Read an Excerpt
The Disappearing Staircase Mystery
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2001 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
The Bugaboo House
The Alden House was jumping. Every few minutes, people on the front porch rang the doorbell. And every few minutes on the back porch, the family dog, Watch, whined to come in. The Alden children were in the kitchen baking cookies. Watch didn't want to miss any of the fun—or any of the crumbs, either!
Mrs. McGregor, the Aldens' housekeeper, handed Violet Alden two china plates. "I know you'll make a pretty pattern of cookies on these plates."
Ten-year-old Violet had careful hands. One by one she arranged the cookies into perfect circles. "I love when we have a lot of company," she told everyone in the Alden kitchen.
"And I love when we have a lot of cookies," Benny added. He was six. His job was to let Jessie know if the cookies were browning too fast. He and his five-year-old cousin, Soo Lee Alden, stared through the oven door window. They liked watching the lumps of cookie dough turn into round, crispy shapes.
The oldest children, fourteen-year-old Henry and twelve-year-old Jessie, watched the kitchen clock.
"Ten more minutes," Jessie announced. She was busy counting cups and saucers on a tray. "That's when Mabel said the meeting would start."
"Who's Mabel?" Soo Lee asked.
"Mabel Hart is Grandfather's good friend, Soo Lee," Jessie answered. "She runs a group called House and Hands. The helpers from her group fix up old houses for people who need homes. We're going to be helpers, too," Jessie explained, peeking in the oven. "Looks like those cookies are done."
"At the meeting tonight, Mabel is going to introduce the volunteers to one another," Henry added. "We'll find out what jobs we'll be doing with the House and Hands group."
"Eating cookies is my job," Benny said when Jessie slid out the cookie sheet.
A few minutes later, the children joined Grandfather's guests in the living room. Nearly every chair was taken, even the creaky one next to the fireplace. The children carefully set the refreshments down on the coffee table. Then they found places to sit on the floor.
"Welcome to our home, everyone," Grandfather Alden began. "These are my grandchildren, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, and my grandniece, Soo Lee. Mabel Hart, our founder, has invited them to work on our first House and Hands project. They are hard workers. They fixed up a boxcar in the woods before I brought them here to live with me. You never saw such a cozy home as that boxcar. As for fixing things, they even fixed these cookies."
"Even though the cookies weren't broken," Benny added.
Everyone in the living room chuckled.
When the laughter died down, Mabel Hart stood up to speak. She was a tall woman with friendly blue eyes and a cloud of curly white hair. "As Mr. Alden said, our House and Hands group has a new fix-up project. This time around, we're fixing up a large house for twenty of our senior citizens to live in. The last owner left the estate to House and Hands. It used to be called the Bugbee House."
Everyone shifted and murmured.
"The Bugaboo House!" Benny whispered. "Wow!"
"Isn't the Bugaboo House haunted?" someone asked.
Mabel Hart smiled. "I knew that would come up. For years, there have been stories about the Bugbee House being haunted. But our House and Hands engineers have checked out the property. They haven't found a single ghost! The place is just old and creaky. It just needs a lot of TLC."
Soo Lee raised her hand. "What's TLC?"
"Tender loving care," Mabel answered. "That's what we give to all our House and Hands projects. We have lots to do," she continued. "In a few days there will be an auction of everything in the Bugbee House. The money we make will help us buy building materials to fix up the property."
"I can't wait to get home to tell my wife and my grandkids about the auction," a man sitting nearby said.
"What's an auction?" Soo Lee asked.
"An auction is a big sale—almost like a show," Grandfather explained. "Somebody gets up in front and shows what's for sale item by item. People in the audience call out the price they want to pay. That's their bid. The person who bids the highest amount gets the item."
A man sitting nearby nodded. "There will be a lot of excitement over the Bugbee auction, I'm sure, Mr. Alden. Mr. Bugbee was quite a collector. I'm told he collected everything from jewelry and valuable books to old toys."
"Toys?" Benny and Soo Lee cried at the same time.
The man nodded. "Oh, yes. Mr. Bugbee and his wife collected a lot of fine old toys—trains, dollhouses, music boxes—all sorts of things. My grandkids will enjoy those. As for my wife and me, we like old books, antique jewelry, and such."
"Why would there be so many things in a house that nobody's lived in for years?" Violet asked.
"The story is that the Bugbees left town without taking a thing," explained Grandfather. "They sold the entire house and everything in it to another owner. He lived overseas and never moved in. Finally he donated the Bugbee House to the House and Hands group to fix up."
"Now, now, I'm sure they didn't leave everything in the house," said an older woman sitting nearby with her husband. She turned to Mr. Alden. "I'm Louella Gardiner, and this is my husband, George. Anyway, everyone will discover what was left soon enough, won't they?"
