Stray sunrays broke free through the gray sky and reflected into the glass of the wide window, blinding Jose for a few seconds at a time. However, he didn’t mind. The wind didn’t seem as strong as the other day, so the twenty-four-year-old man enjoyed his job for a change.
That morning, in the mild breeze, floating above the city on his window washing platform, the man could believe himself to be the king of the world. Whenever Jose looked down, the other mortals looked like tiny ants running here and there at the street level.
The other day, the man had experienced the feeling of a leaf caught in the whirlwind of air, and he had cursed his job and his willingness to do it. It seemed different now.
Satisfied with himself and his work, Jose started whistling to the song’s rhythm, pouring into his ears through the earbuds.
He made a whopping twenty-two dollars an hour, after all. The man was the first to admit that he made much more than some of his friends. They toiled in an airless factory for almost ten hours daily for a little more than half of that.
Jose knew he had it good, even though he grumbled now and then. But then, who didn’t complain about work? It was in the man’s nature to find something to whine about in anything. The more people had, the more they lamented.
Pondering his luck motivated Jose to work harder, standing on tiptoes to reach higher and bending his knees to cover more of the glass panel. If someone had watched him from afar, they would have thought the man had lost his mind. His disjointed movements resembled a weird ballet.
Still, besides a seagull, no one bore witness to his zealous hard work. The bird clonked and cried out, put out by the display, but the man didn’t hear it over the rap blast in his ears. With a last disgusted cry, the seagull chose to look for something to eat and left the scene.
Thinking of the twenty-two dollars an hour gave Jose the strength to finish the window. The man braced his hands on his hips and breathed deeply.
Damn, if he didn’t deserve that money. The surface of those glass panels could haunt a soul, and he had to make them shine. He couldn’t afford another complaint. HR had already written him up after the debacle with one of the customers last month.
The man breathed in and out several times and then glanced at his watch. The digital display told him that the time for lunch had come, so Jose sat down on the platform, crossing his legs, and took a sub out of his backpack.
He unwrapped the sandwich and sniffed it. Yep, he had hit the right combination when he put it together in the morning, and that wasn’t too bad for a mamma’s boy, as that snotty Isabel girl had called him.
Jose had broken up with Isabel more than a year before. Still, that didn’t mean that the man had forgotten all those hurtful things the woman had hurled at him. Some things stick with a person long after their expiration date. Whenever something unpleasant happened, Isabel’s words also popped into his head.
However, the young man had already met the woman of his dreams, so Isabel belonged to the past. He had even decided to ask that woman to marry him.
Alicia didn’t mock him, and she didn’t try to belittle him. Jose had only waited for his paycheck to invite her somewhere special and to ask her to be his wife. And the day had come. It was payday.
Jose wiped his fingers off his sweatpants and took out his phone. The man checked his bank account, and when his eyes fell on the deposit made that morning, he smiled. Oh, yes, the day had come.
He couldn’t wait to see Alicia’s surprise at his choice of venue. Jose had already made reservations to one of the fanciest restaurants in Toronto, and a well-thought-out ring waited for him at home. He needed only to buy some flowers, and the evening would kick off the rest of his life.
To ensure there would be no glitch, the man texted his girlfriend, ‘Don’t forget, at six at our spot.’
Jose didn’t have to wait too long for her reply. The sight of all the oxoxoxox displayed on the screen made him chuckle. Girls turned out to be so silly sometimes!
Jose gulped some water and put the sandwich wrap back in the backpack. With a satisfied sigh, the man maneuvered the platform to the next set of windows and started wiping them.
It would have been fun if he could see through the windows inside. However, the tainted glass didn’t allow him to glimpse what was happening on those floors. The man shrugged. At least he could imagine what would happen that night when he would ask the question. Jose had a good imagination, and he knew Alicia would be so happy that she would cry. While the man pictured her crying and kissing him, a wide grin perched on his lips.
When the sharp pain struck his heart, Jose cried out, but no one could hear his shout over the noise of the traffic below. For a second, with disbelief, the young man wondered if he suffered a heart attack. However, the thought seemed way too farfetched.
Then, the man fell backward, and, with a last conscious thought, he tried to catch the safety bar to hold on, but he missed. The feeling of flying over the handrail overwhelmed the man’s brain, which still fired messages down the synapses, even though a bungled bullet had already stopped his heart.
Lifeless, the man dangled in his harness at the mercy of the mild wind. The sky turned darker, and the wind started picking up, but Jose was way beyond the material plane.
The smell of stale coffee hung in the air, tickling his nostrils, and Mark cocked his nose with disgust. Someone should have emptied the coffee pot and made a new one.
