BY: J. E. GENTRY
San Francisco attorney Clara Quillen is contacted by SFPD Detective Roy Travis again, this time because Vivian Hall, a beautiful young professor who went to the same law school as Clara, has been murdered. The body was found in the same place where Kim Novak jumped into San Francisco Bay in the movie Vertigo, and Clara considers some of the film’s other locations for possible links to the murderer. She also takes a part-time teaching job at the law school where Vivian was a professor. As Clara digs for the truth, various suspects gradually emerge: students, professors, and others related to the work Vivian did on be behalf of abused and neglected children. Meanwhile, in the course of the investigation, Clara finds herself becoming romantically involved with an attractive judge—who she suspects may not have been completely honest about his relationship with Vivian…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Second in Her Class by J. E. Gentry, Clara Quillen is a San Francisco attorney with a knack for solving murders. She gets a call from her friend, SFPD Homicide Detective Roy Travis, who is investigating another murder. The victim went to the same law school as Clara, and Travis thinks she might be the best one to interview the people, at the law school where she taught, for possible involvement. Clara goes one better and gets a part time job at the law school, taking over the victim’s classes, in hopes that she can get information without making the murderer suspicious. Clara also finds that she needs to step in and take the victim’s place in the work she was doing for neglected and abused children and quickly discovers that this is not the safest or most peaceful occupation. Angry parents and ex-lovers quickly move to the top of Clara’s suspect list, but how to narrow them down?
Well written, fast paced, charming, and interspersed with flashes of humor, the story will catch and hold your interest from the first page to the last—a mystery you won’t figure out until the end.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Second in Her Class by J. E. Gentry is the story of Clara Quillen, an attorney in San Francisco, California, who is also a mystery buff. When a woman who went to the same law school as Clara is murdered, Detective Travis calls Clara for information on possible suspects whom she may know from her law school days. Delighted to help Travis with another case, Clara quickly agrees and even offers to teach the murdered woman’s classes at the law school where the victim, Vivian Hall, was a professor. But taking over Vivian’s duties also includes taking on her cases in family court where she was a children’s attorney for abused and neglected children, working with the foster-care system to protect the rights of children who needed to be removed from a bad home situation. But parents don’t often take kindly to losing their children, sometimes taking their anger out on the attorney for the child. As Clara deals with these cases, she can’t help but wonder if Vivian’s work in family court was the reason for her murder, and if Clara, herself, is going to become the next victim.
Second in Her Class is an intriguing mystery that gives us a glimpse at how difficult working in the family court system can be. Clever, charming, and educational, it will keep you guessing right to the end.
I can’t leave her here. Somebody might figure out what happened, how it happened, and then trace it back to me somehow.
But what can I do with her? How can I get her out of here anyway? She’s not very big, but I still have to move her so I can drive her somewhere—away from here.
I have to clean up. It doesn’t look too bad. Not much to do, just wipe fingerprints and a little blood. There’s not too much blood. I’ll take her phone with me, get rid of it somewhere. It might give away something. Then I have to get her out of here.
How can such a small woman be so heavy? Dead weight—I had only a block to carry her, but I wasn’t sure I’d make it. With the light from the moon, somebody could’ve seen me at any time. Almost gave up and left her. I have to take her somewhere—but where?
I’ve been driving for hours. Not really. Only seems like hours.
What’s all that wooded area up ahead? There’s the sign—the Presidio. I’ve been here before, but not for a long time. There must be a good place to leave her somewhere around here. The Presidio has secluded spots all over the place.
Maybe I need more than just a secluded spot. I need someplace to cover up how she died. The rocks, it could seem like she fell on the rocks. I remember now—Fort Point. Rocks all along there, surf pounding. It’s pounding like my heart.
If I put her there, they’ll think that’s where she died. Maybe she slipped, maybe she jumped, like Kim Novak in Vertigo. Can I find it, even with the moonlight?
I thought I’d never find the turn off. I’ve been driving in circles. But then I saw the sign to Fort Point, down this little road. Not another car in sight. Not likely to be seen here.
I have to do it fast. Take her body and toss it onto the rocks with one big shove.
Now I can go home. Not be tormented any more. She can’t haunt me anymore. Back up the hill and out of the Presidio. I can breathe easy again.
I almost forgot. Have to stop for a minute and toss the phone into the bay. Did I forget anything else?
The battered and mangled body of a young woman, marred by bloody bruises, with seaweed matted in her blonde hair—this was not the usual image for Clara to start her day.
