Chapters 7-9: Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery

Prior chapters of the Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery are filed in the Murder Mystery category


Chapter 7

The police station was actually not far from Ralph and Fanny’s. The city had gotten a good deal on the empty lot that Sam Todd had targeted for a Costco and had built a new “green” cities services building that they were proud of. The parking lot was crushed gravel to prevent rain water run off and the close-in parking spaces were designated “for hybrid cars only.” The dramatic architecture featured floor to ceiling windows and a living wall of plants in the foyer that was supposed to create some sort of climate control. But as I walked though the hallway to the detectives’ office, I noticed that many of the offices were equipped with umbrellas to tame the relentless sun. I found Detective Rush on the second floor.

“Detective McNitt, do you remember me. I am Liza Blue, and you found my card on that hit and run victim yesterday.”

“Yes, do you have any more information on the girl?”

“Well after I left you I went to the coffee shop around the corner, College Coffee, and got talking to the waitress. She said that the victim, named Penny, had worked there for about a month. She had left her purse at the coffee shop, and I told her that I would drop it off to you.”

“Well that was last night, and this is today,” said McNitt, so what have you been doing with it all this time.”

“It was late by the time I got it, and then I had an appointment in the morning, so this was the first chance I got to give it to you. I did take a peek at it, but it is pretty disgusting. It looks like the victim just dumped some garbage in there, and there was no wallet or cell phone, or anything else helpful.”

McNitt opened the purse and grimaced at the mess. “Wow smells bad too. Well thanks for stopping by.” He turned to his computer screen as a definite signal for me to leave.

“I am just curious Detective, but I am wondering if you found out her last name, or how she died. Was it really a hit and run?”

“Well I am just curious Ms. Blue as to why you are curious. You say that she was not a client, and that you had not met her and yet you are – how shall I say it – curious.”

“It is just the detective in me, always asking questions. My father used to work here you know, Henry Blue.  And how about Charles Grimes? He was my father’s partner.”

“Well if you are so familiar with police procedure, then you should know that I can’t tell you anything.” He nodded to his secretary, turned and walked away.

The secretary stood up to escort me to the door. “I am sorry that Detective McNitt is so rude. He and Grimes are very competitive – both vying for lieutenant, so it doesn’t help that you know Grimes. We don’t get a lot of murders here in Santa Teresa, and he is primary since Grimes is out of town. He would like to solve this before Grimes gets back so that he gets all the glory. Here, I’ll walk you out since I am due for my morning cigarette.”

We went through a side door and into the official smoking area in an alley between two wings of the police station. Above me I could see a gorgeous cloudless sky, but around me was scattered the detritus of nicotine addicts – cigarette butts overflowing the sand in the ash tray, more were strewn around the ground, some were swimming in the swill left in crumpled coffee cups. I had quit smoking 10 years ago and this marginalization of smokers was the reason why. But my companion had already lit up and was sucking deeply. It would certainly facilitate the relationship if I pulled out a butt, but unlike my father, there were only so many things that I would do to cultivate a lead. I rummaged in my purse and found a throat lozenge to suck on instead.

“My name is Liza Blue and I see from your name tag that you are Flo. I tell you, I know about the competition – my father was on the force for many years and that is why he left.  I love being a private eye, I can just help people more so than I ever could with a badge, plus I can pick and choose my cases. The young girl that was killed, her name was Penny. I never met her – she just left a message on my machine, but I could tell from the message that she was a nice kid who just wanted to help her room mate. And I feel bad that I never got to meet her, and maybe that is part of the reason that I still want to help. When did you start working here, perhaps you overlapped with my father Henry Blue?”

Flo had the lumpy dumpy looks of a postmenopausal woman who had just let herself go. Either she was secure in a relationship, or just didn’t care any more. She was wearing one of those clingy nylon tops – not a good choice for her ample figure. Her breasts were low hanging and pointed like the prow of a decommissioned aircraft carrier, and the pil of the fabric had coarsened at her elbows and armpits. There was no visible waist and she was blowing smoke in my face. But she looked like she could be a valuable source of information.

“Let’s see, Blue – I think that I would remember a name like that, I have been on the job for 23 years – two more years and I can retire with a full pension. So we must have overlapped, but I have only been in this precinct for a couple of years. Now that friend of yours, Grimes, he is a prince of a fellow – he even brings me a cup of coffee and lets me go home early sometimes when I need to pick up my grand daughter from school. I’m raising her you know on account of her no good mother.”

We were quickly slipping into the land of too much information, so I tried to gently steer her back on track. “Yes, Charles is great, my father was his mentor and he became a friend of the family.  I learned a lot from him, especially his patience and how to treat people. He was always able to get so much more out of witnesses and victims. Detective McNitt looks new, maybe he hasn’t learned the ropes yet, but he seems so much more brittle.”

