Read Trace of Innocence Online
Authors: Erica Orloff
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #Thrillers
“Thanks.” He grinned. “Have to say that freedom agrees with me. You look beautiful, Billie.”
“I look sweaty and I smell like beer, but if that’s your kind of gal…”
“You’re my kind of girl.”
Suddenly, C.C. screamed.
I looked up at the bar’s television. The anchor said, “And in a shocking twist to the release of inmate David Falco, a woman was murdered tonight in Jersey City. Sources tell CNN that the crime included a playing card left on the body. The suicide king…”
Thank you so much for purchasing the first book of my new Billie Quinn series. I wanted to write this book to show a little of the real life of CSIs—unsung heroes who gather the evidence and analyze it in the lab. As in all my books, the heroine is surrounded by an eccentric “family”—a motley crew of misfits and unusual people who comprise her circle of friends. In this book, you’ll meet Lewis LeBarge, head of the crime lab, who has a penchant for collecting brains and photos of blood spatter; Sister C.C., a nun with a passion for prison ministry; Mikey, Billie’s brother and a ne’er-do-well—but a sweetheart anyway; and the rest of the colorful characters, such as Tommy Two Trees, an FBI agent and, like Lewis, a denizen of New Orleans.
Billie herself is brainy but street smart. Her brother and father are both involved in the mob, but she has chosen to play it mostly straight in her life. She’s haunted by her mother’s murder, which has only drawn her closer to the people she loves.
I hope you enjoy Billie and her friends as they fight to clear a man in prison for murder utilizing new DNA technology. Prepare for suspense and action…and enjoy!
The Golden Girl
Trace of Innocence
Red Dress Ink
Diary of a Blues Goddess
Divas Don’t Fake It
Do They Wear High Heels in Heaven?
(as Tess Hudson)
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 my sister, Stacey, for always reading my books and being one of my biggest supporters.
lood spatter was artfully arranged.
Photographs of crime-scene blood spatter, in stark black and white, were matted and framed, lining a long hallway with hardwood floors that squeaked as I walked.
I had stopped thinking of the photos as gruesome or even odd two years ago when I started working for Lewis LeBarge, my boss at New Jersey’s State Crime Laboratory and collector of all things macabre. He told me once that it came with the territory. “Spend enough time around the dead,” he had said to me, his New
Orleans accent giving him a certain Southern charm, “and eventually you come up with ways to mock the Grim Reaper—just to let him know he hasn’t won…yet.” Lewis regularly talked to The Reaper like an old friend, asking him just how or why a dead body met its maker.
“Lewis?” I called out from the hallway. I had let myself in the front door of his old duplex in Weehawken.
“Up here,” he called out. “The office.”
I climbed the stairs. There were just two small bedrooms on the second story. One was the master bedroom, and the other he used as a home office, complete with Internet links to our database in the lab.
I poked my head in. “Ready?”
“For you, darlin’, always.” He winked at me, his prematurely gray hair giving him a distinguished look, making him seem older than his forty years.
I spied a new photo on the wall. The blood puddle next to the gunshot victim looked like black syrup. “Has anyone ever suggested to you that perhaps the reason you never make it past the first date with a woman is your taste in art?”
“Now, Billie, I’m just waitin’ for you to realize we’re the ones meant to be together. And until then—” he mock-sighed “—I remain alone
and desperately lonely in this cold Northern city.”
“Don’t give me that…your New Orleans gentleman charm is a magnet for women. I’ve seen them clustered around you like bees buzzing around a flower.”
“I never hurt for first dates, but, as you so kindly pointed out, it’s getting to date number two that’s difficult.”
I looked over at the aquarium tank on the shelf, which housed an enormous tarantula he had named “Ripper,” after the serial killer he once wrote a thesis on. I’m not squeamish—you can’t be, working in a forensics lab—but spiders give me the creeps. Especially hairy ones.
“Maybe you should try telling them you do something sane. Boring, even. Ever try saying you’re an accountant? Working with numbers all day is certainly an improvement over saying you spent the day examining brain matter.”
“Eventually, I’d be found out. And with the exception of you, there aren’t many women who enjoy discussin’ blowflies on dead bodies and the rate of maggot infestation over a lovely supper of jambalaya.”
“Really? I would have thought some women would love to hear all about it. Especially
while eating.” I rolled my eyes. “I’ve got you figured out. You, dear Lewis, love to scare them off.”
“Perhaps I do.” He winked at me. “How’s that cop you’ve been dating?”
“Good…when he’s on the wagon.”
“And when he’s not?”
“Come on, Lewis, neither of us has a stellar track record in the love department.”
“We’re both married to the job.”
“I suppose we are. You ready?”
