Mystery Stories Home Page
Copyright 2004 by Michael E. Grost
A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery
By Michael E. Grost
Hollywood, May 1924. Jacob "Jake" Black was in his writer's cubicle at Mammoth-Art Studio, the Hollywood film company. His airplane adventure novel Sky Heroes of the Secret Service was being made into a movie, and Jake was doing the scenario. As a lark, Jake was also playing a small role in the picture, as a pilot. He wore his pilot's costume full time, in case he was needed on the set. Jake knew this was only an excuse. Jake loved the snappy pilot's outfit, a one-piece flight suit made out of gleaming black leather. Ever since Jake was a little kid, he had loved everything about flying. Now he was thirty years old, wearing a pilot's suit himself, and enjoying every minute of it. Everyone Jake met at the studio commented on the fancy flight suit.
Hiram "Hi" Pavlovski, the office boy at the Writers Building, was especially impressed. He told Jake that that was the greatest looking outfit he had ever seen. This was a big speech for Hi, who was a shy 22 year old.
That evening, Hi came to him right after work.
"Mr. Black, could I ask you a big favor?" Hi said. "Could you come out to our baseball game, and throw out the first ball?" Jake thought this might be a command performance, and he agreed. Hi played in a local amateur league, every Wednesday night.
Jake and Hi strode jauntily out of the studio gate. They boarded the streetcar that would take them to the playing field.
The game was held at a baseball lot run by the YMCA, in a suburban neighborhood. The Y sponsored Hi's team, the Lions, which consisted of a bunch of guys in their early twenties. The team members were all thrilled with Jake's flight suit, and crowded round him, asking him questions about it. The poor guys on Hi's team said Jake looked like something out of a parade, or the movies. Hi told everyone proudly that he worked with Jake at the studio.
Jake noticed that Hi's team all played in their patchy street clothes, while the other team wore baseball uniforms with their team name on them, the Cowboys. Jake quietly asked the Lions' coach about this, a nice young man in his thirties named Ronald G. Putnam who worked at the Y as a volunteer. "These young men can't afford uniforms," he told Jake softly. "Their jobs leave them just enough for room and board. The Y provides them with baseball equipment, bats and catcher's mitts, but we don't have money for uniforms either." The coach was an athletic looking man whose white summer suit made a contrast with Jake's shiny black pilot's outfit.
After the game, Hi told him that Jake's coming out to their ball game had made it one of the great days in their club's history. Jake suddenly realized that the ball team was the most important thing in these young men's lives. They had no money, but they belonged here. The realization hit Jake powerfully.
Jake remembered when he and his friend, actor Gregor von Hoffmansthal, had been supposed to appear in a charity show at a children's hospital. Greg, as his friends called him, had been eager to appear - Greg was an enthusiastic do-gooder. Until the director of the show told them to appear in casual clothes. He told Greg NOT to wear his trademark white tie and tails, or a suit, or anything formal or dressy. Greg looked puzzled and distressed.
Jake showed up in a white tennis sweater and matching white trousers. He wondered how Greg would dress. He had never seen Greg in casual clothes - the studio had drilled Greg in the importance of being dressed to the nines at all times. Greg represented Mammoth-Art, and was supposed to exude glamour. But Greg could hardly wear a suit, or evening clothes.
Greg was not in a sweater. Instead, Greg was in the full uniform of a professional baseball player. The tailored uniform fit Greg like a glove. It had his last name, HOFFMANSTHAL, in large black capital letters in back. Greg's favorite number, 7, was all over the chest, back and sleeves of the pinstriped uniform. Greg wore a black baseball cap, and black cleated baseball shoes. A really snappy satin baseball jacket completed the uniform. The black satin jacket had his first name, Gregor, embroidered in white on the chest. The cleats on Greg's shoes were unusually large and "wicked" looking, so they would be obvious in photos.
"I wore it for a bit part in one of Seltzer Floyd's comedies, in which he raises havoc on a baseball diamond," Greg said, when Jake complemented him on the uniform. Seltzer was a star of slapstick comedies at the Studio. "Harry Callaway arranged the cameo. He thought he could get some good newspaper coverage for the picture with it." Harry Callaway was Mammoth-Art's indefatigable publicity photographer. He was always setting up things to publicize the studio's pictures.
"Harry's full of schemes like this," Jake said.
"This was definitely one of Harry's better ideas," Greg said with a big smile. "I've wanted to be a baseball player since I was a little kid. Just putting on this outfit makes me feel like a kid again! Not all of Harry's ideas are this good. After he had me wrestle that alligator at the carnival in Florida, I told him never again!"
Greg's baseball uniform was a big hit with the kids at the benefit.
"It must be interesting to be an actor and act out all your fantasies," Jake told Greg.
"Who were your heroes while growing up?" Greg asked Jake with interest.
Jake gave a smile. "Air pilots. That's why I write about them now, I guess."
This conversation came back to Jake, now that he was here at the ballpark with Hi and the Lions.
The ballpark was on the edge of a growing suburb - Los Angeles was booming in the 1920's. The ball park was owned by the city, and was for the use of amateur leagues of baseball players. The region behind home plate and the bleachers was a fully occupied suburb, separated from the ballpark by a high wooden fence. By contrast, the region beyond the outfield was the largely empty space of a new subdivision under construction. So far, roads had been fully built, including a road that ran right beyond the outfield. But there was only one house in the whole new subdivision. This was an empty demonstration model. It was right across the road from second base. It had a lushly sodded lawn, but no trees.
Jake looked up, and saw Sophie Chadwick in the stands. She was the photographer for the newspaper, the LA Daily Watch.
"Is the Watch covering this game?" Jake asked her with some amazement.
"Nope!" Sophie said with her usual enthusiasm. "I'm off duty. My kid brother Dave is playing with the Cowboys." She pointed to a freckle faced youth, wearing a Cowboy uniform marked #4. "I have my camera with me, though," patting it affectionately on the seat beside her. "Never go anywhere without it. You never know when you'll get a picture."
"I've got my writer's notebook here too," Jake told her, unzipping a pocket on his chest and pulling it out.
"What about you?" she went on. "Did you just fly in here?" she asked, pointing to Jake's pilot suit.
Jake explained about his small role in the movie.
Sophie wanted to take Jake's picture. Jake modestly feigned reluctance. Actually, he was tickled pink.
Sophie carefully posed Jake, setting his black cap at a jaunty angle, and placing him where the bright sunlight would gleam off every angle of his leather suit.
"Say Limburger!" she told him.
"I'll be back here on Saturday, on assignment," Sophie told Jake. "Sun Yat-sen is coming in from China and will parade right through here. The civic authorities thought an unbuilt suburb would be perfect. The roads are all built, and the empty lots can hold the crowds of spectators. The parade will end here, in the ballpark, and Sun Yat-sen will speak from the playing field. The press will be right here, in the ballpark bleachers, along with the crowds. They'll give us a high angle view of everything." Sun Yat-sen, the head of the Chinese Government, would be News.
An ice cream vendor had stationed his cart on the road behind the playing field, towards the far left of the baseball diamond. Jake got Sophie a toffee bar, and a bright green lime juice bar for himself.
The game had started. Jake saw Coach Putnam standing attentively at the sidelines, looking trim and athletic in his spiffy white suit. Jake reflected that the other team and the umpire treated the Coach and his team with more respect, because Coach Putnam looked the part of a Coach and leader. Jake wondered what Putnam's profession was.
Jake was watching the game closely. Sophie's brother Dave was up at bat. His face was frowning in concentration under his thatch of red hair. The Lion pitcher Pete was on the mound. Back at second base, Cowboy Eric was as far off base as possible, getting ready to run to third if Dave scored a hit.
Pete threw a fast ball. Dave swung at it, and connected. Jake thought it might be a home run. The ball soared far over the outfield.
Suddenly, deep in the field, past second base, a figure jumped up, seemingly out of nowhere. It leapt up, and caught the ball. Jake turned his binoculars on the figure. A surreal sight caught his eye. The figure had the head of a gorilla. It was wearing a brilliant, iridescent red dressing gown, and had an ascot scarf wound around its throat. It carried the softball in a catcher's mitt in its left hand. "It's a Southpaw Gorilla!" Jake thought, absurdly.
