Black Ink: A Ben Miles Mystery NovellaCosta Koutsoutis / Mystery & Detective
by Costa Koutsoutis
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.