Guilt Before Innocence
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“Guilt Before Innocence is a delight, filled with unexpected twists and enriched by a deftly rendered setting along the oceanfront of Virginia Beach. With a fresh, honest voice, and with insight, humor, and compassion, Rue Elliott explores not just the murky depths behind a series of murders, but the deeper mystery of how submerged truths are revealed by the processes of art, and the deepest mystery of all, the ways love lives on in wounded hearts.”
— Tim Farrington, author of The Monk Downstairs
and Lizzie’s War
A blood-soaked body is found in one of Virginia Beach’s ocean front hotels. The only clues are a business card and an artist’s knife – both belong to Caitlin Connor. Not only was she the last known person to see him alive, the police believe she is guilty of murder. To make matters worse, the lead detective is Wade Broussard, a man she hoped never to see again.
Sparks ignite between them as the evidence mounts against her. The police have built a case to prove her guilt. Can Caitlin prove her innocence? Or will she be the killer’s next victim?
Guilt Before Innocence is part of the Beach Murder Mysteries collection of books.
“You’re late.” Arnie grumbled.
“Am not. Have thirty-six seconds to spare,” said Caitlin, checking the zebra print watch on her wrist. It was the only concession to her artsy personality in this black and white world of being a server at Waterman’s restaurant. Her black slacks and matching button down blouse were crisply pressed, a sharp contrast to the slightly crumpled wash-and-wear look of most of her co-workers. Auburn hair was tucked into a neat bun at the nape of her neck.
“Cuttin’ it awful close,” the bartender muttered. Arnie always had to get the last word in.
Caitlin blew him a kiss as she breezed past. She knew his grumbling was all bluster. Arnie watched out for her like an older brother, and as such, tended to try to run her life. It was a small price to pay to have the sense of family she had never experienced.
She keyed her number into the system just before it rolled over to the next minute, put her purse in the locker and pulled out an apron. She put a couple extra pens in her apron pocket. By the time she had it tied snugly around her waist, she was standing in her spot alongside the other dinner shift servers, ready to receive her table assignments.
Thursday evenings weren’t too busy, as the tourist season was still a couple of weeks away. Caitlin joked with the regulars at the bar as she called in drinks. She easily kept her half of the patio area going smoothly.
The open air patio was Caitlin’s favorite section. It took a little more walking to pick up orders, but it was worth it. The sounds of waves breaking a couple hundred yards away blended with the gulls to provide the perfect backdrop.
She was heading outside again, water pitcher in hand, when she heard her name. She turned and was surprised as she recognized the man smiling back at her.
“Derek Houston! What are you doing here? You look great!” And he did. Blond hair, blue eyes, everything the stereotypical surfer had been made of when they attended Old Dominion University together a decade earlier.
“You’re the one that looks fantastic!” he countered. “You haven’t changed a bit.” His grin was infectious.
Caitlin smiled as she raised an eyebrow.
“No, really,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s been this long.”
She laughed. “What are you doing here anyway? I heard you moved to Denver or somewhere.”
“I did. Denver, then Omaha. Just got transferred back here a few weeks ago. I’ve been staying at the Marriott while I look for a place to live.”
“That’s great. What do you do?” She refilled his water glass.
“Sales Manager. Welding supplies. Great company but boring stuff, really. And I owe my success to you,” he said, his eyes holding hers.
“What? No way.”
“If you hadn’t dumped me for being such a goof-off, I never would have realized I needed to grow up.” His expression turned serious. “It was the best – and worst – thing that could have happened to me.”
The shift manager caught Caitlin’s attention. He nodded toward one of her tables, where patrons were obviously waiting on a check.
“Gotta get back to work,” she said. “Maybe we could catch up later?”
“How about dinner tomorrow? You free?”
“I’d love it. Let me take care of this table and I’ll get you my number.” Caitlin was halfway to the patio door before he could reply. Once her customers were satisfied, she made a quick run by her locker to grab one of her business cards. Back in the dining area, she paused at the large shell-framed mirror. With a quick glance to make sure no one was looking in her direction, she smoothed her hair before returning to Derek’s table. She laid the business card beside his plate with a small flourish.
He picked up the card and looked at it. “Caitlin Connor. Artist. Wow, pretty impressive.”
She laughed again. “Not as glamorous as the card makes it sound. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be picking up shifts here. I’m beginning to have some success, though.”
“You always were the most talented woman I knew.”
“Flattery, but I’ll take it. Give me a call.” With that, she was back to her efficient self.
An hour later, as the restaurant emptied out, she was one of the first servers to be sent home. She grabbed her purse and wound her way through the bar area to wave goodbye to Arnie and was surprised to see Derek sitting at the bar.
“What are you still doing here?” she asked in mock horror.
He smiled. “Just leaving, actually. And no, I wasn’t waiting on you. I just decided to have one of the famous Crushes and talk to my new friend.” He flipped a thumb toward Arnie, who gave a nod in their direction. The Orange Crush was the Waterman’s signature drink.
“I’ll walk out with you if you’re ready,” she said.
They left together and strolled up Atlantic Avenue. It was comfortable being with Derek again and it felt like it had only been yesterday since they had spoken.
“So, tell me,” she said, “any Mrs. Houston hanging around?”
“Not yet,” he said. “But I am seeing someone. She’s great and I’d really like you to meet her.”
“I’d love to,” she said sincerely.
As they talked and laughed together, she couldn’t help but think that they had always been better friends than lovers. She had loved him – and on some level, she still did. He was her first real love and would always hold that spot in her heart. But there had been something missing. There never was the level of passion she imagined experiencing when she found The One. The passion she later had, and lost. She pushed away the thought and the pain that always came with it.
“I’m so glad I ran into to you tonight,” he said, breaking into her thoughts.
They decided on Mahi Mah’s for dinner the next night and he leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“See you tomorrow.”
Caitlin waved and watched him go through the Marriott’s mirrored doors. She crossed the street intending to head home, but decided to stop at her favorite hangout for a quick drink.
A few minutes later she entered the Raven, nodding hello to one of the servers she knew as she went through the patio. Pausing a moment to allow her eyes to adjust, she glanced to her right where a few tables were still occupied by diners chatting over coffee or a beer. She loved the contrast of the dining area, with its glass walls and light, airy feel to the dimly lit, cozy bar area.
Pausing near the taps, she spoke to the bartender pulling a couple of draft beers. “Hey, John. Ashley working tonight?”
“On dinner break. Should be back shortly. What can I get you?” He set the beers in front of his customers and made change as he talked to Caitlin. As efficient as she was, she was always amazed at the level of multi-tasking a typical bartender managed.
“Margarita. On the rocks.”
She headed to the far end of the bar and climbed onto a barstool. Moments later, John set her margarita on the smooth surface and leaned against the icemaker to chat.
Caitlin sipped her drink and made small talk with him and a couple of waiters who had stopped by to say hello. One of the regulars leaned against the bar next to her.
“Come here often?” He asked.
She giggled. “I cannot believe you just said that.”
“It got your attention, didn’t it? I’m Matthew.” He had a great smile and athletic build. Caitlin was still a bit gun-shy where men were concerned and she found herself hesitating a moment before disclosing her name.
“Caitlin,” she finally said.
She smiled. He asked her where she was from and she told him Virginia Beach. No need to get into the long story and she usually didn’t talk about it anyway. Besides, this was her home now. He glanced appreciatively at her slender form and she groaned inside. She didn’t want to prolong the flirtation, so she slid off the bar stool. “Excuse me a minute?” She headed to the ladies room without waiting for an answer. As she had hoped, he was in conversation with a couple to his other side when she returned.
“I’m back, John,” Ashley breezed in. “Hey, stranger,” she said to Caitlin, her voice a little scratchy.
“It’s only been a week since I’ve stopped by,” Caitlin objected, as she settled back in at the bar and pulled her drink toward her. “You okay? You sound terrible.”
“Seems longer.” Ashley began mixing drinks as the wait staff called in orders. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said.
They settled into what Caitlin always thought of as bartender conversation mode, chatting during the occasional breaks between taking care of patrons or more drink orders from the wait staff. Caitlin was always impressed watching her friend work. Ashley’s nails were perfectly manicured yet she never missed a beat when mixing drinks or pulling beer from the tap. She always wore the latest styles and looked perfectly put together no matter what she was doing. Tonight’s outfit was a tie-dyed skirt and dark green tank top. Her hair color changed often, sometimes week to week. Only Ashley could pull off something that extravagant and make it seem perfectly normal.
“So, why did you guys break up?” Ashley asked after Caitlin had told her about the meeting with Derek.
“I don’t know, really. It seemed the best thing at the time. He was more interested in having a good time and I wanted an education and a future. I just finally had enough.”
“Why am I just now hearing about this guy? You’re holding out on me.”
“Can’t tell all my secrets,” Caitlin grinned. “Seriously, I met him my first year at college. By the time you moved down here, we had broken up.”
“So, are you going to rekindle the flame?” Ashley wiggled her eyebrows.
Caitlin laughed. “No. Well, I don’t know… Maybe.” She looked at her friend whose long auburn hair was pulled in a loose ponytail instead of the neat bun that Caitlin wore. She was a wren next to a peacock beside Ashley. Men seemed to gravitate to her friend; Ash always had a story about some new guy vying for her attention. Just for a moment, Caitlin wanted to savor the illusion that she may be the one with an interested suitor. Not that she was competing with her friend, exactly, but still it felt good.
“You know my philosophy,” Ashley said.
“So many men, so little time!” Caitlin parroted the words she had heard so many times before.
“Bingo.” Ashley sat a fresh drink down in front of her friend. Before Caitlin could object, she said, “This one’s on me. To celebrate your old flame. Cheers.” She toasted with the 7UP and Grenadine that she always had nearby while tending bar.
Caitlin took a sip, closing her eyes and savoring the ice cold liquid. “Ash, you make the best margarita in town.”
The conversation drifted to work, gossip about the rest of the staff at both establishments, and Caitlin’s latest sale of a painting at one of the shops along Atlantic. Before long, Caitlin began to feel a little light-headed and decided she had better head home. Her head felt swollen and her peripheral vision was fuzzy. It was as if she was looking things through a tube.
The night air revived her a bit, but she could tell she was weaving as she headed up the street. She sat down on a bench to gather herself. Just for a minute, she thought.
Rue Elliott started her writing career by telling herself bedtime stories. Eventually, she progressed to actually putting words on paper, starting many a tale and finishing none, with new ideas continuously stepping in to vie for her attention. Finally, in the summer of 2010, she completed her first novel.
She has studied under authors Tim Farrington and Janine Latus, and belongs to the Writer’s Unleashed critique group. Her work has also appeared in the magazine The Quotable.
In addition to her work as a writer, Rue is a glass artist. When she is not spinning tales, she can be found in her workshop with either kiln or torch.
Educated at Marshall University, she believes that learning never ceases and constantly looks for ways to improve her craft.