"A tale full of complex plot lines, fast-paced action, and characters skilled in deception. Fans . . . will not be disappointed." Library Journal, starred review
"Jane Lawless and her trusty sidekick, Cordelia Thorn, are the most refreshing, entertaining, and cerebrally stimulating duo since Rex Stout's unbeatable combo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin." Baltimore Alternative
Minneapolis restaurateur Jane Lawless is at a crossroads. The rough economy has put her plans for a third restaurant on hold, and her long distance romance is on the rocks and quite possibly unsalvageable. Unsure of what to do next, she takes her good friend A. J. Nolan up on his standing offer to take her on as a private investigator.
While still in training, Jane's first job seems simple enough. Annie Archer explains that she left Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in search of her stepfather who vanished soon after her mom died in 1990. All Jane has to do is find Annie's stepfather. But it's not long before a hunt for a missing person turns into murder and Jane realizes this case is far from simple.
Ellen Hart is the author of twenty Jane Lawless mysteries. 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. Ellen lives in the Minneapolis area with her partner.
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
The Mirror and the Mask
By Ellen Hart
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Ellen Hart
All rights reserved.
As Jane saw it, there were several possibilities. For one, she would turn forty-five in the fall. Her mind froze as she mentally tiptoed around the numbers. It wasn't all that long ago that she thought thirty-five was the departure lounge. Now sixty was only fifteen years away. Not much time. But time, as she'd learned, was a malleable concept. It often depended on where you were standing.
At the moment, she was standing in the dry-storage room at the Xanadu Club, a restaurant she owned in the Uptown area of south Minneapolis. A pipe had burst, flooding the room with several inches of water. Jane had planned to spend the day at her other restaurant, the Lyme House, but just as the lunch rush began, she got a call from Henry Ingram, her maintenance man, with the bad news. She arrived shortly after one and found him in the basement hallway, dragging a wet/dry vac toward the storage room door.
"It stinks," she said, waving the foul air away from her face.
The old guy flipped on the light to reveal the disaster.
Crouching down, Jane touched the flooring. "This will all have to come out." She looked up at the metal storage racks filled with canned and dry goods. "I'll call Jimmy Mason and get someone out here as fast as possible to rip it out. Think we'll have problems with the subfloor?"
"Not sure there is one."
"What about the pipe?"
"I been at 'er since eleven. We had some leakage last week. I called our usual plumbing guy, but he made a mess of it. This time I did it myself."
"We need to empty the shelves right away."
"I've already made a few calls. George and Terrance should be here shortly."
George Anderson and Terrance Keegen were two of Jane's waiters. "That's all you could find?"
"On such short notice."
Jane was glad she'd worn jeans and an old sweatshirt because she was probably going to be part of the work crew. As usual, disasters never picked a good time. She had two meetings this afternoon that might have to be canceled.
She took the measure of the loss one more time. "What a freakin' mess."
"That about covers it."
There were other possibilities, of course, that added to her current malaise. It might not be her looming birthday that had pushed her toward the edge; it might be a full-blown midlife crisis. Whatever the cause, what used to get her up in the mornings and fuel the rest of her days simply didn't work anymore.
Jane had spent the last few months examining her life and finding it wanting. Part of her current predicament was a kind of disharmonic convergence. She owned two popular restaurants in Minneapolis and had recently begun to develop a third. Due to some financial problems caused by the tanking economy, those plans had been put on hold. Instead of pushing harder, trying to work through the problems, she'd simply stopped and taken some time to look around. What she saw was a deep crack in what had always been her limitless career ambition.
The other half of the disharmonic convergence was a messy romantic breakup last November that had left her feeling uncharacteristically confused, sluggish, and depressed. Jane and her partner of two years, Kenzie Mulroy, had parted ways. Jane wanted to work things out, but Kenzie had thrown in the towel with such force that no amount of apologies or promises to change made a dent in Kenzie's resolve. And yet Jane didn't want to let go. There had to be a way to make this long-distance relationship work. One of Kenzie's major objections was that Jane was too busy, that she never made enough time in her life for Kenzie. It was an arrow that hit the mark. Jane couldn't argue the facts away. And so, because the breakup had been mostly her fault, she'd been fighting with a sense of personal failure that she couldn't seem to shake. Even more troubling was the brutal suspicion that, in all her efforts to live the good life, she had somehow taken a wrong turn.
"Have you had lunch?" asked Jane.
"I'm full up," said Henry.
Jane had skipped breakfast. If she was going to haul things around all afternoon, she had to put some fuel in her tank. "I need to grab something to eat and then I'll be back."
"Nothin' in this room is goin' anywhere without help," said Henry, switching on the wet/dry vac.
Jane spent the next few minutes talking to her executive chef in the kitchen, all the while eyeing the daily specials. Before she left, she dished herself up a bowl of the minestrone she loved so much, along with a couple of slices of bread. By the time she reached the Speakeasy at the front of the house, her stomach was growling. She helped herself to a cup of coffee and was about to sit down at the far end of the bar, when one of the bartenders got her attention.
