Stewart Hoag knows how quickly fame can fade. The same critics who adored his first novel used his second for target practice, ending his literary career once and for all. To keep his basset hound fed, Hoagy ghostwrites memoirs for the rich, famous, and self-destructive. His newest subject reminds him all too much of himself. By the age of twenty, Cam Noyes is already being hailed as the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though he’s only published one book, Cam runs with the big boys: dating artists, trashing restaurants, and ending every night in a haze of tequila and cocaine. So glamorous is his lifestyle that he’s having trouble starting his second novel, forcing his agent to hire Hoagy to get the little genius working on a memoir instead. As Hoagy digs into the kid’s life story, he learns that New York publishing is even more cutthroat than he thought.
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The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Stewart Hoag Mystery
By David Handler
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2007 David Handler
All rights reserved.
Aside from the name it was the usual Soho art gallery in the usual converted cast-iron warehouse down on Spring Street and West Broadway. The door was made out of steel, and I had to buzz to get in and wait out there on the sidewalk in the rain while the surveillance camera mounted over the door checked me over to see if I was their sort of person. I'm not, but I fooled them.
Inside, the wood floor was polished, the pipes exposed, the lighting recessed. A tape of some Philip Glass nonmusic was softly nonplaying. A languid clerk wearing a tight black dress and heavy black-framed Buddy Holly glasses sat at the reception desk just inside, her nose deep into a copy of Vanity Fair, which is the People magazine of pseudointellectuals and social climbers. Me she ignored.
Like I said, it was the usual Soho art gallery — aside from the name, which was Rat's Nest.
I took off my trench coat and Borsalino and stood there politely dripping until she finally glanced up at me, then down at Lulu, my basset hound, who was wearing the hooded yellow rain slicker I'd had made for her when she got bronchitis one year. She always wears it on rainy days now. I don't want her getting breathing problems again. She snores when she has them. I know this because she likes to sleep on my head.
"I'm looking for Charleston Chu," I said.
"In there," the clerk said, one lazy hand indicating the main gallery through the doorway.
We started in.
We stopped. "Yes?"
"No animals are allowed in Rat's Nest."
Lulu snuffled at me, deeply offended. I told her to let me handle it. Then I turned to the clerk and said, "We're going to pretend we didn't hear that." And we went in.
There wasn't much in there, and what was in there wasn't much. Some graffiti art left over from a couple of seasons before. A lumpy piece of statuary the size of a grand piano that looked to be from the postmodernist, neo-nonexistent school. A large white canvas that had a life-sized mannequin of a metallic-blue woman suspended from it by hooks. The prices were posted on small, discreet business cards. The lumpy statue was going for $15,000, which would have been an excellent investment if they also threw in a new Mitsubishi Galant.
Someone in the gallery sneezed. I looked down at Lulu. Lulu was looking up at me. That ruled out the only two so-called warm bodies in the room.
I approached the painted mannequin.
It was called Blue Monday. It had no price on it.
Its nose was running.
Lulu barked. She has a mighty big bark for someone with no legs. Also pretty definite taste in art.
"Shit!" cried the mannequin. "He won't bite me, will he?"
"He is a she," I replied. "And she won't go after anything larger than a baby squirrel unless challenged, in which case she'll hide under the nearest bed. May I wipe your nose for you?"
"Please. Damned tree-pollen allergy. Spoils the whole statement."
"Oh, I wouldn't go that far."
I dabbed at her blue nose with my linen handkerchief. It was a tiny snub nose, and some of the paint on it came off on the handkerchief. Her almond-shaped eyes were brown. The rest of her was quite blue. Her hair, which she wore close-cropped like a boy. Her leotard and tights. Her hands and feet, which were shackled to the canvas in a position that wasn't exactly Christ-like but wasn't that different either. She had a slim, firm body, the body of a gymnast or a dancer, which she wasn't. She was Charleston Chu, the Chinese conceptual artist who was, at age twenty-four, the new darling of New York's art scene.
