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Cutting room the, p.29
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.29

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  The waitress walked up. ‘You okay, honey?’ she asked with a frown.

  ‘I think I have something in my contact,’ Daria said, reaching for a cocktail napkin. ‘My eyes are driving me nuts. Allergies.’

  ‘Oh. Yeah. My boyfriend has terrible allergies. I feel for you,’ she said, as she placed a cosmopolitan down on the table in front of her.

  ‘I didn’t order another one,’ Daria replied with her hand up. ‘In fact, I was about to ask you for the check.’

  ‘Oh, no, honey. This is from the gentleman at the bar. And trust me, you don’t want to go up to your room just yet. At least not by yourself. He’s cute.’ She flipped her hair over her shoulder and looked back at the bar.

  Daria took a long time to blink before she followed the waitress’s gaze, hoping it would be Manny. Like a slow-motion scene from a movie, from Sleepless in Seattle or Jerry McGuire or something. That he would be standing there in one of the new suits they’d picked out together, raising a glass to her. He would have listened to her voicemail and he would mouth, ‘I love you, too, Counselor,’ across the room. Then he would come over and they’d talk and he’d forgive her and they would go upstairs and make love till the morning and everything would be okay. Just like in the movies.

  But Manny was not there. Instead, a nice-looking dark-haired guy in a cobalt striped dress shirt, white pants, and loafers smiled at her and raised his beer. He looked to be in his early thirties. He had a tourist tan, raccoon eyes and the hint of a sunburned chest, but the color he’d gotten from probably playing golf in the sun made his teeth dazzlingly white, which was fine. He had a nice smile.

  ‘He had me check before to see if you were wearing a ring,’ the waitress, whose name-tag read AZALEA said. ‘That’s real cute. You don’t see that, girl. Take it from a cocktail waitress — guys either don’t care if you’re engaged or married, or it actually turns them on, because it’s a conquest and men like to be hunters. It’s the caveman thing. And as a bonus, if you’re committed to someone else then you won’t come around asking them for a commitment. So this guy is nice, I’m thinking.’

  Daria stared at her. Thanks to the three cosmos, it was taking a little longer than usual to process information.

  ‘Oh look, he’s coming over,’ said the cocktail waitress named after a shrub. She giggled.

  Before Daria could protest, Azalea picked up the empty drink glass and left. Ten seconds later, the tourist was standing in front of her.

  ‘Hi there,’ he said.

  ‘Hi,’ she replied. The silence that followed was definitely awkward.

  She looked down at her phone. No new messages. No voicemail. Nothing. Enough time had passed. He was at the phone, obviously, ’cause he’d sent her that BS text. Enough time had passed since she’d left that last all-embarrassing, all-important voicemail, which meant he’d obviously gotten that. And obviously it did not affect him. He was never going to forgive her. She needed to deal with it, was all.

  The tourist looked down at the potted palm, pushing aside a couple of the fronds. The ant army had not only moved the cone, they had gotten it all the way across the dirt and were now trying to get it over the lipped side somehow. ‘That explains it,’ he said with a laugh. ‘I was watching you from back there and I couldn’t figure out what you were doing with this palm tree. I thought maybe you were talking to it, which is fine. I’ve done that on occasion after a couple of drinks. But you seemed pretty upset. I thought maybe it was talking back to you.’

  She rolled the cocktail napkin in her palm. ‘No, I don’t talk to plants — just insects. Only kidding. I was on the phone. A business call.’

  ‘Are you alone?’

  ‘Yes. Just me and my friend the palm tree.’

  He laughed. ‘Do you mind if I join you two?’

  She looked down at the phone again before answering. Nothing. Fuck Manny. She’d put her heart out there like a damn fool, drunk or not. No reaction to her telling him she loved him was worse than a bad one. It meant he didn’t care. At all. Not even enough to call her and tell her she was a fool to say what she’d said. Or argue with her that she didn’t mean it. Or tell her that he didn’t feel the same way. What it meant was he didn’t care enough to make the damn call. She meant nothing to him — just a casual, opportunistic office fuck who’d pissed him off enough for him to call it quits a little earlier than he normally would have. That’s what she was — a conquest. Nothing more.

  ‘Why not?’ she answered. She gestured to the lounge chair across from her and took a long sip of her fresh cosmo. Fuck all the colleagues she was trying to look so perfect for. Half of them were probably looped themselves. She’d never met a cop who couldn’t close the damn bar. Tonight she was gonna have fun. She’d show Manny what he was missing. ‘Thanks for the drink.’

  ‘The pleasure’s mine,’ he said with a smile as he sat down. He really did have a nice smile. She glanced down at his left hand. No ring. And no ring tan-line. That didn’t necessarily mean anything, but since he had bothered to check hers, there was a chance that the waitress was right — he wasn’t a jerk. That maybe he was a nice guy. She didn’t need a prince right now, but she couldn’t stomach an asshole. Not tonight.

  She wiped the tear that had started to fall and looked over at the potted palm. The ice-cream cone was gone. She looked at the floor. It was nowhere to be seen.

  She turned off her phone and slipped it in her purse. Fuck that. Bully for the ants and the hidden message of hope in that dumb childhood song that was now repeating in her head, but she was out of the business of trying. And she didn’t want to read any more BS texts from him that were gonna upset her. No mas Manny Alvarez.

  ‘My name is Daria,’ she replied. ‘Let me ask you — are you here with the SMART convention?’

  He shook his head. ‘The what?’ he asked quizzically.

  Good. No more cops. No probation officers. No judges. No prosecutors. No lawyers. No criminals. She tried to think of her original list — what she once thought would make her happy at the end of the day. A financier would be nice. A rich guy who could whisk her away on a private plane at a moment’s notice. Maybe that was asking a bit much. Maybe a doctor or a fireman. Or a golfer. ‘So you’re not a cop? Or a probation officer?’

  He laughed again. ‘A cop? No, no, no. No way. I’m a filmmaker. I’m down here from New York on a project. It’s nice to meet you, Daria,’ he said, extending his hand across the table. ‘My name’s Reid …’

  45

  Manny stared at the phone and rubbed his head. Now what the hell was he supposed to do with that?

  I love you?

  Daria was obviously polluted. Three sheets to the wind. Slurring, sighing — a melancholy, mushy drunk tonight.

  But, I love you?

  He looked at the other side of his bed, strewn with papers and reports from the Lunders case, and now reports from Fort Lauderdale PD and grisly crime-scene photos of Marie Modic’s broken and discarded corpse. Even though Daria wasn’t next to him in bed anymore, she was still next to him in bed.

  I love you. Now you have to forgive me. Please, Manny …

  Finally, she’d apologized. It had taken her long enough to say the word sorry. It probably hurt when she finally coughed it up. He picked up his cell phone and dialed her number. Let’s see if it was the alcohol talking. Let’s see if she’s still all, ‘Oh forgive me, please. I didn’t mean it. I love you,’ when she’d sobered up. And if she was? If she meant what she’d said when she was drunk, when she was seeing straight, what then?

  He took in a deep breath, closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the headboard. Women. Soft, sweet-smelling and warm. Kissable, full lips and curvy, full bodies. That woman-scent they give off. Those pheromones. It got him every time. He did like the ladies. Always had.

  But she was different. Right from the start, everything about Daria DeBianchi, Esq., was different. A little red firecracker, with an amazing, pint-sized body and a personality as fiery and da
rk and snappy as her hair. She was not his type — smart, educated, conservative, save for those heels she lusted over. Manny liked his women big and Latin and curvy and flashy, and it helped if they weren’t so bright or quick with a retort. Of course, none of those had worked out for him before. He’d walked down the aisle three times, but no woman had ever made him feel the way Daria did. Happy. Sexy. Masculine. Mad. Funny. Vulnerable. Stupid. Smart.

  Happy.

