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"O_ _N_NG ... _O_DAY," six-year-old Benny Alden struggled to sound out the words on the sign in front of the newly built Crossroads Mall. "TH_ ... G_M_ ... S_ _T ...?" He scratched his head as Grandfather steered the van into the mall parking lot. "I don't get it."
"I think there are some letters missing on that sign, Benny." Twelve-year-old Jessie smiled at her younger brother. "That's why the words don't make sense."
"Oh." Benny was already a pretty good reader, but he was trying to get even better. "What would the sign say if all the letters were there?"
Grandfather pulled into a parking spot right in front of the sign. Deep red roses bloomed all around it.
The children puzzled out the message a little longer. Finally, ten-year-old Violet spoke up. "I think it's supposed to say 'Opening Today. The Game Spot.'"
"Of course!" Fourteen-year-old Henry slapped his hand to his forehead. "Good job, Violet."
The Game Spot was Queenie Polk's store. Queenie was an old friend of their grandfather's, and she had invited the Aldens to come down and see her new store today.
"I don't know, kids," Grandfather said as everyone hopped out of the van. "TH_ ... G_M_ ... S_ _T ... must be the Game Spot. Those letters don't fit the names of the other stores here. But I don't think the Game Spot is opening yet today. Queenie said she had several last-minute details to take care of before she could open."
"And look. There's a space after the O and before 'day,'" Jessie pointed out. "That means there's another letter after the O in that word."
"So what else could the word be?" Benny asked.
Violet walked closer to the sign. "Let's see ... there's an O in Monday. It could be Monday."
"Is there an O in Tuesday?" Benny asked.
"No," Henry replied. "And there isn't one in Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday, either."
"Then I bet the sign is supposed to say: THE GAME SPOT. OPENING MONDAY!" Violet said triumphantly.
Grandfather smiled at them. "You children are good detectives."
"Yes, we are," Jessie agreed, thinking of all the mysteries she and her brothers and sister had solved. "But we're also good at word games. Figuring out what this sign was supposed to say is really just a word game."
"That's true," Grandfather said. "Queenie likes word games, too. You'll have to see if she's got any new games to recommend to you. Shall we go say hello to her?"
"Oh, yes," the children said.
The Game Spot was located right in the middle of the mall, between Lake's Jewelry Store and an empty storefront. There was a drugstore at one end of the mall, a coffee shop at the other, and several empty storefronts in between.
The door to the Game Spot was propped open with a folding chair that had a "Help Wanted" sign hanging from it. A man dressed in old jeans and a faded shirt was carefully etching the store hours into the glass window. The Aldens walked past him and went inside.
A radio played country music in the background. Several people bustled around stacking merchandise on shelves. The whole place smelled like fresh paint.
"Hey, look at this!" Benny made a bee-line for a model train that was set up in the window. "Doesn't the third car look like our boxcar?"
"It does, Benny," Violet said.
The children had actually lived in a boxcar for a short time after their parents died. They didn't know their grandfather then. They were afraid he'd be mean. So instead of going to live with him, they ran away. They found an old boxcar in the woods and made it their home. But when Grandfather found them, they saw he wasn't mean at all. He even moved the boxcar to their backyard so the children could still play in it.
"James Alden? Is that you?" A middle-aged woman who was no taller than Violet came down the aisle toward them. Her copper-colored hair was twisted into a bun and fastened at the nape of her neck. She had a big smile on her face.
"Queenie!" Grandfather moved toward the woman with his hand outstretched. "How are you?"
"Just fine," Queenie replied as the grown-ups shook hands. "These must be your lovely grandchildren."
"Yes. This is Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny." Grandfather introduced them each in turn.
The children said hello and shook hands with Queenie.
"I'm happy to meet you all. What do you think of my new store?" She stepped back so the Aldens could take a good look around.
"It looks great," Henry said, gazing at the wide aisles stocked with games, puzzles and hobby supplies. Off to the side was a small sitting area with tables and chairs. "It looks like you're almost ready to open."
"Almost," Queenie agreed. She looked both excited and nervous at the same time. "Most of the inventory is out on the shelves. I'm still hoping to hire another employee or two. And of course, the building inspector still needs to come. But I should be able to open on Monday."
"That's what we thought," Benny said. He told Queenie about the sign out front with the missing letters and how he and the others had figured out what the sign was supposed to say.
"Yes, I noticed that sign when I came in this morning," Queenie said. "I already talked to George about it. He's the person who owns this mall. He said he'd be out later today with some spare letters to fix that sign."
"That's good," Grandfather said.
"Hmph," said a voice behind them.
The Aldens turned to see a man around Queenie's age stocking shelves. He was tall and thin with dark hair that was graying at the temples.
"I wouldn't count on George coming out today, Queenie," the man said as he shifted some boxes on the shelf to make room for the boxes on the floor.
"He said he would," Queenie said.
"That's what he said the day you had trouble with those new pipes," the man replied.
"Oh, Carter. Don't be unpleasant. I'm sure George will come when he can. In the meantime, why don't you say hello to the Aldens. James, this is my good friend, Carter Malone. He lends me a hand sometimes."
"Pleased to meet you, Carter," Grandfather said.
"You, too," Carter said as he stooped to pick up the boxes on the floor.
"Hey, what's that game you've got there?" Jessie craned her neck to see the box top. "It looks like a word game."
"It is," Queenie replied. "It's called Word Master. You start out by looking at a list of letters. Then there are two things you're trying to do. One, you want to see how many words you can find in that list of letters. And two, you're trying to fit the words together into a message. It's a great game, and Carter here is a true 'Word Master.'"
"Really?" Jessie said. "Could you show me how to play, Carter?"
"Oh, I don't know." Carter looked a little uncomfortable.
"Well, I know you're busy," Jessie said. "It doesn't have to be right now."
"Nonsense," Queenie waved her hand. "Carter, you could use a break. Why don't you take the Aldens into the back room and show them how to play."
Carter blushed. "I don't think so," he said, refusing to meet the children's eyes. Then he hurried away without giving any further explanation.
Queenie frowned at his back. "You'll have to excuse Carter," she said as she grabbed a Word Master box off the shelf and handed it to Jessie. "He's shy, and he doesn't spend much time with children. He loves games, though. And he's helped me so much with this store. He gets insulted if I try to pay him. Believe me, beneath that gruff exterior beats a heart of gold."
"Any friend of yours, Queenie, is a friend of ours," Grandfather said.
Queenie glanced toward the back of the store. "Just let me check on the man who's installing my safe, and then we'll set up a game, okay?"
The Aldens followed Queenie to the back of the store. A man with a dark mustache was just coming out of the back room. There was a patch on his shirt that said SILVER SAFES.
"Oh. Are you finished, Tony?" Queenie asked the man.
"Yes." Tony set his toolbox on the floor and handed Queenie a clipboard. "Would you sign, please?"
Queenie signed her name, then gave the clipboard back to Tony.
Tony handed Queenie a small booklet and a separate piece of paper. "Here's your owner's manual and your combination. Give me a call if you have any trouble."
"I will," Queenie said. "Thanks, Tony."
As Tony bent down to pick up his toolbox, he noticed the game in Jessie's hands. "Word Master, huh? That's my favorite game."
"Is it?" Queenie smiled. "Well, then you'll have to stop back for a game sometime. That's why I set up that sitting area in the front of the store. I'm hoping my store will become a place where people will hang out and play games."
"That sounds fun. I'll try and stop in sometime next week," Tony said. He shook hands with Queenie, then left.
"You mean people can come in here anytime and play games with other people who are in the store?" Violet asked.
"Yes," Queenie replied. "I never just wanted a store where people just come in, buy things, then leave. I want people to stay and make friends."
"Even kids?" Benny asked.
"Especially kids!" Queenie gave Benny's shoulders a squeeze. "In fact, I'd also like to arrange an area just for kids here in the store. I'm planning to call it the Kids' Korner. I was hoping you children would help me design it?"
"Really?" Violet asked.
"Absolutely," Queenie said. "That's why I asked your grandfather to bring you in here today. Perhaps we can talk about some ideas after we play a quick game of Word Master."
The Aldens all nodded enthusiastically as they moved closer to the back room. But before they got there, they heard sirens.
The noise grew louder and louder until it sounded like it was right outside the store!
"What's going on?" Henry asked. They all exchanged worried looks.
"I don't know," Queenie said. "Let's go find out."CHAPTER 2
There were two police cars parked in front of the coffee shop at the end of the mall. A small crowd had gathered in front of the shop. The Aldens pressed closer to see what was going on.
"Do you know why the police are here?" Jessie asked a woman in a red jacket who stood at the edge of the crowd.
The woman turned. "Didn't you hear? The Java Café was robbed last night!"
"Robbed!" Henry exclaimed.
"Oh, no," Queenie said, pressing her hand to her mouth.
Carter Malone stepped closer to Queenie. "What happened?" he asked the woman in red.
"I don't know the specifics," she replied. "All I know is that woman over there," she pointed to a very distraught-looking young woman with straight blond hair, "came in to work this morning and found the safe standing wide open. Everything inside it was gone."
"Oh, my goodness," Queenie said. "That's Raina Holt. I know her! I play bridge with her mother."
"Are you the owner of this establishment?" a female police officer asked the brown-haired man who was standing next to Raina.
Benny had to stand on his tiptoes in order to see.
"Yes. I'm Chip Douglas. I just opened up about three weeks ago." Chip wore a long, white apron over jeans and a blue shirt. His hair hung almost to his shoulders.
"Do you have any idea what happened?" a male officer asked.
Chip's eyes narrowed. "I have a pretty good idea. Let me introduce you to my assistant manager ... or should I say former assistant manager, Raina Holt."
Raina gasped. "No! You can't fire me, Chip. Please! I need this job!"
"You should have thought of that before you stole from me," Chip countered.
"How does he know that she's stolen from him?" Violet whispered to Queenie, who was standing beside her.
"I don't know," Queenie whispered back. "But I have a hard time believing she did."
"I didn't steal anything," Raina insisted.
"Excuse me," a round man with a balding head said as he made his way through the crowd. "Let me through, please. I'm George Berber. I own this mall. Would somebody please tell me what happened?" George asked as he glanced from one police officer to the other.
The female officer introduced herself to George. "I'm Detective Owen. And this is my partner, Detective Bryant." She gestured toward the other detective, who nodded at George.
"Ms. Holt here is an employee at the Java Café," Detective Owen went on. "She came in this morning and discovered someone had broken into the safe in the back room. Is that right, Ms. Holt?"
"Yes." Raina nodded.
"Listen, she's the one who locked up last night, and she's the one who opened up this morning," Chip told the officers. "There's no sign of forced entry. Nothing out of place. And she's the only one besides me who knows the combination to the safe—"
"Please, Mr. Douglas," Detective Owen rested a hand on his shoulder. "I'd like to hear from Raina first. She's the one who was here. I promise we'll hear from you, too."
Everyone turned to Raina. She looked like a frightened animal.
"I—I don't know what to say," Raina said, stepping back.
"Just tell us what happened, ma'am," Detective Bryant said. He held a pencil and small pad of paper in his hands.
"Well, I closed up last night—" Raina began.
"Was there anybody else in the shop when you closed up?" Detective Bryant interrupted.
"No." Raina shook her head. "It was just me. The last customer left about ten minutes before closing. I locked the front door first, then the back door. Then I counted out the money in the drawer and put it in the safe for Chip like I always do. After that, I went out the back door and drove home. That's it."
"Are you sure the door was locked when you left?" Detective Bryant asked.
"Yes," Raina replied. "I always double-check once I'm outside. The door was locked. I'm sure of it. And it was still locked when I came in this morning."
Chip let out a heavy sigh. It was clear he didn't believe a word Raina was saying.
"So what happened when you arrived this morning?" Detective Owen asked.
"Well, I came in around nine o'clock," Raina explained. "I went in through the back door and found the empty safe standing wide open. I called 911 first. Then I called Chip."
Chip couldn't hold back any longer. "I'm telling you, she's the thief!" He pointed at Raina.
Queenie pushed her way through the crowd until she was standing next to Raina. "I've known Raina Holt since she was a little girl. She isn't a thief!"
Raina sniffed. "Thank you, Queenie," she said gratefully.
Chip snorted. "If that's what you think, then you've got your head in the sand," he said.
"I'm sorry, sir." Detective Bryant closed up his notebook. "We don't have enough evidence to arrest this young lady. But if you don't mind, we'd like to look around a little inside the store and see what else we might find."
Chip nodded. "Go ahead," he told the two officers as he held the door open.
"I better come, too," George Berber said as he followed the officers into the shop. "I'm not very happy to hear there's been a robbery in my mall."
Raina moved toward the shop, too, but Chip blocked her path. "I just want you to get your stuff out of the back room and leave," he told her. "You're fired!"
Raina's eyes filled with tears.
Chip turned his back to Raina. He stood in the doorway watching the officers work inside the shop.
Raina buried her face in her hands and started to cry.
Queenie went to her and pulled the girl into her arms. "Shh," Queenie said, stroking the girl's hair. "It's okay."
"But I didn't steal anything," Raina cried.
"I know you didn't, honey," Queenie said.
"And I needed that job," Raina sobbed. "I've got an apartment to pay for. And college tuition. What am I going to do without a job?"
"I tell you what," Queenie said as the crowd started to disperse. "I still need to hire another cashier for the Game Spot. Are you interested?"
Raina blinked a few times. "Y-you'd hire me?" she said, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes. "Even after you heard what Chip said about me?"
"Of course I would," Queenie said. "This is crazy. You don't want to work for somebody who doesn't trust you, do you, Raina?"
"No," Raina sniffled.
"I pay two dollars above minimum wage, and I pay the first and third Fridays of the month. Will that work for you?"
Raina nodded. She dried her eyes again.
"Then why don't you go and get your things from the Java Café. These are my friends Jessie and Henry Alden. They'll go with you. Then come on back to the Game Spot, and we'll get started."
"Okay. Thank you, Queenie," Raina said appreciatively.
So Jessie and Henry walked Raina back to the Java Café while Grandfather, Violet and Benny went back to the Game Spot with Queenie and Carter.
Chip stopped Jessie and Henry at the door. "You kids can wait here," he said. "I don't want you getting in the officers' way."
Neither Jessie nor Henry had any intention of getting in anyone's way, but they didn't want to upset Chip any further, either, so they stayed outside. But through the window they could see Chip following Raina all the way to the back room.
"I feel bad for Raina," Jessie said. "She doesn't seem like the type of person who would steal from her boss."
"We don't know her very well," Henry said. "But I agree with you, Jessie. She's clearly very upset about everything that's happened."
Excerpted from The Game Store Mystery by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Robert Papp. Copyright © 2001 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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