Blaming the Arsonist
by Kris Nelscott
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
The first hint that an arsonist had infiltrated the tight community around Telegraph happened on the night of January 23, 1969, in the middle of the Third World Liberation Front protests.
Pammy had nothing to do with the protests. She had attended UC Berkeley ten years before and, like so many others, stayed in the city, working odd jobs and finally used her business and physical-education double major to open her own gym.
At least, that was what she told anyone who asked. She never mentioned all the real reasons why she opened the gym. Like the night her friend Doris had died during a beating from her boyfriend. Or the afternoon some thug had attacked Pammy’s friend Carol as he tried to steal her purse, slamming her head against a brick wall, rendering her speechless for months.
Even with Pammy’s training help, probably neither woman would have overpowered her attacker. But Pammy didn’t just train women to fight back; she also trained them how to avoid a violent situation in the first place, using the skills her police-officer father had taught her back in Philadelphia, where he’d seen too many women hurt because they had no idea how to protect themselves.
The night of the fire she had closed up late. She’d been running a self-defense class that most of the attendees hadn’t paid for. They were street people—hippies, flower children, little lost souls she’d been collecting since the doors to A Gym of Her Own had opened the summer before.
By the time she stepped outside the gym’s front door, the night sky was strangely orange, and ash floated around her.
She looked up and down the street, to make sure nothing was burning immediately next to her. Then she made herself lock the gym door, check the deadbolt, and pocket her keys. Calm, her father had told her all those years ago, solved more problems than panic ever would.
She slung her purse over one shoulder, the purse itself against her torso, and headed into the street. That was when she looked up. A fire towered over the neighborhood, a bright orange wall reaching toward the clear night sky.
Her breath caught.
The fire was huge, and farther away than she thought. It was north of her, but it couldn’t have been north by much.
She ran to Telegraph Avenue, only to find everyone outside of their apartments. They were all looking toward campus. The smoke was thicker here, the flames visible to her right. She hurried toward Bancroft and the edge of UC Berkeley.
The campus was bathed in that weird orange glow. She couldn’t hear sirens—not yet—and she thought that odd too. But she also didn’t hear voices raised in a protest chant or bullhorns exhorting people to march forward—and she’d half expected it.
All month, the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of minority student groups, had been agitating for an ethnic-studies college as part of the university. The students weren’t like the students in the Free Speech Movement four and a half years before; these students were militant, often wearing military gear, and provoking the campus police with small acts of violence.
As she walked up the Sather Gate, she expected to see a clash between protestors and police. But the students she saw on Sproul Plaza looked as confused as she felt. More poured into the area as each moment passed, and she finally heard sirens, getting closer and closer.
The fire was coming from her right—one of the buildings on South Drive. That thought galvanized her and she pushed her way through the growing crowd.
She ran uphill to the Central Campus. The air was filled with smoke. Her eyes stung, and she had to blink hard to see through the haze.
Flames poured out of the roof on Wheeler Hall, one of the older buildings on campus. University security officers were dragging garden hoses up the flat white stairs into the open doors under the arches.
She needed to talk to security: There were hoses inside—fire hoses along with fire axes, near the fire alarm. Didn’t those security officers know that?
As she got close, though, someone grabbed her arm.
Professor Dwight Jones pulled her back. “You don’t belong in there, Pammy.”
He was right. She could feel the heat on her face. She knew about the hoses, but she didn’t know how to fight a fire, especially one like this.
The blaze was big and bold, eating the top of the building. She wondered what it was using as fuel. Wheeler Hall was made of granite.
One of the city’s fire trucks pulled in behind her.
She whirled, saw firefighters pouring out of the truck, giving instructions, surveying, already working the scene. One of them grabbed a bullhorn and yelled at the crowd to get back.
She backed off, moving to the edge of the crowd. Professor Jones still stood in front, clutching his old-fashioned book bag, the one he had used when she had taken his European Literature class almost a decade before.
“What were they thinking, Pammy?” he asked her.
It took her a moment to realize that Professor Jones believed this was arson.
“You think someone set this,” she said.
“No one was using the auditorium,” Professor Jones said. “And the flames just whooshed into life. We all heard it. Not quite an explosion, but something—like all the air got sucked out of the building. Yeah, I think someone set it. And not just anyone. Those damn protestors . . .”
“Did you see them?” she asked, ever her father’s daughter.
“I was teaching a class, Pammy,” Professor Jones said, as if she was being thick. Maybe she was. “Besides, how do I know who ‘they’ are? Half the campus is involved in this garbage, trying to tear down everything just because they didn’t get all the toys as children. Selfish little bastards. Look what they’ve done.”
His voice was thick, and she realized with surprise that he was close to tears. She looked at him—really looked at him—for the first time in a long time. He had spent his entire career here, and he had seemed old to her ten years ago. He was nearing retirement. The peaceful academic world he’d known had disappeared five years before, and he was clearly still baffled by the changes.
Another fire truck showed up, and then another. Campus security left the building, some still holding garden hoses. Several students gathered around, hands to their mouths.
Firefighters ran past Pammy, up the stone steps, and into the archway. Another truck—a ladder truck—parked on the grass between Wheeler and South Hall. A ladder rose, and with it, curtains of water began spraying the rising flames.
Ash fell thicker now, big globs of black, wet and thick, like ash-rain. Two security guards backed the crowd up, and a few firefighters threatened to set up some kind of rope. Another firefighter was in earnest discussion with one of the campus security officers.
Pammy put her hand against her mouth, her eyes stinging from the smoke, feeling helpless. The campus looked unbelievably bright from the fire and the lights of the fire trucks.
More students and faculty members had arrived, faces yellow and orange in the flames. Young faces, furrowed with concern. Older faces—professors, graduate students—stoic. One young woman was sobbing uncontrollably as she stood near the trees at the edge of the South Drive.
Sparks danced in the air. Smoke was thicker now. It seemed as if the firefighters had started to get the flames under control.
Pammy whirled and walked back toward Sather Road. As she moved, she bumped into a group of students who didn’t even seem to notice her. She tensed like she always did, hand securely on her purse. The students hurried toward the fire, and she looked up to see a man leaning against a tree.
He wore camouflage. She probably wouldn’t have seen him at all if she hadn’t been staring straight at him. His face was dirty, his hair long. He wasn’t holding books, but that meant nothing. From the snippets of conversation she had heard, a lot of students and professors had left their belongings inside Wheeler as they escaped the flames.
She nodded at him. He half-smiled, as if he couldn’t believe someone was greeting him. And then he slipped away in the direction of Strawberry Creek.
If he hadn’t gone down the hillside, she wouldn’t have thought the moment odd. But she did.
She crossed to the other side of Sather Road—always be practical, always err on the side of caution—and then kept one eye out, glancing both ways to make sure she wasn’t followed as she headed back to Telegraph. She needed to pick up her car.
She wanted to go home.
Pammy didn’t learn anything about the fire until Friday.
She came in early that morning, and made some coffee in her private kitchen.
Once upon a time, the back of the gym had been two studio apartments. She had opened them up, using most of the space as the locker room. The two bathrooms came in particularly handy.
But she had separated off one of the kitchens as part of her office, so that she could make her own coffee and keep her own food in a refrigerator. The other small kitchen belonged to the locker room, and made it easier for the women who occasionally slept here to feed themselves and their children.
Pammy tried not to think about how many building codes she was violating. But she always felt that if the City of Berkeley cared about building-code violations in this neighborhood, they would have gone door to door. Everyone down here was doing something wrong—and most of them were doing a lot more wrong than she ever could.
She reserved the main part of the building for the gym proper. She had one fighting space, two large mats, and four heavy bags hanging from the low ceiling. She had six smaller bags hanging off poles. Those bags were set about a foot lower than bags in any other gym she’d ever gone to, one of the many things she had changed for the women who came here.
On one wall, she had two racks of clothing—one a rack of T-shirts with the words “A Gym of Her Own” emblazoned across the front, and a matching rack filled with sweatshirts. On the other wall, she had arranged boxing gloves by size, the smaller the better. She also had a lot of tape and extra pairs of women’s sneakers, since so many of the women who came here didn’t even have the right shoes.
She loved the smells of chalk and sweat that permeated the space. Those smells signified home for her.
She needed that comfort on Fridays.
