A velvet fog draped over San Francisco’s steep hills, the blank canvas forming the curtained backdrop to a theater’s stage.
November had begun with a few short days of Indian summer, but the opening act had been whisked away by the month’s main attraction, a mysterious gray character who skulked through the shrouded streets, erasing the sky and blurring the edges of the city’s pastel-colored buildings.
Off in the distance, a foghorn bellowed out a warning to a ship approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. The low hooting honk echoed through the bay, floating up into the mist-masked hills that housed the Presidio’s former military post before sinking into the murky depths of Mountain Lake.
A slender white cat with orange-tipped ears and tail sat on a bench near the lake’s southern rim, staring intently through the soupy haze at an object floating in the water about twenty feet from the shoreline.
The tip end of Isabella’s long pipelike tail strummed the bench, an outer sign of her inner contemplation. Her slim shoulders hunched forward; her front claws dug into the seat’s worn wooden planks. Blue eyes glittering, she tilted her head inquisitively.
There was something decidedly unnatural about the ghostly creature inhabiting the lake.
On the bench beside Isabella, a fluffy feline of similar coloring and far greater girth let out a satisfied burp as he rolled himself into an upright position. Rupert smacked his lips and let loose a wide, sloppy yawn. His belly was still digesting the fried chicken dinner he’d devoured a few hours earlier.
Isabella issued a disparaging glance at her brother’s bulging stomach; then she resumed her surveillance of the lake.
On a short rise above the far embankment, a streetlight lit a jungle gym’s shiny metal bars and, in the parking lot beyond, gave a dim glow to the large white van that had carried the cats, their person, and the vehicle’s owner to this isolated spot at the heart of the crowded city.
The moist, pink padding on Isabella’s nose quivered as she sniffed the scents of the surrounding wildlife. Her ears widened, taking in the sounds of the night.
A pair of squirrels rustled in the leaves beneath a wooly grove of cypress . . . a raccoon rummaged through a nearby Dumpster . . . a homeless man asleep on the grass let out a whiffling snore . . . and a tall, skinny fellow in a rubber wet suit and flippers clomped through the brush at the edge of the lake.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Isabella heard her person ask as Montgomery Carmichael stopped to fit a snorkel mask over his narrow face.
Isabella glanced up at the vacant sky and pondered the question.
Would it be such a terrible thing if their pesky neighbor was devoured by a hungry albino alligator?
Isabella’s whiskers twitched skeptically as Monty turned toward the bench, stretched his arms out in front of his chest, and flexed his meager muscles. In her opinion, he didn’t stand much of a chance against the ravenous reptile awaiting him in the water.
Her tiny face crimped into a dubious expression.
Eh, she concluded indifferently.
After a moment’s consideration, however, Isabella appeared to take a different view on the matter. Pawing the air, she opened her mouth to form a series of sharp clicking sounds that terminated in an instructive “Mrao.”
Her person glanced down at the bench and sighed ruefully.
“I suppose you’re right,” she said with a grimace. “The gator might choke on his snorkel.”
The woman placed her hands on her hips and pursed her lips, as if considering.
Finally, she called out, “Monty, wait!”
A pale luminous beast with colorless eyes and a snaggletoothed grin swam through the muddy water near Mountain Lake’s southern shoreline. The twelve-foot long, torpedo-shaped body looked like a moldy, bump-ridden log—until you focused in on its sharp claws and prominent jawline.
Clive, San Francisco’s reigning celebrity albino alligator, floated comfortably in the darkness, humming to himself as he bobbed in the water. His pointed snout beamed a radiant, if somewhat menacing, smile.
He had enjoyed his short stay at Mountain Lake. Other than the occasional stray golf ball bouncing into the pond from the nearby course and a few distant shrieks from the children at the playground, his visit had been blissfully undisturbed.
Of course, the recent change in diet had left his insides feeling a tad unsettled, and the sudden onset of cooler weather had made him long for his heated rock back at the aquarium’s Swamp Exhibit. But, overall, he had welcomed the rest and relaxation at this idyllic retreat. He would have to see about booking these accommodations again next year.
A hungry growl rumbled through Clive’s midsection, and his thoughts turned to more immediate issues. It was time for his late-night snack.
