Mystery Stories Home Page
Copyright 2004 by Michael E. Grost
A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery
By Michael E. Grost
Los Angeles, July 6, 1984. Jacob "Jake" Black wheeled himself over to the breakfast table. At age 91, Jake's legs had given out, but his curiosity and joy in life were as strong as ever. He planned to visit with his friends in the dining hall, then spend the morning writing poetry. As a young man, Jake had specialized in adventure novels for the long vanished pulp magazines, air pilot and pirate stories, set in every corner of the globe. Now as an old man, he devoted himself to poetry. He had a strong lyric gift, and wished to devote his pen to bursts of verbal melody.
Jake liked the breakfasts in the communal dining hall. There was always plenty of fruit, Jake's favorite food. The hall was an awesomely beautiful room, over two hundred feet long, and completely covered with square glass windows tinted with every color of the rainbow. It was part of the Upshaw estate, a modernist architectural landmark built in the 1920's by movie mogul J. D. Upshaw as his Hollywood mansion, and left by Upshaw in his will to be a home for retired motion picture workers. Jake, who had toiled for years as a scriptwriter in Upshaw's studio, was now a resident.
Way down at the other side of the hall, Jake saw the Upshaw Home's newest resident, Fred October. October had arrived just three days ago. Jake had not had a chance to meet him yet, or talk with him. Jake had no idea what October had done in the motion picture industry. In fact, Jake was a little mystified. Jake had thought that, over the course of a long career, that he had met or at least heard of just about everybody in the movie business. But Fred October's name rang no bells with Jake. October's snow white hair and stooped gait were instantly recognizable, even from this distance. So were the white sweat shirt and white sweat pants that October always wore.
Somehow, Jake thought there was something mysterious about October. Jake told himself that he was imagining things. In addition to his writing career, Jake had had a long career as an amateur detective. Jake had worked as an unofficial consultant with the Los Angeles Police, helping them solve many murder cases over the years. Jake had never been paid for this work, but it was one of the highlights of his life. Now, in his retirement, Jake figured he was probably imagining things, trying to see mysteries in things just for the fun of it. Jake loved solving crimes. However, Jake's instincts, which had rarely lied to him, told him something was up.
Jake pushed his wheel chair over the tiled floor. The floors were covered with pentagonal tiles, that were arranged in eye-popping patterns of contrasting colors. This section was full of alternating red and blue tiles that created a flickering optical illusion effect. As he was wheeling himself back to his room after breakfast, Jake noticed three strangers in the manager's office. Two men and a woman, they were all wearing serious looking, but not real expensive suits. Jake had been around cops all his adult life, and he recognized feds when he saw them. The two men looked liked FBI agents, hard, tough and serious. The woman was a little different and a little younger; Jake wondered if she were an LA policewoman, not a federal agent. She looked familiar to Jake, somehow.
Jake was surprised an hour later. There was a knock on the door. The young policewoman stuck her head in and said "Mr. Jacob Black? Are you free to talk for a few minutes?"
Jake stopped typing and wheeled himself over to the center of the room.
"My name is Sgt. Monica Apfelbaum of the LA Police" she began. "Are you Jacob Black the writer?"
When Jake nodded yes she went on: "Are you the Jacob Black that used to work with my grandfather, Moses Apfelbaum of LA Homicide?"
Light bulbs began to go on in Jake's head. "You're Moe's granddaughter Monica. I haven't seen you since you were a little baby."
"Grandpa Moses often talks about you," Monica said with a smile. "The two of you always solved cases together. He and Grandma Esther are living in Miami now."
"I've never heard anybody call your grandfather Moses, although that's his full name," Jake said. "Everyone on the force always called him Moe."
"I think Grandpa likes the joke. There was an artist called Grandma Moses, and he likes to refer to himself as Grandpa Moses. He'd always laugh when he'd say it."
"Mr. Black," Monica began, then paused.
"Please call me Jake."
"Okay then, Jake," Monica said. "The reason I'm here today is that the FBI has been trailing a suspected Soviet spy. We have reason to believe he might now be resident in the Upshaw Home here. The name he is using is Fred October."
"A ha!" Jake said.
"Do you know anything about October?"
"No, but my gut has been telling me there is something funny about him."
"Your gut is right," Monica said. "A man calling himself Max Plank rented a post office box here in Los Angeles last June 15th." That was three weeks ago. "Sensitive documents were stolen from the National Security Agency, and sent to that mailbox last week. They are not in the box now. A man picked them up three days ago. FBI agents had the box staked out. It was emptied by a white male, around seventy years old, with white hair, blue eyes and a bit of a stoop."
"That sounds like Fred October," Jake suggested.
"Bingo! The Federal agents tailed him here, where he entered the Upshaw Home, under the name Fred October. He is probably laying low for a while, before attempting to take the documents out of the country."
"Why haven't you arrested October?" Jake asked.
"The FBI felt it might compromise government security," Sgt Apfelbaum said, using a stock phrase. "That's FBI-speak. Translation: The FBI didn't tell me. They said I didn't need to know. Perhaps they're protecting an informant. But circumstances have changed today. The FBI has had all exits to the Upshaw Home under observation since midnight last night. They plan to bring October in for questioning today."
"I've never talked to Fred October, or even seen him up close," Jake said. "I don't have any information about him. I wondered if he were really a motion picture person. His name has never been connected with the industry. Do you think he bribed someone to get admitted here as a resident, to hide out from the feds?"
"That's a possibility. Maybe our FBI agents can make some inquires here among the staff," Monica replied thoughtfully.
Jake's friend Greg Karzag appeared in the door. Jake and Greg had been life long best friends, and now Greg lived in the Upshaw Home, too. Greg was a former silent screen star, who had appeared in many swashbucklers and adventure films. A life long athlete, Greg was still a distinguished looking old man at 84. Neither Greg nor Jake had ever smoked or drinked, and both men's health was still good because of this.
A young man knocked in Jake's door, his second visitor of the morning.
"Hi Mr. Black," his brash voice said. "I'm Pete Marlowe, a reporter with the LA Daily Watch. I'd like to interview you and Mr. Karzag about your movie experiences for my paper." Marlowe was an energetic looking man in his mid twenties, wearing a sharp suit in the latest style.
Jake was somewhat nonplused by all the visitors, but he welcomed Marlowe in.
"I used to know Sophie Chadwick when she was at your paper," Jake told him. "She started her career as a photographer at the LA Daily Watch in the 1920's."
"Who's Sophie Chadwick?" the young man said.
Jake groaned inwardly. Another young person who knows nothing about the past. "Sophie Chadwick was one of America's greatest photo-journalists. She's still one of the most famous women ever to pick up a camera," Jake explained gently. "I would have thought she would still be a legend at the Daily Watch."
Jake began telling Pete Marlowe about his movie career. Marlowe had never heard of any of the old movie stars Jake mentioned.
Jake pointed to a seltzer bottle standing in a corner.
"This was given me by the great silent comedian Seltzer Floyd. Seltzer bottles were his trademark. He was always squirting people with them in his movies, just like Laurel and Hardy threw pies. I worked on several of his comedy shorts as a gag man. It was a wonderful experience," Jake said.
"Both Greg and I worked with the great director Max Ophuls," Jake continued. "Max had me write an original film treatment for him in the early 1940's. It didn't go anywhere as a movie, and eventually it was rewritten as the novella "Night Flowers in Costa Rica". And Greg acted for Max in The Exile."
"I was pushing fifty at the time, and glad to get the character acting work," Greg said. "Ophuls had all these complex camera movements, and we rehearsed a lot, so that the actors were always in the right position as the camera moved around. It was a lot of fun."
"I've never heard of Max Ophuls," Marlowe said.
Jake fished around in his bookshelves, and brought out a paperback copy of Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema. "There's a good article on Ophuls in here," he told Marlowe.
Greg told Pete Marlowe, "I love watching kung fu pictures. Our local UHF channel is full of them. They make them in Hong Kong, then dub them in English for TV here. Back in the silent days, our movies were full of stunts. We were always swinging by ropes across ships, or leaping off balconies onto horses. All that tended to disappear when talkies came in. But now these kung fu movies have brought it all back, and with extra ideas we never had back in the silent days. My favorite is a young man called Jackie Chan. He is really amazing!"
Marlowe got up, and did a kung fu style kick. He also turned and swiveled his outstretched leg over a chair.
"That's it!" Greg said. "These kung fu guys are doing wonderful stuff. I've read that Jackie Chan's idol is silent screen star Buster Keaton. So there is definitely a connection between the old pics and the new."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Black and Mr. Karzag. You've been really helpful. I have some other residents to interview, now." Marlowe shook hands vigorously with the two men.
Monica came back as Marlowe was leaving. She looked alarmed.
"Jake, no can find Fred October anywhere. He seems to have disappeared."
"Probably he left the building this morning," Jake suggested. "It was pretty obvious that FBI agents were on the prowl here. Even I recognized them as feds."
"That's not likely," Monica replied. "FBI agents were watching all entrances and exits to the building. No one went in or out but a couple of doctors, and a visiting niece of one of the residents. Surveillance has been thorough. Wherever October is, he's hiding somewhere in the building. The FBI is not letting anyone leave the building at all, until Fred October is found.
"You know this place," Sgt. Apfelbaum continued. "Do you have any ideas of some good hiding places?"
Jake thought about it.
"There is a whole indoor stage at one end of the building, and another outdoor theater on one of the terraces. Both have moveable stages, with trapdoors in the floors, and spaces for prompters and lighting technicians.
"The indoor stage also has a maze of dressing rooms, prop rooms and rehearsal halls attached to it. It might be a good place for someone to hide out. There are also floor plans for the building framed on the walls," Jake continued. "They could help us in the search."
Monica introduced Jake to the feds. The head FBI agent was Hiram Adamson. He was a well-dressed man of around forty five, tall, African-American and extremely forceful looking. He had a deep, well modulated voice that sounded like it was used to giving orders and having them obeyed.
Jake took Monica and a team of feds down to the indoor stage, and they started a systematic search. Despite all their efforts, no one seemed to be hiding in the stage area. Meanwhile a second team of agents had explored the outdoor stage. Jake and Monica watched them through the window.
"I have many happy memories of this stage," Jake told her. "My second murder case happened right here, during a benefit performance in 1924. Your grandfather Moe, Greg and I were all involved."
Nobody found anything. Soon the entire mansion had been searched.
Impossible as it seemed, Fred October had disappeared.
Several witnesses had seen Fred October that morning.
Reporter Pete Marlowe told the feds that he had asked directions of an old man with white hair and a white sweat outfit. The old man had snarled at him, and refused to help. He had gone back into Room 115 - October's room. This was around 8:30.
Waiter Harry Tupper, who waited everyday on October's table, said he had seen Fred that morning. Fred had acted completely normal at breakfast, and Harry had no indication that anything was wrong.
Upshaw Home resident Claudette Le Pree, who sat next to Fred at the table, said that he'd seemed normal too. Claudette, who walked with difficulty, had not accompanied Fred back to his room, when he left the breakfast table around 8:30.
The maid in the east wing had been finishing up cleaning Fred October's room when he came in. She said he looked upset, but had not said anything. She'd then left him in his room. This was around 8:35 AM.
As far as anyone could tell, no one had seen Fred October again.
"We're all assuming Fred October is alive," Jake said thoughtfully. "But perhaps someone here has murdered him, stolen the secret documents from him, and hidden his corpse somewhere in the building. The search for him should look not only for a living man, but also for a possible dead body."
"Would any of the residents here do such a thing?" Monica asked.
"Possibly. Greed can make people do terrible things. Fred October could have had a friend here among the residents, a co-conspirator, someone who suggested coming here to hide from the feds. Or he could have a buddy on the staff. If we find out who admitted October to the Home, we might also find out a crooked espionage partner of October."
The FBI soon identified the staff member who admitted Fred October to the Upshaw Home. It was Thomas Silvers, an assistant manager in the Home. The FBI agents lost no time in grilling Silvers, a man of around forty. They also had quick information about Silvers' bank account, which included a deposit of five hundred dollars the week before October entered the Home.
"I took five hundred dollars to let October stay in the Home. I admit it," Silvers said in a frightened voice. "But I know nothing about any espionage work. He was a harmless looking guy, for gosh sakes! He told me he had a crush on that actress, Claudette Le Pree. I registered him in the Home, and made sure he was seated at the same dining table as Miss Le Pree. I thought he was a guy with a crush on movie star."
