Stewart Hoag’s first novel made him the toast of New York. Everyone in Manhattan wanted to be his friend, and he traveled the cocktail circuit supported by Merilee, his wife, and Lulu, his basset hound. But when writer’s block sunk his second novel, his friends, money, and wife all disappeared. Only Lulu stuck by him. The only opportunity left is ghostwriting—an undignified profession that still beats dental school. His first client is Sonny Day, an aging comic who was the king of slapstick three decades ago. Since he and his partner had a falling out in the late 1950s, Day has grown embittered and poor, until the only thing left for him to do is write a memoir. Hoagy and Lulu fly to Hollywood expecting a few months of sunshine and easy living. Instead they find Day’s corpse, and a murder rap with Hoagy’s name on it.
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The Man Who Died Laughing
A Stewart Hoag Mystery
By David Handler
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2006 David Handler
All rights reserved.
I was dreaming about Merilee when the phone woke me up. I don't remember the dream. I do remember my face felt all hot and I was having trouble breathing. Lulu was sleeping on my head again; a habit she got into when my landlord cut back on the heat. I pushed her off and tried to focus on the clock next to the bed. It wasn't easy. I'd been drinking boilermakers at the Dublin House until two-thirty, which was ... exactly nine minutes before.
I answered the phone. Somebody was speaking in this gravelly Brooklynese. Somebody who sounded a lot like The One.
"You can write, pally. You can write."
I cleared my throat. "You read my book?"
"My people read it. They're impressed. They think you're vibrant and, whattaya call it, resonant!"
"So did Newsweek. That's their quote off the back cover."
"So let's talk, pally."
"Sure. Read the book yourself. Then we'll talk. Also, never call me again in the middle of the night. It's rude."
"Hey, nobody talks to Sonny Day like that. Who you think you are, me?"
I hung up and burrowed back under Lulu and the covers. I didn't have much left anymore. Lulu and my pride were about it. I went back to sleep immediately.
The next thing that woke me up was this loud, steady pounding. At first I thought it was my head, but it was somebody at the door. Lulu was barking. I tried to muzzle her—she has a mighty big bark for somebody with no legs—but she leapt off the bed and waddled to the door and kept barking. I focused on the clock again. It wasn't yet nine.
"Sonny Day!" came the reply.
I found my silk dressing gown in a pile of clothes on the chair. "How'd you get in the building?"
"Vic is good with locks!"
"Open up, will ya, Stewart?!"
I opened up, and there he was. It was strange meeting someone I'd known since I was in kindergarten. He looked just like he did on screen, only more so. He was shorter. He was wider. The furrows in his forehead were deeper, the black brows bushier, the nose bigger. He was in his sixties now, but he still wore his hair in a pompadour and he still dyed it jet black. I think he dyed his chest hair, too. Plenty of it was showing. His fur coat was open, his red silk shirt unbuttoned to the waist. His heavy beard was freshly shaved. He smelled of cologne and talc, and he was tanned and alert. He stuck out a manicured hand. I shook it. His grip was a hell of a lot firmer than mine.
Behind him stood a sandy-haired giant in a chesterfield coat. He was maybe forty and balding and had a long scar across his chin. I figured him for six feet six, maybe 250.
"That's Vic Early," said Sonny.
Vic nodded at me blandly.
I stood there in the doorway shivering. "Don't you ever sleep?"
"Can we come in?" asked Sonny.
I let them in. The two of them filled my tiny living room. Lulu barked viciously and then ran under my desk.
"Good work, Lulu," I told her.
Sonny looked around at what little there was in the way of furniture, at the piles of newspapers, the dust, the beer bottles, the stack of dishes in the kitchen sink, which dripped. "Lemme see, the premise for this scene is poverty, right?"
I went into the kitchen, stirred two heaping spoonfuls of instant coffee into a cup of cold water, and swallowed it down with three extra-strength Excedrin. Then I smiled bravely. "Breakfast," I said, "is the most important meal of the day."
Sonny bared his teeth like a rat, found a box of Sen-Sen mints in his coat, and popped two in his mouth. "Get dressed," he ordered. "Plane leaves in an hour."
"To L.A. You can have the guesthouse. Stay as long as you need."
"You better step on it if we're gonna—"
"Wait! What are you talking about?"
"I want you," he said. "You're it."
I sat down on the sofa, rubbed my eyes.
"I already told my people to take care of it. Whatever deal you want, you got it. It's done."
"I don't think you understand," I said slowly. "Nothing's done. I do your book if I decide I want to, and I haven't decided yet."
"Did I tell ya, Vic? Huh?" Sonny beamed at me. "You got moxie, kid. Talent, too. You're some kind of writer."
"Yeah. I read your book last night after we talked. I apologize. I'm not used to working with New York talent. I forget. You people are very—what?—sensitive. Anyways, I stayed up all night and read it. Never went to sleep, I'm impressed. I don't agree with you. I mean, your conclusion at the end. But that's cool. Point is, you tell a good story, you have real smarts, and you're no phony with big words."
