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Cutting room the, p.9
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.9

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  The numbers on missing persons were mind-numbing. Nationwide, almost a million people each year were reported missing to police — most of these were teens or young adults, like Jane Doe. That averaged to around 2,300 people, each and every day. And that wasn’t accounting for the throwaways — the poor souls who nobody gave enough of a shit about to report them missing when they didn’t make it home. He was no expert, but Manny had heard estimates as high as another million or so throwaways that never made it into a police report. That sad fact alone made the prospect of combing through a haystack of missing person reports not just daunting, but probably useless. And if those were the US figures, Manny couldn’t begin to imagine what the global number of missing persons might be. Which was probably why he was sitting at his desk, hours after the grand jury, still pulling on his mustache and still staring at the same nasty photo, trying to come up with a game plan to find a girl who may or may not be missing, and/or who may or may not be the victim of a sexual assault, and/or who may or may not be a homicide victim.

  Mike Dickerson planted half a droopy butt cheek on the edge of his desk. He was munching on a bag of Cheetos. ‘Watcha doing, Bear?’ he asked, in between crunches. The air smelled like fake cheese and Old Spice. ‘Your face is all twisted up. You look constipated.’

  Manny groaned and stretched. ‘Arrgh … I got a puzzle to solve here, Pops. Problem is, I only got one piece and I ain’t got no idea what the picture on the box even looks like.’

  ‘That don’t sound good.’

  ‘Nope, it don’t.’

  ‘Okay, now stop talking in Chinese riddles and tell me what the fucking problem is. Is that it?’ Mike asked, nodding at the photo. ‘Is that your puzzle piece?’

  ‘Yup.’

  ‘Nice. Perky tits; they look natural. Now, is this a case you’re working or is that a girlfriend you need advice with?’

  ‘You’re a hoot. It’s a case. I think. Not sure, actually. But it definitely ain’t a girlfriend, you sick geezer.’

  ‘I was gonna say she’s way too pretty to be one of yours.’

  ‘I ain’t responding to that.’

  ‘Who is she?’ Mike asked with another crunch.

  ‘That’s the million-dollar question. The case I’m working, the dumpster case—’

  ‘Holly Skole.’

  Manny cocked an eyebrow.

  ‘Just ’cause I’m over sixty don’t mean I have Alzheimer’s. I listen when you talk,’ Mike shot back.

  Manny shrugged. ‘Okay. Well, the mom of my defendant in that case claims that someone anonymously sent her a fucked-up video clip right before the Arthur Hearing. She don’t know who and she don’t know why. But in the video that I made this picture from, this girl is being strung up from the ceiling by her wrists like a pig in a slaughterhouse, and she might or might not be being tortured by an unidentifiable white male. The clip’s under a minute long, so it’s hard to tell what’s really going on. Could be real, could be fantasy role-play. So I’m not sure what I have, Mikey. Not sure what to do about it, either. But it’s not sitting right with me and I want to see if I can get an ID on Jane Doe. Only I’m not sure where to start.’

  ‘Most guys would walk away. Let the defense handle it. Sounds like it’s their problem anyways.’

  ‘Yup. Most guys would.’

  ‘Have you run her through ViCAP?’

  ViCAP — the Violent Crime Apprehension Program — was the FBI’s largest investigative repository of major violent cases in the US. A computer database of missing persons, unsolved sexual assaults and homicides, and unidentified remains collected from police agencies around the country. In a perfect world, Manny could put in the information he had on Jane Doe and ViCAP would spit out a similar missing person or homicide victim in an unsolved case. But the world wasn’t perfect. The system was only as comprehensive as the information put into it, and not every police agency was diligent providing cases for ViCAP. Most small agencies didn’t have access and a lot of large agencies weren’t assiduous about doing it.

  ‘Yeah. I checked,’ Manny replied. ‘Didn’t see anything that matched up, but I don’t got much to go on here. I also looked at Broward County’s Found and Forgotten website, but came up empty there, too. I’m trying to think of my next move.’

  ‘Let me see that. You mind? And can I see the video?’ Mike asked.

  Manny nodded, handed him the picture, and got up from his seat. ‘Help yourself. When did you figure out how to turn on a computer?’

  Mike ignored the jab and moved into Manny’s chair. He watched the entire clip through three times without saying a word, then ran it a fourth time and paused at forty-one seconds in, studying the screen. ‘That window cleaner there … it’s a knock-off.’ He captured the shot and zoomed in on the far corner. ‘I thought so,’ he said, mumbling under his breath. ‘I thought so. That there’s the Shoprite logo. On the red part — doesn’t that look like a grocery cart to you?’

  ‘Could be,’ Manny said, studying the screen. ‘What’s Shoprite?’

  ‘Shoprite’s a supermarket chain up north. New York, Jersey, Connecticut. I’m not sure it’s around anymore, but that’s where you need to focus, Alvarez. Have the boys in Tech see if they can enhance that picture — I’d bet my bottom dollar that’s Shoprite. Been a while since I saw that brand. They used to have some crazy commercial about how Shoprite’s got the can-can sale, with a bunch of French dancers singing about stocking up on peas.’

  ‘I thought you were from the Midwest.’

  ‘Ahhh,’ Mike grumbled. ‘I’m a native New Yorker, Alvarez. Born and raised in Elmhurst. That’s in Queens, you know. I worked with the Minneapolis PD for eight years before coming down here for some sun.’

  ‘Minnesota? Jesus, how the hell did you end up there? How does anyone end up there?’

  Mike ignored the question. ‘One day it will all become clear. Listen, sorry about the titty comment. I didn’t realize she was a victim. That was bad of me.’

  ‘Well, thanks for the tip,’ Manny said with a nod.

  ‘What I would do if I was you is put her in NCIC, and mark it special attention to the tri-state area — see if the boys up there got something for you. Send the picture, but let them know there’s a video available.’

  ‘That’s a good idea.’

  ‘Your long shot ain’t so long now,’ Mike continued smugly. ‘And you got a date/time stamp on this, for whatever that’s worth, assuming it’s authentic. I’d put that on there, too. It’ll help whoever is looking narrow down dates. I’d also send that video off to the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI. Let the profilers take a peek. Could be they’ve seen the rest of your video. Or maybe they can tell you if it’s for shits and giggles or if it’s the real McCoy.’

  ‘Okay, okay, I got it. Now it’s your turn to speak English, Pops. What the hell is a “shit and giggle”? And what’s a “real McCoy”?’

  Mike rolled his eyes. ‘Damn immigrants. Learn English.’

  ‘I left Havana on a twenty-two-foot fishing boat that was missing an engine with twenty other people when I was five. Been speaking English from the second I stepped on the sand at Key Biscayne. You’re yapping in old fart, not English. I’ll send it to BAU. You’re right. It can’t hurt none.’

  ‘Nope. It can’t hurt,’ Mike replied as he started across the room to his desk. Then he stopped, turned abruptly, walked back. ‘You know, I can work up that NCIC for ya. Maybe contact the cold case squads myself and see if I can shake some trees.’

  ‘You’re not busy with your own load?’

  ‘Nah. I’m good. I got the time. And it looks like you need the help.’

  Mike Dickerson wasn’t the only one counting down days till his retirement party. Even though he still had about six months to go, Mike hadn’t caught a new case in a long while, and he wasn’t going to. He was in wind-down mode. The squad sergeant didn’t want to hand out new cases to someone who’d have to be dragged out of retirement to be a witness for the next five years
as those cases worked their way through the system. It was too much of a hassle. And if Mike was the lead on a case and he died — well, that would be terrible. And even more of a hassle. That was the danger of working cases when you were nearing seventy — your age became a liability and all that ‘invaluable experience’ that used to look so great on a résumé now added to the argument that your shelf life had expired. Until he officially called it quits, Mike was on ‘light duty’, which might seem like every government employee’s dream, but Manny didn’t think Mike saw it that way. The guy had been on the job for almost four decades, and he wore his pride the way he did his badge — right in the open for all to see. It might be hard to walk away, but Manny thought it was probably worse to stay and watch the world carry on without you.

  Manny ran a hand over his smooth scalp. ‘You think you can help me out?’ he asked hesitantly. ‘You know, this video is a fucking monkey wrench. I still have a shitload of crap to get done on Skole without this nipping at the back of my thoughts.’

  ‘Sure, Bear, sure. I know some faces in the NYPD. It’ll give me something to do.’

