A cold case heats up...
A dead man in Big Bay Creek, spring break, and a rogue FBI agent would be enough to drive Chief Callie Jean Morgan to drink...if she hadn't already quietly crawled inside a bottle of gin to drown her sorrows over a life ripped apart by too many losses.
When her investigation into the stranger's death heats up an unsolved abduction case, Callie finds herself pitted against the town council, her son, the agent, and even the raucous college kids enjoying idyllic Edisto Beach.
Amidst it all, Callie must find a way to reconcile her grief and her precious taste for gin before anyone else is killed.
C. Hope Clark is the award-winning author of the Carolina Slade Mysteries and now the Edisto Island Mysteries. During her career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she met and married a federal agent-now a private investigator. She plots murder mysteries at their lakeside home in South Carolina when not visiting Edisto Beach. Visit Hope at chopeclark.com.
Continue reading for an excerpt!
UNROLLING LAST month's police report in her hand, with two dozen residents assembled behind her, Police Chief Callie Morgan spoke to the Edisto Beach Town Council. Not the best way for a girl to spend a Saturday evening.
But this was a command performance. Even without the council meeting, her son Jeb being home for spring break prohibited her usual six o'clock routine. She hadn't had a drop of Bombay Sapphire in - what? Three days?
She read from her sheet-the council holding copies of their own - listing her tasks for the past month, her thoughts on the hurricane contingency plan, and the general performance of the force after receiving two additional officers the council so graciously approved for hire five months ago.
Thank God for the last one. Kept her from traffic duty. Kept her from people...
Finally, the end. Smile for the camera. She flashed a professional show of teeth at these five people who expected her to be beholden. Unfortunately, that included Councilman Brice LeGrand. Then she gave a nod to the mayor - who was nice to her face, neutral in public.
They'd made her the last item on the evening's agenda. Not that she was on trial, but she made certain her report included the accomplishments of her department, details the council seemed to take more interest in of late.
The report was complete. Competent. But her heart wasn't in it this evening. Her heart wasn't in much of anything anymore. Muscle memory, work ethic, and an office manager named Marie kept Callie running the Edisto Beach PD, but heart? That was asking too much. She left passion in a rainy ditch on Pine Landing Road last September. Everyone had seen Mike Seabrook as invincible, never thought he could die, but he did...attempting to save her.
"Well," Brice drawled at the front of the room, glancing at his casually dressed peers to his left, then his right. "She's obviously no Seabrook, but we can check off the police department."
The words slammed her like a mallet. A female gasp came from behind her in the audience. A councilwoman covered her mouth, and mumbles arose around the stuffy meeting room reeking of overcooked coffee, the confinement too tight for whispered words not to be heard.
Everyone watched Brice, the supporters and the opponents, both sides equally intimidated. "Y'all remember those jokes he'd tell? Mike could make these meetings more of a social. He'd bring donuts, Snickers bars, even sang his report that one time." Brice managed a hound-dog look of sadness while giving no condolences to the police chief at attention before him.
Blood rushed in Callie's ears. With an embarrassed board frozen before her, stunned citizens behind her, Callie stiffened in defense. "Excuse me?" She crushed the papers in her hand, but she wasn't sure she had the strength for Brice's challenge, or the focus to handle it properly. Not without getting fired on the spot...or being arrested for murder.
And God knows there'd been ample murder on the island.
She'd been exonerated by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division in the shootout. But that fact paled in the shadow of Mike Seabrook's death. The community had adored him. And he'd been the man she'd professed to love just twenty-four hours before he succumbed to a bullet and a knife on a muddy, desolate, rained-out road.
The room had gone silent. Silent! How many people still held her accountable?
Did they expect her to brawl, retaliate? Surely they sensed she couldn't take a single breath without the memory.
Or was this a test as to what she could handle?
Then, Sophie Bianchi, wearing her more formal black yoga pants, leaped from her seat, jeweled hands on tiny hips, her black pixie hair shaking with rage and a hundred-dollar highlight job. "Well, I'll sure as hell say something if none of you will. What's wrong with you people? And Brice, you're a gold-plated jackass and do not represent the voices of everyone here, regardless how big and bad you think you are! Don't you remember the price this woman has paid for us?"
"How about the price we've paid?" he yelled. "Not all of us wanted her as chief!"
One councilman gave a soft "Yeah." The councilwoman nodded, then seemed to catch herself when Sophie gave her a glare. Grumblings traveled the room.
Callie was mortified. Were they doing this now? Formally, they couldn't launch into judgment of her without the issue being on the agenda, but the mention this month meant a formal discussion the next.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. As Sophie continued dressing down the council despite Brice's hard, heavy-lidded, and challenging gaze, Callie peered at Jeb's caller ID. No message and no urgency. She refused it and turned her focus back to Sophie. Jeb had probably forgotten her town-council meeting obligation.
"This woman"- and the yoga mistress gripped Callie's hand -"has saved this beach more times that you've peed in the ocean, you pompous dolt."
Snickers rolled around the room. Brice's cheeks reddened.
A text came through Callie's phone. 911, Mom. Call me.
Callie spun her back to the council and strode to the back of the room, redialing his number. He picked up after one ring.
"What's wrong? Where are you?" she whispered, a hand covering her other ear to hear better. Jeb had never cried wolf in his life. She glanced over at the government-issue wall clock. Quarter to eight.
"Chief Morgan," Brice said into a microphone the small room really didn't need.
She held up a stiff arm, finger pointed, indicating one moment.
"We're kayaking up Bay Creek," Jeb said, his voice quivering. "Oh my gosh, Mom. We were coming back and..." His words turned softer, his mouth away from the phone. "It's all right. Mom will take care of it."
"She's on the damn phone, Brice," Sophie scolded. "Probably an emergency. It's what you hired her to do."
Callie pressed her ear harder to hear better with the other. Was that Sprite crying? Instinctively, Callie glanced at Sprite's mother. Sophie was still giving what-for to Brice.
"Jeb?" Callie spun back, head tucked down. "Is Sprite okay?"
Panic still laced his tone. "She's fine. And I'm fine, but this floating body hung up in the grass isn't."
Callie stiffened, then held a hand in front of her mouth and whispered, "Give me one second." She scooted back up the aisle and patted Sophie's arm. "Gotta go. Police emergency."
The board deserved the yoga mistress's spitfire temper, and her ire would distract them from this new issue long enough for Callie to escape and reach her son.
Jeb's voice rose. "What do I do, Mom?"
Knocking a chair in passing, Callie barged toward the door to the hallway, heart pounding. "I'm moving to where I can hear you. Are y'all alone?"
Night insects chirped and called in the phone's background. "Yes, ma'am. We're the only ones out here."
That he could see.
As she passed the audience, some mumbled at her abrupt departure, but Jeb was the only person left in Callie's life who could keep her going. Humidity smacked her as she burst outside, praying the phone signal held. She barely heard Brice calling after her.
The fire of dusk heightened the tension of the what-ifs playing in her head. It would soon be dark. She heard Jeb soothe Sprite again.
"Okay," Callie said, reaching the parking lot streetlight. "Talk to me." She jogged toward her car, fobbed open the cruiser, her black shoes making divots in the sand and gravel lot.
"We found him a half mile north of the public dock near the state park."
She ran to her trunk, extracted a cap, flashlight, and windbreaker. The Zodiac rescue craft was ever ready for use, but she'd never called on it before. Firefighter Bobby Yeargin was the designated driver of the boat.
The thought of her son with a dead man chilled her to her core. "Are you sure he's dead?" She cranked up the engine and left.
"Trust me, there's no doubt about that."
"Do you know him?"
"Jesus, Mom, I'm not rolling him over to tell!" She heard him catch his breath. "And I thought that would be tampering with evidence."
Adrenaline coursed through her like a rain-swollen river. Was this a drowning, a slip in a boat, a drunk who fell in - too inebriated to find his way out? Jeb probably had the same thoughts, but what he might not think of was murder. And he wouldn't wonder if the murderer watched in hiding.
God, make this all an accident.
"Okay, listen to me, son." She forced a calm, steady tone to override his fear...and hers. "Does the scene appear safe?"
"What do you mean?"
Without being there, Callie had no idea if the body was fresh, old, just dumped....Jeb and Sprite maybe having interrupted something at the hour of day when the grays of nightfall beckoned someone with equally dark plans. Jeb didn't need to touch the corpse to determine any of this, either. "Without upsetting Sprite, Son, scan the area. Look nearby first. Then do a three-sixty. See anyone?" She swallowed. "While you're doing that, I'm ordering the boat to come out there. Be right back."
As she turned left on Lybrand, she placed the emergency call on the radio, which would alert the first responders for water rescue. Clipped words, directions, and an order to meet her at the dock.
Then she returned to her son. "Jeb? See anyone?"
She released half the breath she held. "Now, scour the distance, up and down the creek. Any boats? Anybody on the land watching? Any cars running? Look for lights."
More seconds, with water sounds against the fiberglass kayak telling her he moved to follow her directions. A thump from his oar. "No, Mom. Nobody."
Thank God. She tore past the Wyndham resort entrance and shot a small, desperate prayer up that the body wasn't a local, in spite of the fact a tourist could be worse.
As she moved her cell to the other ear, her fingers gave a slight tremble she wished hadn't surfaced. She fumbled the phone, but recovered it. "Damn it," she whispered before she caught herself.
"Mom, you okay?"
"I'm fine," she said, almost angry at him for asking the routine question he'd asked for every day of the four months leading up to his departure for college - and in every weekly phone call since. Synonymous with Have you been drinking?
Sure, she sometimes ended her days by smoothing the edges, but she hadn't today. You'd think he could tell the difference.
"Okay," she said, her cruiser making a small slide into the marina parking lot. "Stay there. Stay alert, and keep this call open. I don't care who tries to call in, don't hang up. I won't be long."
At the dock, she saw from a distance that someone already prepped the boat. Two divers, locals, readied another boat a few slips down. The emergency call also directed the coroner in Walterboro to send someone ASAP. By the book. Per the plan. Without fanfare or interruption of the council meeting in the administrative building she'd just left. It was April, spring break, and the last thing Edisto Beach needed was street talk about a death...or another of Brice's lectures, hammering her inability to keep Edisto safe. Again.
A gust tossed her hair and made its way across the bay, the tide incoming. She donned her cap.
"Chief? You ready?" hollered Yeargin.
She waved her okay and headed toward the watercraft. Calm settled over her. "Jeb, we're about to head your way. You'll see our lights. I'm hanging up now. We'll lose signal over the water."
She remained police chief of Edisto Beach because of her ability to manage trauma without spilling it onto everyone else. She'd been hired originally because she "walked the walk" due to her Boston detective experience and "talked the local talk" having been born and raised in these parts. But Officer Seabrook and Officer Francis's deaths last fall bit a huge chunk out of her self-assurance. She never wanted to pull a firearm again after she'd shot the killer that night, with relish and way more bullets than needed.
But this wasn't about the cop in her. It was about the mother. She'd find a way to do whatever needed to be done. Jeb had no idea of the ramifications of finding a body.....particularly if he'd run across a body not meant to be found.
Want more? Click below to pre-order Edisto Stranger by C. Hope Clark!