Chasing Wild Geese
Odessa is so unlike Kiev, it might as will be another country, another time -- another planet. First off, there were people outside on purpose. They actually wanted to be there. They weren't sprinting from one underground passage to the next, terrified of the cold, hunched over, turned inward. Kiev's leaden ceiling of eternal cloud was nowhere to be seen. Admittedly, seeing blue was a little bit weird.
Captain A. Laddin's detailed directions -- those, he'd provided the night before, at the Athena mall -- ended us up standing, like fools, in front of the Port Authority's building. Nondescript, steel and glass, several stories tall, and government-ugly, it might have provided office space for nongovernmental interests -- like Alexi's shipping concern. Nothing to lose: it's not like we had a lot of get-out-of-Ukraine options.
I stared at a grease-stained shred of paper tray-liner. No mistake, we were at the address Alexi had scrawled out. "You didn't hear him mention an office number, by any chance?"
Elena hadn't. She did, however, recall his emphatic mention of a very important meeting with the port captain.
Asking around the Port Authority, resulted in blank stares, rude dismissals, and a confirmation that the port captain had no meetings scheduled, being out-of-office all day. "Well, shit!" I moaned, back outside. "We've been sent on a wild goose chase."
"For why the chasing of geese?"
"Exactly! Why, indeed." I'm pretty sure, Elena made the point without realizing it. "Do you see a lamp around here?"
"It is daytime, Meg. For what do you need a lamp?"
"Don't you get it? Think of the name he gave us..." By way of a hint, I hummed the theme music from I Dream of Genie. -- Like that would mean anything to her, but let's face it, it's a catchy tune.
"Think about it. He says his name is Alexi Laddin."
More staring. Only, this time Elena was focusing on something in the distance.
"As in: A. Laddin."
"So, aye lad-din. So what, Meg?"
I said it again. "As in: Aladdin. Ta-da! Get it? Tales of the Arabian Knights and Aladdin's Lamp. This has to be Andre and that weird, old coot, cooking up a way to rip us off and…"
"Meg, look. It's Alexi!" Elena preempted my rant.
Striding toward us, cape flying, he called out, "So sorry. Very important business meeting. Very important!" He straightened up, looked around at the junior executives lining up at various eateries. "Ah, lunch is called for at this time, do not you think? Let us dine while we discuss business."
"Ah, okay… Sure." I hadn't really thought about it. "At your office?"
"No, I have been in my office all day." He led the way to a dark, wood paneled restaurant where the maître d' looked at us strangely. Then, in no time whatsoever, he'd ordered a bottle of about the most expensive German beer I've ever heard of. As an afterthought, he snapped his fingers and called out for a bottle of Georgian wine. "For the table. But, of course!"
"It is of utmost importance, that we are completely honest with each other." Alexi leveled a stare in my direction. "I am a businessman, and I do business only with people who are serious about doing business." He took a swig of beer, letting his warning sink in. After a couple of sideways glances, he continued. "If you're not serious about doing business, you must tell me now, so that we may part ways honorably, as..." His English was good, but he choked on some word. Then again, it could have been the belch he stifled with the back of a hand. "… As... as gentlemen."
"I'm not really as interested in business as much as I am in getting us out of Ukraine." All that talk of business had me thinking, he had us confused with some other party.
"Business is business. You have money? You can pay for my services?" He bent closer, ramping up the intensity of his business stare. "I will not waste my valuable time helping you with your business, if you have no intention of providing renumeration for my services."
"Okay, I get it. You want to be paid. How much?"
"That all depends on what you need." The sickly sweet, Georgian wine had shown up and Alexi was alternating between the two. Beer bottle in one hand, rapidly draining goblet in the other, he was a case study of two-fisted drinking.
"Isn't it clear by now?" I gestured at Elena." Her passport has been stolen. I am Canadian. Holland works fine as a destination, if you can get us out of Ukraine, have access to a ship, can provide safe and discrete passage… then, I have money."
The captain whined, "Holland? Why Holland?"
"Didn't you say you were sailing, or steaming, or whatever you call it, a ship to Rotterdam?" I waited for a response. "Do you have a ship here, in port, now?"
The waiter came and went. Eventually, food showed up. Alexi evaded, or ignored, my questions.
I'm pretty sure, Elena took that opportunity to step in on my behalf, asking, "Alexi, are you truly a sea-captain?" straight out, point blank, in Russian. I was impressed. Heartened. A little bit reassured that she might survive the hell, I seemed to be dragging her through.
With filthy, long-nailed fingers, he handed her a worn sheet of paper. It was barely holding together at the creases. "Young lady, look at this." Then he carried right on, regaling me with tales of his marine-business prowess.
