Read an Excerpt
The Mystery of the Hidden Beach
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 1994 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
Welcome to Camp Coral
"Are we almost there?" Violet asked eagerly. She was wedged in the front seat between Grandfather and Henry as the rental car sped along the Overseas Highway toward Key West, Florida.
"We just passed Key Largo," Grandfather told her, "so we have another couple of hours to go."
"And we have a lot more Keys to go," Jessie piped up from the back seat. "Sugarloaf Key, Eagle Key, Big Pine Key ..." She reeled off the names from a map that Soo Lee had spread across her lap.
"I hope we'll be at Camp Coral in time for dinner," said Benny, who was six. He loved to eat.
"The names are so pretty," Soo Lee said. She stared out the window at the turquoise water that inched right up to the narrow ribbon of highway. The silvery blue-green Atlantic Ocean was on the left, and the Gulf of Mexico was on the right.
"I'm glad you came with us, Soo Lee," Violet said.
"So am I." Soo Lee was a seven-year-old Korean girl who had been adopted by Joe and Alice Alden, the Boxcar children's aunt and uncle. She was looking forward to sharing adventures with her new cousins.
"I think we'll see a lot of the islands and keys at Camp Coral," Jessie assured her. "They have fourteen boats, and we'll be on the water every day." Jessie, who was twelve, was the most organized of the four Boxcar children, and she had read the camp handbook from cover to cover.
"I'll be on the water, too," Grandfather said. "Jake loves to fish and I expect we'll be out catching blue marlin and snapper for dinner." He had already explained to the children that he would be visiting his friend on Upper Matecumbe Key while they were at camp for a week.
"I bet you'll have fun, Grandfather," Violet said, resting her hand on Grandfather's shoulder. Ten-year-old Violet Alden was a shy, sensitive child, who was very attached to her grandfather. She remembered the days when she and her sister and brothers were orphans, living in a boxcar, and Grandfather had found them and given them a real home.
It was late afternoon when Henry, who was fourteen, spotted a small green sign. "That's it," he said excitedly. "Turn here for Camp Coral, Grandfather." They left the highway and headed down a narrow dirt road bordered by a tropical jungle of mangrove trees and palms. A pair of white herons streaked across the sky, and a small deer darted across the road into a thicket.
A few minutes later, they arrived at a collection of white stucco buildings nestled at the edge of a dazzling blue ocean. Two giant palms framed a nautical-looking sign: WELCOME TO CAMP CORAL. A piece of fishermen's net was draped over one corner, and a thick coil of rope formed the words.
"We're here!" Benny shouted. As soon as Grandfather pulled into the parking lot, Benny scrambled out of the car. Jessie and Soo Lee were right behind him.
"It's just like I pictured it," Violet said, turning to help unload the luggage from the trunk. A group of campers were paddling kayaks close to the shore, and two young girls walked by in wet suits. They were carrying goggles and flippers, and one of them waved to her.
"Why are they dressed like that?" Benny asked curiously.
"They're probably going snorkeling," Grandfather told him. "Or maybe even scuba diving. They teach both here at the camp."
"And we teach a lot of other fun things," a young woman said, walking up to them. She was wearing cut-off shorts and a red T-shirt with the word STAFF printed on it. "I'm Melanie, the activity director," she said, sticking out her hand to Grandfather. "And you must be the Aldens."
Grandfather shook Melanie's hand and introduced everyone. Then a loud bark made Melanie turn in surprise. "Oops," she said, reaching down to pat a friendly-looking collie. "I forgot to introduce Bingo. He's the camp mascot."
"We have a dog back home," Benny said. "His name is Watch."
Melanie smiled at him. "Then I'll give you a special assignment, Benny. You can give Bingo his doggie treat every day after dinner. Would you like that?"
"Now, after you say your good-byes, I'll take you to your cabins." She bent down to pick up one of the duffel bags lying next to the car.
