Read The Russian Hill Murders Online

Authors: Shirley Tallman

The Russian Hill Murders

To Karen,
with love, respect, and admiration.
And to my husband, Bob, and my good friend H. P.
for all their love and support.
To my writing buddies, Joanne Wendt and Nancy Hersage, for critiquing this manuscript before it went off to New York. I can’t thank you both enough for your patience and dedication to Sarah, and to me.
As always, my gratitude to the California State Bar Association for putting up with a barrage of questions, and to the California Historical Society for helping me to envision and re-create Sarah’s world.
Also, many thanks to Tami Suzuki, of the San Francisco Public Library, for her valuable help in gathering research material for this novel.
t was not my idea to attend the charity dinner. True, it was a worthy cause, but the past weeks at the law firm I’d been so elated to join just months earlier had been mind-numbing. In truth, I was becoming more disillusioned with Shepard, Shepard, McNaughton and Hall with each passing day. Frankly I was in no mood to socialize.
My mother, Elizabeth Woolson, however, is nothing if not persistent. Eventually she wore down my resolve until I agreed to accompany my parents, my brother Charles and his wife, Celia, to the dinner. Mama also prevailed on the matter of my costume, insisting I wear the violet gown she’d had made for my brother Frederick’s entrée into the world of politics—a gown I still considered too décolleté for my taste. Moreover, I couldn’t look at the frock without remembering the murder that had occurred the night I’d worn it, a crime that had catapulted me into the grisly Nob Hill killings. Believe me, if I’d had any inkling that the occasion of its second wearing would have an equally chilling impact
on my life, I would have burned the wretched thing on the spot!
On the matter of an escort I drew a firm line. Nothing could persuade me to accept the company of the latest bachelor to catch Mama’s desperate eye. Her current prospect was a widowed dentist, the father of six children, five of whom still lived at home. I considered my life complicated enough without adding an elderly husband and a horde of motherless offspring to the mix.
In the end I found myself—blessedly unencumbered by the aforementioned dentist—in one of the most unusual houses on Russian Hill. I had never met our hosts, Caroline and Leonard Godfrey, but I knew them to be prominent members of San Francisco Society. Mrs. Godfrey was noted for her work on behalf of the city’s poor and disadvantaged. Her husband, Leonard, was one of the city’s most shrewd entrepreneurs. It was an open secret that he was the guiding, if often hidden, force behind many of the city’s major corporations.
The Godfreys’ home was the subject of much gossip. Three years earlier, it had joined a small group of exclusive mansions gracing the top of the summit. Russian Hill—said to have been named after Russian sailors who had been buried there before the California gold rush—was slowly beginning to compete with Nob Hill, its pompous neighbor to the south. The Godfrey residence, with its sharp angles and numerous windows, was considered by many to be too avant-garde. Indeed, some people went so far as to brand it “Godfrey’s Folly.” Personally, I found the home a refreshing change from the pretentious bastions constructed by other wealthy San Franciscans. But then my own architectural tastes are also viewed as unorthodox.
I had not circulated long among the glittering guests before I began to regret giving in to Mama’s pressure to attend tonight’s soiree. When I’d had all I could take of Paris fashions, society romances and
social indiscretions, I sought refuge in an alcove featuring a large bay window. Peering through a strategically placed spyglass, I was able to make out much of the city below—including Portsmouth Square, the site of Joseph Shepard’s law firm. As one of the first female attorneys in California, I’d been accepted as a junior associate in this establishment with the greatest reluctance. Since then, the entire cadre of senior partners had banded together in an effort to drive me out of their firm, as well as their lives!
Not only had I obtained my job through what they termed “female subterfuge,” but I’d had the gall to “steal” (their word, not mine) one of the firm’s prized clients. Adding insult to injury, I’d solved a series of gruesome murders, resulting in a glut of unwelcome publicity for my employers.
Ironically, it was this very newspaper exposure that made it impossible for the partners to come right out and fire me. On the other hand, if I could be “persuaded” to leave of my own accord, they’d be spared public reproach. This misplaced strategy, of course, merely caused me to dig in my heels and fight to hold on to my position. Still, I’d begun to wonder how long I’d be able to put up with their childish machinations.
“It’s a beautiful city, isn’t it?”
