Sixteen-year old Emma Braun got off the school bus and strode down Stockel Square toward her home. She glanced up at the October sky and wrapped her wool scarf tighter around her neck. Heavy dark clouds threatened a downpour.
As she passed a newspaper stand, the headlines on The Brussels Gazette caught her attention:
ANOTHER VIOLINIST VANISHES!
Emma stopped. For a moment she could only stare. She dug into her jacket pocket for coins and bought a copy.
The newspaper article left her stunned. Not only because three well-known violinists had gone missing in the last several months, but because the latest one was her teacher, Monsieur Dupriez.
The news story seemed so hard to believe, she stopped at the next street corner to read it one more time.
It was the last week of October, and the shops and homes were lightly adorned with Halloween decorations. Pumpkins and Jack-o-lanterns sat on doorsteps. Witches, broomsticks, and black cats hunkered down in windows and shops. Just last evening, Emma had sauntered along this street with her best friend Annika, unconcerned and looking forward to Halloween. Now, everything had turned dark and ominous.
The strange incidents she had experienced for the past two weeks added to her stress.
At first she had thought they were a string of coincidences, but not anymore. While scowling at obnoxious Billie Lynam during school recess, for instance, she wished he would fall flat on his face… and half a minute later, her wish was granted. On various occasions she guessed people’s thoughts before they spoke. And yesterday, on her way home from school, she accurately guessed the meal her mom had left on the table for her.
Was she some kind of a psychic? If so, why now? People didn’t develop powers like these overnight. Did they?
She hadn’t told her mom about her new abilities yet; only Annika knew. Maybe she would tell her mom today, after she shared the news about Monsieur Dupriez.
As Emma approached her home, she quickened her step. By the time she reached the door she was almost running. She raced into the hallway and dropped her book bag on the floor.
“Mom!” she called, looking in the kitchen, then in the living room. The house was silent. “Mom!” she called again, racing up the stairs to the bedrooms. Entering her mother’s room, Emma found her sitting very still on the bed with a crumpled letter in her hand.
When her mom saw her, she hastily put the crumpled piece of paper into her pocket and rose from the bed. Her arched brows were furrowed with anxiety.
Emma momentarily forgot the newspaper article. “Are you okay, Mom?”
“I’ve just received some unsettling news,” her mom said. “I must make a trip to see your Aunt Lili. She’s ill. She…I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”
Aunt Lili? Emma frowned. More surprises. Emma had never met her mom’s eccentric only sister, who lived alone in the Hungarian mountains secluded in an old chateau surrounded by dark woods—or so her mom said. Though again, her mom hardly ever mentioned her.
“What’s wrong with Aunt Lili?” Emma asked. “Can’t I come with you?” She had always been intrigued by her mysterious aunt.
“No. You’ll stay with Grandpa. You enjoy working with him, don’t you?” Her brown eyes met Emma’s before turning away, and though her voice sounded matter-of-fact, Emma detected a trace of ambivalence.
Emma sighed. She loved violin making with a passion, but Grandpa was a bitter taskmaster. No matter how much she tried to please him, she never could. Maybe that’s why her mom often seemed so reluctant about her apprenticeship.
“I’d rather go with you,” Emma said. “Plus, next week is holiday.” All Saints holiday week—or Toussaint, as they called it here—almost always coincided with Halloween.
“That’s out of the question. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Besides, you can’t miss your violin lessons, not with the Christmas competition at the academy coming up soon.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Emma said gravely, extending the newspaper.
Her mom took it. “What’s this?”
“This is why I came running up the stairs.”
Her mom read the headlines. She gasped and looked at Emma. When she finished reading, she sat on the edge of the mattress and stared into space. “Oh, my God…” she whispered.
Emma sat next to her mom. “It says Monsieur Dupriez disappeared in his study. The doors and windows were locked from the inside. The police don’t have any explanation. How can this happen? It’s not logical. It’s not humanly possible.”
“No, not humanly possible…”
“Just like the other three—that German violinist, the French one, the American. Nobody has explained their disappearances. Who would want to kidnap violinists?” When her mom didn’t answer, she began to gnaw at her fingernail.
As if by reflex, her mom pulled Emma’s hand away from her mouth.
“Sorry,” Emma mumbled. “I’m just worried about him.”
“Poor Madame Dupriez. We must visit her. She must be in quite a state.”
“Can you call her now?”
Her mom sighed. “I will. In a moment.” She looked at Emma, her features softening. Gently, she smoothed Emma’s glossy chestnut locks and side fringe away from her face. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine. You mustn’t be afraid.”
“Afraid? Why would I be afraid?”
“I mean, about Monsieur Dupriez.” Her mom appeared flustered.
“I’m not afraid. I’m worried, and angry. I want to find out what happened to him. Without him, I don’t even want to take part in the competition.”
Monsieur Dupriez had been Emma’s teacher since she was four years old. But more than teacher, he was her mentor.
“You will do your best at the competition—with or without Monsieur Dupriez. Do you hear me?” her mom said. Then her voice softened. “Listen, darling, I know how close you are to Monsieur Dupriez, but you cannot allow his disappearance to destroy your chances at the competition. I’m not asking you to win, only to do your best. You have great talent, a gift, and your duty is to use it to the best of your ability. Never forget this. Monsieur Dupriez would never want you to forget this.”
“You still haven’t told me what’s wrong with Aunt Lili,” Emma said, changing the conversation. “Why must you go to her now, after all these years?”
Looking into Emma’s face, her mom hesitated, as if unable to decide what—or how much—to say. “You know she’s always been ill, a recluse. She…” She rose from the bed and walked to the window, then opened the curtain. It had started raining, the drops pelted against the glass. “This time it’s serious. She may die.”
Emma couldn’t help feeling a twinge of suspicion. She hated distrusting her mom, whom she loved more than anything in the world, but this time her mom was lying. Emma trusted that feeling, another of her freaky new abilities. She felt an overwhelming urge to chew her fingernails, but tried to control herself. For her mom, a violinist’s hands were a work of art.
“But what’s wrong with her? What kind of disease does she have?” Emma insisted.
“Her heart is very weak.” Her mom turned away from the window to face Emma. Her voice was laced with impatience.
And again Emma thought: She’s lying.
“Please don’t worry about it,” her mom went on in a lighter tone. “I’ll try to come back soon.”
“As soon as I can manage.”
“Grandpa is always in such a nasty mood,” Emma complained.
“Well, that isn’t news, is it?” Her mom stared down at the floor, as if absorbed by her own thoughts. After a pause, she added, “He’s old and his back always hurts. You know that.”
“I love Grandpa, but he’s so freaking…” She tried to come up with the right word. Bizarre. Instead she said, “Mysterious. You know, with his violins.”
Her mom looked at Emma and frowned, as if waiting for her to say more.
“You know what I mean, Mom. With that room at the top of the stairs. The one that’s always locked.”
Her mom’s features hardened. “He keeps his most valuable pieces in there. You must never disobey him. He would be very disappointed.”
“Who said I would go in there?” Emma asked, trying to sound innocent. If there was something she intended to do, it was going inside that room. Once she’d almost been successful. For some crazy reason, Grandpa had forgotten to lock it one day. But the instant she touched the doorknob, he had called her from the bottom of the stairs, his wrinkled features twisted into a mask that had left her frozen. He had appeared enraged and afraid at the same time.
“When are you leaving?” Emma asked, shaking off the past to focus on the present issue.
“As soon as possible. Tomorrow, probably. I’ll get the plane tickets today.”
“Emma, please. If you’re going to complain or say anything negative, I don’t want to hear it.”
Fine. Obviously, this wasn’t the best time to bring up her new psychic powers. She headed to the door.
“Where are you going?” her mom asked.
“To my room.”
“I’ll call Madame Dupriez to see if we may visit her after dinner. In the meantime, I want you to pack. You’re moving to Grandpa’s tomorrow.”
In her room, Emma dragged her suitcase from the top shelf in the closet and set it on the floor.
“Hi, Sweetie,” she said to Blackie, her rabbit. “Want to get some exercise?” She opened the cage door so Blackie could hop out and roam about her room. Blackie was housebroken, and smart as a cat—or close to it.
She stared at the elegant taffeta gown hanging from her wardrobe door, a strapless design a la Anne Sophie Mutter she’d already bought for the upcoming violin competition.
Slumped on the bed, Emma wondered for the umpteenth time about Monsieur Dupriez’s strange disappearance.
Where could he be?