Read Trace of Innocence Online
Authors: Erica Orloff
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #Thrillers
ommy Salami should be grateful he’s a steroidhead. Layers of muscle trapped the bullet before it hit his heart. He was hurt—badly—and he lost a lot of blood, but the doctors said he would be okay.
The next morning, Lewis went home, and I made a pot of coffee, called the hospital to check on Tommy and made scrambled eggs on toast.
My phone rang halfway through breakfast and I picked up.
“Collect call for Billie Quinn from David
Falco. To accept the charges say yes at the tone.”
After a moment of shock, I said yes. I wondered, not for the first time, what the phone company thought seeing all those collect calls I received from different prisons.
“Yeah. Hi, David. I guess you heard the good news—not a match.”
“I know. I’m still sort of numb. I’m sorry for calling collect. I got your number from C.C. I begged her for it. I just wanted to thank you. You could have refused to work on my case. You could have decided you didn’t care. I know you took this and made some sacrifices. I heard about your friend.”
“He’s going to be okay, thank God. Officially, at least for right now, because he, in police parlance, ‘consorts with known felons,’ they’ve tied it to his own background and not your case, which is good for you. I think it’s best if the pure science and DNA clear you rather than muddying up this case with a lot of things we can’t prove. Better to go with what we can prove—which is that your DNA wasn’t on the victim.”
“I’m glad your friend will be okay.” He hesitated. “Is he your boyfriend?”
“Um, no. He does some work for my father occasionally. I think Lewis, my boss, was worried after my apartment was broken into. So my dad sent Tommy Salami over to watch me for a few days. I don’t know…maybe it’s all coincidence.”
“I hope so. I promise when I get out of here and get a job that I’ll buy you a new laptop to replace the one that got stolen—Joe told me.”
“Don’t worry about it. You just get the hell out of there. I have a desktop computer. I’m okay. I’m still getting e-mail.”
“You are? Can I write you?”
“An e-mail. When you came here, you said you wanted to read some of my writing. I thought maybe I could send you something.”
“I’d still like that. My e-mail address is [email protected].”
“I want you all to know how much I appreciate what you’ve done for me. I can never repay you.”
“Honestly, I can’t tell you how it felt to look at that film and see that it wasn’t a match.”
“I told you I was innocent. To prove it now…I’m afraid to believe, but there’s this tiny little bit of me that thinks this nightmare might be over.”
“C.C. was the one who really started this. She never stopped believing.”
“Billie…my grandfather never stopped believing in me. My parents. But when C.C. and Joe and you believed in me, it meant even if I died in prison, in some ways I wasn’t alone. Thank you.” His voice cracked.
“It’s okay, David. When you get out, we’ll have a big party.”
“Big parties aren’t my style. I’d be happy with a quiet dinner where I could get to know you—and C.C. and Joe. And Lewis. I hear he’s a character.”
“Yeah, that’s a pretty good description of Lewis.”
“Well, I better get going. I’ve got ten guys here waiting for the phone. Thanks again. I mean it.”
After I hung up the phone, I went over to my briefcase and took out the Falco file. I laid out a couple of pictures of him on my dining room table and looked down at his photos. I wasn’t sure what it was about him that was so intriguing. Maybe it was the way he carried himself. He had been locked up for years, falsely imprisoned, and yet he hadn’t let it destroy him. That was a rare form of courage. And he was, unmistakably, interested in me.
I used to hate going to sleep. I used to have this recurring nightmare. I was being strapped to a gurney, ready for my execution, and they were approaching me with the needle. In the gallery, I could see my father—and my mother and grandmother and grandfather. All the people I have ever loved, who ever cared about me. They could hear me if I said something to them, but I couldn’t hear them. I was lying there, seeing my mother gripping her chest in pain, sobbing, soundless, wordless, and I was powerless to stop her pain. That hurt more than being in this place. I dreaded sleep.
I wasn’t given the death penalty in reality, but prison is its own death penalty if you are innocent, sucking the life from you slowly, bit by bit, day by day. Then there were nights, I told you, when I would dream I was free. The crushing pain when I woke up would be physical. Like a cinder block on my chest.
Now, I have this tiny little glimmer of hope. It’s like that first breath when you dive deep into a lake and come up to the
surface. You gasp for that first bit of air, so sweet and cool on your face. So now, when I go to sleep, I shut my eyes, and I meditate like always. I take myself out of these prison walls, but now I picture myself standing on a mountain as fresh snow falls. It’s all quiet and hushed, the snow muffling all sound. And then I see you making snow angels. I go and I lie down next to you and we look up at the sky. The sky is different in my dream. You know that you take freedom for granted. I did. In here, in the yard, even if it snows, I look up and always see the same patch of sky, the same view. In my dream, I can stand on the mountaintop and spin in a circle and see new sky, a horizon, as far as my eyes will take me. The air is free air.
I hope I don’t make you uncomfortable—that’s never my intent. I don’t have any expectations of what this friendship will mean once I’m released—if I’m released. But I wanted you to know that for all those years in here I was afraid to dream, and now I’m not. And for that reason, you’ll always be a part of me, however our paths diverge from here.
Thanks, Billie. And thanks for your let
ters and the books. I look forward to hearing from you. I like the stories you write me about Lewis and the lab—and your family. It takes me out of here for a little while and puts me back into a world I hope to one day rejoin.
Joe Franklin worked fast. From his own pocket, he hired a full-time paralegal devoted solely to the Falco case. Joe filed immediate emergency briefs, and he and Lewis went on talk shows to eloquently present the evidence over the next few weeks. Lewis was becoming as famous as his nemesis, Walter. And with each day he was growing closer to C.C.
Harry Whitaker had an airtight alibi for the shooting in the garage, and so the case stayed unsolved—but since no other incidents occurred, we all relaxed and assumed it had nothing to do with the Falco case.
David continued to write to me from prison, long, beautifully eloquent e-mails that spoke of the inner journey he had taken. Beneath the surface of a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit was a man with a deep spiritual and intellectual ca
pacity. I sent him books he requested on Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. On men who had risen like phoenixes from the ashes of difficult circumstances.
And on Christmas Eve, with press cameras flashing, David Falco walked out of prison a free man into the embrace of his father, who had never stopped believing. Joe had two limousines waiting. One for David and his father—with champagne chilling—so they could enjoy the freedom ride together, and one for the Justice Foundation team—Lewis and me, C.C., Joe and the paralegal, Alex Lopez, a tough kid from the Bronx, whom Joe had taken under his wing and helped to turn his life around.
In our limo there were also a couple of bottles of Cristal. Joe, I had discovered as our friendship grew, was a hardworking attorney, but when it came to entertaining, a bit of his old NFL flash came out.
We lifted our flutes of champagne in a toast as the driver started on the Garden State Parkway back toward northern New Jersey.
“To David Falco,” C.C. said.
“To the Justice Foundation,” Alex chimed in.
“To friendship,” Lewis said. “And to the New Orleans Saints.”
I sipped my champagne and then said quietly, “What do you think his adjustment is going to be like? I can’t imagine emerging from prison after ten years. Think back ten years. All those experiences, all that time I threw away and never appreciated. Every day I woke up free was a gift. Think of who you were ten years ago. Think of the way the world has changed.”
C.C. nodded. “The Foundation will do its best to help him, but it’s always tough for these guys. There’s the honeymoon period. Eating all the foods they love and missed. Drinking a cold beer. Sleeping in a bed with crisp, clean sheets and no cellmate snoring in the bunk above them. But then, they have to go through a grieving period, and in some ways that’s more brutal than the time spent in false imprisonment.”
Joe said, “We see it with each guy. They go and look up old friends, they see their brothers and sisters. And what has happened in ten or fifteen years? Well, the world has gone on. Their friends have married, their brothers and sisters have children. They have houses and jobs—all the things that the prisoner never had and may never have. The waste of those years is a huge psychological toll. One guy—you may have heard of him…Rick Sparkhill, the guy who was
cleared of that rape-murder in Seaside Heights at that motel—he attempted suicide.”
“So David has a tough road ahead of him,” I said.
“Yes, but he has a few things going for him.” C.C. tucked a stray curl behind her ear. “First of all, he didn’t waste his years in prison. He got a degree, he started and wrote for the prison newspaper, he read, he fostered friendships. He embraced Eastern philosophy. He didn’t stop growing as an individual, even as this horrible miscarriage of justice left him somewhere he never should have been in the first place. Our research indicates men who do what David has done fare better upon release. Also, because the case seemed to highlight the worst of the justice system—an incompetent public defender and all that—he has some notoriety. A good kind. People believe he is innocent. A couple of messages have come to the Foundation, offering him jobs. With other guys, sometimes ignorant people just don’t believe the science.”
We rode on, arriving around six at Joe’s magnificent mansion in Alpine, New Jersey. It had a long, sweeping driveway, and the path to the ten-foot-tall double wooden doors, carved with a dragon on the front, was illuminated with small Japanese-style lanterns.
We got out of the limos and walked into the house. Joe had hired two waiters, a bartender and a chef for the evening. Glasses of champagne were handed to us, along with hot hors d’oeuvres.
We toasted David’s freedom again, and ate puff pastries and mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat. At one point, David came to me and we walked together into the study.
“I’m numb,” he said. “Numb and overloaded with food and alcohol at the same time. I haven’t eaten like this in ten years. Pinch me. Tell me I’m not dreaming. That I won’t wake up back in my cell.”
I thought he was kidding, but his eyes were earnest, desperate almost.
Playfully, I pinched his bicep. “You’re not dreaming.”
He grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Thanks.” I felt a surge at his touch, but we just turned and went back to the party.
Beneath the tall, full Christmas evergreen in Joe’s living room sat a few presents from us to David—clothes, books, a warm sweater and a new pair of shoes.
He opened two from me, a first edition copy of Albert Camus’s
, and a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddist monk David admired.
“Thank you,” he said, swallowing hard. He looked at me intently, but then C.C. thrust another package at him, then another.
He smiled bashfully and opened them all, shaking his head from time to time. “You guys are unreal. My freedom was present enough.”
Joe’s chef put out a spread of Kobe beef, sushi, baked brie and cold smoked salmon with capers and onions. It was an incredible buffet. We drank bottle after bottle of champagne.
Around midnight, my cell phone rang. I saw from caller ID that it was Jack. I excused myself and stepped into Joe’s study to take the call.
“Still with the suicide king?”
“You should be home with me for Christmas Eve.”
He slurred the
’s in Christmas.
“Jack…are you drunk?”
“What do you care if I am?”
“I care because you’ve been blowing off your A.A. meetings again.”
“Fuck off. I read his letters. He’s in love with you.”
“My letters? Where are you?”
“You read my letters? I thought you were spending Christmas Eve with your partner.”
“We did. Now I’m here. Waiting up for you.”
“Snooping is more like it. You’re a son of a bitch, Jack.” When he drank, he could be nasty. And now, I guessed, devious. I had printed out David’s letters and saved them in a box, in the file cabinet where my mother’s case clippings and files were.
“Trust me, Billie, like all ex-cons, even if he didn’t kill that girl, he’s trouble. I give it a couple of months before he’s arrested for something else. And maybe your intentions toward him were all good. Clear an innocent man, help mankind—whatever, Billie. But I read his letters. He’s playing you.”
“He’s never said he loves me in those letters, Jack. He’s simply reaching out to a friend.”
“Friend, my ass.”
“I’m not going to listen to this, Jack.”
“No job, no home, no money. He was probably released with about a hundred bucks from what he made at a prison job making license plates. He needs a place, clothes, a good lay. Money. He’s playing you for all of that and you’re too blind to see it.”
“I see one thing. That the only time I’ve been a poor judge of character was in getting involved with you. Merry Christmas. Hope you enjoy spending it alone.”
I pressed End and folded my cell phone. That was it. Jack and I were over—and part of me was relieved. I’d have to change the locks on my place. Tonight I’d go home with Lewis rather than risk running into Jack. I felt sick to my stomach and tried to shake it off.