Many of you are familiar with the famed love story of The Titanic. Rich girl falls in love with poor boy, boy tragically dies in the sinking of the unsinkable. This isn’t that story.
This story goes beyond that of the rich and the poor and of a special class that traversed it all. Free to roam the promenade deck, crew quarters, or down in the nitty lower decks if they pleased; behind the passenger spaces and into engineering, dark corners behind exposed piping, boatswain’s storerooms, and below-water cargo holds.
Who are these people and what were they doing onboard the Titanic?
Well, like everybody else, they were there to make money. And what makes money? Sex.
Undocumented and omitted from the crew’s list, the Titanic offered a different service that wasn’t on the brochure. Without television, movies and internet, what did you think people did while underway for weeks during the 1910’s? You can only lounge in the pool for so long before your fingertips raisin, see the same show before it became mundane, drink and eat your fill. But sex? Sex was a sure bet.
Just like all businesses, it was organized. Comprised of a high society of managers and investors with profit margins and division. It was all hidden in the woodworks, snaked thickly under a façade that no one would know unless they knew what to look for. No money trail, no list of employees. Nothing. Word of mouth, someone who knew someone who knew someone else, and a bit of luck was what got you in.
April 10, 1912
“I want in,” said Clarke as she slapped a wad of notes on a pub table. “I want in, and I want in now.”
She had just under an hour when the location and description of the person revealed itself. An hour before the Titanic got underway.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the woman replied. She had dark hair with sharp eyes.
“In peace, may you leave the shore,” Clarke whispered, “in love, may you find the next.”
The woman reached out, collecting the notes and making a brief count by fanning the stack through her thumb before batting an eye back up at Clarke; studying her, judging her.
“The rest of it,” she said.
“Safe passage on your travels, until our final journey on the ground. May we meet again.”
Clarke got the verbiage right.
“You’re pretty, but sorry, we’re not looking for anymore,” replied the woman.
“Look,” Clarke clenched her jaw. “It took me months to find you, months for this opportunity. I just need one voyage.”
Of course, Clarke never expected to get into this line of work. Who does? But the job paid well, extremely well, and when she heard there was an opportunity onboard the Titanic, Clarke leapt at the chance. It didn’t take a genius to do the math. A ship that size with the amount of wealth onboard, she’d be set for life. One voyage, one trip, and Clarke could have it all—leave the life she’d gotten into and start anew. The American dream.
Clarke thought it would be easy to find the name of a contact, but the process proved more difficult than imaged. At first, Clarke went through her coworkers, but nobody went that high up. Then, she started going through her clients, the higher paying ones and finally, in the nick of time, acquired what she sought. But, the information came at a cost and Clarke scrounged the last of what she had; flipped the couch cushions, smashed the piggy bank, and sold her belongings. This was her chance and she wasn’t going to let it sail away. Literally.
“From what I’ve heard, with a ship like that, I’ll make more in mere weeks than what I’ve made in years. One voyage, and I promise I’ll get out of your panties.”
“Hm, feisty,” said the woman as she considered. “Women too?”
Clarke rolled her eyes, “Of course.”
Clarke found it interesting; those who paid the most weren’t single, rich men, but husbands with wives. Clarke didn’t mind.
The woman rolled the notes and shoved them in-between her bosom, “Fine. But your buy-in is going to be double for the late notice.”
Clarke dropped her jaw in anger. “It took me—”
“Did you want in or not?”
“Yes,” Clarke gritted her teeth. “But, that’s all that I have.”
“Not a problem, you can pay back the rest from what you’ve earned, with twenty percent interest.”
“Interest? You’ve got to be shittin’ me.” Clarke was feeling more swindled by the second.
The woman pulled the roll of notes out, about to toss it back at Clarke. “Fine, you can—”
“No,” Clarke said. “Twenty percent it is.”
Even with the payback price, Clarke was still going to be set after the end of all of this.
Clarke watched the woman produce a ticket; she seemed to have several on-hand and whispered to herself—something about someone not being happy about the late addition.
“Here,” the woman held the face of the ticket in low view. “When you get onboard, go to the bow on the main deck. There will be a woman there with a red scarf and a necklace that matches this,” she turned the ticket over which revealed a round symbol, similar to a ship’s wheel. “Give her the ticket. She’ll escort you the rest of the way.”
Clarke snagged the ticket. “Thank you.” And picked up her lone rucksack of sparse belongings and headed for the gangway.
If she thought snaking through the crowd on onshore was bad—ducking underneath rows of photographers, boarding the vessel itself was a nightmare. While crossing the narrow gangway, Clarke was pushed, pulled, tripped, and even grabbed.
Clarke whipped her head around, “Excuse me.”
The bastard chuckled, “Sorry little lady,” and kept walking.
“Bloody pig,” Clarke cursed under her breath as she approached the end of the brow.
“Ma’am,” the crewman tipped his hat. “Ticket please?”
She handed him the slip. While he scanned it, Clarke couldn’t help but wonder and let the worry momentarily flash across her eyes; hoped that she didn’t just dump her entire worth—which wasn’t much albeit, into a fake ticket.
He handed the ticket back to her and gestured, “Welcome aboard the Titanic.”
Clarke smiled; she was in. Literally, a foot into her future hopes and dreams when she stepped onto 46 gross tons of steeled perfection.
Once inside, Clarke couldn’t tell which direction was forward or aft. Not only was the vessel huge, but the crowd made it difficult to see and orient herself. People were lined up along the entire port side; men, women and children waving goodbye and blowing kisses to loved ones onshore. Clarke didn’t have that luxury, not in a long time.
At eight years old, both of Clarke’s parents died in a fire. Their apartment complex had gone up in flames and the firemen did their duty and saved Clarke first—the little blonde girl with smoke drawn tears, from the seventh story window just before the building collapsed. Since then, Clarke rotated through several orphanages until she was 14. Fed-up with the system, she left to make a life on her own. And well, life at 14 wasn’t easy. Clarke simply didn’t make enough money, which was how she ended up in the line of sex work, now six years later.
Finally, Clarke emerged on the far side of the vessel, the starboard side, where there were significantly fewer people and made her way forward. As the open deck of the bow revealed itself, Clarke spotted the one; a brunette well dressed in a black pea coat, white blouse, complete with a red scarf that regally waved in the wind. The outfit didn’t scream upper class, but the woman was well off. Very well off.
They made eye contact as Clarke stepped closer and pulled the ticket out of her pocket. She flashed it in the woman’s view and the brunette responded with a look of curiosity. Clarke hesitated for a moment—thought maybe it was the wrong person, until the brunette extended her reach.
“Who are you?” she said curtly.
“Clarke. Clarke Griffin.”
The brunette retrieved a small, folded paper from her coat pocket that will be burned later via cigarette and scanned the short list.
“I don’t have a Clarke Griffin,” she said and eyed Clarke with discontent. “Bloody hell Anya, I told her no more walks-ons.”
Clarke shuffled, switching her weight from left to right. “Please,” Clarke said.
After a long, overdrawn moment, the brunette raised her hand under Clarke’s chin and lifted Clarke’s face up into the light. The brunette’s stare was more penetrating than the woman in the pub. It would have been intimidating if Clarke wasn’t doing the same thing; studying the woman before her. The brunette was gorgeous; full plush lips under a perfect coat of burgundy lipstick, light makeup—she didn’t need much, deep vibrant green eyes, and curled locks of chestnut hair. She even smelled good.
“Have you sailed before girl?” the brunette asked, dropping her hand.
The brunette raised an eyebrow for details.
“Overnight ferries,” Clarke expanded on her experience.
“Mn, well didn’t you get lucky to land a gig like this one? Anya’s always had a soft spot for blondes, though they do typically attract more guests. Can you produce an American accent?”
Clarke cleared her throat, “Yes, I can produce an American accent.”
Clarke spotted the briefest hint of satisfaction in the brunette’s eyes.
“Even luckier. Not many of my girls can.” The brunette stepped passed. “Come. This way.”
She led Clarke along the starboard side, inside, and below deck. They passed through a main corridor filled with passenger cabins. The scent of brass polish and fresh oak stain wafted the hallways. It was the smell of new and rich. They continued forward to the crew cabins, an area without decor. Still new, but less rich, and stopped at a closet door.
The brunette opened the closet door.
Clarke didn’t know what she expected, but it was nonetheless, a closet. It was stocked with all the basic cleaning supplies; brooms, mops, buckets, and towels. However, the brunette gestured Clarke in, discretely closed the door behind them, and proceeded into the darkness. She pushed on the far bulkhead ahead and like magic, Clarke watched the wall rotate like a revolving door to reveal a hidden spiral stairwell that traveled an odd half deck below. They entered an invisible “tween-deck” that didn’t exist on paper.
If you pulled out an architectural drawing of the Titanic, the blueprint would show the closet, but no stairwell behind it. The hidden space was drafted into the original plans that were then discarded as soon as the last rivet was pounded in. Then, the blueprints were replaced by a replica; a mastery of concealment.
As they descended the stairs, Clarke heard commotion; people laughing, cards shuffling, and glasses clinking. It was a common space, not luxurious but not shitty either, furnished with lined couches, wooden tables, and a full bar scattered with drinks. The space was filled with mostly women, beautiful women, but also, a small pod of young men.
Walking through common area, the brunette turned down a hallway and into a small stateroom with two bunks. The upper bunk had already been taken with a bag atop, looks like Clarke was getting the bottom bunk.
“This is where you’ll be staying,” the brunette said. “You’re free to wander the decks, get an early gauge of customers, or do what you wish as the vessel sets sail. However, once the evening approaches, you’re expected to be available anytime during the night hours. Anytime. Is that clear?”
“Good. There are several exits from this space, but that closet is the only entrance you shall enter from. Understand?”
Clarke nodded again.
“Good.” The brunette turned to leave, but Clarke stopped her with a small touch of her elbow.
The brunette looked back with a quirked eyebrow.
“What’s your name?” Clarke asked.
At the strike of noon, the ship’s horn sounded three long blasts as it pulled away from the dock. Flowers, hats, and other celebratory paraphernalia littered the water below as the Titanic set sail. Ashore, people cheered with sparkles of flash photography going off like shimmering stars.
Clarke felt the low rumble of the steam engines lock into gear as the tugs separated. Plumes of smoke emerged from the stacks and masked the sky until the vessel picked up speed, carrying itself away from its black clouds.
Clarke always liked the fantail. She enjoyed the view from the aft rail, looking down at the three propellers that churned the ocean like a giant electric mixer. The blades sliced through the water and kicked up a white rush of bubbles that spilled over itself and waked out, leaving a perfect succession of waves.
She took a deep, relaxing breath. This was it. She felt guilty for her lack of remorse—so little care for her home country and ready to start anew in America. Her imagination played at the possibilities. What would she do? She could draw and paint. Sing and dance. Or even go to school. Clarke didn’t know how to read—aspired to learn.
The orphanages barely sustained enough funds to feed the children, let alone educate them. So, Clarke was left with just the basics, enough to get by. But what really kept her afloat was her quick and clever grasp of numbers. Arithmetic came easy to her, she had considerable experience gambling. Unfortunately, she found out the hard way—that if she won too much, “they” always found her and robbed her beyond her initial investment. By the end of the day, she lost more than she earned.
Clarke wasn’t sure how long she’d spent gazing out into the open sea, one maybe two hours. The shape of land was long gone and despite the mid-afternoon sun, a chill had picked up. It caused Clarke’s skin to rise and urged her inside. Sinking below deck and recalling the path Lexa lead, Clarke entered through the closet and down the spiral staircase.
The chit-chatter of all the workers amplified the tween-deck to a near deafening. And the cigarette smoke was at least triple fold compared to earlier. Clarke felt lost; she didn’t know anybody, but caught sight of Lexa along with the dark-haired woman she met at the pub.
There was no mistake about it, they were setting up a table. A poker table. And Clarke grinned.
“Need a fifth?” Clarke said as she approached the table.
Lexa looked up, and the woman next to her, scoffed.
“Are you joking?” said the dark-haired woman at Clarke and turned to Lexa. “This one’s got no money Lex.”
Lexa looked Clarke dead in the eyes. “No.”
“Oh c’mon,” Clarke leaned forward, placing a hand on the table and said with confidence. “Take it from my earnings. But I guarantee, you won’t need to.”
“Scram,” said the dark-haired woman.
Lexa raised her right hand, “Anya.”
