Jim arrives at the home of Supreme Court Justice Vincent Chayne, who tells him that his wife is giving a birthday party for their grandchildren and their friends. He insists that there is no life that his life is in danger, but Jim points out that in the last ten days, two other Justices died under mysterious circumstances. Chayne points out that both deaths were listed as accidental, and Jim reminds him that both men died at exactly 2 pm and both received identical gifts in the mail: a small model casket. When the Justice hesitates, Jim asks where his is and Chayne shows him the coffin that he received that morning. The Justice refuses to permit anyone to nursemaid him... just as the clock chants 2.
Chayne goes to his grandson's birthday party and Jim accompanies him to the study. Mrs. Chayne meets them outside and tells her husband that the puppet show is a hit. When Chayne says that he didn't arrange a puppet show, Jim overhears them and follows them inside. The puppets are recreating a courtroom with a puppet judge. The puppet judge is a perfect image of Chayne. A puppet defendant comes in--a ballerina--and then another defendant wearing a tuxedo. A clock comes down saying that it's 2 o'clock, and the puppet judge emphatically repeats the time. The defendant puppet takes out a blunderbuss and Jim sees the barrel of a real pistol behind the puppet judge. He shoves Chayne out of the way just in time as a shot goes off, and the puppet then shoots Jim as he draws a gun and shoots the puppet.
Later, Artie examines the judge puppet while Dr. Lake checks Jim and confirms that he's okay. Jim checks behinds the stage and finds the puppets that were used in the show, but no sign of the puppeteer. He tells Artie that a puppet shot him, and Lake shows him the drugged dart that the puppet fired. Artie takes it to the lab to be analyzed, while Chayne comes in and thanks Jim for saving his life. Jim asks where the puppet that shot him is, and reveals that it's gone. The agent figures that the killer took it with him because leaving it behind would have been like leaving a part of himself behind. Jim points out that the killer left behind a trail of clues, and points out that if they find the defendant then they'll find the killer. Chayne says that there was a brilliant man many years ago, a sculptor who was convicted to hang. He appealed up to the Supreme Court and they unanimously refused to hear his case. The sentence was never carried out because the man leaped from the train taking him to prison, and it was assumed that he died. The man's name was Zachariah Skull.
Jim looks at the puppets again and notices that each one is deformed in some manner. Chayne says that Zachariah was a sadistic hate-filled man, and Jim finds one puppet that is flawless: the ballerina. There's a locket around its neck with "Triton's Locker" printed on it, and Jim points out that it's a waterfront tavern... and that Triton was the deformed sea god. He figures that Chayne is expecting him to come and leaves.
That night, Jim arrives at the tavern and orders a drink from the waitress. As he looks around, Jim sees the stage... and a puppet hand holding aside the curtain for someone to watch him. The waitress comes back and "accidentally" spills his drink, and whispers a warning to him to get out while he still can. Once she leaves, Jim notices all of the seamen watching him and waves a greeting. He then launches an attack before they can come at him. Jim is forced to run through the stage and down the hallway beyond, and tries the backdoor. It's locked, and a panel closes behind him. The room is an elevator and it descends at rapid speed. Clutching at his head due to the increasing pressure, Jim collapses.
The elevator finally stops and the door opens. Jim finds himself in a vast darkened underground chamber. A single spotlight shows Zachariah at a dinner table, waiting for Jim. Jim arrests him for the two murders, and Zachariah points out that he is the one holding Jim. The agent sits down at the table and a one-eyed life-sized puppet drops from the ceiling. The puppet, Pitney, pours wine and Jim checks the almost-invisible line-attached to its arm. Zachariah explains that the control lines transfer steam into his puppets, amplifying their moments. He demonstrates with a control panel at his side, and Pitney is lifted off to the ceiling.
Jim toasts Zachariah's genius, and points out that Pitney was deformed like Zachariah's other puppets. Zachariah says that they're all mutilated because art imitates life, and he thinks that everything in life is mutilated in life... except for Vivid. A life-size model of the ballerina puppet dances out of the shadows, and Zachariah invites Jim to dance with her. He does so and the puppet nestles against him, and Jim abruptly stops and says that he's bored with the game. Zachariah figures that Jim is shaken and affronted because he let himself get caught up in the moment. He sends Vivid dancing off and Jim points out that Zachariah is playing God. Zachariah dismisses Jim as a romantic fool, and insists that no one will stop his mission to wipe out the Supreme Court and restore his honor.
When Jim wonders what Zachariah will do next, Zachariah brings up a spotlight on a life-size puppet of Ulysses S. Grant at his desk. Grant turned down Zachariah's plea for clemency, and Zachariah demonstrates a messenger bringing a musical statue of a Samurai archer in. It shoots and kills Grant. When Jim goes to Zachariah, three toy soldier puppets drop down, guns ready.
Artie returns to Chayne's home and asks what happened to Jim. Chayne tells him about the locket and how Jim described that it belonged to a waterfront tavern with a deformed sea god's name. Artie hits the waterfront and sees a placard for Triton's Locker, and tips the sandwich man.
The puppets lock Jim up in a cage. The door finally opens and a spotlight shines, revealing a nearby mock courtroom. Zachariah is the judge and Jim steps forward. The puppeteer says that Jim's trial was conducted in his absence, and he was charged with the murder of a puppet. Zachariah brings down the defendant puppet that Jim shot earlier, and Jim plays along, asking to see his jury. The puppeteer brings up the lights, showing twelve puppets including Vivid, and says that the sentence is death.
Playing for time, Jim asks for the right to address the jury. Zachariah realizes what he's doing but is confident enough to allow it. Jim points out that Zachariah has admitted to the murder of two men and will continue with the murder of at least seven more. He tries to run only to find toy soldier puppets waiting. Jim returns to his address and reviews his own case.
Artie poses as a drunken man and enters the tavern. He sits down and the waitress comes over, and says to her that he just lost his best friend Jim. She whispers to him to invite her to sit down. Once Artie does so, the waitress tells her not to mention Jim's name because he could get into trouble. Artie suddenly sobers up and the waitress realizes that the whole thing is a charade. She describes Jim fighting every customer and then ran through the stage, and he never came back. The waitress warns that the backstage is out of bounds, and Artie returns to his drunk act and tells her to slap him for getting fresh. She does so and Artie heads for the stage. When a seaman tries to stop him, Artie pulls away and starts singing. He ducks behind the curtain and says that he'll be right back.
Zachariah finally stops Jim's address and tells him that the sentence is still death. However, he offers him a trial by combat and a caveman puppet drops down. Someone tosses Jim a knife, and he glances over at the Vivid puppet. The caveman, Og, advances on Him and he cuts its control lines. Zachariah calls down a whip-wielding buffoon which disarms Jim and then whips him in the shoulder. Jim finally manages to disarm the puppet, and Zachariah invites him to remove the buffoon's mask. The face beneath is Jim's, and Zachariah lifts it back up to the ceiling.
The puppeteer invites the jury to vote on whether Jim lives or dies. They all vote for Jim to die except Vivid, and a squad of toy soldiers march out of the darkness to deliver sentence on Jim.
Artie finds the concealed elevator room and the door obligingly opens for him. When he goes in, it closes behind him.
Zachariah tells Jim that Artie has arrived, just as Artie walks out of the shadows. Jim punches him and complains about his supposed strategy. Playing along, Artie punches him back. The two men fight and then run for it past the soldiers. Jim tells Artie what's going on, and figures that the steam pressure is coming from somewhere. They come to some pipes and Artie prepares to blow them up. Jim point out that they're below the ocean and they look for the cutoff valves. The agents find and shut them off, stopping the toy soldiers as they come up.
The agents return to the courtroom and find all of the puppets immobilized. Zachariah is still seated at the judge's bench, and Jim leaps up to grab him.. and discovers that he's a puppet as well. Vivid steps out of the shadows and says that Zachariah has cut her loose. She says that she's not a puppet and pulls the glued-on lines from her arms. Vivid says that Zachariah promised that if she went through with the masquerade, there'd be no killings. However, when Jim described what Zachariah had done, she had second thoughts. She glances up at a central control center and tells them to go away while they have a chance. Jim points out that they came there with a mission.
The agents find a spiral stairway leading up to the control center. Seated in the center of it is the real Zachariah Skull: hideously deformed by his leap from the train. The puppet Zachariah was what he looked like originally, and claims that he was pushed from the train by a verdict for a murder he never committed. When Jim tells him that it's time to go, Zachariah grabs a gun and throws a switch. He tells the agents that he's opened the seacocks, letting the ocean in. When it hits the boilers, they'll explode.
Vivid runs up and tells Zachariah to let the agents go. When he refuses, she draws a gun and Zachariah wonders if she will shoot her guardian: the man who pulled her out from under the wheels of a cart and mended her broken limbs. Vivid refuses to let him kill the agents, and Zachariah shoots at her. He misses and Vivid shoots back, hitting a steam pipe. The boiling steam in the pipes envelops Zachariah, killing him, and the agents tell Vivid that there's nothing more they can do for him. The agents take Vivid to the elevator and take it up. When they get to the tavern, they look out at the harbor and see the explosion as the seawater hits the boilers.
The next day, Jim and Artie visit Chayne. He wants to keep Zachariah's casket as a reminder and thanks them on behalf of the Supreme Court. As they leave, they hear the sounds of a puppet show from the grandson's party. They go in and see the same puppets performing the same show, and Chayne invites Jim to check the puppeteer for himself. Jim goes behind the stage and the show ends. When Artie goes backstage to see what's going on, he finds Jim and Vivid kissing. Vivid waves to Artie and has the ballerina puppet close the curtain.
Written by Gadfly on Dec 25, 2016