City of Whispers


By Marcia Muller

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New York Times bestselling author, Marcia Muller, brings you another thrilling mystery with her famous private investigator, Sharon McCone.

Private eye Sharon McCone receives an e-mail asking for help from her emotionally disturbed half brother Darcy Blackhawk. She replies . . . but gets no response. As Sharon digs deeper, she discovers that Darcy sent his message from an Internet cafe in San Francisco, a city he's never been to before. Sensing that her brother is in terrible danger, Sharon begins a search for him throughout the city.

The investigation leads her to the body of a woman at the Palace of Fine Arts, where a witness had told her that Darcy was headed. Then, as she digs deeper, Sharon uncovers a connection to the unsolved murder of a young heiress to a multimillion-dollar banking fortune. Now Sharon must race to solve both murders and ensure her brother's safety, despite the imminent danger that lurks within her own family.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of Looking for Yesterday


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Sharon McCone

Sometimes when I'm alone and can't sleep I listen to the sounds of the city.

The grinding and clanging of the J-Church streetcar as it rounds the turn and stops on Thirtieth Street. Foghorns moaning out at the Golden Gate. Cars rumbling, dogs howling, the neighbors' TVs mumbling. The occasional conversations of passersby and the white noise of the freeways.

But mostly what I listen to is whispers.

This city, it makes me afraid.

I love you….

Nobody can find out what I did.

Out here nobody looks at me.

What happened to you?

The night is different.

How could you do this to me?

I love you….

I couldn't've done that….

Tell me everything about that time.

I hurt all over.

Dark, like it's supposed to be when you're dead.

Where am I?

Maybe I'm dead.

Of course the whispers are echoes of my past. I've heard them all over time. But I suspect that somewhere in the city these words, or very similar ones, are still being spoken.

This city is large and diverse. There are pockets of grinding poverty, pockets of middle-class respectability, pockets of wealth. There is corruption beyond a normal person's belief, and incredible selflessness and valor. Intrigue worthy of a spy novel, and innocence and wonder. Eight hundred thousand–plus people, living out their stories.

And all too often, their stories merge with mine.


Sharon McCone

September in the city, Labor Day barbecues in a misty fog come and gone. On this day, glorious sunshine and clear blue skies. Our summer was about to begin.

I climbed the stairway to the agency's offices off the north-side catwalk of Pier 24½. Waved to everybody as I passed their open doors. Flopped my briefcase on my desk, sat down, and opened my e-mail.

Reports on cases from my nephew and techno-whiz Mick Savage. Copies of correspondence from the other operatives. A plaintive note from Ma: "When are you going to forgive me?"

For what? Because she'd gone ballistic after I'd been shot in the head and trapped for a time in a locked-in state? (Like a coma, except I was aware of everything around me, could hear and see but not move or communicate except for eyeblinks. Believe me, that is one of the lower levels of hell.) And when your mother hurls herself on your chest, weeping and wailing, it only makes the situation worse.

My hospitalization had ended a year ago; I'd gone through intensive physical therapy and still worked out several times a week at a gym. Occasionally I tired easily and there were periods when—asleep or awake—I'd flash back to the shooting and experience drenching sweats, shakiness, and disorientation. But basically I was okay and improving steadily. Eventually, my neurologist told me, the aftereffects would disappear. I wasn't so sure of that, but they were things I was learning to live with.

This message from Ma—her stock in trade is histrionics and she wouldn't be Ma without them. Likely she, recently widowed and a new convert to e-mail, had written this to one of my three siblings and sent it to the wrong address. And what would she be asking any of them to forgive her for? I'd have to check with them.

My other mother, the one who had given birth to me and put me up for adoption, had forwarded a notice of her upcoming appearance on Good Morning America. Saskia Blackhawk was a Boise, Idaho, attorney who had argued Indian-rights cases all the way to the Supreme Court—and won every time. She was much sought after on the talk-show circuit.

Nothing from Hy, currently in Zurich, on a case involving the changing privacy rules of the Swiss banks. Nothing from my friend Piper, who had promised to look into memberships for us in the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

A notice from the city port commission about a scheduled hearing on demolishing old piers. Pier 24½ was in that category, in spite of the thriving businesses that rented space here. So far, with the intervention of a powerful attorney friend of mine, we had been spared. But for how much longer?

I put the thought aside and opened the rest of my mail. Client, commending me for a job well done. Humane Society, thanking me for my contribution. breaking news, not good. Coldwater Creek: my order had shipped.

Again from, only the subject line read, "From Darcy." The message was brief: "Help me. I'm in SF."

He was piggybacking off Saskia's account. Probably had stolen her password; she never would have given it to him.

Bet he wanted money.

Darcy Blackhawk was my half brother from Saskia's long marriage to Thomas Blackhawk, a fellow attorney who had died several years ago. They'd also had a daughter, Robin, currently enrolled in law school at Berkeley's Boalt Hall. Unlike his sister, Darcy was a troubled kid who'd dropped out of school, done a wide assortment of drugs, and run with bad companions, and who couldn't hold down a job for more than a week. He'd briefly turned his life around, about the time I discovered my other family, and gotten a job editing videos for a local TV station. But the desire for drugs had proven stronger than the desire for success, and while stoned he'd destroyed the footage of a violent antiabortion demonstration during which a woman was fatally shot. He'd been fired, then had backslid and sunk to a new low.

Saskia couldn't keep track of him, although periodically he turned up at her house for food or shelter. Last she'd heard he'd been living under a bridge on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, northeast of Boise near Challis. In a recent phone conversation Saskia had said bitterly, "Ironic that it's also called the River of No Return."

And I had thought, Under a bridge just like a troll.

Well, the troll was on the move. No computers under bridges—usually.

I shot the message over to Mick, asking him if he could find out where it was sent from—probably some Internet café. Not an easy task for most people to accomplish quickly, but a snap for the co-creator of, a real-time search engine under the management of the giant Omnivore. Mick knew the side roads and back alleys of the Internet, and could get from one to another in his sleep.

Then I carefully composed a reply to Darcy.

Of course I'll help you, but I need more information. Where are you? And what's the problem? You know you can always come to me, either at the pier or at home. I miss you and love you.—S

I looked critically at what I'd written, then deleted the last sentence. Neither sentiment was true.

Next I called Saskia in Boise.

"You're about to get a strange message from me," I told her. "Darcy's using your Comcast account from someplace here in San Francisco. He sent me a message asking for help. I replied to him, hoping he'll tap into your mail again."

"That little—" She broke off, but it was obvious what the next word would've been. "How did he get my password?"

"How does he get anything?"

"Steals. Sometimes I let myself forget that he's not stupid, just emotionally challenged."

Darcy was expert at taking money from a till when a cashier had his or her back turned; he'd never held up anyplace—as far as anyone knew—but he'd cadged large amounts from people on the street who felt sorry for him or were afraid of his craziness.

"How long d'you suppose he's been down here?" I asked. "He was still on the Salmon River a month ago."

"I don't know. What does he want you to help him with?"

"He didn't say. Money, probably. I'm assuming he'll get back to me. Do you know any reason for him to come to the Bay Area?"

"… No. Robin's made it clear she doesn't want to see him, and I think she's warned him not to bother you."

Robin and Darcy couldn't be more different. Robin's feelings for her brother were complex: compassion because he was a weak and troubled man; anger because he'd taken advantage of her one time too many; a strong desire to keep him out of her life; an equally strong desire to protect her mother from him. And, I supposed, a little bit of love because he was, after all, her brother.

"Has he been in any trouble recently?" I asked.

"Only the usual." Saskia's tone was wry with a touch of sadness.

"What's 'the usual'?"

