I dressed in my Lindy-provided blue sweater. There was no name on the front of the beautifully knit Canadian wool, just an embroidered representation of the ship over the left breast, and the white stitched letters, “STAFF” on the back. The sweaters were highly prized by the passengers, as they were not for sale on board. It was rumored that Don sold his at the end of every trip. I liked mine, and would keep it, if I could. I checked myself in the mirror. I touched my latest contusion, which had appeared just over my right eye. It had been late in blooming, after my tussle with the burly supervisor on St. Paul. The bruise made me look like an aging Dennis the Menace, but that could not be helped. Don entered my room.
“What are you doing covering the doctor’s ass everywhere we go?” He sat on the bunk, with both arms crossed, obviously disturbed.
The accurate flow of information all around me unsettled me, once again. How could Don have known, unless my envelope was penetrated prior to its delivery to Gambell Spit? This spoke possible volumes about Filipe that I really didn’t want to consider. But then, he had also quoted the words to Don’s little CD player booby-trap. I decided to explain, even though I was not exactly sure why I was covering so completely for the old coot.
“St. Lawrence Island is our last touch point before we encounter the Russian shore. We have to return to one, or more, of those ports behind us. I want to avoid legal entanglement if I can. We’re traveling toward the Chukchi Peninsula light. We’ll be returning heavy.”
I was tempted to turn on the CD player and play his song, but I restrained my fingers. Don rubbed his jaw.
“Those terms, ‘light,’ and ‘heavy,’…those are nautical transport terms. I thought this was your first transit by ship.”
I didn’t acknowledge. He mulled something over for another moment.
“What’ll we be ‘heavy’ with?” he finally asked. I froze.
A male knocker rapped on my door. Or at least I prayed that it wasn’t the iron fist of Benito. I waited for the person to come in, but he didn’t.
“German,” I whispered to Don, then opened the door. Günter stood there. I motioned him in.
“He’s in on everything for a full share,” I said, pointing needlessly at Botany Bay. I spoke in German, since I knew that about the only English Günter was any good at were the words to the Mickey Mouse song. Don took the express package from Günter’s limp hand.
“This can’t be good,” Don murmured, hefting the large thick envelope.
I read Kessler’s name across the front of it, then the name of the ship, right under it. The envelope looked like it had been forced open and reclosed about a dozen times. I lifted the package from Don’s hands and opened it. I kicked the cabin door closed behind me. Then I extracted the papers and started to read. The Alaskan Archeological Survey, out of Sitka, was extending to me authorization to file a site on Aguiak Island with the Office of History and Archeology. The papers were site location, identification, event chronology and definition of the site. Another of the great balls up in the air on this mission was descending upon me like a yoke upon the shoulders of an ox. I put the papers on my dresser. Hours of work, and a bit of research, were going to be required to fill out those documents.
“Want me to do the preliminary?” Don asked, holding out his big hand.
I nodded, and then handed the envelope over. Don was a botanist, but I was willing to bet that he knew his way around a dig.
“Captain wants to see you,” Günter announced. “This minute,” he went on, when I didn’t say anything.
I finally nodded, fingering the CD player.
I clicked it on, in the silence, while Don read the paperwork and Günter waited for me to do something. I pressed the button for number two on the disc player. It began to play, “…the lights in the harbor don’t shine for me. I’m like a lost ship adrift on the sea….” I hit the off button. I had never heard the song before, but it was like the first one I played earlier, very, very apropos to my situation.
“Where did you get the songs?” I asked Don.
He shook his head.
“I didn’t get ‘em anywhere. I thought that was yours,” Don muttered.
I sighed. My life had evolved into a succession of unsolvable mysteries, which I did not have the time to investigate. I noted, however, that both tunes were damn good songs. I motioned to the door, and then followed Günter out. He halted abruptly, pestering me when the Mouseketeer Club meeting was going to be. Don yelled out from my cabin.
“After the lectures on the Lido deck.”
I translated into German and then staggered down the corridor, drifting side to side with the movement of the ship’s motion.
When Günter opened the captain’s door, I saw Hathoot sitting in the one visitor’s chair. I walked to the porthole while Kessler played with his unlit pipe. He knocked it on the desk, to break the silence. I held onto the wall, and the porthole support, to keep from falling. Another great swell had gone under us. Kessler and Hathoot barely moved, as if their chairs were both riveted to the deck.
“You received the papers, ya?” Kessler said, with a phony, but hopeful look.
Kessler went on, “Commander Hathoot spoke to you earlier. It appears that he, ah, spoke out of hand, about things you probably have no interest in.”
I still said nothing, so he continued. “That is correct, is it not?”
He put the pipe back in his mouth. I looked at the smiling Hathoot.
“He’s one of us, you know?” the captain finished.
“There is no ‘us,” I declared. “I’m going to file for the dig, then make some decisions later on. You can’t access anything until the dig is approved, and I lead the expedition.”
While the captain said nothing, Hathoot chimed in.
“Of course, of course, we understand perfectly. But it will be better for all of us if we can finish this cruise with a minimum of, shall we say, disturbance.”
Both men sized me up.
Hathoot continued. “You can have your way with the woman. I have no interest in that.”
I didn’t change expression. I wanted to ask the man if he was gay, since he had no “interest,” but I refrained from talking. A moment later, when nothing further was added, I left through the door, on the downside of a tilting swell. The door slammed behind me.
I stood on the catwalk outside the captain’s suite. I looked up from my “ship adrift on the sea,” as in the last song from the CD.
“So here I am Lord, on a gold hunt with Humphrey Bogart as my partner. What’s next, “no stinkin’ badges?” I made my way to the Lido deck.
Very few passengers were gathered for the lectures. I sat at the bar alone. Nobody was drinking. Marlys was there, in her first night’s wrap. No doubt her idea of the shroud I had mentioned earlier. She gave me a Navy bowl of coffee, already creamed and fake-sugared.
“Thanks,” she whispered, and then disappeared to her storeroom.
Thanks for what, I truly wondered. Benito prepared the little stage, just as she did every night. Marlys had conveyed one word to me, and Benito did the same. Hers was more of a threat, however.
“Tonight!” Came flying out of her.
I was proud of not cringing. I got up when it was my turn and gave my feeble little talk, to almost no applause. I went back to the bar to finish my cold coffee. Marlys had not returned. Everyone cleared out, so I headed down to the “Mickey Mouse Club,” which was what a small, glued-on sign over Don’s door now read.
Don was pouring, as before. Everyone was drinking his brew greedily, except me. Marlys, the Basque, Günter, Don, Dutch and Filipe were all present. They toasted, grinned at me, and then sang the signature song. Our song, they called it. They cheered, then drank some more and repeated the tune. Their laughing proved contagious.
For the first time in days I relaxed. We hung together, and then apart, as the ship dived and twisted into a night that was, admittedly, not a night at all. Unable to fund, finance or properly man this mission, the Agency had sent me. The Sandy Koufax of impossible missions, except I was well ahead of that man’s best winning percentage. I sang with the ground assault team I had caged together from the dregs of the World Discoverer’s crew. Now, all I had to do was get them trained and ready, while we still rocked back and forth through the huge swells off the Chukchi Peninsula.
I called our small meeting to order, introducing them to what lay ahead. We needed to put a small team ashore, then move inland to a selected coordinate, initiate operations, move back to the ship and ultimately get clear of Russian waters. We had to assure that the ship would remain at the dock during this operation, as there was no alternate plan of egress. Finally, we had to do all that with assets we found at hand, while keeping the rest of the passengers and crew from having any idea of what we were doing. I laid out the plan over the course of nearly an hour. Then I waited for the questions.
I really feared only one question. It came from the Basque, as I had presumed it would. She was the only person on my team who was a member simply because her lover was on my team. The rest had some sort of investment, something to gain, or simply believed that I was someone worth following.
“What’s the goal of this ‘mission,’ you have?” she asked.
The cabin grew quiet. It was the only question I had decided beforehand that I would not answer. I had to have their trust, loyalty and disciplined cooperation, and I had to get that without their knowledge of the mission. I would only reveal that when we were ashore.
I answered her question the only way I could. With the truth. I would not tell them yet. She did not want to accept that. I knew she would not. I had, however, thought a lot about her potential performance, or lack of it, on the mission.
“I’ll tell you this much,” I relented, “what we’re doing is a good humanitarian thing. It is also something that is going to anger your stepfather. And we are going to do it in the name of the Mouseketeers.”
It was risky to make such a statement. If the Basque bolted, the entire mission could be blown before we ever hit the dock. But she didn’t. I sighed deeply, for about the thirtieth time that day. We were going to be a team. The only member we lacked was the doctor, whom we would need. But he also needed me. I would see to him later. I went about instructing them in more detail on how we would go about preparing for the ingress into Provideniya, and then later how we would take time upon arrival to plan our ground and shipboard moves. My assault team then drank to the Russians, the wild Bering Sea, and the Chukchi itself. I left them for the doctor’s cabin. The doctor was not there, however, so I diverted to the infirmary.
When I got there, I ran right into Borman. His visage was angry. I turned to the side and prepared to defend myself, glad that the man’s boatswain’s knife was still in my cabin. I relaxed a bit as I noted that his anger was not directed at me. The doctor cowered behind a stainless steel table.
“What’s the problem?” I asked, quietly, not wanting to set Borman off further.
I noted that he had thrown on one of those little blue knit caps real sailors often wear. Unsanitary, for his head wound, but much better for his appearance.
“This scum neglected to stock up on seasickness medication. We have nothing. Half the passengers are puking their guts out. The captain is going to be in a rage.”
I was immediately relieved. Borman had no memory of our recent run-in, at least no memory yet. His shipmates might change all that soon, I suspected. But I decided to take what I had while I had it.
“I’ll see to it First Mate,” I promised. “The doctor just lost track of the medications, that’s all. He’s very old.”
Borman snorted, but seemed somewhat mollified.
“You tell the captain that things are in my care. He’ll understand.”
Borman nodded, ever so briefly, then moved to scratch his head but winced with the pain. I made believe that I did not even notice. Borman stomped out. I crept back to the steel hatch, looked up and down the empty corridor, then closed and dogged it.
“We really have nothing?” I asked the poor old man. He shook his head.
“I did forget. I didn’t mean to. There was just too much to do.”
I sympathized, then went over to our wall of medical supplies and started searching. The key was sticking out of the narcotics door. I opened it, then exclaimed.
“Jesus Christ, Doc!” I counted at least twenty bottles of morphine. At ten shots to the bottle, that was two hundred doses. Big solid doses.
“What does morphine do for seasickness?” I probed the old man.
“I don’t know,” he responded. “Put them out for the night, I guess.”
I opened the door adjacent to the narcotics and unloaded handfuls of syringes.
“Load ‘em up, I’ve got rounds to make,” I announced, and then went out to discover who, among the passengers, needed the latest in seasickness medication.
Sea of Heartbreak, Don Gibson