Łukasz Kaminski collapsed against the rough stone wall as a wave of pain passed through him. He curled into himself, his lean body pressed against the hard stone, no longer caring why or how he got here.
A few minutes or a few hours later, he couldn’t be sure, he opened his eyes and forced himself to move. He moaned, the shock of cold air painful against his face and hands. He sat up, leaned forward, and retched. The sound of his spasms filled the narrow street, echoing off the yellow stone buildings.
With a final cough, he rolled away from the steaming mess on the ground and stood, wiping his face with the back of his sleeve. Leaning against the wall, he shivered and hunched his shoulders, tucking his bare hands under his armpits. A freezing mist shrouded the cobblestones around him. Tiny particles of ice covered every surface, catching the dim yellow light escaping from old-fashioned gazowy lamps that sprouted at uneven intervals. A man and a woman hurried toward him, huddled together into one dark, moving mass. Their heads touched as they leaned into each other, their already low voices muffled even more by scarves and high collars.
“Która godzina jest?” He heard a female voice complaining. “Szybciej, szybciej.”
The couple glanced at him as they drew closer then looked away, their faces registering their disgust at the stink of the vomit. Łukasz opened his mouth to speak, but turned his eyes down when he saw their expressions. The clicking of their boots on the cobblestones faded as they turned the bend in the road. He stood for a minute, considering his options, and limped in the same direction.
Walking reduced some of the pain in his legs and back, but his sides felt bruised, and after only a few steps he paused to catch his breath. He shoved his hands in his pockets, then stiffened as his fingers wrapped around the phone. Basia’s phone, dead beyond repair since its immersion in the frozen river. Completely dead.
Grief flooded through him, threatening to overwhelm him. In an effort to maintain control, he focused on trying to remember what had happened to him. He remembered leaving his apartment, following yet another lead from the investigation that now dominated his life. But whoever had attacked him had succeeded in erasing the memory of what that lead was and where it had taken him. He let the phone drop in his pocket, wrapped his arms around his injured body, and kept moving forward.
His path dead-ended at a large town square. A handful of couples and some groups of youth still lingered in the area despite the cold. Nearest him, outdoor cafes were dark and shuttered, tables packed away for the night, shops deserted by their keepers. Across the expanse of the cobblestone and brick paved square, Warsaw’s Royal Castle loomed out of the darkness. Lights placed low on the ground shone up at its facade, setting fire to the red brick and yellow stone of its walls. He walked toward the castle, hoping for solace and warmth in its lights.
A group of young men, the oldest no more than seventeen, turned to watch him. One of the boys, his head shaved almost bald, his skinny form draped in a worn black leather jacket and thin metal chains, stood.
“A co to jest? Hey, mister, you lost?” he asked.
“Lost your mind, maybe,” came from another.
Closing in on him, they continued to taunt him. “Lazy-ass drunkard… loser… old-timer.”
One of them tossed an empty beer bottle behind him as he spoke and it shattered against the street, shards of glass sliding over the frozen surface.
Łukasz flinched at the noise and tried to turn away, but the gang surrounded him, pushing him back and forth between them. Already weakened, he kept his eyes down, hands by his sides, refusing to engage them. Waiting until they lost interest and moved on to find their next target.
When the sound of their hobnailed jackboots had faded, he looked toward the castle and the two uniformed policemen who stood there. They seemed not to have noticed the drunk gang of young men. Or hadn’t cared enough to walk over. He stumbled in their direction.
His first attempt to speak failed, producing only a dry, croaking sound. The officers looked over as he was coughing to clear his throat.
“Move along now,” one officer said as he moved toward him, his hand reaching for the nightstick that slapped against his leg. “It’s almost morning and you can’t stay out here.”
His older partner spoke more gently. “There’s a shelter just down the street, grandpa. You can get a warm bed there, maybe even some breakfast.”
“No…” Łukasz finally found his voice. It sounded harsh and scratched. “No, I need your help. Something has happened.”
A look of concern crossed the face of the older officer. “What happened?”
“I’m… I’m not sure.” He bowed his head as he spoke, an unintentional gesture of defeat.
The officer came closer, though still keeping an arm’s length between them. He wrinkled his nose and looked him up and down. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
“That’s just it, officer, I can’t remember.” He closed his eyes, struggling to pull a memory from the haze of his mind. He failed. “I don’t know what happened or how I got here.”
The older officer looked at Łukasz’s hands and face. “He looks like he’s been in a fight. Is that blood?” The officer peered into Łukasz’s eyes. “Are you in pain? Were you beaten?”
“Yes.” He nodded, placing his hand on his side. “Yes, I’m hurt.”
The younger officer growled slightly under his breath, but it was clear now they would have to do something.
“Don’t worry,” his partner said, one side of his mouth turning up into a grin. “Once we get him to the hospital, I’ll handle the paperwork. You’ll still make it home to breakfast with Eva before she has to head out to work.”
Łukasz’s shoulders sagged as he turned to follow the officers to their patrol vehicle. Surely at a hospital he could find someone to help him remember. Streaks of pink and orange chased away the night’s darkness as the officers bent to help him into their car, a glint of early morning sun reflecting off the metal wing of a plane. Though he was closer to finding out what had happened to him, he knew he still didn’t have the one answer he needed. No matter what had happened to him, one thing wouldn’t change. The only thing he cared about. Basia would still be dead.
