A wickedly funny private eye novel set in the dark underbelly of New York City, where the worlds of Broadway and organized crime meet
When it comes to tracking down teen runaways, there is no private investigator in New York City better than streetwise Benji Golden. But his newest client is Morrie Frankel, the last of the great Broadway showmen. Morrie's current extravaganza, a lavish $65 million musical adaptation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, is the biggest unfolding disaster the Great White Way has ever seen. Rumor has it, if he doesn't find a deep-pocketed "angel," or investor, soon, he might go down and take the production with him.
Morrie thought he had found such an investor in hedge fund billionaire R.J. Farnell, who promised to keep the teetering production afloat. But Farnell and his $12 million have vanished. Benji tracks Farnell to his girlfriend, Jonquil Beausoleil, who turns the investigation on its head. When Morrie is found gunned down on 42nd Street, Benji finds himself smack in the middle of a high-profile murder investigation, and he'll have to pierce through a lot of Broadway gossip before he can find the killer.
Phantom Angel is the next entertaining installment in David Handler's newest mystery series, sure to delight both old and new fans of this award--winning, unique voice in crime fiction.
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By David Handler
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 David Handler
All rights reserved.
THE GREAT MORRIE FRANKEL LIVED, and worked, in a two-bedroom suite on the eighth floor of the Morley, an elegantly seedy residential hotel that was four doors down West 44th Street from the vastly more famous Algonquin. The Morley was popular with actors from London who were appearing on Broadway in limited run engagements. Also with old-time New Yorkers who like hotel living, which is to say maid service and twenty-four-hour room service. Its bright green awning was tattered. Its lobby smelled musty. So did the eighth-floor corridor. The carpeting, which was of a floral pattern that was quite the rage in the 1940s, was fraying.
The great man himself answered the door when I knocked. Morrie Frankel was a large, overstuffed animal of a man in his sixties with bulging eyes and loose, rubbery lips. His close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair grew unusually low on his forehead. His full beard was cropped the same length as his hair. The effect was, well, Morrie Frankel looked a whole lot like Curious George. There, I said it. He was wearing a bright blue nylon jumpsuit that zipped up the front. For some reason, he also wore a two-inch strip of Scotch tape across his forehead.
He stood there in the doorway looking me up and down with keen-eyed disapproval. Which seemed unfair. It was nine o'clock sharp. I'd shaved and combed my hair. I was wearing my very best pair of four-year-old madras shorts from the Gap, a stylishly untucked white oxford button-down shirt and my black Converse Chuck Taylor high-tops. It was a totally acceptable ensemble for Day Three of the Heat Wave of the Century. The thermometer was supposed to hit 103 degrees by midafternoon.
"You're Benji Golden?" he harrumphed at me. "Golden Legal Services?"
"Yes, sir. I am."
He puffed out his cheeks in disbelief. And when I say he puffed them out I'm talking about the way Dizzy Gillespie used to puff his out. Mind you, I've gotten used to this sort of treatment. I'm a quarter inch under five-feet-six, weigh a buck thirty-seven and am exceedingly baby-faced. I look quite a bit younger than my age, which is twenty-five. Then he heaved a huge sigh—absolutely nothing that Morrie Frankel did was small—and said, "Fuck it, you may as well come in."
There was a faux fireplace in the living room. The chintz-covered sofa and matching chairs were quite worn. But the air-conditioning worked. And the gallery of framed, autographed photos of Broadway luminaries, past and present, that lined the walls made my jaw drop. There were photos of Gielgud and Richardson, Tandy and Cronyn, Alec Guinness, Stephen Sondheim, Neil Simon, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand. Morrie was right there in each and every photo. Middle-aged Morrie. Young Morrie. There was even a photo of pimply schoolboy Morrie standing with his arm around my own personal idol.
He noticed me gaping at it. "You're a fan of her work?"
"I think Ethel Merman was the single greatest musical comedy star we've ever had. She was the best."
"The best," Morrie agreed. "That picture was taken in 1970 when she was starring in Hello, Dolly!, which had already been running for six years. She was the seventh actress to play the role. Way, way past her prime. Or so everyone thought. Believe me, she wasn't. She did two hundred and ten performances. My mom flacked the show." Morrie's mother had been a legendary Broadway publicist, Panama Hattie Frankel. They called her Panama Hattie because of the trademark big white hat she always wore. He gazed at me curiously. "You're an Ethel Merman fan. You look like you should be folding T-shirts at an Old Navy. Ninety percent of the women in New York City would kill for your eyelashes. What kind of a private investigator are you anyhow?"
"The newest kind. I'm honored to meet you, Mr. Frankel. I've enjoyed so many of your shows."
"I appreciate you saying that. Want any breakfast?" He plopped down on the sofa and started attacking his—a giant salad bowl full of what appeared to be sliced bananas and sour cream.
"I'm fine, thanks."
