The stairs groaned as they announced the presence of a new client. Jim Harris followed the client’s progress up to the corridor, along it and finally the halt just outside his door. A long pause, through the frosted glass he could see a shape, tall and wide, apparently reading the lettering on his door. ‘J. HARRIS. PRIVATE DETECTIVE.’ Still no movement as a final decision was made. Jim got bored with the wait and poured himself a shot of whisky, it was 10am and he figured he deserved one for making it this far into the day. Finally a shrug and a decisive knock announced the decision and a new client. Jim slid the whisky out of sight behind a teetering pile of dusty old case files.
“Come in,” Jim’s voice was suitably gravelly; he’d practiced that voice for a long time. The door creaked as it opened and Jim breathed a sigh of relief, the shape was revealed to be a man. A mountain of a man to be sure but just a man, the idea of a woman that immense sent shivers of a wanted-to-be-forgotten memory down Jim’s spine.
“Do you find people?” Worry made the man abrupt, verging on rude. The question asked before he’d made it two paces into the office.
“Sometimes, depends on if they want to be found and why people are looking.” Jim didn’t bother with reassurance; he hadn’t been hired or paid yet.
“Can you find my daughter?” The man made it to the desk and stood twisting his hands nervously. Jim made a snap deduction based on the white jacket and trousers and the floury arms.
“Why would I want to find the Baker’s daughter?”
“Because she’s missing, she’s been called up, someone needs her. She didn’t want to do it, said she just wanted to be left alone to do her own thing, not forced into some role or other. She didn’t want to be any kind of heroine and so she’s gone. They’re waiting for her; they’ve a Monday deadline so she’s wanted urgently.” The Baker fell over his words in his hurry to explain.
“How long has she been gone?”
“And you come to me now, when the trail’s cold and it will be even harder to find her? Why’d you wait so long?”
“I thought she’d come back, that’s she’d come to her senses, realise that one or other of the roles would suit her. It’s nearly too late now. Can you find her? Please?” Then he uttered the magic words, “I can pay.” Jim considered the case, then the fee he could charge.
“Sure I’ll take the case. Not much would happen if I didn’t, still it had better not end up being one of those cases where I end up being redeemed by the love of a good woman. I hate those, it takes me ages to shake off the woman and then I have to get all my clothes properly rumpled again. Then there’s the office to get back into shape; files, whisky bottles and dust don’t just arrange themselves you know. I really hate redemption cases.”
“No, no I’m sure my daughter won’t try and redeem you but please, please find her.”
“OK, OK what clue are you going to give me?”
“What?” The Baker looked completely bewildered. Jim shook his head at the man’s ignorance.
“You’ve got to give me the obscure clue; it lets me figure out where to start looking. Something you don’t know you know or haven’t realised the significance of. A clue.” Jim waited impatiently; he was fed up with being sent characters who didn’t know their roles.
“Oh yes of course, sorry this is my first time, bakers don’t use private eyes very often. Obscure clue, obscure clue, now what was it again?” The Baker strummed his fingers against the desk as he tried to recall the possible clue. “I’ve got it. I’m to mention that I am very busy baking at the moment because the Prince is meeting a Princess who is a prospective bride. My daughter was supposed to help me. Oh and rumour has it that there have been several comic misunderstandings between the Prince and Princess so that the match isn’t looking to promising at the moment. There is that OK? Was that right?”
“It’ll do, I’ll be off to the palace then.” Jim managed to get rid of the Baker and grabbed his fedora; he placed it at the required angle and stumped up to the castle. Mysteriously all the castle guards were looking the other way or were strangely distracted as he approached and entered the castle. ‘One of these days I’m going to make one of these guys notice me and see then see what happens’ he muttered as he wandered around trying to find the Prince. Eventually bored, he cornered an oddly incurious page and got directions to the Prince. By some fortunate coincidence the Princess was with the Prince. Unsurprisingly the atmosphere between the two was as strained as rumour suggested. ‘So much for comic misunderstandings,’ Jim thought as he nodded his head to the Prince.
“Your Highness, I’m looking for the Baker’s Daughter, from information given by her father and knowing how these things work she’s supposed to be here, right? Anyway to cut a long boring scene short if you’ll just give me your piece of seemingly irrelevant information I’ll get on and you two can get on with whatever it was you were supposed to be doing.”
“Whatever we were supposed to be doing?” The Princess was not happy. “How are we supposed to get on with anything if we don’t have a best friend/confidant to help us resolve our comic misunderstandings?” She demanded.
“She’s supposed to help us discover our shared love of baking and through that everything else we have in common.” snapped the Prince. “What are we to do without her? We’re stuck here in limbo.” Jim sighed disgusted, they knew what was supposed to happen, why didn’t they sort it out themselves? Idiots. He thought fast.
“Send for the Baker; get him in as father figure to you both. Now can I have the seemingly irrelevant information?”
