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       Retribution, p.6

           Jilliane Hoffman

  Michael remained at the office, stopping at the hospital on Monday for an hour at lunchtime. She knew that the hospital made him uncomfortable. She knew that seeing her bandages and her IVs, and her medicines and her doctors and her physical therapist only made him feel frustrated and helpless. She knew that the whole incident, as he was calling it, made him angry. But somehow she really didn’t care anymore how he felt about anything. And it made her more than just angry at the thought that his life was going on as normal, as if nothing had happened, when in fact, everything had happened and nothing would ever be the same again for either of them.

  Now it was Tuesday and she could finally go home, something she thought she wanted, yet ever since Dr Broder had told her she was to be discharged, she couldn’t stop shaking. Michael was supposed to come for the discharge, but he’d gotten tied up in a complicated deposition all afternoon. So it was her mom and Marie who wheeled her to the front lobby where her dad’s rental car stood waiting just outside. She was able to walk, but the wheelchair was hospital policy until she was placed in the car.

  The elevator doors opened to the first-floor lobby, and Marie pushed her into the busy hall. People were everywhere. Old folks sat on benches in the corner, and police officers lingered at the reception desk. Distraught parents held crying children, and nurses and hospital personnel crossed the floor to and from the elevator bays.

  Chloe’s eyes quickly scanned the lobby looking for any sign of him. Some people stared at her in her wheelchair, idly curious. She watched their eyes closely, their body movements. Some were engaged in conversations, others had their heads buried in papers, and still others looked straight ahead at nothing in particular. Her eyes frantically searched them all. Her heart pumped fast, and she felt the surge of adrenaline. The unfortunate and desperate truth was, though, that his could be any one of the many pairs of eyes that she was looking at. She would not know him without his mask.

  Just the simple step from the wheelchair to the car brought searing pain to her abdomen. With her mom and Marie’s help, she carefully climbed into the backseat, her shopping bag of prescription drugs in hand. She looked out the rain-streaked car window into the vast parking lot. Next stop was busy Northern Boulevard, and then they would hit the Long Island Expressway, which was always crowded with cars. So many faces, so many strangers. He could be anywhere. He could be anyone.

  ‘Are you all set back there, honey?’ A pause. ‘Beany?’ her dad asked gently, obviously waiting for an answer.

  ‘Yeah, Dad, I’m ready to go.’ She hesitated and then added quietly, ‘Daddy, please don’t call me that anymore.’

  He seemed sad. Then he nodded soberly and watched as his daughter turned her tired face back toward the window. He pulled the Ford Taurus away from the lobby overhang, and the car made its way through the crowded parking lot and on to Atlantic Avenue. Chloe stared out the window as they traveled to her new apartment in Lake Success, passing alongside any number of cars, any number of strangers, with Jamaica Hospital fading farther and farther behind them in the driving rain.


  Chloe told herself each morning in the mirror: Just make it through today and tomorrow will surely be better. But the tomorrows only seemed to be getting worse. The fear inside her kept growing like an uncontrollable cancer even as her wounds healed and the jagged scars began to fade. Insomnia plagued her nights; debilitating fatigue, her days.

  The managing partner at Fitz & Martinelli, the firm where she was supposed to kick-start a brilliant legal career as a medical malpractice attorney after the bar, anxiously called to see how she was and if she would be starting as scheduled in September or needed more time to recuperate. I’m fine, she had told him. Everything is healing, and I’m taking the bar as scheduled in three weeks. Thank you for your concern.

  And she believed what she said. To everyone, every day. But then, without warning, an inexplicable feeling of terror would grip her with its spindly claws, freezing her dead in her tracks – so real she could smell it. Breathing would become labored and difficult; the room would spin. On a subway ride, she would suddenly taste the cloth, feel the cold knife tip. In an elevator, she would hear his voice, smell the sweet, sickening coconut candles. In the car, she would look in her rearview and see his hideous smile. She would instantly be transported time and again back to that night. She tried to maintain some sort of schedule and just resume what was once a normal life. But as the days passed into weeks, she felt the tiny, microscopic cracks take form in her solid façade and then slowly spread and feather, until she was sure that one day she would just shatter into a million pieces.

  After two weeks of New York, her parents had finally packed up and left for Sacramento. The bravado that she had spewed at them behind a smiling poker face had worked its magic charm and they hugged and kissed her good-bye as they waited for the elevator, and begged her again to move to California.

  I’m fine. Everything is healing, and I’m taking the bar as scheduled in two weeks.

  She had waved a smiling good-bye as the elevator doors closed on her mom’s tear-streaked face. Then Chloe had turned and actually run inside her apartment, bolted the door, and just sat on the floor and cried uncontrollably for three hours.

  She continued to study for the bar exam from home. It was best not to venture out to the live lecture courses because of the many stares she knew she would receive from complete strangers, and the questions she would be asked by well-intentioned friends. Barbri, her bar review course, provided her with videotapes instead. Most days she found herself on her living room floor, surrounded by law books, notepad in hand, staring blankly at the television and watching the professors’ mouths move, but hearing them speak words that somehow made no sense anymore. She simply could not concentrate, and she knew she would not pass.

