From the author: A detective struggling to make ends meet. A girl they call the Golden Goose.
Start from the beginning: Chapter 1
My first stop would be Mr. Newspaper, after locking up my empty office. I'd finally had to let Wanda—my secretary—go the week prior due to begrudging budgetary cuts, and the place seemed so dead now without her. It wasn't just her contagious laugh or feverish pounding on that antique Underwood, or those shapely legs that wouldn't quit. What I missed was the life she brought into this place. Without her, it was just a drab, overpriced office space for me and my internal monologue.
Mr. and Mrs. Jarhead would have to be my sole benefactors as long as I could string them along. Not that I didn't plan on finding their kid. I've always had a thing against child abusers—I'd sooner shoot one between the eyes than ask him for a light. But the problem was how long the Jarheads had waited before coming to see me. I knew I'd do my damnedest to find little Mao; but I had a pretty strong hunch there wouldn't be much left of her when I did. Those were the odds when kids got snatched off the streets. If the Jarheads were lucky, I might find their little girl still in one piece, but she'd be cold and grey as the moon.
Shoe soles applauding my herculean efforts, I descended the eight flights of indoor stairs and threw my weight against the crash bar on the exterior door, meeting a blast of cold, wet air and the sounds of my city at rest—traffic, radios, horns and insults blaring anytime one driver moved a little too slowly for the guy at his six. There was plenty of two-legged traffic too, despite the bad weather, with dames strutting their stuff and playing coy under their escorts' umbrellas. I couldn't help wondering how many of these darlings were getting paid for their coquettish efforts. It was getting so I had a hard time telling the working girls from the ones next door; they all seemed to dress the same—not that I minded it any. I wasn't one to judge. In this economy, you took whatever work you could get. Too many years fighting a war against an enemy more technologically advanced had left the United World in sorry economic shape. We needed time to recover, lick our wounds. Make a few advancements of our own. And hope the damned EC would leave us alone while they did the same.
"Charlie, how's it hanging?" Mr. Newspaper shouted his customary greeting with a gap-toothed grin.
"Low and lazy. Until now." I gave him a wink.
He guffawed, puffing on his signature pipe and reclining on a tied stack of newspapers. From the looks of the bundles, they'd just been dropped off, but he was in no hurry to get them sorted and ready for his thirteen-year-old minions. For one thing, they were nowhere in sight; and for another, his stand already had plenty of other reading material to choose from. And it was doing a bang-up job shielding him from the storm.
"How are things in the world?" I tipped my hat back from my brow and stuffed both hands into the pockets of my trench coat, glad I'd remembered to wear it—the sort of thing Wanda always used to nag me about. I was doing all right without her, but that didn't mean I had to like it. With a steady income from Mr. and Mrs. Jarhead, hiring her back on was a real possibility—after the rent was all paid up.
"Nothing but wars and rumors of wars, Charlie," said the old man. "And plenty of shiny photos to take our minds off it all." He gestured at one of the magazine racks where Russian mafia and yakuza royalty vied for space. One prominent couple too beautiful for their own good was calling it quits, according to the boldface type and redundant exclamation points.
"No news then."
"You got that right."
I tipped the brim of my hat forward so he'd know it was time for business. "How about kids?"
"How do you mean?" His grin remained half-intact as he held the smoldering pipe.
"Kidnapping." I nudged the stack of papers beneath him with my shoe. "Stuff that never shows up in there."
"Well, I don't know." He shifted on the pile and avoided eye contact. "News is news. And most of it's bad these days. There ain't no law in this city anymore, none than counts anyways. The United World's too busy with international matters to be concerned with the municipal variety. Bad things tend to happen. Law of entropy or something, that's all this town knows."
"A little girl. Taken three nights ago, snatched off the sidewalk from her folks."
Mr. Newspaper held up a gnarled hand to stop me there. "Can't help you, Charlie. You know how things are."
I nodded. "Ivan."
He blew out a sigh. "He'd shut me down if he knew I was helping you out. He's got eyes and ears all over town."
"So do you. Why do you think I hit you up first whenever I'm working a case?"
"You haven't had many of those lately."
No, I hadn't—thanks to Ivan. He had this town squeezed tight in his big Russian fist, and he didn't want anybody squealing for help. He'd made me the last of a dying breed, due to a strictly enforced lack of demand.
"Can't you point me in the right direction? C'mon, for old time's sakes."
It's as close as I'd ever come to begging. Besides, he owed me. I might have saved his frozen ass once in the war, back when we were stationed in St. Petersburg during the dead of winter. He was my commanding officer in those days, a time we'd both worked hard to put far behind us. Unlike Mr. Jarhead, we'd grown out our crew cuts as fast as we could once we returned stateside, and we never reminisced about the glory days. In my experience, war is hell. When you're drafted to fight, you do your job and you do it good. But the only reliving you do is in the middle of the night, when all the blood and the ear-splitting explosions won't let you sleep. That's more than enough, trust me.
Mr. Newspaper sighed, the creases in his face sagging like dead weight. "Why do you stick around, Charlie? Can't you see this city's a goner? It's got no soul to save, and the kicker is, it has no clue it's already dead!"
The man sure had a way with words. "Guess I've always had a thing for the underdog."
"Yeah, you're a real champion of lost causes." His watery eyes met mine. "You should get out while the gettin's good, Charlie. You don't want to end your life here."
"Is that a warning?" This town was ugly, sure, but I wasn't ready to give up on her. Not as long as I had friends here—as well as folks who needed somebody like me to fill the gap left by those cops on Ivan's payroll.
"Take it or leave it." He popped his pipe between his teeth and grinned again as a couple strolled by arm in arm. "You know, I don't hear too good these days." He dug a sausage-sized finger into his bristled ear to prove the point. "What do they call it? Cauliflower or something?"
That was enough for me. I grabbed a copy of a shiny gossip rag and handed him twice the cover price. "Try to stay dry out here." I stuffed the magazine under my coat and forged out into the rain.
"You too, Charlie," Mr. Newspaper called after me. "But it just might be a lost cause!"
Read Chapter 3
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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