The fourth book I have available at the Christmasland Writers of the Wheat event is a sequel to Sundrop Sonata, the 2020 suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore. Released just before COVID shut everything down, Elsie had a rough launch, but she’s hanging in there.
The story begins fifteen years after Sundrop concludes. Izzy anticipates the birth of her first grandchild. Daughter Melody has married a Cuban pianist, Stefano Valdez who was stranded in New Orleans (or what was left of it) after a horrific tropical storm battered the area. Mel’s interest in relief work dates to the time her mother compromised the family’s safety to help an orphan girl. Her work takes her to disaster sites from coast to coast in a world increasingly plagued by intense storms.
With his career thriving and a baby on the way, life looks good to Stefano Valdez until a postcard from the past shatters his world. Days before the expected birth, he heads south to find the author of the card, a sister he long believed to have perished in the storm that left him a refugee in New Orleans. Trailing her to Cuba, he unwittingly places his Kansas family in the sights of the crime ring that destroyed his sister. Will he discover the hidden message in her hastily-penned words in time to save his family?
Sonata of Elsie Lenore is Stefano’s story, from southern Kansas to Cuba and back again, where he discovers that Mel has left him to work a tsunami disaster site on the west coast.
LENA VALDEZ CRINGED when her husband hammered the Steinway piano lid with his fist.
His rage growing, Enrique’s knuckle bones threatened to burst through his skin. “I told you,” he said, “no more of this Lecuona crap. Do the jazz. Tonight we want the best Cuban jazz.” The youngest of the three Diaz brothers punctuated every other syllable with his fist until the piano’s heavy bass strings vibrated with a rising cacophony.
She shrank from every blow.
“Understand?” he yelled.
“Sí, Enrique,” she said.
“Get to the jazz. I’m counting on you tonight. ¿Comprendes?”
She looked down, her fingers rubbing the familiar ivory ridges of the piano keys.
“¿Lena?” he said.
She felt rather than saw his arm rise and spoke with haste. “Please, Enrique. Don’t hit the piano.”
“Jazz then. Hear me?”
She nodded. Yes, she heard him. How could she not? She could hardly recall a time he spoke to her without yelling. “Sí, I will play jazz.”
“One hour. Then we dress for the show. No more Lecuona.”
She flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and leaned into the keys. A recent island melody by Jorge Marin swelled from the piano. Swinging with the beat, Enrique danced out the door of the Caribbean Breeze, a nightclub in New Orleans.
Her hands flew over the keys as she coaxed melodious rhythms from the worn Steinway. It wasn’t that she hated jazz. After all, jazz expressed Cuba’s heart and soul. It sang of the courage and beauty of her countrymen. She loved jazz, but she loved classics more and she needed Lecuona right now. Their mother raised her and her brother on Lecuona, embracing classical Cuban tradition.
Lena completed the Marin number and stifled a sob.
“You okay Señorita?” Roberto, the bartender and manager of the nightclub, peeked in from a back room.
She nodded. “I will be fine.”
“I heard some yelling,” he said and cocked his head, inviting her to say more.
She forced a laugh. “Enrique. He’s always yelling,” she explained away the outburst. “It will be fine.”
“If you’re sure.” He turned back into the storage room.
She waited a moment, gathering her nerve, her fingers silent on the piano keys. In a timid voice, she said, “Roberto?”
When he didn’t respond, she tried again, louder. “Roberto?”
He stuck his head through the swinging door again. “You say something?”
“I just wondered if you would tell me where I could mail a postal card.” She fished a postcard from her handbag.
“Sending greetings from good old New Orleans?” he said with a smile.
“Sí. I want to contact my brother.”
“Stefano? How is he anyway? I heard he’d tied the knot with a beauty from up north somewhere.”
She nodded. “I just want to let him know I am here. Where could I mail the card?”
He extended his hand. “Leave it with me. I’ll make sure it goes out tomorrow.”
The bartender disappeared into the back room with her card. Lena took a deep breath before she continued her rehearsal. If only Stefano would meet her here. Would he even get the postcard in time? He didn’t know she was booked at the Caribbean Breeze, their old favorite nightclub. Maybe he wouldn’t even believe she was here, set to perform on Mama’s piano, “Elsie Lenore.” He sure didn’t know she’d married into a family of drug smugglers or that she was miserable.
He didn’t know.
She launched into another Marin number. At its close, she whispered into the keys, “Elsie—Elsie, what will I do?”
Unexpectedly, her mother’s voice whispered in her mind. “We do what we must.”
In a flash of recollection she visualized the lewd sneer of her former stepfather as he appraised her youthful body and her mother stepping between them— “Not my daughter, you bastard!” Her mother had split up with that man before the next week passed.
A year later a new gentle suitor presented her mother with the same Steinway she’d lost after the Revolution. A gift from her father when she was young, she had fondly dubbed the piano Elsie Lenore. It was offered as a wedding gift for the woman he’d loved all his life and Lena’s mother could not refuse his proposal. Lena and Stefano had grown to love that piano as much as their mother did.
Her mother’s voice whispered again. We do what we must.
“Yes, we do.” Lena’s hands teased the keys as she pondered her limited options. Elsie Lenore and her brother Stefano offered one thin thread of hope. Surely he would understand. He had to.
Her fingers caressed the keys and cajoled an Afro-Cuban piece from the belly of the piano. The melody grew, and then waned. She dropped her left hand and allowed her right hand to sketch a rhythmic melody up the keys as she diverted her left hand to the piano case.
Following the melodic sequence, she ran her fingertips to the treble end of the mahogany trim at her waist and pried upward. With a full-keyboard glissando, she moved to the bass end and inched up the trim until the keyslip was free of its mounting screws. She placed it across the music desk without the slightest click.
The music soared again when her left hand joined in. She strummed repeated staccato chords, lifted her hands at the finale, and froze, listening.
Roberto must have gone out for a few moments. Nobody remained inside the club.
She retrieved a set of dining utensils and a paper napkin from the nearest table and spread the napkin beneath the bass keys. Slipping the knife tip underneath a key, she scraped against the key frame, teasing a fine white dust to the edge. She repeated the process under four keys, and scraped the powder onto the napkin. Tossing the knife to the floor, she lifted the napkin’s corners, cradled the powder into its middle, and with a sigh folded it into a tiny envelope. Her brother would have been proud to know she’d learned some intricacies of piano construction. She, for her part, was grateful for his fascination with the technical side of the instrument.
“Gracias, Stefano,” she whispered.
She tucked the parcel securely into her cleavage, replaced the trim, and lost herself in the music.
To find out what happens next, drop by the Christmasland Event with Writers of the Wheat December 3, 4:00 pm until 9:00, at the Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita. There will be something for every reader’s taste.
Writers of the Wheat is a loosely organized group of Kansas authors who support each other in writing, as well as marketing, their work.