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Last witness, p.25
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       Last Witness, p.25

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
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  But she knew. She knew death was out there, waiting for her again. Like a twisted video game, she had dodged it twice before, killing one enemy, feeding another into the chute, but they still kept coming at her, and she was running out of lives.

  It was best to end it now, take out all the trash at the same time, he thought as he pulled out the throwaway cell. He only had to dial the number that would set it all in motion. Wrap it up in a pretty red bow for the police to sum up in a final report and dispo.

  The line was ringing in his ear when he heard the small voice.

  ‘Are you a policeman?’ asked the brown-haired boy who had snuck up next to him, looking at the undercover car quizzically. A little girl of about five stood next to him, rubbing her sunburned nose. Little sister, probably.

  Like taking candy from a baby. If he wanted it. ‘Yes,’ he said, flipping the phone closed. Mom was nowhere to be seen, of course.

  ‘Where’s your gun?’ asked the boy, wide-eyed.

  ‘It’s in the car. Do you want to see it?’ he asked.

  The boy nodded.

  ‘Mommy says don’t talk to strangers,’ said the little girl, hesitantly. She fidgeted with her skirt and looked back at the playground.

  ‘Oh, no. I’m not a stranger. I’m your friend,’ said the man with a smooth smile. Then he reached into his back pocket, and, as if to prove it, took out his shiny badge.

  72

  Ricardo Brueto looked at the number on his cellphone and his heart began to pound. He hesitated for a moment, letting it ring, knowing what it meant, knowing that the future would indeed change when he picked it up. Maybe he wanted to hold it off for just a moment longer.

  Then it stopped.

  He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked around the club to see who might have been watching. But there was no one, just a couple of bartenders who had stopped by for their checks, and the crew who was cleaning Channel’s dance floor and bar for opening. He stared at the phone in his hand, then moved to the stainless steel fridge behind the bar, grabbing a Bud and popping off the top. He chugged half the beer in one guzzle, wishing he was already drunk, wishing he was in that state where decisions could be made easily, without thought or care for the future. But he hadn’t drunk enough. Yet. He finished the beer on the second chug, and poured himself a shot of Jack Daniel’s.

  He sat back on the barstool, just waiting for the cellphone he still held tight to vibrate, for the phone to ring again. He knew full well that it would by the end of the night, and he knew he couldn’t just ignore it a second time. No, he couldn’t do that. He had a choice to make, and that was that. Just picking up the phone would be the decision. These people were sick motherfuckers, and he could not refuse what was asked of him. And then he could never turn back and he could never leave.

  The DJ did a soundcheck overhead, but Rico didn’t hear it. Instead, he heard only the cries of his new son in one ear and Angelina in the other, whispering how they needed to make a new life. Go to Chicago and stay with her sister. Start clean, before he was arrested again or worse.

  Two hundred thou. That was a hell of a lot of money. It would buy him a fucking nice car, and maybe a house for Angelina and a lot of damn diapers for Rico, Jr. It would buy him respect from those who did not already fear him. He poured himself another shot of JD, and wondered why he had put off answering these fucking questions until right now. Why he was making the biggest decision of his life between telephone rings.

  He knew Angelina was right. If they stayed here in Miami, history would repeat itself. His kids would bear his scars. They would be in a gang by twelve, fighting on the streets for themselves, packing a Beretta with their lunch money the next year, raising their own kids at seventeen and wishing they had never been born sometimes. They wouldn’t go nowhere, they wouldn’t become no one. They would never escape, because no one could. Now was the time. If he was gonna do it, if he was gonna try and make it better for everyone, he would have to leave now.

  His head was starting to cloud, the alcohol was making him breathe easier. He didn’t feel so fucking jumpy. He poured another. Just an hour till this place started to hop. Only it hadn’t been hopping as much as it should have been lately. Ever since those cops got whacked, it had been freaky quiet on the streets, nothing moving in or out, people heading north and out of town to get what they needed. Everyone was really nervous, so he should have guessed that the call would have come already. Besides, if this drought lasted any longer, and with the cops riding him day and night, Rico was getting a bit nervous himself that his ass just might become part of a package peace deal. That was another reason to pick up the line. At least he knew it wasn’t him that was gonna suck the barrel of a Magnum when nighttime came.

  He had a name in Miami. He had cash flow. No one fucked with him. Taking out some motherfucker who deserved it was no big deal. The world could live without one more scumbag, and he could live with that. Even if it did start a war that would never end.

  The music started to pump up, DJ Ivo spinning away in the little booth. The floor became electric, flashing lights catching the shadows in the far corners of the club. This was a strange time, Rico always thought, waiting for the night to begin, watching people slowly trickle in.

  His hand vibrated first, and then came the ring. Insignificant under the loud music, Rico still heard it. He looked at the number and quickly sucked down what he thought might be his fifth JD. The clock had suddenly moved past eight and he realized he still hadn’t made a fucking decision. He took a deep breath and stared again at the phone. On the third ring, he flipped it open.

  ‘I’m here for you,’ he said finally.

  Then he stepped outside to finish the call.

  73

  ‘Let me tell you something, Mr Lowell. I don’t mean to tell you how to run your case, but I’ll sure as hell tell you how I run my courtroom. No bullshit.’ Judge Guthrie turned to the court reporter in the corner of his chambers and gave her a little wink, to make sure that last expletive didn’t end up in the record. ‘Your serial killin’ victim goes on a rampage in a courtroom, wrestling with five correctional officers and you still want to hang the lead detective for a slap in the face?’

  AUSA Nick Lowell cleared his throat. He didn’t like being in this position, his credibility in danger, being questioned by a sitting federal judge while the powers that be – who’d made the decision for him to push this case – were sitting in their comfortable offices, three floors above him and nowhere to be seen. ‘There’s a video, Your Honor,’ he said.

  ‘Yes. I’ve seen the video. It’s grainy. It’s blocked out and it’s, to me, a simple slap. Not that I’m saying it’s right, but I’m asking you, do you think that’s gonna get you a conviction? Do you really? Look at this man!’ he said, holding up a copy of yesterday’s New York Times, where a picture of William Bantling strapped to his wheelchair and being wheeled out of the courtroom in cuffs and shackles with a bite belt in his mouth had made the front page. ‘I’ll tell you right now, you can call him a victim till the cows come home but a serial killer is not coming into my courtroom unless he is decked out in his finest, I can assure you that. I will not have what happened in Miami happen here. So be prepared, Mr Lowell, because this is how your jury will see him. This is how I will see him. Now I ask you, do you still think you will get a conviction on this detective, or can we all just agree that the man was simply doing his job and took it a little too seriously? Let his department scold him.’

  The message was clear. Nick Lowell would be pushing this case uphill by himself the whole time. The judge would make sure he didn’t win.

  Les Barquet was nodding up and down like a preacher. ‘I think a jury might just wish Agent Falconetti had gotten a few more licks in,’ he chuckled. ‘And, let me remind Your Honor that four state prison correctional officers with the best of records will testify that Mr Bantling’s injuries,’ he said, holding his fingers up as quotation marks around the word, ‘were not as bad
as he now maintains. There is certainly a question of credibility, Your Honor.’

  ‘I can tell you right now who will win that tug of war in my courtroom. Even if he is from Miami,’ said Judge Guthrie, and the room tittered. ‘So if you are still wanting to go forward, Mr Lowell, you better be prepared not to waste my time. And we’ll be picking a jury in the morning.’

  ‘The morning?’

  ‘Yes. Mr Barquet says his client can make it up here and is ready to go. You and the US Attorney just better hope your jury pool don’t read the papers.’

  ‘Your Honor, this is a bit more complicated for me,’ said Lowell, rubbing the back of his head like it smarted.

  ‘I’m getting rid of this case tomorrow, Mr Lowell.’ The judge’s eyes narrowed, and Nick Lowell understood that his career in front of Judge Guthrie was going to be mighty unpleasant in the future. In fact, life for the entire US Attorney’s Office was going to get rough for the next few weeks, if not more. ‘I won’t have it languishing. It is a serious miscarriage of justice to do so.’

  ‘Please give me a moment, Your Honor. I need to make a phone call,’ Lowell said after a moment, standing up. Screw this. He knew the deal and he was not going to let his career and his conviction record get fucked up by a bureaucracy hell-bent on avenging someone’s bruised ego.

  ‘Take all the time you need,’ said Judge Guthrie, as Lowell ducked out of his chambers and into the back hallway. ‘Oh, and tell your boss I said not to send me this shit no more,’ he finished with a smile and another wink at the court reporter.

  74

  The Nextel at his side chirped to life, a sound Dominick never thought he’d actually welcome. But today – and maybe just for today – it was music.

  ‘Falconetti,’ he said.

  ‘Congratulations,’ said the voice on the other end softly. With the noise in the room, he almost hadn’t heard her. It was C.J. His chest went tight.

  ‘Congratulations yourself,’ he said quietly, walking out of the squad bay and into the hall.

  ‘Where the hell’s he going?’ yelled Marlon Dorsett.

  ‘Two minutes back on the job and he’s taking a fucking break,’ laughed Manny.

  The voices drifted off behind him and he found a quiet corner.

  ‘No congratulations for me just yet,’ she said. ‘Nothing’s appeal proof.’

  ‘Chaskel seemed pretty thorough. I watched it on Court TV. I couldn’t believe the news on Rubio. What timing.’

  ‘Yes.’ She cleared her throat before continuing. ‘You probably know more about it than me, watching Court TV. It was a robbery.’

  ‘So they say. No suspects, though, yet.’

  ‘Anyway, Manny called me to say you weren’t going to have to go to trial,’ she said, quickly changing the subject. ‘It’s great news.’

  ‘Not everyone thinks so.’

  ‘Did de la Flors okay the nolle pros?’ A nolle pros was slang for the Latin nolle prosequi – the official dropping of criminal charges by the government.

  ‘Are you kidding? He would rather see me go broke trying for an acquittal at $3 50 an hour. My attorney says de la Flors had a coronary when he heard what the judge said. The conversation ended, I’m told, with a crude expletive. Geyer told his colleague from the Southern District to fuck off.’

  ‘I’m sure Mark Gracker wasn’t too pleased either.’

  ‘He’ll get his. One day. Right now, I’m supposed to play nice. Everyone’s watching.’ He paused. No matter how much he didn’t want to care, he did. No matter how much he tried not to worry about her, he always would. He wished he could stop himself. His voice lowered. ‘How are you doing? I saw what happened at the hearing.’

  ‘No more Court TV for you. I’m okay. I’ve got a trial coming up. Are you back now?’

  She had changed the subject once again. Running away from another issue, and it frustrated him. ‘Yeah. First day,’ he said quietly. ‘I’m not leading the task force anymore. Fulton is.’

  ‘How’s it coming?’

  ‘We’ve got some leads, but they’re stretched out now. Fulton’s still working a gang war theory, because that makes the most sense, even though no one’s talking except to say they’re happy that four cops are dead. Valle is dirty, no doubt. He’s washing big numbers through his clubs, we just can’t get anyone to say so. And Black is hoping we can at least make him on money laundering charges before the feds try to.’ He paused, knowing what she was thinking, who she was thinking about. ‘I don’t think you’ll have to worry about Bantling on this. That statue – even though he never admitted sending it – was from him. It’s all just a game for him, to drive you crazy. He already knew when he sent it that he was gonna get to see you at a hearing. Rubio had already forwarded him her letter pledging her support and he’s no fool. With new information like that, he had to know a hearing and a trip down to Miami were pretty much guaranteed.’

  She wouldn’t let him protect her, but, still, he found himself trying. He didn’t tell her about Bantling’s last-minute futile attempt to elude the chair and his allegations that Chambers had a partner out there somewhere just itching to keep witnesses quiet. None of what Bantling said could be substantiated. Masterson had found nothing on the internet leads, no complaints lodged through, or investigations started with, either Postal or Customs. Nothing through Interpol, the international police agency. Nothing at all to corroborate Bantling’s claims of a bizarre international snuff ring.

  ‘I’m sorry, Dominick,’ she said slowly. ‘For everything. I want you to know that.’

