The Last Laugh: Another Smart Guys Mystery Short Story

Jul 14, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Dennis Palumbo

This is the second story in the Smart Guys mystery series written by Dennis Palumbo, which first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. There are nine Smart Guys mysteries–watch for more here in KRL in the future and check out the first one, The Smart Guys Marching Society right here in KRL. This story is rated PG-13 for some strong language.

It wasn’t a by-law of the Smart Guys Marching Society that someone had to bring up a murder every couple of meetings, it just seemed to be turning out that way. Ever since my wife’s Uncle Isaac, our newest member, solved a baffling local case, I guess each of us secretly hoped another puzzling crime problem would emerge amid the usual Sunday afternoon’s debate over the issues of the day.

I’m thinking of one recent meeting. It started out like most of the others, a kind of poor man’s McLaughlin Group, with lots of arguing and pontificating about health care, education reform and Middle East politics, until, by a path too torturous to recount, we arrived at the subject of stand-up comedy. Or, more precisely, the art of telling a joke.

“You guys are pathetic,” Bill was saying, spreading Cheez Whiz on a cracker. “You can’t analyze comedy. You just kill it when you try.”

“That’s right,” Fred agreed. “It’s like that great Woody Allen anecdote.”

“Which one?” I asked, coming in from the kitchen with a fresh bowl of popcorn. I tried to find a place for it on the crowded coffee table.

“Somebody asked Woody the secret to writing a great joke. He replied, ‘Well, first comes the set-up, then comes the punch-line.’”

Mark frowned. “I don’t get it.”

Fred sighed, patiently. “He was being sarcastic. Of course, the set-up comes first, and then the punch-line. You can’t do it in reverse. He was making an ironic comment on the fact that someone would ask such a stupid question in the first place.”

“Yeah, right,” Mark growled. “Irony. How post-modern. Gimme the old guys. Bob Hope. Buddy Hackett. Jackie Mason. No irony. Just real jokes–and real laughs.”

As I recall, it was a typical August day in the San Fernando Valley, hot and smoggy, testing my game room’s air conditioning to the limit. You’d think it was too miserable to argue about anything–and, unless you were a member of the Smart Guys Marching Society, you’d be right.

We were all there: Mark, former Intelligence officer turned reporter; Fred, a lawyer by trade and philosopher by inclination; Bill, actor and theater director; and me, once again the beleaguered host, piling chips and cold cuts onto serving platters in a vain attempt to keep up with the feeding frenzy that invariably accompanied our stag get-togethers.

As a licensed psychotherapist, I saw our weekly meetings as either an interesting sociological example of male bonding, or else some lame excuse for the four of us long-time friends–any one of whom could have been a poster child for “mid-life crisis”–to get together and complain about the collapse of Western civilization.

And then, of course, there was Isaac. Round, smiling, with white muttonchop sideburns, usually sitting at a corner, half-dozing, surrounded by his beloved sci-fi paperbacks. Some distant relative of my wife’s, he was a retired contractor, a “Jack of all trades,” as he put it, and a good twenty years older than the rest of us.

As always, he glanced up occasionally whenever the group’s decibel level rose, then rested his chin on his fist, somewhat dreamily. It wasn’t until Mark’s last comment that he finally stirred.

“Don’t forget Jack Benny,” he said. “And Milton Berle.”

“Now you’re talking about great comics,” Bill said eagerly. “Guys who spent years on the vaudeville circuit, honing their craft, paying real dues. Nowadays, some kid does ten minutes on Leno and he gets his own sitcom.”

“That’s right,” Fred said. “Look at how many comics got launched on Johnny Carson’s old show. Flip Wilson. Garry Shandling. Roseanne Barr. Seinfeld…”

“I think Carrot Top started that way, too,” I said.

“We can’t blame the Tonight Show for everything,” Mark murmured. “Besides, today’s comics don’t even tell jokes. Look at Chris Rock. Ellen DeGeneres. Hell, Richard Pryor was the funniest stand-up I ever saw and he never told a joke in his life.”

