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Last witness, p.4
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       Last Witness, p.4

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘What was the thirty-eight he was called in on?’ she asked.

  ‘Homeless guy. No description. Waving a weapon. That’s it. I’m getting the tape as we speak.’ Nicholsby lit a cigarette and blew out a frustrated sigh.

  ‘Who was the caller?’ C.J. asked.

  ‘Don’t know. Didn’t leave a name.’

  ‘They never do. Nobody ever wants to get involved,’ said Marlon. He paused for a moment before adding quietly, ‘Unless it was a set-up.’

  ‘What?’ asked C.J.

  Nicholsby nodded. ‘That’s what we’re gonna look at. This guy, Chavez, from the shit I’ve just been hearing, was not short of enemies. The cage in his car was cut, and it looks like he got it from behind. So we’ve got to look at this from all directions. But right now, I’m hoping Mr Badass fucked up and left me his calling card in that car. A print, a hair, his cum for all I care. Anything. It would certainly make my life easier. I’ve got guys all over the Beach asking questions.’

  ‘The County is in,’ said Marlon. ‘And the City.’ The County was the Miami-Dade Police Department. The City was the City of Miami Police Department. ‘Chief Jordan spoke with command at the City. Dees says he’ll send the whole fucking Homicide Squad if we need it.’

  ‘Everyone’s phone’s been ringing,’ said Nicholsby. ‘I got a call five minutes ago from Tallahassee, asking if they could help out. The Governor just got word. Everyone has been pulled out of bed and trees will start shaking before the sun comes up. I’m having Costidas pull me every perp who’s ever been busted on the Beach. Every junkie, hooker, doper, gang-banger. Everyone and anything. We’ll start with that.’

  ‘Somebody will talk. It’s just a matter of time,’ Marlon said with a deep sigh. ‘We’ll get him.’

  ‘Or them.’ Nicholsby grunted again, then stomped out his cigarette.

  All three sat in tense silence, watching as investigators with the Medical Examiner’s Office pried Victor’s stiff body out of the front seat of his patrol car. The body was rapidly approaching full rigor, and the muscles had frozen in the exact position they were in when he was killed. It would be another twelve to twenty-four hours before the rigor cycle would be complete and the muscles would relax and again become moveable. Now, draped under the cover of a white sheet, Victor’s frozen, contorted body looked macabre as ME investigators carried it to a waiting gurney.

  C.J. watched as the body was loaded into the van. The emerald-green tag that the Medical Examiner had placed on Victor’s big toe peeked out slightly from under the white sheet, swaying gently back and forth. The technicians then covered him with a black body bag, zipped it closed, and the toe disappeared. ‘I saw what was done to his face,’ she said slowly, not really wanting to confirm her more irrational thoughts just yet, but finding herself asking the question just the same. ‘What do you think that was about?’

  ‘Well,’ began Marlon, ‘the slice across his neck that pretty much took his head off? That? That was to kill him. But the removal of his tongue? We’re figuring that one was a message.’

  ‘That was to shut him up,’ finished Nicholsby as he fished the last cigarette out of his pack of Newports.

  Then the back door to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s van slammed shut, and the crowd of silent, flashing cruisers somberly parted to let it go by.

  11

  The overripe smell of death permeates even the best of fabrics, and no detergent or bleach or dry-cleaning fluid can rid clothing of the scent; just as nothing can remove the odor, once experienced, from a person’s memory banks. Perhaps it was simply a psychosomatic reaction – a phantom smell that forever attached itself to a certain image. Whatever the case, C.J. knew from experience better than to even try to get rid of it, so she dropped the plastic bag that contained her tan pants and cream silk blouse down the twelfth-floor garbage chute and padded down the hall back to her apartment.

  Fortunately, soap, water, and some serious elbow grease – as her father would call it – worked well enough to at least remove the offensive scent from skin. Of course, C.J. was pretty sure that that was not quite the scenario her dad probably ever envisioned when he passed down his words of wisdom to her as a kid, calling down from the front porch of their house while she scrubbed windows during his annual spring-cleaning frenzy, which consumed at least three of her Saturdays each May. The thought reminded her that she had forgotten to call her mom back yesterday and she made a mental note to drop them both a line. She’d have to tell her dad that she was thinking of his spring scrub fests. She’d just delete the why part.

  The note from Dominick sat on the counter and she stared at it blankly for just a moment. The FDLE Regional Director had called, and just as Dominick had predicted, everyone was being brought in on this one. The Cop Killer. She and Dominick had probably passed each other on 195. He, heading straight for the frontlines just as she finally made it back home, the bag of bagels she had promised in hand. She wished he were here.

  The Sun Sentinel sat on top of the breakfast bar. Conspicuously absent from the headlines was the news everyone would soon be talking about, having just missed press time. She moved to the kitchen table and poured herself a mug of freshly brewed coffee. Homicide scenes were never easy, but this one rattled her somewhere deep down inside. And not just because tonight’s victim was a cop, or because she had known him in passing from some case they had worked, as she had told Marlon.

  Alone with her thoughts now, the apartment seemed uncomfortably quiet. She picked up the phone to call her parents, but then just as quickly put it back down. It wasn’t even seven yet in California. She’d have to wait at least an hour or so.

  Victor Chavez. The cocky rookie cop who had arrested the most notorious serial killer in modern American history. A killer so ferocious as to have earned him the macabre nickname Cupid. For eighteen months beginning in the spring of 1999, he had hunted the beautiful women that frequented So Be’s trendy nightspots. All of them young and exquisitely beautiful. All of them blonde. And all of them now long dead, their hearts methodically torn from their chests by a savage madman.

  A routine traffic stop by Victor Chavez had ended the terror spree, and had finally put a name and a face on a killer: William Rupert Bantling. A successful businessman, with ice-blue eyes and chiseled good looks, to many Bantling did not look the part of a madman. But the cold, stiff corpse that he carried in his trunk told a different story. A 22-year-old aspiring model, Anna Prado was young, blonde, exceptionally beautiful and conspicuously missing a heart when MBPD Officer Chavez and friends popped the Jaguar’s trunk.

  A seemingly perfect case had then been passed off to C.J., who, at the time, had been the Assistant Division Chief of Major Crimes, and for more than a year, the one prosecutor assigned to assist the Cupid Task Force. Subsequent search warrants and diligent police work by the task force had uncovered even more damning evidence – more sure-fire proof that the system had worked its magic, that the guilty had been caught and would not go free. But, if life had taught any lessons to C. J. Townsend, it was that things don’t always work out like they should.

  She closed her eyes now, trying to black out the image of William Rupert Bantling in that hot, overcrowded courtroom, packed with the media and their cameras, and her office’s top brass. Back when she had first realized that he was far more than just a defendant. In that courtroom she had listened as Bantling bellowed angry words at Judge Katz, and watched the courtroom erupt in chaos around her. But she had not been able to move as silent alarms tore through her body and her mind, transporting her back in time to a stormy night in June of 1988. The night a faceless monster had brutally raped and tortured her in her own bedroom, leaving her for dead on blood-soaked sheets. The monster had worn a rubber clown mask to hide his face, but he could not hide his voice – his whispered, knowing words that night yet another weapon of torture.

  She had been Chloe Larson back then, when she’d first heard that voice. Young and pretty and easygoing, a 24-year-
old, soon-to-be-lawyer. About to embark on a promising career as a medical malpractice attorney, about to become engaged to a successful, handsome man, about to start a wonderfully normal life. The ‘about-to-be’s abruptly ended, though, and Chloe had found herself watching helplessly while the world around her went on as if nothing bad or horrific or senseless had ever happened. For her, time had stopped and she was trapped like a prisoner in a dark moment, bone-chilling fear coursing through her veins, the sound of rain beating against her windows while a madman with a blood-red smile sliced her to ribbons. The monster had never been caught, and after years of turning every corner in New York City scared out of her mind, she had moved on to Miami, leaving Chloe Larson far behind. And although the name had changed to Townsend, and the scenery had become greener, she had quickly learned you can’t leave the memories behind.

  In that courtroom almost three years ago, the past had finally caught up with C. J. Townsend’s present. Justice had taken its course full circle and was now in her sights. Justice not only for herself, but now for the eleven young, beautiful women who screamed for it from their dark graves six feet under. And the perfect case was hers.

  For all her years of experience as a prosecutor, she should have known, though, that sure-fire cases are never that. The ones with the million eyewitnesses, the twelve-page confessions and the veritable mountain of DNA inevitably became nail-biting verdicts with years of appeals in the making. Her perfect case, she had quickly discovered, was not so perfect. It seemed that justice might very well be evaded once again.

  In your average felony case – cocaine possession, grand theft, burglary – a mistake by the police had its consequences under the law. Evidence may be suppressed, statements may be thrown out, the jury may not hear certain testimony. The Fourth Amendment protects the rights of defendants, and in that effort, sometimes the guilty do go free. But in the average felony case, the consequence of suppressed evidence, of discarded statements, of the case being lost and the defendant walking is not life-threatening. In this instance, though, a mistake would lead to a deadly outcome: a savage madman would go free forever. And that was a consequence that C. J. Townsend – Assistant Division Chief of Major Crimes, hardball prosecutor and victim – just could not allow.

  C.J. sat at her kitchen table, the memories like a domino effect. One triggered another, and then another, and then another until the picture was vividly complete.

  Young Victor Chavez may not have been short of enemies, but he also was not short of secrets. And Nicholsby’s final words to her that morning echoed in her mind, like a soundtrack to her memories.

  That was to shut him up.

  12

  ‘We’ve got trouble,’ Dominick said on her cellphone.

  It was Monday morning and C.J. was making her way back from court. She’d spent the last two hours arguing to prevent a grumpy and overworked Judge Goldstein from granting a first-degree murder defendant, accused of gunning down his three co-workers with an AK-47, a day pass to visit his dying mother in her nursing home. It was the third such motion in six months, and Mom remarkably always seemed to turn the corner when Sonny Boy lost his motions. She stepped out of the Richard E. Gerstein Criminal Justice Building and weaved her way down the handicap ramp, a cárt of files in tow.

  ‘That’s not something I like to hear on a Monday morning,’ she responded, trying hard to balance her oversized leather briefcase in one hand, the pull cart in the other, the cellphone buried in the crook of her shoulder. ‘Where are you? Tell me they finally let you go home.’

  ‘Nah, not yet. I’m still at the Beach. Black and Fulton and I just came from an operational meeting on this Chavez murder. So far FDLE’s just helping out… or should I say I’m helping out. But they’re thinking of setting up a task force if they don’t get some leads soon. I’m going to head back home in an hour or so and catch a few Zs.’

  ‘So what’s the trouble?’ she asked, darting across 13th Street to the Graham Building, home of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

  ‘The tox screens just came back on Chavez. He had coke in his blood and urine. He also had arterial sclerosis, a premature hardening of the arteries. Nothing unusual for a 70-year-old man, but sufficient evidence of long-term cocaine or heroin use in a 22-year-old kid.’

  ‘Damn,’ C.J. sighed. ‘So he was using. Did it contribute to his death?’ From the mess she had seen in the patrol car on Saturday morning, she strongly doubted it.

  ‘Nope. Unfortunately for him, he did not die of a heart attack before his head was almost taken off his body. And that’s another thing. Neilson found something else. Chavez’s lungs were spotted red and filled with blood, indicating the guy actually drowned.’

  Joe Neilson was the ME on many of C.J.’s cases. A little eccentric, perhaps, leaning toward odd, but he was always careful and deliberate in his work. Sometimes his findings proved very interesting. ‘I take it that is not what you normally find with a throat slice?’

  ‘Well, once Neilson saw the lungs, he went back and looked at the cut marks on the throat. He’d originally thought it was one slice that severed the carotid, windpipe and jugular all at the same time. But the guy would have bled out then, not drowned, and there would be little or no blood in the lungs. Looking more carefully at the cut marks, Neilson actually saw two sets. Only the jugular and the windpipe were severed in the initial cut. The jugular carries blood from the brain back to the heart and apparently runs slower than the carotid. When it’s severed, it oozes blood, as opposed to the carotid, which spurts. So Chavez oozed into his severed windpipe and actually drowned to death. Unfortunately for him, drowning takes longer and is more traumatic than bleeding out.’

  ‘Couldn’t it be that the killer didn’t get it right the first time, and had to go back and finish the smile?’ A smile was a throat slice that went from ear to ear.

  ‘Maybe, but Neilson doesn’t think so. Based on the depth and width and placement of the first cut, he thinks the carotid was missed intentionally.’

  C.J. had reached the second-floor elevator bay at the State Attorney’s Office and was about to swipe her access card through the security doors that led to Major Crimes. She stopped and asked, What about the tongue? Was that injury pre- or post-mortem?’

  ‘Neilson says the tongue was cut first. Chavez was probably struggling, moving his head when it happened, explaining the cuts, bruising and lacerations around the mouth and tear wounds through the cheeks. Then the jugular and windpipe were cut, finally followed by the smile.’

  ‘Jesus Christ!’ She was silent for a long moment. ‘Did forensics turn up anything in the car?’

  ‘The cruiser had a million prints, all of which belonged to subjects who conveniently deposited them on file when they crawled out of the back seat for booking. Same with hair and fiber. The cruiser is three years old and transports mopes. So we’ve got a million guys to talk to, but nobody to really question. Because of the tox screens, I need to look at Chavez’s employee files, and probably rip his apartment apart.’

  ‘You? Isn’t Beach Homicide still officially handling this?’

  ‘Yeah, but now they mistakenly feel there’s a conflict and that FDLE is a neutral party. Black is best buddies with Jordan at the Beach, so I’m the plumber assigned to fix this shit.’ Black was the Regional Director for FDLE, Dominick’s boss. Jordan was the Chief of the Miami Beach PD. ‘Chavez lived with his brother, a Hialeah PO. He might not give consent for a search, so I may need a warrant.’

  ‘Okay. I was the on-call, so if your sweet talk doesn’t work and you need anything, let me know.’ She was still speaking when behind her she heard a very loud, very exasperated, ‘Tsk.’ It was not necessary for her to turn around to know that her secretary, Marisol, now waited impatiently behind her, purple nails on pink Lycra hips. She moved to allow the tsker to pass. It was Marisol alright, only the situation was worse than C.J. had initially thought. Today it was a flowered fluorescent mini.

  ‘Good morning, Maris
ol.’

  With a toss of her hair, Marisol ignored C.J.’s greeting and marched past, a bag of Doritos and a Diet Coke in hand.

  Turning her attention back to the phone, C.J. asked, ‘Any leads?’

  ‘Yeah. Too many. But none of consequence yet. Seems Chavez was on a bunch of people’s hit lists, particularly the women that he dated. Or should I say screwed and cheated on. Those are too numerous to count. Then there was the bevy of friends that he had borrowed money from and never returned, and the old high school chums who are blood-members of the Latin Kings. Whoever did it had a bone to pick with this guy, and that’s a mighty long list.’

  C.J. felt the tension in her heart ease up just a bit. Apparently Victor was in the habit of keeping secrets. Or telling a few. And he kept mighty bad company. Perhaps the one secret she feared most was not the one that had gotten him killed.

  Dominick’s tone changed now. ‘How are you doing with all this?’ he asked softly. ‘I know it’s got you upset.’

  It was incredible, this power that Dominick had over her. His simple presence in a room made her feel safe, protected; his voice, even on the phone, reassuring. Dominick was the reason for her sanity – the light that glowed through the madness that had almost snatched her away again. And so she had opened up a door in the hard-faced façade that she wore for the rest of the world – just a tiny crack – and had let him in, before quickly slamming it shut. Their love affair had started in friendship, slowly ripening into love, and her feelings for him ran deep, deeper than she ever thought it possible to love a man. Sometimes, when she let him, he simply took her breath away.

  They had never officially decided to live together, but sometime in the past three years he had stopped going back to his apartment and she had donated half her closet space. She looked down now at the brilliant round diamond that sat on her left hand and smiled. As a child might with a special blanket, her thumb moved between her fingers to touch the exquisite stone. Just feeling it assured her of reality, reminded her of the moment he had slipped it on her finger and asked her to share her life with him forever. The moment she finally was able to tell him yes.

 
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