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Cutting room the, p.16
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.16

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Realizing justice, though, can be a long process. Especially when you’re talking about a death sentence. Ten years had gone by and the case wasn’t over. Bill Bantling was still breathing. And with the current state of his appeals, there was no end to his miserable life in sight.

  Manny ordered another Corona and watched for a while as the Marlins inevitably screwed up their lead. But all the while his eyes were on the game he was hearing that warning from Uncle Ces: Sometimes we don’t see what it is we don’t want to see. When William Bantling told him about a snuff club, had he dismissed it because he couldn’t face re-examining all the irritating details that didn’t tie together and the strange coincidences that were too coincidental? Or was it something worse than laziness — a condition Manny had never been accused of in all his years on the force — that kept him from resolving the lingering questions that surrounded the Cupid case?

  Had he kept his mouth shut and his eyes closed to save a friend?

  The Cupid case was a lot more troubling than he’d let on to Daria. Shortly after Bantling was convicted, there had been a violent attempt on C.J.’s life by Dr Gregory Chambers, a state forensic psychologist — someone C.J. said she had considered a friend as well as a colleague. Turned out Chambers had also been Bantling’s shrink. Listening to his client’s sick fantasies must have flipped some switch, turned him into a wannabe Cupid, obsessed with C.J. If she hadn’t managed to grab a pair of scissors and put a hole in his chest, he’d have cut one in hers. There was no question but that she’d killed him in self-defense, and there was no evidence to link him with any of the other murders so Manny had closed the case, and Bantling had been shipped off to death row, but …

  In 2004, three of the cops who had worked Cupid were murdered, including Chavez, the traffic cop who pulled Bantling over for speeding. Since pretty much everyone in law enforcement had assisted in the Cupid manhunt in some capacity, it wasn’t grounds for launching an investigation, but it was thought-provoking, nonetheless. Then the judge died in a car accident, and Bantling’s old attorney, Lourdes Rubio, was found with her throat slit in her Colorado office, days before she was scheduled to fly home to Miami to testify in Bantling’s appeal. It was then that Bantling told Manny he was part of a snuff club organized by none other than the deceased Dr Chambers. And with this information, Manny did …

  Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

  And now there were more murders happening with possible connections to Bantling. And Daria, the state’s prosecutor in those murders, was being harassed, possibly stalked. He pushed his half-eaten plate away.

  Sometimes we don’t see what it is we don’t want to see, Manuel.

  Like a hologram turned just the right way, he was seeing it all now. Manny chugged the rest of his beer, almost wishing the alcohol would hit him hard enough to stop this forced self-revelation crap. If it was true that he’d turned his back on the facts a decade ago because it was inconvenient, or too mind-boggling to fathom, or because he was looking away in order to save a friendship that, sadly, was no more, anyway, or because Bantling was getting what he deserved even if it might not be for the exact crime he was convicted of, would that make him responsible for the deaths that followed? The Black Jacket cops, they were dirty, they could be reasoned away. But Holly Skole, Gabriella Vechio, Cyndi DeGregorio, Jane Doe, Kevin Flaunters — would they be alive today if Manny had acted on his gut when it told him there was more to the snuff-club story than just a desperate pack of lies?

  He lined up the empty bottle of Corona next to the other three he’d finished off. The problem with alcohol was that it worked like a truth serum. He’d drunk too much tonight, and yet not enough to forget what he’d been thinking about. He’d discovered the hologram, and he would forever see the picture that he hadn’t wanted to see all along. It was right there in front of him. Now it was impossible to miss.

  Manny’s only hope at this point was that he was wrong. That when he got to see that manipulative psychopath Bantling on Tuesday, he’d ask a few questions that he should’ve asked long ago and finally be satisfied that Bantling’s story of retribution and snuff clubs was just that — a story. A story that could not be corroborated and could never be proven because it simply wasn’t true. It was a tall tale concocted to get Bantling’s ass off death row. Then Manny could get back to building the case against Talbot Lunders — a budding psychopath himself, if ever Manny had seen one — track down his possible accomplice or accomplices and put Pretty Boy in a cell right next to Bantling.

  He thought back to Talbot’s odd reaction to the mention of Bantling’s name.

