Bad or good, news travels slowly once it reaches sparsely inhabited areas of the world and Kiev was no different in this respect. The sinking of the Titanic did not reach the Asparov family until ten days after the event, but that didn’t make the news any less dramatic or painful. Pokotilova, in the Uman district was quiet and respectable, change happened at a slow pace and time almost stood still. That was until a messenger made his way to the Asparov family small holding, on the outskirts of the town. When he arrived, he brought the full force of the epic tragedy of the 20th century with him.
Magda’s future husband, Ballantine, had bought Magda’s ticket to the new world but to her family he had bought them a new life and a prosperity they had once known but lost over time. The Asparov family had heard the stories that the Titanic was unsinkable, but that information neither impressed or made any difference to their daily lives. What had impressed Magda’s father and mother was the amount of money Ballantine was willing to pay them for their daughter’s hand in marriage. The news of the demise of so many people, Magda included, had devastated them and had a profound impact on their son, Peter. Put simply, Peter adored Magda. It was an old but true saying, he had worshipped the ground she walked on. He was eighteen and had aspirations to go to America himself, with Magda’s help. All that was gone now. But in spite of the odds, he held a glimmer of hope that Magda may still be alive. He didn’t understand where the hope came from, but he could act on that belief. He determined, even before the family tears had dried to be replaced by that empty feeling, that he would seek her out. He would run away to America and find his sister.
Peter’s parents paid him little heed at the best of times, he could do as he pleased so long as he earned some money to pay his keep. Peter spent the next few weeks working as hard as he could at any work that came his way, but kept most of the money himself, giving his still grieving mother as little as possible.
On the ninth week after the news of the tragedy had reached them, Peter packed a small bag, slipped it over his shoulders, took some cheese and stale bread and left his mother and father. It would be the last time Peter would see his parents and it would be the beginning of his education into a new world and an introduction to a new dawn of terror, death and destruction.
As these events unfolded in Ukraine, the Lady Jane was getting closer and closer to New York and at the same time, Captain Richard Blackmore and Maggie were themselves moving closer and closer to each other.
It was the last night on board before the ship docked and Maggie was in a reflective mood when Blackmore called on her in his old cabin.
“I see you’re up,” he said, closing the cabin door quietly.
“Yes, I must get up and move about, I don’t want to leave the ship looking like an invalid. I want to walk and make my own way in life.”
Blackmore nodded. “Good idea. Have you thought further about my proposal?”
Maggie smiled and Blackmore’s stomach flipped with the anticipation.
“If I am to stay in your apartment, with you, then I must pay my own way.”
“I’m not asking for payment, I simp…”
“Yes, I know, you’re doing this out of sympathy and a genuine desire to help me. But I insist on paying my own way. As I have no means of support, then at least let me act as your house-keeper. If nothing else I can do that and who knows, maybe my memory will come back to me.”
Blackmore opened the cabin door. “Very well, Maggie, you are, for as long as it takes, my house-keeper.” He smiled and then left the cabin.
Maggie’s smile quickly became a frown. She had no idea who she was, where she came from or what it was she did, if anything, for a living. However, for certain, there was one other thing she was sure of… she had no idea how to be a house-keeper.
Matthew Ballantine was tired of trying to get information from the New York offices of the White Star line. They insisted all passengers alive had been accounted for and therefore the list of the dead/missing was correct. There was, they had no doubt, no hope that those missing would actually turn up alive. In fact, in a few short days missing would become deceased and that was that, as far as they were concerned.
“But surely, you cannot say with certainty there will be no more survivors,” Ballantine said, thumping the desk of the grey haired old man White Star was using to fend him off.
“Of course, we can say that. Have you no idea how cold the North Atlantic is this time of year? Nobody could have survived for very long in those waters.”
Ballantine pointed out that Magda was in fact Magda Asparov, not Ballantine as they had listed her. The White Star general manager had no explanation as to why there had been a change made, except that the change was made in Southampton and had been completely out of his control. But it did not change the fact, his intended had most certainly perished in the freezing Atlantic waters.
Ballantine left the office exasperated and getting angrier than he had ever been. It wasn’t so much the money as the principle. His anger was getting the better of his judgement and the object of that anger, Magda, was becoming an obsession.
Nobody thwarts Matthew Ballantine.
Ballantine didn’t know it, but not only was the thought untrue, as his business dealings would attest to, but it meant he had a belief in himself that would lead to something worse than a mere obsession.
As he opened the front door to the office to step out into New York’s cold streets, he bumped into an officer of the White Star line.
“I beg your pardon, Sir,” the young man said as he stood to one side.
Ballantine happened to notice the manila folder in the man’s hands was labelled Titanic. “Were you on the Titanic?”
It was the same old question the officer had been asked a thousand times it seemed and the young man’s smile faded. He gave Ballantine a curt nod, trying to avoid eye contact, anything to make the man go away and leave him alone. It had been days since the tragedy, but it was still raw in the young officer’s mind. He was sick and tired of re-living the tragedy every few days with officials and occasional members of the public he bumped into and inevitably asking the same questions. His mood matched the New York weather, gloomy with a bitter chill that made his bones ache.
“Tell me, did you know any of the passengers? I’m looking for…”
The officer made to push past Ballantine, but the broader man held his ground, effectively blocking entry into the building. “I’m sorry, Sir. I can’t go into any det…”
“Magda Asparov is her name, but she was using my name, Ballantine. We were to be married. A beautiful young woman, dark hair and…”
The officer’s gloomy mood lifted at the thought of Magda. “Yes, I know who you mean, Magdalene. She would often walk on deck on her own. Kept herself to herself. So, you are the Mr. Ballantine she told me she was marrying.”
Ballantine allowed himself a small smile. The officer was obviously British, stiff upper lip and all. “Yes, we are to be married.”
“But she’s listed as missing.”
“I know, but I feel it in my bones,” Ballantine lied. “I know she is still alive and I’m desperate to find here.”
The officer looked down at the folder and sighed.
Such a small thing to represent so many lost lives.
“This is the new list; it shows she is now considered to be…”
“I know what you think, but you are wrong.”
The officer sighed again, his mood swung back to black. “I know she was on deck the night it happened. I saw her. I watched her…” his voice trailing away.
“I understand, she is beautiful and you are a young man, both thrust together on a ship in a vast ocean.”
The officer was aghast. “It was nothing like that, Sir,” he said loudly, his free hand raised palm toward Ballantine. “We rarely spoke, but I would often see her due to my duties. She was on the port side where the ship struck the iceberg. A lot of ice came crashing down onto the deck. People were kicking some of it around for fun.”
“Where did she go?”
“Well, come to think of it, it was odd. One minute she was there, on deck. She was quite close to one of the lifeboats. Then the ship struck the iceberg and I turned away for a few seconds and when I looked back she was gone and there was a pile of ice where she had been.”
Ballantine smiled inwardly. Magda was indeed alive and this time, he could certainly feel it in his bones. The starting point of his investigation would be the lifeboat. Maybe, just maybe, she had fallen and been helped into a lifeboat. Maybe she was on a ship right now, making its way into New York, or even way across the Atlantic to England. But whatever the truth, Ballantine felt she was still alive.
Ballantine lost little time making his arrangements. He needed to get back home, to Texas, but his trusted bulldog, William Harker, was a great investigator and would find the truth of the matter to Magda’s whereabouts, even if it meant searching every ship coming into port that went to Titanic’s rescue. Harker was tenacious and ruthless.
Several hours later, Ballantine was meeting with William Harker at a small café, not far from where the Lady Jane would soon dock. Two cold beers sat untouched between the two men, small puddles forming as froth lazily dribbled down the side of the glasses.
“You know what’s at stake, Harker?”
Harker nodded, the glistening sweat on his bald head twinkling in the fading sunlight dappling through the café window.
Ballantine had often wanted to ask Harker if he shaved his head completely or if his hair loss was natural, but more pressing matters awaited their attention and Ballantine stored the question away for another day, knowing full well he would never have the nerve to ask such an impertinent question of a man with Harker’s reputation for unbridled violence.
“This is about me, my reputation. If anyone gets the idea they can give me the run-around then all the rats who know me will crawl out the woodwork and abandon ship. I need to keep my business partners on-board. You need to find a list of ships that went to the disaster area and check each one for survivors.”
Harker nodded again, smiling inwardly at Ballantine’s look of desperation.
You have no idea, you moron, how stupid you are. You can’t even get a simple idiom right.
“We need to find her, find Magda.” Ballantine sat back and reached for his beer, then put it back down without drinking. “How much will you need, to find her?”
“Five,” Harker said.
Harker smiled, a predatory smile, “Thousand, Mr. Ballantine. Five thousand dollars.”
Ballantine’s heart didn’t miss a beat, he didn’t rant about the price and didn’t walk out in disgust. He simply nodded. “But, be certain on this Harker. None of this leads back to me. I want what is mine, the girl, and that is all I want. Anyone getting in the firing line is of no consequence to me.
William Harker smiled and the glint in his dark eyes made Ballantine’s skin crawl.
“Do we have a deal, Mr. Ballantine?”
“We have a deal, Harker. The payment will be as per our usual terms?”
Harker stood, grabbed his beer and drained it in one, slamming the glass down on the table with deliberate finality. “Terms as usual Mr. Ballantine.”
Copyright Tom Kane © 2018
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This is a first draft, so please forgive spelling & grammatical errors. Context and characters may change between now and the final publication date.
When published as an eBook and paperback at the end of 2018, this book will be the first in a trilogy: The Brittle Sea, The Brittle Land and The Brittle Sky.
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