Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapter 36

The next day was bright and sunny.  The working world must have been elated that this perfect day fell on a Saturday.  The beach would be crowded with body surfers and beach volleyball, and the bike path full of bikers and roller bladers.  But this was shaping up to be an intense work day for me – playing bridge could be tense enough, but I had to do it while simultaneously making a productive connection with Henry.  For starters, I had to somehow insinuate myself into Henry’s bridge game in the park.  From my playing days with my father, I recalled that some games were restricted to those with Bridge Master Points, awarded during officially sanctioned tournaments.  I figured I could bluff my way through that.  My father was always very proud of his Master Points, and after he died, I found his bridge card in this wallet next to his driver’s license.  But I knew that I needed to bone up on common bidding conventions.  I remember my father storming into the house one day, exclaiming, “Guess what, you can now bid 1 No Trump with as few as 15 points.  Back when I started playing you had to have at least 18 points.”  It all seemed very silly to me, but posturing definitely part of the bridge culture.

I still hadn’t heard back from Simba, so I didn’t know if she was planning to meet me at Starbucks, but I thought that I would give it a try anyway.  The Starbucks overlooked the park, so even if Simba didn’t show – and I hoped that would be the case – I’d have an opportunity to check out the bridge crowd before wading in.  But the first stop was bookstore, where I fliped through a few instructional bridge books.  Blackwood and Stayman were old friends, but I quickly reviewed Jacoby transfer and a few others.  I wanted to make a little cheat sheet, but knew that would mark me as a rank amateur.  I would just have to wing it.  There was no sign of Simba when I got to the coffee shop.  I sat outside at the corner of the terrace, which gave me a good view of the park.  It would also be difficult for Simba to immediately spot me, which was fine by me. 

The seaside park had always had a very interesting clientele.  It had never been a favorite gathering spot for the Santa Teresa elite, since these people had their own beach front and pool – going to a public park was really slumming it.  But the beach had consistently good waves, perfect for boogie boarding, which ultimately attracted the locals, even those with their own beaches.  The Cutter City residents also discovered the beach and started arriving in droves, creating a definite culture clash among the bikinis and the beach bodies.  This was about when I was in high school, and there was a major uproar about how the Santa Rosa taxpayers were subsidizing the enjoyment of outsiders.  The city council swung into action, and soon you had to present ID to get into the beach, and non-residents had to pay a hefty $15 fee, which put it out of the reach of most of the CutterCity crowd.  To make the beach even more restrictive, they limited the parking to residents only, so even if non-residents were willing to pay the fee, they would have no place to park.  This seemed to have solved the problem, and on this beautiful morning the beach was filled with a homogeneous crowd of tanned and affluent bodies. 

The Saturday bridge club was a long standing tradition in Santa Rosa, originally started by the founding fathers who found the essentially private beach a convenient meeting place away from their families where they could smoke cigars.  Over the years, the ranks thinned as founders died off, and chess players started to usurp the tables.  In response, Walker Fellowes, one of the devoted old timers, left a sizable bequest to the park district to set up a formal bridge club with classes for kids, and also parent child classes.  Bridge began to thrive again and drew a diverse crowd to the park.  Ever summer there was a bridge tournament that attracted some impressive names.  There was even a rumor that Bill Gates or Warren Buffet were planning to show up.   I sat sipping my coffee and saw that different clusters of tables were divided into a  beginner, intermediate and Master Point section.  I then spotted Henry Murphy, who careened in on children’s red scooter, one foot pumping away.  It was hard to believe that Henry was a scion of old Santa Teresa, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the police stopped him periodically for vagrancy.  His clothes were rumpled and mismatched, his hair pointed in different directions and he was carrying a partially ripped grocery bag.  He wore socks with his flip flops.  I don’t mean to damn his fashion style, but it just looked odd.  As he approached the group, I saw the players in the Master Points section quickly organize themselves in foursomes – it certainly looked like nobody wanted to be his partner.  I glanced at my watch.  Simba was now about 45 minutes late,.  Time to abort this meeting and move to the next.  I got up, took a deep sigh and walked over to play a little bridge.