“Yes, McNitt is a pain in the ass, I’ve got exactly two more minutes on my break, and I guarantee you that he will be timing me. But I think that he is a bit overwhelmed today. Of course in addition to the murder there was the break in at the old Murphy place – that might be even more high profile than the murder. That pompous Henry Murphy has already been down here twice, but that is not that unusual. He always files complaints about his neighbors. Seems he is not used to having neighbors ever since they subdivided his estate.”

“Break in at the Murphy place. I think that I did pick that up on my police scanner. Did anyone get hurt?”

“No, and in fact first Murphy calls 911 and is all frantic yelling about the competence of the police force and then this morning he comes creeping back in here, full of apologies and says that it was all a misunderstanding, that the maid had forgotten to turn off the alarm when she came back from her day off, and the silver that he said was stolen – he had forgotten that he had put in the safe for storage. McNitt was just livid, since Murphy treats him like his own security detail. This is where being a detective should be better than a private detective, since a detective can always tell someone to fuck off.”

Flo flicked her cigarette on to the payment and then ground it out, but made no move to pick it up. “Wow Flo, that is a busy night for a sleepy town like Santa Teresa, a murder and a break-in on the same night.”

“Oh no,” she said, “the supposed break in was the night before, the murder was last night, but because of Murphy’s bellowing, Rush didn’t really focus on the college student until this morning. I think that he is waiting for the autopsy report.”

“So you have confirmed that she is a college student, she sounded about that age on the phone.”

Flo got up quickly and grabbed her purse. I had clearly pushed her too hard, made an abrupt transition from two women commiserating, to one woman pumping another for information. “I gotta go, nice meeting you, I am sure your friend Charles will know more details when he gets back.” The smudged glass door closed in my face.

Chapter 8

I knew the pathologist in the crime scene lab, but this would not be the most opportune time to sashay down there and say hello – way too obvious. I knew that he liked to end his day with a beer at the Lantern down the street, and I could engineer a coincidental “bump into” meeting. The bar actually might be too obvious since I had used this ploy twice in the last year. The gym over on Scott Street might be the best place, but it would mean that I would have to work out, a poor trade-off from with relaxing beer at the Lantern, but I guess that is why my job is called “work” and not play.

I headed over to Goddard’s photo gallery to get the key to Dessa’s apartment and also to set up a time to interview him. As I parked across the street I noticed the doors to this gallery were wide open with banners announcing the grand opening of “Self and Sib.” The few pedestrians walking down the sidewalk gave the gallery a quick glance, but kept moving toward the farmer’s market at the end of the block. Nick Nichol was there to greet me at the door.

“Nick, thanks for the referral. I appreciate it. The Todd’s have hired me to find their daughter, and apparently Goddard has a key to her apartment.”

Nick’s eyes were darting up and down the street and he fidgeted as another clot of shoppers passed the gallery by. “Well this is perhaps the worst possible time for you to stop by. Goddard will be very busy answering questions. Frankly I thought that there would be more foot traffic this morning.  People who go to that artisan farmer’s markets should be art lovers as well. I wish that this store was a couple of doors down and then we would get some more of the spill over from the farmer’s market. I really should have set up a satellite booth at the farmer’s market – my original idea was to have Dessa manning that booth, handing out brochures and providing direction, but you can see that idea is all shot to hell.”

“I’m glad that you are on the case,” he continued. “I think that we need Dessa to make this opening work, and I think that it is just too selfish of her to pull a no-show after all the things her brother has done for her. Goddard has basically taken care of her all these years – her mother, Simba – she is good at her charity work, no one can raise money like that woman, but I have got to say she is the least maternal person I have ever met. And Sam of course is just absent. Thank God for Goddard, and this is the thanks he gets.” He stopped pacing in the entrance and finally looked at me directly. “Yes, go and get the key from him, but then come back after the gallery closes to talk with him about Dessa. This is not the time.”

I wandered into the gallery, which was partitioned into several different spaces showcasing different sets of prints. In the front were the same portraits of Dessa and Goddard that I had first seen up at the house. Somehow in the bright lights on the gleaming white wall, the photographs seemed more anonymous and simultaneously less sinister, but I still wondered what Goddard was trying to accomplish. Were people going to display portraits of two strangers in their home as pieces of art? If so, the impact of the portraits lay in the chronology of time across the entire collection, rather than an individual portrait. Or perhaps Goddard was trying to drum up some portraiture business himself, but I could not imagine him taking pictures of someone else’s children.

The remaining sections of his gallery were filled with exotic travel photographs. I recognized the misty Machu Picchu referenced in his GQ interview, and then there was a picture of Petra and Angor Wat, some weathered Indians, an ox pulling a plow, a child playing with a hoop in a dusty town square and a sunset or two. Nice enough, I thought, but nothing I had not seen many times before in the National Geographic travel magazines that I subscribed to. The Self and Sib pictures seemed to be a radical departure from his typical fare. I reached the back of the gallery and peeked into a partially opened door.  The room was vacant, but there was an unmade bed in the corner and clother strewn about.  I moved on to the next door that said, “Private. No Entry” and knocked.

“Is that you Nick. Have we finally got some customers? I’ll be right out.”

I pushed the door slightly open and said, “Goddard, I’m Liza Blue. Nick Nichol told me to come back and find you. We met briefly at your reception yesterday. Your parents told me that you might have the key to Dessa’s apartment. They are a little worried about Dessa and asked me to help find her.”

The door opened suddenly, and there was Goddard, standing in front of an office that was in shambles. A couple of drawers from the file cabinets had been pulled out, spilling paperwork and negatives, and it looked like the contents of his desktop had been swept onto the floor.

“Excuse the mess,” he said, “What did you say about Dessa and my parents?”

“Actually, I am a private investigator and a colleague of Nick Nichol’s. Your parents said that Dessa sometimes goes off on her own, but she has been gone too long for their comfort and they were surprised that she didn’t show up for your opening. I am actually here right now to get the key to her apartment, but I would like to sit down and talk with you at a more convenient time – perhaps when your gallery closes this afternoon.”

“My parents worried about Dessa?” Goddard snorted. “My mother said that she was worried? Well that would be a first. She would only be worried if she thought that we might do something that SHE would be ashamed of,” He stopped abruptly. “Now is not the time to get into our idyllic family dynamics. How did you get involved again?”

“Well, it all started with a phone call from her room mate Penny, who said that she was worried about Dessa, that she had disappeared.”

“Wait, just a second here, who is this Penny? Dessa didn’t have a room mate, in fact there was no way that she could have ever had a room mate. This is ridiculous, there is not a more private person than my sister. I do have a key to her apartment and I will give it to you, but only because I am a little worried about Dessa also. I knew that she was going to go away, but she promised that she would be back for the opening and we always keep our promises to each other. Excuse the mess here while I find the key.”

“Thanks for your help Goddard. For what it’s worth, I thought your parent’s concern, particularly yours mother’s, was real. And I also told them, my only job is to find her and tell her that her family is worried about her – anything more than that is up to her.”

Goddard was now riffling through the papers on the floor and even though it was obvious, I decided to take the risk and ask him about the mess. “Goddard, I can’t help but wonder if there was a break-in here last night. This mess really looks like someone was trying to find something. Have you reported it to the police?”

He looked up at me through his long bangs draped across his forehead. “Nothing gets by you, does it Ms. Blue? I certainly think that my parents have found the right person for the job. Of course this was a break-in, but I have no idea why. There is nothing of value here, all of my pictures have been stored digitally, even the early ones. And none of the prints were taken, and no I am not going to call the police, particularly right now.  The last thing I need is to have my gallery decorated with crime scene tape.  Here is Dessa’s key. Her apartment is above the coffee shop around the corner.”

“Can we set a time when I can come back and spend more time?”

“Well, stop this afternoon after 5 o’clock. By that time I will decide whether or not to really help. I can tell you that I certainly will not help my parents, but I do want to help Dessa. I will need the afternoon to figure out where you fit into that equation.”

He stood up and held out his hand, just as Nick Nichol came hustling into the office. “Goddard, front and center, the Santa Teresa Times is here to do a story on you.”

Goddard noticed Nick’s horrified look, and tried to explain, “I was looking for some paperwork, and yanked the cabinet file too hard and it tipped over.”

“I don’t care what kind of slob you are, Goddard,” he gasped, “but look at your white Levis, both of the knees are smudged. Why in God’s name have you been crawling around the floor?”

