Night Watchmen by Christine Hart

Christine Hart is a novelist and corporate writer living on Canada’s west coast. Learn more about her and her work at http://www.christine-hart.ca/

Hours after the sun dropped behind the coastal mountains, Justin stood on the tower roof surveying the downtown skyline. The uneven terrain of steel and glass whispered white noise, hugged by a purple-orange glow. Beeps, rumbles, and an occasional siren punctuated the hum as the urban grid twinkled, reflecting artificial lights from below and within. Metal cladding on the smooth, saucer-shaped structure had cooled from the heat of a muggy August day.

Justin sat down to wait for his partner, his legs hanging over the edge of the roof. Their shift started in five minutes. Marcus was always late. Justin hated that. It took so very little to be on time; he was here early, as he always was. Justin’s assumption that no one would notice his punctuality let alone reward him exacerbated his angst.

While he waited, he looked down on the fluid streets and staggered rooftops. As his gaze flitted across the top of each tower, he took in parking lots, layered tar sheets, segments of ventilation, skylights, glass domes, and bright logos. A sparkling globe of white bulbs caught his eye, and then his gaze shifted over to a dockyard lit with rust-tinted fluorescents. His eyes found a colourful row of large paper hats that jutted out onto the water, then on to a neon clock face in the distance.

He noticed a familiar intersection below and remembered his first assignment in Vancouver. He’d been assigned to a Yaletown intersection, alone, looking for a drunk driver. Naturally, he perched on top of a nearby modern art fountain to have the best vantage point without moving too far from his post. Not long afterwards, a speeding car veered off the road, crashing steel and glass into the fountain at roughly a hundred clicks, catapulting him over the wreckage and through a metallic-coated window in the building across the street. As he got up off a collapsed desk and stood in the destroyed office, slowly pulling glass shards from his face and arms, Justin realized his assignment memo had been as vague as it was accurate.

Looking at that spot from high above, he relived the embarrassment and frustration as he replayed the incident in his mind. A decade of experience still had not fully clarified the rational for his role. He wondered, Why do we bother to cater to lunatics and screw-ups? How could I have known that crazy drunk bitch was bent on washing her car in a fountain? A flapping gust and footsteps startled Justin back into the moment as Marcus landed behind him.

“Hey, how are ya buddy?” said Marcus as he sat down next to Justin. “Sorry I’m late. Things got kind of crazy at Hastings and Commercial.”

Justin looked up with a slight frown.

Marcus continued, “I really hate getting a double shift—especially when it starts off with one of those junkie cases. Even newbies are hard to take. They’re always mumbling and shaking; that’s not half as bad as the smell on most of them.”

“You’re a real sensitive guy,” Justin said sardonically.

“Not in my job description,” he replied in a matter-of-fact tone.

Justin looked over again. “Do you even know what’s in your job description?”

“Hey, I’m a company man through-and-through; I’m just not up for the whole ‘face of unwavering dedication’ thing at the expense of my own personality,” said Marcus, feigning enthusiasm with a motion of mock cheer.

“If you don’t care, why do you do this? I mean, you’re clearly not looking for advancement,” Justin said, crossing his arms.

“Ah, well . . . I guess I’m a sucker for the rush. It’s not all fireworks and acrobatics every day, but once in awhile, something really freaky happens and I’m always stoked to be there when it does.” Marcus grinned as Justin frowned again and rolled his eyes.

Marcus always let his real thoughts bubble off his tongue no matter who he was talking to. Justin preferred to choose his words carefully to suit the occasion and audience. His frown at Marcus deepened as he considered his partner’s lack of self-censorship. This lazy opinionated jerk stands around with his dick in his hand until he gets the chance to pull some stunt and I’m supposed to think he’s cool.

“Anyway,” Justin turned his gaze back down to the roof across the street.

“Yeah, are we on suicide watch here or what?” Marcus asked.

“I’m guessing from the post that we’re looking for a jumper, but it could be anything. The memo didn’t say,” Justin answered.

“What’s the ETA? I mean, if we can get this sorted before, say, two, there’s a girl down on Robson who’s saving a dance for me at this little club.” Marcus nudged Justin’s ribs.

“I’m not compromising a shift so you can ‘get some’,” said Justin, adding, “last time I had a double night shift I . . .” he stopped mid-sentence as a flash of torso and wing whooshed past him. Marcus had descended in an instant.

Justin focused on his partner, watching as Marcus stopped short of a woman who was stumbling through a crosswalk on Seymour. Marcus hovered for a moment, assessing the woman, and then turned back.

“What the hell was that? You’ve got some nerve responding on a visual alone without a word to me!”

“Read your manual, buddy. Protocol 52 states that a sentry may respond to an actively engaged subject without back-up if said subject is clearly exhibiting the signs of temptation,” Marcus said in a mildly defensive tone.

“But you’re not alone; you’ve got back-up you ass!” Justin blurted.

Marcus ran his fingers through his hair to push it back. “The manual isn’t really that specific.”

“Yes it is! And you really thought she was our subject?” Justin’s voice rose higher still.

“Listen, if we stand here debating this, we’re going to miss our suicide,” Marcus said calmly.

Justin wondered how some of his peers seemed better able to detect human temptation. Marcus, for example, could smell it on the wind, like a cougar catching the scent of a deer. Justin approached his job methodically, believing that he could make up for whatever natural talent he lacked with precise attention to details and regulations. He regularly stewed over his repeatedly low quotas, wondering what he was leaving out or doing wrong that allowed slacking, ill-prepared sentries—of which he believed there were many—to touch more souls that him, month after month. He grinded his teeth at the prospect of never being promoted to interactive case work.

His human life hadn’t been much different, always falling short of a meaningful achievement—although he considered his current vocation to be more interesting than his earthly job as a laminator at a bathtub factory. Spraying acrylic slop onto moulded fiberglass had never brought him any satisfaction. In fact, his menial job at a rural Ontario bathtub factory had been the key motivating factor in his decision to join the RCMP. That he’d been beaten to death just outside Mississauga before he left for training was an injustice only mildly remedied by his current status in the universe.

“Hey, Justin, did you hear about Diana’s scuffle in White Rock?” Marcus asked, appearing nervous from the extended silence.

“No, I can’t say that I did,” Justin answered curtly, still trying to concentrate on surveying the surrounding rooftops.

“I guess she wound up in a direct-conflict. She ended up fighting with the other side’s thug while her subject spooked and took off down the boardwalk,” said Marcus as he gestured towards the ocean. “Kind of makes you wonder how their side rolls, doesn’t it. I mean, why would they risk a subject just to fight one of us?”

“When you put it like that, sure I’m curious about their policies and procedures, but I’ve always figured it’s not something we could learn from. Is that even allowed?” Justin shifted, uncomfortable as he completed the thought.

“I supposed we only ever have contact with them when it’s a fight. Poor Diana . . . after her run in, I heard she was in recovery for two weeks,” said Marcus.

“Let’s just focus on our current post,” Justin said, feeling newfound empathy for Diana and a modicum of respect for Marcus. Maybe more of his peers took their jobs seriously than he’d credited them for.

“Well, which roof do you think we’re supposed to be looking at, anyway?”  Marcus put his hands on his hips as he spoke.

“That one,” Justin pointed at a tower near the water, “The one with the white letters across the top, with the sails behind it.”

“Uh, okay . . . are you sure?” Marcus asked with skepticism.

“That bank is too far; we would have been posted somewhere else if that was our target. The hotel across the street is too close; too short a building to warrant watching from up here. It’s got to be that one,” Justin said confidently as he pointed out the last building in his sequence.

“It’s not like we can’t keep scanning the rest of them anyway,” Marcus said, sweeping his arm as he turned a full circle.

“However, the building with the white letters is the one that has a guy standing on the corner of the roof, but don’t take my word for it,” said Justin, not taking his eyes off their recently acquired subject.