  That was it. That was the first word that came to mind. She made him happy when he was with her. Usually. And, as he had recently learned, he was completely miserable when she wasn’t around. Grumpy, edgy. Like he was missing something. It wasn’t just the wild sex — although he did love what he did to the conservative, uptight part of her. Making her scream words he didn’t think she even knew. But it wasn’t all physical: they could talk for hours about criminals and homicide scenes without her threatening to leave because it grossed her out or bored her. They could argue about things like baseball or politics and she wouldn’t sulk ’cause he didn’t agree with her. She was a huge Dolphin fan. She understood when he didn’t want to talk about something he’d seen because she knew all too well what it was like to witness something horrible and not be able to do anything about it. He loved her small hands, which fit completely inside his, like a baby’s would. He loved her eyes, even when she was pissed off and they practically glowed. He loved her ruby-red lips — especially when they were on his. He loved that she liked to make a statement. He loved her petiteness. He loved her smile, when she decided to flash it, that was.

  He loved her.

  He banged the back of his head against the headboard again. What then? What if she meant what she’d said? What if a smart, sophisticated, sometimes bitchy, beautiful woman really meant it when she said she loved him?

  Then he’d say it back. Because it was true. He’d been in love and in lust enough times to know the difference. And his little red firecracker attorney was everything every other woman he’d loved before was not, so this time it must be true. It must be real. And he was ready to forgive her and move on. Yes, he was still beyond pissed, especially since Bantling’s supposedly accidental release from custody was all over the fucking news. If he didn’t care about her, he would have no problem calling up Nadine Kramer from the Herald and telling her all about Collier’s cursed deal with a serial killer. But that would only destroy Daria’s career. Not to mention that the snuff-club allegations would then have to come out, and he didn’t want to turn the lights on on that macabre cache of secrets yet, lest all those cockroaches go into hiding. No, he’d manage to get past what she’d done and maybe they’d tackle Bantling together, like some crime-fighting duo. Manny would find him and bring him back to Miami, and since there was no deal actually struck for his cooperation, they would send his sorry ass back to Florida State Prison. Then he and Dickerson and Customs and the FBI and FDLE and any other agency that wanted to join in would find this snuff club and infiltrate it. There had to be another way in. There had to be another way to disrupt it besides putting a convicted serial killer on the payroll as a snitch. And everyone would live happily-ever-fucking-after.

  Then he looked over at the box files on his dresser. Maybe not.

  The State of Florida v. William Rupert Bantling was scribbled across the side of one. Black Jacket across another. He hadn’t looked in either box yet. He wasn’t sure if he would or if he should. He’d only gotten as far as taking them home and putting them on his dresser. The past few hours, as he worked on Lunders, he’d glanced over at those boxes every so often, wondering what secrets would be revealed when and if he decided to open them up. That was why he hadn’t done anything yet — he wasn’t sure he’d be able to put the lids back on once he decided to take them off. And like Pandora’s Box, he wasn’t sure what evil he might be releasing into the world if he did decide to flip the lid …

  He tapped his fingers on the nightstand as Daria’s phone started to ring. How would the crazy thoughts that had just run through his head spill out when he heard her voice? What if she was still drunk or too hungover to think straight? But the call went straight to voicemail. Her phone was either turned off, or she’d turned it off when she saw it was him calling.

  ‘Listen, it’s me,’ Manny began softly enough at the sound of the tone. ‘I got your message. That’s pretty heavy. And that’s a cheap fucking shot, you know, telling me that on the phone. What the hell am I supposed to say to that, Counselor? You tell me you fucking love me on a voicemail?’ He sighed. ‘I’m sitting here buried in crap with stuff on your case and …’ He broke off and looked around the empty room, his eyes avoiding the dresser. ‘Well, I have a lot to say to you, but I need to know if that was you talking. If it was, if you meant what you said, then call me back. If this is all just a mistake, if you drank too much, is all, then, well I’ll see you Wednesday at the hearing and we’ll handle this as … professionals. Although, I don’t know how I’m gonna do that, but, whatever. So, well, let me know,’ he finished.

  He hit the ‘end’ button and stared at the phone, his heart beating so hard, he felt it all the way up in his mouth. He sat there for what felt like an hour, watching the stupid cordless phone that sat atop Marie Modic’s autopsy report.

  She never did call him back.

  46

  C.J. stared at the wriggly, white ball of pure fluff that had popped its head out of a gigantic wrapped box. The red bow around the puppy’s neck was bigger than its whole head. ‘This is supposed to eat people?’ she said with a laugh as the pup licked her face. ‘This is gonna be a ferocious guard dog?’

