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Last witness, p.21
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       Last Witness, p.21

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
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  Manny broke away from the circle of cops who had come to show their support a few rows up, who knew Dominick was here today because of her, and who now stood watching with downcast eyes as he walked away from her. The Bear headed toward her with a big smile and an embarrassed look of pity, one that said he had seen everything. ‘Counselor!’ he called.

  But she was already gone.

  She walked out of the courtroom and picked up speed, taking the first elevator down and then breaking out the courthouse doors into the sunshine. She raced down the stairs of the courthouse, hoping to make it to her car before she completely fell apart.

  59

  ‘I don’t know about this, Tom. Judge Guthrie didn’t look too convinced,’ said the US Attorney for the Middle District of Florida into the phone. He swiveled his seat and stared out the window of his office onto downtown Jacksonville.

  ‘You’re gonna tell me, Jeff, that that’s not a friggin’ battery? That’s not an abuse of one’s civil rights there on goddamn video?’ Tom de la Flors, the US Attorney for the Southern District yelled in exasperation at his colleague and law school friend on the other end of the line.

  ‘This is a different town, up here, Tom. A different mindset.’ The US Attorney scratched at his head and closed his eyes, wishing he didn’t have to have this conversation. It felt unsavory. ‘A lot of boys who live here work Corrections down in Raiford, Lawtey, New River CI, Union. FDLE headquarters is up the road in Tallahassee, along with all the other state agencies. You know how it is with juries when it’s a cop.’

  ‘There’s a video, Jeff.’

  ‘Think Rodney King, Tom. And now think Rodney Goes To Jacksonville.’

  ‘This is not a race issue.’

  ‘No, but it’s a cop’s word versus a scumbag.’

  ‘Bad example anyway, Jeff. They nailed those cops on federal charges after the State screwed up.’

  ‘Only because no one wanted to see LA burn twice. No one here is afraid of Jacksonville going up in smoke. The point I was trying to make is that video don’t mean diddly sometimes.’

  Jeff sighed. Tom and he had been classmates at Duke, but that was about it, as far as he could remember, and he did not like having to explain himself to yet another loudmouth bully from Miami, classmate or not. Every lawyer he knew in South Florida thought they were hot shit. Give them a tide and the condition worsened. Jeff was born and raised in Jacksonville, having left only for school at his dad’s insistence and headed right back upon graduation. After forty-three years, he was sick and tired of the patronizing comments about the ‘old south’ from his pompous colleagues who lived and practiced south of Palm Beach, in the land of transplanted New Yorkers and raft migrants.

  ‘I don’t know about Miami,’ Jeff continued defensively, ‘but I can tell you, this is not a defendant’s town, Tom. Not a death row defendant, and certainly not one who’s a serial killer, who looks on that tape like he might eat his own mother. Just because Lowell got the indictment don’t mean too much. Once Judge Guthrie and a jury made up of folks who live around here, hear the Special Agent with the impeccable record and no complaints on the stand, and see the man already convicted of eleven murders snarl in color on that tape – smiling after he takes a hook, like he knows he can play the system… Well, what I’m saying, Tom, is that around here, that’s not necessarily a civil rights violation. That’s just deserts. Add in the convicted serial murderer swearing up and down that he’s a brutal rapist who once tried to kill the esteemed cop’s pretty, prosecutor girlfriend and you’ve got them lining up outside that courthouse with Kleenex and potpies.’

  ‘Fuck them,’ de la Flors grumbled. ‘Fuck him.’

  ‘Excuse me?’

  ‘Sorry about the language. Look, Jeff, take this as far as it will go, then, and let a jury decide. That “esteemed cop” had been interfering with a federal investigation the Bureau has been trying to run down here into those cop killings. And it’s not the first time he’s tried to trump this office. He’s got some pretty big britches.’ Britches. There’s a word that might get through.

  Tom de la Flors tapped his pen on his desk. Dominick Falconetti had an attitude. One that he did not like and one that had grown since the Cupid fiasco. He and his chain of command needed a wake-up call. They had fucked with him last time and it had cost him an appointment to a federal judgeship.

  ‘Let him work off some steam at home for a while with the daytime soaps,’ de la Flors continued. ‘And let the Commissioner and his boss sit and stew about the soundness of their hot-tempered agent’s judgment and all the good it’s doing their task force now.’

  ‘I won’t push this, I’m telling you up front,’ said Jeff wearily. ‘Carson Trunt wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole.’ Trunt was the State Attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Bradford County, home to Florida State Prison. He handled jurisdiction over state crimes, such as battery committed in state institutions. Jeff knew that it would be hard to explain to a jury in federal court why the US government wanted to prosecute a state cop for slapping the face of a state convict at a state penitentiary – when, for some reason, the State itself wanted no part of the case.

  De la Flors gritted his teeth. ‘There’s a video of this cop pummeling the face of a defendant in custody and you’re worried about people thinking you’re pushing this too far?’ He blew out a low breath and changed his tone before continuing. ‘I think you’re okay. You’re doing your job is what you’re doing. Carson Trunt is being derelict. But of course, it’s election year, isn’t it?’

  He hung up the phone and shook his head in disbelief at Mark Gracker who sat in front of his desk, picking his fingernails clean with the tip of a business card. ‘They’re not too enthusiastic up there, let’s just say that,’ he said. Gracker nodded slowly, but knew enough at that moment to say nothing. ‘You better move fast on what you’ve got down here.’

  Damn southerners, de la Flors thought, running his hand through his thinning hair. No wonder they lost the fucking civil war. Kleenex and potpies. What the hell were they running up there – a courthouse or a county fair?

  60

  Bill Bantling smiled as the guards walked him back to his cell, down the hallway that somehow didn’t seem as gray and as drab as it had an hour ago. The meeting with his lawyer had gone quite well. Better than expected, actually.

  Apparently the odds of a trip back to court on a post-conviction motion – any post-conviction motion – were about 450–1. So said Bill’s fellow inmates and the lazy-assed guards who worked the block. There were inmates who had filed ten, fifteen, thirty of their own Rule Threes over the years in state court, an equal number of 2254 motions in federal court, and countless public records requests, bogus habeas corpus motions and certiorari petitions, and a dozen other tongue-twisting Latin-named documents. Of course, Bill’s own attorney had told him his chances were much better, but that was because, Bill knew, Neil Mann wanted his money up front.

  Now his odds had dropped to 50–1 for a new trial after a hearing. Shave a few points again if your attorney’s down on his rent. Still a long shot, but Bantling would take it any day of the week. Any day at all. Throw in a little vacation from this hellhole, a road trip through the Florida countryside, a sweet reunion with some old friends, and it would be a regular party. Then there was that little added bonus that he hadn’t counted on – a federal indictment and a suspension for the lead detective and, damn! He was beating the house!

  Oh this was going to be fun. He had the goods that would take his not-so-sweet Chloe down. That would lock her in her own little cell, with rats for roommates and visits from former friends and lovers once a week if she was lucky. If she didn’t go nuts again, that is. Then her cell would be white and padded and there’d be no visits for a long time. That might be even better, he chuckled to himself. He knew he could do it, too, despite the odds. He had Lourdes Rubio praying for forgiveness on letterhead. He had that tape. Chloe had no one. No one at all. They were all dea
d, every one of her little flying monkeys, her henchmen. She was it. The last witness.

  The door slammed on his six-by-eight cell, locking him back in. But not for long. Because it was time to pack. Pack up his toothbrush and put on his Sunday best. Because he was coming home.

  And when he made it back downtown next week, he was gonna take care of some other little business. He knew there was another who would like nothing better than to see him rot in this prison for something he didn’t do. One who had tried to manipulate his future up here as well. Once Bantling finally got to hear that tape, he knew it would confirm what he had just recently begun to suspect, and then he’d take care of this new player, too. He had a few cards left to deal at the State Attorney’s Office and to his newfound friends at the US Attorney’s. Interesting little tidbits that he could exchange on the legal bartering system if things didn’t go his way this time.

  Bantling didn’t yet have a face to put with the name. But soon enough, the best and the brightest would be able to figure out the identity of the one he knew was one of their own. The one lurking within their own ranks. The man known in certain deadly circles simply by his nickname.

  Cop Killer.

  61

  Then you have to do it.

  Her father’s words sounded in her head when the elevator doors opened on four. C.J. straightened her shoulders and pushed her way to the front of the car and into the usual mass of confusion that existed in the courthouse hallways at 1:00 p.m., right after lunch as afternoon calendars began to start up.

  Judge Chaskel had commandeered one of the larger courtrooms in the building, 4-8, to accommodate the grumbling press. His gag order had been effective – too effective – and his last-minute duck into chambers for Bantling’s Huff hearing did not win him any brownie points with the media. To avoid never-ending, lengthy Florida-in-the-sunshine hearings and right-of-access and freedom-of-the-press complaints, Chaskel had opened a larger door for the evidentiary hearing, but the gag order was still on. Thankfully, Neil Mann was too afraid of irritating the judge and not smart enough to jump on the we’ve all been scorned bandwagon with the press. It might have churned up some well-needed sympathy for his client, but he hadn’t played that card.

  C.J. made her way to the courtroom doors with Rose Harris at her side, her hand held up in front of her as a sign that she had no comment on anything. She was relieved to see that Rose had adopted the same policy. They’d been colleagues for ten years in the office – five together in Major Crimes – but they’d never been great friends. And the events of the last few weeks had put an even greater strain on their relationship. But a united front before Chaskel and the State Attorney and the press was necessary, so they walked together, each pushing a cart full of files. C.J. knew that Rose resented the fact that her case against Bantling hinged on C.J.’s, that if C.J.’s conviction was tossed, hers was sure to follow.

  Rose was tough – both in and out of the courtroom – using both her claws and her brains to quickly climb the SAO ladder over men who had been there for years. She had tried the other ten Cupid murders because C.J. had passed them to her. It had been necessary for C.J. to try Bantling by herself on Prado, but it would have been emotional suicide for her to try him on the others. Four weeks in a courtroom with him was enough. Once she secured the conviction, Rose and Williams Rule had taken over. But now it looked like history might be rewritten, and no one was very happy with that prospect.

  Travis Cormier with Corrections held the door open for C.J., and for just a moment she hesitated. Like a horse that knows instinctively not to attempt a jump, her legs bucked at walking in. She knew he was in there already. She could feel him.

  ‘You coming, State?’ said Travis impatiently. ‘’Cause this door’s not holding itself.’

  She would not let him mess with her head. She was stronger than that. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘I thought I forgot something for a second.’ Then she swallowed the fear that was climbing out of her stomach, and she walked in on legs that she willed not to tremble.

  The room was almost full with onlookers and press, but she did not see them. All she saw was the back of Neil Mann and his stringy black hair that was in desperate need of a trim. He stood at the defense table, the back of his suit jacket pulling under the armpits, hunched over the man she could not yet see, but knew sat there waiting for her.

  Mann had argued in a motion against irons and shackles and Judge Chaskel had agreed. So the Department of Corrections had outfitted their most famous inmate in the latest in electronic wear. Dressed in a suit, legs casually crossed, the electronic restraining device known as The Bandit dangled off his ankle. Around his waist, under the dress shirt, he’d be wearing a React Belt. Both of which would deliver an electric shock that would drop a 350-pound man to his knees in seconds should the CO from FSP push the button. Bantling had come down from Raiford with his own entourage of Corrections – four sergeants, one lieutenant and two corrections officers, plus a chase vehicle to follow his van. No one wanted to take the blame should he go missing, or come back with another notch on his belt. His escorts conspicuously lined the wall behind the defense table, back by the jury box. Courthouse corrections and court liaison officers secured the back door and judge’s door.

  C.J. slowly forced her glance up the table and saw the long white fingers on one hand, drumming slowly against the wooden table. The only thing that was missing was the face, still hidden behind his attorney’s frame. Her eyes were drawn to those fingers, though. Even though she was too far away, she could have sworn she heard the clicking of his nails on the wood, a low whistle under his breath. Just biding time.

  ‘All rise!’ shouted Hank the bailiff suddenly.

  There was no time to think. The door to the judge’s back hallway flung open and Judge Chaskel appeared, sailing quickly to the bench. She scurried up the aisle.

  ‘No cellphones, no beepers while court is in session. Use them, lose them. The Honorable Judge Leopold Chaskel III presiding. Be seated and be quiet!’ Hank had been in the system for thirty plus years and somewhere along the way he had lost the manual on diplomacy. Now everyone was treated the same. Like shit.

  The judge looked at his watch and then at C.J. as she hurried through the small gate into the gallery. He watched in silence as she made her way in front of his bench to the State’s table next to Rose Harris.

  He let her sit down and unpack her boxes. The room was quiet, everyone slightly eager to see if maybe the judge would yell at her to hurry. She heard the heavy sighs of a few in the rows behind her, as if they had been waiting hours instead of minutes. Rose tapped her pen and C.J. wanted to slug her.

  How did it come to all this? To being the loathed kid in class? The one no one wants to sit next to? She and Rose might not have been the best of friends before this, but they certainly had respected each other. C.J. had been before Judge Chaskel a million times, and he had always liked her – or so she thought – never caring if she ran a few minutes behind schedule. Now he practically glared at her from the bench. Was she being overly sensitive, or had everything changed?

  Her head in her boxes, she had yet to see Bantling’s face, but she knew he was smiling. At least on the inside. Outside, she was sure he wore a pitiful, pained Help me, I’ve been framed! look for the press and the judge and his attorney and anyone else who was watching.

  ‘I’m sorry, Judge,’ C.J. said.

  ‘Are we ready now, State?’ asked the judge.

  Yes, Your Honor,’ said Rose.

  ‘Yes, Judge,’ C.J. said quietly.

  She could have waited. Waited until Bantling took the stand, waited until she was forced to look. But she didn’t.

  She’d hoped that maybe she’d steal a glimpse of a decrepit old man, a man who had been beaten.

  She hoped wrong.

  Those cold blue eyes were waiting for her when she turned and faced him. Eyes that cut into her. His face was colorless, but certainly not old and definitely not defeated. With his fore
head resting somberly in his hand, he turned, so that the view of the judge and the camera was blocked. Then he mouthed his first words to her in three years.

  Welcome back.

  62

  Neil Mann was nervous. So much so that his bottom lip was quivering slightly, an anxious habit that he’d had since he was a kid. It was one of the reasons he left trial work.

  He needed this client. It wasn’t much money, but it was certainly high exposure. Bill Bantling could do for him what William Kennedy Smith had done for Roy Black. Skyrocket him to the stratosphere of celebrity clients and $450 an hour and appearances on television as a legal expert.

  But now that dream was in serious danger.

  This case – the case that makes a career – had fallen in his lap. The letter from Bill had come in on a Wednesday, and Neil had recognized the name right away. Then Bill had forwarded him the handwritten apology letter from Rubio. That was when Neil knew he’d be investing in a new suit for today’s hearing.

  He had spoken with Rubio on the phone and she had told him all about her conversation with a drunk and horny Victor Chavez at a bar on South Beach, just a week or so after Bantling had been arrested. Victor hadn’t yet known she had signed on as Bantling’s defense counsel when he told her about the anonymous tip that made him think there were drugs in Bantling’s Jag. Then, Rubio had told Neil about the 911 tape and about how she purposely threw the motion to suppress and ultimately the trial. Of course he had offered to fly out to see her – the proper thing to do – but she didn’t want any part of seeing him. He didn’t want to push and spook her. She offered the affidavit – notarized and all – and a copy of the tape. And she said she’d come down for the hearing, when and if it was ever scheduled. At her own expense, she insisted. Neil wouldn’t even have to pay.

 
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