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The Mystery in the Fortune Cookie
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2003 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
"Hurry, Jessie!" cried six-year-old Benny. "There won't be any fortune cookies left if we don't hurry." The youngest Alden was bouncing up and down with excitement on Aunt Jane's couch.
Twelve-year-old Jessie looked up from the gift she was wrapping. "Oh, Benny," she said, smiling over at her little brother. "The Kowloon Restaurant never runs out of fortune cookies."
The Alden children—Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny—were staying with their Aunt Jane for a week to keep her company while Uncle Andy was away on business. The Aldens were looking forward to a special Chinese dinner that night in downtown Elmford. They were going to the Kowloon Restaurant with Aunt Jane and her friends Dottie and Martin. The dinner was a celebration of Dottie's birthday. The Kowloon Restaurant was Dottie's favorite place to eat.
Jessie was wearing her best honey-colored dress. Violet had changed into her frilly lavender skirt and a white shirt. Henry wore a navy blazer and light blue trousers. And Benny had on a silver-gray blazer over his favorite red shirt and charcoal trousers.
"I hope Dottie likes our gift," said ten-year-old Violet, clasping her hands.
"I'm sure she'll like it," Henry assured her. "It's the perfect present for Dottie." At fourteen, Henry was the oldest of the Aldens.
Jessie nodded. "A framed picture of The Underground really is just the right gift for Dottie." The Underground was the name of the bookstore that Dottie Shallum owned with her business partner, Martin Howard. Dottie and Martin shared a fondness for old and rare books. The Underground sold lots of them.
Jessie glanced admiringly at her younger sister, who had taken the picture. "You're a wonderful photographer, Violet."
"Thanks, Jessie." Violet smiled gratefully. "I think I am getting better at taking pictures. But I still have a lot to learn," she added modestly. Photography was one of Violet's hobbies. She often took her camera along when the Aldens went on vacation.
Jessie added one last pink bow to their gift. "Aunt Jane chose just the right frame for it, too. The dark wood matches the bookshelves in The Underground."
Aunt Jane smiled broadly at her nieces and nephews as she came down the stairs. She was wearing a pale blue dress and matching shoes. "Are we ready to get this show on the road?" she asked.
Without a moment's pause, the four children cried, "Ready!"
The Aldens piled into Aunt Jane's car and fastened their seat belts. Soon they were driving through the peaceful countryside toward the small town of Elmford. In almost no time at all, they were pulling into the parking lot near Main Street.
When Benny jumped out of the car, he was still thinking about fortune cookies. "I can't wait to see what my fortune will say!" He sounded excited. "I like opening fortune cookies almost as much as I like eating them!"
Benny loved fortune cookies. Each crunchy, bow-shaped cookie had a fortune hidden inside, neatly typed on little white slips of paper. Benny kept a whole collection of the fortunes in an old sock. He'd even brought the collection with him to Aunt Jane's.
"I bet my fortune says a mystery's coming our way!" Benny went on.
"Oh, Benny," said Jessie, shaking her head and laughing. "Mysteries are always coming our way."
The Alden children loved mysteries. Together they'd managed to solve quite a few.
"Fortune cookies can't really tell you anything about the future, Benny. They're just for fun." Henry sounded very sure.
Benny turned to his older brother in surprise. "But some of the fortunes in my collection came true," he protested as they walked along the sidewalk. "Once I got one that said: A busy week is coming your way. And guess what. We really did have a busy week!"
"But—" began Henry.
"And you know what else?" Benny cut in, his eyes wide.
"What?" asked Henry, hiding a smile.
"Another one said: A pleasant surprise is waiting for you. And the very next day it stopped raining and we had a picnic in the park. Well, that was a pleasant surprise."
Henry shook his head. "That was just a coincidence."
Jessie was quick to agree. "Benny, we're always busy."
"And thanks to Grandfather," added Violet, "our lives are filled with pleasant surprises."
After their parents died, Jessie, Henry, Benny, and Violet had run away. When they stumbled across an abandoned boxcar in the woods, they made it their home. Then Grandfather found them and brought his grandchildren to live with him in his big white house in Greenfield. He even gave the boxcar a special place in the backyard. The children often used their former home as a clubhouse.
"Do you think Grandfather is lonely this week without us?" kindhearted Violet couldn't help wondering.
"I'm sure Grandfather misses us," Jessie said after a moment's thought. "But don't forget," she reminded Violet, "Mrs. McGregor is there to keep him company." Mrs. McGregor was the Aldens' housekeeper and a wonderful cook.
"And Watch is there, too!" added Benny. Watch was the family dog.
"Well, it's a treat for me to have you here," said Aunt Jane. "Look, we've reached The Underground!"
"I love the way the little bookstore is tucked away like that," Jessie remarked, putting a hand up to shade her eyes. "Right beneath the Big Top T-Shirt Shop, I mean."
"I guess that's why they named it The Underground," Henry realized.
Benny frowned. He was still wondering if fortune cookies really could tell anything about the future.
Aunt Jane seemed to read Benny's mind. "Don't worry. It'll still be fun reading our fortunes." She put an arm around her youngest nephew. "Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring," she added. "I'm afraid that's always a mystery. But the mystery is part of the fun!"
