RUNNING WITH THE IRON ROOSTER - MICHAEL J. SOLENDER
This story was an Editors Choice selection in the recent Flash Forty Contest Sponsored by Editors Unleashed and Smashwords. It appeared in the anthology released this past July.
I didn't much fancy losing either of my pinkies to Toshi, the Yakuza owner of my $30,000 gambling markers.
"I need a big favor, pal-sie," Toshi told me. "My face is too familiar at Russian customs right now and I need to get some cargo to Irkutsk. You take care of this for me, and you're debt-free, plus you get a special bonus."
It didn't occur to me to ask what the three jump drives Toshi handed me contained. I simply agreed. Nor did I argue when he told me I wouldn't be flying but rather taking the train, the Trans-Siberian from Khabarovsk to Irkutsk.
Sixteen hours later, I was in a tourist berth on the Rossiya, jerking out of the murky, charmless Khabarovsk station with the tiny jump drives in the money belt tucked inside my baggy drawers.
Several hours in, an earsplitting scream interrupted the rhythmic chukka-chukka of the train and jarred me from the daydream hypnosis I had willingly yielded to. I looked to the end of the car at the bench below the samovar and saw our provodnita, the car attendant, was alternatively screaming and laughing hysterically. An amorous Buryat was practically sitting in her lap and gnawing on her ear, his right hand buried deep between her legs.
I needed some cigarettes and could tell by the thirty minute interval on the schedule that Belogorsk would offer more than an isolated platform where mail and other freight would be offloaded from the rear cars of the Iron Rooster.
At the station, the morning sun half illuminated the platform which was filled with babushka-clad, gap-toothed ladies in heavy woolen coats. I dipped into my money belt for a few rubles to pay for my cigarettes and began to panic when I realized one of the jump drives I had been entrusted to deliver was missing.
The panic that had turned to terror when I thought I'd lost one of Toshi's Irkutsk-bound jump drives subsided when I realized the missing data receptacle had embedded itself into the lining of my money belt. Yakuza boys don't take kindly to couriers who fail to discharge their duties. My pinkies on each hand feeling momentarily secure, I let myself fade to sleep upon re-boarding.
The train pitched as it arrested coming into Magdagachy. I got off for a quick smoke and saw an uncharacteristically stylish woman of about thirty getting into one of the First Class compartments. She was sable sleek in her tight designer jeans, oversized shades and chestnut brown and white fur. She was carrying a large Gucci bag.
An hour later, I caught my foot on the ill-designed connector bridge between rail cars and hurled forward only to have my fall broken by landing smack into the arms and billowy bosom of the cream-colored woman I had seen board the train. She half laughed and mumbled something in Russian then quickly realized I was American. "You're not too fleet of foot are you?" she asked in flawless English.
"Please let me make it up to you with a drink in the lounge car?" I asked, cringing at my own lame come on but hoping nonetheless she'd agree.
"I don't like the view there," she purred. "Come up to my car. I'm very bored and want to practice my English."
Discretely feeling at my money belt to make sure my contraband was still safely in place, I said, "I'd be delighted, my name is Jason, Jason Frazier."
"I'm Lyudmila." Her eyes darted furtively up and down my disheveled form. I'm sure I was a sight. I hadn't planned on chasing skirt on this trip, but opportunity was knocking.
The beefy provodnita who had shooed me away in my repeated earlier attempts to penetrate the First Class cars was now serving me tea with milk and honey in Lyudmila's private berth. It was perfectly appointed with fresh tulips, crisp table linen, assorted tinned shortbread and chocolates. Her laptop was open on the fold-down table, the tubular screen saver making exotic geometric designs in perfect rhythm to voice of the chucking train.
"I must excuse myself for a moment," Lyudmila informed me an hour and three cups of tea into our conversation. "I need to pee."
The content of the jump drives in my money belt had not entered my consciousness for almost a week. My curiosity suddenly awakened, I impulsively thrust one of the drives into the USB port on Lyudmila's laptop just as she was returning to the curtain drawn berth.
Lyudmila cocked her head at a bemused angle and pursed her lips in wonderment as I tried to wrestle the drive from the USB port from her laptop. "Please let me help you," she said. "I know you don't understand Russian and our keyboards are different. You'll have quite a time navigating on my PC."
She had the single file on the drive open in a flash. It was a multi-tabbed excel workbook with reams of data under oddly named headers like dosage, white cell count, and capacity.
"This is clinical trials data," she said in the most matter-of-fact way. "Biotech firms spend big money on this stuff."
My face froze as I got off the train in Irkutsk and saw Toshi, holder of my gambling markers and amputater of small digits, in the arrival hall with several of his Japanese tomodachi.
I never figured Toshi for the industrial espionage type, much too rough for that I thought.
"Pal-sie, you got my cargo?" he asked, picking his teeth with a pocket knife.
I handed him the jump drives and he handed over my markers.
"Here's your bonus," Toshi said thrusting a small, blue felt covered jewelry box into my reluctant grasp. I opened it and took out a gaudy, chunky gold Pinky ring.
I was only too happy to slip it onto my little finger, still firmly attached to my left hand.
BIO: Michael J. Solender lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife Harriet, where they obsess over their garden. He hails originally from the sometimes frozen tundra of Minneapolis, MN. There, he ignored (only once) his mother's advice to pursue a career in medicine and became a Corporate Klingon. A recent Corporate Refugee, Solender is a freelance writer whose opinion and satire has been featured in The Richmond Times Dispatch, The Winston-Salem Journal, and Richmond Style Weekly. He writes a weekly Neighborhoods column for The Charlotte Observer and is a contributor to Charlotte ViewPoint. His micro-fiction has been featured online at Dogzplot, Gloom Cupboard, Full of Crow, A Twist of Noir, Thrillers Killers 'N' Chillers, 6 Sentences, Powder Burn Flash, and Flashshot. He blogs at Not From Here Are You?