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Cutting room the, p.28
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.28

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘I worked Cupid, it was mine. C.J. was the fucking prosecutor, for Christ’s sake.’

  ‘You both walked away, remember?’

  There was a long, awkward silence.

  ‘Yeah, well, I’m sorry about that, Bear.’

  Manny hadn’t acknowledged his lame attempt at an apology and Dominick couldn’t blame him. They’d worked side-by-side on Cupid for two years straight. More than a partner, Bear had been like a brother to him. But when he and C.J. had picked up and left Miami, they’d decided it would be best to leave everyone behind. And that included brothers. Dominick had made many acquaintances in the years since, but he had yet to find a replacement for Bear.

  ‘Problem is, they don’t know where Bantling is, Dom. Ain’t got a clue.’

  ‘But you do.’

  ‘I think he’s headed your way. I saw the pictures he drew up in his cell. He’s a man obsessed — obsessed with your wife.’

  ‘We’re not together anymore.’

  There was another long silence.

  ‘I don’t know what to say, Dom.’

  ‘She left, Manny. Picked up in the middle of the night and left. Took the dog and a suitcase and left me a note. A fucking note, can you believe that? After everything?’

  ‘Wow, Dom. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.’

  ‘She was …’

  Dominick had struggled to find the right words. It had been fifteen months and he was still not over her leaving. Even now he was stunned, remembering how he’d come home from a computer-crimes conference in Phoenix to find her gone. The closet empty, the car gone, the dog missing. Given what she’d been through in the past, his first thought was that something really bad had happened. The worst stuff imaginable — someone had taken her. That perhaps her past had caught up with her and stolen her from him once again. Only this time he’d been too late to save her. But then he’d read the note she left behind in the bedroom and realized that her leaving of her own volition was worse than the worst stuff imaginable. Forget the two scribbled paragraphs of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ crap she’d written, it was the last lines before her signature that were still burned into his memory: ‘I’ll always love you, Dominick. And only you.’ If that were the case, you’d still be here, he’d thought bitterly as he’d crushed the note in his fist. Love was supposed to conquer everything, wasn’t that how the fairy tales told it? The divorce papers were in his briefcase, unsigned, next to her crumpled attempt at goodbye.

  ‘… everything. It’s been rough, Manny. Real rough. She was living with a lot, I know. I get it. I realize it’s hard for anyone to get over what she’s been through, and I never expected her to. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to put it out of my own mind for ten minutes, either, if I were her. But no matter what I did, no matter what I said, she wouldn’t let me in. The walls kept going up.’

  The words had continued to tumble out. It had been years since the two of them had talked. And given how Dominick had left, Bear had every right to yawn and tell him to find someone who gave a shit. But he didn’t. From twelve hundred miles away, he listened as Dominick filled him in on the last seven years over a telephone line and a few cold beers. At least on the phone, it felt, at one point, as if the conversation had slipped back into the old and familiar, like putting on comfortable slippers that you hadn’t had on in ages:

  ‘Where is she, Dom?’

  ‘She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t want any of this, Bear.’

  ‘No shit. But a psycho she put on death row is now AWOL, and I think she might appreciate a heads-up. The Fibbies and the Marshals might be too dumb to find her, but something tells me Bantling’s smarter and more determined than your average fed.’

  ‘She doesn’t trust anyone. And she doesn’t trust cops.’

  ‘With good reason, after what happened with Masterson. I don’t look at my brothers in blue quite the same anymore. We have to find her. We have to let her know what’s going on.’

  ‘She’s got a new ID. She’s underground.’

  ‘Let me repeat — that won’t matter to him and you know it.’

  ‘All these years, we only talked about it once. Her rape. Even then there were details she couldn’t speak of. Things that bastard had done to her. I saw the scars, and I read the police reports myself, but … there was so much she kept to herself. She could never let go of the burden, of the blame she put on herself for not locking a stupid window one night …

  ‘And she would never admit it was Bantling who had raped her, Manny. She kept on denying it because she didn’t want to get me involved with what she had done to convict him. She shouldered that guilt all by herself, too. That’s a lot of weight to be carrying.

