CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.10Jilliane Hoffman
‘Yes, Your Honor,’ Daria replied quietly, swallowing the lump that had formed in her throat. The average murder took anywhere from thirteen to eighteen months to make it to trial. If she did decide to seek the death penalty, the judge was right, pushing this to go within the next few months meant that would be all she would be doing for the next few months. Ugh. No cruise to Mexico. There went the first summer vacation she’d booked in four years …
As Althea called up the next case, Daria gathered her file and stepped back to the state’s table, watching as Justice Joe was followed out of the courtroom like the Pied Piper by the reporters and their cameramen. Double damn. It was obviously Varlack’s firm who’d called in the press. So much for thinking the Palm Beach Lunders would want to keep Junior off the front page and out of the gossip columns. And while it was only local media showing an interest, you never knew how big a story could become. What might catch the public’s fancy. With online news outlets, blogging, tweeting, YouTube, Facebook — everyone was on the hunt for the next big crime story, wanting to comment on it, be involved somehow. And since you never knew what might ignite that passion or curiosity, Daria knew it could very well be this case. The case she’d promised Vance Collier she would keep out of the press.
She dabbed her upper lip with a crumpled tissue she’d found in her suit pocket. She was sweating now, but it wasn’t the heat that was getting to her.
‘I can’t tell if he’s bluffing, but it looks like Justice Joe will be demanding a speedy trial. And even if he doesn’t file a demand, the Manicured Monster has a stick up her butt now and is making me prep like he is.’ Daria ripped off the last bit of stubborn thumbnail cuticle with her teeth. She immediately wished she hadn’t. Not only did it sting like a bitch, but bright-red blood began to seep from under the nail bed and run down her thumb in the general direction of her white silk blouse. She stuck the whole finger in the cold remains of yesterday’s McCafe mocha latte that sat in her cup holder. ‘I’m gonna have to eat the damn deposit on my cruise, I just know it. Your depo’s a week from next Monday.’
Manny pulled the cell phone away from his ear, studied the number again and yawned. He sat up on his couch. ‘Counselor? That you?’ Rufus, his 90-pound Belgian Malinois, sat up at attention next to him, looked around and barked one, single, thundering, ‘Woof!’ before lying down again and going right back to sleep.
‘Of course it’s me,’ Daria replied, looking quizzically at her dashboard, which had just barked at her. She sucked the latte from her thumb. ‘Who else would it be?’
‘Most people start a telephone conversation with “hello”.’
She sighed. ‘Hello. What was that sound?’
‘That was Rufus. He’s my dog and you woke him up.’ Manny looked at the end of the couch, where Rufus had rolled over, all four paws in the air, eyes in the back of his head, sawing wood like a lumberjack. He knocked him playfully in the head, but the dog didn’t budge. ‘For a second there, anyways.’
‘Great guard dog you got, Detective.’
‘He’s a former bomb squad K-9. He has narcolepsy, I think. Really enjoys his retirement here at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. Until my phone rings and wakes him from his slumber. Then he’s mean as a bull.’
‘I don’t feel bad that I woke up your dog, Manny. Your depo is a week from freaking Monday. I just got notice.’
‘You just got notice at …’ He peered at the clock in the kitchen. ‘Jesus, is it eleven-thirty? Are you still at the office?’
‘I was. I’m almost home.’
He yawned again. ‘What are you, OCD? Or maybe you really are a vampire. I thought I saw fangs …’
‘Funny. Don’t mess with me, Detective. I need you there at ten.’
‘Here we go,’ Manny said with a chuckle. ‘You really mean twelve.’
‘Aargh. No, I really mean ten. Tell me you have something more for me on this. Please.’
He turned down the volume on ESPN and tried not to watch the scores. ‘You sound desperate. Didn’t you just arraign the bastard?’
‘Yes, and I repeat, your depo is in less than two weeks,’ Daria replied with a frustrated sigh. ‘Be forewarned: this is gonna go fast.’
‘What were you saying about a cruise?’
‘To Mexico,’ she answered with a whimper. ‘First vacation in four years and I’m not gonna be able to go. And I gotta eat the deposit, which really hurts. You do know how much I make, don’t you? Or how much I don’t make.’
‘You don’t wanna go to Mexico, Counselor. Don’t you read the papers?’
‘The cartels aren’t killing off the cruise ship tourists. Just the locals. I would’ve been fine. Tan and relaxed. Drinking piña coladas poolside.’
‘When’s this cruise?’
‘Last week in August.’
‘Right in the middle of hurricane season,’ Manny said with a laugh. ‘Hope you got a hell of a deal, Counselor. Now don’t start bawling; maybe Lunders won’t file a speedy demand. Better yet, maybe this will all work out by then.’
‘For that to happen, Manny, we need more evidence. More. Big. Something to smack him in the face with and get him to plea. Anything on the fibers?’
Manny stood up and walked to the fridge. He opened it up and started to poke through it. It was time for a sandwich. ‘Well, it must be your lucky day. Or night. ’Cause I do have some interesting news for you. I’ve been doing some research and guess what I found?’
‘I can’t imagine. Talbot Lunders’s sperm plastered all over the inside of that dumpster.’
‘Twisted. No. But I repeat, I did find out something pretty interesting. Remember you asked where our boy might’ve gotten sulfuric acid from?’
She held her breath. ‘Tell me you have a receipt.’
He grabbed the mayo, bread, ham and cheese and carried them to the counter. ‘Guess what’s an ingredient in detergent?’
‘Sulfuric acid,’ he said smugly, as he began to assemble his sub. ‘Who would’ve thunk it? And guess what company has a lab in the Acreage in West Palm that is testing a new line of laundry detergents?’
‘Flower & Honey?’ she asked excitedly.
‘Yes. Actually it’s a subsidiary company of Flower & Honey, because laundry detergent is far from all natural ingredients like flowers and honey. In fact, detergent is synthetic soap made with crude oil, believe it or not. Think about that the next time you snuggle up in a freshly laundered sweater. The name of the subsidiary is PowerX. And it is overseen by none other than our boy, Talbot, who signed off on the shipments of sulfuric acid himself.’
‘Nice. Now why didn’t you call me with this info, Detective?’
‘Because, unlike you, I have a life outside of the office. I was gonna call you in the morning. At a normal hour,’ Manny replied, sneaking a look at the TV while licking the extra mayo off his finger. He wished he hadn’t. The Marlins had lost again.
‘Great. Send me a copy of all the receipts with his signature. Is there any way to chemically tell one bottle of sulfuric acid from another?’ she asked hopefully.
‘Nice try, Counselor, but no. We can’t match up PowerX sulfuric acid with the shit that we took off Holly Skole’s calluses.’
She sighed. ‘Just a thought.’
He couldn’t wait anymore. It looked too good. He took a big bite. ‘I do have other news that you might find interesting,’ he said as he chomped.
‘I knew you were holding back. Are you eating right now?’
‘Yep. It’s about midnight, and time for a midnight snack.’ He took another bite, swallowed hard and finished his thought. ‘Well, you didn’t seem so thrilled that I was sending in that video clip to the lab or that I was checking out Abby Lunders’s computer.’
‘Ugh. No,’ Daria replied. ‘Don’t go waking sleeping dogs, Manny. No pun intended. You’re only gonna make the defense’s case for them.’
He took another bite. ‘That’s why I didn’t call you.’
‘All right. Don’t sulk,’ she said. ‘Out with it. Now that you’ve gone and done it. Was there also a video on Mom’s computer of Sonny Boy knocking boots with our victim before he killed her? Or better yet, was there a video on Mom’s computer of Sonny Boy knocking off our victim? Swallow this time before you answer, please.’
He did. ‘No and no. But that’s what’s so interesting, Counselor. The boys went over her computer with a fine-toothed comb, trying to figure out who sent her that fucked-up video, you know? And the really weird thing was they found nothing.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean nothing,’ Manny replied. ‘As in it was the cleanest computer they’d ever seen. No connectivity history, no old files, no old emails. It was like she’d just freaking purchased the computer and hadn’t put anything on it yet, run any programs, gone to any websites. Either that or Hot Mami Lunders had wiped the hard drive clean with the equivalent of computer bleach before she gave it to us to examine. Now why would she have done that?’
‘I never liked her. I want that on the record. Stop calling her hot mami, Manny; it’s giving me an inferiority complex. I can’t compete with that kind of cash.’
Manny finished off the rest of his sandwich. ‘It’s not her money that makes her hot.’
‘Great. So she’s a freak of motherly nature and has a squeaky-clean computer and an affection for her son that I find odd. Anything else, or can we move on from the amateur sex tape?’
‘Not just yet, Counselor. There is something else about the video that we found. Are you sitting?’
‘What kind of question is that? I’m driving.’
Time for dessert. He whapped the top of a fresh pack of Marlboros on the counter. ‘The boys at the lab enhanced the video. There’s a bottle of window cleaner in the background of the shot which we think may lead us to at least a region where the video was made.’
‘Okay,’ she said slowly.
He pulled out a cancer stick and lit it, stepping outside on to his front porch. ‘When they enhanced the still of the window cleaner they found something pretty weird, Counselor. Something that got caught in the reflection of the blue liquid.’
‘What? The face of the guy who tied her up? What would they call him in S&M terms?’ she said with a slight chuckle. ‘The master? The dominatrix? Do they have male dominatrices?’
‘Not a face, Counselor. Faces.’
The hairs on the back of her neck rose. ‘What?’
‘Caught in the reflection was what looks like a set of TV monitors, all lined up next to each other. And I’m not talking the answer board on Jeopardy. The monitors, they each had faces in them. And it sure looks to me like they were watching what was happening to the poor girl …’
Manny threw back his coffee in one gulp, tossed the plastic shot cup into the trash and nodded at the Cubano on the other side of the walk-up window at Little Havana’s landmark Versailles restaurant. Next to him a cluster of old Cuban men heatedly prattled on in Spanish about the politics of an island they hadn’t been on in decades, while a couple of obvious tourists hesitantly approached the window, looking at the menu quizzically, hoping to see something that remotely resembled a Starbucks frappuccino. His cell phone buzzed to life in his pocket. ‘Alvarez,’ he answered, wiping his chin as he started across the parking lot. He could already feel the double shot of caffeine coursing through his system and it finally put a smile on his face. He’d responded to a domestic murder-suicide last night and had been up and out since 3:15.
‘Detective Alvarez, this is Detective Wayne Schrader of the Nassau County Police Department. I work Special Investigations. I’ve got your NCIC alert here in front of me.’
Manny stopped walking. ‘NCIC alert?’
‘Yeah, on that Jane Doe in the picture you sent me.’
Jane Doe … The Holly Skole murder case. The switch flipped. ‘Oh yeah, yeah. Sorry, I’m just working on something else,’ Manny said, scratching at his head. ‘Lost my brain for a sec. Detective Schrader, huh? You got something for me on that?’
‘Yeah, I do. I think I have an ID on your Jane Doe. ’Cept she ain’t missing — she’s dead. I’m working a cold case homicide. No suspects, no witnesses. The body of a female — blonde, mid-to-late twenties — was found in November of ’06 by some highschoolers skipping class to drink a six-pack out by a condominium dig in Westbury, right at the Garden City line. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Long Island at all.’
‘Sorry, I’m not.’
‘Well, it’s about thirty minutes outside Manhattan by train. The place where this girl’s body was recovered is where they used to have a big racing track. Now it’s condos and a Home Depot. Back in ’06, though, it was a construction zone. Detectives figured one of two things when they found her. Either, one, whoever killed her was hoping she’d be buried like Jimmy Hoffa under all that construction and debris, or, two, he wanted her to be found by the construction crews. Either way, she was only in the ditch for a few hours. Because of that, Homicide thought they’d be able to nab a suspect, but in the end, no one saw nothing.’
‘Are you sure it’s my girl?’
‘Like I said, she was only dead a few hours and it was cold out — there was frost on the ground at the time — so she was in real good shape, considering what was done to her. She looks exactly like the picture you sent me.’
‘Whatta ya mean what was done — wait … let’s give her a name,’ Manny said as he resumed walking. ‘Does she have a name? Who was this girl?’
‘Name’s Gabriella Vechio. Also went by the nickname Gabby. She was last seen out with friends at a bar named Jezebels in the Village — that’s Greenwich Village in Manhattan, in case you’re not familiar with the city — five days before her body was found. She was a day or so shy of her twenty-ninth birthday when she disappeared.’
‘And she was found on Long Island?’ Manny knew New York City well enough to know that Long Island was a bit of a hoof from Manhattan.
‘Normally she took the subway to work but that day she drove in. Had to drop off some shit for charity or something. Her car was found untouched in a lot in Midtown.’
‘You said before, “considering what was done” — what happened to her?’ Manny thought of the faces on the monitors caught in the blue window cleaner, watching.
‘She was raped, maybe with objects. It was pretty nasty.’
‘Cause of death?’
Manny blew out a long breath. ‘Let me ask ya, was there any evidence of torture?’
‘Not sure what you mean. Hard to tell,’ Detective Schrader replied. ‘She did have what could’ve been bind marks on her wrists. But without knowing the circumstances of how she got ’em, I can’t say for sure she was tortured. I’d have to check with the ME on that, see if he’s got an opinion. Hard to tell if the night started out with consensual, maybe rough, sex that went bad. People are into a lot of stuff nowadays. I try not to judge,’ he added with a chuckle.
‘Any chemicals?’ Manny asked as he reached his Grand Prix. He leaned against the rear bumper. It was another scorcher today — 97, 98 degrees. Could reach 100, the weatherman had said last night. And the humidity was God-awful. Across the parking lot and next to the dumpster and kitchen entrance to Versailles, two boys about ten, twelve years old, were trying to fry an egg on a metal stool. Probably the kids of the workers inside. School had just let out this week for the summer and they were most likely bored out of their melons, doing stupid egg-frying experiments, magnifying bugs and setting off fireworks in bottles. Next summer they’d be smoking grass and feeling up their middle-school girlfriends behind that same dumpster. It reminded Manny of the endless summer days he’d squandered playing Little League ball and hanging at his uncle’s garage in Hialeah, stashing away any worries for when he was all grown-up.
‘You mean, was she using? Nah, she was an accountant,’ Schrader replied. ‘No evidence of that.’
‘Is that what you got going on down where you’re at?’ the detective asked as he leafed through his case file. ‘Not that I can see here. I don’t think the ME looked, to be honest, because he won’t look for some toxins unless we have a reason to go looking. I know he ain’t looking for Clorox if no one tells him to.’
Manny lit a cigarette. In the humid air, the plume of smoke he exhaled hung around his head like a dust cloud. ‘Can I get the crime-scene photos and the police reports sent down to me? Are your detectives who investigated still on the job?’
‘Sure. I’ll scan the photos and the reports and send ’em right now. If you need actual prints, I can do that, too. I’ll also send the ME’s report along. And yeah, Rick Narbi is still here, so you can talk to him if you need to. Now it’s my turn to ask questions. First one is, can I get a copy of that video you referred to in the NCIC alert? Second, how’d you come to possess this video and this picture? Is this related to a case you’re working? Do you have a suspect? ’Cause it would be great to close this one out up here.’
‘It’s related, but I’m not sure how. I got a defendant charged with murdering a college girl. His mom approached me with this video, claims someone anonymously emailed it to her. Initially, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at—’ Manny cut himself off. Now it was pretty clear what he’d been looking at over and over and over again. It was a clip — a trailer — of Gabriella Vechio’s murder. A snuff video made just hours, maybe even minutes, before the girl got raped and whacked on camera. ‘You gotta see it, that’s all,’ he finished, taking a final, long drag on his cigarette.
CUTTING ROOM -THE- by Jilliane Hoffman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes