by Jazz Woodbot
Strider does his best, but things don't quite go as planned.
The sky was growing lighter with the crisp radiance of dawn. A line of low, white clouds sat benignly on the horizon and a soft breeze carried with it the salty tang of the sea. It was still an hour or so before the first shift change, but the port of Marseilles was never still. Giant freighters sat at rest against the quay while ant-like creatures scurried over them. Robotic cranes crept across the sky, loading and unloading heavy steel containers before the ships continued on to destinations exotic and mundane.
Hungry dock workers would soon descend upon the greasy café in a wave of unwashed, odorous bodies, but the place was almost empty at present. The early-sixties décor was faded and shabby but the food was the best on the waterfront, and the strong, gut-burning coffee was guaranteed to keep the weariest crane driver alert throughout an entire double shift. A bored waitress leaned against the counter, her complexion as dry and faded as the wallpaper. She shared a desultory word with the balding short-order cook and allowed him a puff of her cigarette while she went and topped-up the two customers, huddled conspiratorially at a back table.
The two men paused in their conversation while the waitress poured their coffee. The one with his back to the wall was thirtyish, dark-haired and unshaven, with intense brown eyes that missed little and gave away less. His black leather jacket was comfortably well-worn; under it, he wore a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, black corduroy jeans and black trainers. Although his attention was focused on the man facing him, his eyes scanned the room at regular intervals, alert for anything out of the ordinary. In the twenty minutes since his arrival, he had watched the waitress chain-smoke three Marlboroughs and drain two tiny cups of espresso. Her sunken eyes and restless manner told him she was strung out, barely keeping body and soul together. The cluster of scabby sores on her inner arms confirmed his speculation. It saddened him to see it: a grown woman consumed by addiction, unable or unwilling to throw the monkey off her back. In a roundabout way, she was why he was here. She and thousands of others.
The second man was ill at ease and agitated. Younger, edgier, and dressed in faded blue jeans; the hood of his red Manchester United sweatshirt was pulled forward over his forehead, keeping the early morning chill at bay and rendering casual recognition difficult. He sat with his back to the door, deferring to his companion who had only agreed to the meeting with reluctance. Not yet twenty-one, his swarthy complexion and unshaven face made him appear much older. He sat tensely with his elbows on the table, jiggling one foot nervously on the floor and playing with a plastic guitar pick which he repeatedly flipped over and under his fingers with practiced dexterity.
“But you haven’t given me anything concrete, Errol,” insisted the older man, not without sympathy.
The younger man sighed. “I can’t put my finger on it, Strider, I just have this feeling in my gut.”
“Explain it to me,” urged the man called Strider. “I’m the last person to tell you to ignore your gut, but you know how much is riding on this.”
“I know!” agreed Errol emphatically, obviously torn. He paused to gather his thoughts. “Okay…we were in the pub last night,” he said uncomfortably, “just having a couple of quiet drinks. We knew we had a big day ahead of us today, so we didn’t plan on getting too wasted. Then these two girls came in. Halil bought them a drink, so they invited us over to sit with them. We started chatting them up, and everything was nice and friendly-like. I even thought I might be in with a chance with one of them.
“After a couple more drinks, Halil starts downing shots, one after the other, like he’s got nothing better to do today than sleep off a deadly hangover. He starts going on and on about all this crap. It was obviously bullshit, but as long as he was buying, the girls weren’t going anywhere.
“After a few shots, Halil was so completely wasted, I tried to get him to go upstairs to sleep it off. I was pretty bummed, ‘cause I figured it would just about ruin my chances with the girl I was keen on, but I think to myself that the job’s gotta come first. Suddenly, Halil loses it. He jumps up and threatens to punch my lights out if I don’t sit down and shut the fuck up. So I do – I need to stay on his good side after all – but then he starts up again, but all cool and calm now, like he hasn’t had a drink all night. He looks me in the eye and starts telling me what happened to the last bloke he worked with – after he got wind of him being a narc. He said he ran him down with his truck, then left his body in a ditch by the side of the road. Then he says he found out later the guy wasn’t a cop at all! He almost pissed himself laughing when he told me that last bit.”
