Line of Departure
I rapped on Kessler’s door, before barging in without an invitation. We were alone. He sat at his desk, as before. I filled the seat Commander Hathoot had occupied the day before. His salutation of “Professor” lacked goodwill. As he played with his dead pipe, I hunkered down to wait.
Whatever this articulate man wanted to say, I knew I didn’t want to hear it. As far as I was concerned, his only saving grace was the Basque, and she did not seem to consider his relationship with her a positive asset. I had not pushed Don about what was going on between the captain and his stepdaughter. I wasn’t aboard to do family counseling, unless it was essential to accomplish my mission.
“If that Mouse flag goes up on my mast again I’ll leave you right here in Russia, and you’ll have hell to pay to get out before winter sets in.” He banged his pipe on the edge of his desk.
I shifted position. His ‘listen to me accentuate my words’ gesture was beginning to annoy me. I didn’t care about the Mouse flag. That he thought I was behind it simply revealed a gaping hole in his data collection net.
The captain continued on, “There are rumors aboard the M/S World Discoverer. Rumors of you doing something important while we are docked in Provideniya.”
I was impassive, still not speaking. The gun in my inner coat pocket felt good. While I didn’t like the captain, I had, as of yet, no reason to kill him. Without cause, I would not add him to those creatures that continuously inhabited my dream world. In killing people, you get selective, after a while. Posttraumatic stress causes men of violence to go to sleep with, and wake up with, those they thought they had put behind them. I smiled, ever so slightly to myself, as I gazed on the Germanic throwback in front of me. If it became necessary to insert the captain into my dreamscape, it would be done.
“You think this whole cruise is some sort of humorous game, don’t you?” he inquired, having detected my faint, revealing smirk.
I was feeling like a sophomore in high school again, sitting in front of the dean, or the vice principal. I should have said, “Get on with it,” but I knew it would be a mistake. I held back.
The captain blasted away. “You screw up here, in any way at all, I’ll leave you marooned. You won’t see your passport for months. You cause me embarrassment, an international incident, and I’ll have you locked up here. They have a Gulag outside of town, you know, and I know the Commissar well.”
I had to chuckle at that. Finally, I engaged him.
“The gold?” I asked. Kessler put his pipe on the desk. He braced forward, like he had done the first time we’d met.
“It would be easier to get the gold with you, but it can be done without you. You don’t have to come back from this god forsaken place at all.”
And there it was. I could not remember being threatened that directly before, at least not by someone who had lived very long afterward. I let the smile fall from my expression, as if I was now surprised, and worried about such a warning. I was not, but I could not let either my experience, or my perverse sense of humor, betray me. The mission ranked first and foremost. I replied to him with all the subservience I could muster.
“I understand. I, too, want to have the benefits that might accrue from the dig. I have the paperwork ready to be filed when we hit the American mainland. We’ll be a team.”
I impulsively stood up, and then stuck out my hand across his desk. “Ich verstehen!”
I said, my face more serious than that of Benito’s, at her toughest. I should have added, “Mein Fuhrer,” but that would have involved losing control of my sense of humor. The captain was amazed. He slowly came to his feet. Then he accepted my hand, and my sentiment.
“I’m counting on you,” he said.
I shook his hand, stiffly, did an about-face and marched out of his cabin. My contrived respect for the captain might just pass, I mused. Not for a while, though.
I went straight to Doc Murphy’s cabin. The doctor answered my knock.
“I thought we weren’t going in until tomorrow morning,” he said, backing up to his desk.
“That’s correct, but I need some supplies.”
He didn’t even shrug, as he stepped aside. I found another of the small canvas sacks in a cabinet. I emptied out some old sewing equipment, went to the narcotics door, opened it and loaded a bottle of the morphine. I threw in some syringes, bandage material, two rolls of tape and some suture kits.
“Be ready, from when we go ashore, until when we sail.”
The old man surprised me by generating a huge smile.
“I’m with you,” he assured me, with much more enthusiasm than I would have imagined.
For good reasons, I now realized clearly, Murphy’s support was crucial to me.
The Lido deck was nearly empty when I got up there. The passengers were changing, I knew, in preparation for our afternoon lectures and dinner. I approached Marlys.
“I need you for fifteen or twenty minutes, right now,” I said.
She stepped to the end of the bar. The necklace was around her neck. I looked down to see the glitter of silver girdling her ankle.
“Of course,” she said, smoothly, as if she had been waiting for just such an interruption.
I led her to Don’s cabin, and then held the door open for her when we got there. The Basque and Don were in their usual positions. I absently wondered if Don went over to her for sex, or if she went to his bunk. I shook my head to get rid of such images. The Basque pointed at the bunk, but Marlys ignored her. I caught the one look that passed between them. I didn’t shiver, but I wondered why I didn’t. I motioned to Don.
