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Cutting room the, p.19
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.19

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘You’re new at this, so I’m gonna cut you slack. I’m telling ya, he won’t show you his till you show him yours, and by then it’ll be too late to see you’ve been BS’d,’ he answered, following her inside. ‘It was probably a mistake to bring you up here …’

  ‘You’re gonna need to be straight up with me, Manny.’ She turned to him, her blue eyes narrowed to slits. ‘I know you’re holding back. I don’t know what and I can’t figure out why. But I will.’

  ‘Don’t get all Matlock on me, now, Counselor,’ he returned, signaling to the approaching waitress they needed a two-top.

  ‘Matlock? Is that in syndication too?’

  Then the waitress was upon them with menus, escorting them through the busy restaurant to a table, and the uncomfortable subject of Bill Bantling was lost somewhere in the noisy crowd.

  Three hours later, they were still at Mother’s, although they’d moved to the bar. After the burgers, they’d had a couple more beers, then the band had taken the stage and they’d decided to stick around and listen, and since they — Briggs Ditch Revolution — were actually pretty good, Manny suggested they stay for a few songs. One more beer had led to two had led to a hell of a lot more. The crowd had gotten thicker, the air hotter, the distance between their bar stools and bodies narrower. The music had gotten so loud, that talking into each other’s ears was the only way to hear anything. Daria couldn’t remember who’d leaned in first. Who’d said that first seriously flirty thing that had led not to a rebuke but to the first seriously flirty response. She remembered his hand on her knee, and then her hand on his. She remembered looking at biceps the size of her thighs that she could make out even through the rolled-up sleeves of his dress shirt, and thinking something stupid like how she was really happy he’d been so big and strong back in that creepy prison, and how she knew he would have protected her in a worst-case scenario event and how incredibly sexy that was. And then his lips were on hers. Or maybe hers were on his, but that was how it all began. That was why she always stopped at two.

  But not tonight. Tonight she drank with wild abandon, and left tomorrow to deal with all the regrets that were sure to follow.

  27

  ‘Anything on your car, Christina?’

  C.J. glanced up from the mess of paperwork on her desk. Santa Barbara Chief Deputy DA Jason Mucci was standing in the doorway of her office. She shook her head. ‘Nope. Special Investigations is working it, but I’m not expecting much. The insurance company’s gonna write me a check.’

  ‘It sucks, having your car stolen, especially at work. What kind was it?’

  ‘A forest-green 2007 Ford Explorer,’ she replied with a sigh. ‘Affectionately known as the Green Giant.’

  He laughed. ‘You named your car?’

  ‘Green Giant was the first brand-new car I ever bought. Don’t ask me why I picked green, it just called to me from across the lot. I thought I’d have it forever.’

  ‘May the Jolly Green Giant rest in peace, then,’ Jason proclaimed. ‘Or, as is more likely, in pieces. You do realize your first brand-new car has probably been chopped into a few dozen small parts and scattered about the county by now.’

  ‘Sounds like a few victims I’ve known.’

  He laughed again. ‘Well, now you can relate to what your victims go through. You’re officially a victim yourself.’

  C.J. already had him there, but said nothing. She just nodded.

  ‘What’re you driving now?’

  ‘A rental. A red Saturn something.’

  ‘Not so affectionately called the Red Ass?’

  It was her turn to laugh.

  ‘Time to move up in the world. How about a Bentley?’

  ‘How about a raise?’

  He smiled. ‘The forfeitures are going to auction next month in Ventura. You should pick yourself up a Ferrari. Something zippy. I think you’d look real cute in a convertible. Shades on, long brown hair blowing in the breeze.’

  ‘No, thanks, Jason. I don’t need some convicted criminal, pissed off their car was seized by the government, coming to reclaim it from my garage in the middle of the night. I have enough troubles. I’m thinking maybe a Jeep Rubicon. Something rugged.’

  ‘Very California. Is that where you’re from?’