Detective Adam Kaminski tucked his book into the pocket in front of him and leaned forward in his seat, trying to catch a glimpse of the sky outside the window to his left. The woman in the window seat had left the shade up throughout the flight, and as they flew toward the morning sun, the light crept into the cabin. He liked the view of sky and clouds from a plane window. It was peaceful, calm. With no view of the ground, he could respect the height without fear. He sat back in his seat.
His captain had been right. In some ways, it hadn’t been hard for Adam to accept a last-minute assignment to join the Philadelphia delegation to Poland. No wife or girlfriend to work things out with. His parents were thrilled. To them, this was a chance for him to see the land his grandfather had left, maybe even seek out lost relatives.
He’d been a little more honest with Julia.
“What am I gonna do on this delegation, Jules?” Adam watched her as she trimmed a matte, getting ready to frame another print. “I’m not the right person for this.”
Julia finished her cut before laying down the knife and turning her head to look at him. “You’re gonna do the same thing you always do, big brother. You’re gonna get to know some people, you’re gonna impress everyone, and you’re gonna do the right thing.” She smiled and shook her head before turning back to her work.
“If I were still a teacher, maybe I could see that. But a cop?” He shrugged and toyed with his mug, still half full of Earl Grey.
“The captain chose you, right? He must think you have something to offer.”
“He probably thinks I speak Polish, or know things about Poland. Because of our name.” Adam laughed and shook his head. “I guess he figures the assignment’s pretty simple. Do good, make the department look good. That’s all.”
Adam’s assignment mirrored one given a couple years earlier to a colleague who had the privilege of visiting Philadelphia’s sister city in Italy. He’d done exactly as asked, so when a member of Philly’s delegation to its sister city in Poland had backed out at the last minute, the mayor turned to the department to fill the gap. And who better to choose than someone named Kaminski?
“I’m just proud of you.” Julia slid the matte she had been working on into a plastic sleeve and tucked the knife into a drawer in her table. “He clearly respects you, or he wouldn’t have chosen you. No matter what your name.” She walked over and perched on the sofa next to him.
Adam admired her confidence, not only in him but in herself. Her willingness to pursue a career as a photographer, against all the odds. At twenty-four, she was six years his junior, and he’d always believed it was his responsibility to look out for her.
“I’m sorry this means I won’t be able to make it to your show next weekend.” He gave her his best apologetic look, but it wasn’t enough to soften the blow.
“What? You’re kidding. When do you have to leave?”
“Day after tomorrow.” Adam shrugged. “I told you, it’s a last minute thing.”
“But I wanted to take you out after opening night. To celebrate.” The disappointment in her voice sounded real, which was sweet.
“I’m sorry, I really am. You know I wouldn’t miss this for anything. I mean, if I had a choice.” He tucked his arm over her shoulder, giving her a light hug. “Listen, if it means that much to you, I’ll tell the captain I can’t make it. Family comes first.”
“No, don’t be silly,” she pushed him away and stood again, brushing her hair back off her face. “You have to go. It just sucks that it’s so soon.”
“It’s just when it is, I’m sorry. The captain’s hoping if we look good we might see an increase in our budget next year, so the timing’s good, from his perspective.”
“But this is so exciting. My pictures… hanging next to Ranjeet’s and Hiroshi’s. I could sell one. Hell, I could sell all of them.” Julia threw her hands up and spun around in a circle that encompassed all the framed photographs stacked up in the small apartment that also served as her studio.
“I do know what this means to you. And I’m proud of you. The timing isn’t great for me either, I have a couple of cases I’m supposed to be testifying at. They’re gonna have to get continued.” He placed his mug of tea back on the worn wooden surface of her table and his glance fell on his watch as he did so. “Shit. Look, I gotta go. I gotta pack, wrap up a few things at work.”
Julia’s face softened, the freckled skin around her eyes crinkling as she smiled. “Take care of yourself, big brother. Say hi to Poland for me. And don’t get into any trouble. That’s my job, right?”
He smiled again to himself now, thinking about Julia. He was proud of her, he really was.
Leaning back in his seat, he shifted from side to side, struggling to get his large frame at least somewhat comfortable in the tiny space allotted to passengers sardined into economy class seats. He tried a few deep breaths, but the plane’s stale, recycled air offered no respite.
He’d managed to sleep a little bit, on and off, during the main leg of the flight out of Philadelphia. Most of the passengers had disembarked in Berlin, leaving only a handful to continue the journey to Warsaw. He glanced around at the remaining passengers. Some were still trying to get a last few minutes of sleep. Others caught his eye and smiled back as if partners in a conspiracy. In a way, he supposed they were. Who but a mad conspirator would brave the Warsaw weather in late October?
Shifting in his seat once more, he raised his head to catch a glimpse of the other members on the delegation, then settled down lower to stare out the window. Even after they landed in Warsaw, they still had the journey to Toruń, Philadelphia’s sister city.
The sun was fully up now, though the colors of the morning light still lingered in the shimmering clouds. As he watched, the clouds seemed to float upwards, higher into the sky, as the plane descended into Warsaw. Available at Amazon.com II Barnes and Noble II or ask for it at your local bookstore