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A "Luminations" Story
She was six feet one or maybe two, curly black hair, big chest, and a beer gut like a guy. Round face, with a scattering of freckles, but the eyes were too small and they were a kind of grey that was pale and shiny at the same time. I stood up from my desk to greet her, because I know a lady when I see one and I don't get a chance to play the gentleman too often here in New England's answer to redneck country.
She shook my hand with a grip that suggested there was a lot more to her than just soft. She smelled of some odd mix of those fragrant oils that the pagan girls are into these days. Nice racket, that. Collect 'em, trade 'em. The long black skirt and frilly blouse that was loose enough to leave at least some of her to the imagination finished off the effect.
"Please have a seat, Ms. Kenney."
She'd given her name to my receptionist, who'd IM'ed it back to the laptop in my office. It was standard procedure, and one that was costing me. I barely made enough money to cover living expenses and the rent on the office. The receptionist sat around without a whole lot of work to do most days, but it added to the professionalism. People don't expect to just walk in and talk to the PI directly. And they want to see that I've got some resources. Hence the high school girl at the desk. Thank God for Veronica Mars, and the resulting teenage fangirls willing to make minimum wage just to say they're working for a detective agency.
So Katy the high school fangirl (a sweet and smart kid who'll probably make a hell of a lawyer once she realizes where the money is) greets Ms. Kenney and asks her to wait a moment to see if I'm available, which of course I am, this being Monday morning with a caseload of plenty of nothing. She messages me on AIM and makes small talk with the client for a minute or two while I turn the six little piles of paper on my desk into one big pile of paper under my desk and hopefully out of sight. Then I message her to send the client in, and there's Christina Kenney sitting across the desk from me opening up a briefcase and getting right down to business.
"Mr. Hall, I need you to obtain something for me. I need it done discreetly."
I started to say something, but she reached into the briefcase and laid an old magazine down on my desk. It was bagged in clear mylar with a comic book backing board. Fairly careful treatment, although I hear you can get magazines this size slabbed these days by the same people who grade the comics. I knew what it was immediately because everyone in my line of work has come across these pulp detective magazines somewhere or other. My dad found a few in a used book store up in Concord and gave them to me as a gag gift one Christmas. They're still stashed away in the attic somewhere.
The magazine was called Edge of Mystery. I'd never heard of it, but no surprise there. I wasn't a collector and there had been thousands of these things published in the '30s and '40s. One corner of the cover was torn off, but otherwise it looked to be in pretty good shape.
On the cover, a girl, bound to a chair and gagged, struggled in the background, while in the foreground a hand, it looked like a woman's hand, picked up a slim knife from a shelf or a table. I examined it more closely. The artwork was quite good, and detailed in ways that you didn't often see in this kind of work. There were indications of blood where the victim's wrists were bound, like she'd fought like crazy to get loose. Her expression was the perfect mix of panic and determination.
I reached over to take the magazine for a closer look, but the client pulled it back and slipped it into the briefcase.
"I'm sorry. I need to be careful with that. There are only two copies in existence. I want to hire you to purchase the other copy for me."
She reached into the briefcase again and placed a manila folder on the desk. There was a good-quality photocopy of the magazine cover (from the same copy, ripped corner and all) paperclipped to the folder.
I opened the folder. Inside was a newspaper clipping, an obituary for a guy named Randall Ford. Underneath that was a yellow pages ad for a collectibles shop in Buffalo, New York, and what looked to be some probate documents.
"I take it this Randall Ford guy owns the only other copy of that pulp. Or owned, I should say. When did he die? And just 'cause I'm curious, how?"
"Last week. Heart attack. He'd been overweight for years as far as I know."
Great. Another ominous reminder to lay off the fast food comes packaged with a gig that's gonna have me on the road eating fast food.
"He had this book at his shop?"
"I believe so."
"But he's been dead for a week. Is the place open for business?"
"He had a manager who ran the store for him. It's still open, although that may change when his will is sorted out. Apparently he willed everything he owned to his niece, and she's stumbling through the legal system looking to get it all sold."
Now we were getting somewhere.
"So basically, you want me to go in and lowball this manager guy out of a sweet little collector's item that he's not aware he's sitting on before the appraisers get at the place."
