Last Witness, p.20Jilliane Hoffman
She didn’t know exactly when their relationship had changed, if it had ever been what she thought it was, if Greg had ever really been her psychiatrist or her friend. Those were questions she would always ask and never be able to answer.
Dominick had been her therapy then, when it all fell apart, when nothing was as she had always believed. But now…
No, no. She shook her head, shaking the tears away that had started to well up again. She would not go there. She would not let herself slide into a depression. It would be too easy to do, and too hard to crawl back out. She pulled her hair back off her head, looked at the phone again. Then she dialed.
‘Hi, Mom,’ she said when she heard her mother’s voice on the other end, amidst what sounded like the running of water and clinking of dishes. ‘It’s me.’ It had been more than a few days since she had last spoken to her parents. Try a few weeks.
‘Hello, honey!’ The water turned off and the clinking stopped. She could see her mom wiping her hands dry on her apron in the kitchen. She was probably cleaning up from dinner. ‘Your ears must be burning. Your father and I were just talking about you. Dad,’ she shouted, ‘it’s Florida on the phone. It’s your girl! Where have you been?’ she asked, her voice back to C.J. now.
‘I know. I’m sorry. I’ve just been, well, busy.’ She could smell the Liquid Joy soap bubbles through the phone, see the orange sun beginning to set outside the kitchen window above the sink. The image was comforting. Her parents still lived in the same house where she’d grown up. ‘How have you two been? Busy? How’s work?’
‘Something’s wrong. I hear it,’ her mother said. She had fine-tuned worry radar. ‘What is it? Is it work? Are you okay?’
‘Nah, Mom, I—’
But her mother could hear no more. She worried so much about getting bad news, that she always made C.J.’s dad hear it first. ‘Here’s your father,’ she said.
‘That’s Mom’s words. Nothing’s wrong, Daddy. I’ve just, well, I’ve got this case.’ She rubbed her forehead. Even though she wasn’t planning on talking about anything more serious than the weather and Aunt Pat, her father had that soft, non-judgmental tone of voice that just coaxed words right out of her. He should have been a psychologist. And right now, she supposed, she needed to talk. ‘It’s that serial killer I tried a few years ago. There’s a hearing on Monday and, I guess, maybe I’m just anxious.’
He paused. She could feel his frown. The one that made him look old. ‘Is that the one who made those allegations in court? About you? About your—’
‘Yes,’ she said, cutting him off before he had to say the words. ‘Cupid. He’s appealing, and the judge has now set down a hearing. And, well, he’s going to be there, Dad. In court.’
‘Can anyone else handle it, Chlo? Anyone in your office?’
‘I wish. No,’ she sighed. ‘I’m it.’
‘Well, what happens if you can’t do it?’
‘He may get a new trial. He may get off. I have to do it.’
‘Then you have to do it. How long is this hearing?’
‘A few days, I suppose.’
‘Is it the same judge as the last time?’
‘Good. I liked him,’ he said. ‘He didn’t take any bull. Will there be a lot of security?’
‘Oh, yeah. It will be packed, I’m sure.’
‘Are you afraid he can hurt you?’
She sighed. ‘Only if he gets out.’
‘Can Dominick be there with you?’
C.J. hesitated. ‘Things are a bit rocky in that department, Daddy. It’s a long story. We… we broke up.’ She couldn’t help it. She started to cry softly, holding her hand over the phone so that he wouldn’t hear, but she knew he probably did.
‘Because of this?’
‘I can’t get into it right now, Daddy.’
She heard him sigh. ‘You’re strong, Chloe. You can do this. I know you can.’
‘Dad, can I come home?’ she said with a dry laugh after a few moments and tears had passed.
‘When you’re done. Mom’s already got the room made up. And then we’ll celebrate.’ He paused again. ‘That’s not what you wanted to hear, I bet.’
‘No,’ she sighed.
‘Don’t let him get you on the run, honey. If he senses that, he’ll try to mess with your head the whole time. And remember, you’re the one who put him behind those bars. He fears you.’
‘Thank you, Daddy. I should go. Tell Mom I said ’bye. Love you.’
‘I love you, too. Listen, don’t wait so long to call next time.’
C.J. hung up the phone and wiped the tears away defiantly with the back of her hand. Her father was right, as she knew he would be. She would not let him get her on the run, or see her shake, or hear her heart race tomorrow. She was stronger than that. She stubbed out her cigarette and finished her wine. Then she headed back into the kitchen to finish her reading.
Then you have to do it.
It was as simple as that.
‘United States vs. Dominick Falconetti, case number 04-21034-CR-GUTHRIE.’
‘Is the defendant present?’ asked the Honorable Reginald Guthrie, as he stirred his coffee in a mug shaped like a gavel. He was a big man, with long jowls and just a soft hint of a southern drawl that he sometimes tried to hide, depending upon who was in front of him.
‘Yes, Your Honor,’ said the clerk.
‘Have him come forward,’ he motioned with his hand without looking up from his breakfast just yet. A staunch Democrat, Judge Guthrie had been appointed to the federal bench in 1976 by Jimmy Carter and had spent the last seventeen of those twenty-eight years with the same clerk and the same bailiff. He grabbed the indictment from the stack of paperwork on his desk and quickly scanned the charges while he gulped down a slug of his coffee. He frowned and bushy white eyebrows crawled together across his forehead. ‘Hmmm…’ he said, sounding thoroughly disappointed, as he did with every defendant, ‘Title 18, Section 242. Deprivation of Rights Under the Color of Law, Mr Fal-coon-etti,’ he said sounding out the syllables slowly as if they tasted bitter. It was definitely not a local name, so they probably did. He looked up, but not at Dominick. Only at his attorney. ‘Okay, Mr Barquet, how does he plead?’
‘Not guilty, of course,’ said Les Barquet, with a dry smile and a drawl that matched the judge’s. Lester Franklin Barquet was old school himself, dressed to the nines in southern manners and a three-piece suit. He was a well-known criminal defense attorney and also a fixture in Judge Guthrie’s courtroom. He’d brought the donuts.
‘Of course,’ said Judge Guthrie, smiling back. They all say that, was the look they shared.
It was strange being talked about in the third person, Dominick thought as he stood there before the judge in his best blue suit, hands folded in front of him. It was as if he did not exist. He had been in court at least a thousand times before in his career, but never as a defendant.
‘Alright, then, let’s get a date. I want to set down motions in the next thirty days and I want to keep this moving. I’ve got a tight schedule and an overdue vacation coming up in a few months. I don’t want this hanging over our heads if it can be helped,’ the judge said, slugging down a sip of coffee and reaching for a Krispy Kreme. ‘Thanks, Les. I don’t need one, but I’ll take one.’
‘My pleasure, Judge. Your Honor,’ said Les with a smile again, ‘I think we all want that. And if you’ll let me indulge for a moment, I think I can give the court a bit of information that it might be lacking on this case.’
The Assistant US Attorney went to object, but the judge shooed him off, donut in hand. ‘Let’s hear what Mr Barquet has to say.’
‘Judge, Mr Falconetti is not your ordinary defendant, if there is such a thing. He’s a Special Agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He was up at Raiford interviewing
‘Cupid, huh?’ said the judge, reaching again for the indictment which he hadn’t really read the first time.
‘Yes, Your Honor. Agent Falconetti was interviewing Mr Bantling about another series of homicides he might have information about when he got a little unruly.’
‘Yes, Your Honor. The cop killings in Miami. Agent Falconetti has been working those as well.’ Les turned to face the courtroom, sweeping his hand dramatically across the crowd behind the defense table, which included Manny, Chris, Fulton, Ted Nicholsby, Steve Yanni and Marlon Dorsett, along with a handful of agents from the FDLE Gainesville Field Office. ‘These men, Judge, are just some of his colleagues from FDLE and Miami law enforcement who have come today to show their support.’
Now the judge finally looked at Dominick. He nodded. His face had softened. ‘Sounds like an unfortunate incident indeed, Agent Falconetti.’ Then he shot a skeptical look at the Assistant US Attorney, Nick Lowell, before turning his attention back to Les. ‘What you gonna need on this, Les? Time-wise?’
Discovery – the right to know and access the evidence that the government has against a defendant and intends to use at trial – was not automatically granted to a defendant in federal court like it was in state court. Exculpatory evidence – evidence that tends to exonerate the defendant, otherwise known as Brady material – that always had to be handed over by the government. But that was it. In federal court, the prosecutors played their hand close to the chest, and trial by surprise was the rule of the game. There were no depositions taken in federal court, no right to interview the witnesses and victim before trial. That’s why their conviction rate was so high. It was hard to block the punch you don’t see coming. And the government had enough money and manpower and resources to pack a mean punch.
‘Not much, Judge. You know me. This whole thing shouldn’t take very long,’ Les said. ‘I’ve already spoken to the boys down at the prison. They’re very cooperative. Agent Falconetti acted in self-defense – that’s the uniform opinion.’
‘Self-defense?’ shot the prosecutor.
‘Injuries?’ asked the judge, ignoring Lowell’s exasperation.
‘A bloody nose,’ said Les.
‘A federal indictment for a bloody nose?’ asked the judge. The eyebrows went up and formed an arc of surprise.
‘Try a broken nose and a cracked tooth,’ said Lowell defensively.
‘That’s not what those boys down at the prison are saying, Mr Lowell,’ said Les. ‘Looks like your victim might have had a bit too much time alone to think of ways to even the score in his death row cell. They think a bloody nose was all it was, till he rearranged his own face.’
‘That’s crazy, Les,’ said the prosecutor, shaking his head. ‘There’s a video.’
‘Talk to the guards. That video doesn’t show all that much. And it don’t show him in his cell two hours later, now does it?’
‘Why isn’t this in state court?’ asked Judge Guthrie, his brows crawling together again.
‘They don’t want it, Judge,’ said Les.
Lowell shrugged. ‘Mr Bantling does have rights, Judge,’ he tried. ‘No matter who he is.’
