Chapter 1: Santo Prospero
The day my sister disappeared began as any other. Dad knocked on our bedroom door and poked his head inside. “You two awake in here? Gigi? Penny?”
I felt the bunk beds vibrate as my sister climbed down from the top. Gigi always did what she was supposed to do, whether she felt like it or not.
I heard Dad’s footsteps on the tile floor and pulled the covers over my head. Ugh! Why did he always have to fling open the curtains and snap up the shade?
“Morning, Dad,” Gigi mumbled. Her voice sounded flat.
“Hey, what’s up? You look way too tired for someone who fell asleep over her homework at seven-thirty last night.
“I woke up in the middle of the night.”
I wondered which face Gigi was making right now—scrunching up her nose or maybe twitching her eyes? Gigi can make the most disagreeable faces when she is ornery. Or tired. Or worried. And she worries a lot, especially about our mother, who left eleven years ago, when I was a baby. I don’t remember her, but Gigi does.
“They’re just dreams, you know. They’re not true.”
“It’s still hard to fall back to sleep afterward, Dad.”
Pause. Maybe now she was giving the blank stare, which meant she was tired of trying to explain how feelings and worries are hard to ignore. Dad always told her, “Live your life going forward, Gigi. Don’t live in the past. You can’t change anything.”
Me? I didn’t have much of a past to forget. As far as I could remember, we had always lived in this apartment together with Mrs. Dobbs to keep house for us.
Dad sighed and Gigi’s footsteps padded down the hall to the bathroom.
“You too, my little tulip. Your sister is already up and dressing for school.” He kissed my cheek.
Ugh! Doesn’t he EVER remember? I’ve told him a million times I don’t want to be coddled like a little kid. I scrunched down further under the covers. “I am not a little tulip!” The words came out muffled.
“Oh, I see. It’s a game of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. What’s the magic word? Petunia? Sweet Pea? I’ve got it!” He tapped my shoulder. “Wake up, little peony!”
I groaned. Dad can be incorrigible at times.
“Ha-ha! Got you! Get dressed for school now, Penny.”
I sat up and yawned. I didn’t feel duty-bound like Gigi. I let myself take time to get going in the morning.
I crawled on top of the desk and sat cross-legged, looking out the window. Two birds swooped past but did not stop. I frowned. A little bird often hopped along my windowsill.
Where are you today, little bird? I saved a package of crackers for you.
I slid up the sash and poked my head out the window. Our modern apartment building looked down on the old parts of Santo Prospero. I almost always found something interesting to watch outside.
I spotted the neighbors on the flat rooftop below me. A mother scurried about cooking breakfast on a tiny charcoal grill. She stopped to wash her toddler’s face. The child threw back her head and wailed. Nearby a boy swept with his broom of twigs. He stopped and turned his face upward. A flock of birds flew overhead. Were they the same kind as my bird friend? I couldn’t tell.
The mother’s head was bobbing. She was probably fussing at her son to hurry up and finish. The father walked out onto the rooftop. He stood, waiting for his breakfast. Together they made a family—mother, father, sister, brother.
What would it be like to be part of a normal family?
Mrs. Dobbs entered. She marched to the window and slid it down with a snap. “Stop spying on people! Leave them alone. They are far less fortunate than you, and it’s rude to be so nosy.” She spoke with an accent, and her words always sounded harsh.
I said nothing in return. Mrs. Dobbs dished it right back if I tried to argue with her, and then her lectures lasted longer. I stared at the faces she made while she scolded. Her lips bunched together in disapproval. Wavy lines appeared on her forehead.
What makes her so worried about everything? She might actually be beautiful, despite her pokey nose and long skinny legs, if she would just let others be and smile.
“Hurry and get dressed now. Your breakfast is growing cold.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I murmured.
She closed the door, and I carefully slid open the window without making a sound. The father had left, and the mother was taking the baby inside. I flung a package of crackers onto the rooftop courtyard. The wind was blowing gustily. It wafted the package directly to a spot beside the boy, who sat eating his breakfast.
I smiled. Most mornings I missed my target. Not today.
The boy picked up the package. He looked up and smiled—at least I imagined a smile from my high-up perch.
