Read Not Exactly a Brahmin Online

Authors: Susan Dunlap

Tags: #Suspense

Not Exactly a Brahmin (8 page)

“Howard, it’s only been a little over twelve hours since we made this bet. Give me a chance.”

“Having a hard time, huh? Doesn’t matter. You’ll never guess.”

“Don’t be so sure. I know you. I know those strange byroads of your mind.”

“Well, you’ve only got one day to drive down them. Tomorrow’s Halloween.” He was still grinning as he walked out.

“What’s this contest?” Pereira demanded.

“Howard bet me I couldn’t figure out what he’ll wear to his party.”

“What do you get if you do?”

“If I win, I get his parking spot. I spend so much time looking for a place to park now that I might as well have a part-time job.”

Pereira whistled.

“Yesterday I had to park nearly in Oakland. I’m not wearing running shoes for fashion.”

“Still, Jill, a parking spot. That’s like finding gold.”

“Well, Howard can get some more gold. All he needs to do is let the word out that he’s willing to park his car in one of the local lady’s driveways. They’ll be flooding the desk with offers. On the other hand, I’ll become a weatherbeaten hag running through the streets of Berkeley and never get offered a spot. This is my only chance.”

“Speaking of the party,” Pereira said after a minute, “I got your costume.”

“Are you sure it will fit me?”

“Jill, with this type of thing, one size fits all.”

“I suppose.”

“I even got your magic wand.”

“Thanks. Now listen, what I have for you is visits to Palmerston’s attorney and accountant. See if you can find anything suspicious in his will or his finances.”

“Sure. What are you up to?”

I stood up, prepared to make my exit. “I’m going to a health food restaurant.”

Sunny Sides Up was located in one of the newly refurbished storefronts two blocks from campus. The building had housed a Greek take-out, a pizza parlor, and a bead shop several years ago before it burned. Then it had sat empty and boarded up for months before being rebuilt to house more gentrified shops.

I had been past the restaurant but never inside. A place that specialized in eggs was too healthy for me, much less one that served only fertilized eggs. I pulled open the door and walked in. The small room was surprisingly quiet. I could still hear the trucks braking in the street and the students calling to their friends. Here, the loudest noise was subdued Bach. The floor was covered with brown indoor-outdoor carpet of distinctly better quality than the rough green mat Mr. Kepple had put on my floor. Pine tables were adorned with cloth napkins and fresh flowers. Along one wall were padded booths covered in red Naugahyde.

And above each table was a sepia-toned photograph of the avenue at the turn of the century and an Art Deco light fixture. Brass railings separated the smoking and non-smoking sections. Sunny Sides Up was the early morning equivalent of a fern bar. I could see why Herman Ott had surmised that this restaurant was Adam Thede’s baby. Thede had spent thousands to make it charming. But students grabbing breakfast after class, intent on discussing Spinosa or tribal rites in Borneo, didn’t care about brass rails or old photos. For them, the funkier the better. And for health food addicts, once a spot mentioned five-bean salad and tofu omelets, all else was fluff.

When crowded, Sunny Sides Up could seat fifty. Now, at eight-thirty in the morning, groupings totaling ten customers dotted the room.

“Party of one?” a young woman asked me.

“No. I need to talk to Adam Thede.”

“He’s supervising the chef right now.”

“I’m with the police.”

Unconsciously, she took a step back. “I’ll tell him.” She hurried back to the swinging door that led to the kitchen. I noticed as she went through it that it led to another swinging door. No wonder there were no kitchen noises in the dining area. Adam Thede, I thought, must be more appreciated by his customers than his staff.

Thede emerged in a minute. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark curly hair. He looked more like a fullback than a restauranteur. Even as he walked toward me, he surveyed the room, momentarily assessing each group of customers.

“Jill Smith, Homicide Detail.” I held out my shield, but Thede waved it away.

“What do you want with me? You don’t think we’ve poisoned …?” He had been smiling—a little joke. But he couldn’t bring himself to finish it.

“Ralph Palmerston has been murdered. I need to talk to you about him.”

“Who? What? Never met a Ralph Palmerston.”

“Do you want to talk out here?”

