The author calls himself the Answer Man. He introduces himself to Stewart Hoag—onetime literary darling of the New York scene—with a letter begging for help with his first novel. Hoagy usually ignores such requests, but the Answer Man’s sample chapter grabs his attention. It is a chilling, first-person story about a man who picks up a girl in a pet shop, takes her home, and savagely murders her. The imagery is clear, the prose strong, and the storytelling as truthful as though the author had actually lived it. When he opens the next morning’s paper, Hoagy realizes he was reading nonfiction. A young pet shop employee has been bludgeoned to death, and the crime’s details match those in the manuscript. As the Answer Man keeps killing, he continues writing letters asking Hoagy to collaborate with him. If Hoagy can’t stop him soon, he may find himself starring in the book’s next chapter.
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The Man Who Loved Women to Death
A Stewart Hoag Mystery
By David Handler
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1997 David Handler
All rights reserved.
You don't mind me being so familiar, do you? I hope not. I feel like I know you, having read and enjoyed your work so much. And "Mr. Hoag" just seems so stiff, somehow.
I'm enclosing the first chapter of what I'm hoping, with your generous assistance, to develop into a novel. It's about a character who I believe has the potential to make as big a name for himself in modern American fiction as Holden Caulfield. I've structured it in the form of letters to a friend, much like Ring Lardner did with the letters Jack Keefe wrote to Friend Al in "You Know Me Al," a work I freely admit has influenced me greatly. Maybe even too much. I don't know. I'm not a professional writer. At least not yet.
But I do feel this is a VERY commercial project. I need advice and help. I need a collaborator. I need YOU. Once we find a publisher I can promise you your usual fee and royalties, including a nominal share of the film rights. This is a natural for a film, by the way.
I have gone ahead and written the first chapter on my own as a sample. I am told I pretty much have to do this. I hope you can spare the time to read it. And can advise me what I should do next. I really look forward to meeting you. I'm a real fan.
Yours truly, the answer man
I WAS AT THE COUNTER of the Oyster Bar in Grand Central that day showing Tracy the proper way to eat a bluepoint. I figured it was important that she learn about these things from me. Who else was going to teach her? Some pimply little weasel named Gunnar or Doogie? What the hell would he know about raw oysters? He'd probably tell her to order a dozen. Wrong. The correct number is nine. He'd probably tell her to drown them all in lemon juice. Wrong again. You squirt each oyster individually, and only when you are just about to eat it. Add a dash of Tabasco, then swallow whole. That's how you eat an oyster.
Tony, who'd been there behind the raw bar since VJ Day, certainly concurred. As for Lulu, my noted nose bowl champ, she merely grunted peevishly. She'd been in a sour mood ever since her annual physical exam, when her doctor remarked that she was becoming a trifle, well, jowly. It didn't matter that she was in tip-top health otherwise—sinuses clear as a bell, figure svelte, gums as gingivitis-free as those of a basset hound half her age. Lulu was steamed—her looks mean a lot to her. Plus Tony was taking his sweet time with her oyster pan roast, mostly because he kept stopping to make funny faces at Tracy, who kept responding with gales of laughter from her perch there next to me. At eighteen months, Tracy remained a sunny, happy baby. Clearly, the Hoagy genes hadn't kicked in yet. They would. I wasn't at all concerned. Or at all looking forward to it.
Still, no complaints from this end. It used to be that spending the better part of an afternoon on a stool in the belly of Grand Central terminal slurping up oysters was called loafing. Now, thanks to Tracy and the sober responsibilities of fatherhood, it was called quality time.
