The First Two Chapters of the Newest Martin Preuss Mystery

In the House of Night is the newest entry in the Martin Preuss mystery series. Published in October of last year, it’s one of the darker books in the series, due to its subject matter. In the book, Preuss faces off against a group of white supremacists–a subject much in the news in the wake of the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, this week.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll just note that the ideas for the book took shape for me in the wake of the violent Charlottesville, VA, neo-Nazi Unite the Right rally. That event was chilling and horrifying, and I knew I needed to incorporate far-right extremism in my next Preuss book in some way.

The book is set in 2013, before the events of Charlottesville. But it traces the most recent beginnings of a movement that has been present in American culture since its beginning.

The members of the group in the novel are fictional, but they’re based on considerable research into not only the reach of far-right extremist groups, but also their connection with Christian nationalism.

Neither of these is apparent in the beginning chapters; Preuss, like the reader, must unfold the connection as he plunges deeper into the investigation.

Here, then, is how the events of In the House of Night begin. The paperback version may be purchased through Amazon or on order from your favorite bookseller; the Kindle version is available through Amazon.

1

Brittany Fortunato was not happy.

“Has anyone seen Charlie?” she asked.

No one had.

Charlie Bright, the recording secretary of the Woodland Park Improvement Association, had not missed a meeting in ten years. Tonight might be the exception.

The Association met on the second Tuesday of every month in the Media Center at the Roosevelt Elementary School in Ferndale, a city that lay beyond Eight Mile Road north of Detroit. Like many neighborhood associations, it had a small number of officers—a president, vice-president, and treasurer, in addition to the secretary—and a dedicated core of a dozen or so residents who attended every meeting. 

Typically, the president would call the meeting to order shortly after seven. They would work through their agenda, and the evening would end with chatting, good-natured ribbing, and the newest gossip over plates of cookies and cups of coffee from the local Biggby Coffee.

Often they invited a guest to speak about issues of interest to the city’s residents. Tonight’s guest was the police chief of Ferndale, Nick Russo. The topic was local crime statistics. 

Ferndale was exceptionally safe, especially considering its proximity to the larger metropolis of Detroit. So Russo saw his primary task tonight as calming nerves and assuring the residents that things were under control. A big, muscular man, he made an impressive sight in his blue full-dress uniform, complete with cap under his arm as he stood talking with attendees. 

He seemed unruffled and relaxed.

Not so Brittany, the Association vice-president. The more people who said they didn’t know Charlie Bright’s whereabouts, the more agitated Brittany became.

“Brittany,” the Association president said at last, “what’s going on?” 

The president’s name was Elspeth Cunningham, and she tried but failed to keep the disapproval out of her voice. Brittany was a troublemaker while trying to appear reasonable and friendly. 

What’s her problem now? Elspeth wondered.

“Charlie isn’t here yet,” Brittany said. “We can’t start without him.”

Elspeth shot a look at the clock on the wall. Quarter after seven. “Odd,” she agreed. “He’s never late.”

 “Right?” Brittany said. “I talked to him this morning, he said he’d see me here. And we have to get started. I promised the chief we’d be done by nine.”

 “I’m yours as long as you need me,” Russo said.

 “But we can’t start without Charlie,” Brittany said again. “Who’s gonna take the minutes?”

“I will,” said a man seated at one of the kid-sized library tables, eager for the meeting to begin so he could get home in time to watch Rachel Maddow.

The Association officers looked at each other and shrugged. “Okay,” Elspeth said. “Let’s get started.” 

She called the meeting to order.

They adjourned at eight-thirty on the dot. Charlie Bright never showed.

“Now I’m really worried,” Brittany said as they stood around the refreshment table. “This is totally unlike him.”

“Maybe an emergency called him away,” Elspeth offered.

“Charlie never misses a meeting,” Brittany said. “Something’s not right. I’m sure of it.”

They all exchanged worried looks—Brittany’s concern was contagious—and everyone’s glance settled on Chief Russo.

“If you want,” he said, “I can get somebody over to his house, make sure he’s okay.”

“Would you?” Brittany asked. The others’ heads bobbed in agreement.

“Not a problem,” said Russo. He pulled out his cell phone and turned away while he called the Ferndale Police Department dispatcher.

“I hope he’s all right,” someone said.

Russo disconnected and turned back to the group. “A unit’ll swing by his house.”

 With the group slightly calmed, Elspeth unwrapped the tray of cookies and invited them all to dig in.

2

Patrol Officer Paul Vollmer stood on Charlie Bright’s front porch in northwest Ferndale and waited.

When nobody answered the doorbell, which Vollmer heard ringing inside the house, he knocked hard on the substantial wooden entrance door. 

Still no response. 

He shone his flashlight through the dark living room windows. Vollmer couldn’t see anyone moving inside.

He came down off the porch and walked around to the back. All the doors and windows were secure. A light shone in the kitchen but he couldn’t see anyone there. Behind the house was a garage, but the door was closed and Vollmer couldn’t see inside.

He walked around to the front again.

“Yoo-hoo!”

Vollmer turned and saw an older woman peeking around the storm door of a house across the street. 

When she saw him looking at her, she waved him over.

He strolled across and she said, “Are you looking for Charlie Bright?”

“I am. Have you seen him?”

“Not today.” She must have been in her late seventies or early eighties but her voice was high, almost girlish. She had silver hair set in plump curls and she held a wool coat bunched at her throat against the night’s chill.

“Is that unusual?” Vollmer asked.

“Oh yes,” the woman said. “I always see him during the day. Usually in the morning before he goes off for his day.”

“But not today?”

She shook her head.

He looked back at the dark house. No car in the driveway or the street.

“Maybe he’s out of town?” Vollmer suggested. 

 “He would have told me if he was going away. I always watch his house for him.”

 She opened her palm and showed a shiny brass key. “I have the key to his house, if you need it.”

Vollmer thought for a moment. 

On any other night he would let something like this go, but it came directly from the chief, so . . . 

Better see it through. 

He opened his notebook and said, “Can I get some information from you first?”

He smelled it as soon as he entered the front hall, a sweet scorched odor, like burning paper. There had been a fire in here. 

Vollmer switched on his flashlight. The house was larger on the inside than it looked from the street. The front hall opened onto a stairway going up; to the left was a sprawling living room, and to the right was a dining room. The table there overflowed with piles of mail, some opened, some not.

“Hello,” he called. “Ferndale Police. Anyone home?”

When there was no reply, he called again. “Ferndale Police. Mr. Bright? Is anybody here?”

Silence.

Vollmer went into the kitchen. No dirty dishes in the sink, the counters clean and tidy, the oven empty and cold. Vegetables in twisted shapes Vollmer had never seen before hung from the ceiling in wire baskets.

 A door off the kitchen led to a stairway down to the basement. The burnt odor seemed to originate there.

 Vollmer proceeded down the stairs into a basement that was as clean and uncluttered as the kitchen. Very different from mine, he thought; his own cellar was filled with boxes and tools and old chairs and end tables piled high from his wife’s antique furniture refinishing sideline. 

This one, in contrast, held orderly rows of bookshelves with hundreds of hardcover books. Behind one of the bookcases a cot had been set up.

The joists overhead were scorched, but had not caught fire. Fortunately for the house, and for the surrounding neighbors.

A light was on in a room in the rear of the basement. The burnt smell was strongest here. 

Vollmer looked into the room, which was set up as an office, with a desk and more bookshelves and file cabinets. On the desk, a laptop computer and printer had been smashed to pieces. 

In the center of the floor was a large pile of ashes. Vollmer bent down; they were cool. They seemed to be the remnants of sheets of paper, curled and blackened but smashed down so the contents were unrecognizable.

Sticking out from a pile of academic journals between the desk and a file cabinet were two running shoes connected to two legs. 

A man’s body.

Vollmer leaned in and looked into the grey face of an older man. 

He felt for a pulse in the man’s neck. 

Nothing.

The man’s skin was cold to the touch. His sweatshirt was dark with blood and seemed to have a dozen slashes through it.

Vollmer knew the detectives and fire inspector would not want him poking around here any longer than he had to. If this was Charlie Bright, he was very dead.

Vollmer called it in and went upstairs to secure the scene and wait for the cavalry.