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Cutting room the, p.15
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.15

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘Marco!’ scolded CeCe.

  ‘Don’t play with the goddamned, freaking knives is what Daddy meant to say,’ Daria corrected. Another identical face crawled from under the table and disappeared into the kitchen. Followed by another. ‘And don’t chase your brother, Sonny.’ She knew for sure the last one was Sonny, because he was still missing his shoe.

  ‘Back once again to Daria,’ a bemused Anthony started up again. ‘You going out of town with a guy? What’s that about? Who is he? I want all the juicy details. Spare nothing.’

  ‘Don’t get all big brother on me now, Anthony. Yes, it’s a guy. No, it’s not a date; he’s a detective. We’re going up to Starke to interview an inmate for the day. We’re leaving early Tuesday, probably be back that night.’

  Marco shook his head. ‘Why the hell you going up there, D? Don’t you have enough of those fucking animals down here to play with?’

  ‘Hey, hey,’ Daria’s dad mouthed with a scratchy whisper. ‘Language.’

  ‘Sorry, Pop,’ Anthony mouthed.

  ‘This guy’s on death row and they won’t transfer him just for an interview. Too high a security risk. I’m interviewing Cupid,’ she blurted out excitedly.

  The room went completely quiet. Except for her nephew, Sonny, who hobbled by with another butter knife in hand.

  ‘Cupid? The serial killer Cupid?’ asked Anthony incredulously.

  ‘Yes. Bill Bantling. I have to talk to him about this homicide I’m working. The dumpster girl.’ She grabbed the butter knife from Sonny’s fingers. ‘Speaking of maniacal killers, Marc. There are early signs you should look for,’ she teased, waving the knife at him.

  ‘That’s pretty damn cool,’ Marco added. ‘You’re gonna be interviewing Cupid. Wow. Holy shit. Will he be behind glass like Hannibal Lecter? Or fitted with, like, a bite mask or something?’

  Daria shook her head. ‘This isn’t the movies, Marco.’ But the truth was, she had no idea what to expect herself on Tuesday. She’d never gotten up close and personal with any of the murderers she’d prosecuted — interviews were a detective’s province. By the time a case crossed her desk, a defense lawyer was involved and the talking had stopped.

  ‘You have the most interesting job, Daria,’ added CeCe admiringly. ‘You should write a book. Like Michael Connelly, ya know? Or John Grisham. I always like his books, and they’re about legal stuff.’

  ‘That’s a plan. Become an international bestselling author when I get a chance. I like it.’

  ‘This case could make you famous,’ Marco added. ‘Think Kim Kardashian, D.’

  Anthony laughed and held his hands out in front of him as if he had tremendous breasts. ‘I know Daria doesn’t have that in her. No offense, sister.’

  Out of the corner of her eye, Daria spotted her mom slip into the kitchen. The last thing Lena wanted to listen to was how her daughter might one day be famous. Or successful.

  Daria rolled her eyes. ‘I’d like her body, not her life, Marc. And thanks, Anthony.’

  ‘What does Cupid have to do with the dumpster case?’Anthony asked.

  ‘I can’t talk about it yet.’

  Her dad motioned her over again. The lopsided smile was gone. He was frowning.

  ‘And Kim Kardashian just happened to be the first famous person that came to your mind? Huh, honey?’ CeCe fired at Marco. ‘What’s with your obsession with her?’

  Anthony smirked. ‘Someone’s in trouble.’

  ‘You okay, Daddy?’ Daria asked, bending over him and putting her face close to his while everyone else prattled on, ribbing her brother.

  Her dad grasped her hand, harder than before. She knew that wasn’t easy for him. ‘Daddy?’ she asked again, alarmed.

  ‘Careful now,’ he whispered harshly. ‘I don’t have … a good feeling.’

  The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. The first thought that popped into her head was the creepy, cryptic message that Manny had delivered to her in the courthouse that morning. She’d been trying not to think about it all day — to not let Talbot Lunders get inside her head, like Manny had warned — but every time she glanced at the clock she thought about returning to her empty apartment. To the dead garden outside her kitchen window. ‘Okay, Pop,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘I’ll be careful.’

