Step 1: A Mystery by Me Next

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6

Joan Lowery Nixon writing a mysterySection 1
Jennifer Collins stared through the car window at the ancient Wimberly mansion and mumbled, "Everybody knows Mrs. Wimberly's house is haunted. It's creepy with that ugly, round tower and those windows over the door that look like staring eyes."

"I can assure you," her mother said, "there are no ghosts in Mrs. Wimberly's house."

"What if you're wrong?"

"If I'm wrong, I'll take you to your favorite place for pizza tomorrow. Just stop letting your imagination run away with you, Jennifer. You're going to have a wonderful time at the party."

"No I won't," Jennifer blurted out. "The only reason Mrs. Wimberly invited me to this party for her grandchildren is because she likes you, Mom. I hardly know Arlene and Mark and their friends because they're all in sixth grade."

"You're in fifth," Mom said. "One year shouldn't make that much difference."

"Well, it does. Anyhow, I'd rather stay home and make up more word puzzles for Andy. For a first-grader Andy's doing great at finding the word in a group that doesn't fit. I gave him some hard ones like rose, daisy, garden, and tulip, and he knew it was garden; and grocery, bakery, florist, and building. Isn't that terrific, Mom?"

"Honey, I know you're shy," Mom said, "but when you get acquainted with these kids, you'll have fun." She kissed Jennifer's cheek. "I'll pick you up at 11:00."

With a sigh Jennifer climbed out of the car and trudged up the porch steps. A large, tawny yellow cat appeared from the shadows and examined Jennifer with golden eyes.

"Hi, cat," Jennifer said. The cat purred and rubbed against Jennifer's legs as she rang the doorbell.

Arlene — tall and skinny with frizzed blond hair — answered the door. "I guess you're Jennifer," she said. "Well, come in."

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Section 2
Jennifer stepped into the entry hall and greeted Mrs. Wimberly, a plump, smiling woman with white hair that curled around her face.

"I'm so glad you could come, Jennifer," Mrs. Wimberly said. She led Jennifer into a large room filled with heavy, overstuffed furniture. At least a dozen kids stopped talking to stare as Mrs. Wimberly introduced her. Only a couple of them said hi before they went back to posing for the instant photos Arlene was taking, laughing as the results came into view.

Which word doesn't fit? Jennifer thought. Friendly, happy , pleasant, Arlene? Too easy. She perched uncomfortably on the nearest chair, and the big yellow cat jumped into her lap. Arlene said, "If you don't want that ugly old thing bothering you, just push it off."

"She's not ugly! She's beautiful!" Jennifer answered, stroking the cat gently.

Mrs. Wimberly said, "We've had a long-standing mystery in this house because of a cat. Many years ago the cat who belonged to my grandmother Alice made off with her pearl necklace. No one has ever found where the cat hid it."

"Are you sure the cat took the pearls?" Jennifer asked. "Cats don't usually hide things."

Mrs. Wimberly explained. "I was told that the week before Grandmother Alice's death, she laid her pearls near the edge of her open desk. When her cat stretched out a paw to investigate them, they rolled off the desk and twisted around the cat's neck. The cat was terrified and dashed from the room.

"Fortunately, the maid caught the cat, rescued the pearls, and returned them to my grandmother. Alice wore them to a party the night before she died, but that was the last anyone saw of the pearls."

"I don't think they should have blamed the cat," Jennifer said.

"There was no one else who could have taken them," Mrs. Wimberly said. "After all, the cat had been frightened by the pearls. It may have wanted to get rid of them." She picked up a silver-framed photograph from an end table and said, "Here's a picture of Grandmother Alice and her cat."

As Jennifer reached for the photograph, the cat suddenly jumped from her lap and ran from the room.

"Your grandmother's cat looks like your cat," Jennifer said. "Have you had your cat long?"

Mrs. Wimberly nodded. "When I moved into the house 10 years ago the cat was living here. Grandmother and Mother always seemed to have a cat around." Thunder rolled in the distance, and wind moaned around the corners of the house. "I'm afraid we're in for a storm," she said.

"I know!" Arlene hopped to her feet. "Let's hunt for the pearls! We'll do it in teams!"

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Section 3
Everyone began choosing sides. No one even looked in Jennifer's direction, so she decided to escape, making her way down a narrow hallway to a small library. They wouldn't miss her. They had barely noticed her. She'd find a book to read and...

A girl with tawny yellow hair stepped out of the shadows. "I've been waiting for you," she said. "They've chosen sides for the treasure hunt. Since we're not on their teams, why don't we work together?"

It was too much to hope that she'd be left alone. Reluctantly, Jennifer said okay.

"Perfect," the girl answered. She smiled, and Jennifer was fascinated to see that her eyes gleamed as golden as her hair. "My name is Sabrina," she said. "Come on. The others have already gone up to the room where the pearls disappeared."

As they climbed the wide staircase with its heavily carved posts and banisters, Sabrina said, "I'm glad you didn't blame the cat. The cat had nothing to do with the disappearance."

"You seem to know a lot about the story," Jennifer said.

"I've heard it over and over again," Sabrina answered, annoyance creeping into her voice.

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Section 4
Grandmother Alice's room was bedlam. Mark searched under the mattress while one of his friends crawled under the bed. Two boys managed to pull the heavy chest of drawers away from the wall, and Arlene became tangled in the drapes.

"This room was searched thoroughly at the time the pearls disappeared," Mrs. Wimberly shouted over the din. "Why don't you try the places a cat might have taken them? A cubbyhole in the kitchen, perhaps, or a dark corner of the basement?"

A flash of lightning suddenly shot through the room, and a loud clap of thunder rattled the house.

"The basement!" Arlene squealed. "Let's get flashlights and search the basement!"

"We'll get there first!" Mark yelled.

Jennifer pulled Sabrina out of the way as the kids crowded through the doorway, then turned to follow Mrs. Wimberly, but Sabrina tugged Jennifer toward an elegant writing desk, its bookshelves on top protected by glass doors. "I want to show you where Alice kept her jewelry."

Sabrina opened the lid of the desk, and Jennifer could see countless little drawers and knobs across the back.

"I've heard about antique desks like these," Jennifer said. "Aren't there supposed to be secret compartments in them?"

"Alice's son found the only secret compartment," Sabrina told her. "But there was nothing in it."

"Is that where she kept the pearls?"

"No one knew. Alice was very secretive. She never told anyone where she hid her jewelry — not even her relatives." She pointed at some of the drawers. "A bracelet was found inside this drawer, a silver pin set with garnets in that one, and a gold locket in there."

"But nothing in the secret compartment?"

"Nothing." Sabrina sounded desperate. "You don't know what a problem this was for the cat!"

<>Jennifer's attention was caught by the books behind the glass doors. "Look. Alice must have loved poetry. Here are volumes by Dickinson, Wordsworth, Emerson, Longfellow, and Tennyson." Jennifer skipped over a fat volume titled The History of the Revolutionary War and went on to admire a book of sonnets by Shakespeare and poetry by William Blake and Robert Burns.

Lightning cracked and sizzled, thunder roared, and the lights in the house went out.

Jennifer grabbed Sabrina in terror, but Sabrina said, "Don't worry. I don't have any trouble seeing in the dark." She took Jennifer's hand and led her out of the room and toward the stairs.

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Section 5
Mrs. Wimberly, who was holding a silver candelabra, called up to them: "Jennifer, there you are! Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Jennifer said and hurried down the stairs. "We were just examining your grandmother's desk." As she said the words, Jennifer felt peculiar. Was there something she should have noticed? A thought tickled the back of her mind, but she couldn't capture it.

"The others are in the den," Mrs. Wimberly said and handed Jennifer a flashlight. "I know you must be hungry. We've got cocoa and ham salad, egg salad, and tuna salad sandwiches."

Holding the string of words in her mind, Jennifer automatically told herself "Cocoa" is the word that doesn't fit. Suddenly she realized what she had said and what she had seen. She stopped and whispered, "Sabrina! Come with me! I think I know where we might find the pearls!"

She raced back up the stairs into Alice's bedroom, Sabrina on her heels. Aiming the flashlight at the books, she opened the glass doors and pulled out The History of the Revolutionary War. "It doesn't match the poetry books!" she said, her fingers trembling with excitement. "It's the one thing that doesn't fit!"

Jennifer opened the book. The center of the pages had been carved out to make a hiding place, and nestled in the cavity was a gleaming strand of pearls.

"You found them!" Sabrina shouted. "After all these years of everyone blaming the cat, now the truth will finally come out!" Sabrina grabbed Jennifer's arm and rushed down the stairs.

As everyone crowded around to see, Jennifer gave the pearls to Mrs. Wimberly.

The lights came back on so suddenly that everyone blinked.

"Take a picture of the pearls!" Mark yelled at Arlene.

"Take one of Jennifer with the pearls," Mrs. Wimberly said.

As Arlene picked up her camera, Jennifer put her right arm around Sabrina's shoulders, and with her left hand she held up the open book to show the pearls inside.

Arlene took the picture, waved it in the air until the image began to show, then bent over with laughter.

"What were you doing, Jennifer?" she shrieked. "You look so weird with your right arm stuck out in the air!"

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Section 6
Jennifer elbowed her way through the group to look at the photograph. She was the only one in it. Bewildered, she said, "But my arm was around your friend Sabrina."

Arlene whooped all the louder. "Sabrina's not my friend! Sabrina is the cat!"

Jennifer glanced up to see Sabrina standing in the doorway, her eyes gleaming, a smug, catlike smile on her face. She began to shrink, her hair turning back into yellow fur, her hands into paws.

"Look!" Jennifer whispered, and pointed at Sabrina.

They all stared at the spot where Jennifer was pointing, but someone asked, "Look at what?"

"They can't see you now. And they couldn't when you changed into a girl, could they?" Jennifer asked Sabrina.

With a shake of her whiskers and a satisfied twitch of her tail, Sabrina disappeared.

"See who?" Arlene demanded. "Who were you talking to?"

"A ghost cat," Jennifer said, making her voice low and scary. "A ghost cat who took the form of a human in order to help solve a mystery." She couldn't help enjoying the look of open-mouthed astonishment on the faces that surrounded her. Now they were paying attention to her.

"What are you talking about?" one of the girls asked.

"About something I saw that you didn't," Jennifer said. "If you don't get frightened, I'll tell you a really true ghost story."

I'll tell YOU tonight and Mom tomorrow, Jennifer thought. Thanks to Sabrina, she could almost taste that pizza.

—The End—

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"A Purr-Fect Mystery" by Joan Lowery Nixon. Published in SCHOLASTIC STORYWORKS, October 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Scholastic Inc. Used by permission.