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Cutting room the, p.12
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.12

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘Wasn’t Bantling already in prison when the Black Jacket killings took place?’ Daria asked.

  Manny nodded. ‘He was on death row. He’d been transferred to Miami for a hearing on his appeal and was about to be shipped back to Florida State Prison when his attorney tells me he wants to talk. Says Bantling’s got information on Black Jacket and wants to cut a deal. So I go see him. And he starts telling me about this …’ Manny paused for a long moment. ‘This club.’

  ‘Club?’

  ‘Yeah. An underground club made up of crazies who like to watch people die. According to Bantling, this wasn’t some bunch of obviously unstable sickos, but prominent citizens — Wall Street traders, politicians, doctors, corporate bigwigs, actors, even …’ he paused before he said the next word, as if it tasted bitter: ‘… cops. And thanks to the Internet, we’re talking worldwide, not just Miami. It cost a lot of money to get into the club — you gotta pay for the privilege of watching people die. And I don’t mean of natural causes.’

  ‘So they liked to watch snuff films?’ Daria asked.

  ‘They liked to make snuff films, Counselor. Now, none of this was ever substantiated — Bantling wouldn’t give names and we wouldn’t give him a deal, since we’d cracked Black Jacket by then.’ Manny rubbed his smooth head and took a deep breath. ‘FDLE was supposed to investigate the snuff allegations with Customs and Postal, but … Bantling’s comments were dismissed as the ramblings of a man desperate to save his own ass. He was shipped back to death row and the rest of us just wanted to move on.’

  He looked past her, towards the jail. ‘But now … well, I keep going over that interview,’ he said pensively. ‘And I keep thinking about that video of Gabby Vechio’s death and the faces on those TV monitors, watching. About the horrific scenes we didn’t see, the torture and cruelty that were cut from that clip. And I can’t help but hear what Bantling told me and wonder if that might be what we got here now, ya know? That maybe this is a snuff club we’re dealing with, Counselor. And maybe we stopped looking, but it never stopped operating.’

  17

  ‘That’s a mighty big leap, Detective.’ Daria hoped she still looked reserved, but her heart had started to pound and her hands were sweating. A snuff club. That was a dark twist she’d never heard before. ‘You’re thinking snuff club because you have a snippet of a videotaped murder and a lying, locked-up serial killer from years gone by that once told you this secret club exists? And so this must be evidence of it?’

  ‘Stop doing that,’ Manny shot back.

  ‘Doing what?’

  ‘Making something sound stupid that made a lot of sense in my head. You twist shit with your lawyer thinking and your lawyer words. Stop and just hear me. Don’t cross-examine, because I’m on your side here. And I’m not gonna make the same mistake I might’ve made seven years ago and walk away.’

  He rubbed his head again. ‘I have a gut feeling, Counselor. I knew when I first saw that Lunders video that there was something more to it than soft porn. I knew what I was looking at was bad. That’s why I had to find the girl. I had to know. These killings, these girls, are like a page torn out of Cupid’s book — pretty blondes disappearing from nightclubs, held for several days, or longer, tortured and then murdered.’

  ‘Hold on,’ Daria cut in. ‘Holly and these other victims, they all had their hearts, didn’t they?’

  ‘Yeah, they did.’

  ‘So what are you saying, Manny? That Bantling wasn’t Cupid? That it was all the work of this snuff club and the real Cupid is actually alive and well and roaming the streets of Miami right now looking for fresh blood? That he changed his MO and is letting all the pretty girls keep their hearts this time around and branding them instead?’

  ‘There you go, crossing me like some hostile witness.’ Manny pounded both fists on the arms of his chair, so hard it sounded as if either the wood or his hands had cracked. He sat back in the chair and stared at the wall, trying hard to rein in his temper.

  ‘I remember in his last round of appeals Bantling made the argument that he was a poor innocent. I also remember it didn’t fly,’ Daria finished, ignoring the temper tantrum. ‘He’s still on death row, isn’t he?’

  ‘For the moment. The man is like a cat — he’s got nine lives, with a few still left to spare. He was supposed to get a new trial. Came real close. Too close.’

  ‘What happened there?’ she asked.

  ‘His trial lawyer, Lourdes Rubio, had a change of heart some years after Bantling was convicted. Claimed in an affidavit that she’d fucked up Bantling’s case on purpose and withheld evidence that would’ve exonerated him at trial. She was supposed to testify at the hearing for a new trial, only she gets killed in a robbery. The judge kept out her statements and sent Bantling back to Florida State Prison, but then the appellate courts said, nah, the trial judge should’ve admitted the affidavit. So the state appealed. Case went all the way up to the Florida Supremes. Ultimately, the Supremes tossed it back and said the appellate court was wrong in second-guessing the trial judge and reinstated the original verdict. Last I heard, Bantling was appealing that ruling through the federal courts, which’ll probably take another five years. Then it’ll be on to the next bullshit appeal, and the next.’

  She cocked her head. ‘The Cupid case had some other issues, didn’t it? With the prosecutor?’

  ‘Bill Bantling is a psychopath, Counselor,’ Manny said dismissively. ‘He creates chaos wherever he goes. It excites him.’

  ‘Didn’t he claim that he’d raped the prosecutor?’

  ‘Like I said, he creates chaos. If you’re old enough to remember the headlines, he conveniently made that claim after a jury had convicted him of capital murder. It was all he had left in the arsenal — a fucked-up accusation he was being railroaded on to death row by a vindictive prosecutor hell-bent on retribution. C.J. Townsend was her name. An amazing attorney, an even more amazing lady. The sad thing is that Bantling was smart enough to have dug up the fact that C.J. was raped when she was a law student in New York and that her rapist had never been caught. Found out her real name — ’cause she’d changed it, she was so scared the guy who raped her might find her one day — found out where she used to live, the car she used to drive. All this he got from reading old police reports. There’s no one more dangerous on this earth than a clever psychopath, I’ll tell ya.

  ‘How she managed to hold her head up after the things he said about her in open court, I don’t know. It must have been like being raped all over again. Obviously, the judge saw through Bantling’s bullshit theatrical performance and the jury sentenced him to death, but, in my opinion, C.J. was never the same after that. Not as a prosecutor, not as a woman. She was always more guarded, less happy. She was still effective, you know, but definitely anxious and uptight. She worked with the task force on the Black Jacket murders, but when that case closed, she up and left the office.’

  ‘Where is she now?’

  He shifted in his seat. ‘No idea. Haven’t seen her since.’

  Daria nodded thoughtfully. She’d picked up on a slight, barely perceptible, change in the detective. Obviously, she’d hit a nerve. Perhaps he’d dated the woman. Or he’d wanted to. Or maybe there was more to her story than he wanted to get into. Daria remembered that, after Bantling was sent to death row, C.J. Townsend had been attacked by a Cupid copycat and almost killed. No wonder the woman had bowed out of the game early. If all that shit had happened to her, Daria would be making candles in some small, remote town in Iowa that had a zero percent crime rate — keeping a low profile and living a simple lifestyle.

  ‘Listen, Counselor,’ Manny continued, ‘I’m not saying we have the wrong killer behind bars here. Talbot Lunders is guilty of Holly Skole’s murder as sure as the day is long. I know it. And I’m not saying Bill Bantling is not Cupid. What I am saying is that as far as our case is concerned, we have a problem that can’t be ignored. There are scary similarities between these new murders and the Cupid murder
s. Maybe it’s time we looked into Bantling’s claim that he was part of this snuff club.’

  ‘If it exists.’

  ‘If it exists,’ he conceded. ‘And if he was in it, when and if it did exist. Maybe his fellow members get together to share tips or war stories or something, and somebody got an idea to relive the great ones. All I know for sure is that the murder of Gabby Vechio in New York is somehow related to Holly Skole’s murder down here. The brandings prove it. And whether you like it or not, at the very least, you’re gonna have to disclose that to the defense. It’s Brady. And these new murders I just found — they’re Brady, too.’

