About the Author
Brad Strickland has written and cowritten forty-one novels, many of them for younger readers. He is the author of the fantasy trilogy Moon Dreams, Nul’s Quest, and Wizard’s Mole, and the creator of the popular horror novel Shadowshow. With his wife, Barbara, he has written for the Star Trek Young Adult book series, for Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? book series, and for Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (Pocket Books). Both solo and with Thomas E. Fuller, he has written several books about Wishbone, public TV’s literature-loving dog. When he's not writing, he teaches English at Gainesville College in Gainesville, Georgia. He and Barbara have two children, Amy and Jonathan, and a daughter-in-law, Rebecca. They live and work in Oakwood, Georgia.
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The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder
A Johnny Dixon Mystery: Book Eleven
By Brad Strickland
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 The Estate of John Bellairs
All rights reserved.
"All right," said Johnny Dixon. "I've got one."
Byron Q. Ferguson—better known as "Fergie"—said, "Okay. What are their initials?"
Johnny, a pale, blond boy of about thirteen, pulled his glasses down on his nose and peered at Fergie over the gold wire rims, as Mrs. Pumbleton, Fergie's English teacher, often did. "Now, Byron," he said in a loopy, high-pitched voice, "there are both a horse and a rider, so that really should count as two questions."
"Okay, okay," groused Fergie, but he couldn't help grinning. Johnny did a pretty good impression of Mrs. Pumbleton, and it rarely failed to make Fergie smile. He was taller than Johnny, with jug ears, curly black hair, sleepy eyes, a long, droopy face, and big feet. The boys were about the same age, though they were very different in other ways. Johnny was timid and Fergie was bold. Johnny had to struggle at sports and Fergie was a natural athlete. Today Johnny wore his red windbreaker, blue corduroy pants, and black sneakers, and Fergie was wearing his motorcycle outfit: skintight jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black leather jacket decorated with metal and glass studs. But even though they were so different, they had become good friends since meeting at a Boy Scout camp a couple of years earlier. Fergie squirmed and muttered, "Okay, if you wanna be cheap with the clues, just give me the rider's initials."
Johnny grinned. "Hm. I guess that would have to be A.T.G."
"Aw, Dixon," complained his friend, "why don't you come up with a hard one? That's kid stuff. Alexander the Great, and the horse is Bucephalus."
"Rats—you're right," said Johnny. "That's twenty-seven for you, twenty-four for me. Your turn."
It was a rainy March afternoon in the mid-1950s. The two friends sat at a table in the Conversation Room of the public library. They were playing a game they had made up themselves, called "horse and rider." Each one had a chance to think up the names of a horse and rider from history or literature. The other could ask five questions, and then he had to guess the names of the horse and rider. If he got the answer after one question, he received five points, but if it took him two questions, he got four. A player who had to ask all five questions got only one point, but if he could not identify the horse and rider, he had to give up five whole points. It took a couple of real fanatics about trivia and history to make up and enjoy such a game.
Fergie looked out the window. The gray, cold day and the dismal rain did little to make the small town of Duston Heights, Massachusetts, look inviting. Trees with small, bright-green spring leaves drooped and dripped, and the gutters in the streets swirled with rushing, foamy rivulets. "I'm tired of this game," complained Fergie.
"Well, you can't quit while you're ahead. I've got another turn coming."
"Okay, okay, keep your hair on your head for a minute." Fergie yawned. He glared at the gray window, crawling with raindrops, and drummed his fingers impatiently on the library table. "Man, oh, man, I just wish there was something to do."
Johnny shrugged. "We could check out some books."
Making a sour face, Fergie said, "Aw, Dixon, I think between us we've already read every last book in this crummy library."
For a little while the two friends just sat silently, with Fergie staring out the window as he tried to dream up a horse and rider that would stump Johnny. Johnny suddenly said, "You know, I wonder what that is."
Fergie blinked. "What what is?"
"The last book in the library," replied Johnny. "I mean, the very last one in the whole place."
"You're outa your jug, John baby," said Fergie with a grin. "That's a pretty weird thing to wonder."
"I just meant—" began Johnny.
Fergie interrupted him, "Okay. I got one. Go ahead."
Johnny considered. "Are they real or imaginary?"
"Real," said Fergie. "One down."
"From American history?" asked Johnny.
"Yup," Fergie said. "You'll never get it in a million years."
"Robert E. Lee and Traveler," said Johnny.
"Oh, man!" Fergie rolled his eyes. "Okay, John baby, that's twenty-eight for you. I give up. You win. But tell me one thing—how'd ya ever guess it? Were you like reading my brainwaves or something?"
Johnny chuckled. "Elementary, my good Watson. You always bring in Robert E. Lee and Traveler at least once. I figured you'd think that I'd think you wouldn't go for something obvious, so you went for something obvious. But what you didn't know is that I knew you didn't know that I knew you'd go for something obvious."
"I'll stop you the very second you start making sense," muttered Fergie.
"No, it's just psychology. Really simple when you know how to do it. It's just like in Edgar Allan Poe's story 'The Purloined Letter,'" said Johnny.
