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Cutting room the, p.26
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.26

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Driving sheets of water pounded the windows of the EOC as strong gusts bent palm trees in half. The outer bands of Artemis had begun to make landfall. It would only get worse from here on. She hadn’t spoken to Manny since late that morning, and now she began to wonder what had become of Rufus, and whether Manny would risk taking him to his step-sister’s. She probably could have brought him here. No one looked as though they cared too much. She took her cell phone out of her pocket and checked for new messages. Emergency service only. The towers might even be down already …

  A tap on her shoulder made her jump. It was Nigel Peris, one of the Miami-Dade PD cops from downstairs.

  ‘Jesus, Nigel. You gave me a heart attack. Why don’t you just wait for some thunder to boom and the lights to flicker before you sneak up on a person?’

  ‘Sorry, Daria,’ Nigel replied. ‘But you got a call on two. You can take it here at reception.’

  ‘Who is it?’ she asked, walking over to the reception desk.

  ‘Alvarez from City. And as for them lights, don’t worry. We have a generator,’ he finished with a nod as he headed off downstairs. ‘You can still see that storm coming — right until it rips the phone out of your hand.’

  ‘Great,’ she replied, then turned her attention to the phone. ‘Hey. Where are you at? I’ve been—’

  ‘What have you done?’ Manny demanded. He sounded beyond angry.

  ‘What?’ She felt her stomach flip-flop and a wave of guilt of unknown origin washed over her. She didn’t even know why he was mad.

  ‘You dealt him, didn’t you? Didn’t you?’ Manny yelled. ‘Why else was he down here at DCJ?’

  Daria closed her eyes. She was hoping not to have to deal with this until after Artemis passed and after she had the names of the snuff-club members in hand. They would definitely soften the blow. ‘Manny, it was Vance’s idea—’ she began.

  ‘Collier? Don’t you go blaming this on him. You made the deal, didn’t you? It was you. ’Cause I know he wasn’t gonna talk till you actually brought him down to Miami. He’s not stupid. I told you that. I freaking warned you, which is what really pisses me off.’

  ‘Listen, listen, it will work out, okay? He’s giving us names. A lot of names. A whole book, in fact. And they have to all pan out, or he goes back up to Starke. Collier has it covered.’

  ‘What did he get? Tell me, what did you deal that scumbag?’

  There was a long silence. ‘Lifetime parole. With monitoring. He jaywalks and he goes back in. But he’s never getting out, Manny,’ she added quickly. ‘Vance says the agreement’s airtight. We are under no obligation to let him out until he fully cooperates, and that’s not gonna happen. He said—’

  ‘You’re a fool, Daria,’ he said flatly.

  She stood up straight. ‘Don’t talk to me like that.’

  ‘And I’m a fool for falling. Yup. For falling. For liking you. For …’ he hesitated, as he struggled to hold back words. ‘For thinking you were different from every other fame-seeking prosecutor that comes out of that goddamned office looking for their fifteen minutes or, better yet, a shot at a reality show. The truth is, you want the fucking limelight. And you think Cupid is your ticket to the show.’

  She sighed angrily. ‘Manny, don’t be so damn melodramatic. These things happen every day. You make deals every day. Don’t be self-righteous.’

  ‘You have no idea what you’ve done. You have no idea who you let out.’

  A strange shiver ran up her back, but she ignored it. ‘You’re not listening. He’s not out, Manny. He still has to give us the—’

  ‘He was put on the wrong fucking bus during the hurricane evacuation, Daria! He got sent to Metro West. Someone out there read the paperwork wrong and let him go. They released him, do you hear me? There’ll be an investigation, sure, but he’s gone. G-o-n-e. Gone.’

  She felt sick. So nauseous that she sank to the floor, her back against the desk. ‘What? What do you mean he’s gone?’ she said quietly.

  ‘He got on that bus and he disappeared! No one knows where he is. He hasn’t been accounted for. It’s been hours. And I can tell you, he won’t be found.’