“Darlin’, I wouldn’t miss this chance to mingle with the underworld of New Jersey for anything. Your family is like an anthropological field study.”
“Shut up,” I snapped, but grinned at him as he stood up, ducking his head slightly to avoid hitting the overhead lamp. Lewis stood a lanky six foot two inches in his custom cowboy boots. He wore his standard-issue black Levi’s and white oxford cloth shirt, well-worn at the elbows, with a pair of black onyx cuff links I swear he put on every shirt he wore. He turned off the lamp and the two of us made our way downstairs and out the door. My big maroon Cadillac was parked on the street.
“Still driving the Sherman land tank, I see.”
“I can’t part with it—despite how much gas
this thing guzzles. My uncle Sean left it to me when he went inside.”
“‘Inside,’” Lewis mused, as he climbed in the car Uncle Sean gave me when he drew thirty years for aggravated assault and murder—he’d not only killed his victim, but taken a hacksaw to him. “I do love how the Quinn family has such special euphemisms—like this party we’re going to.”
“What? It’s a Welcome Home party for my father. What’s wrong with that?”
“You mean a Welcome Home from
party. But no doubt your aunt Helen will make one of her wonderful cheesecakes for the occasion. I’m fond of the strawberry one. Very moist.”
“Lewis, it’s still a coming-home party, no matter where he was prior to actually coming home. Besides, this time was really stupid. A parole violation…busted at an illegal card game. I mean, come off it. You sometimes sit in with them, too.”
I started the car and pulled away from the curb, biting my lip in irritation for a minute. There was nothing I hated more than cops going after bullshit crimes when murderers and child molesters were a plague.
Lewis leaned back against the plush velour
seats. “Well, all I can say is family parties with y’all is like stepping into a Scorsese film. I love bein’ around your relatives. They are quite entertainin’.”
I drove from Lewis’s place to JFK Boulevard and eventually steered my way toward Hoboken, coping with heavy traffic.
“But you know, Billie, I’ve still never understood how it is you managed to turn out…honest and law-abiding, if a little unusual around the edges.”
I shrugged, staring ahead at the highway. “I don’t know.”
“Come on, I know you’ve thought about it. You must have some explanation.”
I had thought about it. Endlessly. Until my head hurt, sometimes. My mother had disappeared when I was nine. The cops had bungled the case, more interested in focusing on my father—head of an Irish crime family—than in uncovering the truth. When her body turned up six months later—nothing left but bones and the shreds of her dress—they arrested the wrong man, eventually freeing him without the case going to trial when his alibi was airtight. He’d been sitting in county lockup the night of her murder, on a DUI charge.
“I don’t know, Lewis, I just wanted to solve
murders. And if I became a cop, my family would have disowned me. So working for you is about as close as I can get to fighting the bad guys legally. Why did you go into forensics?”
“You know. An obsession with blood and guts. Liked to drive my mama mad with bring-in’ home dead animals.”
Of course, I knew Lewis’s reasons ran as deep as my own. He’d been at Tufts, bent on an academic career as a scientist and college professor when the bayous of Louisiana began giving up their dead. One by one, floaters came to the surface, women tortured and murdered by a serial killer. One of the dead was his childhood sweetheart. His path changed, and he never looked back.
The two of us drove through the streets of Hoboken to Quinn’s Pub, owned by my father’s brother, Tony. If “pub” conjures up images of darts and leather booths, that’s not Quinn’s. It’s a rough bar you don’t go to unless you know Tony—or can hold your own among the tough guys who hang there after long shifts driving cement mixers, or otherwise breaking their backs earning a living. It’s one of the last neighborhood places around. I parked the car around the corner on the street and the two of us made our way to the entrance. The sidewalks were
already teeming with relatives and pals of my dad.
“Billie!” Tony threw his rock-hard, tattooed arms around me as we maneuvered our way inside, squeezing past the crowds. “Your dad’s at the tables. How you doin’, Lewis?”
“Fine, just fine,” Lewis said, smiling and taking a bottle of beer offered to him by Pammie, a waitress in skin-tight black jeans and a Quinn’s Pub T-shirt—black with a green shamrock embroidered on the chest. I saw her eye him flirtatiously.
I took Lewis’s other hand so I wouldn’t lose him as we snaked our way through the bar. We reached the back room, with its four pool tables. Dad was about to sink his last ball into the corner pocket. He let out a whoop when it went in, the ball spinning fast, and collected his forty bucks from his opponent. Then he spotted me and came over and planted a kiss on the top of my head.
“Billie.” He smiled and looked at me, then grabbed me in a hug. With Dad and me, we don’t have to say much. We know how we feel.
