Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

A Crime of Passion

Scott Pratt

A beautiful, young, rising star in the country music world is found dead in a Nashville hotel room. The owner of her record company is charged with murder. Joe Dillard is hired to travel to Tennessee’s capital city to defend Paul Milius, the record company baron accused of strangling Kasey Cartwright, his label’s young star. Dillard navigates Nashville’s unfamiliar legal system and the world of country music in search of the truth, but he soon finds himself confronted with a web of lies so masterfully woven that he fears he may never find any answers. As the trial begins and the tension mounts, Dillard fears that not only will his client be wrongfully convicted, but that Dillard himself may not survive.

Age Rating: 18+

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Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

A Crime of Passion

Scott Pratt

A beautiful, young, rising star in the country music world is found dead in a Nashville hotel room. The owner of her record company is charged with murder. Joe Dillard is hired to travel to Tennessee’s capital city to defend Paul Milius, the record company baron accused of strangling Kasey Cartwright, his label’s young star. Dillard navigates Nashville’s unfamiliar legal system and the world of country music in search of the truth, but he soon finds himself confronted with a web of lies so masterfully woven that he fears he may never find any answers. As the trial begins and the tension mounts, Dillard fears that not only will his client be wrongfully convicted, but that Dillard himself may not survive.

Age Rating: 18+

1: PROLOGUE

The redhead stared across the desk at the lawyer, her blue eyes smoldering. She had requested an after-hours meeting so everyone would be gone. It hadn’t quite worked out that way—high-priced, big-city lawyers worked late—but there were only a couple people left in the sprawling, twenty-fifth floor office suite that overlooked the Cumberland River and downtown Nashville.

“How much have I paid you over the years, Carl?” she said in an edgy voice.

The lawyer shrugged and held her gaze. “Not enough for me to get involved in a murder conspiracy.”

“Nobody is asking you to get involved,” she said. “All I want is a contact. A point of entry. A name. The name of a company. Just get me something. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“I should probably make you aware at this point that the attorney-client privilege does not extend to situations in which the client attempts to involve the attorney in a crime.”

“Damn it, Carl, have you gone deaf? I just said you don’t have to get involved. Do you know what would happen if I went out on the street with something like this? I’d wind up hiring some inept thug for $15,000. Or worse, I’d hire a cop and find myself in jail.”

“Then don’t do it,” said Carl Browning, a fifty-year-old, balding, bespectacled senior partner at Allen, Parks, Browning and Cummings. Browning had represented Lana Raines-Milius, the redheaded former country music diva, for eight years. Lana was devious and could be difficult, but she was mega-rich, and there were also some occasional benefits that Browning found unspeakably delicious.

“I have to do it,” Lana said.

“Why?”

“He deserves it. All the things he’s done in the past? And now he’s screwing a child.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“I know what I know.”

“Why don’t you just divorce him?”

“Because it would take years and the only people who would benefit would be people like you.”

“I don’t handle divorce cases, Lana.”

“I can’t believe this hasn’t come up before,” Lana said. “In all the years you’ve practiced law, all the rich, high-powered clients you’ve worked with, you can’t tell me that you’ve never had anyone approach you with something like this.”

“I didn’t say that,” Browning said. “What I said was I’m not going to involve myself in a murder conspiracy.”

“So it’s come up,” Lana said, with just a hint of a smile beginning to cross her lips.

“Maybe. Once or twice.”

“And you know where to go.”

“I might.”

“I love it when you play the hard-to-get game,” Lana said. She stood and walked to the office door, locked it, and turned back toward Browning. She walked slowly around his desk, unbuttoning her blouse as she moved. She stopped a couple feet from him, slipped out of the blouse, and laid it on the desk. The lawyer rolled his high-backed chair away from the desk and turned to face her. She took a step closer and kneeled.

“You know what kind of resources I have,” Lana said softly as she reached for his belt buckle. “But I also want you to know that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get this done and get it done right. Quick and clean. I already have the room number of the hotel where I want it done. I have the date. I’ve done my homework. Nobody will ever know a thing—except for you and me.”

“And the contractor,” Browning said.

Lana slowly unzipped the lawyer’s fly and licked her lips seductively.

“Shall we begin to conspire?” she said as her mouth opened and she leaned in toward him. “Just one little contact. One little name.”

***

PART I

CHAPTER 1

Alex Pappas heard his office door open, looked up, and his heart went cold. Lana Milius was walking in. Alex’s boss’s wife. The burned-out diva. The spoiled-rotten-woman-child who would slash the throat of a baby seal if she wanted to wear a sealskin coat. No, no. Lana wouldn’t slash the throat herself. She’d find a way to get someone else to do it for her. But she’d wear the coat.

Alex had been working for Paul Milius for three years, and were it not for Lana, his would be a dream job. Being the personal assistant to Paul Milius, the owner of the biggest and most powerful record company in Nashville, was demanding but interesting. He made great money, and he lived in an incredible house on a spectacular estate. He liked Paul okay—with the exception that he was aloof and distant—but he liked Paul’s life better. It was busy and filled with all sorts of fascinating people, everything from artsy troubadours to cutthroat businessmen. But he didn’t think much of Paul’s choice of a wife. Lana had been a big shot before Alex came onto the scene, a platinum-coated country music artist. She was still pretty, even beautiful, but whenever Alex saw her, only one word came to mind, a word that started with “b” and rhymed with rich.

“Hidy, Allie,” Lana said in her best hick voice. She was wearing her standard around-the-house attire—a silk kimono, this one all purple and floral and cut low around her chest and high around her thighs. On her feet were black, open-toed sandals with four-inch heels, and across her shoulders was a sheer, pink scarf. She looked like a French hooker playing geisha girl. This was an “I want something from you” outfit. Alex had seen it several times before. He forced himself to smile.

“Hello, Mrs. Milius.”

“Why do you always have to be so formal with me, Allie? Don’t you like me?”

She tossed the name “Allie” at him like a dart, and each time she did, it penetrated just a bit deeper beneath his skin.

“I like you just fine, Mrs. Milius.”

Alex watched uncomfortably as Lana walked behind him. She dropped one end of her scarf on his right shoulder and pulled it across his back as she continued to walk around his desk.

“I need a little favor from you, Allie,” Lana said.

“What kind of favor?”

“Just a couple minor things. I need you to provide some information to some people using an encrypted email, maybe transfer some money to them.”

“An encrypted email? Sounds clandestine.”

“Ooh, I like that word. Clandestine. Yes, it’s all very clandestine,” Lana said as she sat down in a chair across from Alex’s desk and crossed her legs. “Very hush, hush. Big business, you know? I need someone who knows their way around the modern communications technology.”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Milius. I think I’d have to have a little more information—”

“Are you refusing a request from your employer?” Lana snapped.

“Paul is my employer,” Alex said.

We are your employer,” Lana said. “A corporation employs you and all the rest of the people who work here. And guess who the president and chief executive officer of the corporation that owns all our properties happens to be? Little ol’ me. I’ll bet you never thought about that, did you? Not that you ~should~ be thinking about things like that. As a matter of fact, right now, what you should be thinking about the most is how to please Lana Raines-Milius. You should be asking yourself exactly what she wants and exactly what you’re going to do to make sure she gets what she wants.”

Alex held up his hand, almost defensively. “Hold on, Mrs. Milius. You’re not making any sense. Exactly why are you here?”

“See? There you go, right there,” Lana said. “Now you’ve got it. I’m here because I need you to do exactly what I tell you for the next few days without saying a word to anyone. I’m going to provide you with some computer files and a prepaid cell phone, and I’m going to give you access to some money. You’re going to set up an email account and send the files to the people I tell you to send them to. You’re going to talk to them on the telephone if it becomes necessary, and you’re going to transfer money when and where I tell you to.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed as he listened. He’d always suspected Lana was capable of some unseemly things, but he hadn’t expected her to involve him.

“And if I refuse?” Alex said.

“Let’s not even talk about that,” Lana said as she uncrossed her legs, revealing that she wasn’t wearing panties. She re-crossed them quickly as Alex’s mind flashed to an old movie he’d seen. What was it called? Basic Instinct. “Let’s talk about what’s in it for you if you do what I ask you to do. First of all, there’s this.” The legs uncrossed again, and Lana kept them that way for ten seconds while she stared directly into Alex’s eyes. “Any time you want it. Oh, and there are these.” She reached up slowly and pulled the kimono down to reveal her breasts.

“Mrs. Milius, please,” Alex said. “No offense, but I’m not interested in having sex with you. It just wouldn’t be … it wouldn’t be right.”

“Well listen to you, the perfect little gentleman,” Lana said as she pulled the kimono back up and crossed her legs. “You’ve been having sex with Tilly, haven’t you?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t play games with me, Allie. I know everything that goes on inside this house and half of what goes on outside. You and Tilly have been seeing each other for six months. Don’t tell me you haven’t sampled the goods.”

“My relationship with Tilly is none of your business.”

“You’re so cute when you’re angry,” Lana said. “Your cute little lips tighten up in a line, and your pretty little jaw starts to twitch.”

“I’d appreciate it if you’d leave now,” Alex said.

“But I’m not finished. I haven’t told you what else is in it for you if you do what I ask. I’ll give you a half million in cash if everything goes the way I want it to.”

“Then it can’t be legal,” Alex said. “You’re asking me to do something illegal.”

Lana held the scarf in front of her face and started waving it back and forth. “Legality,” she said. “~Morality~. They’re just words. Who’s to say what’s legal and what isn’t? Who’s to say what’s moral and what isn’t? I don’t feel bound by any of that. I do what I think is best for me.”

“Why don’t you just do whatever it is you want done yourself?” Alex said.

“Because I don’t want to take a chance on getting caught. It would be awful if I was caught. I could go to jail.”

“But it’s all right if I go to jail?”

“Better you than me,” Lana said. Her tone suddenly turned from syrupy to icy. “I’ve tried to be nice, Allie, but you’re making it impossible, so let me just tell you what will happen if you don’t do what I want. You can forget the half-million dollars. That offer is rescinded. May I borrow a pen and a piece of paper? Please, just a sticky note will be fine. That’s it.”

Lana rose from her chair while Alex slid an ink pen and a pad of blue sticky notes across the desk. She leaned over and wrote something on the top sticky note, pulled it off, and set it down in front of Alex. Then she did it again. And again. Lana straightened up and smiled while Alex gazed down at the three small pieces of paper. On each one of them was what looked to be a perfect forgery of his signature.

“You know that black Centurion credit card that Paul lets you use? Well, you’ve been using it an awful lot lately. Do you know where it is, by the way?”

Alex reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. He opened a desk drawer to his right, took out a small, leather case. It was empty. He began to feel nauseous.

“Oh, my,” Lana said. “It’s gone, isn’t it? Do you know you’ve run up more than $200,000 in unauthorized credit card purchases in the past two weeks? You’ve bought some beautiful jewelry for Tilly, which the police will find if they happen to get involved. You’ve also bought some extremely nice things for yourself, things that will find their way into your closet when the police come. I called one of my lawyers and asked him what would happen to someone who had stolen $200,000 from his employer, and he said that person would go to prison for at least eight years. And I’m sure you’re aware that Paul knows most of the judges in town. If he thought you’d stolen all that money from him, I’m sure he’d make sure you went straight to jail. You wouldn’t pass go. You wouldn’t collect $200. You’d just go straight to jail for a long, long time.”

Alex was so stunned he could think of nothing to say. He just looked at Lana, open-mouthed.

“And just in case you’re still not convinced,” Lana said, “I’m sure the people we’re dealing with would treat Tilly very harshly if you were to try anything silly, like telling Paul or going to the police.”

“She’s your cousin, for God’s sake,” Alex said. “She’s been nothing but good to you.”

“So you’ll come over to our wing and meet me in my office then,” Lana said. “Let’s say about thirty minutes? I have something I need to give you, and then maybe we’ll have a little fun.”

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