XXVIII. The Phosphorus Bomb
 

We rushed out into the courtyard, Kennedy in the lead, Mackay trailing with the bag. Here there were dense clouds of fine white suffocating smoke mixed with steam, and signs of the utmost confusion on every hand. Because Manton, fortunately, had trained the studio staff through frequent fire drills, there was a semblance of order among the men actually engaged in fighting the spread of the blaze. Any attempt to extinguish the conflagration in the vault itself was hopeless, however, and so the workers contented themselves with pouring water into the basement on either side, to keep the building and perhaps the other vaults cool, and with maintaining a constant stream of chemical mixture from a special apparatus down the ventilating system into and upon the smoldering film.

The studio fire equipment seemed to be very complete. There was water at high pressure from a tank elevated some twenty to thirty feet above the uppermost roof of the quadrangle. In addition Manton had invested in the chemical engine and also in sand carts, because water aids rather than retards the combustion of film itself. I noticed that the promoter was in direct charge of the fire-fighters, and that he moved about with a zeal and a recklessness which ended for once and all in my mind the suspicion that Phelps might be correct and that Manton sought to wreck this company for the sake of Fortune Features.

In an amazingly quick space of time the thing was over. When the city apparatus arrived, after a run of nearly three miles, there was nothing for them to do. The chief sought out Manton, to accompany him upon an inspection of the damage and to make sure that the fire was out. The promoter first beckoned to Kennedy.

"This is unquestionably of incendiary origin," he explained to the chief. "I want Mr. Kennedy to see everything before it is disturbed, so that no clue may be lost or destroyed."

The fire officer brightened. "Craig Kennedy?" he inquired. "Gee! there must be some connection between the blaze and the murder of Stella Lamar and her director. I've been reading about it every day in the papers."

"Mr. Jameson of the Star," Kennedy said, presenting me.

We found we could not enter the basement immediately adjoining the vaults--that is, directly from the courtyard--because it seemed advisable to keep a stream of water playing down the steps, and a resulting cloud of steam blocked us. Manton explained that we could get through from the next cellar if it was not too hot, and so we hurried toward another entrance.

Mackay, who had remained behind to protect the bag from the heat, joined us there.

"I've put the bag in charge of that chauffeur, McGroarty, and armed him with my automatic," he explained. He paused to wipe his eyes. The fumes from the film had distressed all of us. "Shirley and Marilyn Loring are both missing still," he added. "I've been asking everyone about them. No one has seen them."

The fire chief looked up. "Everyone is out? You are sure everybody is safe?"

"I had Wagnalls at my elbow with a hose," Manton replied. "I saw the boy around, also. No one else had any business down there and the vaults were closed and the cellar shut off."

The door leading from the adjoining basement was hot yet, but not so that we were unable to handle it. However, the catch had stuck and it took considerable effort to force it in. As we did so a cloud of acrid vapor and steam drove us back.

Then Kennedy seemed to detect something in the slowly clearing atmosphere. He rushed ahead without hesitation. The fire chief followed. In another instant I was able to see also.

The form of a woman, dimly outlined in the vapor, struggled to lift the prone figure of a man. After one effort she collapsed upon him. I dashed forward, as did Mackay and Manton. Two of them carried the girl out to the air; the other three of us brought her unconscious companion. It was Marilyn and Shirley.

The little actress was revived easily, but Shirley required the combined efforts of Kennedy and the chief, and it was evident that he had escaped death from suffocation only by the narrowest of margins. How either had survived seemed a mystery. Their clothes were wet, their faces and hands blackened, eyebrows and lashes scorched by the heat. But for the water poured into the basement neither would have been alive. They had been prisoners during the entire conflagration, the burning vault holding them at one end of the basement, the door in the partition resisting their efforts to open it.

"Thank heaven he's alive!" were Marilyn's first words.

"How did you get in the cellar?" Kennedy spoke sternly.

"I thought he might be there." Now that the reaction was setting in, the girl was faint and she controlled herself with difficulty. "I was looking for him and as soon as I heard the first explosion I ran down the steps into the film-vault entrance--I was right near there--and I found him, stunned. I started to lift him, but there were other explosions almost before I got to his side. The flames shot out through the cracks in the vault door and I--I couldn't drag him to the steps; I had to pull him back where you found us." She began to tremble. "It-- it was terrible!"

"Was there anyone else about, anyone but Mr. Shirley?"

"No. I--I remember I wondered about the vault man."

"What was Mr. Shirley down there for, Miss Loring?"

"He"--she hesitated--"he said he had seen some one hanging around and--and he didn't want to report anything until he was sure. He-- he thought he could accomplish more by himself, although I told him he was--was wrong."

"Whom did he see hanging around?"

"He wouldn't tell me."

Shirley was too weak to question and the girl too unstrung to stand further interrogation. In response to Manton's call several people came up and willingly helped the two toward the comfort of their dressing rooms.

At the fire chief's suggestion the stream of water into the basement was cut off. Manton led the way, choking, eyes watering, to the front of the vaults. Feverishly he felt the steel doors and the walls. There was no mistaking the conclusion. The negative vault was hot, the others cold.

"The devil!" Manton exclaimed. A deep poignancy in his voice made the expression childishly inadequate. "Why couldn't it have been the prints!" Suddenly he began to sob. "That's the finish. Not one of our subjects can ever be worked again. It's a loss of half a million dollars."

"If you have positives," Kennedy asked, "can't you make new negatives?"

"Dupes?" Manton looked up in scorn. "Did you ever see a print from a dupe negative? It's terrible. Looks like some one left it out in the wet overnight."

"How about the 'Black Terror'?" I inquired.

"All of that's in the safe in the printing room; that and the two current five reelers of the other companies. We won't lose our releases, but"--again there was a catch in his voice--"we could have cleared thousands and thousands of dollars on reissues. All-- all of Stella's negative is gone, too!" To my amazement he began to cry, without attempt at concealment. It was something new to me in the way of moving-picture temperament. "First they kill her and now--now they destroy the photographic record which would have let her live for those who loved her. The"--his voice trailed away to the merest whisper as he seemed to collapse against the hot smoked wall--"the devil!"

The fire chief took charge of the job of breaking into the vault. First Wagnalls attempted to open the combination of the farther door, but the heat had put the tumblers out of commission. Returning to the entrance of the negative vault itself, the thin steel, manufactured for fire rather than burglar protection, was punctured and the bolts driven back. A cloud of noxious fumes greeted the workers and delayed them, but they persisted. Finally the door fell out with a crash and men were set to fanning fresh air into the interior while a piece of chemical apparatus was held in readiness for any further outbreak of the conflagration.

Manton regained control of himself in time to be one of the first to enter. Mackay held back, but the fire chief, the promoter, Kennedy, and myself fashioned impromptu gasmasks of wet handkerchiefs and braved the hot atmosphere inside the room.

The damage was irremediable. The steel frames of the racks, the cheaper metal of the boxes, the residue of the burning film, all constituted a hideous, shapeless mass clinging against the sides and in the corners and about the floor. Only one section of the room retained the slightest suggestion of its original condition. The little table and the boxes of negative records, the edges of the racks which had stood at either side, showed something of their former shape and purpose. This was directly beneath the ventilating opening. Here the chemical mixture pumped in to extinguish the fire had preserved them to that extent.

All at once Kennedy nudged the fire chief. "Put out your torch!" he directed, sharply.

In the darkness there slowly appeared here and there on the walls a ghostly bluish glow persisting in spite of the coating of soot on everything.

Kennedy's keen eye had caught the hint of it while the electric torch had been flashed into some corner and away for a moment.

"Radium!" I exclaimed, entirely without thought.

Kennedy laughed. "Hardly! But it is phosphorus, without question."

"What do you make of that?" The fire chief was curious.

"Let's get out!" was Kennedy's reply.

Indeed, it was almost impossible for us to keep our eyes open, because of the smarting, and, more, the odor was nauseating. A guard was posted and in the courtyard, disregarding the curious crowd about, Kennedy asked for Wagnalls and began to question him.

"When did you close the vaults?"

"About two hours before the fire. Mr. Manton sent for me."

"Was there anything suspicious at that time?"

"No, sir! I went through each room myself and fixed the doors. That's why the fire was confined to the negatives."

"Have you any idea why the doors were open when we went through?"

"No, sir! I left them shut and the boy I put there while I went over to McCann's said no one was near. He"--Wagnalls hesitated. "Once he went to sleep when I left him there. Perhaps he dozed off again."

