"Buttressed by distinctive characters and a splendid Minnesota setting, the well-constructed plot builds to a satisfying conclusion." Publishers Weekly
"Hart has consistently maintained a level of excellence throughout her eighteen Lawless mysteries. [She] never overplays Jane's lesbianism. It is just a fact of life in this truly engaging mystery series." Library Journal
The shock that Minneapolis restaurateur Jane Lawless is in for when Chester Garrity, her ex-husband, returns to a city that he swore he'd never see again is nothing compared to Chester's own. After their divorce many years ago, he took off with his inheritance to travel the world, leaving Jane with enough seed money to open her first restaurant.
Now he's back and penniless, or as he would prefer to say, between fortunes. He's working an angle to make his next fortune by selling a priceless artifact recently looted from the Baghdad Museum, but it all falls through when he wakes up next to the dead body of his buyer with no memory of what happened the night before. Panicked, Chester flees the scene, eventually returning to cover his tracks only to find that someone has already taken care of that for him, but at what price?
For the past fourteen years, Ellen Hart has taught "An Introduction to Writing the Modern Mystery" through the Loft Literary Center, the largest independent writing community in the nation. She was made an official GLBT Literary Saint at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in 2005.
About the Author
Ellen Hart is the author of twenty-eight crime novels in two different series. She is a five-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery and a three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Popular Fiction. She was made an official GLBT Literary Saint at the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in 2005. For the past fourteen years, Ellen has taught "An Introduction to Writing the Modern Mystery" through the The Loft Literary Center, the largest independent writing community in the nation.
Read an Excerpt
Even before Chester Garrity opened his eyes, he knew this wasn’t going to be one of his better days. Birds trilled, a lawn mower hummed in the distance—signs pointing to a beautiful spring morning, and yet the pounding inside his head was so intense that every bird chirp sounded like a horn blast.
Rolling onto his back, he stretched his aching limbs. When he worked up the courage to pry his eyes apart, he saw that he was lying outside under a pergola, his right leg hard up against the side of a hot tub. He couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t tried for something more comfortable, but then he couldn’t remember much of anything about last night, except an excess of liquid celebration.
The next thought to pierce his throbbing consciousness was that he was back in Minneapolis. Once upon a time, he’d promised himself that he would never return to the Midwest unless it was in a body bag or at the point of a gun. Cows and milk-fed morons weren’t his idea of culture. He’d lived all over the world, most recently in Istanbul, but money, as it always did, had grown tight. The need to replenish his dwindling bank account was the only force on earth that could have pulled him back to the middle of nowhere.
Propping his back against the plastic faux wood, Chess counted to three and then heaved his girth to a standing position. He wobbled a little, steadied himself, and finally dragged himself into the back entry of Melvin Dial’s house, glad to see that Dial hadn’t locked him out. He made a mental note to cut back on the booze. At fifty-one, he wasn’t old exactly, but his out-of-shape body couldn’t tolerate the level of abuse he’d once considered the price of a good time.
He entered the kitchen, rubbing his eyes, not really watching where he was going. He nearly stumbled when his foot hit something hard. Struggling to focus, he saw that all the drawers and cupboards had been opened, the contents dumped out. It looked like a high-priced kitchen equipment store had belched all over the travertine tile.
Shuffling through the mess into the living room, he pressed a palm to his eye. “Oh, right,” he whispered. The card game. He wondered how much money he’d lost. Dial had deep pockets. More to the point, he wasn’t the least bit frightened of illegalities. He was just the man they’d been looking for.
The living room was every bit as torn apart as the kitchen. Sitting down on the edge of a chair to get his bearings, he saw that the card table was still upright, covered with not only cards but empty glasses and filled ashtrays. A champagne bottle rested on its side—and, Jesus, a bottle of absinthe. Not a drop was left in any of them. No wonder he had a hangover the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza. But where was Dial?
