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"The Flat-Tire Mystery" from American Girl

by Ellis Parker Butler
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    The Flat-Tire Mystery
  • American Girl (September, 1934)   "The Flat-Tire Mystery"   A Betty Bliss story. Illustrations by Leslie Turner. "The boys always laughed at the 'Tenth Street Yard Detective Club,' but when Superintendent Betty Bliss found a real crime, they did their best to help." The name "Ellis Parker Butler" appears on the cover. p 20-22, 44-45.  [HARPER]

from American Girl
The Flat-Tire Mystery
by Ellis Parker Butler

I think one of the best mysteries our Detective Club ever solved was the crime of the flat tire. When I say that our Detective Club solved it, I mean, of course, that Betty Bliss did most of it, although Dot Carver and I helped. I am willing to give all the credit to Betty Bliss because if it hadn't been for Betty, we would not even have known there was a crime, or a mystery.

Our Club met every Thursday and there were just the three of us in it -- Betty and Dot and I. The constitution of the Club said: "Object -- To solve crimes and mysteries," because Betty Bliss said she didn't see why girls couldn't be as smart detectives as anyone else.

Anyway, on Wednesday Betty said to me, "The Club will meet at your house tomorrow evening, Madge. Dot and I will come over after dinner."

"Betty, we can't," I told her. "I'm awfully sorry, but Father and Mother are taking me to the concert tomorrow night. Let's skip this one meeting."

"No," Betty said, "we've got to have a meeting tomorrow. If we begin skipping meetings, we'll presently stop having meetings. Then our Club will just fizzle out. We can meet after lunch tomorrow."

"That will be all right," I said. "I'll tell Dot. On my front porch at one o'clock. Does that click, Chief?"

"O. K., Inspector," Betty said in a regular Scotland Yard tone, and at one o'clock Thursday Dot and Betty and I were all three on our porch hammock, ready for our Club meeting. The only reason we were not beginning right off was that Dick Prince and Arthur Dane had come up the walk, and were teasing us as usual about girls trying to be detectives. They got a grand lot of fun out of that.

"Now, please!" Betty begged. "Go away and let us have our meeting. Come back in half an hour if you want to."

"By that time you'll have the missing papers, and the victim will be identified, and the murderer in jail, I suppose," Dick Prince laughed. "Come away, Art, and let these female Sherlocks use their massive brains. We'll go talk to Silas."

Well, Silas is the colored man who cuts the lawns for everybody on our block, and here and there in our part of town, and he was pushing his lawn mower, cutting our grass down near the front walk. Dick and Arthur started to go to him, but just then my father came out of the house. He had had his lunch, and was going back to his store downtown. The boys stopped to say hello to him.

"How are you, boys?" my father said, standing at the top of the porch steps while he lighted a cigar. Silas came across the lawn to the foot of the steps. He held his cap in his hand, and he grinned rather nervously.

"Excuse me, boss," he said to father, "but could you lemme have two dollahs? You owes me one dollah from de last time I cut de grass, and this time'll be anothuh dollar, which am two dollahs. I wouldn't ask you fo' payment, boss, only but Dan'l Webster Washington Smith, he wants I should pay him five dollahs what I owes him. He come round to my house last night, but I ain't got no money fo' him."

'That's funny!' said my father. 'I thought I had two dollars in my pocket.'

"Certainly you can have two dollars, Silas," my father said. "And where is Daniel Webster Washington Smith? He doesn't seem to be helping you today."

Silas was having so many lawns to cut this year that he had to have someone to help him, so he had this boy, Daniel Webster Washington Smith, work with him.

"I reckon Dan'l Webster went fishin' today," Silas grinned. "Leastwise he says last night how him an' some other culled boys is goin' fishin' today. Yes, suh!" Well, father had put his hand in his pocket, but he pulled it out again empty. For a moment he looked puzzled.

"Pshaw!" he said then. "I thought I had two dollars in my pocket, but I gave it to your mother, Madge. I'll tell you what you can do, Madge -- drive down to the store a few minutes after I leave and I'll give you the money for Silas."

"All right, Father," I said. I offered to get the car and drive Father down, but he said he preferred to walk on such a fine day, and he did. So I said we could all drive down as soon as we girls had held our Club meeting. Dick Prince and Arthur Dane went with Silas, and lay on the grass talking to him while he pushed the mower back and forth.

Our Club meeting did not amount to much, because we had had no crimes that week. The minutes of the meeting that I wrote in the Club record book were these:

"The Tenth Street Detective Club met and Superintendent Bliss presided. Inspector D. Carver reported that there were no mysteries just now. Inspector M. Turner said that if the Club didn't have anything else to do, it might help her find the automobile keys she lost. Superintendent Bliss said lost keys were not a mystery unless there was a crime. The meeting adjourned because Inspector M. Turner had to go downtown."