  Michael stayed over on the night before the bar exam, and then drove her at 7:00 A.M. into the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan where the test was being administered. She signed in with the other three thousand test takers, took her assigned seat, and received her thick multistate exam at 8:00 A.M. A hushed, concentrated silence fell over the convention center. At 8:05, Chloe looked behind her, next to her, in front of her, at the sea of unfamiliar faces, some crouched over their papers, some looking around the room in nervous desperation. They all made her feel anxious, terrified. Her head throbbed, her body quivered and broke into a cold sweat. She felt nauseated. She raised her hand and was escorted to the ladies’ room by a proctor. She stumbled into a stall and threw up. Then she splashed cold water on her face and neck, opened the bathroom door, and walked straight out the convention center doors. At 8:26 A.M. she took a Yellow cab home and never went back.

  Detective Harrison didn’t call anymore, so Chloe instead now called her every day to check the status of the case. The answer was always the same, though.

  ‘Be assured, we are actively pursuing the investigation, Chloe. We hope to have a subject in custody soon. We appreciate your continued cooperation.’

  She swore the detective read the daily response off a cue card titled ‘Law Enforcement Responses to Pacify Annoying Victims of Unsolved Cases’. As days became weeks, Chloe knew that her case was moving its way on a steady course into the cold-case files. Without an ID and no fingerprints or other physical evidence, her case would most likely never be solved short of a confession and a lot of luck. Still, she called Detective Harrison every day, if just to haunt her and let her know that she was not going away anytime soon.

  After the bar exam fiasco, her relationship with Michael had all but disintegrated. She knew that he was angry with her for just walking out on the test, for not even trying. There had been no sex since the incident, as he still preferred to call it, but now even when they held hands, it felt strained and uncomfortable. Instead of coming by every night, he now came by only on the weekends. And he was getting more and more frustrated that she no longer wanted to leave her apartment, even if it was only to go out to dinner. There was an unsp
oken cold distance between them that grew every day, but neither knew how to take back the lost ground. Chloe didn’t know if she even wanted to go back to the way things were. She knew that Michael, in some way, secretly blamed her for what had happened. She saw it in his eyes when he looked at her and then when he couldn’t look at her. And for that she could just not forgive him.

  I just wish you had let me stay with you last night.

  Chloe supposed that they both knew it was over, yet neither of them wanted to be the one to administer last rites. She suspected that Michael was too afraid of the avalanche of guilt that was sure to fall on his head if he ever conjured up the nerve to break it off. Then she wondered what emotion she would feel herself when and if he finally told her that, although he would always love her, he didn’t want her as his wife and could they please just be friends? Would it be relief, guilt, anger, sadness? So as their relationship drifted through the rest of summer and blurred into fall, the two of them saw less and less of each other and neither complained.

  Fitz & Martinelli urged her to retake the bar in February and offered her a position as a law clerk in the interim. She declined. It would be just another place where she would be known around the watercooler as ‘the rape victim’. Only now it would be worse because she had also earned herself the dubious distinction of being ‘the rape victim who walked out on the bar exam’.

  At her three-month postop checkup, her gynecologist suggested counseling. ‘Rape victims have scars the rest of us can’t see,’ he had said. ‘Psychological counseling is recommended to help you cope with things.’

  I’m fine. Everything is healing, I just didn’t take the bar as scheduled. Thank you for your concern. Then she left his office and vowed not to return.

  In October she applied for a position as a nighttime reservationist with the Marriott Hotel at La Guardia Airport – a large, constantly busy hotel with hundreds of workers, none of whom even knew her name. She worked in a back room with a headset, away from the public and its probing eyes. It didn’t put her on the partner track, and it would not make her parents proud if they knew. Michael was disgusted by what he called her ‘lack of ambition’. But it was a place that allowed her the safety of numbers during the terrifying nighttime hours, and still afforded her the anonymity she needed to avoid intrusive conversation. And it was money. She worked the 11:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M. shift.

  It was only her fourth week on the job, when she received the phone call. It was almost six o’clock, the last hour of her shift.

  ‘Marriott La Guardia. This is Reservations. Can I help you?’

  ‘Yes. I’ve unfortunately missed my flight, and now American can’t get me out until tomorrow morning. I think I’ll need a room. Do you have anything available?’ She recognized Bach’s ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ softly playing in the background.

  ‘Let me check, sir. Are you a Marriott Rewards member?’

  ‘No, I am not.’

  ‘Single or double, sir?’


  ‘Smoking or non?’

  ‘Non, please.’

  ‘How many in your party, sir?’

  ‘Just me. Unless you care to join me, Chloe.’

  Her heart stopped. She ripped the headset off and threw it on the floor and stared at it as if it were a cockroach. Adele, the manager came up, followed by several other front-office clerks. From the floor, a tiny voice repeated, ‘Miss? Miss? Hello? Is there anyone there?’

  ‘Are you okay?’ Adele asked. Chloe pulled away from her touch.

  Had she really heard that?

  The cracks were spreading, branching out all over. The façade would surely fall. She stared at the headset that Adele picked up off the floor.

  ‘Hello, sir? I’m sorry. This is Adele Spates in Reservations. Can I help you?’

  Chloe backed away toward the door, grabbing her purse from the table as Adele finished the reservation. The room spun. Voices filled her head.

  A pretty girl like my Chloe shouldn’t be left all alone.

  You look so good, I may just have to eat you up.

  I just wish you had let me stay with you last night.

  Be assured, we are actively pursuing the investigation.

  She ran as if the devil himself was behind her through the Marriott parking lot to her car. She had forgotten her coat, and the cold autumn wind ripped right through her. At seventy miles an hour she sped home on the Grand Central Parkway, frantically checking behind her, expecting to see his clown face in the car behind her, maybe flashing his headlights at her with a wink.

  She parked the car and ran to the elevator, rushing past the security guard still sleeping in the lobby. In her apartment, she turned on all the lights, reset the alarm, and dead-bolted the front door.

  A fear that Chloe had never known before gripped her, and her body trembled uncontrollably. She frantically raced through each room, flinging open the closets, checking underneath the bed, behind the shower curtain. From the nightstand in her bedroom, she grabbed the small .22 caliber pistol that her father had bought for her before he returned to California. She carefully checked and double-checked to make sure that it was, in fact, fully loaded.

  In the living room, the light from the motion sensor continued to blink red, the alarm green.

  She held the gun on her lap on the living room couch, her sweaty hand a death grip on the black handle, her index finger toying nervously with the trigger. Tibby the cat nudged his way gently under her arm, purring against her chest. The sun had started to come up, and yellow light began to creep in through the cracks in the drawn curtains. The weatherman had said it was going to be a beautiful day. Chloe stared at the white front door and waited.

  The façade had finally come down. And it was in a million pieces.

  Part 2


  September 2000

  All the once-pretty faces gazed back at him with dead, empty stares. Eyes of sea green and smoky violet, their long lashes still thick with mascara, gazed out at nothing – vacant and lifeless. Painted, full mouths now only gaping, twisted holes of black. Eyes whose last witness was one of unthinkable horror. Mouths forever silenced into eternal screams.

  Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Dominick Falconetti sat alone in the gray former conference room. He stared at the montage of photographs that adorned The Wall, his head in his hands, his index fingers gently rubbing away at the pressure that was steadily mounting behind his temples. Police reports, green investigative report folders, newspaper clippings, and interview sheets littered the length of the rectangular cherry conference table. A cigarette burned somewhere nearby behind an old Starbucks coffee container and an empty brown bag from Burger King. Off in a corner of the crowded room, a television monitor crackled with snow from the gruesome videotape that had just played out. Above him, the ceiling’s bright fluorescent light cast a glare on the five new grisly photographs that were spread out neatly in front of him on the table. A new girl for The Wall.

  The families of the missing eleven young women had been asked to provide a recent photograph of each girl for identification purposes. Prom pictures, high-school and college graduation pictures, yearbook photos, and professional head shots smiled down at Dominick now from their respective positions on the brown corkboard that task force members somberly called The Wall. The task force had actually received from the families three, five, and in some cases up to ten photos of each girl. From his seventeen years as a homicide investigator, Dominick knew that it was impossible to expect a mother to choose just one picture to capture an entire lifetime of memories of her child, or a sibling just one photo to reflect how a sister should be forever remembered. It was almost disrespectful to ask. So the most detailed photograph of each girl had been chosen for The Wall, and the others had been silently filed away. The eleven pretty faces had then been arranged in a row on the corkboard in chronological order – starting with the date of the first disappearance, not with the date that their bodies
were ultimately discovered.

  Directly underneath, and in startling contrast to the happy snapshots, the naked and broken bodies of nine of the missing women had been photographed one final time. Neon-colored thumbtacks held the five-picture collage of each woman’s crime scene and autopsy photos on to a brown corkboard that now stretched almost the entire length of the room. A chilling, ghastly photo album of before-and-after still pictures. Sandwiched between the life and death photos were neatly printed five-by-seven-inch white index cards that listed each woman’s name, age, and her brief physical description, and then the date and location of her disappearance. The last line provided the date and location where her body had been discovered, and finally, the coroner’s estimated date and time of death. The cause of death was not necessary. From the color glossy photos on The Wall, it was all too obvious.

  Dominick took a sip of the coffee, now ice-cold, and stared, as he had done hundreds of times before, at each girl’s haunting face, into her once-trusting, terrified eyes. What had they seen in the last few moments of their short lives before everything mercifully went to black?

  They were all so young. Most of the girls were only in their early twenties, three were not lucky enough to have made it even that far. The oldest of the eleven was just twenty-five, the youngest, barely eighteen. Photographed in life, the vibrant smiles were inviting, the playful pouts coy. Blond hair fell in golden ringlets off one, spilling on to her shoulders; another wore platinum locks cut short behind the ear in a jagged bob; and another’s honey-colored streaks fell pin-straight down her back. All had been blond, and, in life, so beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that six had their professional head shots on The Wall.

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