Jack’s pulse quickened every time he saw the big ships at dockside…like leviathans resting before their next great ocean-going voyages. He watched as the diminishing waves slapped against the barnacle-laden piers, and he welcomed the clean pervasive smell of creosote from the harbor timbers. He moved cautiously among the crane operators and stevedores handling cargo. This was the world where he belonged, where real men made real things happen. Here he found excitement and contentment.
His assigned freighter, the Danish Prince, built before WWI was loading wooden crates with stenciled names like John Deere and Fordson tractors plus bales of cotton and pallets of canned beef and pork products.
With his duffle bag slung over his shoulder, he trudged up the gangplank to the deck where he met the first mate. Both men moved quickly to avoid a crate as it was lowered near them.
“Much of this stuff gets unloaded at Helsinki and Leningrad,” the first mate said while giving Jack’s seamanship certificate a cursory glance. “Okay, Russell Sumner—what do you want to be called? Russell or Sumner?”
“Russ, will be fine.”
“Okay, Russ, you can see we’ve got cargo up to the gunnels, and we’re entertaining twelve round-headed Dutchmen, men and women, who’ll make port at Amsterdam. With them aboard the grub’ll be pretty good. All we ask is that you stay out of their way and don’t cuss or spit when they’re around. Be polite, don’t get too personal, and for Chris’sake, keep your pecker in your pants.” He looked over his shoulder. “After a while, some of those hefty broads might get horny but pay them no mind. They’re headed for whorehouses in Amsterdam, where their work is legal. We catch you fucking one of them, we’ll beach you, and your shipping days’ll be over, at least, on this bucket.”
While the first mate was admonishing Jack about illicit activity, one of the Dutch women strolled towards them. She held a cigarette and interrupted their conversation to ask for a light. Jack reached for his lighter and brought it to the tip of her cigarette dangling between her moist and reddened lips. She reached out, looked into his eyes, and then held his wrist as he lit the cigarette. She released his wrist slowly and dragged her fingers across the back of his hand. “Thank you, you darling man,” she said in a smoky voice.
Jack nodded. His eyes were riveted to the low cut of her blouse and the chasm-like cleavage formed by melon-sized breasts.
When she turned to walk off, both men watched her snug-fitting skirt and her derriere shift from side to side in a well-rehearsed gait. The men said nothing until she was out of hearing range. Tilting his head toward her, the first mate said, “She’s just the kind of broad I was talking about. She can give you a hard-on in five seconds flat and fuck you while standing or give you a hand or blow job.” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that!”
“That won’t happen—not to me.” Jack’s dismissive response irritated the first mate.
“Listen, mister, I’ve heard that song before. Like I said: you get caught screwing around, it’ll be your ass. I ain’t kidding. Gals have sued the freight line claiming they were raped. A fifty-two year old broad said she got pregnant from one of our crew.”
“Did she deliver?” Jack’s tongue-in-cheek question sailed over the first mate’s head.
“How the hell would I know? That’s not important. What is important is that you stay away from them.”
“Fifty-two year old broads are definitely off my list.”
On the second night out Jack drew the third watch, which meant patrolling the deck from 2400 to 0800 hours. His duty included checking cargo, security, fires, leaks and every improbable catastrophic occurrence the first mate could imagine. This cool evening the ship hummed smoothly through the calm dark blue waters at ten to fifteen knots.
Jack turned up the collar on his pea coat and pulled his wool-stocking hat over his ears. Completing his first round at 12:45 a.m., he moved between two crates to lean against the ship’s rail. He pulled out a Pall Mall, lit it and took a deep drag, then exhaled slowly. One foot rested on a parallel bar below the rail. The serenity of the ocean and the sky, magical in dimension, had to inspire poets, composers and dreamers. He studied the firmament with its myriad glittering stars and constellations. This was the beauty, the enchantment of ocean sailing, where only the whooshing sounds of the waves striking the hull and the muffled hum of the ship’s engines could be heard. Beyond the stern a long wake of white water seemed to stretch for miles.
He inhaled the salt air with its indefinable smell. This evening it had a distinctive perfumed fragrance. Strange that he had never been aware of it before, and it seemed to be getting stronger. As he leaned forward to look toward the bow, he felt a feathery sensation ascending his inner thigh. He looked down then whirled around. The Dutch gal, the one who asked him to light her cigarette earlier, stood in a nubby bathrobe and smiled. She put her finger to her lips. “Sh-sh.” The moon provided enough light for Jack to see her robe parting to reveal her nudity—enormous breasts, wide hips and a dark pubic shield.
