Last Witness, p.13Jilliane Hoffman
Dominick was jotting notes as Neilson moved about Ribero’s body, making incisions and taking measurements and weighing organs, mumbling excitedly to himself under his breath. A pale-faced Manny moved back even further from the steel gurney and rubbed another gob of Vicks VapoRub under his nose. He shot C.J. a weak grimace and then twirled his finger in a circle by his temple. The Vicks made the silver strands in his mustache shine under the fluorescents.
‘What about the eyes?’ asked Dominick.
‘Definitely pre-mortem. We can tell because of the bleeding. If the eyes had been removed after he had died, then there would be minimal bleeding at the incision sites. Most likely sent the poor bastard into shock.’ Neilson paused for thought. ‘Well, hopefully.’ Then he continued excitedly, ‘Here, look at this, Detectives!’ the fingers of one hand probing the inside of Ribero’s empty socket, the other again beckoning excitedly for someone to come closer for a better look. And again, there were no takers. Joe Neilson was more enthusiastic than most MEs and it took working with him a few times to figure out what really needed to be seen. Manny and Dominick had worked with him enough over the past decade to know this was one of those times they could stay put. ‘The blade he used on the eyes was smooth – look at the way the optic nerve was severed! And I’m guessing now at the width, but I’d say we’re looking at a one- to one-and-a-quarter-inch diameter. Impossible to tell on the length. Maybe a scalpel, but I don’t think so. Swiss Army, possibly.’
‘Excuse me, Doc,’ said the man in green scrubs who stood atop a stepladder over Lou Ribero’s naked body. He held a Minolta Maxxum 3000 in hand.
‘Oh, okay.’ Neilson backed up slightly, his fingers holding the ruler steady inside the empty black socket. White flash exploded on Ribero’s face.
‘We’ll send the photos to the FDLE crime lab in Tallahassee. Rieck is an expert on knife patterns,’ said Dominick.
‘Quantico also has excellent facilities,’ added Neilson. ‘I know that—’
‘This is a state case. We’ve got it,’ said Dominick, his tone instantly communicating that the subject was not up for discussion.
‘Okay, then,’ said Neilson with a shrug. He flipped up the protective mask and waited impatiently while the tech finished up with the pictures, his foot tapping anxiously under the gurney. ‘Ceasar?’ he called to the technician in green scrubs reading the morning edition of El Nuevo Herald across the room. ‘Can you finish?’
The man nodded, putting aside his paper and grabbing a metal bowl, a washcloth, liquid soap and a large spool of black thread from the white Formica cabinet overhead. Neilson rinsed off cross-sectioned slices of gray matter with a rubber hose and then slid them off of the counter into a plastic evidence container. Then he pulled off his gloves and threw them in the wastebasket marked BIOHAZARD.
‘What about drugs, Doc? This guy got anything in him like Chavez and Angelillo?’ asked Manny, looking anywhere but Neilson’s face when he asked the question.
‘The preliminary tox results show no drugs in his system, but it will take a few days for the rest to come back. His heart was strong, no sign of long-term drug use. This guy would’ve lived to be a hundred maybe, but I guess someone else had other plans,’ he said, reaching over Ribero’s gray feet for his coffee cup on the counter behind him. His arm hit the toe tag, and it swung gently back and forth for a few moments. ‘Detectives, coffee? I’ll make fresh.’
‘No, thanks,’ said Dominick, heading for the door, averting his eyes from C.J.
‘How much of that shit do you drink every day?’ asked Manny in amazement with an eyebrow raised as he followed Dominick to the exit sign.
‘Not enough. I’ve got another four lined up this morning, Detective,’ Neilson said over his shoulder, while he busied about making fresh coffee. ‘My next damsel in distress – meet Dawn.’ He nodded behind him at another gurney that had been wheeled into the far corner, where a naked woman lay, her lips and protruding tongue swollen and blue. He pulled on a new pair of gloves with a snap and crossed the room to another steel farm sink with an extended rubber hose. ‘The ladies down here, Detective Alvarez, well they’re all just dying to meet me,’ he joked then with a smile, and either a wink or a twitch. No one was quite sure.
