chapter 5

“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.

“No, why?”

“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.

Holy shit.

Kirby Hale was Bobby Caramello.


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