Grace Notes
Written by Sara Paretsky — Narrated by Jean Smart

I

GABRIELLA SESTIERI OF PITIGLIANO.

Anyone with knowledge of her whereabouts should contact the office of Malcolm Ranier.

I WAS READING the Herald-Star at breakfast when the notice jumped out at me from the personal section. I put my coffee down with extreme care, as if I were in a dream and all my actions moved with the slowness of dream time. I shut the paper with the same slow motion, then opened it again. The notice was still there. I spelled out the headline letter by letter, in case my unconscious mind had substituted one name for another, but the text remained the same. There could not be more than one Gabriella Sestieri from Pitigliano. My mother, who died of cancer in 1968 at the age of forty-six.

“Who could want her all these years later?” I said aloud.

Peppy, the golden retriever I share with my downstairs neighbor, raised a sympathetic eyebrow. We had just come back from a run on a dreary November morning and she was waiting hopefully for toast.

“It can’t be her father.” His mind had cracked after six months in a German concentration camp, and he refused to acknowledge Gabriella’s death when my father wrote to inform him of it. I’d had to translate the letter, in which he said he was too old to travel but wished Gabriella well on her concert tour. Anyway, if he was alive still he’d be almost a hundred.

Maybe Gabriella’s brother Italo was searching for her: he had disappeared in the maelstrom of the war, but Gabriella always hoped he survived. Or her first voice teacher, Francesca Salvini, whom Gabriella longed to see again, to explain why she had never fulfilled Salvini’s hopes for her professional career. As Gabriella lay in her final bed in Jackson Park Hospital with tubes ringing her wasted body, her last messages had been for me and for Salvini. This morning it dawned on me for the first time how hurtful my father must have found that. He adored my mother, but for him she had only the quiet fondness of an old friend.

I realized my hands around the newspaper were wet with sweat, that paper and print were clinging to my palms. With an embarrassed laugh I put the paper down and washed off the ink under the kitchen tap. It was ludicrous to spin my mind with conjectures when all I had to do was phone Malcolm Ranier. I went to the living room and pawed through the papers on the piano for the phone book. Ranier seemed to be a lawyer with offices on La Salle Street, at the north end where the pricey new buildings stand.

His was apparently a solo practice. The woman who answered the phone assured me she was Mr. Ranier’s assistant and conversant with all his files. Mr. Ranier couldn’t speak with me himself now, because he was in conference. Or court. Or the John.

“I’m calling about the notice in this morning’s paper, wanting to know the whereabouts of Gabriella Sestieri.”

“What is your name, please, and your relationship with Mrs. Sestieri?” The assistant left out the second syllable so that the name came out as “Sistery.”

“I’ll be glad to tell you that if you tell me why you’re trying to find her.”

“I’m afraid I can’t give out confidential client business over the phone. But if you tell me your name and what you know about Mrs. Sestieri we’ll get back to you when we’ve discussed the matter with our client.”

I thought we could keep this conversation going all day. “The person you’re looking for may not be the same one I know, and I don’t want to violate a family’s privacy. But I’ll be in a meeting on La Salle Street this morning; I can stop by to discuss the matter with Mr. Ranier.”

The woman finally decided that Mr. Ranier had ten minutes free at twelve-thirty. I gave her my name and hung up. Sitting at the piano, I crashed out chords, as if the sound could bury the wildness of my feelings. I never could remember whether I knew how ill my mother was the last six months of her life. Had she told me and I couldn’t—or didn’t wish to—comprehend it? Or had she decided to shelter me from the knowledge? Gabriella usually made me face bad news, but perhaps not the worst of all possible news, our final separation.

Why did I never work on my singing? It was one thing I could have done for her. I didn’t have a Voice, as Gabriella put it, but I had a serviceable contralto, and of course she insisted I acquire some musicianship. I stood up and began working on a few vocal stretches, then suddenly became wild with the desire to find my mother’s music, the old exercise books she had me learn from.

I burrowed through the hall closet for the trunk that held her books. I finally found it in the farthest corner, under a carton holding my old case files, a baseball bat, a box of clothes I no longer wore but couldn’t bring myself to give away…. I sat on the closet floor in misery, with a sense of having buried her so deep I couldn’t find her.

Peppy’s whimpering pulled me back to the present. She had followed me into the closet and was pushing her nose into my arm. I fondled her ears.

At length it occurred to me that if someone was trying to find my mother I’d need documents to prove the relationship. I got up from the floor and pulled the trunk into the hall. On top lay her black silk concert gown: I’d forgotten wrapping that in tissue and storing it. In the end I found my parents’ marriage license and Gabriella’s death certificate tucked into the score of Don Giovanni.