This broad is looking to get laid right here, but I’m not about to get thrown off this bucket just for a quickie.
She put her arms around his neck and pressed her body against his. “Would you like a little Dutch treat, you handsome devil?”
Jack pulled her arms off his neck then turned away and began walking aft. “Come back, love!” She pleaded. He kept on walking, and she shouted at his retreating back: “Coward! Bet you can’t satisfy a real woman!”
At a safe distance, Jack turned to see a large man, probably the pimp who would be managing her in Amsterdam pulling the reluctant woman toward the passenger compartments. A torrent of Dutch and English invectives ensued. Jack understood some of the words and phrases: “whore…prostitute…fairy-man…sissy.” The shouting continued after they reached their cabin, and several other cabin lights went on.
The following morning the first mate approached Jack. “Anything unusual to report, Russ?”
“No, nothing—nothing at all.”
Jasper, an agile bewhiskered older sailor with a mischievous glint, sidled up to Jack and with ill-fitting dentures that clacked when he spoke, said, “I’ve got a stash of Johnny Walker Black Label, a crate I snatched from inventory at Glasgow.” His nose and cheeks revealed the chronic tippler’s pinkish glow with spider web-like vessels and a breath that exuded recently ingested Scotch.
“After we unload in Leningrad, we’ll have ourselves a little party.” Jasper looked around and leaned closer. “There’s a tavern where we can get some pretty good vittles, listen to some Russkies plunkin’ balalaikas; afterwards we can shack up with a couple broads.” He elbowed Jack’s ribs. “That way, you’ll really get to know the people inside and out. Get my meaning?” He laughed and slapped Jack on the back.
Doubtful about participating in this kind of cultural exchange, Jack submitted that he would probably be too tired at the end of the day, and besides, the ship would be sailing at daybreak, and he didn’t want to miss it.
Jasper leaned backward with dramatic disapproval then came forward to stare into Jack’s eyes. “Listen, mate, you need to get off this tub long enough to stretch your legs and give your cock a workout. If you don’t, that bugger can wither away and fall off like a dried-up banana, and those balls’ll shrink to pea-size and maybe turn green.” He nodded and laughed again. “You don’t want that to happen, no sir. Heh, heh.” His dentures clacked and the lower plate slipped slightly forward.
Jack opened one eye slowly to meet the painful daylight. Scrunching up his face and smacking his tongue against a dry palate, he tasted the offensive remains of Scotch and Vodka and whatever mish-mash he had eaten the night before. He lay fully clothed on a narrow, sagging bed with a blanket-thin mattress that offered no relief to an aching back. Groaning, he sat at the edge of the bed to cradle his throbbing head. Slowly he attempted to stand but suffered momentary vertigo and leaned against the wall until his equilibrium returned. He surveyed the room and was repulsed by the worn and slovenly furnishings: an ancient dresser with stains from liquor bottles, drinking glasses and cigarette burns, a cane-backed chair with holes and a floor lamp with a soiled and tilted shade.
Reaching into his back pocket for his wallet and passport, he panicked—they were gone. He patted his front pockets repeatedly; they weren’t there either. He pulled the dirty mattress off and looked under the bed. Yanking open the dresser drawers and feeling around; he found nothing—not a goddamned thing.
Banging his fist on top of the dresser, he cursed. What in the hell am I doing in this God-forsaken place? I don’t speak the language, I don’t have any ID, and I don’t have money. Shit! I never should have listened to that crazy Jasper. He looked at his wristwatch. Whoever had taken his wallet and passport didn’t think his dollar Ingersoll was worth snatching. 10:05. Goddamnit! My ship left four hours ago. Pushing aside a bed sheet used as a curtain, he saw rows of apartment buildings across the street from his second floor window. The neighborhood was old with small shops below and rentals above.
Slowly he opened the room door, and then stepped into a long dimly lit hallway with a shaft of light at the far end. He walked softly until he reached the down stairwell. Outside, he looked in both directions and wondered where he was and how he got to this place. In a foggy recollection of events from the night before, he remembered drinking a boatload of Vodka and Scotch with Jasper and being approached by two broads with overloaded make-up who cozied up to him. Images of plunking balalaikas, guys doing a kazachki in pantaloons, boots and Cossack hats came to him.
A streetcar rumbled by; he watched it turn at the next block onto a busy street and decided to walk there. The name on the corner of a commercial building read, Nevskiy Prospekt. He could not even ask questions of any passersby. His total Russian vocabulary consisted of “Da” and “Nyet.” The dour people walked by and ignored him while his stomach growled and his need for a cup of coffee and a cigarette grew intense. But first, he had to find a maritime office or the U.S. Embassy, if either one existed there.
