Quinn Harrison has one of those smiles. It’s sleek. It’s slick. It’s sexy.
Oh boy, is it sexy!
And at that very moment, I wanted to smack it right off his face, and if he had a brain in his head, he would have known it. After all, we’d first met back when I was investigating Gus Scarpetti’s murder, and we’d been seeing each other regularly since this past winter, when I returned from my mom’s house in Florida, where I had been recuperating from that gunshot wound.
In the time I’d known him, Quinn had been nice enough to save my life a time or two. But believe me, that wasn’t why I was sleeping with him.
I was sleeping with Quinn because, not counting the ghost I once fell in love with, he was the hottest guy I’d met since forever. It’s not like we’d ever established any kind of meaningful relationship or anything. We didn’t need one. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to have some sort of meaningful relationship with him, and I didn’t know for sure, but I liked to think he felt the same. I guess neither one of us knew where to begin.
Then again, if Quinn was half the superman he believed himself to be, he should have learned to read my mind by now. That would have been a good start.
“Come on, Pepper.” His eyes sparking, he grazed one hand from my wrist and up to my elbow. He brushed his long, strong fingers back and forth over my arm. “You’ve got to admit, it’s pretty funny.”
“Not.” I would have crossed my arms over my chest if what he was doing didn’t feel so good. We were sitting side by side on the couch in my living room, so I slid him a look. “Explain to me the funny part about being the head of a team of felons!”
“They’re not felons. Not all of them, anyway.” Quinn got up long enough to go into my dining room where we’d left the bottle of red wine we’d opened when we came back from dinner. I am more of a martini girl. Always have been. But thanks to Quinn, I was learning to appreciate a good bottle of wine. Actually, thanks to Quinn, I was learning to appreciate a whole bunch of new and interesting things.
One of which was that when he had the little spark in his eyes, his mind was on one thing and one thing only-sex.
Come to think of it, Quinn had that spark in his eye every time I saw him.
Which meant either he was crazy nuts about me, or he only came around when he was looking for some action.
I batted the thought aside. Right now, I had bigger things to worry about.
Like those felons.
“The TV cameras were right there when they piled out of that van. They were filming. That nasty little Greer Henson says the look on my face was so priceless, she’s going to use that as the opening scene when the first episode airs next week.” I groaned. “The only consolation I have is that nobody is going to watch that stupid show, and that means nobody’s going to see me with a bunch of criminals out on parole.”
“Number one, I’m going to watch.” Quinn had stripped off his navy suit coat as soon as we were in the door. He’d discarded the shoulder holster that held his gun, too, and now, he unhooked his gold detective’s badge from his belt and tossed that on the table, too. His pressed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life white shirt glimmered from the darkness of the dining room. So did his smile. He refilled my glass, brought it to me, and went back for his and the bottle.
“Number two, none of those people are out on parole. They’re on probation. Parole is when you’re in prison and you get released. That’s different from probation. You can be put on probation when you commit a crime, you plead guilty, but the judge doesn’t send you to jail. As a condition of your probation, you have to do certain things. Like see your probation officer whenever you’re scheduled. Or stay off drugs. If you don’t fulfill the conditions of your probation, you can get sent right to jail. Your people-for God knows what reason-have been ordered to help with that cemetery restoration of yours.”
“It’s not my cemetery restoration.” Since he’d left my glass on the coffee table, my hands were free. I crossed my arms over my chest.
Quinn dropped back on the seat beside me, one leg crooked and his arm thrown casually across the back of the couch. The last thing on his mind was my problem. Yeah, yeah, there was that whole spark-in-his-eyes thing. That was my first clue. But I also knew what he was thinking about because after he took a sip of wine, he skimmed his mouth over the sensitive skin just below my ear.
I shivered appropriately, but let’s face it, it was going to take a whole lot more than that to make me forget everything that happened at Monroe Street that day. “I can’t believe Ella pulled this on me,” I grumbled.
Quinn didn’t look happy about the brush off, but he gave in almost gracefully. Then again, he could afford to. He knew he’d get his way-sooner or later. He always did.
He sat back to sip and savor his wine. “It’s pretty smart, really. Think of the publicity.”
