Our cruise director’s office door was slightly ajar. Her cabin was as before, stark, although not as severe as Captain Kessler’s. Benito was at her desk. Her cabin was huge, compared to what I was assigned, but then, after the Captain and the Purser, she was the most important crewmember on board. Her overnight bag, left unpacked, was by the side of one of her bunks.
Benito did not raise her head from working on whatever occupied her, pen in hand, so I sat in her single chair and waited. She told me to close the door. I realized I had left it gaping behind me, not intentionally, probably subliminally. I did as she ordered.
“What do you want?” she demanded, finally putting her pen down, then sinking into her executive-type chair.
She stared at me with her ‘no expression whatever, but I’m pretty damned terrifying’ look. I reciprocated. I had not come either to crawl or to apologize. I had no idea why she had stayed in my cabin the night before; just as I had no real hint as to why she had left so abruptly.
“What is it you want?” I shot right back, my eyes locked with hers.
We both reflected for a moment. Her shoulders actually fell a small bit, and then her breath came out in a sigh, before she said anything.
“You’re different. I’ve been doing this for twelve years. I’ve never had anyone come aboard even remotely like you.” She went on, “I don’t know what it is. You have some sort of strange life force. Everyone aboard feels it too. You have changed the chemistry. Nothing on this ship is as it was before you came.”
My eyes widened a little at her statement. In my view, the ‘Lindy’ housed the strangest collection of bizarre characters I had ever met in one place, in my entire life. And I had been around. The woman in front of me was acting like they had all been mild-mannered and boring before I had entered their lives. She read my disbelief.
“No, don’t deny it. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. I’m telling you because I wanted to explain why I came to your cabin last night.”
I drew closer. I needed her, in her capacity as cruise director. I did not want to get dumped at the first port when the ship pulled out of Provideniya. My prize cargo would require something else entirely of me, if I ended up getting that cargo aboard.
“I wanted you in my life. More of you. I know you can’t understand, but I sense that you’re going to leave this ship soon. You’re going to leave our lives, and things will be as they were before.”
My face remained blank at her obviously logical conclusion, even if it was tinged by the usual strangeness I had come to find normal on the ship.
“I don’t want you to go. I want you to stay. I want things to go on like this. All this adventure and all this life. You bring life, where there wasn’t a lot before.”
She stopped, rose from her chair to stand behind the desk. She opened a drawer, took out a bottle of wine and two glasses. She pulled the cork loudly from the bottle and poured. Carefully, she re-corked the bottle, holding out a stemmed-glass to me. I walked to the porthole near her left side and accepted the glass. We drank and shared the passing coast moving slowly by us. The shores of Providence Bay were something to behold.
“What do you need from me?” she asked, staring over the lip of her glass.
I was startled by her question, and showed it. She warmed to my weakness.
“You came here to accomplish something. That something is not to make me feel better or mollify me. What is it?”, She asked.
I drank to stall for time. I really had come to the cabin to mollify her. For some reason my thoughts turned to our Purser.
“What is this collecting thing with Hathoot?” I blurted out, more to change the subject than to actually learn anything.
She pursed her lips at my question.
“That slippery Lebanese character? He looks like a rolly-polly, doddering doll, but he’s tough as nails. His collections; are you talking about the carvings, the snuff-boxes or the people he holds in financial bondage?”
My eyebrows shot up. I drank some more, just to think. Hathoot’s bondage business was common knowledge. I was surprised by that disclosure, but I tucked the fact away for further analysis later. Snuff boxes?
“What snuff boxes?” I pressed her.
Benito shrugged her broad shoulders.
“I don’t know much about it. He paid a lot of money last time we ported here for one. There was some discussion about its provenance, the museum there thought it had been stolen from their collection years earlier. Old ones, like the one he got, can be worth thousands of dollars.”
I pondered what she had said, another idea forming in the back of my mind. I put my empty glass down on her desk, as she did.
“Thank you,” I said, sincerely.
She nodded stiffly, and then relaxed. It was a quick little smile, but it changed her whole face for an instant. Somewhere behind her façade, inside her developed demeanor of fierceness, was a little girl starved for the joy of life itself. I walked to her door.
“Anytime. “ she said, still standing, then looking away to stare out her porthole to the world.
Moments later I was in the bilge, examining the old workout room where all of our luggage was stored. The place was about fifteen feet by fifteen feet. Some old Nautilus machines were piled in one corner. Stacked about as high as my waist, our bags took up fully half of the rest of the space. I dug into the mess and searched for my duffle. It took twenty minutes for me to uncover it, and then pull it free. I rolled the nearly empty bag up as tightly as I could. When satisfied, I made my way back to my own cabin, where Don was smoking, and Izzy was just finishing Somewhere Over the rainbow, when I clicked the CD player off.
“Why do you smoke in my cabin?” I asked him, petulantly, tossing my duffle onto the spare bed.
Don put the cigarette out in my toilet, then pontificated.
“I smoke here because you don’t really care whether I do or not.” He sat back down, and then crossed his arms, waiting for an argument.
I didn’t give him one. I unrolled my duffle on the deck at his feet. I took out its false bottom. One by one I brought out small packages stored inside. Three belts of gold coins, three plastic wrapped radios, each the size of a pack of cigarettes, a sheaf of rubber banded documents, and one paper-wrapped hand-gun. Only the gun’s shape registered on Don’s face. His eyebrows shot up. He inched further down the bunk.
I unwrapped the paper taped to the weapon. A small Kel-tec .32 Caliber handgun fell out onto the blanket. It too was barely larger than the palm of a normal man’s hand. The last item was a cylinder, twice as large as the gun itself.
“Oil suppressor,” I said, off-handedly. “It’s good for about ten rounds, then the oil and baffles are shot out. It’s about as loud as a good solid handclap.”
Then I picked up the small automatic and removed its magazine. “It only holds seven rounds though, so no problem.”
I re-inserted the magazine, and very softly clicked it home. I had always hated movie junk where the protagonist slammed the magazine of an automatic home, and thereby, most probably bent the feeding tang at the top of that magazine, making it a one-shot-only automatic. The round in the chamber would, in the real world, be the only one that ever fired.
“What do we need a gun for?” Don asked, his voice and facial expression sending a message of anxiety mixed with fear.
I stared back at him, deadly earnest, then said; “We don’t need a gun. We won’t have a gun. I will. This is not some mission to trade our stamp collection for theirs. You signed on. The Basque gets her permanent visa, you get to be a player in the gold mine, remember?”
I put the blue-steel instruments in my underwear drawer with the nuggets from Aguiak. I didn’t check to see if they were there. I cracked open the leather pouches holding the gold coins, made certain that all forty-eight ounces were intact, then put them in the drawer with the other stuff. Each radio I unwrapped and checked, without turning it on. They’d either work or they wouldn’t. Testing them didn’t matter. There were no back-ups.
“Who gets those,” Don pointed at the tiny devices, their spring wire earpieces dangling. “I’ve never seen real radios that small.”
“Secret Service issue,” I answered. “If you’re lucky, you’ll never see any like them again. One for the Basque, one for you, and one for me. Tomorrow, though.”
I gently nestled them back into the drawer.
“What’s she going to do with a radio? Where’s she going to be? You haven’t told me anything about who’s doing what!” Don exclaimed.
I undid the rubber bands holding the documents together before opening the satellite maps on the bunk next to him. He held down one side of the Provideniya shot.
“Son of the Living God,” he roared. “These are NRO shots. Big Bird shots.” He looked at me in near shock, “Secret Service, NRO, my God!” I looked back at him without expression, but he wasn’t done, “You work for the U.S. government! Business, my ass! This is a spy mission. We’re spying on the Soviet Union!”
I held up the hand that wasn’t holding down the other side of the map.
“Hold on their Botany Bay, the Soviets have been gone for many, many years. I just have this stuff. I don’t necessarily belong to the club.” Don ignored me, pointing at the map with great animation.
“Why does it say Provideniya instead of Providenya?”
I smiled. At least I had done my homework. “Russian spelling, not our interpretation. Like ‘Beijing’ instead of ‘Peking.” He grunted.
“Fascinating,” he murmured, as he paged through the shots. “You can see the cracks and holes in the steps of the Commissar’s house out there on the tundra. Pretty amazing. How can they be this clear? What about clouds?” I stopped him with a query.
“You’ve been out there? To the Commissar’s residence?” I inquired, with some hope. Don smiled, and I felt a sense of relief. The intelligence was correct. The Commissar did live all the way out there. I had found that part of the mission intelligence hard to believe. “Why does he live way the hell out there?” I asked.
“Ha,” Don laughed. “He’s got to live out there. That’s the house built above the gulag. The gulag is underground. Great sewer pipes run under the whole plateau there. The prisoners, thousands of ‘em, lived down there, in the pipe, under the tundra itself. The prison is much smaller, but it’s still the greatest source of income to the whole Okrug. Outside of our occasional visits, I mean.”
I studied the satellite shots. “Yeah, but why doesn’t he just put one of his minions out there and live in town? In a bit more comfort?”
Don puffed up, like one of his beloved Tufted Puffins.
“Okay Doctor of Ethnology. You figure it out. The money comes for the operation of the gulag, which has to have prisoners. This is Russia. He puts an assistant out there, and… well, very, very soon that assistant is the Commissar. You follow?”
“I see,” I admitted. It made sense.
“So, that’s the target? The house itself? It’s just an old Victorian-style place built fifty years ago. What are we going to do, blow it up?” Don spread his hands out, making believe he was portraying a big explosion.
“Not even close. But we’ll discuss that further tonight at the Mouse Club meeting. Tell the Basque not to raise that damn flag when we run into port, either. She’s staying aboard. She gets a radio so she can tell us what the damn Germans are up to on the ship. Günter is with us, but I have a feeling that they aren’t telling him anything anymore. By the way, I assume that both you and she speak Spanish?”
Don gave me back a simple shrug, which I took to mean yes. His gesture was not a full assent, however, and I thought for a moment. The Basque.
“I know, I know, she has her own language, but most Basque speak Spanish. Your file says you do too. Most Germans, and most Russians, don’t. The radios are of an ultra-high frequency, so it’s not likely the transmissions will be picked up, but it’s better to be safe.”
I wrapped those satellite maps up and put them under my mattress. The drawer was full.
“Tonight, I’ll lay out the plan for going ashore in the morning,” I promised.
Don nodded, then stood up and walked over to my dresser.
“What’s the next song? he asked, with a twinkle in his eye.
I shook my head, about to tell him not to push the small button, but instead I just leaned back. What was the next tune, anyway, and who was sending the strangest of messages through it? Don hit the button. We listened attentively, as the music began: “...when you see your ship go sailing, when you feel your heart is breaking, hold on tight to your dream.”
Both of us listened to prophetic words come out of the machine.