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.”
That was how the three of us ended up taking a street car to Piedmont Avenue and searching the area. What do you know? People were more forthcoming with two white men than a Chinese girl, and we soon had a confirmation of the car from a teenager working at Fenton’s Creamery.
“It was definitely a Bugatti,” he said. “I was walking home from work and saw it speeding down Piedmont. Never thought I’d see a car like that outside of a magazine.”
“See anyone inside it?”
“Just the driver, but I couldn’t make him out. What I wouldn’t give for a car like that. It can probably cross the bridge faster than the Key train.”
I gave him a tip and we left the ice cream parlor.
“I told you,” said Greta.
“Yeah, yeah,” I replied, “but apparently your turtle ghost doesn’t know a Bugatti from a Ford.”
“Now we know what to look for,” she continued. “A green Bugatti.”
“And you know who might know about that?” said Coby. “Jerez.”
My stomach tightened. I do my best to stay out of San Francisco, but it’s unavoidable sometimes, especially in my business. Intrigue rarely stays on one side of the bay.
“Who’s Jerez?” asked Greta.
“A guy in San Francisco who knows his cars,” said Coby, simplifying significantly.
Coby called from a telephone booth. When he stepped back out, Greta immediately asked, “Well?” before he could start talking.
“Jerez says he might know the car. He’ll pick us up at the Transbay station in the city.”
“Does he think Kay’s in San Francisco? Are we going to go get him?” asked Greta.
“He’ll tell us more when we get there.”
Despite the fact that I hate going into San Francisco, I was prepared to step up and buy the train tickets for myself, my client, and my sometimes-gunsel. However, when we got to the nearby Key System station, Coby stepped in front of me at the window and asked for three first-class transbay tickets.
“For Christsakes, Coby, we’re just going across the bridge,” I said.
“Why not travel in style?” Coby replied.
He could be ridiculous like that. For example, several times he had suggested we go to San Francisco just to spend the night at the Palace Hotel. “You could smuggle me inside in a suitcase,” he argued. “No one would know.” I always declined. Why would we do that, when I had an apartment we could use that I was already paying rent on? First-class tickets were another useless extravagance.
“Are you going to cross Lake Merritt in an airship next? Just get a third-class ticket for me. I don’t need a fancy seat for a train ride just because it’s over a puddle.”
Coby ignored me and purchased the tickets.
The latest Key System electric trains had been unveiled about six years earlier in 1930, when Timothy’s Pflueger’s bridge across the bay opened. They were weird, rounded things, not what you think of when you think “train” at all. Each train was coated in black enamel, with three lines of aluminum ribbing running horizontally across their sides, I guess to make them look like they were going even faster than they already were. The train that pulled up for us was a little dingy. For the first year or so those things were scrubbed of any trace of dust constantly, shining like a millionaire’s shoe. By the mid-Thirties? Not so much.
The Thirties had taken their toll on the interior of the first-class car too, but I still had to grudgingly admit it was impressive. Although worn, the burgundy velvet banquettes were clean. The wallpaper, which was black with a pattern of gold lightning bolts, had nothing more than an occasional scuff mark. Between each set of banquettes was a rosewood table, and each table had an attached frosted glass vase etched with a leaping gazelle. In better days, each of those vases would have held a single rose, but apparently that was where further cutbacks had been. Even without flowers, the setup was pretty ridiculous.
“All this for a trip across the bay?” Greta asked, echoing my thoughts and drawing glances from the few other passengers. Her eyes were wide, though. She’d probably never seen anything like a train’s first-class car in her life. “I wish Kay could see this.”
I saw her eyes mist for a moment, the first hint of weakness she had shown.
“He can see it on the ride back,” I said quickly. “My treat.”
We settled in our banquette, and I purposely chose to sit facing the rear of the train, away from San Francisco. Coby sat across from me and let Greta have the window seat. As we zipped through Oakland, and Coby and Greta fell into conversation about music and how great a singer this guy Kay was.
“I’m composing an opera for him,” Greta said. “It’s one act, two performers. We need to find a contralto for him to sing with.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A woman with a deep voice,” said Coby.
“Yes. It’s about two giants who are husband and wife.”
God knows what they call art today.
