Lying about his age, Nikolas Vladimir enlisted in the United States Navy during the winter of 1949, strictly as an avenue to escape the situation at home; the seventeen year old thought he was fortunate to be stationed in Charleston -- a place that he loved despite how agonizing his childhood had been growing up there.
In the spring of 1950 Nikolas fell in love with the gorgeous Nancy Johnston. They met as he wandered down the grand Oak lined streets along the waterfront in the historic part of Charleston known as Rainbow Row. He'd visited the street many times in his earlier youth; often times imagining what it would be like to live in one of the pastel painted colonials.
He'd secretly watched as, after spreading a blanket under an old moss laden oak tree, Nancy Johnston, the pretty young teenager slowly lie down upon it. She'd laid momentarily quiet, eyes closed, listening to chirping birds enjoying the soothing fragrance from the surrounding Cabbage Palmetto trees. Rolling onto her stomach she reached for a book eager to devour, for the umpteenth time, the novel Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Unaware that she'd been observed by a stranger from afar, she was suddenly startled to see a friendly looking 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 seventeen year old Nancy Johnston imagined that Rhett Butler had been reincarnated as she sat staring into the deepest darkest green eyes she'd ever seen. She replied, "Oh just some crazy old novel about the South."
Nikolas 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, breathtakingly beautiful, she innocently moved across the blanket to make room for him, "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, Nikolas said, "I've read it over and over. It's my favorite book."
The naïve and somewhat gullible Nancy Johnston was immediately fascinated with the charming ways of the young Russian sailor. Much to her parent's dismay, they began to see each other on a regular basis. The young sailor spent every moment he could get away from the Navy base with Nancy at the Johnston's mansion on Rainbow Row. He had a great sense of humor and the
apparent ability to adjust to any situation; and, in no time, the Johnston's accepted him as one of their own.
He attended Matthew's Lutheran Church with the family each Sunday; sometimes secretly stealing Nancy away after the service for a romantic stroll along the secluded Ashley River where they'd make love under their favorite moss laden oak tree. The long Spanish moss provided protection from prying eyes and the unlikely young couple surprisingly delighted equally in getting away with something they knew was forbidden.
Within months after their first meeting Nancy Johnston was pregnant with Nikolas Vladimir's child. They married in a quiet secret ceremony before the Justice of the Peace in Charleston. Her parents provided an apartment in the basement of their large Victorian home. The young newly-weds were overjoyed, as would be expected, when the infant they named Savilla Victoria Vladimir was born on January 26, 1951; but the happiness was relatively short-lived.
Nikolas disappeared from Charleston soon after the birth of his daughter leaving a young, heartbroken Nancy to raise their child alone. Nancy was unaware of the cause of her husband's abrupt departure. Six weeks after his disappearance the family insisted that Nancy, a pillar of strength, annul the marriage and get on with her life; and she did unaware of her husband's whereabouts or the fact that he'd been called to active duty.
The United States was at war. President Truman had ordered ground forces into Korea and Nikolas, a Navy Seal, was assigned to go help fight the war.
The day he received military orders advising him that he'd be sent to Korea in two days; Nikolas joined fellow sailors and a few childhood friends for a few beers and a game of poker in an old deserted warehouse on the docks along the Cooper River in Charleston.
His friend Jeremy Viktor didn't initially speak out when he saw Nikolas slide extra chips into the game. The night ended and as the two friends left the warehouse together Jeremy accused his pal of cheating in the card game. A fight broke out between the two drunken young men causing Nikolas to take a switch-blade knife from his boot, lunge for his throat and viciously stab his friend Jeremy Viktor to death.
After frantically looking around in the darkness to determine that no one had witnessed the murder, Nikolas stripped his friend's pockets of poker winnings, a recent paycheck and his identity. Gasping for air, an exhausted Nikolas rolled Jeremy's bloody body to the end of the dock. Repeatedly kicking the lifeless body with his combat boot he pushed his battered friend over the edge into the murky swift moving Cooper River below. He watched, his once white
Navy uniform now dripping in blood and smelling of sweat, alone in moonlit darkness as Jeremy's body bobbed up and down several times eventually disappearing underneath the currents and floating out to sea.
Nikolas, his face drawn and his body weak, was grateful for his sea 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. Tearing through contents of the bag, in the shadows of the dark deserted dock, he quickly dressed in civilian clothing. Nikolas wrapped the blood stained boots inside the once white Navy uniform covering the bloody mess with his navy blue Pea coat.
The exhausted sailor nonchalantly strolled down the dock carrying his sailor's bag and the soiled uniform as if his life were perfectly normal. Seeing that someone had started a fire in a barrel and left it unattended he cautiously approached throwing the blue coat and its hidden contents into the flames. He stood momentarily fanning the fire with his hat watching as the evidence burned. Convinced that the uniform was entirely engulfed in flames he bolted, in a dead run, towards the sounds of a train whistle he heard in the distance.
Without thinking of the consequences, Nikolas fled Charleston in the middle of the night, hopping an Atlantic Coastline freight train not knowing where it was going but hoping it would take him out west. He was a twenty year old scared kid who'd been involved in a few innocent skirmishes before in his short life but nothing like this. He'd committed murder, he'd killed a man! Nothing was on his mind except escaping prosecution for the crime. He appeared and felt much older than his years; a ruthless Russian murderer showing little remorse about having just killed his friend. Nikolas selfishly, recklessly abandoned Charleston, the U.S. Navy, and his young wife and child. Hating what he'd become, his spirit subtracted from him, the memories of the look on Jeremy's face cutting into his heart as he ran towards the slow-moving freight train.
The young sailor never looked back feeling confident that he'd get away with the murder knowing that Jeremy was an orphan, and in Nikolas's sociopathic mind, he believed that no one cared if Jeremy lived or died. The midnight escape from the horrific bloody scene on the Charleston, 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 Vick's altered driver's license, pay check and social security number for identification Nikolas Vladimir soon thereafter became Nick Viktor; vowing to never reveal his interior life to anyone for fear of being charged with murder and military desertion. Thoughts of the prospect of having to spend years in prison for the horrendous crime he'd committed were more than he could stand.
Nick Viktor altered his appearance to more closely resemble his dead friend Jeremy by growing his hair long and sporting a beard. Along his journey west he proceeded to make a decent living as a cheating gambler. He'd learned to figure things out at a young age professing to be a master at poker at the age of twelve.
The new friends and associates Nick met in the small towns and cities he traveled through making his way cross-country by rail car to Las Vegas were a variety of thugs, bums, cheats, and angle shooters. Viktor fit in with the rough crowd quickly earning the reputation of being a liar and a cheat. He constantly reminded anyone that would listen that it was his opinion that class and poker did not go together, and that he had no class.
Those who got to know him well believed whatever came out of Nick's mouth was a lie. He'd taken risks and gambles in life that most men of his young age would've never considered. At the age of ten in Charleston he'd employed several neighborhood friends in a lawn mowing business. He was the boss. His friends did all of the work and he collected what was owed, distributing half of the earnings to his friends and pocketing the rest claiming it to be his take.
Nick bet on everything going on around him. The time he spent riding the rails was used to figure out a system on how to beat the dog tracks. He made a decent living, using his illegal system, at the greyhound dog tracks he came upon as he traveled across the country.
It was on a stay over in Oklahoma City at the local dog track that Nick met Deuce Beckett. Observing the lone gambler Viktor saw that he'd made 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 him over from head to toe, Deuce recognized the unshaven Russian as the man he'd seen standing next to the cashier's window earlier in the day. "You bet! You can buy me a beer. Where you from stranger? I haven't seen you around here before today."
"I'm hopping freights' making my way to Nevada; been riding the rails for over a year now stopping here and there to make a few bucks at dog tracks." Walking together towards the bar Nick pulled a five dollar bill from his full wallet.
Smiling a toothless mile, 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 lives there. I haven't seen her for thirteen years. What's it like riding the rails? It looks to me like you could afford to buy a bus ticket." Looking at him coolly, Deuce rolled a cigarette offering the unlit, crude, paper-wrapped smoke to his new friend.
Smiling, shaking his head no, Nick 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 while sharing only limited information about their respective pasts. They drank their beer down in a hurry agreeing to meet at the railroad station shift yard at dusk.
The freight train was pulling slowly away from the station when they arrived. Nick motioned for Deuce to jump onto a passing rail car and he followed suit. They climbed on top of the cattle car loaded with fine-looking beef cows headed for slaughter both seeing at the same time a tunnel looming in the near distance. The car they'd climbed aboard was three rail cars back from the locomotive's coal engine. The new friends quickly lay down flat on the roof of the cattle car as the locomotive entered the tunnel.
When the train emerged out of the other side of the tunnel Nick 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 smiling a toothless smile, said, "You don't look so God awful white yourself son." The pair were covered in thick black soot. The black smoke billowing from the old coal engine had blackened everything but the whites of their eyes and Nick's teeth.
They were relieved to feel the train slow down allowing them to jump from the top of the cattle car to the roof of an adjacent box car. The train continually slowed and the men lowered themselves down into an opened side door of an enclosed box car. Relieved to be safe inside they hunkered down for a nap, paying no further attention to their filthy sooty appearance, they continued their rail trek west.
The tired blackened hobo's remained on the train for the next two days sharing a jug of water and existing on a large bag of peanuts. When they jumped from the train in Flagstaff, Arizona, they first headed for the men's room of a local gas station to wash off the remaining soot and change to a set of cleaner clothes; then they headed for the Flagstaff saloon hoping to partake in a local game of poker.
As they'd traveled by rail across New Mexico and Arizona over the past two days, the new friends discussed in great detail Vick's proven method of cheating in poker. A tired Deuce assured his cheating friend that he understood what he'd learned and that he was ready to give his knowledge a try in a game of poker.
They cleaned up in the old Flagstaff saloon that evening; cheating local poker players out of over five hundred dollars; winning every hand dealt.
The rail riding friends split their winnings parting ways later that evening when the Flagstaff poker game ended.
Deuce walked out of the saloon with his arm draped around the neck of the scrawny barmaid who'd plied them with free liquor during the card game. They went their separate ways walking towards a dimly lit boarding house at the end of the main street. "I'll see you in Vegas Nick. I think I'll stick around Flag for a few days. I need to catch up on my beauty sleep!"
Nick waved goodbye to his friend, sad to see him go. "Sure Deuce. You have a good time. I'll see you in Vegas.