Ah, the excitement in the theater is palpable as we near the end of our journey and today’s eleventh chapter in The Adventures of Captain Marvel, “Valley of Death,” begins to flicker across the screen. Because the seats are largely filled with sweaty elementary school children, something else is palpable too — whew! Baths and showers are definitely called for when you get home, kids…
Today’s title cards summarizing Chapter Ten will, as always, enlighten the enlightenable and confuse the confusable. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.) “Malcolm — Is shipwrecked on a reef off the coast of Siam.” “Captain Marvel — Rescues Malcolm’s party and the crew from the S.S. Carfax.” “Betty — Is left aboard ship by the Scorpion.” Now it’s time for the word we’ve come to know so well, though I’m sure only a few of you remember exactly what the letters mean. Me? Of course I know… but, uh, we’ve no time to waste with trivia… Shazam!
A flashback to the previous cliffhanger puts us with Billy and the unconscious Betty on board the sinking Carfax (and if the title card says it’s the Carfax, that’s good enough for me). As the ship goes down and water pours into Betty’s cabin, Billy gets himself and Betty off the doomed vessel (a judicious cut ensures that we don’t quite see how) and manages to swim to shore with the buoyant secretary in tow. It’s a good thing he decided to skip band camp last summer and take those swimming lessons at the YMCA.
Once on dry ground, Betty relates how an unknown assailant struck her from behind. “Why would anyone want to kill you?” Billy asks. “He must have been after my section of the map; he took my handbag,” Betty replies. Everyone seems satisfied with this explanation. This is 1941 and it won’t do to entertain the idea that the Scorpion just wanted the purse. But what of the map? It wasn’t in the bag — “It’s in a waterproof envelope pinned inside my jacket.” At this news, Bentley looks like a kid who wanted the big new Hot Wheels set for Christmas and instead got one of those last-resort toys that isn’t even really a toy, like a grip-strengthener.
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Now that everyone has been accounted for — unless there’s some other poor, forgotten schnook left in the ship’s kitchen or somewhere, in which case they’ll probably think of him in an hour or two and then have another lively round of buck-passing — Billy poses a pertinent question. “How do we get away from here?” Tal Chotali is quick to answer. (Maybe his turban shrunk as it dried and massaged his brain.) “Khandapur, a native village, is just across the hills. We can reach there in a few hours.” Having no weenies to roast (Billy and Whitey being weenies of an altogether different kind) the bedraggled bunch decides to head directly for the village.
The next morning finds them safely in Khandapur, an exotic matte painting teeming with activity. In their room in the local hotel (cunningly named “Khandapur Hotel”) the rapidly evaporating Malcolm Scientific Expedition has one last meeting. Malcolm decides that they should all “rest up for a couple of days and start for the Valley of Tombs the day after tomorrow.” The avuncular archeologist wants plenty of time to steal all the soap, shampoo, and towels that he can lay his hands on. (This is the sort of thing that gave white men such a bad reputation in the East.)
Everyone agrees with this timetable, and Malcolm tells Billy and Whitey to “see what you can round up in the way of cars and equipment.” (“Round up” is such a nice euphemism, don’t you think? Malcolm just “rounded up” the golden scorpion, Bonnie and Clyde “rounded up” money, the English “rounded up” India…)
Whitey has been sleeping in a chair during all this planning. Billy wakes him with a shove; he actually calls his sidekick “Laughing Boy.” When Bill Batson starts mocking you, you know your string is just about played out, and Whitey’s response is one of his few sensible statements in the whole serial. “Some days it don’t even pay to get up,” he mutters, following Billy out for the round up.
That evening, a door slowly creaks open, and out into the night emerges… the Scorpion! Making his way into the rough, barren terrain outside the village, the mastermind attaches a note to the ankle of a falcon (he must have been hiding the bird underneath his robe for the last ten chapters, accounting for his lumpy shape and funny walk) and releases his winged messenger into the sky. The Scorpion finds this rather primitive method of communication necessary because it’s darn near impossible to get a good cell phone signal in these hills.
The falcon quickly reaches a tribesman. (A good thing too, because last week my word processor notified me that it was going on strike if I typed many more “goons” or “thugs,” but I haven’t come close to using up my allotment of “tribesmen” yet.) The turbaned goo — er, minion takes the bird to the tribal leader, Rahman Bar (who’s been catching up on Breaking Bad since we last saw him in chapter two).
He shares the message with his sub-chief. “It is from our master the Scorpion,” Bar says. “White infidels plan to enter the sacred valley the day after tomorrow. He will give you the signal to attack!”
The sub-chief has his doubts. (He must have a distant cousin in the states named Barnett.) “But our men are few,” he temporizes. “They will be reluctant to face the guns of these foreigners.”
Being a paid-up member of the Scorpion’s Value Club, Rhaman Bar won’t let mere reasons stop him; he has a cunning and intricate plan. “There will be no danger,” he assures his reluctant stooge. “I shall prepare a trap which will wipe them out before they can fire a shot!”
Rahman Bar is especially eager for this showdown because if he offs just one more infidel archaeologist, he can get his card punched and redeem it for a medium-sized, one-topping frozen yogurt. (If he wants two toppings, he has to pay extra — or knock off ten more tomb-defilers.) With a flamboyant whirl of his cape — certainly the best thing about wearing one — the tribal chief stalks out to put his plan into effect… whatever it is.
The next morning, in the Khandapur Hotel, Malcolm is dictating a letter to Betty. It’s about time she earned her secretarial pay — I mean, what else does she do around here, anyway? Billy comes in and tells everyone that he and Whitey have gotten everything ready and they can start for the tomb right away.
As Bentley and Tal Chotali dart daggered glances into corners and sweatily try to think up plausible objections, Malcolm points out that they hadn’t planned to leave until tomorrow. Billy sees no reason for dragging this out. “It’s early yet and there’s no use wasting any more time here.”
Betty backs him up. “I’d like to get started and get it over with,” she says, employing a phrase she’s had to use too many times in her life, poor woman. Or maybe she just doesn’t like taking dictation. Malcolm gives in and agrees to set out immediately, saving Bentley and Tal Chotali from the calamity of having their eyeballs come loose and roll right out of their heads.
Outside, Malcolm, Betty, Bentley, and Tal Chotali get into one car (with Whitey driving, proving once and for all the proposition that we learn nothing from history) and Billy gets into another car right behind it. As they all drive off, Bentley and Tal Chotali seem especially dejected; on the deserted roads of this serial, there’ll be little chance of passing the time by playing the License Plate Game or SlugBug.
As the cars wind their way through the rugged hills, they’re spotted by a tribesman on horseback. He pulls out a mirror and uses it to signal another tribesman (who looks to be about thirty yards away), who then gets on his own horse and rides off. Billy sees this signaling and decides to investigate. He pulls off the road, gets out of the car, and says the magic steroidal word that adds twelve inches and eighty pounds. “Shazam!”
Captain Marvel quickly flies in pursuit of the tribesman who did the signalling, and who is now galloping away on his steed. The World’s Mightiest Mortal catches up with him and knocks him off his horse. He puts the question to the unhappy native, and none too gently. “Why were you sending that signal?” he barks, with a glare and a shake.
After a few pro forma exchanges of evasions and threats (dictated by union rules), the tribesman spills the beans. The natives have blocked the road in the canyon, and now that they know that the expedition members are coming, “they will blow up the mountainside and bury them under a landslide.”
Captain Marvel dumps the cringing native on the ground and leaps into the air in an attempt to reach the party before it gets to the trap. Meanwhile, the second tribesman reaches Rahman Bar with the news that the “white infidels are driving through the pass.” Thinking of all the cleaning and baking that’s yet to be done, the chieftain says, “They were not expected until tomorrow!” After considering a moment he decides that he’ll just have to make do. “No matter — we are ready for them. Finish laying the fuse!”
The messenger reminds his leader that the Scorpion himself was supposed to give the signal for the attack. “So his message said,” Rahman Bar replies, “but he may not have the opportunity now; our orders are clear — we must destroy the white men before they enter the valley.” Of course, he doesn’t realize that the Scorpion himself is one of this group and may get squashed by the avalanche.
This whole brilliant idea of being both a member of the Malcolm Expedition and the evil, megalomaniac Scorpion at the same time is looking more and more problematic — it’s a classic example of overstretch, like Mussolini simultaneously trying to conquer Albania and make those charming, witty, self-deprecating speeches that he was so well known for. You just know it’s going to end badly.
Just as Rahman Bar confirms the plan to his minions, the car pulls up to the roadblock (a fallen tree) that the natives have set up. The tribal chieftain gloats from his hiding place in the rocks above. “The infidels are in our hands!” He can already taste that frozen yogurt. As the men vainly try to move the obstacle, first by pushing and pulling, then by chopping it up with axes, Rahman Bar lights the fuse that will drop a couple of tons of rock on them. As the fuse burns down the natives ride away and Captain Marvel approaches the scene. He arrives with one of those patented Davy Sharpe drops from ten or twelve feet that are both exciting to watch and appalling to contemplate. (In his off time, the veteran stuntman enjoyed socializing with friends, reading good books, and having his knees replaced.)
The Big Red Cheese expertly summarizes the situation for the bemused group. “I’ll move that tree — get in the car! The Mountain’s going to blow up!” For once, everyone obeys without argument and, as Captain Marvel lifts the tree out of the way, the car proceeds down the road and away from danger. Our hero flies away just as the dynamite explodes, sending tons of rock cascading down onto the road. (The fact that everyones’ life depended on Whitey being able to find first gear is simply too terrifying to think about.)
A short time afterward, the group arrives at the tomb. (No one asks Billy where he was or why he was lagging so far behind; I think they’ve pretty much given up on this kid.) A surly Rahman Bar watches them from a distance. How could his perfect plan have failed to eliminate the intruders? In any case, “We must think of a way to rouse all the tribes against them!” But how? Poison pen letters? A telemarketing campaign? Now there’s a possibility… two or three phone calls a night to every tribal home (you know the kind — “Hello, I’m from the Malcolm Archaeological Expedition, and I’d like to talk to you about some very special children; for just pennies a day you can make a difference… “) would whip the natives into an unstoppable fury. But that will take too long — the yogurt shop closes at nine!
“If only the volcano would speak,” one of the tribesmen muses. “Its eruption has always been a signal for our men to assemble.” (In the absence of reliable WiFi, I suppose this is the best they can do.) The notoriously lazy volcano is asleep, however. “We will wake it up,” Rahman Bar decides, “by diverting the river into it as ancient warriors once did! Come!” The natives gallop away to utilize the ancient warriors’ method of getting water to run uphill.
Outside the tomb opening, the group joins the map pieces together to see where Lang hid his lens. “Why, it looks like one of the slabs inside the tomb,” Malcolm fatuously crows, not remembering that since their last visit, four of the six original tomb-snooping archaeologists have met violent deaths. Bentley is all for plunging back in. “Good!” he says. “Let’s go and get the lens!” You might as well keep the parking space if you’ve already gotten the ticket.
Enhancing the sense of deja-vu, Tal Chotali and Billy again refuse to enter. “I’ll not be a party to invasion of the sacred tomb,” the turbaned humbug intones. “Nothing but disaster can come from it.” (You have to give him points for refraining from mentioning all those knife-gashed or bullet-riddled expedition members.)
Billy adds, “I think I’ll stay outside and keep an eye on the cars.”
“That’s a good idea, Billy,” Malcolm agrees. After all, they have had trouble in this neighborhood before; it would be a rude surprise to come out of the tomb to find their cars stripped and up on blocks. Malcolm, Bentley, Betty, and Whitey enter the tomb, leaving Billy and Tal Chotali to do whatever it is they do when they know the camera isn’t on them.
Up in the hills, Rahman Bar and his boys are playing with dynamite again, using it to start a landslide that blocks the river and diverts its flow… uphill… into the mouth of the volcano Scorpio. If that doesn’t rouse the tribes, the chieftain will have to stir the people up by ringing their doorbells and running.
In the tomb, the intrepid (or blasphemous, depending on where you were born) four stand before the slab, behind which rests the long-sought lens that will complete the atom smasher. As Whitey gets to work prying it open, the diverted waters are having their effect, and Scorpio starts rumbling and belching fire, like a convention-going Shriner after a spicy meal. The tomb-desecrators start getting nervous as the walls start shaking and chunks of stone begin to fall from the ceiling. Speeding his efforts, Whitey gets the slab off the wall and reaches into the opening behind it. A few seconds of groping (which Whitey is well equipped for, as the phrase describes his usual Saturday night) and his hand emerges, clutching the precious lens of the lost Scorpion Dynasty — and he didn’t even get slapped for it.
And not a moment too soon… or actually, since this is Whitey we’re talking about, it’s a moment too late. The rumbling and shaking increase sharply as the volcanic eruption grows more violent. Malcolm tucks the lens in his pocket and the group tries to make their way out as the room starts to shake to pieces. Malcolm and Bentley make it through the door into an outer passage, but before Betty and Whitey can follow, the exit is blocked by falling rock, and then the chamber starts to collapse around them, sending enormous blocks of stone tumbling down to crush them!
Is there no way out for Betty and Whitey? At long last, who is the Scorpion? When the history of the Malcolm Archeological Expedition comes to be written, how many times will the word “fiasco” be used? Is Betty ever going to run for public office? Because I would sure vote for her.
The answers to (some of) these and other questions will be found in next week’s exciting — and final — chapter, “Captain Marvel’s Secret.” See you then!