The First Flash Fiction Friday of 2012 involves a countdown, and has to include the words three, night, wire, sweat, and run. My entry is called "Money (That's What I Want)"
I started listening to music when I run as soon as I got a Walkman. When I was transferred to Moscow in the late spring, I made sure that was the first thing I packed in my suitcase, even though wiser heads insisted to me that someone would steal it as soon as they saw me, a 5 foot nothing waif with short brown hair and the strength of limp spaghetti, toting such sophisticated Western gear in the heart of World Communism. But my Walkman and I survived the trip, and soon I was running around Moscow listening to my favorite tapes. The locals stared at first, but eventually the "crazy American girl" became just another part of the endless days.
I was only a typist, taking handwritten notes and typing them up for the file. I didn't know, or care to know, what the abbreviations and code words and vague phrases were. We all knew we were among some CIA types, and we were all carefully instructed that every Soviet citizen would probably assume we were. So we just went about our business as normally as we possibly could, never going out at night alone, hanging around with other Americans.
I had changed into my running clothes, starting some long, slow stretches while deciding which three tapes to bring on my journey. I felt eyes on my back and straightened up quickly.
"Nelson? I need a favor." It was Tom Jenkins, who didn't have any fixed job, but was always drinking coffee in the cafeteria when I came in there. He was paunchy, divorced and bitter, and had made a half hearted pass at me when I first started at this post.
"What is it, Tom?" I played it cool. I didn't mind helping him, even if it was awkward. If I had to pick up something in a shop, I could take it slow, a welcome respite from typing up more memos.
"You run through Scruffy Park, right?" That was our institutional name for the small grassy area across the street from the consulate.
"You know that bench on the south side, near the rock that looks like Snoopy?," he asked.
"The one with the wire fence in front of it?"
"That's the one. Do you run by there?"
"I can. I go all different ways."
"Do you usually?"
"Like I said," I said, sounding impatient. "Sometimes I do. I vary my paths. I probably run by it twice a day, depending on which way I go."
"OK," he said softly. "I don't normally do this, but I need to be somewhere, right now, so I need you to do this for me." He held up a cylinder that looked like a tube of lipstick, with a wire sticking out of the top. "Look around the base of the bench, on the ground. Tie your shoe, stretch, change tapes, whatever you need to do. If you see something that looks like this, grab it and bring it back here. Stick it in your sock or something. If anyone notices you, or says anything, or if things seem suspicious, pull the wire out." He yanked on the wire, and I heard a hiss. A tiny curlicue of smoke left the side of the device and curled up towards the ceiling. "Then throw it away."
"What's in it?"
"Can't tell you."
"What happens when you pull the wire?"
"Can't tell you."
"Am I being a spy?"
"Can't tell you."
"And I'm supposed to do this for you why?"
"I need you to. We need you to. I can't tell you why, but this is important." He looked a little pitiful. I was nervous, but I couldn't resist the temptation to play secret agent for a moment. Plus having a favor I could call in wouldn't hurt. I agreed, and timed my route so I would be at the right place at the right time.
I had a good layer of sweat going when I rounded the last corner before the bench. There wasn't anyone else nearby, so I figured it would be safe to make the pickup. I had chosen "With The Beatles", knowing that I would come to the end of it 33 minutes into my run, knowing I would have to stop and change tapes, and I could scan the bench area when I did so. I had three minutes, about the length of the last song, "(Money) That's What I Want", to cover the quarter mile before the bench.
I half chuckled at the thought, as I headed down the last straightaway. Three minutes. A song about money, performed by young men who would go on to become some of the richest men who ever lived, pounding through my ears as I ran through the center of the workers' paradise, where wealth was supposedly abolished. I marvelled at the young, hungry John Lennon vocal- someone who lived in the lap of luxury in New York City, yet once was as utopian as the best Soviet dreamer.
Two minutes to go, as the next verse began. What was I actually doing? I wasn't a spy, I was a typist. Thirsting after the adventure got me to say yes without really thinking about it. What if they were watching the bench? I really don't know anything, so it's not like I can spill any secrets. The worst case scenario is I get sent home in disgrace and wind up typing for Vogue or something. It would still be scary, even while I know nothing bad would really happen- no torture, no lasers pointed at my crotch like in Goldfinger.
One minute. The piano came back in as the young Beatles brought the R+B standard home. I was getting near the bench. If they had dropped something nearby, it had to be a little while ago. I heard the song end as I began scanning the base of the bench. There were a few leaves and some scraps of paper. There was some encrusted dirt where the bench was bolted into the sidewalk, and a hunk of metal which may have been a screw at one point. I looked for the telltale plastic cylinder as I stopped, fumbling in my pocket for a second cassette. Was that it, by the back corner? It looked well used, beaten and scratched, and there was indeed a wire at the top. I walked around to the back of the bench, doing tiny stretches and leans, trying to keep my muscles loose in the still cold spring air.
In an instant of inspiration, I dropped the cassette, the new solo George Harrison album that Marcy had mailed to me, at my feet. As I bent to pick it up, I palmed the canister, which was cold to the touch. I changed tapes, jogging in place while I whipped my head around. Nobody in sight. Was I being a spy? Was there some secret document in here? Or was this all a ruse? I wouldn't put it past Tom to prank the new girl.
It seemed clear. No sirens, no policemen yelling, no commotion of any kind. It was a short jog back to the embassy, leaving the parcel on Tom's desk, then a quick, hot shower and back to my desk. My mind whirled at the possibilities. Had I just won the Cold War? Or was Tom just communicating with a secret Russian girlfriend? I started back towards the corner, looking at a tired looking gray taxi at the corner, its engine running, a Marine guard staring at it impassively. I pulled my ID out from my pocket, feeling the smooth plastic of my secret container. The guards all knew our faces, but we showed the ID anyway, just in case anyone ever checked. I was almost there, ¾ of the way across the street. Home sweet home, I thought, wondering what kind of a story this would back back in Virginia at Thanksgiving. They'll never believe me, I thought- little Ellie, engaged in spycraft, just like James Bond. I looked at the guard's face. It was one of the cuter ones, a blond who seldom spoke. I tried to give him a smile, knowing that my sweaty, sloppy ponytail was not exactly pinup material. I had almost made the gate, hoping all the salad wasn't gone from the cafeteria.
I saw the taxi leaving the sidewalk on my right, and I was steps away from safety. Was this it? Were they going to whack me with the car as an "accident"? Would I be a silly footnote in a buried CIA file? Was this the end? The cute guard was moving to open the gate for me. I was almost to the sidewalk. I could feel the cylinder jostling in my pocket as I moved. I passed inside the gate, safe from danger, real or imagined, and wondered what I was involved in now.