Mystery Stories Home Page

Copyright 2004 by Michael E. Grost

The Tree of Life

A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery

By Michael E. Grost

Hollywood. October 30, 1925. The day before Halloween.

When Jake was in need of inspiration, he took a walk. Jake had been working at home this week - not just his cubicle, but his whole floor at the Writer's Building was being repainted.

Jake had found a new path recently. The Studio had put him up in a bungalow, one of three in an otherwise deserted area of Los Angeles. Across the street were two old mansions, in terrible shape. The nearest, the Walker house, was surrounded by a ancient fence, marking the boundary of its extensive grounds. Jake found he could cross the street, and walk along the outside of the wire mesh fence, that stretched along the left hand side of the Walker grounds. The Walker house had been completely shut up, since the death of old Mr. Walker a year ago. Technically, Jake supposed he was now on the Manheim property, but the old Manheim mansion was two blocks away down the road, and out of sight of Jake. Jake could follow the old fence deep into the California countryside, walking for what seemed to be blocks, without seeing anyone. Or anything except some scrubby bushes.

Like the rest of Los Angeles, the California countryside was hilly, full of steep hills and sudden dips into low hollows. Everything was dry and desert like. The shrubby native plants always fascinated Jake, although he missed the trees that humans planted in the developed areas of Los Angeles. Jake had walked along the whole perimeter fence of the Walker place last week, without seeing a single tree.

Jake was working on a script about Secret Service agents chasing crooks through the waterways of the Potomac.

Jake was dressed as a tropical explorer. He had on a pith helmet, to shield his face from the sun, a khaki tunic with big patch pockets, khaki trousers flared at the hips, and tall black boots that laced up to his knees. Such explorer's gear was high fashion in the 1920's. Jake found it ideal for taking walks in the countryside, and other casual occasions in which a suit might not be appropriate.

Today's walk was working. Jake was getting all sorts of ideas for his script. In fact, Jake was about to turn around and go home, when suddenly he saw something that stopped him dead in his tracks.

There in front of him, was a tree. The tree was around fifteen feet tall. It had a slender gray trunk, very thin and fragile looking, and numerous horizontal branches. The branches contained long green compound leaves, that stretched out like green feathers from the tree. The tree also bore cylindrical spikes of beautiful white flowers.

Jake was sure the tree was not there last week, when he walked around the outside of the Walker fence. He looked down at the ground around the tree. It was hard-packed, bare of grass, and looked as if it had not been disturbed for months. So were the grounds surrounding the tree, which were around eighty yards from the fence. Jake could even see his footprints in the dusty earth surrounding the tree. They were the only footprints of a human anywhere near the tree. It did not look as if the tree had been transplanted. It was very large to transplant, anyway - it was a mature plant, and not a sapling.

Jake reached up. He wanted to get a closer look at the flowers. He gently pulled one of the branches down towards his face, so he could see the blooms close up. The branch promptly broke off in Jake's hand, flower spike and all. Jake was upset. He was horrified that he had vandalized a tree. Aside from the branch Jake had torn off, the tree looked to be in perfect shape. It had clearly not been trimmed or otherwise pruned by humans for at least a year - maybe ever.

Jake looked around. The tree was in a deep hollow here. No one could see it or Jake, hidden by the tall hills that bordered the hollow. So Jake was unlikely to be arrested by anyone for vandalizing someone's property. Jake was a builder, not a destroyer. He had never vandalized anything in his life.

Jake had been lost in thought on both of his walks. But he did not see how he could have missed the tree last week. Jake loved trees, and they were always a welcome sight to him.

Jake was now on the far rear of the Walker fence. He did not know on whose property he was standing now, underneath the tree. All he could see for blocks was a hilly scrub country. Presumably, he was on the grounds of some other large estate. One whose house was lost to view.

Jake retraced his steps back to the bungalow, following the fence back home.

Jake took a detour to his local public library, four blocks down the street. Like many Southern California buildings, the library was built in an exotic style. Its architect had fallen in love with the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and the library resembled every South Sea Islands Men's Club that had ever appeared in a Somerset Maugham story or jungle adventure movie. There were ceiling fans, cool white lattice-work wooden screens that cast dappled shadows in the afternoon sun, and big white rattan chairs and dark mahogany tables. The architect had even arranged for the college students who had part time jobs reshelving books to be dressed in white tropical waiter's uniforms. Jake always half expected to see huge multi-colored pythons curling among the books. Jake climbed the short stairs of the outside covered porch, removing his pith helmet and tucking it under his arm. His boots echoed on the wooden porch steps. Jake always liked wearing his explorer's outfit to the library.

Jake was friends with the reference librarian at the library. He showed Jake how to find the latest City Directory covering the neighborhood.

According to the City Directory, one Vilmos Gombrosh owned the large estate behind the Walker place. Jake made shorthand notes in the little notebook he carried in the patch pocket on his chest.

Jake went home, and finished the whole opening section of his script. Then he took a trolley out to Lola Hansen's home.

Lola Hansen was a former actress at Mammoth-Art, now retired, and living in her huge Hollywood estate. The estate grounds formed a botanical garden - flowering trees were Lola's passion. Jake had met the actress before, and took the tree branch to show her.

Lola knew what it was right away.

"That is a Cunonia capensis," Lola told Jake. "It is from South Africa. They sometimes are planted or even grow wild here in Southern California, now." She showed him her own Cunonia tree, growing on a hillside in her garden. "They are very fragile. All you have to do is pull a branch or a leaf, and it breaks off."

Jake pushed up his pith helmet, with the swagger stick he carried. He took a close look at the tree. "It seems identical to the one on the Gombrosh lot." The swagger stick had a strong leather smell. It matched Jake's boots and the Sam Browne belt of the explorer's outfit, all three being made of the same heavy, coarse grain of black leather.

"Could a Cunonia tree be transplanted?" Jake asked.

"Not without a lot a branches being damaged," Lola replied. "They bruise and break very easily."

"This one looked in perfect shape," Jake said thoughtfully. "It has not been touched by humans for years."

"How did it appear there behind the Gombrosh estate in just one week?" Jake went on. "The whole thing seems impossible. And what is the point? Why would someone to go the trouble of doing this? As far as I know, I'm the only person who has seen the tree. And nobody could have known or predicted that I would be walking back there the two times I did, before and after the tree's appearance."

"The flower spikes are very pretty," Lola said, after a pause. "They have always reminded me of the phrase from Tennyson: 'the white flower of a blameless life.' This African tree has relatives in continents all over the Southern hemisphere - South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South Sea Islands like New Caledonia. Many scientists think this adds evidence to the idea that millions of years ago, these Southern land masses were all one big continent, which broke up and drifted apart."

"I keep meaning to write a story set in New Caledonia," Jake said. "It seems so exotic and remote. When we were in Paris working on a film last year, we saw a bird from New Caledonia at the Paris Zoo. It's called a Kagu, and lives nowhere else but New Caledonia."

Lola moved down a hillside, and took a pair of gardening shears out of a pocket of the lilac-colored gardening smock she wore. "Here's a cutting from a New Caledonia plant," she said, clipping off a small branch from a vigorous looking shrub. "It's called an Amborella, and is a very primitive flowering plant. You can plant it outside your bungalow, and maybe get some inspiration for your New Caledonia story." Lola tucked the Amborella branch under the leather harness strap that ran diagonally across Jake's chest, part of his dashing Sam Browne belt. "It should stay there just fine during your trip home."

"Thank you," Jake said, tucking the Cunonia branch under his chest harness too.

As he worked on his script the next afternoon, Jake was unable to get the tree mystery out of his mind. Finally he called up Harry Callaway at the studio. Harry was Mammoth-Art Studio's top publicity photographer.

Jake had suggestions about how Greg, Harry and Jake could get inside the Gombrosh mansion, and meet the people there.

"It would be a chance for you to take publicity pictures," Jake told Harry. "You could shoot Greg and other Mammoth-Art actors doing detective work on a real life mystery."

"You've sold me," Harry said. "I'll be there at 4:30 with my car and the actors. And I'll make a few glamour shots at the studio with the actors before we leave. Who knows what photographic conditions will be like at the Gombrosh mansion?"

"You are the only one of us with a car or who knows how to drive," Jake said. "So thanks for pitching in."

That night, around 5 O'Clock, a car stopped suddenly in the road outside the Gombrosh mansion. The car's driver honked repeatedly, with an unusually loud horn. A young man in a long black rain slicker got out and peered rather futilely under the hood. Someone in the car honked noisily again.

"Guess we're stuck, boys!" Harry called out loudly to the other three occupants of the car. Harry set off some flares, that exploded like firecrackers on the lawn of the Gombrosh estate. They burned a brilliant red through the twilight gloom. Harry could see someone looking at them through the stained glass panel in the front door of the mansion.

"Maybe you can get help in that house!" Greg suggested from the car, using a stentorian voice that could be heard for miles. The Studio had trained him to be able to project to the back row of the biggest legitimate theaters.

Harry trudged up the decaying steps of the Gombrosh porch. It was already beginning to rain, huge droplets that ran down Harry's shiny black slicker. He pushed a door bell. Inside, sinister chimes sounded, like a funeral knell from a church.

A cadaverous looking butler immediately answered the door, wearing an ancient frock coat. In the car, Mammoth-Art leading man Patrick O'Donahue told Jake, "That butler looks like the vampire in Nosferatu!" The German horror film had just been screened at Mammoth-Art, along with its director F. W. Murnau's other best known film, The Last Laugh. The Studio liked its talent to keep up with world cinema. The butler did look as if he had just stepped out, or maybe risen out, of a coffin.

A flash of lightning split the sky.

Harry was pantomiming to the butler, who did not seem to speak English very well. Harry pointed to his friends in the car. The butler made a strange gesture, and Harry motioned for his friends to enter the mansion. The three men in the car moved rapidly through the now pouring rain, up the creaking porch steps and into the murky front door. They found themselves in a wide entrance hall. At one side of the hall was a huge staircase. There was wood everywhere: bare wooden floors without a carpet, a huge wooden banister on the staircase, wood paneled walls.

The butler took their slickers, and the tall top hats the men wore. The long shiny black coats were in the shape of opera capes, and stretched from their necks to their ankles. They had kept the four men's white tie and tails underneath perfectly dry. The cape-shaped slickers, made to be worn over evening wear, were an innovation of Ambrosio Perlucci, the Mammoth-Art men's designer. They looked splendid, dressy, but utterly unique. They reminded Jake a little bit of the cloak worn by Judex, the heroic avenger in Louis Feuillade's movie crime serial. The capes were fastened at the throat by a silver chain. Perlucci had put a mysterious, abstract design based on a silver bird there, on the chain's clasp. The design hinted tantalizingly of some hidden significance, one that seemed to fascinate everyone who saw it. Jake and his friends also carried ebony evening sticks, whose silver heads also contained the bird-like design.

Harry, Greg, Patrick O'Donahue and Jake were all dressed to the limit, in the elegant evening clothes created for them by the Studio's expert tailors. They looked like the best dressed young men in the city, or maybe the whole Western seaboard of the country. It had been Harry's idea for the four of them to wear their tailcoats. They would look socially acceptable to whoever they met in the Gombrosh mansion. And it would reassure the mansion's occupants that they were not a gang of thieves. Plus, Harry would get better publicity pictures if his stars were dressed up to the max. People expected actors such as Greg and Patrick to wear white tie and tails every night.

Jake pulled out his watch, from a pocket in his white waistcoat. The watch was attached to a long silver chain, that draped in a curve over the thigh of the black evening trousers Jake wore with his equally black tailcoat. Jake opened the silver case of the watch. The back of the case had the same bird design that was on Jake's cape and cane. The time was just 5:15. The rain storm had made it very dark outside. One could see no sign of the sun, hidden behind the huge thunderclouds that darkened the sky. Jake closed the watch case with a snap, and returned the watch to his vest. All of his friends carried similar time pieces. The four had synchronized their watches before setting out on their adventure. Jake and his friends took card cases out of the inside pockets of their tailcoats, and gave business cards from them to the butler for presentation to the home's residents.

The ancient butler said something in a language Jake did not understand. But Greg brightened up. He started talking in Hungarian to the butler, telling him their car had broken down. Hungarian was Greg's native language. The butler gleamed with pleasure.

Greg started translating and explaining to the others.

"The butler's name is Peter Fejos," Greg began. "He is from Transylvania originally, part of the Hungarian community there, born in Sibiu near the Transylvanian Alps. He is deaf, but he is good at reading lips in Hungarian. The owner of the estate was an elderly invalid named Vilmos Gombrosh, who was a retired merchant from Budapest. He died two months ago. Peter here is the only servant."

An enormous boom of thunder interrupted Greg.

"You mean that Transylvania is a real place?" Patrick inquired. "I thought they made it up for Dracula and all those vampire stories."

"I have known many immigrants from Transylvania," the Hungarian-American Greg replied firmly. "They are very nice people. Transylvania was the first country in Europe to have freedom of religion," Greg added proudly. "Just like we have in America today."

"I appeared on stage in Dracula three years ago, in Boston," Patrick O'Donahue said. "It was just for a week's run."

"You played Dracula?" Jake asked. He could not imagine the handsome, cheerful O'Donahue as the vampire count.

"No, I was Jonathan Harker, the heroine's fiancé," Patrick replied.

This sort of romantic hero role seemed far more natural for the ultra-handsome O'Donahue, Jake thought.

"The Gombrosh heirs are all in the parlor," Greg went on. "Just family members are here tonight. The butler will take us there."

The butler showed Jake and his friends into an enormous, ornate parlor, filled with old-fashioned red plush furniture. He then retreated up the giant staircase in the front hall. Every step the butler took up the wooden staircase resulted in a series of loud squeaks and eerie creaks.

"This whole place is like something out of a horror novel!" Harry whispered to Jake.

Several people were assembled in the parlor. A smooth looking middle-aged man made the introductions. There was a good deal of light, both from a roaring fire in the large fireplace, and from numerous oil lamps scattered around the room. The storm had put the electricity at the mansion out for the night, and the electric lights did not work.

"This is Eleanor Goodstone," he said, introducing a dark haired woman in her thirties. "She is a horticulturist at a local tree nursery."

"Trees are my life," she told the gentlemen with a smile. Jake immediately wondered if she had anything to do with the Cunonia tree that had magically appeared on the estate.

