Philippine Maximine P.I. – The Beginning

If I gave you a thousand guesses, you’d waste a million of em’ trying to figure out what happened. Where I went, how it all went down. You know what? It doesn’t even matter. The bottom line is I’m gone, kaput. I went out with the trash and I’m as forgotten as church keys and clean air.

Her? She’s a remnant of a bloodline planted as a result of way too much bourbon on Bourbon St. The dirt was a Cajun hooker who stole my heart and then my wallet. A daughter I never knew took to her mother’s side of the family business before she hooked-up with a low-end domino thumper. He ended up doing life plus 20 for trying to make her the 89th key. Over and over again.

This one ain’t going down like that. No way, not this dame. In fact, she ain’t going down at all. She’s tougher than a concrete nail and twice as hard to bend. Whatever she does, she does all the way, all out, all the time, to the max. She’s named after me, my granddaughter Philippine. Philippine Maximine. The last name rhymes with mean, that’s on her, that’s her baby. Probably the only one she’ll ever have.

P. Marlowe

***

Sometimes I wonder if I should clean the window. The outside may never be clean again. Probably hasn’t been since some guy slipped it into its frame a hundred years ago. I guess it would have to break into a million pieces before it would ever let light in again. Maybe next time it won’t be so distorted. There’s no real point in cleaning the inside anyways, unless I wanted to get a better look at the filth. The rusty downspout crawling down the brick building across the alley never seems to dry up. Drip, drip, drip every single minute of every single day, unless it’s frozen. This office wasn’t even new when they built it. It was born old, like me. An antique view of the backside of a modern world is exactly what I needed to see. No matter how fancy things get out on the street there’s always going to be trash.

I could tell it was a woman knocking based on her gentle attempt to live in a world without an electronic bell. That, and I heard her clomping down the hall. Women have a tendency to walk heels-hard on the ground. Even the lightest girl can make stacked plates rattle in the next room. It’s just something I always recognized so I try not to walk that way. My apartment has wood floors. Every so often I notice my walk sounding like approaching war drums and I change it up. I would hate for some other bitch to characterize me.

“Come in.”

The look of concern on her face had my mind racing. I couldn’t wait to find out why this woman wanted to hire a P.I. I gave up guessing years ago. Even when I was right, my mind wanted to walk an ever-narrowing hallway. Instinctively fitting pieces together to fit the puzzle I had already pictured. It’s better to be surprised, to have an open mind. You see more that way. Not that I wanted a baby, but if I ever had one, I wouldn’t want to know what it was. No gender reveals for me, just good old-fashioned stir-ups and a gorgeous father’s look of shock and awe.

“Ms. Maximine?” she asked.

“Philippine. Philippine Maximine. Phil, Philly if you’re an old man but never Max,” I said with a smile doing my best to be folksy.

I turned away from my office window and shook her hand. “Please, have a seat Ms., Mrs.?”

“Marnie, Marnie Fankowski. Pleased to meet you.”

I guessed her to be about thirty give or take. It’s harder to tell when a person has led a stressful life. She sat down in the metal chair in front of my desk. She tensely embraced the arms, crossed her legs and shimmied her back side into the flat cushion as if she was trying to fit it into a hole. It was an old precinct chair, a leftover from the days when they used to cuff the perp right to the chair. You can still run, but you’ll be a hell of a lot easier to catch when you’re dragging a heavy chair.

“Well Marnie Fankowski, what can I do for you today?” I asked as I settled into my much newer and more comfortable office chair 200 miles away from her on my side of the desk.

“Well, I’m here because of my brother,” she paused, seemingly struggling for words.

“Your brother who’s missing? In jail maybe? Could you be a little more specific?” I asked.

“My brother who’s dead,” she said.

“Okay,” now I was short for words.

“Let me be more specific. He has to be dead even though they never found his body. If he wasn’t dead, he would have made it back,” she said.

“Back? Back from where?” I asked.

“A camping trip,” she said.

“Where and when? Is this a local campground? Somewhere maybe he’s been to before? When did you last see him?” I opened the top left drawer of my desk and pulled out a notepad and a pencil. I liked to use pencil instead of pen. You ever try to sharpen a broken pen?

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” she said. “My brother, Gage, was a wilderness camper. He was up in a place they call the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. You literally paddle out into the wilderness with everything you need for the next couple of weeks and you know, live out there, in a tent.”

I was doing my best to hide my squint of disapproval. I’m a city girl. The closest I came to camping was sitting at the festival bar under the beer tent.

“He went out there, just like he’s done a hundred times. Even I’ve gone up there with him. When we were younger, when we were kids. Our parents started taking us up there when we were 10 or 12. It just sort of became an obsession with him. He lived for it. He went up there in the winter for God’s sake. There’s just no way that what they said happened really happened to him. He was safe, smart. Either they lied or they just don’t have any idea. I don’t know, it’s just so frustrating, I, I mean…”

“Okay, okay, let’s just slow down for a second and catch our breath. Can I get you a cup of coffee, maybe a bottle of water or something?” I asked her.

Mr. Coffee lived on the credenza in the corner next to a little college dorm room sized mini fridge. I poured her a cup and handed it to her whether she wanted it or not. She wanted it.

