It was an October morning in the year 1872, and New York City's air was so befogged with white mist and dark smoke that I could barely see across the street. All the same I was attending to my daily chore of sweeping our small front court with its painted sign:
Chancing to look up, I was startled to see a black girl standing just beyond our low iron gate. It was as if she had just stepped out of the haze, dressed in her somber cotton servant's garb. A tiny wisp of curly black hair poked out from beneath her white cap. Though clearly she was a servant, her posture was upright, quite proud, and not at all deferential. I judged her to be about the same age as I, fourteen; but her smooth face, round and dark, seemed devoid of emotion until I noticed her eyes: They were full of a deep and brooding intensity.
My first thought was that she was looking at me, but then I realized it was our sign that held her attention.
"May I help you?" I asked.
She turned her gaze upon me. "Who are you?"
The question, asked so bluntly, was unexpected. "I'm Mr. Middleditch's apprentice."
"Does he make portraits?"
"Portraits, cartes de visite, and studies."
"My mistress, Mrs. Frederick Von Macht, requires a portrait."
"Then you've come to the right place."
"Good," said the girl. "She will be at your door tomorrow, at two."
Though surprised by her presumption, I said, "I'll tell my employer," perfectly aware that Mr. Middleditch had no pressing matters to attend to. Business was anything but lively.
With a curt nod the girl turned and walked away, vanishing into the mist as eerily as she had appeared.
Not only did I wonder where she'd come from and gone to, I was uncertain whether to believe her or not. But knowing it would be a good thing if her mistress did come for a sitting, I put aside such questions and hurried into our rooms to inform Mr. Middleditch that he actually had a customer.
Still, there was something very unsettling about the girl, so much so that I could not get her out of my mind. Was it the way she'd suddenly appeared and disappeared into the mist? Was it the tone of her voice? Was it the brooding look in her eyes?
That said, I shall be the first to admit there was nothing about her appearance to foretell the extraordinary events that were to follow.
Excerpted from The Seer of Shadows by Catherine Avi Copyright © 2008 by Catherine Avi. Excerpted by permission.
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