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Copyright 2004 by Michael E. Grost

The Big Box

A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery

By Michael E. Grost

Hollywood: August 1925.

The premiere of Speed Angels would be held in two weeks. Jake had an official role at a movie premiere for the first time of his career. As the film's director, he would arrive at the theater, step onto the red carpet, and smile and wave to the newsreel cameras reporting the event. Like everyone else at such premieres, he was expected to follow Mammoth-Art tradition, and show up in white tie and tails.

Ambrosio Perlucci, the top Mammoth-Art costume designer for contemporary men's clothes, fitted Jake.

"White tie might be a little complex to wear properly," Jake told Perlucci dubiously. "I know everything has to be just right. I've never worn white tie and tails in my life," he added in a rush.

"That is why Mammoth-Art has a class in it," Perlucci said cheerfully. "In one hour of practice, you will learn everything you need to know. It will be taught by one of our Costume Department instructors."

Jake reported to the class next week. It was held in Mammoth-Art's Education Building, a beautiful Art Deco ziggurat structure covered in dazzling blue marble and green copper patterns. Around twenty young actors were in the class. Jake was the only non-performer present. Jake had never seen so many handsome, heroic looking young men in one place in his life. Most came from poor backgrounds, like Jake, and had never seen a tailcoat outside of the movies in their lives. Jake was relieved that they were all as ignorant as he was. The instructor was a friendly young man from the costume department. Like Jake, he stood out by being the only other ordinary looking person there. The instructor, an amazingly dexterous man, soon had everyone tying ties and fastening waistcoats in front of full length mirrors.

Jake noticed that although many of the men present had been dressed by Perlucci, that each one looked different. Perlucci had varied dozens of small details on each tail coat. Had one not known differently, one would assume each man's tails were the product of a different tailor. The men looked pleasantly varied as a group, as well as looking good individually.

Heroes in movies and magazine illustrations always wore white tie and tails. Jake frequently had his series hero, daring air pilot Buzz Connors, wearing tails in his pulp adventures. Buzz would have dinner with the American Ambassador in Lima, Peru, who would ask him to find the survivors of a crashed plane in the Amazon jungle, or to look for a rare plant with medical properties. The pulp magazine illustrator would always depict Buzz in tails, having dinner on a bougainvillea covered terrace. Now that Jake had actually worn a tailcoat himself, he would be able to describe Buzz's much better.

The premiere of Speed Angels was held at Hansen's Sumerian Theater in Santa Monica. The huge movie palace was done up in the style of an ancient building from the Middle Eastern civilization of Sumer. Other movie palaces were Egyptian, or Persian, or Chinese. The lavish decor and air conditioning of the palaces transported everyone to world of luxury and adventure, all for a dime.

Jake's entrance to the theater went off without a hitch. That fact that Jake looked faultless in his dazzling new white tie and tails outfit was a big relief to him.

The Mammoth-Art performers who had appeared in Speed Angels were all at the premiere. Perlucci had designed each man's white tie and tails to express something about the character of its wearer. The effect was subtle, but perhaps communicated all the more effectively for that. Actor Gregor von Hoffmansthal was the star of the movie - he had played the heroic driver of the red racecar in the film. Greg looked dashing, and romantic. He also definitely looked like a European aristocrat. This was Greg's screen image, and it was conveyed by most of the clothes Perlucci designed for him. Cowboy actor Tom Wilson looked four square, American and trustworthy. He looked like a rock solid American community leader. Even dressed up in tails, there was a hint of Wilson's prairie persona. Patrick O'Donahue looked friendly and good natured. Racecar developer Sam Teplinski, who had played a cameo in the movie, looked commanding, like a captain of industry. There was a touch of aggression to his appearance. Young fencer Paul Rozier looked wistful and romantic.

Mammoth-Art publicity photographer Harry Callaway's tails made him look like the young heir to a vast fortune, a naïve young man who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Jake knew that Harry had actually grown up dirt poor in the slums of Chicago. Harry loved the millionaire look that Perlucci provided for him. It apparently had been the subject of much discussion by Harry and Perlucci. Harry had even brought in magazine illustrations showing college students at fancy universities, to give Perlucci an image of what he wanted. Perlucci had picked up on the idea right away. It was impossible to look at Harry, and not get the idea that he had spent his entire life cushioned by wealth. The look did make Harry immediately charming to almost everybody. Perlucci had also made suits and sport clothes for Harry, conveying the same impression. As a PR man, Harry often had to go up to complete strangers and make contact. The look of a naïve young heir certainly helped.

Jake's policeman friend Lt. Moe Apfelbaum looked heroic, and the epitome of class. Perlucci admired the Lieutenant, and the stand he had taken again the Carson mob. The clothes Perlucci designed for Moe reflected Perlucci's beliefs and feelings. They almost seemed like an editorial. Jake had sent his friend Moe passes to the premiere. Moe was there, along with his wife Esther, and their kids David and Hannah. Both little kids were obviously having a great time, soaking up everything about the premiere with wide eyes.

Jake's friend and fellow writer Felicia Alburton, who had made a cameo appearance in Speed Angels, was there in a red evening gown.

Tom Wilson's agent Sol Flanagan was also present in the audience, looking awkward in what were probably rented white tie and tails. Sol Flanagan had botched the tying of the white tie and the collar of his outfit. Jake felt sympathy for him. It had taken Jake forever to master the right way of tying the intricate bow tie. If he had not had a class in it, Jake doubted he would ever have learned how to do it right. When Jake found himself alone in the washroom with Sol Flanagan, he retied his tie for him.

"I just learned how to do this myself!" Jake told Sol Flanagan.

Other participants in the film were present at the premiere. Andrew Wilcoxson was part owner of Jacaranda Park, the race track where Speed Angels was shot. Andrew Wilcoxson was also the designer of the green and silver racecars that had been used in supporting "roles" in the movie. Hero Greg had driven the experimental red racecar that was the center of the film. And his on-screen rivals had driven the green and silver cars. Andrew Wilcoxson was glad of the publicity the film was bringing his cars. He had lobbied Harry Callaway and Mammoth-Art for even more publicity for his racecars, but this had been nixed by Harry. "The red racecar is the star of the movie!" Harry declared. "The publicity centers on Greg and the red racer!" Andrew Wilcoxson had been displeased, but had taken what publicity he could get, anyway. Now Wilcoxson, a tall, well built man in his mid thirties, was at the premiere. He looked forceful, with his straight brown hair and well cut black tuxedo.

Greg, who was the star of the picture, was busy signing autographs. Even through the buzzing crowds who surrounded him, one could hear the click of the steel plates on his evening shoes, as he snapped his heels together.

People also recognized Thomas O'Brien, who had a supporting role in the picture. This was his biggest break in any of his small film roles. O'Brien was clearly gratified by all the attention he was getting from the crowd, who were besieging him for autographs, too. O'Brien looked like a young sport in his evening clothes. Publicity man Harry Callaway surprised O'Brien, by handing him a stack of production photos O'Brien could autograph and hand out to the crowd. These showed O'Brien in the fancy dress uniform he had worn as a race car driver in the picture, a cocky grin on his face. Harry also took photographs of Greg and O'Brien together, the two men gleaming in their tails.

Both Greg and O'Brien stood in the huge open outdoor plaza in the front of the theater. The plaza, covered with soothing light green tile, was full of crowds of movie fans, who had turned out to see the stars. Soon, the movie would begin. Greg and O'Brien would make their way past Mammoth-Art studio guards, and into the theater's vast lobby. The lobby was a cavernous structure, decorated with red murals, red velvet, and gold trim.

The experimental racecar that starred in the film's racing adventure was also on display. The red racecar was on a large metal stand in the theater's lobby. The stand, which was five feet high and around 8 feet long, looked like a solid block of red metal. It had been especially created at the workshop at Jacaranda Park to support the racecar.

Next to the lobby was the Green Room. The Green Room was a large ballroom. It was at the front of the theater, but had its own entrance. It was mainly used for non-movie events, such as receptions, dances and civic celebrations, and was rented by organizations who wanted a particularly festive gathering place for meetings or dances. The Green Room had a spectacular ceiling, filled with ornamental green glass stalactites that hung down from it.

The Green Room was not being used in tonight's premiere. It was not locked up, but no one from the premiere was stationed there, either. One could enter the Green Room from the theater's lobby, from the aisle behind the theater's seats, or from the outside plaza of the theater.

The theater's lobby had the concession counter against the back wall. It was doing a brisk business selling popcorn and fresh roasted redskin peanuts.

Greg, Jake, Sam and Paul had sat together in a box on the side of the auditorium during the screening. Jake found he was watching the audience as much as the movie. He was gratified to see them laughing or getting excited, in all of the right places.

There was a vaudeville show after the movie. Tonight's entertainment would feature numbers by the stars of the film. Greg and his young co-star, Paul Rozier, would give an exhibition fencing match. Paul had driven the silver car in the film. Up next was actor Tom Wilson, driver of the green racecar, who would do cowboy rope tricks. Later Thomas O'Brien would sing Irish songs.

Studio head J. D. Upshaw was sitting in the box next to Jake's, by the side of the screen.

A man in a postman's uniform went up to where Upshaw was sitting, with the other Studio executives.

"Special Delivery package for Mr. Upshaw," he said respectfully, "in the Green Room". The postman handed Upshaw a square green envelope. Then he turned and disappeared into the crowd.

Upshaw and his lieutenants started moving toward the front of the theater and the Green Room. A curious Jake followed. Upshaw also signaled for Mammoth-Art studio guard Al Kucinich to accompany them.

A strange sight greeted Upshaw in the Green Room. A large cardboard box was standing in the middle of the room, on the floor. The box was cubical, around 8 feet wide, long and high. It was a bright green. It was surrounded by a green ribbon, a half a foot wide, which was tied up into a fancy bow at the top of the box. The whole package looked like a giant birthday present.

The photographers present started snapping pictures.

Mammoth-Art Vice President Thomas Grisby detached himself from the group, and pulled open the bow. He then undid a latch at the top of the cardboard box. The four sides of the box fell away. The contents of the box stood revealed.

It was the green racecar that had appeared in the movie.

The photographers went wild.

Al moved forward, and checked the car out. It seemed harmless. There was nothing strange in the engine, which Al and Sam Teplinski opened up and studied.

"This is definitely the car we used in the film," Sam told Jake. "It even has the same serial number in the engine."

Tom Wilson, who drove the green car in the picture, agreed. "There is the nick at the lower side of the steering wheel," he pointed out. "It was there during the shooting."

The photographers wanted Tom Wilson to pose with the green racecar. After a nod from Upshaw, he agreed. Soon they were snapping pictures of Tom Wilson in his tail coat, standing next to the car, and seated in it. Tom also started up the car's engine, which made a satisfying roar. Pictures of Wilson and the green racecar would appear on the front pages of every newspaper in California tomorrow, Jake thought. Maybe even in the United States. It would be called "The Racecar Mystery", and be a publicity bonanza for the cowboy actor Wilson. The newsreel cameramen who were covering the opening were also soon taking film of Wilson and the car.

Jake studied the cardboard box. The box was made of thin, ordinary cardboard, dyed a bright green. The sides were made of a series of foldable panels. They were stiffened by light weight balsa wood struts, that were inserted in cardboard rims on the inside of the walls. The whole box was extremely light weight, weighing no more than a few pounds.

Jake was unsure who had sent the green racecar. He could think of three theories. Wilson's agent Sol Flanagan could have sent the racecar, to get more publicity for Wilson. Then there was Tom Wilson himself. Jake did not think the modest, painfully honest Wilson would have done it himself - although most actors would kill to get their picture in the papers. But Sol Flanagan was an uninhibited man who would do anything to advance his clients' interests. Jake's other candidate was the owner and designer of the green car, Andrew Wilcoxson. All of the film's publicity had centered on the red racecar. The green racecar's owner had complained about this, to no avail. Perhaps this stunt was his way of attracting attention to the car.

Sol Flanagan did not have pictures of Tom Wilson to give to reporters. Publicity man Harry Callaway soon came to his rescue. Andrew Wilcoxson was busy telling reporters all about the green racecar, and the races it had won. He was also dexterously demonstrating features of the racecar, with his agile hands.

Upshaw called Jake over. "Take a look at this," he ordered, handing Jake the green envelope.

The envelope contained a snap shot. It showed the cardboard box, all done up with a ribbon. The box was standing on the grounds in front of the Santa Monica Post Office - one could see the name on the building plainly in the photo. Jake turned over the snapshot. On its back was printed with green ink, "To be delivered Saturday, August 17, to Hansen's Sumerian Theater, by the US Post Office."

Jake put the box back together again. It was easily assembled, and then re-opened.

"I would love to have had this box to play with when I was a kid," Jake told Moe.

"My kids would probably enjoy it now," Moe replied, smiling.

"The box's base will not support the weight of the car," Jake pointed out to Moe. "How could the car have been delivered inside such a flimsy cardboard box? The box would have collapsed if the Post Office delivered it. And the bow looks fresh as a daisy."

Jake called the Santa Monica Post Office. He reached the supervisor of the night shift, who claimed to know nothing about the box. There was no record at the P.O. of the package having been sent, or any Special Delivery that night at the theater.

"How did the box get into the Green Room?" Jake wondered.

"The front doors of the theater have been guarded all evening," Mammoth-Art studio guard Al Kucinich assured him. Al was a muscular man in his twenties. Al looked impressive in his dress black police uniform, his chest covered with medals and silver metal Sergeant's insignia gleaming on his high, stiff jet-black tunic collar. "We had a dozen men stationed there at all times. My officers would have prevented any such package from arriving through the main front doors, either of the lobby, or the Green Room itself. And the Green Room was empty before the show started - I checked it myself."

"Would you have heard any activity inside the Green Room?" Jake asked.

"Probably not," Al admitted. "It was a real mob scene outside, and the crowd was often roaring."

Jake also talked to Thomas O'Brien.

"I was too excited to sit and watch the movie," O'Brien told Jake. "So I paced up and down in the aisle between the seats and the lobby."

"Did you see anything that looked like the big box?" Jake queried.

"Nope!" O'Brien declared. "I was in the aisle during the whole screening. I could not see the door to the Green Room. There is a large statue in the aisle, of someone marked Gudea of Lagash. He was a big statesman in Ancient Sumer, according to the statue's caption. This statue blocks one's direct view of the Green Room door. But it certainly would not have obscured anything like the box or the green racecar."

"Did you see people in the aisle?" Jake wondered.

"Quite a few," O'Brien said after thinking. "But it was hard to tell who they were. The lights were dim, due to the screening. And in the semi-darkness, the men looked especially alike in their tails. All one would see is a gleaming expanse of white shirt front. Any one of these could have gone around the statue, and into the Green Room, and I would not have noticed."

"But unless they had the racecar in their pocket," Jake added with a smile, "the car was not brought in through the aisle."

Jake got a similar story from the two young women at the concession counter. Like the other female attendants at the theater, they were dressed as Sumerian princesses, with gorgeous headdresses full of ostrich plumes, and blue and gold beadwork on their gowns.

"You can't see the door to the Green Room tonight," the older one told Jake. "It is blocked off by the red racecar. But we certainly would have seen anyone bringing the green racer or the box into the lobby, either from outside or the theater. We could not miss it." The lobby was very well lit.

"People could easily gave gone in or out of the Green Room through the door," the younger one added. "You can't see the door from where we work." The two ladies let Jake stand behind the concession counter. He could see everything in the lobby, except the Green Room door, blocked off by the red racecar.

The arrival of the big box in the Green Room seemed impossible.

Jake went into the aisle between the lobby and the seats. There were several ushers stationed there. He went over to the large statue of Gudea. The life-size stone figure was a replica of a real, ancient statue of Gudea. There were dozens of portrait statues of Gudea in museums around the world. Gudea had been the leader of Lagash, a Sumerian city-state, in the 2100's BC. He was often cited as the first individual known to history.

Like most ancient Sumerian statues, this one showed its subject praying. Gudea stood there, his hands reverently clasped in prayer. Jake was strongly reminded of modern people, when looking at the statue. Gudea's praying seemed similar to the prayer that took place during the church services in the chapel at the Methodist orphanage where Jake grew up. Even though Gudea lived four thousand years ago, he would have fit right in with a modern congregation.

The theater was owned by former Mammoth-Art actress Lola Hansen, one of many real estate properties owned by the wealthy, retired drama queen, who had grown rich on her oil leases in Los Angeles.

Jake sat down on a green cast-iron bench, outside in one of the theater's gardens. Lola Hansen loved flowers; her lavish estate was full of rare flowering trees from around the world. Her attentions clearly extended to this theater, whose grounds were a delightful botanical garden. On the arbor above him grew a vine with large, bright green flowers. The sign on the arbor said the vine was Austrobaileya scandens, a rare vine from the jungles of Queensland, Australia, and one of the world's most primitive flowering plants. The large, prehistoric looking flowers were beautiful, with a touch of brown on their petals, and black and white among their many stamens. The flowers had a strong and strange smell. Many people would have found it unpleasant, but Jake liked all odors. He loved to go around and sniff things, sticking his nose into everything from plants to machinery. Just like a cat or a dog. Jake was unused to green flowers, but found them appropriate to the mystery of the green racecar. He began to think about the case.

Joe was talking to Moe and Harry Callaway, in a secluded dressing room at the theater.

"The interior of the red racecar's stand is hollow," Jake said. "When the stand was delivered to the theater yesterday, it already contained the green racecar, carefully padded to prevent damage. It also contained the cardboard box, which was all folded up and unassembled, together with the balsa wood struts and a spool of the green ribbon.

"Andrew Wilcoxson entered the Green Room from the aisle. Then he crossed the room, and went into the lobby from the Green Room. People at the concession stand cannot see this door, or who goes in or out by it.

"During the film's screening tonight," Jake went on, "Andrew Wilcoxson opened the panel on the back of the stand. This panel faced away from the concession counter, and could not be seen by the attendants there. Wilcoxson put the green racecar into neutral, and wheeled it out through the lobby, and into the Green Room. The racecars are small and light weight. He then brought the box into the Green Room, and placed it open on the floor, over a long length of the green ribbon. He wheeled the green racecar onto the base of the box, put its transmission back in park, assembled the box together with its balsa wood struts, and tied both ends of the green ribbon up over the top of the box, making a fancy bow. Everything was then all set for the discovery later."

"The postman was a fake," Jake went on. "He was all part of the illusion that the box had been delivered by the Post Office. So was the photograph, which was probably taken some Sunday morning when the Santa Monica Post Office was deserted. The green cardboard box was probably empty when the picture was taken."

"There were some clues pointing to the racecar's builder as the man behind the stunt," Jake went on. "He was the only person present who had both a motive, and proven design skills. Andrew Wilcoxson could easily have designed the cardboard box, and the hollow stand which contained the car. The box especially shows good craftsmanship. He is also dexterous enough to have tied the ribbon into its fancy bow. Wilcoxson was also the person most likely to have access to the green racecar - after all, he owns it. And he is part owner of Jacaranda Park, where the custom stand was built.

"Wilson's agent Sol Flanagan is no great shakes at tying anything, judging by his white tie this evening," Jake went on. "And if either he or Wilson had been behind this publicity stunt, they would have been better prepared this evening. Sol Flanagan did not even have pictures of Wilson to distribute to the press, till Harry helped him out."

Jake decided that this had been one of the best nights of his life. Both the premiere of his movie - and a mystery to solve! Jake could not ask for anything more.