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Cutting room the, p.36
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.36

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  This was all going wrong. So wrong. She’d finally summoned up the courage to do what had to be done, and it was spiraling out of control. Sweat rolled off her forehead and her neck, dripping down her back with a chill. Could whatever was out there in the blackness smell her fear? Her heart was thumping so loud, she could hear it. Maybe he could, too. Maybe he could just follow the sounds of the telltale heart to where she was. Her hands were wet with perspiration. They slipped off the bumper with a squeak that sounded as loud as a trombone.

  She held her breath.

  Then she spotted the beam of light as it swept across the blackness. The footfalls were definitely human. He was searching for her out there.

  She was suddenly blinded by a bright light. He was crouched down looking under the car, searching with his flashlight.

  ‘Gotcha!’ he whispered when the light fell on her face.

  His gloved hand reached under the car and took her by the hair. Pain ripped through her head. He began to drag her out.

  That was when Luna suddenly sprang to life in the back seat, barking and scratching up against the closed window, as if she was rabid.

  Startled, Bantling looked up and rocked back on his heels. And that was her opportunity. The one chance she was never going to get again.

  She lined up the red laser sight and shot the son of a bitch right in the chest.

  63

  ‘They fall like a sad sack of potatoes when they taste the dart,’ a beat cop once told her. ‘Never had one fail, unless they’re doped up. Then you gotta zap ’em a few times. You gotta be careful that you don’t shock ’em right into cardiac arrest. We’ve lost two of them that way last year. Then come the lawsuits.’

  The purple and white volt of electricity lit up the black night, shooting out of the Taser like the bolt of lightning that had brought Frankenstein’s monster to life.

  In this case, it had taken down a real-life monster. All the way down, crashing with a thud on the dirt road. Like a sad sack of potatoes. Fifty thousand volts of electricity had stopped Bill Bantling dead in his tracks, jamming his sensory and motor functions and immobilizing his muscles. He lay there, unable to move so much as a pinky. All he could do was moan.

  She scrambled from under the car and looked around. No one. No cars. No bears. No mountain lions. Nothing.

  The Taser website warned of a recovery time that could be as little as thirty seconds for strong, aggressive individuals. For civilians, that precious period of incapacitation was intended for them to escape their attacker.

  C.J., however, had other plans.

  He lay there on his back, dressed in a black track suit, a clown mask on his face. The two small probes containing inert, compressed nitrogen were buried deep in his skin. One had hit through his cotton sweat jacket and just under his neck, the other by his shoulder. The probes were designed to penetrate up to two inches of clothing. At his side she spotted the large silver knife that he must have dropped. She kicked it away with her foot. When he started to twitch, she hit the trigger again. Another brilliant zigzag of current traveled through the night. And down he stayed. Just like every cop who’d ever Tasered a subject and then testified about it in court for her had said he would.

  The probes were attached to fifteen feet of insulated electrical wire, giving her room to walk around. She opened the car door, patted a snarling, still-barking Luna on the head and took out the backpack. ‘It’s okay, girl,’ she said softly, her voice trembling, like her entire body. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her jacket. Her back was drenched with perspiration, and the cold wind was giving her the shivers. She felt physically exhausted, as if she had just run a marathon. And it was about time to start another one. ‘I’m okay, girl. I’m okay.’ She closed the door before the Akita could jump out and rip the motionless clown to pieces.

  She thought she saw his hand move and she hit the trigger. Down he stayed.

  She ran her flashlight over the pathetic creature in his cheap rubber clown mask and track suit. It wasn’t the same mask he’d worn when he’d raped her. She’d burned that one long ago when she found it in an evidence bin full of things taken from his house during the Cupid investigation. She remembered every detail of that face, which looked more like Bozo the Clown than the sadistic Pennywise in Stephen King’s It. She saw it every night in her nightmares.

  But the mask she stared down at now was meant to terrify. It was likely from a Halloween store, with sinister eyes and yellow fangs that dripped blood from its evil red grin. It was much scarier than the mask he had worn when he attacked her. It made her think of all the things he might have done to her tonight if he’d had the chance. Would his encore performance be even more terrifying? She grasped a patch of polyester orange hair and yanked hard. The rubber had stuck to his skin, and as she pulled it off, it made a small sound like a suction cup being peeled off a wet bathroom wall. It was almost a disappointment to meet the man behind it all. With shiny, saggy skin, a pallid complexion and a receding hair line, Bill Bantling would not look monstrous to anyone who did not know what he had done. Then again, neither did Dennis Rader, John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgway, or Ted Bundy. If everyone could spot the monsters coming, they would grab the torches and pitchforks before there was a body count.

  As much as it repulsed her to touch him, with still-shaking hands, she grabbed his right leg and slapped leg irons on his right ankle. Then she followed suit with the left one. He couldn’t control his muscles, but she could. She zapped him again before he started to move. She pulled out his arm from underneath his body and slapped a pair of Flexicuffs on his wrists, handcuffing him behind his back.

  It would be much easier to control him from behind. She took the switchblade from her pocket and with one quick swipe, cut Bantling’s sweat-jacket up the back, exposing his pale skin. Then she put a new cartridge into her Taser and shot him again, right between the shoulder blades. His face ground into the dirt. She pulled the probes out of his chest.

  Exhausted, she leaned against the Jeep and took a deep breath. She checked the time on her cell: 1:21 a.m. She had only a couple of hours.

  This time when he started to stir she didn’t zap him. She let him come out of it. His muscles would be working, but they would be painful, stiff, exhausted. She only needed them to work for a little while longer.

  She exhaled a deep breath. It had come to this. There was no other way out. No other way back to normal. After twenty-three years, the falling bones had almost reached the end of the effect — there were only a few pieces still left standing as they raced around the game’s final blind curve. It was too late to stop them now.

  ‘Okay, you bastard. On your feet,’ she said, prodding him with the shovel she had grabbed from the trunk of her car. She shone her flashlight in front of her to where she knew the trail was. ‘It’s been a long time. I was hoping I would never have to see your face again, but you can’t always get what you want. We have some unfinished business to work out, you and me. And this time, guess what? I brought along my own bag of tricks.’

  ‘Whatta you gonna do?’ Bantling sneered, his breath catching. ‘Huh, bitch?’ But he didn’t sound half as cocky or menacing as she thought he would. He sounded nervous.

  She smacked him hard in the back with the shovel. It felt good. ‘Don’t call me that. Mind your mouth and start walking,’ she ordered, pushing him forward with the metal point of the shovel.

  ‘Fuck you.’

  She hit the Taser. He dropped to the ground.

  ‘Now we could do this all night, or you could get on your feet and be a man and walk. The next place I aim the Taser is your balls.’

  He got up.

  ‘Stay, Luna,’ she called out after her as she marched a shuffling Bantling down the trail and into the blackness. ‘Momma will be back in just a little bit.’

  64

  Manny stared at the faded blue wallpaper in the reception area. He had walked through this building a hundred times, and never realized be
fore that the walls were blue. He looked down at the stack of outdated magazines on the outdated coffee table, and wondered how many people had sat on the outdated sofa, waiting, perhaps, to be whisked off to the basement. He hated the Medical Examiner’s office. Never more so than today.

  The receptionist walked over to him. ‘Detective Alvarez, would you like to see Dr Trauss?’ she asked in a hushed voice, as if it was a church, or a library. Or a funeral home.

  He couldn’t bring himself to go downstairs. He couldn’t bring himself to see her that way. He wanted to remember her the way he had at her house — planting herbs in his shirt with her hair in a pony and a smile on her face. ‘No. I’m just here to pick up the autopsy report. I’m, I’m …’ he stuttered, ‘I am not working the actual case. I’m not the lead.’

  She nodded and walked away as his phone rang. It was Dickerson. He didn’t want to take it, but he couldn’t put the calls off anymore. He closed his eyes and leaned his head on the couch. ‘Yeah, Mike.’

  ‘Hey, Bear. Where you at? Been trying to reach you for some time.’

  ‘I’m working,’ was all he replied.

  ‘Nobody’s seen that ugly mug of yours in a couple of days, Sonny Boy. The talk on the street is you’re retiring, not me,’ Mike said with a short laugh.

  Manny didn’t respond.

  ‘Listen, I got something for you. I think you should come back to the office.’

  ‘Tell me now, Mike. I’ve got an appointment.’ Manny rubbed his eyes. They were so tired. And they stung all the time now. Nothing worked to fix that. Not drops, not sleep — when it came. Not even a good cry.

  ‘There’s been a development in the case,’ Mike said.

  The case. There was only one case that everyone in the entire City of Miami homicide squad now referred to as the case.

  ‘I found the archangel in the Vechio murder video.’

  ‘What?’ Manny’s eyes flew open and he sat up.

  ‘Let me clarify. I found the guy who tattooed the archangel that’s on the back of the bad guy in the Vechio murder video. A while back I sent out a bunch of teletypes and faxes to hospitals, jails, PDs, and tattoo parlors in the cities where we’d found snuff victims. I got a call yesterday from the feds. An owner up in the Bronx had recognized his own work in my fax and wanted to trade that info for a couple of months off an unrelated federal money-laundering charge he was facing. Name of our archangel is Gary “Nutso” Smythe. I did an NCIC/FCIC check and found Nutso through the prison system. He did time a while back in Jersey and Florida for some petty shit. Lives in Florida now, works for a video game company in Delray as a programmer. Problem is, the tattoo parlor guy must’ve tipped Smythe off we were looking for him. The feds pulled into the driveway and the house was in flames. The computers were torched. There was nothing left. The snuff site was probably taken down the second he typed the word “cop” in his computer.’

  Manny was quiet for a long while. Long enough for Dickerson to ask if he was still on the line. ‘Does Smythe know the names of the others? Is he talking?’ he asked quietly.

  ‘After he torched the house, he tried suicide by cop. Came out the front door with a gun in each hand. He’s not dead yet, but there’s nothing left upstairs, says the doc.’ Mike sighed. He knew exactly what Manny was thinking. ‘There’s still that Smith character. Reid Smith. We’re still looking for him.’

  Manny nodded but said nothing. Nassau County PD had spent the last five years looking for the guy with no luck. ‘Talbot Lunders left for Zurich yesterday. One-way ticket.’

  ‘We’ll get Interpol to keep an eye on him. If he jaywalks, we’ll take him in.’

  Again, Manny said nothing. There was nothing left to say.

  ‘I’m sorry, Bear. I know this is rough.’

  ‘It’s a waste, Mike. Her death was all for nothing. It’s gonna be one of those cases that you can’t take anyone down for, and that sucks. Beyond sucks.’

  ‘Could be we’ll get something off the autopsy. They’re still processing shit from the scene. We might get something from that. Blood, DNA …’

  Manny nodded.

  ‘We still have Bantling. When he resurfaces, we’ll get him to talk, Bear. We just have to have some patience. We’ll get those names. Customs works these Internet pedophile and kiddie-porn clubs all the time. Once you nab one of ’em, the rest will fall like dominoes, taking everyone in their path if it means saving their own ass. And there’s likely a videotape,’ Mike added quietly. ‘You know, maybe we can find something off that — if one surfaces.’

  Manny ignored the last comment on purpose. ‘Yeah, well, it’s going on two months since Bantling went AWOL and there’s still no trace of the feds number two man.’

  ‘Didn’t you say you thought he was gonna go looking for his old prosecutor? The one in the drawings?’

  ‘That didn’t pan out. She’s back in Chicago and there’s been no sign of Cupid. Guy had a ton of money stashed somewhere, he’s probably fled the country by now. I’m not holding out hope on Bill Bantling saving the day.’

  There was nothing left to say. He hung up the phone and looked down at the ME’s report with Daria’s name on it that the secretary had just handed him. The paper was still hot from the printer. He wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. His eyes were drawn to certain sections, like ‘Final Pathological Diagnosis’. Certain buzzwords, like rape, semen, contusions, abrasions, scarring, sulfuric acid, asphyxiation, diphenhydramine, branding.

  His friends had spared him the details the ME’s report wouldn’t.

  He punched the faded blue wall as the tears fell. In his head, he could hear Daria saying the words he had once dismissed as the callous musings of a hardened prosecutor. Now he realized that she was actually foretelling her own future.

  No justice for you today. Sorry, Charlie.

  65

  She had been different since she’d come home.

  They had been different.

  From where he stood next to the coffee pot, Dominick studied C.J. as she ate a bowl of Cocoa Puffs at their breakfast bar, sitting cross-legged on the bar stool in her old pajamas and robe. She had lightened her hair a little, and the sunlight streaming through the apartment’s window made the blonde streaks even blonder. She looked a little younger, a little more carefree. Whatever — he liked it. But it wasn’t only the hair.

  He wouldn’t call her relaxed, necessarily. Resigned would be a better word. Confident, but at the same time guarded. Less worried, maybe? More outgoing, and yet more reclusive. Colder. Warmer. He couldn’t put his finger on it. She was like a walking antonym. It had only been a few weeks and they were still muddling through, trying to find their balance. He was trying to forget her leaving, constantly readying himself for when she up and walked out the door again.

  ‘I got a call from Miami yesterday,’ she said when he walked over to the breakfast bar, with two steaming mugs of coffee in hand.

  ‘What? From who?’ He was alarmed. No one was supposed to know where she was. Especially no one from Miami.

  ‘Chuck Weekes is the State Attorney there now. Do you remember him? He was with Statewide in Miami when I worked for the office.’

  ‘How the hell did he know how to reach you?’

  ‘It’s okay. I actually called him.’

  Dominick was quiet for a moment. ‘I don’t understand.’

  ‘He asked me to come back to the office. In Miami.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Chuck and I worked a case years ago. He’s a nice guy. He said that he’d lost a few prosecutors recently and he was hoping I’d come back as Senior Trial Counsel. Major Crimes is apparently no longer a division. Now my title would be Senior Trial Counsel.’

  ‘Wait — you called him?’

  ‘Yes.’

  He shook his head. ‘So I’m guessing that you want to do it, if you called him?’

  ‘I wanted to see what would be available for me if I went back. One of the prosecutors that they lost was not through norm
al attrition. Apparently she was found murdered a few weeks ago. Buried in a dumpster in Miami Lakes with some sort of branding on her. It bears similarities to some other homicides that the City and County and your old pals at FDLE are investigating. And others across the state.’

  Dominick nodded. ‘Manny was working a case with her. They were close.’

  ‘They think it’s a serial. And Chuck wants me to assist the task force he’s putting together. FDLE, the City of Miami, Miami-Dade, Tampa PD.’

  ‘Because you worked Cupid?’

  ‘And Black Jacket. There aren’t many prosecutors who have worked two serial killer investigations.’

  ‘And lived to tell the tale.’

  She didn’t reply.

  ‘Are you actually considering it?’ he asked incredulously.

  ‘Yes, I am considering it.’ It would be nice to be C.J. again. A woman with a past she was very familiar with — the good, the bad and the ugly.

  He shook his head and stood up. ‘What the fuck? You’ve been running from your past for years. We dug up our lives to put that past behind us, and now you want to go back? What the hell am I missing here?’

  ‘I told you, I’m done running. You didn’t believe me. You still don’t trust me, but I’m done. I want my life back, Dominick.’

  ‘And where do I fit into all this?’

  ‘I was thinking you could get back with FDLE. You hate Chicago.’

  ‘I may not like Chicago in the winter, but I wasn’t so crazy about Miami when we left. Jesus, C.J., this is coming out of left field. I’m not getting it. Help me get it.’

 
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