When the last lyrics in You Light Up My Life faded away, I got up to click the CD player off. Erect, I decided on impulse to replay the songs I had received from my secret admirer. I pushed the counter button to ‘one,’ then laid back down with my eyes closed. After all, I had a few hours to prepare for the afternoon lecture and then the Mouseketeer meeting. A good night’s sleep would be a rational asset to whatever the morrow might bring, I thought lazily, as the music washed over me.
I was not sleepy, just yet. My mind strayed to Joseph Campbell, and how much his teachings about mythology had helped me understand my fellow man, and also allowed me to forgive. Society needed lots of forgiving, as did I. I sensed the arrogance of my reflections. Then I sat up quickly, my body going rigid. Mythology. What was it about myth? Something occurred to me, which left me on full alert. I stared at the CD player, its digital readout blinking the number “1” at me.
The myth of the Trojan horse had ever so briefly streaked across my mind, like a very tiny, but very bright, shooting star. I moved the machine to my bunk, noting that, although there was a two-prong plug socket on its back, there was no cord. I roughly examined its outside, which seemed normal enough. “AIWA” was printed on the front, in large silver letters. On the bottom there was more printing: “stereo radio cassette player,” with ‘Made in China’ in much smaller letters underneath. I breathed inward more easily.
The player was a common commercial machine. Perhaps pre-mission paranoia was overcoming me. Maybe it was just my own inability to figure out who had put the thing in my room, and who had burned songs onto the disk with such poignant intent. After all, the Trojan horse was a myth created and passed through time with scant foundation of fact to back it up.
The recorder must run on batteries, I calculated. I checked the back closely. Two small levers near the top could be pushed down. I pushed down. A plastic panel, hinged at its bottom, cracked open. I could see many small batteries inside the box, which the panel covered. And something else. Small wires ran along each side of the ‘something else.’ Having suspected something, but not being ready for the something to materialize, I stared between the wires which completed electrical contact with the other batteries, and saw a black rectangular object. It was almost the exact same size as the accompanying “C” cell batteries.
“A Transmitter” I announced to my empty room. On the outside of the object’s shiny black exterior were inscribed the words “TinyTek.” The bug was a commercial
piece, from some faux ‘spy shop’; not a custom engineered design, which another intelligence agency would surely use. Carefully, I pulled the object out, and set it aside. I reassembled the machine, folding a nearby envelope into a sufficiently rectangular enough shape to provide the distancing the object had had. I turned the player on. The CD came to life. I turned it back off. I examined the small object I’d removed. It had small buttons on its side that had been faced down, while it was in the machine. I breathed another sigh of relief. It was a recorder, not a transmitter.
A recorder could only gather and hold information for a period of time, and then it had to be downloaded. Something as small as the one I was holding could not have a tape drive; it had to be solid state. To get information, the recorder had to be removed, downloaded, and then returned, or another substituted in its place. I sat, thinking deeply. At what point had the recorder begun recording, I wondered. There was a small red light, which shone dimly, just beneath the buttons. There was also an earpiece jack, a small hole.
“Please God,” I prayed, as I reached into my small bunk-table drawer. I drew out the earpiece, and wire, from the Secret Service radio, which was anything but a commercially manufactured device. I prayed that the people who had built that had used a standard-sized jack. I plugged the earphone wire into the hole. It fit. I looked at the four buttons above the hole. I presumed the top one to be ‘fast-forward,’ the middle one to be ‘stop,’ and the third one to be ‘rewind.’ That left ‘play’ for the fourth one. I pushed the third button. The small red light turned to green, and then blinked madly. There was no tape in the recorder’s design, but there was a functional access feature to older data. The green light went out. I pushed ‘play.’
Thin, scratchy and distant was a female voice, talking about gold. I wished for a volume button, but there was none. I concentrated. It was Gloria, Filipe’s woman, talking. I remembered the conversation. She had told me of her interest, all of the Filipinos’ interest, in being part of the gold’s recovery. I pulled out my earpiece, took it from the recorder, and then put it back in my table drawer. I had heard enough. Whoever had put the small spy recorder in my CD player had nothing from the time Gloria entered my cabin, until the present. Unless I gave it back to them.
