Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapter 28

I had about an hour to kill before I was scheduled to meet Simba, so I wandered over to the bookstore across the street.  I asked the reference desk if there was a section on local history and the women showed me a section of paperbacks devoted to the histories of different coastal communities, including Santa Teresa.  I flipped to the index to see if there was any discussion of the Murphy’s.  There it was – 5 pages on one Connor Murphy.  He was one of the first settlers in Santa Teresa and I guessed that this must be Cymbaline’s great great great grandfather.  Connor was an Irish priest with only a passing affection for the Bible and a greater affection for money.  He was the visionary who first started the orange groves and acquired great tracts of lands for his growing orchard.  Along the way, he adopted two young children, probably his own.  He eventually left the church and married Octavia Aquillo, apparently the children’s mother.  The book had a picture of the extended family in 1900.  Connor was sitting in the center, holding the family bible in his hand.  He was wearing a leather vest, black pants with high leather boots.  There was a gun in his holster.  Sitting next to him was Octavia, a stunning woman with long black and silver hair in a braid, wearing a fabulously brocaded white shirt cinched with a thick leather belt.  It looked like there were 4 sons, each with a number of children.  One of the small children was probably Cymbaline’s grandfather. 

The book described how Connor Murphy farmed all of the land around present day Santa Teresa, and from the map I wondered if perhaps he even owned the Skye Island acreage.  Connor had expanded from the orange groves into the railroad business, which was where he made most of his money.  The book even had a picture of the Murphy mansion in its heyday.  One picture showed a garden party with ladies wearing long white skirts and the men similarly dressed in all white.   Some of the guests were playing croquet, others were playing a gentle game of badminton.  Waiters hovered nearby with frosted glasses arranged on a cart that they were wheeling around the immaculate lawn.  Another picture illustrated the extensive show gardens with elaborate trellises, knot gardens and flowers.  There was also a stable and a polo field.  I skimmed the text, which told a very tragic story.  All of Connor’s grandsons fought in World War I.  They were all in the same unit, which suffered horrific casualties at Verdun.  Two grandsons died, and one died on the way home from Spanish flu.  Only one grandson, Joseph, made it home and tried to carry on the family business.  There was a final picture of Joseph, his wife, his son Edward and his two grandchildren.  Even though the children were maybe 5 and 10, I clearly recognized Cymbaline and Henry.  It was a formal picture, the kind that drains any warmth out of a group, but still I sensed the disconnection in this family.  Joseph and Edward were looking off into the distance in opposite directions and Henry and Cymbaline stared blankly at the camera.  Chloe, Edward’s wife and Simba’s mother, was not in the picture.

I decided to buy the book and placed in my purse with the top edge nonchalantly peeking out.  I wasn’t going to show Cymbaline the book, but if she happened to see it, she might recognize the cover, and it would be interesting to see her reaction. 

The art museum was just a couple of blocks away, and it was a cool day, so I could walk without getting totally sweaty.  I left the car with valet parking and headed off.  The museum had just undergone an expansion with a dramatic new wing with ocean views.  While the activities room at the Great Days retirement community was contributed by Sam and Simba, it looked pathetically puny in comparison to the Sam and Cymbaline Todd Modern Art Wing.  Their name was emblazoned in large block letters, and there were separate portraits of each of them, Sam looking business-like glancing down at his desk to examine architectural drawings, and Simba looking icy and regal standing in front of a garden.  I asked the receptionist for directions to the Artist’s Retreat, and when I headed over to the elevator, I was stopped and told that I first had to pay the entrance fee before I could go to the restaurant.  Out another twenty bucks.  I felt that I had been fleeced for the second time today, first by Mary and now by Simba.  I shouldn’t really care, because I could expense it all, but it was just the principle of the thing that rankled.  Simba could have left me a pass, but it probably never occurred to her that people had to pay to get in – she certainly didn’t.

When I got to the restaurant on the third floor, the door was locked and I noticed that the restaurant stopped serving lunch at 2 PM.  When I knocked, a waiter in a formal white jacket opened the door and said, “Sorry as the sign says, we are closed at 2PM, no exceptions.”  I told him that I was supposed to meet Cymbaline Todd, and his demeanor immediately changed.  “Well come right in, we always make exceptions for Mrs. Todd.”  “I am sorry for the mess,” he said, “we are working to reconfigure the space for a reception this evening.  Our Artist Retreat here is a very popular event space.  This was the vision of Mr. Todd, and combined with the exquisite taste of Mrs. Todd, we are very busy.”

