The huge crowd, dressed in the white robes and turbans of Afghan hillmen, surged forward ominously. Against the background of the ruined fort stood a man who faced them calmly, revolver in hand. He wore the uniform of the Indian Army, but his clothes were torn and a stained bandage was wrapped around his head.
Above the crowd swung the beam of a great derrick, to the end of which was attached a platform. It was the carrier for the camera crew of Realistic Pictures Limited, and, what was more important, it gave director Raymond Blade an excellent view of the scene.
He was a little man with a bald head and a fat face. His small eyes glittered as he stared down from the chair on which he was sitting.
"Cut!" he bellowed to the crowd of Afghans. "Rotten!" he added, as the rush at the fort stopped abruptly. "You're acting like a ham, Farr. Remember you're supposed to be the last man left alive of the garrison, and this is your final stand. Act! Don't stand there like a dummy!"
Michael Farr, the young actor who was playing the lead in Realistic's latest production, "The Wolf of the Border," scowled as he looked up at the director.
"I'm doing my best, Mr. Blade," he said.
"Your best! I could pick a dozen men out of the extras who could do better! " The director gave an unpleasant laugh. "Remember you are of no importance," he went on. "None of you are of any importance. When it comes to making a film, the director is the only one who counts!"
"Listen here—" Michael Farr began furiously.
"Clear for action!" Blade bellowed through his megaphone. "We'll take it this time. Camera! Sound!"
The crowd surged forward with a savage yell. The hero levelled his revolver and began to shoot. Rifles cracked as the Afghans fired back. And over that very realistic scene swung the beam of the derrick, with the director perched on the end.
Suddenly he stooped to lift his megaphone again. The "battle " was raging furiously, and nobody noticed the director clutch at his side and pitch forward.
He fell thirty feet, landing among the artificial rocks which had recently given shelter to the screen Afghans. It was the cameraman who gave the shout which caused everybody to turn and see the crumpled body.
The studio doctor ran on to the set and knelt to make his examination. He scrambled up hurriedly.
"Stay where you are, everybody!" he shouted. "Don't move!"
He rushed to the nearest telephone, and dialed Whitehall 1212.
"Scotland Yard?" he said when he was put through. "I'm speaking from the Realistic Studios. A man has been murdered. The director, Raymond Blade. Shot! Right through the heart."
"Two hundred armed men on the set! " he whispered as he replaced the receiver. "And every one of them had reason to wish Blade dead. No chance of it being an accident. The weapons were loaded with blanks, but somebody slipped a live cartridge into his gun."
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A Jealous Lover
"murder! " agreed Chief Inspector Baxter when he arrived on the scene.
The Yard officer had made a rapid survey of the situation, and, like the doctor, he was convinced that no chance shot had brought the director plunging from his chair. For two weeks Raymond Blade had scourged stars and extras alike with insults and biting sarcasm. He had made himself the most hated man in the studios.
The inspector began a patient investigation, and nobody was allowed to leave the studios. All weapons were collected and sent to the police laboratory for examination by experts. There might be a chance that they would find the gun from which the bullet had been fired.
Baxter was feeling rather tired, when he saw a tall man in loose-fitting tweeds walking briskly towards him. He recognised Dixon Hawke.
"What brings you here?" he asked as Hawke reached him.
"The film company. They want me to prove this shooting was an accident."
"A fat chance you've got! It's plain murder, and I've got my finger on the likely man already! "
"Good work, Baxter. Who is he?"
"Michael Farr, the male lead in the film! Not only did he have more reason than anybody else for shooting Blade, but he was actually heard to make a threat against him!"
Baxter was glad to talk the case over with Hawke, and he gave him the full details of his investigations.
"There's a girl in it," he said gruffly. "Her name is Mary Meade, and she plays a small part. Farr is in love with her. Unfortunately, she came under Blade's influence."
"I suppose he said he would make her a star?"
"That's it. The man was a swine. Farr had a quarrel with him, and then he was heard to say that if Blade didn't leave the girl alone he would shoot him."
"What about the gun?"
"There were twenty revolvers of the pattern used by Farr scattered among the crowd."
"What about the others who were handling these revolvers?"
"I haven't a thing on them. If you'd like to see them, you're welcome. They're in the small studio down the corridor."
Dixon Hawke went to the room where the group of extras had been herded.
He stopped for a moment at the manager's office to talk to Mary Meade. She had little to say, except that Farr had been very jealous.
The criminologist continued on his way to the small studio. It was packed with men still dressed in the robes of Afghans. Hawke talked to each man in turn.
He learned little. The extras had been supplied with guns and blank ammunition, and ordered to rush the stage fort and make as much noise as possible. They had been too busy with the scene to know that anything had happened until the cameraman shouted.
Hawke came to one man who was sitting moodily in a corner smoking a cigarette. He was older than the others, and as the investigator approached he stood up with quiet dignity.
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A "Silent" Success
|"YOU are John Garry?" Hawke||said, glancing at the list of extras, "What do you know about this business, Mr. Garry?"|
"I am as ignorant as the rest," the man said. "I am sure it was an accident," he went on. "A fortunate accident, if I may say so. Raymond Blade is better dead!"
"I wouldn't advise you to make such statements," the criminologist rapped. He looked at the man's face closely, and gave a puzzled frown, for there was something unmistakably familiar about it.
"Were you ever on the stage?" he asked abruptly.
"Minor parts! Minor parts! My talents have never been fully recognised."
When he had finished his questioning of the extras, Hawke went to see the producer in charge of Realistic Films, and discovered he was a man who had been in the movie business from the earliest days.
"Raymond Blade was an old-timer, wasn't he?" Hawke asked.
"He'd been in the business from silent days. Don't you remember that remarkable film, 'Riders of the Range'? It came out about 1924."
Hawke nodded. The film had been one of the outstanding productions of the time. "But that was American," he said.
"Blade was an American. We brought him over for this new production. He's never looked back since silent days. 'Riders of the Range' made him."
"I have a recollection of the actor who played the dashing hero in that film. What's become of him?"
"A typical tragedy of the screen, Mr. Hawke! You mean Edmund Walders, who used to play the lead in the old Westerners. He gradually sank into obscurity, and nobody knows what happened to him! "
"As far as I remember, he gave Blade his chance."
"Yes. Raymond Blade owed his success to Edmund Walders, and Blade was also responsible for this Walders' downfall! "
"When Blade became famous he refused to direct Walders. I think they had some private quarrel over a woman."
"By Jove! " Hawke got to his feet suddenly. A very clear picture of Walders in 'Riders of the Range' had suddenly come to him, and it started a strange train of thought in his mind.
The criminologist reached the main studio a few minutes after Chief Inspector Baxter had given the actors and staff permission to leave. The Yard officer was satisfied with his investigation, and had placed Michael Farr under detention. There was sufficient evidence to warrant an arrest.
Hawke went to the door and watched the crowd trooping out. An oldish man with grey hair went by, and Hawke reached out and touched him on the shoulder.
"You're Mr. Garry, aren't you?" the criminologist said. "I thought I recognised you, although you were in Afghan warpaint last time we met."
"Mr. Garry, I never forget a face, and yours is familiar. Were you ever prominent on the stage or screen?"
The extra drew himself up and a look of pride flashed into his eyes. Then his shoulders sagged and he shook his head slowly.
"My talents never received recognition," he muttered.
"Did you ever act under another name?"
"Why should I?" the man said. "If they don't like me as John Garry, then they won't like me under any other name."
Hawke let him go and beckoned to the head of the casting department, who happened to be passing. He learned that John Garry lived in Putney, and, having written down the address, he left the studios.
The criminologist took a taxi to Putney and made careful inquiries about the man. He found that Garry had been staying at a cheap boardinghouse for several years, but beyond that he could learn nothing.
"I'm certain of one thing," he muttered. "Garry is not his real name, and I think I know who he really is! "
He walked up a quiet street not far from the boarding-house where the extra lived. Hawke paused outside a small local cinema. A poster had caught his eye. It was an advertisement for one of the greatest of the silent films.
Stepping into the lobby, he asked to see the manager. A pleasant little man came out of the small office. In answer to Hawke's questions, he said that he was reviving old films to show the development of the cinema. This type of programme was popular, he added.
"Of course, my audience finds them amusing," he said. "Films that used to make people weep now make them laugh."
The criminologist filled his pipe slowly. An idea was forming in his mind.
"Did you ever see a film called 'Riders of the Range'?" he asked.
"With Edmund Walders? I remember it well."
