Chapter 21: Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery

I pulled my car over and parked on the shoulder, took a deep breath, sighed, closed my eyes and rested my head on the steering wheel. I could generally divide cases into three categories, those where I was in control of all the information and had total leverage, those where I was in control of some of the information and had some leverage, and finally those uncomfortable cases where I knew that I was simply a tool of someone else’s agenda. I had been around along enough to know that the first best-case scenario was unlikely and that the middle scenarios were most likely – where there was some push and pull between me, the client and the principle players. I could live with that. In fact, that was frequently how a case became exciting, moving from a walk on part in the ongoing drama to the master manipulator. But I clearly knew that this case was getting out of my control and it felt uncomfortable being toyed with by Goddard and his father. It would take a monumental effort on my part to climb back into a seat of power – to get the leverage to corral Goddard and get Sam to give me a wider berth.

My other immediate problem was whether or not to believe Goddard. He had me convinced of his innocence last night, but what if it was all an act, and he was the one who had prompted Dessa’s disappearance? It was hard to believe that it was only 36 hours ago when I was first saw the perturbing photograph of his thumb indenting the inside of her thigh. I know that I should always assume that clients are holding something back, and feed me info in dribs and drabs, and maybe Goddard was trying to feed me just enough to reposition himself from an incestuous pervert to a concerned brother. Should I trust him? If I did not trust him, then should I worry for Dessa’s safety – was Goddard holding her under wraps?

Trust between PI and client is always such a tricky thing. Detectives rarely have to deal with this issue – they have ways to fact check everything – subpoenas, phone records, bank records, DMV records, fingerprints, priors are all standard tools that are just not available to the PI, who has to decide whether and how much to trust a client. It almost ruined by father. Nancy Jackson was one of my father’s first cases as a PI. She was a very attractive woman – I suppose that you would call her handsome as opposed to pretty or sexy, about my father’s age. She was originally from Atlanta and had travelled to California to try and track down her stepson after her husband’s death. She said that couldn’t settle the estate until she tracked down her stepson who was the co-executor. My father was delighted with the case and the hours that he spent with Nancy turned into a friendship and then more. It was the first time that he actually dated since my mother had died some ten years earlier. We went on picnics at the beach as a family, and I remember baking chocolate chip cookies with her with Beach Boys music turned way up high. She even baby sat a couple of nights when my father had to work. I saw Ralph shake his head a couple of times, and Fanny purse her lips, and I know that they did not approve, but my father was wearing colorful Hawaiian shirts from the back of his closet and dancing twirls with me, so I didn’t care. But then one day, Grimes stopped by the house and took Dad into the den for a talk and we never saw Nancy again. The next weekend I overheard him talking with Ralph and Fanny.

“Grimes found out from some sort of interstate bulletin. She was a complete con artist – her name isn’t even Nancy Jackson – it’s Geraldine Walker. When Grimes picked her up she actually had 8 drivers’ licenses. She had no husband and no stepson. That woman just traveled the country looking for lonely men and easy marks and would steal their money. She must have gotten quite a satisfaction about conning a PI, though I can’t imagine why she thought I had any money.”

Ralph and Fanny murmured something along the lines that Dad didn’t realize how attractive he was, and that he needed to be careful with any woman waltzing into his life – client or not. I then heard my father’s anguished voice, “How could I have been so stupid? I certainly don’t know much about dating, but how could I have forgotten the one obvious rule – a PI should never get involved with a client. It’s the same thing a shrink getting involved with a patient. I can’t believe that I let that Nancy – or whatever her name is – alone with Liza for an evening. I am going to make mistakes, sure, but I can’t let my mistakes be Liza’s mistakes. I loved my Elizabeth so much, and I think that love will have to be enough until Liza is older and my mistakes can be mine alone.”

Dad never dated again. Perhaps he was thinking about it when I went off to college, but then he just ran out of time.

I felt that I was following down the same dangerous path as Dad. I had begun to like Goddard and believed in his anguished pain and confused childhood. But I knew that I had to set that aside and assume the worst and secretly hold out hope for the best. I remember telling Ralph and Fanny that I was being paid by Sam Todd, but was working for Dessa. If I set aside the whole Goddard mess, I was still convinced that the best path to Dessa would be to follow up with Johnny Knox to understand why Penny was so interested in the Todd’s. The Dessa money angle was also worth pursuing – why didn’t she have any? But Goddard pursuing Dessa on his own nagged at me. It was time to call in reinforcements. This evening, when I called Sam Todd to give an update, I would let him know about Goddard – and use Sam’s anger at his son as leverage to convince Sam Todd to file a missing persons report on Dessa. That would prompt a search for Goddard using all the police wherewithal. The plan grew in appeal as I tossed it about in my mind – it would be a good division of labor. I’d leave the Goddard angle to the police – let them deal with it. I would work the Johnny Knox angle.

The gravel crunched beneath my tires as I turned my car back onto the road, headed down to the coastal highway and turned north to Cutter City. My route first took me through garish end homes, squeezed onto smaller and smaller lots as the inheritors of the original grand homes struggled to say afloat and subdivided their many acres. The Murphy’s were no different, and I decided to take a quick detour to look at what was left of the old house on the beach. The original house must have had 20 acres with a long dramatic driveway down to the mansion overlooking the water. Now these 20 acres had morphed into a development called “Coastal Estates” and the former driveway was lined with one turreted house after another. Several were adorned with “For Sale” signs, one said “Trades OK,” and another said “New Price.” No need to indicate that the price had gone down and not up.

The drive ended at a cul-de-sac blocked by a gated entrance to the old Murphy house. The grounds had a definite disheveled look – the bushes bordering the entrance were in definite need of pruning and there was grass growing up between the cobbled stones of the driveway. The expansive lawn needed moving and was dotted with tufts of exuberant grass fertilized by old dog poohs. Under other circumstances, I would have just driven in and rapped on the door – best way to catch someone off guard, and even if a person did not want to talk, I could get an appointment for a later conversation. Even though I could see that the intercom box was broken and the gate was ajar, just pushing through a gate was too aggressive – I have found that people will just close down completely if you invade their personal space, particularly Henry Murphy whose exclusive personal space had dramatically shrunk with the Coastal Estate development. He was probably ferociously clinging to his 1.5 acres, down from the original 20. Besides, now was not the best time for an interview for me. I wanted to do more background reading on the Murphy family, and try to get some glimpses of the relationship between Henry and his brother-in-law Sam Todd and follow up on Goddard’s tip.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, I saw a man walking his dog approach me. He was wearing a white button down shirt with a crisp bow tie, and knickers with dark socks. As he came closer, I noticed the unmistakable resemblance to Cymbaline with the square jaw and high cheekbones. “Hey you,” he called, “this is private property and you are close to trespassing. This house is not for sale, if you are interested in a house call the Coastal Estate realtor, and if you are not interested in a house then you have no business here and I will ask you to leave. There is a public beach down the road that I can recommend.”

He was walking quickly toward me. The poor dog was desperately trying to get into a crouch to relieve himself, but Henry was holding the leash over his shoulder and basically dragging the dog along behind him. “What do you want,” he growled at me.

“Excuse me sir,” I said, “I am Liza Blue, and I’m a private investigator hired by the Todd family to help locate their daughter Dessa.” I chose the words Todd family carefully, knowing that mentioning Sam by name might be a flash point. “I happened to be passing by and thought I might have a word with you – just trying to find who last saw Dessa, that sort of thing.”

“I don’t really believe you. Nobody just “passes by” my house. You have to get off the highway, make a right and two left turns and you end up at a dead end. You must have come here on purpose. Lots of sight seers around here.”

I couldn’t tell if he was pissed at my dissembling, or whether he was actually proud that there were still sight seers passing by, coming to see the glory of his ancestors. It was hard to believe that he didn’t realize that any glory was not faded and tattered, but his outfit of a bow tie and knickers suggested that he was firmly ensconced in the past. I decided to go with the all purpose ego-stroking. “You’re right Mr. Murphy. I grew up here in Santa Teresa, and had always heard about the Murphy mansion, and I must say that I was always curious, particularly now, since I know that Dessa spent many pleasant summers here with you and your mother.”

“Did that snake Sam send you? I couldn’t give a rat’s-ass for my sister and her family, with the exception of Dessa. You are right, those were pleasant summers, and I felt that I was a surrogate father – a good influence and certainly an improvement on her real father. You say Dessa has disappeared? Well I say good for her – she needed to get away from this place. I’m not sure that I could help you even if I could, but I haven’t seen her in several months.”

“Well Mr. Murphy, I think that you could help me by understanding why she wanted to leave. You’re right that that she probably left on her own, and my job is simply to contact her to make sure that she is alright. There is some evidence that a girl from Cutter City had taken a particular interest in Dessa – perhaps was stalking her. We just want to make sure that she is okay.”

“Well why ask me, why don’t you ask the girl from Cutter City?”

“Well that is the thing, the girl, Penny Knox, unfortunately died in a car accident the other night. Do you know the Knox family from Cutter City?”

“What a ridiculous question. Of course I don’t know any Knox from Cutter City. I have never set foot in that town. There is a prison there, you know. Why would I ever go to Cutter City?”

This interview through a wrought iron fence was becoming more awkward, and Henry had started to turn to walk back to his house. I needed a quick hook to get Henry interested enough to ask me back another time. “Also did I hear on the police scanner that there was a break-in at your house the other night? The only reason I ask is that Penny might have stolen something from your sister’s house too, Goddard’s studio was broken into – it does seem like a weird coincidence.”

“I can assure you that there was no break-in, that was just a misunderstanding, and I can also assure you that there’s no connection between my family and that family up in the canyon. Skye Island, what a pretentious joke.” He turned and walked back up his driveway, dragging the dog behind him.


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