I like books that have a southern setting, and David Burnsworth’s recent release of Southern Heat is set in South Carolina’s lowcountry. This looks like a great mystery novel, and you can read the entire first chapter now.
Southern Heat by David Burnsworth
Publication Date: February 2014 / Publisher: Five Star/Gale
Genre: Southern Noir/Mystery
Pages: 304 / Format: Paperback & ebook
Gunshots echo down an antebellum Charleston alley. Brack Pelton, an ex-racecar driver and Afghanistan War veteran, witnesses the murder of his uncle, Reggie Sails. Darcy Wells, the pretty Palmetto Pulse reporter, investigates Reggie’s murder and targets Brack.
The sole heir of his uncle’s estate, Brack receives a rundown bar called the Pirate’s Cove, a rotting beach house, and one hundred acres of preserved and valuable wetland along the Ashley River. A member of Charleston’s wealthiest and oldest families offers Brack four million dollars for the land. All Brack wants is his uncle’s killer.
From the sandy beaches of Isle of Palms, through the nineteenth-century mansions lining the historic Battery, to the marshlands surrounding the county, Southern Heat is drenched in the humidity of the lowcountry.
Read the first chapter now:
“A man doesn’t have the right to avoid reaping what he sows.” – Brother Thomas
Saturday night in the holy city of Charleston, S.C., it was easier to find a cheap motel on the Battery than a parking space near the Market. Especially in July. I bounced over century-old bricks, made a big U on Meeting Street, and headed back.
My uncle wanted to meet for dinner, and I was late.
Three blocks over, a spot opened up on Chalmers Street and I shoehorned my Mustang in. A birthday present to myself, the car had a screaming V-8, chrome wheels, and black paint. Its finish reflected the glow of the gaslights. I hadn’t needed a new car. What I needed was something besides my dog to make me smile, and I was tired of double-shots of Beam.
To save a few steps, I cut down a darkened alley. A quick flash and a loud pop echoed off the surrounding walls. I hit the deck, rolled behind a dumpster, and reached for my Berretta. It hadn’t been there in six months and wasn’t now. The aroma of spoiled seafood from the garbage hit me harder than a bullet.
A voice in the alley shouted like my drill sergeant in boot camp. “Give me an answer!”
My eyes adjusted to the dim light. I peered around a corner of the dumpster. A figure knelt over a body. To get a better view, I stood. My foot hit an empty bottle. It clanged across the cobblestones of the alley. The kneeling man raised his arm. The silhouette of a gun aimed in my direction. I dove back behind the dumpster. He fired. The bullet ricocheted off the steel frame. I needed an exit strategy.
Receding footsteps of someone running echoed in the alley. After a moment all I heard was labored breathing and eased from my hiding spot. The figure with the gun was gone. The body on the ground wheezed. I got to my feet, hurried over to help, and found my uncle staring up at me with his one good eye, the other having been lost in Vietnam and now covered with an eye patch.
“Uncle Reggie!” I fell to my knees.
Blood trickled from his mouth as he said my name, “Brack.” His voice was rough and muffled by the liquid filling his lungs.
Grabbing my phone, I punched nine-one-one.
“Brack,” he whispered, and his uncovered eye closed.
The emergency line rang in my ear.
“I’m calling for an ambulance,” I said.
“Ray.” He coughed. “Ray shot me.”
I let the phone drop a few inches. “Who’s Ray?”
He swallowed hard.
A tinny female voice interrupted, “Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
The life went out of Uncle Reggie and I placed two fingers on his neck.
“Sir,” said the operator. “What’s your emergency?”
“My uncle’s been shot. We’re in Simmons Alley.” I placed the phone on the ground next to me, raised my uncle’s chin, and gave him CPR.
In the middle of my second round of chest compressions, the howling intake noise and moaning exhaust of a car engine at full throttle made me look up. Flashing lights bounced off the dumpsters and trash lining the alley.
A patrol car headed for me, and I jerked my hands up in reaction. It skidded to a stop a few yards away. Doors swung open in unison. Two men stepped out and trained their weapons on me. “Police! Freeze!”
One of them moved out of my line of vision.
“He’s not breathing,” I said.
The officer by the cruiser said, “Get your hands up!”
Patience left me. “He’s been shot! Make yourself useful and call an ambulance.”
“Get down!” screamed a voice behind me. A hard shove made me hit the ground face first next to my uncle. The officer jammed his knee into my back, frisked, and cuffed me.
I spit blood and dirt and tried to take a breath. “He’s my uncle. Help him!”
The second officer knelt beside Uncle Reggie and checked for a pulse like I did. “He’s gone.”
It took both cops to lift all six-foot, two-hundred-and-ten pounds of me off the ground. I grunted at the strain on my joints from the handcuffs. They placed me in the back seat of a cruiser and shut the door. One of them rattled off something on the radio. I ran my tongue over a split in the middle of my lower lip. Blood on the front of my white T-shirt mixed with three-century-old soot from the cobblestones. Ten feet away my only family and best friend lay dead. I shook my head in disbelief. The moon cast everything in electric blue.
More vehicles showed up and the area erupted in activity. Gray uniforms and white-jacketed technicians crowded into the narrow passage between the old brick buildings. Cameras flashed. Two suits got out of an unmarked Crown Vic. One knelt beside my uncle. The other spoke with one of the uniforms, both of them glancing at me several times. After a few minutes, the suits teamed up and came at me like two sand crabs ready to make a meal out of a fish carcass washed up on the beach. I saw my wallet in one of the crab’s claws and realized it was no longer in my back pocket.
The first one to the cruiser’s door was slim and tall with stiff creases in his slacks and shirt. A silver Rolex flashed on his wrist. The second man, half a step behind, had a stocky build. His loosened tie exposed an unbuttoned collar. Both wore short sleeves, a necessity in the sweltering lowcountry.
The stiff-creased crab opened the door. “Brack Pelton?”
“I’m Detective Rogers.” He pulled out a notepad and pen. “This is Sergeant Wilson. We’re with Charleston P.D. and need to go over a few things with you.” He looked at my face. “I see you’re injured. We’ll get someone to check you out in a minute.”
“Thanks.” I didn’t feel the pain.
“Brack?” Detective Rogers paused. “Can I call you Brack?”
I grinned to show off my busted mouth. “Sure.”
“How did that happen, Brack?”
Rogers pointed at my mouth with the pen. “Your lip.”
I gritted my teeth, knowing it wouldn’t do me or my uncle any good to get on the bad side of the police. “I must have fallen. The officers were kind enough to help me up.”
Detective Wilson spoke for the first time. “Good answer.”
Rogers wrote something in his notepad. “So, what can you tell us about the deceased? You said he was . . . .” He flipped a page. “Your uncle?”
“I was supposed to meet him at High Cotton.”
“We can’t seem to find any identification,” said Wilson. “Can you give us his name?”
“Reggie—Reginald Sails.” I spelled the last name.
Detective Rogers wrote it down. “Did he say anything before he died?”
I nodded. “He said Ray shot him.”
Rogers and Wilson looked at each other.
“Did he say it exactly like that?” Wilson asked. “We need to know, word for word.”
The cuffs dug into my wrists. I eased forward and exhaled. “He said ‘Ray shot me.’ I asked him who Ray was but he didn’t answer.”
Wilson said, “Any reason why someone might want to harm your uncle?”
“No. He owns a run-down dive on the Isle of Palms and spends his free time surfing.”
Rogers asked, “Which dive? That pirate bar?”
“The Pirate’s Cove.” It was the only real dive left on the island.
“No kidding.” Wilson’s eyes focused on something past me, as if he was thinking.
I choked and cleared my throat. “No kidding.”
“My nephews love the place,” Wilson said. “All the pirate stuff and that big red and blue bird.”
“Macaw,” I said.
“Macaw, right.” Wilson watched me. “What were you guys doing in this alley?”
“I couldn’t find a parking spot close to High Cotton and ended up on Chalmers. I was late and turned through here to save time and that’s when he was shot.”
Wilson paused and scanned the area. “Where was Mr. Sails?”
“Already in the alley.”
Rogers wrote more. “You didn’t arrive together?”
“No. Like I said, I was on my way to meet him.”
Without looking up, Rogers made another notation. “You see who shot him?”
“Can’t tell you what he looks like. Maybe six feet and fairly stout.”
Both detectives sized me up. Rogers said, “That could describe you.”
I stood, forcing them to back up. “Look, you think I did it? Test me for gunshot residue. Otherwise, get these cuffs off me and go find who killed my uncle.”
“Easy there.” Wilson raised his hands in a calming gesture. “No one’s accusing anyone of anything.”
“At this point,” Rogers added.
Wilson fished his keys out of his pocket and held them up. “Wanna turn around so I can unhook you?”
Murder in the tourist district was rare in Charleston and the TV news got wind of the shooting. Vans from three networks arrived from the opposite end of the street and set up camp. Their lights added to the intensity of the illumination used by the police and transformed the alley into a morbid scene from High Noon. Cameramen floated around along with reporters clutching microphones. Released from the confines of the cruiser’s backseat, I sat on the rear chrome step-bumper of an ambulance within the safety of the police barrier. The detectives kept me company until the paramedics finished cleaning my face.
Detective Rogers said, “We’ll need your T-shirt. For evidence.”
I peeled off my shirt and threw it to him. “Take it.”
Wilson got a green scrubs shirt from the back of the ambulance and handed it and a business card to me. “You’re free to go. If you think of anything else, give me a call.”
“Don’t worry. You’re going to hear a lot from me.” I pocketed the card, slipped on the shirt, and walked through the alley to my car. At the police barricade, I found a spot with the fewest people loitering about and tried to cross the line.
A woman holding a microphone cut me off. “Are you involved in the police investigation?”
I was ready to brush past her when a cameraman approached, flipped on the lights above the camera and proceeded to film us. The woman stepped into the brightness and I caught a glimpse of my late wife, Jo, in the reporter’s blond curls and pretty face. The momentary image of her almost made my knees buckle.
The reporter shifted on her feet, stood in front of me, and spoke into her microphone. “Darcy Wells, Channel Nine News. Are you with the police?”
She moved the microphone from her mouth to my face, but I said nothing. Channel Nine was supposed to mean something to me, I was sure, but all I could think about at the moment were the words I had wanted to say to Jo but didn’t.
Darcy Wells aimed the microphone back at her mouth. “Can you tell us what’s going on?” Her eyes did a good job of pleading as she stuck the microphone in my face for the second time.
I spit a glob of blood on the ground away from her, trying to get the taste out of my mouth, and didn’t care it was on film. My forehead beaded with sweat from the sultry night air. “My uncle was killed tonight in this alley.”
Detectives Rogers and Wilson pushed through the crowd and stood in my line of sight but out of view of the camera.
She said, “Did you see the killer? Was there more than one? Who was your uncle?”
I pointed to the investigating officers. “Ask those guys.”
When her attention went to them, I stepped away. I heard her call, “Hey, wait!” But I turned the corner and hurried to my car, hoping the double-parked news trucks hadn’t blocked me in.
The Mustang had just enough room to squeeze out.
Death followed me like a hungry predator. I’d seen enough of it, caused enough of it, and hadn’t planned on seeing any more for a while. Not like that. Not Uncle Reggie. I had to do something or I’d go nuts. The only place that might have some answers was the same place the police would be headed next, if they weren’t there already.
As I wound the Mustang to a hundred and merged onto the Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge, my thoughts converged on what had happened. I thundered over the Cooper River and didn’t let up on the accelerator until the descent on the other side into Mt. Pleasant. If not for the patrol car usually parked at the end of the bridge, I wouldn’t have let up at all.
The small beach-shack my uncle had called home for as long as I’d known him stood on the south side of the Isle of Palms. Sand covered the driveway—the entire yard, in fact. I swung around and parked, the High Intensity Discharge headlights from my Mustang bouncing off palmetto trees. I got out of my car and walked to the house that mimicked my uncle’s lifestyle. In the darkness, I opened the door to the screened-in porch, trimmed in rotten wood and white paint-flake, and eased my way between two old rocking chairs. At the front door I felt the top of the frame for the key, found it, and let myself in.
My uncle had left a light on in the living room. His prized surfboards leaned against one wall . . . vintage Hobies, Webers, and Nolls all waxed to perfection, unlike his car. A newer couch faced a big flatscreen TV. Two shot glasses and a tequila bottle sat on his glass-topped coffee table. Lipstick on one of the jiggers caught my attention.
He’d always said cell phones caused cancer. The one and only instrument for his land line sat in the kitchen. A calendar hung on the wall beside it. Ms. July stared at me with all her naked beauty. I pulled out the push-pin holding it to the wall and scanned the dates. Today, my birthday, had been marked in bold black marker. The previous week had a notation for a Mutt’s Bar.
With the calendar in hand, I walked into the bedroom. My uncle had shown me his version of a safe-deposit box, a hole in the floor covered by loose boards, when I moved to town. He peered at me with his one blue-crystal eye and his trademark grin peeking through a graying beard. “If anything happens to me, here’s some legal stuff.”
“Uncle Reggie,” I told him, “the next hurricane will blow this whole house and all your legal stuff to Columbia. It’ll land on the front lawn of the capitol, right next to the confederate flag.”
He said, “That’d be something, wouldn’t it?”
I knelt beside the bed and lifted a couple flooring boards up and out of the way. In the hole I saw two bands of cash and a stack of papers on top of a moving carton. I picked up the papers and sat on the bed to read them. Nothing popped out at me other than the cash—ten grand in each band. I put the bills in my pocket and carried the carton and calendar out to my car. The police were about to get a whole lot of help to solve this murder. Probably more than they’d want. And I would make sure they found my uncle’s killer . . . dead, if I got to him first.
Purchase from Amazon: Southern Heat
David Burnsworth became fascinated with the Deep South at a young age. After a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Tennessee and fifteen years in the corporate world, he made the decision to write a novel. Southern Heat is his first mystery. Having lived in Charleston on Sullivan’s Island for five years, the setting was a foregone conclusion. He and his wife along with their dog call South Carolina home.
His latest book is the southern noir/mystery, Southern Heat.
Visit his website at www.davidburnsworthbooks.com.
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