Reconnaissance in Force


My mission statement had been short. I concluded the situation report and then waited for my team to begin the questions and cross-examination. I expected the silence to be brief, and I wasn’t disappointed.

“This whole thing is over getting some drug-addled kid out of legal custody?” Don asked. I took the measure of the others. A full minute elapsed, while everyone thought.

“Warum?” Günter demanded.

“Why?” I repeated, in English, glancing over at the Mate. He obviously understood a whole lot more English than he was able to speak.

“He’s the nephew of a United States Senator.” I said and then continued, “That senator sits on the appropriations committee. The Department of Defense runs on appropriations.”

I translated, as best I could for Günter. He nodded curtly, instantly seeing the larger picture.

“I still don’t really get it,” Don said, “It just seems like a whole lot of trouble for one kid who will probably be let out soon, anyway.”

I had been ready for the parry. Most people considered intelligence missions were all about the most exotic circumstances or about national security, when, in reality, most missions were driven by things of much less emotion. The acquisition of information, the passing of some object or data, making an appearance some place, or just providing marginal protection, were common missions. But nobody ever wanted to discuss those.

“Did you all expect that we were after a nuclear warhead?” I asked the whole group, looking from one to the other, as I finished. “This is the real world. They sent one guy. Few assets, not much funding, and little likelihood of success. Our patrons are going through the motions, so that afterwards they can say they tried. The kid is a throwaway. I’m a throwaway. And so are you. This is, however, a mission that has a sound foundation. Nobody needs to get hurt, unless we need to hurt them, and, oh yes, a boy’s life would be saved.”

That I had lied about that one thing, I believed to be forgivable. Once we were on hard ground, working toward an objective of such intensity, anything could, and probably would happen. It would be Murphy’s Law in action.

Anyone of us, including the target, could get hurt or killed. We could plan with the most minute of detail, but in my experience, the mission would succeed more on our ability to adapt in the field, rather than our readiness to apply pre-ordained plans or prepared or pre-supplied equipment.

“How we going to break the kid out of there?” Dutch asked. “I’ve never even been back there before.”

I thanked him for the question.

“Don has, and he’s going to give us the layout. Only three of us are actually going to go out there. We’re not intending to break our target out. We’re going to bribe him out of there, then run like hell.” I gestured to Don.

I removed rubber bands from my sheaf of papers. I passed the photos of our target around while Don began his talk.

“The prison is underground. There’s about a hundred prisoners still there. Only special political prisoners get as far out as this outpost, so they’re mostly literary, critical types. Needless to say, they don’t write anything anymore. They exist today to make gravel. The gravel they grind and process goes for the roads that run atop the tundra in the summer. Without the benefit of hibernation, they live underground in huge sewer pipes, which were laid long ago. Up top, only the old Victorian Commandant’s house and some out buildings of wood still stand. All those above ground structures are gradually falling to pieces.”

I gathered the photos back together, and then tucked them into my coat pocket.

“We’re going to do this in two parts,” I explained slowly, making eye contact with each of them. “Tomorrow, as soon as we’re cleared by whoever clears us, we do the reconnaissance. Don and Marlys will go to the museum, ostensibly to set up the passenger visit there, but in reality to affect a meeting between Professor Khromov, our asset, and me. I’ll be at the cemetery with Dutch. I want Filipe to launch one Zodiac to give some passengers a tour of the harbor. I also want him to check out the grounds below the cemetery, when he’s doing that tour. Günter can ride with him, as long as Kessler doesn’t invent some other duties for him. Is everyone still onboard?”

I sensed Marlys’ question before she even voiced it.

“Why am I going to the museum?” She finally said. I looked over to Don.

“How old’s Khromov?” I replied.

“About fifty,” Don answered.

I turned back to Marlys; “That’s why.” She glared at me, but said no more.

“The day after tomorrow is operations day. One way or another, we bring the target aboard, get everything and everyone secured, and then we sail for the U.S.A. God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.” I stopped talking to observe my co-conspirators.

We weren’t done yet.

“How do we manage to get him out of there?” Dutch asked. I smiled, with confidence, before answering.

“We won’t know how until we know the situation. We won’t know the situation until the Mouseketeers meet again tomorrow evening. This is the reconnaissance meeting, and that’ll be the operations meeting. Tomorrow is the key to understanding what we’re going to do.”

“And the passengers?” Don inquired. “What of them? They can’t just run about town on their own. Usually, we act as their guides.”

“So guide them, part of the way. Leave them at the museum. We’ve got a bar tab here. Marlys, you break out a case of Vodka. See if you and Don can get them to re-open the old Sarda drinking establishment. Give out shots for a buck a shot. Ask for payment in the worthless local currency. Maybe you can even do it at the museum. The passengers can stray everywhere, especially if everyone’s drinking. They won’t care what we’re up to, or at least, they haven’t so far. Benito will be ashore. She can guide some, as well.”

I confided nothing further, although I feared that Benito could prove to be a problem. The woman was not going to like being ordered about, or left out of anything. And I had yet to see her take a drink.

