Tom Fowler

Mystery and Thriller Writer

Category: Uncategorized

Inside Cut, Chapter One

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.

Inside Cut novel cover

Chapter One

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.

“Arab.”

“Huh?”

“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?”

“Sure.”

* * *

“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 am.”

“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.


Inside Cut will release on November 20, 2019. You can preorder it now. I hope you enjoyed this look at chapter one. You can see the rest of my books here on my site or at Amazon.

Land of the Brave, Chapter 1

This post is going to be a wall of text. Just warning you in advance. I have another free novella coming out soon. As you may infer from the title, it’s called Land of the Brave. I’m posting chapter 1 below as a preview to everyone because it’s taken me longer than I’d hoped to get it out. It should be available to everyone subscribed to my readers list within two weeks.

The formatting looks different than it will in ebook form. This post is formatted . . . well, like a blog post, not an ebook.

Without further ado , here’s chapter 1.


As was our tradition, my cousin Rich and I celebrated another closed case by hoisting a couple pints at a local tavern. This time, we chose the James Joyce Irish Pub in the Harbor East area of Baltimore. Rich honored our Irish ancestors by choosing a Guinness, and I honored them fifty percent more by ordering a Guinness Extra Stout. We sat at a table and sipped our festive brews.”To another arrest,” I said, raising my mug.

Rich tapped his mug into mine. “Hear, hear.”

“You’ll make Lieutenant pretty soon at this rate.” After doing the heavy lifting for my cases, I summoned Rich from the bullpen to make the arrests. He’s a decorated detective with the Baltimore Police Department, and a good bit of the decoration has been earned on my cases.

“I’m doing all right on my own,” Rich said. As usual, he refused to see the light on how much I’d helped his career in my ten short months as a private investigator. He’d been a plainclothes detective about the same amount of time and had earned more commendations than many of his longer-tenured colleagues.

“And now you’ve added a deadbeat dad to your ledger.” I sipped my drink again. Guinness Extra Stout–the beer that drinks like a meal.

“I was surprised you took a case like that at first.” Rich smirked. “Then I saw the mom.”

“Are you insinuating I only took the case because the client is attractive?”

“Attractive? She looks like a young Jennifer Connelly.”

“I’m not old enough to remember a young Jennifer Connelly,” I said. The ripe old age of twenty-nine stared at me a couple months down the road. Rich had almost seven years on me. An occasional gray hair intruded on his otherwise brown crew cut. His hair was a couple shades lighter than mine, and I could boast of no gray. Rich maintained the hairstyle and clean shave as artifacts from his time in the Army.

“Watch The Rocketeer sometime,” he said.

“I’ll see if I can add it to my Netflix queue.” Rich focused on his beer. I looked around the pub. It was a decent crowd for a weeknight, with more diners than bar patrons. When I glanced back at Rich, he continued studying his beer, as if something profound lay at the bottom of the glass. “You’re quiet.” Rich didn’t answer. “Everything all right?” Nothing. I paused. “I just booked a trip to Mars,” I said.

“Mm-hmm.”

“Rich.” He frowned and looked up. “Something must be on your mind. You’re quiet and surly, even for you.”

“I’m not surly.”

“When you grumble, it kind of confirms it,” I pointed out. Rich started to protest, but I broke in. “And don’t tell me you weren’t grumbling just now.”

“Maybe a little,” said Rich. Normally, he would have smiled or at least smirked. This evening, his expression remained neutral.

“What’s up?”

Rich gazed at me for a second, then shook his head. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“Troubles with the ladies?” I said. Rich’s expression didn’t change. “You know, if you need advice from a younger, more handsome man, I’m willing to help.”

“I do not need advice from you,” Rich said.

“Rich, if this were still an era of little black books, you’d be stuck on page two.” Now he scowled at me. “I, on the other hand, would be authoring a multi-volume epic.”

“No one likes a braggart.”

“Many of the names in my little black book would disagree,” I said.

“Whatever,” he said. “Forget it.”

I shrugged. “OK.” After a few more swigs of my beer, Rich was just as chatty as he had been. I decided to give him some space this time. If he wanted to tell me, he would.

Rich looked at his beer some more, downed the rest in a giant swig, sighed, and looked at me. “Can we go to your office?” he said.

“Sure,” I said. I paid the tab, and we left.

***

My office was an extra room in my house. I had an end-unit rowhouse in the Federal Hill section of Baltimore. Whoever owned it before me built an addition for the kitchen and turned part of the first floor into an office. It pinched the square footage of the dining room, but I usually ate in front of the TV, and I had no complaints about the size of the living room.

I sat behind my desk. Three large computer monitors looked back at me. Rich sat in one of my guest chairs and busied himself looking around. This was not his first time in my office, and nothing in the room had changed since his last trip. Still, I let him take his time and figure out whatever he wanted to tell me. The next time Rich confided in me may not be the first, but I could count them on one hand.

