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A Hitch at the Fairmont

Illustrated by Nick Bertozzi


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About The Book

An intrepid boy teams up with Alfred Hitchcock himself in this rollicking mystery rife with action, adventure, intrigue, and all the flavor of film noir.

After the mysterious death of his mother, eleven-year-old Jack Fair is whisked away to San Francisco’s swanky Fairmont Hotel by his wicked Aunt Edith. There, he seems doomed to a life of fetching chocolates for his aunt and her pet chinchilla. Until one night, when Aunt Edith disappears, and the only clue is a ransom note written…in chocolate?

Suddenly, Jack finds himself all alone on a quest to discover who kidnapped Aunt Edith and what happened to his mother. Alone, that is, until he meets an unlikely accomplice—Alfred Hitchcock himself! The two embark on a madcap journey full of hidden doorways, secret societies, cryptic clues, sinister villains, and cinematic flair.

Including an author’s note about the real Hitchcock and an appendix of film references, this “fine read” is a “love letter to all that Hitchcock stood for” (Kirkus Reviews).


A Hitch at the Fairmont

NO BODY MEANT NO CASKET, so they used her headshot instead. This was a Hollywood funeral, after all.

Jack Fair sat perfectly still in a cold metal folding chair in the first row. The dark blue suit he wore was two years old and two inches short in every direction. The cuffs of his dress shirt dug into his skin like manacles, and the starchy collar chafed and itched. But Jack didn’t make a move to scratch. He stayed completely motionless, willing time to freeze with him. Because if time could stop between one heartbeat and the next, then it could roll backward too, like a movie in reverse. And Jack could find out what he did (or didn’t do) or said (or didn’t say) that made Mom do it.

Jack’s hands rested, immobile, in his lap. He stared at the picture perched in its silver frame on a white pedestal up front. A wreath of silk gardenias surrounded it. The display, even the frame, was made of props lent to Jack by his mother’s acting troupe. The funeral home had placed a gold-lettered card with Mom’s name and the years of her life in the corner of the frame: Helen Fair, 1927–1956. The publicity picture was the only part of the display Jack owned. He’d drawn it himself, with the art supplies he’d gotten for his eleventh birthday. A photographer had given his mother a “free” photo shoot, then tried to charge her a dollar apiece for prints—“minimum five hundred”—a sum she couldn’t afford. Jack had glimpsed the best of the proofs, then drawn it from memory in colored pencil—8 x 10, like the real headshots actors used. Mom loved it. Jack planned to draw copies any time she had an audition. But she never had another.

The clock on the funeral home wall kept ticking away. (Was it slowing a little?)

Staring at Mom’s picture without moving took a great effort of will. Jack’s eyes longed to track the curves of her face. His hand itched to follow, as it would when he drew. Eyes and hand wanted to slide in concert down the wave of blond hair, swooping past her green eyes to the gardenia pinned behind her ear. Her features were so different from Jack’s. Mom once told him he had his father’s deep brown eyes and crow-black hair, but Jack had no way of knowing. Over the years, he’d tried to sketch his father from Mom’s descriptions. But when he’d show her his work, she’d always say it looked just like “the butcher at the market” or one of his teachers, or a neighbor or President Eisenhower.

All Jack had from his father were the dog tags and the silver charm the size of his thumb from knuckle to tip, which he wore around his neck. He resisted an urge to hold them, to ask his father’s spirit what to do now. He knew his father wouldn’t answer. He never did. And from now on, it seemed, his mother wouldn’t either.

Now Jack’s eyes burned. Tears pooled above his lower eyelids. He willed them to stop, but they brimmed over his lashes and streaked salty trails down his cheeks. Did that count as moving? Were his tears a part of him? He didn’t brush them away, in case they didn’t count. Time might be slowing a bit.

But when the picture of Mom blurred and Jack saw only bright stars of reflected light, he blinked. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. Now he would have to start all over again.

“After life’s fitful fever, she sleeps well,” said a voice behind him. It was George Barrister, the financier and lead actor from his mother’s troupe, Subsurface Shakespeare. That was his way of offering condolences.

Jack couldn’t answer. He knew his eardrum vibrated with every plummy word George uttered—and with each metallic creak of a chair or each whispered “How could she?” from somewhere in back. It was no use trying to stop time, with all the noise.