“The father figure, it might just work.” they whooped in unison.
“Page,” shouted the Prince, “get me the Baker and quickly.” The incurious page left the room almost before he entered it and took off at a run for the bakery.
“Thank you, thank you,” sighed the Princess, “now we can move on and get to the happily ever after bit. However can we repay you?”
“The irrelevant information that I need to find the Baker’s Daughter?” unimpressed by the eager thanks Jim reminded them yet again of what he had come for. The incurious page entered the room again.
“Your Highness, the Baker is on his way and there is a delegation here to see you. A Wicked Stepmother has forced her husband to abandon his two children in the forest. They want you to organise a search party.”
“Don’t worry,” interrupted Jim, “that sounds like my irrelevant information. I’ll sort it.” He left the room and the castle reflecting that a trench coat and fedora were not the ideal costume to go traipsing around the forest in. At the edge of the forest, that was luckily, very close to the castle, he hunted around for the sign that would lead him to the kids. Finally he found it; a trail of birds that were stuffed too full on breadcrumbs to be able to fly. Sighing at the absurdity of it he entered the forest. Eventually after tracking through long, wet grass, deep bogs and extra prickly thorn bushes he reached his destination. The two brats were sitting outside the cottage picking at it disconsolately.
“OK you two, I’m here looking for the Baker’s Daughter, which one of you luckily just caught a glimpse of her leaving and can tell me where I should go next?”
“She shouldn’t have gone anywhere,” grumbled the girl. “She was supposed to stay here and try to trap us.”
“Yeah? Well she’s the Baker’s Daughter, not the witch, which way did she go?”
“She told us to help ourselves when we arrived, gave us the key and then upped and left, she’s not supposed to do that. Even the oven isn’t big enough, what was she doing?” grizzled the boy.
“Trying to avoid stupid clichés and certain death?” suggested Jim, “the direction?”
“Yeah and what are we supposed to do?” demanded the boy.
“Oh for Narrative’s sake, double up your characters. Make your Wicked Stepmother the Wicked Witch; she’s probably been living a secret double life for years. As an added bonus you won’t have to deal with her when you get home. Oh and eat the oven bigger.”
“But the Wicket Stepmother can’t bake,” complained the girl. Jim stifled a curse and instead mumbled something under his breath about being the only one with a brain and common sense.
“Doesn’t matter does it? The Baker’s Daughter has already done that bit for you, now the direction?” Jim forced the comment out between gritted teeth and just about held on to his temper.
“It could work,” said the boy slowly and then he grinned. “She went that way, there’s a small, quaint and rustic village that she would have had to pass through and someone might have seen her there.” Jim left the kids rearranging themselves, the cottage and calling in the Wicked Stepmother. As he passed the gingerbread cottage he pinched a bit of windowsill and ate it as he walked towards the village. ‘Not bad, could use a little more spice’ he thought as he ate. He pondered the case and the characters he had met so far and felt a little more sympathy for the missing character. He realised the direction his thoughts were leading him and ruthlessly suppressed the feeling; he had had it with redemption cases.
Jim’s shoes were hurting and his feet were more than a little damp when he reached the village. Thoroughly fed up he made his way to the village inn and sank into a chair by the fire. It was a beautiful day outside; the sun was shining brightly, making the fire totally unnecessary.
“Atmosphere and a useful plot device?” croaked the Mysterious Old Crone in the chair opposite. “In any country inn it has to be dark, gloomy, there must be lots of tankards, usually some suspicious locals and there’s always a roaring fire.”
“Of course,” agreed Jim. “Obvious really, by the way have you seen the Baker’s Daughter at all? She’s gone missing and I’ve been hired to track her down.”
“No dearie, damn, went narrative on you there. Sorry about that. No I haven’t seen her but the Innkeeper’s Son is a good bet. I think he’s got something going on with someone, could be her.”
“Thanks.” Reluctantly Jim heaved himself to his almost dry feet, the fire might only be atmosphere but it was useful, and made his way over to the Innkeeper’s Son. “Hey, have you seen the Baker’s Daughter? You should have her…” he paused as he combined who he was talking to and the plot devices left to him. “….letter. The letter she left for you when she disappeared?”
“How did you know? Who are you? What do you want with her?” The Innkeeper’s Son was jealously suspicious.
“You can drop the suspicious local/dumped boyfriend act. I’ve been hired to find her by her father; she’s needed for a Monday deadline.”
“Oh right, she was here alright, but now she’s gone, gone and left me with a broken heart.” The Innkeeper’s Son looked as if he was about to burst into tears.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous” snapped Jim.
“All very well for you to say,” snapped back the Innkeeper’s Son, “but I’m supposed to be getting married tomorrow, love between childhood sweethearts and all that.”
