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Cutting room the, p.30
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.30

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
But this was how it had started twenty-three years ago. He had been in her house, eating from her fridge, rummaging through her mail and drawers. Taking a shower in her bathroom. Maybe using her toothbrush. She had missed the signs because she hadn’t paid attention. Now she always paid attention.

  Okay, okay, C.J. Let’s think about this rationally: Bantling’s on death row in Florida, some 2800 miles away. Chambers is dead and burning in hell, some 2800 miles down. The experiment is done. What are the odds that another former defendant of yours is going to come rearrange your fridge as a form of stalking? You mixed up the eggs and the bread, is all. It happens.

  She took another deep breath and headed back into the kitchen. She could not wait until this case was over. After nine weeks of a trial that should have lasted three, she was burned out and stressed. Plus, since her car was stolen, she’d been jumpier than ever. The thought of some stranger rummaging through her glove compartment or console, looking at old receipts and notes and wrappers — things in the Green Giant that had once belonged to her — skeezed her out. It had churned up a violent sea of memories. Now she was seeing invisible hands going through her refrigerator. After Kassner she didn’t have another case scheduled for weeks. She needed the break. A few days’ vacation in the wine country or something. Great food at restaurants like the Los Olivos Café and Brothers, washed down with gallons of Pinot Noir. Nothing but vineyards and horses and farmers markets.

  She walked past the hall console table, where assorted pictures from her life before Santa Barbara were bumped up against each other in a hodge-podge collection of frames. Dominick was in every picture. Her wedding photo taken on a beach in the Keys. Boating in the Caribbean. Playing with Luna on Lake Michigan, sipping coffee in her rain jacket at Pike’s Market in Seattle. Eating beignets at Café du Monde in New Orleans. In each picture she was smiling and he was right there beside her. In every picture.

  Back in the kitchen, she sat down on one of her grandmother’s vinyl dinette chairs and put her head in her hands.

  What was she doing out here? Why did she keep running? Why had she let herself ruin the one constant, good thing in her life? Why was she hell-bent on self-destruction? Was that how she was going to make her penance?

  She felt herself unraveling the way she had before, so many years ago in New York. That breakdown had ultimately led to a psych ward and, at one point, suicide watch at the age of twenty-five. Now the walls were slowly closing in again, an inch at a time. So slowly, months had passed before she’d taken notice that they were almost upon her now. She should resume therapy, she should talk to someone, she knew that, but … she could never again trust another therapist after what she’d been through. And even if she could, she could never be honest about why she was unraveling, about the horrible things she had done in her life. She was stuck with herself and only herself.

  She reached for her cell in her sweater pocket and for the umpteenth time pulled up Dominick’s number. Her finger poised above the ‘send’ button, like a runaway teen in a strange city who has found a pay phone and a quarter. She wanted to make that call so bad.

  Sorry would never be enough.

  A despondent parent would say, ‘Come home!’ wouldn’t they? All that parent would want would be for that child to come home, no matter what it was she had done, no matter the reasons she’d left. If C.J. had babies she would be that way. If only she could have had babies … She wiped the tears away with the back of her hand. No questions asked. Just come home to me.

  But she wasn’t a kid. She was a grown woman. And she had left without telling him why. She put the cell back in her pocket.

  From the next room over she heard the TV, like a small voice growing louder and louder as she focused in on the words.

  ‘… In a shocking admission made earlier this morning, Chet Meyers, the head of Florida’s Department of Corrections issued a statement confirming that the convicted serial killer had, in fact, gone missing as far back as the tenth of August. Denying a cover-up, Mr Meyer refused to elaborate on why the information was not made public earlier, only to say that there was an investigation pending.’

  C.J. stood up and walked back into the living room. Luna was sniffing furiously at the carpet, going round and round in circles. She ignored her, staring in disbelief at the reporter on the TV screen. A graphic showing the Miami Herald’s logo floated above the reporter’s head.

  Luna started to whine.

  No, no, no, no … don’t say it. Don’t say it. Don’t say it, or I will scream.

  The graphic changed, replaced by a color picture of the man who held her hostage every night in her nightmares.

  Luna stopped at the front door and started to bark.

  ‘Bill Bantling was added to the FBI’s most wanted list of fugitives this morning,’ the reporter added somberly. ‘The serial killer known as Cupid has debuted at number two.’

  47

  Luna was sitting at attention right in front of the door, barking, her teeth bared. Someone was out there. C.J. backed up slightly and hit the console. The picture of her and Dominick in Seattle at Pike’s Place Market fell to the floor and broke.

  Steps away in the living room, the TV kept spewing out information:

  There is a national manhunt going on today for William Rupert Bantling, the vicious serial killer perhaps better known to the world as Cupid, who has reportedly escaped from death row …

  His whereabouts remain unknown at this time …

  … narrowly avoiding execution in 2004 …

  According to sources, Bantling was in Miami to testify as a witness in a murder case …

  The room began to spin. She bent down and absently started to pick up the pieces of broken glass, slicing her hand open. The same hand, coincidentally, that Gregory Chambers had severed a tendon in with his scalpel years before. Blood began to seep out of her palm, seemingly from her old wound.

  How could he be out? How could this have happened?

  Luna came over and licked her hand, then went back to the door, where she sat down and whined. Back to C.J. Back to the door. Back and forth, whining, barking. ‘Luna, what is it? What’s the matter, girl?’ C.J. whispered, her voice shaking. Her whole body was shaking. She knew what the matter was. Someone was out there. Or had been.

  The doorbell rang.

  She fell against the wall. This couldn’t be happening.

  The doorbell rang again. Luna jumped up against the door, scratching. Barking furiously.

  Crouched low in a corner or hiding in a closet wasn’t going to tell her who was on the other side. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon. Get a grip, C.J. Before you lose it forever. Get a grip and hold on to it. Hold it together and just check the door. She stood up and tiptoed to the peephole, holding her breath. She looked out, quickly unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door.

  ‘Hello’ was all it took.

  Dominick was standing on her doorstep, just steps away. Luna pushed past her and jumped on him, almost knocking him over. The ferocious-sounding barks were replaced with happy licks and a wagging tail. Dominick bent down to give Luna a hug and looked up at C.J. ‘Hello,’ was all he said, and she started to cry. She didn’t want to, but the tears came anyway. And they wouldn’t stop. They were a toxic mixture of fear, stress, anger, happiness, relief, guilt, sadness, love, grief. A zillion different emotions hit her all at once and she couldn’t keep her composure. She just couldn’t. She stood there sobbing in the doorway, blood dripping from her hand on to the carpet.

  He took the two steps into the house and she literally fell into his arms, emotionally exhausted. Even though she’d given him a million reasons to let her go and watch her crash to the ground, he held her up and he held on to her. Neither of them said a word.

  He led her to the couch in the living room and turned off the news with a flick of the remote. He examined her hand, ran into the kitchen and grabbed a dishtowel, carefully wrapping it around her palm. Sitting on the couch, her hand on his lap, he still held her, ev
en though she couldn’t fall anymore.

  ‘Manny Alvarez called me,’ he said finally. He moved a piece of her hair that was cemented to a cheek by her tears. ‘I didn’t want you to find out on the phone, so I came. I guess you saw the news.’

  ‘How? How did this happen?’

  ‘They cut him a deal, C.J. The State Attorney’s Office. He was going to hand up names. Names of the snuff-club members.’

  ‘Oh God.’

  ‘He’d already given them a Florida Supreme Court judge who apparently was instrumental in sending Bantling back to the row. That was the bait. They brought Bantling down to Miami to hear the rest of the names and he disappeared in the hurricane. They’re calling it a mistake. A Department of Corrections mistake, but I don’t know what to believe.’

  What was most telling was what Dominick was not saying. He was not saying, Don’t worry, he’s long gone and out of the country. He was not saying, You’re the last person he’d come find because he knows the feds would expect that. He was not saying, It will all be okay. He could never find you. Because none of that was true and she knew it. She also knew he was holding back.

  ‘What else did Manny tell you? There’s more, isn’t there?’

  ‘They found drawings in Bantling’s cell. They were of you. All of them. Manny thinks he’s going to try and find you.’ Dominick sighed. ‘I think so, too.’

  She nodded. There was nothing to say.

  ‘I didn’t tell him where you were, but trust me, you won’t be that hard to find. You need to get someplace safe. I can call the feds. We can put you in witness protection till they find him.’

  ‘You mean if they find him.’

  ‘There is a chance he’s left the country. We always knew he’d buried money somewhere. We just never found out where.’

  C.J. shook her head. ‘I won’t live that way. When I left New York, I made the rules. I chose where to live, the career I wanted to have, the people I would associate with. Not the federal government. I don’t want to be mopping floors in a Kmart in Little Rock in the hope he won’t find me, Dominick.’

  ‘This time it’s different, C.J. This time he wants revenge. He’s been dreaming of it for years. And we both know why.’

  Dominick was right. There was no place she could hide, no place the feds could hide her where Bill Bantling wouldn’t eventually find her. She looked around her apartment, thinking of the relocated eggs and the cold shower she took that morning. Had he already found her? Was paranoia breaking down her reasoning? Or were her hypersensitive instincts in tune? If she knew anything from too many years of being a prosecutor, it was that if someone wants to find you badly enough, he will. And if that someone wants to kill you badly enough, he will. When retribution becomes someone’s mission — the purpose he wakes in the morning and the reason he dreams at night — nothing will stop him from looking. And eventually finding.

  She was tired of running. Running from her past. Running from what she had done. Running from psychos. She’d spent most of her life running. Running and hiding. And she wasn’t going to do it anymore. But there was only one way to accomplish that. To truly put an end to the hunt once and for all.

  Dominick hadn’t changed. Thinner, maybe. A little more gray in his brown hair. But he’d always had a great body and he still did. And a weathered, chiseled face with a tan complexion that belonged on a cowboy. The stress of the past year definitely showed in his brown eyes, though. Those looked tired, suspicious, angry, sad, distant. He studied her for a moment, as if inside his brain he was arguing with himself over his next words. ‘Come home with me,’ he finally said. ‘At least in Chicago we know people.’

  She ran a hand through her hair. ‘They don’t know us. No one knows us. You can’t just lay our story on them, Dominick. It doesn’t work that way. Besides, all the other heavy baggage you and I drag along, you can’t just ask your friends for help and then spring on them that a serial killer may be hunting your wife.’

  All the other heavy baggage.

  ‘Let’s talk about our baggage, C.J. We both know what it is. We both know what I did. We both know what you did.’

  She pulled away from him. ‘I can’t do this.’

  He took the divorce papers from his jacket pocket and dropped them on her lap. He stood up. ‘Why? Why are you running? Why are you running from me? Tell me the truth. I don’t care what it is, because I can’t go on like this, C.J. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll still protect you. I’ll still get you out of here, I’ll find Bantling. I’ll take him apart, but I can’t go on. Tell me why you keep running from me. Why you keep running from us. I’ve done everything I can to keep you safe, to help you forget. To move forward. And I wish I could be the one that runs away. I wish I could move on. I wish I could … stop loving you and find someone else, but … that never happens. So tell me. Tell me you don’t love me anymore and I’ll sign.’

  ‘I can’t.’

  ‘Can’t what?’

  ‘I can’t tell you that. I’ll never tell you that. Because I love you more than anything. I miss us, Dominick. I miss you every second of every single day. Most of those seconds are spent wishing that I never left. But my brain had no choice. It was exploding. I look at you and I see him. No — I see you looking at me and you see him. You see Bantling. You see the Clown. You see the police reports. You pity me. That’s how you rationalize what I did. You pity me.’

  ‘I do pity you. I know what that man did to you and I would kill him myself if I could. But I can’t. I’m waiting for the system to do it for me, but it hasn’t. I don’t have to “rationalize” your putting the man who raped you on death row, C.J., because it is rational. It’s the only rational act in a crazy, fucked-up system that has allowed him to keep breathing for a decade. I applaud you.’

  She put her head in her hands. ‘We hold this big secret, you and I. And I don’t want it anymore. I feel like I’m always looking out the window at my past, just waiting for it to catch up. I try to break away, and surround myself with normal people who know nothing about anything. Who don’t know me, who don’t know my past — and that doesn’t work either. I can’t seem to get away anywhere. And now he’s out. He’s on the streets and …’ Her voice tapered off.

  ‘It’s you, C.J.. You’re the one who keeps rationalizing. You hate yourself. And you keep it all to yourself. Your conscience is eating you alive. It’s consuming both of us. It makes you want to run from yourself and build a new life, but you can’t do that. No matter how many miles you put between us, or Bantling, or your past, you can’t run from yourself. You have to forgive yourself. You have to move on.’

  ‘I can’t.’

  ‘There’s no other alternative.’ He looked around the small house, pointing at the locks on the door, the alarm system, the drawn blinds. ‘Look at where you are. Are you happy? Did it work this time?’

  She looked up at him. The tears were back. ‘How did you know where I was?’

  ‘I’ve always known. You keep on running, and I know you don’t like to be chased. So I just waited for you to come home.’

  She reached for his hand and saw that his wedding ring was still on. ‘Don’t sign those papers.’

  He pulled her forcefully up from the couch. Her face was inches from his own. Her scent was like a perfume. It was hard to think when he was this close to her. He clenched a fistful of her hair behind her head and pulled her even closer. He wanted to hate her sometimes. He really did. ‘Damn it, C.J.,’ he said softly. ‘I was never going to.’

  48

  ‘I need you to go back to Chicago,’ she said as they lay together in her bed. Her head was on his chest, his hand buried in her hair. The early-morning light was slowly filling the room. Great sleep usually followed great make-up sex, but not last night. They had made love in the afternoon, gone for some dinner down on Hendry’s Beach, then come back and, in a room filled with candles, made up again over another bottle of wine. Dominick had eventually dozed off, but C.J. had not slept well. She kept
getting out of bed, checking the window, looking out into the black night and the thick woods that were her grandmother’s backyard. Morning had come and the alcohol had worn off.

  Dominick said nothing. He just exhaled.

  ‘I’m coming home,’ she whispered, her back to him as she sat on the edge of the bed. ‘I promise. In a couple of days. I have to close things up here. I have to finish my trial.’

  ‘I’ll stay.’

  ‘I’m not running anymore, Dominick. I want to work this out.’

  ‘He’s on the loose. What about that? How does that fit in with your plans?’

  She said nothing for a long while. ‘He may very well be looking for me, but I think I have enough time to finish up my trial and quit my job. I’m in closing argument. It’s the end of a nine week trial. I can’t just leave.’

  ‘I’ll stay,’ he repeated.

  ‘You have a trial yourself that starts on Wednesday.’

  ‘If we leave tonight we can be in Chicago by Wednesday. Unless you want to fly.’

  ‘I’m not putting Luna in cargo.’

  ‘I’ll get a continuance.’

  ‘Good luck with that. You spent last night telling me what a bastard your judge was.’

  ‘Here we go …’ he said with an exasperated sigh. ‘You’re doing it again. You’ve got the wall up. Did last night mean nothing to you?’

  ‘I’ll leave when my trial is over,’ she said again. ‘I know you don’t believe that, but I will.’

  ‘Jesus, I don’t even know if we should go back to Chicago, C.J.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘There’s so much I have to think about. People I have to call. I’m kind of winging my thoughts, here, and you’re not helping.’

  ‘You’re the lead on a murder case — you can’t leave your prosecutor high and dry, any more than I can leave here this morning. That much is definite — finish your case and I’ll finish mine.’ She stared at the drawn blinds. ‘It’s not like he’s out there right now.’

 
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