(NUMA Files – 3)
THE DENSE FOG rolled into the harbor late in the afternoon, nudged by a sudden change in wind direction. The damp gray billows washed over the stone quays, swirled up the Odessa Steps and brought an early nightfall to the busy Black Sea port. Passenger ferries and freighters canceled their runs, idling dozens of sailors. As Captain Anatoly Tovrov groped his way through the bone-chilling mists that enveloped the waterfront, he could hear bursts of drunken laughter from the crowded dives and brothels. He walked past the main concentration of bars, turned down an alley and opened an unmarked door. Warm air, heavy with the smell of cigarette smoke and vodka, invaded his nostrils. A portly man sitting at a comer table beckoned the captain over.
Alexei Federoff was in charge of Odessa Customs. When the captain was in port, he and Federoff made it a habit to meet at the secluded watering hole, frequented mostly by retired mariners, where the vodka was cheap and not usually lethal. The bureaucrat satisfied the captain's need for human companionship without friendship. Tovrov had steered a lonely course since his wife and young daughter had been killed years before in one of Russia's senseless outbursts of violence.
Federoff seemed strangely subdued. Normally a boisterous man who could be counted on to accuse the waiter jokingly of overcharging, he ordered a round by silently raising two fingers. Even more surprising, the frugal customs man paid for the drinks. He kept his voice low, nervously tugging at his pointed little black beard, and glanced nervously at other tables where weather-beaten seamen hunched over their glasses. Satisfied that their conversation was private, Federoff raised his drink and they clinked glasses.
'My dear Captain,' Federoff said. 'I regret that I have little time and must get directly to the point. I would like you to take a group of passengers and a small amount of cargo to Constantinople, no questions asked.'
'I knew something was odd when you paid for my drink,' the captain said, with his usual bluntness.
Federoff chuckled. He had always been intrigued by the captain's honesty, even if he couldn't comprehend it. 'Well, Captain, we poor government servants must exist on the pittance they pay us.'
The captain's lips tightened in a thin smile as he eyed the corpulent belly that strained the buttons of Federoff's expensive French-made waistcoat. The customs man often complained about his job. Tovrov would listen politely. He knew the official had powerful connections in Saint Petersburg and that he spent his days soliciting bribes from shipowners to 'smooth the seas' of bureaucracy, as he put it.
'You know my ship,' Tovrov said, with a shrug. 'It is not what you would call a luxury liner.'
'No matter. It will suit our purposes admirably.' The captain paused in thought, wondering why anyone would want to sail on an old coal carrier when more appealing alternatives were available. Federoff mistook the captain's hesitation for the opening round of a bargaining session. Reaching into his breast pocket, he withdrew a thick envelope and placed it on the table. He opened the envelope slightly so the captain could see that it held thousands of rubles.
'You would be well compensated.' Tovrov swallowed hard. With shaking fingers, he dug a cigarette from its pack and lit up. 'I don't understand,' he said.
Federoff noted the captain's bewilderment. 'What do you know about the political state of our country?'
The captain relied on scuttlebutt and out-of-date papers for his news. 'I am a simple sailor,' he replied. 'I rarely set foot on Russian soil.'
'Even so, you are a man of vast practical experience. Please be frank, my friend. I have always valued your opinion.'
Tovrov pondered what he knew about Russia's tribulations and put it in a nautical context. 'If a ship were in the same condition as our country, I would wonder why it is not at the bottom of the sea.'
'I have always admired your candor,' Federoff replied, with a hearty laugh. 'It seems you have a gift for metaphor as well.' He grew serious again. 'Your reply is entirely to the point. Russia is indeed in a perilous state. Our young men are dying in the Great War, the tsar has abdicated, the Bolsheviks are ruthlessly assuming power, the Germans occupy our southern flank and we have called upon other nations to snatch our chestnuts from the fire.'
'I had no idea things were that bad.' 'They are getting worse, if you can believe it. Which brings me back to you and your ship.' Federoff locked his eyes on the captain's. 'We loyal patriots here in Odessa have our backs to the sea. The White Army holds territory, but the Reds are pressing from the north and will soon overwhelm them. The German army's ten-mile military zone will dissolve like sugar in water. By taking on these passengers, you would be doing a great service for Russia.'
The captain considered himself a citizen of the world, but deep down he was no different from the rest of his countrymen, with their deep attachment to the motherland. He knew that the Bolsheviks were arresting and executing the old guard and that many refugees had escaped to the south. He had talked with other captains who whispered tales of taking on important passengers in the dead of night.
Passenger space was no problem. The ship was practically empty. The Odessa Star was the last choice of sailors looking for a berth. She smelled of leaky fuel, rusting metal and low-end cargo. Sailors called it the stench of death and avoided the ship as if it carried the plague. The crew was mostly wharf rats no other ship would hire. Tovrov could move the first mate into his quarters, freeing up the officers' cabins for passengers. He glanced at the thick envelope. The money would make the difference between dying in an old sailors' home or retiring to a comfortable cottage by the sea.
'We sail in three days with the evening tide,' the captain said.
'You are a true patriot,' Federoff said, his eyes glistening with tears. He thrust the envelope across the table. 'This is half. I will pay you the balance when the passengers arrive.'
The captain slid the money into his coat, where it seemed to throw off heat. 'How many passengers will there be?'
Federoff glanced at two sailors who entered the cafe and sat at a table. Lowering his voice, he said, 'About a dozen. There is extra money in the envelope to buy food. Purchase the supplies at different markets to avoid suspicion. I must go now.' He rose from his seat, and, in a voice loud enough for all to hear, said sternly, 'Well, my good Captain, I hope you have a better understanding of our customs, rules and regulations! Good day.'
On the afternoon of departure, Federoff came to the ship to tell the captain the plans were unchanged. The passengers would arrive late in the evening. Only the captain was to be on deck. Shortly before midnight, as Tovrov paced the fog-shrouded deck alone, a vehicle squealed to a halt at the bottom of the gangplank. From the guttural sound of the motor, he guessed it was a truck. The headlights and engine were turned off. Doors opened and closed, and there was the murmur of voices and the scuffle of boots on wet cobblestones.
A tall figure wearing a hooded cloak climbed the gang- way, stepped onto the deck and came over to the captain.
Tovrov felt unseen eyes boring into his. Then a deep male voice spoke from the dark hole under the cowling.
'Where are the passengers' quarters?'
'I'll show you,' Tovrov said.
'No, tell me.'
'Very well. The cabins are on the bridge one deck up. The ladder is over there.'
'Where are your crew?'
'They are all in their bunks.'
'See that they stay there. Wait here.'
The man silently made his way to the ladder and climbed to the officers' cabins on the deck below the