An activist’s murder forces Jill to infiltrate Berkeley’s psychedelic underworld
A town as diverse as Berkeley, California, is never without controversy. This year the uproar is over the Rainbow Village, a hippie-occupied bayside lot that has degenerated into a drug-infested cesspool. As the city tries to eject the squatters, two Grateful Dead fans are murdered and a developer is assaulted. But for homicide detective Jill Smith, the conflict at the Village is only a nuisance until the violence gets personal.
While staking out a coffee shop, Jill sees Liz Goldenstern, a handicapped activist who has long been a thorn in the side of local business. Her wheelchair has broken down, and Jill offers to push her home. The next morning, Liz is found savagely murdered at the Village. To find her killer, Jill will have to remember that sometimes hippies are far from pacifists.
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 (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.
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Too Close to the Edge
A Jill Smith Mystery
By Susan Dunlap
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Susan Dunlap
All rights reserved.
In Berkeley, California, nothing is too inconsequential to be the center of controversy. No restaurant extends its hours without a committee of neighbors investigating its delivery schedule, its garbage standard, its compliance with noise ordinances. The chopping down of a shade tree can give birth to a neighborhood committee. Plans to add a bedroom that would block a neighbor's view can create a crusade. People in Berkeley love their city and its liberal heritage, and they are prepared to defend it against all comers—and against each other. The battles are fierce, attenuated, bitter, and, deep down, enjoyed by all.
So, it came as no surprise when the new city council's plan to deal with the problem of people living in vehicles on the streets was met with anger. For as long as I could remember, it wasn't unexpected to find purple or green converted school buses parked permanently on industrial streets, or pick-up trucks with six-foot-high wooden shells and bubble skylights in front of stucco duplexes, or ancient Plymouth wagons with makeshift curtains squatting at the curbs in West Berkeley. The occupants of those vehicles had come to town as transients, on the way to the town where things would work out, where someone would give them a job, where someone would trust them to rent a house with no first and last month's rent and no deposit. Maybe the tolerant atmosphere of Berkeley reassured them. Maybe they were encouraged by the number of people who worked part-time, trading security for daylight hours so they could do what they wanted. Maybe they just ran out of gas or hope. Whatever the reason, some of those vehicles had been parked on the streets for years. When neighbors complained, the owners pumped up the tires and got a push or a tow two blocks east or north. Most Berkeleyans had lived on the edge at one time or another, or had a friend who did, or maybe a daughter or a son. There was a lot of sympathy for the impoverished bus people, and no small measure of envy of their freedom. The arrangement could have gone on for years, if the vehicle dwellers hadn't come, almost as if by centrifugal force, closer and closer together, until the taxpayers in that small area whose curbs they inhabited took their complaints to the new city council.
Had they been the city council of Phoenix, or Charleston, or almost anywhere else, they could have forced the bus people to move on. But not here. Berkeleyans endorsed the right to live in cars and buses, as long as those vehicles were not parked by their driveways. The issue of the bus people had become a well-wedged thorn in the municipal side.
With one swift move, the city council yanked it out. They ordered the police to tow all such vehicles off the streets to an unused lot near the city dump. The lot, christened Rainbow Village, was half the size of a city block, with no trees, no grass, no paved road, no electricity hookups, and no plumbing. But the bus people were used to living without easy access to running water and plumbing. What they had now was legitimacy.
All in all, it seemed a stroke of genius. Until the uproar started.
Residents of the poor neighborhoods, from which the buses and cars had been removed, complained that the city should have allotted the funds involved to upgrading their blocks rather than nurturing transients. Developers grumbled that the site of Rainbow Village offered a view of the inlet and, across it, the entire city of Berkeley. Although it was next to the dump, it was still immensely valuable bay-front property. The dump, they pointed out, was temporary—until its dead branches, threadbare sofas, and mounds of household garbage grew high enough to create a hummock of "land" at the end of the marina.
Berkeleyans with less direct monetary concerns feared that the accommodation of transients would become a tacit invitation to ne'er-do-wells nationwide. And the Rainbow Villagers themselves soon divided into factions—those in favor of open access to their controversial acreage, and those determined to keep newcomers from overcrowding the lot.
Within a year of its creation, Rainbow Village was the scene of a double murder. The victims were "Deadheads," young transients who floated between Grateful Dead concerts. That case was unusual; in Homicide-Felony Assault, most of our calls were assaults.
And today's was no exception. I wasn't surprised at the call; I'd been to the village on assaults often enough. It was only the hour that amazed me. It was eight in the morning. I was barely awake myself. And for Rainbow Village, this was the middle of the night.
I turned right, off the bumpy extension of University Avenue that led from Berkeley proper out to this peninsula. To my left was the boat marina where masts of sailboats thrust up toward the fog-laden sky. The salty smell of the bay mixed with the aroma of bacon from the Marriott Inn kitchen next to it. To my right was an empty lot, empty for the moment. It, and most of the shore front, had been bones of contention between the Santa Fe Railroad, the owner, and the city of Berkeley. In a few months builders would start breaking ground for a cluster of small shops oriented to the sports-minded consumer who could be expected to take advantage of the park land the city had managed to salvage.
