Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapters 29-30

Chapter 29

By the time I got back to my car, it was almost 4 PM, and even though I had been on the job since 6 AM that morning, I instinctively began to think about my next steps.  This was one of the traps of working as a consultant – billable hours.  I don’t like working on an hourly basis, since it is often difficult to really pin down how many hours I’ve worked.  I do some of my best thinking when I’m in the shower.  When I am deep into a case, ideas are always bouncing around in my head even as I sleep, and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and write down additional notes.  My father was pretty flexible on this point.  He would have his own idea about how much a case was worth and then work his hours around it, but my own personal rule is that I never bill a client when I am asleep or naked.  My father liked billing a day rate, but I feel that a day includes 24 hours, and I am compulsive, pursuing leads during the day and doing surveillance at night, so this arrangement isn’t optimal.   Also, a day rate doesn’t work if I am working a couple of cases at the same time.  One time I was working two infidelity cases simultaneously for women who were convinced that their husbands were cheating on them.  Normally I don’t like surveillance work, but in this case I got a twofer – both husbands were seeing the same woman and all I had to do was camp out at her apartment.  This was the rare case where I could have billed them both a day rate, or actually a night rate.  As it was, I split the hourly bill between the two women, but I am pretty sure that my father would have told me to double dip.  This one woman was seeing a couple of other men as well, and I suppose I could have really made a fortune proactively recruiting additional clients.

When I got to the car, I was pleased to realize that I was actually unemployed, at least until Simba signed a new contract the next day, so I decided to go back to my apartment and regroup.  That is the other challenge of an ongoing case – I  tend to squeeze the most basic activities of daily living into smaller and smaller time slots, and I have to sacrifice certain basics, such as cleaning and general tidiness.  Dust accumulates and items in the refrigerator  get nasty – lettuce turning brown and slimy, multi-colored fur-bearing sour cream let over from God knows when.  Today was no exception.  I took a cotton shirt that was on the floor and fashioned it into a dust rag, and did a few swipes across the dresser and bedside table.  I peeked under the bed to retrieve a few socks and saw drifts of accumulating dust and lint, but that was beyond my capabilities.  In fact, it was an enduring mystery how all the dust first ended up there, and secondly how it organized itself into soft, grey clumps.  One thing that my father absolutely insisted on was a cleaning service that came every other week to take care of dust bunnies, and other challenges like cleaning in the annoying crannies between the gas burners.  Growing up,  that was our only household luxury.  I think that my father felt that dusting was not a man’s job, but at the same time he did not want to force me into female stereotypes, so it just never got done.  The upshot is that I have absolutely no idea how to clean, and a stroll down the cleaning aisle of the grocery store is bewildering.  Once when I was between cases, I watched some of the women’s morning talk shows as a sociology experiment.  The shows were filled with ads for different cleaning products.  In a rare example of me responding directly to an ad, I bought this nifty looking thing called a “Swiffer Picker Upper” on my next trip to the store.  However, it was a total bust, because I didn’t realize that I was supposed to buy some staticky cloth thing that attached to the bottom.

With about an hour of effort, my little apartment was looking tidy enough, as long as I didn’t look too carefully.  I gathered up my clothes, sheets and towels and took them to the cleaners around the corner.  I had a washer and dryer, but did not view professional laundering as a luxury.  I was rarely in my apartment long enough to complete a load, and a wad of wet clothes could linger in the washer for a couple of days, leaving clothes with that sickening sour smell.  I usually bought food on an as needed basis, but I also liked to keep an emergency supply of frozen dinners on hand.   The gourmet grocery store around the corner has a nice collection of overpriced quiches and soups, and then I went to the adjacent Safeway to get a selection of crappier food.  Stouffer’s frozen dinners are a particular favorite – I extract the frozen chicken dinner out of the aluminum pan and put it the bottom of the casserole dish, then do the same with the spinach soufflé and stack it on top of the chicken, then top it with the cheese soufflé and them cook them all at once.  The three items are all about the same size, and they slump into a very spiffy three level casserole suitable for the remote possibility of dinner guest.  When I got back to the apartment it was only about 5 PM, and I drummed my fingers on the table impatiently.  I was determined to take time off and stop thinking about the Todd/Murphy family.  But what to do next?

