Authors: Susan Dunlap
He started to speak, then caught himself. “I was going to say not since she got married, but that isn’t right. I ran into her in the spring, downtown, and we had a drink. I thought then that she had really become Mrs. Palmerston. I wouldn’t see her again.”
HITE-COLLAR FIRMS HAD
a solid hold on southwest Berkeley where Munsonalysis was, but cafés had not yet joined them. Now at ten-fifteen when I wanted to ponder what Jeffrey Munson had and had not told me, all I could think of was Herman Ott’s crullers. Fortunately, San Pablo Avenue, which runs through every town north of Oakland like a string holding synthetic pearls, is the fast-food mecca of the East Bay. Finding two jelly doughnuts and coffee took me less than three minutes. I sat in my car, coffee cup on the opened glove compartment door. Biting carefully into the doughnut so the ersatz jelly wouldn’t squirt onto my face, or, God forbid, my only remaining clean blouse, I considered Jeffrey Munson. Despite what he had said, he had all the markings of a rejected lover or at least a rejected would-be lover. After all, it wasn’t unknown for a man to be attracted by something other than a woman’s political views. Had Lois led Jeffrey on till she had gotten what she needed from him? Had he indeed been her lover? Was he still? Why not an affair that had lasted through Lois’s marriage till the marriage itself became a hindrance? Why not Jeffrey, entering the house with Lois’s key before Ralph Palmerston got home from the Cadillac agency? Jeffrey could have hidden inside till Ralph pulled into the garage, got out of the car, and came in through the kitchen. Once Ralph went to another part of the house, most likely the bedroom to change, or the bathroom, it would have been easy for Jeffrey to slip into the garage and cut the brake lines. He had had plenty of experience with cars. Then he could have hidden in the back of Lois’s car. When she left to dine with her friend, she could have dropped him off wherever they chose.
In a year, would Lois and Jeffrey marry, after
renewing their friendship?
Would Lois invest in Munsonalysis and finally put it in the black?
Lois Palmerston and Jeffrey Munson were not a pair I would have picked from a crowd. Lois looked like a rose; Jeffrey the thorn. But who was I to say what would appeal to someone else? After my divorce, I had realized I didn’t even know what was good for me. But whatever the attraction, the key to Jeffrey and Lois’s relationship was Nina Munson.
Nina Munson lived in a flat with the address of 1733C Gilroy Street. In a North Berkeley neighborhood of small, single-family stucco houses set in yards that rarely had more than five feet between the house and property line, creating three extra dwellings was no mean accomplishment. In all likelihood, building codes had been broken right and left as they were built, and new violations of the housing codes had been created with occupancy. I was just glad that Mr. Kepple didn’t know what possibilities had eluded him.
The house numbered 1733 was a typical pink stucco split-level, with the living room to the left of the dining room-cum-entryway in the middle and the bedrooms over the garage at the right. A walkway to the right of that led to 1733 A, B, and C.
Apartment A turned out to be the rear of the two bedrooms over the garage. An outside staircase had been added that ended in a deck at what once must have been the bedroom window. B looked like two large utility sheds joined together and set directly behind the living room. Since the living room was six feet above ground level, the rear windows looked out on the shed roof. It ran twenty or so feet back to the east property line and looked more suitable for rakes and manure than for people. C was an eight-by-twenty-five stucco rectangle that filled the space five feet south of B to the south property line. It had the potential to be as unappealing as B, but window boxes, a Japanese maple in a large redwood container, and a slate patio gave it an almost cozy look.
The door was oak, stripped, and varnished. A stained glass window of a prancing bird filled much of the upper half. I knocked.
I stepped in. Two-thirds of the unit formed one oblong room. The remaining third was divided between kitchen and bath. The only window in the main room was a wind-out aluminum one set in the front wall. It was a dwelling in which a monk would have felt no guilt.
But Nina Munson had decorated with the artist’s touch. Opposite the window was an almost-antique “fainting couch,” which held a pile of elaborate patchwork jackets with the store tags already on their sleeves. Above it she had eight-by-ten photos of samples of her work—more patchwork jackets, coats, cloaks, and vests. All but one were brightly colored garments like the ones on the couch. The remaining one was a white-on-white applique gown. On the floor was an old but still colorful Oriental rug.