Isaac shook his head. “That may be. Still, I think it’s much tougher today on young comedians.” Fred pointed his beer bottle at Isaac. “No way. I’m with Bill. The old-timers had to work all over the country, small towns, everywhere, trying to make their reputations. Nowadays, one shot on an HBO special and you’ve got thirty million fans, overnight.”

Isaac smiled. “That’s right. Thirty million people who’ve just seen your act. So the next time you’re on TV or at a club, you better have new material.” He sipped hot tea from his favorite mug. “In the old days, in vaudeville, comics like Benny and Hope could work up a twenty-minute bit, and use it over and over again, town after town. Burns and Allen toured with the same act for ten years…”

“That’s why comics like Groucho Marx thrived on radio, and later on television,” I offered. “He could improvise.”

“Isaac, how come you know so much about old comedians?” Fred asked.

“When I was a kid, I used to work summers as a waiter in the Catskills,” he replied. “There were these big resort hotels, and a lot of old comics performed there. I used to hang around, after hours, listening to them tell stories. By the way,” he added, matter-of-factly, “I met Groucho once.”

“You did?” I whirled and faced him. “When?”

“His old quiz show, You Bet Your Life. I was in the studio audience. Afterwards, I went backstage and shook his hand. A great moment for me, I can tell you.” He leaned forward, tugged his thick sideburn reflectively. “You know, years ago, there was a big debate as to which was the greatest comic of all time. An ad agency took some kinda poll or something. For publicity.”

“Who won?” Mark asked.

“That’s the funny thing,” Isaac replied. “I can’t remember. But I remember that Groucho lost, and why he lost. They said he didn’t have enough heart. That to be a truly great comedian, you had to have great heart.”

“I guess that left out W.C. Fields,” Mark said dryly.

Isaac sat back in his chair. “I couldn’t say. All I know is, when Groucho shook hands with me, I was on Cloud Nine. I don’t care how insulting he could be, I think it was all show. He grew up poor, same as I did. Financial success came late in life, and he always feared it’d be taken away again. That’s something I can understand.”

I stared at him. Isaac had never said anything so revealing, so personal before.
I think it took us all by surprise.

All, it turned out, except Bill, who sat with his hands folded on his lap, uncharacteristically quiet.

“Hey, are you all right?” Fred said to him.

Bill hesitated, as though about to say something, but then changed his mind.

Mark’s eyes darkened behind his thick glasses. “You’re thinking of Lenny Sands, aren’t you, Bill?”

Bill sat upright, startled. “How the hell did you know that?”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I remember Lenny Sands. I used to see him on the old Ed Sullivan Show, when I was a kid. He and Alan King were my Dad’s two favorite comics.”

Fred chewed on a carrot stick. “Geez, Lenny Sands… Wasn’t he the one they called the Joke Machine? Whatever happened to him, anyway?”

“He’s dead,” Bill said flatly. “Somebody killed him.”

Fred stopped in mid-chew. “You mean, as in murdered?”

“Looks that way.” Mark took off his glasses, wiped them on his shirt sleeve. “Happened just last night–”

Bill gazed at him, still clearly astonished. “Then you do know about it…”

“So will everybody else, when it hits the media.”

“How did he die?” Fred asked.

“Police say he was poisoned,” Mark said. “A very powerful corrosive.”

“It happened at a table in Maude’s Grill, down on Wilshire,” Bill said glumly. “In the middle of his dinner.”

“Unless he was poisoned earlier,” Fred said, “before he got to the restaurant.”

Mark shook his head. “No, this stuff acts in a matter of minutes. It happened right there, in front of five people who were all having dinner with Lenny.”

“So the killer had to be one of them,” Fred said.

“One of us,” Bill corrected him. “I was one of the five.”

“What?” I was so surprised, I actually stood up, staring down at him. “Jesus, Bill, we’ve been talking about comics all afternoon–why didn’t you mention any of this?”

“The cops…they told us to keep our mouths shut–” He spread his hands. “Plus there was this Federal agent…”

“The Feds?” repeated Fred, puzzled. “What the hell were they doing at a homicide?”

I ignored him, leaning down close to Bill. “Listen, if I remember right, you were the one who got us talking about jokes and stand-up comics in the first place. I think, unconsciously, you needed to talk about it…”

“Spare me, willya, Dr. Freud?” Bill looked miserable.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Mark said. “I talked to a friend of mine down at headquarters, just before I got here. They’ve made an arrest.”

“Sylvia?” Bill said.

Mark shrugged. “I don’t think they had any choice.”

“But, Mark, I still don’t understand how you know about all this–”

“Excuse me, please.” It was Isaac, slumped in his corner chair, looking at them plaintively. “Would one of you mind starting at the beginning?”

Bill nodded. “At one time, Lenny Sands was a big star,” he began. “Most of us know him from TV variety shows in the 60’s and 70’s. But he’d worked all the best hotels and nightclubs. Vegas, Atlantic City. A real comic’s comic. But in the last fifteen, twenty years, he really fell on hard times. Couldn’t get arrested.”

“How do you know him, Bill?” Fred asked.

“Couple friends of mine took a stand-up class that Lenny taught. Other than a few club dates in Miami, that was the only gig Lenny could get lately.”

“What did he live on?”

“Bitterness,” Bill answered.
“Plus a small pension. He’d gambled away practically all the money he’d made over the years.”

“A familiar story,” Fred commented.

“Anyway, I sat in on a couple of his classes, kinda for nostalgia’s sake. Afterwards, we’d all go out for drinks. I liked the old guy. Every line out of his mouth was a joke. He cracked us all up. I mean, the guy was an artist.” He gave a rueful laugh. “An unemployed, down-on-his-luck artist. The only asset he had was his house on Mulholland.”

“Why didn’t he sell it for the cash?” I asked.

“He couldn’t,” Bill said. “Lenny’s ex-wife, Sylvia, was suing him for title on the house against the back-alimony he owed her. Just one of the things they fought about.”

He shook his head. “They’d been divorced for fifteen years, and still screamed at each other on the phone three times a week. It was kind of a hate/hate relationship. In fact, a couple weeks ago, Sylvia threatened to kill him.”

Fred scooped up a handful of peanuts. “Yeah, but was she at the table last night?”

“I’m getting to that, okay?” Bill opened another beer, took a sip. “Anyway, as Lenny and I got to know each other, he started confiding in me about his money troubles, and his problems with Sylvia. I mean, he made a joke out of all of it, but he got his message across. That was Lenny. Anything to get a laugh. Then, last night, I got the supreme honor Lenny can bestow. He invited me to his personal table at Maude’s Grill, a corner booth where he’s held court for years. I got there about eight. The place was packed.”

“Who was at the table, besides you and Lenny?” Fred asked.

“A couple of his cronies from the old days, a comedy team called Dickens and French. I think they just work cruise ships now. And another guy, Sid Siddons, Lenny’s agent from years ago. It was like being at the Friars’ Club–all bad hair pieces and pinkie rings.” Bill’s eyes shone. “But, man, you should’ve seen Lenny. Telling jokes, ordering the waiters around, doing shtick with the food. It was really his room, you know what I mean?”

I looked at Mark. “But what’s your connection to all this?”

“You know that Federal agent Bill said was on the murder scene last night? A buddy of mine, named Gregson.”

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “You and he were in covert Intelligence together.”

“A long time ago,” Mark said, “in a galaxy far, far away.”

Fred groaned. “I hate when he gets all cloak-and-dagger.”

Mark smirked. “I happened to have dinner with him a couple weeks ago, and he told me what he was working on. It seems that Maude’s Grill was a secret drop, used by agents of an unfriendly government.”

Isaac spoke up for the first time in ten minutes. “Wait a minute. We’re talking about the same Maude’s? With the over-priced steaks? Involved in spying?”

“The management is clean, so far as we know,” Mark replied. “But somehow, someway, enemy agents have used the place to spirit away classified material, probably on micro-discs. Something small enough to be exchanged, unnoticed, in the restaurant.”

Fred frowned. “Hey, are you saying it was Lenny? He needed money, and he was at the restaurant a lot–”

“Every night, like clockwork,” Bill said.

“Except that Lenny was in the clear,” Mark said. “For one thing, he was more patriotic than Bob Hope. The Feds also checked him out thoroughly before approaching him.”

“Approaching him for what?” I asked.

“Well,” Mark said, “here’s where it gets a little weird. Gregson and his people started paying Lenny Sands to spy for them. Actually, just to keep his eyes open for anything suspicious in the restaurant. Any patterns, repeat customers, things like that.”

I couldn’t get my mind around it. “Lenny Sands, the Joke Machine? A guy who used to do spit-takes on Hollywood Squares? Working undercover for the government?”

“Our tax dollars at work,” Fred grumbled.

“Couldn’t Gregson plant one of his own people in Maude’s?”

“His people are all known to the enemy agents,” Mark replied. “Besides, it was worth a shot. Gregson’s sources told him the drop always occurred during peak dinner hours. Lenny was such a fixture, Gregson hoped that whoever was working the exchange wouldn’t pay any attention to him.”

I looked at Bill. “Did you know about this?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. Now it was Mark’s turn to look surprised…which Bill enjoyed immensely.

“Lenny told me himself,” he went on, “one night after his class. I guess he’d had a little too much to drink. He said he’d just made a deal with the Feds. ‘It’s short money,’ he told me. ‘But a gig’s a gig.’”

Fred sighed. “He told you he was working undercover? Kinda brings new meaning to the word ‘clueless.’”

Mark, still clearly rattled, continued. “Anyway, Lenny went to work for Gregson, calling him every night with his report. Such as it was. He never came up with anything.”

He adjusted his glasses carefully. “And that’s the last I heard about it, till Gregson phoned me this morning and told me Lenny Sands had been murdered last night.”

We all looked at Bill.

“I guess that’s my cue,” he said. “Where did I leave off? Oh, yeah. At Maude’s. There was me, Dickens and French, Siddons the agent, and Lenny. Just having dinner, kidding around, ya know? Like I said, Lenny was in rare form. He had a woman at the next table in stitches–I mean, the lady couldn’t eat, she was laughing so hard. Annoyed the hell out of her husband. He just kept glaring at us. We didn’t care.”

“I thought there were five guests at your table,” Fred remarked suddenly. “You only mention four.”

“Who’s telling this, you or me?” Bill got up and moved about, as though setting the scene. “Remember, there’s a lot of noise, waiters zooming around, people coming and going from tables. They must’ve been short-staffed, too, because some of the customers were complaining about the service. This one Indian guy–he had a turban and everything–kept pointing at his food and shaking his head. Then there was this other guy, at another table, showing his fork to the busboy, saying it was dirty. The poor kid races back from the kitchen with new silverware and a napkin–”

“Think we can cut to the chase?” Mark interrupted.

“I’m just trying to establish some atmosphere, okay? Anyway, suddenly this skinny lady, all in bright red, comes storming across the room, heading right for our booth. She stands over us and starts raging at Lenny. Turns out, it’s Sylvia, his ex. She’s screaming like crazy, cursing Lenny up and down. I thought her face-lift was gonna give. He keeps trying to calm her, but she won’t have any. Finally, Lenny gestures for me to shove over, give Sylvia a place to sit down next to him.”

I nudged Fred helpfully. “The fifth person.”

“Yeah, I got that.” He looked at Bill. “And then…?”

“Then Lenny orders another round of drinks, and we’re all trying to make nice with Sylvia, especially Siddons, the agent, who reminds her of the great times they all used to have, bla, bla,bla…” Bill paused. “It looked like it was working, too, because things got a lot more friendly. Lenny kept assuring her that they’d work something out about the house. He even proposed a toast. ‘To divorce,’ he says, ‘the real tie that binds.’ So we all drink, somebody cracks another joke, and suddenly Lenny is gagging and convulsing–”

“Oh my God,” I found myself saying.

“Before anyone can do anything, his head hits the table. He reaches out, his fingers grasping the air. Then, with his dying breath, he says, ‘Take my wife’…”

“What?!” Fred almost shouted.

“That’s what he said,” Bill replied, folding his arms. “‘Take my wife.’”

“You mean, like the old Henny Youngman joke, ‘Take my wife–please’?”

“What can I say? Lenny Sands’ dying message was a joke. The guy told a million jokes in his life, why shouldn’t his last words be one?”

“But it’s not just any joke,” Fred said. “I mean, he might’ve been saying he’d been murdered by his wife.”

Mark nodded. “That’s what the cops think. They arrested Sylvia this morning.”

“Because of what Lenny said?” I couldn’t believe it.

“Hey, it was a dying man naming his killer,” Mark answered.
“She had motive–fifteen years of hatred, plus the house. She certainly had opportunity, she was sitting right next to him. He orders that final round of drinks, she slips the stuff into his glass while reaching for a dinner roll or something…”

“But wait a minute,” I said. “Why use the joke? I mean, if I’m dying and I’ve only got seconds to speak, I’m not gonna waste time being cute. I’m sure not gonna leave any room for interpretation. I’m gonna point to the killer and say, ‘She did it!’”

“But you’re not Lenny Sands,” Bill insisted. “I knew him well enough to know this is exactly the kind of exit he’d want. Everything was a joke to this guy. How perfect if he can name his killer and get a laugh at the same time. Especially with a classic line like that…”

“But that’s just it,” Fred said, sitting forward in his seat. “How could Lenny know for sure who poisoned him?”

“He probably saw her drop the stuff in his glass.”

“Really? Then why would he drink it?”

Bill threw up his hands.
“C’mon, who else could’ve done it? Lenny knew she hated him, and wanted the house. Besides, she threatened to kill him, remember?”

“The cops see it that way,” Mark agreed. “Nobody else had a motive, and, like I said, she was sitting right next to him.”

“Nobody had a motive we know about,” Fred corrected him. He turned to Bill. “Who was sitting on Lenny’s other side.”

“Sid Siddons, the agent. Are you saying he did it?”

“He had the same opportunity,” Fred said. “Maybe he had a motive.”

“Look, every performer I know wants to kill his agent,” Bill said, “but not the other way around.”

“You know,” I said evenly, “if Fred’s right, and Lenny couldn’t have known for sure who poisoned him, it’s still possible he implicated Sylvia for another reason. He hated her, right? And he was dying. Which meant she’d get the house, plus she’d outlive him. In other words, she’d win. Finally. After their years of struggle. So, with his last ounce of strength, not knowing who the killer actually was, he named her anyway. She’d be convicted of his murder, and spend her remaining life in jail. In other words, he’d win.”

I needed to wet my whistle after that tidy monologue. I motioned for Fred to hand me my glass.

“By the way,” he said to Bill, “what happened after Lenny collapsed?”

“That’s kind of a blur,” Bill replied. “People were freaking out at all the tables, I guess they thought Lenny’d had a stroke or something. One of the old comics–French, I think–jumped up and flagged down the maitre’d, who called the paramedics. They arrived in minutes, took one look at Lenny and called in the cops.”

“When did Gregson show up?” Mark asked.

“Afterwards. I didn’t know his name then, but this Federal agent came in, looked around for about ten seconds, then huddled with our booth. He seemed upset, but not about Lenny, if you know what I mean.”

Suddenly, there was a clattering sound from the window.
I turned to find Isaac, reading glasses perched on his nose, lifting up the blinds to the hazy afternoon sun. He peered intently at an old, well-worn paperback he held open in his other hand.

“What are you looking for, Isaac?” I asked.

“Corroboration,” he said, snapping the book shut with satisfaction. “This is a collection of Asimov’s Black Widower mysteries. I thought I remembered a story in here about a dying man’s message. I was right.”

He came back to his regular chair, sat down with a gusty exhalation of breath. “Unfortunately, in this case, Asimov was wrong. Lenny’s dying message had to be as cryptic as it was. In his last remaining moments, he could think of no other way.”

Nobody spoke for about half a minute.

“Well, Isaac,” Fred said at last, “you’ve got my attention.”

“Are you on to something?” Bill asked eagerly.

“Maybe,” the older man replied. “Bill, you said Gregson huddled with the five of you at the booth. This was after the police questioned you, I assume?”

“Yes. They took each of us aside, and made sure we’d be available for more detailed questioning in the future.”

“I understand. But when you were with Gregson, where was everybody else?”

“The cops had ‘em all herded into the kitchen, before Gregson even showed up.”

Isaac leaned back, relieved. “Good. Then there’s still a chance to crack the enemy agent’s operation.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “I thought you had some idea about Lenny’s murder?”

“I do. You were all so busy speculating about the possible suspects at the table, particularly his ex-wife, you forgot what Lenny was really doing last night. The same thing he’d been doing for the past few weeks. Spying.”

Fred and I exchanged looks.

Isaac announced, with just an air of smugness, “Lenny Sands was killed because he’d completed his mission. He’d figured out how the enemy agents were using the restaurant to pass secret information.”

Mark took off his glasses, tossed them on the coffee table. “Now hold on,” he said, clearly exasperated.
“How the hell could you know that?”

“Because Lenny told us, in his dying message.”

“You mean, the ‘Take my wife’ joke? If anything, all it does is implicate Sylvia in the murder.”

“That’s just my point.” Isaac’s voice sharpened. “The phrase ‘Take my wife’ isn’t a joke. The joke is, ‘Take my wife–please.’ It’s like we were talking about before. ‘Take my wife’ is the set-up. The punch-line is the word ‘please.’”

I stared. “I still don’t get what you’re saying.”

“Look, granting Bill’s suggestion that an old stand-up comic like Lenny might find it darkly amusing to die with a classic joke on his lips, particularly one that names his killer, why wouldn’t he say the whole line? I mean, if he really thinks Sylvia did it, or even if he just wants to implicate her out of spite, why doesn’t he say ‘Take my wife–please.’ It gets the same message across, and with the black humor of the joke intact.”

“Maybe he tried to say the whole line, but died before he could get the last word out,” I suggested.

Isaac looked skeptical. “I considered that, though it seems unlikely. Especially when you remember what Lenny was secretly doing at the restaurant every night.”

His pale eyes narrowed. “Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Lenny did tumble to the enemy agent’s operation. Something he saw, something that didn’t look right. Do you think he could keep it to himself? Remember, he told Bill he was working undercover, even made a joke about it. What if he did the same thing at Maude’s? Despite himself, he makes some joking reference to what he’s doing there, or to something he’s stumbled upon.” He permitted himself a melodramatic pause. “I can’t say for sure, but I think the enemy agent knew that Lenny knew something, and had to silence him.”

“Then why didn’t Lenny just say the agent’s name as he was dying?” Fred asked.

“Because, as Mark informed us, Lenny considered himself a patriot. He knew that if he named his killer, the enemy agent, he might bolt and get away. Gregson’s people would never learn who was at the other end of the pipeline. Moreover, they’d never learn how the exchange was made at the restaurant, so it could be circumvented in the future.”

Isaac placed his fingertips together thoughtfully. “No, Lenny had to leave a clue that was oblique enough that the agent would never know he’d been implicated, one that would leave the agent in place, so he could lead the Feds to the big boss.”

“But at the same time,” Mark said, “would tell anyone that could decipher it who the agent was.”

“And how the exchange was being made.” Isaac gave us a broad grin. “And there we got lucky. Remember I told you I’d worked as a waiter in the Catskills? Well, one of the things I learned in that job is that a knife, fork, spoon and napkin combo is called, in short-hand, a set-up.”

Bill practically exploded. “The busboy!”

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” said Mark.

“That’s what Lenny tumbled to,” Isaac explained. “The customer who complained about the dirty fork must’ve been a courier, probably one of a number of couriers who come to Maude’s posing as customers. The busboy hurries back to the guy’s table with clean silverware in a folded napkin–a new set-up, in waiter lingo.”

“That’s how the exchange is made,” Mark went on, excitedly. “The busboy transfers the micro-disc, hidden in the folds of the napkin, to the customer, who manages to slip it into a pocket.”

“Probably while he’s opening the napkin on his lap,” Bill mused. “A nice bit of business. That’s how I’d do it.”

Ever the actor, I thought.

“Poor Lenny,” Fred said quietly. “You’ve got to be right, Isaac. Lenny sees what they’re doing–he’s probably witnessed some variation on it a couple of times by then–and inadvertently communicates to the busboy that he knows what’s going on.”

“It would be simple, then, for the busboy to slip the poison into Lenny’s glass when he ordered the new round of drinks,” said Isaac. “Especially in all the hustle and bustle Bill described.”

The room grew suddenly quiet.

“So,” I said, “Lenny’s dying words were a clue to the killer, and to how the exchange was made, at the same time.”

“Fortunately, pointing to one points toward the other. If Lenny stumbled onto the operation, who else would murder him but the guy running it?” Isaac shrugged. “Remember, Lenny had been around hotels and restaurants all his life. He knew that silverware-and-a-napkin was called a set-up. The same term that describes the first part of a joke.”

“‘Take my wife,’” I repeated. “The classic set-up to a classic joke.”

Mark got to his feet. “I’d better call Gregson, tell him your theory. If none of the restaurant staff knew he was there last night–and I think that was Gregson’s intention–the busboy doesn’t know Maude’s is being watched. Or that he’s suspected in the least for Lenny Sands’ murder.”

“All Gregson has to do is put someone on the busboy when he leaves after work tonight,” Fred said. “Start surveillance on a regular basis.”

Mark nodded. “Thanks to you, Isaac, we might put the whole operation out of business.” He flipped open his cell phone. “Of course, I’ll talk to my friend at headquarters as well.”

“That’s right,” I said. “The cops are holding Sylvia.”

Fred stood up, too, and stretched.

“This is getting to be a habit, Isaac,” he said warmly. “How do you do it?”

“I’m a man of erudition and instinct,” Isaac responded. “And I say that in all humility.”

Fred chuckled. “Sorry I asked.”

“Still,” I said, “the one I feel badly for is Lenny.”

“Don’t,” said Bill, with a sad smile. “Lenny couldn’t have picked a better exit. He got what every comedian really wants–the last laugh.”

You can find several more of Dennis’ short stories, a guest blog & reviews of his mystery novels in KRL’s mystery section-Mysteryrat’s Maze.

The first photo in this story was provided by Corey Ralston of Corey Ralston Photography.

Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT lives in Sherman Oaks, CA & is a writer and licensed psycho-therapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. His latest novel, Fever Dream, is the second in a series of mystery thrillers. He’s also the author of Writing From the Inside Out , as well as a collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Pepperdine University, he serves on the faculty of UCLA Extension, where he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. In addition to Psychology Today, he also blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. Learn more about Dennis’ interesting career in writing on his website.


  1. Another little jewel of a story. Well done, Dennis–and thank you, Lori, for reprinting it. I’m looking forward to more from this series.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Barry! Really appreciate it!

  2. Dennis, you really have the magic! Enjoyed this – I’m in the middle of your Writing from the Inside Out – and plan to do a blog on it – it’s great! Thelma

    • Thanks so much, Thelma! Also, happy to hear you’re enjoying WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT. I hope you’re finding it helpful.

  3. This was really great!!!!! I love your writing, Dennis.

    • Thanks so much, Brenda! Please feel free to spread the good word…

      FYI, all nine Smart Guys mystery stories are collected in the book, FROM CRIME TO CRIME (Tallfellow Press).


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