Ellen Hart was named the 2017 MWA Grand Master, the most distinguished lifetime achievement award offered in the mystery community.
In FEVER IN THE DARK by MWA Edgars Grand Master Ellen Hart, Fiona and Annie return home from their one year anniversary trip to discover that their poignant proposal video has been posted on YouTube and has garnered hundreds of thousands of hits. The video is on the verge of going viral, and there’s enormous media interest in Fiona and Annie, as their fame comes just on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage across the country. As some of the attention starts to turn vicious, Fiona pulls in an old friend, private investigator Jane Lawless, to help separate the harmless threats from the potentially harmful.
As the media storm continues to grow, Fiona revels in the attention, but Annie is furious. Fiona has always known that Annie has secrets, but her newfound notoriety threatens to bring Annie's past straight to their door. And then, when a murder occurs and Annie and Fiona are both suspects, it’s up to Jane to prove their innocence…although the more she learns, the more she starts to wonder whether they actually are innocent.
Ellen Hart will once again captivate readers with her trademark smart, clever, mystery plotting and rich, human characters.
About the Author
ELLEN HART, named the 2017 Mystery Writers of America’s Grandmaster, is the author of more than thirty mysteries. Entertainment Weekly has called her “a top novelist in the cultishly popular gay mystery genre.” She has won multiple Minnesota Book Awards, and has been nominated twenty-two times for the Lambda Literary Award, winning six. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her partner of forty years.
Read an Excerpt
Fever in the Dark
By Ellen Hart
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Ellen Hart
All rights reserved.
Noah Foster was a patient man, a doctor of psychiatry with a highly educated grasp of human nature. He thought of himself as forgiving, a live-and-let-live kind of guy, able to put the world and all its vagaries in perspective. But tonight he was at the end of his rope. His wife's scorn, her family's contempt, had finally burst into the full light of day. He was done with all of them. He wasn't a perfect man, but they weren't perfect either.
Wasn't it the Bible that said only the innocent were allowed to cast the first stone? A huge boulder had come crashing his way this afternoon in the form of a fist to his face. Noah didn't think his nose was broken, just bruised and badly swollen. He should probably be visiting an emergency room — or a police station — instead of heading back to Cordelia's mansion, but that's where his suitcase and clothes were, and most importantly, his son. He would march in, pack up, get his little boy out of bed, and tell Bridget that she and her dad could find another way back to California. He was taking the van and going home. He expected a fight and he was more than ready for it.
In many ways, the idea of divorce had been circling inside his mind for months. During the eight years he and Bridget had been together, he'd discovered that monogamy wasn't for him. He didn't beat himself up about it; he simply accepted that he had a wandering eye and a hard time being faithful. He still loved Bridget, that's what was so sad. In the early years of their relationship, back when they were both in college, he'd fallen in love with her family as much as he had with her. But that was over and done with now. He had to accept reality and move on. The conclusion was liberating.
As he drove along Hennepin Avenue, he adjusted the van's vents. The air-conditioning didn't seem to be working. It was a sweltering July night in Minneapolis. For a city with a reputation as one of the ice capitals of the planet, this was a bit too Amazon rain forest for his tastes. His stomach was acting up, too, no doubt a response to all the stress he'd been under. He popped open the glove compartment looking for a roll of Tums. Finding none, he considered stopping at a convenience store to pick up a pack, but as he sailed along searching for one, he felt a sudden urge to vomit. He pressed a hand to his mouth. The van was new. The interior in perfect condition. Pulling over to the side of the road, he opened the door. Thankfully, the urge passed.
Back on the road, he turned right onto Twenty-Sixth and then another right onto Cordelia's street. Sweat dripped from his face. The pain in his stomach was growing worse by the second. It didn't feel like anything he'd ever experienced before. Was it his appendix? Something worse? Wiping his eyes, doing his best to focus, he pointed the van into the circular drive in front of the house. As he hit something hard, he stomped on the brake and threw the van into park. The next thing he knew he was throwing up all over the seat next to him. His throat burned and his mouth tasted so foul that he threw up again, this time over the steering wheel, his pants, and the floor.
