Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapters 33-34

Chapter 33

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 more serious offenders, there were more creative poses 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 Sylvia had actually taken Goddard’s 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’ve always hated – 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 pieces started falling together.

Chapter 34

I went back to the front of the store and decided to eat my lunch on Sylvia’s stoop.  Perhaps a student might come by, it was worth a try.  I grabbed the sack lunch Fanny had made for me, which was now toasty warm from sitting in the locked car under the hot sun.  By now the deviled eggs had smooshed, as Fanny had predicted, so I opened the sandwich and smeared them onto the BLT.  As I was revamping the sandwich, I caught a small piece of paper as it fluttered away.  I smiled when I saw that Fanny had slipped a note in with my sandwich, “Keep on Truckin’” it said.  Fanny of course knew that was Dad’s favorite song, and one time, she had invented her own exaggerated “trucking” gait with her arms flapping like a chicken.  Dad and I nearly died laughing.  Fanny also knew that Dad used to slip in notes into the school lunches he packed for me – some were standard issue things, like “I love you,” or “I am so proud of you.”  But often he would put in weird quirky notes like “never smell your fingers,” “if things were different they wouldn’t be the same” or “honk if you love Jesus.”  And then he would sign them with a variety of spellings of Blue – bleu, blew, bloo, baloo, bahlu.   Dad also loved limericks, and these would occasionally appear.  I always suspected that Dad had a smutty sense of humor, confirmed after he died when I found a whole series of books filled with dirty limericks.  His limericks to me were always cute, with at most a gentle sense of potty humor.  I still remember one of them:

I named my daughter Liza Blue

If you had the opportunity wouldn’t you?

Her eyes tell you why,

The color of ocean and sky

The most beautiful, resplendent clue.

A passing shadown interrupted my thoughts.  It was a teenage girl, presumably a student.  She was wearing a plaid skirt, knee socks and a white shirt, which under other circumstances might look like a chaste school uniform from a Catholic school, except this skirt was impossibly short, the shirt impossibly tight and short, and the knee socks had multiple runs in them, presumably intentional.  I quickly reminded myself that the skirt, if not the shirt and socks, might have been something that I would have worn at the same age.

“Hello,” I said, I am just borrowing Sylvia’s stoop for a quick bite to eat.  I was hoping that I might run into her.  Have you seen her?”

The girl sized me up and said, “Like the note says, she’s out of town.  She just asked me to stop by and pick up her mail.  Don’t know when she is coming back.  Who did you say you were?”

“Well, I think that we have a mutual acquaintance in Penny Knox, and I am also interested in learning more about her photography and family history projects – I am a teacher in Coalinga, and I think that this type of project might work in my school.”

“Never heard of Penny Knox.”

“Oh, I’m sorry you might know her as Penny Piccinini, but more recently she has been using her father’s name.  She was on your school council.”

“The school council is a joke, the only reason that you would want to be on that committee is that you got out of a mandatory study hall. Yeah, so sure I know who Penny is, but you must not knew her very well because she’s dead.  Someone ran her over with a car in Santa Rosa.  That’s supposed to be a safe town you know, if you are going to get killed, it is usually happens here in Cutter City.”

“Yes, Penny’s death is an absolute tragedy.  That’s where I met her in Santa Rosa, and I went to her funeral yesterday.  Did you know Penny well, I didn’t see you at the funeral, but they did have it during school hours.”

“I sort of knew Penny, she was a couple of grades ahead of me, but we did work together on the family history project.  Penny was really into that – I think that she was working on a special project for Sylvia, they spent a lot of time together, but I haven’t seen her for the past couple of months.”

“Since Sylvia is out of town, perhaps you can tell me about the project.  I understand it had something to do with using the computer to track down your ancestors,” I said.

“Yeah, well my family is a total mess – I’m living with my grandmother, my mother is sometimes around, but mostly not, and my father is in the prison here.  So Sylvia’s idea is we could always find someone in our family to look up to.  It worked out really well for me, I discovered a great uncle on my mother’s side of the family and he has been really nice, sent me a bit of money, and I am going to visit him this summer.  He lives in Sacramento, and I did a Google search on his house, and it looks like it has a pool and everything.  Penny struck out with her family, although she said that it did bring her closer to her father, but she found out that he is really a jerk, could care less about her, which I think should’ve been pretty obvious if he had already ignored her whole life.  But then I think that Penny started to do research on Sylvia’s family, just for fun as a surprise for her – not sure what she found, but that is when she took off for Santa Teresa.  Can’t imagine that she fit in very well there.  Do they have tattoos in Santa Teresa?”

“Well I think that you are mostly right, but you’ve got to admit that Penny would stick out most places, lots of ink and piercings at a young age will make you distinctive,” I replied trying to be a nonjudgmental as possible.  “I think that I have other mutual acquaintances with Sylvia.  Have you ever met a Goddard and Dessa Todd?  They live in Santa Teresa, and actually Dessa was a friend of Penny’s and I thought they might be staying with Sylvia.”

“Who are you again?  Are you a cop or something?  I’m not going to be talking about Sylvia’s life.  You know someone ratted her out and got her fired from school for the stupidest thing, and we lost the best teacher we ever had.”  With that the girl twirled and walked away.  The twirl was just defiant enough to reveal red thong underwear.

Chapter 33

Now I was accumulating enough crumbs of information.  It reminded me of doing a jigsaw puzzle, which at first seems intimidating.  But there is always a critical point, when I’ve put in just enough pieces and there is a diminishing number of loose pieces on the table.  Suddenly the rest of the pieces start falling together at an accelerating pace and I know that the end is in sight – the completion of the Amish farm scene, the Greek village, the alpine meadow.  It’s always exciting, and I felt that this case was approaching that point.  Penny was researching Sylvia’s family and it took her to Santa Teresa, where she did some personal sleuthing amongst the Todds.  The stolen hairbrush from Simba Todd, the break-in at Henry Murphy’s and at Goddard’s art gallery.  It just had to be – Penny was looking for DNA samples to prove some sort of connection.  And then there was the ongoing relationship of Goddard with Sylvia – there must be some sort of connection between Sylvia and the Todds.  I remembered Goddard’s offhand comment that on one of teenage prowls he had run into his father coming out of a bar with a woman – I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam had multiple affairs, and perhaps one was with Sylvia.  I didn’t know if Sylvia had her own children, but remembered that she was absent from the high school yearbook for a year or two.  Maybe she had a child by Sam, or maybe she had a child and was uncertain of the father, or maybe she had a totally secret life that Penny stumbled upon.

I was uncertain of my next steps and decided to sit in the car with the air conditioning on to ponder, rehash, mull, and ruminate.  The car was like a furnace when I got in, and the key almost burned in my hand.  The blast of frigid air made the sweat running down my neck feel cold and refreshing, and I decided to first clear my mind by answering my phone messages.  One was from Mary, “Liza, I am up here at Skye Island with your friend Nick Nichol.  Why didn’t you introduce us earlier, we are having the best time, and have toasted you with champagne.”  Then Nick’s voice came up, “Liza, Mary is great, she has the best ideas for this development.  I can’t wait to tell you more about it tomorrow.”  I then heard two glasses clink underscored by giggling.  I had never been a match maker before, and I would have thought that two socially ambitious people would clash more often than mesh, but there was always next week.

The next message was from Simba.  “Liza I took your advice and stopped by Great Days to see my mother.  Heartbreaking, and I think that it is more important than ever that I have a sit down with my brother.  Please call me when you get a chance.”  This whole family dynamic was splitting into two separate pieces, first the Sylvia-Goddard-Dessa axis, and then the Henry-Simba-Dessa axis.  There was probably an enlightening Venn diagram in there someplace, but for the moment it eluded me.  The best step was probably to set up the relationships on the white board at Ralph and Fanny’s and see if anything popped.  But I might as well make one more stop in Cutter City.  I didn’t see much hope in talking with Johnny Knox, but thought that I might get lucky with Penny’s  mother.  I wished I had written down Piccinini when I was in the library, and I had a few false starts before I got the correct number and sequence of i’s, c’s and n’s, but there it was in, a Carla Piccinini with both address and telephone.  My call went straight to an answering machine – a weary sounding voice said, “Yes, it’s Carla here, and it is difficult for me to answer the phone now.  You can leave a message if you want.”

This message didn’t seem too promising, so I decided to drop by.  Carla’s house was close to the prison, and was the most dilapidated house on a very crummy and crumbling street.  There was a sagging porch with peeling paint hosting a couple of dingy looking plastic chairs.  Several windows had ripped screens.  The shades were drawn, but many were lopsided.  The side yard was enclosed by a chain link fence with a large post in the middle of it.  A dog must have been leashed there, because there was a well worn circular path around the post.  I rang the doorbell, but heard no sound and assumed the buzzer was broken, so I knocked on the door and tried to peak through the grimy window.  There were stacks of newspapers covering every flat surface, floors, tables, sofas, so that there was only a little path extending from into the kitchen, which was stacked with plates.  Penny, poor kid.

I had just about given up when I saw a woman carrying a bag of groceries being dragged down the street by a large black dog.  This must be Carla, I thought.  “Can I help you,” I said, “it looks like you’ve really got your hands full.”

“Sure, take the leash and put him into the dog run.  Shouldn’t have taken him out.  He just gets spoiled and wants more.  Never could teach him the difference between a right and a privilege.”   She slapped the leash into my hand, barely looked at me and continued on into the house.

“What’s his name,” I called after her.

She called back to me over her shoulder.  “Never got around to naming him.  I just called him Dog, or actually Your Dog, since he belonged to my daughter, but she’s never coming back now.”  Carla disappeared inside

I dragged the reluctant dog back into the pen and clipped his leash onto the pole, and he immediately started to pace back and forth in the well worn path in a demonstration of utter futility.  I walked back toward the house to return the leash, and knocked on the door.  “Here is your leash, but are you Penny’s mom?  I was actually coming to meet you.  I met Penny in Santa Teresa, and I liked her very much and wanted to extend my condolences.”

“You knew my Penny in Santa Teresa?  Did she mention me, give you my name?  You know, she moved out of here about 4 months ago, just up and went to be with her father,” she said with a snort.  “All of a sudden she wants to be with her asshole father, who has never given me a dime in my life.  It’s always been just the two of us and we were getting by and then that teacher ruined everything.  What right did she have to tell Penny that she had a family?  I was her family and then suddenly I wasn’t good enough.”  Carla was now standing on her porch sipping a beer.  “I’d ask you in, but I haven’t had to time to clean up, actually, I never have time to clean up, and now it just doesn’t seem to be worth it at all.  I can offer you a beer, I suppose.  Who did you say you were?”

“My name is Liza, and I met Penny in Santa Teresa when she asked me to help her find a friend of hers who had gone missing, a Dessa Todd.  I am still looking for Dessa, and thought that you might be able to help me.  But I also want to say that I really liked Penny and I am sincere about my condolences – for a mother to lose her only daughter, I can’t even imagine.”

“So what are you a private investigator?  I almost hired one of your guys once to tail that Johnny Knox, but could never afford it.  How could Penny afford your services?”

“I never really got a chance to help her, because she had that tragic accident.  Do you know what she was doing in Santa Teresa?”

Carla now motioned me to sit down, but as I descended into the chair she said, “Watch out, the plastic is ripped on that one.  That chair is really only for show to make it look I could have company, which I never do.  Why don’t we both just sit on the stoop.  Cement is more reliable.”

We sat down and Carla pulled out a cigarette and inhaled deeply and slowly let the smoke out.  I sensed that she would be willing to talk out of loneliness or the need to vent.  After the second exhale, she began.

“That teacher –Wooster, Whisper – whatever her name was started the whole thing about Family History.  I had never really told Penny about her father – what was the point, Johnny Knox was just going to disappoint her, but there she was in my face every night just nagging away at me to tell her about her father.  I could have told her that I didn’t know who her father was, that he could be any number of men.  I thought about it, but then what would that say about me?  So I told her that her father lived here in Cutter City, and then Penny could not be stopped, so I gave her Johnny Knox’s name.  So then what does she do – apparently she doesn’t believe me, so she sneaks over to his house, steals his hairbrush, and sends in a DNA test.  That really pissed me off, you know what I mean?  I think that Wooster, Wister person put her up to it.  You know I went to the school to complain, even went to a school board meeting, which was a real first for me, I can tell you.  So now she knows who her Dad is and she announces that she want to have a “relationship” with him and wants to know about her cousins.  Couldn’t believe it, invited him over her for dinner, spent hours cleaning up this dump – that’s probably why I have kind of let things go since then.  He shows up, but then of course he is drunk, and I thought great, that will teach her, but she keeps trying and goes over to his house and makes dinner for him.  Never lifted a finger to help me, and then all of a sudden she is asking me to show her how to fry an egg, so she can go over to her “Dad’s.”  That Johnny was always a taker, and now he’s got this teenager running errands for him, and cooking for him, and then all of a sudden she stops coming home here.  I went crazy that first night.  I am nobody’s idea of a great mother, but when I’m around, I always make sure that my kid’s home for the night.  Not that I wait up, I just check in the morning, you know what I mean?”

She turned and looked directly at me for the first time, took a drag and a swig and continued on.  “So sometimes she’s here, and sometimes she not, and so how am I supposed to know if she is doing her homework and going to school like that school counselor told me to do.  I don’t think that you can be a good mother if you have a bad kid, you know what I mean?  I bet you wouldn’t understand since you look like the model citizen type.”  I tried to give her an understanding nod and off she went again.  “And then one day she shows up she has a couple of tattoos, and then more, and then the piercing started in the nose, eyes and tongues, and those are only the parts of her body that I could get a look of.  There might be more, you know what I mean?”

Again, another understanding nod was all it took.  “And then out of the blue she leaves me a note saying that she has moved to Santa Teresa and that her father has found her a place to stay.  Santa Teresa, what is she going to do there?  I was so mad, that I went steaming over to that teacher’s house – Wister, Wooster, whatever her name is.  Well I really let her have it.  But then she told me that she didn’t know what Penny was up to, that Penny was researching her family on her own, that Penny wanted Wister to have a full family tree.  and then Wister gets all weepy, and apologizes again and again, realizes that what she did was wrong.  See I think that Penny found out some horrible shit about Wister and I told her that, and told her that it served her right.  It wasn’t my best day, I told her that I bet Penny had found out that she was a whore and slut, maybe I said things that were even worse.  I just lost it but what’s a mother to do, you know what I mean?  I might have shoved her a little bit, and she called the cops, and there is a restraining order around here someplace, not that I ever need to see her again.  And I am sure she told Penny all the gory details about her psycho mother, and I never heard from her or saw her again.”

Carla gave a big sigh and then looked directly at me with tears in her eyes.  “Mrs. Piccinini,” I said, “I wish I could help you as much as you have helped me.  But maybe I can help you by finding out more about what Penny was doing in Santa Teresa.  I think that the situation with the Todd family is very complicated, but the one thing that I do know was that Penny was trying to help her friend Dessa, and she seemed very sweet and concerned.  I think that we will find that you will have many reasons to be proud of your daughter.  Is there a neighbor I can call to help you, I’m afraid that I can’t stay any longer?”

“This isn’t a very neighborly neighborhood, and I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.  I’ll be okay.”

“Well, here is my card and please call me if there is anything more that I can do to help you.”  As I walked to the car, my joy over the breaking case was only tempered by the thought that it came at the expense of Carla – a deeply flawed mother, but a mother nonetheless.

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