Difficult Persuasion


“My name is Benny. How may I help you?”

“Yes, I want some information on . . . Robert, um, Tortelli.”

Benny heard a gravelly male voice in the background bark, “Ya dumb broad! Make like . . .”

The voice trailed off to an indistinguishable mutter and Benny hoped it was not going to be another rough day. He worked as a customer service representative for a health insurance company that administered Medicare benefits to the elderly. It was not unusual to start the day with a crackpot call. He had adjusted his headset, pushed the blinking red button, and began the recitation of his brief script.

Benny adjusted the volume on his phone amp and listened. He could hear a siren far in the background and the sound of machinery. After a moment, the female voice spoke in his ear.

“What’s your name again?” The female voice sounded quavery and close to tears.

“My name is Benny, Ma’am. How may I help you?”

Benny heard a commotion in the background, the female voice shouted, “He said his name is Benny! Whaddaya want from . . .” There was a primeval growling, a man’s voice shouting, then the woman screamed but her scream was cut short and Benny heard what sounded like a gunshot. Benny sat back in his chair, took off his headset, and ran a hand through his light brown hair. He wondered if he was hearing things. He had gotten strange phone calls many times in the past: People crying, shouting, profanity, the noise of pets, televisions, automobiles, and even the sound of sirens were not that unusual.

After a moment of doubt he rose and hurried over to his supervisor, Harry Oglethorpe.

“Hey, Harry, got a minute?” Benny leaned on the corner of Harry’s cubicle, the dull grey wall giving slightly under his weight.

Harry had been looking at the internet—looking, not reading. He clicked out of his browser, spun his office chair around and said, “Jeez, Benny. How many times I gotta tell ya. Don’t sneak up on me.”

“I’m sorry, Harry.” Slime, Benny thought. “Didn’t mean to surprise you. Were you working on something important?” Benny smirked knowing full good and well what Harry was ‘working on’. It was against company policy to surf the internet, especially for the kind of stuff Harry enjoyed during working hours, but Oglethorpe was the darling of the department. Geek supreme, was how Benny regarded him. Benny had been working the company’s evening shift for six months while he went to school for his degree. Harry had been in the department for more than six years and had been responsible for some of the technical “improvements” to the software programs in use. His self confident air and self-proclaimed proficiency caused him to be held in some degree of awe by the less experienced and younger ones in the department.

“What is it?” Harry glared.

“I got a really strange phone call, Harry.”

“Yeah? So, what else is new?”

Harry turned around in his chair and began rearranging papers on his desk. Benny stood rooted in place, not surprised at Harry’s reticence. Harry had never been one to bend over backward to help anybody in the department. He would only put himself out if there was a near certainty of immediate reward or publicity.

“Harry, this is different.”

“Look,” Harry shot over his shoulder, “Go find a lead an’ tell them. I’m busy.”

Benny started to walk away but the sound of that scream and gunshot echoed in his ears.

“Harry, I think I just heard someone get shot.”

Oglethorpe spun his chair again and stared up at Benny expecting a grin or at least a twinkling in his eye. Instead, he caught Benny’s worried frown.

“Are you kidding, Benny?”

Benny shook his head. “I’m not, Harry. I swear. I answered the phone, a woman asked me my name, there was some noise, and then I heard a scream and a shot.”

“Maybe what you heard was a couple fighting. It happens all the time. Maybe the old man threw something at his wife and it broke.”

Benny shook his head. “Listen, Harry. I have guns myself. I know a gunshot when I hear one. I’m telling you, I heard a gun go off.”

“So? That doesn’t mean someone got shot. You have an over active imagination, Benny. Go back to work.”

Benny felt the anger rise in his throat. Why did Oglethorpe have to be so obtuse? He decided to try one more time. He glanced at his watch, “Harry, I heard a scream. A woman screamed and then her scream was cut off like someone had choked her or . . .”

Harry faced Benny a second time and swore, “Benny, knock it off and get back to work. You’re letting your imagination get carried away.”

Benny swung around and headed for the lunch room. It was time for his break. He pushed through the lunchroom door and saw Pat Walpole sitting at one of the round tables dipping Brussels sprouts in a cheese sauce.

“Hey, Ben, How you doin’? You look all down in the mouth.”

“Yeah, I just got a really weird call. I heard a scream . . . and what I thought was a gunshot.”

“You gotta be kidding! Did you tell Harry?”

Benny laughed, “Yeah, I did. I guess that’s as far as it goes.”

“Benny, you can’t just let it lay. I mean, if someone really got hurt, don’t you think you should tell the authorities?”

Benny knew he could count on Pat; she had always been there to empathize with him and he thought she had a level head on her shoulders unlike his flighty girlfriend. Thoughts of Katie made him feel dark inside. He liked her, maybe even loved her, certainly most of the time, but ever since they had agreed to try living together, things had gotten increasingly rocky.

“I think so, too. In fact, I will. Right after work.”

“Benny, why not call 911 right now?”

“What would I tell them? Besides, it was a call from somewhere else, I think, not this area.”

“The company records phone calls, remember? They should have a record of it.”

“Thanks for your help, Pat. I will call the police department. I hope they don’t laugh me right out of town.” Benny adjusted his glasses as he walked back to his desk. He felt a little dread at the thought of addressing the call again with Oglethorpe. He had to go through a supervisor to get any information about a recorded call and Harry was the floor supervisor.

Benny sat down at his desk and began to compose an email. He decided it would be better to have a written record as well as wanting to avoid talking directly to Oglethorpe. He finished his email by stating he was going to contact the authorities about the call.

#

Benny pulled his mini-cooper into the parking lot of the apartment complex, got out, and walked up the stairs. He glanced around the parking lot to see if Katie’s car was there and, seeing that it sat in its customary space, groaned inwardly. He wondered what Katie would have to say about his bizarre phone call today. He pulled his apartment keys out of his pocket as he climbed the stairs, stopped on the balcony and his mouth gaped open in surprise and shock. His apartment door was caved in. the door jamb was splintered where the door had been kicked beside the knob. Benny glanced around, started to race back down the stairs, and realized with a start that Katie was home. He stepped to the door opening, stuck his head inside, and shouted for Katie. He heard nothing at first; then a low moan reached his ears. He rushed inside past the garish hall tree they had argued so vociferously over, through the living room and into the kitchen where he found his girlfriend lying on the floor. She had been stabbed with the butcher knife that lay on the floor beside her head. Benny knelt beside Katie, his pants leg smearing her blood on the cheap vinyl flooring. He cradled her head and checked for a pulse in her neck. Finding that she was still breathing, although very shallowly, he gently laid her head back down, leaped up, and raced for the phone on the bar. He dialed 911, advised the operator that he needed an ambulance and the police.

Benny had gotten back to Katie’s side, ripped a dish towel from the rack on the counter and pressed it to the wound in her side as he heard the emergency sirens coming down the street. He remembered the apartment complex was only a couple of blocks from the fire department in town.

Benny held the bloody towel against Katie’s side and sobbed softly as the police bounded up the stairs and burst in the apartment. He murmured Katie’s name over and over as the officer stopped near the kitchen, surveyed the scene, and dropped down beside Benny.

“She’s still alive,” he said, feeling for her pulse, and then, as Benny nodded, told him to keep his hand in place until the paramedics arrived. The cop rose, turned slowly in place and looked over the apartment as he told another officer who had just entered the apartment to call for forensics, the crime scene investigators, and back up.

The paramedics came into the apartment carrying cases of medical equipment, rushed to Benny’s side as the cops motioned them on in, and took over from Benny. The first cop in the room helped Benny, who was crying openly, outside on the balcony where he began to ask Benny questions.

“Did you find her here?”

Benny nodded and wiped his eyes with a shirt sleeve.

“Can I get your name, son?”

Benny nodded again, swallowed, and gave the officer his name.

“Do you live here, Benny?”

