Read an Excerpt
THE PANTHER MYSTERY
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 1998 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
The Pink Hotel
Violet Alden saw the little hotel first. "Oh, it's so pretty! Like a sunset!" She was sitting in the front seat with Grandfather.
"You're right, Violet. The Flamingo Hotel certainly lives up to its name! I've never seen such a bright pink!" Grandfather steered the rental car into the driveway.
Six-year-old Benny Alden leaned out a window. "I'm going to climb that tree and get a coconut!" he exclaimed. "It's a pretty short tree."
"That's because it's a palmetto, not a palm tree," said Henry, reading from a guidebook.
After the Alden family had landed at the Miami airport, Benny had rushed to the windows to watch planes take off, but Henry had headed for a little bookstand. At fourteen, he was becoming interested in science.
"I bet there are a zillion bugs around here. I'm glad I brought insect spray," remarked twelve-year-old Jessie.
"This time I didn't forget my camera!" Violet said. "Florida is a perfect place to take lots of pictures." Violet was ten. When she wasn't drawing, she was snapping photos with her camera.
Grandfather pulled into a parking space near the pink-painted railing of the small porch. "Well, here we are," he said.
"When do we eat?" Benny asked.
Everyone laughed. "We just got here!"
"What happened to the burger and fries you had at the airport?" asked Grandfather.
"That was a long time ago," Benny said.
"Yeah!" said Henry. "Like about thirty minutes ago." With Jessie's help, he began dragging luggage from the trunk.
"It seems hard to believe we're still in the United States," Jessie commented. "I mean, we left Connecticut this morning and now we're in Miami and it doesn't look anything like home!"
"I know what you mean," Violet agreed. "Our lawn in Greenfield was smooth and green and Mrs. McGregor's roses were just blooming. But here it's like a jungle."
"Wait'll we see the Everglades," Henry added.
"I want to see lots of alligators," put in Benny. "I wished on a star last night."
"I hope we see Andrew Beldon," said Grandfather. "That's the purpose of this trip, after all."
Just yesterday James Alden had received a phone call from a business friend. Thomas Beldon was concerned about his youngest son, Andrew.
Andrew Beldon was a wildlife ranger in the Everglades National Park in south Florida.
Andrew always called his father once a week. But sometimes he got too involved in something and forgot to call. It had been over two weeks since Mr. Beldon had heard from Andrew, and he was too ill to take a trip to Florida. Grandfather had decided that this was a perfect time to visit the Everglades. He could take a vacation with his grandchildren and check on Andrew. He had known Andrew Beldon since Andrew was a boy Benny's age. It wasn't like Andrew to cause his ill father needless worry.
So the Aldens packed and flew to Florida.
"It seems like we're always on the go," Jessie remarked as they carried their luggage up the cement porch steps.
"Maybe it's because we once lived in a boxcar," Henry said thoughtfully. "Even though the boxcar didn't go anywhere, we've gone lots of places since Grandfather found us."
After the children's parents died, they had no home. Afraid of the grandfather they had never met, the children lived in an old boxcar in the woods. When James Alden found his grandchildren, he was overjoyed to have a brand-new family.
"But the boxcar did go someplace," Benny pointed out.
"That's right," said Violet. "Grandfather had our old boxcar brought to his backyard so we can play in it."
The screen door opened and a small dark-haired woman held it open for them, smiling. "You must be the Aldens. I'm Mrs. Ethel Johnson. Welcome to the Sunshine State!"
They all filed into the cool hallway and set the luggage down.
Grandfather went over to the small registration desk to sign in and chat with Mrs. Johnson.
After being in the bright sun, the children blinked at the dim interior.
From the darkness came a sudden loud cry. "Hello!"
Violet was so startled, she nearly dropped her tote bag. "What ... ?"
Ethel Johnson waved a hand. "Oh, pay no attention to Mollie. She just wants to be noticed."
As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, the kids realized the screamer was a red parrot on a tall perch.
