San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.
Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.
Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages. Available January 24th from Tor.com Publishing.
On the last Monday of her life, Helen Young returned from the doctor’s and made herself a cup of tea. As she had expected, the news was not good; there was nothing more that could be done.
From the windows of her apartment high atop Nob Hill, San Francisco’s staggered terraces lay like a child’s blocks, stacked higgledy-piggledy, the setting sun turning glass and steel into orange neon, old stone and stucco walls glowing with a peach patina. The fog coiled though the hills like a white serpent.
She set the delicate porcelain cup onto a teak side table and thought about what she needed to accomplish. Her final To-Do list. Ivy, her companion-slash-caregiver had the day off, which made the most important task both simpler and more challenging. She would not have to explain, but would have to do it all herself.
Perhaps she should wait until morning? Helen debated, then picked up her phone. After seventy-five years, she was the last one standing; this was no time for missteps or procrastination. She tapped the screen and summoned a cab.
The day had been warm, as autumn in the City often was, but the fog would chill the evening air. She slipped on a light wool jacket and glanced at the brass-headed cane leaning against the side of the sofa. Would she need it, or would it be an impediment?
Even though her hearing was shot, and her glasses were as thick as a cartoon’s, her legs were still good, for an old broad. Hell, her legs were still great. She wrapped a hand around the dragon handle and did a nice buck-and-wing, then set the tip down onto the hardwood and left it where it was.
At the apartment’s door, she stopped. If anything did go wrong—
She backtracked to the kitchen and the tiny whiteboard that hung next to the fridge, and scribbled an address under ENSURE and TUNA. Easy to erase when she came back. Easy to find if she didn’t.
The doorman escorted her to the waiting cab. “Chinatown,” she said to the driver. “Spofford Alley, between Washington and Clay.” She heard the cabbie sigh. A trip of less than half a mile was not the fare he’d hoped.
“Off the main drag,” he said. “What’s there?”
“Long-lost friends,” Helen answered, and smiled as if that brought her both joy and sorrow.
San Francisco was a city of great density, as much vertical as horizontal, surrounded on four sides by water, houses cheek-to-jowl, but Chinatown made the rest seem spacious. More than seventy thousand people packed into a single square mile. Grant Avenue was a string of gaudy shops and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. The alleys were not as gilded or sanitized. As the cab turned into the single, cramped block lined with three-story brick buildings on either side, Helen could smell the distinctive blend of spices and dried things, vinegar and garbage.
“Stop here,” she said.
“Are you sure, lady? This isn’t a safe neighborhood, especially after dark.”
“I’ve never been more certain.”
“Suit yourself.” He glanced at the meter. “That’ll be four-ten.”
She handed a twenty through the window in the thick Plexiglas that separated driver and passenger. “Wait here—I should be about fifteen minutes. There’ll be another of those for my return trip.”
“Sign says No Stopping, Tow-Away.”
“If the cops come, circle the block.” She slid another twenty through.
“Got it.” The cabbie nodded his assent, and Helen got out.
In the dusk of early evening, the alley seemed to be made of shadows, the only illumination a few lights in upper story windows across the pavement, laundry hanging from the sills, and an illuminated mirror in the back of a beauty salon two doors down, a CLOSED sign dangling in its dingy window. Number 38 was a shabby building with brickwork painted the color of dried blood; a narrow door and street-level window were covered with thick plywood painted to match. The entrance was a solid, weathered slab without ornamentation, not even a knocker. It bore no signs of recent use.
“You know someone who actually lives here?” the cabbie asked from his open window.
“Not precisely,” Helen replied. She removed a ring of keys from her jacket pocket. “I inherited the building, a long time ago.”
The vestibule was dark. Helen closed the outer door and took a maglite from the pocket of her trousers. In a hallway darker still, she used another key to unlock a wooden door whose hinges screeched with disuse. A flight of rickety steps led down; an odor of must and damp earth wafted up.
She flicked the switch at the top of the stairs, bare bulbs glaring on, and turned off her tiny light. Holding the railing for support, she made her careful way down into the cellar.
The floor below was cement. Helen’s sensible, rubber-soled shoes made no sound. She went through an archway and turned left, then left again. Her progress was slow, but steady. It was a maze down here, easy to get disoriented. At one time, most of the buildings on the street had been connected underground, six or seven strung together by invisible passages.
The “ghost tours” run for the tourists claimed that these were all dens of iniquity—opium and white slavery. That might have been true before the 1906 fire. But after? Speakeasies, perhaps, until Prohibition was repealed, or just convenient ways to get from one place to another. In those days, the cops needed no excuse for a raid in Chinatown, and the subterranean routes were a matter of survival.
Now these were only storerooms. The electric lights ended at the third turn. She took out the maglite again. Its narrow beam caught the edges of shrouded furniture, cardboard boxes, an iron-bound trunk, and more than a few scuttling rats. The LEDs gave everything an eerie blue cast, and she shivered despite herself.
One more turn led her into a small room with a dirt floor. Two walls were stone, one brick, all solid. The door she’d come through was the only opening. Helen shone the light onto the brick wall. Its regular expanse was broken only by a wooden rack that held a motley array of dusty teacups and bowls, stacks of chipped plates. A rusty-lidded cast-iron pot sagged the boards of the middle shelf.
She switched the light to her left hand and focused the beam on the pot. She reached behind it and found the small knob hidden by its bulk. She tugged; the knob did not move. With a sigh, she tucked the light under one arm, awkwardly trying to keep it focused. She gave silent thanks for the yoga and dance classes that kept her as flexible as she was. Using both hands, she tugged at the unseen latch. It finally slid open with a click so soft she barely heard it, even in the silence of the underground chamber.
Helen stepped back as a section of the brick wall pivoted outward, creating an opening just wide enough for a person to slip through. It had been formed of the bricks themselves, the alternating blocks creating a crenulated edge to the secret doorway. She felt the hair on her neck spike at the touch of cool air, damp and old and undisturbed.
It had been built for illicit deliveries of whiskey, back in the twenties, she’d been told, a clandestine tunnel leading all the way to Stockton Street. By the time she’d first seen it, it was just a dead end. Now she was the only person alive who knew it existed. Soon it would be another lost bit of history. She switched the light back to her right hand and stepped into the opening.
Three feet beyond was a wall, a deep niche the size of a small window hewn into the rock-studded cement. It looked like crypt, a singular catacomb. But a crypt holds the remains of the dead. This, she thought, was a vault, its contents of—inestimable—value.
Her light revealed a wooden crate, slightly larger than a LIFE magazine, two inches thick, covered in dust. Helen brushed it off, then slid her hands under the thin wood and lifted it. It was not heavy, just a bit ungainly. She held the maglite tight against one edge, and stepped backward into the room with the crockery. The cane would definitely have been a nuisance.
She rested the edge of the crate on one of the shelves and stared into the vault for a long moment, seeing something far beyond the stone. Then she shook herself, as if waking, and reached behind the iron pot. Reversing the latch was easier. Another soft click, and the doorway slowly slid closed for the last time, the jagged edges of its bricks fitting perfectly into the pattern of their stationary counterparts.
An oversized shopping bag with paper handles lay folded on the shelf with the tea cups. She slid the crate into it, laying it flat. Holding the bag like a tray, she walked back through the labyrinth of turns, moving much more slowly. With the last of her energy she trudged up the stairs into the gloomy vestibule, leaving the door ajar. No longer anything of value down there. She stepped back out into Spofford Alley. Even at night, the narrow, dimly lit street seemed bright and expansive after the darkness of the cellars below.
Helen laid the bag on the back seat of the waiting cab, and locked the outside door with a relieved sigh. That was done. Handing the cabbie the promised bill, she got in. When they neared her building, she tapped on the Plexiglas. “Use the back entrance, please.”
The service elevator took her to the twelfth floor, avoiding the doorman and any questions, and she let herself in to the silent apartment. Setting the bag onto her dresser, she went to the kitchen, erased the address from the whiteboard, and poured herself three fingers of the 18-year-old Macallan. Much more than her usual nightcap. Ivy would tsk and scold, but Ivy wasn’t there. Helen took a screwdriver from a drawer and returned to the bedroom.
Her drink was half gone before she felt ready. She laid a towel on her bed and gently withdrew the crate from the bag. The screws were old, set deeply into each side. The thin wood splintered as she removed them, one by one. When the last screw lay on the towel, she used her fingers to carefully remove the lid.
Inside lay a silk-wrapped rectangle, nearly as large as the crate. She lifted it out and set it on the end of her bed, untying the cord that had secured the four corners of the fabric like the top of a circus tent. The silk slipped off onto the comforter, revealing the shallow glass-topped box within.
Helen stared, then downed the last of the scotch in one long swallow.
“Hello, you,” she said. “It’s been a while.”
Tuesdays were always slow. Marty Blake had no idea why. He was behind the front counter, catching up on paperwork—printing out mailing labels, updating the catalog and the database—when he heard the jingle of the bell over the door.
Foot traffic was better since he’d moved to his new location. Not that there hadn’t been plenty of people on the streets of the Tenderloin, just not the clientele he wanted. Martin Blake Rare Books was a tiny shop, and the rent was astronomical, but only a few blocks from Union Square, so chances were excellent that any customers could afford whatever they fancied.
He looked up to see an elderly Asian woman step softly inside. One hand gripped the head of an antique cane; the other held a large Neiman Marcus shopping bag. She wore black silk trousers and blouse under a cream jacket with lapels embroidered in a deep red that matched her lipstick.
This one had money, all right. On the far side of eighty—he couldn’t tell at a glance just how far—her face was wizened and her hair was thin, but still inky black, shot with a few strands of white. She wasn’t stooped or hunched, and although the hand on the cane was spotted with age, her eyes were bright bits of jet behind thick silver-rimmed glasses.
He straightened his own jacket and ran a quick finger through his goatee as she approached. “May I help you?”
“Your specialty is twentieth-century ephemera.” It was not a question.
He shrugged. “One of my areas of expertise. Are you looking for something in particular?”
“Perhaps. May I leave this here?” She eased her bag onto a table.
“Be my guest.”
She nodded her thanks, and Marty returned to his accounts. No need to keep a shoplifting eye out for this one.
Fifteen minutes passed, punctuated only by the tappings of her cane on the hardwood floor and his fingers on the keyboard. Marty looked up occasionally, watching her peruse the shelves, trying to get an idea of what she was drawn to. Much of his business was online, and the bulk of his inventory was in storage. He only had room to display his most select pieces.
In locked golden-oak cases and shallow, glass-topped tables, illuminated by tasteful halogen spots, were fewer than a hundred items. First editions, signed prints, and a handful of original manuscripts and drawings filled the front of the house. Some less respectable items—early paperbacks, erotica, a handful of golden-age comics—still rare and valuable, but not to everyone’s taste, were in secure cabinets that lined the back wall.
One held a dozen pulp magazines from the ‘20s and ‘30s—garish covers, lurid scenes of murder and torture featuring scantily clad women with eyes like snake-filled pits, bound or chained and menaced by hunchbacked fiends, Oriental villains, mad scientists. Every issue was in pristine condition. They’d been packed away in boxes for years, but in the last decade, the market had skyrocketed enough to justify the display space.
The old lady had returned to the back wall twice now. The Christie mapback, maybe? He didn’t see her as a pulp fan. Those were usually geeky men buying up their fantasies with Silicon Valley start-up money that had blossomed into stock options.
Finally she turned and pointed. “May I see this one?”
Damn. Really? You never knew in this business. It was a pulp, and the best one of the lot, but the last thing he’d have thought she’d like—a 1936 Weird Menace whose cover was legendary for its grotesquerie.
He kept the surprise out of his voice. “Certainly.” He unlocked the cabinet, removing the tray case and setting it on a nearby table. He adjusted a rheostat and a halogen circle brightened for close inspection.
She sat, leaning her cane against the side of her chair, and gazed at the magazine in front of her with an expression Marty couldn’t read. Reverence? Longing? A bit of excitement, but mixed with—what? She looked almost homesick. He sat down across from her.
“Tell me about this,” she said.
“Well, as you can see, it’s in superb condition. White pages, crisp spine, as if it were fresh off the newsstand.” He slid a hand beneath the mylar sleeve and tilted the magazine slightly. “It’s an excellent issue, stories by both Clark Ashton Smith and Manly Wade Wellman, which alone makes it quite collectible since—”
She held up a hand. “I have no interest in those stories,” she said. “What about that cover?”
It was a violent scene with a dark, abstract background. The subject was a pale woman, her eyes wide with fear, naked except for a wisp of nearly flesh-toned silk, a nest of green-scaled vipers coiled around her feet. Looming over her, a leering hooded figure in scarlet brandished a whip. It was a terrifying, erotic illustration, one that left nothing—and at the same time, everything—to the viewer’s imagination.
“Ah.” The art. Marty smoothly changed his sales pitch. “The artist is, of course, Haskel. The signature’s at the bottom right, there.” He pointed to an angular H, the cross bar a rising slash with askel underneath. “He did close to a hundred covers, not just for Weird Menace, but for several of the other—” He groped for the word. “—unconventional—magazines. A lot of output for a short career—just seven years. No one really knows why he stopped.” He thought back to the reference books in his office. “His last cover was in 1940. October or November, I think.”
“Nothing after that?”
“Not a trace. It’s like he disappeared off the face of the earth.” He recalled conversations he’d had with other dealers over the years. “There are rumors,” he said slowly, “that he did do one last cover, but it was never published. No one even knows what house it was for. I’ve heard guys at Pulpcon sit in the bar and talk about it like it was the Holy Grail, the one piece any collector would hock his grandmother for.” He stopped, remembering who he was talking to. “No offence, ma’am.”
“None taken. What do you think happened?”
“The war, probably. Might have been killed, but there’s no service record.”
She nodded. “My husband was a pilot. His plane was never found.”
“I’m sorry. But, for Haskel, there’s no paperwork of any kind, other than a few invoices. No photos, either. He’s a bit of a mystery.”
“I see. And—?” She looked at him expectantly.
Marty thought back to the few articles that had been published about Haskel. “He worked almost exclusively in chalk pastels, not oils, which make his paintings smoother and softer, with an almost—” What had that reviewer said? Marty drummed his fingers. Ah, yes. “—an almost technicolor glow. His style is unmistakable, and this is considered one of his finest covers.”
He lifted the magazine once more, this time placing it into the old woman’s hands. “The detail is exquisite.”
“If you like that sort of thing.” The woman arched an eyebrow. “How much?”
He thought quickly. The catalog listing was eight hundred, but he’d seen the look on her face. “In this condition, twelve hundred.”
“That seems reasonable,” she said.
Marty breathed a sigh of relief. Was she even going to try and haggle? If not, it would be an excellent Tuesday after all.
“But I’m afraid my interest lies in the original artwork.” The old woman returned the magazine to the tray case.
Marty sputtered, then coughed in surprise. “An original Haskel? Almost impossible.” He shook his head. “I’ve only seen one, at an exhibition. There are five, maybe six known to exist.”
“You claimed there were nearly a hundred covers,” the woman said in an imperious, indignant tone.
“That’s what he painted, yes. But—” Marty produced a handkerchief and wiped his dampening forehead. “You see, back then, the pulp market was the lowest of the low. As soon as the magazine was on the stands, the art was destroyed. It had no value to anyone, including the artists. Besides, chalk pastels aren’t as—sturdy—as oil paint. Delicate as a butterfly wing.”
“There are originals for sale?”
“Not often. They’re all in private collections. The last one that came up at auction was five years ago, and it went for $60,000. One might go for double that, now.”
“Really?” She tapped a finger to her lips, thinking, and then smiled with an expression so expansive it pleated her entire face. “I’ll just fetch my shopping bag, young man. I believe I have something that will interest you.”
Excerpted from Passing Strange © Ellen Klages, 2017
This excerpt originally appeared on The Book Smugglers blog