Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapters 31-32

Chapter 31

I picked up the plates to bus them into the kitchen.  As I walked in, Ralph waved a fifty dollar bill in my face.  “Look at this,” he said, “your new best friend gave us a tip – Fanny’s coffee cake is great, but fifty dollars?”

“I think that tip might represent a variety of things, Ralph.  First coffee cake is truly wonderful, but also remember that you said something nice about her son, and that might be a novel experience for her, and then of course the Clean Plate Club is the symbol of her single success in standing up to her husband.”

“I’m embarrassed to take this,” said Ralph.  “Being nice is not a money making strategy.”

“Ralph, Simba lives in a different world, one where every interaction turns into a money transaction – with her children and her husband she has just gotten into the habit of throwing money at a problem.  Her identity is totally based on her charitable endeavors, but of course that just involves writing checks.  Simba strikes me as someone who is totally out of touch with the power of a simple thank you, instead she just peels off another bill from her wallet.”

“Liza, you are so perceptive, much more so than your old man, who never thought much beyond just following the money.  I wish that you could find the time to finish that psychology major in college.”

“Ralph, maybe next year, and I do think that psychology and PI work would be a nice fit.  I’m all for following the money, and I am glad that my father taught me so well, but often that just defines the problem, and then I don’t like leaving people hanging to work through the issues and find a resolution.  I think that I can do more, and that is the most interesting part of the job.  Simba wants me to be the family mediator, but I am not sure that I am ready for that high wire act.”

“So where are you headed today, back to Cutter City?”

“Yes, I am beginning to think that this Sylvia Wister might be the key to the whole case.  You said that there might have been another women with long grey hair in the car with Goddard this morning – I think that it might have been her.  But I need to do some background research before I actually talk to her.  Go to the high school, that sort of thing.”

“Ah yes, that was your father’s trick, to go to the school library and look through old yearbooks.  Did you see that Law and Order episode from last night, when Lenny discovered that a suspect had a second identify based on a yearbook picture?”

I nodded and Ralph and I laughed together.  Law and Order was our favorite crime procedural and we often would watch it together with my Dad, who would offer a running commentary.  We would moan about the betrayal of the occasional private detective, typically a very sleazy character eating donuts in a beat up car doing surveillance on a cheating husband – a wash out from the police department, who was always willing to sell out his client for access to police records.  Last night’s episode always brought back memories – my father swore that he had invented the yearbook trick, and when he saw that episode with Lenny thumbing through the yearbook, he would get up and yell, “That was my idea first,  I demand credit!”   It was all great theatre, even though I was pretty sure that Dad had adopted the yearbook trick from the movie Body Heat, where the William Hurt character orders a high school yearbook from prison and discovers he has been framed for murder by a scheming woman who has switched identities with her high school classmate.  The best Law and Order episodes involved some sort of family drama and Dad would say, “Liza, someday they are going to base a reality show on you, a young, pretty private detective with her old grizzled Dad, it can’t miss.  They’ve had every other type of partnership – male/female, young/old, black/white/hispanic.  I would be cast as your mentor, but then the conflict would come when I realize that you are much smarter than I.”  Yes, I had learned from the best, and Dad and I would have made a good team, and a good drama.

As I gathered up my stuff, Fanny appeared in the doorway and handed me a sack lunch.  “There is a fifty dollar piece of coffee cake in there,” she said with a smile, “along with your favorite BLT on sourdough bread.  I also put a couple of deviled eggs in there, so be careful that it doesn’t get smooshed.”

“Fanny, you and Ralph are the best.  When I cruised through Cutter City yesterday, all I saw was fast food places, I doubt if I could get a decent sandwich once I crossed the border.”

“Good luck,” said Fanny, “and you know we love seeing you, for so many reasons, only one of which is that you make our lives interesting.”

Chapter 31

Cutter High School was a dreary building – dirty stucco walls with few windows.  Unlike Santa Teresa High, there were no expansive playing fields or well-tended lawn.  In fact, I didn’t see a patch of green anywhere, and there were no trees, bushes or any kind of landscaping, and I wondered if the prison up the road was designed by the same architect.  Any sort of common area was paved with a few weeds straggling up through the cracks.  In a courtyard between two buildings there were a bunch of picnic tables, and there were a few students sprawled on top of them.  A couple of other students were leaning against the wall smoking cigarettes.  I pulled into the last parking space in the visitor’s lot.  I was driving a Prius, but it stood out like a sore thumb; the other cars were real beaters, all candidates for a “cash for clunkers” program.  At Santa Teresa High, my car would be the clunker amongst BMWs.

I walked up the steps into the entrance and was immediately confronted by a uniformed guard standing in front of a metal detector.  “What are you doing here?  Are you a parent, or do you have an appointment?”

I wasn’t prepared to come up with some elaborate pretense, concocting an instant story about how I was the parent of fictitious struggling student named Ace Primo, here for a session with the guidance counselor, so I just fell back on the truth.  “I am here doing some research on some of your graduates, and I was planning to spend a little time at the library looking at some of your old yearbooks – a sort of then and now story.”

“I’ll write you a pass for the library, it is down the hall, turn left at the first corridor, and then left again, and you can’t miss it.  Please wear this visitor’s pass, and go only to the library.  Can’t say that I have every heard of anyone being interested in our graduates.”  He handed me the pass with a disinterested shrug and ushered me through the metal detector.

The library was actually a pleasant room with windows overlooking the opposite street that was lined with mature oak trees.  The librarian was a wizened old woman sitting in front of a haphazard collection of books.  She looked like she had probably been here for her entire career, if you considered a school librarian a career.  Without looking up, she directed me to the back corner, bottom shelf, and said, “That’s where they are supposed to be, but there is no guarantee.  I don’t have any help in reshelving – school cuts, you know, don’t even have a cart or a ladder, that disappeared years ago.  Do I look like I can lug all these books around – wish that after school program was still around, but actually I don’t really care, since I am due to retire next year.  They just better not cut my pension.”

I sat on the dusty, grimy floor to access the bottom shelf, and first looked at the most recent yearbooks to find Penny, but found no listing under Knox.  It seemed odd, so I flipped through the senior class pictures one by one from the beginning.  I was impressed with the number of kids with piercings and tattoos, but Penny Piccinini stood out.  I remembered that her relationship with her father was only recent, so perhaps Piccinini was her stepfather’s name, or perhaps her mother never married and Penny shared her mother’s last name.  Penny was totally decked out for the class picture with a spiky hair do, black leather jacket over a tight tank top, but surprisingly the yearbook also noted that she was the class representative to the student council.

I tried to calculate when Goddard was a student here.  He had said that he had spent at least one year at a boarding school in Switzerland, so he did not graduate from Cutter City High.  He was about 33 or 34 years old, so I plucked out the year book for 1994 and leafed through it until I found the Sophomore class.  Bingo, there he was, Goddard Todd.  The caption said that was a member of the track team and the photography club.  His nick name was apparently “Night Crawler,” perhaps due to his admitted late night carousing.  I looked through the list of faculty and there was Sylvia Wister, listed as the art teacher and faculty advisor to the photography club.  There was a picture of the club, very small, but there was Goddard standing next to Sylvia, a little bit closer than the other students, and it looked like her hand was on his shoulder.  In 1995 she wasn’t listed among the faculty, but she reappeared in 1996, listed as a visiting art teacher, and then in 1998 she was back on full time faculty.   In 2005, she won the Golden Apple award with this commendation:

“The class of 2005 would like to dedicate this yearbook to Ms. Sylvia Wister, who helped us find the artist in all of us, who showed us the way with good cheer and karma, and tolerated even the most inept questions with grace and wit.  Her welcoming presence made this school a better place.  Most of us will never become artists, but we will never forget you and your confidence in us.”

She retired in 2010 and had another page dedication.

“The senior class and the entire school would like to commend Ms. Sylvia Wister for dedication to the students of Cutter City.  She touched the lives of two generations of students, both through her art and photography classes, and through her special projects.  The Family Photography Project and the Family History Project brought together not only the students, but helped us feel pride in our community.  We will take this pride with us, and think of you often.”

The Family Photography Project was apparently a special project of the photography club, where students arranged family portraits for the nearby prisoners.  There wasn’t much on the Family History Project, but I thought that I would ask the librarian.  I looked for Penny’s picture, and she was listed in the Junior class, so apparently she had moved to Santa Teresa right after she graduated.  She wasn’t in the photography club picture, so perhaps she had Sylvia for an art course, or perhaps was involved in the Family History Project.

I carried the book up to the librarian and showed her the open page.  “This Family Photography Project looks very interesting.  Can you tell me about it?”

“Oh that is one of Sylvia Wister’s pet projects.  What’s it to you?” she said without even looking up.

This time I had my pretense all ready.  “I am a teacher in a school with the same demographic as Cutter City.  I was visiting friends here and they mentioned these interesting projects, and I was hoping to learn more about them.”

“The same demographic as us?  You mean your high school is filled with prisoner’s kids and correction officer’s kids mixing it up at recess.  There is no place quite like Cutter City.”

“Yes, in fact I am from Coalinga, near Fresno, perhaps you have heard of Pleasant Valley State Prison.  That is where Sirhan Sirhan has lived for the past 44 years,” I lied.

The librarian looked up at me with irritation, “Well okay, maybe you have the same demographic, but from my point of view that Family Photography Project was very disruptive.  Who does that Sylvia Wister think she is anyway, taking pictures of prisoners, swanning around like she owns the place, and then bragging about how she applied for and won a grant.  Like I would have enough time for that.  And that Family History Project – just stirred up a lot of trouble, that’s all that I can say.”

“What was the Family History Project all about anyway?  There is nothing specific on it in the yearbook,” I asked.

“Somehow, she got in her head that she was going to teach the students computer skills, but of course that is the librarian’s job, but she never consulted me.   She went out and got another grant and helped the kids find out about their ancestors on the internet .  She thought that it would help kids feel pride in their families, to know that their ancestors were hard working, god fearing people.  Ha!  That really backfired on her – one of the correction’s officers kids found out that his great, great, great grandfather was Philip Sheridan, who was a notorious Indian killer.  Be careful what you ask for, is all that I can say.  That should have been enough to get her fired, but it wasn’t.”

“It says in the yearbook that she retired,” I said.

“Well she was so popular with the kids – always talking to them and counseling them – and of course we have well trained school counselors for that, but the kids stopped going to see them, but instead went to Ms. Wister.  That should have been enough to get her fired, but it wasn’t.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“It was the naked pictures.  Finally, the administration had the stones to do what they should have done 15 years ago.”  For the first time she looked directly at me and gave a dramatic pause before she said the word “stones.”  Perhaps she wanted to shock me with what she thought was a dirty word, or perhaps she wanted me to know that she was well versed with contemporary jargon, but it was all I could do to stifle a laugh.

“Yes, I agree, naked pictures will get you fired, even if there is some sort of logical explanation,” I said.

“Ms Wister said that she was a real hippie – I could tell that she never wore a bra, you know, and one time I saw her raise her arm to write something on the board and she hadn’t shaved her arms pits – didn’t even try to hide it.  Just disgusting.  Well anyway, she always talked  about how she was at Woodstock in 1969, and even said that if you looked you could find her in the movie.  Well finally someone looked – Robby Torres, a senior spent days going through the movie, and finally found her, or what looked like her and brought in the picture for the photography class to see.  The problem was, the picture showed her skinny dipping and that finally did it.”

“Woodstock was 43 years ago,” I exclaimed.  “Surely the statute of limitations had run out,” I exclaimed.

“She had it coming, that know-it-all, and that was the last thing.  Good riddance is all that I can say, but I have still seen her hanging around the school, having lunch with the kids.  She is not allowed on campus, but her studio is right across the street and at lunch she just spreads her blanket out in front and kids join her for a picnic.  The nerve.”

“Well thank you for your time,” I said.  “I think that I will go on over to see her studio.”

“Well, be my guest,” she said and turned her back to me as she added another book to the lopsided stack behind her.  At that moment, the entire stack tipped over with some of the books landing on her lap, and one glanced off her shoulder.  I didn’t stop to help that wretched woman.

I left the car in the visitor’s parking lot and crossed the busy street to Sylvia Wister’s studio.  The store front windows featured a display of her Family Photography Project with a description of the program.  Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the program provided an opportunity for students to take pictures with their incarcerated parents.  For those in the minimum security wing, the families were grouped together, kids sitting on the laps of their parents in prison garb.  For others, there were more creative pictures of a father’s face reflected in the security glass as a child sat on the other side of the divider looking in.  The featured picture in the center of the display showed two families together, a correction officer’s and an inmate’s, a bizarre picture of togetherness. But the most striking thing about the display was the style of the pictures – they looked uncannily like Goddard Todd’s photography exhibit.  I wondered if Goddard had even taken his Sib and Self pictures, after all they were decidedly different from his more mundane travel photos.  Perhaps he had stayed in touch with Sylvia Wister all these years, and came to this studio every year with his sister to have a Christmas card taken.  My instincts also told me that this is where Goddard and Dessa were probably hiding out.

There was a small note on the front door, which indicated that the studio was closed until further notice “for personal reasons.”  The note listed a phone number that people could call and leave a message and she would try to return your call, but “don’t get your hopes up.”  I thought perhaps the note referred to Penny’s funeral yesterday, so I rang the bell and jiggled the door.  No luck.  I peered in the window and saw a disorganized clutter of lighting equipment and backdrops.  There were a couple of ratty couches facing each other.  Both had several pillows at one end and a scrunched up blanket at the other end and looked very lived in.   I walked around to the back – there was no garage and no cars, just a small apron for parking.  Then I did what I hate to do – started looking through the garbage.  There were several bags and cups from different fast food places – McDonald’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell and a few pizza boxes.  Definitely more food than one woman could eat.  And then I found a receipt from a Chinese restaurant which showed three entrees.  Bingo – it was always nice when piece started falling together.


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