It immediately shut the dark-haired woman up, apparently named Anya. Lexa didn’t even blink. “Clarke. Sit.”
To be told to sit in such a canine way was no doubt rude. But it didn’t prevent Clarke from smiling as she pulled the chair out across from Lexa. Anya sat to Lexa’s right and two other women filled the vacancies. Usually amiable, Clarke would have introduced herself to the other two women but didn’t care to. Not with her eyes locked on Lexa’s. Unable to look away.
Lexa’s piercing green eyes heeded a warning. But Clarke saw it as a challenge—wanted to take a machete to those forest greens as if to reveal a place of hidden secrets and ascend to unforeseen riches.
As Anya dealt, she spoke with a fresh lit cigarette in her mouth. “Aces high, no wilds, no limit. Ante up ladies!”
Purposely, Clarke folded the first few rounds to acquire a read on the other players, their tells and tendencies. She had a solid grasp on all except Lexa.
Lexa had a masterful poker face. Not a single clench of her jaw, lick of her lips, or gulp of a swallow. A stone face fitted only with roaming eyes; from her cards to the pot, to the other players, met Clarke’s eyes, and back down.
“I’ll raise,” Clarke said on her fifth hand. It was a shitty hand with a weak pair of threes.
The rest of the table matched her small raise. All except Lexa. “I’ll fold,” said Lexa.
Without doubt, Lexa was trying to get a gauge on her as much as she was Lexa.
Clarke raised again, significantly more this time which effectively caused the table to fold and start a new round.
“Raise,” said Lexa.
“Call,” Clarke said. She had a slightly better hand, a two pair, this time. “Actually, call and I’ll raise you.” And Clarke tossed in two more chips into the pile.
Lexa nodded and matched Clarke’s bet while the table around them folded.
“Let’s see it.”
Clarke presented her hand, “Two pair, king high.”
“Two pair,” Lexa repeated and with the slightest tick of discontent, “queen high.”
Clarke won and scooped the small pile towards her.
“Well ladies,” Anya announced, “looks like we have a game of poker.” And re-dealt.
It was clear the prime duel was between Clarke and Lexa. Anya didn’t last long after the first two players went and within the hour, only Clarke and Lexa remained. Their piles of chips were near equal; Lexa’s, neatly stacked in a tower and Clarke’s, in a mountain on her left. They were well matched, went back and forth, which gained a small audience. People began to make side bets at the start of each round.
Clarke gripped her cards. It was her best hand yet, a flush of hearts. She had to play this just right. Lure Lexa in.
“Raise,” Clarke threw in a small, almost laughable amount considering it was just them left.
“That’s all Clarke?”
Lexa pulled out a pocket watch. A curious item for a female Clarke thought, but didn’t go beyond that single introspect. It was also a tell, maybe Lexa was getting impatient with their volley. Or, maybe Lexa wanted Clarke to think she was getting impatient.
“Alright,” Clarke said, and spliced her hand down half her mound of chips and pushed them in.
“You do realize your… shift starts soon Clarke?”
Or was Lexa luring her in?
If she was, it was working. The inflection in Lexa’s tone was nonexistent and tempted Clarke. Cautiously, Clarke weighed her statistics. Lure aside, she was confident in her hand.
“Fine, we end this right now. All in,” Clarke said.
While several bystanders gasped, Lexa smiled, and Clarke swore she was going to work double to make up for her impending loss.
“All in it is.”
“Let’s see it ladies,” Anya said.
“Straight, ace high,” Lexa said and splayed her cards out in front. They looked pretty. A ten, three face cards, and an ace.
Clarke’s wasn’t so pretty, with low, mismatched numbers and non-face cards. But, she still had the upper hand.
And Clarke let out the dirtiest smile. Several “followers” she’d earned cheered behind her.
Clarke stood and leaned all the way forward onto the table, cupped Lexa’s tower of chips with her hands and slowly dragged them across—never breaking eye contact. To Clarke’s surprise, Lexa didn’t look mad. But more along the lines of… proud. A ghost of a smile played along her plush lips and green eyes gleamed of intrigue. It caused Clarke to swallow a thick gulp.
“Tomorrow,” Lexa said to Clarke. “We’ll do this again, tomorrow.”