Lying about his age, Anthony Vladimir enlisted in the United States Navy during the winter of 1950. The young man was anxious to escape the situation at The Orphan House. The seventeen year old felt fortunate to be stationed in Charleston -- a place he loved, despite an agonizing childhood. |
In the early spring of 1951, Anthony fell in love with the gorgeous, Stella Johnston. They met as he wandered down the grand Oak lined streets along the waterfront in the historic suburb of Charleston known as Rainbow Row. He’d visited the street many times in his earlier youth and had wondered what it would be like to live in one of the pastel painted colonials. He'd secretly watched the young woman spread a blanket down under a moss laden Oak tree. The pretty teenager slowly lie down on the grass. She'd lain momentarily quiet, eyes closed, listening to chirping birds, and enjoying the soothing fragrance of the surrounding Magnolia trees. Rolling onto her stomach she reached for a book eager to devour, for the umpteenth time, Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Unaware she’d been observed by a stranger from afar, she was suddenly startled to see a friendly young sailor sprint towards her across the tall grass. Smiling, he asked, without first introducing himself, “What are you reading? Do you mind if I join you?” The cautious, yet curious, eighteen year old Stella imagined Rhett Butler had been reincarnated as she sat staring into the deepest darkest green eyes she’d ever seen. She replied in a soft, southern drawl, “Oh it's just some crazy old novel about the south.”
Anthony smiled as he sat down beside her. “Come on now. That’s not just some crazy old novel about the south. We’re talking about Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.” Blushing, the pretty, young woman innocently moved across the blanket hoping he would join her. “You’re right. Have you read it? I think it’s possibly the most wonderful love story ever written.” Lying, which he was good at, Anthony said, “I’ve read it over and over. It’s my favorite book.”
Stella was naïve, and somewhat gullible. She was fascinated by the charming ways of the young sailor. Much to her parent’s dismay, they soon became inseparable. The young sailor spent every moment he could get away from the Navy base with Stella at the Johnston’s mansion on Rainbow Row. He had a great sense of humor and the ability to adjust to any situation; and, in no time, Stella's parents accepted him as one of their own. Attending Matthew’s Lutheran Church with the family on Sundays; he would sometimes secretly steal Stella away after the service, for a romantic stroll along the secluded Ashley River. They oftentimes made love under their favorite moss laden Oak tree. The long Spanish moss provided protection from prying eyes. The unlikely young couple delighted equally in getting away with something they knew was forbidden.
Within months, Stella was pregnant with Anthony's child. They soon married in a quiet, secret ceremony before the Justice of the Peace. Her parents provided them an apartment in the basement of their large Victorian home. The young newly-weds were overjoyed when the infant daughter, who they named Natasha Victoria Vladimir, was born on January 26, 1951. Their happiness was relatively short lived.
Anthony disappeared from Charleston soon after his daughter was born. He left his young, heartbroken wife to raise the new borne child alone. Stella was unaware of the cause of her husband’s abrupt departure. Six weeks after his disappearance her family insisted she annul the marriage and get on with her life. She did. Stella had no idea of her husband's whereabouts. He hadn't mentioned the fact that he'd been called to active duty.
The United States was at war. President Truman ordered ground forces into Korea, and Anthony, a Navy Seal, was assigned to go help fight the war.
He had received military orders advising him he would be sent to Korea in two days. Disappointed and upset, Anthony joined fellow sailors, and some old friends, for a few beers and a game of poker in an old deserted warehouse on the docks along the Cooper River.
His friend, Jeremy Viktor, failed to speak out when he saw Anthony slide extra chips into the game. The night ended and as the friends left the warehouse, Jeremy accused his pal of cheating. A fight broke out between the drunken young men. Taking a switchblade knife from his boot, Anthony lunged for his throat and viciously stabbed his friend Jeremy Viktor to death. Frantically looking around in the darkness, he panicked worrying someone may have witnessed the murder. Anthony quickly stripped his friend’s pockets of poker winnings, a recent paycheck and identity. Gasping for air, the exhausted young sailor rolled Jeremy's bloody body to the end of the dock. Repeatedly kicking the lifeless body with a combat boot, he pushed his battered friend over the edge into the murky swift moving Cooper River. His once white Navy uniform now dripping in blood and smelling of sweat, he stood alone in moonlit darkness. He saw Jeremy's body bob up and down several times and eventually disappear in the current. He shuddered when he saw the lifeless body float out to sea. Anthony, his face drawn and body weak was suddenly grateful for his duffle bag, and the change of clothing inside. Ripping the bloodied Navy uniform from his body he used it to wipe the blood from his hands, and face. In the shadows of the dark deserted dock, he quickly dressed in civilian clothing. Anthony wrapped red stained boots inside the once white Navy uniform. He covered the bloody evidence with his navy blue Pea coat.
The exhausted sailor then nonchalantly strolled down the dock. He carried his duffle bag, and the soiled uniform, as if his life were perfectly normal. Seeing an unattended fire burning in a barrel he cautiously approached. He threw the blue coat and its hidden contents into the flames. Standing momentarily still, he fanned the fire with his duffle bag watching the evidence burn. Convinced the uniform was engulfed in flames, he bolted, in a dead run, toward the sound of a train whistle in the distance.
Frozen with shame, without considering the consequences, Anthony fled Charleston in the middle of the night. He hopped an Atlantic Coastline freight train not knowing where it was going, hoping it would take him out west. He was a twenty year old scared kid who'd been involved in a few innocent skirmishes, but nothing like this. He'd committed murder. He'd killed a man! Nothing was on his mind except to escape prosecution for the crime. He appeared, and felt, much older than his years. He was a ruthless Russian murderer. Visibly, he showed little remorse over having killed his friend. Anthony selfishly, recklessly abandoned Charleston, the U.S. Navy, and his young wife and child. Inside, he hated what he'd become. His spirit subtracted from him, the memories of the look on Jeremy's face cutting into his heart, Anthony ran toward the slow moving freight train.
The young sailor never looked back feeling confident he would get away with the murder. He knew Jeremy was an orphan. In Anthony’s sociopathic mind, he believed no one cared if Jeremy lived or died. The midnight escape from the horrific bloody scene on the South Carolina waterfront was the beginning of a lifelong series of crime and corruption for the gum-snapping, knife totting, short fused, poker playing Russian. Using Jeremy Viktor's altered driver’s license, pay check and social security number for identification, Anthony Vladimir soon thereafter became Tony Viktor. He vowed to never reveal his interior life to anyone. He feared being charged with murder, and military desertion. The prospect of having to spend years in prison for the horrendous crime, were more than he could stand.
Tony Viktor altered his appearance to more closely resemble his dead friend. He grew his hair long and sported a beard. On his journey west, he made a decent living as a cheating gambler. He’d learned to figure things out at a young age and had professed to be a master at poker by the age of twelve. Tony met a variety of new friends and associates in the small towns and cities he traveled through on his way across country by rail car. They were a variety of thugs, bums, cheats, lowlifes and angle shooters. He fit in with the rough crowd and quickly earned the reputation of being a liar, and a cheat. He would constantly remind anyone who would listen, class and poker didn't go together. He bragged, he had no class.
Those who got to know him well understood whatever came out of Tony’s mouth, was a lie. He’d taken risks and gambles in life that most men, of his young age, would have never considered. By the age of ten, he’d employed several neighborhood friends in a lawn mowing business. He was the boss. His friends did all the work. He collected what was owed. He distributed half of the earnings to his friends, and pocketed the rest, claiming it to be his take.
Tony bet on everything going on around him. While riding the rails, he figured out a way to beat the dog tracks. He made a decent living, using the illegal system, at greyhound dog tracks he came upon as he traveled across the country.
It was during a stay over in Oklahoma City at the local dog track, Tony met Deuce Beckett. Observing the lone gambler from across the room, Tony saw him make several trips to the cashier's winner's window. "Hey man, you've won your share of the pot today. Do you want to join me for a cold one? I'll buy. I'd like to hear about your system." Looking Tony over from head to toe, Deuce recognized the unshaven gambler as the man he'd seen standing next to the cashier's window earlier in the day. "You bet! Sure, you can buy me a beer. Where are you from stranger? I haven't seen you around here before today."
"I'm hopping freights, making my way to Nevada. I've been riding the rails for over a year now. I stop here and there to make a few bucks at dog tracks." Walking together towards the bar, Tony pulled a five dollar bill from his full wallet.
Smiling a toothless smile, Deuce asked again, "Where'd you say you come from?"
"New York City. I got tired of the fast track; thought I'd try my luck in Vegas. How about you? What's your story?"
"No kidding. I'm heading to Vegas myself. Got a sister who lives there. I haven't seen her in over thirteen years. What's it like riding the rails? It appears to me you could afford to buy a bus ticket." Looking at him coolly, Deuce rolled a cigarette. He offered the unlit, crude, paper-wrapped smoke, to his new friend.
Smiling, and shaking his head no, Tony said, "I don't smoke that crap man. Only Cuban cigars, now and then. Now that's what I call a good smoke."
The two drifters got along like old friends, although they shared only limited information about their respective pasts. Drinking their beer down in a hurry, they agreed to meet at the railroad shift yard at dusk.
When they arrived at the station, they saw the freight train slowly pull away. Tony motioned for Deuce to jump on board a passing rail car. He quickly followed suit. They climbed to the top of a cattle car loaded with fine looking beef cows headed for slaughter. The saw a tunnel loom in the distance. The car they'd climbed aboard was three rail cars behind the locomotive's coal driven engine. The new friends lay down flat on the roof of the cattle car as the locomotive lumbered into the tunnel.
When they emerged out of the other side, Tony broke into a gut wrenching laugh. "Jesus I didn't know I was traveling with little black Sambo. Christ all I can see are the whites of your eyes." Deuce grinned, his single gold tooth shown bright. "You don't look so God awful white yourself son." The men were covered in thick soot. Black smoke billowing from the old coal engine had blackened everything but the whites of their eyes, and Tony's teeth.
When the train slowed, they jumped from the top of the cattle car to an adjacent rail car. The men lowered themselves down through an opened side door of an enclosed box car. Relieved to be safe inside, they hunkered down for a nap. Paying no attention to their filthy sooty appearance, they happily continued their rail trek west.
The tired, dirty men stayed on the train for the next two days. They shared a jug of water and existed on a large bag of peanuts while Tony taught his new friend everything he knew about cheating, and winning, at poker. When the gamblers jumped from the slow moving train in Flagstaff, Arizona, they looked for a gas station to wash off the remaining soot. Changing into a cleaner set of clothes; they walked toward the local saloon, hoping to partake in a friendly game of cards. The hobo's cleaned up in the old Flagstaff Saloon that night. They won every hand they were dealt, and cheated the local players out of over five hundred dollars.
Splitting their winnings, they parted ways when the poker game ended. Deuce walked out of the saloon with his arm draped around the neck of a scrawny barmaid who'd plied them with free liquor all evening. Deuce moved toward a dimly lit boarding house at the end of the main street. "I'll see you in Nevada Tony. I think I'll stick around Flag for a few more days. I need to catch up on my beauty sleep!"
Tony waved goodbye to his friend, sad to see him go. "Sure Deuce. You have a good time. I'll catch up with you in Vegas."
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