Murder in Action


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Chapter 2

I was at least patient enough to wait for the weekend to end before reaching out to his agent.  I, of course, filled in Marvin and Wendy on the good news.  Wendy simply shrugged her shoulders and went back to sorting the boxes of manga that had arrived, while Marvin had squealed with delight and immediately started making a list of all the comics Keith Groves had worked on, so he could sign some and we could auction them off at the grand opening.  He even suggested having Keith do some sketches that we could auction as well.  We spent pretty much the entire weekend working up a plan for the two days that Keith Groves would be at the store.

Needless to say, when I contacted Keith Groves’ agent on Monday morning, all those plans went right out the window.

“I realize that his aunt made some kind of promises about his appearance,” Groves’ agent, Scott Finch, rattled off before I could even get a word in, “so we’re going to have to work out a way for Keith to get paid.  While he normally charges $40 for a sketch, we may have to up it to $60 per sketch to cover the fact that he isn’t getting an appearance fee.  Plus, we may have to charge a nominal fee for autographs, as I have no doubt you’ll have all those crazy fans that want 40 or 50 comic books autographed.  It’s a shame these conventions don’t prohibit that, since most of these fanboys simply take the autographed copies and sell them for more than market value, as if Keith’s signature is really going to make that comic worth millions a decade from now.”

I cringed and made a mental note to tell Marvin to put all those comics back in the back-issue bins.

“I was thinking maybe he could sign the first two comics for free, but any comics after that would have to be two dollars a comic,” Finch went on without taking a breath. “That should limit some of the really crazy fans and perhaps dissuade others from getting more than just two.  And those that do get more than two, well that’s more money to help cover his appearance. Of course, Keith’s aunt didn’t mention accommodations, so I went ahead and made reservations at the Hyatt Downtown, since a quick mapquest showed me it was less than twenty minutes from your store. I’ll simply keep track of the lodgings and food, as well as the airline tickets and rental car, and you can reimburse us once the weekend is over.”

My eyes began to glaze over as I thought about how much this was going to cost. If he was putting Keith up in the Hyatt, then no doubt, he’d be purchasing first class tickets for the flight out here and back home. And the food – God only knew at which restaurants they would choose to eat. I was beginning to realize I needed to work some of this down; I just didn’t know how Finch would take it.

“Mr. Finch,” I tried to cut in, but clearly he wasn’t having it.  He went on as if I hadn’t even said a word.

“We will take a taxi from the airport, and we’ll be arriving late Thursday evening, so I can assume you will have someone at the store availably to open the doors so Keith can set up.  And please make sure that he has a very visible spot, away from any windows, but with ample light.  He only drinks bottled water, so please, no tap water or cups from a water fountain.  We will be fine if you cater in lunch for him on Friday and Saturday, but we will eat our own dinners after the appearance each day.  Please make sure there are sharpees on hand for his autographs, and if you could supply the art paper for the sketches, that would be most appreciated.  If we have to buy our own, we’ll have to expense it back to you.  And please, above all else, please make sure that all of your employees know to address him as Mr. Groves.  He is not ‘Keith,’ nor is he simply ‘Groves.’ As far as I know, he does not personally know any of your employees, and they should show him the proper respect as a professional.”

I sighed. At this point, I knew there wasn’t much I was going to be able to do or say, so I simply said, “We will make sure everything is ready.”

Finch snorted in the phone, an obvious sign he didn’t believe me. “Fine, fine.  Our plane gets in at seven o’clock, so by the time we stop by the hotel to drop off our luggage, grab a bite to eat, we should be to the store no later than ten o’clock or so.  Make sure someone is there.”

I started to say I would be there, but the line went dead.  He had hung up.  I stared at the phone for at least a full minute before I put it down on the counter.

“So, what did he say?”  Marvin was pricing comics as he organized them in the back-issue boxes set up in the middle of the store.  The grand opening was less than a week away, and with Marvin and Wendy’s help, the store was taking shape.  Which was good, since we’d need to make a considerable amount of sales in the coming weekend in order to pay for Mr. High-and-Mighty.

“Well, let’s just say we’re going to have to re-think some of our plans for Mr. Groves,” I replied cryptically, which earned me a quizzical expression from Marvin and a scowl from his sister.  “Let’s call it a night, grab a pizza, and I’ll fill you in.”

The next three days were spent pricing, organizing, and cleaning the store, getting everything ready.  By Thursday afternoon, we were pretty much set to open.  Marvin had set up a table at the end of the counter for Groves to sit.  He created a fantastic poster, using Groves’ famous creation, Action Man.  It advertised the times that he would be autographing, the cost for both autographs and sketches, and gave a brief tag as to the works that have earned Groves his fame.  I had no doubt that he would be pleased with it. At least, I hoped so.

“Well, how does it feel to have your dream come true?”  Marvin scooped another  spoonful of General Tsao’s chicken into his mouth.  We were sitting cross-legged on the floor, enjoying our a late lunch.

“Honestly?”  I looked around the room.  Along the right wall ran the counter, behind which we had hung a number of the older, more valuable comics.  The back wall was lined with glass shelves, inside of which were displayed a variety of statues, action figures, and old toys.  The far left wall held all of the new and current comics, with rows of boxes containing back issues filling the center of the room.  We had set up a few shelves in front of the windows for recently released action figures.  I looked back at Marvin and Wendy.  “I’m scared out of my mind.  What if no one shows up tomorrow?  What if Flannigan has convinced people not to come to the store?  What if Keith Groves gets here and decides he doesn’t like the store and doesn’t want to sign? What if - -”

“What if an asteroid hits the earth in an hour and wipes out all of humanity?”  snapped Wendy, cocking her head to one side as she glared at me.  “If you worry yourself to death like that, then you’re going to cause the store to fail.  You’ve got to think positive.  And, seriously?  I don’t even buy comics, but even I’ve heard about what a dick that Flannigan guy is.  I don’t think you have to worry about people choosing his store over yours.  In fact, my guess is, you’ll find a lot of people flocking here just to get away from his store.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Marvin added, “but my sister’s right.  It’s been way too many years since comic fans have had a choice here in Paradise Pointe.  This store is going to offer it, and I have no doubt at all, we’ll pull tons of business by people that are fed up with Flannigan’s attitude and prices.”

“You’re probably right,” I conceded as I started cleaning up all of the leftovers.  “I just hope we don’t take too many away. I definitely don’t want to make an enemy of him.  God only knows what kind of nonsense he would pull if he thought we were stealing his business.”

“I wouldn’t worry about him,” Wendy said.  “If he messes with us, we’ll just sic Dad on him.”

I smiled.  Mr. Gallagher was known in Paradise Pointe, and even in some of the surrounding cities, as a hard-nosed attorney who won practically every case he took.  If anything did ever happen, I have no doubt Wendy and Marvin would convince their father to fight on my behalf.  It definitely pays to have the right friends.

“We’d better start getting the back room put in some semblance of order,” Marvin said, looking over at his sister.  “Then we can get out of here and let Cal deal with Mr. Sunshine.”

Wendy rolled her eyes, but she followed her brother into the back room.  I walked around behind the counter and learned forward, resting my chin in my hands.  Marvin was right.  This was my dream come true.  Growing up reading comics, I imagined what it must be like to actually own a comic store, but I never really thought about it being something I would ever do.  I always figured the owners were some of the luckiest guys (yes, I know, that’s probably sexist, but in my teenage mind, it never occurred to me that a woman might actually want to own a comic store) in the world.  Now, I was one of them.

I found myself grinning as I surveyed the store.  This was really happening.  I could hear Marvin and Wendy in the back room bickering, but even that couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.  I glanced down at my cell phone and saw that it was only five o’clock.  Groves and his agent wouldn’t be arriving at the store for another five hours or more, so I had some time to kill.  I opened my laptop and logged in.  I was surprised to see that nearly five hundred people had clicked on our Facebook page, indicating they would be attending the grand opening.  That was nearly double of what the number had been just a couple of days ago when I had checked.  It gave me hope that this weekend might very well be the success Marvin and Wendy expected it to be.

Several hours passed before I even realized it.  It wasn’t until Wendy came out of the back to tell me that they were almost finished cleaning up the storage room that I realized how long I had wasted online.  I glanced down at my cell again and saw that it was nearly nine-thirty.

“By now, he should be dropping his stuff off at the Hyatt,” I sighed.  “So long as his flight arrived on time.”

“We can stay if you’d like,” Wendy said.  “At least, until he gets here.”

“Nah,” I told her.  “You guys have done great.  Get out of here and get some sleep.  We’re going to have to get here nice and early tomorrow to make sure we are all set up and ready to go.  I don’t want to be late opening the store on our first day.”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that,” Wendy said.  “Marvin’s been so eager this week, I don’t think he’s gotten any sleep.  Sometimes I think he’s more excited about the store opening than you!”

I laughed, nodding my head.  “You’re probably right.  Now, go on and get out of here.  I’ll be fine.”

Wendy gave me a quick hug then called out for her brother.  “Pack it up, Marv. We’re heading out!”

As she went into the back, I came from behind the counter and walked the store.  I made sure the sketch pads and pens were straight on Groves’ table, and moved the poster a couple of times until I was satisfied that it was in the most visible place to be seen from anywhere in the store.

I checked the time again.  Nine fifty-five.

I wandered along the back wall, visually inspecting all of the statues and figures.  I stopped when I reached the Action Man bust.  This was from my own personal collection, and while I didn’t really want to part with it, I knew it would be an easy sell regardless of the price.  When Groves created Action Man back in the early 2000s, one of the first things he said in an early interview is that he would never allow his character to be sensationalized.  Which, I think, made the character an ever greater sensation (which, now that I thought about it, was probably his intention all along).  He refused to license the character, despite the number of requests for film and television rights, toy rights, and even Halloween costume rights. 

