XIX. Around the Circle
 

"I'd like to have another talk with Millard about that Fortune Features affair," remarked Kennedy.

It was the third morning after the death of Stella Lamar, and I found him half through breakfast when I rose. About him were piled moving picture and theatrical publications, daily, weekly, and monthly. At the moment I caught him he had spread wide open the inner page of the Daily Metropolitan, a sheet devoted almost exclusively to sports and the amusement fields.

I went around to glance over his shoulder. He pointed to a small item under a heading of recent plans and changes.

FORTUNE FEATURES

It is hinted to the Metropolitan Man-about-Broadway, by those in a position to know but who cannot yet be quoted, that Fortune Features is about to absorb a number of the largest competing companies. Rumors of great changes in the picture world have been current for some weeks, and this is the first reliable information to be given out. It is premature to give details of the new combination, or to mention names, but Fortune's strong backing in Wall Street will, we are assured, have a stabilizing influence at a critical time in the industry.

"Seems to be a lot of hot air," I said. "There isn't a name mentioned. Everything is 'by those in a position to know' and 'rumors of and 'it is premature to give details... or mention names'--Bah!"

Kennedy turned to places he had marked in several of the other periodicals and papers and I read them. Each was substantially to the effect of the note in the Metropolitan, although worded differently and generally printed as a news item.

"It's a feeler," Kennedy stated. "There's something back of it. When I caught the reference to Fortune Features in the Metropolitan, which I've been reading the past two days, I sent the boy out for every movie publication he could find. Result: half a dozen repetitions of the hint that Fortune is expanding. That means that it is deliberate publicity."

"You think this has something to do with the case?"

"I don't see the name of Manton mentioned once. Manton is a man who seeks the front page on every opportunity. You remember, of course, what Millard told us. Somehow I smell a rat. If nothing else develops for this morning, I want to find Millard and talk to him again. I believe Manton is up to something."

The sharp sound of our buzzer interrupted us. Because I was on my feet I went to the door. To my amazement I found it was Phelps who was our very early visitor.

"I hope you'll excuse this intrusion," he apologized to Kennedy, pushing by me with the rudeness which seemed inherent in the man. Then he recognized the sheet still spread out on the table. "I see you, too, have been reading the Metropolitan."

"Yes," Kennedy admitted, languidly. "There is nothing about Manton Pictures, though."

"Manton Pictures, hell!" In an instant Phelps exploded and the thin veneer of politeness was gone. With a shaking finger he pointed to the item which we had just been reading and discussing. "Did you read that! Did you see the reference to stabilizing the industry? Stabilizing! It ought to be spelled stable-izing, for they lead all the donkeys into stalls and tie them up and let them kick." He stopped momentarily for sheer inability to continue.

"I suppose you don't know Manton is behind this Fortune Features?"

"We were aware of the fact," Kennedy told him, quietly.

Phelps looked from one to the other of us keenly, as if he had thought to surprise us and had been disappointed. Nervously he began to pace the floor.

"Perhaps you know also that things haven't been going just right with Manton Pictures?"

Kennedy straightened. "When I asked you at Tarrytown, just two mornings ago, whether there was any trouble between Manton and yourself, you answered that there was not."

Phelps flushed. "I didn't want to air my financial difficulties with Manton. My--my answer was truthful, the way you meant your question. Manton and I have had no words, no quarrel, no disagreement of a personal nature."

"What is the trouble with Manton Pictures?"

"They are wasting money--throwing it right and left. That pay roll of theirs is preposterous. The waste itself is beyond belief--sometimes four and five cameras on a scene, retakes upon the slightest provocation, even sets rebuilt because some minor detail fails to suit the artistic eye of the director. Werner, supposed to watch all the companies, doesn't half know his business. In the making of a five-reel film they will overtake sometimes as much as eighty or a hundred thousand feet of negative in each of two cameras, when twenty thousand is enough overtake for anyone. That alone is five to ten thousand dollars for negative stock, almost fifteen with the sample print and developing. And the cost of stock, Mr. Kennedy, is the smallest item. All the extra length is long additional weeks of pay roll and overhead expense. I put an auditor and a film expert on the accounts of Stella Lamar's last picture. By their figures just sixty-three thousand dollars was absolutely thrown away."

