Headlights blazed against the glass of
the Model Garage door. Gus Wilson, staying late to tidy up some paperwork,
hoped the car owner had pulled in only to make a phone call from the outside
The brief wail of a siren told him
otherwise. He went to the door and opened it. Into the shop swept a big
Chevy. Police Chief Sam Eldon got out of the car.
"I know it's after hours, Gus. But I
need your help right now," said Eldon.
"Sure. You've got it. What's wrong?"
"This car's been losing power for
weeks. The police mechanic tuned it, timed it, put in a new coil and new
plugs. Each time he works on it, it runs better for a while, but then it
starts to fall off again.
"Three weeks ago I made him put in new
plugs, though he swore it didn't need 'em. They made a big difference. I
thought I had it licked - until tonight when I lost a hot car at a crummy 70
per. Just could have been the Friday-night bandit," the Chief concluded
"What channel's he on?" quipped Gus.
"I'm not kidding!" snapped Eldon.
"Don't you read the papers? He's been sticking up gas stations, liquor
stores, delicatessens - and always on Friday nights."
Gus swung the hood up, hooked a
tachometer and timing light to the engine, and started it. The spark was
right on time, and advanced by the hook as the engine was revved up.
Disconnecting the light, Gus attached his spark-plug checker. All eight
traces on its tube face were normal.
"Why check plugs?" demanded Eldon. "I
told you they're almost new, didn't I?"
"Sure. But this gadget also tells me
that the new coil is connected right and the high-voltage polarity is
correct. Now it's going to tell me something more."
Gus pulled off one of the spark-plug
cables. The corresponding trace leaped up, but fell short of the top of the
"Hurry it up, will you, Gus? That
character hits any time between dark and dawn. I've got to be mobile."
"Spark voltage is low," declared Gus,
killing the engine. "Let me check a bit."
He made certain the terminal nuts were
tight on the coil, distributor, and switch, and the wires firmly crimped in
Hooking an ohmmeter across the coil
and distributor terminals, he flexed the wire between these inch by inch.
The needle held steady near the zero-resistance mark. He made the same test
from the other coil terminal to the ballast resistor.
"The car runs; those wires and
connections must be okay," Eldon grumbled.
"An internal break could leave just a
strand or two carrying current, but not enough to saturate the coil at high
speeds, when the points close only for milliseconds," said Gus. "An
intermittent break might not show on the plug check I made. But these
primary connections seem okay."
The Chief grunted. Gus hooked the
ohmmeter across two terminals on a small rectangular object on the firewall.
Taking a reading, he went into the parts cubby, and came out with a
duplicate of the object he'd been testing.
"It's your ballast resistor, Sam," he
explained. "The thing that's switched into the primary circuit, after the
engine starts, to cut down current so the points last. Resistors don't often
give trouble. Once in a while their coils short to the housing, giving
plenty of notice by smell and smoke, or they break and open the ignition
circuit. Or, if there are two resistance coils and one breaks, the
resistance doubles and lowers your sparking voltage.
"Your trouble was the sneaky kind. The
resistor changed its value. Whether from pitting, corrosion, or whatever, it
happens, and the resistance always goes up, not down. The coil gets less
voltage, puts out reduced high voltage, and the spark doesn't fire under
Eldon shook his head. "If it's that
gadget, how come performance picked up when we adjusted points or put in a
"If the points are out, resetting them
will pick up performance a bit. The new coil may have been more efficient,
doing the same," explained Gus. "New plugs fire at lower voltage than
old ones, so they camouflaged the trouble for a while. But as they got older
or the resistor's value climbed still more, the symptoms came back."
"Okay. Put that doohickey in quick."
Gus installed the resistor. With the
engine running, the trace of the disconnected plug now rose to the top of
Disconnecting the instrument, Gus
pushed the free cable back on. The Chief roared out almost before Gus could
drop the hood.
Busy with figures, Gus thought he
heard a car roll down the alley behind the shop, but went on filling out a
bank slip for night deposit, and forgot the vague sound.
A hammering on the shop door jolted
him. He swept the cash into a drawer and got up. The face outside, seen
through the glass panel, was shadowed and almost featureless between a
turned-up coat collar and a battered hat brim.
"Gotta have help!" the man yelled, a
note of desperation in his voice. "Car's quit and my wife and kid are out
there freezing in it.
It's only half a block."
"Wait a minute," shouted Gus. He went
back for his jacket, gloves, flashlight, and tool kit. When he unlocked the
door, something hard jabbed into his side.
