Grace Notes
Written by Sara Paretsky — Narrated by Jean Smart

 

When I reached the inner office my anger mounted to murderous levels: my mother’s olivewood box lay in pieces in the garbage. I pulled it out. They had pried it apart, and torn out the velvet lining. One shred of pale green lay on the floor. I scrabbled through the garbage for the rest of the velvet and saw a crumpled page in my mother’s writing.

Gasping for air I stuck my hand in to get it. The whole wastebasket rose to greet me. I clutched at the edge of the desk but it seemed to whirl past me and the roar of a giant wind deafened me.

I managed to get my head between my knees and hold it there until the dizziness subsided. Weak from my emotional storm, I moved slowly to Ranier’s couch to read Gabriella’s words. The page was dated the 30th of October 1967, her last birthday, and the writing wasn’t in her usual bold, upright script. Pain medication had made all her movements shaky at that point.

The letter began “Carissima,” without any other address, but it was clearly meant for me. My cheeks burned with embarrassment that her farewell note would be to her daughter, not her husband. “At least not to a lover, either,” I muttered, thinking with more embarrassment of Mr. Fortieri, and my explicit dream.

My dearest,

I have tried to put this where you may someday find it. As you travel through life you will discard that which has no meaning for you, but I believe—hope—this box and my glasses will always stay with you on your journey. You must return this valuable score to Francesca Salvini if she is still alive. If she is dead, you must do with it as the circumstances of the time dictate to you. You must under no circumstances sell it for your own gain. If it has the value that Maestra Salvini attached to it it should perhaps be in a museum.

It hung always in a frame next to the piano in Maestra Salvini’s music room, on the ground floor of her house. I went to her in the middle of the night, just before I left Italy, to bid her farewell. She feared she, too, might be arrested—she had been an uncompromising opponent of the Fascists. She gave it to me to safeguard in America, lest it fall into lesser hands, and I cannot agree to sell it only to buy medicine. So I am hiding this from your papa, who would violate my trust to feed more money to the doctors. And there is no need. Already, after all, these drugs they give me make me ill and destroy my voice. Should I use her treasure to add six months to my life, with only the addition of much more pain? You, my beloved child, will understand that that is not living, that mere survival of the organism.

Oh, my darling one, my greatest pain is that I must leave you alone in a world full of dangers and temptations. Always strive for justice, never accept the second-rate in yourself, my darling, even though you must accept it from the world around you. I grieve that I shall not live to see you grown, in your own life, but remember: Il mio amore per te è l’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle.

"My love for you is the love that moves the sun and all the other stars." She used to croon that to me as a child. It was only in college I learned that Dante said it first.

I could see her cloudy with pain, obsessed with her commitment to save Salvini’s music, scoring open the velvet of the box and sealing it in the belief I would find it. Only the pain and the drugs could have led her to something so improbable. For I would never have searched unless Vico had come looking for it. No matter how many times I recalled the pain of those last words, “nella cassa.” I wouldn’t have made the connection to this box. This lining. This letter.

I smoothed the letter and put it in a flat side compartment of my case. With the sense that my mother was with me in the room some of my anger calmed. I was able to begin the search for Francesca Salvini’s treasure with a degree of rationality.

Fortunately Ranier relied for security on the building’s limited access: I’d been afraid he might have a safe. Instead he housed his papers in the antique credenza. Inside the original decorative lock he’d installed a small modern one, but it didn’t take long to undo it. My anger at the destruction of Gabriella’s box made me pleased when the picklocks ran a deep scratch across the marquetry front of the cabinet.

I found the score in a file labeled “Sestieri-Verazi.” The paper was old, parchment that had frayed and discolored at the edges, and the writing on it—clearly done by hand—had faded in places to a pale brown. Scored for oboe, two horns, a violin, and a viola, the piece was eight pages long. The notes were drawn with exquisite care. On the second, third, and sixth pages someone had scribbled another set of bar lines above the horn part and written in notes in a fast careless hand, much different from the painstaking care of the rest of the score. In two places he’d scrawled “da capo” in such haste that the letters were barely distinguishable. The same impatient writer had scrawled some notes in the margin, and at the end. I couldn’t read the script, although I thought it might be German. Nowhere could I find a signature on the document to tell me who the author was.

I placed the manuscript on the top of the credenza and continued to inspect the file. A letter from a Signor Arnoldo Piave in Florence introduced Vico to Ranier as someone on the trail of a valuable musical document in Chicago. Signor Ranier’s help in locating the parties involved would be greatly appreciated. Ranier had written in turn to a man in Germany “well-known to be interested in 18th-century musical manuscripts,” to let him know Ranier might soon have something “unusual” to show him.

