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Cutting room the, p.13
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.13

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘Unfortunately, Joe had a prior commitment in Palm Beach. He knew this must be very important, so I’m here and Mr Lunders and I are both listening.’

  Listening, but not authorized to actually do shit. Clever. Each team had sent their second string. Manny took a seat across from the two of them. He could spend a few minutes chitchatting about how Talbot was enjoying prison life, but life was too short and Manny didn’t like to waste time on matters he truly didn’t give a shit about. ‘Let me get right to the point, Ms Simmons: I want to talk to your client about the night Holly Skole disappeared.’

  ‘I’ve instructed Talbot not to say anything, Detective.’

  ‘Bully for you, Ms Simmons. You’re here and I’m sure, if he needs counsel, you can give it to him. And if he wants to give answers to some of my questions, he can.’ He looked directly at Talbot. ‘You were on the phone within minutes after you left Menace, Talbot. We have the records. We know the number: 305-697-9980. We also know it was a throwaway. What we don’t know yet is who you were talking to. So, would you like to share?’

  Anne-Claire looked at her client and shook her head.

  Talbot said nothing.

  ‘Okay.’ Manny pulled out his notepad. ‘You made five phone calls to that same number between 4:12 and 5:30 in the morning. You made them while you were in Miami and you transferred cell towers on the last two calls to the tower located in Turkey Point, indicating you were travelling southbound. Who were you talking to, Talbot? And why were you talking to them?’

  Anne-Claire held her hand up, just in case Talbot was thinking of answering. ‘You’re the detective, you tell us.’

  ‘Let’s not play games, Ms Simmons. Please. I’ll be honest here: I’m thinking Talbot had a partner, someone who might’ve participated in Holly’s murder. I wanna know who that person is and what that role was.’

  ‘You’re making an offer?’ Anne-Claire asked.

  ‘I’ve spoken with the prosecutor. Depending upon the information you provide, a deal could definitely be worked out. A substantial deal, like maybe the death penalty goes off the table type of deal. But of course I need to know the information before I can tell you what it’s selling for.’

  Talbot leaned into the table. ‘You don’t have shit,’ he whispered.

  Manny frowned and leaned in himself. ‘You’re here, aren’t you? Are you liking the accommodations, son?’

  Talbot grinned. ‘This case has gotten a lot of press. My attorney here tells me that Court TV is interested in broadcasting the trial. Live, this fall. Can you believe that shit? That’s really exciting. Move over all you housewives! There’s a new Bachelor in town!’

  ‘What?’ Manny asked, looking at Anne-Claire incredulously.

  Anne-Claire stared down at her papers. ‘I only mentioned to him that they’d called …’

  ‘Live TV. Very exciting. Think about it, Detective. And 48 Hours, too. She’s even trying to fix up a Dateline special, my hard-working attorney,’ Talbot continued. ‘You gotta love an attorney with Hollywood connections. Maybe a made-for-TV movie, Mr Varlack tells me. How about a continuous series on FX? That one’s my idea.’

  ‘Talbot, please …’ Anne-Claire said quietly. ‘None of this was agreed—’

  ‘Maybe they’ll call it Framed! That’s catchy, isn’t it, Detective? We might have a role in it for you. Like on that old TV show my dad told me about, The Fugitive. You can play the hot-headed, bumbling detective who never gets his man. Week after week, he’s always two steps behind the killer.’

  ‘Is this what you’re feeding him?’ Manny snapped. ‘That he’s gonna be some reality-TV star? Are you joking me?’ He turned to Talbot. ‘Listen up, asshole. You’re twenty-eight years old. You’re a good-looking guy, no doubt. A former model and all. Loved to work that runway, I’m sure, with your pretty boy face and nice legs and cocky attitude. Yeah, I know all about your big-time aspirations that went south because you weren’t quite good-looking enough. Or maybe you wouldn’t put out for the boys. Whatever. You didn’t make it in Milan, and you ain’t scoring some fucked-up reality show here. You’re just not that important.’

  Talbot’s face turned dark. ‘You’ve been talking to my mother?’

  Manny shrugged. ‘The reality that will happen is that the boys are gonna tear you to shreds where you’re going. This is not a game. And I am not a patient man who has time for games. I’m old and I’m grouchy.’

  ‘What else did she tell you? I want to know.’

  He’d hit a nerve. Why? ‘What else is there to know? Does Mommy know whose digits you’re dialing in the wee hours of the morning? Maybe I should talk to her some more. Have a nice long talk with your pretty momma.’

  ‘Leave my mother out of this. This is about me. It’s about me.’ He shook his head abruptly. ‘No information. I’m not selling anything. I’ll take my chances in court with all those cameras, because they’re gonna love me. Oh yeah. Besides, I’ve seen who’s trying to put me away, and I have to tell you, I’m not worried. But you should be.’

  Manny thought about what he and Daria had discussed and had agreed not to discuss. Don’t feed him any ideas. ‘How do you know Bill Bantling?’

  ‘I want to go,’ Talbot replied flatly. He stood up.

  ‘When did you first meet him?’

  Nothing.

  ‘I don’t think this is the first time you’ve done this, Talbot. And I don’t think this is the first girl. I think you have a mentor. And I think there are others,’ Manny said, standing as well. ‘Others who like to watch.’

  Anne-Claire looked at her client. ‘Talbot?’

  Talbot banged on the door. ‘I said I want to go now.’

  ‘Would a deal cover other crimes?’ Anne-Claire asked Manny anxiously.

  ‘My attorney must be hard of fucking hearing!’ Talbot yelled. ‘I said I have no information to sell. And I have nothing to discuss with you, Detective. Officer!’ He banged on the door again until it opened. ‘I want to go,’ he said calmly when the corrections officer finally opened the door.

  Talbot had said nothing, and yet so much. Manny now knew for sure that a club existed. ‘I’ll find the others,’ he said to Anne-Claire as the officer slapped cuffs on Talbot’s outstretched hands. ‘And when I do, there will be no deal. Like I said before, I’m not a very patient man.’

  ‘Wait a minute, I do have something to say,’ Talbot said, turning to Manny. ‘’Cause now you got me all worried, Detective. I’m shaking here.’

  ‘Talbot—’ Anne-Claire held her hand up. ‘Hold on, let me handle this.’

  Her client ignored her.

  ‘It’s a real shame that hot little incompetent prosecutor of mine couldn’t be here today,’ Talbot continued, a smirk slowly leaking across his face. ‘Please, please, please do me a favor and send her my love. And also a message from me, Detective …’

  19

  ‘“Little Lena needs to tend to that garden.”’

  ‘What?’ Daria asked as she and Manny walked down the courthouse hallway on Friday morning. A string of defendants in cuffs shuffled past them on their way to DCJ. One of them whistled at her.

  ‘That’s what he said. That’s all he said, basically. The interview was a waste of time, although I’m certain now that he knows Bantling. And I’m certain I’m right about this club. What the hell does that mean, though, that garden comment?’ Bear asked.

  Daria shrugged.

  ‘Like I told ya, he’s not gonna talk, Counselor. He’s loving this. Wants to see himself in the spotlight. He also called you incompetent, although he did say you were hot—’ He stopped short. ‘Jesus! What the hell is wrong with you?’

  Daria’s face had gone ashen.

  ‘Don’t shake your head at me. You’re as white as a ghost. Let’s get you a seat.’ He ushered her to a bench and sat beside her. ‘Either you’re sick or it was something I said. Please don’t yak on my shoes. They’re new. Also, I have an aversion to people puking. I can’t handle it.’

&
nbsp; ‘I’m okay,’ she said. ‘Just got a little dizzy. I didn’t have breakfast.’

  ‘Bullshit. For a lawyer, you’re a shit liar. You gotta work on that. Are you upset he called you incompetent or that he called you hot?’ Manny laughed. ‘You shouldn’t take it personal or nothing, Counselor. And what does, “Little Lena needs to tend her garden” mean? Is that from a book or something?’

  She paused for a moment. ‘Daria is my grandmother’s name, Manny. I took her name after she died because I hated my birth name.’

  ‘Which is?’

  ‘Maddalena.’

  ‘That’s pretty.’

  ‘Don’t go there.’

  ‘Let me guess, you were named after your mother?’

  ‘You’re a good detective.’

  ‘And you really are passive-aggressive. You changed the name your momma gave you? Ouch.’

  ‘I don’t need a lecture.’

  ‘And it was her name, too. Freud would have fun with you. So you are Little Lena. I’m guessing Lena is short for Maddalena.’

  ‘Stop detectiving me.’

  ‘I don’t think that’s a word.’

  ‘He knows my birth name, Manny. How fucked up is that?’

  ‘’Cause you legally changed it, right? That’s public record. There’s no place to hide in cyberworld. I should’ve googled you, come to think of it. Put your own name into a search engine and see how much shit comes up that you didn’t know about yourself. Could be Talbot’s mommy looked you up. He didn’t seem to like the thought of us talking to her. Doesn’t want to share the spotlight with her, maybe?’

  Daria glanced away, down the hall. She rubbed her hands together. ‘But my nickname, Manny?’

  ‘Not a quantum leap. I did it, right? Don’t get all nervous on me. I like you better when you’re mean and feisty. Now it just feels awkward. Listen, you can’t let this two-bit punk kid get inside your head like that. You still up for Bantling next week? ’Cause if Pretty Boy Talbot Lunders can shake you up like this, just wait till you meet Cupid.’

  She nodded. ‘So what else did he say?’

  ‘Nothing. He’s looking forward to a trial on Court TV and a career on the big screen after he’s discovered, and acquitted, of course. But I did notice something very interesting that I didn’t see before. A tattoo on his right forearm. A dark red — get this — lightning bolt.’

  ‘That’s coincidental.’

  ‘Isn’t it? I don’t like coincidences, Counselor. Usually I find there is no such thing.’

  ‘I’m sure a zillion other skin-art fanatics in that hellhole have lightning bolts etched somewhere on their epidermises,’ she said.

  ‘But not all of them are suspects in our case.’

  She stood up. ‘So I guess we move on to Bantling now. Is that still on for Tuesday?’

  ‘Not so quick, Counselor. What else is getting to you? And don’t say “nothing”, ’cause like I said, you’re a shit liar. He knows your nickname. Okay. So what did he mean with that garden comment?’

  She ran a hand through her thick hair. ‘Maybe I’m taking it wrong. Maybe I’m just being paranoid …’

  ‘What? What is it? Spit it out.’

  ‘I … I live in a townhouse in Victoria Park. It’s a nice, quiet neighborhood up in Fort Lauderdale and I have a garden in the back. A flower and herb garden. Not real big — a few roses, sunflowers, basil, simple stuff. I’ve tried everything, but I must have cinch bugs or something. In the last few weeks or so everything’s been dying. Since the Arthur Hearing, actually, now that I think about it.’

  ‘Okay. Horticulture ain’t your thing. I’m betting you’re not so hot at cooking, neither. You don’t plug me as the domestic type.’

  She shot him a look. ‘Actually, my roses are usually really beautiful. Prize winners, I suppose, if I wanted to enter them in a contest. But not anymore. Someone would’ve had to have told him that, Manny. Someone who’s seen that garden. Someone who’s been to my house.’

  Manny frowned. ‘Okay. I see what you’re thinking and why you might be a little paranoid, but—’

  She wasn’t done. ‘And then this morning, I came downstairs, opened my kitchen blinds and they were all gone.’

  ‘You mean dead?’

  ‘No. I mean gone. Someone cut the tops off all my roses. Not the other flowers, just the roses, the ones that hadn’t died. There’s nothing left now but a garden of thorny stems.’ She looked away. ‘I thought it was a disgruntled neighbor, you know. Maybe I parked in the wrong spot, or I hung my towels over my balcony railing without thinking. Who the hell knows what ticks people off? But now …’ She looked at him. ‘Jesus, Manny — what the hell am I supposed to think?’

  20

  Santa Barbara, California

  As cold-blooded murderers went, Richard Kassner didn’t look the part.

  Dressed in a conservative charcoal suit, white shirt, and light blue tie, dark hair carefully parted on the side and combed into place, his chubby hands folded piously before him like an altar boy, the middle-aged, Fisher Price toy exec didn’t look like someone who would intentionally try to blow up his house with his wife and disabled mother-in-law locked inside. Of course, Santa Barbara Assistant District Attorney Christina Towns knew better than anyone on this earth that not only could looks be deceiving in a courtroom, they could also prove to be quite the asset, if worked right. And Mr Kassner definitely knew how to work the baby face that God had given him. All day long he’d been exchanging smiles and understanding glances with several females on the jury — even through the gut-wrenching testimony given by his now ex-wife. For some reason the jury was loving him, and not the ex. To turn the Titanic around, Christina was going to have to step up her game. And the gut-wrenching.

  But that would have to wait till next week.

  ‘Will there be anything further, Ms Towns?’ asked the judge, looking over at the People’s table. The jurors all looked at her, too. It was past five on a Friday. Everyone was hoping for the same answer.

  ‘No, Your Honor,’ Christina replied. The last thing she needed was for her jury to hate her because they’d missed out on happy hour. ‘We reserve the right to recall Jessica Kassner in rebuttal.’

  ‘Fine, then,’ said the judge. ‘We’ll resume Tuesday morning at nine.’ He nodded at the bailiff to escort the jury out. ‘We’re in recess until that time. Have a nice, long weekend everybody. Happy Fourth of July.’

  As the courtroom emptied around her, Christina finished up some paperwork and gathered her files, placing what she could in the leather mail satchel her mom had given her ages ago, and piling the rest in a cardboard box, which she loaded on a pull cart. From the corner of her eye she watched as the defendant, who was out on bond, dabbed a tear from his eye, hugged his new wife and tenderly kissed his new baby. Some of the elderly courtroom fixtures, who liked to hang around in court all day long, watched the gooey, PDA publicity stunt from the rear of the courtroom. She could feel them aaawwwing from thirty feet away. Fortunately, the jury was already gone. Led by Mr Kassner’s expensive attorney, the new family began to walk from the courtroom, hand-in-hand. Then the droopy-eyed toy maker — who some jurors were having a hard time picturing as a violent, psychopathic sadist — turned and shot Christina a menacing glare over his shoulder, like the devil in a movie whose eyes flash red and teeth turn yellow when no one else is watching.

  Her heartbeat quickened, but she stood her ground and watched him leave, making sure she did not break from his threatening stare until the door closed behind him and his trophy wife. The hell she was gonna let the bastard know that inside she was shaking: all he would see was stone. When the day came — and it would — that he was finally convicted of arson and murder, she’d ask the judge to put Richard Kassner behind bars for a good chunk of the rest of his life. He knew it and he hated her for it. She’d flash him a smug smile then — as he was led out of the courtroom in cuffs.

  When the door closed behind them she sat back down at the People
s table and finally exhaled. Underneath the table her hands were trembling. She wished it didn’t bother her. She wished she could just blow off the threats and the dirty looks as part of the job — like she used to be able to do. She wished she were as tough on the inside as her reputation was.

  She hung back for a long while, answering calls and returning texts until the bailiff finally came and told her it was time to lock up. There was no way she wanted to share an elevator ride with her psycho defendant. Nor did she want to run into him in the parking lot. Or, for that matter, the movie theater, grocery store, or post office, which meant that after she was done here tonight, she would be going home and laying low until Richard Kassner was officially a convicted felon and off the streets for good. Depending on how the case went, that might take several weeks. It was only then that she’d be able to actually sleep when she closed her eyes at night. Or so she told herself.

  The eighty-five-year-old historic Spanish courthouse was deserted. The only souls left in the building beside her were a lone janitor, who was polishing the Mexican Saltillo tiles on the second-floor hall, and Joe, the night security guard stationed at the information booth on the first floor. Her case had been the only trial going in the normally sleepy courthouse and it was Friday night. Her colleagues at the DA’s office across the street were most likely all gone as well, as was her boss. It was time for the holiday weekend to begin.

  She waved goodnight over her shoulder to Joe as she stepped outside into the pristine courtyard. The evening air already smelled like night-blooming jasmine, even though the sun was not quite down yet. The Santa Ynez mountain range, tinged in fading hues of orange and plum, hovered over the red roofs and Santa Barbara foothills, like a scene captured on a picturesque postcard. Behind her, Joe moved to close and lock the courthouse’s thirty-foot tall, hand-carved, wooden entrance gates. The screechy rattle of his keys working in the metal lock startled her. But she did not flinch or fly away. She willed herself not to look back, not to give in to her fears, lest they completely overpower her consciousness. Because then she would fall into full paranoia, and from there a darkness she might never escape from again. It was only old Joe, after all.

 
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