Read an Excerpt
The Pizza Mystery
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 1993 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
Four children and one dog were sound asleep in the roomy black car. James Alden, the children's grandfather, took one hand off the steering wheel. He patted Benny Alden's curly head, but the six-year-old boy didn't stir.
In the rearview mirror, Mr. Alden checked on his three older grandchildren. Henry, Jessie, and Violet looked like sleepy puppies in the back seat. The Aldens had been on the road for hours. Still, the long drive home to Greenfield was only half over.
"It's not often my copilots are so quiet," Mr. Alden chuckled to himself.
None of the children moved. Their dog, Watch, thumped his tail just once from under the dashboard. Then he went right on snoozing, too. Everyone in the warm, cozy car was tired after a weekend of skating, tobogganing, and hiking in the snow up north.
"Not nearly as much snow around Silver Falls," Mr. Alden said to no one in particular.
"Silver Falls?" Benny mumbled. He didn't open his eyes.
"That's right, Benny," Mr. Alden said. "Just a few more miles to Silver Falls."
Suddenly Benny sat straight up. He looked out the car window. "Hey, Grandfather, you're right! We just passed Aunt Millie's Fudge House. If I weren't saving room for Mr. and Mrs. Piccolo's Pizza in Silver Falls, I'd hop out of the car right now for some of that fudge."
"Fudge!" Jessie cried when she overheard Benny. "Before lunch?"
"Maybe just a skinny piece," Benny told his big sister.
Now that Benny was up, he wanted everyone else up, too. "Come on, Watch. Go wake Henry, boy."
Watch knew very well that his dog nap was over. He yawned a wide, toothy yawn then shook himself awake.
"Whoa, boy, whoa," fourteen-year-old Henry said when he felt Watch step all over him. He yawned a big yawn, too. He had been up since five-thirty that morning. Packing the car with the Aldens' snowshoes, cross-country skis, and toboggan had taken him and Jessie a long time. Not that they minded. Like all the Aldens, they enjoyed hard work.
Only ten-year-old Violet was still napping. Watch gave Violet a lick on the cheek, and her long brown lashes fluttered open.
"That tickles," Violet said when she woke up with a sweet, dreamy smile.
"Entering Silver Falls," twelve-year-old Jessie announced. She smoothed her long brown hair. Then she gathered up the books and games scattered across the backseat. She found a lumpy toy bear. "Here's Stockings, Benny. He was squeezed between the seats."
Benny reached back and gave his favorite old bear a hug. He had many new toys since Grandfather Alden had adopted the children after their parents died. But Stockings was special. Jessie had made the cloth bear out of Benny's old socks back in the days when the children were living in a boxcar in the woods all by themselves. Now, just like the children, Stockings had a comfortable home with Mr. Alden, too.
Violet gathered up her box of art supplies and work bag now that they were getting near Silver Falls. "May we stop at Tom's Gas Station, Grandfather?" Violet asked. "We always do."
"Indeed we do!" Mr. Alden slowed down. "Why, Tom Morgan would never forgive us if we didn't stop by to fill up on gas."
"Or bubble gum!" Benny cried out. He jiggled a pocket full of change. "I saved twelve pennies for that old gumball machine. That's twelve chances to win one of the foil covered gumballs and get a free treat."
Benny Alden was lucky in most things, but not when it came to winning silver gumballs. The Aldens had stopped at Tom's Gas Station on many family trips. In all those times Benny had never won a prize foil-covered gumball. Today that was going to change!
Jessie spotted the small brick station first. "Good old Tom's," she said in a happy voice.
Mr. Alden pulled up close to the gas pumps. He knew his grandchildren liked to talk to Tom while he checked the car.
"Howdy do, folks," Tom said when he came over to the car. "I'd know this wonderful car of yours anywhere, Mr. Alden. Still going tip-top, I see. Never met anybody who kept a classic like this in such good shape. Fill 'er up?"
"Sure thing." Grandfather got out of the car to stretch his legs and take Watch for a quick walk.
