Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: Don’t Smoke in Bed Part 3 of 4
(note- yeah, yeah, I know this started as a projected two-parter, then a three-parter. Well, it’s going to take four. Sabine & Mike still want to hang out with us…)
We stopped near the outskirts of a small country town. The truck let us out at a crossroads, then rumbled back toward Paris.
I breathed in the earthy smells of grass and farm animals, unaccustomed to the clean air they had everywhere but in the city.
Abandoned properties, with burned out houses and outbuildings, lay in every direction. Paris had been a destination, a prize the Fuhrer had wanted to take intact. Theses low countries had been the highways the Germans traveled on their way in. Recovery here was slow in coming, if it came at all.
Clouds moved in, obscuring the morning sky.
I did the best I could to ignore my throbbing head and queasy stomach. I'd have traded an arm for someplace to lie down.
Sabine put one arm around my waist, taking on some of my weight. She had the bag of cash slung over her other shoulder.
Both her blouse and skirt were stained with blood. A lit cigarette dangled from her lips.
I looked but I couldn't spot the three guys who'd been in the truck with us.
“What happened back there?” I asked her. “On the bridge?”
She took a couple of drags off her cigarette before answering me.
“What do you remember?”
A bunch of big black birds exploded out of the trees, flying low over the field.
“I remember knocking the Limey on his ass, then Herve got tossed over the side and Wilson went in after him. The black car made a run for it. Then my head hurt. You got anything to add to that?”
“You were struck from behind,” she said. “By the man you knocked on his ass.” She looked me in the face. “I shot him.”
“With his own gun. He dropped it when you hit him. I picked it up.”
I started to nod, but stopped. The motion made the pain and disorientation worse.
“What happened to Wilson? And Herve?”
She looked at me with what looked like genuine regret on her face.
“I do not know.”
“All right. Where are we now?”
“I am not sure. North of the city.”
“That's great. I need to get back to Paris. Now.”
“You wish to find your friend?”
“And your husband. That was the job. Still is.”
She made no reply.
Our three traveling companions bounded over the rise, all talking at the same time. Two of them carried armfuls of freshly picked root vegetables. The third had a bottle of wine and a loaf of hearty rustic bread.
Sabine laughed and said something in a language I didn't understand. The men smiled and nodded and offered me the first swig from the bottle. I took it.
When everyone had had a drink they divided up the bread. Bread and wine makes for a fine breakfast when on the road.
I also got first pick of the root vegetables. I passed on those.
“Why are they being so nice to me?” I asked Sabine.
“You are injured,” she said. “It is a courtesy.”
I looked at her sideways.
She grinned and lit another cigarette.
“They traded your pocket watch for our breakfast.”
I stuck my hand into my pants pocket, knowing what I wasn't going to find.
The three men guffawed. Sabine pulled me a little closer to her.
An involuntary smile spread across my face. I let it stay there for a few seconds, then chased it away.
“I meant what I said about getting back to the city, Sabine.”
“I have no doubt of that.”
“Then why do I have the feeling that we're waiting for something to take us even further from Paris?”
“I showed great trust in coming to you with my... problem, Mike. If you wish to help your friend-- if he can be helped-- you must now trust me.”
She leaned in and whispered, right into my ear.
“Do you trust me, Mike?”
I closed my eyes and breathed in her scent, her essence. My arms encircled her, without my knowing they were doing so.
She made no move to stop me. If anything, she pressed her body harder against mine.
I did not answer her question. Didn't need to.
The sound of approaching hoofbeats ruined the moment.
A large horse-drawn wagon stopped at the crossroads.
The driver-- a burly bearded man in a red headscarf and a rough canvas shirt with breeches to match uttered some sort of greeting.
Sabine returned it.
Our three friends climbed into the back of the wagon and settled into the straw in the bed.
The driver pointed a meaty finger at me and growled something at Sabine.
She growled right back, sparking a heated argument.
He stood it for as long as he could, which wasn't long enough.
Sabine chortled in victory and we both got into the wagon.
As she had in the truck, she positioned herself behind me, cushioning my upper body with her hips and thighs.
“Rest, Mike,” she whispered into my ear. “We are not far from home.”
The driver cracked his whip and we took off down the road.
I tried to stay awake but the constant motion-- and the warmth of Sabine's body-- lulled me into a not unpleasant stupor. I felt her fingers running through my hair as I drifted off to sleep.
Voices locked in argument roused me.
I recognized Sabine's voice. The other-- a man's-- I did not.
“You've put us in danger by bringing that... outsider... among us, Sabine,” he spat. The man spoke French with a thick Slavic accent.
“This, 'outsider', risked his life for me, Stefan,” she replied, also in French. Hers was much better. “I would be dead if not for his actions.”
“He has my gratitude for that, and my sympathy for his injuries, but he is still an outsider and cannot stay here.”
She snarled at him in the same language she'd used with the wagon driver.
“It is not our way,” said Stefan.
“It is my way, Stefan.”
He laughed. I didn't get the idea he found very many things funny.
“You've been among them for too long, Sabine. You have forgotten who you are.”
“I have not forgotten what it is like to be hurt and alone. And in need of the kindness of others.”
He took his time responding and when he did it was in a low.
“We have always done for ourselves, Sabine.”
“Not always, Stefan.”
I sat up in the wagon and regretted it right away. Up was up, though, and it seemed the better option. Every time I turned my head it felt like a wrecking ball crashed from one side of my cranium to the other.
Stefan appeared pretty much like I thought he would-- tall, dark, and dressed in rough homespun pants and a loose-fitting bright red shirt he filled out around the middle. He wore a well-kept goatee and had gold rings in each earlobe.
Sabine wore nothing but a slip. She held her bloody clothes and her boots in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other.
“Hey,” I called out, “not deaf over here! If we're gonna talk about me I want in on the conversation.”
Stefan stood there, glowering. He didn't even try to hide his annoyance.
Sabine shoved past him and came over to the wagon to help me down.
“Get over here and help us,” she hissed at Stefan. She stuck the cigarette between her teeth.
He rolled his eyes and made a show of shrugging before waddling our way.
I put a hand on each of their shoulders. They did the rest, getting me out of the wagon and onto terra firma. I was careful not to step on her bare toes.
She had some intricate tattooing on the insteps of both feet-- a concentric design made up of crossing lines-- done in the same deep red she had painted on her toes.
I took one step and then another. The legs seemed to be working.
The wagon we'd traveled in sat last in a circular line of similar wagons parked in a cleared lot somewhere well outside any city limits. I saw trees in the distance, ringing us in on three sides. The way to the city lay somewhere in the middle of that fourth side.
Signs of habitation lay all around me-- a campfire, laundry on drying lines, dogs. I smelled food cooking and heard conversations and laughter but the only two people I saw were Sabine and Stefan.
Stefan reached into the wagon and retrieved my jacket. My hat was nowhere to be seen. I liked that hat too.
“Here,” he growled, throwing the garment at me.
I caught it, straightened it out, and put it over Sabine's shoulders. She smiled at me as she slipped her arms into the sleeves.
“Thanks a lot, pal,” I said.
He gave me an exaggerated bow.
“Listen, Stevie,” I began.
“Stefan,” he shot back. He tried the threatening voice again.
“Whatever. I didn't ask to be brought here. Wasn't part of the decision making process.”
“Yet here you are.”
“Like the lady said, I'm working for her. Only way I leave is if she gives me the gate.”
“Which I am not going to do,” cut in Sabine. She stood by my side, holding onto my arm.
Stefan's face reddened. He opened and closed his fists, then thrust his hands into his pants pockets.
“As I'm sure you heard me say, Mr. Mike Meltzer, I am sorry that you got hurt while in the employ of one of our kumpania. Even if she's been living apart from us.”
Sabine rolled her eyes, blowing a stream of cigarette smoke in Stefan's direction.
“Kumpania?” I asked.
“Family,” explained Sabine. “Company.”
“I'm guessing they're not big on Herve.”
