by Costa Koutsoutis
Shakespir Edition © 2017
For my parents, my grandparents, my brother, my wonderful fiancée, and of course, the worst office assistant ever, the cat.
The couple at the far end of the train care were going to break up.
Her body language and his, a stiff closeness, was a clear indicator of being used to being close to each other and still sitting like that out of habit, but her tightly-pursed mouth and his slumped-away shoulders? Totally going to break up, they’re fighting now, so it’ll probably be soon.
The old woman across from me? She’s on her way to meet a “gentleman caller” or whatever it is older people my grandparents’ age call it when they date. Her constant checking of her hair and makeup in the compact mirror and the nice outfit she was wearing in the middle of the day all screamed “lunch date.”
No one else in the train warranted my attention or focus to play the game anymore, so I dug the printout from inside my coat pocket out, the directions and the emails between me and a Ms. Helen Ramnee at some book publisher in Manhattan that wanted to talk to me about a job. I had a few more stops to go before I’d disembark, and I re-scanned our correspondences, trying to pay attention to the emails so I could be prepared or something relatively close.
“Mr. Miles, we would like to discuss the possibility of hiring you for a job relating to…” I zoned out, jolted back to attention when the conductor’s voice, scratchy and electronic, reminded me my stop was next, so I skimmed the rest of the email without really reading, looked at the address and name of the company, and stuffed the papers back into my jacket pocket. I had the time, they had a need, so I figured the $2.50 subway fare into Manhattan from Queens was worth it.
I got off as the doors hissed open and the few people riding the train this time of day got off with me, bundled up and faces down. Winter in New York City is probably my least-favorite season of the year, the cold always making my bad leg flare up.
Manta Books was a whole floor or two of a building a block from the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, a set of stars up to the third-floor door with “MP” and a stylized swoop, like a manta ray or a stingray or something, imprinted on the frosted-glass window. I knocked, and a young kid in a Batman t-shirt opened the door for me, then hustled past down the stairs, a box in his arms. Inside the office paper and books were stacked everywhere and I could see art tables, computers, an iPod plugged into some speakers by a coffeemaker playing something low and melodic. There were posters, some framed, some thumbtacked, up on the walls, and the low thrum of activity was constant. It was surprising to be honest, I always thought a book publisher was some staid old quiet office, not this, which reminded me more of the stint I did as a temp once at a newspaper, where everyone was wired on caffeine and constantly screaming at me about deadlines as I proofread papers shoved at me for two dollars a line.
“Mr. Miles?” A woman’s voice, kind of authoritative but also casual, the kind that ran things in this kind of office with interns or assistants or gophers in Batman t-shirts, was at my left, and I found myself guided by the elbow over to the side against a far wall, a cubicle that was offering a little bit of privacy by a woman in blue hair and black-rimmed nerdy glasses. “Hi, I’m Helen Ramnee, pleasure to meet you. I’m the one that emailed you?” She sat down at the desk, motioning for me to sit in the chair opposite her, a diner chair loaded with books wrapped in plastic. “So, what do you know about Manta Books?” she asked as I tried to move the books off the chair to somewhere on the floor as surreptitiously as I could before sitting down.
“Honestly? Nothing,” I admitted, sitting down to see action figures on Ramnee’s desk staring at me. “We’re a relatively small-to-medium-sized publishing imprint of Mega Comics,” she said, and I looked around, realizing the posters all over the walls weren’t book or movie posters, but comic book covers. “We do artbooks, reprints, collections, autobiographical stories…”
“Comic books, like biff-bang-pow?” I was never really a kid who read comic books, I’d always preferred other stuff, but I did know enough to know that they were big business these days.
She seemed a little irritated, but continued. “Not exactly, but at times, we have done superhero action books. This is our bread and butter, for the most part though.” She handed me two books off of her desk, the top one a fat heavy hardcover, wide and long, the cover a black-and-white drawing of a sword with “Hawkblade Volume 3” in fancy calligraphy above it.
“Hey yeah, I know this.” I flipped through the black-and-white pages of newspaper comic strips, some young prince warrior or whatever with a sword fighting knights and monsters. I vaguely remembered the name, my dad telling me that it was a classic or something on Sunday mornings at breakfast, but I never really paid attention. “So?”
“So that is the classic newspaper comic strip ‘Hawkblade,’ by Kirby Hale,” the other voice said as it approached me from out of my range of vision, the suit appearing to my right, smiling and sticking his hand out. “Steve Kane, Legacy Entertainment legal council.”
“I asked Steve to come by during the meeting to represent our parent company, I hope you don’t mind. Legacy are the principal shareholders of Mega Comics, and thus, us.” Ramnee motioned to the second book she’d handed me, a smaller paperback, “Kirby Hale: American Comics.” An older kindly-looking man at a drawing table holding a brush or a pen, in a full suit and tie, was on the cover, smiling. “That’s Kirby Hale, the creator of ‘Hawkblade.’ Legacy and Manta Books has had the rights to reprint the entirety of comic for the past eleven years, and recently, we came into possession of the estate of Mr. Hale, who died in 1994.”
“Okay?” I still wasn’t entirely sure what it was they’d want from someone who mostly followed cheating husbands and wives or did bail bonds for guys swearing that this last arrests for meth was the last one, but I motioned like my grandfather did with one hand for him to go on, the way the old man did when I’d visit him and ramble on too long as a teenager. The lawyer and Ramnee were starting to look a little bashful, and I got the feeling that whatever it was, it was going to be something stupid and ridiculous.
“This sounds stupid and a little ridiculous, Mr. Miles,” Kane said, “but when Mr. Hale died in 1994, it was somewhat sudden. The comic ran for two weeks after his death, during which the back stock of strips he’d turned in ran out. Then, it ended. The thing is…”
“Look, supposedly, Hale had one more comic to turn in, ready to go, but that was never published.” The lawyer started to unload a few binders into my lap along with the books as she talked. “Manta Books and Mega Comics are working to bring ‘Hawkblade’ back, with new art and writing, and as part of that we’re putting together the last volume of the reprints of the original collection.” On top of the stack of stuff in my lap, the lawyer put a piece of paper and a pen. “Just sign here to get temporarily on payroll and get covered by our…”
“Wait, what am I signing? And what does any of this have to do with hiring me?” I batted his hands aside and shifted the stack onto already-overflowing desk.
“Mr. Miles, Manta, that is…we want you to find that last comic before the last reprint volume goes to print, before the reboot.” Ramnee pointed to the piece of paper the lawyer gave me. “This temporarily puts you on Legacy’s payroll, which allows you access to the Hale estate, where we believe the strip is, or at least some indication of where the strip is can be found.”
“Hold up,” I said, standing and taking a step back. If there was one thing I hated doing this job, ever since I stopped working for other agencies and doing it on my own, it was people overloading me with information about their oh-so-desperate cases all at once. “Let’s slow down for a second. First off, what makes you think I could do this? I’m no comic book nerd.”
“Look, we’re in crunch mode, and just don’t have the time and manpower to go through his stuff ourselves right now. To be honest, there’s a lot of material, it’s a full-time job. But don’t worry, we’d actually like to pair you with Rob Wagner on this to help you. Rob’s great, he’ll be doing the new relaunch actually, he’s a big ‘Hawkblade’ fan and researcher.” Ramnee said, smiling. She touched one of the envelopes in the stack she and Kane gave me. “The keys to Hale’s apartment here in the city, where he worked and where I understand most of the estate’s things like papers and artwork ended up, are here.”
“How long until you go to print or whatever?” I asked, as if I had some reservations still. It was a tempting offer, an easy job to help pad the bank account, and it couldn’t be more than an hour or so’s worth of work. Me and some nerd digging around for an afternoon in some boxes.
“The absolute limit before the last volume, which we’d like to include, has to go to the printers, is in a month and a half.” Ramnee said, and I leaned over to look at the contract, see the daily pay rate, confirm my address, and I signed. “Not a problem, I’ll find your comic book, easy.”
“Strip. Comic strip.”
“You gotta understand, ‘Hawkblade’ ran for fifty years almost non-stop, they only had a few repeats here and there for the holiday seasons and one stretch of reruns when Hale was in the hospital with appendicitis.” Rob Wagner had shown up at my apartment, which doubled as my office, with more papers, more books, a computer covered in superhero stickers, and breakfast. It was the only reason I’d let him in at the inhumanly-early hour, but free coffee and fried egg sandwiches from the Greek guys at the stand down the block were impossible to resist, so the eyeglass- and “Hawkblade” t-shirt-wearing Rob Wagner, longtime fan and comic book writer and artist, was giving me a crash-course in newspaper comics and comic books, especially “Hawkblade.” By now though the food was gone and the day was well into the afternoon, and I could feel my patience slowly wearing thin. Eagerness was never a trait I could really deal with.
“He had one of the most consistent runs as a newspaper cartoonist ever. Even when the boom hit in the Nineties with comics and then burst, even nowadays with newspapers dying off, they still rerun ‘Hawkblade’ strips, in print and online!” Rob, as I’d learned, had been a fan of the comic even before he was hired to rewrite and redraw it, doing a knockoff version on the Internet that drew the attention of Manta Books and the lawyer Steve Kane from Legacy, where they offered him a job that turned into the job of a lifetime for him. All of this had spilled out of him in the first hour he was over, alongside trivia about Batman, World War Two superhero and war comics, his professional-nanny girlfriend, and that he liked Italian food.
“What about ‘Peanuts’ and shit like that, that ran forever, didn’t it?” My own limited knowledge of the funny pages was becoming painfully clear the more and more we talked, but Rob seemed to have no problem pouring out all sorts of information, occasionally showing me things on his laptop as I browsed the book on Hale that Ramnee gave me, reading his biography and the history of the comic, what tools he used, and other things I was pretty sure would ultimately be useless in helping with this case.
“Yes, it did, but the thing is that ‘Peanuts’ ultimately wasn’t sequential storytelling. Every single strip is a complete joke and story all in one, you don’t really have to read the one before to get the one in front of you.
“But ‘Hawkblade,’ it was different in that it was an ongoing adventure. I mean, look at the strips, they’re just frozen moments in time!” He was getting into what I’d taken to calling, to myself of course, “nerd frenzies,” showing me page after page from the collections we were looking at, some of which were from Rob’s own collection, with various tabs and pencil notes in the margins. “Prince Valor and his father’s trusted remaining aides guiding the young man on a hero’s quest to gather allies and learn how to be an effective and wise ruler in order to retake the Kingdom of Talonor from from his evil uncle, the usurping King Rok? It’s Campbell-esque in its simplicity but it works so well! No one does adventure strips anymore in comic books, let alone in newspapers or magazines. ‘Hawkblade’ was the go-to comic for young boys at the time, they even made a radio serial.”
“So what’re we looking for here?” I said, the books and papers piled up on the floor where Rob sat. I managed to maintain some dignity, perched on the edge of my desk, with egg stains and breadcrumbs down my shirt. “I just wanted you to get a good idea of the scope of this project, Ben,” he said, digging into his bag for his laptop again. “I ran a ‘Hawkblade’ fan page on the Internet for years and even wrote about the comic for papers when I went to art school, I love this stuff. I did fancomics, I jumped at the chance when Manta asked me to helm this relaunch.”
“I’m assuming this is a big deal with comic nerds.”
“The biggest!” He stood up this time, showing me some news webpage with his face and a color stylized version of the main character, Valor, at the top. “Is that your art?” I said, surprised. It was drastically different from the flat black-and-white 2D strips, with bright colors and depth, like an oil painting I’d seen on a postcard.
“Yeah, that’s from my art, the cover for the first issue.” He closed the laptop. “My dad and I bonded over newspaper comics, especially ‘Hawkblade,’ when I was a kid. My old man used to want to be a writer, like Tolkien, but just never really got well-known for it or anything, so he loved that comic. I remember reading the reprints and reruns, getting the books with him, us both finding out about the ‘legend of the lost strip.’ I think that this would make the last volume of reprints perfect before I start the relaunch.”
I had to admit, I was starting to get swayed over with Rob’s enthusiasm. He and I couldn’t be more than a few months, a year apart age-wise, but my own jaded burnout was easily-infected about finding this piece of paper in time. Also? It was a little fun, and made me feel as if I was somehow catching up on a childhood of missed opportunities reading Batman comics.
“Alright, how about we meet up tomorrow at the apartment,” I said, sliding off the desk. At this point, as nice a guy as Rob was, I was starting to get sick of my apartment and of him. “We’ll start seriously going through Hale’s things, see what we can find there.” Rob started to gather all his work up, shoveling the computer, books, and papers into his bag. “You think it’ll be at his place? Supposedly, Hale’s family never really went through his papers besides the will, just packed it all up. His sons all work in real estate and business now, so they weren’t really art-types. I think they’re both opening up a business using the money they got for the sale of the estate?” Rob stood as he put more papers in his bag, but they all tipped over and spilled out onto the floor. “Ahh, shit.”
“Leave them, I’ll just keep ‘em here, might as well. Noon tomorrow? I have the key.”
“OK, that works,” he said, shouldering his bag and heading to the door. “See you then.” I hear him take the stairs two at a time down to the street level, and then knelt to sweep all the loose photocopies of comics and pages from the Internet about Hale, plus Rob’s own notes, up into my arms, dumping the pile of pictures and paper onto my desk. I picked up the top page, staring at it, a copy of one of the strips that Hale had done while the Korean War was going on, encouraging support of returning US troops “in the cartoonist’s own words” instead of a regular comic. I remember Rob showing it to me earlier that day with great enthusiasum, but as I looked at it again, something struck me about how I could find out some more information about Kirby Hale.
He mentioned in the comic that he’d served in World War Two. That means the VA would have some sort of files on him. I swept up the copy of the page and stuffed it into my back pocket, picking up my phone and wallet and keys, heading out the door.
I might as well start somewhere.
“Comic books?” Kalli Kiliaris, my former boss and friend, asked me as she handed me a bottle of mineral water from the mini-fridge in her office and sat down at her desk, always the consummate professional compared to me. Kalli Kiliaris, far more successful as a bondsman and investigator, to the point that she had her own employees at the agency, was someone I went to for help when I didn’t know how to start a case. These days she tended to do most of her work from in the office, so she’d always jump at the chance to help me out for some “actual” work.
“Well, newspaper comics, which the guy tells me is a totally different beast.” I sipped the water, showed her the photocopy. “Anyway, despite the fact that I’m gonna be over there tomorrow going through his paperwork, I’m going to assume that what we’re looking for isn’t going to be there. Whoever went through the papers and rest of the estate must have at least looked around for some art, something to sell on the down-low?”
Kalli frowned, looking at the page and the line I’d underlined about Hale serving in the military. “Well, you would.” Older than me by about a decade, every time I sat down with her it tended to evolve into one of those talks I always imagined younger siblings had with older sisters, in that she tended to treat me like an idiot. And to be fair, I was at times, and our history together was less than stellar when I was her employee. Still, we’d become better friends and work contacts since I’d struck out on my own, with her occasionally throwing a case my way from her stable of clients, usually weird stuff she knew her guys couldn’t handle. This way, she could still jump in if it got interesting enough, knowing that I probably wouldn’t ever say no to her. “So,” she said, “what do you want to do?”
“Honestly, I want to find out some more about this guy. Like I said, me and the researcher’ll be at Hale’s place tomorrow but I know we won’t find the art there, so anything else I can find out about him, like maybe old army buddies or something like that, anywhere he could have stashed some extra work?” I stood up, heading out the door.
“You think you’d maybe be able to do me a favor, look up military stuff or whatever on this guy?” Kalli was always infinitely better-equipped to do this sort of stuff, talk to people, cajole them, and convince them to just do her a little favor, just this once. I sucked at it, which is why I had to resort to asking her to do it for me. With my luck, I would more than likely either hit a brick wall, or get hit into a brick wall pissing some Army clerk off.
“Yeah, sure, no problem,” she said dismissively, “I’ll call you tomorrow when I get around to it.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep you in the loop, if you want?”
She laughed, “Oh yeah, real interested in, what is it again? ‘Hawkwind’?” “Hawkblade,” I said smirking, opening the door before almost bumping into her personal assistant, coming through the doorway with an armful of paperwork. “Sorry,” she mumbled, passing by me and dumping the paperwork onto Kalli’s desk with a noticeable THUMP. “Have fun with that,” I said, letting myself out of the building and back onto the street in Astoria, out the door of the building that housed Kalli’s offices alongside a real estate company on the ground floor and a cell phone repair place in the basement below street level. I turned the corner and headed down the street to my favorite Greek place for an early dinner, hoping that I’d beat the evening crowd.
I’d been reading the book about Kirby Hale on the train ride here from my place, thinking about what it was about the comic that had made it last so long or why it was so well-regarded. I honestly couldn’t see the appeal of that sword-and-sorcery stuff, but whenever someone like Rob talked about it, you could tell it somehow was a good enough story to last all these years. What did strike me was how an Army guy like Hale, who was supposedly a bit of a recluse and as soon as he could, quit working in an office and worked out of his home and was reportedly quite the shy and quiet recluse, would have gotten along and made friends with the other cartoonists of the day. The book, as well as what Helen Ramnee and Rob had told me, indicated that for the most part the “gang” of cartoonists who were all published at the time in papers were riotous vets from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There was even an anecdote about Hale involved in a fight between a group of American Nazi sympathizers and a gang of cartoonists led by “Johnny Flagg” creator Jack Lee. According to others, Hale was quite ferocious even though he had to be cajoled into coming with them from the floor the cartoonists’ studio was down to the lobby. Sometime after that, he’d moved to a home studio.
Yianni’s Kouzina, or Johnny’s Kitchen, was packed by the time I got out there, and I could barely muscle through the growing crowd waiting for a table to get to Johnny’s sister Koula at the front to ask about a table or even a seat at the counter. The wait was almost always astronomical, but the food would definitely be worth it. She saw me and nodded, reaching out through the crowd to grab my coatsleeve and guide me towards the kitchen.
I’d helped out Johnny and Koula a few years ago when they thought they were being shaken down about some mousaka recipe or something like that but had really been an old Greek mob vendetta gone wrong, as if those things ever go right. Since then I always managed to get, if not a table every time, then at least a little something extra when I showed up. Kalli had convinced me to help them out at a time when I wasn’t really sure that I could handle something like that, and it really did sort of help make my name.
