Chapters 10-12 Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery

Prior chapters of The Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery are filed in the “Murder Mystery” category.


Chapter 10

My next stop was the University where I thought that I would start with the fencing coach.  I knew that I couldn’t get any information from the administration – schools these days don’t even feel the need to send report cards to the parents paying the tuition.  In my day, report cards were a dinner time event.  I would prop the sealed envelope against the candlesticks waiting for my father to be home, and he would open it over dessert.  Since he often worked nights, the letter could be silently sitting there for several days until we had dinner together.  I was an only child and the first one of my parents’ families to go to college, so I understood the pride and drama.  Fortunately, I worked hard at school and did well, but it was nerve wracking.  I would close my eyes and listen as my father slit the envelope open with his silver letter opener.  The unveiling would be followed by a small toast.  “To my daughter the College Student, who makes me so proud and also makes me work so hard to provide this opportunity.”  We would have a shot of liquor in small frosted glasses, and clink them together.

I parked my car in the visitor’s lot near the athletic administration building, though it occurred to me that an oddball sport like fencing might be housed elsewhere.   As I got out of the car I realized that that my shirt had the smell of stale smoke let over from my smoky session with Flo.  It was not an unusual situation to need a change of clothes – often interviews were conducted in smoky bars, or longs days could extend into nights, where a change of shirt would provide a needed freshening.  For this reason, I always carried a change of clothes in the trunk.  I have found that the simplest thing is to wear the same outfit every day, and when I find a shirt that I like, I buy maybe a dozen of them, and keep half of them in the car, unopened but ready to go.  I opened the trunk and saw a stack of two different styles, and I selected the white sleeveless version. 

I prepared to execute my well-practiced but awkward scrunch in the car to change, but just at that moment a clot of college students walked up, each wearing some sort of tank top in the hot afternoon sun.  Every single one had a either a visible bra strap or see through blouse.  Back in my college days some 15 years ago, a visible strap would be social suicide – you absolutely relied on your best friends to whisper to you, “Hey your bra strap is showing.”  Now I noticed there was simply no effort to conceal underwear, so why was I going through with this ridiculous charade of scrunching in the car?  I stood up and peeked down my blouse to make sure that I was not wearing something totally ratty, and just started to take my shirt off and change.  I leaned against the car as the students walked by, and nonchalantly asked, “Hey girls, can you tell where I can find the fencing office?”   They stopped and looked at me peculiarly, but I went about my business tucking in my shirt and smoothing my hair with my hand while looking at my reflection in the car window.

“It is in that building to the left,” one girl said.  “Are you allright?”

“Yes, of course I am,” I said, “I just felt like changing my shirt.  I don’t think there’s  much difference between underwear and outerwear these days, do you?  Just thought I would take advantage of the precedent that you set for me.”  I heard some tittering as the clot moved along the side walk, but then one of the girls turned and gave me a thumbs up sign. 

I felt totally refreshed and invigorated as I walked into the air conditioned building.  The local news had clearly positioned the fencing team as the highlight of the University’s athletic program, but I could only find a modest office with “Georges Carpentier, Fencing Coach Emeritus” stenciled on the frosted glass door.  I heard an “Entrée, s’il vous plait” as I tapped.  I stepped into the cramped office and was greeted by a dapper man wearing a beret.  He took my outstretched hand and gently kissed it.  “Please come in,” he said, “I do not get that many unexpected visitors.”

“Monsieur, are you the coach of the fencing team?” I asked.

“I used to be,” he said, “for about 30 years, ever since I started the fencing team here when I was an undergraduate.  In 30 years we won 20 state championships in a row, but I am only an advisor to the team now, you know.  I mostly do recruiting.”

“That’s quite a record, Santa Teresa is lucky to have you in any capacity, “ I said in a my  most charming tone.  “I am doing some research on fencing teams for my 17 year old niece who is in high school and is interesting in pursuing fencing at the college level – but there are not too many places that have an active fencing team.  I have read about your success in the Santa Teresa papers, so I thought I would stop by and see what I could find out for her.  She lives in Minnesota.”

“Fencing, what a beautiful sport, teaches balance, poise and elegance.  There is no better discipline for a young woman.  There is a certain something about a long limbed 19 year old in a fencing pose,” he sighed wistfully.  “Tell me how tall is your niece?  Does she prefer epee or sabre?”