Mark looked around the office with a critical eye, and his heart sank to his boots at the sorry sight. Yep, he needed to do something about that room, and soon. Leah MacKay, the lieutenant, was supposed to be back at work in about a week, and she would chew him a new hide for letting her office grow so sickening.
The truth was that Mark proved contemptible housekeeping skills. He never saw what lay around if he didn’t feel someone’s breath behind his neck. Only then did the man’s eyes start noticing what was amiss.
Leah had left Mark in charge of her office and the detectives’ squad while she went on her honeymoon for a couple of weeks. She didn’t leave too many instructions with him. Still, it was implied that Mark shouldn’t ruin her office while she was away. Unfortunately, that was what the man had done.
‘Anyway, I still have a few days before I need to worry,’ Mark pursed his lips for a few seconds. Then, dissatisfied with the prospect of putting the office to rights, the man threw his pen on the desk and turned his eyes toward the window.
With a scowl on his face, the detective watched the patch of horizon visible through the glass and the corners of his mouth turned down. The gray sky bummed his spirits some more, although he didn’t think that would have been possible.
Mark contemplated the spot of gray for a couple of minutes and then shrugged. Blue or gray, it was the same thing for him. At least it didn’t snow or rain.
The man was sick and tired of braving the elements day in and day out. That winter had seemed longer than usual that year. Consequently, Mark had already reached the end of his rope, which was interesting. After all, the man had spent most of his life in the Province of Quebec.
Snowing out his car every morning for a week had left him despondent. Even at night, Mark dreamed of that damn shovel, and he couldn’t sleep well.
The shadows under his eyes had been getting darker and darker lately. The detective felt he had turned into a raccoon every time he watched his reflection in the mirror.
However, there was some hope. Distant hope, but spring was in the air. Or, at least, that was what the man had felt that morning on his way to work.
A few months back, his heart would have sung with joy at the briefest glimpse of the sun. Mark would have thought of finally getting out to the park or a pub to have a beer on a terrace, filling his lungs with the season’s crisp air. The beer sounded well enough, but he couldn’t gather enough enthusiasm to pass muster.
Since Jen left him, Mark had sunk into a dark depression. The man had thought that their almost three-year relationship meant something for the woman, only to discover that he had lied to himself and had a hyperactive imagination.
The woman strung Mark enough until she had found something better. Mark didn’t have a chance to compete with a seven-figure portfolio. His paycheck trotted far behind.
Sick of his introspections, Mark glanced at his watch and grimaced. It was barely eleven. Lunch wouldn’t have been a satisfactory excuse to leave the office, and the man had already taken a coffee break only thirty minutes before. Still, he felt that he couldn’t breathe, caged in the room, and needed to go out.
Mark knew that he should have read a few reports but couldn’t bring himself to open the files. Besides, Anna and Josh had proved their efficiency in the past, so Mark didn’t think they needed his supervision right then. Nothing seemed urgent to shake him from his passivity, so the man continued to wallow in his melancholy.
The detective leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the desk, happy that Leah wasn’t there to slash him with her sharp tongue. The man closed his eyes, thinking he could nod off for an hour or so. No one entered that office without knocking first, so he had the time to put his feet back on the floor if anyone had come.
Mark dozed off, his hands folded on his stomach, happy that the noise from the detectives’ hall didn’t penetrate the walls to disturb him. Unknowingly, the man whistled through one of his nostrils every time he breathed, the sound keeping company to the low buzzing from the computer.
Vivid dreams prompted a scowl on his face. Now and then, a grimace tugged at the curve of his mouth, and his fingers twitched. The corners of his eyes and his forehead crinkled. His eyebrows knitted above his eyes.
Someone knocked on the door enthusiastically, and his mobile phone rang at the same time, jarring him. Mark woke up with a jolt, almost falling off the chair. In the process, the man bumped his elbow onto the edge of the desk. A second later, his right foot got caught in the upper corner under the table for a few moments.
Mark pulled hard and twisted his ankle. He groaned, and his feet landed with a thump on the floor. His body took a dive, and his forehead narrowly missed the top of the table. The man fumbled to keep his balance, crushing a few choice words under his tongue.
Both the knocking and ringing continued, and Mark growled. He pushed his fingers through his hair to bring some order to his dishevelled appearance and smoothed his clothes with hurried gestures.
“Come in,” he yelled over the ringing and then snatched the mobile phone off the desk to see who was calling.
The door half-opened, and wide-eyed, Anna pushed her head through the opening, indicating that she didn’t know what to expect.
Mark had taken quite a time to answer her knock. Besides, the muffled noises from the room didn’t seem encouraging to the young policewoman.
Mark waved her to come inside with a negligent gesture while checking the screen for the caller’s name. The detective mutely invited Anna to sit across from him and answered the phone.
