chapter 1

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 backstock 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.”

“Right, whatever.”

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