I was startled out of my thoughts to find a man in his mid thirties standing behind me. He stood an inch or two over six feet, and despite my bleak mood, part of my brain registered that this was possibly the most handsome man I’d ever seen. He wore a perfectly tailored black tuxedo, which couldn’t conceal impressively broad shoulders and a narrow waist. His hair was thick and nearly shoulder length, an ebony mane that waved back from a tanned face.
As if amused by my frank appraisal, he smiled, and I was startled to feel my pulse leap. Good Lord, I thought, amazed he’d been able to elicit such an absurd reaction from me, an avowed spinster. With
effort, I composed my face into what I hoped was a disapproving frown, only to be rewarded with an even broader smile.
“I apologize for my poor manners, Miss Woolson,” he said in a voice that was deep and—forgive me for the romantic if fitting analogy—smooth as aged brandy. “I’m Pierce Godfrey. Leonard Godfrey is my brother.”
I accepted his proffered hand and was surprised to find the skin rougher than I’d expected. His careful appearance suggested he might be something of a dandy.
“You have me at a disadvantage, Mr. Godfrey,” I said more sharply than was civil. “How is it that you know my name?”
His eyes gleamed, but I couldn’t decide if it was amusement or mockery. My temper flared; I had no patience for flirting or playing silly games, even with a man as attractive as Pierce Godfrey.
“You haven’t answered my question,” I said pointedly.
To my annoyance, he laughed out loud. “You are a woman who speaks her mind, Sarah Woolson. I’ll be equally candid. I quizzed my sister-in-law when you arrived.” He regarded me speculatively. “She tells me you’re an attorney.”
“Yes, I am.” I studied him closely, on the lookout for sarcasm or veiled disdain for my vocation, a not uncommon reaction from men. I was surprised and, yes, I admit it, disconcerted when I could detect none. The man struck me as too smooth, too in control. I suppose I was searching for some imperfection to mar that faultless demeanor.
“I remember now,” he said. “I saw your name in the newspapers a few months back. Something to do with a murder? Actually, several murders, as I recall.”
“The press is prone to exaggeration, Mr. Godfrey. You mustn’t believe everything you read.”
“No.” He drew out the word in a velvet voice, a tone at odds
with the dark blue eyes searching my face with rude curiosity. “Now that I’ve met you, though, I rather think there was more truth than fiction to the newspaper articles.”
I started to chastise him for this unwarranted assumption, when our hostess walked toward us. An attractive woman in her early forties, Caroline Godfrey had a full, sensuous mouth and smoky gray eyes that looked out upon the world with an unmistakable air of superiority. The low-cut bodice and tightly cinched waist of her scarlet gown set off her striking figure to excellent advantage.
Perhaps it was because of her stunning beauty that I was taken aback by the look of raw hostility she directed at my companion. Focused solely on him, she hadn’t yet seen me, so I quickly stepped out from behind his tall figure.
“Miss Woolson,” she said, looking surprised and not altogether pleased by my sudden appearance. “I’m delighted you could come.” After a perfunctory smile, she turned to her brother-in-law. “Leonard requires your assistance in the parlor, Pierce. Everyone is gathering there now.”
He gave her a measured look, then offered me his arm. “Will you permit me to escort you, Miss Woolson?”
Mrs. Godfrey’s smile turned sour as she watched me accept her brother-in-law’s arm. I felt her eyes following us as he silently led me from the alcove.
When we reached the parlor, Pierce excused himself and went to stand with his brother. A moment later, Caroline Godfrey joined them, her smile cordial and welcoming now, as she looked out over her distinguished guests. She spoke for several minutes, describing the new Women and Children’s Hospital we were here to support. When she announced with perfect calm that tonight’s goal was to raise one hundred thousand dollars for the project, I felt certain she was joking. To my surprise, the rest of the company took this
startling pronouncement in stride. It was as if Mrs. Godfrey had laid down a challenge to their largesse, or perhaps, I thought a bit cynically, to their egos.
Pledging began. One after the other, huge amounts of money were called out, each pledge more munificent than the one that preceded it. Everyone seemed swept up in the excitement, including Mama and Papa. I even found myself calling out a sum larger than I could comfortably afford. Still, when it was finally over and Mrs. Godfrey announced we were very near our goal, I was proud to have played my own small part in the effort.