When I returned the score to the trunk another old envelope floated out. I picked it up and recognized Mr. Fortieri’s spiky writing. Carlo Fortieri repaired musical instruments and sold, or at least used to sell music. He was the person Gabriella went to for Italian conversation, musical conversation, advice. He still sometimes tuned my own piano out of affection for her.

When Gabriella met him, he’d been a widower for years, also with one child, also a girl. Gabriella thought I ought to play with her while she sang or discussed music with Mr. Fortieri, but Barbara was ten years or so my senior and we’d never had much to say to each other.

I pulled out the yellowed paper. It was written in Italian, and hard for me to decipher, but apparently dated from 1965.

Addressing her as “Cara signora Warshawski,” Mr. Fortieri sent his regrets that she was forced to cancel her May 14 concert. “I shall, of course, respect your wishes and not reveal the nature of your indisposition to anyone else. And, cara signora, you should know by now that I regard any confidence of yours as a sacred trust: you need not fear an indiscretion.” It was signed with his full name.

I wondered now if he’d been my mother’s lover. My stomach tightened, as it does when you think of your parents stepping outside their prescribed roles, and I folded the paper back into the envelope. Fifteen years ago the same notion must have prompted me to put his letter inside Don Giovanni. For want of a better idea I stuck it back in the score and returned everything to the trunk. I needed to rummage through a different carton to find my own birth certificate, and it was getting too late in the morning for me to indulge in nostalgia.

 

 

II

Malcolm Ranier’s office overlooked the Chicago River and all the new glass and marble flanking it. It was a spectacular view—if you squinted to shut out the burnt-out waste of Chicago’s west side that lay beyond. I arrived just at twelve-thirty, dressed in my one good suit, black, with a white crepe-de-chine blouse. I looked feminine, but austere—or at least that was my intention.

Ranier’s assistant-cum-receptionist was buried in Danielle Steel. When I handed her my card, she marked her page without haste and took the card into an inner office. After a ten-minute wait to let me understand his importance, Ranier came out to greet me in person. He was a soft round man of about sixty, with gray eyes that lay like pebbles above an apparently jovial smile.

“Ms. Warshawski. Good of you to stop by. I understand you can help us with our inquiry into Mrs. Sestieri.” He gave my mother’s name a genuine Italian lilt, but his voice was as hard as his eyes.

“Hold my calls, Cindy.” He put a hand on the nape of my neck to steer me into his office.

Before we’d shut the door Cindy was reabsorbed into Danielle. I moved away from the hand—I didn’t want grease on my five-hundred-dollar jacket—and went to admire a bronze nymph on a shelf at the window.

“Beautiful, isn’t it.” Ranier might have been commenting on the weather. “One of my clients brought it from France.”

“It looks as though it should be in a museum.”

A call to the bar association before I left my apartment told me he was an import-export lawyer. Various imports seemed to have attached themselves to him on their way into the country. The room was dominated by a slab of rose marble, presumably a work table, but several antique chairs were also worth a second glance. A marquetry credenza stood against the far wall. The Modigliani above it was probably an original.

“Coffee, Ms.”—he glanced at my card again—“Warshawski?”

“No, thank you. I understand you’re very busy, and so am I. So let’s talk about Gabriella Sestieri.”

“D’accordo.” He motioned me to one of the spindly antiques near the marble slab. “You know where she is?”

The chair didn’t look as though it could support my hundred and forty pounds, but when Ranier perched on a similar one I sat, with a wariness that made me think he had them to keep people deliberately off balance. I leaned back and crossed my legs. The woman at ease.

“I’d like to make sure we’re talking about the same person. And that I know why you want to find her.”

A smile crossed his full lips, again not touching the slate chips of his eyes. “We could fence all day, Ms. Warshawski, but as you say, time is valuable to us both. The Gabriella Sestieri I seek was born in Pitigliano on October thirtieth, 1921. She left Italy sometime early in 1941, no one knows exactly when, but she was last heard of in Siena that February. And there’s some belief she came to Chicago. As to why I want to find her, a relative of hers, now in Florence, but from the Pitigliano family, is interested in locating her. My specialty is import-export law, particularly with Italy: I’m no expert in finding missing persons, but I agreed to assist as a favor to a client. The relative—Mrs. Sestieri’s relative—has a professional connection to my client. And now it is your turn, Ms. Warshawski.”

“Ms. Sestieri died in March 1968.” My blood was racing; I was pleased to hear my voice come out without a tremor. “She married a Chicago police officer in April 1942. They had one child. Me.”

“And your father? Officer Warshawski?”

“Died in 1979. Now may I have the name of my mother’s relative? I’ve known only one member of her family, my grandmother’s sister who lives here in Chicago, and am eager to find others.” Actually, if they bore any resemblance to my embittered Aunt Rosa I’d just as soon not meet the remaining Verazi clan.

“You were cautious, Ms. Warshawski, so you will forgive my caution: do you have proof of your identity?”

“You make it sound as though treasure awaits the missing heir, Mr. Ranier.” I pulled out the copies of my legal documents and handed them over. “Who or what is looking for my mother?”

Ranier ignored my question. He studied the documents briefly, then put them on the marble slab while condoling me on losing my parents. His voice had the same soft flat cadence as when he’d discussed the nymph.

“You’ve no doubt remained close to your grandmother’s sister? If she’s the person who brought your mother to Chicago it might be helpful for me to have her name and address.”

“My aunt is a difficult woman to be close to, but I can check with her, to see if she doesn’t mind my giving you her name and address.”

“And the rest of your mother’s family?”

I held out my hands, empty. “I don’t know any of them. I don’t even know how many there are. Who is my mystery relative? What does he—she—want?”

He paused, looking at the file in his hands. “I actually don’t know. I ran the ad merely as a favor to my client. But I’ll pass your name and address along, Ms. Warshawski, and when he’s been in touch with the person I’m sure you’ll hear.”

This runaround was starting to irritate me. “You’re a heck of a poker player, Mr. Ranier. But you know as well as I that you’re lying like a rug.”

I spoke lightly, smiling as I got to my feet and crossed to the door, snatching my documents from the marble slab as I passed. For once his feelings reached his eyes, turning the slate to molten rock. As I waited for the elevator I wondered if answering that ad meant I was going to be sucker-punched.

* * *

Over dinner that night with Dr. Lotty Herschel I went through my conversation with Ranier, trying to sort out my confused feelings. Trying, too, to figure out who in Gabriella’s family might want to find her, if the inquiry was genuine.

“They surely know she’s dead,” Lotty said.

“That’s what I thought at first, but it’s not that simple. See, my grandmother converted to Judaism when she married Nonno Mattia—sorry, that’s Gabriella’s father—Grandpa Matthias—Gabriella usually spoke Italian to me. Anyway, my grandmother died in Auschwitz when the Italian Jews were rounded up in 1944. Then, my grandfather didn’t go back to Pitigliano, the little town they were from, after he was liberated—the Jewish community there had been decimated and he didn’t have any family left. So he was sent to a Jewish-run sanatorium in Turin, but Gabriella only found that out after years of writing letters to relief agencies.”

I stared into my wineglass, as though the claret could reveal the secrets of my family. “There was one cousin she was really close to, from the Christian side of her family, named Frederica. Frederica had a baby out of wedlock the year before Gabriella came to Chicago, and got sent away in disgrace. After the war Gabriella kept trying to find her, but Frederica’s family wouldn’t forward the letters—they really didn’t want to be in touch with her. Gabriella might have saved enough money to go back to Italy to look for herself, but then she started to be ill. She had a miscarriage the summer of sixty-five and bled and bled. Tony and I thought she was dying then.”

My voice trailed away as I thought of that hot unhappy summer, the summer the city burst into riot-spawned flames and my mother lay in the stifling front bedroom oozing blood. She and Tony had one of their infrequent fights. I’d been on my paper route and they didn’t hear me come in. He wanted her to sell something which she said wasn’t hers to dispose of.

“And your life,” my father shouted. “You can give that away as a gift? Even if she was still alive—” He broke off then, seeing me, and neither of them talked about the matter again, at least when I was around to hear.

Lotty squeezed my hand. “What about your aunt, great-aunt in Melrose Park? She might have told her siblings, don’t you think? Was she close to any of them?”

I grimaced. “I can’t imagine Rosa being close to anyone. See, she was the last child, and Gabriella’s grandmother died giving birth to her. So some cousins adopted her, and when they emigrated in the twenties Rosa came to Chicago with them. She didn’t really feel like she was part of the Verazi family. I know it seems strange, but with all the uprootings the war caused, and all the disconnections, it’s possible that the main part of Gabriella’s mother’s family didn’t know what became of her.”

Lotty nodded, her face twisted in sympathy; much of her family had been destroyed in those death camps also. “There wasn’t a schism when your grandmother converted?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s frustrating to think how little I know about those people. Gabriella says—said—the Verazis weren’t crazy about it, and they didn’t get together much except for weddings or funerals—except for the one cousin. But Pitigliano was a Jewish cultural center before the war and Nonno was considered a real catch. I guess he was rich until the Fascists confiscated his property.” Fantasies of reparations danced through my head.

“Not too likely,” Lotty said. “You’re imagining someone overcome with guilt sixty years after the fact coming to make you a present of some land?”

I blushed. “Factory, actually: the Sestieris were harness makers who switched to automobile interiors in the twenties. I suppose if the place is even still standing, it’s part of Fiat or Mercedes. You know, all day long I’ve been swinging between wild fantasies—about Nonno’s factory, or Gabriella’s brother surfacing—and then I start getting terrified, wondering if it’s all some kind of terrible trap. Although who’d want to trap me, or why, is beyond me. I know this Malcolm Ranier knows. It would be so easy—”

“No! Not to set your mind at rest, not to prove you can bypass the security of a modern high rise—for no reason whatsoever are you to break into that man’s office.”

“Oh, very well.” I tried not to sound like a sulky child denied a treat.

“You promise, Victoria?” Lotty sounded ferocious.

I held up my right hand. “On my honor, I promise not to break into his office.”

 

 

III

It was six days later that the phone call came to my office. A young man, with an Italian accent so thick that his English was almost incomprehensible, called up and gaily asked if I was his “Cousin Vittoria.”

“Parliamo italiano,” I suggested, and the gaiety in his voice increased as he switched thankfully to his own language.

He was my cousin Ludovico, the great-great-grandson of our mutual Verazi ancestors, he had arrived in Chicago from Milan only last night, terribly excited at finding someone from his mother’s family, thrilled that I knew Italian, my accent was quite good, really, only a tinge of America in it, could we get together, any place, he would find me—just name the time as long as it was soon.

I couldn’t help laughing as the words tumbled out, although I had to ask him to slow down and repeat. It had been a long time since I’d spoken Italian, and it took time for my mind to adjust. Ludovico was staying at the Garibaldi, a small hotel on the fringe of the Gold Coast, and would be thrilled if I met him there for a drink at six. Oh, yes, his last name—that was Verazi, the same as our great-grandfather.

I bustled through my business with greater efficiency than usual so that I had time to run the dogs and change before meeting him. I laughed at myself for dressing with care, in a pantsuit of crushed lavender velvet which could take me dancing if the evening ended that way, but no self-mockery could suppress my excitement. I’d been an only child with one cousin from each of my parents’ families as my only relations. My cousin Boom-Boom, whom I adored, had been dead these ten years and more, while Rosa’s son Albert was such a mass of twisted fears that I preferred not to be around him. Now I was meeting a whole new family.

I tap-danced around the dog in my excitement. Peppy gave me a long-suffering look and demanded that I return her to my downstairs neighbor: Mitch, her son, had stopped there on our way home from running.

“You look slick, doll,” Mr. Contreras told me, torn between approval and jealousy. “New date?”

“New cousin.” I continued to tap-dance in the hall outside his door. “Yep. The mystery relative finally surfaced. Ludovico Verazi.”

“You be careful, doll,” the old man said severely. “Plenty of con artists out there to pretend they’re your cousins, you know, and next thing—phht.”

“What’ll he con me out of? My dirty laundry?” I planted a kiss on his nose and danced down the sidewalk to my car.

Three men were waiting in the Garibaldi’s small lobby, but I knew my cousin at once. His hair was amber, instead of black, but his face was my mother’s, from the high rounded forehead to his wide sensuous mouth. He leapt up at my approach, seized my hands, and kissed me in the European style—sort of touching the air beside each ear.

“Bellissima!” Still holding my hands he stepped back to scrutinize me. My astonishment must have been written large on my face, because he laughed a little guiltily.

“I know it, I know it, I should have told you of the resemblance, but I didn’t realize it was so strong: the only picture I’ve seen of Cousin Gabriella is a stage photo from 1940 when she starred in Jommelli’s Iphigenia.”

“Jommelli!” I interrupted. “I thought it was Gluck!”

“No, no, cugina, Jommelli. Surely Gabriella knew what she sang?” Laughing happily he moved to the armchair where he’d been sitting and took up a brown leather case. He pulled out a handful of papers and thumbed through them, then extracted a yellowing photograph for me to examine.

It was my mother, dressed as Iphigenia for her one stage role, the one that gave me my middle name. She was made up, her dark hair in an elaborate coil, but she looked absurdly young, like a little girl playing dress-up. At the bottom of the picture was the name of the studio, in Siena where she had sung, and on the back someone had lettered, “Gabriella Sestieri fa la parte d’Iphigenia nella produzione d’Iphigenia da Jommelli.” The resemblance to Ludovico was clear, despite the blurring of time and cosmetics to the lines of her face. I felt a stab of jealousy: I inherited her olive skin, but my face is my father’s.

“You know this photograph?” Ludovico asked.

I shook my head. “She left Italy in such a hurry: all she brought with her were some Venetian wineglasses that had been a wedding present to Nonna Laura. I never saw her onstage.”

“I’ve made you sad, cousin Vittoria, by no means my intention. Perhaps you would like to keep this photograph?”

“I would, very much. Now—a drink? Or dinner?”

He laughed again. “I have been in America only twenty-four hours, not long enough to be accustomed to dinner in the middle of the afternoon. So—a drink, by all means. Take me to a typical American bar.”