“Cream? Sugar?” I asked.

“No thanks, and thanks.” She held the full cup I just gave her up slightly in the air. The instinctive move a person makes when they use their drink to either politely or mockingly approve of a crappy speech.

“I just, you know I get worked-up when I think about it,” she said.

“Think about what exactly, Marnie? Honestly, you haven’t told me much more than your brother went camping and never came home. There’re quite a few different directions I could go from there. I don’t even know if there’s a case. Who’s they? What did they tell you? Just exactly what do you think happened?”

“Oh, there’s a case,” she snapped back.

“And ‘they’ are the Sheriff’s Department and the Forest Service. The so-called experts. They told us that he most likely drowned, and because of the size of the lake, the cold water, the animals, and the remote access that his body would most likely never be found. I mean, just like that, they look around for a while, don’t find him and wash their hands with the whole thing!”

“Marnie, how long ago did this happen? And really, I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, but who’s to say they are wrong?” I asked.

“I am, and my mother! She’s dead now too and I know for a fact that this whole thing helped kill her. They found where he was camping. I can show you on a map exactly where he was. They brought back all his stuff. His tent, clothes, packs, even his fishing equipment. Did you hear what I said? His fishing equipment! Rods and reels, tackle box, everything!”

My zest for urban life and Marnie’s testimonial to fishing equipment had me admittedly flummoxed. After her rant it got so quiet in the room that we both turned our attention to something scratching inside the wall behind the plaster. I hear it all the time. I wonder if it’s a mouse, or worse yet a rat. That’s when I think about getting an office cat, but as I run through the scenario, I always scrap the idea. I’d have to bring cat food into the office which would look weird enough but not as bad as cat litter. Then I’d have the box, and I’d have to scoop out the poop. There’s the smell. I could bring a home cat back and forth, but I keep odd hours. Sometimes I might not get back here for days. I’ll just continue to be slightly sickened by thought of sharing space with rodents.

“Oh, oh, and I forgot to tell you. They found his canoe. It was a couple miles down the lake, just bouncing against the rocks, nothing in it. No paddles, nothing. And you see, that’s the thing. Gage was a fishing nut. That’s half the reason he went up there, to fish. There’s no way he went out and didn’t bring his fishing stuff with him. And the best, or maybe not the best, but you know what I mean. Maybe the best evidence was his life jacket. People that do this sort of thing regularly are like a community. Another camper found his life jacket floating all by itself in a different part of the lake and brought it to the forest service. So, not only would he never have gone out without his fishing stuff, there’s no way he wouldn’t have had his life jacket on either.”

“Okay, I get it, I do, but are we talking about something that happened last week, last month, last year?” I asked.

At this point I was feeling like she was just another familiar sole survivor. She missed her brother, she missed her mom, had nobody else and hadn’t quite accepted that reality yet. Her case was weak at best.

“When Marnie?” I asked forcefully.

“Last fall. Look, I know what you’re going to say but somebody had to have done something to him. I’m telling you; he was an expert in wilderness survival, he even wrote stories about it for outdoors magazines,” she said.

“Last year? Even if you’re right, by now, what can you hope to learn? Did Gage have any enemies that you were aware of? Personally, I don’t feel like the highly competitive world of outdoor writing is much like being James Bond but,” she interrupted me with a hard edge.

“You’re mocking me now, Max. See how you like it. I came here because you’re supposed to be different, not like everyone else. All the others asked the same questions, used the same mocking tones. I knew my brother, I knew him better than anyone else on the planet and I know in my heart of hearts that something horrible happened to him, and I want the people responsible caught, and punished.”

Her words left her mouth and went directly to the lump in my throat. I was embarrassed, I even felt a little guilty. She was good at this, probably catholic. I had to let the Max thing slide, I deserved it.

“I’m sorry, Marnie. Look, I’m glad you came to me and I can especially appreciate the reasons why. I’m just not too sure you have very much to go on. To be painfully honest with you, it sounds like nothing more than an accident. And let’s say for a second that maybe, and this is a big maybe, that you’re on to something. I’d have to go up there. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I’m not exactly the outdoorsy type. Not to mention the expense of you paying what may amount to an exorbitant amount of money for me to go on a camping trip.”

“Believe me Ms. Maximine, money is not an issue. As the sole proprietor of the policies of both my mother and brother I have unfortunately become extremely comfortable. And then there’s this, she reached into her purse, removed a torn-out page of a magazine and handed it to me.

“What’s this?” I Asked.

“This is a picture of Ross Parent. He was featured in one of the articles Gage wrote. It says a lot about his qualifications. I know he’s a little young, but he’s a fishing, slash wilderness guide up there. He works for a local resort and Gage knew him pretty well. He knows the area and has agreed to take whoever I hire into the bush to see if they, or more accurately, you, can find out what happened to Gage.”

Staring at the front page of the article I could barely believe that only a few minutes ago I was contemplating cleaning my office window. Now, here was this suddenly affluent woman offering to finance a camping trip with an overly cute kind of guy that makes you want to go out and buy a flannel shirt. From my bottom drawer I handed her a manila folder, with a contract.

“Read it through. It explains what I’ll do, what and when you’ll pay me. I make no guarantees besides this, I’ll go harder than the rest, always.”

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