The girl walked into my office. Yeah, I know that’s a boring first line. I’m supposed to wax poetic about her calves or whatever, but that just wouldn’t be true, even though I sometimes swing that way. This girl all but stomped into my office with her angry face and her frumpy clothes.
“Mr. Sidney Bergamot?” she asked.
I’d called her up through the building’s intercom. From that brief conversation, I knew her name was Greta Wong and that she was a referral from her friend Mary Lee. Mary Lee was the daughter of a higher-up in the Eighth Street Tong, and as such, had paid me good money to help her out a while back. This girl, however, in her faded plaid dress and scuffed-up shoes, was clearly no tong princess, and I immediately wondered how she was going to pay. Not that I should be too snooty—Oakland’s now chock-full of sleek new tiled skyscrapers accented with sunbursts and zig-zags and God knows what else, but I’m stuck in this draft-plagued dust factory.
“Miss Wong, please take a seat.”
She flopped into the chair in front of my desk, then reached into a battered knapsack and pulled something out. She placed this object on my desk: tortoiseshell glasses that had seen better days—a man’s glasses, by the look of them.
“As I said downstairs, I have an urgent request,” she said. “A missing person’s case.”
I sighed internally. A man who’d run out on his lady friend: just the case every detective wants. Unless she was pregnant, there was nothing to tell her but to let him go.
“Who’s missing?” I asked gamely.
“Ciaran McKay. He goes by Kay.”
“An Irish boy. Why not? It’s the 20th Century.”
She didn’t laugh.
“Age?” I asked.
“Nineteen, same as me.”
“What are the circumstances of his disappearance?”
“He was ambushed on Piedmont Avenue two days ago, out by the cemetery. A man tackled him, knocking off his glasses, then pulled him into a green car.”
Ok, maybe this was more than a boyfriend who had skedaddled.
“What was he doing out by the cemetery?”
“He was hired to sing at a funeral.”
“He’s a singer?”
“Yes, a bass-baritone. He’s exceptional. I’m a composer.”
“I see. And you were with him?”
“No, I was at my job. I work the box office at the Grand Lake Theatre, and sometimes play the Wurlitzer.”
“Who saw him get taken in the car then?”
If it was a friend of his, we were right back at skedaddled. Instead, the girl gestured to the tortoiseshell glasses.
“When he didn’t come home, I took the street car out there and found these. They’re haunted by the sea turtle whose shell was used to make them. She told me.”
Unconventional, but I’d seen stranger things. Still, I’m not a sucker.
“Is this turtle ghost willing to be interviewed?”
“She only talks to me and Kay.”
“Okay, so you go out to Mountain View Cemetery and find his glasses. Did you talk to anyone else out there? Anyone at the chapel?”
“Yesterday I canvassed that neighborhood for hours. Everyone brushed me off except a groundskeeper at the cemetery. He told me there hadn’t been a funeral that evening.”
“Who hired him for the job?”
“A woman. She came into the grocery where he works.”
“You know her name? Or what she looked like?”
“Kay said her name was Mrs. Jones, but I’d guess that’s an alias.”
“Good guess. What about enemies? Either of you got any enemies?”
She shook her head.
“Is there someone you owe money?”
She shook her head again.
“Does the kid have rich parents who don’t want him with a Chinese girl? Or do yours not want a white boy around their daughter?”
Another shake of the head. “He’s an orphan. We both are. Neither of us have anything.”
“You’re not…in the family way, are you?”
Greta’s face reddened. “The cops asked the same thing before they laughed me off. No. And we haven’t had any arguments, either.”
I held back a sigh. “Look, you’re not giving me a lot to go on here.”
“You found Hana Yamamoto.”
Hana Yamamoto was the girlfriend of Mary Lee, the Eighth Street Tong daughter who’d referred Greta. When Hana went missing, Mary had reached out to me instead of using the tong’s vast resources because the relationship was, of course, a secret. The daughter of one of Chinatown’s most prominent families romancing a lady, and a Japanese one at that? She would have been disowned.
