Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapters 26 and 27

Chapter 26

My nap at Ralph and Fanny’s had put me off kilter and I was wide awake at 5:30 AM, the kind of wide awake where I knew that I might as well get up.  I made some coffee and prepared the bill for Sam Todd.  I thought that I’d make it four days in a row – I would drive up the canyon once again and deliver it personally.  Sam probably wouldn’t be there and I might get a chance to talk to Simba alone.  I just couldn’t let this case go without a fight.

I drummed my fingers on the kitchen table wondering what I could do until it was a reasonable hour, and suddenly I thought of Pat Barnes, the forensic pathologist who was probably working on Penny’s hit and run case.  It seemed like weeks ago that I had planned to casually run into her at the fitness center, and this might be the perfect time.  I knew that she always worked out early – sometimes my father worked out with her and they would arrive at work in a sweaty mess and use the showers there.  My attendance at the fitness club was sporadic at best.  I preferred to find a class to attend, since left to my own schedule I would just use the elliptical until I started to sweat, and then I would call it quits.  I trying spinning once, but hated it – toiling away in the dark with loud techno pop, I just couldn’t handle it.  The class I liked the best was strength and conditioning and that is where I had overlapped with Pat before.  I fished into my closet for a pair of sweats – spandex was not a good look for me – and found a ratty old tee shirt.  I grabbed my sweatshirt and found an old punch card for drop in classes.  It was outdated by a year, but unless they changed the colors of the card, this would probably work.

I was always amazed at the number of people committed to working out before work – I hate to sweat and it often takes me a long time to cool down, sometimes over an hour.  I can take a shower, and then find myself still sweating once I get out – not a good look for business.  But today the morning stretched ahead of me and the next appointment was at lunch time to discuss real estate with Mary.  Besides, I had been sedentary for the past 4 days, so I was ready to give it a go.  There were about 10 of us in the group, but unfortunately no Pat Barnes, at least not yet – she was always ran late.  The well-muscled instructor cranked up the music and told us we would be working with both light and heavy weights.  Some of the women were showing off with 15 pound heavy weights, while I realistically designated the 5 pound weights as both my lights and heavies.  I actually liked doing the squats and I had to admit the exercise felt good.

Then from behind me came, “Blue I would recognize you anywhere with those ratty sweats and you can’t handle anything more than 5 pounds?”

I didn’t need to turn around.  I recognized Pat’s raspy voice.  “Pat, I envy you with our regular schedule, even though you do have to work in a basement.  And I bet your strong biceps come from heaving stiffs around every day.  I, on the other hand, spent a beautiful day yesterday driving up the coast highway with the top down unraveling the stories of the living.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I have heard it all before, the basement stuff, the necrophilia, not much I haven’t heard, and yes I will take the regular work hours any day, and sometimes a body is much more informative that a dozen of your interviews.”

By this time she had moved up into my row and we worked out in unison for a few minutes until the instructor told us to lie down on our mats for a little leg work.  Pat and I both knew that we were teasing each other, we had often talked about how the perfect job would be some sort of combination of both of ours.  There were certain stretches of time when I was just fed up with people and their secrets and I would like nothing better than to work quietly in a cool basement with a corpse.  And Pat admitted that sometimes she could get squirrely in a basement.

“Hey, Grimes told me that you are peripherally involved with our hit and run case, that gal with all the tattoos,” said Pat.

“Yes, I am very peripheral, I am trying to locate one of her friends – Dessa Todd.  I saw that accident scene, and looks like you got lucky that it occurred in an area where there are CCTVs.  I think that there is one at the traffic light and also at an ATM machine.  Any luck in identifying the car?”

“You know I can’t tell you much, I just established that she died of multiple internal injuries and we are still waiting on the tox screen, but I did hear Grimes say that they are looking for a black Lexus, license plate was indistinct, but you didn’t hear it from me.”