A crumpled potato chip bag lay on the floor next to one of the wing-back chairs; chips were scattered across the tabletop and onto the bijar rug, as if someone had tossed it in a fit of temper. With a hand resting on the back of a chair to steady himself, he bent down to pick up one of the larger chips. He wasn’t the least bit hungry, but the taste in his mouth was so foul that anything to make it go away seemed welcome. As he scooped the chip up and into his mouth, he spied a dark red stain near the footstool. The sight of it kick-started the part of his brain that was still asleep.
His gaze zipped from the stain to a pair of brown Cole Haan tassel loafers. The rest of the body was hidden behind the couch.
As Chess edged forward, his breath caught in his throat. “I am so screwed,” he whispered, fighting back a burst of panic.
Dial lay on his back, the front of his white dress shirt soaked in blood, the beautiful Kurdish rug beneath him stained a dark red. The old man’s eyes were open and staring blankly at eternity, leaving no doubt in Chess’s mind that he was dead. He bent down to examine the deep gash in Dial’s chest. Someone had knifed him and left him to die.
What, exactly, had happened last night? Chess recalled the bar where they’d cemented the deal. Irina, knowing the area much better than he did, had picked the place for its old-world charm, its pricey wine list, and the absence of blaring music. With adrenaline flowing as freely as the wine, none of them had wanted the evening to end, but end it had when Irina announced that she needed to get home to her baby and her husband. Chess and Melvin Dial had been left to their own devices for the shank of the evening.
Shivering as he lowered his aching body down onto one of the wing-back chairs, Chess closed his eyes and tried to picture what had happened after they arrived back at the house. He thought he remembered Dial popping a champagne cork and pouring them each a glass of bubbly. He made the same ironic toast he’d made at the restaurant: “To Don Rumsfeld’s magnificent myopia.” They took chairs on either side of the antique card table. Chess had shuffled the deck, recalling that they felt sticky. He thought he’d won the first few hands, although he couldn’t be certain. With all he’d had to drink he couldn’t even remember leaving the table and going outside. He’d been dead to the world, with no memory of anyone coming to the house, the sound of a doorbell or a fight. The fact that he’d slept right through a murder propelled him out of the chair.
Think, he ordered himself. It seemed more than probable that Chess himself would be sprawled next to Dial if he hadn’t wandered outside and passed out. Whoever had come to the house had been looking for something. He couldn’t be sure exactly why Dial had been murdered, but there was always the possibility that it had to do with the deal they’d just struck. That’s why he couldn’t call the police. He needed time to think everything through, to work out the best way to handle it, and for that he needed a cigarette. It could be hours, even days, before the old guy’s body was discovered. He was retired, reclusive, lived alone. Chess had time. It might be the only thing he had going for him.
Before he left, Chess bent over the body and dug into Dial’s pockets for his keys—just in case he wanted to come back. He hesitated, wondering if he should take the old guy’s wallet. Hell, why not?
Stepping over to the front door, he stuck his head outside and looked around. Dial’s house was located on a tree-lined street in Linden Hills, a quiet part of the city where leaves flickered in the late morning sunlight, dogs barked in the distance, and nobody, much to Chess’s silent relief, seemed to be out and about. He removed a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, tapped one out, and slipped it between his lips, cupping his hand around the tip and lighting it with a silver lighter. Then, closing his eyes, relishing the moment, he took a sweet, deep drag and held it, feeling a sense of calm spread slowly into his muscles.
Shutting the door behind him, he proceeded swiftly down the cobbled front walk. The plan forming in his mind was to simply walk away and, when he felt safe, call for a cab to take him back to his hotel. He could phone Irina from there, explain what had happened. Dial’s death was a setback, for sure. They would need to look elsewhere to make the sale. Still, it was doable. This wasn’t the end of the road.
“Afternoon,” called a cheerful voice.
Chess coughed smoke out of his lungs.