"I suppose," Grandfather said. "I think Mabel has a few more announcements. Let's hear what she has to say."
Louella Gardiner turned back to talk with her husband, but her question made the children curious. Just what was there to discover at the Bugbee House?
Mabel Hart tapped her pen against her teacup to get everyone's attention again. "Before refreshments, I'd like to introduce our project leaders to the other volunteers," she announced. "Please meet Nan Lodge."
Everyone looked around the room.
"Nan!" Mabel repeated. "Stand up, please."
Finally a young woman with reddish-brown hair looked up from the notebook she was writing in. "Were you calling me? Sorry, Mabel. I was just going over my notes." She stood up and smiled nervously at the volunteers. Then she quickly sat down again and went back to her scribbling.
Mabel looked around the room. "Brian Carpenter is another one of our leaders. Brian, please give a wave so everyone can see who you are. House and Hands is delighted to have Brian. He's a construction worker who will supervise the building jobs."
Brian waved but didn't smile. He looked as if he belonged in a workshop with a power saw, not in a wing chair having tea and cookies. Like Nan Lodge, he seemed to be in his early thirties. He wore work boots, jeans, and a work vest filled with tools.
Mabel looked around the room. She picked out the Gardiners, who stood up. "Louella and George Gardiner have already begun the cleanup of the Bugbee estate. They're getting everything ready for the auction in a few days. They have worked on several fine old estates before," Mabel told everyone.
Mr. Alden stood up, too. "Please enjoy yourselves and have some refreshments. And do let the leaders know what your special talents and skills are. They will direct each person to the best job."
"Mine is making cookies and eating them," Benny told Grandfather. "I'm good at that job."
Jessie went over to Louella Gardiner, who was pouring herself some tea. "May we help you with the auction?" Jessie asked. "Our family has organized yard sales before. Henry and I are strong. Violet is good at arranging things. Benny and Soo Lee can fetch things."
"Children handling antiques? I'm afraid that wouldn't do at all," Louella said in a low, firm voice. "Mr. Gardiner and I have run many estate sales. I can assure you we don't use children to handle valuables. You may want to work with Nan Lodge or Brian Carpenter instead. I'm afraid we simply cannot have children underfoot." She walked away.
Henry tried to cheer up the other children. They were surprised that Louella had been so cross with them. "There's plenty to do besides working on the auction. Let's go see if Brian or Nan could use some Alden elbow grease."
Soo Lee and Benny checked their elbows.
"My elbows aren't greasy, Henry," Soo Lee said.
Henry picked up Soo Lee. He gave her a twirl until she giggled. "Elbow grease just means hard work, Soo Lee."
Brian Carpenter and Nan Lodge were looking over some papers when the Aldens came over.
"I'm in charge of repairs," Brian told Nan in a sharp voice. "I can't have volunteers running all over the house before the major repairs are done. I would suggest that you keep your workers busy with outside work until my crew finishes the heavy work on the upper floors. Then your volunteers can get on with the painting and such."
The Aldens stepped forward just as Nan stomped away.
"If you need help, Henry and I are pretty good at repairing things," Jessie told Brian. "You can check our boxcar in the backyard to see how we fixed it up."
Brian stared at Jessie before answering. "I'll let you know. This isn't a playhouse like your boxcar. It's a real house. I need a grown-up crew for now."
The children looked at one another, then walked away.
"Gee," Henry said. "The Gardiners don't want us to help out at the auction. Now Brian only wants grown-ups for his group. That leaves Nan Lodge."
The Aldens tracked down Nan in Grandfather's den. She was looking through some of his old books about Greenfield. She didn't hear the children enter.
"Sorry," Jessie said when Nan seemed startled to see the Aldens. "Can we help you find something?"
Nan put down the book she had been reading. "I was checking for some information Mabel needed. But I didn't find it. I'm going to get some tea." With that, Nan suddenly got up and returned to the living room.
"Let's wait to talk with the leaders when they're not so busy," Jessie suggested after Nan left. "I wonder why Nan was looking through Grandfather's old books."
They went out to the living room, too. Everyone seemed to be buzzing with stories about the Bugbee family.
"Well, my uncle told me Mr. Bugbee and his family left Greenfield in disgrace. Something to do with unpaid taxes or some such thing," a volunteer said.
"What are taxes?" Benny whispered to Henry.
"It's money that people pay to the government," Henry answered. "Money that helps run the town of Greenfield and lots of other things."
"Oh!" Benny whispered. "That's important."
"Can you imagine just leaving your whole house and everything in it?" the volunteer went on. "The Bugbees must have been in some kind of big trouble."