"Good-bye, children," Grandfather said, embracing each of the children in a big hug. "Have a wonderful time, and I'll see you next week."
"Good-bye, Grandfather," Jessie said, somewhat sadly.
"We'll miss you!" Violet added.
Grandfather started the engine and the children waved until the blue car had rounded a turn in the dirt road and was out of sight.
"Ready, everyone?" Melanie asked. "The boys' cabins are on the right, and the girls' are straight ahead." Everyone trooped after her as she headed for a long white building and tapped on the door. A moment later, they stepped into a cheerful room lined with bunk beds. A braided rug was on the floor and fresh muslin curtains billowed at the windows. "Nobody's here at the moment. I guess everyone's in class or doing an activity."
"In class?" Benny said, surprised. "I thought this was a camp."
Melanie laughed. "Sometimes you have to learn things before you can do them." She helped Henry and Benny unload their backpacks on two empty beds, and then pointed to the window. "Take a look outside."
Violet pushed aside the curtains and saw a young boy wind-surfing over the glittering blue water. He balanced himself confidently on the board, handling the sails smoothly as he skimmed along. "Oh, it looks like fun. Can we do that?"
"Yes, you can, but first you have to learn how to do it safely," Melanie promised. "That's what I meant by going to class. You begin by practicing on dry land."
"On dry land?" Benny wrinkled his nose. "I bet you don't get very far that way."
"No, that's true. But if you fall, you only fall a few inches onto the sand." She reached down to ruffle Benny's hair. "We have a special wind-surfing simulator, Benny, and you feel just like you're on the water. It's a great way to practice."
"With none of the risks," Henry offered.
"Exactly." Melanie moved to the door. "Now if you boys want to get settled, I'll take the girls to their cabin."
A few minutes later, Soo Lee, Jessie, and Violet were unpacking their clothes in a spotless cabin almost identical to the boys'.
Jessie sat down cross-legged on her bed, studying a thick booklet. "Wow, have you seen this activity list? They have classes in everything you can think of—marine science, scuba diving, snorkeling, canoeing ..."
"Oh, this looks good," Violet said, peering over her shoulder. "We can sign up to visit the site of an underwater shipwreck. Maybe we'll find some sunken treasure."
"I think that's for the advanced students who know scuba diving," Jessie said. "We'll probably have to start with snorkeling and see how it goes." She started to say more, but a hearty knock at the door interrupted her.
"Hey, have you seen this!" Benny barreled into the room, waving the activity booklet. "Henry and I have already picked out our favorites," he announced. "Henry wants to learn underwater photography, and I want to learn ichy ... ichy ... how do you say this word?" He turned to his brother who was right behind him.
"Ichthyology," Henry told him.
"The study of fish," Jessie murmured.
"That's right," Benny said, bouncing on her bed. "I want to learn all about sharks." He thumbed eagerly through the book. "Everything in here looks good. We can swim over a coral reef, we can learn all about dolphins and whales ..." He scrunched his forehead in thought. "I don't know what to do first!"
"I think I can help you with that decision," Melanie said. The activity director was standing in the doorway, checking her watch. "In just three minutes, the bell is going to ring for dinner. How about if I walk you over to the dining hall?"
"Dinner?" Benny scrambled off the bed so fast he almost tumbled on the floor. "Let's go!"
Violet and Jessie laughed at the surprised look on Melanie's face.
"You just named his favorite activity of all," Jessie explained.CHAPTER 2
A Night on the Water
"We have about thirty campers right now," Melanie explained as they moved through the cafeteria line. Benny had piled his plate high with spaghetti and meatballs and was reaching for a slice of Key lime pie. "Most of them are kids, but we have a few adult guests, too."
"I guess grown-ups like to learn about the ocean, just like we do," said Soo Lee thoughtfully.
"That's right." Melanie paused and scanned the room. "You see that tall man with the beard sitting over by the window? That's Nick Simon. He's a marine biologist. That means he studies animals and plants that live in the ocean."
"Could we meet him?" Benny asked eagerly. "I have a zillion questions I'd like to ask him about fish."
"Sure," Melanie said, making her way past long tables filled with tanned campers in T-shirts and shorts, all enjoying delicious dinners. "Follow me."
A few minutes later, the Aldens were sitting down at a table with Nick Simon and a couple named Hilary and Joshua Slade, who ran a charter sailing company. Nick Simon was nice, but the Slades weren't very friendly. It seemed as if they'd rather be sitting alone.
A thin young woman approached the table. "Is there room for one more?" she asked. She spoke rapidly as if she were a little nervous.
"Of course, Katherine," Melanie said. "We would be delighted if you'd join us." She turned to the Aldens. "This is Katherine Kelly. She's an underwater photographer."
"That must be fun," Jessie said, biting into a piece of garlic bread.
Katherine Kelly shrugged. "Sometimes. I'm here to take some pictures of coral formations for an article in a nature magazine."
"I guess you know that we have a long stretch of coral here in the Keys," Melanie explained to the Aldens. "The reef runs a hundred and twenty-eight miles." She turned to Benny. "You'll get a chance to see some of it this week when we take a glass-bottom boat ride."
"Will I get to see all those fish I read about?" he asked Henry. Grandfather had bought Benny a book on tropical fish before they left home, and they had read some of it every night before bed.
"I'm sure you will see lots of them," Henry answered. "Which one is your favorite?"
"Oh, the car-wash fish," Benny said promptly.
"The car-wash fish?" Melanie laughed. "I've never heard of that one, and I've lived down here all my life."
"That's just a name I made up," Benny said. "It reminds me of a car wash. The fish all line up, and this really pretty blue fish cleans the tiny parasites off their bodies." He turned to Nick Simon. "What's the real name? I forget."
Nick Simon looked uncomfortable. "It's ... well, that must be ..." He scratched his chin, and looked helplessly at Melanie. "I can't seem to come up with the name of that fish."
"You must mean the blue angel fish," Melanie said slowly. Henry noticed that she looked a little taken aback. Nick Simon was a marine biologist. Surely he had heard of a blue angel fish?
"And I want to collect seashells," Benny announced. "Lots of them."
"Me too," Violet added. "I like the ones that are pink and white. You can hold them up to your ear."
"Oh, those are conch shells," Katherine Kelly said. "You'd better not touch them. You can get slapped with a five-hundred-dollar fine for removing them." She sounded annoyed.
"Five hundred dollars just for picking up a seashell?" Henry asked. He looked doubtful.
"She's right," Melanie assured him. "We have signs posted around Camp Coral to remind you. You're not allowed to take any conch shells from the camp." Her voice was very serious. "And you shouldn't even touch the coral because the bacteria on your hand can kill it."
"But my hands are clean!" Benny said. He held up his hands to show her, smiling proudly.
"I'm sure they are, Benny, but the slightest human touch can destroy an entire stand of coral that took thousands of years to grow," Melanie insisted.
After dinner, the Aldens changed into bathing suits and joined Hilary and Joshua Slade and some other campers at the edge of the water. A boat was anchored at the shore, and Melanie was handing out plastic pails to everyone.
"What are we doing?" Soo Lee asked. "Are we going fishing?"
"Sort of. Each of you is going to collect specimens to keep in your aquarium. Just fill your pail with sea water, and step on the boat. I'll explain more once we get going," Melanie said.
"But I don't even have an aquarium," Benny protested.
"Oh, yes, you do." Melanie grinned. "You have your very own aquarium with your name on it in the ocean studies room. I checked it this morning. Each of you has one."
"My own aquarium!" Benny was excited. "What's in it?"
"Well, nothing but salt water just yet. But I bet you'll collect lots of exciting fish tonight."
Violet looked doubtful. "What if we pick the wrong fish?" she asked. "What if they eat each other?"
"Don't worry. I'll be here to help you." Melanie helped the campers into the boat. Then she cast off the thick rope that anchored it and signaled to a young man to start the engine.