"Will you scrap your next week's programme and show it?" Hawke asked. He saw the man hesitate. "My request concerns a matter of the utmost importance," he added, "and of course you will be compensated for any financial loss."
"The film will be shown, Mr. Hawke," the manager said.
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The criminologist took rooms in Putney facing the small cinema. With his assistant, Tommy Burke, he kept watch on the place, and on several occasions saw the extra, John Garry, pass by. The man made a habit of pausing to look at the posters advertising the old film.
It was not until the middle of the week that Garry finally bought a ticket and entered the cinema. Tommy, who was at the window, reported to his chief, and Hawke reached for his hat and hurried out, with Burke at his heels. They, too, went into the cinema.
The show had apparently just begun and an early Chaplin film was on the screen. Hawke saw Garry sitting at the back of the hall, and dropped into a seat behind him. The man was watching the antics of the great comedian closely, and did not notice their arrival.
Several shorts were shown, and finally, the main film was flashed on.
The story of "Riders of the Range " was typical of the early days of the movies. There was the Mexican villain who was trying to steal the ranch owned by the heroine.
And then there entered the hero, the mysterious cowboy with the reputation of being a bandit. It had been a great part for Edmund Walders, but the modern audience shrieked with laughter as they watched the old-fashioned drama unfold.
John Garry, however, showed no inclination to laugh, as Hawke was quick to observe. The old actor had his hat between his hands, and was twisting it with nervous fingers. His eyes never left the screen, but several times, when the laughter became unusually loud, he moved as if to get up.
The drama worked up to its climax. Edmund Walders was hunted by the sheriff's posse, while the villain and his men raided the heroine's ranch. The gallant messenger, wounded by the Mexicans, spurred his tired horse to bring the news to Walders.
And when the hero fought his way through the sheriff's men to stage the great rescue, the audience fairly howled with laughter at the expense of the forgotten star.
Hawke had been watching John Garry closely, and when the man suddenly sprang to his feet the criminologist was in no way surprised.
"Laugh! " the man shouted. "Laugh, you fools! You liked it once. You called ' Riders of the Range ' the greatest film that had been produced."
People turned and stared blankly at the interrupter. Garry pointed dramatically at the screen, where Edmund Walders was staging his great fight with the villain.
"That was acting! " he screamed. "Real acting! There was no fake about that. We rode our own horses and fired our own guns. Yes! And I can still shoot straight."
Suddenly the lights went up, and, for the first time, the audience saw clearly the man who had caused the disturbance. They had not sat through the silent film for nothing, and they recognised the stranger as the hero whose acting they had laughed at.
John Garry was none other than Edmund Walders.
Walders turned and glared behind him, and his eyes widened as he saw Dixon Hawke.
"Take it easy," the criminologist said quietly. "I thought your name wasn't Garry!"
The one-time star flashed a hand towards his coat pocket, but Hawke caught him by the wrist. They struggled for a moment, and then the man's arm was forced back, and the revolver in his pocket was swiftly removed by Tommy Burke. A policeman, called by the manager, hurried down the aisle, and Walders was escorted from the cinema.
He hung limply in the officer's grip and had to be supported to the lobby. Hawke looked at him pityingly.
"Why did you kill Raymond Blade?" h.6 tasked
"Kill him? I—" Walders suddenly lifted his head, and there was a mad gleam in his eyes as he faced his accuser.
"Yes, I killed him!" he snarled. "I killed him because he was a rat! I gave him his chance, and he thanked me with ruin! He drove the woman I loved to suicide! He—he—"
"You did it because seeing him in such a position of authority, while you were forgotten, caused something to snap in your mind," Hawke suggested. "Isn't that right, Walders?"
"It was his manner. The way he bullied people. The way he treated young Farr, who is one of the most promising actors on the screen today. He didn't recognise me, the man who had made him. I— It was so easy! I put a real bullet in my revolver, and when we played the scene of attacking the fort I shot him. I couldn't miss. I always was a dead shot!"
Hawke took the prisoner to Scotland Yard, and Michael Farr was at once released. Chief Inspector Baxter looked at his friend admiringly.
"It beats me how you hit on the truth," he said.
"Just luck, old man. I have a good memory for faces, and I hadn't forgotten Walders. I followed up my hunch by having the old film shown at the cinema. I knew the audience would laugh, and cause the poor fellow to give himself away."
~ The End ~