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The Vanishing Passenger
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Robert Papp
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2006 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
Not Everyone Is a Finch Fan
Six-year-old Benny Alden lay on the floor of the Greenfield Public Library. He was coloring a huge poster.
"How's it coming, Benny?" asked Violet, his ten-year-old sister. She was holding a poster of her own, which she'd just finished. She gently waved it so the ink would dry.
"Okay," Benny replied. "What do you think?"
He leaned back so Violet could have a look. The words were big and bold, printed clearly in black on the heavy white paper:
TOMORROW NIGHT AT 7:00
COME AND MEET
"THE YOUNG ADVENTURERS"
SERIES FOR CHILDREN
AT THE GREENFIELD LIBRARY
Benny's sister, Jessie, who was twelve, had actually written the words. Benny was still learning to read and write. But he did add little drawings of Mr. Finch's books.
The Aldens loved Gilbert Finch's books. Each one was set in some faraway place, and the main characters were always children who found themselves in exciting situations.
"It looks great, Benny," Violet said. "I like the little books you drew around the outside. I'll bet Mr. Finch will like it, too."
"I still can't believe he's coming here," said Jessie. She was coloring another poster. "He has so many fans, and yet he's coming to our library."
"And all we had to do was ask him," added Henry. At fourteen, he was the oldest of the children. "Violet's idea to simply write him a letter was great."
Violet smiled. "The worst he could do was say 'no.'"
But Finch hadn't said no—he'd written back to the Aldens right away and said he'd be delighted to visit their library. His latest book, The Lost Chamber of Gold, was an exciting story set in the jungles of Brazil. Mr. Finch had been visiting other libraries and bookstores all over the country.
"A lot of people will be here to see him tomorrow night," Jessie pointed out. "Ms. Connally said as many as a hundred."
"Maybe even more," said Ms. Connally, who walked into the room at that moment. She was the head librarian and knew the Aldens well. "I just got off the phone with Ms. Pollak, over at the elementary school. She's asking everyone in her class to come."
"Wow!" Benny said.
Ms. Connally walked around to see everyone's posters. "They look very nice," she said. "Where will you put them?"
"All over," said Violet. "Anywhere they'll be seen by a lot of people. The supermarket, the bank ..."
"The school," Jessie added.
"The gas station," Henry continued.
"And the train station," Benny said. "Don't forget that!"
The Alden children were very familiar with trains. After their parents died, they learned that their grandfather was coming to get them. They heard he was mean, so they tried to hide from him. They picked an abandoned boxcar as their hiding place. When Grandfather finally found them, they soon realized he wasn't mean at all. The children went back to Greenfield with him. Then Grandfather arranged to have their boxcar brought along, too! It was set up in the backyard, where they could play in it anytime they wished.
When Benny mentioned the station, it reminded Jessie of something very important. She checked her watch and said, "We'd better get over there soon. Mr. Finch will be arriving in less than an hour."
"Oh, that's right," Violet added. "He called here earlier to let us know he was getting on the train."
Mr. Finch had agreed to come to Greenfield the day before his appearance so he could have dinner with the Alden children and their grandfather. He'd also said something about wanting to see a friend, but he didn't say who it was.
"Good luck!" Ms. Connally said as she left the room.
The Aldens finished the posters and bundled them together in a neat pile. They would hang them around town as they walked to the station.
As they headed for the door, they noticed someone standing by a display of Gilbert Finch's books. He was an older man, with unruly hair. He wore a pair of small, round glasses, and his shirt wasn't tucked in.
The children had arranged the book display the night before, and they were very proud of it.
This strange man, however, didn't seem very impressed. Instead, he was moving the books around so that they were harder to see. He turned them so only the backs were showing! And then he took some other books off the shelf and put them up in front of Finch's books. While he was doing this, he kept peering around the corner of the nearest bookshelf. It seemed as though he was worried about Ms. Connally catching him!
When the man was done ruining the display, he walked away quietly.
"What was that all about?" Henry said.
"I don't know," Jessie replied, "but it was pretty odd."
"We should go fix it," Violet suggested.
"Yeah!" Benny agreed in a huff.
They walked over and put everything right again. When they were finished, Jessie said, "We should tell Ms. Connally when we get back."
"But for now," Henry said, "let's get over to the train station. We don't want to be late."
As they reached the front door, they saw the strange man again. He was at the front desk, speaking with Ms. Connally. The children couldn't help overhearing their conversation.
"Why can't I speak at the library, too?" he grumbled. "My books are just as good!"
"I know they are, Mr. Van Buren," Ms. Connally said in a calm, low voice. The children got the impression she was hoping the man would lower his voice.
"You're having Gilbert Finch come all the way down from Clairmont. That's more than two hundred miles from here. I live less than an hour away! I could get as many people in here as he could," the man went on. He was also making sharp gestures with his hands, as if his loud voice wasn't enough. "All I ever hear about is Gilbert Finch this, and Gilbert Finch that." He tapped himself on the chest. "What about Daniel Van Buren?"
Ms. Connally took a deep breath. "Mr. Van Buren," she began, "we have an opening in our schedule next month, the night of Sunday, the twenty-third of—"
"What good will that do?" he snapped. "I'll be busy then! I'm here, now, in town on business. It wouldn't be too much to squeeze me in tomorrow night, would it?"
"I'm sorry, I can't," she replied.
"Ah, forget it," he said with a wave of his hand, and turned away. He stalked past the Aldens without noticing them and pushed his way out the front door.CHAPTER 2
"That man at the library had to be the rudest person I ever saw," Jessie said as they taped the last poster to a pole at the Greenfield train station.
"He certainly was," Henry agreed.
Jessie checked her watch again. "Anyway, Mr. Finch's train should be arriving any minute. Are we ready?"
"I'm ready!" Benny replied.
"Me, too," said Henry.
"So am I," added Violet. "Except that ... I'm a little nervous." She laughed.
Jessie said, "I hope the train isn't late. I wouldn't want—"
At that moment, far in the distance, came the faint blast of a horn.
"It won't be late," Henry said.
They leaned forward to get a good look as it came around the bend. Jessie straightened up and brushed off her clothes. "Okay, everyone get ready ..."
After the train came to a complete stop, the doors slid back, and the conductors stepped off. They wore handsome blue uniforms with gold buttons down the front. Then, the passengers began coming out. There were a lot of them. Some were people the Aldens recognized as Greenfield residents. Others were strangers.
The Aldens didn't know which car Finch was in, so they watched all the doors. Violet noticed a family with a little girl and a little boy get off the train. She could see that the two children were crying. The little boy was rubbing both eyes and pouting. The little girl, with tears streaming down her face, was holding a long leather leash. And their father was carrying what appeared to be a large box with a red blanket over it.
"Hey, look over there," Violet said to Henry.
"Do you see Mr. Finch?" Henry replied.
"No, those two small children. They're crying."
A conductor came over and spoke with the family. He was a friendly looking man, with blazing red hair sticking out from under his conductor's cap. He first talked to the parents, who looked worried. Then he crouched down and tried to cheer up the children. He got two lollipops from inside his jacket. The children took them, but they didn't stop crying.
"I wonder what's wrong," Benny wondered.
"I don't know," Violet said. "I can't hear with so many other people around. There's too much noise."
The conductor stood up again and patted the little boy on the back. The father stroked his daughter's hair and said something to her. Then the conductor led them away.
"How sad," Jessie said.
"Yeah," Henry agreed. "I hope they're okay. But has anyone seen Mr. Finch yet?" He tried to see over the crowd, but he wasn't quite tall enough.
"No," Jessie said, looking around carefully. "No sign of him."
The children moved closer to the train so they could get a better view of all the doors. A moment passed, then another. The crowd started to thin out. Passengers found their friends and families and began leaving the station. Suitcases were wheeled off, and the noise died down. Then the children were alone.
Everyone had now gotten off the train—and Gilbert Finch was nowhere in sight.
Jessie said, "Are you sure you didn't see him?"
"I didn't," replied Henry. "And I'm certain I checked everyone."
"Me, too," said Violet.
"Maybe he didn't realize this was his stop and forgot to get off," Benny suggested.
"No," Jessie said, "Greenfield is the last stop for this train until tomorrow, when it goes back up north. There are no more stops. So even if he forgot, he'd still have to get off here."
Henry took a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. He'd written down all the information about Finch's arrival.
"Let's see ... ten-thirty in the morning, arriving on Saturday, on train number sixteen." They checked up and down the cars. Sure enough, right on the side of the engine, "16" was painted in big white numerals. "This is the right one," said Henry.
"Then where is he?" Violet wondered.
They spotted the red-haired conductor walking down the platform counting a stack of tickets.
"He might know," Henry said, and they jogged over to him. "Excuse me, sir?"
As the man turned, the children noticed for the first time that his uniform was all wet.
"Wow!" Benny said, unable to help it.
The conductor smiled. "Oh, that. There was a storm up north. I only stepped off for a moment, and I got soaked."
"Must've been bad," Violet said.
"It was. One of the worst I've seen this year. Anyway, what can I do for you kids?"
Henry took a copy of one of Finch's books from his back pocket. It was the one he told Mr. Finch he would hold in the air when Finch got off the train so he would be able to find the Aldens quickly.
"Did you notice anyone during the trip who looked like this?" He turned the book around to show the back cover. There was a small photo of Finch, smiling. He was a handsome older man, with wavy brown hair and lively eyes that had a hint of mischief in them.
"He was supposed to meet us here this morning," Jessie told him.
"He's visiting our library," Violet said.
"And his books are really good!" Benny added helpfully.
The conductor laughed. "I have a boy your age at home, so I'll have to remember that." He took the book from Henry and studied the photo.
"No, I'm afraid not. There was no one in my car who looked like this. You should speak to the other conductors." He pointed towards the station.
"Great, thanks," Henry told him. "Come on everyone."
The Aldens went into the tiny station house, which was very old and beautiful. It had a dry, dusty smell, like an antique store. The children always enjoyed coming down here.
They found the other two conductors sitting together. They were filling out paperwork. Their uniforms were also soaked by the rain.
