Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapters 44-45

Chapter 44

We both climbed into the car, mutely put on our seat belts, and I was about to turn on the ignition when Simba grabbed my arm.  “Will you listen to Dessa’s message for me?” she said, “I’m too nervous, if she says that she never wants to see me again, all this won’t have been worth it.  I think that I would just go back up the canyon and gut it out with Sam.”

“Simba, I think that you have to listen to the message, but when you listen to it is up to you.  Listen to it later after you had some rest and can think more clearly.   But regardless, I don’t think that it is a good idea to go back to Sam’s house.  I’ll take you back to Henry’s, get some sleep and then start fresh.”

Simba slid back into her seat and closed her eyes, but as I wove through traffic I could see her fingering her cell phone.  Finally she said in a whisper, “Would you mind pulling over, I think that I have to listen to the message now.  Would you mind if I put it on speaker?”

I nodded my head and turned into the Safeway parking lot.  Suddenly for the first time, I heard Dessa’s soft voice.  “Hello Simba, this is Dessa.  I was really surprised to get your phone call because I don’t know how you got my number, but I guess that shows that you are really trying and serious about our relationship.  So thank you.  I’m not sure if you are worried about Goddard, but he is here with me – so I’m telling you just in case, and also it has been good for me, because we are working through some things together.  We are both fine and staying with a friend of Goddard’s.  I know that we need to talk together sometime soon, but I am not ready yet.  My friend Penny told me many things about my family, at least what I thought was my family, but I didn’t want to believe her.  It was very confusing, but then she died and I got very scared.   I’ve been told that the police would like to question me about her death, but I really don’t know anything that would be helpful.  Goddard says that you are probably working with this woman named Liza Blue, and that she’s okay, so that’s good.  But I am throwing this telephone away now.  I need to meet you on my terms and you’ll just have to wait for me to get in touch.  I’m fine where I am, and I’m safe.”  There was a slight pause, and then she whispered, “I’m scared of Dad.  Be careful.”  And then the phone clicked.

“Why do you think that she called my Simba, and not Mom?  And if she is calling me Simba, why didn’t she call her father Sam?  Instead she called him Dad.  Do you think that means that she knows that I am not her birth mother, but that Sam is her real father?  Do you think that she’s with her birth mother?  Did she sound like she was mad at me or just disappointed, but she did say that she appreciated my efforts, so that’s good isn’t it?”

I was surprised that Simba had latched onto this subtle clue – certainly there were juicier messages to dissect, like why Dessa was afraid of Sam, or what Penny had told her.  I tried to excuse her narcissism, or maybe I was getting used to it – after all repairing her relationship with Dessa was her prime agenda.  But I still felt some obligation to Penny, who had paid dearly for opening the wedge into this family.  “Simba, I don’t know Dessa personally, so it’s hard for me to pick up on her mood, but I do think that she sounds tired more than anything else, and it also sounds like she’s dealing with a lot of issues, far beyond your relationship.  But it can only be a good thing that she returned your call.”

“Do you think that she will come forward if Henry is arrested?” she asked.

I was a bit disarmed by her eagerness in Henry’s arrest, when a couple of hours ago she was all about family unity.  “I have no idea, Simba, but if Henry is arrested or indicted, the policy could issue a material witness warrant for Dessa, and they can use all of their considerable resources to find her.  But I don’t think you want that.”

“No I suppose not, but maybe you could find her.  You did a great job of family mediating, but now I want you back on her trail.”

“Simba, I’m being pulled in too many directions.  I thought that you wanted me to help Henry, he’s the one in the greatest need now, and as Dessa said, she is safe now.  I think that helping Henry is the best course right now to ultimately getting Dessa to come forward.”

I had now pulled out of the Safeway parking lot.  Simba put the seat all the way back, closed her eyes and nodded yes.  I thought that she had gone to sleep, but then she suddenly murmured, “What should I do about Sam.  Why does Dessa think that he is dangerous?”

I was surprised that Simba had forgotten Sam’s bruising thumbprint on her arm.  “Simba, I don’t know, but I would be very wary.  I think that you should stay at Henry’s tonight, and you can call Sam and tell him that Henry is being questioned and that’s why you are staying there.  I can do a little more work on this case this afternoon and tonight, and then I will go with you tomorrow morning and talk with Sam.  But just in case, I would keep the security gate locked tonight.”

At this point, I was at the Murphy gate, punched in the code that Henry had given to me.  Simba was limp with exhaustion, and I helped her into the house.  Considering the shabbiness of the downstairs, I really didn’t want to go upstairs, so I arranged some pillows on a couch, situated Simba, found an old crocheted lap blanket and covered her up.  As I was heading to the front door she looked up and said, “Thanks, Liza.  I trust you, probably the first person I’ve trusted in my whole life.”  As she spoke, she fingered the edge of the lap blanket, “You know what?  I crocheted this for my stepmother Chloe probably over 40 years ago.  I can’t believe that it’s still here.  I loved that woman like she was my mother, even though she wasn’t.   I hope that Dessa can do the same.  I hope so.  Because that’s what I want to be right now.  A mother.”

I made sure that the lock was engaged as I closed the front door and then latched the gate behind me.  I walked down their long driveway, which now served as the cul-de-sac to the virtually empty Coastal Estate properties.  I was the only bus rider as we passed through Santa Teresa, in fact, these buses were typically empty going through old Santa Teresa, but as we approached the edge of town, the bus started to fill up with day laborers and the household staff heading back to their homes in Cutter City, one of the many have/have not clashes between Santa Teresa and Cutter City.  I remembered in high school the tense games between the two schools.  Santa Teresa would always destroy Cutter City in the elite sports like tennis and field hockey, in fact, I don’t think that Cutter City even had a field hockey team.  Lately, I noticed in the local papers that Cutter City had become more competitive in football and soccer, but the basketball game was always THE athletic event of the year.  The game drew crowds well beyond the capacity of the high school gymnasium, so the schools moved the game to the college gymnasium and offered bus service to all the Cutter City residents.  The game was always packed and raucous.  The first year, the Santa Teresa team surprised everyone by showing up with a pep band and pom team, consisting of a homogeneous group of bronzed girls with their swinging blonde ponytails adorned with the school colors of blue and gold. Cutter City could not come up with a band, but the following year, a pom team showed up, consisting of a remarkable diversity of girls in skin tight, midriff baring sparkling outfits.  That night, Cutter City handily won both the basketball game and the battle of the poms.  If it wasn’t so athletic, the routine of the Cutter City squad included an almost lewd bump and grind segment.  I was there, and was standing on my feet cheering, along with the rest of the crowd.  And here I was again, working the awkward divide between these two neighboring communities.

Chapter 45

Jimmy was gone when I got back to his office, probably taking Henry back home, or maybe taking him to the police station.  I found my keys key where he had left them under the urn at the front door and settled back into the car.  I paused to reconsider my next step – I really thought the Margarita Club brothel was the key to cracking the case, but I wasn’t too sure of the best strategy.  I nixed talking with Johnny Knox, he might still be under Sam’s influence.  The major of Santa Teresa would likely be a good source of information, I knew that Nick Nichol knew him, and maybe could get me an audience, but not on a Sunday afternoon, and his past indiscretions would probably be an off-limits topic.  Carla Piccinini emerged as the best bet.  She would probably talk with me, unless Grimes had ruined my relationship with her, and she might have known Johnny Knox when he worked for Sam at the club.  Besides she didn’t live too far away from Jimmy’s office.

When I drove up, I saw the dog pacing in the enclosed yard, and the front porch looked exactly as it did the other day, complete with a couple of beer cans perched on the railing.   There was no answer when I rang the doorbell, and everything about the house suggested that there was no one there.  However, based on Carla’s overall vacant presence, I think that was its baseline look.  I shouted her name a couple of times, and headed back to my car, wondering where I to go next.  Just as I reached the sidewalk, I thought I heard a faint call, and returned to the porch to peek through the off kilter shade.  The inside looked just as disheveled at the old Murphy house, with the exception of all the beer cans on the tables and window sills.  Once again I heard the faint cry and went to the back yard.  There was Carla, splayed out, face down on the packed dirt of the yard.  I shook her gently and she rolled over and looked up at me with one blood shot eye.  “Who are you?  Wait I think that I know who you are.  You’re that nosy woman.  A policeman came here and told me that you don’t have my best interests at heart.  Go away.”

Thanks a lot Grimes,  I thought to myself.  There was no need for him to undermine my relationship – after all I had pointed him in the dubious direction of Carla.  I sat down on the steps next to Carla.  “Carla, it looks like you need some help here.  Why don’t I help you up, and I can go inside and make some coffee if you have some.”  I reached down to try and help her sit up.

“Hey don’t touch me,  I’m perfectly comfortable here.”

“Okay, okay, I won’t touch you, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do.  Why don’t I just take your dog for a walk around the block or two down to the bodega, and get us some fresh coffee to drink.  Is there anything else I can get you down there?  I notice that you don’t have a car and maybe you need a few groceries.”

“Hey, I can get up whenever I want to, but if you really want to take that dog for a walk you can you pick me up a pack of cigarettes and maybe a burrito.  I’ll pay you when I get back.  You might want to get some dog food.  Don’t think that I have fed him in a while.  Leash is just on the back porch there. ”

I saw the leash hanging on the door handle next to an overflowing garbage can.  I grabbed an old pizza crust from the top, thinking that this would make a good impression on the dog.  I went down the stairs, carefully stepped over the prostrate Carla and headed over to the dog pen.  “What’s the dog’s name again?”  I asked.

“His name is ‘Not My Dog,’” slurred Carla.

The dog jumped up on the fence in frenzied anticipation of any kind of attention.  I patted him on the head and slipped him the pizza crust and he calmed down immediately.  The pen was filled with dog shit, and I realized that the dog probably had not been walked in days.  As I clipped the leash on, Not My Dog whimpered with excitement and I struggled to keep up with him as he pulled me down the block.  One neighbor recognized the dog and thanked me for walking him.  “That poor dog, he barks constantly, and Carla can barely take care of herself, much less an animal,” he said.  I quickly picked up a few things at the bodega, the burritos looked surprisingly good, but I bypassed the cigarettes in favor of a carton of orange juice, and then got a bag of dog treats.  I asked the cashier if Carla came her regularly, and he told me that she was no longer welcome until she paid her outstanding bill.  It wasn’t like I wanted to buy her friendship, but I pulled out a hundred dollar bill and asked if that would cover it.  The cashier shook his head and I pulled out another twenty, but didn’t bother to ask for a receipt.  I had always trusted corner bodegas.  There was no way a 7-11 would honor a credit, but bodegas were the center of the social life of a community and couldn’t afford to scam their customers.

When I returned, Carla had hoisted herself up onto the bottom step, but she was not looking good.  I silently handed her the cup of coffee and went to put Not My Dog back into the pen along with a bunch of the dog treats.  I sat silently next to Carla as we both sipped our coffee.  “I bet you don’t think much of me,” said Carla.

“I’m not here to judge anyone,” I said.  “I know that you’ve been through a hard time.  God knows what I would be like if I lost a child.”

“You’re right.  Some people wonder I am taking this so hard, considering think I wasn’t the best mother in the world.  But that’s just not fair.”  Her words made me think of Simba.  “I feel like I lost her twice, first to that no good father, and then I lost her completely.  Why’s that so hard for people to believe?  At least that detective seemed to understand.  He told me that you were just concerned about that other girl, whatever her name is, and that I should only talk with him, and maybe that is what I’m going to do.  I’m grateful for your help, I really am, but maybe you should go.”

“Yes Carla, I know Detective Grimes very well, in fact he was the one who introduced me to Penny and asked me to help her.  That’s how I met her, when she was concerned about her friend Dessa.  And I was the one that told Dectective Grimes to come to talk with you.  I think that we all want the same thing, justice for your daughter, but the detective and I are coming at it from two different directions – me from trying to find Dessa, who is probably one of the last people who saw Penny alive, and Detective Grimes is coming at it more directly, from trying to find the hit and run person.  But we all want the same things.”

“Well, if that is the case, why don’t you work together, instead of trying to put me in the middle of things?” said Carla.

“Right now Detective Grimes is interviewing a possible suspect who might have been driving the car, and I would like to talk with you about why someone would want to hurt your daughter.  Our two lines of inquiry – the who and the why – are coming together very quickly.  This is the case of two heads are better than one, and I would really like to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind.”

“You know what, I don’t have the energy to argue with you, and I don’t have anything to hide, so go ahead.  Did you get my smokes?”

“Sorry, I didn’t enough cash on me, but would you like something to drink?  I did get you some orange juice, that’s what I always like to drink when I had a hangover.”

“Okay, thanks.”  I handed her the carton.  “I’ll just drink it straight from the carton, no point in getting a cup.  Go ahead and fire away, I don’t know what I can tell you that I didn’t tell your detective friend.”

“Well, this has to do with Johnny Knox and Sam Todd, the man he worked for when he was working at the Margarita Club.  Did you know Johnny Knox at that time, and did you know is boss was Sam Todd?  This Sam Todd would have been Dessa’s father.”

“I’m not proud of it, but what do I have to lose at this point?  I worked at the Margarita Club too.   You do know that the club was not a boarding house, but a whorehouse, most people knew that.  But I wasn’t one of the girls you know, I was the receptionist and booker.  That’s where I met Johnny.  The girls always made more money than I did, and I was tempted, but Johnny would never let me.  That’s when I fell in love with Johnny, he looked out for me, you know, wouldn’t let me turn tricks, he was good to me.  All my other boyfriends up to that point wanted me to bring in a little extra cash, if you know what I mean.  That was the best job that I ever had.  But Sam Todd, that doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Carla, you must have known the regulars there.  Do you remember a man named Henry Murphy.  He probably came down from Santa Teresa.”

“Well that won’t help to narrow it down.  Most of our clients came down from Santa Teresa, and they would slip me some extra money to keep my mouth shut, so I never really wanted to ask any names.  I’m sure that there were some big wigs, politicians and stuff.  But Henry Murphy doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Well Henry had a nickname.  He might have been called Polly, and maybe even Polly Waddle.”

“Oh, Polly Waddle, sure, we all knew him.  Quite a joke among the girls, but also all the girls wanted to be assigned to him, because all he ever wanted to do was just talk.  He never unzipped anything.  He always asked for one girl, can’t remember her name, might have been Sally, something like that.  Johnny would get mad since she would spend the whole night with him, when she could be billing out several guys.  Johnny was a real business man you know, really knew how to maximize the take, since he would get a cut of everything that went on.  Johnny got really mad at Sally when she started seeing Polly Waddle outside the club.  This is where Johnny got really smart too, he said that there was no seeing men outside of the house – no extracurriculars.  That made sense to me, you know, after all it was Johnny that introduced them, no reason why he shouldn’t continue to be paid even if they took it outside the club.

“You say her name was Sally, but could her name have been Sylvia maybe?  Was she about your age?

“Sylvia, sure that could have been her name, but she wasn’t there that long, and then everyone dispersed after the raid.”

“You were there when the police raided the place?  Can you tell me about that?”

“What a joke, the police came running in, and I immediately recognized three or four of them as regular customers.”

“Were Polly and Sally there that night?”

“Well if it was a Friday night, they were.  Polly always came Friday night, and we all joked that he had probably had dinner with his mummy, told her that he was off to the club to play backgammon, then kissed her goodnight and came on down here.  If Polly was here then Sally was also.  She made sure of it.  I bet that he was a mighty fine tipper.  I’d be his best friend too if he paid me.  Why do you want to know about this anyway?  This must have happened about 25 years ago.”

I just pressed ahead. “Was there anything funny about that night?  Was Johnny there?  The reason I ask is that I think that someone might have tipped off Johnny that the raid was coming, so that he was able to protect his best customers and get them out of there.”

“Come to think of it, you might be right about that.  Usually Johnny would get the night going and then go out for dinner.  But that night was different.  He brought dinner in, and actually started to set up a romantic dinner with me, which is why I remember.  I really loved Johnny then, he was good to me, even though I don’t think that I was his exclusive girlfriend.  And then he got a phone call, and had to leave, and then the police came storming in.  I was surprised that the policy nabbed so few people, since the house was always pretty full on Friday nights, particularly since it was at the end of the month – we were always busier around payday.  Johnny always called a few more girls in that night, we had a downstairs living room where they waited.  Real nice red velvet furniture.  Johnny even helped me pick out the color, since he said that I had good taste.”

“This is why I am curious.  If you think Polly Waddle” – I cringed when I had to use this name – “if you think that Polly Waddle was in the house, why wasn’t he one of the people picked up in the raid?  I’m wondering if someone tipped Johnny off  and he hustled him out of the house.  Probably some other regulars too, the only one they really nabbed was the mayor of Santa Teresa.”

“Well hard to imagine why Polly Waddle got preferred treatment.  Johnny always joked about him, called him a momma’s boy.  I do remember the mayor though.  Johnny hated him.  Came in once with a bunch of friends and stiffed us and one of the girls said that she was raped.  Not much she could do though, but I can see why Johnny let him get caught.  But this is really old history.  I don’t see how this is going to help you.”

“Well it turns out that this Sam Todd owned the boarding house and Johnny has worked for him on and off for several years.  Sam is both Dessa’s father, but also Polly Waddle’s brother-in-law.  Here let me see if I can get a picture of him on my iPhone.”

The only thing that I could find quickly was a fairly recent picture, but Carla recognized him immediately.  “Sure I used to see him around.  Johnny only called him Boss.  That night, he arrived with the police and was kind of directing them, but I still don’t see why that is important.”

“I don’t really know the whole story yet Carla, but this is very helpful.  You see this establishes the connection between Penny and Dessa.  In my line of business, I often find that things that look like ancient history are still just below the surface.  Old anger and resentment can erupt sometimes, like a volcano, and cause a lot of damage.   I think that Penny must have accidentally uncorked the past.  And that is what Detective Grimes and I are trying to unravel.  I suggest that you keep this to yourself for the moment and let Grimes and I work through it.”

Carla looked spent, the same kind of exhaustion that I had recently seen on Simba’s face.  “Look, Carla would you like some help getting inside?  It looks like you could use a rest.  Let me help you.”  Carla seemed resigned to my help, and resigned to the fact that I would see the shocking interior of her house.  Just like Simba, I lead her to a couch in the living room and covered her with a ratty afghan.  And then I spent a good two hours washing the stacks of dishes in her kitchen.



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