Mystery Stories Home Page
Copyright 2006 by Michael E. Grost
A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery
By Michael E. Grost
"Jake! I have another mystery for you to solve," Greg said.
"What?" his friend Jake asked. "Here in Buzzard's Corners? This whole town is so small, it has just three buildings." Jake pointed them out. "This tiny western town has a general store, a horse barn next door, and a shack across the road for Pappy, who seems to be the town's proprietor and sole resident."
Greg winked. "Big mail robbery," he said with a smile. "Seems downright impossible, too." Greg and Jake had just driven up to Buzzard's Corners fifteen minutes ago, in their horse-drawn cart. Greg was a giant young man in his early twenties, dressed in all-white cowboy clothes, like the hero of a western movie. His curly black hair fell in ringlets under his ten-gallon white hat. Jake was around thirty, slim, brown-haired, and in light gray cowboy Good Guy gear: a gray suede shirt that laced up across his broad chest, snug gray suede jeans, a gray cowboy hat.
It was warm in the California desert, even in January, 1925.
Greg brought Jake over to the town's biggest building, a general store called Pappy's Emporium.
"Pleased to see you gents," Pappy told them. Pappy was a wizened old man in dusty western clothes, his face dominated by a huge white beard. There was only one other customer in the store, a sixty-ish lady in a calico dress. Both Greg and Jake immediately took off their cowboy hats in the presence of the lady.
"Pappy," the lady intoned, "someone has been stealing my letters!"
"Now, Lulu Mae," Pappy protested mildly, "why would anyone want to do that?"
"I put a dollar for my daughter's birthday in my last letter to her," Lulu Mae replied, "and the letter never reached her. Someone stole it for the money!"
"Lulu Mae," Pappy stated, "my store has served as a US Post Office for twenty years. No one has ever succeeded in stealing anything here." Pappy took them all outside to the front of the store. "This here is our mailbox. Built it myself, out of solid oak, back in 1904. No one could tamper with it."
The heavy wooden box stood in front of the store. It was around two feet wide, three feet high, and a foot deep from front to back. It had a slot on top through which the public could drop mail.
"The only way inside this box is through the hinged lid," Pappy explained. "And that's fastened by this here padlock, and I'm the only one who knows the padlock's combination. Once a week, every Tuesday morning, I unlock it, and give the mail to the US Government postman who comes through town on his mail truck."
"This box does look rock solid," Jake said. "Could someone be attacking the box through the ground?" Jake asked. "The box sits right on the dirt. Maybe through the cellar of the general store."
"Not likely," Pappy spit out. He took them back into the Emporium, and down the cellar stairs in the back of the store. The cellar was a huge place, filled with barrels of supplies and old junk Pappy had accumulated over the years. "Here's the front of the cellar," Pappy said, "right below where the mailbox would be." The old, solid earth walls were covered with cobwebs.
"This hasn't been touched in years," Jake told Greg.
"It does seem impossible that anyone has stolen any mail here," Greg said.
The dirt cellar floor took the prints of Greg and Jake's cowboy boots. Jake could see the JB monogram from the heels of his boots, imprinted in the floor. JB stood for Jake's full name, Jacob Black.
"I checked it with my daughter," Lulu Mae said tartly. "Other mail from me was never delivered to her either. Two of my last five weekly letters have vanished."
Greg gallantly gave a hand to Lulu Mae, helping her up the rickety cellar stairs.
"Thank you, young man," Lulu Mae told him.
"Jake here is an amateur detective," Greg told her proudly. "He has helped the police solve several mysteries back in Los Angeles."
Outside, Greg's shiny white leather vest and chaps glittered in the bright desert sun. The light gray suede of Jake's shirt and jeans also caught glints of the sunlight, as did the gray leather lacings across the chest of his western shirt.
"I wondered if you young men were really cowboys," Lulu Mae said. "Your clothes are too pretty to work in. Can you even use those lassos you carry on your belts?"
Greg unleashed his lasso, and started spinning it in huge circles. Jake made an answering loop of his own lasso. Greg walked through Jake's giant twirling circle, still spinning his lasso, then backed out. This was the signal for Jake to walk through Greg's lasso, still spinning his own. Lulu Mae and Pappy cheered.
"I bet you young men are with the rodeo," Lulu Mae said.
"Almost," Greg replied. "We are movie people. We are part of the western movie being made at Boulder Camp, around seven miles west from here down the road."
"Greg is an actor," Jake said, "and I'm a writer, working as a gag-man on the western comedy being filmed, contributing jokes and bits of business."
"I never get to the movies much," Pappy said. "You have to ride twenty miles to Bullhorn, to see the nearest picture show."
"Where did you learn to use your lassos?" Lulu Mae asked.
"Actually," Jake said sheepishly, "Mammoth-Art Studio, where we work, has a training class for cowboy performers."
"Do you perform in pictures, too?" Lulu Mae asked Jake.
"No," Jake replied, "I'm just a writer. I took the cowboy class because it would help with my movie writing." That was Jake's announced reason at the studio. Actually, Jake had wanted to be a cowboy ever since he was a kid back in Milwaukee. Taking the class had taught him all the western lore one needed to be a cowboy. Or at least play one on camera.
Greg and Jake hitched up their horse cart, and started riding out of Buzzard's Corners, west towards their movie location at Boulder Camp.
"This whole town looks familiar," Greg said.
"Have you ever been here before?" Jake asked.
"I do not think so," Greg replied. "But the buildings and layout seem to be echoing some memory." Greg had a strong visual memory. As an actor in silent films, his thinking was often in the form of visual patterns.
"I know where I have seen the town!" Greg said. "Two years ago, another studio used it for a series of western films, starring Pecos Jones. It is quite picturesque."
"There is not a tree in sight here, out in the desert," Jake said thoughtfully. Jake loved trees. "Just flat, empty desert, a straight road that seems to go on forever, and Buzzard's Corners sitting right over the road, in the middle of nowhere."
The only large business near the movie location was an airfield, around three miles further west. It did not service commercial planes - it was a test airfield for experimental aircraft. Jake was visiting it the next day.
"We are located way out in the California desert," Alexander MacGuffin said to Jake, "where we have lots of room to experiment." MacGuffin was a bright-eyed Scotsman of around thirty. He was a gifted engineer who specialized in creating new aircraft.
"I am grateful for the tour you gave me," Jake told him. "I write air adventure fiction for the pulp magazines, and value every opportunity to keep up with the latest in air technology." Jake had started out as a pulp writer, before getting his movie job, and still kept his hand in with pulp stories, writing them on evenings and weekends.
MacGuffin and Jake were having lunch in the airfield's cafeteria. Jake started telling MacGuffin and his friends about the mail robbery at Buzzard's Corners.
"That's where we send all our mail, too," one said. "It's the only mail station around here."
"Have you had any trouble?" Jake asked.
"Never," MacGuffin replied. "And we send a lot of valuable aircraft designs out each week through there, to our head office in Los Angeles. Our competitors would pay thousands to get access to our designs. So would several foreign governments."
"Do you know for sure if your recent mailings have not been stolen?" Jake asked.
"Absolutely," Jim Wickham replied. Jim was a fresh-faced young engineer at the field. "We get return receipts from the head office. They are carefully checked in our accounting department. As of one week ago, every plan and blueprint that was sent out was actually received in Los Angeles."
"I personally, drive into Buzzard's Corners every Monday night with the airfield mail," MacGuffin said. "Jim here has offered to do it for me, but I always go myself. And I personally drop the mail into the mailbox in Buzzard's Corners."
"Lulu Mae said the first mail robbery was three weeks ago," Jake said. "Did you go to Buzzard's Corners then?"
"Yes," MacGuffin replied. "I drove out on a Monday night, same as always. A security guard went along, the same as usual. And Jim here went along to keep me company."
"Did the security guard handle the mail?" Jake asked.
"No," MacGuffin said, "no one ever handles the mail sack but me. The guard stayed in the car. I got out and talked briefly with Pappy, after dropping the mail into the box. He was sitting in front of his shack, as always on Monday nights. Jim got out, and wandered into Pappy's store for a look."
"Did you see anything odd in Pappy's Emporium?" Jake asked Jim.
"No," Jim replied, "just a lot of barrels and shelves full of supplies."
"I have never been in any of the buildings in Buzzard's Corners, myself," MacGuffin said. "Just dropped mail there."
"What else happened three weeks ago?" Jake went on.
"Nothing," MacGuffin said. "We got back in the car, and returned to the airfield here. I went right to my bunk, and went to sleep."
"Well," Jake said, "there certainly is a motive for crooks to try to steal mail from Pappy's box. But why would they steal Lulu Mae's one dollar letter, and leave your very valuable mail alone?"
After lunch, Jake returned to the movie location at Boulder Camp. Jake soon found himself clambering over rocky ground in his cowboy boots. During the same class at Mammoth-Art Studio, in which Jake learned to twirl a lasso, he had also been instructed in the mechanics of cowboy boots. Jake learned how to stand, walk and run in the high-heeled boots, all with complete naturalness. It had not been easy, at first, but the instructor had helped them master the boots. Now Jake did it automatically, without thinking. He could even dance in the boots. Jake found he moved completely differently while wearing western gear. Jake could walk down a series of rickety porch steps in the boots, all while twirling a lasso, and without any effort.
"Jake," Greg called out to him, "Come and see our new animal!"
Jake wondered if Greg were talking about a horse. Jake had learned how to get on and off a horse without looking like an idiot. But he had never learned to ride. Jake was a city boy, and not especially interested in riding horses. Jake liked horses as animals, and enjoyed bringing them apples and carrots to eat. Jake loved fruit, and he figured that horses would like apples just as much as he did.
"It's a buffalo!" Greg told him, waving his hand at one of the biggest animals Jake had ever seen. "They are also known as bison. This one will be in the movie."
Jake had never seen a bison before in real life, only in the movies. He was shocked at how huge it was. It had enormously powerful looking shoulders and haunches. Jake's initial reaction was sheer fear. He had never been this close to an animal so large and powerful. Jake said nothing about this, and tried to look nonchalant, as he moseyed away from the buffalo. At a proper distance, the bison looked beautiful. But Jake resolved to show the animal a decent respect during the shooting of the picture.
It was a dark and moonless night. Clouds covered the sky. Out in the countryside, there was almost no light.
Jake and Greg had volunteered to take the movie camp's mail to Buzzard's Corners. It was Monday night, and tomorrow, Tuesday, the US Mail truck would pick up the week's mail in Buzzard's Corners, just as it did every Tuesday.
"I admit it," Jake told Greg. "I'm curious about the mail robbery. Maybe we'll pick up a clue."
Jake and Greg had hitched up the horse-cart. All their light came from a lantern on its back. There was only one main road which stretched past the movie location at Boulder Camp - which was where Greg and Jake were starting their trip. West, the road went to the airfield, and to Lulu Mae's house. East, the road led to Buzzard's Corners, which was the direction Jake and Greg took.
Greg and Jake studied a map a cowboy at the movie location had provided.
"I see the map has three small rectangles, representing the three buildings of Buzzard's Corners," Greg said. "One for Pappy's shack on the north side of the road, two more for Pappy's Emporium and the horse barn south of the road."
The road east to Buzzard's Corners was deserted, and their horse and cart lopped steadily along. Greg and Jake sang cowboy songs as they rode, with Greg's large tenor voice carrying "The Streets of Laredo" across the desert night.
The two men immediately passed through a pair of giant boulders on either side of the desert road.
"Those are the strangest shaped boulders I've ever seen," Jake said.
"Guess that is why they call this area where we are making the movie Boulder Camp," Greg replied.
Soon, Greg and Jake ran into Lulu Mae, who was riding her old mare.
"Why if it isn't my movie cowboy friends!" Lulu Mae greeted them. "I'm just returning home from Buzzard's Corners, dropping off my week's mail."
"We have the film camp's mail here, too," Jake told her, displaying a small sack.
"I often make this trip on Monday nights," Lulu Mae added. "It's a lot cooler to ride in the desert after dark." She giddyapped and rode off.
Shortly before Greg and Jake reached Buzzard's Corners, they were overtaken by a light blue car, heading east towards Buzzard's Corners, like Greg and Jake. The driver slowed down, and rolled down his window. It turned out to be MacGuffin. A uniformed airfield security guard set next to him in his car.
"Just my regular Monday run, to drop off the mail," he said friendlily. He waved good-bye, and speeded forward to Buzzard's Corners. A few minutes later, the duo met MacGuffin's car again, this time going west, away from Buzzard's Corners. Presumably, MacGuffin had mailed his letters, and was turning around and going back home to the airfield. MacGuffin waved at Greg and Jake, but did not slow down for a chat this time, but speeded west. Soon his car lights were lost to sight.
Buzzard's Corners seemed deserted when Jake and Greg got there. The buildings rose up gloomily in the dim light of their lantern, the only light anywhere in the dark town. They could see Pappy, with his white beard, asleep in the rocking chair in front of his shack. Greg stopped their horse cart.
Jake quietly got down out of the cart, and dropped their letters in the slot in the mailbox. The box's padlock, firmly fastened, glittered in the light of their lantern. Jake tested it. The padlock was tightly locked, and the lid of the mailbox was impossible to raise or open.
"We had planned to eat in town," Greg said. "But maybe we should drive on a space, and have supper in the desert."
"It would be mean to wake Pappy up," Jake agreed.
Jake got back in the horse cart. Greg started up the cart, and kept driving in the same direction, east. Soon, Jake and Greg left Buzzard's Corners behind, moving out along the road into the desert.
Greg drove east around three minutes farther, then stopped the cart, pulling it up by the side of the road. "I do not think Pappy can hear us from here. You cannot even see Buzzard's Corners." The town had been swallowed up in the darkness a minute after they left it.
"We are really in the desert," Jake said. Out somewhere they could hear a coyote howling.
"We have hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter sandwiches, and apples for desert," Greg said, unpacking their hamper. "And a thermos of lemonade." Neither Greg nor Jake ever drank alcohol.
A large truck rumbled through, moving towards Buzzard's Corners.
"I hope that truck doesn't wake Pappy up," Jake said.
Jake and Greg finished their apples. Greg pitched one apple core after another into the desert.
"A hungry desert bunny will have apples tonight," he said with a smile.
Greg reversed the cart, and moved west, back towards Buzzard's Corners.
But even after five minutes, they did not reach the town.
"We should have been in town by now," Greg said worriedly. "We were only a few minutes outside it."
"Maybe we missed a turn-off road," Jake said doubtfully. "But I don't remember any branching roads from our earlier visit to Buzzard's Corners."
Greg reversed the cart again, and slowly moved east. Jake got out a flashlight from the cart, and kept shining its beam on both sides of the road. But as hard as both men looked, neither could see any sign of a turn-off or fork in the road. The desert road just kept going straight onward.
Nor did they see any sign of Buzzard's Corners. The town had completely vanished!
Finally, Greg said "Look! There are the apples we threw out after our picnic. They are sitting in the desert, just where I threw them after supper. We are now back to where we picnicked."
Greg stopped the cart, leapt out, and went and picked up the apple cores.
"These sure look like our apples," Jake agreed, peering closely at them. "So we are on the right road. We did not make a wrong turn-off. But where is Buzzard's Corners?"
"It is as if the whole town has been kidnapped by Martians," Greg replied. "Jake, the cook at the movie camp saw strange lights moving in the sky, two nights ago, several miles west of the camp. The crew was kidding him that they were Martian spaceships."
"That is where the airfield is," Jake said, after a pause. "The lights were probably from one of the experimental aircraft there."
Jake unsnapped one of the patch pockets on his cowboy shirt. He drew out the little notebook he always carried with him, and hastily made a sketch.
"Here is where I think we've driven," Jake said. "We started out tonight, driving through the boulders, near our movie camp. Then we kept on the road east to Buzzard's Corners, and drove through the town, after mailing our letters there. We went a little further east, and stopped and picnicked, at the point marked P on the road. After eating, we drove west, back towards where we thought Buzzard's Corners was. But Buzzard's Corners had disappeared. Pretty soon, we stopped again, and turned the horse cart around again. That's the point marked T on the road - where we turned around. We went straight east again, and wound up right back here at point P, where we picnicked earlier. We should have passed Buzzard's Corners again, going from T back here to P. But we didn't."
Greg studied the map carefully. "That is exactly my understanding of where we drove tonight, too," Greg said. "The map looks correct. Except that it is a bit out of scale - it is much further to the boulders than the map suggests."
The two men paused in thought.
"Maybe," Jake said slowly, "for some strange reason the buildings in Buzzard's Corners have been covered with giant pieces of black cloth. That would make them invisible in the dark night."
"I think we would have seen such buildings with the flashlight," Greg said.
"I do too," Jake replied, "but this time, let's really make sure."
Greg reversed the cart once again. The duo headed west. They saw no sign of Buzzard's Corners, even though they moved slowly, and Jake waved the flashlight's beam over both sides of the road. There were no turn-offs, and no town. There was only desert, on both sides of the road.
After a while, Jake said, "We've studied every foot of ground on both sides of the road. There are no buildings, whether covered in black cloth or not. There is just desert... We would have seen, too, if anyone had put up giant black walls or screens, to hide the buildings."
"And we have been over this stretch of road three times now," Greg said. "It should have contained Buzzard's Corners. But it has nothing but desert."
This time the pair kept going, long over the straight desert road, west towards home. Jake kept shining the flashlight on both sides of the road. There was nothing but desert. And no turn-offs or forks in the road. After a slow half hour they passed through the giant boulders, with their unmistakable strange shapes. Soon they reached the movie location at Boulder Camp.
"We never left the road," Jake said. "But Buzzard's Corners has vanished."
"That is impossible," Greg declared
"How could a whole town disappear?" Jake asked.
The pair decided to renew their search again, the next morning.
"Maybe we'll see something in the daytime we could not see in the dark," Jake suggested.
The next morning, Jake and Greg set out again. It was much easier to see in broad daylight. They passed the boulders. The desert road stretched out before them.
"So far," Jake said, "I don't see any clue to the Mystery of the Disappearing Town."
"I do not see anything that looks like a fork or side road," Greg agreed. "This case started out as a dollar mail robbery. It has certainly gotten out of hand!"
The road stretched on.
"Greg, look!" Jake said.
"It looks like Buzzard's Corners ahead, the same as always," Greg replied.
"This is impossible," Jake said, as their cart pulled closer. Soon the town surrounded them, its three familiar buildings the same as before.
Jake and Greg found Pappy in his Emporium.
"Howdy boys!" Pappy greeted them.
"We are so happy to see you alive!" Jake said.
"Of course I'm alive," Pappy said cackling. "Never been anything else but!"
"We rode out here last night," Jake said, "but you were asleep, Pappy."
"To tell the truth," Pappy admitted, "There's not much to do around here after sunset. Last thing I remember, is falling asleep after supper."
Jake moved over to the cellar, shining his flashlight down the cellar stairs. "There are my footprints in the cellar floor," Jake told Greg, "from two days ago. You can see the JB design." Jake went down the cellar stairs, and took a photo of the prints, with the camera he wore around his neck.
"So when this town disappeared and returned," Greg said, "your footprints went along with it."
Jake looked out one of the wooden framed windows. He felt the walls. They were of solid, weather-beaten wood.
"This place is as solid and heavy as the Rock of Gibraltar," Jake said. "How could it disappear?"
Jake and Greg went inside the livery stable, or horse barn, next door to Pappy's Emporium. It was a large dirty barn, with a bunch of empty stalls on one side for horses. There were no horses or animals there now. There were cobwebs all over pillars and posts. Jake tried to shake the wooden posts, but they would not budge.
"These cobwebs must have been here for months," Jake pointed out. "How could they have survived, if the town had disappeared somewhere?"
Jake and Greg hitched up the horse cart, and drove a ways on the other side of town, due east.
"This is presumably where we picnicked last night," Jake said.
"All I can see out here is desert," Greg replied.
"There are certainly no turn-offs on the desert road," Jake said, "on this side of town either."
The lab at the movie camp developed Jake's snapshots of the town.
Jake went to the airfield, to talk to Alexander MacGuffin. Jake found MacGuffin and Jim Wickham in the lunchroom, together with a stranger to Jake. The man was a thirty-ish guy with close-cropped black hair.
"Jake, this is Pete Anderson, an engineer with the company," MacGuffin told him.
"When did you visit Buzzard's Corners?" Jake asked MacGuffin.
"Only on Monday nights," MacGuffin replied. "Sometimes I put my mail in the box, sometimes I handed it to that old prospector who runs the town."
Jake passed MacGuffin some photos he took of Buzzard's Corners.
"Does anything in these prints bring back memories?" Jake asked. "Of any strange incidents, or anything peculiar?"
Jake had not mentioned the town's disappearance.
"I don't think so," MacGuffin replied, after looking at the snapshots.
Pete Anderson took the photos.
"I drove through this town," Anderson said. "It's on the road between Otswego and Merrimac."
"Actually," MacGuffin said, "it's between Boulder Camp and Bullhorn. That's ten miles away, in a different direction."
"No," Anderson insisted, "I drove through it one night going from Otswego to Merrimac, a couple of months ago. I remember the sign, 'Pappy's Emporium'. A town with three buildings, right?"
Jake, MacGuffin and Jim Wickham just looked at Anderson.
"I'm not used to making mistakes with facts," Anderson said. "I'm an engineer. It's my job to have facts straight."
Jake talked Anderson into driving him along the route he took before from Otswego. It was sunny and bright on the road.
"It's a straight desert road," Anderson said. "No turns, or even complex curves. If we stay on it, we'll come to Buzzard's Corners, around five miles before Merrimac."
But they did not. There were no towns anywhere till they reached Merrimac.
"I'll be a hog-tied buffalo!" Anderson said. "Where did that town go?"
"It vanishes a lot," Jake said.
Jake was talking to a veteran cowboy stuntman, on the movie Greg and Jake were making.
"Did you ever work on Pecos Jones' old movies?" Jake asked.
"Nope!" the stuntman said, "But I knew guys who did. They were all shot out Santa Barbara way."
"The town scenes were filmed right here," Jake said, handing the stuntman the photos of Buzzard's Corners.
"I remember this town in Pecos' movies," the stuntman said, studying the pictures, "but they were all made near Santa Barbara."
"But that's over a hundred miles from here!" Jake said.
"Well," the stuntman drawled, "that's where the town must be. Those Pecos films were all made for peanuts. They were all shot quick and cheap in one area."
"Is there someone at Pecos' studio I could ask?" Jake said.
"Don't rightly know," the stuntman replied. "Pecos' company went out of business last summer."
Jake and Greg asked Pappy if anything strange had happened recently in Buzzard's Corners.
"For example," Jake asked cautiously, "did the town ever disappear?"
"Heck no," Pappy told them. "Have you guys been drinking?"
"We never use alcohol or tobacco," Greg said. "I am in training for my movie work, like professional athletes."
A glance at Greg's bulging muscles seemed to indicate the truth of his statements.
"We had a drunk come through Buzzard's Corners last month with a weird story, just like you guys' question," Pappy said. "He was drunk as a skunk, and kept saying Buzzard's Corners had moved. He was all upset by it, and on a liquored-up crying jag."
"What did he say?" Jake asked. "Can you remember any details?"
"He rode into town from the west, on an old nag of a horse. He said he'd just ridden through Buzzard's Corners ten minutes before, and now he was back in the city again. 'It was behind me, and now I'm right back in it!' he said, in a loud drunken voice. He got belligerent, so I took him to the horse barn, and let him sleep it off. He rode off the next morning on his horse before I got up, and I never saw him again."
"Buzzard's Corners is all over," Jake said to Greg. "It's here, and on the road to Merrimac, and a hundred miles away in Santa Barbara. It can move all over, then disappear."
"It is like the enchantress' hut on chicken legs, in the Russian fairy tale," Greg said. "Whenever she wanted her home to move, the hut would just walk on its giant chicken legs somewhere else."
Jake had a nightmarish vision. In his mind's eye, he saw the buildings of Buzzard's Corners suddenly rise up on ten-foot high chicken legs, which had previously been concealed in the ground. Then the buildings on their yellow legs walked away into the desert.
"Maybe it would help," Jake said, "if we made a tabulation of all the impossible things we are trying to explain.
1 Lulu Mae's letters were stolen, out of a locked mailbox, to which only the honest Pappy has the lock's combination.
2 The town of Buzzard's Corners disappeared before our eyes last Monday night.
3 Buzzard's Corners reappeared, complete with my footprints in the cellar, Tuesday morning.
4 Buzzard's Corners showed up on the road to Merrimac, according to Pete Anderson, but later vanished.
5 Buzzard's Corners used to be in Santa Barbara, back when Pecos Jones made his movies, but Pappy and Lulu Mae both say it has been right here on the road to Boulder Camp, for decades. So does the US Post Office - I checked.
6 A drunk saw Buzzard's Corners behind him, then rode into the town again ten minutes later, one Monday night."
"There is one more strange thing to explain," Greg said. "What are those lights the cook saw in the sky?"
"I really think those were just experimental aircraft at the field," Jake replied slowly. "But you're right. There is another impossibility. The only possible motive in this case is:
7 Crooks are stealing designs from the airfield. But this seems to be impossible, because the airfield is tracking each mailing of a design, and a receipt shows that each design is arriving in Los Angeles unstolen."
"Seven impossibilities are a lot to explain," Greg said. "This is like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who believed in six impossible things before breakfast!"
Jake did what he always did, when he needed to think out a problem. He sat down under a tree. Here, the only tree at the movie camp was a huge Joshua tree, with fierce green needles, and panicles of white flowers sticking out on top.
"This tree is supposed to be two thousand years old," one of the cowboys told him.
Jake began to think about the case...
Jake called in Federal agents, attached to the US Postal Service, and explained his ideas to them. The agents decided to stage a raid on Buzzard's Corners next Monday night. When Harry Callaway, Mammoth-Art Studio's publicity photographer got wind of this, he insisted that Greg and Jake be allowed to take part in the raid.
"It will be great publicity!" Harry told the Federal men. Harry eventually wore down the agents, who agreed.
"Keep in the background, where it is safe," the agents told Harry, Greg and Jake, "and wear all-black clothes, so you will be invisible in the dark. And no pictures, Callaway, till the arrests are made."
When the movie people joined the dozen agents at the movie camp at sunset next Monday, just before the raid, the soberly garbed Federal men just stared at Greg and Jake. The two were in the all-black costumes of western movie desperadoes: black shirt and jeans, fancy black leather vests and chaps, black Stetsons. Harry was busy taking publicity pictures of Greg and Jake. The bright setting sun gleamed off their chaps and shiny black cowboy boots. Just fastening all the leather laces and buckling all the buckles of their shirts, vests and chaps must have taken each man at least ten minutes. The two men looked tough, aggressive and glamorous.
"Mammoth-Art performers are always dressed their best, for all public appearances," Harry quietly told one of the Federal men. "These photos will appear in the newspapers and fan magazines. Mammoth-Art's costume department made these outfits for our two cowboy heroes."
Greg and Jake did look impressively slim hipped and broad shouldered in their shiny black leather cowboy jeans and western shirts.
Harry, like the Federal men, wore a simple black shirt and black trousers.
The agents and the movie folks piled into a small truck. They set off down the darkening road towards Buzzard's Corners.
"It sure gets dark here in a hurry in the desert," Harry told Jake. Night fell shortly after they passed the strange, giant boulders.
"Buzzard's Corners ahead," a Federal man eventually said. The dim outline of the town rose up in the distance.
"We'll stop here," the head agent told everybody, "pull this truck off the road." The truck drove out far into the desert, off the road, and cut its engine.
"I can hardly see anybody," Harry said. "It's darker than the inside of a coffin."
"No more talking from now on," the lead Fed ordered. "Out of the truck." He motioned everyone to move silently on foot till they were in close sight of Buzzard's Corners. The men in their black clothes were virtually invisible in the black night.
Pappy was asleep in the rocking chair in front of his shack.
The men assumed stakeout positions around the outside of town. And waited.
Lulu Mae rode up on her horse. She got down, and put a letter in the mailbox. Then she rode back towards her home.
Nothing happened for a half hour. Then the light blue car of MacGuffin drove up. MacGuffin got out, and deposited a thick, large envelope in the mailbox - his weekly mailing of designs. MacGuffin looked around, saw nothing in the pitch-black desert night, and got back in his car and drove off.
Ten minutes later, a truck pulled into town. Jake recognized it as the same truck he and Greg had seen during their picnic, the night Buzzard's Corners disappeared. A crew of five men poured out of the truck. They opened the back of the truck, which looked empty.
As the Feds watched the truck crew silently from the shadows, the truckers went over to the horse barn. They did something to the corners of the building. It suddenly collapsed, into huge stiff sheets around ten feet wide. The truck crew folded these flat, and stuffed the stiff sheets into the back of the truck. The truck crew did the same thing to the Emporium. Soon they had it too folded into big, flat sheets, and placed in the truck. Pappy's shack followed next, with Pappy working with the truckers to help fold up the building. Buzzard's Corners had now disappeared.
Finally, the truckers picked up the mailbox, and put in into the truck.
The lead Fed signaled his men. They rushed into town, guns drawn, and had the truckers and Pappy all pinned down before the truckers knew what had happened.
"You are under arrest for tampering with the US Mail!" the lead Federal man declared in a ringing voice.
Harry was taking flashlight pictures like mad.
"You're not going to arrest me!" Pappy said. "I just live here."
Jake walked up to Pappy. "You are not the real Pappy," Jake said, yanking off the man's white beard. Jake also stripped off white eyelashes. A much younger man stood revealed. Harry captured everything on film.
"The real Pappy is probably asleep now in the real Buzzard's Corners," Jake said. "I doubt if he knows anything about all this."
Greg and Jake went over to the truck. They easily lifted some of the folded sheets in the truck. The sheets were light and made out of cardboard.
"This is all just like you predicted," the lead Federal agent said to Jake.
Jake picked up a small envelope he found behind a chest in the back of the truck. Jake unsnapped one of the chest pockets of his shiny black leather cowboy shirt, and stuffed the envelope inside.
A second contingent of Federal men drove up. Jake, Greg and Harry went with the lead Federal agent, down the road to the east. After a mile, they came to Buzzard's Corners.
"This is the real Buzzard's Corners," Jake said. "It has been here for twenty years, and never moved anywhere, or disappeared."
"These buildings are made of real wood, all right," the Fed said, knocking on their walls with his fist.
The real Pappy came out of his shack, pulling on his suspenders. Dawn was coming up in the east.
"Morning, gents," Pappy said, "What can I do for ye?"
The Fed showed Pappy his badge. Pappy was impressed.
"Nothing ever happens in Buzzard's Corners!" Pappy said.
"MOVIE COWBOY HEROES SMASH GANG RING" newspaper headlines blared. The articles were accompanied by Harry's photos.
One week later, Jake and Greg were talking to MacGuffin, Jim Wickham, Pete Anderson, Pappy and Lulu Mae, in the lobby of the main building at the airfield. One of the Federal men was also present. Jake was wearing a western suit: a black coat, gray striped trousers, a red and black brocaded vest, a white western dress shirt, and black string tie. He looked like the town Sheriff in the fancy suit. Jake wore a pair of black cowboy boots with the suit. He also wore an old fashioned pocket watch, with a long gold chain looped over his vest. Greg was in a Nineteenth Century western version of white tie and tails, something he might have worn to a fancy dance hall in Old San Francisco.
"Buzzard's Corners was used for several Pecos Jones westerns," Jake began. "It's a picturesque place, and very much a real, old western town. But it is awfully remote and inaccessible for easy shooting. What if Pecos' studio had made a set that duplicated the old town? They could set up the fake town right on their studio backlot in Santa Barbara, or on a country road nearby, and do all their shooting. Some inquiries revealed that that had indeed happened. The cardboard set looked terrific, very believable and realistic - it was the work of top Hollywood crafts people. The sets were just empty shells - there was nothing inside them, not even a floor. They were just big boxes of cardboard, designed to be photographed from the outside. And when Pecos' studio went out of business last summer, they sold off their old sets cheap, mainly to other movie companies. But the Buzzard's Corners sets were sold to a criminal gang. Probably the studio folks had no idea they were selling the cardboard sets to crooks.
"The gang of crooks wanted to intercept MacGuffin's designs. So, every Monday evening a truck brought the collapsed cardboard Buzzard's Corners sets to a location a mile west of the real Buzzard's Corners, on the same road. The gang would hurriedly put up the fake town."
"The gang also had a real wooden mailbox, which was a duplicate of the mailbox in Buzzard's Corners," Jake went on. "They would put this duplicate mailbox right in front of the fake Pappy's Emporium, in the fake town. In the darkness of a desert night, the movie set would look just like the real Buzzard's Corners, a mile away. Anyone trying to drive into Buzzard's Corners from the west, like Lulu Mae or MacGuffin or people from the movie camp, would encounter the fake Buzzard's Corners first. And drop their mail off in the mailbox in the fake town, then turn around and go home. They would never realize that they had not been to the real Buzzard's Corners. Or they might give their mail to the man in the fake town who was impersonating Pappy."
"Imagine," Pappy cackled, "anyone wanting to look like me!"
"After MacGuffin had gone," Jake said, "the truck would pull up, and its crew would tear down the fake town, just like we saw. It was easy to disassemble and fold up the light cardboard sheets. The crooks would also take the duplicate mailbox, open up the lock, and take out MacGuffin's envelope. They would steam the envelope open in the back of the truck, make photos of the designs and blueprints inside, and seal up the envelope again. Then they would drive into the real Buzzard's Corners, and deposit all the mail from their duplicate, imitation mailbox in the real mailbox there. The mail was then safely in the hands of the US Postal System. It would then be delivered, right on schedule, to the airfield's home office in Los Angeles. None of the mail would be missing, and the home office would send out receipts for all the designs sent by mail. No one at the airfield or home office suspected that anything was wrong."
"When this case started," Jake said, "we thought the crooks were stealing mail out of Pappy's mailbox in Buzzard's Corners, which seemed impossible. But actually, they weren't. Pappy was right. Pappy was the only one with the combination to the mailbox lock, and the mailbox was just what it seemed - a solid box of oak that could not be tampered with. In reality, the crooks had their own imitation mailbox, in the fake Buzzard's Corners. The crooks had the combination to that mailbox's lock."
"The gang has probably been reading photocopies of all our designs for two months," MacGuffin said. "It's terrible."
"Except," Jake added, "a couple of times they lost Lulu Mae's letters, rather than re-mailing them in Pappy's box, as they had intended. I found one of Lulu Mae's letters in the truck," Jake said, holding up an envelope, "after the arrest - the crooks probably lost it there. They paid much less attention to her or other mail - they mainly were interested in MacGuffin's designs."
"This is the first letter to my daughter that got lost," Lulu Mae said, looking at the envelope Jake gave her. "The one I mailed three weeks before all this started."
"Usually," Jake went on, "the crooks' scheme worked just as planned. But there were exceptions. A few weeks ago, a drunk rode through the fake Buzzard's Corners one night. Then he kept riding to the east, and soon came to the real Buzzard's Corners. The drunk thought he was having hallucinations, and Pappy had to calm him down.
"Whenever Greg and I were in Buzzard's Corners during the day, we were in the real town, and talked to the real Pappy. But a week ago, Greg and I drove out to Buzzard's Corners on Monday night. We wound up in the fake Buzzard's Corners, which the crooks put up every Monday evening just after sunset. And saw the fake Pappy there, pretending to be asleep in his chair. While we were picnicking on the outskirts of the phony town, the crooks drove up in their truck and tore down the fake city. A few minutes later, when Greg and I went back, the town had disappeared. Greg and I kept driving back and forth around the spot where the fake Buzzard's Corners had vanished. But it was gone.
"The real Buzzard's Corners, which we never reached that night, was unharmed and unchanged, a mile further east. But Greg and I had no way of knowing that. The next morning, when we drove out again, we went all the way on the desert road to the real Buzzard's Corners. I saw the cobwebs in the old barn, and the prints my boots had made in the cellar two days before, all unchanged."
"What about my seeing Buzzard's Corners somewhere else?" Pete Anderson asked.
"My guess is that a couple of months ago, when the crooks were just starting their scheme, they set up the fake Buzzard's Corners up on the Merrimac road, around ten miles from here. Probably they were just practicing setting the town up, and picked a remote location where few people went. Pete Anderson saw the fake town that night, while he was driving the Merrimac road, and it stuck in his memory. The crooks probably tore down the fake town again, later that same night."
"So despite the way all the stories people told you sounded like lies and tall tales," Greg pointed out to Jake, "everybody in the case was actually telling you the truth. The truth, at least, as best they understood it."
"That's right," Jake said. "All except one person. Paradoxically, he was the only person in the case whose story seemed obviously true. At least at first. The night that the first letter of Lulu Mae's was lost, Jim Wickham went into Pappy's Emporium. MacGuffin told us so. And Wickham said he saw barrels, and shelves full of supplies inside. That sounded like a harmless, self-evidently true statement when we first heard it. But we now know the crooks had set up the fake Buzzard's Corners that night - that's how they got ahold of Lulu Mae's letter. There would be nothing inside the fake Emporium - it is just an empty cardboard shell. The shells don't even have a floor - they were set up right on the desert sand. Why didn't you say something about the fake building that night, Wickham?" Jake asked.
Everyone looked at Jim Wickham. From the expression on his face, everyone could tell he was involved in the robberies.
"The robberies only made sense," Jake went on, "if there were an inside person at the airfield. No one else would know about the designs going out. And only an insider would know about the Monday night schedule MacGuffin used to mail the designs. MacGuffin told us that Jim Wickham had offered to mail the designs himself. MacGuffin turned him down."
"Prove it!" Wickham sneered.
"The postal authorities are working on that, right now," the Federal agent said. "We have a warrant here to search your office and quarters at the field."
"This is all just a matter of routine business," Wickham said. "One company trying to compete with another. None of this should be considered criminal."
"That is not true," Jake said after a pause. "Our whole democratic society depends on people being able to communicate freely with each other. We can all mail letters, and send telegrams, and make phone calls, without anyone being able to interfere, or reading what we have to say - not criminals, not businesses, not the government. It is all private, and protected by law. Anything that violates our privacy is an attack on our democracy itself. In our democracy, not even the President of the United States can read our mail, or listen to our phone calls."
Lulu Mae marched up to Jim Wickham, and spoke right into his face.
"You varmints owe me one dollar!"