Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapters 41-42

Chapter 41

As I ran along the bike path at the beach, I began to think that going to see Henry on my own was a bad idea – I suppose being a neutral go between was a decent enough idea, but I don’t think that Henry would perceive me as neutral.  This would almost be the role of a court appointed mediator.  I stopped to get some bagels and cream cheese for breakfast, and as I headed back to my apartment I resolved to call the meeting off.

As I walked up the stairs, I could smell bacon and eggs.  There was Simba in the kitchen cooking away.  “Hi,” she said, “I hope that you don’t mind, but I thought that I would get a jump start on breakfast.  I slept for maybe a half an hour, but I feel totally refreshed.  I went to the corner market and bought you some provisions.  It’s the least I could do after your hospitality.”

I stood there with my mouth open.  How could something as simple as bacon and eggs create such a mess?  I could only imagine that she was totally out of practice.  She must have fumbled when she cracked some of the eggs, because there was s smear of liquidy egg yolk across the counter.  She had then chosen to use an egg beater, which she must have dug deep to find.  I didn’t even know that I had one.  Perhaps that is why the counter was stacked with bowls that I hadn’t seen in years.  The egg beater was perched along the counter, and drips of beaten eggs ran down the cupboard door.  But Simba was beaming as if she was a little girl who wanted to surprise her mother with a mother’s day feast.  “Here, sit down, and dig in, and I have something else important to tell you,” she said.

Normally, I would have liked to take a shower and change clothes; eating a full breakfast in hot and sweaty clothes was just not appealing, but the bacon did smell good and Simba was standing there looking expectant with a plate in her hands, so I sat.  She sat down next to me and sipped at her coffee.  “Aren’t you going to have something too?” I asked.

“Oh no, I never eat breakfast, but maybe that is a habit that I should break.  I think that I should break one habit everyday – I think that would be very good for me.  Yes, I’ll have  some bacon and toast, and this will be the first time in over 20 years.”  She got up and seemed to know exactly where the plates were, suggesting that she had indeed spent some quality time snooping around.  “Don’t you want to know what I have to tell you?” she asked.

I gave the slightest nod, since my mouth was full, but that was all that was needed.  “I’ve decided to go with you to see Henry after all.  I think that this is the only chance that I’ll have to establish a relationship with him.  If the lawyers go first, it’ll be all over, I’ll have no chance.  And I’ve decided I don’t really care what Sam says, but I don’t want to go behind his back, so I called his office and left him a message there.  I didn’t want to call his cell and risk the chance of talking to him directly.  And I called and left a message for Dessa, at least I hope that was Dessa’s number that you gave me.  I told her to call me back, but that I would turn my cell off for the next 12 hours, so that she could leave me a message.  I was thinking that Dessa might hesitate to call me if she thought I might answer the phone – it would probably be too hard on both of us, so I thought leaving messages for each other might be the first best step.  What do you think?”

“Actually, Simba, I think that you’ve made very wise choices, with Henry, Sam and Dessa.  We should probably get ready to go and see Henry.”

“I have one more favor to ask you – can I borrow some of your clothes?  I won’t have time to go all the way up the canyon and it looks like we’re about the same size.”

I froze thinking the Simba might well have riffled through my closet, and I thought again of the filing cabinet there, but Simba was right – I don’t think that she could go to Henry’s in day old rumpled clothes.  “Simba, I guess you can, but I’ve got to tell you my wardrobe is much more limited that yours and certainly not up to your standards.  I just have multiple versions of a black slacks and a white top.  We’ll probably end up looking like twins.”

“Liza, I was thinking of something very casual.  Do you have a pair of jeans that I could borrow?  When I was talking with my therapist, she would always encourage me to find something positive to think about, and I think that might be true with Henry.  And I think that I should get out of this Society Miss Marvelous attire and look like a regular person,  maybe the way that he best remembered me I high school.  I was just thinking that might be a less intimidating way to start, and also a way to separate myself from Sam.”

I was totally impressed with Simba, once again I think that she was right on the mark.  I opened the door into the bedroom just a crack and peeked inside to see if the sock had moved.  It had.  I opened the door the rest of the way and headed for the closet to see if Simba had found the filing cabinet.  But she stood right behind me, so I’d have to save it for later.  I found a pair of jeans and a simple T shirt and threw them across to her.  “Here you go,” I said.  “Why don’t we play tag team on the shower and on the kitchen clean up?  I’ll take the first shower and you can start in on the kitchen, and then we’ll switch places.”  I desperately wanted to make sure that she stayed out of my bedroom.

