Below is a free preview of my upcoming novel Inside Cut. This is chapter one. Inside Cut will be the seventh crime novel in my C.T. Ferguson private investigator series.
Here’s the cover proof.
The arrival of spring means many things to many people. For several of my college friends and me, it meant the start of a new lacrosse season. We enjoyed a good run at Loyola, even winning it all my last year of eligibility. As we got older, some guys moved away, others married off, and it became harder to get the band back together.
Tonight, I’d tossed back a few brews with five of my former teammates. One had a six-year run as a pro lacrosse player before injuries got the better of him. All of us were doing well. I was still the only one with an interesting job, though the fact I still held it provided some surprise to my fellow revelers. And maybe a little to me, too.
A couple of the fellows had families to get home to, so we called it a night just after nine. I’d turned thirty the previous November, and I never felt older than I did in this moment. Leaving a bar shortly past nine? Didn’t we stay up all night in college? How often did we woo coeds until the wee hours and then arrive on time for eight AM classes? I reminded the family men they should each get a glass of prune juice for the road. They responded by telling me I was number one.
I exited onto the mean streets of Towson. Pubs and restaurants dominated both sides of the road with a few retail stores mixed in for good measure. I walked down York Road to the garage where I left my car when parking—as it often did in the area—proved dicey.
Before I made it half a block, I saw two men toss another guy onto the sidewalk. They were too small to be bouncers and too unsteady to be sober. The fellow on the ground stared back up with wide eyes, which he cast to me when he noticed my approach.
“You take it back, you damn Ay-rab!” one of the men said. I figured he pronounced “Arab” the way he did because he was a cretin, and being at least two sheets to the wind didn’t help.
“Go back home and speak Ay-rab!” the other added. They both loomed over the third man, who remained on the ground. He wore jeans and a white sports team jacket, and as I drew closer, I noticed the green, white, and red bars on the left breast.
I stopped a couple paces short of the scene. A few other people walked by, some stopping to snap a picture as they did. Never mind there might be an assault happening; Instagram needed to get the scoop. “Ease off, guys,” I said, eyeing the angry duo. “You’re both drunk.” Each man stood about six feet, giving me two inches on them. They weren’t particularly big—both were built like they peaked in high school and spent the next two decades sliding downhill.
“He’s an Ay-rab,” the first one said. Gray chased away the black hair on his head. His beady eyes darted between me and the frightened fellow on the concrete.
“The word is ‘Arab,’ and I don’t think this guy is one.”
“How you mean?” the other one said. Breath reeking of whiskey and old tobacco blew into my face. His blond hair remained untouched by gray, though pockmarks dotted his face.
“See the flag on his jacket?” They both looked down and then nodded a second later. “It’s the flag of Iran.” Below it was script I couldn’t read.
“So?” the gray-haired one said.
“So it means he’s most likely an ethnic Persian.” The man on the sidewalk bobbed his head in assent. “Not an Arab.”
“We don’t much like Iran, neither,” the blond one said.
“Guys, move along. You’re drunk.”
The fair-haired one stared at me. “Who the hell are you?” He gave me an ineffectual shove to the shoulder.
I answered with a hard punch to his solar plexus. He stumbled back a step, sucked wind, and leaned on a streetlamp for support. The other one scowled. “Plenty more where that came from,” I told him. He glowered a bit more, collected his buddy, and they walked away. I was about to offer my hand to the guy on the sidewalk when he got to his feet.
“Thanks,” he said, running a hand through wavy black hair. “Buy you a drink?”
* * *
“What do you do?”
It’s a question I’ve gotten a lot. Most men in fact hear it any time they’re talking to another man at a social gathering of any sort. Ages ago, we might have compared spears or pelts. Now careers were the measure we took of one another. Once names and how everyone is doing get sorted out, the occupation query inevitably comes next. Sometimes, it’s posed out of genuine curiosity and others as a form of one-upmanship. I took it in the former sense. “Private investigator.”
Arash—we established names right away—showed wide eyes and then offered a slow nod. “Seems like you can handle yourself.” He looked around the pub, and I did, too. We sat at a table near the bar. The place was at about half capacity. The menu and decor would not help it stand apart in any way; I didn’t even catch the name as we walked in.
“I do all right,” I said. “A pair of drunks like those two makes it easy.” Arash sipped his amber lager. I nursed a ginger ale, having already downed three beers earlier. “What about you?”
He thought about it, frowning a few times, then opening and closing his mouth before answering. “Sports analytics.”
I glanced to the Iranian flag on his jacket and the foreign script beneath it. “You a soccer player?”
His eyes brightened. “Yes. How did you know?”
“I figure you don’t play a lot of hockey in the desert.”