  ‘Gone? That can’t be possible … Get the County cops out there, Miami-Dade, the US Marshals. He can’t be gone—’ She was yelling now, but her voice still sounded small and weak.

  ‘Have you looked out a fucking window? Have you heard the news? Hello? It’s a hurricane, Daria. There’s a one hundred-and-forty-five-mile-an-hour hurricane coming right at us. No one is going anywhere looking for anybody. Everyone and everything is battened down until this thing blows through. Then we all get to pick up the pieces of what’s left of Miami.’

  ‘Oh my God, Manny. Oh my God …’

  ‘Oh my God, is right. He’s gone. This is your doing. Yours. You let a damn serial killer out and no one knows where the fuck he is! It’s on your fucking plate!’

  She wasn’t sure if he hung up on her or if the telephone lines crashed down, but that was the last thing she heard him say before the line went dead and the storm of the century barreled into Miami.

  40

  ‘Opelika. If you’re going on to Atlanta, we’ll be departing at nine.’ The crackly overhead announcement sounded like a worn 45.

  Bill looked out the bus window and yawned. Opelika, Alabama. That was a city he never thought he’d visit. A gas station, a Piggly Wiggly, a Soapy Suds, more than a couple bars and liquor stores, some local restaurants, and, of course, a sizeable Baptist church. That was downtown. A playground, baseball field, a school, horse farms, modest, dilapidated houses spaced a quarter-mile or more apart, and acres of crop fields made up the rest. Most of the places he’d ridden through today looked exactly like Opelika. Small, cracker towns filled with simple, tired-looking people who eyed you with suspicion if they didn’t know you. Because in towns like Opelika, if they didn’t know you or weren’t somehow related to you, then you were a stranger, and it thus followed that you were not to be trusted.

  Bill stretched and turned away from the window. Good guess.

  In towns like Opelika, surly strangers stuck out. Bill smiled at the old lady in the aisle across from him as she stuffed her shopping bag full of all the knitting crap she’d been working on for the past three hundred miles. She didn’t smile back.

  ‘Let me help you with that,’ he said, quickly rising from his seat as the old woman’s granddaughter moved to grab her rucksack and other bags from the overhead rack. ‘They look heavy.’

  ‘Thank you,’ Grandma said and nodded an okay at her grandchild, who Bill guessed was probably still in high school. Maybe college. Although her height made you think she was older. Thanks in part to short-shorts, her long, tan legs went on for ever.

  ‘No problem,’ replied Bill as he reached for the bag, brushing up against the young girl’s back as he did so. Her hair smelled of strawberries. ‘You remind me a lot of my daughter,’ he said as he handed her her bags. ‘Same age, I’m thinking. College, right? What are you, about twenty?’

  The girl grinned and blushed.

  ‘Not quite,’ said the old lady. ‘Don’t go rushing her, now. You getting off yourself here?’

  Interesting choice of words, Grandma. ‘Atlanta,’ Bill replied.

  ‘Well then, Marcy and I have it. Her daddy’s waiting right outside. Thank you ’gain, sir. Have a nice trip, now.’

  Bill nodded and sat back in his seat. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and ran a hand over his now smooth scalp, watching as Marcy helped her grandma off the bus in her cutoffs and tight hoodie.

  He wondered when they’d start to miss him back in Miami. If they had already. When that hurricane pulled out of town and the good people of Miami rebuilt themselves a courthouse and put all their inmates back into the right cages, and poor ‘Bantling, Willie R.’ was wrapped up tight in shackles and chains and sent off to court only to find out he was now facing the death penalty — well, the screaming would begin. Poor Willie R., who was probably guilty of
not much more than a burglary or robbery or beating the shit out of his wife, was gonna pitch a fit. Then the prosecutors, the jailors, the judge — everyone would be looking around to see if this was some sort of a joke. ‘Where is Bantling?’ someone would shout. A grungy green uniform would nervously reply, ‘This is Bantling.’ And then would come the panic. ‘This is not Bantling. William Rupert Bantling? Date of birth January seventh, 1961. Who the hell is this guy?’ Then everyone would collectively start screaming and the finger-pointing would begin. Heads would roll. The look on that chief prosecutor’s face would be priceless. Hopefully someone in the courtroom would have a camera and take a shot so maybe he could catch it on the news, because it would, without a doubt, make the news. Cupid’s escaped! Man the torpedoes! Batten the hatches! Save the women and children!

