When a PI vanishes and leaves a body in his office, it’s up to Jill Smith to pick up the pieces
Jill knows something’s wrong with Herman Ott as soon as she sees him on the patio at the Claremont Hotel. A perpetually broke ex-hippie private investigator, Ott is known around town for owning a wardrobe of nothing but yellow second-hand clothes. Yet today he wears all black, and after asking Jill to meet him at Berkeley’s most elegant hotel, he clams up and refuses to explain why he needsto see her. Apologizing, he asks her to call him an hour later. Jill obliges, but Ott never answers his phone.
And the next day, inside Ott’s office, she finds a body. Jill doesn’t know what kind of trouble Ott is in, but if she doesn’t find him soon, his notorious yellow suit may be marred with a dash of blood red.
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 Jill Smith Mystery
By Susan Dunlap
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Susan Dunlap
All rights reserved.
"Ott, you are an ass."
Ott said nothing. He didn't even look abashed. What he looked like was a molting canary perched on an ostrich's egg—and all the time swearing there was nothing in his nest.
"Nothing!" I continued. "When you called me an hour ago, you were sitting on something so big you couldn't wait to give it to me. Too big to keep till tomorrow when I'm back on patrol and being paid for wild-goose chases like this."
His arms were bent, and he moved them in and out, winglike, as if he were a giant yellow bird perched precariously on that big egg of what he had decided he couldn't tell me and had to flap like crazy to keep from falling off.
Which brought me back to my original thought. In fairness Herman Ott, private detective to the counterculture, looked as uncomfortable as I'd ever seen him. And here, on the grounds of Berkeley's venerable, elegant Claremont Hotel, it was hard to say whether he looked more disdainful-than-thou or just awkward.
I'd been to his sorry Telegraph Avenue office more often than I cared to recall. Never had he let me in before my third knock, never had he answered a question without a battle, and never, never had he been dressed in anything but garments in various hues of yellow—and all from Goodwill. Now he stood in the farthest corner of the landscaped parking lot behind a luxurious fan palm, overlooking two silver Mercedeses. His sparse blond hair was combed back, his white shirt was ironed, and a handkerchief peeked out of his jacket pocket. The man was almost overdressed.
"Ott, don't tell me you went out and bought a black suit—"
"Used." He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, spilling a tiny tin cross that came to a sharp bottom point.
"You got a funeral suit and religion too?" I couldn't quite conceal a smirk.
Ott stuffed the wee cross back in place and gave a ferocious blow into his white hankie, wadded it back up, and plugged it into the pocket, thus destroying any decent line the trousers might have had.
"You're dressed to kill—"
"Smith, you been a cop too long." He glared.
For an instant I took that look to be a sartorial indictment of my jeans and Polartec jacket. Then I remembered to whom I was talking. "You've never had the urge to get gussied up and meet a cop at a fancy hotel before. But here you are, decked out like a penguin. All so you can tell me that what you called me here for isn't important anymore. Come on, Ott."
"If it's so unimportant, why not just tell me what it is?"
This time he didn't even bother with movement.
"Fine," I snapped. "The next time you've got an emergency, when you don't want to deal with a Berkeley police officer who isn't as incredibly tolerant as I am, I'll remember this masquerade." I turned toward the driveway. "I'm missing the Raiders game, and I've got a houseful of guests waiting for me to—"
"Smith, just bear with me, huh?" Ott's sloping shoulders rose. To the untrained eye he'd have looked almost normal. To mine, his stance shrieked fear. "I, can't tell you now. Maybe I should've waited before I called you. Look, I'm sorry you're not home to be the perfect hostess—"
"Don't give me that condescension."
He shook his head. "You're a cop; you don't need a gridiron to watch overpaid brutes shortening each other's lives."
I started toward the driveway.
He grabbed my arm and said words I didn't think his mouth could pronounce: "I'm sorry." Then he added, "Just give me till tomorrow, and I'll explain the whole thing."
He sounded pitiful, desperate, trying his best to hold off overwhelming forces pushing in from all directions. His whole being implored: Surely one day's grace is little enough to ask.
But I had given him grace periods before. I'd put investigations on hold, and my reputation on the line, only to discover the next day that Herman Ott hadn't answered his phone or opened his door. I unpeeled his hand. "Wait till tomorrow? Right. That's the kind of agreement that ends up with someone getting killed before sunrise."
I said it as a riposte. I never expected it to be true.CHAPTER 2
Ott grabbed at me one last time, as it suddenly came home to him just who would be watching the Raiders game at Seth Howard's and my house. "Don't tell all those cops—"
"Don't worry, Ott. I'm not about to confess that I spend my Sunday afternoons with you." I stared at his odd black suit and tie. "I'm giving you an hour. That's plenty of time for you to get me this great secret."
"Of course you can. You call me by five o'clock, or even a disguise as good as this isn't going to save you." I hesitated, but I couldn't resist a final dig. "I suppose you're waiting for the valet parking attendant to bring your car around."
