Liz Danger is stuck in her hometown of Burney, Ohio, because her insane employer has rented a house there for the summer, which means she has three more months of trying to get a copy edit done, babysitting a seven-year-old, and figuring out what to do with three hundred and ninety-two teddy bears. And then there’s her mother. Even the good news that she’s living with a hot cop is tempered by the knowledge that sooner or later, she’s going to have to figure out her future, and she's still not sure what she wants that to be.
Vince Cooper is stuck in a town that keeps asking him when he’s going to make an honest woman of Liz Danger and in a job that’s just sunk into anarchy because of local and state politics that are kneecapping the police department, not to mention a biker gang and Liz’s ex-boyfriend who still hasn’t figured out that the ex part is permanent. Good thing he has Liz to come home to . . . until he doesn’t.
As Liz and Vince try to navigate their increasingly complicated relationship, they’re finding out startling new things about themselves and the town they’re trying to protect, and that means dealing with greedy politicians, arson, broken hearts (not theirs), vandalism, questionable real estate, murder, and a lot of soggy bears.
One in Vermillion: That red in the ledger isn’t just the ink.
This will be published in print (trade paperback and hardcover) in August.
Release date: September 19, 2023
Publisher: Cool Gus
Print pages: 416
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
One In Vermillion
I moved in with my One True Love a month ago, sure that it was going to be nothing but good times ahead. I was wrong. Here’s a tip for those of you considering cohabitation: If the person you’re thinking of sharing space with has Rogers Rules of Rangering up on the kitchen wall, turn back now. It’s a sure bet that he’s gonna be a pre-dawn kind of guy. Look, Vince knew before I moved into his diner that I do not greet the rosy dawn with glad cries of joy. I’d spent plenty of nights and subsequent mornings with him before moving in and I’d made that clear. And on this particular Monday morning, the dawn wasn’t even rosy yet when the pounding and the cracking and the crashing started.
Even while I was still groggy, I knew Vince was smashing drywall in the addition he was adding to our diner. Nine months ago, he’d moved an old fire-damaged Big Chef diner down to the banks of the Ohio River on a flat-bed truck and had lived happily alone just outside of Burney, Ohio, in its ten by thirty foot interior until we met three months ago and fell into a fun series of one-night stands that ended over a month ago when we decided we were ready to try living together, at which point he surprised me by buying another Big Chef diner in even worse condition so there would be room for me. Six hundred square feet. We were living large. And now we were in a two-diner relationship that involved removing old drywall before dawn and putting up new to make a bigger bedroom, not that he’d let me help.
Part of the problem was that neither of us had thought about what a two-diner relationship might be, and we really didn’t want to talk about it, since we were both allergic to the C word. Real commitment was right up there with root canal for us: we knew it was probably somewhere ahead of us, but let’s not think about that now.
As more drywall fell and I woke up completely, I began to think we should have thought about that now. Possibly established some ground rules, like no bashing drywall before nine AM. But we had bigger problems than that. Like my efforts to be an equal partner in our two-diner life.
Vince and his buddies had moved the new old diner at right angles to the end of the original diner to make an L-shaped floor plan, and then had bolted the two together, cutting an opening between them, so his nice, clean, white diner now had a dingy, dusty construction zone attached to it. I’d tried to help pay for the second diner, but Vince had waved that away. I tried to help with the drywall, and he waved that away. I told him I’d pay for the paint and drywall, but he waved that away, too. I’d said, “At least let me furnish it,” and he’d said, “Why would we need furniture?”
Vince Cooper, a real mattress-on-the-floor kind of guy.
That’s great when you’re twenty-three, not so much when you’re thirty-three and trying to have an equal relationship with somebody who does the “don’t you worry your pretty little head about that” thing. Not that Vince would ever say that. He just says, “No,” when I try to help.
I realized the pounding had stopped and had a brief moment when I thought he might have come to his senses and be headed back to bed and me, the love of his damn life. Then he poked his head around the glass block wall that separated the bed from the rest of the diner.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” he said.
