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"Jo Ann's Christmas Mystery" from American Girl

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from American Girl
Jo Ann's Christmas Mystery
by Ellis Parker Butler 'Jo Ann's Christmas Mystery' by Ellis Parker Butler

The feud between Jo Ann and Tommy is on again. She has just arrived home with Wicky for Christmas and is discussing her holiday plans with her mother who has come to meet the girls in the car. "And, Mother," says Jo Ann, "I don't want to bother with Tommy Bassick this Christmas. Everything is really too lovely, Mother. If only he leaves me alone and doesn't try any of his smarty tricks."

Just then they meet Tommy coming out of one of the stores carrying a large package. When he sees them, he turns beet red and swings the package behind his back. Jo Ann guesses that the suspicious-looking package is one of his smart tricks and warns him that she will have none of his nonsense.

On Christmas morning when all the members of Jo Ann's family go into the living room to pick up their presents from their particular corners, they find Jo Ann's presents -- some of them valuable ones -- gone from her end of the couch. Immediately Tommy is suspected and Jo Ann's father, provoked and angry, leaves the house to go over to the Bassicks.

While he is gone Mary, the cook, walks over to the piano to get her own presents. She hears a peculiar thumping and when they all look behind the piano, they find Tommy Bassick, his arms and legs tied and his mouth gagged, thumping on the floor with the back of his head.


Jo Ann's mother, when she saw Tommy Bassick lying behind the piano with his hands and legs tied and his mouth stopped with a gag, cried out in alarm. The boy was trussed like a turkey that is ready for the oven. To find a boy unexpectedly behind a piano, bound and gagged, on Christmas morning, would startle anyone, and to find a boy in that place and state just after a burglary had been discovered was even more shocking. That Jo Ann's mother did not scream louder was a sign that she had good nerves.

"Why, it's Tommy! It's Tommy Bassick!" gasped Wicky.

"I'll say it is!" said Jo Ann, grimly if slangily. "Tom Bassick, what are you doing behind that piano?"

For answer Tommy, gagged and tied, could do nothing but roll his eyes.

For answer Tommy could do nothing but roll his eyes. The gag prevented him from making any intelligible sound.

"Mary, help me move the piano out," Jo Ann's mother said to the cook. "The boy may be suffering. Jo Ann, help us pull the piano."

Together the two women and the two girls moved the piano out far enough to let Tommy be pulled from behind it. His arms and legs were tied so completely that he could not stand and they placed him on the end of the couch from which Jo Ann's presents had vanished during the night.

Mary and Jo Ann's mother first removed the gag. To gag him a wad of black cloth had been pushed into his mouth, filling it, and to hold it there a strip of the same black cloth had been tied around his face, knotted at the back of his head. As soon as the cloth was untied from around his head Tommy spat out the gag. He coughed and retched.

"Quick, Mary -- a pail!" cried Jo Ann's mother. "He's going to be sick."

But Tommy was not sick. He choked and gasped and coughed again.

"Water! Drink!" he begged when he had choked and coughed, and Wicky ran to get a glass of water. She held it to his mouth and he sipped a little and then drank.

"More?" Wicky asked.

"No," Tommy gasped. "That's plenty. Untie my wrists. They hurt."

To untie his wrists they had to turn him over, for his hands were tied behind his back. Mary had hurried to get a knife from the breakfast table to cut the stout cords, but Jo Ann stopped her when she was about to use it.

"No," Jo Ann said. "Let me untie the knots. I want to keep this cord. I know what Tommy is going to say -- he'll say someone tied him and put him behind the piano."

"Someone did," said Tommy. "A man caught me and tied me and threw me behind the piano."

"There! You hear that, Mother?" Jo Ann said partly in triumph and partly in scorn. "I knew he would say that. He's innocent, of course! He didn't come and play a trick on me, taking my presents --"

She stopped in the midst of her angry flow of words.

"Wicky," she said in quite another tone, "look at this knot."

"What about it?" Wicky asked, bending down to look.

