Authors: Joss Stirling
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© Joss Stirling 2012
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First published in 2012
First published in this eBook edition 2012
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For my sister Jane, who paddled across Venice with me.
The night my life changed began with eating a truly amazing dessert: raspberry cheesecake with dark chocolate sauce. My sister and I had just arrived in America from Italy and were both battling really foul jetlag, the kind where your eyelids need to be propped up with matchsticks and your head feels so heavy it threatens to nod off your neck. Experience told us that we should try to stay awake until a reasonable hour or our body clocks would never catch up. This meant we had gone out to dine rather than fall onto our pillows as I would have preferred. And if we were going to sacrifice sleep for the cause, we at least deserved an excellent sweet reward. I had not been disappointed.
Diamond spent the last part of the meal carefully dissecting her portion, taking tiny spoonfuls, her appetite at zero. I’d already finished mine.
‘Have you thought what you are going to do with yourself while I’m at the conference tomorrow?’ Diamond asked. ‘You could sit in at the back but I doubt “Savant Crime: Dealing with the Offenders” would make the most riveting experience of your life.’
She knew me so well. I could do without listening to a bunch of gifted people with amazing extra-sensory perception telling us all how wonderful they are at solving the world’s problems. I couldn’t stop my yawns thinking about it so sitting through lectures on stuff I didn’t really know much about would probably induce a coma.
‘Maybe I’ll give it a miss.’
‘I don’t think they’d mind.’ Diamond had picked up the yawning from me but shrouded hers with a napkin.
‘Who are “they”?’
‘I told you.’
Was she really going to leave half her dessert? I eyed it speculatively, twiddling my fork in my fingers. ‘You did? Sorry, must’ve tuned that out. You know me: I just come along for the ride.’
Diamond sighed. She had given up on getting me to focus on the stuff she thought I should know, recognizing I had a stubborn streak that meant I only listened when it suited me. I’m one trial of a younger sister.
‘Then I’d better tell you again as you’ll no doubt meet some of the people from the conference at the social events.’ Her voice was, as ever, endlessly patient with me. ‘It’s been organized by the influential American Savant family, the Benedicts; several of them are involved in law enforcement.’
‘And this influential family just begged international peacemaker, Diamond Brook, to be their star speaker.’ I grinned at her. ‘They’re lucky to get you.’
‘Stop it, Crystal, it’s not like that.’ Diamond looked sweetly flustered by my cheerleading for her brilliance. ‘There are no stars in the Savant Net; we work together.’
Yeah, right. Forget what she said; we all knew she was something special. Unlike me. I was down as her bag carrier on these jaunts, roadie on the Diamond tour.
‘I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll go shopping.’ I scraped the last remnants of chocolate sauce off the plate, making artistic swirls with the prongs of my fork. ‘I need new jeans and Denver looks a good place to hunt for bargains—much cheaper than home. At least I’m good at shopping.’
My frivolous plans put that look on Diamond’s face, the one where her soulful brown eyes brimmed with concern. Here came the sisterly pep talk; she couldn’t resist even though we were both so tired we were drooping in our seats.
‘I was hoping, Crystal, that you might, you know, take the next few days to give some serious attention to your future. I picked up a stack of brochures for colleges so you can retake your exams. They’re in my case back at the hotel.’
I shrugged. I really did not want to go there, not while I was enjoying the lingering taste of chocolate.
‘Or if you don’t want to do that, then maybe we should start thinking about an apprenticeship? You always liked fashion and design. We could ask Signora Carriera if she needs any help for the Carnival. It would be great experience learning how to run up so many different kinds of costume so quickly. I know for a fact she has lots of work right now because she’s also making some for a big Hollywood movie shooting in Venice next month.’
That did sound interesting but the chirpy waiter was back, refilling our coffee cups with an actor’s flair. Maybe he was one, ‘resting’ between jobs like me. Though, to be honest, at nineteen, I’d not even got my career off the launch pad.
‘How’s your meal, ladies?’ he asked, his eyes on my sister, hoping for a crumb of praise. I could tell he had already fallen in love with Diamond as most possessors of the Y chromosome did.
‘It was lovely, thank you.’ She gave him one of her warmest smiles, her bobbed hair swaying slightly as she looked up. Diamond had the neat dark swing cut and features of a Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor-style. In Diamond’s case, the resemblance to the queen was genuine as our mother was Egyptian. Dad had been a British diplomat who fell in love with Mama on a posting to Cairo and whisked her away as his bride. We are a truly international family—Diamond and I now living in Venice, roughly halfway between our roots in the leafy Home Counties and the dusty banks of the Nile. I didn’t feel I had a strong national identity. Italy was my adopted, rather than native, country. Maybe that sense of being rootless was another part of my dissatisfaction with myself?
All politeness, the waiter finally remembered to seek my opinion. ‘And how was your dessert?’
‘Yeah, it was great.’ I smiled but his attention had already skipped back to my sister. He retreated, satisfied, his gaze lingering on Diamond rather than me. I didn’t blame him: I had inherited the striking pharaoh looks, strong nose and emphatic eyebrows but none of the prettiness, as in my case the features were topped by the lion’s mane from my father’s side. Savants tend to have complicated inheritances—ours no exception. Dad had had a Venetian mother with the hair characteristic of some northern Italians: a riot of curls that included every colour from dirt brown to sun-bleached blonde. You sometimes see it in the paintings of the Old Masters but mine is not a Madonna’s smooth undulating wave but a choppy sea of a frizz. Beside my sister I always felt like the mangy lioness with a sleek, exquisite pussycat.
The tourist magnet of the Hard Rock Café was filling up with students and travellers, the noise levels soaring, our waiter pulled in many directions by numerous orders. I found my eyes drawn to a glass display case claiming to contain a genuine Michael Jackson military-cut jacket, enjoying the odd optical illusion that made my reflection look as though my head was poking out of the neck. I yawned again. What had we been talking about? Oh yeah.
‘You really want me to work for Signora Carriera? It would be slave labour.’ I knew the costume maker who lived below our apartment in Venice quite well as I often walked her dog when she was busy. She was a pleasant enough neighbour but would be one demanding boss. It made me shudder just to think about what demands she would make on my time.
Diamond pushed her dessert aside. ‘I hate to see you waste your life like this.’
‘I hate waste too. Pass that over. The cheesecake is ledge.’
My sister sighed, biting back the comment that at nearly six feet I needed to watch my weight. It wasn’t that I was fat but—how did she put it?—oh yes, I was
compared to the rest of my sisters, blessed with average dress sizes. I didn’t care. Who was I out to impress? No boys asked me on a date because I was taller than them all and they feared the mockery. ‘Beanstalk’ was the friendliest of the names I had endured at the boarding school in England I had attended.