The Sound of Murder
It's almost here! Book three in the Veronica Shade series will be available next week. Whet your whistle with this preview...
The Sound of Murder
A Veronica Shade Thriller
“More bills, Ronnie. More bills.”
Ronald Milligan raised his eyes from his coffee and stared at his wife. Sporting a long white nightshirt, she stood with her back to him, her shoulders hunched.
I thought we agreed not to talk about money in front of Laura?
Ronald glanced to his left and offered his daughter a wan smile.
“Bill? I’m sorry, honey, you’ve mistaken me for someone else. My name’s Ronnie.”
Laura giggled and slurped Cheerios off her spoon.
“You think this is funny?”
Both of their smiles vanished.
“You really think this is funny, Ronnie?” Zinnia Milligan had since turned and was flapping a handful of envelopes in her right hand. “How long do you think this is gonna last before they cut off the TV?”
“They’re gonna cut off the TV?” Laura asked, her eyes going wide.
Ronnie patted her head.
“No, they’re not.” Then, to Zinnia, he said, “I’m doing the best I can here. I’ve already worked three overtime shifts this week.”
Zinnia’s face dropped and Ronnie stood with the intention of comforting his wife. But the woman was having none of it. At thirty-six, Zinnia was still as attractive as the day they’d met. Smooth dark skin, full lips, and the most intense eyes that he’d ever come across.
But at this moment, as a sneer crept onto her face, she looked absolutely hideous.
“Well, clearly whatever you’re doing is not good enough.”
If his daughter wasn’t there, if Laura wasn’t sitting beside him and staring at them both, Ronnie would’ve been tempted to say what had been on his mind for the last three months.
I’m working overtime and you’re not even trying to get a job. It might not be your fault that you were let go—the hotel industry, like everything else, is constantly downsizing. But you could try. You could change out of that fucking nightgown that you wear day in and day out and try. Hell, if you don’t want to work, that’s fine—you could just stay home with Laura. That would save us a bundle on daycare costs.
“Nothing? You’ve got nothing to say for yourself?”
Ronnie had to bite his lip to avoid speaking. After an intense stare that lasted several seconds, Zinnia raspberried her lips and shook her head. Then she turned her attention to that damn cell phone that never left her sight.
Ronnie took a final sip of his coffee.
“I love you, sweetheart,” he said.
“I love you too, Daddy.”
Ronnie bent, kissed his daughter on the forehead, and then smoothed her curly black hair.
“I’ll be home late tonight.”
Zinnia didn’t even look up from her phone.
With a sigh, Ronnie grabbed his Bear County Deputy hat off the counter, put it on, and then dipped the brim toward his daughter.
“I’ll be back, pilgrim.”
People have this idea about law enforcement—about cops, State Troopers, County Deputies. They think that they get their jollies pulling people over for exceeding the speed limit by as little as a single mile per hour.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Pulling people over meant paperwork. And Ronnie Milligan would much rather just sit in his car and listen to a podcast or audiobook all day, take his mind off his failing marriage than fill out forms.
But there was a difference between speeding and speeding. Even on rural roads, Ronnie would only allow a twenty, maybe twenty-five percent over the limit buffer. But if anything looked reckless or dangerous?
He wouldn’t hesitate to flick on his siren and lights.
And when Ronnie clocked the white Mazda sedan going eighty in a fifty zone? That was exactly what he did.
There was always a moment when you put on your lights that your adrenaline spiked. No matter how benign the traffic stop, this surge always got Ronnie’s heart pumping.
The driver of the Mazda pulled over immediately, the car’s bald tires sending so much dust and dirt into the air that he couldn’t read the license plate.
Radio coverage was spotty out here, but he called in the traffic stop anyway after parking about twelve feet behind the white car. The dust settled enough for him to see a single person in the vehicle. A man, most likely, wearing a ball cap.
Ronnie adjusted his belt, made sure his holster hadn’t shifted while sitting and got out of his car. As he approached, his initial observation was confirmed: one occupant, male, medium to small build. Ronnie pressed the index finger of his right hand against the rear taillight, leaving a distinct print behind.
