Philip Marlboro no longer had a badge or a uniform. He was just another cold, hungry veteran thrown back into civilian life. The Baltimore police couldn’t hire him back and he was too old to retrain. Retrain to do what? Carry a nightstick, fight crime—these were the only things he knew. The only things he wanted to do. I suggested he start his own business. A business he could do. One that was right up his dark back alley. Welcome home, Marlboro. From now on, it would be Philip Marlboro, Private Eye.
Being a private dick came easy to Marlboro. Marlboro could handle it. He set up shop back at his old haunt above the Trailways bus terminal. A small apartment above the call girls, pimps, and winos who hung out waiting for the johns to arrive from Philadelphia. All the johns from Philly had money and were easy marks.
The buses from the eastern shore didn’t bring much trouble. The chicken-neckin’ johns from the eastern shore were all alike; driving across the Bay Bridge was like escaping from the world’s largest penal colony. The toll on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge kept the riff-raff in or out, depending on your perspective. Nothing to get out of the eastern shore but four bucks to get back in. Mostly they headed for the Hippodrome to bet on the mollusk races. Once a month, the bus from Crisfield would bring a load of easy marks for the bivalve races. Life churns slowly on the Delmarva, and betting on your oysters and rooting them on is excitement enough.
Nope, the easy marks came from Philly, down from the Main Line. Philly johns were looking to mainline the Baltimore girls, crack, and worse. The johns from Philly brought the currency that fueled the economy of the Baltimore lowlife. Marlboro took their money too.
Soon the cases piled up. So did the cash. Marlboro dealt only in cash. Your standard missing person brought a couple of C-notes. A cheating husband brought more. “Of course, they’re cheating,” he’d tell them, “you just need the pictures for your divorce lawyer.” He took to pinning the more salacious shots on his wall. “That one looks like my husband,” many a wife would say.
“Save yourself the trouble, take the photograph.”
“It kind of looks like him.”
“The judge won’t know – won’t care. Your husband won’t deny it.”
He took in lots of cash.
He bought himself a new suit. His two-toned wingtips looked like he stole them off Al Capone. His double-breasted suit was hand-tailored by the Korean boxer who worked down the street. The suit fit like a glove, but something in the directions got lost in translation. Someplace between Marlboro’s mumbling and the tailor’s broken English, the stripes flowed east to west instead of north to south.
He didn’t replace his old fedora though—the one he’d bought in France. Now stained and frayed, it was his trademark. His reminder of the time he almost died. Shot because some jilted dame thought he was her no-good double-crossing ex. She saw him out of her left eye, her glass eye. She shot, missing his head by less than an inch. His beloved fedora was wounded, forever marked by a wronged woman.
His last case was an easy one, like the hundred before. She had an ex. She hated him and wanted him dead. Marlboro hated him too, but he wanted her money more. He didn’t hear her come in. She didn’t knock. He didn’t see clients until after two in the afternoon. The morning didn’t exist, and then he needed time to sober up. By three, he’d be sober, but by five, he’d be drinking again. She walked into his office at two—his head still pounding.
His office was small, and it smelled like a distillery. The pictures on the wall were faded, the blinds permanently closed. Still, when she entered the room, the sun broke through. She took off her coat to reveal the shortest, smallest dress he’d ever seen. A postage stamp had more material. Her body was slight but curvy. The kind of curves that signaled ‘danger ahead.’ Instantly, his headache gone, he offered her a chair. Given her dress, sitting was awkward. Marlboro didn’t mind. Noting her discomfort and him ever the gentleman, he handed her a napkin. She tried covering herself. Not much was left to the imagination. Not a paper towel kind of napkin to add to the dress’s lack of real estate, but a cocktail napkin for the iced tea he offered. As I said, Marlboro was, after all, a gentleman.
Sally wanted him to find her lost love. Her ex was in the past, and she was glad he was gone. But, no, it was her true love, her rebound of joy, that had gone missing. The love she cherished. The only true love she’d ever known. She needed her love, whatever the cost. Marlboro was her last hope, her only hope. It seems that a week ago, her love just up and left. No word, no explanation, just gone. “Can you help me?” Her words were difficult to hear. She was crying, her words muffled by her sobs. Not your soft fake cry that other dames did to get a few dollars off Marlboro’s bill. Marlboro always fell for the phony cry; those women got a discount. Unfortunately, for this one, he’d have to charge full price. Honesty will do that.
Marlboro called her Sally. Her name, of course, wasn’t Sally, but he didn’t want to get too close. Close can get you killed in the private eye business. Marlboro pulled his standard missing persons form from his desk. The form lay at the back of the drawer he used to stash his rye—a drawer like all the other drawers. You can never have enough drawers or rye, Marlboro would say.
The top drawer was an exception. That drawer was locked. A long-ago faded picture of his own lost love lay locked away in the top drawer. He only took it out when he needed it. He only took the picture out when he drank too much. He took the picture out most every night. Honesty will do that.
Against his instincts, he and Sally were bonding. Bonding over a lost love. A bond, not like the weak covalent bond you studied back in high school chemistry, but an ionic bond—the deeper kind of bond you learned in physics. Neither of them knew it at the time, but their bond would be all about physics.
A very physical bond.
Moving on to the form, Marlboro tried to get down the basics. Sally was still crying. Tears ran down her cheeks. A small snot bubble blew out of her left nostril. This is not like in the movies, Marlboro thought.
“Hand me a Kleenex,” Sally said.
The stack of missing person forms was a gift he got from the Private Eye Benevolent Foundation. The foundation for retired private eyes. The foundation gave a scholarship to some member’s daughter one year, and she made the forms as a thank you.
Well, anyway, the daughter took the money and went off to one of those liberal arts colleges in the Northeast. The kind of school that pollutes your mind with that me-ness, one-ness, you-ness crap.
The form was a masterpiece in fairness and inclusion. It valued diversity and extolled the virtues of democracy. It sported a flag on the top. A flag with rainbow colors and the slogan “Save the Whales” ran diagonally across the stripes.
|The Kinder, Gentler Missing Person Form
Please describe the missing individualin the greatest detail possible
|N/A too personal
|N/A Confusing and inappropriate given LGBQ+ sensitivities
|N/A aren’t we all humans after all?
|N/A see above
|N/A upsetting for short people
|N/A upsetting to both young and old
|Description of the missing:
|N/A upsetting to ugly people
|N/A see above
Sally completed the form and handed it back to Marlboro.
“Thank you,” he said, “this helps. I’ve got enough to go on. Coffee? Want to get a cup of coffee?”
Sally looked up; her tears now gone. “Yes,” she murmured.
They left his office and walked past the bus depot. Just then, the Crisfield bus full of drunken bloviating bivalve groupies drove by.
Better hurry up. It’s nine pm, and the Delmarva’s in bed by ten. See you next month.
The wind blew, and the rain came down in buckets. Marlboro wrapped Sally beneath his coat. The diner was just two blocks away. She felt safe. She also felt warm and could sense the bulge of Marlboro’s revolver. Things were moving fast in Baltimore that night. Just then, they saw it. It was rounding the corner and moving toward a Philly john with C-notes dripping out of his pockets.
“That damn cat,” Sally said.
“That damn cat left me before it left you,” Marlboro said.
In an instant, the two-timing cat was gone. Looking for a john from Philly’s Main Line.
Marlboro and Sally would shack up and eventually marry.
“We should get a pet.”
“Not a damn cat.”
“How about a dog?”