Mystery Stories Home Page
Copyright 2004 by Michael E. Grost
A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery
By Michael E. Grost
Hollywood: October 1924.
Greg was sitting at the piano in the speakeasy, pounding away at the Basin Street Blues. He was dressed in a rakish tuxedo, and altogether looked like a sporty character. There was a glass with a lime in it near him, although knowing Greg was a life long teetotaler, Jake guessed it probably just contained soda pop.
Greg was an actor at Mammoth-Art Studio in Hollywood. His latest role was in a gangland melodrama, and he had gotten the piano job at the Pig in a Poke speakeasy to soak up atmosphere for his performance. It was just for a weekend. His best friend, Jacob "Jake" Black, was a writer at the studio, and had come down that Saturday night to see what Greg was up to. Jake was a teetotaler, too, and had never been in a speakeasy before. He looked around with interest.
There was a dance floor, and a few couples were dancing away. At a table near Jake, there were two pairs of clean-cut college students with their girl friends, out on a double date. They probably felt like they were up to the last word in deviltry by visiting the Pig in a Poke. On Jake's other side, a middle-aged man with a mustache was escorting a woman in a low cut dress who was young enough to be his daughter. At a third table, an elegant, beautiful young woman sat. Two young men in tuxedos were very attentive to her.
An over-dressed man of around forty, was seated at the best table in the speakeasy with a chorus girl. He wore lots of rings with huge stones, diamond studs in his tuxedo shirt front, and other jewelry. Jake wondered if the man were a big time bootlegger. There was a tough looking man seated with him, who could be a bodyguard.
Jake did what he always did in a new and interesting place. He took a small notebook out of his coat pocket, and started taking notes in shorthand, recording everything he saw. Jake never knew when they might be useful on some story he was writing.
Greg pointed out the speakeasy's manager. He was a dapper, powerfully built man, also wearing a tuxedo. He frequently circulated among the guests, and Jake heard him addressed as Nick Woolcott. The jaunty manager looked tough, and capable of taking care of himself among a wide variety of circumstances.
The threesome that came in next were oddly mismatched. Jake recognized Clay Harrigan, a Los Angeles City councilman, and his wife. Councilman Harrigan had been present at the dedication of a new Mammoth-Art Studio building. Harrigan was blustery, a long-winded political orator, and something of a social climber. Harrigan did have the reputation of being honest, however. His mousy looking wife was with him, loyally trailing in his wake, as usual.
The distinguished looking man with the Harrigans was vastly more refined. The 40ish man was tall, handsome and almost impossibly aristocratic looking. He spoke in the clipped tones of an upper class Englishman, and was dressed in a well-tailored English naval officer's uniform, with a Captain's rank. Harrigan loudly referred to him as Sir Anthony, on several occasions. Harrigan had used a voice that could be heard throughout the entire club, and Jake guessed that Sir Anthony was Harrigan's latest social conquest. The trio sat at the table next to Jake's, and he could read Sir Anthony's last name on his uniform: Harquist.
Sir Anthony was soon escorting Mrs. Harrigan out on the dance floor. He had impeccable manners, and he showed that lady many small courtesies. He danced divinely as well, holding himself erect with perfect posture, and one could see that Mrs. Harrigan was thoroughly enjoying herself. While the couple were dancing, Jake noticed Sir Anthony's hands. He had beautiful long fingers, like those of a surgeon, or pianist.
Sir Anthony Harquist looked faintly familiar to Jake. Jake wondered if he had seen the naval officer's picture in the newspaper. Jake had a vague mental image of seeing a black and white photo of the distinguished visitor.
Sir Anthony was telling a number of entertaining sea stories to the Harrigans, back at their table. He was a superb storyteller. Jake was quietly listening to every word. Jake was the author of numerous sea adventure stories for the pulp magazines. He loved to hear men who'd been to sea recount their adventures. Jake often found inspiration for his stories in their tales. He wondered if he could get Sir Anthony to regale him with more of his experiences, during his stay in Los Angeles. Before the evening was out, Jake resolved to introduce himself to the charming Naval Captain.
Sir Anthony excused himself from the table. He made his way to the back of the nightclub. Off one side of the club, fairly near the dance floor, was a solitary wooden phone booth, painted a midnight blue to match the decor of the club. Sir Anthony had been carrying his uniform cap stiffly under one arm. He placed his cap on his head, seated himself on the built-in chair in the booth, and closed the booth's folding door. A ceiling light in the booth came on automatically, whenever its occupant closed the door. Jake could see the silhouette of Sir Anthony's head, a sharply defined shadow outlined on the window in the door. The door window was of ground glass, which let light through, but which did not allow one to see the details of the inside of the booth. Sir Anthony's Roman profile and high-peaked uniform cap were unmistakable in silhouette outline, however.
