The Film Mystery by Arthur B. Reeve
VI. The First Clue
Manton's car was a high-powered, expensive limousine, fitted inside with every luxury of which the mind of even a prima donna could conceive, painted a vivid yellow that must have made it an object of attention even on its familiar routes. It was quite characteristic of its owner, for Manton, as we learned, missed no chance to advertise himself.
In the back with us was Werner, while the rest of the company were left to return to the city in the two studio cars which had brought them out in the morning. The director, however, seemed buried with his reflections. He took no part in the conversation; paid no attention to us upon the entire trip.
Manton's mind seemed to dwell rather upon the problems brought up by the death of Stella than upon the tragedy itself. The Star's photoplay editor once had remarked to me that the promoter was 90 per cent "bull," and 10 per cent efficiency. I found that it was an unfair estimation. With all his self-advertisement and almost obnoxious personality, Manton was a more than capable executive in a business where efficiency and method are rare.
"This has been a hoodoo picture from the start," he exclaimed, suddenly. "We have been jinxed with a vengeance. Some one has held the Indian sign on us for sure."
Kennedy, I noticed, listened, studying the man cautiously from the corners of his eyes, but making no effort to draw him out.
"First there were changes to be made in the script, and for those Millard took his own sweet time. Then we were handed a lot of negative which had been fogged in the perforator, a thing that doesn't happen once in a thousand years. But it caught us just as we sent the company down to Delaware Water Gap. A whole ten days' work went into the developer at once. Neither of the camera men caught the fog in their tests because it came in the middle of the rolls. Everything had to be done over again.
"And accidents! We carefully registered the principal accomplice of the 'Black Terror,' a little hunchback with a face to send chills down your back. After we had him in about half the scenes of a sequence of action he was taken sick and died of influenza. First we waited a few days; then we had to take all that stuff over again.
"Our payroll on this picture is staggering. Stella's three thousand a week is cheap for her, the old contract, but it's a lot of money to throw away. Two weeks when she was under the weather cost us six thousand dollars salary and there was half a week we couldn't do any work without her. Gordon and Shirley and Marilyn Loring draw down seventeen hundred a week between them. The director's salary is only two hundred short of that. All told 'The Black Terror' is costing us a hundred thousand dollars over our original estimate.
"And now"--it seemed to me that Manton literally groaned--"with Stella Lamar dead--excuse me looking at it this way, but, after all, it is business and I'm the executive at the head of the company--now we must find a new star, Lord knows where, and we must retake every scene in which Stella appeared. It--it's enough to bankrupt Manton Pictures for once and all."
"Can't you change the story about some way, so you won't lose the value of her work?" asked Kennedy.
"Impossible! We've announced the release and we've got to go ahead. Fortunately, some of the biggest sets are not taken yet."
The car pulled up with a flourish before the Manton studio, which was an immense affair of reinforced concrete in the upper Bronx. Then, in response to our horn, a great wide double door swung open admitting us through the building to a large courtyard around which the various departments were built.
Here, there was little indication that the principal star of the company had just met her death under mysterious and suspicious circumstances. Perhaps, had I been familiar with the ordinary bustle of the establishment, I might have detected a difference. Indeed, it did strike me that there were little knots of people here and there discussing the tragedy, but everything was overshadowed by the aquatic scene being filmed in the courtyard for some other Manton picture. The cramped space about the concrete tank was alive with people, a mob of extras and stage hands and various employees, a sight which held Kennedy and me for some little time. I was glad when Manton led the way through a long hall to the comparative quiet of the office building. In the reception room there was a decided hush.
"Is Millard here?" he asked of the boy seated at the information desk.
"No, sir," was the respectful reply. "He was here this morning and for a while yesterday."