“I want you to go find Günter. Marlys needs to have a word with him. Whatever he’s doing, he’ll come.”
Marlys’ face remained expressionless. Don put on his shoes and left.
“Either of you been to Provideniya before?” I asked.
Both women indicated they had. The Basque now spoke up.
“This is our third, and last, trip of the summer. We’ve both been twice. I wasn’t here last year, but maybe she was.” The young girl jutted her chin in Marlys’ direction, but didn’t focus on her directly.
I turned to Marlys.
“Sit on the bunk,” I said, pointing.
I didn’t need her to be seated, but I had to know she would do what I told her to do. Marlys quickly sat, then gave me a look that told me that she was pleasing herself by sitting, not giving me more than my due. I nodded, curtly, giving her that. God, but I loved women who were self-directed and stood up for themselves.
“I need to get this,” I took out the Kel-tec automatic, “into the city, as well as 48 ounces of gold, some morphine and three radios.”
I perused the Basque. As expected, her eyes were glued to the small steel automatic.
“Are you going to shoot someone?” she stammered, finally sounding like a young girl for the first time since I’d encountered her.
“Most probably, somewhere along the line,” I said, and then turned back to Marlys, whose eyes were flat.
And her question was just as flat. “Hathoot?” She asked.
“Quite probably,” I responded.
She reacted with almost undetectable glee. It was mostly in her eyes. I thought, right then, that Marlys would probably make a better agent than I. Something cold, yet warmly capable, lay deep inside the woman, waiting, patiently, like the Earth rotating under a storm. Or rotating into it.
“What’s customs and immigration like?” I repeated. I replaced the automatic back into my coat pocket, while I awaited her answer.
“There aren’t any,” Marlys said. “We meet the jeep they send to the dock. We pay the money and give them our passports. They go away for an hour and return with the passports. We’re all cleared.”
I checked with the Basque for confirmation. “The vodka,” the Basque reminded us.
Marlys caught herself. “Oh yes, they get three bottles of Swedish Vodka. They come back drunk, every time.”
I made a mental note. How very, very Russian.
“Are there ever any exceptions? Do they ever deny entry, or search anybody?” I probed.
Both women shook their heads.
“Tomorrow morning we cross the Line of Departure. Be ready,” I cautioned.
They just stared at me with perplexed expressions.
“What?” I said, my hands spread.
“What’s a Line of Departure?” the Basque asked.
I appreciated the honesty of her question.
“The Line of Departure is that line we draw for the start of the physical ‘assault.’ It will be an imaginary line on that dock tomorrow morning. After we cross it, there is no coming back, until the mission’s accomplished, and not necessarily in the same condition we left in, anyway.”
I waited for my clarification to sink in. Eventually, it did.
The door opened and Don stepped into the cabin. I stopped Günter with one hand, with which I also pointed to the corridor.
“Come,” I requested of Marlys, leading her out to join Günter.
I closed the cabin door. I looked at both of them, as they looked everywhere but at each other.
“I’m going to tell him that you’ll go out with him for one evening when we hit the mainland of the U.S. again. Do you understand?”
To her credit, she merely assented. I informed Günter in German. His eyes grew large and round. He looked at Marlys. She met his look with a deep liquid glare of her own.
“Ya,” he said, his breath coming all the way out of his lungs. “Ya,” he repeated, once he could get air back in.
“Why did you do that?” Marlys solicited, as I turned the latch to re-enter Don’s cabin.
“So Günter would be certain to be on our side,” I answered.
“But, why would...” she started, but I cut her off.
“You don’t have to know. You don’t have to keep the date. He just can’t know that yet.” I opened the door.
Behind me I thought I heard Marlys whisper “you bastard.” The comment did not bother me. By birth, I was indeed, a bastard. I ignored the slur, as I re-entered the cabin.
“I’m done with you until the meeting later…back to the bar,” I said to the Basque, and then realized I had spoken too harshly to her.
The last look I got from her was not of hatred or anger. It was pure hate. I had been brusque, I knew, but I didn’t think I had been that short. I looked at the Basque.
“Your step-father, Captain Kessler, lectured me. He doesn’t want to see the flag again. Don’t display it. I don’t care about him, but we don’t need trouble, or any more headaches, not now. He also threatened me, which means I might have to neutralize him. Do you have a problem with that?” The Basque turned her gaze to Don, her expression one of question.
“He means it might come to violence being done to your step-father...” Don let the words trail away.
The Basque was amused. Don and I exchanged glances.
