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Last witness, p.11
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       Last Witness, p.11

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
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  ‘C.J., I need your experience on this one. I’ll assign Andy Maus, too, but I want you to do it with him. Split the time. I’ll make sure that Guillermo cuts back on new cases for a while.’

  ‘Jerry, I’ve never said no to you before, but I am going to now,’ she said, her voice sounding hard and edgy, even to her own ears. She had already thought this through as well: Insubordination might just have its consequences. So be it. She could not be on this case anymore, waiting for another beep to come or phone to ring to notify her of the carnage. Even though the task force had linked Roberto Valle to the drug cartels and dirty cops, the paranoid part of her still did not want to be the first one on the next scene, wondering if under the mess was a face she was supposed to recognize. Like Lou Ribero’s.

  The faint sound of Christmas music from the office holiday party downstairs permeated the otherwise heavy silence between them. It was Tigler who blinked first, squirming finally in his seat.

  ‘Fine, then,’ he grumbled and sighed. ‘I know you’ve been through a lot, C.J., and I knew that prosecuting another serial killer might prove difficult for you…’

  A cheap shot. She felt a defiant surge of anger swell in her and, as he paused, she sat up stiffly on the edge of her seat.

  Then he continued. ‘But you’re the best. You’re my best and, I guess I’ll just have to respect your decision concerning the division of your time. However, if Andy needs help, you give it to him. He can be very focused. Too focused. And I don’t want him painting those boys on the task force into a corner because someone fits his idea of who a suspect should be. The public is getting anxious that there have been no arrests and I don’t want to just throw them a bone to shut them up. I don’t need this office making mistakes this year.’

  Of course not. Tigler had won re-election by a mere 600 votes. And a lot of people – even his own – saw opportunity in 2004.

  ‘Thank you for understanding, Jerry. Emotionally, I’m fine,’ she said coolly, ‘Time-wise, I’m strapped. If Andy needs assistance, he knows he can ask me.’ Fat chance that would ever happen – that Andy and his ego would take a trip down the hall to ask for help.

  ‘Well, then, C.J., I guess I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas. Are you going to the party downstairs?’

  ‘For a little while. Until someone breaks out the lampshades.’

  ‘I’ll see you there, then.’

  She walked out of his office and took the stairs down to the second floor. She had hoped that she would feel more relieved when she slammed the door shut on this case.

  The party had spilled out of Major Crimes and into the elevator bay. Like a cold, it was spreading down the halls of the Felony Divisions, and by 4:30, the whole building would be infected. Cocktail franks and cookie platters would make their way from the Legal Department on five to the Felony Screening Unit on one, and those in the know would congregate in the offices that had a little something special stashed in their desks to add to the holiday punch.

  C.J. spotted Marisol, clothed head-to-toe in pink stretch denim, near the rolling file cart that had been converted to a dessert tray and now blocked the entrance to C.J.’s office. With a red Santa hat on her head and a large flashing Christmas tree pin between her breasts, she was hard to miss.

  ‘Merry Christmas, Marisol,’ C.J. said as she approached the door. Marisol’s eyes caught on the stack of files in C.J.’s arms and her whole face fell.

  ‘Don’t worry. These aren’t for you,’ C.J. said. ‘In fact, we’re getting rid of them. Andy Maus will be handling Black Jacket and assisting the task force. That falls into Alyssa’s division.’

  ‘Oh,’ said Marisol as her face relaxed, puffing round and soft again.

  ‘Have a happy holiday, then. I left something for you—’

  ‘Yeah. I got it. Thanks,’ Marisol managed, with some difficulty. She cracked her gum, and then paused before adding, ‘I have something for you, too. It’s on your desk,’ she said, half smiling.

  C.J. hoped it was not a pipe bomb. Things had been rocky since Marisol had gotten in trouble with her supervisor a few weeks back for cheating on her time sheet. She had immediately suspected that it was C.J. who had handed her up, but it hadn’t been.