* * *
Gigi’s head was bent over her journal.
“What are you writing about that’s so secret?”
“Can’t you see I’m busy? You know it’s not polite to snoop.”
“I was just asking.”
Gigi glared at me. Her eyes twitched in that annoying way.
“You don’t have to be so . . .” I glanced at Dad and Mrs. Dobbs. Good! They didn’t notice. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “You have dark circles under your eyes, Gigi. You had another one of those dreams, didn’t you? Was Mother calling for help again?”
Gigi scowled and shushed me.
“Don’t dally, Penny. Eat!” Mrs. Dobbs sounded stern.
I sniffed my oatmeal and studied the garnishes. Two raisins for eyes. Two more torn apart to fix the shape of the eyes. Chopped walnuts for eyebrows. Brown sugar for hair. Dried cherries for lips. I glanced at Gigi and sneaked a smile.
Dad set down his paper. “What is it this morning, Penny?” He looked into my bowl and then laughed.
Gigi looked and made a face. Her eyebrows pinched together at the bridge of her nose. Her lips puckered in a scowl. A spark of fury spit from the eyes. The expression on her face looked just like the face in my bowl of oatmeal.
“I don’t know how you manage to do that, Penny,” Dad said. “Yesterday it was Mr. Tan’s scowl. Before that it was . . .” He glanced over at Mrs. Dobbs.
She glared at both of us.
“Ahem—yes.” Dad moved around the table and stood between Gigi and me. “You should try making happy faces sometimes.” He bent down and gave both of us kisses on the tops of our heads. Then he picked up his briefcase and left.
Huh! Was he talking to Gigi or to me?
I stirred my oatmeal and took a bite. I had only eaten only half of it when the kitchen timer rang.
“Time to go,” Mrs. Dobbs announced.
Gigi stuffed the journal into her bag while I ran back to the bedroom to fetch my backpack.
When I returned, Mrs. Dobbs was holding the door open for us.
“Be careful!” she ordered. She said that every morning. She glared at me. “Don’t stray from the route, and don’t talk to strangers. Stay with your sister!”
Then she had one of her fits. She was strange that way. She stared off into space. Her mouth fell open. She seemed blank for a matter of seconds. Next she usually gasped and acted as if nothing had happened. This time, however, she backed away and sat down hard on a kitchen chair. Her hands covered her gaping mouth. Her face looked pale. Her hands shook.
Gigi and I looked at each other. We shrugged and turned to leave, but Mrs. Dobbs recovered and stopped us. “Here, you must take these.” She slipped the beaded bracelets from her slender wrists and shoved them toward us.
My eyes grew wide, but Gigi nodded. A look passed between her and Mrs. Dobbs. Gigi knows something. I opened my backpack and dropped the bracelet she gave me inside.
“No!” she ordered. “You both must wear them. Don’t take them off! Ever!”
We’re not supposed to wear jewelry to school. There are rules. We wear uniforms. But I put the bracelet on as I was told.
We walked to school side-by-side. People crowded the narrow streets. As usual, Gigi marched ahead while I dragged behind. I liked to soak in the sights. Gigi just wanted to get to school. She grabbed my hand and pulled me along.
“Come on, Penny. You heard what Mrs. Dobbs said. We can’t be late for school.”
We passed the street vendors’ pushcarts. I licked my lips at the cups of fruit and the sweet potato pancakes. Mrs. Dobbs never made breakfasts as inviting as those. We passed rows of tiny shops. My eyes lingered on the clothing, jewelry and knickknacks.
Gigi walked even more briskly as we cut through Green Park. My eyes followed the groups of workers moving gracefully through their calisthenics. I peeked into a huddle of old men playing checkers, but Gigi jerked me back. That old geezer in the bandstand was playing his haunting violin again.
We had almost reached school when a rain shower broke loose. I slipped off my backpack and stooped down to pull out my rain cape. Gigi pulled hers out too. As she did, her journal slipped out and fell on the ground. I glanced up to see if she had noticed.
Gigi stood like a statue. She was staring at four large, brown dogs. Maybe this time, she won’t try to pet them. I squatted down and picked up her journal. Brown boots stepped in around me. I tucked Gigi’s journal beneath the folds of my rain cape and glanced up.
Chapter 2: The Vanishing
The dogs had surrounded my sister. Men with beards and brown capes closed in around the dogs. Their faces looked mean. Terror raced up my spine and stabbed my chest. I wanted to scream, but my muscles seemed frozen.
Gigi was still staring at the dogs. She wore an odd look on her face. The men joined hands. Their capes swished in front of me and closed off Gigi from my view. I was still squatting. I waddled closer and ducked my head between their capes.
They had begun a chant. Their deep voices sounded almost mechanical:
Stuckta dido, stuckta dah,
Tuckda guto, Tuckda vah, Guto gottee, Guto tah, Jicky, jicky, jicky dazah!
On the last line, the men raised their arms, and the capes swished over my face. I pulled back. The dogs yelped. Gigi gasped. With a puff of smoke, the men and dogs vanished—and Gigi with them.
I looked around. My mouth fell open. Where did they go? Why had they taken Gigi?
Rain poured down in torrents and cleared the smoke. People moved past me, close enough that their umbrellas brushed against each other. I stood up.
A motionless figure beyond the crowd drew my gaze: another bearded man. He wore a brown cape like the others, but his beard was red. He raised a brow, and his dark eyes took on a hard glint. He pointed directly at me and barked a command I couldn’t understand.
People passed between us, blocking my view. I heard him shout. The crowd thinned, and I saw his face. His eyes moved beyond me. A sneer started to form on his face. Was someone coming up behind me? Fear rippled through me. I turned and ran.
I ran hard, following the same winding path that Gigi and I had taken from the apartment. I raced through Green Park toward the little alleys full of shops. Men shouted behind me. A brown cape appeared in front of me. I plunged into a side alley and zigzagged through the maze of shops. I spotted a brown cape ahead.
Oh, no! I ducked under the wooden table of one of the shops. I crawled beneath it and crammed myself into a dark corner. I tried to catch my breath without making a sound. My heart was racing. Rain dripped from my plastic rain cape. I shivered.
Voices whirled near me, but their meaning escaped me. A ruckus arose in the street. I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the noise. I needed to think.
I must find help, but where should I go? I’ll have to explain what happened. Will Dad believe me?
I shivered again and shifted my position. Gigi’s journal slipped from my grasp and fell splat on the floor. The nearby voices stopped.
I froze. I held my breath. Someone hissed. Footsteps scuffled past me, toward the front of the shop. I heard the rattle of a heavy bamboo shade being dropped and latched to the sides of the shop. Something crashed against the bamboo, making an awful clatter. The whole shop seemed to vibrate. Then someone shrieked. A woman scolded someone outside.
I cowered at the angry exchange that followed. Would they find me? Did the shopkeeper know I was here? The gravelly voice of an old man called from somewhere above, but I couldn’t understand the words.
“Coming,” someone answered. The voice turned in my direction. “Those ruffians in the street—stay until it’s safe. You can sit in this chair. I must go upstairs and check on my father.”
So she is the shop owner. I tensed as her stout legs passed me. I held my breath as a pair of skinny legs shuffled past me too. I heard a plop and a sigh as someone sat down.
I didn’t expect the meow.
Chapter 3: Madame Howe and Her Cat
A lean gray cat peered at me from under the far end of the table. Its green eyes glittered from the shadows. The cat sat and meowed again, twitching its large ears. It turned its head toward the bamboo shade, peeking between the slats.
The cat turned swiftly and looked at me as if it had heard my thoughts.
Was that an eyebrow it raised? Do cats have eyebrows?
The cat flicked its tail in the air and walked toward me. It brushed up against my elbow and rubbed its fur against my legs. Then it purred.
The pair of skinny legs moved toward me. “Goodness gracious, Qiao Miao! You’re certainly happy about something. Whatever did you find?”
The cat meowed, a meow that sounded almost like “You mean who.”
A hand flipped up the tablecloth, and a wrinkled face peered at me. “Come out from under there, girl.”
I shivered and looked at the cat. It nodded and nudged at my elbow. I crept from beneath the table. The woman stood no taller than I, but her head hung downward and her back formed a hump. She strained to lift her head and look me over.