“What’s up, Victor?” the detective barked with annoyance, only to scowl afterward. He had hoped not to reveal that the entire ruckus had put him out.
Not to disturb Mark, Anna closed the door quietly and sat in one of the chairs across from him. The woman folded her hands in her lap, patiently waiting for the detective to finish his phone discussion.
Everyone in the precinct knew Victor or knew of him. The man had made the news a few years back after surviving three savage attempts on his life, and many of the police officers had declared him a hero.
Anna had had the opportunity to spend some time in the man’s company. Victor had impressed her with his indifferent attitude towards what people thought. A non-conformist, the man’s intelligence proved above average, and his moral compass attracted the woman more. The man lived with a strict set of rules.
“Yes, Leah will be back next week,” Mark nodded, replying to a question coming from Victor, and then continued to listen attentively.
When the detective’s eyes rounded, and his lips parted in surprise, Anna understood that the subject was something serious.
“Yes, of course, I will look into it. We can’t wait until Leah’s back,” Mark shook his head, pressing his lips with determination.
A deep furrow formed between the man’s eyebrows, and he tilted his head to the right, listening intently.
“All right then,” Mark said, glancing at his watch. “I suppose I can get there in half an hour if you want,” he continued afterward.
Mark listened some more and nodded. “Good, see you then. Yes, I will bring Anna and Josh with me,” he assured his friend. “See you, buddy,” Mark said and disconnected the call.
“Are we going somewhere?” Anna asked, her eyebrows hiking up her forehead.
Excitement ran through her veins. She knew that a case with Victor would be anything else but boring.
“Yes, I think we have just got a case,” Mark explained pensively. “Tell Josh that he must come too. Anyway, Victor made some allusions about lunch for all of us, and you know that Liliana can cook,” the detective winked at his colleague.
The woman burst into laughter and shook her head. “That, I do know,” she agreed with him and stood up, heading to the door.
“Oh, what did you need?” Mark stopped her, remembering the woman had come to talk to him.
“Oh, nothing special,” Anna fluttered her fingers with negligence. “Josh and I were thinking of going out for lunch and wanted to invite you too,” she shrugged.
“Ah, okay then,” Mark nodded and watched the woman leave the room.
‘And for that, I almost maimed myself,’ he growled after Anna left and thumped his fist onto the top of the table.
Still, the thought of a hearty lunch made Mark forget about his near-miss.
“Hey, guys,” Victor greeted the detectives with effusion and invited them into his house with a large wave of his hand. “It’s been a while,” he thought after closing the door behind them.
“Eh, not so long,” Anna replied, fluttering her fingers dismissively. “We’ve seen each other at Leah’s wedding only about three weeks ago,” she corrected him in a playful tone of voice, and a smile curved her lips.
“That, yes, we have,” Victor agreed with her. “I was talking about coming to my house, though,” he explained. “It’s been quite a while.”
“Last September, I think,” Josh remembered with a grin. “It was your birthday,” the man pointed out, and Victor nodded, leading them toward the living room.
“I would invite you outside, but it is chilly, and I don’t think you would enjoy it too much,” he grinned at the three detectives.
“Is Liliana at home?” Mark asked, hoping they might get something to eat from that visit as Victor had promised.
Victor had mentioned something about food, but the detective didn’t trust him too much in that department.
Liliana always put something tasty on the table for visitors. Victor wasn’t so polite, though. The man had adopted new customs when he stepped onto Canadian soil. He had forgotten what he might have learned as a child in his parents’ house.
The detectives could expect anything from him. His idea about offering them lunch might have meant some chips and beer, even though beer was a big no-no for the detectives during their workday.
“She will get back home soon,” Victor waved his hand, unconcerned, after glancing at his watch. “She had only a few errands to run,” the man explained. “These days, she hasn’t got more than a few days off, and she crams them with everything she can do,” he continued with a shrug.
No one asked Victor why he wouldn’t help his wife with her errands. The detectives had got to know Liliana by now. They had learned that the young woman didn’t like to have her independence curtailed just because she had become a wife a second time. She didn’t believe that she needed her husband’s help in everything. The woman could take care of her own problems all by herself.
“It’s too early for a stiff drink,” Victor said after his guests sat down. “However, what would you say about some coffee and a soft drink?” he asked, looking from one to the other.
“Both would be great,” Mark admitted with an inward sigh.
Food didn’t seem to be on the cards that day. Victor had forgotten entirely about the lunch proposition he had extended over the phone.
“Well, make yourself comfortable, and I will bring the drinks in a few moments,” Victor said, leaving the room.
Mark looked around the room with a critical eye. The living room hadn’t changed much since he first entered that house.