Cracking the door, he pushed it open with one foot. The nausea was coming in waves now, the pain so intense that it doubled him over. He wasn't sure he could make it up to the house. As he was about to give it a shot, a familiar voice said, "Are you okay?"
He looked up, tried to clear his vision. "Help ..." was all he could squeeze out.
"What's wrong? You don't look so hot."
"Help me," he rasped, easing back into the front seat. "Call 911."
"No, I don't think so."
His vision was blurred. Nothing made sense. "I'm sick."
"Glad you finally admit it."
When he looked to the side, the sight that met his eyes caused him to jerk away.
"Bye bye, Noah. Rot in hell."CHAPTER 2
Seven Days Earlier
On the flight home from Denver, Fi began to make a list of everything she had to do to catch up at work. Her return to the theater after a week away would undoubtedly be filled with all the problems she'd left behind when she and Annie had gone on a hiking trip to the Colorado Rockies. It was their one-year-anniversary present to each other. Marriage was a dream come true for both of them, the point in a romance novel where the girl gets the girl and they both walk off into the sunset together, happily ever after.
Living beyond that sunset was what they were about now. Fi had never been happier, and she felt she could say the same for Annie. Still, when the magical glow that erased all flaws and made everything seem possible began to fade, as it inevitably did, the negotiations that typified the day to day of relationships revealed a far more nuanced and often difficult reality.
A case in point: Annie never wanted to talk about her past. For three years, ever since they'd first begun to date, Fi would press a little whenever a conversation would stray in that direction, trying to assemble a clearer picture of the puzzle. All she got for her efforts were short comments about the death of Annie's mother, and her father not taking it well when Annie had come out to him. He was apparently politically conservative, though not particularly religious. When Fi broached the idea of getting in touch with him, just to see if his attitude had thawed, Annie shut the conversation down. She told Fi, with a sudden intensity and coldness Fi had never seen in the love of her life before, to mind her own business. And that was the end of that.
A group of Boy Scouts streamed down the jet bridge toward them as Fi and Annie made their way to the baggage area. Just before they reached the elevators toward the front of the terminal, Fi's cell phone pinged inside her backpack.
Annie heard it and smiled, shaking her head. "And so it begins," she said a little wistfully. "We're back."
"Can't live in the mountains forever."
"No, but sometimes I wish the Internet had never been invented."
"Would you really want that?"
Fi had turned on her cell as they were waiting in line to get off the plane. She'd heard a seemingly endless series of barks and pings, alerting her that she had messages and voice mails. She hadn't checked any of them. One of the reasons she and Annie had decided to vacation at this particular lodge was because of its remoteness. Neither wanted any of their normal daily distractions. The point was to spend time with each other. As they'd driven down out of the mountains, they'd agreed to leave their phones off until they returned to the Twin Cities in an effort to prolong the quiet cocoon as long as possible.
Pressing the phone to her ear, Fi listened to the message from her friend, Roxy DeCastro, whose voice fairly bubbled with excitement.
"Where the hell are you? I've been calling for hours. Look ... umm, something's come up. Talk to me before you go home. And don't blow me off. This is important. You're going to be ... amazed. Stunned. Totally blown away. I can't take all the credit, but I can sure as hell take some. But you need a heads-up.
This is seriously awesome. Call me!"
"What?" asked Annie, pulling her rolling briefcase onto the escalator as they glided down to the lower level.
Annie rolled her eyes. Roxy wasn't one of her favorite people.
"I have to call her. Something's up. She's hyperventilating."
"When isn't she hyperventilating?"