Dad stands about six feet tall—a good four inches taller than I am. We both have black hair, though his is now flecked with gray at the temples. We both have greenish-blue eyes. He has
an olive complexion, though, and mine is pale with a smattering of freckles on my cheeks and nose. My nose turns up just a bit—and I look like a tomboy, with two deep dimples. Even though I’m twenty-nine, I still get carded when I buy beer at the grocery store.
“Good to see you, Daddy. Sorry I didn’t get you from prison today—I was knee-deep in analyzing a shipment of drugs found in someone’s trunk. Heroin. Street value near a million dollars. Uncle Tony said it wasn’t a problem to go get you.”
“Nah, not at all.” Dad shook his head in disgust. “Besides, it’s good to get that crap off the streets.” The Quinn family had its hand in bookmaking, a little loan-sharking and trafficking in stolen property—mostly pirated DVDs. Occasionally, a Quinn family member will fight violence with violence. But my father won’t tolerate drugs. Not just in my brother and me growing up, but in anyone who’s going to have anything to do with the Quinn family.
“Want to play a game, Lewis? A friendly wager?”
Lewis looked at me and grinned. My father had to serve a four-month sentence for parole violation. The entire time, Lewis had been practicing his pool game. He was hoping to actual
ly beat my father, something he hadn’t been able to do since the day they met.
“As you so eloquently say, rack ’em up.”
The two of them bet twenty bucks each, which I held in my right front pocket to make it official, and soon they were playing hot and heavy.
Despite Lewis’s near-daily practice, he was still down two when we heard a commotion out front. Shouts rose above the usual din of the crowded pub, and I turned my head to see the crowd actually morphing, moving as it accommodated a growing brawl. A crowd in a bar fight seems to become a living thing.
“Christ, it’s Murphy’s boys,” my father said.
Lewis looked at me quizzically.
“Hand me that,” I said, gesturing to his pool cue. He did and I stood waiting. So did my father.
Within two minutes, the brawl had pushed its way into the pool room. I recognized three of my cousins and all five Murphy brothers going at it. One cousin connected with a solid left hook on the square chin of Pat Murphy, and let loose with a stream of expletives, ending with, “…that’s what you get for beating up a woman.”
That was enough for my father and me. I
hoisted the pool cue and brought it down on the shoulder of Jimmy “Tank” Murphy. He turned to take a swing at me, but I held the cue like a bat and gave him a solid swing right in the ribs. He fell back against a pool table, grabbed a glass and threw it at my face. It missed and shattered to the floor. Next thing I knew, a striped pool ball barely missed my forehead. Chairs were overturned, more glasses broke, and I decided I’d had enough.
I looked around at the escalating fight and knew Tank was the key to it. Whenever the biggest, burliest, nastiest Murphy went down, the other brothers usually fell in line. Blood poured from Tank’s nose, but still he charged like a bull. I took the pool cue as he came at me and instead of swinging at his ribs, I lowered the cue and brought it up, with all my might, between his legs. He immediately collapsed as I connected with my intended pair of targets.
Slowly, surely, the brawl died down from there. The Murphy brothers were bounced out the door by Tony’s three sons—one a muscle-bound bodybuilder the width of my Cadillac. The pub was a mess, but it was no showplace to begin with.
Lewis surveyed the wreckage. “Do y’all know how to throw a party without it ending up like the O.K. Corral?”
“It’s an old feud.”
“Feud? I’d say it’s World War III.”
“Come on.” I kissed my father goodbye and gingerly climbed over the broken glass and chairs, making my way with Lewis outside. When we got out on the sidewalk and started walking to our car, I said, “My brother, Mikey, fell in love with the youngest Murphy sister. They’ve been living together for a year now.”
“Isn’t your brother in prison at the moment?”
“Yeah. He gets out next month. But Marybeth and my brother are still sickeningly in love. Anyway, there’s bad blood with the Murphys. Always has been. My father and old man Murphy used to fight it out over bookmaking territory. And the brothers are really not nice guys. I take it one of them hit a girl tonight. But really, it’s old stuff—mostly having to do with Dad.”
“Your father was involved in illegal activity?” Lewis asked with mock horror.
I punched him in the arm. “Go back to the South, you ass.”
“So these Murphys, they just show up and start brawls?”
“You’re quite handy with that pool cue.”
“Practice. My father and brother have been
hustling pool my whole life. Sometimes people don’t take too kindly to losing.”
“I was so close to beating him tonight.”
“No, you weren’t.”
“But I was!”
“Lewis, you’ve improved, but Minnesota Fats doesn’t have to worry.”
We turned a corner, and I immediately stopped in my tracks and put my arm out to halt Lewis, too.
“Wish I’d brought that pool cue,” I muttered. Because there, sitting on the hood of my land tank, was the biggest, most hulking man I’d ever seen in my life. And he was clearly waiting for us.