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Cutting room the, p.14
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.14

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  She took a deep breath and started down the walk. Her Explorer was parked in a lot a couple of blocks over. She’d get in, pick up Luna, her Akita, from doggy daycare, go home, call it a day. Take Luna for a long walk, maybe. Draw a bath. Make some exotic dinner for herself from a complicated recipe meant to feed a family of four.

  She was so jumpy lately. So on edge. Always glancing over her shoulder, always preparing herself to meet someone sinister when she turned a corner. And the condition was worsening. It was both mentally and physically exhausting, always being on — like living in a video game. The Prosecutor’s Redemption: a twisted labyrinth of dark alleys, basements, abandoned warehouses, vacant buildings, crack houses, sleazy massage parlors, rodent-infested crawl spaces. Every new level led her into a crime scene she’d once worked, where the bad guys and madmen lurked among the bodies of their victims, waiting for her return with their weapon of choice. It was a side-effect of the job, she reasoned, her escalating anxiety. Now the most dangerous defendant on her docket was, for some unfathomable reason, out on bond without so much as a bracelet to track where he was going. As far as her brain was concerned, that could very well be to her house. And she always had to be ready. She always had to be on when the doors opened on to the next level of the game.

  Christina had made a lot of enemies over the years. Nasty enemies, like mass murderers and rapists and psychopaths. It was the frightening reality that came with a career prosecuting criminals. She’d reconciled herself to that truth some seventeen years ago, when she was first sworn in as a prosecutor in Miami. But what she didn’t appreciate at the time was that the longer you lasted at the job, the more enemies you created, and the more dangerous those enemies became. It was one thing to be hated by a shoplifter who was pissed you’d sent him to the county jail for ten days; it was another to be loathed by a man convicted of attempted murder, who’d viciously beaten his wife into a coma and blamed the break-up of his family on the prosecutor who had asked for, and received, a twenty-year sentence. Focused on putting the bad guys behind bars, she hadn’t thought much about what life would be like when the men who hated her re-entered society when their sentences were up. Free to do what they want, go where they wanted. Twenty years had seemed like a life sentence when she was twenty-eight. Not so much anymore. It wasn’t a good feeling, knowing that there were a lot more people in this world that didn’t want her in it than did. What was even more disturbing was that, over the course of a long and distinguished career, she had prosecuted hundreds of men and women, whose names she could barely recall and whose faces she would not recognize, but who surely remembered who she was and what she looked like. And who couldn’t wait to meet her again when those prison doors opened.

  ‘Goodnight, Christina,’ Joe called after her as she headed down the walk, because that’s what people called her here. It was going on a year and she still wasn’t used to the name. She wondered if she ever would be. Or would she move on once again? Pick another moniker out of a hat, another place to call home when the pressure she was constantly living under threatened to break her once again? How many names would she collect before the ghosts of her very fucked-up past finally caught up with her and put her into an early grave? Would they all fit on her headstone? Or would she be forever remembered only by the last name that she’d used? Of course, by that point, no one was going to remember her, anyway. She would just be a name, not a person that anyone really knew.

  It was ironic that she had an alias. Aliases, actually. As a prosecutor, you were programmed to think that anyone who had an a.k.a. — an ‘also known as’ in cop lingo — was up to no good. An alias was reserved for those who had something to hide. Or perhaps somebody to hide from. She waved at Joe and turned the corner on to Figueroa Street.

  She definitely met the definition.

  In most big cities, the criminal courthouse was located in a sketchy part of town, where every other storefront housed either a criminal defense attorney or a bail bondsman advertising twenty-four-hour assistance for all your legal needs in blinding neon lights. The county jail was next door, in order to hold and transport prisoners for hearings. The area would be seedy enough during the day, but when the sun went down and the judges and attorneys all went home and the supporting restaurants, print shops and process servers closed up, the neighborhood would become a deserted zombieland — with druggies and criminals lurking in dark corners, looking for a bondsman, or dope, or for their loved one to get sprung from jail.

  But Santa Barbara was not a big city. In this beautiful metropolis by the sea, beloved by Oprah and other A-listers, and only ninety minutes north of LA, the historic courthouse was part of the town: movie screenings and get-togethers and dances happened regularly in the green-lawned part of the courtyard known as the Sunken Garden. Located a few blocks off State Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, in a quiet, residential neighborhood, the courthouse was removed from the hustle and bustle of the city’s nightlife. When Christina had lived in Miami, she would never have thought of casually strolling the streets around the Dade County Jail at twelve in the afternoon, much less after dark. Things were different here. Which was why she was here.

  It was by accident that Christina had picked Santa Barbara for the fresh start she’d convinced herself she needed. Not so much an accident, really, as an ill-thought-out, spur-of-the-moment decision. Poor impulse control is a manifestation of PTSD her therapist would have told her, back in the days when she was in therapy. The overwhelming compulsion to run away from a moment because of fear often induces poor decision-making. The ghosts from that very fucked-up past that had induced her post-traumatic stress disorder and subsequent poor decision-making had had her on the run for the past two decades, chasing her from New York to Miami to Chicago and now all the way to Santa Barbara. The latest marathon had gone like this: the California social worker who’d helped place Christina’s Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother in a nursing home had called to say a bed was ready and could she come and help settle Nana’s affairs? She was it as far as next of kin went — everyone else, including Christina’s parents, was dead. So she’d said yes, hung up the phone, packed the car, taken the dog, locked the door and headed west on I290 out of Chicago. She’d told no one, including her husband, who was coincidentally out of town on business without her for the very first time in their marriage. A few days turned into weeks, turned into months, and by then … it was impossible to go back. The damage was irreparable. He was still not over it. Neither was she.

  In her defense, feeble as it was, when she’d left, her head was like a malfunctioning pressure cooker set on high. The nightmares that had tormented her for years — another manifestation of those nasty PTSD ghosts — were still causing her to wake in the middle of the night, dripping with sweat and screaming. It wasn’t fair to blame Dominick for any of it, but every time she looked at her husband after one of the night terrors, every time he held her and soothed her and said everything was going to be okay, she knew he was thinking about all the terrible things that had been done to her to make her scream so loud. She knew when they made love and Dominick looked at her in the sliver of light that snuck in from a crack in the blinds, he was seeing … him — the man who had repeatedly raped her, tortured her and then left her to die in a pool of her own blood so many years ago. The man whose name neither of them ever mentioned. The man who had changed both their lives forever — entwining them in the web of a dark and deadly secret. Christina couldn’t escape her past, but neither could Dominick. Maybe that was one reason she’d made such a bad decision.

  The air was cool. She could smell the comforting aroma of sautéed garlic and grilled meat coming from the kitchens of all the al fresco restaurants that lined State Street, a couple of blocks over. Italian food, that’s what she’d cook tonight. Maybe some pasta and sautéed shrimp. Pull a recipe from a Batali cookbook. She’d make a little extra for Luna because spaghetti was her favorite.

  The garage on Canon Perdido was open until mi
dnight, but after six no one parked there and the place was deserted. It was mainly used from 8–5, for the downtown businesses and law firms, who all shut down when the courthouse closed. Normally she parked at a garage closer to her office, but court had started up late today and by the time she got in that lot was full. And the only spots available at the Lobero Garage on Canon Perdido were on the roof. The hairs on the back of her neck rose as, key in hand, lodged in her fingers like a weapon, she pushed the button for the elevator.

  For years after the rape she couldn’t venture outside. Couldn’t walk down a street, eat at a restaurant, go to the gym. Couldn’t do anything normal people did. Locked away like a prisoner inside her New York apartment with her blinds drawn and a gun in her lap, the lights on the alarm in her apartment always flashing red. The system was always armed — whether she was locked in or locked out. She’d had to fight her way free of that prison with intense therapy. Day in, day out, the doctors worked to get a.k.a. Christina back to normal, to the fun-loving, uninhibited, trusting girl she used to be. Unfortunately, they’d never quite succeeded.

