Story art by Sharon McCutcheon.
From the author: A detective struggling to make ends meet. A girl they call the Golden Goose.
Start from the beginning: Chapter 1
I'd visited plenty of casinos back in the days when I had money to burn, but none of them could ever have held a candle to what I witnessed inside The Coliseum—an expanse of plush, red-carpeted, gold-inlaid opulence filled with folks from every walk of life huddled around games of dice, cards, and chips, while half-naked dames sauntered about selling cigarettes from trays slung below their gilded bosoms. A full stage showcased the big band that provided a musical backdrop loud enough to keep anybody from thinking straight about their personal finances. Bad economy these days? Sure as hell not here. This is where the rich got richer off each other, the last bastion of excess in a crumbling city. In the old days, these people would have partied all night and slept away the mornings. Not anymore. This was the only place they could pretend times hadn't changed.
"Keep moving," grunted one of the gun-toting thugs with a rough nudge.
A hundred meters later, up a few wide flights of stairs with gleaming brass banisters, we came to a hallway with over a dozen elevators lining the walls. We passed them all, heading straight for the one marked PRIVATE at the end.
"You boys really know how to show a guy a good time," I mused.
James inserted a key and the mirrored elevator doors slid open without a single shudder. We all managed to cram ourselves inside and moments later were rushing upward in the hotel wing of the casino, rising to the penthouse on the 50th floor. When the doors slid open, I was greeted by another small army of well-dressed, well-built henchmen who looked like they'd all played for the same high school football team. They glared at me like they'd sooner fill me full of hot lead than share a single word. Except for the one behind me. He was all kinds of talkative.
"Move." Another jab with the muzzle.
"Don't rush me," I said. "I'm planning my escape."
"You see them?" He meant the armed goons lining the wide hallway. "They know you plugged one of our own downstairs."
"It was a clean shot!"
"That's not what I heard."
James led us to the door at the end where he pressed a button on the wall-mounted intercom. "We are here, sir. Would you like us to wait outside?"
Ivan's throat-clearing nearly burst the speaker. "No. Bring him in."
There came a click as an automatic locking mechanism disengaged, and the door swung open of its own accord, slowly, as if there was to be some great unveiling, a climactic moment everything had been building toward from the start.
But it was just a fancy penthouse suite with mirrored walls that multiplied my escorts as well as everything else you'd hope to find in such a swanky set of digs: full bar, pool tables, hot tub, movie theater, bowling alley—
"Come in, Mr. Madison," the Russian's voice emanated from ceiling speakers inside. "I hope you did not expect to meet me face to face. As you know, I value my privacy. But please, do sit down. We have much to discuss."
The thug behind me clamped a meaty hand on my shoulder as we approached a black leather sofa sectional, and he shoved me into compliance. I found myself enveloped in a cloud of cushy, genuine cowhide. Faux-leather could never smell anything like it, even with the scented chemicals they pumped into the material. I had to shut my eyes for a second and just take it in.
"Might James fix you a drink?" asked the omnipotent voice from above.
"James can go take a flying leap," I said, and the chauffeur glared at me.
"Oh? Did you two not hit it off?"
I glanced up at the speakers. "Sure we did. Until it became clear that he was just part of an elaborate waterfowl hunt."
The goons frowned at each other and shrugged. Only James seemed to understand. "He means a wild goose chase."
Another thick chuckle came from the speakers. "What tipped you off, Mr. Madison?"
"I guess we could have driven straight into Little Tokyo—yakuza territory—and asked around, shown little Mao's photo to a few hundred people, had some run-ins with katana-wielding gangsters who bear no love for anything Anglo. I'm sure it would have been plenty exciting for whoever you'd sent to watch me chase my tail in circles. But I've been at this game long enough to spot a diversion when I see it, even if it's a klick away." I cleared my throat and focused on James the Chauffeur. "You wanted me out of the way while you moved the girl. You'd already knocked off the Harrisons, and ol' Cauliflower Carl. He'd let it slip that she was a golden goose, and you couldn't let him live after that, now could you?"
"Nobody likes a man with loose lips," Ivan said. "It would have been bad business to keep him alive. But tell me, how did you find out about Carl?"
"Not every cop on the force is in your pocket. Some of them actually want to take their city back."
"And you would like to join in this crusade?"
I raised my hands in mock surrender. "Hey, I'm no hero."
"You could have fooled me. The way you stick your neck out for this little girl. Who is she to you? Why risk your life like this? You don't know if she is dead or alive."
"That's where you're wrong, Ivan." I let the silence run on. "I know she's right here."
"Is that so?"
"Why else would we be having this conversation?"
The Russian replied with his own pregnant pause, followed by a cold phlegm-coated chuckle. "You are a man without fear, Mr. Madison. I don't know whether to respect you or pity you. For you must realize, regardless of what words pass between us now, this is the end for you."
I'd been living on borrowed time ever since his men had surprised me in my office. Ivan the Terrible decided who lived and died in this town; everybody knew that. Even Mr. Newspaper, God rest his soul. Sergeant Douglass had found the old man with a bullet in his brainpan behind the newspaper stand. More collateral damage.
"What's so special about this kid, Ivan? Why'd the Harrisons want her, and why have you killed with impunity in order to hang onto her?"
"Is that what you think?"
"Enlighten me. My last wish." I hoped to God it wouldn't be. Champion of lost causes my ass.
A loud sigh rained down from the speakers. "Who am I to refuse a dying man?" Ivan's goons snickered, glancing at their own reflections as they smoothed down unruly unibrows. "The Harrisons, they painted a quaint picture for you, did they not? Out for an evening stroll, when up comes a van from nowhere, and masked men snatch away their precious little child?"
"Something like that."
"In fact, that sweet Anglo couple had this little girl shackled in their basement, clothed and well-fed of course, but chained up while they poured just a bit of sand into her eyes every night. Shocking, yes? This they did, and by morning of the next day, there would always be two perfect pearls waiting for them. It sounds like a fairy tale, does it not? A magical fantasy?"
Why was he giving me this crazy talk?
"That delightful couple kept the child in chains for years. Think of all the pearls they accumulated in that time, from her incredible oyster-eyes!"
Despite the insanity of it all, I couldn't help remembering Mrs. Jarhead's necklace, that string of the most dazzling pearls I'd ever seen in my life. But what Ivan suggested wasn't possible. For them to have come from…a child's eyes?
"They made a mistake when they exchanged the pearls for cash at one of my jewelry shops," Ivan continued. "They had grown careless over the years, you see—perhaps even overzealous, not checking the shops as dutifully as they should have. It was their downfall."
"Your men followed them, broke out the girl—"
"Yes, while the Harrisons were out enjoying dinner and a movie like the happy couple they were."
"But why'd you let them live? If you've known their secret all this time." The mobster didn't make a habit of sparing lives—as he'd demonstrated today in spades.
"To make a point, Mr. Madison. To show that even members of the exalted United World military, be they retired or active duty, they should see me as a force to be reckoned with. I decide when they live and when they die."
"They didn't know that already?" Nothing like a little ego stroke to extend one's life span—even if only by a few minutes.
"Mr. Harrison used his military contacts to keep himself, his wife, and their slave girl hidden. Not an easy feat, to make my eyes blind and my ears deaf in this city, as you well know."
That was an understatement. "So why bump them off last night, after they came to see me? You already had the girl."
"I do not like loose ends. Which brings us now to you, Mr. Madison. The last of your kind, and a thorn in my side. Can you believe that I have wanted to meet you for quite some time?"
"My door's always been open." Even after I've locked it, apparently.
"Yes, and perhaps in another life, we could have done business together."
"You're firing me?" I feigned disbelief. "You hired me to find the girl, and I have!"
"Have you now?"
"You want me to start breaking mirrors in here, I'll do it. You've got her stashed somewhere nearby."
"Hmmm. And this you know how exactly? I own many of the buildings in this city, Mr. Madison. She could be anywhere."
"But she's not." I shrugged, glancing at the hired muscle. "You said you don't like loose ends, but I'm afraid that's worked to your disadvantage this time. You made it a little too obvious, killing off everyone related to this case and saving me for last. Did you hope I'd die at the hands of the yakuza in Little Tokyo? Maybe. But you would have wanted to keep the girl close to you until I was out of the way, regardless."
"You have given this matter some thought, I see."
"James and I were stuck in traffic for a while. I had time to kill. But tell me, even if I were to believe what you say about the girl's oyster eyes—and I don't, by the way, it's insane—what's the richest, most powerful man in town need with her? Why go through all this trouble, and why steer me in the wrong direction? I'm just one man—"
"Yes, Mr. Madison, but you are a man of reputation. Something we have in common, yes? Yet I am only one big fish in a small pond. No matter how many of the police I keep on my payroll, kidnapping is a Federal offense. And there is the matter of the yakuza to consider. As far as they know, the girl was taken by two Anglos protected by the United World government." He paused. "You asked me two questions. Firstly: I took the girl because she is a priceless commodity, and I collect such things of inordinate value. I may be able to use her against the yakuza when I decide to incorporate Little Tokyo into my holdings. Secondly: I have given you so much undivided attention because you fascinate me, Mr. Madison. Despite overwhelming odds, you attempt to make a difference in the lives of your fellow citizens. You are indeed a champion of the lost causes, as your late friend the newspaper man liked to say."
I clenched my jaw, knowing if Ivan were here in this room, I'd do my damndest to wring his throat after what he'd done to the old man. "I've got rent to pay, same as anybody else. Any chance you could lower it, by the way? I'm pretty sure one of your companies owns my building."
A softer chuckle this time. "I'm afraid that will no longer be your concern."
The goons closed in with their assault rifles staring me down. I nodded. "So this is it."
"I believe I have answered all of your questions?" the Russian said.
"Except for the girl. Before I go out in a blaze of gun smoke, I'd sure like to see if what you say about her is true. The whole bit with her eyes. Sounds like a real-life miracle."
"She truly is." A short pause. "Very well, Mr. Madison. But only because I like you so very much."
The mirrored wall behind one of the pool tables clicked, then slid open to reveal a room designed for a princess: lacey, frilly, hot pink. Standing between two armed men was the girl from the black-and-white photo, wearing a flowery kimono and hanging her head, eyes focused on the floor.
"Say hello, Mao," Ivan's voice encouraged her.
She looked up then, past the goons and straight at me—the lone oddity in the room, disheveled and swollen-faced. But nothing could compare to what had been done to her eyes. Blossoming crimson, they stared out at me through sockets so raw and chafed, her eyelids sagged like lumpy pillows.
"Hello," she said quietly.
"Hey there." Were they torturing her? "Is what they say true? About your…eyes?"
She nodded once and returned her gaze to the floor.
"You would like a demonstration, perhaps?" Ivan said.
One of the goons retrieved what looked like a salt shaker from his pocket as the other one grabbed hold of Mao by both arms. She didn't struggle.
"No!" My outburst froze both thugs in their tracks.
Ivan sighed, disappointed. "Never mind," he told his men.
I swallowed the dry lump in my throat. "Would you like to go home, Mao?"
Again she nodded, swollen eyes trained on the carpet.
"Your last words, Mr. Madison? Filling a child with false hope?" Ivan clucked his tongue in disapproval. Then to Mao: "This man is not here to rescue you, child. He is here to die. Would you like to watch?"
She shook her head and took a step back.
"Very well." More disappointment from the Russian as the mirrored wall clicked and began to close.
"Not so fast." I held up my wristwatch. Now there was a red light blinking on the display. "Didn't you mention the yakuza before, Ivan? Something about them having no clue you had this girl?"
"What is that?" James the Chauffeur strode forward and seized my wrist.
"Destroy it!" Ivan boomed from above.
James snatched the watch from my wrist and smashed it underfoot. The little guy was stronger than he looked. Silence held the room as the red pinpoint of light dimmed to black in the shattered quartz.
"Too late," I said.
A frantic voice came over the intercom, an alarm that started with something about an attack and ended with a wild shriek.
"They're already here," I said. "Gotta love Japanese technology."
Little Mao looked up at me, her swollen eyes twinkling with unguarded hope.
Read Chapter 8
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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