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Plea of insanity, p.15
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       Plea of Insanity, p.15

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  She almost laughed and shook her head. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Detectives, but my sister, even though she was pretty, was always insecure. So when she met David, he became like an obsession for her. He was the guy she got but couldn’t ever believe she really did. My parents, my sister, they never saw that. Only I did.’

  ‘So the first pregnancy?’

  Janna shrugged. ‘She never ’fessed to planning an unplanned pregnancy. And she never would.’ She rose from the couch and looked nervously back at the foyer, lowering her voice again. ‘I’ve said enough. But you asked me if she was going to leave him? Let me just say this, Detectives. Jennifer was desperate-crazy about David. He could do anything to anyone and she would never leave. Never. He couldn’t get rid of her, even if he tried.’

  26

  ‘That is one fucked-up family,’ said Brill as they climbed in the rental car and headed to the airport. ‘I’m sure as hell happy my parents just beat my ass.’ He lit up a cigarette and rubbed his head.

  Lat looked at him and raised an eyebrow. ‘Yeah. Just imagine how you might have turned out.’ He started up the car. ‘You know, they are in mourning.’

  ‘They’re in denial, bro. Big-time.’

  ‘Of course they’re in denial. Right now they’re sifting through every memory they ever made with their daughter and grandkids and that man they called their son-in-law to see if any of them were real. They’ll relive every word of every conversation for the last seven years for the missing clue that would have tipped them off that he was a fucking cold-hearted psychopath. And then for the next seven, they’ll get to blame themselves and each other for not seeing the telltale signs of catastrophe that, by the end of this case, the prosecutors will have painted as obvious to everyone. So, yeah, right now they’re still in denial. ’Cause if they deny it, then it didn’t happen, got it? And then they’re not the ones at fault for letting it.’

  Brill stared at Lat in amazement. Then he exhaled a thick plume of gray smoke. ‘Oh shit. That’s deep.’

  ‘That’s the five stages of grief and an ex-wife who’s a psychologist.’ He fanned his hand in front of him. The Marlboro sure smelled good. ‘Blow that shit out the window, man. I’m off the death sticks six months now.’

  ‘Christ, you have had it rough. An ex-wife who’s a mind-fucker. I take back most of the things I was thinking about you, Nitchy.’

  ‘That’s Nietzsche, you idiot.’

  ‘ “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Watch who you call an idiot.’

  Now it was Lat’s turn to stare.

  ‘Why is she an ex?’ Brill asked.

  ‘Could you live with me?’

  Brill didn’t even blink. ‘Good point.’

  Lat blew out a long breath. ‘It just wasn’t in the cards. How about you? Exes? Wives? Kids?’

  ‘An ex-wife and an ex-kid.’

  ‘That sucks.’

  ‘Only the ex-kid part. Lisa, the ex-wife, poisoned her, so she hates me, too. But she still loves my money. Sure does love that. She’s past eighteen now. Not supposed to be my problem anymore, but I still pay the tuition bill at college and she still ignores me. I’m hoping when she moves out of Transylvania that she’ll see her blood-sucking mother is a fucking nut job. Maybe then she’ll give her old man a call.’ He threw his cigarette out the window. ‘Got any worldly advice for me, Nietzsche?’

  ‘Forget Nietzsche. You need Freud, man,’ Lat laughed. ‘What’s her name?’

  ‘Nicole – Nicky. I haven’t actually seen her in five years. But, damn, she was a cutie. That college girl reminded me of what she must look like now.’ He sighed. ‘Hey, this is a fuckin’ cheery-ass convo we’re having, boss-man. Say, have you written up your will yet?’

  ‘Well, at least we’ve got a motive now.’

  ‘Yeah. Trying to bang your pregnant wife’s younger sister would get the claws out on most women. And most lawyers. Maybe the denying relatives are wrong. Maybe she was gonna divorce his ass and he wasn’t having no part of splitting everything he’d earned.’

  Lat nodded. ‘Especially if he was roped into a marriage to begin with.’

  ‘Then there’s the insurance. What was the death benefit on that MetLife policy you found?’

  ‘Two million.’

  ‘There’s another two million reasons to make it hurt.’

  ‘The house was worth some ching, though. And he’s still got a one point two mortgage to pay off. It’s not such a crazy amount, given the guy’s a surgeon.’

