Authors: Jacqueline Briskin
Also by Jacqueline Briskin
Dreams Are Not Enough
Everything and More
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
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Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 1983 by Jacqueline Briskin
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The swarthy man had positioned himself three feet or so to their left. He looked utterly commonplace. So why should her attention be drawn to him? Because, she realized, surrounding him was an aura of wildness that set him apart from the rest of the journalists. His muscles were flexed tautly, moisture gleamed on his Levantine flesh. The pupils of his eyes were wary pinpoints fixed on Alexander.
She gripped her son’s arm, feeling the lean muscles, wanting to draw him away from the feral gaze, yet unable to speak.
Did I have time to warn him?
This fine point would haunt her the rest of her life.
She saw the man’s hand reach under the Dacron jacket. A movement swift, yet also incredibly predictable. And she was not surprised at the gun, a smallish pistol, the familiar accoutrement of countless television shows.
So much for all the metal detectors and security,
He wants to kill Alexander . . . .
Later, later she would wonder why, if her thoughts drifted so leisurely, she didn’t have time to scream a warning.
A body hurled between the gun and Alexander
moving so swiftly that in the blur she didn’t realize immediately that it was Curt. Simultaneously there was a sound like a twig cracking, Curt’s mouth opened, he swayed from side to side and back and forth. Hands reached out to break his fall.
The frenzied crowd trapped the Capitol police near the doorway, and had the assailant intended to escape he would have had a good chance in the confusion. Instead, his feet planted apart, he raised his left hand to steady his right wrist as he aimed again.
The second shot cracked just before the screaming filled the universe.
“A-a-l-e-e-x-a-a-n-d-e-e-e-r . . . .”
The wind can be sharp in San Francisco. On this afternoon in early March of 1949 the prevailing westerly had swept the air so that in Pacific Heights, where turn-of-the-century nabobs had raised their architectural fantasies, the spectacular view of the city was razor-sharp. The undiluted sunlight dramatically shaded the plunging hills, the great swags of Golden Gate Bridge gleamed like molten strands of caramelized sugar, skipping little whitecaps intensified the flag blue of San Francisco Bay—in this clarity one felt capable of reaching across the immense bay to touch mountainous Berkeley.
Two young girls climbed the steep grade of Clay Street. They wore identical heavy, shabby navy coats that had a foreign cut and polished brown oxfords that were too sturdy to find favor locally. The hats that they clutched against the wind, however, had an inexpensive smartness that was uniquely American.
Honora and Crystal Sylvander were sisters and English.
Crystal, who wore the creamy felt pillbox, possessed an astonishing amalgam of Saxon attributes. Blond hair, bright as polished brass,
framed delicate features. Her peerless white complexion was enlivened by dimpled cheeks that seemed rouged but were not. The clear blue irises of her eyes were ringed with a darker cobalt. Crystal’s one flaw, if you could call it that, was a lack of height; however, the clumsy coat couldn’t hide the voluptuous curves of her diminutive body.
Honora, the elder sister, wearing the russet velvet hat with the turned-down brim, lacked her sister’s blatantly provocative beauty, yet her charms grew on you. Her glossy black pageboy was wind ruffled, her dark eyes large and memorable. Tall, with the long, fragile Sylvander bone structure, she moved with a fine, unconscious grace.
Reaching the crest of the hill, they could see twin lines of large cars edged into the curb around a red sandstone Victorian mansion that crouched between its round Norman towers.
Honora halted, her upper lip rising in dismay. “Do you suppose that’s Uncle Gideon’s house?” she asked in her soft, well-bred English accent.
“We’re close to his address,” Crystal replied airily.
“But he has other visitors.”
“Did you expect we’d be the only ones? Uncle Gideon’s only the top engineer in San Francisco!”
“So many people . . .” Honora’s voice faltered. “We can’t just barge in.”
Crystal set her pretty chin firmly. At seventeen, younger by almost an exact calendar year than Honora, she had maneuvered her sister
into making this condolence call on their wealthy, as yet unknown American uncle by marriage. “You’re the end, Honora, the living end!” she said. “Our aunt has just died, and you let a few motorcars frighten you off.”
“This isn’t the right way for us to get to know Uncle Gideon.” Honora heard her own pleading tone. A gust of wind tugged at the wide brim of her hat and she reached for it. She was overly conscious that despite the new hat, bought in Macy’s basement with the dollar and a half Crystal had wheedled from their father, money that the family could ill afford, she did not look American.
What’s so wrong with that?
she asked herself. The English have always been passionately if offhandedly proud of their origins, and Honora, whose patriotism had been further honed by wartime hardships, was not a girl who changed her loyalties easily. These past two months, though, her natural shyness had been increased by Crystal’s unceasing endeavors to make the two of them “fit in with everyone else here.”
Crystal was saying, “We’ve been in San Francisco since Christmas and we haven’t met him yet.”
“This is the perfect opportunity to introduce ourselves.”
“I’m not sure that American girls make visits alone.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Honora, stop talking absolute rot! You know as well as I do they’re much less stiff here. And we’re doing
the decent thing.”
“Uncle Gideon’s never shown the least interest in us.”
Crystal’s pretty, penciled brows drew together sharply at this truth. Aunt Matilda was their blood kin. Birthdays and Christmas she had dispatched practical mufflers and jumpers to her motherless nieces. The enclosed card invariably said,
With love from Uncle Gideon and Aunt Matilda
, but they knew his name was included as form.
Gideon’s first correspondence had arrived last November, a reply to Langley Sylvander’s painfully composed request for a loan to pay his daughters’ tuition.
Re your request of September 1, I consider it morally wrong to either borrow or lend. However, I can offer you aid if you move to San Francisco.
Even though you have no engineering background, I can guarantee that Talbott’s will take you on and train you as a specifications writer. In this country your expenses will be more sensible as we have an excellent free educational system for the two younger girls. Your oldest, Matilda informs me, is eighteen. I consider it my duty to see that she gets working papers. She should have no difficulty locating some sort of a job. Matilda, who is in ill health, sends her best.
“Then it’s time he does pay attention,” Crystal snapped. “With Aunt Matilda gone, he’s our only family.”
“But what if, well, if our coming reflects badly on Daddy?” Honora murmured.
Another burst of wind made Crystal squash her new hat to her head. “I’m being blown to bits,” she said. “And since you’re so worried about Daddy’s job, he’s the one who told us to come.”
“You know he doesn’t mean what he says when he has . . . one of his headaches.”
“Oh, do whatever you want. After tramping up and down hills for hours, I’m not going home.”
Honora stood for a moment of worried indecision, then hurried after her younger sister, who was clipping smartly toward the large, ugly house.
The waiting chauffeurs sheltered in the porte cochere turned admiring red faces to watch the girls ascend four shallow marble steps. Crystal pressed the bell. After a long minute, the black-sprayed wreath bounced dryly against Honduran mahogany and the front door opened. An elderly Filipino peered at them with an unsmiling, unblinking gaze.
With a spontaneous movement Honora and Crystal clasped hands. Faced with any hostility, they rose as if in a helium balloon above minor jealousies and sibling squabbles.
“Yes?” the servant asked coldly.
Each family has its assigned ritual roles, and Honora, as the oldest daughter, had become
surrogate for her dead mother, tacitly being assigned the more onerous responsibilities of the impecunious Sylvanders. “The Misses Sylvander to see Mr. Talbott,” she replied with a slight tremor.
The unpleasant scrutiny lasted another few seconds, then the Filipino said, “Please come in.”
Leaving them by the door, he limped arthritically toward the hum of a gathering in the rear of the house. Voices rose briefly then were muted as an unseen door opened and closed.