"There's a woman here who wants to talk to the manager about a job."
"Fine," she said, easing onto a stool. "Have her talk to Len."
"He wasn't feeling well, so he ran over to Snyders to buy some ibuprofen."
"Don't we have any here?"
"Okay, then have her fill out an application and give it to Len when he gets back."
"Where would I find the applications?"
She should have stayed in bed and hidden under the covers. "Where is she?"
He nodded toward the other end of the room.
Standing by the cash register was a woman wearing an army green wool sweater, brown cargo pants, and hiking boots, with a sheepskin jacket slung over one shoulder. She was tall, blond, and fashion model pretty.
"I'll take care of it," said Jane, hiding her groan. Leaving her stool with a longing backward glance, she introduced herself to the woman. "I'm the owner."
"Oh, great. I'm Annie Archer."
"You're looking for a job?"
"Just something temporary. I need to make some money, but I won't be in town long."
Jane invited her back to end of the counter, where her soup was rapidly cooling. "Something to eat?"
"No, I'm fine. I'd be willing to do just about anything. Wash dishes. Prep food. I'm a trained bartender, although you probably don't need one of those."
As they talked, Jane learned that Annie lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and that she was in town looking for her father.
"It's kind of a long story. He disappeared after my mother died. I was twenty the last time I saw him. That was twelve years ago."
Jane did the math. Annie was thirty-two. "You think he's living in the Twin Cities?"
"A friend of mine who was passing through town on a business trip a couple of weeks ago said she was positive she saw him in a bar."
Jane ate her soup while they talked. "No luck?"
"Not yet. And money is getting tight. I took a leave of absence from my job back in Steamboat Springs. Like I said, I'm a bartender at a ski resort."
"I suppose you do a lot of skiing. I used to ski all the time when I was in college."
"It always seems like I'm too busy."
"You should make the time. I can't imagine my life without riding those hills." For the first time, she smiled. She had a small space between her two front teeth, and a couple of her bottom teeth were crooked. It probably meant that Annie's family hadn't had the money for orthodontia when she was a child — and that in adult life, Annie hadn't either. Not that the teeth detracted from her looks. If anything, the flaw seemed the exception that proved the rule.
"Look," said Jane, finishing her soup. "You've actually come at a good time. I have a job, but it's not pretty." She explained about the flooded dry-storage room. "I'm headed down there myself. I could use an extra pair of hands."
"Sure," said Annie.
"There'll be some heavy lifting."
"Not a problem."
"I'll pay you what I pay the other two guys who agreed to help. Twelve seventy-five an hour. It might take the rest of the day."
"Count me in." She hopped off the stool, ready to get to work.
Terrance and George paired off, as did Annie and Jane. Henry acted as straw boss, moving the tall racks, as they were emptied, out into the hallway and helping the flooring crew pull up the old vinyl flooring.
As they worked, Jane and Annie talked. Jane learned that Annie had received a degree in folklore and mythology from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
"My major interest was in Greek and Roman mythology," said Annie, hoisting a sack of rice over her shoulder. "I did my senior thesis on the mirror and the mask as they're used in the myth of Medusa."
"The woman with the snakes in her hair."
"It's a fascinating story with lots of variations. She was a beauty. Either she was raped by Poseidon in Athena's temple or she had consensual sex with him. Either way, Athena saw it as sacrilege and punished her by turning her golden hair into serpents."
"Why didn't she punish Poseidon?"
"He was immortal. Medusa wasn't."
"Figures." Jane hefted a fifty-pound sack of flour out into the hall.
Annie followed with the rice. "Athena also turned Medusa's face into something so horrible, so ugly, that when men looked at it, it turned them to stone. Apparently, Athena didn't want any handsome young men to sleep with her."
"Sex as rape, or sex as sin."
"Yes, but it's more than just a story about sex. It's about the destruction of innocence."
"A theme that interests you?"
Jane wondered why, but it seemed too intrusive to ask for details. Instead she said, "What about the mirror and the mask?"
"You really want to hear this? Most people change the subject after the 'destruction of innocence' part."
Jane laughed as she walked back into the storage room. "No, I'm interested."
"Okay. Stop me when your eyes start to glaze over. It's all about paradox and duality. The hero as victim and the victim as hero. A mirror is something that reveals; a mask is something that conceals. But when you think about it, mirrors and masks are dualities as well as paradoxes. You see your reflection in a mirror — but it isn't you. You're separate. Sometimes a mirror is an illusion — it shows you only what you want to see. And with a mask, you can hide behind it, but the real you is still there. I think that's the way life works. Nothing is ever simple, just what you see on the surface — the mirror's reflection or the mask."
"Do you think we all wear masks?"
"All the time?"
"Not every minute. Not with everyone."
Jane didn't disagree. "What did you intend to do with a degree in folklore and mythology?"
