Authors: Susan Dunlap
Not Exactly a Brahmin
For Kareen Shepherd
A special thanks to Detective Michael Holland and the Berkeley Police for their patience and invaluable help in answering my questions.
OW ABOUT A GORILLA
“Thanks a lot, Howard,” I said, skirting a puddle. Seth Howard was six foot six, the tallest member of the Berkeley Police force. I was nearly running to keep up with him. The rain pelted down—the first storm of the season. Yesterday it had been seventy degrees and sunny. At four-thirty today, it was pouring. Thunder rattled the sky, and stabs of lightning slashed at the treetops. Thunderstorms were a two-to-three-times-a-decade event in Berkeley, and for most people they were a free light show. No one here worried about whether to stand under trees or away from them. They headed for the spot where they could best see the lightning.
“If a gorilla suit isn’t feminine enough, Jill, you could add a pink bow around your neck. Or maybe you should come as a skeleton in honor of your new job.”
I didn’t want to get into that: my promotion to Homicide and Howard’s promotion to Special Investigations Bureau, which handled vice and drugs. His move should have been one that pleased Howard, and it did on every level, except that nothing could cover the fact that he had been passed over for the more prestigious Homicide job. Howard and I had been close friends for three years. We’d worked the same beat; we’d talked endlessly about everything from our cases to my divorce. We’d talked about our mutual ambition to someday be Chief of Police. But the Homicide job made a difference. I knew Howard well enough to realize he had been taken aback by the promotions, that he was appalled at resenting the good fortune of his close friend, appalled that he, like everyone else, could wonder if my being a woman had had anything to do with it. He was trying desperately—and failing—to react to me as he always had.
I didn’t know how to handle the situation any better than he did. I said, “You’re taking a lot of interest in my costume, Howard. You’re the one who’s giving this Halloween party. What are you going as?”
His thick, curly red hair hung in sopping ringlets that bounced heavily as he walked. He looked like a Raggedy Andy doll that had fallen in the bathtub. “Can’t tell you about my costume. It’s a surprise. But I will let you in on a little secret.”
“You’ll never guess what it is.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“It’s very clever.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“Could be.” He sounded like the Howard of old, but there was more to this contest than just guessing his disguise. When we had been on beat together, neither of us would have turned down such a challenge. And I couldn’t let it go now.
“What do I get if I figure out your costume?”
“Whatever you want. Let your fancy go wild because there is no way you’ll guess.”
“You’re pretty smug. After all, I know what your decorations will be.”
“Woolworth’s best bones and goblins. Don’t count on that too much.”
“I know what you’ll be serving.”
“So you think I’ll come as a chef?”
“I know who you’ve invited.”
“Cops.” He laughed. The light turned green. We started into the intersection. A van skidded to a halt. The streets were slick. After six dry months, drivers had forgotten how to maneuver in the rain. Some were high on grass or coke; most were mesmerized by the thunderstorm. It was a natural for accidents. I was glad not to be working traffic detail any longer.
My hair was caught at the nape of my neck so that much of the rain that hit my head was channeled along it and down the back of my jacket. But a sizable amount still managed to drip inside my collar. Neither Howard nor I had thought to bring umbrellas.
“Listen, how far away did you park?” Howard demanded. “We’ve already walked four blocks from the station.”
“Two more blocks.”
“If I’d known you were this far away, I would have taken the bus.”
“If I could rent a garage like you do, right across from the station …”
“Maybe if you got to work a little earlier …” Howard was grinning.
“Howard,” I said, tentatively.
Howard looked puzzled.
I could feel my smile becoming wider. “If I guess your costume, I can have anything I choose, is that right?”
“That’s what you said, right?”
“You’ll never guess.”
“Okay. If I guess your costume before the party, you give me your garage lease.”
I dropped Howard at the Co-op Garden Shop on Shattuck. Maybe he was planning to outfit himself as a tree. For him, it would have to be a redwood. Traffic was surprisingly light for quarter to five on a Thursday night. I drove on toward the tunnel that ran under the Marin traffic circle and connected the extension of Shattuck Avenue at a right angle to Solano Avenue. If I could get to Solano before the majority of people got off work, I could find a parking spot near Ortman’s and buy a pint of chocolate chocolate shower ice cream to have for dinner.
As I approached the tunnel, cars were stopped. There was generally a long line here, but tonight it was longer than usual. Even at this distance I could see the holdup. Over the tunnel, on the traffic circle, red lights flashed. There was no chance of turning till just before the tunnel, and now that right-hand turn that led, like a bent elbow, to the circle was closed off.
But my friend, Connie Periera, now had this beat. And even if she weren’t the one handling this accident, the beat officer would let me through.
I pulled into the empty right lane that led to the blocked-off elbow and drove past glaring drivers waiting in the lane to my left. At the turn the patrol officer—young, black, and very wet—waved me to a stop.
“You see that line?” he snapped, as I opened the window of my old Volkswagen.
