Mystery Stories Home Page
Copyright 2003 by Michael E. Grost
A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery
By Michael E. Grost
Los Angeles, 1924: The new air machine was being demonstrated in a remote air strip on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
Among the spectators was the pulp magazine writer of air adventures, Jacob "Jake" Black. Jake was also a screenwriter in Hollywood, and he was accompanied by his friends from the studio, the young actor Gregor von Hoffmansthal, and Jake's fellow scriptwriter Felicia Alburton. Jake was around thirty, and Greg was in his twenties; both men wore sharp suits and hats. Felicia was around fifty, and wore a light blue spring dress. Jake also worked with the Los Angeles police as an unofficial consultant on murder cases - he had real skills as a detective. But Jake did not expect any crimes on this beautiful Saturday morning in spring.
They stood with the sizable crowd, looking at a machine Jake had never seen before in his life. It didn't even look like an airplane. Instead of wings, it just contained a cabin, with what looked like a large propeller stuck straight up on its head.
Suddenly, the weird looking machine made loud engine noises. The propeller on the top began to whirl around. It made a huge racket, and great gusts of air shot out from it, scattering leaves and debris in every direction. Then as Jake watched in wonder, the machine took off straight up into the air. It hovered for half a minute in the air, then settled straight down again to the ground. There was an amazed silence. Then everyone present began to cheer.
An awestruck Greg turned to Jake. "Have you ever seen anything like that?"
"No," Jake replied excitedly. "The closest thing one can compare to it is a hummingbird. They can take off straight up in the air, too. If a bird can do it, a machine can do it too," Jake said confidently. "They call it a helicopter." Jake was already making plans to have the pilot hero of his pulp stories, the daredevil Buzz Connors, to pilot one in the next serial Jake wrote. Buzz could use it to rescue flood victims from the side of a cliff in Yucatan, Jake was thinking. And Buzz could deliver a doctor to a remote location in the Andes of Peru where there wasn't enough space to land a regular plane. Jake also wondered if Buzz could land one of these machines right on top of a city building. Jake had a vision of Buzz flying all over Chicago, landing on the Stock Exchange building built by Louis Sullivan, or the top of the Field Museum. Buzz would step out of the machine in his black leather flying suit, and rescue a party of kids from the roof, trapped up there by a fire. Of course, what Greg and Jake saw was just a demo. A real machine that could fly for prolonged periods of time wouldn't be available for many years. That wouldn't stop Buzz from flying one in the pulps. Imagination was far more important than realism in fiction, Jake deeply believed. The important thing was to expand your readers' imagination, and sense of the possibilities of life.
The pilot of the machine was soon giving the spectators a tour of its insides, and explaining the controls. To Jake's surprise, the pilot and the crew all read Jake's air adventure serials in the pulps, and were fans of Buzz Connors. They liked the fact that Buzz Connors was a 100% good guy, always trying to help people with his plane and flying skills. The crew all felt that Buzz reflected honorably on their work as air technicians. "Red", the giant mechanic who maintained the machine, was an especial Buzz fan.
Jake had made the mistake of telling the tailor he usually visited that he wanted to get a suit for weekends that made him look like a "sport". Now Jake was wearing the loudest suit he had ever seen.
The suit was beautifully cut and tailored, in a splashy style. It was a dazzling white, with black lines running through it creating a bright check pattern. It had a huge, double-breasted vest, with two rows of large gold buttons running up it. A gold watch chain hung down over the vest, making a jaunty curve. The suit was narrow in the waist, before expanding out into huge shoulders. Jake also wore a shiny tie with alternating broad white and black diagonal stripes, a white dress shirt, black and white two toned patent leather shoes, and a sporty, visored cloth cap cut from the same checked material as the suit. He carried a large black cane with a shiny gold handle, and wore a large white carnation in his buttonhole. The suit conveyed the impression that Jake was a sport who spent his time hanging out at races, boxing matches and dance halls. Jake did look like a million dollars in the well-made suit, in a flashy sort of way.
Jake was a bit concerned. He had rarely been so casually dressed before in public. He hoped no one would be offended by his informal appearance. After all, this was the 1920's, and dressing one's best was an important sign of respect for other people. Jake reassured himself with the thought that after 6 PM, it would be correct to change to his tuxedo, and look respectable again.
Jake suddenly wondered how people would dress in the next century, the 21st. He was sure that with advances in technology, everyone would always be dressed to the nines at all times, in fabulous clothes. It would be an eye-popping sight, he was sure.
Greg had met Jake at the studio that morning. He was wearing a well tailored jazzy, electric blue suit, that was at least as loud as Jake's.
Greg handed Jake a shiny silver hip flask of the sort that was de rigueur in the Jazz Age. "It's filled with ginger ale," he told Jake, "but you can tell everyone it's hooch." He stuffed a matching silver flask in his suit pocket, also filled with ginger ale. Neither Jake nor Greg drank, and the two men grinned as if they were up to the last word in deviltry.