"Don't you see?" Jo Ann asked. "He couldn't have tied this knot himself. The cord is tied around his wrists first, and then around his waist, and then around his ankles. And the knot is at the back of his wrists where his fingers couldn't tie it. Somebody tied him!"

Jo Ann's father came in then. Even before he shut the front door he spoke.

"Tommy's not there," he said. "His bed was not slept in. His father and mother are telephoning the police. Why, what --"

He gave one glance at the redheaded Tommy and ran to the telephone in the hall, calling Tommy's parents and telling them that the boy was safe. A moment later he was back in the room and helping to untie Tommy, and a minute later than that Mr. and Mrs. Bassick came running across through the rapidly melting snow and increased the group around the boy with the sore wrists. In short order they had the cord entirely untied and Tommy was seated where Jo Ann's presents had once been, with his father and mother rubbing his numb arms and legs while Mary hurried to get him something to eat. It was a most unusual Christmas morning.

"And now," said Jo Ann, when Tommy was eating a bowl of cereal and milk, "I want to know where my presents are. You know where they are, Tommy Bassick, and you needn't pretend you don't."

"Speak up, Tommy," said Mr. Bassick. "Someone took all Jo Ann's Christmas presents -- off this couch, wasn't it? -- and it looks to me as if some explaining had to be done. How did it happen that you were behind the piano here?"

"Tell us the whole thing," said Jo Ann's father. "Is it some sort of trick you're playing on Jo Ann?"

Tommy handed the empty bowl to Mary. He grinned sheepishly and looked up at Jo Ann, and then, without grinning, at the grown folks.

"I wasn't doing anything much," he said. "I was just bringing Jo Ann a present."

"There!" exclaimed Jo Ann. "Didn't I say so? Didn't I say he was up to one of his smarty tricks?"

"Just let him tell it, Jo Ann," said her mother. "Go on, Tommy."

"Well, I had a present I wanted to give Jo Ann," said Tommy, not looking at anybody. "I thought I'd give her a Christmas present. I had a right to do that, didn't I? So I -- well, I brought it over."

"What time?" Jo Ann asked.

"Midnight. I guess it was about midnight," Tommy said. "Anyway, I waited until I thought everybody would be in bed and asleep because I knew that if Jo Ann saw me bringing a present she would say, 'No, thank you! I don't want any present from you!'"

"And you pried open the window?" asked Tommy's father, and not in a pleasant voice.

"No, I didn't, Father," Tommy replied. "I wouldn't do that -- that would be burglary, I know that much. I was just going to hang it on the knob of the kitchen door where somebody -- perhaps the cook -- would be sure to find it in the morning."

"Well, you didn't pry open the window," said his father. "Who did?"

"I don't know," said Tommy. "It was a man, but I don't know who he was. I came out of our house and I came across the yard and up onto the back porch here, and I had my present, carrying it by the cord, and when I got to the top of the steps I saw this window was open."

"Open?" asked Jo Ann's father. "You mean pushed up from the bottom?"

"Yes," said Tommy, "pushed all the way up. And there was a man standing here at the end of the couch picking up things from the couch and putting them into a big bag."

"How could you see that in the dark, Tommy?" asked Mr. Bassick.

"There was light from the Christmas tree out front," said Tommy, "and he showed up against that light -- dark, like a shadow."

"And --?" said Jo Ann's father.

"Well, I was scared," said Tommy. "All I thought of was to beat it back home and tell Father there was a burglar in Jo Ann's house stealing things. So I turned to run and somebody grabbed me. I didn't even have a chance to yell; he put an arm around my head with the inside of his elbow against my mouth, and he threw one leg around me to keep me from kicking. 'Shut up, if you know what's good for you,' he said, so I didn't try to yell. Then the other man came out."

"And they gagged you and tied you and put you behind the piano?"

"Yes," Tommy said. "The one man held me and the other man put the cloth in my mouth and tied up my head. He didn't have anything to gag me with, so he ripped out some of the lining of his coat and used that to gag me and tie the gag in with. Then he tied up my arms and legs. I don't know where he got the cord. Maybe he had it in his pocket."

