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Retribution, p.11
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       Retribution, p.11

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘Neilson says Prado’s been dead fourteen, maybe fifteen hours, tops. More likely closer to ten. Says he thinks the body was in the trunk only a few hours before we found it. Cause of death: a severed aorta. Given the amount of air in the lungs, Doc says the heart was cut out while she was alive, Counselor.’

  Joe Neilson was the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner. He was well respected at the State Attorney’s Office. C.J. exhaled slowly, looking down at the row of beautiful, dead women. ‘Is it the same guy, or are we looking at a copycat?’

  Dominick sat down now in front of her desk. He pulled off the top on the file box on the floor and pulled out ten Polaroids from a brown accordion file. ‘Identical cuts. A vertical slice down the sternum first, with a sharp instrument, most likely a scalpel. Then the horizontal slice underneath the breastbone. Same cuts on the aorta. Not a hack job.’

  ‘Can he match the cuts as coming from the same knife?’ Anna Prado’s ashen face stared up at her from the Polaroid. Platinum blond hair combed back flat behind her head on the metal gurney. Close-up shots of the chest cavity showed the two deep incisions, the cracked chest, and then the gaping hole where her heart should have been. The cuts were smooth, like the others. For a moment, C.J. thought of her own jagged scars, but quickly pushed the image out of her head.

  ‘Probably,’ said Manny. ‘He’s not done yet with the autopsy, but he found something else that’s interesting, Counselor. Looks like Prado maybe had a drug in her blood. Same as Nicolette Torrence, the DB we found real quick back in October of last year in that crack-house attic over on Seventy-ninth Street. She had only been laid out a few days.’

  DB stood for dead body.

  ‘Neilson said her lungs were heavy, indicating a narcotic of some kind. We won’t know for sure until toxicology takes a look, though,’ Dominick continued.

  ‘How about evidence of sexual assault?’ C.J. asked.

  ‘Yeah, she was raped with a blunt instrument, both anally and vaginally,’ Dominick said slowly. She could tell that it was these details that bothered him the most. ‘Suffered severe trauma to the cervix and uterus. Neilson thinks he used more than one instrument, too, given the different types of distinct scratches and abrasions left on the uterine wall. There was no evidence of any semen. He’s taking swabs of everything, though. And he’s photographing every inch of her, in case we miss something now and need to go back.’

  ‘How about under her fingernails?’ Many a victim had been known to scratch their assailant while fighting off an attack, and in so doing, the attacker unintentionally often left a tiny piece of himself behind – microscopic slivers of skin under a victim’s fingernails. In those instances, along with the skin, they left behind their DNA calling card, a genetic map that led investigators right to their door, once they had a subject to compare the sample to.

  ‘Nothing. There’s nothing on this one either, as far as he can tell.’ In this case, they had the reverse: a subject, but no sample.

  ‘I’ll work on a search warrant to get Bantling’s hair and saliva samples. You never know. Maybe he messed up this time. Maybe we missed something on the others.’ She shrugged and pulled her hair back behind her ears again. ‘The drug information is good. That might give us the link we need to at least one other victim. I’ll call Neilson this afternoon and see what else he has for me on the autopsy.

  ‘Dominick, have you run a complete criminal on him yet? Does he have anything on NCIC?’ NCIC was the National Crime Information Center. It provided a federal criminal history that would also tell her if Bantling had a criminal history in any other state. She heard her voice rise just slightly when she asked the last question.

  ‘Nope. As far as we can tell, he’s totally clean.’

  ‘I want to know everything there is to know about this guy. I’m going to need an AutoTrack on him, by this afternoon, if possible. I also want to take a look at his passport, find out where he’s been.’

  ‘I’ll get Jannie to run what she can on him. I think Manny already has her checking with Interpol to see if he’s got anything outside this country, seeing as he’s supposedly some big hotshot buyer at Tommy Tan’s. We already ran an AutoTrack. The man has lived a lot of places. I’ll get you a copy of that today.’

  C.J. suddenly stood up, abruptly ending the conversation. ‘I have some things I need to tie up today, so I am going to take off in a little bit. I’ll call you later, Dominick, to see what else turns up at that house.’

  She looked over at Manny, who was already pulling out a Marlboro from the pack. One for the road, so he would be ready to light up the instant he got outside. ‘And stop smoking in my office, Manny. They keep blaming me?

  The Bear looked surprised, like a child who has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and yet still wants to deny he did it. ‘We didn’t know when you’d be coming back, Counselor,’ he stammered. Then, a thought, and a quick recovery. ‘Plus, you know, that cute secretary of yours made my heart pound and I got so nervous I had to calm myself…’ He grinned a big grin.

  She had heard enough. ‘Let’s not go there. Anywhere but there, please.’

  She walked them both to the door and opened it. Marisol stood at the end of the hallway in the secretarial pool. She smiled when she saw Manny. Then she licked her glossy lips coquettishly as if she were in a Revlon commercial. It was all C.J. could do not to slam the door. Manny took off down the hall.

  Dominick stayed inside the office and closed the door. He leaned his back against the door and looked at C.J., his chestnut brown eyes heavy and serious. He had taken a shower before court and smelled clean, like Lever soap. His hair was tousled on his head, as if he hadn’t had time to brush it before he ran out.

  ‘What is going on with you? Is everything okay?’

  ‘I’m fine, Dom, fine.’ Her head was tilted down. She wouldn’t look at him. She sounded tired, anxious.

  ‘You didn’t look fine today in that courtroom, and that’s not like you, C.J.’ He reached out and gently touched the back of her hand where it still rested on the doorknob. His hand was rough, calloused; but his touch was soft and sincere. ‘You don’t look fine now.’

  She looked up into his serious eyes then. It took all her strength to lie to him. A few critical seconds passed, and then she said softly, ‘I’m fine, really. Everything is just fine. I’m just tired, you know. I didn’t get much sleep last night, what with the warrants and the judge and preparing for the hearing.’ She exhaled a slow breath. ‘He just threw me for a moment in the courtroom. I wasn’t expecting that reaction.’ She wanted to cry, but bit the inside of her cheek instead and held back the tears.

  His eyes searched hers for signs of the truth, and his rough hand now reached to touch her face. Her body tensed. She knew he had felt it, and his hand quickly dropped back to his side. ‘I think there’s more than what you’re telling me’ was all he said. Then he turned and opened the door. ‘I’ll get you that AutoTrack when I’m done at Bantling’s house,’ he said, his back to her as he walked down the hallway.

  She knew he was worried. Hell, so was she.

  21

  The two-story white house with the neat hunter green awnings and the glass-block front window sat just slightly back from the road. Redbrick pavers led to the chestnut-stained oak double front doors. A six-foot concrete white wall with ornate wrought-iron gates hid the heavily foliaged backyard from view. A cypress tree towered tall, and Traveler’s Palms, almost twenty feet high, fanned out dramatically over the wall. It was a pretty house located in a quiet, residential ‘midbeach’ section, which meant it sat between reserved North Miami Beach and trendy SoBe. Until the media hordes descended upon it at 8:00 that morning, the upper-middle-class residents of LaGorce Avenue probably never thought twice about their handsome, well-dressed neighbor. Now he’d been named as the prime suspect in the most intense manhunt Miami had seen since Andrew Cunnanen gunned down fashion designer Gianni Versace on Ocean Drive in SoBe.

  Uniformed police crawle
d over the house like ants. Two white Miami-Dade Crime Scene vans sat in the driveway. Dominick walked up the neat brick path, past flowering planters of bright fuchsia-colored bougain-villea, Manny in tow. A young Miami Beach cop, who looked all of twenty-two, stood guard nervously at the front door, obviously aware that his every move was being recorded and then analyzed on live TV by the two dozen or more media crews who stood watch intently across the street behind yellow crime-scene tape. CNN carried a live feed, as did MSNBC and Fox News. Dominick flashed his badge at the Beach cop, just imagining the feeder band of instant news that, at this very moment, probably ran across the bottom of a million television screens: Task Force Cops Approach Death House in Grim Search for Body Parts and Evidence.

  Inside, Crime Scene technicians were everywhere – their latex-gloved fingers carefully probing every square inch of living space, collecting and preserving forensic samples of the most ordinary of things, from shampoo to carpet swatches, in a case that was far from ordinary. Everything and anything was now considered evidence, and a piece of every inch of the house, in whatever form, would be packaged up, sealed, and sent off to the crime lab for examination.

  Flashbulbs clicked as expert Crime Scene photographers took pictures of each room in the house from every conceivable angle. Fine black powder covered every surface where a fingerprint could possibly be found, and even some where they could not. In the living room, large swatches had already been cut from the expensive-looking Berber carpet, and a two-by-two piece of wallboard had been sliced from its place in the mustard-colored faux-painted wall. The Oriental rug from the front foyer and the Turkish hall runner had been rolled up and bagged as evidence this morning when agents first entered. The contents of every waste-paper basket in the house, the used vacuum cleaner paper bags, the broom and mop heads, the feather duster, the lint tray from the dryer – all had been carefully bagged in white plastic evidence bags and set out in the front foyer to be taken to the Crime Scene van.

  In the kitchen, technicians worked to remove the drain trap from the sink, as they would in every drain in the house, and Miami Beach detectives placed dark frozen meat from the Sub-Zero freezer into clear plastic evidence bags. The entire set of razor-sharp Sabatier kitchen and steak knives had been individually bagged and sealed. At the lab, the drain traps would be forensically examined to determine if they contained blood or tissue matter that someone might have tried to wash off. The meat would be defrosted and tested to make sure that it was, in fact, not human. The knives would be tested to detect matches in the cutting patterns of the blades to the wounds made in the flesh of Anna Prado’s chest.

  Upstairs, every bed had already been stripped and bagged, and in the hall, all linens and towels had been removed from the closets and stacked neatly into larger black plastic evidence bags that lined the hallway. The strong nauseating smell of luminol escaped from behind the closed doors of the guest bedroom, where forensic technicians had just sprayed the powerful chemical all over the rich knock-down walls and hardwood floors, in search of microscopic traces of blood. Once sprayed, otherwise-invisible blood in the dark would now glow a bright yellow – bloodstains that even soap and water could not wash away, but vividly told their story when the lights went out.

  In another guest bedroom, technicians carefully vacuumed the carpet with a specially sanitized steel cylindrical container, collecting each tiny fiber, each piece of lint, each strand of hair. The drapes had been removed from the windows and bagged as evidence.

  Dominick found MDPD Detective Eddie Bowman and Special Agent Chris Masterson sitting on the floor in Bantling’s master bedroom, going through stacks and stacks of videotapes that sat piled in a large decorative wicker trunk. Both detectives had been on the task force since its inception. In the massive oak armoire behind them, a big-screen television played loudly.

  ‘Hey, Eddie. How’s it going with the search? You guys find anything yet?’

  Eddie Bowman looked up from his stack of tapes. ‘Hey, Dom. Fulton has been trying to reach you. He’s downstairs in the shed.’

  ‘Yeah, I just talked to him. I’ll head down there in a minute.’

  On the TV screen, a well-endowed redhead dressed in a plaid Catholic school uniform and garters was bent over the lap of a naked man whose head had been chopped off by the video recorder. Dominick noticed that the uniform was missing an awful lot of fabric in all the wrong places. Especially for Catholic school. The redhead’s bare ass was pushed up high in the air and the headless man was swatting it with a metal paddle as she screamed. It was hard to discern if it was in pain or in pleasure or in both that she cried out.

  ‘How’d it go in court?’ Eddie asked, apparently unmoved by the screams.

  ‘Good. The judge found pc and denied bond,’ said Dominick, distracted, staring at the crying redhead on the screen. He looked down into the wicker trunk. There were what looked like at least a hundred black tapes. He could see the white label on one that read BLOND LOLITA 4/99.

  Manny followed Dominick into the room just then, still breathing hard from the flight of stairs and the short walk down the hall. ‘Ah – you never tell the whole story, Dom. What fun are you, anyway?’ He turned in Eddie Bowman’s direction, leaning on the side of the armoire while he tried to catch his breath. ‘Bantling totally freaked out. Started crying like a woman to the judge that he can’t go to jail. Oh no, not him.’ He chuckled. ‘Boo-fuckin’-hoo.’

  A few seconds passed before Manny noticed the disturbing image on the screen that everyone else was staring at. ‘What the fuck are you watching, Bowman?’ He sounded disgusted.

  ‘Is that why you’re breathing heavy, Bear?’ Bowman returned.

  ‘Fuck you. I need a cigarette, that’s all, but Dommy Boy here won’t let me smoke on his crime scene.’ He turned his attention back to the TV screen and crinkled his nose at Eddie Bowman. ‘Now, what is this sick shit I’m looking at? That’s not your wife, is it, Bowman?’

  Eddie ignored the remark and gestured toward the television. ‘This is what our Mr Bantling liked to watch on his boob tube. Not exactly PBS. He’s got stacks and stacks of what looks like homemade video. I’m no prude, but some of what Chris and I have seen today is just wild. Looks like it’s consensual, but it’s hard to say.’

  A king-sized dark oak bed with a tremendous chocolate-colored leather headboard took up most of Bantling’s masculine-looking bedroom. The bed had already been stripped down. Besides the bed, the trunk and armoire were the only pieces of furniture in the room.

  A high-pitched scream came out of the TV. The redhead seemed to be crying uncontrollably now, telling the man something in Spanish.

  ‘Hey Manny, what’s she saying to him?’ asked Dominick.

  ‘“Stop, please. I’ll be good, please stop. It hurts so much.” This is some sick shit, Bowman.’

  ‘I didn’t make it, Bear. I just found it.’

  The headless man paid no heed. The paddle made a loud thwack as it hit her skin which was, by now, red and raw-looking.

  Dominick watched the disturbing image play out on the screen. ‘How many have you looked at, Eddie?’

  ‘Only three so far. There’s gotta be over a hundred videos here, though.’

  ‘Any of them have the girls from The Wall?’

  ‘Nope, no such luck. Not yet anyways. Some have labels with dates, others just a girl’s name, others, there’s no label at all. He’s got a collection of regular movies, too, that Chris found in the bottom cabinet of the armoire. Probably fifty or more of those.’

  ‘Take them. He might have taped over Kiss the Girls with his own version for all we know. We’ll have to watch them all. Maybe we can track down some of the stars on that homemade crap.’ The sound of thwacks continued, as did the crying. Dominick’s stare was again drawn back to the TV. ‘Is that Bantling with the paddle?’

  ‘Don’t know. He doesn’t say much, and I haven’t recognized any of the rooms from this house in the shots. I would think so, but, then again, I haven
t seen Bantling naked.’

  What happened in the other three tapes?’ asked Dominick.

  ‘Same sort of shit. Very sadistic, but it may be consensual. It’s hard to tell. Likes ‘em young, but I think the girls are of age. Another tough call. Might be the same man in each video, but his face is always cut off, so it’s hard to tell. We’re hoping, of course, to hit pay dirt and come up with him screwing one of the dead girls.’

  ‘You’re twisted, Bowman.’ Manny had moved to the walk-in closet now. ‘Hey, you guys didn’t search the closet yet?’

  ‘No. Crime Scene already photographed, videoed, vacuumed, and dusted. Chris was gonna bag the closet and the shoes after we inventoried the tapes. They’re gonna luminol in here and the master bathroom tonight.’

  ‘Mister Psycho has some nice taste in clothes, I’ll tell ya,’ Manny called out from the closet. ‘Look at this: Armani, Hugo Boss suits, Versace shirts. Why the fuck did I ever become a cop? I could have been a fruity furniture designer and made a mint.’

  ‘A salesman for a fruity furniture designer,’ corrected Eddie Bowman. ‘He was just a salesman. You should see the fruity furniture designer’s closet.’

  ‘Great. Now I feel a whole lot fuckin’ better about my life, Bowman. I should have been a salesman. Do they really make that much money, or was psycho getting some help on the side?’

  Dominick entered the master bath, which was right off the master bedroom. Italian marble was everywhere – the floors, the dual vanities, the shower. Fine black dust covered every surface, making the coffee cream marble look very dirty. He called back into the bedroom, ‘According to his boss, Tommy Tan, his commissions last year alone put him at a hundred seventy-five thou. No kids, no wife – that’s all play money.’

  ‘No kids, no ex-wives, you mean. It’s those exes that suck the dollars from your paycheck.’ Spoken from experience: Manny had three ex-wives. ‘Jesus! He’s gotta have ten suits in here that each cost what I make in a month! And it’s all so neat.’ He stuck his head out of the closet again. ‘Bowman, check this out – he’s got his shirts all lined up in a row according to color, and a color-coordinated tie matched to each shirt. Fuckin’ weirdo neat-freak.’

 
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