That night, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped into the low thirties. Jane was glad she’d thought to grab her peacoat before leaving the restaurant. Early December in Minnesota was generally much colder, with several inches of snow on the ground. This year, however, the the only thing covering the grass were dry leaves. Unusual weather for Minnesota. As she was about to open the door of her Mini, a car pulled up next to her and stopped, its engine idling.
Cordelia Thorn, Jane’s oldest and best friend, opened the passenger’s door window and called, “Leaving kind of early, aren’t we?”
“You checking up on me?”
Jane made herself comfortable in the front seat, glad for the warmth of Cordelia’s new black Subaru.
“I still can’t get used to your hair,” said Cordelia. “Can’t believe that, after all these years, you cut it so short.”
“I needed a change.”
“The Rachael Maddow look”
“No, the Jane Lawless look.” If she’d realized how much attention she’d get because of a simple haircut, she never would have done it.
“I stand corrected,” said Cordelia, looking amused.
Cordelia’s entire life was a costume drama, a period piece, past or future. At the moment, she was sporting a rose-colored wig. Wigs were her new thing after finding a basket filled with them in her sister’s rarely-used office at the theater.
“Next,” said Cordelia, throwing the car in park, “we need to work on your old sweaters and jeans.”
“You mean get rid of my clothes?”
“I’m merely suggesting a wee upgrade. I’m not talking Abercrombie & Fitch or Nordstrom, just something other than Old Navy.”
Glancing over at her giant friend wearing a heavy, bright red faux fir coat, Jane changed the subject, if only marginally. “Kind of early in the season to bring out the big guns.”
“Without snow, it’s hard to get in the mood for Christmas. One does what one can.”
“How come you’re not at the theater?” Along with her younger sister, the Broadway and B-movie star, Octavia Thorn Lester, Cordelia was the owner of the Thorn Lester Playhouse, downtown Minneapolis’s newest antique gem. She was also the artistic director, the resident mother superior, and, when necessary, brought the force of a five star Marine general to whatever situation might need attention.
“I have to pick up Hattie from a friend’s house. Neither of them have school tomorrow, so I’m letting Hatts stay out late. Together, she and Juan are discovering the wonders of Juan’s chemistry set.”
Cordelia’s had been granted legal custody of her ten-year-old niece many years ago. They’d lived together ever since. “Lucky Hattie,” said Jane.
Touching the tip of her finger to her darkly rouged lips, Cordelia continued, “I was at a party last night. I think I may have drummed up a new client for you.” She explained about the woman she’d met—Britt something or other—who’d been asking around about local private investigators. “I wondered if she was gay, but I didn’t get any vibes.”
“So that’s where she got my card,” said Jane.
“You’ve already talked to her?”
“This morning. You must have done a good sales job.”
“I always do. But back to my original question. How come you’re leaving so early? I thought we might share a quick nosh together. One of your pub burgers sounds just about perfect.”
“Sorry. Already eaten.”
“Then join me for a beer.”
“Can’t. Not tonight.”
“You’ve been spending a lot of time at home lately, Janey. One cannot help but wonder why.”
“Look, no beating around the mulberry bush this time. I’m worried. That woman somehow conned her way into your home. You need to look around for the coffin she sleeps in during the day. If you can’t find it, call me. I’m there for you, Janey. If nothing else, we can burn your house down with her in it.”
Jane took a deep breath. “There are times when I find your penchant for exaggeration funny. This isn’t one of them.”
“I’m not exaggerating.”
”Julia’s my friend. End of story.”
“What else do you need to know?”
“Oh, come on. Don’t be so coy.”
“You want to know if I’m sleeping with her.”
“Give the woman a cigar.”
“Look, Cordelia. I care about her. I don’t love her, not in any romantic way. Our relationship ended many years ago.”
“Did you ever wonder if this illness-thingie is just a ploy?”
Now she’d gone too far. “Why don’t you come over for dinner. I’ll text you with a couple of dates. You can see for yourself how sick she is. But you have to promise to be decent. Friendly.”
“Leave my sarcasm at the door?” said Cordelia, feigning shock. She flipped open the glove compartment and removed her stash of bubble gum. “I’ll think about it.”
Many years ago, Jane and Dr. Julia Martinsen, an oncologist living, at the time, in Bethesda, Maryland, had fallen in love. They’d been in a committed relationship for a couple of years, though Jane had finally ended it. Julia had played fast and loose with the truth too many times. Since then, she and Julia had continued to see each other very occasionally, although they were no longer close. Last spring, Julia had confided to Jane that she’d been diagnosed with a serious illness. Her greatest fear was dealing with it—and perhaps the end of her life—alone. Meaning, without Jane. While Jane had moved on, Julia hadn’t.
In a moment of weakness—which Cordelia likened to Armageddon—Jane had promised to be there for her. Even though the love had died long ago, feelings, unlike faucets, couldn’t be turned off neatly and easily. For a short time in early October, it appeared as if Julia might not have more than a few weeks to live. Her failing eyesight had made it impossible for her to drive. That’s when Jane had invited her to move into her house. By late October, Julia had rallied and her health had stabilized. And now Jane had a permanent house guest, which Cordelia maintained was Julia’s intention all along.
“I’m the clarion call of reason,” continued Cordelia, unwrapping a stick of gum. “You need to listen to me. You may think Julia is water under the bridge, but I’m telling you that unless you burn that bridge to a crisp, she’ll find a way to recross it.”
“I don’t need all the cliches. The message was received.”
“She’s going to hurt you again, Jane.”
“How? I already know she lies and that I can’t trust her. Are you saying she’ll hurt me in some other way? She has cancer, Cordelia, or something very close to it. I know she’s not going to live long.”
Cordelia raised an eyebrow. “Have you ever seen one scintilla of proof that Julia is ill?”
“I have. I’ve even spoken to a couple of her doctors.” Jane had no doubt that the tumor growing behind Julia’s optic nerve was real, or that the surgery necessary to remove it was not only a partial cure, but one fraught with danger. Still, there were things she hadn’t told Cordelia, mostly because she wouldn’t understand.
“Janey, I say these things to you because I love you.”
“I know that. And I’m grateful. But don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Clear headed, feet on the ground. Same old Jane you’ve always known and loved.”
“You’re impossible, you know that? But okay, end of rant. For now. Call me when you know more about this Britt person’s investigative issue. I expect a full report.”
Jane could have taken a few minutes to explain what she’d learned this morning, but she saw no point. Britt hadn’t hired her. More than anything, Jane wanted to get home. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, saluting. “Full briefing tomorrow at o-600.”
“I have no idea what that means. Just don’t call before noon.”
Shortly after ten, as she entered the front foyer of her home, Jane was greeted by two eager dogs vying for her attention. Mouse, a chocolate lab, nosed her hand, his usual earnest self, his tail wagging so fast it was almost a blur. Gimlet, a small black poodle, jumped up and down and twirled around, so excited she could barely keep her balance. How could a person not love dogs? Jane crouched down to give them each a hug and a scratch. When she straightened up, she noticed logs burning in the living room fireplace.
Coming around the end of the couch, she found Julia sitting on the oriental rug with her back propped against the couch. Next to her was a teapot and two cups.
“All the comforts of home,” said Jane, sitting down beside her.
Six months ago, Julia had been fit and working hard at a profession she loved. The medication her doctors had prescribed to deal with the growing tumor had proved to be almost as bad as the disease. She’d lost a good twenty pounds off an already lean frame, mostly because the meds didn’t mix well with food.
“The fire feels good,” said Jane. “Chilly out there.”
“I know,” said Julia. “I just got home myself.”
Julia had hired a personal assistant in mid-October. Carol Westin was a retired RN who’d spent the last twenty years of her working life as a healthcare educator. She and Julia had been friends and coworkers, and now Carol not only acted as chauffeur, but reader of reports and general secretary. Beyond the driving and the reading, she was also helping Julia liaise with lawyers to set up the foundation that would bear Julia’s name, one that would continue the work she cared so much about: Medical outreach and training in third world countries. She worked Carol hard, but paid her well.
Gimlet pushed her way in between them, buried her nose under Julia’s leg and closed her eyes. Mouse settled down next to Jane. “Have you eaten?”
Julia nodded to the teapot.
“That’s not food. Let me make you something.”
“No. Don’t go.”
“But you need to eat.”
She poured the steaming liquid into each cup and handed one to Jane. “Not now.”
“Soup. There’s always room for homemade chicken soup.”
Jane sipped her tea and gazed into the fire. She didn’t want to think about her current situation too critically, but had to admit that it was nice having someone to come home to—someone who’d made a pot of tea and had built a fire. “How was your day?”
“Good,” said Julia. “For whatever reason, that awful low-grade headache evaporated.” She glanced over at Jane and smiled. “Now that you’re home, I’m even better.” She slipped her hand over Jane’s, then leaned in for a kiss.
Instead of pushing her away, as Jane had for years, she let the kiss linger. Was she playing with fire by sleeping with Julia, as Cordelia feared? She didn’t think so. What she’d told Cordelia was accurate. She had no romantic feelings for Julia any longer. This was just….what? Affection, perhaps. Whatever it was, Jane wasn’t about to end it. It wasn’t hurting either of them. If anything, coming together the way they had after Julia had moved in was good for both of them. It would end one day, and Jane would have to deal with it, but until them, what was the harm?
They sat together quietly, the dogs resting contentedly next to them, and watched the fire.
“Want another cup?” asked Julia.
“No, I’m good.”
“Let’s go upstairs.”
“Aren’t you tired?”
“Not in the least.”
Jane tipped her head toward Julia. “Why don’t you head up? I’ll put the dogs out, make sure they have their bedtime treat, and then I’ll join you.”
After Julia was gone, Jane spent a couple more minutes looking into the dying embers, thinking about Julia and how life often took unexpected turns. She kept repeating the thought, “What’s the harm?” She’d said it to herself so often lately that it was beginning to feel like a mantra. As she was about to get up, her cell phone rang.
“This is Jane,” she said after pulling it from her pocket.
“I want to hire you,” came a woman’s voice.
“I found proof that Timmy did exist. Can we get together tomorrow?”
“Sure,” said Jane.
“What if I meet you at your restaurant around twelve-thirty? I don’t have anything on my schedule until mid afternoon.”
“Sounds good. I can’t wait to hear what you discovered.”
“I’m still processing it, but I will say this much—it blows my mind.”
A Whisper of Bones – by Ellen Hart
Fans of Jane Lawless new and old will be fascinated by newly minted Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Ellen Hart’s latest intricate puzzle in A Whisper of Bones.
Britt Ickles doesn’t remember much from her only visit to her mother’s childhood home when she was a kid, except for playing with her cousin Timmy and the eruption of a sudden family feud. That’s why, when she drops by unannounced after years of silence, she’s shocked when her aunts tell her Timmy never existed, that she must be confusing him with someone else. But Britt can’t shake the feeling that Timmy did exist…and that something horrible has happened to him. Something her aunts want to cover up.
Britt hires Jane Lawless, hoping the private investigator can figure out what really happened to her cousin. When a fire in the family’s garage leads to the discovery of buried bones and one of the aunts dies suddenly and suspiciously, Jane can’t help but be pulled into the case. Do the bones belong to Timmy? Was the aunt’s death an accident, suicide, or homicide? What dark secret has this family been hiding for decades? It all depends on Jane Lawless to unravel.
Ellen’ Hart’s Bio:
Ellen Hart is the author of thirty-two crime novels in two
different series. She is a six-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, a three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Popular Fiction, a three-time winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award, a recipient of the Alice B Medal, and was made an official GLBT Literary Saint at th
e Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in 2005. Entertainment Weekly named her one of the “101 Movers and Shakers in the Gay Entertainment Industry.” For the past sixteen 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. Her newest Sophie Greenway mystery is No Reservations Required, (Ballantine, June 2005). Fever in the Dark, the newest Jane Lawless mystery, will be released by St. Martin’s/Minotaur in October 2016. Ellen lives in Minneapolis with her partner of 37 years.