..this is continuation time for helping my ‘lost’ baby masterpiece, VENGEANCE WEARS BLACK, to get back a bit of its self-esteem… as the second offering in the series for my Jack Calder crime thrillers, for some reason it’s lagging its two siblings in the Great God Amazon rankings… and the others are giving it some ribbing on the manuscript disc… see what yeez think of my little baby…
Opening Chapter of ‘VENGEANCE WEARS BLACK’
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
The journey from Krakow to Cherbourg is a thousand kilometres as the crow flies.
The dingy truck with four dozen aboard was cramped and filthy. Svetlana could smell the sweat and fear that clings to transit refugees. She knew two of her companions among the others sharing the dark canvas-covered space in the rear of the transporter. Only females, some barely older than her own seventeen years, some much older, the common thread the desire to find a route to England and a chance of earnings, however meagre, at least better than nothing in their homeland. Desperation and hope made easy bedfellows.
The handlers had outlined the way out two weeks ago, promising work with their business partners in London. Guaranteed placements with good families keen to have their foreign labour. The clincher, no money up front required, nothing to lose. Early misgivings surfaced about enforced prostitution. These evaporated with the handlers’ assurances this was a legitimate business, with constant need in the UK for reliable workers like themselves. However, crossing borders without documentation was illegal, but who had time and money to acquire passports?
Thin matting covered the floor of the truck, and piles of large empty cardboard boxes softened the jolts and jarring. Because of the risk of betraying their presence to officials at checkpoints they were told not to smoke. It would also be dangerous because of the extra fuel containers stacked inside to avoid the need to purchase gas on the road.
A small light fitment shed its glow across the passengers. Some whispered in nervous conversation, while many travelled in silence, wrapped in the anticipation of better times at the end of the journey. No talking was allowed when the vehicle was motionless. Officials have ears.
Svetlana boarded third last in Krakow before the door was locked. Some dialects she understood. Most she didn’t. She tried to focus on being as comfortable as the overloaded conditions allowed, tucked into the left rear corner, supported at least on two sides. Her belongings crammed into a duffle bag, which doubled as a cushion. She didn’t own a watch, had no idea how long they’d been on the road, and not being able to see outside made the time drag even more. The initial fear causing the dryness in her mouth at the start of the journey slowly turned to positive anticipation of what lay ahead in England. At least she’d be able to send money to her mother in the village. Her father had been an unknown figure, having died sixteen years ago when Svetlana was barely one year old. She opened her bag to remove the grease-proof paper holding the cheese and bread she had brought aboard and ate half of it. Not knowing how much longer they might have to go, she decided to keep some for later. The bottled water, warm by now, eased her throat a little. The monotony of the noise from the wheels as the journey progressed began to make her drowsy. With barely room to manoeuvre with the other girls pressed so closely, she tried to position the bag at her back again and leaned her head against the heavy cloth wall. The truck had been used to transport many different cargoes in recent months. The stink of rotted vegetables and dank canvas mixed with the sweat and body odour. Proper sleep impossible, she managed to doze for short spells.
Tev Naar made this run dozens of times a year.
His job was to drive. Just drive. Nothing else. Each trip had a bag man aboard. Some of them he’d journeyed with often, others not, names neither asked for nor exchanged. The greaser’s function at the points of entry and exit ensured recognised friendlies at customs crossings received the standard payment, no vehicle inspection needed.
The greaser on this trip was a regular. A small man, unremarkable in any crowd. These were the best operators. Quiet. Effective. Mingling in.
Early evening drizzle misted the entrance to the quay as the truck drew into the port of Cherbourg. As normal, Tev parked on the far edge of the dockside, away from unwelcome attention. Now the wait. In a couple of hours, around ten o’clock, local handlers would arrive to transfer the human cargo to the waiting freighter for the journey across the English Channel. Until then, Tev and the greaser chatted quietly about football, the only common interest they shared.
In the rear, the women waited, talking only in low whispers. They’d been briefed on the schedule. They’d be on the high seas soon, on the final leg to England.
The dashboard clock neared nine o’clock. Tev’s companion opened the truck door.
“I need a pee.”
“Right,” said Tev.
The greaser stepped down from the passenger seat. He didn’t hear the click as the silenced gun blew a hole in his right temple.
Tev heard a grunt. He turned toward the noise to be met by an equally deadly bullet to the head.
Inside, Svetlana caught a rustling coming from the canvas-covered side of the vehicle together with whispered voices in a language she didn’t recognise. Then the pungent stench of petrol fumes. What was going on?
Everything happened in a blur. Flames exploded along the sides of the truck and up across the roof. The screams from the women were terrifying. Utter panic. Instinctively, she and several beside her clawed frantically at the back door sheeting. Nothing moved. Others piled forward. They heaved their bodies against the door as acrid smoke filled their lungs. Svetlana struggled for air. “Dear God, I’m going to die,” the thought came to her. “Who’ll look after my mother?”
The flames reached the spare fuel tanks on the right hand side. Seconds later they ignited in a roar. None but those furthest from the blast stood a chance. The wall of refugees between Svetlana and the explosion saved her along with the front three women. It gave extra impetus to their shoving.
The door broke open. Svetlana fell headlong on to the muddy ground and rolled away, unaware her clothing had been burned along with her legs, half of her back and her left side. At least she landed several feet from the burning truck.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
The night went blacker as Svetlana passed out.
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