Strider’s expression was unsympathetic. “Errol, he was winding you up. You can see that, right?”
“He was talking about Cy!”
“You have no way of knowing that,” disagreed the older man, keeping his voice neutral. “He was just putting you in your place, making sure you know he’s in charge.”
An uncomfortable silence sat heavily between them for a long minute. “Look, you knew what you were getting into before you agreed to do this,” reasoned Strider. “You came to me, remember?”
He let that sink in before continuing. “These people are unpredictable and paranoid. There’s no shame in pulling out, but I want you to be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. It’s natural to be scared, but you have to decide if it’s because there’s a credible threat or if it’s just Halil playing mind games.”
Errol put his head between his hands and rubbed his eyes tiredly, giving himself a moment to think.
“Okay,” he agreed after a time, lifting his head and squaring his shoulders. “Maybe he was just pissed off and winding me up. I owe it to Cy to see it out and find out what happened to him.” He looked the older man in the eye and said positively, “I’ll keep going. I’ve been careful – I know I have. I’ll finish the job, Strider.”
“Good man,” said Strider simply. “You need to get back before he wakes up and finds you gone.”
Errol started to slide out of the booth, but hesitated. “You’ll be watching though, right?”
“Every second,” Strider reassured him. “You need to keep cool. Don’t take any chances and remember everything we discussed.”
“Right,” agreed Errol, getting to his feet. Strider offered his hand and they shook solemnly.
“Keep cool,” whispered Strider softly to himself as he watched Errol walk away, his hands in his pockets.
The night was dark and close around them. The moon had risen, but offered little in the way of useful light. Strider’s people were in position, outside a darkened warehouse on the outskirts of Paris, weapons drawn, awaiting his signal to go. The sound of gunfire just minutes before – two shots in rapid succession – had been both unexpected and alarming. All four Guardians were on edge, fearing the worst.
This sort of work – what was supposed to have been a simple surveillance op – wasn't their usual sort of job; they were only here as a favour to Errol. Being stationed in Paris, away from the administrative hub of the London-based Brotherhood, gave them a great deal more autonomy than usual, allowing them to pick and choose which leads to follow and in which order of priority. This case wasn't likely to net the sort of results their superiors were ideally looking for, but it should give the local police – both here and in London – some valuable intelligence, and in the long term, result in the dismantling of a large drug importation and distribution network.
Unfortunately, the situation had changed in the last few minutes. They were now contemplating a rescue mission, or if things had really turned to shit, body retrieval. They all prayed it wouldn't come to that, but either way, they were about to get their hands dirty.
It had been a long, tedious day. Strider and his three colleagues left Marseilles just before noon, tailing the container Errol and Halil had collected from the docks and loaded onto a flatbed truck. The return journey to Paris was uneventful but long and it was late afternoon by the time the southern outskirts of the city finally came into sight. It was another hour before the truck passed through the gates of the warehouse, where it immediately disappeared out of sight down the sloping driveway. According to Errol’s information, the warehouse was a way-station, a place to cut and repackage the drugs in preparation for transportation to London.
The building was situated midway along a narrow road that looped down to the meandering Seine and back again, hidden from the road by a thicket of trees and low shrubs. Strider and his second in charge, Lars Jacobsen, had parked in the shadows slightly west of the driveway; the other two members of his team, Rick Bellows and Dawn Kostakidis, were likewise situated 100 metres east.
Bellows and Kosta had infiltrated the perimeter as soon as it was dark enough, surveying the exterior layout of the building and making what other observations they could. The red flatbed was backed up to a deserted loading bay at the near side of the warehouse. A large roller door was pulled shut, as was the smaller, man-sized door beside it. The container had already been unloaded and stood empty, it doors open wide. The smaller grey box truck Halil and Errol had driven across from London was parked alongside the flatbed, was also empty, but wouldn’t be for long. Two other vehicles, a late-model silver BMW and a battered green Renault, were parked in marked bays some distance from the building. They made note of the license plates before moving on.
Built of cheap lumber during the post-war construction boom and well-weathered after thirty years of exposure to the elements, the building looking like a strong puff of wind might blow it over at any minute. The timber beams were cracked and rotten in places and the nails holding them in place were coated in rust. Positioned on a slight downward slope, the southern end of the building was elevated by concrete footings, while the roof line of the opposite end, closest to the road, was just below street level. Kosta and Bellows made a complete circuit of the building, locating a secondary entry point at the north-western corner, secured by a simple padlock.
Recon complete, they returned to their vehicle and radioed their findings in to Strider and Jacobsen. “Based on the number of vehicles,” concluded Kosta, “there has to be at least two other perps inside the warehouse, in addition to Halil and Errol.”
“There's likely more, though,” replied Strider. “Cutting and repackaging twenty-plus kilos of heroin is extremely labour intensive.” They spent a few more minutes discussing strategy over the radio, before settling back to wait.
It seemed much longer, but it was only an hour later that two muffled gunshots were heard coming from the warehouse. Before the sounds had even registered properly, Strider was yelling into the radio, “Shots fired! Shots fired! Go, go, go!”
Bellows had the Ford Escort turned around in seconds. Jake fired off rapid instructions to Kosta over the radio as they sped the short distance back to the gate. They arrived at the same moment as Strider’s black Range Rover, approaching from the opposite direction, and were forced to brake to avoid a collision. The Range Rover careered down the sloping driveway and pulled up in a flurry of dirt. Jake jumped out and removed a pair of bolt cutters from the boot, then took off after Strider, who was already sprinting for the far side of the building.
The roller shutter was up now, but the loading dock was still deserted. Bellows and Kosta approached the dock slowly with their weapons drawn, silently climbing the short flight of stairs before halting abruptly, waiting for Jake and Strider to get in position. Less than a minute later, on the other side of the building, Jake snapped the padlock securing the back door. Strider depressed the transmit button and whispered, “Go!” into the radio.
Silently, Strider and Jake slid around the door and closed it softly behind them, their weapons gripped in both hands. Guardians didn't usually carry firearms, since they were useless against the type of offender they usually hunted – any binder worth his salt could halt a bullet in its tracks, and silver was the only effective deterrent to a tether – but for this op they were all armed with a handgun and a spare clip.
It was relatively bright inside and they found themselves just beyond a pool of light, enabling them to see their surroundings quite clearly. The sound of voices drew them forward, while several rows of shelves shielded them from the source of the light. A narrow passageway along the outer wall of the warehouse allowed them to edge carefully closer without being seen. They crept past three tall storage units, piled high with cartons, crates and other miscellanea, before stopping in the shadows of a fourth. They were close enough now to hear the bark of instructions from a strongly accented voice, perhaps Russian in origin.
“Stop wasting time! Finish packing up so we can get the fuck out here,” said the Russian.
“Do you really think it was smart to let the kid run off like that?” demanded a second voice, pitched lower than the first. A Brit, noted Strider, probably a Londoner by the accent. Halil? Errol said he was the son of immigrants.
“The job’s done; what did you expect me to do with him?” snorted the Russian. “Shoot him?” He chuckled, but the sound contained no trace of humour.
“What if he goes to the cops?”
“Not bloody likely,” laughed the first man scornfully. “He's young, but he isn’t stupid.”
“Still, it is a risk.” The second man clearly wasn't convinced. “We could have taken him with us, dropped him off outside the city somewhere.”
The reply when it came was icy. “Don't forget who’s in charge here, Halil. I’ll do what I think is best and you can shut your fucking trap. Unless you want me to shut it for you?”
There was a moment of tense silence. “I didn't think so,” said the Russian. “Now get moving.”
