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       Retribution, p.7

           Jilliane Hoffman

  In the past eighteen months, eleven women had vanished into the tropical Miami night, disappearing under the palm trees of Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue from packed, trendy South Beach nightclubs and hot spots where the rich and famous and beautiful liked to frolic. Weeks, and sometimes even months, after their disappearances, the mutilated, nude bodies of nine of the women had been discovered in remote locations across Miami-Dade County. The locations of the crime scenes were scattered and unpredictable: an old sugar refinery plant in the Everglades, a foreclosed crack house in the middle of Liberty City, an abandoned supermarket in Kendall. Their killer had not tried to hide the bodies or cover up his crimes, though; rather, he had obviously welcomed their ultimate discovery. And it was immediately apparent that each woman’s cruel death had been as meticulously planned as her disappearance, the brutality of which had sickened even the most seasoned of investigators.

  The violated bodies each bore the frightening signature of a serial killer: one who stalks his human prey seemingly at random, for reasons known only in his own twisted mind. A serial killer so brazen that he purposely chose his victims in front of hundreds of witnesses; so savage as to earn him the macabre nickname of Cupid.

  Each woman had actually been sliced open, torn apart vertically from her throat to her stomach, and then horizontally under the breasts. The sternum had been cracked wide by an unknown object, the ribs left broken and jagged. The heart of each woman had been cut out of her chest and removed. All were still missing. The butchered chest was left open and exposed, with only a gaping, bloody black hole where the heart had been. Each of the young women had been found nude, posed in a final obscene sexual position, and each had been sexually assaulted before her death, both vaginally and anally, with an unknown object or objects. Some even after.

  There were now twelve officers and detectives from five different police agencies assigned full-time to the Cupid task force: the Miami Beach Police Department, the City of Miami Police Department, the Miami-Dade Police Department, and the North Miami Police Department. At the request of Governor Bush, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), the state criminal investigative agency, had originally donated to the cause the use of a conference room at their Miami Regional Operations Center to serve as task force headquarters. And they had also thrown in the services of a criminal analyst, a copy machine, a fax, and a part-time secretary. It was in this very conference room that the corkboard had first been erected. In the beginning it was a standard-sized board, maybe three by two. Then, after eight months, six missing women, three dead bodies, and no leads, the FDLE had also donated the services of Special Agent Dominick Falconetti. The first thing Dominick did was get a bigger corkboard.

  Two cheap wooden bookcases and a file cabinet had been pushed into the far corners of the room to make space for the copy machine, three computers, and the many cardboard boxes that were stacked up high against the walls. The commemorative law-enforcement plaques, trophies, awards, and pictures that once decorated the room had been taken down to make room for The Wall, and were now piled facedown in a heap on top of the bookcases. Inside the cardboard boxes were stacks of green investigative report folders, stuffed with police reports, FYI cards, leads, and interviews. Reports and interviews that would expose every detail of the last months, days, and minutes of each young woman’s life. A separate stack of boxes contained the financial records of each victim, their diaries, date books, letters, photo albums, and e-mails: the most personal and private of belongings, the most intimate of thoughts, facts, and details – now forever public record in the state of Florida.

  Dominick found the thumbtack box on top of the file cabinet in the corner, next to another abandoned, old cup of coffee, this one from 7-Eleven. One at a time, he pushed the hot-pink tacks through the five photos and on to the corkboard, underneath the index card marked MARILYN SIBAN, 19.

  Without the index cards, it was virtually impossible to match the crime-scene photos with the right victim’s head shot. The once-perfect faces were now swollen and bloated; their creamy silk complexions turned an ashen, pasty gray or, worse yet – a festering, oozing dark black. Brilliant white smiles had been replaced with maggots and swollen, black tongues. The golden curls and platinum locks now stained dark with dried blood. In Florida’s hot and humid weather, decomposition came quickly, and, in many instances, bodies were identifiable only through their dental records.

  Dominick’s eyes moved across The Wall, searching for something that couldn’t be seen. Nicolette Torrence, twenty-three; Andrea Gallagher, twenty-five; Hannah Cordova, twenty-two; Krystal Pierce, eighteen; Cyndi Sorenson, twenty-four; Janet Gleeder, twenty; Trisha McAllister, eighteen; Lydia Bronton, twenty-one; Marilyn Siban, nineteen. Two more head shots smiled at him from the far end of The Wall, their index cards incomplete. Morgan Weber, twenty-one, was last seen at the Clevelander Bar on Miami Beach on May 20, 2000, and Anna Prado, twenty-four, was last seen at the South Beach nightclub Level on September 1, 2000. Two more women missing. Two more presumed dead.

  Dominick took the last drag left in the burning cigarette and stubbed it out. He had quit a few years back, but ever since Cyndi Sorenson and Lydia Bronton had been found within a week of each other last month, he had been sneaking a couple here and there. He looked out the room’s sole, small window. The chain-link fence that surrounded the evidence warehouse next door cast strange, zigzag shadows from the streetlight on the empty FDLE parking lot outside. Everyone else in the building had gone home long ago, and it was now completely dark out. On the conference table sat a brown accordion file folder, its contents spilling out on to scattered police reports and notepads. It was brand-new. Across the front of the folder was scrawled: MARILYN SIBAN DOB: 4/16/81 MISSING: 7/28/00 DOD: 9/16/00.

  DOD stood for Date of Discovery. Due to the severe decomposition of Marilyn’s body, the medical examiner had been unable to place a definite date of death. He approximated it to be within the past two to four weeks. That meant that, at the very least, Cupid had kept her alive for three weeks before finally allowing her to die. In the far right-hand corner of the file folder was handwritten the number 44 in a circle, indicating the total number of autopsy and crime-scene photos taken. Dominick had already placed five on The Wall.

  Before dawn yesterday, officers conducting SWAT training with the Miami-Dade County Police Department found the body of the nineteen-year-old just west of Florida City near the Everglades in an abandoned missile silo and warehouse belonging to the U.S. Navy. The unmistakable stench of decay had overcome them when they kicked open the metal silo doors on their practice search warrant raid. In a far-off corner of the deserted structure, a five-by-five-foot area had been strung off with taut nylon rope, from which hung old, dirty blankets and sheets, forming a makeshift three-sided tent. Initially, the officers thought it was the camp of a homeless person, or maybe some kids who had found the old building and built a fort. They thought the smell was perhaps a dead animal. Then they pulled back the sheets and discovered what remained of the once-beautiful model.

  Marilyn’s nude body sat on the dirty cement floor, her back propped up against an old rusty oil barrel. Her long, ash-blond hair had been pulled into a tight ponytail and then duct-taped to the top of the barrel, forcing her head back slightly and her neck upright. The mouth and eyes were open. Most of the skin on the body had festered and bubbled in the heat, and then sloughed off, exposing black, rotting tissue and muscle. Her legs had been disjointed from their sockets in the pelvis and then spread wide apart, forming a grotesque split, her arms deliberately positioned downward, the skeletal fingers placed inside her pubic area. And as with all his other victims, Cupid had left behind what was now recognized to be his signature. Her chest had been carved open, a concave hole left where her sternum had been split apart. Gauging from the large cover of bloodstains found in the cement under the body, and the blood-spatter patterns on the hanging sheets, she had probably been killed where she was found. The cause of death wa
s found to be massive hemorrhaging and blood loss due to the severing of the aorta and the removal of the heart muscle. The ME had been unable to determine if Marilyn had been conscious, but based on the blood-spatter evidence at the scene, he’d speculated that she was alive when her heart was cut out of her chest.

  She had disappeared from Club Liquid on South Beach on a Friday night some two months before. The four friends that had been with her in the packed nightclub said she went to one of the main bars for a drink and had never come back. Because they thought that she had maybe met someone and left with him, Marilyn wasn’t reported missing to the Miami Beach Police Department for two days, when she didn’t show up at her day job as a waitress. The photograph that her parents gave to the police was from her last photo shoot for a used-car dealer in the Keys, taken just two days before her disappearance.

  Crime Scene would now spend the next five days processing every inch of the silo and warehouse and the perimeter surrounding it, but Dominick didn’t expect much. If it was anything like the last eight scenes, there would be no prints, no semen, no hairs, no foreign DNA, nothing. The FDLE forensic team out of Key West, along with the MDPD Crime Scene Unit, had spent the last two days scouring the immediate area for tire tracks, footprints, cigarette butts, clothing, or weapons of any kind, and had come up empty. The former military complex was set far away from any main road and any witnesses, smack up against the remote Everglades. The nearest gas station was over five miles away. It was protected only by chain-link fence, multiple NO TRESPASSING signs, and a simple metal arm gate with a lock a two-year-old could pick.

  It was so damn frustrating. After eight months on the task force, he was still no closer to finding the killer. Or killers. And the disappearances and murders were happening faster. The violence to each body was escalating, getting more graphic, yet still very organized and controlled. Each crime scene indicated that the killer was becoming even more brazen, more sure of himself. Taunting the police to find him. Some of the victims had been killed where they were found, but others had been tortured and killed elsewhere, their bodies then brought to the locations where they were then flagrantly staged. Why some and not others? All the crime scenes were carefully constructed and had been deliberately chosen. Why? What was the message he was trying to send? The bodies of two of the earlier victims, Nicolette Torrence and Hannah Cordova, were discovered in what the ME estimated was only days since their murders. Each had been reported missing within the week before they were found. Cupid now appeared to be taking more time with each victim, experimenting more. Months were passing between their disappearances and their discoveries.

  The press coverage of the murders had been constant and unrelenting. The media at each scene was becoming a veritable circus of news vans, boom mikes, and strobe lighting. News organizations from across the country and around the world were setting up camp in Miami to report on the ‘slew of brutal murders that has the police baffled’. Perky, eager reporters battled with each other in front of the body bags to be the first on the story, all struggling to contain their excitement on national air at the discovery of yet another Cupid victim. Now back to you, Matt and Katie.

  Dominick ran his hands through his thick, black hair and slugged down the last of his coffee. He had slept less than four hours in the last two days. He cupped his chin in the palm of his hand, pulling down lightly on the close-cut salt-and-pepper goatee he had been trying to grow. Lately, he had been seeing more salt than pepper in it. Although he thought he looked pretty good on the outside, on the inside, he was beginning to feel all of his thirty-nine years.

  It was the job. It was these cases. They drained the very life out of you, no matter how much you tried to distance yourself from them. In every young, beautiful, fresh face, he saw a daughter, a girlfriend, a sister. Staring into those dead eyes, he saw his own niece, just yesterday swinging on a tire swing back in Long Island, now today turning voluptuous and eighteen and leaving for Cornell. He had worked homicides for seventeen years, the first four with the NYPD in the Bronx, and the last thirteen as a Special Agent with FDLE’s Violent Crimes Squad. Each year he had vowed would be his last. Each year he swore he would request a transfer to the Fraud Squad, where it was always so quiet and everyone left the office at 5:00 P.M. But the years came and the years went, and here he was, still stuck with the dead bodies and 3:00 A.M. search warrants. For some reason he felt compelled to do what he did. For him, there was no escape until each killer was caught, each victim vindicated – and, unfortunately, that sometimes just never happened.

  He knew that every killer messed up. Every single one. And even serial killers left a calling card. He had worked four serials in his career, including Danny Rolling in Gainesville and the Tamiami Strangler in Miami. Historically, if you go back to the original crime scenes of infamous serial killers who had been caught, you could see their screwups. You just had to know where to look. Son of Sam, the Boston Strangler, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer.

  You just had to know where to look.

  He studied The Wall trying to find the missing piece that no one could see. Aerial photos of South Beach and Miami-Dade County, adorned with red and blue pushpins, took up the opposite side of the room. The red dots littered the art deco area known as SoBe, marking the locations where each of the women had disappeared. The blue were scattered everywhere around Miami.

  It was now 9:00 at night. Under the glare of the fluorescent light, Dominick reached for his glasses and again read the interview of Shelly Hodges, one of the last people to have seen her friend Marilyn Siban alive. ‘It was too crowded to get a drink from a waitress. They were all taking too long. Marilyn said she thought she saw some people she knew at the main bar, and so she went to get a martini. That’s the last time I saw her.’

  Some people she knew. Plural. Could there really be more than one killer? Usually serials worked alone, but there were some notable exceptions, such as the Hillside Stranglers, California’s murdering cousins. Assuming for a moment that there was more than one, Marilyn must have known her killers, or trusted them enough to willingly leave the bar with them. It had long been hypothesized that all the victims knew their killer. Why else would they all have voluntarily left their waiting friends in crowded bars?

  If that was the case, there should have been a common link of acquaintances between at least a few of the victims. But as far as anyone could tell, none of the victims knew each other and none shared the same circle of friends. None of the girls had modeled at the same job, or worked for the same agency. There was no connection to be found. His thoughts went around and around again, and his eyes returned to the corkboard.

  You just had to know where to look.

  It was time to go home. There was nothing left to do here tonight and no one left to do it anyway. He gathered the reports off the table and stuffed them into their new accordion file, ejected the videotape of Marilyn Siban’s crime scene from the VCR, and unhooked his laptop. His cell phone rang.


  ‘Agent Falconetti, it’s Sergeant Lou Ribero with Miami Beach P.D. Listen, I think I’ve got some good news for you and your task force buddies. Looks like we found you your Cupid. And he’s brought along his latest victim.’


  Dominick raced east down the Dolphin Expressway toward Miami Beach with his blue lights on, weaving in and out of the traffic that snarled the highway even at 9:00 at night. South Florida drivers had to be the worst. The absolute worst. They beat New Yorkers hands down. They either drove twenty miles over the speed limit, or twenty miles below. There was no in between. That was until, of course, the hares caught up with the turtles and jammed on their brakes, thus causing a procession of red brake lights and accidents that would go on for miles.

  Just past the 395 ramp to the MacArthur Causeway all traffic stopped dead. Up ahead in the westbound lanes he could see the mass of flashing blue and red lights. The causeway split into a divided long bridge over the waters of th
e Intercoastal and, but for swimming, there was no way to cross over from the eastbound lanes. He cursed the idiot cop who had chosen the MacArthur Causeway of all places to pull someone over. He pulled to the far right-hand service side of the eastbound lanes and drove on the half mile past the stalled lanes of gawkers and rubberneckers; the turtles and the hares now united in one cause, their heads and necks craned out their windows for a better look at whatever grisly traffic accident they believed lay ahead. Dominick could now see that to his left, a glut of fifteen to twenty police cars had converged on the westbound lanes of the causeway and a City of Miami police helicopter was lifting off from the westbound lanes. Florida Highway Patrol troopers had stopped traffic in both directions, and in the front rows of cars both east and westbound, the morbidly curious sat on the roofs and hoods of their cars watching the scene unfold. The frustrated just honked.

  Once past the barricade of Florida Highway Patrol cars, he raced again to the end of the causeway. He exited eastbound, only to reenter westbound, which was virtually impossible because all traffic had stopped and backed up on the ramp. He had to radio for an FHP trooper to help clear the ramp just so that he could get back on the causeway.

  Finally on the westbound side of the causeway, he flew in the emergency lane past another batch of rubber-neckers and yet another FHP roadblock, parking his undercover Grand Prix behind a row of what must have been at least ten marked police cruisers from almost every law-enforcement agency in Miami-Dade County. The two right westbound lanes had been cordoned off with flares, and a freckle-faced FHP trooper who was probably all of nineteen was now motioning for the rubberneckers to move it along in the reopened left lane.

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