Monthly Archives: March 2012

Where Oh Where

Where Oh Where (2012)
Ryan Everett Felton

            My mother asks me when I’m gonna give her a grandkid. I tell her to shut up and hang up the phone. She was mostly just kidding, I know, and I feel bad about it – not about hanging up on her or telling her “shut up.” About being her only hope for ever having grandkids. It’s a lot of pressure to put on one guy, but here I am – the only son she has left. Too bad for her.

That’s when there’s a knock at the door. No one hardly ever comes by, so I assume it’s one of the neighbors’ friends again, drunk and turned around. I step over the pile of jackets and shoes I swear to God I’m taking to Goodwill very, very soon to answer it, and to my surprise, it’s Katie.

Katie lives across the street, in one of the townhouses. She’s one of these sort-of pretty girls you know is way more interested in you than you are in her. Not just romantically, but in general. She listens when you talk. Or she’s really good at looking like it.

“Hey, Jeremy,” she says. Her hands are clasped together. She’s wrapped up in a poofy coat, hunched over like she just came in from the Arctic wilderness. She looks distraught – I think I see smudged eyeliner on her cheek, just a spot she must’ve missed cleaning it up. No move is made to cross my entryway, and I don’t offer to let her in. I hope this is quick, whatever it is.

“You got a second?” she asks. I nod. See, Katie is my buddy Taylor’s cousin. I had never met her or even heard her name uttered once until I started living here. Everyone had a good laugh and thought it was so damn cool when I moved in across the street from her. “Small world,” they said. All I could think of was how now I would have to acknowledge her somehow every time we passed each other.

But she’s never come over before. Still standing in the doorway, I ask her what’s up.

“Uh, listen,” she says, and I swear her voice is cracking. “I know it’d be asking a lot of you, but – um – if you aren’t terribly busy could you help me look for Gibbons?”

“Gibbons?”

“My dog,” she says.

Oh. I think, You mean the dog that keeps me up all night yapping? That fucking dog? Instead, I say, “What happened?”

“I left the door open carrying in groceries,” she says, “and I guess he got out. I’ve been looking for him for an hour.” Another quake in her throat. She clears it and dabs subtly at her nose. “It’s gonna be dark soon. I… If I’m out there past dark, I’d just like to have some company. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

Of course I have to.

“No, it’s okay,” I say, bending over to grab one of the jackets littering the floor. “Really. I need to get out anyway.” And that’s true. A walk wouldn’t hurt me. For God’s sake, why am I so turned off to the idea? It won’t be so awful if I just adjust my attitude right now.

I slip into the jacket and say, “Your dog – what’s his name again?”

“Gibbons.”

“We’ll have Gibbons back home in no time,” I say. I smile, and I’m pretty sure it looks convincing.

So we go outside, and the whole time I’m trying to think of something to say. “Which way did he go?” I ask.

Katie shakes her head. She’s shivering. It’s really not that cold. “I don’t know,” she says. “I was in the kitchen when he ran off. He’s such a mommy’s boy. He can’t have gone that far, can he?”

I shrug and let her get one step ahead of me, so I don’t have to lead the search. I’ll give it thirty minutes and come up with an excuse to head back.

“Thanks so much for doing this,” she says. “I felt bad asking, but I didn’t really know what else to do. Nobody around here’s very nice.” We turn right and, I assume, head for downtown.

“But I’m nice?” I ask.

“You said ‘yes,’ didn’t you?” she says.

Can’t argue with that logic.

*****

Twenty minutes later, we’re walking around the park at dusk – Katie says she takes Gibbons (God, what a name) here all the time so it might make sense for him to head here. He really loves it, she says. I think she’s giving the dog too much credit, but I don’t say anything because either way I’m going back home in ten minutes.

“I mean,” she says, “if I was lost I’d sniff out someplace familiar. He probably knows this is the first place I’d look for him.” She gives me this look, this totally serious look and I can’t stand it anymore.

I say, “I doubt your dog’s that intuitive, Katie.” I stuff my hands in my pockets and take a big stride, surpassing her for the first time. I’ll poke my head in some of the shrubs and that’s it. I’m done.

“What does that mean?” she says, catching up. Her speech is strained, like she’s winded. “Are you saying Gibbons is stupid?”

“No,” I say, crouching down and pulling the branches of this bush apart. There’s nothing behind it. “I’m saying your dog is a dog. Meaning he thinks of two things only: eating and barking. Humping, too, if you haven’t got him fixed.”

I stand up. “I’m telling you,” I say, “he’s somewhere totally random and meaningless. Gibbons chased a squirrel or something for half an hour and wound up God-knows-where, and if he is somewhere in this park it’s coincidence, not because it holds some special meaning to him.”

Katie hugs herself tighter. She won’t look at me, and that’s okay, because after I say all that I find myself unable to look back. “All I know is Gibbons loves it when I take him on walks here,” she says, mumbling.

I nod concession. “Right,” I say. “All dogs lose their minds over going out for a walk because it’s the closest thing most of them will ever know to freedom. For fifteen minutes a day they get to be an animal, not a decoration.”

She takes a deep breath and makes a dismissive gesture with one of her hands before tucking it back under her arm. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Right away I feel bad, saying all that. As if it’ll make up for it, I make sort of a show getting on all fours and crawling around the base of this row of shrubbery, searching. Within seconds I’ve collected about a pound of dirt under my fingernails, and the closest thing to a clue I find is a pile of shit that might be a dog’s.

I straighten my back, still on my knees. “There’s nothing here,” I say. I don’t think Katie notices me stealing a glance at my watch: it’s past time to go home. I’ve done my part. “C’mon,” I say. “We’ll have better luck in the daylight.”

Maybe she doesn’t hear me, but I think it’s more likely she’s ignoring me when she cups her hands around her mouth and starts shouting like a lunatic. “Gibbons!” she screams, and takes a few loping steps forward. “Gibbons!” She does this every few feet, completely uninhibited. A lot of the other people in the park take notice and give us dirty looks. Suddenly I don’t want to be seen with Katie anymore. I come out from under the greenery and dust my pant legs off, letting her put some distance between us. I make eye contact with a passing mother, who’s got a death grip on her kid’s hand. I sort of grimace, an attempt to be simpatico with her, like, “Yeah, what a weirdo, right? Who is this crazy girl?”

It’s pretty sad, really. She’s upset. Lost her dog, the poor thing. And all I can think is how strange she looks, how irrational her behavior is and what everyone else must think. I’m not helping anymore, if I ever was. Katie’s the second woman I’ve let down in a single evening. I think of Mom again, and now I really wish I hadn’t hung up on her. That stuff about grandkids was just innocent banter; I didn’t have to get so defensive.

If things had been different, if Clay was still here, Mom wouldn’t have to hedge all her bets on me. She’d at least have one son who doesn’t tell her to shut up, and I bet she’d have a couple grandkids by now, to boot. And I’d be good ol’ Uncle Jeremy, most likely not picking dirt out of my fingernails in some godforsaken playground looking for a damn dog with some girl I barely know.

But here I am. And now I’m all Mom’s got. Right now, I’m all Katie’s got, too, evidently.

I have no idea what to do for either one of them.

Now this young couple – I guess about my age – come up to Katie. The woman puts her hand on Katie’s shoulder, and I wonder why I haven’t done that yet. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I think maybe they’ve seen Gibbons so I walk over there.

“Oh, sweetie,” says the girl, “I’m sorry, no, we haven’t seen him.”

She’s still rubbing Katie’s back. This couple both look more well-off than Katie and me combined. New clothes, both pretty fit and tidy. They’re like mirror images of one another. I bet Katie thinks they were made for each other, but I know better. They hooked up and remade themselves for each other. That’s how it always works.

Even the guy seems concerned – actually anxious – for Katie’s predicament. He pulls a pen and scrap of paper out of his pocket. “What’s his name again?” he asks. Katie tells him “Gibbons” and he writes it down. “We’ll definitely keep our eyes peeled, okay? Let me get your number just in case.” His girlfriend, fiancée, whatever, cozies up to him, and to me it looks like she’s wedged herself into his side so many times that she’s worn down a groove in just her shape that runs from his armpit down to his thigh. They seem so happy, so natural, and all I can think is how something inside me’s got to be broken because having what they have would just make me miserable. Do they ever get a moment’s peace from one another? A night to themselves? How can either one of them breathe?

The two of them walk off, a luxury that’s so far escaped me, and Katie looks over at me again. Since it seems appropriate, I say, “Sorry.” She nods.

“Why don’t we split up and cover a bit more ground?” she asks. “Fifteen more minutes and I’ll let you off the hook. You’re right. It’s getting too dark to do much good, anyway.”

“Okay,” I say, “sounds fair.”

She points past my shoulder. “You go that way, I go this way?” she says, right before she tosses her other thumb over her own shoulder. It’s a mystery to me how this became my problem, too, but I’m already here and the guilt over how I spoke to her earlier is a powerful thing.

So we walk off in our designated directions. Somewhere out here, I think, there’s one incredibly happy dog who must think he’s died and gone to heaven. No walls, no leash, just Gibbons and the world sprawled out before him – no limits. If Katie and I are successful tonight, we’ll certainly be knocking him down a few pegs.

My improvised path leads me down this sloping hill, where I take one clumsy, sideways step at a time toward this ditch off to the side of one of the more rural roads in town. It’s getting dark fast and cold even faster. Katie had the right idea, wearing a coat out here. Though it’s not like I had any particular plans for the evening, I can’t wait to get home and out of this obligation. I’m dreaming up excuses just in case Katie asks for my help again tomorrow while I kick at the trash caught in this sludgy ditch. It’s like I’ve crossed some imaginary boundary. The park’s so pretty and well-kept, but down here, just out of view, it’s like a wasteland. My stomach turns just from looking at some of this shit, it’s so disgusting. Old food. Dead birds. Diapers.

I tell myself what an idiot I am for choosing here of all places to look around. Coming down here means I’ll now have to climb back up that hill. I could’ve searched anywhere, but I chose to slum it down here. My arms, I notice, are wrapped around my chest just like Katie’s. My breath’s visible now and I have to flex my jaw so my teeth don’t chatter. For God’s sake, it must’ve been fifteen minutes by now.

That’s when I see it. Sprawled out about six yards ahead of me, barely discernable in the dark, but unmistakable nonetheless: a dead dog, tossed onto the roadside by some speeding vehicle.

I run over, biting my lip and holding my breath, wishing for it not to be fucking Gibbons, but of course when I get there it’s clear that it is. I can’t look. His long brown body, in its current condition, is the grossest thing I’ve seen down here by far.

“Jeremy?”

It’s Katie. I can see her, at the crest of the hill, just a fuzzy speck in the distance. There’s no way she sees me, down here in the dark. My first reaction is to somehow keep her from venturing down here, to hide Gibbons from her. The words I want to say are, “Hang on! Be right up!” but they don’t come out.

I think of Clay, how Mom and Dad didn’t tell me about what happened to him for days. Trying to protect me, they said, but even now I’m not sure I forgive them for it. They had no right to keep that from me, to let me go around thinking everything was okay – even if I was just a kid. Katie deserves to know what I know, right? Only an asshole would let her keep looking around for her dead dog like a moron, right?

She’s still up there, scanning the view from the top of the slope. She turns around, I presume, to go look elsewhere for me. She needs to know.

I take a deep breath and hold it, stoop down over the mangled Labrador and pick it up, a pair of furry legs dangling over my arms. Springing back upright, I nearly buckle under the unexpected weight I now hold. It’s strange. Take the life out of something and all of a sudden it’s so heavy.

