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Cutting room the, p.23
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.23

           Jilliane Hoffman
She said nothing for a minute. She remembered what Manny had said to her after they’d interviewed Bantling at Florida State Prison. ‘I didn’t think that was an option, considering what he’s done, all those women.’

  ‘Ray Lepidus sat on the Florida Supreme Court. If he was the appetizer, think of what the names on the main course must be. Hell, you could be talking CEOs, politicians, priests, rabbis, international fucking figureheads. If Lunders won’t talk, then we work with those who will. Cupid can give us the names of the other participants and how the operation works, we deal. They’re murderers, too, whether they watched, scouted, or stuck the damn knife in. They need to be brought to justice. And we need to find out who they are. It’s unfortunate, and it sounds sordid, I know, but deals are cut all the time, Daria. It’s how the system works. Murderers are flipped against one another, sentences are reduced because we need to find the body. Because a family needs closure. And sometimes we have to negotiate with monsters. Governments swap terrorists. It sounds counterproductive to steadfastly refuse to pursue these murderers because the information we want is going to potentially come at a tremendous cost.’

  She nodded.

  ‘“Better that ten guilty men escape punishment than that one innocent suffer.” You’ve heard that saying before, I assume?’

  She nodded. ‘Of course.’ English jurist William Blackstone’s formulation was a basic principle of American criminal law.

  ‘It would seem to follow that in this case it is also better to let one guilty man go free so that we can rid the streets of ten more scumbags.’ Vance looked at the disturbing autopsy photo of Patty Graber. ‘Maybe a hell of a lot more than ten. It’s a last resort, of course, freedom. There are other options to consider.’

  ‘Is it still mine?’ Daria asked again, though she already knew the answer.

  ‘It’s ours. I’ll be trying this case with you. We’ll work it together from now on. And the first thing we’re gonna do is pay another visit to our friend in Starke.’


  ‘Now what can we expect if this storm hits as a Cat 5?’ the perky anchor on the television asked the weatherman.

  ‘Well, that depends on where it hits, Jennifer,’ the weatherman replied with a smile. ‘With sustained winds over one hundred and fifty-five miles per hour, Category 5 storms are monsters. There will be extensive damage wherever it makes landfall, if it makes landfall as a five. With sustained winds right now of one hundred and sixty-two miles an hour, Artemis is a whopper of a storm, but it’s still seven to eight days out. That’s a long time in the life of a hurricane forecaster. The computer models are literally all over the board on this thing, from a southeasterly turn over Cuba to a march across northern Florida, to a dead hit on Miami like Andrew in ’92. We have a system of high pressure that is moving in from the Canadian Rockies, which could change the whole game. So we don’t know what to expect at this stage. What everyone in the state of Florida should be doing right now is going over their hurricane preparedness checklist …’

  ‘It’s a sign,’ Tru Zeffers said as he walked up to join Daria in front of the small portable TV that sat on the CO’s desktop next to the security station in death row. ‘All them tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods — it’s all a sign. World’s ending in 2012, just like them Mayans predicted,’ he added with a chuckle. ‘Might as well have some fun ’fore we go, don’t ya think? Glad to see you back up here, Dairy-uh, though I’m sure missing them heels.’

  Daria offered him a half-smile. ‘I took your advice, Sergeant. Found the flattest pair in the closet. Don’t remember even buying them.’

  ‘Tha’s a damn shame. It’s a crime to hide them-there legs of yours in pants, too,’ he said, biting his knuckle. ‘Forgive me for being honest. Where’s Detective Alvarez? Thought your bodyguard would be up here with you today.’

  She felt her face flush with guilt. Manny had no idea she and Collier were back at Florida State Prison. She figured she’d cross that bridge and have that conversation after they got the names out of Bantling. Manny was definitely gonna be angry, but he’d also have some more bad guys to go catch. A lot more. This was a case that could ultimately define his career. ‘No,’ she replied softly. ‘He couldn’t make it.’ She peered down the hallway and glanced at her watch. She’d been sitting there like a dolt for almost an hour. ‘Do you know if Mr Collier is ready for me, Sergeant?’

