This gripping murder mystery is a taut page-turner that will keep you guessing until the very last page. Detective Sam Westin was perfectly happy doing just enough to get by. But then someone had to go and get murdered.
When he’s sent to investigate an accidental death from a house fire, it seems like just another open-and-shut case… until he discovers the victim was dead before the fire started. Before he knows it, Sam stumbles upon a dark side to the victim’s past and unwittingly ignites a powder keg of secrets. Soon he is caught in a maze of murder, abuse and corruption.
Is it the vengeful arsonist? The widow with a sordid past? The son with a chip on his shoulder? Or is an ambitious warden trying to keep a prison scandal under wraps? One thing’s for sure: the more Sam fans the flames, the more likely he is to get burned.
Set among the colorful backdrop of East Texas, this suspenseful and funny mystery is part Lee Child, part James Patterson and part Carl Hiaasen.
Targeted Age Group:: 15 and up
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I had heard about an actual murder in a nearby town and I thought the premise could be a launching pad for a great mystery. I kept pushing the story and adding more and more suspects until my version was nowhere anywhere near the real event. I've also toyed around with the main character for quite awhile – a lovable but lazy cop who fumbles through life and just gets by on charm and good luck until he's forced to be the good detective he really is.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I grew up in East Texas and colorful characters grow like weeds there. I'm also an avid movie and TV buff so many of my characters are a combination of all of these worlds. My main character Sam Lawson, for example, is partially inspired by Ash Williams (from Ash vs. The Evil Dead) and Hank Moody (from Californication), but with characteristics from several people I've known through the years.
The smell of a morgue is unlike anything else. There’s the bracing antiseptics you’d normally associate with a hospital, combined with the looming odor of rotting death. It doesn’t just enter your nose. It permeates your entire being and gets inside your bones.
Sam made a futile attempt at protecting himself by holding his breath as he pushed open the double doors. Carla was standing over the charred remains of a body, studying it the way a young kid would study an ant.
Sam exhaled and braced for the worst. Luckily, it wasn’t as bad as usual. Burned bodies smell different, he noted to himself.
“Jesus,” Carla said looking at Sam’s bruised face. “What the hell happened to you?”
Sam shrugged. “Wrong place, wrong time.”
He walked to the opposite side of the examining table from Carla, trying not to look at the charred body lying on the silver examining table between them. For some reason, the body looked even more horrifying this morning. Taking it out of its element of ash and burnt debris seemed to highlight the gruesomeness of it all.
He shifted his focus to Carla, who was studying the remains, unaware of his gaze. Her dark hair was pulled back tightly in a bun, which made her features look deceptively sharp. Tall and lean, she looked like she could take anyone in a fight. She seldom smiled and carried a toughness about her that most people mistook as being standoffish and aloof, but Sam saw right through it.
“There was no smoke in the lungs,” Carla said, finally looking up at Sam. “Which means he wasn’t breathing when the fire started.”
“So… heart attack? Lung cancer? Spider bite?” he asked. “Don’t make me keep guessing. It makes me feel stupid.”
“That’s probably not too hard to do,” she said with a slight smile.
“Did she just crack a joke?” he thought. Maybe he was starting to weaken that tough outer shell.
“See these fractures?” she asked, returning to the task at hand.
Carla pointed to the front of what was left of the head—not much more than a skull with patches of blackened flesh stuck to it. She then pointed to several cracks that ran across the skull before turning the skull to the side. Pieces of burnt flesh stuck to the table. Sam could feel his gag reflex kick in.
There was a section on the back of the skull—about the size of a wine cork—that seemed to be crushed in.
“It’s called a contrecoup fracture,” Carla explained. “He was hit on the back of the head so hard, the brain knocked into the front of the skull.”
“Fuck me,” Sam muttered.
“That’s your cause of death, Detective. I’d say it looks like you’ve got a murder.”
Sam was torn. One the one hand, he felt a little excitement at the prospect of investigating a murder case. It had been a long time. And it certainly couldn’t hurt in helping him impress Carla. On the other hand, a murder investigation meant more paperwork and the chief breathing down his neck.
“You curious about what the murder weapon could have been?” Carla asked him, snapping him back to reality.
She didn’t wait for an answer. “Probably something metal. Heavy enough to get the job done but light enough that someone could swing it to get the velocity needed.”
Sam was only half-listening. He was already thinking about all the crap he now needed to do. First, he’d have to tell Chief Kaster. If Sam was lucky, his boss would pull the case on the spot and Sam could go back to wasting everyone’s time. But if the chief didn’t pull him, he’d need to get back to the crime scene before too much was tampered with.
He sighed. His day just got really busy and he was going to need more coffee.
The house had already been taped off by the time Sam got there. Forensics trucks were parked out front along with the Fire Inspector truck. A member of the K9 unit was letting a black Labrador out of his SUV—an arson dog trained to track accelerants.
Sam was surprised how quickly everyone had responded. He’d only stopped to grab a quick coffee. He looked around nervously for Kaster’s brown Honda Civic, and his heart sank when he not only spotted it, but also saw Kaster standing beside it, hands on his hips, surveying the damage.
Kaster had probably been a brute force back in his day, but he traded in his toughness long ago. Now he was more a politician than a cop, more concerned with how a case would come across with the press. Or with the mayor.
Sam walked over to the chief. It was early already turning into a hot, muggy East Texas day.
“Glad you could make it, Detective,” Kaster said sarcastically.
“I wanted to give everyone time to seal off the area,” Sam lied.
Kaster never took his eyes off the house. “You didn’t even bother looking around last night, did you?”
Sam just took the hit and walked toward the front door, Kaster right beside him all the way. A uniformed officer opened the door for the two men.
“You better hope to holy hell that all the evidence hasn’t already been destroyed,” Kaster continued.
“Hey, you thought it was an open-and-closed case, too. Remember?” Sam countered. “That’s why you sent me.”
Kaster walked ahead of him without saying a word. But the lack of a reply meant that the chief knew Sam was right. And that brought a smirk to Sam’s face—one he quickly forced away before his boss could see it.
Sam trailed Kaster carefully up the stairs to the doorway of the bedroom. Two forensics officers were marking items and taking pictures. Crouching next to the ashen remains of the bed, just as he was the last time Sam had found him, was Tim Neiman.
“Hey, Tim,” Sam shouted, a bit overly friendly. “Did you ever leave? Are you not able to stand up? You need help?”
Tim looked up at Sam and openly sighed in disappointment. Then he saw Kaster and stood up quickly, walking over to shake his hand.
“Hey, Chief. Good to see you.”
“So, what have you found?” Kaster asked.
“Whoever did this sure did a good job of making it look like an accidental fire. The burn pattern has it starting in the bed, but we’re checking for accelerants now.”
“You find anything that could be a murder weapon?” Sam asked. “A baseball bat. A tire iron. A lamp. Something kind of heavy with blood on the end of it?”
Tim never even looked at him. He just shook his head in disbelief.
“So nothing out of the ordinary laying around?” Sam persisted.
Tim let out an exasperated sigh. “No. Nothing.”
“Keep looking,” Kaster said as he walked back to the bedroom door. “Lawson, come with me.”
Sam patted Tim on the back. “Good seeing you, Tim. You take care.”
He turned to walk toward his boss but stopped halfway, turning around.
“Hey, Tim. You keep a file of the particular way different arsonists start their fires, right? What’s it called?”
“Their signature,” Tim replied.
“Right,” Sam said, nodding his head. “You think it would make sense to see if anyone has this signature?”
“There is no signature, Lawson.”
Sam raised a finger. “Ah, but isn’t that a signature of its own? What about arsonists that just burn beds?”
Tim nodded reluctantly. “It’s possible. I can run it through the system and see if it pulls a match.”
“Ha!” Sam laughed. “Pulls a match. Timmy with the fire humor.”
“Fuck off,” Tim sneered back.
But Sam didn’t even hear him. He was relishing the fact he made a good call in front of the chief. For some extra brownie points, he made quite a show out of pulling out his notepad to write a reminder.
“Check with prison for list of convicts recently released,” he said loudly as he wrote.
Kaster turned around, taking notice, so Sam explained.
“The victim was a prison guard so I’m guessing he had a few enemies. Maybe one of them was an arsonist.”
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