It’s not easy, carrying this thing up the hill. The grassy incline stretches on forever, and I swear every step I take somehow adds another yard’s distance to my climb. The muscles in my arms tighten and sting, and at one point I can’t help it: I have to take a breath, and I catch a whiff of the dead animal draped over my arms. It’s all I can do not to throw up right here and now.

When I finally reach the top of the hill I see Katie right away, a tiny, spinning silhouette under a lamppost, casting a shadow five times her height. I get about ten steps from her, shaking now with exhaustion, when she finally turns around and sees me.

In her gaze, I freeze. There’s no hesitation – she just comes running, and I think it was stupid to bring the dog up here and make her look at it. But I wanted her to know. That was fair.

For a second I wonder, the way she’s booking it over here, if she might think Gibbons is just hurt. But then she screams, and from the sound of it I know she understands. “Gibbons!” she says, and now she’s right in front of me. The crying’s already started. I had dared to hope she would contain that until she went home. “Damn it, no!” she says, and I set the body down. She crouches in front of it, lets her open palm linger over her lost friend without touching him.

I let her cry. I have nothing to say, anyway. This is, frankly, a much bigger deal to her than it would be to me. A couple of minutes pass like this until she stands up and turns around.

“Will you wait with me,” she asks, “if I call animal control?”

I tell her yes, and almost – almost – move to hug her, but her phone’s already out and her back turned again. Just as well.

*****

An hour goes by before animal control shows and cleans up the mess. We reach the stoop in front of Katie’s townhouse, and by now I’m freezing half to death. My nose is dripping, or at least I assume it is because it was when last I could actually feel it.

If I’m freezing, Katie’s hypothermic. She’s red-faced from the crying and the cold. Her hand hovers, trembling, over her door handle, and she looks up at me.

“Well, thanks,” she says. “For going out there with me. It…” Big breath. “It made it easier, having someone else there, when it happened.”

“No problem,” I say. Because in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t, I guess.

“Do you want to come in?” she asks. “I’ve got hot chocolate.”

I shake my head. “That’s okay.” I mean, I’ve got hot chocolate.

“There’s some rum in there, too,” she says. “I’ll probably be cracking that open as soon as possible. You’re welcome to some.” Her face is strangely flat. She doesn’t look sad anymore, but she’s not smiling. It’s a void, is what it is. Her face is a void.

“I’d better get going,” I say. I start to turn around.

“Wait!” she says, almost yelling. She grabs my arm and pulls me close, gets up on tip-toes, and kisses me.

I’m shocked. I’m a little irritated, too. This hardly seems appropriate, and in all honesty I don’t think much of Katie. Not like that.

But I like it, a little bit, so I kiss her back. Her arm snakes around my side and her hand presses into my shoulder blade. I let this go on for a while, and she’s reaching for the door handle. I think about not breaking the kiss, about following her inside.

And then, out of nowhere, I think the saddest thing I’ve ever thought. I pull back and fall silent. She gives me this look, this look of Why? Or maybe it’s Why not? And I just hold up my hands and shake my head. She goes inside, and I head across the street toward my own apartment, thinking this wretched and abysmal thing over and over, like a mantra.

It’s this:

Everything ends.

*****

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Baker & the Bowman Monk

I’ve never been all that comfortable standing in a blockade of yellow police tape, and judging from the way I felt, surrounded by an uneven square of the stuff on the vacant lot outside Benny Hascomb’s place, I suppose I never will. There’s something about that command –DO NOT CROSS– that’s so stern it makes me feel a little guilty for disobeying.

The name’s Walden Baker: Private Eye.

Please, tell your friends.

Trina Hascomb, only my third client since I started a two-bit investigation agency over a year ago, tiptoed down the concrete steps that led out of her father’s run-down home. I lit a cigar. I’m not really one for stogies; give me a good old-fashioned cigarette any day. But if I want to be taken seriously as a detective, it’s better if I’m seen biting off the end of a Swisher Sweet and spitting it into the grass before lighting up. It’s part of the job.