"Probably to tie up any loot that would not go in the bag," said Mr. Bassick. "They meant to take more, but you frightened them away. But go on and tell us what happened next."

"One of them said, 'Put him in the house,'" said Tommy, "and they carried me in and put me behind the piano. Then they went out together and closed the window."

"And took all my Christmas presents! wailed Jo Ann. "Even the one you brought, Tommy?"

"I don't know," said Tommy. "I guess they took it along with all your other presents, Jo Ann."

They were interrupted by the arrival of two police officers. The policemen had stopped at Mr. Bassick's house in answer to his telephone call, and the maid had sent them over to Jo Ann's. When they had been told about the burglary and the gagging and tying of Tommy, they shook their heads soberly and said it was a mean business, a very mean business.

"It's going to be mighty hard to catch those guys," one of the officers said. "This young fellow didn't see them clearly and they might be anybody. I'll take this cord; it's a sort of a clue. And this gag -- from the lining of one of the fellows' coats, you say. Hello, now! What's this?"

The officer had pulled open the gag and there dropped to the floor a sleeve button with a bit of cloth attached.

"I know what it is," said Tommy. "When the man grabbed me around the head, I bit his coat. I bit that off, I guess."

"And had it in your mouth the whole time," said the officer. "Lucky it didn't get in your throat and choke you, my lad, or we'd have a murder case here. If we can find the coat this and the lining belong to, sir, we'll be getting somewhere. But there's not much hope of that. The coat will be destroyed. Too bad this melting snow wiped out all footprints. Can you tell what kind of tool they used to pry up the window, Mike?"

"Might have been anything, Joe," said the other officer. "Them screws was all but out before."

"Well," said the first officer, "we'll do the best we can, but it is going to take time. The way we catches most of these guys is to wait until the stolen stuff gets pawned in a pawn shop."

"Oh, dear!" cried Jo Ann. "Then I won't have any Christmas presents at all today?"

"I'm afraid not, miss, if yours were taken," said the officer. "They'd not be pawning them for a week or two. Now, what did they take?"

"Nothing but my presents, my Christmas presents," said Jo Ann.

"And what were they, miss?" asked Officer Joe.

"I don't know," said poor Jo Ann. "I hadn't opened them -- not one of them. Mother can tell you."

Jo Ann's mother described the wristwatch and the brooch and the presents of lesser value she and Jo Ann's father had given, and Wicky described the toilet set she had bought for Jo Ann -- blue and silver celluloid backs and handles, but what had been in the packages sent by Jo Ann's school friends no one knew.

"If you please, sir," said Mary, the cook, "I was giving her a football, she liking rough games."

"I see," said the officer. "A bit of a tomboy, maybe. It's a hard lot of things to trace, you see, sir; things anybody might have. We'll be on our way now after having a look around outside."

"There was one more present," Jo Ann said. "Tommy Bassick gave me something. What did you do with it, Tommy?"

"They took it, I guess," Tommy said. "It's not out there I was going to hang it on the kitchen door knob out there but they grabbed me first."

"And what was it?" asked Officer Joe, taking out his notebook.

It was a parrot.

"Well," said Tommy reluctantly, "it was a -- a bird."

"A bird," said the officer. "A canary bird, very likely?

"No, sir," said Tommy, glancing at Jo Ann and looking away again. "It was a parrot."

"A parrot!" exclaimed Jo Ann. "A parrot! Then that was what was in that box you were carrying, Tommy Bassick!"

"One minute, young lady," said the officer, who did not seem to think a parrot was as queer a present as Jo Ann thought it. "Describe the parrot, young man."

"It was a green and yellow parrot," said Tommy. I bought it at Schling's bird store when I was home for Thanksgiving. He said he would keep it for me till Christmas because I had to save up my allowance to pay for it. He said --" and there Tommy stopped.

And now--

"He said what?" demanded the officer. "Come now, out with it!"

"He said he would teach it to say what I wanted it to say," said Tommy sheepishly.

