No one was paying any attention to Janina, so she slipped into the sitting room where a computer sat on its desk. The screen was blank, but some lights on a box were flashing.
Good. It was turned on. She pushed a few buttons and the computer sprang to life.
At age nine, Janina was not supposed to use the computer without supervision. Scary things happened to children, girls especially, who were not careful on the Internet. Daddy said so.
Swallowing her fears, she clicked onto the Internet and looked for local news.
There it was.
“Local Banker’s Death Ruled a Homicide.” The sub-heading said, “Did Roger Rutledge Sip Poisoned Drink?”
She could read well for a fourth grader, but the article used words she didn’t know. Grabbing a pad of paper and a pen, she wrote down some of them. “Cyanide.” She knew what “liqueur” was, but not “amaretto.”
Samuel Robesky, a business acquaintance, found the body when he came calling at the Rutledge residence. Mr. Rutledge, senior (that would be Grandpa) had an office in the apartment, and seldom visited the company headquarters any more.
Janina shivered. She knew Daddy had died right here, in Grandpa’s office just off the foyer.
No one would talk to her except to say that Daddy had died suddenly. “Probably a heart attack,” was what Mrs. Witherspoon, Grandpa’s personal secretary, had finally told her. The newspapers had been swept away before Janina had a chance to see them. The TV “wasn’t working—must be some problem with the cable” and in the kitchen, Lavinia and Gail, the help, had the radio tuned to an all-Christmas music station.
Janina’s older twin cousins, Cynthia and Celina, were daring and bold. She wished she could be more like them. Aunt Helen, their mother, had given them tablets for their birthday, and they laughed at the restrictions on computer use. And at Janina for worrying about it. Marie, the au pair who looked after the girls, wasn’t about to get involved. She enforced the rules on the computer, but ignored the tablets.
Marie had left to visit a friend in Philadelphia for the holidays.
Janina got off the Internet and turned off the monitor before anyone caught her. Slipping over to the door, she stood partially behind it and watched the scene in the apartment’s entry foyer.
Rajah, Daddy’s Burmese cat, crept up next to Janina and rubbed her leg, meowing softly. She reached down and stroked his silky head.
Aunt Helen was making a fuss. “Of course we’re still going skiing. Why wouldn’t we? It’s been planned forever. And the funeral’s not going to be until after the holidays, is it?”
Luggage was piled around the front door. Aunt Helen wore a bright new ski parka. Her dark eyes blazed from under her heavily-mascaraed lashes.
“It’s unseemly.” Mrs. Witherspoon drew herself to her height of five foot, her thin frame draped in a black pencil skirt topped by a beige cashmere sweater set. Her gray hair was pulled back in its usual bun.
“Who cares about unseemly?” Aunt Helen tossed her head, her layered blond hair swirling around and settling perfectly back down around her face. “No point sitting around here being depressed. It won’t bring Roger back.”
Mrs. Witherspoon murmured something. All Janina could pick out was her name.
“Janina’s not my responsibility,” Aunt Helen said. “Nobody will want a big Christmas dinner. Give Cook the day off to take her to see the Rockettes or something.”
Gail did the cooking, along with other chores. She hated it that Aunt Helen called her “Cook,” since she couldn’t be bothered to remember her name. And even Janina knew that spending a day to take a child to a Christmas show would not be a “day off.”
“Didn’t Roger make plans to take the child to Mexico over the holidays? So he’d have an excuse for why she couldn’t visit her mother’s family over Christmas?”
Mrs. Witherspoon folded her arms over her sweaters. “Roger’s dead,” she pointed out.
Her mother’s family? Wanting to see her over Christmas? Janina shivered. Her mother had died while Janina was still an infant. Actually, she had been killed. No one ever told Janina any of the details. Something to do with her being on the subway with her brother Hank.
Janina was aware that this family contacted her father occasionally. “Out to see if they can’t get some money,” was what Daddy always said.
The intercom in the foyer buzzed. Aunt Helen reached over and pushed the button.
“Airport limo's here,” the doorman advised them.
Aunt Helen leaned toward the speaker. “Send someone up to get the luggage.” She turned toward the hall that led to the bedrooms and called, “Girls! It’s time to go. Come on!”