"Wow!" Benny cried. "What a big beak she has! I bet she eats a lot!"
"Only nuts and seeds," said Ethel. "And animal crackers."
"Does she say different things?" Jessie asked. She thought the bird was beautiful.
"When she's in the mood," Mrs. Johnson replied. "Now I'll take you to your rooms. This is a little hotel. I hope you don't mind sharing two baths."
"Not at all," said Grandfather. "Your place is charming."
"How nice of you to say so," Mrs. Johnson said, leading them down a long hall. "There are five rooms. I've put you in three, all in the back, so you can see the sunrise. The girls are in here and the boys are next door. Mr. Alden is across the hall. Right now, you are my only guests."
"Thank you," Grandfather said.
"If you need anything, just give a yell," shouted Mrs. Johnson on her way back down the hall.
As soon as the woman was down the stairs, Jessie began giggling.
"What's so funny?" Henry asked.
"No wonder the parrot is so loud," Jessie said between giggles. "He learned to yell from Mrs. Johnson."
They all went into their rooms to unpack. The rooms were cheerfully decorated with prints of the Florida Everglades.
"It looks like a swamp," said Benny, staring at the picture over his bed.
"It isn't, really," Henry told him. "It's more like a river, with this long grass growing in it.
You'll see. We'll go there tomorrow."
"I wish we could go today," Benny said. "I want to see an alligator."
Just then Grandfather passed their door. "There you all are. I want to make some calls to Andrew and the visitors' center where he works before the Everglades Park closes."
"What about dinner?" Benny said, alligators suddenly forgotten.
"We'll eat in a while, after I make the calls," Grandfather told him. "Why don't you kids go for a walk? It's been a long trip, first on the plane, then driving out from the city. You could use the exercise."
"Great idea," said Violet. "Let's take a look at our neighborhood."
The sun was just beginning to slide over the stately royal palms that lined the street. The air smelled sweet from flowers.
"I'd love to live here," said Jessie, picking a trumpet-shaped blossom and tucking it behind one ear. "It would be like summer all the time."
"But wouldn't you miss the leaves falling?" said Violet.
"And snow?" Henry put in.
"And Watch? And Mrs. McGregor?" Benny added.
Jessie laughed. "All right! All right! I'm not moving to Florida!"
They strolled down the block. The houses were similar in style to the Flamingo Hotel. A few had signs out front advertising rooms for rent. At the end of the street was another small hotel called simply Seashells.
A man sat on the porch swing, reading a newspaper.
Violet noticed he had bushy brownish hair. He needed a haircut.
As if he read her mind, the man slowly lowered the newspaper. He stared at the Aldens.
"Hello," Violet said shyly.
"Nice evening, isn't it?" Henry added pleasantly.
"Hrmmpf," was all the man said, and went back to his newspaper.
"I wonder what's wrong with him?" Jessie whispered as they turned around and went back to their own hotel.
"Maybe he hasn't had his dinner yet," Benny said.
"I got the hint, Benny," said Henry. "Race you back!"
The kids were red-faced and sweaty when they reached the pink-painted porch.
Grandfather was waiting for them.
"Are we going to dinner now?" Benny asked hopefully. "I wish I could have fried shrimp."
"Yes, Benny" Grandfather said. "We're going to dinner and you may have fried shrimp."
Grandfather looked tired, Jessie thought. And worried. "What is it?" she asked.
"I called the visitors' center where Andrew Beldon works," James Alden said. "They haven't heard from him, either. And there was no answer at Andrew's house."
"You mean he hasn't gone to work?" Henry asked.
Grandfather shook his head. "He hasn't called in sick or taken a leave of absence."
Jessie drew in a breath. "It's like he's disappeared!"
What had happened to Ranger Beldon?CHAPTER 2
The River of Grass
Mrs. Johnson told the Aldens about a pancake restaurant just down the road. Over pecan pancakes and fresh Florida orange juice the next morning, the Aldens made plans.
"Now what do we do?" asked Violet.
"We're going to the Everglades," James Alden replied. "To the visitors' center where Andrew was supposed to be working. The young woman I spoke to yesterday didn't sound too concerned."
"How did she sound?" Violet asked.
"Annoyed," Grandfather said. "Are we ready to go?" he asked.
"Yes!" the children answered at once.
It was very hot, even early in the morning. The kids were glad their rental car had air- conditioning. Jessie sat up front with Grandfather as his "map guide."
"We just go out Route Forty-one," she told him. "And we come to the Shark Valley Information Center."
"What a funny name," Violet remarked. "They don't have sharks in the Everglades, do they?"
"Not in the Everglades," Henry replied. "But there are plenty of sharks in the water around Florida."
Soon they turned into Shark Valley. They parked and went inside the information center. At the front desk, they were greeted by a ranger. Her name badge read, MELANIE HARPER.
"Can I help you?" the young woman asked. She had blond hair cut very short.
"Yes," said Grandfather. "I'm looking for Andrew Beldon. I understand he works here."
Melanie frowned. "Were you the gentleman who called yesterday?"
"Yes," replied Grandfather. "Andrew is a family friend. I've come to see him."
"Good luck," Melanie said breezily. "He's on rotation here this week, but we haven't seen him. So I'm doing his job as well as mine."
"Andrew hasn't called his supervisor?" asked Grandfather.
Melanie seemed awfully casual, Jessie thought. "Isn't anybody worried about him?" she asked Melanie.
"It's his life," the young woman replied flippantly. "If he wants to lose his job, that's his business."
Henry thought the ranger had the wrong attitude. "Maybe he's sick at home. Has anyone called or gone to his house to check on him?"
"Look, all I know is I have to run Andrew's tram tours and announce the showings of the film," said Melanie. "It isn't easy doing double duty. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get ready for the next tour."
The Aldens moved away from the desk and went over to the exhibit area.
"Now I'm really worried," said Grandfather. "But I don't want to call Thomas and tell him that no one has seen Andrew in days. It might make his illness worse."
"You won't have to do that," said Henry firmly. "We'll find Andrew."
"Yeah," Benny said. "This won't be the first mystery we've solved."
Grandfather smiled. "You're right about that. You kids have solved a lot of mysteries."
"I have an idea," said Violet. "Let's take the tram tour that Andrew was supposed to be running. Maybe we'll find out something on the tour."
"Good idea," Henry said. "We'll retrace Andrew's steps. Maybe we can learn something about where he was last seen."
They wandered around the exhibits. The information center was busy.
Melanie picked up a microphone and announced the next viewing of the film. Then she added, "The next tram tour leaves in ten minutes. This is a two-hour guided tour. We will end at the observation tower."
One woman fanned herself with a map. "Too hot for me," she said to Jessie. "I think I'll go watch the movie!"
Several people followed the woman into the auditorium. Others went out the door to the tram platform. Melanie came out a few moments later. Her face wore a hurried look.
"You seem short-staffed," said a man as Melanie told them all to board the tram.
The Aldens sat up front, the children sitting in two seats across from one another. Grandfather shared a seat with an older gentleman.
"We are short-staffed," Melanie replied, jumping into the driver's seat and clipping a microphone to her shirt collar. "Another ranger came up from Flamingo Visitors' Center to help out these last few days." After checking to see that everyone was safely inside the tram, she started the engine.
In a monotone, she told them about the Shark Valley area. No cars were allowed on the fifteen-mile loop that went deep into the Everglades. But visitors could bike or walk the trail. Most people took the tram, since fifteen miles was a long walk in the summer heat.
"Will we see any alligators?" Benny asked Melanie. He sat directly behind her. "I really, really wish I'd see an alligator."
"You might," she said. "There are lots of alligators in the Everglades." Then she went back to her talk. She told them that nowhere on earth was there a place like the Everglades. The name meant "river of grass." The Everglades began north at Lake Okeechobee, a Native American name meaning "big water." The river flowed south, moving slowly.
