Comedian Channing Hayes survived a tragic auto accident that claimed the life of his fiancée, Lauren. Physically and emotionally scarred, he’s put his performing career on hold, resigned to getting laughs vicariously as co-owner of The Last Laff Comedy Club. There, he instructs Lauren’s sister Heather in the fine art of stand-up.
When Heather skips out on her set during the club’s comedy showcase, Channing searches for his AWOL protégée. Then Heather’s ex-lovers start turning up dead—and Channing must fight to keep Heather from being the next hit in this deadly line-up.
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
KILLER ROUTINEA LAST LAFF MYSTERY
By ALAN ORLOFF
Midnight InkCopyright © 2011 Alan Orloff
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI lurked in the wings watching the man kill.
He cut them with quips, slayed them with stories. Plunged his razor-sharp wit into their guts and twisted, twisted, twisted until tears streamed down their faces.
The stand-up comic on stage had the audience on a string; his feelings of power and control and exhilaration were like no others. I knew what it felt like, but unless you'd been on stage before, it was hard to fathom the intensity of the moment. The indescribable rush was what comics lived for, killed for.
For me, it had been five long months since I'd felt it, five months since the name Channing Hayes had graced the marquee out front. Five months since the accident. I missed the rush daily, almost as much as I missed Lauren.
The comedian continued his onslaught, and the violent lingo describing his goal echoed in my head. Destroy. Slay. Kill. Make the audience die laughing. Before the accident, I wouldn't have thought twice about it—words, just words. Now, I had trouble getting past their real meanings. In my life, the line between comedy and tragedy had dissolved one horrific night five months ago.
A tug on my sleeve caught my attention and I spun around to face Heather, Lauren's younger sister. She'd been in the crash, too, and had escaped with little lasting physical injury. I wasn't so sure about her emotional stability, but you had to give her props. At least she was prepared to resume her career.
I leaned over and whispered in her ear. "Ready to go?" Even if I shouted, the comic on stage probably wouldn't hear me over the crowd's riotous laughter, but I wanted to set a good example. It didn't look right if the co-owner of The Last Laff Comedy Club dissed the talent by drowning out their punchlines.
With a jerk of her head, Heather motioned me to follow. She led me down the hall toward the back, past the restrooms and the "green room" and the swinging door on the right that served the kitchen. Past the storage closet and the shoebox-sized office Artie and I shared. She pushed through the service entrance into the cool Northern Virginia spring night, while I hustled to keep up. Behind the club, the smell of ripening garbage in the Dumpster assaulted my nostrils, and the faint sound of satiated rats scurrying away raised a few hairs on my neck. There's no place like home ...
Heather stopped short and leaned one shoulder against the filthy cinder block wall. Pulled her Dumbo the Flying Elephant towel from her pocket and began wringing it. Her good luck charm. If only she'd had it with her that night.
Heather's eyes were the size of hubcaps and her lower lip quivered. "I don't know, Channing. I'm a little freaked out."
A little? I rested my hand on her shaking shoulder. "Relax. You're supposed to be nervous. If you weren't, I'd think something was wrong with you." Tonight was Heather's first time soloing in front of a crowd, not counting a few open-mic nights. Her first big test since the accident.
"It's more than that. I don't think I can do it," she said. "It's—"
"You've been working on this for a long time. Working hard. You've earned it," I said. "You'll do great." I'd been helping her with her act. Encouraging her, serving as her sounding board. Fine-tuning it. Going solo was a lot different than the improv sister act she'd been doing with Lauren, though she'd adapted well. Lauren had been a grinder, but Heather had that one-in-a-thousand natural comedic talent. Just needed focus and a dose or three of discipline.
Heather twisted Dumbo into a tighter knot. "I'm not ready. I'm not. I don't think I can do this." Her words spilled out faster, higher pitched. She stared at me with deep dark chocolate eyes, the same eyes her sister used to peel me open with. My heart kachunked in my empty chest.
I glanced down at the two remaining digits on my left hand. Thumb and forefinger. I'd lost the other three fingers in the crash, and my mangled hand would forever haunt me. I raised my head and caught Heather transfixed by my hand, too. I swallowed before I spoke. "Heather. Listen to me. Lauren would be so proud of you. She knew you were the one with the star on her back. The 'supreme crowd pleaser'—her words, not mine. More than anyone, she would want you to go out there tonight. This is the first step back. Do it for her."
Heather's head sagged. I reached out and gently lifted her chin. "You know I'm right. Remember, Channing Hayes is always right. Even if your sister said otherwise."
A slip of a smile appeared but vanished in an instant. "I'm scared," she said in a small voice.
"We're all scared on stage. But think of the audience. How amazed they'll be after you blow them away. Come on. You know I'm right." I gave her arm a reassuring squeeze.
Heather nodded, still wringing her towel. There was something in her face, something I hadn't seen before. Not nerves, exactly. Something deeper. "Channing?" Her voice trembled.
"No matter what happens tonight, I want to thank you for everything you've done. For helping me cope. For helping me with my act. For ..." She choked up and her big eyes filled. "Just for everything. Okay?"
"Sure, sure. But don't worry, it will all—"
The back door swung open, and Artie Worsham, my mentor and partner in the club, stuck his head out. "Goddamnit Hayes, there you are. Get your tush back in here. We've got a club to run. Don't have time for girltalk. Let's go. Chop, chop." He gave Heather a parting glare and ducked his head back inside. The door whooshed closed on its pneumatic piston.
I tried to buck Heather up with a final round of encouragement. "You can do it. I know it. You know it. And Lauren knew it. Go out and kill for her, okay?"
She nodded, and I've never seen anyone look so pitiful, so forlorn. I could only do so much. At some point it was up to her to leave the nest and fly on her own, and that point was fast approaching. I tapped my watch. "You're on in twenty. And please, don't worry. You'll do great. Really."
* * *
A party of three had walked out on their bill, and Donna McKenzie, the "mother hen" of The Last Laff—head server, ticket seller, business manager—steamed. "I can not believe that happened. Little dipshits."
Donna and I stood behind the bar as Skip Gold, the bartender, hovered nearby, listening in while pretending not to. "Don't worry about it. Just a few bucks," I said, winking at her. "Want I should chase them down and beat it out of them? It'd be my pleasure."
Donna frowned at me, hands on hips. "Don't make me laugh. You couldn't swipe the lunch money from my little Seanie." Her asthmatic seven-year-old.
From behind us, Skip chimed in. "Why don't you just overcharge the next few parties? Like I do when that shit happens to me." He wiggled his eyebrows, first the left one, then the right one. Then both together.
"I didn't realize you even knew how to make change," Donna said. "You know, all those different coins can be confusing."
Skip made a face. "Learned it in high school. Along with how to mix drinks."
"I bet you aced that course. I mean, look at the great job you do here. You're our number one bartender."
"I'm your only bartender," Skip said. Another face, more twisted than the first. "At least no one hosed moi tonight."
Donna gave him the finger as she returned to her tables. Skip sidled up to me. "What's with Artie this evening? He seems kinda prickly."
"How can you tell? He's always like that," I said, scanning the room for the old guy. The comic on stage had almost finished his set, and it was Artie's job to introduce the next one. Six-Pack Wednesday was a crowd favorite, when the club gave six up-and-coming comics twenty minutes each to strut their stuff.
"Heather's next, right?" Skip asked. "She ready?"
"She's ready." My throat felt dry, my palms didn't. Heather's self-doubt bothered me. It was one thing to be a little nervous—many people performed better that way—but she'd gone way beyond a few butterflies. It would destroy her confidence if she flamed out tonight. Maybe there was too much pressure on her. Maybe she wasn't ready.
The comedian nailed his final punch line and the audience cheered. A quick bow elicited more applause as Artie strode across the small stage toward the microphone.
"Dave Stebbinski everyone. Let's hear it for Dave!" Artie said. Old-school through and through, he hewed to the traditions whenever he could, even if the entire audience had been weaned on Seinfeld and thought Carlin, Cosby & Klein was the name of the firm handling their parents' wills. To my surprise, Artie held one arm up and pushed his open hand toward the ceiling, like he must have seen a rapper do somewhere. Raise the roof, suckas!
Maybe you could teach an old-school dog new tricks.
He brought the mic up to his mouth. "How's everyone doing tonight? Having fun?" Another push skyward.
The audience responded, and you could see the pride reflected in Artie's face. "Good, good. We've got a hot comedienne up now, one you'll really enjoy getting to know. I sure did," Artie said, forcing a theatrical chuckle. He waited a beat for the reaction, but only got a few groans. "Hey, I kid because I love," he said, this time to complete silence. There was a reason he'd given up performing to open the club.
He shrugged and cleared his throat into the mic. "Anyway, I'd like to introduce one of the finest young comics to hit this town in a long time. You've seen her as one half of the Dempsey Duo, and now she's taking her solo act out for a spin. Please welcome Miss Heather Dempsey!" Artie swooped his arm out toward the wings to greet Heather as she bounded onto the stage.
No Heather. No bounding.
Artie waited a few seconds, then tried again. "Give a big hello to Heather Dempsey!"
A few murmurs burbled from the audience. "Come on out, Heather. I promise I won't bite. Not this time, anyway." Artie took a few steps toward the side of the stage where the on-deck performers waited, holding the mic away from his mouth. "Hey," he called to someone off-stage. "Where's the girl?" Even without the microphone, most of the crowd could hear the confusion in Artie's nasal voice. He kept walking until he disappeared behind the curtain.
I left my position behind the bar and rushed through the room, weaving my way between the tables. Before I reached the wings, Artie had returned to the stage, microphone in hand. "Sorry about the delay, folks. Miss Dempsey's not feeling well. So let's give it up for Pokey Paulson!" A short, fat guy trudged into the spotlight to polite applause.
I met Artie as he came off stage. "Where is she?" he asked. Concern seemed to crowd out the irritation in his voice.
I shrugged. "I don't know. She was nervous. I'll see if I can find her."
Artie gave me a knowing glance. "Yeah, yeah," he said. He'd been a little leery of putting Heather on stage by herself. A big fan of their sister act, I knew he didn't want Heather to fail, afraid she'd give up her dream if she bombed. Despite his gruff exterior, Artie was the most caring individual I'd ever run into in this business. Or any other, for that matter.
Sometimes a comic would drop out, but usually it happened during an open mic night when nerves would propel a newbie into a puking fit. Didn't happen to the pros very often.
I checked the green room. Artie had transformed an oversized storage closet into a waiting room/dressing room for the talent. A two-person loveseat and a coffee table picked up at a garage sale. A 19-inch TV attached to a VCR. A dorm-sized refrigerator stocked with RC Cola and cream soda. All crammed together in a room he'd painted mint green, in a nod toward The Tonight Show. We had a long way to go before we were in Leno's league. Unfortunately, Heather wasn't there.
I got Donna to check the ladies' room; she came up empty. I sent her back in to re-check each of the stalls, but they were still empty. I questioned Skip and the other two servers. No sighting. Turned out I'd been the last one to see her.
I tried her cell, but it rolled into voicemail after four rings, and I closed the phone without leaving a message. She knew it was her turn on stage, knew we were counting on her. Knew about the audience waiting to roll on the floor laughing.
That's exactly why she took off.
I went out behind the club again, bracing for the stench of garbage. I thought maybe she'd still be there, frozen with indecision, nerves a-jangle. I couldn't blame her. The accident had really screwed up my head, and I knew it also had affected her deeply, despite her assurances otherwise. I wouldn't blame her if she never summoned up the courage to get back on stage. It was something I hadn't been able to do yet and I had a lot more experience than she did.
I leaned against the cinder block wall trying not to think about that awful night, when I'd lost my fiancée and my entire life had disintegrated. I felt myself going under, succumbing to the feelings of guilt. Why did I have to drink that night? Why couldn't I have been the one driving? I was a better driver; I would have been able to prevent the accident.
Why had I survived instead of Lauren?
I closed my eyes and waited for the bottomless feeling of despair to pass.
It didn't. It never did.
Excerpted from KILLER ROUTINE by ALAN ORLOFF Copyright © 2011 by Alan Orloff. Excerpted by permission of Midnight Ink. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"Killer Routine," the second mystery by Alan Orloff, certainly has a provocative title. The first in Orloff's Last Laff Mystery series, I wasn't sure if there was a serial killer lurking among its pages. What a relief to find out that he was writing about comedy routines instead of mass murder and mayhem. But comedy, I discovered in this book, is a serious business. In fact, many of the people trying so desperately to make a name for themselves in the field of stand-up comedy are really troubled souls. This is especially true of "Killer Routine's" leading character, Channing Hayes. Hayes has survived a tragic auto accident that claimed the life of his fiancée, Lauren. Physically and emotionally scarred-he lost several fingers in the accident-he's put his own promising comedic career on an indefinite hold and becomes co-owner of The Last Laff Comedy Club. One of the most promising up-and-coming comics at the club that Hayes mentors is his dead fiancée's sister, Heather. Then Heather disappears right before she's scheduled to make her comedy debut and Hayes, fearing he pushed her too far too fast, begins a search to find her. When Heather's ex-lovers start to turn up dead, well, as I said before, comedy is serious business. In Alan Orloff's first mystery, "Diamonds for the Dead," Orloff's protagonist goes on a journey and discovers things about a close family member that he never knew. In his second mystery, Orloff's protagonist goes on a similar journey, but this time discovers things about himself. Well plotted, great characters, and a promising beginning to a new series. Reviewed by Susan Santangelo author of "Moving Can Be Murder" for Suspense Magazine