In 2012, to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of his character, he licensed a limited run of busts and statues, whose designs and final product had to be personally approved by him before they could be produced.  I had been fortunate enough to have the money saved up to buy a bust, but I could never afford a statue.  They had a market retail price of $750, and even with a discount through some dealers, it still sold for well over $600, and that was just too far out of my range.  I knew Flannigan had a statue in his store, which he had priced at nearly $2,000.  Of course, it had been there for over two years, and at that price, it would probably be there for several more.

Groves had been very smart in limiting access to his creation.  While characters from the two big publishing companies seemed to dominate the market, their books never seemed to draw the attention that Action Man did these days.  For a comic series that was more than 13 years old, with more than 150 issues under its belt (all written and drawn by the character’s creator, against which very few, if any, comics in today’s market could compete), it remained a top ten seller each and every month.  It told fun, readable stories with believable characters, outlandish villains, and amazing artwork.  I honestly couldn’t understand how he managed to keep coming up with new material month after month, but he did.  Perhaps that was why his agent was so cocky.  He knew the talent he was managing, so he knew he could get away with the abrasiveness.

Bang!  Bang!  Bang!

The sudden noise startled me out of my thoughts.  I turned around and saw someone standing outside the front door.  I couldn’t see who it was through all of the boxes and other paraphernalia he (or she) was holding.  I rushed over to the door, listening for the click as I neared the door.  I had made sure an automatic lock had been installed, so that once I locked the door, people could still leave without me having to unlock and lock the door each time.  Once locked, the door could be opened from the inside, but not from the outside.  I reached out and pushed the door open.  Before I could say anything, a short man with thinning dark hair pushed several boxes into my arms and shoved me back into the store, following me inside.

“Did I not make it clear that we would be arriving at ten o’clock?”  The man set down the easel and flat cardboard boxes he had been holding and looked at me with a scowl.  “But, then again, it’s not like I can expect everyone to be punctual.  I suppose in a backwoods town like this, everyone is used to just doing things on their own meandering time.”

I set the boxes he had handed me on the counter and turned back to him.  “I apologize, Mr. Finch.  I didn’t realize it was ten o’clock already.  My name is Calvin Parker.”  I held out my hand, but pulled it back with embarrassment when Mr. Finch made it clear he was not going to shake my hand.  He looked  around the store and sighed loudly.

“And I see you don’t have Keith’s table set up yet,” he said.  “I would have thought that was the least you could have done.  But, it doesn’t matter at this point.  If you’ll just bring out the table, we’ll set it up ourselves.”

I looked down at the end of the counter, then back at Groves’ agent.  “Um, actually, we do have it set up.  It’s right over there.”  I pointed at the table and the poster behind it.

Finch went over, looked at the table, picked up a couple of the sharpees, glanced up at the poster, then shook his head.  I closed my eyes and counted quickly to five, waiting for what I knew was coming.

“This is what you have set up for Keith?”  He chuckled, but there was no sense of humor in it.  “This is how little you think of one of today’s hottest creators, that you’d stick him over here in the far corner of the store?”

“Well, no,” I began, but was quickly cut off as Finch went on with his tirade.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised,” he said, waving his arm to sweep across the store.  “I mean, after all, this is all about your store, right?  Your big grand opening!  Your big day!  And you certainly wouldn’t want someone like Keith Groves taking away any of your sales, now would you?  So let’s publicize his name, let’s use him to draw in the crowds, but then let’s stick him in the back corner so that everyone has to go through your store first, spend all of their money buying your inventory, then, they can see Keith on their way to the checkout.  Did I just about nail it?”  He cocked his head to one side and stared at me with a smirk.

“No, that’s not at all what our intention was,” I tried to explain.  “We just thought- -”

“You thought?!”  Finch’s face was beginning to turn red as his anger increased.  “No doubt you thought.  You thought about how much money you could make off of my client.  You thought about how you could use my client’s name to draw in a big crowd.  You thought you could stick my client in the back corner and hope he didn’t take away too many sales from your store.  You thought that I would just sit back quietly and let you get away with it.  You thought - -”

“What he thought was that he would put your little star in a place that would give fans the greatest access to him!”

Finch and I both turned, surprised to hear Marvin’s voice.  He had stepped out of the back, has eyes filled with daggers aimed at Finch.  Wendy stood right behind him, her hands on her hips, her lips pursed.

“If anything,” Marvin continued, walking right up to Finch and staring down at him (since Marvin, at nearly six foot tall, stood a good six inches taller than the shorter man), “I think your client should be grateful that Cal gave this some serious thought before just putting him at some spot that you might consider to be the limelight.”

“Who the hell are you?” Finch demanded.

“Someone you can’t push around,” Marvin snapped back.  My eyes were opened wide in shock, but I couldn’t find my voice to say anything.  I turned to Wendy for help, but she had moved around and was leaning against the counter, a satisfied smile on her lips.  Marvin was usually pretty even-tempered, probably the most even-tempered of all of us.  But on a few occasions, we had seen him get riled up enough to let someone have it, and when he went off on someone, well … let’s just say, the other person never walked away unscathed.  If Marvin tore into Finch, I couldn’t see anything good coming out of it.