I tuned out for a bit, but then a phrase uttered by Coby snapped me back to attention: “I was on Clyde Haversham’s airship recently, and he had a private Stravinsky concert onboard.”
I didn’t know much about Stravinsky, but I did know about Clyde Haversham. The Havershams were industrialists who had made their fortune first in soap, and then in aluminum. They were one of the area’s most illustrious families. In Piedmont they had a mansion built by Julia Morgan. In Mountain View Cemetery they had a crypt the size of a cottage, topped with a stone angel holding up a bar of soap. The current generation had two sons: the eldest was the business-minded scion, and Clyde was the devil-may-care spare. If you were in the know, you knew that Clyde was quite the playboy, and it wasn’t ladies he was playing with.
“When did you ride on Clyde Haversham’s airship?” I demanded.
The quickest look of panic crossed Coby’s face, or at least I imagined it did.
“Oh, a few months ago,” he said with a shrug. “It’s as gaudy as you’d imagine. You can’t decorate with marble in an airship, because it’s too heavy, so instead…”
He then rambled on about Clyde Haversham’s airship to Greta while my mind reeled. A few months ago? Had it been when Coby told me he was going to Los Angeles for a “job”? True, Coby and I weren’t exactly…well, anything. He showed up occasionally at my office or apartment, we had sex, and that was it. But Clyde Haversham! Clyde Haversham was younger than I was, and he could set Coby up like a prince in a penthouse somewhere if he wanted.
Soon we were racing high over the water, and I tried to distract myself both from imagining Coby with Clyde Haversham and from the growing dread as we neared San Francisco. From up there, the bay looked endless as it stretched to the south. And while a lot of the Bay Area looked grimier than it had in the Twenties, the bridge they didn’t skimp on. Pflueger’s bronze-plated splendor gleamed almost as brightly as it had the day it opened. As much as I hated the man’s countless skyscrapers, I had to admit he’d done a fine job with the Bay Bridge—got it open ahead of schedule, too.
But even the natural and manmade beauty combined couldn’t stop my thoughts from dwelling on how Coby knew Clyde Haversham. Just how well did he know him? Had he done an illicit job or two for the rich kid, or was their relationship something more intimate?
“Here’s Yerba Buena Island,” said Coby as we approached the small island the train would tunnel through.
“Goat Island,” I corrected.
“It’s called Yerba Buena again,” said Coby. “That was its original name. Well, its original name by colonists.”
“Says who? I was born in the city, and it’s always been Goat Island.”
“Things change, old man.”
“Old man” wouldn’t have annoyed me too much usually, but usually I wasn’t comparing myself to Clyde Haversham while being told I had the name of one of my birth city’s landmarks wrong. I gave Coby my best steely glare. We went through the dim tunnel, and then when we emerged, Greta’s eyes lit up.
“I’ve never seen it this close before,” she said.
“You’ve never been to San Francisco?” asked Coby. “Not even by ferry? Not that you would want to get in a boat recently, with all the shipwrecks we’ve had.”
“That’s not San Francisco,” I said, still peeved. I focused on Goat Island’s rugged shore as we sped away from it. “That’s just a city built where San Francisco used to be.”
“You mean after the earthquake?” asked Greta.
“The earthquake and the fires,” I said.
I could still remember that 1906 morning: the shaking, the sound, the panic. The utter unreality of seeing buildings you walked by the day before crumbled into piles of rubble. And then—just when my ma and I were able to regroup and feel relief that at least our apartment building was standing—the fires came.
That was why I had no desire to turn and look at the “new” San Francisco: a skyline of imposing skyscrapers, their glossy terracotta or stainless-steel surfaces reflecting the light. It looked nothing like San Francisco. The only reason you would know which city you were looking at was the thick bank of fog obscuring the western half, the fog that had caused so many shipwrecks of late.
“Oh, come on, Sid,” said Coby. “What was there before? A bunch of wood huts?”
“You watch your mouth, kid,” I snapped, thinking of the cramped apartment I’d grown up in.
“Or you’ll what?” he asked with a smirk.
Had there not been a lady present, I might have threatened to throw him over my knee. Instead I said nothing, and just glared at him harder, thinking that fine, thirty-something Clyde Haversham could have the brat if he wanted him. Coby rolled his eyes.