“Yes, I live here with . . . Katie.” Benny motioned to the gurney as the paramedics wheeled it outside and started it down the stairs. One of them remained behind with his hands full of equipment. He nodded at the officer who told Benny, “Stay right here a minute.”

“She has been stabbed, Bill.” The paramedic muttered while staring at Benny. “Whoever did it was in a big hurry. It looks like they missed all the vitals but she’s lost a lot of blood. Looks like she’s been pretty badly beaten, too.”

The officer pressed his lips together, bent his head and stared at the worn planks on the balcony floor, and moved toward Benny.

“You have a fight with your girlfriend, kid?” The cop hadn’t missed the fact that Katie had a great figure and a pretty face even though there was blood all over the place.

Benny hadn’t realized that nausea stalked his stomach like a wounded animal staving off a predator. He gave in to the demand to evacuate, leaned over the railing and vomited repeatedly until his stomach cramped with emptiness.

“No,” he gasped, “We didn’t . . . we did live together but . . .  we got along okay. Sometimes, you know, we . . . .”

“Yeah, I know, kid. My wife and I have been married,” he glanced at his partner as though looking for confirmation, “almost twenty years now and sometimes we argue, too.

“So, you just came home, climbed upstairs here, walked in and found your friend—Katie was her name?—on the kitchen floor, eh?”

“Yes sir, that’s what happened. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. I just know I came home from work and found her … like this.”

The officer proceeded to question Benny about strangers around the complex, about quarrels they might have had with family, friends, or neighbors, and the details of their life together. Then he asked, “Has anything unusual or out of the ordinary happened at all in the last week or so?”

“Like what?” Benny asked, puzzled by the third degree. He wanted very badly to get to the hospital and find out how Katie was. He still had to call her parents, and his, and let them know what had happened. Her mother would be in a state of shock. Katie was her only child.

“Oh, I don’t know.” The officer didn’t want to put any words in Benny’s mouth. He could see that Benny still had not recovered from a state of shock. He told Benny that he could go but not to leave town.

“You mean I’m a suspect in this?” Benny could hardly withhold his astonishment.

“Everybody is at the moment, son, until the investigation team finishes up here.”

Benny milled around on the balcony, reluctant to go back inside and face the mess. The investigation team had arrived and was still inside anyway. A crowd had gathered outside in the parking lot watching the comings and goings of police cars and the ambulance.

In the milling, gawking crowd stood a middle aged man wearing sunglasses and coveralls like that of a delivery man. The hastily donned striped coveralls covered up the stains he had gotten moments earlier on the knees of his pants. He had barely had time to climb in the grey delivery van unobserved and pull them on before the emergency vehicles arrived. He waited and watched, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand, until the ambulance had pulled away with its bloody bandaged cargo and Benny had disappeared back inside the apartment. He made casual comments to the bystanders, shook his head, and climbed back inside his van. No one noticed at the time that the yellowish signs on the side of the van were nearly worn away with age, and there were two small faintly bloody partial fingerprints on the side of the van just back of the driver’s door.

Benny had help in setting upright the damaged furniture—Katie had not given in without a struggle—and cleaning the kitchen floor. There were more than enough curious neighbors willing to come up and view the crime scene.

After everyone had left, Benny hurried down to the hospital and checked with the physicians and staff. They assured him he could see Katie as soon as she was stabilized and awake. He took a moment to sit in the emergency room lobby and catch his breath. He wondered what was going on. One minute life was mundane, daily chores were simply answering the telephone at work, dealing with his difficult roommate, and his studies, and then in the brief span of a few moments’ time, routine was relegated to the refuse heap and the local paper would print all the most intimate details of his life.

Benny roused himself from his reflections and headed for the pay phone. He pulled his phone card from his wallet, punched in the key, dialed Katie’s parents’ phone number and waited. Apprehension flooded his stomach as he wondered how to tell her mother what had happened.

“Hello?” Elizabeth Morris answered the phone.