It was a mundane Monday, the first week of August. Clara automatically thought school should be starting within a month. She’d gone to school so many years, taught school after that, and then gone to law school. Last year, she’d started a new job at a law firm in September, making a significant break from her pattern of starting school in September.
This year, she had no particular plans. That was all about to change.
Her day had started as it typically did, with a cup of coffee and the San Francisco Chronicle. While she may have gotten most of the latest news online now, she still liked the feel of a newspaper in her hands.
This morning she was intrigued by a small story below the fold on the front page of the Bay Area section about a suspicious death the day before. The story described the victim as Vivian Hall, age twenty-six, who had graduated second in her class the year before Clara graduated third in her own class from UC Berkeley School of Law, also known as Boalt Hall. Clara thought she recalled the name, although she didn’t know her.
The body had been found on the craggy rocks in the bay, near Fort Point, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. The story reported that the exact cause of death was unknown but was under investigation. Something about the tone of the article implied it might have been a suicide, but Clara wondered if it could have been an accident or even homicide. She couldn’t imagine how anyone with as much going for her as Vivian Hall would have any reason to kill herself.
She was interrupted by the telephone and was glad to hear the familiar voice of SFPD Detective Travis on the other end of the line. But she could hardly believe what he said.
“Clara, how would you like to do some snooping around some people connected to your old law school? I’ll stop by and fill you in on my way back from Fort Point.”
“You can’t be serious, Travis. Are you investigating that suspicious death by the bridge?”
“I must be. I’ve barely gotten a wink of sleep since I got the call about the body early yesterday morning. It was a crummy way to start a Sunday. I’m just getting back from taking a look at the scene a second time, without all the crime scene guys milling around, and thought I’d stop by and check in with you for a minute before I go back to the office. Okay to come by?”
“Sure, but don’t think you’re going to hook me into this one. I learned my lesson last time.”
Roy Travis was the San Francisco homicide detective who had lured Clara Quillen into helping him investigate the murder of her former boss a few months before. She had been instrumental in solving the murder, but she had come close to losing her own life in the process. She wasn’t about to let Travis talk her into getting involved in police work again.
“I thought I might get a little perspective from you. I’m actually in front of your door now. Want to buzz me in?”
“Travis, you’re shameless. Okay, come on up.”
He looked about the same as usual, except more tired. The bags under his eyes reminded her of an old cartoon character, a loveable hound dog named Droopy. The detective’s gray sport coat and black slacks were more disheveled than usual, and he’d shed his tie, meaning he was off duty, at least for the moment. He gave her a slightly awkward affectionate hug, mindful that with his big, beefy frame it would be all too easy to crush her.
“So tell me about it. How did she die?” Clara asked.
“The first question, of course, is whether it was an accident, suicide, or homicide. I’m banking on homicide, but we’ll know more this afternoon when we have the full autopsy report.”
“What makes you think homicide?”
“First, an accident makes no sense, because we didn’t find a vehicle that would have brought her to the spot where we found her. She lived more than five miles from there, so it’s not very likely she’d have been out for a stroll and somehow slipped on the rocks.”
“What about suicide?”
“In all my years of doing this, I’ve never known of anybody throwing herself off of anything to kill herself unless it was from a pretty high point. These rocks are only a little below the Fort Point parking lot. By the way, the spot is just about where Kim Novak jumped into the drink in Vertigo, before she was fished out by Jimmy Stewart. But that was Hollywood.”
“Maybe she was a Hitchcock fan. She might’ve been a Novak groupie who wanted to copy her. Sorry, Travis, I couldn’t resist. I really shouldn’t be making light of what must be a genuine tragedy. Are there any specific indications of homicide?”
“A few things make it look that way. There were no overt signs of drowning, and the heaviest mark on the body is a distinct blow to the back of the head. Of course, that could’ve been her head striking a rock, but somehow it looks more like a deliberate blow to me. Most of the other marks are abrasions from scraping against the rocks.”
“Do you think she died where you found her?”
“Unlikely. My guess is she was knocked out somewhere else and dumped on the rocks in the dark sometime during the night when the moon was almost full. She was discovered by a jogger about an hour after daybreak.”
“How did you identify her?”
“She didn’t have a handbag or a wallet, not even a cell phone. She was wearing black jeans and a yellow cotton sweater, black sneakers, with one missing, and black socks. There was a key ring in a pocket of her jeans with a laminated picture ID card attached. It was for the faculty of Bay Area School of Law. There were two keys, and later I found out one key was to her apartment and the other was to her office.”
“So she was teaching there?”