Then the doors to the lab swung open and Dominick walked past C.J. in silence, heading straight down the hall for the elevator.
It was impossible to deny the connection any longer. Four men were dead and three of them she’d shared a secret with. Three of them had received a brutal Colombian necktie, and the three she had conspired with had been mutilated in a more symbolic way.
Victor Chavez’s tongue had been cut from his mouth.
That was to shut him up.
Sonny Lindeman’s ears had been sliced off.
He obviously heard something he wasn’t meant to hear.
Lou Ribero’s eyes had been gouged.
The guy saw something. Something he shouldn’t have seen.
And she knew she was not the only one to note the symbolism. The task force still frantically worked the drug angle, but Dominick now had them re-running every case, every traffic ticket, every goddamn FI card each officer had worked, written or assisted on to see if there was any other link. For what it was worth – considering each now knew they were being investigated, thanks in part to the feds – the taps were up on Valle and Brueto, but had so far yielded nothing. Ribero’s last off-duty was more than six months ago and it was supervising the traffic at a public roadway construction site. He had done a few off-duty stints at clubs on the Beach when Miami hosted the Source Awards, but there was no clear link yet to Valle, the Posse or the Kings. No one could even place him at a Walgreens, much less tie him to a drug cartel.
And it wasn’t just the task force that was searching through the rubble, either. The FBI had descended with not just the court order Dominick had demanded, but backed now by the very-much-pissed-off muscle power of the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District and the legal manpower of the Department of Justice. And though everyone in law enforcement had been ordered to cooperate, no one really did, which meant that no stone would be left unturned. Twice.
The shortlist of those to be interviewed was anyone who had worked with, associated with, had been arrested by, or was related to any of the slain officers. That included family, friends, associates, defendants, defense attorneys, judges, and prosecutors. The longlist included everyone else. There was no doubt she had made that first list. She thought she had buried Lindeman’s name, but Ribero and Chavez had both testified in the Cupid case.
She had stayed home on Monday, the phone pulled from the wall, the cell off, claiming the need to work on a motion without distraction, when the truth was, she had sat out on her patio all day, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine and staring down at the lapping waters of the Intercoastal, trying desperately to figure out what to do. What even could be done. And after three days, she still had no answers. Because she could not answer the core question: Why? Why would someone want all three men silenced? And what the hell did Bruce Angelillo have to do with anything?
Jerry Tigler was pissed off at her because she still would not work Black Jacket, and Andy Maus, now back from Tampa, was pissed that he had not been the one on scene Saturday morning, and that Tigler still wanted her to work it. She knew that Dominick was angry and hurt, and worst of all, frustrated with her. He was the one person who could read her, who she could not fool when she lied and told him everything was fine. So she had avoided him and his phone calls. Sleep was difficult, to say the least, as her brain worked overtime trying to answer the same questions that had consumed her for months now.
She had accepted the consequences of her decision three years back. But she had not been prepared for this.
She had not been prepared for her decision to cost others their lives. And still she could not figure out why. She had dug a trench in heavy sand, and it was now collapsing in on itself. It was burying her alive
But she couldn’t just hide out in her apartment any longer hoping the answers would come to her. She had a file cabinet full of other cases to attend to. Motions, trials, arraignments, pre-trial conferences, pre-file screenings, First Appearances, Arthur Hearings. And the list kept getting longer.
The package was waiting for her on her desk on Tuesday morning when she arrived at work at 7:00 a.m., on top of a stack of other mail. It bore no return address, but C.J. had not noticed that until she had sliced through the packing tape and parted the flaps.
