CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

To Live and Die for Dixie

 

A small tendril of smoke curled up from the end of the suppressor, which I had once more pointed down at the floor. The machined steel part had done its first job well. There had been almost no sound. Possibly, a short stiff handclap, but nothing more. With the exception of Hathoot’s squirming body, emitting mewling cries of shock and pain, the tableau was frozen. Both Don and Dutch stood, unmoving, from their places upon entering the room. Professor Khromov cupped small enamel boxes in his hands, both still extended before him as if to showcase the pieces of art. A side door then opened.

“What was that noise?” Dora said, stopping dead when she saw Hathoot in agony on the floor.

I had not raised my weapon at her entrance. I sighed in relief. Long experience and training had kicked in. Citizens never took kindly, or easily, to having suppressed guns pointed at them. So far, I had avoided loud noises and screaming.

“I need the room,” I bellowed, in a commanding voice.

I moved to Khromov’s desk whereupon I plopped down my heavy little canvas bag. I would be needing some of its supplies immediately. Hathoot clutched his thigh tightly. My shot had been near perfect. Very little blood oozed out. No arterial hit. No veins. Just a good clean entry, and exit, through the side of his large quadriceps muscles. Having been shot there once, I knew the pain he had taken and still experienced. It was like getting struck by a baseball bat, fully swung. Nobody in the room even twitched. Time stood still.

“I need the room,” I repeated, gesturing Dora to leave.

I liked the saying. I had heard it first on a television show. I had liked it then. I was fast coming to realize, however, that it did not work so well in real life. I walked over to the wooden door gripping the frame with my left hand. The silenced Kel-tec was in my other hand. When Dora saw the gun for the first time, her eyes bulged.

“You shot him,” she pointed back at Hathoot’s contorting figure. “That nice man. You shot him, didn’t you?”

I grunted at her.

“Did you think your son was going to get a new life in the United States for nothing? This is no game. You get what you want, we get what we want. So get in the damn room!” I gestured more forcefully with the gun.

A few drops of oil spilled from the tip of the barrel. That, I think, more than anything else, galvanized her into action. She ran through the opening. Khromov followed, holding the boxes. I relieved him of them with my left hand, as he went by.

“Evidence,” I explained.

He looked at me with disdain. His expression was one, I was certain, that he normally reserved for cockroaches, or worse.

Dutch followed Khromov, asking nothing. Don moved but spoke before relocating.

“You need any help with him?” he asked.

I shook my head, once.

“You shot him, alright, but what are you going to do with him now?” he asked, his face serious.

“Shoot him again,” I said, very quietly, and then closed the door.

My words had not been missed by Hathoot. His contortions ceased, although he still clutched his leg tightly with both hands. A small puddle of blood pooled near his knee. The small amount pleased me.

“Don’t shoot me again,” Hathoot pleaded, holding one bloody hand up toward me.

I looked past his outstretched hand, gauging just how to place a bullet through his other thigh. I wanted the man out of action, and unable to move about on his own. That necessitated damage to both legs.

“I’m not a bad man,” Hathoot implored, his voice dusky, and cracking with pain.

I waited for an opening for my next shot, watching the man carefully. I presumed it was his first time being shot. The first time was the hardest. You never got used to it though, at least I hadn’t. I had only been shot four times. But three of those bullets had struck almost as one. I preferred getting shot to being knifed. Being sliced violated more viscerally.

“Not a bad man?” I mused while I waited. "You’re a white slaver with a heart of coal. A very small lump of coal, I might add.”

He moved. I moved with him, but it was not enough. My opening was too small. I couldn’t afford to kill the man. My shot had to be right. He spoke again, this time in anger.

“And you’re a lousy gigolo. A thieving low-life sex maniac.”

I stopped examining him for the shot, my automatic lowered to the floor, in shock.

“What?” I said, for his words had drummed into me like cold wind-driven rain.

“You’re taking my woman away. And I’ve liked you. I’ve been your friend,” he whined.

I stared at the little rotund Purser. I could not believe my ears.

“Marlys? Do you want Marlys? How old are you? You’re even worse than I thought!” I exclaimed, bringing my gun back up for the shot.

“Marlys?” He said, in obvious consternation. “What about Marlys? I’m talking about the woman, the real woman, not that girl. The real woman you’re sleeping with!”

His words were so succinctly delivered, so sated with wounded pride that they rocked me again.

“What woman?” I yelled down at him, but my automatic once more pointed at the floor.

“Sophia,” Hathoot fired his own bullet at me, as solemnly as if we were in the sacristy of a Catholic church.

“Sophia” I echoed, in obvious wonderment. He glared at me.

“You call her Benito. She is wonderfully beautiful, and you demean her as Benito.”

I was flabbergasted. I tried to talk several times, but each time nothing would come out. Then I wanted to double-up in laughter. Benito was his woman. The man loved Benito. And I was “sleeping” with her. Well, I was, sort of. Still dumbfounded, I returned to his original statement.

“You’re my friend? You’re a good guy? Explain those things to me.”

I brought the gun back up. He lowered his bloody hand, and then replaced it against his damaged leg.

“I have a heart. I understand you. I have followed you since you came aboard. I gave you that room. I gave you the CD player. I made the disk.”

I was stunned. He, Hathoot, had put those haunting songs on the disk? He had given me the room. Those things showed a huge heart, but I counter attacked.

“Yeah, you gave me the CD player all right, loaded up with tape recorders!” I snorted the words out, attempting to get past the other troublesome points he had made.

