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Last witness, p.24
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       Last Witness, p.24

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
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  ‘You’re next, you know,’ Bantling hissed, loud enough to draw everyone’s attention.

  Neil grabbed his client’s arm, suddenly aware that it was not cuffed. ‘Bill, this is definitely not helping. Don’t talk to her.’

  ‘Tell Alvarez I know who he’s looking for,’ Bantling said, knowing she could hear him. Everyone could. ‘I know his Black Jacket. And I know why he’s killing all those cops.’

  ‘Jesus Christ!’ said Neil, stepping back, his hand dropping reflexively off Bantling’s arm.

  ‘We both do, don’t we, Chloe?’

  Those left in the courtroom had now stopped to look in Bantling’s direction. All except C.J. Conversations quickly drifted into awkward, stunned silence. Hank finally managed to tear his eyes away from the scene that unfolded in front of him and open the lock.

  ‘Go to hell,’ she said, turning to look at him. Her voice was low, but her words were strong. She would not allow herself to look away or break his stare. Remember… he fears you. She pulled open the door.

  ‘Oh, I’ll see you there, Beany. Only the way I’m going won’t hurt as much. Three minutes max, I’ve heard. With you, I’m sure he’ll take his time,’ Bantling called, his voice rising to an angry shout.

  He was quick. He moved past a shocked Neil Mann and toward the slow-closing door behind which she had just disappeared, knowing she could hear him breathing behind her as she ran from him. Again. The click of her heels betraying her on the hard floor all the way down the hall.

  He made it as far as the witness box. That was when the FSP sergeant hit the remote button on the React Belt, and 50,000 volts of electricity immediately dropped Bill Bantling to his knees in agony, contracting his muscles, and robbing him of sight and hearing for a minute. Screams and shouts erupted around him, joined by the frightened squeak of his own useless attorney, and the collective cackle of radios declaring an emergency in 4-8. Then the pile of corrections officers and court liaison landed on his back, shackles and chains and squawking radios in hand. It took the struggles of five men to get him back under control. And as they packed him back up in cuffs and leg irons, and strapped his body into a transport chair, the crowd oohing in horror at the very twisted sight of him – it was finally, perfectly clear to him. He was indeed a man condemned. She had won. And when they stuck the bite belt in his mouth and wheeled him out of the courtroom and down the hallway, he had one final thought. Just one. And he’d hold onto it until the day when they finally strapped his body down tight on that gurney.

  Oh, I’ll see you there, Chloe. I’ll be right behind you, following you all the way into hell.

  69

  She just ran. As fast as she could down the corridor, past closed courtrooms and Judge Sieban’s bewildered clerk who happened to stick her head out of his chamber door as she passed. She couldn’t hear the click-clack of her high heels, heavy on the terrazzo floor, or the frantic, petrified screams of Janine and the court reporter in the courtroom, or even the loud shouts of Corrections overtaking 4-8. All she heard was him behind her, breathing hard on her neck, in her ear, in her head. His long white fingers brushing her jacket, grazing her hair, reaching out to touch her for the very last time. And eventhough she wanted to stand strong before him, she ran.

  She hit the double doors that led to the main hallway at full speed, realizing all too late that they were locked. Padlocked from the outside hall, because a death row inmate was in the courthouse and the building was officially in lockdown to prevent an escape attempt. She slammed into them, shaking them violently, breathless, afraid to stop, to turn and see him standing there with an almost-perfect smile, hands out and now able to reach her throat. Corrections too far back to do her any good.

  There was no way out. None. She was trapped inside this hall, inside this building, inside this prison that she had built for herself. And it wasn’t even over.

  With her eyes shut tight, she shook the doors, willing them to open, finally collapsing against them. The angry shouts from the courtroom spilled into the hall, and into her head; the pounding steps, she recognized now, were running in the opposite direction.

  ‘C.J.?’

  It was Chris Masterson. He stood five feet away, a concerned and confused look on his face. His hands outstretched before him, like she was a wounded, frightened animal he had trapped and needed to calm.

  ‘We got him, C.J.,’ he said softly. ‘We took him down.’