"At the time, I wasn't thinking that far ahead. I was fascinated that Greek and Roman gods and goddesses could be both good and bad, heroic and flawed. I guess I was hoping that if I studied them, I'd learn something about myself."
"The jury's still out."
The more they talked, the more Jane found herself wanting to know Annie's story. "How long are you going to stick around looking for your dad?" she asked, standing with her hands on her hips, gazing at the shelf they'd just emptied.
"As long as the money holds out. I was thinking about hiring a PI, but it would cost too much. I did an Internet search. Everyone who looked halfway decent was priced way out of my range."
Jane picked up a case of lychee nuts. "What's the name of the bar your friend saw your dad at?"
"That's just it. She can't remember, except that it was on West Seventh in St. Paul."
"That narrows it down some," said Jane, feeling a sudden stabbing pain in her right leg. She set the case down and leaned one hand against the wall.
"You okay?" asked Annie, touching Jane's shoulder.
"I just need a minute." The last thing she wanted was for Annie to get the impression she was old and out of shape. Forty-four wasn't that ancient.
"The thing is," continued Annie, picking up a sack of sugar, "I can't leave. Not yet. Not when I feel so close."
"What's your dad's name?"
"John Archer. I left home right after I graduated from high school. The only time I went back was the year I turned twenty, for my mom's funeral. I only stayed a couple of days."
"Traverse City, Michigan."
"What'd your dad do for a living?"
Annie set the sack on an empty rack. As she turned around, she tucked a shock of blond hair behind her ear. "He flipped houses. Bought them cheap, fixed them up, and resold them at a profit."
"And you have no idea why he disappeared?"
If Annie thought Jane was asking too many questions, she didn't let on. Jane had a reason for asking them. "Your father's never tried to contact you?"
"I assumed he was dead. But then my friend said she saw him, so I had to come see for myself. Tracy, my girlfriend, and I went to the same high school. She knows what he looks like because she was over at our place all the time. He's probably changed some, but she seemed positive."
"Was your mother ill before she died?" asked Jane. The pain in her leg felt a little better. She put some weight on it, just to make sure it was steady, and then picked up the case of lychee nuts and continued on out into the hall.
Annie followed with another case of lychee nuts. "No, it was a heart attack. Completely unexpected."
"She must have been awfully young."
"Forty-one. She didn't like doctors. My dad said she'd been unusually tired before it happened, and had some bad indigestion, but they both thought it would pass. It was a real shock when she died. Dad took her to the hospital, but it was too late. Her heart was too damaged. I was so angry at her at the time that I didn't really deal with her loss. I see the world very differently now. I wish I'd had the chance to put things right."
Jane had been thirteen when her own mother died. Deaths always left unfinished business behind.
They talked for a while about Jane's past — how she'd grown up in England, returning to the United States with her family when she was nine. She explained that her father was a criminal defense lawyer and her brother a photographer and videographer. Their conversation ranged widely, and yet, over the course of the next few hours, they kept coming back to the loss of their mothers.
"How come you left home right after high school?" asked Jane, pulling the last bag of sugar off one of the racks.
"I wanted to be on my own. Make my own decisions, my own mistakes. You know what it's like when you're that age. You think you know everything."
"It takes a bit more living to grow some healthy humility."
"Tell me about it."
They worked in the storage room for the better part of four hours.
When they finished, Jane invited Annie up to her second-floor office. As Annie sat at the desk filling out a W-4 form, Jane sat down in the love seat behind her.
"I might be able to help you find your dad."
Annie turned around. "Are you serious? How?"
"I have a friend who's a PI. I've worked with him on a couple of his cases."
"You worked with him?"
"Another one of those long stories. For now, let's just say that I'll talk to him, see what he can do to help. I promise, he won't charge you." She saw a faint glow of hope rise in Annie's eyes, which in turn gave Jane a sense of satisfaction. It made her feel as if she was doing something real, something tangible for another human being. Maybe that's what was missing in her life.
"I'd be so grateful."
"Write down where you're staying and be sure to include your cell number. Oh, do you have a picture of your dad?"
"I made a bunch of copies before I left home," she said, digging a small stack out of a pocket in her cargo pants. "Here." She handed them over.
Jane glanced at the snapshot. John Archer, wearing nothing but swim trunks, was sitting at the edge of a pool holding a beach towel and mugging for the camera. He was nice enough looking. A square face and prominent chin. Shaggy brown hair.
Annie turned back and finished filling out the form. "If you can help me, I'll owe you forever."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. I'll talk to my friend, get his thoughts on the subject, and then I'll see what we can do."
"Would it be pushing too hard to ask if you needed any more help around here?" She handed Jane the form.
Jane checked the phone number at the top of the page to make sure she could read it. "Count on it. I'll give you a call tomorrow, okay?"
Speaking slowly but with evident emotion, Annie said, "You know, I've never considered myself lucky before, but thanks to you, maybe that's about to change."
Excerpted from The Mirror and the Mask by Ellen Hart. Copyright © 2009 Ellen Hart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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