When he died, in 1970, Erle Stanley Gardner was the best-selling American fiction author of the century. His detective stories sold all over the globe, especially those with his most famous defense attorney protagonist, Perry Mason. His no-nonsense prose and neat, satisfying endings delighted detective fans for decades. Gardner wrote several stories that were serialized in the Post. In Country Gentleman, his 1936 serial “The Thread of Truth” follows a fresh D.A. in a clergyman murder case that comes on his first day on the job.
Published on October 1, 1936
District Attorney Douglas Selby and Sheriff Rex Brandon, both newly elected in a bitter campaign which swept Sam Roper and his henchman out of authority in Madison City, agreed that they must not muff their first important case. For while The Clarion, and incidentally the lovely young reporter, Sylvia Martin, were loyally supporting Selby, the opposition newspaper, The Blade, was alert for a chance to blast the fighting young newcomer into disgrace.
The death of Rev. Charles Brower, apparently of an overdose of sleeping potion, in Room 321 of the Madison Hotel did not look like an important case. Sleek George Cushing, manager of the hotel, insisted that the little minister had died a natural death. Selby thought so, too, until Mrs. Charles Brower arrived to declare positively that the man was not her husband. Yet the minister’s effects included many things identifying him as Charles Brower, including an unfinished letter in his portable typewriter addressed to the wife, who was repudiating him.
There were also in the dead man’s belongings an expensive camera; a sheaf of clippings about Shirley Arden, famous actress of Hollywood, less than one hundred miles away; and another batch of clippings concerning litigation in the Madison City courts over the Perry estate.
Who was the little minister, if he were not Charles Brower? Douglas Selby set out to find the answer. He discovered that the impoverished minister had left, in the hotel safe, a rose-perfumed envelope containing five thousand dollars. He discovered that Shirley Arden, incognito, had occupied a fifth-floor room, from which Selby himself had seen the minister emerge on the day before his death. And then — the examining physician reported the cause of death — a murderous dose of morphine.
Selby rang Sheriff Brandon on the telephone and said, “Have you heard Trueman’s report on that Brower case?”
“Yes, I just talked with him. What do you think of it?”
“I think it’s murder.”
“Listen, Doug,” Rex said, “we’ve got to work fast on this thing. The Blade will start riding us.”
“That’s all right. We’ve got to expect to be roasted once in a while. But let’s chase down all the clues and see if we can’t keep one jump ahead of the knockers. Did you get in touch with the San Francisco optician?”
“Yes, I sent him a wire.”
“Better get him on the telephone and see if you can speed things up any. He may be able to give us some information. Now, here’s another thing. Room 323 had been rented to a Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Smith, of Hollywood. I told Cushing to get their address from the register. I wish you’d get that information; telephone the Hollywood police station and see if you can get a line on the couple. If you can’t, wire the motor-vehicle department and find out if a Leslie Smith, of Hollywood. owns an automobile, and get his residence from the registration certificate. Also, see if a Leslie Smith had a car stored in one of the garages near the hotel.”
“Of course,” the sheriff pointed out, “he might have been using a fictitious name.”
“Try it, anyway,” Selby said. “Let’s go through the facts in this case with a fine-tooth comb. They can’t expect us to be infallible, Rex. Lots of murders are never solved, even in cities where they have the most efficient police forces. What we have to guard against is slipping up on some little fact where a Blade reporter can give us the horselaugh. Figure the position we’ll be in if The Blade solves this murder while we’re still groping around in the dark.”
“I get you,” Brandon said grimly. “Leave it to me. I’ll turn things upside down and inside out.”
“One other thing,” Selby said. “When you get George Cushing in the sweatbox, he’ll probably give you some information about a certain picture actress who was in the hotel. You don’t need to bother about that. We don’t want any publicity on it right at the present time, and I’ve been in touch with her manager. They’re going to be up here at eight o’clock tonight at my office. I’ll find out if there’s anything to it and let you know. You’d better arrange to sit in on the conference.”
“Okay,” Brandon said, “I’ll get busy. You stick around and I’ll probably have something for you inside of half an hour.”
As the district attorney hung up the telephone his secretary brought him a telegram from the chief of police of Millbank, Nevada.
ANSWERING YOUR WIRE MARY BROWER FIVE FEET FOUR INCHES WEIGHT ONE HUNDRED SIXTY POUNDS AGE AS GIVEN TO REGISTRATION AUTHORITIES FIFTY-TWO RESIDES SIX THIRTEEN CENTER STREET THIS CITY LAST SEEN LEAVING FOR RENO TO TAKE PLANE FOR LOS ANGELES REPORTED TO FRIENDS HUSBAND HAD DIED IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA WAS WEARING BROWN SUIT BROWN GLOVES AND DARK BROWN COAT TRIMMED WITH FOX FUR STOP CHARLES BROWER ECCENTRIC PASTOR NO DENOMINATION CONDUCTED STREET SERVICES FOR YEARS THIS CITY AND DENVER WORKED WITH DELINQUENTS AND UNFORTUNATES STOP RECENTLY HAS BEEN SOLICITING FUNDS FROM BUSINESSMEN AND OTHERS TO ERECT NONDENOMINATIONAL CHURCH STOP LARGEST CONTRIBUTOR WAS STOCKBROKER IN DENVER WHO HAD KNOWN BROWER FOR YEARS BECAME FINANCIALLY INVOLVED THROUGH UNFORTUNATE SPECULATION AND CREDITORS THREATENED TO ATTACH CONTRIBUTION IN BROWER’S HANDS UPON GROUND DONATION NOT COMPLETED UNTIL CHURCH CONSTRUCTED STOP BROWER WITHDREW MONEY FROM BANK AND DISAPPEARED CLAIMING NERVOUS BREAKDOWN FRIENDS BELIEVE HE IS SEEKING TO AVOID DISASTROUS LITIGATION AND WILL RETURN WITH CONTRACT FOR BUILDING AWARDED STOP IS FIVE FEET SEVEN INCHES TALL WEIGHS ONE HUNDRED THIRTY FIVE POUNDS HAS GRAY EYES AND HIGH CHEEKBONES REGISTERED AS REPUBLICAN GIVING AGE AS FIFTY-SIX DRIVING SMALL NINETEEN TWENTY EIGHT SEDAN LICENSE SIX FIVE FOUR THREE EIGHT LAST SEEN WEARING BLUE SERGE SUIT SOFT COLLAR SHIRT BLUE AND WHITE TIE AND TAN LOW SHOES HAS SMALL TRIANGULAR SCAR BACK OF RIGHT EAR
Selby looked at the wire, nodded and said, “There’s a man who knows his job.”
Amorette Standish let her curiosity show in her voice.
“Were you wondering if she really is Mrs. Brower?”
“I was,” he said.
“And the dead man?” she asked. “Was he Mr. Brower?”
“I don’t think so. The woman says he isn’t, and the description doesn’t fit. Ring up the coroner and ask him to look particularly for the small triangular scar mentioned in the wire. I don’t think he’ll find it, but we’ll look anyway.”
As his secretary took the telegram and left the room, Selby got to his feet and began a restless pacing of the office. At length he sat down at his desk and started scribbling a wire to the chief of police at Millbank, Nevada.
“Ascertain if possible,” he wrote, “if Brower had a friend, probably a minister, between forty-five and fifty-five, about five feet five inches, weight about hundred and twenty, small-boned, dark hair, gray at temples, small round bald spot top and back of head. Interested in photography. Probably had made several fruitless attempts to sell scenarios Hollywood studios. Interested in motion pictures. Last seen wearing black frock coat, well-worn and shiny black trousers, black high shoes. Eyes blue. Manner very self-effacing. Enunciation very precise, as though accustomed public speaking from pulpit. Owns Typco portable typewriter. Wire reply earliest available moment. Important. Thanks for co-operation.” Selby gave the telegram to Amorette Standish to be sent. His telephone was ringing before she had left the office. He took down the receiver and heard Sheriff Brandon’s voice.