“Are you gonna make a move?” Marcus tensed, restraining himself as he too picked out the figure on the roof.

“We might not have to; check this out.” Justin nodded towards a woman in a long khaki business coat standing in the plaza below. Both sentries knew they could only intervene if a subject wasn’t moving towards a favourable outcome through the natural course of events.

The woman below was shouting and waving up at the man on the roof. They had to concentrate to make out what she was saying—could the jumper even hear her? Both sentries listened intently to the woman’s cries, while keeping their eyes on the roof.

“Don’t jump! For God’s sake, don’t jump! I’ll get help; please,” she rifled frantically through her purse, “please . . . I’ll call 9-1-1. Please, just hang on! Shit—why did I turn this son-of-a-bitchin’ thing off?”

She shook as she waited for her phone to boot up.

“I have to; I can’t live like this. I want to die my way!” he shouted back at her, but his faltering grief-stricken words were lost in the wind.

“Shit! No, no, no, no! Fuckers and their minimum balance!” she yelled at her phone, throttling the small device. “Sir, will you please hold on for just a bit longer? Please; I’m calling, only it’s gonna take a minute.” The woman continued, alternating between pushing buttons and listening to her phone.

The distressed man took a step back from the edge of the roof. Marcus glanced quickly at Justin, and then launched into the air head-first towards the other tower. In a surge of frustration and panic, Justin dropped off the tower and descended to the plaza where the woman—still fumbling with her cell phone—had stopped shouting. He landed quietly and a second later stood behind her, watching as her head whipped from the screen in her hand up to the ledge above and back again.

Justin was angry. He knew they hadn’t had time to talk about it; discussion could have cost them the soul. But he was still pissed to be stuck on the ground with an out-of-bounds human while Marcus saw real action—again. As Justin touched her shoulder, the woman relaxed completely and her arms drooped, phone clasped loosely at her side. Her gaze came down to rest, empty, on the giant pillars ahead. She’d stand there for hours if nothing distracted her, so he let go. Justin looked up to the roof to acquire a visual on the subject. Then he scanned the plaza, sizing up the decorative pool beside him and the flags fluttering above. The building of sails jutting out into the ocean glowed and the water lapped gently against the concrete wall. Where would the man fall? Justin turned his face into the wind to gauge its influence.

Marcus had already passed over the soul once. The man froze in the dark black shadow cast by wings he couldn’t see coasting overhead. Marcus turned back and stopped short, hovering behind the man as he walked toward the edge of the roof again.

Each gust delivered by Marcus’ expansive wings pushed against the man’s back, willing him to put one foot in front of the other. As Justin watched, their jumper’s apathetic expression did not flicker as he strolled off the edge without breaking stride.

These things are never neat, Justin thought, turning away as the body came hurtling down on the brick rim of the pool with a whack-splash. He leaned in to look more closely at the face and had a brief flash of the man who’d beaten him to death in the parking lot outside a Mississauga  bar. One of his life’s last injustices was that he hadn’t actually gotten anywhere with the wiry girl who had sucked up several hours of his life with boring small talk.  She’d gone from sexy-sparkplug to droopy-and-drooling in the five minutes it took him to get her clumsy ass from their table out to the parking lot —probably his own fault for dropping a roofie in her drink.  How was I supposed to know she’d been planning to meet her boyfriend? I wonder if things went badly for those two after I died. Probably a bit awkward if he went to jail because she almost cheated on him. If it’s the same guy, does head office know? He dismissed the possible connection, noting it’s irrelevance as he looked over the rest of the scene.

A deep ruby puddle crept like thick paint onto the ground from under the motionless figure, and spread like ink in the water. Justin watched as a dark cloud grew inside the bright blue pool, encroaching on the lights at the bottom.

Marcus hit the ground with a boom, feet-first, cracking the slab he landed on. He smiled at Justin, reached down and lifted the body by its wet hair to claim his prize.

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