George made a sweeping gesture around the crowded room. Other actors from Mom’s troupe milled about with friends of the company. The guy who owned the diner in whose basement they performed sat with his pregnant wife, his head down. The landlady from the rooming house where Jack and his mother stayed was surrounded by the other boarders. Jack’s best friend, Schultzie—Bernard Schultz—and Schultzie’s father sat quietly in the second row.

“Your mother always could draw an audience,” George said. “We shall miss her dearly.”

“Me too,” Jack said, his voice full of piccolos. Even though he no longer stared without blinking, his eyes began to sting. He sniffed. It must be the fumes of the Ajax cleanser the funeral home uses.

“Perhaps the boy would like a bit of fresh air,” Schultzie’s dad said. He was pretty good at figuring out what boys wanted to do. For years Jack had joined Schultzie and Mr. Schultz once or twice a month to do stuff with a local Scout troop. Jack’s mom had arranged it, saying he needed a masculine influence in his life. She panicked a bit last year when they started spelunking—climbing up, down, and around in caves and old gold and silver mines. She said it sounded dangerous. Still, her tuna–potato-chip casserole always warmed them up when they got back from their expeditions. For Jack, caving with Mr. Schultz was almost like having a real dad.

Some caves had what was called a bottomless pit, a narrow hole that went down hundreds of feet. You could throw a stone into it and wait forever, but you would never hear it hit bottom. That’s how Jack felt now—like a bottomless pit. People at the funeral were speaking to him, and he heard their remarks and let them fall deep, deep down inside him. But not a sound would come back out.

“Bernard, why don’t you and Jack go sit on the front steps for a little bit,” Mr. Schultz said. Schultzie guided Jack outside. They settled on the crumbling cement stairs. The steps radiated warmth gathered from the Southern California sun, but Jack still shivered.

Some people collected trading stamps. Others collected salt shakers or spoons. Jack collected images. Like memory, they became a part of him. They calmed him. He could draw anything he had ever seen. He took the small sketchbook he always kept with him from his jacket pocket. Gazing at Mom’s picture for so long had given him an idea. On the first page of every sketchbook, he transcribed Mom’s description of Dad. This he read once again now. “You look just like him,” she’d said. “Brown eyes. Black hair. He was handsome too, at least to me. And brave. Very brave.”

Jack closed his eyes. Normally he needed to concentrate to call forth the subject he meant to draw, but Mom’s face leapt to his mind with no effort. He dragged his stubby pencil across the paper. Two forms quickly appeared. Mother. Father. They were together now, after all, or so Jack hoped. Mom’s image took shape rapidly, a replica of her living self, full of love and laughter. The other image was more difficult, despite the description of his father he’d just read. The pencil seemed directionless, the lines uncertain. In the end he had a shadowy figure that looked a bit like Mr. Schultz with black hair.

When Jack noticed Schultzie looking over his shoulder, he snapped shut the sketchbook, hoping embarrassment didn’t color his face.

They sat silently for a long while, until Schultzie said, “It will be okay.”

“How?” Jack asked.


“How? How will it be okay?”

Schultzie knocked a piece of concrete from the stairs and threw it into the street. “You’re right. It can’t be.”

“How could she do it?” Jack asked.

“Maybe there’s been some kind of mistake.”

“They found her car under twenty feet of water,” Jack said.

“Maybe she had a heart attack or something.”

“Right,” Jack said. “Look, Schultzie, there were a dozen witnesses.”

Mom always could draw an audience.

And for this performance she’d driven full speed off a cliff west of Malibu and into the ocean.

“Maybe . . .”

“They found a note.” Jack rubbed his hands together but couldn’t get them warm. Schultzie kicked another piece of concrete from the edge of the stairs.

“It stinks in there,” he said.

“Ajax,” Jack replied.

“No. Something else.”

Schultzie sniffed the air. So did Jack. Mostly it smelled like California, but there was an undertone—too sweet and a little acrid.

“I know—,” said Schultzie.

“That’s formaldehyde,” said Jack, “in the embalming fluid . . .”

Schultzie looked confused.

“From the bodies?” Jack pointed to the basement window.

“Oh,” said Schultzie. “I was going to say ‘pickles.’?”

Jack knelt down by the window and pulled Schultzie after him. The odor wafted from the spot where a small triangle of glass had broken out from the top of the frame. The glass was grimy, but they could easily make out two tables where smooth white sheets covered two still figures.

“Pickled people,” Jack said.

