Farewell, My Lovely Umbrella

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Farewell, My Lovely Umbrella

A Chinese umbrella-sharing startup just lost nearly all of its 300,000 umbrellas.

Amanda Erickson, Washington Post

It was raining in the City by the Bay. Hard enough to bring out the designer umbrellas. This was a good thing for the job I had at hand. I'm a repo man – umbrella repo. Marlowe's the name, location's my game.

A year or so ago, a Chinese umbrella-sharing startup lost 300,000 umbrellas before somebody got wise. In SF (San Francisco, the City by the Bay?), savvy operators installed GPS – Satnav to you. Now, when the bumbershoots go missing, I'm on the job. I have a cell phone (mobile) with a GPS (you know). This time, my app told me I was looking for a 'Size Medium, Dark Blue, Canopy Imprint of 'Starry Night' by van Gogh.' Yes, there's an app for that. Rain was good. Rain would bring my quarry out onto the streets, with umbrella, where I could legally nab him and make him cough up the brolly and the back rent he owed my boss.

I was not always thus, as the poets say. For years, I was employed as a gumshoe, shamus, a private detective – gainfully if not happily. In the first decade, I went through two wives, two dozen pairs of shoes, and enough rye to stock every State Store in liquor-shy Pennsylvania, where I used to live before I moved to Frisco. Still, it paid the rent on a crummy apartment and kept my hybrid running. But then I became the nearest thing to obsolete: outclassed by technology.

Have you seen those TV shows? 'CSI This, CSI That'? Nowadays, it's all forensics. Pounding the pavement doesn't cut it. I've been replaced by an MRI. Used to be, I wouldn't touch divorce cases. Now, I can't get a divorce case. Why not? I've got one word for you: drones. Not only can they take the pictures, but if you do it right, only the client has to see them. In my last divorce gig I was replaced by a recent graduate of Phoenix U's online IT course. Seriously. So I took up umbrella repo.

Umbrella deadbeats aren't exactly high-risk targets. They're unlikely to shoot unless they're Bulgarians. The whole racket is as low-profile as the Gooseberry Lay1. I mean, it isn't like going after the Russian mob. You're not likely to need a dictionary, a mortician, or an IM to the White House.

My phone app said my quarry was on the move. Excellent. I headed in the direction of 8th and Market. In spite of the drizzle, it was a warm day in June. At midmorning on a Sunday, I wasn't expecting too much foot traffic. My umbrella thief should be easy to spot.

I had forgotten about the Pride Parade.

Market was lit up like the circus had just come to town – if the circus was twenty times bigger than any circus had a right to be, focused on a rainbow theme, and had more clowns than Ringling ever dreamed of. The scene was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Unfortunately, it was also a sea of umbrellas.

Okay, I thought. Where's the van Gogh? I cursed. There was a whole group of van Gogh impersonators, bandaged ears and all. And, since it was still raining, every one of them was sporting a van Gogh umbrella. Sure, some had sunflowers on, and a few 'De Slaapkamer'. But the odds-on candidate for favourite van Gogh painting ever was 'Starry Night'. My thief had to be in there, somewhere.

'Marlowe, as I live and heavily breathe!' The voice came from behind me, so I turned around. Slowly, in case the voice was attached to someone armed – say, with a long-handled Pride banner. It wasn't. It was attached to my old friend Trev. Trev always said zhe was a gunsel2, but it was obvious zhe wasn't armed, at least not today. When not marching around with a sign that said, 'Twinks for Congress, End the Gender Imbalance,' Trev was a chiropractor. I was an appreciative patient – stalking mooks can give you back problems.

'Hey, Trev,' I said. 'I was working so hard I forgot about the Pride Parade. But look, I'm trying to find somebody. One of those van Goghs has an umbrella with my client's name on it.'

'Hm, you're not going to get through the crowd, honey child. Why not just go with the flow?'

So I joined the Pride Parade. The twinks thought my trenchcoat was 'serious retro', and one of them borrowed my fedora. We marched along, arm in arm, while the band played Queen numbers. Eventually, we reached the Embarcadero, where everybody wished everybody else just about everything their hearts desired, and I got my hat back. The van Goghs were breaking up, but my GPS pointed to one headed into a nearby coffee place. I followed.

I couldn't get to the seating area without buying, so I settled for a double mocha latte and pushed through the crowd. There they were: the van Gogh and 'my' umbrella, at a table with a cop, a construction worker, and an Indian. I dug the motif, but I had a job to do.

'Elmer Winslow?' I asked. The van Gogh nodded amiably. 'I'm Marlowe, Starchild Marlowe3. And you owe the Acme Umbrella Rental Company one van Gogh umbrella and some back rent.'

Winslow laughed. 'Is that all? No problem, man. I just wanted the umbrella for the parade, but I forgot to log into the app. Here,' he handed over 'Starry Night', 'and here,' and he whipped out his cell phone, called up the app, and clicked for payment. 'All done,' he beamed.

I grinned. 'All done, indeed. By the way, how much did you owe them?'

Winslow checked. 'Bogus. $20.15 in overtime rental charges.'

I chuckled. 'And now, they have to pay me for returning the umbrella. I get $100 a day, plus expenses. Which,' I said, sitting down between the construction worker and the Indian, 'will include a round of lattes. And possibly Cinnabons.'

Maybe I could take a course in drone piloting.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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1Google it. You need the exercise.2More Google required.3Hippie parents, don't ask. My childhood was an incense-scented nightmare. The fedora was grandpa's.

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