“Oh, that’s good. I like that. Neutralize. Yes, ‘neutralize’ him.” She laughed some more. “And I won’t put the flag up, unless you kill him, or we are out of Russia. I promise. Yes, you may neutralize him. You have my permission.” I looked back at her with some surprise.
“Come with me to my cabin,” I said to Don. In the corridor I spoke again. “There are some issues there, I presume, between the two of them?”
“Ya’ think?” he said.
In my cabin, I withdrew the radios from the drawer. I showed him how they functioned. Push one small red button to talk. There was no listen button. The system could receive through the small earphone whether you were transmitting or not. Like a telephone, but independent of cell towers. It was good for five to ten miles in range, depending upon elevation or interfering structures or topography.
“You gonna carry the gun in?” He asked, putting two of the Secret Service radios into his pocket. I shook my head.
“I hear there’s really no customs at all, but I’m not chancing it. Dutch will carry the gold and the automatic. If he gets caught, what the hell, the mission is not compromised, just changed.” Don jerked his head, and then smiled grimly.
“You’d abandon Dutch, just like that?”
I glared at him. “Listen Don, and listen good. The mission comes first. Always. But we don’t abandon anyone. I don’t leave anyone behind. Not even the dead. I was a Marine. I’m still a Marine.”
Don’s expression became more somber.
“I believe you,” he confessed. “But there is one thing.”
I inhaled deeply.
“Okay, what is it?” I requested, exasperated. The detail of mission work was everything, but it was so very tiresome.
“After this is over. All of this. There may be the gold thing, there may not. Probably not. But what about the immigration thing? If you’re not with the government, as you indicated, then how are you going to get the permanent visas for Dutch, my girlfriend, and even Marlys.... and her mother?”
I wondered how Marlys’ mother had gotten thrown into the bargain, but ‘what the hell’ I thought.
“How many guys have you met in your life who said they were CIA?” I asked the question, expectantly, rubbing my hair. The sea air made my hair itch if I didn’t have a shower three times a day, I noted absently, while I waited.
“Three, or so?” he said, his voice a study in questions.
“So, if I tell you I’m Agency, will you believe me.... to the extent you need to?”
Don shifted from one foot to the other, before my bunk. He tilted his head.
“So what do you want for proof?” I asked him, spreading my hands.
Don breathed in, like he was steeling himself, before going on. “You have to convince me. Some way. I don’t know how.”
I thought to myself in silence. I reviewed Don’s file in my head. It took minutes, even though something had sprung to the front right away. I had not expected Don’s appeal, but I’d briefed myself, in a cursory manner, on some of the people who I knew might be important once I was aboard the Lindy.
“Do you remember a phone call you made five years ago? The one about the video you saw on the news about a car bomb in the Sudan?
Don looked away, his eyes growing distant, no expression on his face. I went on.
“You thought you recognized the man filmed driving away from the scene?”
Don cleared his throat several times. He looked at me directly. “I didn’t call U.S. authorities, for Christ’s sake. I called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police about that. The RCMP’s gave you that? I don’t believe you. They wouldn’t do that.”
“The guy you tried to identify was driving a Red Citroen. You repeated that information during the call.” I held my hands before me, palms up, in a gesture meant to indicate the impersonal transmission of almost all data in the new electronic age.
“Was I right? Was it the guy I told them it was?” Don breathed, emotionally.
“That isn’t important anymore. What’s important is that you help me here and now.”
Don stood up, and then paced back and forth across the cabin a few times. “Alright, I don’t think it’s right that you people do whatever you did to get that call, but I believe you.”
“Look, before you go,” I emptied the sack on my bunk. “The morphine’s for whoever needs it if things go wrong. If things go right, then it’s only for Hathoot. The bandages are for any need we might have. The sutures, well, we hope we don’t need those at all. You carry this.”
I put the things back in the bag and tossed it to him.
“Hathoot?” he said, in puzzlement. I nodded.
“Of course, you’ve got to help me get him ashore, then we’ll take care of him. He’s a problem, as you know. Think ‘collateral damage.’ It happens all the time in this business.”
“Before you go, don’t you want to play another of the mystery songs on the CD player?”
I asked, trying to get him to relax. But there was no slack left in Don. His taut expression was one of sadness. He departed without saying goodbye. He closed the door as silently as I had closed Kessler’s. I walked over to the dresser, my own head hanging. Real mission work was so far from what people thought. It was the real pirates, as opposed to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. I hit the switch on the player, and the next song came on: “...never again to be all alone...You light up my life, you give me hope...” I reclined on the bunk, listening to the song play all the way through.
You Light up My Life