Benny brightened. "Mysteries are fun!"
The children followed Aunt Jane down the stone steps that led to The Underground. At the bottom of the steps was a heavy glass door with the names Dottie Shallum and Martin Howard printed on it in shiny gold script. As the Aldens and Aunt Jane stepped inside the little shop, they breathed in the musty smell of old books.
Dottie and Martin looked up from behind the counter and waved cheerfully. Dottie was tall and slim, with dark, curly hair streaked with gray. Martin was short and round, with a carefully trimmed white mustache. They were both about Grandfather's age.
Benny sprang forward. "Happy birthday, Dottie!" he cried, and the other Aldens echoed his words.
"And we wish you many more to come," added Aunt Jane as Benny handed Dottie their special gift.
Dottie put a hand to her cheek. "Oh, you shouldn't have!" Her eyes were shining as she looked at each of them in turn.
"We like giving presents," Benny told her. Then he quickly added, "But it's okay if you don't open it right now. You might want to eat first."
Jessie smiled at her little brother and brushed her hand across his hair. "Don't worry, Benny. We'll have dinner soon."
"It can't be soon enough for me," put in Martin. "My mouth is watering just thinking about Auntie Two's Chinese food."
Auntie Two was the owner of the Kowloon Restaurant and a friend of Martin and Dottie's.
"I'll second that!" Aunt Jane said.
"That settles it then," declared Dottie. "I'll open my gift at the restaurant—while we're waiting for our food to arrive."
Martin took a quick glance at his watch and frowned. "I'm afraid we're stuck here for a moment or two," he told them. "We have a straggler."
"What's a straggler?" Benny wanted to know.
Martin tugged impatiently on his brightly flowered tie. "A customer who lingers long after the others have gone," he muttered under his breath.
The Aldens and Aunt Jane looked at Martin, then in the direction he was staring. Sure enough, a customer was standing in a far corner, half-hidden in the shadows.
"Maybe I can hurry him along," Martin said. Then, clearing his throat, he called out, "Sorry, sir, but those particular books are for display only!"
The customer didn't seem to hear what Martin had said. The man's hands were behind his back, and his legs were wide apart. He appeared to be deep in thought as he stared at the old books inside a cabinet with shiny glass doors. Then, as if feeling everyone's eyes on him, he suddenly looked over.
"What was that?" he asked.
"Just thought I'd mention, the books in that cabinet are for display only."
The man looked startled. "But ... I'm quite interested in these—" he began. Then he suddenly laughed. "Oh, I get it. You're trying to say—"
"That those books are not for sale," finished Martin. "I'm sorry."
The smartly dressed, dark-haired young man stepped out of the shadows. He did not seem to be a bit bothered by this remark. "Unless the price is right, of course," he said, as if he didn't quite believe Martin. An amused smile curled his lips. "Isn't that what you're saying?" Then he raised an eyebrow and jingled the change in his pocket.
"Not everything in this store has a price tag," Dottie interrupted icily. "Some books I would never part with—for any price."
"Why not? You mean, because of that mysterious disappearance?" The young man shot Dottie a disbelieving glance. "Surely you don't think it adds to the value of those books, do you?" He waved that away. "That's old news. I'm afraid nobody cares anymore. No, the truth is, those books aren't worth the paper they're printed on."
That was the wrong thing to say. Jessie noticed Martin's whole face suddenly change. His mouth was set in a thin, hard line. He looked like a different person.
"That's enough!" Martin burst out. "Now you really have overstayed your welcome, young man." Folding his arms in front of him, Martin jerked his head in the direction of the door. "You know the way out."
Everyone seemed surprised by Martin's harsh tone. Jessie and Henry exchanged a look. They knew Dottie and Martin often bargained with customers over the price of a book. They said it was just part of the business. Why were they getting so upset?
The young man lifted one shoulder in a shrug and turned on his heel. With a few quick strides, he reached the door and was gone.
Henry fixed his gaze on the cabinet in the far corner. He couldn't help thinking that something very odd was going on. Why was Martin so touchy about those books? And what did the customer mean about a mysterious disappearance?CHAPTER 2
As they walked over to the Kowloon Restaurant, the Aldens soon forgot about the strange incident at The Underground. Martin, who was back to his usual cheery self, was telling them all about fortune cookies.
"The funny thing is," he was saying as they went inside the restaurant, "most people think fortune cookies were invented in China. But you know something? Until recently, they were almost unknown there."
Everyone looked surprised to hear this.
"Then who came up with the idea?" Benny wanted to know.
"Where were they invented?" Henry said at the same time.
"Right here in America," Martin answered. He led the way to an empty table by the window.
A young woman in a white apron came over to greet them. She was tall and slender, with thick copper-red hair that hung down to her waist. "Welcome to the Kowloon Restaurant!" she said with a friendly smile. "My name's Lucy Monroe. Auntie Two hired me to help out for the summer," she added after everyone had introduced themselves. "I'll be working here until college starts again in the fall."
