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Last witness, p.22
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       Last Witness, p.22

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
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  It was a gift from the Gods. Or so he thought.

  Now the Gods were playing a cruel joke on him.

  The tape had not arrived. But he hadn’t worried about that too much at first, because she was very guarded, very secretive about it to begin with. Neil had thought that she might just have decided to bring it down herself. She had told him exactly what it said, word for word, so actual possession wasn’t such a big deal till the hearing. Which was, of course, today.

  After the Huff hearing, he’d called and left a message on her voicemail to tell her of the date for the evidentiary hearing. But he’d heard nothing. Then he called again, but there was no voicemail, just a disconnected number. That was when Neil had started to panic. On Wednesday, he’d finally broken down and hired a PI, who’d called Neil back on Saturday with the news. Neil had spent the weekend trying to figure out how to salvage the case that was supposed to make his career.

  ‘Alright then, everyone’s here and time’s a-wasting,’ said Judge Chaskel, sitting back in his leather chair. The courtroom was far more majestic than his normal digs. ‘Mr Mann, this is your show. So call your first witness.’

  Neil Mann rose hesitantly, his fingers rubbing nervously on the edge of the defense table, leaving sweat marks. ‘There’s been a problem, Judge. I think we might need to go sidebar.’

  Judge Chaskel sat back up stiffly in his seat. ‘Are your witnesses here, Mr Mann? I told you both last week that I was not in the mood on this case to play games. Especially not now that we’ve got the defendant present and special arrangements have been made.’

  ‘It is a witness problem, Your Honor.’ Neil’s lip had begun to quake, and that was not a good sign. ‘One I just found out about over this weekend, and I don’t know how to proceed. I thought we’d go side—’

  ‘What is it, Mr Mann?’ snapped Chaskel.

  ‘It’s Lourdes Rubio, Your Honor. I received a call from my private investigator this weekend…’

  ‘Let me guess,’ the judge sighed. ‘She’s had a change of heart and is not coming.’

  ‘Judge, she’s been murdered.’

  The flashbulbs erupted, the press ran out to call their editors, and the circus was back in town once again.

  63

  ‘Chambers, please,’ said the judge, not even batting an eye. ‘Now.’ The press that remained in the courtroom stood to complain, but the judge could care less. He sailed off the bench, a nervous Neil Mann in tow, followed by the court reporter juggling her equipment, and the clerk. Two corrections officers moved in closer next to Bantling.

  ‘This is unbelievable. Unbelievable. Murdered?’ said Rose, shaking her head, her voice a shocked whisper. ‘Let’s go C.J.,’ she said, rising from her seat and grabbing her file. ‘The judge is in no mood. Let’s find out what happened.’

  But C.J. couldn’t move. She sat there staring at her file in front of her and thought she would vomit if she stood. She blinked at the paper and saw Lourdes sitting in front of her across her desk, in her southwestern office in the middle of nowhere. She remembered the contempt Lourdes had had for her, when she tried to persuade her to divulge what was perhaps privileged information. Information, C.J. had suspected, that might lead her to yet another madman. But Lourdes had refused.

  Murdered? Not just dead. Not car accident, not cancer, not a freak brain hemorrhage. Murder. When? Where? Did it have to do with her? With this? And did C.J. look like she was thinking just that to everyone who watched her now in the courtroom? Did she look guilty? She had not disclosed to the court her meeting with Lourdes more than two weeks ago, because legally she was not required to. And, she figured, Lourdes would have probably volunteered that herself today. Now what should she do?

  ‘I guess Neil didn’t think to spring the news on his client before telling the world,’ said Rose, in a low voice, looking over at the defense table. ‘Bantling looks like someone just knocked the wind out of him. Good,’ she snorted.

  Bantling stared at the judge’s bench in front of him, elbows on the table, clenching and unclenching his fists, as if he were trying hard to control himself. The smile was gone. Another CO moved in to back up the two who had moved from the box.

  ‘C.J., you’re pale, girl. Come on, drink some water,’ Rose said, impatiently, shoving a plastic cup at her. ‘And let’s get in there before Chaskel has a cow. It’s a terrible thing to say, but this might not be a bad thing. For us anyway. Without Lourdes, there’s no motion now. Bantling’s new evidence just bit the dust, and we might all be going home a lot sooner than we thought.’

  64

  ‘What the hell just happened in there?’ Chaskel barked at Neil Mann, as soon as C.J. closed the door behind her in the conference room.

  ‘Judge, I just found—’

  ‘No. You found out this weekend. I just found out in front of a courtroom full of cameras and people.’ He looked at C.J., whose eyes were downcast on the floor. ‘Were you in on this one?’ She looked up at him in surprise and he backed off, answering his own question. ‘Apparently not. What happened then, Mr Mann?’

  ‘I hadn’t been able to reach Ms Rubio since the Huff hearing.’

  ‘And you didn’t think to tell me that before?’

  ‘She was very reclusive, Judge. It didn’t alarm me until this week. And, rather than ask for a continuance and delay justice any longer for Mr Bantling, I hired a private detective to locate Ms Rubio for me. So that I could secure a material witness bond if I had to from this court, and force her in, if that was what it took. On Saturday, the PI called to tell me she had passed away a couple of weeks ago, the victim of an apparent robbery gone bad in her office. The police are still investigating, but there’s been no arrests. No one called anyone here, because she had severed all ties with the community when she left. Her mother died a year ago, and there was no other family she was in touch with. I’m sorry, Judge,’ he finished, looking down again at his feet.

  ‘I should’ve been told before I took the bench.’

  ‘I wasn’t sure how to proceed, Your Honor. I’m still not. This is Mr Bantling’s last shot.’

  ‘Before his federal appeals begin, that is.’

  ‘The clock is up on his twenty-two fifty-four as well.’ A 2254 was a federal motion for post-conviction relief based on Constitutional grounds, and it was even more strict, time-wise.

  ‘Not my concern.’ Chaskel sighed in frustration, ‘Let me think this through. We have Rubio’s affidavit.’

  ‘It’s hearsay. The State can’t cross-examine an affidavit, Judge,’ said Rose.

  ‘She’s dead, Ms Harris.’

  ‘Exactly, and, I don’t mean to be callous, but it’s through no fault of the State. I’m sorry, but we still have the right to cross this witness. A witness whose testimony was being presented to undo eleven first-degree murder convictions.’

  ‘I didn’t hear the State objecting about hearsay when we talked about admitting Officer Chavez’s trial testimony,’ said the Judge.

  ‘That’s different. He was subject to vigorous cross-examination by the defense when he testified at trial. His testimony is admissible under the rules,’ insisted Rose.

  ‘What are you suggesting? I simply ignore the new evidence Mr Mann has presented and ship Mr Bantling back to die? Because the witness whose testimony could clear him – his very own trial attorney who has admitted malfeasance – has been murdered?’ He turned to Neil Mann who had brightened a bit. ‘The 911 tape is a business record, and the custodian of records at Miami Beach can bring that in. I’m sure that Mr Mann can figure out some hearsay exception so that we can listen to it, correct?’

  Mann looked sheepishly back at the ground. ‘I don’t have it, Judge. The tape. She was supposed to bring it. The master was erased years ago, because originals are destroyed at the department after thirty days. She told me she got her copy on the twenty-ninth day.’

  Chaskel’s face froze. ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You really have to be. I’m bending over backwards to give you
r client the benefit of every evidence rule and you don’t have the goddamn tape that started this whole thing? How is that possible?’ He turned to Rose and C.J. ‘State, you had access to Rubio’s defense file. Was it in there?’

  ‘Not even the mention of a tape,’ Rose volunteered.

  C.J. felt her stomach flip-flop. ‘No, Judge,’ said C.J. ‘There was no tape in the file.’ At least that much was true.

  ‘Christ, this is a mess,’ said the judge. ‘I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.’ He ran his hand through his hair and blew out a low breath. ‘I have to do some research. We all do. Nine tomorrow, I want everyone here and I want some law on all this. This is a man’s life that hangs in the balance, so we’d all better get it right.’