He was about to wipe away the grime with his jacket sleeve when Schultzie stopped him.

“Gotta keep yourself looking nice for when your Aunt Edith comes to get you,” his friend said. He spit on the window and wiped it clean with his own sleeve. “Think you’ll like San Francisco?”

“It’s a million miles away,” Jack said. “A zillion.” They peered in through the clean spot in the window. Behind the tables was a row of cabinets, and a countertop loaded with bottles of colored fluid and strange chrome instruments. Tubing hung over the side of the counter like translucent tentacles, and, weirdly, lipsticks fanned out from a rack in the back. But all these things receded to obscurity behind the sheet-covered slabs.

“I think I can reach the window latch,” Jack said. He snaked two fingers into the triangular hole.

“Maybe you’ll like it,” Schultzie said. “San Francisco.”

Jack pushed his hand in as far as he dared. The edge of the glass pressed sharply against the first joint of his fingers. “What choice do I have? I’m a full orphan now.”

“A full— Awww, come on,” Schultzie said. “Don’t tell me you believe all that junk McNeal spouts at school.”

Mousie McNeal was the littlest guy in their class, but he had the biggest mouth. Last year he’d had the whole fifth grade calling Jack “Ward.” Mousie said it was because Jack didn’t have a dad, so he was a half-orphan and just one heartbeat away from being a ward of the state. Jack had pulled out the dog tags and the little coffin-shaped silver charm to prove he did have a father. But Mousie’d just said, “Dead dads don’t count—Ward!” The nickname almost stuck, until Schultzie reminded everyone that he only had one parent too, and would they like to see how a half orphan threw a full nelson slam. Schultzie was the biggest guy at school, and he had the biggest heart.

“Mousie’s a moron,” Schultzie added. “They call him Mousie ’cause he squeaks too much. You’re way smarter than he is, and he just wanted to make you feel left out—by poking your soft spots. Dirty squeaker.”

Jack lifted the glasses from Schultzie’s face. He stuck one of the J-shaped arms through the hole in the glass and slid it into the ring of the window latch. “Yeah, but look, he was right. I’m a full orphan now.” He levered the glasses forward, and with a thunk the window fell inward. The hinges on the bottom squealed in protest before the frame caught on chains attached to its sides. A rush of the acrid odor made the boys cough. The window stuck out like a shelf from the basement wall. Jack hoped it would support his weight.

Even with the grimy window opened, little light made it into the room. The blood pounding in Jack’s ears urged him to turn around. Dark windows and dead bodies? No, thanks!

But Jack had questions.

“C’mon,” said Jack. He slid through the window, feetfirst.

Schultzie hesitated. “What are we doing?” he asked.

“Looking,” Jack said. For answers.

When he’d been peering through the window, he hadn’t been able to resist the call of the slabs. Now, with no glass separating him from them, Jack couldn’t look past the hem of the sheets. These were two real people. Or had been. Two people who, a week ago, had been playing catch in the yard, or dancing to the Platters, or making tuna–potato-chip casserole.

“You’re my best friend,” Schultzie said from the window, “but you are just a little creepy.”

“I’m curious,” Jack said. The hem of the sheet on the left-side slab curved and undulated up to where a man’s hand stuck out from beneath. A gold wedding band was on his finger.

“About what?” Schultzie asked. The figure on the right, though completely covered, was clearly female.

Had they been married?

“About . . . what happens after,” Jack said. His sweaty shirt stuck to him beneath his jacket. The taste of fear in his mouth overcame the tangy formaldehyde flavor in the air.

A grunt and a scuffle came from behind Jack. Then Schultzie was whispering into his ear, “I’m here. Which one should we ask?”

“The left,” Jack whispered back. “Uncovering the woman seems more . . .”

“Likely to scar you for life?” said Schultzie.

“Disrespectful,” Jack replied.

He approached the table and gently folded the sheet to below the man’s shoulders.

He was in his late thirties. Handsome. His hair was black. His eyes were closed. He looked quite natural, except the flesh-tone makeup ended in a stark border at the collarbone. Jack wanted to make a quick sketch, but first he had to ask his question. He held his hand above the man’s for a moment, then gently cupped it. The man’s hand was the same cool temperature as his wedding band. The fingers were slightly rough, like fine sandpaper. A father’s hands. Jack leaned over, bringing his lips to the man’s ear. He asked the question he so wanted answered.

“Where are you?” he whispered.

But the dead weren’t talking.

Suddenly a light came from above.

“Hey! What are you boys doing here?” The funeral director stood in the doorway, thumb still on the light switch.

“Looking,” said Jack.

“For the bathroom,” Schultzie added.

The funeral director gave them a doubtful scowl. “It’s upstairs. And please hurry. We need to wrap up your service. The Veronica Sanders wake is this afternoon. She was a big star. Her and her bodyguard’s tragic demise is already a media sensation. We’re expecting a mob of autograph seekers to arrive any moment.”

“Autograph seekers?” Jack looked at the female figure still under her sheet, then at his friend.

Schultzie shrugged. “Optimists.”

In the lobby upstairs the funeral director jangled his keys, glaring at Jack. He locked the door to the basement with two dead bolts and sniffed as he walked away. Schultzie gave a little whistle.

“Guess he doesn’t want any of his customers to escape,” Jack said.

He pulled the sketchbook from his pocket. He closed his eyes and ran his thumb along the pencil. The ridges on the eraser’s metal collar sent shivers up his arm that vibrated and formed points of light in the darkness of his mind. Points that shifted and drew themselves out into lines that curved and crossed, forming shapes. Shapes rotated and connected, becoming objects—a hand, a sheet, a twisted rubber tube. Objects took on mass, cast shadows, until Jack envisioned the entire tableau from the room below. Now he opened his eyes, and the vision had anchored itself to the paper. Already the pencil followed the pattern, separating light from darkness, and shading the areas between. He drew the tables, the bodies, the undulating sheets and the weird equipment, then drew them again from several angles.

“Not bad,” said Schultzie, looking over his shoulder. “I have no idea how you do that.”

Jack shrugged. The drawing gave him something to remember, but it didn’t answer his question.

“Time we went back in,” Schultzie said. He held the door to the viewing room open.

Jack walked to the display to retrieve the picture of Mom from the pedestal. He began to remove the frame. George’s big hands covered Jack’s. They felt warm and rough. “Please, Jack, keep it,” he said. “My good will is great, though the gift small.”

George removed his hands. Jack’s own still felt cold.

“Shouldn’t your aunt be here by now?” George asked.

What followed was a procession of Mom’s friends, the ladies in gloves and the men in dark hats. They filed past Jack sporting careful smiles and grim eyes, with many a squeeze on his shoulder and promises to help. Jack felt bottomless again, so it was Mr. Schultz who said thanks on his behalf, while Jack gave a small nod of his head.

Soon everyone was gone, except Jack, George, and the Schultzes. The four stood by the door of the funeral home, in the light of its stained-glass window. A single dust mote floated through the multihued beams, looking for a place to land.

“I thought my aunt would be here for the funeral,” Jack said.

“Better she were three hours too soon than a minute too late,” George said.

“Maybe he could stay with us,” Schultzie said to his father.

Mr. Schultz put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Maybe . . .”

The door flew open, slamming against the wall. The stained glass shook in its frame. A shadow fell across all four of them. Jack swallowed hard and clutched at the silver charm beneath his shirt. Standing on the threshold was Aunt Edith, waving around some legal-looking papers. Her hips pressed against the doorjamb on either side. Dressed in a black silk suit with fur trim too hot for the weather, she blocked out the sun— an eclipse in a feathered hat. Her eyes fell on Jack’s shoulder, where Mr. Schultz’s hand still rested.

“Unhand him,” she said. “That child is mine.”

About The Author

Photograph by Tim O’Meara

Jim Averbeck is the author of the Sophia series, illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail; In a Blue Room, illustrated by Tricia Tusa; and of the novel A Hitch at the Fairmont. He is also the author and illustrator of the picture books Oh No, Little Dragon! and Except If. He studied children’s book writing and illustration at the University of California Berkeley and now makes his home in San Francisco. You can visit him at

About The Illustrator

Nick Bertozzi has written and drawn many comics over the years, including The Salon, Lewis & Clark, and the New York Times bestselling Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey. He’s also written the upcoming Becoming Andy Warhol. Bertozzi has won multiple Harvey and Eisner awards, the highest honors in comics. He lives in Queens, New York, with his wife and daughters.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (June 2, 2015)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781442494480
  • Ages: 8 - 12

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Raves and Reviews

"Mmacabre twists that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dahl book."

– Kirkus Reviews

Awards and Honors

  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title

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