I had nothing to add.
"Ever sell that book as a movie? The father's a great part. I could play the hell out of it."
"Orion optioned it for Paul Newman."
"Yeah, he can act, too," Sonny kidded.
Vic laughed. Clearly it was one of the things he was paid to do.
"We'll have to have a literary discussion sometime, pally. Time I got plenty, of, now that I'm off the stuff. You like to run? Me and Vic do five miles every morning. We already ran in Central Park this morning. Vic used to play offensive line for the Bruins."
Vic looked down at me impassively. He didn't scare me. I knew in a fair fight I'd last at least one point two seconds.
I turned to Sonny. "Can we have a minute alone?"
He tugged at the gold chain buried in the hair on his chest. "Vic, wait down in the limo."
Vic headed out, which got Lulu barking again from under the desk, where she was still cowering.
Sonny cleared a space on the love seat and sat down. "What do they call you? Stu?"
"As in Carmichael?"
"As in the cheese steak."
He narrowed his eyes at me. "You kidding me?"
"Good. Never kid a kidder. You know why?"
"We bleed. On the inside. What's on your mind, Hoagy? What's the problem?"
"No problem. This is rather sudden, that's all. I have to decide if I really want to do it."
"What else you doing?"
"Professionally? Not much. But it means leaving town for a few months and—"
"Got a girl?"
"Not right now."
"I hear you used to be married to Merilee Nash."
He shook his head. "It's tough to get over. I know. I had two marriages fall apart. Deep down inside, you always figure it was your fault."
"It was my fault."
"Don't be that hard on yourself, kid. One thing my doctors at Betty Ford told me I'll never forget—take the blame, don't take the shame."
"They give you sweatshirts with that printed on it?"
"You're a sour guy."
"You're too young to be so sour. I'm gonna have to take you in tow. See, I used to be a sour pickle myself, a real kosher dill. But I got a much more positive attitude about life now."
"About your book ..."
"Why are you writing it?"
"Got a lot I wanna get off my chest."
"You'll tell the truth?"
"Only way to tell it, pally. I'm prepared to be totally upfront. And this is my top priority, if that's what you're wondering. I'm yours—for as long as it takes." He jumped to his feet, paced into the kitchen, prodded the dishes in the sink, and paced back again. "It's part of my healing process, see? It's very important to me. And I won't shit you—my career could use a shot in the arm, too. I need the exposure. The dough. But that's all secondary. True story."
"My agent said you're having trouble finding someone. Why?"
"Because those Hollywood entertainment writers are all liars and scum. All they care about is the bad, the negative. They print lies and everybody who reads that crap thinks it's true. And they expect me to cooperate with 'em. They're whores who hide behind the constitution. You, you're a real writer. You dig into what makes people tick. That's what I want."
"Are you planning to use other sources?"
"What are those?"
"Can I talk to your ex-partner?"
Sonny stiffened at my mention of Gabe Knight. He didn't answer me for a second. Then he stuck out his lower lip like a kid—a trademark gesture—and said, "Gabe's off limits. That's the only ground rule. I hear you've spoken to him once and you're fired."
"Because I don't want him involved in it," he snapped, reddening.
"But you'll talk about why the two of you broke up?"
"Yeah. I'll do that. And you can talk to anybody else you want. Ask anything you want, of any of 'em. Connie, my first wife. We're getting friendly again. Vic, he's been through the bad years. There's my lawyer. There's Wanda. You can talk to Tracy, if you can find her. Last I heard she was off in Tunisia, shtupping some prince."
"Has she retired from the business?"
"Her tits fell, if that's retiring."
He waited for me to laugh. He expected me to laugh. It was a habit of his that came from thirty years of being a famous comic. But I've never been an easy laugh. That put him off, I think. So he turned serious.
"That broad almost destroyed me. I loved her, gave her everything. She was sweet, beautiful, my whole life. One day she just packs up and leaves me—not even a word of warning. Says she has to go find herself." He heaved a deep, genuine sigh of pain, then abruptly winked at me, man to man. "Not that it should be such a great fucking discovery, huh?" He looked around. "Jeez, this place is a real dump. Reminds me of the old neighborhood. Plaster falling down. No heat." He motioned toward the kitchen. "Roaches?"
"Thanks, I got plenty."
"That's hysterical," he said, not smiling. "You like living here?"
"As much as I like living."
"What's that, New York intellectual bullshit?"
"Of the highest order."
"So whattaya say? You'll do it?"
"I don't know if we'll be compatible."
He frowned. "Is that so important?"
"We'll be spending a lot of time together. We'll be like ..."
His face darkened. "Partners?"
"Look, pally. Me, I make instant judgments about people. Always have. Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but I'm too old to change. I like you. I think you're talented. I think we'll be good for each other. Okay? Now throw some stuff in a bag. Plane leaves in—"
My head was thudding. "I'll have to think it over. If I decide yes, I'll catch up with you in a week. I have to straighten some things out here, board Lulu."