The Berkeley marina was shaped like the profile of a face, with an exaggeratingly protruding brow, deeply sunken eyes, a long bulbous nose, and chins that melted into neck with no lines of demarcation. The docks were nestled in the eye socket, the sports complex and open land would be on the chins. I drove on, north toward the end of the nostril where Rainbow Village sat.
Fog blew in across San Francisco Bay, but Rainbow Village was sheltered by the landscaped hillside that had been the city dump—the bulb of the nose. A paved path and the hedge beside it marked the ridge overlooking the village. Even the inlet, between the nose and the body proper of the city was calm.
Rainbow Village itself looked like an abandoned car lot. A hurricane fence surrounded the half-acre of decrepit vehicles, some rusted, some decorated with psychedelic colors their owners must have saved from the sixties, and some just deflated with time. The residents were asleep in the cabs of their pickups or the lofts of their buses. There had been all-night parties here, with music loud enough to wake guests at the Marriott Inn. Perhaps the villagers had learned to sleep through these celebrations, or perhaps they had trained themselves to take advantage of the normally quiet hours of morning. Not one of them was up listening to Brad Butz yelling at Paul Murakawa, the beat officer.
Whatever the assault had been, it was over now. And from the look of Brad Butz, flailing an arm as he yelled, his only serious injury had been rumpled self-esteem. This was the type of incident normally handled by the beat officer. Murakawa had been on beat over a year. What prompted him to call for a detective was Brad Butz, the contractor for one of the buildings planned here, his City Hall connections, and his history of complaining about the police.
Butz was an odd mixture. His hair stood out around his high forehead like a dark, wiry halo. He looked to be a bit shy of forty, ten years older than I. He was taller than average, but not much. His body had been developed through hard work; it was thick with muscles that blended into each other rather than the carefully delineated mounds that grew in health clubs. But there was a delicacy to his facial features—china-blue eyes, a short, chiseled nose, and a rosy flush to his cheeks that reminded me of a porcelain doll my grandmother once had. His body was as ill-suited to his face as his blustery stance was to the easily bruised feelings that so frequently caused him to call for us or about us.
Now those eyes narrowed, trying to place me. This thin, dark-haired woman with the "lines of command" just beginning to be visible around her eyes. Was she Murakawa's superior, they asked.
"Detective Smith, Homicide-Felony Assault." I flipped my shield open. "What's the problem here?"
"Some guy came at me, with my own sign pole. Look at this!" Butz pointed to his hair.
"He's got a swelling by the left coronal suture." Murakawa had applied to physical therapy school. "Refused medical attention."
"You should see a doctor, Mr. Butz, for your own protection." And ours, I might have added. "And, the D.A. will have to have a medical report to take this to court."
"Look, I can't waste time in court. I've got a building to put up here. I'm supposed to break ground in two weeks. I need space for equipment. And I need a police department competent enough to keep it safe. Now I can't even leave my sign on the site without it being torn down. Someone yanked out the new one yesterday. Fourth one! Those signs cost money, you know. So I'm out here, before these bums are awake. I figure, you know, maybe last night they got to passing the bottle, or the needle, and they forgot about my sign. So I start looking around. And this maniac comes out of nowhere, waving my sign post, screaming like a banshee, and threatening to shove me into the water."
I glanced questioningly at Murakawa.
He nodded. He'd already made notes on Butz's accusation.
"Mr. Butz," I said, "what do you think brought on this attack?"
"He's crazy, that's what. Isn't that obvious?"
"Even crazy people need something to touch them off, whether it seems reasonable to us or not."
"Leave off the amateur shrink number, huh? I used to work for the welfare department in New York. I can run that number better than you can."
Murakawa started to speak, but I held up my hand. Brad Butz was hardly the first complainant who thought he could hide the inadequacy of his evidence behind a barrage of accusations, even a Bronx-accented barrage. Using the same tone with which my grandmother had scolded me, I said, "If you expect us to be able to find your assailant, you're going to have to recall this incident calmly. Yelling isn't going to help."
It had the same result as Grandma's tone had with me. He too bit back the urge to stamp his foot and yell all the louder. Instead, he grumbled, "The guy's one of these derelicts here in Rainbow Village. He was screaming about me taking their land."
"To store your equipment?"
"Yeah. Look, I tried to reason with these people. I told them Marina Vista isn't going to be your ordinary high-rise. It's decent housing for people with disabilities, people who need some place with access, people who will appreciate a view. The city council risked a lot to let these transients stay here. The city could have lost hundreds of thousands in federal money. But do you think these people care?"
I glanced back at Murakawa. He was taking it all down.
Butz followed my glance. To Murakawa, he growled, "Hit me with my own pole. God knows where the sign is."
"Who, Mr. Butz?" I asked.
"Who hit you? We can't put out a warrant till we have a name."
Butz glared at the dust-covered vehicles. "I can't give you a name."
"Describe him, Mr. Butz," Murakawa said.
"About average. Not heavy, but fast. He looked like a madman."
"What color hair?"
"Hair? I don't know."
"You don't know!"
"It was under a blue wool cap, okay? Look, he just looked like a lunatic—a male, Caucasian lunatic, to put it in your terms."
I sighed. "Mr. Butz, we're trying to get a report of your assault. You're not helping much."
He glared at Murakawa, then at me. "Why don't you ask those bums in there? Believe me, every one of them knows." Clearly, Butz's years with the New York City welfare department hadn't made him a bleeding heart.
"We'll deal with them. But now we're asking you," I said. I had intended to maintain a matter-of-fact tone, but I could hear the edge to my voice.
Apparently Brad Butz heard it, too. He took a half step back. "Okay," he said, "he may have been blond. I think I saw some long blond hairs flying around. He came at me like some crazed Viking. Look, you don't stop to take notes when a maniac is telling you he'll hold your head under the water until your lungs fill like wine sacks."
"Blond," I repeated. "Now as to height. You're, what, Mr. Butz, about five ten or eleven?"
He flushed, redder than Grandma's doll had ever been. "You're asking because he was smaller than me, aren't you? You think I should have taken the jerk on, right? What kind of department are you running here?"
"Mr. Butz, I'm asking you how tall you are. That's all. Look, it's not even eight-thirty in the morning. I haven't had a cup of coffee yet. You probably haven't either, right?"
He gave a grudging nod.
"Then let's finish this report as quickly as we can. We've all got things to do." I tried to catch his eyes, to cement the agreement, but he shook his head.
"Forget it," he snapped.
"You don't want to press charges?"
"Didn't you hear me? Just forget the whole thing." He turned and stalked toward a blue pick-up truck, his halo of brown hair quivering with each step. "If you want to find him," he yelled, "look for a pick-up with a hot tub on the back. Jerk thinks he's a Casanova. He's looking for some fool-woman's driveway to park it in. Plans to park himself in her bed. You just look for a truck with a red tub on it."
As he pulled off, Murakawa muttered, "Lousy posture, too. He's going to have a kyphosis in another ten years."
"Serves him right," I said. "Quote him as much as you can when you write this up. By the time we get back to the station, he'll be in City Hall bitching about us. And, Murakawa, round up the guy with the red hot tub."CHAPTER 2
By the end of shift I had gone out on three more assaults, real felony-assaults, two with guns and one with a thirty-two-ounce can of mango pulp. I had dictated all three, along with my report on the Brad Butz incident, in the latter restraining my urge to comment that only in a city with Berkeley's commitment to the underdog could a man with so little work experience, imagination, or tact as Brad Butz be awarded a major contract. As for Butz's alleged assailant and his red hot tub, neither had been found. Perhaps the woman of his dreams had a more secluded driveway than most.
Normally, I would have headed for the Albany pool to swim off the day's tensions with Seth Howard, my office mate and closest friend. But Howard had disappeared at the end of shift. He'd been gone a lot lately. And there'd been a note in my IN box from Connie Pereira: "Jill, I'll be on stake-out at The Latte." She didn't ask me to join her. She didn't have to. We'd both endured the tedium of stake-outs, planted on small, hard chairs hour after hour, never being able to look openly at the target, never daring let up the tense rhythm of: glance at, glance away, look down, breathe. Hours were spent staring at a book (without reading a word) and reminding yourself to turn the page every few minutes, to move the coffee cup around the table, not to take too big a sip and risk getting too full to run or letting the cup fall empty. And if a civilian friend spotted you and stopped to chat, the ante went up as you tried to carry on a normal conversation without breaking into the rhythm of surveillance. The only real respite was offered by another cop.
But friendship wasn't the only reason I was willing to postpone my laps in the pool. The Latte was a sidewalk cafe on Telegraph Avenue, my old beat. One of the few things I regretted when I was promoted to Homicide was leaving the Avenue.
When I had had the Telegraph beat, I had congratulated myself on how easily I fitted into the long-hair-and-frayed-jeans atmosphere of the area. Telegraph Avenue deadended at the University campus. There, in the early sixties, the Free Speech Movement had inaugurated the era of protests that changed the nation. The Avenue was still the spiritual center of the Berkeley counterculture, but in recent years the head shops had been replaced by computer stores, used clothing shops by designer outlets, and marginal health food restaurants that sold tan food had given way to chocolate chip cookie and pizza chains. But the bookstores remained—Cody's for new, Shakespeare's for used, Moe's for both, and Shambala for virtually anything ever printed about eastern religion or the occult. It didn't take much to draw me back there. And the added hook that Connie Pereira had used was her lack of explanation. She was a beat officer, but Telegraph wasn't her beat. What was she staking out that was important enough to call her off her own beat?
Excerpted from Too Close to the Edge by Susan Dunlap. Copyright © 1987 Susan Dunlap. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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