To escape arrest for her best friend’s murder, Vejay must find the real killer—before it’s too late
In the small woodsy town of Henderson, California, the electric company is strict about sick days. So when meterreader Vejay Haskell decides to play hooky, her first concern is staying out of sight. She skirts around the edge of town, making her way to Frank’s Place, a cozy saloon owned by her friend Frank Goulet. After two cups of hot buttered rum, they have an argument and she storms out into the pouring rain. She goes home, takes a nap, and awakens sober, embarrassed, and ready to apologize. But by the time she gets back to Frank’s bar, he is dead. Vejay was seen leaving Frank’s house in a huff, and her lack of an alibi combined with her suspicious sick day makes her the number-one suspect. As the police close in on her, Vejay turns detective in search of Frank’s real killer. It’s a perilous task, but she has one advantage when she puts on her work clothes: Nobody ever notices the meterreader.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Susan Dunlap including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
An Equal Opportunity Death is the 1st book in the Vejay Haskell Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Susan Dunlap (b. 1943) is a prolific author of mystery novels. Born in the suburbs of New York, Dunlap majored in English at Bucknell College and earned a masters in teaching from the University of North Carolina. She was a social worker before an Agatha Christie novel inspired her to try her hand writing mysteries. Five attempts and five 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, medical examiner Kiernan O’Shaugnessy, and Zen student turned detective Darcy Loft. In addition to writing, Dunlap has taught yoga, worked as a paralegal, and helped found the women’s mystery organization Sisters In Crime. She lives in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
An Equal Opportunity Death
A Vejay Haskell Mystery
By Susan Dunlap
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Susan Dunlap
All rights reserved.
It was cold in my parlor that morning, the day Frank Goulet died. I didn't realize how long it took to warm the room, with only the fireplace for heat.
Normally I didn't have time to notice the cold. I downed my coffee as I raced between the bedroom, the kitchen, and the bath, grabbing clothes and putting on make-up, always almost late for work. Lateness is frowned upon by Pacific Gas and Electric, the local utility company and my employer. Occasionally, I had gotten up this early on a weekend, but that had been in summer, or autumn. But now it was March, it was raining, and the room was freezing.
This was my first self-proclaimed holiday. I had to get up early enough to call in sick. And having committed myself to that lie, I couldn't be seen outside, in perfect health, indeed, in better spirits than if I had been at work—trudging up the endless wooden staircases that led to endless charming wooden houses nestled in the redwoods along the Russian River. Reading electricity meters endlessly.
I started to Thompson's Grocery for the newspaper, then realized I couldn't go there. The grocery was right in Henderson, and Joe and Elsa Thompson saw me every day, often two to three times a day, as I rushed in for essentials or an emergency chocolate bar.
I felt like a spy avoiding the omnipresent eyes of PG&E. Playing out the fantasy, I drove twelve miles to an anonymous truck stop on Route 101, the main north-south freeway between San Francisco and the Oregon border, to buy my paper.
There, having breakfast in a booth twenty feet from the cash register, were two people from town—Madge Oombs, who ran an antique store of sorts, and Skip Bollo, the realtor who sold me my house. An odd couple. Madge was a sturdy, no-nonsense, Henderson-born woman who had created a surprisingly decent business out of other people's discards. She had outlived one husband and outlasted another, and had the lowest electric usage level of anyone on my route. Skip Bollo was middle-aged, comfortably tweedy, and gay.
Normally I would trot over for a few words and, with luck, sate my curiosity. But today, I pulled up the hood of my slicker, which sent a stream of water down my back, and hurried out.
Shielded from view by the steady rain, I drove home. Then, with a mound of scrambled eggs, a pot of coffee, and my newspaper in front of me, I sat by the inadequate fire, feeling deliciously illicit.
The furniture came with the house—heavy floral pieces from the fifties that belonged in pine-panelled rooms. I adjusted the overstuffed reading chair and its ottoman so that my feet were nearly in the fire, refilled my coffee cup, and started through the paper.
