WHAT A MAN WOULD DO - MARK JOSEPH KIEWLAK
There was no way past him. But I had to get past him. That's where the girl was. Out on the balcony. Chained to the railing. Thirty-five stories up. I was running out of time.
"You know, don't you, that they're about to bring this whole building down around us?"
Machiste said nothing. He was six-foot-four and moved as often as a sequoia. Plus he was wider. I looked around the apartment. It was empty. There were some McDonald's wrappers in the corner, graffiti on the walls. Otherwise it was empty. There was nothing I could use against him.
"How about we call it a draw and both walk out of here alive?" I said.
Machiste said nothing. I had yet to see him blink. He was loyal to his employer. But how loyal could he be?
"You realize," I said, "that Thorne sent you in here to die. He told you to guard the girl. But he knew the building was coming down. He knew I was on the way."
There was a rattle from out on the balcony. The girl might've been regaining consciousness.
How that could help me I had no idea.
"Machiste," I said, "one way or another, I'm coming through there. I can't let you stop me."
His expression was unchanged. But now there seemed to be a gleam in his eye. I took a step forward.
"I was hired to bring the girl home safe," I said. "I've never failed at anything I've been hired for."
The gleam got brighter.
He's just a man, I told myself. He has to have weak points. I feinted left and kicked him in the balls. He never raised his arms. His expression was the same. I was beginning to wonder if he wouldn't still be standing after the building collapsed.
There was a shriek from the balcony.
The girl was awake.
I kept my attention on Machiste.
"What did Thorne do to her?" I said. "Machiste, what the fuck did Thorne do to her?"
I glanced past him at the girl. She was whimpering now, cowering in the corner. If she had been eight, I would've understood. But she was twenty-six years old.
"Machiste, what the fuck did your boss do to her?"
"What he does to them all," Machiste said.
His voice startled me. As if a statue had spoken. And yet his mouth seemed not to have moved. What I wouldn't have given for a chair to smash across his teeth.
"He's a fucking pervert, Machiste. He's not a man. I don't know what you are, but if you're a man you'll walk away from this mess. A man would walk away."
"A man would abide by his word," Machiste said.
Maybe this was my way in. I sure as hell didn't have any other ideas.
"Machiste, turn around and look at that girl. Look her in the eye and tell me it isn't a piece of shit you work for."
He didn't move. There was white dust settling atop his black chauffeur's cap. White dust and pieces of plaster.
"This fucking place is coming down around us," I said. "Why would you die for a man like that?"
He said nothing. The girl's whimpering got louder.
"Maybe she has a mother and father," I said. "Maybe she has a boyfriend. A life. Thorne took all that away from her. I'm here to give it back."
The gleam in his eye dimmed just a little.
"She has no parents," Machiste said.
Was he making conversation? I was too stunned to respond.
"You lie when you say she has parents. She has no parents."
There was no time for conversation. But keeping him talking was all I had.
"Maybe you're right," I said. "Maybe she hasn't got anybody. But she's got me. She's got a life and I'm here to save it."
"It isn't worth saving," Machiste said.
I could hear the bullhorns of the demolition crew from the street below. If only the girl would scream again. If she didn't, I'd have to.
I stood toe to toe with Machiste. "Who the fuck are you to say whether her life is worth saving or not?"
It was the wrong question to ask. Before I knew what was happening he had swung his fist and backhanded me into the wall. I hit hard and went right through the plaster. My elbows were stuck. He was advancing on me.
I tried to speak but there was no wind in me. His shadow descended upon the wall. I got one elbow loose. He swung his fist like a pile driver. I ducked my head and missed most of it, catching only a glancing blow. His fist got stuck in the wall. I worked my other elbow loose and tried to slip under him. He caught me going away with his free arm and slammed me back against the wall. Now I was seeing two of him. Somehow I got my wind back.
"Machiste, for fuck's sake, she's just a little girl," I said. "She's twenty-six but she's just a little girl. She never had a chance. Thorne grabbed her right out of high school. That's what he does. Takes them when they're young and uses them up. For fuck's sake, she never had a chance."
Machiste lifted me by the throat. "No more," he said. "No more talking. I don't like what you say."
I could hear the whimpering again. He could hear it too. My world was turning red.
"Thorne," he said. "Thorne is dead."
He dropped me against the wall and turned away. I went down in a heap and stayed there. Machiste tore his fist loose from the wall, taking some of the wall with it. He walked toward the balcony.
I must have blacked out momentarily because the next I saw he was out on the balcony, standing over the girl. A chunk of plaster hung like an ugly cast around his wrist. I tried to get up. I couldn't.
The girl had stopped whimpering and was looking up at him.
I tried to get up. No good.
Machiste wasn't moving. Neither was the girl. But soon the building would be. If the demolition crew hadn't spotted Machiste by now they must not have been looking. Then it hit me: they were Thorne's crew. Besides being a slum lord and a drug lord and a pimp, Thorne had his deep pockets in construction. That's why his soldiers had told me where to find the girl after only a minimum of broken bones. They knew I wasn't coming back out.
I tried to get up. This time I almost made it. I settled for crawling towards the balcony. If Thorne had men guarding the exits we were as good as dead no matter what. But hadn't Machiste just told me that Thorne was dead?
When I got to the balcony Machiste was crouched over the girl. I couldn't see around him. I didn't know what he was doing.
"Machiste," I said.
He turned around.
He was crying.
"Stay back," Machiste said. "We die together."
"I don't want to die," I said. "And maybe she doesn't either."
"I say what happens to her," Machiste said. "From now on I say."
Something was wrong here. The girl's expression had gone from horrified to blank. Had she been drugged? She was staring straight into his midsection and had gone completely blank. She was taking her cues from him.
"You said Thorne was dead," I said. "How?"
"I killed him," Machiste said.
The tears were streaming down his face like rain on granite. The rest of him was immobile.
"I came to Thorne's organization to find her," he said. "I had left her long ago. I had looked for many years since. I worked for this man Thorne because he knew of such things, of such practices. I did not dream it was he who had been holding her all this time. When I find out I kill him. I tear his head from his shoulders."
"She's your daughter," I said.
"Yes," Machiste said. "I have shamed her. Shamed myself. Now we atone. Now we die together."
I stepped out onto the balcony. Machiste swung the arm with the plaster still attached and hit me square in the face. I went backwards through the door and landed hard on my back in a shower of glass.
Machiste turned back toward the girl. She was crying now. He lifted his massive hand and wiped a tear from her cheek. She wouldn't look at his face.
"We die together," Machiste said.
It was all I could do to lift my head.
"Machiste," I said. "There are other ways to atone. The man who hired me helps people. People like you and your daughter. He gives them a home. He has a home waiting for you and your daughter."
He gave no reply.
"A man, Machiste. A man wouldn't give up on her. No matter what had happened to her. A man wouldn't give up. A man would give his daughter help."
"I am no man," Machiste said.
"Then fucking become one right fucking now," I said.
From below I could hear the final all-clear call given by the crew foreman. The bastards knew we were in here.
"Machiste, help your fucking daughter," I said. "Help her to live, not to die. She's not fucking dead yet. Help her."
He wasn't listening. It was over. She was staring straight ahead at his chest. Then slowly she lifted her eyes until they met his. "Papa," she said. "Papa help."
Something inside him shattered. He went to his knees before her. He fell sobbing against her chest.
"Machiste," I said. "Call it off. Call it fucking off."
He reached into the pocket of his coat and came out with a cell phone. Without looking he pressed a button, waited, and spoke. "This is Machiste," he said. "Stop what you are doing. If you do not stop, I will survive and I will kill you and everyone you know. I will do this. You have my word."
He didn't wait for a reply.
A minute passed. Then two. The building was still standing.
"Thank you," I said.
Machiste ignored me. He had crushed the phone in his hand, its crumbs like crackers tumbling. He continued sobbing into her lap. She stroked his hair absently and stared ahead at nothing.
It was all I could do to turn my head and look away.
BIO: In 2008 Mark Joseph Kiewlak's work appeared in more than two dozen magazines, including Hardboiled, Plots With Guns, Pulp Pusher, Thug Lit, Muzzle Flash, Clean Sheets, and many others. He was privileged to have served as judge of the 2007 Wild Violet Fiction Contest. He has also written for DC Comics (FLASH 80-PAGE GIANT #2).