A display in a department store window revealed clothing of uninspired styling hanging on faceless mannequins. In the reflection of one window, he watched as a black sedan seemed to slow and keep pace with his walking. A premonition gripped him as he turned to look at the vehicle. When it moved forward, he walked with less anxiety until it stopped curbside some fifty yards in front of him. He slowed his pace and watched anxiously as two burly men in black suits jumped out; their fedoras pulled down and their gait quickened as they ran to press in on him. The one on the right grumbled in Russian as Jack was shoved into the open rear door of a 1929 black Hudson sedan.
“Hey! What the hell’s going on here?” Jack resisted but was muscled into the backseat.
The driver looked over his shoulder at Jack crowded between the two black suits. The one on his right answered the driver who asked, “Americansky?”
“Where are you taking me?”
Both men turned to look at him but said nothing, then looked away. None of them said a word in English. The captor to his right reached up and pulled down the side window shade; the one to his left did the same.
Why are they drawing the shades? To beat me? I’d jump out, but I don’t know that I could take on these gorillas. Who the hell are these guys? Secret police? Resigned to his abduction, he pushed back into the seat and spread his thighs slightly to look down at the gray mohair upholstery. He was sitting on an irregular ring of discoloration. Was this someone’s dried piss or vomit or a bloodstain? And that smell? Jesus, was it them or me? I haven’t washed in two days or changed my clothes or brushed my teeth, and I know my breath is foul.
The Hudson picked up speed, which meant they were beyond heavy traffic. Jack made another attempt at communication. “Guys, where are we going?” Looking to his right, he got no response from the Slavic-faced captor. Turning to his left he saw the face of a Mongolian-mix whose sneer could only mean trouble.
Darkness enveloped the car as it dipped and stopped in some kind of enclosure. His eyes had not yet adjusted to the darkness when the black suit to his right opened the door and motioned Jack to follow while the other pushed him from behind. Since he was not shackled, blindfolded or looking down the barrel of a semi-automatic, he felt a small measure of reassurance. What the hell’s going to happen now? People disappear without a trace in Stalin’s country. I have no ID, no passport, no money, nothing to tie me to a known entity. If some sonofabitch wants me dead, what was there to stop him? Maybe I could talk to someone who speaks English? How about high school Latin? Latin? Fat chance.
Jack and his two captors left the car with its driver and walked about thirty feet toward a double door. One of the captors opened the door that revealed a stunning broad crimson-carpeted stairwell with polished brass handrails and ornamental wall sconces. One of the men pointed to the second floor as they passed the first. Down an expansive corridor with doors on either side, the trio walked to the end of a long hall to a closed door with gold letters in Cyrillic. A guard in front of the door gave a rifle salute as the trio approached.
The captor to the right said a few words in Russian to the guard who opened the door. Jack and the men on either side moved in and stopped before a man in a military uniform seated at an ornate desk of some King Louis design with ormolu embellishments. The black suits made some cursory comments after being questioned by the official who then dismissed them. The official pointed to a chair on the other side of his desk for Jack.
Sitting uneasily, Jack looked around the spacious office with its elegant furnishings from early French or Italian periods. Vases, urns and figurines of old Sevres, Dresden and Capo di Monte added touches of bourgeoisie privilege. The Persian rug covering most of the parquet flooring showed wear in the foot paths while the faded red velvet drapes hung on either side of the tall arched windows. Cracks and chipping marred the gilt appliqués of the furnishings and picture frames. An enormous chandelier hanging from the mid-ceiling dripped with tiers of crystals in progressively smaller circles.
The man behind the desk rested his chin on tented fingers as he studied Jack. In his mid to late forties, the man wore a brown military tunic buttoned to the neck; his dark thick hair was trimmed in the brush manner of the Supreme Secretary, Josef Stalin, whose picture hung on the wall behind him.
In a heavily accented voice sounding like a pronouncement from the mountaintop, he said in easily understood English, “You are thinking all this luxury does not belong in a proletariat state?”
Surprised by the official, who seemed amazingly perceptive, Jack had a feeling of guarded relief but said nothing.
“This building, young comrade was built 130 years ago as the Smolnyy Institute for young noblewomen whose families lavished many rubles on them. Their parents hoped to have their daughters trained for positions of importance in the Tsarina’s court. You noticed those converted horse stables downstairs. Young women were trained to ride horses to accompany the Tsarina and her royal children. Unfortunately for them there is no longer a need for them to be trained.”
Remaining diffident, Jack listened without comment.
The secretary continued, “Do you think those indulgent parents ever dreamed that one day a fiery little man by the name of Lenin would be sitting in this very chair and directing the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917? The same revolution that did away with their precious Tsar, his Tsarina and all their well-fed offspring?” With that he gave a deep-throated laugh, pushed back his chair then stood. “Comrade, my name is Sergei Kirov. I am the secretary of the Leningrad Communist Party.”
Jack stood and offered his hand tentatively, not quite sure of protocol; he stammered, “My-my name is Russell Sum…”
“Sumner,” Kirov finished the statement. “I know, young man, I know. You’re a sailor from a Dutch cargo vessel.” He pointed to the chair. “Now, sit down again. We shall talk, and I will advise you of a thing or two.”
Jack, astonished by the man’s apparent clairvoyance, sat down slowly. Kirov continued, “Ordinarily, my security agents handle these cases, but I was curious to see, first hand, what a spy looks like from the great western power. Recently, your government has sent men as well as women as undercover agents to spy upon us, not here but to Moscow. Your congressional members do not favor our Bolshevik regime. They wanted the White Russians to succeed. That would have been better for them but unfortunate for us. One day, we will be a mighty force, and we will challenge your government for world domination.”
Jack assaulted by Kirov’s polemics had his own thoughts. If this guy thinks I’m a spy, I’m as good as dead. How in the hell did he know my name? Are they going to feed me before they put me in chains and lead me to a dungeon with rats to bite my ass while I’m sitting on a slop can? I’d better start talking fast before this guy calls the black suits back to drive me to some medieval castle or tie me up and throw me in the Neva River.
Waiting for a break in Kirov’s lecture, Jack hurried to say, “Sir, surely you can’t believe I’m a spy. I don’t speak or understand a word of Russian. I was at a tavern last night…”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Kirov interrupted. “You foolishly allowed a prostitute to take you to an apartment where she stripped you of your wallet and your dignity.” The secretary opened the top drawer of his desk, removed a wallet and passport and slid them across the desk. “Those women are our first level intelligence agents. They did not think you were worthy of better accommodations. I apologize for their bad manners.” He laughed again.
“Russell Sumner, or whatever your name is, I know you are not a spy. You are too young and too naïve. Your seaman’s certificate says you are forty-five years of age, so obviously this was not issued to you. It is counterfeit or belongs to someone else. This name, Russell Sumner, does not come up in our files of suspicious persons.”
Jack smiled tentatively and asked, “Sir, does this mean I’m free to go?”
Kirov leaned back in his chair, his fingers intertwined across his abdomen. “Yes and no.”
Jack felt his heart pounding. This has an ominous sound.
“The next American vessel is not due to dock here for seventeen days. Tell me, where will you go, where will you eat and where will you sleep? We do not tolerate homeless people or street walkers.” Before Jack could answer, the secretary said, “Let me offer the hospitality of the government of the USSR. We will send you to our lock-up. You can get meals and a cot for sleep until you ship out. When you get back to your country, you can tell everyone you were the guest of a hospitable Communist leader.”
Feeling unsettled and queasy, sweat appeared on his brow.
Kirov noticed his discomfort. “What do you fear, comrade?”
Jack hesitated momentarily. “Truth is sir, I’m afraid that once I get locked up, I might never get out.”
“Why do you say that?” Kirov asked.
“I read an English interpretation of a Pravda report that said you and Secretary General Stalin may not be on friendly terms. Suppose something should happen and Mr. Stalin no longer honors your agreement about letting me out…”
Kirov laughed aloud. “Don’t worry, Mr. Russell Sumner, or whatever your name is, nothing is going to happen to me, and your safety is assured. The Secretary General and I occasionally have differences of opinion, but we respect those differences like gentlemen. We don’t kill each other. Besides, Stalin regards me as his son. “
Kirov pushed a toggle switch on a black box on his desk and barked an order in Russian. An armed escort appeared to accompany Jack to the lock-up. Feeling a mix of relief and apprehension, Jack started to leave the secretary’s office, then he stopped and turned around. “Sir, forgive my boldness, and I mean no disrespect, but if yours is a benevolent country, why do our newspapers report that thousands of anti-Bolsheviks were rounded-up and gunned down?” As soon as he said that, Jack thought that had to be the most stupid thing he could have asked. Maybe now they’ll just take me to the firing squad.
Kirov, amused by Jack’s impertinence, weighed his words before answering. “Comrade, do not believe what you read in your capitalist newspapers. Telling lies to the uninformed serves your government better than telling the truth. One day, you’ll understand that better than you do now.”