  That got her attention. Brady referred to Brady v. State of Maryland, a US Supreme Court decision that required the state to disclose any evidence that was known to be favorable to a defendant’s case and material to the issue of guilt and/or punishment that would tend to exculpate the defendant. Basically, anything that could prove the defendant wasn’t guilty. Manny was no lawyer, but any detective worth his salt knew Brady, and knew the decision was pretty broad in its interpretation. To guess wrong and not comply could mean severe penalties, including, in extreme circumstances, the exclusion of evidence and even post-conviction reversal. There was little doubt in his mind that the existence of the murder video and identity of Gabriella Vechio, and now three more potential victims, would be considered Brady.

  ‘The hell I do!’ Daria cried. ‘We don’t know they’re related. Only your gut knows.’

  ‘Try out that twisted lawyer thinking on Judge Becker and see if she doesn’t throw your cute ass in jail for willfully failing to disclose. Don’t forget, Hot Mami Lunders came to us with this video.’

  ‘Stop calling her that.’

  ‘Joe Varlack supposedly knows of its existence,’ Manny continued. ‘It’s not like you can hide it. The inevitable question the judge is eventually gonna be asking you is, “What did you discover about the video and the girl in it after Abby Lunders gave it to you?” I’m not gonna tell her, “nothing” when I know it’s something. You have to disclose the Vechio murder. And the others, too.’

  As much as she didn’t want to agree, Manny had a point. At least as to Gabriella Vechio’s murder. And she knew the detective would sell her out on the stand later if she didn’t disclose. Damn, damn, damn. Things were starting to unravel at the seams after barely coming together at the Arthur, grand jury and arraignment. She bit her lip and swiveled toward the window so he couldn’t watch her think.

  Jesus Christ … a serial killer? Daria had never worked a serial murder before. And she wouldn’t if Vance Collier and the administration found out that was the new direction The State of Florida v. Talbot Lunders was heading in. They would put a much more seasoned prosecutor on it, maybe even Collier himself. There went Chief of Sex Batt. There went an opportunity to prove herself and move out of neutral. To become a lifer with a future. Fuck that. She wasn’t giving up that easy. She wasn’t handing over the case of a career just because she didn’t have the experience. If Manny was right, and Holly Skole’s murder was one of several serial murders that in some way related to Bill Bantling and an underground snuff club, then she would ready the case to the point that there would be no alternative but for her to try it. No one else would be qualified, especially seeing as there was likely going to be a speedy issue.

  She swiveled around. ‘I say we talk to Lunders. If he has a partner, or if he was recruited by a partner, maybe even a serial, or — and I’m not saying I buy into any of this yet — if he was a member of this club you’re talking about, then we consider some kind of deal to get the other names. But let’s not go looking for some psycho club membership with him just yet, Manny; Holly’s murder could be the work of him and a demented unsub. I don’t want to go planting ideas in his head. Or his lawyer’s.’

  Manny rubbed his temple. ‘I don’t think the kid’s gonna talk, Counselor. He hasn’t before. You saw him in court — he’s about as fucked-up and unpredictable as Bantling. I think he actually enjoys the attention, in a warped way. This is his moment in the sun; his turn to create some chaos.’

  ‘Well, give it the old college-try. I’m not releasing anything as Brady till I find out what the hell’s going on.’

  ‘After what happened with you and him at the Arthur, I’ll handle talking to him and his attorney,’ Manny replied, taking a pack of Marlboros out of his pocket. ‘He might be less distracted. You, too.’

  She nodded and reached for the cup of cold coffee so as to hide the rush of color that had flooded her cheeks. ‘You can’t smoke in here.’

  ‘You’ve told me that before. But I can be ready the second I get downstairs,’ he answered, sticking a cigarette behind his ear. ‘Tomorrow’s Wednesday, right? Damn, the week is flying by. I have an Arthur Thursday afternoon, so I think I’ll arrange a visit with Pretty Boy that morning. Regardless, I’m gonna take a drive to Florida State next week to talk to Bantling,’ he said, scooping up his file from her desk.

  ‘I’m going,’ she declared.

  ‘Let me do the investigating here. You stick to prosecuting.’

  ‘I’m still going. I never met a serial killer before.’

  Manny frowned.

  That sounded real dumb. ‘I won’t interfere,’ she offered quickly. ‘But I want to be there. I want to see him.’

  ‘I’ll take a picture.’

  ‘Very funny. I want to hear what he has to say about this snuff club. You keep insisting that it’s related to my case. I have a right.’

  Manny sighed. Despite the smart part of his brain that was screaming ‘Bad idea!’ his mouth didn’t get the message. ‘Oh, the things you can get me to agree to when you’re nice, Counselor. ’Cause I’m telling ya, I ain’t driving five hours in the car with you if those fangs are bared.’

  ‘I’ll be nice. Promise. You know, I went to UF.’

  Manny looked over at the framed law degree from the University of Florida that hung on the pale gray wall above the file cabinet. ‘I see that.’

  Her eyes followed his. ‘They don’t tell you on the admissions tour that your dorm room’s gonna be located within a thirty-mile radius of eight different correctional facilities — including two maximum-security prisons that house death-row inmates. My mom was so pissed,’ Daria continued thoughtfully. ‘She ripped my room apart ’cause she thought I hid that detail about the prisons from her. I came home that first Christmas to find what remained of my books, pictures, curtains and comforter carpeting my bedroom floor in two-inch strips.’

  ‘That’s extreme.’

  ‘Yeah, well, she’s extreme. She wanted me to stay home and go to UM so I could take care of her. The bunch of crap about how worried she was for me because of all those bad boys in the state pens next town over was just that — a bunch of crap. She was being vindictive, is all.’

  ‘Did you?’

  ‘Huh?’

  ‘Did you lie to your momma about UF being located in the epicenter of Florida’s prisons?’

  ‘Hell, yeah. No way was I staying home another three years. I didn’t have the healthiest home life, as you can imagine. Unlike the rest of my class, I couldn’t wait to go to law school. I did it on student loans too, so don’t think I’m ungrateful. Once Mommy Dearest got over her temper tantrum, she warmed to the idea that she could brag to all her friends that her daughter was gonna be some high-paid, hot-shot lawyer.’

  Manny smiled. ‘And out of all the legal careers to pick from, you chose to be a prosecutor — hanging with the bad boys all day long and bringing home shit for pay — knowing that would probably piss her off even more, huh?’

  ‘We eke out a few sentences at Sunday dinners.’

  ‘So you’re passive-aggressive. I think I should remember that.’

  There was a long and awkward pause. She’d said way, way too much. ‘I’ve never been to death row before,’ she offered. ‘Anything I should know or be worried about?’

  That sounded so green. But all she could think of was the cre
epy scene in The Silence of the Lambs when Clarice Starling is warned about Hannibal Lecter: Don’t get too close to the glass. Slide all papers through the drawer. Don’t tell him anything about yourself. It was only a movie, but still …

  Manny stood up and headed for the door. He was already regretting his decision. ‘Monday’s the Fourth of July holiday, so I’m thinking Tuesday. I’m gonna get on the road by eight. I guess I’ll pick you up here.’

  ‘I’ll be ready,’ Daria said with a smile.

  ‘I hope so,’ he replied before he walked out the door. Based on the last question she’d asked, he already knew how wrong she was about that.

  18

  The corrections officer buzzed the door to the interview room at Dade County Jail and the steel door slid open. When Manny had cleared the doorway, it slid back in place with another loud clang, and a second steel door slid open. When he’d cleared that one, it, too, slid into place with a bang, locking him into the mint-green interrogation room that smelled of mildew and urine, even though it lacked both a toilet and a water source.

  Anne-Claire Simmons and her client were already seated at a metal table that was bolted to the floor. The three metal chairs set around the table were chained to the table’s legs. The one thing that was not chained or locked to anything was Talbot Lunders. No cuffs, no shackles, no restraints. The accused murderer was free to walk around the cabin. He might not be able to steal the furniture, but he could throttle his attorney with his bare hands if he really wanted to. Manny had interviewed scores of defendants in this very room, and he couldn’t recall one other who hadn’t been dressed up in at least cuffs. It irked him. The rules must be different for good-looking, privileged, white murderers.

  ‘Good afternoon, Detective,’ Anne-Claire began somberly. ‘Is Ms DeBianchi joining us?’

  ‘Nope. How about Mr Varlack?’

 
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