  ‘Well, thank you. Enjoy Noche Buena, then, if I don’t see you,’ C.J. said, rolling the dessert tray away from her door. Noche Buena was Christmas Eve, and for most Cubans in Miami, that meant great, festive parties and dancing till 2:00 a.m.

  ‘Yeah. Merry Christmas,’ Marisol said, her pink hips finding the music once again. She clipped a long sparkly fingernail into her drink and swirled it around, before popping it in her mouth for a taste. Just as C.J. cleared the door, Marisol called out behind her, ‘Do you know if Manny Alvarez is going to the PD’s tonight?’

  Following the relatively conservative gathering at the SAO, would be the annual Christmas Party hosted by the liberal Public Defender’s Office, a party that had been blamed in the past for more than one ruined career and broken marriage. Most of this afternoon’s SAO attendees – cops, defense attorneys, and more than a few prosecutors and judges – would not remember their own names come morning. Or want to, for that matter. The worst of adversaries in court became the best of buddies for just a few hours of every year.

  C.J. shrugged, even though she knew the answer. Manny was a fixture there every year. The PD party had led to the demise of marriage numero uno.

  ‘Well, maybe I’ll see him there,’ said Marisol thoughtfully.

  C.J. nodded and then closed the door behind her, making a mental note to call Manny and give him a heads-up. Not that he would be warned off. Manny was attracted to problem women like a dieter to the buffet lines.

  She turned on the light in her office and quickly placed the Black Jacket files into a cardboard file box. She closed the lid tightly and taped it shut with packing tape, scribbling Andy Maus’s name across the top and placing it far away from her desk.

  A typical three-day cold snap in December had plummeted temperatures outside from a balmy 73 to a chilly 52, dropping into the 40s at night. Tonight, the TV news would carry footage of orange groves and flower beds all bundled up and preparing for the night’s freeze. The gloom and doom prospect of lost crops and lost jobs would propel the anchor excitedly for at least a good five minutes.

  C.J. grabbed her black overcoat, which she broke out maybe twice a year, and placed her two file boxes marked State of Florida vs. Joey Frison on a hand-cart. A brutal triple homicide that started out as the premeditated death of one – Joey’s girlfriend, Denise Kopp – but became three when Denise’s sister and her friend tagged along to the courthouse to help Denise get her restraining order. Joey now faced the death penalty for shooting all three women in the head with a sawed-off shotgun as they waited at a light. C.J. would spend the holidays preparing to make sure he got it.

  She felt weary. Weary and overwhelmed and inexplicably frightened by her job. She was no miracle worker, but she was good at what she did – taking a case before a jury and painting the picture they needed to see, one witness, one piece of evidence at a time. She had become a prosecutor to be a voice for those who had none, in a system that listened only to its lawyers, a system that strived to protect the Constitutional rights of the accused, oftentimes at the expense of their victims. And she did that job every day, taking it home with her on weekends and on vacations, never really putting it aside. There they were, always nibbling at her thoughts at a traffic light or in the shower or at the beach. Like a general, her mind always forming a plan of attack on how to do battle, how to put the enemy away, how to keep them there, contained. In criminal law, until the sentence has been served, the phone can ring at any time, an assistant from the Attorney General’s Office on the other line telling you to keep a heads-up because it’s coming back. Even years later – it’s coming back. So no case ever really goes away. It stays forever stacked in the recesses of your mind, like a warehouse, piled neatly next to the rest. C.J.’s warehouse was nearing capacity.
And the feeling of vindication, of giving back something to society, had waned. The difference she had hoped to make in this world was not seeming to be enough in the end.

  She fingered the present left behind on her desk calendar by Marisol. A black coffee mug filled with hard candy that carried Marisol’s message of peace in white bold-faced letters: BEHIND THIS BOSS IS A BETTER SECRETARY. C.J. left it behind on top of her file cabinet.

  She headed for the door, with Joey Frison and his shotgun – her bedtime reading this coming Christmas Eve. Her fiancé was too busy hunting another monster to sit beside her and help her strategize on how to put this one away. Or at least in storage, where she could never forget him.

  30

  Drugs. It all came down to drugs and money and that’s why three cops were dead. Dominick rubbed his temples. How much money did it take to look the other way? To strong-arm a couple of people? A few hundred here and there? A cut of the take? What was their price? Dominick wondered. Angelillo, Chavez, Lindeman? What was the going rate to betray the badge?

  They probably thought that there would be no harm. After all, it’s just money. I’m not hurting anyone. All I’m doing is sending a message in the uniform. I just have to stand here and pretend to be on their side. Tomorrow, when I’m on duty, I’ll bust some mopes. I’ll take in the guy who hits his wife and the loser smoking crack in front of a school bus. I’m not really one of them.

  Dominick sat in his car, one hand still rubbing away the throb in his aching head, the other drumming fingertips against the hard plastic of the steering wheel. Underneath the music on the radio, the state police dispatch crackled and hummed with information and emergencies. Most were intended for FHP troopers, who shared the same frequency, called to respond at this time of night – 1:30 a.m. – to a DUI or an accident on the highways. On another channel, FDLE agents on surveillance sat on a house in Florida City chatting occasionally with agents working the Governor’s protection detail and other agents up on a wire. On yet another, Beverage Agents with ABT – Alcohol, Beverage and Tobacco – worked a sting inside a bar in Pembroke Pines known for its underage drinking. As light faded from day, and most normal people turned off their engines, had dinner with their families and went to bed, a whole other world was just waking, their business best done in the dark. And the cops that followed them into the night just watched and listened and waited. In undercovers that smelled of Burger King and old coffee, they chatted and joked amongst each other, watching with night-vision binoculars set on dark doorways. Always listening, always waiting for the right phone call or conversation to come through the static on the tap or the bug and wake them with a jolt of pure adrenaline. Afraid to blink or sneeze or go to the bathroom because they might miss it – the defendant sneaking out a window, the exchange, the conversation – the one act that would prove the bad guy bad. The night held many secrets, but it gave up just as many.

  Dominick sat now on Washington Avenue, his eyes on the strip of busy nightclubs that dotted the SoBe street before him. In Versace catsuits and Roberto Cavalli body stockings, the nightlife spilled onto the streets, in and out of expensive cars, leaving expensive tips behind. He had spotted a couple of uniforms working off-duties outside, but he knew there were others inside, mingling, even though they shouldn’t, with the VIPs and celebrities. Dominick had the list of who worked where, right there on the seat next to him, as all off-duties have to be signed off on by the department. The off-duty lists had been the first thing forked over by each PD, right after their Dirty Lists. But even though his own car smelled of stale coffee and fast-food grease, Dominick was not on surveillance tonight. There was no call for it yet, as the wire would hopefully go up on Valle soon – assuming that after FDLE Legal was done with it, that the judge and SAO would okay it – and maybe that would lead to some more names and some more answers.

  Tonight was simply about an inability to set it aside, to stop the search and resume life as normal when the clock told him he was no longer on duty. He had not even realized it drove him here till he threw the car in park and sipped at his coffee.

  The answer was out there. It always was, you just had to know where to look. And this case was no different. But it was worse. The Black Jacket. The cop killer. It never let him sleep. It never let him out. It never stopped screaming, forcing him to look for answers by himself in the night.

  Dominick thought of his father now. What was your price, Dad? How much did it take for you to look the other way? And was it worth it? He closed his eyes for a moment and leaned his head against the seatback. In the darkness he saw his father now, coming home late at night in his blue uniform, gun holstered to his side, shiny handcuffs dangling next to a cold black baton. Dominick lay in bed, watching shadows from the rooftop party across the alley dance on his ceiling, waiting until he finally heard that rattle and jingle of keys, the slow creak of the door in the jam, the final twist and click of the deadbolts – his father home from the beat, as his mother had called it. The cracked linoleum felt cold beneath his bare feet as he crept lightly past his parents’ bedroom, toward the kitchen where he knew his father would be sitting with his cold Miller and pack of Marlboro Reds.

  The crisp bills, held tight in his father’s hand, rustled like soft whispers as they slipped off one another, his father’s nervous grunts barely audible as he counted them into a neat, small stack. Even at twelve, Dominick had known what he was witnessing was somehow wrong, but did not know why; the air somehow smelled different, felt different. He listened as his father counted the small stack of money before him over and over and over again, as if the number could not possibly be right, gulping at his Miller High Life and chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette. Dominick never waited up for him to come home again.

  And now, in the darkness of his undercover, under the streetlights of So Be, Dominick forced open his eyes. He banished for the moment the image of a man who he had once idolized, who he sometimes despised. He stared now at the people crossing Washington, milling about, trying to beg or flirt or bribe their way past the red ropes of the Mansion. Strangely enough, though, there was no more sound, no music, no whispers on the radio to fill the car. All Dominick could hear was the hollow and familiar voice in his head screaming for an answer he would never find, to a question that he would always ask.

  31

  ‘Cafecito,’ Rico said to the short, round man behind the counter. Chatter in mixtures of English and Spanish sounded all around him and the robust, sweet scent of cigars hung heavy in the air, which was, for January, unseasonably warm and sticky. Tantalizing, fragrant smells of paella and fried steak wafted onto the sidewalk on Eighth Street. Old men dressed in their best guayavera shirts gathered in small groups on the patio and outside the bakery next door, enjoying their coffees and conversations. Although the busy scene played the same at any other Little Havana cafeteria, Versailles had been chosen today for a reason.

  The voice came now from Rico’s left. He did not look over. ‘What, you bring company with you wherever you go?’ A reference to the surveillance team that followed Rico around everywhere.

  ‘Motherfuckers won’t get off my ass. I can’t do shit,’ Rico groused, knowing enough not to turn around, lest the cochinos in the Taurus down the block catch his lips moving on film or something. Hell, they could probably read lips. He couldn’t fuck up now. Too much was at stake.

  ‘We’re not here to talk about you,’ said the man with no accent. ‘We were paid a visit.’

  ‘I heard.’ Rico swallowed hard.

  ‘These events…’ the voice paused for a second, cognizant that parabolic mikes could be placed anywhere and in anything. Cops could be very creative – with or without a warrant – and his words would need to be carefully crafted. ‘These events have brought a great deal of attention. There is concern. Mouths have opened.’

  ‘That was taken care of,’ said Rico. He knew for a fact that Elijah Jackson would say no more. Someone had made sure of that, feeding Elijah right back to the fuc
king river as fish food. Made Rico’s job easier. Let the Posse kill each other off for ratting, it saved him time and trouble.

  ‘Everyone wants to be a hero, though,’ said the man. ‘Certainly enough incentive.’

  Crimestoppers was offering a $100,000 reward for information in the Black Jacket slayings all over billboards in the worst neighborhoods in South Florida. That sort of dinero motivated people to say the wrong things sometimes.

  ‘Not at my end,’ said Rico nervously, downing his shot with one gulp. He whipped out a cigarette and lit it quickly. He still did not look behind him. ‘Money ain’t opening no one’s mouth. I’ll make sure of it.’

  ‘Well, we’re not so sure. It’s a motivator.’ The voice paused again. ‘Nothing is coming in, Rico. The well is drying and no one wants that. Everyone has been hit hard since this Black Jacket. There needs to be a peace offer. Put the baby to rest, once and for all.’

  Rico gulped, knowing what the man was about to propose. ‘In a minute, a minute. But, if you’re thinking about…’ Rico looked around. ‘Shit. That… that could be difficult.’

  ‘It shouldn’t be that hard. You’re gonna find that dead president for us, Rico, and you’re gonna send him our thanks and our regards. You do that and it’s double what the pooch would pay.’ The pooch was a reference to the Crimestoppers poster dog, Detective McGruff. He was being offered a $200,000 bounty for LBJ’s missing head.

  ‘Okay. Okay. I can take care of that,’ Rico said after a moment. ‘But I don’t know where he is. No one does. He’s been hiding out like a fucking scared-ass, and the brothers won’t give him up.’

 
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