Cut to the Chase
In the Athena mall's basement, at the bottom of the escalators, there is a complementary shoe polishing machine. At least, there was back when we were frequenting the joint. Elena's forest-green Doc Martins had taken on quite a shine by the time I gestured wildly at my watch, bellyaching, "Alexi is late! What are the odds?"
"Not so odd. Alexi is up to tricks. Maybe watching us. Maybe not coming." Elena mumbled, fixated on the polisher: essentially, an 8 inch bench grinder bolted to the floor. Where it should've had grinding wheels, there was a bristle disk and polishing pad. A stick mounted pushbutton switch was provided at chest level. An industrial, metalworking, power tool, minus its safety guards, supervision, or instructions; catch a trouser cuff or shoelace in it, and, well... you get the picture.
"Let's go. Besides, I think I smell your shoes burning."
"He always will come just as we are leaving. It is a game to make us think he is so important and busy. Probably, he is here, watching us."
"Yup, that's creepy. Let's blow this Popsicle stand." Inwardly, I felt a rush of frustration and panic. I was actually counting on the smarmy bastard.
He intercepted us at the bottom of the up escalator. Typically contrite, blathering on about very important meetings, he quite literally blocked our way. "I suppose, this will do." He looked around at the food floor's very un-businesslike occupants, mostly mothers with children, teenagers, and motionless zombies with nowhere else to be.
"Well, can you get me a passport, or not?" Elena cut to the chase.
"Young lady, that is not how business is conducted. We shall sit at a table. Shall we order those amusing Tater Tots? Nothing else is terribly appetizing."
"No, a swindle just isn't the same without steak and lobster and German, designer beer to wash it all down with."
"A swindle!? And I offered to eat your fast food to save your precious dollars. I have very important people waiting to see me, my time is very valuable…"
"Alexi, perristany -- stop it!" Elena had enough. "We know you are a con man." The three of us stood in stunned silence, until she broke it by going on. "So, this is all a game to you, but it's very serious for us. You may be a con man, and in that capacity, there may be something you can do for us. If you can accept that, we can talk."
Chasing Alexi through the cafeteria, as he skillfully overloaded his tray, was like some kind of extreme sporting event for the psyche. By that time, during our stay in Odessa, we were so cash-strapped, that skewering sardines straight from the tin with toothpicks, was our idea of fine dining. At the checkout, he noticed us standing behind him -- me with a coffee, Elena with a cup of tea. "Is that all you are having?"
The cashier looked at me questioningly. I nodded. "Da, I'm paying for him."
Having spent almost all of her free time in the business center, scouring the Net for passport and visa requirements in -- and out of -- every country between Ukraine and Canada, Elena did most of the talking. Alexi squirmed and sputtered under her onslaught. Between Elena and the triple order of tater tots, couple liters of Pepsi, and chunks of former animals, he couldn't get a word in edge wise, even if he tried. "The thing is, my own mother has stolen my passport and I need one to get out of Ukraine with Meg."
"Meg?" So, Alexi got a word in edgewise, after all.
"Yeah, Meg." Elena pointed at me. "This is Meg and I am Elena. We've been using fake names... with you, anyway."
"Because you are a scammer... probably a criminal. The truth is, we do not trust you." Elena said, straight out.
"I am not a criminal! How do you dare... I am deeply hurt." Alexi's trampled upon act wasn't convincing.
"Then a.... I don't know..." I looked at Elena, asked her if there even was a word for con-man in Russian. I didn't need to, Alexi was familiar with the term in English. "Fine, a con-man." I went on. "Anyone who can come up with a passport that isn't their own, and sell it... yeah, that's a pretty criminal sounding business plan."
"I am a respected, and very important business man. I am not a criminal!"
"You and Nixon, both." I couldn't let a set-up like that slide. Nobody got it. "If you aren't a criminal, then you must certainly know some. Or maybe you can rub your magic lamp, ask your genie for a passport." Nobody got that one, either.
Elena got serious. Definitely the straight-man in our act, she explained her need for a passport that would get her out of Ukraine. Either her own Russian passport, or a legal replacement, would get her into Turkey, buy us some time, keep us from being torn apart -- for another couple of months, anyway.
"You can not go to the West with a Russian passport. For you, I would think a British, or American passport would be just the right thing for such a voyage. You could dispense with Turkey altogether, travel in style." Alexi oozed right back into his smarmy businessman shtick.
"How much?" Elena demanded. "And, can you get it in three weeks?"
"Of course, three weeks, but it must cost, maybe a little more. Not so much more, a mere trifle for ladies who can live at the Londonskaya, I am sure." He smirked.
"How much!?" That time, it was me.
"I can not say precisely, it may be more, or it may be less. As you Americans speak of a ballpark figure, I am pretty sure I could arrange a USA passport for twenty-thousand dollars."
I almost snorted coffee out my nose. I had to comment, "There's a forged passport shop on the corner that I missed? Going rate is twenty-thousand bucks! Russian, American, British, take your pick." I waved an imaginary passport in the air. "Crazy Aladdin's passport emporium is overstocked. All passports must go!"
Elena put her hand on mine. "Sit, Meg. People are looking." Then to Alexi, "Twenty-thousand is too much."
"And too illegal." I broke in, taking Elena's other hand. "I love you too much, to see you arrested for something as stupid as passing a fake passport."
Alexi ruined what could have been a romantic moment by clearing his throat -- or choking on something from his twelve-thousand calorie lunch. Either way, public displays of affection, between the similarly gendered, are highly unappreciated. "Your mother stole your passport. Maybe you need to hire someone to, eh hem, collect it from her?"
Put the squeeze on Mama... classy! I thought, despite her probably having done the same to us -- or me -- for sure. Kill the foreign bitch, drag my daughter back by the hair, was way up there on the what-we-figured-Mama-was-thinking list. "The Russian mob? Nah, let's look at some alternatives, before we go down that dark alley. You are a very important and respected businessman, right?"
"Obviously, or you wouldn't have an invisible office at the Port Authority, or know that Rotterdam freaking isn't in Germany..." Elena squeezed my hand again, hard. I behaved myself, despite how good it was feeling to just let the con-artist have it. "So, as a respected businessman, you know people. Maybe you know someone at the Russian consulate who can replace Elena's actual, legal passport for a modest, reasonable fee. Or barring that, an official who can extend our legal stay in Ukraine."
There was an uncharacteristic silence from the businessman with the mega lunch. Maybe, he'd lost the ability to comprehend English.
Elena prompted him, this time, in Russian. "Well, what can you do for us along legal lines?"
Munch, munch, munch… belch, slurp. He stopped, held up one finger, as though an awesome proclamation awaited a last, giant gulp of Pepsi. Then, he sighed, the skyward pointing finger wilting. "Alas, I have no business contact with the Russian consulate, or the Ukrainian government."
Watching him crumble, I actually had a pang of feeling for the poor old guy. Elena turned away, no doubt, hiding the tears in her eyes. She left the table with her now cold tea. Alexi kept his face buried in his lunch, and I gathered my things, wondering, what now? Before ghosting away from the table, like Elena did, I figured I should really say something, but what: too bad you aren't really a criminal? Awkward, doesn't come close to describing the situation. "Okay then, goodbye? Good luck with your shipping ventures."
Before Elena and I left the food floor, I looked back at Alexi, sitting pretty much where we first met, all those wasted days and thousands of dollars ago. He was on the phone, and wouldn't you just know it, waving away with his free hand, signaling us back to the table. We approached, but didn't sit down. Who knew what the old coot was up to now? He hung up, then carefully put the phone back in his man purse. "Sit, our business is not done. Our luncheon, it is not yet finished."
"What business?" I asked.
"A passport for your lady friend." He gestured toward our recently vacated chairs. "I was surprised to see you leaving. I thought you were off to powder your pretty noses."
"Patronizing asshole." I muttered under my breath, then to Elena, "Don't bother sitting down." The only pangs I felt by then, were hunger.
"I believe, I have found you a passport. It is completely legal, and it is Ukrainian. If that is acceptable to you, we can talk about arrangements." Alexi said.
Our jaws dropped, and so did our tushes -- right into our seats. He leaned conspiratorially toward us and spoke in a low voice. "My niece, she is a young woman, living in an eastern Ukrainian village who would, very much, like to help her Russian comrade escape to the West with her American friend."
"Canadian…" I growled.
"Same thing, my dear." He went on, promising us that Elena looked so much like his beloved niece, he had been driven to help us, right from the very start. "If you think you can pass for her, you can borrow her passport to get into Turkey, and then mail it back to her, in Ukraine. I must, of course, charge a modest fee for my services..." He held up a hand, to stop us from speaking before he finished. "... Which we will discuss when you see the passport. My niece, herself, will bring it to Odessa within the week, if this is satisfactory to you."
"She cannot send the passport? Why is your niece coming here?" Elena asked.
"I don't know. She said she wanted to meet you, the two of you, I suppose." Alexi was getting that contrived, petulant business-tone again. "I need to know if this is satisfactory, yes? My niece is waiting for an answer."
"Uh, can you give us a second?" I narrowed my eyes at Elena and nodded away from the table. "We need to... ah, powder our noses."
"I thought you might." He gestured us away with the back of a hand.
"It's not legal: it's fraudulent, it's risky, it's probably stupid, maybe it's another scam, and who even knows what's up with this niece of his?" I worried out loud to Elena. "If it even works, we'll be stranded in Turkey."
"But, we still will be with each other! Mother knows when I be illegal in Ukraine. Of this, she made sure with police in Kiev. Minute that happens, she will phone to Ukrainian authorities. Tell to them to arrest me to send to Russia, to her. Meg, it is only few weeks. Better to Turkey, than here." Elena responded in English. Her caution around Slavic ears, far exceeded mine. Besides, nobody knew better than her, just how much inherent encryption value a language barrier provides.
"Yeah it would buy us time. We could try the Russian, the Canadian, consulates there." Anything to make it sound reasonable -- mostly to myself -- despite the proven futility. "I suppose, your mother would report you to Turkish authorities, if she knew you were going to attempt a border crossing. Wait a minute! Does she know we're even in Odessa? If she rats on us to the cops in Kiev, we might still be okay here."
"Choomeechka airhead, she will tell to -- how to say -- for leaving country, need show passport."
"Of course, we're still back in the USSR. That is passport control. One needs permission to fly the totalitarian coop."
"Not just to fly, but to go by train, or bus."
"Right. It means we are both fugitives when time runs out in Ukraine. Totally trapped here with psycho-bitch-from-hell counting the seconds to drop the blade, or we trust Captain Aladdin and his niece's magic passport to get us into Turkey, where we will still be fucked, just not as fucked as we are here." Krikey, my own eyes we're feeling the sting of imminent tears. "So, what do we do with Alexi and his foolproof, legal ticket to ride? Tell me, my love -- what do you think?"
"Oh, Meg." Elena wrapped her arms around me, like her legs were about to give out. "I think it's the only hope we've got."
At three o'clock in the morning, Bernadette called my cell phone. "Where in the hell are you?"
"What? Wait!" I tried to get my bearings. Personally, I had a hard time knowing where in the hell I was. "Who is this?"
"Bernadette, the woman looking after your house of horrors, and the life you abandoned back here."
"Bernie! Whoa, hi! Long time, no see. What's up with you?" I finally looked at the call display -- my own land line. It was a weird blast-from-the-past feeling. Everything from back there, and back then -- pre-Kiev -- felt like someone else's life.
"A guy at your bank has been trying to reach you. Apparently, there's been a lot of large withdrawals from ATMs in Eastern Europe, and they're afraid it isn't you."
I swallowed hard. "It's me."
"That's what I told him. You still need to call him, tell him yourself."
"No problem, I'll call him tonight, when it's banking hours back there." I yawned, relieved the call from the other side of the planet wasn't about somebody dead, or dying, or burning down the house.
"Oh, and you need to get your financial house in order! He didn't give me the specifics, but your overdraft, your personal line of credit, and your credit cards are maxed out!"
"I've been afraid to look, until we're even a little bit safe." I wanted to unload on her -- on anyone who'd listen -- but I didn't. Maybe, it wasn't that bad. Maybe, I was counting life in heartbeats for once, and feeling really alive for the first time in, well... ever.
"I have to tell you, I am shocked by this. You, of all people! It's embarrassing." She stopped to let that sink in, but not long enough for a response. "You need to finish this house. You said you'd be back by now, and I'm living in a half built house full of holes!" That was it. She hung up, and I was left wondering whether the phone survived.
So, there I was, wide awake. In two minutes flat, Bernadette hath murdered sleep. Of course, I knew there would be fallout: ramifications, pipers to be paid, just not so soon. Never underestimate my ninja powers of denial. I killed the light. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I looked at Elena. Moonlight through our enormous windows onto the courtyard, silhouetted the slope of her shoulder under the blanket. Tufts of her mangled, chemically damaged hair stuck out crazily. She sighed like a child, completely content. I so envied the way she could shut down like that. My brain was a mariachi band on speed. The inevitable conversation with my personal banker, in all its variations, played on infinite loop. My investments, my savings, were toast. Stocks in companies I had meticulously researched, mutual funds I lovingly followed, were on their way to the chopping block, and I would sign their death warrants with three little words, "Sell at market."
Dinner in the grand ballroom, nothing could be finer. We always had the place to ourselves. I felt like we'd blundered onto the set of a costume drama while looking for the snack-bar. Everyone there knew we didn't belong, but they played their parts and we ad-libbed ours. "No starter, and for my main course... hmmm, let's see... ah, yes, the tap-water looks lovely."
"Very good, madam. Would you care to sniff the faucet?" Actually, nobody had the chutzpah to offer, although, had they, and had I requested it brought to the table for my olfactory inspection, I'm pretty sure they'd have ripped it from the wall and carried it out on a silver platter.
"Meg, what is a filet of mignon, and do you think the mignon is freshly caught?" Elena really did ask me things like that. The list of culinary firsts for the girl was astonishing: avocado to zinfandel and everything in between.
"You wouldn't like it. It's not vegetarian." I suggested, "The fries look excellent, or the pasta. See if that comes with a finger bowl."
"A bowl of fingers? Yuck! What about es-car-gots?"
"Those are snails." No more description required. It was an easy avoid. I managed to dodge some financial bullets. The way things were going, why shouldn't we have spent our last days together in style? We still had no way out of Ukraine that didn't involve Elena's arrest and deportation, or mutually life threatening illegality. Our only hope rested with a crazy fool -- we hadn't heard from in days -- whose schemes, so far, had been laughably ham-fisted.
Obviously, Elena was as aware of how totally screwed we were, as I was. Although she didn't have the same way of showing it, it's a pretty sure bet, her guts churned as violently as mine. We ordered. Elena pole vaulted from the table with her tiny cell phone. "I must make a telephone call. If the food shows up before I do, please start without me."
The ceiling of the grand ballroom is exquisite. Having lots of self-conscious time to examine it, I marveled at the intricate plaster and painted frescoes. I was counting -- in Russian -- the light bulbs in the chandeliers when Elena returned.
She was shaking and her cheeks were moist. "I spoke to my friend from work, Tanya. She has agreed to speak to my mother. She will try to convince Mama to give to her my passport."
I was blown away. I had a million questions. Mostly, I wanted to know why, if Elena thought there was a snowball's chance in hell that Tanya could pry the passport from Mama's iron grip, she hadn't tried earlier. On the other hand, Elena was emotionally wiped out. She didn't want to talk about it, or anything to do with it, until she heard from Tanya.