I closed the bedroom door and headed for the shower.  “The scrub brush and soap are in the cabinet below the sink.  The dishes in the dishwasher are dirty, so you can just rinse the dishes and put them in.”

Simba looked very startled.  “Oh the kitchen, yes of course.”

When I got out of the shower I realized that we really needed to get going in about a half and hour.  I wondered if Simba could pull this off, since I imagined that her shower and dressing could easily consume an hour.  What else did she have to do all day?  I called to her, “Simba it’s all yours.  Sorry I didn’t leave you much time, but we should probably get going in about 15 minutes.  Do you think that you can do it?”  She nodded and headed toward the steamy shower, and I thought that this maybe the first time in her entire life that she had to share a bathroom.

I wasn’t surprised to see minimal progress in the kitchen.  The dishes were stacked in the sink but that was it.  I attacked the counters first and then started rinsing the dishes when I heard Simba behind me.  Only ten minutes had passed, so I wasn’t prepared for the vision as I turned around.  “Simba, you look, well I’ve got to say that you look great, just absolutely great.”  All the make-up was gone, stripped away like a layer of shiny shellack.  Without the heavy mascara her eyes looked smaller, but gone was that artificial wide-eyed look.  No lipstick, none.  A few wrinkles had cropped up around and between her eyes, but it made her look comfortable.  But the big change was her hair.  She had discarded her wig, which of course I hadn’t realized she was wearing in the first place.  Gone was the overly perfectly coiffed ash blonde hair, replaced with a basic brown hair, nothing special and much like mine.  Her hair was still wet, but she had pulled it back into a simple ponytail.  She looked like a person that I might like, and maybe I was beginning to like her.  And then it hit me, “Simba, you know what, you look like a really nice Mom, a Mom that nobody would be scared of, the type of Mom you could bring your friends home to.”

“You know Liza, when I went into that bathroom, I looked into the mirror and I was just tired of being the worst version of myself, and I decided to just go for it.  I didn’t know what would emerge, and I don’t think that anyone has seen me this way.  And by the way, that was the nicest compliment that anyone has ever given me.”  For the second time in as many days, Simba enveloped me in a hug, partly to hide her tears, but also because I think that she really meant it.  “Come on, let’s get going.”

Chapter 42

I had gotten a whiff of the decay of the old Murphy place a couple of days ago when I first talked with Henry through the fence, but as we entered the driveway and approached the house, the shabbiness was an all out assault.  I recalled the pictures of the Murphy house in its prime in the history book I’d shared with Simba, and this mental contrast was even more depressing.  Once neatly trimmed hedges were now misshapen and lumpy, an old oak tree in front of the house had lost a limb, but it had just been pulled to the side of the road, and the craggy branches looked like the desperate waving arms of a drowning man.  The bricks forming a stylish chevron pattern in the driveway were only barely visible beneath the weeds growing up between them.  Some of the weeds were high enough to  scratch the undercarriage of the car as we drove up.  Simba was bewildered as she got out of the car.  “Oh my God, she said, I never knew that it was this bad.”

We rang the doorbell in silence, and then heard the slow tread of footsteps.  The door opened.  “It’s you again,” said Henry, looking at me.  “Who have you brought with you?”

“Henry, it’s me Simba.”  She stepped forward and reached out to clasp his arm, but he stiffened and stepped back.

“Simba, is that you?  What have you done to yourself?’ said Henry.

“Henry, I want to be less complicated, and I want things to be less complicated between us, so basically I decided to strip down to the real me.”

“I don’t think that things are that complicated.  Actually it’s quite simple.  I don’t want to have anything to do with your family.”

“Henry can we at least come in and talk about Chloe?  And I want you to know that you are talking with me, your sister, and not Sam.  This is me, Henry.”

“Well what’s she doing here?” he said pointing to me.

“Liza has been helping me sort some things out about our family, and I actually asked her to go to the park and meet you at the bridge game.  That was my idea, Henry, she was not snooping around.  I thought that might be the best way to set up this meeting, since you won’t take my calls, but then I couldn’t help myself when I saw you in the park.  I’m sorry that meeting was so confrontational, and I thought that Liza could help us start a more thoughtful conversation.”

“I don’t really care.  She can come in, but let’s only talk about Chloe.  That’s the only issue that we can discuss.”  He opened the door and we followed him through the musty foyer and into the living room.  The shabbiness continued.  The rug was threadbare and stained, presumably from a poorly trained dog.  The curtains were faded and sagged in the middle where they were not hung properly.  I caught a quick look at Simba and saw that she was staring at a window that had a trickle of bird residue running down it.  Henry sensed our shock and said, “I would offer you something to drink, but it’s just me here, you know, and I mostly eat out, and don’t have much in the kitchen.”  Simba was still staring at the stained window, and Henry continued, “it’s been hard to keep this place up given all of Chloe’s expenses, and I have had to let most of the staff go – I just have someone come in to mow the lawn, but he only comes every other week, and since it has rained recently, I can see that the grass does need a bit of a mow.”

Simba slowly turned her gaze to Henry.  “Remember what I said at the park Henry?  I meant it.  I would like Chloe to come live with us.  We have a two bedroom guest house up at our house, and it would be perfect for her and a caretaker.  Great Days is a good facility, but it would easier if she was right nearby and I could make sure she was well taken care of.”

“That’s fine, she’s all yours.  She was always more of your mother than mine – actually she was never my mother.”

There was a pause in the conversations, as if Henry thought that the agenda was now complete, and Simba still looked like she was in a state of shock.  So I jumped in.  “I am glad that you are both in agreement. All that is left to be done then is to transfer the guardianship to Simba.”

“Wait a minute,” said Henry, “I didn’t agree to anything about the guardianship.  Father designated me the guardian, and I don’t think we should go against his wishes.”

Simba had now snapped to. “Henry, I think that when Father made his will, she was living here so it made the most sense for you to be the guardian.  But now that Chloe isn’t living here anymore, it just makes sense that I would become the guardian if she was living with me.  I think that Father would agree with that don’t you?  Is it about the money – I know that things have been difficult for you, and it’s not that I want access to Chloe’s money.”

Simba gave me a quick look and I understood that she knew that she might have just opened the floodgates with the comment about money.  Henry closed his eyes, sat up straight, and then slowly exhaled.   His eyes stayed closed.  “Simba you just have no idea, do you?  I could care less about the money, because basically there isn’t any, but Father would never have wanted Chloe anywhere near Sam.  You know your husband is not a very nice man, but you probably have no idea what’s been going on all these years.”

“Henry, I’m just beginning to learn more about my husband, and I don’t like a lot of what I’m learning.  But he was good to me when I needed help and I’ve been grateful for that.  I’m not grateful for what he’s done to my family, and by my family that means you and Chloe.  Remember Henry, look at me, you are talking to me and not Sam.”

Henry then turned to me.  “Well what do you think, Ms Liza Blue?  Do you think that our Simba is ready to hear the truth?”  I nodded and braced myself.

“Okay, this is not pretty Simba, but your husband, your precious Sam, your scumbag husband came to our Father and told him that he would not marry you unless Father paid him – and paid him big time.  He told Father that you were pregnant and in trouble, and if he didn’t want any trouble for the family, and any trouble for the family name, Father would have to pay him off, and pay him a lot.  So now what do you think?”

Before Simba could answer I said, “Henry I must insist that you not use such inflammatory words.  We need to keep this conversation civil.”

Henry just rolled his eyes and said, “Well what words would you use to describe a man who blackmailed his father-in-law into selling his daughter?”

Simba jumped in, “Henry, that’s a horrible thing to say.  Sam told me Father gave him a loan as an engagement present.  That’s all.  And I certainly wasn’t pregnant.”

“What can I say?  I was there, listening.  I don’t care if you believe me or not.  But you can see why Father would never want Chloe to be under Sam’s control, and as much as you say that I’m talking only to you, I know that once you go back up the canyon, you’re under Sam’s control.”

“But Henry, this doesn’t make any sense.  I know that Sam was so proud when he paid back Father every penny of it as soon as he could.  He didn’t want to be beholden to anyone.  So it was just a loan.”

“Oh Sam is so clever.  Did you ever notice that he paid back the loan just before he hit it big with that prison development?  He knew he was going to hit it big – I think he had some connections with the Cutter City Council who gave him a tip off, and Sam paid Father back so he wouldn’t have to share the profits with him.  Sure he paid him back, but Father was really a partner in the development, and he should have earned millions also, but Sam stole it right out from underneath him.  So about half of those profits should really come to this household, they should really be partly mine, and yours too.  I even told Father that, but he didn’t listen to me.  What do you think of your husband now?”

“Oh Henry, I don’t know what to say.  All I can say is that Sam and I were truly in love when we got married,” Simba whispered.  “That he got a loan from Father and he paid him back.  Go ahead and hate Sam, that’s fine by me, but I just didn’t have anything to do with it.  I just didn’t, you just have to believe me.  And if you feel so strongly about the guardianship, go ahead and keep it, that’s fine too, but let’s go ahead and move Chloe up to my house.”

The quiet that descended was dark and thick.  I could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock in the front hall.  Simba was still staring out the window and Henry was looking at his hands.  In my naïveté as a mediator, I thought it might be a good idea to get them looking at each other.  “You know, you two have shared a lot in this household,” I said, “and I know you must have some fond family memories of growing up, that despite the pain of losing your mother so early, there must have been some magic here in this magnificent house along the beach.  I think that it might be a good idea for each of you to share one happy memory, a thing that you are grateful to your sibling for, and then maybe one thing that you would like to apologize for.  After all, you will be working together more to take care of Chloe, and I know that you both share a love for Dessa.”

Simba turned her eyes from the guano stained window and looked directly at Henry.  “Henry, I want to tell you that I am grateful that you kept the memory of our mother alive.  I never knew her well, and what I know comes from you.  As I was coming over her today, I realized that tomorrow would be her 90th birthday.”

Henry finally looked directly at Simba and I saw that both of them had tears in their eyes.  “Simba, I am grateful that you let me have a relationship with Dessa.  She is a beautiful and wonderful girl and you should be proud of her.  And she is obviously so fond of Goddard, and I would like to get to know him as well.”

Simba moved behind Henry and put her arms around his neck.  “Henry, there is one thing I have always regretted and you might think that it is very silly after all these years, but I want to apologize for that stupid nickname I gave you in high school.  I know that it must’ve hurt and I’m sorry.”

“What nickname?” said Henry, and I saw his back stiffen.

“Well, if you don’t remember, then I am grateful that it was such a silly thing.”

“What nickname?”  Henry had flung Simba’s arms off of his shoulders and was now facing her.

Simba startled and stepped back, “Henry, it was a stupid joke when we were teenagers and it didn’t mean anything.”

“Well, you brought it up, dear sister,” he hissed, “so now you tell me what it was.”

At this point, Simba really didn’t have any choice, and I had even gotten out of my chair and moved back a step or two.  “Henry calm down,” I said, “Simba is just trying to make amends, and you really shouldn’t take this aggressive attitude.”

“Simba, tell me,” he said as he took another step closer, forcing Simba to take a step back towards the wall.

“Henry please,” said Simba, “I’ll tell you if it is so important to you, but you’re scaring me, and you have to promise to back off.”  Simba shot a panicked look in my direction, but I knew I was way out of my depth and didn’t know what to do.  She took in a deep breath and said, “Henry, it was that night at the beach, and I think that I’d had too much to drink, and it just slipped out.  I called you Polly Waddle, and I was sorry the minute that I said it, and I’ve been sorry ever since.  You’re my brother, Henry, and what has come between us has been put there by others.  Please I want to be a family again.”

Henry stood perfectly still and his eyes now just stared off into space.  “It was you, it was you who started that awful name.  I can’t believe it.  I didn’t know where it came from, and then all those women and that man in the house said it, and I was just ruined.”  Henry slumped down into a chair and his arms hung limply over the arm rests.

“Henry, what are you talking about?  I just said it that once down at the bonfire, and maybe a couple of those mean kids picked up on it, but what man are you talking about?”

“Never mind,” he said, “Why don’t you go home and ask your husband, your husband who essentially bought you from our father.  Go on home and ask him, if you really want to know what went on.  It’s best that he tell you.  I’m done here.”

With a great sigh he heaved himself out of the chair and started to shuffle out the door into the study, knocking over the lamp as he swayed out.  Simba looked at me and just shrugged her shoulders; neither of us made any attempt to stop him.  It seemed useless and maybe even cruel.  The strained silence was suddenly interrupted by the doorbell.  I was the closest so I opened the door.

“Well Liza Blue, we keep meeting under the most extraordinary circumstances.”  There was Detective Grimes.  “Somehow I’m not too surprised.  Here is a search warrant for Henry Murphy’s car.”

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