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By Richard McKie
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Lansing Michigan was a fine place to grow up, she guessed. It was nice, and safe.
Her dad worked in the Michigan State Government and her mum stayed home. They weren’t rich but they were comfortable. Their new house was big, the nicest they had lived in and it was in a really good area.
She had never been overseas, unless you count nearby Canada, and that was mainly on trips to Niagara Falls, usually when one of Mum’s sisters came to stay. When they passed through Sarnia, into Canada, Dad would always say "Yea! Overseas again!". It was about his only joke.
Sometimes they went through Detroit. But after what had happened there the last time she shut that out of her consciousness. No wonder she is timid and takes fright easily. Now if a friend even seemed to be driving in that direction she would go into the foetal position and shut-down.
She had been popular at high school; a cheerleader and one of the cool kids. She wasn’t a brainiac but she did OK and went on to Media School in Chicago. It was when she was away at school that her Mum and Dad and her Aunt Betty took the Detroit route to Niagara for the last time.
Somehow they got off Interstate 75, near Ford Field, and got lost in the ghetto. The car was found with a flat tyre, half stripped, windows and lights smashed. Then the Cops got a lead to some burnt out project houses nearby.
The Cops said that her Dad, playing the big man, had unsuccessfully tried to fight them off to protect the two women. Why did the sisters always try to outdo each other with all that gold jewellery?
She had to identify the bodies. What those crack addicts had done to Mum's body… she blanked out.
Then it turned out that the family had been ‘doing it tough’ since the financial crisis and the new house, bought at the top of the market, was ‘under water’, with more debt than equity. Dad had even borrowed against his pension to buy it. So she left the keys in the mailbox and walked away.
After that she got a job in a regional newspaper as an intern. She found it so hard to live on the starting salary they offered, that a friend suggested she get work at Bree's Bar in Chicago.
She moved in with Natasha in a top floor apartment and they shared the rent. Her before tax pay was almost non-existent, $2.60 an hour, the minimum wage for bar work. But she was a good looking girl and the tips, even if it meant the occasional pinch or pat, allowed her to make ends meet, at last. Natasha laughed at her, saying she was so young and naive for someone in their mid twenties.
Natasha made a lot more in tips. But she couldn’t bear let them touch her the same way they touched Natasha. Natasha actually seemed to enjoy the attention, flirting all the more with big tippers.
But she was sure that her life would get better after reading The Secret By Rhonda Byrne. It was on sale in a bookshop she passed on the way to work and there was a video and Oprah promoted it on TV, so in must be true.
For example, if you get an envelope and expect to see a bill when you open it, then the law of attraction will confirm those thoughts. It will contain a bill. But if you decide to expect a cheque then the law of attraction will confirm those thoughts and you will find a cheque. Not a bill. That's how Oprah's become rich and famous.
She focussed all her positive thoughts, visualising going overseas to Europe. And the ‘law of attraction’ worked. Natasha offered to take her on a trip as company.
Of course visualising somewhere new is one thing, the reality was terrifying, home was scary enough but those foreigners were notorious. She had seen a lot of movies in which Americans were robbed and abducted and there was a documentary on a very reliable, church run, cable channel that said that very few were practising Christians any more, not even in Italy. That’s why Italian men have no respect for women.
She had always had her heart set on Paris. She had a poster of the Eiffel Tower that she had brought from home. Many nights she had fallen asleep visualising that someday she would get there and go right to the top.
But Natasha wanted to go to Russia where her grandparents had come from fleeing the Bolsheviks to the Land of the Free.
She pleaded with Natasha and wept until, at last, Natasha agreed that they could return from Moscow via Paris. This would add the extra cost of flying back to Moscow, after taking the boat trip along the Volga canal to St Petersburg, as well as the cost of a cheap hotel in Paris. So she must pay for these, for both herself and Natasha, as Natasha was paying for all the rest.
So she put up with some more disgusting manhandling.
Going to Russia was even more terrifying than somewhere like Italy, with the Mafia. All her life the Russians have been our enemy and now they have a Mafia too.
She had worked on the paper and knew that the US has the highest standard of living in the world and is at the forefront of technology. She was very reluctant to believe it when Natasha claimed that US Astronauts now fly into space in Russian rockets and that the US no longer has this capability.
Natasha kept up a steady stream of encouraging propaganda about Russia. There are grand palaces with marble, crystal and gold; with magnificent floors, works of art on the ceilings and silk wall coverings. Famous art galleries and museums line the shore in St Petersburg, regarded by many as the finest city in Europe. And the Kremlin is not a jail or place of torture but is full of churches and office buildings. Tourists are able to walk in and walk right out again and even take photos.
"And we will be on a tour where they look after us 24/7", she had said. "Most of it on a big river boat that is more like a cruise liner and will be our floating hotel in both Moscow and St Petersburg. They even pick us up at the airport and drop us back at the end."
Still she was terrified. "What if we are kidnapped by the Russian Mafia" she kept repeating. Natasha was dismissive, "Well they won’t get any money out of my family, or yours", Natasha finally said. Then she said, "But what if they want to use us as prostitutes?" Natasha laughed. "I wonder what the pay is like?" she joked.
But little by little she started to come around. And there was always Paris.
One day Natasha was very excited. "Guess what" she said "There is an optional visit to the famous Moscow Circus and I have booked us both on it." She had never been to a Circus and was so delighted she could not sit down. They whirled around their old, threadbare apartment, accidentally knocking over the rickety chair by the window.
She had been on a plane several times before. Once to New York and another to LA to visit Disneyland with Mum and Dad. But she still found them very scary and that safety drill at the beginning puts you on edge, even before the whole thing begins rumbling and everything is vibrating. And it goes faster and faster and you expect it to crash.
Natasha got her some drugs to calm her down and thankfully she doesn’t remember a lot about the flight, or was it flights. But Moscow airport was really scary. A few signs were in English but you can’t read most of the writing there and they speak Russian.
Of course she knew they must speak Russian but it’s like knowing that Christmas in Australia is in mid-summer. "I still had to ask that Australian, who came into Bree's if it was really true", she remembered.
Then the guy who was supposed to pick them up wasn’t there. There were a lot of people with name cards but none with Natasha’s. It quickly got worse. Men, who said they had cabs closed in on them and started insisting, in broken English, that they would take them somewhere for hundreds of dollars. But to where? They didn’t know where the ship was and it had some Russian name, written in Russian. Even when they showed the cab men the company brochure they didn’t seem to have any idea. That didn’t stop them trying to pick up the bags and carry them off.
It was a nightmare. She wanted to lie down right there and curl up. But instead she shrieked at them to just go away. At that point all she wanted was to get right back on the plane and go home.
Then a man appeared beside the flower shop with their name on his card. He could hardly speak English but seemed to be claiming that he had been there all the time. He hadn’t.
Anyway he drove them to the ship.
They had a nice cabin and their tour guide spoke a sort of English and there were other Americans on board. Thank God! At dinner they were served some strange soup. But she accepted that, ‘when in Russia…’
The following day was almost as frightening. They got on a bus and were driven around Moscow. At different times they got off and Russians surrounded them. One time was at a building that houses the KGB. She was convinced that all the older men were KGB or Mafia and it seemed, from the way they dressed, that most of the girls were hookers, probably attracted by the tourist buses. The younger men were obviously their pimps, else why would such good looking girls be going out with such ugly men?
Thankfully these stops were limited. They included Red Square and a church or two, but it was alarming when the bus got delayed in the traffic.
It was very obvious that the whole place is corrupt, and mafia run, the moment you looked at the cars. They were, almost all, new expensive foreign autos like Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Lexus, as well as similar late model cars with brands she had never seen before. The few US brands were all up-market like Hummers and big Fords.
When she explained this to an Australian on the bus he looked at her in that strange way, like the one she had asked about Christmas. He spoke like Crocodile Dundee and was completely oblivious to danger. Apparently he had been there for some days, walking about in the streets and even catching the underground, that they call the Metro, like in Toronto and Paris. He didn’t even notice them following him, or seem to care. Maybe he has a big knife?