"Yeah, yeah. The great detective C. Auguste Dupin an' all that stuff." Fergie yawned again, even wider than before. "Dixon, we gotta think up something to do. I am bored out of my skull!"
"Hey, look at the time," said Johnny, glancing at his wristwatch. "It's almost five o'clock. I have to get home. Gramma and Grampa are having Professor Childermass over for dinner tonight."
"An' they didn't invite me?" Fergie said, making his lower lip tremble. "My little heart is broken. Boo, hoo, hoo."
Johnny had jumped up from his chair. He paused with his hand on the chair back, his expression anxious. "Fergie, you know you can come too. Gramma and Grampa wouldn't mind."
Fergie laughed at the look of concern on Johnny's face. "Come on, Dixon, I'm just pullin' your leg. Go ahead an' stuff your face with the prof an' your folks. I don't mind. I'm gonna snoop around an' see if there's anything I haven't read yet. Hey, you an' Sarah want to get together with me on Saturday to play flies an' grounders? If it stops rainin', I mean."
Johnny made a face. "If it doesn't I think we better start to build an ark. See ya."
"Yeah, see ya." For a little while after Johnny left, Fergie just sat there, staring at the rain and wishing he were somewhere else. Anywhere else. He didn't much want to go home. His dad was a traveling salesman, and he was good at his job. Mr. Ferguson was a short, bald man who looked sort of timid and quiet, but people really liked him, and he had a reputation for honesty. In the last few years Mr. Ferguson had earned enough money to move the family from a cheap railroad apartment to a nice little house on the edge of Cranbrook, the snooty neighborhood of Duston Heights. Still, Fergie's dad was away from home a lot. Like now, for instance. He was on the road somewhere up in Vermont or New Hampshire, and he wouldn't be back for another week or so.
Mrs. Ferguson was at home, of course, but Fergie's mom made him nervous because she was always worrying about him and asking him questions. Mrs. Ferguson read a lot of magazine quizzes with titles like "Is Your Son Going Bad?" and "Ten Ways to Tell If Your Child Is a Juvenile Delinquent." Fergie's mom had the idea that her only son might be turning into a young hoodlum. Sometimes Fergie thought it was fun to kid her along about that—for instance, he recently had bought a comb that folded up to look exactly like a switchblade knife. She had just about had a fit when she found it in his jeans pocket. Fergie chuckled at the memory of how she held the thing between her forefinger and thumb, as if it were something dirty, and demanded an explanation. When he took the comb from her, flipped it open, and ran it through his hair, her stunned expression had been hilarious.
Oh, there were times when Fergie liked his mom and dad just the way they were. He knew how hard his dad worked, and he knew that his mom's worrying was what any mother would do. But at other times, Fergie wished he and his family were more, well, normal. Mrs. Ferguson was even more jittery when her husband was on a sales trip and the weather was bad. Right now Fergie didn't want to go home and have his mom nervously ask him questions about where he'd been and who had been with him.
Yet when Fergie thought about it, he had to admit he had it a little better than Dixon. Johnny's mom had died of cancer years before, and his father was an Air Force pilot who was practically never home. Still, when Major Dixon did visit, he and Johnny did neat stuff together. Last Christmas they had gone deep-sea fishing in Florida. Fergie's dad was kind and considerate, but he always seemed tired and almost never did things with Fergie. They only rarely fished in the ponds around Duston Heights, and Mr. Ferguson would never dream of going after tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico.
On this dark, drippy day, thinking about his mom and dad just made Fergie glum. He took a deep breath, noticing the library smells of dusty books, floor polish, and furniture wax. A Waterbury wall clock ticked slowly, clacking the seconds away. "I wonder what the last book in the library really is," murmured Fergie. Well, finding out was something to do, at least. He pushed his chair back and walked past the circulation desk, where Mrs. Medford, a chubby, cheerful librarian, didn't even look up. He climbed the stairs to the top floor.
It was even more gloomy up there, with narrow windows and only a few light fixtures giving a feeble yellow illumination. Fergie went past the histories and biographies. He went all the way to the very last set of shelves. These stood within just a couple of feet of a blank wall, making a kind of dark little alley. Fergie thought that a large person would never have been able to fit between the wall and the shelf, although he had no trouble. "Huh," he said, squatting to peer at the bottom shelf. The shadows made it hard to see, but Fergie's eyes slowly adjusted, A fat, dull-looking book was there, its title stamped on the spine in faded gold lettering: A Genealogist in Providence. The Dewey Decimal number was below that: 999.99 S. Fergie pulled it out, wrinkling his nose. It looked crummy enough.
Anyway, he decided after flipping through it, it was nothing he wanted to read. He started to return the book to its place, and then he noticed something he hadn't before. Another book was there. The one he held was only the second to last book in the library. The real last one was thin and narrow. Fergie pulled it out. It came in a cloud of dust, dry and sharp, tickling his nose like pepper. He sneezed, a blasting ahhh-chooo! that echoed in the stacks.
"Bless you, boy."
Fergie jumped a mile. He tottered up to his feet and turned, his left shoulder hitting the wall. "Wow! You sc—I mean, you surprised me!"
At the end of the row of shelves stood a skinny little man. He was bald on top, with a long fringe of curling white hair spreading over the shoulders of his ankle-length black coat. His face was pink, with two bright blue eyes, a sharp nose, and a thin-lipped mouth. The man smiled in apology, showing white teeth that gleamed in the dimness. His voice was soft, like the purr of a big cat, with a faint trace of a British accent. "I am sorry. I didn't mean to. It looks as if you have discovered a very interesting volume there."
Fergie looked down at the book in his hands. The last book in the library had a battered black cloth cover, and on the front was a red rectangle with the title lettering inside, also as red as blood:
For some reason, Fergie shivered as he read those words. And just then something strange happened. From somewhere came the loud, solemn pealing of a huge bell, like the kind of great church bell called a bourdon. The sound tolled so near that Fergie felt the floor beneath his feet vibrate. It was only one loud, long bo-o-o-n-ng, but it seemed to go on forever.
"Time to go," the man said. "I wish you good reading, my young friend." He turned and walked away.
"Hey, wait," Fergie said weakly, but the man gave no sign of hearing him. Fergie felt a little dizzy. And he wondered about that loud bell. Where had the sound come from? No church was close enough to produce that kind of peal, and anyway, church bells didn't ring at five-twenty on Thursday afternoons. It hadn't been a clock bell, because no clock would ring at twenty minutes past the hour. "This is screwy," muttered Fergie to himself.
Fergie opened the book and looked at the title page. It just repeated the title and the author's name, Jarmyn Thanatos. He turned to the first page of the book, noticing that the pages were printed on very thin slick paper, so that it was easy to turn over two when you meant to turn only one. His eye fell on the first two paragraphs:
Once there was a boy much like you. He was smarter and stronger and braver than everyone else, and most people secretly disliked him because he always spoke his mind and told the truth. He often wished that his family and friends appreciated him more. Then one day he found a wonderful book that made all his wishes come true—just as you have found this book.
You can have everything that you want, Fergie. Your father can stay home and become a rich man. And you will be the one who makes that possible!
"Holy cow!" said Fergie. He shivered. How in the world did his name get in this crazy book? Man, he had to read this. He opened the back cover and stared.
To check out a book in the Duston Heights Library, you signed your name on a lined blue card tucked into a paper pocket glued to the inside back cover. Only, this book had no checkout card. Instead, printed inside the back cover, in the same red letters as the title on the front, were the words:
Fergie, Take Me Home
"I think I was wrong," Fergie told himself. "Dixon isn't outa his jug. I'm outa mine!"
But he stuffed the book inside the front of his jacket. It made him feel funny, because despite his mom's fears, Fergie was a good kid. He had never stolen anything in his life. But now he felt like a thief as he hurried downstairs, rushed past the circulation desk, and went out into the rain. It pelted his head and face. "Oh, great," Fergie mumbled. The cold rain made him hunch deep into his leather jacket. He started to trot along the street, heading for home.
Fergie stopped, his heart leaping into his throat. He was in for it now! Somebody had caught him. He turned slowly. Ten feet away, under a store awning, stood the skinny little old man he had seen in the library. "Y-yeah?" Fergie said, trying to sound tough.
The old man smiled. "Keep your library book dry under that jacket. Snake eyes," he said. "I like it very much."
For a minute, Fergie didn't know what he was talking about. Then he remembered the decoration on the back of his leather jacket. It was a skull, with glowing red reflector studs for eyes. Above the skull were the words "Snake Eyes."
"Yeah," Fergie said. "Well, I gotta go."
"Yes," the man said. "It is later than you think."
And for the second time, the echoing peal of a bell rolled through the streets, coming from nowhere and everywhere. It made Fergie jump like a sudden blast of thunder, and it launched him into an all-out run. He didn't stop until he got home. Then he locked himself in his room and took a closer look at that very, very strange volume he had stolen from the library.
The sun broke through the clouds on Friday afternoon. Johnny and his friend Sarah Channing came out of St. Michael's School at three-thirty under a clearing sky. "Hooray," said Sarah, a tall, red-haired girl who was more at home in jeans and sweatshirts than in dresses. Today, though, she wore a school outfit—a green plaid skirt, white blouse, and scuffed brown shoes. "Looks like we're not going to float away after all."
"I hope it warms up," said Johnny, shivering a little. The wind was cold. "Want to stop at Peter's Sweet Shop? Fergie might show up."
"Okay," said Sarah. They walked to the confectionery store and bought a couple of chocolate malteds. They sat in a booth toward the front, where the afternoon sun warmed them. Now and again the shadow of a cloud suddenly dimmed the light, but it would always brighten again, and by the time they had finished their malteds, the clouds had all gone by. In the daylight, Sarah's short red hair gleamed like bright copper. She slurped the last of her drink through her straw and said, "Haven't seen much of Fergie lately."
Excerpted from The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder by Brad Strickland. Copyright © 1997 The Estate of John Bellairs. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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