I sat there and thought about it for a minute. This was a bit questionable, if not outright illegal. Then again, my finances were also a bit questionable.
"All right." I said, "I'll need the rest of today to do research. I don't know much about these types of collectibles. I can be on the road tomorrow morning. Standard rates plus expenses, and I'm gonna need funds for the purchase."
She snapped the locks on the briefcase shut.
"I'll wire you money this afternoon."
She stood to leave.
"One question, Ma'am. Why hire someone for this? Why not make the purchase yourself, or else contact someone local?"
"Mr. Ford and I have had some disagreements in the past."
I nodded, figuring that put the last piece of the puzzle into place. So Ms. Christina Kenney was persona non grata around Ford's Collectibles. And if these people were in the business of buying and selling little rarities like that magazine, someone around the shop might know the local buyers that Ms. Kelley would have to deal with in Buffalo. Or maybe the local buyers were old friends of this guy Ford.
"My assistant will have some paperwork for you to fill out," I said, getting up and holding the door for her as she made her way out of my office.
I had Katy put in an order for a Greek salad and a diet coke from the pizza parlor up the road, and headed downstairs to talk collectibles with my resident expert.
My office is on the second floor in a strip mall that has two vacant storefronts, a cell phone place, one of those thirty minute gyms for fat women, and Mighty Comics. There's also a little doorway that leads to the upstairs offices. Two are empty. One is occupied by Mr. Mitch Russell, certified financial advisor, who makes appointments from the road and only stops by when he's meeting a client. The other name on the little board is mine: Lumination Agency, Chester Hall, Licensed Private Investigator.
I showed the photocopy to Rich Malone, who owns Mighty Comics. He's got a nice racket going. A couple of kids run his card and miniatures tournaments. Rich sits back and sells candy and sodas to the kids while he wheels and deals on Ebay. He doesn't do much walk-in business as far as comics go. He'll have a couple of copies of the new arrivals from Marvel and DC, and a table of longboxes loaded with crappy back issues. If you come in to talk to him about comics he'll moan and groan about how the good old days are long gone and how there's no money in comics anymore. Don't believe a word of it.
Rich took a look at the photocopy I'd handed him.
"I don't deal in pulps that much. It's kinda its own subgenre, so that makes it a specialty item. There's even a convention for this stuff down in Jersey every year. And I'm hearing some talk that people are starting to make some money off of reprinting some of the pulp characters that have gone public domain."
I got to the point.
"What's the thing worth?"
Rich slid his chair over a bit, shifting his considerable weight in the direction of his computer. He clicked the mouse a few times then turned back around.
"Well, Ebay doesn't have this one. Neither do the couple of places I know that deal in pulps. Basically, you're not looking at more than fifty bucks unless there's some big-name author in there. And then maybe a couple hundred."
"Can you do some more digging around for me tonight? There'll be some expense money in it."
Rich shrugged, "Don't see why not. We're open til eleven. You wanna stop by?"
"I've been in your shop after dark. I think some of those card gamers are allergic to showers. No thanks. I'll call before you close."
I bought the new issue of Batman and headed back upstairs to look over the paperwork. Ms. Kenney's address was a mail drop in Manchester, and her phone number went direct to a very generic voicemail message.
Around four Western Union showed up with two and a half grand in fifties and twenties. Even assuming five hundred for expenses, which was considerably more than I expected to spend, Ms. Christina Kenney was willing to pay over ten times what the magazine could conceivably be worth.
I left the office before five and met Melissa for dinner after she got off work. She was always interested in my work and curious without being too intrusive, and sometimes her insights were a big help. Melissa had good instincts and she could often read a person's motives a lot better than I could. She sometimes joked that I had too good an opinion of humanity in general and that my cynical attitude was all an act. During the eight months we'd been dating I hadn't been able to convince her otherwise.
"It's a revenge thing," Melissa pronounced, "This woman is gonna burn that magazine out of spite. Probably right after she dances a jig on this guy's grave. I wonder what she saw in the old guy anyway."
"You think they were lovers?"
"Or something. I don't know, though. Usually a younger woman and an older guy means she's after something."
"Like you and me?"
"Yeah, right. Come on, Chess, four years and thirty years difference are not the same thing. Normally, I'd say she had to be after his money, but then why the revenge thing?"