"How many hours a day do you spend up there?" I asked.
"It must get a bit uncomfortable after a while."
"I wish for it to. If I'm uncomfortable, I make you uncomfortable."
She had a girl's voice, with a trace of an accent, but she was no naive waif. This was a savvy self-promoter and entrepreneur who had climbed to the top of a rough business very fast, and on her own terms. She was her own dealer — Rat's Nest merely rented her gallery space.
"People like to sit back and judge art," she went on. "I won't allow you to. I judge you right back. Force you to have an intimate relationship with me."
"I'm willing if you are," I said gamely. "Just promise me one thing — years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind."
She narrowed her eyes at me. "Do you have some kind of problem, asshole?" she demanded coldly. She was in character now. Then again, maybe she wasn't.
"That," I replied, "may take us longer than six hours to get into. Tell me, how come there's no price tag on you?"
"I'm not for sale."
"We're all for sale. I know I am."
"What's your price?"
"A third of the action, generally. If I can find my celebrity. I had a lunch date with Cameron Noyes, and he stood me up. I was told you two ... "
" ... Hang out together?"
"You said it. I didn't."
She smiled. Because of the blue on her face her teeth seemed unusually white, her gums a vivid pink. She had nice dimples. "We live together. Cam should be home working."
"I rang the bell. Also phoned. No answer."
"Then he must be lost in thought, or shitfaced, or out banging someone," she said mildly.
"And that's okay with you?"
"Cam Noyes is a genius," she replied. "His life is his work. To impose my will upon one is to corrupt the other. I have no right to do that. No one does. Besides, you know how writers are."
I tugged at my ear. "Yes, I suppose I do."
"Oh, I get it now — you're Stewart Hoag."
"Make it Hoagy."
"As in Carmichael?"
"As in the cheese steak."
"I'm a vegetarian," she said.
"I suppose someone has to be."
She giggled. It was an unexpectedly bubbly, delicious giggle. It reminded me of Merilee's. Almost. "Everyone calls me Charlie," she said, wiggling a shackled hand at me.
I reached up and shook the hand, and came away with more blue. "Pleased to meet you, Charlie. That's Lulu."
"She's a cutie."
Lulu turned her back on us with a disapproving grunt and faced the lumpy statue.
"I say something wrong?" asked Charlie.
"No. She's just had this thing about other women ever since my divorce. She always thinks they're coming on to me."
"I seriously doubt it."
"Can't you tell?"
"A guy is always the last to know."
Her eyes gave me the once-over. I had just changed to my spring wardrobe. I wore the navy-blue blazer of soft flannel I'd had made for me in London at Strickland's, with a starched white Turnbull and Asser broadcloth shirt, plum-colored silk bow tie, vanilla gabardine trousers, and calfskin braces. On my feet were the Maxwell's brown-and-white spectator balmorals with wing tips. None of it did me any harm.
"Cam is very much looking forward to meeting you," Charlie said. "You're one of his idols."
"He has others?"
"He has few. I meant, he's excited about your new arrangement."
"There won't be any arrangement if he doesn't keep his appointments."
"Oh." She frowned, concerned. "Look, it's nothing personal, Hoagy. He's just very into chaos."
"Aren't we all."
"We were out late last night. He's probably just taking a nap. Tell you what, there's a house key in my purse at the front desk. Take it. Let yourself in."
"Kind of trusting, aren't you?"
"Everything I told you could be a lie. I could be anybody. I could be trouble."
"No chance. Your eyes ..."
"What about them?"
"They give you away."
So I rang Cam Noyes's bell again. This time I had Charlie's key in my pocket and my hat off. The rain had moved on up the coast toward New England, and it was sunny and fresh out. The green of spring across the street in the park was new and bright. Cam Noyes owned one of the Greek revival town houses that face right onto Gramercy Park, and that are about as prized these days as Yankee starters who can last seven innings. Only those who are both very rich and very lucky ever get to live facing the private park. Even they aren't allowed to bring their dogs in there with them. I'd have something to say about that if I were one of them, but I'm not. I've used up my money. Also my luck.
His house was white and sported an iron veranda with lacy ornamentation. He still didn't answer the doorbell. I glanced back at the curb. Parked there, as it had been earlier that day, was a gleaming, fully restored hot-pink 1958 Oldsmobile Super 88 convertible. The original Loveboat, the one that Olds boasted carried no less than forty-four pounds of chrome plating on it. It had to be the longest, gaudiest, most vulgar car ever made. It had to belong to Cam Noyes.
I rang one more time, and when no one answered. I used Charlie's key.
The decor wasn't what you'd call typical. Actually, it wasn't what most people would call decor. The walls, ceiling, and ornate molding of the ground-floor parlor had been stripped down to the bare, pitted plaster and left that way. Some tall plastic potted palms had been scattered about. In the center of the room a half dozen fifties, shell-backed metal lawn chairs in assorted pastels were grouped around an old Packard Bell black-and-white TV set. Over the marble fireplace hung a particularly awful Julian Schnabel original. It looked as if he'd dipped a dead gerbil in a can of yellow paint and hurled it against a wet canvas. The oak floor was unpolished and bare except for a twenty-foot length of Astroturf stretching toward the kitchen. Golf balls dotted it. At one end there was a putting cup with an electronic return. A putter leaned against the wall.
I called out his name. There was no answer. There was no sound at all.
Most of the kitchen was a raw, gaping wound. There was a refrigerator with some liquor bottles on it, and a utility sink, but everything else — stove, cupboards, counters — had been ripped out. The walls had been stripped down to bare, crumbling brick, the floor to the rough wood sub-flooring. Lulu found an open trapdoor with steep stairs down to the basement. A light was on down there, illuminating stacks of fresh lumber and Sheetrock, boxes of tile, buckets of joining compound, a new sink, copper pipe.
I called down there. No answer.
French doors led out back to the walled garden. A twelve-foot square of damp earth just outside had been cleared, leveled, and marked out with stakes and string lines. Under a wet blue tarp were piled sixty-pound bags of cement mix and pallets of bluestone. All the makings of a patio. For now the garden didn't offer much, except for a lot of dead leaves with one pink plastic flamingo standing guard over them. This Lulu carefully checked out with her large black nose before strutting back to me, snuffling victoriously.
The second-floor parlor had a higher ceiling and grander molding than the one downstairs, and tall leaded-glass windows overlooking the park. Also paint splatters everywhere. Charlie's studio. Worktables were heaped with paints, brushes, spray cans, contact cements. Huge blank canvases were stacked against one wall. Cartons were piled everywhere — cartons filled with gaily colored Fiesta ware, with empty Coke bottles, with old magazines and postcards and snapshot albums. On an easel in the middle of the studio sat a canvas to which she'd glued broken shards of the Fiesta ware as well as part of a Uneeda biscuit box. Welcome to the age of borrowing. The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney had lined up to buy just such works of borrowed art by Charlie Chu. I'll still take Edward Hopper. He didn't borrow from anyone.
A dozen or so eight-by-ten, black-and-white photographs had been taped directly onto one of the walls. I walked over to them, broken bits of china and glass crunching under my feet. They were photos of literary wunderkind Cameron Noyes and his many hot young friends, snapped in restaurants, in clubs, at parties in expensive-looking lofts. Photos of him with Emilio Estevez and Keifer Sutherland, with Michael J. Fox, with Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys and Molly Ringwald and Suzanne Vega and Johnny Depp. There were no pictures of him with Charlie. She was the photographer. I found her darkroom in the bathroom off the studio.
A wide doorway opened into what had been the dining room. There was a dumbwaiter down to the kitchen below, and wiring for a chandelier in the center of the ceiling. Charlie made her heavier artistic statements in there. Hunks of iron, lengths of pipe, were heaped in a corner next to an acetylene welding torch and welder's mask. She had a heavy-duty circular table saw, a lathe, a workbench stocked with hand tools. Rough picture frames hung by the dozen from spikes in the wall. Did her own framing right here, too. Handy girl.
I called out Cam's name. There was no answer.
The third floor was somewhat more conventional. There was fresh white paint on the walls of the short hallway. A guest bedroom in back, simply furnished. The front room was where Cameron Noyes wrote. It was an austere room, and he wasn't in it. An uncommonly lovely writing table was set before the windows. It was made of cherry in the Shaker style and rubbed until it glowed as only cherry can. On it was a yellow legal-sized pad, blank, a pencil, an oil lamp, and a genuine fifteen-inch bowie knife of the 1850s with a wrought-steel blade and brass handle and hilt. The Arkansas Toothpick — glistening and razor sharp.
There was nothing else in the room — no books, no papers, no phone, no other furnishings.
I kept climbing.
The top floor was all master bedroom. A ceiling fan circled slowly overhead and made the curtains, which were of a gauzy material, billow. A brass bed was planted in the middle of the huge room like an island, and on that brass bed lay Cameron Noyes, naked on top of the covers. His mouth was open, his eyes closed. His head had lolled to one side in such a way that the blood from his nose had streamed down his face and onto the pillow, and dried there.
I looked down at Lulu. Lulu was looking up at me.
I sighed and crossed the room to the bed. He was breathing, slowly but evenly. There was a vial of white powder on the nightstand, next to a pocket mirror, razor blade, and length of drinking straw. Also a bottle of tequila, some wedges of lime, and two glasses — all the makings for a fine matinee horror show. I moistened a finger, dipped it into the vial, and rubbed the powder over my gums. It was coke, all right. I knew about the tingle. Also about the nosebleed. The inside of his nose was ruined from stuffing coke up it. A lot of coke.
I looked down at him. He may not have been the handsomest man I'd ever seen, but he was close. So handsome he was almost pretty. He had wavy blond hair, a high forehead, prominent cheekbones, and a delicate, rosy mouth. His complexion was fair and free of blemishes. The nose, aside from the blood caked on it, was perfect. So was the chin. His eyes were set wide apart. I wondered what color they were. I guessed blue. It was the face of a sensitive boy. It didn't go with the rest of him. He was a big man with huge, sloping shoulders and powerful arms. His chest was deep, his waist was narrow, his stomach flat and ridged with muscle. The words Born to Lose were tattooed on his left bicep. The hands were monstrous and work roughened. The legs belonged on a modest-sized plow horse. It was the body of a laborer or an outside linebacker, or the young Brando. It was a body that didn't fit with the face.
I looked down at him and wondered. Cameron Noyes had it all. He was young, handsome, brilliant, rich, and famous. And he was trashing it. Why? This I would have to find out.
I heard something rolling on the bare wooden floor. Lulu had made a small discovery under the bed and was nosing it toward me. It was a woman's lipstick. Red. I picked it up and put it on the nightstand next to the tequila.
Then I went downstairs to the kitchen. The refrigerator was empty except for a half-eaten sausage-and-mushroom pizza from John's, the coal-fired pizzeria on Bleeker. I went to work on a slice. I'd missed lunch, and there's no greater delicacy than cold pizza, except for licorice ice cream, and there wasn't any of that in the freezer. Just a bottle of Polish vodka and four trays of ice cubes. These I dumped in an empty joining-compound bucket from the cellar. I filled the bucket with cold water from the sink, swooshed it around, and carried it back upstairs. When I got to the bed, I hefted it, took careful aim, and dumped half of its contents on the naked, fully exposed groin of Cameron Noyes. He instantly let out a lion's roar of shock and pain and sat right up, his eyes — they were blue — bulging from his head. I gave him the other half of the bucket in the face. Then I wiped my hands and sat down and asked myself what the hell I was doing there.
Excerpted from The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald by David Handler. Copyright © 2007 David Handler. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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