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Book 6 in the Fatal Series
When Willie Vasquez, the Washington Federals’ star center fielder, makes a critical error in game seven of the National League Championship Series, he ends the team’s World Series bid and its Cinderella season. An angry city descends into riots, and when the flames are extinguished, Vasquez is found murdered. Lt. Sam Holland and her team are left to unravel a twisted web of motive. Was it a disgruntled fan, a spurned lover or a furious teammate? At home, she must deal with her heartbroken adopted son Scotty, one of Vasquez’s biggest fans.
As Sam’s investigation takes her in unexpected directions, her husband, U.S. Senator Nick Cappuano, is fighting for his political life in the final days of his re-election campaign after financial irregularities are exposed that could threaten his relationship with his mentor, retired Senator Graham O’Connor.
This, Nick Cappuano thought, is as good as it gets—a cool, crisp autumn night at the ballpark with all his favorite people and the hometown D.C. Federals cruising toward a spot in their first-ever World Series. Going into the top of the ninth inning, the Feds were up two to one with three outs standing between them and the big show.
“I can’t believe this is really happening,” Scotty said. The twelve-year-old vibrated with excitement.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself.” As a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, Nick had learned to be realistic about these things. “We don’t want to jinx them.”
“All they need is three outs, and it’s a done deal.”
“Shhh,” Nick said, cuffing the boy’s chin and making him smile. He’d been living with them for two months now, the best two months of Nick’s life. He and his wife Sam had filed formal adoption papers to make the boy an official member of the Cappuano family.
Speaking of the devil. His gorgeous wife made her way across the luxury skybox he’d collaborated with his close friend, retired Senator Graham O’Connor, to secure for the big game. With a water bottle in hand, Sam plopped down on Nick’s lap, looping her arm around his shoulders.
“Having fun, babe?” Nick asked.
“So much fun. Freddie and Gonzo are already taking bets on the World Series.”
“They shouldn’t do that,” Scotty said gravely. “Nick says they’ll jinx the Feds.”
“Can you even stand this?” Graham asked, grinning widely as he joined the Cappuanos. “It only took three seasons to make the World Series! And to think, last year, they were giving away tickets to fill seats.”
“Tell him, Scotty,” Nick said.
“You’re going to jinx them.”
Graham ruffled the boy’s hair. “I’m liking our chances with Lind on the mound to close this thing out.”
The Feds’ lights-out closer, Rick Lind, was a big reason the team was sitting pretty in the top of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the National League Championship Series. The six-foot-six-inch pitcher’s hundred-mile-an-hour fastball was a thing of pure beauty.
“If only the Sox had made it too, this would be even more exciting,” Scotty said.
The Sox had flamed out of the pennant race in late September. “We have to take what we can get,” Nick said.
Lind struck out the first two batters in the Giants’ order with six sizzling fastballs the hitters never saw coming. Sam and Nick joined the rest of the ballpark by standing to cheer the home team.
“Holy cow,” Scotty said, on his feet now that only three strikes stood between the Feds and the World Series. “This is the most exciting night of my entire life!” He paused, glanced at Nick and frowned.
“What?” Nick asked. The roar of the ballpark made it hard to hear, so he tipped his head closer to the boy.
“Your convention speech was way cooler and so was what happened afterward.” That was the night Scotty told them that he’d like to live with them permanently, which ranked as one of the best moments in Nick’s life—and Sam’s.
Smiling, Nick slung an arm around Scotty. “This is pretty darned cool too. It’s okay to push it into first place.”
Scotty shook his head. “It’s a close second to that night.”
“I’ll give you that.”
Scotty looked up at him with a loving smile that nearly stopped Nick’s heart. He’d had no idea it was possible to love so deeply until Sam and Scotty had come into his life. He kept his arm around his son as the third Giants hitter stepped into the batter’s box and Lind went into his famously contorted windup. How he ever managed to throw strikes out of that windup was a mystery to every baseball fan in America.
“He looks like Big Bird on acid,” Sam said dryly, cracking up everyone in the box.
The fans stood as one, roaring as the game came down to two more pitches from the best closer in baseball.
The snap of the second strike hitting the catcher’s mitt could be heard seven levels up in the skybox. Nick glanced at the scoreboard in center field where the pitch speed had been posted at 103 miles per hour. Holy shit. Lind was pulling out the biggest of the big guns for this final inning.
The volume in the park was earsplitting by the time Lind threw the second strike of the at bat.
To Nick’s left were Sam, her partner Detective Freddie Cruz and his girlfriend Elin, Detective Tommy “Gonzo” Gonzales holding his son Alex, Gonzo’s fiancée—and Nick’s chief of staff—Christina Billings, Sam’s dad, Skip, and his wife Celia, Graham and his wife Laine, Terry O’Connor and his girlfriend, D.C. Medical Examiner Dr. Lindsey McNamara, the O’Connors’ daughter Lizbeth and her family, and Sam’s sister Tracy and her family.