Strider edged as close as he dared to the front of the concealing shelving unit, trying to get a clearer view of the scene. A halogen floodlight, powered by a portable generator, lit up the space as brightly as a midsummer’s day. The noxious smell of petrol permeated the air. Leaking fluid from the generator’s fuel tank dripped slowly but steadily onto the concrete floor, evaporating almost instantly. Two young men busied themselves about a long table, packing equipment and rubbish into cardboard boxes. One of the pair was dressed in jeans, t-shirt and baseball cap; the other was taller and broader and wore baggy track pants and a sleeveless vest, displaying over-developed biceps. A third man, much older and shorter than the other two was more formally attired in a suit and tie. His shoulder-length silver-grey hair was pulled back into a ponytail and a thick, puckered scar across one cheek dominated his face. He paced back and forth, puffing on a cigar and stroking the thin mustache over his top lip that gave him a slightly villainous aspect. The was no sign of the drugs Strider's team had been tracking, but it was a safe bet the heroin had already been stashed inside the load of mattresses listed on the original manifest and loaded into the grey box-truck, ready for transportation.
Chillingly, all three of them ignored a fourth man, lying on the floor beside an upturned chair, dressed in jeans and an all too familiar red sweatshirt. Blood seeped from a gunshot wound between the man’s eyes and from another in his chest, and had congealed in a grisly puddle around his head. Even more disturbing was the trauma to the man’s face. Before he died, he had been brutally beaten; his flesh was a mass of bruises and contusions, inflamed so badly that his eyes had swollen completely shut. It was unlikely he ever saw the end coming. A fine film of white dust coated his neck and chin. Strider tensed visibly at the sight of Errol’s body, then stepped back to allow Jake a few seconds to survey the scene.
“Go and find a tarp or something to wrap this moron in, Halil,” ordered the silver-tailed man. “We can’t leave him here and he’s bleeding all over the fucking place.”
Halil did as he was told, grabbing a torch from the box on the table and stalking off in silent fury, just as Silvertail spoke again. His was the accented voice Strider and Jake had heard a minute before. “You – boy – take that idiot's jacket off and mop up the blood as best you can.”
The youth in the baseball cap glanced nervously at the man in the suit and dropped reluctantly to the floor to obey the distasteful command. Trying not to get blood on his own clothes, he crouched beside the body and struggled to extricate the dead man’s limp arms from within the red sweatshirt.
“Stop messing around and get the damn thing off! He’s not going to bite you,” growled the silver-tailed man, puffing on his cigar until the end glowed red and carelessly blowing smoke over the youth’s head. “He’s dead as a fucking doornail.”
Strider and Jake conferred with a few whispered words and then moved quickly and quietly out into the open space. Jake took up point behind and to the right of Silvertail, while Strider moved further forward, giving them each a good angle of sight on both men. Aiming his semi-automatic SIG Sauer at the back of the silver-tailed man, Strider called out, “You in the suit, turn around slowly and keep your hands where I can see them.”
The youth crouching on the floor ceased his mopping and Silvertail slowly swiveled around. As he came face to face with Strider, he threw his cigar away and extended his arms sideways, perpendicular to his body.
“Both of you, put your hands behind your head,” instructed Strider, keeping his voice under tight control.
The Russian bared his teeth in a wide malevolent grin and made a strange sweeping motion with his arms, as if conducting an invisible orchestra. At once, a shimmering curtain of orange flame arose before him, sweeping across the floor from one side of the open space to the other. It quickly grew higher, its sudden, intense heat forcing Strider and Jake back a few paces.
“Christ almighty!” exclaimed Jake, using his free hand to shield his face from the heat of the flames.
Strider was incredulous. “He's a fucking binder!”
Silvertail turned back to the youth on the floor and yelled at him to run, his words almost drowned out by the unearthly crackling of the fire. The young man scrambled quickly to his feet and sprinted off around the corner, almost tripping over his feet in his haste to be gone. On his own now, but still grinning maniacally, Silvertail faced Strider and Jake through the undulating wall of flames, as if daring them to come and get him.
The fire he’d conjured was a living creature, leaping and hissing and exploding erratically in every direction, its hellish tentacles climbing higher and higher. Wooden crates and pallets, stacked out of the way against the shelving units, were now aflame, feeding the hungry beast. It climbed inexorably towards the roof, spreading its talons. As if that wasn't enough, Silvertail pulled a gun from beneath his jacket and took aim. Strider yelled a warning to Jake and threw himself to the ground.
The first shot flew past Strider’s ear, sending his heart-rate into triple digits. He returned fire, but the Russian had vanished behind the flames, appearing a moment later a short distance away. There was a rapid exchange of shots but thickening smoke and flying ash made it difficult to see. It was incredible how quickly the fire had taken hold. The hungry flames continued to feed and grow, their fingers finally reaching the roof and racing along the wooden rafters.
With every passing second, the fire burned more aggressively. It was only a matter of time before the building was totally engulfed. Crouching low to the floor, Strider replaced his empty clip with a full one, and took stock of the deteriorating situation. The flames had already cut off the narrow passage to the door they’d entered through and were licking the walls behind them, leaving them trapped within an ever-diminishing ring of fire. The roar of the inferno was distracting and Strider curbed the urge to cover his ears. It occurred to him suddenly that the shooting had stopped; Silvertail must have made a hasty retreat.
“Jake!” yelled Strider over the roar of the flames. “We have to get out of here!”
“The back way’s blocked, we’ll have to go through the loading dock!” yelled Jacobsen, edging closer.
“And try not to get barbecued in the process,” muttered Strider, all too aware that the only way out was through the flames. But even as he spoke, the flaming curtain which birthed the surrounding inferno was gradually subsiding, leaving only a few, easily navigable spot fires. The blaze continued to rage out of control above, beside and behind them, but they were no longer completely contained. With luck, they should be able to cross to the main passage and make good their escape.
“Let’s go!” yelled Strider. Briefly, he wondered what had happened to Kosta and Bellows and hoped they’d had the good sense to get out while they still could. He moved as fast as the conditions allowed, but after a dozen strides, skidded to an abrupt halt. Jake pulled up short behind him, unsure what the problem was, until he, too, noticed the body of the beaten youth, materializing unexpectedly out of the smoke, forgotten briefly in the earlier melee. They couldn’t leave him behind; it wouldn't be right; Errol deserved better than that. He’d given his life to learn the fate of his brother; the least they could do was ensure his mother had one body to bury.
Strider crouched beside the body and with Jake’s help, lifted the dead weight up and over his shoulder. He tensed his legs to stand when there was a sudden, deafening explosion, the force of which knocked him off his feet and squeezed the air from his lungs. Pain radiated from where he landed on one elbow and hip. He lay still for several seconds gasping for breath, all too aware he was wasting valuable time. He finally dragged himself up off the floor and made a rapid assessment of the situation.
It was a real effort to breathe now. The air, already stifling from smoke, ash and depleted oxygen, had become a miasma of foul odours. Strider gagged reflexively, but had no choice but to breathe in the foul-smelling air. A second explosion ripped through the building, followed immediately by a third. Gas tanks, he deduced worriedly. The last two weren’t as powerful as the first, but that didn't mean there weren't other, larger, tanks waiting to go off. They needed to keep moving.
Strider looked over his shoulder for Jake and was dismayed to see his partner curled on the floor, clutching his side. Blood oozed through his fingers, stark red in the demonic glow of the dancing flames. Strider felt a frisson of ice-cold fear run through him, but forced himself to stay calm as he rushed to his partner's side. Jake was conscious, thank God, and the injury didn't appear to be life threatening.
“Bloody hell, Jake, you scared the crap out of me for a second there,” said Strider, kneeling on the floor and keeping his voice even. He yanked off his leather jacket and pulled his t-shirt over his head, folding it roughly into a thick pad and handing it to Jake to use as a pressure dressing. He slipped the jacket back on and zipped it up.
“Shrapnel’s a bitch,” grimaced Jake between clenched teeth as he applied pressure to the wound. “Don’t worry; I’ve had worse,” he added with forced bravado.
“We need to get out of here before the whole place goes up,” said Strider. “Can you walk?”
“I’ll give it a shot,” said Jake determinedly. “How hard can it be?” he joked, wincing with the pain of just sitting up. Strider hooked his forearms under Jake’s armpits and pulled him to his feet, knowing the movement must hurt like hell. Nearby, Errol’s limp remains lay where they’d fallen after the first explosion. Strider eyed the body wearily and murmured a small prayer, one he’d had cause to use far too often over the years. “Rest now, brother. May angels lead you home to heaven.”