She studied it, narrowed her eyes, blurted out. "Ah captain, where is Bremerhaven?"
Alexi stopped, mid-boast, then found his words and tore into Elena. "How should I know? Girl, you are rude to interrupt whilst we discuss important business." He turned back to me, tried to pick up where he'd broken off.
Elena put the delicate sheet of paper down between us. It was a photocopy of a seaman's certificate. When she pointed at salient features -- like its city of issue being Bremerhaven, and dates being smudged beyond legibility -- whatever the good captain was nattering on about, just kind-of became background noise to me.
He snatched the photocopy, folded and pocketed it. "Satisfied? We shall continue with our business. My time is valuable, you know."
"Wait!" I threw my hands up. "I thought you were a ship's captain out of Rotterdam. Why would you have an office in Odessa? What is all this going on about business? All we want is a ride out of Ukraine. I thought you had a ship we could do that on, and you could arrange it."
Silence. Elena and I looked at each other.
"Do you have a ship?" She asked.
"A ship? No. Not exactly."
He sucked down the last of the Georgian wine in one, long, thoughtful ingestion.
"Right!" I said. "I don't know what you think you can do for us, or why we are even talking."
"We are speaking because you need my business skills. I also manage the buying of new ships for my company in Germany. There is a ship building factory in Mykolayiv. It is near Odessa," Alexi waved the empty wine bottle at a waiter who made eye contact with me. I shook my head: Noooooo. Alexi saw, shrugged his shoulders, put down the bottle and continued to explain. "You will need the port captain's permission to sail, or buy, a boat here. It is a good thing that I know him, and that he holds me in high esteem."
"Buy or sail a boat?" I hadn't thought of it that seriously. Maybe, I'd mentioned it in some desperate, wild-schemed attempt to come up with something -- anything, like Chinese snakeheads, or a midnight run for the Polish border.
"Yes, buying a boat. Whether you sail it, or I do, you will need..." Alexi started to run off a list of reasons why we needed him.
The noise of my own thought process became a cacophonous roar and I tuned him out. I had done some sailing. Okay, it was in protected, inland waters; on sunny afternoons; with friends; in a tiny boat, but what-the-hell, European Union countries had Black Sea shores, just a stone's throw south of Odessa. Not to mention, the Black Sea is what? A largish, salty lake? When he stopped blathering, I asked, "Mist... whoops, Captain Laddin, are you a yacht broker, or a marine lawyer?"
"Broker? No, I don't deal with the stock market, and I am not a lawyer. Lawyers come to me for help and instruction."
"But, you can get us a boat, or onto one, that will get us to a European Union country?"
"There is simply no doubt, my services are many, and many pay me handsomely." Alexi stopped to let his brilliant repartee sink in, and to poke at the remains of his cow-carcass and sea-bug -- steak and lobster -- lunch. "You do realize, however, that you will need a boat to get you further than the EU." With crustacean gore impaled on a tiny, sharp fork, he drew circles in the air. "If you want to keep your Russian girl out of jail, you need a boat that will get you all the way to that United States of yours."
"Canada." I corrected.
"As I said, and that advice is without charge. You have told me she has no passport. She will be arrested at any country she goes to. You will be arrested for taking her there. If I was your captain, I would be arrested."
"You said you are taking a ship to Holland, or Germany, I don't bloody care, just out of here. I assumed you are a captain offering to arrange passage on your ship!"
"You assumed incorrectly." He pulled the napkin from his collar, then wiped his greasy hands on his shirt.
"If you can't get us out of Ukraine, what do we need you for?!"
"To buy a boat that will get you to America."
"Canada." I took a deep breath, dredging up mellowness from the last place I had any; probably, down under my right, anterior cruciate ligament. I knew he was right. No level of ultra-denial could stop me from knowing it. Play by the rules, and Elena was lost. The way she looked at me, how she avoided the topic, she knew it too; knew we were burning on borrowed time. Break the law, and maybe we'd make it out, alive and together. Appeal to the law -- go to authorities, request asylum, call for help -- and deaf indifference was a best-case-scenario, but far more likely was Elena's arrest and return to Russia, as she put it, to never again, see the light of day. In any scenario, she would fare the worst of the two of us. Mainly, there wasn't a snow-ball's-chance-in-hell we'd be together, which was, after all, our entire raison d'etre for running.
The waiter showed up with dessert menus. I looked at our minuscule salads, then over at Alexi's detritus piled plates, empty bottles, soiled napkins -- surprised he hadn't eaten or pocketed the centerpiece -- and shooed the waiter off with a request for our bills.
The captain looked crestfallen. "Ah yes, I must mind the time. Very important meeting back at my office."
"Give me a break! You have no office. The address you gave us is the Port Authority."
