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Cutting room the, p.27
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.27

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Although Tru Zeffers and the good folks in the rest of the Sunshine State — and in the rest of the country, for that matter — couldn’t really wrap their heads around the enormity of it all, Miami was in complete and utter chaos. There was no time to hunt for fugitives or follow up on leads or work cases. Nothing was normal anymore; every cop in every law enforcement agency south of Martin County was in survival mode. While this trip to Starke wasn’t exactly unauthorized, it was Manny who had made it a priority, coming up here the first chance he had free. Tomorrow he and Mike would be back working the Liberty City area. Their lieutenant had advised Manny to just get an arrest warrant for Bantling’s recapture, notify the feds and the US Marshals and let them use their resources, which were not bogged down in hurricane response. ‘And for Christ’s sake,’ his lieutenant had added, ‘keep it the hell out of the press that he’s gone.’

  He’s gone. Cupid has left the building.

  As for that last request, Manny was running out of time. The media had reached saturation point with survivor stories and were out to find other angles on the hurricane aftermath. It was only a matter of time before someone called the Herald. The only reason no one had done it already was most likely because no one wanted to take the blame for letting loose a serial killer — and there was blame enough to go around. First, to the Department of Corrections for the colossal fuck-up in letting him go, and then to the State Attorney’s Office for cutting a deal with Cupid, and now to the City of Miami and every other agency that had left it too long to let anyone know Bantling was missing. As for the folks at Starke not blowing the whistle, Tru Zeffers didn’t want anyone to find out he was the collector of macabre serial-killer paraphernalia that he would someday try to hock on the Internet for a hefty price. Manny wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years more drawings mysteriously surfaced on eBay.

  With every hour Bantling was gone, the trail grew that much colder. The man had no family. He had no friends. He had no accomplices, and as far as anyone knew he had no help. He was like a damn ghost. As far as money went, that was something Bantling once did have. Enough to afford private defense attorneys and a nice bachelor pad in Coconut Grove. And he’d likely stashed some of it away, hoping an opportunity like this would one day come.

  The feds had helped out, and had so far tracked Bantling to a Greyhound bus station in Orlando that had taken him to Opelika, Alabama. But the trail from there had suddenly dead-ended. Bill Bantling could be anywhere in the world by now. He could look like a completely different man — different hair, different eye color, different skin tone. He could appear to be fat or uber skinny. And if he did have cash, he would have access to plastic surgery, passports, transportation out of the country. He could completely transform his appearance and be unrecognizable within weeks. With no friends or lovers or family it was impossible to find a starting point.

  Most prison escapees were caught within the first forty-eight hours. Here it was Day Nine and counting. Manny stared at the creepy sketches of the scared woman he knew all too well. While he didn’t know where William Rupert Bantling was headed, he had a pretty good idea who the man was hoping to find.

  ‘Give me a second, Mikey,’ Manny said. Then he stepped out of the cell, picked up his phone and flipped through it, finding a number he hadn’t used in a long, long time. Too long, but that was not his choice.

  ‘Dom. Long time, brother,’ he began when the man who used to be his closest friend finally picked up the phone. ‘It’s Bear. I have a situation going on here in Miami, and, well, you and me, we gotta talk …’

  42

  ‘The story’s gonna break,’ Vance said when Daria stepped into his office. He was reading something on his computer screen and had yet to actually look at her. She sat down in front of his desk. His cryptic statement wasn’t so cryptic. Her stomach flip-flopped.

  ‘I just got off the phone with Corrections,’ he continued, still staring at his computer. ‘The Herald’s been asking questions about Bantling. They’ve made a bunch of public records requests. I don’t know how long we have before this is front-page news. We’re doing what we can to hold them off — at least until the feds can tell me they have a lead on where the prick went.’ He ran a hand through his hair and finally faced her. ‘This is a clusterfuck, Daria. Definitely something you don’t wanna hear at four o’clock on a Friday. It’s worse if a story like this breaks on a weekend.’

