Authors: Susan Dunlap
“Nina’s a poet—you know, Nina Munson?”
I nodded, though the name wasn’t familiar to me.
“She’s had some things published locally. She’s really very good. She’s not obsessed with house pride anymore.” Lois smiled. “I guess she had enough of that.”
“She and Jeffrey are divorced?”
“Irreconcilable differences. Real irreconcilable differences.” She laughed nervously.
“The end came when Jeffrey, in all seriousness, tried to teach Nina to use a computer. He’d tried for years, but on this last push he told her that a word processor would be wonderful for writing poetry on, because she could take out words or move them around. He said it was so easy to write with a word processor that he’d considered being a poet himself. But he decided there wasn’t any money in it. Nina left him the next day.”
I laughed too. We were in front of the house.
Turning to her, I said, “Are you sure your husband had no enemies? Even minor ones? Think a moment. Did he have any arguments, even ones that seemed insignificant to you?”
She sat, slowly releasing her hand from the handle above the glove compartment.
“Were there any friends he stopped seeing suddenly?”
“No. The only thing of this sort—it seems too silly to bring up at all—was this afternoon at the Cadillac dealership. Ralph was still angry when he got home. He thought they were brushing him aside. I remember, he said, “At least you expect courteous service when you’re paying as much as that!”
“What exactly happened?”
“As clearly as I could piece things together, Ralph had paid for the car checkup and he was standing chatting with one of the salespeople when he saw the mechanic, that short Vietnamese—”
“Yes, Sam Nguyen. He was headed to the door at the back of the repair shop. Ralph called to him, but he didn’t answer. He never bothered to turn around. He just walked out the door.”
“Is that all?”
“Ralph was furious. Any other man might have figured the mechanic didn’t hear, or was preoccupied. But Ralph had very set ideas about courtesy, particularly courtesy in business. He took the complaint to Jake Trent, the owner.”
“And then what happened?”
“Nothing, according to Ralph. I guess Jake tried to smooth things over and Ralph wasn’t having that. But, as Ralph said, Sam Nguyen could have kicked him in the teeth and Jake Trent wouldn’t have done anything. He’s too afraid of losing Nguyen.”
I had hoped for something better.
Lois opened the car door. We hurried through the rain and wind to the door. I waited while she turned on the lights. I offered to stay awhile, but she clearly didn’t want that. I suggested that she call a friend—Nina, or the woman with whom she’d had dinner, Carol Grogan. Her no was immediate. She was sure she’d be fine alone. She had sleeping tablets. What she needed was rest, she assured me, as she held the door open.
I ran back around the car, yanked open the driver’s door, and flopped onto the seat before the wind blew the door shut.
Lois Palmerston had been understandably upset after seeing her husband in the morgue. But she had regained control surprisingly quickly. Was that ability to rebound an innate skill, or did it mean she hadn’t been unprepared for what she saw there? It was too soon for me to guess. But her talk on the way home, what had that told me?
For one thing she was very sensitive about having been a receptionist. I wondered how much more than a receptionist she had been. “Receptionist” can be very legitimate, or it cannot. I wished now that I knew where Pereira was having her drink with the well-informed Paul Lucas. Hammonds was a prestigious firm in San Francisco. If Paul Lucas knew as much as Pereira thought, he might have heard if their receptionist was more than decorative.
And what of Lois Palmerston’s friends? For someone who was willing at all costs to avoid silence on the drive home from the morgue, her instantaneous rejection of her friends as companions for this night was odd. Did she just want to avoid my staying around till one of them arrived? Another half an hour would have been difficult for her to fill with desultory conversation. Was there something in the house she didn’t want me to see?
And Jeffrey, of Munsonalysis. What was his interest in Lois? He was divorced from her friend now. He had found and refurbished a Mercedes for Lois. Had he been more than merely the husband of a friend? Could he have left his wife for Lois, only to find her unwilling to divorce the wealthy Palmerston for a fledgling businessman who probably had more debts than cash? Lois had adjusted easily to the comforts money brought. I didn’t see her abandoning them for passion. But as a widow, she could have both.
