XXVI. A Cigarette Case
 

Kennedy's face betrayed only a remote interest. "Have you any copies of that particular film?"

"Just the negative, I believe."

"Could I have that for a few days?"

"Of course!" Manton seemed to wish to give us every possible amount of co-operation; yet this request puzzled him. "Would you care to go down to the negative vaults with me?"

Kennedy nodded.

First we stopped in a lengthy corridor in the rear building, where there were no great signs of life. Through a door I could see a long room filled with ornaments, pictures, furniture, rugs, and all the vast freak collections of a property room. Along the side of the hallway itself was a line of steel lockers of recent design.

Manton called out to an employee and he appeared after a long wait and unlocked one of them. At Kennedy's direction I put the traveling bag in the lower compartment, pocketing the key. Then we retraced our steps to broad steel stairs leading up and down. We descended to the basement and found ourselves in a high- ceilinged space immaculately clean and used generally for storage purposes.

"The film vaults," Manton explained, "are at the corner of the west wing. They have to be ventilated specially, on account of the high inflammability of the celluloid composition. Since the greatest fire risk, otherwise, is the laboratory and printing departments, and next to that the studios themselves with the scenery, the heat of the lights, the wires, etc., we have located them in the most distant corner of the quadrangle. The negative, you see, represents our actual invested capital to a considerable extent. The prints wear out and frequently large sections are destroyed and have to be reprinted. Then sometimes we can reissue old subjects. All in all we guard the negative with the care a bank would give actual funds in its vaults."

In our many visits to the Manton studios I had been struck by the scrupulous cleanliness of every part of the place. The impression of orderliness came back to me with redoubled force as we made our way around in the basement. Nothing seemed out of its proper position, although a vast amount of various material for picture making was stored here. We passed two projection rooms, one a miniature theater with quite a bit of comfort, the other small and bare for the use of directors and cutters.

Finally we saw the vaults ahead of us. The walls were concrete, matching the actual walls of the basement. There were two entrances and the doors were double, of heavy steel, arranged so that an air space would give protection in case of fire. At a roll-top desk, arranged for the use of the clerk in charge of the negatives and prints, was a young boy.

"Where's Wagnalls?" demanded Manton.

"He went out, sir," the boy replied, respectfully enough. "Said he would be right back and for me to watch and not to let anything get out."

The promoter led the way into the first room. Here on all four sides and in several rows down the center, like the racks in a public library, were shelves supporting stacks of square thin metal boxes or trays with handles and tightly fitting covers. Cards were secured to the front of each, by clamps, giving the name of the picture and the number under which the film was filed. I was surprised because I expected to find everything kept in ordinary round film cans.

"These are the negatives," Manton explained. He pulled out a box at random, opening it. "The negative is not all spliced together, the same length as the reels of positive, because the printing machines are equipped to take two-hundred-foot pieces at a time, or approximate fifths of a reel, the size of a roll of raw positive film stock. Then whenever there is a change in color, as from amber day that to blue tint for night, the negative is broken because pieces of different coloring have to go through different baths, and that also determines the size of the rolls. The prints, or positives, in the other vaults, are in reel lengths and so are kept in the round boxes in which they are shipped."

Kennedy glanced about curiously. "The negative of that snake picture is here, you said?"

Manton went to a little desk where there was a card index. Thumbing through the records, he found the number and led us to the proper place in the rack. In the box were only two rolls of negative, both were large.

"This was a split reel," the promoter began. "It was approximately four hundred feet and we used it to fill out a short comedy, a release we had years ago, a reel the first part of which was educational and the last two-thirds or so a roaring slap-stick. We never made money on it.

"But this stuff was mighty good, Mr. Kennedy. We practically wrote a scenario for those reptiles. Doctor Nagoya was down himself and for the better part of a day it wasn't possible to get a woman in the studio, for fear a rattler or something might get loose."

"Were there rattlers in the film?"

"Altogether, I think. The little Jap was interesting, too. Between scenes he told us all about the reptiles, and how their poison--" Manton checked himself, confused. Was it because the thought of poison reminded him of the two deaths so close to him, or was it from some more potent twinge of conscience? "You'll see it all in the film," he finished, lamely.

"I may keep these for a little bit?" Kennedy asked.

"Of course! I can have the two rolls printed and developed and dry sometime this afternoon, if you wish."

"No, this will do very well."

Kennedy slipped a roll in each pocket, straining the cloth to get them in. Manton opened a book on the little table, making an entry of the delivery of the rolls and adding his own initials.

"I have to be very careful to avoid the loss of negative," he told us. "Nothing can be taken out of here except on my own personal order."

I thought that Manton was very frank and accommodating. Surely he had made no effort to conceal his knowledge of this film made with Doctor Nagoya, and he had even mentioned the poison of the rattlesnakes. Though it had confused him for a brief moment, that had not struck me as a very decisive indication of guilty knowledge. After all, no one knew of the use of crotalin to kill Stella Lamar except the murderer himself, and Kennedy and those of us in his confidence. The murderer might not guess that Kennedy had identified the venom. Yet if Manton were that man he had covered his feelings wonderfully in telling us about the film.

My thoughts strayed to the towel upstairs. Had an attempt been made yet to steal it from the locker? It seemed to me that we were losing too much time down here if we hoped to notice anyone with itching hands.

I realized that Kennedy had been very clever in including all our suspects in hearing at the time he revealed the importance of the clue. Of the original nine listed by Mackay, Werner was dead and Mrs. Manton had never entered the case. Enid we had assumed to be the mysterious woman in Millard's divorce, however, and the other six had all been upon the floor in contact with Kennedy. First there was Marilyn, the woman. Then the five men in order had displayed a lively interest in the towel--Shirley, Gordon, Millard, Phelps, and Manton.

Kennedy's voice roused me from my reverie.

"Does this door lead through to the other vaults, Mr. Manton?"

"Yes." The promoter straightened, after replacing the records of the negative. "I designed this system of storage myself and superintended every detail of construction. It is--" He checked himself with an exclamation, noticing that the door was open. With a flush of anger he slammed it shut.

"I should think the connecting doors would be kept shut all the time," Kennedy remarked. "In case of fire only one compartment would be a loss."

"That's the idea exactly! That's why I was on the point of swearing. The boys down here are getting lax and I'm going to make trouble." Manton turned back and called to the boy outside. "Where did you say Wagnalls went?"

"I don't know, sir! Sometimes he goes across to McCann's for a cup of coffee, or maybe he went up to the printing department."

Manton faced us once more. "If you'll excuse me just a moment I'm going to see who's responsible for this. Why," he sputtered, "if you hadn't called me around the rack I wouldn't have noticed that the door was open and then, if there had been a fire--I--I'll be right back!"

As Manton stormed off Kennedy smiled slightly, then nodded for me to follow. We passed through into the rooms for positive storage. These in turn had fireproof connecting doors, all of which were open. In each case Kennedy closed them. Eventually we emerged into the main part of the basement through the farther vault door. Nothing of a suspicious nature had caught our attention. I guessed that Kennedy simply had wished to cover the carelessness of the vault man in leaving the inner doors wide open.

At the entrance which had first admitted us to the negative room, however, Kennedy stooped suddenly. At the very moment he bent forward I caught the glint of something bright behind the heavy steel door, and in the shadow so that it had escaped us before. As he rose I leaned over. It was a cigarette case, a very handsome one with large initials engraved with deep skillful flourish.

"Who is 'J. G.'?" Kennedy asked.

I felt a quiver of excitement. "Jack Gordon, the leading man."

"What's an actor doing down in the film vaults?" he muttered.

Slipping the case into his pocket, he glanced about on the floor and something just within the negative room caught his eye. Once more he bent down. With a speculative expression he picked up the cork-tipped stub of a cigarette.

At this instant Manton returned, breathing hard as though his pursuit of the missing Wagnalls had been very determined. The butt in Kennedy's fingers attracted his attention at once.

"Did--did you find that here?" he demanded.

Kennedy pointed. "Right there on the floor."

"The devil!" Manton flushed red. "This is no place to smoke. By-- by all the wives of Goodwin and all the stars of Griffith I'm going to start firing a few people!" he sputtered. "Here, sonny!" He jumped at the boy, frightening him. "Close all these doors and turn the combinations. Tell Wagnalls if he opens them before he sees me I'll commit battery on his nose."

Kennedy continued to hold the stub, and as Manton preceded us up the stairs he hung back, comparing it with the few cigarettes left in the case. Unquestionably they were of the same brand.

On the studio floor Mackay was waiting for us. Under his arm was a reel of film in a can. He clutched it almost fondly.

"All ready!" he remarked, to Kennedy.

Kennedy's face was unrevealing as he faced Manton. "This bit of film is valuable evidence also. I think perhaps it would be safer in that locker."

"Anything at all we can do to help," stated Manton, promptly. "Shall I show you the way again?"

I produced the key, handing it to Kennedy as the four of us arrived in the corridor by the property room. Kennedy slipped the bit of metal into the lock; then simulated surprise very well indeed.

"The lock is broken!" he exclaimed. "Some one has been here."

Apparently the traveling bag had been undisturbed as we took it out. Nevertheless, the paper containing the towel was gone.

"This is no joke, Mr. Kennedy," protested Manton, in indignation. "Where can I hire about a dozen good men to hang around and watch--and--and help you get to the bottom of this?"

Mackay, without releasing his grasp of the film, had been inspecting the broken lock.

"Look at the way this was done!" he murmured, almost in admiration. "This wasn't the work of any roughneck. It--it was a dainty job!"