Lambda and Minnesota Book Award–winning author and MWA Grand Master Ellen Hart delivers another high-caliber mystery with Sweet Poison, her newest Lambda Award Finalist in a mystery series as loved for its delightful charm as for the absorbing psychological depth of its characters.
Jane Lawless is at her wit's end keeping her Minneapolis restaurants running while volunteering on her father's campaign for governor. With a solid lead, the race is Ray Lawless's to lose, but that changes when his rival posts a list of criminals who are on the streets, thanks to Ray's work as a defense lawyer. Corey Hodge is one of the ex-cons who took Ray's advice to plead guilty for a crime he swears he didn't commit, and revenge is never far from his mind. Then one of Ray's volunteers is killed in such a way that mirrors the crime Corey was convicted of, and Jane must bring in the killer to save her father's political career and to keep Corey from going to prison again.
The high stakes and intrigue that fuel Sweet Poison make for a gripping novel of ambition and obsession.
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By Ellen Hart
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Ellen Hart
All rights reserved.
Jane carried two extralarge air pots filled with the Xanadu's gourmet hot chocolate into her father's campaign office. It was Saturday afternoon, one of the busiest days of the week at the club, but Jane had set her priorities the day her father entered the race for governor of Minnesota. She was fiercely determined to do everything she could to help him win the election.
Jane brought food for the employees and volunteer staff several times a week, and spent as much time as she could squeeze out of her busy schedule to work the phone banks, stuff envelopes, knock on neighborhood doors with information about her father's political positions, deliver lawn signs — anything and everything that needed to be done. Time was running short. Election Day was a little more than two weeks away.
The campaign office was located on the first and second floor of the Gussman Building, deep in the heart of St. Paul's Midway district. The most recent polls, including the one the campaign staff had just completed, put her father ahead of his Republican opponent, Don Pettyjohn, by eleven points. Even correcting for error, that was a substantial lead. All signs at the moment pointed to a win. Because of that, Jane couldn't understand why there were so many long faces on the volunteer workers.
Entering the break room, Jane set the air pots down on a long table covered in a red plastic tablecloth. She found a box under the table that was filled with stacks of paper cups and began to set them out along with napkins. As she worked, she noticed a number of volunteers walking past the door, heading for the reception area. By the time she was done arranging the napkins, a couple of the volunteers were actually running.
Seeing Charity Miller, one of the volunteers, pause in the doorway, searching for something inside a file folder, Jane called out to her. "What's going on?"
"Oh, Jane ... hi." She seemed startled. "I didn't know you were here. You must have come in the back way."
Charity was in her early twenties, pretty, fresh faced, and eager. She'd been donating her time since January, when Jane's father had first thrown his hat into the political ring. Her friendliness and genuine empathy drew her into other people's problems a little too easily, which caused her to waste a lot of time, but her warmth and willingness to do just about any job, no matter how boring, had won her high marks at the campaign office. Jane liked her enormously.
"It's your father," said Charity, biting her lower lip, looking suddenly anxious. "His plane was supposed to land in St. Cloud half an hour ago, but there was some sort of problem."
"What kind of problem? Where is he?" The face of Paul Wellstone flashed through her mind. He'd been a deeply loved Minnesota senator. His plane had gone down in bad weather up near Eveleth in 2002, killing everyone on board. Jane's dad owned a Cessna. He'd been piloting it himself around the state, pretty much nonstop, since the campaign had begun.
"We don't know," said Charity. "But Maria's in touch with the St. Cloud airport."
Maria Rios was her father's campaign manager.
"Come on," said Jane, bolting out of the room, heading straight for Maria's office, which was located directly behind the reception desk.
The crowd of staffers parted as Jane made her way to the front.
Maria, elbows resting on her desktop, one hand holding the phone, the other pressed to her short salt-and-pepper hair, appeared to be listening. Jane wanted to grab the phone out of her hand, demand to know what was going on, but she waited.
