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Cutting room the, p.24
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.24

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  His tongue wandered into her waiting mouth, which he had drawn open. His fingers stroked her exposed breasts. His other hand slid into his prison pants and moved south to relieve the pressure. He couldn’t wait till he made her do it for him.

  Just like the good old days.

  When he was done, he wiped the sweat from his lip and folded his very best work into a neat square before tucking it into the mattress. It was the only possession he had in the world worth taking with him when they came to tell him it was time to go home to Miami.

  Like a boomerang, karma was coming around. Like he had told that pretty redheaded prosecutor, it always did. Sometimes it took a while. Sometimes it took a lifetime, but it always came in the end.

  He nibbled off a sliver of fingernail and smiled to himself.

  This time around, retribution would be his.

  37

  She couldn’t wake up.

  Her mouth tasted … chalky. Her tongue was pressed down and it hurt. There was something in her mouth and she couldn’t talk. She struggled to move her hands, to take the thing out of her mouth that was preventing her from calling for help, but her hands wouldn’t move. They were tied up.

  In this nightmare her brain kept insisting she was having, her hands were strapped above her head to the bedpost. Soft, amber light flickered in the room. Shadows moved across the ceiling above her like ghosts.

  Her feet. She couldn’t move her feet, either. She tried to kick out, but all that happened was her body jolted up and down. Her legs were spread and her feet were tied down, too, one to each rung of the foot post.

  Her brain was so foggy, the thoughts thick, tripping over one another. This must be a nightmare. It had to be. So how could she make herself wake up and get out of it? She couldn’t talk, or move her arms or kick herself awake …

  Dear God, how could she wake up and stop what she knew was about to happen?

  The shadows moved again. He was next to her now. She heard him breathing, hard and fast. He was excited. She felt his eyes roll over her body. Oh God, she was naked. She was tied down and naked, her pajama top cut open, exposing all of her. She smelled his coffee breath and the stench of old cream. It filled the room now, along with the sickening, sweet scent of coconut. She wanted to vomit, but there was something in her mouth and she couldn’t move.

  Panic filled her, making her shake and cry. She had to wake up. She had to get out of this nightmare. She turned her head and there he was.

  The clown stood over her, his bulbous nose and blood-red grin lit by the flickering coconut-scented candle on her nightstand. Tufts of red polyester hair stuck out from the side of his head. His face was bright white. In his hand he held a long, jagged knife. Through the cut-outs in the mask she could see his blue eyes dance.

  She started to scream but no sound came out. Not even a whimper.

  ‘Hey there, Chloe, my girl,’ the clown whispered as he leaned in. ‘I’m back. Wanna have some fun?’

  C.J. sat up on the couch with a start. The TV was on. There was an Infomercial on for a special face cream guaranteed to take years off your skin. There were no candles burning. As she looked around the empty house, her hands went to her mouth, finding only the drool of saliva that was running down her chin. She studied her hands. There was nothing around them, no rope, no handcuffs, no plastic ties. She stood up and walked about the room on feet that were not bound.

  She sat down again, shaking.

  It was a nightmare. It wasn’t real.

  C.J. looked at the clock: 5:20 a.m. She’d slept for four hours tops. Luna was sitting at her feet, whining. The dog knew instinctively something was wrong, even though she couldn’t see the intruder that had gotten past her and inside her owner’s head. C.J. stood up again, turned off the TV, and headed into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.

  Sleep would not come again tonight. She would not let it.

  The fog was thick and the morning air chilly. Although it was still summer, the cloud cover kept temperatures down and the sunshine out until late morning. C.J. pulled on her UCSB sweatshirt, turned on her iPod and put on her Oakley’s, though it wasn’t bright enough to be needing sunglasses yet. It was 6:30 in the morning and 51 degrees. From the porch landing of the one-story ranch that had been her grandmother’s home, she surveyed the sleepy Goleta neighborhood. There was no one around. She took a deep breath and disappeared into the soupy fog.

