Chapters 24-25: Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery

Chapter 24

It was 5:30 as I headed back along the coast highway.  It was an absolutely spectacular sunset.  A veil of clouds hovered over the horizon sending luminous beams upward.  When I was a kid, my father used to take me to the beach to watch the sunset.  It was the only time he ever talked about my mother.  “Look at those beamers,” he would say, “Aren’t they beautiful.  They remind me of your mother, so light and full of life, and I think that she is looking down and loving us, Liza.”  Sometimes it looked like he had tears in his eyes, and I would snuggle in closer, but he would say, “Love the sunset, but hate the glare, it always makes my eyes water,” and then he would take out his handkerchief and dab his eyes.  These memories never failed to choke me up and I pulled off into a scenic turnout to spend a little more quality time with my parents.  The sun quickly dipped below the horizon, the beamers disappeared and I felt very alone.  Here was my father, a loving family man whose wife was snatched away from him, and here I was an only child, with a father snatched away from me, and then there was the Todd family, who could have had everything, but had screwed up their privileged lives.  I had seen it many times before.  The best paying clients are careless and damage lives as a result.  It was hard for me to understand how money and status could be such a burden.  It made appreciate the small life I had with my father and his memories of my mother.  He made a lot out of a very little, and I was proud of him.   

Another call from Nick Nichol abruptly pulled me back into the case.  “Liza, I am so mad at you.  This is the thanks I get for setting you up with the Todd’s as clients.  What the hell did you say to Goddard last night?  I look like a fool.”

“Nick, slow down,” I said.  “I will not accept delivery of your disappointment and anger.  Goddard was absolutely devastated by the idea that his photographs of Dessa could be interpreted as sexual – he even got into a bar fight over it, and called me to pick him up.  He was so upset and thought that his photographs were the reason the Dessa took off.  Did you know that he was basically sleeping in a cot at the gallery?  I left him with friends, and in the morning he was gone.”

“Well, why didn’t he call me if he had any problems?  He had only just met you.  Or you should have called me.  Goddard is my client and not yours,” said Nick.

“Nick, let me ask you this, whose idea was the photo gallery anyway?  I got the impression that Goddard felt pressured to do it and felt that those were private photos of Dessa and not meant for the public.  Didn’t you realize that you had a skittish client on your hands?”

“Well, of course he was skittish, and that is why you should have called me.  He is my client and I know how to handle him.  That is what a PR person does, you know.”

I knew that I might regret it later, but I was provoked enough to go on the aggressive. “Nick stop being territorial with me.  It was very late at night, and he called me.  He’d only met me briefly, and yet he called me, so what does that tell you about your relationship with him?  So don’t give me this bullshit.  Dysfunction runs deep in this family, and what he needs is a psychologist and not a PR flack.  I think the only reason he called me was that I was a neutral person.  You must know that he doesn’t like his parents very much.”

“Liza, back down, I’m sorry but I am just venting – I’ve got Sam Todd squeezing me, I mean really squeezing me.  Sam and Simba were just desperate to get Goddard on his feet with some sort of job, and they called me up there to see what I thought about opening a gallery.  I didn’t think too much of his travel photos, but then I noticed a couple of pictures of a young Goddard and Dessa in the living room and asked about them.   I was really surprised when they told me that Goddard was the photographer, and I thought that they might make a nice focus for a show.”

I was relieved that we were back on neutral footing. “C’mon Nick, didn’t you think that those photos were sexually suggestive?”

“Well, okay, I did think that they were at least edgy – you need that in a photography show.  Who is going to be interested in a bunch of old Christmas card pictures?  And then I thought that the mulit-year sequence would be interesting.  Liza, really, I didn’t have too much to work with.  I even took some of the photos to the photography professor over at the college, and he said that the portraits were the best of the bunch, so I just went with them.”

“Edgy – is that how you positioned those photographs to the Todds?  Nick, I just can’t believe that their sexual content didn’t occur to them.”

Nick sighed, “As you can imagine I did not have an explicit conversation about that.  I just told them that these were the best photographs and I think that Sam and Simba were just accustomed to seeing them as Christmas cards and did not look beyond that.  Goddard was never engaged in the project.  He sat in the corner all sullen, shrugged and said, ‘Whatever.’  I wanted to get up and shake him.  Here he is over 30 and he’s just coasted – coasted with nothing much to show for it.”

“Yes, well welcome to my world, Nick.  I frequently deal with coasters and lost opportunity, you are often on the flip side, working with the most ambitious who will do anything to get a foothold.  I’m really sorry that it did not work out with Goddard.  I think that he was genuinely distraught about the photographs and missing Dessa.  This is a creepy question, but do you think that there was anything going on between the two of them?  I just can’t get the image out of my mind of his thumb indenting her thigh.”

“Oh my God Liza, you noticed that too?  That did creep me out a little bit, and did make me wonder.  The truth is that I’ve never met Dessa and that was a big mistake on my part.  Do you think that he is a pedophile?  If so, this might go down as the worst PR project I have ever worked on, taking a client and outing him as a pedophile – usually it’s the other way around.”

