Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: Don’t Smoke in Bed; Part 1 of 2
The woman at the corner table, under the awning, reminded me of Sabine.
Her sun-bronzed complexion and long, unruly black hair, seen through a cloud of cigarette smoke, sold the image.
The simple white blouse she wore gleamed in the last of the days' light while the creeping shadows blunted the bright reds in her skirt.
I shifted my seat to get a better look at her. If she noticed me she was good enough not to say anything about it.
A waiter with a thin mustache and a prematurely receding hairline brought me a fresh Pernod I didn't remember ordering.
“I see now why Monsieur prefers our little bistro to those on the river,” he whispered.
He set the glass down and poured some water into it.
I watched the liquor turn milky.
“The river stinks,” I said. “Besides, if I wanted to look at Americans all day I'd have stayed home in New York.”
“But the view on the Seine, it is beautiful, no?”
I nodded toward the street in front of the bistro.
“I like the view here just fine, Jean-Claude.”
He looked at the row of shops across the street. I looked with him, spending a little extra time on a red brick building off to my right. The storekeeper of the fish shop on the bottom floor was out front, tidying up ahead of the late evening rush. Lights showed in the window of the apartment upstairs.
Thunder rumbled somewhere over the city, mixing with the traffic noise and bits of conversation from passersby.
Jean-Claude looked to the darkening sky.
“Shall I move you to table under cover, Monsieur?” he asked.
“It's all right. I'm fine where I am.”
“But you will get very wet!”
“You say that like it's a bad thing.”
“Monsieur will not be offended if I retire to the dining room until the rain stops?”
I gave him the stink-eye but my heart wasn't in it.
“Tell you what, Jean-Claude. You go on in. Stay as long as you like. The bottle stays with me.”
He plunked the bottle down in front of me and brought me a full pitcher of water.
“Monsieur is a crazy American.”
“Monsieur is a paying customer, Jean-Claude. And what did I tell you about the, 'Monsieur', business? You know my name. Use it.”
He straightened his apron and leaned in with a conspiratorial grin. It made the corners of his little mustache point up.
“Enjoy the rain, Monsieur Mike.”
He grinned some more, then quick-stepped it through the door.
The brunette finished her cigarette and stood up. She gave me part of a smile as she dropped some money on the table and grabbed her purse.
I saluted her with my glass of Pernod.
She glanced at me and smiled again as the last of the smoke blew away.
That half-smile chased the resemblance to Sabine. Sabine never did anything halfway.
I admired the woman's curves as she walked away, then turned my attention back to the apartment over the fish shop.
The lights were still on.
I drank some of my Pernod and settled in to wait for the rain.
Never in my life had I met someone who smoked as much as Sabine.
I couldn't have picked her out of a police lineup unless they filled the room with cigarette smoke before pulling the blinds.
She smoked everywhere. Elevators. Phone booths. She smoked on the bus, in the street, and at the cafe. She smoked with drinks, smoked before, during, and after meals.
She smoked in bed.
She had a cigarette dangling from her lips when she let herself into my second floor office near the end of a boring Thursday afternoon.
She cut quite a figure in the doorway, lit from behind by what remained of the sun.
I started with her boots, good leather, soft and comfortable-looking, and worked my way up her orange and ochre skirt to the tight black top under an equally black suede crop jacket.
She had a small brown purse in one hand and a larger bag that looked like it might hold a bowling ball in the other.
I got a long stare as she took a heavy drag on the cigarette, then let the smoke out. She tossed her long, untamed black hair over her shoulder.
“They say you are the man to see if one has... problems.”
I looked up from the scattered pile of bills on my desk, rolling her exotic vocal inflections around in my head.
“They say a lot of things in this town,” I said. “Might help if you could tell me which, 'they', we're talking about.”
She sauntered into my office and took the client's chair opposite me.
Neither of us spoke until she finished her cigarette.
I slid an ashtray to her,
“All right. What's the problem?”
She reached into her little brown purse and came out with another cigarette.
I fired up a match and gave her a light.
“All right,” I repeated. “I'll ask you an easy one. What's your name?”
She let the smoke curl out of one side of her mouth, then said, “My name is Sabine. Sabine Durant.”
She told me she was German. Her deeply tanned skin tone and the soft d's and buttery l's in her speech pointed to origins in parts further east.
“We left Munich for Paris before the war. My parents preferred French disdain to homicidal nationalism in the country of my birth. Not many of us got out.”
I couldn't think of anything to follow that declaration so I nodded and watched her smoke.
The phone rang, not giving the silence the chance to get awkward.
I grabbed the receiver.
A man with a deep, commanding voice greeted me.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Meltzer. I haven't called at an inconvenient time, have I?”
The King's English, clipped and precise. He'd worked hard to master the language and wanted everyone to know it.
“Would it matter if you had?”
“I'm glad to see that you already understand the nature of our relationship. Mrs. Durant has chosen her emissary well.”
I could hear the satisfied smile in his voice.
“I wouldn't be glad just yet. I'm not really that bright. Who am I speaking with?”
“You are speaking with a man who is not to be trifled with.”
“Keep your shirt on, mac,” I groused. “No one's trifling with you or anyone else.”
“Mrs. Durant has told you of our demands?”
I picked up the phone and took it with me to the window.
Nobody seemed to be looking toward my building-- not the two women in evening dress, not the chubby shopkeeper sitting in front of his store across the street, and not the guy in blue coveralls who hung around the lamp post on the corner every day, rain or shine. Only the guy in the fedora and the gray suit paid us any attention. He stationed himself by the flower cart and worked hard at looking like he wasn't looking.
I glanced over my shoulder at Sabine. She blew out a smoke ring and crossed her legs. I watched the movement with interest.
“We were just getting around to that,” I said. “Maybe you'd like to fill me in?”
“No, Mr. Meltzer. I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise. I'm sure Mrs. Durant will tell you everything you need to know. I'll be seeing you. Soon.”
The line went dead.
I walked the phone back to my desk.
“You were followed here, weren't you?”
“Are you asking me or telling me? I took the liberty of telling them you would be assisting me in this matter,” said Sabine. “I trust you don't mind?”
I dropped into my chair and gave my temples a good rub.
“Why would I mind that?”
She lit a third cigarette with the butt of the second, smiling as she did so.
“You're thinking of telling me to go to hell. But you won't.” She dropped the stare on me. “Because if you do, you will never know why I sought you out.”
“Why don't you start by telling me what it is you want from me, Mrs. Durant?”
“Please,” she said. “Call me Sabine.”
“Bully. I'm Mike. Now that we're pals, Sabine, what's the story?”
She smiled at me. It was some smile. Half of me would've done anything in the world to see it again. The other half wanted to hide under the desk and never come back out.
“I want you to get my husband back for me.”
I dug a notepad and a pencil out of the lap drawer and slapped it down in front of me. I nodded for her to continue.
“Husband,” I murmured. “His name?”
Something shook loose in my memory. Herve.
“Herve Durant? The Herve Durant?”
I opened the drawer and threw the pad and pencil back in.
Herve Durant. Club owner. Entertainer. Man about town. Wanted for a string of crimes committed in four countries. I'd never met the man but couldn't help seeing him around.
“You call the police?”
“There can be no police involvement.”
“Do you know who has him?” I asked.
“He was not taken from from home. I did not recognize the voice of the man who called to demand payment.”
“So this is about money, and only money?”
She smirked around her cigarette.
“What else could it be about?”
“Where do you want me to start?”
She laughed, low and sultry, like I thought it'd be. A guy could get used to hearing that laugh.
I got up and went back to the window. If the guy in the fedora was still hanging around I couldn't spot him.
“How much money are we talking about?”
She told me. A thrifty man could run a small country with the sum she named.
“It had to be more than what they'd get for turning him in, Mr. Meltzer.”
“And you have it? Ready to go?”
She pointed to the bowling ball bag.
I sat down, facing her, on the edge of my desk.
“All right. Give me the lowdown.”
She smiled again and allowed me to light another cigarette for her.
“It is a simple arrangement. Pont Neuf. Eleven o'clock tonight.”
“Even exchange? Herve for the dough?”
“That is my understanding.”
I got up and walked back behind my desk. I picked up the phone.
“What are you doing, Mike? They agreed to your involvement. No one else.”
“I'm sure they'll have spotters on the bridge. I want one of my own. Trust me. They'll never know he's there.”
She raised an eyebrow at me.
I gave the operator the number and waited to be connected.
“Wilson,” I said when I heard the click, “got a situation. Pont Neuf, eleven o'clock tonight. Left span. I need your eyes.”
I heard two clicks in response.
I could always count on Wilson. He'd been a loyal friend since the day I found him bleeding in a Latin Quarter alley and brought him to the hospital. Turned out he had no family so I stayed with him, footed the bill when the time came, and got him set up in an apartment near my office. He didn't take kindly to the assault that put him in the hospital. He spent the next three years doing nothing but learning how to fight and practicing stealth.
In all of that time, the man never spoke a word. Not one.
Sabine went to the window and looked out.
“Who is Wilson?” she asked as I hung up.
“Guy I know. No one's better if your back needs watching. He's a good man to have around when I'm expecting trouble.”
She turned and hit me with that smile.
“Do I trouble you, Mike?”
“You do, Sabine. You do.”
It was my turn to smile. I scored a direct hit.
She joined me by the window. I felt her breath on the sides of my face and neck. Her perfume smelled a little like cinnamon.
“Good,” she said, leaning forward to see what I was looking at.
“Back up a sec, willya?”
I wrenched the window open and ducked my head out. I spotted the fedora man back at his post by the flower cart.
“Hey,” I called down.
I whistled at him until he looked up. The glare he gave me would've curdled buttermilk.
“Listen, Mrs. Durant and I are going to Desaulier's for some grub, then over to the Fur de Lis for a cognac or two before heading for Pont Neuf. You know where they're at?”
He held the glare for a few more seconds, then, honor satisfied, he stuck his hands in his pants pockets and walked away.
I shut the window.
“Desaulier's,” said Sabine. “You have expensive taste.”
“Don't worry. It'll be going on my expense report.”
“I have no doubt of that,” she replied, unable to keep the amusement off her face.
I grabbed my hat off the coat rack and led Sabine to the door.
“It's just after five now. That gives us plenty of time to get to know each other.”
I locked the office door behind us.
“I do believe, Mike, that you are a perfect scoundrel.”
I offered her my arm. She took it.
“Thanks, doll. That's the nicest thing anyone's said about me in days.”
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Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.