If nothing else, I got a chance to get a table at the most popular Greek place in Queens, and as Koula let me grab a seat at the staff table in the back corner of the kitchen with a bowl of hot lemon chicken soup, right-out-of-the-oven spinach pie, a pork chop, and peppers and a sausage doused in olive oil, I was reminded that that could be very, very satisfying.
I met Rob outside the Lower East Side apartment building the next morning, thinking about whether or not Kalli had found anything, not to mention that I was pretty sure this was going to be a complete waste of time. Rob seemed unnaturally excited, though today it wasn’t that infectious as last time. I was in work mode right now, and I knew that him fanboying all over the place was going to be supremely unhelpful.
I flipped through the keys the lawyer gave me as he hopped from foot to food with excitement. I could see he had a “Hawkblade” sweatshirt on under his coat and I rolled my eyes. “Ready?” I opened up the front door, we headed to the elevator, clicking the button. “I’m gonna be honest, I really don’t think that we’re going to find anything up there.” I could see him sag a little big. “You never know. Schultz left his drawing table the exact same way after he did the last ‘Peanuts’ strip, it was that way when he died.” Rob clicked the elevator button, peering up the open cage elevator shaft. “I think it’s busted. Hoof it?”
It was on the third floor. My phone rang as we were at the front door, and I handed the keys to Rob as I answered. It was Kalli. “Look, I’m on the way to a meeting but my assistant just brought me something you might find interesting. There was no Kirby Hale in the U.S. Military. Not Army, Air Force, the Marines, Navy, not even the freaking National Guard or the Coast Guard or the police. I thought you said he was some kind of military hero?”
“Yeah, I know. Hold on,” Inside, Robb was standing in the middle of the old living room, touching things, looking at the dusty photos on the walls. “Are you sure that Hale was in the Army?”
He put down the stack of books he’d found on the coffee table, the imprint of where it’d been left still visible. “Yeah, it was one of the big selling points of the strip, an Army veteran who fought for his country? He never talked about it and hated when other people did, but supposedly the fact that he was modest about it was well-liked. Strip sales guys never shut up about it.”
“I’ll call you later, I said into the phone, hanging up. I picked up a stack of mail in the front room off the table, slipping it into my bag to look at later. “Anyway, I’d hoped that his old army buddy contacts might lead us somewhere, but now I don’t know.”
“Well, if you think about, this isn’t a huge deal. After all, Stan Lee was Stanley Lieber, Jack Kirby was Jacob Kurtzberg, Hal Foster was Harold, they all changed their names or shortened them.”
“Who the shit are those people?”
He shook his head. “Never mind. The point is, all we need to do is find something with his real name on it, right? Isn’t that what PI’s like you do, track down real names, do stakeouts, stuff like that?”
I started flicking lights on and off, realizing that the shaded windows were keeping the whole apartment in perpetual darkness. No power was in the place, so we started to open the windows, drawing blinds and raising the shutters, letting late-morning sunlight filter in and make the old empty apartment a little less gloomy and foreboding. “You watch too many movies. Or comic books. Look, unless I can find something besides some mail, like a diploma or a lease, then we’re just gonna be spinning our wheels when it comes to his original name. If he legally changed it, then that’s different, there should be a record somewhere hopefully, a lawyer’s office. I can check around some more. So what happened that his kids aren’t cashing in on all this crap? Why keep it like this?”
Rob poked his head into what looked like a spare bedroom full of trash bags, and I followed in to start ripping the rotting old plastic open to spill old shirts and slacks everywhere. Clearly a donation to the Salvation Army never went through. “I just know that they sold the apartment and contents recently after hanging onto it for the sake of keeping the apartment off the market. This is a desirable neighborhood, my ex lived down near here and her rent was nausea-inducing. I heard he was pretty adamant about his kids not getting into comics, they’re probably gonna flip this whole building with the estate sale money. New York City real estate.”
“Ahhh.” The fashionable area was crawling with young couples, coffee shops, the type of gentrification that would normally have zoned in on the small hidden old walkup if not for the battered front door and stairs, the windows on the street level barred and shuttered.
I left the room as Rob was rifling through the closets, poked my head into one of the apartment’s dark rooms, finding what I assumed was the studio. I dug up the tiny throwaway flashlight I always carried around, a freebie from a bail bonds convention I went to last year, letting the weak light flicker around the room. There was a chair by a drawing table next to the room’s single shuttered window, and all around there were boxes and boxes of what I assumed were paper. “Hey, I found his studio.”
Rob was barely in the room before the contents of one of the boxes were in his hands, rifling through them. “Well?” I asked, kneeling down next to him to start rifling through another one. “This is amazing, it’s all sketched, thumbnails, this is awesome stuff!” He started handing me what I realized was scrap paper, stuff in faded pencils, smears of inks from what I figured were brushes and pens on the borders. “What is this? Scrap?”
“What? No, this is amazing. Some collectors are paying top-dollar for this stuff. Thumbnails from a Gray ‘Little Orphan Annie’ strip were auctioned off by American Heritage for like five grand last year.” He was stacking paper as he took it out of the boxes, moving twice as fast as me. “I still keep comics in longboxes,” he said, answering my unspoken question. “So far though, none of this looks like a finished strip.”
“What’s the last strip supposed to be, anyway?” I asked. We’d been spending so much time talking about Hale that I realized I didn’t even know exactly what it was I was going to be looking for. “Well,” Rob said, settling in, “the last strip that was published had Prince Valor and his aides looking to establish defense posts around their castle, because the invading…” I held up a hand, sighing. “Alright, I get it, so the missing one’s a follow up to that? What, the attack?”
“Well, that’s the assumption. Or it’s more planning shown. Hale was a long-form storytelling and by that point he pretty much had free reign with how long he took to reach the conclusion of a storyarc, he was Schultz-level of…”
“Alright, I get it.” Rob Wagner was smart but, I was realizing, had an annoying tendency to trail off easily. After a few hours, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that it wasn’t in the aparatment. In fact just about everything we’d seen was penciled drawings on paper, or pages from notebooks.
We were in that apartment for almost two hours, rooting through boxes, shaking out books, going through everything and anything. No completed strips, barely anything concretely “Hawkblade”-related.
“Look, the strip’s not here. You find any actual complete art?” I’d gotten a look at what a Hale strip looked like as an original, so at least I vaguely knew what to look for size- and shape-wise, and nothing we’d come across was even close. “No, a lot of thumbnails and pre-production art, but not the strip.” He looked a little dejected. “Are we gonna be able to find this before we head to print with the last volume?”
“Hell, I don’t know, why don’t you guys use some of this crap?” I waved my arms around. “There’s gotta be at least three or four books’ worth of stuff, right? I saw those volumes at the office, it’d work, right?”
He took a few sheets from one box, carefully sliding them into the empty plastic sleeves of the binder, putting the binder back into his bag. “I guess,” he said. “I’m gonna take some of these into the office with me, I still have a script to work on.” I’d forgotten that Rob was supposed to be writing the comic as well, attached to me because of his prodigious knowledge of the comic. “Hey,” I said, feeling bad at his lack of excitement, the way a parent patronizes a hurt or embarrassed child, “You got any of the comic you could show me?” I was starting to feel embarrassed at how bad I felt that he was so down. “Really?” he said, looking up. “Yeah sure, email me something,” I said, heading toward the apartment door. “Come on, let’s go, I gotta go do some things.”
We left the apartment building and parted ways on the sidewalk, Rob going back to the Manta offices to use their studio space, apparently a part of the upper floor I hadn’t seen, while I was intent on heading home after stopping off for some Chinese food. I was honestly not that surprised that we didn’t find the strip there, especially after what I’d read about Hale in the book that they’d given me.
The author of the book quoted a little too much from a 1980 interview with him in some comic book trade magazine or journal, and one point had stuck with me about how Hale said that he considered it a trade as much as an art, and refused to “dilly-dally.”
I had to admit it was a quote that made me respect the man, sitting in that apartment all day churning out work, a one-man assembly line of funnypage material. But if he was that prolific, then that meant that he would have finished the strip entirely before letting someone know that it was done.
Hopefully the stack of mail that I’d grabbed would maybe lead to something. Technically, it could be considered mail theft or mail fraud, but since I was working for the new owners of the estate, I figured I was covered. Just in case a random cop stopped me on the walk home, asked why I had a messenger bag full of mail from an apartment on the Lower East Side on me.
If it hadn’t been found immediately after his death, that meant that it’d been finished a while but held back, obviously. But why? That didn’t make any sense. The only thing I could think of was that the strip had been finished, was literally on the table ready to go, but at the last minute moved or taken.
That night I dreamed about a young prince in a weird bowl cut and tunic and pantyhose with a glowing sword, and I woke up in a start, rolling off the bed with a resounding and painful “THUMP” on the hardwood floors.
I was starting to hate comic books.
“No, wouldn’t work.”
“What, why?” I was on the phone with the Ramnee woman the next day, talking about what we found at the apartment. I floated the idea I’d talked to him by her about using the spare art instead of the missing strip.
She paused on the other end of the phone, and I could hear alongside the static the faint hum of the office’s hustle and bustle. Finally she answered, a low almost-whispering tone that sounded like she didn’t want to be heard and saw someone talk like this in a spy movie. “Because we already solicited it with the missing strip.”
