Burning Bright

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!