CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Morituri te Salutamus

 

The Tundra Cat slowed. I had taken the back bench-seat. Don and Dutch were up front, with the drivers near the windscreen. The box of Johnny Walker Black label had been carefully jammed under the front seats. The Purser, at my side, was in obvious pain, back to clutching his hands tightly around the wound in his thigh. I considered hitting him with another ten milligrams of the morphine, but decided that I might need him conscious and capable of whatever moves he could muster.

Don and Dutch were not going to be much help improvising on the field of battle. Don was, at heart, and by long life experience, a college professor. Dutch had a good heart, but he was mentally set up to play checkers in a world in which most others played only chess. Hathoot beckoned me, as we approached the old main house. The diesel toned down to a dull roar under our seats.

“If we live, I mean, if you don’t leave me, what then?”

I looked at Hathoot.

“I’m not leaving you...not unless you’re alive and I’m not.”

He shrugged, as best he could, while nursing his damaged leg.

“You’ve stolen all my money,” he complained, looking at the athletic bag I held between us.

I elevated my own shoulders, and said nothing.

“Alright. I don’t care about the money, unless you don’t have to use it. But what about my share of the gold?” The Purser continued to shock me.

We were about to confront Kasinski, with a whacked out non-plan of a plan, which might, or might not, cause us to get shot, or worse, and the man was making a play for his place in any future gold rush. I shook my head in disbelief, as we eased up to the porch of a faded, clapboard building.

“You’re in for a full share,” I said.

I felt ridiculous in even saying the words. I wanted to add, “the whole world is in for a full share.” I stopped short of that.

The Tundra Cat stopped, too. We had arrived. I noticed two things straight away. The guards who had been posted at the front door for our last visit were no longer anywhere to be seen. And there was another vehicle pulled up next to the porch on the far side from us. It was a smaller tracked vehicle. It looked more modern than the Tundra Cat. It sported narrow treads, as opposed to the Cat’s huge fat metal plates. I speculated as to how it performed when running across the soft mud surface. Who did it belong to? It looked too new to be connected directly to the gulag.

“The drivers,” Hathoot poked me, then gestured toward the front of the cab. “Pay them.”

I regarded the man, skeptically.

“Pay them, cash,” he insisted, and then went on, “When we leave here we probably won’t be leaving with much approval from anybody. We only have them to drive this thing. It’s all levers and bars. We can’t drive it.”

I finally got what he was implying, and, for the first time, I was glad he was along.

The diesel shut down. My ears still rang from the engines constant wail, and the friction of the passing wind. But we had no time to recover. Don and Dutch jumped down, as I moved to the front of the open flat cabin. I had taken a banded stack of hundred dollar bills from my bag. I broke it into two even packs of five hundred each. Keeping my hands low, I passed the money toward the men. They both looked down at the same time. Both sets of eyes grew round.

“Five hundred now. Five hundred more when we get back to Providenya.”

I motioned with the bills. They grabbed them hungrily, and then stuffed the bills into their pockets, looking all around.

“You want leave now?” the Cat driver demanded.

I was happy that there was enough English between us to communicate.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “When we are done. Stay in the Cat. Wait. Drink. Is okay. But stay.”

I pushed down with both hands to reinforce my words. They both understood. Hathoot tilted his head back with his eyes closed. From here on, he was baggage. Freight, and part of the payment, for accomplishing the mission. I hoped to take him with us. I would abandon him, however, if left without a choice.

I alit from the big tracked rig, and almost fell straight to the ground. I had forgotten about the added weight of the nugget, the gun, the suppressor and the Kruggerrands. I recovered myself, and then stepped onto the wooden veranda of the old house. Don and Dutch flanked the big doors. I breathed in and out deeply, a few times, then shifted the bag to my left hand, to free up my right for the automatic. Dutch pulled the door open for me.

There was no attendant. Everyone had gone off somewhere, but I knew my way. I walked into the study. It was set exactly as it had been the day before, with one exception. In the chair Kessler had occupied sat a Naval Officer in full uniform. Kasinski was upright in the other. Both were smoking cigars.

“You are late,” Kasinski said, rising.

The Naval Officer did not rise. He appraised the three Americans, and then blew some smoke from his mouth, as if to make a negative statement.

