Chapter 5: The Soldier’s Story

We found Benjamin Todd at a picnic table on the edge of the parking lot, shaded by an old elm tree overlooking the river. He was sitting with his hands folded in front of him, his phone untouched beside them, almost theatrically staying in view of the various police officers typing on laptops in their cruisers or spreading paperwork across the hoods of their cars to discuss something with their peers. Detective O’Neil was standing a few feet from the table, asking him something as we started to head over.

Maxwell Blurry fell in behind me to my left and Mike fell in on the other side, and it was impossible to ignore the fact that we probably looked pretty cool, all fanned out like that, walking across the parking lot into the cluster of officers and reporters. Should we walk in slow motion, maybe get some kind of soundtrack app for our phones?

The reporters felt it, whatever it was, parting open to let us through. I heard one of them tell the other that I was on the case and that the last time I’d been on a case, Mike blew up five dudes in clown suits, and I paused for a moment, Mike and Blurry skidding to a stop behind me. I was thinking about clarifying the comment for the rest of the reporters, but that would have meant talking to them, and anyway, they weren’t wrong.

We veered away from them, hugging the edge of the police cruisers, stepping into the grass along the parking lot and then veering back to the picnic table where O’Neil was talking to Benjamin. Before we could get there, we nearly bumped into Kathy, who was standing next to a lime green van, its back doors hanging open as Amanda Davenport loaded her plant-watering cart into it.

Kathy said, “Have you spoken to the detective yet?”

“Not since last time. I was looking for either him or Benjamin Todd.” I gestured at the picnic table. “Looks like I found them both.”

She glanced at Mike, smiling, nodded a hello, and then glanced at Maxwell Blurry and frowned, for no other reason really, than closers like Blurry being the lowest on the totem pole in terms of real estate transactions. The normal way to treat them was like hunchbacked lab assistants who brought Dr. Frankenstein the wrong kind of brain.

Still, Blurry ignored it, because ignoring that sort of thing was exactly what you needed to do if you wanted to make a living closing real estate transactions. He just nodded and asked, “Anything new?”

Kathy jerked a thumb at Amanda. “Our girl here saw a man walk around the building just before it all happened. She was over at the accountant’s office in the other building, watering plants.”

Amanda smiled and nodded, wiping her hands on a damp towel from her van. It seemed like forever ago she’d been in my office, asking if Kathy wanted a McMuffin before she headed over. “He wasn’t suspicious or anything,” she said. “Just a short, kind of slender-but-muscular guy with longer blonde hair and a red checkered baseball hat, wearing jeans and tennis shoes. The only thing weird about him was that people don’t just walk around like that. They smoke over at the picnic table or down by the old trestle at the river, but they don’t just walk around aimlessly.”

“Did you see where he went?”

She shook her head, tossing the towel into a bucket in the van. “No. Wasn’t paying that much attention. I don’t think he got into a car, though, I think he left on foot through those trees, maybe into the next office park. I guess that part is also weird, now that I’m thinking about it.”

“Did you let the detective know? He’s going to want to know that.”

“Oh yes, I just talked to him. He’s sending some guys to circle the building. Look for clues, I guess.”

I glanced over at the picnic table, where Benjamins still sat, his hands clasped in front of him. O’Neil was heading off toward a cluster of officers taking up a handicapped parking spot.

“That’s good,” I told Mike quietly. “I’d like an excuse to talk to Benjamin before I talk to O’Neil and now we have one. Amanda, Kathy – would you excuse us please?”

 

Benjamin Todd seemed as though he was expecting us when the three of us gathered around the picnic table without sitting down. He and Mike exchanged some casual words about the craziness of the situation and then we started asking questions.

He said, “I’ll tell you what I told the detective, it’s no secret. I walked into the conference room to get an answer on the funding question. I just wanted Hatch to shoot me straight, so I walked in and asked him right when I stepped into the room, are we going to get this thing cleared up and closed or what? It’s a lot better to just postpone a closing than to keep everyone standing around wringing their hands all day. If the closing’s not happening, you want to rip that Band-Aid off.”

“And what did he say?”

“He didn’t say anything, dude, he was dead. But I just thought he was either pausing for dramatic effect before answering, or maybe on his phone, listening to someone I couldn’t hear. I wasn’t sure. So I pulled a chair out and was about to sit down next to him so I could look him right in the eye while I asked, and that’s when I saw the blood.”

“Did you notice the window was open?”

“I didn’t, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think it was. I think I would have noticed that, and what I recall is, that thing was closed-up tight just like it usually is. The only time I’ve ever seen it open was last summer when the air conditioning went out one year. We had three contingent closings in there in a row, one right after the other. It was like a sauna. I think I lost three or four pounds that day.”

I glanced at Blurry and we shook our heads very slightly, not liking the sound of that. Blurry was one hundred percent sure that the window had been open and the screen had been cut.

“Did you even look over there, Benjamin?” Mike asked. “I mean, could you have just been distracted by you know, what you found, and not noticed it?”

“Sure it’s possible. But the thing is, that’s not how my training works. I walked into that conference room and even though I was talking, the details of the room just sink into my brain. I can pull up a mental image of it like a camera, the windows closed, the big high-backed chair beside it empty except for a local newspaper draped over the back, those big bushy curtains pulled back behind it. There was a half a bottle of water sitting at the other end of the conference table with no cap. I can see that room in my mind. I don’t see how I’d miss the window being open.”

“I did see the bottle,” Blurry confirmed, but his brow was furrowed. He was as certain the window had been open just a few seconds later as Todd was that it had been closed.

My brow wasn’t quite so furrowed. Military training is a formidable thing, to be sure, but memory is fallible, and in particular when distracted as fundamentally as one would be by discovering a dead body. It seemed to me the most likely scenario was Todd simply missed it. Kathy said that it was open as well, there was no question it was open now. And having said that, I didn’t see why he would lie about it. The only reason to lie about it would be if he opened the window.

Benjamin Todd had walked through the door into the conference room to get into it, and he’d walked through the door to get out. Why open the window, and then lie about it?

“Okay here’s the million-dollar question, Benjamin. We just got back from the Ruckmoor, and we know you met up with Hatch there. You guys both went out to the same bar, and stood there talking to each other. Now, I am legally bound to tell the detective that, which is what I’m going to do in a few minutes. But I wanted to check with you first because Mike and I both know and respect you. Can you tell me what that conversation was all about and why you haven’t mentioned it?”

“Well, actually I have mentioned it. And you don’t need to bother telling the detective, because I already did. That was just an old superstition Hatch and I had, from closing deals together all these years. When there’s a big problem like this, we step out and get a quick drink with the only rule being, we don’t talk about the closing at all, from the moment we step into the bar to the moment we leave. A lot of times, we get through that ritual, takes maybe twenty minutes, and then it’s like the problem dislodges.”

He laughed a little, shaking his head. “It always seemed like a funny thing to do. Childish, like when you’re at a restaurant as a kid and it seems like the food is taking forever, so you go to the bathroom even though you don’t need to, and usually the food is there when you get back.”

I frowned. “Just so I’m following you here, you went to the bar to not talk about the funding problem. Then right when you got back, you went in to demand an answer about the funding problem.”

“I mean, I don’t like it either, when you put it like that, but yeah. And I’ve done basically that dozens of times before, without anybody stabbing him.”

“What did the detective say about that?”

“He also disliked it.”

Maxwell Blurry cleared his throat and held up a finger. “Let me ask you this, Benjamin. Consult that mental picture of yours. See that chair in the corner, in front of the bunched up-curtains?”

“Definitely.”

“Can you imagine someone hiding there? Behind the chair? Behind the curtain? Both?”

Benjamin Todd frowned at the image in his mind, mentally trying to slide various people into the slot behind the chair, trying to imagine what it would look like. He said, “You know, normally I would say that I’d pick up on something like that, but maybe not right away, someone standing just right. After a while I’d hear them breathing or I’d smell them maybe, I’d pick them up. But it was only a few seconds before I noticed Patch was dead, and that sort of floods the senses.”

I cocked an eyebrow at Blurry, and then nodded at Benjamin. “So you’re saying, there could have been someone behind that curtain. It’s a possibility.”

He nodded, still seeming to consult the mental image, his confidence growing. “Yes. There could have been. In fact, when I came back with Kathy and Sharon, that curtain seems like it’s shape might have narrowed just slightly.”

“You were out of the room what, ten seconds?”

“At the most.”

“Okay, let’s go see the detective.”

Mike and Blurry fell in again behind me as I turned to look for the detective. He was over by the front entrance now, talking to two officers who’d been circling the building. Mike said, “You think ten seconds is long enough to open the window, slice it open, and climb out?”

“I do,” I replied. “Especially if you’re standing there desperate behind the curtain with the murder weapon in your hand, watching Benjamin enter the room and watching him leave.”

Blurry agreed. “You’d know you were caught unless you got out of there. You’d have a knife right there in your hands, ground floor. You could pop that window open and be outside in five seconds.”

“Sounds good,” Mike said. “But how do we prove that?”

“We go talk to the detective,” I said. “Tell him to check that screen for traces of blood where it was cut. If the killer cut it open to get out, it’ll be there.”


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