THE BROKEN BIRD!
“I’ve been thinking about what you told me this morning,” Jelly Roll Horton said with a scowl. “And I’ve gotta tell you. I think it stinks!”
Every day at 10:15 Balmy Bay High had a fifteen-minute period called Nutrition during which donuts and assorted beverages were available at the snack bar. Flint and Chip had each bought a plain donut and a pint of milk and were looking for a place to sit when they found themselves confronted by their irate chum. He was balancing three jelly-filled donuts with one hand and carrying a plastic cup with the other. Like the brothers, he’d always been a big milk drinker, but lately he’d taken to favoring Kool-Aid.
Before the boys could reply they were joined by several of their classmates who wanted to know how Flint felt about the football team’s prospects for next season and if Chip thought the track and field squad could overcome the challenge sure to be posed by South Side High. A good five minutes of the period had been spent before Jelly Roll was finally able to recapture the brothers’ attention.
“Tell me you’ve come to your senses,” he pleaded around the last bite of his last donut. “Tell me we’re not going to stand by and let that poor broken bird fend for herself!”
“The what?” Chip said.
“Broken bird. That’s what Travis McGee calls girls in distress. Like our Lucy.”
Flint sighed. “We already went over the whole thing with you, Jelly.” That morning he'd filled Jelly Roll in on the events of the previous evening. They’d finished their account just as the bell had summoned them to class, and apparently Jelly Roll had been seething since.
“Okay. So maybe we’ll have to tackle a bunch of Commies. So what? Do you think Travis would give up because he had to go up against a few lousy Reds?”
“That’s fine, Jelly,” Flint snapped. “But we’re not Travis MacDonald, or whatever his name is.”
“You’re right,” Jelly Roll said. “Travis McGee is a man alone, operating out of a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale. On our side of the ledger, all we’ve got is the two most intrepid boy detectives in the world, their dogged chum—yours truly—and for backup the most famous detective in America, not to mention the cooperation of law enforcement agencies everywhere. That’s all!”
“He has a point there, Flint!" Chip cried.
“Okay, okay,” Flint conceded. “But the FBI is already on this case. What can we do that the Federal Bureau of Investigation can’t?”
“Maybe nothing,” Jelly Roll said. “But did we back off when INTERPOL got involved in The Mystery of the Deadly Whatsit? No! Did we pack up and go home when Scotland Yard was searching for the same stolen treasure we were in The Clue of the Sierra Madre? No! And when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stuck their nose into The Mystery of the Gyrating Moose, did we politely step aside? No! We persisted and we prevailed!”
“Yes, but…” Flint started.
“And another thing,” Jelly interrupted. “Didn’t you tell me your dad said that kids are vanishing all across America? Well, to the FBI, Lucy is just another anonymous brat that went missing. How much time and resources can they bring to bear for one kid? Whereas in our case, Lucy is our school chum! We wouldn’t leave a stone unturned in our search for her! By golly, we’d have her home before the sock hop!”
“He has a point there, Flint!” Chip cried.
“Fine,” Flint said. “But what if dad’s right about Lucy being brainwashed? What if we do succeeded in finding her and she isn’t the same person when we bring her home?”
“Boy!” Jelly Roll thundered. “Do you ever need to read some Travis McGee books! The fun is just starting when Travis finds the broken bird with a wing that needs mending!”
“What do you mean?” Chip asked.
Jelly Roll fixed Chip with a leer. “What do you think I mean? How do you think a damsel in distress likes to show her appreciation to the knight in shining armor who just rescued her?”
“G-g-golly!” Chip sputtered.
“Come on, fellas!” Jelly Roll said. “Isn’t it time we became serious, modern private dicks? Or do you want to be boy detectives until you’re fifty years old?”
“He has a point there, Flint!” Chip cried.
Flint spun on his brother. “You, too?”
“What I mean is, if we can prove that we can solve this kind of case, then maybe we can, you know...”
“Finally grow up?” Jelly Roll said with a smirk.
“Well…I was going to say we could help even more people then. But, yeah. Maybe I sorta meant that, too. What say, Flint?”
“Yeah! What say, Flint Burly?” Jelly Roll said. “You know you want to take on this case as badly as we do!”
Flint was frowning broodingly. At length he opened his mouth to respond, but just then the school bell rang and they all dispersed to their classes.
* * *
After school that day, Flint told Jelly that he’d call him later, after he’d asked his father permission to take on what he was beginning to refer to as the Case of the Vanishing Diamond. But Jelly had other ideas.
“I’m sticking to you clowns like gum to a shoe,” he said, in the odd new speech pattern he’d been developing since discovering adult detective stories. “I’m not gonna let you roll over on this one without at least getting in a few licks of my own.”
Jelly seemed to lose sight of his own objective when they first arrived at the house, as the smell of Aunt Hortense’s baking rhubarb pie drew him into the kitchen while the brothers pounded up the stairs to their father’s study. But after learning from Aunt Hortense that the pie had at least another half hour to bake—and after wolfing down what was left of last night’s cherry pie—he hurried after his friends and arrived, flushed and wheezing, as the argument picked up steam.
“But boys,” Slate was saying from behind his desk, “even if I agree—purely for the sake of discussion, you understand—that there might be more to Lucy’s disappearance than just another tragic case of adolescent rebellion, why on earth should I allow you to drive your motorbikes all the way across the country on such a flimsy clue as a single song? What sort of detective would conclude that his quarry was going to San Francisco simply because a song she enjoyed entreated her to do so? Personally, I’m a great fan of the song Fly Me to the Moon, especially as Tony Bennett sings it. Do you see me rushing off to Cape Canaveral to hitch a ride with John Glenn?”
“But Dad!” Chip said. “It didn’t just tell her to go to San Francisco! It told her to go to San Francisco with flowers in her hair! And like we just said—"
“There’s a great gulf between plucking flowers from the city park and finding one’s way three thousand miles to a terrifying new world. Even if the flower-plucking in question is a misdemeanor. If there were any other clues…”
“I think…I can answer that…Mr. Burly,” Jelly panted, struggling to catch his breath after his race up the stairs. “You see…Flint and Chip…”
“Good evening, Jelly Roll,” Slate said.
“Oh. Good evening…Mr. Burly,” Jelly wheezed. He’d forgotten what a stickler for proper manners Mr. Burly could be. “But…as I was saying…Flint and Chip did find…another clue…at Lucy’s house. An album…by the Mamas and Papas…”
“A photo album or a musical album?” Slate asked.
Jelly had also forgotten what a stickler Mr. Burly could be for the precise presentation of evidence. “A musical album…sir. And I happen to know…that one of the songs on that album…is called California Dreamin’!”
“But wait a second,” Chip said. “I also saw a song listed on there called Spanish Harlem.”
Jelly rolled his eyes. “Fine. But nobody saw Lucy picking a red rose that’s never seen the sun and only comes through the concrete when the moon is on the run, did they?”
Chip looked confused. “Well…no…”
“So there you go!” Jelly yelled triumphantly.
“Jelly Roll, I appreciate your effort to help…” Slate began.
But suddenly Flint was on his feet. “No, Dad—he’s right! Those are matching clues! Lucy is on her way to San Francisco! I can feel it!”
Slate opened his mouth to protest but his younger son interrupted him. “Come on, Dad! Pardon my interruption, but…you know how it is when Flint says he can feel something! His hunches are almost never wrong! Remember in The Riddle of the Rickety Dynamo when—"
“I can hardly give you permission to ride across country based on a hunch, no matter how uncannily accurate those hunches have been in the past.”
“But you’ve done it before, Mr. Burly,” Jelly said. “Didn’t you let them drive their bikes to the Klondike in The Mystery of the Blue-Eyed Brown Bear just because Flint knew in his gut that that so-called Eskimo was really an Italian? What’s different this time?”
Slate gazed out the window, where the sunset light again slanted, as it always did, across the perfectly manicured lawn. He watched Mrs. Ash water her roses and the Colgate boy, Skip, zip by on his bike. But he did not speak.
“Yeah, Dad,” Flint asked, more quietly. “What’s different this time?”
“What’s different?” Slate echoed, and there was a strange hollowness in his voice. “What’s different is…that place.”
“Huh?” Chip said. “You mean Frisco?”
“Frisco!” Slate laughed bitterly. “Such a friendly-sounding name for…a place like that.”
“But we don’t understand, Dad,” Flint said.
“Neither do I, boys,” Slate said, looking earnestly at his elder son, and Flint could swear he caught the glint of tears in his eyes. “I don’t know what’s in that place, but I do know one thing…people who go there usually don’t come back.”
Chip furrowed his brow, trying to follow him. “You mean like the New York Giants?”
“Or the Philadelphia Warriors?” Flint added, always proud of his knowledge of athletics.
“Yes, those,” Slate said quietly. “But thousands of others you would never have heard of. Young people who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. And, even more strangely, not just young people. Do you boys remember Professor Jenkins at Balmy College?”
“Why, sure we do,” Chip said. “He’s the one who helped us spot that counterfeit Spanish doubloon in The Mystery of the Counterfeit Spanish Doubloon.”
“Do you remember that he was subsequently offered a position in the history department of San Francisco State University?”
“Sure, now that you mention it,” Flint said. “But what…?”
“He told you he’d stay in touch with you, didn’t he? Well, has he? Have any of you heard a word from him?”
The three boys looked at one another. They all shook their heads.
“No one has,” Slate said, in a voice barely above a whisper. “The last anyone heard of him, he sent an article he’d just written to his former faculty fellows at Balmy. In that article, he actually suggested that America should give up aspiring to be the policeman of the world! I believe he even used the word ‘imperialism.’ Dean Ivory, naturally, called the FBI, fearing that his old friend had been brainwashed by foreign powers or replaced by a look-alike. For some reason, Professor Jenkins grew angry about that, and no one in Balmy Bay has heard a word from him since. I tell you, boys…that place does something to people!”
The Burly boys fell silent. Their father’s words hung like a shadow over the room. It was Jelly Roll who broke the ominous spell.
“I understand your concern, Mr. Burly. But surely you must know that your sons are made of sterner stuff than any ivory-tower academic. Why, these two young men sitting across from you are the bravest, most resourceful boy detectives in the world. Whatever strange power San Francisco has over weaker minds and characters, I think it’s fair to say it will have met its match in Flint and Chip Burly.”
Slate looked at Jelly for a long moment. And this time there was no doubt about the tears in his eyes. “All right,” he said at last. “If you boys truly believe that Lucy Diamond can be rescued, and that her trail leads through…that city…then I suppose I can’t tell you not to do what’s right.”
“Really, Dad?” Chip said.
“Really,” Slate said. Then he scowled and raised his index finger. “But on one condition.”
“What’s that, Dad?” Flint said.
“You’ll be missing the last week of the school year,” Slate said. “You’ve got to get permission from Principal Ajax and your homework assignments from every one of your teachers.”
“Don’t worry, Dad,” Flint said. “We already asked them all this afternoon, just in case you said yes!”
Slate looked at him in surprise, then for an instant in anger. But then he burst into laughter. “Just like a Burly!” he chuckled. “I imagine you will be just fine in San Francisco at that!”
As the boys left Slate’s office, Flint clapped a hand on Jelly’s shoulder and smiled at him appreciatively. “That was sure keen what you said about us to Dad, Jelly.”
“Hey, whatever it takes,” Jelly said. Then he chortled wetly and rubbed his hands together. “Broken birds, here we come!”