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Last witness, p.15
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       Last Witness, p.15

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
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  Lourdes smiled, a bitter, frozen smile that was not at all friendly. ‘The tip? You mean the piece of evidence that the jury never got to hear? The evidence that was withheld from the defendant?’ She watched C.J. for a long moment. And without another word, she knew.

  ‘So now it becomes clear. You think there’s another killer out there, C.J., don’t you? Now you’re a little more than worried – you’re desperate. It was okay when you thought the real Cupid was dead and buried, but now there might just be another killer. And this one likes cops, is that it? He likes cops,’ she paused for just a second, ‘or maybe witnesses would be better term?’

  ‘I’m going to be honest here, Lourdes. I got something in the mail. A jade statue just like one I used to own when I lived in New York. When, he…’ her voice drifted off. ‘You know what he’s capable of! I need to know who he told. Someone he’s talked to must have sent it to me!’

  ‘I’m not going to presume to know what any one person is capable of, C.J. I’m also not going to give you any privileged information. I have spent three years running away from what I’ve done, trying to make myself believe that the ends somehow justified the means. And now I know for sure that that was not the case. We both do.’

  ‘He’s a madman, Lourdes. Remember that.’

  ‘I felt bad for you, C.J., about what you’d been through, about what he did to you. I still do. And I had a hard time with that, balancing my feelings with my job, with the oath I took to zealously defend my client. I let my feelings manipulate me, and I compromised myself in that trial, thinking it might make me a bad lawyer, but a better person. And I live with that damn decision every single day of my life. And every day, believe it or not, gets even harder. I feel bad for you, for what happened, but you’re alive. He didn’t kill you. And I’m not going to help you kill him.’

  That was it. There was nothing left between them to discuss. C.J. stood and blinked back tears. She gave one final nod to Lourdes, then walked out the door and into a nasty snowstorm. The soft jingle of the door chime was quickly silenced when a cold gust of wind slammed the door closed behind her.

  42

  Lourdes sat at her desk for a long, long time after C.J. had left, listening to the tick of her wall clock and the familiar burp and hiccup of the old coffee pot in the back kitchen, her face buried in the open palms of both hands.

  Who draws that line, Lourdes?

  C.J.’s words sounded again and again in her head. She knew that she had not given her an answer, because Lourdes honestly didn’t have one. It was her embattled conscience that had driven her out of Miami, away from a successful practice, from friends and family, to hide from her sins up here in the mountains, hoping time would ease its suffering. But it simply made the condition worse. Her conscience – was that friend made or born? Or was hers skewed with the help of a mother who’d read from the Bible every night before dinner, even when there was no food on the table to eat? Some people supposedly didn’t even have a conscience – failing to develop one by the age of three or four, and sunk for life. Some had one and ignored it constantly. Others had one, but it didn’t always work right. So what made the conscience, the friend, always right, anyway? Who draws that line, Lourdes?

  Bill Bantling had been her friend before he’d become her client. She hadn’t seen the sociopath in his startlingly blue eyes before he sat her down and told her he was a rapist. And even then, it hadn’t clicked. It must be a mistake, she had thought. A ‘he-said-yes/she-said-no’ toss-up that he had lost one night after things got a little hot and heavy. But then she had read them – the police reports out of New York that described in vivid detail all the brutal things Bill Bantling had done with his sharp knife, his face disguised by a rubber clown mask. It was not just hard to read – it was agonizing. And the unspeakable injuries… Lourdes knew C.J. would never recover, physically or emotionally. How could any woman?

  She couldn’t blame C.J. for her feelings, but her conscience would not allow her to excuse her actions. Why? Why wasn’t it right to put him behind bars forever for his crimes, even if it was ultimately for one he did not commit? Why did her fickle conscience scream and buck at that, but not when faced with the hard realization that Bill would do it again and again if the lock was ever sprung on his cell?