“Sorry, mate,” he muttered when he was finished, “but the living come first.” He put his arm around Jake, supporting him as best he could, and they staggered towards the main passage, leaving Errol behind.
The thick, billowing smoke was now as lethal as the fire itself. They tried to stay low and take shallow breaths, but by the time they turned the corner, they were both coughing uncontrollably. Strider didn’t allow himself to dwell on the amount of blood oozing from Jake’s wound; there was no point in worrying about something he couldn’t control. Flames licked the roof above, sucking oxygen out of the air like a greedy babe at its mother's breast. The way ahead was relatively clear and he allowed himself a small glimmer of hope.
They hobbled forward as fast as Jake could manage, sidestepping fallen piles of twisted metal and burning timber. Another explosion ripped through the air, knocking them off their feet like a pair of bowling pins and sending a mountain of burning debris toppling down in front of them. If they’d been moving any faster they would have been buried beneath the detritus. As it was, the explosion had eliminated their last remaining exit.
“What do we do now?” panted Jake, wishing he didn’t already know the answer.
“God only knows,” muttered Strider dejectedly.
The two men looked at each other helplessly, their minds filled with identical images of human candles and obscenely charred remains, but giving up was not in their vocabulary.
The roar of the fire was deafening. The poisonous smoke obliterated anything more than a foot away, so it was a struggle to stay properly oriented. Backing away from the burning debris in front of them, they turned in the opposite direction, only to run straight into a forklift truck parked in the middle of the aisle.
“What do you think?” yelled Strider.
“I think it’s our only hope.”
They climbed aboard and thankfully, the engine started on the first try. If this crazy, last ditch plan didn’t work, at least they had the dubious comfort of knowing they’d suffocate from smoke inhalation long before the flames burned them alive. Strider reversed away from the wall, giving them a ten metre run up. Jake had one arm looped tightly around the rear roof support, the other hand holding the blood-soaked padding to his side.
“Ready?” yelled Strider as he prepared to floor it.
“Do it!” Jake yelled back.
Strider put his foot down and the tiny vehicle took off. He was betting their lives it would build up sufficient momentum to force its way through the weathered timber wall to the outside world, but it was the landing he was most concerned about, since it was impossible to know what sort of drop they were in for on the other side.
After a short period of rapid acceleration, the loud crack of splintering wood signaled a successful breach of the wall. The forklift flew through the air for three interminable seconds before landing heavily on the downward slope of the concrete forecourt outside. As Strider applied the brakes, they skidded uncontrollably. The forklift leaned precariously to one side, but he somehow managed to keep them upright until they slowed to a halt. He let out the breath he’d been holding and took in a lungful of sweet, unadulterated air.
“Oh man, what a ride!” gasped Jake as he climbed down awkwardly from his perch and dragged deep breaths of clean air into his lungs.
“Better than any roller-coaster,” agreed Strider with a euphoric laugh. Leaping to the ground beside his partner, he confessed, “I was beginning to think we were never getting out of there.”
“Too close,” agreed Jake soberly.
Marveling at their lucky escape, they clapped each other on the back and turned around to gaze at the burning building. The hole they’d knocked through the wall had infused the fire with a fresh source of oxygen; it was going to be one hell of a job to put the flames out. Fortunately, that wasn’t their problem.
“We need to get you to a hospital, Jake.” Strider looked around the car park for Kosta and Bellows, frowning when he didn’t see them. Surely they made it out before the fire took hold? Pulling out his radio, Strider pressed the call button. “Kostakidis from Strider, come in. Kosta from…”
“Yo, Strider…” called Jake. “Over there,” he pointed, and began limping down the slope towards the loading bay. Two figures were emerging from the smoke, one awkwardly supporting the other.
Strider followed more slowly, the pounding in his chest beginning to subside at the welcome sight of his missing colleagues. But his heart was still heavy as he thought of Errol, lying dead inside the warehouse, burned now beyond recognition. Only this morning he had dismissed the boy’s fears, putting them down to paranoia and inexperience. What a waste of a young life. And what's more, all the evidence was gone, the perps had disappeared and the trail was cold. What a fucking dog of a day.