Actor and stand-up comedian Richard Belzer has brought his signature dry wit to the role of Detective John Munch — originally on the NBC drama “Homicide: Life on the Street” and currently on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” — making Munch the longest-running character on U.S. prime-time television. Last fall Belzer put his detective skills to the test with “I Am Not a Cop!”, a mystery novel starring Belzer himself. In “I Am Not a Psychic!” “The Belz,” as he’s called, is back and ready to solve the case of a beautiful young movie star who died 26 years earlier. An excerpt.
I watched my part-Lab, part-mutt, Django, and my part-poodle, part-mutt, Bebe, run through the park, circling some bushes and zigzagging between a couple of benches, startling the young couple who had been sitting there immersed in each other. Owing to the season, early February, it could almost be considered a rite of the false-spring we'd been experiencing in the Big Apple. As I kept an eye on the frisky dogs, I was feeling a bit of the old false-spring fever myself, and longed to wrap up this year's filming and head back to my home in France. But first, I had another commitment.
I whistled and their ears shot up. Like they were attuned to catch their master's voice, even in the middle of Manhattan. They changed direction, moving as synchronously as the Blue Angels in flight, and trotted back toward me. Ah, the simple joys of life when you're a dog. Or a stand-up comic/television star with a couple days off.
A pair of NYPD's finest rolled by in a blue-and-white, the officer in the passenger's seat giving the thumbs-up sign.
"Great episode last night, Belz," he yelled.
I waved as both dogs came to a stop at my feet and obediently sat down. As I refastened their leashes, my cell phone rang. The number was unfamiliar, but it had an L.A. area code. I wondered who the hell this could be, and against my better judgment, answered it anyway.
"Richard Belzer, is that you?" the voice asked.
After a few seconds the voice said, "It's Paul."
Paul? I knew quite a few Pauls, and this one sounded like he'd imbibed his lunch. Actually, it would be closer to his breakfast time if he was calling from La La Land. "Paul who?"
"Paul Venchus." His tone sounded both hurt and surprised. "Don't tell me you don't remember me."
It was close, but I actually did. "Damn, what's it been? Thirty-some years?"
He laughed. "Yeah, thirty-something. Man, you sound the same. Exactly the same." His words ran together, slurring with a drunk's sloppiness.
"Yeah, right," I said. "How you been?"
His voice brought back a period of my life full of bittersweet memories. Paul Venchus and I had been reporters at the Bridgeport Connecticut Post back in my college days, when we'd meet at McDonald's and write jokes on the back of the paper napkins, dreaming of a career in stand-up comedy. Mine had finally taken me to some of the smaller clubs on the Atlantic City circuit, and eventually I moved up from there. I left the newspaper on good terms. The same couldn't be said for Paul. I'd come back from a gig in New York and found out through the grapevine that he'd been fired for showing up drunk one too many times.
Some things never change, I guess, or if they do, they don't change much.
"I been doing all right, Belz," he said. "And ..." His voice took on a conspiratorial whisper. "I'm working on something big. Real big. And I think you'll be interested."
Now, any of you who've read my previous books, like UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Believe, know I'm no stranger to the art of conspiracy theories. But mine have to be grounded in fact, more or less. It sounded like Paul's might be anchored in a bottle of Jim Beam. This was one Pandora's box I wasn't sure I wanted to open. He didn't let my silence deter him.
"Belz, listen. I know who really killed Brigid Burgeon. And there's more. Way more."
I gave it a few more beats, then tried to sound as noncommittal as I could. "That's almost ancient history now."
He snorted. "I know you're thinking I'm full of s--t, but I've got the goods on some big people. Real big."
Every conspiracy theorist's dream. "Like who?"
"Shhh, not on the phone," he said. "This is your cell, right?"
"Yeah, and how'd you get it, by the way?"
"Belz, I — " He stopped and I could hear him in a brief conversation with someone else. "Look, I can't go into that right now. I need to meet with you. You're still filming in New York, right?"
I could've said no to the whole thing, and avoided a lot of trouble, but I tried for a gentler brush-off. "Actually, no. I've got a week or so off from the show, but I have another commitment." Mistake Number One.
I could hear his sonorous breathing — the sure sign of deep concentration. "You gonna be in L.A. anytime soon?"
"Not really. I'll be in Vegas cohosting a telethon with Johnny Leland."
His tone picked up. "Vegas is perfect. I just got back from there myself. It's where my source is. And it's only a quick road trip away from L.A."
I certainly didn't want him showing up at the show, especially in his usual condition. Dino's old "drunk routine" might have worked with the Rat Pack, but it would be a disaster on a prime-time telethon. Time to nip it in the bud, as the late, great Don Knotts used to say. "Paul, I told you, I'm involved in a telethon. It's to benefit charity, and it's nonstop, around the clock."
"Belz, you gotta listen to me." His voice picked up animation as he talked, almost obscuring the faint trace of the boozy slur. "Like I told you, I got the scoop on who really killed Brigid Burgeon. Mark Kaye Jr., too."
"You and half the rag writers in L.A., I'll bet." Although a little voice was telling me to extricate myself from this conversation and then see about getting a new cell number, another voice was urging me to hear what he had to say. I've always been a soft touch for an old friend. Especially one with a conspiracy theory. "So what kind of an angle you got?"
"I told you, not on the phone. Lots of people involved in a huge coverup. Puts Iran-Contra to shame. And I know who did it and why."
Iran-Contra? Now I suspected he might have been on some kind of heavy psych-op drugs in addition to the booze. "Iran-Contra's not exactly cutting-edge news anymore, either."
"Yeah, yeah, I was just being metaphorical, but you got the connections in law enforcement we need to do something with this."
"Listen, I am not a cop."
"Yeah, yeah, I gotcha. When you leaving for Vegas?"
"Tomorrow," I said, realizing I'd just made Mistake Number Two.
"Great, call me when you touch down." He rattled off his number but it was already on my LCD screen. "Got it?"
"Yeah, Paul, but — "
"Belz, please." His voice suddenly took on a drunk's plaintive lilt. "Call me, okay?" Before I could answer, he added, "I gotta go. I'll be in touch," and hung up.
The dogs looked up at me, their chocolate eyes almost echoing what my good judgment was telling me. Django cocked her big, dark head and Bebe's tongue lashed out to slick back some errant gray fur. I sighed and met their reproachful stares.
"Look, he used to be a really good friend, and I could tell by his tone that he really thinks he's onto something." Django's head tilted slightly. "I know, I know, I can't be sure unless I could read his mind, and I'm no psychic. But I don't think it was all due to the booze. Plus, he's coming to me because he thinks I have connections in law enforcement ... and I do, sort of, but ..."
I was suddenly cognizant that the pair of young lovers had been listening to my phone conversation, and were now watching me explain myself to two dogs.
Oh well, I thought with a shrug. I am not a cop or a psychic.
• • •
I pondered all this the next day as I leaned back in my first-class seat and studied the occasional clump of cottony clouds down below us. They looked like a frozen sea, so firm and substantial that you could almost imagine getting out and walking on them. The stuff illusions were made of.
Illusions...Leave it to good old Paul to resurrect a story from a moldy grave. It was more than twenty-six years since Brigid Burgeon had been in the movies. A generation ago now. Sure, she was beautiful, and some argued that she even had some real acting talent. She had made just a handful of pictures when she died unexpectedly — "found in the nude," the papers had said. Her last picture, a screwball comedy with movie star/singer Sal Fabell, was never completed. All this probably wouldn't have separated her from all the other young, talented rising stars who have heard the Grim Reaper's beckoning call, except that Brigid's not-so-secret boyfriend at the time was an equally charismatic young California congressman named Mark Kaye Jr. Kaye had the looks of a movie star himself, but the intellect of a flying squirrel, and the sexual fidelity of a rabbit. Although he was married to a gorgeous trophy wife, he was rumored to have trouble keeping his pants on in the presence of attractive women. His brother, Lawrence, who was state senator in neighboring Nevada, was rumored to suffer from the same affliction. Perhaps it was hereditary. Except that Good Old Lar was rumored to be "on the down-low," as they say in the ghetto. The other side of a very old coin.
Regardless of the roots, the story had surfaced that Mark Kaye Jr. and Brigid were an item, seen skiing together on his daddy's mountain resort near Reno. And this sighting came at a very inopportune time for the young California congressman, who was being groomed for a possible vice presidential spot on the next ticket. Personally, I think he would have fit right in with the era. At the very least, he could have made Dan Quayle sound like a Rhodes Scholar. Then Brigid suddenly turned up dead, and the tabloids had a field day. "Did She Just Die, or Was She Murdered?" the tawdry headlines screamed. I figured the answers to those questions were yes, and maybe.
But headlines change as new news replaces the old, and about a year later Mark Kaye Jr. was killed in an automobile accident. For a while the Brigid ball got rolling once again, then brother Lawrence, affectionately called "Little Larry" by the press, had a rather nasty late-night scrape outside a Reno bar in which his male "companion" and he were involved in a fight with a "gang of men." Larry somehow came out miraculously unscathed, but his campaign aide was beaten to death. The perpetrators were never caught, sparking rumors of Larry's cowardice and fueling an unsubstantiated rumor that he was a closet homosexual. As they say, God protects small children and drunks, but not often enough with the former and way too often with the latter.
So Brigid's demise sort of faded into the ether, like all those young starlets who had met untimely demises or possibly emulated her with a pill-laden early death ... from Marilyn Monroe to Natalie Wood to the more recent Anna Nicole Smith, their memories kept alive by an occasional anniversary article or a rerun of an old movie on the late, late show.
And now my own blast from the past, Paul Venchus, had dredged up Brigid's corpse for another round of inking. Now, don't get me wrong...I love a good conspiracy as much as the next guy. Well, maybe a bit more than the next guy. But I had too much going on in my life to get involved with this one. In addition to the usual end-of-season scripts to be reviewed for the show, I'd promised Johnny Leland months ago that I'd cohost and do a stand-up routine on his telethon. Johnny and I go way back. He'd helped me break into the business. It was like Luke Skywalker getting lessons from Yoda. Johnny had been a legend in comedy for as long as I could remember. And not only was he my idol and mentor, he was my friend. There was no way I could let any of Paul's crackpot schemes interfere with my commitment to the telethon.
"All the proceeds are going to help autistic kids," Johnny had told me. "I've got some big names already on board, and was hoping you'd help me out, Belz."
"Just tell me when and where," I said.
"Vegas," he said, with a slyness in his voice that suggested something more.
"What is it you're not telling me?" I asked.
His laugh sounded just as strong and rich as it had thirty years ago when we'd first met. "It's the same weekend as one of those big Mixed Martial Arts fights you're always talking about. Reeves versus somebody, I think."
"Scott?" I could barely contain my excitement. I knew both men, and figured their collision course would result in one hell of a fight. "You're kidding me, right?"
"Nope. It's legit. They'll be at the same hotel where we'll be shooting, and natch, I already talked to someone about getting you a ringside seat for the festivities."
I've been a big boxing fan forever, and I had to admit that the MMA fights were starting to appeal to a lot of us devotees of the "sweet science," including me. These Mixed Martial Arts guys were some real rough dudes, and you were practically guaranteed to see good fights on every card. We even had a couple of students at my martial arts school in Manhattan training for them.
"Johnny, that would be great."
He laughed again. "Just help me cohost and do a routine on the telethon, okay?" The best thing about Johnny was that he genuinely enjoyed doing nice things for people. I couldn't have asked for a better mentor.
"Like I said, just tell me where and when and I'll be there."
"Come hell or high water?"
"If the creek don't rise."
The lines had come from a stand-up routine that we'd done once, parodying folksy aphorisms. I couldn't even remember where we'd first done it, but the exchange had become something of a catchphrase for us.
And so, here I was, cruising westward at five hundred miles per hour and thirty thousand feet, headed for a rendezvous with Johnny, the telethon, and a chance to see Reeves and Scott pound the hell out of each other for the MMA World Heavyweight Championship of the World. What more could a stand-up-comic-turned-actor hope for?
Then my thoughts drifted to Paul Venchus again. How the hell had he gotten my damn cell phone number? Before this was over, I'd have to find out. But then again, given his history with the booze, he might not even remember he'd called me, much less call me back.
The flight attendant came by and asked if I wanted a drink. I opted for cranberry juice instead of red wine, and wondered how much longer we'd be suspended between the upper atmosphere and the low-lying topography below. At least I was in first class. I took advantage of the room and stretched, thinking how good it would be to see Johnny again. I leaned back in the comfortable seat and must have dozed off, because the next thing I remember was the pilot telling us the temperature in Las Vegas was a balmy seventy-eight, and that we'd be landing in about ten minutes.
Excerpted from “I Am Not a Psychic!” by Richard Belzer. Copyright © 2009 by McBelz Enterprises, Inc.