An Excerpt from The Violin Conspiracy

Start reading Brendan Slocumb’s riveting page-turner about a Black classical musician’s desperate quest to recover his lost violin on the eve of the most prestigious musical competition in the world.

The Violin Conspiracy Excerpt

Growing up Black in rural North Carolina, Ray McMillian’s life is already mapped out. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a job at the hospital cafeteria. If he’s extra lucky, he’ll earn more than minimum wage. But Ray has a gift and a dream—he’s determined to become a world-class professional violinist, and nothing will stand in his way. Not his mother, who wants him to stop making such a racket; not the fact that he can’t afford a violin suitable to his talents; not even the racism inherent in the world of classical music. When he discovers that his great-great-grandfather’s beat-up old fiddle is actually a priceless Stradivarius, all his dreams suddenly seem within reach. Together, Ray and his violin take the world by storm. But on the eve of the renowned and cutthroat Tchaikovsky Competition—the Olympics of classical music—the violin is stolen, a ransom note for five million dollars left in its place. Ray will have to piece together the clues to recover his treasured Strad . . . before it’s too late. With the descendants of the man who once enslaved Ray’s great-great-grandfather asserting that the instrument is rightfully theirs, and with his family staking their own claim, Ray doesn’t know who he can trust—or whether he will ever see his beloved violin again.

Chapter 1

Day 1: White Chucks, Size 10 ½

On the morning of the worst, most earth-shattering day of Ray McMillian’s life, he ordered room service: scrambled eggs for two, one side of regular bacon (for Nicole), one side of vegan sausage (for him), one coffee (for Nicole), one orange juice (for him).

Later, he would try to second-guess those choices and a thousand others that, in hindsight, vibrated in his memory: What if he’d ordered French toast instead of eggs? What if grapefruit juice instead of orange? What if no juice at all?

Breakfast had materialized before he’d gotten out of the shower. He’d lost track of time, caught up in the fingering of the Tchaikovsky Concerto’s triple-stops, and water sluiced down for ten minutes while he gaped at the tiny bar of hotel soap.

When he’d walked naked out of the bathroom, the aroma of bacon wreathed the suite. The breakfast tray was waiting on the tiny dining table, the dishes’ lids still in place. “I didn’t even hear them come in,” he said. If only every morning room service could magically deliver eggs and sausage.

Nicole was curled up in one of the armchairs, watching CNN. She twisted and untwisted a lock of auburn hair, the eighth-note tattoo above her wrist rhythmically flickering and disappearing. “You never hear anything.” Another bombing in Jerusalem, and a hurricane bearing down on Indonesia. “I have a confession,” she said, not looking away from the TV.

“What did you do this time?” She wasn’t looking at him, so he took a giant step forward and blocked her view of Indonesia. Gave her something else to look at.

“I stole five bucks from your wallet to tip her. Hope that was okay.” She eyed his nakedness. “You gonna eat like that?”

“Do I need clothes to eat?” He leered at her.

“This definitely works for me,” she said. “I was just trying to figure out if you were going to get dressed now or if you want to eat, or—”

“We need to be out of here within an hour. You need to finish packing.”

“I’m already packed,” she said. “You’re the snail in this race.”

Ray slid on underwear and a T-shirt, grabbed a plate of food, lay back on the messed-up bed. He propped the plate on his stomach.

Afterward, he relived all the other choices of the morning: cluelessly packing his suitcase, scouring the suite one more time, pulling up his roller bag’s handle. He slung the violin case over his right shoulder (should he have put it on the left?), gestured for Nicole to go first with her two roller bags. The door clicked shut behind them, sealing the suite—and what remained—inside.

Down the elevator, through the Saint Jacques lobby, checking out, tipping the doorman, who flagged down a cab for each of them: Nicole’s, first, to Penn Station. He hefted her suitcases into the trunk, leaving his own roller bag on the sidewalk, the violin case slung securely on his shoulder.

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She turned to him, pressed her hand against his chest. Her warmth spread through his shirt, her touch like pizzicato—plucking violin strings with fingers he could feel shudder down his spine. “I meant to tell you,” she said, “when you’re playing the Mozart, I think you’re playing the second movement too fast. Just try taking it maybe two clicks slower? Really milk it.”

“You think? Because Ben Amundsen said to keep the tempo bright.”

“I know, but you play so much more passionately when it’s a little slower. Just a little. Try it, all right? For me?”

New York battered against them, cars zooming past, splashing last night’s rain onto the curb.

“Just come to Charlotte. Find a sub,” he said.

“You come to Erie,” she said.

“You know I have to practice—”

“You can practice just as easily in Erie.”

“I can’t. There’s Janice, there’s my space, you know I—”

She grabbed his head with both her hands, pulled him toward her, and leaned forward, so their foreheads touched.

He closed his eyes, breathed her in. “I’ll see you next week,” he said.

“You’ve got this. Rayquan McMillian, future Tchaikovsky Competition gold medalist. Just focus. Visualize it. You can totally do this, you know that? It’s going to happen.”

 Another breath he could feel deep in his abdomen. He tilted forward to kiss her.

A voice from the cab: “Hey, buddy, you almost done there?”

Another moment ruined by New York City’s transportation system. Before he could kiss her, before he could even say “Call me when you get in,” she’d jumped into the back seat and the taxi door slammed and he stood there like an idiot as the car moved off into traffic.

But already the day was hammering at him, his taxi had rolled up, trunk popping open, and he was spilling into the back seat with the violin, his anxiety level rising again. He wanted to be through LaGuardia, back in Charlotte. This morning he hadn’t even practiced his music, so now he was itching to pick up his violin, assure himself that he could really make Tchaikovsky’s voice his own.

Only one month left until the competition began: the world’s most prestigious, most difficult classical music competition—judged by the top musicians in the world, as well as an online audience of millions of listeners. Even if he practiced every day, fourteen hours a day, he didn’t think he’d be ready. He resented wasting the time to fly home.

At the airport, he filed into the TSA PreCheck line. Had he only gone through regular security. Why had he been in such a hurry? He should have waited in the long queue. If he’d waited, the screener might have randomly pulled his suitcase aside or asked him to open the violin case. Someone would have noticed or asked; it was security, after all.

Instead he placed the roller bag on the conveyor belt, violin case behind it, and they sailed through the X-ray and he sailed through the body scan, oblivious.

Later, over and over, he replayed in his mind the next two hours: boarding Delta Flight 457, stowing his luggage (the violin case could manspread alone in the overhead bin), returning to Charlotte, home to his little house, the air musty and stale. He lay down on his bed for half an hour, grateful to be back, violin case on the floor next to him, where he always set it. He let the travel wash itself from his skin, into the air, felt himself getting centered. Getting focused, ready to play.

It was just after 2:00 p.m. on May 16 when he kicked himself off the bed. He stood up, took three strides across the room, picked up the violin case, and set it on his bureau.

He flicked open the left clasp, then the right, and the lid lifted back. His violin was gone.

Inside sat a white tennis shoe: a Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star high-top canvas shoe, men’s, size 10 ½.

Ray wore a size 12.

Poking out of the shoe’s mouth like an obscene tongue: a sheet of white office paper, folded in thirds.

He unfolded it.



Excerpted from The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb. Copyright © 2022 by Anchor. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.