THE CAROUSEL - MARK JOSEPH KIEWLAK
The restaurant was crowded and hot. It sat atop a skyscraper and spun in a slow circle, giving you a view of the city as you ate. I wasn't there to eat. I found the girl easily enough. She was sitting at a table near the window. Fleming was there with her. She didn't look like she was under duress, but duress can mean a lot of things.
I approached slowly. Fleming had her back to me. The girl had her eyes down on the table. She had food in front of her but she wasn't eating. She wasn't even moving. Her hands were beneath the table, folded in her lap.
As I came within earshot, Fleming, without turning, said to me, "Come. Join us."
"How about instead I just wring your scrawny neck?"
I couldn't see her face but I knew she was smiling. Her hands were resting flat on the table. She raised one of them just a few inches and two men appeared behind me. They were over six foot and all muscle between their ears. But they heard Fleming well enough.
"Escort our guest to his chair," she said. "And be discreet about it."
Each of them glided up behind me to where they were almost touching my arms. If I had turned in either direction, they would have grabbed me. One was bald and had a Colonel Sanders goatee. The other had hair down to his ass and wore a maroon turtleneck under his suit coat.
I sat down across from the girl. She had no reaction to my presence. She was in her late twenties, early thirties maybe, but her outfit was that of a schoolgirl. A frilly white blouse with a huge black bow at the collar. I turned to Olga Fleming.
"I'm taking her out of here with me and I'll kill anyone who tries to stop me," I said.
This time, I saw Fleming's smile. The corners of her face bent and cracked. Her eyes became slits. Her heavily applied crimson lipstick was like a smear of blood where her mouth should've been.
"She's mine," Fleming said. "She's been mine for a long time now. I'll die before I give her up."
The girl still hadn't moved. I tried to catch her eye but her stare was a glassy one. No one was home.
The two bodyguards had taken up positions near the window. They were half-turned toward it so as not to attract attention. And they were half-turned toward me in case I suddenly got the urge to kick Olga in the face a couple of times. As if it would make any difference.
"How did you find me?" Fleming said.
"I got one of your girls to give up the name of your accountant. Accountants are easy. He told me right where you like to dine."
Fleming seemed pleased by the mental picture she was creating. Then her expression turned back to business.
"We're flying to London tonight," she said. "Then on to Switzerland. No one in this country will ever see Valerie or I again."
"You're half right," I said.
When I said it, one of the guards, Goatee, moved a step closer. Both he and Hair-Down-To-His-Ass were glaring at me. I tried to keep from fainting.
"I know something about you," Fleming said. "I know that both your son and your daughter disappeared when they were very young."
I felt the bile rise in my throat.
"Is that the reason you chase around rescuing all those lost little boys and girls?" Fleming said. "Are you just looking for your own missing children?"
I kept my entire body squeezed tight. I couldn't afford to show anything to this witch.
"Do you think you'll ever find them?" Fleming said. "Is that why you do what you do?"
I did my best to show nothing.
"Maybe you're better off not finding them," she said. "Maybe then you can at least keep the hope alive."
I saw myself going for her throat, tearing it out with my bare teeth. I showed nothing. I concentrated on the girl. As I glanced beneath the table, I saw that her ankles were handcuffed together. I'd have to carry her out. What would the other patrons make of that?
"I imagine you have a gun," Fleming said. "I imagine you're thinking about using it."
"The girl isn't yours," I said. "She used to have a real home. And a family who cared for her. You took her away from that."
"That was nine years ago," Fleming said. "Long forgotten. No one can care for her like I can."
"Because you're her mother?"
For the first time, I saw Fleming falter. It was just a twinge in the corner of her eye, but it was there. I had an opening.
"How did she react when she found out her mom used to be a junkie scumbag cracked-out whore? Did you break it to her gently over tea? Two-dollar blow jobs in the back seat of a burnt out Chevy -- you've certainly worked your way up the ladder," I said.
The corners of her mouth deepened. The bodyguards were just waiting for the signal to pounce. "Valerie is all I have ever wanted," Fleming said. "To make a life for her. A life I never had."
"How many of your girls died to make this life?" I said. "How many have you sacrificed to finally be able to afford your escape?"
"I would've sacrificed them all," Fleming said. "They were not my daughters."
Again, I waited for the girl's reaction. Again, she had none. Her dinner had gotten cold. Her expression even more so.