"And this is Arthur Sanzo," he said, indicating a cadaverously thin man in his forties. "Better known as the magician, The Great Sanzo." Sanzo had a pencil thin mustache. He was wearing an old set of tails, probably used in his magic act, along with carpet slippers on his feet. He rose and shook hands with the four newcomers. He had a modest, shy smile. Sanzo was leaning against a small, wrought-iron spiral staircase, that led from a corner of the parlor to an upper story of the mansion. Harry already had his eye on the spiral staircase, thinking it would make a good setting for some photos later.

"This is my son, Patterson Whitby," the middle-aged man serving as their host said. Young Whitby was a muscular young man in his early twenties, wearing white tie and tails. He had a surly look, and did not stand or greet Jake and his friends in any way.

"And I am Northcroft Whitby," the middle-aged man said. "I deal in investments." He moved to shake the visitors' hands, after glaring a bit at his son. Whitby Sr. was also in tails.

Jake felt glad Harry had suggested wearing their tailcoats. "It just goes to prove," Jake thought, "that you can never be too dressed up."

"You are meeting all that remains of the Gombrosh family," Eleanor told Patrick with a sad smile. "The Whitbys, the Sanzos and the Goodstones are the last three branches left. In fact, all of us just met for the first time three weeks ago. We are staying here tonight at the mansion, and the lawyer will be here tomorrow to settle the will. Probably the estate here will be sold - we all agree that none of us would want to live here."

Peter the butler came in, carrying a small vase with a white flower spike in it. It was the Cunonia branch. Jake had brought it with him to the mansion that night, in a deep pocket inside his slicker cape, and given it to the butler. Jake watched everybody's expressions closely, as the butler put the vase on an ormolu table.

Whitby father and son paid no attention to it, nor did the Great Sanzo. It clearly meant nothing to them. But Eleanor lighted up.

"Oh, how beautiful!" she said. "What is it?"

The butler had not seemed to recognize the flowers either, when Jake gave him the branch. Seemingly, no one in the house had been involved in the magical appearance of the tree.

There was a telephone cabinet under the front stairs of the Gombrosh mansion. It was much like a public telephone booth one might see in a hotel, with a glass paneled door, a ceiling light, and a metal seat for the occupant. Jake had read that private mansions sometimes had such telephone cabinets, but this was the first one he had ever seen in real life. The ceiling light did not work, with the power being off for the storm. But Jake was surprised to see that the phone itself was still in operation. Jake managed to reach the local exchange.

"Could you please connect me to Lt. Moe Apfelbaum of the Los Angeles Homicide Squad," Jake politely asked the woman at the exchange. Jake gave her his old friend Moe's number.

"Apfelbaum here, LAPD." Moe's voice came over faint but clear. Jake felt he was back in contact with civilization. He hastened to fill Moe in about the denizens of the Gombrosh mansion. Moe went to look up police records on them, then returned to the phone.

"Calling old Vilmos Gombrosh a merchant is an euphemism," Moe said. "Gombrosh was one of the leaders in the black market in Budapest during the war. He made millions, then got out of Hungary one step ahead of his enemies after the Armistice in 1918.

"We don't think his butler Peter Fejos was involved in any of Gombrosh's enterprises," Moe went on. "In fact, Gombrosh kept a deaf servant so that the servant could not hear any of his business meetings or transactions. A form of insurance against the authorities. Peter Fejos just kept house for Gombrosh, and stayed away from the black market work."

"Calling Sanzo a magician is also a bit of a stretch," Moe went on wryly. "Sanzo has mainly made his living as a fortune teller. He appears on stage whenever he can get work, but he has had a much longer run as a carnival worker off stage. He has been arrested several times as a fortune teller, but always just nickel and dime stuff."

Moe knew nothing about Eleanor, but he knew all about the Whitbys.

"Whitby senior showed up around two months ago, from New York City," Moe told Jake, "and rented a small house on the outskirts of Anaheim. He shares the house with his playboy son. It's in an isolated canyon back road, and the Whitbys have no near neighbors. Anything could be going on out in their place, from bootlegging to mass murder, and no one would know. Whitby Sr. has been involved with a number of shady financial transactions, but the New York police have never been able to get enough evidence to convict him of anything."

"Two months ago is when Vilmos Gombrosh died," Jake said. "Presumably the Whitbys showed up to safeguard their inheritance from the old man."

Greg had been talking with the butler, out in the kitchen. Greg quietly waved Jake into the old kitchen, with its gray stone counters and white enameled cupboards. Harry began to take photographs of the two of them and the butler, using flash-bulbs. Greg looked incredibly heroic in Harry's set-ups. Harry planned to take as many publicity pictures of actors Greg and Patrick during the evening as possible.

"Peter tells me he has been getting threatening letters in the mail," Greg said. "The anonymous letters claim that vampires will attack the house."

"That is bizarre," Jake said.

"The old guy is quite superstitious. He is terrified of vampires and bats. In fact, he got so nervous just talking about the vampires that I had to get his heart medication," Greg said seriously.

"It is Halloween, tonight," Jake said thoughtfully. "If someone were to pull a cruel hoax on Peter here, tonight would be the perfect night."

"This seems strange, Jake" Harry said. "Why would someone want to scare a butler to death?"

"I don't know," Jake said. "We are going to find out."

Greg asked both Peter and his friends to step into the ornate dining hall next to the kitchen. The butler could see all four of Jake, Patrick, Greg and Harry in the large mirror in the dining hall. Their reflections clearly gave him confidence that none of the four young men in front of him was a vampire. According to ancient superstitions, vampires could not be seen in mirrors.

Jake was worried about an attack on the house. He started looking in various rooms on the ground floor.

Jake looked into the butler's room, after using Greg as an interpreter to get Peter's permission. The butler's room was toward the back of the house on the ground floor, in a corridor down from the kitchen.

"This is really spare," Jake thought to himself. "There is a closet without any door. It looks like Peter has two suits, the one he is wearing now, and the one hanging there. There is a shelf with some linen, and another for his other pair of shoes. There is a table and chair here in the corner - not even a real dresser. And a suitcase in the other corner. People are really cheap when it comes to their servants," Jake thought. "There is all this display in the parlor, and Peter does not even have a bureau with drawers for his clothes or possessions. Maybe Peter has a box with his personal belongings in the attic. There sure is no privacy in this room for any of Peter's personal effects. You could not even hide a dog in here!"

Jake made sure the butler's shutters were firmly fastened. And he glanced under the butler's neatly made, rather high bed - it was obvious that no one was hiding there. Then Jake closed Peter's door behind him, after taking a final survey around the empty room.

Jake started back down the deserted corridor to the kitchen. He had only gone a step when Jake heard a loud mewing.

"Meow!" a cat said, from behind Peter's door.

Jake opened the door. Out came a large black cat.

"Mirp!" it told Jake. The cat sounded frustrated, but happy to get out of Peter's room.

"Where did you come from?" Jake asked the cat. "And on Halloween, too?"

The cat's large green eyes glared curiously at Jake. Jake hunched down, and began to scratch the cat gently between his eyes.

"I wish you could talk," Jake told the cat. "What story would you have for me? How did you get in that closed, empty room? What is going on around the Gombrosh mansion? What does this all mean?"

The cat suddenly rolled over on his back, and stretched out all four of his legs to their fullest.

"I know what that means," Jake said with a smile. "You are a happy cat, aren't you. Yes, you are!" Jake told the cat, all the while scratching him under his chin.

The cat stretched out his legs again. Then he suddenly sat right side up again, and started bathing, licking his back vigorously with his tongue. Jake stood back up.

Jake looked into the butler's room. Nothing was disturbed. The shutters were still firmly fastened. Jake looked up to the ceiling, both in the room and the closet. There were no trap doors. Nor could Jake see any in the hardwood floors. The suitcase was still firmly locked and strapped at the top, just as it had been when Jake looked through the room a few minutes earlier.

Impossible as it seemed, the cat had appeared as if by magic in the butler's room.

Harry came out to the corridor. Jake told him about the cat.

"Living beings are appearing all over," Jake said. "First a new tree is on the Gombrosh lot. Now a cat shows up in the Gombrosh mansion. What next?" Jake wondered. "Do these things come in threes?"

Eleanor came out into the corridor.

"I see you've made friends with Murgatroyd," she told Jake, pointing to the black cat. "Murgatroyd was Uncle Vilmos' cat. He really doted on him, I understand."

Eleanor, Jake and Harry all went back to the kitchen.

Greg and Jake went around, checking that all the shutters are closed and fastened on the ground floor. The whole house was locked up tight, including all the windows. This was a good thing, because the storm was at its peak of fury outdoors.

Greg and Jake wandered back into the parlor. The Great Sanzo was entertaining the family with magic tricks. His top hat was on a table in the parlor. The Great Sanzo passed his cane over it.

There was a loud "mirp". Sanzo picked up his hat, revealing a bewildered looking Murgatroyd on the table.

"Making an animal appear out of nowhere was always one of my specialties," Sanzo said. Jake wondered if Sanzo could have caused the appearance of Murgatroyd in the butler's room.

Murgatroyd hurriedly jumped off the table, and ran out of the room. It was clear that he wanted no more part of the Great Sanzo or his tricks.

Jake suddenly thought he heard a noise from upstairs. He quietly slipped up the spiral staircase. He found himself in a hall on the second floor.

A flash of lightning lit up the corridor. At its far end, Jake saw a figure wearing a black mask over its face. The figure looked unmistakably like a vampire. The vampire wore white tie and tails, and a cape, in the time-honored tradition of Dracula performances on stage. Jake could see the vampire's large fangs, gleaming in the lightning flash. The figure disappeared into the darkness.

Jake hurried down the corridor. But the figure had vanished somewhere in the darkness. Jake went over to the back steps. Harry was at its base in the kitchen, taking photographs of Patrick O'Donahue.

"There's an intruder in the house!" Jake yelled down. "Don't let anyone in or out the door!"

"Will do!" Harry yelled in reply. "No one has gone by Patrick or myself, or used the back stairs, for the last fifteen minutes."

"I'll guard the back door with my life!" Patrick yelled to Jake.

Jake hoped it would not go that far.

Jake hurried down the corridor to the front staircase. He could see Patterson Whitby in the front hall below, staring moodily out at the rain. Jake took three steps down the huge staircase, so he could see young Whitby better. At every step the staircase emitted a loud groan.

"Did anyone come by here recently?" Jake asked.

"Of course not," young Whitby said lazily, as if Jake were some sort of idiot.

Even without Whitby's dubious help, it was clear to Jake that he would have heard anyone walking up or down the front staircase. It made ear splitting squeaks anytime anyone stepped on it. Clearly, neither the intruder, nor young Whitby himself, had used the stairs since Jake had arrived on the second floor.

Jake hurried down the spiral staircase into the parlor. Everyone else in the house was still there, including Greg. Just as Jake had left them five minutes ago.

"We've all been here together for the last ten minutes, Jake," Greg assured him. The others nodded in agreement. Jake could see Eleanor and Whitby Sr. on a couch, and the Great Sanzo leaning against the mantelpiece, doing card tricks. Peter the butler stood against the back wall. Clearly none of them could have been the vampire intruder - they had all been downstairs in the parlor with Greg while Jake saw the vampire upstairs. "And no one has used the spiral staircase since you went up it," Greg added.

"Let's search the house," Jake suggested to Greg. "I'll take the top two floors, you can take the ground floor and the basement." Jake asked Harry to watch the front door, and Patrick to stay and stand guard in the kitchen and its back door.

Jake went back up stairs. There was no one in the cavernous attic, which formed the third story of the mansion. Except a bat that swooped down on Jake's head. Jake brushed the bat off with his hand. Jake rejected the idea that the vampire he had seen had transformed himself into a bat, and was now lurking in the attic. Jake did not believe that there were really such things as vampires. He was sure the figure he had seen was a man masquerading with phony fangs. And probably here to terrorize Peter, for some unexplained reason.

There was just one window in the attic, a large circular window in the front that did not open. Through it, Jake could see the whole front lawn of the Gombrosh estate and beyond, being pelted by the thunderstorm. The lawn looked deserted of figures.

Jake bolted the attic door, and started searching the second floor. He eventually encountered Eleanor, who was looking after her parakeet in her room, and later Patterson Whitby, who was doing something unspecified in his room. But a thorough search revealed no strangers in the top two floors.

Jake found what looked like the vampire's cape. It had been tossed into a hall closet on the second floor. It was an ordinary opera cape, not a shiny slicker like Jake and his friends wore.

Jake went down the back stairs, rejoining Patrick there. He encountered Greg coming up from the cellar stairs into the kitchen.

"There is no one in the cellar," Greg told Jake and Patrick. "And there is no one on the first floor except various family members and the butler. I have looked everywhere, through every closet, and opening every cabinet. There is not room to hide a cat down here. And all the windows are locked and bolted on the inside."

Greg and Jake went out to the front door to talk with Harry.

"Peter says that there are no secret passages or hidden rooms in the house," Greg went on. "It is just a perfectly respectable old house that Vilmos bought when he moved to the States in 1918."

"Impossible as it seems," Jake said, "the masked vampire has vanished."

"Just as vampires are supposed to be able to do," Harry pointed out. "Could the vampire be hiding in the telephone cabinet under the stairs?" Harry wondered.

Greg shook his head. "The cabinet door was open, and the cabinet was empty, every time I went by there."

"Maybe someone chopped the vampire up with an ax, and buried the pieces in the cellar," Harry suggested cheerfully.

"I do not think that is possible," Greg replied. "The cellar walls and floor are all concrete. And the furnace is not on, and is empty inside."

"One of the Gombrosh heirs could have let the vampire out a window, then locked and fastened the shutters after the vampire left," Jake said thoughtfully.

Jake got his slicker cape from the front hall closet, fastened it tightly, and pulled a pair of black rubber galoshes out of a pocket in the cape. Jake was going outside, and did not wish to ruin his evening shoes.

The rain had softened the hard-packed earth that surrounded the house. Anybody who had left the house by door or window since the storm started would have made prints in the ground. Jake carefully searched the entire perimeter of the house, his head bowed against the rain storm.

Jake found nothing. There were no prints anywhere.

Lightning flashes also showed Jake the roof of the Gombrosh mansion. Neither the vampire nor anyone else was up there.

The vampire must still be in the house, somewhere. But where?

While Patrick was in the kitchen he whipped up some potato omelets and coleslaw. Soon everyone was gathered around the battered old wooden table in the kitchen, digging in. The gas stove was working fine, even if the electricity was out.