Cynthia and Celina came barreling down the hallway, juggling backpacks and donning their new down jackets.
Rajah dashed between Aunt Helen’s legs and into the living room.
Aunt Helen looked after him, frowning. “Damn cat. First thing I’ll do when I get back is make sure we get rid of it.”
She opened the front door. The twins hurried past her into the hallway, each trying to be the one who pushed the elevator call button.
In the bustle of people arriving to cart off the suitcases and ski bags, Janina slipped through the foyer and into the living room. She climbed onto a window seat, half hidden by a heavy crimson drape. Rajah lay there, his tail flicking.
“I know,” Janina said, crawling into the corner and burying her face in his fur. “I miss Daddy, too.” She knew Daddy was never coming back again. But Rajah didn’t know that. Was there any way to make him understand? And would Aunt Helen really get rid of the cat?
Outside the window, a light snow was dusting the paths through the park, seven stories down. Dusk was gathering, and the lights twinkled on.
In the darkened living room, the magnificent Christmas tree rose to the ceiling, towering above three neat stacks of gifts that lay at its base. The stacks were identical, distinguished only by the color of their foil wrapping paper. Burgundy, deep blue and dark green. The same colors as the delicate glass ornaments that decorated the tree.
One stack of gifts for each of the girls. Mrs. Witherspoon had shopped painstakingly, making certain that the gifts varied only by size. The dark green ones were for Janina.
The smell of lemon furniture polish and disinfectant overwhelmed the evergreen scent of the tree.
She heard soft footsteps enter the living room and gathered her feet under her, pushing further back into the corner of the window seat, where she could peer out without being seen unless someone looked carefully.
Lavinia and Gail came in. Someone flicked on a lamp by the couch. But no one turned on the tree lights.
“Do you think we should take it all down?” asked Gail.
“No,” answered Lavinia. “Can you just imagine the fit the twins would have if they came back and the Christmas tree was not there, with all their presents?” Lavinia had been with the family for years, and knew how people were likely to react.
“You’re probably right. Still, it doesn’t seem right. Too festive for a household that’s just suffered such a loss.”
Lavinia snorted. “As if anyone cares.”
“There’s the child. And I’m sure old Mr. Rutledge cares,” Gail said. “He was grooming Roger to take over the business.”
“Yes, but he’s getting pretty senile lately. A lot more so than you’d realize. Mrs. Witherspoon works hard to keep anyone from knowing just how far gone he is at times.”
Gail reached out and touched a glimmering bauble on the dark tree. “Helen certainly isn’t wasting any energy grieving for Roger.”
“No.” With a corner of her apron, Lavinia wiped at an invisible smudge on a table. “No love lost between those two, that’s for sure.”
“Do you think Helen could have had anything to do with Roger’s passing?”
Lavinia looked up at Gail. “Why would she do something like that?”
Gail sighed again. “I don’t know. Thought she’d inherit more if Roger was gone, maybe?”
“Won’t do her any good,” Lavinia said. “Without Roger to run the company, it’s going to have to be sold. Probably to that fellow Robesky, the one who found the body. He’s been pressuring them to sell. Roger was considering it. But the old man was dead set against it. That’s why he came, to try to talk Mr. Rutledge into it.”
“But with Roger dead, and the company sold, won’t Helen’s share be bigger?”
“No. Except for a few bequests, like the year’s salary Mr. Rutledge is leaving to each of us, everything gets divided between the two of them. And if one dies, that share goes to the offspring. Janina will be a very wealthy girl one day.”
“I think Helen’s been working on Mr. Rutledge to change his will,” Gail said. “For one thing, she doesn’t think you and I deserve a year’s salary.”
“We probably don’t have to worry about that. I happen to know that in the event of something happening to Roger, Mrs. Witherspoon has power of attorney. She’s not going to cave in to Helen’s tantrums.”
“And what happens to Janina?”
“I don’t know. Maybe boarding school?” Lavinia adjusted the lamp shade.
“Isn’t she a little young for boarding school? How about her mother’s family?”
“Oh, all they’re interested in is the money. And it’ll be wrapped up so tightly in a trust fund no one will be able to get access to much. When they find that out, they won’t be interested in seeing her anymore.”
