Mikhail raced through the shipyard. He dodged forklifts laden with crates and ducked cranes as they swung tons of steel. Ice patches had sent him tumbling twice already and he vaulted more between him and the dry dock. Lungs on fire, fingers frozen numb, he fought not to fall down the ship’s brow as he raced across. The sentries topside saluted with raised AK-47’s. Mikhail’s stomach fluttered as he slid down the ladder into the control room.
“Looks like you found a woman worth your time,” Gravill observed, “and your money.”
“Yes,” he answered between gasps.
“Be glad I’d had my fill of her nights ago, then.” The broad-shouldered squat man slapped Mikhail’s shoulder as he passed. “Otherwise she’d been in no shape for even a soft-spoken gentleman like you.”
“Yes,” Mikhail replied. “Very kind of you.”
Gavriil shook his head, followed behind Mikhail and entered the wardroom of K-389. Anatoli sat in his chair, his head hung just above a steaming cup of tea. The man’s pallor looked sickly, even for the pasty skinned doctor. Others gathered around the blue felt table leaned into their tea and groaned as the wardroom door closed with a slight click. The small quiet room seemed set for a funeral, with all the mourners gathered.
Captain Borodin entered from his stateroom’s door to the officer’s wardroom. As one, the officers stood to attention and waited for their commander’s nod before they sat again.
“What happened last night?” the captain asked, a somber expression draped over his features.
Each officer looked to their comrades for an answer.
“What happened to Seaman Yanukovich?” With a finger leveled at Gavriil, Captain Borodin continued. “Lieutenant Pelyovin, he was in your division, was he not?”
Gavriil stiffened. “He is, comrade captain.”
Captain Borodin shook his head. “Was, he died last night in his bunk. His chief discovered this after he failed to muster this morning.” With a frown he added, “Have you not seen to your men yet this morning?”
“No comrade captain, like many of us, I was a little late returning aboard last night.”
The captain drove his fist into the table, sending all the china rattling. “We’ve been in the shipyard too long!”
He stood and looked to the plaques on the wall, commemorations to K-389’s accomplishment over its decade long life. “It’s been my philosophy that the rigors of in-port repairs make a sailor yearn for the sea. The shipyard is different. We watch as strangers work on our systems, many sit by and wait for the fire brigade to save their home.”
He turned to examine his officers and winced at what he saw. “Doctor, I need you to examine the body. Lieutenant Koryavin, I want you to conduct an investigation. I must know why and how this happened.”
Mikhail’s throat dried in that instant. The room rippled with heat as he felt himself flush. “I’ll do my best, though I’m hardly qualified.”
“You are an officer of the Red Fleet,” Borodin growled. He paused, cooled, and took a deep breath. “We solve our problems or we invite another stranger to our home. The NKVD would love a witch hunt to occupy their time and possibly promote themselves closer to Moscow.”
A hushed meeting followed, the business of the ship pushed on. Full of reports and graphs, each officer bemoaned their meager progress and the lack of resources to see the work through. Once the meeting ended and everyone filed out, Captain Borodin motioned for Mikhail to remain and shut the door.
“Our professionalism slips, one drunken night at a time.”
“So it seems, comrade captain.” Mikhail felt his captain’s gaze weighing heavy on him. “I must admit, I too arrived late this morning.”
The captain’s iron stare softened. In that instant the man looked tired but also paternal, like a father who’d caught his son making the same mistakes he’d made decades ago. He wagged a gnarled finger at Mikhail.
“That, that is why I’ve appointed you as investigating officer into this matter. You’re young enough, idealistic enough, to value honor and justice… even if it means convicting yourself.”
“The cause of death seems simple enough,” Anatoli explained. “This boy was beaten to death.”
Doctor Anatoli and Mikhail stood within Sick Bay, an elongated closet bordered by a medicine cabinet, book shelves, a typewriter, and an ‘examination table’ that normally doubled as a desk and Anatoli’s bunk. A heap of medical records sat in the corner, tossed there to make room for a haphazard autopsy. The corpse of Seaman Yanukovich lay before them on the table, sealed in a black plastic body bag.
“But the watch found him in his bunk,” Mikhail countered. “And he didn’t look nearly as bad as what you’ve indicated.”
“The bruising took some time to rise to the surface,” the doctor replied. “Not a single bone broken, he’d been pummeled in a way that left no outward marks.”
At that last comment, Anatoli looked up from his work, over his spectacles. An expectant pause blossomed.
“What is it Doctor?”
“You do not know what that likely implies?” he asked in a whisper.
“Something sinister based on the look you’re giving me.”
Anatoli reached past Mikhail and shut the door to his office. “Sometimes men take matters into their own hands. A bar of soap in a pillow case has been used to punish thieves in the past. They swing the pillowcase with such speed, the pain is sharp. Such punishments take a couple of men to pin their subject down with a sheet while others hammer him repeatedly.”
“I’ve heard of this, but never known anyone to die from a blanket party.”
Anatoli leaned over and unzipped the body bag. Inside Seaman Yanukovich lay naked, covered in narrow bruises each from an inch to three inches in length. With a small, bright flashlight, the doctor illuminated the boy’s temple. The bruising there seemed diffused and larger than the rest.
“Most of these ‘trials’ end with a severe beating about the torso but it appears someone got over zealous.”
Mikhail met the doctor’s grim gaze. “Did he die in bed as it appears or did someone tuck this corpse in?”
“He may have been alive when he entered the bed, but there’s no way he climbed into that bunk with that injury.”
“I don’t know who did it, but everyone knows why.” Gavriil’s smug response trickled a chill down Mikhail’s spine.
The two sat in the wardroom while the rest of the crew assisted the shipyard in getting K-389 back on schedule. The grating peel of metal grinders and the rat-tat-tat of the impact wrenches set Mikhail’s teeth on edge.
“And what,” Mikhail asked slowly, “was that, Lieutenant Pelyovin?”
“Yanukovich was,” Gavriil Pelyovin shrugged, his features soured, “you know, a pidor.”
“Pardon me, a what?”
Gavriil’s face whitened as he scowled. “You know, a pederast, a lover of boys and men.”
Mikhail continued to feign ignorance. “A homosexual? Seaman Yanukovich, a sailor in the Red Fleet?”
“It happens more than you realize,” Gavriil insisted. He grinned. “I had my doubts about you until you met Nika.”
“I pour my heart into my work and my duty, not women.”
“Poor substitutes. As much as I adore my Motherland,” he continued with a sardonic tone, “I’ve never had patriotism take my breath away the way a good woman or a very bad woman has.”
“Back to the murder of our crewmate, Seaman Yanucovich.”
“No one intended to kill him,” Gavriil said with a shrug. “But no one will mourn his passing either.”
“How can you be so smug about it, so nonchalant?”
Gavriil threw his hand up. “Look, I don’t even know what happened. Maybe he got in over his head in the Chernyy Prichal.”
“And what do you know about it, the area they call Black Wharf?
Gavrill’s gaze narrowed, his brow creased. “I only know as much they told everyone when they arrived in Komsomolsk, it’s where perversions abound… and sailors die. We’ve all been warned not to go but deviants will go where their tastes are satisfied.”
“Yet you’ve no desire to see justice done?”
“Fate judged him harsher than any of us dared.”
Mikhail thought of his stepfather, of all the dark moments alone with him, of how he’d prayed for deliverance. He’d thought on murder many times, especially afterward, in those strange moments where his abuser offered condolences and kind words. Through the pain, shame, and tears, he’d prayed for an accident to claim his stepfather’s life. He’d even held the instrument in his hands. On that farm death lurked in every task, every labor. He’d lacked the courage, not to kill him, but to explain his motive and survive the life he imagined. He’d have been labeled a pidor for having allowed it for so long and a murderer for having ended it with patricide. He swallowed hard, focused on his duty, and leveled his glare at the stocky lieutenant across from him.
“Will your crewmates feel any more comfortable knowing they might stand beside a murderer?”
Gavriil withdrew a cigarette, lit it, and took a long drag. He stared back at Mikhail and exhaled a great smoky sigh. “I don’t like what you’re implying. And I especially don’t like who you’re implying is involved.”
Mikhail grabbed the wardroom phone to the control room, pressed the buzzer, and waited.
“Duty officer; this is Lieutenant Koryavin. Have all missile division personnel arrested and confined to the torpedo room.”
Gaviriil frowned. “The torpedo room; why not there quarters?”
Mikhail unclenched his jaw. “I’ll need to examine their pillow cases and shower kits.”