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"A poison more subtle than any concocted by man!" repeated Kennedy.
It was a startling declaration and left me quite speechless for the moment.
"We know next to nothing of the composition of the protein bodies in the snake venoms which have such terrific and quick physiological effects on man," Kennedy went on. "They have been studied, it is true, and studied a great deal, but we cannot say that there are any adequate tests by which the presence of these proteins can be recognized.
"However, everything points to the conclusion now that it was snake venom, and my physiological tests on the guinea pig seem to confirm it. I see no reason now to doubt that it was snake venom. The fact of the matter is that the snake venoms are about the safest of poisons for the criminal to use, for the reason of the difficulty they give in any chemical analysis. That is only another proof of the diabolical cleverness of our guilty person, whoever it may be.
"Later I'll identify the particular kind of venom used. Just now I feel it is more important to discover the actual motive for the crime. In the morning I have a plan which may save me further work here in the laboratory, but for to-night I feel I have earned a rest and"--a smile--"I shall rest by searching out the motives of these temperamental movie folk a little more." As he spoke he slipped out of his acid-stained smock.
"What do you mean?" As often, he rather baffled me.
"It's nearly dinner time and we're going out together, Walter, down to Jacques'."
"Because I phoned your friend Belle Balcom and she informed me that that was the place where we would be apt to find the elite of the film world dining."
I acquiesced, of course. We hurried to the apartment first for a few necessary changes and preparations, then we started for the Times Square section in a taxi.
"I never heard of the use of snake venom before," I remarked, settling back in the cushions--"that is, deliberately, by a criminal, to poison anyone."
"There are cases," replied Craig, absently.
"Just how does the venom act?"
"I believe it is generally accepted that there are two agents present in the secretion. One is a peptone and the other a globulin. One is neurotoxic, the other hemolytic. Not only is the general nervous system attacked instantly, but the coagulability of the blood is destroyed. One agent in the venom attacks the nerve cells; the other destroys the red corpuscles."
"You suspected something of this kind, then, when you first examined Stella Lamar?"
"Exactly! You see, the victim of a snake bite often is unable to move or speak. Doctor Blake observed that in the case of the stricken star. Her nerves were affected, resulting in paralysis of the muscles of the heart and lungs and giving us some symptoms of suffocation. Then the blood, as a result of the attack of the venom, is always left dark and liquid. That, too, I observed in the sample sent me from Tarrytown.
"The snake," Kennedy continued, "administers the poison by fangs more delicate than any hypodermic. Nature's apparatus is more precise than the finest appliances devised for the use of a surgeon by our instrument makers. The fangs are like needles with obliquely cut points and slit-like outlets. The poison glands correspond to the bulb of a syringe. They are, in reality, highly modified salivary glands. From them, when the serpent strikes, is ejected a pale straw-colored half-oleaginous fluid. You might swallow it with impunity. But once in the blood, through a cut or wound, it is deadly."
"There could be no snake in this case," I remarked. "The fangs of a serpent make two punctures, don't they; while here there was just the one scratch--"
"Of course there were no fangs when the deed was actually done," he rejoined, impatiently. "We've traced everything to the needle in the portieres and it is my belief that it was part of an all- glass hypodermic with a platinum-iridium point. It could hardly have been anything like the coarser syringe used by Werner, nor do I think it possible that the point of an ordinary needle would hold sufficient venom, since it would dry and form a coating like the incrustation on the inside of the ampulla McGroarty found."
"That was the venom?" I asked.
"Yes, I found it in the ampulla and in the stain on the portiere where the needle had pierced through."
"The towel, though--"
"Is something else. First thing in the morning we'll follow that up, as I promised you. Meanwhile let's concentrate on motives."
A long line of private cars and taxicabs outside Jacques' testified to the popularity of the restaurant. At the door stood a huge, bulking negro resplendent in the glaring finery of his uniform. It seemed to me that people literally were thronging into the place, for it was cleverly advertised as a center of night life.
Inside, the famous darky jazz band was in full swing. There was lilt and rhythm to the melody produced by the grinning blacks, and not a free arm or foot or shoulder or head of any of them but did not sway in time to their syncopated music.
We were shown to a table on a sort of gallery or mezzanine floor which extended around three sides of the interior. Below, in the center, was the space for dancing, surrounded by groups and pairs of diners. Stairs led to the balcony on both sides, as though the management expected none of their guests to resist the lure of the dance between courses. The band, I noticed, was at the farther end, on an elevated dais, so that the contortions of the various players could be seen above the heads of those on the floor.
We were at the rail so that we commanded a view of the entire place, a location I guessed had been maneuvered by Kennedy with a word to the head waiter. The only tables invisible to us were those directly beneath, but it would be a simple matter to cross around during any dance number to view them.
As we took our seats the lights were dimmed suddenly. I realized that we had arrived in the midst of the cabaret and that it was the turn of one of the performers. Kennedy, however, seemed to enjoy the entertainment, an example of his ability to gain recreation whenever and however he wished, to find relaxation under the oddest or most casual circumstances, out of anything from people passing on the street to an impromptu concert of a street band. In scanty garments, in the glare of a multi-colored spotlight, the girl danced a hybrid of every dance from the earliest Grecian bacchanal to the latest alleged Apache importation from Paris.
I have often wondered at Jacques' and places of the sort. The intermingling of eating and drinking and dancing was curious. What possible bearing this terpsichorean monstrosity might have upon the gastronomic inclinations of the audience it would have been difficult to fathom.
The lights flashed bright again and Kennedy gave our order. Meanwhile I glanced about at the people below us. There was no one in sight I knew until I leaned well over the rail, but upon doing that I felt little chills of excitement run from the top to the bottom of my spine, for I discovered in a very prominent situation at the very edge of the dance floor a party of four, of whom three very much concerned us. Lloyd Manton, back to the polished space behind him, was unmistakable in evening clothes. These bunched at his neck and revealed his habitual stoop as impartially as his business suits. Across from him, lounging upon the table likewise, but more immaculately and skillfully tailored, was Lawrence Millard. The writer, I noticed, flourished his cigarette holder, fully a foot in length, and emphasized his remarks to the girl on his right with a rather characteristic gesture made with the second finger of his left hand. The girl was Enid, quite mistress of herself in a gown little more than no gown; and the remarks were obviously confidential. The other girl, engrossed in Manton, seemed a dangerously youthful and self-conscious young lady. Her hair flamed Titian red and her neck, of which she displayed not half as much as Enid, gave her much concern.
"Kennedy! Look!" I reached over to attract his attention.
"Who's the second girl, I wonder?" He became as interested as I was.
With a blatant flourish of saxophone and cornet and traps the band began a jazzy fox-trot. Instantly there was a rush from the tables for the floor. Enid jumped to her feet, moving her bare shoulders in the rhythm of the music. Then Millard took firm hold of her and they wove their way into the crush. It seemed to me that the little star was the very incarnation of the dance. I envied her partner more than I dared admit to myself.
Manton and his companion rose also, but more leisurely. On her feet the girl did not seem so young, although the second impression may have been the result of the length of her skirt and the long slim, lines of her gown. We watched both couples through the number, then gave our attention to the food we had ordered. Another dance, a modified waltz, revealed Enid in the arms of Manton. I tried to determine from her actions if she felt any preference for the producer, or for Millard when again she took the floor with him. It was an idle effort, of course. The people surged out perhaps three or four times while we were at our meal. Each time the party below jumped up in response to the music. At our cigars, finally, I took to observing the other diners, wondering what we had gained by coming here.
Suddenly I realized that Kennedy was rising to greet some one approaching our table. Turning, rising also, I went through all the miseries of the bashful lover. It was Enid herself.
"I caught sight of you looking over the rail while I was dancing," she told Kennedy, accepting a chair pulled around by the waiter. "I knew you saw me. Also I glanced up and found that you were perfectly well aware of the location of our table. So"-- engagingly--"unsociable creature! Why didn't you come down and say 'Hello!' or ask me for a dance?"
"Perhaps I intended to a little later."
"Yes!" she exclaimed, in mockery. "You see, since Mecca won't go to the pilgrim, the pilgrim has to come to Mecca."
"Did you ever hear of Mohammed and the mountain, Miss Faye?" Kennedy asked.
"Of course! That's the regular expression. But I agree with Barnum. As he said, some people can be original some of the time and some people can be original all of the time, and I propose to be original always, like a baby with molasses."
Kennedy laughed, for indeed she was irresistible. Then she turned to me, placing one of her warm little hands upon mine.
"And Jamie!" she purred. "Have you forgotten little Enid altogether? Won't--won't you come down and dance?"
"I--I can't!" I exploded, in agony. "I don't know how!" And I thought that I would never dare trust myself with her glistening shoulders clasped close to me, with her slim bare arm placed around my neck as I had watched it slip about the collar of Millard.
"Now that the pilgrim is at Mecca--" Kennedy suggested, interrupting cruelly, as I thought.
"Oh!" In an instant I sensed that I was forgotten, and I was hurt. "There's something which came out this afternoon at the studio," she began, "and I wonder if you know. Larry--that's Mr. Millard--assures me it is true, and--and I think you ought to hear about it. I--I want to assist all I can in solving the mystery of Stella Lamar's death, even though Stella's unfortunate end has meant my opportunity."
"What is it, Miss Faye?" Kennedy was studying her.
"It's about Jack Gordon. He's been trying to hold up the company for fifteen hundred a week, which would double his salary-- perhaps you've heard that?"
Kennedy nodded, although it was news to him. "I've been thinking about Gordon," he murmured.
"Anyway," she went on, "it's gone around that he's desperately in need of money and that that is why he's so insistent upon the increase. It seems he owes everyone. In particular he owes Phelps some huge sums and old Phelps is on his tail, hollering and raising Ned. Phelps, you know, has uses for money himself just now. You had heard?"
Again Kennedy evaded a direct answer. "Money is fearfully tight, of course," he remarked, encouraging her to continue.
"Yes," she repeated, "Phelps is terribly hard up and after Gordon. And that's not all about our handsome leading man, Mr. Kennedy." She leaned forward. A certain intensity crept into her voice. She began to toy with his sleeve with the slender fingers of one hand, as though in that manner to compel his greater attention. "You know Stella Lamar really was in love with Jack Gordon. In fact she was daffy over him. And now I've found out that he was borrowing money from her, was taking nearly every cent she earned to sink in his speculations. Do you get that?" Enid's eyes snapped.
Most certainly I understood. I knew well the type of Stella. She had made many men give up to her motor cars, expensive furs, jewelry, all manner of presents. But in the end she had found one man to whom she in turn was willing to yield all. But what of him?
"In the last few weeks, they tell me, poor Stella disposed of many of her handsome presents from men like Manton and Phelps and others, all to get money to give to him. At the end she even raised money on her jewelry. I--I think you'll find it all in pawn now, if you'll investigate. I don't doubt but that poor Stella died without a penny to her name."
I was so surprised at this information that I failed to study Kennedy's face. I was completely jolted from my own rapt contemplation of the very soft curves of Enid's back. For here was a motive at last! Gordon was a possible suspect I had failed to take even halfway seriously. Yet the leading man was desperately pressed for money, had had a disgraceful fight with Phelps as we already knew; and not only owed huge sums to his fiancee as Enid now explained, but had quarreled with her just prior to her death, according to his own admission in the investigation at Tarrytown.
Suddenly the music struck up once more. Enid rose, adjusting the straps of her gown.
"There!" she exclaimed, smiling abruptly. "I thought you ought to know that, though I hate to peddle gossip. Now I must hurry back. I've been away long enough. But come down later and dance."
She swept off without further formality. An instant afterward we saw her in the clasp of Millard once again. We watched during the number and encore; then Kennedy called for the check.
"Let's go up to the apartment," he suggested. "I'd like to talk some of these things out with you. It will help me clarify my own impressions."
Underneath the balcony I noticed Kennedy turn for a last glance at Manton's party. I paused to look, also. Enid was leaning forward, talking to Millard earnestly, emphasizing what she had to say with characteristic movements of her head.
"She's pumping Millard for more information about Stella Lamar," I remarked.
Kennedy had no comment.
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