  ‘Yep. He sent me to rustle you up. He’s an ornery fellow, that DA boss of yours. Sure-footed, too? You’d think he was the one running things.’ Obviously, Jus’ Tru didn’t care much for Vance Collier.

  Zeffers walked her to the room on Row B, the same one she and Manny had interviewed Bantling in weeks before. Zeffers motioned to the cameras and the door opened with a buzz.

  It was immediately obvious the party was over. The deed was done.

  Vance glanced up from his notepad and nodded for her to sit next to him. ‘Names, Mr Bantling,’ he continued, without missing a beat. ‘Now it’s time for names.’

  Bantling kept his eyes on Vance’s legal pad. ‘We were just talking about you, Ms DeBianchi. I hear your partner, Detective Alvarez, won’t be joining us today. I’m assuming he doesn’t approve of Mr Collier’s deal with me? Maybe you don’t either, since you were not here to broker it yourself.’

  Vance tapped the pad with his pen. ‘Don’t worry yourself over who approves and who doesn’t, Bill, because, frankly, I’m the only one who matters in that department. You should be worrying about giving me those names, or there’ll be no deal. You can carry on enjoying the view from here.’

  Bantling glared at Vance. ‘I’m not stupid enough to give you anything without an agreement in place, so don’t try to bully me, Mr Collier. And that agreement will be authorized and signed off by a judge in front of my very eyes. Forgive me, but I don’t trust my attorney and I don’t trust the government and I especially don’t trust your office, Mr Collier.’ He turned to the slightly disheveled man in a jacket and tie who sat beside him. ‘Sorry if I offended you, Henry. I’m sure you understand, since that we just met an hour ago.’

  The man nodded and extended his hand across the table. ‘Henry Davies, Office of the Capitol Collateral Representative.’ CCR, as it was known, was the state-funded office of appellate attorneys who represented indigent death-row inmates in their appeals. Underpaid and overworked, his talents likely stretched thin dealing with dozens of clients, Bantling was probably not exaggerating when he said he’d met the man for the first time today.

  ‘Daria DeBianchi, State Attorney’s Office.’

  ‘You’re lucky I’m sitting here, Mr Bantling,’ Vance cautioned with a dark look. ‘Perhaps you don’t know who I am. I don’t make deals I can’t make good on.’

  ‘No deal, no names — until I see it in writing, stand in front of a judge and hear it from his lips,’ Bantling insisted. ‘Then I’ll tell you what you want to know. All about the pretty new kiddies on the block, too. The scouts. That should help you climb the ladder, Ms DeBianchi.’

  Vance stood up. ‘We’ll bring you back home, Bill, but the deal will be contingent on all the information, and I do mean every last bit, panning out. It is also contingent on the value of the names provided. I’m expecting to eat filet mignon, here, not chop meat. Do I make myself clear? And if I bring you down to Miami and you fuck with me — you don’t tell me what I want to hear, what your attorney is suggesting that I’m going to hear — you will rue the day you were born. Understood? You will also be required to testify in any and all proceedings that we need to secure convictions against the individuals you identify, so don’t expect to be sunbathing on South Beach, Mr Bantling. If you keep your end of the bargain, if you satisfy all the conditions I set forth, then you will get what you want. I’ll draw up the agreement and send you a copy, Mr Davies.’

  The CCR attorney nodded. Daria thought he looked more than a little uncomfortable when she and Vance were buzzed out and the cell doors closed behind them, leaving him all alone with his n
ew client.

  They said nothing to each other as Zeffers escorted them through the steel maze to the main entrance. Jus’ Tru made a couple of attempts at small talk with her along the way, but he seemed generally demoralized and intimidated by Vance, who glowered at the sergeant every time he opened his mouth. Especially after the Chief Assistant, who was a former Marine, picked up not only a Glock .40 from the gun locker, which he always carried under his tailored suit, but also the Sig he toted in an ankle holster. Maybe Tru had felt a fellow-cop camaraderie with Manny that let him loosen up, whereas today he was both outgunned and mentally outmanned. He skulked away without even saying goodbye to Daria.