How she longed for this nightmare to end and to get to Paris.
That evening they got in a mini-bus and were taken to the Circus. There were no tents. The Circus took place in a huge building like a flying saucer with a serrated edge. The guide took them to their seats, otherwise they would have had no chance, because the doors were lettered in Russian, with its back-to-front letters, in no discernable order. The guide said it seated nearly four thousand and the ring could be replaced with another from underneath like a huge CD changer. From the ring to the top of the dome was nearly 40 metres, much larger than any circus tent.
She wanted to see the trapeze artists but the guide said that the trapezes are setup during the interval. But it was worth waiting for as they had up to eight in the air at a time four of them ‘flying’ and there were pole dancers on poles suspended 10 metres above the crowd. She had to translate this into feet. She couldn’t imagine a metre.
Their group had a block of seats well back from the ring and she and Natasha asked to change seats so that she could sit in the middle, away from those Russians bustling about speaking their horrible language. Their children must have been drugged or beaten down by this oppressive society, they were so polite and well behaved, like little adults.
She looked around as the auditorium filled. As far as she could tell there were no other Americans anywhere. She looked for groups because, seen from a distance, Russians look a lot like Caucasian Americans; and dress much the same. When they went to Red Square she had noticed that they even carry the same phones and cameras, probably bought on the black market, after being smuggled in, or stolen from tourists. At first she assumed that everyone there was from France or Germany until she heard them speaking Russian.
Natasha has more than once pointed out that she is ethnically one hundred per cent Russian too. But that’s different. She is American by birth and she speaks American.
She had to admit the first half was very entertaining. She was even lulled into forgetting that training animals is inhumane. A dozen animal acts interspersed with jugglers and acrobats and unusual clowns. In addition to dogs and chimps and horses, there were even trained hippos and goats. The guide claimed the animals were constantly rewarded and there was no punishment. Supposedly, the animals actually wanted to perform. But who knows what Russians do when no one is looking.
There was ice cream on sale in the foyer and they had been encouraged to buy some. Another scheme to extract money from tourists she decided. She settled for the bottle of water she had brought from the boat. That was free. By interval she was crossing her legs and no one else in the group was in a hurry to move. She was getting more and more desperate.
She almost squealed to the guide that she was desperate but the stupid woman didn’t understand her hints, until she boldly said that she needed a toilet. Then the guide jumped up and said with great concern. "There are toilets outside each entrance just go down, go down, you understand?"
She dashed to the entrance nearby and down the stairs. Into the foyer that circles the building. It was crowded with Russians eating ice cream.
You know how hard it is to hold on, when you think you are about to get to a toilet at last. But there was a huge line of Russian women and girls and little boys outside the nearest toilet. She considered jumping the line but she couldn’t think how to explain. And if they discovered she was American, who knows what they might do. Better to keep quiet, even if she was going to ‘disgrace’ herself.
But there was another bathroom around the circular foyer and the line was shorter. They were going in about every 30 seconds. A calculation… she couldn’t last that long. Keep going. Oh no! The line was even longer. Keep going. At last, one with no line. Her pants were already damp. She was through the door and saw an empty stall. She couldn’t hold another second.
And then… "Oh my God!" There were urinals, she had never seen them, even in Bree's Bar where she worked at home. But that is what they were. Russian urinals!
Back home at Bree’s some women customers would go into the men’s when there was a line outside the women’s - as there always was when the Bar was busy. She had always wondered how they had the nerve. Lesbians probably. The only other women who went in there were the cleaners and they were black or Hispanic, and used to it, or the cheap hookers who took tricks in there - if the management didn’t catch them and throw them out.
But she was committed. She made a dash behind a man urinating and into the stall, slamming the door, with hardly time to fumble with the lock, before throwing herself onto the seat. Relief!
But now she began to take stock. She was locked in a booth in a men’s toilet at the Circus in Moscow, Russia. It was around 9 o’clock at night and she wasn’t sure exactly where it was or how she could get back to her group. Worse, she didn’t think this seat was very clean and men kept coming and going to the urinals and to the other booths. She was trapped.
