TABLE OF CONTENTS
MAKE BETTER STAGE
Curtis Drexler watched the wrinkles disappearing from his face beneath the protective screen of grease paint and powder, and there was a weariness in his heart that even the false elation could not lift. He knew then, as he had never known before, that he was too old to remain the matinee idol he had been for years. And the knowledge that the murder of James Stephen would make him wealthy within a year brought him no comfort at the moment. For he knew that wealth could never make up for the adulation in which he had basked all of his life.
He used the touch-up pencil on the streaks of white in his thick main of hair, cursed suddenly and bitterly, and whirled to where his dresser stood white-faced and fearful.
“This isn’t my pencil!” he barked savagely.
“Look, Mr. Drexler,” the dresser said nervously, “I thought the number two pencil would give better color, make better stage!”
Curtis Drexler slammed the pencil against the wall. “Who the hell cares what a young squirt like you thinks; get the hell out of here and don’t come back! I knew what made good stage before you were born!”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Drexler; I’m sorry. Mr. Drexler!” the youth sidled through the door, closing it softly.
The actor grinned, stepped softly to the door and turned the key. Then he returned to the light-framed mirror, finished his make-up for the third and final act.
“Five minutes, Mr. Drexler,” a voice called just outside the door, and light footsteps drifted down the hall.
Curtis Drexler stood, opened the right-hand drawer of the dressing table, slipped the revolver into the side pocket of his tweed coat. His face was suddenly hard, and his eyes bleak and piercing, beneath the mask of grease paint.
He had to work fast now, for he had less than five minutes to commit a murder and make his stage appearance for the final act. He smiled a bit when he saw the automatic on the top of the table.
He used that gun in the play; and later, when the police investigated the shooting of the producer, he would casually offer it for examination in the ballistics laboratory. They would never know that he had brought a revolver with him this evening.
His eyes flicked to the clock above the mirror, and he felt his breath catch in his throat. He had less than four and one-half minutes left.
He unbolted the small door at the rear of the room, slipped through into the property tunnel, raced lithely toward the iron steps at the end.
His nerves crawled at the thought that some grip might spy him running down the dim hall.
He went up the iron steps swiftly but quietly, anxious now to finish what he had planned. The iron treads creaked and squealed a bit in protest, and he slowed so that there would be less noise.
He heard the dull murmur of the audience behind the balcony door at the first turn of the stairs, felt a dull glow of satisfaction. He knew what they were talking, could almost give their comments word for word. He had known for a week that the play would be a smash hit, and that knowledge had consolidated the vagrant plans he had nurtured in his mind for the past month.
He felt no animosity or hate against James Stephen; he was but an obstacle that had to be removed. With James Stephen’s death, his fifty per cent interest in the play would revert to Curtis Drexler by virtue of a clause in the contract that they had drawn up before casting the play.
Drexler had written the drama three years before, but had been unable to find a backer. Then Stephen had put up most of the money necessary, for a fifty per cent interest. Drexler had retained twenty per cent, and the remaining interest had been sold to three men.
Because he and Stephen had known each other for twenty years, and to keep chisellers from gaining an interest in the play, the contract had been drawn so that the interest owned by either man reverted to the other in event one died during the play’s run.
A DECIDED HIT
Now, with the play a decided hit, James Stephen had to die, so that when the run was over, Curtis Drexler would not have to end his life as a hundred matinee idols had before him.
Drexler passed the balcony door, ran lightly up the remaining steps to the upper floor of the theater building. He cautiously opened the stairway door, made certain that no one was in the hall, then slipped through.
He huddled at the producer’s office door, listening intently for the sound of voices. Satisfied that the man was alone, he palmed the knob, carefully and quietly edged the panel open a crack.
The office was so tiny and cramped that the opening door almost touched the back of the chair in which Stephen was sitting. The producer was poring over a set of books, totally oblivious of the opening door, his white shirt gleaming in the dim light.
Curtis Drexler lifted the revolver in a hand that was rock-steady, tightened his finger on the trigger. The gun blasted again and again in the stillness of the tiny room, the reverberations almost deafening. Six dark spots sprang into high relief on the whiteness of the producer’s back.
James Stephen came to his feet, his head turning toward the murderer, his face tight with agony and surprise. He tried to whirl, but his feet tangled, and he fell heavily to the cluttered floor.
Curtis Drexler caught his breath in horrified excitement, jerked the door shut, raced the few feet down the hall to the panel that led to the property tunnel.
He fled down the steps, remembering the terror and agony in the man’s face, and he thought for a moment he would be ill. Then his face hardened and his eyes lost their look of fright. He turned the stair corner, took the last few steps in three leaps, scurried into the open door of the furnace room. He jerked open the door of the roaring furnace, tossed the murder weapon into the crackling flames.
Then he whirled, dashed down the tunnel until he came to the small door of his dressing room. He locked the door behind him, sat breathlessly at the dressing table. He smiled tautly when he saw that he still had thirty seconds before his entrance. He touched at his makeup with a powder puff, caught up the automatic, and left the room.
“Mr. Drexler?” his dresser said the moment be appeared from the dressing room.
“Get to hell out of my sight!” The actor’s nerves were still so taut he almost struck the youth.
And then he was on stage, coming in from the left, his resonant voice picking up his cue with the ease of long practice. He bowed slightly, acknowledging the muted applause of the audience, then played the part he had written for himself so many months before.
He spoke his lines with all of the skill he possessed, acting his part like an automaton that could do nothing less than excellent, but his mind was on those last hurried minutes before his entrance.
He could find no flaw that might trip him up. Should he be questioned about his footprints on the stairs, or his fingerprints scattered here and there in his hurry, he could almost laughingly explain that he had the run of the building since he was a co-producer. And should they make a nitrogen test of his hand, he had only to say that there would naturally be burned powder on his skin since he fired a gun during the play.
No, he could not find the slightest of flaws.
MEN GATHERED IN THE WINGS
He was making his next to the last speech, when he saw the men gathered in the wings. He staggered a bit, recognizing them, regained his poise almost immediately. He felt the wild gust of laughter beating at his throat, but his voice was even and unhurried.
He made his fifteen-second exit, right center, caught at the frightened arm of his dresser. His voice was harsh and strained, with an undercurrent such as the youth had never heard.
“You did it again, didn’t you?” he said, “You thought you’d prove that you know better staging than myself!”
The youth shrank back, tried to free his arm from the heavy hand.
Curtis Drexler laughed aloud, shrugged tiredly.
“Forget it, lad,” he said. “Maybe you’re right. My day has already passed.”
He heard his cue, stepped back upon the boards. He spoke then as he had never before in his career, giving each line the mocking cynical twist that it demanded, hearing none of it, conscious only of the shocked incredulous face of James Stephen who stood in the wings with three of the house detectives.
He took the automatic from his pocket, as the action demanded, laughed cynically as the actress flinched in simulated terror. He lined the gun on her, felt the mockery of his heart flooding his mind with regret because of the thing he had tried to do.
He looked once directly at the audience that sat so tensely, so breathlessly, in wait for the smashing climax. He heard the frightened cry of his dresser as he lifted the gun the youth had thought did not have the stage appeal of the blued revolver. He had known, when he saw James Stephen still alive, that the youth had switched the blanks and real bullets in the two guns with the intention of telling him before he took a gun on stage.
He lifted the squat automatic, as the action demanded, placed the muzzle squarely at his temple, and pulled the trigger.
He didn’t see the final curtain come swooping down, but he would have been gratified to have heard the smashing applause that echoed for minutes after his last appearance.
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