Tomorrow I would talk to Jeffrey. But tonight I could at least check up on Ralph Palmerston’s brouhaha at Trent Cadillac.
When I got back to the station, I left instructions for Carol Grogan’s beat officer to make a preliminary check on Lois Palmerston’s alibi, then got out the phone book and dialed the home number for Jacob Trent. It was late to be calling a witness, but I wanted to talk to him before a night’s sleep dulled his memory of Ralph Palmerston’s outburst.
He answered on the fifth ring.
“Mr. Trent, this is Detective Smith, Berkeley Police.”
“Is something the matter?”
“I’m investigating the death of Ralph Palmerston. He was in your repair shop this afternoon.”
“Jesus. It’s nearly eleven o’clock. What do you mean calling me at this hour?”
“Ralph Palmerston has been murdered.”
There was a silence. “Murdered?”
“Well, what does that have to do with me? We just repaired his car. The guy hassled us as it is. Look, lady, I don’t have enough trouble? I got Sam Nguyen, my best mechanic, wanting to go to Hong Kong for Chinese New Year. New Year’s in February. Nguyen wants to leave in December. Two months, I ask you. Then I got a detective bugging me about one of the salesmen, and now you calling me about Palmerston. And Palmerston himself throwing his weight around.”
“Exactly what happened to Mr. Palmerston today?”
“Lady, I have no idea. By the time I realized anything had happened, Palmerston was barging into my office, shouting for all the world to hear. I was on the phone—business—how do you think that sounded?”
“What did Mr. Palmerston
“He was shouting that Sam Nguyen stalked off the floor when he wanted to talk to him.”
“How do you know it was Sam Nguyen?”
“I saw him. Besides, he’s a little Oriental, couldn’t be more than five-two. The other mechanics are big, husky guys. They’ve got light hair. Is that enough difference for you?”
“What did Mr. Palmerston want to talk about?”
“He never said, and believe me, I didn’t ask. Palmerston may not be in business himself, but he’s got a lot of connections in the business community. He’s done a lot of charity work. He knows people. He can call in favors. I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. I’ll tell you the truth, lady, if it was another customer, I wouldn’t have taken the time I did to calm him down. If it was any other mechanic, I would have fired him.”
“What shape was Mr. Palmerston in when he left?”
“He was okay. I let him talk about the proper respect for customers awhile. That calmed him down. He’s an old-school guy; he expects business to be conducted with a certain grace. God knows how he’s survived in Berkeley this long. I told him I’d pass on his message to Nguyen and have Nguyen get back to him.”
“And did you?”
“He said not to bother.”
Thanking him, I turned back to my notes. It wasn’t till I came back from the dictating cubicle that I noticed the message in my IN box. It was from Pereira:
Surprise! I couldn’t find out anything about Shareholders Five, but the phone number belongs to our old friend Herman Ott.
UR OLD FRIEND
Ott was about forty. He was blond and sallow-complected, with a short trunk, spindly legs, and a noticeable gut; and he perpetually wore a yellow sweater. He looked like a canary.
What Herman Ott was, was a private detective. He had begun his student days at Cal during the sixties. During those years he had gotten a job, part-time at first, with a detective too old to do his own legwork. He moved out of the dorm and rented two rooms in a shabby Telegraph Avenue building. Sometime later those rooms had metamorphosed into the office of the Ott Detective Agency. He’d never graduated. As the years went by, he took fewer and fewer classes. Presumably he would eventually accumulate enough credits for a degree, but I doubted it would matter. In many ways, Herman Ott still lived in the days of marijuana, Free Speech, antiwar demonstrations, and loathing of the Pigs.
It was after eleven when I finished the report. I should have gone home, if only to see how much water had dripped in through the jalousie windows that made up three walls of my porch-turned-studio apartment. Instead I turned east toward Telegraph. One advantage of dealing with a detective who lives in his office is he’s likely to be there at night.
