Fans of Jane Lawless new and old will be fascinated by newly minted Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Ellen Hart’s latest intricate puzzle in A Whisper of Bones.
Britt Ickles doesn’t remember much from her only visit to her mother’s childhood home when she was a kid, except for playing with her cousin Timmy and the eruption of a sudden family feud. That’s why, when she drops by unannounced after years of silence, she’s shocked when her aunts tell her Timmy never existed, that she must be confusing him with someone else. But Britt can’t shake the feeling that Timmy did exist…and that something horrible has happened to him. Something her aunts want to cover up.
Britt hires Jane Lawless, hoping the private investigator can figure out what really happened to her cousin. When a fire in the family’s garage leads to the discovery of buried bones and one of the aunts dies suddenly and suspiciously, Jane can’t help but be pulled into the case. Do the bones belong to Timmy? Was the aunt’s death an accident, suicide, or homicide? What dark secret has this family been hiding for decades? It all depends on Jane Lawless to unravel.
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Just before 1:30 A.M. on a windy early December night, as the man behind the polished mahogany bar in the Lyme House pub issued his usual last call for drinks, part of a massive oak split from its trunk and crashed into the roof of the restaurant. Jane Lawless, the owner, was home in bed when a buzzing cell phone awakened her.
"You better get over here," came her assistant manager's voice.
"Why? What's going on?" She swung her legs out of bed and ran a hand through her hair. Glancing back at the woman lying next to her, still fast asleep, she got up and walked into the hall.
"I was in the bar when I heard a loud noise. I mean, the entire building shook." He explained about the tree.
That was why, at eight the following morning, Jane found herself standing in the parking lot behind the restaurant — a two-story log structure on Lake Harriet in south Minneapolis — watching a man in a boom lift chainsaw his way through the front branches, working back toward the heavy limb that was resting on the roof. Even though Jane's insurance would pay for the damage, which looked worse this morning than it had in the darkness last night, it was a headache she didn't need.
"What time do you open today?" asked the foreman, a heavy-set older guy who held a hand over his eyes, shading them from the sun.
"We'll have this all removed and cleared out of here by then. You'll probably need a structural engineer to climb up and look around."
"Already called someone," said Jane. She didn't think a structural engineer would be necessary. She had a roofing company coming by later in the day to assess the damage and give her a bid on what the repair would cost.
"Windy night last night," said the foreman. "Thing is, that oak was decaying from the inside. You can't just look at a tree and determine something like that. The whole thing should probably come down."
"Up to the park board," said Jane. The wooded land that surrounded her restaurant wasn't her responsibility.
"People are like that, too," said the foreman, gazing up at the boom lift. "They might seem fine, but inside, there's nothing but rot."
Jane turned to look at him.
"I know. A bit early for philosophy."
She smiled and he smiled back.
"No, I hear you," she said. "And I agree. People aren't always what they seem." She figured he was thinking of someone specific, which was none of her business.
"Look out below," yelled the guy in the lift. He waited until the two men on the ground moved back, then carved off a bunch of larger branches, lowering them to the asphalt with ropes. The workers stepped in and began to cut them into smaller sections, which they dragged over to the woman handling the wood chipper.
Watching the tree removal was far more entertaining than the weekly spreadsheet waiting for Jane in her office.
From around the side of the building, a dark-haired woman in a camel wool coat came into view, heading straight for them.
Jane stepped away from the din of the wood chipper. "Can I help you?"
"Are you Jane Lawless?"
The woman was middle-aged, attractive, with a pronounced cleft in her chin. "My name's Britt Ickles." She handed Jane a card.
Gazing down at it, Jane realized it was one of her own. As weird as it might sound to people who didn't know her, she had two careers going — one as a restaurateur, the other as a part-time PI. This particular card advertised, "Lawless Investigations," and listed a phone number and an email address. On the flip side, someone had written the name of her restaurant.
"Do you have a few minutes?" asked Britt.
"Sure," said Jane. She turned and thanked the job foreman, asking him to come to her office when he was done, and then led the way up the rear loading dock, through the kitchen, and down the back steps. Instead of stopping at her office, she continued down the hall to a large foyer. Passing through the double doors into the pub, she saw that the coffeepot was on behind the bar. "Care to join me?" she asked, nodding to the pot.
"Perfect," said Britt.
Jane poured them each a mug and then nodded for Britt to take a seat in one of the raised booths. Finally settled with their coffees in front of them, Jane asked how she could help.
Britt turned the mug around in her hands. "This is sort of bizarre, sitting here talking to a private detective."
"I'll make it as painless as possible."
She offered a hesitant smile. "I realize what I'm about to say will sound totally off the wall. You may even think I'm crazy."
Jane had heard a similar refrain many times before.
"I'm in town for a conference at the University of Minnesota. My mother was originally from Saint Paul. Yesterday, after I checked into my hotel, I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to drive over to the family home. My mother's two sisters still live there. Mom died a year ago."