  Then again, perhaps not. Bill had a feeling that sly prosecutor had a thing or two up his sleeve. Bill suspected Mr Chief Assistant Collier was gonna keep the deal he’d made with the devil on the down-low until it came time to call a big news conference to announce that his office had rounded up a dozen members of a snuff club. So maybe there wouldn’t be anything on the news after all. Even better. Bill didn’t need to see his name all over the papers.

  Bill stuck his hand in his pocket and found his folded drawing. He gazed out the window as Marcy and her grandma slowly made their way through the station and over to a waiting car. An older man — presumably Daddy, in a wife-beater T-shirt and jeans — got out of the car and threw their suitcases in the trunk. He scratched his belly and kissed his momma. All the while, young Marcy leaned against the side of the car, one long, tanned leg tucked up behind her, and texted on her cell, oblivious to what was going on around her, her long white-blonde hair spilling over her shoulders. Bill pulled out the drawing and put it on his lap. He was hard. He had been since young Marcy had stood up in her short-shorts. He looked down at the pitiful, beautiful face laying atop his thighs, her scared eyes staring up at him. He moved his thumb over her. The pencil smudged.

  Then he stood up, grabbed his bag from the overhead rack and hopped off the bus just as everyone who was heading to Atlanta was getting on.

  41

  ‘We left it exactly as we found it,’ Tru Zeffers said as he walked Manny Alvarez and Mike Dickerson into Bill Bantling’s old cell on death row. ‘Didn’t touch a thing. Before we even heard he was missing we was thinking you might be interested in what we found.’

  Tru had been hopping mad when he heard the news that Bill Bantling was unaccounted for down in Miami. He still was. But he couldn’t help smiling some now as the arrogant suits from Miami paraded past with egg all over their red faces — starting with that supersized Detective Manny Alvarez and his geezer partner. Tru had been hoping that State Attorney Collier would be with them, maybe dressed in his fine suit and polished shoes, carrying on with his smarty-ass, haughty attitude. Tru couldn’t wait for that one to call him a redneck under his breath again. Who’s the loser now, Chief? Just wait till the public finds out what you let back into society …

  Inmates had tried shit on Tru before, but in his fifteen years on the row, not one of those scumbags had made it past him. Not one. Those homicide detectives and prosecutors might think Tru’s security precautions with the inmates were over the top, or put on just for show, but as a CO on death row you had to remember who you was dealing with and never forget it. There was no room for giving breaks, neither. The bad boys in this prison had nothing left to lose — even their basic right to keep on breathing was at the discretion of some judge in Tallahassee or Atlanta or DC. Tru knew better than to underestimate scum like Bill Bantling. Oh, that one was slick, all right. Mr Handsome and smooth talker. Always on the lookout for an opportunity, for a way out. He’d soon slit your throat if an opportunity to slip through those bars presented itself. And he wouldn’t feel bad about it, neither.

  ‘Holy shit,’ exclaimed Mike Dickerson as they stepped inside what for seven years had been Bill Bantling’s cell.

  ‘Holy shit is right,’ Manny repeated. He immediately went over to the empty cot where Bantling had once slept. The plastic mattress was leaning up against the wall, beside the metal bed frame that was bolted into the wall. Laid out on top of the bed frame were pictures. Drawings. Sketches. Manny picked one up and looked at it. Then another. And another. The same woman in each picture, fifteen in all. In some of the drawings the woman was nude and bound, obviously being violently tortured. In one she was being raped. He turned to Tru Zeffers. ‘You didn’t think to call somebody and tell them about these when he was being moved? These drawings didn’t set off some sort of alarm in you, Sergeant?’

