How to Moon a Cat

Rebecca M. Hale - Author

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ISBN 9781101538104 | 304 pages | 05 Jul 2011 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP
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When Rupert the cat sniffs out a dusty green vase with a toy bear inside, his owner has no doubt this is another of her Uncle Oscar's infamous clues to one of his valuable hidden treasures. Eager to put together the pieces of the puzzle, she's soon heading to Nevada City with her two cats, having no idea that this road trip will put her life in danger.

Chapter 1

As dawn broke a few hours later, a white-haired man in a wrinkled linen suit pedaled a bicycle along the city's waterfront Embarcadero. The first edges of the rising sun stretched across the water, coloring the bay a brilliant blue, splashing light across the rolling green hills that framed the opposite shore.

There's nothing like a crisp spring morning in San Francisco, the man thought with an admiring glance at the surrounding city. Smiling, he tilted his head back and soaked up the wet ocean scent. "It's good to be back," he sighed contentedly.

A light breeze tufted the thin strands of hair combed across the man's balding crown. Two days' growth of salt-and-pepper stubble covered the lower half of his face. A bristly crag of wild flyaway eyebrows dominated the facial landscape in between.

The linen suit jacket hung loosely from the man's short round shoulders. The front buttons of the jacket were unfastened, exposing the frayed edges of a collared white shirt and the elderly paunch of his stomach.

An elastic strap secured around the man's lower right shin prevented the cuff of his pants from being caught in the bike's spinning gears. The cinched-up fabric revealed an ankle-high lace-up boot, whose scuffed toe pedaled a slow circular motion in coordination with its mate to propel the bike forward.

Brief scenes of the bay flashed in the open spaces between the piers as the bike's wide tires squished against the pavement. Beyond the barrier of the once-bustling warehouses, squawking flocks of seagulls soared acrobatically through the sky, searching the shallow water for their next bite of breakfast. Farther out, the loaded platform of a container ship slid silently past the waking city, its hulking mass and thousand-foot length dwarfing the commuter ferries and sailboats that dotted the bay.

The man's boots dropped to the sidewalk as he braked the bike at a crosswalk and waited for a signal light to halt the mixture of taxi and commuter traffic that had begun to fill the Embarcadero's busy thoroughfare. He released his stubby fingers from one of the rubber grips fitted over the U-shaped handlebars and tapped the trigger of the center-mounted bell. The chipper ring startled a gull from its perch atop a nearby trash can.

The bike was a single-speed cruiser, painted the same simmering orange red as the Golden Gate Bridge. Sparkling reflectors had been threaded into the spokes of the wheels; a large wire basket hung beneath the bell. Designed to maximize comfort over speed, the bike's durable frame amply supported the rider's bulky figure. At his age, he thought as he pushed off from the curb to cross the intersection, he really couldn't do without the extra springs beneath the cushioned seat.

The man steered the bike, slowly but deliberately, along a sidewalk that tracked the outside perimeter of a tennis club's high green fence. He was headed toward his old familiar haunting grounds. He felt like a pigeon, his course predetermined by an innate homing instinct.

It had been almost a year since his departure from Jackson Square, and he still looked back longingly on that previous life. While it had been a tough decision to leave his home of over forty years, he'd felt he had no other choice.

He had tried, at first, to hide himself in a different part of town, but he'd abandoned that strategy after only a few weeks. Despite its international stature, San Francisco was a little city, its center spanning a meager five-by-five mile area. Both the risk of detection and the temptation to make contact had been far too great.

And so, he had reluctantly waved good-bye to his beloved Bay Area. He'd spent the past year traveling the globe, hoping that, over time, his adversaries would move on to other intrigues, perhaps even forget about him. He'd gone south—way, way south—eventually trekking to a rustic cabin in a Patagonian fishing village near the bottom tip of South America.

As the length of his absence neared a year, he'd started a slow migration home, gradually progressing north toward the bulge of the earth's equator. For the last three months, he'd been secluded on a remote tropical island, browning his once pasty white skin into a rosy-cheeked tan, finishing off the last preparations for this trip to San Francisco.

Now, at last, here he was, enjoying this fine glorious morning, the culmination of years of planning finally coming to fruition. Long before his inevitable exile, he'd begun plotting his return.

Tucked into one of the man's suit pockets was a deck of freshly printed business cards. He grinned to himself, thinking of how the gold lettering stood out against the dark green pieces of paper.

"Clement Samuels," he said softly, testing out his new alias. "Clem. Yes, Clem. I like the sound of that."

The bike rounded the last corner of the tennis courts and turned onto Jackson Street where the sun's early glint revealed the serene start of a typical Friday morning. Clem scanned the row of high-end antique shops as his bike passed beneath the neatly trimmed trees that lined the sidewalk. He noted one or two establishments that had changed ownership over the course of the last year, but otherwise the scene looked almost exactly the same as the day he left it—the same, that is, until he reached the storefront of a three-story building in the middle of the block. Here, he thought, things were different.

Clem hopped off the bike and leaned it against the nearest tree. He rubbed a kink in his lower back as he stared at the exterior of the Green Vase antiques shop.

He'd been aware of the initial renovations the new occupant had made to the front of the building. The crumbling facade and cracked glass windows had been torn out, replaced with a wall of crisp red bricks that ran beneath a new row of windowpanes. Several of the glass panels were embedded with the image of a slender green vase.

Stroking his chin absentmindedly, Clem surveyed the glass door that hung in the entrance. Curling wrought iron strips complemented the gold script that announced the name of the store and its current proprietor.

A pleased smile crossed the stubbled surface of his face as he reflected on the woman now in charge of the antiques shop. A mop of dark brown hair hung down past her shoulders. The thick heavy locks often slipped forward over the plastic frames of her bifocal glasses, partially obscuring her face. A painfully shy soul in her mid-thirties who kept mostly to herself, the woman and her two cats had moved into the apartment above the store not long after his escape from Jackson Square.

"Little accountant," he murmured to himself as he shifted his attention to the interior of the Green Vase. "What have you been up to?"

Clem craned his neck, trying to see into the rear of the showroom. The once dusty space was now spotlessly clean. The wooden floorboards had been scrubbed, sanded, and refinished; the interior walls gleamed with a fresh coat of paint. The previously crowded collection of Gold Rush– era antiques had been winnowed down to a select few pieces, each one shined, polished, and laid out on a display table or bookcase for easy viewing.

Clem grunted and arched his scraggly eyebrows. The place looked almost respectable. A worried knot stitched through his abdomen. What had she done with the rest of the store's contents? He hoped she hadn't thrown anything away. Or worse, he thought with growing alarm, sold any important pieces.

Feeling somewhat discomforted, Clem turned away from the window and directed his gaze toward Jackson Street. He had brought himself up to date with the current configuration of the neighborhood. That was all well and good, but it wasn't what he'd come back for.

He had always been more interested in this area's past than its present. Squinting his eyes, he imagined away the street signs, the fancy cars—all the modern-day trappings of luxury and convenience that San Francisco's current citizens took for granted. He created, instead, his own mental image of Jackson Square as it might have looked in the 1850s during the height of the California Gold Rush.

Despite the splendid spring sunshine, the street would have been a sea of mud, the soil still saturated from the torrential downpours of the winter months. Areas of recent landfill, like the place where he stood, were particularly treacherous, laced with sinkholes that were deep enough, according to some reports, to bury a horse neck-deep.

A weary line of recently arrived immigrants, all of them men, tromped across Clem's vision. The group wobbled and weaved on the slick wooden clapboards that bordered the muddy road, struggling to maintain their balance, their internal equilibrium thrown off from weeks of cramped ocean travel.

The men had met one another on the steamer they'd boarded on the west coast of Panama, a destination they'd reached after taking separate ships down from New York and crossing the jungle of the Isthmus on foot. After chugging through the Golden Gate for the approach to San Francisco, the men had disembarked several hundred yards offshore. That was as close as the large ship could maneuver to the city; a blockade of listing and half-capsized boats made it too dangerous to come closer. The captains and crews of these abandoned vessels had left behind the seafaring life for the goldfields of the Sierras.

A rowboat ferried the new arrivals to a network of elongated piers that stretched out over the water. After a long hike across the precarious wooden walkways, the men finally found their first solid footing on the streets of Jackson Square, known during the Gold Rush–era as the Barbary Coast.

Clem walked his imaginary characters past the entrance to the building that now housed the Green Vase. The stale scents of beer and whiskey emanated from its makeshift saloon. He watched with a chuckle as a female catcall drew the men's attention.

The youngest of the group blushed and quickly turned away, almost dropping the small worn satchel that contained the entirety of his earthly belongings. His fellow travelers, however, were unembarrassed to show their interest. A brutish fellow with a tobacco-stained beard stopped and leered through the doorway. His grubby hand reached into his pocket to dig out the last two coins that had survived the hazardous and expensive trip to California.

They were a sickly, haggard bunch, from youth to scoundrel. Their grimy faces were a pallid jaundiced yellow, the outward symptom of the dysentery and malaria they had picked up during their voyage. That first night in San Francisco, they would search the sprawling, ramshackle city for a place to sleep or a shelter to crawl under, but they would find no vacancies. In this fast-growing boomtown, even the most basic commodities were in short supply.

But no amount of hardship could dampen the enthusiasm of these newly minted Californians. No temporary inconvenience could cool their fever. Each one felt certain that tomorrow, the next day, or surely the coming week would bring an upswing in fortune. Soon, their empty, threadbare pockets would be packed with nuggets of gold. They could survive any torture if it meant reaching that goal.

Clem strummed the unbuttoned front of his linen suit jacket and gummed his dentures thoughtfully. With a quick blink of his gray eyelashes, he dialed back the timeline of his vision, now picturing the area in the years before the madness of 1849.

The saloon and the ground beneath it fell away as the bricks and mortar that lined the street faded into a marshy wetland. The mounds of sand and rubble that made up the Gold Rush-era landfill disappeared, and the shoreline retreated a hundred or so yards into the distance.

In his mind, Clem walked down the swampy, uninhabited beach. The land that would later support some of the tallest office buildings in San Francisco's financial district was reduced to a blustery landscape of sand dunes, short scrubby trees, and tall whipping grasses. A quiet calm, unattainable in modern times, fell in around him as he hiked up a slight grade into the scruffy little village that was still known by its Mexican Territory moniker of Yerba Buena.

This was the Wild West in its infancy. The Mexican government, putative landlord to the scattered settlement, exerted little influence or control over the area's day-today activities. The Mexican grip on the broad expanse of its California Territory was tenuous at best, near-nonexistent on this northern frontier.

The residents of this remote outpost represented numerous nationalities, but American settlers were gradually becoming the majority. The inhabitants were, by most accounts, escapists—men with shady pasts who had slipped away to California's mythical, unknown lands to lose themselves in its lawless society and sparsely populated wilderness. In this dusty sand-blown inlet, it was every man for himself.

Clem strode up to a scattering of low-slung adobes that formed the middle of the settlement; then he turned in a circle as he surveyed the roughly constructed wooden buildings. One stood out among the rest, the only two-story structure in the group. His mental vision honed in on the property, sweeping around to the lavish garden that curved behind it.

This was the home of the tiny town's most prominent businessman, a shipping magnate who had moved to Yerba Buena from New Orleans. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with a dusky complexion and thick muttonchop sideburns who had recently received the honorary appointment of American vice-consul. With the help of his beautiful Russian maid, he was the designated host for the area's most distinguished visitors: disgruntled Mexican military officials, steely-eyed ship captains who'd dropped anchor in the bay's protective cove, and the occasional renegade explorer determined to stir up the local American settlers into a rebellion.

It was this historical figure—the American vice-consul with the elaborate muttonchop sideburns—that Clem had been researching just prior to his abrupt departure from Jackson Square almost a year ago. That research had given him valuable insights into the local intrigues and political motivations of pre-Gold Rush Yerba Buena and had led to a breakthrough in his quest to unearth several hidden treasures from that time frame. The name of the man whose historical background had proven so useful was William Leidesdorff.

Clem turned back once more to face the Green Vase, letting the imagined scenes of Jackson Square's past evaporate into the day's brilliant sunlight. As he peered in through the glass windows, he needed no creative assistance to picture the building's modern-day interior. He knew its layout like the back of his hand.

A narrow staircase in a darkened corner at the far end of the showroom led to an apartment that occupied the second and third floors. The wooden steps were worn slick from the tread of hundreds of years' worth of feet. A low-hanging beam over the sixth step, he cautioned himself with a wry grin, would nick your forehead if you forgot to duck beneath it.

The top of the stairs opened into a kitchen, an odd-shaped, heavily wallpapered room with a homey wooden table, an uneven tile floor, and a temperamental dishwasher that had rarely been used in the year since his departure.

Any minute now, Clem thought with anticipation, the woman with the bifocal glasses and the long brown hair would walk into this room. Today, she would discover something she'd been diligently searching for over the last several months. If Clem's little associate had done his part, Oscar's niece was about to discover a clue to one of her uncle's hidden treasures.

Clem reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a large white mustache with bristly unkempt whiskers that matched the scruffy hair of his eyebrows. After thumbing off a protective strip from a square of adhesive backing, he stretched out the corners of his mouth to flatten the surface beneath his nose. His eyes crossed as he centered the hairpiece above his upper lip and affixed it to his skin. Checking his reflection in the storefront glass, he scrunched up his face to confirm that the mustache was securely attached.

"Perfect," he said with satisfaction.

His costume complete, Clem climbed back onto his bike and pedaled off down the street. He had a few more stops to make in the city before leaving for the next leg of his journey.

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