Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Chapter 49

Henry emerged from a side door and stood on the stone patio.  Sam and I were about 50 years away and down a small dip in the landscaping overlooking the canyon.  But even at this distance in the dark, I made out the unmistakable shape of a small hand gun.  Sam stopped moving toward the house, but stood up straight and said in a loud voice, “Henry, do you always bring a gun to a family reunion?  It is a somewhat unusual choice, don’t you think, but it seems to be the one thing that we have ever agreed on.  You see, I never come to a family reunion without a gun either.”  He reached into his pocket and now the two men  vaguely pointed a gun at each other.  I wonder if Henry had ever shot a gun.  I was sure that Sam had pulled a few triggers, but all bets were off since both men were wavering unsteadily in the moonlight.

I instinctively backed off to the side and tried to slip into the shadows, which seemed to be a safer place to make my little speech.  “Henry and Sam, put the guns down.  You’re both under a lot of stress, but violence is obviously not the answer.  Put the guns down and let’s talk this through.”

Sam let out a hearty laugh, “Liza is that the best you’ve got?   That violence is not the answer?  Can’t you be more creative than that?  Blah, blah, blah, blah, violence is not the answer.  What do you think Henry?  Don’t you think that violence is just the perfect answer in some situations?”  Sam then pointed his gun directly over his back shoulder into the black canyon and pulled the trigger.  The shot startled Henry and he stumbled backward a couple of steps, but still held the gun out in front of him.  “C’mon Henry, c’mon old Polly Waddle, don’t you think that violence could just be the answer?  Let’s settle this once and for all.”

He took one step forward toward Henry, and then all of a sudden the side door slammed open and someone rushed out and stood exactly between in the direct fire of both guns between the two men.  It was Dessa.   I had only seen her photographs before.  At the very least the pictures were of a timid, fearful child sitting on her brother’s lap.  At the worst an uncomfortable pictures with a terrible undercurrent of perverse sexuality.  But now as she stood in the line of fire she looked like a picture of utter confidence.  I also could not help but notice that Dessa was beautiful.  A full moon was casting shadows across the lawn, and her elongated shadow showcased her willowy legs and enlarged her confident pose with her hands resting on her waist.   She was barefoot, and as her feet pressed into the wet grass, I could even seen small wisps of shadows on the side of her foot.  She was wearing a simple black skirt, not too short, and a loose fitting white sleeveless blouse.  This was the picture that Goddard should have put in his gallery.  I knew in that minute that Dessa had emerged as the head of this family, and that whatever she said in the next few minutes would dictate the end game of this drama.

“I can’t tell you two enough, and the others in the kitchen in there, can you hear me?” she said as she raised her voice.  “I can’t tell you how tired I am of all of you.  I have tried to love you individually, but I am unable to love you as a family.  It has just gotten too complicated.  I think that I have successfully loved two people in my life, Grandma Chloe and Penny, and now both of them are dead, both tragically – one of a broken heart, and the other might have been murdered.  So now I am left alone with all of you forcing me to pick and choose sides and I just won’t.  So you can all stop trying to make me.  I mean it.  I am not a little doll that can be poked and pulled and traded.  I used to be, until Penny taught me how to stand up for myself.  I really loved her, you know. And I think that I was the only person who really loved her.  We were really very much the same that way.”  She spoke with a sure and clear voice, and made no effort to address the guns pointed at her.  I suspected that she didn’t really care at this point.

Henry lowered his gun and motioned with it, directing Dessa out of the line of fire.  “My issue is not with you Dessa,” he said, “you are really the only part of this family that I care about.  It is your father there.  He is not a nice man you know, and he has made my life a living hell.”

Dessa did not move.  “Uncle Polly,” she said , “I am perfectly aware that he is not a nice man.  I think that we all know that.  Isn’t that true mother?” she called out.  “How about you father, do you think that you are a nice man?”

Simba stepped just outside the door, but didn’t say anything.  Sam now also lowered his gun and said, “Dessa, what do you want me to say here?  I’ll admit to being a business man, and so sure there are times that business requires me to be not so nice, but that’s business.  Ask anyone who has been successful.  I knew that I wasn’t going to be a warm and cuddly father, but I think that we can all agree that I am a nice provider.  Would you agree with that?  I’m talking to that kitchen group too,” he said with a raised voice.  “Anybody in there have a problem with that?”  The door opened again and Goddard, Simba and Sylvia slipped out, but none of them said anything.  “Let’s see what we’ve got here.  Looks like a jury of weaklings to me.”  None of them said anything, and I started to agree with Sam.

Dessa continued on and turned her back on her father, “So Uncle Polly what is your agenda here?  How can I help you?”

“Dessa if you only knew what your father has done over the years, I think that you might have more sympathy for me.”

“Polly, I know what he has done.  Penny and I figured it out.  And I know what you have done.  We figured that out also.  So I’m thinking that maybe it is a draw.”

“Don’t call me Polly,” he muttered.

“Okay, Uncle Henry it is.  I actually don’t really care if you two men continue on hating each other.  And I don’t really care if you, Mother, claim that you are sorry and want to be a real mother, and I don’t really care, Sylvia, if you want to make a claim on me.  Quite frankly I don’t really know what would make me want to care at this point. And Father, we came to a mutual decision quite some time ago not to care about each other, so I think that we are done.  I wouldn’t want to disturb that tidy relationship.   But there is one thing that we can talk about, and that is what happened to Penny.  We need to have that discussion.”

“Well don’t look at me,” said Sam.  I never even met girl.”

“Well, I think that you might be wrong there, Dad,” She said the last word with a slight pause, and drew out Dad into almost a multi-syllable word.  “Penny said that she had met you.  Perhaps you remember, it was at your office about the week before the accident?  And Uncle Henry,” again she paused as if she was trying to decide whether to call him Polly or Henry.  I was glad that she opted for Henry.  “I know that you met her.  And I know that she probably asked you uncomfortable questions.  Issues that I had always wondered about, issues about this thing that we have been calling a family for so many years.  And look what happened.  I let her do the dirty work for me and now she’s dead.”

“Now wait a minute here Missy,” said Sam.  “Are you trying to say that I had something to do with her death?  Why would I possibly care?  I am an open book, I have no need to lie about anything.  Sure, some of the things that I have done are not totally attractive, but I have never, ever lied.  You can even ask Ms. Blue over there.  She’s sure been snooping around a lot, and all she needed to do was just come and ask me.”

I wasn’t even sure that Dessa knew that I was standing there, nor the others who had emerged from the house, but now all eyes turned to me.  “Ms. Blue will tell you that I have told her everything, I have no secrets, do I?  In fact maybe you’re the one who has stirred up all this trouble.”

I found it hard to believe that Sam had just thrust me into the position of outing Dessa’s birth parents, though I suspected that she already knew.  I mumbled and stammered and then came up with, “I think that everyone can probably agree that there are some issues that need to be discussed, and some of them may be painful, but I’ve got to say, I think that the first step is to put away the guns.  And maybe a better format would be in the morning when everyone is clear-headed.  Best possible scenario might be to take this slowly, some sort of family counseling.”

“I don’t know who you are Ms Blue, except that you have been chasing after me,” said Dessa.  “Goddard says you are okay and that you are just trying to help, and that might be true, but for once in my life I’m going to be in charge.  And Dad and Henry, I don’t really care if you put your guns away.  Keep them, pocket them, give ‘em to Blue, or throw them into the ravine.  I really don’t care.”  Sam put his gun on the table, while Henry slipped his into his pocket.  “And Dad,” again that slightly sarcastic pause, “the question I asked was not about Penny’s death, it was whether or not you had ever met her.  I think that one of your particular talents is dissembling.  You might say that all we have to do is ask you, but then it is hard to figure what to ask you and then you answer a different question.   And Henry, you knew Penny well.  Penny was the one that figured out what you were up to with Granny’s finances , and I’m glad that you finally made it right, but I’m wondering if that was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Henry simply stared up at the moonlit sky, and I imagined he was trying to figure how to defend himself, or whether Dessa was going to go into excruciating detail on his finances.  “Dessa, I was only trying to do what I thought was the best for Chloe.  I am the trustee you know.  And I told you to talk to your father, because that money in your account should by all rights belonged to Chloe and I.  It should have been ours.  I told you that.    Your father cheated us out of that.”

Sam reached over and picked up his gun again. “Henry how many times do I have to tell you that it was a business loan and I paid it off, as requested by your father.  Will you please just shut up about it.”

“Henry, I agree,” said Dessa.  This is not about something that happened over thirty years ago.  You just need to shut up about that thing.  You can’t let a bad business deal be the defining moment of your life.  I’m the family member who has had the most therapy, and the one thing that I’ve learned is that you’ve to let some things go.  Go ahead and hate my father, but please you just have to have other things in your life, you can’t let your entire day be driven by disappointment, hatred and revenge.  I’ve had it.  I can’t do this anymore.  Every single conversation I’ve had for the past five years with you always comes back to this.”     She turned and stepped out of the moonlight and started walking toward the side gate that I had just entered.  As she walked past me, she bumped me and gave me a slight nod of recognition that I didn’t understand at the time.  We heard a car start, and then the crunch of the graveled driveway and she was gone.

It was deathly quiet as we all tried to absorb Dessa’s remarkable performance.  “Henry and Sam,” Simba said, “what have you done to that dear, dear girl?  None of us deserve her.  What have you done to hurt her so?”

I felt compelled to step in at this point.  Now was not the time for recriminations between two loaded men with loaded guns.  I started to say, “I think that we should set up a time to talk this through,” but then we heard the crunch of tires on gravel again.

“Oh, good, Dessa has come back,” said Simba, but then we heard the doorbell ring.  “Sam who can that be? Why don’t you answer it.”

With a sigh and a heave, Sam lumbered into the house and opened the door.  He spoke in a loud voice so that we could all hear, “Why Detective Grimes, what can I do for you?”

“I have a search warrant for Henry Murphy’s car.  He reported it stolen and said that we might be able to find it here.  The search warrant is for the car itself; it is material to our investigation of the vehicular manslaughter of Penny Knox.”

“Yes sir, that’s the car right over there.  Would you like to talk with Henry Murphy?  He happens to be in my back yard right now.  We were just having a little family gathering.  Why don’t you join us on the back patio.”  Sam spoke in such a pleasant and easy-going tone, as if it was an everyday occurrence to have a car impounded for a murder investigation.

Henry also straightened up and put the gun in his coat pocket.  I had the feeling that silently the entire family had decided to pull it together and present a united front in front of Grimes.  I noticed Sam’s gun on the patio table and quickly scooped it up and put it my coat pocket.  I squinted into the light of the kitchen and noticed that the dark shapes that I had assumed were Goddard and Sylvia were now gone.  The next voice I heard was Simba’s.  “Detective Grimes, isn’t it.  I am sorry that I was not available when you were here a couple of days ago.  Please come in.”

The group of three then moved out to the back patio and joined Henry.  I moved back into the shadows – my presence might undermine the concept of a peaceful family gathering.  “Well hello Mr. Murphy,” said Grimes.  “We are responding to your call about your stolen car.  And of course as your brother-in-law probably told you, we are also interested in speaking with your niece Dessa, who might have been the last person to see Penny alive.  I was hoping to find them both here.  Is Dessa around?”

Sam started to speak, but Henry quickly interrupted him.  “Yes Dessa was here, you just missed her.  In fact, you probably passed her on your way up here.  We have been having a family meeting – you might not realize that my mother just died, Chloe Murphy, who lived at the Great Days facility, so as you can understand it has been a very emotional time.  We are all here together planning her memorial service.”

“Ah, so your niece has shown up,” said Grimes, “I am glad to hear it, because I thought she had gone missing.”

“It has all been a big understanding,” said Simba.  “Henry tell them about the car.”

Henry paused, and I think that we all felt his mental gears whirring rapidly.  “I am sorry to bring you all the way up here.  Dessa has been using my car, and she has returned it here.  I had told her several weeks ago that she could borrow it, and I totally forgot in this whirlwind of my mother’s last days.  As I told you this morning, I just never use the car or go into the garage, so I was so surprised when it was gone.  I was just trying to help you find the car.  I certainly didn’t mean to imply anything else.”

Nicely done, Henry, I thought.  This family was showing a remarkably consistent and useful talent of dissembling.

“Well, if Dessa was using Henry’s car, and now Dessa is gone, how did she leave?   You can’t exactly get a cab here you know.”

This time it was Sam’s turn.  “Dessa still lives here part time, and I’m sure that she took one of our cars.  I’ll give her a call and let her know that you would like to talk with her.     She has actually been incommunicado for the last couple of days.  Kids are just wedded to their cell phones, these days, and she said that hers was lost, and she had been traveling around a bit.  But we’ve all come together now to honor Chloe.  She was a remarkable woman.”

I thought that Sam had perhaps hit a wrong note with this last entry, and Grimes probably knew it also, but there wasn’t much that he could do.  They were all standing in a tight little knot around the patio table, no one had sat done, and there was no offer to Grimes to extend his welcome.  “My condolences to your family,” he said, “I’m taking the car, and I will let you know in a couple of days when and if you can have it back.”

“I welcome the opportunity for you to take a look at it,” said Sam, as he shepherded Grimes to the door, “I’m sure you will find that this car had nothing to do with Penny’s death.  I didn’t realize this but Penny was the daughter of Johnny Knox, who has been a business associate of mine for many years.  He is almost like family to me, so I am counting on you to get to the bottom of this.  That is what we all want, Dessa included, who was Penny’s best friend.”

I heard the front door close, and Sam walked back into the yard.  I moved out of the shadows and was starting to leave when Sam said, “Stay here Ms. Blue.  I need you as a witness, since as I’m sure you have realized, this family suffers from selective memory.  Now let’s go around the circle here.  What do you think that Grimes is going to find in that car?  I’ll start with myself.  I’ve never been in Henry’s car and furthermore I have an alibi for that night.  I don’t need to tell you the nature of my alibi, but its iron tight and it’s in my lawyers hands.  Okay, Simba it’s your turn.”

“Sam, for God’s sake, what are you saying?  That I took Henry’s car and ran down some poor girl I didn’t even know for no particular reason that I can think of?   How would I get the car anyway?  I don’t even know the combination to get through Henry’s gate.  I would have to go back and look at my date book, but I was probably were I usually am every night, alone up her in the dark canyon while you were creating nightly alibis all over the coastline.  And Henry how could you ever think that Dessa might have anything to do with it?”

“Well it certainly wasn’t me,” said Henry.  “Like I told Grimes, I just wanted to clear our names, our whole family.  It wasn’t me.  Yes, I had met Penny, and I had a few discussions with Dessa over Chloe’s finances, but we worked everything out.  There was no reason for me either.  The issue was done settled.  Besides, I have a lawyer also, and he told me not to talk with anyone without him.  By the way, what happened to Sylvia?”

“Okay,” said Simba, “That settles it.  It couldn’t be any of us so we don’t have anything to worry about do we, Liza?”   I was going to answer and contribute some reassuring words, but Simba had already dismissed the specter of a murderer in their midst and moved on to something more important to her.  “Henry, how do you know Sylvia?  And what business is it of yours?”

At this point Sam had sat down again, looking smugly satisfied that the conversation had veered away from him, and eager to be a ringside participant of the oncoming argument.  Henry just pointed at me and said, “She told me, so I came up here.  I used to know Sylvia a long time ago and so did Sam.   Haven’t seen her in ages.”

Sylvia turned to me.  “I don’t understand you, Liza.  You say you are a mediator, and you say you are my friend, but I guess I’m getting confused between what a mediator does and what a meddler does.”

I had to admit she had a point there, and I was beginning to feel like Dessa, helpless in the tug of war among these family members, blindly groping my way through a field of flashpoints, particularly since I din’t know what she and Sylvia might have discussed before I arrived.  “Simba, I can’t be a family mediator unless we all sit down together in a coordinated fashion.  I can’t keep doing this on the fly and in odd moments.  If you are serious about a mediator, I can help you find a professional.  This is getting too complicated for me.”  Sam motioned for me to join him as a bystander and sit down, but I’d had it.  “I think my job is basically over.  You have my number if you need it.”

Henry said, “I’m done for the night.  I don’t need this abuse.  Liza will you give me a ride?”

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