  Manny nodded. Partnering up in Homicide was not done at the City. There weren’t enough bodies or enough resources. And that was fine by him — he didn’t like partners. And if he had to pick a partner, it never in a million years would’ve been ornery, stubborn, conventional, conservative Mike Dickerson. But Manny himself was only seven years away from collecting a check, which seemed like a lifetime … a lifetime ago. Now it wasn’t so far off. Just seven more wild Miami-Dade PD Homicide Christmas parties. So he could feel for the old man; he didn’t think he’d want to leave when the time came, either. Plus, being nice to a guy on his way out of the job and maybe even out the door seemed like the right thing to do. Of course it was exactly that sort of charitable thinking that had led him down the aisle three times. Manny had a feeling this partnership might not fare any better …

  ‘I guess it’s time for this young, handsome Jedi to learn from the master,’ Manny said, handing his new partner the photo and the flash drive with a sigh. ‘Go shake a tree. Damn, you know, you even look like Yoda. Same football-shaped head.’

  ‘Oh you’re a gag, is right. You’re a fucking chuckle,’ Mike groused as he returned to his desk. ‘Shits and giggles we’re gonna have together,’ he called over his shoulder.

  Manny sighed again. As a wise man whose name he did not know once said: no good deed ever goes unpunished …

  12

  ‘On for arraignment, page two: State v. Talbot Lunders,’ announced the clerk.

  It was half past nine on a Monday morning and Judge Virginia ‘Ginny’ Becker’s small, sixth-floor courtroom was standing-room only. Thanks to a heat wave outside and temperamental courthouse air conditioning that wasn’t quite broken but definitely wasn’t working, the air was thick and stale and stunk and tasted of BO. People charged with felonies were already tense and sweaty, as were their lawyers, who ran from courtroom to courtroom handling multiple clients. The broken AC made the room feel like a rush-hour NYC subway train in July.

  ‘Ms DeBianchi, is this one yours?’ asked the judge impatiently, over the loud hum of the standing fan next to her bench.

  ‘Yes, Your Honor,’ Daria answered, as she made her way up to the podium.

  ‘Joe Varlack for Talbot Lunders.’ Justice Joe was back at the podium, refreshed and determined. A little too determined. As if he’d spent the weekend reading West’s Florida Criminal Procedure. Daria hadn’t spoken to either attorney since last week’s Arthur, but based on the cool looks he kept throwing her way, and the inability of his colleague to glance up from her file, she didn’t think a cordial relationship was gonna develop between the three of them. Some defense attorneys were like that — they took the adversarial process too literally and too personally. That was okay with Daria. She didn’t need any more friends. She checked out Anne-Claire Simmons’s tootsies and bit a knuckle. The distinctive red soles were gone, but the nude, platform, suede peep-toes were to die for.

  ‘I see Judge Steyn denied bond last week,’ the judge remarked as she read through the indictment.

  ‘We’ll be revisiting that, Your Honor,’ replied Varlack authoritatively.

  ‘No we won’t,’ replied the judge without glancing up. ‘Unless you have some new evidence that was not known to you last Tuesday and as such was not presented to Judge Steyn — and I do mean new — there is no need for another hearing. This is not the Swap Shop. Your client will remain remanded.’

  Ginny Becker was a relative newcomer to the courthouse, having been appointed by the governor last year to fill a vacancy in circuit court. In her early forties, she was a spring chicken compared to some judges who haunted the bench until they died off. On paper, the woman was certainly qualified to be a criminal court judge — having worked as both a prosecutor up in her native New Jersey and a public defender in Tampa — but the jury was still out on whether she was actually a good judge. That was because no one liked her. Known as ‘the Manicured Monster’, in her nine months on the bench, Judge Becker had managed to alienate everyone, even her own support staff, and had earned a reputation on both sides of the courtroom for ruling with an iron fist and a sharp tongue.

  ‘Mr Lunders,’ the judge began in a nasally Jersey twang. She peered down at the defense table over red-rimmed specs that sat precariously on the end of her nose. ‘You’ve been indicted by the grand jury on the charge of first-degree murder. How do you plead?’

  ‘Not guilty,’ bellowed Varlack. ‘We’ll be demanding discovery.’

