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Cutting room the, p.11
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.11

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  After exchanging emails, Manny hung up and got in his car. He sat there for a few minutes, staring out the windshield on to busy 8th Street. Gray-haired, umbrella-toting abuelas making their way to their apartments, pushing metal handcarts from which hung grocery bags from the Presidente supermarket; hot mamis in tight pants and three-inch heels pushing babies in folding strollers; men in business suits scrambling back to their offices and cars after stopping off, like Manny had, for an afternoon pick-me-up. The two boys must have been successful in their attempt to make breakfast, because they were high-fiving each other as well as an old man who was standing there watching, puffing on a cigar and grinning with the one or two teeth he still had left in his head.

  While he was happy to have gotten an ID on his Jane Doe and to have gotten it only a couple of weeks after putting Dickerson on the job, he was worried about what this other homicide was going to mean for the case he was trying to make against Talbot Lunders. Finally finding the answer to the question that’d bugged him ever since he’d watched that sick video had only spawned a half-dozen more questions: Was the Vechio murder related to the Skole murder? If so, how? Could he possibly have the wrong person in custody? Or could there be another mope involved in Holly’s murder? A partner, perhaps?

  He wasn’t gonna get answers sitting in his car, digesting coffee and croquetas and reminiscing about sweltering afternoons gone by when catching baseballs and hanging with pals was the only thing he had to do all day long. He headed back to the office, his mind racing from the caffeine and the adrenaline rush. Detective Schrader’s email was waiting for him in his inbox. He opened the attachment marked Vechio Crime Scene, Raceway: 11/10/06 first. A thumbnail-sized photo montage popped up on the screen. Manny clicked through the gruesome pictures one by one. Something kept gnawing at him.

  Then he clicked on the second attachment: D. Vechio Autopsy: NC07-9876. 11/11/06.

  The thumbnail pictures of Gabriella Vechio’s autopsy popped up on the screen.

  Manny sat back in his chair, with his hand over his mouth. The puzzle pieces were coming together now. The terrifying picture was almost complete.

  15

  The body of what was once probably a pretty blonde woman lay crumpled on her side in a dirt pit. From the looks of it, someone had tossed some landfill on the body, but not enough to have done a good job hiding her — her pallid, white skin glowed under the sprinkle of earth like a night-light under a thin blanket. Maybe Gabby Vechio’s killer had run out of time when he dumped her and hoped that the cranes and bulldozers would finish the job. Or perhaps, as Detective Schrader had suggested, whoever had strangled her was actually hoping someone would find the body when they showed up on site in the morning for work.

  The crime-scene photographers had taken close-ups of all visible injuries while the body lay in its shallow grave: bruises on the wrists; choke marks on the throat; and, what appeared to be flogging lacerations on the buttocks and thighs. But it must not have been until the body was transported to the Nassau County ME that her other injuries were discovered.

  In the series of autopsy photos, Gabby’s nude body was positioned face down on a steel gurney with her long blonde hair pushed up atop her head, exposing the back of her neck for the camera. Right below the hairline in the shape of a circle was a raw, dark crimson burn — measuring 1¾ inches in diameter, per the ruler held up alongside it. Enclosed in the circle was a squiggly line that resembled the letter ‘Z’.

  Manny whipped out the autopsy photos of Holly Skole from his file. The physical resemblance between the two women was chilling. He wondered why he really hadn’t seen that until now.

  Sometimes people just don’t see what they don’t want to see.

  He found the close-up photo of Holly’s neck wound and held it up alongside the computer screen. To his eye, it was the same injury — a circle with a distorted zigzag through it, seared into the flesh of both girls’ necks.

  Both women had been branded.

  In Gabby’s instance, the skin was red and raw, but the flesh intact. It appeared that the branding had been done with a hot metal instrument pressed for a few seconds on the skin, causing a nasty third-degree burn. Had she lived, scar tissue would’ve formed and built up and the wound would’ve been raised into a three-dimensional scar, like a cattle brand. But with Holly, the metal was left long enough on the skin so that it had actually seared through flesh and muscle, almost to the bone, like a hot knife through butter, severely damaging all the surrounding tissue. When her body was placed in the dumpster, dinner was served for the zillion insects, rodents, and raccoons that liked to hang out in dark garbage bins. By the time Holly was removed from the dumpster, blowfly maggots had already made a comfortable home in the gaping wound, along with God knows what other vermin that’d come to chow. It had been difficult at the time to see the injury for what it was.

  But Manny saw it now. And there was no denying that the two murders were in fact related. The killer had left his unique signature on both women.

  He sat back in his chair and stared off at the squad-room corkboard with its missing persons, wanted suspects, NCIC/FCIC alerts. Every day an analyst came in and tacked new information and new pictures up, right over the old. Being a cop in Miami sometimes felt like you were playing a bad video game — no matter how many zombies you took out, there were always more coming at you. Faster and faster. Meaner and hungrier.

  On November 7, 2006, a then twenty-three-year-old Talbot Lunders was in the hospital mourning the loss of his appendix; Manny’d already confirmed that. If these two murders were committed by the same psycho, then who had killed Gabby Vechio? And who had held the shaking video camera while she was being assaulted and murdered? If there was a second killer out there somewhere, partnering up to kill Gabby, and then working with Talbot Lunders to kill Holly, then who the hell was he? And who had he partnered up with to kill Gabby? How many madmen were involved? And were there more victims to find?

  Manny rubbed his eyes and reached for a cigarette.

  How many fucking zombies were there out there?

  16

  ‘We’ve gotta talk,’ Manny began as he followed Daria into her office. He plopped down in a chair in front of her desk.

  ‘I figured you had something on your mind since you’ve been lurking around the courthouse all morning,’ she replied as she closed the door behind him with her foot, threw her purse on top of her file cabinet and kicked off her platform heels. They were an impulsive online purchase, and were pinching her toes something awful. She pulled a pair of ballet flats out of her desk drawer and slipped them on. ‘What? Did you and Raul have a spat? You’re no longer welcome in the cafeteria or something? I don’t have connections there, sorry.’

  He stared at her wide-eyed, as if she were buck-naked. ‘Damn, girl, you are freaking short. Are you even five foot?’

  She wagged a finger at him. ‘I warned you already; no comments about my height. I don’t call you a freak of nature for being seven-fucking-feet tall.’

  ‘Six-five.’

  ‘Same difference. It’s nothing but hot air up there after six.’

  ‘Let me ask ya something: can you reach the doorknob without help?’

  She glared at him. ‘Time for you to go, Detective,’ she replied, sitting down at her desk and dismissing him with a wave of her hand.

  ‘Not till we talk. That your dad?’ he asked, pointing at a picture on her desk of Daria and her father together at her law school graduation. ‘You don’t look nothing like him.’

  ‘Thanks, I guess. Yes, that’s my dad.’

  Manny glanced down under her desk. ‘Does he have little feet, too?’

  ‘Enough. Now I see how you get people to confess. You pick at them until they explode in anger.’

  ‘I’m just joking with ya, Counselor. He’s a good-looking man, your pops. He makes good-looking kids. Tell him I said that,’ he added with a wink. ‘It’s always smart to get in good with an Italian father, I hear. Make a
nice impression. Maybe he’ll put in a good word for me when this case is over.’

  She rolled her eyes. ‘You’re nothing if not an optimist. And you don’t know Italian fathers. Forget about putting in a good word, you’ll be lucky he doesn’t kill you for insulting his little girl.’

  ‘That your brother?’ Manny asked, picking up another picture. ‘He don’t look like you, neither. He looks like your dad. Now don’t tell me it’s a boyfriend. That would be fucked up on a couple of levels. First of which was having a short boyfriend who looks like your dad …’

  ‘What is this? Are you working on some genealogy project here? What is it that you’ve been waiting all morning to tell me, Manny?’ She reached across the desk and pulled the frame from his hands and set it down on the desk. ‘You’re like a toddler.’

  ‘Okay. Chit-chat’s over. I found the girl in the Lunders video.’

  Daria raised an eyebrow. ‘Really?’

  Manny sighed. ‘She’s dead.’

  Daria sat back in her chair, folding her hands on her lap. Her face grew dark. ‘That’s unfortunate.’

  He frowned. ‘I know you want to know her name, Counselor. It was Gabriella Vechio. She was a twenty-nine-year-old accountant from New York City who turned up dead in a construction ditch on Long Island five years ago. Three days after that video was made, actually. She’d been raped, bound, whipped, tortured, and strangled to death,’ Manny replied.

  ‘Okay,’ she answered slowly.

  Her inflection made it sound as though what she really meant to say was,And why should I care? That pissed him off. He could feel his blood pressure begin to rise. This Vechio girl had died a horrible death and no one had been held accountable. And it sounded to him from his relatively short conversation with Detective Schrader that nobody had worked all that hard to develop a suspect up in NY — just shoved her into Cold Case after enough time had passed and moved on to the next dead body. Now Cold Case wanted a name and a Florida death penalty sentence so they could move her off their desks, too. It didn’t happen with many victims, but for some reason Manny felt a connection to poor, pretty Gabby the accountant — an obligation to care.

  ‘That video that Hot Mami Lunders gave us was a snuff video, Counselor,’ he replied testily. ‘Based on the date the video was taken and the date this Vechio girl’s body was discovered, it was most likely shot right before she was killed. Probably finished with her being offed.’

  ‘Okay again, Manny. That’s terrible. And it also seems to be very valuable information that the police in New York would like to have. Why don’t you forward them the video?’

  ‘The two murders are related: Vechio and Skole. The same killer, most likely. Or killers.’

  She shook her head. ‘Wait a second. How’d you make that jump?’

  ‘They were both branded, Counselor. Same mark. An elongated “Z” surrounded by a circle. Branded like a goddamn cow. Same spot — nape of the neck. I had Trauss enhance the pictures and take a look. He matched them up using a forensic overlay tool and confirmed that’s what it is.’ Manny slid the autopsy pictures of both women across the desk. ‘It’s a signature.’

  ‘Branded, Jesus …’ Daria said quietly. ‘Is it a gang, maybe? Miami and New York both have branches of the same street gangs …’

  Manny stared at her. ‘Talbot Alastair Lunders running with the brothers in the Crips? Come on, Daria, be real. Gangs don’t randomly target nice white accountants and they don’t have privileged, male model heirs as their members. Neither girl had any known gang involvement. There were no illicit drugs involved that we know of. Both disappeared from popular nightclubs, willingly leaving with men. In Holly’s case, it was Talbot Lunders. In Gabby’s case, it was a tall white male with dark hair, which not only doesn’t match Lunders, but I’ve already checked and Hot Mami Lunders was right — Talbot was in the hospital at the time Gabby was murdered. So it wasn’t him. That’s why I think there may be two killers working here. Maybe more.’

  ‘Manny,’ she protested again, ‘to say it’s the same killer or killers based on—’

  ‘I’ve found others.’

  She stared at him.

  After last week’s conversation with Nassau County PD, he and Dickerson had pored over ViCAP reports and online cold case files from multiple departments, searching for any and all homicides that had mutilation and/or disfigurement and, more particularly, burns or branding. They’d also searched for similar unsolved homicides with the same victim typology as Gabriella Vechio and Holly Skole: blonde, slim, attractive, aged 15–30, flagging disappearances from, or around, nightclubs or bars. Then Manny, who was no fan of the feds, swallowed his pride and called the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI at Quantico to see if they were working something similar. No one was. And from the lackluster reaction of the Special Agent in Charge, it didn’t sound like they wanted to.

  It was a laborious process. He wished profiling and investigating crimes were as easy in real life as it looked on a Criminal Minds episode — one click and ditzy super-analyst Penelope had all the information her FBI agents ever needed, down to the name of Joe Bad Guy’s second-grade school teacher and the nutritional content of the cereal he ate that morning. Shows like that gave police work a bad name, raising the already clueless public’s expectations on crime-solving to completely unattainable heights. The general CSI/NCIS-watching public now assumed that, in addition to leaving their fingerprints plastered all over a scene, every bad guy also left his DNA behind, and damning test results from said DNA would be delivered to the police lab within a matter of hours, if not minutes, floating magically in front of some gorgeous crime-scene investigator on some invisible, hand-manipulated computer screen, created by, and found only in, a CGI room in Hollywood.

  In the end, it had been old-fashioned, sand-pounding police work that’d led to the phone call Manny received yesterday from the St Petersburg PD, confirming the same grim news Dickerson had already gotten from two other police departments. There were more victims.

  ‘I have two other homicides in Florida, both unsolved. One is over on the west coast in St Pete, one’s down south in Homestead. Both are women, both have traumatic brandings, one on her neck in the shape of a zigzag enclosed in a circle. That was Cyndi DeGregorio, a twenty-one-year-old pole-dancer from Miami, who was found in a dumpster last July. The other one had it on her buttocks, but we don’t have an ID on her. She was never claimed. She may be a prostitute. Jane Doe was discovered behind the baseball stadium at Progress Energy Park on opening day of the Devil Rays spring training in April of 2009. Much more troubling is that I also found a male in New Jersey who had the symbol carved into his right pec. He’d been gutted like a fish and disemboweled. Found him in a dumpster, too, in Hoboken. Name was Kevin Flaunters. He was a twenty-two-year-old body builder and male escort; he was found in November of 2008. Three homicides in the past three years. That’s only what I could find through ViCAP. There may be others who were never placed in the system. Maybe nobody recognized they had a branding. Maybe the bodies decomped before they were found and the brandings were not readily identifiable. Maybe they haven’t been found yet. The point is, there are more, Counselor. There are more. And now we can’t say we don’t see it anymore.’

  She sat there, dumbfounded. ‘I’m not sure I get what you’re saying, Manny …’

  ‘I think we’re dealing with a serial. Or serials.’

  The word ‘serial’ always struck a note of fear in a detective’s or prosecutor’s mind. The enormity of who, or rather, what, you were dealing with in real life was overwhelming. It was the difference between reading about an earthquake and living through one — until you experienced the terror and devastation wrought by a living, breathing, human monster who randomly preyed on his fellow humans, you had no idea how wrong the books and movies got it, or how trivial they made serial murder sound. Fortunately, serial killings were actually pretty rare, accounting for less than one percent of all murders nationwide. Unfortunately, the id
entification and capture of a serial killer was very difficult, as Manny knew all too well.

  ‘Several years ago I worked a case,’ he began. ‘Cops were being murdered here in Miami. It was back in ’04.’

  Daria had been in law school then, but she remembered the killings that had captured headlines all over Florida. ‘That was the Black Jacket case, right?’

  ‘Yes. In the course of that investigation, I had to interview a serial killer who claimed to have information about the case. His name was Bill Bantling.’

  ‘Cupid,’ Daria said slowly. Her heartbeat quickened. Certain names conjured up instant emotional responses in people. Bill Bantling was right up there with Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson. The emotional response elicited was fear. The same unfamiliar, icy sensation she’d experienced at Talbot Lunders’s Arthur Hearing raced down her spine and she shifted in her seat.

  ‘Yes, Cupid. I worked that case too.’

  ‘How many women did he kill?’ Daria asked softly. She had been a hard-partying college student in Miami when Cupid was busy trolling nightclubs on South Beach. In fact, she was at Club Liquid the night one of Cupid’s victims had disappeared without a trace from the very bar Daria was doing too many Kamikaze shots at. The eerie, potential close encounter had never left her. You never knew when your number might be up, when you might perhaps catch the eye of a serial killer.

  ‘Eleven,’ Manny replied with a drawn-out sigh. Eleven young women. All blonde, all strikingly beautiful. Their faces had covered the walls of the FDLE task force command center where he’d worked for two years. So had the pictures of their butchered bodies, posed in sexually provocative positions, their hearts cut from their chests while they were still alive. Manny saw those sweet, young faces sometimes in his nightmares, covered in dried blood, still begging him for help.

 
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