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Cutting room the, p.34
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.34

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘Your Honor, I would like to move once again for the dismissal of all charges against Talbot Lunders,’ piped up Varlack.

  The judge sighed heavily. ‘Granted, without prejudice for the state to re-file. So if you can find more evidence or you can find William Bantling, have at it, Mr Collier.’

  ‘Objection!’ Vance began to yell.

  ‘Noted,’ replied the judge, cutting him off.

  Talbot gave his attorney a huge grin. Then he turned to his mother, who was sitting in the row immediately behind him, and pumped his fist in the air.

  ‘I’ll prepare the order myself,’ Judge Becker finished, rising. She looked over at the defense table with a frown that was different from the annoyed one she’d held on to for the hearing. This time she seemed worried. ‘Case dismissed. Mr Lunders, you are free to go.’

  56

  ‘The hotel room was clean, Detective Alvarez,’ said Brian O’Dea, the Orlando PD homicide detective, over the phone. ‘No prints, no messages, nothing. We’ve pulled surveillance on the parking lots. We think we have her on a video leaving the Hilton with a tall, dark-haired guy. He slipped on sunglasses right before the camera caught him, so we’re figuring he knew the camera was watching and knew not to get caught on it. That makes us think this was planned out. That it could be an abduction. We’re exploring that. We’ll get you a still shot of the guy, Detective, but I’m warning you, it’s not great.’

  Manny stood in Daria’s kitchen and stared out her sliding glass doors on to her ugly, dead garden. There were no flowers. Just a barren patch of thorny stems where her roses presumably once stood proud. Any floral life that had survived the rose massacre was killed off or carried off by the hurricane. In the corner of her small cement patio was a pile of broken roof tiles, ripped screening and a heap of palm fronds — trash from Artemis. This was the first time Manny had been to her townhouse since the hurricane. He had had coffee in her garden one morning, not so long ago. He’d watched, as he sat at a wobbly, wrought-iron table for two that his ass had barely fit in, while she potted some baskets with all sorts of colorful flowers whose names he didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce. She’d used some herbs she’d grown to make him an omelet that day. Or rather, he’d made the omelet because she couldn’t cook worth a damn.

  ‘Any luck on her cell?’ he asked, rubbing his eyes and turning away from the doors.

  ‘No. It’s still off. Hasn’t been turned on since Sunday night. If it goes back on, we can track it.’

  ‘I got a subpoena into AT&T to pull the records and texts. Maybe there’s something on it,’ Manny said softly. ‘I should have those by the morning. Normally that takes a few days, but they’re rushing it through.’

  ‘Good,’ the Orlando detective replied.

  ‘And her car?’

  ‘It was in the lot, parked in the back. From the surveillance videos, it looks like it hasn’t moved since Sunday, either. We got Crime Scene going over it right now, but nothing so far. We got the waitress working with a sketch artist to get a composite of the guy who she said bought Daria a drink Sunday night. Maybe we’ll get something off that. And we’re running tags of the cars that left the parking lot around the same time as Daria and this dark-haired guy left the hotel. We’re hoping the car was in a ticketed lot.’

  ‘Did he pay with credit? Did he pay the waitress with credit?’

  ‘Wouldn’t that be nice? No. Cash.’

  Back to the question of 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?

  ‘Okay, keep me advised.’

  ‘Where you at now?’ O’Dea asked.

  ‘Her house in Fort Lauderdale. We’re sweeping it, but like you said, so far nothing. Got guys fanning out across the neighborhood to see if anyone noticed something — anything—out of the ordinary. A suspicious person around her house the last couple of weeks, maybe; anyone following her to the Internet coffee shop down the block in Victoria Park, where she liked to do work, or maybe to the supermarket, or the bagel store, or the cleaners. I don’t know. I’m reaching here, but it’s all I got.’

  ‘We’ll find something, Detective Alvarez. Hold on, now. She’s a prosecutor, right? She knows how to handle herself, I’m sure.’

  The Orlando detective’s words weren’t helping. Because she was a prosecutor, Daria was a bit paranoid. And always prepared. She knew what was out there. She knew all the tricks on how not to be a victim. She always locked her door. She always locked her car. She never walked down dark alleys or in dark parking lots. She carried mace in her purse and a Beretta Tomkat in her glove compartment. She gave speeches to local schools and community awareness meetings on protecting yourself from cyber predators and parking-lot stalkers. She knew enough to avoid the bad guys, so the fact that she was missing spoke volumes about just how much trouble she was in.

  Daria’s brother, Marco, walked into the kitchen, arms folded across his chest. He had circles under his eyes. Behind him was his wife, CeCe, who gently rubbed his shoulder. Today was the first time Manny had met the man that Daria loved to tell childhood stories about. The big brother who was her best friend while they were growing up. The triplets that she often babysat and bought Poprocks and Charleston Chews for whenever she passed a candy store, were at home, Marco had told him, being looked after by Daria’s mother. Daria’s father, unfortunately, was not doing well with the news of Daria’s disappearance. He’d started having chest pains and was now in ICU over at Memorial West. It wasn’t looking good. Marco mouthed the word, ‘Anything?’

  Manny shook his head. ‘Keep me advised,’ he told the sergeant as a glum Mike Dickerson walked into the kitchen. ‘We’ll keep digging down here. Maybe we’ll find something,’ he finished, turning away from Marco and Mike. But he doubted it. Like Holly Skole and Gabriella Vechio and Marie Modic and Jane Doe and Kevin Flaunders and Cyndi DeGregorio, and all eleven of Cupid’s victims, Daria DeBianchi had gone to a bar, met someone, and simply vanished into the night.

  The big detective willed back tears as he watched crime-scene techs in protective clothing comb through her dead garden. He hated himself at that moment. If he had only picked up the phone that night when she kept calling. If he had only spoken to her …

  Then he’d say it back. Because it was true. He loved her.

  But he hadn’t. He’d been mad and stubborn and stupid. He remembered her face as she worked in the garden. The sweat that ran down her cheeks, cutting a path through the streak of potting soil on her skin. Her red hair was pulled up into a floppy pony, her hands were caked in dark dirt. Dressed in his shirt, she wore four-inch platform sandals even for gardening and they showed off her legs, which were in desperate need of a tan, but still beautiful.

  Now she was gone. And there would be no more opportunities to tell her how he really felt about her, because deep down in his heart he already knew he’d never see her again.

  At least not alive.

  57

  ‘As to the lesser included charge of Murder in the Second Degree in the death of Elizabeth Fabrizio, we the people of the County of Santa Barbara in the State of California do find the defendant, Richard Kassner, guilty. As to the charge of Arson in the First Degree in Count II of the Indictment, we the people of the County of Santa Barbara in and for the State of California do find the defendant Robert Kassner guilty, so say we all.’

  The twelve members of the jury looked everywhere but at the defense table as the judge individually polled them, then thanked them for their service and discharged them. Richard Kassner sat in silence at the defense table. His trophy wife cried. His ex-wife cheered. C.J. thought back to that day in the courtroom when he had shot her that smug, menacing look. Now it was her turn. But she couldn’t gloat in the end. She looked away as he was led out the side door in cuffs, tearing up as he said goodbye to his infant son.

  It had been a long, drawn-out, almost ten-week fight for justice, but C.J.
did not feel victorious. She never did after a verdict. A woman was dead, a daughter lost her mother, a wife lost her husband, a baby would grow up without a father. Life was irrevocably transformed for so many people. That didn’t change with a guilty verdict.

  There was no longer a need to wait for the defendant to clear the courtroom before C.J. herself headed out. She packed up her files and shook hands with Jessica Kassner, assuring her that the People would seek the maximum sentence at her ex-husband’s sentencing hearing, which the judge had set down for October. C.J. felt slightly guilty, knowing that Jessica was under the impression that it would be ADA Christina Towns physically standing at that podium arguing for a life sentence, when C.J. already knew she would be long gone from the office by then. She watched Jessica slowly walk out of the courtroom alone, dressed in a long-sleeved suit that covered the disfiguring burns on her arms. She was followed shortly thereafter by an inconsolable and dramatically aged Trophy Wife and her new baby. No, there were no winners here today. There was no cause for celebration.

  It was only 2:30 in the afternoon. The streets around the courthouse and city hall were busy with workers still on their lunch hour, citizens paying light bills, tourists taking pictures. Dozens and dozens of strange faces all around her. Bill Bantling was a master of disguise. She knew he could be anywhere. He could be anyone. Just because she didn’t see him didn’t mean he wasn’t there. Her heart beat hard in her chest. She fought back the beginnings of a panic attack and headed across the street to the office.

  She briefed Jason Mucci — the Chief Deputy DA who had been clumsy around her ever since she’d turned down his offer to go car shopping — about the verdict. She told him what she was expecting at sentencing, which had been set down for the early part of October. And she told him she would be taking some time off, starting this afternoon. He just nodded, no questions asked. Of course, like Jessica Kassner, he thought she would be coming back. Then she made her way to her office to clear work off her desk. She hated leaving ends undone, particularly seeing as she had no plans to return. Criminal cases always had issues to worry about, so she spelled them out and pasted them on hot pink sticky notes to all of her files.

  When she finally looked up at her window it was dark out. The streets were empty and quiet, the office deserted, apart from the cleaning crew. She took a final look around, packed up her briefcase and grabbed her purse.

  She was going to make good on her promise to Dominick. He didn’t believe it. He didn’t trust her. But she knew she would make good. He had given her a second chance. She would make things right between them. She swallowed the lump in her throat.

  First, however, she had things to do.

  Then she flipped out the light and headed for home.

  58

  Manny wasn’t quite sure if it was the six-pack he’d downed or the fact that he’d been up all night drinking it, but the front doors of the Palm Beach mansion were starting to blur. He put down his binoculars and rubbed his eyes. They hurt. Everything hurt. Nowhere was the pain as severe as his chest.

  Five days. It had been five days since Daria had disappeared. Since she’d stepped out of the doors of the Hilton hotel and vanished. Every police department from Orlando to Miami was actively looking for her. Every police department around the country had been notified via teletype with her photo that she had gone missing under suspicious circumstances. BOLOs had been issued, a missing persons alert had been placed in FCIC/NCIC. But the problem was, no one knew where to look.

  The most promising lead they had so far was also potentially the most disturbing. A surveillance camera had captured the tag numbers of all vehicles exiting the parking lot of the Hilton around the same time cameras had caught Daria leaving the hotel with a tall, dark-haired, sunglass-wearing stranger. A check of all those tags had been done. Most of the tags belonged to rental cars, and each renter had been tracked down and questioned. All but one had been found.

  A black Ford Flex SUV was rented from Hertz out of Orlando airport the Sunday morning of Daria’s disappearance to a Reid Smith from Uniondale, New York. It was returned the following day at the same location. Nothing remarkable there. But when Nassau County detectives tried to contact Reid Smith at the address on his DL, they found that he hadn’t lived there in years. Even more troubling, though, was where that old address was located — right beneath a long closed and shuttered funeral home that had been the scene of a horrible crime back in 2007.

  Kreller’s Funeral Home had made news when the young daughter of its owner, John Kreller, told a pre-school classmate some of the gruesome things she had seen in her daddy’s basement involving bodies that might not have been dead yet. The four-year-old classmate understandably had terrible nightmares that caused him to wake in the middle of the night screaming. Eventually his concerned mommy took him to a child psychologist, who pried out of the little boy the terrible secret he had sworn to keep, and a criminal investigation was reluctantly opened. As the ME’s office worked to identify the owners of the multiple body parts that were subsequently found stored in a plastic tub in the funeral home’s basement, and assess how those owners might have died, John Kreller killed his wife and his four-year-old daughter, Eva, with a shotgun before putting a bullet in his own head. Two teenage prostitutes were identified among the tub victims. The remains of another two bodies were found, but never identified.

  Reid Smith was the cousin of John Kreller. Although he was never implicated in the funeral home murders, he was wanted for questioning at one time by the Nassau County PD. He had never been found.

  Although his eyes were hidden behind sunglasses on the surveillance tape, the picture on Reid Smith’s driver’s license looked a lot like the dark-haired stranger Daria was last seen leaving the Hilton with. The hotel cocktail waitress who had served the two of them that night agreed. And when Manny pulled out a map of Long Island, he found that Uniondale was only a hop skip and a jump away from Westbury, where Gabriella Vechio’s body was found dumped in a construction ditch back in 2006. Reid Smith also matched the general description of the man last seen talking to Gabby Vechio the night she disappeared.

  There was now a BOLO out for Reid Smith. A records search of the DL pulled up little information of value. The man had no criminal history, no military history, no medical history. No DL address prior to Uniondale, no forwarding address since. No surviving family members. His name had not appeared on the passenger lists of any flights out of Orlando. Like Daria, his picture had been sent via teletype to every police department in the country. In the BOLO, he was wanted by the Orlando Police Department simply as a ‘person of interest’ in connection with the disappearance of Miami-Dade County Assistant State Attorney Daria DeBianchi.

  While everyone else in Orlando and Miami law enforcement was getting all excited about finding the dark-haired stranger from New York, Manny continued to unofficially plant himself every night in front of Talbot Lunders’s mansion, a pair of night-vision binoculars in his hand, and two six-packs on the seat next to him — one of Coronas and one of Red Bulls. He wanted to drink himself into a stupor, to forget everything his brain had been thinking about for the past 116 hours, but he needed to stay awake and keep watch. Because he knew the man was involved. Despite whatever BS some probation officer had told Vance Collier about Talbot and his hot mami innocently spending the night of Daria’s disappearance in Daddy’s big nine-bedroom mansion, Manny wasn’t buying it. There was no such thing as coincidence. Not in his line of work.

  Talk had been thrown around that it could be Cupid. That somehow Bantling had found out the conference Daria was going to be speaking at and where she was going to be that night, and he’d waited for her at the Hilton in the lounge. In a bar full of law-enforcement personnel in town for a conference on how to catch predators like himself, he had waited for her, perhaps dressed in disguise. It did, after all, match Cupid’s MO. The cocktail waitress wasn’t 100 percent sure the man who had chatted up Daria was the man pictured on Reid S
mith’s DL. She was more like 75 percent sure.

  But Manny didn’t think Bantling was involved in Daria’s disappearance. At least, not in the way the talk was going. And that was what scared him the most. Twisted thoughts of a snuff club returned to his aching head. Images of Gabriella Vechio’s vicious murder was what he saw when he closed his eyes, except it wasn’t the pretty accountant’s terrified face he saw, twisting about, her arms tethered to the ceiling. It was Daria’s. Those were the thoughts he wanted to banish with alcohol. What if it was a worst-case scenario? What if Daria had been abducted by a snuff-club member? What if she’d been scouted, and then taken someplace, kept alive and tortured for days by predators that Bantling had called ‘players’? What if she wasn’t dead yet? What if every day she inched closer to death? What if that was what was happening to her right now while sick men called ‘watchers’ watched and he sat uselessly in his car downing beers and Red Bulls? Manny knew the stats. With every day that passed, every minute that ticked by, the odds decreased dramatically of finding Daria alive. If she had been taken by the snuff club that had done those terrible things to Holly Skole and Gabriella Vechio and others, he knew she would wish those days and hours and minutes passed by even quicker. She would welcome death. Yes, he had considered Bill Bantling’s involvement. And he, no more than anyone else besides perhaps C.J. Townsend, wanted the psychopath found. Because aside from Talbot Lunders — who was never talking and no longer had any reason to — Bantling was the one person who could lead them to the snuff-club members. He was the one who supposedly knew the names. He potentially held the key to finding Daria alive. And no one knew where he was, either.

 
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