The tarmac, laid across the concrete surface area of the dock, was empty. The walk from Sarda’s was short. It still took me awhile, though, as I was carrying an automatic pistol, and I wanted to be certain that I would not be interdicted. But there was no one. The gangplank rested at a steep angle. The harbor was not completely calm, diminished wave activity was making itself felt all the way in from the Bering Sea. A lower, shorter gangplank extended straight out from the portal everyone normally used to climb aboard the Zodiacs. Nobody stood guard at all, neither on shore, nor on ship. I wondered where Kessler was. It was too quiet. How long would that lull last?
I went to my cabin so I could shed the suppressor, the Krueggerrands, and the remainder of the gold nuggets. Gold was heavy. I realized that I could not have treaded water for more than five minutes without dumping the load. I placed the treasure trove atop my bunk. The weight was something to think about. It would surely limit my mobility. My agency training, along with most of my experience on missions, had never placed me in such a lonely position before. There was no ingress team, egress team, surveillance party, or operations assault platoon. There was just me.
I had imagined that the mission would be simple. I also had presumed that my Control Officer had thought the same thing. Now I had doubts. Most people thought CIA Agency training was entirely physical. A bit of it was. But the majority of the New Jersey School training was mental. Thinking. Observing. Recognizing. Confirming all those things. Believing in nothing, but taking in everything, as if it was fact. I was well trained and long experienced, but I was still way out of my element in Provideniya. Worse, I had not one soul with whom I could commiserate. I looked about the cabin and found a new micro-recorder inserted into the player’s small battery space. If someone had come for the old one, the one I’d tossed out the porthole, then why had they not simply taken the player back when they found the recorder missing? I shook my head in frustration. Then I pushed the button to see what the sixth song was, if there was one.
It played: “...red red wine, go to my head, make me forget that I, still need her so…”. I almost pushed the small lever to off, but I didn’t. I played the song through, thinking wistfully of Marlys. What a hopeless quest I was on. And I didn’t even want to be on it. I had celebrated my freedom, from cloying relationships, in every port around the world, and quite a few inland cities, as well. But I was smitten now, and I knew it.
If I had believed in God, the real God of my innocent youth, then I would have gotten on my knees in the cabin. I would not pray for winning Marlys over, but that somehow God would take her away from me, without me feeling that I had lost both arms and legs in the process.
I sat, for a long moment, on the edge of my bunk, my face in my hands. Days earlier I had believed I had some power, that I’d had balance. I’d had an understanding of life, and my fellow man. Now, however, I was a mess. I could not see how even a part of the mission could succeed. I was worse off than Don Quixote. At least he had his Sancho Panza. I looked up at the ceiling of my cabin.
“Where is my Sancho Panza, Lord?” I begged, half-seriously.
I got up, turned the player off, wondering, absently, whether song number seven was as accurate as the rest had been. Whoever was behind the placement of the machine and the selection of its contents was an emotional fiend and a mental vampire.
The Lido was near empty. Don, Dutch and Borman sat at the bar, drinking some more. I was not shocked. All of them had changed clothes. Don and Dutch were dressed for the required dinner with passengers, while Borman wore casual attire. Across the Lido deck Günter’s head bobbed in, then disappeared. I cursed. Borman should not be there. He was acting like one of the Three Musketeers, instead of as a Mouseketeer. Marlys was at Sarda’s, of course, so my version of the A-team was pouring its own. I leaned into the bar next to Herr Borman.
“Get lost. Go get a nap. You shouldn’t be seen here. That was Günter who stuck his head in a second ago. He’s probably in Kessler’s cabin right now.”
Borman didn’t argue. He drained his nearly full glass of Argentine Malbec before leaving. When he was out of sight, I addressed the other two.
“We’re drinking wine,” Dutch muttered, “just like you said we should.”
Unwillingly, my lips twisted upward on one side of my mouth. What little control I had was vested in huge over-sized children. Except Marlys. She was still much younger, but all adult. I thought of going to her cabin and laying down in her bed. But I almost cackled aloud at the thought. I might wake up missing a few strategic parts. She was every bit of the Yemaya goddess, deep into the syncretic religion of Santeria.
I intended to remind Don and Dutch of our last Mouseketeer meeting, later that night. Its agenda would be vitally important to my survival, and the potential longevity of many people aboard ship. Just then, however, Hathoot arrived. He was sparkling in his white and black uniform, befitting a man in charge of the dry cleaners, and the laundry forces, aboard ship. He put his hat on the bar, flat side down, next to Dutch, who was on the end. I looked at Don. He nodded, ever so slightly. Hathoot had been given the bait, and he’d taken it.
“There is no bartender aboard the ‘Lindy’, thanks to you,” Hathoot complained, not looking at any of us.
I just waited. Don and Dutch remained reticent, as well.
“What is a man to do for a drink?” he said.
Dutch got up slowly, walked around the short ‘tear-drop’ shaped figure, then pulled a wine glass from a holder. He set it in front of Hathoot, and then poured an overly large supply of rich red wine into the man’s glass. Hathoot thanked him. When he raised the glass the sun shone right through the marvelous liquid.
“Don David,” he said. “Not as classy as that Val de Flores concoction, but good stuff.” He swallowed half the contents of his glass.
“I’m charging you twenty dollars a bottle for that rotgut they’re serving down there.” He nodded towards the dock in the direction of Sarda’s.
I didn’t bite. One benefit, if I were killed, was that I would not have to pay my bar tab, I thought to myself; (What are you up to? Now that is the question.) He drank more wine. I hoped that neither Don nor Dutch would look at me, and they didn’t.
“Well, we’ll certainly find out sometime tomorrow, won’t we.”? He drained his glass, and then set his hat back atop his round balding head. “Good day, gentlemen.” He strode through the Lido area without looking back.
“I don’t like this,” I told Don, after the man was well out of hearing.
Then I felt a presence behind me. Over my right shoulder the Basque hovered. I had only seen her out of Don’s cabin once before. I registered astonishment, which she returned with a smile. She got her own glass from the bar. She was wearing dark slacks of expensive material. Her blouse was also designer. She looked terrific. Not like Marlys, but in the same league. She bent to the little cooler, fumbled around, and then came up with a block of cheese. She put it on a board, found some crackers, and went to work with a Chicago Cutlery butcher knife. We all ate some of the stuff. She drank no wine. After a few minutes, the Basque left, not gracing us with a goodbye. She kept her hands in front of her as she exited, which was unusual, but I missed its significance.
I left Don and Dutch drinking and smoking at the bar. They knew about the meeting. I was not going to babysit them. They had a lot on the line too, or thought they did. The gold vein was real. Dutch and I had seen that. We had samples. Which reminded me of his sample. The huge nugget. I wanted that for the morning. Little nuggets and coins of pure gold had impact. But a fist-sized nugget had the impact of an asteroid. It might come in handy.
I went back to my cabin to take a hot shower and sleep, intending to miss dinner. Nor would I eat breakfast tomorrow. I had gone on a liquid diet that morning. If I were to take a hit in the torso during the next twenty-four hours, I wanted my stomach and intestines empty. It was a precaution, a small edge, but I had to take any I could find. I lay in my bunk with the door locked. I almost got up to play song number seven, and then I thought for a second, and did get up, to check the battery pack. No recorder, again.
“Where are you Kessler?” I brooded, and then fell into a deep sleep.
Don knocked on my door to snap me awake. I came out of sleep bleary. I had been crossing the plains in a covered wagon. Marlys had been on the Conestoga next to me. The Indians had attacked, but it was over. I had an arrow in my shoulder. She inspected it, then reached into a bag at her feet and took out a piece of string. “Here, take the end of this string,” she had said. The knock brought me instantly out of my dream.
We went to the meeting. The air inside the cabin was electric. Tomorrow was the day, and it could not be avoided, by any of us. Günter already sat next to Marlys, leaving no room for me on the bunk. Don and Dutch shared Don’s bunk. Filipe and Gloria were together, with her half in the little bathroom again. Standing with my back to the closed door, I stared over at the Basque, who was in good spirits again. I didn’t like the fact that she had, all of a sudden, taken to smiling, but I discounted it. Don broke the silence.
“Are we gonna go over everyone’s role tomorrow?” he asked.
On cue, I launched into everyone’s assignment.
“Marlys goes to the museum, taking Günter with her.” I knew now that Günter was a potential liability of unknown strength. I needed him isolated.
“Don, Dutch and I are going to Sarda’s, before you.” I looked at Günter and Marlys, ordering them to “come back down with Khromov and Dora to re-open Sarda’s.”
They both agreed.
“I want the booze to flow freely. Most of those people will be hung over, and they’ll want some of the ‘hair of the dog.’ Don’t manage the glass kitty. Let them drink. Don and Dutch will carry a couple of more cases when we go in.” Again, they both agreed.
“You,” I pointed at the Basque, momentarily forgetting here name, “are our only true contact with communications aboard the ship. Watch. Report. Move around the decks. Get a feel. Don’t let them see you with that earphone in your head.”
Her radiance faded by the time I finished.
“And you, Filipe, man the boat like we discussed. Extra gas tanks and canvas. Lots of canvas, and rope to tie it down.”
He didn’t nod, but I caught the readiness in his expression.
“Gloria, you’re our Filipino hope. We need to know with certainty that the World Discoverer does not leave without us, under any circumstance.”
She evinced surprise. I did not ask any questions of her, however. She would do all she could to make sure we all had at least a fighting chance of making it aboard.
“What if things go wrong?” I asked my team of amateurs. I was met with dead silence.
“Wrong?” Don finally said, for all of them.
“Yes, wrong. What if there are weapons fired? I get killed, you two get killed?” I pointed at Don and Dutch. “What do the survivors do?”
They all looked back at me with round eyes and blank faces.
“That’s very unlikely, I will admit. We’re not expecting any violence. We’re expecting to go talk to the Commissar, pay him off, and get this American kid back from him, who he’s probably tired of messing with anyway. But things can go wrong doing stuff like this. You have to be ready for it. You have to pull together and make decisions about what to do. Then you have to follow those decisions. Without me, the team leader is Don. Without Don, it’s Marlys.”
Her eyebrows shot up. Her surprise was palpable, but I also knew it was the right decision.
“That’s it,” I concluded, clapping my hands, then spreading them, like a dealer leaving the table in Vegas.
“No detail or advice about what we should do?” Don asked, hesitantly.
I shook my head. “We won’t know what might go wrong. We could talk about it all night. It wouldn’t make any difference, because it would be something else. You just have to stay flexible, be adaptable, and not freeze mentally.”
I hoped that those who knew about Ivan, and even the dissident Alexi, would not bring either up. Even the sub-plot to get rid of Hathoot needed to stay out of Günter’s hearing.
Borman was our ghost. He did not come to the meeting. If he had, I would have turned him away. I had a use for Borman, but I wouldn’t see to him until after the meeting. I wanted out of there, without any more discussion. I closed the door behind me and made for my cabin. As I got to my cabin, I heard footsteps behind me. Marlys was closing on me. I looked up at the ceiling of the corridor.
“But I’ve prayed about this, Lord!” I reminded Him.
Red, Red Wine
by the writer, Neil Diamond