"My folks ran a lunch room in Boston," Patrick told them. "I used to cook there most nights after high school."

Patrick had taken off his tail coat to cook, and put on a butler's green leather apron, that he'd apparently found hanging in the pantry. He'd also opened a can of sardines, to give Murgatroyd, who'd followed everyone to the kitchen. A grateful Murgatroyd was rubbing his head all over Patrick's patent leather evening shoes.

"We will all feel better, when we get something to eat," Patrick said. He gave everyone his biggest, movie star smile. Everyone immediately relaxed and looked happy. Patrick always had that effect on people.

Jake discovered that he did feel better, having some food. Everyone smiled and kept on eating.

"Do you know of anything strange about this house?" Jake asked Eleanor. "Anything that might give us a clue about the strange happenings here?"

Eleanor thought about this.

"My mother once told me there was oil on the Gombrosh estate here," Eleanor told Jake. "Uncle Vilmos was always opposed to any development, so the deposit is just sitting underground. Now that the estate is being settled, I hope we can bring a geologist in, and see what it is worth."

"Do all of you have equal shares in the estate?" Jake asked.

"Cousin Northcroft Whitby, Cousin Sanzo and I are all equal heirs," Eleanor replied. "Northcroft's son Patterson Whitby is just along for the visit. He is not an heir." She wrinkled her nose. Jake got the impression that she found young Patterson hard to take. "Plus, Peter gets a pension."

Harry took pictures of Patrick cooking. Patrick's dark green leather apron looked tough, like something a butcher might wear. It fit Patrick O'Donahue perfectly, showing off his bulging chest muscles and coming down in a huge expanse of shiny leather, to just over his shoes.

"That apron looks too big to be the butler's," Jake said to Harry.

"The apron is custom designed for O'Donahue," Harry said, in response to Jake's query. "It's made for fan magazine photo shoots. I brought it along tonight in case we could get some pictures. It's designed to convey O'Donahue's image, that he's really good at working with his hands." The Studio was always looking for ways to get across a star's personality, through the pure use of pictures in silent films and fan magazine photos.

"I brought along his carpenter's apron, too," Harry said, pointing to a second leather apron hanging in the butler's pantry. It was jet black, made of a heavy, glossy leather, very tough looking. Its many pockets and straps were fastened with silver studs, rivets and buckles. "I'm hoping we can get some photos of O'Donahue doing demolition work on the walls, looking for secret passages."

"That might be a bit premature," Jake said hastily. "Why don't you show O'Donahue tapping on the walls, instead?"

"I like the tapping idea better," Patrick O'Donahue said, joining in the conversation. "I'm a Builder, not a Destroyer." O'Donahue put on the carpenter's apron, buckling up the straps with practiced ease. O'Donahue pulled his carpenter's tool chest out of the pantry, which Harry had also brought, and took out one of the largest hammers Jake had ever seen. Even in the kitchen lamplight, the shiny hammer and O'Donahue's huge black leather apron glowed and gleamed. Jake guessed both were designed to look spectacular in photography, under all sorts of conditions. Harry started taking pictures, as the muscular O'Donahue effortlessly started wielding the heavy-looking hammer to tap on the walls.

The whole thing, Jake reflected, gave Patrick O'Donahue an instantly recognizable image of a carpenter. But one glamorized to the nth degree by Hollywood professionals.

"Jake," O'Donahue added, "Why don't you write a film script where a chauffeur-handyman solves a mystery in a spooky old mansion? Movie mysteries are always solved by some wealthy Society swell. I'd love to play a working stiff who solves a crime in a place like this."

The rain had stopped, and a huge full moon had risen in the sky. Jake went outside to the back porch. Overhanging eaves had kept the porch dry. Jake sat down in a rocking chair. The chair was under an Arborvitae tree, whose branches had spread over this wing of the porch. Jake recalled that "Arborvitae" meant "tree of life" in Latin. He looked at the many little, light blue seed cones that were scattered all over the tree's soft foliage. He began to think about the case...

It was dark in the butler's room. A masked intruder entered the door, dressed as a vampire, complete with fangs. He did not carry a candle or a light. He could see the dark form of the sleeping butler, underneath the covers on the bed. The intruder carried a small bag, with something wriggling inside of it. He knelt down next to the suitcase, in a corner of the room.

The man under the covers jumped up. It was Greg. He pinned the intruder's arms behind his back. The strong looking intruder struggled, but did not succeed in evading the muscular Greg's grip. Patrick and Jake rushed into the room, too. Harry followed, taking a steady stream of pictures by flashlight with his camera. So did Northcroft Whitby, the Great Sanzo and Eleanor.

Harry said, "So there is someone else in this house, besides the family!"

The mask was torn off the intruder's face.

Patterson Whitby stood there. He stared haughtily at the rest of them.