"She's pissed off he bought the farm before she got onto the will?"
"Doesn't feel like that. She might curse her lousy luck or blame herself for not doing more to win his affections, but this is more serious. This guy hurt her, and him being dead isn't enough to satisfy her. She wants at something that was precious to him."
"An old magazine?"
"Hey, you're the collector. I didn't say it had to make sense to normal folks."
We made plans to catch a movie Friday night and I went home, packed, and went to bed.
Rich called my cell around the time I was passing by Albany. I'd missed him the night before, but he'd done some more looking around on the internet. He'd found one mention of that particular issue of Edge of Mystery. The listing was still up, but marked as sold. The description mentioned a corner missing from the front cover. It sounded suspiciously like the copy that Ms. Kenney had shown me, and Rich was trying to track down the dealer to confirm but there had been no answer to his email. No one else that he could find online had that particular issue in stock.
The trip took about nine hours. I'd gotten an early start and my directions proved to be pretty good. I booked a room at a Red Roof Inn right off the highway and drove into town. Ford's Collectibles was easy to miss. I nearly did. It was located above a vacant storefront on a street where vacant storefronts seemed to be the norm.
There was a little sign posting the hours, and a narrow stairway decorated with old movie posters, mostly classic SF stuff. The inside was a cluttered mess, a maze of little rooms loaded with comic boxes, boardgames, posters, old toys, stacks of magazines, and shelves of dusty books. One of the rooms was cleared out except for a table with laminated paper grid over it and a scattering of dice and rulebooks. The game of choice here was D&D, old school, although there wasn't anything going on when I walked in. A skinny kid in a Sandman t-shirt was putting price stickers onto comics in the furthest back room, and behind the counter to my right was a guy in his forties, stocky, long hair, beard; the kind of guy you'd see hawking blades or jewelry at the ren faire come summer.
Right from the start things didn't go well. I showed him the copy of the magazine cover, and he couldn't hide his reaction. In fact, it was so obvious that when he told me he'd never seen the thing I called him on it.
"Bullshit. Look, I don't have time to screw around. Fifteen hundred dollars. Cash."
"Is there some part of 'not for sale' that you don't understand?"
I understood just fine. I also understood the attention I was suddenly getting from the kid in the back.
I raised my voice, "Look, I know damn well that an old copy of Edge of Mystery is worth nowhere what I'm offering. Fine. Eighteen hundred."
He straightened up and for a second I had this vision of him pulling a sword or a battle axe out from behind the counter.
Instead, he just said, "I'm going to have to ask you to leave." His tone was one of forced calm, but I figured I didn't need to start any trouble. Besides, I didn't want to end up arrested. If my hunch was right, I'd be able to finish this up later that night. A glance at the bulletin board on the way out confirmed they'd be open late for the roleplaying crowd.
Three hours later I watched from my car as the manager walked out and headed for the bus stop. Soon after that people started showing up for the night's gaming. I was in no rush now, so I got myself a bite to eat at a little Chinese takeout place a few blocks away.
When I walked in, the game was in full swing. There were a pair of college-age guys, a slightly older couple, three teenagers, plus the kid in the Sandman shirt who was sitting behind the screen. He walked over and told me, loud enough for the group to hear, that the place was closed for business.
At the same time, the kid reached over to a manila folder on the counter and flashed it open. There was Edge of Mystery, as promised. The kid was looking very nervous right about now. I got the feeling that there were some people in that roleplaying group that he didn't want knowing about this transaction. Probably buddies of the manager or the late owner.
I passed him an envelope with the cash, and he gave it a quick glance and stuck it a drawer under the counter. I picked up the manila folder and walked out without so much as a word.
I gave the magazine a cursory check to make sure I had the right item before I went to bed, and I woke up with my back killing me from the lousy mattress and a headache like I'd spent the night wasted. A shower hardly helped. I figured maybe putting as much distance between myself and Buffalo as humanly possible by noon might be the remedy I was looking for, but things have a way of turning complicated.
I hardly noticed the old man while I was checking out at the reception desk, and that was unusual for me. Maybe it was the headache or the bad sleep. Either way, I probably should have caught that he had his eyes on me long before he moved to cut me off at the door.