Then suddenly it went quiet. The interval must be over. Cautiously she stood up and cleaned herself up as best she could with toilet paper. It was going to be alright. She would use the liquid soap at the basins and more toilet paper to clean where she had touched the seat and get out.
She would wait outside, where the bus was, until the show was over. But where was that? Anyway Natasha and the guide would be looking for her by then. Calm down! Calm Down. Calm Down.
Ok, time to go. But just as she is about to unlock the door she hears men’s voices speaking Russian. They start banging along the booth doors.
One door further down is closed, like hers, they must be looking under that door, "Nyet!"
Oh my God! They are checking to see if there is anyone who can overhear them. As quietly as she can she slips off her shoes and steps up onto the seat. ‘Bang’ on her door. Then sure enough a nose appears under the door. She holds her breath and prays, don’t look up, please don’t look up! Then she remembers The Secret and visualises him going to the next booth with all her might. It works!
Now they have started quietly talking in Russian about what ever it is they want to keep secret: smuggling or drugs or murder or kidnapping or running girls. Then a phone chirps and one says, quite loudly: "Da!" Then in accented English: "young girls, I love them." Then, with a laugh, something that sounds obscene to his companion, in Russian. Everything they say sounds obscene. Then in English, in his sinister Russian accent: "So what will we do?" He must be still be talking into his phone. "Yeah, Dimitri will know, he takes care of the girls. He runs a production line. Ha-ha!"
Girls! Production line? They're running prostitution! And Dimitri's the boss. She almost slipped off the seat. They each said a few more words in Russian, laughing crudely, and banging the door as they went out. Now she's overheard far too much. They don't know she doesn't understand Russian. But one thing's for sure, if they realise she was in here, they'll never let her escape. They'll murder her or she'll join the 'production line'.
OK, she has to get as far away as possible. There is no way she can wait at the bus now. She just has to get out of here. Still with her shoes in her hand she quietly steps down, straight into some pee, but she no longer cares. She is going to have to be brave. They mustn’t see her. She unlocks the booth door then tiptoes to the main door, shoes in hand.
Peeking out she can see some men in uniform dawdling in the foyer above. Russian police or KGB it makes no difference, with all the corruption they're probably in league with Dimitri. She creeps up the stairs. Now! Make a dash for the entrance doors. Locked! Go around! Just in time an unlocked exit! One of them has seen her! He's calling out in Russian. She runs!
Her stockings are ruined but she is faster carrying her shoes with their high heels. Someone is following. More than one! She comes to a highway. There are traffic lights and a crosswalk, pedestrian crossing, or whatever they are in Russian. The road is wide like those at home. She can go with the little green man. She flees to the centre. They are still following but the lights have changed against them. Run again! It's a big cross intersection of two divided highways. The traffic is lighter the other way. She can run between the cars, against the red. Breaks squeal. She dodges. She's like a gazelle. There are steps down. She's in a метро station.
There are ticket barriers, waist high. No ticket! She vaults over them. Russian commuters in the station look at her quizzically, like she is from Mars or something. Escalators down. She keeps running down, down. There's a train. She leaps onto it and collapses onto the seat that someone instantly gives up for the strange girl. Panting, she puts her shoes back on. But now what?
After a few stops she gets her breath and her wits back and decides she can probably get back to the boat. The Australian had said he had used the subway, the metro, to go into the centre and had even mentioned it was easy getting back because the port was at the end of the line.
So all she needs to do is find out which direction she is going in. There must be a 50/50 chance she is already going the right way. And if not she just has to get off and catch a train in the other direction.
There is a map thing that shows where the train is are along the line. But it's all in Russian writing and what were all the descriptions at some stations? Surely there are not that many interchanges? The Moscow метро couldn’t be that big. Everyone knows the New York subway is the biggest in the world.
How can she solve this? Then she remembers The Secret. She focuses all her positive thoughts on her goal, using the ‘law of attraction’. She visualises getting back to the ship and getting her passport and tickets and her US dollars before Dimitri and his friends can find her. She'll leave a note for Natasha telling her that she is in danger. She will get to the airport somehow and get on a plane to Paris.
Maybe the nice concierge person on the boat would help if she made up a story. She could tell her that her parents had been in a terrible car accident. She could certainly tell that one convincingly.
The Secret - she focused. Then it happened! An Australian voice. There were four of them, sixtyish. Thank God! A flood of gratitude surged through her body. But she stood too quickly and instantly fell into the arms of one of the women in a swoon. The startled woman held her, then lowered her back into a seat. The Russians parted to give them room and now all the Australians fussed around her, asking if she was OK.
She told them she had been terrified. Strange men had chased her all the way to the Metro. No she hadn’t done anything to make them. Her only explanation was that she had overheard a secret conversation in a toilet that she shouldn’t have. No, she couldn’t understand Russian, so she wasn't sure why their conversation needed to be secretly held in the men's toilet, but it was something about running girls for prostitution. When they realised she had overheard them, they chased her all the way to the Metro. “Oh my God!” She was shaking uncontrollably.
The Australians said they would cancel their plans for dinner and take her to her boat. Their boat was at the Northern River Port, the same place as hers. They put a coat around her and started worrying about shock and getting her a hot chocolate. They gave her a sip of water and the women sat on either side of her and one put an arm around her. She had a little cry.
Fortunately they knew their way around, they had a метро map in English and seemed quite sure about where to change trains. This happened several times at huge stations, some of which were like palaces, with works of art and chandeliers. When she was feeling better they explained that this was one of the biggest metros in the world. They seemed to have been on many of them, including New York, London and Paris. So she asked them about Paris and soon felt a lot better. She started to enjoy their company. It was the best she had felt in months. All that worry before leaving and then the horrible and scary things that had happened since had drained her. Now in their company she felt safe and comfortable. They were so confident. She couldn’t have found her own way to the ship through this maze of tunnels and escalators and different lines. They chatted about their travels.
Soon they were there, at the last station on quite a different line.
The Australians were still concerned about her condition and insisted on going to a McCafé to buy her a hot chocolate milk, молоко, because it was a 20 minute walk to the ship. Who would have thought that McDonalds were in Russia?
It was just what she needed. Everything was going to be alright.
"Oh, my God" No it wasn’t. Through the window. Over there was one of the men who had chased her from the Circus.
He was across the road talking on his phone probably talking to the KGB or Mafia. He must be Dimitri. She turned away, with a whimper, and hid her head.
"What’s wrong?", the Australian women asked in chorus. "That man in the jeans and yellow T-shirt standing at the метро entrance must be looking for me. He’s the leader of the men who were chasing me."
The Australians conferred. "Ok," one said. "We need to change your appearance."
The women both have scarves and set to the task of transforming her with enthusiasm: "Wrap this big scarf around your skirt and keep the coat closed. Put the other scarf over your head."
Remembering her story of running barefoot one of the men says: "He probably hasn’t seen you with your shoes on. You'll be a different height with those heels. So we’ll just walk out normally, together as a group and keep chatting. Keep us between you and him, but try not to turn your head in his direction."
The way to the ship is through a park under a road and then through another park. It was dark. Each park was thick with tall trees. It was terrifying.
She kept her nerve. She resisted the temptation to run or to simply give-up and go into her foetal ball. The Australians just kept talking while she shivered in fear. Seeing this, one woman simply put her arm around her and held her like a scared child as they walked. It was as if they didn’t have a care in the world.
They were around the same age as her parents would be and chatted on about their kids. One of them had worked in several banks, another was a lawyer and one had worked for a big Australian corporation. Their kids were graduates working in private enterprise or were still at University. Yet they had even been to Communist countries like China and Viet Nam, and Muslim countries and spoke well of them, they were interesting, they said.
On the ship, her plan went like clockwork. The helpful concierge woman unconditionally accepted her invented story about the car crash, with her parents on life-support, and spent an hour re-arranging her flights and organising a car to take her to the airport. She would have to hurry and pack her bag, the traffic in Moscow was horrendous and it was a long way.
