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Sharon gets a request from her former neighbors the Curleys. Their usually dependable daughter, Chelle, hasn't answered their calls in over a week. Would Sharon check on her?
Chelle, a house flipper, has been living at her latest rehab project: a Prohibition-era nightclub known as the Breakers, formerly a favored watering hole for San Francisco's elite, now converted into a run-down apartment building. There's something sinister about the quirky space, and Sharon quickly discovers why. Lurking in a secret room between two floors is a ghastly art gallery: photos and drawings of mass murderers, long ago and recent. Jack the Ripper. The Zodiac and Zebra killers. Charles Manson. What, an alarmed Sharon wonders, was Chelle doing in this chamber of horrors?
And as Sharon begins to suspect that the ghoulish collage may be more than just a leftover relic of the Breakers' checkered history, her search for Chelle becomes a desperate race against the clock before a killer strikes again.
"[Marcia Muller's] stories crackle like few others on the mystery landscape." — San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
"Muller undoubtedly remains one of today's best mystery writers." — Associated Press
SATURDAY, AUGUST 6
The southwestern part of San Francisco, where the Pacific washes upon Ocean Beach, is known by long-term residents as the Outerlands, or Out There by the Beach. Where surf meets sand, impenetrable fog frequently flows in, making the horns under the Golden Gate Bridge moan dolefully. The average temperature is in the midfifties—chilly at best—and fast-moving riptides are a hazard that have caused a number of experienced swimmers and surfers to be swept away and drowned. Still, the swimmers and surfers persist, refusing to allow the sea to prevail.
Above the beach, the Great Highway slices north and south, separating the dunes from the houses on Forty-Eighth Avenue in the Outer Sunset district. By and large, the homes there are small but well-kept, except for the occasional monstrosity—a fully rigged pirate ship or a model of the Santa María that rears its ugly head as if its builders had been trying to make a statement.
About what? I’ve often wondered. I’ve never been able to figure that one out.
I arrived at the building called the Breakers, on El Jardin de la Playa—the Garden of the Beach, although most locals simply call it Jardin Street—twenty minutes early for my appointment with a man called Zack Kaplan, who wanted to show me something “truly bizarre.”
“Run-down” would be a better term to describe the place than “bizarre.” The Breakers was undistinguished to say the least: gray aluminum siding blistered by the sea winds; a roof that was shedding its shingles; sliding aluminum-sash windows that were too tiny and high up to take advantage of the sea view. The ground around it was gravel, mostly washed away to mud; there were no trees or shrubs or anything that pretended to be landscaping.
Instead of waiting in my car, I decided to stretch my legs. The weather was overcast, windy, so I zipped my jacket higher. Then I walked down to the Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant and crossed the highway to stand at the seawall, salt spray and sand peppering my face, looking out at the waves and a few hardy souls walking along the beach.
I’d set the appointment with Zack Kaplan at the request of my former neighbors and friends Trish and Jim Curley. They were vacationing in Costa Rica and neither they nor their son, Sean, had been able to contact their daughter, Michelle (Chelle to her friends) on her cell, her computer, or the phone at the Breakers, the building she was currently rehabbing. Zack Kaplan was one of the two remaining tenants, and he hadn’t been able to reach her either.
Chelle, at twenty-three, was an up-and-coming restorer of old buildings and very conscientious; no way she would leave her cell off or fail to respond to a call from her parents. Would I check on her? Trish had asked.
Chelle was one of my favorite people. When I’d first moved next door to her family, she’d volunteered to bring in packages and feed my cats during my frequent absences; later, in a period when I couldn’t drive, she’d been my chauffeur; she’d even helped on a couple of my cases, until her parents had found out and forbidden her the joys of private investigation. She was smart, innovative, and always there for those who needed her. I wanted this to be one time I was there for her.
At five minutes to two I walked back to the Breakers. Three minutes more passed, and then a battered olive-drab Jeep pulled up. A man in jeans and a thick wool shirt got out and came toward me.
“Ms. McCone?” he said. “I’m Zack Kaplan.”
Kaplan had a narrow, bearded face and friendly brown eyes. Black hair stuck out from under his knitted ski cap. He wasn’t tall—only a couple of inches over my own five-foot-six—but I sensed a strength in his wiry body.
We shook hands. “I see you found the building all right,” he said. “Pretty grim, huh? But when I moved in, it was all I could afford. Now I’m in the grips of lethargy.”
