For Oakland p.i. Jeri Howard, the cause is as important as the case. So the episodes of vandalism at her ex-stepdaughter's rooming house in Berkeley, though they sound like no big deal, are just her meat, since she soon connects them to some menacing phone calls and incidents of up-close-and-personal harassment against Vicki Vernon and several of her housemates--activist law student Sasha Nichols, abortion clinic escort Rachel Steiner, women's center volunteer Marisol Gallegos. Throughout Jeri's preliminary investigation of the ways Vicki and her housemates have been hit on, threatened, and abused, you get the exhilarating feeling that her work is coming to terms with issues larger and more solid than just the odd murder. But then the genre's imperative kicks in, and Jeri remembers an eight-year-old homicide she and her mentor Errol Seville never cleared--a wife- beater, maybe a wife-killer, Errol and Jeri could only nail for enough felonies to send him up the river until just about the time the campaign of mischief took off in Berkeley. There's nothing wrong with Jeri's quest for her prime suspect; it's just maddeningly routine, after the confident, ambitious opening, to watch her doing the daisy-chain shuffle from one informant to the next, closing in on the suspect to no great effect. Feminists should cheer Jeri's fighting instincts; mystery- mongers may deplore a pair of culpable coincidences in her sixth outing (Nobody's Child, 1995, etc.).