Stewart Hoag has quit ghostwriting. Living in Connecticut with his ex-wife, Hoagy works on a novel and tends to Tracy, his brand-new daughter, who’s more beautiful than anything he’s ever written and only took nine months to make. Life is peaceful, until Thor Gibbs arrives to tear it apart. An unapologetically swaggering author, Thor is past seventy but still looks like the brash young man who befriended an aging Hemingway and inspired the first of the Beat poets. Once he was Hoagy’s mentor, but now he needs his help. Thor is in the middle of a tryst with his eighteen-year-old stepdaughter, and every newspaper, lawyer, and cop in the country wants him strung up from the highest tree. He hires Hoagy to help the beautiful young woman tell their side of the story. But trouble is following the controversial couple, and death is about to visit the cottage.
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The Girl Who Ran Off with Daddy
A Stewart Hoag Mystery
By David Handler
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1996 David Handler
All rights reserved.
Sometimes as I sleep I hear a creak on the stairs. For a moment I think it is my father on his way down to the kitchen for a glass of milk in the night, and that I am in my old room, snug in my narrow bed. Briefly, this comforts me. But then I awaken, and realize that it is my own house that is creaking, from the wind, and that I am in the master bedroom. She sleeps next to me, secure in the belief that I know what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing.
I wonder if he did. I wonder why he was awake in the night. I wish I could ask him. But it is too late for that. It is too late for a lot of things.
I was changing Tracy's diapers at four o'clock in the morning when Thor Gibbs showed up. Not the height of glamorous living, I'll give you that one. And definitely not some thing I thought I'd ever be caught doing for any midget human life form, particularly my own. But, hey, you want the whole story, you're going to get the whole story—poopy and all.
It was his bad black '68 Norton Commando I heard first. I heard its roar from miles away in the still of the country night. Heard it grow closer and closer, then pause. Then came the crunching of gravel as he eased it up the long, private drive that led from Joshua Town Road to the farmhouse. Silence followed. This didn't last long. Silence was always brief when Thor Gibbs was around.
"How the hell are you, boy?" he asked me, standing out there on the porch. He was not alone. She was with him, sitting on the bike untangling her mane of windblown hair with her fingers.
I stood in the doorway holding the baby, a towel thrown over the shoulder of my Turnbull and Asser silk dressing gown to guard against the seven different categories of discharges Tracy was capable of producing—the standard six plus one more for which there was still no known scientific classification. "About as well as can be expected," I replied.
He threw back his head and roared like a lion. "Same old Hoagy."
"Quality, you'll find, never goes out of style." I glanced up at our bedroom window, which overlooked the herb garden and was open. "Better hold it down or we'll wake Merilee."
"And we don't want to do that, do we?" Thor boomed, grinning at me mischievously.
"Not if we know what's good for us." "Never have, Hoagy. Never have and never will." He stuck his finger in Tracy's tiny palm. She gripped it tightly, giggling and cooing at him. A born flirt. Then again, as David Letterman was so fond of pointing out, Thor Gibbs had a way with small children. "Christ, she has Merilee's eyes."
"And you, Thor?"
"How are you?"
That he was. Thor was seventy-one that year, but it was hard to imagine it, looking at him. The man still possessed such remarkable vigor, such charisma, such power. Always, it seemed, he had drawn on an energy source that the rest of us could only wonder about. He was a big man, burly and weather-beaten, with scarred, knuckly hands and a bushy gray beard and that trademark gleaming dome of his. It was Thor who had made the clean-head look all the rage among fifty-something white-collar professionals in quest of their lost hormones. He had a huge neck and chest, dock ropes for wrists and a mouthful of strong white teeth, one of the front ones still missing from a bar fight in Key West with Hemingway, which made him look even more ornery and disreputable than he. He wore a fringed buckskin vest over an old Irish fisherman's sweater, jeans and cowboy boots, a bracelet of hammered silver and turquoise. His posture was erect, his stomach flat, his electric-blue eyes clear and bright. The man didn't even seem the least bit tired.
She did. Clethra sure did. Little Clethra, Thor's eighteen-year-old stepdaughter—and lover. She was making her way slowly toward us now, yawning and shivering and looking rather miserable. Or maybe she was just a little bit overwhelmed by it all. After all, she had just stolen her own mother's celebrated husband and dropped out of Barnard so as to run off with him who knows where. And Thor had just destroyed his marriage to her celebrated mother, Ruth Feingold—that's right, the feminist—so as to run off with her, this girl he'd raised as his own since she was three, this girl who was fifty-three years younger than he. Face it, at that particular moment in American history, Thor Gibbs and Clethra Feingold were right up there among the oddest, the sleaziest, the most notorious couples of all time. Bigger than Woody and Soon-Yi. Bigger than Joey and Amy. Bigger than Jacko and Lisa Marie. Big. And here they were, standing on Merilee's porch by the light of a silvery moon. Harvest moon, as it happened.
"Where are you headed, Thor?"
"Here," he replied simply.
"Here?" I cleared my throat and tried it over again, minus the surprise. "Here?"
"Rode all night. We have to talk, boy. But first ..." He put his big arm around Clethra. She snuggled into him, her teeth chattering. "I want you to say hello to my ..."
"Yes, what is it you call her now?"
Thor's blue eyes twinkled. "My woman."
"It's nice to see you again, Clethra."
She stared at me blankly. One of her more common facial expressions, I was to discover. She said, "Like, do we know each other?"
"It's been a while. You had just graduated to big-girl pants the time I saw you."
She rolled her eyes at me, unimpressed. Another common expression.
I shifted Tracy, cradling her into me. "I sure wish I could make up my mind, Thor."
He frowned. "About what?"
"Whether to hug you or hit you."
Thor raised his massive chin at me. "How about giving me a glass of sour mash and some eggs? And maybe just a little understanding, for old times' sake."
"I can do that. Come on in."
We went on in. Clethra made right for the glowing embers in the front parlor fireplace and warmed her chubby white hands. I threw another hickory log on, poked at it and got a good look at her. The most sensational homewrecker since Amy Fisher was a small, moonfaced girl, rather pretty, with big brown eyes and a plump, heart-shaped mouth that she painted blue. Or maybe that was from the cold. She wore a gold ring in her right nostril. Her tangled black ringlets cascaded all the way down to her butt. It was a nice, ripe butt. In fact, Clethra Feingold was nice and ripe all over. Possibly she would end up shaped like her mother when she got older. Right now she was as luscious as a basket of fresh fruit, desirable in the old sense of the word, before spavined waifs like Kate Moss became our feminine ideal. An aged black leather motorcycle jacket fell carelessly from her shoulders, rather like a shawl. She wore a gray sweatshirt under it, a pair of baggy jeans torn at the knees and heavy, steel-toed Doc Martens. The look was part punk, part hip-hop and all fake. She was a product of the Dalton School and the Ivy League, not the street. But street was all the buzz that season. As for the sulky expression on her face, that went with being eighteen and always had. Same with the upper lip, which she kept curling at me in distaste, much the way Ricky Nelson used to when he sang. I didn't know if Clethra sang. I didn't want to know.
Lulu, my basset hound, marched right over and showed the little vixen her teeth. Lulu doesn't care for homewreckers. Never has.
Clethra widened her eyes. "Like, does she bite?"
"Only people she knows real well," I assured her. "Total strangers she's just fine with."
She shrugged at this and looked around at the parlor. She did not seem impressed. I didn't expect her to be. It wasn't huge or flashy. Center chimney colonials tended not to be in 1736, which was when the place had been built by Josiah Whitcomb, a shipbuilder by trade. The recessed cupboards and drawers flanking the stone fireplace, all of them of butternut, were Josiah's doing. So was the chestnut paneling and the wide planks of cherry on the floor. The rest we had brought with us. The Shaker tall clock made and signed by Ben Youngs in Watervliet, New York, in 1806. The Shaker meeting room bench and ladder-back rockers, the baskets filled with Merilee's newly harvested lavender and artemisia. The muzzle loader over the fireplace, which had belonged to her great-great-grandfather, Elihu, and was five feet long and weighed over forty pounds. The paintings of dead pilgrims, all of them Merilee's ancestors. The worn leather sofa that was our only concession to modern comfort and my bony backside.
Clethra took it all in, slowly, as if she were computing its resale value piece by piece. "I'm, like, you don't have a TV," she noted with some dismay.
"It's in the corner cupboard."
"So we don't have to look at it when we're not looking at it."
"Whoa, that makes, like, zero sense, homes," she informed me with an insolent toss of her head. Bashful with her opinions she wasn't. This, too, went with being eighteen. "Like, you know it's in there, right? So isn't hiding it just, like, totally bogus or what?"
"Or what," I suggested. This was me being pleasant. Or what passes for pleasant from me at four A.M.
She fished a Camel out of her jacket pocket and stuck it between her teeth, reaching for a match on the mantel.
"Please don't light that," I said.
"Oh, God. It's the green planet pigs."
"No, it's Tracy."
"The baby, Clethra," Thor explained patiently. "You mustn't smoke that in front of the baby."
She sighed hugely and stuffed the cigarette back in her pocket. She twirled her hair around one finger. She turned her inattention back to me. "Is there a bathroom?"
"Down the hall, first door on your right. Don't mind the changing table—or the smell."
"Or the what?"
She went flouncing off.
I turned and looked at Thor. "Nice girl."
He looked away, unable to meet my gaze. "Damned place is like a museum, boy," he said, running his hand over his slick dome.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"I gave it as one. Damned hard to find, though."
"That," I explained, "is kind of the whole idea."
Tracy began wriggling in my arms. And then she launched into her mow-girl cry, the one where she sputtered three times, caught and started wailing very much like one of the larger Toro power models. She did this one whenever she wanted to be fed. Not my department. I excused us and carried her upstairs to the buffet table. Merilee was already starting to stir there under her aunt Patience's diamond-pattern quilt.
"One of us," I whispered, "is hungry."
