Under the Freeze, page 1
Under the Freeze
© George Bartram, 1984
George Bartram has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 1984 by Pinnacle Books.
This edition published in 2017 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Table of Contents
Tarp went down the sun-whitened wooden stairs as carefully as if they were paved with gulls’ eggs. He walked erect. Two buckets hung from his hands as if their weight were trying to pull him through the planking and into the scummy water underneath. In the buckets were dead fish, the last two loads he would have to carry aboard the Scipio before heading out into the Gulf. It was not yet seven in the morning, yet he was streaming with sweat and the sun was like an accusing finger that jabbed at him from the sky.
He set the buckets down and took a breath, and then he swung one leg over the rail of the sportfisherman, leaning far forward as he pulled a bucket after and then put it on the deck. He reached back for the other and then straightened, looking all the way around him as if he expected to find an enemy, his fingers digging across his palms to ease the hurt of the buckets’ weight. There were birds circling over the bait barrels on the dock a hundred yards away, and farther out in the Gulf a line of pelicans lumbered along above the water. Fish made little swirls close in. Lady fish, he thought, but he was not sure.
He stepped over into the boat and it rocked just a little under his weight, the way an elevator rocks when it comes to the end of its ride, slowly and heavily. Up on the flying bridge a piece of electronic gear crackled, saying nothing; forward on the platform, which was small and almost not a platform at all but simply a railed place forward where somebody could stand with a harpoon if he was that crazy, a gull had landed on the white neoprene-covered rail. It curled its cruel feet around the tubing and looked at him with its head over on one side, the eye calculating, hungry; and as it looked him over it let a stream of droppings fall, missing the platform and landing in the water below.
“Thanks for being so thoughtful,” Tarp growled. He moved forward but the bird did not fly. It had its greedy eye now on the bait buckets. Tarp stepped down into the shaded cool of the cabin. As he moved forward he saw the shadow of the gull pass across a port, heading for the bait. We’re all the same, he thought. Taking targets of opportunity. There was a half-finished cup of coffee, cold now, on the galley sink; he drank most of it, threw the dregs away. He got a bait knife and a big cutting board and a section of yesterday’s Miami newspaper, which he folded and put under his arm so that the word NUCLEAR was visible in black letters but the rest of the headline (FREEZE OPPOSED) was hidden; he went up to the deck again, squeezing through the passage that separated his cramped bunk on the right from the storage lockers where there were charts and foul-weather gear and his few clothes and a twelve-gauge pump and a Weatherby .375 and, concealed behind a bulkhead, an AR-15 with the retaining spur removed.
Now there were two gulls on the bait buckets and half a dozen more coming in. “Go away,” Tarp said quietly. He headed toward the buckets and they flew off, each with a piece of fish. He slid the buckets along the deck to the transom, clipped the cutting board into its holders, and began to slice the plump, smelly, red-sided fish into chunks, cleaning the knife on the newspaper. Fish or cut bait. Me, just now, I’m cutting bait. Most of the fish would be ground up for chum, and he dropped the chunks into the wire basket of the chopper, all but the big, meaty pieces, which went into an ice chest for bait.
He was still cutting bait some minutes later when a shadow fell over the deck. He had not heard anybody come, and he knew that nobody had come out along the dock while he had been cutting the fish because he could see it all the way to the gas pumps. His grip on the fish knife shifted.
Tarp swiveled his head slowly to the left. The sun was there, with the newcomer in front of it. Rays of brilliance shot out around the head and shoulders like the aura of a cheap plaster Christ.
Tarp knew that voice. It sounded English but he knew that it was not. He knew that the voice was being faked somehow and that it was really deeper and harsher. But he was distracted by the sound of an engine as a boat swung out toward the Gulf. He remembered hearing a boat come in sometime earlier, just after dawn.
“This isn’t a charter boat,” he said. He always tried to be polite, although polite people never found him so.
“May I come aboard, please?”
The voice had dropped a couple of notes and there was definite slippage in the English accent, especially on the word please. Tarp knew who it was now. “Are you alone?” he said quietly.
“Nobody on you?”
“I am tourist! Who would be on me?” A rich laugh erupted from the sunburst, and Tarp, still unable to see the face, imagined the old man’s mouth opening, rather soft, almost flaccid, the small eyes crinkling in their setting of fat and wrinkles.
The Scipio swayed a little again, for the old man weighed as much as Tarp although he was much shorter. He was clumsy in a boat, and he had to get his balance again before he could stand on the deck.
“Want to go below?”
The laughed rolled again. “‘Go below’! How very nautical! You sound, if you please, like Jack London. What is ‘below’? Some crowded little place full of dead fish’s stuffings? No. I sit here in the sun. I am tourist. I come for sunshine.” He moved to the big fighting chair in the stern. “What is this throne?”
“It’s a barber chair. I do razor cuts on the side.”
