Grace Notes
Written by Sara Paretsky — Narrated by Jean Smart

 

I collected my Trans Am from the doorman and drove down to the Golden Glow, the bar at the south end of the Loop owned by my friend Sal Barthele. My appearance with a good-looking stranger caused a stir among the regulars—as I’d hoped. Murray Ryerson, an investigative reporter whose relationship with me is compounded of friendship, competition, and a disastrous romantic episode, put down his beer with a snap and came over to our table. Sal Barthele emerged from her famous mahogany horseshoe bar. Under cover of Murray’s greetings and Ludovico’s accented English she muttered, “Girl, you are strutting. You look indecent! Anyway, isn’t this cradle snatching? Boy looks young!”

I was glad the glow from the Tiffany table lamps was too dim for her to see me blushing. In the car coming over I had been calculating degrees of consanguinity and decided that as second cousins we were eugenically safe; I was embarrassed to show it so obviously. Anyway, he was only seven years younger than me.

“My newfound cousin,” I said, too abruptly. “Ludovico Verazi—Sal Barthele, owner of the Glow.”

Ludovico shook her hand. “So, you are an old friend of this cousin of mine. You know her more than I do—give me ideas about her character.”

“Dangerous,” Murray said. “She breaks men in her soup like crackers.”

“Only if they’re crackers to begin with,” I snapped, annoyed to be presented to my cousin in such a light.

“Crackers to begin with?” Ludovico asked.

“Slang—gergo—for ‘pazzo,’” I explained. “Also a cracker is an oaf—a cretino.”

Murray put an arm around me. “Ah, Vic—the sparkle in your eyes lights a fire in my heart.”

“It’s just the third beer, Murray—that’s heartburn,” Sal put in. “Ludovico, what do you drink—whiskey, like your cousin? Or something nice and Italian like Campari?”

“Whiskey before dinner, Cousin Vittoria? No, no, by the time you eat you have no—no tasting sensation. For me, Signora, a glass of wine please.”

Later over dinner at Filigree we became “Vic” and “Vico”—“Please, Veek, no one is calling me ‘Ludovico’ since the time I am a little boy in trouble—” And later still, after two bottles of Barolo, he asked me how much I knew about the Verazi family.

“Niente,” I said. “I don’t even know how many brothers and sisters Gabriella’s mother had. Or where you come into the picture. Or where I do, for that matter.”

His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “So your mother was never in touch with her own family after she moved here?”

I told him what I’d told Lotty, about the war, my grandmother’s estrangement from her family, and Gabriella’s depression on learning of her cousin Frederica’s death.

“But I am the grandson of that naughty Frederica, that girl who would have a baby with no father.” Vico shouted in such excitement that the wait staff rushed over to make sure he wasn’t choking to death. “This is remarkable, Vic, this is amazing, that the one person in our family your mother is close to turns out to be my grandmother.

“Ah, it was sad, very sad, what happened to her. The family is moved to Florence during the war, my grandmother has a baby, maybe the father is a partisan, my grandmother was the one person in the family to be supporting the partisans. My great-grandparents, they are very prudish, they say, this is a disgrace, never mind there is a war on and much bigger disgraces are happening all the time, so—poof!—off goes this naughty Frederica with her baby to Milano. And the baby becomes my mother, but she and my grandmother both die when I am ten, so these most respectable Verazi cousins, finally they decide the war is over, the grandson is after all far enough removed from the taint of original sin, they come fetch me and raise me with all due respectability in Florence.”

He broke off to order a cognac. I took another espresso: somehow after forty I no longer can manage the amount of alcohol I used to. I’d only drunk half of one of the bottles of wine.

“So how did you learn about Gabriella? And why did you want to try to find her?”

“Well, cam cugina, it is wonderful to meet you, but I have a confession I must make: it was in the hopes of finding—something—that I am coming to Chicago looking for my cousin Gabriella.”

“What kind of something?”

“You say you know nothing about our great-grandmother, Claudia Fortezza? So you are not knowing even that she is in a small way a composer?”

