Trace Of Doubt
Trace Of Doubt
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.
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!
Trace of Doubt 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.
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.
You 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’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.
“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.”
I reached across the bed at three in the morning and felt only cold sheets. Sitting up, I looked around through squinted eyes and saw the bluish light from the television set reflected underneath the door.
I bit my lip and climbed out of bed. The air-conditioning was on full blast, making it so I couldn’t hear a thing but its drone. I pulled on my soft flannel robe, opened the bedroom door and padded out to the couch where David sat watching CNN. He looked up at me and whispered, “I didn’t mean to wake you, baby. Go back to bed.”
Right after the Justice Foundation secured his unconditional release and he had become a free man, following nearly a decade in prison, he had been quiet but absorbed in his new life—eating his favorite foods again, being with loved ones, long walks with his dog, Bo, a saliva-sloppy Labrador-rottweiler mix who now slept at the foot of my bed most nights. David’s prison pallor was replaced by a new healthiness. But C.C., the nun who founded the Justice Foundation with attorney Joe Franklin, said eventually the weight of what David had lost—ten of the most vital years of his life—would prey upon him. I saw that now. His deep-brown eyes were sunken, with dark hollows beneath them. He couldn’t sleep, and when he did the nightmares often left him in a cold sweat and shaking.
I walked over to the couch and curled up next to him, snuggling against his arm. “You didn’t wake me. I love watching television at three in the morning. Let’s see if we can find a nice infomercial. I could use a set of Ginsu knives.”
He smiled, despite his haunted look. “God, I love your sense of humor. You help me more than you’ll ever know. But it’s just hard, Billie. I feel paranoid sometimes. I try to make small talk with people at the library, at the gym, sort of get used to the world again. And I keep waiting for them to ask me something that’ll reveal I was in prison. No matter how much reading and Internet surfing and everything I do, fact is I’ve been out of the mainstream for a long time. And I feel like everyone knows it. Like they can see it on me. Smell prison on me. And then I think about how I can’t ever get that time back.”
“I wish I knew how to make it better.”
He leaned over and kissed my cheek, taking his forefinger and tracing it along the line of my cheekbone. “Most of the time, you’re what does make it better. It’s just the nights, you know? Christ, what am I saying? You do know.”
I did. Some nights it was David who had the nightmare. Others, it was me. My mother was murdered when I was a little girl, and a strange mixture of memories of that night and half dreams haunted me. It was like walking into a fun-house maze and finding all my thoughts and recollections distorted somehow.
“Get your LSAT scores yet?” I asked.
“Not yet. But I really think I nailed the exam.”
He had earned a college degree in prison, and with his conviction overturned and the real killer behind bars, David was free to pursue a law career. He intended to be a defense attorney and free other men railroaded or framed the way he was.
“You studied hard enough.”
“Joe tutored me hard enough.” He was referring to the Justice Foundation’s lawyer, former NFL star turned legal eagle. David worked for the foundation now part-time, and the rest of his time was spent studying for law school or working on his book about his odyssey from prisoner to free man.
David caressed my neck. “I still can’t believe that guy did this to you.” My throat was mottled black and blue.
I waved my hand. “I’m a tough cookie.”
He took my hand and kissed it. “That may be, but that doesn’t mean I have to like what you do. I’ve been on the inside. I know how ugly it can be.”
His tongue traced a path along my palm and then the inside of my wrist. I shuddered. Our physical connection was always high-intensity. I slid one leg over him and straddled him, and we kissed for a while. I liked to run my fingers through his thick hair, which curled at the nape of his neck.
“Tired?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he whispered. I slid back next to him and pulled the fleece blanket from the back of the couch over us. We sat on the couch like that, holding each other, for at least an hour, until we both dozed off. Next thing I knew, Bo was licking my bare feet and whimpering that he needed to be walked.
I stirred and looked at David. His face had a sculptured quality, with classical features. He rarely slept peacefully, but his face seemed serene as he slumbered, so I opted to walk the dog. I dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, took Bo for his walk, then came home and showered for Sunday brunch at Quinn’s Pub. I dressed in a denim skirt and a black tank top, with an emerald-colored scarf around my neck to hide the bruises, left David sleeping and drove off in my Cadillac to collect Lewis and then go to my uncle’s pub.
The first Sunday of every month is a sacred Quinn tradition. All Quinns not in prison are expected to attend, along with spouses, children and assorted stray friends and sidekicks we picked up along the way. Lewis was my usual brunch pal, just as I was his standard wedding date. David came when he wasn’t cramming for the LSATs or, in this rarity, sleeping in.
I parked my car outside Lewis’s house and let myself in with my key.
“Hunting for Ripper. Come on upstairs.”
I rolled my eyes and climbed the narrow wooden staircase to the second floor. The top of Ripper’s tank was moved to the side.
“How can a man who owns a pet tarantula lose said tarantula nearly every day? I mean, isn’t this the kind of pet that you might—call me crazy—want to keep in its tank? Keep an eye on?”
“He’s so gentle. I don’t know. I take him out, I put him on my desk, we have a conversation, the phone rings or the teakettle whistles, or my e-mail chimes out ‘You’ve got mail,’ and I take my eyes off him or go downstairs for just five minutes, and next thing I know he’s crept to the bathroom and is hanging out on my toothbrush. Just help me find him before we leave.”
“Fine,” I said. Then I sighed for effect. Lewis really did try my patience. Just as, I’m sure, I tried his.
I began scouring Ripper’s favorite haunts: behind Lewis’s collection of brains in formaldehyde-filled mason jars; tucked in the eyeball socket of the human skeleton in the corner of the room, whom Lewis called Schmedrick; inside any one of the used but not yet washed coffee mugs that dotted the bookshelves. I remember once picking up what I thought was my coffee mug and finding the very large and very hairy Ripper nestled inside.
“Nope, Lewis, I don’t see him anywhere.”
“Here, Ripper…come out, come out wherever you are.”
“Oh, Jesus! Look!” I pointed up at the poster of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Ripper was perched on the corner, looking as if he belonged to one of the zombies depicted in the poster.
Lewis nodded. “Ripper has great taste in movies.” He walked over to Ripper and stuck out his hand. As if on command, Ripper extended a hairy leg and crawled onto Lewis’s palm. Lewis then took him and set him down inside his tank, putting the tank lid on tightly, and placing a dictionary on top of the lid for good measure. He started to leave, then stopped, looked at the tank and added a thesaurus on top of the dictionary.
“That should keep the rascal. I should have named him Houdini.”
“Come on,” I snapped. “We’ll be late for brunch.”
“Don’t want that,” Lewis said. “I hear your brother’s got a truckload of stolen DVDs he’s looking to get rid of. I’m hoping he’s got a few things I might actually want to watch, instead of like last time. I mean, who wants a DVD of Showgirls?”
“A lot of guys might like that.”
“Please. You’ve seen one breast in a pastie, you’ve seen ’em all. Anyway, I’m praying this is a good haul—like movies still in the theaters.”
Whereas I had long ago tired of the shenanigans of my brother and father, Lewis remained quite amused by them, perhaps because his own parents were so staid and boring.
Lewis and I descended the stairs and went outside to my car. I unlocked the doors, and we both climbed in.
“How’s David?” he asked. “Sleeping any better?”
I shook my head. “Not really…. And you?”
He looked out the passenger-side window. “No. Not any better at all.”
Lewis had an IQ over 160, and on a good night he usually slept about four hours, thriving on spending all night reading, playing chess over the Internet and often tormenting me with lengthy conversations about brain matter, blood spatter and serial killers. Then he fell in love with C.C.—a nun who for now was on a spiritual retreat trying to decide just what to do with her friendship with Lewis—and his insomniac life grew a lot worse, only now he was seriously depressed with a case of unrequited love.
“I’m sorry, Lewis.”
“Not one word from her. Not even a letter. Or telegram. Carrier pigeon. Nothing,” he wailed.
“She told you that she was going to go away and she wouldn’t contact you. Me. Any of us. She was going to pray about this, Lewis, and she’s just doing what she said she was going to do.”
“But that leaves me no opportunity to talk her into marrying me…. And yes, I used the M word.”
“I thought you were terrified of the M word.”
“I’m more terrified of living without C.C. Do you know I’ve never so much as kissed her? And if something happened to me and I died before doing so, I might think my life here had been a waste.”
“Lewis, when you’re in love, you’re more melodramatic than ever.”
I headed toward Hoboken. We found a parking spot on the street and walked two blocks to Quinn’s, already sweating in the pre-noon heat.
“Wish this God damn weather would break already,” Lewis muttered.
“You’re from New Orleans. Steamy humidity is in your blood.”
“Maybe, but it’s downright hellish around here. I expect this, south of the Mason-Dixon. But, my God, it’s miserable in Jersey.”
We reached the door to Quinn’s, stepped inside and felt a blast of air-conditioning that was a welcome break from the outside temperature. My uncle Tony came over and hugged me, his bald head shining. He shook Lewis’s hand and wrapped a tattooed arm around his neck. “Gang’s all here,” Uncle Tony growled.
Sitting at tables pulled together were my assorted cousins and my father and brother, and my brother’s girlfriend, Marybeth.
“Hi, Daddy,” I leaned over and kissed my father. My brother stood and grabbed me in a sort of headlock.
“Mikey…” I snapped, “we’re getting a little old for this.”
“Never.” He released my head and then hugged me tightly. “Got a whole truckload of bootleg DVDs in the back office there. Go pick through and take whatever you want.”
I narrowed my eyes and gave him a dirty look.
“What?” he asked.
“Mikey,” I said under my breath. “You promised me you’d straighten out.”
“Come on, Billie…it’s just a few DVDs.”
“It’s just a friggin’ parole violation.”
“I got the complete three-DVD set of The Godfather trilogy. You love that.”
I rolled my eyes but noticed Lewis was already heading back there.
“It’s all fun and games until I’m visiting you on Sundays and admiring your orange jumpsuit,” I said sarcastically.
“Come on, sit down and have a beer. You take life too seriously.”
I took a seat by him and poured myself a mug of beer from the pitcher on the table. Sunday brunch was family style. The place was closed until four in the afternoon, so it was only family. My uncle Tony’s short-order cook, Declan, right off the boat from Ireland—and as far as I knew with no immigration papers—made massive plates of scrambled eggs and home-fried potatoes, rashers of bacon and dozens of biscuits. Diets were forgotten in favor of good old-fashioned fatty food.
