|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 was instrumental in sharing his discoveries of fraud and illegal testimony. Other reporters and cameramen shifted and rolled like an ocean of tipsy goodwill. Grady scanned over the waves for Tori Morningstar.
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 equipment upward.
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 was in his sixties, with a round, open face; 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 ante.”
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 behind him.
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 Barker 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 back?”
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 fear.”
“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?”