This story won Honorable Mention and appeared in the Deadly Ink Mystery Anthology.
A Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mystery
By John Reisinger
Allison Hurlock sat in a creaky wicker chair writing notes for the magazine article she was working on, What to Expect in 1925. From a small Philco came the soft tinny notes of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra playing the Varsity Drag. A sudden creaking of the screen door told her Max was finished with his phone call.
“I hope no one ever invents a time machine,” Max grumbled as he appeared on the front porch.
Allison shut off the radio. “Oh? Why not?”
“Because I’d be tempted to go back in time and talk Alexander Graham Bell out of inventing the telephone. All it seems to bring lately is bad news.”
“Sudden death. That was Tom Shelton, an old navy buddy up in Burlington New Jersey. They found his Uncle Frank dead… fell out of a tree and hit his head on a rock.”
“Ugh,” said Allison, wrinkling her nose. “Does he want you to come up for the funeral?”
Max shook his head. “Worse. He wants me to investigate.”
Allison frowned. “Investigate what? Are you going to grill the tree?”
“Tom thinks Frank was murdered and he wants me to prove it. Tom helped me out a lot in the navy. I’ll have to go.”
Allison sighed. “Now if I had a time machine, I’d set it for 15 minutes ago and disconnect the phone.”
Despite his straw hat, Tom Shelton resembled an Old Testament prophet chastising sinners as he stood pointing with a long accusing finger.
“He was right there, Max. One of the local kids found him and came running to my house, since I’m Frank’s nephew. There was a bashed in place on the top of his head. The police decided he was climbing the tree and fell.”
“Was Frank in the habit of climbing trees?”
“No, but he used to walk along the path here between his house and the park.”
Max nodded. “Show me exactly how he was lying.”
Tom got on the ground with his head near the rock.
“What made the police think he was climbing the tree?”
Tom got up, brushing clumps of dirt from his pants and gestured towards the rock.
“Well, that rock’s half buried in the ground, so it’s obvious no one picked it up and hit anyone with it. You can still see the bloodstains. Now, if Frank had just tripped he’d have never hit his head from the top. Besides, Frank’s jacket was thrown over that lower branch, and there were scrape marks against the bark on the tree trunk.”
“All good points,” Max admitted. “Then why do you think he was murdered?”
“Frank was over 50 and overweight. He hasn’t tried to climb a tree since he was 12. He liked to walk, but not climb, and he couldn’t have gotten high enough to hurt himself if he had. The whole thing is just fishy, Max. I think Frank was murdered.”
“Any thoughts on how the killer hoisted Frank up dropped him head first on that rock, then?”
Tom looked deflated. “I guess it does sound far fetched.”
Max didn’t reply, but began examining the tree and the surrounding area. Seeing how preoccupied Max was, Tom appealed directly to Allison, who had just reappeared after wandering off on a brief stroll. Her brown hair waved slightly in the afternoon breeze.
“Mrs. Hurlock.. Allison. I hope you and Max can help me.”
Allison smiled. “I write magazine articles. Max is the investigator. That’s why you boys started calling him Sherlock Hurlock in the navy, wasn’t it?”
Tom reddened slightly. “I guess it was a dumb nickname, but Max earned it the way he solved that murder on the ship. He was the..”
“Cat’s pajamas?” Allison suggested.
Tom shrugged. “Something like that, I guess.”
“I know. Max keeps telling me he’s not really a detective; he just helps people find the facts.”
“There’s a difference?”
“To Max there is.”
Max reappeared and pointed through the trees. “Is that water over there?”
“Rancocas Creek. It runs through Burlington and connects with the Delaware.”
“And the Delaware flows past Philadelphia and Camden all the way to the Atlantic,” said Max.
“It’s always so stimulating when two old sailors get together,” Allison remarked dryly.
Tom grinned. “Sorry. Well, anyway, there’s a park down there along the Rancocas. Frank liked to stroll here in the early evening sometimes.”
Max nodded. “Tom, did you find anything on Frank’s body?”
“He had his billfold with 15 dollars in it, so it wasn’t a robbery.”
“I thought you’d ask, so I brought everything with me. The police consider it an accidental death, so they released his effects to me. Wait a minute, it’s in the Model T. I’ll go get it.”
As Tom made his way through the weeds and towards the car, Max turned to Allison.
“I came here just to humor an old shipmate, but now I’m beginning to think Tom is right.”
Allison looked startled. “That’s banana oil, Max. If Frank couldn’t climb the tree, how did anyone manage to haul him up there and drop him on that rock?”
“They didn’t. He never fell out of that tree. Look here where the body was found. There is no limb directly above it. So where could he fall from?”
Allison squinted up into the tree. “Maybe he jumped?”
“No. He was a good ten feet from the tree trunk. That would be more like a swan dive. Of course the bark is scuffed, so someone climbed that tree. I still have to figure out that part.”
“I can help you there, Max,” she said enthusiastically. “I saw some kids playing a little further along the path from here. They said everyone climbs that tree; even a local Boy Scout troop that was camping nearby a few weeks ago. That would account for the scrapes on the bark.”
Tom had returned with a paper sack. He rummaged around in it like an incompetent magician fishing in his hat in hopes of finding a rabbit.
“Here’s his billfold. As you can see, he has the money I mentioned, along with a few business cards, his driver’s license, and some names and phone numbers on a slip of paper.”
Max held up the phone list. “Do you know any of these people?”
“They’re all pillars of the community. John Fedderman owns Fedderman’s Drug Store in town; Bill Samuels owns the local garage: Calvin Prosser is Frank’s attorney, and Hal Willoughby is a pharmacist at the state hospital in Trenton.”
“Did Frank feud with any of them?”
“No. Frank was always a straight arrow.”
“Did you notice that the last name on the list is in a different color ink?”
Tom looked and nodded. “I’ll be darned. So it is. Does that mean anything?”
“It means that he probably added that name later, after he made up the original list. Mr. Willoughby is apparently someone he met more recently than the other ones. Doesn’t that seem odd to you?”
“What do you mean?”
Max returned the card. “Well, Frank already had a pharmacist, John Fedderman. Why would he suddenly need another one?”
“I have no idea, Max.”
“Well, it’s just a little loose end we’ll need to tie up,” said Max. “Anything else in the bag?”
Tom fished in the sack once again. “Yeah, here’s his house keys, a comb, a locket with his wife’s picture…she died three years ago…and a folded piece of paper.”
Max’s eyebrows rose slightly. “That looks like a note What does it say?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid. It’s blank. I figure he was planning to write someone a note, but never got around to it.”
Max sniffed the paper. “It has a faint smell I can’t quite place. Did Frank use scented note paper?”
Tom smelled the note. “Maybe. I really can’t say.”
“Well, never mind. I’ll need to talk with these people, but first I need to look around some more. And you can both help. We’re looking for a rock, maybe about the size of a grapefruit.
“Max, there must be dozens or rocks like that nearby.
“Not like this one. This rock,” Max announced, holding up his finger for emphasis, “will be have its dirty side up.”
Tom Shelton looked more confused than ever.
Allison just smiled.
Ten minutes later, they were gathered around a rock Tom had just found. Max squatted down to examine the muddy surface, then smiled and nodded approval.
“Great. Unless I miss my guess, this is what we’ve been looking for.”
“So what do we do with it?” Tom asked, scratching his head.
“Turn it over.”
Tom complied and his eyes went wide.
“That looks like blood.”
An hour later, Max, Allison and Tom Shelton were in Frank Shelton’s house on the Beverly-Rancocas Road. The house was small and neat. On the second floor was a desk that was also clean and orderly. Seeing the bare surface, Max looked through the drawers.
“Wait a minute,” Max said suddenly. “Do you know what’s missing?”
Tom scratched his head again. “I don’t see anything missing..”
“The paper,” said Max, with what Allison could have sworn was a note of triumph.
“What paper?” asked Tom.
“There is no note paper matching the piece you found on Frank’s body. Nobody buys one piece of note paper. Where’s the rest?”
“Maybe it was his last piece?”
Max didn’t answer. He had turned his attention to a metal trash can under the desk.
“Don’t tell me that’s clean too,” said Allison, shaking her head.
“No. There are a few opened envelopes and..what’s this?”
Max held up a piece of crumpled waxed paper.
“That looks like something you’d find in the kitchen. Maybe he was eating a snack at his desk?” Allison ventured.
“I don’t think so,” said Max. “Look. The paper is crumpled, but it has creases indicating it was folded.”
Once refolded, the paper fit perfectly into one of the open envelopes.
“Someone sent him a piece of waxed paper? What in the world can that mean?” Tom asked.
But Max just frowned.
“Max, if you’d tell me what you’re looking for, I could help.”
Allison sat on a log at the edge of the wooded area of the city park. In her short green dress, she felt woefully out of place.
“Besides,” she added, “I’m getting tired of sitting here trying to pull my skirt over my knees.”
Max came up beside her. “That’s what you get for wearing that flapper outfit.”
“Well, you didn’t tell me we were going to be exploring the north woods. Next time I’ll pack my buckskins and hip boots. Come to think of it, maybe that’ll be the subject of my next article:’What the well-dressed young lady should wear in a swamp’. I can submit to Field and Stream.”
Max laughed. “Sorry, my love. I’ll be glad to tell you what I’m looking for as soon as I figure it out myself. I just think that this area wasn’t picked by accident. With the concealment and the close proximity to a Delaware tributary, it seems to me this place is perfect ..”
“..for rumrunning,” Allison finished the sentence.
“Now you’re cooking with gas. Ever since Prohibition, rumrunners have been bringing in illegal booze from overseas and sneaking it ashore at night. This place looks perfect. From here it’s a short haul to speakeasies in Trenton, Camden and Philadelphia.”
“But how does that fit into Frank Shelton’s murder?”
“I’m not sure, but I have a theory.”
“And what about the blank piece of notepaper? What was Frank about to write and who was he going to write to?”
“I’m still working on that one.”
Everyone on Frank Shelton’s list was sympathetic, but no one could shed any light on what happened. Max saved Hal Willoughby for last and found him at home in nearby Cinnaminson. Willoughby was a slight man with a perpetual smile.
“I can’t tell you very much, I’m afraid,” Willoughby said. “I’ve only known Frank for a few weeks.”
“How did you know him, Mr. Willoughby?”
“He came to me on a medical matter. I think someone recommended me, but I didn’t really question him too closely on that.”
“What was it about?”
Willoughby’s smile was unchanged. “I’m sorry, but I really can’t say; medical information is confidential.”
Max nodded. “I understand, but your client is deceased. Nothing can hurt him now.”
“That’s true, but he may have relatives who could be affected. I’m sorry. If it’s any help, I can assure you it wasn’t anything sordid or shameful.”
“Especially not criminal. I’m afraid we’ll have to let him rest in peace.”
Max rose to leave. “Not just yet, Mr. Willoughby. Good day.”
As he moved toward the door, Max stopped by a framed photo on the wall. Two rows of boys stood smiling in a wooded setting.
“Is this your son’s Boy Scout troop?”
Willoughby looked up. “No, that’s my troop. I’m a local scoutmaster when I’m not working.”
Max nodded. “Oh, yes. There you are in the back. I must have missed it. Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Willoughby.”
Allison was sitting in the lobby reading the Trenton Evening Times when Max returned to the hotel that evening.
“All hail the conquering hero; anybody confess yet?”
Max slumped in a nearby chair. “Just me. I confess I’m tired.”
“Down but not out?”
“You might say that.”
“I just did. Oh, Max; we were right about the rumrunning along Rancocas Creek. I’ve just been reading about it. It seems to be a big problem around here. As soon as the police find one landing site, the rumrunners use another one. The police are always one step behind the bootleggers.”
“I know how they feel. I have a rock, a blank piece of paper, some waxed paper, an envelope, a Boy Scout troop, and a dead body. I just have to figure out how it all fits…”
He jerked up out of his seat. “…how it all fits,” he repeated. “Where’s the phone in this place? I have to call Tom.”
“Well, you certainly perked up,” said Allison.
“All right,” said Max a half hour later. “Here’s the folded waxed paper we found. Now let me have that piece of blank note paper.”
The note paper fit perfectly in the folded waxed paper.
“Now what do we do?” Tom asked finally.
“We call the police,” said Max.
Chief Durward was skeptical about the fanciful tale Max told him, but checked some department records, then agreed to help them. He also agreed to visit Willoughby afterwards.
Willoughby was surprised to see the chief, but more surprised to see Tom Shelton and Max Hurlock with him.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Willoughby,” said the chief, “but these gentlemen have some information and, well, I’m afraid I have to check it out. Just to be thorough, you understand.”
Willoughby smiled again. “Of course, chief. Anything I can do to help. As it happens, my wife is visiting her mother so we’ll have privacy. Come on in.”
When they were seated, Max took up the narrative.
“Mr. Willoughby, I’ve been investigating and I believe you murdered Frank Shelton.”
“What? You come into my home and accuse me of murder? And of a man who fell out of a tree?” Willoughby looked amused.
“He didn’t fall out of the tree. We found the rock you used. Not the one in the ground, the one you hid in the bushes a little ways away. It still had blood on the underside. I think you asked Frank Shelton to meet you at the tree, then killed him with the rock and make it look like a fall.”
“Horsefeathers! I barely know the man.”
Max seemed not to hear. “I did some checking and found there is an amazingly close correlation between the location of campsites for your Boy Scout troop and landing sites for rumrunners. There were some heavy truck tracks near where Frank was killed. I think you’ve been using your camping trips to scout landing sites without raising suspicion and selling the information to the rumrunners. Frank Shelton must have figured it out on one of his walks and threatened to tell the police. You killed him to keep him quiet.”
“That’s bushwa,” Willoughby said, still smiling. “You can check his telephone records and see I didn’t call him. You’ll find I didn’t send him any letters either, so how would I have asked him to meet me?”
“We found the piece of note paper in his pocket,” Max said quietly.
“That’s your proof? A blank piece of paper?” Willoughby now had the smile of a man who had just announced a checkmate.
“Not exactly blank,” said Max, shaking his head. “Someone wrote on the paper with some kind of disappearing ink. These inks are usually alcohol based and become invisible as the alcohol evaporates. You had to contact him to lure him to the woods, but you didn’t want to leave a trace. Phone records might be traced, and if you sent him a note, he might leave it where it could be found. So you wrote a note in disappearing ink and wrapped it in waxed paper so the alcohol wouldn’t evaporate too soon. Frank Shelton had time to read it and put it in his pocket before the message disappeared, leaving an innocent looking blank paper with a slight odor behind.”
Willoughby was still smiling, but said nothing.
“Of course,” Max continued, “as a pharmacist, you would know about disappearing ink and have access to the chemicals to make it, especially the alcohol. I’m sure you mixed our own just to leave nothing to chance. Disappearing ink from a Joke store wouldn’t do.”
“So that’s your proof?” Willoughby was still smiling, but it was a superior smile of contempt. “A blank piece of paper with a funny smell? Chief, I think you’ve all wasted enough of my time.”
“One second,” said Max, digging into a small bag. “I’m sure you’re a man who would appreciate a scientific experiment, Mr. Willoughby. You see, we sprayed the note with alcohol at the police station and placed it back in the waxed paper. With any luck the alcohol will make the message temporarily visible again; until it re evaporates or course. Now let’s see.”
Max removed the note from the waxed paper and held it up. The blue letters were faint and somewhat blurred, but readable.
Meet me at climbing tree in park tonight at 8. Can explain all. HW
As they all watched, the message started slowly fading, just like the smile on Hal Willoughby’s face.