Following the Mouseketeers gathering, I made my way through connecting corridors with Marlys’ trailing not far behind me. My mind abandoned vital business, which I had discussed in detail at the meeting. Instead, my attention was concentrated on what might occur when we both came together at my door. I was not going to deny her again, if that is what had happened before.
My interactions with Marlys had never had any real substance to them. I had never left her presence certain of anything, especially my standing with her, or my place in her life. If I had one. I walked with a firm step. We had this night before us. The morning was eight hours away. The ship was not due to sail until mid-afternoon. Tomorrow would come soon enough, and it would have sufficient hours to accomplish the mission, or at least enough to give me a marginal chance of success.
I reached down to unlock the bolt, but quit after turning the key. The door was no longer locked, as I had left it. The cabin was restocked with everything I had prepared for the mission, save the Kel-tec automatic. Marlys joined me. Her presence was tangible. I looked away from her, as her appearance alone caused me to do and say things I usually regretted later. I gestured for her to enter. Her facial expression had softened, and filled with worldliness. I stumbled at the threshold.
Günter stepped out of the cabin. Marlys and I both stopped dead in our tracks. Neither uttered a word, just looking at the fastidious Third Mate, in his formal ship’s attire. He reacted stiffly. I verged on asking him what he was doing in my cabin, and how he had come to be there. I did not get the chance.
“My compliments, Indy, but the Commissar of the Oblast has requested your presence at his residence immediately,” Günter announced, then bowed, as if he had just extended his compliments to a visiting admiral.
Marlys backed up several steps in order to stand behind me. I tried to fathom what was occurring. The Commissar, Igor Kasinski, had received my request for an interview, which was scheduled for the following morning. Professor Khromov had assured me of that. So what was going on? It was early evening of the night before. Not that it mattered. I had little choice. When I turned to Marlys, she was gone. I had not even heard her departing footsteps. My shoulders sank a bit. I regarded Günter with some anger, and a bit of peevishness.
“You know, Third Mate, if you’re going to do that formal delivery thing, then how about using one of my real titles?” I shook my finger at the martinet of a man, who bowed in his Germanic way once more.
“Herr Professor Indy,” he corrected, but this time with a slight snarl.
I surrendered. Günter was a stiff, unbending reflection of a real man, but I liked something about him, even if he was a cipher in Kessler’s operation.
“Get out of the doorway. I need to freshen up for dinner. I’ll be right out,” I said, as I eased him out of my way.
I slammed the door in Günter’s face. I did need to freshen up, but I needed to get rid of my automatic and passport even more. I did not want to be caught at the Commissar’s residence with a firearm. At least not at a time of his design. And I did not want my ‘papers’ examined, even though the passport was authentic. All my passports were genuine. The days of fakes were long gone. Technology had seen to that. But it meant that you had to have other real identities, as well.
So, I was the real professor, just as I was the real realtor, diver, pilot, and several more personae’s The Agency was becoming comfortable with people who were more than one person. Really and legally. But it was a transitional time. I knew things would change. Still, I wanted to go into Commisar Kasinski’s clean, with nothing on me. It would prepare me for what was likely to occur in the morning. Or not. Serendipity ruled so much of my work, a fact I both loved and hated.
I checked the drawer with all my stuff. It seemed undisturbed. The switch on the CD player beckoned. What additional chunk of horoscope-like data might pour forth? But I refrained. Business was at hand. Günter stood, just as I had left him, except his back was to the door. He was in an attentive parade-rest position, looking like my cabin had its own posted guard
We headed for the Lido deck. I inquired of Günter as to whether I might inform Don of my leaving the ship, but he just kept walking, shaking his head.
“I’m quite certain that my Marlys will see to that.”
I looked at the back of the man’s neck as he sped up in front of me. He had inadvertently said “my Marlys,” and then realized what he’d said. I didn’t comment, but I did snicker. Poor fool, I thought. Then I almost laughed aloud.
Günter stopped at the top of the gangplank. He gestured down toward the dock where a small Russian Jeep sat idling.
“Transportation for both of you awaits,” he advised.
He waited for me to walk down. Along the way I weighed the exact wording of his comment. “Both?” I thought to myself. I opened the Jeep’s back door. Inside, behind the driver, sat Benito. She waved me in. The Jeep drove off with a jerk, powered by Vodka, no doubt.
Benito wore a dress and pumps. She didn’t look as bad as my moniker suggested. In fact, she seemed feminine, and I regretted that I had ever given her such a masculine nickname, which was used so often that passengers never even remembered her real name anymore. But I could not undo the damage.
“We can’t cross the tundra in this thing, can we?” I asked, loudly, hanging on for dear life, as we careened through Providenya’s streets and alleys. “God, only an eastern European bucket can make this much noise,” I yelled to Benito.
She grinned. I could tell that she was enjoying herself, and that did not make me feel any more comfortable. She cupped one hand, holding to the back of the driver’s seat with the other.
“You think this is bad, wait until we get to the Tundra Cat.” I sighed, trying to lean deeper into the thin cheap plastic of my badly made seat.
Minutes later we hit the edge of town, doing a broadside skid into the mud of the tundra. There was a road below us, I saw, close to the water, but it ran atop the bedrock near the water’s edge. Roads through the tundra were just not constructed. It was too expensive, and besides, when things were frozen, which was nine months of the year, no road was necessary. What little gravel the gulag produced was used these days for concrete mix. With eighty prisoners, its output could not be significant.
The Tundra Cat was a tracked vehicle. It was much wider than the Jeep, and diesel powered. The big motor that drove it shook the steel goliath with each stroke of its rotation. I followed Benito up the steel ladder. We strapped into larger plusher seats atop the beast. I knew where I had seen this kind of vehicle before. At the South Pole. Those had been called Arctic Cats. American-built, they had been agile, fast and comfortable. Those Arctic Cats had been thoroughbreds, compared to what I was now in.
We lurched off hard ground, as the driver threw levers and hit the gas. I felt a squishy sensation in my stomach, as we sank into the muck, and then began accelerating. We kept accelerating until the huge diesel down beneath us was screaming. I observed that at speed the huge tracked vehicle ran up on top of the tundra. I felt like we were flying, although I gauged our speed to be about a hundred kilometers per hour. I was impressed. The Russians did some things right, and the vehicle I was in was an example of one of them. It was a Clydesdale, but a wonderfully rugged one.
The entire trip was mesmerizing. The vehicle threw mud chunks forty to fifty feet into the air, and even further, out to both sides. The tundra itself was beautiful in season. Small yellow and red flowers carpeted everything. It resembled the Highlands of Scotland or the High Desert of New Mexico in spring, both inhospitable places which I loved. I recognized the old Victorian home as we closed in on it. My NRO maps were pretty accurate and detailed. Satellites did not always image straight down. They also passed overhead at angles. You could get some interesting perspectives, ones you would not expect from hundreds of miles up.
There were four outbuildings, I confirmed, all in more disrepair than the main house. None of the wooden structures had been painted, not even the main house. We pulled up. The Russian driver shut the engine off. An American driver would have let it run, but the Russian driver was better trained. Diesels no longer needed to be left running to keep them warm and lubricated. Technology had improved them, too.
The driver helped us down. Although he smelled strongly of booze, I was still favorably inclined toward him. His uniform was a bit tattered, but laundered. Two guards stood at either side of the front door. They were in shade, as the first floor was indented to form a huge slatted porch. They stood with AK-M’s. The updated version of the venerable, and in my opinion, over-rated, AK-47. The guards were casual, not at attention. They made no move to search us.
I felt we might be the first visitors to the place in some time. I was encouraged. The place was old, the military guards bored, and the security lax. Maybe things were going to come to a simple, logical conclusion. It all seemed plausible. Prisoners had no chance to escape. They could not walk across the bog-like tundra in summer, and they could not survive forty kilometers in the open during winter. The guards were there to probe and push the prisoners around, not to guard them.
The Russian guards made no move to open the front door. I turned the ancient handle on one of the double doors, opened it out, and then waved for Benito to pass. I followed her in. A man stood just inside the door. He held out one arm to Benito. She put her hand on the man’s arm. He guided her into a study. I was right behind them.
Benito stopped when her guide stopped. His arm fell away, and he departed quietly, the way we had come in. I stepped up next to her. In front of a huge old fireplace, sitting at a chess table, sat two men, obviously engaged in a game. I inhaled deeply, coming to full alert. One of the men was a large Russian, in full uniform, who had to be Igor Kasinski. The other was also in full uniform. The uniform of our ship. Captain Kessler had turned up, unexpectedly. Benito and I stood motionless five feet from them. Kessler knocked his pipe against the side of the chessboard. The big Russian took a large swig from a brandy snifter. He eyed us both, but Kessler never bothered to take his eyes from the chessboard.
“Well, well, well, our cruise director and our little ugly version of Indiana Jones, have come to dinner,” Kessler snarled, more than spoke.
I could tell immediately that Benito felt the same malevolence coming from Kessler that I had. I looked from one smiling man to the other. I took them to be friends. Kessler was on strong terms with U.S. Customs and Immigration. He was bright and adroit enough to have figured out how to possibly get the gold off of Aguiak. I had underestimated the man. I was in much deeper than I had calculated. Quite possibly, I was in over my head.
“Chess, it is a wonderful game, is it not Professor Jones?” Kasinski said to me, raising his glass in a salute, and then gulping the golden liquid down.
“Patton,” I replied, quietly, “not Jones.” Both men smirked, knowingly, at one another, which sent a shiver straight down my spine.
“Come, come, let us not stand on titles, drink with us,” the Russian demanded, “Heinrich tells me that you are a player. Are you a player?”