“We,” he said, nodding his head toward Greta, “weren’t born yet, but I’m sure it was great. For its time.”
“They probably would have torn it down anyway,” said Greta, “to build all these skyscrapers.”
Once we reached the Transbay Terminal, we headed out to the curb to meet Jerez, but first we spotted another new and flashy invention.
“Is that an automacarriage? I’ve never seen one,” gasped Greta.
The automacarriage looked like one of the horse-pulled hansom cabs of old, but pulling it were a quartet of four bronze gazelles—diesel-powered automatons. They were highly stylized, all long lines and dramatic curves. From their head sprouted long, arching antlers.
“They look nice,” said Coby, “but they’re terrible at going up the city’s hills.” How did he know that? Did Clyde Haversham have one? He probably did. “Look, there’s Jerez.”
Jerez’s vehicle was no less impressive, although more conventional. It was a gleaming, diesel-guzzling, black behemoth of a car with blindingly clean white-walled tires and a frosted glass hood ornament of a dancer lunging forward, her hair blowing back in the wind.
Jerez, a powerfully built, intimidating man, got out of the car and graciously opened the front passenger door for Greta, but she paused before getting in.
“You know who the green Bugatti belongs to?” she asked.
“Are you taking us straight there?” she pressed.
“No, like I told Coby here on the phone, we’re gonna talk to Iris Aubergine first.”
“Who?” Greta asked.
“She’s a very connected woman here in San Francisco,” I answered. “A power broker, you might call her.”
“But why? We’re wasting time. Kay has been with those people since the day before yesterday.”
“If this is what Miss Aubergine thinks it is,” said Jerez, “it’s not the kind of situation you can just run into without a plan.”
“What does she think it is?” Greta asked.
“Let’s talk about that at the house,” Jerez said.
“But do you think he’s alive?”
Greta gave him a hard look, then acquiesced and got into the car while I climbed into the backseat with Coby.
“Don’t worry, Miss Wong,” said Coby once all the car doors were closed. “Iris Aubergine is a smart lady. She knows everything that goes on in this city. She’s made it her business to know. If she says we should talk to her first, we should talk to her first. If she says your boy is alive, he’s alive. Besides, she likes musicians. She was a ballet dancer.”
We took off, and I groaned as Telegraph Hill came into sight. The hill of my childhood—rugged, packed with humble wooden houses—was now practically a carnival, with a prominent concrete tower at its top and electric gondolas running from its crown to Filbert Street.
“Come on, Sid, Coit Tower and the Telegraph Hill Gondolas are not that bad,” said Coby.
“They’re unnecessary,” I replied, still annoyed with him.
We started winding up Telegraph Hill itself. The car strained so much I was worried we would start rolling backwards, but we safely reached our destination near the end of Montgomery Street. Unlike Coby, I’d never been to Iris’s house before. It was big, white stucco affair with lots of curves, glass bricks, and portal windows.
Jerez hopped out to open the garage door, and soon we were going down a ramp so steep, I had to brace my feet to stay upright.
“This goes down the hillside?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s the only way to fit all these,” said Jerez as the floor leveled out.
The car’s headlights reflected off of what might have been a collection of giant junebug carapaces. There were half a dozen cars in the garage—all streamlined and gleaming with chrome grilles and swooping fenders.
“How many people live here?” gasped Greta as she climbed out of the car, not waiting for Jerez to open her door.
“Just me, Iris, and the housekeeper, but these are all my babies,” said Jerez.
“You see why this was the man to call about a car,” said Coby.
We rode up an elevator that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Fairmont. When the doors slid open, we stepped into a foyer with a black and white checkerboard floor, a crystal chandelier, and dainty Iris Aubergine—purple dress, dark hair in a bob—standing patiently.
“Alexander,” she said to Coby, holding out her hands. They quickly kissed cheeks, and she addressed the rest of us. “Mr. Bergamot. How nice to see you again. And you must be Miss Wong.”
“You know where Kay is?” asked Greta.
“You get right to the point,” said Iris. “I like that. My dear, I think I do. Come along, and I’ll tell you what I know and what I suspect.”
With that, she led us into an adjoining room. This one was no less fancy, with leather furniture and a black marble fireplace guarded by an iron screen depicting a tiger in a jungle. With his black suit and elegant profile, Coby fit right in. I briefly wondered what the interior of Clyde Haversham’s house looked like before remembering that I had already mentally ceded Coby to him anyway.
We all sat except for Jerez, who stood imposingly behind Iris’s chair. He was her lieutenant, her partner, her muscle. Was he her lover, too? I sure as hell didn’t know. I’d only met Iris a few times, but got the sense she had little interest in romance with anyone.
“Miss Wong, Mr. Cobalt told us on the phone that your missing boy is an opera singer. Is that right?” asked Iris.
“Yes,” said Greta confidently. “He’s a bass-baritone. One of the best.”
Iris thought this over a few moments. “We know a green Bugatti. It belongs to a woman in Sea Cliff.”
“Sea Cliff?” asked Greta.
“It’s a rich neighborhood, out in the city’s northwest,” said Coby. “Think Piedmont, but twenty degrees colder and covered in fog.”
“So he’s there,” Greta said, rising.
“Sit,” Iris said firmly. “You’ve heard about the rash of shipwrecks we’ve had recently?”
“Yeah,” I piped in, “cargo ships coming through the Golden Gate. Exactly what all the trouble building Mile Rocks Lighthouse was supposed to prevent.”
“The woman who owns the green Bugatti is Maria Lauren,” said Iris, “and she also owns a cargo airship company. The ships coming in by water are her competition. She has something to gain by shipwrecks.”
I mulled that over and shook my head. “You think she caused the shipwrecks to cut down on the competition?”
“I think it’s possible.”
“How would that work?” I demanded. “Paying off the captains to aim straight for those rocks? Because they’ve all gone down with their ships.”
“Let the lady speak,” said Coby.
“You let the lady speak,” I snapped, making Coby roll his eyes. Not my finest moment or comeback, I admit, but I was not in the mood to be scolded by Mr. The-1906-Earthquake-Was-Before-I-Was-Born-And-Also-I-Rode-In-Clyde-Haversham’s-Airship.
“Do you want me to explain, or do you want to keep bickering?” Iris asked coolly. We were silent. “Good. The shipwrecks have been blamed on the dense fog and the captains’ inattentiveness. But since everyone on those boats died, we have no witnesses other than the lighthouse keepers, who themselves couldn’t see anything through the fog.
“Jerez and I were at a party out in Sea Cliff a few weeks ago, and Maria Lauren’s name came up. She moved to the neighborhood about six months ago, and paid quite a bit to get the old owners out of that house. She’s been seen in the Bugatti, either driving or with a chauffeur, but keeps to herself. A neighbor mentioned he saw her out on her private dock one day. He said she was staring out at the fog rolling in, and he called to her, but she didn’t respond. And then he told us, ‘That was the day of the first shipwreck. Maybe she had a sense of foreboding.’
“Of course, then the conversation turned to the most recent shipwreck. The hosts had run down to China Beach where local fishermen attempted a rescue. One sailor had been brought ashore still alive, but badly wounded. The wife said his final words were, ‘the singing.’”
“Singing?” asked Greta, rapt.
“The husband insisted the dying man said, ‘the sinking,’ but the wife was quite certain about what she had heard. Then when Alexander here called today about your missing singer, I remembered that Rita Green, the mezzo-soprano who used to perform at Brown’s Opera House before it turned to movies, was found dead last week, washed up near Fort Point.”
Greta jumped out of her seat again. “Kay is in danger; we must go now!”
“Iris,” said Coby, “What exactly are you implying?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “But there sure seem to be a hell of a lot of coincidences surrounding Maria Lauren.”
“It looks like we’d better make a trip to Sea Cliff,” I said.
I thought the ladies should stay at Iris’s, but neither of them was having that, so we all piled into one of Jerez’s sleek, dark giants and drove across the city. In my rare trips to San Francisco on business, I seldom had to go farther west than Van Ness. As we drove along California Street and into the Avenues, I was amazed at how the city had spread out. I supposed it made sense. Some survivors of the 1906 earthquake, like me and my late mother, had moved east across the Bay, and others had simply moved west, into what had been sand dunes.
The fog grew thicker the farther we drove, and it was particularly dense when we reached the exclusive mansions of Sea Cliff (“Oh,” said Greta. “It is just like Piedmont.”). The Lauren residence was on El Camino Del Mar, the last house before the road went uphill to Lands End. Anyone inside would have a perfect view of ships entering the bay. We parked half a block away, across the street. You couldn’t see much of the house itself from the sidewalk. It was set far back from the road, protected by a tall wrought iron fence and blocked by thick hedges.
“I’ll go in and poke around first,” said Coby. “In cat form, of course. Don’t worry,” he added to Iris and Jerez. “The girl already knows.”
His plan made sense, but I did feel a stab of fear at him going in alone. Hopefully the occupants wouldn’t be too suspicious of a cat wandering the grounds, but you never knew.
“Coby,” I said, then paused. I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d been short with him ever since he mentioned Clyde Haversham, and we were in a car with three other people. “You be careful.”
Coby smiled and reached across Greta to squeeze my knee. “I’ll be fine.”
Then he opened the door and a black cat darted across the street and shimmied under the fence.
The wait was interminable. The cold, damp grayness of the fog crept into the car, and the foghorn provided a plaintive soundtrack. Greta and I kept our eyes on the house, both of us hoping that any moment our boys would appear. Jerez kept alert, subtly checking the car mirrors he had paid extra for. Iris elegantly smoked a cigarette, blowing the smoke out the window. If anyone walked by, they might think we were just waiting for her to finish before going inside one of the mansions, but no one appeared. Besides the foghorn, the neighborhood was utterly silent.
Finally, Coby came loping back. Greta opened the door for him, and he leapt inside, transforming in that same instant.
“Two men just came back from the dock,” he said. “They told a third that they put the Irish kid out on a rock. There’s a side door, and a staircase down to the boat. Hurry!”
We all got out of the car and rushed to the side of the house. Coby did a few transformations to get under the fence again and open the gate from the inside. The gate led to a garden—no doubt beautiful on sunny days.
“Hey!” a voice yelled. A burly man in a gray suit hustled out of the front door, flanked by two associates who had guns drawn. “What do you think you’re doing here?”
For a moment I was distracted, because as I turned towards the house, I saw her: Maria Lauren. She was framed perfectly in an upper window. Her hair was fashionably short, but still glittered in soft waves of gold. Her pale eyes were quietly, distantly judging. Her bright red lips were scornful. Something about her was so searing that for several seconds I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Then I came to my senses. Jerez and Coby had already pulled their guns, and I followed, the three of us stepping forward in front of the ladies.
“Look, buddy,” said Jerez. “We know you’ve got a friend of ours here. Hand him over, and there won’t be any trouble.”
“Yeah, right,” replied Gray Suit Guy. “You think you can just break in and then make demands? You know whose house this is?”
“We know exactly whose house it is,” said Iris.
Coby turned his head slightly towards me. “Take Greta down to the boat.” he whispered. Then he turned back to the goons. “Let’s calm down, everyone. No need for this to go south. Look. I’m putting my gun down.” He slowly, carefully set his gun on the grass, then held up his hands. He stepped away from our group, walking towards the front of the house. “I can see the lady in charge up there,” he said, nodding towards the window where the icy, all-seeing Miss Lauren stood, “why don’t you have her come down and we can talk this out?”
“Don’t get any closer, pretty boy,” growled Gray Suit Guy.
Coby smiled. “You think I’m pretty?” Then he lunged forward.
My heart was in my throat, but I still managed to shout his name at the same moment the guns went off, their bullets flying straight over the place where Coby had been.
With that lightning-fast, glancing power that only cats can manage, Coby-the-feline leapt from the grass to Gray Suit Guy’s face. While the other two goons looked on in shock as their flailing boss’s face was savaged, Jerez shot the gun right out of one’s hand. The other took aim at Jerez, but then a tiger pounced, grabbing his arm in its jaws.
My mind reeled. I turned toward the women, but only Greta was there. I looked back at the scene: a vision of rage in orange and black had one of the goons pinned to the ground while the other ran for the door. Jerez noticed my shock.