Telegraph Avenue leads directly off the campus. It is the center of the students’ commercial world. The head shops and Indian clothing stores that used to characterize it are giving way to boutiques and gelato shops, but the sidewalks are still filled with street artists. Students and former students still ponder their goods. And, seemingly unaware that the sixties ended over a decade ago, rag-covered addicts still wander the avenue or prop themselves against buildings and ask for spare change.
But for the most part, Telegraph Avenue closes down with the departure of the sun. At night the shops are dark, the sidewalks empty, and the yellow glow from the streetlights shines overbright against the emptiness of the sidewalks. The only pedestrians are students hurrying from night classes, or the occasional drug burnout still propped against a building. Even on the street itself you rarely see another car.
And now, at nearly midnight, the students were gone and the avenue looked like a set from a long-completed movie.
I left my car in a red zone in front of Ott’s building and ran for the staircase that huddled darkly between a pizza take-out and a poster shop. I stood for a moment waiting for my eyes to adjust and wondering what regulation the landlord had broken in failing to provide an entryway light. But considering the condition of the building, that had to be the least of his infractions.
I made my way up the steps. The entry door was at the top. Not surprisingly, it was unlocked. Inside, the hallway was warm, and the smell of stale marijuana filled the air. I followed the staircase around and up to the third floor.
A dim light shone through the frosted glass panel of Ott’s office. It outlined the metal bars behind it. I knocked.
Ott wasn’t likely to pay for electricity when he wasn’t there. He was more likely to count on his reputation for coming out bruised but on top. He’d survived in this seedy establishment for nearly twenty years. Half of his clients were on drugs. In his early days another large slice of his clientele was so anti-establishment that they would have found not paying his bill laudable. But Ott had always made his rent, and as far as I knew he had never been hospitalized. And he had never given the police incriminating information about a client. He’d never cooperated with us unless there was something in it for him.
I pounded on the door. In my years on this beat I had tried to get information out of Ott four or five times, but succeeded only once, when it was clear to both of us that I could haul him in for obstructing justice.
Inside, I could hear a grunt.
I pounded harder.
“Okay, okay, keep your pants on.”
Ott pulled open the door and stared at me through half-closed eyes. He looked like he was sleepwalking, but I knew his reputation better than to believe that. He was shorter than I, his limp blond hair thinning on top. A gold-and-brown flannel shirt was half in and half out of his tan cords. Behind him, flung over the back of his desk chair, I could see his familiar yellow sweater. He looked a bit plumper than I recalled, as if the canary were about to lay an egg.
“Well?” he demanded, staring at my face, puzzled. The other times he had seen me I had been in uniform.
“Police.” I held out my shield.
He glanced at it and back to my face. “Oh, yeah, you.”
I pocketed the shield and stepped forward.
He didn’t move.
“You want to talk in the hall?” I asked, letting the edge to my voice match his.
“It’s your case we’ll be talking about. If you want that broadcast through the building …”
Across the hall the sound of a television was lowered. The building was supposed to be commercial now, but probably ninety percent of the “offices” doubled as apartments. Some tenants didn’t even bother with the pretense of work.
Ott stepped back and I followed him into the ten-by-twelve room. An old wooden desk dominated it. Behind that were two file cabinets and the leather desk chair that held the yellow sweater. There was a soot-coated window next to the files and a bookcase on the far side of it. Through the connecting doorway I could see the second room, with its unmade folding bed, a formerly overstuffed chair that was now understuffed, and clothes and blankets and books strewn on top of everything. But the office where we stood now looked as if it belonged to someone other than the sloven who slept next door. Here, every file on the desk was in order, messages were in a pile next to the phone, and pencils and pens were in a mug. It was the office of a man who could put his hands on anything he needed.
But it was not an office I pictured Ralph Palmerston in. “Ralph Palmerston is dead.”
Herman Ott’s eyelids flickered, then his face became immobile. “So?”
“We found a notation and your phone number in his glove compartment.”
Still, he didn’t move.
“I need to know what you were doing for him.”
“Officer, I can’t tell you that.”
“Your client’s dead, murdered. What you’ve found out for him will be evidence.”
“You know I can’t reveal—”