The Crimson Avenger: 1939: Ghost of the Past, Chapter 2: List of Suspects

by HarveyKent

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The weather was more in keeping with the California image the following day: bright and sunny. The long car pulled up in front of the hotel at precisely 5:45 A.M.; the grinning driver was behind the wheel.

“Good morning, Mr. Travis,” he said, holding the car door open for the young publisher. “Sleep well?”

“Quite well, thanks… Shrevnitz, was it?” Lee Travis asked. The driver nodded. The trip to the studio was short and quick; in less than fifteen minutes, Lee found himself seated at a large wooden table. Forrest was making introductions all around.

“Mr. Bagney needs no introduction,” Lee said, grinning as he shook the actor’s hand. “I’m a fan, Mr. Bagney. I thought you were great in Gangster’s Song!

“Call me Jack,” the redheaded actor said, smiling. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Travis. I read your editorial on the European situation last month. Real guts, you’ve got.”

Lee raised an eyebrow. “You get the Globe-Leader out here?”

“I do,” Bagney grinned. “I’m a Brooklyn boy, born and raised. Came out here in ’30 to make pictures. It’s a good life, but I miss the old neighborhood sometimes.”

“I know what you mean. Do you remember the drugstore on Eighty-fifth and Elm?”

“Pops DeCarlo’s? Sure. Best egg cream I ever had.”

“It’s a radio repair shop now.”

“You’re joking! That’s almost sacrilegious.”

“That’s the movie business for you,” chuckled Kent Bedford, the director. “The studio owner travels three-thousand miles to find a neighborhood chum.”

“Small world,” Bagney said. “Mr. Travis, meet Kent Bedford, the maestro of our little puppet show. He pulls the strings and makes us dance.”

“Mr. Bagney has quite the way with words,” Bedford said, shaking Lee’s hand. “A pleasure, sir.”

“It’s mine,” Lee said, studying the director’s face. The man was older, in his mid-sixties, probably, with a thatch of snow-white hair. He had thick, bushy eyebrows of coal black. Lee wondered if he dyed them.

“Mr. Travis, I’m Jackson Barlowe,” the portly, middle-aged studio manager said, shaking Lee’s hand. “I never expected you to come personally in answer to my call for help. I’m sorry to take you away from your pressing business in New York.”

“From the nightclubs, you mean?” Lee asked. “If it’s my playboy image that worries you, put it out of your mind. That’s something dreamed up by my competitors to tarnish my image. Believe me, I’m all business.”

“Say, Travis,” Bagney chimed in, “have you ever seen this masked man they’re talking about in New York, this Scarlet Avenger, or whatever? Now, there’d be a subject for a movie!”

“A Saturday matinee serial, more likely,” Bedford sniffed. “And I don’t think Kane Richmond has time to do another this year.”

“Or Tom Tyler,” Bagney added. “Doesn’t he do all the ones Richmond doesn’t?”

“Isn’t someone missing from the meeting, gentlemen?” Lee asked. “I mean, I’d like to get down to business, but I don’t want to start without–”

“I’m here,” a voice came from the doorway, a voice just slightly quivering with age, but still with unmistakable power behind it. Lee’s eyes, and those of everyone else’s, turned to the door. An elderly man with snowy-white hair and a face that seemed just a jumbled mass of wrinkles, but with piercing blue eyes peering out of it, sat in a wheelchair, gently pushed into the room by a white-garbed male attendant.

“I’m here,” Wayne Trigger repeated. “So, where’s the man who thinks he can stop the ghost of my brother from ruining this movie?”

***

The meeting was unenlightening. For the benefit of Lee, Barlowe gave a quick rundown of all the mysterious “accidents” that had occurred, which, of course, Forrest had done the night before.

“It’s obvious there’s a human agency behind these things,” Lee said. “Now, do we know of anyone who would have any reason to want this movie stopped?”

“Apart from Jack, you mean?” Bedford asked, very politely.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the red-haired actor demanded angrily.

“Come, come, Jack,” Bedford said, smiling widely. “It’s no secret that you didn’t want to do this picture. You’re doing it out of contractual obligation. You haven’t exactly been silent about what you think of the material.”

Lee’s glance flicked to Trigger, but the elderly man showed no sign of any personal affront.

“All right, so I think it’s a dumb movie,” Bagney said. “I’ve made my share of them before! We all have! To imply that I’d try to halt production, doing stupid stunts that could get people hurt, or worse–! That’s libelous!

“I implied nothing, Jack,” Bedford said placatingly. “Mr. Travis asked a question, and I answered. That’s all.”

“Well, while we’re on the subject,” Bagney sneered, “what about you?

“Me?” Bedford asked, raising an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Maybe you’ve been a bit less vocal about it than I have,” Bagney said, “but it’s no secret that you didn’t want to do this picture, either! GMG wanted you to direct their new epic, the film version of that best-selling novel about the Civil War! You had to turn them down because you’re under contract to do this picture! But if it suddenly folded, you’d become available!”

“Gentlemen, please!” Barlowe said, raising his hands for silence. “We’re not going to get anywhere fighting among ourselves! Can’t we–?”

“Well, well, another country heard from!” Bagney snapped. “And another one who wouldn’t mind seeing The Trigger Twins close up shop!”

“Jack has a point, Barlowe,” Bedford said. “As long as we’re listing the people who could benefit from this movie closing down, let’s not forget you.”

Barlowe was stunned, too shocked to do more than sputter incoherently.

“And why is that, Mr. Barlowe?” Lee asked calmly.

When Barlowe didn’t answer, Bagney piped up. “Your clever business manager has an affection for playing the ponies. Trouble is, he’s no good at it.”

“And he’s insured the picture for a hundred-thousand dollars,” Bedford added, “payable if the film ceases production.”

“Th-that’s standard procedure!” Barlowe stammered. “All the pictures get insured like that, so we can pay the studio personnel if the film halts production! I-it ensures that the hard-working crew members don’t get shortchanged!”

“Oh, sure,” Bagney said. “And if a little of that dough found its way into your pocket, or should I say your bookie’s pocket, who’d notice?”

“Gentlemen!” Lee said, slamming his palm down on the tabletop for emphasis. “I see there’s no easy answer to my question. Whatever’s happening here has you all so nervous, you’re pointing fingers at each other. I do intend to investigate every angle, but–”

Suddenly, an explosion sounded from out in the studio. All heads snapped in the direction of the sound. Lee was first to move, sprinting from his chair and out the door. He was halfway down the hallway when he was met headlong by an ashen-faced young production assistant.

“Mr. Barlowe! Mr. Bedford!” the young man cried. Lee grabbed him by the shoulders, spinning him around.

“I’m Travis; I own this studio,” he snapped. “What happened?”

“Th-the developing room!” the young man said. “An explosion! The developing tank blew up! All the film we shot yesterday is ruined!

Travis’ eyes narrowed coldly.

***

“It was some kind of chemical that explodes on contact with water,” Travis said, examining the ruined developing tank. “Wiped out most of the film that was in the tank at the time.”

“That should throw suspicion off us, anyway,” Bagney said. “We were all in the conference room when it happened.”

“Not at all,” Travis said, peering into the upper part of the tank. “Somebody rigged this to explode at a later time.”

“What?” Bedford gasped. “How is that possible?”

Travis wiped his finger across the top of the inside of the tank, then drew it out to show the others the sticky residue on his finger. “Somebody glued a chemical packet to the inside of the top of the tank, with a small amount of glue, insufficient to support the weight of the packet indefinitely,” he explained. “They knew it would fall when they were far away. It could have been anyone, gentlemen.”

Three sets of eyes flicked from one person to the other, but no words were spoken. Wayne Trigger, seated in his wheelchair, remained silent and still.

***

“Mr. Travis, could I have a word?” Bagney asked, cornering Lee in the hallway after the meeting.

“Certainly, Mr. Bagney,” Travis said. “What’s on you–?”

“Jack,” Bagney corrected with a smile.

“Jack,” Travis agreed. “What can I do for you?”

“I didn’t want to say anything in that room,” Bagney said in a voice barely above a whisper. “But as long as we were all accusing each other, I figured somebody should say what was on everybody’s mind.”

“And that is?” Travis asked, interested.

“Trigger,” Bagney said simply.

Travis did a double take. “Trigger? The old man? Are you serious?”

“As serious as armed robbery,” Bagney swore.

“Why would Wayne Trigger want to sabotage his own movie?” Travis asked.

“For the publicity!” Bagney said emphatically. “His book didn’t do so hot, you know? The only reason this movie’s getting made is because the guy who owned the studio before you was one of the four people who loved the book!”

“My grandfather,” Travis said simply.

“Oh!” Bagney said, embarrassed. “I didn’t — that is — oh, you know!” Travis nodded. “Anyway, I figure the old guy wants to stir up interest in his book, get a few more printings out of it and a few more royalty checks, maybe write a sequel. So he came up with this bogus ghost idea!”

“You really believe that?” Travis asked.

“Mr. Travis, the guy is sound as a dollar, or as sound as a dollar used to be. Except where these so-called accidents are concerned; then he starts talking ghosts and vengeance from beyond the grave! Nobody could be that clearheaded about everything else and that koo-koo about just one thing. It’s all an act, and brother, I know acting when I see it! I think you should at least look into it.”

“Well, thanks, Mr. Ba — Jack,” Travis said. “I think I’ll do just that.” Or rather, the Crimson Avenger will, Lee thought to himself.

***

Late that night, the elderly Wayne Trigger slept in the luxurious hotel suite the film studio had provided for him while he was in California. It was a fitful sleep, troubled by dreams of the past. His snowy-white head thrashed from side to side on the pillow, his wrinkled brow furrowed with care.

“Wayne Trigger,” a sepulchral voice intoned in the room. The old lawman awoke with a start.

“Who’s there?” he demanded. He peered into the darkness, his old eyes searching the shadows. He found a pair of human eyes peering out of the darkness, eyes atop a column of shadow, hidden beneath a crown of darkness — the cloak and slouch hat of the Crimson Avenger.

“I would speak with you, Wayne Trigger,” the Avenger said. “I am the Avenger of justice, and I seek answers regarding the occurrences at Pyramid Studios.”

“Wh-who are you?” Trigger stammered, trying to maintain his composure.

“Those who speak of me call me… the Crimson Avenger,” the Avenger said in a sibilant whisper.

“The Crimson Avenger?” Trigger repeated, his fear gone. “I’ve heard of you. Some sort of masked vigilante, taking the law into your own hands. I met a man like that once, a long time ago. Called himself Nighthawk.” Trigger’s tone spoke of disapproval, of contempt for such vigilantes, but the Crimson Avenger heard a note of grudging respect as well.

“Let’s just say I am not hampered by the law in my quest for justice,” the Avenger said. “Now, what can you tell me about the accidents?”

“Accidents! Bah!” Trigger spat. “There are no ‘accidents’! It’s all the work of my brother!”

“Your late brother, Walt Trigger?”

“You’ve read my book, I suppose,” Trigger said. “Yes, my brother’s ghost.”

“And why would your brother’s restless spirit seek to halt production of this film?”

“Revenge,” Wayne said simply. “Revenge for his death — a death that was caused by me!

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