No one looked twice at the Russian sea captain as he got out of his cab in front of the Cabimas Hotel Internacional, paid the fare, and headed toward the lobby. Nor did any of the smartly uniformed bellmen stationed at the front doors offer to help with his battered leather satchel and matching garment bag. He smiled inwardly. He was used to such treatment, he didn’t have the look of a successful man. And this was a busy town of important oil executives, heavy hitters, big money.
He had the typical broad shoulders and barrel chest of a Great Russian, but his face was surprisingly round, with a delicate nose and soft, almost dreamy eyes under short dark hair that made him look like a poet-soldier. He carried his five-feet-ten like a man long accustomed to being at sea; on the balls of his feet, as if he were constantly working to keep a perfect balance.
The captain entered the deluxe hotel, and crossed the busy lobby to stand in line at the registration desk. He’d never stayed here before, but the woman at GAC-Vensport had booked a suite for him. Nothing but first class for the new captain of the Panamax oil tanker Apurto Devlán. In the morning he would be helicoptered out to his ship, currently loading crude, but this evening he would live in the lap of luxury and enjoy it.
When it was the captain’s turn, one of the clerks, a haughty young man in a crisply tailored blue blazer, motioned him up to the desk. “Do you have reservations?”
“Yes,” the captain said. He smiled faintly. Aboard his crude carrier he would be the undisputed lord and master, but the moment he stepped ashore and interacted with civilians he became a nobody. His wife, Tania, back in St. Petersburg, bought him expensive clothes in Helsinki and Paris, but on him even designer labels looked shabby.
He handed over his Russian passport, which identified him as Grigoriy Ivanovich Slavin.
The clerk handled the passport as if he thought his hands would get dirty. He glanced at the photograph and looked up at Slavin. All of a sudden something apparently dawned on him, because his face fell. He laid the passport down and quickly typed something into his computer. He looked up again, a broad smile plastered across his stricken features. “Captain Slavin, we were not expecting you so early.”
“Well, I’m here,” Slavin said. “Is my room ready, or will I have to wait?”
“Of course not, sir. Your suite is at your immediate disposal.” The clerk laid a registration card on the counter and handed Slavin a pen. “If you will sign in, sir, I’ll have your bags taken up and personally escort you.”
“Not necessary,” Slavin said curtly. He signed the card and laid the pen on the counter. He preferred being a nobody ashore, because he didn’t like being fawned over. Aboard ship he gave orders and his officers and crew followed them. No questions, no bargaining, no diplomacy. It was the discipline he enjoyed.
The clerk handed back his passport, and motioned for a young, handsome bellman, who scurried over from the bell station near the front doors. The clerk passed him a plastic key card. “Take Capitano Slavin’s bags to the Bolívar Suite.”
“It’s not necessary,” Slavin growled.
The clerk was suddenly nervous. “Sir, it’s hotel policy for all VIP guests. GAC-Vensport expects no less from us.” His rigid smile broadened. The company was responsible for all of Venezuela’s oil shipping, which was the major source of the nation’s income. It was big.
Slavin remembered one of the old Russian proverbs his babushka used to use when the family was poor. We’re all related, the same sun dries our rags. He nodded. “Da.”
The clerk gave him a relieved look and he came around from behind the counter as the bellman disappeared with Slavin’s bags. “Just this way, sir,” he said, and he escorted the captain across the soaring atrium lobby to a bank of elevators.
“A helicopter is coming for me at oh-eight-hundred.”
“Yes, sir, we’ll let you know when it’s twenty minutes out,” the clerk said. The hotel provided helicopter service with Maracaibo’s La Chinita Airport eight minutes away, and to the ships loading at fueling platforms out in the lake.
Slavin was impressed despite himself. In the Russian navy such perks were reserved for flag officers, and during his eleven-year career in the merchant marine he’d never had the privilege of such treatment. At 275 meters on the waterline with a beam of nearly forty-four meters, his new command, the Apurto Devlán, was the largest crude carrier that could transit the Panama Canal, and the largest and most important vessel he’d ever been given responsibility for. He’d transited the canal ten times before aboard smaller ships, three times as skipper of container vessels, but being helicoptered out to a ship of his own would be a first. He decided that he would try to loosen up and savor the moment. It was the other thing Tania had tried to change in him; he didn’t know how to relax.
When they reached the top floor, the clerk held the elevator door for Slavin, and then led the way to the suite at the end of the plushly carpeted corridor, where he opened the door. “I believe that you will find these rooms to your liking, Captain.”
Slavin suppressed a grin. “This will do,” he said.
The suite’s sitting room was very large, furnished luxuriously with long leather couches, massive chairs, and dining-table-sized coffee tables facing an electronic media complex that featured a huge plasma television hanging on the richly paneled wall. The opposite side of the room was equipped with a wet bar, a dining area for eight, and a home office corner. Recessed lighting softly illuminated the artwork on the walls and on display tables here and there. A sweeping staircase led upstairs.
