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The Mystery Bookstore
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 1995 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
Going, Going, Gone!
"Next to be auctioned is this toy boxcar," a man yelled to the crowd in the courtyard. "A fine thing for a fine boy or girl. Do I hear a dollar?"
Benny Alden wriggled in his seat. He was so excited he could hardly sit still. He reached into the pocket of his jeans. The seven dollars from the paper route the six-year-old shared with his brother and two sisters was still there, safe and sound.
Benny tugged at his sister's sleeve. "Should I put my hand up now, Jessie?"
"Not yet," twelve-year-old Jessie Alden whispered back, calm as could be. "We don't want to raise the price too soon."
Benny sputtered like an old teakettle. "But ... Jessie! It looks almost like the boxcar we used to live in."
Jessie pushed back the hair from Benny's forehead. "Don't worry, Benny. Let's just wait a little bit longer."
A couple of voices in the audience called out bids.
"I hear a dollar. Now I hear two dollars," the auction man shouted. "Do I hear three?"
"Three!" Benny yelled before Jessie could stop him.
"I hear three from the boy in the second row," the man said. "Do I hear four dollars?" the man asked.
Everyone in the courtyard was silent. The four Alden children tried hard not to show how much they wanted the old tin boxcar.
"Going once, going twice, going to the boy in the second row!" The man brought down the auction hammer with a bang.
"Yippee!" Benny cried. "We got the boxcar!"
"That ends the first half of our auction," the auctioneer announced. "We'll return in fifteen minutes to the main portion of the sale. That's when the Old Treasures Bookshop goes on the auction block. Meanwhile, enjoy the break, folks. You'll find some of our famous New Orleans specialties at the food table in back."
The Aldens, along with their grandfather and his old friend Olivia Chase, got up to stretch their legs. They walked to the back of a courtyard just behind a dusty old bookshop.
Miss Chase smiled at the Aldens a bit nervously. "Thank you for bringing your family to the auction, James. Buying the bookshop is such a big decision. Perhaps you, Henry, Jessie, Violet—and of course Benny here—can bring me good luck."
"Just don't yell out anything too fast," Benny advised the older woman. "Jessie said that just makes the price go up."
Jessie tossed back her long brown ponytail and looked up at Miss Chase. "Grandfather taught us to be patient at an auction and not jump in too soon."
"Like I just did!" Benny said with a big laugh. "But I had to have this little boxcar for my train collection. It looks almost like the one we lived in before Grandfather found us."
"Except it doesn't have shelves inside or straw beds or a nice tree stump in front of it," Violet said. "Or a cracked pink cup, either." Like her brothers and sister, ten-year-old Violet just loved talking about the old boxcar days when they'd lived in the woods all on their own after their parents died.
"I certainly do love hearing about your boxcar adventures," Miss Chase said. "The story of how your grandfather found you is better than any mystery I could ever write."
"Almost as good as The Streetcar Mystery," fourteen-year-old Henry said. "That's my favorite Olivia Chase mystery."
"Every one of your mysteries is a good read, Olivia," Mr. Alden told his old friend. "I always feel as if I'm right here in New Orleans every time I read one."
"Me, too," Jessie agreed. "Except for Grandfather, this is our first time in New Orleans. But we already feel right at home from reading your books."
Miss Chase blushed at all the attention. "Why, thank you, Jessie. I know my new bookshop will be a big success if there are enough mystery lovers like you Aldens." Suddenly Olivia Chase got a faraway look. "I just hope the bidding doesn't go too high, that's all."
"It's a shame the owner, Mrs. Post, died before she could sell the bookshop to you directly, Olivia," Mr. Alden said. "I know she enjoyed the idea of the Old Treasures Bookshop becoming the Mystery Bookstore."
"It's very difficult to think I might not get the shop," Miss Chase said in a sad voice.
Violet tried to help Miss Chase feel better. "Don't worry. We'll help you follow the bidding so you don't miss out. Grandfather taught us how to watch people's faces when they're bidding."
