After Don departed, I re-inventoried the contents of my drawer. The last of the papers in the sheaf of documents we had poured over, but Don had nothing to do with recon satellite photos or maps. They had to do with the target. I reviewed the limited write-up, and the few photos. My memory had always been my most effective and dependable tool, but I wanted all information refreshed and ready, right at the very forefront of my mind.
I had not lied when I stated that I participated on previous missions of the exact same nature. I had just omitted the fact that I had yet to participate in one where nobody died. I replaced everything in the drawer when I was done, this time checking to see if the nuggets from Aguiak were still there. I was not relieved when I found them. I was just surprised. The worth of the nuggets did not give me pause, as I rolled them through my fingers. It was what they represented which troubled me. I couldn’t steal the Agency coins. Equipment was one thing, but cash or gold was quite another.
Taking money from the CIA was a mortal sin, and the Agency had a limitless supply of anger and vindictiveness. It also had a memory without end. The nuggets were mine, however. I liked the feel of them. The vein on Aguiak was another matter entirely. People died over the element of gold, in droves. Maybe only politics, religion and oil had claimed more lives, but I wasn’t too sure. Many times, throughout history, religious or political motivations somehow ended up with foundations of gold. Only once before, in my entire career, had I had a real chance at the great brass ring of life. That ring had been made of drug dealer cash. I had been so close to getting it for my own, and with the Agency’s blessing. Instead, I had watched it all burn.
I tucked the nuggets back under the underpants in my drawer, with the rest of the stuff, except for the Kel-tec automatic. On its own the suppressor couldn’t hurt anybody, so I left that, but the gun went into my back pocket. There it would stay until the mission was over, and I was clear. Then it would go overboard, as much as I liked the feel of the little deadly thing. Customs and Immigration upon our re-entry were going to be problematic enough. Maxwell was going to be searching for anything. Anything at all. I wasn’t going to give him a hideaway pistol to consider.
Everyone thought that the Agency took care of its own. That you could walk through the other agencies of government with a ‘get out of jail free’ pass, anytime and anywhere. The reality was, however, that, for the most part, you were on your own, without identification. I carried a single phone number in my head. It could be called at any time. It would always be answered, but by someone who would be thinking of the Agency first, and maybe you, and your survival or incarceration, second. Maybe.
I daydreamed about whether Harrison Ford was really a wimp in real life. After all, he supposedly saved some guy in New Mexico while piloting his personal helicopter. Since so many people were identifying me with him, however strangely, I hoped he was more of a man than I had portrayed. Hell, I thought, getting off the bunk, maybe it was the fictional character of Jones himself whom I was being measured against. I didn’t care for him either.
“Fat-mouthed, fake anthropological mis-adventurer, thief,” I muttered to my mirror.
Then I started to laugh quietly, to myself. All I really needed was a fedora and a bullwhip!
I locked the cabin behind me when I left. Screw the normal mores of the World Discoverer. Too many vital elements of the mission were stored there. But I didn’t get far down the corridor. Günter came directly at me. I turned immediately, then walked to the end of the hallway, just outside my locked door.
“What?” I breathed, softly.
There was no one in the corridor, but Günter looked around to make sure.
“It is Captain Kessler,” he whispered into my left ear. “He does not trust you. He thinks you are not, shall we say, loyal, even to a cause as great and just as the gold vein.”
He stopped, to gauge my reaction. I shook my head, sadly. In German, Günter had sounded like he was delivering information behind the Fuhrer’s back. I didn’t know what to say.
He went on. “He has another anthropologist he can call, when we get back to the American mainland. After this trip we sail to Antarctica, but upon our return, he can have a replacement all ready.”
Then he moved so close to my ear that I felt his breath.
“If you are not around. If you are not able serve…” He stepped back. He had delivered his message.
I grasped the mortal threat embedded in his words.
“Why did you, of all people, join the Mouseketeers? I asked.
He straightened. His expression was frozen on his pale white face. In fact, his expression gave him away.
“It’s Marlys, is it not? You’re in love with Marlys.”
His about-face, and departure, could have been imitated on any Marine Corps barracks parade ground. It was fast, sharp and flawless.
“Don’t be late for the club meeting tonight!” I shouted after him.
I was confident, however, that he would not be a second late.
The Lido was half-filled with passengers. My spot was taken at the end of the bar. So I went to the rail near the piano, which was never played. I expected to hear someone sit down and play ‘As Time Goes By,’ but nobody stepped up. Where were the Sams of this world when they were truly needed? Marlys worked the bar, which was busy. She wore the micro-mini I just loved, with some kind of brownish-black nylons. Old world. My world.
“She’s a child,” I preached to myself, as I took in the Chukotka shoreline.
The Providence Bay shoreline was a sight to behold. It reminded me of a more sterile version of the cliffs, crannies and heights of Tierra del Fuego, another place I loved. Marlys appeared at my side, tapping my left shoulder. She pinched the arm of my sweater, like I remembered the Maryknoll Nuns doing when I was a kid, and led me to the bar.
The passenger who had been in my seat was gone. My Navy bowl of coffee was already steaming atop the bar. I had achieved some small status aboard ship, however fleeting it might be. The gun hurt my butt when I settled in, but I ignored the mild pain. Instead, I thought of Kessler. What might the man throw at me before the trip was over? Would I see, whatever it was, coming? The more I thought, the less the gun hurt.
The passengers nearby were drinking heavily, even at mid-day. I marveled over how much life on a ship differed from life on the mainland. Some rigidly kept land-based rules simply did not apply aboard the ‘Lindy’. Marlys came over to where I sat sipping her coffee. She checked out the length of the bar, and then sidled up to me.
“What do you want of me ashore?” she asked, her face open.
I sensed that she was just curious, not fearful and not hesitant. I liked this woman a whole lot.
“I want you as part of the ground party,” I answered. “I want you to wear exactly what you’re wearing now. Men are men, and they will respond to you, well, as they always respond to you.”
I checked the nearby passengers to make sure they weren’t listening. They weren’t.
“I’m to be a diversion?” she inquired.
I nodded. I didn’t add ‘and what a helluva diversion,’ but I thought it. We didn’t smile at one another much, I realized. I frowned at the admission, rotating on my stool to look about the interior of the Lido lounge. Hathoot had showed, claiming a table in a far corner. His uniform was bright and spotless, his epaulets gleaming. He put his cap down on the table in front of him, and then acknowledged me. Our eyes locked, very briefly.
Predators, I thought to myself. Predators do not attack other predators. Predators go after prey. Attacking other predators, except to establish turf, is an exercise in stupidity. Why get hurt over nothing? Surreptitiously, I watched the man look all around the Lido deck, sizing up his prey.
I finished off my Navy bowl, preparatory to heading for Don’s cabin. With the Basque there, Don spent almost no time anywhere else, unless he had shipboard duties. The thought of an aging professor having the ultimate fling of his life tickled me. I did not regard myself as an aging professor, even though I had sat in that chair for a time. I was something else entirely. My lip curled at the very notion. A team of therapists could only arrive at what I was, after they had spent a lot of time and effort and then compared notes. Maybe. I flung the door open, wishing to catch somebody naked. Fair was fair. But nobody was. The Basque smiled at my entrance, as if she had read my thoughts about Marlys’ lack of smiling, only a few minutes earlier. Don lounged, as always.
“Tell me about Doctor Khromov,” I demanded, sitting on the foot of his bunk, waiting impatiently.
Don took his time. I felt like it would be appropriate for him to say, “...take the pebbles from my hand, grasshopper,” but he didn’t.
“I don’t know him, but I know the type. The museum is actually well thought of, for being in such a shithole. He’ll, no doubt, be the typical overbearing Russian professor type. It’s best, if you want something, to get him away from the museum. Use booze. They all love American booze. You can get all you want from Marlys, on your account of course.”
I considered his recommendation.
“Where should we meet him then?” I asked.
Don rubbed his jaw, before speaking; “The cemetery. The cemetery out on the North end of the spit was actually a very important area in the community. Everyone goes there, from time to time. Russian orthodoxy.”
I thought about what he had underscored, fully understanding his point. Old world religions were different. They were not at all easily understood by Americans, even ethnologists.
Don held forth again, “I’ll go to the museum and draw him out, with Marlys. The power of that woman and a bottle of Vodka? The world pivots on such combinations.”
He kidded, of course, yet I noted that the Basque had lost her smile.
“You really going to lay everything out tonight?” Don asked, his gaze drifting away.
I lied. I would give them what they needed to know to accomplish their part of the objectives. The less they knew the better, for them, if everything went south.
“And the gold mine?” Don went on.
I inhaled. Gold was on the mind of everyone aboard the ship. It was a viral infection, and it would not be cured by anything but actual gold or blood. It might take both.
“There is no mine, Don. There’s a vein. It’s on extremely protected land which is only accessible during the summer months. And the accessibility is a big issue. Anything that’s taken out, if it comes to that, has to be taken out illegally, and in total secrecy. The gold is one big future problem, and, what’s more, you know it.”
I finished, my breath coming out in exhausted puffs. I feared the gold, and all the problems it portended. A moment of dead silence blanketed the cabin.
“So, you going to get it?” Don finally asked, his expression dead serious. My body fidgeted.
First, I shrugged, then I looked down, but finally I brought my eyes up and told him: ‘Yes.’
Don and the Basque both said “Yes,” together, following my one word response, then we all clapped together.
I had conveniently left out my mental reservation: ‘if we live.’
I decided to return to my room, catch a nap, and then head down to the Filipino mess for chow. I would not attend the formal dinner with the passengers. I’d prepare instead for the Mouseketeers’ meeting. Günter caught me in the corridor, just as before. This time he did not have to whisper.
“The captain wants to see you,” he stated, and once more marched off. I now had control of some of the balls up in the air, but so many remained beyond my reach, or even my imagination.
I got up and checked the CD player as soon as I arrived back in my cabin. “Way beyond my imagination,” I whispered, and then clicked the ‘on’ button. The next song should give me an idea, I thought, like a reading of my horoscope. The song began to play, “… all the burning bridges that have fallen after me.” I used an expletive, then switched it off. I decided that the player was an instrument of mental torture, installed in my cabin by some omniscient power.
I showered and shaved again, before throwing on my cashmere coat. I placed the Kel-tec in my breast pocket. While rotating in front of the mirror, I assured myself that no telltale sagging of my jacket betrayed the weapon’s lethal presence. I was ready for the captain. As I locked my door, I speculated as to what the punishment was for shooting a captain at sea.