I was really scrambling now, since I did not know what height would be ideal for a fencer, and was only familiar with the word epee from my many years of doing crossword puzzles.  “I think that she is about five foot seven and I believe that she mostly uses an epee.”

“Yes, the epee, my first love.  Tell me are you a fencer yourself? – I must say you have the perfect figure for the epee – perfect height and your legs are exquisite.  Even though I have spent my entire career fencing, I really do not have the best physique – too bow legged you know.  But that has made me a better student of the sport and art, and I can spot a potentially good fencer from across the quad.  In fact, that’s the way that I have found some of my best students – most of them start fencing for the first time when they get to college.  So it is a little unusual for someone to be looking for a college just based on its fencing program, but I would be happy to talk with her if she comes to visit.  Better yet, she can send me a videotape.” 

He adjusted his beret slightly as he talked, leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk, illustrating his short and stumpy bow legs.  “No I can’t say that I have ever fenced myself, or even thought about it, and I don’t know how experienced my niece is,” I said, “but I doubt that she would be able to come out to visit.  I’ll check to see if she has a video, but I do know that she would like to talk with a member of the fencing team to see what the life style is like and what kind of time commitment is involved.  How about that Dessa Todd that I have seen written up in the paper?  Would it be possible for my niece to get in touch with her?”

“Oh Dessa, she was one of my best students, and I have been coaching her since she was a kid and showed up at my studio down in town.  She had just beautiful lines and was effortlessly graceful, and I really think that she could have contended for the Olympic team.  But she was a troubled girl – I get a lot of kids like that – they seek refuge in fencing.  They put on the fencing gear and they can become anything they want behind the mask and are just fearless.”

Carpentier was now leaning back in his chairs with his eyes closed and a dreamy look on his face.  I felt that I was in the presence of a bean-spiller, a gut-spiller, an unwitting fringe that could move me along the learning curve of this dysfunctional family and give me enough information that I could then use as leverage when talking to the principles of the case.  This was the kind of interview my father was so good at, murmuring just enough  to keep the interview smoothly moving.   Ideally, I could get Carpentier to forget I was even here.  “So you have a studio down in the city?” I said.

“Oh yes,” said Carpentier, “you have probably passed it hundreds of times without noticing it.  It is on Sunset Court, in a studio on the second floor above the Wild Flour Bakery.    I have classes for kids aged 7 and up and I also have drop off times.  Sure, the mothers sometimes treat me like a glorified babysitter, but occasionally I found a talent like Dessa.  She was special.  She was the shyest little girl, but once I put that mask on, she was one of the most aggressive fencers I have ever seen, take the mask off, and you could hardly get a word of out her.”

“I imagine that part of coaching is to be a psychologist to get the best out of your students,” I prompted.

“Yes, you’re right, and I have spent a lot of time with Dessa over the years.  We used to have tea together after her lessons while she waited for someone to pick her up.  And then when she was at the University she would often just stop by to chat.  I gather that she had a very difficult relationship with her mother, father was always out of town.  I don’t think that her parents ever came to one of our meets, though her brother was always there.  Something was clearly troubling her, especially recently.”

Carpentier was now gently rocking in his chair, his eyes still closed.  He put his hands behind his head and his beret fell off, revealing a shiny bald head.  He left the hat on the floor as he continued rocking.  “I think that I was a father figure to her, you know, but there is only so much you can do, and nowadays you cannot try too hard with your students or get personal.  I learned the hard way, and that is why I am an emeritus now stuck in this tiny office without any direct coaching responsibilities.”

He snapped out of his reverie, leaned over to pick up his beret stood up, and looked me squarely in the eye. “Well I have taken too much of your time, please have your niece get in touch with me.”

“Thank you for your time, Coach, but can you tell me when the next meet is, I would love to see it and maybe record Dessa to send to my niece.”

“Unfortunately, my best student left me – she stopped by about one month ago and told me that she was dropping out of school.  She didn’t give any particular reason and I begged her to reconsider.  I know that she didn’t like the coursework, but I told her that if she did well in the last couple of tournaments, I could get her an audition with the national team.  No luck.  She was almost in tears when she left and the oddest thing was that she asked to borrow some money – borrow money from me – what a joke.  Here I was hoping that her family would endow the fencing department the way they created a photography department for their son Goddard.”

He held the door open for me and gently guided me out with his hand placed in the small of my back.  As I turned to walk down the corridor, he took my hand again and kissed it.  He looked like a forlorn and lonely man whose family was slowly deserting him because he tried too hard.     

Chapter 11

It was now about 2:30, plenty of time left before I was scheduled to meet with Goddard, so I thought I would grab a bite to eat at the student center, and then maybe check out Carpentier’s inadvertent tip on the photography facility.  I got myself a cup of Greek Yogurt and filled it with raisins and granola and ate it as I stood in front of the student bulletin board.  Where ever I am, I like to look at community bulletin boards in coffee shops or libraries, or where ever they were posted.  These bulletin boards provide a great insight into a town – you could instantly see if there were any community theatre productions coming up, various lectures, lost dogs, city council meeting, environmental organizations – just the whole gamut of a community’s life.  In every ski town that I had been to there was inevitably some sort of fund raiser for a pathetic ski bum who had been brain injured and was without any type of health insurance.  

This bulletin board was divided into four sections, first job opportunities, then shared rides, room mates and messages.  As I scanned the jobs wanted section, I was taken back to my college career some 10 years ago when I was standing in exactly the same place, looking for any type of part time job to contribute to the college tuition my father was working so hard for.  He had just quit the force since he thought that he could make more money as a PI, but he was having a tough go getting started.  I was staring blankly at the board as I scraped the last bit of yogurt from the styrofoam cup and then I saw it:

 House Sitter Available

Reliable College Student Experienced in Child Care or Pet Care

Good References

Call Penny Knox:  847-283-9290

I quickly checked my cell phone list of numbers and confirmed that my Penny and this Penny Knox were one and the same.  Penny now had a last name.

I threw the Styrofoam cup into the overflowing wastebasket and went outside into the lengthening afternoon.  I knew from the directory in the student commons that the photography department was in the gleaming new arts building at the top of the hill.  The two story atrium was filled with odd looking mobiles, at least to my eyes.  One consisted of cardboard cut-outs of various dairy items, including a milk carton and several sticks of butter.   Another consisted entirely of baby doll heads, which shuddered slightly as the doors opened and closed.  When I was in college, I had spent the better part of a Christmas break making a mobile of exquisite and elaborate origami birds.  If someone had told me that a carton of milk was art, I could have saved myself a lot of time.

I went up the stairs following the signs for the “Samuel and Cymbaline Todd Photography Studio.”  Here the exhibits were more familiar – at least recognizable as photographs of waves in slow motion.  I poked my head into the office of Professor Houston, thinking how lucky I would be to find two chatty professors in one day.  A middle aged man was working intently on his computer and when he didn’t immediately acknowledge me I ventured, “You must like the digital photography – you don’t have to spend your entire day in the darkroom.”

Without looking up the professor said, “That is entirely untrue.  We insist that all of our students pass a proficiency course in standard analog techniques before they can transition to digital photography.  You wouldn’t want your surgeon to only know robotic surgery, without learning the real thing, now would you?”

He still hadn’t look up, so I had forge on ahead without any clues.  “Are you Professor Houston?  I just wanted to stop by to congratulate you on Goddard Todd’s photography exhibit.  It must be satisfying when one of your students is so successful.  I was just down at his gallery and I saw that he gave you a shout out in the GQ article.”

Professor Houston snorted, “Well that is a load of crap.  Those portraits of Goddard and his sister are technically quite excellent, but I never saw them when he was a student of mine.  He had some talent, but basically he was a frat boy screw up.  I don’t think that he ever got his degree – he either left on his own or maybe he got kicked out – I don’t know.  I think that his parents glommed on to his interest in photography in the hopes that it would give him some focus, hence this nice studio.  I guess that their generosity must mean he did not get kicked out.”  He finally looked up at me and said, “By the way what can I do for you?”

What the hell, I thought that I might as well trot out the all purpose niece and also stoke his barely concealed contempt for Goddard.  “I have a niece that is beginning to look at college,” I said, “and she seems to be interested in photography.  But my sister and I want her to get a broader liberal arts education, because I just don’t know whether photography is a viable profession.  But then I saw the exhibit downtown and was very impressed.  The photographer looks so young and yet he has his own studio.”

“Are you referring to Goddard Todd’s  ‘follow your bliss’ shit?  I don’t know who you are lady, but I am by nature very crabby and you have hit me on a very bad day.  I have to write up reports on all of my very average students.  You don’t think that I would like to follow my bliss and travel around the world and take pictures of Angor Wat?  I know that I am a better photographer than Goddard, but of course I have to have a job, and what’s more I have to have a job with health benefits – no free lance photography for me.  I have been grinding it out here for twenty years, and I doubt that they will ever give the photography professor a sabbatical.  I’m stuck here. Goddard had more than average talent, I’ll grant you that, but it was the type of talent that was best suited to a hobby – maybe he could have sold some of his prints at a local street fair, or maybe he could have been a wedding photographer – but a full time photographer with his own studio?  I don’t think so.  This is my point, money from mummy and daddy can buy you a lot of bliss.   Now if you excuse me, I am going to disappear into the dark room.”  As he stood up and brushed past me, I thought I saw him slip a flask into his pocket.

 Chapter 12

I still had some time to kill before I was scheduled to meet Goddard, who was shaping up to be the key interview of this case, but I was exhausted from the combination of the previous late night and the multiple interviews today.  I found interviewing exhausting.  I would go into an interview with a mental to-do list, but then had to stay sharp and modify my questions as the interview went on.  I always thought it was more productive if you could make the interview flow like a real conversation.  The late night talk show hosts were supposed to be good interviewers, but they had it easy.  I could see them reading prearranged questions from a card in front of them, and could occasionally see the panic in their eyes when the conversation strayed from the script and they changed the subject with an uncomfortable jolt.  I would like to see them interview people under the hostile situations I faced – no script, not knowing where the conversation was going, and always being on edge for the slightest opening to take the conversation to a different direction.  And to top it off, I usually only had one chance, particularly if the interviewee was uncooperative.   

I was always a better listener than interviewer, which was why my father and I made such a good team.  He was the smooth talker, and occasionally I would interject a question or two to steer the conversation based on the innuendos that I spotted.  After the interview, we would sit in the car and compare impressions.  My father would say, “Liza, you are the most insightful person I have ever met.  You are great at this PI work and you know that I love working with you, but must also know that I insist that you to go back to college once my business takes off.  Maybe by next semester we can swing it.  You are too smart for this business.  I think that you will have a great career in politics, or maybe psychology.  But whatever you do, you have got one proud Papa.”    

Now I sat alone in the car dictating my notes into a voice recorder, which I would later rehash with Ralph and Fanny.  I often found myself napping, something that would never happen with my frenetic Dad.  Cases often involve long hours interrupted by patches of downtime, and my ability to take quick catnaps was one of my newly discovered skills.  I sat in the car, opened the windows to allow for a gentle cross breeze, put the seat back and turned on the radio to the oldies channel.  I must have been asleep for a while when Annie Lennox woke me up singing “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”  This was my father’s favorite song, and it always stops me dead in my tracks.  My dad was quite a student of 1960s rock and roll, and in college he even had his own radio show that was supposedly devoted to an “intellectual” discussion of the meaning of lyrics.  He told me his many ideas on the meaning of the Procul Harem lyrics, including the theory that “a Whiter Shade of Pale” was really about the doomed love affair between JFK and Marilyn Monroe, but I never bought it.  Of course, he also told me that he was one of the few people who knew the real lyrics to “Louie, Louie” by the Kingmen. 

Before we headed out on a case, he would pick out some music to get us fired up.  One motivator was Janis Joplin screeching a “Piece of My Heart” with Big Brother and Holding Company.  One summer we always played “Truckin” by the Grateful Dead and we each developed our own unique and exaggerated “truckin” gait as we swaggered out the door.  That Christmas I made him a compilation tape of his favorite songs.  I had forgotten about it, but when I used his car for the first time after he died, there was Annie Lennox singing again as I turned the ignition on – her voice mournful, trembling and pulsating, “Her face at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale.”

What would Dad think of me now, napping in the old Camry on the University of Santa Teresa campus?  I know that he would be disappointed that I had not quite gotten around to finishing college and that a career as a politician or a psychologist was remote at best.  I have struggled with that, and just like my dad, I have said, “maybe next semester I can swing it,” but I just never have gotten around to it.  I finally realized that college was my father’s dream, and was mine for a while but not anymore.  Truthfully, I enjoy work as a PI, perhaps it is not exactly my bliss, but close enough, and I know that I am good at it, and I’m getting better.  In Jerry Garcia’s words, I would tell my father,  “Lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it’s been.” 


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