Afterward, we meandered over to Fifth Avenue to take in the annual Christmas display in the windows of Lord and Taylor, Tracy swaddled in her periwinkle-blue snug suit and cashmere ducky blanket. It was a bright, frosty early December day, the best kind of day in the best time of year in the best city on earth. New York comes to life between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The air is as bracing as a sharp whiff of ammonia. The chestnuts are roasting. People have a bounce in their stride and an unfamiliar bit of color in their cheeks. A few of them even smile. At least they smiled at us as we walked along. It was Tracy, chiefly. Not that Lulu wasn't lookin' buff in her Fair Isle sweater vest, prancing along beside her baby sister's stroller. Not that I was looking too terrible myself in my shearling greatcoat from Milan, which I wore over the barley-colored Donegal tweed suit from Strickland's, a cream and blue tattersall shirt of Italian wool and a knit tie of rose-colored silk. No, it was Tracy. Her emerald-green eyes, chiefly. Merilee's eyes. And those luxuriant blond tresses that spilled out from under the knitted cap that was perched on her somewhat largish head. She was an uncommonly beautiful baby. People always lit up when they saw her. Especially when she was with Merilee. The two of them made quite some pair. In fact, I was becoming deathly afraid they'd soon be asked to appear in one of those vomitous celebrity mother-daughter fashion spreads in Vanity Fair.
I'd be damned if any daughter of mine would be exploited that way. Especially without me.
From Lord and Taylor's we strolled down to the Old Print Shop on Lex, me limping slightly. The limp had nothing to do with age and everything to do with that damned play Merilee was rehearsing. I picked out the frame for Merilee's Christmas present, an etching that Levon West did in the early thirties of a busy New York street on a rainy day. Merilee had much admired it—looking at it, you can practically hear the car horns and the Gershwin in the background—but she was way too much of a frugal Yankee puritan to spring for it. That made one of us. For Tracy I had bought one good book. I'd decided to buy her one good book every year for Christmas—each a signed first edition. This particular Christmas, her second, she was getting The Sun Also Rises. From there we worked our way back up Madison to Worth & Worth, where I had my Statler reblocked while I studied how I looked in a homburg. Distinguished, I decided. I also decided I could wait another ten years to look distinguished. Lulu's new district check wool cap had come in. She tried it on in the three-way mirror, snuffling happily. Shopping always cheers her up. Something she got from me. That and an aversion to any film starring Meg Ryan. Afterward, we took in the tree at Rockefeller Center, a seventy-five-foot Norway spruce that had been donated by two nuns in Mendham, New Jersey. We watched the ice skaters. We stopped at the St. Regis, where Sal Fodera trimmed my hair. It doesn't take him as long as it used to, but Sal is courtly enough never to point this out. Mary at the front desk fussed like crazy over Tracy. Lulu took a nap, which is one of the things she is best at.
Yes, we made a real father-daughter-basset hound day of it. It was a happy day, a day I had earned. After all, I had at long last finished Novel No. 3. It's true, I'd done it. Seventeen years after The New York Times Book Review had labeled me "the first major new literary voice of the 1980s," six years after they'd called my second novel "the most embarrassing act of public self-flagellation since Richard Nixon's Checkers speech," I'd finally done it. Not that I had a publisher for it yet, mind you. It was not exactly an easy sell, seeing as how it was a prime example of what's known in publishing as a male menopause novel, a category that made it only slightly less commercial than, say, My Life and High Times by Neon Leon Spinks. Right now, it was making the rounds. Which meant I was having lunches with a lot of editors. Which is what they get paid to do and writers do not. Mostly, I was sorry to discover, they wanted to talk to me about my other, decidedly less distinguished career—the Claude Rains thing. When it comes to ghosting, I am The Man. The best of what's around. Five number-one bestselling memoirs and someone else's number-one bestselling novel to my noncredit. So I heard all about the basketball star who had just flunked his third drug test and his fourth reading test. The U.S. senator with presidential aspirations. Or perspirations. The actress who was finally ready to tell the world who she had and had not given the skin to—now that there was no one left alive in the world who cared. I certainly didn't. None of that celebrity rubbernecking crap for me. No more. I was Stewart Stafford Hoag, novelist. I had slain my personal white whale. Someone in power would agree with me any day now. It would happen. It would sell. I knew it was good. I was not going to worry. I was going to enjoy the city, enjoy my daughter, enjoy my life. Life was good. Repeat after me: Life is good.
Then again, maybe Joseph Wood Krutch was right. Maybe we moralists are never satisfied. Pay no attention to me. I'm just trying to give you an idea where my head was that day the first chapter came, okay?
It came, as do seeds from Burpee and bad news from the Internal Revenue Service, in a plain manila envelope. But inside was not the makings of Better Boy tomatoes or news that my deductions for home-office expenses had once again been disallowed. Inside was a manuscript, eight pages in length, and a very polite cover letter. Both had been typed on an old manual typewriter, which you don't see much of anymore, not unless you get a letter or a manuscript from me.
I stood in the somewhat grand lobby of our building on Central Park West and read the letter under the suspicious gaze of Mario, the daytime doorman, who had never liked me and was liking me even less now that I'd taken to opening my mail down there before I went upstairs. Mario was positive that I was corresponding with some mystery woman. For the record, I wasn't. For the record, I'd never liked Mario either. And Lulu liked him even less than I did. When it comes to hating petty authority figures, we always stick together.
Like most authors who've had their names in the papers, I get my share of oddball mail. I get letters from droolers who are genuinely convinced they were captured by an alien or Elvis or Nicole Brown Simpson and need someone (me) to help them tell and sell their miraculous story. I get inquiries from dog lovers who are thinking of adopting a basset hound and wonder if they are easy to train. (You don't train them—they train you.) And, yes, I get submissions from would-be novelists who want my advice. (Generally, I suggest going to dental school, which qualifies you to stick sharp objects in people's mouths and hurt them and get paid a lot of money for it.) Some of these letters are forwarded to me by my agent or by the different publishers I've worked for through the years. Some of them, like this particular one, find their way directly to my home. I don't know how these people get my address. They just do. I get Prison Life magazine every month, for instance, and I have no idea why or how. Aside from the fact that so many of the celebrities I've worked for are presently doing time.
What I'm trying to say is there was nothing out of the ordinary about this letter. Except for one thing: There was no name on it—unless you count "the answer man." Not so much as a clue as to who this budding author might be. Not on the letter, which was typed on plain white typing paper—no letterhead, no watermark. Not on the title page of the manuscript. Not on the nine-by-twelve manila envelope it came in. There was no return address on the envelope either. Just my name and address typed onto a stick-on label, the kind that come twenty to a sheet. Same typewriter. There were four 32-cent stamps affixed to it. It had been postmarked the day before somewhere in New York City, which is to say Manhattan, not Brooklyn or Queens or any of those other boroughs.
Somewhat strange. But not so strange as to intrigue me. I just dismissed it as terminal shyness or forgetfulness or any one of the other million endearing little tics that tend to take root in authors, would-be and otherwise. I tucked the chapter back in its envelope. I stuck it under my arm with the rest of that day's mail. I rode the elevator up to our floor with Tracy and Lulu.
Merilee was home from rehearsal. I knew this because I walked through the door into utter and complete blackness, the kind of darkness that can be achieved in New York City only if you install Levolor blinds in every window and then cloak these behind heavy floor-to-ceiling blackout drapery. This, in case you were wondering, is why I'd taken to opening my mail downstairs. This, in case you were wondering, is what it means to have an ex-wife who is an actress.