"I see!" said the officer. "It was a talking parrot, was it? And I daresay you wanted it to learn to give the young lady a Christmas greeting. It that it?"

"Yes, sir," said Tommy, rubbing the floor with a toe of his shoe. "Something like that." And the officer wrote in his notebook "Parrot talks," but Jo Ann stared at Tommy and Tommy blushed. Jo Ann knew the sort of Christmas greeting Tommy would want the parrot to utter. It would not be anything complimentary to Jo Ann.

But the officers now departed and Mr. and Mrs. Bassick and Tommy also made ready to go. Jo Ann felt blue enough, with no presents to open.

"Tommy," she said impulsively, "come over after awhile. We'll go up on the hill and try to find a place to slide. Come over and bring your sled."

"Well, all right," Tommy agreed, and when the Bassicks had gone Jo Ann tried to be as cheerful as she could. She urged the others to open their presents.

"You're taking it like a good little sport, Jo Ann," her father said, and he put his arm around her and kissed her. "You have a birthday coming before long and we won't forget it."

Tommy returned in less than an hour, bringing his sled. He was wearing a new soft leather windbreaker his mother had given him, and he had on his wrist a new watch, a present from his father. Jo Ann and Wicky were waiting for him in the yard, and Jo Ann had her sled.

"We'd better go up the hill back of the house," Jo Ann said, "and on up toward the Benton's Woods. The snow ought to be better there, if it is any good anywhere. And thank you for the present, Tommy, even if I didn't get it."

"Aw, stop it, Jo Ann!" said Tommy, squirming. "I was only playing a joke on you."

"I think it was a horrid joke," said Wicky. "A parrot! You knew Jo Ann couldn't kill it, and nobody would want it. She'd have to keep it and it would be always squawking whatever you had it taught. I think it was cruel and heartless, too, Tommy, to keep it shut up in that box all the time."

"It was not!" declared Tommy. "I fed it and gave it plenty of water. I had to keep it shut up in the box."

"Why did you?" asked Wicky. "For what reason?"

"So it wouldn't be squawking and talking all the time," Tommy said.

"Parrots don't talk or squawk when they are shut in the dark or their cages are covered -- only when it's light."

"And hanging it out in the cold on the doorknob, the poor little parrot!" said Wicky.

"It wasn't cold," said Tommy. "It was warmish; the snow was melting. And it was warm in the box, all wrapped in paper. You needn't say I'd be cruel to a parrot, because I wouldn't be."

"Well, it was a splendid joke, wasn't it?" said Jo Ann. "And it went off so well! You must have laughed and laughed when you were down on the floor behind the piano, knocking your head on the floor. How do old coat linings and sleeve buttons taste, Tommy?"

They had gone out through the back gate by now and Tommy stopped short and turned to Jo Ann.

"I've had just about enough of your ragging, Jo Ann," he said. "You can stop it, or I'll go back home. If you want me to say that what I planned was all wet, I'll say it, and if you think I got the worst of it, you can think so, but I don't want to be ragged all day."

Jo Ann laughed.

"I won't rag you any more, Tommy," she said. "I guess you've had enough. How much did the parrot cost, Tommy?"

"Aw, Jo Ann, stop it, can't you?" Tommy begged. "It cost most of my allowance for two months, if you want to know. Now leave me alone, won't you?"

"How are your wrists and your ankles now, Tommy? Do they hurt much?" Wicky asked.

"All right!" said Tommy angrily. "I'll go home. If you just asked me to come so you could rag me --"

He turned and was going back toward the house, but Jo Ann grasped his arm.

"Oh, don't be such a goop!" she said, laughing. "I won't say another word, but I guess you didn't worry much over how I'd feel when you planned to send me a talking parrot to shriek at me. Come on, Tommy. I won't say another word, I promise."

He turned reluctantly, and they went on up the bare hill back of their homes. The snow was rather soppy and they sank into it to their ankles as they climbed the hill, but under the wetter snow the old snow was firmer, having frozen before the last snowfall.

"What did you think of the policemen?" Jo Ann asked, to change the subject.

