Below is chapter 1 of my upcoming crime fiction novel Don’t Say Her Name. It’s the 12th entry in the ongoing C.T. Ferguson series. You’ll find a link to preorder the book at the bottom. It’s official release date is 7/26/2022.
Text (c) 2022 by Tom Fowler
One of the perks of having a secretary is delegating tasks I don’t like.
It’s a pretty long list. I’ve never been fond of a lot of the minutiae involved with running a business. For the last few months, I’ve been able to offload these items to T.J., who has always accepted them while maintaining a veneer of happiness. Appearances matter.
“It’s a good thing you paid for that accounting class,” she said as she looked over a few sheets of paper. The idea of reviewing actual printed documents made me feel much older than my almost thirty-two years. I don’t know where T.J.—recently twenty—picked up the habit, but I would need to ask her about it sometime. The large monitor connected to the laptop on her desk would have been perfectly good.
“Sure,” I agreed. I took a couple financial classes in college . . . for all the good they did me today. I ranked them somewhere between algebra and trigonometry in the Things People Promised Would be Useful but Are Totally Not category.
“We’re profitable.” She pointed to the bottom of a column. The agency was indeed in the black. I offered an impressive nod. When I started working as a PI, I didn’t charge my clients. My parents’ foundation paid me instead. In the months since the arrangement ended, I’d managed to carve out a decent paying clientele.
And I did it all without investigating a single cheating spouse.
T.J. tapped her pencil on another column. “Charging businesses more helped.”
“It was a good idea,” I said. “Just like the previous seventy-nine times I told you.”
“I’m going for an even hundred.” T.J. offered a smile full of teeth and mock sincerity. “Probably get there in another month.”
“How’s your filing coming along?”
She rolled her eyes. “I still wonder what year it is when we have to use paper.”
“They’re backups,” I said, declining to point out the irony of what we currently reviewed. “I never used to care much about stuff like this. Getting audited by the state would suck, but knowing where all our data is will help if it ever happens.”
“You were just waiting to have someone to delegate it to,” T.J. said.
“And here you are.”
“It’s fine.” She pointed to a tall black file cabinet whose number of paint chips and scratches far exceeded its drawers. I bought it for twenty dollars when Manny got rid of it. He owned the car repair shop below us, and my business occupied the second floor of the attached office. The price did not include him or his crew helping me move it up the stairs. I would’ve paid triple for the help. “I’ve finished all our recent cases. Still going over some of your old ones. You might have tried writing down some notes.”
“I take the Paperwork Reduction Act very seriously,” I said.
T.J. crossed her arms. “That’s a federal thing. I remember reading about it.” She tried to glare at me but didn’t quite get there. The right corner of her mouth betrayed her. Despite the unseasonal warmth in the fall air, T.J. wore a light sweater over her jeans. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail which reached her shoulder blades. She was pretty but not so much my male clients would stop at her desk to gaze upon my secretary.
“Maryland might adopt it. I like to be prepared.”
“Uh-huh,” she said with a healthy amount of skepticism. “Anyway, if you want to talk numbers again, we’re doing well. A little better each month, in fact.”
“Good.” T.J. had worked for me almost five months now. After the 180-day mark, I’d need to start paying her full salary. Until then, my friend Melinda’s Nightlight Foundation paid half. I might even be able to give her a raise or a bonus. She’d certainly earned it. My smartwatch vibrated on my wrist, and I glanced at its screen. Jewelry appointment, it reminded me. “I’m going to head out early today.”
“Can I go, too?” T.J. asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m delegating staying late to you.”
She narrowed her eyes. “It’s not like you to leave early. Where are you going?”
“Hmm.” She checked her screen. “Nothing on our shared calendar. Your watch buzzed, so it’s something you don’t want me to see.”
“I’m seeing a doctor,” I said. “I have this five-foot-nine blonde growth which annoys me every afternoon.”
T.J. grinned. “Fine. Have your secrets. You know you’ll tell me eventually.”
I walked to the door. “Eventually. Maybe. Remember, you’re staying until closing time.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “Get out of here.”
I got out of there.
* * *
I stopped my Audi S4 in the parking lot. Rich’s blue Camaro sat a couple spots to my left. Of course, he was already here. My cousin and I were opposites in many ways. He could always be counted on to arrive early, whereas I would walk in the door and make everyone check their watches. Good thing there would be plenty inside. Most of the shops in the northeast Baltimore strip mall were unremarkable, but my eyes fell on the one I came for: Small’s Jewelers.
Over the years, I’d met Stuart Small a few times. He and my parents were acquaintances but not friends. When I made the appointment, I verified he wouldn’t run and tell them I’d stopped in. I got out of my car and walked in. A friendly chime chirped when I crossed the threshold. True to form, Rich glanced at his watch when he saw me. My cousin wore a nice navy blue suit befitting a police lieutenant. He bought off-the-rack, but I’d be happy to wear his dress clothes if they fit me. Alas, he stood a little shorter and thicker than me. “You’re almost on time,” he said.
“My secretary had a lot of questions.”
“Maybe you’ve trained her a little too well.”
In reality, I hadn’t trained her much at all. T.J.’s natural curiosity drove her to go the extra mile, and I think she wanted to succeed for Melinda’s foundation. Instead of explaining all this to Rich, I simply said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“I’ve been here a few minutes.” He spread his hand around the store. Display cases lined both long side walls of the small shop. Another few were arranged in a U shape near the center, where the proprietor stood near an old-fashioned cash register. I considered anything other than an iPad or similar tablet to be archaic, but Stuart’s machine dated back at least two decades. The overhead lighting sparkled off the many gems around the store. “Haven’t seen anything with more than a five-figure price tag. Gloria might be disappointed.”
“Early in our relationship, maybe. She’s changed. Grown up some.”
“Yeah.” Rich nodded. “You both have.” He was almost seven years my senior, and I’d earned plenty of barbs over time for being immature. It meant a lot for Rich to acknowledge the strides I’d made in the last four years. “I’m still not sure why I’m here today. Do you really care about my opinion on jewelry?”
“I figure you know about as much as I do,” I said. “I can’t bring my mother. My father’s as clueless as we are. Joey, too. Melinda probably knows a few things, but it would be weird to shop with her.” I shrugged. “Guess you win by default.”
“Besides, we might be doing a role-reversed version of this in a few months.”
Rich snorted. “Don’t put it on your calendar. I’m not sure Jeanne and I are there yet.”
“You know, if you need some advice from a man who’s more experienced with this sort of thing . . .”
“Piss off,” Rich said with a grin. “Let’s look at rings. I want to watch your eyes water when you see some of these price tags.”
We approached a case full of diamond rings. The prices written on tiny tags started in the mid-four figures and escalated sharply from there. After a circuit of the interior, I had a few options in mind. They lined up with the ones I liked on the store’s website. For whatever it was worth, Rich approved of my choices. Stuart approached us. I was about to talk to him when my phone vibrated in my pocket. T.J. called. I ignored it. The owner and I exchanged pleasantries, and he retrieved the rings I wanted to see. Stuart looked to be about sixty, making him an age peer of my parents. What remained of his black hair was half gray. He was a short and slender guy who always wore a smile. Then again, happiness came easy when everything you sold cost thousands of dollars.
“I like these,” he said, and I wondered how many times a man in his profession upbraided customers for their selections. I would take the under on once per annum. He picked up a ring with a slender gold band and three diamonds. “This one is probably my favorite. I don’t know your girlfriend, but I can’t imagine she wouldn’t love it, too. You can tell her the stones represent your pasts, present, and the future you’ll build together.” To his credit, Stuart didn’t comment on the most expensive of my choices.
My buzzing phone interrupted us again. I excused myself and walked to the far corner of the shop to answer it. “I left early for a reason,” I said to T.J.
“I know, but there’s a potential client here.”
“I don’t remember seeing anything on the calendar.”
“She didn’t make an appointment,” my secretary said. “Couldn’t convince her they were necessary in an empty office.”
“I’m a little tied up right now. Can she come back in the morning?”
“She says her dad’s missing.”
“How long?” I asked.
“Hang on.” Muffled voices came through the connection. A few seconds later, T.J. said, “Twelve years.”
“Does she expect me to find him tonight?”
“I doubt it.”
“Then, ask her to come back in the morning. It’s been over four thousand days. One more won’t make a difference.”
“Did you need to know anything about the ring?” Stuart asked. I turned around to find him standing a couple feet away.
“What? Where are you?” T.J. demanded. I could picture her frowning and leaning forward in her chair.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” I said and broke the connection.
“I don’t mean to be pushy,” Stuart said, “but I have someone else coming in a few minutes.”
“I presume resizing is easy if we need it?”
“For the price, it’d better be.” He plastered a generic smile on his face. The three-stone model had been one of my favorites from my online browsing. I’d been careful to do it when Gloria and T.J.—the nosiest women in my life—weren’t around. “Sure. I’ll take it.”
“I’ll get everything together for you,” he said and walked away.
Rich took his place a moment later. “Wow. You actually bought a ring. I’m impressed. I’d never pegged you for the marrying type.”
“Until recently, I don’t think I was,” I said.
“Now, you just need the perfect moment,” Rich said. “Can’t seem too contrived. Maybe a place you’ve been before. She can’t be expecting it, and Gloria’s smart. She needs to think it’s a possibility without figuring it’ll happen.”
“You’re trying to put pressure on me.” My cousin grinned in response. “I can’t wait until our roles are reversed.”
“Who says I’d bring you with me?”
“There’s no reason to be rude,” I said. “Who do you know more fashionable than me? I’m your best bet.” I walked to the register, blanched at the total, and put it on a credit card I’d be paying off for the next several years. Much of the money I’d put away over the last several months went into relocating my office and getting it ready for prime time. At least Gloria would be happy. Rich was right, though. I needed to find the perfect moment, and doing so involved putting one over on my very smart girlfriend.
Maybe I should have gone back to work.
* * *
I went home from the jeweler, much poorer on the credit report but wealthier in spirit. Parking has always been dicey in the Federal Hill area of Baltimore. Luckily, my end rowhouse featured a concrete pad in the back. Gloria’s car was already there. Her Mercedes coupe looked, sounded, and drove like a rocket, and anyone who missed these attributes could get clued in from its bright red color. I pulled in beside her and walked in via the rear door.
Gloria was on the couch working on her laptop. She smiled and stood, and we kissed a few times. “You’re home early.”
“Light afternoon. One of the perks of being the boss is getting to leave when you want.”
“And your bookbag is still on your back.”
Considering its unusually valuable contents, I wanted to keep it on. Gloria wasn’t the type to go rooting through my stuff, but I didn’t want her to find it in case she needed a pen and chose my bag to look for one. I slung it off my shoulders and set it at its usual spot near the coat rack. “Better now?”
“You’re a creature of habit.” She grinned. “Most men are. I guess I notice when something is different.”
I sat on the couch, and Gloria plopped down beside me. “How’s your arm?”
“Itchy.” She frowned as I handed her the laptop. Gloria slipped and fell on a wet tennis court ten days ago and fractured her left wrist. She sported a cast from her hand to her elbow. “I’m not sure I’ll make it three more weeks.”
“You’ll manage,” I said. “It’ll be time to get back on the court before you know it.”
“You’re just happy you’ll have a chance to beat me for a change,” Gloria said with a smile.
“Don’t think I won’t hit everything to your backhand side. I’ll take a win however I can get one.”
She closed her computer. “Let’s go out to dinner tonight.”
“We should go upstairs first, though.” My girlfriend’s hazel eyes sparkled. “You’re rarely home so early.”
“Might as well work up an appetite,” I said. As we raced upstairs, I wondered when I would find the right moment to give Gloria the ring which remained in my living room.
You can get the ebook at your retailer of choice by following this link. Paperback, large-print paperback, and hardcover editions will be available at launch time (7/26/2022).