With a paddling stroke of his front legs, the yellow nodes of his nostrils rose from the water, prompting a pair of ducks to squawk out a warning.
The alligator’s gray eyes rotated halfheartedly toward the skittish birds. They were hardly worth the effort, he thought, remembering the digestive complications he’d suffered after his last avian meal. And besides, he generally preferred fish to feathers.
Clive flicked his tail, rotating his body in a reluctant pursuit of the ducks—but a rippling in the surface of the lake caused him to stop, mid-motion. A commotion near the beach had generated the telltale disturbance of a creature unaccustomed to maneuvering in the water.
He focused his eardrums on the stilted, splashing movements emanating from the reeds, his sense of hearing being far keener than his albino-diminished vision. After honing in on his target, he optimistically reversed course and began gliding in the direction of the noise.
His jagged mouth cracked open with eager anticipation. The animal who had just entered the lake promised a far more substantial and easier to catch meal than that of the elusive ducks.
Even better, Clive thought, squinting at the creature’s smooth silhouette—it appeared to be completely free of feathers.
Montgomery Carmichael floundered through the reeds in his wet suit and flippers, anxiously fiddling with his snorkel mask as he scanned the water for Clive’s waxy white skin. He stepped awkwardly into the lake, struggling to keep his balance as the water seeped up to his knees.
“Nothing to worry about,” he hollered, an effort to assure the bystanders on the shore as well as himself. “This critter’s been all over San Francisco the last couple of days. He’s perfectly harmless.”
Surely, the future mayor of San Francisco could handle a meek, domesticated alligator, Monty though brashly. Heck, he could probably carry the beast back to the van using nothing but his bare hands.
Monty turned toward the beach and flexed his muscles, a show of bravado for his doubting observers. Then, he returned his attention to the lake and whispered coaxingly.
“Cllliii-iive. Over here, ally-gator, ally-gator.”
A pair of ducks squawked to his left, drowning out the concerned voice of the woman standing next to the cat-occupied bench.
“Just like a puppy dog,” Monty muttered under his breath as he adjusted the snorkel and prepared to dive below the surface.
Awash in bolstered confidence, he failed to notice the neon glow stalking him in the reeds.
A single sound broke through the night, its sharp staccato ricocheting across the lake to the craning spectators at the water’s edge.
A few days earlier . . .
In a quiet corner of San Francisco, on a secluded street in Jackson Square, the building that housed the Green Vase antiques shop shifted ever so slightly on its foundation, sending a low creaking groan into the unusually warm, humid night.
The framing, brick, and mortar had been bound together since the mid-1800s, so a little architectural easing could be forgiven—after a hundred and fifty years, even a building feels the need to stretch its limbs.
The three-story structure rested on ground that had originally been covered by an inlet surge of the Pacific Ocean. The dirt beneath its basement had once looked up through fifteen feet of water to the undersides of small boats that ferried Gold Rush immigrants from ships moored in the bay to the rapidly growing city on the shore.
As California passed from Mexican to American rule and the settlement of Yerba Buena morphed into San Francisco, bucket loads of sand from nearby dunes were dumped along the marshy banks, raising this strategic location up out of the sea. The expanding shoreline immediately filled with new construction, creating the rough-and-tumble neighborhood that would become the Barbary Coast.
The Green Vase had a front-row seat to this historic transformation. Throughout the tumultuous Gold Rush years, a colorful parade of reckless, gold-crazed explorers passed by its iron columns and redbrick facing. The first-floor windows reflected an ever-changing collage of rich and poor, those about to discover their fortune and those on the verge of losing it. Characters of every stripe and color ventured into its saloon, swilled drinks at its bar, and swapped tall tales at its dining tables.
All of these many visitors left their imprint on the building. Shadowed footsteps seeped into the floor’s deep hardwood grains; reflected images transferred into the metallic sheen of the bar’s brass furnishings. Countless spirits soaked into the brickwork—quietly waiting for the day when their stories might be rediscovered.
Through the decades, San Francisco endured fires, earthquakes, and social upheaval. Forty-niners gave way to flower power. Railroad magnates and sugar barons were replaced by search-engine entrepreneurs and dot-com millionaires.
The redbrick building on Jackson Street saw its own sequence of change. Over time, the saloon became an all-purpose mercantile, followed by a fine tailor and, later, a tobacco shop. Meanwhile, the Barbary Coast matured into the quiet, respectable neighborhood of Jackson Square.
Much of the area’s history was gradually forgotten, subsumed by the layers of modern-day infrastructure, fragmented by the inevitable decay of archival records, buried beneath a landfill of lost memories—lost, that is, until a man named Oscar moved into the apartment above the Green Vase, opened a dusty antiques shop on the floor below, and began coaxing out the building’s hidden secrets . . .
Long past midnight on the first Sunday of November, Isabella the cat lay near the foot of a twin-sized bed on the top level of the living quarters above the Green Vase antiques shop. Her furry chin rested on her front paws; her slender body curled protectively against that of her sleeping person.
The cat’s sharp blue eyes kept a careful watch over the woman dozing fitfully beneath the sheets.
It had been more than a year since Oscar’s niece had inherited the Green Vase from her mysterious Uncle Oscar. The Jackson Square apartment built into the two floors on top of the store was now a permanent home to Isabella, her brother Rupert, and their human owner.
The once demure accountant and her two feline companions had explored many of the historic building’s nooks and crannies, along with a sizable portion of the relics and antiques Oscar had left behind—but theirs was an ongoing investigative process.
That night, like many that had gone before, Isabella’s person had fallen asleep while reading one of the many reference books she’d culled from the numerous boxes and crates stacked in the basement. The woman’s bifocal eyeglasses were perched off-kilter on the tip of her nose; the threadbare book was spread open on her chest.
Isabella shifted her gaze toward the window and the Jackson Square neighborhood that slept beyond its blinds. The upper pane of glass had been cracked open, an invitation to whatever light breeze might be circulating in the warm night air.
The cat lifted her head, listening to the building’s low creaking groan. Her tail slowly tapped the surface of the bed, its orange tip moving like a thoughtful finger.
Her feline intuition had begun to tingle with the suspicion that their next adventure was about to begin.
In the darkened living room one floor below, near the front window overlooking the street, a small decorative lamp rested on a short end table. The base and stem of the fixture were made up of burnished brass; the curved metal edges bore the speckled tarnish of dust and time.
The lamp’s design had been conceived in the early 1900s, at a time when a still young San Francisco was struggling to convince the rest of the world that it could grow beyond its brash Gold Rush beginnings. The earthquake-prone upstart was determined to show its detractors that it could provide the best in five-star entertainment and accommodations.
The fixture captured a critical moment in the city’s development. The lamp’s ceramic globe depicted one of the many efforts to transform San Francisco into a cultural cosmopolitan center.
The lamp’s electrical circuit hadn’t been switched on in well over a year, leaving its ceramic globe darkened and unlit. Without the glow of the interior light, the images depicted on the globe’s outer surface were almost indistinguishable, and the murky gray shadows embedded in the glass had gone unnoticed by the current owner of the Green Vase antiques shop.
The lamp had rested, unused, on its end table, ever since the cat and human trio had moved into the apartment above the showroom. Oscar’s niece had assumed that the bulb was burnt out, or, more likely, that the lamp’s internal wiring had rusted beyond repair.
She was wrong.
The lamp had been carefully maintained by the shop’s previous caretaker, and the bulb was only slightly loosened in its fittings. If tightened in the socket, the bulb would emit a bright light that shined through the globe’s translucent surface, illuminating the scene depicted across its wide circumference.
Once lit, the front half of the globe displayed a large stone building in a peaceful, forested setting. Stately columns fronted the structure, which looked out over a landscaped courtyard that featured a series of sunken pools inhabited by a half-dozen frolicking sea lions. Human figures wandered through the courtyard, admiring the animals as they made their way toward the entrance.
The scene painted on the globe’s opposite side provided an interior view of the columned building shown on its front.
A brass balcony framed a wet, swampish enclosure that contained a large banyan tree, several rocks, and a tank of water. The balcony’s upper and lower railings were connected by a perpendicular row of seahorses, whose curved bodies had been flattened into slats.
In the tank below lay the principle feature of the painting, an intriguing creature who basked on a rock protruding from the water.
Resting peacefully on the rock, a gilded grin on his long bumpy face, sprawled a pale, luminescent, albino alligator.