18 - Chasing Wild Geese
The directions Captain A. Laddin gave us over Tater Tots, put us in front of the Port Authority's building. Nondescript, steel and glass and government-ugly. Maybe they rented space to Alexi's shipping concern.
"You didn't hear him mention an office number by any chance?" I asked Elena.
She hadn't. "He did say he had a very important meeting with the port captain."
Asking around got us blank stares and rude dismissals. The port captain wasn't even there. "Bollocks! We've been sent on a wild goose chase."
Back outside, Elena asked, "What it is, this chasing of geese?"
"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 hey, it's a catchy tune.
"Think about it. He says his name is Alexi Laddin."
More staring. Only this time Elena was focused on something in the distance.
"As in: A. Laddin." I prompted.
"Aye lad-din. So what, Meg?"
"Oh, come on. As in: Aladdin. Ta-da! Get it? Tales of the Arabian Knights and Aladdin's Lamp. This has to be Andre and that old goat cooking up a way to rip us off and..."
"Meg, look. It's Alexi!"
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 disdainfully. In no time whatsoever, he ordered the most expensive German beer I've ever seen. Then snapped his fingers and bellowed 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. I am a businessman. I do business only with people who are serious about doing business." Alexi took an impressive swig of beer. A couple of conspiratorial glances later, he went on. "If you're not serious about doing business you must tell me now. In that way we may part honorably, as..." His English was good, but he choked. It could have been the belch he stifled with the back of a long-nailed hand. "... As... as gentlemen."
"I'm not interested in business. I am interested in getting us out of Ukraine."
"Business is business. You have money? You can pay for my services?" He bent closer. "I will not waste my valuable time helping you with your business if you have no intention of providing payment for my services."
"Okay, I get it already. How much?"
"That all depends on what you need."
"I don't think it could get any clearer." I gestured at Elena. "Her passport was stolen. We need to get out of Ukraine and Holland works fine for us. If you have a ship and can provide safe and discrete passage... then, I have money."
The captain whined, "Holland? Why Holland?"
"At the mall last night, you said you were taking a freighter to Rotterdam." I waited through several swigs, slurps mouthfulls. No response. "Do you or do you not have a ship here in port?"
The waiter came and went. Food showed up. Alexi evaded or ignored my questions.
Elena took over in Russian. "Alexi, are you truly a sea-captain?"
He handed her a worn document while regaling me with tales of his maritime business prowess.
Elena studied it, narrowed her eyes. "Captain, where is Bremerhaven?"
Alexi stopped, glared at her. "How should I know? It is rude to interrupt whilst we discuss important business." He turned back to me.
Elena put the delicate sheet of paper down between us. It was a photocopy of a seaman's certificate. She pointed at salient features -- like its city of issue being Bremerhaven. Dates and numbers were smudged beyond legibility.
He saw us and snatched up the document. "Satisfied? 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? We just need passage out of Ukraine. I thought you had a ship we could travel on."
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 inhalation.
"Bollocks!" I said. "Why are we even talking?"
"Because you need my business expertise." 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 prattled on. "You 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 ran through an endless list of reasons we needed him.
I tuned him out to think it through. I had done some day-sailing on protected, inland waters. With friends on a tiny boat, but what-the-hell, European Union countries had Black Sea shores, just a stone's throw south of Odessa even. 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?"
"No, I don't deal with the stock market and I am not a lawyer. Lawyers come to me for advice."
"But you can get us a boat, or onto one, that will get us out of Ukraine?"
"There is simply no doubt. My services are many. People pay me handsomely." Alexi poked at the remains of his cow-carcass and sea-bug -- steak and lobster -- lunch. "You do realize, of course, that you need to go a lot further than out of Ukraine." He drew circles in the air with crustacean gore impaled on a tiny fork. "You will not take your Russian to the United States on anything but a boat. Stopping anywhere will not be possible."
"To Canada." I corrected.
"As I said, and this 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 where, just out of here, and I assumed you were offering passage on your ship."
"You assumed incorrectly." He pulled the napkin from his collar and 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. I knew he was right. Play by the rules and Elena was lost. The way she looked at me, how she avoided the topic, she knew it too. Break the law and maybe we would 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. Way 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, 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 whined: a 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.
He leaped from the table. "We shall meet tomorrow 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, an idiot, a swindler, a crook he is." Elena encrypted her words by speaking English. There's no telling who was in earshot.
I slapped down the plastic. "As it stands, we're a couple of snowballs and that idiot is the only chance in hell we've got."
* * *
We wandered aimlessly through Sobornaya Square. Sunlight filtered through ancient trees. It dappled the pathways, flower beds, fountains and stonework of the classical garden. Renoir would have loved it.
I glared at my watch. "That idiot set the time and place. How could he possibly screw it up?"
"I can't believe you are still dealing with him."
Alexi blustered onto the square muttering like a Gilbert and Sullivan character. "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!" Alexi was boorishly loud. Chess players glared. "I shall negotiate your purchase of a boat with my esteemed associate. This is a serious matter." He paused. "You have money?"
"A boat? Wouldn't a passport be easier?" My shoulders slumped like my clavicles suddenly dissolved.
"This was your idea." Elena reminded me.
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 looked at us skeptically. He swung monitor around, opened a browser and navigated to a website called Yacht World. 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 searched his face for even the slightest glimmer of comprehension. Nothing. "What we want is to get out of Ukraine. You said you could help us do that, Captain Aladdin."
"Captain?" The clerk raised an eyebrow.
Alexi was undeterred. He insisted the clerk show us some frighteningly neglected sail, power and fishing boats on offer in Odessa.
I got a look at the prices. "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. Flashed him as much body-language contrition as humanly possible. "Sorry about this."
"Whatever..." He shrugged, turned away. Cursed us in Ukrainian, I think.
Maybe Alexi was actually nuts. 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.
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