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Last witness, p.29
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       Last Witness, p.29

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
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  Silent tears streamed now from her eyes. It was over. She was already in a million pieces, maybe, and nothing and no one could put her back together again. Like a child that has been severely abused by a parent and then put into a foster system only to be abused again, some souls just couldn’t be saved. The damage done was too much, too intense, beyond repair. For fifteen years she had been running from ghosts dressed in clown masks who still visited her every night. Even when the world thought she should be over it already, she still couldn’t move on. Joining them was her therapist. The foster parent that was supposed to have saved her from her misery, had actually masterminded her mental demise and with a kind and patient smile, had manipulated her sanity for his own sick reasons. And now there was another one. Another friend, another betrayal she could not comprehend. Another one that she hadn’t seen coming.

  She made the right turn. The knife pulled back, as if he knew what her struggle had been and he also knew it was over. ‘I’ll make it quick,’ he whispered. ‘That much I’ll promise you. For the record, I always liked you, C.J.’

  The car in front of her pulled onto the expressway and disappeared. There was nothing between her and the overpass and no time to really think. Inside, she screamed at herself. Do something! Run! Jump out! Find a cop! Hit a tree! Never get in the car…

  Then one final, sobering thought.

  Don’t let him end it for you. Don’t you let him control that.

  And so she wouldn’t. Only she would make that decision.

  She closed her eyes and thought of Dominick and papers in bed on Sunday morning. And then she hit the gas.

  88

  Bitch!

  In a split second, he knew what she was going to do before she did it. His left hand hugged the headrest and the car lurched forward, the force of inertia pulling his body back in the seat suddenly.

  There was no sound before the jeep slammed into the cement. No high-pitched squeal of brakes on pavement, no scream of tires as they tried to pull away at the last second. Just a deafening boom and then the crunch and shriek of metal tearing apart, crumpling like an accordion in on itself.

  He felt his body ricochet off the seats, off the rooftop, and his face smashed into the seat back. The airbags exploded with a pop, like a hundred parachutes opening at once, and the windows shattered, raining pebbles of clear glass down on him.

  And then there was the overpowering still sound of silence. But only for a moment.

  He shook his head, trying to shake out the fog that surrounded him and get back his bearings. Somewhere, he heard her moan softly.

  Fucking bitch! His head pounded and he looked around in the blackness. He touched his face and felt wet blood run through his hand. His fingers moved into the gash that pulled apart his forehead, littered with tiny pieces of glass.

  The knife. It was gone. He only hoped he had stuck it deep into her neck before she had taken her run at the wall, but that moan told him that just wasn’t possible.

  The whoop of a siren came upon the car, and he saw the flash of blue lights spill off the seat back in front of him. He moved his hand along the floorboard, searching in the darkness through the glass, but it wasn’t there and he reached for his badge instead.

  Then Dominick Falconetti shoved a gun in his face and told him to get the fuck out of the car.

  89

  Dominick had spotted the familiar black FDLE undercover Grand Prix parked on 13th Court, in the Police Parking Only section across from the prisoner transport entrance to the jail and his stomach dropped. It looked like his own.

  Maybe he’s taken in a prisoner.

  Maybe he’s doing a late interview at the jail

  Maybe he’s got a case going in the courthouse that no one knew about.

  Dominick tried to work out all the maybes in his head, but none seemed to make as much sense as the one he didn’t want to see. The one that had driven him here at ninety miles an hour down the Dolphin, lights on, sirens wailing. The one that had his eyes now quickly canvassing the many parking lots adjacent to the courthouse and the State Attorney’s Office for signs of her car.

  Her voicemail had picked up at her house after four rings, so he knew that she wasn’t on another line, but, rather, she wasn’t home. Or she was screening his calls. She wasn’t answering either her cell or her office, and his beeps to her had gone unreturned. She could be in court, he had thought. Beepers and cells weren’t allowed in the courtroom. Maybe she was still in trial. Maybe she was out to dinner. Maybe she didn’t want to take his calls, after how he had walked out on her the other day in the courthouse. But he knew in his heart that that just wasn’t the case. He knew something was wrong. Chris Masterson’s car confirmed it.