  ‘Conquer the fear by facing the fear,’ her therapist in New York told her. ‘Rape victims have scars that the rest of the world can’t see. If you let the scar tissue build up, Chloe, eventually those scars will define the walls of your prison. You may think you’re safer shutting yourself off so that no one can ever get to you again, but you’re not. Because even from a distance, without laying a finger on you, your rapist is exercising the power over you that he craved when he physically assaulted you. By letting him imprison you in that cage of scar tissue, you’ll be giving him the very thing he most wanted — control.’

  ‘So what should I do when I can’t move? When it gets hard to breathe?’ Chloe whispered.

  ‘Conquer the fear by facing the fear. Reclaim the power. Don’t let yourself be locked in that cage. Get out and prove to yourself that he will not win. He will not win. Just keep saying it till you believe it. “He will not win.”’

  ‘He will not win,’ C.J. said to herself as she ran. Past quiet houses and shuttered stores, down towards the oceanfront. Running was cathartic. It empowered her. All she needed was a pair of sneakers to distance herself from the rest of the world, leaving everything and everyone way behind her.

  People who didn’t know what it was to live through rape often made the assumption that it was something you could get over in time. Just as the physical wounds healed, so should the emotional ones. It was only an act of sex after all, something that the average adult human enjoys two or three times a week. More if they’re lucky. Ha, ha. For a while, she’d been driven into virtual isolation by that kind of thinking. The expectation that she should be all better now. That it somehow wasn’t that bad anymore. Then she became a prosecutor, and worked with other rape victims and heard their stories, and she realized how common that ignorance was. It might not always be expressed, but it was always there, nonetheless. She could feel it.

  More than anything, she mourned the loss of innocence. Until she was attacked, Chloe Larson had never seen evil before. She knew bad things happened, she heard about them on the news, but these were things that happened to other people, and they happened for a reason — the victims lived in bad neighborhoods, or associated with bad characters, or they did drugs or drank alcohol.

  And then it happened to her. And there was no reason.

  The man who had raped and almost killed her had known everything about her before he’d laid a hand on her — her favorite perfume, what she ate for dinner the night before, her nickname, where she’d vacationed, where her boyfriend lived, her grades. And he’d relished telling her all the things he knew about her while he was raping her. He knew so much that the detectives told her the assault had not been some random, opportunistic attack — she had been hunted. And the most devastating realization was that she’d had no idea. She must have met him somewhere, yet she’d never singled someone out as weird or creepy. Or gotten a ‘bad vibe’ about a guy she’d met. Or noticed that someone might be following her. It wasn’t until after her rape that she’d realized her assailant had probably been in her apartment many times before the night he attacked her. He’d rummaged through her drawers and touched her underwear. Read her mail, memorized her diary, eaten from her fridge, listened to her answering machine. Sitting with detectives who were so hardened they seemed bored she’d survived, she looked — at her own insistence — through mug shots for any scars or markings that she might recognize. That was when it hit her: the man who had raped her could be any one of those faces. And any of those faces could be sitting on the bus ride home from the police station, or serving her coffee at D
unkin’ Donuts.

  Everyone was suspect, every situation a threat. There was no way of telling who the evil ones were, who got their kicks inflicting pain and creating fear, who fed off the misery and torment of others. Psychopaths mingled with the crowd, unnoticed by the prey they stalked, biding their time until they were ready to strike. Who was real? Who was a threat?

  The scar tissue was building up, just as the therapist had warned. Incapable of trusting anyone, she became imprisoned inside her own mind.

  ‘So what makes you want to be a prosecutor, Ms Townsend?’ asked the Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney at her interview. ‘I see from your résumé that you have experience in civil litigation and medical malpractice. Why the turnaround?’

  ‘Someone close to me was the victim of a violent crime. I want to use my skills as a litigator to do some good. I want to put away monsters,’ C.J. replied.