Suddenly, the figure crouched down in the grass, and completely disappeared from view. Jake and the Lion ballplayers in the outfield began to run towards it. Jake found that somewhat to his surprise, his shiny black leather flight suit was light weight, and didn't interfere with his running.
Jake could see the empty house across the street. But he could not see the road, which was in a dip between the ballpark and the rise that contained the house. Jake kept his eyes on the house at all times. He thought the gorilla might run towards it. But that never happened. In fact, Jake couldn't see the gorilla at all Ever since it had crouched down after its catch, the gorilla had disappeared entirely. Jake figured it must be somewhere low along the road.
The ballplayers ahead of Jake stopped, obviously puzzled. When he caught up with them, looking down on the road, Jake saw why. The gorilla was nowhere to be seen.
Impossible as it seemed, the gorilla had vanished.
Jake thought he recognized all the Lion ballplayers around him, including Hi. But just to make sure, he asked them if they recognized each other, and where they had all been during the last five minutes. They all agreed that each one of them had been highly visible on the outfield, during the last inning. Clearly, none of them had been the figure hiding under the gorilla mask and dressing gown. None of the Lions were in a baseball uniform, and each Lion present wore his own highly distinctive clothes, making him easily recognizable at a distance.
"We know nothing about this gorilla," Hi swore to Jake earnestly. The other Lions nodded in agreement.
"I'm sure the Cowboys know nothing about this, too," Eric said. Eric on second base was the only Cowboy in the outfield. He was conspicuous in his white Cowboy uniform with the red pinstripes.
Jake stood there in the outfield, looking around. He folded his arms, in an aggressive stance. He also pulled down his glamorous pilot's cap so its huge curving, shiny black visor hid his eyes. Both gestures had been drilled into Jake, during rehearsals for the film Sky Heroes of the Secret Service, to make Jake's pilot character look more "tough". Jake did them now automatically, without thinking. However, neither helped him in the slightest, to figure out the mystery of the vanishing gorilla. Jake slowly made a 360 degree survey of the entire outfield.
The only other figure nearby was the ice cream peddler, down the road to the left. Jake was sure he had seen the peddler almost at the same time as the leaping gorilla. He strongly doubted if the peddler could have disguised himself as the gorilla. After all, the ice cream vendor and his cart were in full view of all the baseball fans at all times.
Jake went and talked with the peddler. The ice cream vendor was an Italian, named Federico Buffonelli, and wore a huge drooping black mustache. The peddler had seen the gorilla too, even closer than Jake, but had seen nothing more after the gorilla crouched down in the grass and disappeared. The curve of the road and the rise of the ballpark had blocked the peddler's view.
Jake looked into the vendor's cart. He wondered if the gorilla could be lurking inside. But the deep cart had nothing but ice cream bars inside it. Jake compared the inside and outside of the cart. The cart clearly did NOT have a false bottom, or any other place where a man could hide.
A postman on a bicycle came peddling down the road, from where it curved around and disappeared behind the model house on the far right of the field. The postman, in a red and blue uniform, was a stocky man of around forty. He had met no one on the road, he told Jake, during his ride through the unbuilt suburb.
Sophie Chadwick had gotten a great shot of the gorilla with her camera. But she had not been able to see what happened to him, after he dropped down out of sight. Sensing a human interest story, she also took pictures of Jake with the ice cream peddler, and with the postman.
With the ice cream peddler blocking off the road on the left, the postman the road on the right, Jake watching the house, and the whole outfield searching for him, the gorilla had completely vanished. It all seemed impossible...
Back at the bleachers, everyone stood there, looking amazed. Ronald Putnam, the Lions' Coach, was the first to recover. He immediately went up to the coach of the Cowboys, and started talking quietly and earnestly to him. Putnam's snow white suit made him conspicuous everywhere he went.
After a while, Coach Putnam turned and addressed the public and the players in a louder voice.
"The Lions had nothing to do with the recent interruption to the game, and deeply regret it took place," the dignified looking Coach said. "We believe that the recent hit should be considered as a home run for the Cowboy team, and that Cowboy player number #3 on second base should be counted as an additional home run." The Coach had a rich, resonant voice, and was a good public speaker.
The Cowboy Coach then spoke up. "We appreciate the good sportsmanship the Lions are showing here today," he said graciously.