"I managed to get the intruder's picture while he was still wearing his vampire fangs just now," Harry said. "This reminds me of when I was a teenager, working as a crime photographer for the Chicago newspapers. I thought I had seen everything, but this was my first phony vampire."

"When I saw Patterson Whitby as the vampire the first time," Jake said, "he took off his cloak, threw it in the closet, then slid down the banister of the staircase to the front hall. This was fast, and made no noise at all. It avoided the squeaky steps, and gave me the impression that he had not used the stairs, and had been down in the front hall all the time."

Greg went out, and soon carried in Murgatroyd. Greg had the cat tucked under his arm, carrying him the way he would a case of soda pop. For reasons that Jake never understood, cats loved to be carried this way. In his other hand, Greg had the suitcase from Peter's room.

"That's the trick suitcase I sold to Patterson Whitby," the Great Sanzo said. "He wanted to use it for a magic trick at a society function."

Peter said something to Greg in Hungarian.

"Patterson Whitby gave that suitcase to Peter as a present," Greg said. "Peter could use it when he had to move out of the house after the estate was sold."

The Great Sanzo pushed a flap on the side of the suitcase. The whole side sprang open.

"Sanzo modified this suitcase," Jake explained. "Its side is now a specially constructed door."

The Great Sanzo took an annoyed looking Murgatroyd, and placed him in the suitcase. The side door sprang shut. The suitcase sat there on the ground, its top still fastened and locked. No one would suspect that it had a trick side door.

The side door opened slightly. Murgatroyd stuck his small black head out the side of the suitcase. Soon the rest of Murgatroyd followed. The side door sprang shut again.

"The suitcase door can be opened from the inside. Any slight pressure by an animal inside opens the door," Sanzo explained. "There are doors on either side of the suitcase. When the animal leaves, a spring shuts the door again."

Murgatroyd jumped up into Peter's lap. He adjusted himself for a nap, then went to sleep.

Jake picked up the bag the intruder carried, and went to the back porch. He opened the bag, and the wriggling bat inside flew away. Harry got a good photo of the bat. Jake returned to the kitchen.

"Whitby planned to put a bat in the suitcase, and frighten Peter to death when it escaped," Jake said. "He kept the bat in the attic, and was planning on putting it in Peter's room tonight. Only the arrival of so many strangers in the Gombrosh house stopped him. He had the suitcase open, and must have left the butler's room for a minute. Murgatroyd sneaked in, and took a nap in the suitcase. Cats love enclosed spaces, like boxes and paper sacks. Whitby did not see Murgatroyd in the suitcase - black cats can be very hard to see in dark areas, such as the inside of a suitcase. They look as if they are not there. Whitby closed up the trick side of the suitcase, leaving Murgatroyd sound asleep inside. Later, Murgatroyd woke up, left the suitcase, and meowed at the door for me to let him out of Peter's room."

"I still don't understand why Whitby wanted to kill the butler," Harry said.

"How did the tree magically appear in the hollow?" Greg asked, immediately after.

"It was always there," Jake said. "It never moved. But the fence moved."

"There is oil on the Gombrosh estate here," Jake went on. "My guess is, that it extends in an underground pool into the Walker estate next door. Patterson Whitby knew about this, and decided that he wanted the rights to all of the oil. He moved the fence that marked the boundary lines of the two properties. This made it look as if the area with the oil was entirely on the Gombrosh estate."

Jake could tell, from the look on Patterson Whitby's face, that his guess had struck home.

"The hollow with the tree used to be deep inside the Walker land," Jake said. "I never saw it on my first trip around the fence; the hollow with the tree is not visible from the original back fence line. Later, during the week, the strong Whitby uprooted the old fence, and restrung it along a line much deeper into the Walker property. The new fence line runs fairly close to the tree. When I took my second walk, there was the tree, just outside of the new fence line. Whitby had not paid any attention to the tree, and cared nothing about it. The tree's seemingly impossible materialization was just an accidental side effect of moving the fence. Whitby did not even recognize the flower branch when Peter brought it into the parlor - it meant nothing to him."

"Whitby would have to get rid of the butler, because he knew the real extent of the Gombrosh property. Peter had lived there many years, and could testify where the Gombrosh grounds ended and the Walker estate began. That's why Patterson Whitby was going to put a bat in the trick suitcase in Peter's room, the one Whitby gave him. "

"Surveyors should have no trouble establishing the actual boundary of the two properties," Harry said.

"You can't prove my involvement with any of this," Patterson Whitby sneered.

"Probably not," Jake admitted. "But now that the truth is out in the open, Peter's life is at least safe. No one has any more motive to kill him."

After the Gombrosh mansion was sold, Peter moved into a small apartment. He was not too far from the house of Greg's parents, who introduced him to others in the LA Hungarian community. Murgatroyd moved in with him.

Whenever Jake saw a Cunonia, he thought, "This tree is really the Tree of Life. It gave a happy end to Peter's problems."