I read the articles about the Russian River area, savoring the crime and scandal. There was another foul-up in the construction of the sewer system that was already two years and five million dollars over estimate. The pipes didn't fit together! And burglaries. In summer the Russian River provided San Franciscans with a rustic resort in the redwoods that was only two hours away, with fishing and swimming, or a short drive over to the Pacific Ocean. In winter their untended houses were the bread and butter of local burglars. Housebreaking was almost as big a business as marijuana. Burglaries never even made the paper. But this year a professor had brought ten Chinese religious plates to his house and within a week they were gone. That had garnered the attention of the state police, caused comments from every city and county official, and filled news space for the past two months. Today's column pondered whether the crime had signaled the entry of outside forces into the area, or if it had merely been a bonanza for local thieves.
By eleven o'clock, the paper discarded, the coffeepot empty, and the parlor still nowhere near warm, I began to tire of the game of hooky. I considered driving to the city—to San Francisco. I still had plenty of friends there. But, of course, they would be at work. I had friends here, too, whom I couldn't see today. I had chores that had been put off for days, weeks, ever since I bought the house last year. But an illicit sick day couldn't be demeaned by work.
A steady rain hit the windows, creating a transparent curtain between the house and the redwoods beyond. Outside, the ground was soft from the constant rainfall of the last three months. There had been landslides, but not bad ones. The Russian River was filling; there was no question but that it would flood.
I carried the breakfast dishes through the dining room to the kitchen, put them in the sink, and stared out the window at the water trailing down the hillside. The bedroom was off the kitchen, the farthest point from the fireplace. It never got warm in there. When I thought about sitting on my bed and writing letters, I realized I was procrastinating. And what I was avoiding was going to see Frank Goulet.
Leaving the dishes to soak, I grabbed my yellow slicker and so camouflaged, crept down the steps (fifty-two in all) from the house. The steps formed a sloping Z from the house to the garage. At the top corner a growing torrent of water flowed over the landing, forcing me to hang on to the none-too-sturdy railing (fixing it was a longstanding item on my list of chores). Only fairly wet, I made it to the garage and climbed into my pickup truck.
The river was high, but still six to eight feet below flood stage. I crossed the old bridge and drove down the macadam past the canoe rental that Paul and Patsy Fernandez managed. In summer, when the tourists filled every rented room and camped on the river benches, Paul and Patsy were busy until long after sunset. But now the boats were up and the building looked deserted, except for a dim light in the back. Only those of us who knew them well were aware they were living in the storeroom.
Businesses were mixed in with guest houses along South Bank Road, and Frank's Place sat back from the road—a one-story, white, shingle structure raised five feet above street level and overlooking the river. The guest houses on either side were strictly summer operations, now closed, with furniture safe on the second floor. Their owners wouldn't come back to Henderson till after the flooding, in time to wash out the mud.
Frank's Place looked closed too, but I knew that a knock would get me inside. I pulled the pickup around back, got out and peeked through the glass in the door. The interior of Frank's Place was nothing like its outside. It was cozy, panelled (like most older buildings along the river), with gilt-framed landscapes on the walls. I could see the bar, and behind it, I spotted Frank.
Frank pushed open the door. "Come in, Veronica."
He shrugged. "Very well, Vejay, but it is a bit adolescent to change your name. And Veronica is a lovely name. It has history. Vejay is just ..."
"Adolescent?" I laughed and climbed up on the bar stool, the rainboots heavy on my feet. Looking at Frank Goulet as he walked behind the bar, it was still clear what had attracted me and every other new woman in Henderson to him. He was low-keyed, enjoyed bantering with customers, liked being "Frank" of Frank's Place; he seemed comfortable with himself. He was maybe five-ten, not tall enough to challenge men to whom height mattered, but taller than most women. His light brown hair was just wiry enough to suggest that any moment it might snap back into little-boy curls. His eyes were blue, his skin sufficiently weathered to save him from the suggestion of effeteness (an important distinction in an area receiving a wave of gay emigrants from San Francisco). He wore the heavy gray fishing sweater favored by local fishing families. On Frank it looked not like the grubby garment of the docks, but rather like a sailing sweater. The city emigrants, gay and straight, found it a charming adaptation, and the old-time locals felt it signaled Frank's opting for them.
