Chapters 13-15: Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery

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


I was startled to see that it was already 4:30 PM.  I would have to hustle back to Goddard’s studio to make sure that I had time to find a parking space before our 5 PM appointment.  I pulled out of the parking space and into the traffic streaming out of the University heading down to town for a Saturday night.  The University had instituted very strict rules about underage drinking on campus, and the police blotter report in the local newspaper was always filled with reports of the campus police raiding a fraternity party.  As high minded as this approach was, the result was that students simply got into their cars and headed off campus for their weekend revelries, leaving the relative safety of the campus where students walked from party to party.  Now, overimbibed students would be weaving around town in cars, and the police blotter occasionally reflected the danger of this approach.  I lived at home during my college years, and was typically working weekends – cases with my father always seemed to break on a Saturday – so I missed those years of poor decision-making.   I stopped suddenly to let a bevy of students jay walk in front of my car – several girls draped over a couple of boys who sashayed down the street with beer in hand. 

I could never decide if I had missed much in college.  I remember my first days in college.  My father had dropped me off and I was timidly walking down the sidewalk toward the student center.  A battered old pick up truck pulled up along side me, and a guy with scruffy hair, a bandana and a joint hanging from his lips leaned out, and said, “Hey do you want to fuck?”  I trembled, this was my first exposure to college life, and I was immediately grateful that I was still living at home.  But even if I had lived on campus, I know I would have made safe decisions, dutifully studied, and probably would have been considered a boring nerd.  My real education came with my father, delving into messy lives, dissecting behavior and motivations, but it did occur to me that this was a vicarious past time.  Somewhere along the line, I know that I need to mess up my own life and get complicated myself – like have a relationship that lasts more than a month.

I reached the studio quickly and considered it a lucky sign when I was able to park directly across the street.  I got out and did a couple of push-ups against the car and a couple of deep-knee bends to loosen up and shrug off the staleness of a car nap.  As I crossed the street, I noticed that the lights in the studio were off, and when I got to the door, I spotted the closed sign.  I glanced at my watch.  It was 4:55, but the posted store hours said that the gallery was open to 5:30.  I cupped my hands and peered in the window, but saw no lights on.  There was no response to my knocking.  I went around to the back, and there were no cars parked there either, and again no response to my knocking.  Goddard’s cell phone went immediately to message, suggesting that he had either turned it off, or was on another line.  I left a message that I would wait for another half hour in front of his gallery; otherwise he could call me on my cell.

Another half hour to kill.  I spotted the ad from Zengler cleaners that I had found in the foyer of Dessa’s apartment and decided to give them a call. 

“Zengler Cleaners, I’m sorry, we are just about to close for the weekend, I can help you very quickly, otherwise you will have to call back on Monday,” the receptionist said.

“Thank you for taking my call,” I said, “I just wanted to check up on a cleaning job that you did at my apartment – 1361 Laurel.  My roommates and I were going to split the cleaning bill, and I don’t know which of them I should send the check to.  Can you tell me who paid you?  By the way, that was a brilliant cleaning job.”

“Why thank you, we pride ourselves on our thoroughness.  Not that you would ever need this, but we also contract with the police department to do crime scene clean-up.  That’s how good we are.  Let’s see, let’s see – 1361 Laurel – that was three days ago and a Knox paid for it.”

“Thank you,” I said, “Now I know to repay my roommate Penny Knox.”

“Well, that might be her,” said the Zengler woman, “but the credit card actually says John Knox.  Have a great weekend.”

This was the third time I had heard the name of John Knox in the last 24 hours.  First from Ralph and Fanny who knew him as Sam Todd’s enforcer, then from the waitress and tenant in Dessa’s building who identified him as the coffee shop manager and superintendant of Sam Todd’s building, and now as the person who ordered the cleaning of Dessa’s apartment.   It was possible that Johnny Knox was clearing the room in preparation for renting it again, but even so, it also seemed likely that Penny and Johnny Knox were father and daughter.

My cell phone rang again, the caller ID said “Todd,” so I picked up. 

“Hello, this is Sam Todd.  I am calling for my daily update.  What have you found?  I have 10 minutes,” he growled.

My mind raced.  I had assumed that the Todd that was calling was Goddard, and now I had to face the mighty Sam before I had time to assimilate the information that Sam might have known Penny. 

“Hello, Mr. Todd,” I said.  “I have been able to find a little bit of information about your daughter.  The most important thing is that I think that she left on her own.  She informed her fencing coach that she was leaving.  Also I got a chance to look at her apartment, and it looks like she cleared out of there also.  There is really nothing there – nothing of a personal nature anyway,” I said.

“Well of course she left on her own,” he sputtered.  “Are you implying that she might have been kidnapped?  That is ridiculous.”

“Well, I just want to be very methodical and rule out any emergency situations.”

 “Here’ what I think.  You have made no progress at all.  All you have done if confirm what we already told you yesterday – that Dessa liked to take off by herself.  Your job starting tomorrow is to find out where.  Do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” I said with my most patient voice, “the other thing that seem peculiar was that she took steps to make sure that it would be hard to find her.  As your wife said, she has not called for any money, and there was been no activity on any credit card.  She also asked Ned Houston, her photography professor, if she could borrow some money.”

“She’s asking for money?  Well that is absurd.  My kids have plenty of money and of course Simba’s mother has been especially generous with Dessa – there is no way that Dessa would need to borrow any money from anyone.  You said that she was asking her photography teacher for money?  Did he give her any?”

“No he did not, I just mention it because it struck me as odd.  If she is not using her credit card, perhaps she withdraw a bit of cash from the bank, so perhaps you can check her bank account, if you can.  Where ever she has gone, she will need money, unless of course she left with someone else.  I was hoping to get a chance to talk with Goddard, since I think that he might be most helpful considering their close relationship.  As a matter of fact, I am standing in front of his gallery right now, but he seems to be running a bit late.”

“Well, that’s typical of Goddard – I don’t think that he has ever seen through a responsibility.  I have just about had it with him – gadding about the world taking photographs, and then we set him up with a gallery and an opening.  Just this afternoon Nick Nichol called and asked me if I knew where he had gone – he left his studio early, just stormed out on his gallery opening.  I’ve had it with him.  Why don’t you add him to the list of my family that you are trying to find?”

“Mr. Todd, I am sure that he will show up, and when I met with him briefly this morning to get the key to Dessa’s apartment, he was very concerned about his sister and I know that he will help.”  I hope my soothing tones would calm Todd down.  I heard the clink of ice cubes in a glass, and the gurgle of liquid pouring.  Five o’clock – time for a cocktail.  “I do have one more question to ask you,” I continued smoothly, “I have also tried to find out more information on Penny, Dessa’s supposed friend with the tattoos that stopped by your house.  It looks like her last name is Knox, Penny Knox, and I am wondering if she is the daughter of a Johnny Knox.  Is that name familiar to you?”

“Why should I know a Johnny Knox?  Never heard of him,” he said.

And there it was.  The little lie.   Sam must know Johnny Knox.  “Mr. Todd, I think that Johnny Knox runs College Coffee and also is the manager of the apartments upstairs where Dessa lived.  I just thought that you might know him.”

“Well, I don’t know him.  My company has several hundred employees and I certainly don’t know them all,” he snapped.

I didn’t want to reveal just yet that Johnny Knox appeared to muscle Ralph and Fanny out of their café.  I thought that I would let the lie simmer and perhaps deepen.  “Do you have the name of Johnny’s direct report?  I would like to talk with him.  I can’t help but think that there is some connection between this Penny and Dessa’s disappearance.”

“I would like to remind you of the ground rules that you agreed to yesterday.  You are not to interview any business associates of mine.  This is strictly a family business.  And secondly, I don’t like you saying that Dessa disappeared.  We just don’t know where she is, and that is a big difference.”  The phone went dead.        