  65

  By the time C.J. had crossed the street to her office, she knew the grisly, frightening details. The press spilled them on every channel, even breaking into soap operas and game shows to keep the public informed, and the race was on to be the first to get and air the ugly crime scene photos. As a gesture of integrity, some media outlets would blur out Lourdes’ twisted body, showing only the blood-stained carpet where her body lay. Others cared more for ratings than integrity, and of course, that alone would spawn another debate, causing the pictures to run all over again.

  Lourdes’ body had been discovered on a Friday afternoon, after she failed to show up in court all week. Not that anyone, besides perhaps her abandoned clients, had noticed. It was the cleaning lady who had found the body. Lourdes had died of multiple stab wounds, her purse and watch were missing, the earrings ripped from her ears, the rings torn from her fingers, the victim of an apparent robbery. She was last seen by a client in her office on the Friday morning before the long President’s Day weekend, right before a major snowstorm hit the area that afternoon. Because the body had not been found for a week, and decomposition had begun, the date and time of death were impossible to specifically determine. Based on her absence from court, it was thought to be sometime between Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning.

  C.J. had left Lourdes’ office at 2:30 p.m. that very Friday, during that very snowstorm. She heard the wind in her ears as it wrapped around her, helping slam Lourdes’ office door shut behind her.

  She had checked and double checked the dates, but it was true. And now she was completely numb, afraid to think anymore. She asked no questions, made no phone calls. She didn’t want anymore information, though, as a prosecutor, she could surely get it.

  Did the ‘multiple stab wounds’ mean a sliced throat? Was the tongue muscle moved, was she given a Colombian necktie? Were any fingerprints or fibers found at the scene? Are they unidentified? Were they hers? Are there really any suspects? Were there any witnesses in the area, witnesses, perhaps, that spotted a dark-blonde female in a rented Blazer leaving the scene?

  Accompanying each question, was the dark realization that she might be the answer. She had told no one of her meeting that afternoon with Lourdes, the angry words that had been exchanged, the topic of discussion: William Bantling and the controversial anonymous tip that had put him behind bars. Her silence, once discovered, would probably look very suspicious. Then again it would look suspicious that she had even been to Lourdes’ office in the first place and hadn’t told the court last week. Suspicious, and possibly contemptuous and maybe, now, worse. Every road out was a road back in, and it was getting harder and harder to breathe.

  She put her head in her hands behind her closed and locked office door.

  There was no more questioning it. Everyone was dead. Chavez, Lindeman, Ribero, and now, Lourdes, Everyone but her. She was it. The last witness to a deadly conspiracy that had turned on its conspirators. It wouldn’t be much longer, she knew, before others would see the undeniable connection as well.

  There was no point in looking for answers. Instead, she sat in her office and buried herself in legal issues, case law and Westlaw, ignoring the impatient knocks of Marisol and the calls of Jerry Tigler and the hungry press. Soon enough, she suspected, someone would figure out to ask the questions she herself could not, and fingers would begin to point at her. Then it would not be just Marisol at her door. It would be Manny or Chris Masterson or the Colorado State Police or the FBI.

  Or worse.

  There was one out there now who knew the answers she did not. One who had picked off witnesses, one by one by one. William Bantling would not have killed off Lourdes, his only chance at escaping a death sentence. But the man who did not want that tape out would. The man who, even without a tape, would not want Chavez to talk out of school, or Lindeman’s guilty conscience to one day betray him, or Ribero’s fear to send him running to court to tell the truth.

  Because the truth meant Bantling had, indeed, been set up that night on the Causeway. Set up by someone who knew what would happen when Chavez and company popped the trunk and found a woman naked and missing a heart, a victim of the serial killer Cupid. Someone who had put that body in that trunk.

  She remembered Greg Chambers’ soliloquy in the darkness of his black-painted death chamber, her face pressed against the cold steel gurney. Now don’t go thinking that I’m going to reveal the secret family recipe, give a last-second detailed confession so that it all becomes clear, because I won’t. Some things you will have to go to the grave wondering about.

  She had not gone to her grave, but he had gone to his. Chambers was dead, so that meant that it was someone else – someone still very much alive – who had called in that tip three years ago. She had always just assumed that it was him.

  She heard the floor begin to empty. First, the rush of secretaries at 4:30 p.m., then the Major Crimes attorneys as one by one they packed up their briefcases and headed out past her door to the security doors and elevator bay. Nighttime gradually descended on the building, and by 9:00 p.m. she knew she was alone on the floor. By 11:00, she knew she was alone in the building.

  She didn’t want to go home alone. Not tonight, with the crazy, frightening thoughts that were running through her head. She couldn’t go to Dominick. A hotel was an option, but it would be full of strangers and lax on security. Here, at least, there was a guard, and security-access doors and, other than prosecutors or police officers, no one was even allowed in the building after hours.

  So at 1:00 a.m., she put on yet another pot of coffee to help her read through the mountain of case law she had collected, to write the legal brief of a lifetime. It would help get her through the darkness, before the early morning light enabled a trip back home and a quick change of clothes.

  Then she would be back here. Back to stop one monster, before the other found her out.

  66

  Judge Leopold Chaskel sat at his desk in chambers, reading and re-reading the legal briefs before him, thick with attached case law from every court in the country. Only cases that were directly on point from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, the Florida Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court were binding on any decision he would make. But the decisions of other courts, even those outside the jurisdiction, that had faced the same or similar issue, were called ‘legally persuasive.’ In other words, if four out of five dentists say it’s good, then he should, too.

  His eyes burned from the strain of reading so much small print and from a lack of quality sleep, and he wiped them with the damp cloth that Janine had slipped in with his lunch order. At 2:00 in the morning he had decided to pack it in, but found he couldn’t, tossing and turning all night, until Lucienne, his wife, finally made him move into the guest bedroom at 5:00. That’s when he officially gave up on sleep and put back on the bifocals and started reading again. Capitol case Supreme Court opinions were never two pages, either. Try twenty and thirty and forty pages, with multiple, complex issues.

  He knew the additional cases he had pulled himself would be the same that the defense and State would present to him in the morning. They, too, had probably been up all night at their computers researching, each pulling out all the stops
one to halt this train, the other to keep it moving forward – and he wanted to be prepared. He knew this was going to go up on appeal either way.

  He had been right. The arguments had come at him like rapid rifle fire this morning, and those damn cameras and microphones and pushy reporters were there to lay watch to the entire thing. So even though he was exhausted, he was glad he had forgone sleep.

  Damnit. Judge Chaskel slammed his reading glasses on the desk and rubbed his eyes again. He had run what he thought was one of the cleanest trials for a major media case this courthouse had ever seen. It was fast. It was smart. It was judicious. He had not pandered to the press to drag it out like a marathon or a bad soap and keep his face on the air, like some other media-saturated cases of the past. The defendant had been a problem, but he had solved it, accepting no bullshit or theatrics in his courtroom, and on that issue, the appellate courts had sided with him already. He had handled Bantling’s initial Motion for New Trial, his first Rule Three, and put all those issues to bed neatly in a succinct, airtight opinion, and the appellate courts had agreed with him on that again. Now, when the end was near, when it seemed as if the plane had cleared the runway, it looked as if he had been sabotaged, the victim of subterfuge in the courtroom by the very people that he had trusted to help him run the system.

  Eleven dead women. Even though the law was sometimes black and white, lives were not. That was what was so eternally frustrating about being a judge. The small print oftentimes forgot the human toll. It was easy to see things as numbers and dates when there was no face sitting in a witness box, looking up at you and asking you to do the right thing. Because justice as the law required and ‘the right thing’ were not synonymous. How could he not think of eleven dead women now, the brutal facts of their murders still fresh in his mind, the heart-wrenching screams of their mothers echoing in his courtroom, revisited in excruciating detail by the Medical Examiner in page after page of trial testimony that sat now before him on his desk? It was hard to just skip over that part and get to the legal questions, without tripping over those words, those pretty, dead faces reduced now to only a last name in an appellate brief.

 
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