  ‘The man’s an animal. Don’t want you … involved. Bad things gonna happen, you’ll see.’

  ‘No worries, Daddy,’ she said quickly standing up, and patting his hand.

  ‘… I’d be scared to death to face a serial killer, even if he was behind bars. Just thinking about what he did to those women makes me want to throw up,’ CeCe said with a shiver. ‘Aren’t you nervous, Daria?’

  No one else had heard her exchange with her dad, although from her sister-in-law’s last question Daria would’ve thought she’d read her mind. She shook her head. ‘Let me get Daddy his coffee.’

  ‘You’ll never get that past mom,’ Anthony called out. ‘I tried to slip him a cappuccino last week and she almost bit me.’

  Daria ignored him and walked into the kitchen.

  ‘Hi there. Did you make coffee? Daddy wants some,’ she said as she headed to the coffee pot.

  ‘He’s not allowed to have any.’

  ‘Says who?’

  ‘Says Matt Valitudo.’

  ‘The dry cleaner?’

  ‘He told me coffee makes the cancer worse.’

  ‘The dry cleaner told you that? He doesn’t have cancer, Ma. He has Parkinson’s.’

  ‘It’s cancer, is what it is.’

  There was no point in arguing. There never was. ‘Fine. I’ll make decaf,’ she said, reaching for the vile container of Taster’s Choice instant.

  ‘He can’t have coffee. And that’s that,’ her mother said sharply.

  ‘It would be the caffeine he can’t have, Ma, if anything.’

  ‘He can’t have coffee,’ Lena repeated.

  Daria put her hands up and sighed. ‘You win. You need help?’ Her mother had made a panettone in addition to the Carvel cake Daria had brought because her mother was the only person on the planet who actually hated ice-cream. She was also not gonna be outdone by her daughter, who’d brought the birthday cake. Not in her house.

  Lena shook her head as she arranged the last slice of panettone on a silver platter. ‘Lord, where did you get those shoes? They’re so high.’

  ‘You like ’em?’ Daria asked. ‘They’re Donald Pliner’s. And they’re comfy, too.’

  Her mom shook her head and pursed her lips. ‘No. Uh-uh. Your style is a little … eclectic for me. I like something more classic. Something nice. You know that. As long as you can walk in them, I suppose,’ she called over her shoulder as she stepped back into the dining room. ‘Come on, andiamo! I’m putting out the cake.’

  Daria stood in the kitchen for a long while, willing away angry tears. As Lena had pointed out, she’d be thirty years old soon. And for most of those thirty years she’d sought her mother’s approval, even when she’d insisted that she was through with that. Now here she was yet again, standing in her fancy heels, licking her wounds.

  One of these days she was going to have to face the fact that, no matter what she said, did, wore, married, how successful a career she had or how much money she made, she was never gonna get it. Her mother would still go on dangling that elusive approval over Daria’s sad-eyed, eager little head. What was Einstein’s definition of insanity again? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? She and her brother Marco were like Pavlov’s dogs — always showing up at the bowl with their tongues hanging out, hoping Lena might toss them a crumb of acknowledgement or at least a kind word. Marco did whatever was necessary for peace — he’d gotten married and made triplets and had a normal job. Daria had rebelled — a wild adolescence, no husband, and a job her mother detested. And Anthony, well, he had smartly opted out of the game years ago. He didn’t give a shit if he was successful, if anyone else was happy, or if the world ended
tomorrow. He smoked inordinate amounts of weed on the weekend, hang-glided, slept with lots of women, and drove without a seat belt all the time. He’d declared that he had no intention of getting married or having kids. And yet he was the only one in the family who their mother was not perpetually disappointed with. Anthony could do no wrong.

  Why didn’t she simply walk away? Make other plans? Send a birthday gift and a card instead of continually setting herself up for failure? Daria had asked herself that question a thousand times — usually after coming home from visiting her parents. Friends of hers had cut off relations with their relatives over a lot less. But she couldn’t and that was that. Her mother was, after all, her mother. And her mother now stood directly in the path of her father.

  Daria’s relationship with her dad had always been different. He’d taught her how to ride a bike, fix a toilet, shoot a deer, make handmade mozzarella. Growing up, he didn’t care if she wore ‘boy’ pants to her aunt’s house or an ugly-ass dress that cost way too much anyway. On Sunday mornings, they’d slip out of the house before Lena was up, kayak into the ocean and meet the sunrise with a Thermos filled with orange juice spiked with Asti Spumante. He sat front row for her law school graduation and her first trial, both of which were missed by her mother, who’d conveniently developed a splitting migraine right before both events — the only two migraines she’d ever had in her life. Even when Daria had grown out of pigtails and princess dresses, she was still her daddy’s baby. And throughout her childhood and super-rebellious teens, it was her father who had been her ally in that crazy, scream-infested house — always attempting to negotiate the dangerous, spike-covered fence that existed between his wife and his only daughter. When diplomacy failed and her mom’s destructive comments and wooden spoon beatings and weird temper tantrums for which she should have been medicated became too much for Daria to take, with the pounding of his fist on a table her dad would command, ‘Enough is enough, Lena! Let her be!’ and that would temporarily end it. Her parents were Italian, after all, and her mother had been programmed by her own off-the-boat parents to listen to her husband. But he couldn’t order his wife to not be jealous of their daughter. And he couldn’t force Lena to go to the doctor or get help for her temper, not that he even tried — psychiatrists and the like were tantamount to witch doctors to a red-blooded Italian male from the old school.

  Now, though, her father was trapped in a body that no longer worked the way it should, facing down a disease that had ravaged his muscles and put him in a wheelchair within two years of being diagnosed. It also put him at the complete mercy of her mother, who he was now physically and emotionally dependent on. The rules of the game had changed. He no longer demanded that Lena behave herself. He no longer demanded or ordered or commanded anything. He had a particularly aggressive type of Parkinson’s, and the prognosis was very grim. It was only a short matter of time before he’d be in a nursing home, his mind functional and his body useless. When he was no longer able to breathe, they’d vent him and that would be the last time her dad would ever speak. It would be the last time Daria would hear his voice. It was a day she couldn’t imagine, but one that would be here soon enough. Then she would be left with her mother.

  She wiped her eyes and looked over at the kitchen counter. The slices of ice-cream cake were still sitting there, melting into shiny piles of white and brown goo.

  Careful, now. I don’t have … a good feeling …

  Her dad’s cryptic warning applied to so many facets of her life. Anger swelling inside her, she threw the cake plates on a metal cookie sheet and pushed open the swing door that led to the dining room. ‘Not so fast, everyone! Who wants ice-cream cake?’ she asked as she strode back inside and the dining room erupted into tiny, enthusiastic cheers of ‘Me! Me! Me!’

  22

  Sometimes we don’t see what it is we don’t want to see. Always remember that, Manuel, and maybe you won’t go completely blind …

  Manny’s uncle Cesar, a seasoned Miami-Dade homicide detective with twenty-nine years on the force before he died, had shared that slice of wisdom with him the day Manny was sworn in. Uncle Ces was like that — always throwing out these deep quotes that you never quite got right away, like he was the Dalai Lama or something. It wasn’t until Manny was promoted to detective himself and cracking mysteries became his own life’s work that he finally understood half the shit his uncle was trying to say. He was still waiting on the other half.

  Manny sipped at his beer while he stared at one of the twenty-seven TVs in the crowded sports bar, a plate of spicy chicken wings in front of him. The Marlins were actually winning a game. Norman’s Tavern was not an establishment he normally frequented, but it was close to home and the food was good. Plus, he wasn’t much of a cook and the house was lonely. Though he didn’t want to be alone, he didn’t want company either. Tonight, all he wanted was to eat some wings and a burger, down a brew and think about all the deep shit his uncle had prophesized so many years ago …

  It was a cold and rainy night in Miami on January 21, 1999 when the decomposed body of Cupid’s first victim was discovered in an abandoned supermarket in southwest Miami-Dade County. Twenty-five-year-old Andrea Gallagher was Bill Bantling’s first victim. No one knew at that time that the gaping hole in the center of her chest would soon come to be recognized around the world as the signature of a serial killer. Less than three months later, Manny himself would be called out to the homicide scene of Hannah Cordova, a twenty-two-year-old aspiring singer who’d disappeared weeks earlier from Penrods, a nightclub on Miami Beach. Her body was found in a shuttered-up crack den in Liberty City, a neighborhood within the City of Miami’s jurisdiction. Her chest, too, had been cracked open, her heart removed, her body perversely staged. It didn’t take long after that to realize that the two very brutal murders were related. And the identical traumatic injuries also made it clear that it was a serial. A third victim was discovered in a shack on Miami Beach six weeks after that. Three victims, three different police jurisdictions, three different police agencies investigating. Not a good scenario. A task force was formed, headed by Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Special Agent Dominick Falconetti, and everyone moved across town to the new command center at FDLE headquarters.

  For the next two years Manny would eat, sleep and breathe the Cupid case — ultimately reporting to the homicide scenes of eight more young, pretty blondes. As the body count continued to rise and the leads fizzled out, the case grew more and more frustrating. The man was a ghost — snatching beautiful girls from busy nightclubs, all under the watchful eyes of their friends, and surveillance cameras, and a thousand witnesses who never seemed to see a thing. There was no rhyme or reason as to why he selected his victims — other than their being blonde, young, and comely — or how it was he chose them. There was never any physical evidence left behind at staged crime scenes that were so horrific Manny had seen veteran detectives lose their cookies in front of everyone. Not a drop of semen. Not a single hair. Not a speck of blood that didn’t belong to a victim. After a year and a half of chasing their tails, the body count was nine dead, two missing and the task force of elite detectives still without a bona fide description of Cupid. He was a phantom, walking among his prey, possibly brazen enough to mingle with his hunters, as many serials do. And Miami’s Finest had not a clue where to find him or how to stop him.

  Then a routine traffic stop had changed everything. A rookie cop named Victor Chavez ended Cupid’s eighteen-month reign of terror when he pulled over furniture salesman William Rupert Bantling for speeding on the MacArthur Causeway. A subsequent search of the vehicle led to the discovery of gruesome evidence in the trunk — namely the body of model Anna Prado, one of the two missing girls. Over the next few months the task force pushed to ready the case for what the international press was already calling ‘The Trial of the Century’.

  The prosecution was headed by C.J. Townsend, one of the state’s most accomplished attorneys. A Major Crimes pros
ecutor, C.J. had been assigned to the Cupid task force since its inception. Dogged and determined, she labored to put Bantling on death row for the murder of Anna Prado, all in front of the rolling cameras and the international press. It was only after Bantling was convicted that Manny had learned of the enormous emotional pressure that C.J. had been working under. Right after the jury had announced its verdict, but before the reporters had the chance to tell the world, Bantling had started screaming in open court that he had raped C.J., back when she was a law student in New York. Claiming C.J. knew he was not guilty of murder, charging she’d destroyed and covered up evidence in the Cupid case because a murder conviction was the only way she could make him pay for what he had done to her. It was the only way to get him sentenced to death.

  Manny remembered the chaotic scene as if it were yesterday. C.J. had denied the allegation, but she’d then been forced to make a painful and personal admission in open court, and simultaneously to the whole world: she had been violently raped in law school by a stranger. Her rapist had never been caught. Her rapist was not Bill Bantling.

  Manny had felt so bad for her, standing there, so small and pale and thin, telling everybody what some creep had done to her when he broke into her apartment. And then salacious details of her assault had run for days and days in the paper as reporters did exactly what Bill Bantling had done and dug up the girl’s past. In light of what she’d once been through and what she had put aside to prosecute Bantling, Manny was even more appreciative of all she’d done to put the son of a bitch behind bars. So were the rest of the boys on the task force. C.J. was one of Manny’s favorite people in the world — down to earth, honest, hard-working and a ball-busting bitch when she needed to be. And if his buddy Dom hadn’t been sweet on her, Manny might’ve tried a shot at the big leagues himself, instead of ending up with her insane secretary, which cost him a couple of years of his life, untold amounts of money, and almost another walk down the aisle.

 
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