"I don't know," Tommy answered. "I guess they were all right. They didn't seem to get very excited. I guess they have a lot of burglaries and they probably go at them all the same way. They were not detectives, just policemen. I don't suppose they have detectives in a town this size. I bet a real detective wouldn't wait around for weeks until a burglar got ready to pawn stuff. A real detective would look at that button I had in my mouth and say, 'Hah! A scratch on this button! Mike, hand me my magnifying glass. Yes, just as I thought, this scratch was made by a sharp piece of soft white marble -- there's a speck of marble dust in it. The burglar works in a monument works. Yes, here's marble dust in the interstices of the coat lining he used as a gag and a bandage. What does that mean to you, Mike?' Then the other detective would say, 'Left-handed Louie, Joe? He's been doing odd jobs in Fowler's marble works since he got out of Atlanta Prison.' 'That's our man, Mike. Folks, we'll have Jo Ann's presents back here in thirty minutes.' And they would have them back. That's how real detectives would go at it."

"That would be wonderful," Jo Ann said, thrilled by Tommy's dramatic description.

"It wouldn't be anything for real detectives," scoffed Tommy. "I'll tell you what your father ought to do, Jo Ann. He ought to send somewhere for a real detective -- to Chicago or New York or somewhere."

"Wouldn't it cost a lot?" Jo Ann asked. "Wouldn't it cost more than all my presents cost?"

"Well, of course, if you're going to care what it costs you couldn't get a real detective," Tommy said, "but I don't believe those cops will ever get your presents back. You can't get something for nothing, you know."

They had now reached the top of the hill where they had to turn to the left to climb the larger hill to Benton's Woods, and below them to the right lay Shanty Hollow, the collection of miserable dwellings where lived the most shiftless families of the town.

"The snow looks better up there," said Jo Ann, nodding toward Benton's Woods, and they had started up the hill when from Shanty Hollow a harsh voice suddenly rent the air.

"Rawk! Rawk! Rawk!" it screamed. "Hello! Hello! Pretty Polly! Pretty Polly! Ha! Ha! Ha! Jo Ann thinks she's smart! Rawk! Rawk! Rawk!"

The parrot ended with a final "Rawk!"

"They've covered him up or something," said Tommy, when the silence had continued for a minute. "He talks all the time during the day when he isn't covered up."

But Jo Ann was no longer there. She had picked up her sled and with a run for a start had slammed it down with herself on top of it, rushing down the hill toward the main part of the town. At the bottom of the hill she jumped from her sled and, dragging it after her, ran to the police station as fast as she could run. She burst in upon the policemen there. She was all out of breath.

"My presents!" she gasped. "My parrot! I know where they are. Oh, please come quick!"

The four policemen in the station were doing the best they could, it may be supposed, to make some sort of holiday out of a day when they had to be on duty. They were playing a game of cards, seated on four chairs and using another for a table, and when Jo Ann burst in upon them so excitedly they turned to look at her.

"It's that Christmas burglary girl," one of them said. "What is it, Sis? What's the matter now?"

"My presents," Jo Ann repeated. "I know where they are. I heard my parrot talking. Please, come quick, before they wring its neck."

That was all the pleading those policemen needed.

That was all the pleading those policemen needed.

"You said it, daughter," the youngest of the officers exclaimed, and he half escorted, half pushed Jo Ann out of the door. He thrust her into the automobile that stood there. Two more of the officers piled into the car, and in three minutes the car had skidded to a stop before a row of three shanties. One officer took each shanty, pushing in the doors without knocking, while Tommy and Wicky came running from the hill.

In a minute it was over. Jo Ann could never remember anything except the two officers dashing from the end shanties into the middle one and then two of them coming out with two handcuffed men, while the third came out carrying the parrot in one hand and an armful of Christmas packages in the other.

"Rawk! Rawk! Rawk!" screamed the parrot. "Jo Ann thinks she's smart! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

"You silly bird," laughed Jo Ann. "Maybe I'm not smart -- but I'm happy." And she was. Not one present had been lost.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:13:35am USA Central
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