“Three radios. Tomorrow, I’ll carry one, Don will have one and the other will remain here with the Basque. The batteries are good for about twenty hours. They go on from when the team leaves the ship, until we all return. Then they get turned off. We don’t have any chargers or spare batteries. We need the radios for the operation. Don’t forget.”

Everyone nodded, even Günter.

Don reached down by the side of his bunk and brought out a pitcher of the Mouseketeer drink mix. Glasses appeared from somewhere.

“Two drinks and that’s it.” I ordered, realizing I was probably talking to myself. “And get some sleep. Tomorrow may be a long day.”

I was drowned out by the Mickey Mouse Club song. I pulled Don from the room, and then closed the door behind him. The song easily penetrated to the outside.

“The CD player was bugged. My room is compromised. I want to leave the gun, gold and papers in your cabin when we go ashore tomorrow. We won’t need them until we kick operations off.”

Don was shocked.

“Who?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“You’re guess. I think it’s Kessler, but I don’t know. Come to my cabin when the party’s over to get the stuff, and some money. I want Hathoot ashore on operations day.”

Don had a question written on his forehead, yet said nothing. We shook hands. He went back into the party, and I went to my own cabin. When the door was opened for Don’s re-entry, I noted that Günter had moved into position right next to Marlys on the bunk. She spotted me, through the crack, before fluttering her eyelids sweetly at the German boy. It was payback time.

I readied for bed, which meant stripping to my underwear and then climbing into the top bunk. My bunks were one atop the other, while the larger cabins, like Don’s, had them arranged across the cabin from one another. I had learned, in prison, that inmates prefer bottom bunks. After discovering that, whenever I was offered a choice, I took the top bunk. I wrapped the automatic, gold nuggets, and papers in a dry bath towel. Don appeared, to my relief, for I was tired to the bone. I was also pre-mission in foresight. I might not sleep for a while, and I knew it. I pulled out ten of my last twenty hundred dollar bills from their paper wrapper.

I handed Don the heavy towel and the money.

“Pay the museum Professor as much as you need to for a couple of the better snuff boxes. I want those to go to Hathoot tomorrow night. With the promise of many more at bargain basement prices. I want that man ashore on operations day.”

Don turned off the light. I went right to sleep.

In the middle of the night I was awakened. I opened my eyes in total darkness. I felt a gentle bang. I knew then that the ship was docking against the wharf in Providenyia Harbor. I had finally made it to Russia.   I hopped down, went into the washroom and relieved myself. I went to climb back up into my bunk but stopped. Someone was in the bottom bunk. I bent over. There was very little light. It didn’t take much light to pick up Benito’s profile.

I sighed, and then vaulted into my own upper berth. It was too late to lock the door, and I no longer had Marlys’ magical Santeria string.

“If only I had left the water under that bunk,” I muttered. It was also a mistake.

“Are you awake?” Benito called softly.

“No,’ I whispered back. There was a lengthy silence.

“Did Botany Bay tell you about Bergson?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered, wearily.

“That life force Bergson was talking about? It applies to inanimate objects, as well.”

I didn’t know what to say. I should have said “Oh great, the ship itself is going to miss me when I’m gone,” but I thought that threatened to extend our conversation.

I said nothing instead. I was tempted to click on the CD player to see what the next song was. I smiled myself back into sleep guessing that the song was probably “Tea for Two,’” or maybe even “The Tennessee Waltz,” or something even more insane.

When I awakened in the morning, I leaned over the side of my bunk. Benito was gone. The bed was made. It was like she had never been there. Had I hallucinated? The ‘Lindy’ was not necessarily a place where Euclidian physics always worked correctly. My Breguet said it was seven. I shaved, showered and dressed, putting on my crew sweater. Boots, not Wellingtons. I remembered the radio, and my last thousand dollars. By the time I reached the Lido, most passengers were already congregating. Those on expedition ships arose early, and all consumed huge portions of breakfast, which I had discovered earlier in the cruise. Marlys was at the bar, dressed in a mini-dress and heels, as she had been ordered. My coffee bowl was ready and steaming.

“When do we get cleared?” I asked her, taking a small sip of the boiling hot java.

“They’re working down there on the dock now. Probably half an hour, or so. And thank you for introducing me to Günter,” she said, offhandedly, like she was giving a tourist directions. “He’s really quite sweet.”

I was about to say something sarcastic, when a large man stepped up to the bar, then jostled against me. I looked up at him in stunned surprise.

“Shocked?” Borman said. I did a double take. “I’ve been feeling a little low since I accidentally bumped my head,” he said, acidly, in his extremely German accent, with an odor of alcohol so strong it wrinkled my nose.

“Captain Kessler says that you and I are brothers. The Russian Brothers Kasimaroff, I think it is. We are to stay with each other for all our time in Russia. The Captain says that you will keep me from being hurt again.”

I had no ready quip. In fact, I could not speak. The mission had just run into its first, and possibly, its last big obstacle.

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