But the stopover in Paris, at Charles de Gaul Airport, was for only one hour. There was no possibility that she could get to the see the Eiffel Tower, let alone go to it’s top. Perhaps from the air? She couldn’t ask the helpful concierge to reschedule her flight from Paris to the next day, because her car crash excuse had both parents in critical condition, with her desperate to be by their sides. The concierge was now so concerned for her, insisting she have a warm shower in her cabin and change her torn and dirty clothes while she, the concierge, was on the phone in Russian, getting her back to the States in the fastest possible time.
The pretty waitresses from the dining room, who were about her age and who spoke English as well as French and German, brought her another warm milky drink and sandwiches and commiserated with her. She was obviously in a terrible state. And they had rung the guide who had waited for her at the Circus after the performance had ended. They were on their way back now but she would miss Natasha because "you know Moscow traffic". And wasn’t she clever to use the метро all by herself, she obviously wanted to get back just as fast as possible! That was fortunate because she could just make it to the airport in time.
In less than an hour and a half she was on her way home.
As the car pulled out of the River Port Terminal, to her horror, there was Dimitri at the gate, his hands holding something behind his back. Some kind of weapon. He looked very confident. This was it. She was going to die.
As they passed his right arm moved. She froze. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t even duck down. His hand came up. He smiled and gave a little salute with his fingers held like a gun as if to say, "I’ll get you later".
She was back home working at Bree's Bar again. Four months had passed and Natasha had not returned. Natasha had met a man in Paris on the top viewing platform of the Eiffel Tower. He had told her that she was the most stunning woman he had ever seen and she had pretended to catch her heel and trip. As he caught her he made some remark about it being a long way to fall. Natasha has been falling into his arms, and his bed, ever since.
With no one to share the rent the money was now very tight and she had had to overcome her repulsion at being manhandled. And once, when she had been very desperate, she had been into a men’s toilet for a second time.
Now she is looking out of the open apartment window thinking about how people lived in different countries and how there were still people worse off than her. How those Australians had seemed to be so confident and had been everywhere. And how Natasha is having a great time. And how much she regrets leaving the trip of her lifetime, before it had really begun. And how The Secret is no longer working for her, even though she is focusing all her positive thoughts, visualising going back to Europe and seeing Paris from the Eiffel Tower this time.
As she gazes across the road someone comes into focus.
It couldn’t be! But it is! Dimitri is over there looking at my apartment block and checking out something on a phone that he now puts behind his back. Has he tucked it into a holster - alongside his gun?
He looks up. Has he seen me? Oh my God! He’s coming to the door! I have to get out of here. He’ll be up the stairs and outside my door in a minute. Is the next apartment’s window open? Thank God! I'll climb around. The chair – oh no my heel is stuck. The new shoes Natasha sent me from Paris. I can’t…
"Anyone know this woman?", asks the Cop.
"I know who she is", says Dimitri, clearly distressed, in his beautiful Russian accent: "I was coming to see her. She is – was, one of our clients."
In his distress Dimitri speaks formally and succinctly, as one who has learnt English grammatically, as a second language: "I came to tell her that our travel insurance has agreed to make good a trip she had to cancel as a result of the tragic loss of her parents, and I’ve got tickets for a complete replacement trip."
"My company sent me to personally apologise for trying to stop her as she ran to the Metro Station near the Moscow Circus. I wanted to say that I was over zealous in my wish to ensure that clients don’t stray off and get lost. I failed to consider the possible urgency of her need to get home, leading to her personal tragedy, losing both her parents."
"Security had searched everywhere for her and I was getting very concerned. I was so relieved when she mysteriously turned up on the boat. I have never lost a client."
Dimitri pauses, looking sadly at her broken body. "Maybe if I had got here just a few minutes earlier with my good news she wouldn’t have taken this dreadful way out to escape from her misery."
Then, before walking sadly away Dimitri says, to no one in particular:
"I wonder if she has a next of kin who would like a trip to Russia and vouchers, with our compliments, for five nights in luxury at the Hôtel de la Tour Eiffel in Paris"
24 October 2013