Today's Reading

He guided them down the stairs to the entrance hall, bright with crystal chandeliers, past the fountain in the center of the lobby. Inez inhaled the fragrance of lavender cologne water as it plashed softly from innumerable needle jets. Scent and sound died as Thackery guided them across the floor to a set of side doors.

They proceeded through a corridor, heading back in the direction of the stage, with Thackery chattering all the while. "We are honored, Mrs. Stannert, that you and Miss Antonia take such a strong interest in the arts, particularly the theater. The Grand, with her architecture and amenities, proudly surpasses any of the other theatrical venues the West has to offer."

Inez murmured politely, distracted by his Adam's apple—large, prominent, bobbling with excitement. It paired oddly with his enormous, drooping mustache, and she found herself wondering, not for the first time, why he hadn't grown a beard to conceal his throat.

He continued, "We have an art gallery over the entrance hall. Perhaps you'd like to return and see it during the day when you can fully appreciate the skylight, which is a work of art in itself. There are numerous offices all along the gallery, designed as artists' studios. We have corridors that connect to the theater, featuring paintings by local artists as well as select pieces by European masters. It is a most excellent area for promenading, and I shall be delighted to be your guide, next time you grace us with your presence."

He stopped and bent down, bringing his face to Antonia's level. "Ah, but I know what you came to see, little Miss."

Antonia took a quick step back. Inez hoped Antonia's small but deadly pocketknife was at home and not tucked in her coat pocket. The salvavirgo, sharp but innocuous in appearance when its blade was folded away, had belonged to Antonia's deceased mother. The girl had a bad habit of carrying it everywhere and pulling it out whenever she felt threatened.

"The stage, eh?" He winked at her. "Would you like to stand on center stage? See what it's like to look out over the auditorium?"

Antonia's posture relaxed. "Oh, yes, sir!"

Inez was glad to see she had remembered her manners enough to add the "sir."

Antonia added, "I'm wondering if it's like the Grand Central Theater in Leadville. Leadville's where we used to live."

A deep furrow joined his eyebrows in puzzlement. "Lead...what?"

Inez interrupted hastily, hoping Thackery was ignorant of the notoriety of that particular Grand theater, which stood hip-deep and proud in the red-light district of Colorado's premiere silver- mining boomtown. "This is a different class of theater, Antonia. This is a proper opera house. Famous actors and actresses and singers of the first order come from all over the world to perform here."

The girl tipped up her head to view Inez from under her bonnet brim. "But Mrs. S, they have actresses and singers at the Leadville Grand too."

Inez cleared her throat, thinking that the honky-tonk singers and so-called actresses of the Leadville Grand, who doubled as prostitutes to augment their pay, would probably go cross-eyed and mute should they be shoved onto the stage of the San Francisco Grand. She squeezed Antonia's shoulder lightly in warning before locking her gaze on the assistant manager. Summoning a smile with just a hint of demureness, she said, "Mr. Thackery, we would be most thrilled to see your stage and honored to stand upon it."

With the clucking eagerness of a hen herding its chicks, he led them through the backstage area, providing a nonstop commentary on the opera house's merits. He interrupted his own monologue to occasionally squawk warnings at the stagehands as they hauled on ropes, lifting scenery to the top of the building or lowering it through openings in the stage into the basement. "The stage is eighty-seven feet deep and one hundred and six feet wide." He halted as an enormous canvas flat, painted to show stately columns and a rolling countryside, was being hauled aloft with ropes by a clutch of stagehands. It was ascending in fits and starts at a dangerously crooked angle with much clattering and ratcheting.

Thackery strode forward and barked, "You there, you men with the backdrop. Carefully now."

"Are they going to drop it?" Antonia whispered to Inez, almost as if she hoped they would.

Thackery waited while the men grumbled and tussled with the ropes. Once the backdrop righted, Thackery returned to Inez and Antonia and continued his verbal annotations in a normal tone. "The flats are twenty-four feet high, the highest of any in the world. They can be lifted to the top of the building or lowered into the basement until needed."

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