Chapters 16-17: Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery

Prior chapters of the Clean Plate Club murder mystery can be found in the Murder Mystery category listed on the right.

We walked into the café together with my shoulder propping Goddard up.  Fanny took one look at him and immediately started putting together another ice pack.  Goddard’s head wobbled as he looked up through the lank hair falling across his eyes.  I could feel him sucking it up as he tried to break loose of my support and stand on his own.  “Thank you Mr. Ralph and Ms. Fanny, I remember spending many pleasant hours here during my college days.  Mr. Ralph, as I recall you were my bridge partner, where taught me the Stayman convention and how to finesse.  I appreciate your continued hospitality.  As you can see, I am a bit down on my luck.”  This demonstration of cultured politeness totally sapped his energy and his full weight fell on my shoulder.

“Let’s take him to the back room,” said Fanny.  “He can rest on the back couch – that’s the same couch his sister used to nap on.  Here’s a new icepack for your lip.  When you wake up, use the bathroom back there to freshen up – You can change into an old shirt of Ralph’s.”

“Thank you very much.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your kindness.  It is in moments like this that strangers can become life long friends.”  He staggered into the back room and fell on the couch.  I closed the door behind him.

“Well,” said Ralph, “Tell me about your day.  When you left you were poking around the university and Dessa’s apartment and the next time we see you, you are dragging a bedraggled son.  Must have been a full day.”

Ralph and I sat down at the card table while Fanny went to make me my favorite BLT.  I don’t know how many times over the years that I had at least tried to help her in the kitchen, but she had always waved me off saying, “Don’t mind me, I love to hear you and Ralph talking in the background.  This is the best way for me to be part of the team.”  I didn’t like her slipping into stereotype role of the fetch and carry woman – my training at the side of my father was all about breaking through stereotypes.  After several years of trying, I just gave up and let her make the sandwiches and Ralph and then I would jump up to wash the dishes.  The truth was, this was a system that worked for all of us, and occasionally Fanny would pipe in with some insights from the sidelines.

“Well, it looks like Dessa left on her own – she told her fencing coach that she would be leaving, but strangely asked to borrow money.  But even if she left on her own, there is something seriously off kilter.   I stopped by Goddard’s photography opening and it looks like someone had broken into his office, and then the receptionist at the police station let it slip that someone may have broken into the old Murphy place.”

“The receptionist?” said Ralph.  “You were really working it, Liza.  Talk to everyone, and put together the pieces, I can hear your father now.”

“Yes,” I said, “ I will need to follow up on these break-ins.  I just think that they must be related to each other, and to Dessa’s disappearance.  Dad’s old partner Detective Grimes will be back from vacation tomorrow and will hopefully be on the case.  I think that I will be able to work with him better than the young guy McNitt.”

“What about Goddard, do you think that he knows anything?”

“I haven’t had a chance to talk with him, but you should have seen him earlier.  He was totally distraught.  Hard to believe, but I don’t think that he ever appreciated the sexual nature of his last photograph with Dessa on his lap.  When the reporter from the local paper starting asking him about his sister, he just totally lost it, and he ended up picking a fight in the bar over it.  I had my doubts about him, but I really think that he might be genuine – if not he has a future as an actor.  I also think that he will be the only way into this family.  I had a fairly unsuccessful call with Sam Todd this afternoon, and I don’t think that he is going to be helpful at all.  I think that this family is covering up a lot of wounds, and that Goddard will be the only one to start picking away at the scabs – I need to get under one edge and start peeling it off.”

“Liza, that is a repulsive analogy, but as usual very apt, and this certainly is shaping up to be more than a search and rescue operation.  What about Penny?”

“It seems like Penny might have been stalking Dessa in some way, and maybe that is what spooked her to take off.  I need to investigate a bit more, but I think that Penny might actually be Johnny Knox’s daughter.  Knox keeps turning up – he was the one that gave Penny her job at the coffee shop that Sam owns, and was the one that cleaned out Dessa’s apartment and I am wondering if he was the guy that picked a fight with Goddard in the bar – and then Sam Todd told me that he had never heard of him.  It looks like he owns a trucking company in CutterCity, so I will stop by there tomorrow.  CutterCity might be where everything began.”

“I don’t know if you got a chance to look through everything I found in the library,” said Sam, “but there is a profile of Sam in that sack of stuff.  It’s from 5 or 6 years ago when he first moved to Santa Teresa and built his house up in the canyon.  It’s pretty interesting – his father was a prison guard, and Sam was the first one in his family to go to college.  He started a business of creating care packages for the inmates his mother would bake them fresh cupcakes – that’s how he earned the money for Central State College, but he also got a football scholarship, I think.  After college he went into the real estate business, which would seem to be real loser in that town, but he invested at just the right time.  He bought up some vacant land and shortly afterwards the state announced the expansion of the prison and he made a bundle.  He was pretty generous.  The high school football field is named after him.  I bet that everyone knows Sam Todd in CutterCity.  Be careful if you go up there, I know you and your Dad lived on the border, but I think that it has gotten even sketchier over the past several years.  Well I am going to bed.  You can leave Goddard here for the night if you want.”

“Thanks, Ralph, I think that I will stay a bit longer in case Goddard rouses.  It will give me a chance to go through all the info that you got for me.”

Ralph leafed through the papers until he found the article.  “Here you go – you might get lucky if that reporter is still in town – I imagine that he could give you a lot more background information on Sam.  For one thing, I wonder how Sam ever ended up marrying Cymbaline Todd.  I can’t imagine that any member of that family set foot in CutterCity, and it looks like they were married before he struck it rich.  Okay, here is the article.  Looks like the reporter is named Nick Nichol.  Have you ever heard of him?”

“Yes I know Nick.  He is in the PR business now, and I have actually worked with him for a couple of his clients.  I had forgotten he had started out as a reporter.  In fact, the Todds are his clients.”

Chapter 17

The stairs creaked as Ralph lumbered up to bed.  I looked through all the clippings again, but most of them focused on the Todd’s Santa Teresa life.  Many pictures of Simba at different charity fundraisers.  These types of announcements were my particular pet peeve – women in glittering evening gowns with the breathless announcement that their dinner dance and silent auction had netted $500,000.  But there were never any profiles of the hard working volunteers who gave their time at the women’s shelters, or who ran an after school tutoring program, or who got their fingernails dirty in the community garden.  It was all about who could raise the most cash.  I occasionally volunteered at the Shoreline Conservation, organizing work days for beach pick ups.  We had tried to raise money to preserve a small stretch of beach front, but we did not have a kick-ass women’s society board, who could reel in their husbands for the big bucks and a business networking opportunity at a dinner dance.  Our entire budget was about $10,000.  One week I was particularly peeved that the local animal shelter had raised over $75,000 in a single night.  The children’s hospital, the local symphony, the art museum, there was not one high profile event that did not feature Simba, usually at the benefit chair person.  It also looked like that she hosted several events for the Catholic Charities at her house.  However, the last clipping, from 2000 caught my eye.

Cymbaline Todd hosted the first annual benefit for the “Reading Ready” program in CutterCity.  The tutoring program is aimed at the children of inmates living near the CutterCity prison.  “As you can imagine, these children are from single parent homes, and their mothers are typically trying to juggle several jobs to make end meet,” said Mrs. Todd. “We feel that it is essential to try and break the cycle of prison by helping these children and their parents make a commitment to education.  I grew up in this town of Santa Teresa, but CutterCity has always been near to my heart.  My first volunteer activity was a tutoring program in CutterCity when I was a senior in high school and I have been committed to volunteerism ever since.”

The event was held at Mrs. Todd’s new home in Santa Teresa.  The 100 guests dined on a seviche of local fish and lime panna cotta.  A jewelry fashion show and silent auction netted $15,000 for Reading Ready.

The accompanying picture showed Simba looking perfectly put together in a floral dress and large brimmed hat.  Standing next to her was a 8 or 9 year old Dessa wearing a matching outfit.

I began a list of people that I needed to talk with tomorrow.  I certainly should check in with the Santa Teresa police, and I hoped that I could bypass Detective McNitt and make my way to my friend Grimes.  Nick Nichol of course to get more background on the Todds, and perhaps Simba’s brother, Henry.  I then I thought that I should make a visit to Johnny Knox in CutterCity. 

I looked up from my notes to see a very pale Goddard standing in front of me.  “I am very grateful for your help, and this is very embarrassing, but it seems that I have forgotten your name.  I just remember that you are trying to help my parents find Dessa, and I have decided that I want to help too.”

“Goddard, my name is Liza Blue, and I am a private detective.  I am very glad that you want to help.  Would you like me to take you home, and we can talk tomorrow?”

