Ellen Hart was named the 2017 MWA Grand Master, the most distinguished lifetime achievement award offered in the mystery community.
When Guthrie Hewitt calls on restaurateur and private investigator Jane Lawless, he doesn't know where else he can turn. Guthrie has fallen for a girl-Kira Adler. In fact, he was planning to propose to her on Christmas Eve. But his trip home with Kira over Thanksgiving made him uneasy. All her life, Kira has been haunted by a dream-a nightmare, really. In the dream, she witnesses her mother being murdered. She knows it can't be true because the dream doesn't line up with the facts of her mother's death. But after visiting Kira's home for the first time, and receiving a disturbing anonymous package in the mail, Guthrie starts to wonder if Kira's dream might hold more truth than she knows.
When Kira's called home again for a family meeting, Guthrie knows he needs Jane's help to figure out the truth, before the web of secrets Kira's family has been spinning all these years ensnares Kira too. And Jane's investigation will carry her deep into the center of a close-knit family that is not only fraying at the edges, but about to burst apart.
In The Grave Soul, MWA Grand Master Ellen Hart once again brings her intimate voice to the story of a family and the secrets that can build and destroy lives.
About the Author
ELLEN HART, “a top novelist in the cultishly popular gay mystery genre” (Entertainment Weekly), is also a Lambda and Minnesota Book Award winner. The author of more than twenty mysteries featuring Jane Lawless, she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2017, she was chosen as a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America (MWA).
Read an Excerpt
The Grave Soul
By Ellen Hart
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Ellen Hart
All rights reserved.
NEW YEAR'S EVE
New Dresden, Wisconsin
Failures were like bread crumbs. A woman could, without much difficulty, follow them back through the dark fairy-tale forest of her life, noting the dead ends, the seemingly small mistakes, the hubris and lack of courage, the dearth of judgement, and eventually arrive at the primary failure which, without her knowing it, would inexorably become the fulcrum on which the rest of her life turned. In Laurie's case, at just eighteen years old, an epic failure of imagination had sealed her fate.
Light snow drifted across the highway as she sped toward town. The sky had been a bleak winter white all day. By tomorrow morning, according to the weather report, six more inches would be making life miserable for the New Year's Day revelers. Because the tires on her ancient Ford Windstar were almost bald, she hesitated to drive in this kind of weather, though because her husband hadn't answered his cell phone all day, she felt she had little choice.
This was one of Doug's many tests — the "If-You-Love-Me-You'll-Come-Looking-For-Me" test. She scanned the road ahead, squinting into the fading light. He could be anywhere — a restaurant, or more likely, a bar. He could have stayed late at work, although she wasn't sure what a forklift operator would do on New Year's Eve when everyone else at the lumberyard had left early. She silently prayed that the New Year's Eve dinner she was preparing wasn't turning into a burnt offering in the oven.
With only four miles left before she hit the outskirts of New Dresden, she slowed the van so she could scan the sides of the road for his gray Buick LeSabre. It was possible that he'd had car trouble. The cell phone service in New Dresden was hit or miss at best. The winter twilight made seeing difficult. Not even the headlights helped much, swallowed as they were in the expanse of white.
Laurie had bought a special German chocolate cake — Doug's favorite — at a local bakery on Saturday afternoon. They could ill afford the expense, and yet she needed this New Year's Eve to be festive. She also needed a gesture that would send the message that she still cared about him without her having to say it out loud. These days, words got stuck in her throat and, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't force them out. Just another failure to toss on the pile, she supposed. One day, if she kept living her life the way she had these last fifty-five years, she'd be able to climb up on top of that pile and touch the moon.
Gripping the wheel, Laurie watched a dim figure emerge from a patch of woods. "Doug?" she whispered.
Half limping, half stooped, the figure moved to the shoulder and sank down on one knee.
Laurie pulled over to the shoulder and jumped out, relieved to discover that it wasn't her husband. Long, dark hair obscured the woman's face. Bending toward her, Laurie reached out her hand. "Are you all right?"
The woman's left elbow was pressed hard against her side. "I need to get out of here."
"Are you hurt?" When the woman looked up, Laurie felt a moment of panic.
"Can you help me?"
Taking hold of the woman's free arm, Laurie pulled her to her feet, alarmed to see how much pain she was in.
"I need to get ... to a hospital."
"What happened? Were you in a car accident?" She didn't see a car.
They moved haltingly to the van.
Once they were back on the road, Laurie switched on the overhead light, sneaking looks at the blood dripping from the woman's nose and mouth; her disheveled hair; the blood on her hands; the wet, dirty, ripped right leg of her jeans. The closest emergency room was in Henderson. With only a twenty-dollar bill in her pocket and little gas in the tank, there was no way Laurie could take her there. Even if she could, this was a situation that called for caution. "Where does it hurt?"
"How did you get like this?" She tried to sound concerned, but mostly she was scared.
The woman leaned back and closed her eyes. "I can't quite ... it's ... all confused."
"Uh huh. But, I mean —"
"They brought me."
"I ... I just need a minute. To pull things together."
Laurie decided not to press her, mainly because she felt she already knew the answer. She pulled the van into her sister-in-law's driveway a few minutes later. Hannah Adler was a doctor with a practice in Eau Claire, which was where she had her primary residence. Laurie tried not to be jealous, though it was often a losing battle. Hannah maintained an old bungalow in New Dresden to be close to the family.
Laurie guided the injured woman up the front steps and rang the doorbell. Hannah was in town because New Year's Day was a big family event, a command performance, dictated by Evangeline Adler, the family matriarch. When the door drew back, Hannah appeared in a sweatshirt, sweatpants, and slippers; a wineglass in her hand.
"Help me get her inside" said Laurie, maneuvering the woman through the doorway. If anything, the woman was more out of it now than she had been on the road.
The frightened look on Hannah's face matched Laurie's.
"Where can we put her?" asked Laurie.
"In the spare bedroom."
They helped her down the hallway and lowered her onto a double bed. While Laurie removed the woman's sodden boots, Hannah covered her with a quilt.
"What the hell's going on?" whispered Hannah.
"I found her like this about four miles out of town."
They exchanged worried glances.
"She's pretty confused," added Laurie.
"Good. I hope she stays that way." Bending over the bed, Hannah said, "I need to examine you. Does your head hurt? Are you dizzy?"
The woman searched the two faces gazing down at her, settling on Hannah.
Laurie held her breath.
"My ribs. On the left side."
"On a scale of one to ten, what's the pain like?"
Glancing back at Laurie, Hannah lowered her voice and said, "Probably bruised or broken ribs. She needs more help than I can give her."
"This is really bad."
Loud banging on the front door interrupted them.
"You expecting someone?" asked Laurie.
They raced back down the hall. Hannah parted the curtains in the living room. "It's Kevin and Doug. They look upset."
Grabbing Hannah's arm, Laurie said, "We can't let them in."
"They know we're in here. Your van is in the driveway."
"They did it. They took her out into the woods and beat her up."
"We don't know that."
"Who else would do it? Hannah, please. You know I'm right. If they find out we've got her in here, who knows what they'll do."
Hannah hesitated, then said, "I'll go out and talk to them. I'll tell them ... hell, I'll figure something out. While I'm outside, you get rid of her. You hear what I'm saying?"
"What about her pain?"
"Get rid of her. She's poison."
Laurie gave a solemn nod. Rushing back to the bedroom, she found the woman sitting up, head in her hands. "You've got to get out of here."
"Come on. Put your boots back on."
Ducking into the bathroom, Laurie opened the medicine cabinet and searched through the prescription bottles for a painkiller. If nothing else, she could give her a bottle of ibuprofen, though that hardly seemed strong enough. When she found nothing, she noticed her sister-in-law's medical bag on the floor next to small oak cabinet. Opening it, she found a white paper sack stapled at the top. She ripped it open and scanned the front of the prescription bottle: "Endocet 325 milligrams," she whispered. "One to two tablets ever six hours as needed for pain." Perfect. She grabbed the cup next to the sink, dumped out the toothbrush, and filled it with water. Returning to the bedroom, she found the woman struggling with her second boot. "Good. That's good. You're not safe here." She handed the woman the pills and the glass. "Take them fast."
"What are they?"
"Painkillers. Come on. Quick, quick." It was beyond frustrating to watch the slow, labored effort. Laurie helped her to her feet and steered her out into the hallway, this time heading toward the kitchen at the back of the house.
"Who's yelling?" asked the woman, twisting her head around.
"Listen to me," said Laurie, stuffing the prescription bottle into the woman's leather jacket and then plucking her last twenty from her own pocket and tucking that in that as well. "When you get outside, go straight through the yard. Keep walking out to the road. Hang a right and the road will take you back to the highway. There's a truck stop about a quarter mile to the west — which means you go right again. Got that? You'll be able to see the lights. You can hop a ride to ... wherever someone's willing to take you."
"Okay," the woman said weakly.
"I know you're hurt, but you've got to run." Opening the back door, Laurie pushed her out, watching as she dragged herself through the back gate. Once the woman had disappeared into the darkness, Laurie shut the door and leaned against it. "Don't come back," she whispered. "Ever."CHAPTER 2
Before approaching one of trucks in the parking lot, the woman spent a few minutes in the restroom cleaning the blood off her face. She'd have a black eye in the morning for sure. She touched her nose gingerly, tried to assess the damage, then studied herself in the mirror, rearranging her tangled hair as she struggled to bring her chaotic thoughts into focus. The pills seemed to be helping. She eventually gave up trying to figure out what was going on and instead decided to concentrate on finding a ride.
Walking up to a guy who was about climb into the cab of his truck, she asked him where he was headed. When he responded Fargo, she asked if he might be going through the Twin Cities.
"Here to Eau Clair, then I-94 through the Twin Cities, and finally up the interstate to Fargo," he said.
She asked if she could hitch a ride. He thought about it for a few seconds, looked her over a little, then said she could.
Once in the cab, before they drove off, she took an envelope out of her pocket, the only piece of evidence she had that suggested a possible destination. She asked the driver if he knew the address.
Flipping on an overhead light, he took a look. "I think so. It's close to downtown Minneapolis."
"Any chance you could drop me off near there?"
"Don't see why not."
The driver, a burly, middle-aged man with a dark tattoo peeking out from under the right cuff of an old Pendleton, didn't say much for the first few miles. Eventually, he glanced her way and said, "Your husband do that to you?" He nodded to her face.
"Boyfriend then? A lot of shit happens around the holidays. Not that it's an excuse. I'd give anything to be home with my wife and kids tonight."
"Where are you from?"
"Cedar Rapids, Iowa."
He tried to get her to open up and talk about what the problems were, said he was a good listener, but she put him off by explaining that she needed to close her eyes, try to get some sleep. She ended up dozing most of the way. When she finally sat up and looked around, the driver said they were on the outskirts of Minneapolis.
Watching quietly as the lights whizzed past, the woman took out the envelope she'd discovered back at the truck stop. The return address was the only indication she had that she might know someone in the city. If it turned out to be a dead end, then she was at a complete loss for what to do next. Along with the envelope, she'd found a bottle of painkillers and a twenty-dollar bill. Her billfold, which would have answered so many questions, appeared to be gone.
After climbing out of the cab near a Holiday station, she thanked the driver and wished him a good trip up to Fargo. She stood on the sidewalk, blowing on her hands, watching her safe, warm cocoon gear off into the night, leaving her feeling adrift and utterly alone.
Limping into the gas station, she asked the man behind the counter if she could use his phone to call a cab. He offered to call one for her. Stoically assessing her banged-up face, he tapped in a number and spoke in a heavily accented voice, giving the address.
Snow had begun falling about an hour ago. Limping outside to wait, the woman felt suddenly nauseous and dizzy. The cab driver took his time, but finally appeared. She gave him the address and asked if twenty dollars would get her there. He answered that it would.
After easing into the backseat, she pressed a hand to her mouth, hoping like hell her stomach calmed down. The modest houses quickly gave way to more upscale homes. Stopping a few minutes later at the end of a cul-de-sac, the driver turned around and held out his hand for the twenty. The ride had cost almost eighteen dollars. She asked for two dollars back.
"Are you kidding me?"
"It's all the money I have."
He gave her a disgusted look as he handed back a couple of ones.
Stepping out into the snow, the woman checked the address on the envelope against the number above the front door. It wasn't really a house. It looked more like a mini English abbey.
Standing under the deep front portico, she rang the bell. Lights were on all over the house. Half a dozen cars were parked in the circular drive. It wasn't a stretch to conclude that a party might be going on inside, which meant that it wasn't exactly great timing for an uninvited guest.
She was about to ring the bell again when a giant woman in a red- sequined flapper outfit drew back the door.
"Janey, where the hell have you been? I've been texting you for hours. Get in here." Motioning with a jeweled lorgnette, the owner of the abbey held the door open, tapping her foot impatiently. "Couldn't you dress up a little? I mean, ripped jeans? Your fashion sense astounds."CHAPTER 3
"My name is Janey?"
"Don't be silly," said the giant woman, turning away and heading into the house. "Now, listen. You're going to be angry with me. Let me state this up front, it's not my fault. Julia's here. She slithered in on the arm of an invited guest. Who knew I would need a bouncer? I mean, I suppose I could have strong-armed her out the door myself, but —" Holding the lorgnette up to her eyes, she stopped and peered closely at Jane's face. "What on earth happened to you? Are those bruises real?"
"Um ... yeah. Listen, I wonder if I could sit down. And ... could I get a glass of water?"
"Water? You look like you could use something stronger than that."
"I need to take some pain medication."
Narrowing her eyes, the woman moved in close. "What's going on? Did one of the Adlers do that to you? You told me you had everything under control. I need details, Janey. Facts. You keep Cordelia Thorn out of your affairs at your own peril."
"We're friends, right?"
"What is wrong with you?"
She had no memory of ever seeing this woman before. "The water?"
Cordelia sniffed, considered the request, then said, "Follow me."
So this sequined-covered Amazon's name was Cordelia? And hers was Janey? She felt as if she'd emerged from a fog only to find herself lost in wonderland. Something was definitely wrong with her mind.
"Sit," said the giant as they entered the kitchen. She found a glass in one of the cupboards, filled it from a filtered tap and handed it over, then stood behind the center island, raised her chin and appeared to be assessing the situation. "Jane?"
"What's going on?"
With a grimace, Jane eased down on a stool. An inner voice urged her to focus on the physical pain instead of the feeling of dread growing in her stomach. She needed the pain pills badly. That and a bed in a quiet room. The giant, however, seemed to want to talk.
"Someone did this to you. Was it Kevin? Doug? OMG, was it Father Mike?"
Instead of answering, Jane downed the pills.
"You don't seem like you're tracking very well."
"If I could just lie down —"
"You need to tell me what happened. Why you're like this."
"I'm just a little confused, okay? It'll pass." She had no idea who any of those people were. None of this made any sense. She was in a free fall, with no way to anchor herself in time and space.
"Are you actually saying you don't remember who hurt you?"
Jane glanced at the bottle of rum on the counter behind the giant. Even though she knew pain pills and alcohol didn't mix, she wanted a drink. "My memory is kind of ... fuzzy."
Excerpted from The Grave Soul by Ellen Hart. Copyright © 2015 Ellen Hart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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