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The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes, page 1


The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes

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The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes


  For Shaun English, who taught me what friendship means



  Title Page


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven


  About the Author

  Also by David Handler


  About the Publisher

  Chapter One

  The Silver Fox was waiting for me in a back booth at Wan-Q, the retro nonchic Cantonese restaurant that was two doors down from the rear entrance to the Essex House on West Fifty-Sixth Street. It was very quiet in Wan-Q at 4:00 on a rainy December afternoon. I paused just inside the door next to the burbling Buddha fountain to remove my trench coat and fedora. Wan-Q’s owner, Benny, who was a burbling Buddha himself, hung up my coat while I helped my basset hound, Lulu, off with the pert duck-billed rain cap that I’d had made for her by C.C. Filson. Lulu is susceptible to sinus problems in damp weather. Snores like a lumberjack when she gets stuffed up. I know this because she likes to sleep on my head.

  Benny led me to one of the high-backed wooden booths in back. Wan-Q was discreetly lit, which is to say dim. It helped keep your eyes from dwelling on the tacky, circa-1957 tiki bar décor. Wan-Q’s extensive menu of “tropicocktails” offered such exotic classics as mai tais and zombies, but no one went to Wan-Q to drink. Its lunch and dinner menu featured bygone finger food treasures such as egg rolls and fried wonton with a gooey red sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. But no one went to Wan-Q to eat.

  In fact no one went to Wan-Q at all.

  Wan-Q was, by unwritten accord, the designated safe haven where literary and theatrical people could meet in public without meeting in public. If, say, a celebrated Broadway star was trying to maneuver his way into, or out of, the bed of a dewy-eyed ingénue, he’d meet her, or him, in a booth at Wan-Q. If a Hollywood studio executive was in town to try to lure a big-name editor out to the West Coast they’d talk terms in a booth at Wan-Q. It was understood that you became legally blind the moment you walked in. If you saw someone there you didn’t see them and they didn’t see you. If you wished to be seen then you had lunch at the Russian Tea Room, drinks at the Algonquin or dinner at Elaine’s, where I’ll have you know that Lulu once had her very own water bowl. But that was way back when the New York Times Sunday Book Review had hailed me as “the first major new literary voice of the 1980s.” It was 1992 now. Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas had just ousted Poppy Bush. In a few weeks Bill, his wife, Hillary, and their daughter, Chelsea, would be moving into the White House. The eighties were over and out.

  And so was I.

  The Silver Fox was seated in the last booth on the left smoking a Newport, drinking straight bourbon—no umbrella drinks for the Fox—and wearing those oversized round glasses of hers that made her look like the world’s most devious owl. Her real name was Alberta Pryce, and she was the top literary agent in New York. My literary agent. She was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, and seventy-two years old that year. Over the course of her forty years in publishing she’d represented such luminaries as Norman Mailer, William Styron, Irwin Shaw, Katherine Anne Porter and Daphne du Maurier. She was known as the Silver Fox because of her sculpted helmet of silver hair and because she was sly, tough and brutally honest. I’d been with her since I published my first short story in the New Yorker back when I was two years out of that college up in Cambridge that nobody mentions by name. She’d run her own agency for decades until she accepted a lucrative offer two years back to join the Harmon Wright Agency as head of its literary department. It was, she’d informed me at the time, no longer possible for an independent agent to compete with a colossus like HWA, which had offices in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Tokyo.

  I sat across from her. Alberta was wearing a black pantsuit and a white silk blouse. Black and white was the official dress code for all HWA agents. Harmon Wright, who’d been born and raised Heshie Roth in the rough-and-tumble Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, didn’t like to see his people in anything else. I wore the chalk-striped navy blue suit that I’d had made for me in London by Strickland & Sons, a pink shirt and a blue-and-gold striped tie.

  Lulu circled around three times at my feet before she curled up there. I ordered a Chinese beer for me and a plate of fried shrimp for Lulu, who actually does go to Wan-Q to eat. And has mighty strange eating habits.

  “How are you, dear boy?” Alberta asked, peering at me through her glasses.

  “Fine and dandy.”

  “And how is the incomparable Miss Merilee Nash?”

  “Also fine and dandy, as far as I know.”

  She shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry to hear that you’re not together.”

  “That makes two of us, Alberta.” Lulu grunted sourly. “Correction, three of us.”

  “I may have something for you,” she informed me, sipping her bourbon.

  “So you said on the phone.” The waiter brought me my beer. I took a sip. “Whom do you want me to meet with? And why are we being so secretive?”

  She stubbed out her Newport. “Just promise me that you’ll keep an open mind. Can you do that?”

  “For you? Of course. But who is this person?”

  “HWA’s new vice president of Literary Synergy, whatever the devil that is. Do you know what it is?”

  “I only know that I hate the word synergy.”

  “As do I, dear boy.” Her eyes flickered as someone arrived at our booth.

  I looked up—and an involuntary shudder went right through my body. Now I knew why the Silver Fox had been so secretive.

  “I believe you two already know each other,” she said uneasily.

  We most certainly did. The last time I’d encountered Boyd Samuels he’d been a bearded wild man who wore ostrich-skin cowboy boots and snorted lines of coke all day long in his office in the Flatiron Building. In those days, twenty-five-year-old Boyd Samuels had been the hottest literary agent in town. Also a ruthless scam artist who’d treated the honorable profession of publishing as if it were a sidewalk game of three-card monte. Before he flamed out, he’d perpetrated the biggest literary hoax in modern publishing history and pulled me right into it with him. By the time I managed to extricate myself a total of four people had lost their lives. Maybe you read about it.

  “How are you doing, amigo?” he asked, flashing an uncertain grin at me.

  “I was doing quite well right up until a minute ago.”

  “I see you’ve still got your pooch.”

  Lulu let out a low growl from under the table. She’s mighty protective of me. She also doesn’t like to be called a pooch.

  Boyd sat across from me next to Alberta, setting his black Samsonite briefcase beside him. He now dressed like a crepuscular twenty-four-karat Harmon Wright Agency thug—black Armani suit, white shirt, black tie. His hair was cropped short, his face clean-shaven. His manner was subdued, bordering on respectful. He looked lean and hungry, which was the way Harmon Wright liked his agents.

  Our waiter brought Lulu her fried shrimp and took Boyd’s drink order—a club soda with a twist.

  “Alberta, why are we taking a meeting with this amoral sociopath?” I demanded to know. “Boyd Samuels is a lying weasel. Boyd Samuels is a supreme waste of human skin.”

  “I’m sitting right here. I can hear every word you’re saying, amigo.”

  “I’m well aware
of that. And I’m not your amigo. Come on, Lulu, we’re out of here.”

  In my dreams. Lulu had fried shrimp in front of her. She wasn’t budging.

  “Just hear him out, Hoagy,” Alberta urged me. “Can you do that?”

  “All right, as a personal favor to you. But how on earth did he land a job at HWA? Is he holding one of Harmon Wright’s grandchildren hostage?”

  “Harmon believes in second chances,” she responded, sipping her bourbon. “And a client of Boyd’s has brought us something that, in my opinion, warrants a conversation.”

  “Not interested.”

  “Aren’t you even the least bit curious to hear what I’ve got?” he asked.

  “The only thing I’m curious about is how you stayed out of jail. You should have been locked up for ten years.”

  “You’re right, I should have been,” he conceded readily. Boyd had blamed his criminally unscrupulous behavior on an addiction to cocaine, prescription painkillers and NyQuil. A sympathetic judge had let him skate with a stint in rehab and community service. “But I’m clean and sober now, Hoagy. I run seventy miles a week, and I’m learning how to like myself. You drank the Haterade when it comes to me. I accept that. I accept that I made some mistakes. I know I have a big hill to climb before I can regain your trust.”

  “You can’t regain something you never had in the first place.”

  “You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?”

  “That’s not what I do.”

  “Okay, let’s talk about what you do.” He opened his briefcase, produced a manila file folder and removed a single sheet of typing paper, sliding it across the table toward me. It appeared to be a Xerox copy of a letter. “A client of mine received this by express mail over the weekend.”

  There was no letterhead of any kind. No name or address at the top of the page to indicate to whom the letter had been sent. It had been typed on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, the kind you don’t see much anymore unless you get a letter from me. I still write everything on my solid steel 1958 Olympia portable, the Mercedes Gullwing of typewriters. Pretty much everyone else had switched to Macintoshes, those boxy plastic word processors that were the color of cat puke.

  Dear Olive Oyl—

  I have a story to tell. My story. And I’m ready to tell it. I need your help. Please think it over, will you? I haven’t much time left, and I want to make things right among the three of us. There is a great deal that you and your sister don’t know and ought to know. Everyone ought to. Please tell Alberta Pryce that I have written to you. And please ask her to contact Stewart Hoag. He will know how to proceed. Trust no one else. I will be in touch soon.



  I read the letter over twice. The typeface looked strangely familiar to me. The words Love, Dad had been signed by hand. The signature was a tight scrawl. No flourish at all. I sat back and said, “Okay, now what?”

  Boyd’s eyes narrowed. “Now I tell you who my client is. I’ll give you a small hint. She’s a lifestyle brand. Her name is on three bestselling cookbooks.”

  “I don’t do cookbooks.”

  “And a design for living book.”

  “I don’t do ‘design for living’ books either, whatever those are.”

  “She has her own line of clothing, linens and home furnishings. Hosts one of the highest-rated syndicated daytime talk shows on television. She’s tall, blonde, gorgeous . . . Do you still need to hear the magic words?”

  “It would help.”

  “My client’s name is Monette Aintree.”

  My stomach tightened right up, which was its way of telling me Casey Jones, you’d better watch your step. I took a sip of my beer before I said, “Are you telling me that you think this letter is from Richard Aintree?”

  “I’m positive it is,” Boyd assured me.

  I looked at the Silver Fox, who was studying me very guardedly from behind her round glasses, then back at Boyd. “Monette lives out in L.A. these days, doesn’t she?”

  He nodded. “In Brentwood. Has a fabulous place on Rockingham, north of Sunset. Her phone number is unlisted. I have no idea how he got her address, but he got it.”

  “Where was this letter postmarked from?” I asked, studying it again.

  “Edison, New Jersey.”

  “And what’s with this ‘Olive Oyl’ business?”

  “According to Monette,” Alberta said, “that’s what Richard used to call her way back when she was a skinny little girl.”

  “Monette swears that she’s never mentioned it in print,” Boyd said. “In fact, she swears she’s never told a soul. No one else in the whole wide world knows about that nickname. Except for her sister, Regina, that is. Which is where you come in.”

  “I’m in?”

  “Kind of. You were practically a member of the family, weren’t you?”

  “Reggie and I were close,” I acknowledged. “But that was a long, long time ago. I haven’t seen her in over ten years, and she and Monette weren’t exactly on speaking terms. Reggie thought Monette was a pathological liar. No doubt still does. That’s not something she’d change her mind about. I never met Monette. And I sure as hell never laid eyes on their father.”

  “No one has, dear boy.” Alberta drained her bourbon and signaled our waiter for another. “Not since he disappeared off the face of the earth on the third of December 1970. Twenty-two years ago almost to this day. I was the last person in publishing who had any contact with him, you know. It was the day after Eleanor’s funeral. I put him in a Checker cab on Fifth Avenue, he said goodbye and was never seen again.”

  I sat there in silence with my head spinning. Maybe I’d better give you a little background here. In the world of contemporary American fiction there is a holy trinity of coming-of-age masterpieces that are studied by high school English students year after year after year: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Not Far from Here, Richard Aintree’s nostalgic, heartwarming tale of a twelve-year-old boy’s encounter with life and death in a small New England town during World War II. Oddly enough, all three authors were notable recluses—though J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee were practically pub sluts compared to Richard Aintree, who was as legendary a missing public figure as there was in modern America. Think D. B. Cooper, Bigfoot and the late Elvis Presley all rolled into one. The celebrated author had totally disappeared off the face of the earth after the suicide of his wife Eleanor, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. So-called sightings of him had popped up in the tabloid press for years. Back in the seventies three different people said they’d spotted him living out of a van in Berkeley. Someone else swore that he was working on an oil rig in Odessa, Texas. Hunter S. Thompson of Rolling Stone became convinced that Richard Aintree had undergone extensive plastic surgery to change his appearance and was living in a coastal village in Baja, writing erotic novels under an assortment of female pen names. But Thompson’s journey down there in search of the elusive literary giant, which he chronicled in his brilliantly hallucinogenic book Fear and Loathing in Todos Santos, failed to produce any sign of Richard Aintree. To this day, the man remained an enigma. No one knew where he was. Not his family. Not his friends. No one. Many people speculated that he might be dead. If he were still alive he’d be well into his seventies by now.

  “Monette could have written this herself,” I pointed out, gazing down at the letter. “Bought an old typewriter, copied his signature. How do we know it’s not a hoax?”

  “Monette swears it’s not,” Boyd said.

  “She’s lied before. She spent years lying about him.”

  “She’s not lying. I believe her.”

  “May I keep this letter?”

  “Absolutely. I brought it for you.”

  I folded it and slid it into my breast pocket, glancing over at the Silver Fox. “What do you think? You were the man’s agent. You discovered him.”

  “I’ve never cared for that expression,”
she said, lighting a fresh Newport with a gold lighter. “Agents don’t discover talent. It reveals itself to us.”

  “Is it for real?”

  Alberta stared down into what was left of her drink. “I dug some old business correspondence of Richard’s from out of my files. It sure looked to me as if it had been typed on the same sort of machine as this letter—a Hermes 3000 portable from the late 1950s. That’s what Richard used. He wrote Not Far from Here on it. But I’m hardly an expert on such matters.”

  “Did you try Mrs. Adelman at Osner’s?”

  Osner’s, the typewriter repair mecca on Amsterdam and West Seventy-Ninth, services the vintage machines of many of the great writers of our time—Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, William Goldman, me.

  Alberta nodded. “I took the letters up to Mrs. Adelman and asked her to compare them. She examined them very carefully with a magnifying glass.”

  “And . . . ?”

  “She’s convinced that this letter was typed on the very same machine—which means that Richard still has it with him, wherever he is.” Alberta let out a sigh. “I’m deeply skeptical, same as you are, but part of me does wonder if perhaps Richard has finally decided it’s time to come in out of the cold,” she said softly, her eyes glistening a bit. “Perhaps his health is failing. I can’t imagine he’s had an easy time of it.” She took a drag of her Newport, staring off into space for a moment. At my feet, Lulu had begun to snore softly. A few more people had drifted into Wan-Q, though it remained discreetly quiet. “I can still remember the first time I met him. It was in the summer of 1966. He was a professor of contemporary literature at Yale. A very buttoned-down sort. Salt-and-pepper crew cut, smoked a pipe.” She signaled our waiter for another bourbon. The Silver Fox could put it away. There wasn’t an author in New York, man or woman, who could keep up with her. “He was also a pompous ass who had a nasty chip on his shoulder. It bugged him that Eleanor was a vastly more important writer than he could ever hope to be. Eleanor had already won her Pulitzer by then and had been named the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, which was what they called America’s Poet Laureate before 1985. Eleanor was also a genuinely warm, giving person. She had those two teenaged girls of theirs whom she doted on. A lovely old farmhouse in the countryside north of New Haven. She was a passionate bird-watcher and gardener. Made her own jam and gave me a jar every year at Christmas. Eleanor was my favorite client. I adored her. I can’t imagine that anyone liked Richard. I always felt that it was his bruised male ego that drove him to write Not Far from Here. He hated being known around the Yale campus as Mr. Eleanor Aintree.” Our waiter arrived with her fresh drink. Alberta thanked him and took a sip. “I read his first draft because Eleanor begged me to. I wasn’t exactly crazy about it, but as a favor to her I invited him to come into the city and meet with me. So he rode in on the train and sat across my desk staring down his nose at me while I gave him my editorial input. In my opinion he’d made his young protagonist, Titus, too sickeningly sweet. I felt that Titus needed more of a streak of the devil in him. I also suggested that Richard come up with a new title. He’d originally called it The Summer When God Died, which to this day still ranks as the single worst title I’ve ever heard in my life. Richard didn’t agree with one word I said. In fact, he felt that a money-grubbing agent had no business making editorial suggestions at all. He was quite condescending. I told him, ‘It’s your decision, but I can’t send this manuscript out in its present form and I highly doubt that any other agent of my stature will take it on, seeing as how the only reason I’m willing to is that I’m very fond of your wife.’”

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