On 24 November, 1940, the first light of dawn found the Bulgarian ore freighter Svistov pounding through the Black Sea swells, a long night's journey from Odessa and bound for Istanbul. The writer I. A. Serebin, sleepless as always, left his cabin and stood at the rail, searched the horizon for a sign of the Turkish coast, found only a blood red streak in the eastern sky. Like the old saying, he realized--red sky at morning, sailor take warning. But, a private smile for that. So many ways, he thought, to drown in autumn. The Svistov creaked and groaned, spray burst over the bow as she fought the sea. With cupped hands, Serebin lit a Sobranie cigarette, then watched the dark water churning past the hull until the wind drove him back to the cabin.
As he pulled the door shut, a soft shape stirred beneath the blanket. "Ah, mon ours," she said. My bear. A muffled voice, tender, half asleep. "Are we there?"
"No, not for a long time."
"Well then..." One side of the blanket rose in the air.
Serebin took off his shirt and trousers, then his glasses, slid in beside her and ran an idle finger down the length of her back, over the curve, and beyond. Smooth as silk, he thought, sleek as a seal. Bad poetry in bed, maybe, but she was, she was.
Marie-Galante. A fancy name. Nobility? It wouldn't shock him if she were. Or not. A slumflower, perhaps. No matter, she was stunning, glamorous. Exceptionally plucked, buffed and smoothed. She had come to his cabin, sable coat and bare feet, as she'd promised at dinner. A glance, a low purr of a voice in lovely French, just enough, as her husband, a Vichy diplomat, worked at conversation with the Bulgarian captain and his first officer. So, no surprise, a few minutes after midnight: three taps, pearlescent fingernail on iron door and, when it opened, an eloquent Bonsoir.
Serebin stared when the coat came off. The cabin had only a kerosene lantern, hung on a hook in one corner, but the tiny flame was enough. Hair the color of almonds, skin a tone lighter, eyes a shade darker--caramel. She acknowledged the stare with a smile--yes, I am--turned slowly once around for him, then, for a moment, posed. Serebin was a man who had love affairs, one followed another. It was his fate, he believed, that life smacked him in the head every chance it got, then paid him back in women. Even so, he couldn't stop looking at her. "It is," she'd said gently, "a little cold for this."
The engines hammered and strained, the overloaded steamship--Ukrainian manganese for Turkish mills--was slow as a snail. A good idea, they thought, lying on their sides, front to back, his hand on her breast, the sea rising and falling beneath them.
Serebin had boarded the Svistov at the Roumanian port of Constanta, where it called briefly to take on freight--a few crates of agricultural machinery cranked slowly up the rusty side of the ship--and a single passenger. The docks were almost deserted, Serebin stood alone, a small valise at his side, waiting patiently in the soft, southern dusk as the gangway was lowered.
Earlier that day there'd been fighting on the waterfront, a band of fascist Iron Guards pursued by an army unit loyal to Antonescu. So said the barman at the dockside tavern. Intense volleys of small arms fire, a few hand grenades, machine guns, then silence. Serebin listened carefully, calculated the distance, ordered a glass of beer, stayed where he was. Safe enough. Serebin was forty-two, this was his fifth war, he considered himself expert in the matter of running, hiding, or not caring.
Later, on his way to the pier, he'd come upon a telegraph office with its windows shattered, a man in uniform flung dead across the threshold of the open door, which bumped against his boot as the evening wind tried to blow it shut. Roumania had just signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany, political assassinations were daily events, civil war on the way, one poor soul had simply got an early start.
Excerpted from Blood of Victory by Alan Furst. Copyright 2002 by Alan Furst. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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