Arash chuckled. “No, we do not.” He paused. “America does not care much about soccer, so I’ve focused on other sports. Baseball has already seen a . . . statistical revolution, I believe it’s called. I work mostly on football and basketball.”
“You working on new stats?”
He answered with another pause, this time for another swig of beer. “Sort of. I try to stick more to . . . predictive modeling. Are you familiar with statistics?”
I nodded. “Computer science degree.”
“How did you end up as a private investigator?”
I never had a good answer for this. It was a complicated journey with a long stop in Hong Kong, an arrest by the Chinese police, my eventual return to the States, and my parents funding my pro bono cases. Rather than spill this considerable cup of beans, I said, “It lets me do some things I’m good at.”
“This is what my job does, too.”
“You trying to catch on with a pro team?”
Arash didn’t answer right away. Maybe he simply liked to consider what he said, especially after two inebriated idiots almost beat him up over his words. English was probably his third language, though he spoke it well and with only a light accent. “I guess it would be good. I am still establishing myself, though. Maybe later.”
I didn’t think there was much more ground to cover. A chance encounter spurred this conversation, but I thought it ran its course. “I should get going,” I said, gulping down the rest of my soda and tasting its gingery bite.
Arash held out his hand, and I shook it. “Thank you, C.T. I have a feeling my night would not have gone very well without your help.”
“If I get home in time, maybe I can make someone else’s night, too.” I walked out into the chilly Towson night air. After a couple blocks, I arrived at my car. It was an Audi S4, the last year of the prior generation and thus the final one to come with a manual transmission. I put it in gear and started my drive back to Baltimore.
* * *
I pulled onto the concrete pad behind my house in Federal Hill. Thanks to a surge of revelers on weekends, leaving cars on the streets became dicey even with the parking pass issued to all residents. I shut off the car and entered my house through the back. I owned an end-unit rowhouse, and the rear door opened into the kitchen. When I walked into the living room, I smiled when I saw Gloria Reading on the couch waiting for me.
We met more than two years ago during my first case. Our relationship was one of fun and convenience for a while before we both discovered we wanted more. Gloria didn’t live with me—her house was three of mine, so why would she?—but she stayed over most nights. The room seemed to brighten as she beamed, stood from the couch, and kissed me. “How was it?”
“Not bad,” I said, keeping my arms around her. “The crew seems to get smaller every year.”
“Probably harder to get everyone together now that you’re all so old,” she said. “Some of your teammates might even be over thirty.”
I’d hit the big three-oh a few months ago. The late birthday meant I was usually the youngest person on the team. This got balanced out by our club winning the championship during my first year of graduate school. One of the fellows I hoisted brews with tonight was thirty-one, but the rest were my age or younger. “Just wait a couple years,” I told Gloria. “When you hit thirty, I’ll never let you forget it.”
“I’m going to be twenty-nine forever.”
“I’m pretty sure numbers don’t work the way you want.”
“I’ll make them work that way,” she insisted.
“Let me know how it goes. Meanwhile, you’ll have a big three and a big zero on your cake before long.”
“Will you still love me when I’m an old woman of thirty?” I shrugged. Gloria put on her best shocked face and slapped me on the shoulder. “Afraid I’ll be past my prime?”
“Not really,” I said. “I do OK for a man of such advanced age.”
“You’re not bad.” Gloria pressed herself against me, and we kissed. In a cosmic display of bad timing, my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. “Ignore it,” Gloria said in a breathy voice. She pulled my quarter-zip sweater over my head. The phone quieted.
Then it buzzed again.
Gloria frowned. I pulled the blasted thing out of my pocket and declined the call. When I checked the log, I saw the same number had tried me twice. Make it three times as the same digits flashed across the screen again. “I guess I should answer it,” I said. I leaned in and kissed Gloria one more time. “Won’t be long.”
“You’d better not be.” She headed upstairs.
“Hello?” I said to the person harshing my groove.
“Are you C.T. Ferguson?” A woman’s voice, and it sounded kind of weak and tired.
“I think I need your help . . . my son needs your help.”
“What’s the problem?”
“He’s in trouble, and I’m not sure how he’s going to get out of it.”
“Have you been to the police?”
She sighed, and it hit my ear like the hiss of a dying snake. “We can’t go to the police.”
I expected more explanation there, but none was forthcoming. Extracting information from reticent potential clients was probably my least favorite part of the job. “Why not?”
“It’s something I think I should tell you in person,” she said.
I glanced upstairs. Gloria would be in bed waiting for me by now, and I didn’t plan on disappointing her. Or myself. “Can we talk about it tomorrow morning?”
She hesitated but eventually said, “That should be fine.” We confirmed the address of my office, and I talked her out of the beastly hour of eight AM for the more reasonable ten o’clock. She ended the call.
I bounded up the stairs two at a time.