  Tru stopped smiling inside, startled that instead of being praised for alerting the detectives, he was being called to account for his actions. ‘Notifying you about anything wasn’t my decision to make, Detective. Take that up with the warden. I found them drawings tucked into the mattress, all folded up into tiny little pieces of paper. The mattress was gonna be thrown out. If it wasn’t for me looking, no one would have ever found those drawings.’

  ‘And when did you discover them?’

  ‘’Bout a week after Bantling went missing, I suppose.’

  Manny looked at Zeffers. He raised an eyebrow. ‘Here? You took the mattress apart here?’

  Zeffers shifted. ‘That’s what I said.’

  ‘I’m thinking maybe you wanted to keep a little souvenir of Cupid for yourself after he left for Miami, something nasty you could auction off on eBay one day when you retired from working this hellhole. But then you heard he was missing and that the mattress you took home was not on a list of inventory scheduled to be destroyed, and you got either nervous or curious and started to examine your booty a little closer. Is that when you found the drawings, Sergeant? Is that when you got real worried that they were gonna be evidence in the investigation of his escape? And is that why it took you a goddamn week after a serial killer was reported missing to call and say you had evidence? Or were you hoping to sell these drawings on eBay as well?’

  Zeffers turned red. ‘They were gonna throw out the mattress, like I said. It would’ve been long gone. You wouldn’t have ever known about them. You should be thanking me.’

  ‘Forgive me if I don’t. Are these all of them? Or are you holding back?’

  Zeffers shook his head. ‘I ain’t holding nothing back.’

  ‘He drew these?’ Dickerson asked, picking up one of the pictures. ‘Bantling?’

  ‘He was always sketchin’ something. We didn’t let him draw no porno, or violent stuff, which is why he most likely hid those. He didn’t want us to take them.’

  ‘Obviously,’ Manny shot back.

  ‘It’s the same woman in each picture,’ Mike commented as he studied the sketches. ‘If you move them around, she almost looks age-progressed, like he drew her throughout the years.’ He turned to Manny. ‘You worked Cupid. She looks familiar. How do I know her? Is this one of his victims?’

  Manny nodded. The woman in the drawings was beautiful, sultry, innocent, frightened. A woman who was naturally stunning, no matter what she wore or what she did to disguise it. By the later drawings, her long, wavy blonde hair had been chopped into a dark bob that tried to hide her face. Crow’s feet had aged her eyes, marionette lines her mouth. Circles lined her hypnotic, fearful green eyes. The drawings were like looking at photographs, they were that detailed, that perfect, that accurate.

  ‘You know who she is?’ Mike asked again.

  Manny ran a hand through hair he no longer had, wishing he didn’t have to make the phone call that he was about to make. As much as he didn’t want to think it possible, as much as he didn’t want to believe he knew the inner thoughts of a madman, he did.

  More than a week had passed since Bantling had walked off a corrections bus and disappeared into a massive hurricane that had all but leveled South Florida, from Fort Lauderdale down to Miami Shores. Thankfully, Artemis had made landfall as a Cat 4, with sustained winds of 139 m
iles an hour, rather than the devastating Cat 5 that was feared. It also came in slightly north of its anticipated target of Miami Beach. Yes, it could have been so much worse, but as it was right now, it was bad enough. So far 203 people were dead and the death toll was still rising. Most of South Florida was struggling to recover basic necessities — homes and businesses were still without power in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Palm Beach was almost all in the dark and the eastern shoreline was underwater. Power crews from fifteen different states were working to get the city of Miami back up. Most of the county, city and state police force were working twelve-hour shifts trying to control the looting and price-gouging, and deliver water, food and ice to the hardest hit areas.

 
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