  She breathed a mini sigh of relief when the elevator doors opened to reveal it was empty. She got in and quickly hit the button for the roof, holding her breath until the doors closed and she was alone once more. She could have asked old Joe to walk with her, but that would have seemed silly to him. Nothing bad happened in Santa Barbara. This wasn’t LA, or New York, or Miami. Then he might have started asking questions, and she might have been forced to tell him lies. It was best to keep relationships to a minimum, that way no one got hurt. She shifted her satchel on her shoulder. Besides the key locked in her fingers like a shank, in her left jacket pocket was a can of mace. Just in case.

  She’d left prosecuting behind when she’d left Miami behind, but when the opportunity arose in Santa Barbara, like a junkie fresh out of rehab, she’d returned to the courtroom for her daily fix of adrenaline, knowing that it might kill her. The human monsters that frightened the hell out of her, that repulsed her, that she knew full well wanted to kill her, when and if they ever got the opportunity, were drawing her back in. She was compelled to do what she did. Ironically enough, being a prosecutor helped her sleep. Most nights, anyway.

  The doors opened on the fourth floor. It was well past six and most of the cars were gone. In fact, there were only three left. Christina looked around blankly. None of the cars was an Explorer. She stood there for a long moment, one hand in her left pocket, fingering the cold aluminum can of pepper spray, her brain trying to make excuses.

  Maybe I parked on a different level. Maybe it was towed. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

  Then it hit her, as it inevitably does all victims: her car was gone. She started to shake.

  C.J. Townsend had just entered the next level of the game.

  21

  ‘Okay, okay. Andiamo! Blow out the candles already, Frank,’ Lena DeBianchi, Daria’s mother, impatiently pressed her husband the moment everyone in the DeBianchi clan had sung the final off-key note of ‘Happy Birthday’. ‘The candles! Jesus, Mary and Joseph — they’re melting all over the cake! And the cake is melting all over the table … An ice-cream cake. Whose idea was that?’ she asked with a short, forced laugh. ‘Don’t tell me. I know who has all the crazy ideas …’

  Daria’s dad, a crooked smile planted on his face, thought for a long moment then motioned with his hand for Daria to come closer.

  Daria knelt beside his wheelchair. ‘Want some help, Daddy? You make a wish yet?’

  Her dad nodded and squeezed her hand.

  ‘Come on, boys, let’s help Nonno blow out the candles,’ Daria said to the triplets, who’d stopped running around the house like rabid squirrels for ten seconds only because there was birthday cake to be eaten. ‘Then we can all have some. Everybody get close to Nonno.’ She could feel her mother begin to squirm uncomfortably across the table. ‘Stand up, boys, so you can get a better look.’

  ‘On my chairs? Really?’ Lena said with another nervous laugh.

  ‘They’re covered in plastic, Ma. The boys can’t hurt ’em. Sonny, stand next to me,’ she said, grabbing a triplet who was lunging, open-fisted, at the cake. ‘Michael, Fredo, wait for us. Okay, on the count of three …’

  With one enormous show of force and the magic of triplet spit, everyone helped Nonno blow out the assorted mess of candles that Daria and her brother Marco had found in the kitchen junk drawer and piled on his Carvel cake, including the fat, red taper dinner candle from Christmas that Daria had stuck right in the center. There weren’t sixty-six candles, but it was still an impressive enough display of firepower to worry about the smoke detector when they blew out. Of course, that worry was short-lived. Before everyone had managed to inhale again, Lena had whisked the cake away into the kitchen, all the while muttering both Italian and English expletives under her breath.

  ‘Good job, Daddy,’ Daria said as she gave him a kiss on his head. ‘I know what you wished for. Me, too.’

  ‘Thank you,’ he whispered.

  ‘Let’s fatten you up, now. Nothing like Carvel to put meat on the bones.’

  ‘Coffee.’

  ‘Let me get you a cup.’

  ‘Hey, D,’ Marco said to Daria as she started for the kitchen. ‘Any chance you can watch the boys Tuesday, at, like, six thirty? Our sitter’s busy and CeCe has to work late and I’m meeting the Dean over at Nova for coffee.’ Nova was Nova Southeastern University in Davie. ‘It won’t be for long, I promise.’

  ‘The Dean of Nova? Why?’ she asked.

  ‘I’m trying to get an adjunct position. It’s only a night class. It’s like my final interview — coffee with the Dean. I think that means I probably got the job.’

  ‘That’s great, Marc, but I can’t. Maybe Anthony can do it,’ Daria said looking across the room at her other brother. ‘I have plans. I don’t think I’ll be back in town till real late.’

  Marco laughed. ‘I wouldn’t trust Anthony to watch the ferret, much less the boys.’

  ‘That’s okay,’ answered Anthony. ‘I decline the nomination. Watching the Corleone boys on their sugar rush right now is enough for me. And I’ll only watch the rat if I can bring Ralphie. He hasn’t eaten in two weeks. That’d be all natural entertainment for the kiddies, so even Granola would approve,’ he finished, nodding at Marco’s wife, CeCe. The family Bohemian.

  ‘Ferrets are in the weasel family,’ corrected CeCe, sharply, as she struggled to put a sneaker back on one of the boys she’d intercepted on a run around the table. ‘Sit still, Sonny. And your boa constrictor is not welcome around the children. What guy your age has a seven-foot long snake for a pet? Compensating, Anthony?’

  ‘Wait a minute,’ Marco said. ‘Back to Daria. Was that “back in town” I heard? Does that mean you’re going out of town? And Monday’s the Fourth, so you’re going out of town for a long weekend? Ooh …’

  Anthony sat up and slapped his thigh. ‘She’s red. It’s a guy! Going out of town for the weekend with a guy!’ He folded his hands in prayer. ‘Thank God, Daria, ’cause we were all wondering. Not me, personally, but Granola sure was. She’s dying to know if birthing rabbits runs in the family.’

  ‘You’re so damn funny, Anthony,’ CeCe answered testily as Sonny wriggled free and ran off, sans his Nike. She turned to Daria, red-faced. ‘I never thought you were a lesbian.’

  Daria rolled her eyes. ‘What the hell, Anthony? Who said anything about a weekend? And it’s like a thousand-freaking-degrees in here. I’m not embarrassed — I’m hot.’ Their mom rarely used the air conditioner, and when she did, she set it on eighty. Lena believed in screens and breezes, which was all she’d had growing up in Brooklyn sixty years ago. If their roof wasn’t barrel tiled and sloped, and there wasn’t the worry their dad would roll off it, Lena would probably have held the party up there, handing out wet towels if the heat became too much. ‘Notice how I’m completely ignoring the lesbian comment, Anthony?’

  ‘Hot date then?’ teased Marc
o.

  ‘Finally.’ Her mother was back from the kitchen, jelly jars in hand and two stuffed under each armpit. ‘Finally,’ she repeated with a smug smile as she set out the jars on the table and poured a shot of limoncello in each one. ‘It’s been a long time, right? Right? How long since you even had a boyfriend? You’re gonna be thirty. I was already married with not one but three babies when I was thirty.’

  Anthony laughed.

  Daria’s jaw set. Just one of the many reasons she loathed family celebrations and dinners.

  ‘I’m only saying that you’re not so young,’ her mother added with a disappointed shrug. ‘It’s time you took life seriously. Got a real job, started a family.’

  ‘You’re kidding, right?’ Daria glared at her brother. ‘Great, Anthony. See what you started? Why don’t you pick on Anthony, Ma? He’s thirty-six and not married.’

  ‘He’s a man. There’s a difference,’ answered Lena quietly.

  Daria pushed the drink away. ‘No, he’s Anthony. That’s the difference.’

  ‘No one has a hot date on a Tuesday night, Marco,’ CeCe interjected, trying to calm the seas. ‘That would be defined as cold. Tepid at best. Excuse him, everyone. It’s been a while since he’s taken his wife on a date, much less a hot date.’

  ‘What the hell was that floating vacation I just took you on?’ Marco remarked as another one of his kids ran by screaming, this time with a butter knife in his hands.

  ‘You slept the whole time,’ CeCe returned. ‘Every day. Then you gambled. Nothing hot about it.’

  ‘I was exhausted. I am exhausted. And forgive me, but every day of the week is the same to me now: Monday, Tuesday, Friday. It’s all one big blur. Who knows? Give me that, Fredo,’ he said, exasperated, as he plucked the knife from his son’s little fingers. ‘Don’t run with the goddamned, freaking knives!’ he yelled.

 
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