Jill investigates the death of a chef who was mysteriously poisoned by his own soup
Until the helicopter crash, Jill Smith never knew fear. A homicide detective in the leftist enclave of Berkeley, California, she has faced down her share of thugs, thieves, and killers, but since surviving the downed helicopter, her nerves have been shot. Unwilling to submit to her anxiety, she goes back to work.
The chef and owner of Paradise, an upscale restaurant in Berkeley’s so-called “Gourmet Ghetto,” is found on the floor of his own kitchen, poisoned by the soup he was seasoning. On his way to the top of the foodie pyramid, the chef made enemies of his dishwasher, his neighbors, and Earth Man, a hippie holdout who lives on kitchen scraps. To pinpoint the killer, Jill will have to remember what it means to be fearless.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Susan Dunlap including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
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About the Author
Susan Dunlap is a prolific author of mystery novels. Born in New York City, Dunlap majored in English at Bucknell University and earned a masters degree in education from the University of North Carolina. She was a social worker before an Agatha Christie novel inspired her to try her hand at writing mysteries. Six attempts and six years later, she published Karma (1981), which began a ten-book series about brash Berkeley cop Jill Smith.
Since then, Dunlap has published more than twenty novels and numerous short stories. Her other ongoing characters include the meter-reading detective Vejay Haskell, former forensic pathologist Kiernan O’Shaughnessy, and Zen student/stunt double Darcy Lott. In addition to writing, Dunlap has taught yoga, worked as a paralegal, and helped found Sisters in Crime, an organization created to support women in the field of mystery writing. She lives near San Francisco.
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A Dinner to Die For
By Susan Dunlap
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Susan Dunlap
All rights reserved.
Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto: One Bite Too Many? p.54.
I stared at the glossy in-flight magazine as the 747 headed west toward the Sierras and then on into Oakland International Airport. Beside me the window looked out on darkness. The lights of Reno were off to the right, the captain had just announced, but I couldn't make myself look down.
On the flight to Florida I had insisted on an aisle seat. Now, a month later, I was better. I had ridden in a car without covertly bracing my feet against the floorboards; I had progressed from merely turning my head toward the side window when we crossed the Florida drawbridges, to staring into the distance, stiffly pretending there was no water below, to taking quick glances at it. Toward the end of the month, my throat had ceased to tighten as much, my stomach hadn't jumped as much, or maybe by then I was bracing my neck and stomach so automatically that they seemed normal that way. From the bare rise of the drawbridges the water beneath no longer looked as if it were gushing up to swallow me.
But the bridges had been only thirty feet above the water. They had just been practice for today. Soon, I promised myself, I would look down—when we started to descend toward Oakland; I would look down.
But not yet. I still had a few more minutes' respite between the charade of healthiness I had performed for my parents all month and the tough facade I'd need when the plane landed. It wouldn't do for a homicide detective to admit to panic, particularly not a woman detective.
Clutching my remaining moments, I turned to page 54 of the magazine. It was a collage of Berkeley history and gastronomy: photos of Mario Savio leading the Free Speech Movement of the sixties; National Guardsmen pointing rifles at the People's Park marchers of the early seventies; the vine-covered gate of Chez Panisse, Berkeley's most famous restaurant; a couple eating tapas by the fire in Augusta's; and Mitch Biekma in the eccentric front yard of Paradise, the newest of the gourmet restaurants in town. It was hard to tell from the picture whether Mitch Biekma, the spiked-haired owner of Paradise, was looking down at his front garden or at the text of the article superimposed over it. Whichever, it seemed to amuse him.