  ‘Naturally,’ replied the judge, studying Lunders’s defense attorney for a long moment. ‘State, fifteen days.’ She looked around her courtroom. ‘You seem to be quite the popular one, Mr Lunders. Are these cameras here for your pretty face?’

  Daria turned around so fast she almost got whiplash. Sure enough, two cameramen stood behind the gallery gate, each sporting shoulder-mount professional television cameras. One was for WSVN7 and the other was WTVJ, NBC6. An impressed murmur ran through the gallery. They hadn’t been there when she’d first walked in.

  ‘That seems to be the case, Judge,’ Varlack replied a little too casually, which told Daria he was the one who had invited the vampires in for a pint.

  ‘How far out are we talking on a trial date, State?’ the judge asked.

  ‘I’d say at least six months, Your Honor,’ Daria replied.

  ‘I hope the prosecutor’s not serious, Judge,’ scoffed Varlack. He sounded completely flabbergasted, as if he was expecting a trial, say, next week. ‘My client has been denied bond, which you’re telling me won’t be reviewed. Now State’s saying it will take them at least six months to get around to trying him?’

  ‘Well, the ball is in your court to some extent, Mr …’ the judge hesitated for a moment, ‘Varlack,’ she finished, finally finding his name again on the court file. Obviously she had no idea who he was and, even if she did, she wouldn’t have cared anyway. She must’ve been fighting traffic in Trenton when he was in every South Floridian’s living room at six. ‘You can file a speedy demand and Ms DeBianchi can give you the Jiffy Lube of trials this upcoming fall, if you want. You may find, however, that you need a little more time to prepare for a capital murder, sir. State, will you be seeking the death penalty?’

  ‘It’s under consideration, Your Honor,’ replied Daria.

  ‘Well, consider faster. Because I think that decision might just change opposing counsel’s request to try this case before I dust off my Christmas decorations. Mr Lunders,’ she began, looking straight at the defendant and speaking in a loud, slow voice, as if he were either deaf or mentally retarded. ‘You have a right to a speedy trial. That means the state has to bring you to trial within one hundred and seventy-five days after your arrest. That is assuming you don’t cause a delay yourself. Because once you ask for a continuance or announce that you’re not ready to proceed or otherwise engage in activity that delays the state in presenting their
case against you, the hundred and seventy-five days disappears like Cinderella’s magic coach. Poof. Do you understand that, Mr Lunders?’

  ‘Yes,’ answered the defendant. Even his voice was handsome. Deep and throaty, like a sexy sports announcer. It was the first time Daria had heard him utter a word. He was dressed in that same bright orange jumpsuit, but he definitely looked better. His hair was brushed and pulled into a low pony that matched his attorney’s and he was clean-shaven. He glanced in her direction and smiled. She felt the blood rush to her face.

  ‘I have already explained his rights to him, Judge,’ Varlack replied testily.

  The judge sat back in her chair. ‘Good. I’m really glad you have. And just so that you understand, Counsel, it is my business to make sure that the defendant knows his rights and understands them in my courtroom. Being a successful former defense attorney myself, I have found that sometimes either your clients don’t hear you or they don’t want to hear you on some very important matters. Since you raised a concern about trying this case quickly, it’s good to get this all on the record now so that it does not become an issue later, say in a post-conviction motion for relief. Not that I am predicting a conviction, mind you, I’m simply making sure your client is informed. So, with all that in mind, Althea, get me a report date within the next two months so we can see how fast the case is progressing. If Mr Lunders is still on track for a holiday trial and wants to file a speedy demand, then we will give him an early Christmas present and everyone will be happy. Everyone except perhaps Ms DeBianchi, who will be far too busy to be happy.’

  ‘Mmm …’ the clerk murmured while fanning herself with a manila folder. ‘We don’t get many happy customers around here, Judge. August seventeenth for report.’

  ‘Thank you for the unsolicited commentary, Althea. I’ll see you all back here then, unless we need to handle matters sooner than that. Ms DeBianchi, if you do decide to seek the death penalty, file your notice post-haste. I am sensing timing issues and I don’t want to sit here listening to either side boo-hoo to me later on a capital murder, because I won’t have any pity for your plight and I won’t be distracted by your tears. If Mr Lunders truly wants a speedy trial, we can and will accommodate him, and not with ten minutes left to spare on the clock.’

 
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