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Retribution, p.38
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       Retribution, p.38

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘C.J.?’

  She looked up, hoping it was the State Attorney again, but instead found Dominick.

  ‘Hi there,’ was all she could reply. He had been in court when the verdict was read.

  ‘What are you doing?’

  ‘Well, actually, I am looking for a place to stay for a few days. Mrs Cromsby, the elderly lady in apartment ten-sixteen below me who takes care of Lucy and Tibby while I’m working, has suggested I ‘lie low’ for a while. It’s a circus, apparently.’ She would not look at him.

  He came in from the doorway and walked around the side of her desk, sitting finally on the edge. She felt his eyes upon her, studying her as if she were a specimen, and she wished he would just leave.

  You told me you were in a car accident. Those scars are from no car accident, are they?’

  She felt her lip tremble and she bit it, hard. ‘No, no they’re not.’

  ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

  ‘Because I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want anyone to know. Now, isn’t it ironic, that my rape is tonight’s top story around the world? Translated into twenty-four languages as we speak.’ She pulled her fingers through her hair and rested her head in her hands. ‘I didn’t want you to know, that’s all.’

  ‘Did you think things would be different between us if I knew? Is that it?’

  ‘I don’t need your pity, Dominick. I really don’t.’

  ‘It’s not pity, C.J. I thought it was a lot more than that. Do you think I’m that shallow?’

  ‘Look, it’s not about you. Okay? It’s in the past. My past. And I still try to deal with it every single day in the best way that I can. Today was just not one of those better days.’

  ‘Don’t just shut me out.’

  ‘I can’t have children, Dominick. There, I’ve said it. Maybe it matters to you, maybe it doesn’t, but I can’t. And now you know. Now you know.’

  A long silence hung in the room. Her cheap wall clock ticked off the minutes, and no one spoke. Finally, Dominick broke the silence in a low voice, Was it him? Was it Bantling?’

  Within hours, the media had amassed and then released for public consumption, vivid details of C.J.’s rape. And now he remembered Manny’s voice on the Nextel, telling him about the clown mask he had just found in Bantling’s closet. And then C.J., startled by him in the task force conference room with the unattended evidence. It was all there. You just had to know where to look.

  She pondered the question for a few long seconds. She felt the tears well up and then trickle in a hot stream down her cheeks, but there was no stopping them. She looked up at him, straight in his probing, questioning brown eyes and when she finally spoke, her voice, barely a whisper, was resigned. ‘No. No. It wasn’t him.’

  He studied her. Her beautiful tan face, framed by chestnut blond hair, lighter at the roots than at the ends, like a child’s. Her deep, emerald eyes, underlined with troubling, dark circles. He imagined for a moment what Bantling had done to her to give her those scars. He pictured that face, the face he had now grown to love, crying and twisted and tortured under the weight of a barbaric monster. He knew she was lying to him. Somehow it didn’t matter.

  ‘Close the book.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Close the telephone book. Put down the phone.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because you’re coming home with me, that’s why. I’m taking you home.’

  He took her hand and pulled her up and out of the chair. Then he wrapped her in his arms and kissed the top of her head. He held her tight against his chest, listening to her sobs, and stroking her hair. Not wanting ever to let go.

  88

  The Cupid story dropped to the second page of the paper after a couple of days, and after a week was no longer even a mention on the evening news, the press having moved on to feast on yet another tragic murder or fire or flood. Painful details of her rape and speculation about motive and retribution were front-page news initially, but then the tide of public opinion washed over the editorials and suddenly rape victims’ rights to privacy became an issue and the press became villains.

  C.J. took some time off from work to reflect and regroup and allow the press to lose interest in her. Bantling’s indictment for another ten counts of first-degree murder was handed down quietly and without much fanfare, and surprisingly, passed in the press without more than a remark or two about the rape allegation. It didn’t much matter anyway. Those murders were being handled by Rose Harris. For C.J., there was only one final hearing to get through, one more meeting with the monster, one more encounter with the hungry press, and then her job was done.

  She spent a few days in Key West with Dominick, while the furor died down in Miami. It was quiet and relaxing, and they spent hours together just talking over bottles of wine and glorious sunsets. It was amazing this feeling of relief she had now. Relief that she could finally share with someone this lonely, isolated part of herself – a part that had been shuttered and locked away from all for twelve years. Even though Dominick and she did not really talk about it – the actual rape – just knowing that he knew and that it didn’t matter and that he loved her was a deeply profound experience. It elevated her, and, in turn, made her fall even more deeply in love with him.

  The penalty phase began six weeks later. On Judge Chaskel’s orders, Bantling was gagged, handcuffed, and shackled. The judge had, of course, first held a hearing to determine if Bantling could conduct himself without restraints and Bantling had told him in the first four minutes to go fuck himself and the prosecutor, too. So Chaskel had ordered the gag and shackles. The last thing he wanted was the jury damaged now, witnessing another violent prejudicial fit, after the whole trial was finally over and done with. He had afforded the defendant the opportunity to respond, and his own attorney had denied his bizarre accusation. Let the Third District Court of Appeal listen to his ravings and make sense of them. Because after the jury handed down sentence, it would be their problem, not his.

  In a capital case, the penalty phase was a mini-trial, with both sides allowed to present testimony. But the guilt or innocence of the defendant was no longer the issue to be decided. It was simply whether he should live or die for his crimes. C.J. presented the state’s case for the death penalty in three days. The jury heard about the other evidence recovered in the search of Viola Traun’s trailer. They saw the crime-scene photos of the other ten hearts that, along with Anna Prado’s, were found in the freezer alongside the gruesome trophy pictures. They heard about the other ten abductions, the other ten victims, found with the same black cross carved in their empty chests. Evidence that could not have been used to support his conviction, but could now be used to condemn him. And all the while, Bantling sat defiantly next to Lourdes Rubio with his mouth taped shut.

  On the fourth day, after the state had rested and before the defense was allowed to present its case, Judge Chaskel removed the jury from the courtroom.

  ‘Ms Rubio, do you intend to call witnesses at this time on your client’s behalf?’

  ‘Just one, Your Honor. Mr Bantling wishes to call just one witness. He wishes to testify himself on his own behalf.’

  Judge Chaskel blew out a slow breath. ‘Very well, then. He has a right to do so. Let’s see first if he can follow the rules. Hank, remove the gag.’

  C.J.’s heart began to pound in her chest. Calm down. It was just crazy words. There was no proof. She had made sure of that. She looked to her left and saw Dominick watching her from the back of the courtroom. He nodded in her direction. Nodded that everything was going to be okay.

  The judge stared at Bantling over the top of his glasses, his eyes narrow slits that read caution. ‘Mr Bantling, your attorney has advised me that you wish to testify on your own behalf, which is your right. However, it is not your right if such testimony is disruptive to this court, and will not be permitted if you cannot control yourself,’ he said sternly. ‘That being said, can you assure this court that there will be no
further inappropriate outbursts, such as the one you demonstrated at your conviction? If you can make that promise to this court, I will allow you, of course, to testify. However, I will not tolerate that conduct again in my courtroom. And if you cannot promise this court that there will be no such outbursts, then you will not be allowed to testify and you further leave me no choice but to keep you gagged. What’s it going to be, Mr Bantling?’

  ‘Inappropriate outbursts?’ Bantling shouted. Tuck you and this kangaroo court. I am being framed. That fucking bitch is framing me!’

  The gag went back on.

  It took the jury less than twenty-five minutes to return a unanimous sentence recommendation. Death.