For a moment I thought he'd gone mute with horror. "Emma in a pay lot?" With that he stalked off, doffing his jacket as he went. By the time he reached the sidewalk it was wadded up under his arm, leaving the tail of his overlarge shirt hanging rumpled to his knees.
Ott was a self-righteous pain in the ass. And the worst part was there was nothing I could say about it. Had he been anyone else, I could have gone home and regaled the very cops he had disparaged with this afternoon's farce, right down to his car, Emma, which had been named for Emma Goldman. We could have had a ball speculating on the famous anarchist's reaction to that vehicular tribute. My guess was she'd have reacted the same way Ott had to the idea of parking in a pay lot.
But that wouldn't happen, because while Ott was a pain in the ass, he was my pain, and I felt a ridiculous protectiveness toward him. Other cops rightly saw him as a pest who relished impeding their work. But for me, Ott was a breath from a bygone era of hope and promise. He was the private eye to artists, old radicals, the strung-out and worn-out, clients from whom no investigator could make a living. I couldn't guess how scant his living was; there were months he probably got more threats than dollars. He ate off a hot plate in his office, slept on the floor there, never compromised his principles, and answered to no one.
As it turned out, there was only one visitor's car in the driveway of the shambling brown shingle Howard leased and loved and I lived in and tolerated. I glanced at my watch: 4:27. The game wouldn't have ended till 4:00 or later. The speed with which the majority of our guests had abandoned ship spoke ill for the Raiders. When I walked in, the living room looked the way the Oakland Coliseum must have by the fourth quarter: huge, nearly vacant, and littered with empty cans, broken chips, and the detritus of mixed nuts. It smelled similar. And it probably wasn't much warmer.
The living room was a large, high-ceilinged L connecting with the dining area. Like a ladder folded down from an attic the staircase from the second-floor balcony dropped into the middle of the room. Clearly more than one of our landlord's predecessors had remodeled, and had done so without the assistance of an architect.
"Beer?" Howard offered, unfolding his six-foot-six frame from the Danish modern sofa. He was halfway to the kitchen before I nodded. This rambling house with its cavernous green living room and too many bedrooms was perfect for a man who craved a downstairs area bulging with friends, bedrooms bulging with children, and weekends bulging with structural renovations. People talk about the police being "family." Howard, who grew up largely alone, flourished among dozens of brothers and sisters in blue. Others had dreams beyond the department, but for Howard, the Elysian Fields were here.
Sometimes I wondered what had attracted him to a woman who bristled at departmental orders, had lived on a back porch for two years, and still hadn't unpacked her boxes here. He offered me a grin, handed me the beer, dropped back onto the sofa next to me, and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. "Too bad everyone's gone."
"Hey!" Connie Pereira barked. "What am I, crab dip?"
"Almost," Howard said, laughing.
Connie Pereira was perched on the edge of a leather ottoman, whose companion chair had vanished with a tenant before my time. The ottoman was surprisingly uncomfortable, but it gave Connie easy access to the pretzels and crab dip on the coffee table. The standing joke between Howard and me was that Pereira was the puppy we'd never had.
"So, Jill, what was it with Ott that couldn't wait?" I could hear the edge in Howard's voice.
"He changed his mind."
"He what?" Howard's indignation was endearing in its way.
I sighed. "I gave him till five."
"And you really think he'll call you?"
"Lay off," I said. "I've already had it out with Ott. He'll call, or I'll deal with him."
Howard leaned forward as if to speak, then shrugged and sat back on the sofa. There was no point in going on. We'd snapped about Ott before; nothing new was going to come out today.
"A Fair Deal's coming on." Pereira grabbed the remote and switched to the public access channel. "They always do cases where somebody's pissed off at some bureaucracy, but today is a special deal. Today's case is the Telegraph Avenue street vendors against none other than Brother Cyril and the Angels of Righteousness."
Howard straightened up. Now that he was a patrol sergeant, the denizens of Telegraph Avenue—Berkeley's answer to Greenwich Village—had a new spot in his heart. "Brother Cyril's being mediated? What for? That guy's not on the Avenue looking for converts; he's looking for trouble."
I curled my feet under me. "Cyril and his band of thugs. If that bunch is holy, it'll be a real miracle."
"The miracle will be if Bryant Hemming can mediate anything with them," Howard said. "Compromise is the last thing they want."
Pereira held a well-loaded chip inches from her mouth, contemplating it like an intriguing idea. "Hemming's never blown a mediation, not since the show began."
"It looks like this might be a first time."
"Ten bucks says he isn't. Ten on Bryant Hemming."
Howard laughed. "Ten says the righteous punks take out Hemming before the first commercial."
On the TV, game show music announced A Fair Deal. I took a swallow of my beer.
Bryant Hemming burst onto the TV stage like a running back. He had an ordinary face and light brown hair, but when he smiled, the man looked like a star. He virtually glowed. And he aimed that glow right into the camera—right, it seemed, at me. Pereira was holding a loaded chip and smiling back.