I suddenly remembered that the last time I was drumming my fingers on the table, I had the bike shop fix my gummed up wheel and put in a new tube on the rear tire that I had broken when I tried to inflate it.  Now was the perfect time to use it.  It was a perfectly beautiful afternoon, so I swept the cobwebs out of my moldy bicycle helmet and off I went.  One of the great things about Santa Teresa is the public access along the coast line.  It had taken many years of pressuring home owners to put in conservation easements and then local Open Lands organization had successfully put the squeeze the realtors to pony up some money to buy up land when it became available.  I had heard Mary talk about it before, commenting that showcasing the bicycle paths and hiking trials were often tipping factors for buyers trying to decide which coastal community they wanted to live in.  The sole holdout was, of course, Henry Murphy, who apparently commented that he did not want riff-raff walking within his sight lines.  I decided to head south along the path, and figured that I could go to the end of the bike path where it ran into Cutter City.

The path was busy this time of day, with women jogging with strollers, roller bladers and cyclists, but the crowd thinned out as I moved beyond the downtown area.  The wind was at my back, so I knew that I would have to work harder on my way home, but for the moment the ride was perfect.  I stopped to refill my water bottle at a fountain and when I looked up I realized that I was directly below the Great Days retirement facility, which had a patio at the edge of the bluff overlooking the water.  While this fabulous location was wasted on many of the residents, it was certainly better than the originally proposed hotel and convention center.  There were several residents sitting on the patio, and then I noticed the arrival of a woman in a wheel chair accompanied by another man and a woman.  There was something about the older women’s erect posture and I just knew she had to be Chloe Murphy.  The young man turned and looked down toward the beach and this time it was something about the angle of head, and I just knew that it was Goddard, and if that was the case, then maybe the other young woman with them was Dessa.  I reached into my saddle bags and was crushed to realize that I had forgotten my binoculars, which should always be at the fingertips of any good private eye.  The sound of the surf made it impossible to yell, so I tried to jump up and down and wave to get Goddard’s attention.  Finally, Goddard looked down – I think that he probably recognized me since he quickly turned around, spoke to Dessa, and started wheeling his grandmother towards the building.  There was really nothing I could do at this point, there was no exit off the bike path and I could hardly scale the rocky bluff and chase after them.  Besides, I reminded myself, I wasn’t working.

The trip back was uneventful, and I decided that one of my first recommendations to Simba, in my new role as private detective/family mediator, would be to visit her mother at Great Days.  At the very least, she would see her mother after twenty years, and who knows she might bump into Dessa and Goddard, maybe even her brother.  Great Days might turn out to be the site of an impromptu family reunion.  When I got home, I called Ralph and Fanny and let them know of my breakfast meeting in the morning, and then suddenly remembered that I owed Nick Nichol a call about Mary.  The more I thought about it, the more they might make a good couple, if not romantically, at least professionally.  I left him a message, did some paper work, watched a couple of episodes of Law and Order that I had probably seen at least three times and then went to bed.

Chapter 30

The day was clear and brilliant and I knew that I wanted to spend as little time as possible with Simba – just get her to sign a new contract and then move on.  I thought that I would go from Ralph and Fanny’s back to Cutter City and see if I could land an interview with Sylvia Wister, the photographer with the big oak tree in her front yard.  When I got to the Clean Plate Club all the cars in the parking lot were small economy models and there were a bunch of bikes locked up to a bike rack.  Simba’s luxury car with the opaque tinted windows was not there.  The diner was fairly busy and Ralph nodded me toward the back room, where he had already set up a table with table cloth, with the very pretty addition of a vase of daffodils.

Ralph came bustling in and said, “Liza, you will never guess who stopped by earlier this morning.”

I wasn’t in the mood for a guessing game, so I just said the first thing off the top of my head, “I don’t know.  Maybe Goddard came back for some breakfast?”

“How did you know?  Yes he came back to get his cell phone that he had left behind.  You just missed him by about a half an hour.  He was the one that brought those daffodils.  What a nice man.  I told him that you were looking for him and he left you a note,” Ralph said as he handed me a note written on the back of a paper doily.

“You didn’t tell him that I was meeting here with his mother, did you?”  I said.

“No of course not, I learned from your father never to talk about something that might happen.  I can carefully talk about what did happen, which is why I told him that you were looking for him, but I would never tell him something that might happen.   That’s okay, isn’t it?”

“Sure Ralph, I don’t think that I would care either way.  The only thing that I’d be interested in knowing is whether the thought of his mother sent him packing – if he was trying to actively hide from her.  Was Goddard here with his sister?”

“Well, he only stayed a few minutes, but it did look like there was at least one woman and maybe two women waiting for him in the car.  I can’t be sure.”

“No it was two women,” said Fanny as she walked in wiping her hands on her apron, “and I think that one was younger and one was older.  The older one had long grey hair.”

I opened up the note and read it;

Dear Liza,

I am sorry that I have not returned your calls.  I am not in any trouble and just need some time and space to work through some of my issues.  I hope that you can respect that.  If you are still working for my father, you can tell him that I know for a fact that Dessa is fine and no harm has come to here.


At that moment I heard Simba’s voice in the front room.  I quickly stuffed the note into my pocket as Ralph ushered her in.  “Good morning, Simba, thank you for coming down to the Clean Plate Café.  This is one of my favorite places, and Ralph and Fanny are my favorite people.”

Simba gave me an odd look, and I realized that she had forgotten that she had asked me to call her Simba, so I mentally reminded myself to switch back to the more formal Mrs. Todd.  Ralph then added, “Mrs. Todd, I have had the pleasure of meeting your son Goddard on several occasions, we played bridge together several years ago when he was in college, and then again the other night.  Both Fanny and I thought he was a delightful young man.  You must be very proud of him.”

Now Simba looked totally confused, perhaps it was the first time she had heard anyone enthuse over her son.  “My goodness, what a greeting.  Ms. Blue here said that we could meet privately, so I appreciate you setting up this room for me.  I remember your restaurant from several years ago when my husband was trying to squeeze you out.  I think that one of my jobs as a life long resident of Santa Teresa is to act as my husband’s conscience, since he really just focuses on real estate and doesn’t understand the character and traditions of this city, so I try to balance things out.  You know in the real estate world you really don’t want to shit where you live, and that is true where ever you are, here in Santa Teresa, or even in Cutter City.”

Ralph raised his eyebrows and gave me a quick glance when he heard this elegant and refined woman use the word shit.  I was suprised too – maybe Simba’s veneer was wearing thin after all these years, or maybe there was an earthier side to her stiff public persona, so carefully crafted by Nick Nichol.  It was only a small hint, but for the first time, I got a sense that Simba might have an inner strength, a strength that had been stifled all these years.  After all, it did sound like she had a wild streak at one point – hanging out in Cutter City as a teenager.

Simba turned to Ralph.  “This is a beautiful old restaurant.  I remember coming her when I was a little girl.”

“Mrs. Todd,  I did notice that you were on the Historical Committee that offered use so much help and we have worked hard to make this restaurant an authentic piece of old Santa Teresa – as you or your parents would remember it.  Can I get you some coffee, eggs or anything,” said Ralph handing her a menu.

“Just coffee would be great.  I generally don’t eat much breakfast.  You know  I am on various charitable boards and we always seem to meet at formal lunches.  Later on this morning, I am meeting at the hospital.  I learned long ago not to eat breakfast so that I can eat politely at lunch.”  She turned and sat down at the table with her back to Ralph, essentially dismissing him.

I sat down across from her.  “Now Mrs. Todd, here is a standard contract with my hourly rate.  This is the best arrangement, I could either give you a flat rate, or a day rate, but an hourly rate will ensure you that you will only be billed for the hours that I work.”  Simba didn’t bother to read any of the details and reached from her pen to sign the document.

Ralph had now arrived with coffee and a couple of pieces of Fanny’s freshly made cinnamon sour cream coffee cake, my favorite.  And despite Simba’s protestations, she immediately began to eat it.  “Thank you for signing this, Simba, but I also want to make sure that we agree on exactly what it is that you would like me to investigate.  As I mentioned yesterday, I think that Dessa is here someplace locally, and is in no danger, and it also appears that Goddard is also here, and may be with Dessa.  In fact, Goddard was here this morning and left this note.”

Simba read the note, signed deeply, and took another large bite of the coffee cake.  “What do you suppose this means, when Goddard says, ‘time and space to work out issues.’  What a load of crap, we all have issues, and if his issues are with me, and I bet that they are, then I need to be there too.”

I pressed ahead.  “Ms. Todd, I think that we can break things into several parts here, and you can decide which part you would like me to focus on – they are not mutually exclusive, but I do need you to prioritize.  First of course is making contact with Dessa and Goddard.  I am sure that they both know that you would like to sit down and talk with them, but for whatever reasons, they have both decided to lay low.  What I can do is talk with them personally to deliver a message directly from you, but there is no legal way to make them come in.  I cannot force them.  Now the second issue involves your mother and your brother Henry, to investigate how he is managing the care of your mother, and I think that Dessa is involved with this also.  And the third thing is to investigate further the relationship between Dessa and Penny, the tattooed girl who was killed in the hit and run accident.  Personally, Penny might tie all three of these separate investigations together, so I might suggest starting there. “

Simba sat quietly for a moment or two, and then turned to me, “You can’t imagine how hurtful it is to have my two children in the neighborhood somewhere, but not want to talk with me, it feels like they are both hiding from me for reasons that I don’t understand.   But to tell you the truth, maybe that’s how I treated them for great stretches – I didn’t want to deal with my problems or anyone else’s and I basically hid from them in my room.  So if you do see Goddard and Dessa, that would be my personal message – that I am now hurting the way I have probably hurt them and I want to make a fresh start, or at least try.  So that is issue one.”

Simba took a deep breath, wiped her eyes and continued.  “Yes, I need to sit down with Henry.  That won’t be easy, but perhaps you can be my emissary and try and set up a meeting.  He won’t take my calls, but I can tell you that every Saturday morning he plays chess in the park near my old house.  You could ambush him there.  I know that it seems strange, since Henry is so particular about his friends – well actually I don’t think that he really has any friends.  But chess is a passion of his.  On weekends he always went with my father to the beach to play chess, that is where he learned.  Do you play?”

I nodded my head, “Yes, I do play.  That’s where I learned to play too, with my father, and I wouldn’t be surprised is my father played with your father and brother.  But I haven’t played since he died, so I am a little rusty.”

“Oh my dear girl,” said Simba, “without a father and a mother.  If I had to pick between a crazy family and no family, I’d pick crazy every time.  Okay and the last issue is that Penny.  Not that I really care about her, but I have decided to trust you, if that is the opening wedge into this whole mess, then go for it.”

“Thank you, Ms. Todd, for being to straightforward.  I will concentrate on Penny for the moment.  But if I could make a suggestion, you might want to stop by the Great Days to see your mother, and who knows what other family members might be there.  I am pretty sure that Dessa and Goddard were both there with your mother yesterday.  It’s worth a try.  Now finally, how would you like me to report my progress?  Your husband wanted me to call every evening, but perhaps you do not want me calling your home.”

“No, please don’t, I will call you.”  Simba stood up and carefully swept the crumbs from her white linen suit.  She had eaten both her piece of coffee cake and mine.  There were crumbs all over the table, opened sugar packets, and drips of coffee.  What a mess.

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