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Last witness, p.14
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       Last Witness, p.14

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
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‘Because of that you think it’s from him? You think it’s from Bantling?’ She had never admitted to him that it was Bantling who had raped her. She had never admitted it to anyone. In fact, she had denied it was Bantling when Judge Chaskel asked her point blank after Bantling’s murder conviction. And Dominick had never pushed her for any other answer. Never.

  ‘C.J.,’ he continued, his voice soft, but firm, as though there was no room for argument. ‘I know it was Bantling who raped you.’ There. It was out. ‘I know it was him, honey. And so if he was the one who was in your apartment and he was the one who saw that statue, why would he send it back to you now? Wait, let’s not even get that far. How could he send the monkeys to you? He’s on death row.’ Before he even asked it, though, Dominick already knew the answer to his own last question. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And where there’s money – which Bantling once had plenty of – there was a long line of people on the inside and the outside who would do a favor.

  ‘Things just are so complicated, Dominick. I never wanted them to be, but they are. I thought I was,’ she caught herself before she finished the sentence. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. I thought I was saving society from a killer, but somewhere along the way, the lines got blurred. Now I may be responsible for the deaths of three cops. I may have taken a daddy from his kids.

  ‘What would Bantling have to do, though, with the Black Jacket murders, C.J.?’ She could see him thinking, sorting through information that was always in his possession, looking for the link, that in his mind, his trained eyes should not have missed. ‘Is that why you’re running? Those cops all worked Bantling’s case, all of them. We know that even Angelillo followed up Cupid leads. Bantling’s now sending you messages. Why? What happened with those cops?’

  He took a breath, remembering now how his foot had crunched over pieces of taillight on the McArthur the night Cupid was pulled over. A taillight that Victor Chavez later said was broken out miles before he pulled over Bantling’s Jag. It wouldn’t have been beyond that moron Chavez to flub a fact or two, make the facts fit the crime… but, C.J.? She said nothing, and he knew from her lack of response that he was unfortunately headed in the right direction. Then he quietly asked his final question. ‘Did you fix it? Was it fixed?’

  She was not going to drag him into this. She would not make him an accessory to her crime. She shook her head. ‘No.’

  ‘Then tell me what it is. It won’t change things.’

  ‘Yes. Yes, it will.’

  ‘Goddamn it, C.J.! I love you. You know that.’

  ‘But it will change how you love me, Dominick. It will change how you love me. And I can’t take that, seeing that look in your eyes, knowing something is different even though you tell me it’s not. I would rather end this now – knowing that you love me – than stay, wondering if you don’t.’

  ‘That’s a cop-out. A fucking cop-out and you know it. Let me be the judge of my own feelings!’

  She said nothing, just looked down at the floor.

  ‘So this is it? The wedding, it’s off? Everything is—’

  ‘Postponed.’ She pulled her hand through her hair, still looking at the floor. ‘I don’t know, Dominick. I’ve got to figure this out and I can’t make you a part of it. You can’t help me now.’

  He backed up, away from her, simply nodding his head, wondering how everything had changed so fast and why he hadn’t seen it coming. Or why he hadn’t wanted to. He turned and opened the front door.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, crying.

  He closed the door behind him without looking at her again. He headed toward the elevator feeling sad, angry, bewildered, fooled, betrayed. A dozen emotions he hadn’t expected when he pulled his car into the parking lot downstairs. While one part of him wanted to find a bar and lose consciousness with a bottle of J&B, the cop in him wanted to find answers. Answers to questions he should have been asking all along.

  The answer was always out there. You just had to know where to look.

  He opened the car door and slid in, looking up at her bedroom window twelve stories above, where she finished preparing to leave. The answers he should have known months – even years – before started coming to him now. He hung his head against the steering wheel before mumbling his one final question aloud.

  ‘Jesus, C.J. What have you done?’