He sighed deeply and shook his downcast head.  “How about some coffee and then let’s talk.  I am afraid that I made a fool of myself last night and actually my life is a bit of a shambles and I want to start correcting things right away.”  He lurched a bit and his hand gripped the corner of the bar.  “I can’t bear to think of my sister in trouble, particularly since it might be all my fault.”

I motioned for him to sit down at the table while I went to get some coffee.  “I bet you haven’t eaten yet tonight, have you Goddard?  Fanny always leaves some soup in the fridge – looks like it is her famous chicken barley.  I’ll heat you up some of that also.”

Goddard sat down and out of the corner of my eye I could see him leafing through the press clippings.  I immediately wished that I had whisked them away.  There were two key topics that I needed to discuss with him, why Dessa left and where she had gone.  The where was probably the easier question to discuss and the one I wanted to tackle first.  The why was a more difficult scab-picking type of question. 

“I see that you are researching my mother and have found that she is an absolute pillar of the Santa Teresa community.”  He spoke each syllable in an exaggerated staccato voice, but I couldn’t tell if his disdain was for his mother, Santa Teresa, or both.  I decided not to answer and let the moment rest while the soup whirred away in the microwave.  Perhaps I could reset the conversation when I got to the table.

“Goddard, I think that Dessa planned to leave – at least that is what she told her professor, and your parents said that she frequently takes off to artists’ retreats.”

“Artist retreats, that is what my parents told you?  What a joke.  Let me give you a tip.  My mother is a liar, my father is ignorant about anything except the real estate business.  Dessa has never gone on artist retreats.  Sometimes, she would come with me when I traveled, but we never told my parents, because my mother said I was not a good influence.  And sometimes she went to Dr. Foster’s.  Edith Foster was her psychiatrist for many years – my sister was a very troubled girl you know – and Dr. Foster ran this sort of respite ranch type of thing – sort of a cross between a spa and a rehab center.  It was a place where her patients to experience a supportive and therapeutic environment, if they wanted.  It was located in Sedona.  Dessa is very close to Dr. Foster, and the doctor would let her come and work in the front office when she was on school break.  Otherwise, she would be stuck up in the canyon by herself.  We used to laugh about it.  When she was in Sedona, she would buy some sort of water color painting and bring it back as a present.”

“Goddard, could she be at Dr. Foster’s now?”

“No, that is what has me worried.  I called Dr. Foster yesterday and she said that she had not heard from her in several months.”

“What are the other possibilities?  Your parents say that there has been no activity on her credit card, so it suggests that she must be with someone who is paying her way.  Did she ask to borrow money from you?”

“Borrow money?  Dessa is loaded.  I’ve spent all the money I have, but Dessa never spent a dime.  Also, I think that her grandmother has been very generous with her.  More so than with me – I never saw her much when I was growing up, but Dessa spent a lot of time with her when mother was sick.  I think that Grandma saw her as her only heir.  She never got along with Simba and Uncle Polly is a total loser, so Dessa was the light of her life and her bank account reflected that.  What makes you think that she needed to borrow money?”

By this time, Goddard had finished one large bowl of soup and I got up to get another, and also to toast some of Fanny’s homemade garlic bread.  Goddard sat up from his slouch and leaned back with his head in his hands.  If was the first glimpse I had of his eyes, and one was entirely swollen shut, and would soon be a magnificent sunset array of blues and reds.  I rustled in the freezer to make an icepack.  Goddard was loosening up and I wanted to facilitate his outflow as much as possible. 

“According to her fencing coach, she asked to borrow some money.  And who is Uncle Polly?”

“Oh, you probably know him as Henry Murphy, my mother’s brother.  His middle name is Polonius, after some Shakespeare character – it was my grandfather’s very clever idea.  I guess I was lucky to dodge the Shakespeare bullet, I suppose I could have been named Iago, but I got nailed with the Goddard bullet – that’s my grandmother’s maiden name.  The money issue is weird, she didn’t ask to borrow money from me, but then again she knew that I was broke, spent it all flitting around Europe. 

“You said that Dessa was close to your grandmother.  Maybe she went to her or your uncle?”

“Well that is the big change.  Grandma has been getting fuzzy for some time, and who knows that may be the reason Dessa ended up with so much money.  But I think that it was driving Uncle Polly crazy that Grandma was siphoning money off to Dessa.  Of course my uncle would much prefer to be called Henry, and for that very reason I always call him Polly.  He is a sanctimonious prig – he has always hated my father, which is easy to do, but his dislike was way out of proportion.  He tried to keep us out of the Grandma’s house, but Grandma put her foot down, and Dessa used to spend summer vacations and other weekends there.  I really think that it saved Dessa’s life, since my mother is basically crazy.  And I think that even old Polly, without a friend in the world, softened up to Dessa.  Really everyone loved her, but now he is all alone up there in that white elephant of a house, and his dear mummy is in the nursing home.” 

Goddard now stared at me with his one open eye, leaned across the table and grabbed my hand. “Please say that you believe me.  First I can’t even believe that I have to say this, but there was never anything sexual between Dessa and me.  She is my sister, for God’s sake, and I ever tried to do was protect her from that toxic household.  And I don’t think that I did a good enough job and that is what is breaking my heart.”

I tried to move my hand, but his grip tightened.  The ferocity of his stare coupled with his anguish from earlier in the evening was convincing enough for me – for the moment.  “I believe you Goddard,” I whispered and his grip loosened.

Goddard got up and started pacing around the room, alternatively hugging himself, running his hands through his hair and jingling some change in his pockets.  “That photography show was something that Nick Nichol and my mother cooked up.  My father had announced that I had to get a real job and that he would not support me any longer.  He used to encourage me to come to work for him in his real estate empire, but now he is totally sick of me.  Can’t say as I blame him.  Now when I really need a job, my father didn’t offer one, and he also said that I could only stay in there house until November 1, which of course was last week.  My mother convinced my father to let me try and open a photography studio and host the opening up there.” 

Goddard gestured vaguely up towards Skye Isle.  “I wanted to profile some of my travel pictures, but mother showed Nick all the portraits I had taken with Dessa, and they decided that these were my best work.  I tried to explain that they were private, but I remember Nick Nichol saying, “there is nothing unusual about Angor Wat and Petra.  Everyone knows Petra now from the Indiana Jones movie.  You are going to make your mark as a portrait artist.  That is what you are going to make your money on.’ I felt trapped, what could I do?  I swear to you, it never occurred to me that those pictures could look incestuous.  I bet that Nick knew it and wanted to create a controversy.  And you know that piece in GQ – that is all a bunch of bullshit he wrote for me.  I don’t even know how to play backgammon.  What can I do to fix this?”

He suddenly ran out the front door and let out an anguished howl.  I followed him and said, “Come on in Goddard, let’s go through this slowly.  I know this is painful, but I need you to focus.”  I led him back in and sat him back down.  To my surprise, he started fingering the puzzle pieces, and immediately popped in several blue sky pieces.  “I see that you like puzzles too.  I find them very therapeutic – I do them while I think through particularly complicated cases.”

“Yes, I used to do these with my babysitter back in CutterCity,” he almost whispered.  My mother was sick most of the time – either had some sort of depression or migraines.  We had to tiptoe around the house with all the shades drawn since she was sensitive to both light and noise.  This was about the only thing I could do indoors – and actually I was very good at them.  I remember one vacation we worked on a puzzle of all the constellations – it was mostly a black puzzle so it was very difficult.  When we finished we went outside and tried to find the constellations on the puzzle.  What was her name?   I think that it was Sarah – I think that her husband was one of the prisoners.”  For the first time, his face softened and I could see a slight smile on his lips.

“Goddard, do you think that the photography exhibit is why she left town?”  I asked quietly but firmly.

He looked up at me sadly.  “I don’t know.  I hope not because that would mean that I hurt her.  But in some ways it would be easier if that was the reason, because I think that I could fix that.  I know that she was uncomfortable about it, but she also understood my predicament.  She never told me that she was going to leave town, and I always expected her to show up at the last minute at the opening, so I was surprised, but not shocked when she was not there.  I just assumed that things had gotten too tense at home and that she had gone to Dr. Foster’s.”

“I mentioned this woman Penny Knox earlier today,” I said.  “Are you sure that you have never heard of her, or met her – you’d remember, she had a lot of tattoos and pierced nose and tongue.  She might have been a friend of Dessa’s, and if she wasn’t a friend, she certainly was taking a keen interest in her.  She and Dessa went up to her parents for lunch.”

“No, I haven’t met her, but I can’t imagine a woman with tattoos in the company of my mother.”  He sighed and once again got up and started to pace.  “Here I am thinking that I am my sister’s protector and closest confidant and now I find that she potentially had a whole secret life.  Between my mother and I trying to tinker with her life, maybe I should be happy that she faked us both out.  That would be the best possible scenario, but that might be just wishful thinking.”

“I think that Penny Knox was from CutterCity and she was about Dessa’s age.  Do you think that maybe Dessa knew her from there?  And her father might be a man named Johnny Knox, who might have been a business associate of your fathers.  He owns a trucking company.  Does that name ring a bell?”

“The name doesn’t ring a bell, but of course I am 15 years older than Dessa, and she moved to Santa Teresa when she was 7, and I doubt if she has kept up with anyone since then.  My mother was so glad to get out of Cutter city that she threw a “get out of jail free” party when she left.  She really severed all ties in her effort to become the society matron of Santa Teresa.  My father knew just about everyone in CutterCity, and so if Johnny Knox lived their 10 years ago, he probably knew him.”

 “Goddard, where else might she have gone?  No other friends that you can think of?  Did she ever go to summer camp, something like that.  Do your parents have a vacation home?  Let’s presume that she has some money, is there a favorite vacation spot that she might want to revisit?”

“Ah, the secret life of Dessa Todd.  We never went on any vacations.  My father was always working and my mother was too fragile.  One time Dessa went on a European tour with Grandmother, but that was a long time ago.  I don’t understand it – I would have supported her if she wanted to get away – certainly that is what I have been trying to do for the past 15 years – so my biggest concern is that she did not tell me.” 

“Okay, lets think more about why she might have run away.”  I took a big gulp here, because now I was asking Goddard to start to pick away at his nasty family scab.  I felt very conflicted.  Part of me thought that this was my job as a detective – to dig away at the truth.  But another part of me wondered whether my interest was merely morbid fascination.  I had led such a clean and tidy life.  Sure, my mother had died during childbirth, but this was hardly a tragic event for me, and my father soldiered on without her and created a loving and stable home.  I was an only child of an only child, and so all holiday were quiet affairs.  No raucous relatives playing out their dysfunctions over turkey and mashed potatoes, no jealousies, no sniping, no hurt feelings to rehash and reactivate every holiday season. 

And then of course I felt presumptuous acting as if I was a psychologist, urging Goddard to open up and tell all.  This was the type of conversation that should be held in a therapeutic environment – in a comfortable office with a receptionist, couches in the waiting room with worn copies of sports and women’s magazines fanned out on side tables.  Instead, here we were at two in the morning, at Ralph and Fanny’s café, sitting at a card table and fitfully picking at a jigsaw puzzle of an Amish farm scene.  I pressed on, “Tell me about Dessa’s relationship with her mother.  When I talked with her, she seemed genuinely concerned, but it sounds like you think differently.  I know that this might be a difficult question, but I have found that understanding the full circumstances of someone’s disappearance can provide insight into where they have gone.”

“Oh, my God,” he sighed.  “Where to begin.  Let me ask you, who are you working for her, Ms. Blue?  I can’t have you reporting this conversation back to my parents.  I would like to hire you myself, both because I like you, but also to buy your confidentiality, but I’m afraid I don’t have the resources.”

“Goddard, first of all please call me Liza.  It is true that I am being paid by your father, but in my mind I am working for Dessa, to find her and make sure that she is safe.  In a lot of the cases that I have worked on, the missing person has left voluntarily – a respite, as you called it – from their family life.  But truthfully, I am more concerned that something else is going on her – Penny’s death, the break-in at your office, and I heard about a potential break-in at your Uncle’s place, and there is this Johnny Knox character.  You mentioned that you might have recognized the man who picked a fight with you in the bar.  Was he a big guy with a buzz cut?”

“Yes, I think so, and I remember noticing that he was missing the top half of his middle finger.”

“You see, I think that might be Johnny Knox again.  When Ralph gets up, he can give us a better description because he has also had a run-in with him.  Was this man in the bar when you arrived, or did he come in after you?”

 “No, he definitely came in after me, and I thought that it was weird that he and his friend sat in the stool next to me, when there were plenty of other stools available.”

“Now this makes me think that somehow the Knox family is involved in this whole mess.  Penny, the daughter was following Dessa, and Johnny the father might have been following you.  I need to understand why and it might go back to your early days in CutterCity.”

“Liza, Liza Blue, what a great name.  I am sitting here with a fat lip and a pounding head in the middle of the night – perhaps not the best time to make life decisions.  But I am choosing to trust you – partly because I don’t have a choice, and partly because I think that it is in Dessa’s best interests.  Where do you want me to begin?”  

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