Below is the first chapter of the upcoming C.T. Ferguson crime novel Night Comes Down. It’s the 13th entry in the series. While the release date is currently set for mid-November of 2022, the book may be ready early.
As always, you’ll find a preorder link at the bottom.
My phone vibrated on my nightstand again.
I grumbled and picked the blasted thing up long enough to silence it. This would only buy me a minute or two, tops. My wife Gloria—and it felt awesome to think of her as my wife—muttered something incoherent. Sure enough, another call came in. It was T.J., just like it had been the previous few times. “I know how to use the alarm feature, you know.”
“You’re late,” my secretary said.
“A perk of being the boss is you’re always on time.”
“It’s after nine-thirty. You’re almost always here by nine.”
“You’ve been using that excuse since you got back from your honeymoon.”
“I’m well aware,” I said.
“It was two months ago,” she pointed out.
“The doctor says I’m particularly sensitive to long flights.”
“Bring a note, then. I’ll see you soon.” She broke the connection.
“Dammit.” T.J. was right. I’d made a habit of showing up at irregular times since Gloria and I returned from Hawaii. Jetlag served as a convenient—and accurate—excuse the first two days. Since then, however, I simply struggled to find motivation. I was happier than I’d ever been personally, and the cynical part of me wondered if this would have some deleterious effect on my professional life.
So far, it had. I would make this trade again a thousand times over, of course, but I needed to get back into the swing of things with my job.
I drank a cup of coffee, left one on Gloria’s nightstand, threw clothes on, and kissed my sleepy wife goodbye. The drive to the office was quick, a perk of leaving after rush hour ended. T.J.’s yellow Mustang sat at one end of the lot, and I parked my black Audi S4 sedan beside it. We occupied the second floor above a car repair shop. It wasn’t the most glamorous location, but Manny—the owner—was a good guy, and he didn’t seem to mind some of the more interesting aspects of my job.
I opened the outer door. Another lay ahead, and it took customers into the body shop. Off to the side was a set of metal stairs. I climbed them and opened our second-story door. T.J. looked up when I walked in. She was twenty and pretty but not so much people would stop and gape at her. Her long blonde hair was tied into its usual high ponytail, and the ribbon matched her red shirt. T.J. stood five-nine, and she looked tall even sitting behind her desk.
I stopped and took in the place. She’d put a small Christmas tree near the coffee maker and even decorated it with colorful lights and glass balls. A streamer made of small Santa cut-outs hung from one side of the office to the other. Garland encircled the main door and the one to the restroom. “Someone’s been busy on a Monday morning,” I said as I slung my bag off my shoulder.
“One of us needs to be. No doctor’s note?”
“My dog ate it.”
“You don’t have a dog,” she said.
“You should work for a detective agency,” I said. She fixed me with a neutral expression. “I know . . . I haven’t exactly rushed back into things.”
“That’s an understatement, boss. You’ve pretty much been loafing.”
I prepared another cup of coffee. “Don’t apply for any jobs in the diplomatic arena.”
“I sent you the financials for the last couple months. We’re still in the green.”
“Even with me paying all your salary?” For the first six months of her tenure, my friend Melinda’s foundation covered half of T.J.’s wages. They’d gotten her out of a bad situation and trained her, and then I took a chance on her—one which paid off very well.
“You could even afford to give me a raise,” she said with an artificially sweet smile.
“If you’re nice,” I said, “maybe Santa will leave a little something extra in your stocking this year.” T.J. deserved a bonus. I’d figure out a way to get her one. With Christmas about two weeks away, I still had time to do the math.
“A big case would be nice. You seem like you need a little motivation. It would definitely help the bottom line before the end of the year.”
“Great. Go out and find us one.”
She pointed toward the entry. “Your name’s on the door. I think it means you need to do all the searching.”
I scanned the spreadsheets T.J. sent me. While Gloria and I spent two weeks in paradise and a few more days recovering from the flight back, T.J. worked some small cases. Before I left, I told her to make sure it was something she could do from her desk. She’d picked up a lot from me since she started, and I had to admit she made a better student than I did a teacher. “Maybe we’ll get lucky in the next few days. It’s almost Christmas, after all.”
“Here’s hoping,” T.J. said.
“You’re thinking of your bonus.” She bobbed her head, and I made a tsking motion with my two forefingers. “Not in the spirit of the season.”
“What can I say? I guess commercialism finally got me.”
“Don’t feel bad,” I said. “You and everyone else.”
* * *
I left work a little early to head home and change. Gloria reminded me we were due to attend some event the mayor was putting on. Considering he rushed our marriage application and performed the ceremony himself, I felt a tiny sense of obligation even if I didn’t like the man. I met him on a case a couple years ago when he was just a rich business owner. He didn’t leave a good impression then, and he’d done little to improve my initial assessment in the intervening time.
Gloria used to organize fundraisers for his charitable endeavors, so she enjoyed a different—and better—relationship with Vincent Davenport. I arrived at my Federal Hill rowhouse to find Gloria half-dressed in the bedroom. When I gave her a lascivious wink, she smiled and shook her head. “Later. We need to get nicer clothes on.”
“Can’t we be late?”
“No. Davenport wants to do more work with my company. Non-political stuff . . . I told him I wasn’t interested in campaign dinners. It’ll look bad if we show up late with our hair in disarray.”
“It would mostly be yours,” I pointed out. “I keep mine cut pretty short exactly for situations like this.”
“Uh-huh.” Gloria looked at the collection of dresses she kept at my house. I didn’t have nearly the closet space she enjoyed at her much larger home in the tony Brooklandville area of Baltimore County. Still, she selected a sharp royal blue number. I doffed my sweater and jeans for a black Tommy Hilfiger suit and chose a tie to go with her dress. A few minutes later, I was ready, which meant the waiting would begin.
Gloria needed to adjust her makeup, fix her hair, check her appearance a hundred times, and only then could we leave. “You look great,” I told her on several occasions. It didn’t seem to matter. The dress came down to her knees and fit her well with its neckline high enough to be professional but just low enough to be interesting. “When does this thing start?”
“Six,” she said as she fluttered between stations.
I glanced at my watch. Five-twenty. “Where is it?”
“The headquarters of his bakery.”
We had plenty of time to get there so long as Gloria finished reasonably soon. “I’m heading downstairs,” I said. After about ten minutes, she joined me on the first level. We got our coats on. I shrugged into my usual Ralph Lauren number, and Gloria opted for a waist-length faux fur.
“We’ll take my car,” she said. “I’ll drive there. You can get us home.” Her red Mercedes AMG coupe sat beside my S4 on the parking pad behind the house. In case the color, speed, and sound of the car didn’t communicate its rocket-like nature loudly enough, the sleek shape of it drove the point home. I loved getting behind the wheel every chance I could. Gloria didn’t drive much slower than I would have. We breezed into Canton, found parking nearby, and walked up the D&S headquarters. Davenport—along with his former partner—built a single location into a regional baking empire.
The crowd gathered in a large conference room. I’d sat in smaller lecture halls in college. A Christmas tree occupied much of the right side of the stage, and various holiday decorations abounded. This evening’s talk would probably be as boring as most of what I endured during my Loyola University days. At the appointed hour, a tall, slender black man I didn’t recognize took the stage. He wore a suit I would be proud to own. The gentleman introduced himself as Albert Everett, the COO of D&S. He made a few opening remarks and then introduced the mayor to an impressive round of applause. I offered a golf clap to keep up appearances.
The lights flickered as Davenport took the stage. He was an age peer of my parents. A little gray intruded on his dark hair, and he wore glasses. They were the only obvious concessions to age. Davenport moved like a man who exercised regularly, and he flashed a ready smile as he grabbed the mike. “I guess I need to remind Albert to pay the electric bill.” Everett spread his hands as the audience laughed.
“Thank you for coming tonight, everyone. I don’t get down here a lot anymore. Being the mayor takes up most of my time.” A fresh round of applause rang out. I declined to join in this one. As a non-voter, I felt it my duty to avoid clapping for any politician more than once. “I put D and S into a blind trust once I got elected, and I’d like to thank the leadership team for keeping the company moving.
“Every holiday season, I do a lot of reflecting. Many people do. I’m coming up on the halfway mark of my first term as mayor, and I’d like to think I’ve done a good job so far.” This drew another ovation. I groaned. The mention of a first term implied a second. Gloria clapped enough for both of us. “This doesn’t have anything to do with why we’re here today, though. I can make a political speech anywhere. Seriously, as the mayor, they can’t stop me.” I rolled my eyes as polite chuckles greeted Davenport’s alleged joke.
“Twenty years ago, I thought I’d taken D and S as far as I could. I’d bought out my old partner, and the company was doing well. I thought we had another gear or two in us, but I didn’t have the ability to unlock it. One man did. Dale Willett was a product line manager back then. He came to me with an idea for some major process improvements. They came with some serious budget requests. I liked his ideas, so I greenlit everything.
“We still use the Willett method today. Other business talk about stuff like Lean Six Sigma. We had our own back then, and it was all thanks to Dale Willett. Now, you might be wondering where he is. The truth is, I’m not sure. He left the company a couple years after we adopted his process improvements. I tried to invite him today but never heard back. Dale . . . wherever you are . . . thanks for what you did for this company. I hope we have another twenty years of success. By then, maybe I can retire.”
Davenport left the stage to more applause. Albert Everett took the mike again and invited everyone to a reception on the production floor. “We’ll even let you take some bread home,” he added to a round of moderate laughter.
“Are we staying for this?” I asked my wife.
She shook her head. “I just wanted to come for the speech. Let’s go somewhere else. We’re all dressed up.”
“For now.” She grinned as we stood. The lights flickered a couple more times. Everett made another joke about the electric bill, but he looked confused as he walked off the stage. “Maybe you can help the mayor raise enough funds to pay BGE.”
Gloria smiled, and we walked out of the venue hand-in-hand.
* * *
After driving to Fells Point for dinner, Gloria and I walked the streets. A chill had settled in since the sun went down a few hours before. The wind off the harbor made it worse, but we lingered nearby to enjoy the view and browse the shops. All featured varying levels of Christmas decorations. Employees in the more crowded venues needed an injection of holiday cheer. I bought my cousin Rich a record from the Sound Garden. He hated when I called him a hipster for listening to his music on vinyl, so I made a mental note to write a comment into his card.
We stopped into the Daily Grind for coffee. Yielding to the late hour, Gloria ordered decaf. I made no such concessions. Caffeine could be enjoyed at any time. Besides, as an experienced coffee drinker, I had no trouble falling asleep shortly after downing a mug. Gloria smirked as I sipped my latte. “Pretty late to be having that at your age, isn’t it?”
“Thirty-two is still part of my prime years,” I said. My birthday passed with a moderate amount of fanfare nine days before. This wasn’t a milestone, but it was the first time I really got to celebrate the earth making it around the sun another time since I turned thirty. The prior year, I marked thirty-one in a rehab hospital after getting shot. Zero out of ten; would not recommend.
“You’re lucky to have a much younger wife,” Gloria said as she linked her free arm with mine.
“Enjoy your twenties while you can. If my mental math is right—and it basically always is—you’ve got about half a year until you join me in being over the hill.”
“You’ll always be a little farther down the other side.”
I was about to reply when the city got dark.
Street lights and traffic signals worked one instant and were off the next. People stopped in their tracks to gaze about. In Fells Point, restaurants and shops gave off enough illumination to keep the sidewalks lit. Every place we could see still had power. “I think your buddy Davenport needs to worry about the city paying its electric bill,” I said.
“Weird.” Gloria looked around. “Traffic lights are out as far as I can see. This is no isolated incident.”
At the intersection ahead of us, a city surveillance camera sat atop a pole. Normally, each gave off a blue light from the top. Nothing. I frowned. The closed-circuit system should have been separate from the lighting. “This is weird,” I said. “Camera’s off, too.” I pulled Gloria toward a tavern with a rooftop deck. We climbed the stairs and stepped out onto the sparsely-crowded balcony area.
It gave us a much better view of the city, and everything looked darker than normal. Less populated areas of Baltimore wouldn’t enjoy the benefit of stores and eateries to keep the sidewalks lit. They’d be dark. The more immediate problem was traffic signals. People in Maryland were bad enough drivers when the red, yellow, and green bulbs worked. Cops would need to direct traffic at a bunch of intersections. I called Rich, a lieutenant in the Baltimore police’s homicide division, and it went right to voicemail. His evening must’ve gotten much worse in the last few minutes.
“Let’s go home,” Gloria said.
I agreed, and we picked up her car from a nearby garage. The trip proved a little adventurous but not awful. Other drivers seemed to get the seriousness of what happened, and we didn’t pass any accidents on the way back to Federal Hill. We went into the house. “I hope things are back to normal tomorrow,” I said as we shrugged out of our coats.
“What if they’re not?” my wife asked.
“No idea,” I said, “but it’ll probably be chaos.”
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