"Yeah. Thanks. Anyway, I've only visited the house once before, when I was six years old. We came because my grandfather had died and my mom wanted to attend the funeral. We stayed at the house. I'd never met any of them before. I suppose we don't sound like a close family. We're not. The fact is, I haven't seen or heard from my aunts since that visit. Apparently, there was a big fight after the funeral. I have no idea what the issues were because Mom refused to talk about it."
"Did you see your aunts yesterday?"
She nodded. "They were kind of shocked to find me at their front door. They're old women now. One is in a wheelchair. But they were gracious. Well, one of them was. Eleanor, the oldest, invited me in."
"Did they know your mother was gone?"
"I wrote them a note last year after her death. That's why I thought I could brave seeing them again." She took a sip of coffee. "We sat in the living room and talked. Eleanor had an appointment, so she didn't have a lot of time. Lena, the middle sister, the one in the wheelchair, didn't seem very friendly, so I left when Eleanor did. The thing is, as we were talking — it was when Eleanor had gone upstairs to get her purse — I asked Lena how her son was. Timmy and I were the same age. He and Lena were staying at the house that summer before the funeral, too. But when I mentioned him, Lena just stared at me. She said, 'Where did you get the idea I had a son?'"
"You're saying you remember this boy?" asked Jane.
"Vividly. At the viewing the night before our grandfather's funeral, Timmy and I stuck together. I remember this old guy whispering to us that he had lemon candies in his pocket. He gave each of us one. Timmy hated the taste of lemon, so he offered me his. And then there was a woman who urged us to go up to the coffin and kiss our grandfather. She said it would help us remember him. I was appalled. It sounded ghoulish. But Timmy said he'd do it. We walked up together. Timmy reached over the edge of the casket and touched one of our grandfather's hands. He told me later that it felt like plastic."
"You have very clear memories."
"I'm not making this up. Lena said I must be thinking of someone else. 'Wasn't there a boy down the block named Tim or Tom or Tad?' By that time, Eleanor had come back downstairs. She agreed with Lena, suggesting that I was simply confused. After all, it was forty years ago. What's strange is that, as I sat there, I began to actually think they were right, that I'd made Timmy up. I didn't press the point because, clearly, they were the ones who should know."
Jane raised her eyebrows. "But?"
"But I thought about it after I left. I've thought about little else. I'm not wrong, Jane. He was there. And that, of course, leads to the inevitable question, why did they lie? Why did they erase him? There has to be a reason."
Jane agreed that the story did sound far-fetched. "Any thoughts about that?"
"And you're sure your memory is accurate?"
"Yes," she said fiercely. Then, frowning, she added, "At least, I think so."
"And you want me to find evidence that Timmy existed."
"Is that something you can do?"
"Possibly. Can you give me his full name?" She pulled out a pen and a small notepad from her back pocket.
"You know, I'm sorry to say, I don't know what it is. Just Timmy." Taking another sip of coffee, Britt continued, "Eleanor invited me over for dinner tonight. I was kind of surprised because Lena seemed so happy to see me leave. The thing is, if my memory is accurate, why did they lie?"
Jane shook her head.
"What if something bad happened to him?" She eased back from the table so she could cross her legs. "What if he died and they didn't tell anyone?"
"Why do you think they'd do that?"
She seemed frustrated. "I don't know. I realize I'm not making any sense. Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me."
Jane felt sorry for her. She was obviously deeply troubled by the situation. "Why don't you give it some time. Have dinner with them tonight. See what comes of it. How long will you be in town?"
"The conference goes through next weekend. I'll be flying back to Philadelphia late Sunday." She massaged her temples, took a few seconds. "Even after all these years, I can still see him so clearly. Curly blond hair. A ton of freckles. Smelled like bubble gum. He was a real ball of energy, loved to draw and sing and bang on the piano. Honestly, he was the only member of that family that I ever wanted to see again. And now I'm told he never existed."
"It is odd," said Jane. It was certainly possible that something bad had gone down that Britt's aunts didn't want to share with their niece. "I'm curious. Where did you hear about me?"
"I was at a party last night — a preconference event. I was asking around and a woman gave me your card."
"Do you remember her name?"
"Sorry. Is this" — she glanced over at the long mahogany bar — "where you work?"
"I own the restaurant."
"You own it?"
"I'm good at more than one thing."
The comment elicited a smile. "Are you expensive? Not that it matters. If I hire you, I'm only concerned with what you can find out."
"We can talk about that later, when you've made a final decision."
They spent a few minutes talking about the restaurant, then moved on to places of interest in the Twin Cities. Britt seemed to be only half listening. Eventually, glancing at her watch, she slid out of the booth and said her goodbyes.
As Jane watched her go, she had a strong sense that she'd be seeing Britt Ickles again, sooner rather than later.
Eleanor was setting out a bowl of peanuts in the living room that evening when she spotted the headlights of a car pull up to the curb outside the house. Sunday night was pot roast night at the Skarsvold house. It was a family tradition, something Eleanor tried to maintain, even when the cost of the main course should have dictated something less expensive. Her son, Frank, and his wife, Wendy, usually came by to share the meal, as did the renters living in one of the three bedrooms upstairs. Because the last of the renters had given notice two days ago and moved out yesterday morning, she had extra food. Perhaps she shouldn't have invited her niece for dinner, and yet she felt ill at ease about Britt just showing up on their doorstep. She'd wanted a chance to talk to her again, just to feel out the situation.
After Britt had left, Lena and Eleanor had gotten into an argument. Nothing new in that. Lena had expressed herself in her typically crude fashion. Why the hell did Eleanor have to invite Britt for dinner? In the face of everything that had happened, wasn't it best to leave well enough alone? But no. Eleanor was too Minnesota Nice. Shouting for Eleanor to "grow a pair," she'd rolled her wheelchair into the sunroom, which served as her bedroom, shut the French doors, and turned an old Queen album up loud enough to shatter glass. Not that Eleanor cared. She simply took out her hearing aids and got on with her day.
In Eleanor's opinion, a seventy-year-old woman wasn't supposed to listen to rock music, use the vocabulary of a sailor, or state her opinions as if they'd been whispered into her ear by God himself. Age should've taught her something, given her some dignity, some humility. Lena seemed as clueless — and reckless — now as she had when she was twenty, leaving the chaos she created for Eleanor to clean up.
It had been Lena's poisoned view of Pauline, their younger sister, that had started and ultimately perpetuated the family rift. How Eleanor had ended up with Lena in her life, the sister she'd never liked, and not Pauline, the very best of them, was nothing short of tragic. And yet, as much as she might not want to admit it, she did understand Lena's concern. Maybe she had made a mistake in inviting Britt for dinner.
Before Eleanor opened the front door, she touched the pearls at her neck and smoothed the front of her dress, realizing with some embarrassment that she'd forgotten to take off her apron. She untied it quickly, held it behind her back, and then drew back the door. The sight of Britt standing on the porch created such a wave of déjà vu that it made her almost dizzy. She's noticed the resemblance to Pauline earlier in the day, but tonight, in the dim porch light, it was more pronounced. For an upside-down moment, she thought it was Pauline.
"Is something wrong?" asked Britt.
"No, no, it's ... you look so much like your mother." The shape of her face, the soft cleft in her chin, the full mouth, and wide amber-colored eyes.
"I've been told that."
"Please. Come in." She took Britt's coat and hung it on one of the pegs behind the door. "You remember my son, Frank, right? He and his wife, Wendy, will be here any minute. Lena's still getting ready in her room. Why don't you follow me back to the kitchen? The roast is just about done."
"Smells wonderful in here," said Britt.
No hideous music blared from Lena's lair. Eleanor was grateful for small mercies. Once back in the kitchen, she wasn't sure what to do with her apron, so she put it back on. When she opened the oven door and removed the roasting pan, heat billowed out and caused steam to form on her rimless glasses. Removing them, she wiped the lenses with the tip of her apron. She didn't want to dish up the food until everyone was present. "Will you hand me that platter?" she asked, nodding to the one on the counter.
"Can I help? I'm a pretty good cook."
It was hard not to like such a well-spoken, lovely young woman. But liking was a far cry from trusting. At eighty, Eleanor's focus wasn't what it used to be, so she had to be especially careful to think through her actions, something Lena never did. "I believe I've got everything under control. Are you hungry?"
"Famished." Britt glanced around the kitchen. "I remember this room, everything but the red gingham curtains."
"I made those a good fifteen years ago. I love red gingham."
"I remember helping you make cookies. You brought a kitchen chair over to the counter so I could stand with you."
"Oatmeal chocolate chip. You let me eat part of the dough."
Eleanor needed to steer the conversation away from that long-ago visit. "I forgot to ask. Are you married? Do you have children?"
"I'm divorced. No children. Friends say I'm married to my job."
"And what is it again?"
"I'm a professor of genomics at Penn State. I teach and I also do fieldwork. My postdoc was in human genetics and epigenetics."
"I'm afraid I don't know what that is."
Britt smiled. "It's difficult to put into a few words. I'm in town because I'm giving a talk at a conference of the American Society for the Study of Evolutionary Genomics. It's their annual meeting."
"I'm very impressed." Hearing the back door open, Eleanor turned to find her son, Frank, lumbering up the steps into the kitchen. She kissed his cheek, silently wishing that he'd shave more closely, then introduced him to Britt.
Britt smiled and shook his hand. "Nice to see you again. Last time we were together, I believe you were wearing shorts, a Twins T-shirt, and a baseball cap pulled over some rather long brown hair."
He ran a hand over his receding hairline. "Time flies when you're having fun." He said the words grimly, barely moving his lips.
"Where's Wendy?" asked Eleanor.
"Um, she couldn't make it. Sorry."
"Just a schedule mix-up."
"Well," said Eleanor, returning to the pan on the stove. "Honey, why don't you take Britt into the dining room and find her a seat at the table. Then come back. You can help me put out the food."
Eleanor began to dish up the roast and vegetables — potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and onions. As she was preparing the pan gravy, Frank returned.
Standing next to her, he lowered his voice and said, "Listen, Mom. The fact is, Wendy and me, we're having some problems. Until we get things settled, can I stay here?"
Excerpted from "A Whisper of Bones"
Copyright © 2018 Ellen Hart.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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