I threw a pillow at him.
He caught the pillow and dropped it at the foot of the bed and disappeared back around the glass brick while I fell against the pillows that were left and tried to go back to sleep. He came back a couple of minutes later with a mug of mocha, courtesy of my boss, Anemone Patterson
who had gifted me a pink Keurig and a lot of chocolate coffee pods when I’d left her house to move in with Vince because, as she put it with her usual tact, “You can’t even boil water, Liz, how are you going to make a decent cup of coffee?” Plus, she’d heard about him making what he called “field mocha” —instant coffee and instant cocoa mixed together in a dirty canteen cup over a camp stove—and been appalled. Well, anyone would be.
Vince sat down at the end of the bed and stretched out his arm to give me the mug.
I sighed and took it, knowing that he wasn’t going to let me go back to sleep.
“How’s the drywall?” I asked him.
“It’s coming along,” he said. Which is what he’s said every day since he started.
He does this thing where he knocks down a piece of the stuff, breaks it into smaller pieces, and then stops and puts it in a garbage bag. Several pieces later, the bag is full—drywall is heavy—so he double bags it and takes it out to a very neat pile up by the road which is down a long lane. Then he comes back and tears down another piece and stops and puts in in a garbage bag. When it’s full, he carries it down the lane and adds it to the pile. Then he comes back and tears . . .
Well, you get the drift. Vince Cooper, meticulous de-constructionist. It’s going to take him forever.
“I was sleeping,” I told him balefully over my coffee.
“It was time to get up,” he told me. “And I padded the sledge. It wasn’t that loud.” Seeing that didn’t make much of an impression, he added, “It’s Monday. You need to get to the Pink House to take Peri to swim lessons.”
The Pink House is where my boss, Anemone, is hosting several people left homeless by an evil arsonist I shot. It’s a long story, forget I said that.
“And if you get there early,” Vince was saying, “Marianne will make breakfast for you.”
The problem with sleeping with a guy for two months and then living with him for a month is that the bastard gets to know you. Left to myself, if I had to choose sleep or food at this hour of the morning, I’d take sleep, but since I was now awake, yes, I was going up to the Pink House for food. Food, sleep, and sex, those are my three priorities depending on what time of day it is, what kind of mood I’m in,
and who I’m with.
“Fine,” I said, and took another long drag on my caffeine before I threw back the covers to get dressed.
“No rush,” Vince said, and I realized he’d woken me so we could get in a quickie before breakfast.
How did I know that? Three months, people. I can read this guy like a book.
I glared at him. “Here’s a hint. Waking me up by pounding drywall is not foreplay.”
He looked at me, trying for innocent, but that was hopeless. Vince Cooper is many things, but innocent is not one of them.
“Fat chance, buddy.” I finished my coffee, put my mug on the shelf behind me, and crawled down the bed to the end so I could go shower. One of the many reasons he’d been busting drywall was so we could have a bedroom with a bed we could actually walk around instead of one with walls pressing on each side that we had to crawl in and out over the foot of. Plus, this space was going to be my office. Some day.
When I got to the end, he put his arms around me. “Come on, Magnolia,” he said, pulling me close. “Plenty of time before you have to leave.”
“Time I could have spent sleeping,” I said, but he kissed my neck and then bit my earlobe gently and when I turned my head to yell at him, he found my mouth, and even though he was a rat bastard for waking me up, he has the greatest mouth in southern Ohio, so I kissed him back and one thing led to another and I was almost late for breakfast at the Pink House after all. It was absolutely worth it.
But Major Rogers can bite me.
On my way out the door, I went to the new addition and looked at the lovely open space where I could get into my bed from either side, and all the light flooding in, and the sky outside the end window, blue as a Disney bird, and thought about the future, as sunny as my soon-to-be bedroom.
This room has to be blue, I thought, just like the river (on a good day) and the open sky.
That’s when everything started to go wrong.
