V. An Emotional Maze
 

Bernie proved to be as stupid a youth as any I had ever seen. He possessed frightened semi-liquid eyes and overshot ears and hair which might have been red beneath its accumulation of dust. Without doubt the boy had been coached by the electrician, because he began to affirm his innocence in similar fashion the moment he entered the door.

"I don't know nothin', honest I don't," he pleaded. "I was out in the hall, I was, and I didn't come in at all until the doc. came."

"I suppose you were anxious to see if the cable was becoming hot," Kennedy suggested, gravely.

"That's it, sir! We was lookin' at it because it was on the varnish and the butler he says--"

"Where's the locket?" interrupted Kennedy. "The one Miss Lamar wore in the scenes."

"Oh!" in disdain, "that thing!" With some effort Bernie fished it from the capacious depths of a pocket, disentangling the sharp corners from the torn and ragged lining of his coat.

I glanced at it as Kennedy turned it over and over in his hands, and saw that it was a palpable stage prop, with glass jewels of the cheapest sort. Concealing his disappointment, Kennedy dropped it into his own pocket, confronting the frightened Bernie once more.

"Do you know anything about Miss Lamar's death?"

"No! I don't know nothing, honest!"

"All right!" Kennedy turned to Mackay. "Werner, the director."

Of Stanley Werner I had heard a great deal, through interviews, character studies, and other press stuff in the photoplay journals and the Sunday newspaper film sections. Now I found him to be a high-strung individual, so extremely nervous that it seemed impossible for him to remain in one position in his chair or for him to keep his hands motionless for a single instant. Although he was of moderate build, with a fair suggestion of flesh, there were yet the marks of the artist and of the creative temperament in the fine sloping contours of his head and in his remarkably long fingers, which tapered to nails manicured immaculately. Kennedy seemed to pay particular attention to his eyes, which were dark, soft, and amazingly restless.

"Who was in the cast, Mr. Werner? What were they playing and just exactly what was each doing at the tune of Miss Lamar's collapse?"

"Well"--Werner's eyes shifted to mine, then to Mackay's, and there was a subtle lack of ease in his manner which I was hardly prepared to classify as yet--"Stella Lamar was playing the part of Stella Remsen, the heroine, and--uh, I see your associate has the script--"

He paused, glancing at me again. When Kennedy said nothing, Werner went on, growing more and more nervous. "Jack Gordon plays Jack Daring, the hero--the handsome young chap who runs down the steps and encounters the butler and the maid in the hall just outside the library--"

"Wasn't it his face in the French windows of the library at the same time?" Kennedy asked. "Wasn't he the murderer of the father, also?"

"No!" Werner smiled slightly, and there was an instant's flash of the man's personality, winning and, it seemed to me, calculated to inspire confidence. "That is the mystery; it is a mystery plot. While the parts are played by Jack in both cases now, we explain in a subtitle a little later that the criminal himself, the 'Black Terror,' is a master of scientific impersonation, and that he changes the faces of his emissaries by means of plastic surgery and such scientific things, so that they look like the characters against whom he wishes to throw suspicion. So while Jack plays the part it is really an accomplice of the 'Black Terror' who kills old Remsen."

Kennedy turned to me. "A new idea in the application of science to crime!" he remarked, dryly. "Just suppose it were practicable!"

"The 'Black Terror'" Werner continued, "is played by Merle Shirley. You've heard of him, the greatest villain ever known to the films? Then there's Marilyn Loring, the vampire, another good trouper, too. She plays Zelda, old Remsen's ward, and it's a question whether Zelda or Stella will be the Remsen heir. Marilyn herself is an awfully nice girl, but, oh, how the fans hate her!" The director chuckled. "No Millard story is ever complete without a vamp and Marilyn's been eating them up. She's been with Manton Pictures for nearly a year."

"You played the millionaire yourself?"

"Yes, I did old Remsen."

I realized suddenly, for the first time, that Werner was still in the evening clothes he had donned for the part. On his face were streaks in the little make-up that remained after his frequent mopping of his features with his handkerchief. Too, his collar was melted. I could imagine his discomfort.

"Did you have any business with Stella?" Kennedy asked, using the stage term for the minor bits of action in the playing of a scene. "Did you move at all while she was going through her part?"

"No, Mr. Kennedy, I was 'dead man' in all the scenes."

"Show me how you lay, if you will."

Obligingly, Werner stretched out on the carpet, duplicating his positions even to the exact manner in which he had placed his hands and arms. Rather to my own distaste, Kennedy impressed me to represent, I am sure in clumsy fashion, the various positions of Stella Lamar. Most painstakingly Kennedy worked back from the thirteenth scene to the first, referring to the script and coaxing details of memory from the mind of Werner.

I grasped Kennedy's purpose almost at once. He was endeavoring to reproduce the action which had been photographed, so as to determine just how the poison had been administered. Of course he made no reference to the tiny scratch and Mackay and I were careful to give no hint of it to Werner. The director, however, seemed most willing to assist us. I certainly felt no suspicion of him now. As for Kennedy, his face was unrevealing.

"When the film in the camera is developed--" I suggested to Kennedy, suddenly.

He silenced me with a gesture. "I haven't overlooked that, but the scenes will be from one angle only and in a darkened set. I can determine more this way."

Somewhat crestfallen, I continued my impersonation of the slain star not altogether willingly. Soon Kennedy had completed his reconstruction of the action.

"Who else entered the scene besides Gordon?" he asked.

"The butler and the maid, after the lights were flashed on."

"I'll question the camera men," he announced. "Who are they?"

"Harry Watkins is the head photographer," Werner explained. "He's a crackerjack, too! One of the best lighting experts in the country. Al Penny's grinding the other box."

"Let's have Watkins first." Kennedy nodded to Mackay to escort the director from the room.

Neither Watkins nor Penny were able to add anything to the facts which Kennedy had gleaned from Manton and Werner. When he had finished his patient examination of the junior camera man he recalled Watkins and had both, under his eyes, close and seal the film cartridges which contained the photographic record of the thirteen scenes. Dismissing the men, he handed the two black boxes to Mackay.

"Can you arrange to have these developed and printed, quickly, but in some way so neither negative nor positive will be out of your sight at any time?"

Mackay nodded. "I know the owner of a laboratory in Yonkers."

"Good! Now let's have the leading man."

Jack Gordon immediately impressed me very unfavorably. There was something about him for which I could find no word but "sleek." Learning much from my long association with Kennedy I observed at once that he had removed the make-up from his face and that he had on a clean white collar. Since the linen worn before the camera is dyed a faint tint to prevent the halation caused by pure white, it was a sure sign to me that he had spruced up a bit. I knew that he was engaged to Stella. Here in this room she lay dead, under the most mysterious circumstances. There was little question, in fact, that she had been murdered. How could he, really loving her, think of such things as the make-up left on his face, or his clothes?

I had to admit that he was a handsome individual. Perhaps slightly less than average in height, and very slender, he had the close-knit build of an athlete. The contour of his head and the perfect regularity of rather large features made him an ideal type for the screen at any angle; in close-ups and foregrounds as well as full shots. In actual life there were little things covered by make-up in his work, such as the cold gray tint of his eyes and the lines of dissipation about his mouth.

Kennedy questioned him first about his movements in the different scenes, then asked him if he had seen or noticed anything suspicious during the taking of any of them or in the intervals between.

"I had several changes, Mr. Kennedy," he replied. "Part of the time I was Jack Daring, my regular role, but I was also the emissary who looked like Daring. I went out each time because I make up the emissary to look hard. Werner wanted to fool the people a little bit, but he didn't want them to be positive the emissary was Daring, as would happen if both make-ups were the same."

"Did you have any opportunity to talk to Miss Lamar?"

"None at all. Werner was pushing us to the limit."

"Did she seem her usual self at the start of the scene?"

"No, she seemed a little out of sorts. But"--Gordon hesitated-- "something had been troubling her all day. She hardly would talk to me in the car on the way out at all. It didn't strike me that she acted any different when she went in to take the scene."

"You were engaged to her?"

"Yes." Gordon's eyes caught the body on the davenport before him. He glanced away hastily, taking his lower lip between his teeth.

"Had you been having any trouble?"

"No--that is, nothing to amount to anything."

"But you had a quarrel or a misunderstanding."

His face flushed slowly. "She was to obtain her final decree early next week. I wanted her to marry me then at once. She refused. When I reproached her for not considering my wishes she pretended to be cool and began an elaborate flirtation with Merle Shirley." "You say she only pretended to be cool?"

For a few moments Gordon hesitated. Then apparently his vanity loosened his tongue. He wished it to be understood that he had held the love of Stella to the last.

"Last night," he volunteered, "we made everything up and she was as affectionate as she ever had been. This morning she was cool, but I could tell it was pretense and so I let her alone."

"There has been no real trouble between you?"

The leading man met Kennedy's gaze squarely. "Not a bit!"

Kennedy turned to Mackay. "Mr. Shirley," he ordered.

By a miscalculation on the part of the little district attorney the heavy man entered the room a moment before Gordon left. They came face to face just within the portieres. There was no mistaking the hostility, the open hate, between the two men. Both Kennedy and I caught the glances.

Then Merle Shirley approached the fireplace, taking the chair indicated by Kennedy.

"I wasn't in any of the opening scenes," he explained. "I remained out in the car until I got wind of the excitement. By that time Stella was dead."

"Do you know anything of a quarrel between Miss Lamar and Gordon?"

Shirley rose, clenching his fists. For several moments he stood gazing down at the star with an expression on his face which I could not analyze. The pause gave me an opportunity to study him, however, and I noticed that while he had heavier features than Gordon, and was a larger man in every way, ideally endowed for heavy parts, there was yet a certain boyish freshness clinging to him in subtle fashion. He wore his clothes in a loose sort of way which suggested the West and the open, in contrast to Gordon's metropolitan sophistication and immaculate tailoring. He was every inch the man, and a splendid actor--I knew. Yet there was the touch of youth about him. He seemed incapable of a crime such as this, unless it was in anger, or as the result of some deep- running hidden passion.

Now, whether he was angry or in the clutch of a broad disgust, I could not tell. Perhaps it was both. Very suddenly he wheeled upon Kennedy. His voice became low and vibrant with feeling. Here was none of the steeled self-control of Manton, the deceptive outer mask which Werner used to cover his thoughts, the nonchalant, cold frankness of Gordon.

"Mr. Kennedy," the actor exclaimed, "I've been a fool, a fool!"

"How do you mean?"

"I mean that I allowed Stella to flatter my vanity and lead me into a flirtation which meant nothing at all to her. God!"

"You are responsible for the trouble between Miss Lamar and Gordon, then?"

"Never!" Shirley indicated the body of the star with a quick, passionate sweep of his hand. Now I could not tell whether he was acting or in earnest. "She's responsible!" he exclaimed. "She's responsible for everything!"

"Her death--"

"No!" Shirley sobered suddenly, as if he had forgotten the mystery altogether. "I don't know anything at all about that, nor have I any idea unless--" But he checked himself rather than voice an empty suspicion.

"Just what do you mean, then?" Kennedy was sharp, impatient.

"She made a fool of me, and--and I was engaged to Marilyn Loring--"

"Were engaged? The engagement--"

"Marilyn broke it off last night and wouldn't listen to me, even though I came to my senses and saw what a fool I had been."

"Was"--Kennedy framed his question carefully--"was your infatuation for Miss Lamar of long duration?"

"Just a few weeks. I--I took her out to dinner and to the theater and--and that was all."

"I see!" Kennedy walked away, nodding to Mackay.

"Will you have Miss Loring next?" asked the district attorney.

Kennedy nodded.

Marilyn Loring was a surprise to me. Stella Lamar both on the screen and in real life was a beauty. In the films Marilyn was a beauty also, apparently of a cold, unfeeling type, but in the flesh she was disclosed as a person utterly different from all my preconceived notions. In the first place, she was not particularly attractive except when she smiled. Her coloring, hair frankly and naturally red, skin slightly mottled and pale, produced in photography the black hair and marble, white skin which distinguished her. But as I studied her, as she was now, before she had put on any make-up and while she was still dressed in a simple summer gown of organdie, she looked as though she might have stepped into the room from the main street of some mid-Western town. In repose she was shy, diffident in appearance. When she smiled, naturally, without holding the hard lines of her vampire roles, there was the slight suggestion of a dimple, and she was essentially girlish. When a trace of emotion or feeling came into her face the woman was evident. She might have been seventeen or thirty-seven.

To my surprise, Kennedy made no effort to elicit further information concerning the personal animosities of these people. Perhaps he felt it too much of an emotional maze to be straightened out in this preliminary investigation. When he found Marilyn had watched the taking of the scenes he compared her account with those which he had already obtained. Then he dismissed her.

In rapid succession, for he was impatient now to follow up other methods of investigation, he called in and examined the remaining possible witnesses of the tragedy. These were the two extra players--the butler and the maid, the assistant director, Phelps's house servants, and Emery Phelps himself. For some unknown reason he left the owner of the house to the very last.

"Why did you wish these scenes photographed out here?" he asked.

"Because I wanted to see my library in pictures."

"Were you watching the taking of the scenes?"

"Yes!"

"Will you describe just what happened?"

Phelps flushed. He was irritated and in no mood to humor us any more than necessary. A man of perhaps forty, with the portly flabbiness which often accompanies success in the financial markets, he was accustomed to obtaining rather than yielding obedience. A bachelor, he had built this house as a show place merely, according to the gossip among newspaper men, seldom living in it.

"Haven't about a dozen people described it for you already?" he asked, distinctly petulant.

Kennedy smiled. "Did you notice anything particularly out of the way, anything which might be a clue to the manner in which Miss Lamar met her death?"

Phelps's attitude became frankly malicious. "If I had, or if any of us had, we wouldn't have found it necessary to send for Prof. Craig Kennedy, or"--turning to me--"the representative of the New York Star."

Kennedy, undisturbed, walked to the side of Mackay. "I'll leave Mr. Phelps and his house in your care," he remarked, in a low voice.

Mackay grinned. I saw that the district attorney had little love for the owner of this particular estate in Tarrytown.

Kennedy led the way into the living room. Immediately the various people he had questioned clustered up with varying degrees of anxiety. Had the mystery been solved?

He gave them no satisfaction, but singled out Manton, who seemed eager to get away.

"Where is Millard? I would like to talk to him."

"I'll try to get him for you. Suppose--" Manton looked at his watch. "I should be in at the studio," he explained. "Everything is at a standstill, probably, and--and so, suppose you and Mr. Jameson ride in with me in my car. Millard might be there."

Kennedy brightened. "Good!" Then he looked back to catch the eye of Mackay. "Let everyone go now," he directed. "Don't forget to send me the samples of the body fluids and"--as an afterthought-- "you'd better keep a watch on the house."