Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice:
Title: Don’t Smoke in Bed Part 5
Sabine, sitting next to me in the cab of Stefan's truck, sounded very far away.
I had a dim awareness of her presence, of the warmth of her body against mine, close together in the space left to us by Stefan's ample backside.
He guided the truck over hilly roads, dipping and rising through Normandy's green valleys. The crest of each ridge offered views of simple, natural elegance, scarred-- perhaps forever-- by the War. I saw still-raw furrows of earth cut into the landscape, craters made by artillery, and the wounds caused by the passage of military vehicles and thousands of booted feet.
“Mike?” She tugged on my sleeve and kept at it until she had my attention.
The sea air streaming in through the open windows smelled clean and new.
“I'm fine, Sabine. I'm just... trying to picture all of this...”
“Were you here during the War?”
“At Normandy? No.”
She took my hand and held it in her lap. We rode in silence, staring out the window together.
Stefan broke it up.
“So where were you in the War, Mike Meltzer?”
I gave him the dead-eye.
He grinned and turned his attention back to the road.
“I hope you'll be a little more forthcoming on what you plan to do when we get there,” he rasped.
“I'm workin' on it.”
Sabine lit a cigarette.
“Have faith, Stefan,” she said. “Mike knows his business well.”
“My business? Honey, we crossed out of, 'my business', right around the time Herve got dumped in the drink. Violence isn't my business.”
“That does not mean you don't know how to do it. Or that you won't.”
I felt her eyes on me while she smoked.
“Let's just get there. We'll see what I will or won't have to do.”
Stefan made a hard right turn into a hidden driveway ten miles further down the road.
Sabine lurched into me. I put my arm around her to steady her.
“Shortcut?” I asked Stefan.
“Detour,” he replied. “My friends left me a sign.”
I stuck my head out the window and looked back. Didn't see anything that might qualify as a sign near the intersection.
The gravel dirt path gave way to an even narrower dirt trail. We followed it around a big bend and continued on through the underbrush until we turned into a small clearing. Between the wagons and the two trucks already in there Stefan didn't have anywhere to park.
I counted eight guys-- all of them resembling the party of three who rode out of Paris with us-- hanging around a campfire in the middle of the clearing. Two smoked, another three munched on some kind of meat roasted on sticks. The remaining three stood by fire, watching the road, such as it was. Each of the eight had at least one firearm on him, in plain sight.
Stefan left his truck running and climbed out. He was greeted with back slaps and smiles as he approached the fire.
“You know any of these guys?” I asked Sabine.
She took a good look.
“I do not believe so.”
“More members of the kumpania?”
“This far from Paris? Probably not.”
“Let's join the party.”
Stefan introduced me when we reached the fire.
“These, Mike Meltzer, are my friends.”
“Do your friends have names, Stefan?”
“Does it matter?”
The group, as one, looked up from whatever they were doing to watch this interaction.
“It matters to me,” I said, “if they're going to fight with us.”
The smiles and back slaps transferred to me.
Stefan scowled but introduced the smokers as Dainius and Slav. The three eaters were Gustav, Karl, and Vlad and the watchers were Alex, Jan, and Zhenya.
Each of them regarded Sabine with interest. Karl and Vlad looked from me to her, then smiled at each other, speaking softly in a language I did not understand.
Sabine silenced them with a glare.
“These men have spent their day looking into your enemy's activities,” explained Stefan.
“All right, fellas,” I said. “What's the story?”
It wasn't much of a story.
Zhenya explained that the warehouse we needed to hit fronted on the pier, had wide open approaches on either side, and backed up to some sparsely treed woodland.
“Makes planning pretty simple,” I observed.
“That it does,” agreed Zhenya.
“I'll take the water route.” I looked at each man in turn. “You guys keep 'em busy out back. Get 'em to chase you through the woods if you can.”
“You have a boat?” asked Sabine.
“Ready and waiting,” replied Zhenya. “Karl will show you the way when it is time.”