Then he continued to the driver’s side window, which had been rolled down.
“License and registration please.”
The man in the driver seat had a burgundy cap pulled low over his dark eyes. He was pale, with black hair that covered his ears.
“Both are in here. They’re wedged in pretty good. Can’t get them out.”
The man handed over a small black wallet. Inside were both his registration and license.
He could work with this.
“Was I speeding?”
“You were speeding all right. Please stay in your vehicle, sir. I’ll be right back.”
Ronnie retreated to his car. He was trying to remove the man’s license when the top of the wallet opened. Inside, he spotted five crisp one-hundred-dollar bills.
Ronnie lowered the wallet to his lap as he looked through the windshield at the white Mazda.
The outline of the driver was completely still, hands on the wheel, head straight.
This was no accident—this was a bribe.
Ronnie’s eyes dropped to the money.
He’d never taken a bribe before. Never. He knew that others did, on occasion—they called it ‘letting you go with a warning’. Not giving a warning, but letting you go with one. A simple, yet important distinction.
Five hundred dollars.
Enough to pay off two or maybe three bills. TV, cell phone, electrical. Five hundred bucks wasn’t like winning the lottery, but it would help. It would help a great deal.
In the back of his mind, warning bells began ringing.
Five hundred bucks? That was a large bribe for a speeding ticket that wouldn’t come to even half that much.
When Ronnie started justifying the size of the bribe—unpaid parking tickets or too many demerit points, maybe even expired insurance—he knew that he’d already committed to taking the money.
There was no one around. Nobody would ever know about it.
And it would help.
Ronnie chewed his lip as he thought about what his daughter had said earlier that morning.
“They’re gonna cut off the TV?”
Ronnie removed the money from the wallet and jammed it into his pocket. Then he got out of the car and walked back to the Mazda. Now that the dust had settled, he saw several cans of paint in the backseat.
“I’m letting you go with a warning,” Ronnie said as he passed the man back his wallet. The words made his tongue feel dirty.
“Thank you so much, officer. You don’t know what this means to me.”
Ronnie’s gaze fell on the backseat.
“You doin’ some painting?”
“Oh, yes, officer. Lots of painting today. Lots of painting.”
“All right, you have a good day. And slow down.”
“Of course. Thanks again.”
Ronnie stepped back and the Mazda slowly pulled onto the road. As he watched it recede into the horizon, the deputy couldn’t help but think that he’d just made the biggest mistake of his entire life.
He couldn’t believe his luck.
He shouldn’t have been speeding in the first place, which was idiotic, but his bribe—five hundred bucks—had actually worked. That had been an extremely high-risk decision. If the deputy had been one of those by-the-book type of guys, he’d be screwed. He would have been arrested and his car impounded.
And a closer inspection would have revealed a lot more than some cans of paint. Yet, even though he’d gotten away, his dark eyes continued to flick to the rearview mirror, expecting to see red and blue flashing lights appear at any moment.
But as time passed—a minute, three, ten—he began to relax. And exactly thirteen minutes after the deputy had pulled him over, he heard the first bang.
Just a dull thud from the trunk, but a moment later, this was followed by muffled screams.
And that’s when the man started to smile.
“Hey, you want me to sing a song?” he said loudly, not sure if the woman he had bound and gagged before throwing her in the trunk could hear him. “Yeah? Good. Because I have the perfect song for you. One, two, I’m coming for you…”
PART I – The Interview
“No, no—I-I don’t want to do this,” Detective Veronica Shade said, shaking her head back and forth. “This is a bad idea, Steve.”
She felt a comforting hand on the small of her back and looked up at Sheriff Steve Burns. Even though he had encouraged her to accept the offer to go on TV and talk about the dollmaker, she knew that he wouldn’t push her if she didn’t want to do it.
Sometimes, Veronica wished the man wasn’t so sweet. Sometimes, giving her a nudge was exactly what she needed.