Anger spiked in Stefan's eyes, but just for a second. He chased it, replacing it with the disdain I'd grown to know and love.
Sabine put her head back and laughed.
Stefan took it well. He waited for to finish, then put his hand on my shoulder.
I decided to leave it there.
“You must understand,” he said, “for generations we have been a reclusive people, feared and misunderstood everywhere we've been. Such mistrust shown us by outsiders breeds mistrust toward outsiders.”
He took his hand away and led me on a little walk around the compound. Sabine walked with us.
“Oh, I understand, all right. I'm not here to give you a hard time. In fact, I need to get back to the city as soon as possible, which should make everyone happy.”
“You must rest first, Mike,” said Sabine. “Your head...”
Stefan peered into my eyes. I wanted to blink but found that I couldn't.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “Sabine is quite correct. You are in no condition to return to the city to look for your friends.”
“Friend. Singular. Herve's her concern.”
The thaw in relations seemed to have brought out the locals. I felt eyes on me from all directions. People emerged from their wagons or from the trees or wherever they'd been holed up. I saw men, women, and children, all with variations on Stefan's and Sabine's complexions, wearing colorful clothing that ranged from utilitarian to flamboyant in appearance.
“Yes,” said Stefan. “The brave little man who went into the river after Sabine's... husband.”
“His name is Wilson.” Sabine and I said it at the same time.
She dropped her cigarette butt, crushing it out in the mud beneath her bare sole.
“We are searching for them, Mr. Mike Meltzer,” said Stefan. “Even as we speak.”
I looked to Sabine.
She pressed her palm to my cheek and smiled.
“We, meaning members of the kumpania. Others too. We know the city intimately and can move without being noticed. We can learn in a single night what it might take the gendarmes three days to blunder into.”
“So why didn't you just go to them in the first place?”
She fired a look at Stefan I'd never want to be on the receiving end of.
“I think you can guess the answer to that question,” she said.
Stefan got quiet and occupied himself with scanning the tree line in the distance.
Sabine took my hand while we walked. It felt nice.
“So what now?” I asked. I was walking and talking but my mind felt slow and my field of vision was still blurry around the edges.
“Now,” said Stefan, “you rest. Our people will send word when they have located your friend and Mr. Durant.”
“Assuming they're alive,” I said.
“They are alive, Mr. Mike Meltzer. I feel it. However, they will send word either way. Now, my American friend, you must rest.”
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“That sounded almost hospitable, Stefan. What gives?”
He hit me with an enigmatic smile.
“Sabine will explain it to you.”
He clapped me on the shoulder and walked away.
“He always intended to give you shelter,” said Sabine. “I just had to get him to the point where he believed it to be his idea.”
“I don't get it.”
I tried to take another step. My legs had other ideas. Sabine caught me as I stumbled.
“That is how to deal with the Rom Baro. This one, anyway.”
“The Rom Baro. The man in charge.”
“Oh,” I said. Very articulate of me. “I think I need to sit down.”
“We are nearly there, Mike. A few more steps.”
She pointed to a large wagon set back from the main circle.
“Guest house?” I asked.
“Something like that.”
The three guys who'd ridden with us in the truck came out from behind the big wagon as I watched Stefan fade into the tree line. The one with the curly hair had my hat on his head.
“That guy stole my hat,” I grumbled.
“Stole it?” said Sabine. “I doubt it.”
She reached into my jacket pocket. When her hand came out she had a shiny new harmonica in it. She held it out for me to look at.
“I don't play the harmonica.”
The three guys sat on barrels by the fire, watching Sabine at me. One of them had his feet up on a crate and a book open on his gut.
The curly-haired one tipped his hat-- my hat-- to us and grinned.
I shrugged and gave him a military salute.
Sabine laughed beside me.
I took the harmonica from her.
“Maybe I can trade this for a hat before I leave,”
“Perhaps you can. After you rest.”
We reached the big wagon. It sat in the middle of a mud puddle. Its wheels-- four of them on two axles-- sat a good six inches under the surface. The shafts and eveners looked to be in an extreme state of disrepair.
The thing was vaguely boat-shaped with a bench seat for the driver on one end and a flat surface with lashing pegs on the other. Remnants of gold and blue paint showed around the edges and in the spaces between boards.
She climbed up the warped wooden steps and opened the door. The smell of stale incense and old fabrics wafted out on the wind.
“Come,” she said, reaching her arm out to help me inside.
I stumbled on the way in and went down.
Something plush on the floor of the wagon cushioned my landing. The weak light coming in through the door revealed a blue and red rug beneath me. There was no furniture, apart from three large foot lockers arranged in a rough arc near the back wall, but the interior was replete with hanging tapestries and more rugs, all of them variations on the red and blue design that covered the floor. Wadded piles of tapestries sat in front of each foot locker. A metal pail rested inside the door. Next to it sat two hunks of homemade soap.
I pushed myself up on all fours and, with Sabine's assistance, made it to one of the piles of rugs before passing out again.
I woke up on my back, alone in my pile of tapestries.
It was still light out but the wind carried a trace of early evening cool on it. The smell of a campfire wafted in, blending with the incense scent in a way I found oddly pleasing.
My jacket hung on a nail inside the door.
I sat up and blinked. Aside from a low grade headache and a little dry mouth I felt better than I had all day. I got myself off the floor and moved to the open door.
Sabine sat on the steps in front of the wagon. The smoke from her cigarette blew up in wispy white curls.
With her long hair put up I couldn't help but admire her bare shoulders and the back of her neck. She had a tattoo there, a winding green vine that traveled down from the middle of her neck to spread across both shoulders. I spent some time imagining how far down her body it went. The right hand strap of her slip had fallen, exposing most of her breast.
She hummed a tune I felt I should have recognized.
Her skirt and blouse, with the blood scrubbed out of them as best she could, hung on a line set over the fire.
I sat down behind her, resting my hands on her just-washed shoulders. She leaned back against me without missing a note.
She had the bucket and both pieces of soap on the step next to her. One chunk of soap sat next to the bucket, still wet from use.
“One piece of soap to clean the upper body,” she explained, “and another for the lower.”
I looked over her shoulder and watched, enraptured, as she washed the mud off her feet.
She lathered each foot in turn, then lifted the bucket and poured the water over them to rinse.
When she was done she dumped out what was left in the bucket and handed it to me. I put it back beside the door. She left the soap on the step to dry.
She flicked the dead butt of her cigarette to the ground.
“Hear anything about Wilson and Herve?” I asked her as we stood.
She faced me, linking her wrists behind my neck, and backed me into the wagon. Her eyes blazed with unmistakable intent.
“Nothing yet,” she breathed. “All we know right now is that the gendarmes have identified neither of us, nor the dead man. They continue to search the river.”
She nipped at my lower lip.
“There's nothing you can do for them right now, Mike Meltzer.”
“There's always something I can do.”
“There is something you can do. Just not for them.”
“Sabine...” It was all I could say.
“They live,” she said. “I know.”
“How do you know?” I whispered.
“It is our way.”
“I don't understand, Sabine.”
“You do not have to, Mike Meltzer.” Her lips brushed mine. “You will stop talking now.”
She grinned, then kissed me hard enough to draw blood. The force of her thrust moved me backward. I toppled to the floor. She landed on top of me.
She made a growling sound in the back of her throat as my hands moved all over her body, stroking the long muscles, stopping to caress the soft places. I felt raw, feral. I wanted to devour her.
We broke off the kiss long enough for me to yank the slip up over her head. She made short work of my clothes, then raised herself up, straddling me with her hands on my chest. Her fingernails dug into my skin.
I noted that the tattoo that started on the back of her neck spread over her shoulders, coming together between her breasts.
I grabbed onto her hips as she rocked herself against me.
A shadow-- just a flash of motion-- made me look around her body, toward the open wagon door.
Stefan stood on the top step with a grin of delight on his face. He watched us for a few seconds, then saluted me and walked away.
He left the wagon door wide open.
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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.