“Yeah, I managed to reach the dean at home as soon as I left the scene. The dean is Britt Penner, and she came to the morgue to ID the body. Vivian hadn’t been missed because the faculty doesn’t have to be back till new student orientation the last week of August. And it was a weekend anyway.”
“Was there anything else in her pockets?”
“Her other pocket held a BART card, a ten-dollar bill, three ones, and two quarters. The bills and the card were all soggy, of course.”
“Do you have anything to go on?”
“Not much, but we’re only getting started. Dean Penner told me Vivian was highly regarded by both faculty and students after her first year of teaching. She said since the law school is a small one in San Francisco, they thought they were lucky to get her. She had been on law review, and she graduated second in her class at UC Berkeley law school. Did you ever meet her when you were there?”
“No, but I remember hearing her name. She was on law review before I was, and I think she may have been one of the two graduation speakers the year before I graduated. But I don’t recall ever having seen her. What did she look like?”
“Basically, you’d say she was a real looker—pretty with a good figure. She had blonde hair and blue eyes with fair skin. I learned something funny about that. She had mentioned to Dean Penner that, when she started law school, she was a natural blonde, but a lot of people made jokes about her being Legally Blonde, you know like in the movie. She actually dyed her hair brown for a while. First time I ever heard of a woman deliberately going from blonde to mousy brown. Dean Penner said she went back to blonde again after she finished law school.”
“I can’t say it surprises me. It’s hard enough for a woman to be taken seriously in law school without being glamorous on top of it.”
“Guess that makes a certain amount of sense. I’ve known of good-looking women on the police force who had similar problems. I’ve seen uniforms that were a little baggy on women who had great figures.” Travis nodded and yawned.
“Do you want a cup of coffee? You look as if you’re about to drop.”
“What I need is to go back to the office and take a nap. I can’t do much till I get the autopsy report anyway. They should be finished pretty soon. She’ll still be dead when I wake up.”
“That sounds pretty callous, Travis. You usually show a little more feeling for the victim.”
“Sorry, I’m just tired. I really do need that nap. They’ll call me as soon as the autopsy is done.”
“Will you call me when you know more? I’m really curious about this one.”
“You’re always curious, Clara, but I knew you’d want to know about this case. I’ll give you a call this afternoon.”
As soon as Travis left, Clara went to her computer and did some searches on Vivian Hall. On the state bar website, she entered an attorney search and discovered Hall had received her undergrad degree from Amherst before earning her Juris Doctor degree at Boalt Hall and had been admitted to the California bar the December after she graduated. Now she was listed as being at Bay Area School of Law. A search of that website indicated it’s a relatively small accredited law school in the Glen Park area of San Francisco, a little to the southeast of Diamond Heights.
She was amused by the BASL acronym on the law school website, which immediately made her think of a culinary herb. The faculty listing with a photo of Vivian in a neat gray blazer showed a pretty young woman who had blonde hair that looked natural with her blue eyes and fair skin. It was a little disconcerting when she noticed Vivian’s hairstyle in the photo was a sort of French twist, similar to the one Kim Novak wore in Vertigo.
She learned that Vivian had taught Torts and Juvenile Law, and she was active on various faculty committees. The class schedule showed her Torts class for two semesters, and Juvenile Law was divided by Juvenile Dependency Law in the fall and Juvenile Delinquency Law in the spring. Some of her time was devoted to working with the staff of the law school’s children’s rights center on various legal issues that affect minors.
She read the bios of the fourteen full time faculty members, whose credentials indicated the usual highly rated law schools—Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, UCLA. She skimmed the list of adjunct faculty members who supplemented the full-time faculty. She saw a few names that were vaguely familiar, a couple of judges and one she remembered as having been a past president of the local bar association. They all seemed well credentialed.
Interestingly, the dean’s alma mater was not a top-tier law school. Dean Britt Penner had received her JD degree from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. Clara couldn’t help wondering how difficult it would be for the dean to replace Vivian Hall’s teaching position with only about a month to go before classes started in September.
At first, Clara couldn’t place why Dean Penner’s name rang a bell, but then she recalled and confirmed it by checking her file on a meeting she had attended through the San Francisco Bar Association. The dean had been one of the presenters at a continuing education meeting focused on juvenile law, an area of the law Clara had been considering. It was a special interest of the dean, and she had established a children’s rights center at BASL.
Clara remembered chatting with Dean Penner after the meeting and getting more information about California’s juvenile dependency system. She was impressed by a comment the dean made: “This can be very rewarding work if you can withstand the grim facts of the cases. Some of these kids have had the most appalling things you can imagine inflicted on them by their parents, everything from general neglect to extreme abuse.”
As a result of what Clara had heard at the meeting, she took a two-day seminar on juvenile dependency law. Then she had applied and been appointed to a panel of appellate attorneys who represent abused and neglected children in California courts of appeal. In the juvenile dependency system, children become dependents of the court because of parental abuse or neglect. In the most serious cases, parental rights are terminated, and if the parents appeal that decision, the children cannot be adopted by new parents until they are freed for adoption after the appellate process is complete.
Clara had done a lot of research since then and become familiar with the relevant sections of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, starting with section three hundred. When she applied to be on the dependency panel, a significant part of her qualifications included already having had experience as an appellate attorney. So she had been appointed to her first case and was waiting for the appellate record in the mail any day now. And she wondered how she would handle the anticipated sad facts of the case.
She looked again at the faculty bios on the BASL website, and she was impressed with the ethnic diversity. There were three African-Americans, one of whom was a woman. Two faculty members were Asian, three were Hispanic, and one had a name that sounded Indian or Pakistani. Of the two white legal writing professors, one was male, which from her own experience she knew to be unusual. The two other white males were John Knox MacArthur and one with flowing white hair and a matching beard. At first, she could picture him as a holiday Santa, even to the twinkle in his eye, but the name Greenburg didn’t seem to fit that. The remaining faculty member was Vivian Hall.
Clara couldn’t stop thinking about Vivian Hall’s murder, but the meager facts Travis had told her hadn’t given her much to think about it. Impatient to hear from him, she did what she usually did when she had nervous energy to burn—she cleaned her house.
Not that it actually needed much cleaning—after all, Clara was a neatnik. But she was always amazed at how much dust could accumulate in only a few days. Even she didn’t clean every day.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t afford to have someone else do the cleaning for her, of course. She lived in a penthouse in Pacific Heights, overlooking San Francisco Bay, and at thirty-eight, she already had more money than she could spend in a lifetime. Her dear second husband had left her well fixed, and she was eternally grateful for the freedom and independence that benefit provided in her life.
With her built-in vacuum cleaner, Clara took care of the floors and dust in record time. She considered reorganizing her closets, but she knew they were already pretty well organized. There was barely enough laundry in the hamper to make a small load, and the dishwasher was only half full. Considering the drought, she’d never think of running them without full loads. Showering didn’t take long because she forced herself to keep it under five minutes and always hated having to turn it off so soon. Would it ever rain again so using water wouldn’t have to be a guilt trip?
She slipped into jeans and a fresh T-shirt, and still, it wasn’t even lunchtime. She was well aware she should start giving serious thought to pursuing some kind of meaningful work. She knew that even her court appointment to the child abuse cases wouldn’t be enough to fill her time.
She picked up the latest mystery novel she had started the night before and began to read. But her mind kept wandering, and she found herself reading the same paragraph over and over again. She wondered if age was beginning to catch up with her, but she was a long way from being over the hill. At least she hoped so.
Damn Travis, she thought. She had to admit, though, since he and his wife had become her closest friends, she had pumped him for information about his cases. She had been fascinated by police work as long as she could remember, and she felt very lucky to have access to Travis’s inside information. After years of reading mystery novels, she loved being able to learn about the real thing.
Okay, it was almost noon. She took as long as she could to make herself a salad and a grilled tuna sandwich and ate them slowly. She went down to check her mail, but it hadn’t arrived yet. She took a vigorous walk across the way in Lafayette Park, checking to make sure her cell phone was on. She climbed to the summit at the three hundred seventy-eight-foot elevation and surveyed the view of the city and the bay, even grander than the view from her own penthouse.
From this vantage point, she could see more of the nearby white limestone Spreckels mansion, now occupied by superstar romance novelist Danielle Steel. The impressive structure always reminded her of the Grand Trianon palace at Versailles, or at least it might if it were not hidden behind a massive hedge that obscured more than half of the façade. She supposed she could understand the writer’s desire for privacy, but if so, why would she choose to live in such a conspicuous mansion?
When she got back home, she decided she didn’t need to walk up the four flights of stairs as she often did, but instead took the elevator. Finally, a little after two the phone rang.
“Yep, the coroner thinks it’s a homicide,” Travis said.
“Why is that? What was the condition of the body?”
“First, the coroner confirmed almost no water in the lungs. Actually, the water’s pretty shallow where we found her, so that doesn’t really tell us much. But most of the wounds on her hands and face are abrasions and bruises from the rocks, consistent with the similar kind of damage to the jeans and sweater she was wearing. There were a few hairline fractures in the bones of her face and hands, but none of them would’ve been life threatening. Her left shoe was missing, but she still had a sock on that foot.”
“So, what killed her?”
“I was right about the blow to the back of her head. It was a single blow, very solid, and it cracked her skull. From the size and shape of the wound, the coroner’s best guess on the weapon was a good-sized hammer.”
“What about time of death?”
“It was between eleven p.m. and one a.m. So the body was apparently dumped between that time and sometime before dawn.”
“Any sign of a weapon?”
“No, we’ve combed the scene, and if it was a hammer, it would hardly have floated away. She may have been killed somewhere else and dumped on the rocks where we found her. It doesn’t look like she floated, but we already thought that because she was wedged pretty firmly in the rocks when we found her.”
“How about other crime scene evidence?”
“There were fibers from her clothes along the edge where she went onto the rocks, and we found her missing shoe in the Fort Point parking lot. We couldn’t get anything definitive on tire marks. The pavement is solid, and lots of cars go in and out of the parking lot every day. Nothing significant on footprints either.”
“Any other evidence from the body?”
“No defensive wounds, nothing under the fingernails. She had a nice manicure. The only bloodstains tested out probably to be her own. We’re not sure yet about any other DNA, but I’ll be surprised if we find anything. No evidence of sexual assault. No drugs and only a trace amount of alcohol. So basically, nothing that points to any particular theory at this point.”
“Have you notified relatives?”
“Yeah, Dean Penner gave me the emergency contact information, and I called her parents in Massachusetts. They’re due to arrive this afternoon on a five o’clock flight. I’ve arranged for a police pickup to take them to a hotel. Understandably, they had no desire to go to Vivian’s apartment, at least not yet.”
“They must be devastated.”
“No doubt. They haven’t seen her since she went home for Christmas. Her mother started telling me how awful it was to have her so far away. She said she’d never get over her daughter going to California for law school when there are so many good schools in New England.”
“Maybe that was the point—getting away from home.”
“That sounds like the voice of experience talking.”
“Yeah, maybe. So what’s the next step?”
“This afternoon I’ll go back to interview her roommate, a woman named Marilyn Aiello who is on the editorial staff at the California Supreme Court. They shared a place in the civic center area. When I talked to her yesterday, she was such a basket case I decided not to press. Sometimes you learn more by waiting—establish a little rapport first.”
“That sounds a little cold and calculated, Travis.”
“Not really, merely good procedure.”
“Sometimes I can’t tell the difference.”
“You’re still a rookie, Quillen.”
“Speaking of which, I suspect your calling me about this case was more than merely a little idle chitchat. You could’ve told me about the case just as well a month from now.”
“You’re getting to be very suspicious, Clara. But now that you mention it…”
“Okay, out with it. What do you want from me?”
“I thought you might be willing to go over to Berkeley and see if you can pick up anything at the law school. I got a copy of the vic’s transcript from the dean at BASL, and you could check and see if you had some of the same professors.”
“I might consider it, with one basic condition.”
“Don’t call her a vic. Her name was Vivian, or Ms. Hall if you want to be formal.”
“Sorry, Clara, force of habit. You know how police jargon is. We tend to depersonalize stuff. It’s easier to deal with that way. Anyway, Vivian it is.”
“Fine. If you scan the transcript and e-mail it to me, I’ll see what I can do.”
After all, how difficult could it be to ask a few questions? she thought. Besides, she hadn’t been back to campus since she had graduated the previous year. It might be nice to see if things were the same.
Five minutes later, she was going over the transcript in Travis’s e-mail. She saw that she’d had several professors in common with Vivian, but the best bet to start with was their Constitutional Law professor, David Murdoch. She had been his research assistant, and she saw Vivian had made the top grade in his class when she took Con Law.
She immediately dialed Professor Murdoch and was pleased to hear his voice, even though it sounded somewhat listless at first. Then he seemed to perk up.
“Ms. Quillen, how lovely to hear from you. What can I do for you?”
“I’d like to drop by to chat with you for a few minutes, if you can spare the time.”
“Of course, my dear, I always have time for you. I am getting ready to retire, and truth be told, I have more time on my hands than any respectable person should have.”
“Would it be convenient for you to see me this afternoon? I could make it any time that’s a good time for you.”
“Yes, that would be fine. I’ll be here until about six o’clock. I am in the same office, but it is getting to look a trifle bare. Most of my books are packed up or already gone.”
“I’m not sure I’ll recognize you if you’re not surrounded by books, but I’ll see you soon.”
© 2018 by J. E. Gentry