The romance is not over …

15 Feb

Need a little more romance this weekend? How about an entire chapter? Here, to whet your appetite for the whole book, is the first chapter of my Science Fiction/Western/Paranormal/Romance/Hard-Boiled Detective/Humor novella, The sort-of Murder of Fiona Galloway:

Fiona hungrily eyed Nascent Payne as he strode from Hillsdale Colony’s dusty main street through the swinging doors of the saloon. She wasn’t sure what was rippling more, his kilt or the muscles in his bare arms and legs.

This was definitely one of those days she wished she wasn’t dead.

Ah, well, at least Payne was on the case, and that meant action, intrigue, a fistfight or two, and perhaps even an answer to who killed her and why.

Payne stopped just inside the doors of the saloon, creatively named Saloon. He had the awkward feeling he was half-naked. Puzzled, he looked down. He was wearing what he always wore: khaki shirt and olive cargo pants. He shrugged and tried to focus. He couldn’t afford to be distracted.

Life had always been tough – and cheap – in the outer colonies. The war that nobody won made it worse. Payne smiled wryly and wondered if there ever had been a war that someone truly won.

Lately, worse was going to hell in a handbasket as Earth’s Colonial Marshals Service was phased out so the colonies could have their own Interstellar Marshals Service. In the transition, people were getting away with murder.

Literally.

The only recourse decent folks had were private investigators like Payne. At any rate, right now he was a private investigator. He had been a bounty hunter and a smuggler. Even a soldier, though he thought the term mercenary sold better on his bio. He would tell you it just depended on what was paying best. And that would be a lie.

Payne looked around the saloon and saw, for the most part, dust.

He got the impression that dust was both the theme and the primary decorating element of Saloon, the saloon. Not the white, fine dust that accumulates in those places people miss when they clean their homes. The brown, crunchy stuff that comes in from outside and piles up on every surface when people just don’t clean at all.

Payne looked past the dirty tables and gritty chairs before him to his right, where a grime-fogged mirror pretended to reflect a well-worn bar. Two male patrons who matched the decorating theme perched on a pair of barstools. It seemed odd to Payne that the two men would perch on two barstools, instead of each perching on one, but live and let live, he thought.

Payne walked right up to the barkeep, a very thin man who had so much hair on his head and face that Payne wondered how he stayed right-side-up.

“Manager?” Payne said. The hairy man gestured to the back of the room, where five men hunched over one table.

“Can you be a bit more specific?” Payne asked.

“Red vest,” the barkeep said, the movement of his mouth visible only by the ripple of his beard. He picked up a dirty towel and wiped dust off of – or was it onto? – a shot glass.

Payne spotted a man in a red vest at the table. Sharp dresser, handsome – slick type, Payne thought. From this angle, the woman in the lurid painting behind him seemed to be reaching out for his shoulders. And she didn’t look like the type who’d stop there.

Payne was about to walk toward the table, but paused to look around a moment. Ever since he got to this planet, he’d felt like someone was watching him. Yet nothing looked odd. Making note to stay alert, he went to the table. “You the manager?” Payne asked.

“Yes,” the man said, barely looking up. “And who would you be?” The other men at the table sat back and appeared to be sizing up Payne.

“The name’s Nascent Payne. I’m looking into the murder of Fiona Galloway.”

Now the man looked up, a smile on his face that appeared to be straining to keep from being an all-out laugh. “Your name’s Nascent Payne?” he said.

Payne gave the manager his best “Don’t even say it” look, and said, “Yes, and I’m here about the murder of Fiona Galloway.”

“Nascent Payne,” the man said, “as in …”

Payne cut him off. “I’ve heard them all, and few were amusing the first time. I’m here about the murder of Fiona Galloway.”

“Yes, you said that,” the man said, still clearly amused. Before he could say another word, a small, slight man who had been following Payne, mostly unnoticed, stepped out from behind him and leaned on the table, his face inches from the manager’s.

As the other men at the table tensed, he said, menacingly, “The desert is a highly inhospitable environment for human life. Without an increase in the intake of liquids and electrolytes, and in the long run, vitamins and minerals, survival is unlikely.”

“Robin, enough,” Payne said. He pulled the slight man back, and the men at the table relaxed slightly.

“And you have a sidekick named Robin?” the manager said. The edges of his mouth curled up more.

“Robin Flynn,” Payne said. He was about to say more but Flynn interrupted.

“But at the moment, it seems apropos for you to call me Riboflavin, like the vitamin, to better reflect and reinforce the importance of nutrition in an environment such as this,” Flynn said.

“His name is Robin Flynn and he’s my mechanic and I only put up with this because he’s a really good mechanic,” Payne said. That, and the fact that he brewed coffee that grabbed you by the throat and tossed you out the door while shouting, “Seize the Day!” in your ear. But suddenly Payne was distracted again. He got the distinct impression that not only was someone watching him; they were trying to look up his kilt, which he was still, of course, not wearing. He cleared his throat and pulled Flynn aside.

“Look, and I need you to listen to me because this is really important,” Payne said, lowering his voice. “Just settle back at the bar and try to stay inconspicuous, and watch my back. There’s something strange going on here.”

“I am not certain they serve anything healthy here, but I will do as you ask,” Flynn said, and walked to the bar. Payne knew that Flynn and inconspicuous went together like serial killers and kittens, but at least giving the guy a job to do usually kept him occupied and out of trouble.

He turned back to the table. “Yes, my name really is Nascent Payne, and I’m a private investigator. I understand you employed Fiona Galloway?”

“Yes,” the manager said, cocking his head as if he was suspicious of Payne.

“I’m only interested in finding her killer,” Payne said calmly. “If it’s not connected to whatever else you have going on here, then we won’t have any problems. But if it is, you and I are most definitely going to have problems. Big problems.”

Ag colonies like this one could feed themselves, but these days income was hard to come by. The “stasis-fresh” meat, dairy and produce they exported were too expensive for most people since the war. So lately, places that could grow fruits and vegetables often also grew plants known for their pharmaceutical qualities. Somehow, folks always found money for that sort of thing. And people like this manager often dealt in that sort of agriculture.

Payne didn’t necessarily hold that against him. He himself had found more than one way to make a buck. But none of his methods had ever gotten anyone killed. OK, a few had. Maybe more than a few. But the point is, Payne would have a problem if this guy’s side business had gotten Fiona killed, if only because he was getting paid to find out who killed her.

“Won’t you sit down, Mr. Payne?” the manager said, gesturing to one of the other chairs at the table, which was currently but temporarily occupied. Everyone at the table but the manager got up and sauntered to the bar. “And let me get you a drink. I think we can do business.”

Payne pulled out a chair and tried to brush at least some of the dust off it. As he sat he said, “No thank you for the drink. What is your name, sir?”

“James Deacon,” the manager said.

“Mr. Deacon, what precisely did Fiona do for you?”

“She precisely waited tables,” Deacon said. “Nothing more, nothing less. She was a straight arrow, Payne, and that’s why I hired her. Yeah, I’ve got stuff going on out of the back room and off the books, and I don’t need hookers hustling customers or pushers selling drugs, and getting the attention of the authorities or the do-gooders. Fiona wasn’t messed up in anything illegal, at least not here, and I’ll do all I can to help you find out who killed her.”

He looked down at the table a moment, then back up. “I mean that, Payne. She was a good kid.”

Deacon had little to tell Payne that he didn’t already know. Fiona had arrived on the planet six months ago with her best friend, Kim Bridges. He wouldn’t give them a room because Kim, he said, “would stink up the place,” and Payne knew he’d have to look into that. It sounded unsavory, and he wondered how a straight arrow would get mixed up with someone like that.

But Deacon had hired Fiona on the spot – in fact, offered her the job when she came looking for a room, based on the references she brought. She’d been a good worker, and Deacon was planning to give her a raise. “OK, I admit,” he told Payne, “I lowballed her to start with, and I felt guilty.”

Then she didn’t show up to work one day. The  assistant manager who worked mornings reported it to Deacon, and Deacon contacted Kim, who said she’d left for work on time. She never got home either, Deacon said – Payne made a note to confirm all this with Kim – and later that day a ranch hand found her body. Payne knew this part too. She was in a wash a few miles outside town, stabbed once in the heart.

“No,” Deacon said when Payne asked if there was anyone who would want her dead. “Absolutely not.” He told him she had a smile and a charm that made even “no” and “don’t touch me or I’ll have you tossed out the door and beaten up” sound like compliments.

Deacon seemed to think that he needed to add, “Sometimes it feels like Fiona is still here.” Payne wondered if that perhaps meant he had feelings for her that were not reciprocated. Or maybe it was a guilty conscience. He took note to check on those later.

Deacon also gave him a photo database of people who worked with Fiona, and assured Payne that he would be able to talk with them, as he put it, “on my dime.” When Payne asked, he pointed out two of them – a tall skinny one and a bulky galoot – who might have some insights on Fiona.

For now, Payne sent Flynn back to the ship, then walked out the doors and made a right. He found the nearest alley, where he threw up. Twice. He hated space travel. No, that wasn’t right. He hated the way acceleration and deceleration made it feel like he was being stretched, mostly because when they stopped, it was as if he snapped back and his gut took the brunt of it.

Oh, and he hated the part in the middle, the part when he was alone in the ship with Flynn.

Other than that, space travel was a blast.

Like it so far? It’s available in paperback or for Kindle. Get your copy of The sort-of Murder of Fiona Galloway

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