Sir Anthony soon finished his call. He opened the phone booth door, and the light automatically shut itself off. It was very dim in that section of the club, and with the lights lowered for dancing, it was downright murky. If the phone booth had not had a light, it would be impossible to see. Sir Anthony's trim navy blue uniform was also hard to see in the dark.
Suddenly Jake remembered where he had seen Sir Anthony Harquist's picture. It had been a mug shot on Moe's desk.
Jake had frequently worked with Lt. Moe Apfelbaum of LAPD Homicide, on various murder cases. Jake had a flair for solving mysteries, and Moe often brought Jake in to consult on his more baffling cases.
"This is our old nemesis," Moe had told Jake some months ago, "Long-fingered Louie. Long, as we call him for short, is a notorious con man, swindler and jewel thief. Long was born in the slums of Boston, but he usually passes himself off as a British gentlemen to his marks. We'd love to catch him in the act, but so far, he's been too clever. His home bases are Saratoga and Miami - he goes wherever there are horse races that attract rich people. Long is a gifted engineer and mechanic, and he uses lots of ingenious devices in his thefts. He's not violent, but he's extremely slippery."
Jake went over to the phone booth and dialed up Moe, who he knew was on the night shift. Moe was interested.
"So that's where our old friend is," Moe said dryly. "The police had no idea he was in town. I'll send someone out to the Pig in a Poke to keep an eye on things."
Jake hung up, and sat there thinking. Jake liked the bright light that had come on inside the phone booth when he closed the door. It was the only bright light in the whole night club. Jake had never liked the dark lighting of "atmospheric" restaurants. Back home in Jake's little bungalow, he had lots of bright lights.
Jake walked over to the piano, to inform Greg about what was going down at the speakeasy. Greg was deeply interested.
A young man entered the hall from outside. The man was dressed in a natty tuxedo. Anyone would think he was an affluent young man out for a night on the town. But Jake recognized the man. It was Officer Thomas O'Brien, of the Los Angeles Police. O'Brien was on Moe's staff at the Homicide squad. Jake guessed that Moe had sent O'Brien to keep an eye on Sir Anthony.
O'Brien gave no sign of recognizing Jake; in fact O'Brien looked right through him on his way to the table where the headwaiter was escorting him. Jake had met O'Brien several times during various investigations, and felt sure O'Brien knew perfectly well who Jake was. He was just ignoring Jake so as not to betray his identity.
It was the dream of the handsome young O'Brien to become a Hollywood actor, and he had had some small parts in Hollywood films. Jake guessed that O'Brien was thrilled to be out in an undercover role. It would give him a chance to act out a part in real life. This was the first time Jake had ever seen O'Brien, when O'Brien was not in his patrolman's uniform.
O'Brien also had a musical act, in which he sang on weekend evenings in various small bars and nightclubs around Los Angeles. Presumably he wore the tuxedo he was sporting now when he sang professionally.
O'Brien made his way over to Harrigan's table, and started pumping a startled looking Sir Anthony's hand.
"I say!" O'Brien said in a perfect English accent to Sir Anthony, "Fancy meeting you here. Haven't seen you since that night we played bridge in Saratoga. Always a pleasure to meet a fellow Englishman abroad. And your lovely wife too." O'Brien gave a refined smile. He turned to Harrigan. "Gilbert Artbuthnot at your service," he told him, shaking his hand. "Frightful cheek of me to intrude like this, but couldn't resist greeting an old acquaintance, eh what?"
Harrigan plainly looked as if he had won the jackpot - two upper crust Englishmen in one night. He insisted that O'Brien join them at their table.
Sir Anthony looked a bit wary. He clearly had no recollection of O'Brien, but he'd certainly met hundreds of people casually in Saratoga, and had no real reason to doubt O'Brien's word.
O'Brien was regaling the Harrigans with stories about how he had rowed for Cambridge. O'Brien had actually rowed for his crew team in high school in Los Angeles, so he knew the terminology of the sport. One of his favorite sports books growing up had been a novel about the big Oxford-Cambridge boat race, and O'Brien found he knew everything about the yearly event by heart. He had developed the English accent when he appeared in a little theater production of George Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man. O'Brien tried to get as much stage experience as possible, to train his acting skills.
O'Brien was not afraid Sir Anthony would ask him too many questions about England. Moe had told O'Brien during his briefing that Long-fingered Louie had never actually been to Britain. O'Brien had not either, but after all the British plays he had read and seen, he felt he could wing it.
Sir Anthony did not seem at all worried by O'Brien's presence. Furthermore, Sir Anthony did not seem to be talking business at all to the Harrigans. He concentrated instead on pleasant society chitchat. O'Brien had expected Sir Anthony to be running some con job on Harrigan, selling him the Brooklyn Bridge or phony gems. O'Brien was relieved that nothing of the sort was happening. But also a bit puzzled. What was going on?
"Here's my stockbroker, Hector Powell," O'Brien said, flagging down Jake. Jake did look like a prosperous businessman in his elegant, dressy black tuxedo. "Sit down with us, Hector, and meet my old friends." O'Brien virtually thrust Jake into a seat.
Jake, who had never been able to do an accent in his life, used his ordinary, American voice. O'Brien introduced him to everyone at the table as Hector. Jake felt glad that Councilman Harrigan gave no sign of recognizing Jake. At the Mammoth-Art building dedication, Harrigan had given a lengthy speech, while Jake had merely watched from the audience.
Jake found Long very charming. Of course, charm was most con men's stock in trade.
Sir Anthony excused himself again, and rose from the table. He disappeared into the crowd of dancers near the phone booth. The light in the booth came on. Jake could see the outline of Sir Anthony's head, seated in the booth, the high peaked cap and visor making a vivid pattern on the door. Jake was fascinated, wondering who Sir Anthony was calling. He kept his eyes fixed on the door. Jake suspected the call had something to do with whatever criminal scheme Sir Anthony was executing tonight.
Sir Anthony was talking for a long time. His shadow occasionally showed him fidgeting around in the phone. Once, he took off his peaked cap, scratched his head, and put the cap back on.
Jake decided to get a closer look. Maybe he could hear something of the conversation. Jake made his way through the darkened nightclub, keeping his eye fixed on Sir Anthony and the phone booth at all times.
Greg, at the piano stand, was singing a blues number.
"Since you've gone away, don't know what I'll do.
"You just disappeared, away out in the blue.
"Got those lonesome, empty bed blues."
Just as Jake reached the phone booth, the light went out. Jake expected Sir Anthony to emerge from the booth, but nothing happened. Presumably, he was sitting alone in there in the dark. Jake suddenly had an awful premonition. Maybe someone had killed Sir Anthony. It seemed impossible - Jake had had his eyes on the phone booth ever since the man had entered it. Or maybe he'd taken ill.
Jake reached over, and pushed open the door of the booth.
There was no one inside.
Impossible as it seemed, Sir Anthony had vanished.
Jake pulled out his pocket watch, whose chain was looped over his tuxedo vest. The time was 9:35.
Jake entered the phone booth and closed the door. The light went on, making it much easier to see.
One of Jake's favorite comic strips was Minute Movies, by Ed Whelan. Whelan burlesqued popular film genres of the day in it. Jake recalled a gangster film spoof in Minute Movies in which gangsters kidnapped people by having a trap door open in a phone booth in a mob-run nightclub. The victims had fallen through the floor of the booth down a chute, and been held captive in the basement. It was very funny.
But Jake doubted whether anything like that could happen here. It was just a regular wooden phone booth, a bit seedy and rickety looking, but solid enough. The floor was a tough looking metal plate, screwed to the frame. The screws had rusted shut, both in the floor plate, and in the sides of the phone booth. Jake doubted whether a team of workmen armed with screwdrivers could take any wall or floor of the booth apart, let alone Sir Anthony while Jake had the booth under observation.
Jake looked at the top of the booth. He saw a hole the size of a dime in the ceiling, near the ceiling light in the back of the booth. It looked odd to Jake, but he had no idea what it meant. Even if Sir Anthony had succeeded in removing the top of the booth, what then? Jake would have seen him, if he had tried to crawl out the top of the booth.
The phone booth was tightly flush against the wall of the night club. Jake wondered was lay behind this wall. He noticed a nearby door in the wall. Opening it, Jake found himself in a seedy looking, undecorated corridor. In one direction, it led to offices of the night club manager, and from there to the front of the club. In the other, it led to a door, which emptied out into an alley between the nightclub and the hotel next door. Jake peeked up and down the dark alley. He saw some trash cans, and a stray cat, but no sign of Sir Anthony.
Jake studied the corridor wall near where he guessed the phone was on the other side of the wall, in the night club. There was a flat old wooden box, around six inches deep, jutting out high on the wall. Jake opened it, and found a mass of fuses and electric switches for the club. The back of the wooden box was full of holes for wires, leading from the switches into the wall. Jake couldn't see how the box could help Sir Anthony escape from the phone booth. The shallow box was around two feet square, and could not even have concealed a cat, let along a tall man of Sir Anthony's size.
Jake went back through the corridor, and into the main night club hall through the door again. The phone booth was still dark and empty - Jake looked inside it again. He made his way perplexedly back to his table.
One table over, talking with the Harrigans, sat Sir Anthony. He look unharmed, suave, and totally distinguished.
Jake went to Greg and asked him what he had seen. Greg was on break between numbers.
"I saw Sir Anthony come back to his table a few minutes ago," Greg told Jake. "He walked back from the side wall where the phone booth was, and rejoined his table. It was soon after I saw you go into the phone booth. I did not actually see Sir Anthony leave the booth. Did you?"
"Actually, no," Jake told Greg with a grin. Jake proceeded to tell Greg all about the disappearance.
"Did you hear the latest?" The speakeasy's manager had stopped by the Harrigans' table. "There was a big robbery in the hotel next door."
"Shocking!" Sir Anthony breathed.
"A solitary masked crook held up the front desk, and stole a quarter million dollars worth of jewels from the safe. The Dirkins were staying at the hotel," he added. Paul Dirkin was a major importer from San Francisco who was staying in town; his wife's collection of diamonds was famous. "The crook wore a heavy beard. He distracted the attention of the hotel clerk, threw a hood over his head, and bound and gagged him. He then used the clerk's keys to rob the safe."
"Is no one safe anywhere?" Mrs. Harrigan asked in alarm.
"At least everyone in my club has an alibi," the manager said with a smile. "The hold-up took place right at 9:30."
"We can all vouch for you, dear lady," Sir Anthony said to Mrs. Harrigan gallantly. "You have never left the ball room here all evening."
Mrs. Harrigan seemed flattered by the attention.
"We can vouch for you as well, Sir Anthony," she replied. "The only times you were not dancing or at this table were during your phone calls. And we could see you in the booth during those."
"That might be good to remember," Sir Anthony said with a humorous smile, "if we are questioned by your local constabulary. Perhaps you will be called on to testify to that in court."
"You are so amusing, Sir Anthony," Mrs. Harrigan laughed.
Jake sat on his tongue. He knew what no one else at the table did - that Sir Anthony had somehow vanished out of the phone booth. And right at the time of the robbery, 9:30. Sir Anthony clearly did not have the diamonds on his person. There would be no way to hide anything bulky in Sir Anthony's dapper, form-fitting uniform. But he could have the diamonds stashed somewhere about the club.
A uniformed patrolman appeared at the Harrigans' table.
He politely but firmly spoke to Sir Anthony.
"The Lieutenant would like you to come next door and answer some questions," he said. "Just a routine matter."
Sir Anthony graciously said good evening to the Harrigans, and accompanied the police officer out of the night club.
There was a large teak tree in front of the speakeasy. Jake sat down on a bench underneath it, and stretched out his legs. Each of the enormous heart-shaped leaves on the tree was bigger than Jake's head. The tree was in full bloom, covered with panicles of purple, tube-shaped flowers. It rather reminded Jake of the Catalpa trees he used to love in Milwaukee as a boy. The tropical teak tree at the nightclub, Tectona grandis, was the source of the precious teakwood, used for fancy woodworking. But Jake liked it even more alive, and in flower. Gradually he forgot everything, and began to think about the case.
O'Brien duly managed to turn on and off ceiling lights over the dance floor and band stand. Then he worked on a somewhat newer looking switch, in the upper right hand corner of the box. He turned the switch on.
Jake and O'Brien experimented with the phone booth door being open. Here the switch had no apparent effect. The light always stayed off, when the door was open. But they discovered that if they turned the switch on, and then closed the door, something very different would happen in the phone booth.
"You'd better come out here and look at this!" Jake called out.
O'Brien went back to the phone booth, with Jake. The booth was lighted up. They could see what looked like Sir Anthony, peaked uniform cap and all, silhouetted on the door. A beam of white light was coming from the small hole in the ceiling of the booth. A motion picture film was being projected. It showed Sir Anthony's sharply outlined black shadow, making a phone call. The shadow went through the same motions as earlier in the evening, when Jake had watched Sir Anthony's second phone call. The shadow even took off its cap at one point, and scratched its head, before putting the cap back on.
"This explains the impossible disappearance," Jake said. "Sir Anthony was not in the booth the second time at all! I just saw this movie projected on the door of the booth. While I was watching this, Sir Anthony was next door, robbing the hotel safe."
Jake was explaining the crime to O'Brien and Greg.
"Long set this alibi up in advance with the manager of the night club. He wanted the Harrigans, unimpeachable witnesses, to state that he was with them all evening, during the jewel robbery. Except for a brief period, when he would apparently be highly visible to everyone in the club in the phone booth.
"Long never had any intention of creating an impossible disappearance," Jake went on. "If I had not been watching the phone booth up close, everyone would just have thought Sir Anthony was making an ordinary phone call in it, no more. It was just intended as an alibi."
"How did the robbery take place?" Greg asked.
"Sir Anthony excused himself from the Harrigan's table, disappeared into the crowd of dancers, then went out the side corridor door of the club," Jake explained. "In the corridor, he flipped the switch that made sure the movie would be projected in the phone booth, the next time the door was closed. He then went back and closed the door of the booth. It was so dark in the club that no one saw him do these things. Closing the phone booth door turned on the projector in the top of the phone booth. The projector showed a film strip, displaying Sir Anthony's image on the booth door. He then went into the alley through the corridor, changed into a seedy old jacket and beard he'd stored there in a trash can, went to the hotel next door, held up the safe, and then returned to the nightclub through the corridor, after taking off his disguise in the alley. The movie in the phone both was playing all this time. It finally ended, shortly after I arrived at the booth.
"That's why Sir Anthony was wearing his naval officer's cap inside, in the phone booth, earlier in the evening, when he made his first call. He wanted to have his silhouette instantly recognizable to everyone watching the phone booth. The Harrigans would be his alibi during the jewel theft. Sir Anthony figured, correctly, that he would be the only man wearing a uniform cap in the club."
"There are no sign of the gems anywhere in the alley," O'Brien reported in frustration. "It was the best guess where Long might have hidden them. He might have given the gems to a confederate, but I doubt it. It would be risky to trust anything so valuable to a second crook."
"What if Sir Anthony had a prepared box stored in the alley?" Jake suggested after some thought. "He could have boxed up the gems and dropped them in a local mailbox, then went back into the nightclub."
O'Brien made a phone call, and soon had a court order allowing him and a postal inspector to open up a mailbox down the street from the nightclub. The gems were in a package inside, addressed to a post office box in Santa Monica.
O'Brien went next door, to tell the Lieutenant in charge of the robbery investigation to hold Sir Anthony - they now had strong evidence he was involved in the case.
O'Brien discovered that the Lieutenant did not have Sir Anthony. In fact, he had never sent a patrolman over to get Sir Anthony for questioning.
"That policeman we saw," Jake concluded, "was a confederate of Sir Anthony, a crook wearing a police uniform. He had been arranged in advance, so that Sir Anthony could make his escape. Sir Anthony had no way of knowing whether the police were on to him or not. The fake cop was just insurance. Maybe the police will be able to stake out the post office box where Sir Anthony thinks the jewels are being sent, and catch him.
"At least, we have the gems back."
Greg, O'Brien and Jake were planning to call it a night. They were gathered by the piano stand, in their tuxedos.
"Be back in a minute, after changing into my street clothes," Greg told Jake.
"My tuxedo is all I brought here," O'Brien told him.
Greg was indeed fast. He had studied with a quick-change artist at the studio, and was used to lightning fast costume changes so as not to hold up filming. However, Greg's idea of street clothes was not a suit. Instead, he was in a faultless set of white tie and tails.
"One always wears white tie after 6 PM," Greg casually told a startled O'Brien.
O'Brien cornered Jake afterwards, while the two men were waiting for a streetcar.
"One of my favorite movies when I was in high school," O'Brien told Jake, "was The Winning Stroke. It starred George Walsh as a college rower. You ought to write a picture about a college crew team! And maybe I could get a role in it."
"That's a good idea," Jake told him, after thinking about it.
It was still a few years before such crew films achieved their maximum popularity. William Haines would appear in Brown of Harvard in 1926, becoming a star in the process, and then Richard Arlen in Rolled Stockings the next year. Buster Keaton would make a comedy about rowers in College in 1927, too.
Jake sent cartoonist Ed Whelan a letter about his night club adventures, care of the LA Daily Watch, a paper which ran Minute Movies every day. He was surprised to get a letter back - Whelan was a complete stranger to Jake. Whelan asked Jake to keep him posted, if Jake saw any movies that were ripe for parody. And Whelan also mentioned Jake briefly in the panel at the end of his Sunday strip, where he answered mail from his readers. Jake cut the strip out of the newspaper, and saved it along with Whelan's letter.