Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapters 37-38

Chapter 37

I moved away from the bridge tables quickly, but had lost sight of Simba.  As I looked frantically around I heard my name.

“Liza, fancy meeting you here.  This cannot be a coincidence.”

“Grimes, are you here for a little bridge?”

“No, I don’t play bridge, but that was quite a show with your clients.  I can’t imagine that you were really here to play bridge.”

I was caught again, not knowing how much he knew and how much I could successfully dissemble, and I jealously remembered how effectively Sam Todd had manipulated Grimes a couple of days ago.  Yes, the fine art of dissembling, of telling just the right amount of truth.  “Yes I was actually here to make contact with Henry Murphy – who is very elusive.  But I had no idea that his sister was going to show up.  My role in the case has changed, you know.  I am trying to be the family mediator between these two siblings, and as you can see, I might be a little bit out of my depth.  So what are you doing here?”

“Hmm, it’s a beautiful Saturday isn’t it, and I thought that I would come down to the beach to see if there was a black Lexus, but that weirdo arrives on a kiddy scooter.  That was you wasn’t it, that gave the pathologist Pat Barnes the tip, couldn’t figure out where she came up with that, but now that I see you here, I remember that you were friends.  It was you wasn’t it?”

I felt that I was losing our verbal joust; I was clearly on the defensive here.  “Sure Pat and I talked about the case at the gym the other day – and I had just had a run in with Henry Murphy and I really didn’t like him and I don’t know, you know that Penny Knox was nosing around Simba and Sam’s house, and Henry had reported a break in at his house and I thought it might be Penny also.  It was just an impulse, as you can see this family is just really screwed up, but believe me Grimes, I don’t have any direct evidence that Henry is at all involved with Penny’s death.   Besides, it isn’t any of my business, all I’m trying to do right now is to get Henry and Simba talking again.”

“So did you ever find the daughter Dessa?  Sure would be nice to talk with her,” said Grimes gruffly.

“She seems to be out and about around Santa Teresa, and just chooses not to be in touch with her family.  That was good enough for Sam Todd,” which was truthful enough.

“I got a strange call this morning from a Carla Piccinini, all weepy, saying that some woman had told her that Penny was mixed up with the Todd’s, and maybe they killed her.  Now that wouldn’t be you would it? Since according to you Penny Knox is no longer any of your business.”

“Grimes, give me a break.  I was looking for Dessa, but now I’m not.  I was just following up on leads, and I can’t help it if I get ahead of your police force.  I’m surprised that you did not interview Penny’s mother already.”

“That Piccinini woman is her mother?  Johnny Knox told me that her mother was long ad.  I guess I have to give you credit, Liza, and I am going up to talk with Carla on Monday – seems that she works weekends.  I don’t suppose you want to tell me why Penny was snooping around the Todd’s?”

I just rolled my eyes.  It was satisfying to be so far ahead of him on this case.  Grimes had always treated me fairly, but not with the same respect as he regarded my father and his detective skills.  Maybe I had bought a little more respect, but I had also bought a couple of days head start to pull this case together – not that it was a  competition, but I could fairly tell myself that I wanted to protect my clients as much as possible.   But once he talked with Carla, he would get onto the Sylvia Wister angle, and then he might really start to hone in the Todd’s.  Grimes had his own white board and a whole squad room who would only be too eager to rip apart the Todd family.

Just as I was walking away, Grimes yelled, “You know he does have a black Lexus.  The pictures we have from the CCTV at the ATM are not clear, but it looks like the plates are at the least a partial match.  I know that you are not looking for Dessa, but when you see here, tell that we need to talk.”

My back was to Grimes, but I was sure that Grimes saw me nod my head in agreement.

Chapter 38

As I walked by the Starbucks, there was Simba, calmly sitting at a table by the window drinking a tall glass of ice tea.  She waved me in when she saw me.

“Simba, congratulations, that was quite a performance at the beach.”  I saw a quick look of annoyance flutter across her face so I backtracked, “I’m sorry ‘performance’ is not the correct word at all.  What I meant to say was that I was very impressed at the way you held your own against your brother.  That took a lot of courage.”

She turned to me with a broad smile on her face.  “I was great wasn’t I?  It felt really good, and I had forgotten how good it feels to stand up for yourself.  And you know, I don’t think that I could have done it one on one with that idiot brother of mine – I knew that I had to stay strong if there was an entire audience watching.  It was perfect.  I was on time for our Starbuck’s appointment, but I was just frozen in my car.  And I watched you throw yourself into a confrontational situation – just walked right up and joined that group of men, so I thought that I should just do the same.  You’ve given me the courage Liza and now I am ready for the battle ahead.  We’re a team now, aren’t we?”

Simba was just giddy with excitement, and I knew that I had to calm her down.  “Simba that was a great start, your brother knows that you are serious and ready to resolve some old issues, but let’s take this slowly.  Why don’t you start by telling me what you found out at the nursing home?”

“Oh that was heartbreaking to find Chloe like that – all those years wasted, all those years when I have been pushed around by my husband and my brother.  Chloe couldn’t say anything, but I know that she recognized me.  She took my hand and just kept patting it, and there were tears in her eyes.  I think that she had been waiting for me – maybe waiting for years and years.”  Simba had veered from exuberance to quietly crying and I handed her a napkin in commiseration.  “The nurses said that Chloe had never been more animated.  One of the nurses – the one that had met you in fact – took a picture of the two of us together and we put in a frame by her table.  I am so glad that you told me to go there – that’s what started me off.”

I left the conversation idle while Simba collected herself.  She looked wistfully out over the ocean for about a minute and when she looked back at me, her lips were pursed and she was in full attack mode again.  “And then I talked with the director Great Days, and the things that he told me about Henry were just unconscionable.  Chloe has plenty of money, I know that she does, since our father explained his will before he died.  So she starts out there in an apartment of her own, but slowly has moved down the ladder, because Henry was always late in paying, and then only paid in dribs and drabs.  Great Days were very generous with her – they could have kicked her out a long time ago, but then Henry would come up with just enough money to let her stay, but finally they had to transfer her to a shared room.  And remember what I told you the other day that it would be good for Chloe to have a roommate, well please forget that I ever said something so insensitive.  You must have thought that I was an ungrateful wretch, didn’t you?”

Simba reached out to put her hand over mind, as worried wrinkles emerged through the layers of Botox.  “Simba, I have learned long ago not to judge when it comes to family dynamics,” I said, “but I am certainly glad you had a chance to see for yourself.  Your mother, or stepmother, is certainly a lovely woman.”

“Yes she is, isn’t she, full of dignity even though her memory is so clouded.  And I really do think of her as my mother, she raised me and I didn’t make it easy you know.  I had a very wild period, which is how I ended up in Cutter City in the first place.  But anyway, there she was withering away in Great Days, and who should swoop in to the rescue, but Dessa.  I am so proud of that girl, and what she must think of me, leaving Chloe like that.  You know I wouldn’t blame her if she doesn’t want to see me right now, and that is okay, I have a lot of catching up to do, I’ve got to show her that I’m worthy of her respect, and the first thing I need to do is straighten out Chloe’s situation.  I’m even thinking of moving her up to our house in Skye Isle.  We have a two bedroom guest house up there you know – it’s never been used.  It would be perfect for Chloe and a caretaker, but to do that I would have to become Chloe’s guardian, and that’s why I said that I’d hired a lawyer to Henry, but of course I haven’t quite got around to that detail yet.  But it really scared Henry, don’t you think?”

“Yes I do think that it set him off, and he did say that you could be the guardian,” I said.

“Yes, but I also scared him, don’t you think?  And I think that it has to do with the money – actually most things have to do with the money don’t they?  That’s something that I want to change in my life also, and I think that Dessa will appreciate that, don’t you?”

“Simba, I don’t know Dessa at all, but from what I have learned second hand, it seems like she is a confused girl trying to make sense of her life.  She has lived a life of great privilege, but to her credit, it does not look like she has tried to take advantage of that.”  I wondered if Simba was going to pick up on my implicit comparison to Goddard.  “I think that honesty is what will really impress her.”

“Yes, I might have lost Goddard a while ago, but I am going to fight for Dessa.”

“I wouldn’t give up on Goddard.  I have met with him several times, and I really liked him, and you heard what my friends Ralph and Fanny said.  It’s just that I think that he’s really confused also, and probably looking for the same things as Dessa.”

“Yes, it’s really hard to grow up when you have such crappy parents,” said Simba quietly.

Time to pull out my amateur life coaching skills and get her settled somewhere between her excitement over her new found confidence and her despair over her parenting skills.  “Okay, Simba, now suck it up.  You’re moving forward now, so give yourself a break.  Let’s strategize some more about Henry.  Unfortunately you are right, most things do have to do with money, and can you think why Henry hasn’t paid Chloe’s nursing home bills?”

Well, it’s obvious.  Come on, don’t you think he must’ve stolen all of Chloe’s money?  It’s probably pretty simple to do since he’s her guardian.  I bet he spent all of her money on some sort of crazy investment.  That Coastal Estates development comes to mind.  Sam used to laugh about that one, said that Henry was going to lose his shirt, and maybe he did.  And guess what else.  I had my banker friend look at Dessa’s account – I’m not supposed to tell anyone, since it’s not quite legal, but ever since Chloe went into the nursing home, there have been monthly withdrawals from Dessa’s account, so I think that Henry might have somehow been using Dessa’s money to pay for Chloe.  Henry must have been embezzling money somehow.  Don’t you think?”

“Yes, that sounds very possible, and that certainly will be an issue for the lawyers, so you are right to call one. But hopefully we can make contact with Dessa first, and hear her side of the story.  I suppose that it is possible that she agreed to pay for Chloe, perhaps with the encouragement of Henry.”

“Oh, yes, I can just see Henry doing that,” said Simba.  “Telling Dessa that since Chloe had been giving her money, it was now her responsibility to pay for Chloe.  Dessa is so sweet, I just imagine her doing it.  I never thought of it that way, but you’re right.  When I talk to Henry, I can’t accuse him of anything just yet.  I need to be the better person here, which shouldn’t be too hard since he called me a whore and a slut.  Can you          imagine saying such a thing to a sister in public?”

“Simba, I was very impressed with your poise at that moment,” I said.

“Well, it really wasn’t very hard,” she laughed, “Who’s going to believe someone like him, on a children’s scooter for God’s sake, and walking around massaging his ears with Q tips. Perhaps he should swap places with Chloe – now there’s an idea.  Okay, seriously what do you think that we should do?”

“Simba, a couple of days ago, you asked me to be a family mediator and I do think that I can help.  But I want you to realize that this isn’t my specific training, and if you want a professional I can certainly find you one.”

“Liza, I think that you understand more about our family in a couple of days, compared to a life time of therapists.  I trust you, and I trust your common sense.  I think that is what I really need, good practical advice.  So go ahead, what do you think?”

“Well, I think that the best approach is to set up the meeting to discuss Chloe’s care, but I also think that we should be prepared to address Henry’s longstanding hatred for your husband.  Do you have any idea what that is based on?  It seems like that’s why you have been shut out of Chloe’s life for all these years.

“Well first you have to know that Henry is a first class snob, so of course he was going to hate anyone from Cutter City.  You’ll find it hard to believe that when I was a teenager, I used to hang out in Cutter City– I started by doing a community service project there, and met some very interesting people, including Sam.  Henry knew that I was sneaking out, taking Dad’s car down there at night, sometimes not coming back until the morning.  It was the best time of my life, which of course doesn’t say much for the past 35 years.  Anyway it drove Henry crazy, and he told Dad of course.  Dad tried to ground me, but that didn’t matter, I always found a way.  And Chloe just didn’t want to get caught in the cross-fire.  What could she say anyway?  After all she was Dad’s student for Christ’s sake.

So of course, I was a queen bee, and Henry was just miserable.  Actually, his nickname at the time was Polly, after his middle name Polonius.  Polly was never a great student and not an athlete – he was a bit chubby as a teenager – and he just tried to rely on his elite social standing, but as you can see, he is tad bit socially awkward.  His classmates used to sneak onto our beach at night and have bonfires and big parties, but then wouldn’t include him.  They would invite me, because well, I was fun, and Polly could just suck the life out of any event.  One time I was down at the beach with some of his friends – this was just after he had busted me to my parents.  We are sitting around the bonfire, and one of the guys noticed Polly lurking in the shadows.  I thought maybe he was spying on me, but thinking back, maybe he just wanted to be invited to the group.  Anyway, I was still so angry with him, that I said, “Hey look guys, there is my brother Polly Waddle spying on us.  Get out of here P. Waddle, you’re not invited.”

“Okay, I admit it, it was a cruel thing to do, but the worst thing was that the nick name Polly Waddle spread throughout school, and that’s what he had to live with for the next couple of years.  Maybe it did him some good, because after that night Polly went on a fitness kick, and actually emerged at the school’s best high jumper.  Athletics were the key to social success in our high school, but being a good high jumper was just not enough to overcome his general awkwardness, including the nickname of Polly Waddle.  I certainly regretted it when I saw how it played out.  I tried to make it up to him, tried to include him in more things, but it was too late.  I insisted that he come to one party on our beach, and Polly just let his classmates order him around, he was getting them beers, running up to the house to get more snacks, picking up empties, that sort of thing.  It was just too awful to watch, and I think that’s when I started going to Cutter City more.  You know, I looked at Polly with such disdain, but that is basically the person that I turned into, being pushed around and bullied.  How many years have I become the person I hated?”

Uh oh, time to catch her before she fell into the self-pity abyss.  “Okay, I can understand a natural jealousy and resentment, but Sam must have done something more specific than just being from Cutter City,” I said, hoping to get her back on track.

“I agree, there was something specific, but I never found out what it was. Sam insisted that we live in Cutter City after we got married, so we really never saw Polly.  And then Sam got really successful with his real estate investment in Cutter City- that was just before Dad died.   Up to that point, we were cordial, saw Dad and Chloe on Christmas and Thanksgiving, but it was always tense.  I remember sitting at the dining room table – I think that it was Thanksgiving.  It was just the five of us, Sam and I, Polly, Chloe and Dad.  I remember hearing the knives clink on the plates in the long gaps in the conversation.  Sam would ask Polly what he was up to, how his business was going, but it was really just cruel since I am sure that Sam knew that Polly was floundering and basically had no job.  I remember Dad asked Sam how his business was going – a natural question, but one that Sam had teed up to contrast with Polly.  Sam went into great detail on his latest real estate deal, and at that point Polly exploded and basically told Sam that he was never welcome in his house again, and then turned to me and said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you are just dead to me, just dead.’  I remember driving home with Sam.  He was laughing – I actually don’t think I have ever seen him so happy.  He put the top down on the car, and starting smoking a cigar.  That was when he told me that we were finally going to move back to Santa Teresa.  We drove around looking at properties, and he told me, ‘One day we are going to live up in the canyon and look down on Santa Teresa.’  Dad died shortly after Christmas that year, and Polly just took over Chloe.   And I was still in a pretty bad shape then, and just didn’t have the energy, just really didn’t have the skills.  And then it just sort of drifted into a permanent situation that I stopped thinking about, and I thought that we were going along just fine.  So what if I was estranged from my brother and Chloe, it didn’t seem to matter, until now at least.”

That was the saddest and the most terrifying story that I had ever heard.  One slip of the tongue on the part of a teenager sent a whole family into a black hole that had now seeped into the next generation, and potentially caused a death.  Simba was just a teenager for God’s sake – how could she be held responsible for all the fallen dominoes that now lay in rubble around her.  Simba must have seen the stunned look on my face and said, “It’s not a pretty story, and it’s really the first time I have told it out loud.  I’ve been to lots of therapy, but we have mostly focused on my relationship with Sam – now that’s a fertile ground for discussion, that’s for sure, but I’ve never mentioned Polly Waddle before, it just seemed so silly and trivial, at least that’s what I’ve been telling myself, but my carelessness with my brother might have started this all. ‘Carelessness,’ that is a word that my therapist likes to use, how we must all be careful with one another, but that sure is difficult when you are dealing with someone as sensitive as my brother.”

“Simba, I appreciate you telling me all this, and particularly that you trust me enough to delve into your past relationship with Henry.  I don’t have any personal experience to draw on since I was an only child, but I will tell you that as a private investigator, carelessness is the root cause of much of my work – runaways, infidelities – it is usually about people being careless.  And what has always impressed me is that I can usually find someone, that’s usually pretty easy, but that is never the solution.  You have to address the root of the problem, which may go back for years.  So, I want to let you know that you’re far ahead of most of my clients.”

Simba gently nodded her head.  “Thank you,” she said softly.  “You will come with me tomorrow?”

“Yes, of course, and I think that we should strategize a bit, because I am sure that you do not want this to be as confrontational as that,” I said pointing to the park.

“Even though I found that invigorating,” she said with a smile, “I think that we need to be more productive.”

“Okay, I think that we frame this meeting as an opportunity to talk about Chloe’s care and why she has been jerked around so much at Great Days.  After all, he did say that you could take over guardianship, and from that will come a discussion of the finances.  You might want to ask your lawyer what sort steps need to be taken to transfer guardianship, whether it can be by mutual agreement, or there needs to be some legal steps.  You might want to also ask your lawyer what sort of steps would be required if Henry refuses to transfer the guardianship – do you need to demonstrate that he is an unfit guardian – that sort of thing. It is just good to come into a situation with more information than the opponent – well maybe I shouldn’t call Henry your opponent, but you know what I mean.”

“He is an opponent now,” said Simba, “but let’s say that our goal is to end the meeting as something less than opponent.  As you say, at some point I will need to resolve the big ugly thing that has been sitting under a rock for about 25 years, but trust me, asking Sam is not the best strategy.  So hopefully, this meeting with Polly will set the stage for further conversations.  I know he must be lonely over there, and maybe he wants his family back too.  But I am not expecting miracles. I’ll see you tomorrow, my friend.”  We both stood up and our departing hug was entirely spontaneous and natural.

As I walked back to the car, I thought about big black ugly things beneath rocks.  Addressing Henry might boost her confidence and give her some credibility with Dessa, but I wondered if Simba knew that there were probably several other rocks that harbored all sorts of slithery black things.


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