"Are you taking lunch early?" he asked.
"No, I'm sick."
"You don't look sick."
"In the eyes of PG&E, I have the flu."
"Oh. Does that mean the lights will go out all over town?"
"Alas. I don't quite have that power. All it signifies is that today's meters will be read tomorrow."
He leaned over the bar. "All those utility customers, standing by their meters, anxiously shifting from foot to foot, waiting for the big moment. Such disappointment."
"You, at least, can relax. I've already read your meter. And I meant to talk to you about it."
"Oh, no. Caught."
"No, no. You just ought to have your wiring checked. Most of the business tamperings are low—really gross underreadings. Sometimes I wonder if businessmen think PG&E hires only the retarded or the blind. I mean, when a grocery installs a new freezer and their consumption goes down, come on...."
He laughed, a little-boy laugh that spread over his whole face.
"So what about me?" he said, the laughter absent from his voice.
"A little nervous, eh?"
When Frank didn't respond, I continued. "Relax. Your usage is really high. You're paying too much. You need your meter checked and probably your wiring. It's easy to do and it can save you fifty or sixty bucks a month."
"My bills aren't that high."
"Wait till you see this one. Yours was higher than usual last month, but the jump this month is outrageous. Something needs to be repaired. Either you have a pump that's not turning off, or a freezer on all the time, or your wiring in general is going. In any case, it's not going to fix itself."
"Okay, okay. When I get the chance, I'll think about it."
"In the meantime you will go on making charitable contributions to your local utility."
"It's not that much. I'll worry about it later. But now, how about a hot buttered rum for a sick lady?"
"It'll do the trick at any hour."
"Okay, you're the bartender."
The rain poured down the outside of the windows behind the bar. In summer I had looked through them at the river. Frank had window boxes under them filled with pink and white impatiens. I had kidded him about his nice grandmotherly touch. But now the warmth of the room steamed the windows, turning them into foggy mirrors. As Frank heated the rum I eyed my impressionistic reflection. I could make out the brown hair hanging limp to my shoulders. I probably did look sick. When I had lived and worked in San Francisco, my hair had been short, cut in a crisp, competent account executive style. It had been one of my accouterments that said: This is a woman on her way up. And when I moved to the river, the hairstyle was the first thing to go.
Still, I did have some make-up on, and I wasn't wearing khaki brown, so I must have looked better than I did at work.
"Your rum, my dear."
"Thanks. Aren't you going to join me?"
Frank hesitated. I suppose that question came up way too often for a bar owner.
"Sure. It'll be a slow day. Actually, real slow for me. I'm going to San Francisco late this afternoon."
"To see old friends?"
"Maybe. Two years takes its toll. I see fewer of the people I knew when I was living there. But it's still great to go back."
"Where did you live there?"
"In the Marina. I had a third-floor flat. A steal. I could see the sailboats coming in to dock every evening. And it was near Union Street and Fort Mason, so there was always good food, and theater, or concerts."
"That's what I miss up here. Even the movies. Sometimes I'd kill for a foreign film."
"It'll pass. You've only been here a year. By this time next spring, you'll only maim for it."
I leaned back against the wall behind the bar stool. I hadn't asked, but Frank refilled my glass. My 10 A.M. scrambled eggs were outclassed when it came to mopping up the alcohol. My head felt like the steamy windows. It was nice on a cold rainy day.
"Listen," Frank said. "Why don't you come with me? We can go to the theater in Japantown. Or see what's going on at Fort Mason. If there's no live show there, we could at least have dinner."
"I don't know."
"It'd sort of be cheating. This was my day to enjoy the solitude of my house."
