Setting the scene

Mark Manning and his partner, Neil Waite, have hosted at their Wisconsin home the wedding of their Chicago friend, Roxanne Exner, to Carl Creighton, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Illinois. A wealthy local matron, Betty Gifford Ashton, has been killed in a fluky electrical mishap at the reception. Circumstances suggest foul play, and suspicion quickly focuses on Roxanne. The night after the tragedy, Manning’s sleep is visited by dreams, one of which features the bizarre, erotic coupling of Carl’s Democratic campaign manager, Chick Butterly, with Blain Gifford, nephew of the deceased, who happens to be the opposing, Republican campaign manager. The next morning, Manning and Neil scrounge for breakfast at the house on Prairie Street.

Excerpt from the text of Hot Spot

      It was the “morning after”—after the wedding, and after the murder. Despite my pleasant dream, despite the sensual diversions Neil and I enjoyed before rising, I greeted the day with impatience and a measure of disappointment. This was not to be the quiet Sunday morning we’d looked forward to.
      We didn’t even entertain the notion of taking an early-morning run together, our way of “relaxing.” Our three guests had spent an extra night, and Barb was surely whipped from her dawn-till-dusk duties at Saturday’s wedding, so Neil and I decided to take charge in the kitchen and attempt to get breakfast together for the household. It was shortly after seven o’clock.
      I had showered for the day and dressed to spend a few hours at the office—khakis, polo shirt, and loafers. Neil had thrown on a rumpled pair of shorts and a T-shirt—he looked spectacular in anything. His bare feet squeaked on the kitchen floor as he squatted to rummage in a cabinet. “So tell me,” he said, looking up over his shoulder, “what were you dreaming?”
      I had just finished loading the coffeemaker. Switching it on, I hesitated before answering, “You wouldn’t believe it.”
      He laughed. “I presume it wasn’t a nightmare.” He pulled out a box of cereal and peered inside. Finding it nearly empty, he crushed it in his hands and trashed it. A tired little cloud of sugary corn dust rose from the garbage, then vanished.
      Leaning back against the edge of the counter, I explained, “I did have nightmares—the stress of the day, I guess—but the dream that knocked me out of bed wasn’t the least bit ghoulish. In fact”—I paused for effect—“it was agreeably tawdry.”
      “I figured.” He closed the cabinet, stood, opened a cupboard, and continued to forage. His grin said, I’m waiting . . .
      So I told him about my dream, how the setting was and wasn’t our living room, how I’d watched two men in business suits heat up for some steamy sex on a tasseled Victorian couch.
      “But that’s absurd,” he interrupted. I was about to agree when he continued, “Victorian? Not in our living room.” Neil was kidding (sort of), but I appreciated his discerning taste. The man had standards, and he stuck to them.
      I agreed, “It was absurd—not just the setting, the clothes, and the sex, but the identity of the parties involved.”
      “Anyone I know?” Neil opened a bag of pastries and bagels left over from Saturday’s breakfast. Jabbing a doughnut with his finger, he judged it fresh enough to serve again and emptied the bag onto a platter. The bagels, obligingly, didn’t need to be tested, there being no way to distinguish stale specimens from fresh.
      “Truth is, I couldn’t see either of their faces, but one of the men addressed the other as—get this—Blain.”
      Neil turned, arching his brows. “The Republican? How delicious.” Since Blain Gifford and Chick Butterly had similar looks, jobs, and temperaments, we’d begun referring to the spinmeisters simply as the Republican and the Democrat—behind their backs, naturally. “Who was the other guy?”
      “I’m not sure, but I have a theory.” Then I told Neil about the bizarre, similar scene I’d imagined in the living room the previous night while Pierce was questioning the group of out-of-towners. “There was no mystery whatever about the identity of the other man on the love seat with Blain. He had his tongue in Blain’s ear. It was Chick.”
      Neil flopped a palm to his chest in mock horror. “The Democrat?”
      I shrugged. “They’re both sort of hot—in a buttoned-down, middle-aged kind of way. Don’t try to tell me you haven’t noticed.”
      Neil didn’t respond—he’d noticed. During this lull in our conversation, the coffeemaker dripped and gurgled. The kitchen began to fill with the brew’s hearty, cheery smell.
      I continued, “So it’s reasonable to assume that Blain’s partner in the dream was also Chick—he stuck his tongue into Blain’s ear again.”
      “But Blain didn’t say the guy’s name, and you couldn’t see his face, right?”
      “Right.” Then I recalled, “Blain did make some reference to the other guy’s handsome brown eyes.”
      Neil closed the cupboard door. “That doesn’t tell us much. He could be anyone.” As an example of this assertion, Neil fanned his hands and framed his face—à la Judy Garland—batting the silky lashes of his brown, cowy eyes.
      “Hey,” I said with feigned enlightenment, “maybe it was you.”
      Deadpan, Neil assured me, “I have never stuck my tongue in a Republican’s ear.” As previously noted, the man had standards.
      I picked up the platter of pastry and carried it to the table, setting it next to a copy of that morning’s Register. Neil had beat me downstairs by a few minutes, so I assumed he had brought the paper in from the front porch. My thoughts returned to the enigma of the brown eyes. “Oh, well. It seems we’ll never know the identity of the man of Blain’s dreams.”
      “It was your dream”—Neil chortled—“not Blain’s.”
“True enough.” My tone turned serious as I asked, “Do you think it’s . . . possible? I mean, God knows, I’m not ‘into’ dreams, but I get these persistent vibes. Do you think it’s possible that Blain is gay? Or Chick? Or both of them?”
      “I doubt it—not likely in politics. In any event, their time’s not long in Dumont. Chances are, we’ll never know.”
      “So many mysteries . . .” Even as I said the words, which were nothing more than idle banter, the newspaper caught my eye. Its headline reminded me that another mystery—a real, bona fide, deadly mystery—loomed over our lives that morning.
      “That’s pathetic.” Neil had stepped up beside me, gazing at the sad excuse for a Sunday breakfast that sat on our table. “We can’t serve that to guests.”
      I frowned; Neil was right. “Maybe Doug is on his way over with a kringle.”
      “Hope so. But we’d better not leave it to chance. I’ll run out.” Neil crossed to the refrigerator and opened the door, checking inside. “We have plenty of milk and orange—” He stopped short. “Oh, wow! Pay dirt!”
      I laughed. “What’d you find? Don’t tell me—a big, cheesy breakfast soufflé, with a note from Barb. ‘Just pop it in the oven.’”
      “Better.” He reached inside with both arms and carefully removed a large box. “Leftover wedding cake.”
      My mouth instantly watered. “Leave the door open. I’ll get the milk.”
      And we set to it.

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