Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapter 48

I walked out the gate and pondered my options, which turned out to be very limited.  Just didn’t seem right for a private eye to arrive at a potential crime scene in a cab.  But then I remembered that Mary had moved around here a couple of years ago.  It was her statement house, she said, to prove that she had arrived in Santa Teresa society.  I really wasn’t a good enough friend to call her at this hour, but with any luck, Nick Nichol would be with her, and he was somebody I could always call.  My purse was still in my stolen car, and with a sickening feeling, I realized that my gun was in there also – an unforgivable mistake, but fortunately, my cell phone was still clipped to my waistband.  My call to Nick went straight to voice mail, but it always did, since Nick never answered a call on the first try.  I think  it was a control issue, he always wanted to be the one to initiate a call on his schedule.  But I knew that he couldn’t resist the juicy message I left him. 

Sure enough, about two minutes later, his call came in.  “Nick, I am in a bit of a jam here, I’m wondering if you’re anywhere in the Coastal Estates neighborhood, and, if so, if I could borrow your car?  Goddard borrowed my car for the moment and now I need to catch up to him.”

“So Goddard has finally reappeared.  Tell him that I would need to talk with him as soon as possible about his gallery.  Where is he?”

“I hate to say it, Nick, but the gallery is not his priority right now.  For one thing his grandmother died, and the family is just coming to grips with that,” I said, dissembling to the best of my abilities.

“At this hour of the night, and by the way, what makes you think that I am in the Coastal Estates area?”

And then in the background I heard Mary said, “Oh, she’s good Nick, she knows that I live in this area and you sent her that giggly message yesterday.”  She grabbed the phone from Nick and spoke directly to me.  “I’m sorry to hear about Chloe.  Look you can borrow my car, that’s what friends are for, aren’t they.”  Here was Mary, scoping out a death and setting up a quid pro quo for a potential real estate listing.  So I guess we were both good in our own ways.  I walked the five blocks over to her house.  She opened the front door a crack, and there she was in a bathrobe with a glass of champagne in her hand.  “Here you go,” she said, as she held out the keys. “I hope you get a kick out of driving my mini – it will be quite a change from your old clunker.  You know, Liza, a lot of times when there is a death in the family, people can’t cope with the grief, so they first turn to some practical issues that might be a little easier to think about – you know like houses, cars and things.  Anyway, if that comes up, maybe you can steer them in my direction.  Even though that house is a total dump, it does have historical value.  As she handed me the keys, she also slipped in one of her cards.

As I worked my way across the city, I had to admit that Mary was right.  The car did feel great, and as I headed up the canyon, I floored it, and for the first time began to appreciate a car as more than just transportation.  About half way up the canyon, a pick up truck came careening around the corner and I had to swerve quickly.  It was a white truck and I thought I might have seen Johnny Knox’s logo on the side.  All of a sudden I felt vulnerable in the little mini without a gun.  I slowly drove into the Todd’s driveway and counted four cars  – mine, and a black SUV, which might have been Henry’s and  Simba’s car.  I couldn’t identify the fourth car, but perhaps it was Sylvia’s.  At first, it looked like the house was completely dark, but then I noticed one faint light in the back.  I didn’t want to just ring the doorbell and present myself – what was I going to say anyway, that the family mediator had arrived?  I decided to discretely reconnoiter, so I turned off my headlights, drove out the other side of the circular driveway and parked alongside the road about 100 yards further along.  As I walked back toward the house, I noticed a small gate between the bushes.  I pushed it open and found myself in the Todd’s expansive backyard.  I could see the light in the house more clearly now, and it looked like it must be in the kitchen, always the best place for family meetings, I thought.

As I approached the back yard, I got the distinctive whiff of a cigar and I realized that I was near the very same patio where I had ice tea with Sam Todd just the other day.  I got even closer and recognized the man’s profile.  “Hello, Sam,” I said, “I just left your brother-in-law Henry in the exact same position, sitting on his patio nursing a scotch and smoking a cigar.”

Sam tilted his head back, blow out some smoke and spoke to the brilliant stars.  “Ah, it’s detective Liza Blue.  You can’t seem to leave my family alone, can you?  You are a real pot stirrer, you know that, got my little Simba all fired up about becoming a better person, but I’m afraid that she is sorely out of practice.  And Henry too, I commend you on taking on another lost cause – is that your particular skill?  Go ahead and sit down, while we wait for the kitchen committee to disband in there.  I was not invited of course since the members of this committee are  “People to Which Everything is Given, But Who Still Want More and Won’t Leave Well Enough Alone.”  It is a very elite group because you have to meet all three criteria to join.  Simba and Henry are charter members, I have proposed Goddard as well, and that grasping Sylvia Wister.  That kid Dessa might not qualify after all, because as far as I can tell, she actually wants less and not more, which is not the best strategy from a business strategy, but what the hell, she is just a kid, so there’s still time.”

Sam still hadn’t looked at me, but motioned to me to sit in the adjacent chair, took a swig of scotch right out of the bottle and pushed it across to me.  Sam was slightly slurring his words, so I thought the patio was as good a place to start as any.   “Sam, I know that you told me my services were no longer needed, but I’m not sure that you know Simba hired me to help her find Dessa and sit down and talk with her.”

“Simba can say whatever she want, and you can do whatever you want to supposedly help her, but as I’ve mentioned she will always want more.  I’m not sure that you know that you have hitched your wagon to one needy person, so have fun with that.  Plus don’t count on getting paid.  I control the checking accounts in this household.  I have an accountant whose just about full time job is to run around this city and undo many of the commitments that Simba has supposedly made in the service of her “Mrs. Gotrocks” routine.  His salary is a percentage of the money he saves me, and he is one very happy employee.”  Sam pulled the bottle back and took another swig.

“Sam, don’t forget that a crime was committed here and police tend to be very relentless when it comes to murder,” I said.  “It’s a justice thing, a speaking for the dead thing, and your family seems to be right in the middle of it.  And you must know that the dead girl was the daughter of your long time” – and here I groped for the right word.  I almost used the word “henchman” but that sounded like the mob, the word employee didn’t sound quite right, so I went with “associate.”  The dead girl, Penny Knox, was killed in a hit and run accident and she was the daughter of Johnny Knox, your long time associate.  Didn’t I pass his car going down the highway as I was on the way up?”

“You’re good Ms. Blue, I should have never dropped you from the case.  Yes that was Johnny Knox, but tonight was the first night I ever heard that he had a daughter.  She must have crawled out of the woodwork, probably the product of his taste for the underbelly of life, if you know what I mean.  First of all how was I supposed to know that he had a daughter, and second that she was dead.  If I did know I would have paid my proper respects.  Had my secretary send in a fruit basket, that type of thing.  But he had no right to storm up here to say that I had anything to do with it.  Busting in on our little family confab that was going so well.  It got Dessa so upset – she says that Penny was her friend, which is hard to believe, since as far as I know Simba made it pretty impossible for her to have any friends.  And Dessa said she saw the accident and then she stared straight at me.  It’s all ridiculous of course.  Why would I care about some tattooed runaway from Cutter City?  It doesn’t make any sense.”

I took a deep breath and pressed ahead.  “It seems like Penny had gotten very interested in tracing family histories, and was working on Dessa’s family history.  She and Dessa had this suspicion that Simba wasn’t her birth mother and they were trying to confirm that. You know, Simba told me that she lost the baby and you arranged for a private adoption, and that was Dessa.”

Sam snorted, “Shit, is that what this is all about?  I don’t give a shit who knows that, the secrecy was purely a Simba issue.  She would say over and over to me, ‘This is our daughter, Sam, this is our daughter, isn’t it.’  See what I mean about people who are given everything?  She wanted a baby and I got her one.  Simple as that.  But then Simba wanted more, want me to create this story that it was our baby, so I gave her that.  So sure, Simba is not the birth mother, but all someone had to do was come and ask me.  Can’t imagine this is motive for murder.”

“Sam, is Sylvia the mother?”

“Well if you know enough to ask that question, you probably know the answer is yes.  I knew Sylvia from her call girl days back in Cutter City, and then she went and rehabilitated herself as a school teacher, for Christ’s sake.  If the school board only knew, but she was really okay, at least as far as prostitute go, and I heard that she was a good teacher.  Goddard might have had her in high school.  And then she came to me knocked up and asking for help, so what the hell, I pitched in, the timing was really good with Simba bouncing off the walls. Worked out for everyone, and then I let her have a relationship with Dessa.  It was a beautiful system that worked out for everyone, until this two bit Penny had to go and muck it all up.  Okay, I know of course your next question is who is Dessa’s biological father, and I’ll spare you the embarrassment of being so nosy.  I can assure you that I am not Dessa’s real father.  I said that I like Sylvia as a person, she’s just not my type.  I was sitting here all contemplative before you walked up, and I realized that all the women in my life are similar – cool blonds with long legs.  Now that Sylvia – she is short and dark, and I would never screw a woman with big ass.  As I say, she’s nice enough, but just not my type.  Now of course Henry, that’s a different story.  She was his favorite at the Margarita Club before it got closed down.  Sylvia never told me who the father was, and I didn’t ask, but I got a real rush thinking that maybe I was adopting Henry’s kid.  And anyway if that was the case, I was doing Dessa a wonderful favor.  I’m nobody’s idea of the best father, I can live with that, but Henry would be everyone’s idea of the worst father.  As I say it was a beautiful arrangement until that Penny showed up.”

It was hard to imagine that the best way to deny parentage was to claim that the mother’s ass was too big. I didn’t know where to begin, once again choosing dissembling.  “Sam you and I are similar in that both of us had very modest beginnings and have worked hard to get where we are.  But just because someone had a privileged life – well I don’t know, is that their fault?  Henry is a very fragile person, all sorts of insecurities – his mother dying so young, and his social awkwardness.”  I didn’t know where I was going with this, so I just shut up.

“Tough titty,” was all Sam would say, and then after a pause, “that guy is such a meddling asshole.  I had a great deal going with Simba down there in Cutter City, and he almost screwed me over – tried to convince her parents that I was a pimp, which was sort of true, but irrelevant since  I was the best thing that could have happened to Simba at the time – she was running wild and would have only caused her family embarrassment.  My profession was the least of her father’s worries.  I pointed this out to her father, and he agreed and gave me everything I asked for.  I got the money boost I needed and I was off and running.   But I got that Polly Waddle in the end – I found out his weakness, like most people it was humiliation, and I got him good and got him out of our lives forever.  I’m sitting pretty up here in the canyon, looking down at his disintegrating house on Coastal Estates, what a joke that development is.  Now that Chloe is gone, he might be able to get his hands on some money, and he might be able to hold out a little longer, but I’ll get him in the end. Skye Island is going to be great, and Coastal Estates will just sink into the ocean.”  Sam stopped and for the first time stopped and looked at me.  “And that my dear, is the abridged version of the story of Sam Todd, from Cutter City to the Canyon Rim.  I believe that you now have everything you need to know.”

Sam got up and started to lurch toward the house, drink in hand.  I heard a door slam and a car drive off, and then heard Henry’s slurred voice, “Sylvia are you here?  Where are you?  It’s me Henry.  Tell me what’s going on her.  It’s me Henry.”

Sam startled me with his forced laughter.  “Hey Henry, old man,” he yelled across the lawn.  “Come join the group.  It looks like our family tableau is now complete.”

“Sam be careful,” called out Simba.  “He’s got a gun.”

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