The Case of the Missing Princess
By Patrick Ross
This story has been selected to appear in an upcoming print issue of The Guilded Pen, an anthology of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry.
Grief disguises itself in Mrs. Fairchild’s redesigned face, hiding behind skin presumably stretched tight by one of Southern California’s finest plastic surgeons. Her taut mouth appears incapable of smiling, not that she’s trying right now. Eyes water yet maintain a fixed, catlike stare. Despite her reconstruction, the pain she feels is palpable. Real. I want her to hire me to find her missing daughter so I can help ease that pain. I also really need the work. She’d be my first client in months, and if I solved the case other clients might follow. I glance at my landlord’s past due notice, gathering dust on my desk in its unopened envelope.
“Why don’t you start with a physical description,” I say, pen hovering over paper.
“Of course,” Mrs. Fairchild says. What she provides isn’t much help. Long, sandy brown hair. Small nose. Average height. Brown eyes. Clean teeth.
“Clean teeth, you say.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Diamond, Mort and I provide Princess the finest dental care.”
I underline clean teeth in my notes. “I thought you said her name was Annabelle.”
“We call her Princess.” Mrs. Fairchild removes a handkerchief from her designer purse and dabs at the corner of a blue-gray eye. “It’s been two days. Two days!”
“I know this is hard, Mrs. Fairchild. Did you go to the police?”
“The police!” Her voice grows louder. If any other tenants were on the floor of this rundown East Village office building, they surely would have heard her. She forms air quotes with her fingers. “‘I’m sure she’ll come home eventually.’ They’re worthless.”
“Cops are the worst,” I agree. Detective novels tell you cops and private eyes are always at odds, but in the end the outsmarted cops are grateful for the detective’s clever heroics. I’ve never detected any gratitude, let alone respect, from San Diego’s Finest. “If you hire me, I’ll do nothing but look for your Princess.”
“Oh, thank you,” she manages. Now the waterworks start.
As she gets busy with her handkerchief, quickly blackening with mascara, I pull a vape pen from a side drawer. She raises a perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Do you mind?” I ask. She hesitates, then shakes her head. “Super. When and where did you last see her?”
After a minute, she composes herself. Two days ago, Mrs. Fairchild left the house to attend a La Jolla community meeting. She’s part of a group trying to persuade the City of San Diego to forcibly remove a bunch of seals and sea lions from their beach. I savor the bubble-gum flavor of my vape stick as I consider the very different worlds Mrs. Fairchild and I live in. She returned home around midday Monday. The maid had come and gone. Apparently, Princess had as well.
I put down the vape pen. “Do you think the maid was involved?”
Mrs. Fairchild tilts her head. “In what way?”
“Well, you brought her up, so… maybe a kidnapping? You could probably pay quite a ransom.”
A hand flies up and covers her mouth. She fails to suppress a gasp. “Do you think that’s possible? I’ve been hoping she just ran away. But oh my, the thought of her with a kidnapper! I just can’t.”
I rise and walk around in front of my desk, leaning back against it. I’m tempted to take Mrs. Fairchild’s hand in mine. Instead, I lean in and lower my voice. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Fairchild.”
“Constance. My name. Mrs. Fairchild seems far too formal when talking about… all this.”
“Got it. Constance,” I say, keeping my voice soft. “You can call me Don. I’m sure Princess is okay. More than okay. In the meantime, I should talk to the maid.”
“Yes.” Constance looks up, her face glowing with trust. Color has returned to her cheeks. Up close, I can really admire the artistry of her facial work. The eyes are pulled back a bit too unnaturally, but her cheekbones display remarkable definition. I return to my chair, confident I’m about to be hired. I fill her in on my daily rate, what I will expense, and how much I will need upfront.
“No,” Constance says as she stands. She removes a wallet from her purse and counts fifteen $100 bills on my desk. I wait a moment before picking them up to savor how good they look there, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for my chipped, aging pine desk to have that much cash on it. “Consider that an advance on the reward I’m offering.” She states the dollar amount. I see her words in my head in the form of digits. So many zeroes.
“It’s a deal,” I say.
“You have my address, Mr. Diamond. Sorry, Don. Come by at ten am tomorrow morning and you can speak with Marisol.” She heads to the door.
“Constance,” I call out. “I need a bit more to go on. A photo of your daughter would help.”
She turns. “Daughter? Well, I guess Mort and I do think of her as one. That Pekinese show dog is the love of our lives.”
Marisol refuses to make eye contact as I question her. Perhaps the young woman just loves her work so much she can’t tolerate my interruption. I suspect it’s more than that.
“Let me ask one more time,” I say, trying not to be distracted by the sweeping view of ocean and sea bluffs from Constance Fairchild’s sprawling La Jolla home. “Did you see Princess when you were here Monday morning?”
She keeps her back to me as she stretches up from a two-step ladder, just managing to reach the top of a high-mounted picture frame with a cloth. I’m not sure I’ve ever dusted the top of a picture frame. “I already told you,” Marisol snaps. “No.”
“Are you sure?”
Marisol turns around slowly. She has no need for surgical enhancements. Her full red lips press together, some of the color draining from them. Perfectly trimmed eyebrows menacingly arch. Large brown saucer eyes lock onto me like a bird of prey. “Mr. Diamond, I am very sure,” she says, drawing out the words.
“Thank you, Marisol,” Constance says from behind me. “We’ll let you get back to your work.”
I wanted more from this interview. I spent much of last night wandering the streets of La Jolla in a fruitless search for Princess. Constance had texted me a photo of her, a perfectly groomed Pekinese sitting in front of a massive show win trophy. I approached everyone I saw and handed them flyers I had made. Unfortunately, they were in black and white, given my printer’s expensive color toner cartridge gave out months ago and I haven’t replaced it. Still, Princess’ face is black, so I think they turned out okay. Rich folks don’t like being approached by someone who looks like me, as in not rich, so I was pleasantly surprised that I was only stopped and questioned by the cops once. They let me keep my vape pen.
“I’m sorry Marisol wasn’t much help,” Constance says as she puts a hand on my forearm. She begins leading me out of her ocean view great room. My gaze passes over a crate containing the maid’s cleaning products. I recognize the brand on one of the bottles, a large black jug with a white label on one side.
“Where do you buy Alwayz-Cleen? They don’t sell it in stores.”
“Wholesale,” Marisol says. “I know somebody who works at the warehouse.”
Constance and I reach her front double doors, dark smoked glass adorned with a flock of pelicans in flight. “Mrs. Fairchild,” I say, reverting to her formal name, “I believe I know where to find Princess.”
As I wait outside the three-story cinderblock warehouse, I take a deep drag on the vape pen, letting the sensation of inhaled bubble gum flavor wash through me. As much as I try to forget her, something always brings her back into my mind. Now it’s this case.
I thought Lola and I had something special together. My private eye work wasn’t making it rain. Still, we found ways to bring in money. I did gig work like driving for rideshare apps. She cleaned Mission Beach vacation rentals. The owner of one of the largest properties insisted Lola use Alwayz-Cleen. We looked all over San Diego and couldn’t find it anywhere. Lola was a problem solver. She went to the warehouse south of town in National City, and the next thing you know they recruited her to sell the stuff. I told her it’s gotta be a scam, they’re going to make you buy enough of the crap to fill our cramped one-bedroom apartment. But it wasn’t like that. I never even saw her with any of those black bottles. She apparently sold the hell out of them, though, because pretty soon she was rolling in dough. I could feel her pulling away.
One night I left the office early—not hard to do as I didn’t have a case—and set up a romantic dinner, the whole nine yards, flowers, candles, soft music, and Chicken Pad Thai from her favorite takeout joint. She never came home that night. Turned out she got busted for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. I had no idea she did drugs, not even pot. Lola didn’t call me to bail her out of jail. One of her Alwayz-Cleen gang did that. She moved out the next day. I begged her to stay, told her I’d help her get treatment. All she said was that for a private investigator I really sucked at seeing what was right in front of me.
