This story is by Christina Krieger and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There were few luxuries in the world Phil desired above all else, save for the joy and satisfaction that came from reuniting a torn-apart family. It was his purpose, it was his destiny, and it had been a desert in a drought for the last eighteen months.
Phil strode into the crowded cafe, acutely aware of the intimidated stares he was receiving from the other customers. His height, broad shoulders and terminator stare were enough to unnerve even the unwaveringly confident.
He spotted his prospective client right away, even though they had never met. Standing in the corner, obviously uncomfortable, the man’s eyes were puffy, his cheeks sunken, and his clothes hung loosely around his frail frame. The unmistakable mark of a man in the worst season of his life.
“Steve?” Phil said, walking up to him.
The man reached out his hand. “Yes, that’s me. You must be Phil, the P.I.?”
“The one and only. Come, have a seat and let’s chat.”
Phil ordered them some coffee, mainly so Steve could have something to do with his hands. In Phil’s experience, people often had an easier time opening up if they had something to fiddle with.
Steve shifted in his seat a couple times. “My wife and I had been having some problems. Well, to be completely honest, she had an affair. He wasn’t in the picture anymore, so I thought we were dong okay until she asked if she could take our daughter to France to visit her parents. She’s a French citizen, you see. I didn’t feel comfortable with it, but agreed, nonetheless. During a phone conversation, she told me they wouldn’t be returning, and I would not be allowed to see our daughter unless I agreed to give her full custody.”
Phil lifted his hand to interject. “And I’m assuming that’s not an option? Otherwise, you wouldn’t need a private investigator like me.”
“Correct. I don’t even know if she’s still with her parents. She could be somewhere else, heck, she could be back with her boyfriend, for all I know.”
Parental kidnappings had become a growing problem, a story Phil had heard many times over—a couple’s marriage falls apart. One parent, usually of foreign nationality, kidnaps their child and hides him or her away in another country. The other parent is left in shambles with no way to locate or speak to their child. And to add insult to injury, the government does nothing about it. The recent ratification of The Hague Convention helped marginally to determine a child’s place of habitual residence, but no real system was in place yet to give the left-behind parent a way to enforce it. Enter Phil Beaman, Private Eye Extraordinaire.
“So, you heard about me in that issue of Parenting Magazine?” Phil said.
Steve took a sip of his coffee. “Yes, I read that story about how you helped a woman track down her ex-husband who had kidnapped their son and hid him in Italy. The way you located them, obtained her son and brought him back to his home here in the U.S…. It was inspiring. Gave me hope that this might not be a lost cause. Made me realize I’m not alone in this.”
Phil knew the article all too well. It painted him as the hero, the good guy, the masked crusader who could find anyone and swoop in to save them from the villain. These days, however, Phil felt more like a fraud than a hero. What should have been a triumph, showcasing his abilities to the world—not to mention the free advertising—only served as a reminder of all the cases he couldn’t close, all the children he couldn’t rescue. Like his most recent in a long line of failures: a son taken by his well-connected father. Phil had finally found where he was keeping the boy. He found the boy, found his bruises, found it all. But it didn’t matter. The man was untouchable. You name it, he had it—friends on the force, dirt on the judge, everything he needed to keep his wife from getting custody. And without legal custody, there was little Phil could do. He was trapped on this sick carousel, and those children he couldn’t save kept coming back around to haunt him.
But if he could just get a win, if he could just break the losing streak and find a case he could actually solve. More importantly, find a family he could actually help…
“Assuming we can find her,” Steve said, fiddling with his coffee cup, “do you really think we can get my daughter back to the States? I’ve tried contacting the State Department and everything, but no one is able to help me.”
Phil’s voice never wavered, nor did he stumble over his words. Rather, he grew still and looked Steve dead in the eyes. “Yes, I do believe we can get your daughter back. I’ve been doing this for a long time. Before starting my business, I was a police officer. I saw far too many broken families, and when I retired, I felt I had to do something about it. Now, it’s became the primary focus of my career. I get to rejoin parents with their children and see their faces when they’re reunited. This isn’t just a job for me. I’m not saying it will be easy, but I do believe I can help you.”
Steve released a heavy sigh and leaned back in his seat. “You have no idea how good it is to hear you say that.”
“Do you have custody of your daughter?”
“The divorce hearing is set for next month. My wife hasn’t responded to any of the summons, so assuming she doesn’t show, I would be awarded custody be default. But that does little to actually get her back… That’s where you come in.”
“Good, because without custody, things get messy. Now, for the awkward part. My typical fee for a case like yours starts around fifty thousand.”
Steve nearly choked. “Dollars?”
He didn’t have the money. Phil knew as much without having to be told.
A motionless silence stretched on until Steve finally made a move to stand. “Well, thank you for meeting me. Realistically, I just don’t see how this will work. I’m sorry I wasted your time.”
Phil watched him turn and sulk away, leaving a heavy emptiness in his wake. What if this was it? The case he needed to end the drought, to end the losing streak… and it was headed out the door.
“Hold up,” Phil said, and motioned for Steve to return. “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to do this one for nothing. If you can pay my expenses, I won’t charge you a dime.”
Steve just stood there, motionless, speechless. Then, without a word, pulled Phil into a bearhug. “I don’t know what to say, except, thank you.”
Phil waited for Steve to pull away. “I never do this. There’s just something about you and about your story. I was compelled to help. Honestly, my heart broke to see you leave.”
As Steve and Phil made their plans for the next steps, Phil couldn’t help but wonder at the outcome. And not just to wonder, but to hope. Was this the client he had been waiting for? What if he really could help him? What if he really could play the hero everyone thought him to be? Maybe they would find his daughter. Maybe they would fly around the world and pull a James Bond-style rescue. Maybe they would be reunited, return home, and Steve and his daughter could move forward with their lives.
And maybe, just maybe, Phil could too.