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, 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.
“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.”
“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.