“You what? Solicited?”
“Yes, it means we advertised to distributors and bookstores already. We…we might have already told the printers that we had the strip and it would be part of the volume’s manuscript. Everyone assumed it’d be in the estate’s various holdings, but now that you’ve gone through the apartment, we know that it’s really missing. That’s why we brought you in, just in case. That’s why I gave you the absolute deadline.”
I hung my head, massaging my eyes. The day had barely started for me and I already was tired and had a headache, not to mention that the day-old Chinese I’d eaten for dinner last night after getting back from Hale’s old apartment and making some calls was not sitting well. “So basically, we’re a little screwed if I can’t find it.”
“Definitely. Nothing major here with the bosses per se, all those sketches you and Rob found could definitely be used, but in the public eye, we’d be kind of fucked, and we’re still a small enough publisher that that negative press could kill who knows how many future projects.”
“Alright.” I peered at the pile of mail I’d taken and a list that Kalli Kiliaris had sent me, “Look, I’ve got a could of maybe-leads, trying to track down any old second homes or friends that could be holding on to some of Hale’s stuff, and if that’s the case, they could have the strip. I’ll keep you updated and meet with Rob tomorrow.”
We hung up, and I got to work.
Like I’d told Rob, everyone always thinks that private eye work is mostly stakeouts full of bad coffee, late nights following sleazy characters, or laying it on thick to break a witness when the cops can’t. The truth? It’s a lot of fucking phone calls, reading, and sitting around hoping someone returns your emails and voicemails. The only stakeouts I ever did were intensely tedious and made me feel like a scumbag watching some unhappy wife cheating on her awful husband, or getting bored making sure a bond investment didn’t skip town after his bail was made. Going through the mail was, in comparison, a welcome walk in the park. Most of it was the usual stuff widowers over a certain age would have gotten back then before he died, solicitations for charity donations, bills, junk condo crap, mostly nonsense.
I sorted the bills from the junk, then popped open the cheap lockblade knife I got in Chinatown and used as a letter opener, going through all of them. Even paid bills and receipts could end up being useful at times, or at least that’s what Kalli had said to me once when I’d thrown out a ton of mail after checking an apartment for a case for her by accident. I ended up elbow-deep in the trash, finding ripped envelopes mixed with old Thai and Mexican food and bathroom trash to look up where a credit card had been used the month before.
Sometimes you learn the hard way.
For the most part, it was all uneventful. Bills paid by check, in full, all the time, the only late unpaid ones the ones he got after he died. The last two in the pile though made me pause for a second, a wrong name on the right address. A former resident? But Hale had lived in this apartment for years, according to the paperwork he’d seen from the estate, so this “B. C. Mello” was…a development. Isn’t that what a real private eye would say?
Something was bothering me as I opened up both bills, one for a P.O. box and another from a bank for a safety-deposit box, the second one even more confusing. The bill was for the monthly payments on a box under the name of Kirby Hale, but in the care of the B. C. Mello name. Suddenly I sorted through more junk mail, finding one, two, three pieces of solicitations for condos, and there it was;
Another was for the name B. C. Mello.
I fumbled around for my cellphone, thumbing the glass touchscreen to get it dialing for Kalli. Her voicemail beeped after the digital voice said her name. “Hey, I need you to run another name for me through the military thing, if you can. B. C. Mello, B and C being initials, Mello with two L’s and one O. Thanks.”
I’d looked up all the names that Wagner had said to me earlier, cartoonists who’d changed their names, and for the most part, the changes from birth name to print name were pretty much just simplifications, some basically turning Jewish and Jewish-sounding names in WASP-y names. This was a pretty drastic change, but still, nothing that new.
I was curious why he’d have a P.O. box and a safety deposit box, though I’m sure there were some of Mom’s pearls or maybe World War 2 bonds in that. Maybe remnants from a mistress? Some place to get fan mail? Still, it was something, a lead I could definitely use. I dialed the phone again, and Rob answered. “Hello?”
“Hey, I think I might have something. Does the name Mello mean anything to you about Hale? A friend, his real name, another cartoonist?” I went over to the fridge, digging around for something to eat as I heard Rob on the other end of the phone scrambling around. I realized he was probably at his art desk or whatever drawing guys with swords fighting other guys with swords, and I felt a pang of remorse keeping him from actual work. Still, Ramnee had him working with me to find this strip, so I shook it off and treated him the way anyone would treat a research assistant, like a paid slave. He could be a hotshot comic book artist some other time.
“Just a hunch. You sure? Not his wife’s maiden name or anything like that? His kid’s wives maiden names?”
“Why would I know that?”
“You’re the Kirby Hale fanclub president, why wouldn’t you?”
He sighed on the other end of the line. “I can look it up if you want, I have a bunch of mail I got sent and CC’ed on when the deal to get the rights to the title happened, there’s all sorts of family names in there.”
“Perfect.” I hung up and went back to the desk with the leftover Thai I’d discovered just as the cellphone rang again, Kalli calling me back.
“You know, I should probably start charging you.”
“What, like a client?”
“No, like an idiot fee.” I could hear the office in the background, paper rustling, people busy. Kalli usually kept her office quiet even on busy days, I remember the battles to try to get in to see her about something but she was maintaining a strict line between the Outside Office and the Inside Office, and I couldn’t go into the Inside Office until things had quieted down. She claimed it helped her work, and after a certain point, I stopped caring as long as my paychecks got signed.
“Hey what’s going on over ther?”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, dummy. Do you not remember? I had you and Darryl Hathwin and that other girl, with the blue mohawk, whatshername, working on the filings for this for months. The Caramello thing? The mobster from the 40’s?”
“Vaguely?” I was starting to get an odd feeling, one that was screaming You Are So Out Of Your League.
“The enforcer for the Maribelli family in the 30’s and 40’s? Are you kidding me? It was the first thing you worked on for me, it’s why I hired you, to help sort through all the paperwork when the FBI declassified all that shit and let my office have it back finally.” I could hear the exhasperation through the phone. “Look, I’m sending some stuff over by courier, and as of right now, as your friend and far more competent worker, I’m on this with you. This involves us whether you want it or not. I have to go.” Kalli hung up, leaving me standing there with the phone by my desk with the cold takeout container.
Kirby Hale was Bobby Caramello.
“That’s what I said.”
The lawyer, Kane, stood up with his back to us, me and the Ramnee woman sitting at his desk. I’d brought the Caramello news to her, and she had dragged me and the sheaf of papers I’d brought from Kalli into a cab to the lawyer’s office, furiously tapping at her phone the entire ride.
“Alright, who knows this?” he said, turning around.
“I do, my ex-boss, you two. I haven’t told Rob yet.”
“Don’t,” Ramnee said, “he’s got enough on his plate as it is, working with you and wrapping up the first few issues of the relaunch. This…this is not good. This whole thing could blow up in our faces.”
“I’m a little confused still as to who Mr. Hale really was,” Kane said, “You said he was involved in some bank robbery?”
I looked through the packet that Kalli had sent me. “To put it mildly, yeah. Robert ‘Bobby’ Caramello. Born in Chicago in 1919, went to work for the Maribelli Family in 1930, a string of arrests for strongarming, bank robbery, extortion, only a few minor convictions, claimed he was a ‘suit salesman’ or a ‘dressmaker.’ The usual stuff when it comes to mob guys back then.
“He was on a job at the 1943 U.S. First National robbery, a shit-ton of gold in crates. Caramello, according to FBI and police reports, actually served in the US Army, ’41 to ’42, a stint in Europe. Thanksgiving day, 1943, Caramello and the gold are all gone, no trace of either. Caramello, who according to the cops used the pseudonym ‘C. B. Mello’ or ‘B. Mello’, had basically disappeared off the face of the earth. The gold, which the police had a bit of a trail on, was gone too. No one knows what happened to either.” The gold was a bit of East Coast law enforcement urban legend, with leads periodically surfacing once in a while. When her dad had been running the agency, Kalli Kiliaris had even taken a pass on it as a favor for the FBI briefly. That’s where I had come in, but that was another story for another day.
“‘Hawkblade’ debuted January 1944, but it had been picked up months earlier,” Ramnee said, “So he’d been pitching under the Hale name for a while.” Ramnee flipped through her phone. “Rob sent me all the stuff you two have found so far, as well as his own research from before you were hired. According to one of the few interviews he gave, Hale, or Caramello or whatever his name was, said he’d been trying to pitch strips since 1935. How would no one notice? What actual proof is there here?”
“There’s one promotional photo of Hale the syndicate had for years. I looked at it and he doesn’t look a thing like the mugshots of Caramello,” Ramnee handed me her phone, the side-by-side pictures showing two very different-looking me. One was an early mugshot and clearly a younger man, rough-looking with curly hair and a smooth face. The other was heavier, with a moustache, glasses, different haircut, bowed down over a drawing board. She was right, the two looked completely different. The Hale picture was barely even a profile, it’d be impossible to tell. And if he’d changed his voice or posture, used an accent or spoke deeper or lisped? Who’d know? “It was the 30’s, no one had Google or background checks of any sort. He said he was a veteran and had worked as a dressmaker before getting picked up,” she continued.
“A dressmaker? What Caramello said he did?”
“Yeah, though to be honest that doesn’t mean much. You know, suits, shirts, fancy dresses. Most mobsters had front jobs out of sham businesses in that era. Mickey Cohen in LA was famous for having an expensive suit and had boutique.”
“Well the B. C. Mello and C. Mello name we found all over Hale’s mail at his apartment matches up to the alias Caramello used to rent apartments and safety-deposit boxes around New York City. The first time he got picked up, the police reports said he gave his name as Bob Christopher Mello. B. C. Mello.”
“So nothing too definite,” Kane said.
“No, but it’s too much of a coincidence for it to not make sense. The timeline matches up, the alias being used by Hale for some mail, I mean one or two accidental fuck-ups by the Post Office, but Rob found a ton of receipts and old mail under the Mello name in the papers we got from the Hale apartment. It has to be him,” I said.
“Why would he use an old alias like that if he was trying to hide from the mob?” Helen said, “wouldn’t they know to look for it?”
“Who knows.” I was getting fidgety, hoping to get out of here and get back to work as soon as possible, get this over with. The fact that this stupid comic strip had already turned out to not be where everyone said it would be was enough of an annoyance, and making me feel like I was stuck in the cheap paperback spy books that everyone thought my job was like.
“The syndicate had a known and wanted gangster as a nationally-known cartoonist? No wonder he never wanted to meet with anyone, Jesus.” Kane was saying over and over. He sat down, looked at Ramnee, who shrugged. I got the distinct and unpleasant feeling I was about to get suckered into something. Either that, or there was some sort of weird pre-agreed upon crap going on between the two.
Turns out I was right. Or wrong. Both, neither…you know what I mean.
“Mr. Miles, we’re willing to increase your fee to keep going. We understand that this seems like it’d be complicating issues, but the fact of the matter is that the ‘Hawkblade’ reprints are big money…”
“And you wanna protect big money,” I finished. “Look, I’m not gonna lie that this seems sorta weird, and I’m sure in a couple of years when Rob or you guys do another book on this guy you’ll be including this interesting tidbit in there as well. I know I would. But honestly, I’m only hesitant because the US First National gold thing’s an urban legend for a reason. Hale or whatever his name is probably either fenced it himself, lost it, or never did steal it from the bank.
“My ex-boss and her agency said they’d help me, she’s got a bit of history with this case. The pricetag’s new number is gonna be a bit more than just my fee.”
“That’s fine,” he said, picking up the phone. “We’ll be in touch with her firm and get a corporate account set up. I’m assuming you’ll still be working with Rob?” At this point you could assume I was going to put on a cape and fly out the window too Holy-Fuck-What-Land, and it wouldn’t be too far off from the truth. Stuff was going too fast too soon, and I didn’t like it.
“Yeah sure, whatever.”
The Ramnee woman, who had buried herself in her phone again the instant Kane started talking, got up suddenly. “If the focus is going to be on the reprint, we might have to push a few issues of the new thing back, especially if you’re gonna need Rob full-time on this to make the deadline.” She walked out, leaving me behind with Kane.
“You’ll have to excuse her. Unless you’re in the know you wouldn’t know, but well, we’re trying to line up a ‘Hawkblade’ movie so having the books ready to go and in the marketplace before the news is official is a big thing.”
I got up to leave. “Look, with Kalli Kiliaris my workload’s cut significantly on this, we’ll have the strip soon, pretty sure. The only thing I’d be worried about is word of this getting out, having to deal with urban legend treasure-hunter types.” I’d run into them before, big on hiring guys like me to lead them around. It’d died out after the Geraldo thing in the 80’s but when I’d first started working for Kalli they’d come in a lot, wanting “professional consulting” services to help them blowtorch a basement safe open in a house that they’d basically broken into on the Lower East Side or in Staten Island.
“You’re not worried about, you know, mobsters?” the lawyer practically whispered, and I had to fight to keep from laughing in his face.
“What, Caramello’s old crew? They’re probably all dead or they took the gold from him, and he’s dead already, why would they care? I’m telling you, this will get annoying, I’m sure someone will bother me, but it won’t be anyone as dangerous as a mob hitman, probably just more fucking Internet nerds digging around.”
Out on the street, I looked around, trying to figure out exactly where the hell I was. The car ride over with Helen had thrown me off, and I had to admit, my inner map and compass weren’t the greatest. I found a subway station that would, eventually, get me home, and descended underground.
I was starting to hate comics.
“Okay, thanks.” I hung up the phone, threw the notepad back onto the desk, and put my head down on the wood surface next to it. Trying to track down any level of activity regarding the Mello or Hale names around the old apartment or in general was turning out to be almost impossible. Checks from a third party paid the rent on Hale’s apartment for years from a bank that didn’t exist anymore, and after that it’d been wire transfers, and no one was going to be sharing private banking information with me without something like a court warrant or whatever. The various owners of the building, at least the ones that were alive still, had no clue what I was talking about when I finally got in touch with them, or who Kirby Hale was.
Rob had been silent for a few days, so I walked over to the fridge while on my phone. “Yeah?” he muttered after a few rings, sounding distracted.
“Any luck on your end?” I found a frozen Weight Watchers meal, a leftover from an old girlfriend, and proceeded to try and rip it open to put in the microwave with one hand while holding the phone.
“Not really, though I’m actually heading out of here for a work thing soon that might help. You see the email I sent you?”
“You send me email?”
“Yeah I’ve sent you a bunch, Helen gave it to me,” I heard faintly, like he’d put the phone down and was yelling at it from a few feet away. “I’m giving a talk at a museum in Ohio about comic books for some librarians, and they might have a few things there about Hale or Mello or whoever, I think. Look,” the voice got normal again, the phone picked up, “I’m out the door for a few days, but check it out. Gotta go!”
The microwave beeped as he hung up, and I stared at the kitchen counter for a second. I’d put the turn-up remnants of the frozen meal down next to the pile of mail I’d taken from Hale’s apartment, forgotten after the whole realization of Hale being Caramello. I scattered the pile on the counter, the bills and junk that I’d discarded and ignored, staring at the names and addresses.
The NOT AT THIS ADDRESS sticker was barely sticking out, the obnoxious orange of the label the Post Office used the only thing that made it stand out amongst the pale white of envelopes and ugly beige of my countertop.
I pulled the envelope out of the pile, the rest of the mail scattering onto the counter and down to the floor as I walked back to my desk, grabbing at my pocket knife and slitting the envelope open to pull the letter out, stiff with age and something else, moisture. The envelope, I realized, was hard and crinkly. It’d been caught in the rain before being brought inside, and a part of my brain started to think to when the last time it rained long enough for mail to get trapped outside and soaked.
It was from an alarm company, reminding whoever lived at the previous address that the payment for a system installed in an apartment listed below had been disconnected due to a lack of payment. The date was a few weeks ago, right when I remembered the big rainstorm had hit us.
The address was in the middle of nowhere in the Bronx, past the furthest the subway even went. I’d been there once or twice, enough to know where it was, not enough to have any kind of connections or idea of what to expect.
Still, t was something, and at this point I needed something to happen. The deadline was starting to approach and I was feeling a little bad that I’d spent two days doing nothing but hoping someone smarter than me would call with a clue or a tip, while I read all the comics that Rob had left for me at my place and ate pizza while avoiding Ramnee’s phone calls.
I reached for my phone, swiping for Kalli’s number as I was out the door, down the stairs, the front door slamming closed behind me. “Hey, you need to meet me in the Bronx.”
“Uh huh, sure.” I could hear paper shuffling in the background. “Look, you and I both know that this comic thing is dying out. The kid sent me that email, and while it might pan out with something, Caramello’s going back to being another thing just left to…wait, why exactly are you asking me to come to the Bronx?” She was excited now and the shuffling of paper had stopped, whatever she was doing put down as I was out the building door and on the street, grabbing a free paper, looking for a bus stop. “What do you have?”
By the time I got to the apartment it was dark already. I’m sure stopping to get something to eat and then answer text messages from an on-and-off girlfriend really didn’t help, but Kalli had told me she was running behind coming to meet me there anyway, so I figured I could afford to dilly-dally around.
It was a piece of paper we were after, it’s not like it could up and run away, I told myself.
At the front of the building, a shithole of a place that didn’t even have the odd comforting familiarity of young teenagers hanging out around the stairs or the lobby, I stood around for a bit, checking my phone to see if anything came in from Kalli.
“Hey, man!” I heard a voice yell, a ways away from me, and I turned towards it.
The first rule of people trying to get your attention in New York City, especially in places that are dumps, is never respond. Especially if the person is relatively close to you and uses “man,” “buddy,” or “bro.” All they want is to get close enough to you to try to strongarm you. From further away though? Totally fine.
At least, that’s what I thought as I turned to the voice, my instincts somehow overriding common sense. The hit came from behind me, not in front of me, the second guy’s voice just a “hfff” of exhertion from punching me in the back of the head and then shoulder-checking me to make sure I stay down on the ground. His shadow made the space over me darker, blocking out the ambient nighttime light of streetlights, windows, and I heard the first voice, again from further away.
“Watch him,” it hollered, and I tried to look up, seeing someone, young, white, in snappy “business casual” trying desperately to stuff a rag into a can of gasoline, standing under one of the windows of the front of the big old building. The DUM DUM of pressure on the can was somewhat humorous, watching this guy try to get the can over his head without the soaked rag brushing against his head. Whoever Tweedledee and Tweedledum were, I’m assuming they were going for some kind of Molotov cocktail-effect on the first floor. Of course, I thought, it’d help if they lit the rag up first before throwing the non-breakable metal can into the window of the first floor apartment.
The barred window, I realized.
The guy standing over me nudged me with a knee. “Hey, eyes down asshole. Hurry up!” he yelled.
“Relax!” the other guy said, realizing his mistake. So much for that much luck in my favor. He held the can aloft with one hand, the other poking around his pants pocket for a lighter or something. Briefly, I realized that if they did manage to set the first floor of this apartment building on fire, two things could happen.
One possible outcome involved the entire building going up in flames. But, as I thought about it, on all fours on the sidewalk, the likelyhood of that happening was nil.
Why the hell would anyone want to set this old dump on fire? If the outside denizens of the street and stoop had been chased off, it’d explain where everyone was, though again, this brought me back to why the hell anyone wanted to burn this building down. Unless of course…
No. No goddamn way. No way in hell that this had anything to do with that stupid comic. I shook my head there on the sidewalk. “No fucking way,” I muttered as the guy over me kicked me in the side, though the force wasn’t really that much.
“What the fuck is going on?” I heard a familiar voice yell suddenly from down the block. The tap-tap-tap of sensible business bootlike shoes, Kalli Kiliaris’s footwear walking and then running at us. “Ben?”
“Back up, lady,” I heard the one with the gas can say as he struggled, “Just back off, nobody gets hurt.”
“You stupid piece of shit!” she said, swinging one arm suddenly. The asp snapped hard on his one arm, buckling it. Ten inches of metal and plastic hurt like hell, I remember her jokingly using it around the office when I worked for her.
I never even saw her take her hand out of her pocket.
“Holy shit!” he yelled, the gas can tumbling out of his grip, dripping and banging against his head, the smell of fuel everywhere. The thin metal container and rag smashed on the sidewalk as he turned to try to run after his friend, the arm Kalli smashed with the 10-inch collapsible baton dangling at his side. “Wait the fuck up!”
“Goddamn idiots,” she muttered. “Sorry, I drove up, finding parking was hell. What the hell was that?”
My phone buzzed as we stood there, and I read the text from Wagner, scrolling through it a few times and rolling it over in my brain. Huh.
“Never mind, maybe I do.”
The cops took their sweet time picking up Mr. I-Don’t-Know and Mr. Where’s-My-Lawyer while we sat there, Kalli doing most of the talking while I hung back and texted with Wagner furiously, trying to look like someone with a real job that a cop wouldn’t want to actually deal with.
“Come on,” Kalli said, waving me down the block, “they’re not going to let us in tonight, so let’s get something to eat and come back later. A car’s gonna sit on the spot here in case someone tries something.”
I didn’t feel good leaving the apartment, even for another few hours, so I called Helen Ramnee as we strolled, let her know that there was definitely a lead or two going on that would lead us to, if not the comic, then at least some juicy details for her to put in the book. It seemed to help her un-frazzle, which made me feel a little bit productive as we strolled up to a no-name diner a few blocks away. “I saw this place as I parked,” Kalli said noncommittally, walking in and, like every other place in New York, started talking Greek to the old man at the counter. A big fat grin split his face as he responded, and I rolled my eyes.
My former boss and big-shot PI company owner still couldn’t help showing off that she used to be a Greek girl from Queens working in a diner through high school, hoping one day to, at the very least, not end up with four ungrateful kids and a church schedule to rival March Madness. Every diner in New York, she’d tell me periodically, was either owned or run by Greeks, and it almost always worked out for her. A few bucks off the tab, an extra slice of pie, something like that.
Of course, it also still helped her cultivate one of the best information networks in New York City, because who knows more than a nosy diner cook who overhears every cop and late-night weirdo at the counter talking about work?
“So what makes you think that it’s in there?” she asked as we sat down, the same slighty-dingy plastic drinking glasses of water and ice in front of us that you find in every diner in New York, a smiling older man bringing us coffee cups. Kalli and him exchanged some words in Greek before she looked back at me, putting the now-collapsed asp and her cell phone on the table by the sugar and salt-n-pepper shakers.
I rubbed the back of my head. Those kids might have been punks, but the one had definitely thought far too long and hard about punching someone in the back of the head, because I was still a little dizzy. “Who knows. At this point, it’s the only lead I’ve got, and honestly I feel a little bad that it’s taken so long to get anything besides a faint tie-in to some weird old organized crime urban legend.”
The coffee was awful, even with the four spoonfuls of sugar I poured into it, but the harsh dark burn of it helped ease the throbbing in my head and steady my breathing as my side recovered a bit. “I mean Jesus Christ, I was looking for a piece of paper, I got all this cash from these people and I got almost nothing out of it. They’ll get even less if I don’t find something.”
She didn’t say anything, checking her phone as I talked. “What was that text you got before?”
“Hmm? Oh that, the guy I’m working with, said he found some weird clue or whatever. He says it’s tied into the whole mob thing, so I guess we’ll see whatever it is when he gets back tomorrow.” I scrolled through my phone. “Something about the ‘Hawkblade’ fan club and fan prizes with clues? He’s a terrible texter, I can’t really tell. It can wait.” I pushed away from the booth. “Whatever, I think I just want to go home at this point, the apartment can wait.”
Kalli shook her head. “Fuck no, Ben. Are you kidding me, after getting me to come all the way down here and then probably break that stupid wannabe-gangster’s arm?” She stood up too, tossing a few dollar bills down on the table.
“Let’s go see what’s inside.”
The cops were gone, clearly having decided after a while that it wasn’t worth it to maintain a presence after after all. We’d circled the block a few times in her car to make sure no cop car actually had been left behind in some misplaced sense of duty, Kalli and I got into the lobby of the building, a dingy old apartment building that still had enough decrepit pre-war decor going on to almost seem like a forgotten era-sorta place, the kind of building you’d think would be part of a mysterious cult or some kind of haunting.
It wasn’t thought, it was just another old building forgotten by time and by just about everyone except the tenants, who probably paid next to nothing for rent, holding out generation to generation until the last of them died off or moved away, letting this get turned into some kind of three-thousand-a-month condominium with a doorman. It didn’t feel that far off in the lobby, but for a moment, it still hadn’t happened.
I’d dug the piece of mail I’d managed to keep in my pocket this whole time out, looking for the apartment number. Dutifully trudging up to the door, the corner apartment door yielded to the mechanical skeleton key Kalli fished out of her coat pocket, what looked like an electric toothbrush had sex with a power drill and sounded almost as loud. The apartment was, unlike the other one, the complete opposite, with simple neat furniture, a few books, a TV, an unused kitchenette, and a bedroom with a closet full of moldy old clothes. There was a layer of dust on almost everything, and the power was clearly out. Unlike the mess in the Hale apartment, this felt almost minimalist, less a home than a hotel room. I’d swiped the flashlight on my phone awake, while Kalli clicked a small light from her pocket on. In the dark, we looked through cabinets, mostly-empty bookshelves, and under pillows, and wherever we could. At one point, I opened the closed curtains, the ambient outside light of the night came through to help a little, though, I admitted to myself, we were still rooting through a strange dark apartment that had been closed up for years in the middle of the night.
We’d been in there for just a short while, maybe twenty minutes before Kalli came across the strip. After all this, I wasn’t even the one who found it, hidden in a book on baseball under the TV, in a clear plastic envelope between two pieces of tracing paper.
“Well, that was…easy?” I ran my flashlight beam over it, black ink and, still visible, a few jots and dashes of pencil and white paint or corrective fluid on the paper, still mostly white after all these years. “Here,” Kalli handed it to me, “I’m gonna have some of my guys come over here, you should take that.” She put her flashlight away and fished a cellphone out instead, dialing.
“Why?” I didn’t quite know how to hold the whole thing, which felt stupid to just have in my hands but wasn’t rigid enough to put under my arm. Kalli ignored me, “Hey, it’s me. Look, see if you can call Alphonso and maybe Rich…they just got back? Good, put Rich on. Hey,” she turned away from me, talking. Alphonso and Rich, I vaguely remembered from when I worked there, were two of the older employees, an ex-cop and a former ambulance driver. She walked out the still-open door and stood in the hallway. “Look, you should probably go. Once Rich and Al are done here for me, the Feds are gonna swing by.”
“The Feds? Like, you mean the FBI? Why?” I asked, starting down the stairs towards the lobby. While I’m sure my former boss had a decent reason, I definitely didn’t want to be around to deal with law enforcement from the federal government. I could barely stomach being a private investigator.
My experience with FBI agents, limited as it was, just brought back weird sour memories of a time when I worked for Kalli and having to explain research methodology to some humorless fart my age but clearly already envisioning a trophy wife and blood pressure medication in a Florida condominium, bragging about having been an “agent” to get dates and drinks at local bars. He wanted to know how I’d managed to track down some name they’d been tracking for over two years, so obviously trying to explain my Google-fu was too much. It hadn’t gone too well, I’d gotten a lecture over it somehow, and I ended up deciding the less I had to deal with federal bureaus of investigating how to flush the toilet, the better.
Kalli looked back down at her phone, texting, swiping, typing. “I might have called them once we discovered Hale was Caramello, so they’re interested in what they can find.”
“You ‘might’ have called them? Come on Kalli, really?”
“They might want the strip too, so you should get it to that Ramnee woman, out of the way. They might think it’s evidence about the gold.”
“Jesus, you’re still on that?”
“Look, I know you don’t think it’s real, God fucking knows you talked about it enough to everyone who would listen when you still worked for me, but I think Caramello was a part of the gold heist, and that there’s a clue as to what happened to it somewhere in his things. This apartment’s the first real untouched clue in who knows how long, I gotta try it.” She sighed. “Just get outta here, I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I walked slowly down the stairs, awkwardly holding the strip, until I got outside. In the colder air, I stood around, not knowing what to quite make of what Kalli had just said and done, and feeling, quite honestly, like this was all a little anti-climactic. I shouldn’t have beens surprised honestly about Kalli wanting to get back on the whole gold thing, but it felt like just another insane level that had suddenly been added to this whole case, right at the end.
Something was bugging me as I walked off in the cool night, calling Ramnee and, after telling her the good news, listening to her rattle off instructions of where she could meet me in an hour to pick up the strip. Something that I couldn’t shake off, that made me think about the other apartment, the one in the Hale name, with all that other art and all that other stuff, clearly the life that Caramello had been living by then.
Why was it hidden here?
The knocking on the door was consistent, but muted, someone just rapping over and over and over and over.
I groaned, rolling off the couch, spilling the cat off me. I’d gotten in finally after meeting with Helen Ramnee at some restaurant at a godforsaken hour, handing off the strip art for her to slide it, reverently, into an art case
Kalli was standing there, with an envelope and a Starbucks tray with two cups in one hand, the other now again on her ever-present phone. She shoved the tray at me, “your payment’s in the envelope, I’ll call you later. Gotta go, bye!” and walked off, down the hallway to the elevator. I was barely awake as I took a step back into the apartment, a tad confused, and pushed the door closed with my shoulder.
I put the coffee cups down on the desk by the computer, picking one up. I put it to my lips, and nothing came out, only a heavy THUD rattling around in the cup.
Huh, weird. I popped the cap off the cup of coffee, and a cellphone was inside.
I opened up the envelope, sliding the contents out, a check for the Manta Books job…and a piece of notebook paper, stapled to a business card. The business card was from Kalli’s office, with a phone number scrawled on the back of it. The notebook paper had five words written quickly in some sort of old black marker across it, underlined.
APARTMENT BUGGED USE CUP PHONE
I went back to the phone on the desk, which was flashing. No vibrate, no ringer, just a notification blinking on the cheap smartphone’s screen. I tapped the screen, still covered by the manufacturer’s plastic cover, and the message came up. It was, I assumed, from Kalli.
“the fbi has your apartment bugged for some reason, use this phone to text me, its a long story ill talk to you soon if anyone asks tell them to talk call your lawyer, my lawyer, thats his number on the card”
I stared at what was, for lack of a better term, a burner phone, when a ding went off on the other side of my apartment. It was my other cellphone, as as I looked at that one in my hands, I held the other. Rob wanted to meet. He’d found something out about the strip.
What the overflowing fuck was happening in my apartment might have to wait. Hopefully, the coffee in the second cup was real, and still hot.
I sat on the couch in the back lounge of Kalli’s office, the employee area where I knew she and other people who worked here sometimes slept. I figured it was as safe a place as ever, especially since apparently, my apartment was now some kind of den of spies. I’d paced around silent for a day and a half, waiting only for my payment from Manta to go through before getting cash, a bag, and taking off out the back service entrances of the building to take what I felt was a pretty complex route to throw off anyone following me.
She walked in, plopping the bag of takeout on the one table by the door.
“Seriously, you should’ve just stayed there, now they’ll definitely know you’re onto them since you’re in the wind.”
I picked through the bag at the lo mein and soda, “Who says that, anyway? ‘In the wind’?”
“Ben I’m serious.”
I cracked open one of the containers, and started digging in. “Look, come on, what’re those feds going to do, they don’t have any jurisdiction, it’s just them probably being paranoid and wanting to steal glory about the Caramello thing.” The food was from The Best Chinese, an awfully named local place, and probably one of the only Chinese food places left in Astoria.
“It may not be the FBI bugging your place.” Kalli sat down at the other end of the couch, picking at her kung pow chicken and rice. “I found it when I did a random sweep of my car when I was at your place, just a quick search for listening frequencies…”
“Wait wait wait. You do what?”
“Standard stuff, now stop talking.” Kalli put a hand up and continued. “Anyway, I picked up a frequency for listening, and the one I found, which was the one listening in on you,” here she pointed at me, “listening in on you talking to yourself and the cat, I might add, was pretty weak and spotty. Combined with the fact that there weren’t any other cars around on the block, made me realize it was from one of those spy store kits.”
“Huh,” I picked at some chicken and noodle, “So who, the mob? Those guys who jumped us at Hale building?”
“Jumped you,” she corrected me, putting her food down. “Probably, maybe someone who’s in whatever rinky-dink ‘family’ these guys think they are who’se always kept an ear out for the money all these years, because I’m sure some of them totally believe in it, after all these years, a sort of mafia urban legend. Hey, did you ever talk to Wagner about whatever it was he wanted to talk to you about? He’s been calling here looking for you.” Kalli asked me.
“Phone tag, with them getting the comic and him getting new deadlines, no time. Figured at this point it’s moot, no rush, honestly.”
“Yeah, I doubt that.” Kalli picked up her chicken and headed out the door. “Stay here as long as you want, Ben, but figure it out.” She left, leaving me sitting on the couch, by myself this time.
Part of me wanted to go back to my apartment, go through every nook and cranny in the place, find the bug or bugs, and just be a jerk screaming into them to blow out eardrums or something. Another part told me to hide out here, wait it out until Kalli or someone told me the FBI were done with the case or the mob were all swept up in a hair grease smuggling ring. A final part of me was insistent on calling Mike back to find out what he wanted, mostly to satisfy a weird itch I was feeling about this case. And as much as I hated it, that last part was going to probably win, if only to satisfy what felt like an incomplete ending.
Kalli had moved on, working with the FBI to sift through what they could about Caramello’s life and tying it to anything mob-related, but I had a different dirty footpath through the comic shop I wanted to follow.
I pulled my phone out, and as I continued to shovel food in my mouth in the tiny back lounge, I texted Wagner. Time to find out what he knew and where it lay in this whole thing, I thought.
“Why can’t we just look at the copy in the book?” I was holding the Hawkblade collection that Wagner had brought with us to look at as we sat in the coffee shop. After we’d talked on the phone, I’d taken off from Kalli’s office to take a roundabout route to meet up with Rob, reasonably sure I hadn’t been followed. Not that I was worried about some kind of mobster, who I was reasonably sure were the group behind bugging my apartment, tailing me. I was more concerned with whatever babysitter Kalli would have tagging along, he or she would just get in the way.
“Won’t show up in the book version, we need to get in close to find it. Back in the day, strips in papers were way bigger, so it’d have been easier to see.” Rob and I had finally touched base about what he’d wanted to tell me, and honestly, it sounded pretty stupid.
“So what, the code is hidden in the art, and you’re supposed to just figure it out? I’m not like, a crypto guy or anything, but don’t you need like a master key or something to be able to work on a code?”
“But that’s just it, there was a key, in the very first few strips!” Rob’s theory, which some fan who knew a guy who’s dad had known a guy, was that the newspaper strips had some sorta fan-aimed code hidden in them, for people to look for, secret art clues.
“What’s it gonna show us then?” The waitress brought us our coffee and donuts, “Caramello’s gold?”
We met up at the publisher’s office, where the last page had been taken after it went through the printer’s, now up on the wall. After a lot of cajoling, Ramnee agreed to let us see it, though she wasn’t happy to see us, holding a magnifying glass and wearing white cloth gloves like a museum curator. “This is ridiculous” she muttered while Wagner over the piece of paper with a magnifying glass and the flashlight from his cellphone, staring at every inch. He’d look at something on his phone once in a while, then go to look at the little notepad he’d pulled from his pocket, while I sat at someone’s desk and answered irate text messages from Kalli. He talked as he worked.
“So, a guy who’d been one of the first to actively buy Hale art told a friend of mine at a con about it…”
“A convention, a comic book convention, wear costumes, buy books and original art, anyway! So the dude who’d been buying that original art at first…”
“Terrence Park” Ramnee chimed in. “Right, Park,” Wagner continued, “So he told my friend Aisha, who’s a rep for an art dealer, that he thought maybe they were watermarks and that they might be fakes he’d bought, but then like a week later, Aisha tells me that the guys calls her again, and that it’s actually a code, and he’d found references to it in some early fanzines and newspapers that used to run the strip back in the day.” This whole thing was starting to loop back to ridiculous, just like when it’d started, after we’d petered out and gotten a little more serious with the gangsters. I was about to close my eyes and act like I was asleep just to annoy them when Wagner spoke. “There.”
I got up to walk over to the desk. He was stabbing at the paper, at one of the squiggles on the second panel, the second box. Helen Ramnee was just staring at the paper. “Holy shit.” There, in the black ink swirls of someone’s cape, was a small sequence of numbers, followed by a letter. Wagner was writing it down excitedly, “I told you so, I told you so! Holy shit this is so awesome! He really did it, we found the code!”
“Holy shit that’s small.” I could barely see it even with his finger and the light there. “How was anyone going to notice that?”
“I told you, they used to be bigger.” Rob said. “You’d be surprised how big the comics section used to be in newspapers, and ‘Hawkblade’ was a big comic, took up almost a quarter of the page sometimes, a kid with enough time and an observant eye could definitely find this.”
I snatched the paper away from him while he and the Ramnee woman talked excitedly, tuning them out. Something about going back to confirm it on all the other strips they had. I stared at the code, something simple, but easy for people to figure out. Couldn’t be a book cipher, couldn’t be something that would involve a lot of words.
I scrambled around on the desk for paper and a pen, writing out the alphabet and then numbering it, one through twenty-six, A through Z. I tried it.
I F X B V G
“That doesn’t make any sense, it wouldn’t be purposely just the alphabet” Wagner said. “That’s right,” Ramnee pointed to the G at the end, “That’s probably the cipher, like the letter G is important. Redo it, use G as number one.”
“Yeah, hold on,” Rob dug through his little notebook, “My guy, he said it was usually simple and easy stuff that he’d reference in the strip before this. The last arc before this strip had to do with a missing code key involving some kind of magic letter, so, makes sense?”
I redid the numbers and letters, and this time got something else.
O L D H B
“Old HB?” Rob scratched his head. “Maybe a place he used to go to?”
“You’d know more than anyone if there was any place with those initials, if you don’t recognize it…” Ramnee sighed and sat down on the desk. “That might not be the cipher, I mean, it makes sense that it is, but Old HB?”
“What’s old that he had, that starts with those initials? A house, maybe?” I was spinning my wheels at this point, not entirely sure just how serious to keep taking this. For all I know, and looking at the Ramnee woman she was starting to think it too, this was just a dumb joke an old mobster has played on us all.
“Well, he did talk about his old family house in the one interview he did, but…”
“But what?” I said, perking up.
“I mean how much of that stuff is true? I mean since it turned out he was, you know, a gangster and all.” Rob looked almost sheepish, like he’s recommended we go try to kiss the mob guys who’d jumped me.
“Where is it?” I asked, feeling like I was going to regret this immensely.
Flushing, deep in Queens, was quiet, asleep. The mailbox of the house was empty, the motion sensor of the front light clicking on as we walked back and forth on the porch of the house. “Are you sure this is it?” Helen Ramnee said, peering through the window. “It doesn’t look like an old house, it looks like someone lives here.” It did, I thought, feeling up around the doorframe while Rob looked up and down the dark quiet street. The windows were covered but clean, the porch was clean, the door looked cheap-ish but new. There were stickers on the storm door I was holding open I realized, an American flag and a POW “We Support The Troops” one. The lawn, small as it was, was neat, cut. I felt something cool and small by the top right corner, like it was stuck down with tape, and I pulled it down. “Thought so,” I smirked, holding the key up.
I clicked the door open, stepping inside quietly, the other two behind me. No alarm, no panel blinking with a silent one either, just a quiet house, mostly empty, boxes and what looked like generic rental-place footage oddly scattered around the front room. A small kitchen table, a couch, a couple of folding chairs. Ramnee walked up the stairs to the second floor while Rob and I walked into the back, towards what we realized was a kitchen, mostly empty, just a sink and the spaces for the fridge and oven.
We went back into the front living room, Rob kneeling down at the boxes. “Hawkblade books, some sketchbooks, sketchpads, photos,” he handed me one, old and greyed with age in a dirty frame. It was two men in suits, posing with chests out like they were puffing up, proud and powerful. They were gangsters, I realized, one of them was probably a young Bobby Caramello. I heard Helen come back downstairs. “Nothing up there but dust and a bed you still need to put together,” she said, looking around. “I don’t think anyone actually lives here, it’s like…”
“It’s like someone moved in and then just sorta checks in once in a while” I said.
“So what’s here, just a bunch of his old junk? Someone else’s old junk? Rob?” I turned around to look at him crouched by the boxes.
“I…” he stood up. “I don’t know? I mean some of these look like they could be his old sketchbooks, and I know that some of these photos are him probably, but,” he shrugged his shoulders, lowering himself back down again to sit down on the floor.
“I just wanted there to be something, you know? I mean, like in ‘Hawkblade,’ an adventure? God that sounds so fucking stupid, but back when I was doing all the fanzines, it was like, trying to get myself in that world, in those adventures…fuck, nevermind. It’s stupid.” He let himself fall to lay back on the floor with a thud, and I cocked my head. He heard it too, getting up. “I don’t think this house has a basement.”
We moved the boxes all against the fall wall, crouching around the spot where Wagner’s head had hit the floor. The wood panels felt like they had give there, like a sponge, compared to the rest of the floor. I fumbled in my pocket for my multi-tool, sticking the knife blade into the space between two of the panels. It didn’t give, but did stick up in there and Ramnee reached around to grab one of the bigger books from a box, hammering down on it, driving it into the wedge. After a few whacks, I kicked at it, and a chunk of the panels popped up. Rob pulled it and off, a single piece that had been set in like a hatch. He turned his cellphone flashlight into the gap, and we looked inside the hole.
It was a nice little cubby size, and I reached in and found the lockbox, just a little metal fireproof case, one of those that you’d keep important papers in. I shook it, the latch popping easily. Something was inside, and with Rob and Helen’s phone shining on it, I opened it up, dumping papers out on the floor. She sorted through them, frowning. “They’re receipts, I think.” She handed one to me, the logo at the top old, some hospital in New Jersey that I didn’t recognize. I picked up another one, some foundation, scanning it before I realized what they were. “They’re donation receipts,” I said quietly, looking up. “Look at the amounts, look how many of them.”
“Holy shit,” Rob said, “This is is. This was the gold, whatever he got from the bank job, he just…he just gave it all away over the years.”
“What?” Helen said, “That…that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Probably liquidated it as soon as they could, and he took off with the whole thing instead of wanting to split it with the other guys,” I said. “They never found any of the guys from that job, I’m gonna bet they’re dead. I did some quick mental math, “Yeah, this looks like it’s all of it, give or take a few thou, probably for one of those apartments, stuff for the fake name and background.”
“So what do we do?” Rob said, “just put it all back?”
“Not much else we can do,” Helen said, sweeping up the papers and putting them back in the box, putting it back in the space. “I mean, the cover’s probably busted,” she said, putting the chunk of floor panels back over it. Using the tool to bust it open had made a nasty crack in one of the panels, and I pushed some of the boxes over it.
We left, and I locked the front door and put the key back where I’d found it, heading back to Rob’s car up the block. None of us spoke.
I got the package in the mail, with the old “my address as the sender’s address, some nonsense address the sendee” trick. The Post Office and the Feds hated it, but as long as the post office still sent and delivered mail it’d still probably work.
I’d been home for a few days, not really leaving the apartment except to step into the hallway and pay the delivery guy. Kalli had messaged me to let me know the Feds had stopped caring where I was or who I was talking to, which meant they’d dropped any interest in the whole Hale/Caramello thing. It was stamped from some post office in the city, I didn’t pay too much attention as I ripped the envelope open, curious.
It was a stack of comic pages with “Hawkblade By Kirby Hale” in the familiar script at the bottom left of each sheet. They were original comics, I realized, unseen ones. One smaller piece of paper fell from the bottom of the pile, and I picked it up. It was a single page from a sketchbook, thicker paper, the kind I’d seen Rob use, the script crisp and uniform capital letters, like from a comic book.
“GOT YOUR ADDRESS FROM THE INTERNET, LONG STORY. THANKS FOR NOT TOTALLY COVERING UP THE HOLE IN THE FLOOR SO I COULD GO IN AFTER YOU GUYS LEFT, I’D BEEN LOOKING FOR IT SINCE I GOT THE HOUSE. SHOULD HAVE LOOKED A LITTLE HARDER IN THERE, WOULD’VE FOUND THESE. I KEPT ONE FOR MYSELF, MEMORIES I GUESS. MY MOM TOLD ME HE’D BEEN MY DAD, I KNEW HIM AS ONE OF OLD BOYFRIENDS. ANYWAY, I ALWAYS LOVED COMICS. TELL ROB WAGNER I’M A BIG FAN, CAN’T WAIT TO SEE HIS HAWKBLADE WORK. – RICK MELLO”
That explained who was maintaining the house.
Costa Koutsoutis lives and works in New York. When not banging on the keyboard like a savage space-ape, he’s chasing the cat, teaching writing, and drinking a lot of coffee.
You can find out more at costak.wordpress.com.
Manta Books brings in not-that-efficient PI/part-time bondsman Ben Miles to track down a missing piece of art from a legendary newspaper cartoonist, a seemingly-simple job involving newspaper cartoons and digging through boxes of paper. But nothing is what it seems when it comes to a Ben Miles case, and more than likely, he’s gonna end up getting his ass kicked over a comic book, especially when the mob gets involved.