“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.