That building would make me lethargic too.
I asked, “Still no word from Chelle?”
“No, nothing. I’m starting to get alarmed.”
“Me too. I understand Chelle is both rehabbing and living here.”
“Yeah. Personally, I think she’s nuts.”
In a way I did too. But Chelle really got into her work, and described living in a derelict building as a way of “getting at its soul.”
“She have anybody there with her?” Chelle sometimes asked her current boyfriend to stay with her and pitch in.
“A guy named Damon for a week or so, but he split.”
“Are you and she…?”
“No, we’re just friends. My life’s complicated enough without romance entering the picture.”
“So you’ve known her how long?”
“Just since she moved in in May.”
“Has she made much progress on the rehab?”
Zack looked troubled. “Not much. First there was Damon, who broke more stuff than he fixed. Next Al Majewski and Ollie Morse. They’re good workers, had been on the crew of one of her other jobs in the past. But if she doesn’t show up and give them their back pay, they’ll have to look for other employment.”
“Stop a minute—who’s Damon?”
“I never did get his last name. He and Chelle had a thing going, but not for very long. Damon started telling her lies about Al and Ollie stealing from her. But she found out otherwise and gave him the ax.”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
“No idea.” Zack sighed. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the place. The owner gave Chelle a long escrow, until she could get her final payment from her last rehab job, but it’s due to close next Friday. The electric and water bills are overdue. I paid some of them—after all, I’m the only one using the utilities—but I’m a student at SF State, and I can’t keep it up indefinitely.”
“You said on the phone it’s been a week since you’ve seen Chelle?”
“A week ago tomorrow. Last Sunday.”
“She gave you no indication that she was planning on taking a trip? Visiting a friend or family?”
“What did she take with her? For instance, clothes for a warm or a cool climate?”
This was bad—Chelle loved clothes, and her wardrobe, while sometimes eccentric, was stunning.
Zack added, “Her laptop and cell are gone, her backpack, money, and ID too.”
“Well,” I said, more heartily than I felt, “let’s see what we can find out.”
As we walked over to the building, Zack asked, “You’re a licensed PI, right?”
“Yes.” I handed him one of my cards.
“That kind of exciting work fascinates me.”
“It’s not as exciting as books and film make it seem.”
“But still, unraveling the circumstances of crimes, getting at the truth, seeing that the bad guys get theirs…”
“Sitting on your butt during long stakeouts, dealing with difficult clients, and writing reports too.”
“Every job’s got its drawbacks.”
“Let’s go inside and check Chelle’s apartment.”
“Uh, it’s not really an apartment.”
“What is it, then?”
The interior of the building was musty—the smell a combination of stale sea air, mildew, and dust. We entered by what Zack called the lobby, although there was no reception desk, furnishings, or tenant mailboxes. The walls were faded beige, and the worn carpeting had once been vivid with the bright pink, red, and yellow of overblown daisies. The flowers were faded now, their petals begrimed.
Zack whispered, “Like I said, pretty grim.”
“Why are you whispering?”
He shrugged. “When I come in by this part of the building it has that effect on me. Like I don’t want to wake anybody—or anything—up.”
A stairway—partially collapsed—rose to the second floor, a long first-floor hallway to the left of it. Zack led me to a door halfway along the hall and pushed it open. Inside was what looked to be an ordinary living room containing only a few mismatched and worn pieces of furniture. I frowned.
Zack noticed my look and said, “In the bedroom.”
The bedroom was empty except for a sturdy stepladder that stood in its middle. Above it was an open trapdoor. “I’ll go first,” Zack said, “and give you a pull up.”
In a few quick steps he disappeared through the trapdoor. A blazing light came on up there. I started up the ladder and he helped me climb through the hole.
An entire low-ceilinged room existed there between the two floors. I blinked against the harsh light and looked around.
“This building was a nightclub, cathouse, and bar all through Prohibition and up to 1944,” Zack said. “The elite of the city flocked here, but then it went out of style. The building was sold and resold, but none of the owners could revive the nightclub trade, and thirty years ago one of them chopped it up into apartments. He didn’t bother to renovate this floor because providing access would be too expensive. There used to be stairs, but vandals tore them out. This is where Chelle’s been sleeping.” He led me to a nook between two heavy support beams where a sleeping bag and fluffy pillows rested on an air mattress.