“Bully.” I glanced at Stefan. “That makes you the wheel man.”
“What about me, Mike?” broke in Sabine. “Were you planning to leave me out of this?”
“Leave you out? You kidding me? I need a shooter in the boat with me.”
She nodded, mollified for the moment.
“We have three hours until sunset,” said Zhenya. “Come and eat with us and rest. We go to work at nightfall.”
The guys hit the warehouse right on time.
The blast reverberated over the surface of the water, rocking the dinghy as we sat waiting to go in. A plume of dark smoke showed against the night sky over the warehouse.
Gunfire and shouts of alarm tore holes in the blanket of silence that had settled over the port in the early evening.
“That's our cue,” I said.
Sabine sat in the other end of the boat, pistol in hand, chain smoking while we waited.
The weight of the Mauser pistol Zhenya had given me was a reassuring presence in my jacket pocket.
“You needn't have worried about me cutting you out, Sabine.”
She blew out a ring of smoke and raised an eyebrow at me.
“You're the only person here that I trust.”
“I am not sure what that says about your judgment, Mike Meltzer,” she said with a smirk.
“Just don't shoot anyone you don't have to. Least of all me.”
The voices around the warehouse got louder, then quieter, like they were moving away from the river.
She flicked her cigarette but into the water.
I leaned toward her and planted one on her. She returned it, breathing hard and hot into my mouth.
She looked away from me when we broke it off.
I settled back into my end of the boat.
“Let's go get our boys.”
We made it to a slip and up to the dock without incident. All of the action was going on behind the warehouse. The reports of multiple firearms echoed in the air. Men hollered orders and oaths in a variety of languages.
There were two ships in port-- an empty barge and the scow Herve and Wilson must have been brought to Normandy in. Neither appeared to be crewed at that late hour.
I looked up and down the dock for any sign of security personnel. No soap. We had the place to ourselves.
The whole place stunk of sweat, oil, and dead fish. Business was business, no matter how picturesque the setting.
Sabine and I made it across the dock without being shot at. We pressed our bodies against the front of the warehouse and held still for a full minute. Then I started looking for a way in.
The bay doors had been bolted from the inside. The office door was locked up tight.
I looked it up and down.
“Only the one lock,” I muttered. “Piece of cake.” I fished around in my jacket pockets. “If I had my lockpicks on me.”
“Can't you break it down?” asked Sabine.
“Kind of puts the kibosh on the element of surprise, no?”
“Can you think of another way inside?”
The retort bubbled up from my gut and made ready to fly out of my mouth. I beat it back.
“Quiet!” I whispered. “Listen.”
Beneath the gunfire and the yelling we heard someone moving around, just inside the door.
The sound of metal scraping against metal warmed my heart. I signaled to Sabine to get ready.
The door swung open.
A man in a black shirt and dungarees stepped out of the warehouse, gun in hand.
I let him have it with the butt of Zhenya's Mauser. The man crumpled to the dock. I dragged him clear of the door, then led Sabine inside.
The place was dark. Very dark. We heard people moving. Every so often, somebody grunted as he ran into something. Their noise covered ours as we made our way through rows of shipping crates.
A loud bang from the other side of the room shaved five years off my life, but I didn't feel too bad about it. Sabine jumped too, grabbing my shoulder with her free hand.
There was another bang, then a third, followed by a lot of cursing.
We followed the noise through the maze, up to the last row of crates. The commotion was coming from the end of the aisle.
Somebody groaned in pain.
Sabine stiffened beside me.
“Herve,” she breathed.
I took her by the hand and we double-timed it around the corner.
I tripped over something soft and lumpy a yard or so in. Sabine pulled back, righting me before I fell. The lump moaned and shuddered but remained otherwise still.
We continued on down the aisle. The violence got louder as we neared the wall.
The unmistakable sound of fist meeting face followed by a heavy thud stopped us where we were. I fumbled around in my pocket and came out with a match.