I was growing more and more uncomfortable with the situation, as each second ticked by.

“One recorder,” he corrected me. “And I need it back. That thing cost me eight hundred dollars. I needed to know just how far you and Sophia had gone. Whether there was any chance for me at all.”

The air went out of me with his last words.

“Of course,” I muttered, turning to the side, my weapon forgotten. “Of course, its love, not espionage. Not greed. Not extortion. No, it’s got to be love.”

I reconsidered. I knew that I couldn’t shoot the little man a second time. Not for love.

“What about the bondage-slavery thing you’ve been running,” I asked, but I could tell that my own word’s inflection was more hopeful than convincing.

He smiled crookedly at me, through his pain.

“I gave Marlys and her mother twenty thousand dollars. They were broke, abandoned. They had nothing. Now her mom has a roof over her head, and is waiting for her daughter. I gave her this job to pay me back. Is that so bad?”

“Jesus Christ,” was all I could say.

I unscrewed the suppressor from the muzzle of the automatic, and then slipped it back into its special pocket in my vest. I put the pistol away. I picked up the canvas bag and carried it down to the prone man’s side.

“Does this mean you’re not going to shoot me again?” Hathoot entreated.

I ignored him, while taking out the tape and bandages. I pulled out a syringe, took off the plastic wrapping, and then drew ten milligrams from the bottle. I squeezed a tiny bit from the needle, before punching the rest into Hathoot’s damaged thigh. He squealed.

“Oh shut up,” I said, putting the needle and bottle back in the bag. “Roll over and drop your pants. I’ll bandage this. It’s deep and painful, but not serious. And stop making a big deal out of it.”

The Purser complied. I taped and bandaged away. The man’s legs were pure white, with great black hairs all over the place.

The thought of him and Benito in bed together tickled me. I almost laughed aloud, but held back. I had a million questions for the man, but no time. The mission was pressing against us. The driver of the Russian Jeep would be waiting, and growing less and less patient with each passing minute.

Hathoot and I moved, awkwardly, to the adjoining room.

“We thought he’d be dead,” Don said, and then went on, “Are you going to shoot him again, somewhere else?”

I shook my head as I noticed Hathoot’s face flash terror once again, at hearing Don’s words. I waved my right hand downward at him, to let him know that he was out of immediate danger.

“That plan is down the drain,” I said, almost to myself. “I don’t know what we’re going to do now.”

“What plan?” Hathoot asked, pulling himself slowly from the floor, until he was standing, shakily, with the support of the professor’s desk.

It didn’t matter what the little man knew at that point.

“We planned to trade you for the boy at the gulag. The one we are trying to get out. The Commissar wanted to lock up another American, for budget purposes, in the kid’s place. We were going to give him you.”

Hathoot looked at me intently, for a moment, after I finished.

“American? How would he know I was really American? I’ve never met the man. Did you bring my passport?”

I had forgotten. True, Hathoot didn’t look very American. He could even pass for Middle-Eastern. My scheme had been flawed from the start. I had nothing more to say, but that didn’t stop him.

“We need my passport.” My jaw dropped.

“What for?” Don finally supplied a reply.

“For the trade, of course,” Hathoot said, beginning to hobble toward the door to the corridor.

“You’re going to let us trade you anyway?” I asked, in bewilderment.

“Ha!” Hathoot blew out. “Hell, no. That place is a torturer’s delight. I’m not goin’ in there. But we can fake it until we think of something better.”

I instructed Dutch to help the man. We had to get to the Strada for our ride. And we had to make a fast run to the ship to get the Purser’s passport.

“You’re American? Really?” I inquired.

“Of course, I’m American. What else would I be, with a plan as bad as this?”

I had to agree with him there. We had had a bad plan. Now we had a totally ridiculous revision. But it was all we had.

We descended stairs to the front entrance. All the passengers had disappeared. I had a good idea where we could find them.

“I’m not sleeping with her,” I assured Hathoot mid-step.

I could see the morphine had kicked in. He curled his lip up at me.

“I’m a serious man,” I said, “She’s slept in my cabin twice, but never for sex. We’ve never touched.”

I almost said I’d never seen the woman naked, but that would have been an outrageous lie.

“Ha!” declared the Purser. “You’ve had Sophia in your cabin for two nights and you didn’t have sex with her? You’re a complete romantic failure, are you not?”

Hathoot had me there. I stopped at the landing, and then turned to wave up at the Khromovs.

“You’re boy is ready to go. He’ll be fine. I’ll personally see to his safety.”

They clutched each other, looking down at me with the same dead expression on their faces. They had never computed the potential for what they were involved with, but I could not reassure them further.

“I’ll see that the boxes,” which I massaged with my right hand inside my vest pocket, “will be returned to the museum.”

They remained impassive.

I ran to catch up to Don and Dutch, my heavy canvas sack swinging at my side. They half-supported the hobbling Purser between them. Nothing was going right. My dread about the coming confrontation at the gulag just kept growing. Hathoot continued grinning, throwing out small laughs, here and there, until he exclaimed:

“Am I American?” Then he burst into song.

“...I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times gone but not forgotten, look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land, in Dixie land I’ll make my stand, to live and die for Dixie...” Dutch sang along with the man.

Together, they sounded really professional. Really good, and as totally out of place as only a wounded American from Lebanon singing ‘Dixie’ down the dingy streets and alleys of Providenya, Russia, could sound.

Elvis-Dixieland

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