Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapter 35

It was now about 5:00 and I was beat. I desperately wanted to avoid talking with Simba today – I needed at least an evening to collect my thoughts and figure out how to approach this fragile woman. This was the type of strategy session that Ralph and Fanny loved, but I didn’t want to intrude on their Friday night dinner service – usually their busiest night. I was not even remotely a cook, but I figured I could stop by and man the dishwasher or other menial chores, and then they might be done sooner. But even so, they would probably be way too tired despite my help. I worried about Ralph and Fanny. Running a restaurant, no matter how casual and homey, was a physically demanding job, and they might be reaching their endpoint. I had stopped by on other busy nights and I could tell that they really appreciated my help. I redialed Simba’s cell phone, and was relieved when it went straight to voicemail. I wanted to hold her off at least until tomorrow, so I suggested that we meet at the Starbucks that was kitty corner across from the park where her brother Henry would probably be playing his Saturday morning bridge. 

I hit some nasty traffic on the way back north to Santa Teresa, and thought, what the hell, I might as well call Nick Nichol. He was breathless with excitement, “Liza, I can’t believe that you did not introduce me to your friend Mary before. She’s just brilliant. She has so many great ideas about Skye Island, and I think that it’s time for a fresh approach. New blood, bring in a new realtor to get things moving. In fact I have set up a meeting with Sam Todd tomorrow morning. Mary and I are having dinner tonight, so I can prep her a bit more. Tell me some more about Mary. She says that you were best friends.”

“Yes we were pretty good friends, mostly because we rode the same bus and were almost the last stop at the end of the line, so both of us were in the position of trying to keep up with our more affluent classmates. Mary was always a bit better than I was. We drifted apart after high school, but our paths occasionally cross.” I was actually trying to distance myself from Mary since I really did’nt want to have any responsibility for this budding romance, and I didn’t want to reveal the ruthless side of Mary by describing how she scored real estate listings by scanning obituaries and trolling for divorce gossip.

“”Well who else have you kept hiding from me?” he laughed and then said, “obviously that is a joke, because I had such a good time with Mary up on the ridge at Skye Island. She feels that things will start to move once a piece of property sells and shows that there’s a demand. Mary had all sorts of crazy ideas about selling that first lot; including having Sam essentially buy it through a surrogate. She even suggested that Sam and his brother Henry buy each other’s property. Anyway, we’ll see what Sam thinks tomorrow.”

“Wait a minute, Nick,” I said, “You do realize that Sam and Henry refuse to speak to each other.”

“Of course I do,” Nick said, “That’s not our Plan A, but it never hurts to have one option that the client absolutely hates – it makes other options look better.   You know I hadn’t thought about it, but there is a lot of overlap between PR and realtors – you know, the optimal positioning, show someone a dump so they’ll like the more expensive houses.  That Mary and I just clicked. Liza, you’re the best, but I’ve gotta go. I’ll keep you posted.” And then he clicked off.

Well good for Nick, I thought. I couldn’t remember when he last had a girlfriend, and I am sure that many thought he was gay, particularly when he wore those madras pants he liked so much. But like he said, it was all about positioning – if he showed up with a legitimate girlfriend on his arm, other women would give him a second look. Looked like those two were off and running and I couldn’t think of a way they could screw up my case. They might crash and burn with Sam, but they were on their own. Case closed.

I was just passing the Great Days retirement home and was tempted to stop by and snoop around, or at least check out the parking lot out, but I resisted. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and I didn’t want to fall into some family drama unprepared. Simba said that she wanted a family mediator, so I wondered what kind of research mediators did before a meeting – maybe they went in cold turkey and just tried to manage the bile that erupted. Or maybe my only job was to get the players into the same room and agree to talk – actually that might be the most challenging part of the job. It didn’t sound like I would have to work to dislodge long-ago snubs and bitterness – it was all right there under the surface, sure to vent if the Todds and Murphy’s would ever talk to each other. I suppose a hallmark of a mediator is neutrality, but I was trained to dig for the truth, and I wondered if I could just sit back and go with the flow.

As I pulled into the Clean Plate Club’s parking lot, I was shocked to see it overflowing, with well-dressed couples walking through the rickety screen door. I couldn’t imagine what was going on, except that Ralph and Fanny would surely need my help for this bonanza evening. I parked in the rear parking lot and entered through the back entrance and was shocked to see Ralph and Fanny calmly sitting in a cozy domestic scene.  Ralph was in his easy chair doing a crossword puzzle and calling out clues to Fanny who was listening intently as her knitting needles clicked.

“Fanny, can you think of a four letter word for an Indonesian boat? It looks like it starts with a P.”

“Well that is either a pung or a proa – One is a boat and the other is a sled – I always get them confused, but I think that proa is the boat.”

I smiled as I stayed hidden by the door. A crossword puzzle was usually reserved for Sunday afternoons after the brunch crowd had departed. Fanny was remarkably good at them and had developed a specialized vocabulary – pungs, proas, etuis, aglets – she would come up with amazingly obscure answers as if they were a standard part of her vocabulary.   This was their way of making the crosswords more difficult for her – she had to visualize the grid in her mind.

“Well isn’t this a homey scene,” I said. “What’s going on here tonight?”

“A man could get used to this life of leisure,” said Ralph, “and it is called a catered affair. This family rented out the entire restaurant for the night – it’s a bridal dinner. They brought in their own kitchen staff. And you know what, I wouldn’t be surprised if the groom knows Goddard. The wedding planner – imagine me talking with a wedding planner – the wedding planner said that they are having a traditional country club reception tomorrow night, but for the rehearsal dinner they wanted something more down home, and the groom thought of us, because he used to play bridge here in college.”

“Actually, the word that they used wasn’t ‘down home,’” said Fanny, “they called us funky.” She gave it an exaggerated pronunciation – “fohnkay” and as she said it she stood up and flapped her arms like a chicken.

“Ralph and Fanny, this will be your first night off in years. Why don’t you go out. It might be weird to go to a different restaurant, but there are some really nice ones along the beach, you could check out the competition,  or maybe go to a movie or something.”

“Thanks Liza, we thought of that,” said Ralph, “but they asked us to stay in case there were any questions. They have already asked us if we have a ping pong ball – which of course we don’t have.  I think that they’re doing a skit in there about something called beer pong.  But there is going to be music later on, and they promised me they’d play ‘String of Pearls’ and ‘In the Mood.’  I’ve never been able to pass up an opportunity to dance to a Glen Miller song.”

“Yes, a nice young man has already asked me for the first dance,” said Fanny as she nodded and smiled at Ralph. “So Liza, tell us about your day.”

“Well I did have a very productive and intriguing day in Cutter City, our neighbor to the North,” I said, “but let’s enjoy this moment. I don’t want to bore you will this right now, but I just have to tell you it’s pretty juicy,” I said.

“That’s exactly what this wonderful evening needs, a little juice – a little juicy juice to go along with scotch,” said Ralph as he got up to make himself a drink.

“Are you sure?” I said. But I knew that this would be a perfect way for them to relax. And as I talked I went over to get the white board that they used to list the luncheon specials.

“Wow, this even needs a white board,” said Fanny, “this is going to be a great evening.”

I recapped the details of my day as I sketch the principal characters on the white board –Dessa and Goddard’s lifelong relationship with Sylvia Wister, the resemblance of Sylvia’s photographs to Goddard’s, Sylvia mentoring Cutter City kids, and Penny’s interest in Sylvia’s family history, which apparently took her to Santa Rosa to befriend Dessa. When I had finished, Sylvia had clearly emerged as the central character.

“Tell me more about Sylvia,” said Fanny. “The only missing link you have there is between Sylvia and Henry Todd. Is that a whole separate issue – Henry Todd and his sister?”

“That’s what puzzling me,” I said, “But I think that we need to think first about what brought Penny to the Todd’s in the first place, because once she started snooping around, she could’ve uncovered more than she had planned. According to Penny’s mother, Penny was planning to surprise Sylvia’s with her Wister family history. She was familiar with DNA testing because she had it done to confirm that Johnny Knox was her father, so somehow Penny became convinced that Sylvia was related to the Todd’s and came here to investigate that. That would explain the stolen hairbrush from Simba’s bedroom, and perhaps the break-in at Goddard’s gallery, and the break-in at Henry’s house. Maybe she was trying to get DNA samples.”

“I like it,” said Fanny. “Let’s come up with 5 theories on the secret, deep, dark family relationship.”

“Well here is the other tidbit,” I said, “In the high school yearbook, I saw that Sylvia had a leave of absence for as school year in the early nineties. Do you think maybe she had a child?”

“Liza, you are really cookin’ now,” said Ralph. “My suggestion was going to be something boring, like Sylvia was really the half sister of Henry and Simba. And who might this child be?”

“Well, Dessa, of course,” I said. “The time line fits. Dessa would be the right age. This is also the time that Goddard was shipped off to boarding school, and he said that he heard that his mother was pregnant, but assumed, that like all the other times, she would have a miscarriage, but voila, when he came home he had a sister. This would explain why Sylvia had an ongoing relationship with Dessa and why Penny was trying to collect DNA samples. I know that there are a lot of assumptions in there, but you’ve got to admit it all fits, don’t you think?”

“Okay, you are getting way ahead of us here,” said Ralph. “So you think that Sylvia got pregnant – and I can’t wait to start speculating about the father – at the same time that Simba was pregnant. Simba miscarries, Sylvia gives up her baby for adoption, but somehow Sylvia knows that the Todds are the adoptive parents, and watches her daughter grow up from afar? In the meantime, Simba keeps Dessa’s adoption a secret, until Penny arrives and starts to unravel it all. She tells Dessa, who becomes totally unglued and takes off to be with her birth mother. Am I getting this straight?”

“That’s the way the pieces are coming together for me,” I said. “The only thing that I can’t quite fit in is the Henry-Simba-Chloe in the nursing home piece. But I am willing to let that dangle for a while.”

“Well there is another big, huge, missing piece,” said Fanny. “Have you forgotten that Penny is dead? Didn’t you say that she was probably murdered? Do you have someone lined up for that?

“Yes, I don’t think that identifying your birth parents is cause for murder, but money certainly is, so I’m trying to bring money into the equation, and there is something funny going on between Sam and Henry, and maybe Penny stumbled on to that also and that’s what got her killed – but who did it, I don’t know. If it was Sam, he would probably hire some one, if it was Henry, he would probably just muddle through on this own. Dessa probably knows, and perhaps she has taken off because she is scared. I’ve been thinking about giving all of this information to the police, they certainly have more aggressive means to find her and bring her in as a material witness, but that’s not really my job right now. My very specific job right now is to get Simba an audience with Henry, and also with Dessa and Goddard. So let’s go back to Sylvia. Who do you think is the father of this supposed child?”

“I see three possibilities,” said Ralph. “You’ve got some random guy, then Sam and then Henry. Of those I would pick Sam. Simba was a basket case when she lived in Cutter City, and didn’t you say that Goddard saw his father late one night leaving a bar with a woman? Sam doesn’t strike me as a faithful type. Henry would never set foot in Cutter City. One vote for Sam.”

“Okay, let’s assume for the moment it’s Sam,” I said. “Sylvia gets pregnant, comes to Sam and says, ‘I am carrying your child and this is your responsibility. What are you going to do about it?’ The situation is even more excruciating because Simba gets pregnant at almost exactly the same time. Sylvia keeps pressuring him and pressuring him, time’s running out and unbelievably, Simba’s pregnancy is going well. Then tragedy strikes, Simba’s pregnancy ends with a miscarriage – umbilical cord around the neck, maybe congenital disease, something gruesome like that. Simba disappears into a deep depression. But of course, now Sam has the perfect solution. He arranges a private adoption of Sylvia’s baby and gives Dessa to Sylvia. Probably pays Sylvia off, but lets her keep in contact with Dessa using Goddard as the envoy.”

Fanny was leaning back in her chair with her eyes closed, absorbing our theories. Without opening her eyes, she said, “I have one more potential father to add. Keep the same scenario, Liza, but how about substituting Goddard for Sam as the father? He was fifteen, and sounds like a wild fifteen at that, and maybe that was why he was hustled off to boarding school.   I vote for Goddard, but I wonder if he knows that he’s the father.”

Just then the music started up in the adjacent room. Ralph stood up. “Class dismissed. Ms. Blue, your vote in the most likely father contest is due by 8 AM tomorrow.  But please excuse me, my dancing partner is waiting for me.”

Ralph walked over and gallantly gave his hand to Fanny, who stood up, took off her apron and melted into his arms as they did a lively dance across the room.




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