As guests broke off into small groups and footmen circulated, offering champagne, I went in search of my parents. I found them talking with Papa’s closest friend and fellow jurist, Judge Tobias Barlow, a slightly overweight, pleasant man ten years my father’s junior. With Judge Barlow was his wife, Margaret—an attractive woman who worked with my mother on charitable projects—and Margaret’s mother, Adelina French. I was startled by the remarkable resemblance between mother and daughter: both tall and slender with gold-brown hair and sparkling green eyes. Indeed, the two women might well have been sisters. I knew Adelina had made her home with her daughter and son-in-law since the death of her husband, Nigel French, and was a keen worker for the new hospital.
Also with the group were two men I’d never met. Mrs. Barlow introduced the more striking of the two as the Reverend Nicholas Prescott, a friend visiting from back east. Prescott, who appeared to be in his early fifties, was tall and muscularly slender beneath his dark suit and starched clerical collar. His full head of dark brown hair was sprinkled with just the right amount of gray to appear distinguished. He possessed an easy, unassuming manner, and I noted a gleam of intelligence and good humor in his clear brown eyes. With a wide smile, Reverend Prescott shook my hand, his attention so
riveted on me that I might have been the only person in the room.
Mrs. Barlow introduced the second stranger as Lucius Arlen, the accountant who had been hired by the board to handle the new hospital’s finances. Arlen was a heavy-set, stolid man in his late fifties, with a fidgety manner and a disconcerting habit of not quite looking you in the eye when he spoke.
The accountant acknowledged me with a stiff bow. “How do you do, Miss Woolson?”
Before I could reply, Mrs. French said, “Mrs. Godfrey thinks tonight’s pledges will be enough to make a final offer on the Battery Street warehouse.”
“Do you really think that’s possible, Mr. Arlen?” Margaret Barlow asked the accountant.
Lucius Arlen looked pleased to be consulted. He cleared his throat a bit self-importantly and said, “I agree it looks promising. We’ve already met our goal tonight, and additional pledges are coming in. That will provide us with enough money to complete our negotiations with the owners of the property, and—”
He was interrupted by a loud commotion in the foyer. Conversation abruptly ceased as everyone strained to hear the cause of the disturbance.
“But, sir, you cannot go in,” the Godfreys’ butler called out. “Sir, please!”
A thin man in his forties strode defiantly into the parlor. He was dressed entirely in black, from his wrinkled flannel trousers and morning coat to his slightly dented stovepipe hat. His fierce eyes were also black, as were the hair and beard that flew riotously about his grim face. People instinctively pressed away from him as he marched to the center of the room. My father started forward as if to intercept the man, but Mama took Papa’s arm and pulled him back.
“Brothers and sisters,” the intruder boomed. “Ministering to
the Jezebels of this city is an abomination!” He raised a worn leather Bible above his head. “Those who have sold their immortal souls to the devil do not deserve to be succored.”
“Mr. Halsey!” an authoritative voice interrupted. “I will thank you to leave this house at once.”
All eyes went to Caroline Godfrey, who stood framed in the doorway. Her gray eyes flashed with icy fury as she glared at the interloper.
Josiah Halsey, if you please, madam,” the man corrected, tipping his hat and making an ironic bow.
“Nothing about your presence here pleases me,” Mrs. Godfrey snapped. “We intend to offer medical care to the impoverished women and children of this city.
women, Mr. Halsey. If you are insinuating that we plan to care for women who have no one but themselves to blame for their unfortunate circumstances, you are mistaken.”
There was no need for Mrs. Godfrey to explain what she meant by a woman of “unfortunate circumstances.” Everyone knew the term referred to an unwed mother, a prejudice I found galling. It was unjust that the child’s father got off scot-free, while the poor mother was left to suffer the shame and consequences.
I looked across the room where my brother Charles and his wife, Celia, stood staring at the trespasser. Charles, a physician of unquestionable talent and limited income, was slated to lead the roster of physicians who had agreed to volunteer at the new hospital. From his sheepish expression, I realized this was exactly what he planned to do. Charles was far too kind-hearted to turn even a penniless patient away, much less a woman who would otherwise be forced to deliver her child on the street. Apparently, he had failed to mention this to Mrs. Godfrey. I met my father’s eyes, and we both suppressed a smile.

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