I drove a little ways and then made a left on South Orange Avenue and a right onto Sloan Street, which is where the New Jersey Transit South Orange train station is. There was a parking spot right in front of where I wanted to go but discovered that the comic book store I remembered was long gone and was now a restaurant named Stony’s. I looked it up online and it seemed to have well regarded burgers so I took my being here as a sign and went in. The place was decorated with model airplanes and old pictures of fighter jets and bombers. Even the burgers were getting in on the act with “Fighters” being single patty and “Bombers” being double. I ordered a bomber with American cheese, mushrooms and raw onions and a Pepsi and looked at the pictures and read the captions as I waited. Somebody was a real fighter pilot buff in here. Soon they called my number and I took a seat by the large window facing the street and looked out at the elevated train platform across the way. South Orange station had a nice, small town feel to it. It was all sand-colored stone and forest green painted metal bannisters, all very old-school and classic. A New Jersey transit train rumbled to a stop, waited for a few moments and then churned away. People were going in and out of the Coldstone Creamery and Starbucks that was beneath the station. A bakery next to Starbucks was doing good business as well. Some kids, who looked like they should’ve been in school, were skateboarding in the little plaza that fronted it all. I ate my food slowly and watched it all happen. It had gotten warmer and whoever could be out was out and enjoying it.
While I ate I thought about Coleman Chandler. That gallery he had of comic art was absolutely amazing. I would love to have some of those pieces. And he knew his comics, too. He seemed really passionate about that Swan cover and I wanted to find it for him. The three grand plus he was offering didn’t hurt either. It was nice to have motivation in multiple forms.
I finished by cheeseburger and fries and was drinking my Pepsi when it occurred to me that I was delaying something that I really didn’t want to do. I knew I had to speak to Donnie Castiglia but I’d actually rather go to the DMV. First thing on a Monday morning. But to get a full picture of this story I had to talk to him, which pissed me off. I sat there and fumed for a few seconds and then went through the contacts on my iPhone. There was the number. I took a deep breath, tried to think of another way and dialed. Maybe he wouldn’t answer. Maybe it would go to voicemail and then when he called me back I would let that go to voicemail and that way I could find out what I needed without ever having to speak with him. And maybe Superman would fly through the wall, give me the art, say, “I heard you were looking for this.” and fly away. That was probably more likely.
After the second ring, there was a scratching, rustling noise from the other end and then a pause. Damn. Then a voice.
“Farrar, you fuck. What do you want? You know what, never mind what you want. You never come out to the store. So fuck you.”
I sighed. “I’m good, Donnie, thanks. How are you?”
“Screw that. I’m in Williamsburg. You live, like, fifteen minutes from here. It’s not like I’m way the fuck up in the Bronx. Asshole.”
I lived a lot more than 15 minutes away but I really didn’t feel like arguing the point. I didn’t feel like speaking to him at all but here we were.
“I never get up that way, Donnie. But I’ll come up there soon. Seriously.”
That seemed to appease him momentarily. “Whatever. What do you want?”
“I understand you were looking for a Superman page for Coleman Chandler. Sorry it didn’t go well but he wants me to pick up the ball now.”
“Oh, so I’m officially fired now, huh? Chandler hired the Black Private Dick to track it down.” Donnie grunted. “Well, fine. Let you deal with it. I bet you’ll nail that hot piece of ass daughter of his, too. I can’t stand you, man.”
I sighed again and rubbed my face. Talking with Donnie was always like this. It was always 95% insults and bullshit and 5% useful information. I really just wanted to bail on the whole conversation but had no choice but to keep fighting through it.
“Ok, so how far did you get with this?”
“Oh, right. I’m just supposed to up and tell you what I know. You get the big check and I’m left holding my dick. Fuck you. I know you probably have a lead already. Get the last bit of info out of me and kick me to the curb with nothing. You lying, thieving, backstabbing fuck.”
His laugh was humorless. “Yeah. Went there.”
I was starting to get really, really annoyed but I pushed that back down and stayed calm. “Dude, I just walked into this movie. I don’t have any info to tell you much less hold back from you. If what you tell me is helpful then I’ll cut you in. Seriously.”
“Bullshit. Would you believe me if I told you that?”
“No. Because you’re a fucking scumbag. I’m the honest one here.”
It was quiet for a second. “Damn.”
“Yeah. Went there.”
It was quiet again. I thought I might’ve pushed it too far but fuck it. He was getting on my nerves. Then Donnie laughed.
“Fuckin’ Farrar. You’re funny.”
He laughed some more and then coughed. “Ok, what do you want to know?”
I shook my head. This guy was out there. “Well, I just need to know how far you tracked this.”
“It was kinda easy, actually, up to a point,” said Donnie. ”I asked around and somebody told me that Poon had just bought a Superman cover and it sounded like the one I was describing. So I called him up and, sure enough, that was the one.”
Poon was Ken Tang, a really cool dude from Queens who was in the same comic art business as the rest of us. Ken was smart, a good guy and seriously unfortunate to have the last name Tang around a bunch of immature knuckleheads like us. Hence the nickname, “Poon”. He had a good sense of humor so he was pretty good about it. But everybody called him Poon to the point that it seemed natural. I barely remembered not to call him it.
“Oh, so Poon has it,” I said. See? Really difficult to not say it. “So what’s the problem?”
“Well, he sold it. That’s what he said anyway. He told me that a guy named Michael Rothstein from Jersey bought it from him. But when I told him that I needed to get touch with the guy he couldn’t remember his contact info or how he hooked up with him.” Donnie sounded a tad disbelieving when he said that. “Didn’t sound right to me. So I say fine and hang up. As it turns out I know a guy out there who knows Michael so I got his number and called him up. This guy Michael is a big Superman nut. Buys all kinds of Big Blue shit. And he says that Poon sold him a couple pages, yeah, but only one was a Swan piece and neither one was a cover.”
“Huh.” I said.
“Yeah, that’s how I was. So I call Poon back up and I’m like, Yo, Poon, you sent me on a wild goose chase, what the fuck? And he was all like, Oh, I think I sold it to this other guy who was from California or maybe some other dude, I don’t remember. Which I call bullshit on ’cause Poon remembers everything.”
I had to give Donnie that one because Poon really did have a great memory for things. And not just what issue did Phoenix first appear in the X-Men or how long was Mark Waid’s run on the Flash, either. He remembered everything it seemed like. One time we were just chatting outside of Jim Hanley’s Universe and I started telling this story about driving through Virginia during a snowstorm and Poon recalled that my mother was from Charlottesville, which I didn’t even remember ever telling him. So it did seem a little odd that he suddenly couldn’t remember who he sold a page to.
“Yeah, that is kinda weird.” I said. ”So you think this Rothstein guy is being legit?”
“Yeah, definitely. He told me everything I wanted to know, he was real upfront about it. Poon was the one acting nervous and shit. Besides, why would he lie about it?”
“So you think Poon was lying?”
Donnie sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t get why he would. But he was acting really strange. The whole thing was just weird.”
I didn’t have anything to add to that so I said, “Ok. Well, do me a favor and text me that Rothstein guys number.”
It was quiet on Donnie’s end for a second and then he said, “What, you don’t believe me? You think I’m making shit up, Farrar?”
“Jesus Christ, man, take it easy,” I said, exasperated. “I’m just following up. Maybe this guy can remember something that’ll help find it. Don’t be so fucking defensive.”
“Ok, ok,” Donnie muttered, in what would be his closest attempt at an apology. “I’ll send it to you later. When I get to it.”
“Fine,” I said, rolling my eyes. Always has to seem like he’s in control. I wasn’t originally going to ask my next question but Donnie was being such a fucking jerk that I had to hear his version of it. “So what happened with you and Chandler?”
Donnie sucked his teeth. “Man, fuck that old, cheap bastard. He was going on and on about that fucking page. It means so much to me and it’s a reminder of better times, blah, blah, blah. But he only wants to pay two grand to find it?”
I held back the urge to tell him that I was getting three grand and said, “Well, shit, Donnie, that’s just two grand to find the page. That wasn’t even a cut of the final sale, yet. You were guaranteed that.”
“Did you go to his house? That fuckin’ guy is loaded, dude. He could definitely come across with more than that. So I said fuck it, he’s gonna have to. Is that wrong?”
“OH, I forgot. I’m talking to Johnny Morals here, Mr. Do The Right Thing. Well, I got a store to run, Farrar. I need all the cash I can get. So I held out for more. Fuck Chandler, man and fuck you. I gotta eat too.”
I guess Donnie thought I just lived on oxygen and water or some shit, like he was the only one who needed to eat. I just let that one go though, because I was honestly getting tired. I tried to think of anything else to get out of him because I really didn’t want to call back. “So that was all Poon said? Nothing else helpful?”
“No, that was it. He was real mysterious,” Donnie paused a second, like something was coming to him. “Oh! But get this. Poon said a hot chick sold it to him. A hot BLONDE chick.”
I waited but Donnie didn’t say anything else.
“Ok. I’m not sure I’m following you.” I said.
“A hot blonde chick and her father are looking for this cover. And it just so happens that ANOTHER hot blonde chick sold the very same cover? Come on.”
“So… you’re saying that Jessica Chandler sold the very same page to Poon that her father is looking to buy? That doesn’t make any sense, Donnie.”
“I don’t know!” he said, annoyed. “Maybe she found the page first but needed the money and sold it. And she never told her dad. And now he’ll buy it and she’ll still have her money. See?”
“She would’ve had to have bought the page in the first place. Why spend the money if she didn’t have to? And why would she sell it at all? If she had it she could’ve just told her dad she knew where it was, take his money like she was making the deal and just give him the page.” I put my head down on the table. This guy can be fucking impossible to reason with sometimes.
“Why am I even thinking about this?” I said. “It’s just a coincidence, that’s all. There’s more than just one cute blonde in the world, dude.”
“I don’t know, man…. There’s just some weird shit with this art. There’s a lot more to this cover than we know.”
I picked my head up at that comment. “What the hell does that mean?” I asked.
There was a long pause on the other end. I could hear sounds in the background through the phone so I just waited.
Finally Donnie spoke. “A guy came to my store the other day.”
Another pause. Then: “He…. strongly suggested that if I found the cover that I should contact him first.”
I frowned at my phone. Across the street one of the kids took a nasty spill on his skateboard and his friends laughed at him. He struggled to his feet and gave them the finger. I stifled a laugh, remembered that Donnie was telling me some nonsense and said, “A guy.”
“Yeah, some guy. I never seen him before. I was by myself and he was kinda threatening me and then two guys that work for me came back from lunch and he left.”
“So you’re telling me that some guy came into your store and tried to shake you down for a Superman cover,” I tried not to sound sarcastic but I didn’t try hard. “That’s what you’re telling me.”
“Fuck you, Farrar, that’s what happened,” He sucked his teeth. “Man….”
I sighed. “Ok, What did he look like?” Maybe it was short muscle guy. That would be interesting.
“Uh…. tall, maybe 6’ 2”. Big. Long hair. Big jaw.”
Nope, not short muscle guy. Fucking Donnie. He almost had me.
“Come on, man.”
“That’s what fuckin’ happened, man!” Donnie snapped angrily. “When he looks you up, don’t say I didn’t tell you. Asshole.”
“Ok, ok. I’ll keep an eye out for him. How does this guy know about the page in the first place?”
I could practically hear Donnie shrug. “Fuck I know? He just showed up at the store. I didn’t take the time to fuckin’ interview him. But I’m telling you, something is up with this shit, man. So, good luck.”
Donnie paused for a moment, I guess for dramatic effect.
“And watch your ass.” he said and hung up.