Newly promoted detective Jill Smith confronts a traffic circle homicide
After six months of perfect weather, the people of Berkeley, California, have forgotten how to drive during a thunderstorm. Newly christened homicide detective Jill Smith is on her way home to a chocolate ice cream dinner when she gets caught in a traffic jam at the city’s only roundabout. At the front of the line, she sees the trouble: a flipped-over Cadillac and one dead driver. The man behind the wheel was one of the city’s leading citizens, a philanthropist in a town that puts charity first. He was coming down Berkeley’s steepest hill when his brakes failed, flipping his car and ending his charity work forever. Two things trouble Jill. First, the car’s brakes had been inspected that afternoon. Second, the driver was nearly blind, and unfit to ever take the wheel. Finding the killer will lead her from Berkeley’s upper echelon all the way into the depths of the community’s underbelly.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Susan Dunlap including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
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
Not Exactly a Brahmin
A Jill Smith Mystery
By Susan Dunlap
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Susan Dunlap
All rights reserved.
"How about a gorilla?"
"Thanks a lot, Howard," I said, skirting a puddle. Seth Howard was six foot six, the tallest member of the Berkeley Police force. I was nearly running to keep up with him. The rain pelted down—the first storm of the season. Yesterday it had been seventy degrees and sunny. At four-thirty today, it was pouring. Thunder rattled the sky, and stabs of lightning slashed at the treetops. Thunderstorms were a two-to-three-times-a-decade event in Berkeley, and for most people they were a free light show. No one here worried about whether to stand under trees or away from them. They headed for the spot where they could best see the lightning.
"If a gorilla suit isn't feminine enough, Jill, you could add a pink bow around your neck. Or maybe you should come as a skeleton in honor of your new job."
I didn't want to get into that: my promotion to Homicide and Howard's promotion to Special Investigations Bureau, which handled vice and drugs. His move should have been one that pleased Howard, and it did on every level, except that nothing could cover the fact that he had been passed over for the more prestigious Homicide job. Howard and I had been close friends for three years. We'd worked the same beat; we'd talked endlessly about everything from our cases to my divorce. We'd talked about our mutual ambition to someday be Chief of Police. But the Homicide job made a difference. I knew Howard well enough to realize he had been taken aback by the promotions, that he was appalled at resenting the good fortune of his close friend, appalled that he, like everyone else, could wonder if my being a woman had had anything to do with it. He was trying desperately—and failing—to react to me as he always had.
I didn't know how to handle the situation any better than he did. I said, "You're taking a lot of interest in my costume, Howard. You're the one who's giving this Halloween party. What are you going as?"
His thick, curly red hair hung in sopping ringlets that bounced heavily as he walked. He looked like a Raggedy Andy doll that had fallen in the bathtub. "Can't tell you about my costume. It's a surprise. But I will let you in on a little secret."
"You'll never guess what it is."
"What makes you so sure?"
"It's very clever."
"Is that a challenge?"
"Could be." He sounded like the Howard of old, but there was more to this contest than just guessing his disguise. When we had been on beat together, neither of us would have turned down such a challenge. And I couldn't let it go now.
"What do I get if I figure out your costume?"
"Whatever you want. Let your fancy go wild because there is no way you'll guess."
"You're pretty smug. After all, I know what your decorations will be."
"Woolworth's best bones and goblins. Don't count on that too much."
"I know what you'll be serving."
"So you think I'll come as a chef?"
"I know who you've invited."
"Cops." He laughed. The light turned green. We started into the intersection. A van skidded to a halt. The streets were slick. After six dry months, drivers had forgotten how to maneuver in the rain. Some were high on grass or coke; most were mesmerized by the thunderstorm. It was a natural for accidents. I was glad not to be working traffic detail any longer.
My hair was caught at the nape of my neck so that much of the rain that hit my head was channeled along it and down the back of my jacket. But a sizable amount still managed to drip inside my collar. Neither Howard nor I had thought to bring umbrellas.
"Listen, how far away did you park?" Howard demanded. "We've already walked four blocks from the station."
"Two more blocks."
"If I'd known you were this far away, I would have taken the bus."
"If I could rent a garage like you do, right across from the station ..."
"Maybe if you got to work a little earlier ..." Howard was grinning.
"Howard," I said, tentatively.
Howard looked puzzled.
I could feel my smile becoming wider. "If I guess your costume, I can have anything I choose, is that right?"
"That's what you said, right?"
"You'll never guess."
"Okay. If I guess your costume before the party, you give me your garage lease."
I dropped Howard at the Co-op Garden Shop on Shattuck. Maybe he was planning to outfit himself as a tree. For him, it would have to be a redwood. Traffic was surprisingly light for quarter to five on a Thursday night. I drove on toward the tunnel that ran under the Marin traffic circle and connected the extension of Shattuck Avenue at a right angle to Solano Avenue. If I could get to Solano before the majority of people got off work, I could find a parking spot near Ortman's and buy a pint of chocolate chocolate shower ice cream to have for dinner.