  ‘But whatever she had done to make sure he was put away, I was okay with it. I’ve seen first-hand what he did to her. It affects everything she does, every day: the people she befriends; the jobs she takes; the routes she travels. We couldn’t have kids because of this guy, Manny. He took that from her, too, that night in New York. I wish the state had fried his ass years ago. I wish they had let me do the honors.’ He took a deep breath.

  The alcohol was making him loose-lipped. The alcohol and the pent-up bitterness.

  ‘Dom …’ Manny tried.

  ‘Masterson knew, Manny. He told me a lot of things the night he died. And what he didn’t specifically tell me, I’ve figured out myself over the years. He was a member, Bear. Chris Masterson was a member of this snuff club you’re working now. So was Greg Chambers. And Bantling. No one’s supposed to know anybody’s real identity in this club; they all had code names. But Masterson was afraid Bantling could ID him somehow, and that he’d trade in a name for a reduction in his sentence. Then Bantling’s old attorney, Rubio, filed an affadavit claiming she had a 911 tape that was never admitted at trial.

  ‘Manny, the voice on the 911 tape was Masterson. He’d called in a tip to get Bantling’s car pulled over that night. He knew that the moment Bantling heard that tape he would figure out it was Masterson who set him up. And that was corroborative information that he could trade with law enforcement. Bantling was on death row and impossible to hit, so Masterson went after everyone who knew about that 911 call. That’s what the Black Jacket murders were about — not gangland reprisals but Masterson trying to keep Bantling walking straight into the death chamber.’

  ‘Jesus Christ … Dom, I don’t think you want to be telling me this shit.’

  ‘I want you to understand, Manny. I owe that to you. Masterson said he was going to make sure that if he went down, C.J. would go down too. For attempted Murder One. She intentionally manipulated a case to send the guy who raped her to death row — they’d have sent her down for twenty-five years for that. Masterson would’ve cut a deal for giving up C.J., Bantling would’ve walked, and C.J. would’ve been the one sitting behind bars. So I—’

  That was when Manny had cut him off. Right there — before he said too much, as though he hadn’t already. Right there — before he stumbled into a dark gray area that was definitely outside the bounds of friendship.

  Sometimes when the confession finally comes, every bad thing a subject has ever done in his life pours out along with it. Dominick knew Manny could hear it coming. The Big One. And he knew that Manny didn’t want to hear it, because so long as he didn’t hear it, he could go on pretending he never knew. He could keep right on pretending that he didn’t know exactly how Special Agent Chris Masterson had ended up with a bullet in his forehead and his ice-cold sidearm wrapped in limp fingertips.

  ‘Sometimes justice isn’t done, Dom. Sometimes you gotta take things in your own hands — I get it. Sometimes you gotta make things right, because the system isn’t gonna give you justice. And that’s all I’m gonna say or hear about that.’

  The conversation had ended. Dom had finished off the last beer in the fridge and then booked the first morning flight to LA. He was buzzed by the time he hung up the phone with Bear, but not drunk enough to forget all that he had said. And
the possible consequences that might follow. The funny thing was, he felt relieved. It was the first time in seven years that Dom had spoken of the night he’d killed Chris Masterson in cold blood. Not a day went by that he didn’t go over it in his mind, trying to rationalize with his own conscience what he could or should have done differently. But he’d never spoken of it to anyone. C.J. had been there, she had seen the whole thing, but they had never talked about it, any more than they talked about the rape and the Cupid trial. It was as if so long as they didn’t talk about these things, they could still manipulate the facts inside their own heads.

  Maybe Masterson really had moved for his weapon. Maybe Dom really did see his hand going for his gun. Maybe …

  The reality was, though, they both knew what went down that night. And they had both heard every word Chris Masterson had said. They had both been complicit holders of a dark secret, yet they had never spoken of it. She shouldered her guilt, he shouldered his. Maybe that was why she had left — her back had broken first.

