From the author: A detective struggling to make ends meet. A girl they call the Golden Goose.
Start from the beginning: Chapter 1
Unfortunately, Cauliflower Carl wasn't the only schmuck in town working out of his living quarters, and vice versa. For yours truly, my office was also home sweet home and had been ever since the rent on both had become too much to bear. When I'd had to let Wanda go, the angel was kind enough to offer me the couch at her place.
"You gotta sleep somewhere, Charlie," she'd said, smacking that signature wad of gum as she packed up her office—a potted lily, a framed photo of her mother from before she'd passed, a book of poetry by Dickinson. "Whatcha gonna do, spend the nights here?"
Wanda the Prophetess.
"I'll be okay," she'd continued. "I got the apartment Ma left me. Rent controlled. Don't you go worrying about me any."
We'd talked by phone a couple times since. She had a desk job in the mayor's office now, located stage left in Ivan the Terrible's political puppet show. You know what they say about crime thriving when good men do nothing? The same's true when there are no good men left around, period. The United World had taken most of them, ground them up in a war machine and spit out the bones, all in the name of protecting democracy. Well, this was what democracy looked like when the government couldn't afford anything besides maintaining its war efforts: all manner of scum rose to the surface in the cities to fill the void.
"How's the pay?" I'd asked her. I had to know.
"I can eat. You might want to apply yourself."
Maybe I would—if I could ever stomach the thought of not being my own boss. And the prospect of playing a part in Ivan's machine, no matter how loosely affiliated, made me sick. There were very few actual civil servants in local politics anymore; most were just monkeys on the Russian mobster's payroll. I didn't like the idea of Wanda working there, and the sooner I could hire her back on full-time, the better. But she was her own woman. I'd never been the boss of her except in title only.
I slipped the key into my office door and shook the rain from my coat. But it didn't take more than a split-second to tell that the place wasn't locked the way I'd left it.
I went for my holster just a fraction of a second too late. The door had already whipped open, tugged from the inside, and I stood face to chest with a goon crammed into the biggest suit I'd ever seen. He smirked down at me, my hand frozen inside my coat like a kid's in the cookie jar.
"Charlie Madison?" he rumbled, a jolly enough giant, but there was nothing friendly about the eyes under his black fedora. "You Charlie Madison?"
"I don't think so," I said.
He frowned. "Huh?" Knuckles on fists the size of Easter hams crackled at his sides.
"According to that name on the door, you must be Charlie Madison," I said, slipping my fingers around the grip of my revolver. "Isn't this your office?"
"Then what are you doing here?"
I pulled out my gun and squeezed the trigger, but the shot went wild, exploding in the narrow hallway with a round that punctured my doorframe, splintering the molding. The goon's physical reflexes were ten times faster than the cold molasses between his ears, and when one ham-hand had knocked my shooting arm aside, his other came up under my chin and tightened, lifting me off the floor.
"This is your office," he rumbled.
"We have a winner," I wheezed, face flooding with hot blood. "Ivan send you?" Fast work, as I'd come straight from Carl's place.
Without a word, the goon carried me into what had been Wanda's front office and locked the door behind us. He tugged the revolver from my grasp and pocketed it. "There's somebody here to meet you, Mr. Madison."
"Great," I managed, little more than a ventriloquist's dummy in his grip.
We entered my office where the streetlight filtered through the blinds, casting the three men at my desk in featureless silhouettes. The two standing were obviously hired muscle, almost as big as my ventriloquist friend. A broad-shouldered, colossus of a man sat in my chair, which squeaked under his sheer volume. The goon shoved me forward, releasing his choke hold, and I staggered a few steps to regain my footing and some of my composure, coughing and rubbing at my neck.
"Good evening, Mr. Madison," greeted the man in my chair with a thick Russian-coated accent. "I hope you do not mind our intrusion into your very busy schedule."
"Not at all." I couldn't tell if it was Ivan or not with the room so dark, but even if I'd been able to see his face, I wouldn't have recognized it. Nobody knew what Ivan the Terrible looked like, and he worked hard to keep it that way. "I'd say to make yourself at home, but you appear to be quite comfortable already. At my desk."
"Ah yes. This is a nice chair you have." He shifted his weight, and it squealed in agonized throes. I couldn't help wincing; the thing had cost me a pretty penny. "My mandroid likes it very much."
So Ivan wasn't here in the flesh. Leave it to him to get something like this machine off the black market: Eastern Conglomerate army surplus. How he'd managed to sneak it into the States was beyond me; for years, the UW had wanted to get their hands on a mandroid for reverse-engineering purposes, to create their own platoons of mechanical soldiers. But this robot's only purpose was to serve the agoraphobic needs of a paranoid mobster.
