by Tess Gerritsen
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Purchase*: Amazon *affiliate
A beautiful violinist is haunted by a very old piece of music she finds in a strange antique shop in Rome. The first time Julia Ansdell picks up The Incendio Waltz, she knows it’s a strikingly unusual composition. But while playing the piece, Julia blacks out and awakens to find her young daughter implicated in acts of surprising violence. And when she travels to Venice to find the previous owner of the music, she uncovers a dark secret that involves dangerously powerful people—a family who would stop at nothing to keep Julia from bringing the truth to light.
Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen is a standalone mystery thriller that held me captive. I went into this story blind and was delighted to discover Playing with Fire takes place in present day, but also shares life in Venice, Italy during World War II. Gerritsen weaves her magic in Playing with Fire.
I am going to be purposely vague as the story is best left for the reader to discover. The story begins when Julia Ansdell discovers a piece of composition called the Incendio Waltz in a little antique shop in Rome. Julia is a violinist and loves collecting old music.
She returns home to her doting husband and three-year-old daughter. Mother and daughter spend their first day home together and while her daughter plays, Julia picks up the piece and begins playing it on her violin. As she becomes caught up in this haunting piece, something happens and she is pulled from the music to find blood on her daughter’s hands. From here, the tale is chilling as Gerritsen leads us on a tale to discover the music’s origin and save her daughter. Julia soon finds herself in danger, not only from those around her but also from an even bigger more powerful threat.
Gerritsen’s tale is dark, beautiful and suspenseful. She held me completely spellbound. as the outside world slipped away. I tried to determine if our unreliable narrator was losing her mind or the only one who grasps what is happening. In between our riveting present day story, we learn about a young Jewish violinist living in Venice during WW II. Beautifully researched with characters I came to care about this aspect of the story was powerful giving the reader insight into this troubled time and the atrocities this young man and his family faced. I had to break out the truffles, so be prepared.
Playing with Fire was brilliant from the suspense to the story that unfolds. The way in which Gerritsen tied these stories together. The reveal on the origin of the composition itself and answers to our present day mystery raised the hair on the back of my neck and made me shiver. It is the type of story I will remember a year from now and ten year from now.
Playing with Fire is a must read for fans of mystery thrillers, unreliable narrators and Word War II history. Tess Gerritsen is an auto-buy for me and never disappoints. Her stories are fresh, chilling and beautifully executed.
Read an Excerpt
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.”
“Violino?” 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. “Musicista?” 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? Libro. Musica.”
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 Gypsy 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.
Incendio, 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.
“Quanto costa?” I ask. “For this page and for the book as well?”
The proprietor watches me with a canny gleam in his eyes. “Cento.” He pulls out a pen and writes the number on his palm.
“A hundred euros? You can’t be serious.”
“E’ vecchio. Old.”
“It’s not that old.”
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 all day with Mommy.”
“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. Incendio.
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.
Rob helps me wash the cat’s blood from the patio. Poor old Juniper is now wrapped in a black trash bag, awaiting burial. We’ve dug the hole for his grave in the far corner of the yard, behind the lilac bush, so I will not have to look at it whenever I come into the garden. Juniper was eighteen years old and almost blind, a gentle companion who deserves a better eternity than a trash bag, but I was too shaken to come up with any alternative.
“I’m sure it was just an accident,” Rob insists. He tosses the dirty sponge into the bucket and the water magically turns a nauseating shade of pink. “Lily must have tripped and fallen on him. Thank God she didn’t land with the sharp end up, or she could have put out her eye. Or worse.”
“I wrapped him in the trash bag. I saw his body, and it wasn’t just a single stab wound. How do you trip and fall three times?”
He ignores my question. Instead, he picks up the murder weapon, a dandelion fork tipped with prongs, and asks, “How did she get her hands on this thing, anyway?”
“I was out here weeding last week. I must have forgotten to put it back in the tool shed.” There’s still blood on the prongs and I turn away. “Rob, doesn’t it bother you how she’s reacting to all this? She stabbed Juniper and a few minutes later, she asked for juice. That’s what freaks me out, how perfectly calm she is about what she did.”
“She’s too young to understand. A three-year-old doesn’t know what death means.”
“She must have known she was hurting him. He must have made some kind of sound.”
“Didn’t you hear it?”
“I was playing the violin, right here. Lily and Juniper were at that end of the patio. They seemed perfectly fine together. Until . . .”
“Maybe he scratched her. Maybe he did something to provoke her.”
“Go upstairs and take a look at her arms. She doesn’t have a single mark on her. And you know how sweet that cat was. You could yank on his fur, step on his tail, and he’d never scratch you. I’ve had him since he was just a kitten, and for him to die this way . . .” My voice cracks and I sink into a patio chair as it all washes over me, a tidal wave of grief and exhaustion. And guilt, because I couldn’t protect my old friend, even as he bled to death only twenty feet away. Rob awkwardly pats my shoulder, not knowing how to comfort me. My logical, mathematical husband is helpless when it comes to dealing with a woman’s tears.
“Hey. Hey, babe,” he murmurs. “What if we got a new kitten?”
“You can’t be serious. After what she did to Juniper?”
“Okay, that was a stupid idea. But please, Julia, don’t blame her. I bet she misses him just as much as we do. She just doesn’t understand what happened.”
“Mommy?” Lily cries out from her bedroom, where I’ve put her down for her nap. “Mommy!”