Merilee grumbled something about having to leave an extra jar of Bosco in the trailer. She often mutters incoherently when awakened in the night. Me, I'm at my best. Slowly, she sat up, yawning and blinking from the hall light, long golden hair tousled, eyes puffy. She fumbled with her flannel nightshirt, half asleep, and then held her arms out to me, her hands clad in the white cotton gloves she wore to bed every night over a generous coating of Bag Balm, the old farmer's unguent she applied to her paws after a long day in the garden. It was a little like going to bed with Minnie Mouse. Actually, I should warn you: This was not the same Merilee Nash. She was not the woman she'd been when we met. In those days, our sunshine days, Merilee was about diamonds and pearls and Bobby Short's midnight show at the Cafe Carlyle. Now she was about beneficial nematodes and compost worms—and Tracy, who spent her days out there in the garden with her, swaddled in her old-fashioned Silver Cross buggy, gurgling happily.
I handed her over. Dinner was served.
"I could have sworn I heard voices," she murmured in that feathery teenaged girl's voice that is hers and hers alone.
"You must have been dreaming," I said quickly. Too quickly.
She raised an eyebrow at me. "At this time of night? Who is it?"
"You don't want to know." I hesitated, tugging at my ear. "It's Thor."
She made a face. She'd backed Ruth's mayoral campaign to the limit, and had been crushed by her narrow defeat. Ruth she adored. Thor—well, you can guess how she felt about Thor. "What does he want?"
"So far, he wants some eggs. I don't know what else he wants."
"Is she with him?"
Merilee gazed up at me, her green eyes shimmering. "Hoagy ..."
"Don't say it, Merilee. And don't worry. They'll be gone by morning."
I took the narrow back stairs down to the big, old farm kitchen, which was probably my favorite room in the house. We'd left it pretty much as we'd found it. The gallantly hideous yellow and red linoleum on the floor. The deep double worksink of scarred white porcelain. The tin-paneled pie safe that someone long ago had painted a color not unlike belly lox. The butcher block, a massive two-foot-thick section of maple set atop short, stubby legs. We'd added the drying racks, from which Merilee's cooking herbs hung in huge bunches, and the stove, a massive four-oven AGA cast-iron that Merilee imported from Great Britain. Martha Stewart has one. Happily, that's the only thing Merilee and Martha Stewart have in common. Our kitchen table was a washhouse table from the Shaker colony in Mount Lebanon, New York, where the tongue and groove machine was first invented in 1828. Thor sat there with his elbows resting on it, waiting for me.
I put two skillets on the AGA and started them heating. There was a supply of single malt in the cupboard. I poured us each two fingers of the Macallan and handed him one. He added some well water to his and drank it right down, gripping it tightly. He suddenly looked tired and old and shaken. I'd never seen him look any of those things before.
He made himself another and sat with it, knuckling his deep-set blue eyes. "Clethra's curled up before the fire. All fagged out, poor child."
"Will she be hungry?"
"She doesn't eat. Not meals, anyway."
I got the slab bacon out of the refrigerator and cut four thick slices for him and put them in the skillet. As soon as I got a whiff of them sizzling I cut four more for myself and laid those in alongside his. There were some boiled new potatoes left over. I sliced them up and got them going in the other skillet with a clove of Merilee's elephant garlic. By now Lulu was standing on my foot. She wanted an anchovy and she wanted it now. She likes them cold from the fridge. The oil clings better. I gave her one. I got the eggs out. I put on water for coffee. Like many men who had spent years at sea, Thor drank it strong and by the gallon, even right before he went to bed.
I sat, sipping my scotch. Lulu curled up at my feet under the table. "Why did you do it, Thor?"
"I'm in love, boy. It's that simple."
"Nothing's that simple."
"A man's heart is," he lectured, carefully stroking his luxuriant beard. He always did this when he was holding forth, whether his audience was one or one thousand. "A resolved man's heart, that is. Man is by nature a conqueror, Hoagy. A warrior. If he sees someone he wants, he must grab hold of her. Take her and be proud."
"Why not?" he shot back indignantly. "Clethra's someone very, very special. A woman worth having. And, trust me, a woman worth having almost always belongs to someone else."
"Yes. Your wife, in this case."
He narrowed his eyes at me, stung. "You're not seeing my side, are you?"
I got up and turned the bacon. "I'm trying, Thor."
"This is the child's physical and spiritual awakening," he explained. "Christ, better me to guide her into mature womanhood than some clumsy premature ejaculator who'll be out the door as soon as he empties his carbine into her, some pimply hit-and-run artist who'll make her feel shitty about herself and hateful toward the male of the species. With me she's getting an enriching, life-affirming experience. Something beautiful." He sighed contentedly. "Besides which, she's a splendid young animal, eager and insatiable and—"
"I don't need to hear this part."
"You can't suppress the wild man, boy," Thor intoned. "You must celebrate him. The spirit must live."
"And where, may I ask, is yours living?"
Excerpted from The Girl Who Ran Off with Daddy by David Handler. Copyright © 1996 David Handler. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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