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Last witness, p.1
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       Last Witness, p.1

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
Last Witness


  PENGUIN BOOKS

  Last Witness

  Praise for Jilliane Hoffman

  ‘Hugely readable’ Daily Mirror

  ‘Fast-paced and action-packed, this thriller was one of the best I’ve read for some time. In a word: absorbing’ Herald Sun

  ‘Jilliane Hoffman’s first effort at crime writing shows she has a very promising future. The bottom line: chilling and compelling’ NW Magazine

  ‘Decidedly unputdownable’ Woman & Home

  ‘Slick, intensely readable. A tale of personal horror, thrills and vengeance guaranteed to follow in the bestselling footsteps of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Tess Gerritsen and Karin Slaughter. Strong, compelling stuff’ Guardian

  ‘Hoffman writes like an angel. Well worth a trip to the bookshop for an outstanding debut from a writer who may turn out to be a female Grisham’ Independent on Sunday

  ‘A gripping, well-crafted suspense story… an absolute delight. Shades of Grisham, nuances of McDermid, traces of McBain… a belter of a book. Charge your glass and enjoy this book. Do not permit anything to distract you from drinking it straight down’ Sunday Express

  ‘There are enough twists and turns here to keep Cornwell fans happy and enough legalese to satisfy ardent Grishamites’ Time Out

  ‘The plot storms along from peaks of terror to resoluteness to anguished nightmare, with just enough love interest to give moments of respite from the macabre. A dream of a debut thriller’ Publishing News

  ‘You won’t be able to put this book down. Will keep you on the edge of your seat till the final moments’ Star Magazine

  ‘A genuine page-turner’ Sunday Telegraph

  ‘A gripping read’ Best

  ‘Should thrill and delight anyone’ Chicago Tribune

  ‘Like Patterson or Cornwell, Hoffman creates vivid, engrossing crime investigations. A block-buster movie in the waiting’ Time Out New York

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  Jilliane Hoffman was an Assistant State Attorney between 1992 and 1996. Until 2001 she was the Regional Legal Advisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement advising special agents on complex investigations including narcotics, homicide and organized crime. She lives in Florida. Last Witness is her second novel, following her bestselling debut, Retribution.

  Last Witness

  JILLIANE HOFFMAN

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3

  (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

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  Penguin Group (NZ), cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  www.penguin.com

  First published by Michael Joseph 2005

  Published in Penguin Books 2005

  8

  Copyright © Jilliane Hoffman, 2005

  All rights reserved

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

  ISBN-13: 978-0-141-92491-5

  For Rich, the one who still never doubts. And, of course, for Amanda and Katarina.

  In memory of Hank Hoffman

  1

  The heavy wooden doors to courtroom 4-8 swung open again, tapping the back of the chair where the corrections officer sat fiddling with the bottom snap on his department-issued green windbreaker. The plainclothes detective entered and walked slowly up the center aisle, his dress shoes thudding softly on the tired tan carpet, past the excited crowd, before finally taking a seat on the witness stand to the left of Judge Leopold Chaskel’s mahogany throne.

  Miami Assistant State Attorney C.J. Townsend felt her mouth go dry. She rubbed her lips together, to keep them moist and to hide her anxious expression from the cameras, sketch artists and reporters that monitored her every move. Her heart began to pound furiously in her chest. But she could not run, could not just get up and leave – that was not an option. So she forced her eyes to look straight ahead of her. She didn’t even glance at the man who sat at the opposite table across the gallery wearing an expensive Italian suit and a pained expression on his handsome face.

  She knew he watched her, though, waiting for her reaction. For her, he wore a bemused smile beneath his feigned look of anguish, his fingers drumming patiently on the table before him.

  ‘State, are you ready to proceed?’ asked Judge Chaskel, perturbed that this case was once again his problem. He had run an almost-perfect trial. It should never have come back. Not for this reason.

  ‘I am,’ replied ASA Rose Harris, C.J.’s friend and colleague in the Major Crimes Unit at the State Attorney’s Office. After a moment she rose from her seat and said, ‘Please state your name for the record.’

  ‘Special Agent Dominick Falconetti, Florida Department of Law Enforcement.’

  ‘How long have you been so employed?’

  ‘Fifteen years with FDLE. Four years with the NYPD in the Bronx before that.’

  ‘Agent Falconetti, allow me to direct your attention to the year 2000. At that time, were you the lead agent on the case of The State of Florida vs. William Rupert Bantling?’

  ‘Yes, Ma’am. The department headed up a task force – the Cupid Task Force, it was known by. It was comprised of detectives from multiple South Florida law enforcement agencies. In 1999 the task force was formed in response to a series of abductions and brutal murders that took place on Miami Beach. The subject had been nicknamed Cupid because of what he had done to the hearts of his victims, and the name stuck. I was the agent assigned initially from FDLE, so I, ultimately, led the investigation.’

  Rose Harris gestured to the man at the table across from C.J. ‘And that investigation ended with the arrest of a subject, namely William Rupert Bantling, on September 19, 2000?’

  ‘Yes,’ Dominick looked over where Rose had gestured, where William Rupert Bantling sat nibbling on his lip now, looking as if he might cry. ‘Mr Bantling was arrested by Miami Beach police officers over on the McArthur Causeway. The body of victim Anna Prado was discovered in the trunk of his vehicle.’

  ‘And Mr Bantling was subsequently brought to trial later that year for her murder?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Who was the prosecutor in that case, Agent Falconetti?’ The tone of her voice hardened slightly.

  Dominick hesitated just a moment and looked in C.J.’s direction. ‘Assistant State Attorney C. J. Townsend,’ he said softly. ‘She’d been the SAO Legal Advisor on the task force for more than a year.’

  ‘During the course of this trial, you became romantically involved with Ms Townsend, is that correct?’

  ‘Yes,’ he said, looking awkwardl
y down at his lap, ‘we developed a relationship.’

  ‘And Mr Bantling was convicted after a trial, correct?’

  ‘Yes. Convicted and sentenced to death.’

  Rose Harris had moved behind Bantling at the table. Now she placed a hand on his shoulder, and he bowed his head meekly.

  ‘But you came to discover that Mr Bantling was not guilty of this crime, was he Agent Falconetti?’

  ‘I don’t know that for certain,’ Dominick squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. C.J. felt his eyes searching the courtroom for hers, but she continued to stare straight ahead. Her legs had started to shake underneath the table.

  ‘You came to discover facts, Agent Falconetti, that caused you to question Mr Banding’s guilt, is that true? That he perhaps had been set up?’

  ‘I discovered facts that caused me to question some things, yes.’

  ‘That caused you to believe that Mr Bantling had been set up?’

  ‘Yes, I have wondered,’ Dominick finally said, his voice resigned, his eyes finally giving up the search and casting downward instead.

  ‘Show the court, please, what fact you discovered that led you to question the guilt of Mr Bantling – that led you to believe that he had been set up, as he had alleged all along?’ Rose Harris was like a dog with a bone. ‘Show the court the evidence you discovered, the evidence that had been withheld in the first trial, that evidence which told you an innocent man had been falsely accused and placed on death row!’

  Dominick somberly nodded his head. He looked defeated, as if he wanted to cry himself. He reached down underneath the witness stand, his hands emerging seconds later with a black plastic garbage bag that was sealed with red evidence tape. Using latex gloves and a jagged knife, he slit open the tape and with a pair of evidentiary steel tongs, reached inside. The smiling, white rubber face of a clown emerged from the bag, the tongs holding it at a distance by its fuzzy tufts of red hair, its blood-red twisted smile dangling in front of the jury, twirling and spinning slowly back and forth, posing for every camera. An enormous collective gasp sounded through the crowd.

  She could take it no more. C.J. sprang to her feet, screaming. ‘He is not innocent! He’s guilty! He’s guilty!’

  ‘Order! Ms Townsend! As an officer of the court you know full well how to behave yourself in front of me. The jury will disregard that outburst!’ shouted Judge Chaskel.

  C.J. sat back down, her face buried in her hands. She felt the man watching her, smiling at her downfall, wishing he could get a hold of the knife Dominick held in his hands, so he could make some new scars on her body. Maybe borrow the mask back for just an hour or so.

  ‘It was in Ms Townsend’s closet. Stuffed in a box at the top with some old Miami Beach police reports,’ finished Dominick.

  Rose Harris let the shocked murmurs finish their ripple through the crowd. ‘Agent Falconetti, is Ms Townsend present in the courtroom today?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Please identify her for the record.’

  Dominick raised his head. The clown mask still dangled from the tongs in his left hand. With his other hand, he pointed across the gallery where C.J. sat. The click and whir of cameras filled the air, following his finger. ‘That’s her. Sitting at the table.’

  Rose nodded somberly. ‘Let the record reflect that Agent Falconetti has correctly identified the defendant, C. J. Townsend.’

  C.J. sat upright with a start in bed, her face drenched in sweat and tears. The silence of the black room screamed in her head and she clutched her chest, trying to control her racing heart. The clock on the dresser read 4:07 a.m. Her hand reached out and she felt Dominick beside her, his back warm, rising and falling with his breathing as he slept.

  It’s okay. Everything’s alright, everything’s gonna be fine. It was just a nightmare. It’s not real, she told herself, looking around the bedroom, her eyes struggling to see.

  But just then, as if on cue, her beeper went off in the darkness on the nightstand beside her.

  And that was when the nightmare really began.

  2

  ‘Fuck you, you fuckin’ cracker-assed pig!’ yelled the fat hooker. She still had the rubber tube wrapped around her arm, just above the elbow, from her last fix and it whipped about as she waved her arms in defiance.

  ‘Ain’t that special? You kiss your mother with that mouth?’ Officer Victor Chavez was in no mood. He was already cutting the bitch a break by not arresting her, and now she had the nerve to actually complain about it. God, sometimes he hated this job. ‘Now, you still need to move yourself out of here.’

  ‘Ain’t got no right. Jus’ makin’ some money. You want a blow, Officer? Twenty bucks. Maybe loosen your tight white ass right up,’ she cackled.

  ‘I’m gonna count to ten. If you’re still here, I’ll assume you want to crash at DCJ tonight.’ DCJ was the Dade County Jail and the last place he wanted to be on this fine evening. Spending two hours filling out paperwork in that shithouse for some ho’ who inevitably would be sprung first thing in the a.m. by an overworked, cranky judge.

  ‘Don’t want no jail, master cracker,’ she mumbled, her eyes half closed, and she finally stumbled off down the street, narrowly missing a speeding Mustang. A screech of brakes was followed by a horn and a number of loud expletives.

  ‘Kiss my ass!’ the hooker yelled back behind her as she wobbled down the block and out of sight.

  Chavez watched her teeter off, just as the small radio pack on his shoulder crackled to life. ‘Alpha 816. Thirty-eight, thirty-five with a knife in an alleyway at NE 79th Street and Biarritz Drive, behind the Atlantic Cable Company. White male, fifties, gray beard. Complainant advises subject causing a disturbance.’

  Thirty-eight was a suspicious person. Thirty-five was a drunk. Put the two together and you have politically correct cop lingo for homeless person. A bottom-feeder call, which of course meant that Victor Chavez would get it.

  Victor looked around at the boring mess which was now his daily life. Chasing hookers off the street, nickel and dime junkies back into their holes, homeless people to their next park bench. When he was done doing that, he could expect to pull a husband off of his wife after pummeling her face in, and maybe respond to a car wreck caused by some overindulged idiot trying to find his way home off the Beach. It was barely one in the morning, and he had been on the job for just two hours.

  Victor hated midnights. He hated being babysat by the Miami Beach PD’s powers-that-be practically every minute of his ten-hour shift. He hated shit patrols and vagrants pissing in the back seat of his car, and he wondered when-oh-when his penance would be paid and the account with his sergeant settled.

  Ever since the Cupid case he had been stuck on midnights, denied overtime, and passed over for the prime vacation times. When was it supposed to end? He was almost at his end, though, that was for sure. He was going to have to sit down with Sergeant Ribero next week and demand a normal schedule, a normal career. Not this piddly babysitting-the-homeless-and-fruitcake job. That was not what he signed up for when he became a cop almost four years ago. If need be, he would go to the Hialeah PD, where his brother worked. Get a job as a cop and then maybe move up to detective after a few years. Fuck the fun of the Beach. It wasn’t fun anymore, anyway.

  He clicked back on the shoulder pack to respond. ‘Alpha 816. QSL from 20th and Collins.’ The literal translation for QSL was ‘I receive,’ though in Victor’s case, it always meant ‘Shit rolls downhill and I’m at the bottom.’

  No more. He could take no more. He actually had not even fucked up the Cupid case, when you thought about it. He had been the one to stop the son of a bitch as he tore over the McArthur Causeway with a dead girl in his trunk. Just one of the eleven women that the psycho had carved up. But in the eyes of his sergeant and the bitchy prosecutor, a carved-up dead body in a trunk meant shit. The stop – his stop – was ‘bad,’ and he had spent three long years trying to make amends. Well, no more.

  Victor Chavez climbed into his s
quad car, happy he’d come to this decision. Happy to think that maybe, in a month or so, he would actually begin to like this job again. Let the chips fall where they may, he thought. Then he activated his blue lights and headed over to 79th and Biarritz to rustle some poor guy from the alley he probably called home.

  3

  Even though the man in the shadows could not see it, he thought that if he listened hard enough, he could actually hear the partiers over on Ocean Drive, just a few short miles down the road. The collective charged murmur of hundreds of voices floating on the hot, humid air, the clatter of dozens of outdoor restaurants, the loud thumping of heavy bass music escaping the bars and clubs, and, of course, the irritating beeps and revved-up engines from the Porsches, Benzes, and Bentleys that lined Ocean and Washington searching for the impossible on a Friday night – a place to park.

  Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

  Miami Beach, where anything goes and the rich and famous – and not-so-famous – come to play. And, of course, be noticed. The beautiful girls with their fake breasts and tight low, low-cut shirts and warm brown tans, sans those annoying tan lines, naturally. The beautiful boys, their hard, sculpted bodies decked out in Lycra, leather, snakeskin, spandex. They all mixed and mingled, drinking Cosmopolitans and Chocolate Martinis or chic tropical drinks like Mojitos. The exciting sexual energy that hangs in the heavy air is almost palpable.

  He closed his eyes for a moment and simply listened.

  Just a few miles away from all the decadence, here he was in this rotting shithole. The floor of the alley was littered with trash and garbage, old beer cans and liquor bottles, discarded condoms and empty fast-food bags. Most of the streetlights had been broken out long ago, and the city just never bothered fixing them, because this was not the end of town where tourists spent their money. The alley was a refuge for drunks and dopers. Though, right now, it was empty. The Miami Beach cops had already made a pass through, shooing away the homeless and the undesirables.

 
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