Also enjoying the box seats were Sam and Nick’s assistant, Shelby Faircloth, and Nick’s friend Derek Kavanaugh, who’d brought his baby daughter Maeve. Nick was glad to see Derek getting out again after the devastating loss of his wife Victoria. Derek was talking to Shelby, who held Maeve and laughed with Derek at the baby’s antics. Derek seemed more relaxed than Nick had seen him since his life imploded, which was a welcome relief.
The entire group was laughing and cheering, and Scotty had gone from vibrating to bouncing up and down. While he, too, was a lifelong Red Sox fan, something he and Nick had bonded over from the beginning of their friendship, Scotty had become a big fan of the Feds this season. This was especially true since the baseball camp he attended in the District over the summer, at which he’d met the team’s all-star center fielder Willie Vasquez.
Willie was now bent at the waist, staring intently at the action unfolding on the mound as Lind wound up and delivered another pitch that was fouled off. The frenzied energy in the stadium deflated a bit as the ball sailed into the seats near left field. But the roar began anew as Lind wound up, delivering a breaking ball that was again fouled off.
Nick glanced down to find Scotty biting his nails as he stared at the diamond below where the catcher, first baseman and shortstop were conferencing with Lind on the mound.
When he caught Nick watching him, Scotty dropped the hand from his mouth. “This is so stressful.”
“Imagine how the players must feel.”
“I may not be cut out for professional sports.”
The kid was endlessly amusing, which was one of many reasons he and Sam loved him so much. “Well, luckily you have plenty of time to make career decisions, buddy.”
When the conference on the mound broke up, Scotty joined the rest of the crowd in clapping and calling out encouragement to Lind.
As the pitcher stared down the batter, Sam’s hand clutched Nick’s arm—tightly.
He glanced over to find her riveted by the action on the field as Lind delivered. The crack of the bat had thousands of people gasping as the batter raced toward first base, beating the shortstop’s throw to the bag.
“It’s okay,” Nick said, resting a hand on Scotty’s shoulder. “It’s only one man on.” He didn’t say that a home run would give the lead to the Giants, because Scotty didn’t need to hear that—and he already knew. To Sam, Nick said, “Um, that’s starting to hurt.”
“Oh, sorry.” She released her grip on his arm, but only slightly.
Scotty was biting nails on both hands as Lind walked the next batter in four pitches, indication that his legendary control had been broken by the unexpected hit. Once again, the catcher, first baseman and shortstop approached the mound, this time with the team’s pitching coach and manager, Bob Minor, in tow.
“I can’t even stand to look,” Scotty said, turning his face into Nick’s chest.
Nick patted Scotty’s back, hoping to provide comfort. “Stay strong, my man. We only need one out.”
With adrenaline and anxiety duking it out in his own bloodstream, Nick had to remind himself this was only a game, a thought he refrained from sharing with Scotty.
“Time to look again,” Nick said as the next batter approached the plate.
Scotty returned his attention to the game, clapping and shouting his encouragement to the team.
Sam’s grip again tightened on Nick’s arm, but since he loved being her main squeeze, he didn’t complain.
Two fouls and three balls later, Nick was looking for something to squeeze. The tension in the ballpark was palpable, especially after the runner on second stole third, landing in a diving slide that took the Feds completely by surprise.
“Crap,” Scotty uttered, echoing the sentiments of Feds fans everywhere.
With runners at the corners and one out standing between the Feds and the World Series, every player was on full alert, and every fan was on their feet.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Scotty chanted as Lind went into the windup.
Another foul into the seats behind home plate.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” Scotty said.
“Spoken by a Red Sox fan who has only lived through the decade of success,” Skip said from the other side of Sam.
“That’s not my fault,” Scotty said, making the others laugh.
“Hang in there, pal,” Sam said, leaning in front of Nick to address Scotty. “You want to hold hands or something?”
“Nah, my hands are too sweaty.”
“I don’t mind.” Sam extended her hand to Scotty, who grabbed it gratefully.
She and Nick shared a smile, and then she let out a whistle that nearly deafened him. Who knew she could do that?
“Come on, Lind!” she screamed. “Get it done!”
“I think we’ve made a fan out of her,” Nick said to Scotty.
“That’s what we get for dragging her to games all summer.”
“I can hear you two talking about me.”
Nick’s retort was swallowed when Lind let loose with another fastball. The crack of the bat silenced the screaming crowd as the ball arced to center field where Willie Vasquez waited patiently. Only because Nick had switched his focus to the giant TV screen in the box, did he see Vasquez take his eye off the ball for a fraction of a second to check the runner on third base.
That fraction of a second was all it took for the stiff breeze to intervene, sending the ball sailing over Willie’s head. It took another fraction of a second for Willie to realize what’d happened. By then, right fielder Cecil Mulroney had grabbed the ball and returned it to the infield. But the damage was done. Both runs had scored, and the Giants had taken the lead.
The same fans who’d been cheering so loudly a few minutes ago were now booing even louder, and trash rained down on the outfield from the bleachers.
“I don’t understand,” Scotty said, his eyes swimming with tears. “How could he miss that? It was an easy fly.”
“He took his eye off the ball,” Nick said, shocked by the turn of events. “That’s all it takes.”
As the grounds crew scrambled around the outfield, cleaning up trash that continued to come from the seats above, security wrestled with enraged fans in the bleachers. Nick was glad to be in a skybox, away from the frenzy erupting around the stadium.
Vazquez stood alone in center field, seeming dazed by what had happened.
A tap on Nick’s shoulder had him turning to Eric Douglas, one of the Secret Service agents assigned to his detail. They’d been tailing him in the waning days of his reelection campaign, ever since Sam pinned Victoria Kavanaugh’s murder on former presidential candidate Arnie Patterson and he’d vowed revenge on her family.
“Senator, we’d like to get you and your family out of here,” Eric said.
“Not until the game is over,” Nick said.
“We’d like to go now. Just in case the situation escalates.”
“I can’t take Scotty out of here now, Eric.”
Sam’s pager went off, as did those belonging to Gonzo and Cruz. She checked hers. “Wow, the entire MPD is being put on tactical alert.”
“What for?” Nick asked, as a feeling of unease came over him.
“The expectation of rioting.” She pointed to the field. “Look.”
As he glanced at the action below, uniformed police officers stepped onto the field, armed with serious-looking weapons.
“Special response team,” Sam said with a note of pride in her voice.
“They were already here?”
“Hell, yeah. Anymore we’ve got to be ready for what happens if the team wins—or if it loses. People go batshit crazy either way. They must be expecting big trouble if they recalled everyone.”
His stomach plummeted at the thought of the city erupting in violence and his wife being smack in the middle of it.
“I’m going to drop Christina and Alex at home,” Gonzo said to Sam as he hustled his family from the skybox. “I’ll see you at HQ.”
“Me too,” Cruz said, holding Elin’s hand as they headed for the exit. “Thanks for the great seats, Nick.”
“Gotta go,” Sam said with a kiss for Nick and a hug for Scotty. “Try not to take it too hard, buddy. No matter what happens, there’s always next year.”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks for bringing me to the game. It was exciting to be here, no matter how it ends.”
“That’s the way to be,” she said. “I’ll see you guys at home.”
“Um, Mrs. Cappuano,” Eric said. “We’d prefer that you remain with us.”
“I’m sure you would,” Sam said with her trademark cheeky grin. “But I’ve got a job to do, and so do you. You take care of my guys. I’ll take care of myself.”
Nick tried very hard not to get in the way of her job, but he had a bad feeling about what might happen in the city if the Feds lost. “Sam—” The steely stare she directed his way killed the thought before he voiced it. “Be careful out there, babe.”
“I always am.” Nick’s eyes were glued to her as she said goodnight to her dad and Celia and hugged her sister. He wanted to go after her and find a way to make her stay. But when duty called, as it often did, Sam always went.
“Senator?” Eric’s second inquiry was more urgent than the first.
Nick glanced at the field to find the outfield covered in trash and team security surrounding Willie Vasquez as they led him to the dugout, presumably to get him out of harm’s way. Didn’t the fans know the Feds had three more outs and only needed one run to tie and two to win? It could still be done.
He glanced at Scotty, who watched the scene on the field with a mix of confusion and anger. “I don’t understand. Why are they doing this? The Feds still have three more outs. The game isn’t over.”
“I don’t get it either, buddy. Listen, Eric wants to get us out of here in case there’s trouble.”
“Before the game is over?”
“Yeah, he wants to go now.”
“Will they get to finish the game?”
“As soon as they get the fans settled. We can watch the end on TV at home.” All at once, Nick was anxious to get the hell out of there, and more important, to get Scotty the hell out of there.
“Okay.” Scotty took a last look at the field before he let Nick guide him toward the exit.
The rest of their party followed them to the elevator, which the Secret Service had secured for their descent. How they did that—and the many other things they did with seemingly effortless authority—was a source of constant fascination to Nick.
“I’ll make sure Shelby gets home,” Derek said in a low voice that only Nick could hear over the conversation in the elevator.
“Oh, thanks. That’d be great. You seemed to have a good time tonight.”
Derek focused on Maeve, who had a spit-soaked fist jammed in her mouth. “What’s a good time anymore?”
Nick ached for his heartbroken friend. “It’s nice to see you out.”
“Thanks for asking me. I don’t mean to be a downer.”
“You’re not. You know we all want to help. Any way we can.”
“And I appreciate that. I don’t know what I would’ve done without my friends and family the last couple of months.”
“Any thoughts about going back to work?” Derek was deputy chief of staff to President Nelson, who, like Nick, was up for reelection next month.
“After the election, if he wins and if he wants me back. I can’t even think about wading back into the action at this point.”
Nick patted his friend’s back. “He’ll win, and he wants you back. He’s already told you that.”
Derek shrugged. “Not sure my heart’s in it anymore.”
“Give it some time. Don’t make any big decisions.”
“That’s what everyone says.”
Over Derek’s shoulder, Nick watched Shelby play peekaboo with Maeve, making the little girl laugh.
Her laughter drew a small smile from her dad. “Life goes on, right?”
“You’re going to be okay, Derek.”
“Keep telling me that. Maybe one day I’ll believe it.”
“You got it.”
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