|Image CC-BY by Foxtongue|
by Fritz Bogott
If the briefcase had been handcuffed to my right arm, I would not have been able to eat the coach-class lasagna.
I had landed on the steward's shit list first thing by being unable to stow the case for takeoff. I showed him a series of awkward doubled-over, arm-extended stows until he finally walked off in disgust.
"I'm a courier," I told my row-mates. "I get free tickets."
They crowded against the far edges of their seats.
The leather case made a convenient tray-table for my Diet Coke (which left a ring, which may come out of my pay), and my immediate neighbor left his Coke there for the duration of a bathroom visit (he used a DVD as a coaster, which I suppose was a sign of good parenting). My own bathroom visits were conspicuous and clumsy, but I managed not to batter anyone in the aisle seats (which improves on my record from my recent Boston-to-Bishkek flight.)
I finished the lasagna one-handed, waited for the disapproving steward to remove the tray, and then put my head down on the case for the duration. I woke up on the descent into Beijing with a playing-card-sized briefcase mark on my forehead.
The situation at Customs ought to have been difficult bordering on dangerous--what with the preposterous cuffs and my inability to open the case--but my agent in Toronto had handed me a sheaf of inked, stamped and embossed rag paper and told me not to worry.
"Bu yao guai wo," I told the Customs agent, and shrugged.
The agent carried the papers to her supervisor. The two of them stared at the papers for a long time, then took the papers out of the room. I sat.
When they returned it was raised eyebrows and shrugs all around, and they told me the case and I were free to go. I walked out into the terminal.
"Hickinbottom" said a chauffeur's sign. "Eichelberger." "Atapattu." "Delgado." "Smith." "Wang."
My contact was not there.
I found a seat and sat, case-in-lap.
After ninety minutes I walked to the food court and bought a danbing.
"What's with the briefcase?" the vendor asked.
"Courier," I said.
"What's in it?" he asked.
"No idea," I said. I rattled the contents.
"Unlucky," he said.
I set the case on the counter and counted out coins.
"Can I have extra hot sauce?" I said.
He squirted hot sauce on the pancake and rolled it up. Something rustled in the case. Papers settling or something.
"Good luck," he said.
"Good luck, hell," I thought. "I need luck like a librarian needs luck. I need luck like a file clerk needs luck." But my contact never showed.
I hadn't planned on an overnight stay. As it turned out, my budget only extended as far as a dingy hostel with a partial view of the Chongwen Stomatological Hospital. Unable to undress, I cleaned myself up as best I could in the shared washroom and walked downstairs for a bowl of chili-noodles and fifteen minutes of public Internet.
"What the hell," I messaged my agent. "Where's the contact?"
"GIVE ME 1 HOUR," he answered (damn him and his caps lock). "I WILL EMAIL."
I finished my noodles and got a foam cup of tar-like black tea (tea tar? Tartar tea? Tartar tea-tar?) to go. I stepped outside and felt a firm hand on my elbow.
"Welcome to Beijing," a woman's voice said. "If you could come this way, please?"
I tried to turn for a clear view of her but she did something surprisingly painful with her fingers.
"You picked the wrong guy to mug," I said. "I barely have money for beer."
"This way, please," she said.
I tried to jump into the street but only managed to pivot on her hand and stumble off the curb. She jerked me to my feet and shoved me into an alley. The contents of the case shifted audibly.
"Hey," I said.
There was a tiny, wiry man in the alley with a green Keroppi toolbox. "Hacksaw or bone saw?" he asked.
"Hacksaw!" I squealed. "Take it!" I held out the case, which let out a muffled dish-breaking noise.
The man looked at the woman.
She pulled a pistol from her waistband. "Hacksaw," she said. "Unless that doesn't work."
The man set to work on the cuff, which quickly got hot. I clenched my teeth.
"What's in there?" I asked. "It sounds broken."
They ignored me. The contents of the case thumped along with the strokes of the saw.