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking about. Me, on TV, with…” I could barely make myself speak the words, and besides, I didn’t know what to call my team, anyway. Were they inmates? Jailbirds? Convicts? In the time since I’d become a private investigator, I’d dealt with my share of criminals, but never with ones who were actually incarcerated, or who should have been.
Jail, remember, was something I didn’t want to think about.
To keep my mind from going down that path, I reached for the file folder I’d plunked on the coffee table when I got back from the cemetery that day. I paged through the papers in it.
“Look at this guy,” I tipped the folder toward Quinn not nearly long enough for him to see the photo of the youngest member of my team. Delmar Lui was a skinny Asian eighteen-year-old with bad skin and a shock of hair that was darker even than Quinn’s. Unlike Quinn’s neat, clean cut, Delmar’s hair stuck up in spikes. So did the silver piercings protruding from his lip, his nose, and his left eyebrow. Back at the cemetery, when he opened his mouth long enough to say, “Hey,” I saw there was a silver stud in his tongue, too.
“This kid’s a graffiti artist. Who in their right mind would send a graffiti artist into an already-vandalized cemetery to help with the restoration? And why did he get arrested, anyway? Don’t you cops have better things to do than chase around after kids?”
Quinn read over my shoulder and pointed. “He wasn’t arrested because of the graffiti. He broke into a school; that’s where he defaced the property. He was charged with breaking and entering.”
“Whatever!” I cast Delmar’s paperwork aside and looked at the next picture. This one showed a pudgy, middle-aged guy who was as pale as one of those fish that live way at the bottom of the ocean where there’s never any light. His eyes pointed in different directions.
“Aggravated robbery.” I shuddered at the very thought.
“He doesn’t look like he could pull it off.” Quinn took the paper out of my hands. “Jake Swazacki, known to his friends as Crazy Jake. That sounds promising.”
I was not in the mood for sarcasm, and just so Quinn would know it, I snatched the paperwork back from him and read the narrative of Crazy Jake’s crime. “He walked into a convenience store and told the clerk to turn over all the money in the cash register because he had a bottle of bleach with him, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.” I wasn’t sure if this piece of information was intended to make me laugh or cry. “At least if they’re going to send me criminals, they could send me smart ones.”
“How about this guy?” Quinn poked a finger at the next picture. The man in it was thirtyish, bald, and had a tattoo of a pit bull smack in the center of his forehead. His eyes were a shade of blue that reminded me of neon.
Quinn took a closer look. “Reggie Brinks. I think I arrested him once.”
“Great. Looks like this time, he pled guilty to a drug charge.”
“Good old Reggie. He never changes.”
“And this guy?” I am not one to be easily intimidated, but just looking at the photograph of Absalom Sykes sent shivers down my spine. And not the good kind of Quinn-induced shivers, either. Absalom was a six-four, two-hundred-and-sixty-pound African American bruiser. When he got out of the van at the cemetery that morning, I remembered thinking I’d seen hams smaller than his fists. He had burning eyes and a tilt to his chin that said trouble as clearly as Reggie’s pit bull tattoo.
“He steals cars for a living,” I told Quinn, reading from the file. “That ought to make him good company.”
“Better than this chick.” While I was preoccupied with quaking at the thought of spending my summer with a guy as scary as Absalom, Quinn had whisked the last photo from the bottom of the pile. He made a face. “Even I wouldn’t mess with this woman.”
I knew just what he meant. The second Sammi Santiago strutted out of that Corrections Department van, I knew we were not going to get along. And it wasn’t just because she was dressed like a tramp, either, though I will admit, her first impression was not a good one. Sammi’s denim skirt was so short, I was surprised the cameras kept rolling when she walked into the office/ tent. Something told me the good folks over at the PBS station would be working overtime that week to make sure every shot they showed of Sammi was from the waist up. Then again, even that might not keep the censors happy, seeing as how Sammi was poured into a brown strapless top made out of some kind of extra-clingy material.
The way I remember it, she was also wearing an ankle bracelet.
And I do not mean the jewelry kind.
Sammi was a foot shorter than me and as thin as a whip. She had funny-colored eyes, sort of tawny, like a cat’s, and she wore her fuzzy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and tied with what looked like a piece of barbed wire. Her shoes?
I quivered at the very thought.
Last I saw her, Sammi was wearing a pair of shiny patent leather Bapes in vivid shades of red and blue. There was a picture of Spider-Man on the back of them. The sneakers looked especially attractive with her fishnet kneesocks.
Oh yeah, Sammi had a style all her own, and attitude galore. I remember that, too, because the moment she saw the TV camera, she dropped a couple f-bombs that nearly made the members of Team One pass out en masse.
“Domestic violence. She beats up on her boyfriend regularly,” Quinn read from the line where Sammi’s crime was listed. “That explains the electronic monitoring device. A lot of batterers are put on house arrest.”
“Then what’s she doing at the cemetery?”
“She’s allowed to work. See, here.” Quinn pointed. “She’s also got to go to anger-management classes. Some nice probation officer somewhere hooked her up with you to give her experience working as part of a team.”
“Lucky me.” I slipped Sammi’s paperwork into the file folder with the others and side-handed the whole thing onto the coffee table. “It’s going to be a long summer. The last thing I need is a bunch of prisoners on my hands.”
“Speaking of prisoners…” Quinn took another sip of wine and looked at me over the rim of his glass. “Heard from your dad lately?”
In a weak moment, I had mentioned my dad to Quinn. Too bad he didn’t get the unspoken message that went along with the story of my dad’s arrest and conviction: that part of my personal life was a little too personal.
I sloughed off his question with a shrug. “Dad calls once in a while. He wants me to visit.”
“You’ll have to apply ahead of time. You must know that by now. He’s been at Englewood how long?”
I didn’t want to rehash it so I glommed onto his previous statement. “Apply?”
“To visit a federal prison? Sure.” He nodded. “You’ve got to be pre-approved, and that means filling out some paperwork. You can get it online.”
It sounded too much like advice, so I did the only proper thing-I ignored it, filing away the information, even if I never intended to use it. Though my wineglass wasn’t empty and the bottle wasn’t far enough away for me to have to get up, I did. I poured another fraction of an inch of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo into my glass. Like it or not, all this talk of prisoners and prisons made me think about my newest woo-woo client. The last I’d seen of him was back at the cemetery when he made me promise I’d look into his theory that he’d been framed for murder.
It seemed a better option than thinking about Dad. Or about Delmar, Crazy Jake, Reggie, Absalom, and Sammi, and how all of them would be waiting for me at the cemetery the next morning.
“You ever hear of a prison warden named Jefferson Lamar?” I asked Quinn.
He sipped and shrugged. “Can’t say I have.”
“He was convicted of murder. Right here in Cleveland.”
Quinn’s a typical cop, stone-faced. But I could tell he was curious by the way he cocked his head. “That’s pretty bizarre. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it in the papers.”
“Well, you might have. If you read the newspaper back in 1985. That’s when he died. I just thought if you knew anything about him…”
“You’re not getting mixed up in something again, are you?” Quinn’s question was as probing as the look he shot my way. That explains why I pretended not to notice. And why he wasn’t about to back off. “Last time you started asking about someone who’d been dead for a while, you ended up getting trussed up like a Thanks-giving turkey and tossed into the lake.”
I didn’t appreciate the turkey reference, but he didn’t give me a chance to point that out.
“And who knows what happened to you in Chicago.” Quinn paused here, giving me a chance-again-to explain everything that had happened the winter before. Just like he’d given me plenty of other chances, plenty of other times. Like I could? Where would I even begin?
Disgusted, he folded his arms over his chipped-from-granite chest. “You’ve told me there was a crazy doctor and a bunch of missing homeless people in Chicago. You said you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That doesn’t begin to explain everything that happened, and in case I need to remind you, you got shot, Pepper. And you nearly died.”
“This Lamar thing is nothing like that.” I turned my back on him when I said this, the better to keep him from seeing the look in my eyes that said I hoped my investigation into Lamar’s life wouldn’t end up being as complicated. Or as bloody. “It’s just that Jefferson Lamar, he’s buried at Monroe Street. In the section we’re going to be restoring. I thought…” Honestly, I hadn’t thought anything. Not about this case, anyway. Not until that very moment. Then, like magic, a plan formed in my head. When I turned back to Quinn, even I was surprised at how smoothly I could tell a fib.
“It’s for the competition,” I said. I scooted back to the couch and sat down again. “Each team has to find out the most about the famous people buried in the section it’s working on. Team One has all these old early settlers buried in their section. It’s going to be a cinch for them, seeing as half of them are probably related to the early settlers and they probably have their portraits hanging in their ballrooms. So far, Lamar is the only person in our section who’s got any sort of interesting background. Like I said, he was a prison warden. And then someone framed him for murder.”
“Framed? What makes you think that?”
Have I mentioned that Quinn doesn’t know I talk to the dead? I mean, honestly, could I tell him? Ever? So far, I’d been pretty good at throwing him off the ghostly scent, mostly because of that whole bit about us never really getting too close to each other. In a purely non-physical way, of course.
I wasn’t about to blow it now.
“I found out a little bit about Lamar from his cemetery files,” I said, lying again for all I was worth. “There was a notation in it. The information must have come from someone who knew him well. This note in his file, it said that even when he was arrested and convicted, he still said he was innocent. He said he’d been framed, but he didn’t know who did it, so he could never prove it.”
“It certainly is interesting.” I could tell he hated to admit it. “But, hey…” Quinn put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me closer. “You know plenty already. You can put that stuff about how he might have been framed in your report. That will help with the competition, right?”
“I could… It might…” Another thing I might not have mentioned is that I can be just as devious as Quinn. Since I was already sitting next to him, I figured I might as well take advantage of the situation. I tickled my fingers over his thigh. “But I was thinking it might be even better if I could get my hands on some of the original information. You know, like the police files.”
“From back in the eighties?” He was about to drop the whole idea, and I knew it. That’s why I tickled a little more, a little higher. Quinn sucked in a breath.
I moved a little closer. “Those files, they must be somewhere, right? A storage facility? Or maybe they’ve all been put on microfiche or something. You know, like they do with old newspapers at the library. But the information has to exist. It isn’t all that long ago.”
“No, but…” Quinn was done playing games. He wrapped his fingers around my wrist and yanked me closer. His eyes locked with mine and his mouth was only a fraction of an inch away when he asked, “If I get you that file, what do I get in return?”
“What do you want in return?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.
I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take, but I knew one thing for sure: Quinn Harrison is a man of his word. I was going to get that file. And a little something extra, in the meantime.
The way I remember it, I didn’t get much sleep that night.
Maybe that’s why the next morning, I wasn’t exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I got to Monroe Street.
I had decided to make Jefferson Lamar’s gravesite our unofficial headquarters. Pretty smart, huh? Something told me I’d be spending a lot of time there, anyway, and this saved me the trip back and forth. With that in mind, I stopped at the tent/office and collected everything I figured we were going to need for the day and sent my team on ahead. When I found them, Sammi was sitting on a low headstone polishing her nails a garish orange that didn’t match her red shorts or the purple T-shirt emblazoned with the picture of some saint. His halo sparkled in the sunlight. Reggie and Delmar each had a shovel, and though they were supposed to wait for further instruction, they’d already started poking around. There were a couple divots of dry earth and brown grass sitting on top of Lamar’s gravestone.
Crazy Jake ignored me completely. Then again, he was a little busy talking to himself while he snapped shot after shot with one of those cardboard disposable cameras.
I stopped in my tracks and stared. Absalom was standing in front of a headstone nearly as tall as him. It was a solid piece of granite shaped into a hulking rectangle. There was a foot-high figure on top of it made from wire and white fabric. It had a head of fuzzy hair that looked like cotton candy. The figure was wearing beads that reminded me of Ella’s. Absalom was pouring it a glass of rum.
“Is… that… I mean… Did you…?” Yes, I stammered. It is so unlike me, but remember, I hadn’t gotten my beauty sleep (though I had gotten a whole lot more). I choked back my surprise and pointed a finger at the thing. “Is that a voodoo doll?”
“You want to make something of it?” Absalom’s voice was a lot like Absalom himself, big and heavy, so no, I didn’t want to make something of it. Instead, I watched as he lit a candle in a yellow votive glass and placed it in front of the doll.
The way I figured it, it was as good a time as any to get down to business.
“OK, people!” I sounded as perky as a phys ed teacher and reminded myself that was not like me, either. It certainly wasn’t the image I wanted to portray, for my team or for the TV cameras. Before Greer showed her gnomey little face, I knew I had to get my act together.
I found a right-height tombstone that was nice and flat, and sat down on it. “We need to come up with a plan,” I said.
Sammi rolled her eyes.
Delmar and Reggie kept digging.
Crazy Jake put his camera three inches from my nose and snapped.
When the light show stopped flashing in my eyes and I could almost see again, I realized Absalom was standing right in front of me, his massive arms folded over his even more massive chest. “You’re not serious, are you?” he asked.
I guess there was something about that booming voice of his (not to mention the whole menacing presence thing) that made his fellow teammates sit up and take notice. One by one, they drifted closer, and suddenly, I was surrounded. There wasn’t room for me to stand, not without getting too close to Crazy Jake. With no choice, I kept my seat and looked up at the felons… er… parolees (or was it probationers?) around me.
“Look, I could throw you a line of bull,” I told them. “But something tells me you’ve all been lied to before, so I’m just going to lay this on the line. You don’t want to be here? Well, I don’t want to be here, either.”
I was trying to be flexible, so I ignored it when Sammie mumbled a curse. I continued.
“None of us have any choice. I’m here because my boss says I have to be here. You’re here…” With Reggie glaring, Absalom staring, and Sammi sneering, this did not seem to be the time to bring up their criminal pasts.
“I’ve never done a cemetery restoration before,” I said instead, and big points for me for being so honest. “So I’m not really sure how this is supposed to work. I do know that those TV cameras will be over here in a little while, and when they are, we should at least try to look like we know what we’re doing.”
“Won’t make no difference.” Delmar scuffed the toe of one sneaker against the bare ground. “You know what’s gonna happen. That TV show is going to make us look like losers. That producer…” He gave the word an acid twist, and I decided right then and there that Delmar was a good judge of character. “She’s gonna make those rich ladies look better than us. No matter what we do.”
“Then I guess we’re going to have to do what we do so well, she won’t be able to do that.”
It was a convoluted answer on my part, and to cover up my inadequacies and try and look in control, I stood. None of my teammates gave an inch. In fact, Reggie took a step closer, his eyes narrowed. Crazy Jake stuck the camera under my nose. “I’m taking pictures,” he said. Lucky for my retinas, he didn’t demonstrate. “Then we’ll know what it looked like. You know, before and after.”
This struck me as a very uncrazy idea. I told Jake to run with it. With him busy and out of the way, I handed out the listing of burials that had been included in the mountain of files Ella had delivered in those tote bags the day before, along with the hand-drawn maps of our section that some volunteer had taken the time to prepare. “Jake’s right,” I said, and for my efforts, I got a creepy kind of smile from him before he snapped another picture of me. “We can’t start to change things until we know what’s here. So let’s each take a portion of our section and compare the headstones and names to what’s on this map.”
Without bothering to take one of the papers I offered, Absalom went back to his voodoo altar.
Reggie and Delmar picked up their shovels.
Sammi snatched one of the maps out of my hand and gave me a snappy, “Whatever,” before she walked away.
“What have you found out?”
Have I mentioned that ghosts don’t show up in real life the way they do on TV or in the movies? I mean, ghosts on TV, when they pop up, there’s usually some sort of spooky music playing. But the truth is, there’s nothing that signals their arrival. One second they’re not there, the next second they are.
One second I was all alone watching my teammates skulk away.
The next second, Jefferson Lamar was standing at my side.
I controlled my little shriek of surprise, and just so nobody thought I was as crazy as Jake, I moved away from his grave. There was nobody around near that dilapidated mausoleum, so I went over there, and I didn’t say a word until I knew I couldn’t be overheard.
“You haven’t exactly given me a lot of time,” I told him.
“You had all night. What were you doing?”
Honestly, did he expect me to answer that?
“These things take time,” I told him. “Your case is more than twenty years old.”
“But you could have gone to the library and read the old newspaper articles,” he said, and I made a mental note of it. It was what a real private investigator would do. “You could have checked out the scene of the crime.”
Another mental note. “I’m going to do all that,” I said, my conscience clear now that he’d made the suggestions and I thought they were good enough to actually follow. “But I’ve got this day job, see, and the TV station is here filming, and-”
I didn’t have a chance to explain the rest of my complicated life to Jefferson Lamar. I mean, how could I when I heard the unmistakable sounds of a fight?