Lewis returned to the table with six DVDs—all horror movies, his and my favorite. “Nothing like some zombies,” he said. “Mikey, good haul this time.”
I glared at Lewis. “Stop encouraging him.”
Lewis sat down, poured himself a bloody Mary, and a couple of minutes later the platters of food started arriving at the table. We all ate until we were too stuffed to move.
After eating, my cousins—I had over twenty first cousins on the Quinn side—all left to go to a Yankees game. They had offered me tickets a couple of weeks before but I hadn’t been sure I could go, my Justice Foundation work was done in my spare time, which was precious. After my cousins left, my uncle Tony went into the stock room to take inventory, and my father, Lewis, Mikey and Marybeth remained, drinking beer and bloody Marys.
“I have something for you, Billie,” my father said.
He stood and went behind the bar and returned with a rather large cardboard box and a small black velvet jewelry box. He handed me the jewelry box first. “Open it.”
I lifted the lid. Inside was nestled a diamond ring with an antique-looking platinum setting. I look at him, curious.
“It was your mother’s. I know she would have wanted you to have it. It was our engagement ring.”
My eyes involuntarily teared up. I took the ring out and showed it to Mikey. He swallowed hard a few times. “I don’t remember it.”
“Neither do I,” I said, not that most children pay attention to jewelry when they are very small.
“Put it on,” Marybeth urged.
I slipped it on to my finger. It was a tiny bit loose, but not so loose that it would fall off or I would lose it. I held my hand out. The diamond sparkled.
“It’s beautiful, Dad.”
He then opened the cardboard box and handed Mikey what looked like a big wad of newspapers. Mikey unwrapped whatever was inside the old newspapers—and found a statue of a bride and groom.
“That was on our wedding cake,” my father said. He was still as handsome as the photos of them when they were young. He hadn’t gained an ounce, and his eyes were still pale blue and striking, his hair black, with touches of gray now at the temples. His skin was unlined, except for the hints of crow’s feet around his eyes and deep smile lines near his nose.
“Thanks, Dad,” Mikey said. He turned the figurine over in his hands and then showed it to Marybeth.
Then my father handed me the cardboard box itself. I peered inside. “What are these?” I asked him.
“Cards and letters she kept—letters I sent. I guess letters from her mother and sister. Birthday cards. Valentine’s Day. I couldn’t stand the idea of reading them, so I stuck them in the box and forgot about them. You’re the one who wants…you know…to figure it out. I thought you should have them.”
My father never could bring himself to say, “Your mother was murdered.” He always said she “passed away,” conjuring images of a woman who went to bed one night and didn’t wake up. And I was the one obsessed with solving her murder. I had files of evidence and theories. My very job was, on some level, chosen because it would enable me to learn more about her death.
“Dad?” I asked, “How come you never gave me these before?” I could only imagine what clues the box might yield.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I kind of thought it was disrespectful to…you know…invade her privacy like that.”
“Why are you giving us all this stuff, Dad?” Mikey asked.
Dad sighed. “Well, with you two living on your own, I been thinkin’ that maybe it’s time I sold the house. I’ve got the condo in Florida and the place at the Jersey shore. Been thinking I might just get a condo around here. Don’t need a big old house anymore.”
“But…” I looked at him. I’d always imagined a someday when I would come home to the house I grew up in with my own children. I mean, I wasn’t anywhere close to having kids myself, but that didn’t preclude the idea from being there. My childhood home had a treehouse in the big oak tree out back, and Mikey and I used to play catch out in the yard. Like every boy, he dreamed of the majors, until, unlike every boy, he started dreaming of hot-wiring cars. “The house?” I swallowed hard.
“I’m just rattling around in there. I mean, there’s no sign on the front lawn yet, but I figured I better finally go through her things.”
I held the box on my lap and nodded. We drank some more, watched the TV set over the bar. When Lewis and I were ready to leave, I kissed my dad goodbye and gave Mikey a hug. Lewis didn’t say anything to me as we walked to where I had parked. When we got to my car, I unlocked it and put the box in the backseat. I climbed behind the wheel, and the first thing I noticed was the glint of the diamond in the sun as I gripped the wheel.
“You okay?” Lewis asked.
I nodded. “I think so. I just don’t know why, after over two decades, my father has suddenly decided to deal with her murder.”
“Maybe he finally needs some closure. Or maybe he can finally face looking through her things. You told me she was the love of his life.”
I looked over my shoulder at the box in the backseat. It felt sacred. I wondered, did that box of relics contain clues that would finally let me put her ghost to rest?
That Friday at the lab, a television crew watched me analyze the tiny blood sample from the victim in the Marcus Hopkins case.
The crew was part of a news magazine following our investigation of the Hopkins case from start to finish—however it turned out. They filmed me looking through my microscope, and then they taped a mini interview in which I explained how a single blood sample was better than a fingerprint, and how it could unmistakably identify a killer.
When I lectured to college students on occasion, I liked to use the analogy of a bar code, and I used it again with the film crew. Every human being has a unique bar-coded label that is our DNA. The human bar code is different from a dolphin’s. And my personal bar code is different from Lewis’s, but it shares some properties with my brother’s, just like all dresses in a department store have bar codes defining them as “clothing.” But just as a BeBe dress is inherently different from a Dior gown, my bar code isn’t exactly the same as my brother’s, and it is completely unique, unless I happen to be an identical twin—which most of us are not.
