SEVENTY-TWO HOURS OR LESS - MICHAEL J. SOLENDER
An entry in Jason Duke’s RED HOT Writing Contest
If she was so much as a rounding error off on her count, her beautiful face would all-too-soon feature the most indelicate of scars. Yoshi had recently promoted her, but his good nature and affection for Lyudmila did not translate into cutting her any slack when it came to the life blood of his set: money.
Lyudmila drew heavy on her third American Spirit of the morning. Nicotine caressed her capillaries along with the caffeine-laden Geisha coffee Yoshi paid thirty dollars a pound for. Her head was pounding. One hundred large unaccounted for and it wasn't even eight o’clock in the morning.
Yakuza boys were notoriously tough customers to deal with, but they didn’t scrimp when it came to amenities. When Yoshi asked her what kind of coffee she preferred, she jokingly told him Geisha. She’d read of it, though never tried it. He made one phone call and, an hour later, she had ten, one pound bags delivered to her harbor-side San Pedro office.
“Baby, anything you want, I can have for you in less than seventy-two hours,” Yoshi said to her for the twelfth time that week and perhaps the thousandth time since she’d known him. And damn if it wasn’t true, too. The man was connected. Globally connected.
Everything he did was deliberate. Letting her handle the wired overnight receipts and make the series of wire transfers was a vote of confidence, but if they didn’t tick and tie, not only would she be through, she’d have a neat little zipper across her cheek as a reminder of how mistakes are dealt with by Japanese mobsters.
She was a long way in both space and time from running girls on the Red Rooster from Khabarovsk to Moscow for her boyfriend and Russian tough guy, Nicolai. She had a similar profile to many of the destitute and hopeless farm girls on the Siberian plateau that will do anything to save themselves from a meager subsistence of growing potatoes or working in the canneries around Lake Baikal, Russia’s largest body of fresh water.
Of all ironies, Nicolai was her piano teacher. Her grandfather had insisted upon lessons once she reached her thirteenth birthday and showed interest.
Lyudmila’s initial crush on Nicolai gave way to puppy love and finally, at sixteen, she surrendered her virginity to his charms and promises of a better life. She was smitten with him. She loved to watch his slender fingers race across the keyboard. The brilliant opal on his right hand and multi-facet claret-colored ruby on his left were in matched settings. The rings were Nicolai’s signature, he was never without them.
Lyudmila learned the hard way just what a signature they made on her flesh. When he turned them to face inward and then slapped her about as he often did, the marks they made were indelible.
He was, however, her ticket out, and he was the one who initially introduced her to Yoshi in Vladivostok. Yoshi made good on his promise to smuggle her into the U.S. and ultimately set her up as a key player in his burgeoning Yakuza dealings stateside.
Leaving Nicolai was easy for Lyudmila. Forgetting him was another story.
She ran the numbers one more time and caught the missing hundred large that eluded her during each of her last smokes. She’d be ready with the receipts for Yoshi when he came in at nine, an hour from now.
In the old days, it was cash on the barrel head. They kept counters humming all night long when the longshoremen dropped off the dough from ‘importers,’ who took just the right containers from the cargo ships. 9/11 fixed all that. In spite of what the public knew or thought it knew, smuggling cargo in through the Port Of Los Angeles wasn’t near as easy as it used to be.
International trafficking in girls, dope and small arms, once favored for their easy marketability, had all but been eliminated from the repertoire of Lyudmila’s employer. Today’s dollars, yen and rubles were made in boiler rooms filled with laptops and a sea of guys running credit card scams, boosting active card numbers and selling them online.
Yoshi’s Yakuza boys employed teams of very sophisticated hackers who they financed to crack the codes to numerous computer sensitive transactions. Online retailers, airlines, credit unions and some smaller tier banks.
More and more the real money was starting to come with industrial espionage. Hacking into one of the big Pharmas and selling their secrets to those willing to pay was the new millennium way to cash in. It was also a hell of a lot easier than hacking through the firewalled, permafrost found at the banks and financial service giants. Increasingly, Yoshi had to rely on Russian hackers, the world’s best.
That’s precisely where Lyudmila came in.
She was his go-between, spoke their language and had their trust. Years of working with Nicolai in Irkutsk had taught her something of value and she was determined to use it to her advantage. That Yoshi made out was just gravy for her.
“Doll Face, how did we do?” Yoshi snuck up on Lyudmila who had just sent the last wire to Japan. Her satellite phone was ringing and Yoshi was signaling for her to pick it up.
“Nyet, no problem, thank you.” Lyudmila was very careful on the phone especially with Yoshi looking over her shoulder. She put the phone back into its charger.