  She knew he would too. C.J. was right in that regard. The real William Bantling was a predator. Once he had let her in on his explosive little secret past, she had seen it, and he had no longer cared if she did. The ruse of their friendship was up and her purpose now in the relationship was to simply get him off. And she had agreed. She had agreed to represent him. She had agreed to use the best of her abilities to give him a zealous defense. And, she knew, that was where she had failed. And that was why her conscience throbbed. And that was why she had run.

  She knew now what had to be done, and time was again of the essence. She could not let him die because of her own ineptitude. Even the worst criminals deserved a passionate defense – it was the foundation of the legal system. And if she were to stand accused one day, she would expect no less from her own attorney. Yet, she had failed him on purpose. She fingered the cassette tape in her hand, the one marked 911-9/19/2000 8:12 p.m. The one that she had gotten from the Miami Beach Police Department’s Records Department three years ago, before the original master was destroyed. She had carried it around in her top desk drawer, its presence a constant reminder of her failure. She slipped it in the yellow bubble mailer with the other information, and sealed the clasp shut on the back then placed it in her outbox. She would mail it on the way home to her TV dinner.

  The light jingle of the door sounded just then and Lourdes looked up. Above the door, the wall clock read 4:30. Where had the time gone? Beyond the vinyl blinds at the window, she could see practically nothing but white now. The news had said last night to prepare for the worst but, of course, she hadn’t. And she should’ve left the office two hours ago when C.J. had, because now the roads would surely be a nightmare.

  Now the 4:30 prospective client that she had forgotten all about was here. He’d braved the treacherous weather to meet with her, and she hadn’t even looked at her appointment book. She composed herself, then rose with a smile from behind her desk and came out to meet him.

  ‘Ms Rubio? Whew! I wasn’t too sure if you’d be here with this weather and all,’ he said as he shook off the cold. ‘But I figured you’da called me.’ His voice had the soft twang of a Midwestern accent.

  Damn. She couldn’t even remember his name. Unger? Something like that. ‘It looks pretty bad out there, Mr…?’

  ‘Uustal, Al Uustal. Remember? We talked on the phone?’ The man brushed the snow off his black overcoat and draped it over his arm, but kept his black wool beret on.

  She nodded. ‘Yes. I’m sorry, Mr Uustal. It does look pretty nasty out.’ She glanced out the window again, and saw that the snow drifts were already up to her window and the street looked empty of the usual line of parked cars. ‘I’m surprised you made it through.’

  ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have missed this appointment.’

  She motioned for him to have a seat in front of her desk, then she moved behind it and sat down, searching for a legal pad to take notes. Now that he was here, she couldn’t send him away. ‘I had some pressing business this afternoon and lost track of time. Forgive me for not being more organized.’

  ‘That’s alright. I understand.’

  ‘Now,’ she said, finally catching her breath, and looking at him with a serious smile over her glasses. ‘Let’s talk about why you’re here.’

  ‘Well, I think that’s pretty obvious. I need your services. I… well. This is very difficult for me.’ He looked around nervously, then leaned in close to her desk and said in a hushed voice. ‘Is what I tell you – can you tell anyone else?’

  ‘No, Mr Uustal. What you tell me is protected by the attorney–client privilege. It can’t be divulged to anyone. And the privilege extends to my support personnel as well. Although,’ she a
dded to reassure him, ‘there’s no one else here at the moment, so you can speak freely.’

  He nodded, then sat back in his chair. ‘There’s been a murder. This girl, she—’

  ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she said, her hand up. ‘I don’t want to interrupt, but I don’t handle criminal cases, sir. I used to, but… not anymore. The most criminal work I do now is limited to DUI.’ Her hands pulled the Rolodex on her desk closer. ‘I’m pretty much strictly personal injury, but I can recommend someone who handles criminal defense.’

  He looked concerned and pulled down on his mustache, cupping his mouth in his hand. With that cap on and the tint in his glasses, it was hard to see his eyes. ‘Well, I don’t know if I need a defense lawyer,’ he said. ‘See, it hasn’t actually happened, this murder. Yet.’

  Lourdes again held up her hand to stop him from saying any more. ‘Future crimes are not protected by the attorney–client privilege, Mr Uustal. Before you say any more, if you have knowledge of a crime that is going to be committed, and you divulge it to me, that information is not protected and I would need to report that to the authorities.’

