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The Stranger


I woke up to the sound of an alarm ringing at 6 am. I slowly put up my head and realized I had fallen asleep on my desk with my face in piles of papers. I grunted from a headache as I had slept only two hours and hardly stood up. After taking a quick shower, I poured some coffee into my mug and started drinking while eating toasted white bread. His face was still floating in my mind. I couldn't think about anything else, only him. I had been a detective for fifteen years but had never seen someone like that boy. I remembered the footage of a surveillance camera - a couple of boys robbing a bank. The footage was clear and showed everything from that night. It was strange that the robbers didn't cover or break the cameras as if they wanted to be caught or maybe they wanted to feel some thrill. They were five boys. Only caps covered their faces, but when the robbers were leaving the building with two huge bags of money, at that right moment, one of them looked up straight into the camera. I couldn't believe my eyes. Why would he do that and especially at the end of their mission? His features were apparent: light-colored eyes, fair skin, pursed lips. I had zoomed in on the paused video and had started observing him. He looked like a regular boy, but there was something unique in his face. I couldn't pinpoint what until I realized it was his eyes. I've seen lots of criminals during my long career, but none of them had an expression like him. I felt like his eyes were staring into my soul. The chills ran down my spine. There was something alarming about him. I had never seen a gaze so melancholic and so full of life at the same time. I was staring at his face, and I was sure his eyes were trying to tell me something. I had decided that I needed to see this boy, and I would not give up searching for him until I talked to him, until I understood the meaning of his look.

I put down my mug and prepared to leave for work. The streets were still damp from the morning rain, and water-drops shone on yellow and red leaves. It was late September, and it felt like people's moods reflected the weather. The colder and gloomier it got, the sadder they looked.

I stepped into the office and headed to my desk. Everyone was doing their job in silence when we heard police officers running out of the building. We looked out and saw policemen shouting and preparing their equipment: body cameras, bulletproof vests, duty belts, handcuffs, and the most important - guns. The silver guns bedazzled in the dim lights. Everyone figured out something very serious was going on. Suddenly one of our coworkers hurried into the room. She was panting:

"Another filial of the bank is being robbed, the robbers are in there right now, and one employee is taken as a hostage!"

As soon as I heard these words I put on my coat and rushed out of the office. As I was running down the stairs, I was certain they were the same group of robbers. It would not be just a coincidence that another building of the same bank had been robbed two days ago. I was too experienced in my field to assume such a thing. I knew I was going with the police to do my job but deep down, from the very back of my mind, a strange thought was lurking, a thought that I would get to see that boy.

After a few minutes, we were standing in front of the bank, behind our car doors. I could see the interior of the building from its walls made from glass. Five boys were gathered up; one of them held the hostage whose features were twisted in horror. Their body structure was telling me they would be in their early twenties. They were too young to know all the details a "professional bank robber" should know. It was apparent someone bigger and experienced stood behind their actions.

The police held guns aiming at the building. Suddenly one of the robbers came out with the hostage in front of him. He wore a cap again, and now in the light, his face was exposed to everyone. His features were distinctive as I stood near the building. It was him- the boy I was looking for. He held a gun at the hostage's head. The hostage was a young girl, crying from fear. Everyone got tenser when they saw the boy, but he shouted:

"We won't hurt this girl if you let us go!"

He was shouting out loud but not only because to reach his voice to everyone but also to look tough. Lots of criminals use this strategy,

"but if you don't, we will kill her! Just let us go, and she will live!" said the boy.

I was examining him. His slender body made it evident that he was still a boy and not a man. Something in him was very childish, but on the other hand, his wide eyes flickered as if fires were lit up in them. Despite his youthful looks, he radiated strength. Maybe I saw the reflection of his mental strength in his eyes. He stood with his back straightened, shoulders - open and the head- up. Many criminals work on forming their postures to look powerful in front of the police, but the manners of this boy were natural. He was not trying to look charismatic because he already was it. One moment, before he returned to the building, he discerned my gaze and looked at me. His eyes didn't turn away from mine for a few seconds. He felt I was observing him, and his eyes were asking me a question: why was I staring at him so intensely. If someone actually asked me this question, I would not know what to answer. But now I know: I was trying to clearly see the real person that was hiding behind that cap, guns, and money.

He started slowly moving backward and went back into the building.

The police looked at each other. It was a tough dilemma. They were silent for a few minutes. No one wanted to let the robbers go with all the money, but no one wanted the girl's death either. Human life won over the money, as always, and the lieutenant called everyone.

"We will let them go; we have no other choice!"

The police had to obey. They started dropping their guns and moving far from the building. I moved back with them. In a few minutes, when the robbers made sure the police were powerless with empty hands and the long distance, they slowly left the building. They were walking behind one another. All of them held a bag stuffed with money. Criminals running off is the most disrespectful thing a police officer can see, but we had to endure it.

The robbers disappeared in seconds. Even though they had been caught, they figured a way out. This was rare in the criminal world.