"But, you are mistaken..."
"Hey, I don't really care. I care about getting out of Ukraine. I assume you know people?"
"What people?" Alexi was actually whining -- total character shift. "I am an honest businessman, a consultant."
"Well consultant, now's your chance to do a little consulting. I'd like to consult you on how you can get us out of here, without her passport."
Alexi looked thoughtful. "I can get you a boat, maybe even a passport."
"Ah, hah..." Passport got my attention. As he bolted from the table -- like it was on fire -- we agreed to meet the following day in Sobornaya Square. Of course, he stiffed us for the bill.
"I am surprised, Meg. You are still to be dealing with him. To me, for sure that idiot, a swindler, a crook, he is." Elena encrypted her comments by speaking English. Good, Russian girls never said such things about their betters; and there's no telling who, in earshot, realized how vulnerable she was.
With a sigh, I slapped down the plastic. "As it stands, that idiot, like it or not, is the only chance we have."
Oh. My. Dog. The weather was perfect. I wandered aimlessly through Sobornaya Square, giddily reveling in the hedonistic pleasure of being unencumbered by a heavy coat. Sunlight filtered down through ancient trees just starting to leaf out. It dappled the pathways, flower beds, fountains and stonework of the classical garden with a pallet and brush, Renoir would have killed or died for. Elena was off on a random walk, her tiny cell phone pressed to one ear. So deep in concentration, it was a miracle she didn't collide with people, trees, abandoned dogs. I noticed the time, caught up with her.
Elena was crying. That happened a lot when she spoke on the phone. She thumbed end-call, wiped tears and snot on her sleeve -- sorry, my sleeve: our clothes had become completely interchangeable -- and told me, "She still says that you stole my passport."
"You're completely sure she has it?" I glanced at my watch, again. "What an idiot."
"No, that Alexi! We agreed on fourteen hundred hours, in Sobornaya Square. He's the one who chose it, set the time. How can he screw that up?"
"I can't believe you are still dealing with him."
Groups of Mediterranean-looking men crowded small, inlaid, stone tables, playing chess under a canopy of vines and ironwork. It wasn't a big deal that Alexi was late. Elena and I were soaking up the comfortable, old-world atmosphere of Sobornaya Square. The sunshine, downtime, and pretending to be normal, was rejuvenating. It didn't last long. Alexi blustered onto the square, muttering away, like some character dreamed up by Gilbert and Sullivan. "Time is money, and money is time... Very important meeting, yes, indeed, so very important. You must forgive me for my late arrival."
Elena rolled her eyes.
"I have a solution to all your troubles, a friend in business who has boats for sale." Alexi was boorishly loud. Chess players glared. "I can do business for you with my esteemed business comrade that you may buy a boat. We shall go meet my comrade now. This is a serious matter." He paused dramatically. "Very serious, indeed. You have money?"
"A boat? Wouldn't it be easier just to get a passport?" I whinged. Of course, given two possible enticements -- say: a carrot, or a poke in the ass with a sharp stick -- guess which one it always turns out to be. The way my shoulders slumped, one might think my clavicles had suddenly dissolved.
Elena reminded me, "This was your idea."
Alexi took up the lead, goosestepping away, cape trailing in his wake. We chased him to a small strip mall and into a marine outfitter's store. He ordered a pimply faced clerk to show his clients, "The boats for sale in Odessa."
The youngish man glared disdainfully, and moving with deliberate disinclination, swung the monitor around, opened a browser, and navigated to a website called Yacht World. In the search parameters, he entered Odessa. Then he asked Alexi a run-on series of single word questions: "sail-power-length-range?"
In turn, Alexi asked, "Do you want a boat with a sail or a boat with the motor? How much money do you have for your boat?"
"I don't want a boat!" I looked at him for even the slightest glimmer of cognition, which might indicate, he had heard me. "What I want is to get Elena out of Ukraine, and you said you could help us, Captain Aladdin."
"Captain?" The clerk raised an eyebrow. At Alexi's insistence he showed me some frighteningly neglected sail, power and fishing boats on offer in Odessa. The blase clerk flashed from one ad to the next, rattling off prices in US dollars.
"Whoa, enough! I can't come up with that kind of cash, I don't want one of those boats, and this is a complete waste of time." I looked at the clerk, rolled my eyes, flashed as much body-language contrition as humanly possible. "Sorry about this."
"Whatever..." He shrugged and turned away, muttering some Ukrainian curse.
Maybe Alexi really was actually nuts. Outside the store, I told him, in the simplest terms I could muster, that I was not going to buy a boat and, unless he came up with some other way of getting us out of Ukraine, our acquaintanceship was finished. We left him silently cogitating, and beat a hasty retreat to the Londonskaya.