The clerk went across the room, touched a button, and heavy drapes that covered the entire rear wall opened, revealing a stunning view of Lake Maracaibo through floor-to-ceiling windows. “At night when an electrical storm crosses the lake, it’s quite spectacular from this vantage point,” he said breezily.
“The master bedroom, his and hers bathrooms and dressing rooms, an exercise area, a balcony, and, of course, a Jacuzzi.”
The bellman arrived with Slavin’s bags. “Shall I unpack for you, sir?” he asked.
“No need, I’m only staying the night. Put them on the bed.”
“Very well, sir,” the bellman said, and he took the bags upstairs.
The clerk crossed the room to the wet bar, where a bottle of Dom Pérignon was cooling in a bucket of ice. He opened the champagne, poured a glass, and brought it to Slavin. “Compliments of the hotel, Captain,” he said.
The wine was sour to Slavin’s taste, but he said nothing. The clerk was watching him closely for a reaction. In the old days, to be caught reacting in the wrong way or doing something that was socially inept was to be nekulturny. He’d never forgotten his lessons in humility at the Frunze Military Academy, where on the first evening in the dining room he’d been taught the proper use of the linen napkin and numerous utensils.
Once a word is out of your mouth, his grandmother used to say, you can’t swallow it again. He’d learned the hard way.
The bellman came downstairs. Slavin set his wineglass aside, and reached for his wallet, but the clerk shook his head. “That will not be necessary, sir. Vensport is taking care of everything.”
“I didn’t know,” Slavin said to cover his mild embarrassment. Tomorrow would not come soon enough.
The clerk handed over the plastic card key. “I hope that you enjoy your brief stay with us, Captain. My name is Mr. Angarita. If there is anything that you need don’t hesitate to call me.”
“Thank you,” Slavin said.
“Our La Terraza restaurant by the pool is first-class. Shall I make reservations for you?”
“I’ll decide later.”
“As you wish, sir.”
When the clerk was gone, Slavin took his champagne back to the wet bar and emptied it into the small sink. He found a bottle of Stolichnaya and a glass, and poured a stiff measure of the Russian vodka. He knocked it back, poured another, and then, jamming the bottle in his coat pocket, headed upstairs while loosening his tie with one hand.
The master bedroom was just as grand as the sitting room, with a huge circular bed facing large floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors that opened to the balcony. It was midafternoon and the late-afternoon sun was low behind the hotel, casting a beautiful gold light across the lake. At this point the west shore was fifty kilometers away, lost in the mist, but the view was spectacular. The two-hundred-kilometer-long lake was studded with oil drilling platforms, waste gas burning in long, wind-driven jets of fire from many of them; broad loading platforms where tankers bound for refineries all over the world loaded Venezuelan sweet light crude; and the ships themselves, outbound for the Golfo de Venezuela and the open Caribbean, or inbound under the five-mile General Rafael Urdaneta high bridge at the neck of the lake to take on their cargoes.
“Yob tvoyu mat,” Slavin swore softly. Fuck your mother. He raised a toast. Tania had computed that he had been at sea for twenty-one and a half of the twenty-four years they’d been married. She never complained, in part because the money was very good. But just lately she’d started to ask him about an early retirement. Not to quit the sea, rather she wanted to travel with him to some of the places he’d told her about, as civilians, as tourists, as lovers.
God help him, he did love it. And maybe he would do what she asked, retire before he turned fifty. But not to give up the sea, just to voyage differently. It was an intriguing thought.
He poured another drink and went into the whorehouse of a bathroom, where he found the Jacuzzi controls and started the jets.
Slavin was slightly drunk. Lying in the Jacuzzi, he’d finished the first bottle of vodka, and then, dripping wet, had padded downstairs to fetch a second bottle from the bar. That had been two hours ago, and that bottle was nearly empty. He was finally beginning to relax after the long air trip from Moscow to Paris with Tania, and from there across the Atlantic to Caracas, and finally the short hop up to Maracaibo.
Air travel was fast, relatively safe, and cheap these days, but no aluminum tube with wings, into which a couple hundred passengers were crammed like sardines for endless hours, could ever replace an oceangoing vessel in which a man had more room than even in his apartment ashore.
It was starting to get dark out on the lake. The waste gas flames, combined with the oil derricks and platform lights, and the lights on the ships, made a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors and patterns that was comforting. Like watching waves coming ashore, or burning logs in a fireplace.
Someone came into the bathroom. Slavin saw the reflection in the window glass and turned.
For a moment he thought it was the idiot clerk again. A man of moderate height, dressed in a dark jacket and open-necked shirt, stood in the doorway, longish blond hair around his ears, with a round face and dark glasses hiding his eyes. The intruder wore latex surgical gloves, and it began to dawn on Slavin that something was very wrong.
“Who are you—?”
The man brought a small-caliber silenced pistol from where he’d concealed it behind his back, raised it, and fired one shot. Something like a hammer struck Slavin in his head, and a billion stars burst inside his brain.
Copyright © 2006 by David Hagberg. All rights reserved.