XXV. Itching Salve
 

For once I rose with Kennedy. He preceded me to the laboratory after breakfast, however, leaving me to wait for Mackay. When the little district attorney arrived I noticed that he carried a package which looked as though it might contain a one-reel film can.

"The negative we took from the cameras at Tarrytown," he explained. "Also a print from each roll, ready to run. I've been holding this as evidence. Mr. Kennedy wanted me to bring it with me to-day."

"He's waiting for us at the laboratory," I remarked.

"He'll straighten everything up in a hurry, won't he?"

"Kennedy's the most high-handed individual I ever knew," I laughed, "if he sees a chance of getting his man." Then I became enthusiastic. "Often I've seen him gather a group of people in a room, perhaps without the faintest shred of legal right to do so, and there make the guilty person confess simply by marshaling the evidence, or maybe betray himself by some scientific device. It's wonderful, Mackay."

"Do you think he plans something of that kind this morning?"

I led the way to the door. "After what happened last night I know that Kennedy will resort to almost anything."

The district attorney fingered the package under his arm. "He might get everyone in the projection room then, and make them watch the actual photographic record of Stella's death--the scene where she scratched herself--"

"Let's hurry!" I interrupted.

When we entered the laboratory we found Kennedy vigorously fanning a towel which he had hung up to dry. I recognized it as the one I had discovered in the studio washroom immediately following the first murder.

"This will serve me better as bait than as evidence," he laughed. "I have impregnated it with a colorless chemical which will cling to the fibers and enable me to identify the most infinitesimal trace of it. We shall get up to the studio and start, well--I guess you could call it fishing for the guilty man." He fingered the folds, then jerked the towel down and flung it to me. "Here, Walter! It's dry enough. Now I want you to rub the contents of that tiny can of grease, open before you there, into the cloth."

He hurried over to wash his hands. I spread the towel out on the table and began to work in the stuff indicated by Kennedy. There was no odor and it seemed like some patent ointment in color. At first I was puzzled. Then, absently, I touched the back of one hand with the greasy fingers of the other and immediately an itching set up so annoying that I had to abandon my task.

Kennedy chuckled. "That's itching salve, Walter. The cuticle pads at your finger tips are too thick, but touch yourself anywhere else!--" He shrugged his shoulders. "You'd better use soap and water if you want any relief. Then you can start over again."

At the basin I thought I grasped his little plot.

"You're going to plant the towel," I asked, "so that the interested party will try to get hold of it?"

Evidently he thought it unnecessary to reply to me.

"Why couldn't you just put it somewhere without all the preparation," Mackay suggested, "and watch to see who came after it?"

"Because our criminal's too clever," Kennedy rejoined. "Our only chance to get it stolen is to make it very plain that it is not being watched. Whoever steals it, however, possibly will reveal himself on account of the itching salve. In any case I expect to be able to trace the towel to the thief, no matter what efforts are made to destroy it."

The towel was wrapped in a heavy bit of paper; then placed with a microscope and some other paraphernalia in a small battered traveling bag. Climbing into Mackay's little roadster, we soon were speeding toward the studio.

"Will you be able to help me, to stay with Jameson and myself all day?" Kennedy asked the district attorney, after perhaps a mile of silence.

"Surely! It's what I was hoping you'd allow me to do. I have no authority down here, though."

"I understand. But the police, or an outsider, might allow some of my plans to become known." He paused a moment in thought. "The film you brought in with you consists of the scenes on the rolls of negative in use at the time of Miss Lamar's collapse. It may or may not include the action where she scratched herself. Now I want the scenes up to thirteen put together in proper order, first as photographed by one camera, then as caught by the other. I'll arrange for the services of a cutter, and for the delivery to me of any other negative or positive overlooked by us when we had the two boxes sealed and given into your custody at Tarrytown. Will you superintend the assembly of the scenes, so that you can be sure nothing is taken out or omitted?"

"Of course! I want to do anything I can."