  A strange and uneasy feeling came over Lourdes Rubio at that moment. Behind the man, she could see that the front window was almost completely frosted now with snow from the gusty storm outside. Night had begun its slow and steady creep over day, and the light was almost gone.

  The pause hung in the air for a moment, and just like that, she knew who he was and why he was here.

  His long fingers slid down his mustache, revealing the friendly, now familiar grin underneath.

  ‘Oh, I’m not too worried about that,’ he said, rising. He pulled a strange-looking knife from underneath his jacket. ‘I don’t think my attorney will be telling any more tales out of school,’ he whispered, as he came around the desk to meet her.

  Then the snow settled in on them and the light disappeared from the mountain sky.

  43

  He watched her struggle for air, her hands at her throat. Her eyes were open, staring up at him, begging him – the very person who had split it open – for help. He just watched.

  That was the most fascinating part of death, he found. Watching it come. It was different for everyone. Some became calm, as if you’d done them a favor by ending it all a little earlier than they had planned. Others were composed, as if to appear as anything but would be completely undignified. And others, well, some went nuts – flailing and thrashing in full swing, fighting with all they had left. Those, he suspected, were the ones who knew they had fucked up. That knew they still had some unfinished business on this earth, and were not yet ready to present themselves to their maker.

  He never kidded any of them into thinking this wasn’t the end, into thinking they weren’t going to die. He didn’t believe that was fair, leading them to believe they’d be closing their eyes for a bit, expecting to wake up in a hospital with a new grasp on the preciousness of life. No, he didn’t think that death under false pretenses was the right thing to do. So he’d told them, each and every one over the years, that they were going to die. It gave those who believed something to pray for, and for those who didn’t, well, it gave them some time to reflect and maybe start believing.

  It was incredible this power that he had over life. He supposed every human being had it, but only a select few chose to use it. In his hands, he could make the ultimate decision. The ultimate one. Would someone go home to their honey, or close their eyes forever?

  He had discovered that power, the weighty thrill of bringing death, that first time, quite by accident. His gun had discharged and left a hole the size of a dime in the chest of another man. He had watched the man – a boy, really, all of about seventeen or eighteen – he had watched him stagger back when the shot hit him, square in the center of the chest. He could tell that the boy hadn’t even felt it at first, because his face, initially surprised, quickly grew dark and surly, and he moved forward as if to lunge. But then his body disobeyed him and he dropped to his knees. ‘Fuck!’ he yelled, his hand to his chest. Then the coughing began. And the gasping. And the pleading. ‘Motherfucker, man! Call someone!’ He had barked before the words stopped coming.

  But he had just watched, like some villain in a bad dream, mesmerized that this asshole – who would’ve killed him first if he’d had the opportunity – was now on his knees begging for help. ‘I think you’re going to die,’ was all he had said to the boy. That was when the thrashing and flailing started, as the boy fought off that final meeting with a God who would surely be more than just disappointed when they met.

  He had thought himself a monster, then. And he was frightened by what he had done and, worse, by what he had not done. It had been disturbing what he had felt watching someone die – the surge of excitement that was unexpected and almost erotic. But then they had come and patted him on the back and said, ‘Congratulations!’ as they zipped the boy up tight in a body bag. Because to them, the boy was the enemy, and that made him a brave man who had done what he was taught to do by killing. It was okay to kill certain people – the bad ones, they had said. In fact, it was welcomed.

  That day had changed him forever. It had stirred something in him that perhaps had always lain dormant. Like some mythical vampire or ghoul, he had become addicted to death, craving that rush, the taste of power that he held in his hands, wondering for many years if he was some sort of freak, but believing deep down that he was not. He had only to read the morning paper to know that there were, indeed, others out there like him. All over the country. All over the world. Like other addicts, he had taken comfort in that knowledge. That was when he had set out on a strange journey to find his own kind.

  The blood had seeped into the rug like a sponge and was creeping its way slowly across the room. He was careful to step over it as he walked around her desk to her outbox. The yellow bubble mailer sat on top, already stamped and just waiting to be sent off to Neil Mann, Esq. of Coral Gables, Florida.

  Almost done now, he thought as he picked up the mailer and tossed it into the duffle. He flicked off the light with his gloved hand and closed the blinds on her window. Then he slung the duffle across his shoulder and walked out into the snowstorm to finish the job that he had set out to do.

  44

  ‘So, just like that, the crazy bitch wants to get together again. The same lunatic who almost ate my nuts for breakfast when she caught me talking to that mami from Walgreens. “That wasn’t no witness!” she’d said then. Now she wants to get married and have my baby. Can you believe that shit?’ Manny said, with a yawn and then a puff on his cigarette. ‘I should never have gone to that PD party. Never. It fucks me up, Dom, and I lose my head. A few drinks and a roll in the sack for old times’ sake has now got me trading in my balls for a living-room set from Rooms To Go.’

  ‘You were warned, buddy.’ Dominick had hoped to spend the five-hour drive to Raiford in silence, contemplating all the things C.J. had said, or, more importantly, all the things she had not said. But then Manny had insisted on coming along, and Dominick had spent the hours listening to the Bear either yap or snore. Perhaps it was a good distraction, after all. Too much thought about what he had to do next would rip him apart. He needed to be calm.

  ‘That’s true. The Counselor did send me a heads-up, and she knows better than anybody what a nutcase her secretary is.’ The Bear grew quiet for a few long seconds. Everyone on the task force knew that C.J. had left the office and left Miami. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that since Dominick was still showing up to work every day, she’d also left him. Most had cut him a wide path, leaving him alone to lick his wounds in private. But not Manny, who’d felt obliged to do just the opposite. Manny had enough experience in the field of exes to know that what Dominick really needed was a few laughs, a good friend, and a lot of drinks to make it through the first couple of weeks and get back on the horse. He certainly didn’t need to be zipping off to no death row by himself to re-interview the psycho serial killer wh
o had once claimed in open court to have raped and tortured the poor guy’s now ex-girlfriend. No, Manny figured, that wouldn’t be a smart move at all, when he’d heard Dom making plans over the phone with the warden for a visit to FSP.

  ‘It’s okay, Bear,’ Dominick now said, when the silence hung on a little too long. ‘I can stand to talk about her. I’m a big boy.’

  ‘Women, Dommy. I’m no expert – look at me, dating a freaking psycho who wants to be Mrs Alvarez number four and I’m actually considering it, too – but, well, what can I say? Soft and smelling sweet. Then they look at you with those eyes and they wiggle their ass and it gets me. Each and every time.’

  ‘Are we talking about your troubles or mine now?’

  ‘You’re not alone is all I’m saying. We’ve all lost one that hurt.’

  Dominick’s tally was now up to two. The tall pines that lined the quiet highway streaked by in a blaze of green, broken intermittently by signs for a gas station or fast-food joint. He thought about Natalie, his first fiancée, his first love. Long, dusty brown hair that went on forever, with matching eyes that smiled at him from across the room, even when her mouth didn’t move. ‘Seven perfect people,’ she had said. ‘According to Cosmo, there are seven perfect people for everyone in this world and it’s up to you to find them.’ Then she had kissed him and mused with a laugh, ‘Thank God you didn’t live in China!’

  It seemed like a lifetime ago when she had died. When he thought that nothing and no one would ever stop the pain, the physical pain, when she had slipped away from him as he held her in his arms in that hospital bed. He’d prayed that the bullet that had ripped through her brain had somehow missed the part that made up Natalie. But her eyes never smiled again, and three days later he had simply held her when the doctors had switched off the respirator, because there was nothing else he could do. He had just watched as her chest stopped rising and falling and she left his life forever. Then he had hunted down the animals who had put that bullet in her brain when she didn’t fork over her purse fast enough in the Macy’s parking lot. It had taken three officers and the chomp of a K9 to get the gun out of his hands, to prevent him from killing the two of them in the lobby of MDPD headquarters.

 
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