And here we go, as promised! Read on for part one of my festive romance murder mystery US romp. Yes, that is a genre. And yes, it is supposed to be fun, so enjoy!
I shall post all 12 parts over the next 12 days, the conclusion on Christmas Eve. Merry reading, all!
(Find out what I’m wittering about by reading my last post)
**Please note, All Ye Faithful is an LGBT romance, M/M to be precise, and contains strong language and adult content, so may not be to everyone’s taste. If this is not your thing please scoot along to my All Publications, Short Fiction and Flash Fiction pages for other things that might be more to your taste**
All Ye Faithful – Part 1
James Solomon knew it was unprofessional, even unethical, to be grateful for the murder of a high-profile businessman the day before Christmas Eve. But even his robust professional pride couldn’t put a dent in the relief he felt when the call came through.
He climbed out of the rented car outside Benson Industries HQ and shivered in the brisk sea breeze that brought with it the smell of salt and iodine. Gibson slammed the passenger door with a sigh. Her blonde brows were drawn together in a mix of annoyance and exasperation. A woman in a sheriff’s uniform stood near the doors finished a call on her cell and hurried over to meet them.
“Agents. Thanks for coming so quickly.”
“That’s no problem, Sheriff,” Gibson replied, face now professionally blank. “The sooner we start the better. Sheriff Coyle, right?”
“That’s right,” the middle-aged woman said, her smile doing nothing to warm the pale set of her face.
“Agent Gibson,” Gibson said, shaking the other woman’s hand then, indicating James, “Agent Solomon. We’ve had the incident reports, but can you fill us in in your own words?”
“Sure. Follow me,” Sheriff Coyle said, voice sounding a bit steadier. She proceeded them to the wide, glass entrance and swiped a card through a reader. The doors hissed open and James followed her and Gibson in, grateful to be out of the early morning chill. The corridor was long and brightly lit. The reception desk was empty. The black eyes of cameras were the only ones watching them. “The vic is Derek Benson, fifty-five years old. Born here in Winton then got a job with the FDA in Maryland after college. Struck out on his own age thirty, now he’s the owner, CEO, director, you name it, of Benson Industries. It’s a specialist pharmaceutical company. Started off real small-time, deals with local drug store chains and the like, but they’re pulling in some pretty big business these days. Benson was found in his office this morning by the janitor, shot three times in chest.”
“Time of death?” Gibson asked, tapping notes into her phone with a long, manicured finger.
“Our ME is putting it around nine pm last night, though he says he can be more accurate after the post mortem.”
“And you said the security camera footage is missing?” Gibson said, eyeing another camera as they strode past.
“That’s right,” said the sheriff, almost guiltily. “They’ve got too many feeds for storing on hard drives. The security system backs everything onto disk. The disks from eight pm last night to three this morning have been taken.”
“No online backup?” James asked, not hopefully.
Coyle shook her head. “I don’t think Benson trusts the Cloud and all that. A bit old fashioned with some of his thinking, I’m hearing. They’re dusting the Security Room where the disks were kept for prints now.”
“Did Benson often work late?” Gibson asked. James pulled all the reports up on his own phone and skimmed them as the elevator hummed up to the seventh floor, re-absorbing the information alongside Coyle’s commentary.
“Word is he put a lot of hours in, sure. But there was some kind of presentation evening on last night. All the heads of department and senior staff were here. Plus some of the lab rats were working late on a deadline.”
“Lab rats?” James asked as Coyle stepped off the elevator onto a level that was all glass walls and spacious offices with big desks and bold, minimalist furniture.
“The technicians,” she said, glancing this way and that as if wary of what might be hiding in the maze of glass. “We have a list of everyone that was in the building at the time from the swipe, though so far no one saw anyone leave the conference room or the labs.”
“How many people are we talking?” asked Gibson warily.
Coyle pulled a battered notepad from a back pocket, flipped through it. “Thirty one.”
“That’s a lot of people with opportunity,” Gibson muttered.