Hana’s folks weren’t any more understanding, and when they figured out what their daughter was up to, they had her smuggled out of Oakland in the dead of night. I found her in the Central Valley, got her to San Jose, and helped the star-crossed lovers set up a secret correspondence. They planned to run to Paris in a year or so.
“I did find Hana Yamamoto, but I had a bit more to go on there. Girl in a relationship her family would disapprove of disappears? Of course it was her family. And what do you know, she ends up at her uncle’s farm in Fresno. So far you’ve given me a green car and no witnesses besides a ghost turtle.”
Some potential clients would have started the waterworks, but Greta just stared me down.
“You’re the detective. Finding the clues is supposed to be your job.”
“Sure, but it will take some work, and you’re clearly no daughter of a wealthy tong family.”
Her attention faltered and I realized she was looking past me. “You have a cat?”
I sighed. I didn’t need to look to know what I’d find behind me, but I swiveled my chair anyway. There on the windowsill, smirking at me, was a black and white cat with striking blue eyes. The bastard had snuck in.
“I don’t,” I said, turning back to Greta. “He just shows up sometimes. Let’s not get distracted. How are you paying for this?”
“I don’t have much, but please—”
“Can’t Mary Lee give you some money?”
“She gave me two dollars.”
“She sends almost all her allowance to her girlfriend now. You have to find Kay. You’d be doing the world a favor. His voice…there’s nothing like it. He’s going to be an opera star someday. In my operas. And he’s the kindest—”
Judging by her startled reaction, the cat chose that moment to jump off the windowsill and turn into a slim, dapperly dressed young man with slicked back black hair and sinister-yet-breathtaking blue eyes. This was Alexander Cobalt, villain-for-hire of the San Francisco Bay.
I had met Alexander “Coby” Cobalt when he showed up in my apartment two years earlier to threaten me. He’d been hired by a wealthy industrialist whose wife had hired me to get evidence of his affairs. I’ll be honest: he got the drop on me, being able to silently sneak in through a barely cracked open window as a cat. But when he lunged at me in human form, the true distraction was that this criminal Adonis was throwing himself at me, albeit with decidedly unromantic intent.
“Look, kid,” I said once he had me pinned to the floor with a knife to my throat, “if you’re going to kill me, let’s at least have some fun first. I might even teach you some things. You’ll know I don’t have a weapon on me, ‘cause I’ll be naked.”
Those deep blue eyes expressed no disgust at the suggestion, but rather alarm that I had him figured out, so I continued.
“Come on, when are you going to get another opportunity like this?”
Now, I’m about twenty years older than Coby, and closer to fifty than forty, but I’m not awful to look at, I’m a pretty smooth talker, and I won’t be shy in saying I have the skills to back my talk up. To conclude: the wealthy industrialist’s wife ended up with the fortune, and Coby started stopping by whenever he felt like it, sneaking in as a cat.
In human form, Coby leaned against my desk like he owned it. “Keep the two bucks,” he told Greta Wong, who had recovered from her momentary shock—after all, changelings were rare, but hardly unknown. “I’ll cover the cost.” Then he turned toward me. “Take the case. I’ve heard this girl play the Wurlitzer at the Grand Lake; she’s a real pro. And I’ve heard the Irish kid sing arias all over Oakland. This girl’s usually going around with a hat, getting pennies from the crowd, but he should be at La Scala.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Greta.
Coby stuck out his hand. “Alexander Cobalt, patron of the arts.”
“Greta Wong, composer and Ciaran McKay’s manager.”
“Now, look, I haven’t agreed to take the case yet,” I interjected.
Coby smiled at me in that smug, suggestive way that drives me crazy. “I’ll make it up to you later.”
Greta put two and two together and looked me in the eye. “After all, it is the 20th Century.”