The Passion

A Major Blaine Romance

In four parts

Part 1 – The Passion:  All the Romance anyone needs.

After years of a lifeless marriage, they had but one fantasy left. Making love on a secluded beach. Living in Iowa presented some obstacles, but they had time. Time was all they had left.

Clifford and Brenda grew up in Iowa. On the side of the state, that’s cold in the winter and hot and humid in the summer. The side just like the other side. The side was flat with nothing but feed corn and soybean fields as far as the eye could see. He was from Dubuque, she from Des Moines. Any closer, and they’d have been related. Clifford grew up tall for his age; then he settled into just being tall. His constitution was solid, and his nervous energy belied his ability to eat twenty or more Snickers bars in one sitting, a highlight of the county fair. Now in his early forties, his six foot four and carries his one hundred twenty-seven pounds like the weathervane planted in every Iowa yard.

Brenda wasn’t homely as a child. Or so her mother says. Not fat but far from slim, yet of steady stock, one capable of plowing six acres before the horse was out of the barn. With her Brenda Lee raised-heel shoes that she got for her seventeenth birthday, she stood five foot four.  

Early in their marriage, they’d tell people that destiny brought them together and God blessed their holy Iowa union. The facts remain, however. When they were sixteen, it wasn’t so much fate as a consequence of the match. Brenda won first prize at the county fair that year. Clifford entered the contest as a joke and the peer pressure of the other boys. Brenda beat all takers that year in the strong arm, best man arm-wrestling contest. Clifford was her trophy.  

Now, a few decades after a quick wrist and bulging biceps brought their love together, they felt alone. They lived together, but Brenda and Clifford had long since drifted apart. Drifting in their marriage like the blowing Iowa snow. Secretly longing for the passion now buried in the mound of snow piled high and left by the plow. Now, the Iowa snowplow of loneliness covered their mailbox of love.

Clifford’s search history was full of long-dormant passion. He was careful to delete it. They shared a single out-of-date computer and almost everything else in their lives. He knew they shared too much when he caught her cleaning the sink drain with his toothbrush. It was over. Little did he know, she had the passion as well. Smoldering, not buried deep, but hidden, right below her ample bosom. Mostly she ignored it. Ignoring her passion like she tried to ignore the bloating she often felt. One too many Iowa biscuits, she thought.  

Then, one day she saw it, his history file still there, a careless mistake. She’d never admit it; she was curious. She had the passion too. Star-crossed lovers. A secluded beach. Come to Jamacia, the ad said. Come to the land of enchantment, lapping waves on a sandy beach—rum drinks with fruit. Just then, she felt it surfacing from under her ample bosom. The bloating took over again. The moment was ruined. Not completely, but temporarily on hold. For now, she had more pressing desires.

Working at the feed store didn’t leave much money after the bills were paid. He managed to save some. He hid it from her. She’d just blow it. Pay the gas bill on time for once. Or maybe buy that toaster oven she’d been eyeing down at Markel’s Five ‘n Dime. Yeah, he hid his money, just like his passion, or so he thought. She hid her money too. Twenty-plus years of buying groceries and picking up the slack for his lack of ambition. An extra nickel here or there. She was the saver of the family. Cutting hair, doing makeup. She had her own business. It didn’t bring in much, but as I said, a nickel here, a nickel there.

What she really liked and the thing she did most often was read the cards. At the time, Tarot cards were frowned upon in Iowa. Many so-called ‘parlors’ were raided by the local police. Raided due to the suspicion of drugs and other such non-Iowa things. Couldn’t have that in our community. But you couldn’t stop Iowa women from wanting her to read their cards. And so it goes, for every local gal who had their hair done, two, sometimes three, wanted to know what the cards had to say. Some came back week after a fruitless week. Truth was, the cards always said the same thing. She was an expert at knowing what the local Iowa women wanted to hear.  

‘Will he leave me?’  ‘When will he leave me?’  ‘Why won’t he leave me?’

But there was another question all these women wanted to know. ‘When the hell am I going to get out of Iowa?’

Next week. The passion builds. . . 

Part 2 – The Passion Builds. . .

And so, he in his world, her in hers. Alone, yet together. The Iowa winters can be cold. An Iowa home without love is like an unlit stove. Full of potential. But potential and the internet can’t keep the Iowa wind from blowing and chilling your bones.

Secretly and ever so slowly, their passion was building. Building like the foundation of an Amish barn. One brick, or dare I say it, one click at a time.

The winter came and went, and the crops were planted, then harvested. Once more, the cycle was completed. Knee-high by the fourth of July was the norm for Iowa corn, but the summer and autumn would see no growth in their love. Their secret passion lay dormant like hordes of buried cicadas. Maybe in seven years, maybe eleven, before the sticky wings of their love would emerge like thousands of pupae yearning to mate.

This winter, there would be no Kevin Costner in her field of dreams, or so she thought. For him, half-forgotten images of their youth filled his dreams. They met at the State Fair twenty long years ago. The arm-wrestling contest was a lark, a dare from friends. It would seal their fate, but that was the following year. They first met the season prior; she had just won second prize for the heaviest sow. He was delivering hay when their eyes met. The job paid seven dollars a day but more than enough to buy her that corn dog and funnel cake she had always cherished. While the eight-hundred-pound pig dined on Fred Quiglinger’s finest alfalfa, the two lovers, mere children that they were, snuck away for a stolen kiss in the night under Iowa stars.  

But working at the feedstore left him little time to daydream. Chickens needed corn, and the hay needed delivering. Promotions had been tough over the years, but still, he was proud to be driving the delivery truck. Well, driving when Charlie Walkensworth was out sick, or it was a weekend, and there was a feedlot emergency. Charlie was a big man, close to three hundred pounds; his left eye was stuck in neutral, not cross-eyed or dead. His left eye just seemed to float and roam about like that big carp in the fishpond down at the feed store. He also reeked of tobacco juice. A bad habit he picked up in the third grade when the pressure of failing Citizenship sent him into therapy at the local Lutheran Church. But still, Big Chuck had seniority; he was also the owner’s son.  

It was bound to happen eventually. The history file was still there, nothing on TV, and he was tired of sitting in the delivery truck’s hot seat, playing second fiddle to reeking Chuck, the lazy owner’s son. She was bored too. The cards were cloudy and didn’t speak; the cards were silent and bleak, just like the winters in Iowa. Just silent, grey, and overcast. She’d had this pain in her stomach all day, and now she was just tired. Tired of feeling like that errant single sock in the damp misty hamper of life. Did she mention it first? Or was it him? No, never him. He’d be too embarrassed. She just didn’t care anymore. 

“Well? Well, are we? Sure. Why not? What did you say? I said, are we ever going to go? Go where? You very well know what I’m talking about! Don’t change the subject. What subject? Really, Clifford. I really don’t know you anymore. Oh, for crying out loud. I had a tough day. A hard day Clifford? A hard day smelling Chuck’s farts?  Sitting on your ass? Yeah, you had a bad day.”

The conversation could have gone on like this for hours. They often did. But for some reason, maybe riding in the cab of that old rundown delivery truck, there was a weakness in the marriage forcefield. The kind of protection that grows around a marriage gone sour. A wall that insulates one from the torment of the other. 

“Well, fine. What the hell? We don’t need a new riding mower this summer anyway. Besides, Jerry and Sheryl’s cow eats most of our grass. See! It’s always about you, Clifford. It’s always about you. I was going to buy the mower for you, he started to say but didn’t. Fine, let’s just go to Jamacia. What the hell. Does it have to be with you? She thought.

Next up: Wings of Passion

airplane corridor back rear view with passengers on plane seats indoor

3. Wings of Passion

The plane ride was miserable. First, you have to drive to Dubuque, catch the shuttle to Des Moines, and then onward to Minneapolis. Minneapolis is where everyone from the Midwest goes flying out of the Midwest. Their ‘economy minus’ tickets offered five inches less legroom than that of the overhead bins, but heck, they already blew most of their savings on the charges for all that extra luggage. No self-respecting Iowan would ever take a trip in the winter, even to Jamacia, without two or three pairs of flannel underwear.  

The lack of legroom forced Clifford to contort his six-foot-four frame into a fetal position. When the snacks came, there was no hope of lowering the tray. The four croutons and a half-ounce of squeeze cheese rested comfortably on his knees. He was miserable, but he’d promised himself to give their marriage one last chance. Passion will do that.

Meanwhile, Brenda had her own problems. While she had plenty of legroom when the farmer in the seat in front of her tilted back, her ample bosoms were pressed up towards her chin. She gained temporary relief when she lowered her own tray. Relief because it forced the farmer’s seat to invert forward. Now her breasts rested comfortably on the tray table, but her arms were pinned hopelessly at her sides. Opening then eating the package of croutons with her teeth was no problem. Opening and sucking the squeeze cheese out of the vacuum-sealed plastic was again no problem. The little cup of diet coke turned out to be a problem. Given the tight quarters, Brenda couldn’t lift her arms. A diet coke now wedged firmly between her two generous mounds. No straw; the coke was now just an inch or two out of reach. Turbulence ensured everything was in constant motion.  

Her breasts jiggled up and down while the diet coke sloshed left and right. She tried to reach the lip of the plastic cup with her teeth, no luck. She tried freeing one arm, no luck. In desperation to get just one sip, she forced her head down just like she was back at the county fair bobbing for apples. A forceful plunge into the small cup of coke. Maybe a bit too forceful. The diet coke went everywhere. While she got a few sips of drink, most of the syrup went up her nose. Before she could raise her head, she sneezed. The sneeze was loud, causing her to exhale violently, breaking the top two buttons of her blouse. The sneeze woke the sleeping infant in the row behind and set him to wailing. It woke Clifford as well. Looking over and now seeing Brenda’s unbridled breasts, he said, “I can’t wait to get to Jamacia, either.”

They landed on time in Minneapolis. The flights from Minnesota to Kingston and on to Ocho Rios were uneventful but long, thus ensuring our Iowa passengers were tired, sore, and hungry. They finally arrived late at night. 

Next up:  The Lapping Waves of Passion.

Part 4 – The Lapping Waves of Passion

The budget resort, which looked promising in the online brochures, looked more like the Travel Lodge on I-80 than a Caribbean getaway. while available and plentiful, didn’t provide food. The brochure said, ‘Every room a suite!’  Upon inspection, it technically qualified as a suite because there was a half wall separating the toilet from the two twin beds.

Clifford and Brenda, now too tired to talk, found a different twin bed and fell fast asleep. Mornings come early in Iowa but not so much in Jamacia. Sleeping in slightly past seven, they had to wait until ten before the diner across from the motel opened for breakfast. The diner would be their eating place morning, noon, and night. The diner served chicken. Eggs for breakfast, chicken fried steak for lunch, and jerk chicken for dinner. To give it a homier feel, before they’re your food, the chickens become your friends. Chickens roam the streets, live in the motel lobby, and even share your beach umbrella. Clifford took to naming the chickens, which didn’t sit well with Brenda. “Maybe you should read their cards,” Clifford said. “The future doesn’t look bright,” Brenda replied. This was the first joke they’d shared in twenty years. “Why’d the chicken cross the road?”  “Stop,” Brenda said.

The beach was a few steps from their room, but it would take a few more hours before they could get there. Brenda had unpacked the various oils, ointments, and lotions she’d carefully packed. Tender Iowa skin burns easily in the hot Jamaican sun. Clifford’s arms and neck were as dark as the immigrants and farm laborers who took all the good Iowa jobs. Arms a golden brown that hid the truth. His pale, anemic bloodless skin had never seen daylight. Dracula couldn’t draw blood from his pasty white frame. Lucky for him, his Iowa underwear covered most of his lanky frame. Brenda was a different problem altogether. 