She was adorable, no doubt, with those curly brown locks and her novelty nineties  cartoon t-shirt. She lifted the police tape over her head and crossed into the crime scene. “You’re late, Mr. Baker,” she said.

I licked a bit of tobacco off on my arm and hoped to God it looked sexy, or vaguely mysterious.

“Yeah, well…” I started.

“Well, what?”

Well, I had to visit the men’s room and couldn’t get the toilet to flush. “Other obligations,” I said. “My apologies.”

She flashed my own business card between those two perfect fingers. “Your card says you charge by the hour. We had an appointment. I’m not paying for the time we’ve lost.”

I nodded. Can’t say no to a pretty girl. Or anyone, for that matter–especially if they’re willing to pay me for my services, trivial as they are.

Her eyes were bloodshot, moist. Of course. Her father was found murdered that morning, or so she believed. The police wrote it off as a heart attack, so she called me. If I was lucky, it would be a homicide. That would be something.

“How’d you hear about me?” I asked. The last ad I could afford to put in the paper was eight months ago, and they misspelled my name.

“You were on the news,” she said. “On the ‘Lighter Side’ segment.”

“Really? How about that?”

“They kind of poked fun at you.” She smiled.

Was she poking fun, too?

“So how does this work?” she asked. “You just draw the crime scene?”

I shook my head, opening my satchel to remove a sketchpad and a No. 7 pencil. “No, there’s more to it than that. I’ll start by drawing the crime scene, yeah. After that, I’m sorry, but I’ll need to question you for a while about your dad. His old haunts, his friends… his enemies, if he had any. When I’ve got all the pertinent information I’ll work up a composite sketch and hopefully something will stand out to me as I’m drawing. The devil is in the details, Ms. Hascomb. I just tend to see that devil a little more clearly in my own artwork. Does that make sense?”

She nodded. “I guess,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Do you need me to stay close by?”

“I’ll come get you when I’m done out here, and we can start your part in this,” I said, wheezing a little on cigar smoke. “You go relax.”

“Okay,” she said. “And it’s Trina.”

“Okay, Trina. Go relax.” I smiled, as best I could without flashing my teeth. I’m self-conscious about my teeth.

Trina went inside and I squatted on the cracked pavement, soaking in the surroundings: the chalk outline, the tufts of grass pushing through the cracks in the concrete, a cigarette butt right where Benny’s head would have hit the pavement. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go into a virgin crime scene, one the cops haven’t picked clean yet. As things were, I had to make do with table scraps, hope the police had overlooked something helpful. For instance, maybe the discarded can of RC Cola on the ground was a clue–just maybe.

I clicked my pencil and put it to the page.

An hour later, Trina let me inside the house. “There’s lemonade if you want any,” she said. I declined.

“How about an RC Cola? Any left?” I asked.

“No one in this house drinks that stuff,” she said. Her face pulled back in half-insulted protest. I took note of this.

We crossed the kitchen into the den, where an older, overweight woman in a bathrobe sat back in a hideous burgundy armchair, grinding a cigarette butt into a plastic ashtray. She lifted her head at the sound of our footsteps.

“Is this the detective?” she said, drawing out the last word in mock admiration.

Trina nodded.

“What are you, eighteen?” She looked at me, obvious disdain on her wrinkled face. The light emphasized an unfortunate mole on her upper lip.

“Twenty-five,” I said. “Are you Mrs. Hascomb?”

She puttered her lips and stood up, then walked past us into the kitchen, bumping into my shoulder on her way.

Trina’s face flushed, assuming the burden of shame on her mother’s behalf. “Sorry,” she said. “Mom’s upset, as I’m sure you can understand.”

“I understand,” I said, although I took note of her behavior. The devil is in the details.

Trina sat on the couch, gesturing for me to take a spot beside her. I hesitated–it was a small couch, with little room for two people unless they were going to be canoodling–then I sat.

“You know,” she said, “Dad was an artist, too. Like you.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“You can take a look at some of his work,” she said. “In the attic, in some boxes. It’s pretty amazing. Can I see what you’ve drawn here?”

I shook my head. “Not yet,” I said. She looked disappointed, so I apologized.

“No, I get it,” she said. “Mr. Baker, are you a comic book fan?”

“Do I fit the bill that much?” I asked, smiling. “No, never really got into them. Why?”

She rubbed her arm in nervous strokes. “There’s something I noticed. Something I haven’t told the cops or Mom yet,” she said. “See, Dad was a big collector, and…” She inhaled. “When all this happened, I went to his room and pulled a longbox out from under his bed. I wanted to leaf through some of his comics just to feel…I dunno…connected, I guess.”

“Of course,” I said. I have a friend who can vouch for the healing powers of reading a lost loved one’s comic book collection.

“One of them was missing, Mr. Baker,” she said, her eyes widening. “A rare piece, the debut issue of a series called The Bowman Monk. Have you heard of it?”

Again, I shook my head.

“It was Dad’s prized piece. If nothing else, do you –do you think you could find it?” Her eyes somehow grew even wider, and again they welled up with grief.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”

Her head dropped, becoming entangled in a mess of curly locks. “All right,” she said. “Let’s get started. Ask me whatever you need to know.”

I obliged, and we talked for hours about her father.

***

Later that night, I envisioned what my final portrait of the crime would wind up looking like. I was surprised to find that, of all the information she’d divulged, the one detail I kept coming back to as most crucial was the inexplicable disappearance of The Bowman Monk #1.

The next morning I Googled the nearest comic book shop and headed straight there. A kindly woman in a wheelchair sat behind the register and looked up with great enthusiasm when the bell above the door rang.

“Well, hi there! What can I help you with today?” came her sing-song, twangy voice.

I introduced myself, flashed my card, and tried hard not to feel so damn cool doing it. I couldn’t help myself; when she took the card I flipped up the collar of my pea coat and pushed my fedora down so the brim cast a shadow over my eyes.

“Well, wow, mister,” she said, eyeing the card with genuine awe. “What can I do to help?”

“I’m looking for a copy of The Bowman Monk #1,” I said.

Her smile faded, her lips pursing and sucking in air. “Ooh,” she said. “I’m afraid that’s gonna be a tough one. That’s an extremely rare collector’s piece. I read somewhere about one bein’ auctioned off for half a million last week. I’d kill to get my hands on one, but…” She shrugged: c’est la vie.

“I’d never dream of buying an original,” I said. “Haven’t you got a reprint or anything like that?”

She frowned. “Ka-Pow comics, the publisher, can’t do reprints of that origin issue. There’s a problem with the copyright. I’m sorry,” she said. She reached down beneath the counter. “I know it’s a small consolation, but can I interest you in a complimentary issue of Thor vs. Zombies vs. Werewolves?”

“No, thanks,” I said.

“I can’t interest anyone in an issue of Thor vs. Zombies vs. Werewolves,” she said. She set it down like a smelly discarded piece of meat.

“May I ask what this investigation of yours pertains to?” she said.

“The murder of Benny Hascomb,” I said.

“Benny Hascomb was murdered?” she said, leaning back. “I heard it was his heart did him in.”

The Bowman Monk begs to differ.”

***

My next stop was the obvious one. The drummer for my buddy’s hack band works at the Legion of Nerds booth at the local Bargain Buy electronics store, fixing up computers and burning bootleg DVDs on the sly. He’s a nerd, all right, and loves comic books like a normal man might love his wife or child. If anyone could help me out here, it would be The Drummer. I swear that’s his name. I think it’s on his birth certificate.

The Bowman Monk?” he asked, spraying me with bits of chewed-up beef jerky. “But Walden, that’s out of print. Everyone knows that!” He seemed rueful of this, his bearded, puffy cheeks sagging. “You wanna read about the B.M., you can buy the new stuff. Or, heck, go see the movie coming out next year! But the first issue… no.” I almost expected him to make the sign of the cross against his chest, he spoke with such reverence.

“What’s this I hear about a rights dispute?” I asked, noting how his aura darkened at the mention of it.

“The creator of the book, Russell George? He caused a stink about them reprinting the old number one issue when some guy’s family slandered him by saying George didn’t create it or draw it. That George stole this guy’s work. Which is ridiculous.”

I felt my stomach lurch. “What was the family’s name?” I asked.

“Um… Hasbro— No, Hascomb,” he said, nodding. “The guy’s name was Ben Hascomb. But I never once read anything about Ben himself claiming ownership of the Bowman Monk. Just his wife and daughter. Leeches,” he said, and he spat on the pristine tech room floor.

“Benny Hascomb’s dead,” I said.

“Hm,” the Drummer said. He crossed his arms. “Convenient.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “For whom?”

“The family,” he said, tapping out a beat on the counter with his fingers. “It always looked funny to Bowman Monk fans that while they were blabbing on and on about how Hascomb’s work was stolen, he never complained once himself. Convenient for them.”

“Or,” I said, “convenient for Russell George, if what the Hascombs are saying is true.” Though, I admit, I did wonder why Trina hadn’t mentioned this giant detail.

“So, yeah, I think you’re up a creek on that copy of issue one,” he said. “Unless you want to beg George for one in person. He’s appearing at the New York Comic Con this weekend, you know.”

“Drummer,” I said, leaning over the counter and dropping my voice, “I know you have ways around these things. Isn’t there a torrent of the issue that you can rip or something?”

He beamed. “Sure, I can get it on a flash drive for you, but it’s gonna cost ya.”

I straightened up, lifted my head, and sighed. “What, Drummer?” I asked.

“Hire me as your tech guy at the agency,” he said.

“Drums, my ‘agency’ is run out of my apartment. I’ve made less than four hundred dollars this year doing what I do. Trust me, you do not want to work for me.”

“Say you’ll think about it, and I’ll do it,” he said, then tore into another stick of jerky.

“It’s thought about,” I said, twirling my hand in a “go on, go on” gesture.

Less than thirty seconds later, he held out a flash drive, burping stinky jerky fumes into my face.

“Thanks,” I said and pocketed it.

“You and me,” he said as I turned and headed for the store exit, “the dynamic duo.”

***

When I got home, I read through the debut edition of the Bowman Monk’s adventures. After a power nap and a case of Red Bulls, I went to work, filling up pages of my sketchbook with renderings of all the important pieces to the puzzle: Trina and her mother, the Drummer’s sallow expression at the mention of the Hascombs, the friendly comic store proprietor, and an empty RC Cola can.

After that, I redrew The Bowman Monk #1 in its entirety.

And in those pages, I finally found something. The devil in the details.

***

Trina sprang for two tickets to the New York Comic Con. I hoped to God she wouldn’t dock that off my pay.

During the plane ride, as I explained myself, she held my hand. I tried not to take too much stock in that, but I’m sure she noticed how sweaty my palms were, and how my heart was practically throbbing in my throat.

We stood in line for four hours to get a signature from Russell George, creator of the Bowman Monk. Only we weren’t there for an autograph like all those backpack-wearing, costume-clad fan boys. We had bigger fish to fry.

Once we approached him, I slapped my sketchbook down in front of him.

“Who do I make it out to?” he asked without looking up. He was old, sporting an Einstein hairdo, and had a thick New Yorker’s accent. He smelled like baby powder.

“That’s my original artwork,” I said. “Please don’t sign your name to it, too.”

At this, George looked up. He smiled. “What?” he said, taking a sip of soda from his glass.

“I’ve been doing some reading,” I said. “Catching up on the origin of the Bowman Monk. Great character,” I said. “And I loved his debut.”

“And how’d you get hold of one of those?” he said.

Trina simply watched me (fascinated, I hoped) as I spoke. “Well, we know I didn’t pay half a million for it in an auction, because that was you, wasn’t it? Or one of your employees.”

George shook his head. “I—” he began.

But I was on a roll. God, I love it when I’m on a roll. “Let’s just say I read it, and I redrew every panel in painstaking detail. And something rather interesting caught my eye.”

I flipped to a particular page in my recreation, then pulled out from the sketchbook the printed copy of the original, placing them side-by-side. I pointed to a woman the Bowman Monk happened to be rescuing in a certain frame. The woman was young, beautiful, but a little thick around the waist and had a distinctive mole on her upper lip. She was the spitting image of what Mrs. Hascomb, that crotchety old hag, must have looked like back in her glory days.

“It’s interesting that you drew Benny Hascomb’s wife into this issue,” I said. “If you actually drew this issue.”

George’s leg twitched involuntarily, knocking into the table and spilling his soda in the process.

“What a waste of a perfectly good RC Cola,” I said, cocking my head. If only I could have been smoking a cigar in the convention center, it would have been perfect.

I turned to Trina, drawing the attention of the surrounding mob. “Ms. Hascomb, meet your father’s killer.”

The crowd gasped–just like in the best courtroom dramas.

I jumped as George grabbed my arm, squeezing it. “Young man,” he said, his eyes intense, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I promise you it’s a mistake. Did it ever occur to you that I may have known my good friend Benny Hascomb’s wife back then? Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe, Henrietta Hascomb could have meant something to somebody other than Ben?”

My jaw dropped. Trina let out an odd, sad yelp and escaped into the throng of gawking geeks.

“You mean, you…?” I said. “You and Mrs. Hascomb were…? I mean…?”

In my mind I drew a picture, one of a man trying to hide an ancient mistake from the world, a man betrayed by an old flame who was publicly calling him a fraud and a thief, sullying his good name over sour grapes.

George pointed at me. “Get this man out of my sight,” he said, and I didn’t put up a fight when a security guard ushered me by my arm toward the nearest exit. I could only hope this wouldn’t wind up as a viral online video clip.

“And get me another Diet Pepsi!” George roared behind me.

***

I insisted that Trina and I take separate planes home. I’d like to say it was an act of chivalry for having humiliated her in such a public forum, but honestly it could be chalked up more to my own embarrassment. I couldn’t bear to sit next to her for three hours.

The next day I knocked sheepishly on her door, letting my fist slide down the wooden surface after the third rap. I heard her shout something to her mother from inside. She answered and looked at me without saying anything.

“Sorry,” I said and put a cigar to my mouth. Before I could light it, she snatched it and put it between her own lips. I lit it and watched her take a puff.

We sat there–on a bench in the empty lot where her father had suffered a heart attack and died–and smoked. The next words said aloud were hers.

“The plane ticket was your pay,” she said. “Hope you liked Comic Con.”

I nodded. “It was all right,” I said, pleased to see her smile in response. I opened my satchel and removed a pile of stapled papers, offering it to her.

“What’s this?” she said.

“I promised you I’d find your dad’s copy of The Bowman Monk #1,” I said, “but I’m afraid the best I can do is offer my recreation of it.”

She smiled, leafing through the pages. “No, this is nice,” she said. “I actually know the guy who drew this one.”

I looked down and handed her the cigar again. “I’m pretty sure your dad auctioned his original off a week before…all this.”

“That would explain how Mom’s affording all these attorney consultations. She’s planning on suing George and Ka-Pow Comics around the time the Bowman Monk movie comes out,” she said. “I told her I won’t testify, but she’s hell-bent anyway.”

“Your mom is an odd bird, if you don’t mind my saying,” I said.

She puffed on her cigar, the smoke billowing out of her nose in cloudy tufts.

“You don’t think he was murdered anymore, do you?” I asked. I had to, because if nothing else, perhaps I could soothe her with what I thought was a certainty now: Benny Hascomb did not die in cold blood.

She said nothing. She didn’t have to. If she needed further proof, other, better detectives – real detectives ­– could provide it. Or, if she was feeling especially careless… Well, she still had my card. She still had my number.

***

But for the record, I haven’t seen her since.

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