Upon arrival at the studio we detected this time all the signs of a complete demoralization. The death of Werner, the fact that he had been stricken down during the taking of a scene and on the very stage, had served to bring the tragedy home to the people. More, it was a second murder in four days, apparently by the same hand as the first. A sense of dread, a nameless, intangible fear, had taken form and found its way under the big blackened glass roofs and around and through the corridors, into the dressing rooms, and back even to the manufacturing and purely technical departments. The gateman eyed us with undisguised uneasiness as we drove through the archway into the yard. In that inclosure there were only two cars--Manton's, and one we later learned belonged to Phelps. The sole human being to enter our range of vision was an office boy. He skirted the side of the building as though the menace of death were in the air, or likely to strike out of the very heavens without warning.

We found Kauf in the large studio, obviously unhappy in the shoes of the unfortunate Werner. Probably from half-reasoned-out motives of efficiency in psychology the new director had made no attempt to resume work at once in the ill-fated banquet set, but had turned to the companion ballroom setting, since both had been prepared and made ready at the same time.

Kennedy explained our presence so early in the morning very neatly, I thought.

"I would appreciate it," he began, "if you could place a cutter at the disposal of Mr. Mackay. He has the scenes taken from the camera and sealed at the time of Miss Lamar's death. I would like to have any other film taken out there delivered to him and the whole joined in proper sequence. Then, Mr. Kauf, if you could arrange to have the same cutter take the film exposed yesterday when Mr. Werner--"

"You think you might be able to see something, to discover something on the screen?"

"Exactly!"

Kauf beamed. "Mr. Manton gave me orders to assist you in every way I could, or to put any of my people at your disposal. More than that, Mr. Kennedy, he anticipated you. He thought you might want to look at the scenes taken yesterday and he rushed the laboratory and the printing room. We'll be able to fix you up very quickly."

"Good!" Kennedy nodded to Mackay and the district attorney hurried off with Kauf. "Now, Walter!" he exclaimed, sobering.

I picked up the traveling bag and together we strolled toward the ballroom set. There most of the players were gathered already--in make-up and evening clothes of a fancier sort even than those demanded for the banquet. I saw that Kennedy singled out Marilyn.

"Good morning," she said, cheerfully, but with effort. It was obvious she had spent a nervous night. There were circles under her eyes ill concealed by the small quantity of cosmetic she used. Her hands, shifting constantly, displayed the loss of her usual poise. "You are out bright and early," she added.

"We've stumbled into a very important clue," Kennedy told her, with a show of giving her his confidence. "In that bag in Walter's hand is one of the studio towels. It contains a hint of the poison used to kill Miss Lamar and--of utmost consequence--it has provided me with an infallible clue to the identity of the murderer himself--or herself."

It seemed to me that Marilyn blanched. "Where--where did you find it?" she demanded, in a very awed voice.

"In one of the studio washrooms."

"It has been--it has been in the washroom ever since poor Stella's death?"

"No, not that! Jameson discovered it the same day but"--the very slight pause was perceptible to me; Kennedy hated to lie--"I haven't realized its importance until just this morning."

Enid Faye, seeing us from a distance, conquered her dislike of Marilyn sufficiently to join us. She was very erect and tense. Her eyes, wide and sober and searching, traveled from my face to Kennedy's and back. Then she dissembled, softening as she came close to me, laying a hand on my shoulder and allowing her skirt to brush my trousers.

"Tell me, Jamie," she whispered, her warm breath thrilling me through and through. "Has the wonderful Craig Kennedy discovered something?" It was not sarcasm, but assumed playfulness, masking a throbbing curiosity.

"I found a towel in one of the studio washrooms," I answered, "and Craig has demonstrated that it is a clue to the poison which killed Stella Lamar as well as to the person who did it."

Enid gasped. Then she drew herself up and her eyes narrowed. Now she faced Kennedy.

"How can the towel be a clue to the crime?" she protested. "Stella was--was murdered way out in Tarrytown! Mr. Jameson found the towel here!"

Kennedy shrugged his shoulders. "I cannot tell you that--just yet." He paused deliberately. "You see," he lied. "I have yet to make my analysis."

"But you know it's a clue to the--"

"That towel"--he raised his voice, as though in elation--"that towel will lead me to the murderer--infallibly!"

Merle Shirley had come up in time to hear most of the colloquy between Enid and Kennedy. At the last he flushed, clenching his fists.

"If you can prove who the murderer is, Mr. Kennedy," he exploded, "why don't you apprehend him before some one else meets the fate of Werner?"

"I can do nothing until I return to my laboratory this afternoon. I will not know the identity of the guilty person until I complete a chemical analysis."

