Ten years ago, a jury found Michael Hart guilty of murdering his wife. Confined to a state hospital for the criminally insane, Michael has never stopped insisting on his innocence--even though his memories of the trial are murky and his nights are plagued by bad dreams and sleepwalking. After years of being tormented by doctors who believe he is guilty, Michael finally gets his chance to prove them wrong--by escaping. Hiding in a safehouse, Michael must rely on two allies to find an alibi. One is a beautiful woman who believes his story and is willing to gamble her life to help him. The other is Michael's brother, an attorney at law who's at risk of losing everything. But all the evidence in the world won't be enough to overturn twelve guilty verdicts. . .
Not when the members of Michael's jury begin to get brutally murdered. One. . .by one. . .by one. . .
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By JOANNE FLUKE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1989 Joanne Fluke
All rights reserved.
Carole Hart knew that her marriage was dead, but she was not the type to mourn. She had already shed her tears, many of them during the years she'd been married, and her resolve was firm. She still loved Michael, she'd never stop loving him, but divorcing him was her only chance to have a normal life. Her new husband, the one she'd marry after her divorce was final, would be a wonderful provider. And even if the passion she'd shared with Michael was missing, she realized that she was probably much better off without it.
Despite her resolve, tears threatened to fall as she folded her designer silk blouse, the only quality item of clothing she owned, and placed it carefully in her old red suitcase. The blouse had been a birthday present from Amy Weston, her best friend at work. Amy and the other secretaries who worked at World-Star Studios owned such extensive wardrobes that they were often mistaken for glamorous actresses. Carole was the only exception. In the years that she had worked at the studio, no tourist had ever mistaken her for anyone. Her skirts, blouses, and dresses were relics left over from her single days, shortened and altered in a desperate attempt to keep up with the styles but never quite achieving that fashionable look. Carole hadn't purchased a single new item of clothing since she'd married Michael. Most of her salary had gone for necessities like the rent, the food, and the utility bills. Because maintaining Michaels's career was so expensive, any extra money was quickly allocated for his acting classes. And his SAG dues. And the glossy photographs he had to provide for casting directors. No matter how carefully Carole had economized, it had never seemed to make a real difference in their financial status.
Once, when the bills had piled up and Carole feared she'd never be able to pay them all, Michael had made a joke of it. He said that if they won just one major sweepstakes, they could get their heads above water. Carole had thought it was the funniest thing she'd ever heard. Back then.
Six years ago, when she'd married Michael, the couples in their Hollywood apartment building had formed an informal support group. They'd all been young and poor and on the brink of that first big break. They'd met for potluck dinners and either commiserated or celebrated, depending on their circumstances. Back then, Carole had been known for her cabbage salad. Cabbage was cheaper than lettuce because it wasn't seasonal. She'd chopped it and mixed it with an economical mixture of vinegar, sugar, salt, and black pepper. If Michael had worked that week, she occasionally splurged on red and yellow bell peppers to decorate the top. The first time she'd made her coleslaw, Michael had quipped about their salad days. Carole had laughed along with everyone else, but she hadn't understood the joke. Later she'd asked, and Michael had told her it was a quote from Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra.
Looking back on those days now, Carole realized that she'd never had much in common with Michael. He was a college graduate, and she'd gone right to work as an entry-level secretary at World-Star the moment she'd finished high school. They'd met at an audition, where Carole had fallen in love with his voice and his handsome face. When Michael landed the part, he took her out for dinner to celebrate.
There had been many dinners when Michael was working. And even more lunches at hot dog stands when he was between roles.
There had also been long romantic evenings spent in his tiny apartment—the same apartment she was now leaving—listening to music and making love.
All the other secretaries, Amy included, had warned her not to get involved with an actor. She hadn't listened. And then, before she'd really thought about how terribly insecure their life together would be, she'd become Mrs. Michael Hart, the shoestring gourmet, bringing cabbage salad to potluck dinners where the men talked about artistic integrity and the women sat next to them and dreamed of all the things they couldn't afford.
At first, being married to an actor had been exciting. Carole had experienced a rush of pure pleasure every time she'd seen her husband's image on the screen. But show business was fickle, and it always took time for an actor to get established. The other couples had gradually traded their dreams for financial security. Most of them had decided the odds were against them, and they'd sacrificed their integrity to climb up corporate ladders. Couple by couple, they'd deserted their cramped apartments to make down payments on small houses in the valley where they could start their families. Then, one day during their fourth year of marriage, Carole and Michael had looked around and realized that they were the only holdouts from the original group.
Michael had never criticized their friends for giving up. The lifestyle of a dedicated artist was a tough one, and not everyone could endure the hardships it entailed. They'd kept in touch, and ever y time Carole and Michael had driven out to one of the rambling homes in the valley for a housewarming or a baby shower, the men had slapped Michael on the back and told him that they admired his perseverance. But their wives had gazed at Carole with eyes full of pity and offered to share their wealth. Here was the color television set that Tina's husband had replaced with a big-screen model. Since it was just sitting in the garage taking up space, they'd regard it as a real favor if Carole and Michael would take it off their hands. And Ellen's old Cuisinart, the old set of china that didn't go with Patricia's new wallpaper, the glassware that didn't fit in Yvonne's new dishwasher, and the answering machine that Tom no longer needed because he now subscribed to a service.
Carole had accepted the castoffs gratefully, even though she sometimes felt like their friends' favorite charity. She'd done her best not to envy the new bigger houses, the prestige cars, and the vacations in Europe. She told herself she'd have all those things someday. She had faith in Michael's talents, and she could wait. Then she'd held her friend's babies, and her resentment had started to grow. They'd agreed not to have children until they were financially secure, but how much longer would she have to wait?
Three months ago, on the morning of her thirtieth birthday, Carole had awakened to take stock of her life. Michael was an excellent character actor, and when he worked, he was paid very well. But there were those frightening dry periods between roles when Carole was forced to sit back and worry, watching helplessly as their savings dwindled. The stress of not knowing when her husband would land his next part had turned her into a nervous wreck. Their whole life was a series of ups and downs, regulated by the crazy whims of casting directors and studio executives. There were no guarantees in show biz, none at all. Carole had known this from the beginning. And on the morning of her thirtieth birthday, she'd finally realized that they'd never have the security she craved, not even if Michael made it big. He could be a huge success one year and box office poison the next. She'd seen it happen just that way.
Michael had arranged a surprise party with the old crowd, even though they'd been smack in the middle of one of their down periods with creditors calling and the rent two weeks overdue. That night, when Carole had arrived home from work, she'd found everyone waiting for her, armed with food and champagne.
After a toast to her birthday with expensive champagne, Daryl Forrester pulled both of them over for a little talk in the corner of the kitchen. Daryl had been a struggling young artist when they'd met, but now he was a corporate executive with a wife and a family and a big home in the valley. He told Michael that Amcorp needed someone to host daily motivational seminars for their salesmen, and he'd recommended Michael for the job. They'd pay sixty-thousand-a-year in base salary plus a percentage of the increased sales. Michael could pull in seventy to eighty grand annually, maybe more.
Carole shut her eyes and prayed. It would solve all their financial problems if Michael took the job. Then they could pay off their bills and think seriously about a house and a decent car and the baby Carole so desperately wanted. But Michael thanked Daryl for thinking of him and turned it down flat.
After everyone had left, Michael tried to explain. He was sorry that Carole was disappointed, but couldn't she see that hosting promotional seminars for a big corporation was the ultimate in selling out? He was an actor, not a company puppet. A job like that would kill him.
They'd gone to bed and tried to resolve their differences by making love, but the old magic didn't work. After Michael had fallen asleep, Carole had stared up into the darkness and realized that there was no future with Michael. As painful as it might be, she had to leave him if she ever wanted to live a normal life. But where would she go? And what would she do? She'd begun to make her plans.
With a start, Carole came back to the present. It was already eight o'clock, time to load the car and drive to Amy's. The bedroom was stifling, not a breath of air even though she'd opened the window as wide as it would go. Their air conditioner had gone on the blink two months ago, and they hadn't been able to spare the money to pay a repairman.
Her old red suitcase had a broken latch. As Carole tied it shut with a belt she promised herself that the moment she was remarried she march into Gucci and pick out a whole set of expensive matched luggage. Her lover had been shocked when she'd told him that she was pregnant, but she knew he'd come around. Her voice had held just the right tone of injured outrage when she said that of course the baby was his. And no, she hadn't confided in anyone. She'd kept their relationship a total secret, because she knew how important it was to protect him from the slightest scandal. Her only concern was to provide a normal family life for the baby, with a mother, a father, and nice surroundings. His son or daughter deserved the best, didn't he agree?
He was an intelligent man, and he'd quickly realized that she had him over a barrel. One word to the wrong person and he could kiss his career goodbye. They'd made a date for lunch tomorrow, and Carole was sure he was sitting in his office right now, figuring out the best way preserve his reputation and meet her demands at the same time.
Carole picked up the phone and called Amy's number to tell her that she was on the way. Amy must have been sitting right by the phone, because she picked up the receiver on the first ring.
"Carole!" Amy sounded worried, "Is something wrong? I thought you'd be here by now."
"I would have been, but Michael came in while I was packing."
"My God!" Amy gasped. "Are you all right? I can be there in twenty minutes if you need me."
"Thanks, but that's not necessary. He's gone now."
"Was it awful?"
Carole sighed. "That's the understatement of the year! I'll tell you all about it later. Right now, I want to get out of here before—" Carole paused as she heard a key in the lock. "He's back! Hold on, Amy. I'll find out what he wants."
Carole put down the phone and stood up. She was surprised to find that her knees were shaking, and she took a deep, calming breath. It was ridiculous to be afraid of the man she'd lived with for the past six years. Michael had a volatile temper, but he usually kept it under tight control. He'd probably thought it all over, replayed that ugly scene in his mind, and now he'd come back to apologize.
"Michael? I'm in here." Carole sighed as she headed for the door. There would be another scene. He'd tell her he loved her and beg her to stay. Maybe he'd even promise to call Daryl Forrester to see if that job with Amcorp was still open. She'd just have to tell him all over again that it was too late. Their marriage was over. He had no choice but to accept it.
The light was out in the hallway, and at first, she didn't see the gun. By the time she did, it was too late to scream.CHAPTER 2
Ten Years later
Oakdale State Hospital for the Criminally Insane
Michael Hart had no idea what time it was. The dayroom clock had a dense coating of wire mesh over its face. He had been here for years now, but he still wasn't sure whether the metal cage around the clock was to protect it from possible damage or to keep him from discovering how slowly the hands crawled around its circumference.
On this particular morning, the dayroom was off-limits. The clock was safe from flying Ping-Pong balls and wads of paper. No patients from Ward B were allowed inside to use the rickety tables or the television set. Michael was the only exception.
He sat in a green plastic chair facing his accusers, the board of doctors and social workers. His hands were shaking, and he gripped the arms of the chair tightly in an effort to concentrate. His head felt like a balloon filled with helium, huge and lighter than air, nodding and bobbing uncontrollably as if someone else were jerking the string. The nurse had insisted he take his medication last night—no screaming, nightmares, or episodes of sleepwalking on her shift, thank you very much, even though he'd explained that he was up for review in the morning, and he had to be able to think clearly.
There was a clatter as one silver-haired man with aviator glasses dropped his pen on the tile floor. Everyone watched as he bent over to pick it up. It was a Cross ballpoint, and Michael wondered whether he had the pencil to match. A Cross pen and pencil set was a traditional high-school graduation gift. Aunt Alice had given Stan a gold set, and Michael had expected the same. Instead, his aunt had surprised him with a brand-new Volkswagen Beetle. Did Stan have it now? Michael almost laughed aloud at the thought of his sophisticated brother driving around in a beat-up VW Bug, but he caught himself just in time. He had to focus on what was happening here, in this room. It was opening night at the most important performance of his life. His role was to play a perfectly normal person, the type of man who'd work all week and spend the weekend mowing his lawn and cleaning out the garage. He'd be the typical man on the street, the sort of nondescript, ordinary guy you'd see on the evening news, answering some inane questions with a microphone shoved in his face.
Michael did all he could not to gasp out loud as his adrenaline began to race. That meant he was blocking. Something was there, a buried memory about the man on the street. But he didn't have time to explore it now. The head of the psychiatric division, Dr J. Bowman, was lighting his pipe. The curtain was about to go up.
Dr. Bowman had a brass name tag pinned to his lapel. Perhaps he wore it to remind him of who he was. Michael had asked his favorite orderly about Dr. Bowman. And Jack had told him that the doctor spent a lot of time locked in his office, drinking to escape the pressures of his job.
A dense cloud of gray smoke drifted toward Michael, and he took a deep breath before it reached out to enshroud his head. There was a red-and-white NO SMOKING sign on the wall under the imprisoned clock, but it applied only to patients. Dr Bowman could break any rule he wanted. He was the hospital honcho. And he had the power to set Michael free.
"Shall we start?" Dr. Bowman glanced at the clock just as if he could see through the mesh. Then he opened his briefcase and cleared his throat.
"Excuse me, Dr. Bowman," A frizzy-haired social worker raised her hand. Michael remembered seeing her in the halls when he went to therapy. "I believe you have the case histories?"
"I do? Oh, yes. Here they are."
Dr. Bowman passed out the red-covered folders. When Michael had asked, Jack had explained that red was the hospital's color code for convicted murderers. Ever ything was color-coded. It was policy. Michael wished his folders were a different color—blue, perhaps, even though that was the color for homosexuals, or good old paranoid–schizophrenic yellow. At least he knew what was inside the folders; no surprises this time. Jack had managed to get his hands on a copy, and Michael had memorized it during his allotted ten minutes in the lavatory. A good actor had to be a quick study, and he still thought he'd been a good actor.
There was a rustle of papers as the members of the board turned to the first page. Vital statistics.
"Now, er ... Michael?" Dr. Bowman glanced at the case history. "Could you please give me your full name?"
"Excuse me, doctor?" The social worker interrupted again. "Shouldn't we inform the patient of the purpose of this hearing?"
"What?" Dr. Bowman looked startled. "Oh, yes. You're right of course." As he fumbled in his briefcase, Michael observed him very carefully.
Excerpted from Final Appeal by JOANNE FLUKE. Copyright © 1989 Joanne Fluke. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very intense and suspenseful. Big surprise too at the end!!
Really awesome story. And the ending was a real eye opener. Love all of Ms. Flukes books!!