As soon as we adjourned the meeting, I yoo-hooed to the boys, and they got up off the grass and came to the porch. They talked to Betty and Dot while I went to the house to borrow Mother's car keys, because mine were lost. Then we all walked around our house to our garage, and I unlocked the door and opened it.

"Well, thank goodness for that!" Betty said as I swung the first half of the door open.

"What are you thanking goodness for?" I asked her.

"I'm thankful that somebody oiled the door hinges," Betty said. "Those hinges have been making a wail like a cat in agony."

I knew that. Many a night when Father and Mother had been out somewhere with the car, I had been awakened when they came home. It was always the same noise -- "Thump" as Father got out of the car and slammed the car door, and then "Screak-squawk" as he closed one half of the garage door, and "Squawk-squeak" as he closed the other half. Now the one half of the garage door had opened silently. I looked at the hinges and saw where oil had been used -- plenty of it, and quite recently.

"I suppose Father got tired of the squeak," I said. "He does get around to oiling things if you give him time."

Dick Prince had taken hold of the other wing of the door, and he swung that half open now. It gave the same unearthly squeal that it had always given.

"Your father must have run out of oil before he got to this half," Dick said with a laugh.

"I guess he got tired," Art Dane said, also laughing. "There's plenty of oil in the can."

Art was not tall enough to reach the upper hinge, so he had to stand up on two bricks.

He had picked up a small oilcan that was standing on a pile of ten or twelve bricks at the side of the garage. The pile of bricks had been there for years, I suppose; I can't remember when they were not there. He shook the can, and there certainly was oil in it. He said he might as well finish the job and he closed that wing of the door again and oiled the lower hinge, but he was not tall enough to reach the upper hinge. He looked around for something to stand on and saw the pile of bricks. He was just about to take a couple of them when Betty Bliss stopped him.

"Wait a minute!" she ordered. "I want to look at those bricks, Art."

"What now?" Art asked, grinning at her. "Is Old Sleuth Betty Bliss on the job again? Does the freckled nose of the she-Sherlock of Tenth Street scent a crime?"

"My nose is not freckled," declared Betty.

"The Mystery of the Unoiled Hinge, or Who Stole the Brick?" Dick Prince laughed, and he pretended to be quoting from a book. "'The dauntless girl detective cast one eagle-glance at the pile of bricks and said, "Ah ha! There has been dirty work at the crossroads, Watson; this is the work of One-Eyed Pete."'"

"What is it, Betty?" I asked. "What did you think you saw?"

"Oh, nothing, I guess!" Betty said. "It doesn't matter."

She did not care to have the boys teasing her about clues and snooping and the Detective Club, and I did not blame her, because they are certainly terrible teasers. Art piled a couple of bricks and stood on them, and oiled the upper hinge. He put the bricks back on the pile and swung the half-door open -- it did not squeak now -- and we all went into the garage.

Now, our car is a sedan, one of the low-priced cars, and two or three years old. It is what is called a four-door car, and I went to the forward door on the driver's side and was just about to open it and get in, when Dick Prince called to me.

"Say, Madge," he said. "Here's the bad news -- you've got a flat tire."

"Oh, figs!" I exclaimed, for if there is anything I hate it is to find a tire flat just when I am ready to go somewhere. "Wouldn't that make a saint mad? Well, we'll have to take it off and put on the spare, that's all."

Art was already taking off his coat. He walked to where the spare tire was fastened on the rear of the car, and hung his coat on a nail. The spare tire was brand new -- Father had got it a day or two before, because all our tires were pretty well worn, and he expected one or another of them to blow out any time. We needed a whole new set, but you know how scarce money is sometimes.

So Art Dane began to take the new spare tire from the rack that held it at the rear of the sedan, which was easy enough because the lock there was broken, and the spare could be lifted off after a nut was unscrewed. Dick was rolling up his sleeves and hunting up tools, getting ready to jack up the axle, and Betty was just standing. There was nothing she needed to do, with two boys on hand who were quite able to change a tire. Suddenly Betty stooped down.

"Madge," she said, "look at this tire, will you? This is funny, isn't it?"

"What's funny?" I asked. "A flat tire is about the last thing in the world tint I'd call funny, Betty."

"Call it odd, then -- or queer," Betty said. "Look at the rip in this tire. Look at the size of the hole in it. That was a blow-out, Madge, not a slow leak."

'You see the dry mud that is still clinging to this tire?' said Betty. 'Well, it's grayish.'

"Well, what of it, Betty?"

"Why, this seems queer to me," Betty said. "You see the dry mud that is still clinging to this flat tire? It is grayish, isn't it? And look at that other tire -- the dry mud on it is brownish, like clay. Now, how would one tire have one kind of mud, and the tire right in front of it have another kind of mud?"