Styrofoam peanuts spilled out on her desk when she dug her hand inside the box to pull out what she initially had presumed were depos or maybe audio- or videotapes sent over by inter-office mail or perhaps a court-reporting service. When her fingers touched on the cold, smooth, hard object inside, she was at first puzzled. But as she pulled it from the box, the horror of the moment became all too clear. But only to her.
In her hand she held a small statue that she recognized instantly, although she had not laid eyes on it in fifteen years. The three wise monkeys, carved in green jade, sat next to each other in a row, their eyes large and their teeth bared. The hands of one covered his ears, the hands of another, his eyes, and the hands of the third, his mouth.
Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil.
It was a message, personally addressed to her and delivered right here, to her office – the very place that had spawned the conspiracy. The conspiracy that she now knew definitely had killed three men. But as the delicate statue slipped from her hands and shattered into pieces across her desk, she also knew something else.
She also thought she knew who had sent it.
In 1987 her parents had traveled to the Orient for two weeks, her father hoping to walk the Great Wall of China, her mother hoping to take a picture from the snack bar of him doing just that. On their return, they had given her a small statue of the three wise monkeys that they had picked up at a souvenir stand in Beijing. Her mother had said it would bring good luck to her home.
It was carved from green jade.
It had sat on the end table in her living room when she lived in Bayside, back when she was a law student, back when she was twenty-four and pretty, with lots of friends and a cute boyfriend, back when her biggest fear was taking the New York State Bar Exam. Once upon a lifetime ago, before William Bantling had forever changed the course of her future.
He had known everything about her, from her favorite TV show to her favorite restaurant. He knew where her parents lived, when they had called, when they were visiting, the nickname of Beany that her father had given her as a child because of her sweet tooth for jelly beans. He knew all about Michael, her lousy ex-boyfriend, from where they had vacationed in Mexico to what position they had made love in the night before. And he had been there, in her apartment, not just on that night, but, she had realized afterward, many times before – reading her mail, thumbing through her books and photo albums, fingering her clothes, maybe eating out of her refrigerator, drinking from her milk carton. He had hunted her, stalked her, and then he had whispered her secrets back into her ear, his voice a throaty sing-song, letting her know that he was the one in complete control. And from that there would prove to be no escape, not even in her dreams.
Everything about that night, about that apartment, she had thrown away, from the toothbrushes to the furniture. Anything that he might have touched or tasted or played with or studied she never wanted to see again – ever. And she had not looked back, struggling instead for years to forget the past and grasp hold of a future.
Bantling had sent her a message from behind iron bars and barbed, electrified fences, locked away and waiting for his final phone call on death row. He had been in her apartment. He had seen the jade monkeys, she was sure of it. No one else would have known of them, or their significance to her. Unless…
Unless he had told someone.
Her heart was pounding as she pulled her hands through her hair, pulling back the thoughts that threatened to again derail her sanity. The prosecutor screamed questions inside her head, trying hard to slap her awake, before she slipped again. Wait, wait… If it is Bantling who sent this, and he knows about the lies each officer uttered to put him on death row, why would he kill the very people who could possibly one day free him? Who could help prove he was not Cupid? Why would he eliminate witnesses?
Because he is sick and deranged! She answered herself back in her head, screaming just as loudly at the prosecutor. Because he’d love nothing more than to let me know that he’s watching and he knows what I’ve done and that he’s still in control, and that I’m not safe. I’m next. He is picking them off right in front of me so that I’ll go insane first…
No, no, no, she shook her head, muttering the words aloud now. Her thoughts raced back and forth.
Unless he had told someone…
Wait, wait, wait. Let’s analyze this, C.J. Just like any other case. What if the opposite were true? What if someone else didn’t want him to ever get out of jail? What if someone didn’t want him to prove he was not Cupid?
But who would want that? Who, besides her, would want to make sure Bantling never got off death row? That he died for crimes he did not commit?
And the answer to that frightened her even more than the question itself.
The very person who had committed them.
‘Something has happened and I have to go away for a while.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me, right? C.J. what is this, some sort of joke?’ Dominick stood in her living room, staring at the suitcase on the living-room floor.
She moved around the room as if she did not want to stop, clearing off her coffee table and tidying up. ‘It’s no joke, Dominick. And I’m sorry. God, am I sorry. I don’t want to do this, but I have to go. I have to.’
‘What the hell happened, C.J.?’ he said, grabbing her arm as she passed him, to stop her from moving away from him. ‘What the hell has been going on?’
She did not pull away, but she would not look at him. Her voice was all but a whisper. ‘Things aren’t the same.’
‘What are you saying? Between us? I know we’ve both been busy – I’ve been tied up these past few weeks, but,’ he paused for a moment, his voice choked with either anger or sadness. Maybe both. She couldn’t quite tell. ‘Where the hell is this coming from?’
She still couldn’t look at him. She just shook her head and sucked in a sniffle. ‘It’s just a leave of absence. A couple of weeks, a month, maybe. I don’t know. I just know I need to get away from Miami, from work for a while. I’m burnt.’
He let her answer hang in the air. His hand still grasped her arm by the elbow, but his grip had slackened. She felt him study her now, his mind gather up the thoughts in his brain and then line them up, posturing them into stinging questions, as he would for an interview with a subject. And then he said it.
‘Why did you lie to me about Sonny Lindeman?’
‘You heard me. Why did you lie to me and tell me you didn’t know Sonny Lindeman? He was one of your Cupid witnesses on the original A-form.’
‘Dominick, I don’t remember—’
‘Bullshit. You have a mind like a steel trap. I knew from the look on your face that night that you knew him. And you knew Chavez and you knew that last guy, Ribero. I remember you talking to him at Lindeman’s funeral. You have been freaked out since Chavez popped up missing his tongue and don’t think I’m the only one who has noticed. Your boss might be an idiot, but even he knows this is not you. This is not C. J. Townsend, the prosecutor with balls bigger than mine who has witnessed more shit in her career and in her life than the very fucking veteran homicide detectives she’s been assigned to help out. She doesn’t walk away from an investigation, she doesn’t refuse to come to scenes or discuss cases. So what gives, C.J.? Now you’re walking out on us and I want to k
‘I wish I could, Dominick. I do. But there’s nothing now that you can do. Or me, either.’
She sat silent for a moment longer, just listening to the controlled sound of his breathing, staring at the gold badge with the state of Florida on it that was clipped to his belt. ‘I got a package yesterday. Something in the mail.’
‘Where is it? Where is it?’
‘It was a statue. A small statue. I dropped it and it shattered, but it wouldn’t make a difference. The box was plain, no return address. I’m sure it was clean.’ She paused, carefully considering her next choice of words. ‘It was a message, a personal message, intended for me.’
‘What was the statue?’
‘The three monkeys. You’ve probably seen them somewhere before. Hear no evil, see no evil—’
‘Speak no evil,’ his voice drifted off and he paused in thought. She could see the light flick on, making the connection. ‘Black Jacket. Jesus Christ! The eyes, the ears – maybe that was meant for the task force, C.J. Maybe that statue was meant for us!’ he said excitedly. This could be the break they needed, an attempt at communication by the killer. ‘You were at the last scene, you were the one initially assigned, your name was in all the papers. Maybe whoever sent it thinks you’re still with the task force and they’re sending us a message through you. Was there anything else with it? A note? Where are the pieces?’
‘No, there was nothing and it’s gone. Dominick, look, it was not some oversight by a gang-banger who has attention deficit and can’t read the paper to know I’m not handling it anymore. Listen to me. I used to have the same statue, carved in green jade, in my apartment in New York. I got rid of it, I got rid of everything after the rape. But he, he was there, and he saw it…’ Her voice caught and she stopped. Tears began to stream down her face. ‘I’m not being paranoid. I’m not.’
Last Witness by Jilliane Hoffman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes