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Retribution, p.10
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       Retribution, p.10

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Bantling suddenly stood, pulling away from the table, causing his chair to fall back with a loud thud against the wood railing. He yelled angrily at Judge Katz, ‘This is ridiculous! Your Honor, I have done nothing! Nothing! I never even saw that woman! This is bullshit!’

  C.J. looked over at Bantling, and her head began to spin. He was turned toward Lourdes Rubio, pulling on her elbow with his handcuffed hands and yelling, ‘Do something! Do something! I am not guilty of this! I’m not going to jail!’ Her mouth went dry. She watched, unable to move, as three corrections officers rushed to the table to sit Bantling back down. She saw the judge pound the bench with his gavel, and watched as the reporters stood up, cameras rolling, watching the scene play out on live television. But she heard nothing, just Bantling’s voice yelling over and over, ‘Do something! You have to do something about this!’

  C.J. looked down to where his hand grasped Lourdes’s jacket and saw the jagged S scar on his left arm, just above his Rolex and his wrist. She knew that voice. She knew in one horrible instant in that courtroom who William Rupert Bantling really was. Her body began to tremble all over as she watched him being dragged from the defense table toward the bridge door, still screaming at Lourdes Rubio to do something. She stared at the image, long after it was gone, not hearing Judge Katz at all as he bellowed her name from the bench.

  Strong hands were on her shoulders now from the front row of spectators. It was FDLE Agent Dominick Falconetti, and he was gently shaking her. She looked at him blankly and watched as he mouthed her name. She still could not hear, the courtroom sounded like a vacuum, and she felt as if she would pass out. Then sound began to fill her head again.

  ‘C.J.? C.J.? Are you okay? The judge is calling you.’

  Rushing, pounding like waves on the shore. ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Fine,’ she mumbled. ‘Just a bit shocked.’

  ‘You don’t look fine,’ Dominick said.

  The judge was bright red now. His whole show was ruined. Ruined. ‘Ms Townsend, are you ready to play lawyer again? Because this court has just about had it today!’

  ‘Yes, yes, Judge. Sorry.’ She turned to face the bench.

  ‘Thank you. I asked if there was anything else to add from the state, or can we adjourn today?’

  ‘No, nothing further, Your Honor,’ she said absently, looking at the empty chair next to Lourdes at the defense table. Lourdes was looking at her quizzically. As were the court clerk and the bailiff.

  ‘Fine. Then this hearing is adjourned.’ Judge Katz cast one final glare at everyone and stormed off the bench, letting the door to the hallway slam shut behind him.

  A clatter of press people ran to the gallery asking for comment, thrusting microphones in her face. C.J. gathered her briefcase and pushed past them all, not hearing their questions, needing to leave the courtroom, the building, needing to be anywhere but here. Needing to escape.

  She rushed down the hall to the escalator, not wanting to wait for the elevator, and pushed past the chattering crowds of defendants, victims, and attorneys that packed the moving staircase. She took the steps two at a time. Behind her she heard Dominick Falconetti yelling for her to wait up, but she pushed down into the main lobby and then out the front glass courthouse doors into the hot Miami sun.

  There would be no escape. The nightmare had begun all over again.

  19

  C.J. darted across the street back to her office in the Graham Building, a parade of reporters behind her, scrambling to keep up. She held her hand up as a continuous sign of no comment and left them all mewling at the security checkpoint in the lobby while she ran up the back stairs two at a time to the second floor. She rushed into the bathroom and quickly checked under the line of stalls to make sure that no one was there, no one was listening. Then she threw her briefcase on the floor and said good-bye to her breakfast.

  Leaning her forehead up against the cool tiled wall, colored a nauseating Pepto-Bismol pink, she closed her eyes to stop the room from spinning before venturing out of the stall. She pushed her glasses up on her head and, with both hands, splashed cold water on her face and neck, practically submerging her head in the basin. Her head felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds, and it seemed to take all her strength just to lift it up off her shoulders. In the room-length long mirror that hung over the row of empty sinks against the queasy pink backdrop, she stared at her reflection in the glass.

  A pale, terrified woman looked back. She had aged more than what was fair in twelve years. Her blond hair was now cut dramatically short and plain in a blunt shoulder-length bob, and parted to one side. She used a chestnut rinse to drab the honey color down to a mousy blond shade. Unless pulled into a clip or ponytail, the bangs would fall and drape across her face, and she was constantly fidgeting with her hair, tucking it back in place behind her ears. It was just one of the many nervous little habits that she had picked up over the years. Smoking like a fiend was another.

  C.J. tucked her hair back behind her ears, and leaned forward on the basin, looking hard at the image before her. She could see the worry lines etched deep across her forehead and the ever-growing crow’s-feet that seemed to spread like cracks in a dish out from her green eyes. Dark circles lightened with concealer served as proof of the nightmares she still had and the insomnia that would follow. Normally they were also hidden behind simple gold wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Her lips were full, but drawn in and serious, and she noticed the slight lines that were starting to appear at their edges and feather out. It was almost funny how they called them laugh lines. Her face was devoid of makeup, with just the slightest hint of mascara tracing her lashes. She wore no earrings, no necklace, no rings or bracelets: no jewelry whatsoever. Her gray pantsuit was stylish, but conservative, and she almost never wore a skirt unless she was in trial. Nothing about her person would attract attention. She was a plain Jane, a nobody. Everything about her now was nondescript, even her name.

  She knew that voice. She had recognized it instantly. After twelve long years it still spoke to her each night in her nightmares, whispering patiently in her head in that same husky, throaty baritone, with a slight hint of a British accent.

  She also knew that she had not imagined it, falsely placed it with William Bantling. The sound of it was like a serrated knife tearing through her brain, an internal alarm ringing so loud in her head that she had just wanted to scream out in the courtroom. Point at him and scream out, ‘That’s him! He’s the one! Somebody help me! Somebody get him!’ But she had not even moved. Could not move. It was as if she were paralyzed, watching the scene in the courtroom play out on someone else’s television screen. At home on the comfy couch you yell at the actors to do something, don’t just stand there! But they can’t hear you and the scene finishes with yet another unsuspecting, doe-eyed victim getting whacked by a fiend with a butcher knife in a hockey mask.

  At the sound of that voice, every hair on her body had stood up, goose bumps had rippled in a wave across her skin, and just like that, she was instantly sure it was him. It had been twelve years, but one part of her had always suspected she would hear his voice again, and she was always waiting. The jagged, raised S scar on his left arm had only confirmed it.

  He did not seem to recognize her, though. In fact, after all that he had done to her, all that he had taken from her, it was almost funny how now he had barely afforded a glance in her direction, or even acknowledged her presence in the courtroom. Of course, she looked nothing like she did once – once upon a lifetime ago. A dimly lit shadow of her former self. The reflection in the mirror blinked back hot tears. She didn’t recognize herself sometimes.

  It had been years since that horrible night, but in this instance, time had not healed all wounds, and it certainly had not blurred all memory. She could still recall every minute, every second, every detail, every word. Although she had managed, on the surface at least, to move on with her life, there were things that she could not move past, no matter how hard she tried, and some days were still jus
t an emotional struggle to get through. That night her old life had seemed to end, stripped in an instant of all that was safe, all that was secure. And although most of the physical scars had faded, it was the constant fear that C.J. hated living with. She couldn’t force herself just to move on with life, put it in the past and leave it there. It was, instead, almost as if she were stuck in neutral, afraid to go back, but afraid to go forward. She knew it hurt her in relationships, but here she still was, carrying the same baggage she should have checked with her overpriced therapist in New York years ago.

  After a nervous breakdown and two years of intense therapy, she’d been forced to realize a fact that she had dreaded knowing all along: Power is all an illusion. In that one night, she had lost all control in her life, of her life, and then had spent years discovering that she had never really had any to begin with. Life was just a twist of fate, really, which explained why some people got hit by a bus on the way home from a funeral and others won Lotto twice. The key to missing the bus was to avoid walking in a dark street.

  She remembered how Michael had referred to that night as the incident. Michael, the lousy boyfriend who wound up getting engaged to his skinny redheaded secretary. When the breakdown came, he had agreed to give her the time and space she needed to heal. He promised to wait forever, if that was what it took, for her to ‘get through this’. Well, apparently forever was a long time to wait, and one week after they parted, he was out on the town with the redhead at New York’s Tavern on the Green. Within six months they were married. C.J. had not heard from him since. She read about their divorce a few years later in a blurb in the Wall Street Journal when the skinny redhead-turned-bodacious-blonde had sued him for all he was worth, which by then was a lot.

  But the worst part of the last twelve years was the not knowing. Not knowing who her attacker was, where he was. That fear was always with her, and it never eased up. Was he there in the subway with her? In the diner? At the bank? Was that him on the treadmill or in line at the grocery store? Was he her doctor, her accountant, her friend?

  Don’t you worry, Chloe. I’ll always be close by. Watching. Waiting.

  She couldn’t escape those thoughts in New York, and after two years, she had decided not to try anymore. So she changed her name, took the Florida Bar, and moved to Miami. The anonymity helped her sleep better at night, when she slept at all. Maybe, she thought, a career as a prosecutor would give her some control in a world out of control, full of senselessness and chaos, full of crazies. A little vindication for the powerless, the ones just tuning in to the illusion.

  Images of that night now flooded her brain, flashing slowly, in sequence, like an electric strobe light. This time, though, she knew what the face behind the mask looked like. And with that face she now had a name. Now she just had to remain calm, figure out what to do. Should she tell Jerry Tigler, the State Attorney? Should she call the old detectives, Sears and Harrison, assuming they were still there, in New York? Should she tell the task force? No one in Miami, with the exception of her therapist, knew about her past, about the incident.

  Break it down as you would any other case.

  She exhaled slowly at the mirror. First thing was to get a complete criminal history on this Bantling, and call New York to find out their extradition policy. Pull the New York file on her case to review. Bantling would be held in maximum security without bond until an Arthur Hearing was set, which would take at least two weeks. For that hearing, the judge would then have to take testimony to determine if ‘proof was evident and presumption great’ that Bantling had committed the crime of murder. If the answer was yes, then the judge would deny bond until trial, whenever that was finally set. So Bantling wasn’t going anywhere before that, no matter what.

  She needed to be thorough and logical. Needed to take her time. She didn’t want this to get screwed up yet again. If she was ever accused of not being straightforward with the court, the investigation, she could simply say she wasn’t sure at first that it was him …

  The bathroom door suddenly swung open, and C.J. quickly put her glasses back on. Unfortunately, it was Marisol and she was accompanied by another secretary. She carried a pink glitter cosmetic bag in one hand and a can of hair spray in the other.

  ‘Hello, Marisol.’ C.J. straightened her jacket and picked up her briefcase. ‘I’m back from court, obviously, but I still have a ton of stuff I need to get done. Please make sure to hold any calls I get for today. Especially from the media.’ She noticed that her voice was a little shaky. She tucked her hair back behind her ear and opened the door. Then she turned and added, ‘Oh, and please call the defense attorney and try and reset those depositions on the Jamie Tucker case. I’m going to need at least two more weeks to prepare now that I’ve got the Bantling case. I think the depos are set for next Wednesday.’

  Marisol’s face fell in exaggerated exasperation.

  ‘Is there a problem?’

  ‘No, fine. Whatever.’ She sauntered to the end of the line of sinks, the back of her hand up in the air and shot her friend a look that read, ‘Who the hell does she think she is?’

  C.J. walked out of the bathroom and down the hall to the refuge of her office. It was barely 11:00 and she was already drained. She would first call Juan in the State Attorney’s Investigations Unit and get a complete criminal on Bantling, including a New York history. Maybe she could get an AutoTrack of Bantling’s life as it existed on public records from Dominick Falconetti by this afternoon. That would give her a workup of wherever Bantling had lived, worked, or registered a car for the past ten years. Dominick probably had one run already, and she could just drop by the task force office at FDLE and pick it up. Then she’d head home early, get her thoughts in order, and make the requisite phone calls to New York from home. All she needed was her purse and the rest of the Cupid files that she had left stacked in her office.

  The distinct smell of McDonald’s and cigarette smoke hung heavy in the hallway outside her office. Her door was closed, and when she opened it, she knew immediately that her quick exit plan was about to be thwarted.

  Dominick Falconetti and Manny Alvarez sat facing her empty desk with their backs to her, a new box of files at their feet.

  20

  Manny was leaning over the edge of her desk simultaneously eating a breakfast burrito, drinking a café con leche, and reading the Herald, which was spread all over her desktop. Dominick was on his cell phone. They both turned to face her when the door opened.

  Manny looked up from his breakfast and smiled. ‘Hey, Counselor! How you doing? You had us worried there for a minute.’

  Dominick looked at C.J. and said into the phone, ‘I’ve got to go. The prosecutor just came back from court.’ He hung up the phone and stared at her. He actually looked worried. ‘We thought that maybe you had run off on us or something,’ he said.

  Manny extended a small Styrofoam cup of hot Cuban coffee. Just the rich smell of pure caffeine in liquid form made hair grow on her chest. Want a café con leche? I brought an extra one for you. I also got you a pastelito with guava jam.’ He placed a Cuban Danish oozing with pink goo on her desk in front of her chair. ‘Oh yeah,’ he said between bites of his burrito, ‘I also have some of the autopsy photos back on Prado, but you may want to wait on that pastelito before you look at ‘em.’

  C.J. dropped her briefcase with a deliberate thud on top of the file cabinet. ‘How’d you guys get in?’

  ‘Your secretary, Marisol, let us in a while back,’ Manny said as he wiped egg yolk and bacon drippings off his mustache. ‘Hey, Counselor, she’s a spicy little number. Maybe you could introduce us?’

  C.J.’s opinion of Manny Alvarez, whom she once held in high regard as a homicide detective, immediately plummeted. If he were the Dow Jones, they would have closed the markets for the day. She stared blankly at him and ignored the question.

  ‘So what happened to you back there in the courtroom?’ Dominick prodded. He was trying hard to hide his concern. ‘He freaked
you out, didn’t he?’

  ‘He’s one fucked-up son of a bitch, let me tell you,’ Manny interrupted. ‘He actually thought he was going to get a bond – that the judge wouldn’t send his sorry ass straight to jail for driving around town with a dead girl in his trunk. Do not pass go, amigo; do not collect two hundred dollars. I can still hear him yelling like a girl over at the jail right now.’ Manny changed his voice to a high-pitched whine. ‘“No! Not jail! Not me – I can’t go to jail! This must be a mistake! I didn’t mean to cut her heart out, Judge. The knife just slipped right out of my slimy little hand into her chest!”’ He finished his burrito and then his thoughts. ‘Just wait till he meets his new best friend, Bubba, over there at DCJ. Now that will give him something to whine about.’

  Dominick was still eyeing her, and she could see that Manny’s tangent had not diverted him.

  ‘He is definitely a wacko. I didn’t expect him to flip out, though.’ Dominick was right next to her now, trying hard to get her to look at him. ‘Then again, you’ve seen a lot of wackos in your life, C.J., and I didn’t expect you to flip out either.’

  C.J. avoided looking directly at Dominick and instead focused her eyes on the mess on her desk. She hoped her voice sounded stable enough. ‘He threw me off there for a moment. I just didn’t expect him to start screaming like that.’ She changed the subject and walked past him around her desk. What happened at the ME’s this morning?’

  She looked down at the newspaper that lay atop her desk calendar. On the front page, the Miami Herald had small color head shots of all ten victims taken before their deaths, lined up dramatically in a row. Beneath them was a large five-by-seven fuzzy picture of Bantling’s black Jaguar surrounded by cop cars on the MacArthur Causeway. A smiling photo of a clean-cut and handsome Bill Bantling, shirtless and tan, with a beer in his hand, sat on the opposite side of the Jaguar picture. Obviously not the booking photo. The whole collage of color photos was printed directly under a black headline that blared, CUPID SUSPECT ARRESTED! TENTH VICTIM’S MUTILATED BODY FOUND IN TRUNK! Manny had eaten breakfast all over it.

 
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