Comedy club owner and occasional performer Channing Hayes thought the comedy biz was tough, but it’s a stroll in the park compared to politics. When he and his business partner Artie attend a congressional campaign event for their friend Thomas Lee’s nephew, masked thugs storm in and break up Lee’s restaurant with baseball bats. The candidate’s people insist that the police not be involved, so Lee asks Channing to investigate. As Channing searches for answers, he finds himself plunged into a corrupt world of payoffs, gangs, illicit affairs, blackmail—and murder.
A New Last Laff Mystery from Agatha Award-Nominated Author Alan Orloff
About the Author
Alan Orloff is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers and The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Md. He is the author of Diamonds for the Dead, an Agatha Award finalist for Best First Novel, and Killer Routine. Orloff earned a B.S. from the University of Maryland and an M.B.A. from MIT/Sloan. He resides in northern Virginia. For more information, visit him online at: AlanOrloff.com.
Read an Excerpt
By Alan Orloff
LlewellynCopyright © 2012 Alan Orloff
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Politicians really chap my tuchas," Artie Worsham said, chewing on the stub of the unlit cigar he'd been gnawing for the past two days.
"Everybody chaps your tuchas," I said.
"Not true. Only people I dislike."
"You don't like very many people. That's a lot of chapping going on."
"I said people I dislike. Not people I don't like. There's a difference. Most people I don't have much of an opinion about."
I yawned, not much interested in Artie's semantics lesson. Usually I didn't mind politicians, as long as they were honest, hardworking, and dependable. Which, in fairness, narrowed the field considerably.
I surveyed the banquet room. The excitement of a crowd anticipating a good show never failed to make the fine hair on my arms tingle. Whether I was the one on stage, or a buddy of mine, or even some poor newbie on his first open mic night, the murmurs of the audience held a certain quality. Now, as we waited for Thomas Lee's nephew, Edward Wong, to stand up and make a speech, I had many of the same feelings.
About thirty of Lee's relatives and close friends occupied a private room in the back of his restaurant—Lee's Palace—Home of Very Famous Peking Duck. We were all there for a belated celebration of Edward's victory in the Democratic congressional primary.
"What is it with politicians anyway?" Artie asked me, words swirling around his stogie.
I wasn't sure if he was asking me a question or trying to jumpstart a comedic riff railing against politicos. I fed him the straight line anyway. "What do you mean?"
"They all dress the same, they all smile the same, they all talk the same."
If that was his punchline, his routine needed some work. "I guess it's what the people want."
"Not this people," Artie said, thumbing himself in the chest. "I want liberty, truth, and justice from my public servants. And a little integrity would be nice, too."
Artie opened his mouth to respond, but Lee came up behind us and clapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, having a good time?"
"Sure," Artie said. "When do the dancing girls arrive?"
"No girls today, but we've got something even better. Edward's going to say a few words," Lee said.
"Oh, joy," Artie said, then slumped in his seat and crossed his arms.
Lee turned toward me. "How was the food, Channing?"
I patted my belly. "Excellent, as usual. You know how to throw a good banquet, that's for sure." It wasn't often I got the chance to eat my way through seven courses of Chinese delicacies, highlighted by some truly spectacular Peking Duck. Most days, I stopped after the third course. Lee was fond of his sister's family, always regaling us with stories of his nephew's exploits, right along with those of his own two daughters. One big happy family. "You must be very proud of Edward."
"I am." Lee extended his arms, taking in the whole room. "Everyone here is, too. Relatives, friends, the whole Chinese-American community. There aren't too many of us walking around the Capitol, you know."
"That's great. Whatever we can do, we're happy to help," I said.
Artie grunted his agreement.
"Thanks, guys. I know I can count on you." He smiled. "But it's nice to hear you say it. And Artie, when Edward gets elected, maybe he can keep the health inspectors off your back." He winked at me as he said it, then nodded toward the front of the room. "He's going to start soon. I'll catch up to you later." With a parting clap on the back, Lee set off to make sure his other guests were full and happy, too.
"Helluva guy," Artie said. Lee was one of Artie's closest friends, dating back fifteen years when he opened up The Last Laff Comedy Club next to Lee's restaurant. When I arrived on the scene some years later, Lee became one of my closest friends, too.
Someone clanked a knife against a water glass a few times, and the room slowly hushed as if someone turned down the volume on a radio. At the back of the room, a man stood and started fiddling with a small video camera. Footage of this little speech would probably appear on YouTube in a few hours as part of the requisite multimedia campaign.
Patrick Wong, Edward's younger brother, slid his chair out and stepped to the makeshift podium Lee had erected near the head table. With a graceful economy, he extracted a folded piece of paper from an inside pocket and laid it on the podium. Then he smoothly buttoned his jacket and licked his lips. He glanced around, seeming to make contact with every single person in the room, if only for an instant.
"First, let me thank Uncle Thomas for the wonderful food he provided this evening." He paused for some applause. "It's a good thing we'll be down the road in Washington next year, so we can come back whenever we want for some of this awesome duck." Another smattering of applause. "Thank you, Thomas." A third round of applause echoed throughout the small room, finally forcing Lee to rise from his chair and wave awkwardly. When he sat, the room hushed once again and all eyes returned to the dais.
Patrick cleared his throat, more for theatrical purposes than for any functional reason. Another trick of the professional public speaker. "You all know my brother, so I'll keep this very brief." He paused and glanced around, smile growing. "After all, I have to save my voice for some serious campaigning during the next ten weeks."
Next to me, Artie mumbled, "Get on with it, already."
"Help me welcome the next congressman from Fairfax County, and the very first Chinese-American representative from our district, my older brother, Edward Wong."
Edward strode to the microphone, and everyone in the room took their feet in a standing ovation, Artie and I included. Patrick put his arms around Edward, and they faced the crowd, soaking it in, huge smiles on their faces.
Artie had a point—about the cookie-cutter appearances of politicians, anyway. Edward wore a conservative dark blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, while Patrick wore a conservative dark blue suit, a white shirt, and a yellow tie, his small nod toward individuality.
Artie must have noticed me admiring the Wongs. "They are handsome and charming," he said, craning toward me so he could be heard above the applause. "Just like the you-know-whos."
Every time Artie talked about Lee's sister's family, he called them the Asian Kennedys. Never mind that he'd never actually spent much time with the Wongs—or any time with the Kennedys, for that matter. I suppose Artie felt comfortable drawing all his conclusions from what he saw on TV or read in the paper. I'd made him promise not to call them that today. Of course, referring to them as the "you-know-who" clan was even worse. I leaned over and spoke into his ear. "Yes, being handsome and charming helps in politics. Lucky for you those qualities are not essential for stand-up comedians."
The ovation continued until the two brothers broke apart. As the crowd settled back into their seats, Patrick returned to his spot at the head table, shaking a few hands along the way. Although the people were voting for Edward, they were also getting the services of Patrick, an accomplished lawyer in his own right. A 2-for-1 bonus.
If Patrick's presence was smooth and practiced, Edward's aura was commanding. He appeared reassuring, but there was something that told you not to turn your back on him. I imagined some people felt the same way about President Kennedy. I sat forward in my chair, waiting to be wowed.
"Thank you all for coming. It means a lot to me and to my family. Just as my family is always there for me, I want to always be there for you. It's about time our community had their voice heard in places that matter. With your support, we can make it happen." He'd probably practiced his speech—and a dozen variations—many times over, yet the words seemed spontaneous and heartfelt. I wish I could deliver my routines with such ease. I guess it helped to have an audience full of friendly faces, especially faces not looking for a laugh.
"We've grown as a community and yet many of our needs don't get addressed. We hold many positions of esteem—doctors, lawyers, business leaders—yet we are underrepresented in the corridors of power. I feel it is my obligation, my duty, to change that." As he spoke, he emphasized his points with his right hand. Not quite pointing, not quite shaking his fist. It was a gesture I'd seen Clinton use to perfection when he stormed the nation back in the nineties. He smiled at the back of the room where the guy with the video camera stood. "And I will change that, with your support. Together, we can do anything."
I could barely hear Artie muttering next to me as the crowd applauded. The applause died down slowly, but it was replaced by shouting coming from somewhere in the back. Three men, clad entirely in black with ski masks covering their faces, had burst into the room.
All three carried aluminum baseball bats.
One remained by the door and the other two split up, the taller one advancing toward Edward at the podium, while the shorter one headed for the back of the room. The butt end of a pistol peeked out from the waistband of his jeans.
My heart pounded and I felt Artie tense beside me.
The masked man closest to Edward stopped and brandished his weapon. "No cell phones. Remain calm and no one will be harmed. Do not scream. Now, cover your faces."
The voice, polite and calm, sent a chilling ripple up my spine.
Artie and I complied, covering our faces, but I made sure I could see what was going on between a gap in my fingers. Missing three on my left hand helped. Most of the other guests also covered up, but a few braver souls watched. Were the thugs going to beat each of us to a pulp with their bats?
The thought of that brutality—not just feeling it, but witnessing the carnage—sent another, larger, tremor through my body.
At the back of the room, the shorter guy walked up to the man shooting the video and grabbed his camera. He flung it on the floor and whacked it a few times with his bat, finishing things off by stomping on the plastic-and-metal carcass.
From the podium, Edward spoke. "Listen. Take what you want. We won't stop you. Please don't hurt us. We have done nothing to you." His voice cracked.
The taller intruder slowly walked toward Edward. He raised the baseball bat until the barrel was an inch from Edward's chin. "I said to be quiet."
Edward didn't respond, but a wild look passed behind his eyes for an instant. Then he went back to looking merely scared.
"Stop!" Edward's father sprang to his feet. "Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are dealing with here?" He didn't wait for an answer. "I am Hao Wong. I suggest you re-evaluate your plans for this evening."
The thug turned away from Edward and took a few steps toward Hao. "Sit down and shut up." He didn't raise his voice, but he got the message across. Hao lowered himself into his seat.
Next to me, Artie mumbled, "Goddamn punks."
The thug's head spun around toward us. "What? What was that?" He glared at us, two fiery eyes piercing the holes in his ski mask. My heart stopped. I prayed Artie would keep his trap shut for a change. Across the room, terror painted Lee's face.
"Who said that?" the taller thug asked, walking slowly toward us. He held his bat with both hands on the grip. When he stood before us, he repeated his question. "Who said that?"
Neither of us opened our mouths.
"Somebody better answer me, or there's going to be real trouble."
Artie snorted. "Who do you think you are, coming—"
The masked man drew his bat back.
Excerpted from Deadly Campaign by Alan Orloff Copyright © 2012 by Alan Orloff. Excerpted by permission of Llewellyn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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