XXVII. The Film Fire
 

The bag lay open at my feet. The microscope and other paraphernalia brought by Kennedy were untouched. Taking the film from Mackay and placing the can in with the other things, Kennedy snapped the catch and turned to me as he straightened.

"I think our evidence is safest in plain sight, Walter. We'll carry it about with us."

Lloyd Manton seemed to be a genuinely unhappy individual. After some moments he excused himself, nervously anxious about the turn of affairs at the studio. Immediately I faced Kennedy and Mackay.

"Manton's the only one who knew just where we put the bag," I remarked. "When he left us in the basement he had plenty of time to run up and steal the towel and return."

"How about the itching salve?"

"In his hurry he might have left the towel in the paper, intending to destroy it later."

Kennedy frowned. "That's possible, Walter. I had not thought of that. Still"--he brightened--"I'm counting on human nature. I don't believe anyone guilty of the crime could have that towel in his possession, after the hints I have thrown out, without examining it so as to see what telltale mark or stain would be apt to betray his identity."

"You can see that Manton's the logical man?"

"It would be easy for anyone else to follow and observe us."

"Then--?"

"First of all we must keep an eye out for any person showing signs of the itching concoction. We must observe anyone with noticeably clean hands. Principally, however, another thing worries me."

"What's that, Mr. Kennedy?" asked Mackay.

"Walter and I found a cigarette case belonging to Jack Gordon in the basement; also a butt smoked three-quarters of the way down and left directly in the negative room. The fire doors between the different film vaults, which are arranged like the safety compartments in a ship, were all open. I want to know why Gordon was down there and--well, I seem to sense something wrong."

"Good heavens! Craig," I interposed. "You don't attach any importance to the fact that those doors were open!"

"Walter, in a case of real mystery the slightest derangement of matters of ordinary routine is a cause for suspicion."

I had no answer, and as we re-entered the studio I devoted my attention to the various people we had tabulated as possible suspects, noticing that Kennedy and Mackay did likewise.

Jack Gordon was in the ballroom scene in make-up. Kauf still was concerned with technical details of the set and lighting, and, although the cameras were set up, they were not in proper place, nor was either camera man in evidence. With Gordon was Enid. From a distance they seemed to be engaged in an argument of real magnitude. There was no mistaking the dislike on the part of each for the other.

Marilyn was the most uneasy of all of the principals. She was pacing up and down, glancing about in frank distress of mind. I looked at her hands and saw that she had crushed a tube of grease paint in her nervousness. Not only her fingers were soiled, but there were streaks on her arms where she had smeared herself unconsciously. As we watched she left the studio, hurrying out the door without a backward glance. Marilyn, at least, showed no indications of the salve, nor of painfully recent acquaintance with water.

Both Manton and Phelps were in evidence, decidedly so, I imagined, from, the viewpoint of poor Kauf. Manton, at the heels of his new director, was doing all he could to help. Phelps, following Manton about, seemed to be urging haste upon the promoter. The result was far from advantageous to picture making; it was concentrated distraction.

Millard was poring over the manuscript, perched upon a chair the wrong way so that its back would serve as a desk, engaged busily in making changes here and there in the pages with a pencil. Like any author, it was never too late for minor improvements and suggestions. I don't doubt but that if Manton had permitted it, Millard would have been quite apt to interrupt a scene in the taking in order to add some little touch occurring to him as his action sprang to life in the interpretation of players and director. At any rate, his hands seemed more clean than those of either Manton orv Phelps, proving nothing because he was at a task not so apt to bring him into contact with dirt.

"Shirley is missing," observed the district attorney, in an undertone.

Kennedy faced me. "Give the bag to Mackay, Walter. While he keeps an eye on the people up here we'll pay a visit to Shirley's dressing room, and after that go down to the basement again. I can't account for it--intuition, perhaps--but I'm sure something's wrong."

The heavy man's dressing room, pointed out to us by some employee passing through the hall, was empty. I led the way into Marilyn's quarters, but again no one was about. In each case Kennedy made a quick visual search for the towel, without result. We did not dare linger and run the risk of giving away our trick; then, too, Kennedy was nervously anxious to look through the basement once more.

"I don't understand your suspicion of the state of affairs in the film vaults," I confessed.

"Why should Jack Gordon, the leading man, be down there?" he countered.

"That--that really is a cause for suspicion, isn't it."

"Now, Walter, think a bit!" We were crossing the yard, and so not apt to be overheard. "Granting that Gordon actually had been down there, why should the fact concern us? Manton explained that no negative or positive can be given out except upon order. There is nothing down there but film and so no other errand to bring the leading man to the vault except to get some scenes or pieces showing his own work, and that isn't likely."

"Unless," I interrupted, "Gordon is the guilty man and wanted to get the snake film before we did."

"How could that be? When we asked Manton about the Doctor Nagoya subject we went right down with him and procured it. I doubt anyone could have overheard us as we talked about it, in any case."

"Remember, Craig, we went to the locker first and it was some little time before that fellow came out to unlock it and give us the key. And when you questioned Manton we were passing right by all of them. Any one could have heard the mention of the snake film."

Kennedy frowned. "I believe you're right, Walter. Or it is possible that the guilty person believed that the scenes taken out at Tarrytown, or those taken when Werner died, revealed something and so would have to be stolen or destroyed, and that they were kept in the vault. It is even possible"--a gleam came into Kennedy's eyes--"it is even possible that the mind smart enough to reason out the damaging nature of the chemical analyses I was making, and clever enough to utilize an explosive bullet in an effort to destroy the fruits of my work, would also have the foresight to anticipate me and to realize that I might guess the existence of a film showing snakes and suggesting the use of venom."

"It's damning to Gordon, all right," I said.

"On the contrary, Walter." Kennedy lowered his voice as we entered the building across the quadrangle and descended stairs leading directly into the basement. "We have mentioned over and over again the cleverness of our unknown criminal. That man, or woman, never would drop a cigarette case with his or her initials and leave without it, nor smoke a cigarette in a place he, or she, was not supposed to be."

"What then?"

"It's a plant; a deliberate plant to throw suspicion upon Gordon."

"Why upon Gordon?"

"I don't know that, unless because Gordon is supposed to have the best possible motive for killing Miss Lamar--his money troubles-- and so becomes the logical man to throw the guilt upon."

"As a matter of fact, Craig, why should the finding of that cigarette case be a cause for suspicion at all? That's what I didn't understand before."

"Ordinarily it wouldn't be. But those open inner doors, the absence of the man in charge--isn't it possible that we interrupted an attempt not only to search for the particular damaging pieces of film, but perhaps to destroy the whole? If some one acted between the time I asked Manton. about the snake film and the moment we arrived in the basement to get it, that some one had to move very fast."

"In which case it might have been Gordon, after all. The cigarette stub may have been thrown in lighted to start a fire. He may not have had time to pick up the case, not knowing just where he dropped it."

Kennedy shrugged his shoulders. "It all shows the futility of trying to arrive at a conclusion without definite facts. That is where science is superior to deduction."

"It's all a maze to me just now," I agreed.

We made our way to the vaults in silence, and, to our surprise, found that they were closed and that even the boy was gone now. The cellar, as a whole, probably for the purpose of fire protection on a larger scale, was divided into sections corresponding to the units of the buildings above, and this time I noticed that the door through which we had arrived before was closed also. Had Manton taken fright in earnest at the possibility of fire, or had he given his employees a genuine scare?

We retraced our steps to the yard, and there the alert eye of Kennedy detected a slinking figure just as a man darted into the protection of a doorway. It was Shirley. Had he been watching us? Was he connected in some way with the vague mystery Kennedy seemed to sense in connection with the basement and the film vaults?

Kennedy led the way to the entrance where Shirley had disappeared. Here there was no sign of him; only steps leading up and down and the open door to a huge developing room. Returning to the yard, we caught a gesture from the chauffeur of a car standing near by and recognized McGroarty, the driver who had found the ampulla a few days previously.

"Excuse me, Mr. Kennedy," he apologized, as we approached. "I should have come to you instead of making you two walk over to me, but it's less suspicious this way."

"What do you mean?"

"You recognize me, McGroarty, the chauffeur as found the little bottle?"

Kennedy nodded.

"Well, I says to myself I ought to tell you, but I don't like to because it might be nothing, you know!"

"It might prove very valuable, McGroarty." Kennedy wanted to encourage him.

"Well, I've been sitting here for an hour, I guess. One of the other directors is going out to-day and his people are late and so here I am. Well, I don't like the way the heavy man Mr. Werner had--"

"Shirley? Merle Shirley?" I spoke up.

"That's him! Well, he's been, hanging and snooping around that building over there, where you just saw him, for twenty minutes or more. I guess he's gone in and out of that basement a dozen times. I says to myself, maybe he's up to something. You know how it is?"

Kennedy glanced at me significantly. Then he extended his hand to the chauffeur. "Again I thank you, McGroarty. As I said before, I won't forget you."

"Now what?" I asked, as we drew away.

"Shirley's dressing room, and the studio floor and Mackay."

As we rather expected, the heavy man's quarters were deserted. I thought that Kennedy would stop now to make a careful search, but he seemed anxious to compare notes with the district attorney.

"Nothing here," reported Mackay.

"Shirley?"

"Hasn't been a sign of him."

I looked about the moment we arrived under the big glass roof. "Marilyn Loring?" I inquired.

"She's been missing, too!" All at once Mackay grinned broadly. "You know, either there's no efficiency in making moving pictures at all, or these people have all gone more or less out of their heads as the result of the two tragedies. Look!" He pointed. "When you left me Phelps and Manton were stepping on each other's toes, trying to help that new director and about half driving him crazy; and now Millard seems to have figured out some new way of handling the action and he's over in the thick of it. It's worse than Bedlam, and better than a Chaplin comedy."