  There was no need to drag this out one day further. Judge Chaskel immediately sentenced Bantling to death by lethal injection. Then he ordered Bantling to be removed and the courtroom cleared, and he quickly left the bench. Bantling was dragged out, screaming under the gag, by three corrections officers. The press ran out into the hallway to call their editors and catch the jury members for interviews on their way out. Dominick, Manny, Chris Masterson, and Eddie Bowman were pulled outside by different television stations for their live opinions. All that remained in the courtroom were the clerk, C.J., and Lourdes, each packing up what remained of their massive files in The State of Florida v. William Rupert Bantling.

  Lourdes approached C.J. at the prosecution table, on her way out of the courtroom, her two boxes balanced precariously on a metal pulley cart. This was the first time Lourdes had even looked at her since that day in DCJ.

  C.J. held her hand out. A peace offering. ‘Good working with you, Lourdes.’

  Lourdes ignored both C.J.’s outstretched hand and her comment.

  ‘Will you be handling the murder trials for those other ten women, C.J.?’

  ‘No. No, I don’t think so.’

  ‘That’s probably a good idea.’

  C.J. ignored the slight, turned her back to Lourdes, and finished packing up her briefcase.

  ‘There are a lot of aspects of this case that trouble me, C.J. Some of which may be of my own doing and for those, I will take full responsibility. Do the ends justify the means? I don’t know. I just don’t know.’ She looked around the empty gallery, as if taking in this scene one last time. ‘But there is just one thing that I can’t get out of my mind that keeps bothering me. And, I thought, may be bothering you as well.’

  C.J. stared at her files, wishing Lourdes and her struggling conscience would just leave.

  ‘At the midnight hour, right before closing arguments, Agent Falconetti suddenly finds the house of Bill Bantling’s dead great-aunt. Bantling – a man whose past he has scoured over like Brillo on a dirty dishpan. How fortuitous, C.J., that he should find that relative with only hours left in this trial, when he had months to do so and couldn’t. Quite the hero. And quite ingenious of him to run Bantling’s criminal history again so late in the trial. Brilliant police work or bizarre coincidence? Perhaps he got the idea from another anonymous little birdie. That, I guess, we’ll never know.’

  C.J. looked up from her files, her eyes meeting Lourdes’s stare. Now you know that I knew. All along I knew.

  At that, she turned and walked down the aisle away from the gallery, the empty bench, and deserted box, past the abandoned rows toward the door. When she reached it, she called out behind her one final comment.

  ‘They say justice is blind, C.J., but I think that in some instances it is simply because she chooses not to look. You’d do well to remember that.’

  89

  ‘I owe you an apology,’ C.J. began. ‘Actually, I probably owe a few people apologies, but you are the one I wanted to talk to first.’

  She stood in the blue-and-yellow waiting room, in the ‘needs help’ section, while Greg Chambers stood on the other side of the reception office. The square, bulletproof window separated them, so she spoke awkwardly into the intercom. ‘Besides,’ she added with a difficult smile, ‘I think I have a standing appointment on Wednesday nights.’

  He looked surprised to see her. Surprised, but not shocked. He nodded, and the door buzzed. He was waiting for her on the other side when she opened it.

  ‘Dr Chambers,’ she started, ‘I jumped to conclusions. I realize now that I shouldn’t have. That you have been not just a doctor but a friend to me for ten years and –’

  ‘Please, C.J. There is no need for apologies, although yours is appreciated. Come in. Come in. You just caught me.’

  He walked her back into his office and flipped on the lights. ‘Have a seat, please. I’m sorry myself. I haven’t seen you since we last spoke in your office. I wasn’t expecting you this evening. I’m afraid we gave your standing to a depressed housewife from Star Island. She just left for dinner at the Forge in her Mercedes,’ he said lightly, smiling.

  ‘Glad to see you’re still helping the community at large,’ she replied, smiling back. ‘One hour at a time.’ The tension wasn’t as bad as she’d thought it would be.

  ‘I heard about the sentence today. So you are finally done, are you not? Or are you going forward on the rest?’

  ‘No, I’m done. Rose Harris will be taking the other ten murders. I don’t want to be beauty queen anymore, thank you.’

