Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sandman Mystery Theatre #20 (Nov 1994)

Sandman Mystery Theatre #20: "The Scorpion" Final Act
Written by Matt Wagner & Steven T. Seagle
Art by Guy Davis
Colors by David Hornung
Letters by John Costanza
Edited by Shelly Roeberg and Karen Berger
Cover by Gavin Wilson

Curtain up.

Lieutenant Burke shows up at the hotel where Wesley Dodds arranged to meet with Stephen Cutler.  Burke is thrilled to be working with a new partner, Max Collins, someone he knows he can count on in a rough situation as opposed to the "limp dicks" he's been bogged down with recently.  In the hotel lobby, Burke asks the maitre d for Wesley Dodds' room number and, after threatening the man to keep quiet, the two detectives proceed upstairs.

Why is Burke looking for Wesley?  The same reason that District Attorney Larry Belmont is hurrying out of the house when Wesley's girlfriend, the D.A.'s daughter, Dian, comes home.  Dian pushes her father for details and he reveals that an anonymous phone call tipped the police to the Scorpion's next target, Stephen Cutler.  When the cops called Cutler's office, they learned that he was meeting with Wesley Dodds.

In the hotel room, Cutler isn't greeted by Wesley; instead, he finds a Wes-sized dummy sitting in the chair.  And then the Scorpion kicks in the door from the balcony.

The Scorpion is befuddled by the dummy in Wesley's chair, but nothing's more shocking than the sudden appearance of the Sandman from an inner room in the suite.  The Sandman gives Scorpion the chance to surrender before sucking down the sleeping gas from his gun, but that delay is enough for Burke and Collins to kick open the door and mess up the Sandman's whole plan.

Burke didn't expect to find two masked men in the room, but he's plenty happy about collaring the killer and the vigilante that keeps knocking him unconscious.  The Scorpion refuses to play along, though, and lashes out with his poison-tipped whip.  Burke opens fire and the Scorpion takes a hit, but soon realizes that Max was struck by the whip.

While Burke is distracted by his partner's violent poisoning, the Scorpion kicks the gun out of his hand and whips him.  Burke feels the venom agonizingly course through his veins as he tries to recover his weapon and stop the Scorpion.  He's interrupted when the Sandman throws down the gas canister from his gun, filling the room with the knockout mist.

Burke coughs and says it's not bad enough to die, but he has to die choking on the Sandman's foul gas.  The Scorpion and Cutler, too, choke on the gas, but while Cutler succumbs, the killer makes his escape to the balcony.

As the Sandman treats Burke with anti-venom, the Scorpion climbs down a grappling hook to a lower balcony and sets fire to the rope.  Upstairs, the Sandman is too late to save Burke's partner; and when he gets to the balcony, he's too late to catch the Scorpion.

At the police station, Ross O'Donald fills in the district attorney--and Dian--about the events at the hotel.  He reveals that Max Collins died but Burke somehow survived the Scorpion's sting.  Dian asks about Wesley Dodds and the captain tells her Wesley wasn't even there, that was part of a setup to lure Cutler into a trap.  Dian doesn't buy that theory, and she wonders about the anonymous tip.  Ross acknowledges her curiosity and detective's mind.  He also tells them that the Sandman was there, which further confounds and fascinates Dian.

She slips out of the office and calls Wesley's house.  She asks Humphries to put her boyfriend on the phone, but the butler tells her that Wesley went to Philadelphia on business.  That makes little sense to Dian as Wesley was terribly ill the day before (and she suspects he was attacked).  Humphries tells her he can't remember the name of the hotel Wesley was staying at so she'll have to wait until tomorrow to get in touch with him.  Dian hangs up, very suspicious of her boyfriend's deeds.

Elsewhere, Terry Stetson pulls his car into his parking garage and--no surprise at all--we learn that he is the Scorpion.  And he's suffering a bullet wound.  And he's being followed from the garage to his apartment.

Cassandra Cutler, daughter of Stephen and Terry's would-be love interest at the company, steps out of the shadows and joins Terry in the elevator up to his apartment.  She says she's acquiescing to his desire that they date, but Terry is in no mood or condition to take Cassandra out to dinner.  She very deliberately refuses to take the hint, though, telling him she has a special night planned for them.

Lieutenant Burke, still recovering from the scorpion poison, forces a patrolman to drive him toward Terry Stetson's apartment.  Burke is still in rough shape and vomits in a paper bag most of the way there.  At the station, Ross tells the D.A. and Dian that Burke is following a hunch that the killer is Terry Stetson.  Ross wants backup there for Burke and orders three cars full of uniformed cops to Terry's address.

Cassandra points a gun at Terry and demands to know why he killed two of her father's partners.  He confesses and says those men deserve what they got, just like her father will deserve what he gets.  She can't believe it; her father treated him like a son, she says, to which Terry reveals that Cutler and his partners drove his father to an early grave.

Cassandra Cutler slumps to the floor and dies.  Terry steps over her body, admitting that he liked her, but in the end she was just as bad and deserving of this death as the rest of the greedy company people like the Scorpion's victims.

Dian Belmont managed to get a taxi to take her to Terry Stetson's apartment before the police backup arrived.  When she gets there, Burke and the patrolman have already discovered Cassandra Cutler dead and Terry missing.  Dian tells Burke her theory that the Sandman orchestrated the meeting at the hotel that night to catch the Scorpion.  Burke reminds her about the anonymous tip; Sandman wouldn't have called it in to spoil his own setup.  Dian figures that it was Casssandra who called in the tip after suspecting Terry was going after her father.

They both figure that a desperate Scorpion might go attack Lane, Cutler's last partner, and Dian says she will drive the lieutenant there.  She persists, reminding Burke that his backup hasn't arrived and the patrolman must stay to secure the scene.  Dian is the only one who can drive Burke there on time since he cannot do it himself.

Emmanuel Lane enjoys a bath in his luxury apartment, unaware that the Scorpion has come to kill him.  Across the street, the detective in charge of surveillance for Lane's place is asleep on the job, and doesn't see the Scorpion brand the wall and enter through the window.

Lane finishes his bath and calls out to his houseboy, but he's greeted by the Scorpion who threatens to kill him.  Lane offers to pay him anything which only enrages the killer.  Scorpion rips off his mask showing his identity to Lane.  He explains that his last name isn't Stetson, it's Pritchard.  His father wasn't in the railroad but rather a Texas farmer.  Lane, Cutler and their whole firm bought up Terry's father's land for their oil companies.  Lane protests that Pritchard was paid handsomely for the land, but Terry says the money cost his father his soul, that he turned to gambling and drinking and both of his parents were ruined and killed because of the deal.

The logic of Terry's vendetta isn't exactly sound, but at this point he doesn't seem entirely sane.  He raises the whip to kill Lane when the Sandman appears.

After taking a face full of gas, Terry charges the Sandman and tries to rip his mask off.  The Sandman is able to fight him off long enough for the gas to kick in, and a wild, raging Terry passes out on the floor.

When Dian and Burke arrive at the scene, the Sandman has gone.  Lane is curled up against the wall in shock, reliving a traumatic molestation from his past, while Terry Stetson/Pritchard appears to have suffered a stroke.  Burke knows the Sandman was there because the odor of his gas is still in the room and he left an origami folding of a scorpion.

Finally, after a bit of a hiatus, we get the crafty amateur detective Dian Belmont back.  She witnesses enough suspicious behavior and finds enough clues to know that Wesley Dodds is keeping some real secrets from her, and that it's all tied in to the Sandman.  Finally, she's confronted by the missing piece of intelligence she didn't have--that the Sandman leaves origami at the scene of his activities.  The only other man she's known to do origami is Wesley, and it appears that she has finally discovered the truth of his secret identity just as Wesley decides to tell her the truth.

My favorite moment in this issue and maybe the whole story arc is when Dian convinces Burke to let her accompany him to the final crime scene.  She uses unarguable facts and just the right amount of manipulation to press him into letting her tag along, and that's how she learns the final clue in the puzzle of her boyfriend.

As for the identity of the Scorpion, I'm a little disappointed.  Terry Stetson was the obvious candidate from the beginning.  Wagner and Seagle tried to misdirect us for about five minutes with Buster Calhoun, but really the only one the killer could have been all along was Terry.  The only mystery was his motive, which was kept hidden until this final showdown.  And then, when you scrutinize his motive, you learn it doesn't make a damn bit of sense and that he's actually crazy.  But that doesn't make sense either and it undercuts what the character has been working toward for 80% of the story line.

I love the look of the Scorpion in these issues and I love the poisoned bull whip gimmick and I love that the Sandman faces another masked character.  But the reveal of the killer's identity and reason for killing in this final chapter feels extremely lazy and out of character.

One last note, I'm not sure if there's a significance to the character of Detective Max Collins, but there is a crime and mystery writer named Max Allan Collins, whose most famous work is the graphic novel Road to Perdition.  Maybe Wagner or Seagle were friends or fans of Collins and named the ill-fated detective in this issue as an homage.

Come back next week for Act One of "Dr. Death"...


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