A Fool’s Game
We rode the Tundra Cat right to the edge of town. I had made no further effort to engage Kessler in conversation during the trip. The Russian Jeep was waiting on the concrete road when we arrived. Once more, the three of us crawled into a conveyance together. There was no talking as we headed to the dock. The racket of the jeep, its careening, jostling run, and the driver’s inebriated state, consumed all of our attention. We pulled up to the gangplank, and then stopped with a good five-foot skid. I moved to the gangplank where Benito already held on to the rail.
“You all right?” I asked her, touching her shoulder with my hand, gently.
She didn’t respond, then flinched at a shout behind me.
“Ten,” I realized the Russian driver had spoken the word. He repeated himself, holding up both hands with fingers splayed.
“A bit early for lunch,” I murmured, then assisted a wobbly Benito up the gangplank.
I glanced down to see Kessler lighting a cigarette with the driver. They smoked together near a front fender of the military vehicle. I wondered if Kessler spoke Russian, but I doubted it. Although the Commissar was on friendly terms with the Captain, the dinner, and what followed, had pretty firmly established that they did not appear to be working together.
My thoughts bounced about madly on my way to my cabin. I didn’t even notice that Benito headed in the same direction. I wanted to clean my filthy shoes. I wanted to make sure the automatic was where I had left it. I wanted to get coordinated with Don and Dutch for the morning’s re-entry into the gulag. At the end of the corridor I realized, belatedly, that both of us were going to my cabin. I watched her try the handle.
“It’s locked,” she said, over her shoulder, holding out her right hand, palm up.
I fished the key from my pocket. I gave it to her without comment. Once inside, she went straight into my little bathroom and stripped her clothes off. I sat on the bunk, then leaned to the small table and opened the top drawer. All my stuff was there, appearing undisturbed. I put the automatic back in my pocket, and then shut the drawer.
Benito filled my shower stall. Heat and steam poured from the small room. I pulled off my shoes, took them to the mini sink, and cleaned them. I left them to dry along the bulkhead by my front door.
I pondered what needed to be done on the following day. They were mostly impossibilities. Get the kid out of there. Get him back to the ship. Transfer the Russian kid from the port onto the ship. Get them papers from somewhere. Take care of Hathoot. Deal with the sick puke of a Russian Commissar without killing him. Guide myself, and the people I had dragged along with me, through it all in one piece.
“Impossible,” I judged, just after the water from the shower shut off.
Benito stepped from the stall, grabbed all of my bath towels from the racks, and then toweled herself dry.
“What’s impossible?” she inquired, and then, “what happened to your jacket. You left it out there?”
I inspected her body, while she worked. She was really not fat. Just built like the professional wrestler, Andre the Giant. She had huge breasts, which I could not help but admire She looked over at me, so I looked toward the porthole, but I still saw her grimace with disgust. She poked around in the small bathroom, finding my folded robe. She struggled to put it on. It was too small for her, but she ignored that, and stepped closer to me. She motioned me aside. I got out of the bunk. She got in, laying back.
“Well?” she asked, meaning the questions she had already asked, nothing more.
I could tell there was nothing more.
“Nada,” I said, offhandedly. “I’ll get my coat tomorrow when I go back.” She turned her wet-haired head to look at me.
“I’m tired of the lying,” she declared, her voice quiet and flat, but for a slight tremor.
She was holding herself together. She went on, “tell me the truth, right now.”
She was adamant. I liked the woman. I didn’t know why. I decided to tell her a version of the truth.
“I’m going back there tomorrow to get a boy out of that ghastly pit we were in. He’s an American who’s been there for a while. I gave him my coat, so maybe he could sleep the night. You don’t have to go back.”
After my revelations, she bristled, with her eyes going right through me.
“I said that you came aboard this ship and brought life with you. A zest for life. But what are you really? There’s a boy back down there in that Gulag? And you knew it? And you left him there, with that ogre of a Russian? You gave him your expensive coat? How generous!”
I said nothing.
She continued, “but that’s not the worst. No, the worst is you. Does the phrase ‘cold as the driven snow’ mean anything to you? You didn’t get ill down there. You didn’t even breathe hard. You befriended that man, and then shook his hand before we left. What are you? Do you care about anything? Anyone? Is it all an act?”
I walked over to the dresser. I looked at the CD player, unsure if it was recording everything. Not that it mattered at this point in the game. Benito squirmed around, bringing the covers from under her. Once she got them free, she drew them up under her chin.
“...And you cleaned my shoes. Why did you clean my shoes?” she asked, her voice little more than a loud whisper. She brushed a tear aside, and then absorbed it with a corner of the sheet. “I don’t like you Indy. I don’t like what you are. But I don’t feel safe anywhere but with you.”
I directed my words to the CD player in front of me.
“This is what I do. This is my mission. I have had many. I was not always like this. I do feel. I do understand. I do know. The boy has one single chance in this world, of leaving that place alive, and I’m that chance. I can’t get involved. I can’t get mad. I can’t get even. After this mission I’ll have another. Nobody will ever fill me in on what happened after I leave this one. Maybe, I’ll see something about in a newspaper one day. Yes, I hurt people. I don’t mean to. But I do, and I do it with a willing dedication, and I do it very well. I don’t know if that boy over there trusts in God. I told him that God sent me to get him out. He believed me. I believed me. What do you believe?”
Benito’s eyes were closed. I stepped to the side of the bed, and I leaned over. She was asleep. I put my face in my hands, and rubbed long and hard. Gazing on her in peaceful repose, I talked to her sleeping form.
“You’re a regular person. A citizen, we, that’s people like me, call you that. I can be with you. I can help you. I can interact and enjoy you. But I can’t be what you are. Not ever again.”
I retraced my steps to the dresser. Song number seven was scheduled next, if there was a song.
“Why not?” I said aloud, and then pushed the button. “...It’s a heartache, nothing but a heartache, hits you when it’s too late, hits you when you’re down. Nothing but a fool’s game....”
I listened to the song play out. When it was done, I shut the magical-fortune-telling-machine off, fascinated by the brain behind its recordings. It was time to complete my preparations with Don and Dutch.
I checked my Brequet as I got to Don’s cabin door. It was well into the evening. I realized that that explained the completely empty corridors. I corrected myself. That, and the only open bar in town. I knocked, waited a few seconds, and then entered, bumping right into Kessler’s back.
“Oh, do come inside, Indy,” the German said, using an acid tone.
I stepped to the nearby wall, then put my back against it. I noticed both Dutch and Don sitting on bunks, but, oddly, the Basque was nowhere in sight. Then, I spotted the closed bathroom door, which I had never seen before.
“You thought you could turn my own First and Third Mates against me?” Kessler screamed, eyeing all of us, one after another.
He was in a towering rage. Was he reacting to our little confrontation in the Tundra Cat?
“Well, it didn’t work,” he went on, “I know the whole story. Günter has told me everything. You are up to no good with that dissident, that traitorous prisoner. Do you think you can waltz in here, tap dance around, and then leave with some sort of Pulitzer Prize-winning story?”
My eyes rolled around in bemusement, while listening to him. I shot a quick glance at Don and Dutch. Their eyes looked like mine. I got control of myself. I debated how to respond, if the Captain required a response. But he just went on.
“This ship leaves at fourteen hundred hours tomorrow. If you’re not aboard, at precisely that, I don’t, and I won’t care.”
The glowering man then jammed his perfectly white barracks cap onto the top of his head, twisted about and departed through the open door. I almost responded with an “aye, aye, sir,” to his disappearing back, but stopped myself in time.
We began to laugh, and then to howl. The Basque came out of the bathroom, looked at the three of us, and then reoccupied her usual place under the exterior bulkhead porthole.
“Günter and Borman,” I giggled. “Who would have thought?” I had to laugh again. “Pulitzer Prize?”
I said. “When these guys lie, they’re good at it. But why? Why hold out against the Captain?” I pondered the questions I’d raised.
Don spoke; “Easy. Marlys and the gold. With us, each of those guys has a shot at one or both. Without us, just how much of anything are they going to get siding with the Captain? They know him. They’ve worked with him for years.”
I concurred. It made sense. We had two allies back, but they were not motivated by our cause. They were in it for the girl and the gold, or both, and those were dangerous, volatile motivations to factor in, and even more dicey to work with.
I filled them in on the dinner. I reviewed, in encyclopedic detail, the underground gulag, the dimensions of everything, the guards, the weapons, and even Benito’s reactions during and after the tour. I left out nothing except the chess play, which I felt did not matter. I even discussed Alexi’s condition, his impending death, and our inability to impact his situation at all. The boy was a more hopeful matter.
Then, very carefully I laid out my plan, with respect to our White-Slaver-the Purser. Don and Dutch both stared, their expressions dead serious. I knew that I would have Dutch’s support, but I was uncertain of Don’s. He had worked with Hathoot for several years. But he had nothing to say. He looked away, which told me that he was not completely comfortable with my decision, or the plan, but that he would go along with both.
“Dutch, get down and fetch the big nugget. That may end up being the key to this whole thing.”
Dutch left immediately. Whereupon Don asked the question I thought he might.
“What’s the nodule really for?” I approved of his question.
“The Kruggerrands are just gold. They’re worth the weight of gold. But the nugget? The nugget has potential. Only we, and hopefully a very few others, know the exact location it’s from.”
Don’s mind was working along with mine.
“Our Commissar is, no doubt, in possession of information stemming from the Russian assault on the Isle of the Tsar of Russia. Spetznatz and helicopters were involved. A major operation, certainly. And nothing came of it. A burned forest. A broken-down Zodiac. A nearby expedition ship. Nothing.” I watched Don carefully, after I concluded.
Suddenly, he plumbed the point.
“You bastard! It’s perfect! We were there for the gold and got driven off! The commandos did not go prospecting. They were looking for spies. They never thought to check for gold! It’s genius. You’re a demented genius.”
I humbly accepted his compliment.
Don turned more serious. “The Purser thing. I don’t like killing anyone. I’ve never killed anyone.”
“You’re not killing anyone,” I responded. He inhaled, and then sighed deeply, upon hearing my words.
“You know what I mean,” he said.
I couldn’t help but grimly relate to his words. The gun in my pocket again felt hot through the cotton. Dutch returned with the nugget. He closed the door, and then tossed the huge thing onto Don’s bunk. I fetched it. It was larger than I had remembered. In truth, it was a little larger than an orange, but weighed about the same as a bowling ball. It was hard to grasp, and hold up with one hand. It was a dull gold color, shot through with green veins of copper. It was remarkable. I wondered just how many pure nuggets of its size existed anywhere in the world.
I forced the large object into my left front pocket. It looked ridiculous, but I would get it back to my cabin under cover.
“I want the bar open at eight in the morning tomorrow. Open for all the people who have hangovers. Serve ‘em up free. We need the population as pacified as possible by noon. The ones who drink, that is. Don, you head down to see Filipe. Make sure that everything is still a go there. If there’s a hitch, then get back to my cabin pronto. That Russian kid is going to be at the cemetery first thing in the morning. I want you to find him, and settle him in there. If he drinks, give him a bottle too. I don’t care. I don’t want him running around with his little rat pack creating trouble tomorrow.”
I was done with operational items. I looked at both men.
“I went in there alone today. It was difficult. Tomorrow, I’ll have you with me. A team. It’s going to be a much better visit this time.”
I then headed for the door and closed it behind me. In truth, I was going back in there with two more people I might have to defend, or look after in some other way. It did feel better to have a plan, however, any plan, no matter how impossible. And it felt better to have friends.
I had not locked my door. I stepped inside my cabin, and closed the door behind me. Marlys stood in the center of the room. She was wearing a white sheath, looking like a true Goddess of the Sea.
“I came to be with you,” she declared. I smiled broadly.
Then she pointed at Benito’s sleeping form. “Awaken her, and tell her to leave.”
Marlys went on speaking, softly, while still pointing at the sleeping woman. I frowned.
“Can’t we go to your cabin and leave her to sleep?” I responded, reasonably.
She disdained reason.
“You won’t tell her to go?” Marlys questioned, as if not understanding the response I had given her.
I realized that she had heard, and that she had understood, and what she was really asking. I looked at the tattered wreck of my cruise director, who didn’t like me, or what I was, but could not sleep without having me close by. I also looked at Marlys, with my whole being wanting to surge toward her. But I didn’t move.
“I can’t do it. I can’t ask her to leave,” I breathed.
I closed my eyes, as Marlys moved. I felt a slight breeze in her passage when she went by my side. I heard the soft click of my door latch, when the door closed behind her.
“It’s a heartache...” I repeated the first words of the seventh song, my eyes still closed.