The Aldens noticed how upset Brian and Nan looked when they heard this. Nan's face had turned white. Brian's was nearly as red as his flannel shirt. Both of them stared at the volunteer, who kept right on talking about the Bugbees.
Just in time, Grandfather joined the group. "No one really knows why the Bugbees left Greenfield. They were private people. I know they ran into difficulties and had to leave their home. That could happen to anyone."
The Alden children looked at one another without saying anything. They had left their own home after their parents died. Yes, leaving home could happen to anyone.CHAPTER 2
"I never saw this rusty old gate open before," Henry said when the Aldens arrived at the Bugbee estate a few days later.
The children stared up at the gate. They had passed it often, but it had always been locked before. Now it was open. The two stone lions on each side of the gate almost seemed to be guarding the entrance to the estate.
Violet shivered. "I wish it wasn't such a gloomy day. It will be too dark and wet for camping out."
Jessie motioned for everyone to follow her. "Don't worry, Violet. I stuffed our sleeping bags into big plastic bags so they'll be warm and dry. Besides, we're not camping in tents like some of the other volunteers."
"That's right," Grandfather agreed. "You'll be staying in a playhouse that Mr. Bugbee built for his children. Mabel said there's plenty of room for all of you."
"I made sure to pack our camp lantern, too," Henry said. "Did you bring your flashlight, Violet?"
"It's in my backpack," Violet answered. "Oooh, something just brushed my cheek!"
"Sorry, Violet," Henry said. "I let that branch swing back too fast. Here, I'll hold it for you."
All the bushes and trees on the Bugbee property were heavy and wet from the rain that had just ended. The branches kept brushing against the Aldens every which way.
Grandfather took out the small notebook he always carried everywhere. "I'll have to come back with my gardening tools to cut back these shrubs and vines. Why, you can hardly see any of the buildings on the property. Even the main house is half hidden by overgrown trees."
The Aldens stared at the old mansion. The tall pillars holding up the porch leaned in every direction. Many windows were cracked. Shutters dangled. Paint was peeling.
Just then, the Aldens jumped back when a figure suddenly appeared out of the bushes.
"Hello, Mr. Alden," Nan Lodge said. "I saw you come up the driveway with your grandchildren. Mabel asked me to bring them to the playhouse to drop off their things. Mabel's waiting for you in the main house, Mr. Alden."
After Grandfather left, Nan rushed the children around the property. She pointed out the broken-down greenhouse, the old stable, a garage, some old sheds, and a wonderful small building about half the size of the Aldens' boxcar.
"It's a playhouse!" Soo Lee said.
When the children looked inside, they were surprised to see a large person inside the child-sized building.
"Oh, hi, Brian," Henry said when he looked in the doorway. "We didn't expect to find anyone here."
Brian stood up from the small children's table and chair in the corner. He seemed startled to see Nan and the Aldens. "And I didn't expect to see you here, Nan. I needed to get away from all the bustle in the main house. The playhouse seemed as good a place as any."
"Mabel is going to let the Aldens camp out in here this week while they work on the house," Nan explained.
"What?" Brian said. "This place is falling apart. It hasn't been used for decades."
"How would you know that, Brian?" Nan asked. "You told me you didn't know anything about the Bugbee House."
Brian didn't answer right away. "Well," he said finally. "Anyone can tell by looking that there haven't been any kids in this playhouse for quite a while."
"That's about to change," Nan turned to the Aldens. "Mabel left that box of cleaning things for you in the corner. Maybe later in the week you can paint in here, too. I'll come back for you in a while. You're going back to the main house, too, right, Brian?" Nan asked.
"Right," Brian answered. He brushed past Nan and the Aldens without another word.
Nan sighed, then headed to the main house as well.
The Aldens didn't waste any time getting to work.
"Let's leave our bags on the porch until we sweep and dust," Jessie said. "Benny, you go fill that bucket from the garden hose. After we sweep, we'll wash down the floors."
While the younger children were gone, Henry found a hammer and began banging. "There are a lot of bent nails sticking out. I don't want us to snag ourselves."
Jessie handed Violet a sheet of sandpaper from the cleanup box. "Let's sand down the slivers and rough spots to get everything ready for a paint job."
Benny was groaning as he carried in the heavy water bucket filled to the brim.
Jessie laughed. "You didn't need to fill it quite so much. Let's pour some water into that smaller bucket to clean the woodwork and use the big bucket for the floor."
The Aldens spent the next hour scrubbing everything that could be scrubbed. By the time Nan returned, the playhouse gleamed. The children had lined up their sleeping bags on the floor. Their jackets and bags hung on a row of nails. Violet had even gathered a bunch of wildflowers and stuck them in an old milk bottle.
Excerpted from The Disappearing Staircase Mystery by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2001 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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