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Cutting room the, p.7
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.7

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘How many fibers do you have?’

  ‘About twenty or thirty strands in the boat. Another half-dozen in the car and in the trunk. They were torn, you know? Shredded. Enough to figure that the shirt was ripped off the girl, possibly on the boat, and then he carried some on his person that fell off in the car.’

  ‘That would be something,’ Daria said as they both stepped on to the next floor’s escalator. ‘Better still, find me that ripped shirt stuffed inside one of Talbot’s toys. If we can also find something that can tie him to the sulfuric acid, that would be big. Really big. Receipts, Internet surfing. Where the hell do you buy that shit anyway? We have his computer, right? What’s on that?’

  Manny shook his head. He hesitated before speaking. ‘We have it, but it’s wiped clean. It had a sensitive password protection on it. One try and then it activated a virus that wiped the hard-drive clean. Our tech guy had never seen that sort of security before, and he blew it.’

  She stared at him. ‘You’re kidding, right? We can’t retrieve any of it?’

  ‘Nope. The whole thing’s gone. Whatever he was trying to protect must have been pretty important.’

  ‘What about his cell? Tell me that didn’t self-destruct.’

  ‘Pulled the records. He stayed in Miami the night Holly disappeared, according to the cell towers. Made two calls between four and five-thirty a.m. — both to the same number, and that was a throwaway. No way to find who owns that phone.’

  She tapped her hand impatiently on the escalator’s handrail. ‘Well, we need something. Since you made the arrest already, time is ticking and we have to deal with the cards we have. I’d sure as hell like a better hand.’

  ‘Hey, hey,’ Manny said, his face growing dark as they stepped off and went to get on the final set of escalators down. He moved in front of her, blocking her from getting on. ‘Are you saying I shouldn’t have arrested the guy? No, don’t answer that, because, yeah, that’s what you are saying. Listen, he was gonna run and you and I both know it. So let me ask ya, Ms Hard-ass, would you rather be standing here with me now and the scumbag tucked away safely in a jail cell trying to figure out how to make a good case better, or be sitting in your office with what looks like a better case but your fucking psycho playboy nowhere to be found? Or worse — living the high life up at the family chateau in Switzerland, thumbing his nose at us while we sit here and beg the Swiss to extradite his ass before he ups and kills some hot-looking yodler, knowing full well they won’t? And oh, yeah, by the way — your boy’s family does have a crib in Lucerne. I checked before I popped him. Dad’s a Swiss national. Ooh la-fucking-la.’

  Daria shrugged. ‘What I’m saying is that now we have a potential speedy problem. And what we don’t have is the luxury of waiting for shit to fall in our laps. I don’t want to see an acquittal because while we had plenty of evidence to prove the guy took pretty Holly for a spin in Mommy’s new Benz, we didn’t have enough evidence to actually prove him guilty of murder, ’cause then he can sit across the street from my office and thumb his nose at both of us for the rest of our sure-to-be-shortened-careers, and even if I find the bottle of sulfuric acid with his name on it that he used to melt her fucking feet off, or the rope he used to tie her wrists together, there will be nothing I can do about it since it will be too late. Pardon my English. So let’s get past the blame game, shall we? And let’s build a case that will send his sorry ass to death row.’ She moved past him and on to the escalator.

  Neither said anything until they were halfway down to the lobby. ‘This is not the best way to start off a relationship,’ he finally remarked.

  ‘Nope. And neither was you showing up an hour late to my Arthur Hearing and giving me a fucking heart attack.’

  ‘You gotta get over that.’

  ‘Oh, and by the way, since we are being honest, you’re going to need a new tie if we do go to trial or have a motion or even walk down the street together — preferably one that does not have miniature Miami Dolphin helmets on it. And you are definitely gonna need a new suit.’

  Manny peered down at his jacket, his brow furrowed. ‘What the fuck? Now I’m hurt.’

  ‘You shouldn’t be. You should be grateful for my candor. I sent a habitual offender away for twenty years who strong-armed the manager of a Men’s Wearhouse on Biscayne. He said he gives discounts to law enforcement. Go see him. And the next prosecutor you get will thank me. I’ll also warn her or him way in advance of your problem minding the clock. I will not sugar-coat it, as was done to me.’

  Manny shook his head. ‘Let me be honest now: Are you always this much of a bitch?’

  She didn’t blink. ‘Yes. Particularly when I’ve almost been stood up and, unlike you, I haven’t had my afternoon coffee. I didn’t even have my morning coffee, since I was here at seven, busting my ass to help my new C get the morning calendar ready.’

  ‘I’m gonna buy you a cup. We need to get you some caffeine and get past this — you know, discuss a game plan, focus our anger on the bad guy, because I need to like you again. I really do.’ He looked down at her legs and bit his knuckle. ‘Okay, it’s coming back to me now.’

  ‘Very funny. Don’t be a pig. That sort of flattery will get you nowhere.’

  He sighed loudly. ‘Because I’m trying to make amends here, I’ll make sure Raul makes you a fresh pot, ’cause he won’t after three, but he will for me. That’s how much I’m trying. I’m pulling out connections. I’ll even throw in a pastelito.’ He rubbed his stomach. ‘Yum.’

  ‘Don’t ask for favors on my behalf.’ She finally smiled a little. ‘It is the least you could do.’

  He rolled his eyes. ‘As long as you pull your fangs in.’

  They stepped on to the main floor and headed to the courthouse cafeteria. Across the all-but deserted lobby, a well-dressed woman stood by herself at the bank of elevators. When she spotted Manny and Daria she began to walk toward them. She looked to be in her forties, with ash-blonde hair that was coiffed into a long, edgy, layered cut that could only have been professionally styled that morning. Daria’s eyes fell on the Hermès Birkin bag and then on the baubles — as in plural — that rested comfortably on several digits of her slim, tan hands. Tennis hands, no doubt. Miami had its share of wealthy inhabitants, but there was a noticeable difference between flashy South Florida spenders and their understated sisters to the north. Another Palm Beacher had crossed the county line.

  ‘Uh-oh. This is gonna get interesting,’ Manny remarked.

  Before Daria could ask why, the woman was upon them.

  ‘Excuse me, Ms DeBianchi,’ she said, extending her hand only to Daria. She nodded coolly at Manny. ‘Detective Alvarez.’

  Manny nodded back.

  ‘Ms DeBianchi, my name is Abby Lunders. I was watching you in court this afternoon, listening to what you were saying, and I need to speak with you right away …’

  9

  The resemblance was uncanny. And given Daria’s all-too recent experience with the woman’s seemingly psychopathic offspring, a little unnerving. Mom had the same rich, polished skin tone, full lips, high cheekbones, and heart-shaped chin. Like Talbot, a preternaturally striking person. And the same intense, light hazel eyes. Eyes that didn’t merely see — they studied. With a perfectly smooth forehead and almost flawless, wrinkle-free skin, Abby Lunders probably spent a considerable amount of time in the plastic surgeon’s office. And with super-toned arms and a slim waist a teenager would envy, no doubt the gym, as well. In the right lighting, she could pass for her son’s sister, which was obviously the look she was aiming for.

  ‘It came in my inbox last week. Friday. I’ve no idea who sent it. I don’t normally open up mail from people I don’t know, but given its title and what’s happened with Talbot, I did. I just can’t believe what’s on there. I don’t even know what I’m looking at exactly, but after being in court this afternoon and hearing all the things that you said, Detective, about the body and how you found that girl. I …’ She hesitated.
‘There are simply too many similarities.’

  The three of them were across the street at the State Attorney’s Office, sitting in Daria’s third-floor cramped cubby of an office that overlooked both the courthouse and the Dade County Jail. ‘Can we use your computer, Counselor?’ Manny asked, holding up the USB flash drive that Abby Lunders had given him.

  ‘Let me make sure we have a copy,’ Daria said, taking the flash from Manny. The security debacle that had happened on the laptop wasn’t far from her memory. ‘I’ll get Investigations to scan it,’ she said as she stepped out of the room.

  ‘Mr Varlack didn’t want me to say anything,’ Abby began after Daria had left. ‘He wants to use this at trial. But I … I don’t want to wait that long. I mean, if it’s so obvious Talbot didn’t do this horrible thing and that someone else is responsible — then he shouldn’t have to wait in jail for five more minutes. Not in that sewer pit,’ she said with a disgusted shudder, nodding behind Manny at the imposing nine-storied mass of gray concrete outside the window that was the Dade County Jail. ‘And Mr Varlack says it could be months, possibly a year before the case goes to trial. That’s insane. Absolutely insane! How could it take that long?’

  Manny nodded, but said nothing. He’d seen murder cases languish on a judge’s docket a lot longer than a year before a jury was finally sworn.

  ‘Talbot’s a good man. I know you don’t believe that, I know you don’t want to believe that, but he is. I heard what you said in there. He’s never been in any trouble. He’s smart, hard-working. He would never do the things you’re accusing him of because, well, frankly, he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t need to drug a girl to get her to go home with him or have sex with him. Just look at him. When he was eighteen, he modeled on runways in Milan and Paris. He does not want for beautiful girlfriends.’ She nodded at the case folder marked State v. Lunders that sat on Daria’s desk. ‘And I mean really stunning girls. No offense to the dead.’

  Manny resisted the urge to roll his eyes. ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Mrs Lunders. Rape’s not a crime of passion, and the fact that your son can easily bed attractive women doesn’t move me. Let’s take a look at what was sent to you.’

  Daria walked in right then, flash in hand.

  ‘Did you view it?’ Manny asked.

  ‘Not yet.’ She popped the flash into her laptop.

  ‘It’s the only thing on there,’ Abby quietly noted. ‘That’s a brand-new flash drive. All I did was copy the email and download the attachment.’

  Daria’s F drive showed only one file. It was an email titled ‘LOOK AT ME’ with an .mp4 share file attached. She clicked on it, immediately launching a video.

  A young woman hung from a low-beamed ceiling in a black room by her wrists, which were tethered with a black cord to a ring secured above her. She was dressed in only a thin, see-through bra and panties, but the bra had been cut or opened from the front and her breasts were exposed. She dangled in the air, twisting around, the toes of her bare feet barely touching the polished cement floor, sweeping back and forth, like a broom.

  Her head was bowed and her honey-blonde hair, stringy with sweat, completely covered her face. Because of the hair and the stocky, athletic body type and what she’d been found wearing, Daria at first thought it was Holly Skole. Then a black-gloved hand came into the shot and tucked the hair behind the girl’s ear, exposing half her face to the camera and she could see it wasn’t Holly. A pair of pantyhose had been stuffed into the girl’s mouth and the nude legs of the hose were wrapped several times around her head and knotted at the nape of her neck. Behind her on a metal table were syringes, gauze, several bottles of different colored liquids, a half-full refill bottle of window cleaner, a bottle of Drano and black electrical tape. The camera jiggled and moved. It was obviously hand-held.

  The girl looked up and her scared blue eyes grew large. A muffled whimper came out of the computer. That’s when Daria realized there was sound with the video. The girl shook her head violently at something off camera and her eyes bulged and darted about. Her body jolted in the air, twisting, as if she were running a marathon in place.

  But she couldn’t get away. There was nowhere for her to go. The hand returned, and in it was a shiny pair of kitchen shears.

  The video stopped and the screen froze. The final frame captured the girl’s frantic face as the nude, muscular back of a white male, scissors in one hand, a long-stemmed red rose in the other, entered the shot. The entire clip had lasted less than a minute. On the far-right bottom of the screen were tiny red numbers: 29:12:14, and 11/07/06.

  ‘Jesus,’ Daria said as she sat back in her seat. ‘What the hell was that?’

  Manny frowned. ‘Is that it? Is there more?’

  ‘No. Just that clip,’ Abby answered. ‘Like I said, I didn’t know what it was at first. I don’t know that girl and, while I can’t see his face, I don’t think I know that man. “Why would someone send this to me?” I thought. But after today, after what I heard, I think I understand now. This is what happened to the Skole girl. This is what you described in the courtroom today, Detective. The Skole girl had been tied up, and she had been injected with drugs and she had been raped. Just like what seems to be happening to this girl on the video. And someone sends it to me? Obviously because they know that Talbot didn’t do this.’

  ‘Maybe that’s your son in the video, ma’am,’ Manny said, nodding at the screen. ‘It looks like the same build. Maybe someone wants you to know that your son has done this before.’

  Abby’s voice rose. ‘First of all, that makes no sense. Because why would they send it to me? Why wouldn’t they send it to you? So you’d at least have some evidence to support your twisted, sick allegations.’

  Daria nodded. ‘Could be an extortion attempt.’

  Abby frowned. ‘Extortion? There was no demand for money. Doesn’t there have to be a demand for money?’

  ‘We can’t be sure this is anything,’ Daria continued. ‘This could very well be homemade porn. Sure, it’s hard-core, but there’s no law against making home videos as long as they star consenting adults.’

  ‘Give me a break, Ms DeBianchi,’ retorted Abby. ‘This is not some Paris Hilton sex tape that was leaked to the public by the help. You saw that girl’s face. Does she look like she’s enjoying this? She’s terrified and you and I both know it.’

  Daria’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’d be amazed what people do when the shades are drawn, Mrs Lunders. And what fantasies they get off playing out while their camcorders are rolling. All I’m saying is that we can’t be sure what this is and I’m not ready to jump to conclusions. Not even close. We don’t know why it was sent to you, or who sent it, for that matter.’

  ‘Say what you’re thinking, why don’t you? Come on — spit it out,’ Abby snapped. ‘“If someone even sent it to you,” is what you meant to say. What do you think I did? Do you think I surfed porn sites in search of a bizarre S&M video that I could pawn off as a copycat victim in a far-fetched attempt to exonerate my son? Please, check my computer. Do it. I implore you. Check my email. Do whatever you’re supposed to do as officers sworn to uphold the law and investigate crime. Because, while I’m no detective, this seems to me to show someone committing the exact same crime my son is accused of — and I am certain that that is not my son in the video.’

  ‘How’s that, Mrs Lunders?’ Manny asked.

  ‘Besides the fact that I am his mother and I know his body like I know my own, including the very prominent freckled brown birthmark in the shape of a waving flag he has between his shoulder blades, which is missing from that animal in the video, there’s also the time/date stamp on the bottom of the screen to consider. And on November seventh, 2006, my son was a patient at Good Samaritan Hospital in Palm Beach having his appendix removed. So, no, that is not my son in that video. But I believe it is your job to find out who it is, and why someone would want to send it to me.’

  10

  ‘That’s one helluva coincidence,
’ Daria remarked after Abby Lunders and her ostentatious, mouthwatering, elephant-gray crocodile Birkin bag had finally up and left her office.

  ‘What?’ Manny asked.

  ‘Not only did somebody else kill the girl who was last seen leaving a bar with your son, but that somebody else is now sending you video clips of the real murderer having freaky sex with another girl who looks like the girl your son murdered? Am I missing something, or does that sound a little out there?’

  ‘When you put it like that, it does.’

  She frowned. ‘Well, how would you put it?’

  ‘I don’t know. This lady’s son is accused of rape and murder. Claims he didn’t do it.’

  Daria shook her head. ‘They all claim they didn’t do it. When was the last time you had a killer take full responsibility for slitting someone’s throat? Give me a break.’

  ‘True. But you asked for the lady’s perspective. Her son says he didn’t do it. Her only kid, mind you. Claims he’s a victim of circumstance. Then she gets an anonymous email right before his bond hearing showing a lookalike blonde being what sure looks to me like tortured, and in the background are an assortment of syringes and chemicals — all the fucked-up goodies her son is accused of using on his victim. Except the person in the video is not her son.’

  ‘So she says. And the girl in the video is not dead.’

  Manny shrugged. ‘Not that we know of.’

  ‘How the hell old was she when she popped out sonny-boy? Eighteen? All that Botox makes her look like his freaking sister. It’s weird.’

 
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