Authors: Tess Gerritsen
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Psychological Thrillers, #Suspense, #Contemporary Fiction, #Psychological, #Thrillers
Playing with Fire
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Tess Gerritsen
Title-page spread photographs: (left) © iStock.com/vesilvio; (right) © iStock.com/Gregory_DUBUS
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Playing with fire : a novel / Tess Gerritsen.
pages ; cm
eBook ISBN 978-1-101-88435-5
PS3557.E687P58 2016 813'.54—dc23 2015026566
eBook ISBN 9781101884355
Book design by Liz Cosgrove, adapted for eBook
Cover design: Scott Biel
Cover images: (Venice) Matteo Colombo/Moment/Getty Images; (woman) © Ilina Simeonova/Trevillion Images
From the doorway I can already smell the scent of old books, a perfume of crumbling pages and time-worn leather. The other antiques stores that I’ve passed on this cobblestoned alley have their air conditioners running and their doors closed against the heat, but this shop’s door is propped open, as if inviting me to enter. It’s my last afternoon in Rome, my last chance to pick up a souvenir of my visit. Already I’ve bought a silk tie for Rob and an extravagantly ruffled dress for our three-year-old daughter, Lily, but I haven’t found anything for myself. In the window of this antiques shop, I see exactly what I want.
I step into gloom so thick that my eyes need a moment to adjust. Outside it’s sweltering, but in here it’s strangely cool, as though I’ve entered a cave where neither heat nor light can penetrate. Slowly, shapes take form in the shadows and I see book-crammed shelves, old steamer trunks, and in the corner a medieval suit of tarnished armor. On the walls hang oil paintings, all of them garish and ugly and adorned with yellowed price tags. I don’t notice that the proprietor is standing in the alcove, so I’m startled when he suddenly calls out to me in Italian. I turn and see a little gnome of a man with eyebrows like snowy caterpillars.
“I’m sorry,” I answer.
“Non parlo Italiano.”
He points to the violin case that I have strapped to my back. It’s far too valuable an instrument to leave in my hotel room and I always keep it with me while traveling.
he asks and plays air fiddle, his right arm sawing back and forth with a phantom bow.
“Yes, I’m a musician. From America. I performed this morning, at the festival.” Though he nods politely, I don’t think he actually understands me. I point to the item I spotted in his display window. “Could I see that book?
He reaches into the window display for the book of music and hands it to me. I know it’s old, by the way the edges of the paper crumble at my touch. The edition is Italian, and on its cover is the word
and an image of a shaggy-haired man playing the violin. I open it to the first tune, which is written in a minor key. The piece is unfamiliar, a plaintive melody that my fingers are already itching to play. Yes, this is what I’m always on the hunt for, old music that’s been forgotten and deserves to be rediscovered.
As I flip through the other tunes, a loose page falls out and flutters to the floor. Not part of the book, it is a sheet of manuscript paper, its staves thick with musical notes jotted in pencil. The composition’s title is handwritten in elegantly swooping letters.
composed by L. Todesco.
As I read the music, I can hear the notes in my head and within a few measures, I know this waltz is beautiful. It starts as a simple melody in E minor. But at measure sixteen, the music grows more complex. By measure sixty, notes start to pile on notes and there are jarring accidentals. I flip to the other side and every measure is dense with pencil marks. A lightning-quick string of arpeggios launches the melody into a frantic maelstrom of notes that make the hairs suddenly rise on my arms.
I must have this music.
I ask. “For this page and for the book as well?”
The proprietor watches me with a canny gleam in his eyes.
He pulls out a pen and writes the number on his palm.
“A hundred euros? You can’t be serious.”
His shrug tells me I can take it or leave it. He’s already seen the hunger in my eyes; he knows he can charge me an outrageous price for this crumbling volume of Gypsy tunes and I’ll pay it. Music is my only extravagance. I have no interest in jewelry or designer clothes and shoes; the only accessory I truly value is the hundred-year-old violin now strapped to my back.
He hands me a receipt for my purchase and I walk out of the shop, into afternoon heat that’s as cloying as syrup. How odd that I felt so cold inside. I look back at the building, but I don’t see any air conditioner, just closed windows and twin gargoyles perched above the pediment. A shard of sunlight bounces back at me, reflected from the brass Medusa-head knocker. The door is now closed, but through the dusty window I glimpse the proprietor looking at me, just before he drops the shade and vanishes from sight.
My husband, Rob, is thrilled with the new tie I bought him in Rome. He stands at our bedroom mirror, expertly looping lustrous silk around his neck. “This is just the thing I need to jazz up a boring meeting,” he says. “Maybe these colors will keep them all awake when I start going over the numbers.” At thirty-eight, he’s as lean and fit as the day we married, although the last ten years have added streaks of silver to his temples. In his starched white shirt and gold cuff links, my Boston-bred husband looks exactly like the meticulous accountant he is. He’s all about numbers: profits and losses, assets and debts. He sees the world in mathematical terms, and even the way he moves has a precise geometry to it, his tie swinging an arc, crisscrossing into a perfect knot. How different we are! The only numbers I care about are symphony and opus numbers and the time signatures on my music. Rob tells everyone that’s why he was attracted to me, because unlike him, I’m an artist and air creature who dances in the sunshine. I used to worry that our differences would tear us apart, that Rob, who keeps his feet so firmly planted on the ground, would grow weary of keeping his air-creature wife from floating away into the clouds. But ten years later, here we are, still in love.
He smiles at me in the mirror as he tightens the knot at his throat. “You were awake awfully early this morning, Julia.”
“I’m still on Rome time. It’s already twelve noon there. That’s the upside of jet lag. Just think of all the things I’ll get done today.”
“I predict you’ll be ready to collapse by lunchtime. You want me to drive Lily to day care?”
“No, I want to keep her home today. I feel guilty about being away from her all week.”
“You shouldn’t. Your aunt Val swooped in and took care of everything, the way she always does.”
“Well, I missed her like crazy and I want to spend every minute with her today.”
He turns to show me his new tie, perfectly centered on his collar. “What’s on the agenda?”
“It’s so hot, I think we’ll go to the pool. Maybe drop into the library and choose some new books.”
“Sounds like a plan.” He bends to kiss me, and his clean-shaven face smells tart with citrus. “I hate it when you’re gone, babe,” he murmurs. “Maybe next time, I’ll take the week off and we’ll go together. Wouldn’t that be a lot more—”
“Mommy, look! Look how pretty!” Our three-year-old daughter, Lily, dances into the bedroom and swirls around in the new dress I brought her from Rome, the dress that she tried on last night and now refuses to take off. Without warning she launches herself like a missile into my arms and we both tumble onto the bed, laughing. There is nothing so sweet as the smell of my own child, and I want to inhale every molecule of her, absorb her back into my own body so we can become one again. As I hug the giggling tangle of blond hair and lavender ruffles, Rob drops onto the bed, too, and wraps us both in his arms.
“Here are the two most beautiful girls in the world,” he declares. “And they’re mine, all mine!”
“Daddy, stay home,” Lily orders.
“Wish I could, sweetie.” Rob plants a noisy kiss on Lily’s head and reluctantly gets back to his feet. “Daddy has to go to work, but aren’t you a lucky girl? You get to spend
“Let’s go put on our bathing suits,” I tell Lily. “We’re going to have a wonderful time, just you and me.”
And we do have a wonderful time. We splash in the community pool. We eat cheese pizza and ice cream for lunch and go to the library, where Lily chooses two new picture books featuring donkeys, her favorite animal. But when we get home at three that afternoon, I’m almost comatose from exhaustion. As Rob predicted, jet lag has caught up with me and there’s nothing I want to do more than to crawl into bed and go to sleep.
Unfortunately, Lily’s wide awake and she’s dragged the box of her old baby clothes out onto the patio, where our cat, Juniper, is snoozing. Lily loves dressing up Juniper and already she’s tied a bonnet around his head and is working one of his front paws into a sleeve. Our sweet old cat endures it as he always does, indifferent to the indignities of lace and ruffles.
While Juniper gets his fashion makeover, I bring my violin and music stand onto the patio and open the book of Gypsy tunes. Once again, the loose sheet of music slips out, landing faceup at my feet.
I haven’t looked at this music since the day I bought it in Rome. Now, as I clip the page to the stand, I think of that gloomy antiques shop, and the proprietor, lurking like some cave creature in the alcove. Goose bumps suddenly stipple my skin, as if the chill of the shop still clings to this music.
I pick up my violin and begin to play.
On this humid afternoon, my instrument sounds deeper, richer than ever, the tone mellow and warm. The first thirty-two bars of the waltz are as beautiful as I’d imagined, a lament in a mournful baritone. But at measure forty, the notes accelerate. The melody twists and turns, jarred by accidentals, and soars into seventh position on the E string. Sweat breaks out on my face as I struggle to stay in tune and maintain the tempo. I feel as if my bow takes off on its own, that it’s moving as though bewitched and I’m just struggling to hang on to it. Oh, what glorious music this is! What a performance piece, if I can master it. The notes skitter up the scale. Suddenly I lose all control and everything goes off-pitch, my left hand cramping as the music builds to a frenzy.
A small hand grasps my leg. Something warm and wet smears my skin.
I stop playing and look down. Lily stares up at me, her eyes as clear as turquoise water. Even as I jump up in dismay and wrench the garden tool from her bloody hand, not a ripple disturbs her calm blue eyes. Her bare feet have tracked footprints across the patio flagstones. With growing horror, I follow those footprints back to the source of the blood.
That’s when I start screaming.