Mystery Stories Home Page

Copyright 2004 by Michael E. Grost

The Hollywood Toy Express

A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery

By Michael E. Grost

Los Angeles, December 1924. Mary Wilkins was making a pot of cocoa in her kitchen, after lunch on Thursday. School had been out a week, and her three daughters were now home all the time, with the year-end holidays. She figured the girls would be thirsty. She also had a chore for them to do.

Mary called the three girls into the kitchen. Gretchen was the oldest, at fourteen, and the steadiest. Helen was a lively twelve year old. And little Suzy was a shy, good-natured nine. Mary loved her three daughters and was proud of them.

"It's time for you girls to clean out your closet," she told them. "It's always full of junk. I don't know where you girls get it. Toys, old skates, beach balls, old dolls, it's always piled half way to the ceiling with junk. You need to sort out what you want to keep, and throw away the rest. After you finish," she added with a twinkle, "there is some cocoa for you on the stove."

The three girls retreated to the bedroom they shared, in the modest brick home the Wilkins family occupied in a working class neighborhood near Los Angeles, high in the mountains. The three hoped it wouldn't take too long to clean up the closet. Then they could go down to the cellar and play.

They'd shoved nearly everything out of the closet earlier that morning, and pushed it all back in again, looking for their ice skates. They'd eventually found the skates at the bottom of the closet, after they'd removed everything else. Shoving their toys back in had made a huge racket, that could be heard all over the house. It had probably given their mother the idea about cleaning up the closet. Now the girls started a systematic emptying of the closet, examining each toy as they went.

Helen found the roller skates that had been missing since last summer.

Gretchen found the old teddy bear she had cherished as a child. Even though she was now growing up, she had kind feelings for old Teddy. She hoped she could store him away for safekeeping.

It was little Suzy who made the discovery, however. Deep at the bottom of the old toys, lying on the bottom of the floor, was a man's shoe. It was not an old shoe, however. Instead, it was all shiny and new, and made of black patent leather. Suzy was unable to pull it out of the closet. Gretchen and Helen helped pull away the junk from the top of the closet. They saw the reason the shoe could not be removed. It was attached to the foot of a man, lying on the floor of the closet. The man was sleeping. Every so often, a faint snore came from him, although his breathing sounded weak to Gretchen. The young man was beautifully dressed in white tie and tails. He looked familiar to the three amazed girls.

All of a sudden, Helen recognized him. "It's Rudolph Valentino!" she exclaimed.

"But that's impossible," Gretchen said. "Rudolph Valentino is the biggest movie star in the world. What would he be doing sleeping in our toy closet?"

"But it is Rudolph Valentino!" little Suzy said. "He looks just like he did in Camille and Beyond the Rocks and The Conquering Power."

The three girls ran across the hall into their Aunt Milly's room, where their mother was cleaning. The grandfather clock in the front foyer chimed out 2 PM.

"Mom," Gretchen told her breathlessly, "we just found Rudolph Valentino in our closet!"

Mr. Ted Wilkins, Mary's mailman husband, came home an hour later from his mail route. He had been too late to see the ambulance that Mary had summoned take Valentino away. The medics had told her that Valentino looked like he'd been drugged with a sedative, but did not otherwise look hurt. Ted came through the door, and held out his arms to greet his three daughters.

"So what mischief have you three tigers been up to today?" he asked them indulgently.

Gregor von Hoffmansthal needed help. The dashing young actor, known as Greg to his friends, was speeding down a corridor of the Writer's Building at Mammoth-Art Studio, where he was a contract performer. He burst into the cubicle of his best friend, author Jacob "Jake" Black.

"Jake," he said, "I've got a mystery for you to solve!"

Jake often worked as an unofficial consultant with the Los Angeles Police. A gifted sleuth, Jake had helped the police solve many baffling mysteries. The thirty year old Jake was a tall, slim man, wearing a beautifully tailored charcoal gray business suit.

Greg told Jake about the finding of Rudolph Valentino in the Wilkins home that afternoon.

"I think I might be involved in the case," Greg added. "Rudy and I were both judging a beauty pageant downtown last night. Whatever happened to Rudy, probably started then. He disappeared right after the show, and no one could find him."

Jake's friend, and fellow screenwriter, Felicia Alburton, entered from her cubicle next door. With the thin partitions between cubicles in the Writer's Building, she would have been unable to avoid hearing the whole conversation.

"Beauty contests are degrading to women," she stated firmly. "Women work hard, taking care of their husbands and children, and holding down jobs. Women should be judged on what they accomplish, not how pretty they are." Felicia was an ardent feminist. She had marched for women's suffrage the decade before.

"But Felicia," Greg said respectfully, "this was for charity. Rudy and I both worked for free." Greg was an ardent do-gooder, and always taking part in charity events.

"That's a logical non sequitur," Felicia replied. "But I want to hear all about the mystery."

"Valentino was found in white tie and tails," Jake said to Greg. "Were you both wearing tails last night, while judging the contest?"

"Of course!" Greg said. "It was after 6 PM, so naturally we were in our tail coats." The Studio had thoroughly drilled Greg in the importance of Being As Well-Dressed As Possible At All Times. Greg routinely changed into white tie and tails most evenings. Greg was the only patron of his local Public Library to regularly show up there in white tie to check out books, for instance. Greg loved to read plays, and kept up with developments in world theater through the library. Jake had once asked him if the librarians thought it was odd that he visited there in tails. "Not at all," Greg replied, "Seeing how important books are, they think everyone should be dressed up to visit the library!"

"Maybe Valentino never changed out of his clothes from last night," Jake speculated.

"A big crowd turned out this morning, chasing after Valentino downtown," Felicia said. "I ate lunch with Sophie Chadwick, the photographer from the LA Daily Watch, and she said her newspaper had received calls about the mob scene there. Callers told her editor that Valentino had been seen that morning around Nine O'Clock, near a downtown fruit and vegetable market. A large crowd had gathered looking for him, after he was first spotted. People had called up LA newspapers, too, telling them to send out photographers. And finally the police had been called, telling them about the huge crowd. By the time the reporters had shown up, Valentino was nowhere to be seen. It was quite a crowd scene, however."

"Rudy is such a big star, that he draws crowds whenever he appears in public," Greg said.

"The fruit market is over ten miles from the Wilkins home," Jake said, making shorthand squiggles in the little notebook he always carried. "Valentino was seen there at 9 AM. He was not in the girls' closet, the first time they emptied it that morning, around 10. Then the girls found him at the bottom of the closet, around a quarter to 2 that afternoon. Mary Wilkins and the three girls had been home all day. Ted Wilkins, and Mary's unmarried sister Milly, who lives with them, both came home for lunch around noon, and left around a half hour later."

"The next step," Jake said, closing the notebook with a snap, "is to interview everyone at the Wilkins home."

"A snow storm came through the mountains here around 4 AM. It was still snowing when Milly and I left for work around 8 that morning," Ted Wilkins said to Jake, in the Wilkins' parlor. "It stopped around an hour later, around 9, and hasn't snowed since. The snow out front had one set of footprints leading in and out when Milly and I got home for lunch at noon. We often take the same streetcar back home, especially on Thursday's, when Milly cleans up down at Perkins Department Store. And no one went in or out the back door all day. The snow was still unbroken there when I saw it tonight after 3."

"What about the windows?" Jake asked.

"I put all the storm windows in them last fall," Ted Wilkins replied. "You can't open them now. I suppose you could take the windows down again, but that would be a major operation. And the house would get really cold. Did anybody notice such a thing?" he asked his family.

"No, the house was comfortable all day," his wife replied. The three girls nodded in agreement.

Ted Wilkins was a large man. He would have had no trouble picking the slight, slender Valentino up, and moving him anywhere in the house, Jake reflected. For that matter, both Mary Wilkins and her younger sister Milly Lundgren were enormous, vigorous looking women. They reminded Jake of a character in one of his favorite comic strips, Toonerville Folks, by Fox Fontaine, Jr. The small town of Toonerville was home to "The Powerful Katrinka, the world's strongest woman", a kind hearted lady who was always performing various feats of strength. And the streetcar that had deposited Jake less than a block from the Wilkins home reminded him of the Toonerville Trolley that played such an important role in the humorous comic strip.

"When did you decide the girls should clean out their closet?" Jake asked Mary.

"It was a last minute decision," Mary said. "When Ted and Milly came home for lunch, I told them that I was going to clean up Ted's and my bedroom, and Milly's room that afternoon. It wasn't till around 1 that I got the idea that the girls should clean out their closet, too. I never finished cleaning Milly's room," Mary added sorrowfully. "Everything here got interrupted when we found Mr. Valentino. I'll have to finish up in Milly's bedroom this weekend."

A hall led from the kitchen in back of the house 
to the foyer and front door at the front of the house. 
Halfway down this hall, a second cross-hall emerged at right angles. 
The left side of this cross-hall went to the girls' room and Milly's bedroom. 
The right branch of the cross-hall went to the parlor and to Ted and Mary's bedroom.

"At lunch, who went in or out?" Jake asked.

"I could see the front door from where I sat in the kitchen," Mary replied. "We all eat lunch at the table in the kitchen. Milly went out briefly to talk to the coal man, telling him about how much coal we needed, then went back inside. She took off her galoshes in the foyer by the front door, then went back to her bedroom to hang up her coat and hat. I could see that no one else came in with her, and that she wasn't carrying anything."

"I unlocked the trap for the coal man after I came back in," Milly told Jake. She was a tall woman, around ten years younger than her sister. She worked as a cleaning lady in various LA businesses. She led Jake into a side hallway, past her own room, and the girls'. The coal trap was just a little panel in the side wall. You lifted it up, and a bolt appeared in the wall. You undid the bolt, and it unlocked the chute door into the cellar. No one could get in or out of the house through the trap. It was just a few inches high. On the other hand, Jake reflected, no one could see the side hallway or the coal trap from the kitchen. If the trap had played any role in smuggling Valentino into the house, no one in the kitchen would have seen it. Still, the trap was so small that one would have had trouble getting a cat through it. A grown up man like Valentino would be impossible.

"After he was done unloading the coal, I locked the trap again, and went back and joined everyone at lunch."

"Other than that, no one came into the front door," Mary said. "I could see it all during lunch."

"Did anyone else come to the house today?" Jake asked.

"The grandfather clock!" little Suzy said.

"That's right," Gretchen added. "It was delivered here this morning around 11."

"It came in a large crate," Helen added. "The delivery man brought it in the front door, then set the clock up in the foyer."

"Could Valentino have been brought in in the crate?" Jake asked.

The girls thought about this. "We all saw the delivery man take the clock out right away. There was nothing inside the crate except the clock," Helen said.

"I got in the box and played," Suzy added. "When the delivery man was all done, he took the crate back with him to his van."

"Could Valentino have been inside the grandfather clock?" Jake said after a pause.

"I don't think so," Gretchen told Jake. "Mother showed me how to wind up the clock, and set the pendulum. We opened the front door of the clock right away, and set the pendulum swinging. There was no one inside."

"Did the delivery man go anywhere in the house?"

"No," Mary said. "He came here, took the clock out of the crate in the foyer by the front door, then left right away. He had other deliveries to make, and it was a bad day. He didn't go anywhere in the house but the foyer. We set the clock going right away. I agree with Gretchen. There was no one inside the clock when we set the pendulum swinging."

"Could the delivery man have left the footprints you saw by the front door at noon?" Jake asked Ted Wilkins.

"Yep, they looked large and purposeful," he replied after a pause.

"Neither the girls or I went outside all day," Mary said.

The girls showed Jake their closet, all full of toys. Jake had never liked toys as a kid. His favorite playthings were blocks. He'd loved to build fabulous cities out of blocks, then make up stories about adventures there. Even today, Jake had an overwhelming urge to make things and to build things. It was probably part of the reason he became a writer.

The coal delivery man was named Jeremiah Adams. He was a muscular black man in his mid twenties. He was delivering coal in another neighborhood when Jake caught up with him. Jake had to wait until the huge roar made by Adams dumping coal from his truck into a cellar had died down, so that the two men could hear to talk to each other.

"All I did was pull up to the side of the house, and deliver the Wilkins' coal," he told Jake, in his soft, musical voice. "The only person who came in or out of the house while I was there was Milly Lundgren. She came out to tell me how much they needed, then went right back inside. I certainly would have seen if anyone had entered or left by the coal chute."

"This would have been a young man in white tie and tails," Jake said.

"Oh, he was already in the house when I got there," Adams said casually. "I saw him through the window. He was sleeping in a chair in the side hallway at the Wilkins'. His faced was in shadow, and I couldn't get a good look at it, but he was certainly all dressed up. Just like in the movies. You sure never see people dressed like that in this neighborhood," Adams went on. "I once delivered coal to Harold Lloyd's mansion - that's where you see people dressed to the nines. My favorite movie star is Anna May Wong," he added. "Did you ever see her in The Toll of the Sea? It was all in color. It's the most beautifully photographed film I've ever seen."

"When exactly did you see the man there?" Jake said excitedly.

"It was after Milly went back inside. I had to back up my truck along the street - this elderly lady came through with her car, and I had to get out of her way. Then I pulled into the Wilkins' side drive. That's when I saw the man in the evening clothes. Then I got the truck over to the chute, opened it, and started dumping the coal in the cellar. I was out of range of the window then, and never looked through the window again."

"Could you see the Wilkins' front door while you were backing up your truck around the lady's car?"

Adams thought about it. "Yes, and nobody came in or out of the front door, after Milly went back in. It was a cold day. No one wanted to be outside."

Jake was working out in the Mammoth-Art Studio gymnasium. Fitness training was free to Studio employees. Greg had urged Jake to take advantage of this, and Jake had been going to the gym since he had joined the Studio a year ago. Greg was a mightily muscled actor who was typically cast in athletic hero roles in swashbuckling movies. Jake was not at this level, but a year of steady workouts had built up Jake's muscles and given him broad shoulders. Jake found he really enjoyed working out. He had never been at all athletic earlier in his life. So this was a new and fascinating experience for him.

Jake frequently got ideas while exercising. Story plot points would come to him, from out of the blue. Today he was getting fresh ideas about the case. Could he maybe learn something from Valentino's clothes?

Jake stood in the weight room, his torso drenched in sweat, wearing little but a pair of shiny black leather gym shorts and shoes. He got further ideas. Might the police know something about Valentino's disappearance? And what about the delivery man who brought the grandfather clock?

Jake didn't waste any time. He threw on a white T-shirt and a black leather motorcycle jacket he kept in his locker, and went out into the gorgeous Art Deco lobby of the gymnasium. Jake entered one of the phone booths built into a wall of the lobby. Jake unzipped a pocket of his leather jacket, and took out a roll of nickels for the phone. He made a series of appointments to help with the investigation.

Jake's motorcycle jacket was designed to make Jake look like a fun-loving, high energy young go-getter. In its own way, so was Jake's exceptionally dressy charcoal gray business suit. Being energetic and full of high spirits was an ideal in the 1920's.

The wall across from the phone booths contained a large mosaic mural, designed by artist Marcel Duchamp. The dynamic mural, done in a Cubist style, showed Olympic athletes performing, and was entitled Men in Motion. Greg had served as one of the models, appearing as a shot-putter. So had other leading men actors under contract with the Studio, like Patrick O'Donahue, who appeared as a pole-vaulter, cowboy star Tom Wilson and popular "Latin lover" Alfredo Notini, shown as a sprinter. The specially commissioned mural allowed Studio head J. D. Upshaw to indulge his love of Modern Art, and promote his Studio at the same time. The brilliant colors of the mural gleamed in the brightly lit lobby. Nearly the entire lobby roof was a glass skylight.

Jake made notes on his calls. Usually Jake carried a little notebook around with him at all times, to jot down ideas. As a joke, Patrick O'Donahue had given Jake a special notepad to use while wearing his motorcycle jacket. The notepad looked just like a cop's ticket folder. Wearing his leather jacket and writing in the folder, Jake looked like a motorcycle cop giving someone a ticket. The folder was a souvenir of the first case Patrick O'Donahue had worked on with Jake, in which O'Donahue had been undercover, dressed in a policeman's uniform. People at the gym liked Jake's motorcycle cop gear. They thought it was funny and nifty.

The desk-clerk in the lobby helped Jake track down various locations on city maps. The clerk had maps, city directories, phone books, business reference works, train and bus schedules, phone lists for hotels and restaurants. Like many Studio employees, he was overflowing with helpful information. The Studio had an information "culture", in which knowledge on all subjects was in constant circulation. Jake took part in this culture, attending screenings of world cinema, going to lectures on design, making use of the Research department for his scripts, and taking classes at the studio's Education Building. Jake sometimes lectured at the Education Building himself.

Normally Jake would have stopped into the little diner off the lobby, and had some fruit. The diner was a health-food vendor, and sold fruit and vegetable snacks. The ultra-modern diner was full of gleaming chrome chairs and tables. Like most places in the studio, it was designed to look spectacular in publicity photos. There was a tradition of photographing Mammoth-Art leading men in the diner. The actor would typically be in a double-breasted black tuxedo, extraordinarily dressy and with acres of shiny black satin lapels. He'd be seated on one of the silver chrome stools at the soda fountain. The diner had all sorts of special lights in the ceiling, which could be adjusted for portrait photography. Everything in the soda fountain, the equipment, counter and stools, was deliberately made just a little smaller than a typical American soda fountain, so that an actor photographed there looked big. Like a bull in a china shop.

But today Jake was in a rush. Jake hurriedly showered, got dressed in his business suit and trench coat, and left to meet with the men he had phoned.

Greg brought Jake to Valentino's hospital room, where the star was still sleeping. Valentino's clothes were hanging in the closet. Jake took one look at the spotless white shirtfront Valentino had worn, and concluded that Valentino hadn't been smuggled in with the coal. Not unless they'd put him in a large bag or box. One that was completely sealed up against the grimy black coal dust, which tended to get everywhere and on everything. Even smuggling him through the coal chute in the cellar seemed out.

Valentino's spotless patent leather shoes also seemed significant. They clearly had not been used to walk through snow. However Valentino entered the house, his feet had been thoroughly wrapped against the heavy snow of the night before.

Later Jake talked to the man who'd delivered the grandfather clock. Jake tracked the man down at the loading docks outside a warehouse. Jake stood there asking questions, his trench coat tightly buttoned against the cold. The delivery man's story matched that of Mary and the three girls.

Jake couldn't see how Valentino had been brought in the house. And the noise the toys would make when they were pulled out of the closet so that Valentino could be placed there also seem not to have been heard by anyone. Mary, the three girls, Ted and Milly all denied hearing any rattling toys, except at 10 when the girls first pulled them out of the closet. The girls agreed that they had put the toys back immediately after pulling them out at 10. No one could have snuck in their bedroom and placed Valentino in the closet then - the three girls had been in the bedroom the whole brief time the toys were on the bedroom floor.

It all seemed impossible.

Jake had gone to consult his policeman friend, Lt. Moe Apfelbaum of the LA Homicide squad. Moe was an intelligent man of around 35. Jake told Moe all about the case, and asked for Moe's help. It would have to be unofficial: so far, no crimes had apparently been committed.

"If this is a publicity stunt," Jake told Moe, "it hasn't been very effective. So far, Valentino's studio has managed to keep the whole thing out of the papers. There was no I.D. on Valentino when he was found, so the hospital treated him under the name of John Smith. That further helped squash publicity."

The next day, Moe had important news for Jake and Greg.

"Our police informants say there is an underworld plot to kidnap Rudolph Valentino," Moe told Jake. "They think they can get a big ransom for him from his studio. Word is that the kidnapping was due to take place Wednesday night, right after the beauty contest. They were going to drug Valentino, and kidnap him then. But something happened," Moe added. "Valentino suddenly disappeared. He just vanished right out of his dressing room, and out of the theater. He was alone for a while in his dressing room. Then he was gone. No one saw him leave the theater, or even his dressing room. The kidnappers were frustrated by Valentino's disappearance. Before they could get hold of Valentino for ransom, he was nowhere to be found."

"Was his dressing room being watched?" Jake asked.

"No," Moe replied, "but the stage door was - the theater didn't want any unauthorized persons crashing the show."

"I think I saw Rudy drugged," Greg said unexpectedly. "We were having an after-show party in his dressing room. Lots of people were there. All of a sudden, Rudy got very sleepy. Soon, he was snoring away in his chair. No one could wake him up. His dresser told us Rudy must be exhausted, and shooed us all out. We all left him alone to sleep it off, and the party shifted to my dressing room. When we went back an hour later, Rudy was gone. At first we figured he just woke up and went home. But the stage door guard told us that Rudy never left the theater. It was creepy. No one has any idea how Rudy left the building. He just vanished."

"Was Valentino eating or drinking anything?" Jake wondered.

Greg thought about this. "He was having ginger ale, and I was having quinine water. We're both in training for our film roles - neither of us ever touch alcohol."

"Who made up the drinks?"

"Some waiter in a tuxedo," Greg said. "Rudy was really thirsty, and had more than one ginger ale. He'd been singing in the show."

"Did any of these guys hang around with Valentino after you all left?"

"No," Greg said after a while, "but they didn't all come along to my dressing room either. They were just somewhere in the theater - I saw most of them wandering around later that night. They were all making as many contacts in the after-show parties that they could - you know movie people."

"It sounds like a fake waiter doped Valentino after the show," Moe said. "He was probably working as an accomplice to the kidnapping plot."

The DA's office smelled publicity potential in a Hollywood mystery case. They grilled Mary Wilkins in the parlor of her home. Mary, Ted and their three daughters had come home from ice skating Friday night, and they found the DA's men waiting in the parlor. They had arrived a bit earlier, and Milly had had no choice but to admit them in the house. They locked Mary in the parlor and interrogated her away from her family.

"You were Valentino's lover!" an Assistant District Attorney told Mary accusingly. "You were involved in the attempt to kidnap him."

Mary looked at him as if he were crazy. Then she started laughing.

"That's right," Mary said ironically. "Valentino was dating Pola Negri and those other famous Hollywood actresses, but he dumped them all for me. Rudolph Valentino and I were having a secret affair. He regularly snuck into this house while I was doing my husband and kids' washing and ironing, and showered me with mad, passionate kisses. Of course, my husband suspected nothing. So naturally, I drugged Valentino's cocoa that I made for him, and stuffed his body in my kids' closet, so my husband could learn all about our affair."

"Don't you see how ridiculous that sounds?" Mary continued. "Even my husband doesn't believe that there was anything going on between Valentino and me."

Milly was also grilled by the DA's men.

"You're that rabble rouser who's trying to organize a union," they told her. "We have a big file on your activities."

"I've never broken any laws," Milly told them defiantly. "You and the police should stop harassing me."

Even the DA couldn't tie Milly to Valentino in any way. Milly was trying to organize a union involving her fellow janitors and cleaning women. She definitely had no contacts in Hollywood circles.

Eventually, the DA's men left.

The three girls, who'd been watching anxiously, went to their bedroom to put away their ice skates in their closet. Gretchen was bending over. She noticed a bright blue woman's high heeled shoe on the floor of the closet. The three girls pulled the toys off. There was a sleeping middle-aged woman, in a light blue dress, on the floor of the closet. None of the girls recognized her. The woman woke up when they shook her. She looked around in awe and wonder.

"You must be Gretchen, Helen and Suzy," she told them. They all nodded their heads. "My name is Felicia Alburton. The last thing I remember, is that I was having dinner with Rudolph Valentino."

Felicia was unharmed, but a bit groggy. The Wilkins called Jake in right away, while tending to Felicia. Jake soon arrived on the trolley.

Felicia told Jake and the Wilkins all about her ordeal. She had been eating dinner with Valentino in a restaurant earlier that night, talking about a movie script she was writing in which Valentino hoped to star. A man dressed like a waiter in a tuxedo had plopped a piece of chocolate cake down in front of Valentino, and said "Compliments of the House!" Restaurants often did such things for a big star like Valentino.

"Rudy was on a diet," Felicia explained. "So I ate the cake instead. The management asked Rudy to sing a song. He went up to the band, and started singing Return to Sorrento. The cake must have been drugged. I started getting really weak, and nearly passed out at the table. I couldn't see anything clearly, but I could still hear voices. A man near me said 'when we get them outside, put the cuffs on Valentino and take him to the boss. And kill the broad.' I was terrified, but I couldn't move or speak. All of a sudden, the lights went out in the restaurant. Then a minute later, someone whispered in my ear. 'I'm a friend. We've got to get away.' This person propped me up, and half carried, half dragged me out of the restaurant. That's about all I remember."

"Was the whisperer a man or a woman?" Jake asked.

"I don't know," Felicia said. "But whoever they were, the whisperer saved my life."

"The whisperer probably brought you here, and put you in the girls' closet," Jake said. "I bet the whisperer rescued Valentino from the gangsters after the beauty contest, and brought him here, too. The whisperer sounds like a good person. But who is he?"

Everyone looked at each other in bewilderment.

"Valentino and I have both ridden the Hollywood Toy Express," Felicia said. "It starts out at Hollywood theaters or restaurants, and winds up in the Wilkins girls' toy closet. The whisperer is both the ticket agent and the conductor on the express. He puts you on the train, and sees that you wind up under the toys."

Part II: Untying the Knots

Milly took Felicia back to her bedroom, to look for a coat Felicia could wear on her trip home. Felicia seemed completely recovered.

Jake was still in his festive black yachtsman's evening rig, after attending a literary dinner earlier that night. It was what the well-dressed ship's captain would wear, for a formal evening affair. Such yachtsman's outfits were high fashion in the 1920's. The rig was a combination of a captain's formal dress uniform and a tuxedo. Jake's beautifully fitted black mess jacket was hung with gold braid, which looped under the huge stiff gold and black epaulettes on his shoulders. The shiny epaulettes drew attention to Jake's broad shoulders. A white evening shirt, high starched white collar, black bow tie, elegant black trousers with a black satin stripe down their side, black patent leather evening shoes and a high-peaked black yachtsman's cap with a huge curving shiny black visor completed his jaunty appearance.

Jake wrote sea adventure tales for the pulp magazines, in addition to his Hollywood work. Jake never missed a chance to wear nautical gear himself, like the heroes of his stories. He had just finished a tale in which his series hero had piloted his steamship up the treacherous rapids of the Upper Amazon in Peru, to bring medical supplies to an isolated community. Jake had been a poor teenager growing up, and never had any decent clothes. Now, as a grown-up, he loved being dressed to the nines. The dinner had been in honor of Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, who had just arrived in Hollywood to work as a scenarist at one of the studios.

Ted Wilkins was especially impressed with Jake's outfit. "It brings back memories of when I shipped out on a banana boat to Nicaragua," he told Jake happily. "Of course, they never let us wear anything as sharp as that aboard The Pride of Tallahassee," naming his old boat. "All we had were white sailor suits." Like most men, Ted strongly approved of Jake's nautical gear.

Jake promptly got out his writer's notebook, and prompted Ted for details of his summer on the banana boat. It was Ted's first job as a teenager, before he met Mary. Jake took notes on everything. He never knew when he could use it later in a sea story.

"Of course," Ted said, "if I'd stayed at sea I'd never have met Mary. She's been the good angel of my life. Being a sailor is a lonely way to live."

Soon, the taxi Jake called so he could take Felicia home arrived. Jake slipped on the heavy Captain's greatcoat he wore outdoors over the nautical rig. It was the same shade of black as his mess jacket and evening trousers, double-breasted, and with two shiny columns of brass buttons that rose up in a V array towards his shoulders. The uniform greatcoat had stiff epaulettes too. The shiny black epaulettes matched the gleaming visor of Jake's cap. Even at night, they caught and reflected light from the house. Jake looked incredibly dressy. The black wool coat was bulky in the shoulders and chest, and narrow in the waist.

"If you learn anything more," Jake told the Wilkins, "please call me right away."

"Aye-aye, Captain," Ted told him.

Police Captain Jessup was sitting in his office late on Saturday, talking with several of his men. He had just hung up the phone.

"That was the Commissioner," he told them. "We need to send in an officer tonight to take charge of the situation at the Van Der Voort estate. There'll be one of those big benefits there tonight at 8. Our underworld informants say there will be another attempt to kidnap Rudolph Valentino there, when he appears at the benefit. The only problem is, the officer has to have one of those formal outfits to wear, to pass unnoticed among the guests. You know, with the black tail coats and the high white tie and collar. It's too late now to try to rent one - the stores all are closed tonight."

"Who's got a tail coat?"

The Captain's driver spoke up. "I saw Richard Dix wear one in a movie last night". Gahagan had an off-trail view of the world. "Those movie stars always wear them."

"Who on the force has got one?" the Captain asked patiently.

"There's Petrovich," one of the Sergeants said. "His father works as a waiter at the speakeasy, the Bucket of Blood."

"He'd never pass as a society swell - that waiter outfit of his pop looks about a hundred years old. What about you, Rafferty? Didn't your brother wear one of those things to his wedding last year?"

"It was rented sir," Rafferty replied, with a visible sense of relief. "There's no one I know who could lend me one of those things."

The Captain's youngest aide spoke up.

"Sir, didn't Apfelbaum wear a white tie outfit in some of those publicity pictures last fall, after that Carson gang case? That movie studio publicity department fixed him up for the press pictures."

"Apfelbaum's a good man," the Captain said. "He's our man for tonight."

"Apfelbaum?" he soon said on the phone. "Do you still have that tailcoat outfit from last fall? Good. You're to report in my office for an assignment in half an hour. You will be fully dressed in your white tie and tails. It's for a society shindig tonight. You'll have the full soup and fish. Tail coat, top hat, gloves, everything you've got. That's an order!"

The Captain got an evil grin on his face. "This is going to be rich," the Captain told his men. "I've never seen a policeman yet who didn't look like a lug in one of these getups. Probably everything will be a half a size too small for him. We'll let him squirm around for a while before we let him off the hook and out the door to the Van Der Voort pile."

Moe knew he was being set up, but he reported to the Captain's office anyway, after a quick trip home. He'd never let any of his buddies on the force see him in white tie and tails. Moe knew that poking fun of officers when dressed up for undercover assignments was a police tradition. Now it was his turn in the barrel. He squared his shoulders, and entered the Captain's office.

Everyone was laughing in the office, but the laughter soon changed to something else. People were all staring at Moe. Moe stood there in full white tie and tails. Moe did not look like a lug. Instead, he looked amazingly good. Everything about the white tie and tails was beautifully tailored. Huge peaked black satin lapels pointed up to Moe's broad shoulders. Black patent leather evening shoes gleamed on his feet. A tall shiny black top hat was worn at a jaunty angle, and he carried a black cane in his white gloved hands. Moe looked like a society swell himself. In fact, he looked classier than most society types.

"It's like the King of Hungary just showed up here," the Captain thought.

"Gee, Lieutenant," Gahagan said, "You look just like Richard Dix!"

Moe, Greg and the man they were trying to protect, Rudolph Valentino, were waiting in a study at the Van Der Voort mansion for the charity benefit to begin. For his appearance, Valentino was going to demonstrate the tango, and he had asked Greg to sing in the benefit, too. The Lieutenant had never met Valentino before. For that matter, he hardly knew Greg, having met him briefly on several of the cases he and Jake had solved. All three men were in full white tie and tails. Moe wondered what actors talked about when they got together. Moe would soon find out.

"I am so glad you could come, old buddy," Valentino told Greg. "I knew you would not fail me for tonight's benefit." Valentino and Greg had known each other since their early days as struggling actors in Hollywood.

Greg gave Valentino his biggest smile. Greg reminded Moe of the Apfelbaum family tomcat, Whiskers. When Whiskers was happy, you could hear him purring through the whole house.

Greg introduced Moe to Valentino.

"You're the policeman who stood up to the mob, aren't you," Valentino said enthusiastically, referring to the Phantom Cop mystery of the previous fall. "It is an honor to meet you."

"Lieutenant, that is a very fine set of tails," Valentino continued. "It is the work of Perlucci, right?"

Moe was startled. Ambrosio Perlucci was the top tailor at Mammoth-Art Studio who had created his suit, when he had been involved with the publicity pictures last fall. "That's right," he replied. "How did you know?"

"Look at the curve of the waistcoat," Valentino said. "Only Perlucci could have done this. And the way that the two front edges of the tailcoat curve over the shirtfront. It is like a piece of sculpture. Tell me, Lieutenant," he added politely, "of what material is this waistcoat made. I have never seen anything like it."

Moe had no idea, and was about to say so, when Greg spoke up.

"It is a new double pique weave, with a soft lacquer finish, reinforced inside with a linen blend," Greg said. "Perlucci told me all about it while he was making the waistcoat up for the Lieutenant."

A technical discussion between Greg and Rudy followed. Moe got interested in spite of himself, and soon was asking the two actors all sorts of questions about clothes. They explained to him about the different kinds of patent leather used to make evening shoes, the best ways of lighting them so that they would glow on the movie screen, and which kinds were best for orthochromatic and panchromatic film stocks.

"I envy you Lieutenant," Valentino continued. "Perlucci is under exclusive contract to Mammoth-Art, so I cannot obtain any clothes from him."

After Valentino left, Greg turned to Moe. "Isn't Rudy swell, Lieutenant? I told you he wasn't stuck-up. He and I are just like two guys you'd meet in any corner saloon."

Moe agreed that Valentino, like Greg, seemed to be a decent person. Moe had seen a schedule of the two actors' charity appearances, and felt exhausted just reading it. But he doubted if either Valentino or Greg much resembled the occupants of the Bucket of Blood, where Moe's Homicide team had just mopped up after an ugly fatal stabbing.

On the other hand, Moe thought, this was not necessarily a bad thing. Moe often felt that being a regular guy was overrated. The two performers were bringing fun to millions of people, while the denizens of the Bucket of Blood were sitting there drinking their lives away. It would be much better, Moe thought, if more people would try to be themselves, instead of trying to be average.

Gahagan was at the party, too. The giant policeman turned out to be the same size as Greg, and the actor had lent him one of his tailcoats, as well as a pair of patent leather shoes to go with it. Gahagan was fascinated with the steel plates on Greg's evening shoes, and made a loud click by snapping his heels together every time he was introduced to someone. The single Gahagan was also enjoying flirting with one of the maids serving canapés, a woman who was about as tall as he was. Gahagan was making the maid laugh. To Moe, she looked like a hard working person, who could use a little laughter in her life.

The maid came up to the Lieutenant, carrying a tray of canapés. "Those gangsters that tried to kidnap Valentino that night at the theater are here again tonight," she said quietly but eagerly.

An announcement was soon made by Mrs. Van Der Voort.

"Mr. Valentino will be retreating into the library now. He will quietly decide there the best entertainer at tonight's contest. We ask you to please leave Rudy, that is, Mr. Valentino," Mrs. Van Der Voort blushed here, "all alone in the library for the next ten minutes, so that he can make this important decision in peace."

Valentino headed off to the door to the library. He waved to the crowd at the ball, then entered the library and closed the door behind him.

Two big men in tuxedos entered the dark library. They saw Valentino sitting alone deep in a leather armchair, his white shirt front gleaming, his face sunk in shadow.

"Time to come with us, Rudy," one of the men said sneeringly. He pulled out a gun, and held it trained on the movie star. With a smirk he told Valentino, "Mr. De Mille is waiting for you at the studio."

Suddenly, a dozen of Moe's men converged on the two gangsters, emerging from all of the dark corners of the library.

The man in the chair stood up. It was not Valentino. It was Lt. Apfelbaum.

"Sorry, boys," Moe said quietly, "But Cecil B. De Mille will have to wait a little longer. Maybe he can feed Gloria Swanson to the lions again today, instead."

Later, a laughing Moe told Jake, "People have mistaken me for Rudolph Valentino. Maybe I'm ready for a contract in the movies!"

Jake had solved the mystery earlier that afternoon.

The afternoon before the party, Jake stood under a large stand of bamboo, sheltered by a wall at Mammoth-Art Studio. It was cold outdoors. Jake turned up the collar of the sharp black leather trenchcoat he wore over his suit. The shiny coat went down to Jake's ankles, and gave him plenty of protection from the cold. The bamboo was in flower. This species of bamboo only flowered every 26 years. All over the world, clumps of this species were flowering, all at once. Jake was amazed at this as were plant scientists. No one could figure out what caused such simultaneous flowerings of bamboo, everywhere it was planted from China to North America. The bamboo seemed to be able to tell time. Jake thought about the mysteries of time. Soon, he was thinking about the Valentino case...

Suddenly, Jake began to understand how Valentino entered the Wilkins home. And how he got into the kids' toy closet. It was all a matter of timing. Soon, he'd figured out how Valentino left the theater after the beauty contest, too.

Jake went out to have a serious talk with one of the principals in the case.

Jake immediately confronted Milly Lundgren about her role in the mystery. She had confessed everything to Jake.

"It all began when you snuck into the theater during the beauty contest," Jake said. "You were wearing your cleaning woman's uniform. You knew the women who cleaned at the theater, and just how to pass yourself off as an employee of the same agency. So you had no trouble getting in backstage that night after the show."

"I wanted to see Rudolph Valentino," Milly said quietly. "He is my idol. I've seen all of his movies. When I went into his dressing room, he was sound asleep in his chair. Then I heard two men come in. I was trapped, and went and hid behind a screen in the corner of the dressing room. They had no idea I was there. They started talking about how they were planning to kidnap Valentino. I was horrified. The men were a pair of fiends. They were gangsters, and they were going to hold Valentino for ransom. They left, and said they were going to get a car. I left the dressing room, found a maid's cart for hauling laundry and dresses, went back to the dressing room, and gently put Mr. Valentino in it. Then I wheeled him out of the dressing room, and out of the theater."

"No one pays any attention to a cleaning lady with a laundry cart," Jake said. "That was how you were able to get Valentino out of a crowded theater, completely unnoticed."

"Once we got to the next street, I propped Valentino up on my shoulder, as if he were drunk, and took him to my home on the streetcar," Milly said. "He was groggy from the drug, but could walk around with guidance, and ride the streetcar. Maybe I should have taken him to the police. But they've hounded us union organizers relentlessly, and didn't want to give them any excuse to say I was somehow involved with the plot against Valentino."

"You brought Valentino home that night, before it started snowing at 4 AM," Jake went on. "Everyone else at your home was asleep. You locked his body in your bedroom closet, letting him sleep off the drug. The next morning, you went to the farmer's market, and started telling everyone excitedly you'd spotted Valentino. Soon, you got a big crowd all worked up. Then you went to a phone booth, and started calling reporters and the police."

"I wanted the gangsters to hear about it, and be confused about where Mr. Valentino was," Milly said.

"It confused me, too," Jake admitted. "Everyone thought Valentino had been smuggled into your house that morning, maybe while the coal was being delivered, which seemed impossible. No one realized that Valentino had been brought in the night before."

Jake went on. "Your sister Mary announced at lunch that day that she was going to clean your room that afternoon. At lunch, you went out to talk with the coal man. After you returned to the house, you went back to your bedroom to remove your coat and hat. At that time, you transferred Valentino from your closet to that of the three girls, so Mary wouldn't find him in your bedroom when she cleaned it. You briefly left Valentino on a chair in the side hallway, where the coal man Jeremiah Adams saw him. The roar of the coal being poured into the cellar, covered up any noise made by adjusting the toys in the girls' closet. Then you rejoined your family for lunch, and left for your job afterwards. You didn't suspect that anyone would find Valentino in the girls' closet that afternoon."

Milly nodded her head.

"That's when I began to suspect you were involved," Jake said. "You were the only person moving around the house when the coal was being poured. Its noise would make a period when the toys could be moved without anyone hearing it. Everyone else was together at lunch when the coal was emptied into the cellar. I didn't see how you could have brought Valentino into the house then. But you certainly could have carried him from your room, to the girls' room across the hall, without anyone in the kitchen seeing you."

"I was trailing Mr. Valentino the next night, hoping to find the gangsters again," Milly said. "I saw what happened at the restaurant, and heard how they planned to kill that nice lady he was dining with. She'd been drugged, too. So I took out the fuse at the restaurant, dousing the lights, and brought her to my home where she'd be safe. Mary said that she was going to finish cleaning out my room soon, so I put her in the girls' closet."

Milly and Jake talked over Milly's concerns about the police. Then Jake brought Milly to talk with Lt. Apfelbaum.

It was all over. The gangsters who'd tried to kidnap Valentino at the benefit had been taken away in handcuffs.

The Lieutenant was thanking Milly Lundgren for her help. Moe had asked her to work as a maid at the benefit, and see if she could try to spot the two men who'd attempted to kidnap Valentino from the theater. She was still in the maid's costume, in which she identified the gangsters earlier in the evening.

"I'm going to try to keep your name out of this case entirely," Moe was telling her. "We don't want anyone in the underworld to take reprisals against you or your family. No one will ever know about how you took Valentino to your home, and hid him there, from the gangsters who were trying to kidnap him."

Valentino came in. He went up to Milly, bowed to her and kissed her fingers.

"I will be in eternal debt to the noble young woman who saved my life," he told her. Valentino looked at her with his smoldering, passionate eyes.

Gahagan was also there. He asked Milly to go dancing with him after the benefit. One could tell that Gahagan was sweet on her. He'd never met anyone so courageous before in his life, and Milly awed him.

While Milly was changing back in her street clothes, Greg told Gahagan to keep the tailcoat for the evening and go dancing in it. Soon, Milly and Gahagan were going out the door of the Van Der Voort mansion. They wound up dancing all night at the Tivoli Revue Palace, a giant dance hall in the city.

Milly and Gahagan were married a few months later. Samuel Gompers, who was in town, came and danced with Milly at her wedding, a great honor. The union leader made a speech about how proud everyone in the union movement was of Milly Lundgren.