Brenda had one of those all-year-long tans. The tanning booth in their basement saw to that. For Iowa women who were willing to pay, the tanning booth was a perk after their new bouffant hairdo, courtesy of Brenda’s Cut and Curl. Brenda’s real problem was her bathing suit. Most tops were too small, and most bottoms too big. No fewer than seven different combinations in various sizes were needed to fit Brenda’s unique Iowa frame.

Finally greased up, lathered up, and prodded into their respective attire, they hit the beach. The small beach bar was just some local kid on a bicycle with a cooler. But the rum drinks were cold, and Clifford and Brenda got their own sampling of fruit and a different colored umbrella for stirring. They might have been in heaven. The air was warm, and just as advertised, the waves gently lapped at their feet. The couple, now after so many years, had something to say. And walk and talk they did. First separated, but then slowly, their fingers met. Not quite holding hands, their fingers seemed to glide along one another’s. Not that holding hands was out of the question. Being free from Iowa norms and customs, they were finally able to show public affection so sternly frowned upon on the streets of Cedar Rapids. Caressing fingers was excitement enough; it would have to do. Holding hands was impossible due to the amount of ointment and grease they’d applied. Just when one of them would move in for the grab, the other’s hand would shoot out like the piglet neither of them could tackle at the fair.

Drinks were long gone; they’d walked for hours along the deserted sands and clear waters of their new Caribbean hideaway. Finding their spot, they sat for a rest and . . .  

If the problems began when they sat, they only got worse when they laid down—being so heavily greased caused a myriad of problems. First, both became coated in sand. If their hand touched the sand, it spread. When they looked at their behinds, it was like looking at a coating of flour on raw chicken. Problems continued when they each snuck a peek beneath their respective swimming attire. Clifford found sand in places he was hoping to keep free. Brenda found sand in places. . . Well, let’s just say Brenda found a lot of sand. Realizing any more displays of affection would only lead to chafing, the likes of which were akin to the rubbing and bruising they got back in high school when they hid and canoodled in Uncle Milton’s grain elevator. Nobody wanted to have that memory return. 

Returning to their room well after ten in the evening, three hours past their usual bedtime, they showered. It took a long time to wash the sand from all those hidden places.  

Finally clean and ready for bed, Clifford put on his last clean pair of Iowa underwear. “Maybe Iowa’s not that bad,” he said. “Not if I can be there with you,” she said.

The sun sets early during Iowa winters. Brenda and Clifford don’t mind.

The Beat

A Major Blaine Mystery

In three parts

Part 1 – Baltimore

When I met him, he was a beat cop working in the toughest town. He worked alone. Alone, because no other cop wanted to ride with him. Getting shot was a frequent habit of Marlboro’s partners. Sergeant Philip Winston Marlboro rode the night shift, past the sleaziest bars, back alleys, and vacant lots of Baltimore. It was easy to find the crooks, backstabbers, and cheats. They were everywhere. They were everyone. Once he stopped his patrol car, the crackheads, pimps, and pickpockets would vanish into the damp mist blowing in off the Chesapeake.

If he wanted to make a few extra dollars, he could’ve taken their money. He never did. He was fair, though he didn’t make many arrests. Late at night, he chose his own form of justice. His nightstick served as judge and jury. Eventually, crime settled down when he was on the beat. Crime didn’t go away—it just sort of gave up—a case of give up or get beat up when Sergeant Marlboro was on patrol.

He wasn’t a tall guy, not short but tough. He was as hard as a nail hammered sideways into a two-by-four. He could outrun a meth addict and outbox the heaviest brawler. When I first met him, he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, and he never uttered a foul or impolite word. 

The beat, the crime, and the war would change all that. But the crimes he saw and the horrors he suffered later during the war wouldn’t change him half as much as she did.  

Crime and the war didn’t break him, but she broke his heart.

It was a dark and stormy night. He met her on patrol. The rain was so heavy at times it felt like watching the thoroughbreds line up at the starting gate of the Preakness. Marlboro hated pulling Preakness duty. The Preakness was the second, shortest, dirtiest race of the Triple Crown. A dim agate of an aged jewel. Known for its rowdy infield of drunk Hopkins med students, the Preakness runs in the spring. It’s also run in the rain, always the rain. The only fun of the entire shift was watching the horses line up. The gates were cramped and full of flies. The jockeys, horses, and keepers were all hyped up on amphetamines and diuretics. So right before the big race, all the horses peed.

They pee in unison, a collective firehose of urine. They pee as hard and fast as the rain on a cold Baltimore night. They pee right there at the starting gate. I can’t say why Marlboro found this funny. The rain in Baltimore does strange things to your brain.  

At night, on his patrols, it was always cold and always raining. Baltimore was like that. You got soaked when your shift started, and you got wetter as the night grew longer. No amount of coffee can cure the chill that starts to own your bones on a damp night in Baltimore. He was soaked, tired, and not in the mood for company.   

Then she walked by.   

Not a walk with a particular pace. Nor a walk with a particular place to be. But a walk that causes you to stop shivering and focus on the show in front of you. Coming closer, Marlboro could feel what was next. His nightstick was poised and at the ready, nerves braced. She had a way of pressing her entire body next to his as if two could become one. As she passed, he instinctively checked for his keys, wallet, mace, and that small backup radio which had a habit of going off when you didn’t want it to.  

So, that’s how they met, first the walk, then the pressing of two bodies on a cold, wet Baltimore night. After that, they were inseparable.   

A product of the streets, she knew how to survive. She could give love like it consumed her whole body and then turn on you in an instant. She could rip your heart out. Then she’d think nothing of it. She did what she had to do. She did what she was good at—surviving the cold and rain of Baltimore nights any way she could. She took to riding in the back of Marlboro’s patrol car. She’d curl up in the back and go to sleep. If Marlboro made an arrest, she didn’t move. She’d sleep with one eye trained on the creep. She was ready to rip his heart out if he made a move.

Occasionally he’d bring her home to his rat-infested apartment above the Trailways bus depot. She hated the noise. She hated the smell of urine left by the winos. For Marlboro, it was home, but it would never be hers. An apartment couldn’t keep her. She was born on the street. The streets were her home. Her hair was dirty and matted from a hundred nights plying her wares in Baltimore’s back alleys. Marlboro tried to wash it once, with limited luck. He cleaned enough to see that her hair wasn’t brown, not black, and certainly not red. Somehow, depending on the light, it was all three. Then in the shadows, it was neither one nor the other, or the other. 

Eventually, Marlboro got around to naming her. I really can’t remember what he called her. But when I caught up to him years later during the war, Marlboro would say, “That was the best damn dame I ever knew.” He remembered her like that—just another female from Baltimore’s cold, wet streets.   

When he left for the war, she couldn’t and wouldn’t go. She left him crying, turning up her cold, wet nose and just walking off. The kind of walk that lets you know that her moves will now be for someone else. You’re the history now. She left Sergeant Marlboro as quickly as she took him. He’d now be singing a song of loneliness on cold and rainy Baltimore nights.  

He went off to war, but not before that damn cat broke his heart. 

Next Time:  The War 

Part 2 – The War

They shipped Phillip Winston Marlboro to France. The war was raging, and his number came up. He’d stayed in Baltimore, but someone or something bigger than him had a different plan. It wasn’t God’s plan. God doesn’t send men to war. God doesn’t welcome them home either. God just cries. Cries in the form of rain. God cried at night in Baltimore, where sirens and shootings sang all night. God cried in France, even if Paris was beautiful during the day. During the war, it rained every night. God cried, soaking the cold Paris streets. 

He was Military Police, trading his Baltimore police blue for the olive drab of the Army. Sergeant Marlboro in Baltimore and now Sergeant Marlboro in France. They wanted him to fight crime. He knew crime. He fought crime with his nightstick, the only justice a crook, pimp, or pickpocket ever needed. Fought crime on the streets of Paris, just like he did in Baltimore. If they wanted him to fight in the war, they’d send him to Vietnam. The war was in Vietnam; he was in France. 

The Paris nights were cold, but he was used to it. Besides, nothing can fix or warm a broken heart. A heart broken by a cat who could purr so loud he could still hear that sound across an ocean. A female can do that to a man, especially a lonely man. He took to drinking. He carried a flask in the breast pocket of his coat, and he had another one stashed on his right calf where a backup revolver should’ve been. The occasion to use his backup gun was rare, But the reserve supply of rye was a welcome companion. The tobacco he smoked was from a windowless shop on a small winding street off some back alley someplace west of the center of the city. He rolled his own cigarettes. Of course, he did—it gave his hands something to do. The smoke smelled like the armpit of a lamppost queen who’d been dead for three days. The smoke had a smell that said, “Don’t mess with me, don’t make me use this nightstick.” But it was a smell he was all too familiar with. Sergeant Marlboro didn’t have the safest profession. Some jobs were far worse. That’s why he was there, standing in the rain, in the back alleys of Paris. They needed him much more than he needed them.

It happened in an instant. Being in the war meant danger followed you. It could all be over in an instant. If it was your time. Over in an instant when you’re in the war. Of course, it was raining and dark, and Marlboro had been drinking at Lulu’s, his usual haunt. Lulu’s was on the north side of Paris, in the so-called red-light district. It was also Marlboro’s home. Lulus was his home during the war. Not your average speakeasy, Lulu’s was the watering hole for the worst pickpockets, pimps, and ne’er-do-wells who swam the back alleys of Paris. The red-light district was once home to Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and van Gogh. Now it was a stale, seedy section of a vibrant city. It was also the home to Paris’s best working gals and can-can dancers.

She found him at the bar on his usual stool in the darkest corner. She’d just got off work. It was half-past two in the morning, and the last show at the Moulin Rouge had just ended. You couldn’t miss her if you tried. Her red chiffon dress was too short, and her white leggings went all the way up. She had a small waist, but that was the only thing undersized about her. The tiny blouse couldn’t contain those two perfectly symmetrical mounds. The kind of orbs created by surgery, not Mother Nature. That lace bodice forced her breasts up like the headlights on a Bentley. Behind, she was all Rolls Royce. She carried her six-foot two-inch frame with ease and a carefree attitude. By this time of night, a bit of a shadow followed along her jutting jaw, and her low-pitched voice was a bit hoarse from singing all those Kurt Weill ballads. Marlboro suspected she played for the other team, but that wasn’t his concern. Who was he to judge? Just another Mack, without a knife. And he was just another military cop away from home, away from the war. He was stuck in Paris, his only true love an ocean away. 

Not one for a quiet entrance, she gave the night one last kick. One last can-can move to impress her lonely beat-cop friend. Maybe her can-can was a bit too good. Her leg flew up. Her skirt raised like the curtain at the Bijou. Intending to plant her leg on the bar in front of Marlboro’s drink, she missed. She missed the bar, his drink, and almost fell backward into Marlboro’s prospect for the evening—a short gal with tattoos on both cheeks. The stool now hid her tattoos. The kind of tattoos that say, I’ve seen this barstool before. Marlboro’s can-can friend’s steel-pointed dancing shoe caught the side of Marlboro’s face. “Holy sh…!” she said. Marlboro went flying to the left. His secondary maxillary premolar flew right.

For the rest of his life, Marlboro would have difficulty drinking soup. He also talked with a lisp and sounded like somebody had put a bag of marbles in his mouth.

A month after that fateful incident, he was awarded a Purple Heart at the garrison. Well, sort of a Purple Heart. It was some sort of French medal for traffic safety. Sergeant Marlboro did many things during the war. If you work with the French, and you’re in the Army, stationed in Paris, and the war is in Vietnam, you get a lot of medals. French medals.

His last medal and the one that bought him a ticket home was for the tragedy. His tragedy. He was not even on duty. It was not even at night, and it happened far from his beat and the seedy damp smoke-filled back alleys he had come to love.

It was one thirty-seven in the afternoon. It was a Tuesday in June. The year was 1971. My memory is weak, so I might have the date and year wrong, but the tragedy happened at exactly that time. I know this because that’s when my watch stopped. Marlboro and I were walking along the Champs-Élysées.  Not soldiers during the day, just a couple of tourists. American tourists. To the French, this might have been their Avenue of Champs, but we were just two American chumps snapping a few harmless pictures of the wandering French girls on a warm summer afternoon. We were hard to miss. We wore Hawaiian shirts and aviator sunglasses to hide our roving eyes. I guess we stood out. Just two ugly Americans, not easy to miss. I guess we were to blame. Our attire was too sleazy and inappropriate for the conservative French couples holding hands and sucking face along the Champs-Élysées.

Every big city has them. Street gangs ready to snatch your purse or boost your wallet. The gangs in Paris were the worst. Cleverly disguised. Paris’ infamous roving street gangs of mimes. A clever disguise for a ruthless bunch of thugs. They lure you in with a charming performance—a silent but deadly skit where you play the hero, then the victim. I’d tell you that we didn’t hear them, but you already gathered that. We were about to ask directions from two legs that climbed to heaven. We were lonely, and this gal’s heaven seemed a nice place to be. The attack was over in an instant, a knife to the kidney and another to Marlboro’s left butt cheek. Marlboro was the mark. I was just the distraction. I thought it all a good show. The Parisians around clapped. Before I realized what had happened, I handed the mimes ten bucks and smiled. They were that fast—that good. Then I saw the blood. Marlboro’s blood. The wounds were deep, and the blood ran fast. Before I could get to him, he collapsed. I went into shock. Shock not from the blood but the humiliation of losing ten bucks to a mime. 

We woke up in the hospital. Marlboro, in the bed next to me, was just coming out of a coma. While Marlboro collapsed and fell to the ground from loss of blood, I collapsed due to the overspray and overuse of cologne the mimes were prone to using. My delicate olfactory sense got the better of me. From eye-witness accounts, the sun caught the corner of my aviator sunglasses as I fell. The intense glare reflected into the eye of the mime who stabbed Marlboro. Temporarily blinded, he doubled back on his heels and lashed out wildly. He slashed a fellow mime in his cheek, extending his fake smile and forever ruining his miming career. A melee began as the mimes slashed wildly. It seemed that none of the mute muggers were willing to yell stop. Soon, the entire troupe lay injured. Before it ended, a dozen or more silent smiling thugs were rolling on the ground in silent agony.

According to nurse Claire at the hospital, we were the American heroes of the Champs-Élysées. The mime disaster was what all Paris was talking about. I found this ironic.

Shortly after the tragedy, Marlboro was shipped back to the States. Medically discharged from the Army, he walked with a limp and spoke with a lisp. 

Next time:  Back on the streets of Baltimore     

Part 3 – Back on the Streets of Baltimore

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 FormPlease describe the missing individualin the greatest detail possible 
Name:N/A too personal Leave Blank
Gender:N/A Confusing and inappropriate given LGBQ+ sensitivities Leave Blank
Race:N/A aren’t we all humans after all? Leave Blank
Ethnicity:N/A see above Leave Blank
Height:N/A upsetting for short people Leave Blank
Age:N/A upsetting to both young and old Leave Blank
Description of the missing: N/A upsetting to ugly peopleLeave Blank
Distinguishing features: N/A see aboveLeave Blank

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?”