Song of the Chimney Sweep
by Tamatha Cain
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Love is a song played on repeat…
In 1969 near the Florida/Georgia Line, idealistic young Betty Langdon and fast-rising R&B singer Dominicus Owens begin an irresistible but dangerous interracial romance that ends under mysterious, heartbreaking circumstances. Betty is forced to return to her rural home to care for her manipulative mother, while Dominicus goes on to mega-stardom with his band The Downtown Sound. She follows his skyrocketing career from behind the front desk of a dying highway motel–until one day decades later, she disappears.
Now, a popular true crime podcast produced by college friends Melody Hinterson and Dorian Santos takes on the cold case of a missing local woman. The duo’s carefully-balanced workplace dynamic is weirdly off-kilter lately, but they can’t take their eyes off the investigation as the intriguing new story suddenly boosts the show into the national spotlight. When the investigation uncovers the missing woman’s diaries full of family secrets and the century-old legend of a fortune hidden in an old chimney somewhere in town, the truth behind the podcast’s mystery suddenly becomes personal, and Melody must make life-changing choices before the final episode airs.
But who owns the rights to a secret?
A sound came from somewhere down the sidewalk. The other girls sauntered into the saloon, the cheers of an already rowdy crowd pouring out the doors along with the sound of guitar sound checks. As the doors closed behind them, the sound from down the road rose again. Voices. Voices singing.
The dark asphalt road glowed with puddled yellow light. Betty strolled to the nearest light pole and stopped, listening. Her head bobbed along with the music, the harmony buzzing through her belly. She walked to the next light pole, stopped again, one hand against the humid wood. My Girl. She loved that song—the harmony so sweet, it brought a craving to her tongue. She swallowed hard.
She looked back toward the saloon, then forward again toward the sound. It was coming from one of the small shotgun houses on the other side of the street. It wasn’t a record. People were singing. No instruments, only voices. A cappella. Like the hymn mama suggested last week at choir practice, mostly to put that haughty organist Vera in her place. Betty leaned toward the source of the sound, then pulled back, anchored to the post.
Whoa, whoa, whoa…they improvised, somehow, in harmony.
The voices sang on about all that honey and those envious bees. Tantalizing. Her mind filled in the trumpet hit. She set her jaw tight and tilted her head, then stepped out toward the next light pole. She stopped between posts, pressed her clutch against the front of her skirt, clenched her knees together with a shudder. Her shoulders swayed to the rhythm, a rhythm snapped by fingers on a porch across the street.
There were figures. Five men on the porch, singing and snapping The Temptations song. Her mother didn’t even like their name, let alone their music.
But her mother wasn’t here.
Betty couldn’t turn away.
Her eyes adjusted to the light of a single bulb and the glowing tips of cigarettes fluttering like fireflies. A man stood in each corner of the tiny, weathered porch, singing their parts, their heads tilted toward the front door as they found the harmony.
Against the front door frame, a tall, narrow man leaned on his shoulder while he crooned the melody. The bare bulb shone down like a spotlight between them. Betty closed her eyes and imagined herself part of an audience, like on the Ed Sullivan Show. Her shoulders rocked as she swayed.
The melody trickled down and stopped, giving way to a melodic hum.
“Live, from the porch on Edison Avenue!”
Her eyes flew open. They’d seen her. She froze.
“Hey, that’s alright now! We love an audience. Don’t we, boys?”
The harmonizing stopped and they chimed in agreement.
“Sure we do!”
The tall one came down the stairs and stood across the street. His eyes glinted golden brown in the yellow moonlight and a wave of black hair swooped up from his smooth brown forehead. He wore a collared shirt with short sleeves tucked into pegged trousers. She looked at the ground, but her eyes found the grass at his feet. His shoes were wingtips, brown, and polished to a high shine. She focused on them, studied them, to keep from looking up at him. But she didn’t walk away.
“Now, you’re not lost are you, ma’am?” he said. His voice was warm and smoky.
Tamatha Cain writes about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. She believes that before she gave up a thriving business to pursue writing full-time, her most compelling lines of prose were probably found in the pages-long love notes she wrote to bewildered boys back in middle school. Her writing has appeared in The Experience Art and Literary Magazine, The Florida Writer, American Cake Decorating, and others. She won the 2020 Royal Palm Literary Award for Unpublished Literary Mystery and The Experience Poetry Competition. She writes reviews for Southern Literary Review and serves as a judge in the RPLA Awards. She is a member of WFWA and FWA. (She did eventually hone the love notes enough to impress her high school sweetheart, and now they have three grown kids). Learn more about her on her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
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