Mystery Stories Home Page
Copyright 2003 by Michael E. Grost
A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery
by Michael E. Grost
Hollywood, January 1924: The charity benefit was being held outdoors, at the huge and architecturally famed Beverly Hills estate of Mammoth-Art Studio head J. D. Upshaw. A platform had been set up at one end of the vast terrace, serving as a stage, where various studio employees were performing for charity. The audience was sitting in a series of folding chairs, arranged in a series of neat rows on the terrace. The event was being emceed by Tom Grisby, one of Mammoth-Art's Vice Presidents. It was to benefit orphanages throughout California. Many of the studio's top stars would be appearing this Saturday afternoon.
Most of the audience were local, non-movie people in Los Angeles, who were making contributions to the charity. Some of them were Society women, dressed in elegant frocks. All of the audience seemed fascinated by the prospect of seeing many movie stars in person.
Jacob "Jake" Black was also in attendance. A novelist, and for the past six weeks a Mammoth-Art Studio scriptwriter, he had written, for free, several of the comedy skits for the benefit. It was just two weeks after Jake had helped the police solve the murder of Simon Hansen, a producer at the studio. Although a complete amateur, Jake had shown a flair for crime detection. Jake had also made friends with Lieutenant Moe Apfelbaum of the Los Angeles Homicide Squad. Jake was a tall man of around thirty. Like most of the men present that beautiful sunny afternoon, Jake was in a good suit and tie, a natty number in pinstripes with a vest, that made Jake look like a young business tycoon. Jake wondered if he would ever have a chance to work with Moe again. Little did Jake know, that a new murder case was coming his way, sooner than he would ever expect.
Jake stopped to say hi to his friend, the young actor Gregor von Hoffmansthal, who was performing in the benefit. Greg had been one of the suspects in the Hansen case - in fact Greg had discovered the body - and Jake had cleared him of murder charges. Since then, the two men had become friends, and had eaten lunch together in the studio commissary most days.
Peter Ponson, a producer at Mammoth-Art, had clearly had a few drinks before attending the benefit. Ponson's presence was mandatory - he had been announced in the press as one of the official hosts of the event - but he was much too liquored up to do much greeting of the guests. This was a predictable problem with Ponson, whose drinking had been getting worse in recent months.
Numerous local newspaper and magazine photographers were on duty, snapping shots of the event. The large number of Mammoth-Art stars present, all dressed to the nines, were a lure to the fan press. And the Studio was interested in getting as much publicity as possible. The photographers had free reign through the terrace, moving up and down the rows, photographing everything. The brilliant sunshine helped too - no extra light was needed to take any pictures.
Ponson had approached Bart Murgatroyd of the Daily Spectator, one of the press photographers covering the benefit. Murgatroyd was a tall man. He carried one huge camera in his hands, and wore another large camera on a strap around his neck. Ponson was drunkenly chewing Murgatroyd out.
"I'll see you're barred from the studio lot!" Ponson told him angrily. Ponson lurched drunkenly against Murgatroyd, nearly bumping up against the long accordion frame of the camera dangling in front Murgatroyd's stomach.
Tom Grisby steered Ponson over to a chair, on one side of the terrace. Ponson drunkenly told Grisby that he'd see him fired from his studio job, too. The chair was all by itself, near the front of the terrace, where Ponson would be separated from the other guests. The chair was also easily visible from many vantage points in the audience; studio officials would know if Ponson woke up and started wandering around again. Ponson was soon sleeping away contentedly in the chair, waking up every so often and making muttering noises.
Grisby was known for his tact and diplomacy, and was an ideal choice to host such a benefit. Grisby had a beautiful voice, with excellent diction and a superb command of the English language. A handsome man of around fifty, Grisby always looked like a Man of Distinction. Today he wore a supremely elegant black tuxedo. One would never guess that Grisby, like many Hollywood executives, was a self educated man who had grown up in poverty on New York's Lower East Side.
Grisby stepped up onto the stage, and welcomed the guests. The stage was actually built-in to the huge terrace. It could be raised or lowered to any level by an electric control panel in a booth on the opposite side of the terrace. So could a semi-circular area in front of the stage, which would often be occupied by performing musicians. Huge pillars covered with geometric designs on either side of the stage allowed curtains to be drawn across the platform. Today the curtains contained a series of overlapping circles, squares and triangles, each of a different color, making a geometric pattern of dazzling brilliance. Like the entire Upshaw estate, they were influenced by modern art, especially the geometric abstraction loved in France, Holland, Germany and Russia. The pillars were made of series of cylinders, each of a different diameter and height, which could be made to revolve independently of each other at different speeds. Each cylinder was painted with a different colored spiral, which gave the optical illusion of seeming to climb up the cylinder as it revolved.
The huge terrace itself was on a raised platform. It was in a checkerboard pattern of many squares, made of transparent glass brick, each square being of a different color. Below the terrace was a huge pool, full of swimming carp of every color known to aquarists. A few sections of the terrace were open over the pond, causing open, glass-free stream areas to be visible below; these streams made geometric, rectangular paths meandering through the terrace. Ramps led up to the terrace from its sides; these were in curving shapes, spirals, circles and ellipses, that arched up to the raised terrace. Each was enameled in a different bright color, especially red and yellow.
Some of the squares in the terrace were solid black. These made a winding series of lines that ran through the entire terrace. Together with the open, rectangular "streams", they formed the borders of a giant maze that took up the entire surface of the terrace. It was one of the favorite places that Jake had seen so far on his Hollywood trip. He had become fascinated with it that morning, as he had rehearsed some of Mammoth-Art's actors in the comedy skits he had written. Jake had never directed actors before, and he discovered it was much harder than he had ever envisioned. But it was very interesting, too. Jake treated everyone with quiet respect, and soon discovered that most of the stars there were trying to put their best foot forward for charity. At the end of the rehearsal, comedian "Seltzer" Floyd gave Jake a huge director's megaphone with his name on it, like most silent movie directors used on location filming. It was a gag gift, but Jake could tell it was a form of friendly acceptance from the actors. It made him feel proud.
During the second break in the show, Jake was walking near Ponson, when the producer woke up.
"Black, we're going to make a picture together someday," Ponson muttered to Jake. The producer was clearly very drunk. Jake quietly agreed with Ponson, using a soothing voice. Ponson promptly fell back asleep. Ponson looked very dignified while asleep. He seemed to be sitting bolt upright in his folding chair. Unless you were close to him, it was hard to tell that Ponson had his eyes closed, or that he was sleeping off a drunk.
Jake noticed ventriloquist Jones Bones trying to talk to Ponson. He was standing behind him, trying to wake him up. He was unsuccessful, and left without getting any answer from the drunken Ponson. Jones Bones was not due to go on stage till later in the benefit. Bones was dressed as a music hall version of an old-fashioned professor, completely with wing collar and frock coat; it was the typical outfit he wore with his act.
First up on stage after the break was Nickie Belzub, the famous movie vamp. Nickie always played wicked women on screen, who seduced rich men, drained them of their money, and cast them aside, bleeding and broken at the end. The public could not get enough of her, and she represented everyone's idea of wickedness and sin. Nickie was dressed in a breathtaking red dress, with a huge velvet train over twenty feet long covered with red-dyed peacock feathers, and wore an elaborate red velvet headdress set with rubies and what looked like a haute couture version of devil's horns. She carried a large red pitchfork covered with rubies and red amethysts, probably paste, but which sparkled wickedly in the sunlight. Every society woman in the audience wished she could dress like Nickie Belzub. They all secretly wondered what it would be like to have Nickie's adventures, too, if only for an afternoon. The men in the audience, most of whom were good family men and pillars of the country club, church and chamber of commerce, all wondered fascinatedly what it would be like to spend some time with Nickie Belzub, too. Red was definitely Nickie's color. Several of her movies, which were mainly in black and white like other silent films, featured sequences in two-color Technicolor, in which Nickie's elaborate red gowns would blaze from the screen.
Nickie turned out to be a good amateur magician. She did magic tricks in between huge puffs of red smoke that occasionally erupted from the back of the stage. Jake had met Nickie once during a break on one of her pictures. Nickie turned out to be a nice girl from an Illinois farm family. She was not much like her screen image, but she was a good sport, and determined to give the public what it wants.
For the climax of her act, Nickie asked for a volunteer from the audience.
A loud drunken voice called out, "Take me - producer Peter Ponson!" Everyone turned to look at the direction of Ponson's voice. Ponson was asleep in his chair, his eyes closed in drunken slumber. The crowd gave a huge laugh. Nickie picked another volunteer instead, a distinguished looking fortyish businessman in the same mold as the well to do men she typically vamped in the movies. Instead of seducing him, she sawed him in half, much to the satisfaction of his wife, who was watching from the audience. Soon Nickie retreated from the stage, to the thunderous applause of the audience. Most of the people present would spend days telling their friends about how they had actually seen Nickie Belzub. Nickie, like the other stars, planned to mingle with the guests after the show.
Next up on the program was the handsome young movie star, Gregor von Hoffmansthal. Greg, as his friends called the muscular young actor, mainly made swashbuckling films at the studio. Greg was a serious do-gooder, always taking part in charity events and visiting sick kids in the hospitals. He would never have missed an event like today's benefit.
Greg climbed up the stairs at the side of the stage. Greg was in full white tie and tails. He looked especially elegant and movie star like. He gave the audience his biggest smile. Greg took off his high, shiny black silk top hat, stripped off his white gloves, and set his elegant black stick down with them on a table on the side of the stage, smiling at the audience all the time. Greg had done a lot of singing in high school, and had received lessons in singing and dancing at the studio. He frequently danced in his silent movies - it seemed to be a law that every movie about swashbuckling aristocrats in old Vienna had to have a big ballroom waltz sequence - but of course, he never sang in silent films. So most people present had never heard him sing. Greg could launch into a waltz at the drop of a hat. For a young muscular athlete, Greg could dance with surprising grace and zest, even while wearing the stiff, heavy costumes he wore in many of his swashbucklers. And in The Millionaire She Married, his modern day romantic drama, he had had a chance to show he could do modern dance crazes, as well.
