CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.22Jilliane Hoffman
‘Too bad for you. I don’t like that guy.’
‘Really. I’ve heard things about his “hands-on” approach. Watch yourself.’
‘It’s cute you’re jealous, but he’s old enough to be my dad. Technically, at least.’
Manny cleared his throat.
‘I forgot — you are, too, I guess,’ she added. ‘You have nothing to worry about.’
‘He’s a limelight bather, Counselor. I’m not so much worried about him stealing my girl as I am him stealing your case.’
She bit her lip and swallowed hard. ‘We have to talk,’ she said, twisting the phone cord in her fingers.
‘Yep. Something’s happened,’ he answered.
‘Where’d you hear it? On the news?’
‘Hear what? What’s on the news?’
She swallowed again. ‘You first.’
‘Well, we found the connection between Reinaldo Lepidus and Pat Graber. Patricia Susanna Graber was a victim in a home invasion Lepidus handled as a defense attorney. She’s dead now. They found her in a dumpster in Broward County in 1999, about two years after Lepidus’s client went off to prison on a life sentence. All this happened before he took the bench. The murder’s still unsolved.’
‘What? You’re kidding!’
‘She had a lightning brand over her heart, Counselor.’
‘What did I tell you about coincidences, huh? There ain’t no such thing. Oh, and another thing that ain’t so much a coincidence, now that I’m thinking about it. Judge Lepidus was on the Florida Supreme Court when Bantling was shipped back to death row. He cast the deciding vote and wrote the fucking opinion.’
‘No shit …’ she sank into her chair, flabbergasted.
‘No shit. You’ll have to read all the reasons why and then explain them to me. I love it when you talk to me in legalese. It’s sexy.’
‘I’ll have to read the opinion, but I’m guessing here that you’re thinking Lepidus steered his cronies on the state’s highest court to throw out Bantling’s appeal, thereby effectively sending him back to death row? That’s pretty steep.’
‘Something like that. All I know is that it was done. And nothing surprises me anymore, Counselor. Ponzi schemes are old hat, some cops are murderers, all lawyers — present company excluded, of course — are scum, and judges have flipped out before. Think of those knuckle-headed judges in Pennsylvania who sent kids to juvenile lock-up for cash kickbacks a year or so back. Nobody would’ve believed that until it happened. And remember that guy Wachtler? Wasn’t he the big cheese on New York’s highest court when he started stalking his ex-girlfriend and racking up the felonies?’
Daria stared at her votive candleholder filled with paper-clips. Manny was right. No one — not even a judge — was above reproach.
‘Okay. I just might buy that,’ she said. ‘But if this club has that sort of reach, Manny …’ Daria didn’t finish her thought. ‘So why didn’t you find this Pat Graber when you found Cyndi DeGregorio and the Jane Doe from Tampa?’
‘Graber’s dead going on twelve years. We didn’t look that far back. She might not be in ViCAP or the lightning brand might not have been entered in distinguishing marks. There’re a number of reasons. Makes you wonder how many more we might be missing, Counselor. How big this thing might be.’
‘Okay,’ she said slowly, trying to think like a defense attorney, three steps ahead. If Manny was right, this was probably the biggest scandal Miami would ever see. A snuff club of voyeur killers operating around the nation, possibly the world, with a Florida State Supreme Court judge as one of its members, officially sending another snuff-club member to death row to keep him quiet. Who else might be a member of this club? How high would it go?
‘But we have to have something other than, “she was the victim in a criminal case he handled as a defense attorney” to implicate Lepidus in her murder, Manny.’
‘Like a video, you think?’
Daria sucked in a breath. ‘No way.’
‘The judge’s widow was wife number two. Before he died in a boating accident last year, the happy couple hit an unhappy patch, that at one point looked like it might lead to divorce. The prudent little woman made and kept a copy of his risqué video collection, apparently as an insurance policy he wouldn’t fuck her in a divorce settlement. Claims she never watched them all. Her attorney has them now — they’re stuck in probate. He’s not sure what’s on them, or so he claims, but I got a feeling, Counselor. One of ’em’s labeled The Snitch, according to the lawyer. Even though the judge is dead, his wife’s attorney wants a warrant.’
‘Okay. I’ll get it started,’ she replied. ‘Right away.’
‘So what happened?’ he asked.
‘What’s on the news that I missed?’
She took a deep breath. Time to get it over with. ‘Judge Becker granted Lunders a bond. A hundred grand. He’s gonna get out, probably this afternoon.’
‘Shit. On what grounds?’
She sighed. ‘Varlack wants everything: Vechio’s video, the police reports. The other victims. The judge is really pissed off. I can’t believe she let him out.’
‘He screamed Brady, didn’t he?’ Manny asked smugly. ‘Come on, tell me.’
‘I knew it. I should’ve gone to law school. Do you want to say it with me, or should I say it all by myself?’
‘Get it over with,’ she replied.
‘Told you so, Counselor. Now go redeem yourself and get me that fucking warrant.’
Vance Collier tapped his pen on his desk. Behind him, the tops of palm trees swayed angrily under menacing black skies, skies that ten minutes before had been beach-worthy blue. A volatile summer thunderstorm had suddenly appeared, as if conjured up by the Chief Assistant to fit his mood. ‘That’s one helluva story,’ he said to Daria, his brow furrowed. ‘What other connection do you have to Judge Lepidus and this girl? There has to be some physical evidence, something more than the assurances of a convicted serial killer. A serial killer who, coincidentally, is calling the same judge who sent him back to death row a murderer.’
Daria nodded. ‘Lepidus died in a boating accident. His estate is still in probate. Second wife is battling it out for her fair share. Apparently there were certain videotapes her attorney was holding on to because of a possible divorce action. More like holding hostage. We got a warrant and took a look. They’re all pretty extreme, Vance — bondage, S&M, animals, latex, weird fetishes. Really hard core. Some look homemade, maybe borrowed or downloaded from a home-grown site. Lepidus features in a couple of them, but those seem to be consensual. We’ll have to track down the girls to make sure, I suppose. Spliced into one of the homemade tapes was Patty Graber. It’s her murder, Vance. It’s just like the Gabriella Vechio video clip — bondage, S&M, black silk ropes. Only this one goes all the way to the finish line. The male in the video, who is definitely not Lepidus, strangles her with his bare hands while he’s screwing her from behind and she’s tethered to the ceiling.’ She placed a flash drive on his desk. ‘It seems you really can trust a serial killer — Bantling was telling the truth.’
‘Holy shit …’
‘I’m gonna guess it’s not Talbot Lunders committing the murder. I assume that would have been the first thing you told me. Although I’m still waiting for the courtesy call to inform me that he’s back on the street.’
She decided not to respond to that. Focus on the positive. ‘Correct. We don’t know who it is. He’s young, buff and has a tattoo across his back of an archangel throwing lightning bolts. He’s also wearing a mask. Lepidus is too old for it to be him, plus in the videos the judge is featured in, you can tell he’s tattoo-free. Manny is checking tattoos with those documented on inmates, but that’s a daunting task. Law enforcement only recently started to keep records and photos for that purpose, and this video was made twel
Vance picked up the flash and fingered it. ‘You shouldn’t have held out on me. From the very beginning, Daria, this is something the State Attorney and I should have been in on.’
‘I wasn’t sure at first what I was looking at, Vance,’ she explained. ‘The video clip that Abby Lunders gave me could have been a homemade S&M tape Momma was trying to lob as a distraction. I wasn’t gonna come to you with that until I investigated. It wasn’t until the connection between Gabriella Vechio and Holly Skole became apparent — after the similar brandings were identified through crime-scene and autopsy photos — that Detective Alvarez first suggested a possible connection to Cupid. But he couldn’t be sure if it was anything more than a hunch based on something the guy had said years before. So, like I said, I wasn’t really sure what we had, or didn’t have, until we met with Bantling. When he dropped Lepidus’s name I thought he was probably BS-ing, because, as you already pointed out, convicted killers don’t make the most reliable witnesses. It’s only now that the connection between Judge Lepidus and Patty Graber’s been exposed, I felt I had something for you. Because now I know it’s for real, Vance. Now I know it’s big.’