The two coaches hurriedly beckoned their team captains to step up. They had the two young men shake hands, in full view of everyone present. Everyone cheered. Sophie's brother Dave started to run around the bases, and Cowboy Eric started to run home from second base.
It was still daylight after the game. The Lions had won, by a single run.
There was a huge ombú tree from Argentina, at the far left of the ball park. Its giant roots stuck out at the base of the tree, and made natural benches on which people could sit. Jake did what he always did, when he needed to think out a problem. He sat down on one of the roots, and stretched his long leather-clad legs out in the shade. Jake knew about ombú trees and the pampas, from reading the South American adventure books of W. H. Hudson. Hudson had been an influence on Jake's own adventure writing for the pulps. Jake wrote Hudson a fan letter when he was in high school, and received an encouraging reply, all the way from where Hudson lived in Britain. Jake kept the letter as one of his treasured possessions.
Jake marveled that the giant tree was a relative of the common pokeweed, a plant he had often seen in vacant lots while growing up. Both were just kinds of Phytolacca. Jake studied the spreading branches of the tree. Soon he was thinking about the vanishing gorilla...
Jake and Hi went down the road, around the back of the model house. Sunset was beginning to blaze, in the sky to the West. There was a depression near the road, where the newly sodded grass sloped down to a hollow. Jake walked over to the bottom of the depression in the lawn, and started scrutinizing the sod. He found patches that looked as if they were at the absolute lowest point of the hollow.
Jake pulled the patches of sod up. The fifth patch proved lucky. A barred metal grill led down into a sewer. The grill was hinged, and opened up. Jake climbed down a metal ladder into the sewer. Hi followed after him, carrying a lantern he had borrowed from the storage shed at the bleachers. The lantern threw strange shadows from Jake and Hi on the walls of the sewer. The concrete storm sewer was around twelve feet high, forming a giant tunnel underground. Large rectangular corridors stretched off in both directions. The large sewers were clearly built to give flood waters a place to drain off. The whole Los Angeles region was subject to flash floods. The sewers were bone dry; Los Angeles had had no rain for over a month. Jake guessed that the same construction company that built the roads for the new subdivision had also installed the sewers. Jake and Hi started exploring the sewer, going in the direction of the model house. The click of Jake's boots on the concrete floor made eerie echoes as they marched through the sewer. The lantern only allowed Jake and Hi to see a few feet in front of them. What lay beyond in the huge sewer was dark.
Jake found a packing crate near where he judged the front of the model house to be. There was the head of a gorilla costume and the red dressing gown, lying on the crate. There was also a brilliantly colored gold and red Chinese robe and face mask, like the singers in Peking Opera wore.
Not far away, Jake saw another grill in the roof of the sewer. It too was covered with a piece of sod. Jake climbed up the metal ladder leading to the grill. He easily pushed the sod up, and came out in the dip in front of the model house. Hi followed after Jake. Jake's guess had been correct. Here was where the gorilla had vanished. The gorilla had simply dropped down into the sewer entrance, closing it shut and replacing the sod over the bars of the grill. He had then taken off his mask and dressing gown, revealing the postman's uniform he had worn underneath. He then walked back through the sewer, to the grill where Jake and Hi had originally entered the sewers. He had exited the sewer behind the house, and got back on the bicycle he had hidden there, appearing as an ordinary postman on a bicycle.
Jake suspected that originally the grills leading to the sewer were open and clear, when the contractors built the suburb. The gorilla-fake-postman covered them with sod, to disguise and hide their existence.
Jake looked down at the Chinese robe and mask. He began to get an ominous feeling.
Jake carefully put the sod back in place, leaving everything as he originally found it. Then he went to the phone booth behind the bleachers. Jake unzipped a side pocket, and took out some nickels for the phone - there were zippered pockets everywhere on his black leather flight suit. Jake placed a call to his friend Lt. Moe Apfelbaum, of the Los Angeles Homicide squad. Soon, Jake was giving a guided tour of the storm sewer to Moe and his young assistant, Officer Thomas O'Brien.
Moe and O'Brien were standing in one of the eerily silent tunnels.
"A fellow could get lost down here," Moe quietly said to O'Brien.
Moe and Thomas O'Brien had been summoned away from duty at a ceremonial city government dinner. Both were in sharp, jet-black LAPD police uniforms. Jake had never seen Moe in uniform before - Moe usually wore suits on the job. Moe's broad shoulders filled out his uniform very well indeed. Both Moe and O'Brien sported black police uniform caps, that were as giant and high-peaked as Jake's own pilot's cap.
Jake was just above the two men, climbing down one of the metal ladders. Jake paused, and gripped hold of the ladder with his left hand. With his right hand, Jake opened one of the patch pockets on the back of his black leather trousers.
"Here's a rough map I made," Jake said, taking a folded paper out of the pocket. Jake handed the map down to O'Brien, who stood just below Jake. Jake re-buttoned the huge stiff leather flap of the fancy patch pocket.
"This way to the evidence," Jake said, as he joined Moe and O'Brien on the tunnel floor. Jake began striding rapidly down the tunnel, with the forceful, purposeful gait that he had been trained in during the rehearsals of Sky Heroes of the Secret Service. Moe and O'Brien followed, holding high-powered long black flashlights, covered in mirror-shiny black chrome. The three men's boots made a clatter as they marched down the concrete tunnel.
Moe and his men staked out the ball field early next Saturday morning, long before Sun Yat-sen's appearance. Moe caught Snooker Galhouly, a notorious mob muscleman from St. Paul, Minnesota, sneaking into the sewer behind the house. Snooker was dressed as a postman, just as Jake had predicted. Snooker was wanted for many other crimes, but his whereabouts had long been unknown. Sophie Chadwick had talked the Lieutenant into letting her come along. She had pictures of Snooker's capture to go along with her earlier photos of the gorilla catching the ball, and Snooker in his stolen postman's uniform talking to Jake.
Jake was explaining what Moe had learned to Sophie Chadwick. Jake's actor friend Greg was also there, resplendent in white tie and tails. The infinitely shiny black satin lapels of Greg's jet-black tailcoat suddenly reminded Jake of Greg's black satin baseball jacket. Even in his tail coat, rather than his baseball uniform, it was obvious that Greg was an athletic man with a highly developed physique.
"Snooker had been hired by a gang smuggling drugs into China," Jake began. "Their goal was to assassinate Sun Yat-sen, who is trying to shut down the gang's lucrative drug trade".
"The gorilla disguise was practice for Saturday. Last Wednesday, Snooker wore a gorilla mask and a dressing gown over his postal uniform. Saturday, the plan was to wear a mask representing a character in Peking Opera, and a bright Mandarin's robe over his uniform. This would make the killer look Chinese, thus confusing the police and public. Actually, the killer is just a hit man, representing the foreign opium interests Sun Yat-sen opposes.
"Wednesday's practice run with the gorilla costume was a rehearsal. Snooker wanted to see if everything would work out for Saturday. Snooker, covered up in the Chinese robe and mask, planned to jump up Saturday afternoon out of the field. Then he would shoot Sun Yat-sen, and vanish back down in the sewer, reappearing soon after as the postman," Jake concluded.
Now that the case was solved, Jake decided it was time to take off his flight suit. At least for now. He had things he wanted to do wearing his regular clothes.
Jake had really enjoyed being all dressed up in the special pilot's outfit during the investigation. It had seemed to encourage him to be more physically active too, running around the ball park and climbing in and out of the storm sewer. Jake had asked the flight suit's designer, Vincenzo Constanza, about this.
"It's what we call 'action wear', Jake," Constanza explained. "It's designed to be worn by actors and stunt men, in dynamic motion in big movie action scenes. The suit is built to enable maximum ease of activity: running, jumping, leaping, throwing, any sort of athletics or stunt work."
Jake decided the pilot's suit was ideal for detective work. Maybe, if Jake encountered another mystery, he would wear the flight outfit again.
"I think the office boys at the Studio should get a raise," Jake told him. "Especially considering how much money Mammoth-Art is making."
The suave Grisby was nonplused. He politely but unmistakably told Jake to mind his own business, then dismissed Jake from his fancy office.
Still, two weeks later, the Studio rumor mill reported that the office boys had received a substantial raise.
"There's a reward for you, too, Jake," Moe told him. "Snooker Galhouly is wanted in five states for armed bank robbery. You'll get three hundred dollars."
That night, Jake was struck with inspiration, about what to do with the reward. Jake called up a contact in the studio costume department. "If I wanted to make a picture about a champion college baseball team, where would you guys go to have the costumes made? They've got to be the sharpest uniforms in baseball history."
The contact knew the answer immediately, as Jake knew he would. It was a local sports equipment store and uniform shop. The head tailors were two middle aged Danish brothers who knew everything about sports.
Two Wednesdays later, Hi showed Jake his Lions baseball uniform, white with blue pinstripes.
"I've got a team number now," Hi told Jake proudly. "I'm nine, my favorite number". A huge blue nine was on the front and back of his baseball shirt. Hi's name was also in blue block letters on the back of the shirt.
"They're from an anonymous donor," Hi continued.
The baseball jackets looked snazzy. They were royal blue, and made out of shiny satin. Each sleeve had the player's numbers on it, surrounded by conspicuous Sergeant's chevrons in blue. Each jacket also had the team's logo on its chest, a stylized lion, and the word's "Varsity Team" below it in white. A large letter A showed that each team member had lettered in baseball. The same white-and-blue lion was on the team's royal blue baseball caps.
Hi looked like one of the clean cut young men who just won the big game for Harvard. He looked as if he had just stepped out of an illustration of a college sports story in The Saturday Evening Post.
Hi invited Jake to the game again. "There's going to be a big celebration before it."
A somewhat dazed Ronald G. Putnam greeted Jake at the ballpark. Putnam was in Lions uniform, too. His satin team jacket had the word COACH in large white block letters, over his bulging chest muscles. The word COACH was also on the jacket's sleeves, in a curving arc of pale blue letters. He wore a large, royal blue whistle around his neck. He carried a clipboard made out of some shiny blue metal. The brothers at the sports shop always believed in making the coach look sharp. They had laid down the law to Putnam, that he had to be in full uniform at all times, when working with the Lions. An initially reluctant Putnam, who felt he did not need a uniform, gradually became convinced. Putnam insisted on paying for his uniform himself - his real objection. The coach, who was a prosperous real estate salesman, did not want to take advantage of the donor's generosity.
After this, Putnam began to get into the spirit of things. There was still some of the donor's money left, because Putnam was paying for his own uniform. Putnam mentioned to the brothers that a few top college football teams sported Varsity jackets, they could wear over their regular clothes when not in uniform. Putnam had seen Varsity jackets for the first time when the University of Michigan football team had visited UCLA for a game, and had been curious enough about them to ask the team's coach. The brothers, who had only seen such "Letter" jackets once themselves, were intrigued. They designed spiffy leather Varsity jackets for the Lions, royal blue with white sleeves and trim. The leather jackets managed the neat trick of looking both friendly and casual, but also totally dressy. Once again, Putnam paid for his own Varsity jacket himself.
Putnam was delighted. Many of his poverty stricken team didn't have any decent clothes to wear, on or off work. The Varsity jackets would give them something really attractive to wear in their personal lives. The shiny blue leather jackets could be worn everywhere.
Putnam suggested to the brothers that the batters might have hard baseball caps made out of the same blue metal as his clipboard. The brothers thought this was a good idea. The brothers also quietly created a souvenir bat for the Coach, hollow, and made out of the same shiny blue metal. All the team players signed it, in blue ink. Putnam was touched when the team presented it to him, before the game.
Instead of hot dogs, Mr. Wong of Wong's Lotus Palace Restaurant had brought in free dumplings for everyone at the ballpark. Wong was president of the Los Angeles Chinese Businessman's Association. Quite a few members of the Chinese community had come out for the game, too. Mr. Wong made a speech thanking everyone for thwarting the attempt on Sun Yat-sen's life.
Wong's son Eddie, a strong looking young man in his early twenties, had carted in the Chinese food. He looked wistfully at the baseball players, all sharply suited up for the game that was soon to start.
Hi went over to Eddie. "Would you like to join the team? The Lions need all the good players they can get!" he said with a sheepish grin.
"You bet!" Eddie said with a big grin. He was the only player that night not in uniform. But he hit a home run.