Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery: Conclusion

I started to walk across the lawn towards my car, but Henry spoke up again.  As I turned I saw his gun pointed at me.  “Simba, I really insist that you stop ignoring me.  I asked a simple question, and I don’t think that it’s too much to ask.  So I’ll say it again, and this time I want an answer.  Why was Sylvia here?”  This time he was pointing the gun at Simba.  I reached into my purse to feel Sam’s gun. 

“Henry,” quavered Simba, “Sylvia used to be Goddard’s teacher in school, and they have been friends since then.  Sylvia has always been very kind to Goddard and to Dessa too, and that’s where Dessa has been for the past few days, so I was very grateful to Sylvia.  That’s all.”

“Did she ever ask about me?”  said Henry quietly.

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t know that you knew her.  It never came up,” said Simba.

“Henry, put that gun away, or at least aim it at me and not your sister,” said Sam.  We both knew Sylvia, of course, and maybe it’s time to educate you a little more, because she is not what you think.  You see, Sylvia came to me…”

“Stop Sam, is this really necessary?  How can you be so cruel?” said Simba.  I started to inch closer to Henry.  He seemed so confused and lost I thought that I could perhaps grab his gun, now pointed at Sam.

Sam pressed ahead undeterred.  “You see Sylvia came to me knocked up and asked for my help.   I hadn’t seen her much since she was your whore, but what the hell, Simba was in a bad way – frankly I think that you Murphy’s are a pretty unstable bunch – anyway I wanted to have a peaceful home life, so I offered to adopt her baby, and Sylvia was agreeable.  So there you have it, actually you might be the last to know – Dessa figured out with Penny’s help.   You see, Sylvia is Dessa’s birth mother.   What do you think old man, think you might be the secret baby daddy after all these years?  What about it, could it be you, or maybe you’re just one among many possibilities?”

I briefly wondered why Sam seemed to be just asking for it, taunting an unstable man with a loaded gun, but Sam then made a sudden move to try and knock the gun out of Henry’s hands.   Simba was screaming, “Sam how could you, how could you?”  I leapt forward and slammed into Henry’s body, and hit his outstretched arm with a chopping motion.  I heard the sound of the gun go off and then there was silence.

A few seconds later I heard the low rolling chuckle of Sam’s voice.  “Missed again, big fella.  Might be time for you to go home.  I’m sure that we can manage a way to never see each other again.”  I looked up and saw that the gun had been flung into the wet grass a few feet away.  I crawled over and grabbed the gun; now I had two guns in my pocket.

Henry was shaking and Simba had her arms around him, they walked off together, and I headed back to my car, leaving Sam alone.  “Excuse Ms. Blue,” he said, tapping on the table where his gun had been sitting, “I think that you maybe have something of mine.”  He held out his hand.  I ignored him and kept walking to the car.

I met Simba and Henry in front of the house.  “Would you like me to drive you two back to your house?” I said.  Simba shook her head and was helping  a very feeble Henry get into the car.  I nodded back at her and headed over to my car, and followed then closely down the canyon, and satisfied that Simba was not driving erratically, I headed back to my apartment.

Chapter 50

I thought I had slept in the next morning.  After all, there didn’t seem much I could do except update Henry’s lawyer Jimmy Earle and wait for the police investigation of the car.  When I woke up, it was light out, so I knew that it was at least 7 AM.  I got up and closed the curtains, hoping to sleep for at least another smooth 4 hours.  I felt I deserved it.  That was one long day, starting with Simba on my doorstep with the worrisome purple thumbprint on her wrist, and crisscrossing from the Murphy house, to Cutter City, to dead Chloe, to the Murphy house and back up the canyon, the day ending with me tackling a man with a loaded gun.  I wasn’t sure what I had accomplished, except that maybe I had prevented a death, even though the man clearly wanted to be murdered.  I got up took a shower, got dressed and didn’t look at the clock until I went into the kitchen.  I couldn’t believe it, it was only 8:30.  As soon as I saw the clock, all my renewed energy from my supposed deep sleep evaporated.  I was also standing in front of a sink filled with the detritus of Simba’s breakfast the previous morning.  There were plates sticky with congealed egg yolk pockmarked with adherent bread crumbs.  Another smear of egg yolk was on the counter, and greasy frying pans were still on the range.  I started the clean up while contemplating getting back into bed for a do-over.   However, the ringing phone made it clear that the day had started.

“Liza, it’s Jimmy Earle.”

“Jimmy, I was going to call you to bring you up to date on the details, but it might be better for me to stop by your office.”

“Liza, haven’t you heard, Henry Murphy is dead.  Committed suicide.  Left a note and everything.  Confessed to the hit and run.  Liza, are you there, didn’t you hear yet.  Sorry to break it to you so abruptly.”

“Jimmy, I was just with Henry last night.  It was an emotional night for sure, but when I left him, he was driving to his house with his sister Simba, and I thought they’d be okay.   Have you talked with Simba yet?”

“No, just talked with Grimes of the police force.  Apparently they’re satisfied that the case is closed.  Looks like he just wandered into the ocean.  They’re going to do a tox screen, but with the note and all, it doesn’t look accidental, and there’s nothing like a written confession to close a case.”

“I find it hard to believe,” I said.  ‘Henry was a troubled man, for sure, and I’m willing to go with the suicide – that’s within the realm of possibilities, but it hard to believe that that timid man would  run down a young girl.  I just don’t see that.”

“Well, what can I say?  My job as a defense attorney is typically over when the defendant dies, but give me a call if I can be of further help.”

I just sat down at the kitchen table with my head in my hands.  What had gone on last night after I left Henry and Simba?  Well, I could probably guess.  And then I started to feel guilty that I was trying to convince myself that I shouldn’t feel guilty.  But ultimately I decided that the least I should do is stop by Simba’s to offer my condolences.   So I left the dishes idling in the sink to turn into a perfectly congealed ugliness, and off I went through Santa Teresa to the Murphy used-to-be mansion.   The gates had been left open and there were a few cars in the driveway that I didn’t recognize.  The front door was unlocked and I just walked in.  The morning light was streaming through the windows, highlighting the fine mist of dust in the air and on the furniture.  I could even make out dusty footprints in the front hall.  I thought I could hear some voices in the back toward the kitchen, but it didn’t seem right to make myself at home, so I stepped back out and rang the doorbell.  I didn’t hear any response and assumed that the doorbell was broken.  I stood there for a moment trying to figure out what to do, when I caught sight of Simba in the front hall mirror crossing from the kitchen to the dining room.  I knocked on the door again to get her attention.  She turned and started at me briefly, and then wordlessly turned her back on me and headed back to the kitchen, carefully closing the door behind her.

My first reaction was to find some way to defend myself, make sure that Simba knew that whatever had happened last night, it was clearly not my fault, but then I backed off, thinking that her chilly reception just indicated her grief.  I turned to leave, thinking that I would send a condolence card, or perhaps attend the service.  I almost ran into a florist with an arrangement so large that it covered his face, and he almost tripped on the first step.  I took his elbow and guided him up the steps.  I rang the door bell again, and was surprised to see Simba emerging from the kitchen this time.  “Oh it’s a florist.  Who are those flowers from young man?” she asked.  He held out the card, she looked at it briefly and said, “Well you can take them right back, we’re certainly not accepting any flowers from a Sam Todd.  Actually, why don’t you deliver them to the church of your choice, or take them to a cemetery.  Just get them out of here.  The delivery boy turned and stumbled down the steps, and suddenly Simba and I were face to face.

“Ms. Blue, I think that you have done enough for this family.”  I was grateful at the very least that she used the phrase ‘for this family,’ instead of ‘to this family.’”  “But I am sure that you can understand that we want to be left alone, now that we can put this awful business about that tattooed girl’s death.  What Henry did is heartbreaking, but he has done a lot for this family and that I am grateful.  So please send me your bill.”  And with that she closed the door in my face.

Time to head back to my home base.  Ralph and Fanny would be just finishing up the breakfast crowd, and it would be peaceful to rinse some dishes, swab some tabletops and rehash.  My timing was perfect – Ralph threw me a sponge and a rag as I walked in.  It was somewhat ironic that I was contentedly cleaning up the same sort of eggy mess as the one that irritated me so much in my kitchen.  That was the magic of Ralph and Fanny, who somehow conveyed a joy in the rhythm of household chores.  I recounted my last couple of days for them, the drama of last night, concluding with the fresh news of Henry’s confession and suicide.  Both Fanny and Ralph stopped abruptly, but I kept head down and continued to push the sponge around the counter.

Ralph spoke first, “You cannot hold yourself responsible for this death, Liza.”

And then Fanny chimed in, “What are you supposed to, tuck your clients into bed every night?”

“Yes, I agree with you both,” I said, “But there have been plenty of times when I have helped women to get to a women’s shelter, but of course that was to protect them from abusive husbands.  This was the first time there has been a suicide on my watch.  I just didn’t see it coming.  Even though Sam presented it to him in the cruelest way, Henry seemed excited about the possibility of being Dessa’s father.  And then of course he was with his sister Simba, who was also appalled by Sam’s behavior.  Sam had a gun, and I was mostly relieved that both of them got out of that household.”

“Liza, of course you’re right,” said Fanny, “and if the family holds you partially responsible for his death, it just reflects their grief.  Just imagine what Simba is going through.  Sometime during the middle of the night, her brother went out and killed himself.  She is going to have to deal with a lot more guilt than you.  So just put it out of your mind.  But let me ask you a question.  What do you think about Henry’s confession?”

“I just don’t believe it,” I said, and I saw Ralph nodding in agreement.  “He was perfectly at ease with the police when they came looking for his car.  I just don’t think that he is that good an actor.  And my guess is that he thought he was saving Dessa.”

“What do you think, did Dessa killed Penny?” they both said in unison.

“No I really don’t.  But Sam was also totally unphased by the police coming to pick up the car.  And if Sam didn’t do it, and Henry knew he didn’t do it, that started to point the finger at Dessa if the police found that the car was the murder vehicle.  So here is the scenario.  Henry finds out that he might be Dessa’s father, and earlier he had sent the policy up the canyon because he knew that Dessa was driving the car.  He’s feeling entirely guilty about that, and then he had also embezzled some money from Dessa that Penny had found out about, so that would give the police a motive if they really wanted one to go with the confession.  So Henry probably thinks that he is doing the family, and particularly Dessa, a great big favor by walking into the ocean.  And then of course, he clearly had too much to drink.

“But wouldn’t that mean that Sam had won.  From what you’ve said, he would do anything to keep Sam from winning,” said Ralph.

“You’re right about that,” I said, “but he might have been more concerned about Dessa not losing.  And also, maybe he know that Simba was finally going to leave Sam, and that would be victory of sorts.”

“What are you going to do?  Do you think that Sam did it” said Ralph.

“He might have,” I said, “but I’m not sure what his motive would be.  All he cares about is money and prestige, which are basically the same thing in his book, and this whole thing about Dessa’s birth parents – well he treated that like no big deal.  If he did do it, I bet that Penny discovered some other long buried secret.  And if he did do it, I’m sure that he has an alibi all locked up, or planned it out carefully.  Frankly, I’m not sure what I can do, or what I should do.  Granted Henry’s death was pretty fresh when I saw Simba, but I must say she looked actually pleased that Henry had tied off a lot of loose ends for the family.  She certainly made it clear that she really didn’t want my help anymore.  And from what I’ve seen Dessa is a remarkable young woman, and I think that she will bring this family back together if anyone can.  I’ll try and get in touch with her and let her know that she can call me anytime, but I can tell you one thing, that is the last time I’m ever going to agree to be a family mediator.  I was in way over my head.  I’m beat.  I’m just going to dictate my final notes and then go back to my apartment.”

I went into the back room to dictate, but instead sat at the crossword puzzle for the next several hours working on the sky and water pieces.  By the time I left, it was mid-afternoon and Ralph and Fanny had gone upstairs to nap.

Chapter 51

Over the next several weeks, I kept my eye in the paper for the memorial services for both Chloe and Henry, but saw nothing.  I called the Great Days facility and asked about Chloe’s service, and I was told that it was a private service for family members only.  I  left a message for Dessa at Great Days, and also on Goddard’s cell phone, but never heard anything.  I had a few more cases to distract me in the interim, including a couple of overnight surveillance cases that really threw off my sleep schedule, but all the loose ends made me uneasy.  I couldn’t help but think about Dessa and whether she had reconciled with Simba, and then of course whether Simba was still with Sam.  I hoped not.

About a month later I saw an article in the local paper announcing that the City of Santa Teresa was in negotiations with the estate of Chloe Murphy to purchase the Murphy mansion to become a shelter for battered women, which of course was meeting with considerable resistance from the neighbors.  The city had countered with a proposal for a community center which would include a child care center and other space for non-profits.   I recognized the authorship of Nick Nichol in the press release and gave him a call.  He told me that the official story was that the family wanted to give back to the community, but in reality, the house was in such a state of disrepair that this was the best solution.  The city was dragging its feet, he said, and would only take the property if they could tear it down and build a new community center, and that was the sticking point of the negotiations.

“Who is the spokesperson for the family?” I asked, just hoping that it  wasn’t Sam.

“Well you won’t believe it,” said Nick, “but that Dessa is one sharp girl.  Very very capable, seems to have a natural feel for negotiating and she is pushing hard for the women’s shelter.  She is emerging as the star of the family.  I would have thought that it would have been Goddard, but I haven’t seen him at all.  In fact, I don’t know what has become of him, but then I haven’t really tried.  I’m still steaming over that fiasco of a photography exhibition.  I think that Dessa is angling to maintain possession of the caretaker’s cottage at the back of the property.  A sweet little house – I think that it is three or four bedrooms.  Nothing fancy, but very serviceable.  I think that she is living there now with her mother.  And here’s another piece of good news.  The Skye Island properties are starting to sell.  Mary got the contract as the realtor and two lots are under contract in the past month, and we, or rather she, may purchase a third.  All in all, it has been a great month.”

So maybe it all was for the best, I thought.  Perhaps Dessa and Simba were putting some pieces back together and creating a separate life.  I also thought about Carla, Penny’s mother, and whether she thought that there was justice for her daughter, and also Johnny Knox, who had just rediscovered his daughter.  And then, out of the blue, about six months later, I received a phone message from Dessa, asking if she could sit down with me to discuss a few issues.  She suggested my office, and I countered with lunch at Ralph and Fanny’s and she agreed, mentioning that she remembered the place from so many years ago with her brother.

I got there about 30 minutes early, and set up a table in the back room for privacy.  I had only seen Ralph and Fanny a couple of times in the past several month, and I noticed that they had taken down my card table with the unfinished puzzle.  Nice metaphor for closure, I thought.  I helped Fanny make some tomato bisque soup and a caprese salad.  I stood nervously waiting for Dessa, but when she walked in exactly on time, I tried to look unconcerned and casual.   “Dessa, I am so happy to meet you in these better circumstances.”

Dessa greeted me warmly and then turned to Ralph and Fanny and said, “I’m so glad to meet you again.  My brother has told me many times how important your restaurant was for him in college, and then again recently.  I have a vague memory, but I’ve got to say, I think that I do remember the smell of your soup.”  Ralph and Fanny murmured their welcomes, and I ushered Dessa to the back room.

“Dessa, I thought that we might have more privacy back here; here’s the soup that you were reminiscing about, and also a salad.”  We then sat down and had some preliminaries about my impressions of her grandmother Chloe and also the potential plans for the women’s center.  But it was clear that we could not continue this pleasant chit chat forever.  Dessa had called for this meeting, but I decided to take the lead.  “Dessa I want to say that I was so impressed with your performance that night up at your parents.  That took a lot of courage, and you managed to diffuse a very dangerous situation.”

“Ah, yes, my Tiananmen Square moment.  I can’t say that I really thought that much about it, but there I was.  I was just so tired of being in the middle of so many people.  I didn’t think that my dad or Uncle Polly was going to shoot me, but then after I left, I realized that both had too much to drink, and I was shaking for about an hour afterward.  I never really heard about what happened next.  Mom wouldn’t tell me much.”

“Well, the detective came looking for the car, and then things got really ugly and your father said some pretty cruel things to your uncle.  Turns out your uncle once knew Sylvia and wanted to know why she was there.”

“You probably know that Sylvia is my birth mother, and she hadn’t told me yet who my birth father was and actually I didn’t really want to know.  That was something that Penny was working on, even though I expressly asked her not to.  I loved her, and she taught me a lot of things, but she was driving me crazy.  If she had left well enough alone, she would still be alive, but in some ways blowing the whole family up was the only way to reconstruct it, so I guess I am trying to honor her memory by seeing this thing through.  So I have come to ask your advice.  As you know my Uncle Henry confessed to killing Penny, but I don’t really think that he did it, do you?  And if you agree with me, what should I do?”

“Dessa, what I think is not that important, but maybe you can tell me why you think that he confessed?”

“His death was just way too convenient for everyone.  I think that he did it to save our family and mostly to save me.  Here look at this letter,” she said as she handed me a much-folded piece of paper.  “Simba gave the actual suicide note to the police, but apparently before he walked into the ocean, he mailed this letter to me.  I haven’t shown it to anyone.  Read it and tell me what you think, and then I have some other information.”

My Dear Dessa,

I am writing this letter to you on the last night of my life.  There are many things that I have not been proud of in my life, and I think that you can guess many of them.  Tonight you said that you loved all of us individually, but not as a family, and perhaps I am one of the reasons why.  I have loved you all my life, as if you were my own daughter, and then over the last year I am ashamed that I tapped into your ample resources.  I hope that you can forgive me for that, and I have tried to make things right for you, as you will see.  Please do not feel sorry or guilty for me.  This is the one thing that I want to do for this family, for you and your mother and Goddard, and I am excited to envision you joyfully sharing your lives once again.  I understand that you know my friend Sylvia.  I hope that she will become part of your family also.  She is a kind and gentle person and I know that you will grow to love her.   Please give her my love and tell her that I am ashamed that I could not be there for her when she might have needed me the most.

 With all my love,

 Uncle Polly

 As I looked up Dessa said, “Don’t you see?  That poor sweet man thinks I killed Penny, and he confessed just to protect me.  Do you see where he says, ‘I’ll make things right as you will see.  Simba also told me that he thought he might be my biologic father, and maybe this was the sacrifice he wanted to make for me.”

“Dessa, I can’t imagine what was going in his head that night, you will have to ask your mother, but I do agree – I think that he thought he might be your father, that you might be the killer.  What does your mother say?”

“She doesn’t really want to talk about it.  She only says that when the two of them got back to the house, they both had too much to drink and he kept muttering, ‘What have I done, what have I done, I’ve got to fix it for Dessa.’  But why he thought I killed Penny is beyond me.  We did have an argument that night.  You see, I discovered that Penny had made friends with me for the express purpose of finding my birth parents, which as you might understand was quite a shock, both because of Penny’s conniving and also the fact that I had birth parents.  But she had gone through the same issues, and convinced me that I should know, so I went along with her for a while.  We went up to my parents and got some of Simba’s DNA from a hairbrush and also some of Sam’s.  So we found out that Simba was not my birth mother, and then she told me about Sylvia.  Of course, I had known Sylvia for many years – she was a teacher friend of Goddard’s – but all of a sudden Penny told me that she was my mother.  And then Penny got really hot about finding my birth father, and I just didn’t want to do it.  I figured that I could just ask Sylvia at some point, but not until after I had let my mother know that I was interested in my birth parents.  I had taken Penny with me to visit Chloe and that’s when we found out about the missing money, and Penny then wanted to investigate that.  I told her again and again to lay off, but she just kept nosing around.  Her interest went way beyond birth parents, she started looking into finances – I’m not really sure how she did it.  I really needed to get some space, and Goddard suggested that we hang out with Sylvia and get to know her, and that’s what we did.  That’s when you got dragged into this, she wanted to find me to tell me something important, but I’d had it.  But Penny finally convinced me to meet her that last night and told me that she had found something really important at Henry’s house.  I couldn’t believe it, she had broken into Henry’s house, also into Goddard’s studio, and I told that she’d better stop, or I was going to report her to the police.  We left the restaurant, and I was a couple of paces behind her when that car came out of nowhere and just slammed into her and drove off.”

“Well why didn’t you come forward then?” I asked.

“I probably should have,” she said, “but I was scared.  I saw the car that hit her, and it was a big black car with a man driving it and I thought that it could be my father.  And then last week, I found this when I was cleaning out my old apartment.  The neighbor had collected my mail and had forgotten to pass this along to me.  Penny had sent this to me.”

“What is it? I asked.  I started to look at it, but it looked like a complicated legal document that I couldn’t digest with a casual glance.

“I haven’t shown it to anyone else, and I have been trying to piece this together on my own, so I could be very wrong, but you know how Henry and Sam had this argument about the  supposed loan from my grandfather that Sam said he had repaid?   Well I think that this document says that Sam never paid him back, and if fact took out another loan and in exchange gave my grandfather a 75% share.  So Henry was right.  Most of the money from the real estate development should have been Chloe’s, then his for the 12 hours or so that he outlived Chloe, and now mine.   You see, Henry left everything in his will to me.  So maybe that is what Penny has on Sam, and there’s his motive.”

“Sam said that he had an airtight alibi, so how do you suppose that he did it?” I asked.

“Well I thought about this also, and it’s beginning to make more sense.  First of all, I’m absolutely convinced that Sam would kill someone to get his way.  That was hard to accept, but I know that he is a very ruthless man.  But he probably wouldn’t want to get his hands dirty himself.  After Henry’s death, I went to call on Penny’s parents, Carla Piccinini and Johnny Knox.  Carla is basically a wreck, not so much because of Penny’s death, but according to Penny she was a wreck about life in general, but she did seem relieved that there was some justice for her daughter.  ‘Man kills himself out of guilt, that should be punishment enough,” she said.  But Johnny Knox was a different story.  You know that he worked for Sam for years.  Well he couldn’t have cared less when I talked with him on the phone, told me that what was done was done and that he was ready to move on.  After I saw Carla I was in the neighborhood and I thought I might as well stop by.  Well he did everything he could to get rid of my quickly, but as I was walking out I saw a big black car in his back driveway.  Looked just like the car that hit Penny.   Looked like Henry’s car also.

“So you think that Sam paid Johnny Knox to run down his own daughter?”

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m coming to you for advice.  Makes sense to me.”

“But wait a minute, the CCTV at the ATM machine caught a picture of the license plate.  It was a partial match for the plate on Henry’s car.”

“Thought of that too.  I think that Sam and Johnny just switched the plates.  You know that Johnny Knox was up at Sam’s that night.  I think that’s what he was doing.  I had told Sam that Simba and I were coming up to talk with him, and he asked me what car I was using, and I told him that I was borrowing Henry’s.  He had to switch the plates back because he knew that the police had a warrant out on the car.  He knew that Henry’s car didn’t kill Penny, so that our family would be in the clear if they picked up Henry’s car.  It suddenly made sense to me.  I was confused that night when I left.  I saw the car parked exactly where I left it, but noticed that it had different plates, so then thought it might be your car.  I just left it alone, and drove away with Goddard and Sylvia.”

“I think that you’ll need a pretty convincing case for the policy to open a closed case with a confession.  Is that what you’re asking me – how to present this evidence to the police?”

“Not really, I think that I’m asking if you think that it would be worth it.  Rehashing all of this tragedy.  Putting my fragile family through all this.  Simba and I are just starting to get along, although we have a ways to go.  You will be happy to know that we are seeing a real family mediator and counselor, so you are off the hook on that one.”  She smiled at me wistfully.  “And Simba has expressed interest in having Sylvia be part of our life also.  In fact, that’s where Goddard is living right now.  They are quite a couple, and they seem very happy.  Oh, you did know that Goddard is actually my father, didn’t you?  I might have forgotten to tell you that juicy detail.”

“Well, it really isn’t any of my business,” though I was going to be sure to tell Fanny that her guess in the paternal sweepstakes had been correct.

“All that time that Goddard and I visited Sylvia when I was growing up, hard to believe.  But truthfully, I am okay with it, as long as it wasn’t Sam.  Imagine my mother, wondering if the birth father was either her husband, brother or son, so I could be either her step daughter, niece or grandchild.  Pretty wild isn’t it?  I think that like me, she was just glad that it wasn’t Sam.  I can see the look on your face, but truly I’m all right with it.  That is the curious thing about Penny.  She was so intent on finding her own birthfather and my birthfather, but at the same time she would say to me that you can create your own family and that genes are only a point of curiosity.  I never really did find out how she was going to leverage her dirt on Sam.  Maybe she was looking for a big payoff.  I don’t know, and don’t really care.  You see I have gotten very good at defining what I care about and what I chose to let go of, the product of may hours of therapy.  Okay, let’s see where was I?  My worry is that bringing forth all of this innuendo and circumstance will only disrupt the fragile balance that we have right now, and we won’t ever be able to pin Sam down.”

“Yes I think that the only way that you could get Sam is to get Johnny Knox to turn on him.  And I don’t know how to do that, unless we could get a hold of that car and prove that it was involved in the hit and run.  And even if you couldn’t get a criminal conviction, I suppose that you could file a wrongful death suit and get some justice that way.”

“Even if we got a hold of the car, do you think it would still have damning evidence?” asked Dessa.  “I’d hate to put this all in motion, only to have the car come up clean.  Bringing up all of this tragedy.  What would it prove really?  Two people have already died, and it might be devastating to Carla to learn that Johnny ran down his own daughter,” said Dessa.

“Dessa, if you are looking for professional advice, I suggest that you contact a lawyer, and I’d recommend Jimmy Earle, who is somewhat familiar with this case – he represented your uncle when the police first approached him.  But if you’re looking for a neutral party to just brainstorm, I’m happy to discuss this with you.  But I just want you to know that I’am not a lawyer, and we all know that I’m not a family mediator.”

“Go ahead, Liza, I’m just looking for a sounding board.”

“Well, I think that you have to carefully consider what you want to accomplish.  Is your target really Sam, and where does he stand now?”

“Yes, it’s an interesting question, the subtleties of vengeance and justice.  Yes Sam is the target.  Right now it’s business as usual with him, but I get the sense that he knows that it could all come crashing down at any moment.  He keeps calling Mom and asking when she’s coming back.  I consulted a contract lawyer and he feels confident that the entire Skye Island development actually belongs to me.  And then of course there’s the Murphy Mansion which we’ll sell or donate to the city – there’s some sort of complicated tax scheme there that I’m just learning about.  And finally Simba is getting ready to file for divorce.  So between all of these Sam will be pretty impoverished and Simba and I will be pretty well set.  So I don’t know if that is justice or vengeance.  So do I also want him in jail?  Sure I guess so, but Simba still has a soft spot for him.  I think that she’s getting closer to divesting herself of her social standing, but it’d be difficult for her to the be the ex-wife of a prisoner.  Actually quite ironic, since these are the women that she tried to help way back when in Cutter City when she met Sam in the first place.”

“But how do suppose Sam motivated Johnny Knox to kill his own daughter?”

“Well there’s money of course, and I did notice that his garage was for sale when I stopped by, so maybe he’s about to get out of town.  But then I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam had some dirt on him.  If that’s the only missing link in this scenario, I’m going to assume that Sam had his ways.”

“Yes, but finding that out might be an important piece of evidence to get the police to open the case, or to get some leverage on Johnny to implicate Sam.  Of course the best piece of evidence would be to get a hold of the car.”

“I don’t know, what do you think that I should do?” asked Dessa very quietly.

“Well I’m just a simple person and I don’t have a complicated life,” I said, “so I don’t really see the overlap between vengeance and justice.  Justice is truth, and I suppose that vengeance is a type of truth, but the motives behind the pursuit of truth are different.  But in my book solving a murder is never about vengeance.  Remember that Henry’s legacy is that of a murderer.  Do you want that?  And then there’s Sam, even if he’s reduced to a hardscrabble existence, he could always start over, and he would be highly motivated to be successful.  So against this you have the pain of Simba and Carla.  In this whole equation, the most vulnerable one would seem to be Carla.”

“I think you’re right, and who knows, if Carla filed a wrongful death suit perhaps she could get some money out of it.  I know that sounds crass, but truly I’d like to help her in some way.  I have a lot to thank Penny for.”  She signed and stood up slowly.  “ Thanks for your advice, I’ll think about it.  Do you have Jimmy Earle’s card?”

I gave her the card, she reached over and grabbed my hand with both of hers, shook it and off she went.  I didn’t see Dessa again, but followed her progress indirectly through the local newspaper and occasionally I would check in with Nick Nichol.  A couple of months later there she was on the cover of the Santa Teresan; the article said that her father was retiring and had appointed her as the new head of the Skye Isle development.  I was glad to see her emerge as a business woman, but sorry to see that she had allowed a soft landing for Sam.  And then the bombshell.  The paper breathlessly announced a wrongful death suit brought by Carla Piccinini against both Johnny Knox and Sam Todd.   The article included a quote from Dessa, Simba and Goddard.

“Our family supports Carla Piccinini in her lawsuit against Sam Todd and Johnny Knox.  This lawsuit will finally exonerate our brother and uncle Henry Murphy who confessed to the manslaughter of Penny Knox in a confused attempt to protect his family.  We feel confident that the new evidence will finally provide justice to Penny Knox, who was a friend and inspiration to seek the truth where ever it might lead you.”


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