  ‘Okay. Our flight’s at eight and we have an hour’s drive to Jacksonville airport,’ Vance said, sliding on sunglasses and checking his watch as they walked through the parking lot. ‘Damn, it’s hot, isn’t it? Like an oven up here in the boonies. No sea breeze. Not that Miami is much cooler, I guess.’

  ‘Dragonflies,’ she remarked softly, looking at the ugly monster insects that flew around them like drunk drivers. ‘It’s gonna storm.’

  He looked up at the sky. ‘Speaking of which, you hear anything about that hurricane?’

  ‘It’s still too far out to say, but I’m worried,’ she replied. ‘I’m hoping it turns north; I don’t have renter’s insurance.’

  Vance laughed. ‘Sweetheart, if that thing hits Miami at a hundred and sixty miles an hour, we’re all fucked. All the insurance companies will go broke, along with the state, so it won’t matter whether you have insurance.’

  When they’d reached the car, Daria turned to look at the prison. Dark tiny figures, silhouetted by the setting sun, walked the outer-ringed deck of the watchtowers. A line of chained inmates was being brought back from the runs and into the facility for the night. Even though she was clear of the prison walls and out in the sunshine and fresh air, she still felt dirty, like she’d taken a bath with the devil. Instead of being clean, his slime was now all over her. ‘Jesus, Vance,’ she said quietly, ‘I hope we’re doing the right thing here.’

  ‘Oh, he’s never getting out,’ her boss replied. He knew exactly what she was talking about.

  ‘How is that possible?’

  ‘You heard me in there. I said if he keeps his end of the bargain. And that won’t happen. He’ll be testifying till I say he’s done. And he’ll never be done. This is the best offer he’s ever gonna get — the only offer. He no longer faces the death penalty and he has a sliver of hope to one day walk the streets again. It’s a great plea. Henry Davies could’ve insisted on specific language in the agreement, something more definite, more pro-Bantling, but he didn’t. Why? Because he probably has a wife and daughter of his own. See? The man’s own attorney doesn’t want him ever roaming the streets again. He’s representing the devil and he knows it.’

  He opened the car door. ‘Now let’s get going. I need to grab something to eat and I don’t think there’s another flight out tonight. The last place I want to be stuck when the sun goes down is in this bumfuck town,’ he said, nodding in the direction of the watchtowers as he got in. ‘It’s like Salem’s Lot.’

  Better to let one guilty man go free so that they could put ten more guilty men behind bars, she told herself as she, too, got in the car. It made sense. It was for the greater good.

  Yet she couldn’t shake the corrosive feeling in the pit of her stomach. The one that she’d woken up with. The one that’d gotten progressively worse throughout the day. Like a scared animal who senses the devastating earthquake that is to come days before its arrival.

  He was only one man. Just one guilty man. And he would never actually get ‘out’.

  But even as they drove under the twisted iron sign and away from the prison, the feeling did not subside. That was when Daria realized that she couldn’t outrun what she had done any more than she could justify it.


  Bill Bantling looked around the six-by-nine-foot cell that had been his home off and on for most of the last ten years. A cot, a TV, a plastic mattress, a pillow, a toilet and a sink. A collection of books. Some magazines. His drawings. The mental inventory was complete: he didn’t have shit.

  With his back to the surveillance camera that constantly watched him, he lay down on the cot. With a jagged thumbnail, he carefully opened the three-quarter-inch slit where the seams met in the mattress’s corner. Using his little finger, one by one he slowly pulled out the drawings he’d stashed away inside. Over the years, different administrations had come and taken his drawings away from him, some while he was still creating them, calling them gross or inappropriate or, his favorite — menacing. The pictures that he had finished, the ones he absolutely couldn’t stand to part with, he’d stuffed into his hiding spot, which, surprisingly, no one had ever found. It was his own little photo album from the past, created solely from memory.

  He peeked at each one until he found the one he was looking for. He unfolded it and placed it next to his face on the pillow. His fingers moved over the crumpled paper. No matter how many times he gazed at it, it still stirred him. In his head he could actually feel the curve of her face, her heart-shaped chin, the ripples in her trachea. With colored pencils, he’d shaded in her green eyes, her silky, long blonde hair, her pouty red lips. He could smell her in his mind. He could still taste her in the back of his throat.