One by one the various people possibly concerned in the two crimes joined the group. This morning all the faces were serious; most of them showed the marks of sleeplessness following the second murder. Kennedy walked away, but I saw that Jack Gordon hastened to question both the girls, ignoring their evident dislike for him. Among the others I recognized Watkins, the camera man, and his associate. Lawrence Millard came in and hastened to the side of Enid. As he drew her away to ask the cause of the gathering I wondered at his early presence. The scenario writer was typical of them all. The strange and unusual nature of the crimes, the evident relationship between them, had drawn the employees of Manton Pictures to the studio as a crowd of baseball fans collects before a public bulletin board. Not one of them but was afraid of missing some development in the case. In no instance could the interest of a particular individual be taken as an indication of guilt.

Phelps entered the studio from the door to the dressing rooms. Disdaining to join the other group, he approached us to ask the cause for the excitement. Kennedy explained, patiently, and I saw that Phelps looked at the black bag uneasily.

"I hope the guilty party is not a member of the company," he muttered.

"Why?" Kennedy's mouth tightened.

The financier grew red. "Because this picture has been crippled enough. First a new star; now a new director--if it wasn't so preposterous I'd believe that it was all part of a deliberate--" He stopped as if realizing suddenly the inadvisability of vague accusations.

"Don't you want justice done?" Kennedy inquired.

"Of course!" Phelps tugged at his collar uncomfortably. "Of course, Mr. Kennedy." Then he turned and hurried away, out of the studio.

Gordon and Millard detached themselves from the others, coming over.

"In which washroom was the towel found, Mr. Kennedy?" Gordon put the question as though he felt himself specially delegated to obtain this information.

I wondered how Kennedy would evade a direct answer. To my surprise he made no attempt at concealment.

"The one on the second floor of the office building."

Millard laughed, facing Gordon. "That puts it on myself--or the big boss!"

It struck me that the leading man was uneasy as he hurried back to the others. Millard, still smiling, turned to say something to us, but we were joined by Manton, entering from the other end of the big inclosure.

"Good morning," the promoter exclaimed, somewhat breathless. "I just learned you were here. Is--is there some new development. Is there something I can do?"

"I see you are not allowing anything to interfere with the making of the picture," Kennedy remarked. "All the people seem to be here bright and early."

A shadow crept into Manton's face. "It seems almost as cold- blooded as--as war," he admitted. "But I can't help myself, Mr. Kennedy. The company has no money and if we don't meet this release we're busted." All at once he lowered his voice eagerly. "Tell me, have you discovered something? Is there some clue to the guilty man?"

"He's found a towel," Millard put in, an expression of half amusement on his face as he faced the promoter. "In some way it's a clue to the identity of the murderer, an infallible clue, he says. He found it in the washroom by our offices. Since Werner is dead, that points the finger of suspicion at you or me."

Manton's jaw dropped. His expression became almost ludicrous, as if the thought that he could possibly be suspected himself was new to him. Millard's eyes sobered a bit at his superior's confusion.

"There's a door from the dressing rooms," Kennedy suggested. "Any of the actors or actresses could have used the place."

"Of course!" Manton grasped at the straw. "I had forgotten. There have been complaints to me about the players using that room."

"I have the towel with me, wrapped up in a paper in this grip," Kennedy went on. "It's so very valuable as a bit of evidence--I wonder if I could borrow a locker so as to keep it under lock and key until we're ready to return to the laboratory?"

"Sure! Of course!" Manton glanced about and saw the little knot of people still gathered in the set. "Millard! Go over and tell Kauf to get busy. He's losing time." Then he turned to us again. "Come on, Mr. Kennedy, we have some steel lockers out by the property room."

As we started across the floor I could see that Kennedy was framing a question with great care.

"Do you ever use snakes in films, Mr. Manton?" he asked.

"Why, no!" The promoter stopped in his surprise. "That is, not if we ever can help it. The censorship won't pass anything with snakes."

"You have used them, though?"

"Yes. Once we made a short-length special subject, nothing but snakes." Manton became enthusiastic. "It was a wonder, too; a pet film of mine. We made it with the direct co-operation and supervision of the greatest authority on poisonous snakes in the country, Doctor Nagoya of Castleton Institute."