“A good night, Yosh. Three-fifty from the CCs all sent to Zurich.” Lyudmilla paused.
“And?” Yoshi was not one to jerk with unless you wanted to see the back of his hand.
Lyudmila experienced enough physical abuse from Nicolai to last her several lifetimes. Twice each day, when she put her clothes on and took them off, she saw scars Nicolai left upon her breasts with his twin rings. They were nothing compared to the scars he imprinted on her psyche.
“And our friend in Khabarovsk has sent an advance from one of the petro-brokers off the Sea Of Japan. That was him on the phone just now, it’s all good.”
“You need anything?” Yoshi could be a gentleman when he wanted; he meant it when he asked her.
“No, just some sleep. I know if there is anything I really need that you can get it for me...”
Yoshi finished her sentence, “...in seventy-two hours or less. Don’t doubt that, Baby Doll. Many have lost that bet.”
“Not me, Yosh. You always deliver and I’ve never been disappointed. You want me to drop off Sachiko at school on my way home?”
“No, the nanny’s gonna do it. My princess overslept today and she didn’t come to work with Daddy.”
The nanny. Lyudmila had met her only twice but didn’t trust her with Sachiko’s lunch money. Yoshi burned through nannies at a rapid clip, that was for sure. He wasn’t trusting his precious cargo to just anyone. Not since his wife died from that rare form of leukemia. He held that little girl closer to his heart than anything in the world.
It was incongruous, really. This tough guy Japanese Yakuza mobster getting all squishy; a big blubbering bowl of Jell-O when his three year-old daughter came running up to him with her wide grin filled with those delicate little shoe-peg cornrows of teeth.
The way he treated Sachiko reminded Lyudmila of her grandfather back in Lake Baikal. Grandpa loved his little Lyudmila and promised her the world. For a seven year-old girl, he delivered, too. Special tiny cakes, filled with pudding that made her tummy flip with glee, hand-carved wooden ponies and, best of all, whisker rubs that endeared her to him more than any other man on this Earth then or since.
One of two men she ever really loved, Grandpa was the only good memory she retained from Mother Russia. Nicolai had seen to that.
“OK, Yoshi, I’m going then. See you tomorrow.”
“OK. Later.” Yoshi had his head buried in a technology briefing from one of the uber-hackers.
They were on the verge of a breakthrough that Yoshi was convinced would take them into the stratosphere of computer crime, the untraceable IP address. The rumors had churned through Interpol, the FBI and G-7. Some said that the earliest code came from Al Qaeda sleeper cells. It was Yoshi’s hackers that perfected it, though.
With this sophisticated intervention, they could go anywhere in cyberspace they wanted and leave no digital footprints. Yoshi got a woody just thinking about it.
As was her custom, Lyudmila stopped on her way home at the little bakery on Western that bordered San Pedro and Gardena. It was only six blocks from Yoshi’s and not far from her place in Redondo. Slipping back in her car after bagging two sticky-buns, she caught Yoshi’s Land Rover out of the corner of her eye.
It was unmistakably his: jet black with custom black chrome wheels, plus she saw Sachiko in the car seat and the nanny peeling out the opposite direction of the pre-school where Sachiko went.
She pulled a U-turn and began to follow her, not easy given LA traffic on a weekday morning. Lyudmila flipped open her cell phone and punched in Yoshi’s speed dial.
“Ah...you better get the boys out here, I’m at Western and Westmont. Your nanny’s got Sachiko in your Rover and they ain’t going to daycare. She's headed into PV, Palos Verdes.” Lyudmila tried to stay calm as she knew Yoshi was going to lose it.
She was surprised, shocked, really, at what she heard next.
“Back off, Angel Face, it’s a set-up. You ain’t supposed to be there. My guy has been on her all along. Sachiko will be in safe hands in moments. The nanny is in for a big surprise when she drops her off up on the hill. C'mon in, we’ll talk about it.”
Puzzled, she wasn’t sure what to make of what she just heard. Lyudmila found it hard to believe Yoshi would use his daughter in a set-up and put her in any type of danger, yet that’s what he just said.
She pulled her Honda into the lot that housed the crinkled aluminum building that faced Front Street. The mix of sea air, scents from the nearby fish market and the heavy diesel odor from the tugs created a perfume that was all too familiar for Lyudmila. She smiled to herself every time she walked up through the potholed lot thinking this little shit-box of an office generated more income than three quarters of the business in downtown LA. Tax free, too.
Yoshi was there at the door, his iPhone displaying streaming live video of Sachiko holding hands with Endo-san, Yoshi closest ‘advisor.’ Minutes later, the black Range Rover pulled up with the nanny, bleeding from her nose and a shiner developing around her left eye. She was accompanied by Oto-san, Yoshi’s number three bucho, or ‘manager.’
He waved them into the back room and kept Lyudmila back.
“Look, Lyudmila, it’s a long complicated story but here’s the gist of it.” Yoshi was pulling the drapes on the two tiny windows that let whatever small sliver of sun into the corrugated aluminum box where they spent the better part of each day.
“Yoshi, I don’t need to know, really. As long as Sachiko is safe.” She let her words trail off. Actually, for the first time in a long time, Lyudmila was scared. She thought she stumbled upon something that wasn’t going to turn out right for her.
“Stop, Sugar. I want to tell you. You did good, real good.” Yoshi kept turning his head to the sounds of the nanny whimpering in the back room. He’d be dealing with her soon enough.
“There’s some people that know about this masked IP address shit. It’s worth millions, maybe even billions. They know the only way to get to it is through me and the only way to get to me is through my baby. That ain’t ever gonna happen. I’m gonna send back that bitch to them in tiny little pieces as a reminder of what I do to people who mess with me and my kid. It’s gonna get rough around here for a while and I want you to take a vacation. Can you handle that?”
Lyudmila was stunned. In the last several years she’d heard of Yoshi playing hardball, heard him talk about it, threaten people but she’d never actually seen anything. This was way too real for her and she would happily hit the beach for as many weeks as Yoshi wanted her gone. She shook her head, unable to speak.
Yoshi pulled out a huge wad of one hundred dollar bills, peeled off at least twenty and gave them to Lyudmila. “Keep your phone on at all times. Check in with me every day exactly at nine, and don’t leave LA. When this shit settles down, we’re moving on to new digs and a new project. I’ll let you know when to come back. And if you need anything, anything, let me know and I’ll have it to you in seventy-two hours or less.”
Lyudmila shook her head again. She knew what was in store for the Nanny and couldn’t head back to her car fast enough.
“Hang on, Doll Face. One more thing.” Yoshi’s nostrils flared out. They did that when he was up to something devious. She saw the maniacal look in his eye. “You really did a good thing looking out for me and Sachiko. I’m gonna get you something, something you really want. Just make sure you’re home to sign for it day after tomorrow.”
Lyudmila managed to stutter, “No. Yoshi. No. Nothing, I don’t want nothing.” She loved the perks of her job but the last thing she needed was to be beholden to Yoshi. The way he smiled she knew he had something very expensive, or hard to get, or most likely both in mind. The seventy-two hour time frame he gave her led her to believe that it was no small order for Yoshi to arrange for.
“Oh yes, Angel. This is a unique set. You’ll be the first on your block to have such a complimentary pair. No choice, the wheels were already set in motion before you even got back here. Enjoy your gift with my gratitude. Later, Baby.”
With that, the door to the office closed and Lyudmila heard two muted shots. The heavy thuds were very similar to her car door closing and she was on her way home for a long shower and some deep, deep sleep.
“Ms. Kaspari?” The FedEx guy was an eyeful of candy and Lyudmila was doing her best to undress him in her mind as she signed for the specially packaged box. “It’s dry ice, Miss. Be sure you use gloves when you open it, you don’t want to burn yourself.”
The box was heavy for its size, which was not much larger than a donut box. The red tape with chunky black letters warned of dry ice and she recognized the customs markings and stamps which were in Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet. Bold letters stated that the box was cleared through an expedited customs process. She recognized the ‘importer’ signature as one of the shell companies Yoshi used to use when he had containers coming through the port.
She grabbed her garden gloves from the garage and tore into the box. A smaller Styrofoam container held two packets of dry ice and a still smaller box that was gift wrapped in silver and blue. Clearly this package sailed through customs with appropriate ‘grease,’ as it had not been disturbed since leaving Russia two days earlier.
Her gloves now off and the dry ice aside, Lyudmila fingered the wrap carefully for a moment and then, giving into to a primal urge, ripped it off. A small cherrywood box, no larger than a deck of cards lay before her. Her initials, LK, were hand-carved in a regal way upon the front of the box, which had a spring hinge that required a slight depression before popping up to reveal its contents.
Lyudmila gasped so loudly, she startled herself. It wasn’t the beauty of the rings, one opal and the other ruby that startled her. The fact that the rings were so recognizable and could only have come directly from Nicolai wasn’t even what had her covering her mouth and hyperventilating uncontrollably. What caused her physical reaction was that each ring was attached to a perfectly amputated ring finger, Nicolai’s fingers, which first made her gasp and now cry tears of relief and joyous revenge.
A small card was on the underside of the box. It simply read: Anything you want in seventy-two hours or less. Y.
BIO: Michael J. Solender doesn’t fancy jewelry. He blogs at Not From Here, Are You?
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