Dust to Blood (Red Slaves #1) - Chapter 1

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright 2012, Tonya Cannariato

I haven’t been home more than five of the past thirty days. As exotic as it sounds to be a staff researcher at the Stone Think Tank, it means I’m doomed to forever be trotting off to investigate my latest commission. Today (whatever today it is when I finally arrive) that commission is somewhere in Moscow, and I’m pretty sure it’s a wild goose chase.

Normally, I have no trouble tuning out the random passengers seated beside me. This time, the woman sitting by the window in our two-seat cluster shames me with her tale of feline rescues that would make a saint shudder. She actually took in a kitten with Spina Bifida and nursed her through a twelve-year lifespan with twice-daily pee and poo expression sessions. Of course, flying almost 5,000 miles together means I get all the dirty details. I had planned ahead with reading material, figuring one good-sized novel, the in-flight movie, meal, and some shut-eye would carry me through 10 hours of sitting. But how do you tell such a well-meaning do-gooder to shut up in the midst of such affecting tales?

On top of which, some crazy twist of fate has seated me next to a woman whose name is only one letter removed from mine. It’s a coincidence Ann noticed as we were sorting out boarding passes and carry-on bags. I’ve always thought my parents just ran out of creativity after the initial effort of gestation, so plonked an “e” at the end of a common name for their naming effort. The oddity of meeting someone whose family name is so similar (she’s a Cosby while I’m a Crosby) almost guarantees other comparisons. I’m glad to see she’s my opposite both in looks and beliefs. She’s a very short butter-ball, with blond hair and blue eyes, and is traveling with her church’s youth group as something of a mentor/adviser, while they make a tour of holy sites in exotic places.

I’ve never been much more than agnostic. I acknowledge the existence of mysteries and a force outside myself, but have never been much on organizations and their doctrines. This is another reason for my suspicion: my boss is a real conspiracy nut. It would be no skin off his nose to manufacture a case that forces me to delve deeper into pseudo-history and related apocrypha. In fact, he would have reams of research for me to read proving that there’s no such thing even as the “coincidence” of sitting next to a virtual name double.

But even as I consider whether he would have had the opportunity to meddle so ridiculously—who has the wherewithal to arrange those kinds of details when they’re already up to their eyeballs in work?—I mentally cringe at the memory of some of his other recent machinations. He’s definitely changed in the past year or so, and much as I might like the potential career trajectory I have working for him, he has gotten a bit creepy.

Which is as good a reason as any to continue to tolerate my worldwide peregrinations—including intrusive neighbors like Ann.

I’m trying to decide if I will need to come up with an excuse to ditch her, since we’ve bonded over the length of the trip. When I tune in to her ongoing monologue, I catch: “I’m so sorry you won’t be able to join us. We have the most amazing travel plan set up. Did you know Moscow alone has over 300 churches? There used to be over 1,000, but when the Communists came to power, they razed so many. It’s a crying shame. We’re still really going to be stretched thin to try to see them all. If I remember right, we’re starting in the Red Square and then moving out to the other districts of the city.”

The pilot’s voice over the intercom briefly interrupts her nattering. “We’re making our final approach to Sheremetyevo, so please check your seat for any items you might have removed during the flight. Enjoy the view of the morning sun lighting up the Moscow River. We know you have a wide selection of air carriers to choose from, so on behalf of myself, and this Chicago-based United flight crew, we’d like to thank you for flying the friendly skies.”

The stewardess reminds us to return our seat-backs and tray tables to their upright position in preparation for landing. Ann leans over again. “Are you sure you’ll be alright on your own in the city?”

“Moscow may be big, but I’m based out of Chicago, and am well-acquainted with research libraries from New York to Rome, so I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to fend for myself. Plus, my boss has connections here who are waiting to hear from me.” I mentally cross my fingers that this is enough to reassure her.

Since sleeping was a bust on the flight, my first order of business is to find my way from the airport (in the distant suburbs) to the downtown hotel I booked for the initial phase of my trip. There’s nothing like a solid ten hours of recycled air to make your skin feel like aged papyrus and your eyes a close cousin to sandpaper. I usually build in an extra travel day to allow myself an opportunity to acclimate to the new time zone and weather. Since my boss had told me to book the first flight I could find, and had only scheduled a short window to meet his associate, I wasn’t sure I’d manage that this time. His urgent request? To research Russian dragons.

If you’re like me, you’re rolling your eyes right now. As proud as the Scientific Library of Lomonosov Moscow State University is, and as great a breadth of natural science resources, modern facilities, and other conveniences as the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute Scientific Library has, I’m really not sure why Sam so-sure-of-himself Stone is insisting that I start there for this particular investigation. Or why it’s this crazy, hair-on-fire job that needs me in Moscow and working yesterday. Nonetheless, he gave me specific instructions to introduce myself to his longtime associate Igor Straslavski before starting any of the more traditional spade-work.

The commission is actually two-fold: There is a rumor of kids being housed in sub-standard apartments with no supervision and no formal schooling, and a lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo as well. They’re wards of the state, so I suspect the dragon angle is just tied to that lack of schooling. I expect to be doing more research into fairy tales and mysticism than heavy-duty scientific delving.

As I said, not really my forte, but maybe this is the trade-off for seeming to have come more distinctly into my boss’s focus: I get the exotic assignments that deal more closely with his pet theories.

Safely installed in my hotel room, I go through the laborious process of checking in with the office through the international exchange and house telephone. Despite the progress in the early Glasnost movement, I’m sure the lines are still bugged, so Sam’s guarded message reinforces my sense of the surreal. I guess Perestroika can only go so far when the vestiges of the State apparatus are still so firmly entrenched. In fact, the hallway duennas are still in place, as but one hold-over from the Soviet mandate that being unemployed is illegal—and by extension, keeping the State uninformed… immoral. His repetition of the message to get in touch with Straslavski is just going to have to hold for a few hours while my mind catches up with my body.

As I drift into that twilight state between waking and dreaming, I hope Straslavski is not only patient, but a worthwhile contact who can help me expedite my work.

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Dust to Blood (Red Slaves #1) - Chapter 1

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