A Dark and Stormy Night
Their escape route involved heading south west, through Bulgaria and eventually to the Greek coast where a pickup was to be arranged through a contact.
"Hope the rain holds off or we're gonna get wet." The car Chief had found to get then this far had no roof. It was fine for the trip in in the late afternoon but now it was dark and the sky was threatening to drench them all. Lightning lit the sky again as they headed out of the barn to their ride. They settled in with Garrison in front with Chief driving and the others in the back.
Actor thought about what Chief had said. "Your father will not be denied." I will deny him till the day I die, he thought to himself. I will take nothing from him, I will owe him nothing. Everything I have, I have earned for myself. Every meal I have eaten, every woman I have loved I have obtained for myself. I thank you for nothing. If there ever was a self-made man then it is me. If I thank him for anything then it is for being the bastardo that forced me to leave when I was young. It was him that broke poor mother's heart and ultimately led to her early death. If he had relented then I could have come home. But no, he maintained his position. Go to Hell and take everything with you.
With that he thought about his life. He had had such a good life. If he had relented then none of this would have been. Would Garrison have been able to find another confidence man? Surely there were others, not of his caliber, of course but someone close enough to pull off the cons that Garrison and his bosses expected him to. Probably not. It made him feel good that he had not only survived but was doing well. His nest egg was growing and when the war was over he, or Sister Therese, would be comfortable. He looked about the car. Yes the others would be comfortable too.
Casino hunched down in the seat. His jacket was warm enough but the collar did not fit close. A scarf would have helped. He thought back to Bertie. Shorty, the Snowman, Sanders had approached him about a bank job. He had cased the joint, found the flaws and had made the plans. He wanted Casino to crack the safe. An acquaintance, Bertie would take care of the alarm and Archer would be the getaway man. That was fine but he wanted Petes in on the deal too. Casino did not want another split so he said no. The Snowman had listened to him and agreed. Petes was out. If Archer wanted, he could split his share. The job had gone down and they had gotten away with it for almost a week then Bertie had been taken downtown for a chat. The next day the cops showed up at his door and they arrested him. He figured Bertie has rolled over. He cursed him and swore he would kill him but he never saw him again. He had died two days after Casino was arrested. Because of him Casino did four months in jail awaiting trial and then the charges were dropped. Not enough evidence, further proof that Bertie had rolled. Now, according to Chief, it was Archer, but Archer hadn't been arrested so why would he… Because he nixed Petes. It all made sense. Archer will pay for that, thought Casino, if I survive this, his thought continued ruefully.
Goniff was squeezed in between Actor and Casino which meant a warm body on each side. Still he was cold. Was that a raindrop he just felt on his forehead? It better not rain. He hated being cold but cold and wet was the definition of miserable. He had been on the streets on nights like this and he had hated it. At least then he could find a doorway or cellar to hide in, out of the wind and rain. Maybe Garrison would tell the Indian to pull over if it started.
Everyone was so quiet. From the grim look he had seen on Actor's face when the lightning flashed the last time, he had to be thinking of what Chiefy had said. They probably all were, even him. His Aunt Nell, how he had loved her. Sometimes when he came home from school she would be there and she always brought him something. She had no children of her own so she spoiled him and he loved it. So many times his own Mom was busy but she was never too busy for him. He had never forgotten the first time he had been allowed to walk to her flat. She had been waiting at the curb for him to arrive but then they had gone inside for tea and biscuits. He had felt so grown up.
One year he had wanted a toy horse and cart. When you pushed it the legs moved. He had seen it in the catalogue and she promised to buy it for him for his birthday. The big day arrived but she had not. He had been so disappointed, not just because she had not come for his birthday but that she had promised and then she had broken it. He had gotten angry at her. He remembered yelling that she was a liar and that he didn't want the pony after all. It was later, maybe the next day, he didn't remember, that someone had gone to see her and found her dead. Of course no one told him, at least not right away. Unfortunately it was too late. He was mad at her. By now he had forgotten all about it until Chiefy had mentioned it.
