copyright Jay Russell 1997. May not be reproduced without permission.
CHAPTER ONE "This girl is buck naked." "Sir?" I lowered the newspaper and glanced at the driver. He had big flecks of dandruff on the back of his collar. A healthy dollop of hair-oil, too. I couldn't recall the last time I'd even seen hair oil. He sized me up by way of the rear-view. "Here. In the paper. Right on -- Jesus Christ! -- page three. A naked broad, with enormous...hell, I don't think she's old enough to be a broad. 'Sexy Sarah, 22,' it says here. 'Swansea Sizzler.' What's that supposed to mean? And why should I care that she likes Mars bars? What is a Mars bar, anyway? Anything like a Milky Way?" "First time in England, sir?" the driver asked. All I could see reflected in the mirror were his tiny brown eyes, but they looked awfully amused. "Actually no," I mumbled, turning my attention back to the photograph. No way she was 22. "But it's, uh, been a while." "The Page Three Girls have been with us for some time now," the driver said. "A gift from Mr. R. Murdoch. An institution, some might even say." "Like the queen, you mean?" "More like the Duchess of York, I should think. How long since your last visit across the pond, might I ask?" I had to stop and think about that one. I knew it was sometime after my sitcom, Salt & Pepper, had been cancelled, but before my acting career sank to the very bottom of the toilet. It was at a point when I still had an acting career. At least, that particular acting career. "Going on -- oh, man -- 25 years, I think. I can't remember, to tell you the truth. I'm pretty sure I liked it, though." "Ah, well," the driver said, "time does move slowly here. That's our blessing and our curse, we English. There are a lot more cars, a few less hopes. Mrs. Thatcher, you know. It is still England, though. Some things never change." "Everything changes," I told him. There must have been something in my tone of voice, because the driver half-turned to look at me over his snow-capped shoulder. I thought I saw him give a resentful nod of agreement before he turned back to study the road. Everything changes. I should know. I've had more ups and downs than a manic depressive elevator jockey. From child TV star to teenaged has-been. From the heights of Hollywood celebrity to the depths of anonymous ignominy. From glitzy nights in spanking new Jags to dull days in dented old Subarus. From the perfumed cleavage of Swansea Sizzlers to... Oh, hell, you get the idea. And for just over a year now I've been on a whiplash climb back from the pits to the peaks. One day I'm a bargain basement private investigator running skip traces and credit repos on overextended Chicanos in East L.A., the next I'm the toast of the town, regaling Oprah and Dave and Larry King with my exploits as a latter-day St. George, having slain the fiercest of movie-land dragons. Overnight, it seems, I went from having my HBO turned-off for not paying the bill to starring in my own network show. Back on top: back on the tube. As a result of having dispatched (with a lot of luck and more than a little help from some unusual friends) back to the pit from which he slithered the late-but-couldn't-late-enough Jack Rippen -- multimedia mega-mogul and would-be demon lord of Los Angeles -- I landed smack dab on my Florsheims. (of course, technically I landed flat on my back, what with an extended hospital stay, but we're talking figuratively here, so what the hey. Oh, and I wear Bruno Maglis now. Damned if O.J.'s going to ruin perfectly good footwear for the rest of us.) Before I could even complete the circuit of talk shows -- which I propose as a new Olympic event; it would be infinitely more relevant, not to mention grueling, than any mere marathon or decathlon -- I had inked the papers making me the main man in Burning Bright, a new detective series. I hadn't acted in twenty years -- a fact which seemed to worry no one other than me; though of course, it is the Fox Network that I work for, the people who brought you Herman's Head -- and I would have sworn on a stack of Gutenbergs and a whole cemetery's worth of my mother's graves that I'd never do it again. But there you go: never believe a goddamn thing anyone tells you, especially actors. And make sure that their mother's really dead when they start swearing on her grave. In any case, back before the cameras went I. Marty Burns starring as Marty Burns, PI. Mean streets. Man not himself mean. Walking alone. You know the genre. You can probably hum the theme music in your sleep. The thing of it is, though, the real kick in the head: I'm pretty good. All right, so De Niro isn't glancing nervously behind him and Gwyneth Paltrow isn't worried about losing the cover of People just yet, but I've watched the finished product and all things considered I'm not too bad. (I categorically dismiss the comment by the L.A. Times critic who wrote that my acting was "as flaccid as the shrivelled organ of an elderly saltpeter salesman." A typo, surely.) My own thesping notwithstanding, Burning Bright's been a hit. If not a Top-Ten, keys-to-Fort-Knox, have-your-way-with-my- daughter bonanza, the show is, at least, a hanging-in-there, buy-you-a-drink, have-you-met-my-divorced-sister sort of deal. A Fox network (but not The X-Files or Simpsons) kind of hit. A renewed-for-another-season, praise-be-to-Allah kind of hit. A we've-sold-the-overseas-rights-go-and-promote-it kind of hit. A free trip to England, first class all the way, which is more than good enough for me. That kind of hit. So go figure. "Everything changes," I said again, shaking my head and leaning back into the limo's plush upholstery. "If you say so, sir." I tossed the newspaper aside and stared out the window. Except for being on the wrong side of the road -- another thing I had sort of forgotten about and was finding surprisingly unnerving even as a passenger -- the landscape around Heathrow looked like the surrounding terrain of any big city airport: dull, flat and thick with traffic. I opened up the limo's mini-bar, tucked away in a corner, and browsed through the little