The scene was one of tension and strife as two women faced each other in a luxurious mansion. The older woman wore her blonde hair upswept in an elaborate style that complimented her dangling gold earrings. She was angry, and her face reflected that fact, as did her strident tone. She faced her teenage daughter. The young woman was smirking coldly, with one hand defiantly placed upon her hip. She wore a revealing black minidress and high heels. She was obviously mocking her mother and enjoying their confrontation immensely.
“Saffron, if you continue to see that blue-collar boor, I’ll have my lawyer cut off your trust fund!” cried the older woman.
The girl laughed and said, “You can’t do that. Daddy’s lawyers would eat you alive. You have no choice but to learn to accept Brick as your new son-in-law. You didn’t mind him around when you had your affair with him!”
As the girl turned to stalk off, a loud snap echoed through the set, and a heavy light dropped down from above the soap opera’s main stage. A rugged figure then hurled himself across the stage and tackled the girl. He carried her to safety just as the crushing weight of the light smashed into the spot on which she had been standing.
As the crew rushed forward to help them, Rex Tyler calmed the frightened actress and eased her to her feet. “Don’t be afraid, Miss Smith. You’re OK,” he said, turning to his wife Wendi Harris, who played the role of Velvet Smith’s mother, Eden Wainwright. “Honey, you are lucky your biggest fan-slash-hubby came by the set. I was worried about you after this morning.” He referred to an uncharacteristic outburst the actress had displayed that morning in their suburban home.
She kissed him as the director of Secret Hearts, Cameron Knight, led Velvet Smith to her dressing room. “Oh. Rex, I feel so guilty,” she wept. “Not just about my temper tantrum this morning, but also about poor Velvet’s close call. You know how angry it made me when the writers brought her on to play my daughter Saffron, but I would hate for the poor girl to be hurt.”
Rex patted her gently on the back and said, “Wendi, soap opera logic defies the best efforts this humble chemist can make, but I’d say any woman would feel a bit hurt if the writers of her hit soap decided to suddenly and abruptly turn her character’s baby girl into a teen temptress in order to attract younger viewers. Still, having ill feelings toward Velvet does not make you responsible for this accident.”
Wendi nodded and said, “I know. Still, it feels good to hear you say it.”
Rex bent over the light as his spouse went back to have her makeup fixed. He frowned as he leaned near the broken band that had held the heavy light. He detected a faint aroma that he knew all too well from his decades as a chemist. Acid. Someone deliberately weakened this light, he mused. Some creep wanted to kill Velvet! He fingered his coat and thought, I think Rex Tyler’s old pal Hourman better visit the set for a while.
The next few hours passed rapidly as repairs were made and new scenes were completed. This time the hunks and babes of soap opera land were joined by a heroic figure in gold and black. Hourman watched from the sidelines as his wife completed her scene. He had explained away his presence by using the old reliable ruse that the man of the hour was a friend to the Tylers. It was well known that many of his cases had occurred around the chemical factory Tyler currently owned, even dating back to its time as Bannermain Chemicals.
Cam Knight waved his fat hands in worry. “You say some nut tried to kill my little Velvet? She’s the perfect Saffron! Who’d hate her?”
“Perhaps it’s her very perfection in the role of spoiled young woman that earned her enemies,” suggested Hourman. “Folks have been known to take these shows all too seriously.” Gasps and sputters of indignation rang out on the set as the cast overheard his words.
Cam nodded. “I get your point. I’ve had some old bats curse my leading ladies because they think they really broke up a home or had an affair or robbed a bank.”
Hourman agreed. He knew Wendi had encountered a few all-too-avid fans in times past when she was a movie starlet. “Let me snoop around a bit,” he said. “I can keep the peace if nothing else occurs.”
He frowned as he watched the drama unfold. He felt bad for Wendi, because he knew it had hurt her vanity to have a bright and pretty young woman join the show as her daughter. It made her feel old and washed up. She had suffered such doubts for several years, since her movie career dried up. Landing the role of Eden Wainwright on Secret Hearts had thrilled her, but the demands of cast changes had upset her greatly.
“Rex, I’m a mom!” she had whined in exaggerated sorrow.
Rex had chuckled as he quipped, “Honey, I’d like to think Rick’s being around the last couple decades had softened the blow for you a bit.”
Wendi had shouted, “I mean I’m now thought of as the mom type for casting. My lead days are ending.”
Now Hourman remembered her words and her pain as he watched the show tape. He hoped her reaction did not mean more than it appeared.
Earlier that day, Hourman had conferred with Wendi. She had shown him the shooting script and pointed out how the stage directions calling for Velvet Smith to exit the set via the path beneath the damaged light had been printed in the script for anyone to see.
“Hourman, anyone with access to a script would have known Velvet would have been in position for that light to hit her at that angle,” she said. “That means someone on the cast or crew could have done it, unless a script was stolen or somehow fell into the wrong hands.”
He had questioned his wife impassively with the neutral tone of a family friend. Such deceptions had long been part of the life of a mystery-man, and he was a master at such ploys. “Wendi, are there any newly hired crew members? I’d like to do a background check. My friends can do so quickly if I feed them the data via my JSA comm-link,” he explained.
She shrugged and said, “Al Fletcher is new. Kind of creepy, too. He seems to have a thing for all the girls on the show.”
“Thank you,” said Hourman. “I’ll look into Mr. Fletcher’s past.”
The Atom had replied to Hourman’s signal, and he quickly read out data to his old pal. “Hourman, this punk Fletcher has a record for petty theft and a history of mental problems,” replied the Atom as he scanned the screen on a computer. “Oh, nothing serious, but he had nervous breakdown a couple years ago.”
Listening, Hourman smiled and said, “Thanks, pal. I’ll let you know what develops.”
Hourman decided to follow Fletcher home after the cast and crew departed for the night. He trailed the gaunt man with ease, since he knew where he lived thanks to the Atom’s data. He waited a few minutes after he saw Fletcher enter a small apartment, then he crossed the street and glanced up at the man’s balcony.
No need to activate the Miraclo for this little stunt, he mused as he jumped up and caught the edge of the metal railing, then swung himself over the top onto the balcony. He peered through the glass door and gasped as he saw a startling sight. Great Scott! He’s got some type of shrine to Wendi and all the actresses on the show! he realized. Posters, photos, tapes, and more line the room!
Al Fletcher came over and slid the door open. “Hourman? What are you doing here?” he said. “This is my property!”
“Mr. Fletcher, I want to talk to you about what’s going on at the show,” said Hourman. “I know what you did.”
Fletcher sighed and stood aside as the man of the hour entered the room. That’s Wendi’s jacket; she thought she had lost it, he thought as he saw a pink jacket.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to steal the stuff. I just wanted to be part of the show,” said a crestfallen Fletcher. “Life is so much better there than in the real world. I started taking props and clothing and stuff when I got the job. I guess you have to turn me in.”
Hourman shook his head. “Fletcher, this fantasy life you’ve created can’t be a healthy substitute for real life. Let me give you the name of a friend who could talk this over with you. I’d say if I use my influence, I can smooth things over for you, if you agree to seek help and never steal again.”
Fletcher beamed with relief. “Thank you! I’ll do anything. Just don’t make me go to jail.”
Hourman noticed a pink sheet of paper. “This is dated today. It’s the shooting script for this morning’s scenes. Odd, the one I saw today on set lacked these notes.”
Fletcher nodded. “Yeah, I took that one, but it is kind of messy. That was one of the writer’s copies. He wanted to change the scene. You see, originally Saffron was to leave in a huff like we taped it, but in-between the original draft and today’s work, they suggested having her mom leave instead. That’s what the marks are. They alter the scene so it’s Eden who walks out and not Saffron.”
Hourman frowned. “But why did they tape it with Saffron leaving as originally planned?”
“Ms. Harris threw a fit,” said Fletcher, shrugging. “She said a kid would not cow her character. She said it had to be Saffron who walked out, or she would not do the scene. It was really odd, ’cause she’s usually pretty sweet, but this really set her off.”
Hourman nodded. Wendi insisted that they tape it with her rival ending up beneath that light. What am I going to do? This has got to be a mistake.