My love affair with Los Angeles began to wane twenty-three years ago, the morning a cleaning crew found Tiffany Arden's body in a dumpster behind Chez Anisette, a very popular restaurant of the day. Her head had been pulverized. If you're ghoulish enough to want a more detailed description than that, then go ahead and Google the media coverage of the murder.
There was a lot of it.
Much of it was accurate. Some was not. For example, it was widely reported that her murderer was unknown. Not true. I was pretty sure I knew who he was. And I knew that he was still at large, enjoying a rich, full life in the City of Angels.
"Just listen ta this, Billy." The gruff but lilting voice of Irish pop singer-guitarist Jimmy Fitzpatrick interrupted my morose thoughts with a statistic almost as disturbing. "There are two thousand, nine hundred an' forty-three things that can cock-up the average airplane, any one of 'em capable of plummetin' us to earth an' certain death. Would ya believe it?"
Fitz, my seatmate aboard American Airlines flight 349 to Los Angeles, was reading a cheery little nonbook he'd picked up at JFK, What Could Go Wrong?
"Thanks for sharing," I said, and picked up my airport purchase, a Walter Mosley paperback, from my lap, where I'd rested it while musing about poor Tiffany.
"O' course, this is not the average airplane, since we're travelin' in the comp'ny of the future king o' late-night tele," Fitz added, making sure he was heard by the king, who was sitting across the aisle.
Off camera and semi-relaxed, the comedian Desmond O'Day was a wiry bantamweight in his forties with a V-shaped face and short, neatly coifed hair so blond it was almost silver. He had a penchant for tight, black apparel, which presently included linen trousers and a T-shirt designed to display his workout arm muscles and mini-six-pack. He paused in his perusal of a script to glare over his rimless half-glasses at his shaggy-haired, bearded music director.
"Stop botherin' Billy, ya sod," he said. "The man's doin' us a big favor, travelin' all across the country to help us kick off the show."
Fitz, wincing from having incurred the displeasure of his old pal and new boss, said, "Sorry, Billy."
He gave me an apologetic smile and leaned back in his seat, silent as the late King Tut.
"A little conversation would be fine, Fitz," I said, "as long as it's about something other than us plummeting to the ground in a screaming death plunge, then being vaporized in a fireball of death."
He kept his lips zipped, evidently convinced that a command from Des O'Day was not to be taken lightly. He was a better judge of that than I. He'd known Des since they were boys together on the Emerald Isle, while I'd just met the man.
Oh, I'm Billy Blessing, by the way. Chef Billy Blessing, to be formal about it.
For a decade and a half, I served in other chefs' kitchens before opening my own place, Blessing's Bistro, in Manhattan. It's famous for its steaks and chops, and the food we prepare and serve has earned a top rating in Gault Milleau, of which I am quite proud.
My fame, such as it is, comes only indirectly from my culinary skills. I'm a cohost on the Worldwide Broadcasting Company's morning news and entertainment show Wake Up, America! weekdays seven to nine a.m. If you're one of the show's four million viewers, you've probably seen me, the guy who, I've been told, looks a little like a slightly stockier, clean-shaven (head as well as face) version of Eddie Murphy.
I provide a daily WUA! segment on food preparation, but I have other chores, too. I do remotes, interview visitors to NYC who line up on the street each morning outside the studio, review books, chat with authors who are flogging their wares, and, whenever possible, flog my own wares, which, in addition to the Bistro, include a weekly cooking show on the Wine & Dine Cable Network, Blessing's in the Kitchen, a line of premium frozen dinners, and a couple of cookbooks.
At that particular moment I was flying from New York to Los Angeles to add two new credits to my list. One of them involved the Irishman across the aisle. Though you couldn't have told it by his sour scowl, Des was very funny and quick-witted, and he'd parlayed success on the stand-up circuit and a featured role as the cynical, sex-obsessed photographer in the popular sitcom A Model Life into an upper-strata gig as host of his own show, O'Day at Night, WBC's entry in the post-prime-time talk-show sweepstakes, set to debut in precisely nine days.
I'd been tapped as the new show's first weekly guest announcer. Its producer, a Falstaffian wheeler-dealer named Max Slaughter, told me I'd been Des's first choice. My agent-lawyer, Wally Wing, who, unlike most members of both of his professions, has never heard the term "candy-coating," admitted that Des had wanted someone on the order of Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt or, at the very least, the ex-governator of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gretchen Di Voss, the head of the network, somehow avoided laughing in his face and offered him Howie Mandell or me. Howie had other commitments.
"Why wouldn't I have other commitments?" I'd asked Wally.
"Well, one reason--Gretchen wants you to do it. She feels it would be, in her words, 'an act of synchronicity.' You'd be the bridge between Wake Up and At Night, getting viewers of the morning show to sample the late show while at the same time giving At Night's fans a taste of the morning show."
"I'd love to meet these viewers who are up from seven in the morning till after midnight," I'd replied. "But, okay, that explains why the network wants me to do the show. Why in God's name would I agree to spend two weeks in L.A., away from home, hearth, and restaurant?"
Wally had grinned and said, "The real reason's got nothing to do with the O'Day show. It's . . . wait for it . . . Sandy Selman wants to make a movie about you and the Felix thing."
The Felix thing. A typically Wally way of summing up one of the more unpleasant events of my life. A little more than a year ago, an executive at the network was murdered, and for a number of reasons, real or imagined, I was put at the top of the cops' suspect list. Then an international assassin known as Felix the Cat got involved and all hell broke loose. I was threatened, nearly roasted alive, and shot at. And I lost a woman I cared for.
The Felix thing.
"Okay," I said, "a guy I've never heard of wants to make a movie about a devastating experience I've spent the last year trying to forget. Tell me why I have to go to L.A. "
"You've never heard of Sandy Selman?" was Wally's response.
"Okay, I've heard of him. He makes movies that are ninety percent computer graphics, eight percent sex, and two percent end credits. So why do I have to go to L.A. "
"To write the book," Wally said in the singsong manner Big Bird uses to speak to kids.
"The book you're going to be writing in L.A."
"What makes you think I can write a book?"
"How hard can it be? Paris Hilton has written a book. Miley Cyrus has written a book. Hell, the goofy weatherman on the Today show's written five books. You may be the only person in show business who hasn't written a book."
"Well, I did the cookbooks," I said.
"My point exactly," Wally said.
"Why do I have to go to L.A. to write it? Last I checked, it was possible to write one in Manhattan."
"Not if we want Sandy Selman to produce the film version. He likes to be able to look over his writers' shoulders as they work. And don't worry about that. It's Harry Paynter's shoulders he'll be looking over."
"Ahhhhhh. Suddenly, it all becomes clear," I said. "I'm guessing Harry is one of your literary clients, and he's going to be helping me write the book."
"On the nose," Wally said, tapping his almost nonexistent schnoz in an impressive display of his expertise at charades. "He'll also be writing the screenplay."
"How altruistic of you, Wally! Oh, wait . . . in addition to your agent fees for both of us, you'll probably be getting a packager percent, too, right?"
"What's with the 'tude, bro? I assure you, this little jaunt is gonna be worth your while."
"It's not the money," I said. "I trust you to handle that. It's going to L.A."
"Spending two or three weeks on the coast is gonna kill you, Billy?"
Little did he know.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Midnight Show Murders by Al Roker and Dick Lochte. Copyright © 2010 by Al Roker. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.