THE ANSWER - MARK JOSEPH KIEWLAK
"Do you think I wanted this?" he said. "Do you think I wanted to take her?"
The music was loud and penetrating. The other patrons had no idea he was handcuffed to the girl. Or, if they did, they didn't care. It was that kind of place.
"I don't know what you wanted," I said. "But you're going to have to give her up."
"The fuck I am," Bobby said. He was a kid. Nineteen. He had leather, poor attempts at facial hair. He was a kid. And I felt like an old man.
"How about I pull the fire alarm," I said, "clear this place out so it's just the three of us?"
"Don't do a fucking thing," Bobby said. "Don't do a thing."
"Why the handcuffs, Bobby?"
He looked around nervously. Strobe lights were flashing. Kids were dancing. I was the only adult in the room.
"I don't want to lose her," he said.
"Lose her to who?"
He seemed preoccupied.
"Bobby. Lose her to who?"
He kept watching the door. I glanced over. Nobody there.
"Is this about your parents, Bobby?"
"Is this about your old man?"
"Fuck no. My old man is dead."
"Then who's got you so scared?"
He kept his eyes on the door. I looked at the girl. She was high on something. She was there but she wasn't. If I could have, I would've shaken her. I needed her participation.
"Bobby," I said. "Who's got you scared?"
I turned toward the door. It was an elderly couple. The people who had hired me. The girl's grandparents.
Bobby stood up from the table. "You brought them here," he said. He was shouting but nobody else could hear. He was pulling on the girl's wrist with the handcuffs. It was getting her attention. She was beginning to focus.
"You fucking pig," he said. "I knew I couldn't trust you."
"I'm not a cop," I said. "And I'll do what's right. Just tell me what that is."
"You fucking pig," Bobby said. "You brought them here."
By this time, the girl's grandparents had spotted us. They moved toward the stairs to the upper level. Bobby was gesturing toward them and yanking on the girl's wrist as he did. She'd had enough.
"This is stupid, Bobby," she said. "Just let them take me."
"I told you to shut up," Bobby said. "I told you to let me do all the talking."
The girl was still half-stoned but she was something else, too. Resigned. Whatever was happening, she expected it.
"We're fucking out of here," Bobby said. "We're fucking gone."
I put a hand on his shoulder to hold him in place. The grandparents were climbing the spiral staircase and glaring in our direction. The music was getting louder. If that was possible.
"Bobby, we can't run away," the girl said. "They sent this guy. They'll send somebody else."
Bobby tried to shrug free but I had him by the shoulder. The girl gave a hard yank on the cuffs. "Tell him," she said. "Tell him what they did to me."
Someone screamed. It was a hell of a scream above all the noise and flashing lights. The grandfather had a gun out. He was coming up behind us, holding his wife's hand in one hand and a gun in the other. He was leading her through the crowd.
"Jesus Christ," the girl said.
It was a lot to take in. The grandfather was in his seventies, wearing a button-down sweater and jeans from Sears. He wasn't pointing the gun as if he'd done it before but he wasn't clowning around, either. The grandmother was silver-haired and mousy. She had a hand clasped over her mouth and seemed afraid that everyone was looking at her. They weren't. Only the patrons up here on the terrace had noticed the commotion. About a dozen people. The strobes were flashing so fast that the old man seemed to be jumping at us in increments between the flashes. I let go of Bobby's shoulder and reached for my gun.
"No!" the girl said. She grabbed my arm with both hands and tried to pull it away from the gun. Bobby swung his free hand and punched me in the face. Then the old man shot him. Bobby looked down at his chest. He didn't seem to register what had happened. His eyes rolled back and he crumpled to the floor, knocking over the table and both chairs as he did. The girl was still cuffed to his wrist and went down with him. Her eyes were wide and she was screaming his name. The music was still blasting.
The girl's grandfather stood next to an empty table and leveled the gun at me. "Maria is coming with us," he said.
"Thank you for finding her," the grandmother said.
Maria was shaking Bobby but he was gone. The front of his leather jacket was soaked with blood.
"What's this about?" I said. I said it just to be saying something. People don't usually shoot you in the middle of polite conversation.
"She's my granddaughter," the old man said. "That's what it's about."
Maria turned on her knees to face them. She couldn't stand up because of the handcuffs. There was blood streaked on her face from where she had touched Bobby then wiped a tear from her cheek. "You want to know what this is about," she said. Her eyes were on the old man but she was talking to me. "It's about a fucking old pervert who's had his way with me since my parents died."
"Maria!" the grandmother said.
The old man slapped his wife across the face. "You shut up," he said. He turned back to Maria. "And you," he said. "You get away from that punk and come over by me."
I wanted to intervene but I could tell the minute I spoke up, he'd blast me the same as he had Bobby. He was focused only on the girl. All around the terrace the other patrons were cowering, frozen in place. The grandmother, too, was shrinking away from him. Her arthritic knuckles were white where he was squeezing her hand.
"Get up, I said."
Maria lifted her arm to show him the cuffs. Bobby's arm went with it. "Guess you'll just have to fuck us both, Grandpa," Maria said. "Or all three of us maybe."
The old man shot Bobby again. The bullet hit his lifeless torso in the neck. "You don't talk that way to me," the old man said.
One of the patrons, a kid in a varsity jacket, got up some courage and grabbed a beer bottle off the table. He came up behind the old man about to smash it off his head. At the last second, the grandmother shouted a warning and the beer bottle only grazed him. I made my move. The old man swung his gun in the direction of the kid, about to fire. I hit the old man with the butt of my gun at the base of his skull. He toppled forward and I grabbed for his gun arm. I shook the gun loose before he could get off any more shots. I kicked him in the ribs and again in the face. He rolled away from the kicks and scrambled toward Maria. I grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked him backward. He began kicking and screaming and cursing. He was a wild man. I slapped him across the face. His dentures came flying out. Jesus Christ.
When I glanced again in Maria's direction, all I saw was Bobby's corpse and an empty cuff hanging from his wrist. The strobes blinked again and there was a gunshot. I spun toward the sound. Maria was standing over her grandmother's body. The old woman had a neat round hole in the center of her forehead. Maria was holding the gun to her own head. The music stopped. But the strobes were still flashing.
"He was sick," Maria said. "He was a monster. But she let him do it. She let it happen to all of us. She was just a coward."
The old man was curled up in a ball with his cheek against the floor. He reached up a hand toward her. "Maria," he said. "Maria, my love." I kicked him in the balls.
"Maria," I said, "don't throw it away because of him. Not because of him. You're worth a hundred of him."
She pressed the barrel hard against her temple. "How do you know?" she said. "How do you know a fucking thing?"
I didn't say anything. I had her talking and that was enough.
"God," she said. "The things he made me do. How can I live with that? How can I live with a fucking memory like that?"
"I don't know," I said. "But you've got the rest of your life to work on it."
"I don't want to fucking work on it. I want it gone forever. I want him gone."
"Then you're pointing the gun at the wrong person," I said.
The old man's eyes widened. He was still in too much pain to speak but his eyes pleaded with her. She turned the gun on him and fired. As the bullet struck his chest, he seemed grateful. He was smiling as the lights went out inside him.
I took the gun from Maria's hand. She stared up at me with a blank expression. "You told me to kill him," she said. "Why did you do that?"
I turned her away from the scene and led her toward the staircase. Everyone was gone but the strobe lights were still flashing. "Better him than you," I said.
She didn't like the answer but it was the only one I had.
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, Powder Burn 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).