The warehouse reeks of vinegar. The scent does not combine well with bubble gum. Nearly every window has been painted over, four tall metal garage bay doors rest closed, and there’s no indication of any main entrance.
A white delivery van turns past me. The garage door on the far left rises as the van approaches it. I duck behind the vehicle, trailing after it while hoping the driver doesn’t look in the rear-view mirror. Then I dart to the side of a large cargo bay and slide behind boxes resting on pallets near a cinderblock wall. Several other vans are parked inside. One has its rear doors open and two men are loading boxes in it, all too small to fit Alwayz-Cleen bottles. People zip back and forth with determination and purpose.
Careful to keep out of sight, I creep along the wall behind piles of boxes. Another room comes into view beyond the garage bay, some sort of laboratory that doesn’t look very sanitary. Two guys are loading what resemble salt crystals into small bags. Maybe that’s the secret ingredient they use in Alwayz-Cleen. All I know is that once Lola started using the product, she went wrong. I’m guessing something similar happened with Mrs. Fairchild’s maid.
There’s no sign of Princess in the lab. I slide along further and reach a closed door with a numbered keypad mounted beside it. The door opens towards me, and I slide between two pallets. A young man with a shaved head and a tattoo of a snake coiled around his neck emerges. He heads toward the van that’s just arrived. I dart out and grab the door handle just before it closes. Snake Man isn’t looking my way. I find myself in a long, white corridor on the other side of the door.
Only now do I realize how much noise I had been hearing in the bay. All is silent except for the overhead hum of exposed fluorescent bulbs. Doors line the walls to my left and right. Most lie open, exposing offices with empty desks and barren bookcases. The furniture all looks like it was bought at the bankruptcy sale of a company that never really got off the ground. None of the offices are occupied.
The third door on the right is closed. Pressing an ear to the door reveals no sound, so I open it. There is one difference with the layout. Next to a bent leg of this office’s desk rests a dark green dog bed. The deep brown eyes of a Pekinese stare up at me.
I’ve never been good with dogs. They don’t seem to like me, so I’ve come to not like them. I approach cautiously and tell Princess I’m her friend here to reunite her with Constance Fairchild. The dog’s eyes track my movement without expression. I bend down slowly and place my hands around her. She offers no resistance. I lift her up and hold her to my chest. “There you go, good dog,” I say.
An unfamiliar feeling washes over me. It takes me a minute to recognize it. Joy. No, not that. Hope for a better future. It turns out I really am cut out to be a private detective.
Cold metal presses against the back of my head. The unmistakable sound of a bullet being loaded into a pistol’s chamber echoes behind me. I’d raise my hands, but I’m holding a dog.
After securing my wrists, ankles and chest to a metal chair, someone removes the blindfold. I find myself in an office twice the size of the others yet equally unadorned. A rather modest-sized middle-aged man stares at me across a bare desk. His mustache and beard are thin and bald in spots. He’s holding a pistol, as is the man with the snake tattoo standing behind him. A third well-muscled figure next to Snake Man grips Princess so tight I fear she’ll be squashed.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you,” the bearded man behind the desk says.
I can think of lots of reasons why. I’ve never ziplined in Costa Rica. I’ve never spearfished in Cabo San Lucas. Despite being born and raised in San Diego, I’ve never learned to surf. None of those arguments are likely to carry much weight. “You might make a mess. You’ll have to dispose of my body. Every day you’ll wonder if the cops will find out.”
The man picks up my P.I. badge from the desk, where it’s been resting next to my vape pen. “Oh yeah, because cops just love private dicks. They’ll search the ends of the Earth for your killer.” His voice rises as he says killer, and I expect it to break like that of an excited teenager. His sarcasm is well-placed. I try a different tack.
“People know I’m here.”
He drops the badge, sits back, and crosses his arms across his narrow chest. “Who?”
“If I tell you that, you’ll kill them, too.”
“Maybe,” he says. “Let me guess. That rich lady in La Jolla, the mutt’s owner.”
“I believe Princess is purebred,” I say, trying to project bravery, “and you don’t need to say rich when referring to someone from La Jolla. That’s kind of implied.”
My abductor stands and walks around the desk until he’s directly in front of me. He lifts a hand like he’s about to slap my face. I’m struck by how well-manicured his nails are. “Okay, wiseass, you seem to know a lot about the dog. Is that really why you’re here?”
“Yes. Constance Fairchild hired me to find her missing show dog. I had just pulled that off when someone put a gun to my head.”
“How do you know that dog is the one you’re looking for?”
“Why don’t you google Princess and Constance Fairchild? I suspect some photos from a show will come up. We can compare.”
The man’s eyes narrow. I can barely see his black pupils burning into me below thick eyebrows. “How did you know the dog was here?” He raises a hand again before I can answer. I stay silent. “Marisol. Dios mío, she’s a handful. Why can’t I have a normal girlfriend, one not always trying to come up with her own cons?”
I was right about Marisol being the kidnapper. And I guessed correctly she was hiding the dog here. What I didn’t know was her connection to the place beyond using their product. She’s dating the Alwayz-Cleen CEO.
We sit in silence for a minute or so. Snake Man shifts from one foot to another. The other stares longingly at the door behind me as if he’s got better things to do. I consider making another plea for my life but think better of it. The boss is working his mind through something. I let him.
Finally, he leans forward and speaks into my left ear. I feel a bit of spittle. “Okay, here’s the deal, Diamond. You take the dog back to the rich lady, collect the reward, and give all the money to Marisol.”
That’s bullshit. The reward is the only payout I’m getting from this job. Marisol will probably even demand my advance. Still, I’m not in much of a bargaining position here, and if I’m taking the dog to Constance that means I’m still alive. “Deal.”
He leans back against the desk and tilts his head. “What did you see here? In our warehouse?”
“Nothing, just some vans and boxes. You worried I saw how you make Alwayz-Cleen?”
A smile forms across his face. “Yes, that’s it. Our top-secret formula. Would be the end of us if it got out.”
“Jefe, it’s mostly vinegar and water,” Snake Man says. He steps back under the withering glare of his boss.
“I don’t get it,” I ask. “How come I can’t buy it in stores?”
The narrow eyes turn back to me. “Going retail would be premature. We couldn’t handle that level of production.”
“Maybe you could get an investment on that TV show with the sharks, you know, to build a new factory.”
Laughter ripples through the boss. “You crack me up, Diamond.” He reaches back and retrieves my badge. “You’re leaving now, and the shitty dog too. We’ll make sure you don’t see anything on the way out.”
I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “Thank you,” I manage. “Can I also have my vape pen back?”
Things move fast after that. Restraints unbuckled. Badge and vape pen returned. Kerchief tied over my eyes. Dog placed in my arms. I hear the jefe is still with us as he tells me not to try anything funny.
“Can I have some Alwayz-Cleen to go? I’ve always been curious about it.”
Another laugh. “P.I.’s a chemist, wants to reverse engineer our trade secret.”
A door opens. Sounds strike me. Motorized hums I assume involve a conveyer belt. Several voices, most speaking in Spanish, one in English saying something about “highest grade.” That must refer to a top-of-the-line cleaning product.
As I walk, I find Princess’ head with my right hand and give her a little pat, then a rub under the neck. This will be fine. I’m out the reward money, but I’m still Don Diamond, Private Eye, and I solved The Case of the Missing Princess. Constance Fairchild will be thrilled. She’ll tell all her friends, some of whom may need a private detective and all of whom will be able to pay handsomely. If only Lola and I were on speaking terms. I could tell her she was wrong about me. I’ve found my new beginning.
A shrill beep sounds just to my left. I suspect it’s the warning signal of a vehicle backing up, possibly a forklift. Princess squirms. Her hind legs press against my chest. I feel for her collar, but I’m too late. She flies out of my arms.
“Hey! Get that little shit!” the boss yells behind me.
I decide he means me. Sure, I’ll see his factory floor. He’ll have to live with that. After all, what do private eyes do? We eye things. I reach up for the blindfold. A quick peek won’t kill me.