Chelle might have been camping out here, but she was doing it in style: a coffee machine was plugged into a nearby outlet; a small TV sat on a table at the foot of the bed; her clothes, in bright colors and exotic materials, hung on a pole. I fingered a cape trimmed with beaded braid that I particularly liked.
“Well,” I said after a moment, “this place doesn’t look so bad.”
“Not this part, no.” There was a dark note in Zack’s voice. “But look over here.” He went about six feet away and moved aside a Japanese screen that I recognized as having been in Chelle’s bedroom at her parents’ house on Church Street. What it revealed made me recoil.
The wall there was covered with old wanted posters, artists’ renderings, photographs, and newspaper articles on some of the worst mass murderers in California’s history. Jack the Ripper had never set foot in the state, I hoped, but you couldn’t have a wall of horrors without him. The drawing wasn’t a good one, but what could anybody do with a subject who had never been seen? Other killers, most of them from the past few decades, carried out the ugly theme: The Zodiac and Zebra killers of the 1970s. Charles Manson and his girls. Dan White, who in 1978 assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Jim Jones, who in the same year led more than nine hundred of his Peoples Temple followers to commit suicide at their compound in Guyana. The godfather of the Oakland drug trade, Felix Mitchell, who was lionized at his 1986 funeral. Gian Luigi Ferri, the 101 California Street shooter. Scott Peterson, now under death sentence for the 2002 Christmas Eve killing of his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, whose bodies he had then dumped into San Francisco Bay.
I shuddered. “How could Chelle live with this?”
He shrugged. “The reason for the screen.”
“But she had to know it was there.”
“Some of us are braver than others, I guess.”
“She certainly didn’t assemble the wall.”
“God, no. It’s been here for a long time—since before I moved into the building, anyway.”
“Then who did?”
“Don’t know. This unit had been empty for a while when Chelle took it over.”
And now Chelle’s gone missing.
I said, “My firm will take over payment of the utilities till her parents decide what to do. I’ll need the name of the person Chelle’s buying it from.”
“That’s easy—it’s Cap’n Bobby. He runs a fish taco shop a couple of blocks away.”
“Thanks, Zack. And thanks for your time and information.”
“No worries. I’m with you—all I want is Chelle safely back here.”
I thought, A good man, if he’s been completely honest with me.
Cap’n Bobby’s fish taco shop was on the last block of Jardin Street, where it dead-ended at a steep, rocky scarp. Chunks of old concrete and boulders lay below it; at the top, juniper boughs stirred in the cold wind. On this gloomy day, Cap’n Bobby’s Harbor—painted in a garish abstract pattern of orange, green, yellow, and blue with an occasional dash of pink thrown in—seemed a pleasant, if odd, oasis. I pushed through the double doors, whose handles resembled ships’ wheels.
Inside was a long, dim room with a bar along the left side and tables opposite. The only light came from neon beer signs—Coors, Bud, Rainier Ale—and a few fixtures wrapped in thick nautical rope. There were only two customers, sour-looking old men hunched on stools at the opposite end of the bar. A cheerful, apple-faced man of around sixty rolled toward me in a customized wheelchair. At least I thought it was customized; I’d never seen one with such large side pockets or a huge tray mounted between the armrests in the front.
He saw me studying it and said, “I designed the way it’s outfitted by myself. What I wanted was something I could store my whole damn life in—and I very nearly succeeded.” Then he extended his hand. “Cap’n Bobby O’Hair. You must be Sharon McCone.”
“How do you know…?”
“Zack Kaplan called me, said you’d be over. Told me you’re worried about our young friend Chelle Curley.”
I nodded. “You’re selling the Breakers to her?”
“Yeah. I gave her the go-ahead to move in and start the renovations. She didn’t have to do much to persuade me; building’s an albatross, always has been.”
“Why’d you buy it in the first place?”
“I was hoping to use it as a low-cost refuge for disabled vets like me.” He motioned at his legs. “But I couldn’t get the government funding I’d been counting on, and when my own savings nearly ran out, I said fuck it—pardon my French—and let people like Kaplan and Pincus and a bunch of derelicts move in. Kaplan’s a real right guy, but the others—vandals, thieves, God knows what else.”
“Magician. God knows how he earns a living at it, but at least he pays his rent on time.”
“What can you tell me about Chelle’s stay there?”
“She’s been in and out of here since May, when she started living in that old wreck. My lord, but that child can eat! She’s partial to my fish-and-chips, but pretty much anything will do.”
“When did you last see her?”
He considered. “This past weekend. Saturday, maybe.”
“Did she say anything then about planning to go away for a while?”
“Not a word. Escrow’s due to close on Friday, and she knows she needs to be on hand with the final payment.”
“Was anyone with her that day?”
“No. She was alone, like usual.”
“She had a man named Damon helping her for a while. Do you know him?”
“No. I heard about him, but she never brought him here or mentioned him.” Cap’n Bobby paused. “Look, you going to stay a while, sit down, take a load off.”
I sat at the table next to his chair.
“You want something to eat? A beer, glass of wine?”
A drink sounded good right now. “I’ll take a glass of white wine, thank you.”
He motioned in shorthand to an Asian waitress who stood at the end of the bar. She came over quickly with my drink.
“Zack said you wanted to hear more about the building,” Cap’n Bobby said.
“And its former tenants.”
“I’ve got a ledger someplace that gives the names and dates for all of them for the past ten years. I’ll be glad to let you have it.”
“Thank you. Now, I’ve met Zack—”
“He’s a good guy and the last tenant left. Unless you count Tyler Pincus, who’s hardly ever there. Comes and goes, stays on the first floor.”
“Did Chelle know him?”
“Friendly little thing like her? Sure she did.”
“Involved? No way. Tyler’s as gay as a mariachi band on Cinco de Mayo. He’s also a little nuts.”
“Fancies himself a wizard. Manic, but harmless.”
“How can I reach him? I’d like to ask him if he’s heard from Chelle.”
“Hmmm. There’s this bar over on Noriega Street, near Forty-Sixth—Danny’s Inferno—where he hangs. Kind of a locals’ joint. Two of Chelle’s workers, Al Majewski and Ollie Morse, are regulars too. Tell Danny I sent you.”
“Okay, thanks. By the way, there’s something weird on the second floor where Chelle’s been staying—I guess you’d call it a collage of pictures and newspaper clippings on violent criminals.”
Cap’n Bobby grimaced. “Yeah, she told me about it. I guess you could call it a rogue’s gallery, but the word usually connotes someone or something playful. Nothing playful about that display.”
“You have any idea who put it up?”
“Nope. But this part of the city’s always been known for its weirdos. For instance, Mooneysville.”
I was familiar with the story. In the late 1800s, when the Geary Street, Park and Ocean Railway had been extended to the beach, a squatters’ colony rose up where Playland, the old amusement park that was demolished in the 1970s, used to be. A man named—appropriately, as it turned out—Con Mooney started selling food and whiskey to folks who came out on the rails. Soon there were all sorts of tents and shanties from Cliff House to Golden Gate Park that sold bad food and worse drink. There were also games of chance and other hustles. Mooneysville only lasted two years before the city shut it down, and oddly enough, the people who had built the shanties actually helped the cops demolish them. Then they went on to more legitimate enterprises in more savory locations. The beach seemed pretty savory to me these days, but back then it was a con man’s—or woman’s—dream.
“Did Chelle seem upset about the wall?” I asked O’Hair.
“No, I guess she found it intriguing.”
“And you have no idea who created it?”
“I’ve never even seen it. My legs gave out before I could manage the climb. First I heard of the wall was when Chelle was inspecting the building and told me about it.”
“What I’ve been wondering is why she would choose to sleep near that wall on the second floor, rather than in one of the downstairs apartments.”
“Don’t know. Maybe because the heat of the day rises from downstairs. There’s no furnace in that building, and none of the fireplaces work. Electric space heaters are expensive to run. So she told me she made herself a nice, cozy nest and seemed very happy with it.”
“Makes sense. So far it’s been a cold summer.”
In most other cities in the country, a forecast referring to a cold summer could be taken as erroneous. Not so in San Francisco, where the average summer temperatures often hover in the midfifties or lower.
I asked, “Cap’n Bobby, what can you tell me about Tyler Pincus?”
“Oddball character. Sometimes he chants and dances in public. He’s disruptive, and Chelle wants him out of there. She posted eviction notices on his door twice, but they were ripped down.”
“She have any plans to evict Kaplan?”
“No way. He’s been good to her, and, tell you the truth, I think they might be kinda sweet on each other.”
“You think they had a relationship? Zack said they didn’t.”
“Well, he ought to know.”
I asked, “Do you remember anything more about the past tenants?”
“Hmmm. My brain gets kinda foggy this time of day, but my ledger’ll tell you. Li,” he called to the waitress, “will you bring me that ledger that sits next to the cash box in my office?”
She disappeared through a curtained archway at the rear and emerged with a ragged, oversize book. When she handed it to O’Hair, she studied me as if she was trying to figure out what I was doing here.
Cap’n Bobby noticed her interest. “Li,” he said, “this is Sharon McCone. Sharon’s a private detective looking into Chelle Curley’s disappearance.”
“Oh, is she missing?”
“Since the weekend.”
“That’s not very long. She’s a grown woman.”
“Her parents are worried.”
“Of course. Rich parents like to keep an eye on their darlings.” Li turned and went back to the bar.
I said, “Where’d she get the idea the Curleys are rich? They’re not.”
“Go figure. Maybe she thinks they finance her rehab jobs.” Bobby handed the ledger to me.
“I’ll bring it back soon,” I said.
“No matter. I’ve got no use for it any more.”
“Appreciate it. Anything else you can tell me about the Breakers?”
“Plenty. Was built in 1903 by a rich man named Ellison Yardley. This area was a playground for ladies and gentlemen of the city’s social set—that was before the quake of oh-six, which most of the buildings around here survived. Old Adolph Sutro was still sitting up there in his estate on the bluff. The Cliff House—I forget which incarnation it was, damned thing kept burning down—and the Baths were going strong. The Breakers fit right into that scene.”
“I’ve heard part of the building was a restaurant.”
“A fine one too. Mussels à la marinière, kidneys sautéed in Madeira sauce, sole Veronique, coq au vin.” Cap’n Bobby smacked his lips. “There was a ballroom on the second story—where your young friend is staying—and people danced the nights away.”
“And the top floor?”
“Ladies of the evening. You couldn’t have a successful establishment in those days without them.”
“Then what happened?”
“People are fickle. The war changed things. Able-bodied men went overseas. Women went into the aircraft plants. And after the initial excitement and joy of Johnny coming home, a new mind-set crept in. Everything and everyone became so serious: We had the bomb, the Russians had the bomb, God knows who else had it. Commies were forming clandestine cells all over the country. Silly slogans like ‘Families that pray together stay together’ appeared everywhere. Television had taken hold. And we had our inane fads. Remember the hula hoop, 3-D movies, sock hops, and drive-ins?”
“Well, my older brother might.”
“All those changes are why that building went into decline. The first two owners tried to operate in the same way Ellison Yardley had. Didn’t work; the old clientele didn’t come. Some claimed the food was too heavy and expensive, others said the place was too far from the city’s center. The next owner chopped it up—except for the second floor—into so-called luxury apartments. Apparently they weren’t luxurious enough. When I bought it fifteen years ago, I had plans. But then I ended up in this chair—auto accident—and got some kind of staph infection that flares up from time to time. When Chelle came to me with a lowball offer, I’d about given up on unloading the place, so I told her she could have it for next to nothing. We’ve been working together on the blueprints for the rehab job. But now she’s gone. I sure hope you can find her and bring her back by Friday. Not that I wouldn’t extend the escrow. I just want to know she’s okay.”
So did I.
- "One of the world's premier mystery writers."—Cleveland Plain Dealer
- "Her stories crackle like few others on the mystery landscape."—San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
- "A prime Muller mystery."—Booklist
- "The Night Searchers [has] the clean, classic moves of her earliest novels...[Muller] is never better than when she's roaming the streets of the city she knows and loves so well."—New York Times Book Review on The Night Searchers
- "Absorbing...McCone's daring and smarts make her an irresistible heroine. The brisk narrative vividly evokes contemporary San Francisco."—Publishers Weekly on The Night Searchers
- "A plot so imaginative that readers will have no choice but to sit down and settle in for an exciting read they will not forget...The action never slows down, as the two investigators and their employees find themselves dead center in the middle of a truly bizarre group of folks that the reader will never forget. This is a definite keeper!"—Suspense Magazine on The Night Searchers
- "Muller has displayed a knack both for keeping the series fresh and for allowing her character to grow..., Muller's series remains a gold standard for female detective stories."—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review on Locked In
- "Muller has created a delicious mixture of adventure, action, altruism, pathos with a touch of humor, and romance thrown in to build a massive base of loyal fans . . . She is one of those rare series authors who never lets her characters grow stale or trite."—BookReporter.com
- "Muller undoubtedly remains one of today's best mystery writers."—Associated Press
- On Sale
- Aug 14, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing