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Cutting room the, p.17
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.17

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the ulterior motive behind Jus’ Tru’s proposition. He wanted to capture ASA Dairy-uh on surveillance video, strutting in front of the convicted rapists and murderers, getting them all hot and bothered in her high heels and power suit. Jus’ Tru would then surely make a bootleg copy of his Prosecutors Gone Wild footage, so that every night from the comfort of his worn recliner he could rub his potbelly, play with his thick hair, and relive his wicked fantasies with the shades drawn.

  ‘Not today,’ she answered coolly and went to join Manny on the other side of the room.

  Zeffers turned red and the smile disappeared. ‘We decided not to transport Bantling till ya’all got here,’ he announced. ‘He don’t know you’re coming, just in case that news was gonna upset him. It’s a tough job to get an inmate out of a death cell when he don’ wanna go. Gotta call in an extraction team, take the necessary pre-cautions. It gets messy and a whole lot dangerous, ’cause they got nothing left to lose.’

  ‘How long’s it gonna take to get him into the room?’ Manny asked.

  ‘Depends on if Mr Bantling wants to cooperate or not.’

  ‘I’d like to interview him today, Sergeant. Not when he feels like it.’

  ‘Any of these yours?’ Zeffers asked Daria, motioning to the chalkboard with the defendants’ names on it.

  She shook her head.

  ‘You know, you should pay a visit to hell before you send a man down into it.’ Then Jus’ Tru turned and headed down a corridor that ran parallel to Row B, motioning with another hook of his finger for them to follow. He stopped outside a solid-steel cell door, gestured up at a camera and the door buzzed. Inside, more caged fluorescents lit the gray cinderblock. Three chairs had been set up around a metal table. Iron restraints hung from thick bolts in the wall. The room smelled dank, like the muddy crawl space of an old house that vagrants had continuously pissed in.

  ‘Let’s hope he wants to cooperate,’ Zeffers said as he walked out. ‘Use the buzzer if you need something, or just shout. One of us’ll be here in the hallway.’

  ‘What the hell happened back there?’ Manny asked with a bemused smirk when the door slammed shut. ‘What’d you do to that guy? You pissed him off, didn’t you?’

  ‘Yuck.’

  ‘Nothing like letting ’em down easy, Counselor.’

  ‘I didn’t want to walk death row is all.’

  ‘Not in those heels you don’t. You’d be the star in a bunch of fantasies come tonight.’

  ‘Yuck.’

  ‘You wanted to come.’

  ‘Yuck again.’

  Manny nodded at the steel door. ‘You do know what this guy did to eleven women, right? He may harbor a few fantasies of you himself tonight. If you can’t handle it, you can wait outside with your new friend. I’m sure he won’t mind. Maybe give you a private tour of his office.’

  ‘Very funny. I’ll take my chances with the serial killer. You can protect me in here.’

  ‘I’ll do my best, but don’t piss Bantling off. I gotta get inside this guy’s head. You may be the distraction I need to do that, ’cause I don’t think he’s gonna be too happy to see me. We didn’t part on good terms.’

  She stared at him. ‘Great. Now you tell me I’m bait?’

  ‘There’s always Tru, Counselor. He’s outside that door, waiting for you to call his name. Oh, Tru!’ he cooed in a high-pitched voice. ‘Tru, you handsome thing, you! Come save me! Let me run my fingers through your fabulous hair!’

  She rolled her eyes. ‘Fine, fine. Stop. I’ll be bait. You owe me.’

  ‘You may want to lose a few buttons on that blouse. For the sake of my interview, of course.’

  She stared at him again. ‘What?’

  Manny laughed. ‘Just kidding, Counselor. Relax.’

  Down the hall, chains jingled and jangled, mixed with the heavy-soled thud of shoes lifting and dragging on cement. Daria recognized that sound. She’d heard it before in the halls of the courthouse many times. It was the sound of an inmate being transported.

  ‘I don’t like the idea of my being in debt to you, though,’ Manny said, with a sigh and a shake of his head.

  Closer.

  She could actually feel the fear down in her belly, crawling like an alien, trying to escape up into her throat. She shivered, though the room wasn’t cold.

  ‘You know what they say about that,’ she answered softly.

  The footfalls had stopped. The jangling had stopped. Right outside the door.

  ‘What’s that?’ asked Manny.

  ‘Payback’s a bitch,’ she whispered, as the lock buzzed and the steel cell door swung open.

  24

  ‘You got company. Move it out.’

  Bill Bantling looked up from his book. A black-suited, helmeted, three-man extraction team stood outside his cell.

  Sergeant Zeffers banged his baton against the cell bars, like the ring master at the circus, trying to get the tigers up and moving. ‘Let’s go,’ he barked. ‘Don’t make this difficult, now, Billy.’

  Such drama. And delivered with a grating Southern twang.

  Bill put his book aside and sat up on the edge of his cot. At moments like this, when the anger began to swell inside him, he was comforted knowing that the little men who worked in this damned place did so not for the pittance they were paid or the state benefits, or because they wanted to keep society safe from mass murderers and other villains. Or any other such selfless bullshit. He knew the real reason misfits like Zeffers put on their ugly green uniforms every day was because they fed on power and lived for some drama — any drama — in their sad, empty lives. The excitement that was generated simply by punching a clock at a supermax prison was enough to power more than a few conversations with the whores and barflies congregating down at the local watering hole come quittin’ time. Add a little more drama, like a confrontation, and they would score big. Of course Bill knew, as did every other inmate, that on most workdays, those same, small, self-important men were nothing more than waiters delivering room service to the inmates, escorting killers to the showers and occasionally sticking their fingers way up a prisoner’s asshole to find out if he was hiding something special in his bowels. Not much drama in that. So they had to make some up whenever they could. It was clear from the baton-waving and barked commands that Sergeant Tru Zeffers was trying to impress someone.

  Bill just stared at the three blobs in body armor. One started to scratch at his head under his clear face-mask. Another kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The third wiped a thick band of sweat from his lip with the back of his hand. Take away the power hose, body armor, and deflection shields, and Bill knew that none of the drama-seekers standing before him would voluntarily go three minutes in the ring with either him or any one of his neighbors on the block. And that included the not-so-big, not-so-bad, and not-so-brave-when-no-one-is-looking Tru Zeffers. Everybody else knew it, too, save for those desperate women and thirsty drunks waiting on someone in a green jacket to come tell them a good story …

  Bill slowly rose to his feet and made his way calmly to the cell bars. There was a horizontal slit in the center of the door, so that inmates could stick their hands out and get cuffed before an officer opened it. He put his hands into the slit. ‘Company?’

  ‘No questions. Step back,’ Zeffers barked after the cuffs were snapped on. ‘Now get face-down on the cot.’ Bill complied, the officers entered the cell, and a set of leg irons was slapped on his ankles.

  As they wrapped him in chains, he let his mind drift. It had been a long time since he’d had a visitor. Even his latest attorney just phoned in when he needed to deliver news. He had no family and he had no friends, so that eliminated social calls. He did have lonely, and unfortunately usually homely, women from all over the world, who sent him love notes and pictures, hoping for a marriage proposal, but they would never get a visit without being on a list of individuals pre-approved by the warden, which meant the
y would never get a visit.

  There was an off, off chance that it could be a media visit, but seeing as the warden didn’t allow those either, at least not for him, Bill doubted that was it. He was already a celebrity, a once-upon-a-time household name. And no one in Prison Administration wanted to see that name resurrected on Internet trending boards or appearing on Dateline investigative specials. Society wanted to bury Bill Bantling in supermax, far away from the cameras and the microphones, hoping that — unlike the infamous, crazy Charles Manson, who continued to make press whenever he came up for parole — Billy would one day fade into the cinderblock and finally be forgotten by the outside world, and the name Cupid would once again only be thought of as belonging to a fat, naked angel with a bow and arrow and incredible aim.

  ‘Dead man walking!’ Zeffers barked loudly as they paraded him down the row. A dog-and-pony show meant to impress someone. Probably the head of prisons, or some other useless figurehead. More drama. Unless you were taking someone off the row and moving them to the basement on Death Watch status — which was the period after a death warrant was signed but before it was executed, when the machines were tested to make sure they were in working order for the big day — nobody on the block gave a shit if their neighbor was taking a walk or taking a leak.

  Zeffers turned a corner that led to Row B. They headed down another corridor, before stopping in front of a solid steel door with a small slit resembling a mail slot halfway down the door. It was the interrogation room. He’d met his attorney there once.

  That was when he smelled it.

  The unmistakable scent of Chanel No. 5. It hung in the air — just a hint, the memory of a fragrance that had been sprayed hours before, and now only lingered on clothes and hair.

  He stared at the door.

  There was a woman inside that room.

  His heart began to pound. His pulse quickened. He inhaled deeply.

  Perhaps not just any woman …

  Zeffers motioned at the camera. ‘Open up!’ he shouted. The door buzzed. ‘Don’t get stupid on us, now, boy. Play nice, and so will we,’ Zeffers said, pushing Bantling from behind into the room. ‘Use the foot restraints to lock him,’ he commanded the team.

  Bill shuffled into the room, his arms extended before him, attached by a steel bar to the leg irons on his ankles. Standing behind a table, facing away from him, he saw her shapely figure, the curves her black suit could not hide. Long, dark red hair, that spilled down her back. The pale, nude flesh of her sculpted calves. Her slender fingers, resting on the edge of the table, their nails painted a light pink.

  ‘Hi there, Bill,’ said a familiar voice, complete with a slight Cuban accent. To the woman’s left, her companion rose like a mountain at her side, a notepad and folder in hand that he’d pulled from a briefcase on the floor.

  And then the woman in black turned around. He was instantly disappointed.

  This was not the ‘she’ he’d hoped to see. Nonetheless, she was pretty. Very pretty. Light blue eyes watched him carefully, like a bird might watch an approaching cat. She was obviously frightened of him, although she was struggling not to show it. Any sudden movement, and she would surely fly away, hide behind the grizzly beside her for protection. Her smooth skin was the color of talcum powder; her full lips, painted a deep, matte red, were drawn. The sight of him had drained the color from her already pale face.

  A vile, delicious thought popped into his head. Oh, the things he could do to that luscious red mouth …

  Detective Manny Alvarez had come to pay him a visit. And he’d brought along a beautiful woman in a business suit. Not the woman he wished the detective had brought with him, but a woman nonetheless — something Bill hadn’t seen in a long, long time. Too long. But the equipment down south still worked — he was growing hard as a rock.

  The incredible anger that had coursed through his veins earlier was gone. It was going to be a great day, after all, he thought, the wheels turning in his head. He sniffed at the air again.

  A really great day.

  25

  ‘Open up!’ yelled a voice on the other side of the door.

  Daria stood at the table and swallowed the thick lump that had formed suddenly in her throat. She turned away to face the wall and compose herself, to make sure her expression did not betray the fear that had gripped her insides. She could hear the jangle of chains and shuffle of bodies on the concrete floor on the other side of the door, a few steps away. Like a scene written for a horror movie, the cell door opened slowly, with a long, screechy creak.

  He’s just a man, she told herself. This is not Hannibal Lecter. This is not a movie. Don’t lose yourself in the drama. You’ve handled bad cases before. You’ve gone up against terrible men. You’ve kept it together. You’re only wallpaper. Don’t let him get inside your head.

  She bit the inside of her cheek and turned around slowly.

  And there he was, standing in the doorway in his orange shirt and blue pants, his body backlit by the bright fluorescents that lit the corridor behind him — Cupid.

  Arguably, the most infamous living serial killer in the world. Right up there with Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler, the Original Night Stalker, the Green River Killer, the Zodiac Killer. She watched as Corrections moved him into the room and sat him down before her, no more than two feet from where she stood, her arms folded across her chest, trying her best to look like an unemotional hard-ass. Only the metal table separated their bodies. Two COs locked his leg irons into a long chain that reached the wall and attached his wrist cuffs to the chair arms at his side. All the while he never took his eyes off her.

  ‘Hi there, Bill,’ Manny said.

  Bantling did not blink. But he did smile. At her.

  As much as she’d tried to tell herself over the past week that Bill Bantling was just another defendant, that this was just another interview, she knew now she’d been fooling herself. Her knees had never before shaken when a subject simply entered the room. Her heart had never pounded so hard in her chest, her skin gone clammy. Maybe it was his reputation that chilled the air — knowing what those chained hands had done to his victims before they’d finally, mercifully, died — but the creepy feeling that raised the hairs on the back of her neck was almost supernatural. She was surely in the presence of evil.

  ‘Normally we unlock them if they’re gonna be meeting with their attorneys, but considering who this guy is, we don’t ever take off the restraints outside his cell, ’cept for the shower, of course,’ Tru Zeffers announced, looking purposely over at Daria when he did. ‘Call me when you’re done. Or sooner, if ya need to.’

  ‘Detective Alvarez,’ Bantling began pleasantly enough after the cell door had shut. ‘It’s been a real long time.’ Although he was addressing Manny, his eyes had not yet left Daria.

  ‘Yes, it has. I’m over here, Bill,’ Manny answered, waving a paw in Bantling’s direction.

  ‘Who’s your new friend?’ Bantling asked.

  ‘My name is Daria DeBianchi. I’m a prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.’

  Bantling’s blue eyes crackled to life. ‘DeBianchi, hmmm? I don’t think I’ve heard your name before. But then again, you’re so … young.’

  ‘Let me tell you why we’re here,’ Manny started.

  ‘Please do. As you can see, I’m glued to my seat, waiting on your every word, Detective Alvarez. Nowhere to go, so don’t be boring.’

  ‘Do you remember the last time we spoke?’

  ‘It’s been some time.’

  ‘It has. Several years. You told me about a club you were once a member of. A snuff club, you called it. Do you remember that conversation, Bill?’

  ‘Perhaps.’

  ‘I want to talk to you about that club.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Well, I guess you can talk to me about anything you want, Detective Alvarez. But that doesn’t mean I’ll tell you anything. As for club memberships, I will say th
at I’m not much of a joiner nowadays. I don’t get out too often. About once a year I take a mini-vacation down to the basement of this facility for a week or so. They call that Death Watch, Detective. It’s a larger cell, better food. The view …’ Bantling shook his head. ‘Not so good. Then my attorneys pull off what they like to call another miracle and I move back upstairs. “Dodged another bullet, Bill,” those attorneys always say. “More like a needle,” I always reply.’

  ‘You said this club was headed up, or run by, Gregory Chambers.’

  ‘Ooh … a name I really don’t like to hear. Hope he’s finding hell hot enough.’

  ‘What was your relationship with Dr Chambers, Bill?’

  ‘Initially? Therapeutic. He was supposed to cure me of my nasty thoughts. Instead, he gave me some great ideas.’

  ‘How long were you a patient of his?’

  ‘Long enough to figure out he was sicker than me.’

  ‘When did the relationship change? When did Dr Chambers bring this club he was a member of to your attention?’

  Bantling didn’t respond.

  ‘How did he tell you about it? How did it operate? Did you ever see the other members?’

  ‘That’s a million-dollar question.’ His eyes were still glued on Daria. His chained hands were in his lap. She saw that they were moving. She shifted in her seat and looked away.

  ‘I need to know if it’s still operating,’ Manny asked.

  ‘You mean is it still up and running without the real Cupid there to hold down the fort? Now that Greg Chambers is among the not-so-dearly departed, did the group he loved to show off his illustrious talents to disband? There is a point to your questions, right? You know, you had an opportunity a few years ago to find out all you wanted to know, but you chose not to listen. You chose to walk away. And I haven’t heard from you since. Not a note, not a visit. Nothing. What’s it been, Detective? Five years? Six? No, I’ll tell you, it’s been seven years. Seven years. That’s how long ago I was shipped back to this hellhole to die for crimes I did not commit. You walked out on me because you didn’t want to hear it. Because it was inconvenient for you to know such things, because then you’d have no choice but to see the ugly truths about your special agent friend Falconetti and his not-so lovely bride, Chloe. Or is it C.J.? What alias is the little minx using nowadays? Or should I say, hiding behind? I hear that she’s no longer with the office. No longer putting innocent men on death row. That’s a relief.’

 
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