21 - Cut to the Chase
Elena simply couldn't get enough of the complementary shoe polisher on the food-floor of Athena mall's basement. Her Doc Martins were nearly polished out of existence by the time I was snarling, "Alexi, late! What are the odds?"
"Not so odd. Alexi is up to tricks." Elena fixated on the polisher, an industrial bench grinder minus its safety guards. Catch a cuff or shoelace in it. Krikey!
"Let's go. Besides, I think I smell your shoes burning."
He intercepted us on our way out. Typically contrite, blathering on about very important meetings.
"Can you get me a passport or not?" Elena cut to the chase.
"We have not yet dined." He blustered. "How rude! I have very important people waiting to see me. My time is valuable..."
"Alexi, perristany -- stop it!" Elena said. "We know you are a con-man." Stunned silence. She went on, "For you this may be a game, an opportunity to steal some money from silly tourists. But we are not tourists. For us, this is very serious."
"I am not a con-man!"
"We think you are, and a con-man might be what we need."
That got his interest. Maybe he thought we still had money. Reality was, we were so far down queer street that eating beans straight from the tin was our idea of fine dining.
Elena did most of the talking. Alexi squirmed and sputtered under her onslaught. Finally, "I need a passport to get out of Ukraine with Meg. Can you get me one?"
"Meg?" He said, his mouth full of Tater Tots.
"Yeah, Meg." Elena pointed. "This is Meg and I am Elena. We have been using fake names... with you."
"Why me? I am not a criminal! How do you dare..."
"Anyone who can come up with a passport that isn't their own and sell it, certainly sounds like a criminal to me." I interrupted.
Elena told him her own Russian passport or a legal replacement would get her into Turkey for a few months.
"A Russian passport? It will not get you far. I would think a British or American passport would be just the right thing for a lady such as yourself. You could dispense with Turkey altogether. Travel in style." Alexi oozed right back into smarmy mode.
"How much?" Elena demanded. "And, can you get it in three weeks?"
"Of course. Maybe it will cost a little 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, but I am thinking I could arrange an American passport for twenty-thousand dollars."
I snorted coffee out my nose. "Bloody brilliant! The street price for any passport is twenty-thousand bucks!? Russian, American, British, take your pick. On sale now for the crazy, low price of twenty-freaking-thousand dollars!"
Elena put her hand on mine. "Meg, spackoiny... People are looking." Then to Alexi, "Twenty-thousand is too much."
"Your mother stole your passport!? Maybe you need to hire someone to, eh hem, collect it from her?"
"Let's look at something a little less Russian mafia," I broke in. "You are a very important and highly respected businessman, right?"
"Riiiiiight... 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."
Silence. Blank stare. It was like he blue-screened.
Elena prodded gently. "Well, what can you do for us along legal lines?"
He held up one finger. With chest puffed, he raised the finger one last centimeter... then sighed. The skyward pointing finger wilted. Chest deflated. Shoulders sagged. "Alas, I have no business contacts with the Russian consulate or the Ukrainian government."
Watching him crumble twanged at my heart-strings. Elena turned away, picked up her tea and left the table. Alexi kept his face buried in his lunch. I gathered my things, wondering, what now? I felt like I should say something, but what? Sure too bad you aren't really a criminal!
Ascending from the food floor, I looked back at Alexi sitting alone at the table. He was talking on the phone, no doubt his mouth was full.
* * *
My mobile rang at three in the morning. "Where in hell are you?"
I struggled to get my bearings. "Who is this?"
"Bernadette, the woman looking after your half built house. Not to mention the life you abandoned back here."
"Bernie! Whoa, hi! Long time, no see. What's up with you?" I saw the call display -- my own land line. A weird blast-from-the-past. Everything pre-Kyiv felt like someone else's life.
"A man at your bank has been trying to reach you. Looks like there's been a lot of large withdrawals from ATMs in Eastern Europe. They're afraid it isn't you. That maybe you got killed for your credit cards or something."
I swallowed hard. "It's me."
"That's what I told him. You still need to call him. Tell him yourself before they freeze your accounts."
"No problem, I'll call him when it's banking hours back there." I yawned. Such a relief to get a middle of the night, long distance call that's not about somebody dead, dying or burning down the house.
"And you need to get your financial affairs in order! He didn't give me the specifics, but your overdraft, your personal line of credit and your credit cards are maxed out!"
"Bloody hell. I've been afraid to look. Believe me, there's been way more important stuff to deal with." I was counting life in heartbeats instead of dollars by then.
"I have to tell you, I am shocked by this. You, of all people! It's embarrassing." She stopped to let that sink in. "You need to finish this house. You said you'd be back by now, and I'm living in a house full of holes!" That was it. She hung up. I wondered if the phone survived.
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 enormous windows 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, rehearsing the inevitable conversation with my banker. 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."
* * *
We had the grand ballroom to ourselves. It was like blundering onto the set of a costume drama while looking for the snack-bar. The half dozen staff in black and whites had no one to serve but us. They clearly 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?" Nobody had the chutzpah to ask. Although, I'm pretty sure they would have ripped it from the wall and carried it out on a silver platter at my request.
"Meg, do mignons live in rivers or the sea?" Elena really did ask me things like that. "I am thinking fish would be nice."
"You wouldn't like it. It's a filet of cow." The price gave me a hot flash. I suggested the steamed rice or the pasta looked tasty. Was her menu devoid of prices, or was she just blind to them?
"What about es-car-gots?"
"Those are snails." That was an easy financial bullet to dodge. Seeing no way out, short of a run for the border or going into hiding for the rest of our lives, I thought we ought to spend our last days together in style.
We ordered and Elena leaped from the table. "I must make a telephone call. If the food shows up before I do, please start without me."
The definition of awkward has to be: sitting completely alone in a grand dining room with a half dozen serving staff in white gloves hovering about nervously. Elena eventually returned to the table. She was shaking and her cheeks were moist. "I spoke to my friend from work. Tanya, she will speak with mother. Will try to get from Mama, 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. Not until she heard back from Tanya.
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