"Is it working?" I asked. "The hacksaw?"
The man lifted the saw and squinted at the cuff. I squinted too. All his sawing had left a barely-visible scratch. He reached for the toolbox.
"Wait!" I said.
I looked at the woman. She shrugged.
The man pulled another saw from the case.
"How is a bone saw different from a hacksaw?" I asked. "They look the same!"
The man lowered the saw to my wrist.
"Go ahead," the woman said.
The case made a sudden jerk on the pavement and I stumbled forward.
"Hold him," the man said.
The woman stepped toward me. The case jerked again.
"Sorry!" I said.
She dug her fingers into my shoulder. My arm went numb.
"Wait!" I said.
The man lowered the saw.
"Coward," the woman said.
There was a loud thump, and a hole appeared in the case. I twisted my neck, looking for the source of the shot. The woman was looking, too.
Another thump; another hole.
The man was packing his tools.
Another thump. "Stay, both of you!" the woman commanded.
"Bu xin," the man said. He walked quickly down the alley.
Another thump, and the case opened a crack, held by one latch.
The woman was trying to cover the invisible assailant with her pistol. "Stay here!" she shouted.
The case burst open in a storm of feathers.
The woman fired three shots--or was it four?--but I was already running, the burst-open case dangling from my wrist.
"Get back here!" she shouted, and fired again, and I was running full-out, down the block and through the doors of the first shop I came to.
"Back door!" I screamed, and the elderly shopkeepers waved their arms as I ran past. I burst through a steel fire door into dark airshaft full of laundry. I dived under a pile of boxes and lay still.
Minutes ticked by. The laundry on the lines was grey with coal dust. There was movement at the back door, but it was just the old man looking out. I heard a sound like a pillow being dropped on a bed. There, blinking at me, was a downy chick the size of a medicine ball.
"Hello," I said.
The chick tilted its head.
"I'll buy you some cornmeal," I said, "when it's safe to come out."
The old man peeked out again. His eyes widened when he saw the chick.
"Old man," I said, "I need to ask you a personal question."
His eyes remained fixed on the chick.
"Perhaps," I said, "you arrange discounts for someone in the neighborhood?"
His eyes shifted to me.
"Someone," I said, "who manages to make life slightly easier for you?"
He folded his arms.
"Someone," I said, "who removes rocks from your path?"
He pulled a handkerchief from a hip pocket and blew his nose with genuine violence. When he finished he snorted and said, "Don't be a pussy. You want to meet the local boss?"
We waited until just after dark. The old man's wife lent me a ragged laundry sack for the chick. It was a short walk. We climbed a flight of stairs over a liquor store. The old man knocked. "It's Wu," he said. "This jackass wants to see the boss."
A side of beef opened the door. I stepped inside, carrying the sack. The old man turned away and walked down the stairs. The beef shut the door behind me.
"I'm Li. I'm the boss," an old lady said. She was wearing a muumuu and slippers.
"Yes ma'am," I said. I pulled the sack off the chick. The chick and Li each blinked a few times.
"I don't want your chicken," she said.
"I'm not here about that," I said. "Let's talk about protection."
The chick kept growing for twelve whole months. When it was finished it was just under three meters tall.
"Big chicken," said my client. This was his first time.
"That's what you're paying me for," I said.
"Tell me," he said.
I had to search for weeks to find an affordable room with a four-meter ceiling. Then it took me a month to paint the characters on the floor. Muumuu Li fronted me the cash, but I'll be repaying her for years, especially after the thirty-percent cut I'm paying her for protection.
I threw a handful of corn onto the characters. The chicken paced and pecked. With each peck, I wrote down the character she pecked. Eventually she ran out of corn.
I handed the transcription to the client. "As you can see," I said, "we advise against the business opportunity you asked us about."
The client stared at the paper and frowned. "Why should I trust you?"
I turned my head and he followed my gaze. "As you can see," I said, "this is no ordinary chicken."