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Cutting room the, p.33
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.33

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Vance rubbed the back of his head. He didn’t want to go into what he had or didn’t have in open court, but the judge was beyond pissed. ‘We have torn fibers from the victim’s shirt that were found in the defendant’s boat, along with the defendant’s attempt to flee the jurisdiction before his arrest.’

  ‘That’s it in the physical evidence department, then? You don’t have a smoking gun out there, do you? Or a video of the defendant with Ms Skole’s dead body? Or, given the state’s previous conduct, a video of someone else with Ms Skole’s dead body? As far as your fiber evidence goes, perhaps Ms Skole and Mr Lunders had a passionate interlude on that boat and neither wanted to take the time to open a button.’

  ‘Judge, Ms Skole was raped and murdered. The court’s comments are in poor taste.’

  ‘Don’t play pious with me, State. And don’t think for a minute that that’s not how the defense will be explaining it to a jury. There was no blood or bodily fluids or DNA evidence on those fibers, was there?’

  ‘With all due respect, I would think the defense would come up with their own theory of the case, instead of the court assisting them.’

  ‘I am telling you how I see your evidence so far,’ the judge replied icily.

  ‘Thank you. I’m quite sure Mr Varlack appreciates that.’

  ‘So this is what I am going to hear at trial? This is your case?’

  ‘I really didn’t think I would be trying my whole case in front of you today, Judge. That’s not why we’re here.’

  ‘Get over your shyness, Mr Collier. If you can’t share the facts of your case with your judge, who can you share them with?’

  ‘This was supposed to be argued by Ms DeBianchi, Your Honor.’

  ‘Get over that, too. You’re the quarterback now and you’ve just been handed the football. You’re running out of time to make a final play. Give me your best Hail Mary.’

  The walls began to crack, fanning out through the entire structure, toppling the floors, as the house with the sturdy roof imploded.

  ‘The defendant signed off on shipments to his company of sulfuric acid. That was the chemical used to burn off Ms Skole’s feet.’

  ‘Interesting, but I think your average science teacher can buy sulfuric acid.’

  ‘Your Honor,’ Vance tried. ‘Ms Modic told Detective Alvarez that she believed she was drugged by Talbot Lunders.’

  ‘Another very interesting fact that is also hearsay, because unfortunately Ms Modic will not be around to tell us that at trial.’

  ‘There’s more to this case than—’

  ‘Enough.’ The judge waved her hand, as she might to stop a child from arguing with her. ‘The warrant is out. And I’m going to save the state a lot of money and time here. I’m going to do something it does not have the guts to do. I’m going to pull the plug on this dying patient. Without the physical evidence from the Benz I just don’t see how you are going to get past a JOA, Mr Collier.’

  A JOA stood for Judgment of Acquittal. If, after the state presented its case, the trial judge found there was insufficient evidence for a conviction, she could take the matter out of the jury’s hands and acquit the defendant herself.

  ‘Even with the warrant,’ she continued, ‘you have torn fibers from Holly Skole’s shirt, evidence she was in the car with your defendant and evidence that she’s dead, but that’s about it. And you have at least four other people who were murdered and branded in the same way, and your defendant supposedly has an alibi for each of them. It sounds like you have a serial killer on your hands, Mr Collier — perhaps Detective Alvarez should be out there looking for him. And while I agree it would be nice of Mr Lunders to volunteer some information about where he and Ms Skole went after they left Club Menace and exactly what they did on that expensive boat of his, he’s just not going to do that. And you can’t make him. So as far as I’ve heard, you don’t have anything that directly connects him with her murder.’

  ‘There’s no motion to dismiss before you!’ Vance yelled, exasperated.

  ‘I’ll entertain a motion, ore tenus. Mr Varlack?’ asked the judge.

  Justice Joe jumped up. He might have gotten a late start, but he performed right on cue. ‘I move the court for a dismissal of all charges against my client.’

  Vance knew what was coming. It was seconds away from happening. And once the judge actually uttered the words ‘case dismissed’ there would be no going back — Talbot Lunders would walk free. ‘Your Honor, there is something that needs to be brought to your attention before you dismiss this case. Can we go sidebar?’

  ‘No,’ replied Becker.

  ‘There is something the court needs to know, but as it relates to a pending criminal investigation, I would rather not say in open court.’

  ‘Does it concern Mr Lunders and this case?’

  ‘Yes.’

  The judge waved her pen in the air again. ‘Then out with it. I warned you already to keep the court fully advised. You and Ms DeBianchi love to play games, don’t you? You know the road I’m headed down, and I’m just about at the door. You have my attention, Mr Collier, so say what you have to say. But I’m warning you, this had better be good.’

  53

  Bill Bantling stared at the pretty courthouse, with its towering arched doorways and quaint clock tower. The manicured lawn and colorful flowerbeds. The carved wood doors, where tourists like himself wandered in and out, admiring the architecture. He took a deep breath and inhaled the fresh mountain and sea air.

  She was a long way from South Florida. The criminal courthouse in Miami was a dump. A 1960s design catastrophe that could never be corrected or updated, no matter how much money the taxpayers threw at it. There were no visiting tourists taking pictures of the ugly escalators, no docent tours being offered by cute, helpful old people. It was a crowded, chaotic pit of criminals and immigrants, most of whom had never seen a can of deodorant, much less had their shots. From Bill’s recent brief stay in the Dade County Jail, it was safe to say that nothing much had changed in the years since his last visit.

  He picked his false teeth with a matchbook cover as his tour mates oohed and aahed in the Mural Room, touted proudly by the guide as ‘the jewel of the courthouse’. But instead of admiring the lovely mural that depicted scenes of California’s past, Bill’s mind was wandering to the courtroom right above his head.

  She hadn’t slept a wink last night — Chloe. Tossing and turning. Up every hour, checking the windows, then the doors, then the windows again. She must have seen the news about his escape. Peeking out from behind Grandma’s yellowed lace curtains into the black night, wondering, he was sure, if the Big Bad Wolf was out there somewhere, waiting for her in the dark woods that were her backyard. Licking his chops and sharpening his nails, biding his time — waiting for the right moment to come and eat her up.

  Sleepy Goleta, California, was no Queens, New York — the city that never sleeps. Or turns off its lights. In the California mountains, when nighttime came, people went to bed, everything went black and you could actually see the stars in the sky. He’d enjoyed that — lying in the dark watching the stars twinkle above him, his hand on his cock, thinking bad thoughts of her wrapped up in nothing but Grandma’s lace curtains. He hadn’t star-gazed before he was sent to prison, but when he was in that septic tank, it was something he’d often dreamed about doing, probably because he’d been told he’d never again be able to. Same as feeling sunlight on his skin. Naturally, the first thing he’d done when he got off the bus in LA was find a patch of beach and get a sunburn. After a few minutes in the dark woods though, with just himself and an old fantasy, he’d had enough. The star-gazing shit reminded him of yet another thing that the bitch had deprived him of for the past decade, and his hard-on had deflated. Anger had replaced the sweet memories.

  She hadn’t slept at all. But she hadn’t picked up and left town. When the morning came, she’d put on a black suit, taken her fat briefcase and her mean-looking doggie and headed off to the courthouse
to ruin some other poor schmuck’s life, probably figuring that she was over-thinking it all. Worrying too much. Rationalizing that he would not be able to find her, all the way across the country in sleepy Goleta. Or that he wouldn’t waste his precious freedom trying to track her down. Or that if he really wanted to, he would’ve found her already — seeing as the news was reporting he’d escaped weeks ago — so therefore he must not even be looking.

  Whatever she had figured, she’d figured wrong.

  The group moved up the main staircase, its walls detailed in Tunisian tiles. He ogled the decorative bench, the terra cotta steps, right along with the tourists. The lady next to him with the enormous ass and flowered polyester shirt smiled when he offered to hold her cane and help her up the stairs. He pulled on his thick gray whiskers and smiled back. Romance was in the air.

  The tour guide stopped outside a closed courtroom door. ‘Is that a criminal case that’s being heard in there?’ Bill asked.

  ‘Yes. The courthouse handles both civil and criminal cases. Right now, Judge Cassidy is hearing the People v. Richard Kassner. It’s an arson and murder case. The defendant is accused of setting fire to his former residence with his ex-wife and mother-in-law sleeping inside. The ex made it out, but the mother-in-law didn’t.’ The guide put a finger to his lips, opened the door and stuck his head in. He popped back out and shut the door. ‘Sorry. They’re in closing arguments right now so we can’t go in.’

  ‘Oh, I would’ve liked to have seen that,’ Bill replied, making a sad face.

  ‘Me, too,’ said his new lady-friend. ‘I just love The People’s Court.’

  Bill grinned. ‘I’m a Judge Judy fan. And Judge Alex. You name it. Anything legal.’

  She grinned sheepishly and the tour moved on.

  He couldn’t help himself. He let the group work its way down the hall before he cracked open Judge Cassidy’s courtroom door and took a peek inside. His heart was beating quick, the adrenaline racing through his veins.

  There she was, standing in front of a jury in her snappy suit and high heels, her back to him, asking twelve men and women to convict a man. To send yet another one off to the Big House for a few dozen years. Or maybe she was asking for a death sentence. He wasn’t really listening to what she was saying and he didn’t care. He was just focused on her. The jury was, too. They seemed to be lapping up her every word.

  Chloe did have a way with people. She drew them to her, like a magnet draws another magnet. They were probably mesmerized by her. The women included. Her chestnut hair fell to her shoulders, surprisingly still full and thick and wavy. He was disappointed to see it wasn’t blonde, though. He watched as her small, delicate hands gestured to the jury, watched as she moved about before them. He listened to her soft, slightly raspy, forceful voice. He couldn’t see her face, but he knew it was still beautiful, even if it was now buried in wrinkles and worry lines. She would always be beautiful. Perfect bone structure, she had. Great genes. High cheekbones, heart-shaped chin, perfectly arched eyebrows, porcelain complexion, fiery, emerald eyes. A beauty that would defy time, like a Greek goddess. That’s why he’d chosen her in the first place. Chloe was not merely pretty — she was exceptional. Without so much as a smudge of makeup, she was perfect. A beauty like that could not be restrained or hidden with a drab hair color and plain clothes and glasses. It was funny she would ever have thought so. He stood there and watched her until the judge turned in his direction and, with a frown, waved him off. He popped back out into the hall just as the prosecutor turned around to see who her judge had gotten so irritated at.

  ‘I’ve never seen a live trial,’ he whispered to his lady-friend, who was waiting for him outside the door when he came out. ‘Couldn’t resist taking a peek.’

  She laughed. ‘Was it exciting?’

  ‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, his hand gently supporting her elbow as he escorted her down the hallway to where the rest of the group was waiting. ‘Thrilling. I can’t wait to hear how it all ends …’

  54

  Vance didn’t want to pull this card, but he was out of choices. With the warrant overruled, the judge was right — the case was gone. But if she at least kept the case alive, then he could appeal her ruling on the warrant, which would stop the speedy clock. It would take at least a couple of months for an appellate court to hear the issue. He thought he could make at least a decent argument with respect to Manny Alvarez’s independent corroboration of Marie Modic’s identification to get past the whole anonymous source/reliability problem. A pending appeal might buy him enough time to get Bantling back in the cage and to build a case for the snuff-club murders against Lunders.

  ‘Your Honor, Talbot Lunders is a possible suspect in other murders. In fact, it is believed he is a member of an international snuff club.’

  The few spectators who were sitting in the gallery collectively gasped.

  ‘A what?’ the judge asked incredulously.

  ‘A snuff club. An organization of individuals who participate in the hunt for, and ultimately the murder of, select human beings. The murders are recorded on a live video feed before an audience made up of other members of this club. Their victims include Ms Skole and Ms Vechio — the victim seen in the video — along with the other unsolved homicides that Your Honor referred to earlier which the City of Miami is now investigating, hence my telling the court that this is an open investigation. Mr Lunders’s involvement in this organization, even if only peripheral, may ultimately result in several other murder indictments against him. Dismissing this case now and releasing the defendant from the controls of at least house arrest before those indictments are readied will endanger the community. The state believes that should the defendant get his passport back, he will flee the country.’

  ‘This is ridiculous! This is the first we’re hearing of any of this!’ erupted Justice Joe.

  ‘So you’re asking me to hold the defendant on this murder case, Mr Collier, because the flimsy evidence I have heard so far may ultimately tie Mr Lunders into this snuff club you speak of and other murders?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘So you want me to not do my job while you stall for more time to do yours, all under the explicit threat that if I let the defendant go, any harm that may come to the community as a result thereof is my doing?’

  ‘No, that is not what I am saying—’

  ‘That is exactly what you’re saying. How long have you known about this supposed snuff-club involvement, Mr Collier?’

  ‘I’m not sure. Ms DeBianchi is actively working it.’

  ‘Aah … Ms DeBianchi, who has earned the glorious reputation of holding back on the defense. I’m going to guess you’ve known for a while, then, hence the reason for the Brady violations. What evidence do you have to support this snuff-club accusation? Please tell me there are actual witnesses this time. Witnesses who are still capable of testifying.’

  ‘Yes, Your Honor. We do have a witness,’ replied Vance slowly. He was treading on really thin ice. If Bantling’s name got out, this would be all over the press. Everywhere.

  ‘Don’t ask me to trust you,’ chided the judge. ‘We are beyond that.’

  He’d said enough. He’d revealed too much. But he couldn’t let Lunders go free. Now that Bantling was AWOL, and Judge Lepidus was dead, Lunders was the last remaining known connection to the snuff club. If he skipped town and went to join Daddy in Switzerland, there would be no way to investigate him.

  ‘I don’t want to reveal the name at this time, Your Honor. It’s an open investigation. Many lives are potentially in danger.’

  The judge nodded thoughtfully. ‘Okay. I’ll listen to the witness myself, in my chambers. If I feel then that the state is not stalling and that there is enough evidence to support either an amendment of the indictment and/or additional charges, I will not dismiss this matter. In fact, I may just remand Mr Lunders, given the seriousness of these charges. Let’s do this ASAP: there’s a speedy demand.’

  ‘Your Honor,’ Joe
Varlack objected. ‘My client’s done nothing to violate the conditions of his release—’

  ‘One fire at a time, Mr Varlack. I want to hear from this witness.’

  ‘Judge, may I request a sidebar again?’ Vance asked quietly.

  The judge’s eyes became slits. ‘What is it this time, Mr Collier? What is the problem with producing this witness for me? Because there is a problem, isn’t there?’

  ‘The witness is unavailable at this moment. That will hopefully be resolved very, very shortly. If we could just go sidebar …’

  The judge cocked an eyebrow as it all became clear to her. ‘Is your witness unavailable because he has absconded from the jurisdiction?’

  Vance looked down at the podium. ‘The witness is unavailable, Your Honor.’

  The judge sat back in her seat. ‘Now I understand. I got it. Whoo. Two plus two is four. Your witness is William Bantling, isn’t that right, state? I can’t believe this — your witness is Cupid.’

  55

  There were no cameras in the courtroom, but that didn’t mean that what the judge had just said and what Vance was about to confirm would not be national news.

  ‘Yes, Your Honor. The witness the state is referring to is William Bantling.’

  The judge shook her head. ‘Your witness is not merely unavailable. Your witness is a convicted serial killer who is currently occupying the number two spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. He’s a fugitive. Wow.’

  ‘There are extenuating circumstances, Your Honor.’

  The judge shook her head. ‘I know what you are trying to do. I understand it now, Mr Collier. Apparently Bill Bantling has made some sort of a statement implicating Mr Lunders in criminal activity, which is probably why he was shipped down here in the first place, and you want me to hold Mr Lunders in custody hoping your friends at the FBI find him before your time on this case runs out. I get it. You cut a deal with a serial killer. But Mr Bantling is not in custody. He’s on the lam and no one has a clue where he is. He could be gone for the next twenty years. The problem I have is the same one I had a half-hour ago: it’s not my job to keep your defendant behind bars when you don’t have the facts to support holding him. The possible involvement of Bill Bantling as a witness against Mr Lunders, while disturbing, does not change things. Therefore, I am in the same position I was in a half-hour ago.’

 
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