“Have some news for you, Doug,” the sheriff said.
“Found out who he was?”
“No, not yet.”
“Talk with that optician in San Francisco?”
“Yes. He got my wire, but had been pretty busy and had just hit the high spots going over his records. He hadn’t found anything. I don’t think he’d been trying very hard. I put a bee in his bonnet, told him to check over every prescription he had in his files if necessary. He said the prescription wasn’t particularly unusual. I told him to make a list of every patient he had who had that prescription and send me a telegram.”
“What else?” Selby asked.
Brandon lowered his voice.
“Listen, Doug,” he said cautiously, “the opposition are going to try to put us on the spot.”
“Go ahead,” Selby said.
“Jerry Summerville, who runs The Blade, has imported a crack mystery man from Los Angeles, a fellow by the name of Carl Bittner. He’s been a star reporter for some of the Los Angeles dailies. I don’t know how much money it cost, or who’s putting it up, but Summerville put in the call this morning and Bittner is here in town now. He’s been asking questions of the coroner and trying to pump Cushing.”
“What did Cushing tell him, do you know?”
“No. He pulled a fast one with Cushing. He said he was a special investigator and sort of gave Cushing to understand he was from your office. Cushing talked a little bit. I don’t know how much … Suppose we could throw a scare into this bird for impersonating an officer?”
“Special investigator doesn’t mean anything,” Selby said slowly. “Let’s go slow on bothering about what the other people are doing, Rex, and solve the case ourselves. After all, we have all the official machinery at our disposal, and we’ve got a head start.”
“Not very much of a head start,” the sheriff said. “We collect the facts and the other fellows can use them.”
“We don’t need to tell them all we know,” Selby pointed out.
“That’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about. Suppose we clamp down the lid on information?”
“That’s okay by me.”
“All right, we’ll do it. Now here’s something else for you. Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Smith are phonies. They gave an address of 3350 Blair Drive. There isn’t any such number. There are about fifty automobiles registered to Leslie Smiths in various parts of the state.”
“Okay,” Selby said after a moment, “it’s up to you to run down all fifty of those car owners.”
“I was talking with Cushing,” Brandon went on, “and he says they were a couple of kids who might have been adventuring around a bit and used the first alias that came into their heads.”
“Cushing may be right,” Selby rejoined, “but we’re solving this case, he isn’t. It stands to reason,that someone got into the minister’s room through one of the adjoining rooms. That chair being propped under the doorknob would have kept the door of 321 from opening. Both doors were locked on 323. I’m inclined to favor 319.”
“But there wasn’t anyone in 319 at the time.”
Selby said, “Let’s make absolutely certain of that, Rex. I don’t like the way Cushing is acting in this thing. He’s not co-operating as well as he might. Suppose you get hold of him and throw a scare into him.
“And here’s something else,” Selby went on. “I noticed that the writing on the letter which had been left in the typewriter was nice neat typewriting, almost professional in appearance.”
“I hadn’t particularly noticed that,” the sheriff said, after a moment, “but I guess perhaps you’re right.”
“Now, then, on the scenario, which was in his briefcase,” Selby pointed out, “the typing was ragged, the letters in the words weren’t evenly spaced. There were lots of strike-overs and the punctuation was rotten. Suppose you check up and see if both the scenario and the letter were written on the same typewriter.”
“You mean two different people wrote them, but on the same machine?”
“Yes. It fits in with the theory of murder. By checking up on that typing we can find out a little more about it. Now, Rex, we should be able to find out more about this man. How about labels in his clothes?”
“I’m checking on that. The coat was sold by a firm in San Francisco. There weren’t any laundry marks on his clothes. But I’ll check up on this other stuff, Doug, and let you know. Keep your head, son, and don’t worry. We can handle it all right. G’by.”
Selby hung up the telephone as Amorette Standish slipped in through the door and said in a low voice, “There’s a man in the outer office who says he has to see you upon a matter of the greatest importance.”
“Won’t he see one of the deputies?”
“What’s his name?”
Selby nodded slowly. “Show him in,” he said.
Carl Bittner was filled with bustling efficiency as he entered the room. Almost as tall as Selby, he was some fifteen years older. His face was thin, almost to the point of being gaunt; high cheekbones and thin lips gave him a peculiarly lantern-jawed appearance.
“I’m Bittner,” he said. “I’m with The Blade. I’m working on this murder case. What have you to say about it?”
“Nothing,” Selby said.
Bittner raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I’ve been working on some of the large dailies in Los Angeles,” he said. “Down there the district attorney co-operates with us and gives us any information he has.”
“It’s too bad you left there, then,” Selby said.
“The idea is,” Bittner went on, “that newspaper publicity will frequently clear up unexplained circumstances. Therefore, the district attorney feels it’s good business to co-operate with the newspapers.”
“I’m glad he does.”
“Don’t you feel that way?”
“There’s some chance we could identify the body, if you’d tell us everything you know.”
“Just what information did you want?”
“Everything you know,” Bittner said, dropping into a chair, lighting a cigarette and making himself thoroughly at ease.
“So far,” Selby said, “I have no information which would enable me to identify the dead man.”
“Don’t know anything about him, eh?”
“Virtually not a thing.”
“Wasn’t he mixed up with some Hollywood picture actress?”
“I’m asking you.”
“And I’m asking you.”
“Don’t some of your investigations lead you to believe there’s a picture actress mixed up in the case?”
“I can’t very well answer that question.”
“As yet I haven’t correlated the various facts.”
“When do you expect to correlate them?”
“I don’t know.”
Bittner got to his feet, twisted his long mouth into a grin and said, “Thank you very much, Mr. Selby. The Blade will be on the street in about two hours. I’ll just about have time to get your antagonistic attitude written up against the deadline. Call me whenever you have anything new. Good-by.”
He slammed the door of Selby’s office triumphantly, as though he had succeeded in getting the district attorney to say exactly what he wanted said.
Selby switched on the lights in his office and read the terse telegram he had received from the chief of police at Millbank, Nevada:
BROWER HAD MANY FRIENDS AMONG MINISTERS IMPOSSIBLE IDENTIFY FRIEND MENTIONED FROM DESCRIPTION
He consulted his wrist watch. Shirley Arden and Trask should arrive to keep their appointment within fifteen minutes.
Selby spread out The Blade on his desk. Big headlines screamed across the front page: SHERIFF AND DISTRICT ATTORNEY BAFFLED BY CRIME. NEW AND INCOMPETENT OFFICIALS ADMIT HELPLESSNESS — REFUSE AID OF PRESS — UNIDENTIFIED CLERGYMAN MURDERED IN DOWNTOWN HOTEL!
There followed a more or less garbled account of the crime, but that which made Selby’s jaw clench was a column of “Comment” under the by-line of Carl Bittner, written with the technique of a mud-slinging metropolitan newspaper reporter.
“When the district attorney, Selby, was interviewed at a late hour this afternoon,” the article stated, “he admitted he had no information whatever which would be of any value in solving the murder. This, in spite of the fact representatives of The Blade have been able to uncover several significant facts which will probably clear up the mystery, at least as to the identity of the murdered man.”
“For some time a rumor has been rife that a prominent Hollywood picture actress figures in the case, that for reasons best known to himself District Attorney Selby is endeavoring to shield this actress. Pressed for information upon this point, Selby flew into a rage and refused to answer any questions. When it was pointed out to him that an identification of the victim, perhaps a solution of the crime itself, depended upon enlisting the aid of the press, he obstinately refused to divulge any information whatever, despite his admission that he was groping entirely in the dark.
“It is, of course, well known that whenever the breath of scandal fastens itself upon any prominent actress great pressure is brought to bear upon all concerned to hush matters up. The Blade has, however, pledged itself to discover the facts and give the news to its readers. It is to be regretted that the district attorney cannot recognize he is not a ruler, but a public servant. He is employed by the taxpayers, paid from tax moneys, and has taken an oath to faithfully discharge the duties of his office. He is young, untried and, in matters of this sort, inexperienced. Citizens of this community may well anticipate a carnival of crime as the crooks realize the type of man who has charge of law enforcement.”
“During the campaign, Selby was ready enough with his criticisms of Roper’s methods of conducting the office; but now that he has tried to take over the reins, his groping, bewildered attempts to solve a case which Roper would have taken in his stride, show only too well the cost to the public of discharging a faithful and efficient servant merely because of the rantings of some youth whose only qualification for the position is that he wants the prestige which goes with the title.”
A bitter column on the editorial page dealt with the fact that, as had been predicted by The Blade, Rex Brandon and Douglas Selby, while they were perhaps well-meaning, were utterly incompetent to handle a murder case such as the mysterious death of the unidentified clergyman. Had the voters retained Sam Roper in office, the editorial said, there was little doubt but what that veteran prosecutor would have by this time learned the identity of the dead man and probably had the murderer behind bars. Certainly the community would have been spared the humiliation of having a sheriff and a district attorney engage in such a comedy of errors as had resulted in bringing to an unfortunate woman the false information that her husband was dead. Roper would undoubtedly have made an investigation before jumping at such a false and erroneous conclusion.
Selby squared his shoulders.
All right, they wanted to fight, did they? Very well, he’d fight it out with them.
He heard a knock on his door and called, “Come in.”
The door opened and Selby saw a man nearly six feet tall, weighing well over two hundred pounds, smiling at him from the doorway.
The visitor wore a checked coat. His well-manicured hands adjusted the knot of his scarf as he smiled and said, in a deep, dramatic voice, “Ah, Mr. Selby, I believe? It is a pleasure.”
“You’re Trask?” Selby asked.
The big man bowed and smiled.
“Come in,” Selby said, “and tell Miss Arden to come in.”
“Miss Arden — er — er — unfortunately is not able to be present, Mr. Selby. As you may or may not know, Miss Arden’s nerves have been bothering her somewhat of late. She has been working under a terrific strain and … ”
“Where is she?” Selby interrupted, getting to his feet.
“At the close of the shooting this afternoon,” Trask said, “Miss Arden was in an exceedingly nervous condition. Her personal physician advised her … ”
“Where is she?”
“She — er — went away.”
“To the seclusion of a mountain resort where she can get a change in elevation and scenery and complete rest.”
“I am afraid I am not at liberty to divulge her exact location. The orders of her physician were most explicit.”
“Who’s her physician?”
“Dr. Edward Cartwright.”
Selby scooped up the telephone. “You come in and sit down,” he said to Trask; and, into the telephone, “This is Douglas Selby, the district attorney, speaking. I want to talk with Dr. Edward Cartwright in Los Angeles. I’ll hold the wire.”
Standing with his feet spread apart, his jaw thrust forward, the receiver of the telephone held in his left hand, he said to Trask, “That’s what I get for giving a heel like you a chance to double-cross me. It won’t happen again.”
Trask strode toward him, his eyes glowering with indignation. “Are you referring to me?” he demanded in a loud, booming voice. “Are you calling me a heel? Are you intimating that I double-crossed you because Miss Arden’s health has been jeopardized by overwork?”
“You’re damned right I am,” Selby said. “I’ll tell you more about it when I’ve talked with this doctor on the telephone.”
Into the telephone he said, “Hello! Rush through that call.”
A woman’s voice said, “Doctor Cartwright’s residence.”
Selby listened while the long-distance operator said, “The district attorney’s office at Madison City is calling Doctor Cartwright.”
“I’m afraid Doctor Cartwright can’t come to the telephone,” the woman’s voice said.
Selby interrupted. “I’ll talk with whoever’s on the phone,” he said.
“Very well,” the operator told him.
“Who is this?” Selby asked.
“This is Mrs. Cartwright.”
“All right,” Selby said, “this is Douglas Selby. I’m the district attorney at Madison City. You put Doctor Cartwright on the telephone.”
“But Doctor Cartwright has given orders that he is not to be disturbed.”
“You tell Doctor Cartwright he can either talk on the telephone or I’ll have him brought up here and he can do his talking in front of a grand jury.”
“But — you couldn’t do that,” the woman protested.
“That,” Selby remarked, “is a matter of opinion. Please convey my message to Doctor Cartwright.”
“He’s very tired. He left orders that … ”
“Convey that message to Doctor Cartwright,” Selby said, “or I’ll get a statement from him which will be made at my convenience rather than at his.”
There was a moment’s pause and the woman’s voice said dubiously, “Very well, just hold the phone a moment.”
Trask interrupted to say, “You can’t do this, Selby. You’re getting off on the wrong foot. Now I want to be friendly with you.”
“You,” Selby told him, “shut up. You promised me to have Shirley Arden here at eight o’clock. I’m already being put on the pan for falling for this Hollywood hooey. I don’t propose to be made the goat.”
“If you’re going to be pasty about it,” Trask said with an air of injured dignity, “it happens that I know my legal rights in the premises and . . .”
A man’s voice said “Hello” on the telephone, and Selby said, “Shut up, Trask … Hello! Is this Doctor Cartwright?”
“You’re the Doctor Cartwright who attends Shirley Arden, the picture actress?”
“I have attended her on occasion, yes.”
“When did you last see her?”
“What’s the object of this inquiry?”
“Miss Arden was to have been in my office this evening. She isn’t here. I want to know why.”
“Miss Arden was in an exceedingly nervous condition.”
“When did you see her?”
“About three o’clock.”
“What did you tell her?”
Doctor Cartwright’s voice became very professional. “I found that her pulse was irregular, that her blood pressure was higher than should have been the case. There was some evidence of halitosis, indicating a nervous indigestion. She complained of migraine and general lassitude. I advised a complete rest.”
“Did you advise her specifically not to keep her appointment with me?”
“I advised her not to engage in any activity which would cause undue excitement or nervousness.”
“Did you advise her not to keep her appointment with me?”
“I advised her to seek a secluded mountain resort where she could be quiet for a few days.”
“Did you advise her not to keep her appointment with me?”
“I told her that it would be unwise for her to … ”
“Never mind that,” Selby said, “did you tell her not to keep her appointment with me?”
“She asked me if it wouldn’t be inadvisable for her to subject herself to a grueling interrogation after taking an automobile ride of some hundred miles, and I told her that it would.”
“Specifically, what did you find wrong with her?”
“I’m afraid I can’t discuss my patient’s symptoms. A matter of professional privilege, you know, Mr. Selby. But I felt that her health would be benefited by a complete change of scenery.”
“For how long?”
“Until she feels relief from some of the symptoms.”
“And what are the symptoms?”
“General lassitude, nervousness, a severe migraine.”
“What’s migraine?” Selby asked.
“Well, er — a headache.”
“In other words, she had a headache and said she didn’t feel well, so you told her she didn’t need to keep her appointment with me, is that right?”
“That’s putting rather a blunt interpretation on it.”
“I’m cutting out all of the verbal foolishness,” Selby said, “and getting down to brass tacks. That’s the effect of what you told her, isn’t it?”
“Well, of course, it would have that effect and … ”
“Thank you, doctor,” Selby said tersely, “you’ll probably hear more from me about this.”
He dropped the telephone receiver down between the prongs of the desk phone, turned to Trask and said, “The more I see of this, the less I like it.”
Trask pulled down his waistcoat and became coldly dignified.
“Very well,” he said, “if you’re going to adopt that attitude, may I suggest, Mr. Selby, that in the elation of your campaign victory, you have, perhaps, emerged with a swollen concept of your own power and importance?
“As Miss Arden’s manager, I have received advice from the very best legal talent in Los Angeles as to our rights in the matter.
“Frankly, I considered it an arbitrary and high-handed procedure when you telephoned and stated that Miss Arden, a star whose salary per week amounts to more than yours for a year, drop everything and journey to your office. However, since it is her duty as a citizen to co-operate with the authorities, I made no vehement protest.
“The situation was different when it appeared that Miss Arden’s nerves were weakening under the strain, and that her earning capacity might be impaired if she complied with your unwarranted demands upon her time. I, therefore, employed counsel and was advised that, while you have a right to have a subpoena issued for her, compelling her attendance before the grand jury, you have no right to order her to appear for questioning in your office. Incidentally, it may interest you to know that a subpoena, in order to be valid, has to be served in person upon the witness named in the subpoena. I think I need only call to your attention the fact that Miss Arden has virtually unlimited resources at her command, to point out to you how difficult it would be for you to serve such a subpoena upon her. Moreover, she is under no obligation to obey such a subpoena, if to do so would jeopardize her health. You are not a physician. Doctor Cartwright is. His diagnosis of the condition of Miss Arden is entitled to far more weight than your hasty assumption that her headaches and nervous fits are unimportant.”
“I’m sorry to have to talk to you this way, but you asked for it. You’re a district attorney in a rather unimportant, outlying county. If you think you can pick up your telephone and summon high-priced picture stars, who are of international importance, to your city, quite regardless of their own health or personal convenience, you’re mistaken.”
Trask thrust out his jaw belligerently and said, “Have I made myself clear, Mr. Selby?”
Doug Selby stood with his long legs spread apart, hands thrust deep in his trousers pockets. His eyes burned steadily into those of Trask.
“You’re damned right you’ve made yourself clear,” he said. “Now I’ll make myself clear. “I have reason to believe that Miss Arden was in this city, registered in the Madison Hotel under an assumed name. I have reason to believe that a man who was murdered in that hotel called on Miss Arden in her room. I have reason to believe that Miss Arden paid him a large sum of money. Now you can force me to use a subpoena. You may be able to keep me from serving that subpoena. But, by heaven, you can’t keep me from giving out the facts to the press.
“You’re probably right in stating that Miss Arden’s salary per week is greater than mine for a year, but when it comes to a showdown, the ability to dish it out and to take it isn’t measured by salary contracts. I’m just as good a fighter as she is, just as good a fighter as you are — and probably a damned sight better. And you’re going to find it out.
“You’ve done a lot of talking about Miss Arden’s importance, about the fact that she’s an internationally known figure. You’re right in that. That’s the thing that gives you these resources you boast of, the money to hire bodyguards, to arrange for an isolated place of concealment where it would be hard to locate her with a subpoena.
“You overlook, however, that this very fact is also your greatest weakness. The minute the press associations get the idea Miss Arden may be mixed up in this case, they’ll have reporters pouring into town like flies coming to a honey jar. I didn’t want to make any public announcement until I’d given Miss Arden a chance to explain. If she doesn’t want to co-operate with me, that’s her lookout.”
Selby consulted his wrist watch. “It’s twelve minutes past eight. I don’t think Miss Arden’s got to any part of the state where she can’t get here within four hours’ fast driving. I’ll give you until midnight to produce her. If you don’t produce her, I’ll tell the press exactly why I want to talk with her.”
Trask’s face was a wooden mask, but his eyes showed a trace of panic.
“Young man,” he said, “if you did that, you’d be sued for criminal libel and defamation of character, you … ”
“You’re wasting time talking,” Selby said. “If you’re going to get Miss Arden here by midnight, you’d better get started.”
Trask took a deep breath, forced a smile to his face, came toward Selby.
“Now, listen, Mr. Selby,” he said in a conciliatory tone, “perhaps I was a little hasty. After all, you know, our nerves get worn thin in this picture business. Miss Arden’s trip to Madison City was highly confidential, but since you’re interested in it, I think I can explain to you just why she came and … ”
“I don’t want your explanation,” Selby interrupted coldly, “I want hers.”
Trask’s face flushed. “You mean to refuse to listen to what I have to say?”
“At times,” Selby said, “you’re rather good at interpreting the English language.”
Trask fumbled for a cigar in his waistcoat pocket.
“Surely,” he said, “there’s some way in which we can get together. After all … ”
“I’ll be available until midnight,” Selby interrupted. “In the meantime, Mr. Trask, I don’t think I need to detain you.”
“That’s final?” Trask asked, clamping his teeth down on the end of the cigar and giving it a vicious, wrenching motion with his wrist to tear off the end.
“That’s final,” Selby said.
Trask spat out the bit of tobacco as he reached for the doorknob.
“You’ll sing a different tune when we get done with you!” he said, and slammed the door behind him.
Selby called Cushing at the Madison Hotel.
“Cushing,” he said, “I want you to ask all of the regular roomers on the third floor if they heard any typewriting in 321 on Monday night or Tuesday morning. It’ll probably look better if you ask them.”
Cushing said, “This is giving the hotel an awful black eye, Doug. That publicity in The Blade was bad — very bad.”
“Perhaps if you’d kept your mouth shut,” Selby said, “the publicity wouldn’t be so bad.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some of the information must have come from you.”
“Impossible! I didn’t give out any information.”
“You talked to the chief of police,” Selby said. “You know where he stands with The Blade.”
“You mean the chief of police is double-crossing you?”
“I don’t mean anything except that some of the information in the newspaper didn’t come from the sheriff’s office, and didn’t come from mine. You can draw your own conclusions.”
“But he has the right to question me,” Cushing said, “just the same as you have, Doug.”
“All right, then, he’s the one to complain to, not to me.”
“But in your position, can’t you hush the thing up?”
Selby laughed and said, “You can gather just how much chance I have of hushing things up by reading the editorial page in The Blade.”
“Yes,” Cushing said dubiously, “still … ”
“Quit worrying about it,” Selby told him, “and get busy and question your guests on the third floor.”
“I don’t like to question the guests,” he protested.
“Perhaps,” Selby suggested, “you’d prefer to have the sheriff do it.”
“No, no, no; not that!”
“Then suppose you do it.”
Cushing sighed, said, “Very well,” in a tone which contained a complete lack of enthusiasm, and hung up the receiver.
Selby had hardly put the receiver back into place when the phone rang. He picked it up, said “Hello,” and heard a woman’s voice, a voice which was rich, throaty, and intimately cordial.
“Is this Mr. Douglas Selby, the district attorney?”
“I’m Miss Myrtle Cummings, of Los Angeles, and I have some information which I think you should have. It’s something in relation to the murder case which has been described in the evening newspaper.”
“Can you give it to me over the telephone?” Selby asked.
“Well, I’ll be here at my office until midnight,” he said.