  And now he couldn’t find her. Damn it, C.J.! Where the hell are you?

  He turned onto 14th from DCJ and saw the back of her jeep, then, just as it made the right onto 12th Avenue, heading toward the expressway which would take her back home. For just a moment, the fear that had been building in his chest eased up, releasing the tension that had seized his heart. That had caused him to rethink so many things on the way over here. She must be out of that trial. That was it. She must be ignoring my beeps because of how I left things, because I haven’t been there for her, because I haven’t forgiven her.

  He ran a hand through his hair and blew out a quick sigh of relief. He flipped on his blue lights again.

  He would pull her over. He would warn her about what he had learned tonight, about monsters disguised as friends that he knew now were real, about underground snuff clubs and death squads, about men who were evil. He would tell her that he understood what she had done to put Bantling behind bars, and that he should have told her that before.

  Then he would put her someplace safe and then go back and hunt down another killer. One of his own. He would tell her that when he was done, that when this was over, he did want to go to that place with her – California, Hawaii, Hong Kong – anyplace where misery wasn’t. Where she wouldn’t be scared anymore and dead bodies wouldn’t wake either of them up at 3:00 a.m. Somewhere where the past would not follow them. Someplace where he could fix her, if she would only let him. Because he didn’t want to feel like he did when he lost Natalie.

  He approached the light at 12th and turned to follow where she had just been, seconds earlier. Then he watched, seemingly in slow motion, as her Jeep Cherokee slammed head-on into the concrete overpass of the Dolphin Expressway.

  90

  ‘Get the fuck out of the car!’ Dominick said, his firearm pointed at the figure in the back seat of the mangled jeep, while his head strained to look back to the front.

  Her face rested against the exploded white airbag, her eyes closed. Blood. There was so much blood… Next to her on the front seat was a jagged hunting knife with a wicked curved blade, smeared red. The jeep had hit the overpass at about fifty miles an hour, crushing the front end. White, hot steam poured out of the mangled radiator, and the air smelled of gasoline and burnt rubber.

  ‘Dom, man, you don’t understand,’ said the thing in the back seat that used to be his friend, his colleague. One of his own.

  ‘Yeah, I do, Chris. Do exactly as I just said. Put your hands where I can see them and get the fuck out of the car!’

  She made a sound, as if she were trying to speak.

  ‘C.J., the ambulance will be here in a second! Don’t move!’ Dominick shouted, his hand not moving from the position. He knew enough not to take his eyes off the back seat.

  ‘I don’t have my weapon, Dom. I don’t have nothing. Don’t freak,’ he said, sliding over on the seat toward the driver’s side back door. Glass crunched under him.

  ‘I know what you’ve done,’ said Dominick.

  ‘Done? I haven’t done anything. She was just giving me a ride.’

  ‘I know about everything, you piece of shit! I know about it all. I know about how you set up Lindeman with IA and Elijah Jackson and Fat Mack. I know you worked Angelillo, and I’m figuring
his death was maybe payback for ripping six kilos’ worth of Valle’s money off. I know it was you and Ricky Brueto who took those cops out.’ Brueto’s nylon sweatsuit might have been bathed in LBJ’s blood, but Masterson would have been the key. He would have had access to a cop’s schedule. He would know the radio calls, the zones, and his badge and familiar face would easily open a cruiser door. ‘Cops, Chris!’ he screamed. ‘They were fucking cops!’

  Chris’s face grew dark. Like a frazzled husband caught with lipstick on his shirt, he had pushed his story about as far as it could go, backed himself into the farthest corner. Now he bared his teeth in the back seat. ‘Oh, I’m willing to bet you don’t know it all, Boss.’

  ‘Get out!’ yelled Dominick, pulling open the back door. ‘Before I shoot your ass and drag you out!’

