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The Gymnastics Mystery
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 1999 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
The Girl from Russia
Six-year-old Benny Alden held up a sign with KATYA LUDSKAYA written on it. He watched anxiously as passengers walked through the airport doorway.
"What if we miss her?" he said to his sister Jessie.
"We won't," Jessie replied. At twelve, she was the most organized of the Alden children. She had made the sign. "We know Katya is on this plane."
"But we don't know what she looks like," Benny said. "And she doesn't know what we look like."
"That's why Jessie made the sign," said Henry, the oldest at fourteen.
"Her coach told us Katya reads and speaks English. She'll see the card and come over to us."
Violet Alden leaned over Benny's shoulder. The Russian girl they were waiting for was ten years old, exactly her age. She was as excited as her little brother to see their houseguest.
"The crowd is thinning out," Jessie observed. "Katya was probably sitting in the back of the plane."
"This was a long journey," Grandfather said. "Katya flew from Russia to New York, then changed planes for this flight to Hartford. And we still have to drive home."
In just a few days, their hometown of Greenfield, Connecticut, was hosting a gymnastics competition in the new Greenfield Sports Arena. James Alden had offered to sponsor one of the foreign gymnasts. Many athletes relied on people like Grandfather to let them stay in their homes. Otherwise, they couldn't afford to compete in other countries.
"That must be her!" Benny cried, spying a small blond girl. She wore a blue warm-up suit and carried a red sports bag.
The girl scanned the waiting area with worried blue eyes. Then she saw Benny holding the sign with her name on it and smiled with relief.
The Aldens hurried forward.
"Hi!" Benny said. "Are you Katya?"
"Yes, I am Katya Ludskaya," the girl replied. "And you are Benny, yes?" She pronounced Benny's name Bennee.
Grandfather held out his hand. "I'm James Alden, Katya. Welcome to the United States."
"Thank you so much," Katya said shyly. "This is my first time in your country."
"Well, let's get your luggage and drive home," said Grandfather. "Then you can see more of America than the inside of an airport."
Violet was surprised that Katya was only a little taller than Benny. She was enchanted by the Russian girl's accent and her beautiful smile.
"I'm Violet Alden," she said. "Can I carry your bag?"
Katya gave her the red sports bag. "Thank you, Violet."
"I'm Jessie," Jessie said as they rode the escalator down to the baggage claim area. "And this is Henry."
"We're glad you're staying with us," added Henry.
"I am so happy you are having me stay," Katya said.
Benny half turned on the moving stairs to look back. "Mrs. McGregor is cooking a special dinner tonight for you. Hamburgers and french fries and pie!"
Katya seemed pleased and a little less shy. "Real American food! How wonderful."
Downstairs, they walked over to the carousel, where suitcases, boxes, and bags from Katya's flight were going around on a conveyor belt.
"I hope I have not missed mine," Katya said, concerned.
"Don't worry," said Henry. "It'll take a while to unload all the luggage from the plane. What does your suitcase look like?"
"It is black," Katya replied. "With squashy sides. I don't know what you call it—"
"Is it like that one?" Jessie pointed to a green duffel bag.
"Yes, only black." Then Katya cried, "There it is!"
But as she reached for the black duffel, a man with black hair and a yellow cap pushed past her and grabbed it.
"Hey!" Benny cried, but the man had already left.
Grandfather pointed to the carousel. "That bag belonged to that man. There are lots of black duffels, Katya. We'll have to check them all."
"This one is mine," said Katya when another black duffel came around. "I am sure of it."
Relieved that they'd finally found the right bag, Henry grabbed it quickly before it passed. "Got it."
"Now we can go home," Benny told Katya. "I hope you like our house. We have a dog named Watch, but he's real friendly—"
"Benny," Jessie said, laughing. "Katya will be with us all week."
"That's okay, Benny," said Katya. "I want to hear about Watch and anything else you would like to tell me."
Henry shifted Katya's bag to his other hand. "We want to hear about your family, too."
"What is your house like?" asked Violet.
Instead of answering, Katya said, "What kind of pie are we having for dinner?"
"Apple," Jessie replied as they passed pay phones and lockers built into the wall.
She noticed the man in the yellow cap. He was hanging up the handset of a pay phone, the duffel on the floor by his feet.
Nearby a scruffy-looking younger man with light hair slouched with a dog at his side. He looked as if he were waiting for the phone the older man had just finished using. The young man crouched down to pet his dog. "You hungry, Ralphie?" he said softly. "Don't worry, boy, I'll get you some dinner. Promise."
Weird, thought Jessie. There were at least a dozen unoccupied telephones. The scruffy young man was obviously making the older man nervous by standing too close. As the older man hung up the handset and stepped away from the phone, he backed into the Alden children and Katya.
"Sorry," he apologized. Then, as his glance took in Katya, his eyes widened as if he had seen a ghost. As he quickly snatched up his bag and hurried out the door to the taxi line, a small key fell from his hand to the floor.
Grandfather was leading Katya out the same door.
Henry dropped back to speak to the others. "Did that guy seem weird or what?"
"Definitely weird," confirmed Violet. "I wonder why he was staring at us that way."
Jessie shook her head. "I don't know. I've never seen him before."
While his brother and sisters were discussing the stranger's odd behavior, Benny picked up the tiny silver key he had seen the stranger drop. It had a small number 17 stamped on it.
Before Benny could mention his find, the young man with the dog rushed by them and out the door.
"Everybody's certainly in a hurry," said Violet. "I guess he's afraid his mysterious friend will leave him."
"Who knows?" Henry shrugged. "We'd better hurry ourselves. Grandfather and Katya will be at the car by now. Come on, Benny."
Benny slipped the key in his pocket and promptly forgot about it. He planned to sit beside Katya in Grandfather's big station wagon and show her the sights.
Within minutes, the Aldens and their houseguest had left the airport behind and were heading toward Greenfield.
"The United States is so big," commented Katya, looking at everything with interest. "And so pretty."
"Russia is much bigger," Grandfather said. "What part do you come from?"
"Oh, a little town near St. Petersburg," Katya replied vaguely. "The towns here are like pictures in a book. I can spell Connecticut!" And she did, proudly.
Benny was impressed. "Boy, I can't even spell Connecticut, and I live here!"
Everyone laughed. Then Jessie and Henry taught Katya "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and they sang the rest of the way to Greenfield.
As Grandfather pulled the station wagon into the driveway, the large white house came into view.
"Is this your house?" said Katya. "For just the five of you?"
"And Mrs. McGregor," said Jessie, swinging open the car door.
"And Watch," Benny added.
At that moment, the dog bounded out the front door, barking in greeting. Katya giggled when Watch eagerly licked her hand.
"He likes me!" she said, delighted.
Mrs. McGregor came out to welcome their guest.
"I hope your visit will be comfortable," the housekeeper said, opening the door wide.
Katya smiled shyly again. "I am sure it will be."
Upstairs, she stopped when she saw the guest room.
"Is this for me?" she asked in amazement.
The room, which overlooked the backyard, was furnished with a canopied four-poster bed. A quilt sewn in pink and green blocks made the bed even more inviting. Mrs. McGregor had arranged dried cattails in a green pottery vase.
"The bed belonged to Grandfather's mother," said Henry, putting Katya's bag on the floor by the dresser. "It's old."
"But it won't fall down or anything," Benny put in, making them all laugh again.
Katya went over to the large window and drew back the lace curtain. "What is that?" she inquired. "It looks like a train car!"
"It is," said Violet. "We'll tell you about it at dinner. I'm sure you want to wash up and rest a little."
Then the children left and went downstairs to help Mrs. McGregor with dinner.
In addition to hamburgers and french fries, the housekeeper fixed baked beans, hot dogs, and coleslaw. Two fragrant apple pies cooled on the countertop.
When it was time to eat, everyone filed into the dining room.
"Sit by me," Benny begged Katya.
"All right," said Katya, unfolding her napkin in her lap. "Everything smells so good!"
"Dig in," said Grandfather, passing the plate of meat to the guest. "Mrs. McGregor outdid herself."
"Oh, it's nothing," said Mrs. McGregor. "Just hamburgers and hot dogs."
Katya speared a hot dog from the plate. "Where I come from, we never have two kinds of meat at the same time. Americans are so lucky! You are all rich!"
"Not all Americans are rich," Grandfather said gently.
"And we didn't always have a lot of food," Henry broke in.
"And we didn't always live in this house. In fact, we didn't have a home at all for a while."
Katya stared at him. "That is not so!"
"Yes, it is," said Jessie. "You see, our parents died suddenly and we didn't have anyplace to go. We didn't know about Grandfather then."
Violet took up the story. "So we found this boxcar in the woods and lived in that. Henry earned money for food."
"Then Grandfather found us," said Benny. "He had been looking for us, and we thought he was mean. But he isn't and he took us to live here."
Katya looked confused. "I do not understand."
"My grandchildren heard things about me that weren't true," explained James Alden. "They hid in that boxcar. But then I found them and brought them here to live with me. We've been happy ever since."
"And we've solved a lot of mysteries," said Benny.
Grandfather laughed. "Benny is right. These four are quite good detectives."
"What an amazing family!" Katya declared.
When dinner was over, the Aldens took her outside to show her the boxcar.
It was getting dark when they went back in the house.
"Katya, you must be exhausted," said Mrs. McGregor. "Jessie and Violet will help you get settled in."
Jessie led the way upstairs to the guest room.
Katya picked up her duffel bag and placed it on the bed. She unzipped the top, then gasped.
"What is it?" Violet asked, concerned.
Katya pulled out a man's tie. "This bag! It is not mine!"CHAPTER 2
The Wrong Bag
"Are you sure?" Violet asked.
"Yes! These are all men's clothes!" Katya pulled out another tie and a pair of shoes, then stuffed the items back into the duffel. "What am I going to do?"
At that moment, Henry and Benny stopped by the door.
"Everything okay?" Henry asked.
"No, it isn't," answered Jessie. "Katya picked up the wrong bag at the airport. This one has men's things in it."
"That was an easy mistake to make," Benny said to Katya. He put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "There were lots of black bags just like yours on that merry-go-round."
"I know," she said, on the verge of tears. "But I should have checked the tag. I was so excited—"
Jessie grabbed the luggage tag hanging from the strap. "This bag belongs to Al Stockton. He lives in Rockwell."
"That's the next town over," Violet said.
Now Grandfather came by. "I see long faces in here. What's the matter?" Jessie explained about the bag mix-up.
Grandfather looked at the tag and said, "Mr. Stockton only has his address on here. No phone number. So we'll deliver his bag to Rockwell tomorrow after breakfast."
"Do you think he has mine?" Katya asked anxiously.
"It's possible," Grandfather assured her. "Your coach told me your luggage would have our address on the tag. Whoever has it will surely return it. Now let's all get some rest and tackle this problem in the morning."
"We'll lend you things for the night," Jessie offered. "There are extra toothbrushes in the bathroom. And a pair of Violet's pajamas will be a little large but will do for now."
"Thank you," said Katya, blinking back tears. "I'm sorry to be so much trouble."
"Don't worry about it," said Grandfather. "We want you to concentrate on the competition and do your best."
The next morning was sunny but cold. Mrs. McGregor cooked a hearty breakfast of French toast, poached eggs, and sausage patties.
"This ought to chase the chill away," the housekeeper said, setting platters on the table.
Benny sat next to Katya again. "Mrs. McGregor makes the best French toast." He handed the plate to her first, even though he was very hungry.
Before anyone could take a single bite, the doorbell rang insistently. Mrs. McGregor left to answer it. She came back leading a tall, black-haired man. He wore a yellow cap and carried a dusty duffel.
Violet realized instantly it was the mysterious man from the airport the day before.
"You!" the man accused Katya. "You took my bag!"
Katya shrank in her chair, frightened by his blustering manner.
"Now, see here." Grandfather pushed away from the table. "Speak in a civil tone when you are in my home. And please announce yourself."
"Al Stockton. I'm returning this." He thrust the bag at Katya.
"My bag!" she cried. "Thank you so much."
"Where's mine? Do you have it?" Al demanded.
Katya sprang to her feet. "Yes, I do. I'll get it right away." She ran upstairs with her own bag.
"We were on our way to your house as soon as we had finished breakfast," Grandfather told Mr. Stockton. "Since your phone number wasn't on your luggage tag, we weren't able to call."
"You're lucky," Henry added. "You picked up Katya's bag and she picked up yours by mistake. Someone else could have had yours."
Katya returned with Mr. Stockton's duffel. He practically snatched it out of her hands.
"Did you go through my stuff?" he inquired.
Jessie came to their guest's defense. "We only unzipped the bag and saw enough to know it wasn't Katya's."
"I think an apology is in order," Grandfather prodded.
"Sorry," Mr. Stockton mumbled gruffly.
Benny noticed the mystery man couldn't look at Katya. It was almost as if he were afraid of her. But why?
Then Benny remembered the tiny silver key he had found at the airport. He was sure Mr. Stockton had dropped it. But before Benny could mention it, the man was gone.
"What a strange man," Henry observed. He added to Katya, "Not all Americans are like Mr. Stockton."
She smiled. "Not all Russians are so nice, either."
It was time to drive Katya to the arena. She changed into a blue-and-white warm-up suit and carried a water bottle and her sports bag. The Aldens were excited at the idea of watching a professional gymnast practice.
Grandfather let them off at the main entrance to the sports facility, promising to return when Katya's morning session was over.
When they entered the huge arena, the Alden children stared in astonishment. Everywhere young people flipped over bars, performed handstands on thin poles, and cartwheeled across thick blue mats.
"Wow!" exclaimed Benny. "It's like those people at the circus. What do you call them?"
"Acrobats," Henry replied.
"Some of the tricks we do in gymnastics are what acrobats do," said Katya.
"There's my coach!"
A woman with short blond hair strode over with a clipboard. "Katya," she said in the same accent as Katya's. "I'm so glad to see you. Are you ready to begin?"
"Yes. These are the Aldens, the family I am staying with." She introduced Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny to her coach, who was named Irina.
"Is it okay if we watch?" Jessie asked. The athletes were practicing for a serious competition, she knew. Maybe they didn't like outsiders around while they worked.
"Of course," said Irina. "Gymnasts are used to spectators. Katya will warm up and stretch first. Then she will go through her sets on the balance beam and the uneven parallel bars."
Taking off her blue-and-white jacket, Katya laid it on a bleacher seat. Then she stepped out of the pants and took off her shoes and socks.
Excerpted from The Gymnastics Mystery by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang. Copyright © 1999 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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