Chapter 4: The Blurry Way

Although Mike had abstained from vodka, I talked him into doing some breathing exercises for thirty seconds or so before he pulled out of the parking lot. He couldn’t get his mind around Benjamin Todd being connected to Tim Hatch’s murder, and stress made him angry. Anger makes him tailgate people and bark at his windshield.

Instead, I got him to focus more on his confusion, our mutual inability to reconcile what we knew about Benjamin Todd with his apparent involvement in the crime. Mike said, “We have to tell Detective O’Neil, aren’t we?”

I nodded. There was no way around it. “If I knew his phone number, I’d call him right now. I’ll look for him at the title company when we get back, and if I see him, I’ll just walk on over and tell him. If I don’t then I’ll call the station later this afternoon. It wouldn’t break my heart, though, if we see Benjamin before we see O’Neil.”

We made it all the way back to the title company without Mike getting angry at anyone, with the exception of a line of ducks moseying their way across the road just past the bridge over the river He let the ducks pass though. Maybe the breathing exercises worked.

Mike pulled into a parking space toward the end of the lot, where there weren’t as many vehicles. It was a big truck and he didn’t like to crowd people. A short, bearded man in an expensive brown suit was getting out of his Grand Cherokee a few spots away, drinking out of a soft drink cup from Panera Bread. Mike nodded toward him through the window, taking his sunglasses off, and told me, “That’s Maurice Jackson. He’s the Seller’s agent. Wrong real estate agent, if we’re looking for Benjamin.”

We got out of the truck and introduced ourselves from two parking spots away, making vague handshaking gestures. Maurice was not wearing his mask, but was fumbling one out of his pocket that was beige, matching up with the colors in his suit. His beard was like a delicate sculpture.

“I assume you heard?” Mike said.

“Yes, I did. I’ve been to some rough closings before, but this is my first homicide.”

Were we supposed to laugh at that? We didn’t. I said, “Have you seen Benjamin Todd?”

Maurice laughed. “Not lately. I think he’s been laying low, since the problem’s on his client’s side. You know about the funding issue?”

“We do,” I told him.

“Though I’m not sure that’s what I’d call the problem,” Mike added.

“Right,” Maurice said, his voice like a man who kept banging his head on something no matter which way he walked. He was about to clarify, or apologize, or something, but then he noticed something across the parking lot, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand to look over at it, his voice trailing off.

Mike and I turned to look across the parking lot, and it wasn’t hard to spot what he was staring at. A man in a burgundy shirt, black tie, and black slacks was standing on top of a white van, doing what looked like Tai Chi. His beard was reddish blown and groomed into a neat triangle, his hair somehow both shaggy and neat.

“Who’s that?’ Maurice asked neither of us in particular. “I mean, that’s a little weird, right?”

Mike smacked me on the chest with the back of his hand, probably a little harder than he meant to, and said, “Yes and no. That would be Maxwell Blurry. He’s the closing agent.”

Truth be told, I hadn’t been all that much involved in the day-to-day operation of the title company I used to own. Mike handled everything. But I was familiar with Maxwell Blurry, just from his presence in the office picking up or dropping off closing packages, and on several occasions I’d sat at a closing table while he handled a transaction for my own family.

One story in particular came to mind. A client had been selling a property as the terms of his divorce, and I’d sat in on the closing because it was right there in our conference room, and also it had been the sort of transaction where everything went wrong. Appraisal issues, computer issues, title issues, payoff issues – every sort of issue I could imagine.

Until now, of course.

My client’s ex-wife was sort of enjoying the stress all the problems were causing, and kept trying to call off the closing whenever any of the problems arose, and Blurry kept expertly explaining why the problems weren’t really problems until she couldn’t escape his logic and remained at the table again and again.

Then just as the closing package arrived, and Blurry was going over the final numbers with my client on the settlement statement, his ex-wife’s phone rang. After listening for just a moment, she leapt to her feet and said, “Okay, I’ll be right there.”

Everyone sort of erupted into murmuring except my client, who went straight into a bellowing lecture, while she explained. “It’s our son. You remember our son? His snake had escaped. In the house. I can’t just sit here while there’s a snake loose in the house.”

More lecturing, more murmuring as she started to get out of her chair, and then Maxwell Blurry asked, “Does your son keep the snake in a heated aquarium?”

The entire room fell silent while Blurry filled out some dates on notary sections, thumbing expertly through the package. We could hear the kid still talking on the phone, a distant, tinny, Charlie Brown’s Teacher sound. She said, “What? Yes.”

“Okay,” Blurry replied. “Please ask your son to look in the lid of the aquarium where the bulb is housed. The snake is wrapped around the bulb for heat. It’s not missing at all.”

She relayed the request to her son, and that’s where the snake was, and a minute later, the closing was underway.

Now Blurry saw us approaching the van and stopped whatever martial arts thing he was doing to call down some greetings to us.

“What are you doing up there?” Mike wanted to know.

I wasn’t sure they I really wanted to know, myself. Suddenly I had to step back as Blurry jumped right off the top of the van, landing in a crouch with his left fist against the asphalt almost exactly six and a half feet away from either of us. When he rose to his full height, he said, “Just getting a look at things from a different perspective. You guys know the loan officer got murdered?”

“We do,” Mike said. “I can’t believe it.”

“Oh, I can. Loan officer? I can’t believe it doesn’t happen every week.”

“How much of it were you here for?”

“Not much of it, really. The closing package wasn’t ready, and as you know, I have a philosophical objection to entering the conference room for a closing when the closing documents are not ready.”

Maurice Jackson was already headed toward the building now. There were still news vans and police cruisers covering the parking lot near the building, but they’d moved the crime scene tape inside the building, so that the people working in other suites could get to their offices. Maurice was going to try walking right back into the title company, but there would be officers inside to stop him from doing that. Over toward the corner of the building, I saw Detective O’Neil talking to Amanda, the woman who took care of the plants. She was gesturing from one building to the other.

Blurry said, “I was out here doing Tai Chi to keep myself focused. When closing documents are late, you start to absorb the tension and stress of other people, so I needed to manage it.”

“On the roof of a van?”

“No, I was in the grass over there,” Blurry pointed to a section of grass. “A lot of people saw me. I know, because the detective over there interviewed me briefly earlier. I guess folks were watching me from the windows, like they’d never seen a guy with a pointy beard doing Tai Chi in the grass outside their office or something, and for that reason I’m completely eliminated as a suspect. I was out there from the time Hatch got back from wherever he went, to when the commotion erupted inside upon finding him. Then I went inside.”

My office is on the fourth floor, but I was pretty sure I’d have noticed Blurry out in the parking lot doing Tai Chi, also, if that’s where he’d been. I said, “Did you see anything interesting when you went in there?”

“Well, I walked right in the front door, and Kathy Williams was visible in the doorway to the conference room. I could hear Sharon’s voice inside the conference room, along with Benjamin Todd’s, who I couldn’t see at all. He’s got that deep voice though, you can recognize it anywhere.

“I couldn’t make out what they were saying exactly, they were all talking at once. I heard Sharon say something about the police, and then realized she was on the phone talking to them. By then I got to the doorway, and I could see Tim Hatch there at the conference table. His head was down, like kids in kindergarten do at nap time.”

“Could you tell what had happened?” Mike asked. “Could you tell he’d been stabbed?”

“I mean, at first, not really. There wasn’t a knife sticking out of him or anything, and it was just so surreal. It took a few seconds to notice the blood. His suit was dark, so it sort of blended in with it, but the carpet is white in there. Looked like he spilled a pot of coffee on his lap, the way it was staining the carpet around his chair.”

I studied Blurry for a second, trying to assess his reliability. He did seem awfully focused and aware. Maybe there really was something to Tai Chi. I said, “Were any of them acting suspicious in any way?”

Blurry shrugged. “Benjamin Todd was calm. I can’t decide if that’s suspicious or not. Would he be calm if he just stabbed the guy?”

Mike said, “He was in…”

“Desert Storm, yes, I know. His calm was definitely a military calm. Disciplined.”

“What about the other two?”

“Sharon was not calm. She was falling apart a little bit, talking to the police on the phone. Her voice was cracking, and she kept pinching the bridge of her nose while she talked, maybe to keep from crying.”

“What about Kathy?”

“Kathy was more like, angry. Like she always gets when a closing gets screwed up, like this was just a really extreme version of that.”

Mike and I nodded at each other subtly. All of that sounded pretty consistent with the people he was describing, although Blurry probably knew them better than us, since it had been so long since we’d been in the business.”

“But there’s one thing that was out of place,” Blurry said. “I told the detective. The conference room has those tall sort of bay windows. They’re narrow, but wide enough for a grown man to go through if he wanted to. And one of them was open just a crack.”

We all put our hands out as if to judge the temperature of the air. It was a little chilly. “That is odd,” I said. “You got a thermostat right there, it’s easy to turn it up or down. But there had to be a screen, right?”

“That’s not the odd part,” Blurry said. “I walked over to check it out and the screen was cut from top to bottom. I think whoever stabbed him went right out the window into the shade of that pine tree over there.”

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