"I see," said Maria. She paused, her eyes focused away from those standing in the doorway. "Yes, as soon as you know anything. Anything. Thanks." She gave herself a second, then looked up. Seeing Jane, she stood, her eyes registering caution. As she clipped her gold earring back on, she said, "I was about to call you. You've heard the news?"
"Just that my dad's plane hasn't landed in St. Cloud."
"They've requested backup from local emergency responders. So far, we don't know if the plane is down, or simply off course."
"Is Peter with him?"
Peter was Jane's younger brother. He was a photographer who was making a documentary of the campaign.
"No. He's in St. Cloud, on the ground. He drove up with a couple of the staffers this morning."
Jane was relieved to hear it, though it didn't do much to quell the battle of the titans in her stomach. "My dad's an experienced pilot. He knows what he's doing. He wouldn't take off if he thought there was a problem." She said it as much for her own sake as for those standing within earshot.
For her forty-third birthday, Jane's father had given her flying lessons. She often flew the Cessna herself when he wasn't using it — which meant she hadn't piloted it much in the last ten months. But her dad was meticulous about the plane's maintenance. Still, there were so many things that could cause a small plane to crash. Defective parts. Engine failure. Weather. Pilot error. Flight service station negligence. Wind shear.
"Where were they coming from?"
"Bemidji. Your dad's scheduled to give a speech tonight in St. Cloud." Before Maria could continue, the phone rang. She grabbed it, pulled off her earring, and sat back down.
"Yes, this is Maria." She sat forward in her chair, listened, closed her eyes. "I see. You've talked to him, then?"
Jane's heart stopped.
"How long will it take for the van to reach them?" She waited. "Good. And everyone is fine? No one was hurt?" She looked up, smiled. "That's fabulous news, Mr. Nelson. I'll pass the word along." She listened a moment more. "Did he say what kind of mechanical problem?" She nodded. "No, you're right. They're safe, that's all I care about. I'll try calling his cell again in a few minutes. Thanks so much." As she hung up, she sat back in her chair and sighed. "They're all fine. A van will pick them up and take them to a hotel in St. Cloud."
The crowd behind Jane cheered.
"What happened?" asked Jane.
"I'm not clear on that, but your dad was able to land the airplane in a field. Sounds terrifying to me. They were pretty rattled, but nobody was hurt. John Thompson, one of the field coordinators, finally radioed the field."
"What took him so long?" asked Jane.
"No idea," said Maria. "I'm just glad they're all okay."
Jane felt her cell phone vibrate inside the pocket of her jeans jacket. She pulled it out and looked at the caller ID. It was her father. She held it to her ear. "Hi! Where are you? What's going on?"
"I take it you heard about the plane," said her dad.
She sat down in a chair across from Maria, so glad to hear his voice that she felt tears come to her eyes. "You're all okay, right?"
"I don't —" His voice cut out.
"You're breaking up."
"We're in the middle of nowhere. Bad cell phone reception. But believe me, I landed by the seat of my pants."
"We're down safely. I'll get a mechanic to come out and look the plane over tomorrow. In the meantime, I just wanted to check in. I ... I mean, I'm —" This time his words were clear, but he simply stopped talking.
"Are you sure you're okay?" He was shaken up, but she had the sense that, because he couldn't seem to finish the sentence, he was holding something back.
"I'll be in touch. I love you, honey. You know that, right?"
"Of course I do."
"Good. I better call Peter."
She wanted to say something more. Maybe push for a better sense of his emotional state, or a clearer picture of what had happened with the plane. But with everyone standing behind her hanging on her every word, she ended the conversation with a simple good-bye.CHAPTER 2
Eight years, one month, and twenty-three days hard time.
Sixty days in a halfway house with electronic monitoring.
Six months at home with an electronic curfew and an obsessive-compulsive corrections agent.
Not that Corey was counting.
When he first set foot in St. Cloud state prison in central Minnesota, Corey Hodge was twenty-four years old. A young man. He no longer felt young. He'd been charged with one count of first degree sexual assault, one count of kidnapping, and two counts of aggravated battery. Because he'd never had so much as a parking ticket before, his lawyer was able to arrange a plea bargain in which Corey served the minimum. What amazed him was that no matter how loudly and logically he proclaimed his innocence, nobody seemed to be interested. His lawyer explained that if they took the case to trial, chances were he'd receive an even stiffer sentence.