The loudspeaker cackled. My breath caught. The speaker clicked off—no word of descent yet. The air flooded out from the overhead nozzle; it was too warm. Why couldn't they regulate these planes? The man next to me shifted in his sleep, sending out waves of sickly sweet after-shave. Tensely, I stared at the photo of Biekma, following his glance to the printed text:
The city of Berkeley, California, sits next to San Francisco Bay, almost as far west as you can get, or, some would say, as far left. Berkeley has a long and flamboyant history of radical politics. The Free Speech Movement on the University of California campus there gave birth to the student protests that would change the next two decades. Berkeley is a nuclear-free zone, and a sanctuary city. But when it came to pollution, this bastion of peace turned really militant, blocking off streets, installing the most expensive metered parking in the area, and mandating nonsmoking sections in every restaurant. That militancy peaked to crusade proportions in city council elections, bitter campaigns between the infantry of the radical slate and the flying columns arrayed against it. Even elections for the board of the Berkeley Co-op food stores have been major skirmishes.
But there's a flip side to those Spartan warriors, an epicurean side. In recent years Berkeleyans have been abandoning the organic lettuce and alfalfa sprouts of their co-ops for the gourmet greens in Park and Shop, a chain which has been called the wonderland of supermarkets. Stalwarts who once walked picket lines now queue up for reservations at gourmet restaurants. What they spend on one dinner would support a striker's family for a week. Has Berkeley gone the way of the yuppie?
I smacked the magazine down on my knee, startling the after-shave-coated man to my left. His head twitched, his shoulders jumped, but his eyes remained closed. Who was this—I looked back at page 54—this Lee Lewis, and where did he or she get off with this smug tone about my city?
I almost smiled. I hadn't realized how much I missed Berkeley. After a month convalescing at my parents'—a month of hearing their friends brag of chairmen-of-the-board sons and mother-of-four daughters, of seeing pictures of babies that all looked alike; a month of tearful entreaties to find a job that wouldn't endanger my life, to find a husband who would take care of me, to move to a real house—I longed for the Berkeley that cherished the freedom of nonconformity, the Berkeley that honored those who postponed real jobs with health insurance and dental plans in order to write poetry, design leaded-glass windows, or collect unsalable but edible food from the groceries to feed the hungry. And I longed for the innocence of my life before I had been forced to realize it could end at any moment.
That life had died when the helicopter crashed. I could have died. But I hadn't, and I wasn't about to take the chance of waiting again. I'd given notice on my flat. Now I didn't know where I would be living. (I would be house-sitting somewhere in town for the next month.) I didn't even know what the status was between Seth Howard and me. Before the crash we had been buddies, buddies with the suggestion of something more dancing ever out of reach. Afterwards, we'd tacitly acknowledged things were different. Different how, we hadn't discussed. I didn't know if Howard knew. I wasn't sure I did.
"In preparation for landing we ask that you bring your seat backs to an upright position, and put your tray tables up," a stewardess announced. "Please extinguish cigarettes at this time. It will be necessary to collect all glasses and cups now." The plane sucked back as it began the first slowing of descent. Engines roared in protest. My stomach jumped. Slowly, I turned my head to face the black square of the window. But the 747 window faded; it was the rain-streaked window of the helicopter cockpit I saw, with the copter reeling a thousand yards above the bay waters. I pressed my eyes shut. There was no need to look down yet. The captain hadn't said we were landing. He hadn't mentioned Oakland, officially. I didn't have to look down.
Pushing away the memory of that cockpit, of the cold bay wind that streaked through the open doors, I breathed in the safe jumbo-jet air and stared down at the magazine.
From the stridently heralded Spartan ideals of the sixties, the rise of the Gourmet Ghetto was an abrupt about-face into the lap—or the palate—of conspicuous consumption. Within a few-block area surrounding Shattuck Avenue in north Berkeley, the eager gourmet can find a variety of pâtés, truffles, cheese from French Raclette to Spanish Manchego, fresh arugula and wood blewit mushrooms, just-caught coho salmon, whole-bean decaffeinated Sumatra coffee or Darjeeling Extra Fancy Selimbong tea.
But, in fact, the Gourmet Ghetto is not merely a long-suppressed burst into epicurean materialism; the California Cuisine, which is the mainstay of the Ghetto, could have been born few other places. It needed the sophistication the university graduates brought to it. It needed their fond memories of sun-dried tomatoes in Salerno, mâche lettuce in Nice. And it needed the old leftist ethic of Berkeley, the willingness to forego big bucks and retirement plans in order to create exquisite experience. Disdaining any but the freshest ingredients—baby carrots grown in friends' gardens, goat cheese from goats with bloodlines worthy of a Hohenzollern—these largely self-taught chefs (many with some European training) have transformed the heaviness of continental cuisine by such innovations as the use of pureed vegetables instead of flour to thicken sauces. In the time-honored Berkeley tradition, they've experimented, viewing ingredients from wholly new angles, using them in untried ways, mixing fruits with meats and making little-known items like radicchio and rocket into household (or gourmet kitchen) words.
From the corner of Shattuck and Vine one need walk no more than three blocks to nearly thirty restaurants, gourmet shops, or boutiques—more than some entire states could boast.
Are those Berkeleyans who vied to discover the newest "in" cafe grateful for the availability of fresh mangoes, champagne sausages, and Pont l'Évêque cheese within one block? The answer is no. Transcending epicurism, Berkeleyans have come to realize man lives not by brioche alone. There is a higher need. That need is parking.
Rising rents have squeezed out hardware stores and shoe repair shops; neighbors are forced to drive across town for nongourmet necessities. And they return to find a BMW from Pleasant Hill or Walnut Creek parked in front of their houses while the drivers settle in for dinner at Paradise.
But in Berkeley tradition, the city council has come through for these curb-robbed underdogs. In doing so, it has produced yet another first: the Gourmet Ghetto Ordinance. The ordinance limits the number of restaurants and boutiques in the area to twenty-seven. Now the Nouvelle Croissant cannot open till the Old Bun goes under. Where will it end—this all-out war—creature comfort pitted against creature comfort? "A chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage" are no longer compatible in Berkeley.
Cont. on p. 86
But I didn't continue. I had had enough. The plane jolted back; the engine roar increased. Was it always this loud? I stuffed the magazine into the seat pocket, knocking the sleeper's knee. He jerked awake, launching a gaggingly sweet tidal wave. My tight stomach jumped, setting off its own wave of bile. I grabbed the armrests. On duty I had seen corpses with faces shattered by bullets, or smashed past recognition; I'd seen bodies so decomposed they were hardly recognizable as human. I'd controlled the urge to throw up then. I damn well wasn't going to do it now.
"Good timing, huh?" he said, leaning in front of me to stare out the window. "Just about ready to hit the ground. That must be—what—Concord, Walnut Creek down there?"
I exhaled against the smell, and nodded.
"That's the airport! And Oakland. Look, you can see the streetlights."
I didn't look. I squeezed my eyes shut. But the specter of the helicopter cockpit engulfed me: the briny smell of the air; the maelstrom whipping my hair; the sharp edge of the seat belt cutting my stomach as the copter flopped from side to side. I grabbed for the controls. It was too late. I couldn't get the nose up; the ship plummeted toward the icy bay water.
My eyes sprang open. Swallowing hard, I stared at the tray-table latch in front of me, imprinting it on my mind to block out the moment when the copter hit. The engines shrieked and the floor of the plane seemed to slide forward as the seat recoiled. In a minute we'd be on the ground. There was no time to baby myself now. The helicopter crash was in the past; over; done. I had now to deal with. I had to look down. Haltingly, I turned my head. Hands clutching the armrests, I moved my gaze inch by inch down the scarred plastic of the window, from the black of the sky, down to the muted streetlights of the tree-covered hills, lower to Oakland and the blur of white lights. Holding my breath, I stared at them till they cleared into individual dots, white mixed with lines of yellow, specks of green and red.
The plane vibrated mightily. Metal rattled. I forced my gaze down. Brighter lines of white—the runways. Black—the bay. My stomach lurched, bile shot into my throat, my fingers ached from the pressure on the armrests. The engine's roar cut silent. My eyes closed. I tried to force them open. They didn't move. The plane bounced. It was down. The impact slammed me forward against the seat belt. I heard a gasp. It had to be my own. The plane had landed. Safely.
"Please remain seated till the aircraft has come to a stop," the stewardess begged in vain.
Sweat sheeted my back, dripped from my armpits, coated my face. I inhaled into lungs still locked in fear. Slowly my eyes opened. The man in the aisle seat jumped up, and popped open the overhead luggage rack. The man next to me undid his seat belt and slid into the aisle seat. And then the overhead lights were on, everyone was up, everyone was talking to everyone else, squeezing into the aisles.
I slumped forward, my head throbbing with humiliation. I had had my chance and I had blown it.
There would be other chances; I wasn't going to live my life as a coward. But, for now, all I could do was carry a sponge and pail for the sweat, and make damn sure no one on the force found out.CHAPTER 2
On the cab ride from the airport I grumbled to myself about Howard's not meeting me. "Out on a sting," his message at the airline counter had said. How important was this sting? My question made me realize how long I'd been away. The implicit demand that he postpone collaring the perpetrators is one no cop should make. Least of all to Howard.
Howard is the department's great sting artist. He loves them. He sets them up like a quarterback drawing the defensive backs in closer and closer with each running play, each short drop pass, watching with glee as each play pulls the defensive perps in tighter, till, barely able to contain his glee, he steps back in the pocket, pumps and then pulls the ball back in, watches the defensive perps blitzing in toward him, scrambles left and lets go with the bomb. He's the Joe Montana of Vice and Substance Abuse.
I sat back in the cab, watching the foggy June streets of Berkeley pass. Spring and fall are supposed to be our best seasons. Winter is cold and rainy, summer cold and foggy. This year June must have joined summer.
The cab turned off University Avenue and began climbing into the north Berkeley hills toward the address Connie Pereira had given me. As she had said in her letter, I would be living out of my element, house-sitting for an investment banker friend of hers. It wasn't till the cab pulled up that I realized what kind of friends she had. The house was a palace. In the driveway my Volkswagen that Connie had delivered looked like a toy.
I spent the first half hour just wandering from room to room to room. The living room alone could have held the ten-by-forty converted porch I had lived in for two years, and still have had half its space free to hold the baby grand piano, the two Herendon sofas on either side of the stone fireplace, and the "conversation pod" at the far end of the room. The dining room looked like a set from "Masterpiece Theatre." And the kitchen! There would be no more rinsing out coffee cups in what had been the basement utility sink. Now my decision was whether to pour from the Mr. Coffee, use the Melitta, or find out how to work the espresso machine; whether to pour the coffee into the silver pot and carry it down to the family room, or back to the bay window in the dining room that overlooked San Francisco (or would have if the fog hadn't been so thick), or drink it in the kitchen while pondering the Cuisinart, four ovens—standard, wall, and microwaves, regular and mini—and the freezer that held enough food to stake a Gourmet Ghetto restaurant for a night. But I'm not the best person to judge—I don't cook. There are things that the average person takes for granted that I've never cared to learn—the meaning of sauté, for instance. Junk food is fine by me. But even I realized the stuff in the freezer was gourmet. This was definitely out of my element.
Then there was the breakfast nook, the lanai, the sauna, the hot tub-Jacuzzi, and the four bedrooms. Briefly, I considered sleeping in the guest room. No, if I was going to take my life by the horns now, I might as well do it in the master bedroom, where I would need to pad just ten or twelve feet, across carpet thick enough to lose my ankles in, to the Jacuzzi-equipped tub for two.
Looking at the bed in there—king-sized, of course; anything smaller would have looked ridiculous—I felt the weight of the day's tension land on my back, as if it had been released from a sack above me. It was only sixP.M., still light, even through the fog. I extricated a nightshirt from one of my suitcases and crawled into the bed—and found myself shaking.
I pulled the covers closer around my chin, and thought of Howard—Howard who, after a month's separation, hadn't met me at the airport. I wasn't angry. I was too drained for anger. Was I disappointed? Maybe. No, not so much disappointed as relieved.
Excerpted from A Dinner to Die For by Susan Dunlap. Copyright © 1987 Susan Dunlap. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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