Mint in box
by Mike Baron

For the fourth time that morning, Jim Lovaas logged onto Ebay and typed in "Varley Variant Action Figure." The screen coughed up bupkus. With a cluck of disgust, Lovaas pushed himself away from the screen, knocking over his talking Freddie Krueger doll. Carefully, he picked up the two foot box and repositioned it on the shelf next to the Alien variants. A computer consultant, Lovaas lived in a three room apartment in West Hollywood, every available surface filled with his collection of mint- in-box action figures. The walls were covered with posters from his favorite movies: Terminator, Aliens, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Ring, The Fantastic Shrinking Man.

One room, "the guest room," was completely filled, floor to ceiling, with Lovaas' comic book collection. The rest of the house was filled with action figures. His computer room looked like an alien invasion, with monsters and big-busted women standing shoulder to shoulder on shelving that covered every wall, on the window sills, on top of the computer itself, and on the floor. Lovaas didn't try to collect every action figure. That way madness led. He specialized in the grotesque, the gory, the horrific. Naturally, this encompassed most McFarlane Toys. It went without saying he had every Stan Winston.

But one prize eluded him: the rare, iridescent skin variant of the demon Varley, from Dal Lazarus' cult classic, "The Skin Eaters."

Even among Hollywood legends, Dal Lazarus stood alone, a little off to the side in the wing that housed Fatty Arbuckle, The Manson Family, The Black Dahlia, and Bob Crane. Not those happy fairy tales purveyed by People. Dal Lazarus was a dark visionary who blew out of the Midwest like a tornado, directing three of the most original, disturbing horror films ever made, before blowing out his brain.

First came "Deadly Doll," forever establishing Alicia Folds as a tragic beauty, crushed by her own publicity. She committed suicide halfway through her next film. Next came "The Fantastic Shrinking Man," a vision so disturbing it was screened for Al Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo to make them talk. Finally, his masterpiece, the only one of his films to enjoy major studio backing, "The Skin Eaters."

With "The Skin Eaters" came the whole Hollywood hoopla machine. Articles in Premier and Fangoria. Appearances at conventions. Most significantly, the merchandising. "The Skin Eaters" did not lend itself to fast food premiums, but it was tailor-made for the upscale collectors' market. The publicity-shy Lazarus put up with most of the hoopla in a churlish manner. But when Zombie Toys approached him about the Skin Eater figures, he embraced them enthusiastically.

A talented sculptor and designer, Lazarus designed the Varley figure himself. The basic eight inch Varley was disturbing enough. But the variant version, packed one to one thousand, sported an iridescent skin that resembled an oil slick, and immediately became the most sought-after collectible on the market. Lazarus added his own blood to the poly-mix.

With proceeds from his first film Lazarus purchased a mansion in Thousand Oaks, and would spend day after day basting in the sun, perfecting his tan. He was diagnosed with an incurable form of skin cancer on the very day "The Skin Eaters" premiered. Two months after the film was released, Lazarus killed himself. There were rumors of AIDS. Could you get AIDS from handling a plastic action figure? As long as the figure remained MIB, no danger. Ten thousand fans lined up to pay their respects at his funeral. It was a closed casket ceremony, and speculation ran amok that Lazarus was pulling off some kind of elaborate hoax. Lazarus sightings began the day after the funeral. The coroner's report was sealed. Rumor ruled. Nonbelievers said he died from sucking on a ten gauge.

The funeral was preceded by a private ceremony for Lazarus' close friends, of whom there were few. The producer Bob Fiffe made an unexpected and unwelcome appearance. Fiffe had been one of Lazarus' early champions, had produced "Deadly Doll." But as so often happens in Hollywood, they had a falling out over money, over art, over drugs, over a woman, and ceased speaking to one another. Although Fiffe was a model of probity in print, he couldn't resist a parting shot. On the way out of the non- denominational chapel, an enterprising reporter stuck a mike in his face.

"Son of a bitch still owes me two hundred and fifty thousand dollars," Fiffe replied, poker-faced. The reporter fluffed out his story with background: both Fiffe and Lazarus came from the Midwest. Both were only children. But whereas Fiffe was aggressively hetero, Lazarus was flamboyantly gay.

Along with thousands of others, Lovaas stood in the sweltering sun for two hours waiting his turn to file past the casket and pick up a copy of the program. Lovaas would have pocketed several hundred, but a thug in sunglasses and suit stood by the table with his arms crossed, rumbling, "One to a customer."

Few actions are more successful in insuring fame than early death. James Dean. Brandon Lee. Dal Lazarus. The price of the regular Varley figure shot up to five hundred bucks. The variant? Fuggedaboudit. May as well seek the Philosopher's Stone.

Lovaas was a man obsessed. He was a sneaky son of a bitch, too. He advertised on the internet, haunted discount houses, attended every con. But Lovaas also knew there were people who, through no fault of their own, had come into possession of those figures with no idea of their worth. He advertised in shoppers, country gazettes, and AARP Magazine. He advertised in antique newsletters, and especially homespun journals for the elderly, like RV World and Pensioner. One day he received a letter from Olathe, Kansas. It was written in shaky ballpoint script on lavender note paper.

"Dear Mr. Lovaas: I am retiring after operating our hobby shop for over fifty years. My late husband Abner, God rest his soul, purchased a consignment of toys from Zombie shortly before he passed on. What with the funeral and all, I didn't get around to looking at that shipment until last week. I believe I have the toys you are looking for. It says Varley on the package, and it has an unpleasant skin like an oil slick. I have two of them. Are you interested in looking at them and perhaps making me an offer? Yours sincerely, Mrs. Abner (Amelia) Cummings."

The dumb bitch didn't even include her phone number. It took Lovaas fifteen seconds to find it on whowhere? Five seconds to dial the number.

"Cummings Curios and Collectibles," said a quavering voice.

"Mrs. Cummings? This is Jim Lovaas. I wrote you about the Varley action figures."

"Oh, those awful little dolls. I don't know what to say, Mr. Lovaas. I hesitate to ask full retail."

"I'll give you fifty dollars apiece, a hundred for both."

"Well Mr. Lovass, they only retail for twenty-four ninety-five, I really don't feel I should take advantage of you."

"Mrs. Cummings, I insist. I'd like to Fed-ex you a check overnight. If you would be so kind as to ship the action figures to me as soon as you get the check, overnight, I'll be happy to pay all expenses."

"Well, Mr. Lovaas, I don't know."

What don't you know, you dumb bitch? Lovaas felt like screaming. "Mrs. Cummings, if you insist, I'll only pay you fifty dollars for both."

"Well I don't deny I could use the money, what with all the bills Mr. Cummings left."

Finally, Mrs. Cummings caved. Lovaas Fed-Exed her a check. Two days later, he met the Fed Ex guy in the lobby of his apartment building, twitching like a nicotine addict. Gripping the large cardboard box as if it were a child, he ran up the three exterior flights of stairs to his unit, went inside, locked the door, and took the phone off the hook. Using his Blade Glaeve, he sliced through the packing tape, threw Styrofoam pellets around the room, and extracted two rectangular display units, each constructed of hard, clear polymer, each containing an iridescent-skinned Varley. No student of art was more rapt. Lovaas crouched on the floor in his overcrowded living room, examining the creature in the sunlight streaming through the window.

Even held perfectly still, the skin of each Varley seemed to writhe in its box, like a psychedelic light show. Lovaas couldn't believe his luck. You could spend your whole life looking for a variant Varley without finding one. And he had two! One to remove and play with, one MIB to save for a rainy day! If he never added another item to his collection, his life would be complete.

Lovaas held the plastic box under the light. That skin. It shimmered and pulsed like a thing alive. Lovaas got the impression that if he pressed directly on the skin with his finger, it would radiate pulsating rings of color. No question! Heart beating, fully aware that he was puncturing its MIB status, not caring because he had TWO! Lovaas placed his Blade Glaeve against the hard plastic and made the first cut.

The screams emanating from Lovaas' apartment were finally too much, even for West Hollywood. His next door neighbor, an Al Qaeda sleeper agent named Farook Ahmet, phoned 911. "Sounds like they are killing someone over there!" Two cops arrived in seven minutes. Ahmet allowed as he had never met his neighbor. He had never met any of his neighbors. That's the way he liked it.

The cops pounded on Lovaas door. It opened to the length of its chain and a pleasant-faced middle-aged man, with jet-black hair and a very healthy tan, smiled out at them. "How can I help you, officers?"

"We heard reports of screaming. We'd like to look around."

The man arched his elegant eyebrows, then frowned in understanding. "Oh, I am so sorry! I was watching one of my horror DVDs and I'm afraid I got a little carried away with the volume. Of course you can come in. Of course you can look around."

The police entered and looked around. The place was jammed with toys and comics, but what the hell. West Hollywood. No signs of violence. The resident, who identified himself as James Lovaas and provided papers to that effect, released the mute button on his flat-screen television and the characters in the movie began to scream.

One cop held his hands up. "Okay. Okay! Turn it down, will ya? And be a little considerate of your neighbors."

"I will, and again, I'm very sorry, officers."

On the way out the door, one of the cops stopped and turned. "What the hell is that you're watching, Mr. Lovaas?"

"The Skin Eaters, have you seen it? It is absolutely the scariest movie made in this town since The Exorcist."

"No thanks. We see enough of that on the job."

And so, peace. Or so it seemed. Lovaas' neighbors continued to come and go without glimpsing the reclusive computer programmer.

A week later, Bob Fiffe was driving back to California from receiving an honorary doctorate at Shimer College in Illinois, where he had matriculated without graduating. Since producing the multi-Academy Award winning The Polecat, Fiffe had found himself the recipient of all manner of invitation. Especially from the alumni associations of any institute of higher learning with which he'd been associated, however remotely. If he had once crashed at a student's house, the college claimed him as their own.

Fiffe was driving solo in his Porsche Carrera when he chanced to pass through Olathe, Kansas, the home town of Dal Lazarus. Not many people knew this. Lazarus had sworn him to secrecy the night he'd told him.

"Bob, if they find out I'm from Olathe, I'll die. I'll just die."

So Bob had never told. There he was, creeping down Main Street enjoying the look of envy on the yokels' faces, when he nearly ran a red light.

"Cummings' Curios and Collectibles!" he exploded. He was among a handful of people who knew Lazarus' real name. Amazingly, there was an empty parking spot directly in front of the little shop. No parking meter. The simple joys of flyover country.

As a couple pre-adolescent boys on stunt bikes stopped to admire his car, Fiffe pushed open the door to the shop. A little bell jingled. The interior was crammed to the rafters with flea market junk-thousands upon thousands of blue plastic Smurfs, Disney variants, Barbie dolls, jigsaw puzzles, obsolete Erector sets, rock-hard Play Dough, Davy Crockett caps, toy guns with dangerous black nozzles.

A wizened homunculus topped with a Dairy Queen swirl of blue hair emerged from the back room. "Can I help you?" she asked in a quavering voice.

Like all Hollywood types, Fiffe had a weakness for toys. "Just browsing," he said. Then his eye caught the wire basket toward the rear, filled with the unmistakable shape of plastic action figures, MIB.

"You just let me know if I can help," the little old lady said, making her way slowly to front. Fiffe made a beeline for the basket. Right on top, the brilliant back card advertising of Zombie Toys. Could it be? Was it possible? High up on the foodchain as he was, even Fiffe was aware of the incredible market for Skin Eater Action Figures. He picked up the top box and turned it over.

At first his eyes refused to register what he saw. The light was dim. He walked over to where a stray ray fell through a skylight. He held it close to his face. And nearly gagged.

Inside, in detail so perfect you could have sworn it had been shrunk, was the figure of a man who had been skinned alive. Enough flesh remained around his eyes and scalp to give a semblance of resemblance. The rest was all oozing subderma, exposed nerves, and agony. "Lovaas The Victim," it said on the box. Fighting an urge to puke, Fiffe placed the box back in the barrel and headed for the door. Seconds later, the distinctive whine of a high-performance flat six faded down the street.

The man with the jet-black hair and handsome tan stepped out of the back room wearing a full-length silk robe with the logo "Devil Doll" on the breast, and on the back.

"Is he gone?" he asked.

"He's gone, Dal," his mother replied. "I don't know what upset him so much. Do you know him?"

"Know him? I still owe him two hundred and fifty large!"

Mike Baron is the creator of the award winning comic book Nexus and during his career has written an enormous variety of comics from The Flash to The Punisher. He is currently writing Faro Korbit for AP Comics, just released a Green Lantern novel for Byron Preiss (available on through the link on the right), and is working on several projects destined to change the face of pop culture in his secret skunkworks.

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