There was no closet (one housing code violation). An antique oak coatrack stood in the corner by the bathroom sporting what looked like all of Nina’s clothes—paisley-patched corduroy pants, embroidered denim skirt, white painting overalls and jacket, peasant blouse, Peruvian sweater, Irish knit sweater dyed Kelly green, and multicolored garments underneath, which I couldn’t quite make out. Had my clothes been hooked on a rack like that for the world to see, they would have looked merely like a pile of laundry. But Nina’s seemed as if they had been hung by Mary Cassatt.
By the window was a sewing machine and a large table covered with pieces of fabric. Next to the window, on the wall, were pinned sketches of a Japanese jacket. Glancing down at the table, I could see the beginnings of the jacket pinned together.
“I’m Detective Smith, Berkeley Police, Homicide Detail.” I extended my shield.
“Homicide?” She ignored the shield.
“It’s about Ralph Palmerston’s death.”
“Ralph Palmerston died?”
Didn’t anyone read the paper? “He was killed in an auto crash yesterday. We have some questions about it.”
“But Homicide? That means murder.” She stared at me as if trying to piece together what I had said. Nina Munson was a small, dark woman with short, blunt-cut, almost black hair, and small features that seemed to congregate in the center of her face. Her shoulders were rounded, probably from stooping forward over her sewing machine. She looked like a troll who had wandered into the brightly decorated flat. Everything in the flat was beautiful except her.
“Lois’s husband was murdered?” she asked.
“I gather Lois hasn’t called you.”
“She said you were her closest friend.”
Nina Munson looked up and smiled. “She did? Odd.”
“We were friends in college but I haven’t seen her much since she married. But in college she was my little sister,” she added quickly. I recalled Jeffrey Munson saying that Nina always made excuses for Lois. “The school set up the big sister thing between senior girls and freshmen. For Lois it was a good arrangement. There were a lot of girls from wealthy families at Binghamton. That area of Connecticut has a lot of money. But Lois and I were both scholarship kids. Neither of us had the money to go on ski weekends or to Florida for spring vacation. When Lois’s friends were gone I was there for her. I knew how to cut corners, how to make money last.”
“But you haven’t seen her since her marriage?” I asked. “Was that because of Jeffrey? Were Lois and Jeffrey lovers?”
I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had been outraged by my question. What she did was laugh. “Jeffrey? Jeffrey, the leftover radical, involved with a rich lady, a member of the Establishment? Jeffrey would be humiliated.”
“But you and Jeffrey did get a divorce after Lois lived with you.”
“It wasn’t because of Lois. Jeffrey and I were too different. We wanted different things. College masks reality, and what appeals to you there often seems ridiculous in the adult world. Let me tell you about Jeffrey. Jeffrey was one of those kids who never fit in. He had pimples; he was soft. You know the type.”
“But in college, he discovered radical politics. It wasn’t that he was political per se, or particularly concerned about the oppressed; what he wanted was friends. And campus radical groups would accept anyone who was willing to carry a sign. So, for Jeffrey, radicalism had all the unfocused emotional qualities of Mom and home.”
Clearly this was a topic she had given a lot of thought. That was hardly surprising; I had given my ex-husband more thought than I would have admitted during our separation and divorce. I’d pondered his failings; I’d bored my friends with his faults; I’d refused his phone calls, and then had screaming fights in the middle of the night. I’d behaved like a jerk. Compared to me, Nina Munson’s sudden explosion of words about her ex was the height of good sportsmanship.
“Jeffrey’s problem was that radicalism was so much an ingrained emotional need, that he never could bring himself to question whether he really believed the doctrine.”
“What do you mean?”
“He sends money to the rebels in Central America. He votes for every minority candidate on the ballot. But the only minority employee he has is his receptionist. He’s all for integrated housing, but he lives so high in the hills that the only blacks who ever see his house are the ones being bussed to public works projects in Tilden Park. The thing about Jeffrey is that he loves the poor, but only from a distance.”
I glanced around the small, cavelike apartment.
Nina laughed. “You’re thinking that if Jeffrey wanted to see how the poor live, he could come here?”
That was exactly what I was thinking.
“For a while, pretending to be poor appealed to Jeffrey.
He liked the idea of being married to an artist, of living on nothing. He was impressed by how easily I could make do. He even liked”—she paused—“the fact that I wasn’t pretty. It showed how much he supported the underdog.” She stared as if daring me to contradict her. “He liked being married to the girl who had faced down the college dean. We were demonstrating for autonomy in inviting speakers to campus. I read him the demands. I got a little carried away. And I got expelled. Jeffrey was impressed, but he wasn’t willing to jeopardize his college degree to join me.” She shrugged. “Maybe it’s just as well. Jeffrey needed that degree to get into computers. And if it weren’t for the money from Munsonalysis, little as it is, neither of us could live.”
“Were Jeffrey and Lois lovers?” I asked again.
She looked down at the amber cloth on her lap. It was nearly a minute before I realized that she wasn’t going to answer.
“Jeffrey did a lot for Lois,” I said. “He overhauled an entire car for her.”
Nina sighed. “Oh, that. I see what you’re thinking. It does sound like Jeffrey put himself out. But you should understand that if it were helping her buy a fridge or look for a job, Jeffrey wouldn’t have considered it. Jeffrey loves cars. When we were first married, and I was being the dutiful wife, I helped him overhaul two Buicks and a vintage Ford, inside and out. He spent every night of the week on those cars. Even now the Porsche he drives has an entirely rebuilt engine. Jeffrey left only the exterior as is so he wouldn’t look too successful.”
It was becoming clear to me that whatever there might have been between Lois and Jeffrey, no one was going to admit it. I asked, “What was Ralph Palmerston like?”
“I don’t know.”
“Didn’t you meet him?”
“Not even at the wedding?”
“He had a yacht then. Maybe he still does. It was a small wedding for his special friends.”
“But Lois said you were her closest friend.”
She shrugged. “I wouldn’t exactly fit in with moneyed society. And Jeffrey would have felt obliged to make an ass of himself. Lois made a wise choice.”
“Well, how did Lois and Ralph Palmerston get along?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her much since her marriage. I called her a few times and we had a drink. But I always had to call her. You know how that is.”
I started to respond, but she interrupted me. “You’re going to say that seems odd for someone who stayed with me. It probably does to you. But I’m an odd person. Odd things don’t bother me. I live here because I like it. If I chose to work at a regular job, I could make more money than I do selling designer jackets, and certainly more than I do writing poetry. I had to sell my mother’s antique necklace five years ago. I didn’t think I could bear to part with it. But once it was gone, I felt free. The only really odd thing about meeting with Lois was that I called her. I don’t know why I did that. It was after the divorce. Maybe I was in a period of adjustment. Maybe I had to see what still existed or what never existed.”
Maybe, I thought, you wanted to find out what had gone on between Lois and Jeffrey. I said, “Ralph Palmerston was murdered. Do you have any idea why?”
“Where were you yesterday afternoon?”
I expected her to be taken aback by my implied suspicion, but she answered in the same way she had all the other questions. “Right here.”
“Did you see or talk to anyone?”
“No one? Not even the mailman?”
“No. Sometimes days go by when I don’t utter a word. It’s a kind of control of my environment that most people can’t have. I like it that way.”
I noted that Nina Munson had no alibi. I said to her, “Lois told me you were her closest friend. Even considering what you’ve just said about her, you must know her as well as anyone. Do you think she is capable of murder?”
Again, she looked neither shocked nor offended. “It’s hard to imagine anyone we know killing her husband. But those things happen. About Lois, I couldn’t give you an opinion.”
Leaving her my card, I told her to call me if she thought of anything that would help. She said she would.
I stood by the door, looking back at the pile of jackets on the fainting couch with their price tags hanging in a line from their sleeves. To Nina, I said, “Shareholders Five? What does that mean to you?”
“Nothing. Should it?”
“Ralph Palmerston was planning to do something nice for five people. I wondered if you were one of them.”