Chapter 2: Death of a Loan Officer
Mike and I walked across the parking lot to his truck without any discussion of who was driving, and I climbed into the shotgun seat. It was a beautiful morning, perfect for a relaxing day off, perhaps on a golf course, but our masks were a stark and constant reminder that the shadow of Covid-19 still loomed over us. Mike put the truck in gear and rolled us out of the parking lot without asking for directions. A cheerful song spilled out of the radio, and Mike turned it off without a word.
Tim Hatch had been a friend of ours for over fifteen years. When I’d started the title company, he was our first regular client, and he stuck around as we grew. In the end, he was our last client as the title company wound down. The very first and very last files we closed were his.
The most unusual thing about Tim was his incredibly loyal client base. He had clients in Cleveland who wouldn’t deal with anyone but him, all the way down here in Dublin. Some of them had closed over a dozen loans with him over the years, buying, refinancing, building.
Mike slid shades on as we turned a corner, and now he looked like a futuristic train robber with his mask. He said, “Every time we closed a loan, Tim would need some kind of exception and it was always because he’d been friends with his client since the third grade. I don’t know what it was about his third grade class, but there must have been seventy of them and they must have been the closest-knit third grade class in the history of America.”
I remembered that, the stress and consternation the exceptions were to Mike, and how I’d hear about them over the phone or from his doorway. Tim’s client was clear to close but had to do so within two hours because he was going to France, or his client needed five hundred dollars in closing costs waived, or his client was in Cleveland and needed to close tonight no matter what even though it was already five o’clock.
Sometimes I’d find Mike slamming things around at the copier, muttering over and over under his breath, “his best friend from third grade. His best friend from third grade. His best friend from third grade.”
Mike used to call it a clown show, the things Tim Hatch needed him to do. Sometime last year, he’d quietly stopped using that turn of phrase.
Williams Title Agency was located in a wooded office park overlooking the river, the stone and glass of the buildings perched among the greenery like the buildings were growing there as well. I imagined it was probably an idyllic spot to rent an office on a normal day, but today wasn’t normal.
There was a crime scene van on the scene, a half dozen police cruisers with their flashers on, and news vans from the three local stations. Crime scene tape already blocked off the main entrance, where two uniformed officers stood sentry. Other officers clustered here and there around the cruisers, shaking their heads at reporters and camera crews. The sound of their voices reminded me of a tailgate party, except permeated with the tinny voices and static clicks of a radios in use.
Mike pulled his truck into a spot across the lot and shook his head at me as he took off his sunglasses.
“Not a lot of masks,” he said. “Tom would not approve.”
We got out of the truck and headed toward the crime scene. One of the reporters spotted me and recognized me from last year, when Carl had been taken into custody. He trotted over in his light summer suit, a cameraman lurching along behind him.
“Greg DuPont! Are you working on this case?”
“I don’t work on cases in that manner, Gary,” I told him. “I’m a financial planner and an attorney. I’m not a detective.”
“You have any leads yet?”
“No, I don’t get leads because leads are for detectives.”
“So you’re saying no one in there is a client of yours?”
I frowned, as I walked, trying not to slow down, and told him, “No comment, Gary. Can you give us some room? A friend of ours was murdered today.”
“So you’re on the case.”
Now Mike stopped and gave him a hard stare that I’d seen all too often since last year. There’s something about winning a fight against five armed guys in a warehouse that makes you eager to have some more fights. The incident had all but ruined any shred of patience Mike had for people, and this reporter was getting on my nerves.People who get on my nerves, you see, also get on Mike’s nerves.
Gary’s camera guy stepped back, lowering the lens as though Mike’s stare might damage it. Gary stopped walking as if colliding with a glass wall. His face trembled, struggling not to speak, and failing badly. He said softly, “Are you the guys who blew up five men in a warehouse?”
“No,” Mike told him. “I’m the guy who beat up five guys in a warehouse, and then a minute later, in an unrelated incident, the warehouse blew up.”
“Stop talking,” I said.
Mike turned to me, nodded, and said, “Okay.” Then he turned back to Gary and erupted. “Get away from us!”And the reporter and his camera guy were suddenly gone, like birds haring a gun shot.
We passed a squad car, where one officer sat in the shotgun seat doing something on a laptop, while another officer leaned over his shoulder to watch what he was doing, talking into her radio. Mike and I did our best impression of people who were allowed to be walking right into the building, and it got us all the way up to the crime scene tape.
One of the two officers posted there stepped forward to stop us, but before he could speak, a hand fell on my shoulder from behind me. The officer relaxed, and I heard a familiar voice.
“Mr. Dupont,” said Detective O’Neil. “Please tell me this Tim Hatch isn’t a client of yours.”
I hadn’t seen the round-faced detective since last year, in the aftermath of Carl’s arrest. His black rectangular glasses perched above his plain white mask didn’t leave much to recognize but I’d never forget his voice. I’d been in his office on the night of my kidnapping, and he’d made sure to send some officers over to my house to secure it. We reached out automatically to shake hands and then caught ourselves and converted the handshake to an elbow bump. Old habits died hard.
I said, “No, detective, but he’s a friend. And one of the sellers – Finn O’Halloran – is a client.”
“So you are involved in the closing.”
I bobbed my head around. “The firm is. We were representing one of the three in a probate dispute but it was my partner Braden who handled it.”
“Still, here you are.”
“Here I am.”
“You’re like Jessica Fletcher, man. It’s never good news when you show up.”
“Does that make you Tom Bosley?”
“Tom Bosley. Sheriff Amos Tupper. Come on, man, you opened up the Murder, She Wrote reference.”
Mike grew impatient. “Is he still in there? Tim?”
“The victim? They’re still processing the scene, and we haven’t released his name yet because we can’t get a hold of his wife.”
“She’s probably in Cleveland. They have a restaurant up there.”
“We have a call in to her. But in case any reporters over there are asking, show some decency. We don’t want her hearing about it on the news.”
I had Tim’s home phone number in my cell, and could have probably called and told her myself, but that frankly just sounded awful. There were professionals here for that.
“How’d you hear about it?” O’Neil wanted to know.
“I was on the phone with the title company this morning about a funding problem. Spoke with Kathy, she’s right over there walking this way.”
I gestured to two women in blazers and dark skirts walking toward us across the parking lot, threading between the cruisers and officers without breaking stride. They both had steaming cups of coffee in their hands, which out here in the heat did not sound refreshing at all. The way they were brandishing their cups of coffee at everyone it seemed like the drinks were an excuse to keep the masks off.
Kathy Williams was a sturdy blonde woman, who had been a Crossfit enthusiast for as long as I could remember knowing what Crossfit was. She had shoulders and arms like a professional boxer’s and always looked like she was wearing shoulder pads from the eighties. We all exchanged vague gestures of handshake waivers.
“Any news so far, Detective?” She asked.
“They’re still processing the scene, Ms. Williams. We’re not likely to know anything soon. We’re going to start interviewing everyone who was in the building here in just a few minutes, so please keep yourselves available.”
O’Neil shrugged impatiently, his square glasses wobbling up and down beneath his eyebrows, and he said, “Well, if it really turns out that here, in broad daylight in an office suite with at least ten people milling around in it, that no one saw a thing, then I guess we don’t have a suspect. Or depending on how you look at it, we’ve got at least ten.”
Kathy’s face wrinkled up at that, and O’Neil enjoyed the reaction. He nodded and said, “Stick around.” And then he walked back into the building past the door sentries, his shoulders hunched in the way only cops seemed able to hunch them.
Kathy introduced the woman she was with as Sharon Towne, her lead escrow officer. Mike already knew her from the phone and email, just from dealing with the closing this morning, but they’d never met in person. Sharon was slender, middle-aged, and had large blue eyes that seemed to always be recording what they were seeing on a hidden drive somewhere.
“Two doors down from the conference room where Tim was stabbed,” Kathy said, “is an open office with six employees in it. Processors and junior escrow officers. We think all six of them were in there when it happened, but that’s who they’ll be interviewing first. If they can all six corroborate that, then they’ll all six be eliminated as suspects.”
Sharon was the type of person who always hunched her shoulders as if cold, even in the August sunlight with a hot cup of coffee in her hand. She said, “It’s got to be one of the three kids, right? One of the sellers?”
“I hope not. One of them is my client.”
She made a rectangle with her teeth and bobbed her head. “Whoops. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Do you know where you were when it happened?”
Kathy frowned. “I’ve been thinking about that, I mean the short answer is yes, I was by the copier talking to Sharon here when the buyer’s agent found him.”
“That would be Benjamin Todd,” Sharon added. “With Diamondback Realty.”
“He’s a big guy, tall, like Mike’s height here. He didn’t scream or anything dramatic, he just walked back out of the conference room and said something like, ‘Something happened to the loan officer. I need some help here.’ Really calm, like this had happened to him before.”
Mike nodded. “I know Benjamin Todd. He was in Desert Storm, he’s a former Marine. He probably saw worse than that just about every day over there.”
“Well, then,” Kathy said. “He probably has the training to stab a man, too, right?”
Mike didn’t care for that. He said, “Didn’t you just hear me tell you the guy is a former United States Marine?”
“Easy, tiger,” I said, clapping Mike on the back. “Let’s let the police clear who they can clear, then we can speculate. What was he stabbed with?”
“We don’t know,” Kathy replied. “Whatever it was, the killer took it with them.”
“It was something kind of thick,” Sharon said, struggling for phrasing. “Not like a steak knife or anything. There was a lot of…”
She turned to sob softly and there was something about the way she did it that seemed insincere. Forced. I cocked my head and studied her for a moment, and whatever it was vanished. I felt instantly horrible, judging the mannerisms of someone who’d been through such an experience so recently.
“How long had he been in there, Kathy?” Mike asked. “I mean, how long since someone saw him before Benjamin found him?”
“We think around five minutes? He went somewhere in his car before that, kind of hiding from everyone due to the funding problem. When he came back he walked right past Amy – she’s the receptionist - but she was on the phone, and he’d been walking in and out all morning. Amy can’t remember exactly when he came through, then he went right to the conference room.”
Mike and I exchanged glances. I said, “You say he went somewhere in his car?”
“Yes. That’s the only thing Amy does remember for sure. She said he smelled like he’d been drinking, but that can’t be right, can it? Not this early in the morning?”
I didn’t want to bust him out, but it wasn’t like it could do him any harm now. “No, that adds right up, actually.” Then I turned to Mike and said, “Probably went to the Ruckmoor, after all. Let’s go see what the bartender has to say. You can be my designated driver.”
“It’s a little early to need a designated driver, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think so. Not when we’re on a case.”