“If you think you can intimidate me, young man, you sadly mistaken.”  Despite his lack of height, Finch made a fierce presence.

“Intimidate you,” Marvin laughed.  “You’ve got to be kidding.  I wouldn’t waste my time on a tiny little twit like you.”  I covered my face with my hands, realizing I was about to lose my star of the weekend. I made a quick and silent prayer that God, if He were listening, would somehow silence Marvin.  Apparently, He wasn’t listening, for Marvin went right on.  “What I will do, however, is put an end to this nonsense of yours.  Now, let me guess,” Marvin waved his arms flamboyantly and walked over to the front of the store.  “I’m guessing you think your celebrated little legend should be stationed right up here at the front door, so that every person who comes into the store would see him right as they came in, and he would truly be the center of everyone’s attention, right?”

Finch nearly growled.  “At least someone here understands what a proper set up should be.”

Marvin chortled.  “Then you, my friend, are a complete and utter idiot.”

I thought for a moment Finch’s head was going to explode.  I could see the veins sticking out all across his forehead, and his entire face was going from deep red to a dark purple.  I started to step forward and intervene, but Wendy caught my elbow and pulled me back.  She shook her head and held a finger to her lips.  I looked back at the two men, then at her.  She winked and mouthed the words, Trust Marvin.

“I have never in my entire life!”  Finch bellowed.

“Yeah, you probably haven’t,” Marvin snipped.  “And with your attitude, you probably never will either.  But that’s neither here nor there.  What matters right now is this weekend, and where Keith Groves will be sitting.  You think he should sit up here, but we think he should sit back there.  Let’s see which place makes the most sense.”  Marvin walked up to the front door and pretended to be a customer coming in.  “If we set him here at the front, as soon as the first person walks in, what’s he going to do?  He’s going to stop.  Right here.  In the doorway.  He’s going to want to meet with Keith Groves, he’s going to want to talk to Keith Groves.  He’s going to want get a sketch.  He’s going to want to get autographs.  He’s going to spend five, ten, maybe even fifteen minutes standing here.  And what’s going to happen?  Everyone outside is going to get irritated. They want in, but they will have to fight to squeeze around him.  Some people in the back, who are forced to wait, will end up leaving.  And what will happen if anyone leaves.  Every person that leaves is not just a lost sale and a lost customer for our store, but it’s a potential lost sketch and autograph for your client.  Not only will we lose money, but so will your client!”

I was impressed.  Marvin had obviously thought this through.  And surprisingly enough, Finch’s anger appeared to be subsiding.  Maybe Marvin was getting through to him.

“However,” Marvin went on, moving past us and over to the table set up at the end of the counter.  “By putting your client down here, we have set up a more convenient location for people to come and meet with him.  Not only do we have an aisle here,” at which point, Marvin began walking along the back wall in front of the glass cases, “for the line of people waiting to meet your client to stand, but it can also continue down here,” as he turned and walked in front of the far wall towards the front of the store,” and then across the front here.”  He walked back across the front and up to Finch.  “Which not only makes it convenient for all of those who want to meet Keith Groves, but also provides easier access for everyone to enter the store, and no one will get frustrated waiting outside to get in.  Plus, for those waiting to see your client, by allowing them to wait inside rather than outside, it gives them something to look at while they are waiting so they don’t get bored and think about leaving before the line moves forward.” 

Marvin paused for a second to let everything sink in.  I watched Finch closely, and I could see in his eyes that he was actually considering the things Marvin was saying.  He was about to open his mouth and speak, but Marvin interrupted him.

“And, there are two other more compelling reasons that we decided to place your client right there.”  Marvin walked over to and behind the table and sat down in the chair we had placed there.  “First, it places him right next to the door to the back room, so if he has to use the restroom, needs to just get up and take a break, or if he wants to go out for lunch or something, he can exit through the back door without having to wade through a throng of fans, all wanting to get his attention and stop him for an autograph or something.  I would think that as his agent, you’d be most concerned about making sure your client had the best access to quick exits.”

Finch nodded in agreement, while I stood there in awe.

“Second,” Marvin continued, “placing him here, next to the cash register, will absolutely ensure that everyone who makes a purchase in this store will see him.  Even those people who don’t know who Keith Groves is, although I can’t imagine many comic fans now knowing, will see this poster when they come up to make their purchases, and who knows how many will suddenly decide they want to meet this man who created Action Man.  It will be just one more place of advertising your client, to draw people over to him who might otherwise pass him by if he were placed up front, where more people will be concerned about just getting inside than they will be to meet someone sitting there.  I mean, surely someone of your great agenting skills can see that this location truly is the best place for your client to be in the spotlight.”

Marvin finished and crossed his arms.  He stared right at Finch, who unblinkingly stared back.  The silence continued for a full two minutes, during which time I was sweating bullets.  This could go either way, and to be completely honest, I had no idea which way the pendulum was going to swing.  Finally, Finch spoke.

“You make some compelling points.”  He said each word slowly and carefully, almost as if it were painful for him to concede.  “I suppose since the table is already set up there, we might as well keep it there and make do.  If you’ll please move those boxes over there, I can get everything else ready.”

