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Last witness, p.3
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       Last Witness, p.3

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said softly in his ear. ‘I’ll call you when I know more.’ She rose to leave. ‘It’s Saturday. I’ll pick up bagels on my way home.’

  ‘Be careful, please. Call me when you get there, and stay on 95.’ I95 was an interstate that carried Fort Lauderdale to Miami, a thirty-mile trip. Many a bad thing had been known to happen to those who ventured off the wrong exit, lost in the middle of the night.

  ‘Yes, Dad,’ she said lightly, heading for the bedroom door. ‘Go back to sleep. Tell me what it feels like over breakfast. And don’t forget to let out Lucy.’ Lucy was her deaf basset hound, who, at the moment, was curled into a very tight brown ball right next to Dominick, where C.J. had been not five minutes earlier. She patted Lucy’s head. ‘Opportunity knocked, huh, Lucy girl? The bed never even got cold.’

  ‘Where exactly are you going, anyway?’

  ‘Some alley off of 79th Street.’ She blew a soft kiss at him. ‘Love you,’ she whispered. ‘See you soon.’

  The bedroom door closed softly behind her and then she was gone.

  8

  Dominick threw the covers aside and gently slid Lucy’s snoring, curled-up body to the inside of the bed. C.J.’s ancient fat cat, Tibby, jumped up and sprawled out next to her. He pulled on his shirt and rose to get dressed and make some coffee. Sleep would not come again tonight. It was simply a matter of time before his own cellphone rang with the news.

  A dead cop. Jesus Christ! One of his own.

  He felt incredibly angry. Angry and outraged and inexplicably sad all at the same time. Even though he had no idea who this cop was or how he had died – hell, chances were he probably didn’t even know the guy, there were that many cops in Miami – but still… one of his own had lost the battle. In the kitchen’s bright track lights, he shook his head in disgust while he waited for the coffee to finish brewing.

  There existed a unique camaraderie among law enforcement officers. As early as a rookie’s first week in the police academy, the groundwork for the ‘us against them’ mentality was already carefully being laid by highly experienced, and therefore, highly pessimistic sergeants and lieutenants. Field Training Officers – FTOs – and fellow cadets became a rookie’s only friends for a grueling and intense nine months, and the academy’s maxim was ‘prepare for the worst.’ And so you do. You shoot at moving paper bad guys every day and are instructed to call for back-up if you have to as much as sneeze in a bad hood. You practice raids on mopes’ houses where, inevitably, a few innocent hostages are sure to be found inside, and no paper target escapes without coming under heavy fire. Then, after dropping thirty rounds of ammunition and being beaten blue by the Redman in Defensive Tactics, you cap off the day having a few beers with the boys. Your life revolves around the job: You eat, sleep, breathe and socialize with other cops. You speak cop, 24/7, and your trained cop eyes now see bad shit everywhere, just waiting to happen. And no one knows you better than your partner. Death defied on your behalf by someone not even related to you breeds unwavering and unconditional loyalty to the men wearing the blue jacket. When one fell, every cop felt the hit, somewhere deep inside.

  As a cop who originally launched his own career assigned to the crappiest house in the South Bronx, Dominick had felt that hit too many times. And, unfortunately, he had seen too many jackets fall with his own eyes.

  He had moved up to detective within twelve months. Homicide in another six, but they still wouldn’t let him out of the Bronx, no matter how many asses he kissed. He was good at what he did, finding answers. Probably too good. But after a few years, the bad guys all started to look the same, even when they weren’t bad, and he knew it was time to go. On a cold, rainy, and particularly miserable New York day, he had pulled out his US map, closed his eyes and hoped his finger fell somewhere where even the criminals wore short-sleeved shirts. It landed on Miami – a bustling, metropolitan city, but with a more exotic and tropical flair. He’d gotten several offers with large departments – Miami-Dade PD, the City of Miami PD, Miami Beach PD, Broward Sheriff’s Office – but as a Special Agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement he would be doing more than just changing the scenery. He would be refocusing his career. At least that’s what the FDLE Commissioner had told him sixteen years ago when he had offered Dominick a job as a Special Agent.

  Florida’s equivalent to the FBI, FDLE used highly specialized and experienced agents to work major statewide investigations – those that crossed police department and county jurisdictions – and to assist both the feds and the locals with their more involved cases. State resources provided cutting-edge crime labs in each of the department’s five regions, easily equaling the FBI’s at Quantico. They were not a primary response agency, but rather an investigative agency, which promised Dominick no more midnight search warrants. Of course, that was the sales pitch. Then the Regional Director at the FDLE Miami Regional Operations Center took one look at Dominick’s resume and promptly assigned him to the Violent Crime Squad, working homicide investigations. And although that didn’t necessarily mean working vampire’s hours every night, it also didn’t mean leaving with the Fraud Squad and the five o’clock whistle.

  The coffee pot chortled to a stop and the rich aroma filled the air. Lucy meandered out of the bedroom, sniffing for a handout. Dominick poured himself a cup and tossed Lucy a Pupperoni stick. She let out a happy howl and lay down, nibbling the treat at his feet.

  The job had its dangers. Every cop knew that, accepted it. They put on the vest at the start of every shift – a cumbersome and constant reminder of the potential perils. The problem was, no cop ever really thought his badge would be the next number called to the frontlines. His number forever 10-7’d out of service on the radio by a somber Chief, a bugler playing Taps in the background. When the bullet came, Dominick supposed, even for a cop it was a total surprise.

  Lucy followed him out to the balcony, curling up again at his feet while he leaned on the railing and somberly sipped his coffee. The black waters of the Intercoastal churned twelve stories below him, gently lapping against the seawall. A light breeze blew, tinkling the wind chimes. It was beginning to cool off, you could feel it now, just barely, in the air. Winter was almost here. Time for crowded beaches and traffic and two-hour waits at restaurants. He could almost hear the simultaneous mad squeal of tires as the snowbirds peeled out of their icy driveways up north and headed down to the Sunshine State.

  Across the Intercoastal, behind the many condos and cheap hotels and high-rises that dotted Pompano Beach and Fort Lauderdale, slivers of pink and orange would soon begin to slice across the dark sky. Another magnificent Florida sunrise was just ahead.

  Dominick sipped at his coffee and just waited for the phone to ring.

  9

  At four in the morning, the thirty-mile trip to Miami Beach took just a little over twenty minutes, though in rush hour it could take days. C.J. exited 95 at 79th Street and drove through the dark fringes of Liberty City, where many of the modest homes and businesses wore heavy iron bars on their doors and windows. Even at this hour, a couple of brightly lit pawn shops remained open and she spotted a few faceless figures still working the shadows. A few miles down, 79th turned into the John F. Kennedy Causeway, and quiet North Bay Village, before finally carrying her over the black waters of Biscayne Bay and onto the middle of Miami Beach.

  As she came over the causeway, she immediately saw the flashing blue and red lights, converged on what looked to be at least a two-block radius behind a closed Chevron station. This must be pretty bad. In her twelve years with the office, twenty cops had been killed in the line of duty in Miami. And the intense reaction that followed was always the same: No one will rest until someone has paid. That included uniforms, detectives and prosecutors, from every house in every department in every jurisdiction. Official commands became personal vendettas.

  She found a spot behind an empty, flashing cruiser in the gas station parking lot, and headed into the crowd of uniforms that sat up
ahead. Miami Beach PD, and Metro-Dade PD were on scene, and C.J. spotted a few Florida Highway Patrol cruisers as well. Behind the station was a large empty field surrounded by a six-foot chain link fence. Past the field, yellow crime scene tape was being strung around the back of a closed AC business, cordoning off the alley that sat behind it.

  The jabber and squawk of dozens of police radios crackled around her. She approached a circle of MBPD cops, who were chatting among themselves at the edge of the field. The first string.

  She flashed her badge. ‘Anyone know where I can find Nicholsby, Beach Homicide? I’m with the State.’

  The circle silently parted, allowing her to pass through. A small unnamed street ran beside the AC business, running perpendicular to the alley. C.J. could see an MBPD cruiser parked up in the alley, its blue and red lights silently spinning atop the car. They bounced off a high wooden fence that ran behind the back doors of the AC shop and the Atlantic Cable Company next door. Flanking the other side of the alley, behind barbwire-topped chain link fencing were three huge satellites and a reception tower, that belonged to the cable company.

  One young cop nodded grimly behind him. ‘That’s Nicholsby over by the car, talking with Crime Scene.’

  ‘Thanks.’ At the lip of the alley on the other side of the yellow tape, stood two investigators in blue wind-breakers, ‘Crime Scene’ written across their backs in bold fluorescent yellow lettering. Between the two, a middle-aged detective in a polo shirt and khakis puffed away on a cigarette. In his early fifties, with sagging eyes and sagging shoulders, he looked like he needed a drink.

  C.J. extended her hand. ‘Detective Nicholsby? C. J. Townsend. State Attorney’s Office.’

  ‘Townsend. You got here quick.’

  ‘What’s going on?’ She looked to the cruiser.

  ‘’Bout four this morning, somebody called in about a cop maybe sleeping in his car. Dispatch sends out a uniform, this rookie, Schrader. He opens the front door to wake the guy, and…’ Nicholsby’s voice trailed off. ‘Crime Scene’s photo’d outside, but we’re waiting for the ME. He lives up in Coral Springs someplace.’

  The cruiser sat just in the lip of the alley. The driver’s door was open only slightly, and the edge of a white sheet spilled out. The windows appeared strangely opaque. Even the windshield.

  ‘What’s with the windows?’ she asked. ‘Is that tint?’

  ‘They’ve been painted.’

  ‘Painted? With what?’

  ‘Blood. The sick fuck painted the inside of the car with the poor guy’s own blood. That’s why no one called it in at first. They couldn’t even see in the car. Maybe thought the cop was on a snooze break and had left his lights on, put on a cover so no one could bust up his nap.’

  ‘Listen,’ Nicholsby said, grabbing her softly by her arm and spinning her attention away from the car and onto his face. His eyes were dark, intense. He almost looked frightened. ‘This is bad, Ms Townsend.’

  ‘I’ve seen bad before, Detective,’ she said, shrugging back slightly from his touch.

  ‘No,’ he said, not yet letting go of her, ‘I mean this is really bad. The worst I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot. A few of my guys have not yet recovered.’ He looked away from her and nodded behind him. A young cop in a Beach uniform was throwing up into the bushes that dotted the edge of the field. ‘Probably going to have to visit the department shrink over this one.’

  She pulled away from his touch and stared him straight in the eye. ‘Thanks for the warning, Detective. I’ll be fine.’

  ‘Okay,’ he shrugged, finally releasing her arm. ‘Be my guest. The ME should be here any minute.’

  ‘Who is the cop? Do we have an ID yet?’

  ‘No. There was a mix-up with the sign-out on the cruisers tonight. Car 8354 was supposed to go with Gilroy, Vincent Gilroy. But that ain’t him.’

  ‘What about his badge?’

  ‘Gone. So was his name badge on his uniform. Bastard cut it right off him.’

  ‘And no one here knows him?’

  ‘There are close to four hundred cops at the Miami Beach PD. Do you know them all? Besides, this guy’s own mother would have trouble recognizing him now. The only way we knew it wasn’t Gilroy is that Gilroy’s blond.’

  She started toward the cruiser. It was impossible to see inside the windows. Only that one piece of white sheet that crept out the bottom of the door told her of the grisly contents she would find inside. She pulled on the latex gloves that Nicholsby had handed her and slowly reached for the handle, covered in black soot.

  ‘They’ve dusted for prints,’ she called out behind her.

  ‘Yeah, but only on the outside so far. So don’t touch nothing inside, please.’

  Slowly she pulled open the door and the rest of the white sheet, stained red, tumbled out at her feet, like a carpet.

  Her latexed fingers hesitated for just a second and then pulled back the sheet that covered the figure in the front seat. She exhaled a quick breath and then covered her mouth with her hands, spinning herself away from the car, away from the horror that sat before her, chained with his own handcuffs to the steering wheel.

  ‘Jesus Christ!’ she exclaimed, panting, her fingers draped across her mouth.

  ‘I told you it was bad,’ said Nicholsby.

  ‘No, no,’ she murmured, her voice low, almost a whisper, speaking to herself, as much as to him.

  A voice from the parking lot of cop cars called out just then. He was running toward them, a white piece of paper in hand. ‘Detective! We’ve got an ID. We heard from the property clerk who assigned the cars tonight. He just got home from some bar. Looks like dispatch inverted the numbers on the car assignments by mistake on the paperwork. Gilroy was supposed to have 8354, but he’s got 8534.’

  ‘So who’s supposed to have 8354?’

  Before the uniform could respond, C.J. spoke. Her voice was weak, shocked with disbelief. ‘Chavez,’ she said quietly. ‘I know who he is. Victor Chavez.’

  10

  Her mind struggled to make sense of the frenzied thoughts and images that now rushed her brain. She was not prepared to handle seeing a dead cop, not savagely violated and in this condition. And she was certainly not prepared to handle seeing one she had worked closely with at one time. One who was more than just your average patrolman…

  Victor Chavez’s body sat upright in the blood-soaked driver’s seat, his head slumped against the steering wheel. The engine had been turned off, the body left to swelter inside the car. Approaching full rigor mortis now, his handcuffed hands still held the wheel fast, so hard the knuckles were white. What remained of his face had been turned to the side, presumably by Schrader, the cop that had found him, and his terrified brown eyes now stared out the driver’s side window at nothing. It was those eyes that C.J. had recognized instantly. ‘Lyin’ eyes,’ she had once called them, pools of soft brown that spoke volumes more than his words ever did.

  Now they gaped at her, the horror of the last few moments of his short life forever captured there. It was easy to see why others would have difficulty recognizing him. From the nose down he had been torn apart. The radio pack on his shoulder crackled with the dispatcher’s voice, who, ironically, was at that very moment dispatching additional units to Victor’s own homicide scene.

  C.J. had moved away from the cruiser and back behind the crime scene tape. She sat on the bumper of Nicholsby’s unmarked Taurus and slowly sipped at the bottled water she’d finally accepted, hoping the wave of nausea she was experiencing would soon pass. A hand fell softly on her shoulder. It was Marlon Dorsett, another homicide detective with Miami Beach. C.J. had worked several murder investigations with Marlon over the years and knew he was one of the best. He smiled a mouthful of white teeth. ‘C.J.? Lieutenant told me you were the on-call. I was wondering when you’d show.’

  ‘Me?’ C.J. smiled weakly. ‘I’ve been here since the party started. I even beat the band.’ She nodded in the direction of the cruiser. The ME had final
ly arrived and, at that moment, was measuring the very deep cut that sliced across Victor Chavez’s throat with a fluorescent orange tape measure, while crime scene techs waited anxiously in the wings. When the ME was done they would descend on the car like hungry vultures, dissecting the cruiser down to its frame. ‘How’re you doing, Marlon?’

  ‘Me? Not so bad. Wife is good, kids are a pain in the ass, job sucks. But, enough. I sound like every other guy in America.’ He paused for a moment and shook his head somberly. ‘This is a mess. Can you believe this shit? To go out this way?’ He nodded at the bottle of water in her hand, acknowledging it. ‘You don’t look so good, C.J. Are you okay with all this?’

  ‘Yeah, yeah. I just knew him, Chavez, from a case he worked. It surprised me, I guess.’

  Marlon nodded and looked around. ‘It’s a shock for everyone. How’s Dom doing? Is he here?’

  Before C.J. could answer, Nicholsby finished up the very heated conversation he was having with his Nextel, the two-way cellphone/walkie-talkie radio. He turned both his attention and his mounting anger on Detective Dorsett.

  ‘This is such bullshit. Dispatch has Chavez at this location for a thirty-eight at 0130. He cleared the scene and went twelve. That’s the last communication with him we have. And no one thinks to tell us that very fucking important fact for thirty goddamn minutes while we try to work an ID?’ He looked toward the car door, which was open wide. ‘He’s in rigor now, so we know he’s been dead for at least a couple of hours. That pretty much makes our perimeter useless —’

  ‘Unless the fuck hung around to watch the response,’ Marlon cut in.

  Nicholsby looked around him at the sea of blue uniforms. ‘Not likely. At this time in the morning we’re not attracting much of a crowd.’

  ‘Witnesses?’ C.J. asked.

  ‘Nobody,’ grunted Nicholsby.

 
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