Authors: Steve N. Lee
Tags: #Action Suspense Thriller
Like playing Russian roulette in slow motion, waiting for death tortured Catalina. Even though she had accepted the end was coming, she could still do nothing but wait for it to creep up and surprise her one day. Her mom joked it was God’s worst ever practical joke. Cat wished she could be so lighthearted about it too.
To shield herself from the rain, Cat held her tourist map of Krakow over her head as she scurried across the cobbled square dotted with bedraggled pedestrians.
Town Hall Tower loomed over her. Yesterday in the sun, the two-hundred-foot Gothic structure had looked majestic with its arched windows, stone lions guarding its entrance, and warm, cream-colored stone contrasted with red brick. Reminding her of home, the architecture had given her a welcome glow.
Today, with storm clouds sitting on its spire, the shadowy tower oozed foreboding. And that made her ache for home so much it hurt. Except, after what she’d done, there was no place she could call home.
Her rain-drenched canvas shoes squelching, Cat tramped down yet another narrow street of dull red, blue and gray medieval buildings. Four days ago, she’d had a home, a career, a future. Then they’d traveled here and become all but destitute. Hell, she hated this city for what it had done to her and her mom.
Goddamnit, she couldn’t think like that. She had to stay strong. After all, she wasn’t the one dying. Though that would make it a million times easier. No, it was her mom – the only person in the world who ‘got’ her.
In an antique store window, Cat glimpsed a gold-framed mirror.
She cringed. “Oh, God.”
Her eyes were puffy from all her crying. Her usually flowing brown hair hung a straggly mass. And her skin… As gray and lifeless as the cobbled streets. Hell, she looked fifty-seven, not twenty-seven.
She huffed. Her cosmetics had gone along with everything else. Everything. Their entire world had been packed into that car.
She trudged into yet another hotel. In a walnut-paneled lobby, red armchairs sat before a stone fireplace with a crest chiseled into the chimney breast depicting three castle towers above an eagle.
Cat looked down at her clothes. Utterly soaked, her white cotton top clung to her breasts as if she’d come to audition for a porn movie. Great.
She bumped into someone.
A woman glanced up from texting, blond hair cascading over her shoulders and red lips pouting like in some cheap fashion magazine.
Coming as second nature, Cat apologized.
“Imi pare rau.”
Oh, damn, she had to remember to speak Polish, not Romanian. “Er…
The woman winced a smile and strutted toward the exit.
At the reception desk ahead, a sullen woman with her hair in a bun stared at an LCD monitor.
Cat drew a deep breath, then strode forward, shoulders back, head up, trying to shake off all the earlier rejections. In her mind, she rehearsed the Polish speech her mom had prepared, but with each step, her pounding heart battered the words, making them harder and harder to pronounce.
The receptionist smiled at Cat with all the warmth of a fishmonger looking at a dead cod. In Polish, she said, “Hello.”
Cat replied in Polish, “Hi, do you, er… er… have any work, please? I’m – I’m, er, willing to do anything.”
All Cat needed was just enough to pay their extra costs while they waited to see if the police recovered their car. It wasn’t like she was asking for charity. Hell, no. Just a chance.
“No, sorry.” The woman returned to her monitor without another word.
“Thank you.” Cat squeezed out a smile and then slouched away.
That was the ninth rejection that morning and the thirty-sixth in all. But she couldn’t give up. Staying here was eating into the money they’d scraped together. If she didn’t replace it, they’d never get to England. And they had to get there. Had to. If her mom didn’t receive the treatment she needed... Hell, Cat would sell her goddamn soul to get the money if she had to.
A café sat across the street, decorated with cheerful greens and yellows, its sidewalk tables empty because of the rain. She tramped over.
Inside, the aroma of fresh pastries enveloped Cat. A chubby guy waltzed past her carrying a plate piled with enough delicacies to feed a family, crumbs on his lips from the bite he’d already taken.
Cat’s mouth watered. Having had no breakfast, she yearned to splurge, but knew she’d hate herself afterward for wasting money. Trying not to look at any food, she joined the line behind a skinny guy sending a tweet.
As the line dwindled, Cat reached into her canvas purse and gently held her four-leaf clover in its plastic pouch. She had a good feeling about this place. Yes, this was the place where she saved her mom.
At the counter, she spoke Polish to a middle-aged woman with a strawberry-shaped nose.
“Hi, do you have any work, please? I, er, I’m willing to do anything.”
“Yes,” said the woman.
Cat gasped. “Yes?”
But then the woman spouted more Polish at her.
Cat caught a couple of words she understood, but they meant nothing out of context. She gawked wide-eyed.
The woman frowned, then repeated what she’d said.
Cat swallowed hard. “Er…” They’d only had time for her mom to prep her on a handful of phrases. After all, how much Polish did she need to wash dishes or mop floors?
A bead of sweat trickled from Cat’s temple. She looked at the nearby customers, hoping someone might somehow come to her rescue. A girl chewed gum, staring at her phone; an old lady rooted in her pink purse; a handsome man in a suit caught her eye but looked away.
Her heart hammering, she grabbed the only chance she had – she asked if the woman spoke English.
“Czy mowi pani po angielsku?”
The woman waved Cat away and went back to her work.
No! Cat needed this job. She called out, “Anything. Please.”
The woman shook her head without even looking at Cat.
Cat tottered toward the exit, feeling like she’d been sucker punched. She’d had a chance. And then blown it. How was she going tell her mom?
Wobbly from the unending upset, she rested a hand on the table near the door to steady herself. Her breath shuddered as she struggled to control her emotions. She failed. As if someone were balling it like a sheet of paper, Cat’s face scrunched up and tears rolled down her cheeks.
Something brushed her hand on the table, so she glanced down.
The texting blonde from the hotel had pushed a napkin across to her.
Cat nodded her thanks, then dabbed her eyes.
With a sigh, she gazed out into the unforgiving rain, then shuffled outside. She peered along the street for other opportunities. Okay, so who was going to make her feel like crap next?
Behind her, someone spoke in English. “Miss?”
Cat ignored them, it never registering that someone was actually talking to her.
A hand touched her shoulder. She jumped and whipped around.
Beneath a black umbrella, a man with wavy brown hair and gentle blue eyes smiled at her – the handsome man in the suit from the café.
He said, “You look for job?”
He held his arms wide. “I cleaner job have.” The rain momentarily fell onto his navy suit, which had obviously been tailored for him.
After all the rejection, she was unsure whether he was being kind or playing a cruel joke. “A cleaning job for me? Really?”
“We are charity, so is small money, but for you, really, I have job.” He handed her a business card with the name embossed in gold. “Jacek Grabowski.”
“Catalina Petrescu.” Beaming, she shook his hand. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“You welcome.” He smiled warmly. “You Hungarian? Czech?”
“Oh, Romanians wonderful people. Very wonderful.”
He held his umbrella out to share it. “Please.”
Cat grinned. He had manners and work, and could speak a language she understood. After all the bad luck they’d suffered, finally, some good luck had come their way. And thank God – that man from their consulate hadn’t yet returned her call and they were burning through their money fast.
As she ducked under his umbrella, knocking came from the café. She peeped around him.
The blonde woman rapped on the window. When she caught Cat’s eye, she shook her head vigorously. Cat checked over her shoulder to see if the blonde was gesturing to someone behind her. She wasn’t. How odd.
Jacek said, “You want see job?”
When she didn’t immediately reply, he said, “If no, is okay.”
“Yes. Yes, please.” She wasn’t sure if she was doing the right thing, but she needed money to get them to England, to get her mom the treatment she needed, to get the chance to enjoy a few more months together, maybe even years.
“Ah, good. So come” – he gestured down the street – “I have car.”
Cat shrank back. This guy was a godsend, but no way was she getting into some strange man’s car, no matter what he was promising.
He must have sensed her unease. “You have phone?”
“It won’t work in Poland.”
“Please.” He held out a cheap lump of gray plastic with a tiny screen. “Phone friend, phone mother, phone father. Tell you safe with Jacek Grabowski here.” He pointed to the address on his card in her hand.
From his appearance, she’d expected him to have a flashy smartphone, but like that mattered. She took his phone.
Her hostel was a hovel, but at least the clerk spoke English. Cat left a message for her mother, saying she’d call again in one hour with news.
“Is good?” Jacek said, taking his phone back.
“Okay cokey, then we go.”
They set off. As he passed a round green trash can, Jacek nonchalantly tossed something in. Cat didn’t see what, but it clanged as it hit the metal side.
Minutes later, while chatting, Cat looked out of the car window as they cruised through rain-drenched backstreets. Gone were the hordes of tourists and the magnificent architecture. Here, people trudged along as if the air was heavier and squashed them into the ground, while the buildings were so gray, they looked like the rain had washed all the color out of them.
Finally, Jacek parked outside a gigantic four-story slab of concrete. Car-sized graffiti tags plastered the building’s walls, smashed windows bled darkness, and patches of the exterior crumbled to the ground.
“This where is my addict charity.” He pointed to a doorway in the middle, next to a derelict store plastered with flyers.
“Come,” he said, clambering out. “I show job.”
Cat followed. “How many women are you helping now?”
“Er… for drink maybe five. For drug, I think three.”
After he spoke into an intercom, the door unlocked. He ushered her into a corridor. Ahead, a staircase doubled back on itself, so she couldn’t see the upper floor. Rock music drifted down from upstairs.
“You see – to clean.” Jacek pointed to the carpet of brown swirls. It was so dirty it was hard to tell where the pattern ended and the filth began.
“Uh-huh.” Though burning would be a better option.
“To clean.” He waved at a mottled black patch on the wall.