As I approached the tunnel, cars were stopped. There was generally a long line here, but tonight it was longer than usual. Even at this distance I could see the holdup. Over the tunnel, on the traffic circle, red lights flashed. There was no chance of turning till just before the tunnel, and now that right-hand turn that led, like a bent elbow, to the circle was closed off.
But my friend, Connie Periera, now had this beat. And even if she weren't the one handling this accident, the beat officer would let me through.
I pulled into the empty right lane that led to the blocked-off elbow and drove past glaring drivers waiting in the lane to my left. At the turn the patrol officer—young, black, and very wet—waved me to a stop.
"You see that line?" he snapped, as I opened the window of my old Volkswagen.
"I'm Smith, Homicide."
He glanced at the dented and rust-splotched fender of my car and back to my face. It was a moment before he nodded and said, "Homicide. Must be nice to deal with people when they're dead, when they don't give you no jive-assed excuses for cutting the line."
"Long day, huh?"
"Is Pereira in charge up there at the traffic circle?"
He smiled, a wistful, fleeting expression. Pereira was a popular blonde. "Yeah."
I started to ask what the accident was, but behind me a horn honked. "Let me through, okay?"
He looked at the line of cars. Shaking his head, he said,
"Okay, but every one of those turkeys in line is going to burn my ears about how you got through and they can't."
"Tell them my car wouldn't run long enough to wait in that tunnel line."
He glanced again at the dented fender and gave me a mock salute.
I shut the window and headed up the curve to the circle. I'd stop and see if Pereira needed an assist. When I'd been a beat officer and she a mere patrol officer, she had assisted me plenty. Even if it were a garden-variety fender bender, on a night like this another hand to move things along could save a lot of time.
Six streets crowd into the small residential traffic circle. Expensive homes sit on their corners. (One house is balanced directly atop the entrance to the tunnel beneath.) Cars with FOR SALE signs in their windows are parked around the outer edge. The circle is a demarcation point between the steep streets of the Berkeley hills and the gentler slope from there down toward San Francisco Bay.
But as I reached the circle, I could see that this was no mere fender bender. In the middle of the circle was an island of grass about thirty feet in diameter. The metal barrier that ran across that island was crushed to the ground. And the car that had done that, a silver Cadillac, had smashed into the decorative fencing at the outer edge of the circle. Had it not been for that sturdy cement fence, the car would have rolled into the living room of the house over the tunnel. Red lights flashed everywhere, blurring like finger painting in the rain.
As I pulled to the curb, I could see the ambulance lights in the distance. A patrol officer was diverting traffic below the circle—the pulser lights on his car flashed red. At the edge of the circle, small groups of bystanders stood under trees. Then I spotted Pereira. She was standing next to a tarpaulin-covered mound ten feet from the Cadillac. It had to be a body.
I walked over to her.
"Jill," she said. "It's good you're here." She bent down and lifted the tarp. "The driver, Ralph Palmerston."
He lay on his back, his arms bent in ways arms shouldn't go. His bloodstained shirt and jacket covered a chest that had been mashed out to the sides. The rain bounced off his face; it had matted his thick white hair and might have washed the blood from his face. Now there was surprisingly little; only a trickle caked at the side of his mouth and around his eyes—just enough to emphasize those blue eyes and their look of disbelief and horror.
The ambulance pulled up. Its red light flashed on and off Palmerston's face, turning it from red to ashen gray. In the stroboscopic unreality of the pulser light, it was like seeing the moment of the accident as Palmerston's terror-stricken face flung forward—then he hit the steering wheel and everything was covered with red.
As the ambulance men bent down, I turned away and looked toward the car. Misco, from Traffic Investigations, was huddled under the hood or what remained of it. Crinkled, it had been pushed back toward the empty windshield. On the Arlington, another of the feeder streets, a patrol officer diverted traffic.
The ambulance men prepared to lift the body. Pereira stepped back next to me. I said, "Were they a long time in coming? You must have been on the scene for a while—it's pretty well secured. Traffic Investigations is already here."
"Misco? That was just luck. He was only a block away when the call came in. But the ambulance"—she shook her head—"every ambulance in the area was out. It's the storm. I'm just glad there was no question about Palmerston. He was dead when I got here."
"How did it happen?"
"Witnesses say it looked like his brakes failed. He came down Marin...." She glanced up across the circle to the extension of Marin Avenue that rose into the Berkeley Hills.
It was the steepest street in the city. I hadn't been able to get my car up it in four years. And I knew people who went out of their way to avoid driving down it. "They said he was going sixty, seventy miles per hour. As far as we can tell, he ran the last two stop signs. He slammed into the divider and the car bounced—one hop—over here."
"Lucky no one was in his way."
"Very. He missed two witnesses by inches, or so they said. They're over there." She indicated a man and woman standing shock-stiff under a tree. Beyond them, on lower Marin Avenue, Lieutenant Davis, Pereira's watch commander, was getting out of his car.
"I'm glad you're here, Jill," Connie Pereira said.
"As long as you need me."
"It could be a long time."
I shrugged. "The tow truck's coming up the street."