I made a move to pick up the boxes, but Wendy brushed me off.  “Go thank your savior,” she grinned.  “I’ll take care of these.”

As she moved the boxes, I pulled Marvin aside.  “My friend, you are truly amazing.  I didn’t even know the two of you were still here.  I thought you had already left a while ago.”

Marvin leaned in to me, talking quietly.  “We were going to.  But then I remembered how you said his agent talked on the phone, so I convinced Wendy to hang out so we could see him in person.  I wanted to see if he would be as nasty in person.  And he certainly didn’t let me down.  He is one real piece of work.”

I stifled a laugh.  “Yeah, he definitely is that.  I’m just glad you stayed.  I was so surprised by his actions, I didn’t know what to say.”

“Oh, you never have to worry about that,” Marvin said, a glimmer in his eye.  “I’ll always know exactly what to say to a Smurf like that.”

I gave him a quick hug, when suddenly there was another knock on the front door.  I turned and saw a blond haired man in jeans and a dark green polo shirt standing outside.

“There’s the man of the hour,” Marvin said.  “I think we’ll let you handle it from here. Wendy and I are going to take off.”

“Alright,” I said.  “And Marvin.  Thanks.  I mean it.  I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t been here tonight.”

“Be glad you didn’t have to find out!”  With that, Marvin walked over and whispered into his sister’s ear, and the two of them left.  Finch didn’t even seem to notice.  I took a deep breath and went over to let Keith Groves into my store.

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Chapter 1

I’ve always loved comic books. Ever since my mother bought me issue 28 of the Super Friends for twenty-five cents at a yard sale, I’ve been hooked. I couldn’t get enough of them. And since my mother was doing everything she could at the time to make up for my absent father, she bought me any and all comics she found at flea markets, yard sales, and thrift stores. Eventually, I was old enough to work and earn my own money, and that’s when I started found my first comic store.  A store filled with comics, toys, and anything, everything comic-related. It was like a dream come true. I knew then and there that one day I would own my own comic store.

And now, I do. Calvin Elmore Parker, owner of All Things Comics.  I just never imagined that the opening day could also turn out to be its last.

But I jump ahead. It actually all began when my great aunt, Gertrude, died. She had been hanging on for years, living in a nursing home up near Bangor, when the cancer finally got the best of her. I didn’t really know her, having only met her once or twice when I was a child at holiday family gatherings. The only thing I really remembered about her was the scent of lilacs. Her perfume was always so strong, I couldn’t smell anything for hours after being around her. So, when she died while I was still in my second year at PPCC (which is what the locals affectionately call Paradise Pointe Community College), I never dreamed I’d inherit anything from her. Even more of a surprise was the amount of the bequest.

Two hundred thousand dollars! No one in the family even knew she had so much money, but apparently, she had been saving for nearly all of her life. Since she never married, she had no children of her own; so, she bequeathed all of her savings in equal shares to her five great nieces and nephews – of which, I was one. I was flabbergasted (yes, flabbergasted – people may not use that word today, but I do, and it definitely fit the situation). What would I do with so much money? My first thought was to simply put it in the bank and let it earn interest until I finished my accounting degree. Until I spoke with my two best friends.

“This is your chance,” Marvin Walters insisted, running a hand through his short, dark hair. He was wearing tan khakis and a light green polo that were immaculately ironed.

“Chance for what?” asked his twin sister, Wendy. She was leaning against the kitchen counter of my apartment, munching on some chips.  She was dressed head to toe in black – black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a black jacket with so many zippers, I couldn’t even count them. She was in every way the opposite of her brother.

“To open a comic store, duh,” replied Marvin, not even looking back at his sister. He leaned forward on the kitchen table and stared directly into my eyes. “Cal, you can finally have a comic store of your own!”

I started to tell him how crazy that idea was, but something stopped me. Two hundred thousand dollars. That was a lot of money, and while it probably would not be enough to fully cover a start-up, it would certainly cover a large percentage. I sat back in my chair and looked from Marvin to Wendy and back to Marvin.

“C’mon,” he urged. “You know I’m right. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a big store or anything. I mean, let’s face it. There are plenty of shopping centers around Paradise Pointe with empty store space. I have no doubt you could talk one of them into giving you some space at a reduced rate, just to get it rented. Then you could buy some back stock, get some orders in for new comics, put some ads out, and bang! You’d have a comic store!”

Wendy scoffed at the idea. “I’m sure it’s going to take a lot more than that to open a store. Besides, you have to think, there’s more to starting up a new business than just the store and stock. You have to hire employees, you have to pay for insurance for those employees, you have to consider how much you’re going to be in the hole for the first six months or so at least, and - -”

“And nothing,” Marvin cut her off, standing up and turning to face her. “What does he need employees for?  He has us!”

Wendy started coughing, choking on a chip she was eating.  I stood up to help, but before I could get very far, Marvin had already gone over to his sister, taken away the bowl she was holding, and poured her a glass of water. She drank greedily, and the coughing subsided.

“Are you crazy?” She smacked her brother in the arm, and he backed away. “What in the world makes you think I would work in a comic book store? I don’t read comics – that’s your thing.”

“Wendy,” Marvin said, his tone changing to that condescending voice he uses every time he’s about to make a point. “You do realize that manga is a form of comic. And since neither Cal nor I know much at all about manga, who else could we hire but an expert like you?”

Wendy stared at her brother for a moment before her lips formed a smile and she shook her head. “Damn you, Marvin.” She pushed herself off the counter and walked over to where I was standing. “Okay, Cal,” she said. “If you really do decide to open a store, then I guess you can count me in. So long as I have total control over all of your manga and anime section.”

“Done!” Marvin exclaimed, pushing in between the two of us and leading me into the living room. “Now that that’s settled, we can start figuring out what we’re going to call it.  Comic Related? No, that’s a website I think. What about The Comic Book Experience? No, sounds too much like a show or theme park or something. Maybe - -”

“Enough,” I said, laughing. “I appreciate everything here, guys, really I do. Your enthusiasm, Marvin, definitely has me thinking this might actually be a viable idea. But Wendy’s right. It takes more than just some ideas and a little bit of money to start up a business. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”

“But - -”

“He said he’s going to think about it,” Wendy said, grabbing her brother by the arm and leading him to the front door. “Don’t push it, or you may talk him out of it.  Now let’s go!”

Marvin was still talking when I shut the door behind them. I leaned back against the door, crossed my arms, and smiled. My own comic store. The more I thought those words, the more the idea was really beginning to take hold.

Six months later, after I received from Associate’s degree from PPCC, I was executing a lease at the Bardstown Shoppes just south of downtown Paradise Pointe. The end unit was only 1,500 square feet, so it would be a small store, but the price was right, and I had talked the landlord into giving me the first three months’ rent free in exchange for signing a five-year lease. And my mother, who has worked for lawyers pretty much all of her adult life, convinced me to create a corporation to run the business under so that I would not face any personal liability for anything that might happen.

Thus, All Things Comics was born.

Then came all the real work. The lease did not actually begin running for two months, so our first course of business was to stock the store. Buying stock was not as easy as expected. With Marvin and Wendy’s help, we created a budget with the money my great-aunt had left me and allocated only a certain portion to stock. Of that portion, 75% was allocated for comic stock, 15% was allocated for comic-related toys, and 10% was allocated to manga and anime. Wendy was not exactly thrilled to have such a small percentage, but she relented when we agreed that once profits started coming in, we would continue to allocate a share to bringing in more of her stock.

So we began to look for stock. On e-Bay, at yard sales and flea markets, on Craigslist, and anywhere else we could think of. We remained frugal, looking for the best deals and waiting until we could find the things we wanted at the best prices (reminding ourselves we would be marking up all of the merchandise in order to make a profit). We even visited Comic Paradise, which is the only other comic store in Paradise Pointe; however, we were careful not to mention anything about the fact that we were planning to open up his competition. Albert Flannigan, the owner of the store, has always been a rather difficult man. When I first started buying my own comics, I visited his store; but I was quickly turned off by Flannigan’s know-it-all attitude and refusal to budge on his over-inflated prices. So I began buying my comics from one of those on-line services and rarely, if ever, visited his store.

It pretty much took the entire two months to find all of the stock we wanted in order to open the store. Marvin, thankfully, was so psyched about the idea of opening the store, that not only did he help find stock, but he also managed to get me some great deals on shelves, counters, cash register, and even got us signed up and ready to go with the credit card companies. We set a date for the grand opening, figuring September 1st would be the perfect time – right at the end of summer, right before school starts, and right near the Labor Day holiday weekend. But I wanted more. I wanted it to be something really special for comic fans, something that would draw them in. This time, though, it wasn’t Marvin who came to the rescue. It was my mom.

“You should get some famous creator or something to come to the store,” she said as she sipped her coffee. We were eating dinner at her house, our weekly Friday night ritual, and I was telling her all about the grand opening.

“I wish I could,” I sighed, taking another bite of the parmesan chicken.  “But I don’t know any. And somehow, I doubt if I contacted any of them via Facebook or Instagram that they would jump at the opportunity to come all the way to our backwater little town for a small store opening. It’s not like I could pay them very much, and I don’t know how many people are actually going to show up for the opening, so I can’t guarantee a certain amount of money to be gained.”

Mom smiled. “Well, why don’t you let me see what I can do for you.”

“You?!” I laughed, but quickly stopped when I saw her eyebrows raise. “Mom, I appreciate you wanting to help, but really, what can you do?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” she said ominously. “Never underestimate your mother, my dear.”

Needless to say, I didn’t hold out any hope for whatever scheme she was cooking up. But, I will admit, I was the one eating crow when one week later she came back to me with some unexpected news.

“Are you familiar with Keith Groves?” she asked me at our Friday night dinner.

“Keith Groves?” I stopped eating and looked across the table at her. “Of course, I know him. I mean, he only created on of today’s top comics, and he still writes and draws the book on a monthly basis. He puts so many of those other big name writers and artists to shame, since many of them can’t seem to keep a regular monthly schedule for their books, and yet, Groves manages to do the writing, penciling, and inking, and keep his book coming out on a regular basis.”

Mom grinned. “So, in other words, having Keith Groves come to your grand opening would be a big deal, yes?”

My jaw dropped. “Mom, what exactly are you saying?”

She laughed and clapped her hands with joy. “What do you think? That ‘top creator’ you seem to have such high regard for will be coming to your store for the opening.”

“But - - but  - -“ I was stuttering, unable to complete a thought.  “How?”

Mom began clearing the dishes from the table as she explained. “You know my friend, Francine? Well, she’s been telling me for years now about her nephew being so famous in his field, and ever since you started working on your store, I’ve been telling her all about it. So, a couple of months back, when I was talking about your store, she told me that her nephew was a comic writer and artist. Needless to say, we started talking more about the opening of your store, and I may have said something about how much credit it would give your store if a comic book personality was there at the grand opening, and…”

I hung my head, letting my forehead rest on the table.  “Mom, please tell me you didn’t!”

She came around behind me and patted my back.  “Cal-El,” she said, using the nickname all my friends in high school had given me (and yes, it’s a take-off of exactly what you think it is), “what good is a mother is she can’t help her own child out now and again.”

I started to laugh, despite my own embarrassment.  I looked up at her, then stood and gave her a hug.  “I love you, Mom.  I know you mean well.  But I can only imagine what Keith Groves must think of a comic store owner whose mother is the one that asks him to come out for a store opening.”

“Oh, no,” Mom was quick to point out.  “I didn’t ask Francine for anything. I just mentioned the opening, and she’s the one who volunteered to talk to her nephew. She’s the one who made the offer.  I just accepted it,” she added with a smile.

She went into the living room and came back with her purse.  She pulled a 3x5 card out and handed it to me.  “This is his contact info,” she said.  “Well, his agent’s contact info, actually.  I didn’t realize comic book people had their own agents like television and movie stars.  That must be some business they are in.  Anyway,” she waved her hand in the air and went back to washing dishes, “you just need to reach out to him.  Francine already convinced them to do it, so it’s just a matter of you contacting him and coordinating the dates and times.”

I stared at the card in awe. Not only was I now going to have a comic book creator at my grand opening, but I was going to have one of the hottest names in the comic industry today!  This was simply too good to be true.

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Chapter 3

“Sorry we’re late.”

Marvin glared at his sister as the two of them stepped through the door into my apartment.  “It’s not my fault.”

“Of course, it isn’t,” said Wendy, rolling her eyes.  “I mean, it’s perfectly natural for a grown man to try on fifteen different outfits before finally settling on that perfect pair of pants and shirt to go work in a comic store.”

I covered my mouth with the back of my fist to stifle a laugh.  I’d known Marvin long enough to know how much truth was in Wendy’s jibe. 

“For your information,” Marvin replied, “it was not fifteen outfits, thank you very much.  It was only six.  And I don’t care whether I’m working in a comic store or a Forbes top-100 company – I will always dress for success.”

Wendy eyed her brother up and down.  He was wearing a pair of purple jeans that were very form fitting (a bit too form fitting for my taste, but who am I to judge?), along with a black t-shirt over which he wore a collared white shirt that he left unbuttoned.  She shook her head and sighed.

“You should have tried them all on last night,” she said, “so that you wouldn’t have needed to waste all that time this morning.  I mean, I made my decision last night, so this morning, all I had to do was shower and pull on the clothes I had picked out.”

“Well, thankfully, sister-dearest, not all of us are so fashionably-challenged that our closet consists solely of black pants, black shirts, and black jackets,” Marvin smirked.  Wendy stuck out her tongue at him, and he snorted back at her.

“Okay, okay.”  I walked in-between the siblings, smiling.  “You’re not late.  It’s only seven-thirty, so we still have plenty of time.  I wasn’t planning on getting there until eight o’clock, anyway.  I mean, we have everything pretty much set up already, and I think getting there an hour before opening is more than plenty of time.”

“What about Mr. Full-Of-Himself?” Marvin asked.  “Was he satisfied with everything last night?”

I shrugged as I picked up my keys from the table beside the front door.  “I don’t know.  Once Keith - - sorry, I mean Mr. Groves - - showed up last night, it was like seeing a completely different person.”

“What do you mean?” asked Wendy.  The three of us stepped outside, and I locked the door to my apartment.

“Well,” I told them as we descended the three flights of stairs to the parking lot, “when I let him into the store, I was expecting Finch to tell him how horrible we were and how he had to get everything set up.  Instead, you should have seen him.  He was like the ultimate brown-noser.  It was all, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Let me do that ‘ and ‘What can I get you’ and ‘Is this spot okay’ and so on.  I couldn’t believe it.  He turned into a completely different person that was almost on the verge of subservient rather than the arrogant, bossy egomaniac we all saw earlier.”

