We ran alongside, loping at half speed, while the ‘Lindy’ sprinted at top revolutions. The larger vessel refused to slow down. The way things stood, there was simply no hope of getting aboard. I bent down to Hathoot, who was half-propped up against the Zodiac’s rounded rubber hull. I monitored his vital signs. He awakened at my touch. Once again, his eyes were fully dilated from the effects of the large dose of morphine.
“We seem to be in a bit of a pickle, Angelique,” I said playfully to the groggy man.
On the exposed part of the ship’s Lido deck Marlys, Benito and Gloria were present. Sometimes, Günter appeared, I noted, but only when Marlys was watching us at the rail. I wondered how Don and Dutch were faring under the care of the venerable doctor. We had seen nothing of them since Kessler’s run to the sea had begun.
Thankfully, there had been no helicopter sightings, which meant that Captain Cherno’s staff had made directly for the Heavy Cruiser. If Cherno survived the massive drug dose I administered, then he would be coming-to very soon. Coming-to and mad as a wet Russian hornet, who happened to command a powerful naval force. I shivered from long exposure to the cold passing air, and from our predicament.
“What’s that?” Hathoot said, his voice slurred and lazy.
“What’s what?” I responded, raising both eyebrows to peer into his dark eyes.
“That sound?” he asked.
Then he tapped one of my pants’ pockets. I reached into the pocket. My hand closed around the tiny radio. My shoulders slumped a bit, as I fished it out. I had forgotten about my lifeline! The rush of adrenalin and action had dulled my memory. Fight or flight had overtaken me. I had not remembered it even when I performed my inventory. I had forgotten our only ‘hole card’. Angelique had come to the rescue again. I held the radio out, pushed the small earplug into my right ear, and turned up the volume. A constant flat monotone flowed through the earphone.
“Cherub, can you read me. Cherub, can you read me…” was being transmitted non-stop.
I pushed the button and spoke.
“Number One, Cherub here.” I waited.
“Thank God, where have you been? I’ve been calling.” She spoke in English.
“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “What’s going on aboard? Where’s Kessler? How are Don and Dutch?” I no longer saw the point of speaking in codes.
Our concern with frequency monitoring was pretty much in the past. The Basque answered.
“The Captain’s on the bridge. He’s locked everyone out except his bridge crew. He won’t let Günter or Borman on. Nobody knows what he’s doing. The Russians didn’t want us to leave the dock, but we did anyway. They said they’d fire on the ship, but then had problems with their gun. Don and Dutch are in the infirmary. Both are hurt, which you must know.”
I heard the accusation in her voice.
There was nothing further to be said, but I held the radio in front of me anyway. I remained impressed with Captain Kessler, in spite of my animosity toward him. Kessler had cut and run in the face of armed opposition. A wise move, and a courageous decision. The World Discoverer had no firearms at all, that I knew of. But Kessler could not be aware of the Churkin, no doubt doing over thirty knots, racing up the coast. Why was the ship still running at maximum speed? It was, in truth, his wisest course of action, but how could Kessler know that?
I’ll check back with you later. Save the battery. Don’t talk unless you have to. Find out more about how Don and Dutch are doing.”
I then consulted Hathoot again, in search of enlightenment.
“Why’s he running the ship so hard?” I asked of the man I had initially underrated.
“Fear. He was there, you will recall, when the Russians assaulted The Isle of the Tsar. Those troops were put down by helicopters. Those choppers were Navy rather than Army. If the ‘Lindy’ gets stopped, then the jig’s up. No gold, no ship, no job and maybe even the gulag for our Captain Kessler. As you know, he’s no fool. He’s running for U.S. waters.”
I nodded at the injured man, grimly. We could stay with the ship all the way to the mouth of Providence Bay, now only three hours away, or a bit less. But we could not last for long out in the open ocean. The Bering Sea was a brutal monster of high running swells, cross winds and currents. Even with extra tanks we could not make it half way across the Strait. And we could not run at the Discoverer’s pace in the heavy seas. Not for very long.
“How do we get him to slow down and let us aboard?” I tested Hathoot, hoping for some brilliant response I had not thought of.
He ruminated, closing his eyes again. I checked the boys, lying under the tarp. Both had fallen asleep.
“Ah, the innocence of youth,” I declared before covering them with the tarp. It was a bit warmer under the canvas cover.
They would be okay, as long as we could cook up some new scheme before hitting the open Bering Sea. North, in the direction we were going, great clouds were building in the distance. At least every other day, since my exposure to the geographic area, inclement weather of some sort moved in or out.
I had heard, on my way to Nome, that fishing the seas off Alaska was the most dangerous job in the world. I had thought that the reason had to be based upon the equipment the fishermen used. Now, I knew that the real reason was the horrid weather itself. The Bering Sea was an inhospitable slice of ocean. It had icy waters, terrible and frequent storms, a shallow bottom basin, and huge amounts of water constantly squeezed between jutting landmasses. Those waters were always in motion, driven by storm waves of long fetch, and never-ending tides.
“We have to find a way of getting on the ship. We can do nothing out here, but wait.” Hathoot forced out the words, and then fell back against the rubber surface, his eyes closing again.
The last of our morphine was only going to hold the Purser for a few more hours. Out in the open ocean we would be running with salt water bounding over the gunwales. We’d also have to deal with high winds, unless I was wrong about the looming weather front. Zodiacs did poorly in high winds. The Hypalon rubber bottoms of the boats were flat. Any air that got underneath, if strong enough, would flip them like a coin.