‘So I get it? A federal indictment for a simple battery?’ the judge shook his head in disgust and reached for another donut. ‘Let’s get this over with, then. Mr Barquet doesn’t need much time. Let’s get a date.’
Dominick stood stone-faced while they all settled on important dates for his future, hands folded meekly in front of him. Even though it sounded as if the tide had turned in his favor a bit, he was still very much the outsider in this legal clique. He knew from his experience in the courtroom that defendants should keep their mouths shut unless addressed.
He was so embarrassed standing there. Mortified, actually. Worse to him than appearing in front of a judge for his arraignment, was appearing in front of his friends and colleagues as a defendant. Ever since he had been suspended, his phone had rung off the hook with well-wishers and buddies wanting to drop by for a beer and a condolence. So much so, that he didn’t stay home anymore. He jogged and worked out and went to the library and the coffee shop and didn’t answer the phone. He knew he was lucky that they had all come to support him today, but, except for maybe Manny, he wished they hadn’t. They would gather around him and pat his back and take him to lunch, where they would talk with him over a cold one about how much the system sucked. Then the hour would be up, and they’d go back to Miami, back on duty. And he… well, he would head back to the gym.
Les Barquet finished up schmoozing with the judge and chiding the AUSA and grabbed his briefcase. He then led Dominick back through the gallery and down the center of the courtroom, past his friends and his colleagues and his sister who had flown in from Long Island that morning. Dominick nodded a silent thanks at them all, hoping that his face was not obviously red from shame.
He saw her then – C.J. – sitting by herself on the aisle in the back by the doors. She smiled at him softly. She looked tired and even concealer could not erase the dark circles completely from underneath her beautiful green eyes. She mouthed something he couldn’t make out as she rose.
It had been more than a week since their exchange in his hallway. She had called, but he hadn’t answered, and this was the first time that he had seen her. At that moment, it felt like someone had punched him in the gut, stolen the air out of his chest. She must have slipped in after the arraignment had started, because she hadn’t been there when he had looked for her before. He’d been wishing she wouldn’t come, but hoping she would. Because if she didn’t show he would be right. And he could be mad and bitter forever. And he could hate her.
But here she was.
Damn, he missed her. So much so that it physically hurt to see her now. For her to see him this way. And while one part of him wanted to grab her right there in the courtroom and shake her and hold her so that she would never need to run again, the other part of him knew that it was as she said. He could never fix her. He could never make it better or easier, he could never take away the pain or the nightmares. It had come to this – a standoff between her past and her present, and the past had won again. He now knew it always would. And he also knew why.
So he didn’t stop, and he didn’t hold her, like his body and soul ached to do. And it took all his strength as a man to keep walking past her into a waiting elevator and out of her life.
C.J. watched him from the back of the courtroom, his back to her as he stood in front of the judge. He wore the blue suit they had bought together last year from Brooks Brothers in the Sawgrass Mills outlet mall. His shoulders, though still strong and confident, sagged just a bit. He’d gotten a clean, short haircut. The scruffy beard he’d had when she last saw him was gone. Judges never trust defendants with facial hair, and he knew that. She knew he was more than embarrassed. His body language, the one she knew and felt down to a science, told her he was beaten.
She’d sat in Starbucks and seen Manny and Chris Masterson walk up the courthouse steps. She stayed put, sipping her coffee and waiting until they had gone in the building and through security before venturing out herself. She knew that there would probably be others that would show up for him, so she waited until after nine o’clock – after everyone would be seated in the courtroom and the calendar was being called and court was in session – and there would be no time for anyone in the back rows to chat, no time for anyone to ask her questions. The clerk had told her over the phone that Dominick was number nine on the calendar, so she knew she wouldn’t miss him. She couldn’t miss him. She had made a p
And I’ll be there for you through all this in any way that I can. If you want me to.
Then she finished her coffee and headed across the street herself. He hadn’t responded that night to her offer in his hallway, but it didn’t matter. She had set this wheel in motion. She was the reason he was even here. She had left her messages, she had flown up to Jacksonville today. She would be there for him, even if he did not want her to be.
She hadn’t believed that he would swoop her up in his arms like a character in a bad romance novel, that time would somehow stop and all would be forgiven. But she had hoped. She had hoped that he might forgive her for leaving, for not saying sorry or goodbye. For disappointing him. For hurting him.
She never really believed he would pass her by without hesitation, though. Without so much as a smile or a nod or an acknowledgment of the words she had whispered. When his eyes finally caught on hers, she saw first the flicker of surprise, before pain and anger betrayed them once again. Before they looked away from her, and her heart stopped. For a moment she thought she caught the same sweet intimate sparkle that only lovers have, when a simple look says a whole page full of words. But if it was there, it was gone before she had fully recognized it. He was past her and through the doors, and they knocked loudly together as they swung closed behind him.
She’d often heard people try and describe suffering a broken heart in books or movies or over lunch, and it all sounded like clichés. But at that moment, words she had long thought melodramatic suddenly came to life. And somewhere deep inside her, something physically ripped. She could feel it tear apart from her being, so deep and so entwined, that it could never be fixed.
Last Witness by Jilliane Hoffman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes