#WritersWednesday: August 29, An Auction

 The small port of Sovetskaya Gavan’ has little to attract attention from anyone but the most informed observer of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet, or Russian Far-East history. For it is an important outpost and harbour for the supply of the Fleet. The bay of Khadzi was only discovered in 1853, the year Lt. Nikolay Boshnyak – its discoverer on behalf of the Czar – became the commander of the settlement that was to become Sovetskaya Gavan’ in 1922.

I walk slowly along the harbour front: this is a deep water port, and the reason for my interest. The object of my attention lies a little aside from the other boats at anchor in the harbour, and is guarded by four Russian marines, recognisable by their badges and the striped vests that identify them, from the Black Sea to the Pacific seaboard, via Sebastopol and other places of legend. I get a little closer, smile to the marines, who ignore me. The Aurora – soon to be renamed The Arrakis, if I achieve my objective – hardly emerges above the calm water, a grey flat ray-like fish with hardly any structure visible on deck: yet this marvel of maritime technology has the capacity for a crew of six and up to twelve passengers.

Tomorrow the auction takes place. I know the chief auctioneer, and my hand is strong: there is only one other serious bidder. The Aurora cannot be just another amateur yachtsman’s object of desire! Its previous, and single, owner, a Russian oligarch now writing his memoirs in the Federation’s deepest dungeon, commissioned the boat from the very finest shipyard in Russia. And spent just above $80 millions on it. That was ten years ago. Since the demise of its owner, the Aurora has been in the safeguard of the Navy, hence the marines guard. For it is a very special boat: Aurora is powered by a good size nuclear turbine, capable of giving her a speed well above the average coastguard vessel, and an autonomy of at least six months at sea. Furthermore, the boat is submersible, and its stealth abilities are without comparison with any other civilian boat. The oligarch wanted it to be his escape salvation. But the Navy had him in their sight. I want the boat in order to satisfy my appetite for solitude – relatively – and be the stage for my friends, my writing, and my ambitions as a modern day captain Nemo. If I win tomorrow, it will be the result of several years of research and careful lobbying of the right – and dangerous – people. The Navy’s stewardship has added a few useful features – at a price. Aurora is equipped with six 20mm guns, and has two surface to air missile launchers. So the auction is not what it looks like on the face of it: a deal had to be done with the Navy, and this, yours truly has done.

So I am now sitting in the auction room, a sober space within the administrative buildings of the harbour. A platoon of marines guards the building, and an NCO stands guard in the room itself. The chief auctioneer, my friend Joseph, opens the proceedings. There maybe a dozen people in attendance. I cannot spot any journalists. I can spot a couple of FSB goons, and a Navy officer who, though in civilian clothes cannot hide his origin. The opposition is an American, much younger than me, who sits with a retinue of two women on the front row. Crew cut, straight back, I believe he’s a member of the American-Russian Economic foundation, which has local connections here in Sovetskaya Gavan’. His two women companions look like academics or Mormon missionaries.

The opening price is $100 millions. Which cleared the floor from passers-by. The bids are open: the opposition bids $120M. Joseph’s grey eyes survey the audience, then looks at me. I smile: $150M. A dead silence reigns in the room. Seconds tick. I wear a cool linen suit, a pale blue shirt. Joseph restates the bid. The opposition blinks: $160M. Of course the winner will have to foot the bill for maintenance and refuelling at a couple $M a piece every six months. Plus the crew. Haha: the crew, there I am proud of my work. From my seat I can watch the Navy officer, who smiles. I signal to Joseph: $180M. That’s a big jump, designed to discouraged my opponent. But of course I do not know what his resources, or backing, are. But I do know something he does not: that the Navy has done a deal, with me, and no-one else, I will win this auction, and pay only half the price. Of course there is a catch. This I will tell you later. But I bet my American friend will run out of steam before I do…

Well, he does not. The bid now stands at $190M. I take a deep breath. A uniform Navy officer joins his colleague in civilian clothes. Joseph is watching me. Grinning: $200M. Even for the Aurora, this is a bit steep. A weird shiver shakes the audience: there are now a few more people in the room, which surprises me, as the door should have been locked when the proceedings started. Have I been framed?

No, and $200M was the threshold. Whatever his backers and resources, my US opponent has thrown in the towel. The hammer hits the desk. Joseph smiles broadly. The audience stands and claps. As I move slowly towards the door, I am aware of a change in the configuration of uniformed personnel in the surroundings. Joseph is in deep discussion with the civilian-clad Navy officer. The other guy is talking to me, in perfect English. “Congratulations Sir, if you don’t mind following me for a few formalities”. But this is not an invitation, it is an order. Armed marines are surrounding us. The door is wide open in front of me, and a car is there outside, waiting, with a Spetnaz escort.

The car is a Mercedes S-class. The uniformed officer, Joseph and the “civilian” join me. The driver wears a Navy uniform. Behind us are two 4×4 full of Spetnaz soldiers. We reach the harbour, turn around the gates of the shipyard, stop near a building which appears to be Navy property, closed to the public. I spot a marine platoon guarding the entrance. I am invited to follow my escort inside the building.

“Well done , friend”, the old admiral is standing in front of me. “Please pardon us this cinema, we don’t intend our colleagues, over there – the old face grins – to believe one instant, that this was a real auction!” I smile. We sit around a large table, a marine at each of the four corners of the room. The senior officer, I know, he’s the one who decided I was, after all, trustworthy and genuine. I owe him my victory. “As you know, we now have a contract with you” I acquiesce, silently. The recording equipment on board the Arrakis will remain switched on at all time. The boat’s automatic reporting system will be left working at each port of mooring, and observation signals from Navy’s satellites will stay enabled and the boat’s beacon unscrambled. This means that my position will be known to the Navy at all times. It also means that the Navy will be able to annihilate the boat at the flick of a switch. And I don’t mind. I trust the Russian Navy, because I have no quarrel, and hence nothing to fear from them. I have enemies elsewhere, and they happen not to be their friends either, despite the old admiral’s joke. I am presented with a contract. A stern looking document with the Navy’s emblems and watermarks. The boat will remain registered here, in Sovetskaya Gavan’. There is also a sweetener, an upgrade to the missile launchers, and four brand new missiles. I smile, sign, stand up and toast, the attendees stand up, and we sing: the Russian marines hymn. The old admiral shakes my hand, and so do Joseph and the two officers. I hand over to Joseph a cool check for $100M. I am the owner of the Arrakis.

to be followed…

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