XX. The Banquet Scene
 

For once I qualified as a prophet. We were hardly in our rooms when the telephone rang for Kennedy. It was District-Attorney Mackay, calling in from Tarrytown.

"My men have positive identification of one of the visitors to the Phelps home the night after the murder," he reported.

"Fine!" exclaimed Kennedy. "Who was it? How did you uncover his trail?"

"You remember that my deputy heard the sound of a departing automobile? Well, we have been questioning everyone. A citizen here, who returned home late at just about that hour, remembers seeing a taxicab tearing through the street at a reckless rate. He came in to see me this morning. He made a mental note of the license number at the time, and while nothing stuck with him but the last three figures, three sixes, he was sure that it was a Maroon taxi. We got busy and have located the driver who made the trip, from a stand at Thirty-third all the way out and back. On the return he dropped his fare at the man's apartment. The identification is positive."

"Who is it?" Kennedy became quite excited.

"Werner, the director."

"Werner!" in surprise. "What are you going to do?"

"Arrest him first--examine him afterward. I've sworn out the warrant already, and I'm going to start in by car just as soon as we hang up. I thought I'd phone you first in case you wanted to accompany me to the studio."

"We'll hurry there," Kennedy replied, "and meet you."

"Outside?"

"No, up on the floor."

"You'll be there fifteen minutes to half an hour ahead of me. I hope there is no way for anyone to tip him off so he can escape."

"We'll stop him if he attempts it."

"Good!"

The courtyard of the studio of Manton Pictures, Incorporated, was about the same as upon the occasions of our previous visits except that I detected a larger number of cars parked in the inclosure, including a number of very fine ones. Also, it seemed to me that there was a greater absence of life than usual, as though something of particular interest had taken everyone inside the buildings.

The gateman informed us that Werner was working the large studio. We made our way up through the structure containing the dressing rooms and found the proper door without difficulty. When we passed through under the big glass roof we grasped the reason for the lack of interest in the other departments about the quadrangle. Here everyone was gathered to watch the taking of the banquet scene for "The Black Terror." The huge set was illuminated brightly, and packed, thronged with people.

It was a marvelous set in many ways. To carry out the illusion of size and to aid in the deceptive additional length given by the mirrors at the farther end, Werner had decided against the usual one large table arranged horseshoe-like, but had substituted instead a great number of individual smaller tables, about which he had grouped the various guests. The placing of those nearest the mirrors had been so arranged as to give no double images, thus betraying the trick. The waiters, all the characters who walked about, were kept near the front toward the cameras for the same reason. It seemed as if the banquet hall was at least twice its actual size.

I saw that Millard had arrived ahead of us. Either the changing of the scenes in his script to fit Enid had not taken him very long or else the photographing of this particular bit of action had proved sufficiently fascinating to draw him away from his work. I wondered at first if he had come to the studio to use his office here, an infrequent happening, from Manton's account. Then I realized that he was in evening dress. Without doubt he planned to play a minor part in the banquet. His presence was no accident.

Then I picked out Manton himself from our point of observation in a quiet corner selected by Kennedy for that purpose. It was evident that the promoter had cleared up his business at the office rapidly since we had left him there to go to our quarters on the Heights and had departed immediately from the latter place so as to precede the District Attorney here.

Manton as well as Millard was in evening dress. A moment later I recognized Phelps, and he, too, wore his formal clothes. In an instant I grasped that Werner actually was saving money. Not only were these officials of the company present to help fill up the tables, but I was able now to pick out a number of the guests who were uneasy in their make-up and more or less out of place in full-dress attire. They certainly were not actors. One girl I definitely placed as the stenographer from Manton's waiting room at the studio; then other things caught my attention. I could not help but doubt the stories of waste told us by Phelps as I looked over the scene before me. The use of the mirrors to avoid building the full length of the floor did not seem to fit in with the theory that Manton and Werner were making every effort to wreck the company deliberately.

I watched the financier for several moments, but did not detect anything from his manner except that he seemed to feel ill at ease and awkward in make-up. I picked out Millard again and this time found him talking with Enid Faye and Gordon. Immediately I sensed a dramatic conflict, carefully suppressed, but having too many of the outward indications to fool anyone. In fact, a child would have observed that Lawrence Millard and the leading man needed little urging to engage in a scuffle then and there. Though Stella Lamar was dead, this was the heritage she had left. Her touch had embittered two men beyond the point of reconciliation--the husband who had been, and the husband who was to be. Of the two, Millard had far the better control of himself, however.

After a brief word or so Gordon left them. At once I could see the relief in the expressions of both the others. Again I wondered just what might be between these two. It was an easy familiarity which might have been as casual as it seemed to be, no more, or which might have been a mask for something far deeper and more enduring, the schooled outer cloak of an inner perfect understanding.

Werner was by far the busiest of those waiting in the stifling heat beneath the glass roof. He was in evening dress, prepared to take his own place before the camera, and in straight make-up, so that he looked nothing like the slain millionaire, the part he had played in the opening scenes. I saw that he was a master in the art of make-up. I was sure that he was more nervous than usual. It struck me that he needed the stimulus of the drug he used, although later I knew that he must have felt, intuitively, the coming of events which followed close upon the attempt to photograph the action.

As more of the people hurried up from the offices and around from the manuscript and other departments, very conscious of their formal attire, and as the regular players changed and adjusted the make-ups of these amateurs, the banquet took on the proportions of a real affair.

The members of the cast were placed at the table in the foreground. Enid, Gordon, Marilyn, and a fourth man were assigned locations; after which Werner proceeded to fill the seats in the rear. With the exception of Millard and Phelps, none of the inexperienced people were allowed to face the camera. Manton, whose features were familiar through published interviews in many publicity campaigns, was placed to one side opposite Phelps. Millard was given charge of a group containing a number of giddy extra girls in somewhat diaphanous costume, and seemed to be in his element.

The tables themselves were prepared with perfect taste. I could see that real food was being used, in order to achieve a greater degree of realism, for a caterer had set up a buffet some distance out of the scene from which to serve the courses called for in the script. Many of the dishes were being kept hot, the steam curling from beneath the covers in appetizing wisps. The wine, supposed to be champagne, was sparkling apple juice of the best quality, and I don't doubt but that before the days of prohibition Werner would have insisted upon the real fizz water. In details such as these the director was showing no economy.

"All ready now?" Werner called, stepping back to a place at a table which he had reserved for himself. "All set? Remember the action of the script?"

Instantly the buzz of conversation died and everyone turned to him.

"No, no, no!" he exclaimed in vexation. "Don't go dead on your feet. This is a banquet. You are having a good time. It's not a funeral! You were all in just the right state of mind before, and you don't have to stop and gape to listen to me. Keep right on talking and laughing. My voice will carry and you can hear without getting out of your parts."

I turned to Kennedy, to see how the picture-making struck him. I saw that he was watching the two girls at the forward table closely and so I faced about to follow his glance. Marilyn's face was red with anger, while Enid, calm and rather malicious, was ignoring her to devote all attention to Gordon. The leading man, bored and irritated, made no effort to conceal a heavy scowl. In the momentary interval following Werner's instructions, Marilyn lost all control of herself.

"If you will pardon me, Miss Faye," she cried out in a voice which carried over to us and with cutting accent upon the "Miss," "I think that in this scene at least we should both be facing the camera. If I understand the scene in the script at all it is intended to show the conflict between the two women over the one man seated between them. Jack Daring is to be swayed first by Stella Remsen, then by Zelda. At least this once I think the daughter of old Remsen and his ward are playing roles of equal importance."

For a moment I smiled, realizing that Marilyn was not going to let Enid "take the picture away" from her as we had seen the new star do in one of her first scenes with the leading man. Then I sobered, realizing that it was the outer reflection of the deep- running passion of these people. The cloud of Stella's death was over them still.

Enid responded, but in tones too low for us to hear. A new flush of red in Marilyn's face, however, demonstrated the power in the lash of the other girl's tongue. Werner hurried over to them, not masking his own irritation any too well. Without a word he began rearranging the table, moving it slightly so that while there was no great difference in its position he had yet made a show of satisfying Marilyn. In effect he pleased neither. The two pretty faces closest to the camera were a study in discontent.

"I don't wonder that moving-picture directors are nervous," Kennedy remarked. "Film manufacture must keep everyone under constant tension."

"What do you make of the feeling between the different people?" I asked. "Did you notice Millard and Gordon, and now Enid and Marilyn?"

"There's something under cover," he rejoined; "something behind all this. I get the impression that our suspects are watching one another, like as many hawks. At various times most of them have glanced over at us. They know we are here and are conscious they may be under suspicion. Therefore I particularly want to see how those two girls act when Mackay arrives to arrest Werner."

The director, stepping back to his place, took a megaphone from his assistant for use in the rehearsal.

"Now you must act just as though this were a real banquet," he shouted. "Try to forget that the Black Terror is lurking outside the window, that an attack is coming from him. Remember, when the shot is fired you must all leap up as though you meant it. Here! You--you--you--" designating certain extra girls, "faint when it happens. That's not until after the toast is proposed. I'll propose the toast from my table and it will be the cue for Shirley, outside. Now don't get ahead of the action. You amateurs, don't turn around to see if the camera is working. We'll go through the action up to the moment I propose the toast." The buzz of conversation rose slightly as though an effort was being put into the gayety. I glanced about at some of the people who were cast for only this one scene, wishing I could read lips, because I was sure many of them talked of matters wholly out of place in this setting. At the same time I kept an eye on the principals and upon Werner.

Finally the director was satisfied, after a second rehearsal.

"All right," he bellowed, throwing the megaphone from the scene. "Shoot!"

At the same instant he dropped to his place and apparently was a guest with no interest but in the food and wine before him.

At the cameras-there were three of them-the assistant director kept a careful watch of the general action. In actual time by the watch the whole was very short, a second measuring to sixteen pictures or a foot of film as I explained afterward to Kennedy. The entire scene perhaps ran one hundred or one hundred and fifty feet.

But on the screen, even to the spectators in the studio, the illusion in a scene of the kind would be the duration of half an hour or even more. This would be helped by close-ups of the individual action, especially by the byplay between the principals, taken later and inserted into the long shot by the film cutter.

I know I was carried away by a sense of reality. It seemed to me that waiters made endless trips to and fro, that here and there pretty girls broke into laughter constantly or that men leaned forward every other moment to make witty remarks; in fact I felt genuinely sorry I could not take part in the festivities. I knew that danger, in the person of the Black Terror as played by Shirley, lurked just out the window. I felt delicious anticipatory thrills of fear, so thoroughly was I in the spirit of the thing. Then I saw that Werner was about to propose the toast, about to give the cue for the big action.

"Watch him" whispered Kennedy. "He's an actor. He's taking that drink just as though he meant every drop of it."

Werner had raised his delicately stemmed glass as though to join his neighbor in some pledge when a new idea seemed to strike him. He leaped to his feet.

"Let's drink together! Let's drink to our hero and heroine of the evening!"

Other voices rose in acclamation. The wine had been poured lavishly. Glasses clinked and we could hear laughter.

Suddenly at the window, back of everyone, appeared the evil, black-masked figure of Shirley, eyes glittering menacingly from their slits, two weapons glistening blue in his hands.

At the same moment there was a terrible groan, followed by a scream of agony. Werner staggered back, his left hand clutched at his breast. From his right hand the glass which he had drained fell to the canvas covered floor with an ominous dull crash.

This was not in the script! Practically everybody realized the fact, for the scene instantly was in an uproar. In the general consternation no one seemed to know just what to do.

Shirley was the first to act, the first to realize what had happened. Dropping his weapons, reaching the side of the stricken director in one leap, he supported him as he reeled drunkenly, then eased him to the floor. Behind us, before I could look to Kennedy to see what he would do, there was the gasp of a man out of breath from hurrying upstairs. I turned, startled, It was Mackay.

"Shall I make the collar?" he wheezed. At the same instant he saw the gathering crowd in the set. "What--what's happened?" he asked.

Kennedy had bounded forward only a few seconds after Shirley. As I pushed through after him, Mackay following, I discovered him kneeling at the side of Werner.

"Some one send for a doctor, quick," he commanded, taking charge of things as a matter of course. "Hurry!" he repeated. "He's gasping for air and it 'll be too late in a minute."

Then he saw us. "Walter--Mackay"--he raised Werner's head--"push everyone back, please! Give him a chance to breathe!"

A thousand thoughts flashed through my head as politely but firmly I widened the space about Kennedy and the director. Was this a case of suicide? Had Werner known we were coming for him? Had he thought to bring about his own end in the most spectacular fashion possible? Was this the fancy of a drug-weakened brain?

Suddenly I realized that Werner was trying to speak. One of the camera men had helped Kennedy lift him to the top of a table, swept of its dishes and linen, so as to make it easier for him to breathe.

"Out in Tarrytown," he muttered, weakly, "that night--I suspected--and--saw--" His voice trailed off into nothingness. Even the motion of his lips was too feeble to follow.

In an instant I grasped the cruel injustice I had done this man in my mind. It was now that I remembered, in a flash, Kennedy's attitude and was glad that Kennedy had not suspected him.

"See!" I faced Mackay, speaking in quick, low tones so the others could not hear. "I--we--have been totally and absolutely wrong in suspecting Werner. Instead, it was he who has been playing our game--trying to confirm his own suspicions. I've been entirely wrong in my deductions from the discovery of his dope and needles."

"What do you mean, Jameson?" The district attorney had been taken completely off his feet by the unexpected developments. His eyes were rather dazed, his expression baffled. "What do you mean?"

"Why he was out at Tarrytown that night, all right, don't you see--but--but he was the second man, the man who watched!"

Mackay still seemed unable to comprehend.

"There were two men," I went on, excitedly; covering my own chagrin in my impatience at the little district attorney. "The one your deputy struggled with was short, rather than tall, and very strong. That's Werner! Can't you see it? Haven't you noticed how stockily and powerfully the director is built?"

"Werner must really have had some clue," murmured Mackay, dazed.

It left me wondering whether the stimulation of the dope might not have heightened Werner's imagination and urged him on in following something that our more sluggish minds had never even dreamed.

Meanwhile I saw that the doctor had arrived and that Kennedy had helped carry Werner to a dressing room where first aid could be given more conveniently. Now Kennedy hurried back into the studio, glancing quickly this way and that, as though to catch signs of confusion or guilt upon the faces of those about us.

I colored. Instead of making explanations to Mackay, explanations which could have waited, I might have used what faculties of observation I possessed to aid Kennedy while he was giving first consideration to the life of a man. As it was, I didn't know what had become of any of the various people upon our list of possible suspects. As far as I was concerned, any or every sign and clue to the attack upon Werner might have been removed or destroyed.

A sudden hush caused all of us to turn toward the door leading to the dressing rooms. It was the physician. He raised a hand for attention. His voice was low, but it carried to every corner of the studio:

"Mr. Werner is dead," he announced.