"Get back inside. Move it!" barked the
man. "This is a stickup."
Gus backed into the shop. The stranger
followed, slamming the door. He wore a Halloween mask that hid his whole
"Put the toolbox down. And don't get
smart." The shop's night light gleamed on a nickel-plated gun.
"You'd be smart to scram," replied
Gus. "I'm working on the police chief's car. He's road-testing it, but he'll
The masked man tittered nervously. "I
saw him. The way his crate took off, he won't be back. So let's have the
dough in that drawer.'
The gun gestured. Inwardly furious,
Gus walked ahead to the office.
"Back up against that wall. Don't try
anything," warned the man with a high-pitched giggle. "Guns make me
Helplessly Gus watched him take out
the bundle of bills and pocket it. Then a gloved hand ripped out the phone
"Now go back to the door," rasped the
shrill voice. "Easy, and nobody's hurt."
Again Gus preceded the man, opened the
service door, and stood aside. Still holding the gun on Gus, the slim man
stepped through, looked about, and vanished.
Half expecting to be met with a
bullet, Gus stepped out, too. An engine exploded into action in the alley.
Gus flattened himself against the front of the Model Garage.
It was a noisy engine. A
clank-clank-clank, magnified between the alley walls, accelerated to a
rattle as the car leaped out of the darkness. It passed close to Gus, a big,
dark-colored sedan without lights, but he had no time to spot any details
that might identify the make.
The car raced off, tires squealing at
the corner. Gus headed for the outdoor phone.
Its handset, torn off the cord, lay on
the floor. Locking the shop, Gus got into his car and took off for the
Monday dawned clear and cold. Poorer
by $380 for two engine overhauls and several smaller jobs on Saturday, Gus
tried for the hundredth time to remember some detail he hadn't told Eldon
about the holdup. The phone broke his reverie.
"I'll be right there, Mrs. Starke,"
promised Gus when the voice paused briefly.
Glad to have something to do, he made
sure there was a good battery aboard his tow truck, and drove to the Sunrise
Supermarket. Mrs. Starke's compact, immobilized by a defunct battery, was
brought back to life with a rental battery. As Gus was packing up his tools,
another engine fired up nearby in the huge parking lot.
Its clank-clank was familiar.
The car was a '63 Cadillac in the next
bay. As it moved out, the license plate came into view, but it was so
mud-smeared as to be unreadable. Gus got into the tow truck in a hurry, and
followed the car.
A woman was driving at an
easy-to-trail speed. Ten minutes later she pulled up in the driveway of a
modest ranch house.
"Not bad sleuthing, Gus," admitted
Eldon a couple of hours later. "But you must be wrong about that noise. The
car belongs to a Harry Stoner, shop manager at the Hargrave plant. He has a
good reputation and he was working with a half a dozen other men when you
were held up. In fact, he works the night shift every Friday night."
"Find out who's borrowing his car,
then," urged Gus. "I was almost sure from the first that the noise in the
alley was from a Caddy. Now I know it was. That one."
"Okay," said Eldon. "I'll check it."
When the Chief's car arrived outside
the Model Garage for the second time, a squat bear of a man followed him
"Gus, meet Harry Stoner. You were so
sure of yourself that I asked him what man at Hargraves got high-pitched or
giggly when excited. He gave me two names.
"One of those fellows told me calmly
where he was last Friday night. The other went green and tried to make a
break. We collared him. His key chain had an extra key - for the Caddy.
Stoner left the keys in it one night, so this character made himself a
duplicate and set out to do a little armed moonlighting, thinking that if
the car were spotted it couldn't be traced to him. We found a lot of money
in his room. Could you say how many of what bills you lost?"
"Four fifties, 11 tens, 14 fives,"
returned Gus crisply. "With two red rubber bands around the bundle."
"Uh-huh, we found it. You'll get it
back, Gus, and much obliged for the assist."
"Look," said Stoner. "The Chief said
you knew that noise came from a Caddy. So for the love of Pete, what makes
Gus laughed. "Nothing fatal. It's the
water-pump bearing. I know," Gus went on as Stoner opened his mouth. "It
doesn't even leak - yet. But on Caddies up to '63, that bearing is small for
its job, and when it wears you get that slam-clank, with nothing to show
what's causing it."
Stoner sighed. "It nearly drove me
nuts. You've done me a real favor. Thanks."
"You're welcome. I owed you one."
"You did? What have I done for you?"
"Put up with that noise in your car
long enough," returned Gus with a grin, "to save me a fistful of dough."