“You ever know my buddy Jim?” he said after a few minutes. “Jim Shelton?”

I shook my head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”

Rich nodded and lapsed back into silence. A bad feeling welled in my stomach. I knew very few of Rich’s friends, and chief among the reasons was Rich chose his friends carefully. Getting on the exclusive list amounted to a lifetime appointment. Whether I knew the man or not, if Rich mentioned one of his friends to me, I doubted the reason was good.

“He’s dead,” Rich said, confirming my suspicion.

“I’m sorry.”

He nodded. “I’m sorrier for his widow and kids.”

“Of course,” I said.

I didn’t say anything else. Rich needed time to unpack this and tell me about it. “Water?” I said after a moment, reaching for the mini fridge.

“Sure.”

I handed Rich a bottle, opened mine, and took a sip. Rich looked at his as if staring at it would compel the cap to open.

“Coroner says it’s a suicide,” he said.

A coroner being involved meant it didn’t happen around here. Baltimore, like most cities, had a medical examiner’s office staffed with competent doctors. “I take it you don’t agree.”

“No way.” Rich shook his head. “He wouldn’t kill himself.”

“You’re certain?”

“Damn certain.”

“Why?”

“We served together,” Rich said. I presumed this; most of Rich’s friends overlapped his years in the Army, especially the time spent in the Middle East. “When he got out, he . . . had some problems.”

“PTSD?” I said.

“Yeah. I don’t know if he ever got diagnosed or treated, but he had it.”

Rich fell silent again. This time, I pushed on. “I don’t mean to sound indelicate, but. . . .”

“It sounds like a suicide?” I nodded. “It does,” Rich acknowledged. “But I know there’s no way Jim would do it.”

“How do you know?” I said.

“We talked about it some.” Rich opened his water and took a long pull before continuing. “He admitted he thought about it. Even with a family, he still thought about it.”

“What kept him from doing it, then?”

“An organization out there. Land of the Brave.”

“Out there?”

“Garrett County,” said Rich. The westernmost county in Maryland. Much of it was in the mountains, in the panhandle of Maryland, and it offered short drives to both West Virginia and Pittsburgh. I hadn’t been there in years, and my trip had been a weekend at Deep Creek Lake.

“How’s the county doing?” I said.

“Not well. They’ve lost a lot of jobs. Jim had trouble finding work, and when he did, the job usually didn’t last long. He felt like he couldn’t provide for his family, after leaving them for years.”

“I’m sure it was tough on him.”

“It was.” Rich drank some more water and paused. I gave him the time he needed. “Land of the Brave got him a job, sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“He worked with bees.”

“Like a beekeeper?” I said.

Rich nodded. “Yeah. He was responsible for several hives. They were setup on farms out there. The farmers leased out some land they weren’t planting on anymore. Worked out for everyone.”

“And this organization filled the land with bee hives?”

“I guess. Jim enjoyed the work. Said the buzzing didn’t bother him. It let him focus. I think it was almost quiet for him.” Rich frowned. “He told me working with the bees took a shotgun out of his mouth.”

“Wow.” I didn’t have anything else to say, so I sat in my chair and stayed quiet.

“Yeah. I’m sure he didn’t kill himself.”

One of these days, I would need to get better at asking questions. I probably should have asked this one earlier. “How did he die?”

“Gunshot to the head,” Rich said.

“And it appears self-inflicted?” I said.

“Coroner’s men found GSR on his hand.”

“You think someone else shot him.”

“Yes.”

“So why would someone shoot an ex-Army guy with PTSD who’s working as a beekeeper?”

“I don’t know,” Rich said, “but I want to find out.”

“And you want me to come along?” I said.

It took him a few seconds, but Rich nodded. It was as small a movement a human could make to count as a nod, but I saw it. “I don’t know if I can do everything myself,” said Rich. “Besides, I’m too close to it.”

“You’re not going to gripe when I break into a database or thumb my nose at the law?”

“I’m off the clock.”

I nodded. “All right; I’ll help you.” I smiled. “Wow, you’re hiring me. I should highlight this day on the calendar.”

Rich smirked. It was good to see a positive reaction. “I think I regret it already,” he said.

“No refunds.”

“Good thing you work for free, then.” Rich guzzled the rest of his water. “We’ll leave in the morning. Can you be ready at eight?”

“Doubt it,” I said. Rich glared at me. “It takes time to look this good. Not all of us have buzz cuts.”

“Fine. You think you can finish primping and pampering by nine?”

“I think I’ll manage.”

“Good,” Rich said as he stood. “See you then. Anything you can find out in the meantime would be great.”

“I’ll see what I can put together,” I said.