  Chloe … My not-so-sweet Chloe Joanna …

  And now he was one step closer to out. A fantasy that had played in his mind so many times might at last become reality. He might actually see her again — an encounter he fantasized about more than the prospect of freedom itself.

  He was obsessed. She was all he thought about. He could understand now how that happened to someone — how all they dreamt of, thought of, imagined was that one face. That one person. He understood why someone would give everything in their lives up — their jobs, their marriage, their children, their parents, their freedom — and risk it all for the object of their fixation. He also understood why someone would want to snuff out the very life he lived for. How love and obsession could easily jump the line into pure, unadulterated hatred.

  She had used her legal degree to railroad him into a death sentence. How much of his persecution had been coincidence and how much had been the calculated maneuvering of others, he might never know. Was it pure happenstance that it was her courtroom he’d ended up in after an unlawful traffic stop had netted the police their big break? Someone had put the body of Anna Prado in the trunk of his car that night for the police to find. Someone had called in an anonymous tip to the police that there was something of interest in that trunk. Was Chloe behind that, too? How far back did her plans to murder him originate?

  Yet here he was, ten years later, alive and kicking. And thanks to the ambitious efforts of another pretty prosecutor, he might soon be a free man.

  The moment he got out, Bill was going to pay a visit to the woman who’d been his addiction for almost two decades. And he was going to hold her once more in his arms and tell her just how much he both loved her … and despised her. Then those arms would close around her and crush the life breath out of her once shapely body. When those pouty red lips turned fat and blue he would be the last man on this earth to kiss them goodbye.

  Boy, was she going to be surprised to see him. That moment was going to be priceless. It would be worth the risk. He was going to take his time with her, even more so than their first night together. This go-round he’d make sure that the moment lasted, in what would, for her, surely feel like a lifetime of pure agony. She would be begging for him to finally end her.

  He smiled at his picture and kissed her on her cheek. He had drawn her how he remembered her when they’d met years ago, which was, sadly, probably not the way she looked now. He wondered if she still dyed her fabulous blonde hair that drab brown, or was she completely gray now? Did she still dress like a school-marm, with conservative, dark suits and clunky heels, hoping to melt into the background? Would she have
rivers of wrinkles cutting through her once flawless, creamy, sun-kissed skin? Would she hide her emerald eyes with unremarkable brown contacts? Or wear a pair of thick Granny glasses so no one could read the fear in them when she was up close and personal? He knew that was still there, no doubt. It was a gift he’d given her, that she always carried with her — fear. And she always would, no matter where she lived. Because Chloe Joanna, of all persons in this world, knew that until a needle was shoved in his veins and a doctor actually pronounced him dead, Bill might well come for her again, as he had promised. Metal bars and steel doors could not offer 100 percent assurance that she’d be safe. She could run again and again and again, but he’d always find her — eventually. The mafia found stoolies in the Federal Government’s Witness Protection Program — eventually. Nowadays it was even easier to resurrect the dead and the AWOL — thanks to the Internet and, sometimes a few, small, despicable favors to people who had access to the Internet. So no matter how clever or thorough Chloe thought she was at hiding her tracks and starting anew, she wasn’t. She could change her name to C.J. or Christina, or whatever other new alias she wanted, because it was only a name. People always left a piece of themselves behind; you couldn’t erase a life completely. Someone like Chloe couldn’t simply walk away from the people she loved.

  Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go …

  He looked at her long flowing hair, curling in gentle spirals as it cascaded over her shoulders. Those defined cheekbones, her mouth. Hopefully she’d gone back to a bit of her old self. He imagined her slender, curvaceous body outfitted in tight gym clothes, her perky tits bouncing about braless in a tight, white T-shirt as she hummed and sang show tunes in her kitchen — like the good old days. And high heels. Oh, yeah. Those pretty high heels she used to love to wear. Stilettos and pumps and straps. In shiny black patent leather or fire-red leather. Perhaps he would bring her a present and make her wear a pair of those for him again. And her hair — it would be long and honey blonde and wavy, the way he remembered it. Smelling of Herbal Essence shampoo and Aquanet. It would be long enough for him to lose his fingers in it. Long enough for him to wrap it around her throat and tie it in a nice tight knot …

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