see that they were still chained to the front, and not behind him. My plan depended upon it. His fingers looked serviceable.
I quickly dropped my pants and unwrapped the tape from my thigh. I pulled the gun out, and placed it carefully on the slab next to him, then crunched the tape into a small ball. I deposited it in my pocket before pulling up my pants. Alexi’s eyes had expanded. He stared at me, then the gun, then back at me.
“Six rounds,” I said, putting six fingers up before me. “Six left. Thirty-two caliber. Very effective at close range.” I waited for an acknowledgment. He nodded once.
“For that pig.” I pointed at the door. Alexi nodded once, again.
“And you?” I asked, watching him closely.
He stared at first me, and then at the gun. I watched understanding come into his eyes. I also detected a sign of relief. I placed the Kel-tec into his hands, then took a moment to roll his torso over so that his back was to the door.
“He’ll come in a little while. I told him you’re are sharing secrets with me. He believed me. He’ll return to torture those secrets from you. I’m sorry I could not do more.”
I patted the man on his arm, very gently. I got nothing back from him. My plan was now fully operational. Kasinski pulled on the lever, as lights in the miserable hellhole went out.