From the author: A detective struggling to make ends meet. A girl they call the Golden Goose.
An audio version is available for this chapter.
It was a wet, awful night in the city, but the thundering rain against my windowpane had some serious competition in the tears streaming down the woman's face before me.
"Why would they take her?" She begged for an answer, like there was one hanging in midair I could pluck down to satisfy her. "She's just an innocent little girl!"
Her husband, a burly retired jarhead who'd served two tours and kept the bad haircut, put his arm around her.
"Will you help us, Mr. Madison?" His eyes were intense, as clear and blue as the sky our city hadn't seen in weeks. The acid rains had a way of making our natives restless, wearing them down along with the eroding buildings and curbs along every street. But this guy had spirit. He had hope.
I leaned back in my faux-leather desk chair until it squeaked. The streetlight outside pierced the slats of my venetian blinds, painting the earnest couple in horizontal streaks of amber that gleamed from the string of pearls around the woman's throat.
"No contact from her abductors?" Only the real deal shone like that; these pearls were genuine, and they hadn't come cheap. "No ransom demands?"
The man scowled. "Nothing."
His crew cut brought to mind an unwelcome flash of memory I'd be willing to trade my left kidney to lose: the front lines of old Mother Russia where my gunner squad had unexpectedly come upon a platoon of Eastern Conglomerate mandroids, two of my foot soldiers instantly decapitated by the sweep of a massive bayonet, their heads—both sporting the same close-cropped haircut—landing at my feet. In some of my worst nightmares, they roll to stare up at me and gasp, Why, Sarge? I still wonder what it was all for. The current cold war's nothing more than a stalemate between the EC and United World, each side expecting its own people to pay the damages for all those fruitless years of carnage.
I cleared my throat. It's one thing to be a haunted man; it's something else if you allow it to interfere with your work.
"And you haven't gone to the police." Just one of my perfunctory queries.
"We—" The woman glanced at her husband. "We were afraid they might do something to her." She hadn't left the verge of tears.
"Can you remember anything about the thugs who took her?"
The man blew out a sigh. "It all happened so fast. One second, she was right there beside us, and the next thing we knew, that delivery truck pulled up to the curb and—"
"Snatched her away." I nodded. It was all too common in the city these days. Ransoms paid the rent, after all. "You wouldn't happen to have a photo."
The woman blinked at me. "Of course." She started fishing through her purse, a big one made from genuine leather—not that synthetic crap. The lack of light didn't help in the search, but I wasn't about to flip the switch. I had to keep the electric bills as low as I could.
"I'll start nosing around." I stood and fixed the couple with a direct look. If they'd been able to afford those pearls and that purse, my retainer and rates would be chump change. "Two hundred up front and a hundred a day from here on out, plus expenses."
He reached into his fine pressed suit. "You come highly recommended, Mr. Madison."
I smirked. Even the best man on the job can only go as far as his contacts will allow. I had a few who knew better than to hang me out to dry. They owed me.
"You haven't given me a whole lot to go on." I took the bills he counted into my hand—just the two hundred to start. The man was old-school, preferring to pay me with paper. I didn't mind. Credit was credit.
"Perhaps this will help." The woman handed me a black-and-white photo of a small Asian girl grinning up into the camera. It was retro-chic in some circles to avoid lifelike color. I was never one for fads.
"Maybe." I gave them each a cursory once-over. Happily married couple, by the looks of them—cozy with each other. Nice to have someone by your side through thick and thin, the good times worth the bad. Love and me, we'd never hit it off. "But I doubt she's related to you."
For the first time since their arrival, the jarhead looked uncomfortable in his own skin. Glancing at his wife, he cleared his throat.
"My second tour against the EC, I-uh…suffered a lapse in judgment, I'm afraid. The girl's mother, she…died in a Nagasaki firestorm. When my unit—when we pulled out…" His own flashes of memory seemed to fluster him.
"He couldn't very well leave her there, Mr. Madison. So he brought her back with him, stateside. She was only two years old at the time, but I welcomed her into our home with open arms." She demonstrated the gesture with tears shining in her eyes. "She may not be my blood, but she's my daughter, and I want her back!"
I had more than enough reason to turn down this case; nothing about it seemed totally on the level. But I had their money in my pocket, and boy did I need it. Rent was due on this office in a big way—two months past. My reputation was solid enough, but Ivan the Terrible had tightened his grip as of late, and folks were afraid to cross the Russian crime boss by seeking my kind of help. Going to the cops had been out of the question for years; too many of them had their own idea of law and order, and justice seldom entered the equation. But now even private investigators were experiencing the backlash: folks were willing to live with the status quo, such that it was.
But not these two. They'd lost a daughter, and by all appearances, they were willing to risk Ivan's wrath to get her back. Even though most Anglo women, from my experience, would show an Asian girl in their household no more love than they would a scullery maid. Ignorance ran deep in some folks, and it didn't matter to them that the Japanese had been on our side during the war.
"You'll hear from me." I extended my arm toward the frosted glass of the office door where slats of light shone across the backwards lettering: CHARLIE MADISON, DETECTIVE.
"Thank you, Mr. Madison." The jarhead nodded, rising. "If anyone can find her—"
"No promises." I had to make that clear up front. "But I'll do what I can."
Mrs. Jarhead bobbed like a pigeon, those pearls of hers shining like stars puncturing the dead of night. "We'll pray that you find her soon. We need her back!"
She left as weepy as she'd arrived, and as my office door swung shut behind them, the rain slashed at my window and bubbled with its own share of grief. I fingered the photograph, turning it over to read the black lettering in all caps: MAO.
Read Chapter 2
This story originally appeared in The Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble (a CriminalElement.com original collection).
For Charlie Madison, private investigator, the Suprahuman Secret emerges when a little girl goes missing and no ransom demand is made. He takes the case, but time isn't on his side. After 48 hours in this town, it's unlikely an abducted child will be found in one piece. As the mystery unfolds, Madison uncovers a bizarre truth about the girl that seems impossible. But it could explain why she was kidnapped — and why she might still be alive.
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