Roxy had worked with Fi as a production assistant on several plays, which was how they'd met. The reason they'd become friends had more to do with one theater rat recognizing and generally appreciating another. Roxy's theatrical pedigree wasn't quite as stellar as Fiona's, who'd graduated at the age of twenty-two with a major in theater arts from Barnard, and had worked behind-the-scenes theater jobs in New York until, at age twenty-seven, she'd left to come to Minnesota to take a position as an assistant stage manager at the Allen Grimby Repertory Theater in Saint Paul.
Annie would never entirely understand Fi and Roxy's devotion — their obsession, really — with all things theatrical, and therefore she had a hard time understanding why the two of them remained close. Roxy was loud and aggressively heterosexual; a woman who, on more than one occasion, had been accused of failing to keep all her mental oars in the water. On the other hand, she was also fun, clever, and willing to push boundaries — all things Fi admired.
"Something's up," said Fiona, stopping next to a section of chairs and sitting down. "Would you mind getting our bags from the carousel? I need to call her back."
"Can't it wait?"
"She says it's important, that we need to connect before we go home."
"She probably burned the house down. Accidentally, of course. Or maybe she sublet it for the summer."
"Come on, Annie."
More eye rolling. "All right. Tell her we need to ease back into our normal lives, which means, if she's planning on coming over tonight to welcome us back with a bucket of greasy KFC and a twelve-pack, tell her thanks, but no thanks."
Annie walked off, leaving her rolling briefcase next to Fi. Three rings later, Roxy's voice burst through the phone line.
"Thank God. Where are you?"
"At the airport. We're getting our bags. Where are you?"
"At your house."
"Look, Fi. I need to give you a heads-up. I wish I could see your face when I tell you this. I mean, it's such incredible news. See, when you and Annie get back, you're going to be met by a few reporters. There's even a TV van out there. I invited the man from The Advocate to go sit by the pool. Figured we should act especially nice around him."
"The Advocate? As in the magazine?"
"Roxy, tell me why there are reporters at my door."
"Because I told them you'd be back this afternoon."
"Because of the video."
Fi's frustration was building. "What video?"
"Well, I mean, it's gone way beyond YouTube now. You have to understand, it might have been my idea to put the thing together, but I wasn't the one who created it, or posted it. But now that it's up, it's nothing short of awesome."
Fi glanced over to the carousel and saw Annie watching her. She smiled, gave a thumbs-up. "What's on this video, Roxy?"
"O-M-G, the guy from The Advocate nearly fell in the pool. I gotta get out there."
"Don't leave me hanging. Roxy? I mean it."
"I'll meet you when you get home. Honestly, this is so cool. Chill."
The phone disconnected. Fi immediately phoned back, but the call went through to voice mail. She glanced up as Annie came toward her with the bags.
"What's wrong?" asked Annie.
"I'm not sure." Since Fi didn't actually know anything, and because Roxy was at the center of whatever was going on, she decided to play it down. "We'll find out soon enough when we get back to the house."
"We still have a house?"
Fi stood and slipped her arm around Annie's waist. She could always find Annie in a crowd because of her platinum-blond boy crop and her height — almost five ten, four inches taller than Fi. At the moment, Annie's hair was covered by the baseball cap she'd bought in Boulder. "I love you."
"You're changing the subject."
"Let's go get our car."
"Another subject change."
"And on the way home, I think we should stop for ice cream."
"You must seriously not want to tell me what's going on to resort to ice cream."
Picking up one of the bags, Fi started for the exit. "I'm in the mood for chocolate-almond fudge. How about you?"
* * *
An hour later, Fiona turned her VW Beetle onto Birchwood Trail.
"Why are there strangers milling around on our front lawn?" asked Annie, finishing the last of her cone. "Hey, is that a WCCO van parked across the street? What the —"
Fi pulled into a wide, daylily-lined drive next to a midcentury modern home. All midcentury modern houses looked like boringly designed bank buildings to her. Since her father owned the place and had offered it to them free of charge, she had very little reason to grouse. As she cut the engine, Roxy, dressed in her usual bib overalls and clogs, was out the front door, rushing toward them. Her hair was covered by a navy-blue bandana. "You made it," she called, smiling almost maniacally, eyes darting to the side as two men advanced on the car. Roxy held up her hand and nodded for them to wait.
"Explain," said Annie, as Roxy slid into the backseat and shut the door.
Before she could respond, one of the men tapped on the driver's side window and said, "We're here to interview you two about the video."
Annie twisted around and nailed Roxy with her eyes. "What video? What's he talking about?"
Motioning aggressively for the guy to back off, Roxy lowered her voice and said, "Okay, look. This is so cool. It all started because I asked everyone who came to the Christmas party — those who took video of Fiona's marriage proposal on their cell phones — to give me what they had. Leo put it all together with some clips of the wedding, made it into this amazing anniversary gift. He sent it to a few of us to get our reactions and we all loved it. We were going to present it to you as an anniversary gift when you got back. I don't actually know who put it up on the Internet, but it's all good. Jeez, don't look so grim, Annie. You two are rock stars. I will say, it started kind of slow. But by last Wednesday, it was getting over a hundred thousand hits a day. Today, it hit a million. You've got your own hashtag on Twitter — #Fiona&AnnieLove. You're a huge presence on Instagram. The video is rocketing all over Facebook. I don't know what's considered viral these days, but it shows no sign of stopping. Coming on the heels of the supreme court decision, it's just what the LGBT community needs."
Fi had to admit, she thought it was exciting.
"Just talk to them," said Roxy. "The reporter from The Advocate is still back by the pool. FYI, your personal Facebook page, Fi — it's overflowing. I couldn't find yours, Annie."
"That's because I don't have a Facebook page."
"Well, then, your Twitter account —"
"I don't tweet."
"Whatever. You do have to admit that this is great news." Roxy's round face was flushed with excitement.
Annie continued to stare daggers at her. "How did they get our personal information? Who told them where we lived?"
"How does anybody get anything these days? You can find pretty much whatever you want on the Internet."
Turning just as the WCCO van's door slid open, Annie covered her face. "They've got video cameras. This can't be happening."
"Annie?" said Fi, touching her arm, not sure why she was having such a negative reaction. "I think we should talk to them."
Annie opened her door and took off, making straight for the house. Reporters rushed up to her, plying her with questions, but she never said a word as she entered the house and slammed the door behind her.
"That went well," said Roxy, her shoulders drooping. "Talk about a buzzkill."CHAPTER 3
The less people knew about you, the better. That had been Sharif Berry's guiding principle ever since the summer he turned fourteen, the year his life changed forever. Up until then, he'd been a trusting kid who'd hero-worshiped his older brother, Cleavon, and his older brother's friends. Trust was something that was hard to come by these days, which meant he wasn't exactly a master at maintaining intimate relationships.
Sharif had met his current girlfriend, Tamika Wilson, a couple months after he was hired as the new football coach at Whitney High, the largest high school in Hammond, Ohio. Tamika was on the school board, a young woman with a determined glint in her eyes and a desire to climb the administrative ladder. Sharif must have seemed like an intriguing addition to the teaching staff because of his recent NFL history. He'd managed to get drafted by the Minnesota Vikings right out of Boston College, though he'd only lasted a couple of years before being cut by the team. Still, the patina of athletic fame had attached to him and he wasn't above using it.
Sharif was a six foot five dark-skinned twenty-nine-year-old, in perfect physical shape and, according to his oldest and best friend, Annie Johnson, had a smile that could melt ice from a football field away. Sharif's father was African American, born and raised in Houston, and his mother was from Pakistan, a semi-devout Muslim, whose parents had moved to Berkeley, California, when she was eleven. Sharif had been raised a Muslim, though he didn't consider himself religious. He figured that at some point in his life, he might regret his spiritual ambivalence, but because he was so busy and his days were so full, he had no interest in making any changes.
Excerpted from Fever in the Dark by Ellen Hart. Copyright © 2017 Ellen Hart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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