The police would tell me a few days later that when Art Westcott called me that Saturday mid-afternoon he had a gun to his head the entire time we talked. He looked up my number, dialed, and spoke to me for two minutes and twenty-three seconds with a .357 Magnum pressed against his left temple. I think about that when I remember answering the phone like a smartass.
“Biff Kincaid,” I said, “the comedian that does no material about the Kardashians.”
“Kincaid, it’s Art Westcott.”
Art was a tall, weedy character, with a balding Afro and oversized glasses over a bushy mustache. He slumped around looking like a depressed college professor and was prone to irrational fits of gloom. This wasn’t unusual for a stand-up comedian. We’re kind of a moody bunch.
“Art!” I said. I knew him from the Comedy Store and a few road gigs. We talked whenever we ran into each other, always promising a social call but never making it. Maybe this was it. These days, liking a Facebook post meant you had an ongoing relationship. “How are you doing?”
“I’m good,” he said, with a gun to his head I couldn’t see. “I’m fine. I was wondering if you would do me a favor.”
“What is it?” I asked. I never say yes to a favor asked by a comic until I know what it is.
“I need someone to fill in for me tonight down at Chortles Comedy Club,” he said. “You know it?”
“I’ve been in the place but I’ve never played there,” I said. “Chortles in Hartford Beach, right?”
Hartford Beach is a seaside community only about an hour south of L.A. in Orange County. Chortles seats close to five hundred people, a good room with a new sound system, but run like a strip club: Push the drinks and screw the entertainment.
“Right. Richard Moftus is the owner,” he said. “He books it himself.”
“I think I went down to introduce myself once,” I said. “Handed Moftus a DVD. Never heard from him.”
“Here’s your chance to get in good with him then,” Art said. “Unless you’re busy.”
“I’m clear until midnight,” I said. “Then I’ve got a spot at the Comedy Store.”
“Good,” Art said. “So would you mind calling Moftus and telling him we talked this over and you’d be glad to fill in for me?”
“You haven’t called him?”
“You sure you want me to tell him?” Bookers hated same-day substitutions almost as much as they hated out-and-out cancellations, and this was a Saturday night show. The comedy grapevine said Moftus was something of a hard case. Not that I minded. Same grapevine said the same thing about me.
“I’m sure,” Art said. “You’re my first choice.”
That gave me pause. Art was a very good comedian. I wasn’t half-bad myself but we had very different styles. He stood in the middle of the stage like a sad sack and barely moved, muttering one line after another into the mike about what miserable luck he had in life while reducing the crowd to hysterics. I went after a crowd with a club and stone ax. Art made them come to him.
“You have a number for Moftus?” I asked.
“Right here,” Art said. “It’s area code seven-one-four . . .”
I wrote it down. “You want me to tell him why you’re canceling?”
“Something came up.”
“You could say that,” he said. He was speaking in an odd monotone. Later I realized he must have been trying to signal me. It’s a technique POWs used when making forced confessions on camera. “I have to go now, Biff.”
“Everything okay, Art?”
There was the briefest of pauses. Perhaps the gun muzzle was dug a little harder into his skull and he had to keep from crying out.
“Yeah,” he said. “Good luck tonight.”
“You, too,” I said.
“I always thought you were funny, Kincaid,” he said as a permanent farewell. Then there was a click and I was listening to nothing.
That was how it all started. I looked back once or twice to that short conversation and wondered if there was anything in our brief talk to indicate what was to follow. I decided, in the aftermath, that there wasn’t.
The cops told me that as soon as Art hung up on me the gunman holding him hostage pulled the trigger and Art’s head exploded like a ripe pumpkin.
His body was found with the phone still in his hand and what was left of his head resting on the floor. He knew he was going to die the entire time he was talking to me. He bargained with his executioner for one last phone call so he wouldn’t be a no-show at Chortles that night and people would start asking questions.
Once I realized the awful logic that must have led to our last conversation, I used to wonder why Art chose to call me and only me. After it was all over, I realized it was because he knew what I would find out that night at Chortles. Out of all the people he could think of in the last minutes of his life, I’d be the one to do something about it without getting myself killed.
Revenge. That’s the favor Art was really asking me for, as one comedian to another. He wanted me to find the person who did him in and take them out.