His Russian accent fully intact now, the old man glowered. “What is this razor cut? Is way that black Negroes are fighting in Harlem, yes?”
Tarp almost smiled. “Russians aren’t supposed to be racists. Want coffee?”
“I don’t keep vodka on hand, and anyway it’s too early. I’ve got Scotch, if you have to have it.”
“Coffee is bad for liver. Scotch is good. Bring the bottle, my friend!”
Tarp went below and got a bottle of Laphroaig and one glass; he washed his hands at the galley sink, but he was in a hurry and so a lot of the dried fish blood stayed on him. Coming out past the lockers he reached under a slicker and took out a battered little .22 Woodsman in a scarred holster and carried it up with him. He put down the bottle and the glass next to the fighting chair and put the pistol in the ice chest, then picked up the hose that ran from the water connection on the dock and began to hose down his hands and
“So, Repin,” he said quietly, “what are you doing here?”
The old man was pouring himself a full glass of the malt Scotch. “I am tourist,” he said amiably. He drank off the whiskey neat, smacked his loose old lips, raised his eyebrows in an atheist’s parody of a saint’s ecstasy, and grinned. “Very good. Very, very good!” He poured himself another glass. “I was in neighborhood, I thought I drop in.” He laughed merrily. Tarp threw the few remaining uncut fish overboard and the gulls came screaming down; then he hosed the knife and the table and the deck and wiped the knife and the board with the newspaper. “Cuba?” he said.
“The neighborhood. I was in the neighborhood.”
“Bit of a risk.”
“Why? If U.S. Coast Guard catches me, I tell him I am freedom-loving refugee from tyranny of Fidel Castro.” He laughed some more and poured some more.
“I don’t think they’d like finding a KGB officer in Florida.”
“KGB? Ahh! Was a long time ago. All that, a very long time ago. I have not been to Dzerzhinsky Square in — seven years. Eight!” He waved the glass happily. “This is nice place, Tarp. I like it here!” He sipped, looked down into the glass. “Seven years, the body changes completely, eh? I am new man — no more the Repin of old days. All that is history.”
Repin’s voice fell to a growl. Suddenly he looked sly and ugly, his lower lip pushed forward and his eyes tiny and greedy like the gull’s. “I remember. You never forget, never forgive. The American way.” He spat over the side. He stirred the whiskey with a stubby finger and then looked at the finger, from which an amber drop began to fall, and he flicked the finger toward the water, sending tiny droplets seaward. “For the gods of the ocean,” he said gloomily, his mood completely changed. He looked like a man with a chill now, indrawn and miserable; he looked at the horizon and glanced warily toward the sun as if he expected it to hurt him. “Will there be storm?”
“I can get back to Cuba tonight?”
“As far as the weather’s concerned.”
Repin massaged his forehead with his left hand, pushing his straw hat back on his head, the half-empty glass seemingly forgotten in his right hand. The fingers passed down over the eyebrows, went to the left eye socket, massaged the eye, and pulled down the lower lid as if he were a man trying to wake up. He sighed, and the left hand dropped lifelessly to his side. “I got big problem, Tarp.”
Tarp said nothing. When people talked, he let them.
Repin lifted the bottle, poured more whiskey on top of that already in the glass. “Not so long ago,” he said, holding the bottle on his left thigh, “Soviet submarine went aground in Swedish waters. You heard about it?”
“Was very old submarine, but usable. What you call whiskey class — conventional, no missiles. You know. Going aground like that was big embarrassment. The damned Swedes made a lot of it; the peace movement, they made a lot of it; for once, even the U.S. looked good in European press. Still, everybody says, is only embarrassment. But — big surprise! Swedes announce there is atomic material on board. Uproar! Nuclear warheads, say the Swedes. They find radiation when they check sub from outside. Inside, they never go. But big uproar, big noise — more ammunition for peace movement, more embarrassment for Soviet government. The Swedes, they love it. They invite in press, television, all that. Private joke in Moscow: Swedes are going to keep submarine and rename it the Raoul Wallenberg. Funny, hey? But is only embarrassment after all; when damned Swedes have got all the attention they can, they let submarine go and send it home.” He grunted, nodded, then shook his head as if in amazement at the story he had just told. He looked at Tarp. “Well?”
“Well? You got caught — so?”
“But that is point — we did not get caught! There was no nuclear missiles on that submarine!” Without ever taking his little eyes from Tarp’s, Repin drank. He jerked the glass from his lips angrily. “You understand what I just say? There was no atomic missiles! Not atomic submarine; not a missile-equipped submarine. Eh?”
“So, the Swedes were wrong.”
