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- The Film Mystery - 30/51 -
"I think, more than ever, that we should investigate Fortune Features. Let's have a look at the telephone book."
There was no studio of the new corporation in New York, but we did find one listed in New Jersey, just across the river, at Fort Lee. We walked from the university down the hill and over to the ferry. On the other side a ten minutes' street-car ride took us to our destination.
Facing us was a huge barn-like structure set down in the midst of a little park. Inquiry for Manton brought no response whatever; rather, surprise that we should be asking for him here. However, I reflected that that was exactly what we ought to expect if Manton was working under cover. The girl at the telephone switchboard, smiling at Kennedy, had a suggestion.
"They're taking a storm exterior down in the meadow," she explained. "Perhaps he's down there, among the visitors--or perhaps there's someone who will be able to give you some information."
I glanced outdoors at the brightly shining sun. "A storm?" I repeated, incredulously.
"Yes," she smiled. "It might interest you to see it."
Following her directions, we started across country, leaving the studio building some distance behind and entering a broad expanse of meadow beyond a thin clump of trees. At the farther end we could see a large group of people and paraphernalia which, at the distance, we could not make out.
However, it was not long after we emerged from the trees that we perceived they were photographing squarely in our direction. Several began waving their arms wildly at us and shouting. Kennedy and I, understanding, turned and advanced, keeping well out of the camera lines, along the edge of the field.
"Hello!" a voice greeted us as we approached the group standing back and watching the action.
To my surprise it was Millard, with the spectators. I looked about for Manton but did not see him, nor anyone else we knew.
"It's a storm and cyclone," said Millard, his attention rather on what was going on than on us.
For the moment we said nothing.
The scene before us was indeed interesting. Half a dozen aeroplane engines and propellers had been set up outside the picture, and anchored securely in place. The wind from them was actually enough to knock a man down. Rain was furnished by hose playing water into the whirling blades, sending it driving into the scene with the fury of a tropical storm. Back of the propellers half a dozen men were frantically at work shoveling into them sand and dirt, creating an amazingly realistic cyclone.
We arrived in the midst of the cyclone scene, as the dust storm was ending and the torrential rain succeeded. For the storm, a miniature village had been constructed in break-away fashion, partially sawed through and tricked for the proper moment. Many objects were controlled by invisible wires, including an actual horse and buggy which seemed to be lifted bodily and carried away. Roofs flew off, walls crashed in, actors and actresses were knocked flat as some few of them failed to gain their cyclone cellars. Altogether, it was a storm of such efficiency as Nature herself could scarcely have furnished, and all staged with the streaming sunlight which made photography possible.
Pandemonium reigned. Cameras were grinding, directors were bawling through megaphones, all was calculated chaos. Yet it took only a glance to see that some marvelous effects were being caught here.
At the conclusion I recognized suddenly the little leading lady, It was the girl we had seen with Manton at Jacques' cabaret.
"That's the way to take a picture," exclaimed Millard. "Everything right--no expense spared. I came over to see it done. It's wonderful."
"Yes," was Kennedy's answer, "but it must be very costly."
"It is all of that," said Millard. "But what of it if the film makes a big clean-up? I wouldn't have missed this for anything. Werner never staged a spectacle like this in his life. Fortune Features are going to set a new mark in pictures."
"But can they keep it up? Have they the money?"
Millard shrugged his shoulders. "Manton Pictures can't--that's a cinch. Phelps has reached the end of his rope, I guess. I'm afraid the trouble with him was that he was thinking of too many things besides pictures."
There was no mistaking the meaning of the remark. Millard was still cut by Stella's desertion of him for the broker. I caught Kennedy's glance, but neither of us cared to refer to her.
"Where can I find Manton now?" Kennedy asked.
"Did you try his office at seven hundred and twenty-nine?" was Millard's suggestion.
"No; I wanted to see this place first."
"Well, you'll most likely find him there. I've got to go back to the city myself-some scenes of 'The Black Terror' to rewrite to fit Enid better. I'll motor you across the ferry and to the Subway."
At the Subway station, Millard left us and we proceeded to Manton's executive offices in a Seventh Avenue skyscraper, built for and devoted exclusively to the film business.
Manton's business suite was lavishly furnished, but not quite as ornate and garish as his apartment. The promoter himself welcomed us, for no matter how busy he was at any hour, he always seemed to have time to stop and chat.
"Well, how goes it?" He pushed over a box of expensive cigars. "Have you found out anything yet?"
"Had a visit from Phelps this morning." Kennedy plunged directly into the subject, watching the effect.
Manton did not betray anything except a quiet smile. "Poor old Phelps," he said. "I guess he's pretty uneasy. You know he has been speculating rather heavily in the market lately. There was a time when I thought Phelps had a bank roll in reserve. But it seems he has been playing the game on a shoestring, after all."
Manton casually flicked the ashes from his cigar into a highly polished cuspidor as he leaned over. "I happen to have learned that, to make his bluff good, he has been taking money from his brokerage business"--here he nodded sagely--"his customers' accounts you know. Leigh knows the inside of everybody's affairs in Wall Street. They say a quarter of a million is short, at least. To tell you the truth, poor Stella took a good deal of Phelps's money. Certainly his Manton Pictures holdings wouldn't leave him in the hole as deep as all that."
I reflected that this was quite the way of the world--first framing up something on a boob, then deprecating the ease with which he was trimmed.
Was it blackmail Stella had levied on Phelps, I wondered? Was she taking from him to give to Gordon? Had Stella broken him? Was she the real cause of the tangle in his affairs? And had Phelps in insane passion revenged himself on her?
In the conversation with Manton there was certainly no hint of answer to my queries. With all his ease, Manton was the true picture promoter. Seldom was he betrayed into a positive statement of his own. Always, when necessary, he gave as authority the name of some one else. But the effect was the same.
A hurried call of some sort took Manton away from us. Kennedy turned to me with a whimsical expression.
"Let's go!" he remarked.
"What do you make of it, offhand?" I asked, outside.
"We're going about in a circle," he remarked. "Strange group of people. Each apparently suspects the other."
"And, to cover himself, talks of the other fellow," I added.
Kennedy nodded, and we made our way toward the laboratory.
"I'll bet something happens before the day is over," I hazarded, for no reason in particular.
As we went, I cast up in my mind the facts we had learned. The information from Manton was disconcerting, coming on top of what had already been revealed about the inner workings of his game. If Phelps had secretly "borrowed" from the trust accounts in his charge a quarter of a million or so, I saw that his situation must indeed be desperate. To what lengths he might go it was difficult to determine.
THE BANQUET SCENE
For once I qualified as a prophet. We were hardly in our rooms when the telephone rang for Kennedy. It was District-Attorney Mackay, calling in from Tarrytown.
"My men have positive identification of one of the visitors to the Phelps home the night after the murder," he reported.
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