  Maybe they’d already met …

  That was a chilling thought.

  He dropped two twenties on the bar and waved goodnight to the cute bartender. Hopefully, he thought, as he shrugged off the shudder that had run down his spine and headed for the door, he could pack away this bad penny once and for all. Hopefully, come this time Tuesday night, he would be able to forever dismiss the disturbing thoughts that had been nibbling at his brain for far, far too long.

  23

  Quaint brick homes, their front lawns sprinkled with laurel oaks and swing sets, their backyards crisscrossed with clotheslines, dotted State Road 16. Kids skateboarded down long driveways, and horses grazed in green fields. Tractors could be heard working their way through neighboring citrus groves. The smell of freshly cut grass filled the summer air. All that was missing from the live Rockwell snapshot of a small American town was a silver-haired granny doling out glasses of lemonade and slices of apple pie on her rickety front porch. As Daria had commented to Manny when they’d first made the turn on to SR16 from Highway 301 — if you didn’t know you were driving straight into Inmate Central, you’d have no idea you were driving straight into Inmate Central. The only indication that things had changed, and not necessarily for the better, were the rather unassuming signs that sprouted up alongside the road, warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. These were followed a mile or two later by neon orange road diamonds that advised STATE PRISONERS WORKING. Put two and two together and it wasn’t hard to figure out Dorothy wasn’t in Kansas anymore. And if you weren’t good in math, the tiered mile-marker signpost at the turnoff eliminated any guesswork:

  LAWTEY CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION, 6 miles;

  UNION CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION, 18 miles;

  NEW RIVER CORRECTIONAL, 11 miles;

  FLORIDA STATE PRISON, 11 miles;

  RECEPTION AND MEDICAL CENTER (RMC), 5 miles;

  RECEPTION AND MEDICAL CENTER (RMC) WEST UNIT, 4 miles.

  The five-hour drive up to Starke had been pretty easy; it was only the first half-hour or so that had felt strangely awkward; more akin to a first date, Daria thought, than a sobering business trip to interview a serial murderer. She and Manny had politely chatted about the weather and how horrible Miami traffic was, all the while sipping their giant cups of Starbucks jet fuel. Maybe it was the prospect of spending so much time one-on-one together in a car and outside of a courthouse, coupled with the fear that they’d eventually run out of things to say — or worse, have too much to say about the wrong thing, spurring a fight — that had initially made the situation feel so weird. But by the time they’d made the Palm Beach line, the idle, restrained chatter had slipped into conversation that bounced from corrupt South Florida politicians to the latest episode of Chopped, to roses and gardening, and of course, bad guys.

  As they drew closer to the prison, the easy conversation dropped off, as did the Rockwell homes and picturesque countryside. The landscape within a mile of the facility had been leveled to flat, brown wasteland to thwart escape attempts. In the event an inmate did make it out of the sprawling maximum-security prison, past the armed guards in the watch towers, and over the double razor-wire fencing, there would be no place for him to hide on the other side. Not so much as a single skinny palm tree.

  ‘It’s bigger than I remembered,’ Daria commented as Manny turned the car into the complex. They passed underneat
h an iron arch announcing Florida State Prison. The sign made her think of the infamous ironwork twisted above the gates of German concentration camps: Arbeit Macht Frei — ‘Work Will Set You Free’. Except here, there was no such false promise. Most of the fourteen hundred men housed inside those prison walls would never see freedom again. Nor should they — they weren’t tragic innocents caught up in genocide. Florida State Prison housed the most violent offenders in the entire state of Florida — murderers, rapists, pedophiles, armed robbers, kidnappers. Many were serving life sentences, or sentences that numbered in the hundreds of years. And for forty-five of those murderers, the ultimate fate awaited them on death row.

  The visitor’s lot was empty. ‘You’ve been here?’ Bear asked as he pulled into a spot. ‘I thought you said you hadn’t.’

  ‘Not in here. My friends and I drove out one night when I was in my second year of law school, just to see what the place looked like. You hear so many stories about what goes on here. I’d never actually seen a prison before then.’

  ‘What’d you think when you saw it?’

  ‘We got as far as the welcome arch. We were so clueless, Manny. Unbeknown to us — or at least to me — there was an execution scheduled the next day. Glen Ocha was the name. I’ll never forget it, because there were like thirty people waving anti-death penalty signs at us with his face on it, holding up candles and handing out bibles. It gave me nightmares. Sometimes, when I dream of bad guys — you know, like I’m being chased or robbed or something in my dream? Well, it’s Glen Ocha’s face I see.’

  ‘That’s weird.’

  ‘Considering the scum I’ve put away, I should see someone else coming to get me,’ she added, stepping out of the car.

  Manny followed. ‘You might just get your wish after today.’

  Abutting the prison was an interconnected maze of chain-link cages. Hundreds of them. Inside the individual cages, inmates paced back and forth like stressed tigers. Some jumped rope or worked out. Others sat around and did nothing. Uniformed Department of Corrections guards patrolled the walkways.

  ‘What are those?’ Daria asked as they walked up to the prison entrance. A loud buzz sounded and a green uniformed CO pushed open the steel-meshed glass door.

  ‘Those are the runs,’ Manny answered as he stepped inside. Some of the inmates had stopped what they were doing to stare in their direction.

  ‘Dawg runs,’ said the CO, whose badge read SGT TRU ZEFFERS, in a thick-as-molasses Southern drawl. He checked their credentials and frowned. In his late forties, Sgt Zeffers had a mop of unnaturally thick and unnaturally still jet-black hair that was brushed into a swirl atop his head, like a gigantic soft-serve cone. ‘That’s where the boys git their exercise. Have to be separated at all times, else they’ll kill each other. Like bad dawgs,’ he finished, letting the ‘s’ drag on. He studied Daria for a moment, then turned and motioned with the hook of his finger for them to follow.

  ‘Twenty-four/seven they have to be kept apart,’ Zeffers continued, leaning against the security booth after Manny went to check his Glock into a gun locker.

  No weapons were allowed to be brought inside the prison. The COs themselves were unarmed. Manny had explained that if a riot broke out, or the prison went under siege, there were guns and ammunition the staff could use, but it was all locked away so that the inmates could not gain access. She wished she didn’t know that.

  ‘They eat ’lone, shower ’lone, exercise ’lone,’ Zefffers continued. ‘They’re cuffed when they leave their cells, and they only leave those to go to the runs or take a shower. Place don’ need ’nother turn like what happened in the seventies. Took hostages that time, ’fore they set everything on fire.’

  Daria frowned. ‘That doesn’t sound good.’

  ‘No, darlin’, it don’t.’ Zeffers looked down at her shoes and smiled. ‘I’m thinking maybe you didn’t see the recommended list of dress attire? It’s gonna be awful hard to run in those, sugar, if you need to. And a skirt, too. You know, in a worst-case scenario, which I hope won’t never happen. I’d have to make special plans to come rescue you. Plus, I think them heels are jus’ high enough and pointy enough to be considered weapons.’ He wiped a hand on his pant leg and it left a stain.

  ‘Don’t worry about the Counselor and her fancy kicks, Sarge,’ Manny said, moving Daria through the metal detectors. ‘I’ll pick her up and run with her if we get into trouble. We’re kinda late, Sarge, and here comes the tour guide, I think. So we’ll catch you on the way out, okay?’

  Zeffers glanced at his watch. He shook his head dismissively at the approaching CO. ‘I’ve decided to play escort, Detective Alvarez. Bill Bantling is a very special inmate here. One who we take extra precautions with.’ He put his hand on Daria’s shoulder. He stank of cologne and old cigarette smoke. ‘Don’t go running off on me now, ma’am,’ he said playfully. ‘’Specially not in those shoes. Ma’am’s so formal. Can I call you—’

  ‘Counselor?’ Daria answered quickly. ‘That’s Detective Alvarez’s moniker for me. DeBianchi is what the judges in Miami—’

  ‘—Dairy-uh?’ Zeffers finished, totally ignoring what she’d just said. ‘Now am I sayin’ that right? ’Cause that’s a real nice name. Real different.’

  ‘Thank you.’ She held back both the annoyed sigh and the impulse to cringe. She’d promised Manny that she would sit and listen. Like wallpaper. ‘Close enough on the pronunciation, unless you can master an Italian accent. It’s a family name.’

  ‘I-talian, huh? Don’t get many of those here in Starke. They seem to like Miami better. Ya know, Tru isn’t short for Truman, in case you were wondering. It’s jus’ Tru. You can call me that, if you like.’

  Manny rolled his eyes.

  Twenty minutes later, after a lot of testosterone-fueled prison anecdotes from Jus’ Tru, the three of them finally reached the security station for the death-row housing block. In the event of one of those worst-case scenarios, assuming her new friend wasn’t as big and brave as he was trying to pretend to be, Daria realized that even if she could find someone to open all those six-inch-thick steel security doors they’d passed through to get to where they were, she wouldn’t remember the damn way out anyhow. The place was a concrete and steel maze. Like a carnival haunted house, shrieks and catcalls came from every direction, whackos and murderers lurked behind every corner. She’d put enough men in here that the very real, very uncomfortable fact was she might actually run into one of them today. What would happen then, she thought with a chill, and hung a little closer to Manny. If all hell did break loose, she was putting her money on her supersized detective. Like he said, he really could put her under his arm like a football and run her out the door.

  The death-row cell block, for obvious reasons, was different than all other security levels they’d passed through. Zeffers had to place a key into his side of the door with his counterpart doing the same on the other side, and both men had to turn their keys simultaneously in order to open the locking mechanism. It seemed antiquated, but Jus’ Tru explained that, in the event someone gained access to the prison’s online security system and overran the rest of the prison, they still would not be able to gain access into, or out of, the death-row block without an actual key and assistance on the other side.

  Devoid of windows, the small command station was painted a dull gray and lit by long fluorescent tubes that clung to the ceiling, caged in wire mesh to prevent them from ever being broken or used as a weapon. The brains at the Department of Corrections had thought of everything. A CO sat working at a desk doing paperwork. In front of him was a multi-screened TV monitor that captured every conceivable angle of death row, as well as the general population and the prison at large. A chalkboard listing each inmate’s name, the crime he was convicted of and the cell he was in hung next to another desk, where the CO who’d opened the door now sat. Daria could see the inmates on the closed-circuit monitors, moving in time-delayed, super-slow motion. From behind a cell door off to the right
, she could hear the chatter from their televisions, the music from their radios, the flushing of a toilet somewhere, the shuffle of feet across a cement floor. When she’d asked to come here with Manny, she’d not realized she’d be this deep in the prison, standing a few feet from some of the most brutal murderers in the state. She’d imagined the interview would take place in an interrogation room in the main wing of the prison. To be this deep in the belly was definitely disturbing.

  Zeffers pulled her aside, jerked his head in the direction of the barred cell door off to the right. The one where the noises were coming from. ‘If you want, you can walk the row, Dairy-uh,’ he said, his voice little more than a whisper. ‘None of ’em’s gonna say nuthin’ to you. I can promise you that.’ He jingled the keys on his belt.

  ‘Is that where the interview room is?’ she asked.

  ‘The interrogation cell’s on the other side of Row B, but I was thinking, since you took the trip up and all, you’d want to walk it — the Row. There’s not many people I make that offer to, ’cause this is the Row, after all. But none of the boys are gonna say nuthin’ to you. I promise you that. Even in those heels,’ he added with a wheeze.

  She frowned. ‘Now why would I want to do that, Sergeant? Walk the Row?’

  Zeffers shrugged. ‘Show ’em who’s boss. Show ’em who has the power. They’re in there and you’re out here. Might help you in your interview with Bantling. He’s a difficult one. But no one’s gonna say nuthin’. See, I’m the staff sergeant tonight. They say anythin’ to you — anythin’ perverted-like, anythin’ at all — they know I will make their lives miserable. There are some pretty badass people in here that don’t respect nuthin’, but they respect that. They respect me.’

  It took a different type of person to babysit murderers and rapists all day long with only their wits as a weapon. In that regard, some COs were better equipped than others. There was a long-standing in-joke at the State Attorney’s Office, that unfortunately wasn’t far enough from the truth to be funny:‘the only difference between Corrections and the defendants is Corrections passed the test’.

 
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