"Boy, you've got that delicate mother's touch," I said. "I can see why Valerie's so responsive to it."
"Valerie," Fleming said, "is well-behaved. Well-mannered. Ladylike."
"It used to be you'd choke a rat for his crumb of bread," I said. "You're dressed up now, but on the inside you're still gutter-dwelling filth. And that's all you'll ever be."
Fleming's cheeks were as crimson as her lipstick. Her small pearl-beaded purse sat on the table before her, pointed in my direction. Fleming began to reach into it. Suddenly, Valerie raised her head and said, "No." It was a quiet empty echo of a word. "No," she said again, a bit louder. "That's not true."
Fleming and I stared at her, waiting for more. It was slow in coming, but she got the words out at last. "She's not filth," Valerie said. "She's just ... sad on the inside. All the time."
"You hush now, Valerie. I'm taking you away from here."
"She doesn't mean to be," Valerie said. "She doesn't mean to hurt me."
Fleming nodded to the bodyguards. They came and stood on either side of me at the table.
"Do you remember," I said, "the people you used to live with, Valerie? Do you remember the home they gave you when you were young?"
"They never came looking for me," Valerie said.
"Because they didn't know," I said. "Olga lied to them. She left a note saying you had run away. She made them think you had written it."
Her eyes were beginning to water. She kept her hands folded neatly in her lap.
"They still should've looked," Valerie said.
"They did," I said. "For nine years, they've been looking."
She began to cry. Except for the tears running down her face, the rest of her was still. "Take me away," she said.
I hit one of the guards, Goatee, with an elbow to the rib cage. As he doubled over, I grabbed a plate off the table and smashed it over the other guard's head. Hair-Down-To-His-Ass still had fragments of the plate stuck in his hair as he grabbed me in a bear hug from behind and squeezed for all he was worth. I was vaguely aware of the restaurant's patrons scattering every which way but I couldn't tell why. Then I saw that Fleming had her gun out. It was a Ladysmith, tucked in her purse. She fired it at my head. The guard and I went over backward and his grip loosened and I shook free and scrambled for cover.
As I glanced at Hair-Down-To-His-Ass, I saw that he had a bullet hole in his forehead. Goatee had his gun out now and aimed in my direction. I shot him twice in the midsection and he fell backward onto Fleming's table and overturned it. Fleming got out of the way but Valerie was caught by the table and knocked over backward. The cuffs on her ankles kept her from regaining her balance. Fleming still had her gun trained on me. She fired. The bullet hit the window over my shoulder and splintered it like a windshield. I took cover behind another overturned table. I drew a bead on Fleming but she crouched behind Valerie and I couldn't take the shot. She fired at me twice more, taking a chunk out of the table and further splintering the glass behind me.
Fleming got Valerie under the arm and pulled her up. Valerie was terrified and in shock.
Fleming worked her like a puppet. She pushed her one step at a time in my direction, staying behind her as she did, never giving me an opening. Several times Valerie nearly stumbled because of the cuffs on her ankles. Her white blouse had blood speckled all across the front of it. She was crying and shaking her head and cowering as her mother pushed her forward. Fleming was close enough now so that she wouldn't miss. She raised the gun past Valerie's shoulder and Valerie turned her head and bit down on Fleming's wrist. The gun fired wild into the ceiling. Fleming made a fist and smashed it against the back of Valerie's head. Once. Twice. Valerie's teeth had drawn blood. Fleming dropped the gun and hit Valerie a third time on the back of her head. Valerie crumpled to the floor. I was on my feet and moving toward Fleming when she bent and picked up the gun. I got hold of her by the throat and lifted her and threw her as hard as I could away from Valerie. Fleming sailed briefly through the air then hit the window with her back and cracked it where it had been weakened and kept on sailing right through the glass, plummeting to the street far below.
The restaurant was still spinning slowly on its axis. I felt dizzy all of a sudden. I looked around. Everyone was gone. I heard multiple sirens approaching. I went to Valerie. She was groggy but still conscious. I lifted her in my arms and moved toward the lobby. It was like walking on a carousel. No wonder every shot had missed.
As we stepped off the dining room platform, Valerie opened her eyes and looked up at me. "I want to go home," she said. "I want my mommy."
Damned if I knew which one she meant.
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).
Artistic Value, for Better or Worse
5 hours ago