Some subtle touches reminded him of a feminine presence in the house, but Liliana hadn’t gone wild with the decorations. A board game forgotten on the edge of a small table reminded Mark of the children’s presence under the roof now, and a vase with a bunch of colourful flowers warmed the austere air of the interior.
Mark grinned when he noticed the trace left by the bullet that had crossed Victor’s arm to lodge into the wooden frame of the wall. As their host was coming back with their drinks, the detective turned to him.
“I see you still have that hole in your wooden frame,” the man tilted his head toward the wall.
Victor grinned wryly and shook his head. “Eh, I haven’t felt like repairing it, you know. A reminder, if you want, that nothing is sure one hundred percent. You never know what tomorrow might bring. Plus, it helps to make you enjoy life to its fullest in the present. Tomorrow might disappear in a big puff,” he shrugged.
“That’s correct,” Anna nodded wisely.
No one knew that better than she did. The last few months had practically changed her life completely. Her parents had moved to warmer climates, leaving her alone in the big city. The woman had the company of two cats inherited from her mother, but that didn’t fill in the void she felt every evening when she locked the world out of her door.
“Anyway,” Mark intervened, looking critically at what Victor had loaded on the tray, noticing with disappointment that the man had stacked only the cups of coffee and soda cans and sighed inwardly. Then, he continued, “You said that you wanted to talk to us about something. You mentioned the words human trafficking if I remember correctly,” the man added.
“Oh, yes, I have something that might interest you,” Victor nodded. “But let me bring the coffee pot first, and then we can discuss the problem,” he said and went back to the kitchen without waiting for an answer from the detective.
Mark sighed and leaned back. Victor hadn’t changed. Everything had to be on his timetable, and the detective knew that he wouldn’t have a chance to get his answers sooner.
The detective looked at his colleagues under his lashes to judge their mood. He had promised them lunch, and it didn’t seem they would eat anything too soon.
Oblivious to anything that happened around, Josh stared at his phone screen. The man read God knew what, and Mark frowned. His colleague hadn’t said a word until then, and he wondered what ran through the man’s head.
The detective turned his eyes toward Anna and noticed the guarded expression on her face. The woman seemed to analyze the floral motive of the carpet closely. Mark knew she had seen it, so that didn’t make sense.
Mark grimaced and turned his eyes to the French doors leading to the terrace. He remembered the hours spent on that terrace with his colleagues. He regretted that the weather prevented them from doing it that day.
Dissatisfied with everything, Mark crossed his arms over his chest and resigned to waiting for the events to unfold. Having lunch was impossible, so he hoped the discussion with Victor wouldn’t take long. At least they could go to lunch afterward.
Victor returned with the coffee pot and started pouring, making small talk. Mark smiled and nodded, but he didn’t really listen to the words from the man’s mouth. He knew Victor, and the detective didn’t expect the man to say anything important before everyone sat down with a cup. Until then, Mark felt free to let his mind wander.
Their host handed each of them a cup of coffee and then sat beside Mark on the sofa.
“Well,” he started after sipping from his cup. “I had better get to the subject, I think. I know you don’t have much time available. Probably, you have other cases to solve as well,” the man said, and his brows hiked up his forehead inquiringly.
“It’s not a problem,” Josh intervened. “We have the time,” he continued, and Mark tightened his teeth in frustration.
His colleague hadn’t contributed anything by then, and now, he chirped like a magpie. Mark’s dreams of a hearty lunch flew off the window with Josh’s words.
“Well,” Victor nodded, “let me tell you what’s what. I would have preferred to have Leah and Axel here for this, but you will do,” he shrugged.
Mark narrowed his eyes to slits, upset with the man’s words. Leah might have turned out to be an exceptional detective, but that didn’t mean she was the only one. Maybe her input had helped them all the time in the past. However, even Josh had come up with valuable ideas often enough.
“Don’t take it wrong,” Victor turned his eyes toward him. “I don’t mean that you are not a good detective or that I couldn’t work with Anna and Josh,” the man shook his head in denial. “However, Leah and Axel have a few skills that few people possess, and those skills would have helped me in laying the story out, you know.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mark waved his hand, determined not to split hairs anymore. “Tell us what it’s about, and if necessary, we will contact Leah and Axel. They should return home in a few days so that it wouldn’t be a problem,” he shrugged.
“I don’t think…” Victor started, but then the bell rang.
“Are you waiting for someone?” asked Mark, surprised that Victor invited another person to their meeting.
“Give me a moment,” Victor said, standing up and leaving the living room.
“Hmm, interesting, don’t you think?” Josh murmured toward Anna, but Mark heard him and scowled at him.
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