My inner thighs were now killing me, and I saw that Pat was still exercising effortlessly even though she was wearing ankle weights.  We now headed into abs, but I just lay down on the mat and looked at the ceiling as I talked with Pat.  I decided to stir the pot a bit more.  “I am sure Grimes has checked the car registrations of the Todd family, though it is not clear to me what the possible motive could be, but here’s a tip for you – you might want to check the car registrations of Henry Murphy, you know that guy who lives in that crumbling old mansion down by the beach.”

I don’t know why I said that.  I had no reason to think that Henry Murphy had anything to do with Penny, except that he had lied about her.  But I just didn’t like him – based on our conversation at his gate earlier today and how he was treating his mother.  I think that I was still smarting from my abrupt dismissal just when it looked like the case was breaking.  It was just intuition, but it made Pat also lie on the mat and stare at the ceiling, “Henry Murphy, are you asking me to run some plates on him?”

“No Pat, I just know that Penny had a couple of run-ins with Henry Murphy, and if you really want to irritate him you can call him by his nick name Polly.   I was only trying to locate Dessa and anyway I think that I am off the case now.  You know, I met Penny once and I liked her.  Just a hunch, might want to follow up on it if you have no other leads.”

“Well Liza, I am wondering about the coincidence of us meeting here, and if you have information why don’t you call Grimes himself.  I am sure that he would appreciate any tips, I’m just the pathologist.”

“Well, Pat do whatever you want with the information, I could call Grimes, but I saw you, and it was a coincidence that we are here together.”  The instructor then stood up and gave us a big shush and pointed us out of the room.   We both resumed our abs, though I could see that Pat was able to get her whole back off the floor, while I was just able to lift my neck.

We filed out together when the work out was over, and I suggested that we have a cup of coffee.  I wanted to reassure her that I was not trying to pump her for information, and I don’t think that I really was, although it would be nice to know Penny’s tox screen.  But she declined saying that she needed to get to work and shower and change.  We talked on our way out to the parking lot and she brought me up to date on the status of several mutual friends in the department.  We stood chatting together for a few minutes and by the time we got into our cars and went our separate ways, the conversation about Penny and the black Lexus just melted into our background chatter.  I could not be sure that Pat would follow up on my suggestion, and truthfully I felt a little remorseful about even mentioning it.  If I truly thought that Henry had something to do with Penny, I should call Grimes, but that would raise the stakes and Grimes would want to know about these run-ins between Penny and Henry.  I then would have to tell him about my visit at the nursing home, and if I ever wanted to regain the Todds as clients, I didn’t need Grimes knocking at their door and mentioning my name.  Better to plant a little seed with Pat – I knew that she attended weekly interdepartmental conferences on open murder cases, and she might mention it.  I was also confident that Pat would claim the insight as her very own.  I had no idea what leads the police had developed and if the idea of Henry Murphy fit in with some of their vague suspicions, then maybe they would pick up on it.

When I got back home, I found a couple of messages waiting for me.  One was from Mary confirming lunch, another message from Nick Nichol, which I could ignore for the moment, and then another message where the caller promptly hung up.  I looked at the phone and saw that it was a local number, and I decided to call the number back on my untraceable cell.  If I used my regular cell phone, the recipient could see my name on the caller ID and elect not to answer.  A better plan was to use a phone that ID’d me only as “Out of Area.”  Whenever I got this type of message on my home phone I would never answer it because I knew that it was a telemarketer, but rarely would a telemarketer call a cell phone.   The phone rang a few times and then a soft women’s voice said hello, but there was no caller ID.  I responded, “This is Liza Blue returning your call.  You called my cell phone about one hour ago.”

“That must have been a wrong number, I’m terribly sorry,” said the woman.  I could hear a man’s voice in the background saying, “I told you not to call her.  Hang up now.”

“Dessa is that you?” I said, but the woman hung up quickly.  If Dessa had called me, it meant one of two things, either she had gotten the phone number from Goddard, and that was potentially his voice in the background, or she had gotten the number from the caregiver at Great Days, which meant that she had returned for another visit.  Of course, perhaps it was a wrong number after all, but the strain in the woman’s voice suggested otherwise.  I was being pulled back into the case, and I had seen it before.  Members of a deeply dysfunctional family often latched onto an interested and neutral bystander.  I had fit the bill already with Goddard, and now maybe with Dessa.

When I got out of the shower, I noticed the message light lit up again and this time it was Simba.  I called her back quickly and she answered right away.  “Ms. Blue, I am sorry that my husband was so rude to you last night.  I overheard you mention that you would give us a final presentation and I would like to take you up on that offer.  I will be down in the town for a luncheon, would you able to meet me this afternoon at the Art Museum in the café there – it is called the Artist’s Retreat and it will be very private.

“Yes, Mrs. Todd, I would be happy to meet you, will your husband be joining us?  It is usually best to talk with all family members at once.”

“Oh no, Mr. Todd is out of town today, and actually I think that it would be better not to mention it to him.  He seems to think that it is enough to know that our Dessa is still alive, but I would like to know more.  I don’t think that is asking too much is it?  Sam told me that you saw her.  Where was she and how did she look?”

“Well, I just think that I saw her.  It was inCutterCityat Penny Knox’s funeral.  That is the girl with the tattoos that was up at your house for lunch.  She left the funeral very suddenly and I was not able to introduce myself, but her name was in the guest book, so I am pretty sure that it was her.  She was by herself.  And then she was also spotted at the Great Days nursing home visiting your mother.”

“My mother at Great Days?  How extraordinary.  I, of course, am not welcome there,”  her voice trailed off.

“Mrs. Todd, we can discuss this more when we meet this afternoon, but Dessa was seen having an argument with your brother Henry.”  I told her this detail just to get her thinking before our meeting but the reaction was immediate.

“Henry was there?  My brother Henry?  You told Sam that?  Now I know why he cut you off so quickly.  Sam will have nothing to do with Henry.  If he thinks that Dessa has a relationship with Henry, that means that he cannot have a relationship with his own daughter.   You can’t imagine how difficult this has been for me.”

“Mrs. Todd, I think that there might be a logical explanation here.  According to your mother’s caregiver, Dessa was there standing up for your mother and making sure that she gets the best care.  I will give you a full report this afternoon, but for the moment I think that I can tell you that Dessa does not seem to be in any danger.”

“Thank you very much Ms. Blue, I will see you at 2 PM at the Artist’s Retreat.”

Chapter 27

The restaurant Mary had picked out was the Sea Grille, certainly fancier than what was needed.  I certainly wasn’t thinking fast food – one of my requirements for “eating out” was a wait staff and a real plate. Even though it was pricey, the Sea Grille was casual enough and a popular place for lunch and had a nice outdoor terrace.  It would be interesting to see if Mary grabbed for her credit card to split the bill, but I was guessing that she wouldn’t.  And then there was the issue of parking – there was valet parking, but I always made a few trips around the block before I succumbed to this indulgence.  On the second trip around the block I spotted Mary getting out of her sporty red BMW and hand her keys to the valet.  I decided I might as well pull in behind her in my dirty Prius.  Mary was wearing a tightly tailored jacket with a low cut white shirt just peeking out.  Her skirt was shockingly short and her heels looked dangerously high.  She smiled and waved when she saw me.  “Liza, it is so great to see you.  I feel so lucky that we both had this luncheon slot open.  How many times have we tried and failed?”  She gave me an air kiss in the vicinity of each cheek, and I could smell  some sort of sticky cologne and got a close up of her thick make-up.  In contrast to her, I was totally unadorned from every sensory perspective.

“Mary, you look so glamorous and chic.  You look fabulous,”  I said and I mostly meant it.  In junior high, I got to know her because we both lived on the edge of town and were the last bus stops.  I considered her a friend, mostly because we were both fringe players at the edge of the cool boy-crazy clique.  We both knew that we would never belong with the social elite – we both lived in undesirable neighborhoods, me in an apartment and Mary in a small bungalow house, we did not belong to any country clubs, and my father was a cop, and hers was a locksmith.  But the key difference was that I was comfortable with my social standing while Mary craved acceptance.  She would pour over fashion magazines and watch what the other kids were wearing and get her mother, who was an excellent seamstress, to copy them for her.  Unfortunately Mary was a large girl and the styles looked laughable on her chunky figure.  A face full of acne didn’t help either.  Now 20 years later, she had totally transformed herself into the stereotypical Santa Teresian woman, thin, fit, tan and overdressed.  I had to hand it to her, she had scratched her way through the glass ceiling.  I had even seen that she was a co-chair of the Children’s Aid Society Spring Ball.  This was not the top tier of charities – she would not be mingling with the likes of Simba quite yet – but she had established a beach head for herself that had served her well in the real estate world.  I think that our relationship, such that it was, was based on the fact that she could use me as a touchstone – let her remember how far she had come since those painful days in junior high.  Just as importantly I was absolutely no competition and she also knew that I just didn’t care.

“Liza, you look great too, doesn’t look like you have changed a bit since high school.  How do you do it?”  Mary turned to the waiter, “ I have asked Felipe here to give us my usual table on the outside deck, it is such a beautiful day.  Here why don’t you take the view of the ocean – I have just about the same view from my office, not that I spend that much time there.  Actually, I consider this restaurant my field office.  I have closed dozens of deals right at this table and I always let the client have the view.”

When we sat down I realized that her real agenda was to face the restaurant entrance so that she could see everyone as they entered.  Already she had waved at two people and just as Felipe had seated us and given us the leather bound menus she hopped up and said, “Liza, will you excuse me for a minute, I just want to say a quick hi to my friend Dolores over there.  We are on a board together and she had missed the past couple of meetings.  Her daughter moved back into town during her divorce and has been living in Dolores’ guest house.  Not too shabby, since the guest house has both pool and beach access, but my guess is that she might want a place of her own about now.”  Mary flitted across the room.

I sat by myself gazing out at the ocean for at least 15 minutes while Mary stopped by three more tables.  As she sat down she motioned again for Felipe, “Sorry Liza, but I am sure you know the importance of cultivating clients.  Felipe knows that I always order the same thing, a Caprese Salad with a glass of Chardonnay.  How about you?  They really have the best vinaigrette here.”  I nodded in agreement and we handed the menus back to Felipe.

“So tell me what you learned aboutSkyeIslandand the Coastal Estates,” I said, grateful that I had her full attention for the moment.

“Oh yes, I went an open house, and what a tragedy.  Here is this beautiful piece of property with beach access, and what can I say, it’s just cheap.  I don’t know if you’d pick up on these things, but realtors notice immediately – the doors are hollow, the showers are prefab, no hardwood floors, counters are Corian.  Nobody uses Corian anymore, you just have to use granite.  A brand new house and it is basically a tear down – they’ll be lucky if they can even sell that house for land value.  I was thinking that this must be the stupidest developer ever and then I discovered that the developer is none other than Henry Murphy.  You would think that he would get better advice from his brother-in-law Sam Todd, who is a very successful realtor.  Then another colleague said that Henry and Sam absolutely hate each other, some sort of longstanding family feud.  He thought that Henry was trying to upstage Sam’sSkyeIslandwith his development.  You know that Coastal Estates could have been a big success if it was done right – even in this market.”

“That’s too bad, and I suppose it doesn’t help that the old Murphy house is in such disrepair,” I said.

“Oh yes, and that’s another point.  I have to work with banks a lot and I have developed contacts with some of the bankers who have given me tips on houses that are about to be short sales or foreclosed on – sometimes this is useful information for a buyer – if they wait a couple of months they might get a good deal on a short sale.  Anyway, I gave one a call, and I got lucky, both Skye View and Coastal Estates have used the same mortgage lender, and both of these properties are on the brink – Skye View might be a foreclosure, Coastal Estates might be a short sale.”

