XII. Emery Phelps
 

"There--there is something the matter with the curtains?" Phelps suggested.

Kennedy pointed to the two holes and the spots. "Miss Lamar met her death from poison introduced into her system through a tiny scratch from a prepared needle."

"Yes?" Phelps was calm now, and cool. I wondered if it were pretense on his part. "What have these little marks to do with that?"

"Don't you see?" rejoined Kennedy. "If some one had come here before the scene in the picture was played; had thrust a small needle, perhaps a hollow needle from a hypodermic syringe, through the heavy thickness of this silk--thrust it in here, the point sticking out here--well, there would be two holes left where the threads were forced apart, like this!" Kennedy took his stickpin, demonstrating.

"How could that cause Stella's death?" Phelps, at first quite upset apparently by Kennedy's discovery, now was lapsing again into his hostile mood. His question was cynical.

"Try to recall Miss Lamar's actions," Kennedy went on, patiently. "What was she supposed to do in the very first scene? 'The portieres move and the fingers of a girl are seen on the edge of the silk. A bare and beautiful arm is thrust through almost to the shoulder and it begins to move the portieres aside, reaching upward to pull the curtains apart at the rings.'"

"Do you mean to tell me--" Phelps's eyes were very wide as he paused, grasping the scheme and yet disbelieving--unless it all were a bit of fine acting--"do you mean to tell me it is possible to calculate a thing like that? How would anyone know where her arm would be?"

"It is simpler than it sounds, Mr. Phelps." Kennedy was suddenly harsh. "There is only one natural movement of an arm in that case. The culprit was undoubtedly familiar with Miss Lamar's height and with her manner of working. It is a bit of action which has to be repeated in both the long shot and close-up scenes. Jameson here can tell you how many times a scene is rehearsed. There probably were a dozen sure chances of the needle striking the girl's bare flesh. You will see from the position of the holes that it was arranged point downward and slightly turned in, and on a particular fold of the curtain, too; showing that some one placed it there only after a nice bit of calculation. Furthermore, it was high enough so that there was little chance of anyone being pricked except the star, whose death was intended."

Phelps either seemed convinced, or else he felt it inadvisable to irritate Kennedy by a further pretense of skepticism.

A point occurred to me, however. "Listen, Craig!" I spoke in a low voice. "Remember all the emphasis you placed upon the fact that she would cry out. She was not supposed to cry out in that first scene."

"No, Walter, but if you'll read the second, the close-up, you'll see that the script actually calls for a cry. Now suppose she makes an exclamation in the first instead. Nobody would think anything of it. They would assume that she had played her action a little in advance, perhaps.

"And then consider this, too! Miss Lamar, receiving the scratch, would cry out unquestionably. But she has been before the camera for years and she is trained in the idea that film must not be wasted uselessly. She would not interrupt her action for a little scratch because in these circumstances any little startled movement would fit in with the action. By the time the scene was over she would have forgotten the incident. It would mean very little to her in the preoccupation of bringing the mythical Stella Remsen into flesh-and-blood existence. The poison, however, would be putting in its deadly work."

"Wouldn't it act before the thirteenth scene--" I began.

"Not necessarily. As a matter of fact, an actress, in the excitement of her work, might resist the effects for a much longer period than some one who realizes he is sick. Some day I'm going to write a book on that. I'm going to collect hundreds of examples of people who keep plugging along because they refuse to admit anything's the matter with them. It's like Napoleon's courier who didn't drop until he'd delivered his message and made his last precise military salute."

One other thought struck me. "The blood spots on the curtain cannot be Miss Lamar's if, as you say, the scratch brought no blood."

"How about the nocturnal visitor who removed the needle in the dark? Can't you imagine him pricking himself beautifully in his hurry."

"Good heavens!" I felt the chills travel up and down my spine. "There may be another fatality, then!" I exclaimed.

Kennedy was noncommittal. "It would be too bad for justice to be cheated in that fashion," he remarked.

Phelps meanwhile had been listening to us impatiently. Finally he turned to Mackay.

"Was that all you called me out here for? Did you just want to show me the pinholes in those portieres?"

"Not exactly," Mackay replied, eyeing him sharply. "Some one forced his way into this library last night. My guard saw him, and also saw a second man who remained out in the shrubbery and seemed to be watching the first. One shot was fired, but both men got away. An automobile was waiting, perhaps two of them."

"How does this concern me?" Phelps's voice rose in anger. He strode into the library and over to the French windows, inspecting the damage to the fine woodwork with steadily rising color. Then he hurried back to the side of Mackay.

"It's up to you, District-Attorney Mackay," he said, with a great show of his ill feeling. "You practically forced me out of my own house. You sent my servants away. You put your own guards in charge, young, inexperienced deputies who don't know enough to come in when it's wet. Now you have me make this trip out here in business hours just to show me where a needle has been stuck in a curtain and where a pair of imported window sashes have been ruined."

Mackay was unruffled. "It is necessary, Mr. Phelps, that you look over this room and see that nothing else has been disturbed; that there is no further damage. Moreover, I thought you might be interested, might wish to help us determine the identity of the intruder."

"If there's any way I can really help you to do that"-- sarcastically--"I'll be delighted."

"Were you here the night before the murder?" Mackay asked.

"You know I seldom spend the night in Tarrytown. I have quarters in New York, at the club, and recently I have been spending all my time in New York, on account of the situation in the picture business."

"You were not here the night before the murder, then?"

"No!"

"But you were out here yesterday before the actors arrived, before Manton or any of his technical staff and crew came?"

"I was out very early, to make sure the servants had the house ready." Phelps was red now. "Are you insinuating anything, Mackay?"

The little district attorney was demonstrating a certain quality of dogged perseverance. "Some one put the needle in the curtain before the company arrived. You probably were in the house at the time; or at the least your servants were. Whoever did was the one who murdered Stella Lamar."

"And also," rejoined Phelps, tartly, "was the intruder who broke in here last night and ruined my window sash. If you had had better guards you might have caught him, too!"

"Are you sure of your servants? Are they reliable--"

"I never anticipated a murder and so I didn't question them as to their poisoning proclivities when I engaged them. But you know where they are and you can examine them. If I were you, Mackay--"

"Gentlemen!" Kennedy hastened to stop the colloquy before it became an out-and-out quarrel. Then he faced the banker.

"Mr. Phelps," Kennedy's voice was soft, coaxing, "I don't think Mr. Mackay quite understands. It would be a great service to me if you would give the house a quick general inspection. You are familiar with the things here, enough to state whether they have been disturbed to any appreciable degree. You see, we do not know the interior arrangements as they were before this unfortunate happening."

With rather ill grace Phelps stalked up the steps, acceding to Kennedy's request, but disdaining to answer.

Kennedy turned to Mackay as the banker disappeared out of earshot. "That's just to cool him off a bit. I have everything I came to get right here." Producing a pair of pocket scissors, he cut the pierced and spotted bit of silk from the portieres, ruthlessly. It was necessary vandalism.

"What was the poison, Mr. Kennedy?" Mackay asked, in a low voice.

"I think that it was closely allied to the cyanide groups in its rapacious activity."

"But you haven't identified it yet?"

"No. So far I haven't the slightest idea of its true nature. It seems to have a powerful affinity for important nerve centers of respiration and muscular co-ordination, as well as possessing a tendency to disorganize the blood. I should say that it produces death by respiratory paralysis and convulsions. To my mind it is an exact, though perhaps less active, counterpart of hydrocyanic acid. But that is not what it is or I would have been able to prove it before this."

Mackay nodded, listening in silence.

"You'll say nothing of this?" Kennedy added.

"I'll be silent, of course."

Heavy footsteps from the rear marked the return of Phelps, who had covered the upper floors, descending by the back stairs so as to have a look at the kitchen.

"Everything seems to be all right," he remarked, half graciously.

Kennedy led the way to the front porch. There he seemed more interested in the weather than in the case, for he studied the sky intently. Glancing up, I saw that the morning was still gray and cloudy, with no promise that the sun would be able to struggle through the overhanging moisture.

"I don't think we'll go back to the city--that is, all the way in," he remarked, speaking for both of us. "I want to go to the Manton studio first. This is no day for exteriors and so they'll probably be working there." He smiled at Phelps. "I want to see if any of our possible suspects look as though they had been engaging in nocturnal journeys."

Phelps had been rubbing his eyes. He dropped his hand so quickly that I wanted to smile; then to cover his confusion he promptly offered to drive us in. Mackay at the same tune volunteered his car.

Kennedy accepted the latter offer. As he thanked the banker I wondered if any suspicion of that individual lurked in the back of his mind. Phelps certainly had made a very bad impression upon me with his antagonistic attitude, with his readiness to transform every question into a personal affront.

"Just one other thing, Mr. Phelps," exclaimed Kennedy, as we were about to descend to Mackay's car. "Why did you wish the scenes in 'The Black Terror' actually taken in your library?"

Kennedy had asked the question before. Had he forgotten? I glanced at the banker and read the same thought in his expression.

"I--I'm proud of my library and I wanted to see it in pictures," he replied, after some hesitation and with a little rancor.

"Not to save money?"

"It would be no appreciable saving."

"I see." Kennedy was tantalizingly deliberate. "How long have you held the controlling interest in Manton Pictures, Mr. Phelps?"

"Uh"--in surprise--"nearly a year."

"You could have had your library photographed at any time, then, simply by stating your request as you did in this case. In that year there have been pictures which would have served the purpose as well as this; better, in fact, because in this picture the library seems to be dark almost altogether. In other stories there probably were infinitely better chances for the exhibition of the room. Why did you wait for 'The Black Terror'?"

As a clear understanding of Kennedy's question and all it entailed filtered into the mind of Phelps he became so red and flushed with anger that I felt sure he was going to explode on the spot.

"Because I didn't think of it before," he sputtered.

"You said the situation in the picture business made it necessary for you to stay in town. Is there any trouble between Manton and yourself?"

"Not a bit!"

"Was Stella Lamar making any trouble, of a business nature, such as threatening to quit Manton Pictures?"

"No!" Phelps' eyes now were narrowed to slits.

"Are you sure?"

With a great effort Phelps achieved a degree of self-control. He forced a smile. His remark, presumed to be a pleasantry, I knew masked the true state of his feelings.

"As sure, Mr. Kennedy," he rejoined, awed by Kennedy's reputation even in the full flood of his anger, "as sure as I am that I'd like to throw you down these steps!"