XXI. Merle Shirley Overacts
 

Appalled, I wondered who it was who had, to cover up one crime, committed another? Who had struck down an innocent man to save a guilty neck?

Kennedy hurried to the side of the physician and I followed.

"What symptoms did you observe?" asked Kennedy, quickly, seeking confirmation of his own first impressions.

"His mouth seemed dry and I should say he suffered from a quick prostration. There seemed to be a complete loss of power to swallow or speak. The pupils were dilated as though from paralysis of the eyes. Both pharynx and larynx were affected. There was respiration paralysis. It seemed also as though the cranial nerves were partially paralyzed. It was typically a condition due to some toxic substance which paralyzed and depressed certain areas of the body."

Kennedy nodded. "That fits in with a theory I have."

I thought quickly, then inquired; "Could it be the snake venom again?"

"No," Kennedy replied, shaking his head; "there's a difference in the symptoms and there is no mark on any exposed part of the body, as near as I could see in a superficial examination."

He turned to the physician. "Could you give me blood smears and some of the stomach contents, at once? Twice, now, some one has been stricken down before the very eyes of the actors. This thing has gone too far to trifle with or delay a moment."

The doctor hurried off toward the dressing room, anxious to help Kennedy, and as excited, I thought, as any of us. Next Kennedy faced me.

"Did you watch the people at all, Walter?"

"I--I was too upset by the suddenness of it," I stammered.

All seemed to have suspicion of some one else, and there was a general constraint, as though even the innocent feared to do or say something that might look or sound incriminating.

I turned. All were now watching every move we made, though just yet none ventured to follow us. It was as though they felt that to do so was like crossing a dead line. I wondered which one of them might be looking at us with inward trepidation--or perhaps satisfaction, if there had been any chance to remove anything incriminating.

Kennedy strode over toward the ill-fated set, Mackay and I at his heels. As we moved across the floor I noticed that everyone clustered as close as he dared, afraid, seemingly, of any action which might hinder the investigation, yet unwilling to miss any detail of Kennedy's method. In contrast with the clamor and racket of less than a half hour previously there was now a deathlike stillness beneath the arched ground-glass roof. The heat was more oppressive than ever before. In the faces and expressions of the awed witnesses of death's swift hand there was horror, and a growing fear. No one spoke, except in whispers. When anybody moved it was on tiptoe, cautiously. Millard's creation, "The Black Terror," could have inspired no dread greater than this.

Of the people we wished to study, Phelps caught our eyes the first. Dejected, crushed, utterly discouraged, he was slouched down in a chair just at the edge of the supposed banquet hall. I had no doubt of the nature of his thoughts. There was probably only the most perfunctory sympathy for the stricken director. Without question his mind ran to dollars. The dollar-angle to this tragedy was that the death of Werner was simply another step in the wrecking of Manton Pictures. Kennedy, I saw, hardly gave him a passing glance.

Manton we observed near the door. With the possible exception of Millard he seemed about the least concerned. The two, scenario writer and producer, had counterfeited the melodrama of life so often in their productions that even the second sinister chapter in this film mystery failed to penetrate their sang-froid. Inwardly they may have felt as deeply as any of the rest, but both maintained their outward composure.

On Manton's shoulders was the responsibility for the picture. I could see that he was nervous, irritable; yet, as various employees approached for their instructions in this emergency he never lost his grasp of affairs. In the vibrant quiet of this studio chamber, still under the shadow of tragedy, we witnessed as cold-blooded a bit of business generalship as has ever come to my knowledge. We overheard, because Manton's voice carried across to us in the stillness.

"Kauf!" The name I remembered as that of the technical, or art, director under Werner, responsible for the sets of "The Black Terror."

"Yes, Mr. Manton!" Kauf was a slim, stoop-shouldered man, gray, and a dynamo of energy in a quiet, subservient way. He ran to Manton's side.

"Remember once telling me you wanted to become a director, that you wanted to make pictures for me?"

"Yes, sir!"

"You are familiar with the script of 'The Black Terror,' aren't you? You know the people and how they work and you have sets lined up. How would you like to finish the direction?"

"But--but--" To the credit of the little man he dabbed at his eyes. I guess he had been fond of his immediate superior. "Mr.-- Mr. Werner is d-dead--" he stammered.

"Of course!" Manton's voice rose slightly. "If Werner wasn't dead I wouldn't need another director at a moment's notice. Some one has to complete 'The Black Terror.' We have all these people on salary, and all the studio expense, and the release date's settled, so that we can't stop. It's your chance, Kauf! Do you want it?"

"Y-yes, sir!"

"Good! I'll double your salary, including all this week. Now can you finish this banquet set to-night, while you have the people-- "

"To-night!" Kauf's eyes went wide, then he started to flush.

"Well, to-morrow, then! We simply can't lay off a day, Kauf!"

"All--all right, sir!"

It seemed to me that everyone in the place sensed the horror of this. Literally, actually, Werner's body could not be cold. Even the police, the medical examiner, had not had sufficient time to make the trip out for their investigation. Yet the director's successor had been appointed and told to hurry the production.

I glanced at Phelps. He raised his head slowly, his expression lifting at the thought that production was to continue without interruption. In another moment, however, there was a change in his face. His eyes sought Manton and hardened. His mouth tightened. Hate, a deep, unreasoning hate, settled into his features.

Kennedy, pausing just long enough to observe the promoter's appointment of Kauf to Werner's position, continued on toward the set. Now as I looked about I saw that Jack Gordon was missing, as well as Marilyn Loring. Presumably they had gone to their dressing rooms. All the other actors and actresses were waiting, ill at ease, wondering at the outcome of the tragedy.

Suddenly Kennedy stopped and I grasped that it was the peculiar actions of Merle Shirley which had halted him.

The heavy man was the only one of the company actually in the fabricated banquet hall itself. Clinging to him still were the grim flowing robes of the Black Terror. As though he were some old-fashioned tragedian, he was pacing up and down, hands behind his back, head bowed, eyes on the floor. More, he was mumbling to himself. It was evident, however, that it was neither a pose nor mental aberration. Shirley was searching for something, out in the open, without attempt at concealment, swearing softly at his lack of success.

Kennedy pushed forward. "Did you lose something, Mr. Shirley?"

"No!" The heavy man straightened. As he drew himself up in his sinister garb I thought again of the cheap actors of a day when moving pictures had yet to pre-empt the field of the lurid melodrama. It seemed to me that Merle Shirley was overacting, that it was impossible for him to be so wrought up over the slaying of a man who, after all, was only his director, certainly not a close nor an intimate relationship.

"Mr. Kennedy," he stated, ponderously, "there has been a second death, and at the hand which struck down Stella Lamar in Tarrytown. Somewhere in this banquet hall interior there is a clue to the murderer. I have kept a careful watch so that nothing might be disturbed."

"Do you suspect anyone?" Kennedy asked. Shirley glanced away and we knew he was lying. "No, not definitely."

"Who has been in the set since I left with the doctor?"

"No one except myself, that is"--Shirley wanted to make it clear-- "no one has had any opportunity to hide or move or take or change a thing, because I have been right here all the time."

"I see! Thanks, and"--Kennedy seemed genuinely apologetic--"if you don't mind--I would prefer to make my investigation alone."

Shirley turned on his heel and made for his dressing room.

Meanwhile I had noticed a bit of by-play between Enid Faye and Lawrence Millard, the only others of our possible suspects about. Enid first had caught my eye because she seemed to be pleading with the writer, trying to hold him. I gathered from the look of disgust on Millard's face that he wanted to get Shirley out of the set before Kennedy should observe the heavy man's odd reaction to the tragedy. While I had never seen Millard and Shirley together, so as to establish in mind the state of their feelings toward each other, this would seem to indicate that they were friendly. Certainly Shirley was making a fool of himself. Enid acted, I guessed, so as to prevent Millard's interference, probably with the idea that Millard in some fashion might bring suspicion upon himself. It struck me that Enid had a wholesome respect for Kennedy.

At any rate, Millard watched the little scene between Kennedy and Shirley with a quizzical expression. As Shirley left he shrugged his shoulders, then he gave Enid's cheeks a playful pinch each and started out after the heavy man in leisurely fashion.

Just about the same moment Kennedy called me to his side.

"Walter," he pleaded, in a low voice, "will you hurry out to the dressing room where the doctor and I took Werner and get the blood smears and sample of the stomach contents? I don't want to leave this, because we must work fast and get all the data we need before the police arrive. With perhaps a hundred people to question they'll be apt to make a fine mess of everything. This is an outlying precinct where we'll draw the amateurs, you know."

I saw that Mackay was helping him and so I left cheerfully, making my way as fast as I could toward the door through which both Shirley and Millard had passed.

In the hallway of the building devoted to dressing rooms I found that I did not know which one contained Werner's body. This corridor was familiar. Here Kennedy and I had waited for Marilyn Loring and had witnessed the scene between Shirley and herself. Now I did not even remember the location of her room.

At last, on a chance, I tried a door softly. From within came whispered voices of deep intensity. About to close it quickly, I realized suddenly that I recognized the speakers in spite of the whispers. It was Marilyn and Shirley. They were together. Now I recollected the figured chintz which covered the wall and was to be seen through the crack made by the open door. It was her room. They had not heard my hand on the knob, nor the catch, did not know that anyone could eavesdrop.

"You see!" Her tones were the more vibrant "You waited!"

"I had to!"

"No! I advised you to act at once."

"I couldn't! I can't even now!"

"All right!" Her tone became bitter. "Go ahead, your own way. But you must count the cost. You may lose me again, Merle Shirley."

"How do you mean?"

Her answer, in the faintest of whispers, staggered me.

"If you have the blood of another man on your hands I'm through."