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Pretty little things, p.18
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       Pretty Little Things, p.18

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘The name seems to be sticking,’ Bobby replied, looking around at the dozens of celebrity charcoal caricatures that covered the walls of the judge’s chambers. With his enormous curly, leprechaun-red head, Karl Malden-sized noggin and small body, Judge Sullivan kind of looked like a caricature himself.

  ‘Great. Another South Florida serial killer with a catchy nickname. Look what Cupid did for tourism in Miami; they’re still taking pictures on the MacArthur Causeway,’ the judge remarked, shaking his head. ‘Stopping traffic to get a picture of five-year-old bloodstains that aren’t there any more.’

  ‘Don’t forget the dead celebs, judge,’ Stephanie chided. ‘They still stop buses on Ocean Drive in front of the Versace mansion. And that’s going on a decade. Wasn’t Anna Nicole Smith handled in this courthouse?’

  The judge grimaced, as if he’d just sucked on a lemon. ‘Don’t remind me. You couldn’t drive down Third Avenue for a month. I hope that circus fever doesn’t spread north, now. Keep your blood-thirsty tourists and their cameras in Miami.’ The judge slid the warrant across the conference table to Bobby. ‘Hope you boys find what you’re looking for this time.’ Then he slipped on his black robe and headed out the door and back to his courtroom.

  With the warrant in hand, Bobby and Stephanie stepped out into the chaotic hallways of the Broward County Courthouse. Babies in umbrella strollers whined and cried while being pushed by teens who looked far too young to be moms outside the fourth-floor courtrooms, alongside tired, middle-aged women who looked far too young to be grandmas. Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies escorted cuffed defendants to their courtrooms. Witnesses and out-of-custody defendants, some in baggy long-shorts and wife-beater tees, mingled around the wooden doors, either waiting to be called into court, or debating whether to run before they were. God rest his soul, when Bobby’s dad was on the bench in New York, he would’ve held somebody in contempt for wearing shorts in his courtroom. And whether it was a defendant or a witness wearing them, contempt would’ve meant jail.

  ‘We’ve got a signature on both. I’m headed to the house now,’ Bobby said into his Nextel as they followed the cheesy black strip of electrical tape on the floor that led pedestrian traffic from the newer criminal court wing to the older part of the courthouse and the bank of elevators that went down to the lobby. He hated the Broward courthouse. It was like a rat maze.

  ‘Was that Zo?’ Stephanie asked.

  Bobby nodded. ‘The guys are sitting up on the house. The car’s at CarMax Pompano, along with its owner. Zo and Veso are gonna seize it there. The Sheriff’s Office is assisting, since we’ll be using their lab. Thanks for being so quick with this, Steph. And thanks for coming up here with me. You didn’t have to make the trip.’

  The line for the elevators was four persons deep, so he led her by the elbow to the stairwell.

  ‘It got me out of calendar with Judge Spencer, so thank you,’ she began as they headed down, the click of her high heels echoing through the empty stairwell. ‘But I’m warning you, Bobby, we still may have a real problem with the paints that Ciro seized from LaManna’s studio. The brand looks like a match with the paint used on the Picasso paintings, and that’s good and all, but Ciro should never have seized them without a warrant. He should never have been in that room.’

  ‘But it’s because Ciro was in that room and saw what he saw that we just got warrant number two signed. Remember, the wife gave consent to search and seize.’

  ‘We may be OK on the search part, but as far as the seizure, the room was hubby’s and hubby’s alone. Debbie LaManna’s claiming she didn’t even know it existed. If this guy is our Picasso, the argument that LaManna’s slick defense attorney will eventually make is that the wife didn’t have authority to consent to the seizure of husband’s things that she clearly had no control over. I don’t mean to be argumentative or rain on your search-warrant parade, but …’

  A senior prosecutor with over a decade of trial experience – including a couple of years experimenting on the dark side with criminal defense – Stephanie definitely knew her way around a case and a courtroom, and she was pretty damn good at guessing what was coming at her around every corner. She never tried to sugar-coat shit, either. Some cops – a lot of cops, actually – didn’t like it when a pretty girl was smarter than them. And they really didn’t like it when that pretty, smart girl let them know just how smart she was without at least stroking their egos first. But that’s what Bobby appreciated about Stephanie – he always knew where she was coming from. And he was smart enough himself to listen.

  ‘Well, there’s no unringing a bell,’ Bobby said with a shrug. ‘LaManna’s on twenty-four-seven surveillance now. If he is our guy, the hope is he’ll lead us to the Boganes sisters and anyone else he’s holding.’

  ‘You mean Lainey,’ she said as they reached the first floor.

  ‘And any other missing girls that we think he may be keeping,’ Bobby said quietly as he held the lobby door open for her.

  Stephanie stopped walking and stared at him. Then she shut the door with her hand, so that they were alone again in the stairwell. ‘Bobby,’ she said softly, ‘I’ve known you for a long time. You’re one of my favorite agents. I’m thrilled that you’re working this case, because I know it’s in the best of hands. But …’ she took a deep breath. ‘I gotta ask – are you OK with all this? I mean, this is real close to home.’

  Stephanie and he had worked together long enough and closely enough on a couple of cases so that they’d developed not only a good working relationship, but a friendship as well. Stephanie knew all about Katy. She’d been one of the very first to offer help in those horrible days right after Katy had run off.

  ‘You corner me in a dark, empty stairwell to tell me I’m your favorite? I’m blushing,’ Bobby joked with a wry smile.

  ‘Ha, ha,’ she returned. ‘You don’t make this easy on a person, do you?’ She shook her head. ‘Cops, you know, they’re so big and strong that nothing and no one can break them. I’m just saying that … well, look, I won’t pretend to know what you’re going through, but I know that it must be hell, Bobby.’

  ‘It’s a party, sweetheart.’

  ‘We haven’t talked much in the past year.’

  ‘Not much to talk about.’

  ‘How are things at home, then? Can I ask that?’

  Bobby shrugged. ‘Sure you can ask.’

  She looked hurt. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to stick my nose where it obviously doesn’t belong. My bad.’ She turned to walk away and open the door.

  He gently grabbed her arm and pulled her back to him. The smile was gone. He ran a hand through his hair, trying hard to pull his thoughts together. ‘Things are … tough, Steph. I’m not gonna lie. Look, I appreciate you asking, but this year has been, like you said, hell. Pure hell. My wife has not recovered. Neither have I. I don’t think we ever will. No, I know we never will.’

  She nodded but said nothing, waiting for him to go on.

  He took a deep breath. ‘Everything’s changed. Everyone’s different. Sometimes I feel LuAnn and I are like two strangers in this little boat just sailing the world all alone, hoping to find our way back home, but in the meantime just trying to find some land. A place where we can stop paddling and searching and just … be. And every day we don’t find home, every day we don’t even find that little patch of land, we forget more and more what it is we’re looking for. I mean, we remember home as Utopia, right? But meanwhile, maybe we’re passing by a lot of smaller opportunities to just … be. To just make it.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m an asshole. I shouldn’t be saying nothing. That’s all the Red Bull talking on no sleep. But you asked, Counselor.’

  ‘I did ask,’ she replied softly. ‘Look, do you really think you’re the only one in the world to have relationship issues? Especially after a – for lack of a better word – tragedy? Don’t be such a guy.’

  He smiled. ‘You must have a way with getting people to talk, Counselor. That’s why all those
defendants are afraid to take the stand. Afraid of what you’re gonna get them to say.’

  She blushed. Stephanie was pretty, no doubt, with long, thick dark red hair and fiery blue eyes that lit up when she was angry or got an idea. He’d heard more than one cop fantasize about what she looked like underneath her fitted suits. Bobby had wondered once or twice why she’d never gotten married.

  ‘Thanks for the compliment,’ she said. ‘So where do you go from here? I mean, with your daughter?’

  ‘I keep looking. I’ve had some sightings in California. San Fran and Venice Beach. I’ve been to the runaway hot spots in Jersey, New York, Vegas, Detroit. Nothing. Then last month Covenant House sent me a picture of a girl out of New Orleans that could’ve been her, but it was so blurry there was no telling for sure. By the time I got there, she was gone.’

  A couple of clerks walked down the stairs past them and out the stairwell. Neither Bobby nor Stephanie said anything. ‘Do you think there’s a possibility he has her?’ Stephanie asked quietly when they were gone and the door had closed again. ‘That Picasso has Katy? Is that what I’m sensing here?’

  Bobby sighed and slapped his hand on the wall. ‘I can’t go there. That was the first thought that crossed my mind when I realized that there might be more victims. But no, I can’t go there. There are thousands of runaways out there. And some don’t come home because they don’t want to. Because they’re not ready, is all. Anything else, and …’ He closed his eyes. ‘Well, I just can’t go there, Stephanie.’

  She grasped his hand, her warm fingers wrapped tightly in his. He squeezed back. It felt good. It was a weird sensation, though – one that immediately had him feeling guilty. The other night at the dining table covered with MEPIC flyers was the first time LuAnn had spontaneously touched him in months. Like he had just blurted to Stephanie for some unknown reason, since Katy had run away, things had slowly but surely gotten more and more distant between them. He was sure LuAnn blamed him for Katy leaving. No doubt she harbored resentment that it was his final words to cut Ray out of Katy’s life once and for all that made her leave. His initial indiscretion in letting her date the boy that they both knew right off the bat was bad news. His failure to recognize that Katy was doing drugs long before track marks appeared on her skinny arm. Over the past eleven months he’d watched as LuAnn withdrew into her world – working more hours, going out with friends when she did have free time. He probably had, too, to be fair – but work for Bobby was no escape. It provided no relief. Looking for someone else’s missing kid while staring at a wall with his daughter’s smiling picture on it just made him that much more aware of his failings as both a father and a cop. And now, feeling the way he was feeling, with Stephanie’s hand in his, the smell of her perfume filling the small space between their bodies, made him that much more aware of his failings as a husband. He pulled away and opened the lobby door.

  ‘You know, I’m here if you need me,’ Stephanie said softly, as she stepped past him. ‘That’s all I’ll say. I’m here for you if you need an ear. Good luck today.’

  He nodded slowly. Then he watched as she walked out into the bustling lobby and disappeared into the crowd.

  45

  Walter ‘Wally’ Jackson was tired of getting the shit beat out of him. Having lived on the streets for so many years he’d lost count, he knew the dangers that came with resting your head under a bridge when the sun went down. It used to be that cops were your biggest worry – hassling you from place to place when the neighborhood started to complain, messing with your nest when you went out to rustle up a little change during the day. While sitting in a jail cell might fill the stomach and keep you out of the rain, a loitering arrest all but guaranteed that when you finally did get CTS – credit time served – all your shit would be long gone. Now, partying with the wrong person, getting jacked while you were high, pissing on someone else’s nest or fucking with someone’s lady – those were all things that any fool could tell you would bring trouble. Homeless or not, you can’t lose your common sense just cause you don’t have a crib and a job. But lately, living on the streets presented a whole new set of fucked-up dangers to look out for. The rules of fair play and survival had apparently changed, and twice in the past six months – twice – Wally had had his skull split open by punks with peach fuzz on their balls and too much time on their hands. Macho teenage faggots who took to beating up guys like him with baseball bats just for fun. ‘Bum bashing’ was what it was called, and it was apparently now some sort of fucked-up sport all over the world, someone at the hospital had told him the first time they’d put his brains back inside his head. It could be worse, that same someone had told him. In Miami, a guy had been lit up like a birthday candle with his own bottle of Popov vodka while he slept off a big one. But Wally hadn’t listened to all the dire warnings. He’d gone back to his nest in Birch State Park. This time, though, when he woke up with another sixty staples on the other side of his dented melon, he’d decided it was time to take the warnings a bit more seriously.

  With a brown paper bag full of all the shit he owned in the world under one arm and a six-pack of Schlitz under the other, Wally had walked out of the hospital Monday afternoon, gotten on a bus, and tried to figure out where the hell he was gonna go now. Since his aching head was still wrapped in bandages, a shelter was what the discharge nurse had suggested. But Wally knew from previous encounters at the Homeless Assistance Center that there was more of a chance of getting into a fistfight there than under a bridge with an acne-faced bastard and his friend, Louisville Slugger. Besides, Wally liked his space. He liked doing as he pleased. He didn’t need no one telling him how to live just because they fronted you a pillow and a hot meal.

  He remembered his old friend Bart, who he’d chummed with for a while before Bart dropped dead last summer. Bart used to have great ideas on where to crash when things were getting hot with the cops or you needed to stay dry. Fort Lauderdale beach was full of second and third homes, owned by old people who didn’t like to come down to Florida till it got real cold up north, like January and February. Great places to crash. Course, the penalty was a lot stiffer if you got caught in someone’s crib rather than in a park after hours – Bart had showed him the scar from the bullet that had hit his chest, courtesy of a trigger-happy cop who’d caught him sneaking in a window. You could be looking at prison time, too. Of course, Wally thought, as he stepped off the bus at Las Olas and Hendricks Isle, those were things you only had to worry about if you got caught.

  Like a lot of older homes on the swanky isles off Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard, almost every other house on Hendricks seemed to be in some state of construction or deconstruction. Old houses were being torn down, new mansions were being built, and towering dockside condos were going up on both sides of the street. Mixed in with all the new construction were a few old houses further down the block that were shuttered like bomb shelters – at least until winter officially arrived in a couple of months. Homes that were too old for alarms.

  With the sun almost down now, the construction sites were all abandoned. Even so, Wally knew that limping like a zombie down the middle of the road with a mummy-wrapped head and stitched-up face would definitely attract the attention of anyone who might be out for a jog or walking her dog, so he ducked inside the concrete bones of a half-built mansion and cracked open a cold one while he waited for it to get dark. When the lights came up on the houses and their matching yachts on the isle across the waterway, he slipped out through graveyards of landfill, broken concrete, and rusted rebar to the crumbling seawall, following it along till he found the house Bart had told him about: The flamingo pink ranch with the hurricane shutters on the back door and the extra key hidden in a magnetic hide-a-way box behind the dead flowerpot. In just a few minutes he’d be inside and out of sight, hopefully enjoying some AC if he could get the darn thing to work.

  Except the hide-a-way box was gone.

  Damn. The windows were all sealed with metal a
ccordion shutters. Wally looked around. His head was killing him. Maybe he should just make camp here in the backyard and look for a new place in the morning. Then he spotted the old forty-foot sailboat docked behind the house. If the owners obviously weren’t here till at least next month, then they just as obviously would not be needing their boat, which didn’t look to Wally like it had seen much sea time lately anyway. Crown Jewel was the faded name gold-scripted on the back. With no intimidating shutters to worry about, Wally figured it would require a lot less effort to get inside the Crown Jewel than the Crummy Abode. He limped down to the sailboat and climbed aboard. It would be too much to hope for some food down below, but you never knew. Maybe there’d be a couple of cans and some bottled water. A few brews would be nice, too. That would hold him for a couple of days till he felt up to going back out on the street and raising some cash.

  It was too easy. A quick jimmy with the pocket knife he kept in his sock and he was in. The wood door led down to a cabin below. As he climbed down the skinny stairway into pitch blackness, he hoped that Bart hadn’t blabbed to a few dozen other guys about this place. He didn’t need to get his ass kicked again.

  It was the smell that had him thinking that perhaps his first hunch was right, that maybe someone else was living aboard the Crown Jewel. It was a rancid smell, like of really bad BO, or maybe of old, rotting garbage, but it was not overpowering. It was more like it had been really, really bad and was fading away. And it was mixed with the stink of mildew. The owners had probably left the freaking fridge open with food in it. Without electricity, the food had gone bad. He hoped there were no bugs. He hated flying roaches. Wally stuck a cigarette in his mouth and reached for his lighter. Time to see what tonight’s accommodations would look like.

 
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