"Well --"

"And look here, see how easily this gray mud flakes off the flat tire? There's none of it from the garage door to here, and there ought to be if this tire rolled in while on the car. And look at the floor under this axle -- I'd say that a jack had been used there to raise the axle, and that it had been used quite recently."

"What is it?" Dick asked, coming to see what we were talking about. But now that Betty had called my attention to the tire, I saw something, too.

"But, Betty!" I exclaimed. "Betty, that's not one of our tires. That's a W & P tire, and we've never had anything but Crescenta tires. We never, never had anything but Crescenta tires on this car."

Betty's fingers were a little dusty from touching the flat tire. She stood up now and brushed her fingers together to get rid of the dust, and she looked at Dick and Art with a smile that had fun in it.

"I'm awfully sorry, Dick," she said, "but I'm afraid we girls will just have to be detectives for a little while. It's terribly silly of us, isn't it? But you'll forgive us for being so childish, won't you? You see, Dick, tires just don't change from one kind to another, do they?"

"No? Well, maybe Madge's father changed the tires," Dick said. "Such things have happened. Did he have the car out last night, Madge?"

"Yes," I had to admit. "He went to the movies with Mother. They came home about half-past ten, after I was in bed. I remember because I heard the car door slam and the garage doors creak."

"There, you see!" said Dick triumphantly. "He had the car out, and had a flat tire and changed to this one."

"When he had a brand new one he could have changed to?" asked Betty. "That won't do, Dick. I'm afraid, Madge, we'll have to be the Detective Club for a while, even if the boys do laugh at us."

"Yes, Superintendent Bliss," I said with a mock salute. "Quite so, Superintendent Bliss. And what is your theory of this affair, Superintendent Bliss?"

"Arthur," said Betty, ignoring my question for a moment, "will you look outside, and tell me what you see on the ground near the garage door -- near the one that was already oiled, not the one you oiled. Or is that too silly for you to do? If it is, I will send Inspector Dorothy Carver."

"I don't have to look," Art said. "I know what is there -- three bricks. I saw them before I came in."

"He saw three bricks. Inspector Madge," Betty said. "I think that completes the evidence that a crime was committed. The only thing we need to discover now, is who stole the tire off this wheel and put this old one in its place."

"Now, now!" Dick Prince objected. "Just wait a minute. Not so fast, Betty."

"Superintendent Bliss, if you please, Mr. Prince," Betty corrected him.

"Not so fast, Superintendent," Dick said. "I don't admit that there has been a tire stolen. You'll have to show me. I may be stupid --"

"Oh, now, Mr. Prince, I would not say that," said Betty, her mouth bending into a mischievous smile. "I wouldn't say you were stupid. Just a little dull, perhaps; just a little unobservant."

"Wow!" exclaimed Dick. "And is that a jab! All right, Superintendent, tell me what you observed."

"It's so awfully simple," said Betty. "You see it, of course, Inspector Madge."

"Well," I said doubtfully, because I did not see at all, "I almost see it, Superintendent."

"Of course you do!" Betty said. "Last night when your father came back with the car and put it in the garage here, it was half-past ten; and you say the garage doors creaked when he closed them. You said 'doors.' You meant both doors?"

"Yes," I agreed, "I meant both doors. I heard one creak and then the other. I'm sure, because they had different creaks -- one always went 'Yee-owee' and the other 'Yow-wee-wee.' "

"You have the observing ear, Inspector," said Betty. "So we know that neither door was oiled as late as ten-thirty last night. Your father and mother came in as soon as the car was put away?"

"Yes! I called and asked how the movie was --"

"We'll not bother about that. But I think it is hardly likely that your father went out again just to oil one door, is it, Madge? If your father -- or anyone else who wanted to take the car out of the garage -- did not want the hinges to creak and waken anyone, Madge, he would have oiled all the hinges, wouldn't he?"

"Of course, Superintendent," I said, giggling a little.

"Rawthah!" said Betty. "But only the hinges of one door were oiled, so whoever did oil the hinges must have thought that was enough. He did not want any creaking hinges that might waken you and give warning, but he did not think it necessary to oil the hinges of both doors. He meant to use only one door. He was not stealing the car; he was stealing one tire. So one door was all he needed to open."

"That sounds pretty," Dick said, "but what of it?" And I said, "But, Superintendent, why should he steal an old worn tire, when there was a new spare he could have taken?"

"I'm coming to that," Betty said. "We are trying to discover, from the clues we have, who entered this garage and stole a tire, and left an old one in its place. We have more than enough clues, of course, to tell us who it was."

"We have?" Dot asked. "Do you mean, Superintendent, that you know who did it?"

"Certainly, Inspector Carver," Betty said. "And if you gave the clues proper attention, you would know, too. Or, at least, Inspector Madge would know. In the first place, it was a short person; we know that because he could not reach up to the upper hinge to oil it. He had to take three bricks from that pile that had not been moved for so long that dust was thick on top of the pile. He took the three bricks from the old pile -- as I know because the bricks now on top of the pile are not dusty -- and put one brick on top of the other to stand on, so he could reach up to the top hinge of the door that had to be opened. So I say he was a short person."

"Yes, yes!" said Dick, pretending to be amazed. "Go on!"

"Marvelous, my dear Superintendent!" said Arthur. "Wotta brain! Wotta brain!"

"Thank you," said Betty, smiling again. "So what next? The criminal, having made sure the door would not creak and alarm anyone, entered the garage with this exploded tire on his shoulder and changed it for the tire that was on this wheel. He did not take the new tire that he could easily remove from the back of the car. Why didn't he?"

"Well, why? I'll ask you," said Dick.

"Two reasons," said Betty. "The first was that he was not going far in his car. The second was that he had an old car -- probably a rackety old car with badly worn tires. If he was a person who had not much money -- and whom everyone knew had not much money -- and he appeared with a brand new tire on his car, everyone would notice it. Someone would surely notice it, and when Madge's father told of the theft of a new tire, the thief would be instantly suspected."

"How do you know he wasn't going far?" Art asked, for he was really interested now.

"What I mean," said Betty, "is that he was not a person from some other town, or a person who was just stealing a tire to sell. If he was going far away, it would not make any difference if he did steal a new tire. No one here would see it. But the fact that he took an old tire, that would probably match the other old tires on his car, means that he expects to be around town with his car. He thought, evidently, that no one would notice the stolen tire on his car because it was old, and he thought Madge's father would believe this substituted tire was just one of the old tires that had gone flat. He thought Madge's father would take off the old tire and throw it away, and put on the new one and think no more about it."

"Betty --" I cried. "I mean Superintendent Bliss -- I know who it was! I know who you mean!"

"Do you?" Betty asked, smiling at me, and I whispered in her ear.

"Keys," was what I whispered.

"That's it," Betty told me, with a nod of her head, and then she went on explaining to the others. "I think Madge has guessed it," she said. "Because, you see, the thief must have been someone who was familiar with this car, and knew the tires were the same size as his. He didn't break into your father's garage, Dick, because he knew your car has larger tires. He came right here, and he knew the doors squeaked. He had the oil all ready to use. He knew this car had tires that were considerably worn."

I was practically jumping up and down because I was so excited. I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from blurting out the name of the thief.

"So he was not just any thief," Betty went on, "and he was not just a common tire thief. He was a special thief who knew all about this car, and the garage, and the tires on the car. So he must have been someone in this neighborhood, or who came here rather often. Inspector Madge, you had to unlock the door just now to let us into the garage?"

"Yes, Superintendent Bliss," I said.

"And the lock was not pried off, or broken? And you had to borrow your mother's keys to unlock the door? Your keys were lost, were they not?"

"Yes," I said.

"Where did you lose them. Inspector Madge?"

"I don't know that, of course," I told Betty. "Somewhere in the yard, or out in front, because when I locked the garage that day I must have had them, but when I looked for them that evening they were gone, and I hadn't been anywhere."

"And your initials were on the key case? I know they were, because I gave you the key case on your birthday," said Betty. "Anyone finding them would know they opened the garage. So --"

"I know!" Dot said now. "I know, Superintendent! Silas!"

"A good guess, except that Silas is tall enough to oil the hinge without standing on bricks, and that Silas would never steal anything," Betty said. "I think it was someone who has been working all summer, and who has saved enough to buy a rackety old car. Someone who had a tire blow-out yesterday evening, and went to Silas to get some money that was due him, so he could buy a second-hand tire. Someone who had promised to take some boys fishing in his car, and just couldn't bear to hear them hoot at him because he couldn't keep his promise. Someone --"

"Daniel Webster Washington Smith!" cried Dick and Art together.

"Well," said Betty, "you might go and ask Silas if Dan has bought an old car."

And he had. In a few minutes the boys came back and said that Daniel Webster Washington Smith had indeed bought an old car, and that what he had wanted the money for was to buy a tire. So that almost proved that Betty was right, and the next day Dick and Art hunted up Daniel and his car, and there was the stolen tire!

Well, Father did not send Daniel to jail. He gave him a good talking to, and Daniel told Silas to pay Father the value of the tire out of the money that was coming to him, and Daniel swore he would never steal anything again, and I guess he hasn't.

I said to Betty that I thought she had been very clever.

"A real detective couldn't have done any better," I said, and she raised her eyebrows and gave me quite a stare.

"Well, really!" she exclaimed. "Really, Inspector! You amaze me! A real detective? What do you think I am, then?"

And did I feel crushed!



Saturday, October 07 at 1:10:36am USA Central
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