From the author: A detective struggling to make ends meet. A girl they call the Golden Goose.
Start from the beginning: Chapter 1
The old man had given me the lead I needed, and so I found myself standing in a partially dry doorway on one side of an alley, shivering as I kept an eye on an unmarked, dimly lit door across the way. That dump was both the residence and business office of one Cauliflower Carl—a heavyweight champ once upon a time, but after a few too many KO's and not enough in the way of endorsements, he'd turned to an honest living as a bookie. Word was he'd also been dabbling in girls on the side as a way to make ends meet. Times were tough; nobody had to tell me that. But a guy like Carl who capitalized on human weakness? The lowest of the low, in my book.
The sultry sound of clopping high-heels entered the alley from the street. A shadowy form came to the unmarked door, and the dingy lamp glowed down on a drenched dame with a bedraggled stole across her shoulders. Even from twenty meters, I could see she was shivering worse than me.
She reached up a ghostly hand to knock twice, pause, then rap three more times. A few seconds passed in silence, broken only by the rain flooding the gutters and splattering across the pavement. She doubled over with a thick cough. Then two bolts slid back, and a flicker of blue television light came into view before Carl's frame blocked the doorway. He cursed at the sight of her and shook his head in obvious disapproval.
I strained to hear, but the storm picked up at that moment. Yeah, real considerate. I could tell by the body language what their animated discussion was all about. It hadn't been a good night, and the girl had come to explain things, maybe dry off a bit, grab a bite or a fix.
Nothing doing. Carl pointed at the street and told her to get back to work. He wasn't running no charity—that's what he bellowed before slamming the door in her face.
The girl stood there looking as though she'd never move from that spot, trembling like a dead leaf about to drop. Then with her shoulders slumped, she trudged back to the street, those high heels working their magic around puddles in potholes so deep you couldn't see bottom.
I stepped out from my poor excuse for shelter and cleared my throat. The girl half-turned to look back at me. Then she stopped—not something most women would do in a dark alley when a strange man makes a surprise appearance.
"You scared me, mister," she said all breathless and coy, sauntering over. But she didn't look scared. She looked like a drowning mime with that black eye paint streaking her cheeks. "Y-you lonely?" she stammered, shivering.
I showed her the magazine cover, and her eyes lit up like a kid's on Christmas. What do you give the girl who has nothing? Pictures of girls who have everything.
"You want this?" I hoped it would do the trick.
"Instead of cash, you mean?" Her expression darkened at the prospect.
"In exchange for some information." I nodded toward Carl's door. "Is he alone?"
I tucked the rag back into my coat and turned away.
"No, wait." She had her frail hand on my arm—a girl's hand. She couldn't have been more than sixteen, young enough to still have hope for a better life. "I answer your questions, you'll give me that magazine?"
"All right." She sniffed. "Yeah, he's by himself. Won't spare a bite, hogs it all to himself."
"Any new girls?"
"New recruits. Little ones?"
She looked like she'd tasted something foul and stepped back from me. "You into that?"
The magazine made a reappearance. "Hey, I'm just asking."
She blinked in the rain. "I don't know. It's not like he lets us all hang out together or anything. But if you're looking for little girls, Carl's not your guy."
"Then who is?"
"Hell if I know. You ask a lot of questions, you know that? My time's money."
I handed over the magazine. "Beat it." I didn't want her around for what came next.
She didn't have to be told twice. Cursing me like a sailor, she staggered back to the street. I waited until she was out of sight before I came alongside the door and knocked twice, paused, then rapped three more times, reaching for my shoulder holster and snub-nosed revolver. I put it to good use as soon as the bolts slid back and the door swung open.
Cauliflower Carl let out a disrespectful oath as the butt end of my gun cracked him between the eyes, and he staggered back flailing, arms out to the sides and crossed-eyed—kind of how he'd always looked right after a KO, just before he ate the mat.
"Stay on your feet." I kept the gun muzzle level with his gut as I shut and locked the door behind me. He released another belligerent oath. "And quit using the Lord's name in vain. He doesn't like it, and neither do I."
He slumped into a well-worn armchair facing the ancient cabinet TV and turned toward me with his good ear. The other one was a swollen, shriveled mess. You'd think he'd wear something to cover it, but he shaved himself bald, skin white as a maggot's, and he never wore hats. Dark-eyed and broad-jawed, he had the look of a Scandinavian Neanderthal about him, the world's first documented missing link. "Screw you, Madison!"