“I’m Smith, Homicide.”
He glanced at the dented and rust-splotched fender of my car and back to my face. It was a moment before he nodded and said, “Homicide. Must be nice to deal with people when they’re dead, when they don’t give you no jive-assed excuses for cutting the line.”
“Long day, huh?”
“Is Pereira in charge up there at the traffic circle?”
He smiled, a wistful, fleeting expression. Pereira was a popular blonde. “Yeah.”
I started to ask what the accident was, but behind me a horn honked. “Let me through, okay?”
He looked at the line of cars. Shaking his head, he said,
“Okay, but every one of those turkeys in line is going to burn my ears about how you got through and they can’t.”
“Tell them my car wouldn’t run long enough to wait in that tunnel line.”
He glanced again at the dented fender and gave me a mock salute.
I shut the window and headed up the curve to the circle. I’d stop and see if Pereira needed an assist. When I’d been a beat officer and she a mere patrol officer, she had assisted me plenty. Even if it were a garden-variety fender bender, on a night like this another hand to move things along could save a lot of time.
Six streets crowd into the small residential traffic circle. Expensive homes sit on their corners. (One house is balanced directly atop the entrance to the tunnel beneath.) Cars with
signs in their windows are parked around the outer edge. The circle is a demarcation point between the steep streets of the Berkeley hills and the gentler slope from there down toward San Francisco Bay.
But as I reached the circle, I could see that this was no mere fender bender. In the middle of the circle was an island of grass about thirty feet in diameter. The metal barrier that ran across that island was crushed to the ground. And the car that had done that, a silver Cadillac, had smashed into the decorative fencing at the outer edge of the circle. Had it not been for that sturdy cement fence, the car would have rolled into the living room of the house over the tunnel. Red lights flashed everywhere, blurring like finger painting in the rain.
As I pulled to the curb, I could see the ambulance lights in the distance. A patrol officer was diverting traffic below the circle—the pulser lights on his car flashed red. At the edge of the circle, small groups of bystanders stood under trees. Then I spotted Pereira. She was standing next to a tarpaulin-covered mound ten feet from the Cadillac. It had to be a body.
I walked over to her.
“Jill,” she said. “It’s good you’re here.” She bent down and lifted the tarp. “The driver, Ralph Palmerston.”
He lay on his back, his arms bent in ways arms shouldn’t go. His bloodstained shirt and jacket covered a chest that had been mashed out to the sides. The rain bounced off his face; it had matted his thick white hair and might have washed the blood from his face. Now there was surprisingly little; only a trickle caked at the side of his mouth and around his eyes—just enough to emphasize those blue eyes and their look of disbelief and horror.
The ambulance pulled up. Its red light flashed on and off Palmerston’s face, turning it from red to ashen gray. In the stroboscopic unreality of the pulser light, it was like seeing the moment of the accident as Palmerston’s terror-stricken face flung forward—then he hit the steering wheel and everything was covered with red.
As the ambulance men bent down, I turned away and looked toward the car. Misco, from Traffic Investigations, was huddled under the hood or what remained of it. Crinkled, it had been pushed back toward the empty windshield. On the Arlington, another of the feeder streets, a patrol officer diverted traffic.
The ambulance men prepared to lift the body. Pereira stepped back next to me. I said, “Were they a long time in coming? You must have been on the scene for a while—it’s pretty well secured. Traffic Investigations is already here.”
“Misco? That was just luck. He was only a block away when the call came in. But the ambulance”—she shook her head—“every ambulance in the area was out. It’s the storm. I’m just glad there was no question about Palmerston. He was dead when I got here.”
“How did it happen?”
“Witnesses say it looked like his brakes failed. He came down Marin. …” She glanced up across the circle to the extension of Marin Avenue that rose into the Berkeley Hills.
It was the steepest street in the city. I hadn’t been able to get my car up it in four years. And I knew people who went out of their way to avoid driving down it. “They said he was going sixty, seventy miles per hour. As far as we can tell, he ran the last two stop signs. He slammed into the divider and the car bounced—one hop—over here.”
“Lucky no one was in his way.”
“Very. He missed two witnesses by inches, or so they said. They’re over there.” She indicated a man and woman standing shock-stiff under a tree. Beyond them, on lower Marin Avenue, Lieutenant Davis, Pereira’s watch commander, was getting out of his car.
“I’m glad you’re here, Jill,” Connie Pereira said.
“As long as you need me.”
“It could be a long time.”
I shrugged. “The tow truck’s coming up the street.”
Connie looked past me at a car pulling up. As the doors opened and the men got out, I could make out the print man from his bag, and the photographer. I looked quizzically at Connie.
“This isn’t an accident, Jill. I thought so at first. It would have made sense. But that car was just serviced today. The sticker’s on the door. The service report’s in the glove compartment. Jill, you don’t have a brake failure on a Cadillac three hours after it comes out of the shop.”