"But I didn't do it," insisted Corey.
"Doesn't matter," said his lawyer. "They've got a good circumstantial case. You wanna play Russian roulette with your life, that's up to you. But if you want my advice, take the plea."
So Corey had spent the better part of nine years living with convicted rapists, murderers, attempted murderers, arsonists, child molesters, and other dregs of society. He'd been transferred to Lino Lakes state prison a few months after his processing at St. Cloud, and that's where he'd served the remainder of his time. The funny thing was, he discovered early on that he was now a full-fledged member of the great criminal choir, where almost everyone was innocent. That's when he got the point and shut up.
But yesterday everything had changed.
Corey stood in the middle of his aunt's garage working some leather polish into the seat of his '82 Moto Guzzi. It was an old motorcycle, which he'd lovingly restored several years before his arrest. He'd begun working on it again when he was transferred from the halfway house in north Minneapolis to his aunt's home on Sunrise Drive. North Minneapolis felt foreign to him, since he'd grown up on the south side. He would have preferred a halfway house closer to his aunt's place, but there weren't any that accepted a level-two sex offender. He was a marked man now, still getting used to his outcast status, but at least there were no more curfews or sacks of shit following him around, demanding to know what he was up to.
Corey had plans. He'd been a patient man and played the game. Now it was time for his reward.
The cycle had sat unused in his aunt Mary's garage the entire time he'd been inside, covered in a blue plastic tarp. Tonight he would celebrate the removal of the electronic ankle bracelet yesterday afternoon by getting on his cycle and riding. Didn't matter where. Corey still had to check in with his probation officer once a month, but compared to what his life had been like, this was freedom.
His aunt Mary appeared at the door into the garage. "I've got a job this afternoon," she said, hooking the strap of her purse over her shoulder. "If you're hungry, there's some leftover split pea soup in the fridge."
Mary's van was parked on the street. It was too big for the garage, mainly because the garage was stuffed to the gills with years of collected yard sale junk. She needed a van for her cleaning business. She was dressed in her usual work clothes — dark polyester pants, a short-sleeved cotton shirt, and a pearl choker. The idea of cleaning wearing pearls — even a cheap necklace — always made Corey smile.
Mary Katherine Glynn was a short, stout woman. Not beautiful by most standards, but comely, especially as a young woman. Comely was a word Corey had looked up in a dictionary once. When he read the definition, it made him think of her. It meant something like pleasing. Wholesome. That was Mary. She was also opinionated beyond belief, had a temper, but was soft in her own way. A pushover for sentiment. He was lucky that she'd agreed to take him in, although he never doubted for a minute that she would. She'd always been there for him.
Corey's childhood had been chaotic. His mother had died when he was ten. Left alone with an asshole father, Corey felt abandoned. A typical day for him — from the time he was ten until he turned thirteen — would start with him fixing himself breakfast while his father slept, then making himself a lunch and walking to school. When he got home in the afternoon, his father was away at work. He'd grab something to eat, then go outside to play with his buddies.
Corey's dad would arrive home around six, fix him some crappy microwaved dinner, and then leave Corey in the kitchen to eat while he retreated to the living room to drink cheap bourbon and watch TV. He made it clear that he wanted to be alone, so after dinner Corey would go up to his room. Sometimes, after dark, he'd sneak out his window and ride his bike or walk to the the mall. His father never caught on because he usually fell asleep on the couch and didn't come up to bed until well after Corey had returned home. Corey and his dad rarely talked.
The summer after seventh grade, Corey's dad brought a woman home. Ann Esseldorn. Corey took an instant dislike to her and never changed his opinion. She was pushy and loud, and made his dad act all stupid and goofy. A year later, his dad married her. Corey suddenly found himself living with three other kids, two boys, one his age and one a couple years older, and one younger girl. He felt lost in the shuffle and had to share a room with the kid his age, who stole from not only him but also the entire family. When Corey pointed this out to his dad, he took the other kid's side and accused Corey of the thefts. Corey began to feel like an outcast in his own home.
A month after his fourteenth birthday, he took off. He hadn't planned it very well. He had only twenty bucks, what was left of his birthday money, and he didn't even think to bring a warm jacket. It was late March, and the nights were cold. He was gone only a couple of days before the cops found him and brought him back. His father and stepmom tried to make nice, tried to smooth things over, but in his mind it was too little too late.
That's when Mary, his mother's elder sister, stepped in and suggested that he come live with her for a short time — a "cooling-off period," she'd called it. He'd always liked spending time at her house, so he agreed to the arrangement.
Corey never went home. Looking back on it now, he knew without a doubt that if Mary hadn't taken him in, he would have ended up on the streets. Mary insisted he go to church every Sunday, eat a good dinner with her every night. She told him that it didn't matter if he didn't get straight A's in school. What counted in life was effort, hard work.
Mary loved books and wanted Corey to read more. When he balked, she read to him — stories that bored him initially, but the more he got into them, the more he liked them. He eventually plowed through all of Tolkien. Heinlein. Dickens. Poe. Twain. And later, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Clive Barker, and other writers his aunt didn't approve of, not that she ever censored anything he brought home.
"What's that funny business on your face?" asked Mary, stepping closer to get a better look.
Mary was old school. Didn't like long hair, grungy clothes, or beards. Corey's hair was ginger colored, like hers, but while his aunt's was fine and curly, his was thick and straight as a board. He'd given some thought to growing a beard in honor of the end of the electronic monitoring but settled instead for an abbreviated version.
"It's a mustache and a goatee." He couldn't use the prison slang that was more familiar to him because she'd come after him with a shovel.
"Not much of one."
"I can't understand why such a handsome young man would want to look like a thug."
"I thought it made me look sexy."
She whapped him on the arm.
Mary had a sense of humor, but she also believed in an orderly life. All those years ago when he'd first come to live with her, she'd stated her rules up front. No foul language or raunchy jokes. Home by ten on school nights, midnight on weekends. No drugs of any kind. Keep his bedroom clean and, when asked, help around the house without grousing. She believed in a Catholic God. She believed in kindness. And she believed in Corey.
After his arrest, what Corey feared most was that she'd buy the story the police were telling her. That thought alone almost pulverized him. Amazing as it seemed to him now, she'd never wavered in her support for him, never expressed anything other than complete confidence in his innocence. For that, Corey loved her beyond telling. She prayed for him every night. He figured that if anybody had God's ear, it was his aunt Mary.
"So, what are you planning to do tonight?" asked Mary, pointing at a section of the leather seat he'd missed. "I assume you're going out."
Corey did a quick swipe with the rag, then tossed it aside and screwed the cap back on the polish. He had something important he'd been waiting to do since his first day out of the hole. "Not sure. I'll probably just go for a ride."
"You keep your nose clean."
He grinned. "Yes, ma'am."
"You work in the morning?"
"Nah. It's Sunday." He'd found a job as a mechanic at a car dealership in Crystal. It was close to the halfway house, but it took him nearly an hour in rush-hour traffic to get there now, which annoyed the hell out of him. It paid pretty well, which was good because electronic monitoring wasn't cheap. The state didn't pick up the tab, he did, to the tune of three hundred bucks a month. The head mechanic at the dealership had served time himself, so he was willing to cut another felon a break. His aunt had offered him a job with her cleaning crew, but the last thing Corey wanted was to be released from prison so he could go clean houses and office buildings for the rest of his life. He wasn't about to be anybody's servant.
"You better change your clothes before you leave," said Mary. "Don't wanna go out looking like a grease monkey."
"Put on some of that nice aftershave you bought yourself."
"Stop what, ma'am?"
Excerpted from Sweet Poison by Ellen Hart. Copyright © 2008 Ellen Hart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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