"Bring the dog with you. Space I got lots of."
"I don't think she likes you." Lulu was still under the desk.
"Nonsense. Kids and dogs love me. Know why? Because I'm one of them—an innocent. Only the critics hate me. I got no use for them either. My contract is with the audience. My audience. You a gambling man, Hoagy?"
"Tell you what. I get Lulu to like me, you'll take the job. Deal?"
"She's never steered me wrong. If she okays you, I'll do it. Deal."
Sonny grinned. "My kinda guy." He snapped his fingers. "Get me a piece of candy or something."
I got him a doggie treat out of the cupboard. Sonny put it between his lips, leaving one end sticking out. Then he went to the desk and got down on his hands and knees in front of her. That started her barking again.
"Kiss Sonny, Lulu," he cooed. "Give Sonny a kissy-kissy." He crawled to her on his hands and knees, the doggie treat between his lips—just like when he tried to tame the lion in The Big Top, Knight & Day's circus picture and their first in color.
I couldn't believe it. Sonny Day, The One, was crawling around on my living room rug, trying to feed my dog mouth to mouth. Even more amazing was that it was working. Lulu stopped barking. Her tail began to thump. When Sonny got nose-to-nose with her, she took a tug at the treat. He held on to it, teasing her. She yapped playfully at him. He yapped back.
"Say," he said from the side of his mouth. "Her breath smells kind of ..."
"She has kind of strange eating habits."
Lulu took another bite at the treat. This time he let her take it from him. She stretched out and began to munch happily. He patted her. Her tail thumped.
Sonny stood up, swiped at the lint on his trousers, and grinned at me triumphantly. "So whattaya say, pigeon? Planes waiting."
Maybe you'd already heard of me before I got mixed up with Sonny. I used to be a literary sensation. In reviewing my first novel, Our Family Enterprise, The New York Times called me "the first major new literary voice of the eighties." I won awards. I spoke at literary gatherings. I got a lot of attention. Esquire was interested in what my favorite flavor of ice cream was (licorice, and it's damned hard to find). Vanity Fair wondered who my favorite movie actor was (a tie between Robert Mitchum and Moe Howard). Gentlemen's Quarterly applauded me as a man of "easy style" and wanted to know what I wore when I worked (an Orvis chamois shirt, jeans, and mukluks). For a while there, I was as famous as John Irving, only he's shorter than I am, and he still writes.
Or maybe you'd heard of me because of Merilee. Ours was a match made not so much in heaven as in Liz Smith's column. Liz thought we were perfect for each other. Maybe we were. She was Merilee Nash, that strikingly lovely and serious and oh-so-hot star of Joe Papp's latest Tony winner. I was tall and dashing and, you'll recall, the first major new literary voice of the eighties. We did London, Paris, and most of Italy on our honeymoon. When we got back, we bought a magnificent art deco apartment on Central Park West. I cultivated a pencil-thin mustache and took to wearing a Brooks Brothers tuxedo and grease in my hair. She went for that white silk headband that everybody copied. Together we opened every play and dance club and museum showing and rib joint in town. We were featured in the new Mick Jagger rock video (we were the couple he chauffeured through hell). We got a red 1958 Jaguar XK 150 for zipping out to the Hamptons, and a basset hound puppy we named Lulu. Lulu went everywhere with us. She even had her own water bowl at Elaine's.
I kept my old, drafty fifth-floor walk-up on West Ninety-third Street as an office and filled it with a word processor and a personal copier. I started going there every morning to work on book number two, only there wasn't one. They call it writers block. Believe me, there's nothing there to get blocked up. Only a void. And a fear that you no longer know how to do the only thing you know how to do. My juices had dried up. I just couldn't get it up anymore—for the book or, it soon turned out, for Merilee. She met my little problem head on, so to speak. She was patient, sympathetic, and classy. That's Merilee. But after eighteen months she began to take it personally.
I moved back into my office. I kept Lulu and the mustache. Merilee got the rest. A dancer friend of hers called me and made it plain she was interested. That's when I found out it wasn't just Merilee I couldn't get it up for. The cocktail-party friends fell away fast. I managed to alienate the few genuine ones by dropping in on them unexpectedly, drinking all the liquor in their house, and passing out. The advance on the second book melted away. My check to the Racquet Club bounced. A few weeks after the divorce became final, Merilee married that hot new playwright from Georgia, Zack something. I read about it in Liz Smith's column.
It's amazing how quickly your life can turn to shit.
I'd fallen three months behind on my rent, and by the time my next royalty check filtered down, I'd be living in a shopping cart in Riverside Park. I was on my ass when I got the call from my agent about helping Sonny Day, The One, write his memoirs.
"Who cares about Sonny Day anymore?" I said.
"His publisher thinks plenty of people will, dear boy," she replied. "They're paying him one point three million."
"The ghost gets a hundred fifty, plus a third of the royalties."
"Well, well, well."
Excerpted from The Man Who Died Laughing by David Handler. Copyright © 2006 David Handler. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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