Miss Chase patted Violet's hand. "I hope no one watches my face too closely, or they'll know how much I want it. I've dreamed of opening a mystery bookshop in New Orleans ever since I decided to take a break from writing."
"Has anyone noticed that man?" Henry asked suddenly. "He's been right behind us all this time."
Miss Chase turned to see who Henry was talking about. She saw a middle-aged man with jet black hair quickly move away when he saw that the Aldens were staring at him. Miss Chase fanned herself with the auction booklet. "Oh dear, I'm so nervous, I didn't even notice that Rexford Phillips was right behind us. And me, a mystery writer, too! I should be listening and watching other bidders, not the other way around."
"Is that the fellow you told me was always bothering Mabel Post?" James Alden asked his old friend.
"He's the one," Miss Chase whispered. "Rex pestered poor Mrs. Post for months about selling the shop to him. He wanted to open a stamp shop here. We both went to the estate lawyers about buying the shop after Mabel's death. That's when they decided to hold an auction. He already bought Mrs. Post's stamp albums. Now I guess he'll be bidding against me for the shop, too."
"What if I sit next to him in case he writes down his bid?" Benny asked after Mr. Phillips left. "I could cough or wriggle my nose or do something to let you know what he wrote down."
"You rascal!" Jessie said, patting Benny on the back. "I guess I've been reading you too many of Miss Chase's mysteries."
Everyone stopped talking when they heard a bell. The second part of the auction was about to start.
"This is your chance, Olivia," Mr. Alden said. "Now go sit in the front with my grandchildren, and I'll keep an eye on everything from back here. Good luck."
Miss Chase and the Alden children seated themselves in the middle row, not too close and not too far from the front.
The auctioneer began with a little talk about the Old Treasures Bookshop. "... And included with the shop are all its books as well. The estate lawyers just made a last-minute decision to sell Mrs. Post's books with the building rather than auction them off separately. Sorry about the change in plans, folks."
This news upset Miss Chase and several others in the audience. "Oh, no," she said to the Aldens. "I wasn't planning on buying the books, too. I won't be able to afford them and the shop. Not to mention all the work that will involve. Oh dear."
The auction man went on. "Those of you who knew Mrs. Post know that she hid a lot of treasures in her store. This is a very fine New Orleans property smack in the middle of our historic French Quarter. And who knows what all these books might be worth? We'll start the bidding at fifty thousand dollars. That's rock bottom."
Now it was Miss Chase who could hardly sit still. Her foot was tapping, and she kept her hands folded on her lap to keep from calling out a bid too early.
"Sixty thousand dollars," someone bid.
The audience gasped. A ten-thousand-dollar jump!
"I have sixty thousand, do I hear sixty-five thousand?" the auctioneer said.
"Sixty-five thousand," a voice called out.
Henry turned his head ever so slightly in the direction of this voice.
"It's that Mr. Phillips," Henry whispered to Miss Chase. "He just entered the bidding."
"Maybe it's time for me to bid something, too, but the price is already so high," Miss Chase said.
Before Miss Chase put up her hand, another voice raised the bid. "Sixty-six thousand," an elderly man in the front row shouted.
"Oh my," Miss Chase said to Henry. "That's Ezra Bindry. I didn't know he was back in New Orleans. He's a rare book collector. He knew Mrs. Post quite well."
"Seventy thousand," Rex Phillips called out even before the auctioneer could get a word in.
"Do I hear seventy thousand, five hundred?" the auctioneer asked the bidders.
Once again, the Aldens saw Mr. Bindry start to raise his hand.
Miss Chase could sit still no longer. "Seventy thousand ... five hundred," she said in a nervous voice.
Benny gave Miss Chase the thumbs-up sign.
"Seventy-five thousand dollars!" Mr. Bindry yelled.
Up ahead, Mr. Phillips jumped up from his seat. He turned and stared first at Miss Chase then at Mr. Bindry. Finally, Mr. Phillips shouted: "I bid eighty thousand dollars."
There was a hush in the audience. Over the thumping sounds of their hearts, the Aldens heard the screech of a metal chair. Mr. Bindry got up from his seat and stomped out of the courtyard.
Jessie leaned over to Miss Chase. "That's one less bidder anyway."
Miss Chase shook her head sadly. "It doesn't matter. I can't go any higher, either. Mr. Bindry has lost the shop, and so have I."
Even the auctioneer seemed surprised that in such a short time the Old Treasures Bookshop had gone from fifty thousand to eighty thousand dollars with so few bidders. He paused before moving on. "I've got eighty thousand dollars for this fine old landmark and its contents," he said slowly. "Do I hear more?"
"More," Benny whispered under his breath.
"Shh," Jessie warned. "You don't want to buy a bookstore by accident, now do you?"
"Sorry, Jessie," Benny whispered back. "I got my boxcar, and now I want Miss Chase to get her store, that's all."
"I've got a final bid of eighty thousand dollars. Going once," the auctioneer said, raising his gavel. "Going twice ..."
"One hundred thousand dollars," a new bidder called out in a deep voice. "I bid one hundred thousand dollars."
Everyone in the audience turned in the direction of the man's voice. Who was this new bidder?CHAPTER 2
A Surprise Bidder
"Grandfather!" the children said, laughing and hugging Mr. Alden when the auction was over. "You bought the bookshop!"
Everyone seemed amazed except for Benny. "Now we have a toy boxcar, a real boxcar, and a bookstore. What a good idea!"
"But what will we do with a bookstore, Grandfather?" Jessie asked in her practical way. "Greenfield is so far away from New Orleans, and you're leaving on business tomorrow for a week."
Trying to hide a smile, Mr. Alden scratched his chin. "Hmm. If only we knew someone who knows all about books ... someone who has always wanted to run a bookstore."
Violet slipped her hand into her grandfather's. "You bought it for Miss Chase, didn't you, Grandfather?" Violet whispered.
Miss Chase was still sitting in her seat, looking awfully confused.
"No, Violet," Mr. Alden said, shaking his head. "I didn't buy it for Miss Chase. I bought it as an excellent investment at a good price. I expect to rent it to whomever can get a bookstore up and running right away." Mr. Alden smiled at his old friend. "Now you wouldn't happen to know anyone who can do that, would you, Olivia?"
"Oh, James, I couldn't possibly let you give the shop to me. You won it fair and square," Miss Chase said.
"Ah, but I wouldn't be giving it to you, I'd be renting it to you until you can pay me back. And who knows? The bookshop was called Old Treasures. You might find something valuable tucked away. What do you say to my plan, Olivia?"
Miss Chase broke into a beautiful smile. "I'll say yes, but only if you lend me your grandchildren, too. With their help we'll sell all these old books at a big outdoor sale. That will give us money to buy brand-new mysteries for my mystery bookstore."
"Can we, Grandfather?" Benny asked excitedly. "Can we stay and help Miss Chase?"
"Of course," Grandfather said. "As long as Olivia doesn't mind looking after four children."
"Hooray!" the Alden children yelled.
Suddenly, a young woman with curly reddish hair rushed into the courtyard.
"Is this where the book auction is?" the woman asked, out of breath. "Has it started yet?"
Rex Phillips stepped forward to answer the young woman's question. "Start?" he said in a snarling voice. "The auction started and ended quickly when someone bid too much for this rundown old property and all the junk inside it!" With that, Mr. Phillips left.
The young woman raced over to the auctioneer. "Please," she said. "Let me put in a bid for some of the books in the shop. My plane was late, and the taxi driver got lost. That's why I didn't get here on time. If you'll only tell me what the other bidders paid for the books, I'll pay more."
The auctioneer pointed to Mr. Alden. "All the books were sold with the shop, Miss. The new owner's over there. You'll have to speak to him about buying any of the books inside the shop. Once my hammer comes down on the last bid, my job is over."
The young woman wouldn't give up. "Everything was sold?"
The auctioneer packed up his papers. "Everything. I'm sorry, but you'll have to take matters up with Mr. Alden."
The woman pushed her way past the auctioneer and walked straight toward James Alden. "Mr. Alden, Mr. Alden. May I speak with you? I'm Sarah Deckle. I heard you're running this shop now. I must discuss something with you. You see, I'd like to buy some of the books from you. The only reason I didn't bid at the auction was that my plane was...."
"Whoa, Miss Deckle," Mr. Alden said to calm down the woman. "First off, I'm not running the shop. In fact, I'm only visiting New Orleans. I have to leave tomorrow morning. My good friend over here, Olivia Chase, is in charge now. She's going to turn the Old Treasures Bookshop into the Mystery Bookstore. So anything you need to discuss, well, you'll have to talk to her."
Sarah Deckle grabbed Olivia Chase's arm. "Can I meet with you to talk about the store? It's not fair that I didn't get here in time to bid at the auction. Is there any way I can take a look inside?"
Miss Chase took a while to answer. "Of course, young lady. We're planning to hold a big book sale this weekend and will open the Mystery Bookstore shortly afterwards. You're more than welcome to come."
"But you don't understand," Sarah interrupted. "I need to look ... I mean, couldn't I just look through the shop right now? I have money with me."
Olivia shook her head. "I'm sorry, my dear. There are several things we must do before I let any customers look over anything. First of all, I have to get a rare-book expert to come in. There may be something of value in the old books and papers Mrs. Post left behind. I can't let any customers in just yet. You understand, don't you?"
Sarah Deckle did not understand at all. Looking quite upset, she left the courtyard without another word.
"My goodness," Miss Chase said. "What was that all about? Well, never mind. We have lots to do, including getting you children settled in my apartment. I have a special surprise for you."
After everyone left the courtyard with their auction items, Miss Chase locked the gate. "This will be your own private little backyard." Then she pointed up to a beautiful screened-in balcony above the bookstore. "That's a sleeping porch with four cots—one for each of you. On hot nights, we Southerners sometimes like to sleep out on our porches. You'll be perfectly safe, since the courtyard is always locked when the bookshop is closed."
Miss Chase led the children up ironwork stairs to the porch.
"Yippee," Benny said. "We like sleeping outside."
"I knew this would be just right for you," Miss Chase said with a laugh. "Your grandfather will be in the guest room."
"I like your cozy apartment," Violet said as Miss Chase gave the children a tour. "The front of it is like a city apartment where we can watch all the people and cars. But the back is just as quiet as Grandfather's house in Greenfield."
"I was very lucky to rent this apartment from Mrs. Post when I came to New Orleans a few years ago," Miss Chase said, as she handed sheets and towels to the Aldens. "To live above a bookstore is perfect for a writer. Now I can always keep an eye on the Mystery Bookstore, too."
"There's even a small night table for each of us," Violet said, putting down her backpack and tote bag. "Thank you for letting us stay out here."
"You're welcome, Violet," Miss Chase said. "Now, it's been a long day. Good night."
"Don't let the bedbugs bite," Benny said. The next morning, the Aldens sat around the breakfast table making their plans for the day. From the kitchen in Olivia Chase's apartment, they could look down at the courtyard. But the children were busy chatting and eating, not looking outside.
"These are the best doughnuts I ever tasted," Benny said between bites of warm, powdered doughnuts.
"Those aren't just ordinary doughnuts, Benny," Miss Chase said. "They're a special New Orleans kind called beignets. I picked them up at the French Market this morning. As for your coffee, James, that's our New Orleans-style coffee. It has chicory in it."
"Grandfather's coffee has chickens in it?" Benny cried.
Everyone was laughing so hard, they didn't hear the courtyard door open down below.
"Not chickens, Benny." Miss Chase laughed. "It's chicory, a special coffee flavoring."
It was only later, when Benny and Henry were washing dishes, that Benny saw something move. "Is the bookshop open?" he asked Miss Chase. "I think somebody wearing a blue top is down in the courtyard."
Excerpted from The Mystery Bookstore by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang. Copyright © 1995 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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