“Interesting.”  Marvin plopped into the front seat of my Volkswagon Bug, leaving his sister to squeeze into the back.  “Apparently Mr. Boss-Man has his own boss he has to answer to.  Guess we know who wears the pants in that relationship.”

I pulled out of the parking lot and headed south towards the store.  Early morning traffic was already starting to build as people began making their commute into work, so it was a lot of stop and go.  Fortunately, I didn’t live that far from the shopping center, so barring any accidents or other delays, we would still make it by eight.

“And Keith - - Mr. Groves - - was surprisingly nice.  A little condescending when he talked to Finch,” I said, “but he was very friendly to me.  He even complimented me on the set up of the store.”

Wendy cleared her throat in the back seat, and I gave her a glance in the rearview mirror.  “Don’t worry, I told him who did all the real work.  He even got a kick out of your names.”

“Doesn’t everybody?” Marvin sighed, sliding back in his seat.  “I guess that’s one joke that will never get old.”

“Anyway, he seemed genuine to me,” I said.  We were sitting at a stoplight just a few blocks away from the store.  “He said he was glad he could help out.  He said he doesn’t get many opportunities to come back to Paradise Pointe, so this was a great excuse for him to come home for a brief visit.  He said it would be good to see his family again, and some of his friends.  Although, he did joke there were probably a couple of people in town who probably wished he would just stay away.”

“Wow,” commented Wendy from the backseat.  “So he’s not so popular with everyone, eh?”

I laughed.  The light turned green, and I followed the car ahead of me through the intersection.  “It’s like the old saying goes.  You can please some of the people all of the time, and you can please all of the people some of the time, but can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

“Speaking of wow.  Look at that crowd!”

Marvin was right.  As I pulled up to Corrine Drive, the cross street for Bardstown Shoppes, I saw a rather large group of people congregating in front of the store.  I could see them vying for a place in the front, with a number of people pressed up against the large plate glass windows.  Quite a few of them had their phones out and were taking pictures of the inside of the store.

“Okay, that’s a little unexpected,” I said, turning onto Corrine.  I turned left into the shopping center, and made an immediate right so that I could pull around to the back. 

“What?” asked Wendy.  “You didn’t think you’d draw in an early crowd?”

“No,” I replied.  “Not that.  I’m more surprised to see people taking pictures of the inside of the store.  I mean, I don’t really think there’s anything so spectacular about it that would warrant people taking pictures.”

Marvin chuckled.  “Puh-lease.  We live in Paradise Pointe.  People will take pictures of paint drying around  here just for something new to see.”

I pulled into the last parking space in the lot.  Since most stores didn’t open until ten, our car was the only one there this early.  We got out of the car, Wendy grabbing her laptop that she had brought with her.  We went over to the back door, and I unlocked it.  I reached inside to switch on the light to the back room.

“Something’s not right.”

Marvin’s words, and the way he said it, made me stop dead in my tracks.  Wendy bumped into me, looking up from her phone.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Marvin said, “but are you telling me neither one of you can feel it?  There’s something off.”

At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what he was talking about.  But as I took a couple of steps into the room, moving around the boxes that were stacked in orderly piles, the hairs on the back of my neck suddenly began to stand on end.  Marvin was right.  I looked around the room, taking in everything.  The unopened statues.  The boxes of unbagged and unpriced comics.  The sealed boxes of action figures.  Nothing seemed to be out of place; but then again, I wasn’t the one who organized all of it.

“Is something out of place?” I asked the two of them.  “Do either of you see something missing?”

Wendy shook her head, now just as nervous as the two of us.  Marvin didn’t say anything as he started inspecting the various piles.  I left the two of them to it, making my way the door that led into the main store.  I walked into the room, and the first thing I noticed were all the people pressed up against the glass.  For a moment, I lost any sense of nervousness I might have had.  But then I realized what they were all doing.  They were looking at something.  They were taking pictures of something.  Something on the floor.  And all of a sudden, that sense of nervousness rushed back into me, quickly escalating to something more akin to fear, and then outright panic.  As that infamous smuggler once said, I had a very bad feeling about this.  With great trepidation, I walked to the edge of Keith’s table and cautiously looked around it.  And down.  On the floor.  And that was when I lost it.

There, on the floor of my store, was Keith Grove’s lifeless body, with a large pool of blood surrounding his head.

“I didn’t see anything - -” Wendy said as she came out of the back room, but she stopped short when she saw me.  “Cal, what’s wrong?  You’re as white as a ghost.”

I couldn’t speak.  My mind was thinking the words, but my mouth could not seem to form them.  I simply shook my head and started backing up. 

“Cal, you’re scaring me.”  Wendy took my arm and turned me around.  The fear in my face must have been evident, for her eyes opened wide.  “What the hell is wrong?”

Without waiting for an answer, she rushed around me, and I heard her let out a loud gasp when she saw the body.  She came rushing back over to me, breathing fast.

“Is that … ?”

I nodded.  This couldn’t be happening.  It just couldn’t be.  This was my big day.  This was my dream come true.  My very own comic book store.  Only, my dream was coming to an end.

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