“Mrs. Morris?” Benny found himself shaking again even though he had always gotten along well with Katie’s mother. She may not have agreed with his and Katie’s living arrangements but she had graciously accepted that as a fact of life. It was Katie’s father, Lee Morris, who made Benny feel nervous, even in the best of times. He felt relief that Mr. Morris hadn’t answered the phone.

“Mrs. Morris? It’s me, Benny Wingate. I have to tell you…”

“Why, hello, Benny. How are you?”

“Not too good, Mrs. Morris. I have to tell you…Katie is in the hospital.”

“What? What happened, Benny? Is she alright?” Elizabeth Morris’ voice rose to a shrieking crescendo and broke.

“Someone broke into our apartment. They attacked Katie.”

“Did they…? Is she alive? Mrs. Morris sobbed.

“Can you come down to the hospital?” Benny had started crying and couldn’t continue. Katie’s mother fell apart at the news and Benny waited, sobbing softly. Finally, he heard Mr. Morris come to the phone. We’ll be there as soon as possible, Benny. We’re leaving right now.”

With nothing else to do at the moment, Benny sat down in the lobby struggling to compose himself and wait for news of Katie. He still was not hungry but he got back up and went to the coffeepot. He nursed a lukewarm cup of coffee while thinking how things had changed; he never drank coffee, especially not regular coffee, and that had been one of the things Katie and he had argued mildly about. Katie drank caffeinated coffee steadily all day long.

While Benny sipped his coffee, he thought over the last few hours in relation to the officer’s questions. He wondered about anything strange that may have occurred and all he could think of was the strange phone call he had taken at work. Benny sat up straight at the thought. His first inclination was to dismiss it, but what else could explain what had happened to Katie. He couldn’t see how there could possibly be any connection between the two events but he still had an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach about it.

Benny obeyed his impulse, walked over to the pay phone a second time, and typed in the numbers from his phone card. Katie had always laughed at him for his use of a phone card instead of buying a cell phone like she carried. He had argued that he spent all his work days on the phone and didn’t care to carry a cell phone around when he was off work.

Benny Listened to the recording, made his selection, and listened for the officer to pick up the phone.

“Officer, is your name Bill?”

“Yes, it is. What can I do for you?”

“This is Benny Wingate. I think I spoke with you this morning at the apartment complex about my girlfriend, Katie.”

Benny hesitated, not sure how to tell the cop what he wanted to say. “You asked me a while ago if anything had happened to us. Well, I just remembered, while I was at work …”

“Where do you work, son?”

“Oh, sorry. I work for a health management company as a customer service representative.”

“Which one?”

“Collective Health Management.”

“Is that here in town?”

“Yes, it is. On the East side.”

“Got it. Now, what were you going to tell me, son?”

“Well, I work as a customer service rep. I take telephone calls from our enrollees and providers. I took a really strange call this morning. I meant to call the police about it …”

Benny hesitated again, unsure of just how far to involve company management. He didn’t want to lose his job.

“Go on, son,” the cop prompted.

“I took a call and it sounded like someone got shot.” The officer was silent for a moment. He wondered if this kid was on the up and up, or just another doper or wild eyed kid with an over active imagination.

“What makes you say that?”

Benny explained the details of the call and, much to his surprise and dismay, the officer agreed with Harry Oglethorpe.

“I think your supervisor was probably right, Benny. It was probably just a couple that were arguing. Maybe what you thought was a shot, was just something being thrown or broke, or a car backfiring. Something like that.”

Benny couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He stifled an impulse to argue and asked the officer, “Then how else do you explain what happened to my girlfriend?”

“We’re investigating that right now, Benny. I don’t see how an odd phone call could possibly connect with your girlfriend’s assault but we’ll check it out. Go home and try to get some rest, Benny. It’s the best thing you can do for your girlfriend right now.”

Benny returned to his seat in the lobby but he couldn’t rest quietly. He couldn’t help but feel that there was some tie-in between the phone call he had taken and Katie’s assault.