They moved swiftly over the crystal water until Melanie signaled to stop the engine. "Let's stop. It's shallow here," she said, jumping overboard. The water rose just past her knees. "You can collect some really pretty sponges, and there are plenty of algae and sea fans."
"Ooh, there's something spiky down there," Violet said, peering nervously into the water.
"That's a sea urchin. You can take him. He'll do fine in your pail," Melanie assured her.
When everyone had gathered sponges and sea grass, they all got back in the pontoon boat and then headed for another shallow area.
"Oh, I see what I want," Soo Lee said as soon as the boat stopped. They were near the edge of a mangrove-lined shoreline. "It's a starfish!" she said, jumping into the water to collect her prize.
"I found a horseshoe crab," Henry said, plunging his hand underwater.
Benny had just used a net to capture a rainbow parrot fish when he noticed Joshua Slade grab something from the sandy sea bottom. He watched in amazement as the charter captain tucked it under his shirt. Was he really stuffing a fish inside his clothes? Why didn't he drop it in his bucket of salt water?
Before he could say anything, Violet announced that she had found a live conch, and with Melanie's permission, she placed it carefully in her pail.
"I thought we weren't allowed to take those," Hilary Slade objected.
"We return all the specimens to the ocean once we've studied them in the aquarium," Melanie reassured her. "This conch will never leave Camp Coral. It will go right back where it came from."
After the sun set, the group headed back to camp, where Melanie helped them set up their tanks. "You have a little free time now," Melanie said. "But I'd suggest you turn in early. We have a big day tomorrow."
"Your aquarium is beautiful," Soo Lee said a few minutes later. Violet had just arranged a sea fan against the rear wall of her five-gallon tank. Her prized conch was settled on a pile of red algae and sea grass.
"Thanks. Melanie said he eats algae, so I'm hoping he'll get hungry and come out."
"Did Melanie tell you what a conch looks like?" Henry asked her. "Like a big brown tongue!"
After everyone had finished arranging their tanks, they emptied their pails of sea water and stacked them neatly in the storeroom. The Aldens left the classroom building and stepped into the balmy night air. There was a full moon, and a soft breeze rustled through the stately palms that fringed the grounds. A few of the staff members were building a fire on the beach, and someone was strumming a guitar.
"Do you want to join them on the beach?" Henry asked.
Benny gave an enormous yawn and Violet looked at Henry. "I think we should turn in. Benny looks like he's going to fall asleep standing up."
"I am not!" Benny said indignantly. He hated to go to bed because he never wanted to miss a moment's fun. He clapped his hand over his mouth just as he started to yawn again.
"Time to say good night," Henry said, steering his little brother toward the boys' cabin.
An hour later, Benny was tucked into bed, his mind filled with memories of the ride out to the grass flats. Collecting fish had been a lot of fun, and he was very proud of his beautiful parrot fish. Suddenly he frowned. He really should tell Henry about Joshua Slade hiding a fish inside his shirt! That was the strangest thing he had ever seen. Unless, of course, it wasn't a fish ... but what else could it be? Before Benny could answer his own question, he drifted off to sleep.
Meanwhile, in the girls' cabin, Violet sat up in bed and whispered, "Soo Lee, are you awake?"
"I am now," Soo Lee answered with a laugh from the neighboring bed. "What's wrong?"
"I just remembered something. Did you notice if I turned on the filter in my aquarium?"
"I'm pretty sure that you did," Jessie said sleepily. "Didn't it make kind of a whooshing noise?"
"I don't know. I'm just not sure. If the filter isn't on, there won't be enough oxygen in the water." She bit her lip. "I don't know what to do."
"There's only one thing to do," Jessie said. "If you don't go back and check, you're going to worry about it all night."
"We'll come with you," Soo Lee offered. She reached for her robe.
Excerpted from The Mystery of the Hidden Beach by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang. Copyright © 1994 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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