"Mr. Chester Hall? Of Lumination Agency Investigations?"
I stopped dead in my tracks. The guy had my full attention now. Small man, balding, in his seventies, pale green eyes sunk into a lean and weathered face. He wore a trench coat and a long scarf.
"That's me," I said, wondering where this was leading.
He offered a handshake. "I'm Henry Thompson. I'm a friend of Randall Ford. I was wondering if I might buy you a cup of coffee. I just ask you give me a couple of minutes of your time to hear me out."
He looked worried, but there was no need for him to be. I was very curious to know how my involvement in this had suddenly become common knowledge. We crossed the street and sat down at a donut shop and he asked if I had the magazine with me.
I nodded. It was sitting in my bag. The guy didn't seem like the type who'd try to take it back by force, and if he'd wanted to claim I'd stolen it he would have brought the police.
"Have you read it?"
"Have you opened up the magazine and looked at it? Or perhaps you haven't had any curiosity about what could possibly cause someone to go to such means to get it?"
"Look, Mr. Thompson, I was just hired to do a job. Now if you have an issue with the way I went about it, then there are legal recourses that are available to you. But as far as what's in a sixty-year-old magazine that would interest me or anyone else, well, it really isn't my concern."
"Not even a little curious?"
He had me there.
"Fine," I muttered, taking a sip of my coffee and slowly getting the magazine out of my bag, my eyes on Thompson the whole time.
He just sat back, waiting.
I flipped open the cover and I immediately saw something that caught my attention. There, third item in the table of contents, was a story called simply "The Book". It was credited to R. Ford.
I started to ask a question, but Thompson just pointed down to the magazine.
I flipped to the beginning of the story.
'She was tall, over six feet, her hair thick and dark and curly, and her figure amply curved. Freckles were scattered across he round face, and her green-grey eyes looked me over as I stood to greet her. Classy dame, not the kind who comes around my neighborhood too much.
Had a grip like a truck driver too, and when she leaned in close to shake my hand I caught a whiff of spices and cheap perfume. I motioned toward the chair by my desk and her long black skirt seemed to flow as she moved.
"Please have a seat, Miss Kelley."'
I closed the magazine.
I looked up at Thompson.
"You won't believe the rest of what I have to say."
I recovered quickly enough. I've got a reputation for handling the weird shit. Time to live up to it.
"Try me," I said.
"Sole ownership of all of the creative works of a person's lifetime under certain conditions confers ownership of the spirit after death. With such ownership comes certain mystical benefits."
"Let me guess. This is the last piece? Or at least one of the last pieces? And you and Christina Kelley… No, that's not right, Christina Kenney… You both want it."
"I don't want it. I'm just an old friend of a man who lived a good life and who wrote a few stories when he was young."
He put a five down on the table and stood.
"But what do you want?"
"You're a decent man, Mr. Hall. You've already done what I asked of you. The rest is in your hands."
It took me well into the afternoon to locate Lynn Connor. She was Randall Ford's niece, and he'd named her as his sole heir in the will. She was staying at one of those economy suite places while she dealt with the legal mess that she'd inherited from her uncle. She was in her twenties, recently laid off from a techie job in Manhattan.
She looked puzzled when I showed up on her doorstep with her uncle's old magazine.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am. All I can tell you is that it's got one of your uncle's stories in it, and that there aren't many copies in existence. This one might be it, for all I know. Oh yeah, and I had an offer on it from a collector, but when I heard about your uncle just passing, I figured you might want it to stay in the family."
I handed it to her carefully and she thanked me and offered to pay what I'd bought it for so I lied and told her two hundred dollars and she wrote me a check, and I drove straight back to New Hampshire that night, barely stopping to fill up the gas tank and piss.
It took just about every cent in my savings account, but I paid Christina Kenney back in full with a money order I sent to her PO box, and I enclosed a note about how no one at Ford's Collectibles had seen or heard of the magazine and how she might want to look online for someone who specialized in vintage pulps.
It's been a couple of weeks now and I still catch myself worrying about how I might have earned the anger of a rather spiteful and vindictive woman who'd had a soured relationship with a guy who's now dead and buried; a guy who had some very paranoid and delusional friends.
Compared to the alternative, it's a good kind of worry.
Story and image by Rick Silva, copyright 2006