Felicia Alburton had brought Jake and Greg to the air show in her new car, picking them up at Mammoth-Art Studio, where they all worked. Jake had only ridden in a car once in his life before, and he was thrilled. However, when they got on to the country road leading to the airfield, Felicia accelerated, eventually reaching high speeds of up to thirty miles per hour. Jake was petrified. He had traveled much faster on trains, of course, but those were closed carriages. Here, they were in an open car, and could actually fall out. Felicia was a careful driver, and Jake was reassured by her skill and caution. He wondered if humanity would ever adjust to such dazzling speed, however.
When they were leaving the studio gates, a newsboy selling papers on the sidewalk called out "Extra! Extra! Woman still missing! Read all about it in the Daily Watch!" Jake gave the boy a nickel, and bought a paper. Sarah Hartling was still missing. Three days ago an obscure secretary in LA, she was now becoming one of the most famous women in the city. She had been to a movie two nights before last with a girl friend, saying good night to her outside the theater. No one had seen her since. She had been wearing a bright red dress and shoes when last seen. There was a huge picture of her on the front page of the paper, the LA Daily Watch. Although there was no real evidence, everyone thought that she had been kidnapped. Her disappearance had become a newspaper sensation, and everyone in Los Angeles was hunting for her. The movie she had last seen was The Millionaire She Married, a romantic comedy starring Greg, and which had been written by Felicia Alburton. It made Felicia and Greg feel they had a connection to the case somehow.
The film had been a huge hit. Felicia had written it especially for Greg, hoping to change his screen image. He played a contemporary leading man in it, a millionaire who owned a shipping fleet, and it gave Greg his first chance to do a modern day romantic comedy, instead of one of the swashbucklers in which he usually appeared. Felicia was a terrific writer of romances, and the film had been especially popular with women. It had also boosted Greg's popularity. Greg was not yet a top star, like Douglas Fairbanks or Rudolph Valentino. Their movies could bring in 5000 customers for each screening of a movie at the large movie palaces in the big cities, seven shows a day from ten in the morning till midnight, seven days a week. That was 245,000 admissions per week, just in a single theater! No wonder Hollywood made eight hundred movies every year. The public loved silent movies. But Greg's star was clearly climbing.
Three college boys were watching the helicopter. They were neatly dressed in sweaters and ties. Greg got in a conversation with them. They turned out to be from back East, on tour during spring break. They were having the time of their lives, soaking up all the atmosphere of California. One of them, a student named John, had read Jake's pirate novel, Flashing Cutlasses of the Tortugas, and was glad to meet him.
"I am a writer of swashbucklers myself," John added diffidently. "So far, I have just published them in our college's student magazine." Jake promised to read John's stories, if he would send him copies of the magazines.
Jake stopped at the airfield concession stand to say hello to his friend Pop Hennesey. Pop had been a famous flyer in his day, but in recent years his sight had gotten too poor for flying. Pop was now so far sighted that he couldn't read the dials in front of him on an airplane control panel. They were just a blur. Now Pop worked as the caretaker at the airfield. This morning he was helping out Arnold Bessey, the thirty-ish man who ran the stand. The stand was jammed with people buying peanuts, popcorn and candy. Felicia bought a "frozen banana", a chilled banana dipped in chocolate sauce, while Jake said hi to Pop. Greg, who was in training as an athlete for his stunt work at the studio, looked wistfully at the hot roasted peanuts, but resisted them. The concession stand was at the front of a medium size building, opening out in the direction of the airfield.
Jake loved to hear Pop's stories of the early days of flying. Pop had been a mail pilot, and his flying had taken him all over Mexico and Central America. Jake had based several pulp tales on Pop's reminiscences, giving Pop credit and sharing royalties with him. Pop had the covers of the pulp magazines in which they appeared framed in his office at the air field, the brilliant colors of the cover paintings blazing from his office walls. Pop discovered too that the stories were causing him to get fan mail from kids, something he loved.
The airfield was a large open space, paved in concrete. At the center of it was the machine everyone had come to see. The airfield was used only for research work. It was a fully equipped airfield, but small and used for research into new kinds of planes. It was a hive of activities most days, but usually deserted at nights, when everybody went home.
After the demonstration flight, people crowded in to see the interior of the cabin. Just about everyone at the show, got a chance to see the helicopter's interior. The plane's pilot, Montana Perkins, a large man in a leather flight jacket, took turns with the other crew members, Red and Sam, at demonstrating the controls. Typically one of them would sit at the plane's cockpit, giving the demo, while the other two would mingle outside the helicopter with the waiting crowds, answering their questions.
The control panel of the machine's cockpit had a loud horn. When it was pushed, the helicopter emitted a shrill blast that could be heard all over the airfield, and maybe even in the next county. Little kids kept sneaking up on the control panel when the crew's back was turned, and sounding the horn.
Jake, Felicia and Greg had been among the first people to tour the inside of the helicopter after the demonstration. Now they were back outside, near a hangar at one end of the field, watching the last members of the public step up to see the helicopter's interior.
Jake stood staring at the machine, watching the final members of the public reluctantly leave the plane - the air show was scheduled to end at noon. He was beginning to get more and more ideas for stories about the machine. He asked Greg and Felicia if they minded if he just stood and looked at the helicopter for a while - his mind was racing. Felicia, who was a writer herself and knew how writers worked, hurriedly steered Greg back to the concession stand, telling Jake to take his time - it was a beautiful day!
Jake stood in the shadow of a hangar. He kept his eye rapt in attention on the wonderful machine. He soon saw the crew leave, locking up the machine, but Jake didn't care. He kept his eyes fixed on the machine, and let his imagination soar. Soon, he was plotting out a whole story, in which Buzz Connors piloted the new machine all over Chicago. The machine lay there peacefully in the sunlight. The sun gleamed off the locked door of the helicopter, which was directly opposite Jake, around a hundred yards away. The concrete runway was completely deserted now. Probably no one at the airfield even realized Jake was there - he was deep in the shadow of the hangar, behind a pillar. Greg and Felicia had drifted off, in the direction of Felicia's car.
The loud horn on the machine suddenly sounded. Jake was surprised; he thought everyone had left the helicopter. Greg and Felicia returned from the parking lot, and started walking toward Jake. Pop and Bessey came out of the back of the now closed concession stand, far across the field from Jake, hurrying up to the machine with Pop's keys. Jake could see the two of them, the key ring in Pop's hand glimmering in the sunlight.
Pop went up and opened the door; he and Bessey entered the machine. After a few moments, Bessey came out, carrying a slight young woman in his arms. She looked unconscious or maybe dead, and had a nasty looking large blood stain on her head. She was wearing a flaming red summer dress with a short skirt, that blazed in the bright sunlight. Pop followed the powerfully built Bessey, who easily carried the woman, and they hurried into the concession office.
Greg and Felicia had joined Jake by this time, at the pillar. Jake asked Greg to call his policeman friend, Lt. Moe Apfelbaum, giving Greg Moe's number. Felicia followed Greg to the airfield entrance, where there was a phone.
Jake had been watching the machine's only door all this time. Some instinct made him hurry over to he machine, whose door Pop had left unlocked. Jake went into the cabin of the helicopter, and started looking around. It was apparently deserted. The cabin was a single large space. Jake wondered if anyone could still be hiding there. Jake closed the door of the cabin. He noticed a storage cabinet behind the door. He opened the cabinet's door, but it was empty, except for a pair of overalls on the rack. There was enough space inside for a small person to hide, but no one was there now. Jake also looked underneath the helicopter's seat cushions. They lifted up, and disclosed boxes in which flight gear was stowed. No one was in either of the seat areas either. An overhead rack was empty, too. There was clearly no place else to hide in the cabin.
Jake also looked for exits. The windows of the cabin did not open - clearly, it would be dangerous to have them open during flight. And Jake could not find any panels on the ceiling or floor that opened. The door looked like the cabin's only means of entrance or exit.
Jake left the cabin, and found Red in a hangar. A startled Red swore to him that the woman had not been in the cabin, when he had locked it up and the crew left after the show. Jake had had the cabin under observation since the crew left, and the cabin door had been locked during most of that time. So where did the woman come from? And how did she get into the cabin?
Jake was sure he had not seen the woman's bright red dress in the crowd that day - it would be very hard to miss.
"She's still alive," he said encouragingly. "But she's in bad shape. This woman has been unconscious for days. She had a bad head injury. We need to get her to a hospital at once." Moe sent the patrolman out to call an ambulance.
Pop came in. Bessey had sent him out to call a doctor, a few minutes before.
Bessey started telling Moe all about the case. In addition to running the concession stand on days when there was a show, Bessey also contracted out all security services for the airfield, his main source of income. Bessey worked as the airfield's night watchman, and the little security company he owned had one employee, who guarded the airfield's gate during the day. Moe had seen this guard when he drove in, a tired looking young man in a seedy uniform. Both Bessey and the guard were sure that they had not seen any young woman in a bright red dress around the airfield.
Bessey was a tall man, well built, with sandy hair and an open looking face. Because he had been working the concession stand that day, Bessey was wearing a suit, not the uniform he wore while on watchman duty.
Felicia and Greg stood by the unconscious woman. This was Greg's first close look at the woman. All of a sudden she looked familiar to him. Greg had a good memory for faces - it was part of his actor's training to study the human face.
"Lieutenant," Greg said excitedly, "I think this is Sarah Hartling. The woman who was kidnapped. Her picture is in all of the papers. And her red dress matches the description in the paper."
Felicia was not so sure. "They sell this dress by the dozens at Woolworth's," she pointed out. "Lots of women could be wearing the same dress."
Moe thought Greg was right. Hartling had been subject of a police search for days. And here she was now, barely alive, but in safe hands, at least.
Jake came in, and Moe explained the situation to him. Jake had worked with Moe on many previous cases as an unofficial assistant with the Los Angeles police, and Moe was glad to have Jake's help once again.
Jake got his first good look at the unconscious woman. She had nondescript brown hair, a round face, and looked like the kind of person you would never notice in a crowd. This was perhaps why she wore such a brilliantly colored dress. The light summer dress was badly wrinkled. It looked as if she had been hauled around in it, probably by her abductors. Her shoes were missing.
In answers to Jake's questions, the medical examiner told Jake and Moe that the woman had been out cold for at least twelve hours, probably much longer. She certainly would be incapable of walking anywhere, or even crawling or moving in any way, during this period.
"But she must have pushed the horn in the helicopter," Jake protested.
"Impossible!" the medical examiner replied. "She was out like a light. All she can do is lie somewhere unconscious".
"But then who did sound the horn?" Jake wondered. "There was no one else in the cabin but this woman. It seems impossible. I had the cabin under observation at all times. For that matter, how did this woman get into the helicopter at all? Red says she wasn't there when he left with the crew. She can't move on her own at all, you say. But she was there when Pop and Bessey went to the plane. And I watched the cabin door from the whole time after Red and the crew left, to when Pop and Bessey entered it. No one went near the helicopter all during that time."
Jake looked thoughtful.
"Can this woman be faking her injuries?" Jake finally asked the doctor.
The examiner looked horrified. "This woman is barely alive. Her breathing is faint to nonexistent, her heart is barely pounding, she's had a head injury. She's very ill."
Jake obtained a promise from the medical examiner that he would make certain of all these statements, while he was overseeing the woman's treatment at the hospital.
It was as if some super-scientific agency that could travel through space and time had brought Sarah Hartling to the airfield. It had dropped the unconscious Sarah off in the middle of the helicopter, and sounded the horn to let everyone know she was there. Then it had vanished back into the fifth dimension, from whence it had come.
Jake thought of the newsboy's call of "Extra! Extra!". Sarah indeed was something extra. She had arrived out of nowhere, brought by an unseen force or agent. She didn't belong in the helicopter, according to the laws of science. She was an extra, something that couldn't be there - but was.
Someone must have brought the unconscious woman to the helicopter. But how? Her red dress would have made her highly conspicuous. She must have been wrapped in a blanket, or carried in a box or barrel. The problem was, Jake could not remember anything being carried to the machine that looked remotely like this. Neither could Greg or Felicia. Felicia had seen several people in the crowd wearing back-packs, but it was clear that all of these would have been too small to contain Sarah, who was a fairly large woman.
Nor could the crew, when interrogated by Moe and Jake.
Moe asked the crew about their departure from the helicopter. Everyone agreed, the last one out had been Red.
"We told everyone the show was over, and they had to leave," Red said. "They were disappointed, especially the kids, but we were all supposed to be out by noon. And everyone in the crowd had had a chance for an inside tour of the machine, after all. After the crowd all left, we turned off the ceiling light, and made sure the engine switches were all off. I was not looking around the rest of the helicopter very much. I could see that no one seemed to be in the cabin. So after the rest of crew left down the steps, I went out and locked the door. Then we took the keys over to Pop at the concession stand and gave them to him. He put the keys in his pocket. We talked with him and Bessey for a minute, thanking him for his help with the show, then left."
"Did you look inside the seats, or in the cabinet?" Moe asked.
"No," Red said, "my mind was on the engine. When I was sure it was off, we just left."
"Did anyone bring any packages or boxes into the plane?" Moe asked.
Red scratched his bright red hair thoughtfully. He was dressed in the standard blue coveralls worn by most of the crew members at the airfield.
Red and the other crew members all discussed this. They were sure nothing at all had been brought in, either by themselves or the public. They were sure that they would all have seen a box large enough to contain Sarah Hartling, too. Furthermore, they were all sure that Sarah Hartling's body had not been draped over the seats, where Pops and Bessey had found it when they entered the plane.
"We would all have noticed it there, when we left," Sam continued.
"Could Red have taken Sarah's body out of the cabinet, and placed it on the seats before he left and locked the door?" Moe queried.
"Nope!" Sam said. "I was turned and talking to Red as he locked up. I would have seen Red do something like this. All he did was check the engine and lock the door. We could both see there was nothing on the seats." Sam looked indignant. "You're not saying Red had something to do with this, Lieutenant? I've worked with Red for years. He's a good guy. People trust him with all this expensive equipment at the hangar, and there's never been the slightest problem."
Red calmed Sam down. "The Lieutenant's got to ask everybody questions, Sam. It's his job. We have an injured woman here. He's got to try and figure out who kidnapped her." Sam looked slightly mollified, but he kept glaring at the Lieutenant.
Sam was just a part-time worker at the airfield, helping out mechanic Red when needed. Sam also drove an ambulance in the city. Felicia had pointed out to Jake earlier that an ambulance driver could have transported Sarah Hartling's body all over the city, without anyone noticing. It would be a perfect cover. Sam was a half a foot shorter than the giant Red. He had brown hair and vivid lively features that mirrored his emotions.
Montana Perkins, the pilot, stood there looking down at Sarah. He was a tall man with bright green eyes, wearing his pilot's leather jacket, flared khaki trousers, and high boots. All of a sudden he said, "I know this woman! She worked at the secretarial pool where I used to get typing done."
Despite grilling from a suspicious Moe, Montana did not have too much more to add.
"I haven't seen her for over a year," Montana said. "I just thought of her as Sarah. I never connected her at all with the Sarah Hartling whose disappearance was in all of the papers. Poor Sarah. She was a nice girl," he added wistfully.
The ambulance arrived, and hauled Sarah off to the hospital.
"Who was the last member of the public out of the helicopter?" Jake asked.
"It was a college kid," the pilot, Montana Perkins, replied. "He was slim, dark haired, had a thin mustache, wore a red sweater under his suit and tie."
"That sounds like John the writer," Jake said. "He talked with Greg and me during the show. He was very curious about everything - he asked me a million questions about the pulp magazines. It sounds like him to be the last person there."
John was still around, and Moe brought him in for questioning. John was fascinated by the crime, and wound up asking Moe and Jake more questions than they managed to ask him. John was a polite, sincere young man, very articulate, and it was hard for the two of them to resist his questions. John had some theories.
"What if Sarah Hartling came in disguised as one of the crew?" he said. "Then she could have hung back, behind the door of the cabin, when Red locked up. People outside would see crew members arrive at the plane, then more crew members leave at the end, but they wouldn't count them or know the same people arrived and left. They all wear the same blue coveralls. She might have been there to spy on the machine for a rival manufacturer. She could have sounded the horn by accident, or as a signal to some confederate. Maybe she then injured her head on the cockpit, and passed out on the seats. The medical examiner could be wrong, you know, about Sarah Hartling being unconscious for hours." John had a fertile brain.
"John has more imagination than anyone else I've ever met," one of his friends said.
Moe summoned Red, Sam and the pilot Montana back. They gradually poked holes in John's theory.
"All the crew have worked together for months, now," Red said. "We would have recognized an outsider dressed as a crew member coming into the plane. The public wouldn't, but we would." A phone call to the hospital also confirmed that Sarah genuinely had been unconscious for hours. She could not have been moving around inside the cabin.
People at the airfield were beginning to realize what an unusual case this was. They all now knew that the woman was the famous and much sought after Sarah Hartling.
"Maybe this will get the airfield owners to hire more security," Pop said. "Bessey here has been after them for weeks to get them to let him hire more guards. He's been telling 'em and telling 'em that something was going to happen at the field here, with all these expensive experimental planes. Now it's finally happened. The owners are just cheap," Pop went on. "They didn't want to pay Bessey any more money." Jake guessed that they didn't pay Pop very much for his services, either.
Pop and Bessey alibied each other. Pop had been assisting Bessey with the rush at the concession stand all morning. They hadn't been out of each other's sights all morning, except for very brief trips to the wash room in the back of the concession stand. Even after the crowd thinned out after twelve, Pop and Bessey had been together right till the moment when the horn had sounded, and Pop and Bessey had gone out to the machine and found the body. Neither had noticed anything about the helicopter till the horn sounded; the door to the cabin wasn't even visible from the concession stand where they were.
Both agreed that they had entered the cabin nearly together, Pop going in barely first. Both agreed that Pop would not have had time for any funny business within the cabin - Bessey had been right behind him. And both agreed that Sarah Hartling had been spread out on the seats of the plane, looking completely unconscious. Bessey had picked her up, and brought her out of the machine, followed after a minute by Pop. Neither man had seen anyone else in the cabin. Pop had been so rattled that he he'd forgotten to lock up the cabin, again. He still had the keys, producing them from his pocket for the police.
Pop did have a surprise, though.
"The machine was unlocked when I got there," Pop declared. "I don't care what Red said. He must have forgotten to lock the machine, when he left after the show."
Bessey backed Pop up. "The door was closed but unlocked when we got there," Bessey said. "All Pop had to do was turn the handle and push, and the door opened."
When Red was brought back in for questioning, he insisted that he had locked the door. In independent questioning, Sam backed him up. Both were sure Red had locked the door, and turned the handle just to make sure it was locked.
"Locking plane doors is second nature with us," Sam said, "We do it every day."
Later, Moe and Jake went out and experimented with the machine. The lock was a strong one, built into the cabin door handle. Anyone could unlock the door from the inside of the cabin, and without opening the door. All one would have to do is turn a knob on the inside of the door, and the bolt that the lock fastened would be open.
"The same person who sounded the horn inside the cabin could have unlocked the door," Jake said. "But who is that person? And more importantly, how did they get out of the cabin? I was watching the cabin's only door the whole time after the crew left, till the body was discovered and I went into the plane. And there certainly wasn't anyone in the cabin at that time. Where could they have gone?"
Moe soon had independent technical experts looking over the helicopter. They soon backed up what the crew told them, to wit:
However they looked at it, the crime seemed impossible to Moe and Jake.
The same super-scientific agency that had brought Sarah Hartling to the helicopter, had apparently also unlocked the cabin door - maybe to make it easier for the humans at the airfield to get at Sarah, perhaps.
The case became a media sensation. Hundreds of newspapermen converged on the airfield. Sarah Hartling became famous from coast to coast.
Pop was paid a thousand dollars by a newspaper chain for his exclusive eye-witness account of the discovery of Sarah Hartling, more money than he had ever seen in his life. Pop planned to save this, and help make his old age financially secure.
All the Hollywood studios sent in their newsreel cameramen. Mammoth-Art Studio had an exclusive, showing their star Greg, giving a guided tour of the airfield in their latest newsreel. In the newsreel, the studio pointed out that movie star Greg was "a key eye witness" whose testimony "was invaluable to the police". The newsreel tour was the brainchild of Harry Callaway, Mammoth-Art's top publicity photographer. Harry made sure that Greg got glamour lighting for his appearance before the cameras - not a newsreel standard. Harry, whose job it was to get maximum publicity for Mammoth-Art stars like Greg, thought this whole case was a PR man's dream. Harry had Greg dressed in a pilot's leather flight suit for the on-screen airfield tour, which included a complete demonstration of the helicopter, with Greg seated in the cockpit and operating the controls. The dashing young actor looked completely convincing piloting the helicopter in the newsreel footage. Greg had watched the real air crew like a hawk during the earlier demonstrations, and they gave him extra coaching during the newsreel shooting. After the filming, the helicopter air crew all wondered where they could get a pilot's flight suit that looked like Greg's, which was much more glamorous looking than anything they, or anybody else, wore in real life. It turned out that the suit had been specially designed by the studio for Greg, all black leather and gleaming stainless steel. Harry and Greg had Mammoth-Art Studio's costume department whip up copies of it for Montana, Red and Sam as a thank you gesture for their cooperation. They also had copies made for the trio of the authoritative, razor sharp, navy blue dress pilot's uniform, complete with high peaked cap, white dress shirt and tie, that Greg wore in the next week's sequel newsreel. In this sequel Greg met with the police, the federal investigators, the helicopter's inventor, and everyone else connected with the case. Harry and Greg also featured Montana, Red and Sam in the sequel, calling them "the heroic crew".
Greg always worked hard during these publicity shoots. He knew the difference they could make to his own career, and to the fortunes of everybody he worked with at Mammoth-Art. In addition, he loved the people he met and the experiences he had. Where else could he learn to pilot a helicopter?
Later, Greg had Sam take him along on his work as an ambulance driver. Greg was irresistibly curious, and always looking to learn about professions he could later play on screen.
Jake spent a Saturday working as a member of the crew on the helicopter, something he thoroughly enjoyed. He learned much about the helicopter he could use in his writing. But nothing that shed any light on the Sarah Hartling mystery. Jake had a photo of the crew and himself sent to Jake's editor at the pulp magazine, Thrilling Air Stories. Mammoth-Art fitted up a copy of the leather flight suit for Jake, at Jake's request, so he could blend in with the crew. Jake was startled and pleased when he saw himself for the first time in the pilot's suit. Gleaming from head to toe in shiny black leather, Jake looked like his fictitious hero Buzz Connors, about whom he had written so much. Jake had never seen himself as a pilot before.
Security was greatly beefed up at the airfield. The airfield's owners had Bessey's company hire a squad of guards to protect the field around the clock. When Moe visited the airfield, he saw Bessey supervising a whole team of his new employees, in spiffy new police-style uniforms. Bessey's wife, who also worked at home as his bookkeeper, looked proud of the new prosperity in the Bessey family. The publicity also attracted a lot of new business at the airfield.
Over the next couple of days, the police investigation rolled onwards. The background of everyone in the case was checked out.
"Red, Sam and Montana have good work records, and no police records," Moe told Jake. "Pop and Bessey have no police records either, although Pop was involved in a lot of brawls back in his pilot days."
"Our three college students are just who they say they are," Moe said. "They all come from highly respectable families in Pennsylvania. That doesn't rule out their involvement in this crime, but they are sure not professional criminals or bootleggers masquerading as college kids."
Moe talked to both Greg and Felicia. They gave each other a complete alibi, having been together the whole morning. Moe said nothing about this to Jake; he didn't want Jake to know he'd been suspicious of Jake's friends. Actually, both Felicia and Greg enjoyed their involvement in the case. Felicia took many notes on all aspects of police procedure, to use in her future writing. She also talked Moe into letting her interview Moe's wife Esther, to get a perspective on what it was like to be a policeman's wife.
The doctors at the hospital confirmed all of medical examiner's initial statements about Sarah Hartling. "She is just pulling through from a terrible ordeal. At the time she was discovered and for several hours before, she was so ill she would be unable to move. She certainly could not have sounded the horn or unlocked the door, let alone walked into the cabin. Someone must have placed her there, on the cabin seats, where Pop discovered her."
Sarah made a full recovery. The story she told when she regained consciousness was simple, and did little to clear up the mystery. She had been walking home from the movies, and had passed one of the many deep ravines that dot the Southern California landscape. She had heard a cat calling piteously from somewhere deep in the ravine, apparently trapped. Sarah loved cats, and dogs too. Although it was pitch black out, Sarah started making her way down the ravine towards the cat. Suddenly she tripped on a root, and started hurling headlong down the ravine. She must have been knocked unconscious. That was all she remembered till she woke up in the hospital. The ravine was a lonely place, and Sarah could easily have laid there for days, while all of Los Angeles was searching for her.
Greg came to visit Sarah in the hospital. She was thrilled to meet the movie star she had just seen on the screen.
Moe's men explored the ravine, and found Sarah Hartling's red shoes half way down, adding confirmation to the truth of her story. They even found and rescued the trapped cat, who had been stuck under a branch near the bottom of the ravine all this time, and who seemed none the worse for the ordeal. The fact that the spring nights had been warm probably helped both Sarah and the cat to survive in the deserted ravine. Newsreel photos of Sarah Hartling holding the rescued cat while sitting up in her hospital bed became the public's first glimpse of her in the movies.
Sarah's priest came to talk to Moe. "I've known Sarah Hartling for five years now, ever since she came to Los Angeles from Ohio. She's just what she seems like, a nice respectable woman who works as a typist. I don't believe she could ever be involved in anything crooked." Moe came to the conclusion that Sarah was telling the truth.
So apparently Sarah was not abducted. Her doctors said that her injuries were consistent with a fall down a ravine. Sarah's doctors also said that, mercifully, Sarah was unharmed except for the serious blow to her head, and some other bruises. Whoever had deposited her in the helicopter, had not molested her. Apparently, whoever - or whatever - had placed her in the helicopter had not harmed her further.
The motives for the helicopter incident were completely baffling. Moe and Jake talked them over, and could not see what the whole thing accomplished. Why not just dump poor Sarah in a ditch someplace? Or call the police anonymously, and tell them that Sarah was in the ravine? Why was she moved to the helicopter? Or if the criminals had thought Sarah had seen something she shouldn't, why hadn't they just killed her? This would have been much safer for any gang that had held Sarah prisoner. But somehow, Sarah had escaped with her life. Not only did the crime seem impossible, it also seemed senseless.
Jake did what he always did when he needed to think. He went over and sat down in the shade of a tree on the Studio lot. Its label said it was a Xylopia humblotiana from Madagascar, the gift of Lola Hansen, a former actress at the Studio. It had big red bean-like pods hanging all over it, filled with black seeds, each seed with a little mauve aril like a cap. Four or five pods would be joined at their base, like the fingers of a hand. Across the way was a related tree, a Xylopia buxifolia, with pinkish-red pods and bright yellow seeds, also from Madagascar. Jake had always wanted to visit Madagascar, a large, Texas-size island off the East coast of Africa, with many unique animals and plants. Jake thought both trees were astonishingly beautiful. He began looking at all the seeds... Gradually he forgot everything, and began thinking about the case. Suddenly he saw how the crime was done. With this, he could logically deduce who had committed the crime.
Jake went to see Moe.
Moe staged a raid the next day at the airfield.
Jake was explaining to Felicia and Greg how the crime was done. They were all together at the studio, with the crew from the airfield. Jake noticed that Montana, Red and Sam were wearing their sharp new pilot's navy blue dress uniforms, for this, their first trip to a Hollywood studio. Jake had also invited John and his two college friends to the lunch, at the Mammoth-Art Studio commissary. The college kids were all eyes, soaking up every detail of the movie studio.
"We all thought Sarah Hartling was in the helicopter," Jake began. "But she wasn't. She was never there."
"But that's impossible," Red said. "You yourself saw Pop and Bessey bring her out of the machine."
All of a sudden John got excited. He clearly understood now how the crime was done. Everyone else still looked completely baffled.
"Actually," Jake continued, "All I saw was Bessey bring a woman in a red dress out of the plane. I was a hundred yards away. That woman wasn't Sarah. She was an impostor. I was too far away to tell the difference. So were Greg and Felicia. Pop was much closer, but he's so far sighted that all he could see was that Bessey was carrying some woman in a red dress. Everything up close is something of a blur to Pop. And none of us had ever seen Sarah before, either. Bessey could see the woman clearly, however. He was also alone with the woman after he went back to the office. He'd sent Pop out to call a doctor. At that time, Bessey switched women. He brought the unconscious Sarah Hartling out of the locked cabinet where he kept her, and his confederate, the woman he'd brought out of the plane, simply got up and walked away. By the time Felicia, Greg and I arrived at the concession office, and got our first good close-up looks, we were seeing the real Sarah."
"Everything else in the case was just like John's theory," Jake said, nodding at John, who was beaming back excitedly.
"Bessey's confederate was probably his wife," Jake continued. "The woman disguised herself in a pair of long overalls earlier that morning, and mingled in the crowd around 11:30. She eventually went into the machine, fairly near closing time at noon. She hid herself in the storage cabinet behind the door. Everyone else in the cabin was looking at Montana's demo, while he was seated at the control panel."
"I bet you can tell what she did," Jake said, handing the floor to John.
"After Red left and locked the cabin," John said thoughtfully, "she took off the overalls, leaving them hanging in the cabinet where you saw them later. She was wearing the red dress underneath. It was a copy of Sarah Hartling's dress, purchased at the five and ten. She took off and buried the men's work shoes she was wearing deep in the supplies inside one of the chairs, maybe. She unlocked the door, smeared her forehead with bright red paint that matched the bloodstains on the real Sarah Hartling, and sounded the horn. Then she spread out on the seat, and waited for Pop and Red to discover her," John concluded triumphantly.
"I don't think Bessey was trying to create a miracle crime," Jake added. "All he was trying to do was give himself an alibi. He would be with Pop all morning, and nowhere near the body until it was discovered. That was why the woman confederate unlocked the door. They wanted it to look as if someone had deposited the body in the unlocked machine after the show, then took off to parts unknown. That's how the crime normally would have looked. It was bad luck that I was standing right there, watching the door of the helicopter the whole time. That unexpected turn of events was what turned this into an apparently impossible crime. If I hadn't been there, the crime simply would have looked as if a gang of crooks had deposited Sarah in the helicopter, and walked away, leaving the body to be discovered by Pop and Bessey. The mystery would not have looked impossible."
"And they sounded the horn so that the body would be discovered right away," John added. "If they waited, and the body had not been found till that night, Bessey would not have had an alibi. The body had to be found while he was still with Pop."
"Why did Bessey do all these things?" Montana wondered. "He was no saint, but I never got the impression that Bessey was some sort of crook. Was he smuggling drugs or munitions through the airport at night, or doing something else illegal that Sarah Hartling stumbled on?"
"That's the weirdest part," Jake said. "I don't think Bessey is a crook, in the usual sense of the word, or involved in any sort of professional criminal activity like smuggling. Here's a guess about what happened. Bessey found Sarah Hartling in the ravine by chance, and hauled her up to his car, early Saturday morning before the air show. At first he was going to take her to the police. Then he realized that he could milk the discovery for publicity. He'd been trying to sell the airfield's owners on his hiring a bunch of new guards. He suddenly realized, the sensation that would happen if Sarah Hartling were found mysteriously at the airfield. That would panic the owners into beefing up security, if anything would. Bessey could realize his dreams of becoming a successful businessman. Bessey dreamed up the most sensational scenario for Sarah's discovery, one that would create a frenzy in the press - being found in the new helicopter at the field. And he also came up with a scheme to give himself an alibi during the discovery.
"It's not even clear that Bessey broke any laws. He didn't harm Sarah in any way. But he should have brought her to a hospital right away, instead of what he did. That delay could have cost Sarah her life.
"Moe and I racked our brains throughout this case. Why was Sarah brought to the helicopter? Why did whoever was holding Sarah leave her unharmed? None of it made any sense, till we began to suspect that Bessey was doing all these things."
Pop, who had been delayed, joined them at the studio. Public relations man Harry Callaway had arranged to take group photos of everybody for publicity purposes. The photo shoot was on the set of Greg's latest movie, and he wore the white tie and tails he had sported for that film. The beautiful pictures soon appeared in newspapers and fan magazines. Their caption began, "Gregor von Hoffmansthal welcomes distinguished visitors to the set of his latest film, The Millionaire She Married." Harry really knew his business.
With the truth about her captivity revealed, Sarah's reputation was cleared. The newsreels recorded her departure from the hospital, supported by her sister from Ohio and her priest. The next fall, she married one of the young reporters who had covered her case. The two of them traveled around North America, writing copy on breaking news stories, and eventually raising a family of three children.
Later, after the three college men went back East, Jake received a letter from John.
"Dear Jake," it began, and continued telling about John's new mystery stories and historical adventure tales he had published in his college magazine.
The letter ended,
"If you ever come to Pennsylvania, be sure to look up
John Dickson Carr."