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Last witness, p.16
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       Last Witness, p.16

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
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  Seven perfect people. The remaining six might as well live in China, he had thought, because he swore that he would never even look again, never get that close to a woman again. Then he’d met Assistant State Attorney C. J. Townsend. Smart, funny, and a brassy whip in court with a natural, amazing beauty that she never wanted anyone to see. But glasses and a purposely drab hair color and conservative black suits just could not hide it.

  He had not looked for it, rejecting the idea of a relationship before it had even begun. But there was more to C.J. than any other woman that he had met, and he wanted to find out what that was. He wanted her to let him in, so he could help fix whatever it was that troubled her. And he hadn’t felt that way since Natalie. Before he could say no, he had fallen into a relationship with her, and even when she tried to push him away, he would not let go, holding on even tighter, because he knew it was what they both wanted. And he knew that he loved her.

  Now the incredible ache was back. And it was a different one this time, because C.J. was not dead. Rather than a bullet tearing through her brain – this time, the man that had taken her from him had used a knife, and it had indeed hit the part that made up C.J.

  What a twist of fate, really, the way history repeats itself. Nine years later, here he was again, hunting down the animal responsible. What would he do this time? Would he learn from experience and fire his weapon before Corrections could throw him to the ground? Maybe it was a good thing that Manny had come along. Because Dominick honestly didn’t know what he’d do as a man, as a cop, when he came face to face with the monster who had readily admitted to raping the woman he loved and leaving her to die. He needed answers. Beyond that, he wasn’t quite sure what he was capable of.

  ‘Thanks for coming along, Bear,’ was all he could manage to say.

  ‘Anytime, hermano. Anytime. Now let’s go see what this asshole knows,’ the Bear replied, rolling down his window. The sweet, full smell of sugar pines and grass filled the car before Manny lit another cigarette.

  They had left the commercial strip, and for the past nine miles had rambled down Route 16, a slim two-lane highway, past simple homes and lazy cow pastures and horse stables and small farms. It was hard to imagine that there was a prison out here, much less six of them in a ten-mile radius. But the one they were going to this afternoon was different from the others. Florida State Prison was a maximum security, 24-hour confinement facility for 1200 men, the one that had earned distinction from its neighbors by housing the absolute worst of the worst offenders in the state. All were psych-grade, and all so violent that they had to be separated twenty-four hours a day even from each other. They ate alone, slept alone. Even recreational time in the yard was now spent alone: Individual four-by-four chained pens called ‘dog runs’ separated them from each other for the three times a week they were permitted outside. A walk to the shower on their block required cuffs. To the clinic, shackles and leg irons. And, of course, the prison held yet another remarkable distinction from its state brethren. For forty-four of those men, FSP would be the final stop. The basement of Q-Wing was home to Florida’s only electric chair and lethal injection room. The Death House.

  ‘Who the hell lives out here?’ said Manny in amazement, as they passed another newer-looking brick home.

  ‘Corrections. The keeper’s gotta live somewhere outside the zoo, right?’ said Dominick as they came out of the sweet pines and onto land purposely shaved flat and left barren. He turned the car left now, down the smooth blacktop and into the waiting arms of a sprawling three-story complex. Straight past three posted WARNING signs, he drove into the glimmering silver of razor-sharp, roll-top barbwire fences that unfolded over a mile, past electronic motion detectors and five-story watchtowers, right under the imposing stone archway. Rusting metal letters welcomed them to Florida State Prison.

  45

  A raspy voice squawked over a dozen hand-held radios. ‘Q-Wing walking! Clear E!’

  From almost a quarter-mile of cement hallway away, Dominick and Manny could still hear the buzz of the steel bars sliding open on Corridor E, the final barrier that led to Q-Wing, the prison’s death row. Then the buzz of doors at D-Area, and another squawk of the radio. ‘Q-Wing walking! Clear D!’

  Dominick heard him coming then. The prison guard’s boots, heavy on the cement floor, and the jingle of keys, followed by the shuffle of a man in irons and shackles. Like a hundred steel rattlesnakes waving their tails in warning, the rhythmic metal hiss got louder and heavier and more deliberate with each step. It came to a stop, ten feet away, on the other side of the solid steel door that led into the hallway. Metal keys banged off the door, then the buzzer sounded, the lock clicked, and the door opened out.

  Dominick looked up from where he sat on the edge of the small conference table. He had been to FSP a few times to interview prisoners, and he always felt his breath catch when that door swung open. In the next moment, he would get to see what these walls had sucked out of a man and what they would now spit back out. The transformation was always bad. More often than not, it was shocking.

  He could see the beige and brown uniform of the sergeant and mob of other COs surrounding the flicker of the orange shirt that identified a death row inmate. Then the door slammed shut and the sergeant barked, ‘Q-Wing 10-97, Colonel’s Room. Clear!’

  It was against FDLE policy for an agent to get personally involved with a victim, a defendant or a witness in a case. A violation could lead to an investigation by EI – the Office of Executive Investigations – the FDLE equivalent of Internal Affairs. Given his relationship with C.J., Dominick was pushing the envelope by being here, subjecting himself to possible discipline, but he no longer cared. He could feel his heart pound suddenly in his throat, and the air became thick.

  The hiss shuffled into the room, nudged by the CO behind him. ‘Let’s go, now! Move!’

  He was leaner than the last time Dominick had seen him, but even with his orange shirt and baggy blue pants, he could see that Bantling had been working out religiously. The muscles on his forearms were defined, his neck thick and tight. He wore his salty blond hair slicked back off a handsome, clean-shaven face, but the lack of sunlight on his skin contrasted sharply with the orange, and made him appear pale and ghostlike. His eyes flickered with a look of bemused confusion and he searched the room for the reason he might have been brought down. Then he spotted Dominick and Manny, and a knowing smile worked the corners of his mouth.

  ‘Call us when you’re done,’ barked the CO. His badge read Sergeant Dick Plemmel. A jumble of keys hung from his belt clip which had slipped underneath his enormous pot belly. He pointed to the phone on the table with dirty fingernails and added, We’re right down the hall if he gives ya any trouble.’ Then he jingled out of the room.

  ‘He’s such a Dick, isn’t he, Agent Falconetti?’ said Bantling, with a chuckle, after the sergeant had left. ‘He likes the inmates to believe those are keys to the prison. That he has them all and they better not fuck with him, because he can open as many doors for them as he can close. A bit of psychological warfare. Might have been an interesting thought process back in 1950, when keys and not computers opened doors, and murderers might actually have been afraid of their jailors. But the boys all laugh at Dick when he jingles by, because they know that his life out there, ironically, is even worse than theirs in here.’

  ‘How’s life been treating ya?’ asked the Bear as he settled his large frame into the seat. He pulled out a cigarette and offered one across the table to Bantling. ‘Did you get to meet Ol’ Sparky on the orientation tour?’

  Bantling ignored Manny. ‘Let’s see, Agent Falconetti. What brings you here on this lovely, hmm, what day is it… Wednesday? Forgive me, I lose track, sometimes. So much to do around here.’

  ‘I was wondering if you’d tell me,’ said Dominick.

  ‘Let’s not be coy, now. I wouldn’t tell you if you were on fire. But,’ Bantling said, his stare drifting back and forth between Manny and Dominick, ‘from
the look on you and your big friend’s faces, I’d say it must be something very serious. And considering all we have in common, I’d venture a guess that this might be about your girlfriend, Agent Falconetti.’

  Dominick looked around the room, trying to hold in all emotion, as he would with any other subject. Don’t let him draw you in. This is your interview. Control it. ‘What do you do up here all day long?’ he asked.

  ‘I think. A lot,’ Bantling said. ‘How’s it feel to be back in the limelight again? Such a celebrity. You’re the talk of the town around here.’

  ‘I see you get the papers.’

  ‘The boys on the block get very excited when they hear a cop’s been killed. You know what they say about good news – it travels fast. What is the count up to now, Agent Falconetti? Four, was it? Sounds like the people are revolting, maybe. You’d better be careful.’

  ‘Watch your goddamn mouth,’ cautioned Manny.

  ‘What are you going to do, Detective Alvarez? Arrest me? Charge me with threatening a police officer? Maybe I’m the one who needs protection. Seems like all those lying, drug-running cops had something in common before they ate a blade – me.’

  ‘You want to share anything you know about those murders?’ asked Manny.

  ‘What I know? I know that the man who falsely arrested me was the first to die. I know that the sergeant who covered for him was the last. And the two in between, maybe they were freebies.’

  ‘What do you know about a statue? A jade monkey statue?’ Dominick asked.

  ‘Now you want my professional decorating opinion?’

  ‘Don’t be a wise-ass,’ Manny said.

  ‘If I talk to you, what do I get in return?’ asked Bantling, his eyes not leaving Dominick’s.

  ‘To feel better about yourself,’ said the Bear, with an exasperated snort. ‘Just tell the man what he wants to know and we’ll leave you to your group therapy.’

  ‘Save it. I feel fine already.’

  ‘I want to know what you know about a monkey statue,’ pressed Dominick. ‘Green jade. The one where they’re covering their eyes, ears and mouth.’

  A moment passed and then a slick smile bloomed on Bantling’s face. ‘So now we get to the crux of the problem, Agent Falconetti. So this is about your girlfriend. Sweet Chloe Joanna. She is still your girlfriend, right? I mean, I don’t see a wedding band.’

  ‘That’s enough,’ shot Manny.

  ‘Are you still plucking the little flower?’

  ‘Who sent it to her?’ demanded Dominick.

  ‘I think maybe you’re not,’ Bantling cackled, answering his own question. ‘But I bet you wish you still were. So she has another admirer, does she? Sending her gifts? Busy girl.’

  ‘Who did you have send it to her?’ Dominick shouted, his hands flat across the table, his angry face in Bantling’s.

  ‘She’s exceptional, though, isn’t she?’ Bantling whispered, his blue eyes not so much as blinking, locked on Dominick’s. ‘One look at that face, that once-perfect face, and you can’t get her off your mind. And then you take her and… mmmmm.’ Bantling licked his lips. ‘Feels good.’

  ‘Watch your mouth, asshole!’ shouted the Bear.

  Dominick felt the hatred explode inside his head. If he had not checked his gun downstairs, he would have killed the man. His fist met Bantling’s smiling face, smashing his mouth shut.

  ‘Dom, no! Jesus Fucking Christ! What the fuck are you doing?’ Manny threw his chair back and grabbed Dominick from behind, pulling him off.

  Bantling pushed himself back off the table and fell, face down onto the floor. He slowly tried to stand back up, his chains rattling, blood dripping from his nose and mouth. Down the hall footsteps clambered and doors unlocked, as correction officers stormed the hall. They’d likely witnessed the scene on the room’s video camera.

  ‘You sick fuck!’ Dominick yelled, his arms still held behind his back by the Bear.

  Bantling calmly spit the blood out of his mouth onto the floor. ‘Is that what’s really bothering you, Agent Falconetti?’ he asked.

  The door opened and Sergeant Plemmel stormed in at the ready, with five COs behind him. ‘What the hell happened?’ Plemmel started. ‘What did you do?’ he yelled at Bantling.

  ‘I bet that’s it, isn’t it?’ Bantling said with a bloody smile, ignoring Plemmel. ‘That sick thought creeps into your head every goddamn night, doesn’t it? The idea that when you’re fucking her, it’s my face she still sees. Every single night. And you just hate that, don’t you?’

  ‘Get him the hell back to Q! Now!’ screamed Plemmel at the other COs.

  Bantling wiped his mouth with the back of his orange shirt. He looked at the blood on his hand and sleeve, and then up at the video camera in the corner of the room, before smiling once more. ‘I guess I’ll be seeing you all again,’ he said as two COs pushed him to the door. ‘Sergeant Dick, I think my nose might be broken. Save that tape, now!’

  ‘Let’s go, asshole!’ yelled Plemmel, hurrying out the door.

  ‘I should have fucking killed him. I should have,’ Dominick said.

  ‘Dom, easy. Calm down, man,’ said Manny, his beefy arms still wrapped around his friend. ‘He ain’t worth your friggin’ job.’

  ‘Be sure to send Chloe my regards, Agent Falconetti,’ Bantling called out behind him as he shuffled back down the hall. ‘And be sure to tell her I’ll be seeing her again, too. Real soon.’ Then he laughed as the radio squawked, ‘Clear!’ And the steel-barred doors buzzed open and then slammed shut with a dull thud.

  46

  Bill Bantling couldn’t help but smile. Hell, he was beaming right through his shattered nose and cracked tooth. And even when the nervous UF dental student pulled it before the novocaine set in, he still smiled.

  He probably should be angry, given what he had just discovered. The ugly scenario that now, unfortunately, made perfect sense. He had been set up – railroaded – three years ago, of that there was never any doubt. And as the days had melted into months and then years inside this living hell, he thought he had it all figured out. But apparently he had been missing a few pieces to the puzzle.

  Someone had put that fucking body in his trunk that night, and either through coincidence or something more sinister, a cop had pulled him over. The rest had played out in the hands of the woman he should’ve killed fifteen years ago. Once in her clutches, she had manipulated the system – the judge, the jury, the detectives, and finally, even his own useless attorney – and she had sent him up here to die, to death’s waiting room, counting down his days.

  At first he hadn’t been able to figure out who had put that body in his trunk. And then, right after they had shaved his head and fitted him with a new wardrobe, the guard had slipped him a copy of yesterday’s paper – her distraught face on the cover of it. She, C. J. Townsend, was being led out of his psychiatrist’s office by an army of police officers to a waiting ambulance. He had read the article about how the world-famous Cupid prosecutor had almost become the victim of a brutal Cupid copycat killing. Right there in Miami. Right there in the office of her own psychiatrist. Thank God she’d been able to kill the bastard before he could make her his first victim.

  That’s how the papers saw it. And the cops and the courts. Dr Gregory Chambers was a sick work-in-progress, a wannabe who was obsessed with his colleague and patient, C. J. Townsend. The real Cupid, William Rupert Bantling, was still locked up safe and sound on death row just waiting his turn. Whew, trusty citizens! We all just dodged another bullet!

  But he knew better. So did that bitch. He tried the argument in the courts when he went on trial for the murders of the other ten women he did not kill. But no one would listen, because he was already a convicted man. No one could listen because she had made sure they couldn’t. Chambers was dead, and dead men tell no tales. And the fact remained that a fresh corpse was still found in his trunk and evidence was still found at his house and the hearts of the other Cupid victims were all linked back
to him and he had already been convicted of the murder of one of them. And for some fucked-up legal reasons, it didn’t matter that the good doctor was the real Cupid, and, he figured, had set him up to be the fall guy. That Chambers had done it all for the thrill of watching that bitch go the full round with her rapist, her claws out and heading straight for his jugular. Her conviction – her victory – had been used against him in the next trial, and it drove the final nail into his coffin.

  Now, thanks to Useless Attorney Number One’s recent change of heart, professed to him in legalese in a two-page letter and sent right to his cell, he knew it wasn’t just coincidence that told a cop to flip on the blue lights and pull him over that night. And thanks to Falconetti, he now also knew that someone else besides the deceased good doctor might not want that bit of info to get out. There was someone else besides sweet Chloe Joanne who might be very content to let him die for a crime he did not commit. And now he knew why.

  It was easy to see now. Simple, actually. Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil. Very clever, he had to admit. The perfect little telegram, sent right to her door. A warning of things to come. Things that happen to witnesses and those who lie.

  He knew who C. J. Townsend’s new secret admirer was, alright. And she had every reason in the world to be afraid. In fact, she should be terrified.

  47

  She had known from the very moment she left Miami there was nowhere to run. But she had tried, heading back to the familiar shores of California where she had grown up. Three thousand miles and two time zones away, to a weekly efficiency on the beach in Santa Monica, lost in a crowd of strangers. It was not the soothing comfort and familiarity of Mom and Dad and old friends in quiet Sacramento that she sought – rather it was anonymity. She needed space and time to think, away from the constant pressure that awaited her in Miami.

 
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