  39

  William Rupert Bantling, Florida State Prison inmate number 578884526, lay on the thin, plastic mattress and stared up at the bubbles in the ceiling. A while back, some genius in jail administration, who had nothing better to do with the state’s money, had thought that painting the prison’s cement ceilings, floors and walls a pasty, industrial gray would be a brilliant idea. Maybe cheer up the forty-four death row inmates who sat alone in their six-by-eight cells twenty-two hours out of each goddamn day practicing their goodbyes. Maybe it would help calm them back down after their lawyer called to tell them not to make any plans after 6:01 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. Now the humidity that made life unbearable had swelled pockets in the paint, the genius had either been promoted or fired, and flecks of gray paint rained down on Bill Bantling every fucking night.

  Normally he hated this time in his already unending, incessantly boring day. The time spent staring up at the peeling ceiling, just waiting for the dumpy guard with a control issue to flick the lights before time, while guys were still reading or brushing their teeth or shitting, and then yell ‘Lights out!’ with a wheezy chuckle before moving on to his next Hershey Bar. Any idiot should know that it’s coming, and to put down the toothbrush and get off the pot fifteen minutes before time, but these were not just any idiots. These were the best of the lot. The shouts of the pissed-off animals that surrounded him would start and then go on for another twenty minutes or so. But tonight, none of this would bother him. Tonight, let it rain, because nothing could take away the smile that consumed Bill Bantling’s handsome face.

  He closed his eyes and saw her, her once extraordinary face, hovering over his. Her long honey-blonde hair with the delicate curls at the ends, draped past sculpted cheekbones and over tanned naked shoulders. Red luscious lips that never lost their pout, even after all these years. He had conquered her once, and she had submitted – those pretty eyes no longer defiant, but terrified – weeping salty tears that ran down her perfect cheeks onto the silk panties that he had stuffed in that very luscious, red mouth.

  He had had her again. Running, defeated, terrified. In that courtroom 992 days ago, he had seen that look in those eyes again. First defiance, when she thought she could win, that she could play this game with him, because she was a prosecutor and sat in the powerhouse seat and could whisper in the judge’s ear while he was chained to the fucking table in a red jumpsuit. Then fear, when she finally realized that it took more than a title to fuck with him. And that she couldn’t run from him in her nightmares. Because that’s where he was, every night. She still went to bed with him. And by the end of that farce the press called a trial three years ago, he had known that she was his once again. Those weepy eyes had come to court, crinkled with age lines and sunken in dark circles, and they couldn’t look at him. That moment he knew he had won.

  And he would again. Now he knew that and it made him smile. He clutched the letter in his hand, the one that told him he was back in her nightmares once more.

  It’s not over, oh no. In fact, the fun’s just beginning, he thought to himself. He smiled again just as the guard shouted, ‘Time!’ and those perfect eyelashes fluttered above him, raining down flecks of gray paint that felt like tears.

  40

  As the plane touched down, C.J. looked out the window at the pasty, gray sky and wondered if it was going to snow. That would be bad. It had been years since she had driven in snow, let alone the kind on twisty mountain roads.

  She boarded the Alamo Rent-a-Car bus with a dozen other people, all of whom carried large duffle bags and ski-totes. Just like on the plane, it looked like everyone was
heading to the powder. A young family, a group of friends, a loopy-eyed couple. Pictures of excitement and happiness and good times to come, ripped right out of some Vail brochure or a Condé Nast Traveler article. Everyone except C.J. She carried no skis, no heavy parkas, just a simple bag with a sweater, a pair of jeans and a tube of toothpaste – enough for one night.

  She had practiced what she would say a thousand times before even booking her ticket. Then another thousand times on the five-hour plane ride. And she would use every minute of the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Breckenridge, an old, small ski town, to rehearse a thousand more. But it still did not sound right, what she needed to say. It probably never would.

  She had not spoken to Lourdes Rubio in the three years since the Bantling trial. Their parting after his sentencing was civilized, but cold, and shortly thereafter Lourdes had closed down her criminal law practice in Miami, picked up and left town without any goodbyes. Previously, Lourdes and C.J. had worked together on other homicides, and she had always found Lourdes to be straightforward and ethical. Her opinion, of course, had since changed.

  There were times in the years since that C.J. had thought about Lourdes, wondering what had happened to her, where she might have headed, if she were still practicing, but that was where her curiosity ended. Because she knew there would be no warm and fuzzy reunions or ‘let’s catch up’ chats between them. Ever. And Lourdes knew it, too. She had said as much the last time they had spoken in that courtroom. Right after her client was dragged out by three corrections officers, kicking and screaming under a gag and shipped off to face the needle on Florida’s death row in Raiford.

  She sipped at her coffee, probably her tenth of the day, and turned the Blazer out of the Alamo lot, headed for 170.

  It’s coming back. Whatever the reason, get those files out of storage, because it’s coming back.

  Only this time, C.J. knew the reason.

  There was one more person who knew why Victor Chavez had pulled over Bantling’s Jaguar on the McArthur that night. And she was still alive, practicing personal injury law in a small town where most people were ski bums, and it was all too easy to get lost and forgotten in the seasonal transience of the population.

  C J. had never forgotten their last conversation in that quiet, deserted courtroom, after the press had left and the judge had gone back to his chambers and the jurors had all gone home. When it was just the two of them, separated by more than just the physical distance of the empty gallery. She had never forgotten what had been said, just closed the lid tight on the memory and shoved it into storage in the warehouse in her head, hoping never to have to open it again.

  C.J. flicked the wipers on full speed to keep up with the heavy, wet flakes that assaulted her windshield, and turned on her headlights. After many phone calls and an exhaustive public records search, she had finally found Lourdes, a woman who obviously did not want to be found, living in the mountains two thousand miles away from the familiar fronds of a palm tree and practicing the type of law she had once claimed to detest. C.J. had finally conjured up the balls to make the phone call and tell Lourdes that they needed to meet, and that’s when it had gotten strange. Strange because Lourdes did not seem particularly surprised or shocked to hear C.J.’s voice on the other end of her phone, and she certainly did not miss a beat when C.J. suggested they meet to discuss something. She asked no further questions, just gave her a date and directions from the Denver International Airport.

  The entire call lasted less than two minutes, and after C.J. had hung up, she couldn’t help but think that it was odd, Lourdes’ reaction to her phone call. Or lack thereof.

  It was as if she had known C.J. would be calling.

  41

  A light jingle, like that in a candy or dress shop, chimed when C.J. opened the wood door with the small peek-a-boo window. Outside the two-story building, in simple gold letters above the door was the name L. RUBIO, ESQ. It was so unobtrusive, C.J. had almost missed it, and she wondered if Lourdes really wanted to run a law practice up here after all.

  She stepped into the modest office, furnished in Southwest colors of turquoise and indigo and copper, and looked around. A large, hand-knit Indian throw rug was mounted on the wall above a plain oak desk, and a simple bookcase filled with Colorado Revised Statutes and personal injury treatises lined the far wall. Lourdes’ law degree from the University of Miami hung alongside the throw rug, next to her State of Colorado law license, but there was nothing else commemorating her many years as a criminal defense lawyer down in Miami, not even an acknowledgment that she was admitted to practice in Florida. No plaques or awards from any of the associations that C.J. knew Lourdes had been recognized by. No framed newspaper articles or pictures with Jeb Bush or other political cronies she had won over with her brains and tight connections. There was nothing. Nothing besides a carved wooden moose that stood with a smile next to a few family pictures.

  Lourdes stood, quietly watching C.J. look around her office, a cup of coffee in hand.

  ‘Hello, C.J.,’ she finally said, and it made C.J. jump, as if she had been caught doing something she shouldn’t have. She turned from the pictures and faced Lourdes for the first time in three years. Lourdes did not move toward her, but stood still in the doorway that led to a back room, just watching her. She blended right into the walls in her cream oversized sweater, which she wore over blue jeans and boots. A big change from tailored suits, three-inch heels and $30 per square foot rental space in posh Coral Gables.

  ‘Hello, Lourdes,’ C.J. replied slowly. ‘Nice office.’ Small talk would be a waste. ‘I think you might know why it is I needed to talk to you,’ she began.

  ‘Bill Bantling, I figured. Have a seat, C.J.,’ she said, moving quickly from the doorway and behind her desk, her hand ushering C.J. to one of the two chairs in front.

  C.J. nodded deliberately. The irony was not lost on her, as she took her seat in the client’s chair, before what once was one of the most powerful criminal defense attorneys in Miami.

  ‘What else but him? Let’s face it, C.J., there’s not a lot else that’s left between us to talk about.’ Her tone was edgy and harsh, as if she had been thinking of what she was going to say for years, and each time she had rehearsed it aloud to no one but the mirror, she had gotten even angrier. So now even her hello sounded like a hiss.

  ‘Something has happened,’ C.J. said slowly.

  ‘Is Bill dead yet?’ Lourdes asked, the sarcasm dripping from her voice.

  ‘Obviously, you and I have unresolved issues.’

  ‘There’s a line C.J.,’ said Lourdes. ‘And you crossed it.’

  ‘Who draws that line, Lourdes? Who?’ C.J. could feel the anger in her swell as well. ‘We all did our job. Every one of us. The police, the State. He got a great defense.’

  ‘Bullshit. He never had a chance. I dropped the ball. I screwed up. And I live with that thought every single day of my life.’

  ‘The system worked its magic. The guilty paid for their crimes.’

  ‘He paid for someone else’s, though.’

  ‘As if his weren’t bad enough to warrant the punishment? You sit here, Lourdes, full of remorse for your perceived role in this? For who? For a man who viciously raped fourteen women around the world, probably more? Not just raped – but tortured and maimed and almost killed them? A man who would do the same to his own attorney if he got the chance? Save your guilt for someone who deserves it.’

  ‘He got the death penalty, C.J. He’s going to die. A human being is going to die for something he did not do. Doesn’t that have any effect on you?’

  C.J. paused for a moment, then said quietly, ‘I did my job, Lourdes. He would’ve raped others by now. Three, four, maybe more, if he had gotten off. Maybe he would have killed them. I did my job, and I made a choice. The lesser, I believe, of two evils. You ask if it affects me?’ C.J. leaned forward in her chair, her hands on the edge of Lourdes’ desk, her stare locking onto Lourdes’, forcing her, for a long momen
t, to see the damage with her own two eyes, the scars that words never adequately explained. ‘Think about it. How could it not affect me?’

  ‘You’re justifying,’ said Lourdes, coldly.

  ‘And you’re denying,’ said C.J. as she sat back in her chair. ‘Four cops are dead, Lourdes. Four cops, in case you didn’t read it in the papers while up here saving society from the likes of people like me, one slip and fall at a time. Now I want to know – do you still talk to him? What did he tell you? What did he tell you about me?’

  That was it. She knew that the anger in her voice had been replaced ever so slightly with desperation, and she knew Lourdes had heard it also.

  ‘Hold on,’ Lourdes said, her hand raised in front of her. ‘Just wait. If this is about the cop killings in Miami, yes, I have heard about them. But now you want to come into my office and insult me, and then beg me to divulge privileged attorney–client information? Just so that you can assuage your own fears and guilty conscience? You can forget about it.’

  ‘I’m not trying to allay my fears, nor am I asking for penance. But I need to know what this is about. I need to know if these killings are somehow related, Lourdes. People are dying.’

  ‘And that matters to you suddenly?’

  ‘Innocent people.’

  ‘Not from what I’ve read. Seems all those good cops whose characters couldn’t be impugned on the stand were all good-for-nothing dopers. That’s what I’ve been reading. They were working for the cartels, those saints.’

  ‘A task force is still working that angle,’ C.J. paused. There was no sense in bluffing. It was time to show her cards and see what Lourdes was holding. ‘You knew about the tip.’

  No one had ever claimed ownership to the phone call that had set all the dominos in motion more than three years ago on the McArthur. Rather than search for an identity, C.J. had buried the 911 tape’s existence, initially rationalizing the call could have originated in anything from road rage to misidentification. Later, after Bantling had been convicted, after the truth had almost killed her, she had assumed that the caller was dead. Now she wasn’t so sure.

 
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