There was something hauntingly familiar about the woman’s voice. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but it’s absolutely impossible for me to leave. For reasons which I’ll explain when I see you, I’m confined to my room, but if you could come and see me some time within the next half hour, I think it would be very advantageous for you to do so.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in room 515 at the Madison Hotel. Do you suppose you could manage to come to my room without attracting any attention?”
“I think so,” he said slowly.
“Could you come right away?”
“I’m waiting for several rather important calls,” he said.
“But I’m sure this is most important,” she insisted.
“Very well,” Selby told her, “I’ll be over within ten minutes.”
He dropped the receiver back into place, put on his overcoat and hat. He closed and locked the office door, but left the light on, so that Rex Brandon would know he expected to return, in case the sheriff should call at the office. He parked his car a couple of blocks from the Madison Hotel.
It was one of those clear, cold nights with a dry wind blowing in from the desert. The stars blazed down with steady brilliance. The northeast wind was surgingly insistent. Selby buttoned his coat, pushed his hands into the deep side pockets and walked with long, swinging strides toward the hotel.
Luck was with him when he entered the hotel. Cushing was not in the lobby. The night clerk was busy with a patron. The elevator operator apparently saw nothing unusual in Selby’s visit.
“Going up to campaign headquarters?” he asked.
“Gee, that sure was something, having a murder case right here in the hotel, wasn’t it?” the operator said, as he slid the door closed and started the elevator upward.
Again Selby nodded. “Know anything about it?”
“Just what I’ve heard around the hotel.”
“What did you hear?”
“Nothing, except this guy took the room and was found dead. Cushing says it couldn’t have been a murder. He says it was just a case of accidentally taking the wrong kind of dope and that The Blade is trying to make a big thing of it. The Blade’s had a reporter snooping around here.”
“Chap by the name of Carl Bittner?” Selby asked.
“That’s the one. He’s got the boss sore at him. Cushing thought he was one of your men … and there’s things about the dump that Cushing don’t want printed.”
“What things?” Selby asked.
“Oh, lots of things,” the boy said vaguely. “Take this guy, Trask, for one. Anyone would think he owned the joint. And there’s a room on the fifth floor they never rent. A dame comes and goes on the freight elevator.”
The elevator stopped at the fifth floor.
Selby handed the boy a half dollar. “Thanks for the information,” he said. “I don’t want to be interrupted. I came here because I wanted to get away from telephone calls and people who were trying to interview me. Do you suppose you could forget about taking me up here?”
“Sure,” the operator said, grinning. “I can forget anything for four bits.”
Selby nodded, waited until the cage had started downward before he made the turn in the corridor which took him toward the room at the end of the corridor which they had used as campaign headquarters. When he saw there was no one in the hallway, he tapped gently on the door of 515.
“Come in,” a woman’s voice said. Selby opened the door and stepped into the room.
He knew at once that Shirley Arden had arranged every detail of the meeting with the training which years as an actress had given her.
The door opened into a sitting room. Back of the sitting room was a bedroom. In the bedroom a rose-colored light shed a soft illumination which fell upon the actress’ face in such a way that it turned the dark depths of her eyes into mysterious pools of romance.
She was attired in a tailored suit of pearl gray. Its simplicity was so severe that it served to center attention upon her face and figure. Had she been ten years older, she would have worn a gown so gorgeously designed that a woman looking at her would have said, “How wonderfully she’s dressed!” But with that pearl gray tailored outfit, men, looking at Shirley Arden, would only have said, “What a beautiful figure she has! How wonderful her eyes are!”
She was seated on the arm of an overstuffed chair, one gray-stockinged leg thrust out at such an angle that the curves caught the eye. Her lips were parted in a smile.
And yet, perhaps as a result of her Hollywood training, she overdid it. Perfect actress that she was, she underestimated the intelligence of the man with whom she was dealing, so that the effect she strove for was lost. Had she remained seated on the arm of the chair just long enough to have given him a glimpse of her loveliness, and then got to her feet to come toward him, he would have been impressed. But her very immobility warned him that the effect had been carefully and studiously planned.
“So,” Selby said, vigorously kicking the door shut behind him, “you were here all the time.”
She didn’t move. Her face was held so that the lighting did not change by so much as a hairline of a shadow. It was as though she had been facing a battery of lights for a close-up.
“Yes,” she said, “I was here. I didn’t want to talk with you unless I had to. I’m afraid Ben Trask didn’t handle the situation very diplomatically.”
“He didn’t,” Selby said. “How about your nerves?”
“I really am very nervous.”
“And,” Selby said, “I suppose the idea was to send Ben Trask over to bluff me. If he’d reported success, then you’d have actually gone into hiding.”
“I didn’t want to take any chances,” she told him. “Can’t you understand? Think what it means to me. Think of my position, my public, my earning capacity. Gossip is a fatal thing to a picture star. I couldn’t afford to have it known I was questioned in connection with the case.
“Ben is a very strong man. He’s always been able to dominate any situation he’s tackled. He makes my contracts for me, and it’s an open secret they’re the best contracts in Hollywood. Then he met you — and failed.”
She waited for the full dramatic value of that statement to manifest itself. Then, with that slow, supple grace which characterizes a stage dancer, she straightened her leg, swung it slowly forward, came to the floor as lightly as thistledown and walked toward him to give him her hand.
“It’s delightful, Mr. Selby,” she said, “to find you so human.”
His fingers barely touched hers. “It depends,” he told her, “on what you mean by being human.”
“I’m certain you’ll listen to reason.”
“I’ll listen to the truth,” he said, “if that’s what you mean.”
“After all, aren’t they the same thing?”
“That depends,” Selby said. “Sit down, I want to talk with you.”
She smiled and said, “I know I’m in your city, Mr. Selby, under your jurisdiction, as it were, but please permit me to be the hostess and ask you to be seated.”
She swept her hand in a gracious gesture of invitation toward the overstuffed chair beneath the floor lamp.
“No,” Selby said, “thank you, I’ll stand.”
A slight frown of annoyance crossed her face, as though her plans were going astray.
Selby stood spread-legged, his overcoat unbuttoned and thrown back, his hands thrust deep into his trousers pockets, his eyes showing just a trace of sardonic humor beneath a grim determination.
“After all,” he said, “I’m doing the questioning. So if anyone is going to sit in that chair beneath the illumination of that light, it’s going to be you. You’re the one who’s being questioned.”
She said defiantly, “Meaning, I suppose, that you think I’m afraid to let you study my facial expressions.”
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m not wasting time thinking about it. Your facial expressions are going to be studied whether you like it or not.”
“Very well,” she said, and dropped into the overstuffed chair, carefully adjusting the light so that it beat down upon her face. Her smile was the smile of one who bravely faces injustice, nor was there any narrowing of the eyelids as her lips parted. “Go ahead, Mr. District Attorney,” she invited.
Selby stood staring at her steadily. “It happens,” he said, “that I saw that same expression in ‘Love Life.’ It was, I believe, the way you looked at your prospective father-in-law when he came to give you money never to see his boy again.”
She lost her fixed smile. For a moment there was blazing defiance in her eyes. Then her face became as a wooden mask.
“After all,” she said, “it’s the same face. And it would naturally hold the same expressions that you’ve seen in pictures.”
“Well,” he told her, “I’m not interested in your facial expressions. I’m interested in your answers to certain questions.”
“Go ahead and ask the questions.”
“You were here in the hotel Monday morning, were you not?”
“In this room?”
“Why did you come here?”
“On a matter of business.”
“What was the business?”
“I decline to answer that question. It’s a confidential matter.”
“With whom was your business to be transacted?”
“I also decline to answer that question.”
“Have you seen photographs of the man who was found dead in room 321?”
Selby pulled a photograph from his pocket, strode toward her and thrust it out in front of him.
“Look at it,” he said.
It was a moment before she lowered her eyes, as though schooling her face against showing any expression; then she glanced at the photograph, raised her eyes to his and nodded a slow, solemn nod.
“Know him?” Selby asked.
“I saw him.”
“In the hotel.”
“What part of the hotel?”
“In this room.”
Selby sighed and said, “Now that’s a lot better. When did you see him?”
“It was some time in the morning, shortly before ten o’clock, I think.”
“What was he doing?”
“He was talking with me.”
“What name did he give you? Was it the name under which he was registered, Charles Brower?”
She shook her head and said, “No, that wasn’t the name.”
“What name was it?”
She frowned thoughtfully for a moment or two and then said slowly, “No, I’m afraid I can’t remember what the name was, but I know it wasn’t Brower. It was something that sounded like Larry, or something of that sort. I think it had a ‘Larry’ in it.”
“In the last name?”
“You’re sure it wasn’t the first name?”
“No, it was the last name. I don’t think he told me his first name.”
“Why did he happen to come into the room here?”
“He knocked on the door. I went to the door to see who it was.”
“Had you ever seen him before?”
She hesitated once more for a moment, then very decisively shook her head and said, “No, I had never seen him before.”
“But you let him in?”
“Are you accustomed to admitting strangers to your room?”
“I want you to understand my position, Mr. Selby. You’re an educated man. You’re different from the rabble. You can appreciate the position of an actress. I’m really not my own boss. I’m owned by my public. One must, of course, use discretion, but, if you could have seen this man when he was alive, you’d have realized how harmless he was. And yet, harmless isn’t exactly the word I want. He was inoffensive, but it wasn’t merely a passive futility, if you understand what I mean, it was … well, he seemed to be at peace with the world and to be noncombative.”
“And so you let him in?”
“What reason did he give for knocking on the door?”
“He said that he’d seen me come in, that despite my attempt to avoid recognition he had realized who I was. He’d seen me get out of the automobile in front of the hotel and followed me to the freight elevator. In some way he’d discovered that I was in this room.”
“How long was it after you’d taken the room that he knocked on the door?”
“Less than half an hour. Perhaps fifteen minutes.”
“If he’d seen you taking the elevator, why didn’t he knock immediately?”
He told me that he realized it was an intrusion upon my privacy. He’d been trying to make up his mind to do it for several minutes. He said he’d stood outside of the door for several minutes before he knocked.”
“What time was this?”
“As nearly as I can place it, about a quarter to ten.”
“What did he want?”
“It was pathetic,” she said. “He wanted me to do a certain type of play which he said would be of great benefit to many people. He was so earnest that I couldn’t refuse to give him an audience. He said that he’d been one of my ardent admirers ever since I’d appeared on the screen. He’d seen me in every part I’d played.”
“Go on,” Selby said.
“He had a script which he’d written. He said that he’d been intending to come to Hollywood to present it to me personally.”
“Do you remember the title of this script?”
“What was it?”
“It was titled, ‘Lest Ye be Judged.’”
“Did you read it?”
“I glanced through it.”
“No, just casually.”
“Why didn’t you read it thoroughly?”
“In the first place, I knew that it would be no use. In the second place, I could tell from almost the first glance that it was hopeless.”
“Why was it hopeless?”
“The way it was written, the theme of it, everything about it.”
“What was wrong with it?”
“In the first place, it was propaganda. It wasn’t a play, it was a sermon. People go to churches to hear sermons; they go to theaters to be amused.”
“Did he want to sell you this?”
“No, he wanted to give it to me … Well, I don’t know whether he would have put a price on it or not … You see, the conversation didn’t get that far. He told me that he had consecrated his life to the service of humanity and he thought that this was a duty I owed to my fellow beings. The conversation was all on that plane, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes,” Selby told her, “I know what you mean.”
“Well, he showed me this script and asked me if I wouldn’t take it and use it as my next vehicle.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I explained to him that I was under contract to the studio; that I had absolutely nothing to say about plays; that the studio selected such plays as they thought would make good vehicles for me. They did that through a purchasing department which specialized upon that very thing. They didn’t allow me to even make suggestions, except minor suggestions at conferences where the continuity was being worked out.”
“Then what happened?”
“He tried to argue with me for a little while, but he soon realized that I was telling him the truth, that I had absolutely no power to select the plays in which I was to appear, that a recommendation from me would be virtually valueless.”
“And what did you tell him to do?”
“I told him he would have to submit it to the Hollywood office.”
“Did you tell him you thought the Hollywood office would turn thumbs down on it?”
“No. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He was so earnest, so wrapped up in his play, it was really pathetic.”
The face of the actress showed an expression of sympathy, her voice was vibrant with emotion.
Staring at her, Selby was gripped by conflicting emotions. He knew, on the one hand, that she was a skillful actress, fully capable of portraying any emotion she chose; on the other hand, he realized that it would be exceedingly difficult for anyone who was fabricating what had happened at that interview to simulate such an emotion. Her manner radiated complete sincerity and that warm, rich sympathy which a broad-minded woman of the world would have held for the pathetic little parson who had brought his hopeless scenario to her.
Moreover, everything she had said tallied with the facts as Selby knew them. He hesitated a moment, then said, “That’s a very beautiful purse you have, Miss Arden.”
“Yes, isn’t it?” she exclaimed at once. “It.was given to me by the director who handled my last picture. I’m proud of it.”
“Do you mind if I look at it?”
“Not at all.”
She handed it over to Selby, who studied it, apparently lost in admiration for its beauty.
“How does it open?” he asked.
“This catch,” she said, “on top.” She snapped open the catch.
Selby peered inside, saw bills, lipstick, coin purse, handkerchief and compact.
“If you don’t consider I’m taking too much of a liberty,” he said and, before she could stop him, pulled out the handkerchief. He could hear her gasp as he raised the handkerchief to his nostrils.
Selby couldn’t tell the brand of perfume, but he did have a sufficiently discriminating sense of smell to know that this perfume was entirely different from that which had scented the five one-thousand dollar bills which had been found in the envelope the dead man had left in the hotel office.
“What’s the matter?” she asked with cold enmity. “Were you looking for something?”
“I was,” he told her, “interested in perfumes. I think that perfumes are indicative of personality.”
“I’m so glad you feel free to be perfectly informal,” she said sarcastically.
There was an awkward silence as he restored the handkerchief to her purse and handed it back to her.
“Was there,” she asked at length, “anything else I could tell you about the man?”
“I don’t know. Is there?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“Did he tell you where he was from?”
“Some little town in the northern part of the state, I think, but I can’t remember that.”
Selby stiffened to attention and said, “You mean in Nevada?”
She raised her eyebrows, then shook her head and said quite definitely, “No, it wasn’t in Nevada, I’m certain of that. Some little town in California.”
“And you can’t remember the name of the place?”
“No, it was in Northern California somewhere — a Riverdale, or something like that.”
“Riverview?” he asked.
She shook her head and said, “No, that wasn’t it; but there was a river in it, I think.”
“Your memory seems to be rather faulty, doesn’t it?”
Her laugh was throaty and musical. “The first time a fan stopped me to tell me how much he enjoyed my acting and asked for my autograph, I could tell you everything about him — what he had on, what he looked like, where he came from and all about him.
“Gradually I came to accept it as a part of the profession, and now … well, I won’t say that I’m bored, because one is never bored by expressions of appreciation from the public, but put yourself in my position. I’m called on to use every ounce of my energy in keeping fit, in acting, in being spontaneous and vivacious whenever I’m seen in public. I have to remember literally hundreds of newspapermen, cameramen, directors, supervisors, film executives and agents. Then there are quite a few people I meet whom I never expect to see again. They’re like — like telegraph poles whizzing by when you’re traveling on a Pullman train, if you know what I mean.”
“I see,” he said.
“They tell me things about themselves and I smile at them sympathetically and work my eyes; but all the time I’m thinking about my last income-tax return, how long I’m apt to be working on this present picture, whether the director is going to listen to what I have to say about the way I should say ‘Farewell’ to my lover in the picture, or whether he’s going to insist on doing it according to some standards which don’t register with me.
“I give the fan my autograph and turn loose my best smile on him. I know I’m never going to see him again, and he’s in sort of a daze anyway, dazzled by the mental concept of celebrity which he’s conjured up to wrap around me as an aura.”
Selby watched her narrowly and said, “You have rather a neat trick of turning phrases.”
“Have I?” she asked, smiling dazzlingly. “Oh, thank you so much.”
“I presume now,” he told her grimly, “if I’d only ask for your autograph the interview would be complete, and I could pass out of your life with the mental classification of a human telegraph pole whizzing by your Pullman car.”
She pouted and said, “Don’t say that.”
“Isn’t it true?”
She lowered her eyes and said slowly, “I don’t think any woman who ever came in contact with your powerful personality would readily forget you.”
“Our contact,” he said dryly, “has been rather remote and somewhat difficult to obtain.”
“Which,” she countered swiftly, raising her eyes to his, “is the main reason I will never forget it. Ben Trask is a wonder when it comes to working things. He’s good at diplomacy and at fighting. He can be either high-hat, belligerent, or very suave. He turned loose everything he had on you and it never even dented your armor. When Trask came back and told me that I had to submit to questioning, he was licked. The man was all washed up. I was literally thunderstruck. It’s the only time I’ve ever known him to make a complete and ignominious failure. I’d have remembered you even if I’d never seen you. And this has been far from a pleasant experience, you know.”
“The meeting with me?” he asked, eyes studying hers.
“Not that,” she said, smiling; “you know I didn’t mean it that way. I meant the worry and the anxiety.”
“Why the worry, if you merely met this man in such a casual manner?”
“Because,” she said, “he was killed. That was a shock to me. Whenever you talk with anyone and then learn of his death, you’re shocked. And, I may as well confess, there was a purely selfish reason. Competition is so keen among the stars that we must have a one-hundred-percent potential audience in order to get by. In other words, it takes all sorts of people to make a world. There are reformers, crusaders, fundamentalists, profligates, intellectual people and dumbbells. Whenever we do anything which antagonizes any one particular class, we narrow our potential audience by just that much.
“For that reason, no matter how great a star’s success may be, she never dares to let people get to gossiping about her. Moreover, because, in the past, scandals have been hushed up by the use of money and influence, whenever an actress’ name is connected with anything out of the ordinary, the public always feels that the real facts were hushed up. No matter how complete the subsequent vindication may be, there are always the ‘wise’ ones who will smirk and wink to show that they weren’t fooled any.
“If my name is connected with that of a murdered man, the big majority of newspaper readers would always remember the one item of gossip and entirely discount everything that might be said by way of explanation. People all over the country would glance at each other across the dinner tables and say, ‘Well, I see Shirley Arden’s company managed to quash the investigation on the Madison City murder. I wonder how much it cost them?’”
Selby said slowly, “I see.”
“So,” she said, laughing, “you can understand my attitude and something of my anxiety.”
Selby nodded. “Well,” he said, “I guess that about covers everything.”
She got to her feet, gave him her hand and said, “Will you believe me when I say it was a real pleasure to have met you, Mr. Selby?”
“Thank you,”, he said. “And, by the way, where did you get the five one thousand-dollar bills which you gave this minister?”
He was watching her as a hawk watches a moving clump of grass in front of a rabbit burrow. Coming as it did, his question took her by surprise. He saw her shoulders heave as she gave a quick gasp, but her face didn’t change its expression by so much as the twitching of a muscle. She raised gravely questioning eyes to his and said in a low, level voice, “Five one thousand-dollar bills? Surely, Mr. Selby, you’re making some mistake.”
“I don’t think I am,” he told her. “I think you gave this man five one thousand-dollar bills.”
“Oh, but I didn’t.”
“Why of course not! Why, whatever put any such idea as that into your head?”
“I had an idea that you might have done so.”
“Why, he was just a poor country minister. I’ll venture to say he’s working on a salary of less than a hundred dollars a month, and probably gets that paid partially in produce. That coat he was wearing was shiny, and worn quite thin at the elbows. Everything about him spoke of the pinch of insufficient finances. His collar was frayed, his shoes had been half-soled at least once, perhaps twice. His shirt had been mended around the neck, his tie was all frazzled at the edges.”
“You seem to remember a lot about him,” Selby said thoughtfully, “for one who has forgotten so much.”
She laughed and said, “Once more I must ask you to indulge in consideration for my psychological processes, Mr. Selby. Men who tell me how much they admire my acting are quite numerous, but it’s not very often one comes in contact with a man who’s so completely genuine, so whole-heartedly sincere as this man. Naturally, as a woman, I noticed his clothes.”
“And you didn’t give him any money?”
“Why certainly not. Good heavens, if you had only read that scenario.”
“I did read it,” he told her.
She laughed and said, “Well, that’s the answer to your question.”
Selby said slowly, “I may want to question you again. I’m not going to bother you to come up here, but I may come to see you. Where can I find you?”
“You can get me on the lot. Simply ask for Mr. Trask.”
“And get another run-around?” he asked.
She laughed and said, “Not from Ben. He knows when he’s licked.”
“And you’ll be where I can reach you through the studio?”
“At any time. I’ll leave word with the operator to connect you with Mr. Trask, and Benny will see that you get in touch with me … In fact, I’d really like to. You know, in our world of make-believe it’s not often one comes in contact with a personality which has no pretense.”
His eyes showed the question in his mind.
“You see,” she said, rushing into swift speech, “it isn’t that we’re four-flushers so much as we’re actors and actresses, and we deal in worlds of acting. Therefore, it becomes easy to simulate emotion. Therefore, frequently one finds it easier to pretend surprise or regret or interest, or perhaps anger, than to solve the situation by some other method. One unconsciously uses one’s natural weapons, just as a deer escapes danger by flight and a porcupine by thrusting out its quills.”
He laughed and said, “Well, Miss Philosopher, do you classify me as a deer or a porcupine?”
“As a very prickly porcupine,” she said. “When your quills are out, Mr. Selby, you’re exceedingly difficult to deal with.”
“Well,” he told her, “I’ll try and be more tractable in the future.”
“And if you’re in Hollywood, you will give me a ring?”
“If anything else turns up about which I want to question you, yes.”
“And must it be an official visit?”
“Surely,” he said, puzzled, “you didn’t mean otherwise?”
“Why not? I told you that I meet so few men who have no pretense in their make-up that it’s refreshing to meet someone who hits straight from the shoulder and never backs up.”
“Aren’t you depending a lot upon rather a hasty judgment of character?” he asked.
She laughed again and said, “If you could only have seen yourself standing with your legs spread apart, and your chin pushed forward! You looked like a man who expects to have to wade right through an avalanche and who is perfectly willing to do it.”
“Perhaps that,” he told her, “is just a pose.”
“No,” she said, “I know too much about poses. And you still haven’t answered my question. Must it be an official visit?”
“It’s rather unlikely that I’ll be in Hollywood,” he told her. “The duties of my office keep me chained down pretty well to this spot.”
“Very well,” she told him, with some indefinable expression in her dark eyes. “I won’t press the point. I’ve never had a legal training, but I can still tell when a witness is evading the question.”
She was standing close to him now, and, as she raised her eyes, he seemed to feel drawn as toward some powerful magnet. It was as though he had been staring into an inky pool which had suddenly widened and risen toward him.
He laughed uneasily and said, “As though you ever had to give an invitation twice.”
“Am I to take it that’s an acceptance?” she asked.
He bowed low over her hand and said, “Yes. Good night, Miss Arden.”
“Good night,” she said, and her voice held a rich, throaty timbre.
He left the room, gently closed the door behind him, and took two or three deep breaths before the matter-of-fact environment of the familiar hotel corridor recalled him to the duties of his everyday existence.
He walked to the elevator, and was just about to press the button when he sensed surreptitious motion behind him. He flattened himself in a doorway and stared back down the corridor.
Carl Bittner had climbed up the stairs. In his right hand he held a camera and a battery photo-flashlight. Slowly, cautiously, he tiptoed his way down the corridor.
Selby waited until the reporter had rounded the bend in the hallway, then he rang for the elevator. In the lobby he paused to telephone room 515.
“Be careful,” he warned, when he heard Shirley Arden’s voice on the wire; “a newspaper photographer is stalking the hallway.”
“Thanks,” she told him, “I’ve got my door locked.”
“Has anyone knocked?” he asked.
“Not even a tap,” she replied, “and thanks for calling.”
Puzzled, Selby left the hotel to fight his way into the windy night.
Sylvia Martin was waiting in front of the locked door of Selby’s office.
“Thought you were playing possum on me,” she said. “I’ve been knocking on the door. I even tried a kick or two.” And she glanced ruefully down at the toes of her shoes.
“No,” Selby said, “I was out on what might be described as an emergency call.”
“Anything new?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Why is it,” she asked, “that a friendly paper doesn’t get any of the breaks, while the opposition scores all the scoops?”
“Meaning,” she said, “that there’s something going on at the Madison Hotel.”
“What makes you think so?”
“A little bird told me.”
“I’d like to know more about your little bird.”
“If you must know, it’s someone who advised me that Carl Bittner, the crack reporter whom The Blade has imported to scoop you on a solution of the murder case, received a mysterious telephone call and then went rushing over to the hotel, carrying a camera.”
“Well?” he asked.
She said, “Let’s go in and sit down where we can talk.”
Selby unlocked the door. She followed him into his private office, perched on the edge of his desk, kicking one foot in a swinging circle.
“Come on,” she said, “what’s the lowdown?”
“I’m sure I couldn’t tell you.”
“Have I got to wait until I read about it in The Blade tomorrow night?”
“The Blade won’t publish anything about it.”
“Don’t ever think they won’t. You’re acting like an ostrich, Doug, sticking your head in the sand and kidding yourself you’re hidden from view.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but there’s nothing I could tell you, Sylvia.”
“In the first place, what makes you think there’s something to tell?”
“Don’t kid me, Doug, I know there is. I suppose I can go over to the hotel and dig it out myself, if I have to, but it does seem to me that … ”
She broke off the sentence, but her foot swung more rapidly and in a wider arc, until she seemed to be viciously kicking at the atmosphere.
Selby said, “I’d like to, Sylvia; I’d like to take you into my confidence, but you’ve got your job and I’ve got mine. You’re representing a newspaper. It’s your duty to gather publicity. Anything that you get will be spread on the front page of that paper. I have to take that into consideration.”
“We supported you during the election. Don’t we get anything in return for it?”
“Certainly you do. You get any of the breaks I can give you.”
“A lot that means,” she said bitterly. “The city editor put me on this murder case. I’ve known you for years. I’ve fought for you ever since you turned those twinkling blue eyes of yours on me and smiled. The newspaper I represent helped put you in office. What do we get in return for it? Not one damned thing!”
She blinked her eyes rapidly.
“Please don’t cry, Sylvia,” he begged. “You don’t appreciate my position.”
She jumped to her feet and said, “You make me so mad I could cry. Don’t you see the position you’re in? Don’t you see the position that I’m in? Don’t you see the position my paper’s in?”
“I think I do.”
“No you don’t. I’ve been assigned to cover the activities of the district attorney’s office in connection with this murder case. I’m making a lamentable failure of it. The things I’ve found out could have been put in my city editor’s eye without making him so much as blink. The opposition newspaper has imported a crack reporter. That means I’m being pitted against a trained investigator from one of the big metropolitan dailies. It’s an opportunity for me to do something big. It’s also an opportunity for me to become the laughingstock of everyone in the newspaper business. I need every advantage I can get. And about the only advantage I’m supposed to have is your friendship.”
“Sylvia, I’m going to do everything I can for you, but . . .”
“That stuff makes me sick,” she declared. “You know as well as I do that you’re concealing something. You’re good enough to conceal it from me because I’m fair enough to trust you; but you’re not smart enough to conceal it from The Blade because they’re fighting you and are out on their own, getting their information independently.”
“What makes you think that they’re going to get any particularly startling information?” he asked.
“Will you swear to me that your business at the Madison Hotel wasn’t connected with some angle of this case?”
“No,” he said frankly, “it was.”
“And you saw someone there?”
“Whom did you see?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Because I can’t.”
“It wouldn’t be fair.”
He thought for a moment and then said lamely, “To the taxpayers, to the prosecution’s side of the case.”
“Bosh!” she told him. “You’re protecting someone. Who?”
“Suppose I should tell you,” he said, “that some person had become involved in this case who was entirely innocent of any connection with it except one brought about through casual coincidence? Suppose I should further tell you that the newspaper-reading public wouldn’t believe that such was the case if it were given any publicity? Suppose, because of my official position, I’d been able to get a complete and frank statement of facts, given to me in a sacred confidence? Would you want me to betray that confidence to the first newspaper reporter who asked me?”
She shook her head impatiently and said, “Now I’ll do some supposing. Suppose there’s an angle to this case which is going to be given inevitable publicity? Suppose the story is going to be published in a hostile newspaper tomorrow night? Suppose we’re going to be scooped on the thing? Don’t you think it would be more fair for you to give me the news than to withhold it?”
“But you wouldn’t want me to violate a confidence, would you?”
“Wouldn’t it be better for the person who gave you that confidence to have the facts correctly reported in a newspaper which didn’t deliberately try to distort them in order to belittle you?” Selby was thinking that over, when the telephone on his desk rang. He picked up the receiver and said “Hello.”
“Where the devil have you been?” Rex Brandon’s voice rasped over the wire. “I’ve been trying to call you at intervals for the last twenty minutes.”
“I took a quick run over to the Madison Hotel to investigate a development there.”
“Nothing that I can discuss with you now. It’s something we should talk over a little later. What have you got — anything?”
“Yes, I’ve got what may be a lead.”
“What is it?”
“I’ve been talking with that optician in San Francisco on the telephone. He’s got a long list of names who have that same prescription, or correction, or whatever it is you call it. Among them are two ministers. One of them’s a Reverend Hillyard, from some little church in San Francisco, and the other’s a Reverend William Larrabie, from Riverbend, California.”
Selby’s voice betrayed his excitement. “Hold everything,” he said. “That last name is the one we want.”
“How do you know?”
“From some checking up I’ve been doing. I know that the man’s name has the syllable ‘Larry’ in it and that he comes from a town in California that has a ‘River’ in its name.”
“Okay,” Brandon said. “What do we do next?”
TO BE CONTINUED
Images illustrated by Dudley Gloyne Summers.
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