Craig tucked his hands into the pockets of his green jacket feeling the weight of the camera shift in the inside pocket. It was a good jacket but his hands and face were being chilled. He looked over to where Chief was driving one handed. The other was probably in his pocket getting warm. The wind from the car's motion was getting colder and damper. Up ahead the dim lights barely lit the road. From the map in his head he visualized their route. It was a fairly straight run once they got past Bucharest and that was about an hour away.
What a strange night. The mission had gone well, so far, they just had to get home safely now. The rest of the mission, the spookiness, that was something else. Hopefully there would be no more of that. He didn't like things without rational explanations and thoughts of the dead speaking to the living was not acceptable.
But how else could he explain how Chief, a guy that didn't read, knew about Chucky and his bicycle. Actor might have had contacts though he doubted any lived in the neighbourhood where he had lived. There was no other way to explain how he knew that he had gone looking for his bike one day and it was gone. He had looked in the garage where he always put it and it was gone. Chucky was his best friend and he had borrowed it before though he had always asked. He always said yes but that didn't mean he could just take it if he was not around. He had gotten angry. It was his bike and he wanted to ride it now. He had gone over to Chucky's house but no one was home. He wasn't going to speak to him ever again. The next day he went again and there were all those cars there. They were having a party and not wanting to talk to him he went to the garage but his bike was not there. He had gotten madder and gone to the door thinking he was going to punch him if he didn't give his bike back but Chucky's dad answered and he looked real upset. He had told him he better go home. When he explained he just wanted his bike back the man had gotten a strange look on his face that scared Craig so he had left. His parents were upset too. He remembered being confused and angry and hurt. They must have been too upset to tell him because as he remembered it, there was a time lapse before they finally told him Chucky had been hit by a car and killed while riding his bike. He had had to wait almost a year before his parents could afford to get him another bike.
Chief's hands switched places. His almost thawed left hand took the wheel while his definitely frozen right hand burrowed into his pocket. Damn, he was going to have to stop before this got any worse. That poor soldier back at the bridge didn't have to worry about the cold any longer. Having to sit there for hours on end peering out into the dark would be torture. No wonder he had given up holding the gun aimed down the road. Probably had his hands in his pockets trying to get warm. He hoped his replacement couldn't tell when he showed up in the morning though he guessed it didn't matter. What would they do, court martial him? He wouldn't care, he was dead. Maybe it would matter to his family. Too late now.
Lightning flicker in the distance and he thought about how he had died. It had happened so fast, like they said, he never knew what hit him. Chief remembered getting a shock some years back. It had hurt. Guess this had been so big that he hadn't had time to register it. Was he better off now? In the short term, he was. For him the war was over, no more cold nights, lousy food, being ordered around… In the long term, he was dead. All he could do was hope the guy had moved on. Souls that died without knowing they were dead could linger in an area for a long time. That was not something he wanted to even contemplate.
Garrison saw the lights and knew they were getting close to the city. Chief continued to drive but suddenly slowed. The Officer opened his mouth to ask then he saw the shape up ahead blocking the road. A plane had crashed and burned in the middle of the road. Poor bastard probably tried to land, thought Garrison. The wreckage, from what they could see in the weakening head lights, had scattered over the road and into the fields around. There was no way to safely pass it in the dark.
"What's going on?" asked Casino.
"Road's blocked. We'll walk from here and pick up another car in town. Let's go." Garrison opened his door and got out.
"One with a heater this time," grumbled Goniff as he waited his turn to exit. "And a roof."
Garrison waited until they were all assembled before heading off into the dark, skirting far enough out to avoid the debris. At least that was the hope. Instead he avoided the twisted metal but stepped into the furrow it had created, twisting his ankle so severely that he went down on one knee hitting another piece of scrap with his shin.
Chief was immediately at his elbow assisting him to stand. "You okay, Warden?"
"Yeah." He stood for a moment slowly shifting his weight back onto the aching ankle. It hurt but there was nothing he could do about it. Gritting his teeth he took a step and then another. The pain was easing until he repeated the manoeuver but at least this time he caught himself before he fell. Again a hand grabbed his elbow remaining only until he stood again. His ankle throbbed but he had to push on.
They finally reached the city. Being the middle of the night there were no civilians to blend in with. Five men walking through the city was going to look suspicious. "We'll split up," started Garrison who then paused to let the train whistle finish.
"And meet up at the train station. There will be one in the early morning. If not, there should be vehicles nearby." Actor looked to his leader for confirmation and got it.
"Good. Now you all heard the direction of the whistle. Head there but avoid any trouble. No shooting." He knew they knew that but the protector in him had to say it anyway. His men were good, they had learned to take his directions well but he knew they had not forgotten their pasts. They all nodded. "Good. No dallying but don't rush."
"See you at the station, Warden."
"You all right to walk that far?" asked a quiet voice off his left shoulder. "I could get us a car…"
"No, I'll be all right. I'll just take it easy. You go ahead. See you at the station." He stood waiting as the Indian stepped off into the darkened street. He was unsure how he had gained the young man's loyalty but he had and was glad of it. Waiting a moment to let the others get out of sight he carefully stepped off the curb and began to make his way down a side street that would take him away from the others. With each step his ankle throbbed but he pushed forward.
Up ahead there was motion by the alley. He slowed his step just a little to give him time to assess the situation. There was someone there peering out, someone short, a child? Not at this time of night? He drew closer and by the light from a window on the second floor he saw a small boy, maybe eight or ten years old. He was wearing a short sleeved shirt under baggy overalls that were rolled up at the cuff. He gestured for Garrison to come to the alley.
Garrison was no fool. He knew a few tricks of his own so he stepped in the other direction to veer away. If they wanted to grab him they were going to have to come and get him.
The voice stopped him cold. Goosebumps scurried up his back and down his arms. There was only one with that voice, and he was… The boy stepped out onto the sidewalk and into the light. The red hair completed the picture. That was the way he looked the last time he had seen him … alive, over twenty years ago.
"I know it's not as good as yours, but I got you a bike," offered the child pleading with his voice and his eyes.
Craig stood stunned. This couldn't be real. He was standing on the other side of the world talking to a child who had … This was not real.
"Please Craigy. I wanna make up fer," he looked down at his bare feet, "fer takin' and wreckin' yer bike." He looked back up and added sadly, "I know yer mad at me." Then hopefully, "It's not stealing, he's dead but he ain't commin' back. You kin take it. He said you could." He stepped back toward the alley. "It's just down here. You kin see it there by the wall."
Garrison stepped closer. There was a bicycle leaning against the wall, an old delivery bicycle with a wide carrier on the front. There was no one else in the alley. Chucky preceded him into the alley and he followed. Gripping the handles Craig turned it around and wheeled it out of the alley, Chucky following on silent feet. Craig mounted the saddle and turned. "I was mad at the time but not anymore. It wasn't your fault. Mr. Wheeler was drunk. I'm sorry you died. I missed you."
"Yeah, I miss you too. Maybe someday…"
"Thanks, Chuck." He raised his hand in farewell but the figure was gone, faded out of sight. He put his foot on the pedal and pushed off. The front tire needed air but it would do to get him to the station. The goose bumps lingered from the encounter but there was sadness in his heart. He missed his friend. They had had a lot of good times together and he wondered where they would be if he hadn't… "Thanks for everything, Chucky," he said under his breath as he pedalled in the direction of the station.
As he drew closer he saw the soldiers. They were scattered all around the station. Were they expecting trouble? They couldn't be there because of them. That didn't make sense. He should call the others off, change the meeting place but there was no way to do that. He would have to trust their abilities. As he drew up to pass the soldiers one stepped out to stop him. He slowed and put his good foot down to stop himself. The soldier asked his business at the station and he explained in German that he was picking up deliveries from the next train. The soldier gave him a hard look and let him pass. He was in.
Like his approach to life, Casino had taken the direct approach. He knew the others would do the roundabout so he headed straight. He was only off by a street but when he saw the station he also saw the soldiers. Damn. There three men standing around a blazing barrel. They looked cold and in need of some entertainment. A single man walking up to them would do nicely. He stopped to light a cigarette, cupping the flame against the wind.
Cigar, he smelled a cigar, a cheap, stinky cigar and a man materialized at his elbow. If that wasn`t bad enough another appeared at his other elbow. The cigar smoker was lean, about his height and had a patch over his left eye. The other man was shorter, solidly built and had white hair. There couldn`t be two others that looked and smelled like them. Here in a city he had never been before and if he was lucky he was going to leave alive were two people he had known long ago in a world so far removed from here that it was hard to contemplate.
The cigar smoker removed his stogie, blew out a lungful and gestured with his head before returning his signature to his mouth. What the hell was he doing, wondered Casino. For that matter, what the hell was happening? This was insane, but then his being here in Europe was insane too. The three men strode toward the station.
Bertie, because who else could it be, started talking, all nonsense and gestures. The gestures he understood, curves and hip thrusts, but some were unknown. The voice became more insistent and drunker, even a little belligerent. They kept walking. He tried hushing him and motioned to calm him but his companion continued on. The soldiers decided that messing with these particular drunks was not worth their trouble. They passed the barricade undisturbed and headed for the ticket office.
Once they were clear of the soldiers he turned to his companions and said, "Thanks, Bertie and I'm sorry I thought it was you. It's just when the cops …"
"Yeah, figured you thought that but it hurt anyway. I jest wanted you to know the truth."
"Thanks Bertie, and you too Shortie."
"Yer welcome, babe," replied Shorty. The two men faded and Casino was alone with his goose bumps.
Shit, thought Casino. He was not sure what had just happened but it had gotten him through a bad situation. He snorted softly; it had also got him a chance to clear the air with Bertie. What a night. Taking a deep breath he looked around for the ticket office and the rest of his team.
Goniff had selected a dark street that would take him in the direction he wanted, he hoped, as he pulled his hat down tighter over his blond hair. There were no shops here just entrances to back alleys and the occasional doorway to the flats on the second floor. The good thing about it was it was dark and unoccupied. The bad thing was there was nowhere to hide. He walked a little faster. When he came to an intersection he looked both ways before proceeding. To his right there were lights. Must be the station, he thought but part of the lights was a fire with soldiers around it. That was a problem. Unsure what to do he stopped to look in the shop window that was right around the corner. It was woman's wear so he moved to the next shop window, all the while glancing at the soldiers. This window contained odds and ends. Must be a second hand shop, he thought. The soldiers had moved about but they were not leaving. Maybe he should circle around and try another street.
"'Allo, Rodney, my love."
It was so unexpected to hear a voice from back 'ome that he spun around. A woman stood there all dressed in a dark fitted knee length coat over a matching dark ankle length skirt. A stiff white collar and a wide brimmed black hat framed a smiling face that looked up at him wistfully. She smelled of lavender.
He was so shocked he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Aunt Nell?"
"I was afraid you might 'ave forgotten me. 'Eaven knows, you 'ave reason to."
"'ow could I forget you? You were always there for…" The remembered pain returned.
"Except that one very important time. I am sorry. I was going to get it. I 'ad it on order but I was feeling poorly. Thought I'd get it soon as I felt better. Guess I left it too late. I'm sorry luv, sorry to disappoint you."
"Oh, Auntie. I'm the one is sorry. I should never a doubted you."
"Come, let's walk."
Goniff wanted to take her arm like he had seen gentlemen do but he was afraid. What happened when you tried to touch a ghost? Did your hands go right through them? They weren't real, were they? Best not try, though he ached to hug her like he did when he was young and, a small voice inside added, she was alive.
As they headed for the station, a Romanian Officer came stumbling out of a doorway. He stopped to put on his hat before walking unsteadily toward them. As they were about to pass she stumbled and on instinct Goniff bumped into the Officer, his hand slipping into his coat pocket with drawing with a wallet. He nodded his apologies and touched his hat as the drunk grumbled. Fortunately he was preoccupied with keeping his feet under him so he let it pass. As they neared the soldiers' barricade she nodded to them and they, seeing no danger in the civilian and his mother, they let them pass.
Once they were out of earshot he turned to his Guardian Angel, for that was she had to be, and said, "I'm sorry I was mad at you. It was childish of me. I love you."
She smiled and said, "I will always love you, my sweet." She fades away.
He stood feeling happy that he got to tell her but sad that she was really gone. "Till we meet again," he said quietly before slipping back out toward the ticket office to wait for the others.
Farther off, another lone figure approached the station, this one from farther south but he met the same dilemma as he had the first time he had approached. The soldiers were all around the station and there was no way he could get past them. If a vehicle stopped out here then entered maybe he could catch a ride in back or even underneath but that was unlikely to happen. He had to get there, the others were waiting.
Chief peered around the corner but nothing had changed. As he pulled back he smelled it, the smell of burnt wool and flesh. It was a smell he had smelled not long ago. He froze and breathed through his mouth. He had to look but he couldn't, he knew what he would see and his mind pictured the twisted smoking body as his own flesh crawled. How long he would have stayed that way will never be known because a soldier moved in front of him and headed for the street. He turned and meeting his eyes he gestured for him to follow. He was normal, not… His heart pounding and sweat trickling down his back he took a step as the apparition moved out into the street. Was he leading him to the soldiers? He paused but the apparition smiled sadly and gestured again. He followed. Together they walked up to the soldiers guarding their post. One hollered something and the apparition raised his hand in greeting and replied. There was a response from the guard but he let them pass. Once they were clear the apparition faded away. The smell lingered for a moment until the wind swept it away.
Actor walked down the road with his usual confidence. German would be spoken here; he would be able to talk his way out of trouble. A German uniform would be even better but he would be all right. He spotted the soldiers guarding the entrance to the station, his confidence unwavering.
Off to the side he heard a voice calling out in Italian. He turned to look and saw an old man, his thick white hair lit by the light inside the taxi cab. The man gestured to him, wanting him to approach but he kept walking. The old man hollered over to him. "Your pride will be your downfall. Come back where you belong."
Actor pulled his coat tighter and continued toward the station. He heard but ignored the voice calling him a fool. As he approached the soldiers he pulled his coat closer at his throat and hunched slightly. As the first soldier noticed him he faked a sneeze that sounded as sickly as he could. He then sniffled as he fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief. Not finding one he went through the motions of blowing his nose without one then wiped his face on his sleeve. That had the desired effect. The soldier stepped back holding his rifle as if it could protect him from whatever was affecting the civilian. He held his breath until the walking sickness had passed. He was in.
As the last man approached they all breathed a little easier though no one mentioned how they had gotten in. Garrison pulled what money he had from his pocket and handed it to the station master to buy the tickets. Words were exchanged. He wanted travel papers. Goniff pulled the contents of the pilfered wallet and pulled out a bill. This was shoved under glass partition. Nothing happened so another followed it, and then another. After the third he stopped and they waited. Finally the tickets appeared and the bills vanished. The train would be here in twenty minutes.
They sat in silence and not because they were afraid they would be overheard. They were the only ones there. They each sat thinking of what had happened, their visitors from the past, some good, some not good but each realized that the meeting had been important. The air had been cleared, wrongs forgiven, and in one case, resolve maintained. They all felt good about their encounters though they hoped this never happened again and they certainly would never tell anyone.