Featuring San Francisco Newscaster Parker Atkins

3:00 a.m.—Sunday—June 6, 1937<>Northbound On The Coast Road

In the wee small hours, California Highway One north of Half Moon Bay is about as desolate as it gets. The narrow, twisting road was etched from sheer cliff faces that towered above me on the right and dropped away a hundred feet to the Pacific Ocean on my left.

A soggy wool blanket of San Francisco's famous fog hung a few feet above the roadway, obscuring the stars and dribbling tiny spots of mist on my windshield. My headlights bored through the gap between road and fog, drilling an endless tunnel through the darkness.

 So far as I could tell, there were only two other cars on the entire planet that night—actually, one car and a produce truck. They flashed by, one after the other, heading south just past Moss Beach. Their headlights glared in my eyes and made the road seem even narrower, but half an hour later, I was wishing for more signs of life just to help keep my drooping eyelids from slamming shut altogether. It was the wrong thing to wish for.

She appeared suddenly out of the fog on the opposite side of the road. Only, she wasn't in a car. This gal was right in the middle of the southbound lane and running for all she was worth. She was barefoot, wore a white dress, and no coat. That was all I had time to take in before she was gone and I was alone in the endless tunnel again.

I shook my head in disbelief and stared into the rear view mirror. A vague white blur in the glass contradicted my absolute certainty that I was seeing things, but it took a few more seconds for my drowsy brain to hatch the idea that a woman running down this desolate stretch of road at three in the morning might need some help.

We'd passed each other as I approached a long uphill grade, and I was almost to the top before I found a place to turn around. It was one of those wide spots on the right shoulder where slow trucks and timid drivers are supposed to pull over and let the accumulated traffic behind them go by.

I pulled off and cranked the steering wheel around, but as I let out the clutch, a pair of brilliant lights topped the hill a hundred feet further up the road. I slammed the brake pedal to the floor and a large, dark Lincoln Zephyr flashed through my headlights.

A big man in a hat was hunched over the wheel as if he were concentrating on the road ahead. I hoped to hell he was concentrating, because at that speed, the woman at the bottom of the hill would appear in his headlights without any warning, giving him precious little time to avoid hitting her.

Loose gravel spattered against the underside of my Ford coupe' as I stomped on the foot feed and sped off in pursuit of the Lincoln. For a moment I had the absurd notion I might be able to catch the guy and slow him down, but his taillights were fading into the darkness much too quickly.

My eyes were fixed on those two vague pinpoints of pink light as I accelerated down the hill. I willed them to grow larger. Instead, they suddenly veered to the left. He'd seen the woman and swerved to miss her!

In the same instant something white flashed through the air to the left of the Lincoln's taillights. I screamed at my windshield, "You son of a bitch!" Of course, the Lincoln's driver couldn't hear me. He couldn't even see me in his rear view mirror anymore. He was already around the bend beyond the bottom of the grade.

A sick feeling heated up my gut as I slowed to look for her body. There was no question about it. The guy in the Lincoln hadn't swerved to avoid the woman; he'd gone out of his way to hit her.

I turned across the highway and pulled in close to the cliff. My headlights showed her there, sprawled against the rocks.

She picked a lousy dress to die in. Dark stains were already showing through the thin white material in several places and one sleeve was torn to the shoulder, exposing pale skin to the early morning chill.

The woman had no pulse that I could find, and when I put my ear to her chest, I heard nothing but hollow emptiness. I stepped back and listened to breakers crashing against the rocks below the highway instead.

She stared at me through unseeing hazel eyes, framed by short brown hair that was dark and matted on one side. A rivulet of dark red blood trickled down her cheek and dripped steadily from her chin onto the white dress.

Even in life I wouldn't have called her a raving beauty, but she wasn't unattractive, either. Mostly, she was just a woman in her late twenties or early thirties with an average figure and regular features.

Her clothes and jewelry were another matter, though. Her dress carried an I. Magnin label and the teardrop pendant hanging from a gold chain around her neck was surrounded by clear stones that sparkled brightly in my headlights. I'm no expert, but I know expensive when I see it, and this gal was definitely Nob Hill.

My car robe covered everything but her ankles and feet. I could have used my jacket to cover the rest of her, but the damp air had a knife-edge to it that bothered me a lot more than it did her, so I left the jacket on and thought about getting some help.

Calling an ambulance wasn't going to do her any good, but getting someone after that Lincoln seemed like a smart idea. The problem was, I couldn't call anybody without a telephone, and I couldn't just leave her lying there while I went off to look for one.

I was pondering this dilemma when a low rumble grew out of the surf noises. It was coming from the south and sounded like a big engine of some kind. I wondered for a moment if the Lincoln was coming back. After a few seconds, though, I quit worrying about the Lincoln. What was coming was a truck, and with my car sticking out into his lane less than fifty feet from the blind curve at the bottom of the hill, the driver was in for one hell of a surprise when he rounded the bend.

There wasn't time to move my car. Sprinting downhill, I got to the curve just before he did and started wig-wagging my arms over my head. The truck's headlights hit me full in the face, and as I dodged to the side of the road, a lot of screeching and grinding filled the air while the driver fought to keep his rig from sailing off into the drink.

When he got the truck stopped, the driver came charging down from his cab like John L. Lewis going after a strikebreaker. He was big, hairy, and mad.

"What the hell's the matter with you, buddy? Ya almost got us both killed!"

Holding my hands up in what I hoped look like an apologetic gesture, I said, "Sorry.  I was trying to get you to slow down before you ran into my car over there."

He glanced at my Ford. "Why in blazes did ya stop in a stupid place like that to begin with?"

"There was an accident here a few minutes ago. A woman was hit by a car and I stopped to help."

That put the whole picture in an entirely different light. Suddenly the driver was full of concern. "A woman?  Is she okay? Where's her car?"

"She wasn't in a car, and she's dead."

"What do ya mean, ‘she wasn't in a car'?"

"Just what I said.  She's over here."

I pulled a corner of the car robe back and he swore. "Shit!  What the hell happened?"

"She was running down the southbound lane over there when I passed her going north, but before I could get turned around, somebody came roaring down the hill and hit her."

He turned away from the broken woman under my car robe and shook his head. "Sweet Jesus! What do ya suppose she was doin' out here all by herself?"

"Damned if I know, but I've got to report this to the cops. Is there a telephone up the road somewhere?"

"Yeah, there's a public phone outside the Wander Inn up at Pacifica."

"I don't want to just go off and leave her. How ‘bout you call the cops and I'll wait for ‘em here?"

"Sure. I'm on my way."  The driver turned and jogged off toward his truck, but halfway there, he stopped and turned around. His voice was full of suspicion as he asked, "Say, you didn't hit that gal, did ya?"

"No.  It was a guy in a big Lincoln. He was headed south. Maybe you passed him."

"Yeah, I saw him, alright. A big black sedan . . . he went by me a ways back down the road goin' hell-bent for leather."

"Well, get to that phone as fast as you can so we can send the cops after him."

I listened to his engine straining up the hill, and when his only working taillight disappeared over the crest, I jotted the truck's license plate number in my notebook. It occurred to me the cops might get the same idea about who hit the woman. At least the truck driver could vouch for the fact that there really was a speeding Lincoln out here tonight.

Leaning against a fender that was damp from the fog, I listened for traffic and wondered about the woman and why she was killed. When I didn't come up with any good answers, my mind drifted back to another time . . . a time when I carried a shiny gold badge and dead bodies were part of my job. Sadly or gratefully, depending on how you looked at it, most of the images that remained in my mind from that time are little more than hazy pencil sketches worn thin by an eighty-proof eraser.

I've learned to avoid looking at those pictures, but sometimes my brain doesn't cooperate. This was one of those times, and I was glad when a couple of wailing sirens finally drove my dark memories back into their hiding place.

Two patrol cars converged on me from opposite directions and they got there within seconds of each other. The sergeant, who came from the north, took command of the situation. He was short and stocky with a fringe of gray hair showing around his khaki uniform cap. The other fellow was tall, sharp-featured, and couldn't have been more than twenty.

They took a look at the body and the young guy turned a little green around the gills. After sending the kid off to direct traffic in case any came along, the sergeant explained apologetically, "He's new. This is probably the first corpse he's ever seen. The first ones are always the hardest."

"Yeah," I added, And some guys never get used to it."

The sergeant looked at me a little curiously, like he was wondering what the hell I knew about such things, but he didn't ask. Instead, he fished a notebook out of his leather jacket and motioned for me to follow him over into the glare of his patrol car headlights where he could see to write.

He was really pretty good. I've questioned a few people in my day and I know the kind of cooperation you get depends a lot on your attitude. The sergeant was relaxed and friendly. If he had any suspicions about my role in the accident, they didn't show.

"Okay, Mister . . . ."


"Okay, Mister Atkins. May I see your drivers' license?"

I slipped the black photostat that said the Great State of California thought I was competent to drive an automobile out of my wallet and passed it over to him.