  ‘I got a friend from grade school, became a surgeon up in Connecticut. I saw him at a reunion a couple of years back. Said there ain’t no money in it anymore. Not what people think there is. Wasted a hundred G’s on med school.’

  ‘Maybe your friend’s just a shitty surgeon.’ Lat paused for a moment. ‘Even if he was scraping for change and decided to collect early on his wife’s insurance policy, I still can’t figure out the kids.’

  Lat couldn’t understand a father actually killing his own children, even though he’d seen it before far too many times. A wife – maybe you’d be angry enough to pull the trigger. But a three-year-old in Pull-Ups was just crazy. An infant who could never be a witness anyway? A screaming little girl?

  Brill shrugged. ‘Maybe he wanted to wipe the slate clean. Maybe he wasn’t the Poppa type. Some aren’t. Look at that freak in California who killed his nine kids last year with a bullet to the back of their heads. Or the dad who hated his wife so much he drove his two kids cross-country from New Hampshire, killed ’em and buried ’em in some state along the way, but then offed himself so she would never find their bodies. The list goes on. But I don’t need to tell you about all the fucking psychos in this world. Just pick up the morning paper.’ He paused for a second, flicking his cigarette out the window. ‘I hate doctors,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I never go to ’em and I don’t trust ’em. God complexes, every damn one. My dad went to see one – first time in twenty fucking years he goes for a check-up. Walks in the door laughing and smiling – healthy as a goddamned horse, I’m telling ya. Then this idiot in a white coat straps him to a treadmill and makes him run like the devil’s chasing him. Two hours later he’s lying in a hospital bed. Two days after that he’s dead. Can you believe that shit?’

  Lat’s cellphone rang then. He looked at Brill and flipped it open. ‘Latarrino.’

  Brill lit another cigarette and turned to lookout the window. He’d never been to Philly before. And now he knew why. With the naked, twisted trees, gray skies and bleak rain, it looked depressing. Plus, right now Latarrino was driving past what looked like a few hundred graffiti-stained chemical plants, all belching white smoke up into the rain, where it hung in the humidity like a giant poisonous cloud over the city. Brill, like a lot of other transplanted New Yorkers, had lived in Florida long enough to be suffering withdrawal. He needed to see some green grass and blue skies and white-haired golfers in plaid pants and he needed to see them soon.

  Two minutes later, Lat snapped the cell closed. ‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,’ he said with a sigh. ‘That was the lab.’

  Brill looked at Lat’s face. ‘The knife don’t match.’

  ‘No. It matches, bro. But something else doesn’t.’

  ‘No fucking way,’ Brill said, sitting up straight.

  Lat shook his head and slapped the steering wheel hard. ‘The semen found on Jennifer’s nightshirt doesn’t belong to her husband.’

  27

  Nora and Jimmy’s condo in the aging Galt Towers was tightly sandwiched between two other high-rises at the far south end of an overdeveloped, mile-long stretch of Fort Lauderdale beach known as the Galt Mile. Julia pulled her Honda into a bright yellow spot that conspicuously warned GUESTS ONLY!! turned off the engine and sat there for a moment listening to the crashing sound of the ocean, hidden behind the building’s elongated shadows, less than a hundred feet away. The sun was beginning to set, and to the west, the s
ky over the Intracoastal was a warm tangerine color, infused with fiery streaks of copper red and deep orange, and the faintest whisper of purple clouds. The air smelled and tasted of coconut oil and sea salt, like pina coladas and margaritas. It was Julia’s favorite time of day, the beach her favorite place to spend it. And to top it off, it was finally a Friday. She could feel the stress of the past week begin to melt away with the sun as it slipped under the horizon. She savored the moment a little while longer, then grabbed the Macy’s bag off the front seat, along with the bottle of Uncle Jimmy’s favorite Chianti, and headed across the parking lot.

  During the crazy South Florida real-estate market of the past five years, big-name developers like Donald Trump had snatched up a lot of the older condos and co-ops and spring-break hotels that lined the beaches of Fort Lauderdale. They’d either renovated the old with fabulous facades and ultra-chic lobbies, or torn them down to construct opulent spa/resorts and multi-million-dollar oceanfront condos. The much-needed facelift was helping reshape the city into a younger, edgier, metropolis-by-the-sea. The Venice of America was the new catchy nickname the Mayor hoped would catch on.

  But not here on the Mile. Donald Trump and downtown might be looking for the young, up-and-coming professional, but the Mile still had its sights set on the older, down-and-almost-out-of-here retiree – fifty-five and older with No Pets, No Renters and definitely No Kids.

  On her salary, Julia was lucky to afford a one-bedroom apartment that was just west of 195, so a place on the beach was definitely not happening anytime in the foreseeable future without a little divine intervention from the Florida lottery. Her aunt and uncle, though, were two of the Mile’s pioneering snowbirds. They’d bought their unit twenty years ago as a vacation home for next to nothing. After Julia had left New York to go to law school and Uncle Jimmy had slipped a disc at work– prematurely and painfully ending a thirty-year career with the Department of Sanitation – they’d decided to make the move down to South Florida permanent.

  Julia was only seven or eight when Nora and Jimmy got their condo, but she could still remember a time when the hallways didn’t always smell like boiled meat, before the crimson flowers on the lobby wallpaper had faded to a dull pink. Her parents had combined their first visit to Aunt Nora’s new vacation pad with her family’s only trip to Disney, which was probably why she still remembered it so vividly. The endless drive down from Long Island in the family station wagon that – thanks to her brother, Andrew, spilling an entire container of Nestle Quikin the back seat the week before – smelled like rotten milk in the afternoon sun. The stops on 195 so her dad could collect cuttings from all sorts of strange plants he had no business disturbing. Fighting with Andy over who would get to rest their head on the console. Playing Jaws and Marco Polo and Jellyfish with Andy in the motel pools. Clutching Andy’s hand as the two of them waited nervously in line to ride Space Mountain. But the clearest memory of the trip was the smiling, tan face of her mother, dressed in blue jeans and an orange T-shirt, running down the aisle of McCrory’s five-and-dime, clutching bunches of plastic flowers in her hand. ‘They’re perfect, Nor!’ she shouted as she ran. ‘Just perfect!’

  McCrory’s had long since closed, and her mom was dead now, but whenever Julia tried to picture her mother, that was exactly how she saw her. Young and happy – maybe just a couple of years older than Julia was now – her long, wavy, dark hair flopping behind her, the lemony smell of Jean Nate body splash on her skin and bubblegum on her breath. The moment was framed forever in her mind like a brilliant, perfectly detailed picture, with one strange exception – she could never remember the color of the damn flowers Momma held in her hand. Strange because they were still sitting in Nora’s bathroom, and Julia looked at them every time she was over.

  She shook the memories out of her head and walked through the warm, musty lobby to the elevator, nodding at the white-haired security guard who sat watching The People’s Court on a portable TV set and couldn’t care less if she was dressed in black and wearing a ski mask. A couple of tables of bridge were still going strong in the resident rec room, along with a few bitter squabbles. For a late Friday afternoon the place was jumping.

  She heard the blaring televisions as soon as she got off the elevator on ten, shouting at her from behind every door. Oprah. Ellen. Judge Judy. Judge Alex. Judge Milian. Today the fluorescent-lit, teal-carpeted corridor smelled like cabbage, chicken soup and boiling eggs. Finally, outside 1052 she caught a fragrant whiff of sausage and peppers and garlic cooking in olive oil. Before she could actually knock, the door opened. Moose ran out to greet her with a happy howl and a crazy-dog circle dance.

  ‘Uncle Jimmy!’ she said with a big smile as she stooped down to pet Moose before even the deaf neighbors heard him. ‘Happy anniversary! How’d you know I was here?’

  ‘Hey there, Munch,’ Jimmy said. ‘Freddy called up.’

  Munch was short for Munchkin, which was really funny since in heels, Julia took her uncle by at least an inch. She stopped petting Moose and shook her head. Who’s Freddy?’

  ‘Fred. Freddy. The guard downstairs. He called up. Told us you were on your way.’

  ‘Oh.’ Good thing she’d left that ski mask back in the car. ‘Where’s Aunt Nora?’ she asked, giving Uncle Jimmy a kiss and walking into a mauve and gray living room that still looked like it did that day in 1985 when her dad had packed them all back in to the smelly, overgrown wagon and headed for home. Moose merrily followed. In the corner, he had his own little mauve dog bed and a basket full of dog toys.

  As if on cue, Aunt Nora came out of the kitchen, swaddled in aprons and holding a spoon. ‘Well, there you are,’ she said, giving Julia what she called ‘a Sicilian hug’ – a squeeze with all her body and generous bosom, followed by a hard kiss on the cheek that was sure to leave a bruise. We were getting worried about you.’ Julia navigated her way around Nora’s breasts and hugged her back hard.

  Aunt Nora was her mom, Irene’s, older and only sister. Her only sibling, in fact. It was Aunt Nora and Uncle Jimmy who she’d gone to live with fifteen years ago after her parents had died. After her world had been turned completely and horrifically and instantly upside down. She’d been only thirteen at the time – old enough, unfortunately, to understand what was happening to her and around her, and definitely old enough to know that she was being sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Staten Island. There were no relatives left on her dad’s side. His only brother had died as a teenager – suicide, her mom had told her – and both his parents had died within a year of each other before Julia had turned five. She didn’t even remember them. All of the pictures were gone, now, too.

  They’d tried for years, but Nora and Jimmy could never have kids of their own. After tragedy struck, Julia had become their daughter, and they’d raised her through the rest of adolescence into adulthood just that way – adored and sheltered and completely overprotected. The fragile porcelain doll they knew could easily shatter into a zillion pieces at any moment. But Nora had rules. Crazy rules. From the day Julia had walked through the door of Nora and Jimmy’s two-family house in Great Kills – a single, fuzzy purple overnight bag stuffed with clothes in one hand and a shoe-box full of what was to become her most cherished possessions in the other – certain subjects were never spoken of again, as were certain people. Familiar pictures simply disappeared from Nora’s clean, white walls; treasured keepsakes were quietly put away, never to be seen again. Aunt Nora dealt with the pain of losing her only sister by ordering it from her house. Exiled mementos and the faces of the banished were replaced with new knick-knacks and smiling photos of Julia, which Aunt Nora hung everywhere.

  Unlike her aunt, Julia, over the years, had only mastered hiding her pain. Hugs and kisses smothered in tomato sauce and cannoli cream were Aunt Nora’s well-intentioned cure-all for an emotional anguish that both of them knew never really went away. For Julia, time had only dulled the constant ache that was always in her heart. And on occasion, like a crippling
case of arthritis on a cold day, that ache would flare up without warning into the most excruciating, debilitating physical pain, as if someone had torn a hole in her heart and then ripped the stitches out once again.

  She could hardly blame Nora for wanting to scrub the horror of the past completely clean from her house. And given how Julia had turned out – a relatively successful lawyer who didn’t do drugs or even smoke, and who wasn’t downing Prozac with her Rice Krispies each morning – even she had to admit that her aunt’s nurturing recipe for success had seemingly worked its magic. Perhaps most importantly, all these years later, she was still in one piece when others would surely have crumbled.

  ‘Come in, come in,’ Aunt Nora finally said, taking her hand and leading her into the kitchen. ‘And don’t you beg now,’ she scolded Moose with a wave of her spoon as she tossed him a sniggle of something.

  ‘He’s getting fat,’ Julia said, shaking her head.

  ‘Nonsense. He just needs a haircut.’

  ‘You shouldn’t have cooked. I wanted to take you out,’ Julia tried. A ridiculous proposition. Aunt Nora thought no one in the world cooked as good as her. And she was right. Hence, there was no reason to go out.

  ‘Where do you think you can get sausage ’n’ peppa that’s not dried out like shoe leather? Save your money, sweetie.’

  Julia conceded with a shrug and a smile. ‘Happy anniversary,’ she said, handing the package from Macy’s to her. ‘I also brought Chianti. Maybe you won’t let me take you out, but I’m leaving that present here. I thought it would go with the kitchen. Don’t you dare return it.’

  ‘Tell me you got it on sale.’

  ‘I got it on sale,’ Julia lied.

  ‘Okay, then I’ll keep it,’ Nora chirped.

  Uncle Jimmy appeared behind her with a full glass of wine. ‘So how’s that big case Nora said you’re working now?’ he asked, handing her the wine. ‘I don’t see you on TV.’

 
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