I scanned the craggy shores we were flying past. The deserted rock vistas of the Providence Bay coastline were starkly beautiful. They were also totally uninhabitable. Even if they provided any haven whatsoever, it would take no time at all for the Churkin’s choppers to find us. And that would be it. There was to be no landing on any Russian shore. Even death on the high seas was preferable to what I had seen at the underground gulag.
I was never going to be one of those lost souls with large, dead eyes, looking at the bottom of sewer pipes for the remainder of my short life. I was making that decision for everyone else aboard the Zodiac, too, which Filipe continued to drive with a strong sure hand. I never saw him look over to the nearby ship, where his wife, or girlfriend, Gloria, stared from the rail.
Filipe was a tough customer, as a worker and loyal employee, but he would be only a small asset in any kind of hand-to-hand combat. I did not want to consider that eventuality, however. As I wearied a bit, he motioned me toward him, as if he knew what passed through my mind. I crabbed along the Zodiac’s flooring to where he stood. With one foot he moved a small plastic container toward me. I grabbed it, pushed the levered handle out of the way, and then popped the top off.
The insulated case was filled with sandwiches wrapped in plastic. I grinned up at the man, handing a sandwich up to his outstretched hand, then unwrapped one for myself.
“Peanut Butter and Jelly, that’s all I put in my Belly” was a memorable childhood jingle that returned to me instantly. Strawberry Jelly. The taste was the taste of home. I ate mine in four large bites, and then ate another one. I had not realized that I was running on empty.
Filipe tapped me with his foot. I moved to deliver another sandwich, but that was not his purpose. I followed his pointing finger. A case of bottled Evian water lay under the edge of a small tarp near the back of the boat. I pulled two out, handed one up, then drained my own. I breathed deeply, tossing the empty bottle over the transom like a discarded hand-grenade.
“Take that, you Russian scum,” I intoned, to nobody at all.
I lay back against the canvas covers. I did not want to focus on the ship lest I see Marlys, or any of them. It was hard to meet their eyes, with no hope in sight. There was really nothing to be done. It seemed we were hurtling downriver above Niagara Falls. We could not yet hear the falls up ahead, but we all knew it was there, eager to devour us.
I jammed the radio earpiece tightly inside my ear. I clutched the radio in my right hand. With the wind striking me frontally, and with the concentrated rays of the Arctic sun beating down, I could not keep my eyes open. Instantly, I fell into a deep sleep, hoping not to dream of the waiting icy nightmare ahead, called The Bering Sea.
A hand pressing my ankle awakened me. Hathoot was gripping it. I checked my watch. Almost three hours had passed. The Zodiac droned on. The ship ran at full speed not a hundred yards to our starboard side. I checked under the tarp. Both boys stared back out at me. I gave them the quintessentially American ‘thumbs up’ sign and then joined Hathoot, whose pain had returned. His bullet wound needed flushing, bandaging, and then a lengthy round of antibiotics. To do that job properly, I had little or nothing.
“Call them,” he told me, cupping his hands to be heard over the sound of the outboard.
It was time to reconnect. As usual, the Lebanese was right.
“Number one, are you there?” I asked.
“I’m here,” she responded, instantly.
“We’re coming to the end of the bay. Have you got Don or Dutch handy?” I waited for a moment.
“I’ve got Andre here,” the Basque replied.
“Indy, it’s me,” Don said. It was good to hear the man’s distinctive voice, and it was better to think of him as safe.
“We’re in trouble over here,” I belabored the obvious.
“Ya think!” he replied, then laughed with the Basque.
I concluded that they were just a bit too jaded by the spy business to which I had introduced them. Our situation in the Zodiac was not dire, but it soon would be. The dark mass gathering at the horizon when I had fallen asleep was now almost dead ahead. It was blowing from the North, so it would be pushing large swells in front of it.
“We’re having a meeting of the Mouseketeers in a few minutes,” Don advised me.
“Okay, keep me posted,” I answered.
They were going to put their heads together, although I could not think of one rational course of action, which might help us. At a loss, I distributed sandwiches to the boys under the tarp. Hathoot refused one. His lack of appetite was due to the morphine. So I gave him water instead. He didn’t want to drink it, but I made him. Dehydration was already evident in the lines across his face and in the torpor of his movements.
Minutes later we passed out of the bay and into the Bering Sea. It proved to be everything I had feared. The wind was the worst. We wouldn’t be able to keep up with the ship for long. Filipe dropped off the throttle, backed the boat down near idle, then crossed over the Lindy’s port wake. He gunned the outboard, until we were back on plane and running near full speed. I was amazed to find that the Zodiac was running in relatively smooth water. The Lindy’s stern was only a few yards from us! We were running right atop the prop wash of her big double screws.
It seemed a wildly dangerous place to be; yet it allowed us to keep pace with the ship. Filipe had to play with the throttle constantly, as the tremendous force of the moving waters changed direction repeatedly. I was relieved that there was no wind, but I knew our respite was only temporary. It was many hours to United States waters, and we’d exhaust our fuel long before we ever reached that safe harbor.
I could see no ship of any kind. No helicopters, although that was deceptive. Helicopters could fly extremely high, even out of hearing range, while still keeping us under surveillance. Nothing could be done about the Churkin or her choppers; nothing that Kessler was not already doing, anyway. We bobbed and weaved in the wake of the World Discoverer, our allies meeting in Don’s room to consider our fate. The Zodiac was on a perilous journey.
Either our friends would somehow rescue us, or the five of us would die together.