The sergeant held it up to the light and copied the info into his notebook. Then he looked at it more closely, as if examining the thumbprint affixed to it, and said, "Parker T. Atkins? You aren't the Parker Atkins who gives the news over the radio, are you?"

"We're one and the same, Sergeant."

"How ‘bout that!" He sounded genuinely thrilled. "The wife and I listen to you every night at dinner. She'll be real excited when I tell her I met you in person."

"Well, I'm glad to know somebody is listening. Please give her my regards, Sergeant . . . ah . . . ."

"Oh. Sorry." He offered his hand. "My name's Framm. Will Framm. It's a real honor to meet you."

We shook and he reassumed his official demeanor. "Okay, Mister Atkins, tell me what you know about all this."

I told him my story and he took copious notes, filling several pages in his little notebook. When I got to the part about the truck driver, the sergeant added, "Yeah, I talked to him when he called in. Said his name was . . . ," Framm flipped back a few pages in his notebook, ". . . Benedetti. Joe Benedetti. Says he saw the Lincoln you said hit the woman. Anything else you can think of that might help us out?"

"No, Sergeant, that's the whole story."

"Alright, Mister Atkins. Ah, one more thing. Would you mind telling me how you happened to be out here at this hour?" With another hint of apology in his voice, he gestured to the notebook with his pencil and added, "Just for the record."

"I wouldn't mind at all. I'm headed home from visiting friends down in Half Moon Bay."

Sergeant Framm looked up like he was expecting more and I gave him a little shrug. He nodded slightly and I asked, "Any idea who she is?"

"No, I've never seen her before. But from the way she's dressed and everything, I bet it won't be long before someone shows up looking for her."

Turning on my best radio celebrity charm, I said, "Listen, Will, I'd kind of like to follow up on this. Maybe do a story on who killed her and why. Mind if I call you later to find out how the investigation's going?"

"Not at all, Mister Atkins."

"Call me Park."

He smiled. "Okay, Park. I'd be happy to hear from you any time. And, by the way, keep your eyes open on the way up to The City. There's a white Oldsmobile convertible parked alongside the road, just over the hill there." He gestured up the road to the north. "That might explain how the woman got out here."

"Thanks, Will.  You need me for anything else now?"

The sergeant flipped his notebook closed and looked around. "No, I don't think so. I called the coroner before I came out here, so he should be showing up pretty soon. I guess I know where to find you if I think of anymore questions."

"Yup, right on good old KDG every weeknight at six o'clock sharp."

Sergeant Framm gave me another friendly smile. He shook the hand I offered him and went off to talk to the young deputy who was still standing in the middle of the road with a flashlight and trying not to look at any dead women who happened to be in the vicinity. Will Framm also casually examined both front fenders of my Ford as he walked past them. He was not only good, he was thorough.

The white Oldsmobile was right where Framm said it would be. I found a spot wide enough to pull over on my side of the highway and walked back for a look. The convertible top was down and the brown leather seats were covered with a film of mist. A set of keys dangled from the ignition and the gas gauge needle was pointing to a spot just south of empty. That detail did indeed go a long way toward explaining why the dead woman was afoot.

There was one of those license registration certificate holders wrapped around the steering column. I spun the spark wheel on the old brass trench lighter my dad passed on to me as a souvenir of the Great War and read the registration info by its flickering light. The Oldsmobile belonged to one Gladys Doherty who lived at 2315 Buchanan in San Francisco.

Of course, that address meant I'd been wrong about her being one of the rich folks from Nob Hill. Instead, she was one of the rich folks from Pacific Heights, which was almost as far up the social ladder. There were even those who might argue that the Heights were a rung or two higher.

I thought about someone who, I was pretty sure, had that opinion and reminded myself to ask her if she knew Gladys Doherty. It seemed likely she did since they lived on the same street, about a block apart.

For that matter, I lived only a dozen blocks or so from Gladys Doherty's home myself. In the social scheme of things, though, those twelve blocks might as well be a million miles because they span the distance between Pacific Heights and the distinctly blue-collar Fillmore District.


This story is based on an excerpt from H. P. Oliver's novel, GOODNIGHT, SAN FRANCISCO

Story and design © Steve Eitzen
Header graphic, HPO logo, KDG microphone, and Lincoln image © HPO Productions
Running woman, truck, and patrol car images © modified from a public domain photographs
California coast image © University of California archive
Dead woman image © 123RF used by license
Wander Inn image © Pacifica Historical Society
LAPD badge © City of Los Angeles
All rights reserved by copyright owners

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, locations, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.