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Cutting room the, p.18
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.18

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘No matter what you tell me today, innocent is not a word that is any way associated with the likes of you, Bill. You want to put your hands back on the table for me, please?’

  Bantling smiled and complied. The chains landed on the metal with a loud bang. ‘I thought perhaps you’d brought Chloe by today for a visit. Nothing against the company you’re keeping, Detective Alvarez,’ he said nodding at Daria. ‘See, if you’d listened to me back then, you’d have seen the scheme the two of them, Agent Falconetti and his bride, concocted to pump me full of poison and put me in the ground. And of course, then you’d have known that they were both guilty of multiple felonies. Felonies that would’ve sent the pair of them to prison for the rest of their lives. But you knew you’d have to slap the cuffs on your very own pals if you asked all the right questions, so you didn’t. You didn’t ask any. Not back then.’

  Manny tapped a finger on the table. ‘Two juries convicted you on two separate occasions. Both voted unanimously for death. The appellate courts have listened to your arguments, and still, here you sit on death row.’

  ‘Well, there’s an interesting twist to that, too, Detective. But the years have flown by and now, here you are with your very pretty companion as a distraction, asking me for information while I stare at her lovely face and get lost in those beautiful eyes, thinking of all the things I would love to do to her if only someone would take these chains off of me and put them on her.’

  Daria looked away again.

  ‘I’m a smart man, Detective,’ Bantling continued. ‘Using those smarts that I’ve been genetically blessed with, I’ll venture a guess and say that you and your lovely, distracting assistant are here on another case. One that you fear may be related to what I told you a long time ago.’

  There was no sense lying. Manny nodded. ‘We are investigating another murder. Murders, actually. They all look connected, but the perpetrators may be different.’

  Bantling slapped his palms on the chair arms. ‘Hot damn! I knew it!’

  ‘Now I am listening, Bill. If you have information you’d like to share. No matter what that information is or who it might implicate.’

  Bantling put a finger to his lips. ‘You know in here there’s a saying, Detective. “Everything for a price.” Cigarettes, dope, sex, favors … That applies to this situation as well.’

  ‘What are you proposing? What do you want?’ Daria interjected.

  Manny looked over at her.

  ‘She speaks,’ Bantling said, grinning. ‘I’ve been unjustly entombed in this concrete and steel coffin for the past decade, biding my time, waiting to be lowered into the ground, Miss Prosecutor; I’m in no mood to be charitable. So be prepared to take out the prosecutorial checkbook. I know what you want, Detective Alvarez. I’m also aware that you would not be coming to me, groveling for information, if you had any other source. I am the absolute last resort. And that tells me that you two really, really need to know what it is I know. It tells me you’re desperate. It tells me that there are more than a couple of murders. So, go check out your nasty crime-scene photos and look at all those dead, pretty faces snuffed out years before their time, and think what it is you’re willing to do for me. Then come back and we’ll talk. But don’t bother if you’re not going to make me a really good offer. I want out. In exchange for that, I’ll give you names. Lots and lots of names. Enough names to keep both your offices busy for years to come.’

  ‘Out?’ Manny scoffed. ‘Never happening.’

  ‘So it exists, this club. Still?’ Daria asked excitedly.

  Bantling smiled and motioned his hand across his lips, as if zipping them shut.

  Like Talbot Lunders, Bantling was a good-looking man, even in middle age — chiseled face, strong jaw, defined cheekbones. He still had all his hair, although the blond had mostly turned to gray. His smooth skin was sallow from being indoors for so many years, deprived of sunlight, and he was definitely thinner than how she remembered him from TV coverage of the trial, but he was still in great shape. His bulging forearms, thick neck, and tapered waist were not hidden by his prison-issue garb. Daria found his good looks, his tight body, his charming grin, frightening — just as she had with Talbot Lunders. Probably because, in and of itself, good looks were disarming. Both men had used their comeliness as an efficient, deadly weapon, luring women to their side, right out of busy clubs and bars, right into their cars and lairs without a backward glance. It wasn’t that Daria thought good-looking people couldn’t commit crimes, it was more the fact that not one but two better-than-averagely handsome men had been charged with atypically brutal, misogynistic crimes that was troubling. It went against her own ultra-suspicious instincts. Either man could have almost any woman he wanted. Both men had money in the bank. If either of them had tried to pick her up in a bar or a library she’d have gone willingly, too. In addition to frightening the shit out of her, that fact totally pissed her off.

  ‘Don’t think, Mr Bantling, that I’m going to walk in here next week with the keys to your cage simply because a convicted serial murderer tells me to trust him. You may think I’m stupid because I’m a woman, but let me assure you, I’m not. Tell me how it works, this club, or we’re not coming back at all. And then you can tell all the nasty stories you want about your former fellow clubbies to your neighbors on the block. Maybe they’ll give a shit. Maybe they’ll be smart enough to give me a call so I can work with them on their own sentences.’

  Bantling’s eyes narrowed. ‘Feisty. Detective Alvarez, do you let her speak to you this way?’

  ‘You heard me,’ she said.

  ‘They’re the fun ones.’

  ‘Not in the mood to chat?’ She reached for her briefcase and stood up, hoping he would not see her knees shake when she did. She had to get out of this place. ‘I’m not going to stand here while you size me up for lunch. I know who you are and I know exactly what you’re capable of.’

  Bantling’s pallid face turned beet red. ‘You have no idea what I am fucking capable of, lady,’ he hissed. ‘Not a clue.’ He pulled at his cuffs as he leaned toward her in the chair. ‘Or else you’d know that I’ve been railroaded into this hell by a manipulative, pretty little bitch just like yourself. Another woman who thought she was so damn smart. That she could play me and this system you call justice. But I’m still here, aren’t I, Detective Alvarez? Alive and kicking.’ He pulled at his leg irons and they jangled menacingly. ‘I’m not going away, either.’

  Daria backed up and stumbled over her chair. It fell to the concrete floor with a hair-raising screech.

  Manny stood up and moved to help her.

  ‘In your seat, Bantling!’ squawked Tru Zeffers over the intercom. His scratchy, drawl filled the small space. He was obviously monitoring the room via one of the surveillance cameras.

  Bantling leaned back in his chair. ‘Karma’s a bitch, Ms Prosecutor. It takes a while to come around sometimes, but personally I’ve found that it always does. Always. So you better watch yourself.’

  Daria brushed Manny’s offer of help away and picked up the chair. She waved at the camera in the corner to indicate she was okay.

  ‘Let’s not beat around the bush,’ Manny barked. ‘Answer the questions and we’ll be gone. Maybe get you some more channels on your TV if you play nice. Maybe more if you have some decent information. What I want to know is how does this snuff club work? How do the members get in touch with one another? How do they find victims? Are the victims consenting in some way?’

  ‘Subtlety was never your style, Detective Alvarez,’ Bantling answered, shaking his head. ‘It’s all just a game.’

  ‘Game? This is a game?’

  ‘Every game needs players,’ Bantling continued, cryptically. ‘Einstein once said, “First you have to learn the rules of the game. Then you have to play better than anyone else.” He was such a smart man, that Einstein. Split the atom, right? Helped develop the first nuclear bomb, right? The mother-bomb that brought about peace by killing hundreds of th
ousands of people. But a game is nothing if no one wants to watch it, right? The coliseum was built because thousands of Romans wanted to see the lions gut those Christians. And you don’t fill stadium seats with scabs. It’s the Derek Jeters and Michael Jordans that people want to spend their hard-earned money to come watch. Of course, finding talent worthy of competing with the Jeters and Jordans is very hard to find. Sometime scouts have to search through literally hundreds of faces to find that one perfect face.’ He turned to Daria. ‘Here’s your bone, Miss DeBianchi, to show you that I am, indeed, someone you can trust. The word of the day is Lepidus.’

  ‘Lepidus?’ Manny repeated. ‘What’s that?’

  ‘Lepidus?’ Daria echoed. ‘I know that name from somewhere.’

  Bantling nodded. ‘You should.’

  ‘Wait — Lepidus. Reinaldo Lepidus? Is that who you’re talking about?’ she asked.

  Bantling smiled. ‘Quick.’

  ‘The Florida Supreme Court judge?’ Daria asked.

  ‘He likes to watch.’

  ‘What?’ she asked.

  Bantling smiled again.

  She slung her briefcase over her shoulder. ‘Convenient. Judge Lepidus is dead. Maybe you should pick another name. Someone who can defend himself.’

  Bantling shrugged. ‘That’s tough luck. I bet poor Pat Graber would’ve liked to hear that.’

  Manny looked at Daria.

  ‘I don’t know that name,’ she said softly.

  ‘Remember how smart you just insisted you were?’ Bantling leaned his body into the table again. His muscular forearms tensed. On his left wrist was an ugly, raised, jagged scar, about an inch and a half long. ‘Or should I say, how stupid you weren’t? Well, I’m sure that feisty brain of yours will figure it all out. Detective Alvarez here can help with any missing details — if he wants to, that is. Then you’ll come back to me and we’ll talk again. A nice long chat. But remember to bring that checkbook, or we won’t have much to say.’

  He sniffed at the air as he relaxed in his chair. ‘Love your perfume, by the way. Channel No. 5. So very … haunting. Just like the woman who wears it.’

  26

  ‘The lightning bolt is a symbol in satanic worship,’ Daria said, reading from her iPhone as they drove down University Avenue in Gainesville, past college bar after college bar, in between which was jammed every fast-food restaurant imaginable. The staples of an American college kid’s diet all within a short, neon-lit, twenty-yard walk: beer, Big Macs, Whoppers, chalupas, and more beer. ‘Apparently it’s worn so as to have power over another person or object. It’s called a “Satanic S”. Zeus used a lightning bolt as his weapon of choice, the SS wore it on their jackets in Nazi Germany. And it’s supposed satanic meaning comes from the Bible. Luke 10:18: “And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.”’

  ‘What if it’s enclosed in a circle?’ Manny asked.

  ‘If used within a pentagram, it symbolizes Satan’s life force going into matter. But I don’t see anything about a plain circle. I don’t think it’s the same thing.’

  Manny shook his head. ‘You saw his wrist in there, right? I forgot he had that.’

  ‘I don’t know, Manny,’ Daria replied skeptically. ‘That scar could have come from a mishap with a serrated knife or jagged can. Not sure I see a lightning bolt.’

  ‘Ain’t no such thing as coincidence, Counselor. Remember I said that? Every victim has this lightning bolt/zigzag either burned on their skin or tattooed on their body, as do both our bad guys, and what you just read to me is that it symbolizes power. I see a connection, is what I see.’

  ‘Okay, Miss Cleo. Listen, I wouldn’t put too much faith into my impromptu Google search. According to this, Lady Gaga is a Satan worshipper because she face-painted a lightning bolt over her eye. Wait … same goes for Kiss, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, and Harry Potter … wow. I never knew.’ She scrolled down. ‘Hold on — the Power Rangers and the US seal are also evil symbols.’

  ‘All that’s on your phone? Damn …’

  ‘You really need to come into the twenty-first century, Detective. I bet you don’t TiVo, either.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  She sighed. ‘Are we there, yet? I need a drink.’

  ‘Mother’s Pub,’ he said, pulling into a parking lot. ‘Looks good to me. Pub means food and drink; I still gotta get us back to Miami tonight. This place your old stomping grounds?’

  ‘Those three years were a blur, Manny. I was either locked inside a building somewhere studying or I was out drinking with wild abandon. Can’t remember where. Can’t remember much.’

  He pulled into a spot and raised an eyebrow. ‘I can’t imagine you doing anything with wild abandon. You’re way too calculated.’

  ‘Thanks a lot. You’d be surprised. Cut me off after two.’

  ‘Hell, no!’ he replied with a laugh as they headed across the lot. He studied the menu posted outside the door and rubbed his stomach. ‘Check out these burgers, Counselor. I don’t know about you, but I’m starved. I just remembered we didn’t have no lunch.’

  ‘I saw what they were serving the inmates; we didn’t miss anything.’ She looked at her watch. ‘Damn. It’s almost seven. Where’d the day go?’ At this rate, she probably wouldn’t be home till four in the morning. Ugh. She had court at nine.

  ‘Well, I’m buying, Counselor. And get anything you want on that burger of yours: cheddar, bacon, jalapenos — the works. For you, sky’s the limit.’

  ‘You sure know how to treat a girl. I’m glad we’re just friends.’

  ‘If you want something more than that, I’m up for steak and lobster.’

  She laughed. ‘You’re funny.’

  ‘They even have a burger soaked in Guinness, in case you got some mick mixed in with that guinea blood of yours. That would account for that red hair. Oh, and just so you know,’ he said as he held the door open for her and she started inside, ‘we’re not negotiating with him.’

  Daria stopped. ‘That sounds final.’

  ‘It is. He’s a rapist and a murderer. A serial murderer.’

  She pushed the door closed with her hand. ‘Not according to him. I was gonna ask you — what’s with the railroading argument? And who’s Chloe? He said C.J. was her other name. Did he mean the prosecutor on his case, C.J. Townsend? Is that who he’s talking about? Did she really marry the lead detective? I never heard that. Were they involved during the trial? Wouldn’t that be considered a conflict of interest?’

  ‘Slow down, Lois Lane,’ Manny warned. ‘He’s a condemned man. Like you reminded me only a few days ago, he’s desperate. And what happened to our agreement that you would be wallpaper back there?’

  ‘Well, you didn’t tell me that he was gonna start screaming he’d been railroaded on to death row by the lead detective and his prosecutor bride. That changes things up a bit. What kind of felonies was he talking about that they’d be guilty of? Don’t you want to know?’

  They moved aside to let another couple enter the restaurant.

  ‘You’re surprised that a convicted killer might make shit like that up?’ he said when they were alone again.

  ‘No, it doesn’t surprise me. He did sound pretty upset, though. Like he knew things. Like you knew things. Or, as he put it, there were things maybe you didn’t want to know.’

  ‘Don’t get me mad. Desperate people say desperate things. We’re not cutting him loose, Counselor, no matter what names he purports to know. I’m telling you that right now, so don’t start thinking you’re Monty Hall and this is Let’s Make a Deal. Because the truth is, you’ve no idea who you’re dealing with.’

  ‘Let’s Make a Deal? Monty Hall? How old are you anyway?’

  ‘How young are you? It’s in syndication. I think.’

  ‘Judge Lepidus, huh? You think Bantling’s BS-ing about him? Maybe he’s the twist that Bantling was talking about.’

  ‘That’ll be easy enough to find out. We gotta see what the connection is betw
een the judge and that other name he gave us. I already got a call in, before you start making noise. But we gotta be real quiet, ’cause that’s something that will get the media calling — linking a Supreme Court judge to a snuff club.’

  ‘Lepidus only sat on the Supremes for a couple of years, if I remember right. Less than a full term. I think he filled the spot after Justice Kramer suddenly retired.’ Unlike US Supreme Court justices, who were appointed for life, justices on the Florida Supreme Court were appointed by the governor for six-year terms. At the end of each term, the public voted in a general election to retain them on the bench or not. She couldn’t remember whether Lepidus had stepped down or was not asked back. ‘If Bantling knows names like Supreme Court justices, we have to listen to him, Manny,’ she said as she reached to open the door again.

  He placed his hand on hers, pushing it closed once more. ‘We are not letting this guy out, Counselor. I repeat. I don’t care if he tells me Barack Obama is a player in this. A new cell, maybe. A new prison, maybe. A room with a view. Maybe we consider commuting his death sentence to life as a reward if he coughs up really important info, but he ain’t ever getting out. The man is a human monster. Trust me on this. I’ve seen what he is capable of.’

  She shrugged, moved her body under his arm, so that it dropped to his side and she opened the door. ‘I get it. But he said be prepared to deal. So if he is being honest I think we need to have something better to offer him than ESPN and a view of the trees.’

 
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