  The ASA nodded. ‘I’m sorry about your …’ His voice trailed off, waiting for her to fill in the blank.

  ‘Sister,’ she lied.

  ‘What happened to her, if you don’t mind my asking?’

  ‘She was raped. The perpetrator was never caught. It changed my perspective on the direction of my career.’

  ‘Do you think this experience has jaded you with regard to the criminal justice system? Can you still be fair in your assessment of cases?’

  C.J. nodded. ‘I was taught in law school to seek justice. I can do that. Whatever justice turns out to be.’

  Chloe had never once considered practicing criminal law when she was in law school. After graduating top of her class, she was supposed to start a brilliant career as a medical malpractice attorney. But that never happened. She was supposed to get married to a lawyer from another big-name law firm. But that never happened either. In the end, she was far better as a prosecutor than she ever would have been as a med mal attorney. And it was a blessing in disguise that her lawyer boyfriend dumped her after the rape, just when she needed him the most. She got to see the man’s true colors when it truly mattered.

  Ironic as it seemed at the time, she decided that the only way to regain control of her life was to put on a suit and go to court and stare the pschopaths in the eye while she did everything in her power to put them behind bars. It was an unconventional, in-your-face therapy. A working therapy, so to speak. And the added bonus was she got paid for it.

  Then came the Cupid investigation — and it had been anything but therapeutic. Assigned to assist the task force hunting Miami’s most infamous killer, she’d attended crime scenes and autopsies, and she’d seen for herself what that sadistic son of a bitch did to his victims. When news came through of William Rupert Bantling’s arrest, the name meant nothing to her. She had no idea he was the man who’d raped her until that first day in court, when she heard his voice and saw the scar on his hand. She should have excused herself at that point, let someone else step in, but with a case of such complexity that would mean a huge setback for the prosecution. She knew the case inside out, she was the best prosecutor the office had, and she owed it to those eleven women he’d butchered — and to the women who’d be in danger if he wasn’t stopped — to see to it that he was convicted. It wasn’t about retribution for what he did to her, she told herself; it was about justice. The statute of limitations on her rape had run out; there was no way to prosecute him for that. But she was prepared to endure hearing his voice and seeing him in court for the duration of the trial if it meant his other victims would be avenged. It was for their sake that she wanted him to fry in the electric chair. And for her own sake she wanted to be the one to put him there.

  The case against him began to unravel almost before it got under way. Under C.J.’s questioning, Officer Chavez admitted that he had been acting on an anonymous tip when he stopped and searched the vehicle. In the eyes of the law, the search was therefore illegal, and any evidence found in the course of that search would be inadmissible — and that included the dead body in the trunk. That did not make Anna Prado any less dead, though. Or the man any less guilty. To secure the conviction of a serial killer, C.J. and the three police officers who’d conducted the search had agreed to an alternative version of the events that had led to Bantling’s vehicle being stopped. The tip never happened. Officers Victor Chavez, Sonny Lindeman, Lou Ribero all agreed with her that, for the greater good, personal integrity must be sacrificed. A dark coven was formed. A pact was made with the devil — and there would be no turning back.

  It was only after Bill Bantling had been sentenced that she discovered he was telling the truth about being set up. Cupid was still out there. And she was to be his next victim.

  Dominick looked exhausted, as if he’d been keeping vigil by her bed all night. It took him a moment to register that she was awake and watching him. ‘For a while there, I thought I’d lost you,’ he said. ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’

  C.J. nodded. Thanks to a punctured lung and broken ribs, it was hard to breathe, much less speak. Lucky was an interesting word, she had found. For the second time in her life a psychopath had hunted her down, held her captive, tried to kill her.

  ‘Chambers … ?’ she asked.

  ‘Dead. Manny’s over there now. He says it’s like a house of horrors, but there’s no dead bodies, no sign of the heart you think you saw, no evidence whatsoever that Greg Chambers had anything to do the Cupid murders. It looks as though it was all some sick game he was playing with you, trying to make you believe you sent an innocent man to death row.’