bottles. While I'd never say I'd never drink, I rarely put down the hard stuff on plane trips, especially long ones. Most people go ga-ga over the booze in first-class -- somehow ignoring the fact that, if you actually broke down the price of the ticket, each of those little glasses was setting you back something like a double sawbuck. Some just drink to relieve the boredom or to help get to sleep. But even though I don't get airsick, something about drinking when flying makes me want to throw-up. Which is odd, because usually it's not-drinking when not-flying that makes me want to heave. "No beer," I said, with disappointment. Somewhere in the back of my head I had a fond memory of British beer. "Oh, yes, sir," the driver said. "On the shelf to your right. Above the glasses." I slid back a little compartment and sure enough, found a row of tall cans. "I don't know any of these brands," I said. "And the cans are warm." Another, not so fond Blighty beer memory was creeping up on me. "They're supposed to be. It's bitter, sir. There should be a lager or two in the fridge, though. Perhaps more to your liking." Another root through the mini-bar turned up a semi-cold can of Stella Artois. The driver jealously glanced my way as I popped it open with that delightful "chusshhhh!" which is equally lovely in any country. "Pretty good," I said, ignoring the glasses and taking a hefty swallow. "British beer is as good as I remember." "It's Belgian," the driver sighed. "Brewed under license." I glanced at the side of the can. "Huh, so it is. But only since, uh, 1367 it says here. Still, I think I'm going to enjoy this little visit." "I'm sure you will, sir." Wrong, wrong, wrong. The folks from the satellite channel who'd bought the UK rights to Burning Bright had me booked at the Savoy. The evening traffic in central London was murder, but I asked the driver to take the long way around and show me a few of the sights. We cruised up the expensive streets of Chelsea and Kensington and down the overrated shopping Mecca of Knightsbridge. I had a fame flashback as we drove past good old Harrods, an incident which I honestly hadn't thought about in years. It was during my first visit to London when I was seventeen, hot with the success of Salt & Pepper and as obnoxious as a human being can possibly be. I'd been cajoled into a spur of the moment jaunt to Europe by my blonde bimbo du jure, a wannabe model whose IQ didn't come to three digits if you threw in her prodigious chest size. She ditched me somewhere on Carnaby Street (this was when that name actually meant something) for a gravelly-voiced folk singer in a black turtleneck, and I somehow got hitched up with an Italian macrame tutor with a hard-on for hallucinogens and an ass like a heart. I think peyote may have figured into it somehow, but we ended up screwing like gophers on a king-sized bed in the Harrods' display hall. Quite a crowd had gathered before the security guards came for us, and at the time it was the most applause I'd ever garnered for a performance in front of a live audience. I'm not completely clear on how we didn't end up in jail, but I think it involved sharing our stash with the security guards (ah, the sixties) and buying the bed. I know it never got delivered, not to me anyway, though to this day, tucked away somewhere in a box in the hall closet, I've got a rainbow macrame plant holder hand-woven by my mad Italian bella. I wonder where she is now? We inched our way through the traffic into the seat of government in Westminster. I actually made the driver pull over so I could gawk at Parliament like some camera-laden tourist from Bloomington. The sight of Big Ben and the winding Thames at sunset struck me with a sudden and overwhelming sense of unreality. The big clock tower and the gothic spires of the halls of Parliament, impressive as they are, seemed as absurd and inauthentic as Cinderella's Castle in Disneyland. I think maybe that's the legacy of a century of culture based around images from movies and television: we've seen everything -- from the Washington monument to the Taj Mahal -- so many times, in so many fake contexts, that even the real things feel like just another prop or special visual effect. And one, you get the feeling, that Industrial Light & Magic could probably do better. Sad, really. "Say," I asked the driver, "why is it called Big Ben, anyway?" "I haven't the faintest bloody idea," he said. "It is rather big." "Hmmm," I muttered. I know that the residents of any city are usually the worst informed about its history, but at least I could explain how Disneyland got its name. The driver asked if I wanted to continue the tour, but I suddenly felt the jet-lag start to kick in and thought maybe I should hold-out for a hipper tour guide. I told him to just head for the hotel. I was a little surprised that there was no one there to meet me -- it doesn't take long before you come to expect star treatment everywhere you go, even a lightly rebounding has-been like me -- but a very nice suite indeed awaited me, with the obligatory basket of semi-rotten fruit and a bottle of lukewarm champagne. I tipped the bellboy, a tad over-generously judging from his reaction, kicked off my shoes and sprawled out on the bed. There was a remote on the night table so I flipped on the television. For some reason, I could only tune in five channels -- other than the hotel ones offering dirty movies and information about room service -- and two of them had shows about gardening on. Two fat slobs were playing darts on another channel while this guy in a tuxedo with the oily voice and charm of a sideshow barker kept screaming "Game on!" and yelled out their scores as they tossed the darts. I couldn't find the satellite station I'd crossed the ocean to promote and reckoned that the television must be broken. I thought about dialing down to the front desk to ask them to bring up a working TV, but the darts action suddenly got exciting, with the really obese dude coming from behind against the merely-big-as-a-house guy. Even so, I fell fast asleep before I got to see who won. Game off!