Part 12 – just the messenger

Benita wakes to blue and red strobes illuminating her bedroom. While not a nightly occurrence, police activity in this part of town is not entirely unusual.

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Occasionally there will be activity on her street and she’ll wake to the sound of sirens and sims arguing with police. Something about tonight feels different, however. She had been unable to sleep after making love with Marcus, so she borrowed a comfortable pair of boxers and worn dress shirt, then readied herself for the drive home. When he expressed  concern, she delicately explained that she had a personal hygiene matter that needed attending. Thankfully, he understood without needing further clarification.

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He did ask about her emotional state, however, and offered to stay with her if she thought it would help. She gently reassured him, then asked if he would pick her up for church Sunday morning. His smile spoke a million words. She smiles, recalling the kiss and embrace she received before departing. It came from a man who was falling in love.

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Benita was mentally and physically drained after finally arriving home. She was ready to collapse into bed; this time with the intent of finally getting some sleep. She wishes, now, that she had not remembered to turn on her phone. Alfonzo had called and left a message while she was with Marcus. He expressed his profound disappointment over her failure to embrace Ann’s loving overtures. He had made the situation unquestionably clear to her, hadn’t he? A staunch political ally had asked for Benita by name to accompany her on a date and then presumably back to her hotel afterward. In that capacity, Benita failed miserably. It was a costly but forgivable misunderstanding.

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The revelation that Benita had withheld information regarding her association with Van Stacpoole, however, was a much more grievous and unfortunate matter. He lamented how Joan had tried to warn him that she might be lying about the lifeguard. But neither of them had expected Benita would be romantically involved with him. Just the thought of such a beautiful, dark-skinned woman capitulating to somebody like Van was …unthinkable.

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Benita knows Alfonzo. She also knows that he doesn’t get angry – he retaliates. He explained calmly that she would very likely come to regret lying to him. But there was still an opportunity for him to be convinced that it was motivated by humiliation and shame over being exploited by the lifeguard’s privilege. That would, of course, require proof that she has cut all emotional ties by submitting herself to mandatory victim counseling until she comes to fully understand and appreciate the nature of her oppression. He instructed her to make use of the weekend to contemplate her mistakes. He would talk more with her Monday morning at the office about disloyalty – and some new incentives to discourage any potential recidivism.

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Benita stirs restlessly, then quietly emerges from her bed – cautiously peeking outside through narrows slits formed between window blinds. A loud rap at the front door startles her badly enough to expel a sharp squeal. Benita peeks through the peephole and sees a plain clothes police officer holding his badge to the door. She hesitates, then jumps and squeals again when the officer raps on her door with his nightstick. Benita hesitantly opens the door. The officer neither smiles nor frowns when he states her name with a questioning inflection. Benita nods, asking why he’s here in the earliest morning hours. The officer assures her she has done nothing wrong but needs her to identify a body. He asks her to get dressed and prepare to come with him.

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Benita had never heard of police waking anyone up in the dead of night to identify remains. Still, her stomach sinks. Unless this is some kind of deception, somebody she knows has died. A picture of Marcus forms in her mind. During one of their more intimate conversations, Marcus had warned Benita about Joan Mosley. She was beginning to develop an unhealthy obsession with Benita. According to Marcus, the people she singles out like this typically end up in a morgue.

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Benita rides with the officer in the front seat of his squad car. She possesses an unusually empathetic nature and has become quite good at reading body language. She recognizes an uncomfortable level of nervous agitation collecting in the detective’s shoulders, neck, and at the corners of his mouth. It is enough so that she asks him about it. He frowns, then introduces himself as “Sam”. He apologizes for having to get her out of bed this early in the morning. He then goes on to explain how he was contacted a few hours ago by Isla Paradiso police. There has been a… he pauses to select a suitable word, then settles for “situation”. It involves Benita’s youngest sister. Benita’s head and gut swirl with apprehension and anxiety, What happened to Natalia? What’s going on?

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Sam switches off the lights and siren while explaining the situation with Natalia. He then discloses that Ann Morris was found dead from an overdose in her hotel room late last night. It happened shortly after Ann contacted a lone-wolf media outlet known for openly criticizing Governor Taxmoore. Brenda Dias, his contact on Isla Paradiso, believes the two events are surely related. She also believes that Benita’s situation requires immediate and discreet imminent peril mitigation. Sam is inclined to agree with her assessment.

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Benita sits stunned and unable to speak. Sam continues by verbally checking off Taxmoore’s other disposable acquaintances; including Linda DuPont. The Governor and his entourage are as corrupt and dangerous as any street gang. The only difference is that Taxmoore commits his crimes under the pretense of “progress” and with the blessing of his big media advocates. Sam presents Benita with two options. He can bring her back to the precinct for questioning, as he was instructed to do by his sergeant. If this were to happen, he will very likely be driving a friend to identify her remains later today. Alternatively, he can give her a new phone and take her to a vehicle she will use to drive outside of town to a safe house established by Constable Dias in Isla Paradiso. If that is her choice, he will report that she was not home when he arrived.

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Benita stares indecisively at Sam as though looking to him for the right answer. His stoic frown provides no insight. Benita has known Brenda Dias her entire life and has sung choir with her at church. She makes her decision known by hesitantly handing Sam her phone. He tosses it out of the window and onto the freeway where it promptly bursts into a hundred shards of glass and plastic. Too shocked to speak, she says nothing. He hands her a newer model smartphone in exchange. Nervously, she asks about the safe house.

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The new phone has been programmed with contact information for an Isla Paradiso police officer. The officer will have details about the safehouse location. Sam tells Benita that he is, quite literally, just the messenger. The less he knows, the better it will be for everybody involved. He is personally taking quite a big risk. But given the nature of her situation, he felt it was the right thing to do. Sam looks around before pulling into a parking lot obscured from the road by trees and a billboard. He stops beside an old, rusty compact vehicle then gives Benita a small stack of cash for gas. Using bank cards is strictly off limits. Sam instructs her to drive to the outskirts of town and maintain a communication blackout. After she is out of range of the city cell towers, about fifty miles, she should call the Isla Paradiso contact, and nobody else.

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Skyler waits patiently beside her squad car for the phone call to come.

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Brenda had approached Skyler for help after learning that Benita was in danger. More specifically, she wanted Skyler to personally to reach out to her father for assistance. He is a well-respected cop in Pleasantview and has experience with just about every imaginable form of criminal activity. If anybody had trusted connections they could use to help Benita, it was him. Skyler was understandably hesitant. She burnt her bridges a couple years ago after getting kicked out. How would her father respond to “Skyler, the porn queen” asking for a favor? Skyler doesn’t know Brenda very well, but she knew enough to realize when the woman had reached her limit of “foolishness”. She didn’t care whether it was “porn queen”, “police officer”, or “circus clown” Skyler, as long as one of them made the phone call.

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Brenda was right, of course. It was the first conversation she’d had with her father in nearly two years. Hearing his happy voice, actually crying with joy, was possibly the most amazing feeling she had ever experienced. He expressed his immeasurable pride in the efforts she’d made to steer her life in a more positive direction. They talked for at least an hour before she finally asked the favor, which he gladly honored. The call was important in more ways than one. Not only had she reconciled with her father and secured the help required to keep Benita safe. It also left Skyler with a sense that Pleasantview was not so far away after all.

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Skyler snaps back to the present and answers her phone immediately when finally does ring. Benita is understandably confused and perplexed. First, Skyler attempts to calm her, mentioning Brenda’s name and apologizing for the clandestine pickup. Skyler introduces herself after Benita’s barrage of unfocused questions …yes THAT Skyler. She thinks back to news reports covering Linda DuPont’s death misidentifying her as Van’s girlfriend. Between those reports and updates from Benita’s family, Skyler had fully expected that Benita would make the connection. She promises they’ll talk candidly later.

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Skyler explains that Natalia had been taken from the home during a late-night break-in. It was a flawless entry carried out by a professional. Still, the resourceful little girl was able to escape. Thankfully, Van knew to look for her at the church. Natalia was able to provide an amazingly detailed description of her abductor. Skyler’s father quickly identified the woman as a former tactical ops specialist, now hired thug – Joan Mosley; currently employed by Alfonzo Taxmoore.

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Benita’s gasp of surprise is audible. She’ll freely admit that she lied to Alfonzo, but she does not understand why he would resort to murder and kidnapping. Skyler asks Benita to think carefully about any information she may have seen or handled that would have spooked Taxmoore into doing something so drastic. Benita tells her that she can’t think of anything, but that she can hardly remember her name at the moment. Skyler reassures her that it will all work out and that her father has agreed to assist. He is driving from Pleasantview to the safe house location. She just needs to stay out of sight and off the internet. No email, text messages, or social media and no phone conversations with anybody except her until this blows over. Skyler sends the safe house address, her father’s contact information and picture, then tells Benita just to watch television and relax by the pool for a couple of days. There is plenty of food in the house. She can help herself to whatever she needs.

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Before disconnecting, Benita anxiously asks about Van.  Skyler had hoped to avoid this topic of conversation. Many different responses buzz through her mind, most of which are vulgar and insulting. There is no point in taking Benita to task at this very moment. Skyler has made her share of mistakes and has come out relatively unscathed thanks in large part to the man this woman once called her boyfriend. The best way to avoid an unnecessary confrontation is to simply speak the truth. The problem is that Skyler had not been expecting the truth to sting so badly,

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He misses you.

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