  A tear rolled down her cheek. For seven years she had considered Gregory Chambers her friend as well as her therapist. She recalled that easy grin, the salty hair and those pale blue eyes. She used to think they were the kindest eyes she had ever seen. She had let him in on secrets no one else knew. Secrets that no one could ever know. She had trusted him. And all the while he had been manipulating her, just as he had manipulated Bantling. The rape victim and her rapist, prosecutor and prosecuted, a case study for the sick doctor’s entertainment.

  Dominick rubbed her hand. The one that had not been sliced to ribbons with a scalpel. ‘He was just trying to mess with your mind, C.J., there’s no truth in what he said. Bantling murdered those women. You proved it. A jury convicted him. A judge sentenced him.’

  She nodded. She could not bring herself to tell him what Chambers had said to her before he died. That he had orchestrated the whole thing as an experiment, a case study in what would happen if a rape victim was given the opportunity to prosecute her rapist for murders he did not commit. How far would she go in the name of retribution?

  Dominick leaned over and kissed her gently on the cheek. His face lingered there for a long time. ‘You did the right thing, baby,’ he whispered in her ear.

  In the course of the Cupid investigation, C.J. had discovered that rapes with an MO identical to hers had occurred in each of the cities where Bantling had lived, in each country he had visited. Like her the victims had been tortured, cut, scarred. If he ever got out of prison, she had no doubt that more women would be raped, and given the level of brutality there was every possibility he would escalate to homicide. She had no regrets about putting him behind bars; so long as he remained there, the world was a safer place.

  But then Bantling filed a motion for a new trial, claiming he’d been set up, and suddenly the bones started to fall again. Officer Victor Chavez was brutally murdered and his tongue cut out. Sonny Lindeman’s corpse was found with the ears sliced off. Lou Ribero’s eyes had been gouged out. The Black Jacket task force discovered evidence that all three were dirty and concluded that their deaths were gangland executions. Only C.J. knew that they had died because they had conspired with her over the anonymous 911 call that had led to Bantling’s arrest.

  Bantling’s former defense attorney was the next to die. After filing an affidavit in which she claimed to have a tape of the 911 call, Lourdes Rubio was killed in a robbery. The tape was never found.

  It was then C.J. realized that Dr
Greg Chambers had left behind a following. Bill Bantling wasn’t the only psychopath he’d singled out for his special brand of mentoring. There were others who had shared his depraved fantasies and been encouraged to act upon them. The sick game Chambers started had not ended with his death. It was still in play.

  She should have checked the back seat. But she didn’t.

  ‘Greg had a friend. A close friend, C.J.,’ hissed the man who had been hiding in her back seat. ‘A friend who understood his fantasies and shared them. In fact, Greg had several close friends.’

  FDLE Agent Chris Masterson had served under Dominick’s command for years. C.J. had worked alongside him on the Cupid task force. And the Black Jacket investigation. Another colleague she’d placed her trust in, never suspecting the sick mind that lurked behind the boyish face. And now he was holding a knife to her throat, pinning her head against the headrest as she tried to escape the feel of the jagged teeth pulling at her skin.

  ‘It was a tragedy that he was taken from us just as he was realizing his dream of transforming his fantasies into reality. And making it possible for the rest of us to enjoy them. His work was so … fascinating. Now I’m going to finish what he started. We’re all very, very excited to have you back.’

  C.J. had long since left the Santa Barbara campus behind her and was pounding along the cliffs that ran beside the Pacific. Usually by this point she would have outrun the memories, but today they were keeping up with her, flashing through her mind like a montage from a horror movie: the Jeep slamming into the overpass, then sirens and flashing lights and Dominick yelling at Masterson to get the fuck out of the car, Masterson taunting them, gloating about how he would cheat the system, suddenly reaching behind him … then the sound of Dom’s gun going off.

 
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