“We’ve got it under control. Go!”
Greta grabbed my hand and started pulling me towards the path. Okay, so Iris was a tiger changeling. We still had a job to do.
At the edge of the cliff it was clear how massive the house was. It cascaded down the slope, five levels in all. Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows looked out at what would occasionally be a stunning, up close, unobstructed view of the mouth of the bay and the Marin Headlands, but was currently a sheet of white due to the dense fog. No doubt it was breathtaking when the weather was right, but a house like that in earthquake country? If another quake like ’06 hit, the whole place would end up in the water.
Also built down the cliff was a flight of wooden stairs with frequent switchbacks. The fog was so thick that the supposed dock and boat—and even the ocean itself—were unseen. The staircase might as well have been endless.
More shots rang out, and I paused, tempted to run back to Coby.
“Come on, Mr. Bergamot!” yelled Greta.
She darted down those stairs like they were nothing. Coby is counting on you to get Greta to the boat, I reminded myself, and followed. Soon I was sweating under my jacket, but I wasn’t confident I could take it off without either slowing my pace or losing my balance, so I pressed on.
Greta reached the dock before I did and jumped in the waiting rowboat. I plodded behind her, gasping while my thighs burned. As if this day hadn’t had me feeling all of my years enough already.
I gamely took up the oars while she undid the rope, but immediately recognized a problem. “Greta, there’s no visibility. How are we supposed to find him in this?”
“Just make a guess!” she yelled, as undone as I had seen her. “Go towards the foghorn. That should get us in the general direction, right?”
Suddenly, a soft green light rose from her knapsack, bright against the gray fog. The soft green light was in the shape of a turtle.
“I told you!” Greta cried. “She’ll lead us to Kay.”
The turtle ghost floated to the front of the boat, and I hurriedly began to row.
“By the way,” I shouted at the apparition that was once a sea turtle before being made into a frame for glasses, “it was a Bugatti! You could have saved us some time there.”
My legs got a rest while my arms took over. I told myself that Coby really owed me for this one, that he would be okay, that we would get the hell out of San Francisco, and then I would sleep for three days, and then he’d explain to me what exactly the nature of his acquaintance with Clyde Haversham was, and then we’d have a spectacular time making up. But even while thinking that, I knew I wouldn’t really care a bit about Clyde Haversham as long as Coby was all right. God, when had I become so sentimental?
Meanwhile, Greta stayed perched at the bow like a figurehead, leaning forward into the fog, ignoring the rough, freezing surf that soaked her plaid dress.
Despite my efforts, my rowing started to slow. My arms were on fire, but the fog had chilled the rest of me. The adrenaline had worn off. But just when I was about to suggest that Greta take over for a bit, I heard the sound.
It was a voice: deep, searching, escalating in intensity. I felt like it was causing the very fog droplets to vibrate. The waves themselves seemed to complement it. Even without making out all of the lyrics, I absorbed that the song was about the very cold that enveloped us, about suffering, about longing for rest. I’m not a cultured, artistic man, but this music—nothing had ever moved me like that before.
I hardly seemed to be in control of my body anymore. I was still exhausted, I was still cold and wet, and the water was still rough, but suddenly it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I reach the source of that voice. The dead turtle was hardly needed to guide me to it. I felt like I was trudging through a snowy field, but steadily, relentlessly.
A black rock came into view through the gray, with a soft bluish light hovering above it. As we got closer, I could make out a wiry figure with red hair perched on top of the rock. The blue light radiated from the interior of a large conch shell that hung around the figure’s neck on a chain of seaweed. I knew the redhead was Kay, and that we were supposed to be rescuing him, but only his voice seemed significant at the moment.
“Kay!” called Greta. “Kay!”
His singing didn’t stop, and for that I was grateful. His face was impassive as he sang, his eyes alight with a glow that mirrored the conch’s. We finally got so close that our bow bumped against the rock Kay was perched on, yet he still didn’t react. I could have sat there listening in that boat forever, but Greta leapt up onto the rock and tore the conch from his neck, throwing it into the sea.
In an instant I came to my senses, freed from the music. The blue light left Kay’s eyes, and he slumped forward in relief.
“Greta!” he cried, reaching out. “Greta, is that you?”
“Of course it’s me. Here,” she said, taking his hand.
He threw his arms around her.
“Greta, you found me! I knew you would. A witch took me, a witch who can control the fog. She turned me into a siren, to have me sing sailors to their doom!”
“You’re safe now,” said Greta, “but we have to get back. The others are fighting her men.”
“Others? Who? And how did you get here?”
Greta pulled out the tortoiseshell glasses, and the glowing turtle shape disappeared into them as she placed them on Kay’s face. Kay blinked a few times, looking around, then startled when he noticed me in the boat.
“Oh! Hello, mister.”
“This is Sid Bergamot; he’s a detective,” Greta said, helping Kay onto the boat.
I held out my hand. “I don’t usually like opera, but that was quite a concert you put on.”
“It wasn’t my idea,” the singer said.
“I know, but I hear you’re pretty good at singing even when not enchanted. However, what I really want to know now is how good are you at rowing.”
“I’ll give it a shot,” he said, taking my spot.
The fog was still thick, but he gamely rowed back in the general direction of Sea Cliff while Greta explained how we had found him.
“The others are still at the house? With her?” he asked, clearly concerned.
I was worried myself, even more so since we knew Maria Lauren was not only an industrialist, but a witch. Regardless, I tried to look confident. “Coby, Jerez, and Iris had it under control. Especially Iris.”
That the petite former ballerina and current power broker could turn into tiger was a shock to me. She certainly kept that aspect of herself private. Back before movies took over entertainment, there used to be a few changelings on the vaudeville circuit. I guess Iris hadn’t wanted to go that route.
“The fog’s lifting,” said Greta. Then a look of horror crossed her face. “Look!”
Kay and I turned back to the open ocean.
The precarious lighthouse was now visible, and past that, just outside the Golden Gate, was a massive silhouette in the remaining fog. A cargo ship had been minutes away from being lured by Kay and dashed on the rocks.
The fog continued to lift as we neared Sea Cliff, and by the time we reached the dock, I could see Coby waving from the top of the stairs. I like to keep a poker face, but I might have smiled a bit to see him alive and unharmed. He turned into his cat form and bounded down the stairs to meet us.
He had mostly good news to report: all of Maria Lauren’s goons had been subdued, and a police chief Iris knew personally was on the scene doing cleanup. Mysteriously, Maria Lauren herself was nowhere to be found. It seemed unlikely, though, that she would return to San Francisco.
Coby brushed off Kay’s effusive thanks. “You’ll meet Miss Aubergine in a moment. She wants to arrange a private concert with you singing Miss Wong’s music. Listening to that will be all the thanks we need.”
Kay and Greta said their thanks again and scurried up the stairs, which I was not looking forward to scaling. The gondolas that looked so tacky on Telegraph Hill, I thought, would be just fine here.
Coby and I lingered on the dock for a moment, and since no one was around, snuck an embrace.
“You’re all right?” I murmured in his ear.
“I’m fine. You?”
“Well, I’m wet, cold, and ready to sleep for about…forever.”
“Forever? How am I supposed to repay you then?”
“You do owe me,” I said, allowing my hands to travel down his slim waist, “but you’re sure you won’t be busy flying around in Clyde Haversham’s airship?”
Coby laughed. “Are you jealous?”
“I mean, I know we’re not…you know…but he is younger than me. And a hell of lot richer. And he dresses better.”
“And he’s a total bore,” said Coby. “Come on, Sid. You just helped rescue an opera singer who was turned into a siren by a witch. How can Clyde Haversham compete with that?”
Youth and wealth still seemed like the major ways in which Clyde Haversham could compete, but I was happy to leave it there and signaled my pleasure by kissing Coby’s perfect mouth. Maybe I wasn’t so tired, after all. And maybe the new San Francisco wasn’t so objectionable that I wouldn’t agree to spend the night at, say, the Palace Hotel rather than immediately start the journey back to Oakland.
“Come on, you two,” called Iris from the top of the cliff. “Let’s get cleaned up and then I’m taking everyone out to dinner. My treat.”
The Palace Hotel would have to wait. Coby and I began the climb up the stairs to join the others in the suddenly clear early evening.