Her morning class was two hours long. It had no college students at all. The women who came to Friday’s class didn’t live in the neighborhood. Pammy had no idea how they’d found her, but they had. The group were housewives from the same part of town who got tired of having coffee together at each other’s houses every morning, and decided to “have an adventure.”
Initially, six women had come to the class. By Christmas, three remained.
Pammy hadn’t really expected any of them to show up after the Wheeler Hall fire, but they did.
They slid in the front door as if they were doing something wrong. Stella D’Arbus was the only one who usually walked tall, but on this day, she hurried through the door like someone who didn’t want to be seen.
Marie Seabolt followed, clutching a bag that Pammy knew from experience contained all of their gym clothes. They stored the clothing with Marie so that the other husbands didn’t ask why their wives kept such horrid outfits anywhere near the house. Apparently, Marie’s husband didn’t care or didn’t look in her bags.
LuAnn Amberson was the last person inside. She was so good at slinking that some Fridays Pammy never saw LuAnn enter at all. She had achieved a kind of ghostly invisibility that disturbed Pammy almost as much as the skeletal faces of some of the hippie women.
“I didn’t think I’d see you today,” Pammy said to them as the door closed behind them.
Stella waved her bejeweled right hand dismissively.
“We’re not really here,” she said as she stalked to the reception desk that Pammy had set up a few months ago because, she learned, women expected someplace to check in.
“We’re safe down here, aren’t we?” Marie asked with a little too much concern in her voice.
“The protestors haven’t left campus so far.” Pammy realized she wasn’t guaranteeing safety with that statement, but it was the best she could do.
She stepped behind the desk. She had a small cast-iron safe on the floor. Stella had been the one who bought it.
I need someplace to put my jewelry, she had said as she gave it to Pammy. If I leave my regular jewelry at home, Roy is going to think that we’re headed for divorce court.
Pammy could never quite follow that logic, even though Marie had tried to explain it to her once. Stella’s husband Roy liked seeing his wife sparkling with more jewels than the Queen of England.
It makes him feel important, Marie had said.
The thing was, in this state, Roy was important. He was one of the Board of Regents who ran the University of California system.
“But that fire was scary,” Marie was saying now. “If those protestors can burn Wheeler Hall, they’re going to burn the whole city.”
“That fire was a one-time thing,” Stella said, pulling off her rings. “Besides, Roy said it’s got nothing to do with the protests.”
Then her cheeks reddened. She had clearly spoken out of turn.
LuAnn spoke for all of them, albeit in a whisper. “But the chancellor spoke to the papers. He said it was the protestors.”
“Papers schmapers.” Stella took off her earrings, then reached behind her neck to unclasp a strand of pearls. “Roy says that they’re pretty sure the protestors didn’t set the fire. The university thinks it’s better, though, if everyone believes they did.”
“They’re not going to correct what the chancellor said?” Marie asked, sounding shocked.
“But that means the real culprit goes free.” LuAnn’s voice got a little stronger as she stepped toward the desk. She was a slight woman with delicate features and bright intelligent eyes.
Stella looked trapped. She had to be political, even among her friends. Criticizing the chancellor was probably not the best idea.
Pammy set the jewelry, warm from Stella’s skin, in the safe.
“The real culprit will get caught,” Stella said without conviction. “I mean, they’re looking for whoever it was. But they don’t think it’s those striker-protestor types. They think, from what they found, that it has something to do with the movie nights there.”
“Movie nights?” Pammy asked as she closed the safe and spun the combination lock.
Stella was still rubbing one of her earlobes. The other earlobe looked red. Her clip-ons must have hurt. “You know how they show old movies to raise money for various causes. One of the rule changes the university made was to say that student organizations that used Wheeler’s auditorium couldn’t use it to raise money for nonstudent organizations.”
“So, no movies benefitting Meals on Wheels,” Pammy said, realizing she was letting her bias slip through, because there probably had never been movies benefitting something like Meals on Wheels.
“Or movies donating money to the antiwar campaign,” Stella said.
“Or movies raising funds to reelect the governor of California,” Marie said with some heat.
Her two friends looked at her, surprised. Pammy wasn’t sure what surprised them. She didn’t know Marie’s politics. Pammy couldn’t tell if Marie was angry that no one could raise funds to reelect the governor or if she was using that as an example to rile up Stella.
“Why would they think that it was the movie thing?” Pammy asked, trying to change the topic just a little.
“Because,” Stella said, “Roy says fringe groups were using those movies to get a lot of money.”
Pammy didn’t see how. They didn’t charge much to show the films, and the auditorium had seated less than one thousand people.
“So they’re still blaming the protestors,” LuAnn said softly.
Marie nodded. Those two had made the connection, even if Stella was oblivious to it.
“No, this is a different group,” Stella said, ignoring the undercurrents as she so often did. “I don’t think anyone in that movie club was raising money for the Third . . . Fourth . . . Liberating . . . Protestors—whatever they’re called. No one is raising money for them.”
Pammy’s stomach clenched. She hated Stella’s attitudes.
“What kind of proof do they have?” Pammy asked again. She realized that she had again broken her private vow to stay out of this, but she couldn’t let it go. The images of those flames had haunted her ever since she walked to Wheeler Hall.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Stella frowned at her. “I really didn’t care enough to quiz Roy.”
Implying that Pammy was quizzing her.
Stella shrugged. “I just asked enough so that I would know if we could come here today, and not enough to make him think I was actually interested.”
And she clearly wasn’t interested.
“Shall we change, ladies?” she asked her friends, and then marched toward the locker room.
LuAnn stayed behind for just a moment. She bit her lower lip, then frowned at Pammy.
Pammy had learned how to handle LuAnn these last few months. LuAnn was like a feral cat seeking affection. If Pammy waited long enough, she might get LuAnn to trust her.
“You let people sleep here, right?” LuAnn asked softly. “I mean, that one morning we came early, there were some women leaving. . . .”
Pammy waited. She wasn’t sure what LuAnn was asking. Was LuAnn warning her that the women who slept here might try to harm the business?
LuAnn didn’t say anything else, so Pammy finally spoke. “Yes, sometimes I let women sleep here, when they have nowhere else to go. It’s not permanent, but it helps them.”
LuAnn nodded. She opened her mouth to say something else, then Marie peered out of the locker-room door.
“Hey, you going to change or what?” she asked.
LuAnn closed her mouth, swallowed, nodded at Pammy like a terrified rabbit, and hurried to the locker room.
Pammy frowned after her, wondering what that was about, and then shrugged. She might never know.
For days, Pammy kept turning over LuAnn’s question in her mind, worrying about the protests and the arson, thinking about Marie’s comment about burning the whole city.
Pammy knew that was a privileged paranoia speaking, but she also understood that edge Berkeley was walking on, the feeling that at any moment, the entire community could slip into out-and-out war.
The edge got even more slippery during the next week. The demonstrations on campus turned violent as sixty officers from police departments all over the area marched down Bancroft, slapping batons against their palms.
The protestors broke windows and disrupted classes, all the while trying to explain their position—their demands for an education that included everyone, not just the privileged white students.
When Pammy heard that someone had threatened Wheeler Hall again—this time on the phone—saying it would burn all the way to the ground, she felt the beginning of fear. And felt no relief when the threat turned out to be a false alarm.
Then she learned about an actual arson attempt at Girton Hall. The flames got doused before they did any damage.
Girton Hall had been designed in 1911 by architect Julia Morgan as a place for the women on campus to go. Pammy loved Girton Hall. Designed by a woman for women, it was ahead of its time.
After she heard the news, Pammy walked over to Piedmont on one of her breaks, heading toward Girton Hall. She wanted to avoid the continuing protests, which mostly happened around Sather Gate and on Sproul Plaza. She figured she could avoid all the disruption if she went around that part of campus.
As she moved through the chill air, she heard faint chants of “Power to the people” even though there were no protestors up here. At the moment, this part of campus was empty.
But she kept seeing someone out of the corner of her eye, almost as if she were being flanked. The hair rose on the back of her neck. . . .
# # #
Read the exciting conclusion in our current issue, on sale now!
Blaming the Arsonist by Kris Nelscott, Copyright © 2016 with permission of the author.
Keep these great mystery stories coming all year long ... Subscribe now!