“I guess you’re the small package of peony that I’m supposed to rescue from the spice shop.”
I stared at her. “Someone told you I’d be here?”
“The Begetter, of course—he’s the one who sent me. I must say! I do quite enjoy his sense of humor. Your name wouldn’t happen to be ‘Peony,’ would it?”
“It’s Penny—but my father called ‘little peony’ this morning when he woke me up.”
The old woman cleared her throat. “Now the Begetter specifically said, ‘Rescue.’ I’m sure he did. I was busy building banana castles for breakfast, and he distinctly told me to stop this minute and rescue a small package of peony at the spice shop.”
I blinked. “It’s my sister who needs to be rescued. Some men in brown capes took her. Look, I need to call my dad and tell him what happened. Do you have a communicator? I have his business card in my backpack.”
“Not with me. Oh, dear! I left it at the hotel. Come with me.”
The cat meowed again, a long wavering meow.
The woman paused and swept her eyes over me. “You’re right, Qiao Miao. She won’t do the way she is. If the men are still about, they might recognize her—out of school and all. Pull your rain cape over your backpack, Penny, and pull up your knee socks so that your skin does not show beneath the rain cape.”
“Who’s the Begetter? How did he know I was here?”
“Later. I am taking you to the Grand Hotel. Have you ever been there?”
“Qiao Miao will lead you on the leash. You must walk as if you know where you are going, all the way through the lobby, then left up the grand stairwell to the very top—eight floors, sixteen flights. No elevator for you—less traffic on the stairs.”
“Where will you be?”
“Behind you at first, but I’ll sneak a ride on the service elevator. We should not be seen together. Pull the hood of your rain cape over your face as far as it will go. There, that’s right! Keep your head down. If anyone questions you, pretend not to hear. Do not speak a word. Do not look around. Just watch Qiao Miao and keep going. Got it?”
I swallowed hard and nodded. The old woman attached a leash to Qiao Miao’s collar and handed me the loop.
“Go ahead.” She popped the latch on the back door of the shop and held it open.
The cat lifted its head high and led me through the narrow alley to a main road. We followed the sidewalk and turned into Green Park. We strolled along the winding pathways beneath the willows, crossed a bridge, and arrived at a large plaza. Across the street stood the Grand Hotel.
I followed the cat across the street and past the doormen loading suitcases onto a cart. We crossed the glossy marble floor of the lobby and turned left at the staircase. One flight, then two and three. I heard the scuff of shoes on the third-floor landing as we rounded the banister.
“Excuse me, sir,” a voice said. The sound came from the open doors at the landing. “Do you know the woman on the stairwell? Who is she?” The man’s voice sounded like my father’s! I jerked my head round to look. Then the old woman’s warning rang in my ears. I pulled my head downward and glued my eyes to the cat. “One of our guests. Can’t disclose names, of course.”
“Madame Howe, by chance?” The voice called to me. “Maddie? Is that you?”
I fought the urge to look. His voice sounded so much like Dad’s. I wanted to throw my hood back and rush down the steps to him. But the cat jerked on the leash and pulled me around the banister and up the next flight of stairs.
“My deepest apologies, sir,” someone answered. “She is a little deaf, I fear. She is rather spry for her age, but flighty—“
“I can see that,” the man said, laughing. “How many flights of stairs does she climb? But never mind. I have an appointment in Suite three three one, and I don’t wish to be late.”
That laugh. The man has to be Dad! I hesitated on the step. The cat turned and hissed at me. It yanked me forward.
“Suite three three one? The man with the red beard? Proceed with caution. He can be gruff.”
I’ve only seen one red-bearded man in Santo Prospero. And I saw him this morning. I shuddered.
The cat sprinted up the next flight. I raced to keep up. Fear tingled down my spine.
“I don’t know what he looks like….” I heard Dad say, but the ring of a cell phone cut off his words.
The voices drifted off. We finally reached the top. A pair of carved wooden doors swished open.
“Well done, my dears!” The old woman gazed fondly at the cat and patted my shoulder. “Now you’re safe!”
“I’m not so sure,” I said, leaning against the closed doors and breathing hard. “The man with the red beard is staying at the hotel. What do we do now?”