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All the little pieces, p.28
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       All the Little Pieces, p.28

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘Were you expecting this?’ he asked Elisabetta.

  ‘No,’ she replied softly. But for someone who’d handled media cases in her career before without blinking, she looked both nervous and a little excited, and Bryan didn’t believe her. He wouldn’t put it past Maleficent to be a closet press hound. He had his own reasons for wanting to see the case on the eleven o’clock news, after all.

  She looked up from her file and studied him. ‘You look spiffy. Nice suit.’

  ‘It is Judge Cummins. I see you’re showing some knee.’

  ‘No reason to get off on the wrong foot with him. Did you lose weight or something?’

  Bryan shrugged. ‘Working on it.’

  ‘Are you ready on this?’ she asked.

  The courtroom door swung open before he could answer.

  ‘All rise!’ yelled the bailiff.

  Judge Cummins shuffled to the bench, a scowl on his ancient face as he surveyed his courtroom. It was hard to tell if he was surprised by all the cameras or if the chief judge had given him a heads up that it was office policy to allow them in his courtroom and he was just mad that he was expected to comply.

  Bryan was nervous. The case against Poole was good, but far from perfect. It was circumstantial, was what it was. He wished he had Ed Carbone in custody and a sample of his DNA to compare with the sample taken off the Yankee hat and fabric, but he didn’t. The task force had ripped apart what little they could find out about Carbone’s life, but there was still no sign of him. Most of the information he’d supplied on his volunteer form at Orange Youth fifteen years earlier turned out to be lies, including former addresses and his work history. There was no record of him attending Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee, which he claimed to have graduated from. A run of his social showed he had worked as a trucker for Central Freight in Memphis, Houston and Orlando, and had been briefly married for three months. Maldonado found his ex living in Little Rock: She hadn’t seen or heard from Carbone in a decade, but told detectives that he had lived in Mexico as a teenager with his mother’s family and was fluent in Spanish. The owner of Abe’s Scrap, where Carbone had last worked, said Carbone was a hunter and a survivalist, who had bragged of living in the Appalachians for months, like terrorist and Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph, which potentially made finding him a challenge. Every state agency in Florida and the FBI were looking for him, but there had been no trace of him. It was as if the man had simply vanished.

  ‘The court has decided to call a matter out of turn,’ announced the clerk. ‘State of Florida vs. Derrick Alan Poole, page sixteen.’

  Elisabetta gathered her file and strode confidently to the podium as the cameras began to roll. ‘Assistant State Attorney Elisabetta Romolo, on behalf of the state.’

  ‘Richard Hartwick for the defendant, Derrick Poole,’ said Hartwick, as he approached the defense podium.

  ‘Where’s the defendant?’ barked Judge Cummins.

  ‘On his way out now, Your Honor,’ replied the corrections officer.

  The judge clapped his hands impatiently. ‘Well, let’s get on with this.’

  Maybe it was a good thing all the press was here, Bryan thought as the door to the jury room swung open and a corrections officer escorted in a meek-looking Derrick Poole, clad in an orange jumpsuit and wrapped in chains.

  Because with a case that was less than perfect, maybe with all those cameras watching it would make it that much harder for the judge to let a murderer go free …

  61

  Elisabetta knew how Judge Cummins was going to rule long before Detective Bryan Nill was done testifying. She had been before him enough times to distinguish his scowls from his pouts, and interpret the meaning of a raised eyebrow or a shake of the head. Once she saw it coming, she’d tried to head him off at the pass, even questioning Nill about the murders of Foss, Kruger, and Jane Doe, but Hartwick started to flip out because Poole hadn’t been charged with those yet and Judge Cummins wasn’t having it.

  She bit the inside of her lip as her stomach churned the four cups of coffee she’d had that morning since getting up at five. Unlike some other judges in the courthouse who loved to see their cases and faces make the news, Delmore Cummins obviously did not. The cameras had really set him off. He was a retired judge who could no longer be voted off the bench, and he was too old in general to care what the masses thought, or have his rulings be influenced by public opinion. He was also cranky and passive-aggressive enough to do the precise opposite of what the people wanted or expected, just so he could show who was in control of his courtroom. When he began to lay a record, explaining the meaning of ‘proof evident and presumption great’, she knew it was over. Her reaction was being carefully watched, and it was important that she maintain her composure, no matter what he said. She wasn’t used to not getting what she wanted, and she wasn’t expecting it on this case. Especially on this case.

  ‘The burden of proof that the state is required to show here today to hold the defendant without bond is a high one – higher even than reasonable doubt,’ the judge began. ‘Proof of the defendant’s guilt must be evident and the presumption of his guilt must be great because the state is seeking to incarcerate him before he has been convicted of any crime. Incarceration before trial flies in the face of the most basic legal principle there is – that a man is presumed innocent until his guilt is proven beyond, and to the exclusion of, every reasonable doubt.

  ‘Now, on to the evidence.’ The judge slid his fingers up underneath his thick glasses and rubbed his eyes before continuing. ‘The evidence, including the identification of Mr Poole by both Faith and Maggie Saunders, as testified to by Detective Nill, is compelling. However, the court is troubled by the two-week long delay that occurred in the reporting of the incident to the police, and the reasons for that delay. The court recognizes that one witness is a child, and that neither witness is here today, so a jury might very well access their credibility and their reasons for waiting so long to contact the police differently than this court. But looking at the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant, this court cannot avoid considering that what was actually witnessed was not as sinister as the state wants to paint it today.

  ‘The hair and fiber evidence found in the defendant’s car is also compelling. But, unfortunately, that is the only physical evidence the state has to link their victim directly to Mr Poole. The Yankee hat, which can be linked to the crime scene by a witness, was found in the defendant’s possession, but does not have his DNA on it. The individual whose DNA is on that hat has yet to be located. As far as this court is concerned, Mr Poole could well have found that hat on the side of the road and brought it back home to add to his memorabilia collection. And, finally, while the state would very much like this court to consider …’ He paused for a few seconds, looking around at the cameras with a challenging stare. ‘… that the defendant is a suspect in other murders that might have taken place in that shack, the defendant has not yet been charged with those murders and the court can not consider them as evidence in this case. In fact, as the defendant has not been charged, the court has no other choice but to consider the obvious: that another person may be responsible for those homicides. Especially troubling is the disappearance of murder victim, Noelle Langtry, which occurred, as the detective admitted, while Mr Poole was under surveillance. That, in and of itself, lends credence to the defense’s argument that another killer is responsible.

  ‘Now the state may very well have enough to meet its burden at trial, but it did not meet its burden here today. The court, in recognizing the seriousness of these charges and the risk of flight that accompanies them, especially seeing as the state has indicated that this might well be a death penalty case, is setting bond at two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The defendant is to forfeit his passport and is to have no contact with the witnesses.’

  ‘Your Honor,’ Elisabetta tried. This was beyond bad. She’d had Cummins grant bonds after an Arthur befo
re, but not on a case like this. Not on a case where she’d invited the world in to watch.

  Judge Cummins waved her off. ‘The time for argument is over, Ms Romolo. And a cautionary word to both counsel for the state and the defense, since I don’t know who exactly is responsible for this,’ he said, gesturing around the courtroom. But his eyes remained locked on her. ‘This court won’t be a conduit for someone’s fifteen minutes. This is not some reality show, people. No matter how many cameras are dragged into this courtroom, I won’t be influenced by them, so don’t try my patience again. Understood?’

  Before Elisabetta could answer, he had the clerk call up the next case while she was still standing there at the state’s podium, her case file in hand, holding back angry tears as the cameras continued to roll and the next prosecutor came up to replace her.

  62

  Faith stared at the happy face Vivian had drawn on her desk calendar. She felt physically sick. On the other side of the office door, she could hear the hustle and laughter of people in the bakery. The Christmas holidays were almost here and the staff were busy decorating everything in candy canes and garlands. A few weeks ago, Charity had suggested that they redesign the store layout and make it more of an Internet café, with emphasis on blended coffees and drink specialties, and that they add some sandwiches to the menu as variety. There was a constant presence now in the store, a buzz at the tables as people chatted and worked on their computers.

  ‘Faith? Are you there?’ asked Detective Nill in her ear.

  She got up from her desk and walked into the bathroom off her office. ‘How did this happen?’ she asked quietly. She peered out through the metal mini blinds of the small bathroom window and into the back parking lot. ‘I’m not understanding, Detective, exactly why he’s being released when he’s charged with murder, and after all the horrible things you found in that shack …’

  ‘The judge granted him a bond, Faith. It’s a pretty hefty sum – two hundred and fifty thousand – but it looks like he’s going to post it. His girlfriend apparently has inheritance money. I wanted to make sure you knew – if you hadn’t already heard about it.’

  ‘I haven’t watched the news, Detective.’ She felt her voice start to crack. ‘It’s never good, the news.’

  ‘We’ll be watching him, so you know.’

  Faith nodded and rubbed her temple. There was a knock on the office door.

  ‘Faith?’ It was Charity.

  ‘I have to go, Detective Nill.’

  ‘Of course. And Faith?’ the detective said sympathetically. ‘Try not to worry.’

  She didn’t even know how to respond to that. She’d been desperately trying to hold the pieces of her life together, like a child that has been told it’s time to leave and has hurriedly gathered all her favorite toys up in her arms. There was too much to hold onto, she was carrying too much, and one by one each began to slip from her grasp. Her marriage, motherhood, her friendships, her career – they were all crashing to the ground. And worse, they were not just breaking apart, but in some instances, shattering into a million little pieces that she knew she would never be able to pick back up, much less put back together.

  The knocking got louder. ‘Faith? Can I come in? Why’s the door locked?’

  ‘I was on a phone call, Charity. Hold on a sec.’ She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath.

  Don’t fall apart here. Hold it together. Hold your arms tighter, is all. Don’t let go of anything …

  She opened the office door and Charity practically fell into the office. ‘Are you OK?’ Charity asked.

  Faith nodded. ‘What’s up?’

  ‘I’m sorry to keep bugging you, but this lady insists on seeing you. I told her you were busy, but she said she’d wait.’

  ‘OK. Who is she?’

  Charity shrugged. ‘I think it’s about her daughter’s wedding, but she only wants to talk to you. Vivian went to Costco, so I can’t sic her on this lady. You look upset. Can I do something to help?’

  ‘I’m fine. I had to take a call. Thanks,’ Faith replied as she headed out the office and into the bakery. All anyone had to do was flip on the news or read the paper to know what was going on and figure why she looked so stressed out, but no one – Charity or Vivian included – actually wanted to talk to her about what was happening or what had happened the night she and Maggie had met Derrick Poole. Charity was probably hesitant out of guilt – it was her party Faith had left from, after all. Faith felt like someone had strapped explosives to her body and sent her into the middle of a busy street: Everyone was watching to see what would happen, but no one dared come too close, in case she blew up. They all took cover and offered help from afar, but there was nothing anyone could do except watch the timer tick down.

  ‘That’s her, the lady in red,’ Charity said as they stepped into the crowded café.

  ‘Can I help you?’ Faith asked as she approached the woman, hoping to remember the event she was here on by looking at her face. She didn’t look familiar.

  ‘Faith Saunders?’

  ‘Yes. My sister told me you wanted to—’

  The slap came hard and fast across her face. Everyone in the café collectively gasped.

  ‘Four weeks ago my daughter didn’t come home,’ said the woman. ‘She was supposed to be at her friend’s house, but she wasn’t. She was seventeen years old. The cops said she was dancing down at some rat hole – stripping. I never knew. So I looked everywhere for her. I went to her boyfriend’s house. I went to that horrible place she worked at; I even knocked on the door of the scumbag who gave her drugs and made her dance like that. I offered rewards. I begged for anyone to come forward with information, because if I couldn’t hold her again, I wanted to bury her proper. See, I knew something had happened to her. I knew it right here,’ she said, pounding with a clenched fist on her bony chest. ‘I knew she was gone.’

  ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but—’

  ‘How could you have done nothing? Nothing?’

  ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Faith cried, confused. ‘Who’s your daughter? What could I have done?’

  ‘My daughter’s name is – was – Noelle Langtry.’

  Words got stuck in Faith’s throat; there was nothing to say.

  ‘You’re a mother yourself. But you didn’t help that girl when she begged you to help her. You left her out there to die with those men in that horrible shack with cages. You never even told the police. Even your child knew something was wrong. She knew it was wrong to say nothing … to do nothing!’

  Vivian rushed in from the back. ‘Whoa, now!’ she said, dropping her purse and shopping bag on the floor as she raced over. ‘What’s happening here?’ She took one look at the angry red slap mark on Faith’s cheek and got her answer. ‘Faith, honey, go on in the back and let’s all calm down.’

  ‘She could have been saved! My girl, my baby, would still be alive if you had said something! How can you sleep? How can you live with yourself? What if it was your daughter?’

  Faith saw the button on her shirt with the picture of a smiling teenager holding a teddy bear to her face. There was an inscription on the bottom. Never stop looking. Never stop loving. Noelle Langtry.

  Charity took her cue from Vivian. ‘Miss, I’m going to have to ask you to leave now,’ she said, as she tried to lead the woman to the door.

  ‘They beat her like an animal! They cut her up and threw her broken body in a ditch. They raped her! I don’t even have all of her. I don’t have all the pieces.’ The woman pulled away from Charity. ‘How does someone do nothing?’ she yelled at the stunned customers who sat watching.

  Faith started to cry. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m sorry …’

  ‘It’s not enough, ma’am! It’s never enough!’ shouted the mother of Noelle Langtry as she walked out the door of Sweet Sisters. ‘Sorry will never be enough!’

  63

  Faith had smoked a dozen cigarettes and had driven around in circles – the Sawgrass over to I95
and then down to 595 and then back to the Sawgrass again – trying to calm the crazy, frantic feeling that was making her heart physically hurt. She hoped to exhaust herself both mentally and physically, like a hyperactive kid might, by driving around until the frenetic energy finally ran out and the insatiable craving in her gut that felt like an animal trying to claw its way out of her chest stopped and she went home and collapsed into bed. But no matter where she drove or how much she tried to fight the feeling off, she couldn’t stop it. The physical pain from the stress was too much. She knew if she got a bottle at a liquor store, she wouldn’t stop at a sip or a shot – she’d down half of it before she realized what she’d done, because it was there in front of her. But at a bar, she reasoned with herself, she could have just one. She could take the edge off the pain and the stress with just one. A taste and she would be able to breathe and she would leave. It was the responsible choice.

  She couldn’t remember what number vodka and cranberry she was on – if it was three or four or five. She felt horrible from the first sip, like she had cheated and liked it. That made her chest hurt more. So she’d had another. And now it didn’t matter what number she was on. She just wanted to drink quietly in a corner until she didn’t feel anything any more – not terrible or guilty or hurt or angry or scared or reviled. She didn’t want to feel.

  She had tried for so long to keep it together, functioning as best she could. Smiling when she was falling apart inside. Even when they talked about her on the news channels or talk shows or on line at the bank, she had gone about her normal life as if she didn’t know what everyone was saying, as though she didn’t care that everyone was judging her. She vowed to herself to make things as right as she could make them, and help the detectives and prosecutor put those murderers away. Except neither man was in jail, and while she had no control over that, she was the one who was at fault – because she hadn’t come forward sooner, the case against Poole was ‘shaky’, as the detective had put it. She stirred the ice cubes in her empty drink with the swizzle stick. She didn’t want to wallow in self-pity. She had no right. She was still alive, after all.

 
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