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The Black Widow Spider Mystery
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2003 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
"Look! There goes another truck!" cried six-year-old Benny Alden, looking out the window. "The new neighbors must be moving in!"
"It's about time," his ten-year-old sister, Violet, said. "It seems like the builders have been working on that house forever."
"Are you still watching what's going on down the street?" asked their grandfather, looking up from the deck of cards he was shuffling. Grandfather and Violet were playing Go Fish.
"I've seen two moving trucks go by this morning," said Benny. "I think the neighbors are finally coming!"
Henry, who was fourteen, joined Benny at the window and looked outside. "Too bad they put up that big stone wall. I can barely see the top of the house!"
"Why would anyone want a wall that big?" twelve-year-old Jessie asked.
"Maybe they have a whole lot of dogs!" Benny guessed. "I hope so."
Benny leaned closer to the window. As he stood watching the street for more moving trucks, he suddenly saw something else.
A limousine was moving slowly down the Aldens' street. Benny watched as the long, black car with dark-tinted windows turned into the driveway of the new house and disappeared out of sight behind the stone wall. "The neighbors are here!" Benny shouted, jumping up and down. "I just saw them!"
"Really? What do they look like?" asked Violet.
"Well, I didn't really see them," said Benny. "But I saw their car pulling into the driveway. It was a limousine!"
"Wow!" said Jessie. "But you didn't see who was in it?"
"No, the windows were dark — I couldn't see inside," Benny said, disappointed.
"A limousine with tinted windows and a big stone wall," said Henry. "These people sound different from our other neighbors."
"Some people like their privacy," said Mr. Alden.
"That's more than just privacy," said Jessie. "It's almost like they're hiding."
Grandfather smiled. "Well, I'm sure you four will do your best to make them feel welcome in the neighborhood."
"We'll go over later and say hello," Henry suggested.
"Let's ask Mrs. MacGregor if we can make a cake to take them," Violet added.
"Good idea!" said Benny, who always got excited about food. "A chocolate cake!" He ran into the kitchen where Mrs. MacGregor, the housekeeper, was washing the dishes from lunch.
"Mrs. MacGregor!" said Benny. "Will you help us make a cake for our new neighbors?"
"A cake is a lovely idea," Mrs. MacGregor agreed. "Let me just finish straightening up, then we'll make one."
The children had loved Mrs. MacGregor — and her cooking — ever since they'd come to live with their grandfather when their parents died. At first the children were afraid Mr. Alden would be mean, so they had hidden from him. They found a boxcar in the woods and made it their home. But when they learned what a kind man their grandfather really was, they came to live in his large house. He'd even brought the boxcar to their backyard so they could play in it.
Benny helped Mrs. MacGregor finish cleaning and putting away the lunch dishes. She got out the mixing bowl. She and Benny mixed flour, sugar, and baking soda. They added oil and eggs and chocolate. Soon the cake was in the oven, and a wonderful chocolaty smell filled the house.
"I can't wait to eat it!" Benny said to his sister Violet, who had just come into the kitchen.
"I thought the cake was for the neighbors," Violet said.
The smile on Benny's face disappeared. "That's right," he said sadly. "I forgot."
Mrs. MacGregor laughed. "Not to worry, Benny," she said. "I made some extra batter." Mrs. MacGregor put a tray of cupcakes in the oven beside the cake pan. "These you can eat."
"Hooray!" said Benny, giving Mrs. MacGregor a big hug. "You're the best."
Later that afternoon, Grandfather and the children walked over to welcome their new neighbors. Benny was proudly carrying the cake, which he and Mrs. MacGregor had iced with thick, fudgy frosting.
"No, Watch," Jessie told the dog as they set out. "You have to stay here."
The Aldens crossed the street and walked down the sidewalk toward the new neighbors' house. "Wow!" said Jessie as they got closer. "The stone wall is even taller than Grandfather! And look at that weird gate!"
A black wrought iron gate stood slightly open at the end of the driveway. The gate was decorated with unusual designs. The Aldens paused to look at the gate more closely.
"It looks like " Henry began.
"Spiders!" said Benny, his eyes wide.
Jessie shuddered. "Why would anyone want giant spiders on their front gate? That's not very welcoming."
"It is rather unusual," Mr. Alden said.
Violet took a step closer, examining the way the wrought iron bars on the gate twisted gracefully into the shape of spiders and intricate webs. "It's pretty cool how they did this," she pointed out. "It's actually kind of beautiful."
"Beautiful?" said Jessie. "I think it's creepy."
Henry pushed the heavy gate further open. He stood still for a moment, looking up at the house. It was large and imposing, with arched windows and a tall peaked roof. Something about the house looked almost unfriendly.
Slowly the Aldens began to make their way up the driveway.
Benny studied the house ahead of them. He had watched it being built from the ground up. Why did it make him feel so uncomfortable now? He had the strangest feeling that someone inside was watching them.
Benny searched the windows but saw no one. He was glad Grandfather had come with them.
At the front door, Jessie reached for the doorbell but suddenly jumped backward. "Oh my!" she cried.
"What is it?" Henry asked.
"Look at that giant spiderweb!" Jessie pointed over the doorbell.
"And look at the size of that spider crawling in it!" said Violet.
"You're not usually scared of spiders," Henry said.
"I know," said Jessie. "I think I'm just a little nervous after that weird gate and —"
Suddenly the front door began to move. It slowly creaked open, revealing a dark hallway and a tall woman standing inside. She had pale, white skin and long, dark hair. She was dressed entirely in black.
The woman studied Mr. Alden and the children for a long moment without saying a word. At last, in a cold, flat voice she said, "Hello."
"But I didn't even ring the bell!" Jessie said, confused. "How did you know we were here?" The woman raised an eyebrow. "I saw you coming."
Mr. Alden put out his hand. "James Alden, nice to meet you," he said. "Welcome to the neighborhood. We live right down the street. These are my grandchildren, Henry, Benny, Jessie, and Violet."
"And I am Arachnia Blackwell," said the woman, shaking Mr. Alden's hand. She smiled slightly, but her manner remained cool.
Jessie motioned for Benny to give her the cake. But Benny just stood there, staring. Jessie gently urged him forward with her hand on his back. Benny took a timid step toward Mrs. Blackwell and held out the cake. "This is for you," he said in a quiet voice.
Mrs. Blackwell looked down at Benny. "Thank you," she said, taking the plate from him. Benny immediately noticed her long, red fingernails. They looked sharp and dangerous.
Mrs. Blackwell stepped farther back into the house. "Won't you come in?"
"Why yes, thank you," Mr. Alden said, leading the way. "Benny's been watching the construction here — this house took a long time to build."
"The house was built specially for us," Mrs. Blackwell said. "To suit our unusual needs."
"Unusual needs?" repeated Jessie.
"My husband and I have jobs that are rather " Mrs. Blackwell paused, as if looking for the right word. "Unique."
"What does unique mean?" asked Benny.
Mrs. Blackwell smiled. "It means our jobs are different from most people's." She looked around for a place to put the cake. There was no furniture in the hallway, just stacks of boxes. "Oh, what am I going to do with all this stuff?" she said under her breath.
"You sure do have a lot of boxes," Benny said.
Mrs. Blackwell nodded, her face grim. "Yes, we do. I don't know how I'm going to get them all unpacked and get my work done."
"We could help you," Henry offered.
"What do you mean?" asked Mrs. Blackwell.
"We'd be happy to come over and help you unpack," Henry said. "We're good at cleaning and organizing. Especially Jessie." He smiled at his sister.
Mrs. Blackwell thought about this for a moment, a slight frown on her face. "I'm not sure my husband would want children touching his things," she said.
"My grandchildren are very careful," said Mr. Alden.
"We've helped out lots of places, even at the Greenfield Museum, and they had some very valuable things," Jessie said.
Mrs. Blackwell suddenly looked quite interested. "Did you say you'd helped at the museum?"
"Yes," Henry said proudly.
"The problem is that some of my husband's things are a bit fragile." Mrs. Blackwell looked around at all the boxes. "Still, it would be nice to have some help." She looked back at the children, studying them thoughtfully. "All right," she said at last. "Why don't you come first thing tomorrow morning and we'll get started."
"OK," said Henry. "We'll see you then."
"Nice meeting you," Mr. Alden said, as he led the children out the door.
As they walked down the driveway, Jessie turned to the others. "There's something unusual about Mrs. Blackwell."
"Yes," Violet agreed. "She chooses her words very carefully — it's almost as if she's hiding something."
Benny's face lit up. "A secret?" He smiled broadly. "I love secrets. I'm going to figure out what it is!"CHAPTER 2
A Strange Symbol
The next morning, the Aldens ate a quick breakfast and then walked up the street to the Blackwells' house. They felt excited and a little nervous, wondering what it would be like inside. They had only seen the front hallway and were curious what the rest of the house was like. And would they get to meet Mr. Blackwell?
As the Aldens approached the Blackwells' front gate, a long, black limousine passed them and headed up the driveway. The car disappeared behind the house, so the children couldn't see who was getting out.
When they reached the door, Mrs. Blackwell once again opened it before they rang the bell.
"You're here," she said. She smiled briefly.
"Good morning," Henry said. "Where should we start?"
Mrs. Blackwell looked around her at the stacks of boxes. Some boxes had been partially unpacked. Here and there on the floor were piles of books, pots and pans, and crumpled newspaper. "You can start right here, I suppose. These boxes all need to be carried to the rooms where they belong. I'll give you a quick tour of the house, and then you can take all the boxes where they need to go — they're all labeled on top."
"Sounds easy enough," said Henry.
Mrs. Blackwell's voice suddenly became tense. "When you see boxes with this symbol on them," she pointed to a box that had a red marking on the top, "be extra careful with them. I'll show you where they go. But whatever you do, don't open those boxes." Mrs. Blackwell looked closely at each of the children to make sure they were paying attention.
The Aldens nodded seriously.
"Come along, then," Mrs. Blackwell said, her voice more relaxed. She began the tour of the house.
"This is the living room, the dining room is over there, and here's the library," Mrs. Blackwell said. The Aldens walked quickly, trying to keep up with her. The rooms were dark, lit only by the little bit of light that came in the windows. The Aldens weren't sure whether the Blackwells hadn't unpacked their lamps yet or whether they just liked the dim light.
At the back of the house was a long, dark hallway. At the far end of the hall, the children could see a closed door, with a line of light gleaming from underneath.
"Here's where the boxes with the red markings go," Mrs. Blackwell said. "You don't need to go down the hallway. Just leave the boxes here and my husband will take care of them."
"Are you sure?" Henry said. "We don't mind —"
"Yes, I'm sure," Mrs. Blackwell interrupted. "You are not to go down there or you will disturb my husband. And remember, the boxes stay closed."
Upstairs, Mrs. Blackwell showed them the master bedroom, an office, a couple of guest rooms, and a sitting room. Each room already held several stacks of boxes.
"What does that door lead to?" Jessie asked, pointing to a door off the sitting room.
"That door?" Mrs. Blackwell said. "Oh, that's my —" She suddenly stopped, as if she'd changed her mind about what she was going to say. "Don't worry about that. There won't be any boxes for that room. I've already put them all away."
Jessie and Violet exchanged glances. Why was Mrs. Blackwell so secretive?
When Mrs. Blackwell had shown them the whole house, she led them back to the front hall. "I appreciate your help. If you need me, I'll be unpacking in my room," Mrs. Blackwell said, going up the stairs.
The Aldens looked around at the many boxes, wondering where to begin. Jessie spoke first. She was always very organized. "Henry and I will move the largest boxes. Violet can take the medium-sized ones, and Benny the small ones."
Benny frowned. "I can carry big boxes, too! I'm strong!"
Jessie smiled. "Yes, you are, Benny. But this way, we have a system."
Each of the Aldens picked up a box. "Library," said Henry, reading the label on the top of his box.
"Mine goes in the office," Jessie said, heading upstairs.
Violet and Benny each picked up a box for the living room.
The children worked steadily. It was hard work but they enjoyed it. Sometimes two of the Aldens would carry an especially heavy box together. As they moved the boxes, they made a game of guessing what might be inside each one.
"This box must be full of books," said Jessie, picking up a heavy box labeled Library.
"And this one must be full of rocks!" said Benny, groaning as he lifted another.
Jessie came to a box with a red mark on it. "What did Mrs. Blackwell say about these?"
"She said to be very careful with them," Violet reminded her. "They have something to do with Mr. Blackwell's work and they go in the back hallway."
"What do you think that red mark means?" Benny wondered.
"It looks like an hourglass," said Jessie.
"An hourglass is an old-fashioned clock," Violet said, noticing Benny's puzzled face. "Maybe Mr. Blackwell works on old clocks and that's what's in these boxes."
"That would explain why we need to be careful with them," said Jessie. "Old clocks and hourglasses can be fragile."
Henry had been standing silently, staring at the red marking.
"What is it, Henry?" Violet asked.
"I don't know," Henry said. "But that red hourglass reminds me of something. I wish I could remember what."
While they were talking, the telephone rang. Mrs. Blackwell came down the stairs quickly. "Now where did I plug in the phone?" she said to herself, looking around the piles of boxes and wads of crumpled paper.
They could all hear the insistent ringing, but the phone was nowhere to be seen.
"Here it is," Violet said, pulling the phone from behind a box.
"Thanks," Mrs. Blackwell said. "Hello?" she said into the receiver. She walked into the living room, away from the kids.
The Aldens went back to their work.
Benny didn't intend to eavesdrop on Mrs. Blackwell's conversation, but as he carried a box to the dining room, he couldn't help hearing her words. "I'm on the trail, but I haven't tracked them down yet," she said into the phone.
Mrs. Blackwell stopped talking and listened to the person on the other end. She seemed to be getting upset. Her face was turning red and when she spoke, her voice was loud and angry. Now all the children heard what she was saying. "I know, I know! Time is running out. But I have to set it up just right They can't know I'm there."
There was silence again as Mrs. Blackwell listened to the caller. She seemed calmer when she spoke again. "Don't worry. I'll be sure to catch them in the act."
Benny was paying so much attention to what Mrs. Blackwell was saying that he dropped the box he was holding. Mrs. Blackwell turned around and saw him staring at her. She quickly spoke into the receiver. "I can't talk right now — I'll call you back later." She hung up the phone.
Embarrassed, Benny and the others quickly got busy, picking up boxes and reading their labels. Mrs. Blackwell headed back up the stairs.
Once she was gone, the Aldens clustered together in the hallway. "What was she talking about?" asked Benny in a hushed voice.
"When she said she had a unique job," Jessie said, "I didn't realize she meant one that involves secretly tracking people down!"
Excerpted from The Black Widow Spider Mystery by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2003 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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