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Last witness, p.8
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       Last Witness, p.8

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘Lift the sheet,’ she said, her voice a commanding, throaty whisper. Then she caught herself. ‘Please,’ she added.

  Without a word, the detective did as he was told. The wind caught it for a moment, and C.J. was reminded of the billowing white sails on the boats that floated down the Intercoastal on any given day. Normally a calming thought, a relaxing image.

  Not on this night. Never again…

  Dominick’s voice broke the vacuum, and voices rushed together around her. ‘C.J.! Hold up!’ She heard the sound of his footsteps, hurrying to meet her. Perhaps to stop her. But it was too late.

  The sheet was off and the horror before her was now all too clear.

  22

  What she was staring at could not be possible…

  The killer had left his barbaric signature. The body sat in the front seat, white knuckles grasping the wheel, steel handcuffs on his wrists, the familiar vicious smile across the throat. As with Angelillo, the tongue had been rearranged, and hung exposed from the open gullet. But there was something different, something that made C.J. shudder.

  ‘I wanted to talk to you first,’ Dominick began, as he ran up to her side, his arm grasping her shoulder, lightly rubbing it. ‘Before—’

  ‘Is this a City of Miami cop?’ C.J. interrupted, shrugging away slightly from the touch, unable to tear her eyes away from the gruesome sight.

  ‘What?’ Dominick replied, puzzled. ‘It’s a city cop. City uniform, city car—’

  ‘Do we have an ID?’ she asked, her voice rising. ‘Who is he? Where is his name?’

  She looked at the spot above the breast pocket, but the name had been cut off his uniform. Only a ragged hole remained. Those eyes… she knew those vacant, dead eyes. But it couldn’t be…

  ‘Yeah, we’ve got an ID,’ Dominick replied slowly. ‘Lindeman. Sonny Lindeman. Only been with the City about a year, though. Came over from another department.’

  Her stomach dropped, as if she had fallen three stories on a roller coaster. ‘I’ll be right back,’ she said suddenly.

  ‘Where are you going?’

  ‘I need a moment.’ And then she was gone.

  Before he could respond, Manny Alvarez, accompanied by FDLE Special Agent Chris Masterson, walked up to the car.

  ‘Look what the wind blew in,’ Manny said to Dominick. ‘I found him actually doing work. I think he may be hiding a report in that small head of his.’

  Masterson had been assigned for more than a year to the Cupid Task Force when he was with Violent Crime. He now worked narcotics. He was one of FDLE’s younger agents, and his youthful face kept him working long hours undercover.

  ‘Hey, Chris,’ Dominick said, still distracted by C.J.’s question and somewhat strange behavior. ‘Did Fulton call you in?’

  ‘Yep. I think he’s calling anyone who’s available. And even those that ain’t.’

  ‘Welcome,’ said Dominick.

  ‘Thanks, Days Inn, but I don’t know if I’ll be staying past the night. Depends on what Black says. I’m on OT as it is.’

  ‘I don’t mean to take the air out of the tires on your welcome wagon, Dommy Boy,’ said Manny, ‘but it looks like you have other guests to attend to.’ He nodded behind him. Mark Gracker stood with two other dark-suited, obviously federal agents, his five-foot-six pudgy frame sandwiched between two slim six-plus-footers. Even from a distance, Dominick could tell Gracker was barking orders.

  ‘It’s up to you to save us all,’ the Bear finished in a low voice that was not low enough.

  As if on cue, Gracker looked in Dominick’s direction. What could only be described as a snarl bloomed on his face, and he pointed his finger at them. That, in turn, caused Mutt and Jeff by his side to look over too, along with the press and their high-powered cameras.

  ‘I have a feeling he’s not gonna go away this time,’ said Dominick.

  ‘I thought you said there was no federal jurisdiction on these murders,’ said the Bear.

  ‘I also said I thought they’d get creative,’ replied Dominick. He looked at Masterson. ‘Have you seen photos of the other two Black Jacket victims?’

  ‘Nah. I went to the Metro cop’s funeral, though. I got a buddy there.’ Metro referred to the MDPD.

  ‘Well, you’re here now. Don’t be shy.’ Dominick stepped aside, ushering Chris closer to the cruiser. From the corner of his eye he spotted C.J. She stood near the ME’s van, not talking to anyone. She didn’t look well. ‘Give me a sec, guys. I’ll be right back,’ he said, starting toward her, and ignoring an obviously unhappy Mark Gracker in the other direction.

  ‘Whoa! A necktie!’ Chris said suddenly behind him.

  Dominick stopped and turned back to face Chris. ‘What? What did you say?’

  ‘This is a necktie. A Colombian necktie.’

  ‘What the fuck is a necktie, Junior?’ asked Manny.

  ‘It’s when the throat is slit and the entire tongue muscle is pulled down the inside of the throat and out the slit, so that it hangs out and looks like —’

  ‘A necktie,’ Manny finished. ‘I see it now. How do you know this shit?’

  ‘I was with DEA for six years before joining FDLE, undercover stints in Bogotá, Cali. I’ve seen a lot. Although this,’ he said, motioning toward Lindeman’s body, ‘this is more legend. Even in Colombia, where it was supposedly thought up by the powerful Cali cartel, you don’t see neckties. In fact, I’ve only seen it twice before. Late Eighties, when I was working a case on the outskirts of Bogotá, two informants popped up wearing just a tie and their birthday suits.’

  ‘Why a necktie?’ Dominick asked, looking at Lindeman’s body. ‘Does it mean anything?’

  ‘It means someone’s talking, and the boys on high don’t like that.’

  ‘Why’s this one missing a set of ears? What does that mean?’

  ‘Someone heard something, too. Maybe something they shouldn’t have.’

  ‘So it’s definitely drug related?’

  ‘I’ve never heard of one happening outside narcotics, so I’d say it’s safe to assume you’re dealing with high-level dopers. Angry ones, at that.’

  ‘Excuse me,’ said the ME tech with the steel gurney. All three parted and then watched silently as the investigators in the Medical Examiner’s jackets began the task of zipping the body into a black bag and removing it from the cruiser.

  ‘Well, Chris, guess that?’ said Dominick. ‘This is Days Inn calling. You’re gonna be spending more than the night. Go pack your bags.’

  Chris shook his head. ‘Me and my big mouth.’

  ‘And let’s just keep this in-house for a while. See if our federal friends can figure it out on their own before they steal the damn chalk off our blackboard.’

  Gracker was still waiting impatiently for Dominick to approach him. Just to fuck with him, Dominick started in his direction, then stopped, smiled and turned on his heel the other way. Fuck him. He can wait. He found C.J. still standing where the ME investigators had been moments before. ‘Hey, are you okay?’ he asked. She seemed more than a world away. Although he wanted to put a comforting hand across her shoulders, after that last reaction, he did not even try. It was strange. They had been together now for such a long time and some moments he still felt as if he didn’t know her.

  ‘Fine, I guess. How about you?’ she replied, her voice distant and detached.

  ‘This is tough. Three down. But we may have something. Chris Masterson just showed up. Followed by the feds.’

  C.J. nodded.

  ‘Chris was DEA a while back,’ he continued. ‘He looked at the body and says it’s definitely dopers, in case there was any doubt.’

  ‘How’s that?’ she asked.

  I gotta get Chris to look at the photos we have of the other two cops, but it looks like the last two got what’s known as a Colombian necktie.’

  ‘A necktie? What the hell is that?’

  ‘A message. Apparently it’s a nasty signature of the Colombian cartels. Chris says he’
s never heard of it happening here and only saw it twice on a case he worked in Bogotá.’

  ‘What’s the message?’

  Dominick looked over at the ME’s van as it pulled away from the barricade. A storm of flashbulbs erupted, following in its wake. ‘Somebody’s been talking, and somebody else wants it to stop. And the missing ears means he heard something he wasn’t meant to hear.’

  C.J. grew pale. Fortunately, Dominick was still watching the press pounce on their moving prey.

  ‘I bet when we dig up the past on this guy,’ he continued, ‘we’re gonna find out he’s been running with a bad crowd, just like Angelillo and Chavez. But I’m also beginning to think that maybe this isn’t just local bad-boy shit. Maybe someone higher up is pulling LBJ’s strings.’

  On those final words, C.J. felt her stomach tighten. Even though she had quit six months ago, she knew she’d be picking up a pack of Marlboros just as soon as she got away from here.

  ‘Did you know him? Lindeman?’ Dominick asked her suddenly.

  ‘No,’ she lied. ‘Why?’

  He shrugged. ‘Just wondering.’

  23

  ‘Falconetti. Nice of you to come say hello.’ Gracker had obviously given up on the stand-off and walked over to where Dominick stood next to Manny and the crime scene techs.

  ‘Hey, Mark. I guess I didn’t notice you over there,’ Dominick replied, smiling. Maybe it was juvenile, but he also knew how much Gracker hated being called by his first name once he made SAC, so Dominick made a point of using it. Every opportunity that he got.

  Gracker turned red. ‘Well, Dom, here we go. Looks like we’re both working the same scene. Déjà vu.’

  ‘Yeah? Which one is that?’ said Dominick, looking around. ‘I don’t think there’s a federal crime that’s occurred on my scene.’

  Now it was Gracker’s turn to smile. ‘No? I guess you’re the last to know then. I’ve got a federal obstruction investigation going on here. My men are gonna need you to pack up all that crime scene evidence you’ve just been gathering for us.’

  ‘What the hell are you talking about? What obstruction?’

  ‘Your victims ran on the wild side. The Bureau has opened an investigation into their criminal activity while on the job, and possible Title 18 violations.’ Title 18 referred to the section of the United States Code that dealt with criminal drug offenses.

  ‘Help me out here, Mark. The guys are dead.’

  ‘Doesn’t matter under the law.’

  ‘This is a homicide scene. Not a drug deal,’ said Manny.

  ‘I don’t know why we all just can’t get along,’ Gracker said with a shake of his head. ‘You see, someone has killed the subjects of our investigation, Dom. Potential witnesses. And that means that the person or persons responsible have just committed the very federal crime of Tampering with a Witness, Victim or Informant under Section 1512, Chapter 73 of the United States Code. And this,’ he finished, looking around, ‘this is now a federal crime scene.’

  Dominick had expected them to be creative, but not this creative. There was another three-letter acronym he could think of to describe the SAC at that moment, and it also began with the letter S. He paused before uttering his next words, which he knew could not be taken back once spoken. ‘You know, Mark, I’ll bet you ran this very weak theory before your very busy legal department before you actually had the nerve to traipse out here and try and bully me with it. God knows you tried to get your foot in the door on this before and no one would open it. So I’ll assume for a moment that you have a valid federal investigation into the very heinous crimes of obstruction of justice and witness tampering. But I’ve got three homicides, none of which are going to be turned over to the Bureau and the US Attorney’s Office, no matter what wild-assed legal theory you throw at me. So when we are done here, go gather your own evidence. Because, with all due respect, Mark, without more than your bullshit, you’ll be needing a court order before I hand you a fucking nose hair from this scene.’

  With that, Dominick turned and walked away, leaving Manny to deal with the fallout. He reached for his Nextel and chirped RD Black to give him a heads-up about the very nasty, very public shitstorm that was sure to come his way via telephone. In about two minutes.

  It was funny, the politics of politics. You never really knew whose favor you were in, even in your own party, until the play had been called. And while Dominick knew that his boss despised Gracker and the feds as much as he did, he also knew he couldn’t and wouldn’t say so from his position. To the public, all of law enforcement was happily united in one cause – ensuring the safety of its citizens. So what Black would say when Gracker called to complain that FDLE was obstructing a federal investigation – his uncensored, grating voice on decibel level ten – Dominick was not quite sure.

  He could only hope that the play was called in his favor.

  24

  C.J. unwrapped the thin film of plastic that encased the pack of Marlboros in her hand, and peeled back the wrapper, as the fresh scent of tobacco filled the car. It took only a puff for her body and brain to welcome back an old friend, and her nerves instantly relaxed as she blew a smoke ring through the steering wheel.

  Her car was still parked in the empty 7-Eleven parking lot. The sun was just beginning its ascent into the sky, and soft colors of purple and tangerine warmed the skyline. She exhaled and closed her eyes, leaning back in the seat. Trying to think. Trying hard not to let panic overrun every rational thought in her brain. In her mind’s eye, she saw a young Victor Chavez – sitting in the fake leather chair in front of her desk at the State Attorney’s Office, in his crisp blue uniform and shiny black shoes, with bulging biceps and an ankle holster strapped to his leg.

  September, 2000 – Victor’s pre-file. The post-arrest conference where a prosecutor takes sworn witness testimony to determine what charges can and should be filed against a defendant, either by Felony Information, or, in the case of first-degree murder, by Grand Jury Indictment. Only those charges which, in an ASA’s good-faith judgment, are able to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, can be filed.

  C.J. was the check in the safety-valve system, the rational, prudent balance against the sometimes overzealous and hot-tempered police. One of the last inspectors on the line as the system spit out defendant after defendant, churning out justice on a daily basis. And sitting in her high-back leather chair, her window looking out upon the steel and concrete of the Dade County Jail across the street where William Rupert Bantling was being held without bond at that very moment on a charge of murder, she had listened to the cocky rookie tell his tale of finding the young model’s body in Bantling’s car. But the tale was full of thinly veiled fibs, and C.J. was smart, and Victor was a bad liar. And so, within minutes, his arrogant smile had been thoroughly dismantled. In its place was a scared and worried pout, as it should have been.

  The stop had been illegal, based on an anonymous tip that was devoid of probable cause. Victor had recognized his screw-up too late – after the trunk had been popped, revealing its ugly contents under the bright lights of the McArthur. The search was revealing and horrific, but still no more legal, for it had been predicated on an illegal stop. That’s how the law read. With the help of his sergeant, Victor had then tried to fix it all by changing his story to a faulty equipment stop – making the facts fit the crime by taking out the Jaguar’s taillight with his foot – and C.J. had almost been able to hear the lock spring on Bantling’s cell as she paced her office, trying her best to figure out what the hell to do.

  She’d made a decision on that day. To help transform a bad lie into a plausible reality – to ensure that justice would happen – she had sacrificed her own ethics. A new story was created. One that would stand up to legal muster and justify the stop of the Jaguar and the subsequent search of the trunk. Once that was fixed, then the search warrants that authorized the search of Bantling’s home and cars would also be safe, all the damning evidence admissible. And so the house of card
s was carefully constructed.

  C.J. sucked in a deep drag now on the cigarette and nibbled on a thumbnail, looking out the window as a well-tanned homeless man settled in on his breakfast of a Krispy Kreme and a pint of Jack Daniel’s.

  The problem with conspiracies was self-evident. The more people that share a secret, the harder it is to keep control of. And in that office, in that high-back, she now heard herself, demanding answers from the fallen officer.

  ‘So it’s you and Ribero?’ she’d asked.

  And then Victor Chavez’s shaky voice in response. ‘Lindeman knew about the call, too.’

  Chavez’s voice now whispered that name over and over again in her head. Three people had shared the truth about that night on the McArthur before they so graciously let her into their dark coven. Two of those people had been methodically executed. And a message had been violently relayed through their deaths: Someone’s been talking and it has to stop.

  Justified paranoia or simple coincidence?

  She pulled out of the parking lot and headed home. In less than three hours she had to be back in court before an ill-tempered judge and a restless jury, and she still had to shower and change. And finish prepping her cross.

  Her thoughts tumbled over one another until they were simply a mass of confusion. What if the Black Jacket slayings were not the work of gang members or drug cartels, or even a warped corruption-fighting vigilante? What if, instead, someone was systematically eliminating those who knew the secret that she now shared with only one other person? Who would want to silence the keepers of that secret, and why?

  She thought of Chavez’s sergeant, Lou Ribero, the remaining living member of the corrupt cop trio, and wondered: What if? But then thought again of the question: Why? And to that there was really no answer. She also wondered about Officer Angelillo, the Metro cop executed out at the Dolphin Mall. As far as she knew, there was no connection with him. She had never even met the man, and he wasn’t in on any of this. What to make of that? Perhaps, she thought, with an exhausted sigh, as she slid her Jeep into its assigned spot, she really was just being paranoid. She closed her eyes. If only she weren’t so alone in all this…

 
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