The Aldens liked to watch Tom Morgan work. When he filled the tank the bill always came out exactly on the dollar, not a penny over or a penny under. With Henry and Benny's help, Tom got the windows and head-lights shining again.
The children looked on as Tom checked under the hood.
"Now tell me about your latest adventure, Benny," Tom asked. "Did you solve any mysteries up north? Or catch any crooks?"
"Naw." Benny sounded disappointed. "Nothing happened. I found an old newspaper stuffed into a windowsill, but it was only to keep out the cold. One night a noise at the window woke us up. But it was only an icy branch scraping against the cabin."
"Well, your trip's not over yet," Tom said with a smile. "Here, Jessie, let's see if you still remember how to check the oil."
Jessie slid the dipstick down into the oil tank. She brought it back up smoothly. "Still plenty of oil, Tom."
When they had finished with the car, the Aldens headed inside the little store Tom ran as part of the gas station. One by one, Benny dropped most of his pennies into the gumball machine. He twirled the crank as fast as he could.
"Phooey, phooey!" the other Aldens heard Benny complain as one ordinary gumball after another rolled out.
"I've only got five pennies left," Benny said, making a face at the machine. "I'm going to give this old machine a rest for a minute. I better think about Piccolos' Pizza so I don't get any madder."
The Aldens all laughed. Violet was the first one to notice that Tom wasn't laughing along with them. Instead, he gave Benny some extra pennies someone had left on the counter.
"Here, Benny," he said in a quiet voice. "Maybe this will help you. I'm not so sure how things will be when you stop at Piccolos' Pizza."
Jessie stared at Tom. Her big brown eyes were full of questions. "What is it, Tom? Is something the matter with Mr. and Mrs. Piccolo?"
Tom looked sad and puzzled. "The Piccolos are having a hard time keeping the restaurant going," he said. "Nobody can figure out why. For the last couple of months they've been keeping very irregular hours. Sometimes they're not open at—"
Before Tom could finish, everyone heard a loud car horn honking. Watch pulled on his leash and barked. Tom dropped the Aldens' money on the counter without even ringing up their bill. He walked out to the big, fancy car that was making all the noise.
"Quiet, Watch, quiet," Jessie said. Even when he didn't want to, Watch always obeyed Jessie. He lowered his bark to a growl.
Outside, a tall, annoyed-looking man got out of the car. He stood over Tom and shouted orders. The Aldens could hear every loud word from inside the station. "Check the oil! Then the water. And don't forget the windows!"
Benny took his last few pennies. Slowly, he put one after the other into the gumball machine. He was just about to turn the crank after the last penny, when the man burst into the station.
"Is there a soda machine in this place?" he shouted as if the Aldens were supposed to serve him.
Without waiting for an answer, the man shoved some coins into the soda machine. He popped the top off the can. After a couple of big gulps, he left the half-full can on a shelf.
At the counter, the man shifted from one foot to the other. "What's that dog doing in here?" he asked when Watch growled at him.
Henry tugged on Watch's leash and took him outside. Even that didn't stop Watch from growling.
"Come, children," Mr. Alden said. "Let's get going to Piccolos'. The sooner we get there, the sooner we get some of that good pizza we came for."
"Don't count on it!" the man spat out. "You'll be lucky if it's even open!"
Before the Aldens could try to figure this out, Tom came back into the station. "All set, Mr. Irons. Let me get these folks on the road, then I'll write up your charge."
"I'm in a hurry," the man snapped. He slapped down a pile of bills on the counter.
"Oh, and take out money for a pack of gum."
"What kind would you like, Mr. Irons?" Tom asked.
The man didn't bother to answer Tom's question. "Forget it." He reached into the pocket of his long black overcoat for a coin, then stuck it in the gumball machine.
"Wait! I still have a penny in there," Benny cried. It was too late.
The man turned the crank, and a silver gumball rolled out.
"Ha! My lucky day!" the man said with a rude laugh. "I guess you owe me that pack of gum for free. Make it spearmint."
