A NEW MYSTERY

Cheerfully Al greeted the rigger for whom he worked.

“Barney—Mr. Horton—” he corrected his own familiar allusion to the
manager of the aircraft plant, “—says please hurry the work on this
sport biplane. The man who’s buying it is in a big hurry. He wants to
get into some race with it.”

“Oh, sure!” the rigger grumbled a little. “They’re all in a hurry. But I
don’t rush my part of it for anybody. There’s been enough complaint
about this plant, already, without me doing anything to cut down the
performance of a crate by skimping my share of the high standards Mr.
Tredway always kept up.”

“I know,” agreed Al, “but he meant to do all you can, I guess.”

“Yes,” the rigger was in a complaining mood, “that’s all very well. But
did he say why they’re giving us cheaper stuff to work with, since the
real boss—went West, maybe!—did they tell you why that is, that we’re
getting cheaper stuff!”

“No,” Al admitted, “but I do know that Mr. Parsons and Bar—and Mr.
Horton were talking about some complaint from the wing assembling room,
about poor fabric. They almost quarreled. Barney told Mr. Parsons it had
to stop, he was going to uphold Mr. Tredway’s ideas, and Mr. Parsons
said so was he.”

“Well, somebody’s ordering cheap stuff. Look here!”

He picked up a turnbuckle, a metal object in which the threads of each
wire end were so threaded in that when the ends of wires were screwed
in, the turning of the central, revolving part either drew the two
sections of wire close, making it taut, or allowed them to recede a
little from one another, for more looseness—by which the flying and
landing wires, and other parts of the guying rig were adjusted.

The turnbuckle looked all right to Al and he said so.

“Shows how much you know,” scoffed the rigger, Sandy. “Look here—heft
this—and then this one!”

He selected another turnbuckle, handed both to Al, and the youth
“weighted them” in his two hands.

“This one does feel heavier.”

“Of course it does! It’s a cheap casting, not the aluminum alloy the
other one is machined from. Why, them threads on the new one will wear
and go bad in no time!”

Al, watching, observed that as the rigger manipulated a pocket knife in
the threaded end of the part, bright metal and a worn look were almost
immediately evident.

“Yes,” Sandy Jim agreed with his discovery, “and I’ve been talking
around and others is dissatisfied—in the dope room, in the engine room.
Everywheres!”

“But when Mr. Parsons talked with the manager,” Al explained, “they had
the supply clerk in and went over the orders and way-bills and delivery
check-up, and everything was all right. The orders went to the same
firms, as always——”

“We’re getting shoddy stuff, all the same!” grunted Jim. “What good is
it to rush out a ‘job’ and have it accepted on the reputation of Mr.
Tredway, and then have complaints in a few days?”

“I don’t know,” said Al, and changed the subject. “Mr. Horton says
you’ll have to excuse me, this morning. He’s sending me out on an
errand.”

“Oh, sure!” Jim snapped. “Wants this job rushed, and takes away my
helper! Whyn’t he use his office boy?”

Al could not explain that it was Barney’s way of releasing him so he
could go to The Windsock for that comparison of the ex-pilot’s autograph
with the clue note Al held.

“I guess you’ll have to ask him,” Al grinned, and went over to get his
bicycle. Sandy Jim followed him, dragging a small parcel out of his hip
pocket.

“As long as you’re riding,” he suggested, “go past the house and slip
this in to Jimmy-junior. It’s some odds and ends of broken stuff for him
to use on his new model air-liner.”

“Glad to,” Al took the parcel.

“Get back quick as you can,” urged Sandy. “I need a good helper.”

Al quickly sent his bicycle along the highway. Stopping at Sandy’s home
he took as little time as he could to drop the parcel, and to explain to
Jimmy-junior that the reason he had not yet been taken into the Sky
Squad was that they had been too busy, evenings, to hold any meetings.

Then he made his way to the roadhouse near Rocky Lake Park, and leaned
his wheel against the veranda supports.

“Is Mister Jones busy?” he asked a sleepy waiter who was listlessly
dusting off some chairs in one of the small compartments made to look
like the cabin of an air-liner. Al had found it easy to learn the
ex-pilot’s name.

“In the office,” the man jerked a thumb toward a side room. Al, knocking
at the door and hearing a gruff voice bid him enter, went into the same
room Bob had described as the scene of the quarrel between the roadhouse
man and Griff.

The man, looking up from some work at a small desk, had a coarse,
scowling face. No wonder he was “ex” pilot, Al reflected, with a face as
brutish and a manner as unfriendly and curt as “Mr. Jones” showed.

“What’s wanted?”

“Why—er—” Al stammered, not so much ill at ease as trying to pretend he
felt shy in the presence of a great man, “I’m one of the fellows who
have a sort of club, to study airplanes, and all that—and I—we—heard
about you being a clever pilot, and I thought I’d ride out and ask if
you’d be generous enough to write a little something about aviation in
our club autograph album.” He produced the small book he had brought in
his coat pocket.

“Hm-m!” The man scowled. “Le’me see that book!”

He took the small volume and Al’s heart sank. Instead of writing
sensibly and generously on blank page invitingly offered, he flipped the
pages, and Al knew that the affair was a failure. There was nothing
about aviation in the few autographed verses and sayings already
collected.

“That’s no aviation album!” The man thrust it away angrily and jumped
up. “What’s your scheme, young fellow?”

“Scheme?” Al tried to look innocent. “I told you—we want to get you to
start the real autographs from aviators!”

The subterfuge did not satisfy the man. He frowned, stared at Al as
though trying to get through his guard, to discover any hidden motive.
Al, inexperienced, fidgeted, unable to conceal his uneasiness.

However, he received a surprise.

“Sure!” The man snatched up the book. “Come to think of it, why not?
Fact is, kid, I’ll start you off with _two_ autographs. Wait!”

He hurried out of the office. Al did not dare “peek” to see where he
went or what he did. For all Al knew, the man might be just beyond the
side door, watching. He sat very still, trying to be as self-possessed
as he could.

Presently the man returned, with the book held open.

“Here y’are!” he said, affably. Al, glancing at the book, saw that two
opposite pages bore fresh scrawls. The man waved a hand. “Welcome. Run
along, now. We’re busy, here—getting set to open up a new ‘airport’ out
on the side, where folks can dance to a fine orchestra in a hangar. Tell
any of your friends you like—especially your parents. We got the
prettiest imitation of an airplane for the orchestra to set in——”

Al, hardly able to mumble his thanks, dashed out to his bicycle. He
could scarcely hold in his impatience. One of those sets of rough
characters was written with a pencil, the other with an indelible
pencil!

One had a familiar character to its shaping of letters!

A little way down the road, near the lake, where the airplane had
cracked up, Al drew his machine in under a tree, almost tore the book
out of his pocket and opened it hastily.

On one page was a maxim, exactly what a pilot might write:

“Knowing when to stay on the ground makes a better pilot than knowing
how to get off it!” It was signed with initials—“T. J.” Al did not
recognize the writing although, he understood that the saying meant that
a pilot wise enough to be cautious was better than one who thought that
getting into the air was all there was to flying.

The second page revealed one word, the pilot’s good-luck wish, and two
initials also:

“Tailwinds! J. T.” it told him.

“T. J. and J. T.”

Hurriedly Al drew out the folded, ragged, dirty little note—his clue.

It exactly corresponded in every character with the short autograph!

But!——

Who had written the autograph? Had Mr. Jones? If his name was Jones he
would have signed the initials on the first autograph—“T. J.” Or—would
he have signed that way? Might he not have signed the reverse? Had he
written either page? Who else had helped?

More mystery! And no way to solve it!