I was compelled to smile, although I knew that this was not uncommon in picture studios. Manton, Phelps, Millard, and Kauf were in the center of the group, all talking at once. Clustered about I saw Enid and Gordon, both camera men, and a miniature mob of extra people. But as I looked little Kauf seemed to come to the end of his patience. In an instant or two he demonstrated real generalship. Shutting up Manton and the banker and Millard with a grin, but with sharp words and a quick gesture which showed that he meant it, he called to the others gathered about, clearing the set of all but Enid and Gordon. He sent the camera men to their places; then confronted Phelps and Manton and the scenario writer once more. We could not hear his words, but could see that he was asserting himself, was forcing a decision so that he could proceed with his work.

This seemed uninteresting to me. I remembered my success in my visit to Werner's apartment, when I had essayed the role of detective.

"Listen, Kennedy!" I suggested. "Suppose I go out by myself and see if I can locate Shirley or Marilyn. Everyone else is right here where you can--"

At that instant a deafening explosion shook the studio and every building about the quadrangle, the sound echoing and re-echoing with the sharpness of a terrific thunderclap.

Mixed with the reverberations, which were intensified by the high arch of the studio roof, were the screams of women and the frightened calls of men. Following immediately upon the first roar were the muffled sounds of additional explosions, persisting for a matter of ten to fifteen seconds.

With every detonation the floor beneath our feet trembled and rocked. Several flats of scenery stacked against a wall at our rear toppled forward and struck the floor with a resounding whack, not unlike some gigantic slap-stick. One entire side of the banquet set, luckily unoccupied, fell inward and I caught the sound as the dainty gold chairs and fragile tables snapped and were crushed as so much kindling wood.

Then--a fitting climax of destruction, withheld until this moment--there followed the terrifying snap of steel from above. An entire section of roof literally was popped from place, the result of false stresses in the beams created by the explosion. Upon the heads of the unlucky group in the center of the ballroom set came a perfect hailstorm of broken and shattered bits of heavy ground glass.

For an instant, an exceedingly brief instant, there was the illusion of silence. The next moment the factory siren rose to a shrill shriek, with a full head of steam behind it--the fire call!

Kennedy dashed over to the scene where those beneath the shower of glass lay, dazed and uncertain of the extent of their own injuries.

"Where are the first-aid kits?" he shouted. "Bring cotton and bandages, and--and telephone for a doctor, an ambulance!"

It seemed to me that Kennedy had never been so excited. Mackay and I, at his heels, and some of the others, unhurt, hurriedly helped the various victims to their feet.

Then we realized that by some miracle, some freak of fate, no one had been hurt seriously. Already a property boy was at Kennedy's side with a huge box marked prominently with the red cross. Inside was everything necessary and Kennedy started to bind up the wounds with all the skill of a professional physician.

"Mackay," he whispered, "hurry and get me some envelopes, or some sheets of paper, anything--quick!" And to me, before I could grasp the reason for that puzzling request: "Don't let anyone slip away, Walter. No matter what happens, I must bind up these wounds myself."

A few moments later I understood what Kennedy was up to. As he finished with each victim he took some bit of cotton or gauze with which he had wiped their cuts, enough blood to serve him in chemical analysis, and handed it to Mackay. The district attorney, very unobtrusively, slipped each sample into a separate envelope, sealing it, and marking it with a hieroglyph which he would be able to identify later. In this fashion Kennedy secured blood smears of Manton and Phelps, Millard and Kauf and Enid, Gordon, the two camera men, and a scene shifter. I smiled to myself.

Meanwhile a bitter, acrid odor penetrated through the windows and to every part of the structure, the odor of burning film, an odor one never forgets to fear. All those uninjured in the explosions had rushed out to see the fire, or else to escape from any further danger, the moment they recovered their wits. Manton, only cut at the wrist, and impatient as Kennedy cleaned, dusted, and bound the wound, was the first to receive attention.

"The vaults!" he called, to the men who seemed disposed to linger about. "For God's sake get busy!" The next instant he was gone himself.

Enid was cut on the head. Tears streamed from her eyes as she clung to Kennedy's coat, trembling. "Will it make a scar?" she sobbed. "Will I be unable to act before the camera any more?"

He reassured her. In the case of Millard, who had several bad scalp wounds, he advised a trip to a doctor, but the scenario writer laughed. Phelps was yellow. It seemed to me that he whimpered a bit. Gordon was disposed to swear cheerfully, although a point of glass had penetrated deep in his shoulder and another piece had gashed him across the forehead.

Finally Kennedy was through. He packed the little envelopes in the bag, still in the possession of Mackay, and added the two rolls of film from his pocket. Then, for the first time, he locked it.

As he straightened, his eyes narrowed.

"Now for Shirley," he muttered.

"And Marilyn," I added.