I had read that far when I heard a key in the outer door. The cleaning crew I could face down, but if Ranier had returned … I swept the score from the credenza and tucked it in the first place that met my eye—behind the Modigliani that hung above it. A second later Ranier and Vico stormed into the room. Ranier was holding a pistol, which he trained on me.

“I knew it!” Vico cried in Italian. “As soon as I saw the state of my hotel room I knew you had come to steal the score.”

“Steal the score? My dear Vico!” I was pleased to hear a tone of light contempt in my voice.

Vico started toward me but backed off at a sharp word from Ranier. The lawyer told me to put my hands on top of my head and sit on the couch. The impersonal chill in his eyes was more frightening than anger. I obeyed.

“Now what?” Vico demanded of Ranier.

“Now we had better take her out to—well, the place name won’t mean anything to you. A forest west of town. One of the sheriff’s deputies will take care of her.”

There are sheriff’s deputies who will do murder for hire in unincorporated parts of Cook County. My body would be found by dogs or children under a heap of rotted leaves in the spring.

“So you have Mob connections,” I said in English. “Do you pay them, or they you?”

“I don’t think it matters.” Ranier was still indifferent. “Let’s get going…. Oh, Verazi,” he added in Italian, “before we leave, just check for the score, will you?”

“What is this precious score?” I asked.

“It’s not important for you to know.”

“You steal it from my apartment, but I don’t need to know about it? I think the state will take a different view.”

Before Ranier finished another cold response Vico cried out that the manuscript was missing.

“Then search her bag,” Ranier ordered.

Vico crossed behind him to snatch my case from the couch. He dumped the contents on the floor. A Shawn Colwin tape, a tampon that had come partially free of its container, loose receipts, and a handful of dog biscuits joined my work notebook, miniature camera, and binoculars in an unprofessional heap. Vico opened the case wide and shook it. The letter from my mother remained in the inner compartment.

“Where is it?” Ranier demanded.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” I said, using English again.

“Verazi, get behind her and tie her hands. You’ll find some rope in the bottom of my desk.”

Ranier wasn’t going to shoot me in his office: too much to explain to the building management. I fought hard. When Ranier kicked me in the stomach I lost my breath, though, and Vico caught my arms roughly behind me. His marigold was crushed, and he would have a black eye before tomorrow morning. He was panting with fury, and smacked me again across the face when he finished tying me. Blood dripped from my nose onto my shirt. I wanted to blot it and momentarily gave way to rage at my helplessness. I thought of Gabriella, of the love that moves the sun and all the other stars, and tried to avoid the emptiness of Ranier’s eyes.

“Now tell me where the manuscript is,” Ranier said in the same impersonal voice.

I leaned back in the couch and shut my eyes. Vico hit me again.

“Okay, okay,” I muttered. “I’ll tell you where the damned thing is. But I have one question first.”

“You’re in no position to bargain,” Ranier intoned.

I ignored him. “Are you really my cousin?”

Vico bared his teeth in a canine grin. “Oh, yes, cara cugina, be assured, we are relatives. That naughty Frederica whom everyone in the family despised was truly my grandmother. Yes, she slunk off to Milan to have a baby in the slums without a father. And my mother was so impressed by her example that she did the same. Then when those two worthy women died, the one of tuberculosis, the other of excess heroin, the noble Verazis rescued the poor gutter child and brought him up in splendor in Florence. They packed all my grandmother’s letters into a box and swept them up with me and my one toy, a horse that someone else had thrown in the garbage, and that my mother brought home from one of her nights out. My aunt discarded the horse and replaced it with some very hygienic toys, but the papers she stored in her attic.

“Then when my so-worthy uncle, who could never thank himself enough for rescuing this worthless brat, died, I found all my grandmother’s papers. Including letters from your mother, and her plea for help in finding Francesca Salvini so that she could return this most precious musical score. And I thought, what have these Verazis ever done for me, but rubbed my nose in dirt? And you, that same beautiful blood flows in you as in them. And as in me!”

“And Claudia Fortezza, our great-grandmother? Did she write music, or was that all a fiction?”

“Oh, no doubt she dabbled in music as all the ladies in our family like to, even you, looking at that score the other night and asking me about the notation! Oh, yes, like all those stuck-up Verazi cousins, laughing at me because I’d never seen a piano before! I thought you would fall for such a tale, and it amused me to have you hunting for her music when it never existed.”

His eyes glittered amber and flecks of spit covered his mouth by the time he finished. The idea that he looked like Gabriella seemed obscene. Ranier slapped him hard and ordered him to calm down.

“She wants us excited. It’s her only hope for disarming me.” He tapped the handle of the gun lightly on my left kneecap. “Now tell me where the score is, or I’ll smash your kneecap and make you walk on it.”

My hands turned clammy. “I hid it down the hall. There’s a wiring closet…. The metal door near the elevators. …”

“Go see,” Ranier ordered Verazi.

My cousin returned a few minutes later with the news that the door was locked.

“Are you lying?” Ranier growled at me. “How did you get into it?”

“Same as into here,” I muttered. “Picklocks. In my hip pocket.”

Ranier had Vico take them from me, then seemed disgusted that my cousin didn’t know how to use them. He decided to take me down to unlock the closet myself.

“No one’s working late on this side of the floor tonight, and the cleaning staff don’t arrive until nine. We should be clear.”

They frog-marched me down the hall to the closet before untying my hands. I knelt to work the lock. As it clicked free Vico grabbed the door and yanked it open. I fell forward into the wires. Grabbing a large armful I pulled with all my strength. The hall turned black and an alarm began to blare.

Vico grabbed my left leg. I kicked him in the head with my right. He let go. I turned and grabbed him by the throat and pounded his head against the floor. He got hold of my left arm and pulled it free. Before he could hit me I rolled clear and kicked again at his head. I hit only air. My eyes adjusted to the dark: I could make out his shape as a darker shape against the floor, squirming out of reach.

“Roll clear and call out!” Ranier shouted at him. “On the count of five I’m going to shoot.”

I dove for Ranier’s legs and knocked him flat. The gun went off as he hit the floor. I slammed my fist into the bridge of his nose and he lost consciousness. Vico reached for the gun. Suddenly the hall lights came on. I blinked in the brightness and rolled toward Vico, hoping to kick the gun free before he could focus and fire.

“Enough! Hands behind your heads, all of you.” It was a city cop. Behind him stood one of the Caleb’s security force.

 

 

X

It didn’t take me as long to sort out my legal problems as I’d feared. Ranier’s claim, that I’d broken into his office and he was protecting himself, didn’t impress the cops: if Ranier was defending his office why was he shooting at me out in the hall? Besides, the city cops had long had an eye on him: they had a pretty good idea he was connected to the Mob, but no real evidence. I had to do some fancy tap dancing on why I’d been in his office to begin with, but I was helped by Bobby Mallory’s arrival on the scene. Assaults in the Loop went across his desk, and one with his oldest friend’s daughter on the rap sheet brought him into the holding cells on the double.

For once I told him everything I knew. And for once he was not only empathetic, but helpful: he retrieved the score for me—himself—from behind the Modigliani, along with the fragments of the olivewood box. Without talking to the state’s attorney, or even suggesting that it should be impounded to make part of the state’s case. It was when he started blowing his nose as someone translated Gabriella’s letter for him—he didn’t trust me to do it myself—that I figured he’d come through for me.

“But what is it?” he asked, when he’d handed me the score.

I hunched a shoulder. “I don’t know. It’s old music that belonged to my mother’s voice teacher. I figure Max Loewenthal can sort it out.”

Max is the executive director of Beth Israel, the hospital where Lotty Herschel is chief of perinatology, but he collects antiques and knows a lot about music. I told him the story later that day and gave the score to him. Max is usually imperturbably urbane, but when he inspected the music his face flushed and his eyes glittered unnaturally.

“What is it?” I cried.

“If it’s what I think—no, I’d better not say. I have a friend who can tell us. Let me give it to her.”

Vico’s blows to my stomach made it hard for me to move, otherwise I might have started pounding on Max. The glitter in his eye made me demand a receipt for the document before I parted with it.

At that his native humor returned. “You’re right, Victoria: I’m not immune from cupidity. I won’t abscond with this, I promise, but maybe I’d better give you a receipt just the same.”

 

 

XI

It was two weeks later that Max’s music expert was ready to give us a verdict. I figured Bobby Mallory and Barbara Carmichael deserved to hear the news firsthand, so I invited them all to dinner, along with Lotty. Of course, that meant I had to include Mr. Contreras and the dogs. My neighbor decided the occasion was important enough to justify digging his one suit out of mothballs.

Bobby arrived early, with his wife Eileen, just as Barbara showed up. She told me her father had recovered sufficiently from his attack to be revived from his drug-induced coma, but he was still too weak to answer questions. Bobby added that they’d found a witness to the forced entry of Fortieri’s house. A boy hiding in the alley had seen two men going in through the back. Since he was smoking a reefer behind a garage he hadn’t come forward earlier, but when John McGonnigal assured him they didn’t care about his dope—this one time—he picked Ranier’s face out of a collection of photos.

“And the big guy promptly donated his muscle to us—a part-time deputy, who’s singing like a bird, on account of he’s p-o’d about being fingered.” He hesitated, then added, “If you won’t press charges they’re going to send Verazi home, you know.”

I smiled unhappily. “I know.”

Eileen patted his arm. “That’s enough shop for now. Victoria, who is it who’s coming tonight?”

Max rang the bell just then, arriving with both Lotty and his music expert. A short skinny brunette, she looked like a street urchin in her jeans and outsize sweater. Max introduced her as Isabel Thompson, an authority on rare music from the Newberry Library.

“I hope we haven’t kept dinner waiting—Lotty was late getting out of surgery,” Max added.

“Let’s eat later,” I said. “Enough suspense. What have I been lugging unknowing around Chicago all this time?”

“She wouldn’t tell us anything until you were here to listen,” Max said. “So we are as impatient as you.”

Ms. Thompson grinned. “Of course, this is only a preliminary opinion, but it looks like a concerto by Marianne Martines.”

“But the insertions, the writing at the end,” Max began, when Bobby demanded to known who Marianne Martines was.

“She was an eighteenth-century Viennese composer. She was known to have written over four hundred compositions, but only about sixty have survived, so it’s exciting to find a new one.” She folded her hands in her lap, a look of mischief in her eyes.

“And the writing, Isabel?” Max demanded.

She grinned. “You were right, Max: it is Mozart’s. A suggestion for changes in the horn line. He started to describe them, then decided just to write them in above her original notation. He added a reminder that the two were going to play together the following Monday—they often played piano duets, sometimes privately, sometimes for an audience.”

“Hah! I knew it! I was sure!” Max was almost dancing in ecstasy. “So I put some Krugs down to chill. Liquid gold to toast the moment I held in my hand a manuscript that Mozart held.”

He pulled a couple of bottles of champagne from his briefcase. I fetched my mother’s Venetian glasses from the dining room. Only five remained whole of the eight she had transported so carefully. One had shattered in the fire that destroyed my old apartment, and another when some thugs broke into it one night. A third had been repaired and could still be used. How could I have been so careless with my little legacy.

“But whose is it now?” Lotty asked, when we’d all drunk and exclaimed enough to calm down.

“That’s a good question,” I said. “I’ve been making some inquiries through the Italian government. Francesca Salvini died in 1943 and she didn’t leave any heirs. She wanted Gabriella to dispose of it in the event of her death. In the absence of a formal will the Italian government might make a claim, but her intention as expressed in Gabriella’s letter might give me the right to it, as long as I didn’t keep it or sell it just for my own gain.”

“We’d be glad to house it,” Ms. Thompson offered.

“Seems to me your ma would have wanted someone in trouble to benefit.” Bobby was speaking gruffly to hide his embarrassment. “What’s something like this worth?”

Ms. Thompson pursed her lips. “A private collector might pay a quarter of a million. We couldn’t match that, but we’d probably go to a hundred or hundred and fifty thousand.”

“So what mattered most to your ma, Vicki, besides you? Music. Music and victims of injustice. You probably can’t do much about the second, but you ought to be able to help some kids learn some music.”

Barbara Carmichael nodded in approval. “A scholarship fund to provide Chicago kids with music lessons. It’s a great idea, Vic.”

We launched the Gabriella-Salvini program some months later with a concert at the Newberry. Mr. Fortieri attended, fully recovered from his wounds. He told me that Gabriella had come to consult him the summer before she died, but she hadn’t brought the score with her. Since she’d never mentioned it to him before he thought her illness and medications had made her delusional.

“I’m sorry, Victoria: it was the last time she was well enough to travel to the northwest side, and I’m sorry that I disappointed her. It’s been troubling me ever since Barbara told me the news.”

I longed to ask him whether he’d been my mother’s lover. But did I want to know? What if he, too, had moved the sun and all the other stars for her—I’d hate to know that. I sent him to a front-row chair and went to sit next to Lotty.

In Gabriella’s honor the Cellini Wind Ensemble had come from London to play the benefit. They played the Martines score first as the composer had written it, and then as Mozart revised it. I have to confess I liked the original better, but as Gabriella often told me, I’m no musician.