It was such a fine fall morning
that Gus Wilson was reluctant to enter the Model Garage. He found his
helper, Stan, hanging up the phone.
"Morning, Boss. We've got a
dead-battery call from the county airport. The guy sounds as if he'll
short-circuit unless we make the scene fast. Shall I go?"
Gus grinned. "Uh-uh. I feel
like being out myself. Boss's privilege."
"OK". The name is Banning.
He's waiting for you in the parking lot."
Making certain that a charged
booster battery was aboard, Gus left in the wrecker. At the airport, he
found a hatless, red-haired man pacing beside the car, cigarette stubs
strewn in his path. He threw another away as Gus drove up, then handed over
Under the hood, Gus made certain
that the battery clamps were tight. But turning the key only produced
"Haven't you got a helper
battery?" asked Banning impatiently.
"Sure. But often what seems a
dead battery is only a bad connection."
Banning snorted. "This isn't.
It ran down cranking the engine. I flew back early on account of an
emergency, so get me going fast any way you can."
Gus nodded. With the booster
battery connected, the starter spun vigorously. But when 30 seconds of
cranking produced not a pop, Gus turned off the key.
"It'll start," insisted
Banning. "Just keep trying. The cars been standing here three days. It
always takes a long time..."
Gus shrugged his shoulders and,
against his better judgment, cranked again, with brief waits to let the
"The engine isn't getting any
gas," he said at last. If I keep on I'll run down my booster. Let me check
the fuel system."
"Try it once more," urged
Banning. "It's just about time for it to catch."
Gus flicked the key over again.
The engine flashed abruptly into life.
"Does it always take that long
to start?" asked Gus as he made out his bill.
"Only after the car's been
standing a few days, when I go on trips."
"Cranking that long will run
down any battery, especially if the car isn't used much," warned Gus.
"Better have the engine checked before it happens again."
Banning grunted, paid, and drove
off. It was the way most dead-battery calls ended, thought Gus as he headed
back for the Model Garage. The driver was satisfied to get moving, without
a thought for the underlying trouble. But he'd warned Banning. He wasn't
responsible for a casual customer he would probably never see again. Gus
breathed deeply of the crisp air and decided to forget it.
"It's a school problem,"
explained the principal on the phone. "But an unusual one. We need an
expert witness. The boy involved suggests we ask you."
Gus looked out on the shop
floor. Two urgent jobs had gone out. Stan could take care of anything else
likely to come up.
"I can make it by four," agreed
The high school overlooked a
huge parking lot, now almost empty. Gus was ushered into the office of the
Jim Hunter, a tall balding man,
rose from behind the desk. "Glad you could come," he said. "It seems you
have a reputation that even our schoolboys respect."
"Also some curiosity," confessed
"We have an unfortunate
teacher-student clash," explained the principal. "The student was warned he
might fail his teacher's class. Last week he was driving his car in our
parking lot before school-cornering tests, he said. The teacher - Mr.
Stanton-had also come early and there was a near collision. I had to
withdraw the boy's parking privileges for a month.
"Stanton's car, a new one, had
given him some trouble. Yesterday the sales agency apparently corrected
it. But last night he found the student doing something under the hood.
The boy ran off. Driving away, the teacher found the car behaved as badly
"I'm to find out whether the
student could be responsible?" asked Gus.
"Yes. Unfortunately he refuses
to explain what he was doing. But for a boy who lives alone-his father is a
widower, and away a lot-Ted Banning has a good record. Here are the others
With an apologetic knock, a
secretary had opened the door. She admitted a short, scowling man with a
crew cut, a lanky red-haired youth, and the man Gus had met at the airport
"Now that we know each other,"
said Hunter after introductions, "tell Mr. Wilson about your car, Mr.
The short man turned to Gus.
"The engine hadn't been timed right. It pinged on the slightest
acceleration, and idled unevenly. I took it back to the agency twice. The
last time, two days ago, the mechanic set it with a timing light. It was
perfectly fine until young Banning here tinkered with it, obviously in
revenge for disciplinary action taken against him."
"It wasn't like that at all,"
the boy burst out.
"But you did have the hood up,"
said Hunter. "Will you explain why?"
Ted Banning's eyes went to Gus.
I will now. You wouldn't have understood.
When Mr. Stanton drove uphill to
the lot yesterday I heard the engine knocking, as if the spark was way
advanced. I wondered why a new car should run so rough after the agency
checked it twice-I knew about that because my pal Jim Gaines told me. His
father is a mechanic there."
"It chewed at me sort of-you
know?" The boys eyes asked for understanding.
"And I'd never looked under the
hood of this new model. Besides, I thought if I could spot what was wrong,
like the distributor not being tight, or the points set too wide, or the
spark advance weights stuck, maybe Mr. Stanton would be so glad he'd let me
take a make-up test. But I guess that was crazy. He sure figured it
different when he saw me."
Dr. Hunter looked at Gus, who
nodded. "Any of those things Ted mentioned could over-advance the spark."
"What we want to know," put in
Stanton, "is which of them he fooled with."
Banning Senior rose angrily to
"I'd like to see the car," said
Gus hastily, and Hunter agreed.
All five trooped out to the
parking lot. Stanton led them to a glistening new two-door of a popular
make. Gus swung the hood up. The distributor setting, he found, was
securely tightened. Mentally checking off the firing order, Gus traced each
of the spark plug cables. None were cross-connected, though that was an
easy way to bollix an engine.
"Want to hear it run?" offered
Gus nodded. The teacher started
the car, evidently with the throttle down, for it took off with a roar.
Allowed to idle, it purred agreeably. Frowning, Stanton put it in gear, and
with the brake on, slipped the clutch to load the engine.
"He must have undone whatever he
did," declared Stanton. "It's all right now."
"Let it run," said Gus.
He advanced the throttle in
short bursts. The engine rocked with each, then settled back. Suddenly its
idle changed to a choppy, rough run.
"There!" shouted Stanton
"Does sound like the timing is
off now," agreed Gus. "But Ted hasn't touched it."
Stanton's satisfaction underwent
an almost comic transformation. At a sign from Gus he cut the engine. Gus
snapped off the distributor cover. The breaker-point lock screw was tight.
He reached in and pushed the centrifugal weights outward. They moved
freely-then snapped back more than he had moved them out.
In the light of a pocket flash
he carried, Gus again moved the weights out. A small glossy brown fragment
rolled out from under one. Another such piece gleamed darkly at the corner
of the casing.
Gus straightened up.
"Ted had nothing to do with your
trouble, Mr. Stanton-and the agency did nothing to fix it. Have a look
Stanton took the flashlight and
peered into the distributor. "There are some loose pieces. He could have
put them there."
"What are they, Mr. Wilson?"
asked the principal quietly.
"Bits of a broken rotor, which I
hardly think Ted had handy. But his guess about stuck advance weights hit
close. Whenever one of the loose pieces jammed the weights, they wouldn't
fall back and the spark stayed advanced. The day the car was timed, they
stayed out of the way."
Hunter nodded. "A random
effect, which coincided with Ted's peek under the hood. I think we can
close the case."
"Not quite!" snapped the elder
Mr. Stanton may still claim that
Ted put those pieces in. How else could they have got there, Mr. Wilson?"
Gus smiled. "Ever see an
auto-assembly line? Somebody put on the rotor and snapped on the
distributor cap. Maybe the rotor was defective. Maybe the cap wasn't
seated right. When the engine was cranked the first time, that rotor
broke. They took it out, but didn't fish out all the bits."
Hunter turned to the teacher.
That clears Ted, Mr. Stanton, and I think he deserves that make-up test,
"Of course." A rueful smile
came to the teacher's face. Guess I was much too touchy about my new car;
and if Ted hadn't been curious I still wouldn't know what the trouble really
"We appreciate your help, Mr.
Wilson," declared Hunter. "Send us your bill."
The teacher and the principal
headed back toward the school building.
"You've earned our thanks, too,"
remarked Banning. I don't know how this would have turned out without you.
Probably you're right about my car also. Okay if I bring it in tomorrow?"
"Well, now," said Gus,
"something came to me about that slow starting of yours. Let's look at the
engine right now."
Pausing to get his tool kit from
his own car, Gus went to Banning's sedan. Ted had already raised the hood,
waited with the eagerness of a spaniel.
Thoughtfully Gus inspected the
big two-barrel carburetor, rubbed his finger on an area below the idle
adjustment screws, and looked at it.
"Dirty carburetor?" guessed Ted.
"Too clean," chuckled Gus. You
know what that means?"
"A gas leak, huh?"
"But one so small it doesn't
matter as long as the car is run daily. It's when it stands a few days that
the leak empties the bowl. Then it takes a lot of cranking to get gas back
"See these little holes?
They're where the passages were drilled. Outside, they are plugged with
soft lead shot. All we do is hammer it tighter." He set a small punch into
each hole, rapped it lightly.
"You mean that's all there is to
it? I won't have any more slow-starting trouble?" asked Banning.
"If you do, we'll fit new
plugs. But don't forget to get your battery charged."
Banning handed Gus some money.
"Never mind a bill. This is just
to back up our thanks. After the way I acted at the airport, I wonder why
you bothered to look at the car, let alone fix it."
Gus looked at Ted with a faint
grin. "Well, it chewed at me sort of-you know?"
Ted Banning's eyes, over an
equally small but understanding smile, said he did.