  ‘Yes,’ Dominick insisted with a smile. ‘She’s nine pounds now, but she’s gonna grow into a fierce, one-hundred-pound beast. A force to be reckoned with. Merry Christmas.’

  ‘If you say so.’

  ‘Now name her something mean. Killer. Chops. Tank. Cujo. Beast.’

  She looked at him with a raised eyebrow. ‘Tank?’

  ‘You’re right — she is a girl. How about Tankini? Tank can be for short?’

  ‘How about Luna?’ C.J. asked. ‘She’s so white and fluffy, like a fat, full moon. Luna. I think it’s exotic. A nod to your Italian heritage, Dominick.’

  ‘I have to be honest here, honey. Luna doesn’t sound very mean. Crazy, maybe, but not mean.’

  ‘She doesn’t have to sound mean, Dominick. She just has to be mean — and only when it counts.’

  ‘True. Well, she’s your baby, so you can name her anything you want as long as you let me train her to eat people.’

  ‘She’s perfect, Dominick. Absolutely perfect. I love her!’ she exclaimed as Luna jumped out of the box, knocking it over. She nuzzled into C.J.’s arms and attacked her with kisses. ‘Thank you!’

  ‘Welcome to the family, Luna,’ Dominick said with a perfect smile. ‘Something tells me you’re gonna like it here. You certainly lucked out in the crib department, fluffy.’

  ‘I know you were only playing, girl, but you can’t chase the little yappy dogs around the trees. Their little yappy owners don’t like it,’ C.J. admonished as she and Luna walked into the house. ‘They get very upset.’ Luna licked her hand.

  She tossed the keys and newspaper on the kitchen table. So much for a leisurely Sunday-morning walk to the dog park — a dog park that Luna hadn’t been kicked out of yet. By tonight there were sure to be wanted posters up with her dog’s mug shot stapled to the very trees she’d chased a pair of Malti-poos around a few dozen times. She wasn’t nine pounds of fluff anymore. Dominick had called it — she’d shed the puppy fuzz and grown into a lean, furry, pure white, hundred-pound, dog-park-clearing force to be reckoned with. And while he might have trained her to eat bad people, he had never managed to train her not to chase and eat those yummy little yappy dogs.

  She poured Luna a big bowl of kibble, made a fresh pot of coffee and headed off into the shower. She was gonna have to start driving out of town to look for dog parks, the way a bank robber might scout out
fresh targets.

  The hot water was not working for some reason, so she took a tepid shower, making a mental note to call the plumber next week. After she got dressed, she turned on the TV in the living room and joined Luna in the kitchen for coffee and a quick plate of scrambled eggs and toast. She had a ton of work to get done. After weeks of delay, finally tomorrow was the day for closing arguments on Kassner.

  She gathered a mixing bowl and whisk as her brain reworked thoughts and sentences.

  Premeditation: Ladies and gentlemen, you saw the store video of Mr Kassner casually shopping for accelerants at the Snappy Pro hardware store four days before the fire. A hardware store that was twenty-six miles outside of town and not on his way to or from anything. Just out of the way, so that no one would recognize him. He spent twenty-eight dollars on plastic gasoline containers and—

  Her thoughts stopped in mid-sentence.

  The eggs were not on the second shelf of the refrigerator. They were on the third. The bread was on the second. That was supposed to be on the third.

  She closed the refrigerator door and backed up in a sudden panic, knocking over a dinette chair. Luna was at her side now, barking. She knew something was wrong. C.J.’s eyes darted around the kitchen, at the knick-knacks and old family pictures that decorated her grandmother’s walls. She took a breath. Everything else looked the same in the kitchen. She switched the whisk for a chef’s knife, and hesitantly headed into the living room, her heart beating crazily in her chest, Luna at her side. Everything looked okay, there, too. Her magazines were in the same order on her coffee table. The photos were all at the same angles. None were missing. The curtains were in the same position, the blinds pulled down. She did the same thing through the rest of her house. Everything looked okay. The windows were all locked. The doors, too. And the alarm had, of course, been set when she got home. She would never make the same mistake twice.

 
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