  ‘Originally,’ she replied softly. ‘I guess I’ll have to go car shopping this weekend, although I think I prefer root canal to dealing with car salesmen.’

  He glanced around and then stepped into her office. ‘Want some company?’ he asked quietly. ‘We could grab some dinner afterwards, maybe hit a wine bar.’

  ‘I’m married, Jason,’ she replied quickly. ‘Separated, actually.’ She fiddled with the ring finger on her left hand. It was bare. ‘But still married,’ she said softly.

  ‘Oh. Didn’t know that.’ There was a long and awkward silence as everything changed. He backed into the doorway again, red-faced. ‘How’s your trial going?’ he tried.

  ‘We’re in a holding pattern. One of the jurors has a medical issue, so the judge has given everyone a couple of days off.’

  ‘I saw your defendant, Kassner, with his attorney, down at Brophy’s having lunch today.’

  ‘Lucky you.’

  He scratched his head. ‘I can’t believe that guy’s out.’

  She shrugged. ‘Before my time. I get to put him back in, though.’

  ‘Funny, he was driving a 2007 forest-green Explorer.’

  Her stomach suddenly flip-flopped. ‘What?’ she asked anxiously.

  ‘Only kidding,’ Jason said with a laugh, happy, she was sure, that he’d panicked her for a split-second. It probably made him feel better about being turned down. ‘Good luck with your trial. And car shopping. See ya, Christina.’

  She listened as he walked off down the hall, his heavy footsteps finally fading as he rounded a corner. She blew out a breath. Where had that all come from? She never told anyone anything about herself. But suddenly she’d given away half her personal life in a few short sentences.

  Originally from California. I’m married. Separated, actually.

  Actually, Jason, I don’t know what I am, where I’m from, or what the fuck I’m doing here. And by the way, my name is not Christina. So I guess I also don’t know who I am.

  She fingered the validated parking ticket on her desk. The one stamped Friday, July 1, 2011, 9:32 a.m. from the Lobero Garage. She swallowed the lump in her throat.

  And I’m hoping no one else knows that information either …

  While she couldn’t remember the exact time she’d parked and she couldn’t be one hundred percent positive it was the same ticket, it sure looked a lot like the ticket she’d had stamped when she pulled into the lot on Friday morning. She’d left it in the car, tucked up in the Green Giant’s visor. And of course, her car was missing when she got back that night.

  She took off her glasses and rubbed her tired eyes.

  This morning when she went to court on Kassner, there it was, the ticket, sitting on the People’s table, neatly placed between the water pitcher and a box of tissues. No one had taken credit for finding it or for putting it there. It was simply there, waiting for her.

  Maybe she’d put it in her purse, after all, not the car. Maybe it had fallen out on Friday night and the janitor had placed it on the table for her to see on Tuesday. Or maybe it belonged to someone else’s car, and it was all a big coincidence. Maybe, maybe, maybe …

  Like the other night, the excuses kept coming, hard and fast. Because she was not ready to face the possibility of a different reality: whoever had taken her car had left the ticket right where he knew she’d find it come Tuesday morning. Thoughts of who chilled her to the core.

  A disgruntled defendant? Richard Kassner, sending her a message?

  Or worse?

  There was a reason C.J. had left Miami behind seven years ago. Reasons, actually. Frightening reasons. They were the same reasons she had changed her name yet again when she picked up her life and moved it from Chicago t
o Santa Barbara. They were the reasons she guarded her identity like it was the Holy Grail. Why she was mad at herself for giving away a snippet of real information about who she was and where she was from.

  Now you can relate to what your victims go through. You’re officially a victim yourself.

  She put her head in her hands and sucked in a deep breath.

  It was July, 1988. A dark, horribly stormy night. She’d just gotten home from a date with her boyfriend. She’d turned on the air conditioner and gone to bed. She never heard him push up the living-room window, or creep down the hall of her apartment, or open the door to her bedroom. She awoke, wide-eyed and terrified, to a monster in a clown mask shoving panties down her throat with latex-gloved hands and tying her to her own bed.

  There was no point looking through a book of perverts’ mug shots — he wore a mask. He left her in a pool of her own blood, yet left nothing of himself behind: no hairs, no fibers, no evidence. Sorry, Chloe, the NYC detectives had said. No justice for you today.

  Chloe Joanna Larson. That had been her name a long, long time ago. The name her parents had given her. The name she had throughout her childhood and high school and college, the name she took with her when she left northern California, where she was originally from, for law school in big, bad New York City — an overcrowded melting pot full of burglars, robbers, murderers and rapists, according to her mother.

  Turned out her mother was right.

  When the man who had raped her over and over and over again, the man who had promised her he would be back one day for round two, the man who had sworn to her that he would always find her, no matter where she went, started calling her at work, she went, well … crazy. Doctors-hospitals-therapists-medicine-kind of crazy.

  For a while.

  Then something snapped inside and she realized that was what he wanted. This man who had ruined what, at one time, was a promising life with a bright future, wanted control. He wanted her to lock herself behind alarms, refusing to leave her apartment or make friends or be with another man. He wanted her to cry uncontrollably and quiver with fear when she looked at the scars that he’d left behind with his ugly knife. Chloe Joanna Larson’s life was going to be spent waiting for the man who had raped her to make good on his threats, and it drove her insane. And that was what the monster in the clown mask wanted.

  So she’d left NY. In the middle of the night, telling no one. Simply packed up and left. Moved down to Florida, changed her name, changed her occupation from prospective medical malpractice attorney to prosecutor and decided to make it her life’s work to put monsters behind bars. But she carried on looking over her shoulder, carried on living behind locks and alarms, never letting anyone in. She dyed her natural blonde hair a drab brown. She wore glasses instead of contacts. She rarely wore makeup. Where other women spent a fortune on their appearance, hoping to get noticed, the Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney then known as C.J. Townsend tried to make herself as unassuming and plain as possible. Forgettable. Because she never knew where he was. And she never knew who he was.

  Until the day William Rupert Bantling ended up in her courtroom charged with murder.

  Fate was a twisted, funny character. When Bantling had been standing before the judge at his First Appearance hearing, yelling at his attorney, it had all come flashing back to her. It had been twelve years. Twelve years since that terrible night, a night that, even now, she still relived in her nightmares. A night she could still taste and smell and hear when she closed her eyes. In those twelve years, she could have been anywhere on this earth, doing anything other than prosecuting, assigned to any other case but the Cupid serial killings, yet there she was, in a courtroom full of cameras and cops when the man who had raped her stood up to plead not guilty to the crime of murder.

  It wasn’t his face she’d recognized. It was his voice. Instantly, the world had changed once again. And C.J. Townsend had to make a decision: should she prosecute the man who had raped her?

  From that one critical decision, others had followed in quick succession. Until finally, so many decisions had been made and put into play that, like the domino effect, it was impossible to stop the outcome. The bones toppled one after the other until, after twelve long years, justice had finally been served.

  Or so she had honestly thought at the time. But fate was a funny, twisted character.

  She reached for her cell phone, her fingers playing with the buttons.

  I’m married, Jason. Separated, actually, but still married …

  That status was about to change. According to the process server, Dominick had received the papers last week. He hadn’t sent them back. Not yet.

  She wanted to call him so badly. But what would she say? Sorry? Sorry would never be enough. Sorry I walked away. Sorry I gave up on us. Sorry I couldn’t handle the terrible secret that the two of us had promised to share until death do us part. Even if he forgave her for leaving, she could not guarantee it wouldn’t happen again. And the truth was that when they were together, he was a constant reminder of her past, of all that she was running from.

  Oh, I know what it’s like to be a victim, Jason. I can relate in ways you could never begin to imagine …

  She shook the memories from her head and put the cell down. Then she picked up the parking ticket and placed it in the top drawer of her desk.

  The bones were still falling, with no end in sight, set in motion by decisions made long ago.