"Shoplifting. He tried to steal a whole ham from the supermarket. Do you know what kind of bulge a whole ham makes under a hoodie? And then it turned out the hoodie still had its tags on it—he'd taken it from Kmart the day before."

Uh-huh. Maybe Darce was stupid.

"Anything else?"

"Oh, items have disappeared from my house: cash, soap, towels, one of his father's golfing trophies that could easily be pawned. Cereal, his favorite kind, Froot Loops."

How appropriate.

"There's something else too," Saskia added. "He assaulted a police officer."

"Great. When, where, and why?"

"About ten days ago. Under the bridge on the Salmon River. The police were removing him and the other homeless persons from their encampment—that's how I knew he was there."

"You bail him out?"


"And he took off."

"Well, he came home for a few hours. Then, according to my neighbor, a woman—a druggie friend, no doubt—appeared, and the two of them left with my silver tea set."

Saskia's voice, usually so forceful and assured, was clogged with shame and grief. "Sharon," she added, "I think he's getting worse."

"In what ways?"

"At times he can pass for lucid, but mostly he slips in and out of reality. Sometimes you look into his eyes and wonder if he's really all there. I'm surprised he remembered your e-mail address, but sometimes bits of factual information pop into his mind, and he uses them. Other times—" She broke off, her voice ragged.

I spared her any more questioning, simply saying, "I'll find out what he's up to and keep you posted."

As I waited for Mick to get back to me I thought about my birth family. A few years ago, when the father who had raised me died, he'd left me the task of disposing of the contents of his garage—no small chore, since no McCone had ever thrown anything out. The Pack Rat Family. There, in a carton of personal papers, I found—as Pa had intended me to—my adoption papers.

Ma refused to talk about them. My siblings didn't know anything, had always believed we were blood relatives, even though my dark Indian looks had contrasted markedly with their blond Scotch-Irish appearance. I was a throwback to my Shoshone great-grandmother, my parents had told us. Nobody'd questioned that; it's a scientific fact that throwbacks do exist.

So after finding the document I'd begun a search for my birth parents. Who else was so suited to the task? It eventually led me to the Flathead Reservation in Montana, where I found my father, a Shoshone artist named Elwood Farmer, who had married a Flathead woman and moved there many years ago. Then I traced Saskia to Boise, Idaho. Elwood and I were still struggling toward defining our relationship, but Saskia and Robin and I had become a family of sorts—with Darcy always lurking on the edges. He seemed to resent our closeness but made no effort to join in. Or maybe he didn't resent it, simply had no capacity to relate.

Either way, none of us could understand the tangles and turns of Darcy's mind, and if what Saskia said about his getting worse was true, those tangles and turns would be even more impenetrable now. He shouldn't be running free on the streets, where he was a danger to himself and others—

My cell rang. Ma. E-mail had failed her so she'd resorted to her favorite form of communication.

"Are you still mad at me?"

So the e-mail had been intended for me after all. "For what?"

"Well, I sent those new pink bedroom slippers I bought for you to Patsy and she kept them."

"Patsy has huge feet; they couldn't have fit her."

"They were stretchy."


"I called her and asked her to send them to you, but she denies having received them."

"Probably she didn't."

"That's right. Just an hour ago I found a delivery confirmation receipt here. They went to John."

Not only was she confusing her three daughters, but all her children. I suppressed a laugh, imagining what John must have thought when he opened a package containing stretchy—and probably fuzzy—pink slippers.

"Tell John to send them to me." I spoke in a light tone, but I was really concerned. Pa had died years ago, and it had been a year and a half since Melvin Hunt, Ma's second husband, succumbed to cancer. Ma didn't know what to do with herself, and it was making her mentally lazy—something she'd never been.

"Oh, I'll do that," she said. "So you aren't mad at me?"

"Why would I be?"

"Well, one of my children is. I can feel it."

Ma had always been overly imaginative, so her response didn't surprise me, but it alarmed me a bit. However, now was not the time to suggest she get out more, become a charity volunteer, or take a course in ceramics at the senior center. I chatted a bit and ended the call.

An aging parent. I'd been warned about this. But Ma was healthy and had a lot of good years left. I didn't believe in interfering with what someone wanted to do with her life, yet I sensed she was reaching out. A family council meeting was in order soon.

Mick stood in the doorway—tall, blond, trim, and handsome. Even I considered him handsome, and I'd known him as a scowly, mean little brat not too many years ago.

"Darcy's message was sent from an Internet café on Chestnut Street," he said. "It's called The Wiring Hall."

"The Marina." It wasn't a neighborhood where I could picture Darcy. The district fronting the Bay east of the Golden Gate Bridge was distinctly upscale; nowhere in the city could you see more well-dressed mommies and daddies pushing expensive baby strollers and walking pedigreed dogs.

"Yep. You heard back from him yet?"



Even though Mick was himself a former fuckup, he didn't like Darcy. Well, neither did I, much.

Mick said, "Why did he e-mail you? He could've come here to the pier or your house."

"Darcy's brain is… wired differently than most people's. He has no sense of results or consequences. When the impulse strikes him, whatever he wants to happen has got to happen now, not later. He may have gone into the café to get change so he could call me, but then he saw a computer terminal. And there you have it."

"And everybody—you, Saskia, and Robin—just puts up with this kind of behavior?"

"Pretty much. He's been in and out of psychiatric institutions, but none of them did any good."

"Seems to me you three should lose him."

That made sense, but both Mick and I knew from tough experience that when someone who's related to you asks for help, help is what you've got to give.

My intercom buzzed. Ted, our super-efficient office manager—or, as he preferred to call himself, Grand Poobah—said, "Mr. MacGruder is here."

MacGruder: a prospective client, potentially lucrative. He owned a medium-sized software firm and was concerned about employee espionage.

I said to Mick, "Can you take over with this client? MacGruder, I told you about him. I need to start looking for Darcy."

"Shar, the important clients need to initially meet with the head of the agency. That's what they expect, and what we give."

"But Darcy—"

"I'll go look for him. You stay here and don't worry."

But I would worry. I didn't doubt Mick's abilities, but I was a hands-on investigator. I'd worry plenty….

Mick Savage

This business with Darcy is going to be trouble, he thought as he went back to his office. The guy was bad news and he pulled other people down.

Like the time after the wedding reception Grandma had thrown for Shar and Hy, when Darcy set the shrubbery behind her garage on fire while smoking dope. And the time he wrecked his sister Robin's apartment in Berkeley, bringing home three derelicts he'd met on Telegraph Avenue and leaving behind empty bottles, smashed glasses, cigarette-burned furniture, stained carpets, torn draperies, and a broken oven door—all of which was accomplished in one afternoon while she was in her torts class. He'd cost Saskia plenty for fines, bail, and settlements to ward off lawsuits.

And now this troll stuff…

Asshole deserved to live under a bridge.

Mick went into his office and slumped in his swivel chair. Derek Ford, the other member of McCone Investigations' geek squad, wasn't there, had probably gone out for coffee. After a moment's reflection Mick dialed Robbie Blackhawk's number in Berkeley. She picked up immediately, her crisp, hurried tone making her sound as if he'd caught her on her way out. "Has Darcy contacted you?" he asked.

"Who? Darcy? No."

"He's in the city, just e-mailed Shar wanting help."

"Help with what?"

"He didn't say."

"Shit." Her voice was flat.

"Did you change the locks after that time he trashed your place?"

"Yes. Dammit, what's he gotten himself into this time?"

"Whatever it is, it wouldn't surprise me. If you hear from him, give me a call. And don't tell Shar I got in touch with you."

"Right. Got to go."

Mick considered calling his girlfriend, Alison Lawton, then remembered she, a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, had told him she had client meetings scheduled back-to-back for most of the day. Two careers, not much time, but when they were together…

He gathered up his jacket and keys, went down the stairs to the floor of the pier, and got on his Harley. Now that he thought about it, he regretted giving Shar the information about where Darcy had e-mailed from. He knew his aunt; even though he'd said he'd look for Darcy, she'd head to The Wiring Hall as soon as she was free and launch an all-out search for her half brother. If she found him—and she would, Mick was sure of that—she'd bring him home and try to rehabilitate him. It wouldn't work, of course, and she'd be heartbroken. Maybe then Darcy would take up residence under the Golden Gate Bridge—hopefully in the shipping lanes.

Harsh, Savage. Harsh.

He started the bike and headed for Chestnut Street.

Parking in the Marina district was impossible, as always, even with a motorcycle like his Harley. Finally he found a space three blocks from the café that he could wedge the bike into without fear of its being damaged by the vehicles to either side.

The Wiring Hall had neon tubes designed to look like lightning bolts in its large front windows. Inside it was all high-tech aluminum. Several people hunched over their laptops and lattes or used the terminals provided by the café, and none looked up when Mick strode to the counter. A woman of about his age with a tattoo of red rosebuds covering half her face was standing by the register, counting out dollar bills. She'd probably had the tat since her late teens, and Mick wondered if she now regretted it. She would someday, like as not, when the wrinkles set in and all those pretty flowers wilted….

He ordered black coffee, and when the woman brought it, said, "Guy was in here maybe an hour and a half ago. Used one of your terminals. You'd have noticed him: Indian features, funny dyed hair, lots of piercings. Scruffy. Didn't fit the neighborhood."

"I'd've noticed him if I was on shift then, but mine just started."

"Who was on then?"

She eyed him suspiciously. He took out his ID case and handed it to her.

"Okay," she said, returning the case to him. "What are you after the guy for?"

"Nothing bad. He's just a missing person."

"Oh. Well, then, the person to talk to is Mira. Mira Rasmussen."

"Where can I find her?"

"Usually she has lunch at Zero's."

Mick knew Zero's. Small and narrow and noisy and way too expensive. Very popular and God knew why; the food was atrocious. An odd place for a coffee barista to frequently lunch, but then maybe she had odd taste. He walked the two blocks down Chestnut to Zero's and went inside. The long bar down the right-hand side was crowded. He shouldered between two suits and asked the barman for Mira Rasmussen.

"She's out back, having lunch."

"Out back?"

"Yeah—like in the kitchen."

"Why there?"

"She's the owner's old lady, works down the block." Someone at the other end of the bar was gesturing for service. "Go straight back through those swinging doors, and you'll find her."

Mick went past closely packed tables where people were eating sandwiches dripping with oddly colored veggie mixes, weird-looking salads, and pizzettas loaded with things like arugula and pineapple.

Thank God for steak and fried chicken and meat lasagna!

Behind the swinging doors the kitchen was hot and fragrant with the foods being prepared by a busy staff of five. At the far end of a central prep island, where a short Latino man was chopping tomatoes and onions, a woman with long, dusky hair and large tortoiseshell glasses sat reading the Chronicle and spooning up soup. The soup, Mick noted, was an odd yellow-green and had… things floating in it.

He went to her, introduced himself, and showed his ID.

She looked a little surprised—she'd probably never met a private investigator, and he was relatively young for the job—then held out her hand and said, "What can I do for you?"

He described Darcy, asked, "Did you see him?"

"How could I not? He came in during the early rush, went straight to use one of the terminals, and sent a quick message. A woman who came in after him tried to stop him from sending it, but too late. Then they left."

"Did you notice anything odd about him, other than his appearance?"

She considered. "He acted… well, furtive. And he kept glancing at the woman as if he were afraid of her. Also, he was whispering to himself."

"You hear what he whispered?"

"Only a phrase. 'The palace, the coral tree.' Weird, huh?"

"Yeah. This woman—can you describe her?"

"Long blond hair. Short. Shabby clothes. I didn't get a good look at her face."

"Anything else?" Mick asked.

"The guy grabbed a handful of straws from the condiment station on his way out."


"Plastic straws for smoothies. Red-white-and-blue-striped."

"You see which way he went when he left?"

"West, toward Divisidero. The woman was hanging on to his arm."

"Thanks. If you remember anything else, you have my card." Mick started across the kitchen, then turned. "By the way, what color is his hair these days?"

"Greenish, an odd yellow-green."

Like the awful-looking soup she was eating with apparent relish.

Darcy Blackhawk

This city, it makes me afraid.

Shouldn't, he knew. Wasn't like the movies he'd seen of New York, with its crowds and subways and taxicabs that nearly clipped you every time you crossed the street. Or LA—all those messed-up freeways. Or Seattle—that city he knew for real—where if your Indian blood showed on your face, they treated you like some drunken bum. He'd been worse places than San Francisco.

When, though?

And why was he here?

He was still drugged up from the cocaine he'd shared with Laura before. Now he shook his head, felt the first symptoms of vertigo, and heard a shushing sound in his ears. Leaned against a lamppost and peered up at the street sign: Lyon and California. How the hell had he gotten here? He was supposed to be someplace else. Some palace. Or maybe he'd already been there…

A woman said, "Darcy? You okay?"

He knew her, but he couldn't remember her name. In her twenties, maybe. Long, dirty, blond hair and gray eyes. Brown cape with fringe that hung almost to her ankles. Sandals and a silver toe ring. She'd come up to him like this before, when he'd found Laura. Laura, who had gone to meet her connection. Laura'd needed a fix bad after two months in jail.


He swayed, and the girl put an arm around his shoulders to steady him. She was very strong.

"Palace," he said. "Have to go to the palace."

"You're sick," she said.

"Have to go Gaby's grave."

"Gaby! Why?"

"Grave. Under a coral tree. Some… reason…"

"Something there?"

"… Maybe."

"Let me help you."

He shivered and clung to her while she hailed a cab.

He didn't want to go with her, but Shar hadn't answered his e-mail. No wonder—he didn't have his laptop any more—he'd sold that a long time ago. But didn't Shar know he had e-mail in his head?

Or did he? Nobody had sent him a message in… what? Months?

A cab pulled to the curb. Yellow. Were they all yellow in San Francisco? Or was that someplace else? The girl helped him in, leaned forward, and whispered an address to the driver.

He took out one of the drinking straws he'd gotten at the café. Twisted it, released it, twisted it again. An old habit, twisting things; it helped him focus.

Not now, though: the vertigo got worse and bile was rising in his throat. He forced it down, dropped the straw, pressed his face into the scratchy wool of the girl's cape.

This city, it makes me afraid….

Sharon McCone

The last of my new clients left my office, bound for an interview with Julia Rafael, the operative to whom I'd assigned his case. The others had said they would let me know if they required our services, meaning the fee had put them off. But this latest, a businessman asking for a fairly routine skip trace on a former employee, had wanted to get started immediately.

When I swiveled around I was looking through the big arched window behind my desk. Beyond it the Bay sparkled, the bridge spanning it and disappearing into the tunnel on Treasure Island. Sailboats glided over the blue water. I loved these offices in the pier, but there had been those rumblings from City Hall about demolishing it. If that happened I'd have to move the agency. But where? Not one of the bland office towers that were springing up like mushrooms all over the area. Maybe one of the outlying neighborhoods? Someplace with cheaper rents and more plentiful parking?


  • On Locked In:
    "Muller's series remains a gold standard for female detective stories."—Kirkus (starred review)
  • "Top-notch mystery and more from one of the genre's Grand Masters."—Library Journal

On Sale
Sep 25, 2012
Page Count
320 pages

Marcia Muller

About the Author

Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

Learn more about this author