"You were October's partner," the FBI interrogator told Silvers in an icy voice. "You spied with him for the Soviets. You murdered October and stashed his body somewhere here in the Home."
Silvers started sweating in terror.
The search for Fred October was thorough. Teams of agents searched through every room of the Upshaw mansion. Elevator shafts were opened up, and flood lit from top to bottom, looking for October, dead or alive. Laundry chutes were similarly searched. The FBI agents were amazed at the multi-colored tile mosiacs that lined the shafts, but they didn't find October. Every bed in the building was moved. The huge kitchen cupboards were emptied; so were the kitchen freezers. The giant attics were unlocked, and every resident's trunks were opened and searched. The attics were under the building's highly curved roof, stained glass curving panels propped up by colorful tile-covered pillars. It was like being inside a giant glass tent. Jake found the old megaphone that Seltzer Floyd had given him as a gag gift in January 1924 in his trunks, and Greg recovered the four sided "czapka" helmet he wore with his Lancer's uniform in the 1921 picture Cavalry on the Danube. But there was no sign of October anywhere.
All the residents of the Upshaw Home were brought into the central dining hall. They were examined one by one by a pair of FBI agents. The authorities were concerned that October might have tried to disguise himself as one of the other residents. Each resident was scrutinized by members of the Upshaw staff, who confirmed that they were who they said they were, and not October in disguise. They were also scrutinized by two people familiar with October from the dinining hall, waiter Henry Tupper and resident Claudette Le Pree. It eventually became clear that all 167 residents in the Home were who they claimed to be. Most of the residents seem to enjoy this questioning. It was a burst of melodrama that had invaded their lives. They were all motion picture veterans, after all, and had thrived all their lives on excitement. Several had played G-Men in old movies, and were getting a chance to talk with the real thing. The feds were pelted with questions from all sides. People wanted to know their daily routines, how they tracked down spies, what sort of cars they used, their communication infrastructure, and their crime labs. Many of the residents were experts on photography, and wanted to know about the FBI's use of film and cameras.
The head FBI agent told his staff, "We're having a public relations triumph here. But we still haven't found October. Let's keep looking."
Jake had another idea, which he shared with Monica. "What if October has a dual identity? Could he have been one of the long-term residents of the Home, who disguised himself, and had himself readmitted to the Home under the name Fred October? In that case, all he would need to do to vanish is change back to his old identity. Or maybe her old identity - October could be a woman in disguise." Jake also had a plan to investigate this. Two nights ago, there had been a Fourth of July party in the dining hall, with a choice of menu in advance. Everyone there had registered for the dinner, and records were kept of attendance. October had been there too; both Jake and the waiters remembered him. "If October is secretly another member of the Home, then probably he is someone who was not there at the party."
Five residents had not shown up at the party. But one by one, the agents eliminated any possibility that they were October. Two were too tall. Two had been too sick to come, but had been in the infirmary the whole evening of the party, under the watchful eyes of the night nurse. And the fifth had shown up for dinner the next night, and had actually been seen by the waiters talking briefly with October in the dining hall.
The FBI agents brought in heat detectors. These could locate infrared radiation, even through walls and floors. And all human bodies give off heat. If any bodies, either alive or recently dead, were hiding behind walls or above ceilings, they would show up as glowing patches on the monitors of the detectors. The residents were fascinated by these high tech machines, which were wheeled in, and used to scan every wall in the Home. The results were bizarre but disappointing. Four dogs and three cats that various residents had been hiding in their rooms turned up on the monitors, all very much alive - it was against the rules to keep pets in the Upshaw Home. Soon the cats were rubbing on the agents' ankles, and the dogs were sitting up, and begging for food. One of the dogs brought over his red rubber ball, and dropped it at one of the agents' feet, hoping they'd play catch. The dog sat there panting, looking up at the big agent hopefully. One of the cats went and started rolling over on his back on the head FBI agent's well-shined business shoes. The tough FBI agents decided not to rat on the residents - if somebody living in the Home was keeping a dog in secret against regulations, it was none of their business. But there was still no sign of Fred October, either dead or alive.
The case seemed stuck. The FBI agents continued to search everywhere in the Home, for a second time. Monica, Jake and Greg were talking in Jake's room.
Monica remarked to Greg "I think I saw you as a FBI agent in an old film, once."
Greg said "I played FBI men in a number of movies. The 1930's were the era of gangster films, and usually the feds and the gangsters wound up battling it out with Tommy guns in some big city apartment. I shot down Barton MacLane, Eduardo Ciannelli and even Edward G. Robinson in gangster pictures. They don't make movie gangsters like they used to - all these guys could really act tough. In the 1940's, everything was different. I played FBI bureau chiefs in a number of movies - by this time I was doing character roles. I always wound up sending the hero of the film, a tough G-man, out on an undercover role, infiltrating the mob. These were suspense films, with a lot of dramatic photography and wild camera angles. They call these pictures 'film noir' today, although we never heard that term back then. Everyone wore these sharp pinstriped double-breasted suits. They are bringing these suits back today - the new look is what we all wore back in 1940's crime thrillers. You really do look dressed to the nines wearing them."
"Didn't you ever play a gangster?" Monica asked.
"Never! Back in those days everyone was a certain type. I always played good guys throughout my whole career. In the 1920's and early 1930's these were leading men; after around 1940 they usually were older authority figures. The roles included District Attorneys, police chiefs, Secret Service bureau heads and sheriffs in Westerns. I never was crooked. But often there was a no-good sneak in my department, who was leaking information the mob and taking bribes. He would always get exposed and arrested towards the end of the film."
"Didn't you miss playing bad guys?"
"A little. But things were different then. People loved their favorite character actors, and looked forward to seeing them in movie after movie. They would have been upset if I'd suddenly played a killer."
"Do you think the old movies were better than those they are making today?"
"Some were," Greg said, "but some new movies are terrific: The Year of Living Dangerously, Romancing the Stone, Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder. It all depends on the picture."
Jake spoke up. "We had a young reporter here today who'd never heard of Sophie Chadwick. Do you know who she is?"
Monica thought about this. "Isn't she the famous photographer? She did those landmark exposes about Hitler and Stalin that were such eye-openers back before World War II. And the LA Daily Watch has a big prize each year for best news photo called the Chadwick award, in her honor. I always read about it in the Watch - they run a biography of her every year. She's a role model for a lot of young photographers today, especially women." Monica Apfelbaum was an ardent woman's libber.
"We need to get this man under a tree," Greg said, indicating Jake. "Jake has always done his best thinking while resting under the shade of a tree. It's where he gets his key ideas to solve mysteries."
Jake gave Greg a Bronx cheer.
"We can't go outside" Monica said, "the FBI is keeping everybody indoors."
"There's a conservatory in the building," Greg said.
Soon Monica was wheeling Jake towards a large conservatory, following Greg's lead. They deposited Jake under the shadow of a huge tamarind tree that was growing indoors. Numerous large brown tamarind bean pods were dangling from the tree.
"Great," Jake said, "if I can't get an idea for finding Fred October, I can at least make Worcestershire sauce out of the tamarinds."
"Sh!" Greg said to Monica. "Let's let Jake think." They sat down in another part of the conservatory.
At first, Jake thought Greg's idea was ludicrous. Then Jake began to notice the leaves of the tamarind tree. They were beautiful, all made up of repeating leaflets in gentle, regular mathematical patterns. Jake had always loved trees. He began to think about the soft green leaves and forget everything else in his surroundings. Then Jake began to think long and hard about the October case...
After around twenty minutes, Jake got an idea.
He began to outline what he needed to Monica and Greg.
Jake invited Monica, Greg, two feds, waiter Harry Tupper, reporter Pete Marlowe, and Claudette to his room.
"You were the last people to see Fred October today, before his disappearance. I have some ideas, ideas I got from Seltzer Floyd, many years ago when he did silent comedy." Jake had a funny look on his face. Monica suspected that something was up.
Jake picked up a large sack, which he held in his lap. He wheeled himself over, just behind Pete Marlowe, who was seated in one of Jake's chairs.
"Floyd didn't always throw pies," Jake said with a strange look. "Sometimes he used flour, instead."
Jake dumped the sack upside down over Marlowe's head. The white flour in the sack poured out, and completely covered Marlowe's hair, face and expensive looking pinstripe suit. Marlowe looked like a ghost in an old silent screen comedy short. Every part of his face, hair and clothes were completely white.
Everyone looked at Jake in shock.
"And that's not all I learned from Seltzer Floyd," Jake went on. With a quick motion, he picked up the seltzer bottle, and gave Marlowe a squirt right in the face. Marlowe's face was now clear of the flour, but his clothes and hair were still snow white.
All of a sudden, Harry Tupper gasped. He started pointing to Marlowe. "It's Fred October!" he yelled.
Claudette gave a squeak, too. "It is! It's Fred. Why, how is this possible?" she added in confusion.
"Here's the missing Fred October," Jake said to Monica. "Grab him fast!"
Monica didn't fool around. She had Fred October in a choke hold. Fred, or Marlowe, struggled hard, with the tremendous vigor of a man in his twenties. But Monica soon had him subdued. The feds rushed in to assist too.
Later Jake was explaining to everybody. "We all wondered how an old man could disappear from a rest home, that was guarded. The answer is that he didn't. Fred October was never an old man. He was a young man in his twenties all the time. He disguised himself as an old man by whitening his hair and putting some wrinkles on his face with make-up. After he picked up the papers from the Soviet agents at the post office, he needed a place to hide out. The Upshaw Home seemed like a perfect solution. He bribed the manager here, giving him a phony story, and checked himself into the Home. He thought no one would ever think of looking here, but the feds were cleverer than that."
"When he saw the feds here today, he realized he had to change his identity once again, to escape from them. So he rinsed the dye out of his hair, put on a mod suit that emphasized his youthful appearance, and walked out of his room as Pete Marlowe, reporter. He had plenty of movie veterans here he could pretend to be interviewing. Unfortunately, the authorities refused to let anyone leave the building, and he was stuck here.
"There were some clues," Jake went on. "For one thing, Monica told me that no one entered or left the building this morning, except two doctors and a visiting woman. So how did Pete Marlowe get in the building? That should have tipped me off.
"Also, Pete Marlowe knew nothing about the great photographer Sophie Chadwick. But she's drilled into everyone at Daily Watch as a role model. So I should have realized that Marlowe was a phony reporter. Unfortunately, I had a stereotype of young people as typically ignorant about the past. This prevented me from realizing that there was something wrong with Marlowe personally." Jake looked rueful. "Stereotypes always ruin your thinking. I hate it when people get stereotypes about old people. But I had some myself about young people, and it made me miss a clue."
"I had a strange feeling about October all along. Probably, my subconscious was trying to tell me that October was not really the old man he seemed to be."
Jake screened an old movie for Monica. It was a musical, made in the early days of talkies in 1929, when musicals were all the rage in Hollywood. The film had no plot; it consisted of a series of musical numbers by Mammoth-Art stars, the studio that had employed Greg and Jake for many years. Around half way through Mammoth-Art Makes Music came Greg's number. Greg came out on a glittering black and white Art Deco stage. He was dressed in full white tie and tails, and began singing Irving Berlin's "Putting on the Ritz". Greg proved to be a dynamic song and dance man, with a good tenor voice. This was Greg's first appearance in a talkie, and the first time that any of his fans had known that he could sing, or had heard his voice on film.
"My number is in black and white," Greg said. "But the finale of this film is in two color Technicolor. Mammoth-Art was always a pioneer in early color film processes." Greg started pointing things out in his dance number. "Look how beautiful the cinematography is here. The head of my walking stick seems to glow with light. So does my watch chain, and the top hat I'm wearing. Photographers used to be artists with light, in the old black and white days. The photography here is by Giovanni Santini. You can tell his style immediately."
Monica told Greg, "It was very nice meeting you, Mr. Karzag."
Greg bowed deeply from the waist, and kissed Monica's hand. "The honor is all mine, mademoiselle," he said gallantly.
Author's note: Jake and Greg are still very much alive. The last time I talked to Greg, they had just returned from St. Petersburg, Russia, where Greg had a small role in a movie. The film gave Greg a chance to act in Russian, a language he had spoken all his life.