  ‘I don’t have a weapon, Dom,’ Chris said, raising his hands before him as he stepped out. Dominick threw him, hard, up against the side of the car, wanting to do to his face what he had done to Bantling. ‘I’m unarmed. So go ahead. Do what you have to do,’ he said, his cheek pressed hard against the roof of the car, Dominick’s hand firm on the back of his neck. ‘Take me in. And while you’re at it, slap the cuffs on your girlfriend in the front seat,’ cause she’s coming too. Tell me, what’s the penalty for Attempted First?’

  Dominick said nothing, but his eyes darted back to the front seat of the car.

  ‘If you know everything, then you know what she’s done, Dom. Those lying cops? They were her lies. She’s put an innocent man on death row. Sacrificed his life so she could have her revenge.’

  Dominick had stepped back slightly, taken his hands off the back of Chris’s head, as if he were suddenly electric. He wiped the sweat that had collected above his lip with the back of his sleeve, while his other hand held the Beretta. It shook slightly. He hadn’t slapped on cuffs yet, so Chris knew he was thinking, chewing on what he had just told him.

  ‘That sounds like a crime to me,’ Chris continued, turning back slowly now to face him, his hands raised. A wail of sirens sounded somewhere in the not-so-far distance. ‘That sounds like Attempted First-degree Murder. Good for a dozen or so years behind steel. More if they want to make her an example. And if the feds get her… Damn! That’s civil rights violations. That’ll run consecutive, I’m sure. That’s almost worth going to jail for myself.’ He chuckled, watching the reaction play out on Dominick’s face, as he envisioned all the things Chris had just said. C.J.’s pitiful, pretty face wearing an orange shirt and shackles sitting on the wrong side of a courtroom she used to practically command.

  ‘Move to the back of the car!’ Dominick said, pushing him forward. Yelling almost too loud. Loud enough, perhaps, to drown out all that Chris was telling him. Because he knew it wasn’t just words.

  ‘Not that I will go to jail, Dom. If you know everything, then you know I got a lot of shit to sell to all the right people,’ he said as he walked, hands still raised. ‘I know all the right names from Colombia to Mexico to fucking Singapore and I know who’s dealing and I know who’s dirty. I know names that you wouldn’t believe. And that’s not all I can do. I can point our good friends at the FBI to a group I bet they don’t even want to know exists. Guys who live and work just like me. And think like me, Dom.’

  At the back of the car, Chris turned to face him. There were more sirens now, mixed with the squawking honks of a Fire/Rescue truck. All fast approaching. His eyes locked on Dominick’s and he lowered his voice. ‘Guys that have money and power and fame and like to watch people die, Dom,’ he continued. ‘They like it. They get off on it. And they’ll pay for it. Some of the most wanted men in the world, and some whose crimes have yet to be discovered, but when they are, Jeffrey Dahmer will seem like a fucking kitten. And I’m willing to wager that information will buy me a new life and a new identity somewhere cozy, Dom. Somewhere where I can read all about your girlfriend as she comes up for parole.’

  ‘Face down! Spreadeagle on the ground!’ Dominick shouted, his firearm trained in front of him.

  ‘Maybe I’ll pay her a visit if she does make it back home in a few years,’ Chris said as he began to kneel. He looked past Dominick, back to the front of the car.

  His face froze when he saw her standing there.

  Dominick turned his head and followed Chris’s stare. C.J. stood, dazed, by the rear bumper on the passenger side of the car. Blood ran down her face from a large cut on her head, streaking her dark-blonde hair black, and splashing her clothes red. She was covered in tiny pieces of glass that sparkled under the streetlights. She stood slightly hunched over, with one arm folded in against her stomach. The other dangled at her side, hidden by shadows.

  ‘Shut up! Face down on the ground!’ Dominick shouted at Chris, but his voice hesitated for a second. His gun stayed trained, but his head jerked back again to where she stood. ‘C.J.! The ambulance is coming! Go sit down!’ Then the shadows moved, and the gun she held down at her side came into view.

  ‘Jesus, C.J.!’ Dominick yelled.

  Chris’s eyes opened with alarm, but then quickly melted back into defiant slits. He knew she’d heard everything. The gun twitched in her hand.

  ‘I know the system as well as you do, Dom,’ he said, but his eyes did not leave C.J.’s, as he knelt down in the street. ‘So take me in. And we’ll see just how far this goes.’

  Dominick knew at that moment that he was right. That Chris would beat the system because he knew exactly how to play it. He knew all along what it would cost him to make a deal, what it would take to expose her, and he had carefully stowed that information away for a rainy day, like money buried in a wall. Secrets that he would only give out portions of, juicy tidbits that would take him to all the right places. And he realized then that the truth would never really come out. That the whys would probably never be answered. Not on this night.

  The moment happened so quickly, that years later, Dominick would still never quite be sure how to place the order of events. He heard C.J. scream. He saw the quick flash of movement as Chris knelt down, and watched as his hands went behind him. He heard himself shouting, but, strangely enough, could not remember the words. He felt the adrenaline rush him, grab his heart and shove it up into his throat. He heard the deafening blast of the gunshot, and smelled the acrid powder, tasted it as it burned the back of his throat.

  But Dominick wasn’t quite sure what happened first. Which one event set all the dominos tragically in motion. It was an instant, a simple second in time. But even as it happened, he knew he would spend forever replaying it.

  91

  There was complete silence, all sound suddenly tolled by the blast. Dominick felt the beat of his heart throbbing in his raw throat, pulsing to a crazy, off-beat rhythm, and the ground beneath him seemed to shake and bend. He blinked and slowly the sound began to filter back in, the ringing from the gunshot melting into the scream of the sirens, getting louder and louder, as if someone was by a radio, raising the volume knob.

  He looked back at C.J. who stood frozen in the moment as well, tears running down her bloodied face, her trembling mouth open. Without a word, he holstered his firearm and moved to the body that lay dying in the street. He knelt over it and quickly frisked it, finding the weapon he knew was there. He hesitated for just a second, and then, using the tail of his polo shirt, pulled the .36 from the unclipped ankle holster, and placed it next to Chris’s outstretched hand. He was careful not to step in the blood that was beginning to pool under his neck, seeping out of the top of his head and spreading red and slick into the dirty street. Chris’s eyes stared out at the curb next to him, seemingly watching the blood as it ran down between his eyes and off his forehead and past him into the gutter. His foot twitched slightly, an involuntary reflex.

  ‘He was going to kill you because you had found out about his connection with Ricardo Brueto,’ Dominick said as he moved over the body. He did not look at her. ‘Brueto was running dope and helping Valle clean money. Masterson was the go-between
with the cartels. You were going to expose him. You called me. You wrecked the car to stop him. I pulled up and took him out. He pulled his weapon. I shot him.’

  He stared down at the body. At least the last part was true… wasn’t it? Dominick had seen the ‘furtive movement’ – as it was always called in police reports and close-out memos – that split-second clandestine move that tells a reasonable officer the subject may have a weapon. The move that will justify the use of deadly force. Chris had moved his hand back toward his ankle as he knelt down. Dominick knew he carried an ankle holster. He should’ve frisked him when he pulled him out of the car, but things had happened so fast…

  But why was the .36 still holstered? Why wasn’t it in his hand?

  The sirens screamed.

  ‘That’s it. That’s all there is,’ he finished. He wiped the sweat off his face and moved to where she stood, motionless.

  ‘Give me the gun, C.J.,’ he said.

  He held his hand out, his fingers finding the .22 in her shaking hand. He gently pried her fingers loose, and taking it, flicked the safety back on and tucked it in the back of his pants. He wrapped his arms around her trembling shoulders and walked her away from the body, away from the blood that ran into the street, away from the dying secret that was now theirs to share.

 
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