I had seen many pictures of the Artist’s Retreat in the society pages of our local newspapers and immediately recognized the expansive floor to ceiling windows flanked by exquisite embroidered drapery.  A crew of men were pushing tables around and setting up chairs.  Dozens of flower arrangements of various heights were lined up on a buffet table.  The waiter ushered me towards the rear of the room and I saw the straight back of Simba sitting by herself in the corner. 

“I apologize for this hub-bub, Ms. Blue, I should have known that the staff would be busy setting up.   We have so many events, don’t we Jim,” she said as she turned toward the maitre d’.  “Jim, I know that the kitchen is closed, but I am sure that you can rustle us up something, if you can just bring us some cheese and crackers, or how about a tasting menu for your hors d’oeuvres tonight?”

I saw a slight look of annoyance flitter across his beaming face so I quickly added, “Mrs. Todd, I have actually just come from lunch with a friend, so I couldn’t possibly eat anything.  Just a glass of ice water would be fine.”

“To tell you the truth, I have just eaten too, so I am glad that we are on the same schedule.  But let’s at least have some ice tea.  Jim, could you please bring us two glasses of your Cymbaline Tea – I know that is always available.  Thank you very much.”  She turned to me and said, “I have this marvelous recipe for tea that was handed down by my grandmother.  My family grew oranges, you know, but there were also a few lime trees, and my grandmother used to put lime juice in her ice tea.  It is really marvelous, and Grandma’s tea parties were historic, though I suspect they added a little more than lime juice.  I passed on the recipe here, and then the chef insisted that they put my name on the menu.  I told them that my name on the wing was more than enough, but what can you do?”  

The iced tea had arrived and after one sip, I enthusiastically agreed with her.  Simba smiled – the first time I had ever seen her do that and said, “You know, Arnold Palmer has made a fortune by selling ice tea with a bit of lemonade in it, so perhaps I am sitting on a fortune with my tea.  But we’re not here to talk about lost business opportunities are we?  Please tell me what you found out about Dessa, first what you told Sam, and then what you didn’t tell him.  All that Sam told me was that Dessa was fine and was living on her own.”

I took a deep breath and walked through the dysfunctional door that Simba had opened for me.  “As I told you, Dessa appears to be safe and is moving about freely on her own, which is good news.  She has also been visiting her grandmother at the nursing home, which I think is good news also, I think that your daughter cares very much about your mother.”

“Well, excuse me, if I am not bowled over by this good news.  I am left with a daughter that has totally rejected both of her parents.  It’s not like she has run off with a man someplace, or is traveling and seeking her fortune elsewhere.  She is right in our backyard, but still refuses to communicate with us.  Can you imagine how hurtful that is?  I know I am not the best mother in the world, and perhaps Goddard has told you that I am the worst, but regardless, I am Dessa’s mother and I don’t deserve this disrespect.  Tell me about this business with Great Days.”

“Well, I don’t know how much you know about your mother’s situation,” I said.

“Absolutely nothing,” Simba snapped. “My wretched brother made it very clear that I should never visit her there.  I haven’t seen her for probably 15 years, but I made sure that Dessa had a relationship with her.  My brother, you know is a very disturbed man.  Did you see my mother?”

“Yes I did, I stopped by there as part of my routine background, and that’s when the staff told me that Dessa was a frequent visitor.”

“How was my mother?” At this point she had picked up a fork and was scratching it back and forth on the tablecloth, leaving a visible pattern of the fork tines.       

I thought, what the hell, I might as well be brutally honest, which might be a novelty for Simba.  “Your mother is a beautiful and elegant woman, Mrs. Todd, but her memory is quite clouded.  She didn’t speak a word when I was there, and I took her for a walk with her caretaker.  I think that she pretty much spends her whole day in a wheelchair.  And apparently there have been some financial difficulties.  I think that she used to have her own apartment and now she is sharing a room with another woman.”

“Financial difficulties?  Well perhaps sharing a room is not the worse thing in the world for her.  My mother was a very social person, loved people, and she was stuck in that house alone with Henry.  In fact I actually think that she would welcome a roommate.  Henry is in charge of her finances, so there is not much I can do about that.”  I thought I saw a glimmer of a smile at the corner of her mouth, but I didn’t know if she was reacting to her mother’s predicament, or to Henry’s financial straits.

“Well I think that Dessa was upset by the situation, and she was seen having an argument with Henry, and then she came back later on with a lot of cash and paid for your mother to be returned to her apartment.  Do you know where she got the money?”

“Oh Dessa is loaded,” said Simba.  “All that time that Dessa spent with her grandmother – I insisted on that you know even though Sam tried to block me – all that time has paid off for Dessa, because I know that Chloe has been very generous with her, and deservedly so.  I would have been there too, but Sam absolutely refused to let me go over to that house, and Henry refused to let mother see me, so what could I do?  But somewhere along the line I must have done something right – here is Dessa giving back to her grandmother.  Boy, that must have really made Henry furious,” said Simba with a satisfied laugh.

“But here is the thing that I don’t understand. “ I said.  “I talked to Dessa’s fencing coach at the University, and she had asked him for a loan before she disappeared, so that seems odd.”

“That is ridiculous,” said Simba.  “I know the president of the bank very well, and he will let me know what is in Dessa’s account.  What else do you know about Dessa?  You said that you saw her at a funeral?”

“Yes, this was the funeral of the girl with the tattoos.  I think that they had a very close relationship, and perhaps it was through some common bond in Cutter City.”

Cutter City, you must be joking.  We left that dump a long time ago and never looked back.  That wasn’t the happiest time in my life you know.  I hung in there as long as I could, mostly for Sam’s sake since that’s where his business was, and where he was the most successful.  Sam is not many things, but the one thing I respect is that he has always tried to make me happy – maybe not in the ways that I wanted – but I know he loves his family, or at least the concept of a family.  He has saved me many times.  He saw that we had to get out of Cutter City – Goddard was just running wild at that point, and I could barely get out of bed, but it has been better since we moved here, and he has let me do my charitable “Lady Bountiful” act here in Santa Teresa.”

She paused and looked at me and I didn’t know what to say.  A psychologist would have a field day with her intimations of an unhappy marriage, being saved by Sam more than once – any one of these topics would provide insight into this family dynamic. There were a couple of beats of silence as if Simba wanted me to press ahead, but I did not want to feed a narcissist and said nothing.  Just as the silence was becoming uncomfortable, she said, “So tell me, what makes you think that Dessa has anything to do with Cutter City?”

“Well, there was a woman at Penny’s funeral, an unusual woman in a bright print dress with long grey hair and it turns out that she was an art teacher at the high school in Cutter City, a very popular art teacher, and I presume that is where she met Penny – the tattoo girl.  I happened to see her again in front of her home as I was leaving Cutter City, and I suddenly realized that I had seen her front yard before, in a picture that Dessa had left behind in her apartment.  Here I think that I still have it in my bag.”

I fished into my bag and showed Simba the picture of Goddard and Dessa on the swing.  I pushed the picture toward her and said, “Does the same Sylvia Wister ring any bells?  That’s her name and she runs a photography school in Cutter City.”

Simba looked at the picture intently.  “Well I can tell you is that is certainly Dessa and Goddard on a swing.  But there is no house in this picture and that could be a swing anywhere – it might have been in our back yard.  At least I think that we had a swing.  So you are telling me that somehow you recognized the branches of this tree as you were driving by an unknown women’s house?” 

“Well, yes, Ms. Todd, it’s my job to notice things, and to figure out what is just a coincidence and what isn’t.  When I saw the house I thought perhaps that Sylvia Wister was the link between Penny and Dessa.  Perhaps Goddard had Ms. Wister as a teacher in high school, and for some reason kept in touch with her.”

“Well, I do not know any Sylvia Wister, but that’s not surprising.  I didn’t get out much during those years – you can’t imagine what I was dealing with.  If your skill is being observant and noticing things, what have you noticed about me?” she asked.    

Again, here was the invitation to delve into her troubled past, but again I passed on the bait.   I wanted to keep this purely business, and I knew if I kept putting her off, she would get increasingly eager to confide in me and then I could control the conversation.  “I know the connection between Dessa and this Sylvia woman is far-fetched, but I was planning to follow up on this tomorrow, but of course Sam told me that I am off the case.”

“Well what other leads do you have?  Maybe I will hire you, forget about Sam” she said.

“First thing I would do is interview your brother, but Sam made it pretty clear that he was off limits.  It seems like Dessa is in the middle of something between your brother and your mother, and Penny is somewhere in the mix as well.”

“Who is this Penny again, and why should I care about her?” said Simba.  I could tell that her attention was waning as her eyes began to dart around the room.  The wait staff had now arranged the tables and positioned the flower arrangements on each table, and I knew that they were desperate for us to leave, but Simba was oblivious.  She happened to look down and spotted the Santa Teresa history book in my bag.  “I see that you have been boning up on our sad family history.  Did you see that picture of me that they put in there?”

“Yes, I recognized you immediately and the house was absolutely stunning.  But I couldn’t help but notice that your mother was not in the picture.”

“I appreciate the fact that you refer to the family home in the past tense.  Stunning would not be an appropriate adjective today.  Thankfully, that book does not go into every gory detail, and there is no way that you would know, but my mother died when I was born and my father, Edward Murphy, did not remarry until I was about 5 or 6.  So Chloe is actually my stepmother.”

“That is very bizarre, Mrs. Todd, my mother also died in childbirth, but my father never remarried,” I said.

“Here we are, two motherless children,” said Simba as she looked at me with renewed interest.  “My father never really talked about my mother, and I don’t think that I even have any pictures of her, maybe because it was not a loving marriage.  Basically my father married her for her money.  He never really worked and he needed something to keep the estate going.  But Chloe he truly loved – she was a former student and so was younger by quite a bit.  They traveled constantly.  Chloe and I got along fine, but Henry was a different story.  He is about 5 years older than I am, so he really remembers our mother and always resented Chloe, and really became vindictive when my father left all of his money – or rather my mother’s money – in trust to Chloe.  He felt that it was rightfully his – maybe he is correct, but it has turned him into a bitter old man.  Henry and Chloe lived in that old house together for 15 years, both refusing to leave – it was a real contest of wills that Henry only won when Chloe developed Alzheimer’s.  I can’t believe that I put Dessa into that poisonous atmosphere, but it worked, since Chloe started diverting her money to Dessa – although I don’t think that Henry necessarily knows that.  Henry is just waiting for Chloe to die, since then the two of us will inherit what’s left of the estate.  There are many reasons that Henry hates me, but one of them is that I married a successful man, which of course makes it easier for me to be the bigger person.  I am not boring you, am I?  Probably not, since I know that dysfunction is always a spellbinding topic for the voyeur.  Am I correct?”

Simba had abruptly turned from commiserating about our lost mothers to accusing me of being a voyeur, which was uncomfortably close to the truth.  “Ms. Todd, I am only here to help you to locate Dessa, and yes, sometimes detective work uncovers uncomfortable truths, but this is a necessary part of the process.  I only had my father growing up, and as close as my father and I were, I missed having a big family.  And so it is very upsetting to me to see a family that cannot get along.  So if there is any element of voyeurism in my job, it is the pleasure that I get from bringing families together.  That’s it.  And by the way I am good at my job.  Very good, so if we continue to work together, expect that there will be some more uncomfortable truths.” 

Simba at first seemed startled, but then a slow smile spread across her face.  “You know Ms. Blue,  I used to be like you, standing up for myself, challenging my superiors, full of confidence.  I lost all that long ago, and if we work together, maybe I can borrow some of yours. I think that it is time that I spend a little quality time with my brother and I would like you to accompany me.” 

I knew that my refusal to take her bait had now paid off.  I was in charge and Simba was going to follow my lead.  “That is fine, Ms. Todd, and I hate to talk about details, but I will need you to sign another contract, or you will have to get Sam to agree to another one, since as of now, I am off the case.  And then we will need to discuss exactly what you would like me to do.  Should I still try and locate Dessa and what about Goddard?  I think that you know that Goddard has left the gallery and I think that he is looking for Dessa also.”

“This contract will between the two of us, and Sam must never know,” said Simba. “And I want you to find Dessa and Goddard and I want you to arrange a meeting for the three of us.  And I need to find a way to communicate with my brother.  These are all things that I have been talking to my therapist about for years.  But I have been talking with the wrong person all along.  You might be a detective, but I think that you will be my family mediator.” 

At this point, the wait staff had arranged all the other tables but ours and had wheeled out a large ice sculpture of a dolphin into the room.  Jim, the maître d’, was nervously approaching our table.  I stood up and said, “Ms. Todd, I think that if we stay any longer we will be party crashers at the next event.  I will draw up the paper work and is there a place that we can meet tomorrow?”

“You certainly cannot come up to my house, Sam might see us.  Can’t we meet at your office?”

“I’m sorry, I usually meet people on their turf, and I don’t really have an office, but how about the Clean Plate Club, on the north side of town.  It is a great place for breakfast, and I know the owners, and we can have the room in the back.  It will be perfectly private.”

“The Clean Plate Club, I’ve always loved the look of that place.  It’s been there forever hasn’t it? I think that it was a thorn in Sam’s side, maybe it still is.  That would be the perfect place for us to meet, and please call me Simba.”


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