The flare only lasted for a few seconds, just enough time for me to see Wilson, his hands still tied in front of him, standing over three fallen men. Herve sat against the side of the crate, trying to stem the flow of blood from his nose.
Sabine stepped around me into the crate. I pried a piece of wood free and burned four matches getting it lit. She pulled a knife out of her bag and cut Wilson loose, then knelt to tend to her husband.
Herve's fine white suit now had a fine gray color about it. The bloodstains completed the look.
Wilson ambled over to me, rubbing his wrists and shaking his head as he walked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Nice to see you too. Let's go.”
Another explosion rocked the warehouse. Sabine leaped to her feet, dragging Herve up with her.
Wilson disappeared into the darkness outside the crate.
I waited for Sabine to lead Herve out before I snuffed the burning stick. She looked over her shoulder at me as she went. I raised an eyebrow. She grinned in return.
The gunfire had stopped by the time we got out to the dock.
Wilson waited in the boat.
The back of Stefan's truck wasn't much lighter than the warehouse had been.
Wilson and I lounged on the floor, passing a bottle of cheap red wine back and forth by the light of a little fire we lit in a coffee can. We were probably more comfortable than Sabine and Herve in the cab with Stefan.
Wilson took long, slow sip from the bottle. He gave me one of his patented looks as he drank.
“Look,” I began, “I came as fast as I could.”
He held the look and drank some more before passing the bottle back.
“I got hit in the head. Could hardly see straight, let alone come charging after you.”
That earned me a nod. A scornful nod.
“What about her? I didn't... It's... It's not like that, Wilson. Not this time.”
He gave me the stink-eye, then snorted.
“All right. All right. It is like that. But it wasn't my idea. I know what you're gonna say but it wasn't. It... just kind of happened.”
He snatched the bottle out of my hand and drank off the last of the wine. He stared into the fire for a moment, then looked up at me.
“I don't know, pal. Don't know what I'm going to do about her.”
Stefan dropped us off by the Louvre just after sunrise. He didn't hang around to say goodbye.
“That guy proved pretty useful in a bind,” I said. “How can I get in touch with him again?”
“'You can't,” answered Sabine. “He is Rom. You will find him only if he wishes to be found.”
We all stood around for a couple of minutes. Sabine and I looked everywhere but at each other.
Wilson rolled his eyes.
Herve broke the silence.
“Well, my little friend,” he said as he stepped forward and tried to hug Wilson.
Wilson checked him with his hand.
Herve got the idea and backed away. He extended a hand in my direction.
“How about you?”
I shook his hand. He got brave, clapping me on the shoulder.
“Don't mention it,” I said. “You should go get that nose set.”
He smiled, a cross between a grimace and a wince, then glanced from Sabine to me.
Wilson turned and left. I followed his progress until he turned out of sight.
“I'll give you two a moment,” said Herve. He walked to a nearby bench and took a seat.
Sabine lit a cigarette. The morning wind caught the smoke and blew it away.
“Any chance you might want to be found sometime?” I asked.
“Would you know where to look?”
“It's what I do.”
“There is a cafe across the street from our building. I can see it from the bedroom window. Look for me when the lights are off.”
“Could be you're just not home.”
She blew some more smoke over my head, then brushed my cheek with the back of her hand.
“Could be, Mike Meltzer. Could be.”
I swilled the last of my Pernod around in the bottom of the glass.
Music-- live music from the sound of it-- from another cafe rode the wind to my table. I drummed my fingers on the arm of my chair and watched that window over the fish shop.
The first raindrops fell, plinking against the wrought iron table top.
I poured myself some more Pernod and added the water.
I watched the clear liquid turn cloudy.
The light in the window over the fish shop went out just as the rain started to come down hard.
I dropped enough francs to cover my bill three times over and started across the street.
The door of Sabine's door opened.
A cloud of smoke wafted out to the street.
It disappeared almost immediately in the rain.
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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.