“Good morning, Mr. Travis!” the doorman of the lavish apartment building said cheerfully, holding the door open for the young publisher. “And Happy New Year to you!”
“Thanks, Ralph, and the same to you,” Lee Travis said. “Is it technically still a new year, though? We are ten days into 1939!”
“Well, I’ve been out with the flu,” Ralph said, “so this is the first chance I’ve had to wish you a happy. I hope my replacement did a good job in my absence, but not too good, if you take my meaning!”
“I do,” Lee said, chuckling. “And he did fine, but not too fine.”
“Glad to hear it,” Ralph said with a smile. “You be having a good day now, Mr. Travis!”
“And you, too, Ralph,” Lee said, leaving the building. He walked quickly through the brisk cold, wind whipping his coattail like a windsock, heading straight for the sleek black touring car waiting at the curb.
“Herro, bloss,” said Wing How, Lee Travis’ chauffeur, as he climbed into the car.
“Wing, knock off the Vaudeville caricature accent,” Lee said, shutting the car door. He relaxed as he felt the artificially warmed air flow over him. “I mean, it was funny maybe the first twenty times or so.”
“Sorry,” Wing said, all trace of accent gone. “How’s your shoulder today?”
“Much better,” he said. Lee Travis had wrenched his shoulder three nights earlier, leaping from a warehouse roof and catching a hanging cargo net to break his fall. Not a typical activity for a wealthy young publisher, but then, Lee Travis was also the Crimson Avenger. “It only hurts when I do this.” Lee raised his right arm as high as it could go.
“Then don’t do that,” Wing quipped.
Lee groaned. “One of us has been listening to too much Jack Benny.”
“Can’t help it, boss. I love the radio,” Wing said. “Speaking of which, have you heard those stories about a flying man over in Metropolis?”
“I’ve heard them since at least last summer,” Lee admitted. “What is it they call him? Stupendous Man or something?”
“Something like that,” Wing said. “Me, I think it’s all a publicity stunt; that, or mass delusions caused by some fantastic radio play. Kind of like the War of the Worlds broadcast.”
“Possibly,” Lee frowned. He’d have thought Wing would remember the connection the night of October 30th of last year held for him; it was the night Claudia Barker died, and the Crimson Avenger was born. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Secret Origins: The Crimson Avenger,” Secret Origins v2 #5 (August, 1986).]
“Here we are, boss,” Wing said, pulling up in front of the Globe-Leader building. “The ivory tower itself.”
“Thanks, Wing,” Lee said. “I won’t need you again until five; I’m going to have lunch brought up.”
“Good idea; no sense going out in this,” Wing said, hearing the bitter winter wind howl around the car windshield. “If you don’t need me, there’s a China relief rally I want to attend.”
Lee was sympathetic. Wing’s people had been at war with Japan for nearly two years now. “I won’t need you, Wing,” he said. “Take the day off.”
“Thanks, boss,” Wing said. Lee exited the car and immediately hugged himself against the wind. He walked as quickly as he could into the building; the doorman, seeing him, flung the door wide for him.
“Morning, Mr. Travis!” the doorman called. “Cold enough for you?”
“Cold enough,” Lee returned shortly. Shaking off the effects of the brief journey through biting cold wind, Lee made his way to the elevator. He did not need to tell the operator which floor he wanted; he was the publisher, and everyone knew it.
“Morning, Mr. Travis,” Lee’s secretary, Ann Stevens, said brightly. Her personality had always been bubbly, but she had been positively sunny ever since she dyed her hair blonde just before Christmas. Lee had to admit that the Jean Harlow look suited her.
“Morning, Miss Stevens,” Lee returned, his composure back after his thawing out in the heated air of the newspaper building. “Any messages?”
“Just two,” Miss Stevens said. “An invitation to lunch from your old classmate, Wesley Dodds, and a communiqué from Barlowe in California.”
“Barlowe?” Lee asked, his forehead wrinkling. “I know I should know the name, but refresh my memory.”
Miss Stevens smiled indulgently; it hadn’t been so long ago that young Mr. Travis had taken over his grandfather’s holdings. “Jackson Barlowe is the manager of Pyramid Film Studios in Hollywood, Mr. Travis.”
“Pyramid?” Lee repeated. “They make the Carter of Mars pictures, don’t they? The ones with that Olympic swimmer; can’t recall his name?”
“They do,” Miss Stevens confirmed.
“So why is Barlowe contacting me?” Lee asked.
Ann Stevens suppressed a giggle. “Because you’re his boss,” she said. “You own Pyramid Studios.”
“Really,” Lee said, eyebrow rising.
Lee went into his office to read the message from Barlowe. It was short and to the point.
MR. TRAVIS UNEXPLAINED ACCIDENTS DELAYING PRODUCTION OF TRIGGER PICTURE DOING ALL I CAN REQUEST HELP BARLOWE
Barlowe doesn’t seem to be one to waste words, Travis thought, frowning. He looked at the telegram again. Trigger picture? What was that? He reached over and touched the button on his intercom.
“Miss Stevens, please bring me the–” Lee stopped in the middle of his request when he saw that the file on Pyramid Studios had already been placed on his desk. There was a long piece of paper sticking out of the file, presumably to mark the section referring to the Trigger picture. “Thank you, Miss Stevens,” Lee said, and released the intercom button.
Opening the file, Lee read the information on what Jackson Barlowe had called the Trigger picture. The young publisher found it fascinating. It seemed that, fifteen years earlier, a man named Wayne Trigger had published a book entitled The Two of Me, chronicling his adventures as a sheriff in an Old West frontier town called Rocky City. According to Trigger’s book, his twin brother Walt, the keeper of the town general store, sometimes disguised himself as Wayne and helped his brother out in situations too big for the sheriff to handle alone. This went on for ten years, and nobody ever suspected the truth. Now the book was being made into a movie, with the more dramatic title of The Trigger Twins. According to Barlowe, the production of this film was plagued with accidents — far more accidents than was the norm in the production of a film. Barlowe wanted help in dealing with them.
Lee sat back in his desk. He supposed the company had an efficiency expert or someone like that whom they sent in cases like this. Still, perhaps Lee had read one too many John Dickson Carr novels, but if there were this many unexplained accidents, perhaps there was a human agency behind them.
He looked out his office window. It had started to snow again, heavy wet flakes that slapped against the window glass with a sound like cooked oatmeal dropping into a bowl. California…
“Miss Stevens,” Lee said into his intercom, “please clear my–”
“Calendar for the next two weeks?” Miss Stevens interrupted. “Already done, Mr. Travis.”
Lee grinned in amazement. “Thank you, Miss Stevens.”
“Here we are, Mr. Travis,” the grinning pilot said as the small plane the young millionaire had chartered set down at the small airport outside Los Angeles.
“How can you tell?” Lee asked, peering out the window of the plane. A fierce rain, driven along by gusting winds, swept across the tarmac like a solid wall of water. Visibility was nil.
The pilot chuckled. “Guess I’ve just got a flair for it,” he said. “Back in the war, my buddies used to call me a regular magician, I flew so well.”
“You must be one, to find the airport in this,” Lee said. He peered out into the rain and saw a pair of headlights peering murkily through it, and a vague human shape rushing toward the plane.
“Guess that’s the fellow they sent to meet me,” Lee said. “Well, thanks for a smooth flight, er, say, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Just call me Nippy,” the pilot said. “Everybody does. So long, sir; enjoy California.”
“I hope to,” Lee said, opening the cabin door, instantly narrowing his eyes against the blast of rain. An eager-looking young man in a black raincoat, carrying a black umbrella, rushed up to meet Lee.
“Mr. Travis?” he asked, shouting to be heard over the wind. “I’m Forrest, from the studio! Come on, get under my umbrella!”
“Instantly!” Lee shouted back, ducking under the protective silk dome. The two men rushed to the long car that was waiting for them and piled in the back. Another man drove the vehicle; as soon as Forrest shut the door, it pulled away.
“Well, Mr. Travis,” Forrest smiled, folding up the umbrella, “how do you like California so far?”
“Not so good,” Lee said with a smile. “The trip was bad enough, hopping from train to train to plane; if I have to eat at one more Harvey House, I’ll scream. But this weather! And I took this job myself to get away from the bad weather in New York! I thought it never rained in Southern California!”
“It doesn’t,” Forrest said, smiling. “Sometimes, we do get eight to ten inches of dew. Forgive me, Mr. Travis, but I was expecting you to be… well…”
“Older?” Lee offered. “I get that a lot.” A pause. “So, tell me about the accidents.”
Forrest sighed. “As near as anybody can tell, Mr. Travis,” he said, “the picture is haunted.”
“Haunted?” Lee’s eyebrows shot up. “By any ghost in particular, or just whichever one is in town for the season?”
“You’re familiar with the story of the so-called Trigger Twins?” Forrest asked. When Lee nodded, he went on. “According to one source, the picture is haunted by the ghost of Walt Trigger.”
Lee let out a low whistle. “I suppose this ‘source’ is a local gossip columnist or something?”
“Well, no,” Forrest said. “It’s someone who should know what he’s talking about — Walt’s brother Wayne, the other Trigger Twin — the author of the book. He swears his brother’s ghost wants the picture killed.”
Lee studied the man from the studio intensely for a moment. “You’re not joking,” he said finally.
“I wish I were,” Forrest said. “But no. Mr. Trigger is present at the studio for the filming of the movie; technically his title is consultant, but the man is in his eighties; he’s not doing any actual work.”
“When my aunt was eighty-four, she got the idea that she was a lighthouse,” Lee said. “Whenever it rained, she tried to climb onto the roof with a flashlight to warn ships.”
“Oh, it’s not like that,” Forrest said. “Mr. Trigger is quite lucid; his mind is sharper than those of some men half his age I could name. You should hear the stories he tells about living in the Old West! He really makes it come alive for you; you’d swear you were right in the middle of an old-fashioned shootout.” The studio man paused. “But he’s convinced that his brother’s ghost is haunting the studio, trying to stop the film.”
“Now, his brother was the shopkeeper pretending to be the sheriff?” Lee asked. “Seems to me the living one would be the one who wanted to stop the film. Doesn’t look too good, like he couldn’t handle the job himself.”
“Well, I think someone is trying to stop the film, living or dead,” Forrest said. “We’ve had too many accidents for it to be coincidental.”
“I know; I read the file on the train,” Lee said. “A spotlight falling and narrowly missing the star, a fire breaking out for no apparent reason, a stuntman breaking his collarbone when a real chair was replaced for a breakaway one…”
“That’s the most mysterious part of it all,” Forrest said. “There’s absolutely no way those chairs could have gotten mixed up by accident.”
“Why’s that?” Lee asked.
“They’re different colors,” Forrest explained. “The real chairs, for sitting on, are black; the breakaway chairs, for the fight scenes, are dark blue. They show up the same on black and white film. But someone had painted a real chair dark blue, and one of the stuntmen got hit in the chest with it, hard.”
“That’s no accident!” Lee snapped. “That’s deliberate sabotage!”
“So you see why Mr. Barlowe called for help,” Forrest said. “He never expected the studio owner to come out himself, though.”
“I’m kind of a hands-on boss,” Lee said, smiling. “Ask anyone at the Globe-Leader.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Forrest,” the driver said through the speaking tube. “We’re at Mr. Travis’ hotel.”
“Thank you, Shrevnitz,” Forrest said. “We’ve got a breakfast meeting scheduled for six tomorrow morning, Mr. Travis. Mr. Barlowe; Kent Bedford, the director; Jack Bagney, the star; Mr. Trigger, of course, and you. Shrevnitz will be here to pick you up at quarter to.”
“I’ll be ready,” Lee promised.