After the film crew finished taping me, I went to visit Lewis, who was staring intently out the window of his office with an expression somewhere between angry and depressed.
“What’s got you so glum?”
“I just got a call from Larry Harmon in the district attorney’s office, who was calling after he got his ass reamed by the governor.”
“And?” I sat down.
“And they want us to try to get through the backlog of rape kits. You’ve heard of Scottie Hastings. He’s up for parole.”
“Shit.” Scottie Hastings was an acquaintance-rapist. However, he had a predilection for S&M that truly turned the women’s ordeals into far beyond whatever their worst nightmares were. However, he was also very rich, heir to an immense private fortune—part of the Hastings candy empire. Plus, he had an IQ as high as Lewis’s and read law books and texts on DNA evidence for fun. His dream team hired the most expensive jury analysts money could buy—and they were worth it. He got acquitted on nearly all counts in the only case that even made it past the grand jury. He was serving the end of a short sentence for sexual battery. No one had any doubt that as soon as he got out he would resume his sick hobbies.
“What does the D.A. want you to do?”
“Jailhouse informant says the guy brags he’s got tapes. That he didn’t only rape acquaintances. I guess raping people he knew got old. So he started raping and torturing strangers. Wore a mask. The D.A. is hoping he got sloppy somewhere and we can pin a rape on him. Preferably before he’s out on the streets. The D.A. hopes there’s a match in one of those kits.”
“But the backlog is immense.”
“Yeah, well, we just have to do it. I don’t want this sick bastard out there.”
I stared at Lewis. He rarely cursed, and the anger on his face was visible. “Okay…” I said slowly. “But something else is bothering you. I can tell.”
“Out with it.”
“All right,” he sighed. “Mitch Stern just offered me my own television show. A cold-case kind of program on their cable network. Five times the money I make here and probably a tenth of the aggravation. Says my appearances as a talking head are getting me network notice.”
My mouth dropped open. “You wouldn’t consider it, would you?”
When we were trying to secure David’s release from prison, Lewis and Joe Franklin went on a number of legal analysis shows and cable programs to tout his innocence. Lewis on television was pretty much the same as Lewis in real life—dry humored, urbane, witty and at times mischievously ghoulish. He was also very telegenic, with his head of silvery hair and pale eyes, and that rascal-imp smile of his.
“‘Consider’ is too strong a word.”
“Oh, God,” I felt myself panic a bit, “you are thinking about it, aren’t you?” My voice was a little accusatory.
“Billie, every day someone at this lab is bitching about something—you being the lead bitch at times. We’re underfunded, overworked and then we get calls like today asking us to do the impossible. Our testing is scrutinized more closely by the second because no D.A. or attorney wants to go to court and endure another OJ fiasco, and thanks to CSI and a half-dozen TV shows, everyone thinks he or she is a DNA expert, including juries. I’d be crazy not to think about it.”
“But you’re the driving force behind this lab.” Lewis never lost his dedication to science.
He slumped in his chair. “I don’t know what drives me anymore.”
I thought about turning on my television and seeing Lewis, with Ripper on his desk, discussing maggots and blowflies with visiting experts, or maybe leading a roundtable discussion on how to dismember a body. What was the world coming to?
“Enough of my miserable existence. You read any of your mother’s letters yet?”
I shook my head. “It feels creepy. I will, though.”
“Want to grab some dinner tonight?”
“Can’t. I’ve got to meet Joe and go over the Hopkins case with him. Want to join us?”
“Sure.” He sighed.
“You know, Lewis, you’re worse than a hound dog with those expressions. Unrequited love on you is ugly.”
I stood and left his office, saying over my shoulder, “I’ll let you know where and when for dinner when Joe calls me.”
I walked back to my desk and answered e-mail. Then I called up the schedule to see where I could squeeze extra hours from the criminalists and technicians I supervised to process more rape kits.
About a half hour later, Ziggy came by with the mail. I’m not sure what Ziggy’s real name is. It could be Ziggy, I suppose. I just know he’s a major Bob Marley fan, and by attrition loves Ziggy Marley, too. At some point, with his dredlocks and faintly Caribbean accent, someone probably called him Ziggy and it stuck.
He handed me five or six pieces of mail.
“When you gonna run away with me?”
“Zig, you know I have a boyfriend.”
“Yeah. My dumb luck.”
“Give me a break. Your girlfriend is stunning. She puts the rest of us females to shame.”
“Yeah…and Shiana believes my band is just one break short of superstardom. She’s a righteous lady.”
“Yes, she is.” Actually, I’d heard Ziggy’s band, and Shiana was right. They were awesome.
Ziggy left, and I opened my mail—several flyers from a publishing company advertising new texts in the science of DNA, genetic testing and crime-scene investigations. Most of the textbooks were twice as thick as dictionaries and cost hundreds of dollars. Lewis used them to keep the lid on Ripper’s tank.
Then there was one with no return address. I turned it over in my hand, then turned it back to the front. I didn’t recognize the handwriting. “Ms. Billie McNamara Quinn.” How odd, I thought. I never used my middle name—actually my mother’s maiden name—because it was unwieldy, and people thought it was a married name and tended to hyphenate it.
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.
“Jesus Christ!” I stifled a scream, then instinctively looked around as if the person who sent me the letter was there somehow, watching me, seeing how freaked out I was. But of course no one was there.
My hands shook, and I immediately put down the envelope and letter so that my fingerprints weren’t all over it. I buzzed Lewis on the phone. We have Caller ID, so he knew it was me.
“Lewis LeBarge, resident genius speaking.”
“I need you to come to my desk. This second.”
“You all right?” His voice changed from playful to earnest.
“Just come,” I managed to squeak.
Lewis was at my desk in under a minute. In that time, I’d donned rubbed gloves. I showed him the letter and the fabric.
“My mother’s dress,” I whispered.
“Are you sure, Billie?”
I nodded and looked up at him. I knew I had no color in my face. “You and I know serial killers don’t retire. They may appear to stop killing, but they’ve either changed locations or MO, they’re in prison somewhere on an unrelated charge. Or they’re dead. All these years, Lewis, even as I’ve obsessed over this case, I told myself he’d met some gruesome end somewhere. It was how I slept—when I can sleep, that is. I told myself he was dead. And now…now I know he’s not only alive, he knows who I am.”
“Maybe a witness?” he offered hopefully, though I could hear how he didn’t believe it himself.
“A witness who has a scrap of a murder victim’s dress?”
“Could it be some elaborate hoax?”
I shook my head. “I don’t see how. I’ll need to have all this tested. The envelope, letter, the type and font, and the dress fabric itself.”
“Whatever you need. You know that.”
“Why now, Lewis? Whoever sent this, why now after all these years?”
“I don’t know.”
I got the evidence together and submitted it for processing, assigning it a lab number. About thirty minutes later Joe Franklin called.
“You want to meet at the sushi place in Ft. Lee?”
“What’s the matter, Billie?”
“I’ll tell you when I see you. Lewis is coming.”
“Great. See you both around seven?”
I went through some more lab results. We processed everything from DNA samples to drug samples. If the police find a kilo of white powder, they need to be eventually be able to tell a jury if it’s cocaine, heroin, or talcum powder. But I really couldn’t concentrate.
My mother was the total antithesis of my father, but somehow what they had together worked. She kept a garden, read the classics, went to church every Sunday and she was from the old model of Carol Brady housewife—ever cheerful, running her household with enthusiasm. She was an amazing cook and absolutely breathtaking. My father said he was a goner the minute he laid eyes on her. At first, he didn’t tell her what he did for a living…which was run a family within the Irish mob in Jersey. By the time he did sit down and tell her, she was already so in love, she made fragile peace with what he did even as she said a rosary each Sunday for his soul.
When she disappeared, the cops paid very little attention. They reasoned that she had tired of being married to the mob and had simply decided to take a hike. “Thousands of people walk away from their lives every year. They don’t want to get found,” was what one of the detectives told my father.
But her disappearance was so out of character, and even if she had tired of his involvement with “the life,” my father knew—and always told us—that she never would have left Mikey and me behind. Ever.
And by the time the authorities took his claims seriously, the trail was cold. Her body turned up—what little remained of it—in a secluded wooded area six months later. Animals had consumed parts of her bones. There was evidence that she was tortured, some ligature marks worn into the bones that were there. And though it would have been convenient for the cops to dismiss it as a mob killing, the fact is the mob, while not a bunch of choirboys, has its own code. You don’t touch the family of a mobster, no matter what he’s done, and my dad hadn’t been lying when he’d told the cops things were peaceful in his “business” at the time she disappeared.
My father was never the same after that. He wasn’t home when it happened—and he told himself he should have been. I was never the same. Mikey was never the same. Her absence left this gaping hole in our lives. We were never at home. Dad couldn’t cook much more than spaghetti or hot dogs, and if Mom haunted us, reminding us of the vacant empty spaces inside, we haunted diners. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, we ate out every day, usually at Greek diners, sliding across red leather seats into booths, plugging quarters into juke boxes on the table.
My brother followed Dad into the family business, but I tested off the IQ charts and was soon attending a snooty private school, with my father pushing me to go for it and become a doctor with my straight-A average and love of chemistry and biology. For me, science was about escape. And facts. I could write down a formula in black and white, and it was irrefutable. DNA fascinated me. And in that fascination was born an idea. I could become a criminalist…and maybe someday solve her murder.
Dad was disappointed. But I’m nearly through with my doctoral thesis, so I tell him that he’ll have a Dr. Quinn in the family, anyway.
After most of the lab had gone home that evening, Lewis came to collect me.
“Why don’t we go park your car at your place? You leave your car there, and I’ll drive us to the restaurant. You can get good and drunk. I think you need to.”
I was too drained to argue and nodded.
“Is David home? Why don’t you call him and see if he’ll join us?”
“No. He’s drywalling his father’s basement. Finishing off an area for his dad to do some woodworking.” David’s mother had died of cancer while he was in prison, but he and his father were exceedingly close. His father had never once given up hope that the real Suicide King killer would be found.
I followed Lewis to my place, then got in his car, and we took the New Jersey Turnpike and headed to Ft. Lee, a bedroom community for Manhattan just across the Hudson via the George Washington Bridge.
“Are you going to tell your father and Mike about the letter?”
“I have to. I just have to figure out how. You know how Dad gets.”
Lewis smirked. “Yes, I do. Two words—Tommy Salami.”
Tommy Salami was the overgrown steroid-huge pit bull of a bodyguard my father saddled me with when he was worried about me. When we were working the Suicide King case, Tommy had even taken a bullet for me. Which meant I was now forever indebted to a man who loved salami, as well as all other Italian cuts of meat. I often sent him gift baskets as a way of still trying to say thank you. But the last—and I mean the very last—thing I wanted to have happen was for my father to decide my mother’s murderer was after me. If Dad thought I was in danger, I’d once again be riding to work with Tommy Salami in my passenger seat—I refused to let him drive.
“We’ll have to call the police, too,” Lewis said. “We can run the tests, but you know, tracking down the postmark and so on, we’ll need to involve them.”
“Trust me. Finding anyone on the police force interested in solving my mother’s case will be impossible. No man hours will be devoted to it. Nothing. Why? Because her last name, and mine, is the same as Dad’s. And Mikey’s. And their collective rap sheet is miles long. The Quinn name means they won’t be looking to help us, Lewis.”
“But it’s a murder.”
“An old murder. A cold case. You see how many rape kits we need to process. There are more pressing things for the police to do than find her killer. And to be honest, they botched it. When the trail was fresh, they should have looked more intensely for her. You know the department is loath to admit mistakes.”
He pursed his lips. “What if I try to find a cop to help us? I’m not director of the lab for nothing. More than a few detectives owe me.”
I shrugged. “You can try.”
“Good. Because I was going to whether you agreed or not.”
I smiled to myself and looked out the window. We arrived in Ft. Lee and spied the Japanese place Joe loves, and then circled the block four times until we found a spot.
We put change in the meter and entered the restaurant. Joe waved to us from the back. He’s hard to miss. He used to play football for the New Orleans Saints. A bum knee meant he was sidelined permanently, but they still had to pay out his contract. Unlike a lot of guys who might blow their proverbial wad on women and cars and bling, Joe went to law school. His mother had always wanted him to be a fancy lawyer anyway. Soon, he was negotiating multimillion-dollar deals for some of his old buddies, but a case he took pro bono to free an innocent kid changed him. Now he balances the big money with the Justice Foundation.
Joe half rose from his seat and kissed my cheek. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I have,” I said.
Our favorite waiter, Huang, came over, and I ordered sake and Lewis ordered a ginger ale.
“Well?” Joe asked, using his chopsticks to pick up a piece of cucumber from one of the small spicy salads offered in sample-size dishes when customers sat down.
I told him about receiving the letter.
“You better be careful,” he intoned. “You know, we nearly lost you on the Suicide King case. Have you thought about—”
“Don’t say it,” I snapped.
“I was just going to suggest Tommy Salami.”
“I know. And I’m not interested in being babysat by Mr. Salami. I think I’ll go to the firing range instead.” I had, after the Suicide King case, gotten a carry-and-conceal permit. But I was still unsure as to whether I really wanted to carry a weapon.
Joe leaned back. He was dressed in one of his usual custom suits—you don’t find clothes for an NFL physique in a standard department store. He had his shirts hand-tailored by a former Hong Kong shirtmaker, right down to the JRF embroidered on the cuff in elegant script. “This is getting tiring sometimes. Dealing with this shit.”
“It’s not the penthouse boardroom of some NFL team headquarters,” I said. “It’s the ugly and dirty side of life.”
“Yeah. Well, I for one am tired of dealing with murderers and prisons. And I miss C.C.” He looked at Lewis. “And not in the way you miss C.C. I just miss her calming presence. She was my anchor, man.”
“How’s Vanessa?” Lewis asked. He and I hated her. She and Joe started dating three months before. She was an entertainment reporter for a television tabloid show. She was stunning—and ambitious. And Vanessa clearly had no use for Lewis and me. The two of us wondered what Joe saw in her beyond her obvious beauty.
“She’s after me to shut down the foundation and, swear to God, take a stab at politics.”
I exchanged glances with Lewis. I could just see Vanessa taking over Gracie Mansion with Joe as mayor of New York City.
“You wouldn’t do that, would you?” I found I was grateful for my hot sake, which had arrived, and I downed the first cup, then another.
“I won’t say I haven’t thought about it.”
“What about Marcus Hopkins? What about men like him?” I asked Joe.
“I know. I haven’t made any decisions yet, honest. I wish C.C. was here, though, to talk things over with.” He paused. “You going to visit Marcus Sunday?”
I nodded. “I feel like I have to make the drive. David told me the worst thing in prison when you’re innocent is the lack of hope. You just feel like it’s a never-ending nightmare from which you can’t wake up.”
The three of us ordered sushi and spent the rest of the dinner discussing the Hopkins case, plus looking at files and applications of other possible cases to take on. I lost track of how much sake I drank. All I know is Lewis kept signaling for another one of those cute little sake bottles, and I kept filling my tiny ceramic cup. By the time dinner was over, I was definitely feeling less pain over the stress of getting the letter.
Lewis drove me to my apartment. Before I met David, I regularly crashed on Lewis’s couch. Now I made sure I got home most nights. Before I climbed out, he took my hand in his.
“Be careful, Billie.”
“If it’s your mother’s killer, he wants to play some sort of game with you. Cat and mouse. And guess which part you’re supposed to play? The mouse.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve spent enough time with The Mob that I’m more like a very street-smart rat. You don’t want to mess with a Jersey rat.”
I exited the car and opened the door to my building and let myself in to my apartment. David was asleep in bed. I sometimes wondered if, after prison, with its inherent lack of privacy, he slept better when I wasn’t in the bed next to him.
Bo came over to me and accepted a few pats. My cat slunk over and nudged his head against my knee. The two of them got along surprisingly well.
I flicked on the light in the kitchen and opened the fridge and poured myself a tall glass of apple juice. I was convinced hydration was the secret to avoiding a hangover. I opened a cabinet and took out three Advil. Hydration and over-the-counter pain relievers. I hoped I wouldn’t hate the morning too much.
But they didn’t have a pain reliever for what was really bothering me.
Lewis was considering leaving the lab for stardom on the boob tube.
Joe was considering shutting down the foundation for his ambitious girlfriend’s career plans for him.
C.C. was still MIA.
My father was considering selling my childhood home.
My brother was again dabbling in the same sort of things that got him arrested before.
And my mother’s killer had decided I would make a nice mouse.
No, there wasn’t a pill big enough to fix what was wrong with my life.
I trained my gun on the paper silhouette at the end of the firing range. Six shots later I had nailed my target square between the eyes, twice in the heart, once in the belly, once in the shoulder and once pretty close to where his family jewels might be.
I knew I was a good shot. What troubled me was knowing that if I ever came face-to-face with someone, conditions wouldn’t be like the firing range, where I could concentrate and focus and aim ever so accurately. Guns were my father’s and Mikey’s territory, not mine. When I fired my handgun, I usually pictured myself coolly facing down my mother’s killer, channeling my anguish into something powerful and calculatingly devastating.
I took off my ear muffs and safety glasses, put my gun in its holster and checked my watch. It was time to go home. David and I had made plans to take Bo to the park.
As I left the firing range, I thought about Marcus’s case. And my mother’s. DNA isn’t done on every case. Now, more and more, it is, but there just isn’t enough money—particularly if you have a public defender, like Marcus did. Sometimes, in old cases, tests weren’t done simply because they didn’t exist at the time, or because the advances in technology were too new. For instance, now we can test with smaller fragments of DNA than ten years ago. The specimen doesn’t have to be as pure. The tiny drop of blood found in Marcus’s case didn’t belong to him or his victim. It opened a window for his possible release.
I walked the five blocks to my car. I had parked it down a side street. The neighborhood wasn’t the best; it was a warehouse district, and Saturday left it abandoned. I instinctively shook my head to clear my mind and pay better attention. I walked taller and deliberately appeared more confident. I had been in plenty of seedy bars in tough parts of town with Dad and Mikey. If you don’t look for trouble, but don’t appear afraid, you’re more likely to be left alone.
I reached my Caddy and started to climb in, but noticed a large brown envelope tucked under the windshield wiper blade on the passenger side. I walked around my car and retrieved it, opening it right away.
Then I screamed. Inside was a thick lock of human hair with what looked like dried bits of blood attached to it. I squinted and looked closer. The hair definitely had once been caked in blood. Someone had left me a “souvenir.”
I scanned the street. I didn’t see anyone, and it could have been left for me two hours before, when I first arrived at the shooting range. Then I got an eerie feeling. I couldn’t identify it precisely, but a cold chill tingled at the back of my neck. I had the sense I was being watched. I told myself it was because I was unnerved by the sickening present left for me, but I wasn’t so sure.
Hands shaking, I unlocked the car door on the passenger side and put the envelope on the seat. Then I took my gun from its holster and whirled around. No one was visible anywhere, but I spied an open bay on the warehouse to my left.
Quickly I dashed the few yards to the cement stairs leading up into the bay and climbed them to the open door. I went from the hot, blazing sunlight into the cavernous dark of an unlit warehouse. It was cooler, but also stuffy. I could smell old diesel fuel or gasoline, and could hear the scurrying of rats. Then I heard someone running in heavy boots or shoes.
“Who’s there?” I shouted. With my gun drawn, I ran in the direction of the footfall. The further I followed, the darker the warehouse was.
Boxes were stacked high all around me. I stopped for a minute, straining to hear where the person was running to next, but all I could hear was my own heartbeat in my ears, my breath ragged and seemingly loud enough to echo. I was both terrified and determined to discover who had left me the package.
As I rounded one set of boxes, I glimpsed a guy in black pants and a black jacket running away. It was hot as hell, and my first thought was he must be a drug addict to be dressed in dark colors with long sleeves on a day with the temperature hitting ninety-two in the shade. Maybe he had the damp chills of withdrawal. I couldn’t get a decent look at him in the darkness beyond figuring he was about five foot ten or eleven. I ran faster. A window was broken in the back of the warehouse, allowing light to come through a few cracks, almost like shards of sun. As I got a little closer to the person who’d obviously left me a souvenir, my heart pounded more wildly. He was wearing a mask. A creepy flesh-colored one that fit him like second skin, a Halloween-type mask.
I was instantly conscious of my gun. I tried to think clearly. Fire the gun, Billie, and you had better be prepared to kill him. To kill another human being. For what? Leaving me a weird package. I decided that retreating and calling the cops was a much smarter option.
I turned and did a complete about-face, running the other way now, keeping my gun at my side. I bumped against a tall stack of boxes, which teetered and fell over on top of me. The cardboard boxes, heavy with—according to their labels—electronics, smashed against me, knocking me to the hard cement warehouse floor. One hit my head, and I felt like I chipped a back tooth. My gun clattered to the floor next to me.
Panic started to overtake me. I shoved my arms out as hard as I could, pushing off the boxes, grabbing my gun and standing up. My assailant was nowhere to be seen.
I climbed out of the pile of boxes and ran for the bay door. Looking out, I didn’t see him, but my eyes burned, and tears involuntarily formed from the sudden sting of bright sunlight. I leaped down and reached my car, opening my door with my left hand—shaking a bit, fumbling for the lock because I’m right-handed—one eye on the bay, aware of my gun in my right hand.
Gratefully I got the door open.
I hurriedly clambered in and shut the door, locked it, and put my gun on the seat next to me. I jammed the keys in the ignition, fighting the rising tide of panic, feeling like I was drowning in my own heartbeat.
Thank God, my Caddy is a dream. Her engine raced, and I pulled away from the curb with a screech of my tires. Looking in my rearview mirror, I saw him emerge from the warehouse, his masked face, almost like a burn victim’s, expressionless and waxy. His hair, I saw, was a cheap wig. I gunned the car and as I picked up speed, I looked again in my rearview mirror, but he was gone, almost as if it had been some weird nightmare. As if it had never really happened. I didn’t even dial the cops. They’d think it was some weird attempt to scare me. A stalker. I drove, pedal nearly to the floor, until I was ten or fifteen blocks away. Then I followed signs for the Turnpike. When I reached the highway, I pulled into the first rest stop. Only when I was parked and feeling safe, did I allow my sheer terror to bubble to the surface. My hands shook, my teeth chattered, and I wanted to scream aloud. I gripped my sides and rocked back against my seat until I felt the horror of that creep subside. Then I tried to think.
Was he the man who murdered my mother?
Or did he have something to do with a case?
Either way, I decided from now on, I was going to be armed. And I had a sneaking suspicion Tommy Salami was going to be visiting me very soon. Lewis was my best friend, and if I told him what happened, I knew he’d tell my Dad. It was the only time he ever betrayed a confidence: if he felt I was in danger. And for only the second time in my life, I had to agree. I really and truly was.
In the predawn hours of Sunday morning, Bo leaped on the bed and licked David’s face to beg him to go out. David groaned but rose and slipped into shorts to take him. I rolled over and snuggled deeper under the covers, where I felt safe.
About fifteen minutes later David returned, dropped his shorts to the floor and slid back into bed with me. He spooned around me, his body like a perfect sculpture, like the statue of David. “I love you, Billie.”
“Love you, too,” I murmured.
“I really wish you’d call the police.” He kissed the nape of my neck and with tiny flicks of his tongue, kissed all the way to my shoulder, which was bruised from my fall in the warehouse.
“No.” After my attack, I had driven to the lab to have the souvenir in the envelope processed. “I think it has to do with my mother’s case. And they didn’t help my family before, so it’s not like I want their help now. You, more than anyone, should understand that.”
When David was arrested, he had an iffy alibi but impeccable character witnesses—and no visible motive. But the police seemed only too happy to consider the case closed. Of course, it turned out one of the men in blue had done it.
He kissed my bare shoulder. “I do.”
We lay there in silence for a while. Sometimes, David and I were like two islands, separated by the choppy waters of the tragedies that had happened to each of us. Sometimes we clung to each other desperately, like two survivors of a shipwreck.
The sun came up, and I rose and made a pot of coffee. I fed my cat and then showered and got ready for the long ride to see Marcus.
This particular Sunday I liked the quiet of the four-hour or so drive to Dannemora, which rises like a fortress in upstate New York. My family, anyone who’s spent time there, calls it Little Siberia. In the winter, Oneida County might as well be the real Siberia. Snowfall is measured in feet, not inches. The lake system means lots of white-outs, snow and fog blowing in off the water. It’s desolate and despairing. And in the midst of this harsh landscape, the stone prison rises, forbidding, like an evil queen’s torturous snow palace.
In contrast, during the summer, the area around Dannemora is green and lush. But it’s still isolated. No one else lives in Clinton, New York, except the prison guards, workers and their families. I mean, others do, but the town mostly exists for the support of Little Siberia.
I’ve spent much of my life visiting relatives in prison, including my grandfather. Each penitentiary has its own atmosphere and variations on the rules. My father and Mikey usually served at minimum-security facilities. I had uncles who served in Dannemora, Sing-Sing and Auburn. One of my more troubled cousins even got involved in a major drug-trafficking scheme and is serving in the escape-proof federal facility in Leavenworth, Kansas. He’ll be there a long time, thanks to minimum-sentencing guidelines. He’s gone practically mad from the lack of human contact there—his behavior’s earned him time in a lockdown section where no natural light ever makes its way in.
Prison has sounds like no other place. An echoing roar of male voices, almost like a buzzing hive of killer bees. Bars clanging, buzzers sounding, shouts, screams, catcalls, whistles, televisions blaring. If you watch carefully, you can see men communicating with hand signals. Gang signs flash. When I arrived at Dannemora, I waited to be processed, identified as one of Marcus Hopkins’s defense-team members. Eventually I was shown to a meeting room where Marcus and I could talk.
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