  The flight attendant came around to make sure everyone’s tray tables were up and electronic devices off. Outside, Dom saw skyscrapers and in the distance what looked like the beach. He’d promised Manny before he hung up the phone that he would find C.J. and he would be the one to tell her about Bantling. Not the feds or the US Marshals. Not even Manny.

  He knew where she was. He knew how to reach her. He could’ve called and avoided the pain of seeing her. But there was no way he could break that kind of news over the phone. The news that Bantling had escaped would send her into a panic. A spiral. And she was out in California by herself, surrounded by bad guys once again.

  The past fifteen months without her had given him a lot of time to think about why she wasn’t there anymore. Why he’d thought things were fine, when all the while she was packing a suitcase in the other room. How it was he could’ve gotten it all so wrong. And the more he thought, the more signs he saw. The nightmares that were getting worse, not better. The looking over her shoulder, like she was expecting someone to pop out of the bushes. The obsession with running: faster, longer, harder, more often. The self-imposed isolation. The drinking. Her guilt was consuming her from the inside out and he should have seen it and insisted that they work through it. Insisted that she share. Then again, maybe she was better off without him. Maybe he was a constant reminder to her of what she had done, just as she was a constant reminder of his own crime.

  Explaining away why she might have left, though, didn’t ease the intense pain of missing her. If his struggling conscience were given the opportunity at a do-over, he knew the outcome would still be the same: he would pull the trigger with no hesitation, because that was the only way he could save her.

  So here he was, flying to LA, racing against the clock to find her and tell her that her worst fears had been realized. That, despite his repeated assurances that he would never let anyone hurt her ever again, she was no longer safe. Because the boogeyman from her nightmares was back out on the streets.

  Dominick looked at his watch and then turned back to the window as the plane began its final descent into the city of angels. He just hoped he made it to her before she read about it in the paper.

  Or worse.

  Before William Rupert Bantling got to deliver the news to her himself.

  Live and in person.

  44

  ‘Come on, Manny, pick up,’ Daria said quietly into her cell.

  Potted ten-foot tall palm trees, uplit in funky purple and blue hues, were scattered about the contemporary lobby of the Hilton Bonnet Creek near Walt Disney World. She sat next to one in the lobby’s piano bar, staring at an army of ant engineers that had surrounded a buried half-eaten ice-cream some kid had stuck in the dirt. If she could read ant minds, she was pretty sure they were trying to figure out how best to excavate the cone and carry it off. Even if they did manage to cart away something that was ten thousand times their weight, she wondered where it was they would go — it was a lipped planter and a two-foot drop.

  ‘You can’t hate me; it’s not right,’ she continued softly. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I need to talk to you, Manny. I need to talk this out. We need to talk this out. I made a mistake, I know, but I thought it was the right thing when I let Vance make that deal. That’s no excuse, I realize that, but I … I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have hid it from you. I want—’

  A machine-generated voice broke in. ‘You have fifteen seconds of recording time left.’

  Damn. She hated voicemail. ‘You can’t avoid me forever. We’re still working this case, you know,’ she said before being cut off once again.

  ‘Goodbye.’

  She hung up and took a long sip of her cosmo. The bar was packed with people, most of whom were either laughing or smiling or engaged with their partner in heavy conversation. It was crazy for a Sunday night. Loser Night, her roommate in college used to call Sundays. And that was exactly what she felt like — a Loser out on Loser Night. She reached into the palm planter and pushed the ice-cream cone on its side. The excavation issue was resolved. Now the ant army just had to move the damn thing.

  ‘Come on, come on,’ she said softly. ‘Don’t be lazy. Don’t give up. You can do it. Move that rubber tree plant.’

  She dialed Manny again.

  ‘You’ve reached Detective Manny Alvarez. Please leave a message.’ Beeeeep.

  ‘Just so you know, Vance never told me that the story was breaking today,’ she started. ‘You’re probably pissed, but I didn’t get a heads-up either.’

  The Corrections fuck-up had indeed made the Herald this morning, and Vance Collier had not bothered to call her and tell her it was coming. Or that it was out, for that matter. She hadn’t heard from him all day. By the afternoon, after every damn news outlet in the world had digested the news, every damn news outlet in the world was now talking about Cupid’s escape, and Vance was right — the word ‘cover-up’ was being liberally tossed around. Thankfully, she was in the land of everything Mickey Mouse, where bad news didn’t seem to reach. Of course, if the Lunders case should be named as the investigation Bantling was assisting law enforcement with and her name should come out as the one who had brokered Cupid a deal, then tomorrow would most definitely suck. Monday morning was the beginning of the SMART conference and, unlike the happy, news-free tourists, everyone attending would be watching CNN and would also know exactly who to point at across a crowded room when Piers Morgan announced her name in association with Bantling’s escape. Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Daria DeBianchi was one of the listed speakers. But that was tomorrow. Right now all they were saying on the news was that Bantling was on the lam and no one had any idea where he was.

  ‘Listen, I’m not giving up,’ she continued into the phone. She closed her eyes. ‘On us. I’m not giving up on us. I know you’re getting my messages and so I’m gonna keep leaving them. I’m sorry. Again with the sorries. I’m trying to fix this, Manny, I am. But I … I can’t. I made a damn mistake. Can’t you just pick up the phone? I miss you. Please call me back and we can talk. I really miss you.’ She sighed. ‘I hate voicemail. Isn’t that funny? Me? I now hate leaving messages. Because you don’t want to pick up is why I hate it. We make a good team, Manny, we do. I know you think that, too. I’m at this conference, see, and it’s a hotel and I thought of the first time we were ever together. That first night—’

  ‘You have fifteen seconds of recording time left.’

  Shit … ‘I thought of that first time we slept together, the first night we were together and, and …’ She stumbled, and then full-out tripped over her thoughts and the proclamation just shot out: ‘I … I love you. There, I said it. Whew. Now you have to forgive me. You have to, right? Please, baby—’

  ‘Goodbye.’

  Damn. She put her head in her hands. Then it hit her and she sat up straight and looked around.

  Had she just freaking said that? Did she just say, ‘I love you’? Did she leave that on a voicemail?

>   She had to stop drinking. Of course she needed another drink or maybe ten to forget that she’d said ‘I love you’ for the very first time on a voicemail to a man who wanted nothing to do with her and who had never told her he loved her. Jesus … How desperate was she? They had only gotten as far as the ‘I like you a lot’ stage when she had screwed things up with Bantling. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Now she was drunk-calling him, begging for forgiveness and slobbering like a stalker that she loved him? She downed what was left of her third cosmo. It didn’t seem like the night could get much worse, but damnit, she was sure as hell gonna push it …

  The phone beeped in her hand. A new incoming message.

  It was from Manny. He couldn’t possibly have listened to her last message yet, although she wasn’t quite sure if that was good or bad. And if he had, his big fingers took forever to text back. She held her breath and clicked it open.

  Wrkng Modic murder w/ FLPD. Will advise you or Collier of progress in report shortly. Rec’d subpoena. Will be at motion to testify on Wed.

  Daria bit her lip, hoping the pain would stop the tears. All over the hotel were colleagues in law enforcement, here for the SMART conference. She had to give a speech in the morning on Florida’s sexual predator registration and notification requirements to some chiefs and task force members. It was hard enough to be respected in law enforcement as a woman, and she was still sober enough to know that what she wanted was for those colleagues to remember her when they left this conference as the authority on sexual predator and offender law, not as the blubbering drunk from the lobby bar. Or worse — the blubbering drunk from the hotel bar who was responsible for letting the most notorious serial killer in US history walk out of jail and disappear without a trace. It was time to head upstairs to a bubble bath and room service and a good long cry.

 
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