"Why did you leave? Why go over to McCann's in business hours?"

"We'd worked until after midnight the night before. I had to open up early and so I figured I'd have my breakfast in the usual morning slack time--when nothing's doing."

"I see!" Kennedy studied the ground for several moments. "Do you suppose anyone could have left a package in there--a bomb, in other words?"

Wagnalls's eyes widened, but he shook his head. "I'd notice it, sir! If I do say it, I'm neat. I generally notice if a can has been touched. They don't often fool me."

"Well, has any regular stuff been brought to you to put away; anything which might have hidden an explosive?"

Again Wagnalls shook his head. "I put nothing away or give nothing out except on written order from Mr. Manton. Anything coming in is negative and it's in rolls, and I rehandle them because they're put away in the flat boxes. I'd know in a minute if a roll was phony."

"You're sure nothing special--"

"Holy Jehoshaphat!" interrupted Wagnalls. "I'd forgotten!" He faced Manton. "Remember that can of undeveloped stuff, a two- hundred roll?" He turned to Kennedy, explaining. "When negative's undeveloped we keep it in taped cans. Take off the tape and you spoil it--the light, you know. Mr. Manton sent down this can with a regular order, marking on it that some one had to come to watch it being developed--in about a week. Of course I didn't open the can or look in it. I put it up on top of a rack."

"When was this?"

"About four days ago--the day Miss Lamar was killed."

The expression on Manton's face was ghastly. "I didn't send down any can to you, Wagnalls," he insisted.

"It was your writing, sir!"

Kennedy rose. "What did you do with orders like that, such as the one you claim came with the can of undeveloped negative?"

"Put them on the spindle on that table in the vault."

"Wet your handkerchief and come show me."

When they returned Kennedy had the spindle in his hand, the charred papers still in place. This was one of the items preserved in part by the chemical spray through the ventilating opening above.

"Can you point out which one it is?" Kennedy asked.

"Let's see!" Wagnalls scratched his head. "Next to the top," he replied, in a moment. "Miss Lamar's death upset everything. Only one order came down after that."

With extreme care Kennedy took his knife and lifted the ashy flakes of the top order. "Get me some collodion, somebody!" he exclaimed.

Wagnalls jumped up and hurried off.

The fire chief leaned forward. "Do you think, Mr. Kennedy, that the little can he told you about started the fire?"

"I'm sure of it, although I'll never be able to prove it."

"How did it work?"

"Well, I imagine a small roll of very dry film was put in to occupy a part of the space. Film is exceedingly inflammable, especially when old and brittle. In composition it is practically guncotton and so a high explosive. In this recent war, I remember, the Germans drained the neutral countries of film subjects until we woke up to what they were doing, while in this country scrap film commanded an amazing price and went directly into the manufacture of explosives. Then I figure that a quantity of wet phosphorus was added, to fill the can, and that then the can was taped. The tape, of course, is not moisture proof entirely. With the dampness from within it would soften, might possibly fall off. In a relatively short time the phosphorus would dry and burn. Immediately the film in the can would ignite. As happened, it blew up, a minor explosion, but enough to scatter phosphorus everywhere. That, in the fume-laden air of the vault-- there are always fumes in spite of the best ventilation system made--caused the first big blast and started all the damage."

Mackay had rejoined us in time to hear the explanation. "Ingenious," he murmured. "As ingenious as the methods used to murder the girl and her director."

Breathless, Wagnalls returned with the collodion. We watched curiously as Kennedy poured it over the charred remains of the second order on the spindle. It seemed almost inconceivable that the remnants of the charred paper would even support the weight of the liquid, yet Kennedy used it with care, and slowly the collodion hardened before us, creating a tough transparent coating which held the tiny fibers of the slip together. At the same time the action of the collodion made the letters on the order faintly visible and readable.

"A little-known bank trick!" Kennedy told us.

Then he held the slip up to the light and the words were plain. Wagnalls had been correct. The order from Manton was unmistakable. The can was to be kept in the negative vault for a week without being opened, until a certain party unnamed was to come to watch the development of the film.

The promoter wet his lips, uneasily. "I--I never wrote that! It-- it's my writing, all right, and my signature, but it's a forgery!"