I couldn’t believe Gabriella never mentioned such a thing. If she didn’t know about it, the rift with the Verazis must have been more severe than she led me to believe. “But maybe that explains why she was given early musical training,” I added aloud. “You know my mother was a quite gifted singer. Although, alas, she never had the professional career she should have.”

“Yes, yes, she trained with Francesca Salvini. I know all about that! Salvini was an important teacher, even in a little town like Pitigliano people came from Siena and Florence to train with her, and she had a connection to the Siena Opera. But anyway, Vic, I am wanting to collect Claudia Fortezza’s music. The work of women composers is coming into vogue. I can find an ensemble to perform it, maybe to record it, so I am hoping Gabriella, too, has some of this music.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. I kept all her music in a trunk, and I don’t think there’s anything from that period.”

“But you don’t know definitely, do you, so maybe we can look together.” He was leaning across the table, his voice vibrating with urgency.

I moved backward, the strength of his feelings making me uneasy. “I suppose so.”

“Then let us pay the bill and go.”

“Now? But, Vico, it’s almost midnight. If it’s been there all this while it will still be there in the morning.”

“Ah: I am being the cracker, I see.” We had been speaking in Italian all evening, but for this mangled idiom Vico switched to English. “Mi scusi, cara cugina: I have been so engaged in my hunt, through the papers of old aunts, through attics in Pitigliano, in used bookstores in Florence, that I forget not everyone shares my enthusiasm. And then last month, I find a diary of my grandmother’s, and she writes of the special love her cousin Gabriella has for music, her special gift, and I think—ah-ha, if this music lies anywhere, it is with this Gabriella.”

He picked up my right hand and started playing with my fingers. “Besides, confess to me, Vic: in your mind’s eye you are at your home feverishly searching through your mother’s music, whether I am present or not.”

I laughed, a little shakily: the intensity in his face made him look so like Gabriella when she was swept up in music that my heart turned over with yearning.

“So I am right? We can pay the bill and leave?”

The wait staff, hoping to close the restaurant, had left the bill on our table some time earlier. I tried to pay it, but Vico snatched it from me. He took a thick stack of bills from his billfold. Counting under his breath he peeled off two hundreds and a fifty and laid them on the check. Like many Europeans he’d assumed the tip was included in the total: I added four tens and went to retrieve the Trans Am.

 

 

IV

As we got out of the car I warned Vico not to talk in the stairwell. “We don’t want the dogs to hear me and wake Mr. Contreras.”

“He is a malevolent neighbor? You need me perhaps to guard you?”

“He’s the best-natured neighbor in the world. Unfortunately, he sees his role in my life as Cerberus, with a whiff of Othello thrown in. It’s late enough without spending an hour on why I’m bringing you home with me.”

We managed to tiptoe up the stairs without rousing anyone. Inside my apartment we collapsed with the giggles of teenagers who’ve walked past a cop after curfew. Somehow it seemed natural to fall from laughter into each other’s arms. I was the first to break away. Vico gave me a look I couldn’t interpret—mockery seemed to dominate.

My cheeks stinging, I went to the hall closet and pulled out Gabriella’s trunk once more. I lifted out her evening gown again, fingering the lace panels in the bodice. They were silver, carefully edged in black. Shortly before her final illness Gabriella managed to organize a series of concerts that she hoped would launch her career again, at least in a small way, and it was for these that she had the dress made. Tony and I sat in the front row of Mandel Hall, almost swooning with our passion for her. The gown cost her two years of free lessons for the couturier’s daughter, the last few given when she had gone bald from chemotherapy.

As I stared at the dress, wrapped in melancholy, I realized Vico was pulling books and scores from the trunk and going through them with quick careful fingers. I’d saved dozens of Gabriella’s books of operas and lieder, but nothing like her whole collection. I wasn’t going to tell Vico that, though: he’d probably demand that we break into old Mr. Fortieri’s shop to see if any of the scores were still lying about.

At one point Vico thought he had found something, a handwritten score tucked into the pages of Idomeneo. I came to look. Someone, not my mother, had meticulously copied out a concerto. As I bent to look more closely, Vico pulled a small magnifying glass from his wallet and began to scrutinize the paper.

I eyed him thoughtfully. “Does the music or the notation look anything like our great-grandmother’s?”

He didn’t answer me, but held the score up to the light to inspect the margins. I finally took the pages from him and scanned the clarinet line.

“I’m no musicologist, but this sounds baroque to me.” I flipped to the end, where the initials “CF” were inscribed with a flourish: Carlo Fortieri might have copied this for my mother—a true labor of love: copying music is a slow, painful business.

“Baroque?” Vico grabbed the score back from me and looked at it more intensely. “But this paper is not that old, I think.”

“I think not, also. I have a feeling it’s something one of my mother’s friends copied out for a chamber group they played in: she sometimes took the piano part.”

He put the score to one side and continued burrowing in the trunk. Near the bottom he came on a polished wooden box, big enough to fit snugly against the short side of the trunk. He grunted as he prised it free, then gave a little crow of delight as he saw it was filled with old papers.

“Take it easy, cowboy,” I said as he started tossing them to the floor. “This isn’t the city dump.”

He gave me a look of startling rage at my reproof, then covered it so quickly with a laugh that I couldn’t be sure I’d seen it. “This old wood is beautiful. You should keep this out where you can look at it.”

“It was Gabriella’s, from Pitigliano.” In it, carefully wrapped in her winter underwear, she’d laid the eight Venetian glasses that were her sole legacy of home. Fleeing in haste in the night, she had chosen to transport a fragile load, as if that gained her control of her own fragile destiny.

Vico ran his long fingers over the velvet lining the case. The green had turned yellow and black along the creases. I took the box away from him, and began replacing my school essays and report cards—my mother used to put my best school reports in the case.

At two Vico had to admit defeat. “You have no idea where it is? You didn’t sell it, perhaps to meet some emergency bill or pay for that beautiful sports car?”

“Vico! What on earth are you talking about? Putting aside the insult, what do you think a score by an unknown nineteenth-century woman is worth?”

“Ah, mi scusi, Vic—I forget that everyone doesn’t value these Verazi pieces as I do.”

“Yes, my dear cousin, and I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck, either.” I switched to English in my annoyance. “Not even the most enthusiastic grandson would fly around the world with this much mystery. What’s the story—are the Verazis making you their heir if you produce her music? Or are you looking for something else altogether?”

“Turnip truck? What is this turnip truck?”

“Forget the linguistic excursion and come clean, Vico. Meaning, confession is good for the soul, so speak up. What are you really looking for?”

He studied his fingers, grimy from paging through the music, then looked up at me with a quick frank smile. “The truth is, Fortunato Magi may have seen some of her music. He was Puccini’s uncle, you know, and very influential among the Italian composers of the end of the century. My great-grandmother used to talk about Magi reading Claudia Fortezza’s music. She was only a daughter-in-law, and anyway, Claudia Fortezza was dead years before she married into the family, so I never paid any attention to it. But then when I found my grandmother’s diaries, it seemed possible that there was some truth to it. It’s even possible that Puccini used some of Claudia Fortezza’s music, so if we can find it, it might be valuable.”

I thought the whole idea was ludicrous—it wasn’t even as though the Puccini estate were collecting royalties that one might try to sue for. And even if they were—you could believe almost any highly melodic vocal music sounded like Puccini. I didn’t want to get into a fight with Vico about it, though: I had to be at work early in the morning.

“There wasn’t any time you can remember Gabriella talking about something very valuable in the house?” he persisted.

I was about to shut him off completely when I suddenly remembered my parents’ argument that I’d interrupted. Reluctantly, because he saw I’d thought of something, I told Vico about it.

“She was saying it wasn’t hers to dispose of. I suppose that might include her grandmother’s music. But there wasn’t anything like that in the house when my father died. And believe me, I went through all the papers.” Hoping for some kind of living memento of my mother, something more than her Venetian wineglasses.

Vico seized my arms in his excitement. “You see! She did have it, she must have sold it anyway. Or your father did, after she died. Who would they have gone to?”

I refused to give him Mr. Fortieri as a gift. If Gabriella had been worried about the ethics of disposing of someone else’s belongings she probably would have consulted him. Maybe even asked him to sell it, if she came to that in the end, but Vico didn’t need to know that.

“You know someone, I can tell,” he cried.

“No. I was a child. She didn’t confide in me. If my father sold it he would have been embarrassed to let me know. It’s going on three in the morning, Vico, and I have to work in a few hours. I’m going to call you a cab and get you back to the Garibaldi.”

“You work? Your long lost cousin Vico comes to Chicago for the first time and you cannot kiss off your boss?” He blew across his fingers expressively.

“I work for myself.” I could hear the brusqueness creep into my voice—his exigency was taking away some of his charm. “And I have one job that won’t wait past tomorrow morning.”

“What kind of work is it you do that cannot be deferred?”

“Detective. Private investigator. And I have to be on a—a—”—I couldn’t think of the Italian, so I used English—“shipping dock in four hours.”

“Ah, a detective.” He pursed his lips. “I see now why this Murray was warning me about you. You and he are lovers? Or is that a shocking question to ask an American woman?”

“Murray’s a reporter. His path crosses mine from time to time.” I went to the phone and summoned a cab.

“And, Cousin, I may take this handwritten score with me? To study more leisurely?”

“If you return it.”

“I will be here with it tomorrow afternoon—when you return from your detecting.”

I went to the kitchen for some newspaper to wrap it in, wondering about Vico. He didn’t seem to have much musical knowledge. Perhaps he was ashamed to tell me he couldn’t read music and was going to take it to some third party who could give him a stylistic comparison between this score and something of our grandmother’s.

The cab honked under the window a few minutes later. I sent him off on his own with a chaste cousinly kiss. He took my retreat from passion with the same mockery that had made me squirm earlier.

 

 

V

All during the next day, as I huddled behind a truck taking pictures of a handoff between the vice president of an electronics firm and a driver, as I tailed the driver south to Kankakee and photographed another handoff to a man in a sports car, traced the car to its owner in Libertyville and reported back to the electronics firm in Naperville, I wondered about Vico and the score. What was he really looking for?

Last night I hadn’t questioned his story too closely—the late night and pleasure in my new cousin had both muted my suspicions. Today the bleak air chilled my euphoria. A quest for a great-grandmother’s music might bring one pleasure, but surely not inspire such avidity as Vico displayed. He’d grown up in poverty in Milan without knowing who his father, or even his grandfather were. Maybe it was a quest for roots that was driving my cousin so passionately.

I wondered, too, what item of value my mother had refused to sell thirty summers ago. What wasn’t hers to sell, that she would stubbornly sacrifice better medical care for it? I realized I felt hurt: I thought I was so dear to her she told me everything. The idea that she’d kept a secret from me made it hard for me to think clearly.

When my dad died, I’d gone through everything in the little house on Houston before selling it. I’d never found anything that seemed worth that much agony, so either she did sell it in the end—or my dad had done so—or she had given it to someone else. Of course, she might have buried it deep in the house. The only place I could imagine her hiding something was in her piano, and if that was the case I was out of luck: the piano had been lost in the fire that destroyed my apartment ten years ago.

But if it—whatever it was—was the same thing Vico was looking for, some old piece of music—Gabriella would have consulted Mr. Fortieri. If she hadn’t gone to him, he might know who else she would have turned to. While I waited in a Naperville mall for my prints to be developed I tried phoning him. He was eighty now, but still actively working, so I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t answer the phone.

I snoozed in the president’s antechamber until he could finally snatch ten minutes for my report. When I finished, a little after five, I stopped in his secretary’s office to try Mr. Fortieri again. Still no answer.

With only three hours sleep, my skin was twitching as though I’d put it on inside out. Since seven this morning I’d logged a hundred and ninety miles. I wanted nothing now more than my bed. Instead I rode the packed expressway all the way northwest to the O’Hare cutoff.

Mr. Fortieri lived in the Italian enclave along north Harlem Avenue. It used to be a day’s excursion to go there with Gabriella: we would ride the Number Six bus to the Loop, transfer to the Douglas line of the el, and at its end take yet another bus west to Harlem. After lunch in one of the storefront restaurants, my mother stopped at Mr. Fortieri’s to sing or talk while I was given an old clarinet to take apart to keep me amused. On our way back to the bus we bought polenta and olive oil in Frescobaldi’s Deli. Old Mrs. Frescobaldi would let me run my hands through the bags of cardamom, the voluptuous scent making me stomp around the store in an exaggerated imitation of the drunks along Commercial Avenue. Gabriella would hiss embarrassed invectives at me, and threaten to withhold my gelato if I didn’t behave.

The street today has lost much of its charm. Some of the old stores remain, but the chains have set out tendrils here as elsewhere. Mrs. Frescobaldi couldn’t stand up to Jewel, and Vespucci’s, where Gabriella bought all her shoes, was swallowed by the nearby mall.

Mr. Fortieri’s shop, on the ground floor of his dark-shuttered house, looked forlorn now, as though it missed the lively commerce of the street. I rang the bell without much hope: no lights shone from either story.

“I don’t think he’s home,” a woman called from the neighboring walk.

She was just setting out with a laundry-laden shopping cart. I asked her if she’d seen Mr. Fortieri at all today. She’d noticed his bedroom light when she was getting ready for work—he was an early riser, just like her, and this time of year she always noticed his bedroom light. In fact, she’d just been thinking it was strange she didn’t see his kitchen light on—he was usually preparing his supper about now, but maybe he’d gone off to see his married daughter in Wilmette.

I remembered Barbara Fortieri’s wedding. Gabriella had been too sick to attend, and had sent me by myself. The music had been sensational, but I had been angry and uncomfortable and hadn’t paid much attention to anything—including the groom. I asked the woman if she knew Barbara’s married name—I might try to call her father there.

“Oh, you know her?”

“My mother was a friend of Mr. Fortieri’s—Gabriella Sestieri—Warshawski, I mean.” Talking to my cousin had sunk me too deep in my mother’s past.

“Sorry, honey, never met her. She married a boy she met at college, I can’t think of his name, just about the time my husband and I moved in here, and they went off to those lakefront suburbs together.”

She made it sound like as daring a trip as any her ancestors had undertaken braving the Atlantic. Fatigue made it sound funny to me and I found myself doubling over to keep the woman from seeing me shake with wild laughter. The thought of Gabriella telling me “No gelato if you do not behave this minute” only made it seem funnier and I had to bend over, clutching my side.

“You okay there, honey?” The woman hesitated, not wanting to be involved with a stranger.

“Long day,” I gasped. “Sudden—cramp—in my side.”

I waved her on, unable to speak further. Losing my balance, I reeled against the door. It swung open behind me and I fell hard into the open shop, banging my elbow against a chair.

The fall sobered me. I rubbed my elbow, crooning slightly from pain. Bracing against the chair I hoisted myself to my feet. It was only then that it dawned on me that the chair was overturned—alarming in any shop, but especially that of someone as fastidious as Mr. Fortieri.

Without stopping to reason I backed out the door, closing it by wrapping my hand in my jacket before touching the knob. The woman with the laundry cart had gone on down the street. I hunted in my glove compartment for my flashlight, then ran back up the walk and into the shop.

I found the old man in the back, in the middle of his workshop. He lay amid his tools, the stem of an oboe still in his left hand. I fumbled for his pulse. Maybe it was the nervous beating of my own heart, but I thought I felt a faint trace of life. I found the phone on the far side of room, buried under a heap of books that had been taken from the shelves and left where they landed.