Hemming sat and leaned toward the camera. "On A Fair Deal our goal is not for some outside judgment but a solution everyone supports. It's a matter of listening to the other guy and ourselves, of acknowledging what we both really want. Then we come out with a plan we all support. That plan works, it lasts, because we're all in it together, which is what makes it"—he paused and the camera drew back—"a fair deal."
"The guy's had death threats," Pereira said.
"From Cyril's boys?"
"Probably. They're not likely to have been from the postmaster or the head of A.C. Transit—they were on the short end of Hemming's last two mediations—but any crazy in town could be after him. Bryant Hemming's turned into the gonzo frog of Berkeley public access TV."
"Biggest frog in the puddle eh, Connie?" Howard asked.
On his bare-bones set Bryant Hemming was smiling as confidently as if he'd made it to a network feed. "Well, my friends, what would Berkeley be without a clash of wills, of thoughts, of hard-held beliefs? A real shock, huh?" He chuckled. "And it'd be downright boring. But not to worry, you're in no danger of dozing off here. Not with our case tonight, our toughest case of the season. No matter what your convictions, this dispute's going to bring you up cold." He leaned forward. "We all know Berkeley's commitment to freedom of speech. The free speech movement was born here. But what about freedom of commerce? The city's had a rep as being down on business. When freedom of speech comes up against freedom of commerce, which side are you on? Don't be so sure you know!" He wasn't rubbing his hands together, but I guessed it was sheer will that kept him from it.
With a flourish he motioned toward a woman with long, wiry brown hair and jeweled bangles on every enclaspable portion of her body. "Demanding freedom of commerce, we have Serenity Kaetz, of the Telegraph Avenue Street Vendors. She has a display on Telegraph."
"She is a display on Telegraph," Howard muttered as the lights bounced off her silver breastplate.
"Where else is she going to get free advertising broadcast to households all over town?" Pereira said, scooping up a hillock of dip with her chip. "The reason people come on the show is publicity. Getting their problems mediated, that's just the chance they take."
But when Serenity Kaetz started to speak, she wasn't jiggling her head to show off her earrings. And she looked anything but serene. She poked her elbows into her thighs, hands out at the ready. "Here's the thing. I design this jewelry. I won't tell you how long it takes me to make one inlaid cuff. But, so what, I'm an artist; that's what I do," she said, palms up, voice so clearly Bronx that I smiled. She reminded me of my great-uncle's neighbor in the apartment on the Grand Concourse, a buxom, bustling woman with the face of a determined cherub. "You want I should come back from the deli with half a bag?" she'd say, staring accusingly at Uncle Jack's sparsely filled kitchen shelves. She must have been half the age of my great-uncle and his friends in the building, but her comments were greeted with thoughtful nods, and she was always addressed as Mrs. Bronfmann. And one day she met a Spanish exchange student on the crosstown bus and never came back.
"Bryant," Serenity Kaetz was saying now, "I'm an artist, but I also run a business. I have to jump the bureaucratic hurdles just like anyone who wants to add a porch to his house or an awning over his display window. The city made me go before a board to prove I am the maker of this necklace, this ring. That's fine; good the city should be so committed to art I had to wait three years for my license; I'm not complaining."
"On A Fair Deal we go beyond complaining to finding solutions."
If she noticed the little whine in his chiding, she ignored it. She gave him that same smile Mrs. Bronfmann used to offer to Uncle Jack when he insisted that he didn't need nice fresh carrots. "Every two months Berkeley runs a lottery for spots along Telegraph. A week each, eight total. Some weeks I don't make the list at all. Half the time the slots aren't worth having. So I'm talking one, two weeks a month max when I can sell my work. Serenity's Jewelry," she added.
"So what you're asking us is?"
"Telegraph Avenue—the street—is my store. I pay for my license. I want the city to protect my rights. A couple years ago we had the nudists, stopping at the tie dye stalls, resting their wares on our wares, and you know damned well they weren't planning to buy shirts. Then we've got the drug dealers ... and the panhandlers begging for money they're just going to plop in the hands of the dealers. This year we've got these religious assholes moving down the Avenue, running off our customers. And the city just lets them go screaming and pushing—"
Hemming put a hand on her arm.
"We demand our rights."
The camera panned the audience. The half cheering theatrically were women in tie dye, men with Crisco'd Mohawks, girls with hair every shade food color will provide, guys in turbans, berets, fedoras, and one with six snakeskin belts encircling his chest and a snake over his shoulder. Across the aisle close-clipped scowling men in black looked anything but righteous. The angels they resembled were Hell's Angels. They sat as if they were straddling hogs, legs apart, hands poised to rev up and mow down anyone in their way. Patience and forbearance looked like virgin ground for these guys.
Bryant Hemming's brow tightened. There'd never been a free-for-all on the show, but his expression said: There's always a first time.
Excerpted from Cop Out by Susan Dunlap. Copyright © 1997 Susan Dunlap. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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