"What's the special occasion? I'm at a loss here."
"A man who is straight and to the point," the Russian chuckled. "This I like."
"If I'd known you were coming over, I would have cleaned up the place. Well, maybe not so much, but I would've at least gotten you something. Like an oil can."
"Funny, too? I had no idea."
"Wait till I get started."
"Mikhel, he likes jokes also. He knows many good ones." The mandroid gestured to the goon behind me. "Tell Mr. Madison a joke now, Mikhel."
Mikhel rumbled deep in his chest, prematurely anticipating the punch line. Then one of his fists caved in my left kidney and I crumpled to the floor, landing on my knees with a tight grimace.
"Very funny, no?" The Russian's tone had dropped thirty degrees. "Now you see I have a sense of humor myself."
"What's this about?" I managed.
"Hmmm." The mandroid's fingertips met as he leaned onto my desk, creaking beneath him. "I think you know. You have been a very social man this evening. You entertained some guests, you visited the old newspaper man, you spent some time with a young prostitute. Then you roughed up one of our community's most upstanding citizens—a local hero, no less. A champion of the ring. Do I paint a clear enough picture for you?"
"You've been watching me." Or he had one of his henchmen tail me. But I'm usually keen on noticing that sort of thing, and I hadn't seen a soul.
"My eyes and ears, they are everywhere, Mr. Madison."
I nodded. "Then you're the man I need to see." I reached for the photo of little Mao, and you would have thought I'd gone for a hand grenade the way the goons whipped out their hardware and leveled the business ends at me. "Easy. It's just a picture."
"You are full of surprises," said the Russian as I held up the black-and-white photo between two fingers. "And who would this be?" He motioned for Happy Ham Fists to bring it to the desk.
"She was abducted from her parents. Three nights ago."
"Hmmm." The mandroid slid the photo closer for inspection. "A case you are working on, yes?" He looked up at me, but I still couldn't make out his artificial face in the dark. Was the robot wearing something across its eyes? Weird. "One of your last, is it not? You are going out of business, I hear."
"I wouldn't count on it."
He nodded. "Yes, I seem to remember this child. She was taken from her parents—but not three nights ago."
I released a low curse. "Her parents were—"
"I am well aware who came to see you, Mr. Madison. But they were not this child's parents."
I should have been more specific. "Adopted, then. But he's her father—"
"No." A thick finger tapped the photo. "This child went missing from Little Tokyo years ago. She was taken due to her rare…gift." He nodded once. "An Anglo couple—the husband claimed she was his daughter, and you know how the authorities tend to side with war veterans on such matters." He made it sound like common knowledge. "Harrison is their name, I believe. Mr. and Mrs. Harrison."
"There was never anything about it in the news," I murmured.
"Why would I want such a thing made known to the public? When I myself planned to find this girl?"
I blinked at that. "You?" Ivan the Terrible wasn't known for his philanthropy.
He chuckled, but it lacked any real mirth. "What is more surprising—that I would wish to find the child, or that I have been unable to do so, as of yet?"
"You are an honest man, Mr. Madison, and I find you amusing. I believe we can do business together." The mandroid rose from my desk, giving the surface its full weight as it pushed down with shoulders squared, hauling its mechanical bulk upward. "From now on, you will work for me."
How to decline such a gracious offer? "No thanks."
"If you are concerned about the retainer in your pocket, consider it a bonus. That couple—the Harrisons—are no longer paying for your services. They are… Where are they now, Mikhel?" The mandroid snapped his fingers as if suffering from a sudden memory lapse.
"They swim with the fishes," Mikhel rumbled with a whole lot of mirth.
"Ah yes. As much as two corpses are able to swim, that is. Mr. Harrison, he was a crafty devil, so very devious, with all manner of military contacts to keep me in the dark. If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is the military! Give me weak-willed local politicians any day." He sighed, shaking the mandroid's head. "But I digress. Mr. Madison, find me this girl, and you will be allowed to continue doing business in this city—provided you do not get in my way, of course."
For the moment, I had to put it out of my mind that my only paying clients were now deceased. But I couldn't help feeling cut adrift. "And if I refuse?"
"You don't want to do a thing like that," cautioned the goon, warming up one fist in the palm of the other. "People don't say no to Mr. Ivan…and live."
The Russian cleared a gob of phlegm from his throat—he hadn't covered his microphone, wherever he was broadcasting from. "Find me this girl, Mr. Madison. Show me what a fine detective you are. I will watch your progress with keen interest."
He nodded to Mikhel, and what came next was a whole lot of nothing, so much black I could dive right in and fall forever—after a crushing blow to the jaw.
Read Chapter 5
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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