“Doesn’t she get Social Security payments?”
Lavinia shook her head. “I hadn’t thought about that. Yes, of course she gets that. Probably always has, on her mother’s account. But that’s not that much.”
“Might seem like a fair amount to some people.”
“You may be right. I think they live in a rundown rowhouse in an iffy neighborhood in Brooklyn.”
“Didn’t they send someone over to ask if Janina could come visit over the holidays?”
“They do that every year. Roger makes plans to take her on vacation someplace out of the country, so they don’t push it. But yes, remember that rough man who came by just before Roger was found dead? Hank something. He’s an uncle or a cousin or something, and he was asking about the holiday plans for Janina.”
“Did he go into Mr. Rutledge’s office to talk to Roger?” Gail asked.
“I think so. I answered the door, but Mrs. Witherspoon came out of the office and told me she’d take care of it, so I went back to the kitchen.”
“Do you think he could have been the one who poisoned the liqueur?”
“I suppose he could have. The police thought about that, too. But you know Roger had made such a big deal about how he’d given up alcohol, most people wouldn’t have expected him to drink it. I wonder if it wasn’t meant for old Mr. Rutledge.”
“But we all knew Roger still drank,” Gail said. “So did Helen. And who knows who else. The amaretto liqueur was a favorite.”
“A favorite of both old Mr. Rutledge and Roger. I don’t know if this fellow Hank could have known that, though. Or that Roger claimed he’d stopped drinking.”
They stood in silence for a few seconds, gazing at the tree.
Lavinia roused herself. “Well, let’s just draw the drapes for the evening and worry about the tree later.”
Janina pulled back farther in the window seat. They were going to find her there, and realize she’d overheard them talking. Would they be mad at her?
“Ladies.” Mrs. Witherspoon’s voice came from the foyer. “I’d like to see you in my office for a moment, please. We need to go over plans for the holidays.”
Lavinia and Gail turned immediately to go with her. As soon as they were gone, Janina grabbed Rajah and slipped out from behind the drapes. Trying to move quietly on the tiptoes of her soft shoes, she raced through the living room, past the half-closed office door and down the hall into her own bedroom.
Exhausted, she lay down on her bed. Rajah snuggled up beside her and meowed.
She reached for a book on her nightstand and opened it, but the words blurred together. She felt a deep hollowness in her chest. What was going to happen to her? Angrily, she closed the book and pushed it aside. Tears filled her eyes. She lay her face on the pillow, next to Rajah’s silky body. Crying would do no good. But she cried anyhow.
Rajah curled around next to her. She felt his rough tongue licking her cheek. She slept.
Early morning light snuck under the shades in her room. She still wore the dress in which she’d fallen asleep, but her shoes had been removed and she was covered with a soft afghan. Someone, probably Lavinia, had checked on her last night.
Rajah lay on top of the afghan by her side, purring gently.
She pushed the shades aside. Bright sunshine dazzled off crystals of ice on the window pane. Sitting up, she could see the park, covered in the same sparkling white. On the street below, snow plows had pushed the snow into huge dingy piles next to the curbs.
A soft knock sounded at the door. “Ready for breakfast, miss?” Gail asked.
Janina was surprised to realize she was hungry. “Yes,” she answered.
“Well, get yourself dressed. You can do that, can’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Janina was indignant. Just because Marie usually picked out her clothes and made sure she got ready didn’t mean she couldn’t handle it herself.
With no one to tell her what to wear, Janina scrambled into what Aunt Helen would disparagingly call “play clothes”—blue jeans, a sweatshirt and sneakers. She headed to the dining room, Rajah at her heels.
One place was set at the table. Gail brought in a bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with granola and a glass of orange juice.
“Well, there’s the cat,” Gail said, setting down a plate with a piece of toast. “I wondered where he’d gotten off to. I’ll get him some breakfast, too.”
“He misses Daddy.” Janina sat down, put her napkin in her lap and picked up her spoon, tracing lazy circles in the oatmeal. “I do, too.”
Gail turned to look at her, her generous mouth drooping sadly. “I’m sure you do, dear.”
As Janina finished her breakfast, Mrs. Witherspoon came in. “Janina, you are going to stay at your grandmother’s house in Brooklyn for Christmas.”
Janina froze, her orange juice glass halfway to her mouth.
“You probably don’t remember meeting this grandmother.” Mrs. Witherspoon adjusted her glasses. “Your father let her visit a few times when you were a baby, but it didn’t work out well. After all that happened, he decided you were better off if you didn’t see anyone from your mother’s family, at least until you were older.”
Janina felt her stomach twist into a knot. She longed to say, “All what happened?” but she knew she wouldn’t get a decent answer. She put the juice glass down on the table.
“Your uncle is coming later to pick you up. Gail will help you get together a few things to take.” That wouldn’t be Hank, would it? Who had something to do with her mother’s death. And was here just before her father died?
Mrs. Witherspoon pushed open the door to the kitchen. Janina strained her ears to hear.
“Gail, please help Janina pack an overnight bag. She is going to spend Christmas with her grandmother’s family.”
“Really?” Gail sounded surprised.
“Yes. Mr. Rutledge’s attorney recommends that they be permitted to take her for a few days. And Mr. Rutledge himself is not in any condition right now to object. They will be responsible for picking her up and bringing her back.”
“What should I pack for her?” Gail asked.
“As little as possible. After all, if they are going to take responsibility for her, they should be supplying her needs. And no sense sending a good suitcase.”
When Gail came out of the kitchen, Janina slipped off the dining room chair and followed her. Rajah tailed along behind.
“You’ll need pajamas,” Gail said, pulling a gym bag out of the closet and opening it. “And some clean underwear. Do you think your grandma will be taking you to church? Maybe you should bring a dress.”
Janina piled the things Gail had collected into the gym bag. She went into the bathroom to get her toothbrush and a towel.
“When will he be here to get me?” she asked.
“That I don’t know.” Gail folded the towel and put it in the bag. “But we don’t want to keep him waiting.”
Janina stayed in her room most of the day, trying to read her book. But she ended up mostly staring out the window at the people hurrying by, finishing up their Christmas Eve errands. No one had time to stop in the park.
Finally, as the afternoon shadows filled the park, Gail knocked on her door. “Janina! Your Uncle Hank is here to get you. Get your bag and come on.”
When she went to zip the gym bag shut, she found Rajah had climbed in and settled himself down.
Suppose Aunt Helen got back before Janina and followed through on her threat to get rid of the cat? She might never see him again.
Holding the top together to make sure he didn’t jump out, Janina zipped the bag shut. Rajah poked at the sides, making small moving lumps, but he didn’t struggle, and he didn’t meow.
Her throat closing, Janina picked up the gym bag and went to the foyer.
A huge bearded man was standing by the door, his hands in his pockets. He was wearing a worn parka, blue jeans and scuffed work boots.
Gail held out Janina’s jacket for her to put on. “How are you getting there?”
The huge man shrugged. “Subway.”
The dangerous subway. Where her mother died. With the man who had been with her. Terror seized Janina’s chest.
“Subway?” Gail asked. “That’s a long way. And it’s getting dark. Maybe you should take her in a cab.”
The man raised his bushy eyebrows. “Traffic’s backed up over the bridge. Subway’s likely to be faster.”
Mrs. Witherspoon stepped out of her office, peering over her glasses. “Good afternoon, Hank.” She turned to Gail. “It’s not up to us to decide how they should travel.”
Janina took her jacket. Uncle Hank reached for the gym bag, but she put it between her feet while she slipped on the jacket, then picked it up again.
They left. In the elevator, Janina sniffed. Uncle Hank smelled of tobacco smoke and something else. Beer?
Out on the street, he held out his hand toward the bag again. “Want me to carry that?”
“No, thank you,” Janina said. Rajah was moving slowly, changing the balance of the bag. What would this dangerous man do if he found out she’d brought a cat? She should have thought this out more carefully.
“Okay.” Uncle Hank’s big rough hand reached out and clasped Janina’s tiny pale one. “Stick close, okay?
There’s likely to be crowds, and you don’t want to get lost.”
They descended the stairs to the subway station. Uncle Hank was right. The platform was crowded. A chill breeze drifted out of the dark tunnel, carrying strange noises and even stranger odors. The platform stopped abruptly at the edge of the track, a sharp fall if she got too close.
A train rumbled into the station. Janina shrank around in back of Uncle Hank’s legs, but he pulled her forward and through the yawning doors. She could feel a whoosh as they closed right behind her, grabbing the tip of her jacket’s hood. She stepped forward and yanked it free.
Uncle Hank maneuvered her toward one of the few empty seats and nodded toward it. She sank down into it. He picked up the gym bag and put it on her lap.
The bag wiggled.
Standing directly in front of her, Uncle Hank stared at the bag.
He chuckled. “What you got in there? A cat?”
Janina couldn’t look him in the face, but she nodded.
“Whoa. Just wait ‘til your grandma gets a load of that!” He laughed out loud.
She lost track of how long the trip took. They changed trains. The last one eventually came out from underground. Low-rise buildings spread in every direction. Grimy snow covered all surfaces in sight. Here, the Christmas lights on the buildings seem gaudy and glaring.
When they finally left the train, they had to go down a long staircase to reach the street. Janina let Uncle Hank carry the bag, since he’d already figured out there was a cat in there.
After a few blocks, they turned the corner onto a narrow street with row houses lining both sides. Most of the front doors had wreaths, but it was hard to make them out in the gathering darkness.
Uncle Hank went up the stairs to one. Janina wondered how he could tell which was the right one. They all looked the same to her.
They stepped directly into a small living room. A scrawny Christmas tree was tucked in a corner against a staircase. It was covered with twinkling lights and bright ornaments and bushy strands of silver tinsel. The room smelled of fresh pine and baking cookies.
A gray-haired lady came bustling from further back in the house, wiping her hands on her apron. “Is our little Janina here?” she said. “Let me look at you!”
Janina shrank back as the lady gripped her shoulders.
Another woman, younger, came down the stairs. “Now, Mother, you’re scaring her. She doesn’t remember you, and she’s just lost her father.”
She turned to Janina. “I’m Sadie. Your mother’s sister. Come on upstairs. You’re going to stay in your mother’s old room, on the third floor, under the eaves. It’s cozy.”
The stairs were steep. At the very top, Sadie opened one of two doors on the landing. “Here you go,” she said. “I’m in the room right across here, if you need anything in the night. Shall I help you unpack?”
“No!” Janina put the bag on the floor and stepped in front of it. Was there any possibility she could keep Rajah’s presence a secret? “I can unpack, thank you.”
“All right,” Sadie said. “When you’re ready, come on downstairs and we’ll fix supper.”
One small window looked out over a tiny backyard, now white with snow. On the other side of the room was a closet. Janina opened it and put the bag on the floor. She unzipped it and reached in to pat Rajah.
“Now you just stay here and be quiet,” she said. “I’ll see if I can’t bring you some of my supper.”
Down the two flights of stairs, the person who must be her grandmother was taking colorful knit stockings out of a cardboard box. Each had an embroidered figure and a name.
“Over the years, I’ve made one for everyone,” she said, smiling. “We’ll hang the ones for people who will be here tomorrow.” She laid out two bright green ones. “Lynn and Bobby, your cousins,” she said. “And this white one is for Tammy, their mother. Sadie’s is white, too. Hank has a blue one. And this is yours.”
She pulled out a red one with a reindeer and the name, “Janina.”
“You have one for me?” Janina asked.
“Of course. I made it for you when you were little. We’ve always hoped that, sooner or later, you could spend some time at Christmas with us. And here you are!”
Several more stockings lay in the bottom of the box. “Who are those for?”
A shadow passed over Grandma’s face. “Those are for people who can’t be with us. Butch is in the Marines, stationed overseas. Grandpa died years ago. And, of course, your mother’s.”
Janina didn’t want to hear about her mother right now.
Sadie poked her head in from the kitchen. “Want to help fix supper?” she asked Janina.
No one had ever asked Janina to help do anything. She hurried in.
“We’re just having tomato soup and cheese sandwiches,” Sadie said, emptying a can into a saucepan.
Janina unwrapped the individual slices of cheese and Sadie cooked the sandwiches. She managed to slip a wrapped slice of the cheese into her pocket for Rajah.
After supper, she helped Grandma hang the stockings on the stair railing going up. Grandma’s was at the very top and hers at the very end.
“All set for Santa to come!” Grandma said.
Janina blinked. “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus,” she said before she could stop herself.
Grandma looked at her and smiled. “Ah, but I like to pretend that there is. You can, too, if you want.”
“Is Hank going to be here tomorrow?” Sadie asked, eyeing his stocking halfway up the line.
“Why wouldn’t he be?” Grandma asked.
Sadie shrugged. “He said he got a phone call that the police wanted to talk to him again. I’m just a bit worried that…” she glanced over at Janina. “You know, that something might happen to him.”
“Nonsense.” Grandma stood up and picked up the box that had held the stockings. “He told them everything they wanted to know. He says the secretary took him into her tiny office, next to the big one where Roger died. Someone else was waiting there to see Roger. Hank never even went in.”
Janina stood still, trying to keep her face from collapsing.
Sadie reached over and gave her a hug. “Why don’t you run upstairs and get ready for bed? I’ll be up in a few minutes.”
Taking the stairs two at a time, Janina managed to reach the tiny bedroom before her tears spilled.
She unwrapped the cheese and gave it to Rajah. He sniffed it and glared at her as if to say, “That’s not cat food,” but then he started nibbling it and ate the whole thing.
The room was cold. Pulling on her pajamas and wiping her face with her sleeve, Janina climbed into bed without bothering to brush her teeth.
Rajah climbed up on the pillow next to her. She reached out and grabbed him, pulling him under the covers with her. He gave a small “meow” in protest, but settled down in her arms, his head under her chin.
Sadie knocked and opened the door. Janina hadn’t heard her come up the stairs. She didn’t have a chance to hide Rajah.
“What’s that?” Sadie asked. “Your kitty?”
Janina didn’t trust her voice, so she just nodded.
“You should have told us! I’ll have to find food for it. And something to use for a litter box. What’s its name?”
Janina swallowed hard. “Rajah. He’s Daddy’s cat. He doesn’t know Daddy isn’t coming home again. Ever.” She turned her face into the pillow and her shoulders shook.
Sadie rubbed her back. “It’s got to be tough,” she said. “And here you are, in a strange house, with people you don’t even know! How selfish of us, to want you to come here for Christmas. Do you want me to take you back in the morning?”
“No.” Janina cried harder. It was tough to get the words out. “Nobody’s there, really. Just Lavinia and Gail and Mrs. Witherspoon. They don’t want me there for Christmas.”
“Who are they?”
“Lavinia and Gail are the staff,” Janina said. “Mrs. Witherspoon’s Grandpa’s secretary. She says Grandpa is too sick to leave his room, and I can’t go in to see him.”
“I thought you had cousins who lived there, too.” Sadie adjusted the blankets.
“Well, yes. But they went skiing with their mother.”
“So you won’t be missing a big Christmas celebration?”
“No. I mean, Gail would fix me a special dinner.” Not, Janina thought, tomato soup and cheese sandwiches. “And I’d have to eat it by myself in the dining room.”
“But how about opening presents?” Sadie asked.
“We’d have to wait until Aunt Helen got back with Cynthia and Celina. After New Years.”
“Well, maybe it’s just as well you’re here. You were only supposed to stay until the day after Christmas. We could call and see if you can stay longer. We can make a gingerbread house and go to the movies, if you want.”
Janina tried to stop her tears. “The money’s all in trust. Mrs. Witherspoon will make sure you don’t get any for keeping me.”
“Oh, pooh. Who cares about money? You’re our Janina. We’ve always wanted to have you here, whenever we could.”
“But I’ve never come before.”
“No. Your father said he could give you opportunities we never could. He always took you to such wonderful places over Christmas.”
Resorts, Janina thought, where she went to a children’s program for most of the day while Daddy an a girlfriend went scuba diving and drank cocktails.
“He could send you to the best schools. Give you all the things money can buy. It didn’t seem fair to take you away from all that.”
“So I could stay here sometimes?” Janina asked. “Even if there’s no money?”
“Of course. Welcome home, Janina. You and Rajah. And Merry Christmas.”