  Daria sunk into her seat. ‘It was a matter of time, Vance. To be honest, I’m surprised it took as long as it did.’

  He sighed angrily. ‘We gotta get a handle on this. The conspiracy theories, I’m sure, will be up and running that there was some sort of cover-up going on.’

  There was, but she wasn’t about to say that out loud. Bantling had been gone almost two weeks and no one had notified the press. There’d been no attempt to warn the public. Only the top brass at the need-to-know agencies had been informed he had escaped. After Artemis had passed, the first person Daria had gotten in touch with was Vance, and it was he who’d flat-out ordered her to keep the situation under wraps — under the pretense of ‘avoiding a public panic’. That sure sounded like a cover-up to her.

  ‘They’re gonna want to know why he was brought down to Miami in the first place, Vance,’ she replied slowly.

  ‘If that question is asked, the answer is, “He was cooperating on another investigation.” Period. End of statement.’

  ‘Okay. Next question: “What investigation?”’

  ‘Repeat after me: “That investigation is ongoing, and we are not at liberty to discuss open criminal investigations.” Now walk away. Or hang up. Change the subject. Whatever. I don’t want to hear anyone with a microphone and a camera talking about snuff clubs. That will cause a goddamn panic. And it will cause any such sick operation, if it indeed still exists, to bury itself even further underground. Speaking of which, has anyone contacted you yet, Daria? Anyone from the press?’

  ‘Me? No.’

  ‘That’s good. That means the Herald doesn’t have a clue what case it was Bantling might have been cooperating on. Right now, I’m thinking they’re just trying to confirm he’s missing. Somebody from Corrections probably blabbed.’

  ‘What about our deal with him? Is that coming out?’

  ‘Nothing’s on paper,’ Vance answered, as he relocated his stapler to another prime spot on the other side of his desk. ‘As far as I’m concerned, he was cooperating in an ongoing criminal investigation. There was no deal, because we hadn’t made one.’

  ‘Listen, Vance, if his attorney talks to the press, that … arrangement is gonna make us look real bad.’

  There was no way around it — the elephant was in the room and she was tired of it. That elephant had already cost her her relationship with Manny, personally and professionally. While they were both still working Lunders, he would not return her calls and communicated with her only via email or text, the bitter irony of which was not lost on her. She’d called him a dozen times since the hurricane, but he wouldn’t pick up. She’d driven by his house, stopped by the office — nothing. She’d left messages, but unless it related to Lunders, he would not respond at all. At first she thought he’d get over it and things would go back to where they were, but he hadn’t and it didn’t look like he was going to bother trying. It was over. Now all that was left for her was to accept it.

  I’m a fool … for thinking you were different from every other fame-seeking prosecutor that comes out of that goddamned office. The truth is, you want the fucking limelight. And you think Cupid is your ticket to the show …

  She’d scoffed at the accusation at the time, but … Was it true? Was Manny right? She’d had a lot of alone time lately to examine and analyze her own behavior. She’d never thought of herself as a media hound, but maybe that was because she hadn’t really had a newsworthy case before. Then along came Talbot Lunders, a case with the potential to make her not only the next Chief of Sex Bat, but possibly the next Linda Fairstein, Vincent
Bugliosi, Kimberly Guilfoyle — prosecutors who had all made headlines with a sensational murder prosecution and then parlayed that fame into a career in media. Except it wasn’t riding the coattails of Pretty Boy Talbot that would bring her the rare, coveted, international fame and recognition she insisted she didn’t want. It was Cupid.

  And the truth was, she’d jumped right on it.