"That was some storm," one of them said. "I couldn't see anything out the window."
"If my dog heard all that thunder and lightning, he would've hidden under the seats and stayed there, shaking," said the other man. Benny remembered how much their dog, Watch, hated storms, too.
"Excuse me," Jessie said. She explained about Finch. When Henry handed them the book, they all took a long look at the picture.
"Sounds like an interesting story," said one of the conductors. He studied the photo carefully, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I don't recall anyone who looked like that."
"Me, neither," said the other conductor.
"Okay," Jessie said. "Thanks, anyway."
They stepped back outside, closing the station door behind them.
"But he got on the train," Jessie said. "Remember, when he called the library earlier this morning?"
"That's right," Henry told them, nodding. "He called from the station and told us he was getting on right then. He wanted to let us know that the train was on time so we could be here to meet him."
"So what happened to him?" Benny wondered.
Henry took a deep breath and let it out again. "Well," he said with his hands on his hips, "that's what we have to find out."
"We should start by searching the train," Violet suggested. "Remember what Mr. Finch wrote in The Crown Jewels of London when that professor disappeared? The first thing the little boy and girl did was go to the place where the professor was last seen, which was his office at the university."
"That's right, Violet," Henry said. "Good idea. Let's go have a look at the train."CHAPTER 3
The Fourth Car
The train had been switched off the main track into a rail yard. There were dozens of other trains there, too.
"It looks like a train parking lot!" Violet said.
"Which is the one we want?" Benny wondered. "There are so many!"
"Number sixteen," Henry reminded them, and soon they found it.
A heavyset man with a bucket and a mop was washing the outside of one of the passenger cars. "Hi there," he said. "You didn't get off at the wrong stop, did you?"
Henry said, "No, we live here in Greenfield. We were just wondering if we could take a quick look through this train."
The man put down his mop and leaned against it. "Did you lose something?" He took a handkerchief from the back pocket of his overalls and patted his sweaty face.
"Yes," Benny said. "A whole person!"
Henry explained the situation. When he was finished, he said, "So we'd like to search the train for clues, and we thought we should ask if it was okay first."
"Well, it's fine with me, I guess," the man said. "I'm just about to clean it out."
"We could help," Violet suggested.
"Since we have to go through it, anyway," Jessie added.
"Sure, that's fine with me. My name's Pete, by the way." He shook hands with all the Aldens, who introduced themselves in turn. "Sure, I'll take any help I can get! Here." He leaned down and grabbed four plastic garbage bags. "One bag for each of you. Have fun."
"Thanks, Pete," Henry said.
The children stepped onto the first of the four passenger cars. The deserted train was a bit eerie inside, even with the sunlight slanting in. Through the door at the other end they could see clear through to the next car, and then the one after that.
"Kind of creepy," Violet commented.
"Yeah," Henry agreed. "You never imagine a train being empty. Anyway, let's get on with our search. Jessie and I will look high, you and Benny look low. We'll go one seat at a time."
The Aldens went slowly and carefully. In the first two cars, they found abandoned newspapers, soda cans, pens, and candy wrappers. It wasn't until they reached the back of the third car that they came across something that might be considered a clue—a copy of The Secret of the Pyramids. It was Gilbert Finch's fifth book, set in the ancient ruins of Egypt.
"Wow, look at this!" Benny cried out when he spotted it hidden underneath the very last seat. He handed it to Jessie, who examined it.
"Would he actually read a copy of his own book?" she wondered.
"Maybe he was planning to talk about it at the library," Violet suggested.
Jessie pulled the cover back and saw something scrawled at the top of the very first page: Property of Mrs. Alice Blake.
"Alice Blake?" Henry said. "Why does that name sound familiar?"
"She lives two blocks from us," Violet replied. "Remember? She's that nice woman who always gives out great candy on Halloween."
"I remember her!" Benny said quickly.
Jessie shook her head. "Of course you do. When there's food involved, you never forget, do you?"
"Never!" Benny said proudly.
"I've heard that a lot of adults like Mr. Finch's books, too," Henry said. "That must be why she was reading this."
Jessie sighed. "So I guess this isn't much of a clue after all."
"No, I guess not," Henry told her. "But we should return it to Mrs. Blake."
"Okay, we'll stop by her house later." She slipped the book into the back pocket of her jeans. "Let's go to the next car."
They opened the door to the fourth car, which was also the last. Unlike the other cars, this one was very dark because the shades were drawn. And there was an unusual odor in the air.
"What's that smell?" Violet said. "It's like some kind of medicine ..."
Jessie sniffed. "Hmm ... you know something? It's kind of familiar."
"It is?" Violet replied.
"Uh-huh. It's ..." She sniffed again. "Oh, I can't remember! But I'm sure I've smelled it before."
Henry said, "I was thinking the same thing, Jessie. Let's search the car and see if we can find out where the smell is coming from."
Violet slid a few of the shades back to let in more light. As she did, the children noticed something else unusual.
"Hey, there's no trash in here," Benny said. "It looks as if someone already cleaned this car."
Excerpted from The Vanishing Passenger by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Robert Papp. Copyright © 2006 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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