He whirled and looked toward his customers. They were forking in various green and tan comestibles, uninterested in us. Turning back to me, he said, “My office.”

I followed him through the double swinging doors and past bags of rice and potatoes, each large enough to last me a lifetime. A chopping board was covered with leeks, endive, various types of mushrooms, and a number of plants, vegetables presumably, that looked as if they had been buried in the backyard for years. Thede indicated a door that said
MANAGER.
Inside was a four-by-six room, almost entirely filled with a desk and chair. Four stacking trays were piled at the side of the desk by the wall. On that wall was a poster of a face made from vegetables—tomatoes for cheeks, celery for the nose, and lettuce for the rather wrinkled forehead.

“You want to sit?” He pointed to the desk chair.


I’ll stand.”

He moved around the desk and stood behind it. I pulled out my pad. We were two feet apart and both had our backs to the walls.

“I’m going to ask you again, Mr. Thede, how is it you know Ralph Palmerston?”

“I don’t. I told you—never met the man.” He had a fullback’s voice. It bellowed in the tiny room.

“Are you sure? Think.”

“Unless I shook his hand in passing or someone brought him to one of my parties. … When I host, checking the hors d’oeuvres and watching the bar takes all my time. I don’t see guests as anything but open mouths till after midnight. I’m giving a Halloween party tomorrow night and I know I won’t get to see half the costumes.”

“What about business associations? Palmerston was the heir to the Palmieri Winery.”

“I don’t belong to any associations. I only have this restaurant. I’m not a businessman, I’m a chef, or I was. Now I’m an entrepreneur.” He gave me an ironic smile as if realizing how un-entrepreneurlike he looked.

In contrast to the dining area, this tiny office was dark and ill-ventilated. Already I could feel my back getting clammy.

“Ralph Palmerston went to considerable lengths and expense to find out what was important to you. According to my source, he checked out all your suppliers, found out which were on the up-and-up and which ones you should avoid. According to my source, he was planning to use the information to surprise you. Now my—”

Thede’s fist hit the desk. “Big deal! Why didn’t he tell me? A week ago I could have used that. If this Palmerston fellow had given it to me
then,
it would have been a real gift.”

“How so?”

“Don’t you read the papers? Didn’t you see the number of empty tables out front?”

I nodded, but Thede didn’t seem to notice. “Some of my suppliers are tainted. They’re spraying grains with commercial herbicides, putting Malathion on their tomatoes. Look!” He thrust a newspaper at me. “Look—‘So-Called Health Food Contaminated.’ ”

I glanced through the article. “But it says you couldn’t have known they were using sprays.”

“Customers don’t care whether I know or not. This isn’t an honesty contest. The fact that I didn’t know their milk comes from cattle who’ve been fed antibiotics doesn’t make that milk any less dangerous for them. This place was packed two weeks ago. Now look at it. I’ve had to lay off three waitresses.”

“Surely in time—”

“In time what? It would be one thing if I had known I was serving non-organic food, but I didn’t know. Now even if I mount a campaign and say I have all new suppliers whom I’ve checked out myself, who’s going to believe me? They’ll say ‘He didn’t know before, why should we believe him now?’ ”

“And if you’d gotten Ralph Palmerston’s information a week ago, before this story came out?”

“I could have broken the story. I could have denounced my suppliers. I could have been the one who was protecting Berkeley from tainted food, instead of someone who is foisting it on them.” He slumped down in the chair.

“What will you do now?”

“Wait. What else?”

“Do you think this will pass?”

He looked down at his desk calendar. “I don’t know. I’ve got a year’s lease, so that gives me another six months to sit and count customers.”

“And if things don’t get better?”

“I’ll close.”

“You’ve put a lot of money into Sunny Sides Up.”

“I’ll lose a lot of money. Probably have to sell my house and go to work for someone else.” Now he stared directly at me. “I waited nearly five years to open this restaurant. I’ve only been here six months. Do you know how awful it is once you’ve had your own place, created each entrée, made it the best, to have to take orders, to cook commercial eggs with fake cheese and canned mushrooms? Do you know what it’s like to do your best and realize it makes no more difference than your least? Creating a superb breakfast isn’t like doing dinner. People don’t reserve months in advance even for the best eggs Florentine. The only chance at expression is in your own restaurant.” He dropped his gaze. “So you see, money is a small part of it. And any gifts I could have received are a week late.”

