IX. White-Light Shadows
 

"What do you think of it?" I asked Kennedy, when we were half through our meal at a tiny restaurant on upper Broadway.

"We're still fumbling in the dark," he replied.

"There's the towel--"

"Yes, and almost any one on Mackay's list of nine suspects could have placed it in that washroom."

"Well--" I was determined to draw him out. My own impressions, I must confess, were gloriously muddled. "Manton heads the list," I suggested. "Everyone says she was mixed up with him."

"Manton may have philandered with her; undoubtedly he takes a personal interest in all his stars." Kennedy, I saw, remembered the promoter's close attentions to Enid Faye. "Nevertheless, Walter, he is first and foremost and all the time the man of business. His heart is in his dollars and Millard even suggests that he is none too scrupulous."

"If he had an affair with Stella," I rejoined, "and she became up-stage--the note you found suggested trouble, you know--then Manton in a burst of passion--"

"No!" Kennedy stopped me. "Don't forget that this was a cold- blooded, calculated crime. I'm not eliminating Manton yet, but until we find some tangible evidence of trouble between Stella and himself we can hardly assume he would kill the girl who's made him perhaps a million dollars. Every motive in Manton's case is a motive against the crime."

"That eliminates Phelps, then, too. He nearly owned the company."

"Yes, unless something happened to outweigh financial considerations in his mind also."

"But, good heavens! Kennedy," I protested. "If you go on that way you'll not eliminate anyone."

"I can't yet," he explained, patiently. "It's just as I said. We're fishing in the dark, absolutely. So far we haven't a single basic fact on which to build any structure of hypothesis. We must go on fishing. I expect you to dig up all the facts about these people; every odd bit of gossip or rumor or anything else. I'll bring my science to play, but there's nothing I can do except analyze Stella's stomach contents and the spots on the towel; that is, until we've got a much more tangible lead than any which have developed so far."

"Is there anything I can do to-night?"

"Yes!" He looked at his watch. "There are two men who were very close to Miss Lamar. Jack Gordon was engaged to her, Merle Shirley seemed to have been mixed up with her seriously. All the picture people have night haunts. See what you can find about these two men."

"But I don't know where to find them offhand, and--"

"Both belong to the Goats Club, probably. Try that as a start."

I nodded and began to hurry my dessert. But I could not resist questioning him.

"You think they are the most likely suspects?"

"No, but they were intimately associated with Miss Lamar in her daily life and they are the two we have learned the least about."

"Oh!" I was disappointed. Then I rallied to the attack for a final time. "Who is the most likely one. Just satisfy my curiosity, Craig."

He took a folded note from his pocket, opening it. It was the memorandum from Manton's desk which I had mentioned. In a flash I understood.

"Werner!" I exclaimed. "They said he was mixed up with her, too. He was the first back and out of the car and he had time to clean a needle on the towel, had a better opportunity than anyone else. More"--I began to get excited--"he was lying on the floor close to her in the scene and could have jabbed her with a needle very easily, and--and he was extremely nervous when you questioned him, the most nervous of all, and--and, finally, he had a motive, he wanted to get Enid Faye with Manton Pictures, as this note shows."

"Very good, Walter." Kennedy's eyes were dancing in amusement. "It is true that Werner had the best motive, so far as we know now, but it's a fantastic one. Men don't commit cold-blooded murder just to create a vacancy for a movie star. If Werner was going to kill Miss Lamar he never would have written this note about Miss Faye."

"Unless to divert suspicion," I suggested.

He shook his head. "The whole thing's too bizarre."

"Werner was close to her in the dark. All the other things point to him, don't they?"

"It's too bad everyone wasn't searched, at that," Kennedy admitted. "Nevertheless, at the time I realized that Werner had had the best opportunity for the actual performance of the crime and I watched him very closely and made him go through every movement just so I could study him. I believe he's innocent--at least as far as I've gone in the case."

I determined to stick to my opinion. "I believe it's Werner," I insisted.

"By the time you've dug up all the gossip about Gordon and Shirley you won't be so sure, Walter."

I was, however. Kennedy was not as familiar with the picture world as I. I had heard of too many actual happenings more strange and bizarre and wildly fantastic than anything conceivable in other walks of life. People in the film game, as they call it, live highly seasoned lives in which everything is exaggerated. The mere desire to make a place for Enid might not have actuated Werner, granting he was the guilty man. Nevertheless it could easily have contributed. And it struck me suddenly, an additional argument, that Werner, of all of them, was the most familiar with the script. He had been able to cast himself for the part of old Remsen. There was not a detail which he could not have arranged very skillfully.

At the Goats Club I was lucky to discover a member whom I knew well enough to take into my confidence by stating my errand. He was one of the Star's former special writers and an older classman of the college which had graduated Kennedy and myself.

"Merle Shirley is not a member here," he said. "As a matter of fact, I've only just heard the name. But Jack Gordon's a Goat, worse luck. That fellow's a bad actor--in real life--and a disgrace to us."

"Tell me all you know about him?" I asked.

"Well, to give you an example, he was in here just about a week ago. I was sitting in the grill, eating an after-theater supper, when I heard the most terrible racket. He and Emery Phelps, the banker, you know, were having an honest-to-goodness fight right out in the lobby. It took three of the men to separate them."

"What was it all about."

"Well, Gordon owes money right and left, not a few hundred or some little personal debts like that, but thousands and thousands of dollars. I got it from some of the other men here that he has been speculating on the curb downtown, losing consistently. More than that, he's engaged to Stella Lamar--you knew that?--and he's been blowing money on her. Then they tell me his professional work is suffering, that his recent screen appearances are terrible; the result of late hours and worry, I suppose."

"The fight with Phelps was over money?"

"Of course! I figure that he kept drawing against his salary at the studio until the film company shut down on him. Then probably he began to borrow from Phelps, who's Manton's backer now, until the banker shut down on him also. At any rate, Phelps had begun to dun him and it led to the fight."

"That's all you know about Gordon?"

"Lord! Isn't it enough?"

I walked out of the club and toward Broadway, reflecting upon this information. Could Gordon's debts have any bearing upon the case? All at once one possibility struck me. He had been borrowing from Phelps. Perhaps he had borrowed from Stella also. Perhaps that was the cause of their quarrel. Perhaps she had threatened to make trouble--it was a slender motive, but worth bringing to the attention of Kennedy.

My immediate problem, however, was to obtain some information about Merle Shirley. At first I thought I would make the rounds of some of the better-known cafes, but that seemed a hopeless task. Suddenly I remembered Belle Balcom, formerly with the Star. I recollected a previous case of Kennedy's where she and I had been great rivals in the quest of news. I recalled a trip we had made to Greenwich Village together. Belle knew more people about town than any other newspaper woman. Now, for some months, she had been connected with Screenings, a leading cinema "fan" magazine, and would unquestionably be posted upon the photoplayers.

Luckily, I caught her at home.

"Bless your soul," she told me over the phone, in delight, "I've just been aching for some one to take me out to-night. We'll go to the Midnight Fads and if Shirley isn't there the head waiter will tell you all I don't remember. It was a glorious fight."

She wouldn't say any more over the phone, but I was hugely curious. Had there been another encounter with fists? And who had been involved?

When she met me finally, at the Subway station, and when we obtained an out-of-the-way table at the Fads, she explained. It seemed that Shirley had met Stella there a number of tunes and that Gordon, at last, had got wind of it. Gordon first had come up himself, quietly, pleading with Stella. She had been in a high humor and had refused even to listen to him. Then he had become insulting. At that Shirley knocked him down.

The head waiter, a witness of the affair, ordered Gordon put out, but did not request Shirley or Stella to leave, because the other man had been the aggressor without any question. After more than an hour Gordon returned, quietly and unobtrusively, with another girl. From Belle's description I knew it was Marilyn Loring. Taking another table, Marilyn had stared at Shirley reproachfully while Gordon had glared at Stella.

Shirley put up with this for just about so long. As Belle described it, his face gradually became more and more red and he controlled himself with increasing difficulty. Stella, seeing the coming of the storm, tried to get him to go. He refused. She threatened to leave him. He paid no attention. All at once he boiled over and with great strides walked over to Gordon and mauled him all over the place. The leading man had no chance whatever in the hands of the irate Westerner. Several waiters, attempting to intervene, were flung aside. Only when Shirley began to cool off were they able to eject the two men. Both Stella and Marilyn had left, separately, before that. Neither of the men or women had been at the Fads since, or at least the head waiter, called over by Belle, so informed us.

Unable to obtain any other facts of interest, I returned finally to the apartment shared by Kennedy and myself. First he listened to my account, plainly interested. Then, when I had concluded, he rose and faced me rather gravely.

"It's getting more and more complicated, Walter," he exclaimed. "After you left I remembered that there was one point of investigation I had failed to cover--Miss Lamar's home here in the city. I got our old friend, First-Deputy O'Connor, on the wire and learned that at the request of Mackay, from Tarrytown, they had sent a man up to the place and that just an hour or less before I called they had located and were holding her colored maid. I hurried down to headquarters and questioned the girl."

"Yes?" To me it sounded promising.

"The negress didn't know a thing so far as the crime is concerned," Kennedy went on, "but I gained quite an insight into the private life of the star."

"You mean--"

"I mean I know the men who went to Miss Lamar's apartment, although beyond the fact of her receiving them I can tell nothing, for she sent the maid home at night; there were no maid's quarters."

"Their visits may have been perfectly innocent?"

"Of course! We can only draw conclusions."

"Who were the various callers?"

"Jack Gordon--"

"Her fiance!"

"Merle Shirley--"

"Shirley admitted it when you questioned him."

"Manton--"

"Everyone knows that!"

"Werner--" A side glance at me.

I said nothing. My expression spoke for me.

"And Emery Phelps!"

At that I did show surprise. Although Mackay had hinted at something of the kind, I, for one, had not considered the banker seriously.

"Good heavens! Kennedy," I exploded. "She was mixed up with just about every man connected with the company."

"Exactly!" As usual, he seemed calm and unconcerned.

I could regard the case only with increasing amazement--the bitter, conflicting emotions of Manton and Phelps, of Daring, Shirley, and Millard. With them all Stella had been the pretty trouble maker.

"How do you suppose they could all remain in the same company?" I showed my surprise at the situation.

Kennedy pondered a moment, then replied:

"A moment's reflection ought to give you one answer. I think, Walter, they were either under contract or they had their money in the company. They couldn't break."

"I suppose so. What I wonder is, was Marilyn as jealous of Stella as her screen character would make her in a story? She's the only one we don't hear much about."

Kennedy did not seem, at least at present, to give this phase of it anything like the weight he credited to the frenzied financial relations the case was uncovering.

It was true, as I learned later, that Manton was at that very moment doing perhaps as much as anyone else ever did to discredit the picture game in Wall Street.