Kennedy rose, folding the newspaper carefully while he collected his thoughts. "My dear Mr. Phelps," he stated, finally, "that is simply inefficiency. I doubt if it is anything criminal; certainly there is no connection with the death of Stella Lamar, my only interest in Manton Pictures."

Phelps was very grave. "There is every connection with the death of Stella Lamar!"

"What do you mean?"

"Mr. Kennedy, what I'm going to say to you I cannot substantiate in any court of law. Furthermore I'm laying myself open to action for libel, so I must not be quoted. But I want you to understand that Stella was inescapably wound up with all of Manton's financial schemes. His money maneuvers determined her social life, her friends--everything. She was then, as Enid Faye will be now, his come-on, his decoy. Manton has no scruples of any sort whatsoever. He is dishonest, tricky, a liar, and a cheat. If I could prove it I would tell him so, but he's too clever for me. I do know, however, that he pulled the strings which controlled every move Stella Lamar ever made. When she went to dinner with me it was because Manton wished her to do so. She was his right hand, his ears, almost his mouth. I have no doubt but that her death is the direct result of some business deal of his-- something directly to do with his financial necessities."

Kennedy did not glance up. "Those are very serious assertions."

"It is a very serious matter. To show how unscrupulous Manton is, I can demonstrate that he is wrecking Manton Pictures deliberately. I've told you of the waste. Only the other day I came into the studio. Werner was putting up a great ballroom set. You saw it? No, that isn't the one I mean. I mean the first one. He had it all up; then some little thing didn't suit him. The next day I came in again. All struck--sloughed--every bit of it-- and a new one started. 'Lloyd,' I said, 'just think a minute-- that's my money!' What good did it do? He even began to alter the new set! He would only go on, encouraging Werner and the other directors to change their sets, to lose time in trying for foolish effects, anything at all to pad the expense.

"You think I am romancing, but you don't understand the film world," Phelps hurried on angrily. "Do you know that Enid Faye's contract is not with Manton Pictures but with Manton himself? That means he can take her away from me after he has made her a star with my money, at my expense. Why should he wreck Manton Pictures, you ask? Do you know that, bit by bit, on the pretext that he needed the funds for this that, or the other thing, Manton has sold out his entire interest in the company to me? It is all mine now. I tell you," complained Phelps, bitterly, "he couldn't seem to wreck the company fast enough. Why? Do you realize that there isn't room both for this older company and the new Fortune Features? Can you see that if Manton Pictures fails the Fortune company will be able to pick up the studio and all the equipment for a song? I'm the fall guy!

"And yet, Kennedy, all the efforts to wreck Manton Pictures would have failed, because 'The Black Terror' was too sure a success. In spite of all the expense, in spite of every effort to wreck it, that picture would have made half a million dollars. Stella's acting and Millard's story and script would have put it over. But now Millard's contract has expired and Manton has signed him for Fortune Features. Enid Faye will be made a star by 'The Black Terror,' but she is not now the drawing power to put it over big, as Stella would have done. I tell you, Kennedy, the death of Stella Lamar has completed the wreck of Manton Pictures!"

Kennedy jumped to his feet. There was a hard light in his eyes I had never seen before.

"Do I understand you, Phelps?" he snapped. "Are you accusing Manton of the cold-blooded murder of Stella Lamar to further various financial schemes?"

"Hardly!" Phelps blanched a bit, and I thought that a shudder swept over him. "I don't mean anything like that at all. What I mean is that Manton, in encouraging various sorts of dissension to wreck the company, inadvertently fanned the flames of passion of those about her, and it resulted in her death."

"Who killed her?"

"I don't know!" Grudgingly I admitted that this seemed open and frank.

"At Tarrytown," Kennedy went on, "I asked you if Stella Lamar was making any trouble, had threatened to quit Manton Pictures, and you said no. Is that still your answer?"

"For several months she had been up-stage. That was not because she wanted to make trouble, but because she had fallen in love. Manton found he couldn't handle her as he had previously."

"Do you suspect Manton of killing her himself?"

"I don't suspect anyone. That is an honest answer, Mr. Kennedy."

"What do you know about Fortune Features?"

The banker's eye fell on the newspaper again. "I know who this new Wall Street fellow is. I've got my scouts out working for me. It's Leigh--that's who it is. And I'm sore; I have a right to be."

Phelps was getting more and more heated, by the moment. "I tell you," he almost shouted, "this fake movie business is the modern gold-brick game, all right. Never again!"

I was amazed at the Machiavellian cleverness of Manton. Here he was, on one hand openly working with, yet secretly ruining, the Manton Pictures, while on the other hand he was covertly building up the competing Fortune Features.

Kennedy paced out into the little hall of our suite and back. He faced our visitor once more.

"Why did you come to see me this morning? At our last encounter, you may recall you said you wished you could throw me down the steps."

Phelps smiled ruefully. "That was a mistake. It was the way I felt, but--I'm sorry."

"Now--?"

Again the black clouds overshadowed the features of the financier. "Now I want you to bring out and prove the things I've told you." The malice showed in his voice plainly, for the first time. "I want it proved in court that Manton is a cheap crook. When you uncover the murderer of Stella Lamar you will find that the moral responsibility for her death traces right back to Lloyd Manton. I want him driven out of the business."

Kennedy's attitude changed. As he escorted Phelps to the door his tones were self-controlled. "Anything of the sort is beyond my province. My task is simply to find the person who killed the girl."

When the financier was gone I turned to Kennedy eagerly. "What do you think?" I asked.

"I think, more than ever, that we should investigate Fortune Features. Let's have a look at the telephone book."

There was no studio of the new corporation in New York, but we did find one listed in New Jersey, just across the river, at Fort Lee. We walked from the university down the hill and over to the ferry. On the other side a ten minutes' street-car ride took us to our destination.

Facing us was a huge barn-like structure set down in the midst of a little park. Inquiry for Manton brought no response whatever; rather, surprise that we should be asking for him here. However, I reflected that that was exactly what we ought to expect if Manton was working under cover. The girl at the telephone switchboard, smiling at Kennedy, had a suggestion.

"They're taking a storm exterior down in the meadow," she explained. "Perhaps he's down there, among the visitors--or perhaps there's someone who will be able to give you some information."

I glanced outdoors at the brightly shining sun. "A storm?" I repeated, incredulously.

"Yes," she smiled. "It might interest you to see it."

Following her directions, we started across country, leaving the studio building some distance behind and entering a broad expanse of meadow beyond a thin clump of trees. At the farther end we could see a large group of people and paraphernalia which, at the distance, we could not make out.

However, it was not long after we emerged from the trees that we perceived they were photographing squarely in our direction. Several began waving their arms wildly at us and shouting. Kennedy and I, understanding, turned and advanced, keeping well out of the camera lines, along the edge of the field.

"Hello!" a voice greeted us as we approached the group standing back and watching the action.

To my surprise it was Millard, with the spectators. I looked about for Manton but did not see him, nor anyone else we knew.

"It's a storm and cyclone," said Millard, his attention rather on what was going on than on us.

For the moment we said nothing.

The scene before us was indeed interesting. Half a dozen aeroplane engines and propellers had been set up outside the picture, and anchored securely in place. The wind from them was actually enough to knock a man down. Rain was furnished by hose playing water into the whirling blades, sending it driving into the scene with the fury of a tropical storm. Back of the propellers half a dozen men were frantically at work shoveling into them sand and dirt, creating an amazingly realistic cyclone.

We arrived in the midst of the cyclone scene, as the dust storm was ending and the torrential rain succeeded. For the storm, a miniature village had been constructed in break-away fashion, partially sawed through and tricked for the proper moment. Many objects were controlled by invisible wires, including an actual horse and buggy which seemed to be lifted bodily and carried away. Roofs flew off, walls crashed in, actors and actresses were knocked flat as some few of them failed to gain their cyclone cellars. Altogether, it was a storm of such efficiency as Nature herself could scarcely have furnished, and all staged with the streaming sunlight which made photography possible.

Pandemonium reigned. Cameras were grinding, directors were bawling through megaphones, all was calculated chaos. Yet it took only a glance to see that some marvelous effects were being caught here.

At the conclusion I recognized suddenly the little leading lady, It was the girl we had seen with Manton at Jacques' cabaret.

"That's the way to take a picture," exclaimed Millard. "Everything right--no expense spared. I came over to see it done. It's wonderful."

"Yes," was Kennedy's answer, "but it must be very costly."

"It is all of that," said Millard. "But what of it if the film makes a big clean-up? I wouldn't have missed this for anything. Werner never staged a spectacle like this in his life. Fortune Features are going to set a new mark in pictures."

"But can they keep it up? Have they the money?"

Millard shrugged his shoulders. "Manton Pictures can't--that's a cinch. Phelps has reached the end of his rope, I guess. I'm afraid the trouble with him was that he was thinking of too many things besides pictures."

There was no mistaking the meaning of the remark. Millard was still cut by Stella's desertion of him for the broker. I caught Kennedy's glance, but neither of us cared to refer to her.

"Where can I find Manton now?" Kennedy asked.

"Did you try his office at seven hundred and twenty-nine?" was Millard's suggestion.

"No; I wanted to see this place first."

"Well, you'll most likely find him there. I've got to go back to the city myself-some scenes of 'The Black Terror' to rewrite to fit Enid better. I'll motor you across the ferry and to the Subway."

At the Subway station, Millard left us and we proceeded to Manton's executive offices in a Seventh Avenue skyscraper, built for and devoted exclusively to the film business.

Manton's business suite was lavishly furnished, but not quite as ornate and garish as his apartment. The promoter himself welcomed us, for no matter how busy he was at any hour, he always seemed to have time to stop and chat.

"Well, how goes it?" He pushed over a box of expensive cigars. "Have you found out anything yet?"

"Had a visit from Phelps this morning." Kennedy plunged directly into the subject, watching the effect.

Manton did not betray anything except a quiet smile. "Poor old Phelps," he said. "I guess he's pretty uneasy. You know he has been speculating rather heavily in the market lately. There was a time when I thought Phelps had a bank roll in reserve. But it seems he has been playing the game on a shoestring, after all."

Manton casually flicked the ashes from his cigar into a highly polished cuspidor as he leaned over. "I happen to have learned that, to make his bluff good, he has been taking money from his brokerage business"--here he nodded sagely--"his customers' accounts you know. Leigh knows the inside of everybody's affairs in Wall Street. They say a quarter of a million is short, at least. To tell you the truth, poor Stella took a good deal of Phelps's money. Certainly his Manton Pictures holdings wouldn't leave him in the hole as deep as all that."

I reflected that this was quite the way of the world--first framing up something on a boob, then deprecating the ease with which he was trimmed.

Was it blackmail Stella had levied on Phelps, I wondered? Was she taking from him to give to Gordon? Had Stella broken him? Was she the real cause of the tangle in his affairs? And had Phelps in insane passion revenged himself on her?

In the conversation with Manton there was certainly no hint of answer to my queries. With all his ease, Manton was the true picture promoter. Seldom was he betrayed into a positive statement of his own. Always, when necessary, he gave as authority the name of some one else. But the effect was the same.

A hurried call of some sort took Manton away from us. Kennedy turned to me with a whimsical expression.

"Let's go!" he remarked.

"What do you make of it, offhand?" I asked, outside.

"We're going about in a circle," he remarked. "Strange group of people. Each apparently suspects the other."

"And, to cover himself, talks of the other fellow," I added.

Kennedy nodded, and we made our way toward the laboratory.

"I'll bet something happens before the day is over," I hazarded, for no reason in particular.

Kennedy shrugged.

As we went, I cast up in my mind the facts we had learned. The information from Manton was disconcerting, coming on top of what had already been revealed about the inner workings of his game. If Phelps had secretly "borrowed" from the trust accounts in his charge a quarter of a million or so, I saw that his situation must indeed be desperate. To what lengths he might go it was difficult to determine.