A bald guy in a bathrobe and slippers had just come out on the front steps of the house next door. He leaned down and picked up a folded newspaper.
Cursing his wretched luck, Chess forced a smile. “Afternoon.”
“Looks like we’ve got ourselves another gorgeous day.”
Gorgeous, right. The scent of lilacs was so strong it was almost gagged him. “Sure does.” Before the man could continue with his Midwestern pleasantries, Chess gave a friendly wave, then turned and headed up the street as fast as he could go without looking like he was about to break into a dead run.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he exploded as he rounded the end of the block. The neighbor could put him at the scene of the crime, which would limit his ability to frame a plausible lie. He stuck the cigarette back between his lips and dug his cell out of the pocket of his jacket. As he did so, a white pickup whizzed past, driving way too fast for a residential street.
He forgot about waiting until he returned to the hotel. He punched in Irina’s number at the gallery. When nothing connected, he checked to see what was wrong.
The goddamn cell was out of juice.
He turned and began walking toward the lake. He had to find a phone, which wasn’t as easy as it used to be, when Ma Bell had been on every other corner.
Walking south, he felt the tension in his stomach continue to build. It surprised him that he remembered the lay of the land as well as he did. As a young man, South Minneapolis had been his playground. He’d lived in an apartment on Bryant Avenue, gone to the U of M, fallen in and out of love at least half a dozen times. Callow youth, he thought to himself, a time when everything seemed possible. Life, he’d learned, was often far more like drawing dead in a poker game. Even if you got everything you wanted, you still couldn’t win.
The more distance he put between himself and Dial’s house, the better he felt. His head was finally starting to clear. He flipped the cigarette away, supposing that he felt bad about the old guy’s death, although he hardly knew him. Irina would take it harder, as would her mother. A guy like Dial had to have his share of enemies. Chess hoped like hell that his murder had nothing to do with the statue.
As he reached the south end of the lake, he noticed a building rising above the trees that hadn’t been there twenty-some years ago. It looked like a giant log temple. Could it be? Was that the restaurant? He made a quick left into the parking lot, crossed a grassy patch that led to the front sidewalk, and climbed the log steps up to the front door. Before he went inside, he shrugged into his safari jacket and finger-combed his unruly hair back into place. He was older, for sure, but still looked pretty much the same. His body—that was a different story. Would she recognize him? Would he recognize her? He stepped up to a petite young woman behind the reception desk. “Can you tell me who owns the restaurant?”
“Sure,” said the woman, pulling a menu out from underneath the reception stand. “Jane Lawless.”
He digested the information, giving nothing away. Holding up his cell, he said, “Do you have a house phone? This thing’s out of juice.”
“Is it a local call?”
She handed him a cordless. “Dial nine to get an outside line.”
Walking over to a quiet corner, he tapped in the gallery number. It rang five times before a woman’s voice answered, “Morgana Beck Gallery.”
“Morgana? It’s Chester Garrity.”
Morgana Beck was Irina’s mother, the owner of the gallery and a visiting professor of the science and ethics of antiquities at Basir University in Ankara, Turkey. Irina had been working for her mother for nearly ten years.
“I need to speak to Irina,” said Chess.
He shoved a hand into his pocket. “Do you know when she’ll be—”
“I’m with a client right now. Call back later.”
“Could you at least give me some idea of when she’ll be in?”
Morgana and Chess had met on several occasions over the years, but for some reason, the great Morgana Beck didn’t seem to like him.
“She and Steve drove down to Rochester this morning.”
Steve was Irina’s husband. “So, later in the day? Three? Four?”
“Is something wrong? You sound upset.”
“Will she be in at all today?”
“I don’t know. I’m hanging up now.”
Chess turned his back to the receptionist as he cut the line. Morgana understood just how to yank his chain, and seemed to take great pleasure in it. Morgana Beck, a fifty-eight-year-old St. Paul matron, believed down to the soles of her Jimmy Choos that she was better than everyone else. People were always disappointing her, or trying her patience, or boring her into a state of stupefaction. People like Chess. This from a woman who’d undergone more cosmetic surgery than Michael Jackson and who had all the personal charisma of a boiled egg.
Pulling his shirt cuffs out from under his jacket sleeves, Chess gave himself a brief pep talk and then turned around and walked back to the receptionist, handing her the phone.
“Is Jane here?”
“She is,” said the receptionist. “But she’s tied up at the moment. If you’d like to make—”
“She’ll see me.”
“If you could give me your name—”
“Garrity.” He allowed himself a small smirk. “Just tell her that her husband is here and wants to talk to her.”
Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Hart
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This, Hart's nineteenth Jane Lawless mystery, is probably the darkest and most shocking of the series. Difficult to read it is chock full of, painful, difficult relationships and actions. The extensive cast of characters, many of whom fans will have met before, are almost all revealed to have seriously dangerous dark sides. And even when those troublesome and even illegal dimensions of their characters are revealed and confronted by other individuals in the book, they persist in their ways, ways that sometimes tread close to the abyss. The shocks begin very early when Lawless's former husband, a man she hasn't seen for twenty years, appears in Minneapolis. Not only are we more than a little surprised to discover that Jane was married many years ago, she is upset by his appearance, supposedly 'simply for old times sake.' It becomes quickly apparent that Chester Garrity, one of the most facile liars and con men you'll ever meet, has a specific personal agenda. Garrity is a user of anybody and everybody within reach. That he is such, should, it seems to this reader, to be more apparent to Jane than appears to be the case. That Garrity is also fairly incompetent also becomes obvious. Part of the tragedy is that his incompetence visits appalling harm on the people around him. Almost immediately plans go awry and spiral out of control. Murder results. Garrity demonstrates such a high level of impotence in the face of disaster that it is hard to believe he has managed to stay alive and out of prison for this long. At roughly the same time that Garrity begins his ill-managed plan to sell antiquities of questionable provenance, a lethal cabal of shadowy vigilantes makes its presence known by murdering a popular gallery owner. Is there a link here? Of course there is, but readers will require almost infinite patience to figure out the links and resolve the tangle of threads and relationships. Patience is particularly important in the first half of the book. After that, with the background and setup in place, the action and the pace pick up. Logic takes firm hold and as the complications and resolutions of the many plot lines become clearer, the author's grip on her story becomes firmer. The second half of the novel as revelation bangs in on top of revelation and explanation explodes, is all vintage Hart, an excellent writer who is almost always in full command of her work. There were times however, when I wanted to scream at Jane Lawless, and wondered who was really managing that usually incisive and clever mind.
In Minneapolis antiquities dealer, Chester "Chess" Garrity wakes up with a hangover on the lawn in front of the home of Melvin Dial, but totally clueless as to how he ended up there. The night before Chess and Melvin discussed a deal involving the Iraqi artifact, the Winged Bull of Nimrud. Chess enters the unlocked house to find the art collector dead from an apparent knife wound. Panicking, Chess runs from the crime scene. Chess accompanied by art dealer Irina Nelson returns to the Dial residence. He is stunned to see the corpse missing, the house clean, and a ransom note addressed to him demanding $50,000 in small bills; next to the money are photos of Chess with the body. He pleads with his former wife restaurateur Jane Lawless, who has solved several murder mysteries, to investigate. The excellent latest Jane Lawless Minnesota mystery starring (see Sweet Poison) is a great entry as Chess is checkmated by an unknown adversary. Jane is terrific as she works the case of her ex husband in which every clue she finds enforces Chess' guilt. Fast-paced with a fabulous set up, Jane is no longer an amateur sleuth as she has been paid recently as a professional (see The Mirror and the Mask) since the economy has hurt her restaurant profits. Readers will fully appreciate this terrific investigative thriller. Harriet Klausner