Today marks the 40th anniversary of the NYC Blackout, so we're giving you a little sneak peak of Rich Zahradnik's latest novel—Lights Out Summer—set during the spring and summer of 1977. This special excerpt takes place during the blackout. Lights Out Summer is available October 1st!
In March 1977, ballistics link murders going back six months to the same Charter Arms Bulldog .44. A serial killer, Son of Sam, is on the loose. But Coleridge Taylor can't compete with the armies of reporters fighting New York's tabloid war—only rewrite what they get. Constantly on the lookout for victims who need their stories told, he uncovers other killings being ignored because of the media circus. He goes after one, the story of a young Black woman gunned down in her apartment building the same night Son of Sam struck elsewhere in Queens.
The story entangles Taylor with a wealthy Park Avenue family at war with itself. Just as he's closing in on the killer and his scoop, the July 13-14 blackout sends New York into a 24-hour orgy of looting and destruction. Taylor and his PI girlfriend Samantha Callahan head out into the darkness, where a steamy night of mob violence awaits them.
In the midst of the chaos, a suspect in Taylor's story goes missing. Desperate, he races to a confrontation that will either break the story—or Taylor.
A couple of screams, followed by shushing.
“I’ll call downstairs to see what’s going on.” That was James.
“Let’s get candles lit.” That was Mrs. DeVries. “It must be a brownout because of the heat.”
Taylor tried to move toward the windows while not knocking over an end table worth a month of his salary. But he couldn’t tell the windows from the wall.
This shouldn’t be that hard.
A crash behind him. “I’m so sorry,” said one of the staff.
A candle flared to life and reflected light off the windows he’d been hunting. Outside was as dark as the sitting room. The Upper East Side was black, as was the entire area as far uptown and downtown as he could see. Queens had disappeared.
Taylor turned around. “Looks like a major blackout. All of the city that I can see.”
“Must have been the heat and the air conditioning.”
“Thunderstorms up north.”
Taylor didn’t want theories. “Can someone please find a transistor radio?”
“There’s one in my room,” said Audrey.
She went with Carol, who had a flashlight, and came back. Taylor tuned to 1010 WINS.
“The blackout is citywide and includes parts of Westchester County. Con Ed has yet to provide a statement. Lightning strikes were reported north of the city in Westchester.”
Everyone started talking at once: questions about staffers’ family members, distances from home, and food going bad. Sweat trickled down Taylor’s back. The room was warming up fast.
“Okay, okay everyone.” Mrs. DeVries stood for the first time. “This has happened before. Let’s wait and see what happens. It may not last that long.”
The ’65 blackout went on for 13 hours. That was in November.
Waiting made sense, though. This might be a major news story, but Taylor needed to know where to go to cover it. The city was massive with the lights on; the dark made it a world without edges or boundaries. WINS kept reporting. “The cause of the outage may have been a lightning strike near the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Buchanan. Civilians are out in some intersections of the city directing traffic stranded on the streets when the power went out.”
There had been all sorts of Good Samaritan acts during the ’65 blackout. Would be nice if a little of that New York returned tonight.
The butler served snacks on little silver plates.
“Worse ways to spend an outage,” Samantha said, holding some form of hors d’oeuvres.
“There are. Imagine there are some mighty unhappy people on subway trains and in elevators right now.”
The heat from the dark air outside continued to seep into the apartment now that the air conditioners were stilled. Taylor took off his jacket. Carol opened windows. The noise of traffic rose from the street, striking Taylor’s ears as odd, with everything else stopped. Cars moved up and down the avenue, providing the only illumination.
The announcer broke off in the middle of a piece on the status of the hospitals. “We’re starting to hear scattered reports of looting in Harlem and Brooklyn. No details yet.”
“May I borrow the phone?” Taylor said.
Mrs. DeVries nodded.
Dial tone. God bless you, Ma Bell.
He dialed the City News Bureau and was surprised to hear the voice of night editor Howard Nicholson.
“Thought you’d leave soon as the lights went out.”
“I’m a newsman.” Maybe. Once. “Good you called. The general manager at WINS reached Novak. They’ll pay two hundred fifty dollars for any stories we can phone directly in—”
“You mean anything I can phone in.”
“Yeah, yeah. They get ’em exclusive, which is easy enough. The facsimile machine ain’t sending anything tonight. Novak says you’ll keep fifty bucks and I get twenty. Combat pay.”
“Now I know why you stuck around. What combat are you going to be in?”
“Gimme a break for once, Taylor. You’re getting yours.”
“You’re going to earn yours. You stay by that phone. You’re my clearinghouse. People will be calling for me. I call and you’re not there, no double sawbuck for you.” Nicholson started making noises to interrupt that Taylor ignored. “The looting’s the first story. I’m heading to Harlem. I’ll get interviews, descriptions, what the cops are doing, and call that in to WINS.”
He hung up and turned around to the room, the same people, but all different. Some in shadow, some lit by flickering candles. Features shifting or exaggerated.
“Interrupted by a blackout. The ultimate no comment. You heard everything I said. Someone in this room was with the man making threats against Mr. DeVries. ‘Final and done.’ Dead is final and done. Maybe it was more than one someone. Maybe it was someone from the staff. I need to cover the blackout. Martha Gibson and Edmond DeVries were killed because of what was said in this room. Does anyone know anything about who was here? Charlie?”
Charlie grunted something—maybe it wasn’t even words—and charged at Taylor. He fell when Samantha hooked his leg.
He got back to his feet. “Assaulted by these scum in my own house. I’m done with this. I’m done with all of this.”
He ran from the room. The door to the hallway that led to the stairs shut with a thump.
“Isn’t it possible someone else was here?” Audrey said. She didn’t appear angry, more apprehensive and bewildered, like she believed the conversation happened, but didn’t know what to do about it. “It’s such a big apartment. Guests visit. We’re not always here. We’re not always watching every room.”
“Anything is possible. Some things are more probable, I’m afraid.” He wrote his office number on a pad next to the phone. “Call my office and let me know when Charlie turns up. If anything else happens. There’ll be someone there all night.”
Mrs. DeVries shook his hand. “I don’t know what to say.” Which was true, because she said nothing else.
Taylor and Samantha went through the secret door in the foyer and took it slow down the fire stairs.
The apartment buildings on Park formed a canyon down which flowed a river of light from the cars still in the city when the outage hit at about 9:30 p.m. The first cab he actually got to pull over didn’t want to go to Harlem because he could get $50 taking stranded commuters home to the burbs. And because it was Harlem. The driver had WINS on. Most everybody would have immediately tuned to that station or WCBS AM, the other all-news outlet. Taylor offered thirty bucks and promised to put the cabbie’s story on the radio. The hack decided he could get more commuters after the short run.
At the next intersection, a woman in an evening gown cut low in the back gracefully directed traffic, almost dancing. About every third light had a volunteer.
The radio reported trouble along Eighth Avenue on the west side of Harlem. Taylor told the driver to take 96th Street. The transition from the quiet dark of the city to the quiet dark of Central Park was eerie for the very reason you usually went from light to dark when you entered the park. Now it was more of the same.
Heading up Eighth, they saw trouble three blocks ahead at 114th Street. Flames flicked out of two buildings at the north end of the block, the light dancing off the street in tiny flashes that looked like a hallucination.
The cabbie hit the brakes. “End of the line, bub.”
Taylor and Samantha walked the last three blocks. As they got closer to the shops under assault, Taylor understood the source of the hallucinatory flickering on the street. Glass from smashed store windows covered the pavement. Security gates had been peeled away like the openings of giant sardine cans so people could get into an appliance store, a jewelry shop, and a grocery. Men, women, and children emerged from the stores with armfuls of merchandise. Two men marched north with a couch.
“Oh my God,” said Samantha, “it’s chaos. The whole city has fallen into chaos. It’s not one psycho killer. It’s everyone. Everyone’s giving up. The minute the lights go out, all hell breaks loose.”
This could go any direction. Taylor flexed his fingers. Stay ready, focused, aware, but not afraid. There was a big story in front of him.
They stopped at the edge of the pillaging.
“Back when the city almost went bankrupt, I kept saying nothing could kill New York,” Taylor said. “Now New York is killing itself.”
A man of medium height walked toward them with a portable TV that came up to his eyes.
“Sir. Just a reporter.” He held up his notebook. “Why is this happening?”
“We’re taking it because they ain’t giving. No jobs. No help. It’s shopping day.”
“Aren’t these businesses part of the neighborhood?”
“Neighborhood? What the fuck do they do for the neighborhood? Nothing. Even the stores owned by Blacks are getting hit. None of them give back. You’re not going to fuck with me, are you?”
Taylor kept notebook and palm up. “Just doing a story.”
“Maybe we don’t want a White boy doing a story.”
With that, he walked past.
As they moved closer, they caught angry looks.
A boy and a girl, Black, the same size, like twins, skipped out of Monty’s Sweets and Treats. They ran before Taylor could get close enough to ask a question. The boy turned. “It’s Halloween in Harlem.”
A teenager ran up to the fire callbox and pulled the handle. A patrol car came down the block from the north and pulled on to the sidewalk, rolling down it at medium speed to move people away from the stores. As soon as the car left, the crowd closed in on the storefronts again, some to work on gates that hadn’t been ripped open.
There was too much to report here, but Taylor already had enough to phone in his first stories. The combat pay was a nice bonus. Getting the story out counted for more.
He took Samantha’s hand and walked south a block. “Strange in New York when dark and quiet means you’re safe.”
Taylor and Samantha crouched low.
“I spoke too soon.”
She pulled out the Colt. “Gun?”
“Maybe a firecracker.”
The crowd kept pulling merchandise from the stores.
Copyright © 2017 Rich Zahradnik.
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Rich Zahradnik is the award-winning author of the critically acclaimed Coleridge Taylor Mystery series (Last Words, Drop Dead Punk, A Black Sail, Lights Out Summer). The first two books in the series were shortlisted or won awards in the three major competitions for books from independent publishers. Drop Dead Punk won the gold medal for mystery eBook in the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards. It was also named a finalist in the mystery category of the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Last Words won the bronze medal for mystery/thriller eBook in the 2015 IPPYs and honorable mention for mystery in the 2015 Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Awards.
Zahradnik was a journalist for 30-plus years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine and wire services. He held editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, Fox Business Network, AOL and The Hollywood Reporter.
Zahradnik was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1960 and received his B.A. in journalism and political science from George Washington University. He lives with his wife Sheri and son Patrick in Pelham, New York, where he writes fiction and teaches kids around the New York area how to write news stories and publish newspapers.
For more information, go to richzahradnik.com.