chapter 3

“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.

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