"No thanks." I glanced at the TV screen where two men sporting genetically enhanced muscles duked it out with 'roid-fueled vengeance. "Who's carrying your stake tonight?"
He smirked up at me, and it was the ugliest thing I'd seen all day. His own mother must have near had a heart attack when the infant-sized version of that mug had popped out between her thighs.
"What the hell do you want?" He dabbed at his forehead gingerly. There'd be a goose egg come morning, maybe sooner. Already I could see the swelling, and it would be getting a helluva lot worse without ice.
"Met your girl out there. She's a real peach."
Carl grumbled something unintelligible.
"How's that? I don't hear so good," I mimicked his cauliflower catchphrase.
He lapsed into a string of curses, ending with, "You've got no right coming in here like this, throwing your weight around. Ivan hears about this, he'll—"
"So you're working for him now?"
"I work for nobody but myself. Nobody! You hear me?"
"I'm sure there are worse nobodies to work for," I muttered.
"You're a real self-made man," I spoke up so he could hear.
"Yeah!" He glanced at the fight, broadcasting live from Ivan's massive casino: The Coliseum.
"Nobody bosses you around," I added.
"You want to pimp out little girls on the side, earn a little extra moolah, then you do it. Make them stand out in the pouring rain—"
"I don't know what you're talking about." He glared at the TV.
"And if they die from pneumonia, you go and snatch a pretty little one from her parents, fresh meat, ripe for the picking." A mixed metaphor, but regardless, I flicked the photo of young Mao at him and he grappled with it, flustered by the unexpected assault. Despite the punchy reflexes, his reaction time was fast enough when his eyes managed to focus on the picture.
"It's a damn kid!"
"What do you call that girl outside?"
"A nuisance," he spat. "Listen Madison, I don't know what you're getting at here, but I run a legitimate business. You don't like it, you can take it up with Ivan."
"Maybe I will." If I could get to the bastard. His security was tighter than the Prime Minister's.
"You can bet your ass I'll be telling him about this." His eyes twitched toward my gun. "Busting in here, playing cowboy. You're on thin ice. You hear me?"
"I'm not the one missing an ear."
"Thin ice!" he roared, rising to his feet.
"Stay put, Carl. I'm not through with you."
"Yeah? Well I'm through with you." He took a step forward, flinging Mao's photo back at me. "You come in here making accusations, insulting my dignity. You get the hell out!"
I held up the photo, one last-ditch attempt. "You're telling me this isn't one of your girls."
"You're a sick man, Madison, even to suggest it." More curses from the former heavyweight.
"My mistake." I slipped the photo into my breast pocket. Keeping my gun trained on him, I unlocked the door and prepared to enter the onslaught outside. I could hear the downpour intensify as if in anticipation, eager to soak me to the bone—after eating through my coat. A few more weeks of this lousy weather, and I'd need another one. Synthetic leather never lasted long under the acid, even with that pricey polymer sealant available now. "You said you'd speak to Ivan."
Carl clenched and released his fists with every breath. He was doing well at containing himself for an old punching bag.
"Start saying your goodbyes to this town, Madison. The last thing we need is some Lone Ranger playing hero."
"I've got a living to make, same as you." I had the door open, but I paused. A chilled gust of wind flapped the coat around my knees. "Feel free to tell him about this kid." I tapped the photo, located over my heart now. "I'm just trying to get her back to her folks. That's all."
Carl didn't say anything, and he didn't advance on the door as I shut it, holstering my revolver and flipping up my collar against the cold. Blowing out a short sigh at this dead end, I stepped through sheets of rain and forged ahead. That's when a clatter arose from the door, and I turned back, reaching for my gun reflexively. The bruiser leaned outside, squinting at me. The egg I'd given him looked more pronounced in the lamplight.
"Madison, you'll never find that girl. Don't waste your time," he shouted.
Ironic advice, considering the time I'd already wasted here. "Give me something, Carl. You said it yourself: she's just a kid."
"She's more than that." He blinked at me, weighing his words in that thick, Cro-Magnon skull. Then he blurted, "She's a golden goose!"
As much as I wanted him to clarify whatever the hell that meant, he'd already slammed the door and bolted it up tight. I'd worn out my welcome.
Read Chapter 4
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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