Frank laughed. "That lasted a long time, didn't it? You made it to what, noon?"
"I guess so." I laughed, too. "That was one of the things I was going to change when I moved up here. I was going to be less dependent on other people. I was really going to discover the joy of being alone. Sort of a secular monk."
Frank put a hand on my shoulder. "There are worse things than enjoying people."
I laughed again. The rum gave the serious issues I had worried over rather a fanciful air. "I thought when I bought the house and moved in, that I would be living in the country, among country people. I thought it would be so different, that I would be forced to deal with solitude. But half the people I meet here are just like me—they've been out of the city less than two years—nouveau woodsy."
"It's true. In a sense, we're all spoiling the area for ourselves and everyone, particularly the old-time residents. If it gets any artsier, we may as well go back to the city."
"Perhaps." I didn't want the conversation to take this turn. It was depressing. "But, whatever, we'll go to the city this afternoon. Are you sure, Frank?" I said, smiling, "that none of your covey of new ladies will be demanding your attendance then?"
"Not me. I'm just an old bachelor bartender."
"You! The catch of the area. Is there one new lady you haven't been out with?"
He shrugged and favored me with that grin. "Surely," he said, "this is not jealousy."
"What? Not me. We're just friends, right?"
"Is that all?"
I laughed once more. I knew this line. I had heard Frank use it on every female customer who was still ambulatory. It charmed them all, just as it charmed me. "I loved our couple of dates last fall," I said, "but I really do like being friends even better. I would hate not to be told the tales of whom you're dating and whom you're not. And besides, you probably only take friends to the city in the afternoon."
The telephone rang. Frank stepped around the corner and picked up the receiver.
The rain, which frequently let up during the day, was falling harder. Through the steamed windows, I could barely make out the river. I lowered myself off the stool, realizing suddenly that I was not quite steady. It was good that I hadn't sat long enough to have a third hot buttered rum. I wiped a circle of steam off the window behind the bar and stared through. The brown and opaque river bore no resemblance to the peaceful stream of summer on which tourists paddled Paul and Patsy Fernandez's canoes. Now it was rapids. It tossed branches, the length of a man, against the banks. If Frank's Place weren't on stilts, it would be flooded every spring. As it was, the floor had been covered with mud and silt during two or three of the worst floods.
"I'll be taking a lady friend with me," Frank was saying into the receiver.
I was not here last year. I bought the little house right after the rainy season. It was built high with a foundation on pinions sunk into the hillside. It was forty-some years old. I knew I had nothing to worry about, but, looking at the river smashing against its banks, I worried.
"I don't take orders." Suddenly Frank's voice was sharper. "But it isn't essential. I'll go alone. So, just forget it, will you?"
I walked back around the bar, climbed on the stool and waited, disappointed, angry, the rum magnifying my feelings. I knew how the liquor was affecting me, but that didn't make me less irritated.
It was only a minute before Frank hung up and was back leaning on the bar. His face showed no change, none of the anger that had been in his voice. I wondered if he were presenting me with his professional face. "Vejay," he said, "I'm sorry, really disappointed, but I'm going to have to take a raincheck"—he threw a wry look at the window—"on that trip to the city with you."
"Do you mean you're not going?" I tried to keep my voice neutral, my face as professional-looking as his. I suspected my performance wasn't up to his standards.
"No. It's just that the things I have to do there are going to require more of my attention than I thought."
"I'll bet." I didn't have to add, She, whoever she is, wants all your attention. Frank understood.
"No, Vejay. That's just being silly."
I stood up. "It's not being silly. I expected better of you. I would expect that of any friend. I don't like to be discarded when something better comes along."
"It's not that. Believe me."
There was nothing more to say. I grabbed my slicker, and stomped out the door, feeling at once like Barbara Stanwyck in some old movie and like any twelve-year-old. I knew that when the rum wore off, any suggestion of Stanwyck would be gone.
Excerpted from An Equal Opportunity Death by Susan Dunlap. Copyright © 1984 Susan Dunlap. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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