Story of the Month
Bootleg to Paris
Andrew Owens © 2016
Passport, check. Ticket, check. Just enough time for a cigarette before I enter Departures.
I swapped my passport and ticket for my pack of Marlborough Lights and rifled through my handbag for my elusive lighter. Suddenly, a short flame appeared in front of me. I glanced upward as I leaned forward to accept the light from the accommodating stranger.
The man before me was tall, looked twice my age with thinning hair. He was tanned much like myself. Smartly dressed in a dark blue, pinstriped suit with a matching tie, he looked like a businessman. After exhaling the first drag of my cigarette, I smiled and said ‘Muito obrigado.’
‘De rien,’ he replied.
Caught by surprise I looked attentively towards him. He was French like me, but I had spoken in Portuguese. How did he know? I could see he’d noted my puzzlement.
‘Your dress sense is very European and there is a fleur de lis on your jacket,’ he said, ‘You speak Portuguese well.’
‘My mother is Brazilian and my father is French.’
‘Visiting family here in Rio?’
‘Ah, Petropolis. Not staying for Festas Juninas?’
‘No.’ He was asking too many questions and I was in no mood to answer them. I threw my cigarette to the ground. ‘It was nice meeting you. Must check in.’
I looked through my messages on my mobile, as I waited in the queue for my turn to pass through the security scanner. There was a text from my associate, Edward. It said, ‘C U Tues at café. Av a gud flight.’
Though he didn’t say, I knew he was eager to get the package I had in my rucksack. Coke, two hundred grams inside of three cans of coffee. I wasn’t worried about getting it past security. This was my fifth trip in eighteen months. Even when I set off the scanner I wasn’t concerned. The metal detector always manages to find something and this time it was the studs on my belt. However, I soon had reason to be alarmed.
I stood with my arms outstretched as a female security guard waved a handheld detector over me. One of her associates began to search through my bag. Sure enough, the young security man pulled out two of the tins I was carrying.
‘What’s this?’ he asked abruptly.
‘Coffee,’ I said with as much confidence as I could, careful not to seem condescending.
‘I can see that. Why three?’
‘One for my mother, one for my brother and his wife and one for myself.’
I think the fact that the cans were sealed and that I spoke fluent Portuguese helped. The security man put the coffee back into the bag and, to my relief, I was soon on my way. There’s usually some sort of glitch when bootlegging drugs and I was convinced that was it.
Half an hour to boarding and I was standing in a bookshop looking for a newspaper. My mom always asked me to take her one home whenever I was in Brazil. There wasn’t much of a headline story, but so long as it was near to the departure date, she would be happy.
Casually checking the date, I thought about getting some chocolate for the journey home. Taking a chocolate bar and a roll of mints to the till, I noticed that the man standing ahead of me was the stranger who had given me a light. He smiled, said nothing paid for his bottled water and bag of sweets and went towards gates G to M.
‘Now boarding… flight… to Paris at Gate J13.’ I heard the call for my flight as I left the shop. The queue of passengers weren’t moving; those with children or special needs would be seated first, so I took a seat close to the window. I saw the plane I would soon be boarding and viewed the early evening horizon. The sun was setting; I wouldn’t see it again until landing in France.
After the initial boarding of passengers, I was soon walking down the tunnel to the plane. Jostling between travellers loading their hand luggage into the overhead compartments, I found my window seat. There was one vacant seat beside it.
I placed my rucksack by my feet and settled into my standard recliner, took out my mobile and wrote a couple of last-minute texts. The first was to my brother, Beniot, who would be collecting me when I landed. The next was to Edward.
‘On plane takeoff soon. Hols went well. Got ur souvenir. Look forward 2 gettin back. C U Tues.’
I leaned down, unzipped the front pocket of my rucksack and placed my phone inside. I sat up and saw the person allocated to the seat beside me was the stranger.
‘What a delightful coincidence,’ he said closing the catch to the overhead compartment before sitting down beside me. Extending his hand he leaned towards me, ‘Pierre.’
‘Renee,’ I returned accepting his hand, trying my best to hide my unease. This was weird and most disconcerting. Surely he wasn’t…Nah. I was just being paranoid. Three months ago I was convinced that a car had tailed me from Charles de Gaulle to home and that had come to nothing.
‘Nice to meet you again, Renee. I’m sure we will have plenty of time to properly introduce ourselves over the course of the flight. I do so hate liftoffs and landings,’ he said leaning back in his seat. Fifteen minutes later the plane was off the ground.
An hour into the flight and the plane had settled out into its steady flight path, and the airline’s staff began to prepare for the first in-flight service. The pilot’s voice came over the speaker, explaining that we would be landing in Paris in eleven hours, and the seatbelt indicator had turned off.
I was about to dig out the newspaper I had bought for my mother when Pierre leaned over towards me once again. He smiled and it looked like he was going to tell me more than his name and where he lived. God, I hope he isn’t going to be one of those people who suddenly take it upon themselves to talk shit and tell you all about their life history.
Speaking in a warm and serene manner Pierre said, ‘Well, I guess we’re on our way.’
Yeah, no shit. Here we go.
‘It will be straight back to work for me when we land. How about you, Miss Turgeon?’
I started to shake with fright and alarm. He knew my surname but how could he? I felt the blood drain from my face and looked intently at him. He no longer smiled. His face seemed sinister. I remained rigid and mute and he spoke to me in a clear but low tone.
‘My name is, Pierre Lemieux, Special Constable Lemieux. We know what you’re up to, Miss Turgeon and there’s a car waiting to take you back to the station when we land. You’re going to go down for a very long time, Renee, but if you cooperate, we can help to reduce your sentence. If you tell us who your contact is and help us with his arrest, I am sure we can make your stay at Fresnes less unpleasant. Who’s your contact?’
I couldn’t speak. My head felt like a whirlwind and it took all the strength I had to maintain a cool exterior. What do I do? What should I say? PC Lemieux was hardly going to let me walk and he was expecting an answer.
‘Who’s your contact, Renee? The sooner you tell me the easier it will be. What do you say?’
I leant down to my rucksack and retrieved my headphones and plugged them into the armrest. Pierre leaned closer until we were nose to nose, ‘That’s right, you think on it. In just over nine hours we’ll be landing and you’ll have plenty of time to consider the errors of your ways, even more so if you keep this up.’
He sat back and I turned and faced the window. There was nothing to see, only the blackness of night and a beacon of light from the aircraft’s wing. I was angry, and helpless. I was on my way to prison and yet it felt like I was already there, restricted to my surroundings and left to ponder my sins.
An hour later and my silence was interrupted by one of the cabin crew who pushed a trolley carrying tea and coffee. ‘Is there anything I can get you?’ she asked.
Pierre spoke first, ‘Coffee, please.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Another seat would be nice.’
‘Is there a problem?’ she asked, then saw my expression, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
Leaning towards me, Pierre said, ‘You won’t be moving.’
All of a sudden, the plane started to shake violently. It was like the tremor of an earthquake except we weren’t on solid ground. It stopped momentarily, then shook again. Pierre spilled the remains of his drink into the gangway. I could see flashes of lightning out the window. The fasten seatbelts sign quickly came on and the pilot interrupted the music on my headset.
‘We are passing through an area of turbulence which should not last for too long. Please remain seated and I will keep you posted.’
Pierre looked white when the plane dropped several hundred feet a few minutes later. The engines stalled and that is when passengers began to scream. For a moment, the pilot had seemed to regain control of the craft, but it was only for a brief time. The plane was plummeting down towards the ocean at a phenomenal speed. There was no time to act or speak. I knew within a few short minutes we would all be dead and so did Pierre.
I’m not one to pray and I don’t believe in god, so there was no chance of divine intervention. I wasn’t one to rely on luck either so it would seem that my fate was sealed. At least, I thought, I wouldn’t be going to prison.