Chapter 9

I walked the short block back to College Coffee and stepped into the vestibule of the apartment. There was an old stroller chained to the banister. I saw the mailbox D. Todd for the second floor, and S. Stanley for the third floor.  There were a couple of flyers from pizza joints on the floor, and one flyer from Zengler’s Cleaning Service.  I peeked into the Stanley‘s mailbox and saw a few letters, but there were none in Dessa’s mailbox, and no pile of accumulated mail on the floor. I walked up to the second floor, and opened the door slowly. This is one of the most exciting moments for a private detective – entering the unknown, anticipating or guessing what is behind a door, and simultaneously feeling a little guilty about intruding on someone’s personal space. I swung the door open, expecting to see some sort of disorder, either the typical mess of a student or maybe even a ransacked room. But this was the tidiest room that I had ever seen. There was a perfectly made single bed, with a sharp crease beneath the perfectly plumped pillow – a far cry from Penny statement that Dessa had left everything behind, even her purse and cell phone. The bookshelf had only two books, one a picture book of water colors and a book on the history of fencing. Inscribed on the inside leaf of the water color book was, “To Dessa, make sure that you always follow your bliss and enjoy the ride, Love from your BFF Goddard.” The fencing book was inscribed, “To Dessa, from your Mother and Father, Christmas 2010.” The small desk was bare, with several freshly sharpened pens lined up along side a stack of unused notepads. I opened the bureau drawers, each of which had a few items of clothing neatly folded. There were three pairs of chaste white panties in the top drawer, two white camisoles in the middle drawer, and a pair of pressed jeans in the bottom drawer. I opened the closet and found a pair of Tom’s shoes and a pair of riding boots. In the corner of the closet was a fencing mask. That was it.

There was a small galley kitchen which looked like it had never been used. I opened the refrigerator and found a decaying head of lettuce and a container of yogurt. I peeled off the lid to find a furry rainbow of colors that unleashed a putrid odor. There were no dishes in the sink and no food in the garbage can. The cupboards contained exactly two cups, plates and bowls, and the drawer had two forks, spoons and knives. The shelves below contained one pot, one frying pan and one baking pan. All of them still had store tags still on them.

The early afternoon light was just coming through the window, and as I sat on the bed thinking, I realized that this was the same angle of light that came through my living room window, the kind of light that drove me crazy because it highlighted – actually glorified – each and every particle of dust that I had neglected to sweep over the previous two weeks or so. But there was not a speck of dust in Dessa’s apartment. Sometimes an apartment was overwhelming with so many things to touch, turn over, move aside and otherwise ponder, that it was difficult to know where to start. But this sterile apartment presented a different challenge – there was nothing to look at. In an effort to do my detective’s due diligence, I looked under the bed and behind the desk and toilet. Finally, I pulled the out bureau from against the wall, and a scrap of paper fluttered out. It was a picture of two children, it must have been Goddard and Dessa. Dessa, around age 3 was seating on a swing, and Goddard stood protectively behind. The swing hung from a large oak tree in front of a modest ranch house. There was no writing on the back.

I heard some footsteps in the apartment above me, a door close and then someone starting down the stairs. I quickly got up, turned out the light and closed the door behind me to intercept the Stanley tenant – a young woman carrying a small baby.

“Hello,” I said. “I am a friend of Dessa’s. Have you seen her lately? I was planning to meet her here. She told me where she hid her key so that I could leave my stuff off, but there is no note or anything in her apartment.”

“Dessa, is that her name?” said the young mother.  “I hardly ever saw her and she never made a peep. My Marion here is a very colicky baby, cries all the time, so I was surprised that she never made a complaint about me. You know, I felt badly that I was not more neighborly, offered to share some soup, that sort of thing. The few times I saw her, she seemed like a sad kid, and one night I thought I heard her crying. But I didn’t want to pry.”

“You have probably walked by the photo gallery up the street,” I said. “I came here to Santa Teresa to see the exhibit since I knew that Dessa was in a lot of the photos with her brother. Did her brother ever come around here?”

“She had a brother? I didn’t know that. As I said, I never saw her with anyone. You say that she is in a photo gallery? She is a pretty kid. I will take a walk by on the way to the farmer’s market. Now if you will excuse me, I need to get going. I don’t want Marion to fall asleep in the stroller, because then she will not want to take a nap, and then all hell breaks loose. When she cries all afternoon neither of us is pleasant to be around.”

She walked down to the foyer, and as she unlocked the chain around her stroller, I had a chance for one last question. “Is there a cleaning service here – maybe this Zengler’s?” I asked as I picked up the flyer from the floor.  “I couldn’t help but notice that Dessa’s apartment was immaculate and I always knew her as a slob.  There was not even a speck of dust.”

“Cleaning service in this dump? You must be kidding!” said the mother. “This landlord is the worst – the water pressure is crap, the heating goes on the fritz in the winter, it is boiling hot in the summer, and then the only time the landlord shows up is to collect the rent. A big scary guy named Johnny, I think, and he has nerve to tell me that he is raising the rent. So a cleaning service, absolutely not. But now that you mention it, I think that I did hear a vacuum cleaner up there last week. Thought it was odd – that is the only sound that I have ever heard come from that apartment. Now please excuse me, I’ve got to get going.” For the second time today, the door closed in my face. It was an occupational hazard that I was completely comfortable with.

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