Instrument of God
I approached the chessboard. I examined the table, the woods used in its construction, and the players themselves. I hefted a white rook, after glancing at Kasinski for permission, and getting his nod. Double tournament-weighted ash. The black players looked to be of walnut. And there was an odd custom element to them. Some clear resin had been inset into the top of each piece. A class set-up, not normally owned, or handled, by rank amateurs of the sport. And I knew the sport well.
I had beaten Bent Larson, a grandmaster at the time, while I was still a high school senior. Larsen hated me for that and shamed me in front of my classmates, so I had studied harder and swore never to become a master like him. I learned a better way to play the game. Seldom did I ever win a game against anyone I played, except in my mind. Losing at chess, I discovered, was a masterful psychological weapon to deploy, if carefully wielded.
I observed a bottle of Russian liquor inside a nearby cabinet. I did not see any American booze, which was highly prized by all Russians. I wondered why Kessler had not brought any with him. Kasinski lifted the rook from my hand and then began quickly resetting the board. Neither man spoke. Finally, I did.
“Would the lady like a drink?” I asked of Benito.
I knew she was way out of her element, and still did not grasp how she had come to be there with me.
Kessler unlimbered himself from his chair, walked to the cabinet, and half-filled another snifter. He proffered it unceremoniously across the reset chess table. She immediately tipped it, and then drank deeply. Kessler held his own glass in one hand and his dead pipe in the other. Kasinski reclined, watching without expression, his arms folded.
I perused my opponent across the table of men. White was on his side, but I didn’t care. I was not here to play chess. I was here for higher stakes, but in that game, I didn’t know much at all about the pieces or rules. So I delayed my next move.
“Do you prefer any particular opening?” the Russian said, revealing himself for what he was.
A dedicated Russian chess player of some repute, no doubt. He knew the openings. He guessed that I did, or he was attempting to gauge me, and he didn’t care. Kessler had probably set him up to expect something a little different from me. I shook my head. He advanced his king pawn. I advanced my own.
“Did we come here to play chess?” I asked quietly, unwilling to proceed further without some clarification.
The Russian eyed me.
“You came for dinner, at Captain Kessler’s request. Which we will proceed to in a few minutes. I did not know you played the game.” I believed the man.
I watched him advance his Queen’s knight. A lead-in to the Four Knights Game. Very conservative, if I was to pick it up. Very labored. Very complex. Very boring, and very Russian.
“Captain, would you be so kind as to get the lady a chair?” I asked.
Kessler pondered his reply over the lip of his glass. I detected fire in his eyes. But he moved off. I heard him speak to someone in an adjoining room. Kessler soon returned. The same man who had met us at the door was beside him, carrying a chair. Benito smiled, as she sat, but not at Kessler. At me. I made believe I didn’t notice. I answered Kasinski’s knight with a knight. I accepted the Four Knights Game and waited to see if he wanted to proceed on into the full opening. He did.
“What is the occasion of this dinner?” I asked, lightly, feigning that the board had my full attention.
Kasinski moved his other knight. We go to the game, I thought, but still remained well into former master’s play. Kessler bent over the board.
“I see that the game has not yet really begun,” he said, musing more to himself, than to us. He continued on. “I thought since you were coming out here tomorrow anyway, that you might like to see the place first.”
I glanced into Kasinski’s eyes. I saw a twinkle. Kessler didn’t know why I was visiting the gulag. At least I didn’t think he did, but I didn’t have enough data to come to a reasonable conclusion. Kasinski’s assistant returned. He leaned into the Commissar’s ear before departing.
“It would seem that dinner is served. We can continue later?”
I agreed. We all rose to follow the assistant.
Dinner went without incident. The food was surprisingly Western and tasty. I sensed that Kessler, although he appeared not to have provided booze, had indeed come through with great American steaks. I had no good reason, but I doubted that the gulag had much of a supply of grain fed beef. Prior to leaving the ship, I had reflected upon one thing for which I had not prepared. I lacked hard evidence that the objective of my mission was, in fact, physically present in the gulag. I was not even certain that he was alive. As dinner was ending, I probed.
“What about a tour of the place?” I requested.
Kessler immediately demurred.
“I want no part of any tours. I like the way my uniform looks right now, and I’ve heard enough, from others, about what goes on here.”
The assistant was back with a box of cigars. Both Kessler and Kasinski took one. I declined but was nearly stunned out of my chair when Benito took one. The three of them cut, clipped and did other things to the large brown things that cigar smokers know how to do. The assistant appeared, to light each one very carefully, as if he was lighting roman candles. Benito grinned in contentment and then blew a cloud of smoke at me. I grinned back. I liked her with the cigar. Or without it.
“Captain, we shall repair to the lower environs, whilst you, my captain, can consider the game the professor and I have begun…and, of course, enjoy more of that fine Russian whiskey. The Vodka is undrinkable, but the whiskey’s not that bad.”
Kasinski rose, leading the way back towards his study, one hand holding his smoking cigar, the other his full snifter, and Benito and I in tow. Our cruise director was not nearly as stable as when we came in. All three had restocked their glasses from the whiskey bottle. Kessler sat down with him at the chess table. He loosened the top button of his shirt, which was the first informality I had ever seen the man take.
Kasinski motioned for Benito and me to follow him. We complied. We reached a well-lit stairway leading down. Kasinski pivoted.
“This is not really a place for a lady if you know what I mean,” he stated.
“Don’t mind me, I’ve been to tough places before,” she responded.
I looked at the Cruise Director quizzically. Maybe she really had. Her purpose on the visit still eluded me, as we headed down the many steps of the unbroken stairway.
The bottom of the stairwell was a flat concrete landing. As we came to a halt, Kasinski rapped on a tall steel door once, quite hard. It opened, with a nearly silent, well-oiled metallic sound. We stepped through, finding ourselves inside a brightly lit room about ten feet by ten feet. Another steel door, identical to the first, stood ajar, at the far wall. The man who opened the first door had already disappeared through the second.
“What is the real purpose of your visit?” Kasinski drilled me, directly.
I leaned, with my back against an unexpectedly clean white wall.
“The O’Donelly boy. I’ve heard nothing. Is he here? Is he okay? If he’s here, can I see him?” I watched the Commissar’s self-importance grow.
“Proof of life,” he answered. “You want ‘proof of life,’ as you American’s like to say.”
“What are you talking about?” Benito blurted out.
I looked over at her, as did Kasinski, before I fielded her question.
“I came here to get this young American boy named O’Donelly out of this place and back to his home in the U.S.” She scrutinized me, closely, soberly.
“Who the hell are you?” she finally demanded, after a moment, her drink at her side, forgotten.
I didn’t answer her; instead, I steered back to the mission.
“Yes, Commissar, you have it exactly. What have you got?” I held out my hands in question, as I spoke.
Kasinski motioned me forward.
“Come this way,” he said, then went through the second door. I entered another world. I picked up a stench, which hit me full in the face. Benito trailed me, missing the smell of raw sewage and worse, probably because of the amount of alcohol she had consumed. We followed Kasinski into a mammoth, dimly lit, underground pipe, maybe fifteen feet in diameter. We carefully stepped around a runnel of fluid, which traced a course through the hardened muck, all the way up its center. The stink overpowered the unprepared. Its intensity made it seem almost lethal.
I halted when I heard Benito retch behind me. Her glass then hit and bounced off the pipe’s bottom muck. I stepped back to put my arm on her shoulder, but she pushed me off. She tried to talk, then retched some more. Finally, I applied pressure to her shoulder with both hands. I guided her back to the clean white room, closing the door behind her. I ground her unfinished cigar into the muck. I thought of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He had not lied about gulag conditions or the inhumanity.
“Was that for effect?” I said, angrily, to Kasinski.
The man didn’t react at all. I accompanied him to what I thought was a ‘T” in the pipe, but it turned out to be a hollow of cells. There was a circular area cut from the pipe, filled in with four steel doors facing outward. A man in overalls stood by them. Kasinski communicated with him. He unlocked a great padlock from a latch on the door and then opened it. Kasinski motioned me forward.
“Take as much time as you want. Simply knock when you’re ready to talk.” I went through the opening.
The inside of the cell was totally dark. The heavy door slammed behind me, triggering a current of fear through me. Had there been a second chess game? Had I been suckered into my own imprisonment? I grew tense and nervous. A switch from the outside was thrown. In the bright light, I blinked rapidly, reorienting myself. There was a stone bench against the far wall, which was only about six feet away. A human boy lay curled up on the bench, without a blanket. The room was not cold, but too cool to lie upon concrete without a covering. The boy wore no shoes, and his feet were in a sad state.
Dirt covered his entire body. He had no toilet. I suddenly realized that the earthen floor in the cell probably did not consist simply of dirt alone. I flinched. The smell was beyond description. The boy covered his dirty face with his dirty hands.
“O’Donelly?” I called. The boy opened his eyes, wide.
“What do you want?” he whimpered. “Leave me alone!”
I did not need the boy to say who he was. Who else could he be? His accent was American. He was of the right age, and definitely in the right place. And the Commissar was showing him off as if he was a slave ready for the auction block, which he was. I had been in this exact spot before. I knew what worked, and what did not. Psychology did not work. Gentleness did not work. I now used what I had learned did work.
“O’Donelly, have you prayed?” I whispered as I lowered myself to a crouch.
His eyes opened, between splayed fingers.
“Have you prayed to God for help?” I asked, this time in a louder tone.
I waited. The boy’s head rose and fell. I felt relief.
“You prayed to God for help, and he sent me. Do you understand?” The boy just stared, his hollow eyes wide open.
Then he blinked rapidly. I knew he understood.
“Good, because here is what you are going to do. I’m going to leave you, and then return tomorrow to get you. I want you ready to go. I want you to exercise, so you can run if you have to. I want you to take this coat,” and I stripped off my Brioni cashmere coat, “wrap yourself in it and sleep as much as you can. I’ll be here tomorrow.”
The boy reached out his hand. I placed my coat in it, careful not to touch him in any way, or move too quickly. The boy was in a sad state, mentally and physically. I needed him capable of moving on his own, and at least able to follow simple directions.
I rose up slowly from my crouch, and then knocked sharply on the door with my knuckles. There was nothing else I could do for the boy until the next day. Any more time spent with him might lead to his emotional breakdown. I felt his eyes on my back. It can be hard to be God’s instrument, I admitted to myself, without any humor in the idea at all. The light went out and the door opened. I stepped through, flinching when the iron door slammed behind me.
The Commissar stood in front of me, backlit by the big lights strung along the top of the giant sewer pipe.
“Nothing to say?” he asked.
I shook my head. I eased past him, heading back to the white room.
“Don’t you want to see the dissident? Or what used to be the dissident?” Kasinski asked.
I paused and then continued. I looked at the Commissar, but I did not judge him in the same way I had before. He had become an obscurity.