"You see!" Manton confronted Kennedy grimly. "This is only one of the things with which we have to contend in this business. I give Millard an office but he's a law unto himself. It's the artistic temperament. If I interfere, then he says he cannot write and he doesn't produce any manuscript. Ordinarily he cannot be bothered to work at the studio. But"--philosophically--"I know where to get him as a general thing. He does most of his writing in his rooms downtown; says there's more inspiration in the confusion of Broadway than in the wilds of the Bronx. I'll phone him."
We followed the promoter up the stairs to the second and top floor. Here a corridor gave access to the various executive offices. Its windows at frequent intervals looked down upon the courtyard and the present confusion.
Werner, who had preceded us into the building, now came up. As Manton bustled into his own office to use the telephone the director turned to Kennedy, indicating the next doorway.
"This is my place," he explained. "It connects with Manton, on one side, through his reception room. You see, in addition to directing Stella Lamar I have been in general charge of production and most of the casting is up to me."
Kennedy entered after Werner, interested, and I followed. The door through to the reception room stood open and beyond was the one to Manton's quarters. I could see the promoter at his desk, receiver at his ear, an impatient expression upon his face. In the reception room a rather pretty girl, young and of a shallow- pated type I thought, was busy at a clattering typewriter. She rose and closed the door upon Manton, so as not to disturb him.
"The next office on this side is Millard's," volunteered Werner. "He's the only scenario writer dignified with quarters in this building."
"Manton has other writers, hasn't he?" Kennedy asked.
"Yes, the scenario department is on the third floor across the court, above the laboratory and cutting rooms."
"Who else is in the building here?"
"There are six rooms on this floor," Werner replied. "Manton, the waiting room, myself, Millard, and the two other directors. Below is the general reception room, the cashier, the bookkeepers and stenographers."
As Manton probably was having trouble obtaining his connection, and as Kennedy continued to question Werner concerning the general arrangement of the different floors in the different buildings about the quadrangle, all uninteresting to me, I determined to look about a bit on my own hook. I was still anxious to be of genuine assistance to Kennedy, for once, through my greater knowledge of the film world.
Strolling out into the corridor, I went to the door of Millard's room. To my disappointment, it was locked. Continuing down the hall, I stole a glance into each of the two directors' quarters but saw nothing to awaken my suspicion or justify my intrusion. Beyond, I discovered a washroom, and, aware suddenly of the immense amount of dust I had acquired in the ride in from Tarrytown, I entered to freshen my hands and face at the least. It was a stroke of luck, a fortunate impulse.
The amount of money to be made in the movies had resulted, in the case of Manton, in luxurious equipment for all the various departments of his establishment. I had noticed the offices, furnished with a richness worthy of a bank or some great downtown institution. Now, in the lavatory, immaculate with its white tile and modern appointments, I saw a shelf literally stacked, in this day of paper, with linen towels of the finest quality.
As I drew the water, hot instantly, my eye caught, half in and half out of the wire basket beneath the stand, one of the towels covered with peculiar yellow spots. Immediately my suspicions were awakened. I picked it up gingerly. At close range I saw that the spots were only chrome yellow make-up, but there were also spots of a different nature. I did not stop to think of the unlikeliness of the discovery of a real clue under these circumstances, analyzed afterward by Kennedy. I folded the towel hastily and hurried to rejoin him, to show it to him.
I found him with Werner, waiting for the results of Manton's efforts to locate Millard. Almost at the moment I rejoined the two a boy came to summon Werner to one of the sets out on the stage itself. Kennedy and I were alone. I showed him the towel.
At first he laughed, "You'll never make a detective, Walter," he remarked. "This is only simple coloring matter-Chinese yellow, to be exact. And will you tell me, too"--he became ironical--"how do you expect to find clues of this sort here for a murder committed in Tarrytown when all the people present were held out there and examined, when we are the first to arrive back here?
"Yellow, you know, photographs white. Chinese yellow is used largely in studios in place of white in make-up because it does not cause halation, which, to the picture people, is the bane of their existence. White is too glaring, reflects rays that blur the photography sometimes.
"If you will notice, the next time you see them shooting a scene, you will find the actors' faces tinged with yellow. Even tablecloths and napkins and 'white' dresses are frequently colored a pale yellow, although pale blue has the actinic qualities of white for this purpose, and is now perhaps more frequently used than yellow."
I was properly chastened. In fact, though I did not say much, I almost determined to let him conduct his case himself.
Kennedy saw my crestfallen expression and understood. He was about to say something encouraging, as he handed back the towel, when his eye fell on the other end of it, which, indeed, I myself had noticed.
He sobered instantly and studied the other spots. Indeed, I had not examined them closely myself. They were the very faint stains of some other yellow substance, a liquid which had dried and did not rub off as the make-up, and there were also some small round drops of dark red, almost hidden in the fancy red scrollwork of the lettering on the towel, "Manton Pictures, Inc." The latter had escaped me altogether.
"Blood!" Kennedy exclaimed. Then, "Look here!" The marks of the pale yellow liquid trailed into a slender trace of blood. "It looks as if some one had cleaned a needle on it," he muttered, "and in a hurry."
I remembered his previous remark. The murder had been in Tarrytown. We had just arrived here.
"Would anyone have time to do it?" I asked.
"Whoever used the towel did so in a hurry," he reiterated, seriously. "It may have been some one afraid to leave any sort of clue out there at Phelps's house. There were too many watchers about. It might have seemed better to have run the risk of a search. With no sign of a wound on Miss Lamar's person, it was pretty certain that neither Mackay nor I would attempt to frisk everyone. It was not as though we were looking for a revolver, if she were shot, or a knife, if she had been stabbed. And"--he could not resist another dig at me--"and that we should look in a washroom here for a towel was, well, an idea that wouldn't occur to anyone but the most amateur and blundering sort of sleuth. It's beginner's luck, Walter, beginner's luck."
I ignored the uncomplimentary part of his remarks. "Who could have been in the washroom just before me?" I asked.
Suddenly he hurried through the waiting room to the door to Manton's office, opening it without ceremony. Manton was gone. We exchanged glances. I remembered that Werner had preceded us upstairs. "It means Werner or Manton himself," I whispered, so the girl just behind us would not hear.
Kennedy strode out to the hall, and to a window overlooking the court. After a moment he pointed. I recognized both the cars used to transport the company to the home of Emery Phelps. There was no sign that either had just arrived, for even the chauffeurs were out of sight, perhaps melted into the crowd about the tank in the corner.
"They must have arrived immediately behind us," Kennedy remarked. "We wasted several valuable minutes looking at that water stuff ourselves."
At that moment Werner's voice rose from the reception room below. It was probable that he would be up to rejoin us again. I remembered that he had not been at all at ease while Kennedy questioned him in Tarrytown; that here at the studio he had been palpably anxious to remain close at our heels. I felt a surge of suspicion within me.
"Listen, Craig," I muttered, in low tones. "Manton had no opportunity to steal down the hall after the girl closed the door, and--"
"Why not!" he interrupted, contradicting me. "We had our backs to the door while we were talking with Werner."
"Well, anyhow, it narrows down to Manton and Werner because that is the washroom for these offices--"
"'Sh!" Kennedy stopped me as Werner mounted the stairs. He turned to the director with assumed nonchalance. "How long have the other cars been here?" he asked. "I thought we came pretty fast."
Werner smiled. "I guess those boys had enough of Tarrytown. They rolled into the yard, both of them, while you and Mr. Jameson and Manton were stopping to watch the people in the water."
"I see!" Kennedy gave me a side glance. "Where are the dressing rooms?" he inquired. It was a random shot.
Werner pointed to the end of the hall, toward the washroom. "In the next building, on this floor--that is, the principals'. It's a rotten arrangement," he added. "They come through sometimes and use our lavatory, because it's a little more fancy and because it saves a trip down a flight of stairs. Believe me, it gets old Manton on his ear."