  ‘Let’s not do this, C.J.,’ was all he could say. I didn’t ask you to be my hero. And so he wouldn’t.

  ‘I didn’t want to drag you into anything—’

  ‘You didn’t. That’s our problem.’

  She felt her chest suck in, her body recoiling, when his words hit her. ‘I just wanted to say I’m sorry,’ she said, choking. Her eyes closed tight, wishing she could go back in time, back to a Sunday morning in bed with the paper spread between them, back to that weekend in Key West, his hand firmly locked on hers. There were so many moments. She wanted to feel just one again.

  ‘Me too. But there are some things you just can’t fix,’ he said. He closed his eyes and slapped his hand hard against the wall above him. He had nothing left to give. He heard her sniffle in the background. ‘Okay,’ he said finally. ‘Don’t work too hard. Good luck on the trial.’

  ‘Dominick,’ she said, her voice a tired whisper now. She watched streaks of rain weave their way down her office window. ‘I was wrong. I need you,’ she managed to say at last.

  But it was too late. He had already hung up the phone.

  75

  Waist-high weeds covered the yard, both front and back, hiding discarded propane tanks and rusty car and bicycle parts in their midst. A dilapidated wood fence blocked the back door of the rickety green house with the sagging roof from the sight of its Liberty City neighbors on either side; the parking lot of a closed and boarded-up food market bounded the back. In the cloud-filled moonless night, it sat abandoned, back from the street, graffitipainted plywood covering its windows and doors. An occasional breeze or invisible small animal crept through the weeds with a soft rustle, but other than that, it betrayed no signs of life inside.

  From every angle, the house was invisible. Even if someone stupid enough to be nosy were to crane their curious neck and try to see in, they couldn’t. Not that it really mattered. Liberty City, the birthplace of the 1980 race riots that left Miami burning for three days, was still an economically depressed, crime-ridden neighborhood. And in this hood, no one saw anything even if it happened right in front of them.

  He blended with the dark in the back of the house, his fingers quickly finding the waiting deadbolts in the blackness, the crowbar efficiently popping them open one at a time. The wood splintered with a soft crack, like the rustle of the weeds, and then the door let him in.

  In the black of the room that was obviously the kitchen, h
e flicked on his flashlight and made his way quietly down the hallway. He stood outside the door and listened for a moment, the sound of his own breathing screaming in his ears. He wondered if he could do this after all. Inside, he heard the jabbering voices and then the quick, concentrated flutter of laughs, followed by more voices and another bout of canned laughter, and the flashes of bright light from a television appeared under the door, dancing across his sneakers. The house was otherwise silent, as it should be. He slid the key into the lock and brought the Magnum to his side, ready to go, should things go wrong now.

  The knob turned with a click and he pushed the door in hard. With a creak it opened, hitting the wall on the other side with a slam and bouncing back slightly.

  Jerome Sylvester Lightner, aka Lil’ Baby J, aka LBJ – the most wanted man in the entire state of Florida – sat on a pile of dirty pillows on an old couch. He stared blankly at a rerun of Seinfeld on the television in front of him. Dead bottles of Colt 45 and plastic liters of Parrot Bay Rum littered the windowless room, along with empty fast-food wrappers and chip bags and more than a few bent metal spoons and crushed, converted Coke cans, tinged black and tarred with yellow goo. The room smelled of piss and shit and burnt crack, a bitter, pungent stink. The 21-year-old who topped the FBI’s Most Wanted List looked a lot smaller, at the moment, than his reputation.

  It took a good five seconds for LBJ’s stoned brain to tell his ears that the door had opened, that someone was now in the room with him. He turned his head slowly toward the door, his glazed brown eyes narrowing first perhaps in anger, then catching on the gun pointed at his face and softening in surprise. ‘What the fuck?’ he tried to say, but even those few words got tumbled, the crack dulling his senses. That might be a good thing later on, Rico thought. Maybe he would feel less. LBJ fell off the couch and onto his back, his bare feet scrambling beneath him like a cartoon character, scattering the used Coke cans and Burger King wrappers. He pushed backwards toward the open door, hoping to find a miracle behind him, to escape the fate which even in his drug-induced stupor he knew was to become his own.

 
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