“You’ve known the girl five minutes, marry the Candle Maker’s Daughter and get some light in here, or marry the Butcher’s Daughter and get cheap meat. No sod that, marry the Mysterious Old Crone by the fire. She’s bound to have some curse on her that only you can lift and then she’ll turn out to be some kind of young and beautiful Princess. It’s standard. Then if you’re really lucky you’ll probably be found to be some long lost Prince and heir to a kingdom.” From the corner of his eye Jim saw the Mysterious Old Crone wave her thanks.
“Oh yeah, long lost Prince you reckon?” The Innkeeper’s Son eyed the Mysterious Old Crone speculatively, “a curse? I like it.”
“The letter,” Jim reminded him.
“What? Oh yes. Here.” The Innkeeper’s Son hurried over to the fireplace. Jim shook his head and read the letter. ‘Blah, blah, blah, gone to the city, blah, blah, blah, seek fortune, blah, blah, blah.’ ‘Hmmm clever using one plot device to escape another’ Jim felt a burst of admiration, harder to suppress than the sympathy but he managed it, then he left for the city. A horse drawn cart driven by a Friendly Loquacious Farmer took him part of the way then he hitched a lift with a Beautiful Busty Blonde in a Sports Car. ‘Sometimes plot devices have their advantages’ he mused as they drove into the city.
Once in the city he stood on a street corner and decided on his next move. His stomach reminded him that that windowsill while good was not necessarily filling. He made his way to a hot dog seller automatically avoiding the dodgy looking mist atmospherically curling up from vents in the pavement. As he bought his hot dog he studied the situation some more and then shrugged, it was highly probable.
“I’m looking for the Baker’s Daughter, do you know her?” he held out an unidentifiable amount of folding money.
“Baker’s Daughter, yeah sure I know her.” The money disappeared into an apron pocket. Jim wasn’t surprised by the answer, in a city of five million people of course the first person he spoke to would know her. “Yeah she needed some dough, so I told her to try the bank, they were looking for people and maybe she could make her bread there.” Jim winced at the forced puns and headed towards the banking section of the city. He found the right one easily enough; it had to be the ‘Battenberg and Madeira First National Bank’ really. He went in, chose an Insignificant Cashier at random and asked for the Baker’s Daughter, he was immediately shown into the Bank Manager’s office. The Bank Manager leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers as he thought through the possible repercussions of answering Jim’s questions. Eventually though he decided to answer, as Jim had known he would.
“The Baker’s Daughter, yes she was here, we thought she might be useful for something although we weren’t sure what. It was the idea of the Baker’s Daughter making, if I can use the slang expressions, ‘bread’ or ‘dough’. We thought it might have an application somewhere. However she left just disappeared no details of a forwarding address, nothing so we concluded that she wouldn’t be a suitable character for the bank and forgot the whole idea.”
“There was no note, no obscure clue, no direction noted as she left, no seemingly irrelevant information? She wasn’t best friends with an Insignificant Cashier who would know where she went when pressed? Nothing?” demanded Jim.
“No I’m afraid she just vanished.”
“Damn than I guess it must be up to the incredible coincidence then.” Jim shook his head as he shook the Bank Manager’s hand, (Jim didn’t stint on formalities with a Bank Manager, after all they were far more important than mere Princes.) then he left the city and headed back to his office using a fade out to save time.
“I really hate incredible coincidences” he grumbled as he climbed the stairs to his office making sure they didn’t creak and betray his presence. He opened his office door and was not surprised when he saw the beautiful brunette sat behind his desk. “The Baker’s Daughter I presume.” He bowed ironically, something not particularly easy to achieve but worth it if you could pull it off. He managed it very creditably.
“My name is Sarah,” she replied, “aren’t you going to toss your fedora onto the hat stand in a nonchalantly macho fashion?” Jim blinked then recovered.
“Sarah? No I’m not; it’s clichéd and more than a little boring. I’m Jim Harris, what can I do for you?”
“I want out” Sarah said firmly, “the plots they want to use me in are truly awful and the other characters? Please!” So I want out.”
“That’s done anyway. You aren’t needed in any of them anymore” and he explained how all the plot holes had been resolved while looking for her.
“Really? You mean it?” Sarah’s happiness was infectious and Jim found himself unwillingly smiling back at her. “That’s wonderful. I hated the thought of getting caught up in one of those. How can I ever repay you?” Jim reminded himself forcibly of redemption cases and waved her away.
“Forget it!” he said. Sarah surprised him again when she shrugged her assent.
“OK, I could do with a drink to celebrate though” she looked around for the bottle.
“Bottom drawer, glasses in right.” Jim replied laconically, “I guess this isn’t going to be a redemption case after all.”
“Hell no,” Sarah replied as she poured out generous measures of whisky and handed Jim his, “I’ve got plans for my life thank you very much and they don’t include you. Although,” she eyed him speculatively, “how do you feel about one night of passion, then parting with no regrets cases?” Jim smiled and raised his glass.
“Those I’ll drink to.”