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Authors: Susan Dunlap

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Not Exactly a Brahmin (24 page)

BOOK: Not Exactly a Brahmin
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I crossed the street and hurried down the block past the child-care center with its alluring white curb. Inside the gate, an angel holding her mother’s hand walked toward the street. Two small, painted faces looked out the window hopefully. Costumed party-goers straggled across crosswalks, as if protected from harm by their sheets and spangles.

I could picture Sam Nguyen telling Ralph Palmerston about Shareholders Five. In my mind, I could see the short, dark-haired mechanic in his white overalls, leaning toward the tall, gray-haired Palmerston. I could see Palmerston’s blue eyes with the same shocked expression they had had in death. And I could imagine Palmerston finding a detective to check out Sam Nguyen’s bizarre story.

I unlocked my car door, climbed in, and started the engine.

But how would Sam have known about Shareholders Five? He and Cap Danziger had been friends. Had Cap told him? Had he laughed about his great scheme? But then why would Sam expose him?

I pulled into traffic.

Then it came to me—friendship and good intentions were a rare commodity in Lois Palmerston’s associates. And just as Ralph Palmerston had not been doing “something nice” for the Shareholders, it made sense that Cap and Sam were not friends now. Maybe they had never really been friends, although, according to Jake Trent, Sam Nguyen had intervened to save Cap’s job on more than one occasion. I’d have to ponder that later. But what I could be sure of was that if Sam and Cap weren’t friends, Cap would not have revealed the Shareholders Five scheme to Sam. Damn! How did he find out, if not from Cap?

I slammed on the brakes, barely missing a devil’s pitchfork.

Finding Sam Nguyen at the Bien Hoa and forcing him to tell me was a long shot. But it was my only shot.

It took me half an hour to make my way into Oakland’s Chinatown, an area of hole-in-the-wall cafés and larger, plastic-fronted restaurants. Ten years ago it had been almost totally Chinese, but now the Chinese restaurants were interspersed with Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. Refugee agencies worked out of storefronts. In the daytime it was crowded with old women in loose batik garments, children in bright polyester jumping the gap from their ancestral lives to American ways. But after dusk, urban Oakland was like the inner city anywhere.

The Bien Hoa Vietnamese Restaurant was one storefront wide. There had to be more than fifty customers crowded together inside. The steam from the kitchen filled the room and opaqued the windows.

I made my way between tables to the formica counter at the back where the cash register sat. Before the small, young woman behind it could speak, I showed her my shield.

Warily, she said, “Yes?”

I would have to approach my need for Sam Nguyen’s address obliquely. “Sam Nguyen, the mechanic, eats lunch here, doesn’t he?”

“Sam Nguyen.” She smiled, then looked even more nervous.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Sam Nguyen told me he eats lunch here.”

She nodded.

“Every day?”

“Every day he works.”

Good—every workday. “Does he come at the same time every day?”

“Oh yes. Always he arrives here at twenty minutes after one o’clock. We have his masseuse waiting. We are preparing his special dishes. We have his special dishes ready when he is relaxed—after his masseuse. We are waiting for him. He would not disappoint.”

I smiled. This restaurant sounded like Sam’s second home. If anyone knew where his real home was, they would be here. “This week, has Sam Nguyen been here at twenty after one every workday?”

“Oh yes, every day.”

“Thank you.” I made a show of turning toward the door, stopped suddenly, and turned back. “There’s one more thing I need to ask him. Can you give me his address?”

She shrank back. “I do not know that.”

“Where does he live? Near here?”

She shook her head. “I see him only at lunch. He drives here in a big car, I do not know from where.”

Obviously my approach had not been oblique enough. Behind me the restaurant had grown quiet. I considered pressing harder, but I knew I’d get nothing out of this close immigrant community. By now someone had probably moved silently out the back door and was running to warn Sam. Even if I could get his address, he would be gone.

But maybe I could find his other friends. “Who does Sam eat with?”

She brightened. “Sometimes he brings a man, with light hair, in a light suit. A tall man. From where he works.”

Cap Danziger. “Recently?”

“Not so much. More times two, three years ago.”

That fit my theory that they were no longer really friends. “Anyone else?”

“A woman. She comes with the man two times.”

Carol Grogan? “What did she look like?”

“Light hair, tall, thin—like a model.”