The Chief Assistant said nothing for a long moment. ‘You weren’t around when Cupid was tried in 2001. I was. It was a zoo. I’ve never seen a case — a defendant, actually — transfix the public the way that case did, except maybe O.J. Simpson.’ He tapped the pen again on the desk and scowled. ‘Jesus, you’ve never tried a serial before,’ he added, almost like a note to self.
‘A rapist. Corey Lightsey. Seven consecutive life sentences.’
‘There’s a big difference between a rapist and a serial killer. This whole thing is so complicated now. Much more so than when I gave you the case. Then it was a single homicide with a little bit of local publicity to worry about containing. Now you’re talking potentially a criminal enterprise with multiple defendants, and we’re looking at a maelstrom of publicity, the center of which might very well be a notorious serial killer.’
Daria felt her stomach drop. There was no way she could lose this case. Not now. Not after all the work she’d done …
‘So what is Lunders’s role in all this? Is Holly Skole’s murder a snuff-club killing?’ he asked. ‘Is it related to this club that Cupid claims to know so much about? Did he tell you that?’
‘Bantling told me this was a game,’ she answered. ‘He gave some cryptic analogy to baseball players and scouts and stadiums. He said Lepidus liked to watch. So I have a theory. Based on Talbot Lunders’s good looks, the surveillance video of Holly Skole getting in his Benz willingly, and then the cell phone records the night she disappeared from Menace, I’m thinking Talbot’s role in this club was to supply victims for the game — a game of murder that Lepidus and others like him would pay to watch, most likely on some sort of Internet connection like Skype, only heavily encrypted. Manny Alvarez said that when he first interviewed Bantling years ago, he mentioned this club having international connections. If that statement’s true, then it would have to be via the Internet. That would be the easiest way, the most discreet way, to assemble the watchers. Postal and Customs have nailed dozens of worldwide Internet kiddie-porn clubs that way, as well as money-laundering outfits, sex traffickers, and terrorist organizations. I believe Talbot Lunders was a hunter — a “scout” was the euphemism Bantling used — trolling bars and charming women, probably drugging them. That supposition is based on Marie Modic’s statement describing how she felt and why she believed Lunders had spiked her drink.
‘When you think about it, Vance, the crime has a lot of similarities to Cupid’s MO. As for Patty Graber’s murder, that happened during the Cupid rampage but because she wasn’t missing her heart no one made a connection. It’s possible some of Bantling’s murders were captured on video. He might have had a whole following of watchers himself — although I can’t for the life of me figure out why Bantling wouldn’t have pulled this snuff-club card out during his trial to try and save himself or shave a few years off his sentence. Why didn’t he cough up names then? Or maybe he did, but the prosecutor didn’t believe it. C.J. Townsend’s long gone, and no one seems to know where, so I guess I can’t ask for her input in the thought process.’
‘C.J. left the office years ago,’ Vance answered. ‘She moved out of state, as far as I know. Cupid sucked the life out of her. I liked her, but mentally she was a mess when she left. A wreck.’ He jotted down something on his legal pad. ‘So what you’re saying now is you don’t think Talbot Lunders actually committed or participated in Holly’s murder?’
‘I don’t think he actually killed her, but I believe he transported her to her death. He picked her out like he was shopping for meat at a supermarket, which makes him guilty of felony murder. And I can still get the death penalty on felony murder.’
‘Maybe. But if he didn’t know he was whisking her away to a slaughterhouse, it presents as a much more difficult case. Now we have to prove he knew or should have known he was leading her to her death.’
‘Regardless of what he knew, he still participated in the felony.’
‘What’s the underlying felony?’
‘You said she went willingly.’
‘I also said I think he drugged her. That’s not willingly.’
‘Supposition. You can prove there were drugs in her system when you found her — six days after she disappeared. You can’t prove she was drugged the night she went missing. In fact, the surveillance tapes show otherwise. They show her walking out of her own accord and getting into that Benz with a big smile when he held the door open.’
‘We can connect him to purchases of sulfuric acid. That’s what was used to melt her feet.’
‘Interesting. Can you tie the sulfuric acid he purchased to the acid that she was burned with?’
‘So it’s interesting and circumstantial, but it’s not direct evidence of his involvement in her murder.’
She stared at him, embarrassed that she hadn’t thought it out this far before entering his office. ‘Well, this is frustrating.’
‘You see the problems we have now? Because now we know there’s a third party. If Lunders claims he was just taking Holly to party with some boys, then he left and that’s the last he heard of it, you don’t have much of a case.’
Daria bit her lip.
‘That’s the problem with circumstantial cases — they’re circumstantial. And since we don’t get to depose Talbot, we don’t know what he’s gonna say or what his theory of the case will be until his trial. So we’re gonna need to find a witness who can explain what Lunders’s role was in Holly’s murder. And we don’t have much time, seeing as the speedy clock is ticking. So if you really think he didn’t kill her, then let’s have him give up who did. If it is a snuff-club operation he’s involved in, like Bantling has detailed, we’re gonna deal him if he hands us the other players and tells how this club works.’
‘He won’t talk. Manny Alvarez tried.’ She didn’t mention the creepy message he’d forwarded to her through Manny. If Vance thought she was spooked, it might give him the excuse he needed to pull the whole case from her. ‘He’s pretty smug.’
‘He has reason to be. If his role in this is defined by the rules of the sick game you describe, then he’s done this before. And he’s learned from someone. Dig deeper, Daria. Phone records, exes, current girlfriends. Like Lepidus, he must have been into kinky shit that somebody can tell us about. See if he can be linked to any of the other dead women. No matter how slight the connection. We need to scare the shit out of him and let him know we’re not playing. He’s gonna pay for Holly’s death if he doesn’t give us someone who will.’
Vance grew pensive. ‘The bigger fish in this, though, is Cupid. He gave us Lepidus as an appetizer. He wouldn’t have given us the biggest name before working some sort of deal, which means he knows a lot more names. It’s possible he ca
‘I wasn’t aware of that at the time I interviewed him,’ she answered sheepishly. She felt embarrassed, as if she somehow hadn’t done her homework on Bantling before going up to Starke to interview him, although there was no way she would’ve known about Lepidus’s remote connection to Bantling when he first mentioned the judge’s name. Who the hell would have memorized all the appellate judges’ names that touched a defendant’s case before questioning him? She looked at Vance’s frowning face and then down at her fingers. Maybe she was in the office of the one person who would have.
‘I want to know who else has been watching these murders go down all these years,’ he continued. ‘Who might be a player or a scout. I want to know how many other killers are out there living amongst us, how many might be sitting beside me in a courtroom or joining me at a midnight crime scene or presiding over one of my cases, for Christ’s sake. That’s much more disturbing — wondering who might be more influential than a Supreme Court judge on Cupid’s list. A snuff club operating right here in Miami … That’s gonna make headlines, all right. Especially if the star witness turns out to be none other than Cupid himself.’
It was funny how quickly the pronouns had changed. Vance no longer said ‘hers’ or ‘yours’, instead it was ‘us’, ‘we’ and ‘ours’.
She had to ask. ‘Is this still mine?’
‘What does Bantling want?’ Vance asked, ignoring her question.
‘I’m not sure what he’ll settle for, but he said he wants out for the information he has. And he said that a couple of times. Of course, that’s out of the question, I—’
‘Depends on what other names he has. If they’re as big as Lepidus, we deal him.’
CUTTING ROOM -THE- by Jilliane Hoffman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes