Knowing he showed up was perfect. As perfect as biting into an apple while looking across a field into the horizon. Tori hadn’t done that in ten years. (Never before published-- Unholy Alliance prequel.
“Hello. Do you remember me?” Attorney Grady Donahue Fletcher rehearsed what he’d soon say to his client, Victoria Morningstar. He had initiated her appeal, and now drove to consult with her. “I’m Finn’s cousin, a lawyer with the Prisoners Defense Committee. You will not be placed in solitary anytime soon.” No. Not sure what this means
When was a July morning this hot? Sweat blossomed on his throbbing forehead, wrapped like a python. He adjusted the dial for the AC and embraced the challenge. Embrace and conquer. Or at least sound like it.
Grady didn’t necessarily believe in heaven, but suppose such a place existed and he was eligible for entry when his time came? He expected it’d look like a courtroom where he won the next appeal.
Victoria Morningstar, a sentenced felon, awaited transfer to solitary confinement at a private prison, a worse place than where she was now, the Gladstone. The mobster’s daughter, Tori Rourke, took Morningstar as her surname. She’d run from the Irish mob but couldn’t hide. With no patience for those who leave its ranks, the mob had framed her.
His most recent client, Tyrone Marquis, black and poor, worked at a poultry plant where he’d plucked, hacked, and processed thousands of chickens. Marquis had written a bad check and had committed a petty theft. The court sentenced him to die in prisonHow can the court do that? The sentence is clearly excessive for the crime which makes it hard to believe. When Grady believed in the falsely accused, he fought hard from a deep pit. He won this man’s appeal.
Poor and black did not describe Tori, born into an Irish crime family but in essence was marginalized and excluded.
His cousin, Finbar Donahue, managed the trust accounts for the Rourke offspring. In spite of Finn’s hostile relationship with the mob, he’d followed Tori’s murder trial.
Finn had guilted Grady into appealing her case. “She’s a fringe relative. Okay. Not by blood, but come on.” Finn’s words landed like punches, sapped his resistance. His shoulders ached from the task.
The closer he got to the maximum-security complex, the more his heart pounded with blood pressure exploding like a grenade. Thump thump. He scrambled for his game face.
He turned off Highway 5 and onto the stark, industrial City Drive of Orange, California. Sunlight reflected off a homeless man’s shopping cart and the broken glass in the gutter. A jaywalker lunged across the street. Grady swung the steering wheel to miss him, tires squealing over the concrete. Ahead at the red stoplight, three kids, about the age of his son, crossed the street on their way to school. They jabbered in Spanish and giggled in an universal language. A sharp-edged thought boiled up.
Grady’s rancorous custody battle continued post-divorce. The determined dad had relocated to be closer to seven-year-old Parker. How long would his job-hopping ex-wife stay here? He stuffed a wishful dream to coach soccer into the caverns of his mind.
Ahead, a sign marked the penitentiary run by the most hard-hearted Godzillas of the human race. A shrill hiss grew to an ear-piercing whistle. At its command, prisoners rose at sunrise and appeared at their cell doors. Doors opened, and they stood on the threshold. “Right face.” All wheeled to the right. “March!” Without energy, the inmates zombied along for two hours of labor before breakfast. They made license plates, jeans, jackets, T-shirts, and hats. They worked in the laundry room, kitchen, or in the sewing room where they cut, basted, and stitched.
Color televisions, said to be available for viewing by those who earned the privilege, amounted to one set per eighty offenders. In the dayroom, they watched a nine-inch screen while seated on metal benches bolted to the floor. Correctional officers held remote controls and flipped through basic networks, sports, and educational channels. From there prisoners marched to dinner, out in the yard, and then back to cramped stone cells.
On the bright side, according to his cousin Finn, Tori took college classes. She’d spent her college years in prison.
Ahead, the Gladstone Penitentiary brooded on its hill. Beige stucco rectangles, complete with a tower, were perched on the banks of the dry Santa Ana River bed. Gladstone’s ten acres housed three and a half thousand inmates. He passed a complex for foster children. A knot formed in his stomach over its unfortunate location and similar architecture.
Grady’s experience with appeals was going on two years, and the details of each stood sharp in his mind. Nothing blurred into another. He checked his wristwatch. Nine o’clock, opening time.
He pulled up to the guard tower and spun down his window to a blast of blistering heat. “Good morning, sir.” He handed his ID to a guard, and squinted through the bleak dust.
The guard leaned out, sleeves rolled up to relieve the swelter.
“Hot enough for you?”
“Nice in here.” The guard tipped his head as a signal to proceed into the lot.
Oblivious to surveillance cameras, cooing pigeons scratched around the lawyers’ entrance. From there Grady strode down a tunneled corridor toward the legal visitation area. Each step echoed on the tiled floor all the way to an officer in a tan uniform.
The unfamiliar man inspected him, eyeballing him up and down.
Grady wore the only suit he owned, and it’d seen better days.
The officer stared hard at his driver’s license and looked up. “You’re not local.”
“I’m local now. The DMV notes an address change but doesn’t issue a new driver’s license.”
“Still adding that to my paperwork.” The officer’s voice trailed.
Grady’s cellphone pinged. Unease washed up the back of his throat, and he pulled it from his pocket. Maeve, his private investigator, had sent him a text.
“I’m onto something.” His mid-sixties, widowed assistant let him know when she stepped out, and the answering machine at his nonprofit picked up calls. The phone rang every couple of hours at his office in the waterfront neighborhood of Long Beach. There, he provided free legal services to condemned men and women and busted his butt getting grants and federal funding. He dropped his cell and wristwatch into a wire basket.
The officer cleared his throat and dialed the warden to confirm his scheduled visit. He stood to admit Grady, brusquely directing him to a small room. “Don’t get lost. We don’t come looking for you in the hard center.” The man referred to the ancient part of the jail. Visitors never entered the hidden passageways.
Grady entered the visitation room, an empty cage. Wire mesh ran from a small ledge to the twelve-foot ceiling. Family members and inmates sat on opposite sides of the mesh wall and spoke to one another through the wires. For his legal contact visit, he and Tori would be on the same side of the room to permit more privacy.
In the secured space, he eased onto a stool, bolted to the floor, and waited with an anxious lump growing in his chest. He had an hour and hoped to fill fifteen minutes. A clanging of chains came from the other side of the door.
Tori shuffled in, glanced at him, and screwed her face into a worried wince. She averted her gaze when he looked at her and didn’t move far from the room’s entrance.
Damage ebbs its way in. Years pass without pleasant times. A decade ago, he’d met her at Finn and Amy’s wedding. Imagery flooded in. Her playful shoulders, her blue sleeveless sheath, her gaze that could melt teeth, her playful shoulders.
Now, in her thirties, she groomed her dark brown hair as best as she could, slicked into a ponytail. She hovered at five-foot-four, medium build, and pretty in spite of the orange prison garb. Without it, she’d be someone he’d talk to, as he had at the Lake Arrowhead wedding.
The guard unchained her, removed her handcuffs and the shackles around her ankles, and then locked angry eyes with him. “You’ve got one hour.” The officer grinned before turning to leave. He seemed to sense that Grady and the prisoner were nervous and took pleasure in their discomfort. The metal door banged behind him and reverberated in the small space.
Tori didn’t come any closer. He didn’t know what else to do, so he ambled over and offered her his hand. “Hello, Tori.”
“Mr. Fletcher.” She slipped her hand into his and gave it a firm shake.
“Call me Grady.” He released her hand. “We met at my cousin Finn’s wedding.”
“Oh, yes. It was grand.” Ireland whiffed into her second-generation voice, like smoke from a distant campfire.
“You go by Victoria Morningstar.”
“I prefer that name now.” She tipped her chin up to face him. “At the wedding, I wore a wig.”
“You were in hiding—”
“—from the terrorist gang.”
“Takbir did not railroad you.”
“No, but they slit...” Her voice trailed off. She stiffened her back, clenched her fists at her sides. Anyone growing up in a gang family knew how to kill. Irish Waterfront Roaches terrorized Long Beach. She ran a hand over her delicate chin, her golden-brown eyes narrowing with worry.
He cleared his throat, feeling the weight of her predicament. “I’m very sorry.” Despite rehearsed remarks, he couldn’t stop himself from apologizing. “I’m pretty new at this kind of thing. I can’t tell you much. Don’t know much.” He gestured toward a stool. After she eased into it, he sat opposite.
Once again, she looked away, released a sigh, but looked back at him. “You’re here. Working my appeal.”
“I am. You’re not at risk of going to solitary confinement soon. I’m appealing your conviction and sentence. We can work on finding you an experienced criminal lawyer if you want. For the next few months, I’m happy to help. There are things I can do.”
She grabbed his hands. “I won’t go to the other prison for a while?”
“Correct. Not while I’m appealing.”
She squeezed his hands tighter and tighter. “Thank you, Grady. I mean, really, I appreciate it. This is great news.” Her shoulders relaxed, and she gazed at him with intense relief in her amber eyes. “Finn phones, but you’re my first visitor in over a year. I’m so glad to get this news.” She exhaled a long breath.
“I’m sorry about your brother.” The murders took place in Ireland after Finn and Amy’s California wedding.
Warm discomfort in his chest spread like a bad rash. He’d seen the photos from the Garda forensic team. The throats of her brother, two cousins, Finn’s biological mother, and her second husband were slit. Tori’s parents were in central Ireland during the coastal massacre. By sheer coincidence, they were not at the house.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Grief is fresh in your mind. After all this time.” He followed up with a comment.
She nodded. “No matter what they’ve done,” she said, “they’re family.”
“Where are your parents?”
“My guess? In Ireland.”
“That makes sense. People under the radar don’t cross borders.” Unease skittered along his spine over the danger she’d face if she were released. If the Irish mob found her again, they’d kill her.
She leaned forward. “Thank you for helping me.”
Astonished at her gratefulness, he began the difficult process of questioning her. “You testified to making a 911 call. Police at the scene said you lied.”
“That’s wrong, wrong, wrong. I dove under the table and made the call.” She pushed the words through her teeth. “Then I put my cell on airplane mode, stuffed it above a slat.”
“You were under it at the restaurant, Rhubarb and Ginger?”
She nodded. “In view of the goriest, most horrific beating imaginable.”
“I saw photos.”
Her eyes flew wide. “Vivienne darted to the ladies room. The hallway connects to the kitchen—”
“—and the back door leads to an alley,” he said. “Describe the table. Explain how you lodged your cell.”
“Legs of the wooden table were attached to the frame with a triangular piece.” Words gushed out of her. “I slipped it above.”
“Okay.” He pictured the location, the third table from the entrance, against the windows. This would be Maeve’s first stop tomorrow. He disentangled himself from the urgency and saw tellingher face, her expression of longing, a longing he took to heart except that Vivienne made a clean getaway. “You and Vivienne are roughly the same age.” For the short time he’d spent with them at the wedding, they seemed like opposites. “How would you describe her?”
“Vivienne has a flair for melodrama. Wasted on her usual audience.” She smiled for a brief second.
Flashes of light behind his eyes signaled a migraine coming on. A glimmer of hope did that to him. Could her cellphone still be there? He ditched that topic. “As you were saying, Vivienne entertained people. What about your families and friends?”
“Our families didn’t have friends.”
“I see.” He turned the conversation to the person they both knew, Finbar. “Much has changed. Finn went from a jaded executive to a doting husband and father.”