When a rash of pranks on the city’s meter maids turns deadly, Jill Smith isn’t amused
Two witnesses see the man drag the old woman into a canyon while brandishing a rifle. As night falls, detective Jill Smith and the Berkeley police department set up a perimeter. The canyon is a hostage negotiator’s nightmare—dark, rough, and full of escape routes—and when she finally opens communication, the gunman doesn’t respond. Rather than wait for dawn, Jill leads her team into the darkness. At the bottom of the canyon they find a battered old mannequin and a box of stolen parking tickets. The entire incident was another skirmish in one man’s ongoing war to humiliate the city’s meter maids. Interviewing the residents on the canyon’s lip, Jill meets Madeleine Riordan, retired attorney and legendary firebrand She seems to know something, but refuses to tell until the next day. When Jill returns, the woman has been murdered, and Jill suspects that the prankster may have lost his sense of humor.
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
A Jill Smith Mystery
By Susan Dunlap
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Susan Dunlap
All rights reserved.
"He dragged her right down there, into the canyon. Her legs were all swelled up, like old lady's legs. She was kicking."
"Fighting him, Mr. Jenkins?" I demanded, trying to get an accurate picture of the victim. "Was she yelling at him, too?"
"No, not kicking that way. Kicking like she was swimming. You know, up and down. If she was saying anything, I couldn't hear. But, it's real noisy, now, with Sunday evening traffic and all." He looked up at Arlington Avenue above the canyon. He was half shouting above the roar of engines as buses hauled themselves up the steep grade to the uphill lane ten feet higher than the downhill one. Patrol had closed the lower lane to civilians as Hostage Negotiation Team members raced in from their regular assignments and squealed to stops there. The air was thick with exhaust fumes.
"You're going to get her out." Jenkins's statement was half question, half hope. "It's only a tiny canyon down there."
"The more you can tell us, the better we'll—I'll—be able to negotiate with the hostage taker." As primary negotiator I would be the one dealing with him.
"But I didn't see any more than the guy's rifle barrel and the woman's legs. They were so swollen, like she was already sick, you know?"
I tried not to picture it, not to get caught in envisioning an old woman down in the cold, wet canyon controlled by some kind of pervert, a pervert for whom we had no ID, no description, nothing. I couldn't let myself think about the victim, wonder if she was shivering down there, terrified, or if the perp was holding a cigarette lighter to her fingers, or ... Don't let yourself get stuck on the victim, they tell you in Hostage Negotiation classes, your job is to get the facts that will save her. But it was a battle; even when we role-played in training, it was hard not to get caught up in caring. And now ... those legs bouncing up and down were a bad sign. If Jenkins, who had been within forty feet of her was right, the victim's legs were just bouncing up and down from the jolts of being dragged. I swallowed and said, "Describe her."
"I already told the patrol officer, I couldn't really see her exactly. Just her legs, I mean from the knee down, and the bottom of her skirt."
Dammit, why couldn't he have observed? He couldn't even swear the victim was old. Thick legs? She could have been a young muscular soccer player. I needed an idea of how desperate the situation was, how much slack I'd have—if any. Hostage negotiating made Homicide Detail seem like slow motion. "What kind of shoes was the victim wearing?"
"Black. Lace up. Oxfords like old ladies wear. When I spotted her the guy was already in the field here, by the chute—that's what we called it when we were kids, the chute down into the canyon. That house over there"—he pointed to a wooden building fifty yards south—"that used to be right here, above the chute. But the land's real unstable, one good shake like the last quake and that house would have been down there in the canyon. They had to move it."
It had been over an hour since his call. Half an hour since the patrol officer verified his claim that he'd seen a man with a rifle dragging a body down the chute—the rocky gorge cut by Cerrito Creek—into the canyon. A woman who had been walking a spaniel had seen it, too.
Normally the dispatcher alerted all members of the Hostage Negotiation Team to report to the operations command at the station downtown. But with this situation, with the perp in a canyon the neighborhood kids used as a playground, with a perimeter we could never adequately secure, there was no time for that. It was already dusk; half an hour and it'd be night. Fog was blowing in across San Francisco Bay, settling on trees up here like birds nesting for the night. The dispatcher had rolled the mobile station; we'd set up on the Arlington.
Now patrol officers from district 1A were ringing the canyon, waiting for the Tac Team to relieve them. On the Arlington the guys from the Tac Team were running for the mobile van. They'd crowd in there, eyeing as much of a map of the canyon as we had. The high ground observers would be looking for places to get out over the canyon unseen, on roofs of cottages that clung to the canyon wall, or perched on a live oak branch. They'd crouch there and wait, for as many hours as it took.