  70

  ‘Oh, you’re gonna love this one, Dommy Boy. Just love it,’ Manny said as he walked into Dominick’s living room. ‘Guess who wants to play friend of the police now?’ He looked around the apartment, his lip curling. ‘Damn, you need a maid. This place is sad, and that’s coming from me.’

  ‘Want a beer?’ asked Dominick, ignoring the comment.

  ‘If you can find one for me in this fucking mess, sure. Now listen up,’ he said as Dominick headed to the fridge. ‘I’m gonna solve your troubles. Cupid wants to deal.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘He wants off the row, which ain’t never gonna happen, but it might just get your butt out of the hot seat when Judge Guthrie hears about it. Did you watch the hearing on TV?’

  ‘Of course.’ Dominick walked out of the kitchen, two bottles in hand. He paused for a moment, then asked what he had been thinking all day. ‘Is she okay?’

  ‘Counselor? She was out the door before it got bad. Masterson checked on her. She’s okay. A bit shaky, considering. You should phone her.’

  Dominick said nothing.

  ‘It’s your call,’ Manny said and shrugged his shoulders. Dear Abby he was not. ‘So you saw that asshole. Well, we all saw him live. Fifteen COs sitting on this guy, a crying court reporter and a screaming clerk. His attorney, that idiot Mann, waddles up to us, shaking, and says he thinks Bantling wants to deal. Says – get this – he knows who Black Jacket is.’

  ‘What the hell?’ Dominick sat up in his chair, leaning forward.

  ‘Yep. That’s what he says. Course, by now, Bantling’s bound in so much iron, Superman couldn’t pull him out. Talk about overboard – they got him chained to a wheelchair with a waist iron and shackles, and a bite belt so he don’t nip at no one. The guys from FSP are all set to wheel his black and blue ass back to Raiford, when his attorney tells me and Chris this Black Jacket tidbit, loud enough for all the reporters to hear. So we put the kibosh on the trip and make hotel arrangements across the street at DCJ for one more night. Long story short, we gotta get the judge involved because Corrections won’t budge on keeping him without approval. Another long story short, we had to put a “keep out” sign on the door so that prick Gracker couldn’t come in with his Fibbie friends and fuck it up like he did with Valle. He wasn’t happy. Let’s put it this way, I may be sharing some down time with you, after all the four-letter words I called him,’ the Bear chuckled.

  ‘So what does Bantling say?’

  ‘Sit down for this. Says that freak doctor of his, Chambers, turned him onto a club. A snuff club. Like the sex pervs who deal in kiddie porn, he says these are guys who like to trade pictures and stories, too, but instead of swapping kiddie pics, they trade snuff. Pictures of people getting whacked. Not already dead, but getting dead, got it?’

  ‘I know what snuff is, Manny.’

  ‘He says, of course, he never whacked nobody because he’s not Cupid. Says they’re all crazy, though. Part of a club Chambers set up, each taking turns offing people for fun. Live. Says he saw their freakin’ snuff pictures and video on the internet.’

  ‘How did Bantling get involved in this?’

  ‘He had his own sets of pictures to trade. Pictures of him raping women. I guess someone saw potential. They called him The Ladies’ Man.’

  Dominick looked past him at some spot on a far-off wall. His fingers clenched the beer in his hand and his jaw went tight. The Bear took a quick guzzle before continuing, feeling more than awkward at that very moment. ‘Guy admits, Dom, with a smile on his face that he’s a snap-happy
rapist. But I’m supposed to give him some sort of brownie point because he’s not as bad as the company he’s been keeping? I thought Chris was gonna take his head off, but you’ve already tried that and, frankly, it’s not the smartest thing with a video camera in the hall, so we just let the guy talk.’

  There was a long silence as Dominick thought about God knows what and Manny took another slug of his beer. ‘What’s this club shit got to do with Black Jacket?’ Dominick said finally.

  ‘Move over, JFK fans, there’s a new conspiracy theory in town. Bantling says he’s been set up. Says Chambers was the real Cupid, and set him up the first time around as the fall guy for the chick murders. Now he says he’s being set up by Chambers’ partner.’

  ‘Partner?’

  ‘Yeah, you heard right. He thinks Chambers had a partner who helped him kill all those women. That the plan was for Bantling to fry in the death house for crimes he didn’t do. That would, I guess, put an end to Bantling’s club membership card. Everything’s smooth till Bantling’s attorney, Rubio, sends her former client a love note this past fall that she was going to make things right because she did such a shit job at trial. Mentions an audiotape, this 911 tape no one ain’t never heard of before. A few weeks later, everyone started up and dying on us.’

  Dominick felt his stomach turn. He remembered his conversation with C.J. the night she left. Lourdes Rubio’s sudden, violent death did not escape him. The pieces were starting to come together, only he didn’t want them to. ‘Witnesses?’ he asked.

  ‘I guess. He points out that Chavez and Ribero worked his case.’

  ‘So did almost every uniform in Miami, and definitely every uniform on the Beach.’

  ‘I know. I don’t buy it either. Course, now Rubio turns up cold.’

  ‘A robbery in her office,’ Dominick said, almost defiantly.

  ‘Coincidence? Bad luck?’ the Bear said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘I’ve heard stranger.’

  ‘Why kill them?’

  ‘To keep things status quo, I suppose.’

  ‘So Bantling stays in jail?’

  Manny nodded and finished his beer. ‘Takes the walk. End of story. That’s his theory.’

  ‘That’s too long-winded,’ Dominick said shaking his head. ‘If this is about letting Bantling die and this club kept a secret, why not just take Bantling out of the equation up at FSP?’

  ‘My guess? Too much security. You can’t touch someone in there, especially someone on the row. It’s a 24-hour lockdown facility. And a hit just means another witness. Better to let him die out a natural death with Old Sparky or a needle. More poetic. But that’s me talking. Bantling ain’t that articulate, not with that thing in his mouth.’

  ‘Shit,’ said Dominick, sitting back in his chair. He rubbed the overgrown stubble of his goatee, which had just started to grow back, and would have to be shaved off again for court next week.

  ‘Like I said, move over, conspiracy fans. Corrections was stamping their foot, itchy to get their most famous prisoner back home today, so we sent him on his merry way. Masterson’s handling the internet shit. Knowing that bastard, though, he’s probably checking out Bitches Gone Bad porno sites as we speak – on the State’s time and dime,’ he sighed. ‘Your department will need to investigate the snuff shit.’

  ‘Who else would have known about the tape?’

  ‘I guess anyone either Rubio or Bantling might have told.’

  Dominick was quiet for a moment. ‘What do you think?’

  ‘Me? I don’t think Bantling really knows shit, to tell you the truth. First off, he’s Cupid as sure as I’m breathing. I never bought into that pansy shrink Chambers as a real-life Hannibal Lecter. Chambers as a one-time whack job – yes. And everything we’ve got so far after months of investigation and hours of manpower points us in the direction of a gang war maybe, like you said, funded by the cartels. The neckties, the drug connections, the dirty cops linked back to dope and money laundering and IA investigations. We haven’t cracked Black Jacket yet, but we’re close, and Bantling knows that like everyone else who reads the fucking paper. So he’s exploiting us. LBJ is still missing, but the wires are picking up shit going in and out of Valle’s clubs. So it’s a matter of time till someone slips. My bet is Brueto. Grim’s been on him like stink on shit, and thinks he’s gonna break or go broke.

  ‘I do think the snuff club info is interesting, though,’ he finished, rubbing the back of his head. ‘And I certainly wouldn’t put it past people to think one up.’

  ‘That’s heavy duty,’ said Dominick softly, his brain unable to stop the images he was having now. A group of people sitting in their homes watching simultaneously as another human being was killed before them in real time. Someone they had never known, never met. Someone who might be a mother, a daughter, a dad or a grandpa – their life, their entire existence, disregarded and their death now simply a source of titillation. Dominick had seen snuff photos before. Those images never left you. Never. They crept into your dreams and they jaded your reality. Pretty soon it was hard to imagine just what a human being wouldn’t do to another human being. What it was that had not yet been thought of. Now there might just be a club of them, learning and feeding off each other.

  ‘Jesus,’ Manny said, ‘your fucking kid can rent Faces of Death – those movies where real people die on film, getting eaten by alligators and cracking into a million pieces when their parachutes don’t open – at their neighborhood Blockbuster. Filmed by someone who watched it happen live, and then distributed by someone else who thought it was entertainment.

  ‘People are whacked, Dom. Enough psychos in this world, the internet now just helps them find each other. Customs has kiddie porn clubs with thousands worldwide swapping pictures of three-year-olds and each other’s daughters. And not just one. Damn, there are hundreds of organizations, dealing in crap that would make you throw up. White slavery and child slavery rings that exist even today, right here in the US. So a snuff club wouldn’t surprise me. And it wouldn’t surprise me that Bantling would head up a local chapter.’

  Dominick said nothing, just quietly peeled the label off his Michelob bottle, watching the paper pieces flutter to the floor.

  ‘Bantling had so many fingers out and pointing in that interview that he damn near ran out of hands, everyone doing him wrong at the same time. The Counselor, Rubio, Chambers and now the phantom partner, who he admits he’s never even gotten a look at. Look at the pattern, though. His prosecutor, his defense attorney, his shrink, and now, guess who he says the masked man is? It won’t take a brain surgeon to see this one coming.’

  ‘Let me guess,’ Dominick said, with an eyebrow raised. ‘Me.’

  ‘Don’t flatter yourself. Although, I guess it could be.’

  ‘Did he give you a name?’

  ‘Of course not, that’s what I’m saying, he don’t know shit. No names, Dommy, just another friggin’ nickname, the nickname the partner went by online, supposedly. I feel like I’m in a Sopranos episode sometimes – everybody’s got a friggin’ nickname. Black Jacket, Cupid, Ladies’ Man, Son of Sam, Big Joey, Little Joey, Louie Sack of Shit.’ He shook his head. ‘Ready?’

  ‘Hit me.’

  ‘Cop Killer. Ain’t that one original?’

  ‘Cop Killer? What the hell kind of name is that?’

  ‘Bantling says Chambers’ partner-in-crime took that name not because he kills cops, but because he is a cop. A cop who kills. Get it?’

  71

  The play had so far spun out perfectly, the plot twisting and turning in on itself, the actors themselves as surprised at the ending as the audience. Now was the time for the grand finale, time for him to gather up all the dangling strings of the dozen balloons that he had floated about, and pull them all together into a neat and tidy bunch. A Hollywood ending for everyone. So the frightened citizens could go back to leaving their doors unlocked at night.

  Or not.

  He leaned against the car, thinking, turning the red ap
ple in his hands over and over again, wiping it with his shirt till it shined in the warm sun.

  He could leave it just as it was, a real Who Shot J.R.? cliffhanger. Or a dark Twilight Zone ending, where there are no ‘to be continueds’ and there are never any answers.

  He could let her live.

  The public had a short-enough memory. A few months from now and Black Jacket wouldn’t even be small talk on an elevator. Instead of, ‘Can you believe another cop was cut up in Miami?’ it would be a scratch on the head and a, ‘Weren’t there a couple of cops who died on the Beach a while back?’ The task force would disband and he would eventually end up in cold case, forgotten. Another new detective might come on and vow to continue the search, as he worked his way up the promotional ladder and out of the squad. Then the cycle would repeat itself as the file gathered dust for another twenty years.

  Or he could wrap up every end but hers, just let one balloon float away from the neat and tidy bunch. And, of course, that could prove to be an ending that was just as twisted as the one he had dreamed of. Let her live now to simply wallow in guilt and self-loathing for the rest of her life, let the responsibility she shared for the deaths of five people eat away at her, with a sixth, Bantling, waiting in the wings. The guilt alone, he was sure, was like a death sentence unto itself. Eventually, it would consume her.

  Her death was not really necessary, because he knew she would never talk. If there was ever a time or an opportunity for her to have come clean, it had long since passed with the filing of Bantling’s latest Rule Three. She’d had no qualms standing back up in that courtroom and doing it all over again, sending the wrong man to his death. No, her death was not so much necessary, as it was justified. It was payback time.

  Taking the knife he would use to kill her, he sliced off a piece of the apple and popped it into his mouth. He was too busy for a real lunch, chasing leads down in the brilliant sunshine. He watched the little kids play in the small park across the street, their degenerate mothers chatting amongst each other or on cellphones, oblivious to their own children and the many faceless strangers that lurked behind a friendly smile around the sandbox and the swings.

 
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