Repin looked at the horizon as if he wanted to wipe it away with his hand. “No.” His voice was rich with disgust. “Swedes were not wrong. In forward torpedo tubes, there was enough weapons-grade plutonium to make eight tactical atomic bombs.” He flattened his lips by pulling them down over the teeth like an ape; then he pushed them out, as if he were a clown expressing comic gloom. “That plutonium, Tarp, it was not supposed to be there.”
Tarp waited again. Repin disliked his silence and glared at him, but Tarp did not make small talk. This all had a point, he was sure, and Repin would get to it without any chat from him.
“The plutonium was stolen,” Repin muttered. “They think from plant at Semipalatinsk. Stolen plutonium, Tarp — stolen in U.S.S.R.”
They were silent. The boat rocked gently on the wake of another sportfisherman that had just gone out. Tarp had been leaning against the side, and now he straightened. “I’m going to take her out.” He could smell the last cool vestige of the night on the breeze; in minutes the air would be sticky and the breeze would shift. “Want me to put you ashore?”
“Why would I go ashore? I don’t know anybody ashore.”
“How’re you going to get back to Cuba?”
Some of Repin’s good humor returned. “You are going to take me.”
Tarp looked over the boats, the marina, the oily swells that still heaved behind the distant boat. “Why am I going to do that?”
“Curiosity. Money. Your fire.”
“That fire in your belly. Always burning. I know you. It is like lust in some men — that fire to make things right. I know you. After I tell you this story, you will take me to Cuba and you will try to make things right.”
Tarp did not look at him. “It must be some story.”
“What happened to the captain of the sub?”
“He died in the Lubyanka.”
“Some of your colleagues must have gotten a little insistent with their questions. Did he say where he got the plutonium before they killed him?”
“He had deal with man he never saw, he said. For quarter million dollars in diamonds, he carries two packages in two torpedo tubes.”
“He didn’t know. Orders to come.”
“He didn’t know.”
“Some businessman. What was the sub’s legitimate mission?”
“Training and long-distance testing — through the Baltic, running some probes on Swedish defenses, that’s how he went aground, stupid bastard; rendezvous with support ship off Narvic, then run to Cuba; then rendezvous with support ship below South Georgia Islands and run east to Indian Ocean. Rest stop at Zanzibar, waiting further orders.”
“That’s a hell of a trip for an old boat.”
“Who wrote the orders?”
“Fleet Undersea Central, absolutely in the usual way. Is normal mission, perfectly normal! There is program, very low priority, for testing capabilities of conventional submarines; this voyage was part of it. Is not so unusual.”
“Last year, two years ago. More planned.”
Tarp eyed the intelligent, ruthless old face. “How many plutonium thefts have there been?”
Repin actually turned red. He grunted, shook his head as he had earlier. “You. You!” He shook a finger at Tarp. “All right, after they find this plutonium in submarine, they check. They think maybe four times as much is missing, but is very, very hard to tell.”
“Plutonium gets lost in the cracks, I know. So, four times as much; the subs have been making this voyage for the last two years
Repin smiled. “Four.”
Tarp felt the breeze turn hot. Sudden sweat made crescents under his eyes. “It’s not enough of a story to make me run to Cuba. Sorry.”
Repin leaned forward, the whiskey bottle on his left knee like a gun butt. “One hundred thousand dollars. Gold.”
Tarp was frowning. “Let Dzerzhinsky Square handle it.” But it was Repin’s turn to say nothing. Tarp turned on him and he found that the old eyes were weary. “What is it?” Tarp said. “What’s the problem? Infighting? But that’s normal. Something else? Because Andropov’s new? But that’s not enough; those bastards are all at each other’s throats, but they get their work done. What is it?” He looked at Repin, and Repin’s eyes bored into him.
Tarp nodded suddenly. “It’s one of them, is that it?”
Repin had smiled, as if with relief. “That is the fear.”
Repin really laughed now. He made it seem the greatest joke there was, and it made him quite cheerful again. “That is the trouble, Tarp! Nobody knows!” His pitch went up and he giggled. He poured himself more Scotch and drank. “There was a great meeting in Dzerzhinsky Square. Andropov came. All the way from his office as general secretary of the Party he came! Beranyi came — young, hard, called by many an idealist because it is thought he would hesitate for a second or two before knifing his mother. Telyegin, my personal friend of the old days, pal of Ho Chi Minh and maybe the man who poisoned Stalin. Strisz, the bureaucrat. Falomin, the wolf. Mensenyi, Szelyupin, Galusha — a dozen others! I was not there, this is all relayed to me by various of them individually and in secret, you understand. But — what a meeting it must have been! First, they are nervous because of Andropov, because he is nervous; second, they all want the job of Semyon Tsvigun, recently deceased, mourned by nobody. And third, they believe that right there in that room is probably the man who has stolen from his mother country enough plutonium to make so many atomic bombs the world could go insane. Stolen it and shipped it out of the Soviet Union! Can you picture it, Tarp?”
“Not a pretty picture.”