“Don’t let the anxiety of freedom consume you.”
Attorney Grady Donahue Fletcher clenched his teeth and rehearsed what
he’d say to his client, Victoria Morningstar. He’d won her appeal
and drove to pick her up at Gladstone Penitentiary. “At least you
won’t be placed in solitary.” That was worse.
Six months earlier Grady had phoned a reporter at the Los Angeles Globe.
"Drew Barker. Grady Fletcher here.”
“Ah, the lawyer. Calling about a tip?”
“I am. Here's something you can investigate. Tori Morningstar, did she
murder Irene Brennan?"
"I wrote that story many years back," the journalist had said. “I
assume you have new discoveries.”
"Fraud, illegal testimony. Do you want the story first?" A second
passed. "Otherwise, I'll call the Orange County Guardian."
"Okay, okay. We want it."
Three days later Grady had a hand in writing the first article in Drew
Barker’s column. "The public labeled Tori Morningstar as an
undesirable. Not black and poor, but disfavored, accused, incarcerated,
and wrongly condemned. Her cellphone has been recovered. Her call to 911
identified her voice and substantiated screams of the victim in the
background. Could she have beaten someone while speaking to dispatch at
the same time?"
The reporter had written the second article. "People who get their ideas
about criminal lawyers from TV probably would be disappointed in Grady
Fletcher. He lacks flash but stands up straight, his posture neither
ramrod nor slouched. He doesn't smoke, doesn't wear thousand dollar
suits. His voice is soft and low, one of his assets. He speaks truth
with a voice inviting confidences."
As nice as that was, Grady’s stomach cramped over pressure and strain
from Drew Barker’s final article with the headline, Tori Morningstar,
Released Today. Picked up by the online service, Newser, KTLA, and CBS
Los Angeles, they planned to broadcast his arrival to escort his client
Tori’s decade-long prison sentence ended today but with a sobering
fear over tomorrow.
When was a July morning this hot? Grady balanced her release papers on
his lap as he rolled up one sleeve then the other while gripping the
damp steering wheel. Sweat blossomed on his throbbing forehead, wrapped
like a python’s grip. He adjusted the dial for the AC and embraced the
challenge of helping another client get back on track. 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 appeals for deserving people.
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. She’d spent a
decade at Gladstone.
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 committed a petty theft.
The court had handed him a twenty-year prison sentence. When Grady
believed in the falsely accused or excessively sentenced, 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, she was marginalized and excluded too. Society detests
any mobster association.
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.
The closer he got to the maximum-security complex, the more his heart
pounded with blood pressure exploding like a grenade. Thump, thump. How
safe will she be when freed? 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 but giggled just like his son. A sharp-edged thought boiled up.
Grady’s rancorous custody battle continued post-divorce, and he’d
relocated to be closer to seven-year-old Shane. How long would his
job-hopping ex-wife stay in Long Beach? 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
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
On the bright side, according to his cousin Finn, Tori took college
classes. She’d spent her college years in prison but earned a degree
in restaurant management and planned to run a food truck.
Ahead, the Gladstone brooded on its hill. Beige stucco rectangles,
complete with a tower, perched on the banks of the dry Santa Ana River
bed. The penitentiary’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 sharply in his mind. Nothing blurred into another.
He slowed and checked his wristwatch. Nine o’clock, but a half hour
early wasn’t early enough to beat the crowd. He tried to steady his
shaking hands as he passed parked cars lining the curb. He looped twice
before finding a space big enough. In another time, a throng of citizens
would have suggested a terrible event such as the impending execution of
a criminal or public whipping. Thanks to news media, this sympathetic
crowd celebrated the release of a woman who’d served a sentence for a
crime she didn’t commit.
Grady stepped out of his Jeep, smoothed down his grey-striped tie and
adjusted the cuffs of his white shirt. He let out a breath, spotted Drew
Barker of the Los Angeles Globe, and waved to the reporter who
wasinstrumental in sharing his discoveriesof fraud and illegal
testimony. Other reporters and cameramen shifted and rolled like an
ocean of tipsy goodwill. Grady scanned over the waves for Tori
She stood stiffly at the high security entrance and hugged a leather
moto jacket wrapped over crossed arms. Dressed in her pre-incarceration
style, her defined muscles created a perfect fit for her silk blouse, In
prison, she worked the heavy bag, labored hard so that she could protect
herself in the yard.
Grady slipped papers into the hands of a guard. “Good morning, sir,”
he said without another word, signed his clipboard, and rushed to her
side. “Tori. It’s okay to speak to reporters.” The whoop-whoop of
a hovering helicopter drew attention, and cameramen angled their
Beside him, she swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “These
reporters helped. I’ll answer questions, but the publicity worries
me.” She froze where she stood, aware of the potential dangers ahead.
“I know.” Their gazes collided. Her eyes resembled honey-brown gems.
Fine cheekbones, a firm chin, and a mouth he found disturbingly
inviting. In the sunlight, her dark hair glowed chestnut. She’d
skinned her hair back from her face so tightly; it had to hurt.
Drew Barker pushed his way in front of the others. “Victoria
Morningstar.” The reporter in his sixties, with a round, open face and
wide eyes lent an expression of constant surprise. “Can you tell us
what happened the night you were arrested?” He held a microphone close
to her face.
“Go ahead. Talk to him, Tori,” Grady whispered.
She stood like a brittle statue. "My cousin and I were having dinner on
the Long Beach waterfront. Rhubarb and Ginger, we went there a lot.
Seamus McGinn and Timothy Noonan must have tailed us. They’re from
Cobh, County Cork." Her words came out in a robotic rush.
“That’s in Ireland.” Grady chuckled for the camera. "For once
Ireland was lucky. Lucky to be rid of them,” He took her ice-cold hand
and stepped around Barker, a reporter familiar with McGinn’s
government-agro kidnappings. Recovered victims had broken collarbones,
fractured limbs, cigarette burns, stab wounds, shattered eye sockets and
facial bones, accomplished with a blunt instrument. Casualties had been
alive at the time of beatings, with foreign objects jammed down throats.
Teeth were found in their stomachs.
“Excuse me.” Another reporter, a tall woman from the Long Beach
Beacon, swarmed down on Tori. "So you saw McGinn and Noonan?"
"Correct," Tori lifted her chin, her vibrant eyes filling with the raw
memory. “A half-dozen more stormed in. Carried automatics, ripped
through the place. Found the owner, Irene Brennan. Dragged her out."
"The owner refused to pay them for protection,” Barker chimed.
Tori nodded, rubbed her forehead. “Same old deal, a mob upping the
And then what?" The earnest reporter from the Beacon leaned forward.
"My cousin Viv ran out the back. I was arrested."
“Make room, everybody.” Grady headed for his car, dragging Tori
Tori shuffled in slow, measured movements as if shackled.
“One last question, Tori,” Barker called from behind. “You tried
to leave the mob. What did they want you to do?"
Tori turned halfway around. "Act as a lure. I refused." She shrugged.
“I paid for that decision.”
The woman reporter elbowed Parker out of the way. “Tori. Your lawyer,
Daniel McMahon. Didn’t he serve as the mob's lawyer?”
Tori nodded. “Just great for me,” She paused for a few seconds. “I
didn’t anticipate a setup.”
The reporter touched her arm. “You’re a fighter. How will you bounce
Tori looked up, her face bleached of color. “I’ll try to accomplish
small things. This will help. Little by little, I’ll let go of
“We’ve got to go, folks.” Grady reached to shake hands with
several surrounding him.
Barker popped his thick eyebrows up. “Glad things worked out.”
“Thank you for following the case.” Grady placed a hand on Tori’s
trembling back and walked her to the passenger side of his Jeep.
She halted mid-motion. “Where to?”
He stared into her questioning eyes. “I’ll drop you at your
apartment. From there, my assistant will come by.” Grady’s cousin
Finn had rented a studio for her at the Marriott Residence Inn and paid
the rent with her ample trust fund. “You’ll be on the top floor. The
apartment overlooks the Queen Mary.”
“Sweet.” Tori placed a hand over her heart. “You, Finn, and Amy.
You are so kind.” She squared her shoulders.
“If you have any questions,” he said, “ring my associate.” He
handed her his private investigator’s business card. “Later you’ll
meet Maeve McGuire.” He opened the passenger door of his Jeep and
She stared at the card. “Oh, yes. Maeve. She found my cell phone at
the scene. This made a big difference at the trial.”
“It did. You’d made a 911 call, silenced your phone, and jammed it
in the slats under a table.”
Her smile, genuine and appreciative, drew him in. She glided onto the
seat, but her boots remained on the curb. His ex-wife wore similar Saint
Laurents at eight hundred a pair.
He watched her clutching hands and said, “Maeve will get you settled.
Take you shopping.”
She angled her face up at him. “No need for shopping. I’ll order
clothing online. T-shirts, capris, and sneakers. That’s all I’ll
“Really? Sounds like you’re going to a church picnic.” He was
about to close the door. “Where will you be going?”
“You’ve been in a prison bubble.”
“Closed off for a decade,” she said. “A concealed bubble grows
It happens, and he nodded. “Learn anything in prison?” It was a
canned question, and he didn’t expect much of an answer.
“Accept dark times. Go from there. Find a teddy bear among the
crocodiles.” She sat with a poker-straight back, a determined
expression blossoming. “You represented my cellmate—”
“—Ebony Yves. Worked as a mule for her husband, Now she’s working
as an embalmer for Coley-Reece Funeral Home. Ebony said you told her to
drop your name when she interviewed.” He arched a brow.
“Mick Coley and my parents were friends.” She nodded. “It’s in
the waterfront neighborhood. Used to be good for hiding illegal profits.
The funeral home overcharged the living but paid employees well.”
“Now that you’re out,” he said, “you’ll need wheels. Unless
you plan to drive your food truck around for supplies.”
“I considered a golf cart. It doesn’t hold enough. Eventually,
I’ll buy a small truck. Today, I’d love to get a haircut.” She
frowned, and he sensed her uncertainly about being out. Her thick, dark
lashes closed over her eyes. Without those big, troubled eyes to
distract him, fatigue lined her face. Did she want to blend in?
“Maeve knows a stylist across from a food truck lot.” He leaned on
the door and arched his back to relieve the ache of worrying about her
safety. He’d shut that down after today. Clients, particularly female,
engaged in hero worship with their lawyer.
She raised a hand, pulled out the rubber band, and shook her head,
letting it fall over her shoulders. “I’m hacking this off.”
Her hair was her business, but never had he seen such rich silk. For a
second, he longed to run his hands through it. He imagined it sliding
over his body and shivered over a terrifying rush of desire. It wasn’t
a problem being civil to Tori. The hard part would be keeping his hands
He braced a hand on the open door and gazed at her breathtakingly
beautiful face. Vivienne, her cousin, resembled Jessica Rabbit with her
amped up, voluptuous, blonde, and blue-eyed persona. Tori’s fair
complexion contrasted with dark brown hair. Something elusive moved
behind her amber eyes.
"Where is your office?" she asked.
“Not far from the Maersk Railyard and Union Pacific." His leased
property was a two-story California Craftsman built in 1930,
commercially zoned, that sparkled with yellow paint and had a front
porch. Open and welcoming, it contrasted with the daunting courtrooms,
institutional waiting rooms, and prison walls that defined his clients'
She fixed her eyes on him. "If and when I get it going, my truck will be
within smelling distance. Will you stop by?"
“For a heart attack?” He chuckled, but the warmth of their chitchat
vanished in another second, replaced by a cold chill. She didn’t
murder Irene Brennan, but did he see her for what lay beneath her social
Excerpted from "Unholy Alliance: A Donahue Cousins Novel" by Kathleen Rowland. Copyright © 2017 by Kathleen Rowland. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.