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Authors: Erica Orloff

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Trace of Doubt

BOOK: Trace of Doubt
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A shock in the mail.

I opened my mail—several flyers advertising new texts on the science of DNA, genetic testing and crime-scene investigations…and one letter with no return address. I didn’t recognize the handwriting. “Ms. Billie McNamara Quinn.” How odd, I thought. I never used my middle name, which was actually my mother’s maiden name.

I opened the letter. Inside was a simple, typewritten piece of paper with the words:

I KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO HER

Then my heart stopped as something fluttered to my desk. A tiny scrap of fabric, lavender roses on it.

A piece of the dress my mother was wearing when she disappeared.

Dear Reader,

Once again, I am revisiting the eccentric and brilliant team of criminalists and legal eagles in a Billie Quinn case. The stakes were high in
Trace of Innocence,
but now they’ve escalated considerably. Billie has to confront the origins of her very existence—her parentage—as well as her mother’s murder. In the meantime, the Justice Foundation seems to be falling apart, and Lewis LeBarge, her most trusted friend, may be lured away to Hollywood to host his own legal and criminal analysis show.

Like all Harlequin Bombshell novels, there’s plenty of intensity and action, intellectual as well as physical. And never has DNA been more a part of the headlines than now. I’ve always been interested in how cold cases are solved. The Billie Quinn books were born out of what I would want to read myself.

So I hope you enjoy. Please feel free to write me care of my Web site, www.ericaorloff.com—I love hearing from my fans. And look for the next Billie Quinn case soon!

Erica Orloff

Erica Orloff

Trace of Doubt

Books by Erica Orloff

Silhouette Bombshell

Urban Legend
#8

Knockout
#19

The Golden Girl
#58

*
Trace of Innocence
#75

*
Trace of Doubt
#103

Red Dress Ink

Spanish Disco

Diary of a Blues Goddess

Mafia Chic

Divas Don’t Fake It

Do They Wear High Heels in Heaven?

MIRA Books

The Roofer

Double Down
(as Tess Hudson)

Invisible Girl
(as Tess Hudson)

ERICA ORLOFF

is a native New Yorker who relocated to sunny south Florida after vowing to never again dig her car out of the snow. She loves playing poker—a Bombshell trait—and likes her martinis dry. Visit her Web site at www.ericaorloff.com.

To J.D.

Acknowledgment
As always, my sincere appreciation to Margaret Marbury, my editor and friend. Thank you also to Natashya Wilson, who steers the Bombshell line with real vision and enthusiasm.

My agent, Jay Poynor, has never failed to support all of my endeavors. And my greatest gratitude to my family for understanding the ups and downs and highs and lows of the writing life and deadlines. A special nod to Kathy Johnson, who always reads my books and never fails to cheer me on. As for the rest of my pals—Writers’ Cramp, Pammie and the usual suspects—thanks from the bottom of my heart.

Chapter 1

Y
ou couldn’t really call it a playground.

I gingerly stepped over used condoms, empty beer cans and wine bottles—the cheap stuff—and cigarette butts. I saw syringes and tattered underwear and the trash of human existence—fast-food wrappers, old tires and broken glass. Eventually I made it onto the basketball court. There was no net—just a rim bent off to the right. I looked up at the projects that surrounded this little concrete court of human misery. Windows were broken, and the sounds of loud music and screaming and yelling in Spanish, English, Creole and Arabic drifted down. Smells wafted in the heat: Chinese food, the steamy air of the subways rising through grates, urine, gasoline.

“Charming,” Lewis LeBarge said, surveying the landscape. “Remind me again why we’re subjecting ourselves to this hellhole?”

We stood near the periphery of the court. A heated game was going on in full streetball fashion—hurled elbows and shoves that would have earned a foul in the NBA were just the way the game was played here. The shirts were playing the skins, with the skin team bare-chested, their tees wrapped around their heads to absorb the sweat from playing on an unseasonably hot June day.

“We’re checking out Marcus Hopkins’s story.”

Lewis wiped at his brow. He wore his trademark clothes—black Levi’s jeans, snakeskin boots that added an inch or so to his already lanky, six-foot, one-inch height, and a white oxford cloth shirt. I wore jeans and a fitted black T-shirt, with my long, black hair pulled into a high ponytail, and I was sweating, too.

“No pay, shit conditions, I swear we’re insane for doing this, Billie,” he said in his New Orleans drawl.

“Insane?” I snapped. “This from a man with a collection of human brains in formaldehyde,” I referred to my boss’s penchant for the macabre as head of the state crime lab in Bloomsbury, New Jersey.

The two of us were making this particular field trip for the Justice Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to freeing wrongfully imprisoned men, through the use of DNA testing. Ever since we’d solved the Suicide King murders, the publicity meant the foundation was inundated with requests that we investigate the cases of hundreds of prisoners.

Deciding which cases to take wasn’t easy.
All
of them said they were innocent. My guess is a fraction of them really were. We weeded through some of the ugliest crimes of humanity to try to discern which men were truly innocent, and we relied on DNA and old-fashioned detective work, interviewing and common sense to try to piece together reasonable doubt—or if we caught a break, proof of outright innocence. And all this we did on the side, in addition to our full-time jobs at the lab. What we had first signed on to do out of curiosity and Lewis’s crush on one of the foundation’s founders, we now did out of passion.

Marcus Hopkins was a baby-faced kid from the Bronx determined to get out of the projects. Unlike a lot of ghetto kids, he didn’t pin his hopes on the NBA, or a rap contract, but on academics. When a rape occurred on the basketball court of the projects, Marcus was named as the rapist by the victim. No DNA tied him to the victim, and he had an airtight alibi—he was at work two bus lines away, sweeping out the supply room of a burger joint.

The crime was completely out of character for Marcus, and his public defender was confident at first. But then witnesses began piling up, placing him at the crime scene—despite what his employer said. Then his boss turned out to have a record—an old conviction for assault from fifteen years prior, but enough that a jury might discount his testimony in the hands of a tough prosecutor. Before long, the public defender was urging Marcus to take a plea. Marcus drew eight years in adult prison. With his pretty face, it was brutal.

We had a small spot of blood on the victim’s shirt. It wasn’t hers, and it wasn’t Marcus’s, thus bolstering his claim of innocence. Lewis and I thought it belonged to whoever attacked her. She had put up a fight—and Marcus didn’t have a scratch on him. But she had washed
before
reporting her crime—not uncommon in rape cases. A woman is usually so distraught, has such an urgent need to get all touches of her rapist off her, she may shower, in a traumatic state, literally scrubbing away evidence.

Lewis and I scanned the project buildings. Marcus claimed that there was no way the rape went down as the victim said because the basketball court had action on it 24/7. There wasn’t any time, day or night, when a game wasn’t going on—this was one of the city’s top streetball talent courts.

“What do you think?” Lewis asked me.

“I think it would be awfully hard to rape a girl here, with all these supposed witnesses who just so happened to be too far away to help, but were close enough to get a look. Something’s fishy here. And another thing, usually in the projects no one sees anything. It’s like The Mob…you know? Everyone keeps his mouth shut.”

I knew what I was talking about. My father was a key player in the Irish Mob in New Jersey. Bookmaking, loansharking…and whatever else he and my brother could get their sticky fingers on.

“I think we have to go back to our victim, Billie.”

I nodded.

“I’m going to go take some digital pictures of the court from above, in one of the buildings, get a sense of what witnesses from the apartment may have seen. At night? My guess—nothing. You stay here. You’ll be all right?”

“Or my name ain’t Nancy Drew.”

“Well, it isn’t Nancy Drew. It’s Wilhelmina,” Lewis smirked at me.

Actually, my name isn’t Wilhelmina. It’s Billie, right there on my birth certificate, named after William Quinn, my grandfather, currently serving the last six months of a sentence on a racketeering charge.

Lewis walked toward the apartment building. I noticed, for the thousandth time in the half hour we’d been there, how the buildings blocked any wisp of breeze from blowing and cooling the steaming pavement. I was so hot that all I could think about was getting back to my apartment, stripping naked and lying in my air-conditioned bedroom on top of the covers.

The streetball game was getting pretty intense. A skin fouled a shirt pretty damn hard—elbowed him sharply enough I was sure he’d cracked his rib.

Suddenly the two guys were at it, big-time. Shoving, pushing, cursing and insulting each other’s mothers. Their assorted pals were also getting into it, and this mosh pit of a group suddenly came careening toward me.

I sidestepped out of the way, and one of the players came and pushed me.

“Whatcha lookin’ at?”

“Nothing.” I stared him straight in the eye—well, I had to crane my head to do so, but I knew better than to let him know I was intimidated.

“You’re not from here. What’re you and that guy lookin’ for, huh? Huh, bitch? You a cop?” He poked me in the chest.

“No. I’m a criminalist.”

“What the fuck is that?” He was backing me up, pushing me toward the chain-link fence.

“I’m looking into the Marcus Hopkins case. Know him? He supposedly raped a girl on this basketball court.”

In the time it took my eyes to blink, his hand throttled out to my throat. He wrapped his fingers around my neck—one hand almost encompassing it. I saw stars and my throat burned. My eyes teared. I struggled to make a sound, but nothing came out.

The shirts and skins were still brawling. If this guy strangled me to death, no one would stop him, and unlike the suspicious Marcus Hopkins case, I knew they’d all claim they saw nothing.

With all my might, I kicked my foot against his knee. He let go of my throat and started screaming, “Fuck!” I gasped at air as one of his pals came over.

“What’s up, man?”

“Fucking bitch just kicked my knee!” He was leaning over, but he looked up and stared at me with total hatred.

I looked over my shoulder, hoping Lewis was on his way back. Then I steadied my stance in case I had to defend myself again. My face was wet with tears from when he’d choked me. “I’m not looking for trouble,” I said.

“Listen,” the guy who’d choked me said, “no need you go messin’ around looking for who done that bitch. Marcus’s time is almost up. Everybody’s gotten their piece of the pie. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll butt the fuck out.”

He stood, and with a half limp walked back onto the court, where the game was resuming.

I swallowed hard a few times. My throat ached. Time almost up. Sure. Five more years in hell.

A minute or two later, Lewis strolled toward me. When he got up close to me, he said, “What in God’s name happened to you?”

“Don’t ask,” I whispered. “Not here.” I motioned with my head, and we walked back through the straggly weeds toward the break in the chain-link fence, and then onto the sidewalk. My Cadillac—left to me by my uncle Sean when he drew a life sentence—sat by the curb.

I unlocked the doors, and we climbed in. I pulled out into traffic and away from the projects.

“Your neck is all red, and you have that whole Kathleen Turner raspy-voice thing going. We should get you to the emergency room.”

“I’m fine,” I said. He knew better than to argue with me.

“What happened?”

“I was warned off pursuing the Marcus Hopkins case. He thought I was a cop at first. Weird thing was he implied…a payoff. Something about everybody getting their piece of the pie.”

“Do you know you have fingermarks imprinted on your neck? That’s going to leave bruises.”

I nodded. “You know this means we have to pursue this, right? Now we know for sure everything’s not right with that case.”

Lewis sighed. “I long for the days when life with you was normal.”

I turned to look at him as I hit a red light. “Lewis…you knew from the first day we met—there’s nothing normal about either one of us.”

“I suppose not. All right, then, Marcus Hopkins—” he spoke to the air, to me, to the spirits he believed didn’t rest until you put the real bad guy away “—I guess we’re going to find a way to set you free.”

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