a Cassidy & Spenser Thriller
Fifteen Years Ago
Arizona State Prison Complex
Today was Caitlin Cassidy’s eighteenth birthday, and in twenty-seven minutes, Thomas Cassidy was to be put to death by lethal injection for the murder of Gail Falconer: a crime so brutal, so sadistic only a monster could’ve committed it. Unable to bear the ticking off of the remaining seconds of her father’s life, Caitlin squeezed her eyes shut, willing the merciless clock on the wall of the death-chamber viewing room to stop. Inside her chest, her heart slackened into a useless, gelatinous blob, its beat barely perceptible. With such an anemic pulse, she had no idea how oxygen still flowed to her brain. Yet vague as her heartbeat was, her thoughts were sharp and rapid-firing around a closed circuit.
Is he afraid?
He couldn’t have done it!
Is he afraid?
A one-way mirror served as a window into the death chamber—a stark white room, well prepared and patiently waiting for the prisoner. An intercom transmitted sound into the viewing area. From her front-row-center seat, she’d be able to see and hear all that transpired as her father’s sentence was carried out. Gail’s parents, she’d been told, would be watching from a separate location. Their daughter had been left naked and beaten, her body posed for the world in the most humiliating fashion. They would not be required to sit alongside Thomas Cassidy’s daughter.
The room suddenly colder, she shivered.
He couldn’t have done it.
When she was a little girl, her father would get low on one knee, allowing her to climb up his back and sit on his shoulders. Now she drew the memory around her like a warm cloak, and as the scent of his starched collar came back to her, she regained a temporary sense of well-being. Her body tilted forward, and she recalled bouncing rhythmically atop her perch while her father trotted her around the room faster and faster. She’d sway and squeal—delighted, but also queasy with fear. Then, sensing her terror, her father would grip her hands firmly.
I won’t let you fall, Caity. Just hold on tight and trust me.
His low voice had soothed her. His word had been all she needed back then.
When her father had spoken, she’d believed him.
But who was she to trust now?
Her eyelids flew open, and she saw that not quite a minute had passed. The sight of the long, padded table that awaited her father inside the chamber made her stomach roll and her teeth chatter. Clamping her jaw shut, she turned away from the terrible sight and found herself looking straight into the muted brown eyes of Mr. Harvey Baumgartner. Her father’s attorney crumpled into the seat next to her and produced a wan smile. She hadn’t seen him enter the room, and even if she had, she wouldn’t have known how long he’d stood beside her with that pitying look on his face—time was too scrambled up in her mind. The clock on the wall was her only orienting anchor, and her eyes were both drawn to it and repelled by it. She kept her gaze on Baumgartner, refusing to look at that damn clock again.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Her hands rose to cover her ears, but she quickly regained control and smoothed back her long, heavy hair instead.
“Caitlin, dear …” Baumgartner’s voice was tighter and higher than usual. As his hand cruised up and down the length of his silk tie, light reflected off his fingernails, which had been buffed and coated in clear polish. His distress had apparently not affected his commitment to personal grooming. All of the Baumgartners liked to put on a good appearance, and Harvey was no exception. “I want you to understand I did all I could.”
I know. She wanted to answer, to offer him the comfort he seemed to be seeking, but the words stuck in her throat. She didn’t know. Not really. Oh, sure, he’d tried hard to get her father acquitted, but who knew if a more experienced attorney could’ve succeeded where he’d failed. Maybe a different lawyer could’ve gotten her father’s coerced confession thrown out of court.
But Baumgartner and his firm weren’t the only ones who’d failed her father. Maybe she could’ve done more. Both she and her mother had stood by her father, believed in him and loved him, but they’d left the matter of his defense to his legal team. A mistake she’d regret for the rest of her days. She should’ve done something. She should’ve made them see the truth—that her father didn’t do it. He simply couldn’t have.
“There’s not going to be a reprieve, Caitlin, you know that, right?” Baumgartner’s hand stopped cruising his tie and went to his sleek, coffee-colored hair.
The last-chance hearing had already been held, and clemency had been denied. Baumgartner had explained it to her twice already, but apparently he feared she was still praying for a last-minute miracle.
And he was right.
She nodded. Then her fists clenched, and pain cut through her, so sharp and real it seemed as though the shards of hope she clasped had suddenly been crushed into bits of broken glass.
There’s not going to be a reprieve.
The days of holding executions in the dead of night to allow for last-minute maneuvering by the defense were gone. Arizona was one of a handful of states that had decided it wasn’t practical for executions to be held at midnight. No phone was going to ring. No messenger was going to come crashing through the doors mere seconds before the clock struck the hour. That kind of thing only happened in the movies, and this wasn’t a movie. This was real life.
She should’ve done something to save her father, and now it was too late. Her hands twisted together in her lap. She’d never felt this helpless in her life. All she could do for her father now was to be present here today. Her mother, however, had chosen not to attend the execution. She’d begged Caitlin to stay home, too. A child shouldn’t have to watch her parent die, she’d said.
But if death had come to her father while he lay in a hospital bed, wouldn’t they both have been by his side?
Now Baumgartner leaned in close enough for his tobacco-stained breath to settle humidly on her cheek. “It’s not too late for you to leave, dear. I’ll take you home right now if you like.”
Again, words failed her. Her throat clogged, and the desperate sob she refused to let out quaked down her body, rattling her knees and legs. Sucking in deep breaths, she jerked a glance around the room. It was a small space numbed by flat vanilla walls, rows of tan chairs, and gray floor tiles. It was a room purposely stripped of any sign of humanity, deliberately designed to quell emotion.
More people straggled in, claiming seats in the back row. One of the men was tall, with highlighted hair and eyes so blue she thought they must’ve been enhanced by tinted contacts. She recognized him as a local news anchor, but the others … she didn’t know.
“The state requires a certain number of witnesses, and these were drawn from a pool of volunteers,” Baumgartner whispered, seeming to read her mind.
“Don’t look at me like that, honey. The witnesses are here to make sure proper care is taken and that … this matter … is handled as humanely as possible.”
Her mind tried to process that information. People who were in no way connected to the case had volunteered to come here today and watch her father be put to death. As yet another wave of nausea rolled through her, she heard the thunder of footsteps in the hallway and the sound of a door scraping open nearby. Its earlier vagueness obliterated, her heartbeat took up the ferocious rhythm of a fighter ready for battle. If her opponent were a man, she would punch him in the face—but her enemy was no mere mortal.
Injustice could not be defeated with a fist.
Through the mirror, she watched two men dressed in white medical garb enter the death chamber. Then, escorted by several prison guards, her father was led inside, his steps slowed by the short chain between his ankles. A thick belt cinched the waist of his baggy prison uniform, and his cuffed hands attached to it. But his chin was high, and his gaze active, as if he were looking to take in every last sight, no matter how ordinary—or maybe he was just showing her he would not be cowed. His face had thinned, and his hair had changed color—it was gray now, not blond, but he was still her father. Prison had not changed his essence. Thanks to the intercom, she heard his chains clanking, and like a clapped bell, her bones began to ring with fear. She wasn’t as brave as he. Then a voice in her head shouted:
She shot to her feet and took a step toward the window. Just as quickly, a guard who’d been leaning against the wall moved toward her, and Baumgartner threw a restraining arm across her quivering chest. Though she knew her father couldn’t see her, she lifted her chin, not bothering to wipe away the tears that streamed down her cheeks. Her father’s chin rose, too, and somehow, despite the one-way glass, their eyes met … and held.
The quivering in her body subsided.
Her father’s low, soothing voice replaced the screaming in her head.
Hold on tight, Caity.