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
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
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
"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.
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
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
"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
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 Amazon.com 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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