“Cody Jarrett — he finally made it to the top of the world. And it blew up in his face.”
Roy Harper smiled to himself as the enormous end title flashed up on the screen. He sat there in the darkness until the lights came up, watching the other patrons filing past him on their way out. He hadn’t seen this movie when it originally came out. It was released in 1949, the year after he was hurled into the ancient past by the explosion of the Nebula-Man. (*) In the 1940s he had been a big James Cagney fan and had never missed one of his pictures. He enjoyed coming to revival movie houses that showed the old ones on the big screen. He knew about VCRs and video rentals, but it just wasn’t the same. The screen was so small and the sound so dim; you didn’t even have to watch them in the dark. It was sacrilegious to watch a movie with the lights on. It was like dreaming with your eyes open.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Unknown Soldier of Victory,” Justice League of America #100 (August, 1972).]
“Hi,” a female voice said as Roy stepped out of the theater. The athletic, handsome blond man turned and saw a very attractive young woman smiling at him. She was of Oriental descent, perhaps Chinese or Korean; Roy couldn’t tell. Her hair was long, black, and shiny; her body was small, but filled out her jeans and black turtleneck very attractively.
“Hi,” Roy said back. He wondered why she had greeted him. Did he know her from somewhere?
“I saw you in the theater,” she said. “Couldn’t help but notice you, really. You were the only one in there besides me who was under fifty!”
“Yeah, it was kind of an old crowd, wasn’t it?” Roy said. He had to repress his surprise. She didn’t know him, but she was trying to introduce herself. He sometimes forgot that women did that these days. It was unheard of in the early 1940s; such a woman would have been considered loose. “Are you a fan of old movies?”
“Sure am,” the girl said. “I’m a film student at UCLA, working on my master’s. How about you?”
“Nothing like that. I just prefer the classics to modern movies,” Roy said. “I guess I’m kind of an anachronism.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” the girl said. “My name’s Maggie, by the way — Maggie O’Toole.”
“O’Toole?” Roy asked. His surprise must have shown on his face, for Maggie started to giggle. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take people by surprise that way. But I do love to see the look on people’s faces! I’m adopted.”
“Oh! Well, I hope the look on my face didn’t disappoint.”
“No, it was classic! What’s your name?”
“Roy. Roy Harper.”
“Roy — I like that. From the French for king.” Maggie made an exaggerated curtsey. “Your Majesty.”
Roy laughed. He liked this girl. “And what’s Maggie mean?”
“She who is thirsty,” Maggie said. “Want to get a cup of coffee or something?”
Roy grinned broadly. “The king decrees it so,” he joked.
“Oh, yeah. Val Lewton was twenty years ahead of his time,” Maggie said as she and Roy sat in the booth of the coffee shop. “His films were so moody, so atmospheric. They were like actual nightmares captured on film! Far ahead of what anyone else in the genre had done up to that time, with the possible exception of James Whale.”
Roy shook his head. “I have to admit, I never analyzed the films as much as you do. I just know what I like, that’s all.”
“But that’s a form of film criticism, in a way,” Maggie said. “You like it or you don’t like it, based on your personal tastes. The only difference between you and Gene Shalit is that he gets paid for it.”
“And I have a better barber,” Roy added, making Maggie laugh.
“So what do you do, Roy?” Maggie asked. “When you’re not watching old movies, I mean.”
“I work at the YMCA,” Roy said. “I coach underprivileged kids; teach them sports. Keeps them from joining gangs, or at least we hope it does.”
Maggie was impressed. “That is so amazing. God, you make me feel so useless. All I want to do is make movies! And you’re actually making a difference in the world!”
“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” Roy said. “Movies can make a difference, too. How many people decided to do something worthwhile with their lives because they saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?”
“Good point,” Maggie said. “I like you, Roy. I’d like to see you again.”
“I’d like that,” Roy said. “I have to admit, I’m not used to being asked out by a woman! It’s a new experience for me!”
“What, a good-looking, nice guy like you?” Maggie asked. “You must have met a lot of old-fashioned girls before this! So, how about lunch tomorrow?”
“Sounds great! Where can I meet you?”
“Actually, I’m observing on a movie set! Ever been behind the scenes of a movie?”
“No, never,” Roy said, deciding not to mention anything about his second home at Stellar Studios, since he only visited Infinity Inc.’s studio headquarters as Red Arrow. “It sounds fascinating.”
“They’re doing a remake of Hoodlum Without a Motive, and tomorrow they’re filming the scene at the Griffith Observatory. You can meet me there. Just tell them you’re with me!”
“OK, I’ll see you there!”
“Roy’s got a girlfriend, Roy’s got a girlfriend,” Jennie-Lynn Hayden sang teasingly over the phone.
“Cut it out, Jen,” Roy said testily. “I thought our group was Infinity Inc., not the Little Rascals!”
“Whew!” Jennie-Lynn remarked. “It’s about time you started dating someone else, ’cause you’re always dating yourself, with remarks like that!”
“Look, are you going to help me or not?” Roy asked.
“OK, OK, I’m sorry. So what do you want to know?”
“Anything you think I’ll need to know about this Hoodlum Without a Motive movie. I mean, I rented it last night after I left Maggie, and I watched it, but I want to be able to make some intelligent commentary if I have to.”
“You mean you’d never seen it before?” Jennie asked, startled.
“Hey, I had twenty-five years of movies to catch up on,” Roy reminded her.
“I know, but — gee, Roy, Hoodlum is a classic!”
“So tell me why it’s a classic.”
“Well, it was one of Jack Masters’ only three pictures, for one thing.”
“Why didn’t he make any more?”
Jennie paused. “You’re not kidding? You don’t know?”
“Jack Masters died shortly after Hoodlum was completed. Wrecked his car on a deserted desert highway. That’s how he became the teen icon, and still is today. Geez, I thought everyone knew that!”
“Bear with me, Jen. Anything else?”
“Well, some say the movie is cursed.”
“Not just Masters, but most of the movie’s stars met early deaths. Nancy Maple, Sam Maxio, even Len Planck. Just about the only one left alive is Gene Frontis.”
“The guy who played Masters’ father in the movie?” Roy asked. “Wasn’t he on Mulligan’s Atoll, too?”
“I wouldn’t remind him of that, if you meet him tomorrow,” Jennie said coyly.
Roy blinked. “Why would I meet him tomorrow?”
“He’s technical consultant on the remake,” Jennie advised him.
“Name?” the burly guard in the black leather jacket asked, consulting a clipboard.
“Roy Harper,” Roy said. “I’m with Maggie O’Toole.”
The guard scanned the list, found Roy’s name, and nodded. “Over there,” he said, nodding to the right. “By the director’s chair.”
Roy thanked the guard and walked over. He saw Maggie standing beside the director’s chair, in which a middle-aged man was seated. His hair was going gray and away at the same time, and he watched the actors with a nervous tension.
“Roy, hi!” Maggie called joyously when she saw him. “Come on over. I’ll introduce you!”
The director turned his head at Maggie’s words and watched Roy approach. He looked at the young man appraisingly.
“Mr. Carlinger, this is Roy Harper. He’s a big old movie fan, same as me. Roy, this is John Carlinger, director of the new Hoodlum Without a Motive!”
“How do you do?” Roy asked, extending his hand.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Carlinger said, shaking Roy’s hand. He continued to look at Roy like a dog show judge sizing up a mastiff, and Roy began to feel nervous. “What studio are you with, Mr. Harper?”
“I beg your pardon?” Roy asked.
“Oh, Roy’s not in the business,” Maggie said. “He works at the Y, coaching underprivileged kids.”
“Oh, I see,” Carlinger said. “Admirable work, admirable. I hope your kids are easier to control than these strutting puppets I have to work with!”
A loud, jovial laugh rolled from behind Roy. “By George, just like the old days! Carlinger, you remind me of Otto Preminger! Strutting puppets, by God! Har!” Roy turned to see the tycoon from Mulligan’s Atoll walking toward them.
“Mr. Frontis, this is Roy Harper,” Maggie said.
“Maggie, my child, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, call me Gene,” the kindly old actor said warmly. He took Roy’s hand and pumped it vigorously. “And that goes for you, too, young man. Roy, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” Roy said, smiling. “You probably get this all the time, but I thought you were brilliant in Man of a Million Masks.”
Frontis’ face brightened; he had half-expected a comment on Mulligan’s Atoll. “Maggie, marry this boy immediately. I like him!”
Maggie giggled and shot an admiring glance at Roy.
Frontis then went to discuss something with Carlinger, and Maggie pulled Roy aside.
“I’m impressed,” she said. “Gene’s as friendly as they come, but it gets his goat that all people remember him for is Mulligan’s Atoll. You really made points back there!”
“Well, a friend of mine tipped me off that he hated that,” Roy confessed. “Say, you’re pretty tight with the director and the consultant, for being an observing film student.”
Maggie lowered her eyes. “Well, I have a confession, too. My uncle’s company provides food service for a lot of movie shoots, including this one. So I had a way in.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Roy observed. “Just making use of the resources at hand.”
“Glad you see it that way,” Maggie said.
“All right, let’s have it quiet on the set,” Carlinger called. He pointed to the script girl. “Go get Ron out of his trailer, will you? This movie’s overbudget enough already without him delaying the shooting.” The script girl scurried off in the direction of the trailers.
“Ron?” Roy asked Maggie.
“Ron Highe. He’s the star of this movie, taking the Masters part,” Maggie explained.
“I see. Is your thesis on Masters, then, that you wanted to observe this movie?”
“No, remakes,” Maggie said. “How a film’s entire direction can change under a different cast and director when it’s essentially the same script.”
“I see. You’ll be including House of Wax, I’m sure.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Maggie said. “When was that remade?”
“It is a remake,” Roy explained. “It was a remake of an earlier picture called Mystery in the Wax Museum.”
“I never knew that!” Maggie said, startled. “God, I never thought I’d meet anyone as big a film geek as–”
“Mr. Carlinger!” the script girl shrieked, running back onto the set. “Mr. Carlinger, come quick! I — I think you’d better see this!”
Moments later, Roy watched grimly as the body was carried out of the trailer on a stretcher. It was completely covered with a sheet, but Maggie still turned her face away, burying it in Roy’s shoulder. Ron Highe had been murdered, stabbed to death — stabbed repeatedly.
“I can’t believe it,” Frontis said. “Why would anyone want to hurt a nice boy like Ron?”
“You know how crazy fans can get,” Carlinger said grimly. “Might have been someone obsessed with him, who decided if she couldn’t have him, no one would.”
Frontis gaped at the director. “You’re suggesting a woman could have done this? Carlinger, that’s insane!”
Carlinger shrugged. “Ever heard of Lizzie Borden?”
Roy listened to this exchange with cold calculation. He had seen enough dead bodies to be able to give an approximate time of death from its appearance. Highe had been dead long enough for anyone on the set to have done it.
Roy glanced from Carlinger to Frontis, and then down at Maggie.
“Thanks for driving me home,” Maggie said as Roy piloted the car down Santa Monica Boulevard. “I’m still a bit shaken up, from… from…”
“It’s all right,” Roy said kindly. He reached over and squeezed her hand. After a moment he added, “Carlinger mentioned the film was overbudget. Do you know anything about that?”
“Well, there’ve been a lot of accidents on the set,” Maggie said. “Scenery catching fire, props found smashed; it was almost like someone was trying to sabotage the film.” Maggie’s eyes widened, and she stared at Roy. “You’re not a cop or anything, are you?”
“Me? No,” Roy said. “I’m just curious, that’s all. But if someone were trying to sabotage the movie, killing the star would be a good way to do it, wouldn’t it?”
“I guess so,” Maggie said, and shuddered. “This is creepy, Roy! It’s like — well, it’s like a movie!”
Roy chuckled. “Yeah, an old Charlie Chan picture! Are you an Oland fan, or a Toler?”
“Oh, Oland, definitely,” Maggie said. “Oland every time.”
“Me, too,” Roy said.