Black ink a ben miles my.., p.5
Black Ink: A Ben Miles Mystery Novella, p.5
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.
Black Ink: A Ben Miles Mystery Novella by Costa Koutsoutis / Mystery & Detective have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on15 votes