Connie looked past me at a car pulling up. As the doors opened and the men got out, I could make out the print man from his bag, and the photographer. I looked quizzically at Connie.
"This isn't an accident, Jill. I thought so at first. It would have made sense. But that car was just serviced today. The sticker's on the door. The service report's in the glove compartment. Jill, you don't have a brake failure on a Cadillac three hours after it comes out of the shop."CHAPTER 2
The rain had let up a little, but another shaft of lightning burst from the sky, turning the traffic circle brighter than noon. In the sudden fluorescent glare, the crinkled metal of the Cadillac looked fragile, like a toy car that had been run over in the driveway.
Misco was sprawled under the car. Pereira stood with Lieutenant Davis and me, eyeing the access roads that led onto the circle lest any scofflaw invade her scene of the crime. Lieutenant Davis said nothing. The rain soaked my jacket.
"Aha!" Misco pushed himself free of the car and stood up. His brown hair was thinning on top. There was a streak of grease across his forehead. Misco was one of those men who had spent his adolescence under the hoods or bodies of a stream of used Chevys or Fords. In college he'd managed to husband his Saturdays for his vehicles. The one time I'd been to his house, he'd had two cars parked on the lawn and one on blocks in the driveway. For Misco, being in Traffic Investigations Unit was heaven.
"Perforations in the brake lines," he said. "You want to look?"
Eyeing the rain-soaked ground, Lieutenant Davis said, "Tell us about it first."
Momentarily Misco looked disappointed, but as soon as he started to speak, his face brightened. "You should see the edges of the cuts where the brake fluid drained, Lieutenant. It's a great job."
"What do you mean by 'great job'?" I asked.
Pereira motioned us under the shelter of a London Plane tree. Once there, Misco turned to me. "Do you know much about cars?"
"Nothing more than where to put the dip stick."
"Oh." He shot a look of distress at Lieutenant Davis. To me, he said, "Well, the simplest way I can put it is that if there are holes in the brake lines, the brake fluid seeps out and the brakes don't hold."
"That I understand. Anyone who watches television knows that."
"You said brake lines," Lieutenant Davis prompted.
"Right. That's what makes this so interesting. A Cadillac has separate brake lines to the front and back wheels. It's a safety feature, so if the front brakes go, there are still the rear ones."
"But nothing held on this car," Pereira said.
"Because"—Misco could barely contain himself—"both lines were punctured. And the really impressive thing here is that the edges of the cuts are rough. If you weren't specifically looking for sabotage, you wouldn't even spot the cuts. The workmanship is good. No, it's nearly perfect. Any smaller cuts and the leaks would have been so gradual that the owner would have realized the brakes were going long before there was a serious problem. If the cuts were bigger, it wouldn't have taken an expert to find them."
"What you're saying," Lieutenant Davis said, "is that the perforations were just large enough for the brakes to go on Marin Avenue? If the car had come down another street, one not so steep, the driver would be okay; he just would have thought his brakes weren't holding like they should be, right?"
"That's it. The guy could have driven on the flatlands for weeks, but on that hill, holding back thousands of pounds of Cadillac ... well, you can see the pressure that puts on brakes."
I turned to Lieutenant Davis. "So you'll be passing this case on to Homicide?"
"You've seen the body and the scene, here, Smith," he said. "As soon as the paperwork is in order, it will be yours." He didn't add that he would be keeping an eye on it, and me. He didn't have to. Lieutenant Davis had been my watch commander as long as I was a beat officer. When a sudden flurry of murders overwhelmed the three-man Homicide Detail, it was Lieutenant Davis who recommended me for the assignment. Lieutenant Davis, black, with a master's degree, would be a candidate when the captain's job opened up. He was a stickler for thoroughness and detail—he had caught plenty of my mistakes over the years. But he'd also insisted I go to Homicide School, the two-week investigation classes offered by the state. And he'd given me his stamp of approval for the promotion. His prestige was on the line, almost as much as mine.
"I'd like to stay on the case, Lieutenant," Pereira said.
He nodded. It was a beat officer's right to request being kept on the team that handled what had originally been her case.
"And it's still mine till the transfer, right?" Pereira asked.
There was no need for an answer.
"Then I'll take one of my few opportunities to assign someone else duties. Are you still offering help, Jill?"
"Might as well."
"Okay, how about seeing the widow?"
It was a moment before I said, "Yes, of course."
When the others had left—Lieutenant Davis to start his car and head back to the station or home (his shift had officially ended over an hour ago) and Misco for another engagement under the tarp—Pereira said in a low voice, "Thanks, I really hate seeing the families."
"I'd have to see her later anyway. It'll be easier on her to deal with just one of us."
"Let me check the contents of the car before I go."
"Sure." She led me to the Cadillac's trunk and opened it. It was huge (it looked big enough to put my car in) and empty but for a jack. "Spare's in place. Carpet looks clean. Lab guys have been over it. Even Misco figured there was nothing out of sorts here. The rest of the stuff from inside the car is in bags in the squad car."
Excerpted from Not Exactly a Brahmin by Susan Dunlap. Copyright © 1985 Susan Dunlap. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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