Greg was going to sing a medley of tunes from that recent Broadway hit, The Desert Song. The dashing hero of that show, Pierre, the Frenchman who secretly became the heroic Red Shadow, was right up Greg's alley as an actor. Greg typically played such romantic heroes on screen. The music from The Desert Song was especially beautiful, too. Greg was looking forward to his chance to sing it with high enthusiasm.
Greg smiled down at the accompanist, Fred Thorgoldson, who was seated at the piano placed on the patio right below the stage, where the orchestra would be in a real music hall. Greg and Thorgoldson had rehearsed the medley that morning, and both were quite comfortable with each other's pace, rhythms and key selections. With a nod back to Greg, Thorgoldson placed both hands over the keyboard and began the music. Greg opened his throat, and out poured his huge tenor voice. Greg's voice was not quite large enough for a career in opera, but it was a big voice nonetheless, and it penetrated through the outdoor garden like a hurricane. Greg began with the show's two romantic ballads, "The Desert Song" and "One Alone". By the time Greg was soaring through the emotional rhapsodies of "One Alone", the entire audience was deeply in the grip of the music.
For the finale, Greg was changing to a dramatic, fast paced number, "The Riff Song". Both Thorgoldson and Greg conveyed the tremendous excitement of the music, with its pounding rhythms echoing the charge of riders across the desert. From its throbbing, pulsating beginning, the song swelled into a heroic declaration of the Red Shadow's determination and spirit. Greg's soaring tenor voice exploded over the audience with an intense fiery rapture. He caught the melody and rhythm of the music, and lifted the excitement higher and higher, as the phrases took off into the sky. Greg unleashed all the energy and charisma that had made him a movie star. It was as if an electric current were born on the stage, and flowed out through all the members of the audience.
When Greg left the stage, a uniformed studio messenger was waiting for him. "Mr. Upshaw wants to see you," he told Greg politely. Greg wasted no time in quietly tracing a path to the studio head, who was sitting in a huge throne-like chair at one side of the terrace. J. D. Upshaw was a sixty-ish man with a mustache, wearing a well tailored British cut tweed suit. He could have played the Chief Inspector in any movie about Scotland Yard.
"Excellent job, my boy," Upshaw told Greg. "You brought credit to Mammoth-Art today."
"Thank you, sir" Greg told him in his most manly manner. Upshaw liked to have his employees behave as if they were police officers on dress parade, reporting for duty. If he could have had them salute, he would have, but it was not quite de rigeur in Southern California. Still, Greg stood rigidly at what was nearly attention. Greg kept his eyes fixed front, and assumed the noble, heroic look he had worn in one of his pictures, when he had played a spy sent behind enemy lines on a top secret, dangerous assignment.
"We have a difficulty with Ponson," Upshaw continued seriously. "He has imbibed too much liquid refreshment." Upshaw indicated the producer, who was sitting slumped down in his chair, apparently drunk, with his eyes closed.
"It is your mission to remove Ponson from the premises, quietly, and with no fuss."
"Yes sir!" Greg told Upshaw. Greg turned on his heel with formal precision, a maneuver he had learned for his movie roles. He knew the old boy loved stuff like this. Greg started walking purposively over to Ponson's chair, taking deep, stiff strides.
"Mr. Ponson," Greg said, quietly but firmly, when he had reached the producer's chair. Greg got no response out of the producer, who kept his eyes closed. Greg decided that he would have to carry the producer out. Greg was nearly a half a foot taller than the producer, and the muscular young actor easily picked up the limp producer by lifting him up under his armpits.
It was then that Greg noticed the dagger in the producer's back.
From the producer's back, a jeweled dagger protruded. Greg looked at it, and turned white. It looked for all the world like the same Indian dagger that had just featured in the Hansen murder case, the month before. Greg had found producer Simon Hansen stabbed in his office with the dagger in his back. Jake and Moe had entirely cleared that case up, and the killer was now in jail, awaiting trial. Peter Ponson had hated Hansen - the two men had had a long rivalry as producers at the studio - and Ponson had obtained the dagger used in the Hansen murder as a souvenir. Rumor had it that he enjoyed looking at the weapon that had killed his rival. Now the dagger was sticking in Ponson's own back.
Greg set Ponson back down in his chair, and hurried out to call the police.
There was only one more number on the show, a huge pie fight with the studio's top comedians. By the time the police arrived, the benefit was nearly over. At first the audience thought the police's presence was a studio gag, and part of the show. Many expected pies to start splattering the police, too, who they guessed were studio ringers. Soon, however, they realized a real murder had occurred. Lt. Moe Apfelbaum of LA Homicide, a tall, dark haired, wiry man of around thirty-five, talked to the whole crowd, using Jake's giant megaphone to amplify his voice. The Lieutenant was a straightforward, intelligent man of great believability and presence. His quiet but firm explanations to the crowd seemed highly credible. Moe asked no one to leave. Since everyone had planned to stick around anyway and meet the movie stars in person, this caused little trouble. The studio's stars fanned out through the crowd, doing everything they could to distract the guests and make the benefit keep on being a success. Most silent actors were people of tremendous animation and fire. They had to be, so that their personalities could come through on the silent screen, without the benefit of their voices or sound. They turned their huge energy into mingling with the guests. Many were old troopers with a true "the show must go on" mentality. They plunged into action like the unsinkable Molly Brown keeping people's spirits up on the Titanic.
