Chapter 23: Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery

Prior chapters of the Murder Mystery can be found be clicking on the Murder Mystery category on the right.

I checked my watch – it was 4 PM.  I would’ve loved to call it quits and settle in with Ralph and Fanny for a rehash of my day that started so long ago with Sam Todd.  But I thought I might as well take my first swing throughCutterCity.  Within two miles the beautiful coastline of the army base disappeared as I veered inland intoCutterCity, unchanged since I had last been there about 5 years ago.  The first two stores at the edge of town were a pawn shop and a check cashing store, and within the first two blocks I had passed both a Family Dollar store and a Dollar Plus store.  Santa Teresa had a steady stream of BMWs and Mercedes, with the occasional Hummer.  In contrast, the standard issue vehicle inCutterCitywas a pick-up or a beat up sedans.  I watched a family crossing the street as I waited at the first light – the man was wearing a sleeveless shirt and one arm was completely tattooed.  He was carrying one child, while his wife was carrying another child and pushing a third in a stroller.  While you could occasionally see women of color pushing stroller in Santa Teresa, they were most likely nannies. 

Johnny Knox’s business was about two blocks off the main drag in what looked like a mixed neighborhood.  There was a bodega and Mamacita’s home made pizza, a few 2 flats, a few modest ranch homes, and then Johnny’s place was a large converted garage with a hand made sign saying “Trucking, Deliveries, Moving and Small Engine Repair.”  There was a small side yard, and then a very small bungalow in the back.  The yard was filled with lawnmowers and various different appliances – a couple of rusted refrigerators and lawnmowers.  There was no grass on either side of the sidewalk and as I approached  the entrance I noticed many beer bottle caps embedded in the mud.  The place looked deserted but then I spotted a small card taped to the front door.

“Closed for Business.  Death in the Family.  Please Join Us in Celebrating the Life of Penny Knox.  St. Michael’s Church, 4:30 PM”

I glanced at my watch – it was 4:30 now, and I hoped that I might be able to catch the last part of the service – maybe Dessa was there.  Part of me wanted her to be – I could successfully close the case for Sam and Simba in two days – not a bad record for a missing persons  But I sensed that there was so much more going on.  Finding Dessa was the easy part.  There were all the reasons why, there was a dead body, there was potentially missing money, an abandoned grandmother, and lots of unanswered questions about Goddard.  I certainly didn’t want to string along the case and pad it with unnecessary hours, but I didn’t want the case to come to an abrupt unsatisfying end either.  After all, Sam had given me the assignment of finding out why Penny was nosing around his family so I could convince myself this was part of the job to keep on digging.

I hopped back into the car and the GPS announced that my destination was only 10 minutes away.  The church was a frame building best identified by the small sign in front, and not by any steeple or stained-glass windows.  I was able to park right in front, so I assumed that I had missed the service, but then noticed a small knot of people in the unkempt graveyard behind the church.  This was awkward.  I had hoped that the service would be in the church itself, so I could unobtrusively sit in the back, but it was going to be completely obvious if I walked across the lawn and joined the 20 or so other mourners.  I stood on the sidewalk scanning the crowd, figuring if I saw anyone who looked like Dessa, I would join the group.  Unfortunately, everyone but the elderly minister had their backs to me.  I heard the minister intone, “from ashes to ashes,” and then mourners made a line, walked by the open hole and dropped a bit of dirt into the grave.  Johnny Knox was immediately obvious.  He was last in line and his shaved head towered over the crowd.  After he dropped his clump of dirt into the grave he turned and give the minister a bear hug.

I had expected a crowd of teenagers, Penny’s classmates and friends, but the mourners were a motley collection of baldy beer-bellied men and frumpy women.  One woman stood out – a tall woman with flowing gray hear wearing a brightly colored shift; she was barefoot.  But then I caught a glimpse of a younger woman as she broke away from the crown and walked diagonally away from me towards the cross street.  She was wearing a large hat and sunglasses and I couldn’t be sure that it was Dessa, but it was worth a try.  I strode quickly across the long grass hoping to intercept her, but was intercepted myself by the minister who had spotted me.

He took a hold of my forearm in a gentle reassuring grip and said, “Are you here for the Knox service, I am afraid that you are a little late.”

I wildly tried to peer around him, but by this time the woman had gone.  I considered breaking free and running after her, yelling Dessa to see if I got a reaction.  Other private eyes would have done that for sure, but I just couldn’t disrupt a funeral.  If it was Dessa, I should be able to find out in other ways.  I turned to the minister and said, “I only knew Penny very briefly in Santa Teresa, but I liked her very much. I came to pay condolences to her father.”

The minister turned and said, “ Johnny is really busted up about this.  He and Penny had just re-established their relationship and for the first time he felt like a real father and now this.   Here he comes right now.”

The minister stepped aside and basically put me in Johnny Knox’s path.  I had to think quickly here – I just didn’t have any experience talking with a potentially hostile witness at a family funeral.  “Mr. Knox, I am very sorry for your loss.  I met Penny once in Santa Teresa and I liked her very much.  She was a very genuine person and I know that she was concerned about her friend Dessa Todd.”

Johnny turned suddenly and stared at me, “What it is about these Todds?  My daughter dies and all I can hear about are the Todds and this Dessa.  First the police and now you?  What are you really doing here?”

“Mr. Knox, I did come to your business office to talk with you about Dessa Todd, but when I saw the note on your door, I truly did want to pay my condolences.  I actually met her because she asked for my help in finding her friend Dessa and I was very touched by her concern.  I don’t want to interrupt your family time, but would you mind if I came back to talk with you later?”

The other mourners had overheard the Knox’s sarcastic voice and had started to move away.  I felt very uncomfortable, particularly when he launched into a semi-tirade. “Look, who is paying you to snoop around, the Todds?  I think that we have a conflict of interest here, since I think that the Todds are to blame for my tragedy.  Why on earth would I want to help you?  I think that I will just let the police do their job.”

“Believe me, I want to find out what happened to Penny, and I think that Dessa might know something.  In fact, I was wondering if Dessa might have been at the service.  Did you see her?”

“Look, lady, I don’t even know what this Dessa looks like, in fact I didn’t know any of my daughters friends – I barely even knew her myself.”  He stopped and his shoulders starting shaking, and it was surprising to see such an imposing man suddenly look so vulnerable.

“Mr. Knox, I’m so sorry, but I really think that we are both working for the same thing, but coming from different directions.  Here is my card.  Please give me a call.”  I stepped aside quickly as I saw a group of women move in and lead him away.

As I started to leave I saw the minister folding up the welcoming table that stood in front of the grave, along with a few chairs.  I thought it would be the least I could do to help him.  “Excuse me sir, can I help you?  I would be glad to carry this into the church, or perhaps I can help with the chairs.”

“Why thank you.  I can’t expect the family to help with these chores.  Usually someone would stop to help, but I am afraid that the Knox’s are not regular members of our church and I didn’t know any of the people at the service.  I do the best I can, but we are not fancy here.”

I folded up the card table and took it into the church lobby and made another couple of trips for the chairs.  On my last trip I noticed a book on the ground and handed it to the minister.  “Oh, thank you,” he said, “It must have slipped off the table – it is the guest register.  I must get it back to Mr. Knox.  Here do you want to sign it?”

I nodded and took the pen that he offered me.  I saw that there only a dozen or so signatures there, but right at the top I saw, “Dessa Todd – thank you Penny for my new life of truth.”  So that must have been Dessa that I saw, and her note was laden with possibilities.  She definitely had some sort of meaningful relationship with Penny – I had just assumed that Penny’s claim that she and Dessa were lovers was just a ruse to stir up the Todds, but now I was not so sure.  And then of course, Dessa’s note might indicate that Penny had pried open the lid on the Todd-Murphy family dysfunction.