  28

  When Daria opened her eyes, everything hurt. A tiny slice of sunlight had squeaked through the blinds and landed precisely on the nightstand clock that she stared at, blurring the red numbers beyond distinction. Next to it was a bottle of Tylenol, a half-filled bottle of Patron, her bra, and a paper cup with the Days Inn logo printed on it.

  Then she remembered what had happened.

  She turned and saw Manny was next to her in bed, sleeping. Presumably naked under the white sheets he was tangled up in.

  Oh dear God. What have I done? She sat up much too quickly and put her throbbing head in her hands. Should she get up and leave? Take a taxi to the closest Enterprise Rent-a-Car and go home? Maybe leave a note on the pillow?

  Damn. This was like being back in college. She was such an easy drunk. Why didn’t she just stop at two? How many more past two had she had? She looked over at the bottle of Patron. Tequila? Really, Daria? What the hell were you thinking?

  How was she going to be able to drive home five hours in a car with him? What was she going to say? What was he going to say? What would he think of her now? Her eyes darted around the room like a trapped animal who realizes the cage door is slightly ajar. She should go before he woke up. Get a rental car and deal with it tomorrow, over the phone. She could put off actually seeing him on the Lunders case. There was no reason for them to physically get together until the next hearing. That could be weeks, months even. She could let him handle Bantling from here on, which is what she remembered him saying to her last night. Telling her to back off and let him handle it.

  Okay, okay, okay. Don’t panic. It might not be so hard to ignore him once she got out of this cheap motel room …

  She dry-swallowed two Tylenol and rubbed her aching head, trying to collect herself. Her panties were across the room on a chair, as was her blouse, and her skirt was nowhere to be seen. Manny Alvarez was so not her type. Big. Burly. Hairy. Bald. She’d never had a thing for cops, like other prosecutors did. The man-in-uniform-on-a-perpetual-power-trip crap was never her weakness. And he was so much older — she was guessing he had to be in his mid-forties at least. Maybe older.

  She looked at him, sleeping on his side, facing where she’d been sleeping, eyes closed, his mouth lost somewhere under that oversized mustache. At least he wasn’t snoring. And he hadn’t given her his back, which she hated. It was a sign of disrespect when men slept on their side with their backs to you. Fuck the, ‘But I was sleeping!’ argument her past exes had tried. Her thought process was, if you do it when you
re unconscious, it’s only a matter of time before you turn your back in the daylight, too. Manny the Bear. There was a reason for that nickname. He was big, burly, hairy. Menacingly bald. But he was sweet, too. Like a ginormous teddy bear, with an oversized smile and even bigger laugh. And she felt safe around him. That was what it was. That was her problem, she rationalized. It was being in the prison. He had protected her and she felt safe around him. It was the same thing as had happened with Matt Terrance, the soft-spoken guy in eleventh grade who’d actually punched out a football player on her behalf because he’d called her a bitch. Matt wasn’t hot or anything, but she’d dated him anyway. Lost her virginity to him, too. After a couple shots of Jose Cuervo, come to think of it.

  Somewhere in the room, a cell phone began to ring. It was the theme music to Psycho. It was hers and it was the office.

  Please don’t wake up. Please don’t wake up. Please don’t wake up.

  She scrambled out of bed and found her purse, under his pants in a corner. Damn. What time was it? She checked her watch as she answered the phone. Nine thirty. Jesus Christ! She was supposed to be in court at nine …

  Thanks to her hangover, she answered the phone in a voice that matched how she felt. ‘Hello, Gretch.’

  ‘You sound like shit,’ said her secretary. ‘What is it?’

  ‘The flu. I was up all night and I … I overslept. I’m really sorry.’

  ‘I’ll have Artigas cover and reset everything. You don’t have anything big on today anyway. No worries.’

  ‘I should talk to him about—’

  ‘Go back to bed. You have sick days for a reason. I’ll call later to see if you’re coming in tomorrow, which I’m telling you right now, I hope you don’t, ’cause I’m having my daughter’s birthday party on Saturday and I don’t need the damn flu.’

 
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