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       The Most Frightening Story Ever Told, p.1

           Philip Kerr
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The Most Frightening Story Ever Told


  ALSO BY PHILIP KERR

  The Winter Horses

  Children of the Lamp series

  THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2016 by Philip Kerr

  Cover art copyright © 2016 by Benjamin Schipper

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

  Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Visit us on the Web! randomhousekids.com

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Kerr, Philip, author.

  Title: The most frightening story ever told / Philip Kerr.

  Description: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, [2016] | Summary: “Scary-story enthusiast Billy Shivers helps out when the Haunted House of Books threatens to go out of business.” —Provided by publisher

  Identifiers: LCCN 2015035400 | ISBN 978-0-553-52209-9 (trade) |

  ISBN 978-0-553-52210-5 (lib. bdg.) | ISBN 978-0-553-52211-2 (ebook)

  Subjects: | CYAC: Haunted houses—Fiction. | Bookstores—Fiction. | Ghosts—Fiction. | Contests—Fiction. | Humorous stories. | BISAC: JUVENILE FICTION / Mysteries & Detective Stories. | JUVENILE FICTION / Books & Libraries.

  Classification: LCC PZ7.K46843 Mo 2016 | DDC [Fic]—dc23

  LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/​2015035400

  ebook ISBN 9780553522112

  Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

  v4.1

  ep

  Contents

  Cover

  Also by Philip Kerr

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Chapter 1: Billy’s Love of Books

  Chapter 2: The Haunted House of Books

  Chapter 3: Billy Explores

  Chapter 4: The House Reveals Its Secrets

  Chapter 5: Rexford Rapscallion Springs Some More Surprises

  Chapter 6: A Story by the Fire

  Chapter 7: Mr. Hugh Crane Offers to Buy the Shop

  Chapter 8: Halloween

  Chapter 9: Billy Helps Out

  Chapter 10: The Invitation

  Chapter 11: Redford’s Confession and an Anonymous Story

  Chapter 12: The Ghost Hunter

  Chapter 13: The B.A.B.

  Chapter 14: The Bathroom Betsy

  Chapter 15: An Aristocrat of Horror

  Chapter 16: The Creepy Old Book

  Chapter 17: The Teddy Bear’s Picnic

  Chapter 18: Beaten-Up Mercedes

  Chapter 19: The Creepy Contest Is Announced

  Chapter 20: Lucky Numbers One and Two

  Chapter 21: Uplifting Stories for Boys

  Chapter 22: The Third Kid(s)

  Chapter 23: Billy’s Dilemma

  Chapter 24: Mr. Rapscallion Is Scared

  Chapter 25: The Return of Hugh Crane

  Chapter 26: Mr. Rapscallion Gets Something Out of His System

  Chapter 27: The Contestants Arrive

  Chapter 28: Billy Is Late

  Chapter 29: Little Rascals

  Chapter 30: In-Store Event Number One

  Chapter 31: In-Store Event Number Two

  Chapter 32: In-Store Event Number Three

  Chapter 33: The Tiebreaker

  Chapter 34: Light at the End of the Tunnel

  Chapter 35: The Winner

  Chapter 36: 320 Sycamore

  Chapter 37: Quoth the Raven

  Author’s Note

  This book is for Ava B.

  Welcome to Hitchcock. It’s an ordinary town of 250,000 people. When the town got started, in 1800, one of the first things its founders built was a beautiful public library so that people who couldn’t afford to buy books could borrow them instead.

  Let’s go inside. Under a large onion-shaped roof is a big reading room, where Hitchcock’s older citizens look at newspapers and fall asleep. And there are miles and miles of wooden shelves and on them lots and lots of books. The Hitchcock town library has over twenty thousand books, many of which have never been read by anyone.

  One person who’s read at least a hundred books in the library is the boy standing in Children’s Literature. His name is Billy Shivers.

  If Billy Shivers were able to talk, he would say “I’m very pleased to meet you,” but this is a library, and if he did say anything, the librarian, Miss Junker, would make a cross, shushing noise, point at a large sign that reads SILENCE and very probably remind him that “there’s no talking allowed in the library.” So you’ll forgive him if he just looks up from that book in his hands, smiles and nods back at you for now.

  Still, silence is golden and, in this case, it’s useful, too. It allows you a chance to look at Billy and see what kind of a boy he is. The first thing you’ll notice is that he’s tall, and kind of pale-looking—even a bit sickly, like he’s been ill or something. But that’s only to be expected of someone who was in a serious car accident.

  Billy remembers very little about the accident, except that now he knows exactly what it feels like to be a thin layer of strawberry jam between two enormously thick slices of bread. Before the accident he was like any other boy his age, enjoying games and running around outside. But since the accident he doesn’t do a lot of that. He gets tired very easily and doesn’t care at all for loud noises. His eyes are more sensitive to sunlight, and he feels the cold more than he used to, so that he prefers being indoors to being outside. This probably helps to explain why Billy spends so much time in the Hitchcock Public Library. It’s nice and warm there. That and the fact that he likes to read books. Lots of them.

  Billy had always loved books. But after the accident his love of books grew stronger than ever. He just couldn’t get enough of them. He loved the way a book could transport you to a different place in the space of just a few pages, like it was a kind of taxicab for the mind. Sometimes he would take a book and find a quiet corner to sit down, and the next time he looked up, several hours would have passed. Reading a book could make him forget who and what he was and that he had ever been in an accident at all.

  Whatever subject you can choose, there’s probably at least a hundred books that have been written about it. Billy could have remained in the library forever and he would never have run out of books to read, especially as the people of Hitchcock were always donating their books—most of them unread, of course.

  At first Billy’s favorite books were all about horses. Then his favorite books were all about space. When he’d read dozens of books about this, he went on to read several more dozens of books about detectives and murder. Next he decided his favorite books were about magicians and wizards. Billy wasn’t much interested in books about sports. He much preferred watching sports to reading about them. In the same week that he grew tired of reading about wizards, he tried reading books about cooking, mountaineering, jungle exploration, spying, lions, Scotland and the history of music. But none of these books struck him as being particularly interesting. And then, quite by chance, he picked up and read a book about ghosts, then another, and another, and pretty soon Billy had come to the conclusion his favorite books were all about ghosts.

  About the same time it happened that Billy beca
me interested in reading about ghosts, his attention was drawn to a small, dog-eared poster on the library notice board. The poster had been on the notice board for a while and the event it advertised was long out of date, but it was only now that Billy paid any attention to it.

  The poster read as follows:

  You are invited to the Haunted House of Books on Hitchcock High Street, for a Halloween evening of chilling ghost stories and spooky tales. Not to Mention Our Newest Attraction: The Curse of the Pharaohs. Around midnight we will be joined by some creepy local authors who will be signing their Most Horrifying books…in blood. Free snacks and mulled wine, plus a ten percent discount on all cash purchases. For further details, telephone 555-6666, or email Rexford Rapscallion at s@tan.com, if you dare.

  Immediately Billy was fascinated. It didn’t matter that Halloween had been over for several months and that none of the creepy local authors would be present to sign their horrifying books. What mattered most to Billy was the idea of a bookshop that was haunted. What could be more wonderful? What could be more exciting? What could be more fantastic?

  It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention who has ever been in a bookshop that books cost money. Sometimes a great deal of money. The book you are reading now cost a small fortune and, frankly, you ought to be very grateful to whoever bought it for you. Unless of course you paid for it yourself, in which case you must be stinking rich. After all, why pay money for something that you are only going to use once? Unless of course you think you might want to read the book again. Or unless you want to put it on a shelf with a lot of other books to start a collection of house dust, or just to show people how clever you are. Which is fair enough. But these days, who’s got money to waste on books? Or enough space in their houses to give it up to having bookshelves?

  Billy’s family didn’t have money to waste on anything at all and nor indeed did Billy, which was why the boy went to the Hitchcock Public Library to read in the first place.

  Billy left the library and walked around the corner onto Hitchcock High Street. As usual, High Street was busy with cars and pedestrians, and a large dog growled fiercely at him for no good reason, all of which made Billy feel very nervous. While Billy liked dogs, they just didn’t seem to like him. Cats were even worse. So he quickened his step as best he could until he was standing outside the shop.

  Billy didn’t need to see the sign hanging from a gallows beside the front door to know that he was in the right place. The paint on the doors and the window frames was as black as a spider. The glass was covered with fake cobwebs of the kind that you can spray on your grandmother while she’s asleep in a chair. In the window itself there was a sun-lounger, upon which lay an adult skeleton, dressed for the beach, who appeared to be reading a book called Shadow of a Dead Man. Beside the sun-lounger was a large heap of books that looked like they were waiting to be read by the skeleton. These included The Phantom of Foggy Bottom, The Word of Death, Résumé for a Vampire, A Dark and Stormy Night, The Revenge of the House Wraith, A Cackle in the Dark and Creaking on My Stairs. Immediately behind the skeleton’s skull was a ghost—or at least a bedsheet that had been painted to look like a ghost. But the most exciting thing about the window display was a large mirror in which the face of a very frightening-looking witch appeared and then disappeared, every few seconds.

  Billy thought it the most wonderful window display he had ever seen and clapped his hands and cried out with delight so that several other people who were passing the shop looked at him strangely, as if there was something wrong with him, and then moved swiftly away.

  Grinning like a madman, Billy opened the shop door.

  Now, some shop doors have a little bell that rings when you open them. The Haunted House of Books was a shop that had something very different—a hollow, wicked laugh, like something from an old horror movie. Not only that, but when you walked in the doorway, you stepped onto an old subway grating and a current of cold air came gusting up from below the floor. All of this was meant to give someone entering the bookshop a bit of a fright. And Billy was no exception. He yelled out loud and then he chuckled as he saw the funny side of what had happened.

  The inside of the shop was no less interesting than the window.

  Billy Shivers found himself standing in what looked like an old mansion. There was a hall with a dusty chandelier, a grand piano, a big, curving wooden staircase and at the foot of the staircase, a polished wooden desk that was the shape of a coffin lid. On top of this sat a crank-operated steampunk cash register that was made of brass. Billy thought the cash register looked as if it belonged on an old submarine in a book by Jules Verne called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

  The register seemed no less ancient than the extraordinary-looking man standing behind it. Indeed it seemed to Billy that the man was the most extraordinary-looking person he’d ever seen.

  The man was a little stout but not stout enough to look fat.

  His clothes were those of an old-fashioned undertaker: a long black tailcoat, black trousers, a white shirt and a black bootlace tie.

  He was very old—almost sixty—and not very tall, but not very short either.

  He had longish gray hair that he wore in a ponytail at the back of his head and a silvery beard and a mustache that matched the laugh lines on his face exactly, and framed his mouth like an extra set of jaws. And one of his eyebrows was arched like the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

  On his stubby fingers were several skull-shaped silver rings and in his ear was a ring and on the ring was a tiny dagger and on the sharp tip of the dagger was a tiny spot of red paint as if the dagger had stabbed someone very small indeed.

  He wore thick-framed glasses with peculiar yellowish glass that seemed to magnify the curious gleam that seemed to stay permanently in the white of his eyes. Billy was sure he had never seen eyes as gleaming as these. Nor indeed a smile that was quite so white, or wolfish. The man’s smile was so white and wolfish that for a moment Billy wondered if he had fangs and if the man might be a vampire. And yet the smile was not unfriendly. Mischievous, yes, a little weary, maybe, but not at all hostile.

  “Can I help you?” the man asked politely.

  His voice was deep and resonant like a baritone in a coal mine.

  Nervously, Billy approached the coffin-shaped counter. His mother had told him never to speak to strangers, but that just didn’t seem to work when you were in a shop and someone who very likely worked there asked if they could help you.

  “I was looking for a book about ghosts,” he said.

  The man sighed and pointed at a sign on the left side of the cash register. It read:

  Valued customer: You are in the Haunted House of Books. This means haunted as in ghost, dummy. As in things that go bump in the night. That means we do not sell any books about computers, travel, music, theater, self-help, celebrities. If you just asked or were planning to ask for a book about any celebrity, get a life! Nor do we sell books about the Second World War, television, geography, religion, cooking or, God forbid, sports. If you just asked or were planning to ask for a book about sports, you must be a card-carrying moron. Go away and see if you can find your brain before it gets dark, you pathetic fool. We sell creepy books for people who want to get scared quick. That means books about ghosts, ghouls, wraiths, spirits, apparitions, vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches and hauntings. We also have a large selection for kids. Is that very clear?

  “Er, yes,” said Billy. “Very clear. Yes. Thanks. Er, what’s a ghoul?”

  “A grave-robber,” said the man behind the coffin-shaped counter. “Someone who takes bodies from graves and sells them or eats them. For my money, eating them is harder to understand than selling them. Never did like the taste of human flesh all that much. Anyway, ghouls are up the wooden staircase, turn left, end room, last shelf.”

  “Who would want to buy a dead body?” said Billy.

  “There used to be quite a trade in the sale of dead bodies, in a place called Edinburgh.”

/>   “Then I’m certainly never going to Edinburgh,” said Billy.

  “I’ll be sure to write and tell them that before I do anything else today,” said the man. “I assume they’ll want to tell the bad news to the people of Scotland as soon as possible.”

  “Thank you,” said Billy.

  “Don’t mention it.”

  Noticing a badge on the man’s lapel, Billy leaned forward to read it. It read: REXFORD E. RAPSCALLION, PROPRIETOR.

  “Proprietor,” said Billy. “That means you’re the owner, right?”

  The man Billy now knew to be Rexford Rapscallion sighed and pointed to a sign on the right-hand side of the cash register. This one read as follows:

  Valued customer: Congratulations! Pat yourself on the back because you’re not nearly as dumb as you look. Yes, I’m the proprietor and that does mean that I’m the owner. And before you inquire, I started the shop myself, almost twenty years ago. Great idea, huh? And no, there didn’t used to be a restaurant here. It was a coffeehouse but the coffee tasted like mud which is probably why they closed and sold the place to me for a lot of money I wish I still had. And yes we have always specialized in selling books about ghosts etc. And, since you ask, the place really is haunted. By a ghost. I’ve not seen the ghost myself but people who have say you can sometimes see it in the voodoo section. But I wouldn’t read anything into that. But it is supposed to be pretty scary so just remember. You’ve been warned. The management accepts no responsibility for anyone who dies of fright on these premises. If you are at all the nervous type about ghosts—what on earth are you doing in this shop anyway?!! Are you crazy? Thank you for your kind attention.

 
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