“One of them was his wife,” Coyle added, flicking through her notes. “Rachel Benson.”
“His wife was at his business meeting?”
Coyle nodded. “She’s a senior partner in the firm. She delivered one of the presentations.”
“At what time?”
“Pretty much the exact time they reckon he was shot,” Coyle said. “Sorry.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want it to be too easy,” Gibson muttered.
“What did you think of the victim?” James asked, watching the sheriff closely.
“Me?” she said, brow creased. “I didn’t know him.”
“But you knew of him,” James pressed. “Big company. Small town.”
Coyle gave him a nervous glance then looked away. “He did stuff for some local charities. Donated to some nature conservation causes and the homeless action, that kind of thing.”
“But?” James prompted, seeing a slight tightness in her face.
Coyle looked uncomfortable. “He hired most of his staff from out-of-town. They don’t live here, they don’t contribute to the economy, and they can get the locals backs up. Snobbish, some say. Elitist.”
“Is that what you think too?”
“I don’t have much contact with them,” Coyle hedged. “And I don’t listen to gossip. But I do know a lot of money comes through this building and not much of it feeds back into Winton. We’ve started interviewing,” she added, turning a corner. “Managed to get a few of the folks from the meeting in early this morning, including the wife. But we’re still trying to get hold of most of them.”
“What do you make of the wife?”
Coyle looked at James like she was trying to figure out if he was testing her. “Reserved.”
“She’s not upset?”
“Oh, she’s upset,” Coyle said. “But she’s not the sort to go to pieces in front of the likes of me.”
“The report said murder weapon was his own gun?” James then asked, carefully logging the last reply away for further consideration.
“Sure looks that way. He kept it in his desk.” Coyle stopped at one of the glass doors where a uniformed officer, looking a little green, stood to attention. Through the wide glass walls, James could see the body of Derek Benson slumped in his large, designer office chair. Blood was splattered up the window behind him, looking like red rain suspended in the grey, December sky. The crime scene photographer was taking close-ups of the bullet wounds whilst his partner, who looked old enough to have been the scene technician at the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, was bent over the black, glass desk, sweeping for prints as delicately as if he were applying makeup.
“We don’t get much murder here,” Coyle murmured as if in explanation, her eyes on the corpse. “Winton’s a peaceful spot. We get some drugs, some drunk and disorderly, a bit of fraud. But stuff like this?” She shook her head.
“A big company shoe-horned into a small community,” James ventured, watching both officers’ faces. “Can cause friction.”
Coyle raised her eyebrows. “Big companies are fine. But BI’s too big. And only likely to get bigger.”
“Oh yes?” Gibson prompted, pulling on some gloves and pushing open the door.
“That’s what people are saying this presentation evening was about,” Coyle said, hanging back near the door as Gibson bent over the body. “They’re striking a deal with some sort of international distributer for their newest antiviral.”
“Do you know which distributer?” James asked, examining the stark art hanging on the interior wall.
Coyle frowned at her notepad, ruffling the pages. “It’s in here somewhere. I’m sure it went in the report.”
“It did,” Gibson replied firmly, giving James a hard look. “Loadstone Inc.”
Coyle smiled a relieved smile and Gibson went back to scrutinizing the crumpled form of Derek Benson. James examined him over her shoulder. His chin was on his chest. A rope of blood-speckled saliva hung from a corner of his lined mouth. His skin was yellow-grey and James knew that if he’d tried to move him he would be stiff with the rigor of someone dead nearly twelve hours. His eyes were closed. His hands, hairless and manicured, rested in his lap. His brows were heavy and dark. His hair, thinning, was iron grey, though still almost black at the nape. He wore an expensive suit and a dark, conservative tie. Blood soaked his shirtfront and pooled under the chair.
The gun was on the floor by the desk. A desk drawer on his right stood wide open. James bent and peered at the small keypad on the drawer front.
“It has a lock, but not a complex one,” he said.
“And there’s no signs of a struggle,” Gibson replied surveying the rest of the tidy office.
James nodded. “Someone he knew. Someone he trusted too, or at least someone he wasn’t afraid of, or he’d have been standing.”
“But that could be any one of the thirty one people in the building last night,” Gibson said sourly. She stood with her hands on hips, glaring at the corpse like it had done her personal harm. Which, in a way, James reasoned, it had. “The question is, did he get the gun out himself, or did the killer?”
“Business expansion,” James said, tilting the computer monitor to face him. “Not always a popular move.”
“But why was he here?” Gibson murmured. “Big-deal presentation evening in the conference room, the future of his company in the balance?”
“And he’s sat in his office on a whole other floor,” James affirmed. “Writing an email to Personnel.” He gestured at the screen. Gibson came to his elbow and bent to examine the open, unsent email with Contract Termination typed into the subject line and a blinking cursor in the blank form.
Gibson was quiet a moment. James stepped to a set of black vinyl bookshelves and scanned the titles. Business management, chemistry, biology, academic journals and government studies on pharmaceuticals, and several battered volumes on natural history and the history of Winton and the surrounding area.
“I think we have all we need,” Gibson said to Coyle, who was stood by the door watching them with an expectant air. “The ME can take him away now.”
Coyle nodded and stepped back out into the corridor, dialing a number on her cell.
“How about you stop making digs at the local law enforcement, Agent?” Gibson scolded softly.
“If they slip up this early on, it’ll end in roadblocks,” he returned, watching Coyle through the glass. “And we need to establish local feeling about the situation.”
“Consider it established,” Gibson said wearily. “Are you getting anything on this guy?”
“He loved his town,” James murmured, looking around the office again. “But I think he loved his company more.”
“His company grossed several million last year,” Gibson said, moving to the door. “I can see why he had a soft spot for it.” Coyle was just hanging up the phone when they rejoined her. “Ok, Sheriff. Please continue to round up the employees from last night. We’ll question them here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “Most of them will be turning up to work at eight anyways.”
“Good,” said Gibson, looking at her watch. James could see her repressing a sigh. “Tell them they can only have the building back when we’re done. That’ll get them through the door.”
Coyle nodded and hurried off.
“We’re doing the interviews here?” James questioned.
“One,” Gibson said, holding up a finger and moving back toward the elevator, “it could get the killer twitchy and we might get a hit early, which means I can be back in time for my husband’s Christmas Eve punch evening tomorrow. And two,” she said, stabbing the elevator button with more force than was necessary. “Getting everyone across town to the Winton Police Station with its single interview room and stone-age wifi will add hours to the whole damn circus. I’m not paid enough to be here at this time of year any longer than necessary.”
James didn’t comment. He set up his interview station in the room he was offered by another local police officer, put the digital recorder on the desk, pulled out a new, leather-bound notepad and went through the early reports on his phone for the third time as the clock ticked towards eight am.
He frowned when his personal phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out, saw the number and cut the call. Shortly after, a police officer ushered in a tall woman in a business suit looking flustered and annoyed. James could already see a queue of similarly well-dressed and irritated people lining up outside. He flipped open his notebook, indicated the chair opposite, and began.
Three hours and seven interviews later and James was hoarse, tired and frustrated as he flipped through his interview notes which revealed absolutely nothing. Benson was generally liked. Everyone was quietly hopefully that the deal with Loadstone Inc would be good for the company, and, James figured, for their own wallets. No one knew why Benson had chosen not to attend the presentation evening.
James waited for the next candidate wearily, tapping his pen on the desk. When the door remained shut, he checked the corridor. It was empty but for a few local police officers attempting to calm two loudly-protesting members of Benson Industries’ senior management who were still waiting to be seen and extremely unhappy about it. He sighed, was about to call them in, then spotted a vending machine further down the hall and his blood sung out for caffeine.
He slipped away while their backs were turned, punched in his selection and received an ominously greasy coffee. He glanced back, saw the impatient employees being shown into Gibson’s interview room and took the opportunity to step out a side entrance that had been propped open by the Crime Scene team for quicker access and escaped into the open air. He found himself on a concrete walkway at the back of the building. There was a bench against the wall and cigarette butts littered the floor. He took a seat with a sigh and sipped the coffee. It was revolting, but hot and the caffeine began poking holes in his fatigue.
The land rolled steeply away from the back of the building, down to the sea. A couple of gulls, looking brighter than jewels against the low, grey sky, wheeled in the salty breeze. He took a moment to just breathe the smell and feel the chill on his skin.
It was so quiet, so unlike the city which was, he felt, at its worst this time of year. Added to the usual roar of traffic, blare of sirens and thunder of planes was the incessant Christmas music blasting from every storefront and pouring forth from every cab radio. It was all gaudy lights and swarming crowds scrambling for the tacky, overpriced products piled in storefront windows.
He found himself closing his eyes a moment, letting himself enjoy the cold, blessedly-quiet sea air, when his phone buzzed again. He swore, pulled it out, stared at the screen for a long moment, then answered.
“There you are,” came the irritated, high-pitched voice. “You avoiding me, James?”
“I’m working, Angelina.”
“The day before Christmas Eve?”
“Yes,” James said, controlling his tone with an effort. “I’m afraid the murderer didn’t consider their timing.”
Angelina huffed down the line. “This is the third year running, James.”
“I know that – ”
“Dad’s starting to think you’re doing it on purpose.”
James swallowed his first response, kneading the bridge of his nose. “It’s the job.”
“Bull,” she snapped and James winced. It took a lot to make his sister even half-swear. “Even the FBI get Christmas off occasionally.”
“I’m the only one in the unit without a family.” James argued. “It’s only fair – ”
“You have a family, James.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Dad’s not getting any younger you know.”
She sighed again, sounding defeated. “He misses you.”
James didn’t reply.
“Yes he does,” she retorted in response to what he didn’t say. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you both lately. I know he said some dumb stuff about Glen, but you know what he’s like. Mum wouldn’t want you to – ”
“Angelina,” he put in, firmly. “I’ve got to go. I’m interviewing.”
“Of course you are.” Her disappointment was harder to hear than her anger. “Well, I’ll tape Ryan and Jackson opening their presents, shall I?”
“Yes,” he said. “Please.”
A pause. “Stay safe,” she said, but in a way that made it clear she might love him, but was still mad, and hung up. He rested his head against the bare brick and stared at the sky, waiting for the flush of shame to ebb.
“Bad day, huh?”
James looked up, startled. A young man in a lab coat was stood by the door, giving him a sympathetic look through thin-framed glasses.
“Working day,” he replied noncommittally.
The younger man smiled, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his faded jeans and offering them. When James waved them away he gestured at the bench. “Mind if I…?”
James did mind, but couldn’t think of a professional way to refuse. He glanced back at the door, knowing he should get back. But it was so quiet out here.
He shifted over to allow the young man to sit. James picked up the slight sent of good coffee and herbal shampoo. He blinked and shifted further away as the man lit a cigarette with a silver zippo. The thick smell of tobacco smoke filled the air, thankfully masking the other, more appealing scents, and the wisps wove about his head like snow clouds before whipping away in the breeze.
“You’re one of the FBI agents, huh?”
“Agent Solomon,” he confirmed, not meeting the curious look.
“Poor old man Benson,” the other murmured after a pause, smoke wreathing from his lips. “I can’t believe it. Shot, huh?”
“Man.” The young man shook his head. James examined him out the corner of his eye. He had long, caramel-colored hair pulled into a loose tail that hung down his back. What looked like home-cut bangs framed his fine-boned face and fell in his eyes. James noticed with a start that the eyes were the most startling pale green he had ever seen, the colour of bottle glass or young leaves. “It’s unbelievable,” he continued. “Shit like this just doesn’t happen round here.”
“So I believe,” James said, looking away.
“It’ll be sex or money, right?”
“Murder.” The young man had an almost impish grin on his face. “It’s always about sex or money, right? Or both?”
“We’re pursuing several lines of inquiry.”
He laughed, a bright sound at odds with the grey morning.
“I’m sorry, and you are?” James said with a spark of irritation.
“Leo,” the other held out his hand, unaffected by or not noticing his tone. “Leo Hannah.”
“And what’s you’re connection to the victim, Mr Hannah?”
“Just Leo,” he insisted, dropping his hand when James didn’t take it. “I work here. Lab rat,” he added, tugging on the lapel of his white coat.
“And what exactly do you do?”
“Uh, well,” he scratched his forehead with a thumbnail. “I’d have to look at my email signature to give you the proper title. But basically, I look in microscopes and play with the scanning machines.”
James watched as the younger man took another deep draw in his cigarette. Under the lab coat he wore a loose t-shirt and low-slung jeans. There were battered sneakers on his feet. His hands were long-fingered and fine, with a number of tiny scars and work-hardened pads. His face was boy-like, the green eyes large and fringed with thick lashes, making him look younger than James reasoned he must be. His look and manner both seemed easy, unguarded, in stark contrast to everyone James had interviewed that morning. He entertained a half-notion for a long moment then heard himself asking, “Did you know Mr Benson well?”
Hannah snorted smoke out through his nose. “Nah. He’s the one with the shiny office on the seventh floor and I work in the basement, you get me?” he threw James another disarming smile. “But I do know you’ve got your work cut out for you.”
“How so?” James asked carefully.
“Well,” Hannah said, raising one eyebrow. “I’ve only been here a year, but even I know you either loved the boss man, or you hated him.”
“Your colleagues have not ventured the same opinion,” James said carefully.
Hannah snorted again. “Top brass? No, they wouldn’t.”
Hannah rubbed his thumb against his fingers just under James’s nose. James caught again the subtle scent of herbs and coffee and closed his throat. “Dollar dollar, yeah?”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to explain.”
The other’s mouth turned up at the corner. He looked at James closely, like he was a slightly diverting article in a usually-boring newspaper. James resisted the urge to break eye contact. “Top brass want to be in the top pocket of whoever takes over, right?”
“Well,” he shrugged like it was obvious. “Until they know who’s gonna take over, everyone’s gonna play it cool, right? Especially with the cops. Then you can tell the new boss what a good job you did saving the company’s face.”
“And saving its face doesn’t concern you?”
He narrowed his ivy-green eyes momentarily. “I think catching who did it concerns me more.”
“That’s good,” James replied and pulled out his notebook. “So you would say the senior management had a wide range of feelings about Mr Benson?”
“That’s a very college-educated way of putting it, but yeah,” Hannah replied. “You only had to see him in a room with his department heads to see they either worshiped the ground is size tens trod on, or wanted to slip a land mine under them. He’s…was…too old-school for some, I think. Had principles.”
“Strong ones,” Hannah replied. “Demanded loyalty, you know. And respect.”
“These heads of department. That would be Horatio Torez, June Michaels and Harold Boon?”
“Yeah, those guys. Super top-brass.”
“Could you be more specific about their relationship with Benson?”
Hannah looked out over the sea. “Not really. We don’t exactly share the same break room. I can only tell you what I guess, you know, the impressions I got in meetings and stuff.”
“And what were those impressions?”
He hesitated the barest moment, then continued. “Michaels and Boon always looked like it was only the size of their pay checks stopping them from beating Benson’s head against the table. Whereas Torez, well…”
“Yes?” James prompted.
“Let’s just say I’ve never seen a guy so into another guy that wasn’t into him back.”
James took a moment to untangle that. “Torez is gay?”
The green eyes slid his way again. James tried to figure out what was going on in the appraising look. “Both ways, I think. But he keeps it on the hush-hush. He was in the military, you know.”
James hadn’t known. He made a note. “How do you know about his orientation?”
Hannah shrugged again and James wondered if it was a little too easily. “I know someone he dated for a while.”
“Happily married for years, I believe. To a woman, I mean. Rachel? You must have that in your files.”
“But they were close? Torez and Benson?”
“Hell yeah. Torez is into that whole respect thing, too. And big on chains-of-command. Benson was like his commanding officer and a father figure all rolled into one, I guess? Torez had a pretty rough upbringing. That’s not a secret. I put it all this in my statement, by the way. For the lady cop.”
James cocked an eyebrow. “‘Lady cop’?”
“The pretty one. Older, but still got it. Blonde.”
“You mean Agent Gibson?”
“Sure, that sounds right,” he said, grinning again. “She took it all down. Although…”
“What is it?”
“I didn’t mention it before because…well, there’s no proof. That’s what you guys want, right? Evidence? Proof?”
“What do you have?”
“Just a feeling, really.”
“A feeling there’s been, something, I dunno…something funny between Torez and the old man recently.”
“Yeah. Sassy said she’s heard they’ve had beef, though no one knows what about.”
“Sallyann Andrews. One of the mail runners,” Hannah explained. “She hears everything that goes on. Likes to pass it on, too.”
“So she heard a rumor. What makes you think it’s true?”
Hannah contemplated the sea for a long moment, brow creased slightly. “Torez came down to the lab last week for a meeting. He sure looked like a man with a weight on his mind.”
“When did Sassy first mention hearing about this disagreement?”
“Uh, few weeks ago? A month? I’d have to check my IM history to be sure.”
“If you could do that, and give me a call,” James replied, pulling a business card from his pocket.
“Sure, happy to…James?”
“Agent Solomon is fine.”
“Sure thing,” Hannah smiled again, wider. James wondered if there was a glint in his eye or if it was just his dry spell playing with his radar. “And hit me up if you need anything while you’re here, yeah? I know this town pretty well. You got my number on file, right?”
James examined his face a long time but couldn’t make anything of the boyish guilelessness. “We do.”
“Seriously,” Hannah added, his smile dropping. “Anything I can do to help. I liked Benson. I didn’t know him well, but he gave me a shot, you know. When no one else would. Kinda feel like I owe the old man.”
James stood, pocketing his notebook and checking his watch. “Thank you for your cooperation.”
“Sure thing. Oh and, Agent?”
Hannah nodded to the paper cup in his hand, still half-filled with lukewarm dregs. “If you want a decent coffee, there’s a place on the seafront. Arbuckles. That shit’ll knock your socks off. Tell ‘em Leo sent you.” His smile made his eyes shine like stained glass in the sunshine. James hurriedly suppressed the thought just as Gibson appeared at the side door, looking harried.
“There you are,” she said, glance sliding to Hannah who raised a hand in greeting as he dragged on his second cigarette. She nodded politely then gestured James to follow her in.
“What is it?” he asked as he stepped back inside.
“I want you in on this one,” she said, pacing back toward the interview rooms.
“Who is it?” James asked as he followed.
“Renford Muntz. The janitor.”
“The one that found the body?”
“You think he’s good for it?”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell if he’s guilty or just hates cops. Keep your eyes open. Mr Muntz,” Gibson’s tone stiffened with politeness as she opened the door. Renford Muntz sat hunched at the table, chewing on a splitting thumbnail. His deep-set eyes flicked up as they entered, then dropped again to the table top. “This is my colleague Agent Solomon. If you don’t mind, I would like to go through your statement again with him present.”
“Why?” the man rasped without looking up.
“He’s a good judge of character. If you truly have nothing to hide, he’s a good guy to have on your side.”
The man huffed, spitting out a gnawed piece of nail. James studied him as he took a seat next to Gibson. Muntz’s dark, wiry hair stuck up in all directions like he’d been running his hands through it. His skin was sallow and his stained coverall strained at the seams as he bent his large frame over the table. There were bags under his eyes and dirt under his fingernails. His jaw moved constantly and he blinked more than James would consider normal.
“So tell me again how you found Mr Benson.”
“For Agent Solomon’s benefit. Please.”
He sighed a large sigh. James watched him tugging at the ragged thumbnail with stiff fingers. “Like I said, I came in at four like always,” he grumbled. “I do the top floors first cos those stuck-up assholes don’t want me around once they start pretending to work.”
“You do what, exactly? Cleaning?”
“No, there’s a cleaning crew for that, ain’t there?” he grouched. “But it’s my job to make sure everything’s in order and that they done their job right.”
“Ok, so you were inspecting the senior management’s offices,” Gibson continued without inflection. “Then what?”
“I saw him through the glass. I called the police.”
“Your swipe card confirms you arriving at three-fifty-five am, Mr Muntz. The call to the sheriff didn’t come through until four-twenty-five. Did it really take you half an hour to get up to the seventh floor, see Mr Benson had been attacked and call the police?”
“I did some other offices first, didn’t I?” he snapped, shifting in his chair. “And when I got to his, I didn’t see the blood at first. Thought he was sleeping.”
“Do you know where the disks from the security system are kept, Mr Muntz?” James asked.
He shrugged, staring hard at his fingers. “Sure. Security Room. First floor.”
“The disks with all the footage from last night are missing.”
“Killer musta taken them,” he scowled at James.
“Mr Benson was in the process of writing an email when he died,” Gibson said. “To Personnel. Do you know anything about that?”
“No. Why should I?”
Gibson paused. James watched Muntz. Sweat began to shine on his forehead. “A number of your colleagues mentioned you and Mr Benson have had a few disagreements recently. About your behaviour towards your colleagues, among other things.”
“Lying bastards.” Muntz’s hands twitched then were still again.
“It’s not true, then?”
“Course it’s not.”
“Why do you think they would say so?”
“Cos they’ve all got it in for me, that’s why.”
“Who specifically, Mr Muntz?” James asked.
“All of them,” he spat. “Everyone. They all want to see me out on the street.”
“Does that include Horatio Torez?” James ventured.
Muntz stared at him a moment, mouth slightly open. James could feel Gibson’s questioning glance but kept his eyes on Muntz. The heavyset man blinked and scowled heavily. “Sure, him. All of them.”
“Why did they all have such strong feelings about you?” Gibson asked, voice carefully level.
Muntz shifted his bulk in the creaking chair. “I don’t know, do I? I’m different, I guess.”
“How are you different?”
“I ain’t rich, for one,” he snarled. “And they think I’m not smart. But I am. I knew what they said. I knew what they thought. They think I’m dumber than shit, but they don’t know half the stuff I know about this place. They don’t know what I could do, given the money and the right chances. I been here years. Known Mr Benson longer than any of them too. Jealous, that’s what they are. Every one of them.”
“Who do you think would want to hurt Mr Benson, Renford?” James said, watching the ruddy face carefully.
The bloodshot eyes weighed him up a long time. A corner of the mouth twitched within the bristled depths of his beard. “How should I know?”
“You just said you knew the company better than anyone,” James remarked. “Don’t you have any idea?”
The big man leant forward on the table. “You want my guess?”
“One of the heads. Yeah, one of those guys.”
“The heads of department?”
“Yeah, That idiot Boon or that stuck up bitch Michaels.”
“And why would they want Mr Benson dead?” James said, leaning his elbows on the plastic tabletop to mimic the other, watching the twitching, sweat-sheened face closely.
“They hated him, that’s why.”
“Lots of people hate other people, Renford. It doesn’t mean they kill them.”
“This big deal,” he snapped, “means big changes, right?”
“I imagine so.”
Well, they’d get more money if they were in charge instead of him, right?”
“Yes, I imagine that’s right,” James said smoothly, pretending to look at his notes. “So one of them will take over the company now? Get all the benefits from the expansion for themselves?”
“Course. It’s always about money, ain’t it?”
“Most of the time,” James agreed.
“Just Boon and Michaels?” James asked lightly. “You don’t think Torez would have wanted the same thing?”
The man swallowed thickly, looked at the table. “No.”
“Why not?” Gibson prompted when the man offered no more.
“I dunno,” he said, slamming a fist on the table. “Just no, ok?”