But, I thought, as with Ellen Kershon, had it worked out, Ralph Palmerston’s gift to Adam Thede would have been perfect.

I asked him where he had been yesterday afternoon—home, alone—then handed him my card and told him to call me if he recalled anything about Ralph Palmerston.

I walked out through the dining area, which now held only four people, and down the avenue to Herman Ott’s building.

CHAPTER 8

“S
OMEONE BEAT YOU TO
it,” I said.

Herman Ott looked exactly as he had last night, only more rumpled. If there had ever been a question of what he slept in, it was now answered to my satisfaction. He had come stumbling to the door on my second knock, his eyes half closed, his yellow-and-brown shirttail now completely out of his pants. But behind him on his desk I spotted a mug of coffee and two crullers. It made me think better of him.

“I thought you came to bring me my money.” His sarcasm was not veiled.

“By the time Thede got the same information you gave Ralph Palmerston, it was already in the newspaper.”

“So?”

“So someone was quicker than you were in checking on the growers. Who was that?”

He started to shrug and stopped before his shoulders lifted half an inch. I could see that the question bothered him. It impugned his professional competence.

“Did the people you talked to say someone had been there asking the same questions?”

“No. Listen, there are a dozen places you could get that information. You don’t just go up to the grower and say, ‘Excuse me, sir, are you adulterating your soybeans?’ You go to the pesticide companies; you check their records. You interview the field workers, the union. There could have been ten detectives there and we’d never have run across each other.”

I didn’t comment. He didn’t believe that any more than I did. “When did you give Ralph Palmerston your report?”

“Listen, I don’t—”

“Come on, Ott, I don’t have to tell you how suspicious this looks. You had plenty of time to leak it to the papers. You wouldn’t even have had to walk far to try a little blackmail.”

“Blackmail! Goddamnit, are you saying I’m on the take? I’ve had my chances, plenty of them. But I don’t operate that way. That’s how come I’m still living.” He glared at me, his flaccid cheeks tightening into ridges and hollows. With more control he said, “That’s why I’m still living
here.

I believed him. Anyone with any money would have moved long ago. Even a man who doesn’t care about his surroundings would like a shower that wasn’t down the hall. “So, when did you give Ralph Palmerston your report?”

He hesitated, still glaring, then said, “The tenth.”

“That was nearly three weeks ago. Wasn’t he satisfied with it?”

“Satisfied! Christ, it was twenty pages.”

“Then how come he didn’t contact you about the other four members of Shareholders Five?”

He leaned back against the desk. “Got me.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Your privilege.”

“This is a murder—”

“Skip it, I know my rights better than you do. The Berkeley Police Department has been on me for twenty years. You better believe I know how far you can push.”

“Look—”

“Talk to me when you’ve got money in your hand.”

I turned and left, nearly stumbling over two refugee children playing a game with sticks in the hallway.

Ott was right; he knew his law. I had gotten as much as I was going to from him, at least until the discretionary fund came through. But I had been wrong in thinking that Ralph Palmerston hadn’t paid him. He’d have been paid when he handed in his report.

Even with Ott refusing to divulge more, the report itself might give me a lead to the other subjects, or to Palmerston’s intentions for them. Palmerston had no business office, so the report would probably be in his house.

I was tempted to drive up there, but I decided against it. I had left Lois Palmerston in shaky condition last night. She had been planning to take sleeping pills. Waking up a widow, a prominent widow, the day after her husband had been killed to demand to search her house would be a tricky business. Shareholders Five might well have had nothing to do with Palmerston’s murder. It could have been just another charitable gesture on his part. (Or it could have been something else.) But if it hadn’t led to his death, then the best suspect I had was Lois herself. It wouldn’t hurt to find out more about her, and to find it out from the man who had bought her her Mercedes.

I drove west toward the bay, my thoughts bouncing between Lois Palmerston, Adam Thede, Herman Ott, and Herman Ott’s two crullers. It was nine-thirty when I pulled up in front of Munsonalysis.

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