Several men gave me suspicious looks, but then I recognized an old friend of my father, Paul Black.  When they played together they called themselves the Black and Blue Express.  “Liza,” he called out, “what brings you out today?  Gentleman,” he turned to his friends, “this is Liza Blue, and of course you remember her father, Tony Blue.  She has not only inherited his smarts, but also his Master Points.  About time we had some women join us.  Here Liza, this group is a threesome looking for a fourth.  We play Chicago style scoring, each group plays 8 hands, and then we mix around, so that more than just these three lucky men will get to appreciate your talents.”  The other two men quickly paired off together, and suddenly Henry Murphy was my bridge partner.

 “Sure I knew your Dad,” said Henry without looking up, “both down here and professionally.  Wasn’t your Dad a lawyer or something?” 

“Yes, he worked with lawyers,” I said.  I thought it was better not to be more specific – most people didn’t want to admit that they needed the services of a private eye.  It was rarely something to be proud of.  He quickly glanced at me and I got a closer view of his face.  There were tufts of hair sprouting from the tips of his ears, and there was easily visible nose hair as well, and chest hair crept up his neck.  He was wearing a short sleeved shirt, but had rolled the sleeves up even more, which accentuated his withered, wrinkled and pale white arms.  He rustled in his grocery bag and removed a bottle of Mountain Dew, carefully removed the cap and put it in his shirt pocket, and then he removed a straw from his pants pocket, carefully bent it at the tip, took a sip and then rebent presumably to get some sort of perfect angle.  Finally, he reached into his other pocket and pulled out four Q-tips, and placed two of them on the table on either side of him. 

 He then looked up and said, “Shall we cut for the deal?”

The other two men were unphased by the ritual and waited patiently, but sprang into action at his go ahead.  I was the dealer, and as I dealt out the cards, Henry said, “Hey haven’t I met you before, weren’t you nosing around my house the other day?”

 “Yes, I think that you are right.  I was trying to find your niece Dessa, but I have found her and she is fine.”  I chose my words carefully and din’t challenge his concept of my “nosing,” although it was actually perfectly true.  I wanted to make it seem that it was just a coincidence that we were playing bridge together, and it seemed to work.

 Henry grunted and said, “Well what conventions do you play?  I play Jacoby transfer, and 15-17 points to open in no trump.  That okay by you?” 

“Yes, it sounds like we’re perfectly compatible,” I said as I opened a dismal hand of 4 points.  I couldn’t respond to his one spade bid, and our opponents were quickly in 3 no trump.  I distinguished myself during the game by making the appropriate initial lead and then saving my long suit of diamonds, capturing the last three tricks and setting our opponents.  “That was a great lead back to me, partner,” I told Henry, “how did you know I had such length in diamonds?”

 “I am not stupid, you know,” he said, “and I count cards and I kept a diamond specifically to lead back to you.  This is real bridge you know.”

 As the next hand was dealt out, the rituals continued.  He picked up one Q-tip and ran it around the creases in and behind his ear, but thankfully, never in the ear canal itself.  When he was finished, he put the Q-tip in his shirt pocket along with the cap from the Mountain Dew, and carefully replaced the Q-tip with another one from his pants pocket.  After the cards were dealt, he sat motionless until all of us had picked up and fanned out our cards.  Only then did he come out of his trance and pick up his hand.  My second hand was great with a 5 card spade suit and plenty of points, and we quickly ended up in 4 spades.  Henry was the dummy, and after he laid down his cards he got up and walked away.  The player to my right said, “I’m sorry that you got stuck with him.  We all kind of take turns putting up with him, but we usually try and protect somebody new.  We would like you to come back, you know.  It looks like you really know how to play.  Henry’s one of the true oddballs of this town, I really have no idea where he comes from or where he lives, but I think that this is the only social interaction he ever has.  I put up with it, because some of the best bridge players are definitely weird, but he is weirder than he is good.  Watch outm he’s coming back.”

I quickly made the 4 spades bid, and during the next deal, I decided to move the conversation cautiously along.  “Henry, I think that we have someone else in common – actually that makes three, my father, your niece and I also know your sister Simba.”

 Henry looked up at me quickly, and I noticed that his glasses were smudged and covered with a fine veil of dust.  “I did not come here to talk about my family.  This is bridge and bridge only, isn’t that right gentlemen,” he said, looking to his right and left.