This finger canyon, so named because it resembled the space between open fingers, was seven acres, flush in the middle of one of the wealthiest Berkeley hills neighborhoods, high walls at this end, petering out to nothing at the other. Houses stood shoulder to shoulder all around it, blocking sight of it so thoroughly most people didn't know it existed. But down there among the dense oak and bay trees there were deer, possums, skunks, lots of wild blackberries, and enough poison oak to have the whole department scratching. The remains of a quarry office was fifty yards or so downstream, Jenkins had said—it had been little more than a cement floor when he was a child thirty years ago—and a lean-to was closer to the chute. Chances were the perp and the victim were in one of them. But the trees and shrubs, and the fog, were too thick to let us get a good view into the canyon, even with night glasses. There was enough underbrush to camouflage an arsenal. And a hundred routes of escape, a thousand places to hide. A hostage situation in here was a nightmare.
Another car squealed to a stop. I turned around, spotting Inspector Doyle, the field commander. His graying red hair was fluttering in the wind. His white shirt was rumpled, and his skin, as always, hung too loose from his bones. His appearance said: major surgery; inadequate recovery time. But he always looked like that. Today he'd spent a hard Sunday he should have had off, knocking his head against Homicide-Felony Assault's pain-in-the-ass case of the month—the meter maid assaults. I'd worked a lot of homicides under Inspector Doyle; at the best of times he was brusque.
"What do we have on the perp, Smith?"
"Zilch. No suspicious strangers reported, no weird hermits living nearby. Not a damn thing to start negotiating with," I added before he could.
"Could be old, sick. Witness can't be sure."
"Someone checking cars?"
I nodded. Maybe a license plate would give us a lead to the perp. I needed something, some edge to start negotiations.
Without comment Doyle strode to the van. He looked ready to snap, but he was no more on edge than I was. When I made contact with the perp I had to know what kind of carrot to dangle, what shape stick to threaten with. If I made one wrong guess, the woman down there could be dead.
Doyle was setting up an inner perimeter inside the canyon around the perp and his hostage, making it as small as he could. Patrol would ring an outer perimeter line around that and clear the space between the inner and outer perimeters. No one would get past their line without an ID. As soon as they were set, I'd try for contact with the perp.
The mobile van doors opened. Twelve officers hurried out. A couple were still in street clothes. The rest were already in the all-black uniforms they'd be wearing if and when they came in for a rescue. Doyle motioned one of them over to Jenkins. Behind them, beyond the outer perimeter, neighbors holding cocktail glasses or coffee cups grouped together, reporters leaned forward, cameramen balanced equipment on shoulders.
At dusk any other cold foggy November day houselights would ring the canyon. Warm glows from those cottages halfway down the canyon wall would twinkle up behind the live oak and bay trees. Now I watched the houselights go off one after another, till only a few were left. Without them the tiny canyon loomed larger, blacker, and deep as a well. I looked around for Murakawa, my secondary negotiator—probably still caught in crosstown traffic. Doyle was standing beside the van, foot tapping irritably as he conferred with the Tac Team commander.
He kicked a clump of dry weeds, nodded, and strode toward me like he'd been given a shot of caffeine. "Contain's in place."
I aimed the loudspeaker toward the canyon and stood momentarily looking out into the unmapped dark. I hated negotiating with a perp who could be a teenager flipped out from drugs, hormones, and an F on a history test, or a con who'd spent half his life in Q, or one of our home-grown crazies directed by voices telling him to kill at the mention of "hamburger" or "sidewalk." It was like tossing pennies in a bottomless wishing well. Except now a woman's life depended on those wishes coming true.
I couldn't wait any longer. I turned on the speaker: "This is the police. We have you surrounded. We know you're down there. If you have a flashlight, turn the beam upward. Now!"
I stared down into the deep gray mass. Did something flicker in the middle? No. I repeated the command, word for word. We keep it as simple as possible. The perps shouldn't have to think, just obey.
No change. Not a ripple in the dark.
Murakawa came toward me double time. As my secondary negotiator he'd be the liaison between me and the rest of the team. I briefed him. Then I lifted the loudspeaker and repeated the command again. "This is the police. You are surrounded. If you have a flashlight, turn the beam upward. Now!"
We were both pointing to the middle of the canyon. A light had flashed. Murakawa motioned to Grayson, head of the Tac Team. "He may be coming up. Get everyone back. Give him room."
"Take position," Grayson called to the Tac Team. "He may be coming up."
Black-uniformed officers jumped the two steps to the ground, landing as lifeless as beanbags. With a perp who was walking out on his own, odds were nothing would happen, but they had to play the low percentage. Later they would find out about the victim, be glad her ordeal ended so soon. But now ... Hostage negotiation was an adrenaline junkie's dream. Going cold turkey like this was hell.
I moved onto the sidewalk. Grayson's team flashed their lights across the field toward the trees by the path down to the creek. They stood, weapons poised, listening for footsteps.
Squeals of brakes and staccato bursts from patrol car radios mixed with calls from onlookers, pleas from the news guys jostling for the best spot, and the low groans of foghorns across the bay. The team wouldn't be able to hear the perp till he'd climbed up the rocky canyon wall and swung around the live oak at the entrance to the stream. But when he did, the first target he'd spot would be the team.
My black windbreaker flapped and the nylon that was supposed to keep out the wind had turned icy. I stood by the van with Murakawa and Doyle and waited.
"He's not coming out," Bates, one of the reporters, yelled.
Too soon to know, I assured myself. The perp had around fifty yards of path to cover. Maybe carrying the victim. I couldn't take the chance of spooking him. Blood pounded in my neck and my stomach; I could have run the length of the outer perimeter and still been too tense to stand here and wait.
"Hey, Smith, he's taking you guys for a big ride," Bates yelled. I drummed my fingers on the loudspeaker. Was Bates right? Had we hallucinated the light, from our hopes? Was the perp sitting down in the canyon laughing at us? Pulling out the victim's fingernails? I pushed away the thought. Behind me I could feel the crowd pressing at the perimeter line. I'd wait another minute.
"Smith, he could be in San Francisco now, ordering dinner at the St. Francis," Bates called.
Ignoring Bates, I counted down the seconds. After everything was over we'd front up a press officer; that was the agreement, and reporters knew it.
"Hey, Smith, the guy's suckered you," Bates yelled just as my count got to sixty.
Picking up the loudspeaker, I strode angrily into the inner perimeter to the edge of the canyon. "This is the police. Turn on your flashlight and leave the beam on."
I gave him two minutes, then repeated the call. We give the perp every chance to come out freely. A successful hostage operation is one where no one—neither hostage, cop, nor perp—is injured. He hadn't been using his flashlight; the battery wouldn't have gone dead. Still I gave him an alternative. "Yell as loud as you can. Yell 'Hello.' "
No light; no sound.
"Murakawa, find Doyle; tell him we're getting nothing here. Time for Plan B."
He nodded and walked up toward the street. I kept my gaze on the path down to the stream, but I had role-played breakdown of negotiations enough times to know that Doyle would be stepping into the van to call the operations commander. The O.P. would huddle with Chief Larkin. Maybe Larkin would give the okay to go with Plan B. Probably not.
Nothing in Berkeley wasn't political. Of the 120,000 residents probably 110,000 of them had opinions on every move we made. Most of those opinions weren't positive. We had a top-notch force, but the aura of the sixties still surrounded us. And decisions like this one were rarely decided by the operations commander or even the chief, much less the primary negotiator. There was too much flak potential. Probably the city manager would decide.
When the word came down, Doyle would tell Grayson. Grayson would alert the Tac Team. As often as I'd practiced coaxing the hostage taker to come out for a sandwich or a talk with his wife, they had practiced storming a house, setting off diversionary flares, breaking through all the doors and windows simultaneously, making instantaneous threat assessment, and if the perp was not doing what they told him—if he was heading to endanger the hostages, moving fast—they opened fire. And they kept firing till the threat was gone, till the perp was down. All that in less than a minute.
Doyle strode toward me. "Too soon. C.M. says to wait."
"Too soon!" I snapped. "We've got an injured hostage down there. She's probably old, terrified, fragile. She could be bleeding to death."
"Tell that to the city manager's office."
"City manager's not going to call and tell her family she died because he couldn't get off his ass."
"Smith, run for mayor and you can make the rules." He smacked his fist against the van. "No hotdogging, the C.M. says. Too dark, too dangerous, too many people around. Can't have half the force tramping around in there with guns out. Could be kids down there. Or anyone. Could endanger the victim. C.M.'s got to think of the bigger picture. You know that, Smith." The loose skin on his cheeks twitched with anger. He'd picked up the loudspeaker and was squeezing the handle like it was the C.M.'s neck. Or the perp's. Or mine.
"Here's the bigger real picture, Inspector. How much longer can we keep the contain? We've got kids coming home; they're going to take it as a challenge to sneak past our lines. We've got half the neighborhood out here behind us, watching us do nothing but keep them from dinner. You can bet they'll be on the horn to the city manager first thing tomorrow. Tell him that!"
Doyle glared at me, then at the canyon. "What's that light?" he growled to one of his team who'd just walked up.
"Nursing home, sir. They couldn't evacuate."
"What?" he growled. "A building the size of a nursing home hanging off the edge of the canyon?"
"Private place. Converted house. Just a few patients, sir."
I turned to Doyle. Sweat coated my forehead; it ran down my back. But my voice sounded dead calm. "Perfect spot for a hostage taker to commandeer."
Doyle nodded and grabbed the phone. He wouldn't remind the operations commander of the potential flak; the O.P. wouldn't think of reminding the chief or the C.M., but we could all see the headlines if that happened.
The canyon was black as a well now. Fog cloaked the trees. The wind rustled oak leaves and scraped branches of bay trees against each other. It had been nearly half an hour since I'd seen the light flash down there. The hostage taker could be gone by now. And the hostage dead.
Doyle put down the phone and motioned Grayson over. "Tac Team'll set up a diversion and go in."
"No! Not with a perp we know nothing about and a victim who ... we can't take that chance."
Doyle stared at me. "Smith, you're the one—"
"Sir," I said, lowering my voice. The press was too far away to hear, but still I didn't want to take the chance. "There's only one kind of diversion that'll work."
Excerpted from Time Expired by Susan Dunlap. Copyright © 1993 Susan Dunlap. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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