I headed back to the car, exhausted, but with a tinge of excitement.  It looked like the case was starting to break for me and I would have good news for my upcoming evening phone call with Sam Todd.  I did not turn on the GPS, trusting my instincts to get back on the main drag, but I made a wrong turn.  Suddenly I found myself in a completely residential neighborhood consisting of neatly tended bungalows.  A few mothers were sitting on stoops watching their children ride their bikes up and down streets, and a couple of other kids were making a chalk hopscotch outline.  I stopped the car at the end of the block to watch this peaceful scene while I retrieved my voice mails.  As I put my headset on, I saw a women walk into the street with a plate of cookies saying, “Hey kids ask your mom if it is okay to have an afternoon snack.”  The kids immediately ran over to her, and I realized that this was the same distinctive woman whom I had seen at the funeral.  There she was in her colorful print dress walking barefoot on the hot pavement of the street.  “Oh my goodness, she said, “there are more of you than I thought, let me go back in the house and get the second batch.”

Her house was the only double lot on the block, and as she walked back in, I felt that I had seen that yard someplace before – particularly the big oak tree with a swing.  One of the younger girls was idly swinging, and I could tell from the scuffed bare patch beneath it that the swing still well used.  The woman walked out again with another plate of cookies, this time also carrying a pitcher of juice.  She looked like the den mother for the entire block.  When an older boy went over to the swing and starting pushing the girl, I immediately knew why this scene looked familiar.  I grabbed my file on the seat beside me, hoping that I had included the small photo of Dessa and Goddard that I had found in her apartment.  There it was paper-clipped to the back of the folder and it was certainly the same front yard.  I wondered if this was the house that they had grown up in and picked up my binoculars to get a look at the address –115 Fuller Lane.   I noticed a small placard by the address near the front door that said, “Photography Studio relocated to2236 Orrington Avenue.”

I had originally thought I’d get out of the car and join the cookie-eating throng and strike up a conversation with the den mother, but now too many pieces were falling into place and I wanted to take it slowly.  Here was this photographer, living in a house that was familiar to both Dessa and Goddard, and I wondered if Goddard had really taken all those pictures of his sister – after all the photography professor at the college had said that these pictures looked entirely different that the others that Goddard had taken.  Perhaps this woman was the real photographer.  And then she shows up at Penny’s funeral.  My father had always said that coincidences and hunches could turn into solid leads, but only if they were handled carefully.  One of his favorite mottos was, “Remember, you only have one chance to make a first impression.”  I used to think that he was hopelessly corny and I would hold my hands over my ears whenever he said it, but I had learned over the past several years that he was, as usual, absolutely correct.  Before I talked with her I needed to do more background research and figure out what my best approach was, through the Dessa/Goddard angle or through the Penny angle.

Although I was drawn to this homey neighborhood scene, I decided to park in the Denny’s parking lot around the corner to listen to my phone messages and record my notes into my voice recorder while they were still fresh in my mind.  I just didn’t want the neighbors to notice a strange car parked on their block and to come up and tap on my window to see if I wanted a cookie.  I quickly scanned through the 10 voicemails that were left for me since noon.  There was a slightly hysterical call from Nick Nichol, basically blaming me for ruining Goddard’s gallery debut, a call from Mary saying that she had found some intriguing information on the Coastal Estates and Skye View developments, a curt message from Sam Todd, and a message from Ralph and Fanny asking if I wanted to join them for dinner.  I called Ralph and Fanny back and said that their pot roast sounded wonderful, and asked Ralph if he could do a reverse address search for115 Fuller Laneand then do a search on the owner’s name and see if there was any connection to a photography studio.  I was not in the mood to talk with Mary right now, and texted her to see if you would be free for lunch tomorrow – the first time in memory that I had followed through for plans for lunch.  That left Sam Todd and I thought that I would strategize on how to approach him on my way back to Ralph and Fanny’s.


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