***

James Alan Shelton died five days ago, three weeks shy of his thirty-eighth birthday. He left behind his wife Connie, ten-year-old James Junior, nine-year-old Carly, and two-year-old George. Before Carly was born, the Army sent Jim to the Middle East, where he stayed a total of six years. Eighteen months later, he left the Army and, like so many veterans, struggled to adjust back to everyday life. Calling his post-service work history “spotty” would have asked the word to do work for which it was unqualified.

I pondered how far to dig. Normally, I threw caution to the wind and probed as deep as my considerable skill allowed. This case was more delicate. Not only was the victim a friend of Rich, he was also a veteran. I had no compunction using the Baltimore Police’s resources for my own purposes or knocking over random databases. I didn’t want to hack the Army. Even with good intentions, it felt wrong. Even I have attacks of conscience from time to time.

During my first case, Rich left me alone at his desk for a few minutes. In that time, I snagged his IP and hardware addresses, then went home and used them to fingerprint the BPD’s network. Ever since, their network has accepted one of my machines as its own. I could have used the BPD’s resources to poke and prod the Army’s network for more info on Jim Shelton. Doing so would have been lousy, though, and while my conscience rarely intruded, I had a feeling Rich’s I’m-off-the-clock proviso wouldn’t extend so far.

Did I even need the Army records? Whatever Jim did in the Army, he was several years removed from it. What were the odds that someone tracked him to Garrett County and shot him? Rich and I were going up there to investigate. If we uncovered a tie-in to something related to Jim’s service, I could go after the Army files then. Rich would probably approve at that point, after the requisite moment of frowning and scowling.

Rich mentioned PTSD and the idea that Jim never had it diagnosed or treated. His comments were practically an invitation to snoop around the Veterans Administration and their databases. Never one to decline such an offer, I went about it. For an agency protecting gobs of sensitive information about the country’s veterans, their network didn’t present much of a challenge. A few minutes after discovering the VA’s servers, I found one running an older version of Linux. One new exploit later, I was logged into that box. From there, I moved laterally to some other servers, discovered a database administrator credential in a text file—this is unfortunately common—and looked for records on Jim Shelton. When I found them, I transferred them off the network, erased my tracks, and disconnected.

Since he got out, Jim had seen VA personnel on an irregular basis. I discovered a lot of rescheduled appointments, a few missed ones, and notes with a surprising lack of depth. It seemed Jim wasn’t much of a talker, and the shrink he saw wasn’t much of a speculator. Thus, no one ever made a formal diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The only treatment Jim received consisted of aperiodic appointments with a mediocre shrink and no medicine. I felt bad for Jim and his family, and at the same time, I hoped other veterans fared better.

Without much else to go on, I packed a bag for the next few days and went to bed.


There you go. That’s Land of the Brave, chapter one. If you’re on my list, look for it to hit your inbox within the next couple weeks. If you’re not on my list . . . well, you should be, and you can sign up below. If you do, you’ll also get my first free novella, The Confessional.

The Reluctant Detective is LIVE on Amazon!

Phew. That’s my sigh of relief. After some delaysThe Reluctant Detective is now live on Amazon. You can check it out and buy it here.

Launching a book seems easy. Just take your Word document, make a quick cover, upload everything to Amazon (or your e-tailer of choice) and voila! Right?

Well, you could do it that way. Some people have. The reality is, if you want to put a good product up there, it takes more work. I hired an editor, who was terrific. Someone in my writing group referred me to a great cover artist. If you’ve forgotten what the cover looks like, here’s a reminder:

The Reluctant Detective cover

I’d like to say the launch was seamless, and that I am a writing and marketing savant. However, it wasn’t, and I’m not. Despite a spell-checker doing its job and alerting me to a typo, I totally whiffed on seeing it, and it made its way into the Amazon book description. Thankfully, someone alerted me to it quickly and I changed it, but still. We all make typos, sure, but that’s a bloody embarrassing place to have one. I also didn’t realize how much more complex print formatting was. If I had, I would have started all of that sooner. There will be a print-on-demand version. I’ll be offering it thru CreateSpace, but I don’t know exactly when. Check the book’s sales page periodically. My best guess is around the end of October, but I don’t know how quickly (or slowly) the process moves yet.

Launching The Reluctant Detective has been great, and it’s also been a learning experience. I have some lessons I’ve taken away for future book launches. For now, though, I’m stoked to have this book out. You can check it out here. It’s $2.99 to buy, or free to download and read if you’re in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program.

If you read The Reluctant Detective, I hope you enjoy it. If you enjoyed it, I ask that you do two things:

  1. Leave a review. Reviews are very important to independent authors like me. They help our books get noticed, vouch for their quality to prospective readers, and keep the mighty Amazon algorithms happy.
  2. Tell others about it. If you know people who enjoy mysteries and detective fiction, please let them know about my book. Even in our hyper-connected age, word of mouth is a great marketing tool.

Now that the book is out, I hope to get back to more regular blogging next week. See you then.

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