Tom wasn't about to jump at these orders. "Sorry, but that was this boy's ball. If he said he had a penny in there, I'm sure he did. It's his prize."
The man pushed the door open and shouted on the way out, "Never mind. I hardly need a free prize."
Everyone heard the man's fancy car roar out of the station. The big car barely missed Tom's red tow truck.
"Who was that, Tom?" Grandfather asked.
"That's the new manager of the Mighty Mufflers factory," Tom said. "He's been running things while the owner, Mrs. Sturgis, is traveling on business. Problem is, he seems to think he can run things here, too, just because the company set up a charge account at my station. I'd almost rather not have the account."
Tom turned to Benny and handed him the prize silver gumball. "Hey, I know this is yours. Why don't you trade it in for a treat?"
Benny's lower lip trembled. "No, thanks," he said in a small voice. "I'm not hungry."CHAPTER 2
A Face at the Window
Benny pressed his nose against the cold, foggy window of the car. Half the fun of Silver Falls was a visit to Tom's Gas Station. But not that day.
Violet felt sorry for Benny. Then she thought of something. She drew a silly snowman on the misty window in the back. "Turn around, Benny. Look. Now you make one."
In no time, Benny had drawn a funny snowman on his window, too. When he had finished, he saw that Grandfather Alden was driving through the cheerful streets of Silver Falls. It was lunchtime, and people were running errands or looking for a place to eat. "Is this the turn for Piccolos' Pizza, Grandfather?" Benny asked hopefully.
"Sure is," Mr. Alden answered. "Here's something Tom told me to give you."
Mr. Alden reached into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a package of Benny's favorite cookies.
"I'll save them for after lunch," Benny said when he saw the treat. "Look, Tom stuck a note on top. For Benny, who had the winning penny."
"I guess you have to put up with all kinds when you own a gas station," Henry said. "That man should be glad to have a good mechanic like Tom to take care of his car, and he shouldn't get so sore about things."
Jessie felt the same way. "He even got mad about pizza!"
Benny turned around. "Not me! I'm glad about pizza. Are we there yet?"
Mr. Alden was confused. "Hmm. I thought we were, Benny, but I don't see the big Piccolos' Pizza sign."
The children twisted their heads every which way. Where was that nice, old pizza sign anyway?
The car passed a tall, new building that filled up the block. The Aldens couldn't find the pizza sign anywhere. Worse, they couldn't find Piccolos' Pizza, either!
Henry scratched his head. "We're on the right street, but everything looks different."
"And bigger," Violet said after they passed a giant parking lot filled with cars and trucks.
"Hey!" Benny yelled. "Look at that!" He pointed to a huge billboard showing a red car with a long silvery tailpipe. Underneath were the words: SILVER FALLS: HOME OF THE MIGHTY MUFFLERS.
Mr. Alden went around the block again. "That billboard covers the Piccolos' Pizza sign," he said. "We must have passed the restaurant by mistake."
Benny pressed his face against the window again. "I sure hope they didn't hide the restaurant behind that billboard too."
The second time around the block, everyone finally spotted the pizza place.
"No wonder we missed it," Henry cried, when Piccolos' Pizza came into view. "The new factory building practically blocks out the whole restaurant."
Mr. Alden drove slowly, searching for a parking place. "I can't imagine why Tom was worried. The restaurant must be crowded, what with all these cars. There's hardly an empty space."
"There's a space, Grandfather," Violet said. "Where that truck just pulled out."
Mr. Alden noticed a sign that said LOADING AREA — TRUCKS ONLY.
Jessie looked puzzled. "That doesn't make any sense. The Piccolos should have these parking spaces for their own customers."
"Well, I guess I'll have to squeeze in down the block," Mr. Alden said, and so he did just that.
It was a fairly long walk back to the restaurant. Along the way, the Aldens noticed how much the block had changed since their last visit to Silver Falls. This new factory stretched the whole length of the street, and so did the tall fence around the building.
"Not a very friendly-looking place the way the old factory was," Mr. Alden said.
"I sure wouldn't want to work here," Henry added. "Probably lots of customers for the Piccolos, though. Too bad the factory gate isn't closer. It is a long walk for pizza."
"Oh, no. Look!" Jessie said, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. "There's that car again. At least I think it's the same car we saw at Tom's."
When the Aldens looked up, the same big car drove slowly past them.
Violet shivered. "It is that same awful man. Too bad he works right next door to the Piccolos. I hope he doesn't treat them the same way he treated Tom."
"I certainly hope not," Mr. Alden said.
The Aldens were in front of Piccolos' Pizza now. The two-story wooden building looked small and shabby squeezed up against the huge new factory. Although cars and trucks filled every space in front, the restaurant looked dim.
"Something is wrong here," Mr. Alden said in a worried voice.
"I know," Henry added. "Do you notice what's missing?"
"The pizza smell," Benny said in a quiet voice. "There's no pizza smell."
This was true. Here they were, right at the door. But the warm, delicious smell of pizza dough, all mixed together with cheese and tomato smells, wasn't in the air.
When Henry pushed open the creaky door, the little bell on top jingled. The Aldens stepped into the dim restaurant just as the twelve-thirty factory clock sounded. It was the middle of the lunch hour, but the Aldens' favorite pizza place was empty.
Violet pulled her jacket tighter. "It's chilly in here," she said.
Mr. Alden shivered too. "I wonder why the brick oven isn't going. Usually it's warm as toast in here."
Henry shook the door so the little bell would jingle again. "Maybe the Piccolos didn't hear us."
Finally, an old, white-haired man came out from the kitchen area in back. He looked at the Aldens as if they were strangers. The man almost seemed a stranger, too. But he wasn't. He was the Aldens' good friend, Mr. Piccolo, but he seemed much older.
"I'm sorry, but my oven isn't working today," the old man said. "But my wife and I can make you a sandwich or salad if you want."
Watch pulled away from Jessie and went up to the old man. The dog kept on wagging his tail eagerly until the old man noticed whose head he was patting.
"Oh, my!" the man cried. "It's Watch! And the Aldens! Oh, my, oh my! What a poor day it is when I don't recognize my old friends!"
Mr. Piccolo pulled his glasses from the pocket of his white apron. As soon as he put them on, his face lit up.
Mr. Alden put his hand out for a handshake. "Good to see you, Mr. Piccolo. Sorry we didn't call ahead from Tom's garage. We left there in a bit of confusion."
Mr. Piccolo pulled on one side of his bushy, white mustache. "No apologies, Mr. Alden. You know you and your family can come here anytime." Then his voice dropped so low the Aldens could hardly hear him. "Well, I guess this is not the best time—no, not the best time at all. But here, sit down. I'll tell Nina you're here. She's trying to coax the little oven in the empty apartment upstairs to make a pizza."
Jessie ran out back and tied up Watch in the small back garden. Then she joined her family around their favorite table.
Benny looked around for the basket of crispy breadsticks. The Piccolos always kept them on the table for hungry customers. But there were no breadsticks to be seen. There was a stack of the red-and-white check tablecloths folded on the counter, but the tables were bare.
"I guess Tom was right about something being wrong," Violet whispered sadly. "There's no one here but the Piccolos. The tables aren't even set."
Henry shook his head. "Something doesn't add up. That big factory right next door—there must be hundreds of hungry workers in there. Why aren't they in here?"
"Ah," Mr. Piccolo answered, when he came back and overheard Henry's question. "I knew your family would see how things are. Today, well, today is another bad day. So many like this one. So many," he sighed. "This week it's the gas line to my oven not working. You know my oven. My father built that oven brick by brick when he came from Italy years ago. Not once did that oven quit. But now? No more gas in it. The builders digging at the factory, they cracked the gas line last week. You think we can make our pizza in a tiny apartment oven upstairs? No! No! No!"
Excerpted from The Pizza Mystery by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang. Copyright © 1993 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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