Our salads had arrived and I could tell that Mary’s attention was now faltering as her eyes flitted back to the entrance and she smiled and waved again to another table.  She could have easily given me this juicy nugget over the phone, so there must be something else on her agenda.  As she finished eating her salad, she leaned down and pulled a few sheets from her briefcase and set them on the table. “Liza, I think that I spoke too harshly aboutSkyeIslandthe other day.  There actually might be some opportunity there.  I think that if the property is positioned correctly it could sell.  The current realtor talks about seclusion and privacy, and I think that is putting people off, they think that they will be living in some sort of East Bumble Fuck.  I think that Syke Isle needs to be repositioned as privacy with access, and frankly I think that you could make a case that the canyon property is more desirable than the beach.  There is lots of traffic on the beach, people are constantly trespassing on your beach and the taxes are high.  With a little savvy you can change cachet.  You might remember about 20 years ago North Santa Teresa was the cachet address and ads referred to a “prestigious,” “exclusive” or “sought after” address, but now South Santa Teresa is just as desirable.  I need to make that same transition happen for Skye Isle.  Most people moving into Santa Teresa could care less about these labels and see South Santa Teresa for what it is – great houses, great neighborhoods and lower taxes.  I had one couple that looked at both North and South and chose South Santa Teresa for the simple reason that all the utility lines are underground there.  And I had never thought about it before, but North Santa Teresa is cluttered with telephone poles, and it is ugly.  So what do you think, this is just a mock up of my pitch to Sam Todd to be the exclusive realtor forSkyeIsland.”

“Mary, I really don’t know the Todds well at all, I actually have met them just a couple of times, and right now I maybe on the outs with them, so I don’t think that I can be of direct help to you, but if it comes up I will certainly mention your name as one of the hardest working realtors that I know.”

Mary hardly registered my comments and continued on, “You see I think that knowing that tidbit about the family feud between Henry and Sam might help me, because I will position Skye Island as way more desirable than the Coastal Estates, even mention that their proximity to that crumbling old mansion is a disadvantage – I think that would feed his ego, wouldn’t it?  And then I think that I have a way that he could stay out of foreclosure –   always better for the seller to do a short sale, it’s not as devastating to your credit score.  The problem is the lender will only accept a short sale if there is an established value for the property, and there are no comparables up in the canyon.”

Mary was now talking at such an accelerated pace that I just nodded my head in syncopated intervals.  “All I’d have to do is sell one piece or property to establish a comparable and I think that I have a creative way of doing that.  I am still on the woman’s board of the Coastal Conversancy and I would like to move up to the real board, that’s where the action is and where all the heavy hitters are, and it’s about time people recognized me as a heavy hitter in this town.  Anyway, perhaps I could bring Sam together with this group, and have a discussion about setting up some conservation easements in exchange for finding a way of creatively financing at least one of the parcels.  Don’t you think that this would be a win-win all the way around?”

She finally stopped, took a deep breath, finished off her third glass of wine and looked at me expectantly.  “Mary I have always loved your fearless creativity, and I would love it if that canyon became partly public land.  I think that the best thing I could do is introduce you to Nick Nichol, I know him well, and he is the publicist for Sam Todd and also has worked with Simba Todd.

“Nick Nichol, you know him?  And he knows Simba also?  I love what he has done with his career, starting from the bottom as a reported and working his way up to a PR agent.  Oh, I would love to talk to Nick Nichol about lots of things – not just about Skye Isle.  Yes, yes, yes, could you set up a meeting for me?”

I quickly agreed, since I knew that once the offer was made, Mary would call me constantly until she actually met Nick.  We had finished our salads and the bill was discretely placed between us.  At that very moment, Mary jumped up and went off to greet another table.  I smiled to myself as I ponied up for the entire bill.

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