Moe had wasted no time in bringing Jake into the case. He had valued Jake's work in the Hansen murder, and wanted Jake's ideas again on the Ponson affair.
The fingerprint men had the most important report. "There are no prints on the dagger at all. Whoever did the crime must have worn gloves. Otherwise, the murderer's prints certainly would be there." Hardly anyone at the benefit was wearing gloves, and Moe felt that this might be the best clue yet they had to the murderer.
The medical examiner had fewer revelations. After a careful examination of the body, he looked Moe in the eye and told him dryly, "The victim was stabbed."
Many of the police were nonplused by the strange architecture on the estate, although the widely read Moe recognized it as reflecting trends in Modern Art. "I only wish Esther could see this," he told Jake. Esther was Moe's wife.
Lieutenant Moe Apfelbaum of Homicide was interrogating witnesses in a summer house on the Upshaw estate. He fixed his piercing black eyes on Greg.
Moe gave a sardonic smile to the young actor.
"Well, Mr. Hoffmansthal," he said, "I see you've found another corpse. It must be open season on producers at Mammoth-Art."
"Honest, Lieutenant, I had nothing to do with any of this," a shaken Greg replied. "I was on stage singing the whole time."
"And with our old friend, the Indian dagger, too," Moe went on. "The jewels in the dagger's handle are paste, but the blade is real and sharp. It's very effective at killing producers." The dagger had started life as a prop in an Asian adventure movie, some years back.
Greg said that he had discovered the body at a quarter to three. Jake thought that he and Greg should compare times. Both Jake and Greg carried pocket watches, attached by long chains. Greg's watch chain was silver, and dangled in a long arc against the hip of his black evening clothes, while Jake's watch chain was gold, and looped, tycoon style, over the vest of his business suit. Both men had almost exactly the same time.
"I doubt if this has anything to do with the Hansen case," Moe said to Jake, after Greg left. "Hansen's killer has made a full confession, and has been locked up in prison for two weeks, awaiting trial. But someone out there got ideas from the Hansen case, and has done in Peter Ponson in the same way."
Greg was once again the lead suspect in a murder case. He could easily have stabbed the producer while he was bending over him, trying to waken Ponson up from his drunken slumber. Greg's body had blocked all view of Ponson, during the period Greg had tried to waken the producer, then picked him up. Greg could easily have stabbed Ponson, without anyone seeing him do it. Jake found it hard to believe his friend was guilty, and he hoped to get evidence to clear him.
"There are other people present who might have motives," Jake said. "Nickie Belzub is Ponson's wife. She and Ponson were separated, but they are still married, and she probably inherits his estate. Judging from his huge mansion, he's probably a wealthy man."
Jake had a few ideas. He asked the medical examiner, "Could the knife have been thrown at Ponson from a distance?"
"Nope," the examiner said, "whoever did this stood close to Ponson, and thrust in the knife. The nature of the wound makes this clear."
The society audience pretended to be scandalized. Actually, most of them were thrilled to be present during a murder case. They never knew what those movie people might be up to, and felt glad that they had front row seats to the latest scandal out of the movie capital.
Mrs. Emelda Van der Vimt was the next witness. One of the society ladies present at the benefit, she was a medium sized woman in her seventies, all dressed up in a respectable blue suit and hat. She had immediately volunteered as a witness, when Grisby had asked anyone who had seen anything to make a statement to the police. She had been waiting excitedly near the summer house ever since.
The summer house was a piece of avant-garde architecture, built in the form of a giant dodecahedron. The dodecahedron, a mathematical solid with twelve pentagonal faces, was around thirty feet high. One large pentagon formed the floor of the building; two other pentagons on the building's lower rim were empty faces, making doorways for the building. The other pentagonal faces were all made of transparent glass brick, each one of a different pastel color. Being inside the summer house was like being inside a giant, glowing multi-colored jewel. Outside the summer house was a concrete patio, made up of a pentagonal paving design, each one of a different brilliant color. The colors formed a huge set of interlocking spirals, that swirled away from the edges of the building. The whole effect was eye-popping, even dizzying to look at, especially on a bright sunny day like today.
"It is about time you saw me, Inspector," she told the Lieutenant tartly. "I saw everything that happened with that unfortunate man."
"Yes, ma'am," the Lieutenant told her respectfully. Moe was always extremely polite with women witnesses. Eventually they usually recognized that he was a respectful person. Moe had deep respect for women, including his wife Esther, and treated them always as if they were people of great value.
"I saw at once that there was going to be trouble with that Ponson person," she continued. "He was drinking from a silver hip flask, and weaving in an inebriated fashion through the guests. This was even before the benefit started. Then Mr. Thomas Grisby steered him politely but firmly to a chair. Mr. Grisby plainly hoped that that would be the end of it, that Ponson would sit there and stay out of trouble. But I, however, knew better," she said with satisfaction.
"From that time on," she continued, "I watched that unfortunate man like a hawk. I never took my eyes off of him."
"Didn't you watch any of the show, ma'am?" the Lieutenant asked politely.
"Of course not!" she replied, as if that should be obvious to everybody. "One does not come to these Hollywood benefits to see entertainments. That is what theaters are for. One comes here to learn the latest Hollywood gossip. I was certain that Mr. Ponson would soon furnish material for various on-dits. And I was right! I have a sixth sense for such things," she told the Lieutenant confidentially.
"Please tell us everything you saw happen near Mr. Ponson, ma'am" Moe said.
"First, this young man here" she indicated Jake with her fan, "stopped and talked with Ponson. I thought by the way he was dressed that he was a Captain of Industry, but now I see that you are a police detective, young man. Your disguise is very good," she told Jake. "You look just like one of the millionaire business leaders of the community. No one would ever guess that you gun down gangsters for a living."
"Actually," Jake told her in some embarrassment, "I'm a writer at Mammoth-Art. My presence in this case is unofficial."
"Then that ventriloquist came up behind Ponson, and tried to wake him up by shaking him by the shoulder. But Ponson was too inebriated to carry on a conversation," she continued.
"Then the show started again. Ponson called out, wanting to volunteer for the magic show. This took me by surprise. I could have sworn that Ponson was asleep."
"Then that young man, Gregor von Hoffmansthal, started singing on stage. Next a waiter walked behind Ponson, carrying a large tray of food. I think that the path behind Ponson was one of the few ways people could get to the front of the terrace on that side. A stream in front of Ponson cut off other routes."
"Could you describe this waiter, ma'am?"
"He was around 5 foot seven, with sandy hair, an aquiline nose and a mole on his left cheek," the observant Mrs. Emelda Van der Vimt replied.
"Did he stop or pause behind Ponson's chair?"
"No he did not. And both his hands were fully occupied with the tray, which he did not set down. I do not see how he could possibly have stabbed Ponson."
"Next Mr. Grisby came walking along, behind Ponson's chair. He was walking briskly, and did not slow down at all. I could see his arms in motion as he walked, and it seems impossible that he could have stabbed Mr. Ponson either."
"Next came a newspaper photographer. He was snapping pictures with his camera, ambling along behind Ponson's chair and the other chairs at that side. He did stop briefly behind Ponson's chair, to take a photograph of the crowd, but he never set his camera down or let go of it. He kept it raised to his head all of the time, and kept on taking pictures. It was a large camera, and needed both of his hands to hold it at all times. I could see his hands and his camera at all times; they were facing right toward me. I do not see how he could have stabbed Ponson either. I certainly would have seen him set his camera down, get out a knife and stab Ponson. The photographer was wearing a brown suit, a matching hat, and was over six feet tall. He had light brown hair, a small nose, beady eyes and looked sneaky," she concluded.
"Sounds like Murgatroyd of the Daily Spectator," Moe said.
"Next that vamp woman, Nickie Belzub, went over and stood in front of him, off a little to one side. She said something to Ponson, but he did not respond. Then she swept onwards. I could see her hands at all times while she was talking to Ponson. She certainly did not stab him.
"Was she holding her red pitchfork?" the Lieutenant asked.
"Yes she was. She seemed very angry at him, maybe because of his drunken outburst in the middle of her act."
Jake wondered if Nickie somehow could have attached the dagger to one of the prongs of her pitchfork, then used the pitchfork to stab the dagger into Ponson's back. Mrs. Van Der Vimt did not think she had seen anything like that. "Nickie Belzub waved her pitchfork around in the air a couple of times. She seemed quite angry with Ponson. But I think I would have seen her stab or prod Ponson with the pitchfork."
"Finally, the actor who sang, Gregor von Hoffmansthal, arrived, and tried to pick up Ponson. His back blocked off my view of Ponson, and I am sorry to say that he might have killed Ponson then. In fact, he is the only person that might have murdered Ponson, as far as I can tell. I'm sorry to say this, because Hoffmansthal always seems like such a nice young man in his movies."
Moe investigated the terrace floor near Ponson's chair. There were no openings for streams, and it was also quite far from the terrace's edge. The floor seemed completely solid at this point. He did not see how a murderer could have snuck up on Ponson from below. Ponson's chair was astride two of the terrace squares, one green, one yellow.
J. D. Upshaw shook the Lieutenant's hand. "All the resources of Mammoth-Art Studio are available, Lieutenant, to help track down poor Ponson's murderer," the studio head said.
Upshaw had started life as a poor Jew from Wales who had emigrated to the US with only two dollars in his pocket. A gifted businessman, he had made his first fortune in manufacturing men's hats. Later, he had branched out into the burgeoning movie business, gradually building up his present studio empire. He was a great showman. Moe had met him once before, when he spoke at Moe's synagogue on a charity effort with which Moe's wife Esther was involved.
Upshaw arranged to enable some of Moe's men to start a parallel investigation on the Studio grounds. They phoned in their report to Moe at the summer house. The summer house had a phone; it was made out of a cluster of amethyst colored crystals that formed a series of semi-regular solids. Moe had never seen such a mathematical looking telephone.
Ponson had apparently started on his bender the day before. He had gone off, leaving his studio office unlocked. It was still unlocked. Anyone at the studio could have wandered in, and stolen the dagger from Ponson's office.
The crime was clearly premeditated; someone probably had stolen the dagger the day before.
Moe was interviewing a studio messenger in his mid twenties. Like the other messengers at Mammoth-Art, Al Kucinich was dressed in a uniform modeled after that of a Hussar, a kind of 19th Century Cavalry officer. The gorgeous uniforms were royal blue. They had row after row of gold braid across the chest, that fastened over buttons on the far edge of the chest flap. The jackets were worn with matching skin tight royal blue trousers, that stretched into tall black riding boots. The messengers all wore white gloves, with fancy raised white embroidery on their upper surface. They had tall cylindrical hats, made of fake black fur, that were a foot high. Each hat, known as a "busby", had a huge shiny black visor that curved over the wearer's eyes in front, and was fastened when worn by a strap buckled under the wearer's chin. Al looked a bit comic, but he also looked magnificent. No visitor to Mammoth-Art, guided around the studio by one of the messengers, would ever forget the blinding brilliance of the studio uniforms.
Al had sharp eyes. He confirmed what Mrs. Emelda Van der Vimt had said, about the order in which various suspects had visited Ponson.
"I was there today, Lieutenant," Al said, "mainly as a kind of general trouble shooter. I was to keep a close eye on all the guests, and intervene to smooth things over, in case any trouble started, or anyone needed any help. Those were my orders from Mr. Grisby. I was supposed to keep watching the crowd, and pay no attention to the entertainment. I didn't watch Ponson continuously. But he was drunk, and I kept an eye out on him. I was afraid he might cause trouble for one of the guests, or interrupt the entertainment. Eventually Mr. Upshaw sent me to Gregor von Hoffmansthal, in order to get him to deal with Ponson."
Al stood by a blue glass chair in the summer house, that oddly mirrored his uniform.
Jake was curious about the waiter that both Al and Mrs. Emelda Van der Vimt had seen, the one who walked behind Ponson's chair. Jake wondered if the waiter's tray were covered with a cloth, or whether there were a large napkin on it that might have concealed a dagger. Emelda had not been able to answer this question, but Al knew. "It was a large tray of hors d'oeuvres, mainly shrimp and crackers. There was no napkin. Or cover. I would have seen if a dagger were on the tray."
"Were there any bulges in the waiter's jacket that might have been the dagger?" Jake asked.
Al thought about this. "I don't think so. Those waiter uniforms are pretty close fitting. They're a light, pale brown color, and their contours really stand out on a bright day like today. The waiter looked just like a normal waiter. They all have to look sharp for a big bash like this. I was supposed to keep my eyes out for anyone that might be carrying a concealed weapon. We have to be careful, when so many stars are appearing in person." Al might look ornamental in his fancy studio uniform, but he was as much a trained guard and security operative as he was a messenger. Most of the messengers were tough as nails, underneath their polished exteriors. Like the other studio operatives in the messenger corps, Al also had an intimidating looking cop's uniform he could wear on less festive occasions than the benefit, such as bodyguard duty.
Al wore an ornamental sword sheathed in a scabbard as part of his Hussar's uniform. Jake realized that Al could have easily replaced the sword in the scabbard by the dagger, allowing him to carry the dagger around the terrace without anyone noticing. Also, Jake observed that Al's gloves would have prevented his leaving fingerprints on the dagger. While Greg and the very proper Mrs. Van der Vimt had worn gloves too, everyone else in the case had been gloveless, including Upshaw, Jones Bones the ventriloquist, Murgatroyd the photographer, comedian "Seltzer", Nickie Belzub, host Grisby, the waiters, and even Jake himself. One of the mysteries of the case was how any one of them could have handled the dagger with their bare hands, yet leave no fingerprints. But Jake did not see how Al could have gotten close enough to Ponson to kill him, without anyone seeing him. From Mrs. Van der Vimt's testimony, Al had never been near Ponson, and he certainly would have been conspicuous in his fancy blue and gold uniform. Jake asked Al to pull out his sword; it was the regular sword worn by all of the studio messengers. If Al had used the scabbard for the dagger earlier, he had replaced the sword by now.
Grisby submitted to a police search. It was not clear where he could have hidden a large dagger within his dapper, form-fitting tuxedo. And he had no apparent motive to kill Ponson. Also, many people were keeping their eyes on Grisby throughout the show; he was master of ceremonies for the benefit. Grisby claimed not to have seen anything while walking behind Ponson. Either the dagger had not been there, or he was too preoccupied to notice it.
The Lieutenant had an idea. He called Jones Bones the ventriloquist back in.
"You talked to Ponson during the break," the Lieutenant said seriously. "I submit you also faked his voice, volunteering for the role in the magic show."
"No!" a frightened looking Jones Bones said. "I did nothing of the kind."
"It would be easy for a man like you, to throw your voice, making it seem to come from where Ponson was sitting. You knew Ponson, and you could easily imitate his voice, too, making it sound like Ponson was drunk.
"You could have killed Ponson too, during the break," the Lieutenant continued. "You could have stabbed him when you were behind his chair. Then during the magic act you could have thrown your voice, making it seem as if Ponson were still alive later, and giving yourself an alibi."
"No, it's not true!" Sweat began to pour down Jones Bones' face. "It's true I hated Ponson. Everybody knows that. But I didn't do anything to kill him. He was alive when I left him."
Moe called together all the photographers who had covered the benefit.
"Gentlemen, we are asking for your help," he said earnestly. "A murder took place here today. We would like you all to develop your photographs immediately. Any photographs showing Peter Ponson might furnish valuable clues to his killing. If your news offices cannot handle such development work this Saturday afternoon, the police photo lab will be open to assist you in developing your prints."
Moe had had Mrs. Emelda Van der Vimt sitting quietly in a corner. She pointed out to Jake the photographer she had seen walking behind Ponson that afternoon. It was Murgatroyd of the Daily Spectator, as Moe had guessed.
Moe also kept Mrs. Van der Vimt in the corner when he brought in the waiters as a group. She had no trouble picking out Sandy McGuire, the waiter she had seen walk behind Ponson's chair.
When quizzed, young McGuire freely admitted that he had taken a tray along the side of the patio, behind Ponson's chair. He claimed to have seen nothing, and hadn't noticed any dagger in Ponson's back. But then, he couldn't swear he had actually looked closely at Ponson. "I was pretty busy with the food, Lieutenant. You would think I would see a jeweled dagger in someone's back, especially on a bright sunny day, if it had been there. But I hardly remember Ponson."
Sandy McGuire was a regular waiter at an LA catering company. His employer told Moe that he had a good work record over the last two years he'd been employed with the company. None of the waiters had known in advance of the benefit; the company's manager had just picked them out the day before, and ordered them to come into company headquarters that morning for an unspecified job. Then they'd all gone over as a group to the Upshaw estate on the company truck. Moe couldn't see how Sandy McGuire could have known about the job far enough in advance to steal the knife from Ponson's office. Also, unlike most of the other suspects, there was no record of McGuire ever being on the studio lot. The guards at the studio gates kept good records of all the visitors present.
Nickie Belzub was too devastated to be questioned. Moe had one of his men drive her home.
Nickie's dress had long hanging sleeves, that dangled down nearly three feet. They were designed to give her that "queen of the spiders" look, that went with her vamp image. Jake reflected that she could easily have concealed the dagger in one. But how she could have plunged it in her husband's back, without either Emelda or Al seeing her do it, was not easy to figure out.
Sophie Chadwick, the photographer who covered the benefit for her newspaper, the LA Daily Watch, came to see the Lieutenant around 5 that night. Sophie pushed back her hat, whipped out a portfolio, and told the Lieutenant, "Get a load of this!"
The top photo of the portfolio showed the crowd at the benefit. Greg was coming on stage to begin his music act. On one side of the crowd, Peter Ponson was seated in his chair. He was shown in profile. His entire back was clearly visible, through the thin wooden frame of the folding chair. There was no knife in his back.
"Pretty sharp, eh!" Sophie crowed. "This photo shows Ponson was still alive when Hoffmansthal started his act. Whoever did this murder, did it after Hoffmansthal started singing.
"The Daily Watch always plays ball with the police," Sophie continued with smug self-righteousness. "All we ask is for your exclusive comments on this key murder photo, which we will be running on page one in tonight's extra edition."
Moe had his doubts about the Daily Watch's history of nobility and virtue, but he kept them to himself. "The LA police are grateful to the Daily Watch for sharing this valuable information so promptly," Moe said on the record.
"Chadwick's picture clears Jones Bones the ventriloquist," Moe said. "Ponson was clearly not stabbed until after the entertainment started up again, and even after Hoffmansthal started his act. That was long after Bones stopped to talk to Ponson. And, judging by the evidence, it looks like only one person could have done it: Hoffmansthal." Moe sounded uneasy. He plainly felt uncomfortable with the way the case was going.
Jake said. "Greg and I have become friends since the Hansen case. I can't see him killing anyone." Jake asked the Lieutenant, "What do you think about Gregor von Hoffmansthal as a possible murderer?"
"I don't think he is guilty," Moe replied. "The department investigated Hoffmansthal thoroughly during the Hansen case. We couldn't find anyone at the Studio who was willing to say a word against him, or criticize him in any way. This must be some sort of record, for an actor who's been in this town over three years. He seems to be a decent young man.
"Hoffmansthal is high spirited," Moe went on. "He got in trouble during that studio publicity stunt last year, when he dressed up in a pilot's uniform and tried to get the LA Airfield to take part in a studio publicity shoot. He almost pulled that one off, too. He had all those Air officials taking their pictures with him, and doing everything but eating out of his hand. But I can't see him killing anyone. He's just not a mean guy."
"That's my impression, too," Jake confirmed.
"That bad part is," Moe said, "is that all the physical evidence points against him. He's our main suspect again, now that Jones Bones is out of the picture."
"If we believe Greg, and I do," Jake said, "then what we have here is a crime that seems impossible. A man has been stabbed within a large crowd of witnesses, without anyone seeing the crime."
"Another point against him," Moe said, "is that Hoffmansthal was one of the few people here today wearing gloves. The killer left no fingerprints."
Moe looked thoughtful.
"No one in this studio is who they really are," Moe said. "Everyone is presenting themselves as someone who they are not. We have slum kids who want to be upper crust members of society, executives who want to be policemen, nice girls who want to look like celebrated courtesans, messenger boys who look like 19th Century Cavalry officers, comedians who look like night club playboys, and farm boys who dress like race course touts. It's as if everybody is off living some fantasy existence."
Jake thought about this. Finally he said, "It's our job. That is our profession - to create pleasant dreams for people. That's what movies are. Everybody here is good at letting their imaginations go, and trying to come up with some sort of wild piece of storytelling that might entertain people. I used to think that people here just got carried away. But I've come to suspect after my stay here that there's more to it than that." Jake had been in Hollywood for six weeks, working on his scriptwriter's contract. "I think people out here are positively encouraged to act out their dreams in real life. In fact, no one at the studio wants to employ people who look ordinary. They want to hire people who show by their appearance that they can create a fantasy world, and make it real. All of these fantastic personas are a form of advertisement, telling other people in Hollywood that they are good at their jobs. They are saying 'look at me - I can help make your next picture something special.'"
Jake found a shady tree near the patio on Upshaw's estate. It was a Canary Island Date Palm, and was one of the most perfect looking trees Jake had ever seen, round, with arching palm fronds hanging over from the trunk in a perfect circle. The tree was in a planter made of green glass, that formed a low cylinder around ten feet across and two feet high. Jake sat down, stretched his long legs out in the shade, and did some hard thinking. All of a sudden, he saw how the crime might have been committed. He jumped up, corralled Giovanni Santini, a cinematographer from the Studio who was also at the benefit, and went to see Moe.
Moe called in Murgatroyd.
"We want to look at your camera" the Lieutenant told Murgatroyd.
Murgatroyd started handing over the camera he carried.
"Not that one," the Lieutenant said. "We want the other one, the one you're wearing on a strap around your neck." Murgatroyd went white. But he was in a room full of policemen, and he was afraid not to obey the Lieutenant.
The Lieutenant gave Murgatroyd's camera to Santini, for expert examination. Jake had already told Santini in general terms what to look for. Hidden inside the accordion frame on the camera's front was a strong spring device. There was no lens in the camera front, just a gaping hole. Santini explained how it all worked.
"You placed the dagger in the camera, before you came to the benefit today," Jake said to Murgatroyd. "When you stood behind Ponson, you released the spring. The dagger shot out of the camera, straight into Ponson's back. The camera was dangling low, against your stomach, right on the same level as Ponson's back while sitting down. You could kill him in a crowd, and there would be no witnesses.
"You also wiped the dagger clean of fingerprints before you loaded it into the camera, using gloves all the time," Jake went on. "That explains how you left no fingerprints on the weapon. Then you could walk around all day at the benefit with gloveless bare hands - the dagger was already loaded in the camera. You didn't need to touch the dagger again to kill Ponson."
There was a remote control string fastened to the camera's strap; the device could be triggered by sharply tugging on the strap, something Murgatroyd could do while keeping his arms elevated and his hands on the innocent camera he was carrying.
The physical evidence of the camera was conclusive against Murgatroyd. Further police investigation revealed that Ponson had discovered Murgatroyd selling drugs, while visiting Mammoth-Art Studio grounds on a photo shoot. The producer's threats against Murgatroyd - he had intended to get the photographer fired from his job - caused Murgatroyd to rig up the camera and kill Ponson.
"This time," Moe told Jake, "the police are going to hang on to the Indian dagger. We don't need any more producers stabbed at Mammoth-Art."
Sophie Chadwick took Mrs. Emelda Van der Vimt's photo for her paper, at Moe's suggestion. Emelda would appear, labeled as "the star witness", on the front page of the extra edition revealing Murgatroyd's arrest, along with Mrs. Van der Vimt's interview with the Daily Watch. There would also be a quote from Moe, praising Mrs. Van der Vimt's skills as an observer.
"I told you that that Murgatroyd looked sneaky," she reminded the Lieutenant.
Greg was all smiles after being cleared of the crime. He perched his top hat on a jaunty angle on his head, and twirled his black walking stick with enthusiasm. He thanked both the Lieutenant and Jake. He warmly shook Jake's hand. Then with the resilience of a true trooper, he went back to the terrace and led the guests at the benefit out onto the dance floor.
Jake had never learned how to dance, but he watched with contentment the peaceful scene he had helped create.
Now that the killer was caught and the area was safe, Moe had had his wife Esther come out and join him for the rest of the benefit. As Moe had thought, Esther loved the huge terrace. Moe and Esther joined the other dancers, gliding over the glass maze in the waltz.