  She hadn’t protested when Vance started making deals with a monster. She’d taken the ride back up to Florida State Prison. She’d gone right along, hoping that Bantling would hand up dozens of names. Hoping that the investigation would lead them to some well-known politicians or celebrities that would command the world’s attention. Hoping her name might catapult into the next stratosphere of prosecutor. It was hard to deny that doors would open up for her if that happened. Just being the ASA on a snuff-club case would start the cameras rolling, but with Cupid as lead witness for the prosecution, that notoriety could land her a job as an analyst on Good Morning America or Court TV when the case was over. Or better yet, give her the exposure to launch her own TV show one day, à la Nancy Grace. She couldn’t kid herself that those thoughts hadn’t entered her mind. As shallow as it sounded, she’d practiced her commentary in the bathroom mirror on more than one occasion and she thought she sounded pretty damn good.

  She’d compromised herself and her integrity and the best shot at a relationship that she’d ever had with a funny, nice guy who had really cared about her on a pipe dream of being a legal rock star. It was a terrible feeling. And now she’d have to live with what she’d done. That was what was so devastating. Manny was right — this was on her fucking plate. And if Bantling did anything while he was on the lam — robbed, stole, carjacked, raped … She swallowed the huge lump in her throat. He was a serial killer. Time to use the right verb. If he murdered again — that would be on her plate as well. She would be responsible. She wasn’t sure she could live with that.

  ‘Henry Davies won’t say anything,’ Vance replied coolly. ‘He knows if he does, there will be no hope of this office cutting any deals with his clients or those of his fellow liberals at CCR.’

  Daria was quiet for another long moment. Then she snapped out of it. ‘We never should have made that deal, Vance. This mess we’re in now — it’s all bad karma.’ She heard herself saying the words — confronting her boss, jumping off the career ledge without a chute — but it was almost as if they were coming from a different body.

  Karma’s a bitch, Ms Prosecutor; it takes a while to come around sometimes, but personally I’ve found that it always does. Always. So you better watch yourself.

  She’d lost her lover, now she might just lose her job. But at least she would have stuck up for what was right. At least she would have said something.

  ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Vance asked.

  ‘We made a deal with the devil, Vance. Or we tried to. Let’s be honest here. The press is gonna crucify us when they find out about that deal, because they should. If Bantling hadn’t escaped, we would have quietly put him back out on the streets ourselves a couple of months later, exchanging one bad guy for maybe a half-dozen others, if we were lucky. You say no, he would never have fulfilled the terms of that deal, but I say yes. I say you’re either lying or fooling yourself. Cupid would have figured out a way to beat you at your own game. He would have figured out a way to walk. Bantling’s not a stupid man. I should have appreciated that.’

  She pointed at Vance’s computer screen. ‘There’s a posse of law enforcement officers out looking for him, including US Marshals and the FBI, and nothing. His face is soon to be on every news channel in the world, but I don’t think that will matter. I really don’t. I think he’s gone for good. That’s what we didn’t appreciate, what I didn’t appreciate — who we were dealing with. But I do now. If Bill Bantling hadn’t escaped at the first opportunity he got, he would have strung us along until that opportunity finally came around. Because he was never gonna give up those names, Vance, if he ever really knew them. He played us as much as we played him. And now it’s karma. It’s coming around, because it always does.’

  Vance’s face grew dark. ‘That’s a first. If I recall correctly, Daria, you came to me and said you thought we could get names from Bantling, but he wants a deal. You came to me. Now you want absolution? You want to hide your role in all this behind karma? Bullshit. This is not on my hands, sweetheart, it’s on yours. It’s your case and your paperwork. As far as I’m concerned, it was a rogue decision to deal with Bantling to begin with.’

  She stood up. ‘So that’s it? Now that there is nothing for us to gain out of this — like the names of some sadistic cops or politicians to prosecute — now it was my rogue decision to make Bantling a deal? Nice. If he’d given up the telephone book, then you would have proudly stood behind your decision?’

  Here comes the part, Daria, where you officially get kicked off Lunders and moved back into Felony Screening. Or worse, told your services are no longer necessary and you may want to check out opportunities with the Public Defender’s Office.

  Then a thought occurred to her.

  But wait, no, you won’t be going anywhere. Because if he moves you off Lunders now, and the deal with Bantling does come to light, along with the case it was connected to, then there would be no scapegoat. No one to take the fall beside himself.

  The same thought must’ve occurred to Vance. ‘When is the motion to suppress on Lunders?’

  ‘Wednesday. It was moved back because of the hurricane.’

  ‘Aren’t you speaking at the SMART conference in Orlando?’ SMART was the acronym for the Department of Justice’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehension, Registering and Tracking.

  ‘Yes. But that’s Monday and Tuesday. I’ll be back Tuesday night,’ she responded.

  ‘When are you leaving for Orlando?’

  ‘I’ll head up on Sunday.’

  ‘Don’t take any calls from the press.’

  ‘I don’t talk to the press on any of my cases.’

  ‘Are you prepared for the motion?’

  And just like that, the pronouns had changed once again.

  She studied his face for a long moment. Here was her opportunity for absolution, at least professionally: win Lunders. ‘I will be,’ she answered. ‘The search warrant for the Benz was valid, even without Marie Modic around to testify about it.’

  Daria had still not been able to locate the nail tech. The hurricane had only complicated things, because the woman lived in Hallendale, which had been hit hard by Artemis. Many homes had suffered severe damage. Power was back up, but hundreds of houses and businesses had been abandoned, including the salon the girl had once worked in. Some people would never return. It might prove very difficult to locate Marie Modic. ‘The judge signed off on the warrant,’ she continued. ‘Procedurally, it’s sound. I don’t need her to support the warrant.’

  Vance nodded.

  She stood up. ‘Let me know if anything happens with the Herald.’

  ‘I hope that’s the position the judge takes …’ the Chief Assistant replied as Daria’s fingers reached the door handle.

  She turned around. He was staring at his computer.

  ‘… because I don’t think Ms Modic will be able to make it to a deposition after all. Her body was found this morning in a dumpster outside a condemned hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach, buried under a few feet of hurricane muck.’ He nodded at the screen. ‘She’s dead.’

  43

  ‘Bantling is out, Dom.’

  Dominick Falconetti rubbed his eyes and looked out the window of the plane. Thick clouds obscured the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles somewhere down below. Or maybe it was smog. The conversation he’d had with Manny Alvarez the day before still sounded surreal in his head.

  ‘What do you mean “out”?’

  ‘I mean missing. Gone. Escaped. On the lam. He’s out, Dom.’

  ‘How the hell does someone escape from death row?


  ‘They don’t. Bantling wasn’t on death row no more, Dom. He was back in Miami, being housed at DCJ.’

  Dominick sucked down the rest of his beer as the flight attendant came by with her trash bag. It was incomprehensible. How could a convicted serial killer be confused for a burglar with a similar last name, put on the wrong bus and allowed to walk free during a hurricane? How could such a colossal fuck-up ever have happened?

  ‘But he lost his appeal, Manny. I read the damn opinion myself. What the hell was he doing back in Miami?’

  Then Dominick had listened as Manny told him the rest of the story. That the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office — the very same office that C.J. had poured her heart and soul into for eleven years — had decided to make a deal with the monster she’d put away and let him walk free.

  ‘Why isn’t this on the news, Manny? Cupid’s escaped? Snuff clubs that are responsible for multiple murders? Corrupt Florida Supreme Court judges who fix death-row cases and are snuff-club members themselves? Why has Bill Bantling been gone for almost two weeks and I’m only hearing about this now and I’m hearing it from you? Not Corrections or the feds? Why isn’t this all over the airwaves?’

  ‘You know how it works, Dommy. The suits want to find him before they have to admit to the public they fucked up and let him go in the first place. That will make swallowing the news easier for the good voting citizens. And the snuff-club shit is on the down-low; Bantling never gave up the list of names he promised to. As for you being kept in the loop, I hope you weren’t expecting special treatment. You don’t live here no more.’

 
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