The attendant who had been missing from the front foyer reappeared, carrying folding chairs. He methodically opened them, then set one in front of each of us. Don and Dutch sat. I remained standing. I found it interesting that the pieces on the chessboard had been reset. No game would be played for anything of value. I was disappointed. I had hoped to use the game to stall for a bit of time, to better estimate what was going on at the gulag, but the Naval Officer wasn’t stirring from his chair. Kasinski cleared his voice, upon realizing that I was not going to comment on his opening gambit.

“This is Captain Victor Cherno of the Russian Naval Cruiser Churkin. It’s a heavy cruiser located down south a bit."

Kasinski waved toward the open ocean in a southward direction, with his smoking cigar.

I felt, intuitively, that the man was trying to tell me something. But I couldn’t figure out what it was. I immediately assumed that Cherno was the skipper of the ship dispatched to retake The Isle of the Tsar of Russia, days before. Had he apprised Kasinski of that operation?

My plan was exhibiting small cracks all over it. If I used my gold vein story, backed by the nugget, and the captain was present, then he would know who was on the island. He could then quite legally detain us, take everything we had, and give us nothing, including our freedom, in return. In my snap judgment, the Naval Officer wasn’t a very generous man, although he didn’t appear to be unfair either-and physiognomy is an untrustworthy science. Appearances can be deceiving. I did not want to bet my life, or the lives of the others with me, on something so potentially spurious.

“You mentioned that you wanted to take a tour of the gulag,” Kasinski said, pacing behind the chessboard.

I affirmed.

Kasinski wanted to talk in private. He looked back at me in relief.

Then Cherno inserted himself. “What brings you all the way out here, professor Patton?” he asked, blowing more smoke.

I refused to play submissive to his dominant. That would not work. His English was excellent, which was another bad sign. He spoke as if he had knowledge of Western ways for which he cared little.

“Why does a Naval Captain fly all the way in here?” I countered, as if I had not heard the man.

He blew more smoke, then finally gazed at me with eyes black as coal. I felt a slight chill, for the first time.

“I flew into the airport, unfortunately, then took that little vehicle out there to come here. Why do you ask?”

The man was a player, I could tell. I was involved in a chess match without being in a chess match, and the stakes could be life changing, even fatal.

I’d wanted to know if he had come in a helicopter, which would have been disastrous news. There was no running away from a chopper across the tundra, and no cover either. I had the information I had sought. At least part of it. I was genuinely interested in what had brought him to the gulag. I advanced a pawn.

“I’m an ethnologist. A college professor. I came to see what a gulag was like. This one is old and about closed down, but it still helps to get a feel for it.” I stopped.

What I had to say had nothing to do with anything, and certainly very little to do with the discipline of ethnology. I was just giving him something to consider so he might give me something back.   He hit back with an attack with his queen.

“I don’t think so. Ethnology. That used to be called cultural anthropology, I believe. I have no idea why you’re here, but that’s not it. You Americans. You don’t tell the truth a lot.” He laughed deeply, after he said the words, taking a little of the sting off of them.

Kasinski laughed even more heartily. Dutch and Don forced smiles. The Captain spoke again.

“Now, I am a Russian. We lie too, but usually after we’ve been drinking, and over a good game of chess. You did bring some American spirits, did you not?”

I elbowed Don.

“A bottle of the Black, if you would be so kind Professor,” I declaimed.

He moved back toward the door without a word. I hoped that the Russian drivers were mollified enough by their constant drinking, and the bribe, so as not to give him trouble. Once again, we needed John Barleycorn badly. I switched my attention to Kasinski.

“Perhaps I can allow the Commissar to guide me through the facility while my assistant is bringing the libations. We can then sit, drink, play, and tell more lies.”

I gave him a weak admission about my deception. I was not there to participate in the region’s ethnology. I was also not there to give anything away. I had known when I had first encountered the Captain that we would most probably not be leaving the Gulag with him still standing. He needed to be completely unaware that he had already been designated expendable. I was castling, to protect my King.

The Russian counter moved. “I hope I may open and pour during your absence?”

The Captain extended his cigar toward me. I took it, and we both exchanged phony smiles. Cherno was castling, too. The chess was going along just fine, but we weren’t really playing that game anymore.

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