  ‘Well, I should congratulate you on getting through this. In fact, I have a bottle of champagne that I keep in the fridge for special occasions. Patients who break through and end their therapy, getting season tickets to the Dolphins, that sort of thing. I’ve had one in there for you, hoping someday to break it out. I think now may be the time. You did it. You have closure.’ He looked at her with those eyes she had always thought of as kind, and his voice became very serious. ‘Let me break it out now as your friend, not your doctor, please.’

  She nodded and smiled. She knew where he was going. After what had been said the last time they met, there was no way he could continue as her doctor. It would not be good for either of them. ‘Only if I can have a cigarette with it. I can only handle giving up one addiction at a time, and my psychiatrist is the biggie sacrifice of the night.’

  He laughed. ‘I have some cheese and crackers here, too. Let me feed you before I get you drunk.’

  ‘Don’t go to any trouble.’

  ‘No trouble at all.’ He rose and walked to the wet bar and fridge behind her. ‘How did you fare under all that press, C.J.?’

  ‘I ran and hid out, to tell you the truth. At Dominick’s. Then, when I was no longer the flavor of the day in the news, I moved back home. It passed quickly enough. I think the polls are with me. Bantling is an evil nut and I’m his scapegoat.’ It felt strange to actually use Bantling’s name in front of him, and she made a mental note to be more careful. He was speaking to her as her friend now, not her doctor, but he still could not change what his relationship with the man had been. No matter how much either of them would like to. ‘Tigler gave me a raise and three weeks off. It felt good to be away from the office.’ She heard a loud pop when the champagne opened.

  ‘Agent Falconetti and you. Is that still happening?’

  ‘Yes. It wasn’t for a while, but it is now. I think he’s good for me.’

  ‘Don’t be too impressed,’ he commented, as he placed a tray arranged with the champagne, two glasses, and a plate of canapés on the coffee table that separated the two wing-backed chairs. ‘They’re leftovers from Estelle’s birthday party last weekend.’ Then he sat down in front of her. ‘He broke the case, didn’t he? Turned the tide, so to speak.’

  ‘Yes, he’s a great investigator. He found the trophies. And those pictures. They were just awful. The worst I’ve seen.’

  ‘I’m sure they were.’

  ‘I shudder when I think what the outcome might have been if he hadn’t found them.’

  ‘Or known where to look. I’m glad I spoke with him after that conference. Or else he never would have had a clue.’

  ‘A clue? About what?’ An inexplicable, uneasy feeling came over her.

 
Where to look. I told him to run another criminal history. Because you never know what you might find. Champagne?’

  Her mind began to race with questions. Questions she was not sure she wanted answers to. And she remembered Lourdes’s final words to her in the courtroom. ‘I’m sorry about what I said that night,’ she said slowly, changing the subject to buy time and rein in the thoughts that were rushing her brain. ‘I was in shock. The case was falling apart. I guess I said things I shouldn’t have.’

  ‘You were under a lot of stress.’

  ‘Yes, I was.’

  He gestured toward the champagne, for her to pour. She could not shake this cold feeling. Her instincts sensed that something was not right.

  ‘I hope you understand my difficult position back then, C.J., what with Bill being my patient and all,’ he said. ‘And the even more difficult position that you put me in now.’

  She shook her head slowly as she pulled the bottle of chilled Moët Rose out of the beautiful antique bucket made of thick lead crystal. A dark red object lay in ice at the bottom.

  ‘A difficult position, what with me wanting to fuck you and all,’ he said.

  A scream pierced the calm of the office, reverberating off the walls, again and again and again. He sat across from her, watching, in the wing-backed chair, his legs casually crossed, an amused smile on his face.

  It was several moments before the horror became clear to her, before her brain comprehended the incomprehensible, and threatened to shut down from the shock of it all. Before she finally realized that the dark red object that she was staring at was actually a human heart, and the scream that she kept hearing was, in fact, her own.

 
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