Benny had been dozing in his chair for what seemed like hours when he heard his name over the hospital PA system. He rose and hurried over to the admissions desk.

“I’m Benny Wingate,” Benny rubbed at his eyes beneath his wire rimmed glasses.

“It’ll be just one minute. Doctor Singleton would like to speak with …”

A tall weary young man in green surgical scrubs and a dangling mask approached the desk. “Are you Benny Wingate?”

Benny spun around and stared for a minute. The blood stains down the front of the doctor’s clothing brought back a nightmare of nauseating horror that was only hours old. He unconsciously passed a hand over his stomach as he said, “Yes, I’m Benny. Is Katie okay? Are you her doctor?”

Oliver Singleton stuck out a hand and Benny took it. “Yes, I’m Oliver Singleton. Let’s come over here for a minute.” He led the way to a consultation room, ushered Benny inside, and asked, “Would you like some coffee?” Benny was only a few years younger than the doctor and Singleton immediately felt empathy and a certain fellowship with him.

“No, thanks. Please, can you tell me if Katie is alright?”

“She’s going to be fine. She took quite a beating. The knife wound is not deep and it missed all the vital organs. What I am concerned about the most, at the moment, is her mental state. She seems to be …”

“What do you mean, ‘her mental state’? Has something else happened to her?”

“No, Benny. But you have to understand, Katie took a severe beating as well as being stabbed. She is sleeping, sedated right now. But when she wakes, you can talk to her yourself.”

Benny thanked the doctor and went back to the telephone in the lobby to call Katie’s parents.

#

Benny had made his calls, including Harry Oglethorpe to let him know what had happened and that Benny wouldn’t be in to work for a few days, left the hospital in his Mini-Cooper and headed back to the apartment. He needed to zone out on his computer, maybe play some computer games and get his head back on straight. So much had happened in so short a time. Benny felt completely overwhelmed and at a loss to explain anything that had happened in the last twenty four hours.

He swung out of the hospital parking lot, glanced past an old delivery van with a partially worn away sign on its side, tore up the freeway on ramp and hit the interstate. He pulled into the left hand lane, stomped on the gas, and let the Mini-Cooper limber up. He felt the need to release some anxiety. In his rearview mirror a grey delivery van pulled into his lane, black smoke pouring from its tailpipe in an effort to keep up with the speedy little Cooper.

Benny pulled off the freeway at his exit, slowed down, and eased through the stoplight at the intersection. He didn’t notice the delivery van as it followed him down the off ramp and through the light. Benny started down the boulevard and on an impulse decided to turn off and weave through the back streets until he came to the outskirts of town. He loved to take his twenty two caliber handgun out to the gravel pits that had been used to build the freeway and plink. Today he just wanted to get away and think. He was sure there was some connection between Katie’s assault and the phone call but he couldn’t think of how to convince anyone else of that fact.

Benny turned two corners and then headed down a long curving stretch of narrow blacktop that followed a steep embankment on one side of the road. He glanced in his rearview mirror and saw a grey delivery van speeding up behind him. At first, he held his speed steady, then, seeing the delivery van crowd up close behind, Benny gunned his Cooper and pulled away. He glanced back and noticed with alarm that the van had matched his speed and then tried to ram Benny’s car from the rear. Benny swerved, recovered and tried to think of what he had done to offend the driver of the van. He must be crazy, Benny thought. Then a vision of Katie’s bruised and bloody face appeared, and Benny felt a cold ball of ice form in the pit of his stomach. He looked around anxiously for somebody that could help him. All the while, the van driver tried to ram Benny and crowd him off the road. Benny thought briefly about stopping but fear drove him on. He tried to swerve and escape the van’s furious lunges but finally the van bumped the Cooper, backed off and rammed it hard. Benny braked at the first lunge, slammed his foot down on the accelerator afterwards, braked again, and lost control as the van slammed into the Cooper’s rear end a second time, crumpling the sheetmetal and driving Benny and the Cooper down the steep embankment. The car came to rest lodged against a large pine tree. Badly shaken, Benny undid his seat belt and shoved his shoulder against the driver’s door. The Cooper had swerved, then skidded sideways and slid down the slope coming to rest with the passenger door bent around the tree trunk. He stepped out and found himself shaking uncontrollably. He stared at what was left of his car, turned and saw a man in striped coveralls standing at the top of the slope. Another vehicle stopped and a car door opened. Benny heard voices and saw people slipping and sliding down the hill but no one noticed the delivery van pull away.

Someone had called for emergency vehicles and the police. Benny found himself the center of attention once again. He told the cops about his close call and how the van had chased him off the road and tried to kill him. He had the funny feeling that once again no one would believe him. He didn’t mention Katie or the phone call.

“Why do you think the driver of the van was trying to kill you?” The officer asked.

“I…I don’t know,” Benny said.

“Did you do anything to, you know, make them mad?” Benny stared, anger boiling up inside him.

“Why do you think it was me? I was driving out to this side of town. I just wanted to go for a drive. What’s wrong with that? What could I have possibly done that would justify this? Benny waved an arm down the slope. The wrecker driver was dragging a heavy cable down the slope and Benny began pacing and rubbing his side where the car door had bruised him, pausing only to yell at the cop in frustration and anger. “I’m telling you guys that this was no accident and neither was my girlfriend’s assault. Somebody has it in for us, or for me.”

“Okay, okay, just calm down. Tell me why you think that is.”

Benny stopped and stared at the uniformed cop. He thought of officer Bill and Oglethorpe and wondered if this one would also think Benny was nuts. He decided to drop the topic altogether. “Forget it. It doesn’t matter.”

The cop shrugged, watched Benny walk away, folded his notepad and shoved it back in a pocket.

Benny approached the wrecker driver and asked for a ride back into town. The driver said, “Sure, hop in, bud.” Benny took one last look at his Mini-Cooper, climbed in the cab and listened silently to the driver’s patter all the way back.

#

Benny asked the tow truck driver to drop him off at the hospital. He checked at the front desk and found that Katie had been transferred to a room upstairs. He followed the signs on the corridor walls and found Katie’s room. Her mother and father were in the room and Benny waved weakly at them as he stepped inside.

“Benny, how are you, son?” Katie’s father clapped a hand on Benny’s shoulder and he winced in pain. It was not lost on Katie’s mother.

“Are you alright, Benny?” Elizabeth Morris peered carefully at Benny, her brow furrowed in concern.

“Sure, I just had an accident, that’s all.”

“An accident?” Lee grasped Benny by the elbow. The one place that didn’t ache. “What kind of accident? What is going on around here, Benny? First Katie, and then you?”

Benny thought about telling Lee Morris about everything and then wondered how much of it he would believe, as well. He finally decided to try again, feeling that he needed some support from some source.

“Something happened at work, Mr. Morris, and I think it has something to do with what has happened to Katie, and to me this afternoon, as well.”

Lee Morris listened, staring at Benny, and not knowing what to make of this. Benny Wingate had always seemed so straight. Not the kind of kid that screwed around, or got messed up with drugs or alcohol. Morris considered himself a good judge of character and had heartily approved of Benny Wingate—up to now.

“You mean to tell me you think this …” Morris waved at his bruised daughter, “… is all due to a telephone call you got at work? I’m sorry, Benny. I’m afraid you’re going to have to do better than that.”

“What do you mean by that?” Benny bristled at the suggestion that he was lying.

“Lee, we have more important things going on right now than to worry about that. If you two want to argue whose fault it is, go out into the hall.” Katie’s mother wrung out a face cloth in a pink plastic basin of water on the table and began patting her daughter’s bruised face and forehead.

“I’m sorry, Benny,” Lee dismissed Benny and crossed the room to stand by his daughter’s bedside.

Benny watched the family at Katie’s bedside for a minute feeling extremely lonely and out of touch. He wandered out of the room just as Katie’s nurse came in and headed back down to the lobby. He took a seat there and watched a news broadcast on TV. He fought back tears and felt angry with himself because of the struggle to contain his emotions. At this moment, he felt very resentful of his job and considered telling Harry Oglethorpe what he could do with it, but Benny knew it was paying for his schooling and, as much as he would have liked to tell Harry to shove it, he knew he would just swallow his pride and keep at it.

Benny heard the TV news reports talking about someone’s dead body that had been found in the Stanley River. Someone had turned the TV sound down too low to hear and Benny walked over to the set to turn it up and didn’t notice two men in business suits walk into the hospital lobby. They approached the desk and then turned toward the elevator. Benny returned to his seat in time to hear the reporter say the deceased had been a long standing philanthropist in the community contributing to many local charities and businesses but was an individual not well liked either by those in the community or his family. Benny had picked up a magazine on the table beside him and was trying to focus on an article about computers when the elevator doors opened and the two men in business suits got off and walked across the lobby.

“Excuse me,” the taller one addressed Benny. “I’m Detective Lyle Worthington and this,” he motioned toward the shorter man, “is my partner Dick Knight. Would you be Benny Wingate?”

Benny looked up in amazement. “Yes, I am.” He dropped his magazine on the table, stood up, and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“May we speak with you a minute, Benny?”

Benny nodded and followed them outside where an unmarked car stood at the curb. “You don’t mind sitting in the car with us, do you?”

Benny felt stunned and wondered idly if he was about to be arrested. He climbed in the backseat and waited for both men to climb in the front. It seemed awkward to him for them to have to sit sideways in the front seat while they talked but nothing during the last twenty-four hours had seemed normal.

“Do you know a man named Robert Tortelli?” Worthington asked.

Benny shook his head.

“We have some information that you took a call about him. You do work as a customer service representative at…” Detective Knight consulted his notebook. “… Collective Health Management, don’t you?” Benny nodded.

“Benny, we found Mr. Tortelli’s body in the Stanley River. He died of a gunshot wound to the back. We understand that during the phone call you took, you heard a scream and what you thought sounded like a shot. Is that right?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“One of our officers thought he remembered taking a call from you about it. The victim’s name rang a bell. What else can you tell us about that call?”

Benny felt a thrill of excitement. Finally, somebody was willing to listen, and possibly, believe him. He told the detectives about the sound of sirens in the background and the sounds of machinery.

“What kind of machinery, Benny? Like factory equipment running, or like in a work shop, or automotive shop, or a machine shop?”

Benny shook his head, “No, like heavy equipment. You know, like a big tractor or bulldozer. Something like that.”

Worthington looked at his partner, “A construction site, maybe. How about that one across town right next door to the old Tort’s market. It’s not far from the river, either. We can also check out the emergency services record and see where the emergency vehicles were running at that time.”

Benny thought for a moment, “You know, they record all the phone calls that come in where I work. You could get a copy of the recording from them, I’m sure.” Benny gave the detectives the name of Harry Oglethorpe for a contact at Collective Health. Then he thought of something else. He told the cops about the grey van that had run him off the road. He also told them about Katie and the assault. “You think there could be some connection?”

“Don’t know,” Worthington shrugged. “but we’ll check it out. What else can you tell us about the van?” Benny thought for a moment and then described the yellowing signs on the sides. “There’s not much else I can tell you,” he said, and then, “Oh, and the guy that drove the van. I saw him standing at the top of the slope where my car crashed. He wore striped coveralls like deliverymen wear.” Detective Knight wrote vigorously in his notebook.

“Is that all?” They asked. Benny nodded and both men stood up. “We’ll be in touch, Benny.”
Benny hurried to the elevator. He couldn’t wait to tell Katie and her family.

#

Benny had brought Katie home from the hospital two days later accompanied by Lee and Elizabeth Morris. They were all sitting in the Wingate apartment finishing lunch when there was a knock on the door. Benny rose from the table, glancing at Katie. Her eyes were wide with fear. Lee placed a hand on his daughter’s shoulder and Katie’s mother kept up a line of chatter, trying to distract her daughter’s attention from whoever was at the door. Benny opened the door and found Detectives Worthington and Knight standing at the door, big smiles on their faces.

“May we come in a moment, Benny? We have some good news for you. We just wanted to update you on the case.”

“Sure.” Benny stood aside, then followed both men into the dining area.

“You remember my Mother-in-law, Elizabeth Morris and my Father-in-law, Lee Morris. And I believe you know Katie.”

Both men nodded at the introduction. Katie blushed at Benny’s introduction of her parents. He had never introduced them as his in-laws before and the implication wasn’t lost on Katie.

“We just wanted you folks to know, we found that grey van that tried to run you off the road, Benny. It was stolen by an ex-con by the name of Harold Swanson. It took a couple of days, but, with the help of the FBI, we finally picked him up on some outstanding wants and warrants.

Benny sat down at the table. He felt weak and tired, and very happy. He smiled at Katie and they looked up at Worthington.

“What did all this have to do with that phone call, and why did he try to kill Katie and run me off the road?” Benny asked.

“When we interrogated him, he confessed.” Worthington said.

“He has high hopes of a plea bargain with the D.A. but he’s a three time loser. He’s looking at life in prison, now, and probably a death sentence, and he knows it.” Knight said.

Worthington nodded. “He implicated his accomplice. That was the woman you spoke with on the phone, Benny.  The two of them kidnapped Robert Tortelli. They sent Tortelli’s family a ransom note but they refused to pay.”

“Seems there was no love lost between Robert Tortelli and his family.” Knight added.

“Swanson and his accomplice hatched a plot to steal from Tortelli’s bank accounts when the family refused to pay. The woman had been a former employee of Collective Health and had suggested to Swanson that they try to obtain Tortelli’s bank account information through customer service there. That’s when she called you, Benny. Unfortunately, it was then that Swanson lost his nerve, and his temper, shot Tortelli, and beat his accomplice to death.”

Katie moaned and her mother looked at her, alarmed. “Are you alright, dear?” Katie nodded and whispered, “How awful. He killed her?”

Worthington nodded, lips pressed together. “He is a desperate character, Katie. You were very lucky to have survived.

“We discovered his accomplice’s body buried in the backyard of the house where Swanson was staying.”

“Swanson knew you had heard him kill Tortelli over the phone. Apparently, his accomplice knew you from her employment there and recognized your name. She told Swanson who you were before he killed her. Swanson found out where you lived, broke in, and tried to find out from Katie, here, where you were. It’s a good thing she didn’t tell him. You saved Benny’s life, Katie. If Swanson had found him, he would almost certainly have killed Benny.”

Benny threw his arms around Katie and gave her a big hug. Worthington continued, “Swanson followed you and ran you off the road, Benny. If people hadn’t showed up when they did, he might have tried to kill you at that time.”

“You mean everything that happened to Katie and Benny was just an attempt by this man to cover up his crimes?” Lee Morris asked.

Worthington nodded, “That’s right. Benny was his only witness to the killing of Tortelli. Swanson had to silence Benny if he could. Fortunately, Katie foiled his attempts to find Benny and finish the job.

“Would you guys like some coffee?” Elizabeth asked.

“No, thank you, Mrs. Morris. We have to get back to work. We just wanted to let you know that Swanson is in custody. Your ordeal is over.” Knight said. Worthington shook hands with Benny and Mr. Morris and headed for the door.

#

The Morris’s left Benny and Katie that afternoon. Katie stayed home for several days while her bruises healed. She joked with Benny that she looked like she had gone fifteen rounds with a prize fighter.

“You know, Benny, that guy wanted to kill you. I was so frightened for you.” She slid across the sofa and leaned her head on Benny’s shoulder.

“I was afraid, for awhile there, that no one was ever going to believe me.”

Katie nodded, “it was certainly a case of difficult persuasion.”

“You should have told him, Katie. He might have killed you, too.”

“I couldn’t, Benny, I love you too much to let anything happen to you.”

The End

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