Mine was deep into rehearsing the role of Susy Hendrix for a revival of Wait Until Dark, the Broadway stage thriller by Frederick Knott. Lee Remick had originated the role on stage thirty years back. Audrey Hepburn had played it on film. And now it was Merilee Nash's turn. She and her semi-notable co-star in the role of the heavy, Harry Roat. Susy, as you may recall, is blind. Merilee, so as to get into character, had turned our world into Susy's world. She spent hours every day stumbling around in the dark, eyes wide open, seeing nothing. Occasionally, she even moved the furniture around so as to make it that much harder. All of which was fine for her but hard on me. I kept bumping into our heavy Stickley originals, leaving me with welts on my knees and shins—hence the limp. It was also hard on Lulu, who had been recruited for much-hated doggie-on-a-string detail so Merilee could try walking down the street without benefit of sight. She wore a mask over her eyes for that. Merilee, that is. I voted that she wear one inside, too, so that the rest of us could enjoy the healthy benefits of light. Not to mention our million-dollar view of Central Park. No sir. Merilee was Susy now, and Susy's world was a dark one. Plus she claimed that practicing this way was sharpening her other senses.
My own sense of smell as I stood there, blind, in the entry hall, told me that Pamela, our silver-haired British housekeeper, had made Daube à la Niçoise for dinner. For dessert she had baked a walnut loaf made with black walnuts from our own tree in Lyme. My own sense of hearing told me that my stomach was growling.
She heard us come in, Pam did, and started down the long, dark hallway toward us from The Safe Zone, her brightly lit kitchen. She had a Petzl zoom headlamp strapped to her head, and looked somewhat like a cheery, pink-cheeked coal miner. Lulu stayed put in between my feet, whimpering mournfully. She's afraid of the dark. Only dog I know of who is. Tracy, she didn't seem to care much one way or the other.
"Yes, yes, here we are, Miss Lulu," Pam called to her soothingly from under the light beam. "Help is on the way. Here we come. Here we are. Did we all have a lovely day? Of course we did. Now we'll see that Miss Tracy has a proper bath and to bed, won't we?"
"Where is the divine Lady M?" I asked, handing over Tracy.
"Off wandering somewhere in the living room." Pam lowered her voice discreetly. "Poor dear's gone and moved the settee again."
And with that we heard a loud thud from somewhere off in the blackness. Followed by "Oh, sugar! Shirley Temple! Succotash!" And then a hurried "I'm all right, Pam! It wasn't an important toe! I'm all right!"
"Fine, dear!" Pam called back to her. Clucking, she turned her headbeam on the entry closet so I could hang up my coat. "Poor girl's positively covered with bruises. The sacrifices she makes for her art. Unless, that is, you've been hitting her."
"I have not. Besides, how would that explain all of my bruises?"
"She's been hitting you back," Pam sniffed. "High time, if you ask me. Victor wanted words with you." Victor being Vic Early, celebrity bodyguard extraordinaire, who doubled as caretaker of our Connecticut farm. "Did he get hold of you?"
"No, he didn't. What's it about?"
"I really couldn't say, dear boy," she replied airily, heading back to her clean, well-lit kitchen with Tracy in her arms and a grateful Lulu on her heel. And leaving me there in the total dark.
"Honey, I'm home!" I called out, groping my way blindly toward the living room. Wham. That was me colliding with the umbrella stand. Wham. That was the door to the powder room. "Merilee?" Wham. That was the umbrella stand again. Cursing, I moved forward, arms waving wildly at my sides. I felt like I was playing the childhood game of Dare. Which I suppose is as good a description of my on-again, off-again nonrelationship with Merilee Gilbert Nash as any other. "Merilee, are you there?"
"Darling, in here," she whispered urgently from the blackness, her hand grabbing me by the wrist and tugging me toward the powder room. Into the powder room. She locked the door behind us. "Oh, God, Hoagy, you smell so good," she murmured in my ear.
"That's Floris, Merilee. I've been wearing it forever."
"But my other senses are so keen now. So aroused." She let out a startled gasp. "I want you, Hoagy." Her lips were on mine now, her breath hot on my face. I heard the slithering of her silk dressing gown as it fell to the floor. Her hands took deadly aim at my belt, my zipper. "I want you this instant!"
Excerpted from The Man Who Loved Women to Death by David Handler. Copyright © 1997 David Handler. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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