I crossed the street again and peeked in the gallery windows, but there was no sign of life.  I decided to head back to Ralph and Fanny’s.

Chapter 14

I saw that there were several cars parked in front of Ralph and Fanny’s – pretty good business for Saturday night, normally their busiest time was the lunch crowd.   I parked in the back and went in the side door and sat at the card table that they had set up.  I saw that Ralph had spent some time at the library and had copied a bunch of articles from the local papers.  Most of them detailed the politics and controversies regarding Todd’s developments – both the proposed commercial development around Ralph and Fanny’s and also his Skye Isle residential development.  The article at the bottom of the stack caught my eye – it was the 1972 wedding announcement of Sam and Simba.

Cymbaline Imogene Murphy and Samuel Fayettte Todd were married Saturday evening in Santa Teresa.  The Rev. Henry Barkhausen, an Episcopal priest at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Santa Teresa, performed the ceremony.

The bride, 21, will take her husband’s name.  She attended SantaTeresaUniversity and is a volunteer at the CutterCity prison, tutoring inmates.  She is the daughter of Frances and Edward Murphy of Santa Teresa and represents the fifth generation of Murphy’s to be wed at the Church of the Holy Comforter.  The bride’s father is a renowned Shakespeare scholar at SantaTeresaUniversity and has authored over 100 articles on Shakespeare as the preeminent linguist of the English language.  His mother is chairman of board of the Santa Teresa Garden Club, the chairman of the Women’s Board of Santa Teresa Hospital, the Murphy Fine Arts Museum and the Santa Teresa Symphony Orchestra.  Mrs. Murphy also volunteers for the Garden Club of American and has traveled extensively as a judge for international flower shows.  In 1968, she served as the lead designer for the Santa Teresa Garden Club’s exhibit on the flora of coastal canyons.  This exhibit won the top prize at the international garden club meeting in London.

The groom attended CutterCityHigh School and is a real estate developer in his home town.  His father is a prison guard and his mother is a homemaker.  The couple will reside in his home town CutterCity. 

Reading between the lines of wedding announcements was a weekly ritual for me – identifying “meet cute” stories, more recently the announcements of same sex couples, and then occasionally, I would stumble along an announcement like this one – the merging of two totally different socio-economic classes.  The announcement clearly established the Murphy’s as the social elite with Sam’s family hardly worth mentioning.  I wondered if there was some “meet cute” story for Simba and Sam – somehow they must have met during her forays to the prison – there would be absolutely no reason for someone with her pedigree to set foot in CutterCity.  Even though CutterCity was adjacent to Santa Teresa, it was decidedly down scale due to its prison.  The Santa Teresa shopping district included boutiques, high end fashion stores and day spas.  The CutterCity business district included a Salvation Army store, a Dollar Plus store and two pawnshops. 

Many of the inhabitants of CutterCity worked for the prison, or perhaps were family of the prisoners, temporarily residing in CutterCity to provide family support.  The prison itself was a minimal security prison and housed some well know white collar inmates, even Wall Street types who would otherwise have been welcomed into the Santa Teresa enclave.  But a prison was a prison, and real estate values plummeted with increasing proximity to the CutterCity limits.   The more modest homes in Santa Teresa were located along the border with CutterCity, setting up an occasional culture clash.   One of my high school classmates moved just within the Santa Teresa border to take advantage of the superior school system.  Her mother was the prison cook.  No one ever joined us when I sat next to her at lunch.  Our privileged Santa Teresa classmates always sat together at the table at the back of the lunchroom, where they could survey their subjects.  

I was intrigued by the wording of the statement, “she attended Santa Teresa U,” implying that Simba did not graduate – other wedding announcements on the same page all stated that the bride had graduated someplace and then provided the little detail of whether the bride had graduated, sum, magna or summa cum laude.  I wondered whether the marriage had interrupted her college career, perhaps she “had” to get married, but clearly the wedding was not something her parents would have chosen for her.  And of course, I could not imagine that Simba would ever want to live in CutterCity.  I would have thought that the Murphy wherewithal would have provided Sam and Simba  with a house in Santa Teresa, at the very least, and perhaps even a more upscale real estate job for Sam, or even better a more respectable job in a bank. 

Just at that moment Ralph walked in to get something out of the storeroom.  “Hey, welcome back, Liza.  You see I have been at work.  Went to the library and also stopped by the photography gallery.  That is some show – I’m not sure what to think of that last photograph of Dessa sitting on Goddard’s lap.”

“I know what you mean, it gave me the creeps also.  Did you read this wedding announcement?”

He had grabbed a large jar of salsa and was heading back into the kitchen, “Yes I thought you might like it.  Smells like dysfunction to me.  I think that the last table has been seated.  We should both be free in about an hour or so.”

I dictated my final notes in to the voice recorder and then started in on the jigsaw puzzle.   I never bothered with the edge pieces – it was a way too predictable approach – I like to work from the middle out.  And I never took the pieces out of the box, I just riffled my hand through the box and plucked out the pieces that looked interesting.  I often started with the sky pieces – a section which many others left to the last.  But it was easy to find the blue pieces in the box, and after spending quality time with them, I would always begin to see small patterns of clouds and shadows and these subtle differences made assembly easy.  

As I absently picked through the box, I tried to make my mind up about Sam Todd, his apparent disregard for his daughter, his reluctance to hire me and his little lie.  Sam was technically my client, but he seemed to be just humoring his wife.  His refusal to let me interview any business associates made me think that there was some overlap business and his family.  If he had any role in his daughter’s disappearance, then I was in a difficult position.  My daily updates would let him know how close I was getting, and perhaps put Dessa in some danger.  And then of course there was Goddard – maybe Dessa was running away from him.  I could go back and interview Simba, but frankly she seemed clueless.  I wished that Goddard would show up.  Another call to his cell phone again went straight to the message.

The most concrete issue I could pursue was right now was Johnny Knox.  I got out my lap top and hooked it up to the wireless that I had installed for Ralph and Fanny last year.  I went to and cross referenced his name with Santa Teresa and about 10 names and addresses showed up – none of the addresses matched the addresses of the coffee shop.  I ruled out the Knox’s that lived in the swankier part of town, leaving me with three possibilities.  The first number was disconnected, the second one was a child’s voice saying, “Hello you have reached my family, which is my mommy and daddy and my baby sister Janie.  Please leave a message.”  The third number answered, and when I asked if this was the Johnny Knox from College Coffee, a very irritated woman said, “this happens all the time, you have the wrong number.”

I decided to broaden my search, so I looked for the Johnny Knox’s in CutterCity.  This time I got about a dozen hits, but one immediately caught my eye – the address was 287. W. Big Bay Street.  I checked my notes and saw that this was the same address that Ralph had pieced together from the garbage in Penny’s purse.  I called the number and heard a gruff voice, “Hello this is Knox Trucking and Repair.  Our office is closed until Monday.  Please call back during our business hours.”  I felt like I was in business.

I picked up my vibrating cell phone and again saw Todd, but this time with a different phone number.  When I answered, I was relieved that this was finally the wayward son, Goddard.

“Hello, is this Liza Blue?  I’m sorry that I missed our appointment, but I’m afraid that I have been a bit indisposed.  Well actually, I got into a fight.” He spoke with a sloppy slur – either he was drunk or nursing a fat lip or both.

“Are you okay Goddard, do you need some help?  Where are you?” I asked.

“Well I am outside the Lantern – I have been roughed up some, well maybe I deserved it.  I don’t know.  This has been one rough day, but I do want to talk with you about Dessa.  Can you come pick me up?  I don’t think that I am in a condition to drive,” this time he spoke with a catch in this throat and I wondered if he was crying.

“”Okay Goddard, you stay put and I will come and get you.”  I left a note for Ralph and Fanny and headed out again.

Chapter 15

I knew the Lantern well, since it was the site of my father’s weekly Wednesday poker games.  During the early evening it doubled as a family restaurant featuring a model train that ran all around on intricate train tracks suspended from the ceiling.   My father and I along with Ralph and Fanny had weekly dinners here.  I would always order a BLT and curly fries and my father would always order a Greek salad and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  After dinner he would encourage me to stay and learn how to play poker.  He would say, “At the very least, women must know the difference between a good high and good low hand, and now how to roll them.” 

Fanny would intervene arguing that a cigar-filled room was no place for a young girl and that it was time for a little mothering.  So I would go back to the café with her, where she taught me how to sew and bake her brownies with her special ingredient.  My father never did guess that the distinctive flavor was the apricot jam we stirred into the brownie batter.  One night she totally surprised me by teaching me how to change the tire on a car.  “Your Dad may think it is important to play poker, but men are more impressed by a woman who knows how to change a tire,” she said, “besides, you never want to be helpless at the side of the road.  This is something that my father taught me.  I have never had to change a tire, but at least I know how.” 

I hadn’t been to the bar in many years, and as I entered I expected to be enveloped by acrid cigar smoke, and was surprised to enter a dimly lit, but fresh room.  Then I remembered that Santa Teresa had imposed a no smoking ban two years ago, and I had been meaning to hang out at the some bars ever since, but this was one more thing that I had never gotten around to.  The bar was half filled, and there was a baseball game, football game, basketball game and hockey game all simultaneously showing on large screen TVs.  It was that one or two week period when all major sports overlapped and I wished I had the time to sit down and absorb them all.  I scanned the room and spotted Goddard slumped in a corner booth, pressing an ice pack to his face.  There was a smear of blood on the collar of his ripped shirt.  The bartender said, “Are you his ride?  Appreciate it if you could get him out of here pronto.  He’s been hanging around too long, moaning in the back there.  Blood’s not good for business.”

“Goddard, are you all right?” I said. “Do you need a ride to the ER?”

He looked up at me and as he adjusted his ice pack, I got a glimpse at the full glory of his injuries.   He had a rapidly swelling split lip that was crusted with blood, and his left eye was also puffing up.  “Perhaps you should call the police,” I said.

“No – just a bar room fight.  You should see the other guy,” he said as he attempted a feeble laugh at his lame joke.  I could smell the liquor on his breath.  “Where can we go to talk?  I want to get some things straight,” he slurred. 

“Goddard, this might not be the best time.  I can certainly help you get back to your place, and then maybe stop by tomorrow.”

“No,” he said and he pounded the table with his fist.  “I want to do this now – gotta do this now.   Can’t go to my place, because you see I don’t really have a place.  Can’t we go to your office”  He put his head onto his head, and took some gasping breaths.  He was crying.

I of course did not have a formal office, always preferred to interview clients on their turf.  I only  had my disheveled studio apartment, which was wildly inappropriate for any type of visit, and was only barely appropriate for me.  “Goddard, I would be happy to drive you up to your parents, if that is where you are staying.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.  Show up at my parents like this?  Besmirch my mother’s image of her golden boy?  No way.  Why can’t we go to your office?”  His voice was barely audible as he talked into his folded arms.

“Look, I know where we can go.  Ralph and Fanny are friends of mine who own the Clean Plate Club café.  You may remember then from your college days.  I’ll take you there, and you can get yourself cleaned up, have a proper dinner, and then if you are feeling up to up, we can talk.”

He got up unsteadily, grabbed my elbow and together we lurched toward the door.  The bartender moved from behind the bar and blocked our exit.  “Hey, he can’t leave here until he settles his tab.  He owes me $150.” 

Goddard slobbered into my ear, “Here is the first family secret I am going to tell you.  I am broke.  Don’t have a penny to my name.”  If we were going to get out of this bar, I was on the hook for his tab.  I looked into my wallet and was relieved to see that for once I had some cash, which I handed it over to the bartender.  I knew that I couldn’t ask for a receipt, but figured I could somehow finesse it into Sam’s expense bill.  Once Goddard got in the car, he put the seat all the way back, put his hands over his face and quietly sobbed. 

I don’t think that I had ever had a grown man cry in my car, but maybe the point was that Goddard was not really full grown.  “This day has been a disaster,” he said.  “Remember that reporter who came to interview me.  He took one look at my portraits and began to ask all these disgusting questions about my sister and my relationship with her.  I was trying to explain how close my sister and I were, despite our 15 year age difference, and he said something along the lines of, ‘it must be nice to know someone so intimately,’ and suddenly I realized that he was basically accusing me of being an incestuous pedophile.  I couldn’t take it and I just left – ran out of there.  What was I thinking with that show – it was just that my parents insisted and Nick Nichol said that it would be great and would give me the recognition and career boost that I needed.  I never looked at the pictures in that way – it was just pictures of Dessa and me, pictures that I had taken every year to give as a Christmas gift to our parents.  I left the gallery and went to the Lantern.  Two other guys came in and sat next to me, and I overhead them talking about my sister.   They said, ‘Boy that’s a sweet thing that photographer has going with his sister.  Doesn’t even have to leave the house.’ And that’s when I lost it, and took a swing.  I guess I am not much of a fighter, particularly when its me against two big guys.  I swear that I had seen one of those guys before.  You know, I actually don’t care what my family thinks of me, because I know their agenda, but to have total strangers think that I am a pedophile, that is disgusting.” 

He turned to look at me, and in the dim light all that I could see was his bulging eye, swollen lip, tears streaking through the cracked blood.  “Let me ask you since you are basically a stranger,” he said, “What do you think of the pictures?”  When I didn’t answer immediately, he opened the car window and yelled, “I am not a pedophile” at full volume.  He then slumped back into his chair and said, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.  The show is over.”

I was relieved to see that the parking lot was empty when I turned into the café.  “You stay here a moment,” I said, “let me make sure that it is okay with Ralph and Fanny.”  Goddard remained motionless.  I walked in and saw Fanny counting the money in the till and Ralph swabbing the counter.  They had just put the closed sign in the window.  “I’ve got a blast from the past in the car,” I said.  “Goddard called me from a bar – he’s pretty beat up, combination of too much liquor and a bar fight, and this seemed the best place to take him.  He doesn’t want to go home, and in fact, I am not sure he really has a home, and my apartment is not suitable.  Do you mind?”

Fanny looked at me with raised eyebrow.  “Now Liza, don’t you think that it is strange that Goddard would call you, of all people?  He must have dozens of friends in this town where he could sleep it off.  Not that I mind having him here, but really.”

“Well, I am not sure about that.  I don’t think that he has really lived in this town on a full time basis for many years, and in fact, I think that he might be sleeping in his studio.  He certainly doesn’t get along with his parents.  He got in this fight, and then when I was at the studio earlier, his office was trashed, and I think that there was a break-in, so it is possible that he is hiding.  And I thought he would feel safe here.  I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course, bring him in,” said Ralph.  You know Fanny and I had a big argument when we opened this café.  I wanted to call it ‘A Safe Place’ – to me that sounded like a very homey atmosphere, but Fanny wanted to called the Clean Plate Club – that was a saying of her mother – came from the depression I think.  So bring him in.  I’ll get some coffee going right away.”

I went back out to the car and saw that he was sound asleep.  I opened the door and nudged his shoulder slightly and he gasped and startled awake with a wide-eyed and fearful look.  “Come on Goddard, let’s go inside.  My friends Ralph and Fanny will get you cleaned up and then we can sit and talk.”


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