XV. I Become a Detective
 

Important as it was to watch Enid and Marilyn, Werner and the rest, Kennedy decided that it was now much more important to hold to his expressed purpose of returning to the laboratory with our trophies of the day's crime hunt.

"For people to whom emotion ought to be an old story in their everyday stage life, I must say they feel and show plenty of it in real life," I remarked, as Enid set us down and drove off. "It does not seem to pall."

"I don't know why the movie people buy stories," remarked Craig, quaintly. "They don't need to do it--they live them."

When we were settled in the laboratory once more Kennedy plunged with renewed vigor into the investigation he had dropped in the morning in order to make the hurried trip to the Phelps home in Tarrytown.

I had hoped he would talk further of the probabilities of the connection of the various people with the crime, but he had no comment even upon the admission of Enid that she had known Millard for a period long antedating the trouble with Stella Lamar.

It seemed that, after all, he was quite excited at the discovery of the ampulla and was anxious to begin the analysis of its scale-like contents. I was not sure, but it struck me that this might be the same substance which had spotted the towel or the portieres. If that were so, the finding of it in this form had given him a new and tangible clue to its nature, accounting for his eagerness.

I watched his elaborate and thorough preparations, wishing I could be of assistance, but knowing the limitations of my own chemical and bacteriological knowledge. I grasped, however, that he was concentrating his study upon the spots he had cut from the portieres, in particular the stain where the point of the needle had been, and upon the incrustations on the inner surface of the tube. He made solutions of both of these and for some little time experimented with chemical reactions. Then he had recourse to several weighty technical books. Though bursting with curiosity, I dared not question him, nor distract him in any way.

Finally he turned to a cage where he kept on hand, always, a few of those useful martyrs to science, guinea pigs. Taking one of the little animals and segregating him from the others, he prepared to inoculate him with a tiny bit of the solution made from the stain on the piece cut from the portiere.

At that I knew it would be a long and tiresome analysis. It seemed a waste of time to wait idly for Kennedy to reach his conclusions, so I cast about in my mind for some sort of inquiry of my own which I could conduct meanwhile, perhaps collecting additional facts about those we were watching at the studio.

Somehow I could not wholly lose my suspicions of the director, Werner; especially now as I marshaled the evidence against him. First of all he was the only person absolutely in control of the movements of Stella Lamar. If she did not bring up her arm against the curtains in a manner calculated to press the needle against her flesh it certainly would not seem out of the way for him to ask her to do it over again, or even for him to direct changes in her position. This he could do either in rehearsal or in retakes after the scene had actually been photographed. It was not proof, I knew. Practically all of them were familiar with the action of the scene, could guess how Werner would handle it. The point was that the director, next to Millard, was the most thoroughly conversant with the scenes in the script, had to figure out everything down to the very location and angles of the camera.

Another matter, of course, was the placing of the needle in the silk. For that purpose some one had to go to Tarrytown ahead of the others, or at least had to precede the others into the living room. Offhand I was compelled to admit that this was easiest for Phelps--Phelps, the man who had insisted that the scene be taken in his library. At the same time, I knew it was quite possible for the director to have entered ahead of anyone else, possible for him to have issued orders to his people which would keep them out of the way for the brief moment he needed.

A third consideration was the finding of the ampulla in McGroarty's car. Stella, Marilyn, Jack Gordon, Merle Shirley, and Werner had ridden out together. Werner had not returned. While this fact did not indicate definitely that he might have dropped it, coupled with the other considerations it pointed the suspicion of guilt at the director.

Then there was the finding of the towel in the washroom of the office building at the studio. While Kennedy now said it was not used to wipe the needle, while we now knew that the needle remained in the portieres from the morning of Stella's death until late that night, yet Kennedy affirmed the connection of the towel with the crime in some subtle way. It was true that members of the cast sometimes used the washroom, yet it was evident that Manton, Millard, and Werner, who had rooms on the floor, were the more apt to be concerned in the attempt to dispose of it. Against Manton I could see no real grounds for suspicion. In a general way we had been compelled to eliminate Millard early in our investigation. Again I was brought, in this analysis of the mystery, to Werner.

One other point remained--the identity of the nocturnal visitor to Tarrytown. In connection with that I remembered the remark of Marilyn. Werner was acting as he always acted when he was out late the night before, she had said. While my theories offered no explanation of the second man, the watcher, I saw--with an inner feeling of triumph--that everything again pointed to the director.

I determined not to tell my conclusion to Kennedy, yet. I did not want to distract him. Besides, I felt he would disagree.

"What do you think of this, Craig?" I suggested. "Suppose I start out while you're busy and try to dig up some more facts about these people?"

"Excellent!" was his reply. "I can't say how much longer my analysis will keep me. By all means do so, Walter. I shall be here, or, if not, I'll leave a note so you can find me."

Accordingly, I took up my search, determined to go slowly and carefully, not to be misled by any promising but fallacious clues. I knew that Werner would be working at the studio, from all we had heard in the morning. I determined upon a visit to his apartment in his absence.

From the telephone book I discovered that he lived at the Whistler Studios, not far from Central Park on the middle West Side--a new building, I remembered, inhabited almost entirely by artists and writers. As I hurried down on the Subway, then turned and walked east toward the Park, I racked my brain for an excuse to get in. Entering the lower reception hall, I learned from the boy that the director had a suite on the top floor, high enough to look over the roofs of the adjoining buildings directly into the wide expanse of green and road, of pond and trees beyond.

"Mr. Werner isn't in, though," the boy added, doubtfully, without ringing the apartment.

"I know it," I rejoined, hastily. "I told him I'd meet him here this afternoon, however." On a chance I went on, with a knowing smile, "I guess it was pretty late when he came in last night?"

"I'll say so," grinned the youth, friendly all of a sudden. He had interpreted the remark as I intended he should. He believed that Werner and I had been out together. "I remember," he volunteered, "because I had to do an extra shift of duty last night, worse luck. It must have been after four o'clock. I was almost asleep when I heard the taxi at the door."

"I wonder what company he got the taxi from?" I remarked, casually. "I tried to get one uptown--" I paused. I didn't want to get into a maze of falsehood from which I would be unable to extricate myself.

"I don't know," he replied. "It looked like one of the Maroon taxis, from up at the Central Park Hotel on the next block, but I'm not sure."

"I think I won't go upstairs yet," I said, finally. "There's another call I ought to make. If Mr. Werner comes in, tell him I'll be back."

I knew very well that Werner would not return, but I thought that the bluff might pave the way for getting upstairs and into the apartment a little later. Meanwhile I had another errand. The boy nodded a good-by as I passed out through the grilled iron doors to the street. Less than five minutes afterward I was at the booth of the Maroon Taxi Company, at the side of the main entrance of the Central Park Hotel.

Here the starter proved to be a loquacious individual, and I caught him, fortunately, in the slowest part of the afternoon. Removing a pipe and pushing a battered cap to the back of a bald head, he pulled out the sheets of the previous day. Before me were recorded all the calls for taxicab service, with the names of drivers, addresses of calls, and destinations. Although the quarters in the booth were cramped and close and made villainous by the reek of the man's pipe, I began to scan the lists eagerly.

It had been a busy night even down to the small hours of the morning and I had quite a job. As I came nearer and nearer to the end my hopes ebbed, however. When I was through I had failed to identify a single call that might have been Werner's. Several fares had been driven to and from the Grand Central Station, probably the means by which he made the trip to Tarrytown. In each case the record had shown the Central Park Hotel in the other column, not the Whistler Studios. I was forced to give up this clue, and it hurt. I was not built for a detective, I guess, for I almost quit then and there, prepared to return to the laboratory and Kennedy.

But I remembered my first intention and made my way back to the Whistler Studios. Anyhow, I reflected, Werner would hardly have summoned a car from a place so near his home had he wished to keep his trip a secret. It was more important for me to gain access to his quarters. There it was quite possible I might find something valuable. I wondered if I would be justified in breaking in, or if I would succeed if I attempted it.

Things proved easier than I expected. My first visit unquestionably had prepared the way. The hallboy took me up in the elevator himself without telephoning, took me to Werner's door, rang the bell, and spoke to the colored valet who opened it. As I grasped the presence of the servant in the little suite I was glad I had not tried my hand at forcing an entrance. I had quite anticipated an empty apartment.

The darky, pleasant voiced, polite, and well trained, bowed me into a little den and proceeded to lay out a large box of cigarettes on the table beside me, as well as a humidor well filled with cigars of good quality. I took one of the latter, accepting a light and glancing about.

Certainly this was in contrast with Manton's apartment. There was nothing garish, ornate, or spectacular here. Richly, lavishly furnished, everything was in perfect taste, revealing the hand of an artist. It might have been a bit bizarre, reflecting the nervous temperament of its owner. Even the servant showed the touch of his master, hovering about to make sure I was comfortable, even to bringing a stack of the latest magazines. I hope he didn't sense my thoughts, for I cursed him inwardly. I wanted to be alone. Ordinarily I would have enjoyed this, but now I had become a detective, and it was necessary to rummage about, and quickly.

The sudden ringing of the telephone took the valet out into the tiny hall of the suite and gave me the opportunity I wished.

Phelps apparently was calling up to leave some message for Werner, which I could not get, as the valet took it. What, I wondered, was Phelps telephoning here for? Why not at the studio? It looked strange.

I lost no time in speculation over that, however. The moment I was left to myself I jumped up and rushed to a writing desk, a carved antique which had caught my eye upon my entrance, which I had studied from my place in the easy chair. It was unlocked, and I opened it without compunction. With an alert ear, to warn me the moment the colored boy hung up, I first gazed rather helplessly at a huge pile of literary litter. Clearly there was no time to go through all of that.

I gave the papers a cursory inspection, without disturbing them, hoping to catch some name or something which might prove to be a random clue, but I was less lucky than Kennedy had been in his casual look at Manton's desk the afternoon before. Still able to hear the valet at the telephone, I reached down and opened the top drawer of the desk. Here perhaps I might be more fortunate. One glance and my heart gave a startled leap.

There in a compartment of the drawer I saw a hypodermic needle-- in fact, two of them--and a bottle. On the desk was a fountain pen ink dropper, a new one which had never been used. I reached over, pressed its little bulb, uncorked the bottle, inserted the glass point, sucked up some of the contents, placed the bulb right side up in my waistcoat pocket, and recorked the bottle. Next I took and pocketed one of the two needles, both of which were alike as far as I could see.

Then I heard a good-by in the hall. I closed drawer and desk hastily. As I caught the click of the receiver of the telephone on its hook I was halfway across the floor. Before the colored boy could enter again I was back in my chair, my head literally in a whirl.

What a stroke of good fortune! I had no expectation of proving Werner to be the guilty man by so simple a method as this, however. If he were the slayer of the star he would be too clever to leave anything so incriminating about. I have always quarreled with Poe's theory in The Purloined Letter, believing that the obvious is no place to hide anything outside of fiction. What I conceived, rather, was that Werner really was a dope fiend. The nature of the drug Kennedy would tell me very easily, from the sample. Establishing Werner's possession of the needles was another point in my chain of presumptions, showing that he was familiar with their use; and added to that was the psychological effect upon him of the habit, a habit responsible in many other cases for murders as skillfully carried out as that of Stella Lamar, often, too, without the slightest shred of real motive.

I recalled Werner's habitually nervous manner and was sure now that the needles actually were used by him. Was it due to the high pressure of his profession? Had that constant high tension forced him to find relief in the most violent relaxation?

Elated, I was tempted at first to crowd my luck. I wondered if I could not discover another ampulla such as the chauffeur, McGroarty, had picked up in his car. When Werner's servant, almost apologetically, explained that the telephone message was from a near-by shop and that he would have to leave me for a matter of ten or fifteen minutes, I assured him that it was all right and that I would occupy myself with a magazine. The moment he was out the door I sprang to action and began a minute search of every nook and cranny of the rooms.

But gradually a sense of growing fear and trepidation took hold of me. Suppose, after all, Werner should return home unexpectedly? The colored boy did not seem surprised that I should wait, a slight indication that it was possible. Further, I could never tell when the darky might not return himself, breaking in upon me without warning and discovering me. At the best I was not a skillful investigator. I did not know just where to look for hidden evidences of poison, nor was I able to work fast, for fear of leaving too tangible marks of my actions behind me. A great perspiration stood out on my forehead. Gradually a trembling took hold of my limbs and communicated itself to my fingers.

After all, it was essential that Werner be kept in ignorance of my suspicions, granting they were correct. It would be fatal if I should frighten him inadvertently, so that he would take to flight. Realizing my foolhardiness, I returned to my chair at last, picking up a magazine at random. I did so not a moment too soon. A slight sound caught my ear and I looked up to see the valet already halfway into the room. His tread was so soft I never would have heard him.

"I don't think I'll wait any longer," I remarked, rising and stretching slightly, as though I had been seated all the time. "I'll ring up a little later; perhaps come back after I get in touch with Mr. Werner."

"Who shall I say was here, sah?" the boy asked, with just a trace of darky dialect.

Above all I didn't want to alarm Werner. I could not repeat the explanation I had allowed the attendant downstairs to assume from my remark, that I was a friend who had been out with the director the night before. I should have to take a chance that Werner's servant and the hallboy would not compare notes, and that the latter would say nothing to the director upon his arrival.

"I'm an old friend from the Coast," I explained, with a show of taking the negro into my confidence. "I wanted to surprise him and so"--I slipped a half dollar into a willing palm--"if you'll say nothing until I've seen him--"

He beamed. "Yes, sah! You jus' count on George, sah!"

Downstairs I wondered if I could seal the tongue of the youth who had accommodated me before. Then I discovered that he had gone off duty. It would be extremely unlikely that he would be about until the following day. I smiled and hastened out to the street.

Once in the open air again, I realized the full extent of the risk I had taken. All at once it struck me that no amount of explanation from either Kennedy or myself would serve to mollify Werner if he were innocent and learned of my visit. I doubted, in this moment of afterthought, that I would escape censure from Kennedy, who surely would not want his case jeopardized by precipitate actions upon my part. I began to run, to get away from the Whistler Studios as fast as possible.

Then I saw I had grown panicky and I checked myself. But I hurried to the Subway and up to the university again, and to the laboratory, eager to compare notes with Kennedy.

"If I were Alphonse Dupin," he remarked, calmly, grasping my excitement, "I would deduce that you have discovered something. I would also deduce that you believe it important and that you have no intention of withholding the information from me, whatever it is."

"Correct," I answered, grinning in spite of myself.

Then I handed him the needle, telling him in a few brief words of my visit to Werner's apartment, of the hallboy's confirmation of a nocturnal trip of some sort, of my search of the desk and some other parts of the suite. "I fixed it so that he won't hear of my visit, at least for some time. He won't suspect who it was, in any case."

Kennedy examined the hypodermic.

"Not like the one used," he murmured.

"I thought that," I explained. "It simply indicates he is a dope fiend and is familiar with the use of a needle. Here!" I produced the ink filler which I had used to bring a sample of the contents of the bottle. "This seems to be what he uses. What is it?"

Kennedy sniffed, then looked closely at the liquid through the glass of the tube. "It's a coca preparation," he explained. "If Werner uses this, he's unquestionably a regular drug addict."

"Well," I paused, triumphantly, "the case against the chief director of Manton Pictures grows stronger all the time."

"Not necessarily," contradicted Kennedy, perhaps to draw me out.

"He's familiar with hypodermic syringes," I repeated.

"Which doesn't prove that no one else would use one."

"Anyhow, he was out until four A.M. last night and some one broke into Phelps's house to--"

"You can't establish the fact that he went out there. There are plenty of other places he could have been until four in the morning."

"But I can assume--"

"If you are going to assume anything, Walter, why not assume he was the second man, the man who watched the actual intruder?"

I turned away, despairing of my ability to convince Kennedy. As a matter of fact I had forgotten the other prowler at Tarrytown.

Then I noticed that the one guinea pig in the separate cage was dead. In an instant I was all curiosity to know the results of Kennedy's investigations.

"Did you make any progress?" I asked.

"Yes!" Now I noticed for the first time that he was in fine humor. "I had quite finished the first stage of my analysis when you came in."

"Then what was it? What was the poison that killed Stella Lamar?" I glanced at the stiff, prone figure of the little animal.

Kennedy cleared his throat. "Well," he replied, "I began the study with the discovery I made, which I told you, that strange proteins were present." He picked up the ampulla and regarded it thoughtfully. Then he fingered the bit of silk cut from the portieres. "It is a poison more deadly, more subtle, than any ever concocted by man, Walter."

"Yes?" I was painfully eager.

"It is snake venom!"