Today's Reading

(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores January 2020.)

DECEMBER 20, 1881

There had been occasions in the past when Inez Stannert had looked a man—and even, once, a woman—straight in the eye and felt justified in pulling the trigger. And she suspected there might be times in the future when she would have to do so again.

But she would never harm a child. Never.

However, there were times that sorely tried her soul. This was one of them.

Face contorted in agony, twelve-year-old Antonia Gizzi clapped her hands to her ears and implored Inez. "I can't stand it! Please! No more!"

Inez frowned at her young ward and tried to stem her growing irritation. At least Antonia had staged her protest in a whisper, loud though it was. And at least they were seated in a mezzanine box of the Grand Opera House, not in the balcony or orchestra where Antonia's groans and grumbles would disturb others. Inez snapped her silk fan closed, set the silver guard sticks against Antonia's arm, and pressed down. "This is the encore. The performance is almost over."

Inez had intended the evening to be an early Christmas gift to the girl—an elevating experience, but also a partial apology for sending her away from San Francisco for the upcoming holiday. However, Antonia seemed to view being subjected to the recital by a highly acclaimed prima donna as punishment heaped upon punishment, reacting as if knives were being plunged into her ears. 

The beautiful strains of "Dove sono i bei momenti" soared through the air, touching the frescoes, flying off the light-blue drapery, stilling the scattered murmurs and shufflings of the two thousand or so viewers. The singer below shifted her stance, raising one languid arm as her voice climbed the scale. Her gloves and dress—a glittering affair of gold and silver—captured the illumination from the footlights, shimmering like her voice. The piano accompanist, a gentleman with dark, silver-streaked hair that had its own metallic sheen, leaned into the keyboard with intensity. A little too much intensity, Inez thought. In her estimation, he should have gone with a lighter touch so the instrument was not warring with the singer for dominance.

At a particularly fulsome trill, Antonia rolled her eyes skyward, looking for all the world as if she were about to have a fit and fall from her chair. Luckily, for Inez's patience and Antonia's ears, the aria ended and the audience erupted into applause and enthusiastic plebeian whistles, punctuated by "Brava!" or "Again!" depending on the admirer's familiarity with opera and Romance languages. Antonia jumped up from her chair. "Now do we get to go backstage and see all the scenery and ropes and rigging and interesting stuff?"

As an additional treat, Inez had used her connections as co-owner of the D & S House of Music and Curiosities to persuade Mr. Thackery, the assistant manager of the opera house, to give them a peek behind the proscenium arch and a personal introduction to the visiting diva. At this point, Inez was tempted to quash the tour as retribution for Antonia's boorish behavior during the recital. But looking down at the girl's expectant face—her plaits of dark hair coming undone, even though she had done little besides sit and squirm for the past three hours—Inez didn't have the heart to do so.

Besides, she was just as curious as her ward to see what lay beyond the footlights.

"We are to wait here for Mr. Thackery to arrive and escort us," said Inez.

No sooner had the words been said than the curtain to the box swept aside, revealing the assistant manager. A toothsome smile came out of hiding below his walrus mustache. That smile, the mustache, his slightly bulging blue eyes, and thinning reddish hair made Inez think of him as an over-eager squirrel—all he lacked was a mouthful of acorns. "Mrs. Stannert and little Antonia. I hope you both enjoyed the performance."

Antonia glowered. Inez, who suspected the girl was about to blurt out her real opinion of the singing, gave Antonia's arm a light pinch as a warning.

Thackery didn't seem to notice, possibly because Antonia's glare was muted underneath her bonnet. Or it could have been because his perpetually pop-eyed gaze was so firmly fixed on Inez. The scowl disappeared from Antonia's face, replaced by a too-wide smile. "Oh, yes, Mr. Thackery," she piped up with what Inez knew was patently false earnestness. "The seats were excellent and the performances most exquisite."

"Glad to hear," he said.

"It was wonderful, and we are ever so grateful for your consideration," added Inez.

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