Jessie smiled as the waitress handed out the menus. "What are you studying at school?"
"I'm in the creative writing program," said Lucy. Then she leaned forward as if about to share a secret. "Inventing stories has always been a great hobby of mine." Just then, she noticed someone waiting to be seated and hurried away.
Everyone was quiet as they looked over the menus carefully. Each of them decided to order something different and share with the others. That way they could sample many dishes. Lucy returned and they ordered wonton soup, egg rolls, lemon chicken, chow mein, sweet-and-sour spare ribs, chop suey, and pork fried rice.
While they waited for their food, Dottie turned her attention to her birthday present. She quickly tore away the pink and gold wrapping. When she caught sight of the framed photograph, she laughed and clapped her hands. "What a wonderful surprise!"
Violet let out the breath she'd been holding.
"Violet took the picture herself," Benny told Dottie. "She's a very good photographer," he added proudly.
Martin was quick to agree. "You've captured all the charm of our little bookstore, Violet. You're becoming quite a pro."
A flush of crimson crept across Violet's face. "Thank you," she said with a shy smile.
When their drinks arrived, Martin said, "I believe I ordered a cola, Lucy, not an iced tea."
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Lucy slapped a hand against her cheek. "I'm always getting orders mixed up. Will I ever learn?"
Aunt Jane smiled warmly. "Don't worry. We won't hold it against you."
When Lucy had gone, Martin reached into his jacket pocket and removed an envelope. "Just a little something," he said, holding it out to Dottie. "Happy birthday."
Dottie looked surprised—and pleased. "How thoughtful, Martin!" She opened the flap of the envelope and pulled out a heart-shaped birthday card. Inside were two tickets for the Friday night symphony concert. Dottie read the words on the card aloud: " 'To Dorothy Ruth Ursela May—Enjoy the concert! Love, Martin.'"
"I happen to be free Friday night," Martin pointed out. "If you're wondering what to do with one of those tickets, I mean."
With a teasing twinkle in her eye, Dottie said, "I'll keep that in mind, Martin."
Violet and Jessie glanced at each other. They wondered if Martin had a crush on Dottie.
"There's something I don't understand," Benny said as the soup was put in front of them. "Why are there only two tickets to the concert? What about all those other people?"
Dottie looked confused. "What other people, Benny?"
"Ruth, Ursela, and May."
The corners of Dottie's mouth began to twitch and then she laughed. "That's me, Benny," she said. "I'm Dorothy Ruth Ursela May." When she saw the look of surprise on the children's faces, she explained. "You see, my parents couldn't decide which of four names to give me. So they just—"
"Gave you all four names?" guessed Henry.
"That's exactly what they did, Henry," said Dottie. "Of course, folks in Elmford just call me Dottie."
Martin put down his soup spoon. "I remember when you first arrived in town," he said, giving Dottie a meaningful look. "That was my lucky day."
Dottie sighed a little. "I can't believe how the years have flown by since I left Keller's Crossing." She turned to Aunt Jane and the Aldens. "It was just after my husband died. That's when I packed up my bags and left my hometown for good."
None of the Aldens liked to hear the note of sadness in their good friend's voice. As the soup bowls were cleared away, they tried to think of something cheery to say. But Aunt Jane spoke first.
"I take my hat off to you, Dottie," she said quietly. "It takes courage to make a fresh start like that."
"Thank you, Jane." Dottie dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. "I soon made new friends in Elmford. And I started The Underground with Martin."
Auntie Two arrived with their dishes of steaming food. Benny piped up, "You didn't run out of fortune cookies yet, did you, Auntie Two?" He sounded worried.
"Not much chance of that," Auntie Two assured him with a cheery smile. The owner of the Kowloon Restaurant was a middle-aged woman with straight dark hair and sparkling brown eyes. "Like everyone else in town, I'm trying to drum up business, Benny. It just wouldn't do to run out of fortune cookies. Look over there."
Benny followed her gaze to a side table where beige cookies were piled high in a huge blue bowl. His face broke into a big smile. "Oh, there's plenty to go around!" he said.
Violet helped herself to an egg roll, then passed the plate. "Do you make all the fortune cookies yourself, Auntie Two?" she wanted to know.
"Oh, it's certainly a simple enough recipe, Violet. Just eggs and flour, sugar and water. But so many factories churn them out every day, I find it easier to buy them ready-made. Some companies even put lucky numbers on the little slips of paper. My customers seem to enjoy that."
Benny gave the restaurant owner a puzzled frown. There was something else he was wondering about.
Auntie Two caught the look. "What is it, Benny?"
"Is Auntie Two your real name?"
"Benny!" Jessie gave her little brother a warning look. "That's not really any of our business."
Auntie Two laughed. "That's okay, Jessie," she said. Then she turned to the youngest Alden. "The truth is, I'm from a big family, Benny. My nieces and nephews have oodles of aunts. It's hard for the little ones to remember so many names. It makes it easier if they just call us Auntie One, Auntie Two, Auntie Three, and ... well, it goes all the way up to Auntie Eight!" she told them before she walked away.
Excerpted from The Mystery in the Fortune Cookie by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2003 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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