 “Come on, Henry, this is just a social game, and your partner was just trying to make pleasant conversation, it’s not like we are playing in a tournament.  This is just Saturday morning bridge.”

 “Talking about my family is not pleasant conversation, I can assure you, and this is unacceptable.  This is not why I am here, you guys can talk about whatever you want, but I will only talk about bridge, and in fact, I will only open my mouth to make a bid.”  Henry’s voice was now a tense whisper.  

 We played a couple more hands in total silence.  In one, I felt that I had smoothly navigated our bidding to a slam contract, which Henry played, expertly managing to squeeze out the final last trick, but we said nothing.  The next hand was again mine to play – a routine three no trump.  Henry again got up to walk around.  I was sailing through a long suit of hearts, but was suddenly distracted by Henry’s yelling.  I looked up, and I saw Henry and Simba defiantly standing toe to toe.  Henry had his hands on his hips and was leaning in and Simba was emphatically shaking her finger.

 “How dare you stalk me here, you whore, you slut!  First there is that woman over there,” he yelled pointing at me, “and now it is you.  You have no business here.  Get out.”

I was proud of Simba, she was holding her ground, “This is a public park and I have every right to be here,” she said, “and I have every right to ask you why you’re treating our mother so poorly.  I’ve seen what is going on over at Great Days.  How could you?”

By this time the entire park had taken a hiatus from bridge and was staring at Simba and Henry.  A few people had even gotten up from their chairs, and a ring was beginning to form around the two combatants. 

“Simba, you have no idea, absolutely none.  You never have, and you don’t know how many times I have picked up the pieces after you.  And Chloe – first let me remind you that she is not our mother, but our stepmother.  I will never forget our real mother, although she always seems to slip your mind.  If you want to know about Chloe, just ask your husband.  You just ask your husband what is going on, and then maybe you can come back to me.”

“Henry, keep Sam out of this.  This is a family matter between you and me.  You are the legal guardian of Chloe.  I went to Great Days, and I tell you, I’m taking steps to show that you are unfit.  There is something funny going on and it might be illegal.  I have contacted a lawyer and I demand that you meet with me.  I’ll come to your house tomorrow at 10 AM and you’d better talk with me.”

 “Fine,” said Henry, “go ahead you be her guardian, that old bat, she is just a pain in the ass.  You’ll see.  It’s about time you started to take some responsibility.  You and your charities, flitting around, you have never worked a day in your life.” 

 “And you have?” screamed Simba, “and you have?  What have you made of your life?  Just playing bridge on Saturday – I don’t think that counts.  Living in the old heap of a house, clinging to the past, I don’t think that counts.  Being a complete asshole to the only people who ever stood a chance of loving you, I don’t think that counts.  Manipulating a poor defenseless woman and my daughter, I don’t think that counts.  I have a family that I am fighting to save.  That’s what counts for me, and that is what I doing right here, right now.  What does count for you Henry?  I will come by at 10 tomorrow and you can let me know.”  A few of the bystanders even clapped at her steely speech.

The crowd had now clustered around here in kind of an instant Team Simba.  She turned quickly and tried to stalk off, but her high heels sunk into the sand and she wobbled.  One of the bystanders quickly jumped up, grabbed her by the elbow and helped her onto the sidewalk.  Henry stood still with his hands still on his hips, but now the posture had lost its defiance and he just looked silly and impotent.  The crowd was quiet, waiting for his next move, but he just stood there for several minutes.    

 “Should we do something?” said the man to my left.

“I never realized that he was Simba Todd’s brother, can you believe that?” said his partner.  “I thought that he was just some of idiot savant bridge player.  That is the brother of the famous Simba Todd?  I don’t anything about him, don’t think that anyone does.  I assumed that our oddball Henry was just some sort of drifter, a shade above being homeless.  Shouldn’t he have loads of money?  Didn’t his family start Santa Teresa in the first place?”  Both men looked at me like I was Henry’s best friend, but I didn’t say anything as Henry was marched back towards us.  He carefully picked up his Q-tips one by one and put them back in his pocket and grabbed his grocery bag, but left his Mountain Dew with the perfectly bent straw.  The crowd parted as he headed toward his scooter.  Before he left, he turned to no one in particular and announced, “You just don’t know the whole of it.  You just don’t know.  That woman.”

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