“I was worried at first – that perhaps there was something going on and that Dessa had fled or even creepier, Goddard was holding Dessa someplace – but remember that this is part of my job to rule out every possibility.   But then that night, he was in so much pain thinking that people might think the worst – I was convinced that there was nothing more going on than a protective brother.  I tell you, Nick, if I am wrong, then you should promote Goddard as an actor and not a photographer.  But the good news is, I have several local sightings of Dessa, so I am relieved that she isn’t captive someplace.  And I think that Goddard took off to find her.”

“Well thank God for small favors, Liza, if Dessa is somewhere local that means Goddard must be near by and maybe this will all sort itself out.  But I am really in the shits with Sam Todd right now.”

 “Nick, I am scheduled to give Sam an update tonight and I will try and explain the situation – I’ll do what I can, but in terms of resuscitating the gallery, I wouldn’t count on that.”

“Thanks for the offer and I am sorry that I flared at you earlier.  The truth is that the Todds have not turned out to be great clients after all.  That bastard Sam has not paid me in months and keeps dodging my phone calls.  I am going to resign as soon as – or if – I get paid.  My advice to you is to get a cash advance.  Keep me posted,” and he hung up.

First Johnny Knox and now Nick Nichol had gotten stiffed by Sam Todd.  Suddenly my lunch with Mary the realtor sounded more intriguing – follow the money was one tip my father did not need to teach me. 

Chapter 25

It was about 6:15 when I pulled into Ralph and Fanny’s and I was pleased to see a very full parking lot.  Their customers were typically young families and therefore their dinner rush was always early.  After 7 PM it was usually very quiet and they shut down completely by 9.  It was a good schedule for them – they were too old work into the night.  The later customers were old friends that they could sit around and talk to while they served dinner and cleaned up.  I parked in the back and went directly into the side door that opened into my temporary office.  It was hard to believe that just last night I was sitting there while Goddard worked on the sky pieces of the Amish farm scene.  I realized that I was utterly exhausted and lay down on the same couch that Goddard had slept on.  I knew that I needed a nap, since I wanted to go back to Goddard’s gallery later that night – since Dessa was local, there was a good chance that he would show up there since he theoretically didn’t have any other place to sleep.  But I needed to summon enough energy now to give Sam Todd his daily up date.  He had called me the last two nights, and I knew that I needed to take the initiative on this relationship, but I was hoping that the call would go straight to message – after all this call should be right smack in the middle of cocktail hour.

“Sam Todd here.” 

 Damn it.  His authoritarian voice made me sit up.  “Yes, good evening Mr. Todd, I am calling to update you, as requested, and I have good news for you.  I think that I saw Dessa today, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to speak to her.”

 “You say Dessa is around here – well I will make sure to tell Simba, she will be very relieved, and I guess we don’t need your services anymore.  Please send me a bill.”

 “Excuse me Mr. Todd, but I think that this situation is maybe a little more complicated than that.  Goddard has left the gallery – you probably knew that from Nick Nichol, and I think that he has gone off looking for Dessa also.  And one of the last places Dessa was seen was with your mother-in-law at the Great Days retirement home – in an argument with Henry Murphy.  If you want to close the case, that’s fine with me, but I would like to give you a final presentation of my findings – remember you also asked me to look into the Knox’s – both Johnny and his wife Penny.  Perhaps I could meet with you tomorrow and you can pay me then.”

I desperately didn’t want off the case, and I also wanted to get paid – I thought being nonchalant might be the best strategy, but no luck.  “No need to come up here,” he said, “I am just glad that Dessa is around, I’m sure that she will come home with Goddard in the next couple of days.  She knows that she is always welcome here.  I have lost interest in the Knox’s, in fact I settled up with Johnny Knox just this morning, paid him back for his furlough, so he has no reason to have a beef with me.  I asked him about his daughter, and he had no idea that she was a friend of Dessa’s so I think that ties up all of the loose ends.  Just send me the bill,” and he hung up.

Well that was an intense two days of work, I thought, and wondered if I would ever get paid.  I lay back on the couch and closed my eyes, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep.  This case was nothing but loose ends; generating loose ends was often the first step in a case, and the second more exciting step was tying them up, finding the connections between them and weaving a complete picture.  Weaving often used all of my skills and even allowed me to develop some new ones – but a complete picture was exactly what some clients didn’t want, and if I got close to the truth, clients like Sam Todd would pull the plug.  I got the sense that Sam would close the case down whatever I told him.  Perhaps he had heard from Dessa, perhaps he was having dinner with her right now, and was getting ready to send her on a world tour.  Perhaps he really didn’t want to find Dessa and confront her new “life of truth.”  And of course, I had no idea where Simba was in this muddle, but I knew I shouldn’t assume that Sam was speaking for her.

I finally dozed off, but when I woke up, I knew that I had been asleep for a while.   It was pitch dark and I needed to brush my teeth.  I stumbled out into the restaurant and Ralph was just finishing cleaning up.  “Had a big day, did you?  Fanny looked in on you a couple of times, but you were just dead asleep.  There is one piece left of chicken pot pie and here is some iced tea.  I did that reverse address search you asked me about.  I know that you have showed me how to use the internet many times, but you know how I am with this cyberspace stuff.  But this was the first time I was immediately successful.  You will have to ask Fanny about it in the morning – I was so excited that I did a little dance.”

Ralph triumphantly slapped down a few pages copied from the internet, and I did not have the heart to tell him that I might be off the case.  “I’ll look at them in a minute, Ralph, but first tell me, I know that you saw Goddard this morning, how did he seem.  I have not been able to reach him all day, and he was pretty much a wreck last night.”

 “As far as I’m concerned, that man can come here anytime.  He did look a little dinged up this morning, but he helped Fanny bake the bread, helped my with the heavy deliveries, all the time saying how grateful he was for the couch last night.  And then after he left, we found this handwritten thank you note.  Here I’ll get it for you.  Fanny and I have concluded that thank-you notes are a lost art.  A couple of years ago, we made the decision not to give gifts to any one who didn’t write us a hand written thank -you note – the kind on nice stationary and with a stamp.  None of this e-mail stuff.  Really simplified our Christmas shopping since we don’t really hear from our nieces and nephews.  Here look what Goddard wrote us – best thing that I have received in years.”

He handed me a note written on the back of a paper placemat – the handwriting was legible and actually quite beautiful:

“Dear Mr. Ralph and Ms. Fanny,

I hope that you understand how much I appreciate your kind hospitality, which now extends for over 15 years, from the time I was in college, to last night, when you showed me such understanding in my awful state.  I am sure that you have guessed that I have some personal challenges, and what I needed was your non-judgmental kindness and a safe place and the simple joy of helping with your chores.  I can see that Liza Blue has found a similar refuge here.  I need some time to get my bearings and make things right with my sister and I am so glad that this was my starting place.

Sincerely,  Goddard Todd  

I looked at Ralph’s beaming face and I was once again reminded of how easy it is to be thoughtful and appreciative, and how often we all forget.  Goddard certainly didn’t have to write that note, and yet with about 5 minutes of effort, he had made a life time friend in Ralph.  I pushed aside the unpleasant thought that Goddard’s letter was a disingenuous product of his cultured upbringing.  “Ralph, this is nice.  Tell me about your success.  What did you find on the reverse look-up?”

“Oh, yeah, the woman that lives in that house is named Sylvia Wister, so then I Googled her and also did a Linked In search, just like you taught me, and yes she is also the owner of a photography studio at 2236 Orrington.  And it gets even better.  There was a bunch of stuff on Google, and it looks like she used to be one of the art teacher at the high school in Cutter City.  Retired about 2 years ago.  So maybe she was Penny’s teacher, and she could have been Goddard’s teacher also.  She won the school’s Golden Apple award at the high school 5 times in the 20 years that she taught there.”

Ralph had even found a grainy picture of her on the internet.   “Thanks Ralph, this is very interesting.  This woman was at Penny’s service this afternoon.  She certainly stood out as a free spirit, and I can see why the kids loved her.  Perhaps I will go see her tomorrow,” my voice trailed off and I picked at the meat loaf. 

“What’s wrong with you Liza, even I know that this is a great lead.  You should be up pinning the pictures of all of the players to a bulletin board trying to figure out a pattern to their connections.  This is the best part of a case, this is how we can make it break wide open.”

“Well, to tell the truth Ralph, I might be off the case.  When Sam Todd heard that I spotted Dessa at Penny’s funeral, he basically said that was all he needed to know and to send him the bill, so I don’t want to make the emotional and intellectual commitment to this case quite yet.  I’m basically exhausted, that was a long night last night, and I have been on the move all day.  I think I’ll go home and see how I feel in the morning.  I’m sorry I’m sort of a dud, but I hope that you know how much I appreciate all your help.”

Ralph came over and gave me a close hug, and I smelled a comforting combination of garlic and good honest sweat.  “I know that, and I know that you know that I know that.  I’m mostly just glad that I was able to accomplish something on the internet without freaking out.  Get some sleep and call us in the morning.”

I meant to go straight home, but instincts took over and I ended up driving by Goddard’s gallery.  I could see a couple of lights on in the back, but I couldn’t summon up the energy to find out if he was there.  I was off the case wasn’t I?  I felt that this carefully lacquered family had suffered a slight tremor with Dessa’s disappearance, but instead of letting the seething caldron below blow open, Sam was busily applying a new protective coat and I was a threat.  Not very satisfying from my point of view, so I decided that I could risk stirring the pot one last time.  I left a note for Goddard and pushed in under the door, “Hope you found Dessa.  Please call me, Liza Blue.”


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