And this PR interview was what the City of Greenham PD needed. At least, that was what Internal Affairs thought when they’d reached out to talk shows in and around Portland. An about-face from trying to stay out of the news after the disaster that was Ken Cameron and then the forced retirement of her father, Peter Shade, as Police Captain.
But when Veronica looked up at Steve’s soft blue eyes, she knew he would never push her.
He didn’t even have to say anything—it was written all over his face.
If you don’t want to go ahead with this, Veronica, we can just go home. We can just get back in the car and drive the forty minutes home. Or, if you want, we can stay in Portland, catch a movie instead.
“Shit. Can’t you just be mean for once?”
Steve smirked. When he wasn’t in uniform, Bear County Sheriff Steve Burns looked younger than his thirty-eight years. In uniform, he was going on fifty. But then when he grinned like this? He looked like a child.
“You almost ready? Detective Shade, are you almost ready to go on?”
The handler appeared out of nowhere. A diminutive woman with short brown hair and big eyes made bigger by oversized glasses that were as likely to be stylish as they were ironic. Without waiting for an answer, she used a powder brush to dab Veronica’s forehead. That sealed it.
She was going to do this.
She had to.
Veronica let the woman work for several seconds before casually brushing her aside.
It wasn’t just Steve and IA who had encouraged her to go on the talk show, it had been her psychiatrist, Dr. Jane Bernard, as well. This was most surprising. After the dollmaker, she’d expected Jane to tell her to lay low. Veronica had taken three months off following her brother’s death, but only three weeks after shooting and killing the dollmaker. She’d been cleared for duty after the mandatory week of psych evals, followed by two weeks of rest and relaxation.
Veronica had been so certain that Jane would be against the idea, that she’d almost forgotten to even broach the subject. When she had, Jane had instantly been in favor of it, citing that it would be good for her recovery.
Recovery from what, Veronica wasn’t sure.
That left only Veronica.
If it hadn’t been for her father, for Peter Shade being forced to retire, Veronica would’ve said no. Even though it was silly to think that her garnering positive press for the department would in any way help him be reinstated, deep down, that was her hope.
If nothing else, it would help rebuild his reputation. The mayor and the police department had gone through with their promise to keep the real reason for Peter’s retirement a secret, but people in law enforcement were good at reading between the lines.
They knew that Captain Shade’s retirement had been anything but voluntary. Not for a man like him, a man who only knew one thing: being a cop.
“Right, so if you would just follow me…” The handler held an arm out in front of her.
Veronica took one step before realizing that Steve was still holding her back.
“Just stay calm, have fun. I’ll be right here if you need me.” He leaned down and kissed her on the lips.
They’d been together for almost a year now, living together for most of that time. And while they both had hectic schedules, what with her moving quickly up the City of Greenham detective ranks, and him as the sheriff of the largest county in Oregon, they still spent every night in each other’s arms.
And no matter how many times he kissed her, Veronica felt a flutter in her stomach. She pushed him away before becoming lost in the sensation.
Steve grinned and then mouthed the words “go get ‘em”.
The woman led her up two steps and across a dark stage. The lights were blinding here, artificial and deliberate. Veronica shielded her face with her hand, but the woman gently pulled her arm back down.
“You’ll get used to it, don’t ruin your makeup.”
There were two large blue armchairs on the stage, with a circular table made of glass between them. Sitting on top of the table was an artificial plant.
Veronica was guided to the chair on the right and as soon as she’d sat, another woman appeared.
The eponymous Marlowe, which was written in cursive neon tubing on a fake brick wall behind them, took up residence in the other chair.
She was pretty: blonde with red lips and sporting a stylish dark suit. Undoubtedly intimidating to most people, but not to Veronica Shade.
Not to the detective who had seen her brother burn in front of her and who had put a bullet in the dollmaker’s forehead.
“Detective Shade, are you ready?”
Veronica smiled, took a deep breath, and then readied herself for the live TV interview.