I headed in to work at the police department on a warm, humid August Monday morning, expecting the same old, same old. The day had started very well. I’d gotten one section of the old drywall in the bathroom-to-be knocked out, bagged and tossed in the heap. I’d also had a wonderful liaison with my live-in, Liz Danger. Live-in wasn’t a good term, but girlfriend seemed too trivial, and fiancé was a word not dared uttered. We’d made it three months so far, one month live-in, and things seemed to be going all right. I was happy. She seemed happy. Don’t mess with success is my motto, even though it isn’t on Major Rogers’ Rangering List.
Being Chief of Detectives for the sprawling village of Burney, Ohio, meant I didn’t drive a marked cruiser wearing a uniform; I got to tool about in my Jeep Gladiator wearing civvies. That was probably why a big, black Suburban with tinted windows pulled out behind me from the construction site of the new development and blew by me on Route 52 without slowing, passing in a no-passing zone. Safety violations which could hurt someone justified a stop, so I flipped on the red and blue lights embedded in the grill and facing forward on the dash. I didn’t do the siren because it was too early; who likes loud noises early in the morning?
As I closed on the Suburban, I knew this stop was going to be a problem. It had a State Legislature license plate. The big SUV pulled off onto the shoulder, but I didn’t bother to call the plate in because my boss, Chief George Pens, already had enough crap to deal with. He didn’t need someone from the legislature on his case. I planned on issuing a warning and then getting an ass chewing from whomever was inside. Such is my lot in life.
I pulled in behind the Suburban, angling the Gladiator so it would take the hit if some idiot texting came flying down the road too close to the edge.
I walked up to the driver’s window as it powered down.
“Officer Cooper,” the burly, dark-haired man behind the wheel greeted me.
“Attorney at law, bodyguard, and all-around gofer Franco Sandusky,” I said in return. “You were speeding and passed in a no-passing zone.”
“Urgent business in Columbus,” Franco replied with no sense of urgency.
I leaned forward and looked to the back seat. As I had suspected and feared, Senator Amy Wilcox was staring at me from the far corner. Or she might have been napping. I couldn't see her eyes through the dark glasses she wore. She was what would be called petite, not to be confused with weak, and sported short dark hair in what I assumed was some stylish cut.
And next to her, my least favorite person in Burney, and Ohio, and the United States and perhaps the world, Cash Porter. Yeah, I don’t like him. He was dressed in black as if still mourning his murdered wife of four hours, Lavender Blue. I couldn’t quite make out the body language between the two of them, but Liz tells me I am not most astute judge of such things. He was definitely awake, glaring at me, apparently still upset that I was living with his ex-high-school-girlfriend. Which was fifteen years ago.
I mean, get a life, dude.
“You want to get the senator there safe, don’t you?” I asked Franco, whom Lavender Blue had dubbed Meathead when they first met, the name I was tempted to use. Except Meathead did have a law degree and, I suspected, was much smarter than he looked.
Apparently, Senator Wilcox was awake because she removed the sunglasses. “Detective Cooper.”
“We’re not in that much of a rush,” she said, contradicting Franco. “We’ll slow down.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“You did a good job catching Mickey Pitts,” Senator Wilcox added. “You’re owed a debt of gratitude.”
It wasn’t so dark inside the back that I missed Cash rolling his eyes.
“Liz Danger did the hard part,” I said, referring to my live-in, who’d gunned down arsonist and murderer Mickey Pitts six weeks ago. Pitts was still in an induced coma as doctors were waiting for for him to heal further before attempting to remove a bullet lodged against his spine, but he’d stopped setting Burney on fire and killing people, and that was good enough for me. And evidently the senator.
“Three in the back,” Franco was saying. “Classy.”
“It got the job done.”
“And we are grateful,” Senator Wilcox said. “I hear there’s a detective’s slot for you in the Cincinnati police. Much better pay. More suited to your extensive talents.”
Which I had not heard. I had a feeling she hadn’t either. She’d just invented it. Which raised all sorts of questions that I wasn’t going to ask.
“I like it here in Burney.”
“Really?” A slight smile crept across her face.
Cash was itching to say something, but I got the feeling the senator kept him on a tight leash.
I was getting tired of people thinking Liz was the reason I was in Burney. I’d been here six months before she’d returned to town after a fifteen-year absence. Six months isn’t long, but long is relative. I was here first. Relatively.
“Really,” I said. Although, truth be told, Liz Danger was a good reason to be anywhere.
“Burney might not be the place for you, Office Cooper.”
Cash smiled at that. His lip had healed quite nicely from where I’d busted it over a month ago.
She’d called me detective and now officer. I was enough of the former to pick up on the latter. “Why not, ma’am?”
“They brought Mickey Pitts out of the coma on Saturday for surgery,” Senator Wilcox said. “Just before they operated, he told an interesting story about being offered a hundred thousand dollars in cash by a newly-minted
detective to leave Burney.”
I had no snappy reply to that because it was true. She was more on top of the Mickey Pitts saga than I was. I’d left word at the prison to get called right away if Mickey regained consciousness, but my word, as it was, apparently mattered little compared to the senator’s network.
“Hold on, let me handle this guy,” Cash said to the senator in what I assumed was his manly man voice. He opened his door, but I caught the look of irritation cross her face as he got out to confront me. I heard Franco mutter “Give me a break,” under his breath.
Me, I was thinking Cash’s lip would probably split much more easily this time. I know, I am small and petty and vindictive at times.
Cash wasn’t totally stupid. He kept the heavy car door between us as he leaned into it and lectured me across the top. “Cooper, you’re a dinosaur living and working in a dying town. We’re going to replace the entire police force and headquarter it in our development where the tax base is going to be and the people who should be protected are going to be. You won’t fit in. The senator has just made you a very generous offer. You should take it. Burney, as it is now, is on its last gasp. We’re going to have shops and restaurants and everything people need in the development. People will only go to old Burney to see the dying past. And you can tell Liz that. That I’m the future. You? You’re done, Cooper.”
I stared at him. His eyes were wrong, the pupils off, probably from getting out of the dark interior of the car into daylight. “Thanks for the advice,” I said. I leaned back toward Franco’s window so I could see the senator. “You have a nice day, ma’am.”
She nodded, her lips tight. Then she said. “Get back in here, Cash.”
With a smirk, Cash slid back inside and slammed the door shut.
I looked at Franco and he gave me a slight shake of the head, then powered up the window and pulled out. Fast, but not spitting gravel and dirt from the shoulder.
I watched the big SUV drive away, then got back in the Gladiator and turned off Rt. 52, and headed into town.
Police headquarters is on the first floor of the municipal building which also houses the mayor’s office upstairs and animal control out back. The latter gets more calls than we do. We probably could use a new building, but not in that development. A remodel, maybe.
I nodded at Steve Crider, the desk officer and daytime phone answerer, as I came in. I was anxious to talk damage control with Chief George Pens.
“Chief is upstairs with Mayor O’Toole,” Steve said, looking worried, which meant I was too late. Then Steve added the hammer. “Senator Wilcox was here earlier.”
“Was Cash Porter with her?”
I hadn’t been invited, but given the senator’s comments and Cash’s speech, I took the stairs two at a time.
The door to the mayor’s office was open and I saw George standing in front of the mayor’s desk, his badge and gun on top of it and O’Toole grinning behind it. I took that as an invitation.
As I stepped in, I noticed Brandon Bartlett, O’Toole’s stool pigeon on the force who put the plural in “Burney detectives”, sitting off to the side. He was both the mayor’s and chief’s nephew-in-law because George had once been married to O’Toole’s current wife, Honey. I wondered how she felt about that deal now. O’Toole looked like a hung-over Jabba the Hut behind the desk with his splotchy, drink-addled face and receding hairline, while George was in the best shape he’d been in years under the strong hand of Liz’s boss, Anemone Patterson. Whenever Anemone took an interest in someone, their life took an upward trajectory. But that seemed to have hit a wall today.
“Cooper,” O’Toole said as I walked in, “no one invited you.”
“Senator Wilcox did,” I said. “I just saw her on Route 52.”
O’Toole didn’t know what to make of that, but he didn’t how to make much of anything, so it wasn’t unusual.
George got me up to speed. “Mayor O’Toole has terminated me for cause. Effective immediately.”
That explained the chief’s badge and gun on O’Toole’s desk. I’d seen such a thing in TV shows but never in real life. “What cause?” I asked.
Bartlett was eager to chime in and be obnoxious. “To begin with, the Lavender Blue murder investigation. Proper procedure wasn’t followed.” Bartlett was young and he had that pale curly blond hair that made him look like a spoiled toddler, except older and wimpier. A man who would miss his prime because he would never have one.
“Bullshit.” I pointed at O’Toole. “You told George to keep the county sheriff out of it and to violate protocol.”
“There’s no record of that,” Bartlett said smugly. “Proper procedure in such a case is to give the county sheriff jurisdiction as they have the proper resources to conduct a homicide investigation.”
O’Toole and Bartlett had been well coached by the senator. This was her play all the way.
“That was months ago,” I said. “The state board cleared us.”
“Technically,” Bartlett said, because he was the kind of guy who said things like “technically” and “literally” and now, “proper.” He went on. “They determined improper procedure but didn’t give any recommendation for action. At the time. But given new revelations, that recommendation has been re-evaluated and action implemented.”
George looked at me. “Pitts is out of his coma. He talked about the hundred thousand in the briefcase.”
I made a pathetic
attempt at misdirection. “Who invited you in here?” I demanded of Bartlett. “You work for me.”
“Au contraire,” O’Toole said, sounding like the dick he was. He picked up the chief’s badge and tossed it to Bartlett. “You, Cooper, work for Bartlett now. He’s the new chief of police.” O’Toole shook his head as if sad, but that grin was still there. “Apparently, the Burney police department offered a known criminal one hundred thousand dollars to leave town. It’s a shocking thing to learn. Truly shocking. Change is required. Mandated in fact. Absolutely called for.”
He stopped there, possibly because of the look on my face as I turned toward him, and he’d run out of catchphrases.
Bartlett distracted me, like an irritating fly. “There was nothing in the reports about such an offer, which is improper procedure,” Bartlett said as he fumbled with the badge, putting it on his belt after pulling off his gold detective’s badge. He glanced at O’Toole and I sensed an original thought coming which couldn’t be good. “In light of that, as the new chief of police, I’ve decided I am also chief of detectives. And you’re demoted. You’re back to uniform, Officer Cooper.”
O’Toole appeared surprised by that, which meant Bartlett was off script. Also, if he demoted me, he was chief of no one.
“Easy, Vince,” George said, because he recognized the warning signs as I turned toward Bartlett. They probably weren’t hard to notice as my fists balled, my shoulders hunched, and my anger surged. Standard stuff. George stepped between us and leaned close as he whispered, “We need you on the force, now more than ever.”
“I’ll keep you on for the time being,” Bartlett said, steepling his fingers in front of him as if giving the matter great thought. “However, I must remind you that you will follow proper procedure and—”
“Fuck you.” I pulled out my badge. “Literally, technically and properly.”
“Vince,” George said. “Don’t.”
I tossed it on the desk, as O’Toole jerked back as if afraid I was throwing it at him. “I quit.”
My forty-five pistol I kept. Because it’s mine.
“Hold on,” O’Toole said. “Let’s not be hasty, Cooper. If this is about George, He’ll be
fine. He’s still on the town council. Plenty to do.”
“Offering the money was my decision,” I said. “George had nothing to do with it. He didn’t know anything about it until after it was over. You want a head? Take mine.”
“Why did you do it?” O’Toole asked me, ignoring George, and it seemed like he really wanted an answer.
“Pitts was burning down the town,” I said. “I set a trap and it worked. He’s in custody.”
Bartlett had to get his pious two cents in. “You should have reported the money as soon as you found it. It was evidence.”
“I didn’t have to report it,” I argued. “Evidence of what? It was Navy’s money, fallen out of his car during his accident in the ravine months ago. An event that has been signed off on as an accident at the mayor’s insistence. I rappelled down there on a personal matter, to retrieve things that belonged to a friend. It was not part of an investigation into Navy’s crash which, I repeat, you,” I glared at the mayor, “insisted we close. I returned his briefcase and the money to his family.”
“After offering the money to Mickey Pitts,” Bartlett pointed out. Again. The kid was nothing if not repetitive.
“There’s no record of that,” I said, scoring a cheap point. “You’re taking the word of an arsonist and a murderer?”
“‘Murderer’?” Bartlett was confused.
“Thacker,” I told him, realizing I’d never briefed him on that, but I didn’t have to because I’d been chief of detectives. “Mickey Pitts set that fire at the Shady Rest that killed Thomas Thacker.”
“We don’t have any proof of that,” Bartlett said, but he was rattled. “What we do know is you offered Pitts one hundred thousand dollars to leave rather than do your duty.”
“Pitts was burning down the town,” George said, trying to run interference. “He was killing people. He had to be stopped.”
“That’s not proper procedure,” Bartlett said, reverting to repetitive form.
“Then fire me,” I repeated. “I did it.”
“George was your boss and thus responsible,” O’Toole said. “He’s made too many mistakes. First, Lavender Blue and now this. He’s gone.” He pursed his lips as if trying to make a decision. “Listen, Cooper, things are changing. Once the new development is done, there are going to be big changes. They’re building a combination police and fire headquarters out there. State of the art. The police force is going to be restructured. You want to be a part of the new, you toe the line. Or else you get left behind like yesterday’s news.”
So far, I’d been told
I was a dinosaur and yesterday’s news.
“Vince,” George warned once more, putting a hand on my shoulder and gripping tight. Since he’d hooked up with Anemone and begun eating healthy food and sleeping well, George had lost weight, and he had more muscle than fat now. Unless I wanted to get into it with him, I wasn’t going after Bartlett.
O’Toole reached for my badge, and George let go of me and snatched it off the desk, causing O’Toole to flinch once more. He handed it back to me. “Officer Cooper acted in haste.” He looked into my eyes. “Correct, Officer Cooper?”
“That would be Detective Cooper,” I said, tilting the gold badge. “Says it right here.”
O’Toole hesitated, and I turned to toss it back, so he said, “Of course, Detective Cooper.”
Which meant O’Toole wasn’t as dumb as he looked.
Bartlett, unfortunately, was.
“Wait a second,” Bartlett protested. “I think—“
O’Toole cut him off. “You’re chief now,” he pointed out. “He works for you. That’s good enough. Right?” He emphasized that to Bartlett.
Bartlett pouted. “I want you to know you’re on probation, Detective Cooper. You step out of line and I’ll revoke it.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked. “And if you don’t like something? What then? Double super-secret probation?”
“No,” Bartlett said. “I fire you.”
I met his eyes. He held mine for longer than I expected, so I started to toss the badge back on the desk again.
O’Toole interrupted the manly man glare-off. “Chief Bartlett, can I speak to you for a moment,” the mayor said, and Bartlett turned on a dime to walk toward him, the perfect lackey.
“Don’t quit,” George said to me quietly. “This place will go to hell with both of us gone.”
The mayor finished saying something sharp to Bartlett and then cut him off before he could speak.
“You’re not on probation, Detective Cooper,” O’Toole said. “Continue doing whatever you’ve been doing. But make sure you follow procedure. No more freelancing.”
Bartlett fumed but shut up. As lackeys do.
“We’re done here,” O’Toole said.
George walked out of the office. I really hoped he had a plan that was going to put him back in charge soon because if he wasn’t, I was going to
have to kill that little tick Bartlett.
I’m kidding about the killing part. Maiming, however, was not off the table. ...
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