That night I couldn't close my eyes even for a second. I was thinking about the happening, the

robbers and the boy. The memories floated on the surface of my mind. I had to do something. I felt

unsettled, as if I knew something that I had not figured out yet. And then, as if a light bulb lit up in my

head, I realized what had to be done. Only one filial of the "VB" bank was left to rob. It was clear the

group of the same criminals would appear again, but no one knew when. We needed to guard the

building 24/7, but it would be too hard: we didn't have enough financial and human resources for it. If

the police decided to do it anyway, they would last for only a few days.

The next day at work, I heard that the police decided to guard the bank for a couple of days. I was

going with them every day and waiting, but the criminals were not showing up. We guarded the bank for

five days, and at the end of the week, the police department gave up. It was too risky and too time-consuming. They had other cases to handle. But I didn't give up: I was walking there every evening,

often using work hours also and waiting. I knew my efforts would not be useless. I was sure of it. Days,

weeks, and a month passed, but nothing changed. Everyone forgot about the robbers and directed their

attention to other work. But I had not forgotten my goal, and I kept on waiting, sitting on a bench under

a tree shadow in front of the bank for hours, every single day. And after a month, in late October, it

happened, happened what I had been expecting the whole time.

I was sitting on the wooden bench. Fortunately, the tree branches were wide, and the cold

rain was hardly coming through, but I was getting drenched slowly. I did not mind it. The hat and

raincoat kept me warm, and after all, I didn't care about anything but waiting for them and especially -

him. It was already getting late. I had been sitting there for hours, and my stomach started rumbling, my

leg got numb, and the stress and sleep-deprivation were weighing down on my eyelids. But suddenly, I

heard some quiet sounds and noticed soft flashlights on the rooftop of the building. As the building was

just two-stored, I could vaguely see what was going on top of it. The silhouettes were indistinctive, but

the intuition told me they were the ones I had been waiting for. They quickly jumped into the

building from the small door on the rooftop, and now the dim flashlights showed up on the second-store.

This was my chance. This was when I should have run into the building with my gun, hidden

in my coat, but I could not move. I felt like something was dragging me backward. It's usual for people to

prepare for a situation for a long time, and when the day actually comes, they don't know what to do.

But I was not an ordinary person; I was a detective- I had been preparing for this for years. Minutes passed, maybe twenty or thirty, and I finally stood up. I told myself this was not the right time for doubts. The lights were slowly fading away; they were living; I had to act fast. I ran and unlocked the back door with a key I had taken from the police department. I held the shotgun and walked up the stairs. I knew they were five, and I was only one. I wasn't even sure they were not armed, but the fear in me had vanished without a trace.

Finally, I got to the second floor and saw a stair and boys walking upon it, back to the rooftop. The

money bags were on the floor. Three of them were already on the rooftop, and the last one had started

lifting the bags when I shouted: "Stop!". The two boys looked at me in terror. One of them was him. He was the last one, so the first boy ran up the stairs and jumped up on the rooftop. He shouted

something and all of them ran. I was pointing my gun at the left boy who was not moving and staring at

me. He was not armed.

"Come down," I said with a low tone, "I'm not going to hurt you,"

He slowly walked down the stairs and landed on the floor next to the bags.

He wore plain black jeans, a black shirt and of course- the cap. I could see him on the dim

streetlights are coming through the window.

"I'm not going to hurt you," I repeated, "I just want to talk to you,"

"Talk to me?" the boy ironically chuckled. His voice was deep and velvety, sounded like a smooth

melody as if an exotic bird was singing.

"You- the police want to talk to me- the robber?" He smirked sarcastically, "Why don't you just

arrest me?"

"I'm not the police; I'm a detective," I answered. I didn't even have handcuffs, but of course, I didn't

say that "I just want to ask you some questions,"

"Okay," he said and sat at the table, standing by the window. I slowly approached it and sat across

him.

"Why are you alone?" he asked, but I ignored it.

"Take off your hat," I said. He was not moving for a minute, but then he obeyed me and took off the

hat. Dark blonde hair fell up to his jawline. Now his features were distinctive. His brows were

furrowing, maybe from anger or frustration but not fear. His lips were pursed but what's the most

important is that he was staring into my eyes. I felt like he was not even blinking. The eyes flickered in

the dark. I saw it again- the melancholic gaze. At first sight, you would think he was an artist. Even

though he was not saying anything, his eyes were expressive.

"Why are you and your "gang" always wearing a cap instead of covering your whole face?" I asked.

"That's how we differ from other criminals," he said and then mumbled, "At least that's what he

says..."

"Who?" I was curious. After all, that's my job- being curious.

"Someone who's making us do all this," said the boy and pointed at the bags full of money.

"What's their name?" I asked, but this time he did not answer.

He sat loosened and with his arms folded as if he couldn't see the gun that I was holding. My hand

was on the table.

"So they are making you do this. So you don't want to be part of this gang?" I asked and waited for

his answer. He hesitated for a bit but then said,

"Yes,"

"Then why don't you just go to the police and ask for help?"

The boy laughed.

"Do you know what they do to people who try to expose them? You don't even wanna know,"

"I want to know; I'm a detective, I'll try to find them," I said, but the boy shook his head.

"The whole city is powerless against them,"

I was looking at him and noticed dark under-eyes. He looked exhausted, not only physically but

emotionally.

"How do they make you take part in these crimes?"

The boy shook his head. He was contemplating, but I think he saw that I was genuinely interested

and not just playing with him or doing my job.

"They come to my house and put a gun to my mother's head," his voice was dreary.

"Tell me the whole story," I said. My tone was convincing.

"My mother is sick," he straightened his back. Now he was not looking at me but out of the window.

It was still raining, and when he fell silent, its sound was all we could hear. Then he continued, "My

mother has a second stage cancer. She is the only one I have. We live together, and even though we are

not rich, we were happy. I've known these people from my friends who had been doing some small

robberies in the streets. They asked me to join, but I denied it. If only I knew what was coming my way. One night three sturdy men broke into my house with guns in their hands and threatened us.

One of them put a gun to my mother's head and told me he wouldn't resist himself from shooting if I

wouldn't join their group and take part in crimes. They needed lots of new scared boys who would obey

them and rob different places in various cities. I would never let myself give up on trying to save my

mother, so I started doing what they told me. It's been more than a year, and finally, I have a way to

escape: I saved up enough money to leave the country with my mother. She is sick, but I can make sure

she gets treatment, but not here. Here everything's complicated; everyone's always watching me,

controlling my every step. If they know I have money for my mother's treatment; they will beat me to

death and take the money. So today, this was my last crime; I was going to leave in a week. But I guess

my plan was worthless, and in a week I'll be in jail and not an airport,"

The boy shook his head in disappointment.

"I don't care about myself. I'm only worried about my mother,"

I could feel his words were genuine. I was experienced in figuring out when people lied, but this time

everything was obvious: this boy was telling a complete truth. That's where his melancholic gaze was

coming from. Even teardrops sparkled in his eyes, but he was trying not to let them out. This was the

secret of his look. I had seen the real person behind his criminal mask.

"No," I said.

"What?" he looked at me, confused.

"You won't be in jail in a week. You'll leave the country with your mother".

He couldn't believe his ears.

"Are you joking?" the boy mumbled.

"Get up and leave. Don't turn on your flashlight and leave from the rooftop".

The boy was not moving. His face was bewildered.

"Go!" I said loudly, and the boy jumped up. He rushed to the stairs and started walking up but he

turned his head toward me and stopped for a second.

"Thank you," he almost whispered. His eyes were filled with gratitude.

I nodded my head.

He left the cap next to the bags, went up on the rooftop, and disappeared in the dark.

The next day everyone was congratulating me on rescuing the bank money. I said that I couldn't stop

the robbers from running, but while doing it, they forgot about the money. No one doubted me. I had

been an honest detective for more than fifteen years. Even though I lied to others, I felt honest with

myself. I had made lots of mistakes during my career, but one thing was certain to me- I didn't make a

mistake that night; I made the best decision of my life.



***


Years had passed by. I lay on my bed after a long day at work, scrolling on social media.

Everyone was chatting about a new song that had been released a few days ago. Even though I'm not

young anymore, I always liked keeping up with new trends, especially art. So I searched up the song

and started listening to it. While doing so, I figured out why everyone was going crazy about it- the song

was soothing, calming, and touching. That's rare nowadays. The voice was deep and velvety. It felt

familiar. In the end, the singer thanked his fans and the viewers. The memories hit me, and I

remembered. It was him. this was the voice of the boy I let go on that rainy night.

I stood up, overwhelmed with feelings, looking out the window. The image of his face floated in front of me, his face before leaving, his lips slightly moving, and the quiet whispers: "Thank you."

I taped on the phone screen again, restarting the song, and I couldn't help myself but smile. All these years, the doubt nibbled on my heart, doubt that what I did wasn't entirely right. The guilt that I abandoned my morals and the rules of my profession I had been loyally following. But now, these feelings left without a trace, and I was finally free. He was destined for a bright future, and I was sure, soon, he would achieve worldwide recognition. The boy didn't deserve life in jail. He deserved something big, something brilliant; a life good people deserve.

Suddenly I heard light footsteps rushing, and soon the door opened.

"Mommy?" the little girl peeked inside, "what are you listening to?"

She ran up to me as I kneeled and lifted her.

"A new talented singer," I said and caressed her hair, "you know what? I know him."

"Really?" her eyes widened, "how?"

"I helped him once," I replied, "years ago."

My little girl pursed her lips with a pensive face.

"Was it a big help?" she asked.

I nodded with a smile.

"Then it's because of you he's singing right now."

I stared at her face, looking at me as if I was a hero, and then kissed her cheek.

"Maybe you're right."

I stood, holding my daughter, the soft melody surrounding us while we slightly followed the rhythm.


--Tina Torola


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