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Authors: Barbara Hambly

Tags: #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Fiction

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BOOK: Die Upon a Kiss
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“Señor,” she went on in a different tone, “I understand that you give lessons as well as play for the opera? In other words, that you have your own piano, and a place to teach?”

“I do.”

Montero glanced around to make sure she was unobserved, then set a gold half-eagle on the top of the piano with a rich clink.

“Might you be free for—oh—three hours tomorrow morning? Before rehearsal here?”

January’s first thought
—If that five dollars is for an
amorous interlude, you’re certainly flattering me, Madame—
glanced aside at the veiled calculation behind those long lashes. Even cutting short his time at Bichet’s, it would mean he’d have almost no sleep. But he’d never forgive himself—certainly neither Rose nor Hannibal would forgive him—if he didn’t find out what was going on.

“Ten?” he said, and the red-lipped smile broadened.

“Ten it is.”

FOUR

“Othello?”
Lorenzo Belaggio’s heavy brows scrunched and his jaw thrust forward. “Why speak to me of
Othello
?” Rehearsal was over, not more than an hour behind schedule. All around them, the musicians were packing up their satchels, gathering their instruments for a quick dinner at jambalaya stands in the market, at the cafés that catered to the free colored, or the less formal groceries that sold bowls of dirty rice out the back doors, before the evening’s engagements.

Flashes of half-heard merriment. Snatches of conversation.

“Gonna be at Jacques’s tonight?”

“Cynthie said she’d bring along her pound-cake. . . .”

“. . . fixed ol’ John up with that sister of hers . . .”

“That
sister? The one with all the shoes?”

Tiberio could be heard cursing the hosepipes that would run from the proscenium gas-jets into Mount Vesuvius’s hollow bowels—at least January thought that’s what he was cursing—and from the prop-vault below, a rich Gaelic voice grated, “Greedy god-damned Italians thievin’ all the red silk—now I’m askin’ what are we to do for Act Three tonight?” Posters all over town advertised the presentation of
A Maid of Old Scotland, or, A Prince’s
Escape
at eight. Presumably someone’s castle was scheduled for fiery destruction.

“Did someone warn you not to put it on?” asked January quietly. “Or ask you not to put it on?”

Belaggio, who had begun to breathe noisily at the first mention of his opera, drew himself to his six-foot-plus burly height. “Who would dare speak so to me? Who would dare say to me—to
me,
Lorenzo Belaggio—what I should and should not have my people perform? My
Othello
is a great opera, truly great. Do you deny it?” He glared at January as if at an accuser. “Do you?”

“No,” said January. “Not at all . . .”

“In Naples they wept, yes, they wept in the very streets when Desdemona died.” His voice rose to a shout, causing Mr. Caldwell to turn from the door, where he was bidding Mrs. Redfern an obsequious farewell. “When the great Moor gathered her into his arms for one final kiss, to die upon that kiss . . . Who has dared to imply that it should not be sung? That there is any reason why it should not be given?”

Dark eyes blazing, the impresario caught January by the arm, dragged him past the startled theater owner, past Redfern and Knight and Redfern’s vulpine business manager, Mr. Fraikes, and into the small office next to the rehearsal-room that Caldwell had given to him. “Who has spoken of this to you?” He kicked the door shut behind him. “What have you heard?”

“Nothing,” said January, a little startled by this excessive reaction. “No one has spoken.”

“Then why do you speak?”

“Idiotes,”
raged Tiberio’s voice. “Do you not understand plain Spanish? That Habañero
cornutu
warranted you understood Spanish and you have no more Spanish than my grandmother’s seven-toed black cat, who is also a blockhead . . . !”

“Please forgive me, sir, for mentioning the matter,” January stammered. “I fear someone may have asked you not to have
Othello
performed because Othello is a Moor—and because he is great. Because the play treats of the love of a white woman for a black man . . .”

“Boh!” The Milanese drew back, with a dismissive swipe of his hand. “Ridiculous! Every one of those men in the Opera Society has a Negress for a mistress! Even that scoundrel Marsan, who—”

“That is not the same thing, sir.”

“And not the same thing as yourself and Madame Scie, eh?” Belaggio winked, and dug him familiarly with his elbow in the ribs. His breath was a swamp of rotten teeth and violet pastilles. “All those years ago, eh? And still she pines for you.”

January blinked, trying to imagine Marguerite pining for
any
member of her regiment of discarded lovers. Did Belaggio assume La d’Isola would remember his name a week after their parting? “Signor,” he said patiently, “I fear that it was because of
Othello—
because of what it portrays—that you were attacked in the alley. Because someone might have told you—”

“I know well enough who it was who attacked me.” Belaggio glared around him, as if he could see through the little office’s walls. With the door closed, the room was at once chill and stuffy, the yellow gleam of a single gas-jet showing up untidy piles of libretti and ledgers, novels and correspondence, and playbills reeking of ink. “You do not understand, my friend,” he assured January. “You do not understand the madmen one finds in the peninsula these days. So-called intellectuals, students who deceive themselves and others with their rhetoric.” He brought his kid-gloved finger up to tap the side of his own bulbous nose. “Carbonari—bah! ‘Young Italy’ they call themselves. Bandits, revolutionaries, ne’er-do-wells! They opened the gates of our cities to the Buonaparte and would open them again to worse! Disciples of anarchy and terror. All this I have seen before.”

“Signor . . .”

“No more.” Belaggio clapped January jovially on his wounded arm. “My good honest fellow, forget your fears. A dozen of the men of the Opera Society have received copies of my
Othello.”
He gestured to the heap of slender green-bound volumes on the desk. “Beautiful, eh? I had them printed specially.” He picked one up. “I have had no complaints, either on account of the book or on account of the score. Who could complain? It will be a great success in spite of those hotheads, those Carbonari madmen. . . .” He pushed open the door and threw a venomous glare at Cavallo, who stood by the green-room door in Don Basilio’s out-at-elbows lavender coat while Ponte adjusted his absurdly curled wig. “And that scoundrel Davis, who would see the whole of my opera season destroyed.” He threw wide his arms—evidently forgetting his black silk sling and just as clearly in no discomfort—and expanded his great chest. “Fear not! Lorenzo Belaggio is more than capable of dealing with the likes of such as they!
Bellissima!”
La d’Isola—who’d been surreptitiously checking the angle of her stylish “Gothic” hat in one of Tiberio’s reflectors—spun, with an expression of heart-melting joy. “You were magical this afternoon—perfect! If you sang so at La Scala . . .”

“If she sang so at La Scala,” remarked Hannibal, slipping around the doorframe and watching the impresario plant half a dozen wet salutes on his protégée’s face and throat, “she’d be rinsing egg out of her hair for a week. Not that it’ll matter much Tuesday night. It’s hard for one person to really botch up Mozart.”

“How much attention were you paying to the Letter Duet?”

“Argutos inter strepere anser olores,
as Virgil once put it. . . . Unfortunately I think Signor Belaggio actually believes that because the girl’s pretty and will sleep with him that she can, in fact, sing. Not a good failing in an impresario.”

“Not an uncommon one, though.” January found his music-satchel where he’d left it, on the Contessa Almaviva’s white-and-gilt writing-desk, extracted from it the shabby jacket of brown corduroy he’d bought while a medical student in Paris, and pressed in its place the black tailcoat he’d wear again later, at Trulove’s. “Would you care to take supper with me at my mother’s?” he asked Hannibal as they descended through the gloomy cavern of the prop-room, and so into the alley, where a couple of carters were trying to maneuver a wagonload of hay through the Hotel Promenade’s stable-yard gate. “She was asking after you the last time I encountered her in the market.”

January’s mother was Livia Levesque, a slim woman still beautiful in her late fifties, whose pink stucco house on the Rue Burgundy had been given her by that same wealthy sugar-broker who had purchased and freed her— and made her his mistress—when January was eight. Upon January’s return from Paris she’d charged him five Spanish dollars a month to sleep in the room he’d had as a child: when, in the wake of one too many acts of emotional blackmail, he’d informed her he was moving out—“To board with Marie-Claire Bontemps of all people!”—she’d threatened to distrain his piano on the grounds that it had been given him by St.-Denis Janvier when he, January, was a minor.

January had assumed, when he’d had a lawyer send her a letter demanding the instrument, that it was the last he’d ever hear of her except through the gossip of his younger sister, Dominique.

He had underestimated his parent. The morning after New Year’s he had encountered her in the market, where she’d greeted him with polite effusiveness, as if he’d been away on a short journey but was now back in town:
How
is your health, did you settle in satisfactorily in your new
rooms, isn’t Marie-Claire Bontemps the craziest old coot
imaginable, and does she still converse with the candlesticks?

Lawyer?
January had wondered at the time.
Piano?
Was that all a dream?

But he’d answered her goodwill in kind. She’d invited him to Twelfth Night dinner, a welcome treat, since Madame Bontemps did not include board with the rental of his room and moreover had the disconcerting habit of coming across the yard to the kitchen and watching, soundless as a turtle, while he cooked anything. After that he’d been invited to dine at his mother’s house on the average of once a week, frequently with Rose or Hannibal— January had yet to meet a woman who was proof against Hannibal’s courtly and vulnerable charm. He was astonished at what good company his mother could be once he was no longer obliged to live under her roof.

“. . . used to catch moths in wineglasses,” Livia said as her servant, Bella, brought in the savory étouffé for January, Hannibal, and Dominique. The last golden daylight still lingered in the Rue Burgundy, but candles had been lighted on the table and in the lustres around the wall. He and Hannibal, January guessed, would be in good time to reach Trulove’s, and with luck Rose would find him at Jacques Bichet’s, with information about whether or not those “hotheads and madmen,” Cavallo and Ponte, had in fact spent the later part of Thursday evening loitering in the Fatted Calf. “Does she still collect moths and talk to them?”

“Mother!” laughed Dominique. “You’re making that up!” Twenty-two years old and beautiful as a bronze-gold lily, the daughter of St.-Denis Janvier was herself the plaçée of a stout, bespectacled young planter named Henri Viellard. Her cottage lay only a hundred feet down from that of her mother; the petunia-colored silk of her dress and the pink-gold luminosity of the pearls around her throat attested to the care Viellard took of her. “P’tit, that isn’t so, is it?”

“I don’t know.” January spread his hands. “She does wander around at all hours of the night without a candle, like a sleepwalker. . . .”

“As if I’d invent such a tale, Minou!” Livia tapped her daughter’s immense “imbecile” sleeve with her fan. Past the archway into the front parlor, the tall French doors stood open onto the Rue Burgundy, where the last of the day’s traffic mingled with the first of the night’s: hogsheads of sugar and cotton being hauled from canal to levee jostled axles with the landaulets of well-dressed women, or phaetons full of lively young gentlemen got up as Renaissance lords or Knights of the Round Table, singing or blowing handfuls of flour in one another’s faces. The red-gold scent of gingerbread baking somewhere near-by vied with the choke of steamboat soot in the air, and the smell of brick wet from the light rain that had fallen while January was in rehearsal. More rain threatened, high-piled mountains of cloud sweeping in fast from the Gulf.

“You’d see her at the quadroon balls, with half a dozen young white gentlemen crowding around her,” Livia went on, “—though I never thought her above average for looks myself, and that mother of hers was enough to scare anyone off—chatting and talking—this was when the balls were held over on Royal Street, before M’sieu Davis built the Salle d’Orleans. . . . And all of a sudden her eyes would wander off, and be following a moth around the lights of the chandelier, and you’d see her looking around for a wineglass, not remembering who she was talking to. One night a big one landed on the arm of Joffrey Duquille as he was asking her to dance and trying to learn if she was interested in something more with him besides
—Jo frey Duquille,
mind you, one of the richest planters on the river. . . . And all Marie-Claire could do was stare and stare at this big gray moth, walking up his coatsleeve. Finally she blurted out,
Pray, may I have your
wineglass, sir. . . .”

“I believe it,” grinned January. His mother managed to capture his landlady’s precise facial expression, the hypnotized bulge of her eyes, the hunch of her shoulders and the curious tone of her voice, at once flat and urgent.

“So she tosses down the champagne”—Livia Levesque gleefully mimicked her old rival’s flicking gulp—“and slaps the glass over the moth on Duquille’s sleeve,
whap!
Like that. Then whisks the glass and the moth over her palm and goes scampering out of the room. Her mother had been working for weeks to maneuver Duquille to the point of offering to be Marie-Claire’s protector, and was fit to kill her. . . . I’ve heard Duquille’s niece is going to marry your Henri, Minou.”

Dominique dropped her fork with a clatter on the green-and-pink French china, fumbled to catch it, dropped it again. Her mother watched sidelong, eyes bright with veiled malice.

“Is that true?”

Dominique swallowed hard, breathed once, twice, her face averted. Then she turned back to her mother with a light, sweet, careless smile. “No, I hadn’t heard that. Henri hasn’t returned to town yet. They had a large crop at Viellard this year, and the boiling and packing has taken longer than they’d thought.”

“I saw him and that mother of his today in the Rue Chartres.” Livia Levesque harried a fragment of lamb judiciously around her plate before deciding it was a prey unworthy of her notice. “With all those sisters in tow, like a flock of sheep out hunting for a shepherd. Didn’t you know? I half expected you’d send your regrets for this evening.”

BOOK: Die Upon a Kiss
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