“Was her hair caught in combs at the sides of her head?”

“Yes, yes.” She nodded enthusiastically.

Lois Palmerston! “You said they came two times—when?”

“One time was last month. One was before.”

“Thanks.” I turned and walked back to my car smiling. So Sam Nguyen didn’t need to know about Shareholders Five. He only needed to see Cap Danziger with the young wife of a rich customer and put two and two together. To Cap and Lois the lunches—meals in a crowded, hardly romantic Vietnamese restaurant—would have been innocent affairs, or at least occasions when they thought they were disguising any mutual attraction. But Sam Nguyen would not have been fooled. Then he would have told Ralph Palmerston his wife was having a fling. And Ralph would have hired Herman Ott not to look into Shareholders Five, but to find out if his wife was unfaithful. That was exactly the sleazy type of case Ott would be chosen for. And in checking out Lois and Cap, Herman Ott would have come upon Shareholders Five.

It all fit. It explained why Cap Danziger would kill Ralph Palmerston.

But Cap had an alibi for the time of the sabotage to the car. It was Sam Nguyen who had had the opportunity to puncture the brake lines. And Sam Nguyen had no motive. He’d already told him his wife could be having an affair; there was no point in killing him.

CHAPTER 24

I
T WAS JUST AFTER
eight when I got to Pereira’s apartment. Connie opened the door. Her blond hair curled around her face. A gold tiara sat atop her head. And her ball dress, a scooped-necked white bouffant with pink roses on the hip flounces, hung down to the floor. When she stepped back, the hoop skirt swayed and I could see her plastic shoes—her glass slippers.

“You really look like Cinderella, Connie,” I said as I dragged my own costume over my head.

“And you,” she said, looking at my green monk’s robe, “are an interesting Fairy Godmother. Here’s your pumpkin and your magic wand.”

“It’s going to take more than a magic wand to get all of your dress into my car.”

We made our way out, Pereira navigating her hoop skirt, me carrying the pumpkin and wand. When she finally squeezed the hoop and the dress into the car and was propped against the seat, clutching both sides of the hoop so I could reach the gear stick, she said, “What about Howard’s costume? Did you discover what it is?”

“I have an idea.”

“Well?”

“It seems like Howard has been spending an awful lot of time with Leon Evans in the last few days, doesn’t it? He had Evans at the station yesterday morning. He was at Evans’s apartment for a couple hours in the afternoon. He’s complained about him to all of us. And by now we all know who Leon Evans is and what he looks like, right?”

Connie grinned. “So you think he’s coming as Leon Evans?”

“It fits. I was sure his disguise would be connected to something important to him. Evans symbolizes his promotion.”

Connie’s grin grew wider. “I can hardly wait to see Howard in skintight red silk pants.”

“Hi! Wow!” What appeared to be a mound of leaves opened Howard’s door. At closer inspection, the leaves were pasted to a sheet that hung over an egg-shaped frame. Halfway down the front there was a sign saying
COMPOST HEAP
. It had to be Howard’s roommate Ellis, a horticulture student at Cal. He was looking at Pereira.

Ellis stood back, his dark eyes staring out holes between leaves as Pereira maneuvered the hoop skirt in through the door. Between Ellis’s ovoid pile and Connie’s skirt, they filled the entire entryway. Clutching my pumpkin, I followed them in.

Across the room I spotted Howard, red curls snapping out beneath his uniform hat. He wasn’t Leon Evans. He wasn’t even close. He wasn’t in costume at all. He was just in his old patrol officer uniform. I couldn’t believe it—after our bet and all his goading, he’d copped out—literally—on the whole thing. Furious, I started toward him.

He turned, facing me. He wasn’t even Howard! He was just a tall guy with a red wig and a mask dressed in the khaki uniform. I tried to place the body—one of the guys at work? One of Howard’s other roommates? But I couldn’t tell.

The house was a huge brown-shingled affair, with six bedrooms upstairs and a balcony that led to them overlooking the living room. It was suitable only for six single guys and as many roommates as they chose to have, or one very large and wealthy family. Now the living room was packed. There had to be a hundred people here. Music bounced off the walls. In the middle of the room, cleared for a dance floor, ghosts were shaking their sheets, a cigarette girl leaned on a magician, and Howard danced with Howard.

“Drink?” the front end of a horse asked.

“Sure,” Pereira answered.

“Gangway, gangway,” the half-horse called, leading us across the floor.

As I passed by the pair of dancing Howards, I realized that the Howard with its back to me was a woman, a black woman, who had been with the last training class for two months before deciding to get a master’s degree instead.

She’d said it was bad enough to be a six-foot woman without being a cop, too.

“Mind if I stash this here?” I asked, plopping my pumpkin on the food table. To Pereira, I said, “Why didn’t you get me a plastic pumpkin, one of the ones with the little tin handles?”

“Verisimilitude. It’s important.”

“Maybe you overdid it on that. Tell me about verisimilitude two hours from now when you’re still driving that dress around the dance floor.”

“I’d better be on the dance floor. In this, I can’t sit without taking up four chairs.”

The food ran mostly to cold cuts, chips, and dips—healthy stuff for me. I made myself a ham-and-cheese sandwich with the hottest mustard on the table and even a slice of lettuce for good measure and chomped down.

A gorilla asked Pereira to dance.

“Hey, Smith, you trying out for the monastery?” It was Clayton Jackson in his promised Oakland Raiders shirt. “You’ve met my wife, Yvonne, and my kids?”

“Hi, Yvonne.” I looked at the four Raiders-shirted Jackson children. They ranged from eight to fifteen years old. “I didn’t think kids would enjoy a party like this.”

Yvonne laughed. “Maybe not. We
know
what they’d like to be doing, especially this one.” She patted the oldest boy on the shoulder. He grimaced. “They’re here where we can keep an eye on them.”

The kids spotted the refreshment table and crowded around the pretzels and chips.

Across the room I saw yet another Howard. “How many of these Howard impersonators are there?” I asked Clay.

“Enough to make a basketball team from what I’ve seen.”

“Did Howard—the real Howard—know about them?”

“Not before now. Way I heard it one of his roommates kept him upstairs till they all got here.”

“I wonder if he caught on right away,” Yvonne said.

“Honey, you can’t miss them—all that red hair, and that tall,” Clay said. “Hey, man, you stocking up for the winter there,” he said to his oldest son. “Leave a mouthful for the rest of the people.”

“What I meant,” Yvonne said with a trace of annoyance, “is that we all recognize them as Howards, but Howard doesn’t see himself from a distance. He doesn’t look up at himself, and he sure doesn’t see himself from the back.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

A Howard put a platter on the far end of the table. But this was no Howard like the others I’d just seen. This was the real Howard. I’d been wrong though; he wasn’t dressed as Leon Evans. He wore a gray business suit, with a white shirt, and a narrow red tie—like Chief Larkin’s gray suit and never-changing narrow red tie. I had known Howard would come as someone or something significant to him. How had I gotten sidetracked on Leon Evans and missed a disguise so obvious as the culmination of his own ambitions—Chief of Police?

“Oh my God,” I said, “no wonder I couldn’t find out anything about your costume.”

Howard grinned.

“It’s not like I didn’t try either. I checked your messages ever time I was in the office. I went to the costume store. They searched through all their records.”

Howard laughed.

“I even called the French Consulate to see where you could get a de Gaulle disguise.”

Howard laughed harder.

“I finally decided you’d be a silk-clad Leon Evans.”

Howard was nearly doubled over. Between fits of laughter, Jackson was explaining the bet to Yvonne.

To Clay, I said, “Think how guilty you’re going to feel about this display when you see me hobbling into the station after trudging miles from my car.”

“Keeps you in shape, Smith,” he said.

“Clayton doesn’t need to be so smug,” Yvonne put in. “He’s never gotten a garage.”

“You guys can visit.” Howard was only chuckling now. “I’ll give you a tour—show you how to pull up the door, how to drive in, how to saunter across the street to the station.”

Jackson snorted.

The music stopped, then a new record began. “Come on, Clayton,” Yvonne said. “This is the only beat slow enough to let me put my hands on those football shoulders.” They moved toward the middle of the room. On the sofa behind where they had been standing sat all four young Jacksons, the eight- and ten-year-old poking each other, the eleven-year-old, a pretty girl, smiling as if she were watching a romantic movie, and the oldest boy glaring and stuffing food in his mouth.

“How about you, Jill? You want to dance with the chief? Or are you too tired?” Howard asked.

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