George was about to declare his undying love for Annabell when the front of the train station fell over.
Ross, the actor playing George, yelped and dashed away, his army cap flying off. Arlene — Annabell — merely put her hands on her hips and glared at the offending backdrop, a piece of dressed-up plywood that looked very much like the front of a train station, until it collapsed and revealed the braces behind it.
“Cut!” Granger yelled, and the cameramen stopped cranking amidst an air of grumbling. When the director paced three steps, threw his hat on the ground, and looked for me, I was ready for him. “Margie! What the hell is that?”
“Set broke, boss,” I said, tucking my clipboard under my arm.
“Well, fix it! All right, people, take fifteen, don’t go anywhere,” Granger called across the set.
Ross was having vapors, falling over, complaining of his brush with death while a gaggle of women extras dressed as train passengers rushed over to comfort him. Arlene rolled her eyes at me. What could I do but shrug?
Shattered Spring was filming on the backlot, which we’d completely taken over — scene shop, studios, exteriors, everything. We should have been able to knock the film out in a month or two at most — down the block, Ben-Hur was serving as an object lesson as to what happened when you went over schedule, over budget, over everything. I was determined that wouldn’t happen to us. But I hadn’t counted on Granger.
Inside the warehouse where the scene shop was located, I searched the piles of lumber, sawhorses, tools and benches, and clouds of sawdust for the head carpenter. “Palmer? Palmer!” He’d never hear me over the sound of sawing coming from the back of the room.
“Hullo, miss, did you need something?”
I didn’t recognize the young man who appeared from around a pile of plywood signs waiting to be repainted for their next incarnation as fake billboards or shop fronts or picket fences or castle walls, even though I knew most of Palmer’s crew. With his lanky frame and fresh face, he couldn’t have been very old, mid-twenties tops, same as me. But he had a tiredness in the lines around his eyes. He wore a cotton shirt, denim overalls, and a grease-stained cap.
“Who’re you?” I demanded.
“New mechanic. Mr. Palmer hired me last week.” The guy had an English accent, working class, round and polite.
“Where is he?”
“He, um, stepped out for a moment.”
Which could have meant anything, from going for supplies to sneaking a drink at some dive. “Mechanic, eh? Can you nail a backdrop back into place?”
“Yes — that is, should do,” he said.
“Well, come on.” I waved for him to follow me outside the warehouse. “Where you from?”
“Hull. In England.”
“Yes, I got that much. Been in the States long?”
“Several years, since . . . well, several years.”
“Did Palmer warn you that working here will ruin pictures for you forever? Takes all the magic out of it.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Makes it even more magic, I think, when you wonder how you’ll ever get a picture out of all this.” He waved his arm to take in the cluttered lot with its rows of cameras, half-built sets, collection of cars, a handful of incongruous horses munching on hay, the equally incongruous actors in army uniforms, and a handful of Roman centurions who must have wandered over from Ben-Hur.
“I think so, too,” I said, grinning in spite of myself. “Some advice — tell Granger it’ll take twice as long as you expect, and when you finish in half the time, he’ll be impressed.”
“Just like the army, then.”
Ah, that was where those worried creases came from. “You were in the war?”
He ducked away and didn’t answer, and I didn’t push.
At the injured backdrop, he pulled a hammer from his tool belt and handful of nails from a pocket and found the splintered bracket. “Wood’s rotten,” he said, pointing. “It was bound to give out sooner or later. I’ll have set to right in a moment. Make that two moments.” The lines around his eyes crinkled handsomely when he smiled. He still looked tired.
“What’s your name?”
I offered my hand, and he shook it. “I’m Margie Stewart, Granger’s assistant. If you need anything, ask me, not him.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “He’s the captain, but you’re the master-sergeant.”
“You’re going to do just fine around here, Peter.”
We finished filming the scene in front of the train station and should have moved straight onto the next set — according to the schedule, we’d be getting various shots for a battlefield montage, extras spilling back and forth between tangles of barbed wire the set dressers had put up yesterday. I’d herded the extras into place, the cameras were ready — one of them on a scaffold, for a sweeping panoramic shot. All we needed was the word from Granger, who sat on his chair under the shade of the scaffold, legs crossed, smoking a cigar like he didn’t have a film stalled out in front of him.
“Boss?” I prompted, because no one else dared approach him. “What do you need?”
“Just a few more minutes,” he said, his smile broad and feral. “I’m waiting for a delivery.”
I flipped through the sheaf of papers on my clipboard — we weren’t expecting any deliveries. He’d gone behind my back, off the books. I glared, but he was unrepentant, smug as a fox in a hen house. I hated this.
I found my own bit of shade by the wall of the scene shop. Peter was there, thumbs hooked over his tool belt, looking pensively over field, the mounds of dirt marking the trenches.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
“Justifiable homicide,” I muttered. “Not a jury in the world would convict me.”
“We’re not starting, then?”
I squinted toward the road leading to the studio’s main entrance, hoping whatever Granger was waiting for got here soon.
“It should be mud,” Peter said absently.
“Mud, it should all be mud, not this hard-packed stuff.” He scuffed a toe into the dry summer earth of the backlot and didn’t even raise a wisp of dust.
“Don’t let Granger hear you say that or he’ll be trucking in water to pour over the whole place.”
The cough and rumble of an engine echoed down the alley between studios. Oh God, Granger really had trucked in water to turn the dirt to mud, to get that real trench experience. But the truck that crawled into view wasn’t holding tanks of water on its flatbed.
The poor thing inched along, barely making any progress because of the trailer it towed, lurching and skidding under the burden of an immense cargo. If the road had been at all muddy, it would have sunk up to its axels. A huge canvas sheet was strapped around the cargo, making this a mystery, like Christmas.
Granger leapt from his chair and shouted for spare hands to remove the canvas, and they needed an annoyingly long time to unknot the ropes before finally peeling back the covering. The director was just about dancing around the trailer in excitement.
The thing that rested on the trailer was a vehicle of some kind, a lozenge of lurking gray steel. Two great lengths of track looped around the flattened rhomboid shape, which was dense and alien. If the thing could move — though it seemed impossible that it could move on its own — it would crush the world before it. Barrels of guns protruded both in front and behind.
Peter and I approached slowly, the machine drawing us close, almost against our wills.
“What on Earth is it?” I asked.
“It’s a Mark V,” Peter breathed.
“A tank. From the war. Bloody hell.” The lost haze in his eyes made him look like he’d seen a ghost.
“Those guns — they don’t actually work, do they?” I said. That was just what I needed, heavy artillery on my set.
“Of course they do! This is the real thing!” Granger yelled, laughing. “And I want ten more just like it! Margie, put it on your list!”
Of course he wanted ten more. Why didn’t he tell me this a month ago? “Right. We’ll need paint, some wood — or would it be better to use canvas flats? Peter, if you can do me up a list —”
“No! No flats,” Granger said. “I want ten more tanks, real working tanks, just like this. You —” He pointed at Peter, who raised his eyebrows. “You look like you’ve seen one of these before. Have you?”
“Well — yes, sir. But I don’t think —”
“Then I want you to build me ten more of them.” He was in full-on director-is-God mode. What I could do with that power . . .
“Sir, I’m not sure —”
“I am. I’m absolutely sure. I want them roaring across the landscape, a cavalry charge of fire!” He spread his arms, displaying a picture no one else could see, snarling at the sight of it.
As if the audience would be able to hear any roaring when movies don’t have any sound to ’em.
Peter’s accent was getting thicker, angrier. “All due respect, gov, you’ve got no idea what you’re asking for —”
“Just who are you? What the hell do you know?”
This was quite enough. I stepped between them. “Mr. Granger, you can’t ask him to build one of these from scratch, much less ten. If you want real tanks you’ll have to buy them, from wherever you got this one.” And how much would that cost?
Finally, Granger deflated. “I tried. I could only get the one. Had to smuggle it out as it was. So we’ll just have to build them.” He tugged his cap and marched away, shouting at a huddle of extras for no apparent reason.
There were a hundred other ways to do this. Find some American tanks and paint Union Jacks on them. Dress up some tractors to look like the otherworldly monster huddled on the trailer.
Peter watched him go, that lost look deepening. The war was six years gone — he must have been just a kid when he fought in it.
He shook himself, returning to now. “I might be able to put something together. I’ll need steel, sheet metal — these tanks don’t need to be actually armored, do they? Rivet gun, lubricant, oil. And engines — Ricardo engines.”
I pulled out my clipboard and pencil and started writing. “Those are English, right? Can we even get those here?”
“Right, didn’t think of that. Any sort of truck engine will have to do, then. I’ll need drive belts, as many as we can get, and transmissions, drive trains. And a winch and jacks . . .”
I didn’t understand half of what he was asking for. The chief at the motor pool could maybe find me a supplier or three. “What if I brought you in a bunch of tractors and trucks — could you turn them into tanks? As long as they look good on film and move right, Granger will never know the difference.”
“It’s the moving right that’ll be the problem. Have you ever seen a row of tanks advancing over the trenches of a no man’s land?”
I stared at him. “I can’t say that I have.”
His gaze turned both inward and distant. “They’re not fast. A horse can outrun ’em. But they roar like the voice of the devil, coughing smoke. Then you see a dozen of them cresting the hill, crushing wire, trees, blockades. Rolling clean over the trenches, and you can’t see the men inside so it’s easy to imagine that these machines have minds of their own. These faceless boxes, engines drumming like heartbeats. The infantry — men scattered like roaches before them. You ever read H.G. Wells? I imagine his Martian invaders must look something like that, alien machines smashing over the landscape.”
“You drove a tank in the war?” I just had to make sure.
“Gunner, actually.” He lowered his gaze like he was embarrassed, not at all like a proud war hero.
“Then it’s lucky we have you working for us. We’ll be able to get it just right.”
I asked him if he could drive the Mark V into the warehouse, and he said he could, but he stood next to the truck for a long time, staring, arms limp at his sides, in some kind of fugue state.
“Peter,” I called, and he shivered. Finally, he got up on the trailer, but it took him another long minute of staring before he could even touch the thing. When he did, it was slowly, like he expected to get bitten.
“Peter,” I called again. “It’s not real. It’s just for the picture. It doesn’t mean anything.”
But the spell was broken, and he got to work with no trouble after that.
The entire production gathered to watch Peter drive the Mark V into the barn. I was shocked that the damn thing worked, but it did, because Granger had a little bit of sense. Peter explained that the earlier models had needed several people working in concert to steer, because the two treads weren’t on the same mechanism. To turn, one driver would have to stop his side of the tank and the other driver sped up while yet another called directions. The Mark V had a more advance steering mechanism and required only one driver.
The mechanic opened a hatch in the back of the tank and climbed in feet first. The machine seemed to swallow him. When he started the engine, it grumbled like a dragon, like I imagined a dragon would grumble, as it perched on a mountain preparing to leap on the village below it. A few gray puffs erupted from a smokestack on top as the engine sputtered, and the stretched-out box moved, inching down the ramp they’d built off the back of the trailer. The two ridged bands of treads turned, pulling the machine forward, and I lost all my metaphors. If it had had six legs I could have called it insectoid. If it had had balsa and paper wings I could have called it an airplane, or if it slithered, undulated, flapped, or crawled, I could have understood it. But this was pure mechanism, crawling forward, steadily, inexorably. Everyone backed away from it.
The thing rumbled around the truck, through the doors of the scene shop, and into the darkness, leaving behind two deep, ridged tracks in the dirt.
• • • •
Peter turned the scene shop into a factory, and, using the original Mark V as a model, he worked. Granger did, in fact, haul in tanks of water to turn the back lot into a mud puddle. If anyone had asked me, I’d have waited to film during the rainy season in winter and not had to pay for any of it.
On top of that, Granger kept rewriting the damn thing. He’d hand out new pages first thing in the morning. We were two months into filming.
I came to the set one morning to find lead actor Ross pacing. He had aristocratic good looks, a magnificent refined profile, and wavy brown hair that shone like bronze on film. He got the part because of how nicely he filled out an army uniform. Women all over the country would swoon. Shaking the pages of his new scene, he said, “I don’t understand why I have to memorize all this. It’s not like anyone can hear what I’m saying.”
“The audience reads lips, you lunk,” Arlene said, sitting more sedately in the shade of the nearby scaffold. “They know it if you’re saying ‘rutabaga’ over and over.”
I could tell a dozen gossip magazines that she was the smartest cookie at this studio and none of them would believe me.
Ross paced, script to his face, mouthing the words as he read them. It was kind of cute.
I had to stop this. Granger was out of control, and I went to tell him so. “Sir, you can’t keep rewriting the script.”
“Film needs more heart,” he said.
In the new scene, Annabell has become a nurse in order to follow George to Europe. She’s had a premonition that George is horribly injured — cut on wire, shot, and gassed — and she goes into the trenches to find him. In the original story, George is shot and lies bleeding in a trench all night while hallucinating about crows and barbed wire, before the sergeant of his unit finds him and carries him to safety.
I ranted, “This makes no sense. It’s . . . it’s maudlin. I thought you were making a war movie.”
“It’s a movie about how love is worth fighting for.”
“I don’t think anybody fought in the war for love.”
“It’s a human story!”
Neither of us had noticed Peter Jeffries coming up behind me, hat in his hand. He’d been very polite, making requests for his project. If only the rest of Hollywood were so nice to work with.
Granger looked at him, and I turned and wished I could somehow get him out of the director’s way.
“You — you’re on the film, you’ve read the new scene. Tell her it’s great! Tell her it has heart!”
Smart thing for him to do would have been to smile and nod and agree and walk away. But something cold came into his expression. A frosty anger.
“It’s totally wrong. Nothing like that ever happened, not that I ever saw. There wasn’t ever anything romantic about the trenches.”
Granger turned red and hollered, “And what do you know!”
I said, “Boss, you are out of line.”
Granger finally seemed taken aback. He finally looked at Peter, and he must have figured out how Peter knew so much about the Mark V. He huffed. “I only meant he doesn’t know a thing about the movies. This is a movie, it isn’t real life!” He stormed off and called places.
I grumbled, “Even with a hundred tanks, he’ll never get it right.”
Wistful, Peter said. “No, I don’t see how anyone could make a film showing what it was really like. But I wish . . .”
“Wish what? You tell me, we can try to make it happen.”
But Peter shook his head. “I just wish I could give him a taste of the real thing is all. Show him what it’s like to be afraid.”
The cold look on his face had vanished, replaced by a small, sly smile.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I am. Thanks.” He walked off to the scene shop, his request forgotten.
We got the new scene filmed. There was Arlene, slogging through the mud, anguish and desperation plain on her face, and there was Ross, sprawled in a ditch, calling out in the midst of a hallucination.
This whole thing was going off the rails. It would probably be a monster hit. And I needed a drink, in the middle of Prohibition, which was just typical.
• • • •
The club was really jumping that night. The new band was good, the dance floor was packed, the paper palm trees and grass huts for the evening’s “tropical getaway” theme came across as charming rather than cheap. Everyone dressed to the nines, because you never knew who might be watching. In just a glance I spotted Louis B., Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin — and June Mathis, who could give me the latest Ben-Hur gossip. Without me giving up any gossip on Shattered Spring, of course. I’d already been asked three times about what we were building in that scene shop. “Nothing,” I’d said, my smile fake.
I couldn’t get Peter’s grin out of my head.
Arlene had gotten a table overlooking the dance floor, and I sat with her, mostly as a shield to fend off the stream of guys paying court to her. Not to say that Arlene didn’t love the compliments, the deep bows over her hand, or the way the men lurked over the back of her chair. But when it got to be too much she could always grab my hand and run to the powder room. Official studio chaperone.
No one much paid attention to me, which was fine. Arlene was stunning in a silver-trimmed, white silk gown with a drop waist and plunging neckline. Her ebony hair was in a perfect bob, and her painted eyes and lips made her face glow. I couldn’t compete with that, with any of the starlets, and I didn’t try. I wore what I usually wore: dark skirt, a blouse with a jacket, just dressy enough not to get me kicked out. I kept my curls pulled back with a ribbon.
Everyone was having such a marvelous time. Me, I couldn’t stop worrying. Granger wanted more, more, more. Never mind that were out of money and behind schedule. We could film a perfectly spectacular battle with what we had right now — shoot that one tank running across a few ditches, repaint it and send it over again, patch it together with a few tracking shots, and no one would know the difference. Not that anyone listened to me.
“Margie, you’re supposed to be having fun,” Arlene said, leaning over.
“I am. Look at me having fun.” I sipped my club soda and frowned.
“All right, what’s the matter? I mean besides the usual?”
I sighed. “We’re going to outspend Ben-Hur at the rate we’re going.”
Arlene’s eyes widened. “I heard they’ve put two million into that thing — and they’re not even done yet!”
“Try four million.”
“No! That’s . . . that’s . . . wow.” She sat back, a look of wonder on her face. Nobody’d ever spent that kind of money on a picture before.
“You see why I could really use a drink right about now.”
“Amen.” Arlene pulled a palm-sized flask out of her clutch and waved it invitingly, keeping it hidden under the table.
“You’re going to cause a scandal with that, my dear.”
“I could use a good scandal, maybe that’ll get me top billing on my next picture.”
I tucked my glass under the table and Arlene poured us each a shot of whatever bathtub gin she’d scrounged up. We toasted ourselves, drank the glasses down, and wonder of wonders it really did help. Warm comfort seeped through my muscles, and I grinned vaguely at nothing in particular.
The song, a fast rag that had the place hopping, had almost finished when the waiter came over. “Miss Stewart? Phone call for you.”
It was my own damn fault for telling the studio where I was going to be tonight. “Right. Thanks.” I followed him to the phone at the coatroom and pressed the earpiece close to hear over the club’s noise. “Hello?”
Raymond, the studio’s chief of security, sounded flustered. “Miss Stewart, I don’t know what you folks have going on over on the backlot, but we’re getting noise complaints from the neighborhood. They say it sounds like a war out there. I’d go look at it myself but someone’s barricaded the scene shop.”
“Ray, it’s the middle of the night, there isn’t supposed to be anyone working —” Except Peter, who stayed late to fix up those tanks, and was obviously still there. But barricading the scene shop? “I’m sorry, I think I know what’s going on. I’ll get out there right now.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
I stopped back at the table long enough to make sure Arlene was okay.
“Anything wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing. Everything. Will you be all right if I leave?”
She made sly eyes across the room at none other than John Gilbert, the John Gilbert, leading man extraordinaire, of the amazing smoldering eyes. He raised a glass to her and winked.
“I’ll be just fine, Margie, you go on,” Arlene purred.
Of course she would.
• • • •
Five blocks away, I heard the noise Raymond had complained about. A thumping, grinding, steel ripping into steel, monstrous noise that called to mind the destruction of falling buildings, tornados, and riots.
I turned through the studio gates and drove straight to the backlot, around buildings and down alleys, dodging wagons and stacks of plywood until I reached the warehouse, past the trucks, trenches, coils of barbed wire and stacks of prop wagons and guns under tarps. A pulsing glow came from the scene shop, red and muted like a sunset, and for a shocked moment I thought the building must be on fire. But it wasn’t.
Raymond was only partly right. There wasn’t a barricade, but the row of skeletonized trucks and tractors lined up outside the scene shop door sure looked like one. A dozen vehicles had been picked over and were missing engines, tires, axles, skins. I got as close as I could in the car and parked.
This close, I could feel the noise through my feet, vibrations coming up through the ground. I picked my way around dismantled tractors and reached the doorway, which was open just a crack. Through that crack, a light shone bright as a sun and throbbed like a heartbeat, throwing off streamers of sparks, some of which bounced outside the door before fading. A metallic heat rolled toward me, pressing into the cool night, a breeze of it tugging at my hair.
Inside, a giant canvas tarp hung from the rafters like a curtain, hiding the machines Peter was building behind it. A rhythmic pounding might have been a riveter. The smell of hot iron and brimstone made me cough.
Putting my hands to my mouth, I hollered. “Peter!” He’d never hear me over the noise.
But the screeching metal ground to silence, the cackle of hot steel faded, and the red-hot flares of light went dim.
“Peter?” I called, tentative this time.
“Don’t come in!” the mechanic answered.
I’d stopped at the doorway, regarding the canvas curtain as if it was the prop in a magician’s trick. What would pulling it back reveal?
Peter came tromping around the edge of it, and I craned my neck to try to get a look beyond, but he was careful to put it back in place behind him. Wearing heavy canvas coveralls, thick gloves, and heavy boots, he pulled a pair of dark goggles off his eyes and set them on his forehead, leaving pale circles in a face covered in soot.
“Oh, Miss Stewart — sorry,” he said. “I got wrapped up in things.”
“Peter, is everything okay?”
“I . . . it’s been hard work, but I think I’ll have what Granger wants,” he said.
“Really? Ten tanks, just like that?”
“Or something,” he said.
I crossed my arms. “Studio security called me. There’ve been some noise complaints. I didn’t think you’d be working this late.”
He scratched a gloved hand over his scruffy hair. “Sorry — I didn’t even think. How late is it?”
“Midnight, at least.”
“Oh.” He scuffed to the wall, where he sank to the ground and sighed. The day’s work catching up with him at last. He looked like he weighed a thousand pounds.
“Do you have a car? You need a ride home?”
He pulled off his gloves and let them drop. “I wouldn’t want to dirty it up.”
“Never mind that. I’ve given Granger rides and you can’t mess things up any worse than him.” I slumped down next to him. He gave me a look — uncertain, bemused. I pulled Arlene’s flask out — absent-mindedly, I’d shoved it into my pocket. “Care for a drink?”
He raised a smudged brow. “Isn’t that illegal?”
“You gonna rat me out?”
He chuckled, took the flask from me, drank, and passed it back. I drank. We made the circuit like that a couple more times. He stayed quiet, frowning, jaw tight, looking like a prisoner up for execution.
“I just . . . I wonder if it’s all worth it.” He glanced at the curtain, the chaos behind it.
“As long as you get a paycheck, right? The accountants haven’t shut us down yet.”
He shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. George won’t come back to marry Annabell. Or he will, but he won’t be the same. He may not even be injured and he won’t be the same. Will she still want him then? What happens when it’s years later, and he still wakes up at night because he thinks mortars are falling?”
After the racket from the warehouse, the world felt far too quiet. No mortars falling.
“It’s just a story,” I said. “We can make it turn out however we want. George and Annabell live happily ever after.” Though George would be blinded by gas, according to the script. Annabell would marry him anyway because that was what true love was all about, and this was a movie about true love. A movie about true love with a raging full-scale tank battle in the middle of it.
“It wouldn’t happen that way. Not really. I wish I could make you all see what it was like, what it felt like —”
“Peter, you don’t have to work on this if you don’t want to. There’s a dozen other pictures you can work on. You could go work on cars for the motor pool —”
“No. I can do this. I want to do this.”
I imagined what I would see if I pulled back the canvas, a row of tanks like Martian war machines. Wasn’t sure I wanted to see it.
“At least take a break tonight. Let me drive you home.”
He lived in an apartment building a mile or so from the studio, where lots of the shop people lived. Palmer had probably got him the place. It was wooden and battered, with a couple of drooping palm trees out front.
He managed a smile before leaving the car. “Thank you for the ride, Miss Stewart. And I’m sorry again about the noise.”
“Don’t worry about it. And call me Margie.”
• • • •
A week later, bright and early in the morning, I herded two hundred extras into place on the backlot, where they waited to crawl out of their trenches and storm across the fake no man’s land, just as soon as Granger called action. Which he was all ready to do, except he needed his tanks. I hadn’t seen Peter all morning, but everyone had heard the sound of hammering and a hissing welder from the scene shop for the last four hours.
Then, all the noise stopped. Granger assumed that meant the tanks were ready. So he stood on top of the scaffold with his number-one camera and shouted through his megaphone, “Where are my tanks!”
There was an explosion. At first, we all thought it was part of the scene. It wasn’t.
The wall of the scene shop fell outward in a cloud of dust and splinters. As the debris thinned and fell away, a monster appeared, a creature from myth, Dante’s Inferno and H.G. Wells rolled into one. It seemed to have legs, a body, and even a head with red-hot eyes, but this was deceptive, the observer’s brain supplying images to explain what it was seeing. They weren’t eyes, but engines, smoking furnaces blazing with power. The machine rumbled into the open, crushing what was left of the warehouse, throwing off the roof that had crashed down on it. The engines sat on a platform built on scaffolding that rose up from a wide base. Ridged treads looped around the rhomboid base, a half a dozen rows of tracks that pulled the machine forward, pressing deep grooves into the hard-packed earth between studio buildings.
Rising above the thing’s furnace heart, sitting atop more blackened scaffolding was a head of sorts — an armored room, pocked with rivets, a thin slot of a window staring like a Cyclops’ eye. A cockpit, with the shadow of a person sitting inside, driving. He was in a suit of armor as big as the warehouse he had just destroyed. Nothing could touch Peter in there.
Treads grinding, the machine crept forward, sending a hundred extras dressed as doughboys scattering across the set of fake trenches and strung-up barbed wire. A couple of cameramen stayed by their equipment, turning their lenses on the machine, cranking away and catching the monster on film. A woman from the costume department screamed, then everyone screamed.
Glowing with heat, engines throbbed, turning drive shafts and belts that ran the gears that moved the treads, and the super-tank kept moving. A marvel of engineering, really. The whole thing should have stalled and crashed to the ground, or exploded on the spot, but it kept rumbling onward until even the cameramen fled, abandoning cameras to the monster’s crushing steel feet. Too bad, would have made a great movie. We could do War of the Worlds with this thing.
It continued on to the wood plank fence enclosing the studio backlot. The fence shattered, and the monster crushed through without stopping and onto the traffic of Melrose Avenue, tearing up asphalt as it went.
I ran to my car. I had to dodge swarms of extras, screaming actors, fleeing crew. Granger lay on the ground by a scaffold, curled up under the rickety tripod of an abandoned camera, as if that would protect him. He wrapped his arms around his head, and his mouth was open, shrieking something that wasn’t at all audible over the roar of the machine. But he didn’t look hurt, so I kept running. I’d parked at the edge of the lot, like I always did, for fast getaways when I needed to run some errand or track down some drunk actor. The habit served me well — I got out before a dozen other drivers tried to.
I followed the trail of black smoke, the noise of industrial thunder, and the flurry of panicked screams, screeching tires, crashing cars.
Peter had done it: He’d brought the war to Hollywood.
As it progressed to the next block, the beast seemed more sure of itself. The steel frame rattled as the tracks picked up speed, trundling onward, pieces of asphalt skittering away from it. Black smoke trailed from chimneys sticking from the engines like cigars. The muzzles of machine guns bristled from the hull, running up the legs and along the cockpit atop the scaffolding. Surely they weren’t functional — surely Peter wouldn’t go so far.
At a corner, one track slipped, skipped, and even stopped — and the beast turned onto Vine. The thing crashed into a truck parked on the curb — the machine may not even have known the vehicle was there. Metal crunched and screamed, and the treads only hiccupped a moment as they ground the broken pieces under.
The machine didn’t follow a straight line, but moved in a curve, as if the drive was having trouble with the treads. It peeled off the fronts of buildings on one side of the street, then the other. It smashed into cars, the multiple treads churning them under, crushing steel with its sheer weight.
If only we could replicate this noise for our audiences. The studio could send a phonographic record along with the print of the film. Put in a title card to cue when to set the needle down. That’d shock ’em.
I paralleled it, catching glimpses of it through alleys and around buildings. The thing seemed to be heading for Hollywood Boulevard. I dodged fleeing traffic and raced ahead of it, reaching Hollywood the same time the monster did. The cockpit on the scaffold peered out from behind a billboard. For a terrible moment, I thought it was going to turn away from me, that I would have to turn back around and try to race ahead to cut him off again.
But he turned toward me. Meaning I would have to face him. I pushed on the gas and skidded forward.
The tank-beast dipped as it lurched over the curb of a sidewalk. The treads whirred and moaned, the structure wobbled, rumbling harder. It should have become unbalanced and fallen over. But it stayed upright, as it was designed to do, settled on those wide treads. It would be on me in moments, crushing my car like it mangled that truck.
I set the brakes, grabbed my white cardigan from the passenger seat, and tumbled out of the car. I didn’t know if Peter could see me through that slit of a window. He might not even be conscious — surely the heat inside was boiling. Then again, the thing seemed pretty sure of itself. It breathed out furious smoke, and the heat of its furnace eyes flared. No way Peter could hear anything over that driving, pounding engine. But I tried anyway.
“Peter! Stop!” I waved the white sweater as high over my head as I could, jumping up and down as if the extra foot would make a bit of difference. “Stop!”
The machine crunched forward, closer, a soot-covered shadow filling the sky. I waved harder.
There came a grinding, squealing, crunching noise, louder and sharper than what had come before, stabbing through my brain instead of rattling through my feet. The treads — first one, then another, and another — jerked, skidded, stopped. Momentum carried it a few more feet down the street, and finally it swayed, and tipped. It fell sideways, like a monument chopped off at the ankles. The treads came off the ground, and the rest arced down, welds and rivets coming apart, trailing smoke and burning fuel. It crashed straight into the front Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, raising up a cloud of concrete and plaster.
I ran behind my car, hoping it would be shelter enough.
When the dust settled, the impromptu battlefield seemed unnaturally calm and silent. Everyone had fled, except for me. My head still rattled with the noise of the beast’s grinding heartbeat, its labored breathing. I dared to straighten, looking around the edge of my shelter, then to go over the top, into the open.
For a moment, I wondered if I’d gone deaf, because I couldn’t hear anything. But no — the machine wasn’t making any noise now, except for the popping of cooling steel. The beast lay in pieces before me. The treads had come apart; the scaffolding had cracked, and the cockpit with its platform lay isolated amidst a mountain of broken bricks. Fire licked the metal as the last of the fuel burned off the engines.
He couldn’t possibly be alive in there.
“Peter!” I called, rushing toward the smashed brain of the machine, hauling myself over mounds of steel scaffolding and broken wall. “Peter!” I still didn’t hear anything. Then —
“Hullo!” an echoing, metallic voice called from within. Through the cockpit window, I caught a flicker of movement. “I’m having a bit of trouble with the hatch. Can you pull on the handle from the outside?”
I found the hatch in the back of the cockpit, a square door set into the steel. Peter was rattling it from the other side. Gripping the thin handle, I pulled. It had warped on its hinges, jamming it in place.
“Hold on, I see where it’s stuck.” He sounded fine. Perfectly normal, even.
“Peter, are you okay?”
“I’m —” The hinge squealed against the efforts of a crowbar, interrupting him.
“Those guns — they’re not loaded, are they? You weren’t really going to . . . to hurt anyone, were you?”
“What? No! God, no. I automated the transmission and connected the drive shaft, but not the guns. I’d need gunners to fire. I don’t have gunners. I don’t have anyone.”
With a crunch and a pop, the hinge broke, and I was able to throw open the door.
Peter was drenched in sweat and covered in soot. He’d taken his shirt off. His whole lean body gleamed, and his coveralls, belted around his waist, were soaking. His hair was plastered to his head, and blood ran from a cut on his cheek.
Closing his eyes, he leaned against the door and turned his face to the open air, taking in the scant cool breeze. Heat rolled out of the steel box.
“So,” he said, needing several moments to catch his breath. “Granger — was he scared?”
I laughed. I wondered if I still had Arlene’s flask tucked in my car, because we could probably both use a drink. “Yes, I think so.”
“Well then. Good.”
• • • •
The police arrived.
The entire force must have been called out. Their cars turned every corner to surround us, tires squealing on the pavement as they came to a stop. They even had guns, as if regular bullets would work against that armored hull. Twenty cops yelled, Peter and I put our hands up, and they arrested us both. I didn’t even try to argue. They’d work out what had happened soon enough. It took ten hours for me to explain the whole thing.
Later, the city threatened to sue the studio for all the damage done to the streets and buildings. Not to mention all the individual lawsuits from the owners of vehicles and buildings that had been destroyed. Mr. M. wrote a lot of checks, to keep the name of the studio out of the courts — and the papers. No matter what some people said, there was such a thing as bad publicity.
I returned to the studio to find that Granger had quit and fled to Malibu, to “recover his nerves.” Mr. M asked if we had enough of Shattered Spring in the can to release something, anything, and like a loon I said, “Yes.”
I got Peter out on bail and set him next to me in the editing room while we took the footage we had and put together a war movie, a real war movie. And that was how I finally got my first full director credit. There had to be easier ways to make a living.
The film made my career. And Ross’s, and Arlene’s. She got her top billing after that.
Peter didn’t get to come to the premier. He didn’t go to jail, either, but ended up at the county hospital. Delayed onset of shell shock, the doctors called it, and I figured they were right. Peter hadn’t really left Ypres, until he climbed out of that cockpit on Hollywood Boulevard, in the rubble of the Egyptian. I told him he had a job back at the studio just as soon as he was ready for it.
After all, I figure he’s the most sane guy there is in this crazy town.