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Murmansk, the Kola Peninsula, Russia
Radchenko hunched his shoulders against the bitter Arctic wind and swung down off the Number 8 electrobus onto Ulitsa Kipnovich. His boots crunched on the early October snow that had swept in from the Barents Sea across the taiga and low surrounding hills with their glistening stands of birch. The city's mask of white hid its dark, crumbling heart. Like a whore made up to fool an unsuspecting customer. A whore paid to turn tricks, thought Radchenko.
The dimly lighted street was a canyon of deserted apartment blocks bisected by the shimmering electrobus catenary. Radchenko felt utterly alone and for a moment wondered if he had stepped into a trap. He crossed the street and stood in a block of shadow, waiting for something or someone to move. He lit a cigarette, waited a beat, then set out, keeping to the shadows.
The Novy Polyarnyy Hotel was an ugly pile of yellow brick that Radchenko entered through an unlocked rear service door. He walked past the drunken night porter dozing before an ancient black-and-white TV broadcasting an eerie blue light into the worn lobby. Radchenko shunned the lift, thinking of the noise it would make, and instead took the stairs, their risers and treads creaking under his weight. He reached the second landing, stopped, but heard only muffled voices behind closed doors. Somewhere a toilet flushed.
Radchenko reached the third floor, turned left, and found the room. He took a deep breath, knocked twice. The door shivered open and Radchenko slipped into the room. He quickly inventoried the double bed, the battered greasy dresser and chair, the rusty washstand, the drawn blinds.
"Relax. We're alone."
Radchenko faced the tall American. He had a weathered face and short iron-gray hair. He wore well-cut khakis and a bulky black turtleneck sweater. His Russian was elegant, faultless.
Perhaps he had a beautiful blond wife; didn't all American men have blond wives? What would she think if she knew her husband was with a Russian sailor in a hotel in Murmansk?
"Vodka?" The American opened a fresh bottle of Sinopskaya, a premium brand Radchenko had never heard of. "Smoke?" He pointed to a carton of Marlboros that lay open on the bed.
Radchenko downed the vodka, smoother and sweeter than any vodka he had ever tasted. The American refilled Radchenko's drink, then refilled it again.
"I said relax; no one knows you're here."
"You have money to pay?" Radchenko said. He went to the window, peered through a gap where the blind met the wall. All he could see was a forest of TV antennas and satellite dishes on the roof of the apartment building next door.
The American watched Radchenko pace the room drinking vodka. He stopped to tear open a pack of cigarettes and light one.
"Take the whole carton; I don't smoke."
Radchenko heard that American men and their blond wives didn't smoke. Unhealthy. But they liked alcohol and sex. Usually taken together. He considered the American through the curling smoke from his cigarette.
The American sat down on the bed. He hadn't touched his drink. At length he said, "You had no trouble getting away?"
"The idiots who guard the base don't pay attention. We come and go as we want."
"No one else saw you leave? A shipmate, perhaps?"
"Are you on the fleet duty roster?"
"I have the midwatch: midnight to 0400."
The American rucked a sweater sleeve to uncover a chunky stainless-steel wristwatch. "Then we have plenty of time. Take off your jacket and be comfortable."
Radchenko stopped pacing. He refilled his glass but didn't remove his jacket. He said, around the cigarette stuck in his mouth, "How much will you pay?"
The American swung his legs up on the bed and leaned back against the headboard, glass of vodka balanced on his chest. His feet were shod in a pair of scarred Wellington boots. "What I promised: five hundred. Another five hundred if you do what I want."
A fortune, thought Radchenko. More money than he could ever make as a sailor serving in the Russian Navy, which had seemingly run out of cash to pay its rankers -- its officers too. Desertion and suicide were common, as was talk of mutiny. To make matters worse, Radchenko's commanding officer, an iron-fisted disciplinarian, had also become disillusioned. Radchenko remembered being scared to death by what he had overheard him discussing with other officers in the wardroom of the submarine K-363. And when Norwegian nuclear scientists surveying radioactive waste at the Olenya Bay submarine base brought the tall American and his assistant aboard the submarine to interview the crew, Radchenko, sensing an opportunity to earn some money, made an approach.
Radchenko stripped off his jacket, threw it on the bed. The American responded with a look of expectancy. Radchenko felt the vodka but poured more. The alcohol would make it easier to provide the service the American was eager to pay for. Wind rattled the window glazing. Somewhere a door slammed. Radchenko heard the elevator start up. He chewed a nail. He hadn't ever done this before and wasn't sure how to get started.
The American had five folded hundred-dollar bills in his hand. "For you."
Radchenko felt the tension mounting in his body. He reached for the money even as he realized something was wrong. The American heaved himself off the bed an instant before the door splintered inward off its hinges and two men burst into the room.
A barrage of raindrops exploded against black steel. A filthy morning topside at U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet Headquarters, Norfolk, Virginia, had the watchstanders' chins tucked into their sodden peacoats. Belowdecks, where it was warm and dry, the canned, conditioned air smelled from ozone. Commander Jake Scott waved his executive officer, Commander Manny Rodriguez, into the small stateroom that doubled as his personal quarters and private office aboard the USS Tampa, a Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine.
"What's up, Skipper?" said Rodriguez.
"ComSubLant, that's what's up," Scott said. "The squadron commodore just called. Ellsworth wants to see me."
"You in trouble?"
"No more than usual."
"The commodore give you a hint what the boss wants to see you about?" Rodriguez asked.
"Possible change of orders."
"Hell, Skipper, we already have our orders."
"Change of orders for me."
The Tampa had just completed a refit and was scheduled to depart Norfolk for sea trials and, later, deployment. Scott had been the Tampa's commanding officer for over two years and she was his home. Whatever it was that Ellsworth had in mind for him, the admiral was in for a fight. Especially if it meant giving up command of the Tampa. She was his ship and he didn't want anyone to take her from him. He thought about Tracy. Someone had taken her from him; now this. No, that wasn't true: Tracy had left him. Big difference.
There had been all those intelligence-gathering patrols into hostile waters, all those weeks and months away from her. She had complained that he was more intimate with his sub crew than he was with her. The phone calls had hurt too. Like the one on his first night ashore after a hellish sixty-day patrol off North Korea. He had picked up the phone and heard loud music in the background. A man's voice said, "Trace, it's Rick. Wanna party, wear that red-hot outfit of yours?" "Not tonight," Scott had said icily. Click! At least he hadn't walked in the door and found Rick's face buried between Tracy's legs. Why blame her? She just wanted a normal life, not the one he'd given her. He wondered if she had found her new life satisfying, if the things she liked to do in bed excited the guy she was running with now....He caught himself in time and reeled back from the edge of misery.
Scott stood. "I'm to report to Ellsworth at fifteen hundred."
"What about the party at the O club?" Rodriguez brayed. "You gonna make it?"
"Better stow it for now."
Scott looked at all the untouched paperwork piled on the desk, reports and correspondence awaiting his review and signature. What he really wanted to do was shit-can all of it and get back to sea. He took a dirty work jacket down from a hook on the bulkhead. "Take care of my ship, Manny."
Vice Admiral Carter Ellsworth, commander, Submarines Atlantic, peered through a pair of thick wire-rimmed glasses that magnified his pale blue eyes. The benign look on his face masked a cunning personality. His desk, except for coffee in a fine china cup, had been cleared of papers. Flags, framed photos of the president, the civilian service chiefs, and plaques bearing the names of U.S. submarines were the only items on display in Ellsworth's spartan office.
"Consider yourself detached from the Tampa," Ellsworth said without preamble.
Scott felt he'd been gut-punched.
"You're detached for TDY. Chief of staff has your orders. You can pick them up when you leave, Captain."
"Captain?" Scott said.
"You've been frocked for your new assignment." Ellsworth tossed Scott a plastic bag containing a
pair of silver eagle collar devices. "Meanwhile, see if these fit."
Scott's frocking was a mixed blessing. He'd bragged, had even worn as a badge of honor, that he was probably the oldest commander in the Navy, passed over for promotion to captain once and doomed if he was passed over again. But reassignment meant giving up command of the Tampa and he'd worked too hard rehabilitating himself to do that.
"Karl Radford wants to see you," Ellsworth said. The cup rose to his lips; gold braid on his sleeve sparkled like a bolt of raw electricity.
Scott digested this. Karl Radford, a retired United States Air Force major general, headed the Strategic Reconnaissance Office, a supersecret intelligence agency with intelligence-gathering assets in place world-wide. Scott had a lways suspected that most -- if not all -- of the missions he'd conducted at sea had been ordered by the SRO. Perhaps even the one that had almost ended in disaster. And had been hung around his neck.
Ellsworth looked at Scott. He saw a man in his early forties, tall, with dark hair flecked with gray. He had rough-edged good looks and a bearing that indicated he knew how to handle himself in tough situations. "Any idea why he'd want to talk to you?"
Scott shrugged. "No, sir. Do you?"
Ellsworth ignored this and said, "Wrap up whatever you have pending. Radford wants you in Washington day after tomorrow. Any problem with that?"
"Perhaps he'd consider someone else in my place."
Ellsworth set his jaw. "What are you saying, Scott?"
"That I'd prefer to retain command of the Tampa. Whatever General Radford has in mind for me can't be more important than what I'm doing now."
Ellsworth pushed the coffee aside. His pale blue eyes had turned dark. "Let me tell you something, Scott. You're still hanging by a thread. You've had your second chance and admittedly you've made the most of it. A lot of men who have been in your position are out of the Navy. Some are selling appliances for Sears; others are reading the want ads."
Scott felt pressure building at the base of his skull.
Ellsworth plunged ahead. "Those men didn't deserve a second chance, but you did. I don't intend to give you another."
"Admiral, I fought hard for it and I don't plan to end my career on the beach all used up."
"Apparantly General Radford agrees. He wouldn't ask for one of SubLant's best skippers unless it was damned important. More important than driving subs. He knows your background and all the rest. He wants someone with a brain who knows how to use it. I told him you wouldn't disappoint him."
"Now let me give you some advice, Scott. A lot of people around here think you're a hero and that you got the shitty end of the stick -- that we brass hats needed a scapegoat and you were it. No need to go over old ground, what's done is done. But keep this in mind: I know Radford, and he isn't impressed by heroes. He'll dice you up if he thinks even for a second that you might customize the orders he gives you. This time try sticking to the rules -- his rules, not Jake Scott's. I don't think you'd be very successful selling appliances."
Ellsworth stood. "That about does it. Oh, one more thing. Rodriguez. In your judgment, he's fully qualified for command?"
Scott stood too. "He is."
"I'll be riding the Tampa during her shakedown. See how he handles it. The pressure, I mean."
Scott put a hand to the base of his skull.
Ellsworth saw Scott to the door and shook his hand in a mechanical fashion. "By the way, it was Radford who wrangled your frocking out of BuPers, not me," Ellsworth laid a finger beside his nose. "I gather it wasn't easy."
Scott finished a beer and wrapped up the remains of Chinese takeout in a brown paper sack. He gazed numbly at a muted CNN female talking head with plastic hair and Chiclet teeth yapping about the president's upcoming summit meeting with his Russian counterpart in St. Petersburg, city of the czars. And on Capitol Hill, the Senate majority leader...He punched the power button and she vanished.
Broken noodles, greasy paper bags, and cardboard containers went into a garbage pail. Was garbage picked up on Thursday? Or was that recycling day? He was out of sync with the daily rhythms of life ashore. But his apartment was cheap and close to the base, which was all he cared about. And that his neighbors minded their own business. A Marine Corps colonel two doors away had never spoken a word to him.
Scott started packing a bag for Washington. Radford's summons, like everything about him and the SRO, was a mystery. Black ops and a secret budget to carry them out gave Radford enormous power to influence events around the world. Like the Yellow Sea operation. Scott shuddered inwardly. It had been a nightmare. And even though the board of inquiry had exonerated him, it had not erased the uncertainty about his fitness to command a nuke that lingered in the minds of many of his superior officers. Maybe the summons from Radford would change some minds.
Scott finished packing, then looked around to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. His gaze settled on the door to the spare bedroom, which held boxes filled with the remnants of his former life as a husband. He kept the door closed so he wouldn't be reminded of it. Yet, it was hard not to be, especially when he heard the couple next door arguing, their fights punctuated by exploding crockery. Not like the Scotts, he thought. They had always fought their battles in thundering silence.
The memory of the last time he saw Tracy was burned in his brain. Her lovely wide mouth a tight, angry slash, she had held him in a withering gaze, violet eyes dark with anger. To avoid a scene when Rick arrived in his new Corvette to pick her up, she had aimed her cell phone at him like a gun and screamed, "Get out! Get out or I'll call the police." When Scott returned the next morning, Tracy was gone.
That night Scott dreamed he was looking through a periscope at a North Korean frigate. Her twin stacks vomited smoke as she swung around and charged. Christ, they've spotted us! In a heartbeat the frigate's bow began to fill the periscope's field of view. Fear rippled through his guts. Too late now to run for it: He was committed; the SEALs had to be recovered. He had to fire torpedoes, had to save the men, but his orders went unheeded, shouted down by Tracy yelling, "Get out!...Get out!...Get out!"
Copyright © 2004 by Peter Sasgen
Posted July 5, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted January 6, 2010
No text was provided for this review.