I re-examined the device, marveling over its small size, and how it had been able to pick up conversations inside the cabin, even though it was packaged into the back of the big player’s battery box. I had no way to erase the data, not that I could think of anyway, so I could not replace it. I went to my porthole, undogged the four screw levers, opened the glass and dumped the little device into the sea. I re-dogged the porthole, and then lay back down on my bunk to consider.
I had thought the mystery of the CD player to be a thing of fun. Playful emotion expressed. Which it still might be, but the recorder added a sinister element I could not ignore. I went through every relationship I had aboard the M/S World Discoverer. Every contact I had had or made. I kept coming up with only one good suspect. Kessler.
“Go for the money,” I had learned long ago. Who had what to gain? Who had the greatest need for intelligence? Who was technically capable of such an act? Who had the power to control other people to get them to plant and monitor the equipment? Who had all the access in the world to keys and locks everywhere on the ship? I cringed at the thought of the other conversations I had had in the small cabin. At least he had not gotten my confession to Don about the Agency. That would have been ruinous. Or my comments about the potential for his own, or Hathoot’s demise.
God, I had been careless. Did I really think I was the only spy in the world? I shuddered at my own gullibility. And good luck. Someone had once said that if you had to pick between high intellect and good fortune, always pick good fortune. “Yes,” I seconded the adage. I jumped from the bunk, and spent the next hour scouring the cabin for other listening devices.
I locked the cabin behind me, checking my pockets, once again, for my small radio, the Kel-tec automatic, and the folded up documents, which covered our mission target. I’d need data for our Mouseketeer meeting, and I wanted to take no chances of having anything go missing before we hit port the following morning. My cabin was not safe. It was anyone’s guess, at that point, as to what was known about what I carried or stored there. I would have to take my chances, and hope that not enough was known. At least not enough to interdict the mission.
I knocked on Dutch’s door, entering without waiting for any welcome. Dutch was getting cleaned up for our lecture presentation. I was astonished that he looked clean and fresh. There was no sign of his heavy drinking, at all. Maybe the permanent Visa meant enough to him to control his demons. I didn’t know. Alcoholics were hard to figure. They could have the strongest motivations in the world not to drink, then ‘poof,’ deep into the bottle they dove. Many people, who spent entire lives in prison, spent them there because out here, in the real world, they were alcoholics and drug addicts. Period.
I took out the small Kel-tec and put it on the bunk. Dutch walked in, buttoning his shirt. He stopped when he saw the gun. I spoke, my voice unmodulated and serious.
“Tomorrow, the possibility of violence is high. Commander Hathoot, even Captain Kessler himself, could become targets. And then there is the Commissar, and the possibility of collateral damage.” I assessed the man-child.
He thought for a moment, still staring at the piece, before speaking.
“Do you have any real guns?” he said. I couldn’t help blinking rapidly in surprise at the exhibition of his humor. The gun went into my coat pocket.
“No, if we need ‘real’ guns then we’ll accommodate ourselves to what we find at hand.” Dutch would do, I thought to myself.
Possibly, the kid was a natural ‘knuckle-dragger,’ as the Agency referred to ‘wet-workers,’ or those who worked in blood. I was a team-leader, even though I lacked a team. The violent stuff was supposed to be left to the lower class, of which I did not have any aboard, so Dutch would have to pinch-hit.
“I’ll meet you in the Lido, then we’ll head to the Mouse meeting.”
Dutch grunted, which I took to be his version of a yes. I let myself out.
My place was available at the bar. Marlys was behind the counter. She wore some blue sheath. Her figure was spectacular to behold, especially when she turned, and the dress spun with just the right movement around her. I doubted I would have my reserved seat after our encounter with Günter in the corridor. I had suspected Marlys of being the person who gave me the CD player, but the recorder had changed all bets. I now realized it simply was not something she would do. The Filipinos had always been my second choice.
“Follow the money,” I reminded myself, while drinking from my coffee bowl. They had plenty of motivation. I hoped it was they. To be spied on by allies was quite acceptable, in the business, even if it was never discussed in such terms. Dutch showed up at my elbow.
I wanted to ask Marlys if she liked me, cared at all, or even recognized me as a man. I wanted to know if she thought I was too old for her. I wanted to reach out so badly I felt it on the ends of my fingertips. I longed physically to reach out across the bar. But I could not. And God had blessedly sent Dutch to help me stay the course, without even so much as an act of contrition.
I would not take, or have, Günter ashore. He had to be kept in a state of completely paralyzed romantic tension. I would also have to keep Dutch busy. He was best when he was in action. Moving. In pursuit of a goal. Don was different, I reflected wryly. He was my thinking operations agent. I needed him at my side, all the way. “Up the hill,” I murmured, then turned and got ready to make my presentation. Benito did not grab me. She actually beamed, when it was my turn to speak. Her warmth made me uncomfortable in a different way. I felt, as I began to discuss the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church, that she was carefully positioning me so that I’d miss her when I left.
When I was done, the passengers clapped with enthusiasm. I was puzzled, looking out over them. What had I had said that struck their fancy? My mind had been on the coming meeting with my team and the mission. And a small bit of fear, I admitted to myself. Not actual physical fear, but the dread of not being able to produce. Not being able to come through. What if the mission was a success, but the Agency did not support my immigration over-ride requests? I had made promises and given assurances. What would I do if they did not back me? What of my own honor? I retreated from the microphone, unmoved by the applause. I headed for Don’s cabin, but he grabbed my shoulder before I got very far.
“Out here,” he said, gripping my bicep, as well, then leading me beyond the covered portion of the Lido deck.
We stood, one foot on the lower railing cable, gazing at the wonders of the snow, ice and pitilessly harsh rocks of the Providence Bay shoreline.
“What are you feeling,” he began, and then stopped for a few seconds before continuing, “I can see it in your every move.”
“You can see what?” I asked, uncertain as to what the big Canadian was driving at.
“I spoke to Benito briefly, before we went up,” he disclosed. It didn’t slake my curiosity.
“It’s called ‘Élan Vital.’ She says it’s what you have.”
My mind raced. I had heard the French words somewhere, but I could not quite recall when or where. French was not one of my languages. I loved the French, but had never mastered their tongue.
“It means life-force, or the vitality of life. There was a philosopher named Bergson in the eighteen hundreds…” I held up my hand.
“Henri,” I said. Don was impressed.
I got it, but Don went on, “While we’re headed into this like a ship driving into a category five hurricane, you’re already thinking about after.”
I looked at the shoreline. I wanted to give away nothing. Certainly not any kind of weakness, emotional or otherwise. Don tapped me lightly and we headed to his cabin.
There was no drinking at the Mouseketeer Meeting. An air of expectation and tension was fully evident. There was no singing and no banter. The Basque was in her accustomed place. Günter sat on one bunk with Don and Dutch on the other. Filipe stood behind the door, with Gloria wedged halfway into the bathroom. When Marlys entered, moments later, the room was filled. I lowered myself down next to Günter. I intended that he remain apart from Marlys. I then took the papers from my breast pocket.
“The target is a man. More like a boy. He’s in his early twenties. He’s an American by the name of Kenneth O’Donelly. Outside of Providenya, and around the mountain, is an old Gulag. It once held thousands of political prisoners. Not as big as Magadon, but big, nevertheless. Currently, there are about eighty prisoners held there. This man is serving an indeterminate sentence for drug possession. We don’t have any other details about that. He’s been there for almost six months. Commissar Igor Kasinski runs this entire Providenya region as his own. He’s set himself up as a separate independent entity of the Oblast. Nobody’s been able to get through to him. Moscow doesn’t care. The Oblast doesn’t care. All contact efforts have failed. It’s up to us.”
I finished the mission statement, then looked around and waited