"There's a lot of grass in it," Violet said.
"That's called sawgrass," Melanie replied into her microphone. "It only grows here. It's not really grass at all, but a plant called sedge. It's very sharp. Some sawgrass plants are rooted six to fifteen feet deep beneath the water. But here the water is only knee-deep."
The tram stopped several times as Melanie pointed out a white heron, a colorful spoonbill, and other birds.
At last they reached the end of the loop. "If you want," Melanie announced, "you may climb the observation tower. It's sixty-five feet high. You'll be rewarded with a spectacular view of the Everglades."
Benny climbed off the tram with the others. "We didn't see any alligators," he said, disappointed.
"We will," Violet told him. "Maybe it's their nap time." It was very hot. She had brought her camera. It swung around her neck on its strap.
Several older people decided to stay on the shaded tram.
"I'll stay here, too," said Grandfather. "Mr. Austin, here, and I both served in the navy and have a few stories to trade. But you kids go ahead. Be careful."
"We'll watch Benny," Jessie promised.
The observation tower was actually very safe to climb, with handrails on both sides. Soon they reached the top. The platform had railings all the way around.
"Wow!" Benny cried, running from one side to the other. "We're up as high as the moon!"
Jessie giggled. "Not quite." But the view was wonderful, just as Melanie had promised.
"We still don't know anything about Andrew Beldon," said Henry. "I thought we might learn something on the ride."
"I sure hope we find him soon," Jessie said.
Just then Henry pointed to a dark, greenish shape down below. "Look! Is that an alligator?"
"If it is, your wish has come true," Violet told her little brother.
Benny rushed over. "It looks like an old log to me."
"I think alligators do look like old logs," Henry told him. "They don't move a lot. But it's pretty far away."
"I'll take a picture," Violet offered. "Just in case it is an alligator."
She stepped forward to position the greenish log in her viewfinder, then put her finger on the button. Just then someone joggled her arm. Her finger pressed the button, but the camera moved. The picture was spoiled.
She turned to see who had bumped into her. It was a man dressed like a tourist, with a straw hat, a flower-printed shirt, and baggy plaid shorts. He, too, had a camera around his neck. He thumbed through a guidebook on birds.
But as Violet watched him, she realized he wasn't a typical tourist at all. The man wasn't gawking like the others, pointing out birds or other unusual sights. He seemed to be listening to the Aldens. But why? And why did he seem familiar?
She moved away from the man and was about to tell the others.
Just then Benny cried, "Look at that!"
A strange-looking vehicle skimmed quickly over the sawgrass. It was very loud. Birds flew up, wings beating.
"That's an airboat," Henry said. "Maybe we'll get to ride on one."
"They're awfully noisy," said Jessie. "All the birds flew away."
It was time to go back down to the tram. Violet looked around for the strange man, but he had melted into the crowd. When the tram returned to the information center, she thought she glimpsed him hopping quickly off and blending into the swarm of tourists waiting for the next tour.
"We'll look inside once more," said Grandfather. "In case Andrew has come back."
But the ranger at the desk wasn't Andrew. Melanie was getting ready for the next tram tour.
"I don't think we'll get any more information here today," said Grandfather after letting the children buy guidebooks and maps of the Everglades.
"Besides, it's lunchtime," Benny pointed out.
"There aren't any restaurants in the Everglades," Grandfather said. "We'll have to drive back to town."
"I remember a barbecue place on the way in," Henry said.
Sure enough, there was a small barbecue shack on the edge of the Everglades. Everyone piled out of the car and into the restaurant. They ordered iced tea and barbecue platters with extra sauce.
While waiting for their food, the children leafed through their new books.
"We should see all kinds of animals," Henry said excitedly. "Turtles, birds, snakes —"
Jessie shuddered. "No snakes." Normally she was brave, but she didn't like snakes.
Excerpted from THE PANTHER MYSTERY by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang. Copyright © 1998 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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