I sat down and watched him eat. I'd been thrilled when I found out that the Morrie Frankel wanted to see me. He was the last of the great Broadway showmen, a hands-on independent producer who'd been staging hugely successful musicals out of his back pocket for nearly forty years. He'd made his mark early on by reviving vintage hits starring old-timers who'd supposedly seen better days. It was Morrie Frankel who'd brought an elderly Rex Harrison back to Broadway in a triumphant production of My Fair Lady. Also a creaky Richard Burton in a wildly successful Camelot. The man had no office to speak of. I was sitting in it. And no corporate backing. He was a throwback, a lone operator who took sole responsibility for staging every one of his shows. For financing he relied upon a highly prized stable of rich, star-struck backers—angels, as they're known on Broadway. He was also a famously volatile bully who possessed a law degree from Columbia and the scruples of a pro-wrestling promoter. Morrie Frankel fought with his directors and his stars, with drama critics, with everyone. Popular legend had it that his walls were papered with lawsuits. They weren't, I can report. Just plain old wallpaper. It was peeling slightly.
A phone rang in another room. I heard a woman answer it, speak briefly, then hang up.
"Hey, Leah ...?!"
"Come out here a sec! Somebody I want you to meet!"
Out came a small, thin woman in her sixties, the kind of woman who is impolitely called birdlike. Since I don't like to be impolite, I'll call her trimly built. She had bobbed silver hair, jet-black brows and very alert brown eyes. She wore a pressed linen dress and gave off an air of tightly wound efficiency.
"Benji Golden, say hello to Leah Shimmel, the best theatrical assistant on Broadway. I'd be lost without her. My enemies have been trying to woo her away for years. They've offered her money, fancy titles, muscular boys. But she'll never leave me. That's because she loves me. Right, Leah?"
Leah responded by yanking that strip of Scotch tape from Morrie's forehead. On his yelp of pain, she barked, "I've told you never to wear that when you have company."
"But it keeps those awful frown lines away."
"You look like a putz."
"Oh, who asked you?" he snarled, hurling his bowl of sliced bananas and sour cream at her.
His aim wasn't very good. It shattered against the wall, the bananas and sour cream oozing their way slowly down, down toward the carpet. There were, I noticed, numerous discolorations on the wall. Clearly, Morrie liked to throw things.
And, just as clearly, Leah was accustomed to it. Not at all fazed. "Pleased to meet you, Benji. Feel free to contact me if I can be of any help." She turned on her heel and went darting back to her office.
I had now met the entire staff of Morrie Frankel Productions.
Morrie grabbed a Scotch tape dispenser from the coffee table, yanked off a fresh two-inch strip and smacked it defiantly onto his forehead. Then he sat back and said, "They tell me you're the best in New York when it comes to finding missing young people. There's someone who I'm trying to find. It has to do with my new show, Wuthering Heights. Maybe you've heard about it?"
Morrie Frankel's lavish fifty-million-dollar musical adaptation of Emily Brontë's classic novel of doomed young love had been the juiciest tabloid story on Broadway for months. And was, quite possibly, the biggest unfolding disaster in the disaster-riddled history of the Great White Way. Somehow, he'd managed to sign Matthew Puntigam and Hannah Lane, the hottest young lovebirds in Hollywood, to play Heathcliff and Cathy. Lately, they'd been steaming up the 3-D big screen as the sexiest Tarzan and Jane in movie history. Fresh off of their third straight Tarzan mega-blockbuster the young stars were hungry to conquer the Broadway stage. But trouble kept plaguing Wuthering Heights. During a rehearsal of the climactic rainstorm scene Hannah slipped on the rain-soaked set and broke her ankle, which had delayed the opening from last spring to this coming fall. Maybe. As soon as walkthroughs resumed, Morrie had gotten into a highly publicized fistfight at Joe Allen's with his director, three-time Tony Award winner Henderson Lebow, and fired him. They were currently suing each other over how much Morrie was or wasn't contractually obligated to pay him. Supposedly, the show's choreographer was taking over as director. But there were whispers around town that the two young film stars, who had no professional singing experience whatsoever, still couldn't quite carry off the musical's climactic power ballads. Rumor had it that the show's budget might actually climb north of sixty-five million dollars by the time it opened. Rumor also had it that Morrie, who flatly refused to accept a penny of backing from Panorama, the Hollywood studio that had made billions from the Tarzan trilogy, had leveraged every asset he owned to keep his teetering production afloat. And that if he didn't find himself another deep-pocketed angel very soon he might go down. And take Wuthering Heights with him.
He studied me from across the coffee table with his bulging eyes. "I'm going to be totally honest with you, okay?"
I nodded politely. My experience has been that whenever people say those words to me that they're getting ready to start lying.
"Wuthering Heights isn't just another musical for me. I've dreamed of doing this show ever since I was twelve. That's how old I was the first time I saw the movie with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon on the late show. When she went running out into that rain and cried out 'Heathcliff ...! Heathcliff ...!' I swear to you, I cried so hard there was a puddle of tears at my feet. I'm in love with Wuthering Heights. Want to know why? Because I'm a romantic. Ask any of my three ex-wives. Or maybe don't ask them. They all detest me. Never put your work ahead of a woman's love, young fellow, because she won't understand. She'll say she does, but she won't." He heaved another of his huge sighs. "When I undertook this show I knew right away that I had to have Matthew and Hannah. They are Heathcliff and Cathy. He's a brooding scruff, not to mention an actual Brit. And she's so angelic that all you have to do is spend ten seconds with her and you're gaga. They're as excited about Wuthering Heights as I am. Deep down inside, they don't just want to be movie stars. None of the great ones do. They want to be up there on a Broadway stage holding an entire theater full of people transfixed by the sheer force of their talent. Once I had them on board I was able to pull out all of the stops." Morrie climbed to his feet now, with some difficulty, and began to galumph his way around the living room, his eyes gleaming with excitement. "I've built the single greatest set in Broadway history. There's a multi-level path that winds all the way across the moor from Cathy's house to Penistone Crags, their childhood castle. We use real stone, real soil and real heathers. You can smell those damned heathers. And when she goes running after Heathcliff in the rain? We are talking about a rainstorm like no one's ever seen onstage before. My set designer had to literally invent new machinery. It's really raining up there. Hannah's really getting soaked to the skin in that see-through nightgown of hers. Yet the orchestra and front row don't get so much as a breath of mist on them. And the pumps that recirculate all of that water in the sprinkler system don't make a sound. Audiences today want to be wowed. Trust me, they will be wowed. And the music? I promise you, people will be singing 'You're Still My Queen' thirty years from now. And there won't be a dry eye in the house when Hannah breaks into 'I Dreamt I Was In Heaven.' Grown men will weep, Benji. Weep, I'm telling you."
"Is it true that you're not happy with your stars' singing voices?"
He waved me off. "That's a nasty rumor planted by someone who hates me. I have many enemies. That's because I do things my own way. When you do a Morrie Frankel show you get Morrie Frankel. Some people can't handle that. The kids are going to be fine. They're working with a voice coach on their breathing and stamina. Naturally, we'll have to mike them. The Merrick's the hugest theater on Broadway. More than two thousand seats. We have to mike everybody nowadays. God doesn't make voices like Ethel Merman's anymore. Ethel Merman they could hear in Secaucus. But I have high hopes for Matthew and Hannah. Am I rough on them? You bet I am. I don't coddle my stars. Six months ago I told Hannah that she had to get into a dance studio and learn how to move onstage. Did she listen to me? No. She was too busy steam cleaning her karma. So what happens? She falls down during a rehearsal and breaks her ankle. Would that have happened if she'd listened to me? Never. Did I tell her off? You bet I did. Because she put us on the shelf with me bleeding money. Hannah's a spoiled kid. So is Matthew. But they're starting to understand what's expected of Broadway stars. And they're relishing the opportunity to show the world what they can do. They're performers, after all. And performers yearn to perform."
I was well aware of this. I'd yearned to perform myself. Went to NYU drama school. Did a couple of episodes of Law & Order, a week on a soap, a few commercials. But I soon discovered that there isn't much demand for a twenty-five-year-old juvenile type. Make that any demand. So I'd ended up in the family business. "How may Golden Legal Services help you, Mr. Frankel?"
He positioned his pudgy self in front of the sofa just so, then sank slo-o-owly back down onto it. Watching Morrie Frankel touch down on that sofa was like watching someone trying to land the Goodyear Blimp. He settled there, choosing his words carefully. "I'm in big trouble, Benji. The worst kind of trouble a guy like me can get into." He looked at me warily. "You people are discreet, right?"
"We don't go blabbing to Page Six or Cricket O'Shea, if that's what you're wondering. If we did we wouldn't stay in business very long."
"So everything I tell you is confidential?"
"Yes, sir. Absolutely."
"It better be," he warned me. "The truth is, I've been financing this entire show on a shoeshine and a smile for the past three months. I owe everybody money. My cast, my set designer, my costumer, you name it. I've got over a hundred people on the payroll who I can't pay. I'm tapped out, Benji. The banks won't lend me another nickel, even though I've signed over to them all of the royalties on every show I've ever produced. I've sold the summer house in Sag Harbor that my mom bought back in 1957. I've sold my winter house in Key West. I have nothing left to sell. And nowhere left to turn. That vampire who runs Panorama Studios, Ira Gottfried, would be happy to bail me out. He's wanted a piece of this show since day one. Matthew and Hannah are his gold mine. And he expects to film Wuthering Heights. It'll be an epic movie musical. Huge. But I'll never, ever give Count Dracula a piece of my show. It's a Morrie Frankel production. It's mine. That's how I operate, for better or worse. Maybe I'm a dinosaur. Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe ..." He trailed off, clearing his throat uneasily. "Maybe I'm slipping. I entered into a financial relationship with a new backer a couple of weeks ago, and well, I would never have gotten myself into something like this in the old days. But I'm tapped out, like I said. And he seemed so legit."
"Who are we talking about?"
"A slick young hedge fund billionaire named R. J. Farnell."
"R as in Robert, Richard ...?"
"I honestly don't know. He's a Brit, maybe thirty-five years old. Loves the theater. Is crazy about Wuthering Heights. And he promised he'd advance me the twelve million that I've got to have if I'm actually going to open."
Excerpted from Phantom Angel by David Handler. Copyright © 2015 David Handler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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